Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Consulting Editor


When Every Song Reminds You of a Dead Universe
by Karl Johanson

Side Effects of Yeah- Yeah Pills
by A.J. Kirby

A Breederax for Dalia
by Janett L. Grady

by Byron Barton

One of Our Starships Is Missing
by Terry Savage

Help Desk
by Robert J. Mendenhall

Toca la Guitarra
by Wayne Helge

How to Travel Through Time & Space
by Allen Quintana

by Kevin Gordon


Bracing for a Brave New World
by Hunter Liguore

Sizing Things Up
by Eric M. Jones





Comic Strips



Side Effects of Yeah-Yeah Pills

By A.J. Kirby

I SQUIRMED IN MY seat. Tried to ride out the wave of cramps in my stomach. They’d said the side effects of the pills would last a few weeks, that was all, but I was still feeling them months into my stay. Far as I could tell, none of the others felt like this and sometimes, in the longest and darkest nights, I wondered whether they’d spiked me with a different batch. Certainly they seemed to have issued me with more of the pills than anyone else. I rattled when I walked now, and sometimes, when I ran my tongue over my molars, I could still taste the acrid powderiness of my daily dosage.

A loud growl emanated from my stomach. It was followed by a series of bubbling, plopping noises which brought to mind a stone being skipped over a lake. There aren’t any lakes up here, but that’s what the sound was like all the same. This is a tic I have. All of my metaphors and my similies remain Earth-based.

Across the desk, my supervisor, Morgan, raised an eyebrow at the sound. Looked as though it would be a great personal pleasure to make me Earth-based again.

I decided the noise was putting me in a poor bargaining position and so, to hold it in, or to muffle it, I wrapped my arms about the trunk of my body and squeezed. And at the same time, I twisted, eel-like, and tried to find a position which didn’t leave me looking like a kid with my legs dangling from a high-chair unable to reach the floor. Morgan, tired, bored Morgan, applied stylo to ear; cramming it in so far it must have been in danger of perforating an eardrum. I wasn’t being taken seriously. The sounds of my stomach grinding its gears notwithstanding, Morgan was barely even aware I was present.

I should have known it would be like this.

I took a moment, tried to collect my thoughts, tried to take deep breaths like you’re supposed to when you’re flustered. I knew none of it was coming out right. I also knew that it was the pills clouding my brain so. It was as though their powderiness had translated its way into my thoughts, made them brittle, somehow.

The saddest thing of the lot though, was this: what I sorely wanted to do now, more than anything in this strangely atmosphered and hostile world, was to grind another of those bitter pills in my teeth. Those pills, as the old ad back on Earth used to say, tasted yeah-yeah. Least they did when you got used to them.

Throughout the long hours of last night, I’d rehearsed the story of my time here, my treatment here, as though it was a script, just to make sure I didn’t leave anything out. First I must say this, and then I must say that ... Or maybe not a script. Maybe more like a manual, like the ones we use to maintain the generators. First I must tighten the nuts and bolts of the story so that everything hangs together, so that the whole can function, can mean.

I’d stripped my story down, removed all emotion, kept the language factual, functional, because I knew as soon as I started to talk about that mysterious thing known as “feelings,” everything I said would be dismissed. Put down to the wild ramblings typical of my sex. But then I’d come into the office and simply unloaded. Barely even pausing for a raggedy breath. Knowing the heat was rising in my face. Knowing the pricks of tears were starting in the corners of my eyes. And then my stomach had chimed in with its own uncontrolled rumblings and, and ...

Morgan finally removed stylo from ear, and then, like a miner examining coal and secretly hoping for diamonds, set about examining the waxy deposits which had accumulated at the tip. My stomach roiled as though it contained a serpent, one of those large wriggling things the scientists out here were so excited by. My palms were slick with sweat. Surreptitiously, I wiped them down on my coveralls.

Morgan sighed elaborately.

I started again. “I don’t come to work to be made miserable, so I don’t understand why the others think it’s their duty to come here and ruin my day ...” I paused, forced myself to suck in two, three breaths of the acrid air. “I’m a Rigger ... an apprentice Rigger. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. It’s all I know. When the call for new blood came in our quadrant back on Earth, twelve of us signed up, and I was never in any doubt I’d be sent anywhere else.” I shrugged. “I mean, it’s not like I could’ve been a scientist, is it?”

