Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Consulting Editor


Saturday Night in Saskatchewan
by Steve Stanton

Praise the System
by J. Richard Jacobs

Network Outage Engineer
by Erin Lale

Unintentional Colonists by Elizabeth Guizzetti

Mr. Weston’s Key
by Todd A. Burnett

Central Battle Command, Allied Forces: Day Four by Marilyn K. Martin

We Do Not Serve Weeping Men
by Eric Del Carlo


Zeros ... All Those Zeros! by Eric M. Jones

Facing Facts—And Analyzing Them
by John McCormick





Comic Strips



Unintentional Colonists

By Elizabeth Guizzetti

IN LESS THAN TWENTY days, the replacement team arrives, but I might die on Europa. I am not being fatalistic, I simply haven’t decided. We left Earth when I was twenty-two. Twelve years later, I recall my mother’s tan face and her calling me “Vivi” as she cuddled me and stroked my black hair; however I don’t know—really know—blue skies and trees that spill yellow pollen. I understand logically from Earth, Sol looks to be the same size as Luna. Now when I think of the word “sky” Jupiter looms in the dim while Ganymede, Io, Calisto or one of the fifty smaller satellites hurtles above me.

The oxygen garden, fuel cells, and Europa’s abundant saltwater ocean provide all we need; passing ships exploring Sol’s outer planets trade for things we want. The replacement team has six members, but the base ship can support up to fifteen people so it is our choice. Upon ship, we have -37 percent Earth’s gravity, but outside we’re at -82 percent. Every day, I run for two hours in the never-ending battle against losing muscle mass and bone density. It took five years to get here, but with the orbital movements and upgraded engines the trip back to Earth only takes three years now. Any given hour of any day I change my mind. I’d feel bad about this, but Evan and Sarah have not made a final decision either.

From Earth’s point of view, we’ve discovered thousands of extra-terrestrial species. We sent probes and completed flyby missions to the other large moons. Even on Io, we found bacteria and tardigrades all perfectly capable of surviving their volcanic home. From NASA and the private fleet’s point of view, we’ve learned other things about life in space. We learned that the best astronauts for long-term missions are older. The more years with the amniotic protection of Earth’s gravity and atmosphere slows the effects of muscle waste. Their greater range in life experience means they are less likely to see huge shifts in perceptions. The youngest astronaut on the replacement team is forty-six. Twelve years older than I am.

Once I was so sure of myself. I fought hard for my spot on the mission. Once all I wanted was to spend my life in space, but now I am not sure even if I still want to be an exobiologist. I touch the glass of my eel tanks. If I’m going home, I have twenty days to complete my experiment. I pull out an opalescent eel and put him in the baited maze. My goal is to see if they have memory. They seem to know me. They allow me to examine and feed them by hand.

Like the eels of Earth, the dorsal, anal, and caudal fin form a single ribbon running along the length of the animal. Unlike the eels of Earth, they do not have ventral fins; instead they have a frilly gill system that stabilizes them as well as allows them to breathe. They live in shallow openings in the bottom of the glacier that melts and fills with water. What excites me about the species is I have observed them hunt in concert and they are clever enough to escape our nets most of the time. I can’t even catch an adult. All of my samples were caught when they were elvers and accidently sucked up when we were fishing using the core barrels. I feed them the decapods that have become our and their primary protein source. I wish I could say the decapods were delicious, but they’re generally flavored by whatever vegetables they are cooked with. Still, my eels like them.

Anne and James are going back to Earth to meld frozen eggs and sperm. They’ll have help. She has money and he has a big family. Perhaps I would like to mother a child. I once thought about having a husband. NASA stored my eggs; but I could not raise a child while broken by gravity. I have no real friends anymore on Earth. I have no siblings and my parents are in assisted living. A third of my pay goes to their care. If I return home, another third will go to taxes. Not that I’m poor, but I’m certainly not rich. Even if I found a man interested in fertilizing my eggs, its doubtful I could afford a nurse for my care and a nanny for my baby with my veteran benefits.

As privately funded citizens, Sam and Tyrone are staying. As officers of NASA, Mohamed and Paul already left to head up the new team on Ganymede. Rob and Amy were lost to the ice two years ago. I hate thinking about them. I recorded a message to their families and sent it along with Anne’s official report. Amy’s mom sent me a thank-you message, but I can’t decide if my memories gave her comfort. Amy, Rob and I shared everything. My memories do not comfort me.

The range of ages was supposed to give the mission a sense of normalcy; as far as I can see it only gave us one more way to form cliques. Not that it matters; we live in cold silence most of the time. Still sometimes, I hear the others laughing about things I will never experience and I miss Amy and Rob so badly. Sometimes I pull out an old T-shirt of Rob’s that I fear washing. I hold the soft cotton against my skin and try to smell his faded scent.