Morgan answered only by drumming fingers on the desk. There was a lunar landscape of paperwork covering practically every inch of space, and yet my supervisor had found the one section through which the gunmetal grey of the desk could be seen. In fact, Morgan seemed to have sought out this section on purpose, knowing exactly how loud sausage fingers would sound on it. Knowing that the beating would begin to replicate the rapid-fire beating of my heart.

Morgan was very good at this. At making people like me feel small. Big all over and kind of lumpen, my supervisor could have been forged from rocks. And was about as unmoved by my pleas as a rock would be.

“Don’t get me wrong,” I said quickly, “I knew it wouldn’t all be wine and roses.” I attempted a grin. Must have come out more like a wince of pain. “I knew the stasis would be hard ... I’m not a fool. I know why we’re Riggers and what it means. It’s like they said in induction. We’re like the folk used to work the oil rigs back in the old days when fossil fuels still existed. Out on the edges of the world, away from our families, working so that everyone back home has the energy to live, even though they don’t know where it comes from. And I know we can’t complain because we have all the mod cons. The cinema. The games rooms. The gym. The basketball court. The bar. Food better than anything we had at home. But—”

Morgan let loose with a lion’s roar of a yawn.

“I’m sorry. Sometimes I let my mouth run away with me.” I shut up sharpish. My supervisor’s eyes were boring into me like the corkscrew drill the scientists used to get through the thickest of the rocks. Hunting out the core of me. Discovering it to be made of a soft substance.

Desperately, my eyes darted away before Morgan could detect more about me than I wanted known. As unsettled as the serpents once they were encased in the glass cages of the science labs, my eyes flicked over the noticeboard behind Morgan’s head. Searching for something to focus on. But there was no comfort in the various bland health and safety notices. Or in the colour-charted work rotas. Nor even in the cartoon which said: How many scientists does it take to change a lightbulb? Three. Scientists can’t multitask!

“All this jibber-jabber. Petty complaints. Silly disputes. S’all I hear all day long.”Morgan flapped a meaty paw. “And they tell me it’s the scientists got the difficult jobs.” Without warning, my supervisor shifted off the seat, rumbling like a large stone. Stood up, clasped hands behind back and then started pacing menacingly.

“You had it right. We’re Riggers, Cody. And all that entails. We’re the lifeblood of this place. And yet the scientists look at us like something they’d like to scrape off their goddamned boots. They think all the energy powers their big-ass drills just appears, as if by magic. They make us sleep in different halls, eat in different canteens ... Like we contaminated or something.”

Morgan paused, looked at me through narrowed eyes. “And yet, Cody, we simply don’t have enough engineers to handle everything we need to handle. We got four bods on the turbine fault in sector two, another team on maintenance work in three. I honestly don’t know what they expect us to do ...” A grimace: “So I’m sure you can understand that the last thing I need, and I mean the very last thing, is to have to get involved in all the process involved with a complaint.”

I bit my lip, unsure as to whether I was now supposed to apologise.

“So tell me; are you sure this really is something serious enough to complain about?” Eyes corkscrewing into me once again. Knuckles turning white.

And suddenly I wanted, more than anything, to have never opened this door. I wanted to be anywhere but here. I wanted to withdraw everything I’d ever said, every accusation I’d ever made. I wanted to withdraw my application to be an apprentice engineer at the Lunar Exploration Company.

But then I remembered Vacca rubbing up against me in the elevator down to Mezzanine that day. How I’d first thought it was a mistake, that we’d simply been squashed together by the crowd, but then I’d turned slightly, seen the sparkle desire in those hungry eyes.

And I remembered my first official week on the base. There were six of us new apprentices and we were each allocated an engineer to work-shadow. That first day, most of my young colleagues came back to the residence halls bursting with stories of how they’d each been “treated.” Most of the stories were daft things, like Joss being sent down to Maintenance to pick up something called a “long stand,” or Sydney trying and failing to collect some striped paint from the Paint Shop, which was all the way over in sector five, so was some elaborate, time-waster of a joke. But the engineer I was supposed to be shadowing, Brant, simply picked me up from outside the Induction Room in the morning and then, without speaking, drove me straight back to the residence halls, cracked open the passenger door and unceremoniously pushed me out. Some of the other apprentices tried to placate me, told me Brant had a reputation for being “like that,” didn’t want anyone getting in the way of what was termed as “Brant’s craft,” and that it had nothing to do with me being what I am, but I wasn’t sure.

And I remembered the first time I caught those same apprentices whispering about me behind my back. The guttural language they used. The silence when I then entered the residence hall, red-faced.

Or the fact there were now places out of bounds to me. Like the cinema. First three, four weeks, whenever I set foot in the cinema, there was always porno on the big screen. And the crowd inside always left it showing just a beat, two longer than they should have, before switching it off. What I saw on screen reminded me of machines, of generators. There were pistons pumping, engines sighing, purring. It was all so very confusing. Caused the heat to rise in my cheeks and my bottom lip to quiver. So I made a habit of clattering out through the double-doors, almost tripping over my feet and then falling back against the wall, trying to stop myself from crying. Hearing the mocking roar of laughter from inside.

I did want to make a complaint. More than anything. “They’ve made my life a living hell,” I said, slowly, calmly. Because I wanted Morgan to understand. I wanted people punished. I wanted—I’ll say it—revenge. I wanted the smirk wiped off their faces.

“Have there been any physical ... confrontations?”

I paused, torn between mentioning Vacca by name, and hence becoming that worst thing in the world to a Rigger, a grass, and between just laying the blame generally. “Well, yeah, but the worst things are the snide comments. The underhand stuff, you know? Like the ... the ... I walk into a room and it either goes quiet or there’s a big laugh. Or I’m on site at one of the generators or at one of the big turbines they’ve got out back of the labs, and ... And you know what temperamental bastards—’scuse French—they are. And then I’ll maybe not get them working like”—I clicked my fingers—“and straight away, whoever I’m with will do that whole rolling the eyes thing, or they’ll make some joke, or they’ll get on the walkie-talkie and they’ll broadcast my mistake—even if I haven’t made one and ...”

“Cool your jets, Rigger.” Morgan leaned back against the noticeboard and sighed. “You are a delicate flower, aren’t you? You’re telling me about jokes? Don’t you understand; jokes are how we get by, how we get through the day. They’re the cement which holds our team spirit together. Most important lesson of the whole induction process. Learn about banter. Grease the wheels of conversation. Throw in some—”

“But ... I’ve just reached breaking point. I can’t understand—”

Morgan didn’t look pleased I’d interrupted. There was a flash of real anger in my supervisor’s eyes. “You’re one of the good ones,” my supervisor said, through gritted teeth. “Should see some of the apprentices get thrown my way. S’like they’ve been bred on a different planet. You’re all whizzes with the new technologies, but when it comes to honest to goodness work, some of you don’t know what’s hit you. As I say, you’re not the same. But you have to learn how to deal with banter if you’re ever going to make it as far up the ladder as me, love.”

And now I want to hit Morgan. I want to smash that goonish look from my superior’s features with a rock-hammer.

“Oh, I know I’m no genius,” Morgan continued, “Download my memory banks and I’d crash the mainframe, all the shit I got up here.” Finger jabbed on forehead. “But there are chains of command. The scientists who collect the data on site think they are top of the tree. Riggers at the coal-face think they are top dogs. But when you really think about it, who keeps this place going? Yours truly ...” Suddenly Morgan’s face softened. “Honestly, I can see why you’re upset. Believe it or not I was delicate when I was a green apprentice like you ... but I had to learn, just as you will.”

I couldn’t believe my supervisor had ever had to suffer as I had.

Morgan coughed. Then: “I’d like you to withdraw your complaint. Otherwise, I really don’t see how I’ll be able to sign off your induction, much less your apprenticeship. You know, you’re lucky to be here. Think on that. There’s thousands in your quadrant would lose an arm to be here, where you are now ...”

Morgan was right. Unemployment amongst the youth in my quadrant topped 75 percent. Practically everyone I knew lived on the poverty line. We weren’t a working class anymore because there simply wasn’t the work to justify that tag. Instead whole sections of the quadrant were now populated by an underclass of citizens who saw jobs as rare as unicorns. We were the Dickensian poor shot forward three, four hundred years into the future. I should have been counting my luckies that I’d broken out, made something of myself. But at what cost?

My—yeah, I’ll say it—addiction to the yeah-yeah pills were a major worry. So was my loneliness. It was very much a case of us and them up here, except I was the only member of the “them” team. The miners who searched for that miracle mineral which fuelled everything back home wouldn’t give me time of day. My fellow apprentices had, on the converse, heaps of time for me, yet they used it to pester the bejesus out of me and to make me feel smaller than a yeah-yeah pill. I wanted ...