When the ice shifted, the team tried to drill towards them, which ended up being pointless. Two days later, they stopped responding. They either died from the exposure or dehydration. What scares me is when I can’t sleep, my mind whispers: If they took off their helmets, they would’ve died within minutes. If I ever fall, that’s what I will do. Depressurization is a horrible way to go, but I’ll freeze before I start bleeding from my eyes.

“Viv, suit up,” Sam orders. I glance at the clock and then up at his pale lined face surrounded by wooly graying curls. It’s not time for me to be on the ice, but he does not explain anything. He never does anymore, but if he wants me on the ice the team probably found something big. There has been evidence of giant creatures under Europa’s ice in the form of masses of digested decapods. If these goliaths do exist, one of Sam and Tyrone’s favorite theories is we may find evidence of intelligence. I wonder if we’d even know alien intelligence if we see it?

I put my eel back in its tank, cover my maze, and tell the computer to save the data. I follow Sam to the ready room where Tyrone is getting changed. I slip out of my coveralls.

Tyrone worries about my weight, but I worry about them. Maybe I’m a bit too skinny, but my thick hair is still black and my skin is unmarred. Tyrone's brown skin pales as it stretches over his knuckles, knees, and elbows. Like Sam, Tyrone is going gray and even with daily exercise his belly has become soft.

Spending my entire adult life in such close quarters desensitized me to nudity, but a generation older, Tyrone and Sam worked in the private sector prior to becoming astronauts. They still turn away as I put on a fresh wicking base layer and pull on my environmental suit: three layers of filters, pressurized elastics interwoven in nylon spandex all covered in an outer layer of Kevlar.

Once I am ready, Tyrone rechecks my gear. The compression straps are in the correct sequence and the fiberglass connectors are fastened in the collar and at the ankles and wrists. I attach my helmet and give him an okay signal as I feel the cold pressurized oxygen filling my lungs.

“Test,” he says.

“Radio receiving,” I reply.

Then he checks Sam. Sam checks his. Everyone is cleared and we go through the inner lock. Every step, the base ship’s gravity lessens until we are at -82%, until the final lock.

Deep in the tunnel of ice, I look at the encroaching water. Even underground, winds blow off the never-ending sea. It’s so cold that I can feel it through my suit, yet I immediately begin to sweat.

Forty meters away, the rest of the team is already at work. Sarah is on an ice shelf scraping at something. Evan and James are drilling below. The glacier is pockmarked with discovery holes. Two massive stabilizing bots hang tightly to another shelf six meters to the east; their ten long limbs stretch across a fissure. Anne controls the three drilling bots and another filling the holes with kerosene to apply the needed backpressure.

As per Sam’s order, I join Sarah and help her reconnect the latches in a different position so the tubes could go deeper into the ice. They have found something!

“What is it?” I whisper.

“Don’t know, something big,” Sarah replies. Her blue eyes sparkle with excitement.

The team completes five cycles of lowering the drill barrel assemblies, pulling out lengths, raising the assemblies back to the ice shelf, emptying the ten-meter barrel of the brittle ice core and rock, and lowering the drills again. Finally, we use backpressure to bring up a narrow forty-meter hollow piece of exoskeleton greenish and blotchy with slime.

I cannot tell if it is part of a leg or antennae, but Sam and Tyrone instantly become two fifty-something giddy schoolboys.

“Can you believe how big it is!” Tyrone says.

“Sonar shows there is more under the ice,” Sam says to the rest of the team through the radio.

We shift the equipment and begin to drill. A large wave slews across the lower ice shelf. Anne and the bots clamp into the surface. When the wave recedes, she climbs higher.

Tyrone asks for confirmation of the stability of the ice. Sonar detects that it is solid, but Sam orders James and Evan topside and calls out another stabilizing bot. We begin to drill deeper. The ice groans.

A jerk knocks me to my hands and knees. Behind me, I hear the halting of the drills. My suit is intact, but I feel the trickle of blood on my knee. I check again to assure myself. I glance around. Sarah is no longer beside me.

“Sarah!” I call.

Tyrone says, “Sound off.”

I don’t even have time to say my name before the glacier bucks again and cracks open. As I fall, I try to clamp on, but my spikes slide down an embankment into the freezing water.

Though I realize the tide has me, I’m too amazed to be afraid. Trapped in the blue ice was, more than that single piece of exoskeleton, a nearly complete monstrosity. Even more astonishing is the organism in the water below. Sam and Tyrone were right! There are goliaths in Europa’s oceans!

The tide pulls me under.