I wanted things to be like they’d been in my mind’s-eye when I was back on Earth, when I could still count myself amongst the ranks of the dreamers. My daddy always used to say there was nothing better than the feeling you got after a hard day’s graft knowing you were, in your own small way, doing your bit to save the world. Way he had it, we were all of us in it together like atoms in the body of a human-race Superman, all working together for the same aims. Star TV had it the same way, getting us all het up and enthusiastic about the discovery of the new mineral up here by that Beagle craft. It was all “for the future of humankind!” on ads, on news broadcasts, on vidi-posters about the quadrants. In the academies, teachers suddenly reared up out of their slumbers because they suddenly had something to actually train us for. Course, after the initial brouhaha, there came the smaller news items, the ahem we might have had it wrongs. Apparently the miracle mineral came with a price tag the initial exploratory teams hadn’t added up right.

And then everything reverted back to grey, cold normality again. Except it didn’t for me, because I saw there was still a chance. Perhaps we could make some kind of a deal for the miracle mineral. Perhaps there was some kind of instalment plan. Course, back then, I knew nothing of the eels. Course, back then, I knew nothing of what it was really like up here. I didn’t know that a dream had become a grind had become a fucking nightmare.

Once upon a time, the human race was, to generalise, a grasping, greedy nest of snakes and no mistake. We had laws, monetary systems, the whole shebang and oh weren’t we fucking masters of the universe. But then the shit what powered all that ran out and it was decided—by whom, and why, people of my level weren’t supposed to know or enquire—that the copybook of us, of the whole goddamn lot of us, needed to be torn up, tossed down the garbage chute, or—why not?—fucking incinerated. Rip it all up and start again was the theme. And so, when it was discovered there was a miracle mineral up here, only to get to it we’d have to deal with a bunch of these serpent things which ribboned in the ground all about the mineral and seemed, in fact, to be part of the same ecosystem, the excavations were halted anon and forthwith. Good ol’ boy humankind would have eaten the eels for breakfast, of course, and right now the lucky duckies back on Earth would be living life just as we always had. But the past, as a poet once said, was a different country. Different planet in fact. They did things differently there.

They did things differently here, too.

As another poet most likely said, same shit, different day.

I saw I had no moves left, and the thought choked me. I could just picture my daddy, the disappointment in his eyes. My ma ... Oh God, my ma ...

I could barely even see where I was going as I crashed out of the supervisor’s office. The tears which had been threatening for so long had finally come to pass.

The corridor was a blur; the big yellow sign denoting the seventh level might as well have said “hell.” The grey walls seemed to pitch and yaw as I regarded them through eyes pooled with water. I thought I might fall. Imagined Morgan regarding me on the security cameras and uttering a wry chuckle at my expense, and then storing that image away in much-fabled memory banks, ready to cash in soon as the bar was reached, when those who I’d sought to complain about circled around my supervisor, giggling and finger-pointing and otherwise engaging in all forms of site politics I wanted no part of.

And that, I thought was the worst of it. The embarrassment. The way I’d been so reduced in front of Morgan. But it wasn’t. Not by a long chalk.

Because then I saw Alexis malingering in the corridor, watching me. It was so gloomy in the corridor I only picked that sly, sneering individual by the pink coveralls which denoted a fuel systems senior engineer.

Oh, and by Alexis’ sharp little teeth which glinted in the half-light, as though ready to tear into me.

I felt my heart lurch, my breath catch in my throat.

I’d only encountered Alexis once, but that in no small way, made me believe that the senior engineer was more dangerous than the rest of them put together, hurtful as Vacca et al. had been. Because Alexis was clever with it. When Alexis set out to hurt someone, they stayed hurt. I’d seen evidence of this in his treatment of Winter, a Rigger just out of apprentice diapers. Winter had crossed Alexis, unconsciously, over the call-out rota. Lumbered Lex with the killer twelve-nine shift for the entirety of what would have been Grand Vacation week back on Earth.

Everyone knew Alexis was going to get Winter back, even us green apprentices; according to everyone, it was only a matter of when. But Winter waited and waited and nothing happened. We waited and waited, expecting to hear news of an accident up at the generators; a trip or fall down at the reactor; something insidious at the labs involving the eels. The scientists claimed not to know whether the eels were dangerous or not, but anyone with eyes could see they were stone cold killers. (Just like Lex.)

But nothing happened.

Winter dropped guard, eventually. We all did. And then Alexis struck. There was a huge poker tourney organised in the bar. The highest of stakes. Only those without their eyes blinded by drink could have seen what Alexis did. Which basically meant me. I saw how Alexis fudged the last cut of the deck. I saw how Alexis tricked Winter into believing the dealt hand better than it actually was. I saw the stakes raised Jupiter-high. And then I saw how Winter was taken for the entire salary the poor blighter was lined up to earn on this course. I saw the realisation in Winter’s eyes; poor fool’d need to suffer through at least three more stases just to make the credits back.

Alexis cleaned up, dragged the chips off into a velvet bag, and then fixed me with iced eyes. Showed those pointed teeth. And I knew I’d made the hit list.

Now, in the silence of the corridor, Alexis bared teeth once more, and I felt my knees becoming water, the contents of my stomach bungeeing back up my windpipe. And Alexis saw the signs of terror in me and loved it; licked those thin lips as though I was a tasty morsel ready to be gobbled up. But not yet.

A flick-book of looks passed between us. Acknowledgement. Pleading. Acceptance. Knowledge. Alexis knew what I was up at the supervisor’s office for. Alexis knew what I was. A wannabe grass. And I just knew that Lex’d enjoy torturing me over exactly when the matter would be brought up with all the other Riggers.

Basically, I was fucked.


But not yet. Though the sword of Damocles hung over my head, my execution was stayed. I kept expecting to wander, lonely, into the games room, or the gym, and suddenly discover I’d been found out, that my cat had been released from the velvet bag, but for days nothing happened.

Didn’t stop me worrying though: tearing into my fingernails with desperate teeth, jumping at the slightest noise from behind me; using the wrong tools on crucial repairs jobs. Every barbed remark from my apprentice colleagues was stored and then replayed over and over as I lay on my bunk, reading whole libraries too much into things.

That week they’d allocated me to shadow Collins. Collins was everyone’s favourite engineer. They broke the mould when they made Collins. And the rulebook too, for Collins shunned the standard issue jumpsuit, and instead wore only denim. Tee-shirts emblazoned with slogans which would land anyone else with a written warning, or a disciplinary; that week’s article of choice, a shirt which bore the legend: “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go.” It was a good job Collins had shoulders broad enough to fit all that in.

Every morning the denim crusader picked me up from the Induction Room and soon as I entered the cockpit of the zipper Collins drove, I was met with a ripe smell. Sweet somehow. Last night’s booze emanating from so many pores. Collins’ smile suggested last night’s booze high might have extended to morning.

To be fair to Collins, at least there were attempts at common or garden conversation. “So, you pulled the short straw today did you?” Collins would ask. And there’d be a shine in the denim crusader’s eyes which was like a reflection of the moon back on Earth.

Collins made me laugh too, when the joke was on someone else. Like on Collins. Collins was adept at that ungraspable—at least by me—thing called banter. Would giggle and snort over our pack-ups, describing fuck-ups on jobs. “May as well have left me on permanent fuckin’ stasis that trip, all the good I was. Was like I got my eyes permanently clagged-up with sleep the whole time, Buzz.”

Collins called me Buzz. I had no idea why, though I was sure it was some reference to my sex. Some convoluted, over-elaborate joke which they’d all spent hours and hours fulminating back at the bar. Collins was also, despite all the good points, quite capable of suddenly, out of the blue, launching into the usual gibes. Which seemed to sting more than when the others did it. Collins worked the turbines in sector four usually; those which powered the biosphere in which the scientists were trying to introduce the eels into an Earth-like atmosphere, because if they could effectively move the eels without killing them, then they’d still be able to drill for the miracle mineral without all that touchy-feely nonsense getting in the way. And though I was quick on the draw with my tools and could whip up a localized temporary repair job quicker than most of my class, it still didn’t seem quick enough.

“S’called multi-tasking,” Collins would bark, half-laughing, half-serious, when I complained that I couldn’t do three things at once. “Don’t have enough fuckin’ pairs of hands, do you?” would be the accusation. And it would hang in the air between us, me scowling, Collins trying to pretend it was all just a joke, until one of us would snap, and that would mean either Collins roaring “Hand me that wrench and be quick about it, bitch,” or else me collapsing into tears and having to get right off the cherry-picker so I wouldn’t be seen.