The organism glides along the depths occasionally sliding one of its glowing antennas against the ice. Even deeper, I see two more. Earth’s whales don’t compare to the massive creatures. An antenna brushes onto my shoulder as I slip deeper with the current. Their gaping mouths are filled with hundreds of pin shaped teeth, but they are not coming after me. The beasts turn in concert, entranced by the school of smaller fish that emerged from a submerged ice tunnel. Did the force of the organisms’ fins move the glacier? Ice touches my shoulder. I realize I do not hear anyone. My radio is gone! My head aches and the cold saps away my strength. I focus on my situation and decide I shouldn’t hypothesize when my environmental suit is filling. It shouldn’t be filling yet!

All around me is watery black and blue. Above my head, I see my emergency beacon flashing and my LED headlamp. I’m not sure of the direction of the surface. Europa’s oceans are as treacherous as Earth's. If my suit was intact, I might have a few days; right now, I have minutes. If I die, my parents would get a letter and official report from Anne—but no one would send them happy memories of me. No one.

Using the water level in my helmet as a marker, I take a deep breath and look around. In the distance, I see the red flashing of two emergency beacons. Muscles throbbing, I swim towards the first one.

Sarah. Her lips are blue and there is blood in her helmet. She is not moving.

On automatic pilot, I latch Sarah to my suit and pull her at what I hope is upwards toward the surface until I hit the bottom of the glacier. I follow the ice towards the next beacon until I find a hole. Perfectly round and near fifteen centimeters in diameter. That has to have been made by us! I slowly reach out, sliding my hand against the bottom of the ice, until I can feel another hole. Then I look for another. Muscles throbbing and gasping from cold and pain, I keep going until I find a fissure that Sarah and I can fit through.

I extend my glove spikes and start climbing. Movement hurts as the cold water and the dead weight of my comrade weighs me down. The pain in my head begins to pierce my brain. Sleep calls out to me. I can see the base ship fifty meters away. I scream again. I want it to be a battle cry, to propel me onwards, but it is the shriek of a terrified woman.

Driving my spikes into the glacier, I wriggle out and belly-flop onto the ice. I grab Sarah’s suit by the shoulders. I try to pull her out, but slide back towards the hole. I know that if I don’t let go, a strong tide would have us both, but I can’t. I won’t lose another person to the icy black. I scream again knowing no one could hear me. I curse this damned moon.

Sarah’s weight is no longer on my arms and I fall to my knees. Tyrone pulls her upon the ice. She still does not move.

I see Tyrone’s lips though the helmet, but even without hearing him it’s obvious that the priority was to get Sarah back to the base ship. Only slightly conscious of Anne replacing the drilling bots, we drag Sarah towards and into the first airlock. I almost run out again, but Tyrone shoves me back in. I see his lips moving. “Secure her. I’m going back out.”

“Evan, James and Sam are still out there!”

I am not sure if he can hear me, but he doesn’t bother to answer as he turns. I pull Sarah through the grav tunnels and into the ready room.

I yank off my helmet and unsnap my gloves. Fingers shaking, I undress her. I begin rubbing her arms as I check for frostbite. Her temp is low, but she is breathing. Her eyes open and she glances around. There is a small contusion on her forehead. It doesn’t look like much, but obviously she was unconscious.

“Say something.” I say as I turn on a heating blanket.

“Something,” she whispers back. She wiggles her fingers and her toes. “I ache, but I think everything moves.”

“Your temp is at 33 degrees, but rising. Heart rate is stable.”

“What about you?”

“Don’t know yet.” I pull off the rest of my environmental suit. My skin burns in the sudden warmth before I run my nails up and down my legs trying to stop the sting. My shoulder feels like I pulled it.

“You’re bleeding,” she says.

“I’m too cold to care.”

Sarah reaches out and I gladly huddle under the blanket with her. Feeling her warmth pressed next to my skin calms me.

“Did you see the beasts?” I whisper. “They moved the ice.”

She looks surprised. Maybe she thinks I have a concussion too. “Viv, all I saw was the ice shift and water. Then you.”

I nod. “I saw your beacon. Tyrone found us.”

“I’m going home,” she whispers.

I don’t know what to say so I just nod again and wrap my arms around her. I know I should help her dry her hair, or possibly dry mine, but instead we just sit shivering under the warming blanket.

I pull a T-shirt over my head as I hear the outer airlock open. The inner doors open. Tyrone dumps James inside. The door closes and moments later, he pulls in Evan.

I glance outwards, but he pushes me away from the door. Tyrone begins to undress James as I help with unbuckling Evan’s environmental suit and pull it off him. I grab another warming blanket and begin to ask, “Did you …?”

Tyrone’s eyes are full of pain. Sam is his best friend and close quarters taught me when to shut up long ago.

The pressure changes slightly as the airlock opens once more. Anne hurries in. “The bots are trying to get him.” Though she was addressing Tyrone, her eyes rested upon James.

Evan’s color comes back as I slowly bring his body temperature up. There is frostbite, but the skin is not yet blackened.

Once Tyrone takes over, I glance at Anne checking the infrared cameras, sonar. There is heat under the ice, but it is sinking. Then a spike.