Ah, God, whoever you are, wherever you may be, up here is a microcosm of the future for all of us. The ill-feeling over which sex did what to fuck up everything is more focused here, and so the digs come deeper, and land truer. It’s like it used to be when some celebrity died and Star TV would run 24 hour rolling sadness shows, but at the same time, there was a class of people would immediately be at it with the vidi-handhelds sending jokey, bantery messages about said dead celeb. And I mean, like, immediately. It was as though there was someone in vidi-control, or at Star, who, as soon as the news broke, released the jokes into the wild at the same time. Works the same here. It is as though there is that layer of decency, or of righteous hesitation which has simply been mined away, and though those who govern us like to think we live in a new politically correct world, and we’re now all kinds of nice to alien species—even to the extent of putting our own futures in jeopardy by not drilling fuck out of their planet—are wilfully blind to how things actually are, how bad feeling still ferments.

It’ll come on Earth, too, mark my words. Because we all of us are engineers, really, and when we’re desperate, or pissed off, even if we don’t say it out loud, we’re prone to prejudge. This, as much as heart, lungs and teeth, makes us human. Just as dorsal fin, anal goddamn fin, and ribbony, unbackboned body makes eels, those mindless, pointless creatures, eels. Though that’s prejudice too, isn’t it? The way the scientists would have it, the eels are special in their own way and we have to understand the eel experience, we have to feel eel, before we can rightly say anything about the wriggly bastards.

I knew all this, and still, to counteract the digs, I made it my habit to alter myself in front of the mirror every morning. So that the first thing about me wasn’t the obviousness of my sex. I took care over my hair, my nails, my voice, even; training myself to find the right pitch and tone. Sometimes, when I couldn’t quite grasp it, slapping myself so that the flesh on my cheeks became red raw and glaring. But even Collins saw me for what I was, for my deficiencies first.

And when Collins discovered I’d tried to complain, then my life wouldn’t be worth living.

After a week of worry, I became so frazzled I could barely even think, let alone perform to the levels required of me. Even Collins noticed something was wrong, commenting that I seemed to have as much sense as some of the eels, and about as much technical competency. Being good with your hands was a prerequisite of a Rigger’s trade, and mine now shook as though an incredibly localised earthquake was taking place within my nervous system. So when the call came in that one of the turbines in sector nine was down, and Collins took the call, even though he was usually sector four only, my paranoia was ratcheted up at least four notches.

“But ... Sector nine’s usually Brant’s domain, isn’t it?” I asked, trying to keep the quiver from out of my voice. Not entirely succeeding.

Collins smiled, gunned the engine of the zipper. “We’re not worried, are we, Buzz? Besides, Alexis is already on site. Just needs an extra couple pairs of hands is all.”

Now my antennae really were twitching. But I chose to keep schtum just in case. No point giving myself away in my haste to deny everything. To stay my tongue, I glared out the window of my compartment.

If seen from above, the base wasn’t much to write home about. Any buildings which were above ground were low-slung, single storey places snowdrifted with dust, particles of which contained the miracle mineral. You could see hints at the infrastructure below the earth; however, that sprawling mass of interconnected tunnels and corridors might look, to the omniscient observer, rather like those casts left behind by sandworms on beaches. Like I say, my metaphors and similies are Earthly ... There were solid psychological and architectural reasons for this deliberate design. Apparently. It was a case of unassuming female architecture as a direct, polar opposite alternative to male architecture, with its stereotypical thrusting, erect towers. Way it was explained to us green apprentices was this: the base was supposed to reflect the natural environment here, how the eels shaped their world. Translation: the eggheaded scientists had gotten it into their scrambly heads that if the eels had any understanding of us, any conception of why we were here, then building our base as we used to back on good ol’ Earth would be an act of hostile colonisation and a declaration of (male) dominance.

The most populous places—the residence halls, the labs, the climate-controlled sectors like four and eight—were built wholly underground, mined deep into the rock (although they took great care not to impinge on what was termed as “eel land”). There were miniature highways between most of these sectors, however, access to these highways was strictly limited to scientists and administrators. Us lowly engineers and green apprentices were limited to the outer tunnels; dark, narrow corridors which were often not properly dug out—hence the earth-shifting, rotating drill on the front of the zippers—and hence the speed limit of 25 miles an hour.

Collins had our zipper going almost twice that, and, despite the red warning signals which were flashing on the dash, didn’t seem overly concerned that we might crash. Indeed, Collins was barely keeping eyes on the track in front of us, instead preferring to flimflam with the aircon or to fiddle with the radio, or even to update the timesheet on the in-zipper log system. At one point, I even had to reach over into Collins’ compartment to steady the driving compass in order to stop us from careering through a barrier and into one of the laboratories.

When I wasn’t wrestling us back onto our set course, I was making cat’s cradles out of the lanyard of my ID badge, simply for something to do with my achy-breaky-shaky hands—another effect of the pills, especially when they chemically reacted with fear. Or I was checking and re-checking my toolkit, hoping to find some kind of assurance in the solidity of the tools, the cold metal of the wrench and the satisfying functionality of the spanners, the steeliness of the drill.

These were the things I knew and could control.

“Whassa matter, Buzz? You not feelin’ the need for speed?” said Collins, nodding down at my fidgeting feet which were feeling out an imaginary brake pedal.

“I ... I just wouldn’t mind if you slowed down.”

“Aw, you’re no fun.” Collins sneered. “You know, if you can’t have a fuckin’ giggle at work then what’s the point?” Then, in a colder voice: “You’re just like the fuckin’ rest of ’em.”

I was taken aback by the blatant sexism. Back on Earth, that would have been a violation sixteen. Could have seen Collins locked up for a month. It felt as though Collins was pushing the boundaries, seeing just how far it could be taken before I snapped. Or complained.

I gulped. Tried to give it a proper analysis of the think-first type. Was I sure Collins was being sexist? Could Collins have been referring to apprentices in general in saying: “the fuckin’ rest of ’em”? Weren’t we all engineers here? Wasn’t prejudice just a bi-product of being human?

“I ... I don’t mean to sound like some stick in the mud. I’m sorry.” I said this softly. Inside, my voice was louder, full of rage at the inequalities, the injustices of life. I got feelings, I longed to say, I got my own experience of the world. You’re supposed to have empathy.

Collins ignored my comment. “D’you know the best thing about those eels?”

I shook my head.

“They don’t got any of this fuckin’ sexual politics. None of this crap we gotta go through, you know? When they want to get jiggy they get jiggy with themselves coz they both. Male and female at the same time. No fuckin’ violations, no fuckin’ complaints, no fuckin’ skirting round the truth.”

I opened and closed my mouth. Tried to breathe. Couldn’t. It felt as though we’d somehow slipped out of the atmosphere of the base and into the claustrophobia of the terrible moon outside.

Collins knew.

“I got talking to this scientist out at one of the gennies once. And do you know what she said? She told me the serpents can choose when they’re male or female. And I bet you can’t guess which they choose to be most of the time?”

I was drowning. The air in my compartment felt too heavy to suck in. Gas had become liquid, it seemed. Only, I couldn’t drink it down either.

“Female,” said Collins, slapping her palm down on the dash. “They choose to be female.” And then she turned to me, her eyes full of malice. “Tell me, Buzz, you fuckin’ rat: if you had that same choice, what would you do? Would you get rid of that stupid fuckin’ worm between your legs, that pointless hair on your face, those primitive thoughts in your brain ... Would you be female?”

I scratched frantically at the collar of my coverall, trying desperately to get some air to my collapsing lungs. It was the shock, had to be the shock, but at this moment it felt as though Collins had poisoned the air. My fingernails—longer than usual, I’d been trying to seem more womanly—made a rasping noise as they dragged over my stubble. And Collins couldn’t hide the look of disgust which crossed her features when she heard it.

“I ... I ... ”

“Do you know what else that scientist told me?” Collins was on a roll now. “She told me that the reason men like you fucked up our planet and made it so we had to come to this godforsaken rock was because—get this—you were controlled by that worm between your legs. By the desire for everyone to marvel how big it was or whatever. Well, that’s all over, cross my tits and hope to fuckin’ die, and we in charge. And that’s just the way I like it.”

She reached over into my compartment and grasped me by the balls, digging her nails into me through the soft fabric of the coverall. Hissed: “None of us want it to go back to the old ways, Buzz. S’why we’re here in the first place. See how the eels do it. So we can do away with the likes of you.”