Anne cries, “They got him.” She secures her helmet as she runs back out.

The twinge in my shoulder turns into a throb as I look out the airlock window.

Behind me, Tyrone says, “I need to look at that.”

“But the bots got Sam out,” I say pointing at the window.

He orders, “Sit down. Anne will prep him.”

Tyrone helps me out of the T-shirt stuck to my back by the clotted blood. I wrap a blanket in front of me more for his comfort than mine. He removes a short sliver of alien flesh. Not really asking, he says, “What’s this?”

“Its antennae touched me. I didn’t realize it punctured the suit,” I answer.

He sets it in a petri dish to exam later as his lips spread into a disbelieving smile. “I can’t believe your shoulder had the state of mind to get a sample.”

Tyrone scrubs the wound clean and injects an antibiotic that may or may not do anything. Alien infections are hard to kill; Earthborn bodies are just not equipped to deal with them.

No more free beds, Anne preps Sam on the floor. I watch as she hooks up the medical monitors. We hear his weak pulse. He opens his eyes and flails his arms, “Ty!”

Anne responds by putting her weight upon him. “Everyone made it.”

Sam cranes his neck, looks around, and calms as he focuses his gaze upon Tyrone. I admit there is a bit of jealousy creeping up my spine that no one would ever call my name in terror that I fell through the ice.

“You’re lucky to be alive, brother,” Tyrone says to Sam as he finishes bandaging my wound.

I stand up, pick up the petri dish, open a sterile drawer and set it inside. I can’t believe I got a sample. I check my discarded suit. A bit more is stuck in the Kevlar. I take the sample and slip it into another sterile drawer and jot down a few notes. I go to my basket and pull on another T-shirt and set of coveralls. I check on Evan and James, both are just resting. So is Sarah.

As he never had time, I begin to unsnap Tyrone’s gear as he assesses Sam.

I should leave all this crap behind. It’s time to go home. Sarah’s right.

“Everyone?” Sam croaks out. “Thank God.”

“Sarah decided she’s going home,” I whisper.

Tyrone is no fool. As if he knew what I was thinking, he says, “Minimally you’d be crippled; but you might actually have complete organ failure. Your bones aren’t dense enough; your muscle mass is just not there anymore. Even in Europa’s gravity, you couldn’t lift her out of the water.”

Fear momentarily collapses my lungs, but I try to speak anyway.

Sam shakes his head and says: “Vivika, shut up and listen.”

Tyrone flickers his eyes towards Anne stroking the cheek of her lover. “Living the life of a crippled hero on Earth might be a viable option for some, but not us. We’ve become unintentional colonists.”

I know they’re right. Vessels constrict my heart, but I quiet the hurt rising in my throat, before I say words I don't mean. I can’t go back to Earth. None of us can and have any sort of life. I’m just not ready to admit it yet. Anger forces me to vomit the words I tried to hold back. “I’ve heard this before. Your colony is destined to fail.”

“Depends on your point of view. We’ve discovered more than possible on a short-term mission. We want you to stay,” Sam said softly.

Tyrone squeezed my wrist. “Sarah would have died out there, if not for you.”

That’s the closest thing I've heard to a complement in years, but I yank my wrist away. By the look on his face, I just pushed Tyrone past the limit of his patience. Sam too. I should go back to work or to my rack, but unwilling to be alone; I stay beside them.

“What do you want?” Tyrone asks.

“I don’t know. I need …” Since begging for a hug was juvenile at the best of times, but completely thoughtless when half the crew was on examining tables, I don’t beg. Instead, I wrap my arms around Tyrone’s neck and press my face into his shoulder. Tyrone feels safer than a hologram and an empty bed, but I’m not an idiot. He will never love me or make love to me. Rob and Amy are gone. I will be a middle-aged cripple if I return to Earth. I’m alone. All I have is my eels. Why did I fight so hard to survive? I answer myself aloud, “My mom … I didn’t want her to get a report … no one to tell her memories … there’d be no comfort at all.”

Tyrone responds by wrapping his arm around me; careful not to hit the open wound. “I promise we’ll tell your mom if anything happens to you. It wouldn’t just be a report. And you will make more friends when the replacement team arrives.”

I nod, but I didn’t tell them my fear that the new astronauts’ bodies would be too strong to make love to me or that the gap of age and life experience could not be bridged even with friendship. I am alone either way.

At least, I can run on Europa …

“I’ve got to message my folks,” I say, “I’ll talk to the others. I’ll make them see reason.” 

Elizabeth Guizzetti lives in Seattle. She notes: “Spaceflight has many negative effects on the human body. Many astronauts experience a disruption of taste so they put chili sauce on everything. They also must work out two hours in order to fight muscle and skeletal density loss. When writing the story, I just thought about how that might manifest itself on a long term mission in the near future.”