Was it? Oh, God, was it? My rumbling gut told me that it was. That this was the real reason for the hold-up in the drilling. This discovery. Oh God ... I churned inside. Knowledge rose in me like bile.

“You said you’re in charge,” I said, in a shaky voice. “But the ordinance says it’s a collective and—”

Collins released her grip on me, rolled her eyes. “Pop another stasis pill and shut the fuck up.” The way she said “stasis pill” was almost as though she’d made rabbit ears around the word with her fingers. And that sent another spasm of fear, and of side-effect, coursing through my veins. What if the yeah-yeah pills they gave us were something else? What if the reason all the females around here were so big, so broad-shouldered, so goddamned forceful, was as a result of the pills? What if that was the reason I’d turned into such a pussy? What if that was the reason I almost didn’t dare ask the question out loud?

“The pills,” I said. “What are they?’

Collins grinned. “They’re the miracle mineral.”

I narrowed my eyes. “No they’re not, don’t lie to me.”

“Swear down.”

“But they’re nothing to do with overcoming stasis, or helping us out of our deep sleeps?”

Collins laughed so hard I thought she might snap her seatbelt. She slapped her thigh, looked at me, and then laughed harder, longer. “Wh-what do you actually think the magic-bean miracle all-singing all-dancing mineral is? I mean, what is up there in that thick, one-track, masculine fuckin’ mind of yours?”

“It’s—it’s some kind of, like, fossil fuel or something.”

Yeeees. And?”

“And what?”

“And what are fossil fuels made of? I’ll make this easier for you. Little girls are made of sugar, spice and all motherfuckin’ nice things. Little boys are made of nasty bad shit. So what goes into the pot of fossil fuels? What recipe is used to cook ’em up?”

“Erm ... Like ... Time. The pressure of time and ... And stuff.”

“What stuff?”

“Broken-down plant matter and minerals, and chemicals and ...” Slowly, it was dawning on me, like a blood moon cresting over the horizon of some wayward and horrific planet. “And animals. Dead animals. The skeletons of animals all ground up and... And powdery.” Instinctively, my tongue darted into the dark corner of the cavern of my mouth, discovered that bitterly chalky taste which had populated my tastebuds for weeks, months now.

“Oh,” I said, simply. “Oh. Right.”

Collins slapped a flipper-big hand onto my leg. “You got that right, boy-o. Oh. You been gobbling down eels like a regular goblin, aintcha? Now, tell me, how do you like them apples?”

I could barely wrench the door open fast enough before I threw up. Some of it spattered on the door of the zipper and Collins made noises of disgust. Still, to give her credit, once I’d evacuated practically everything inside me, she tossed over an oily rag and bid me mop my fuckin’ jaws or else take the high road. She wouldn’t have me stinking up her vehicle.

“Yeah yeah,” I said, and then I almost threw up again. But soon the feeling passed, and it was strange, though this terrible knowledge about the yeah-yeah pills should have defeated me, it didn’t. I should have been wanting to curl up into a foetal comma and die, but I didn’t. Now I’d thrown everything up, it felt as though, finally, I could breathe again. I sucked hungrily at the air, feeling life quivering right through my body. I could breathe again and it felt as though I’d rediscovered some deeper truth about myself and who I was. Though now I think about it, that might have been the yeah-yeahs talking more loudly in my thinned blood.

I had another question to ask. An important one concerning neutering. But I didn’t ask it. The thing stopped me was Collins’ walkie-talkie. It crackled. She clicked the “talk” button. “Collins?”

And then everything went shit-shaped again. I heard Alexis’ voice. “Collins? Where are you girl? We been waiting for you half an hour now.”

“On the way ... We took a little detour. I ... I had to say something to our little grass bastard.”

I realised Collins was afraid of Alexis. I also realised that if this was the case, then I should be even more afraid of her.

“You told her?”

“Well, not everything. Just the pills ... But enough. I ... I’m sorry, Alex, I couldn’t help it.”

There was a long pause, then: “Okay. No real harm done. But Collins? Get here now. No more fucking around. We got work to do.”

“On the way.”

Collins kept her lips tightly clamped for the longest time. She drove more carefully now, as though the quick-release of her anger had been drawn, like a wasp sting. But her silence was, if anything, even more terrifying. The sound of her breathing filled the zipper and when I breathed, it felt like an imposition.

And the most terrible thing was, despite everything, despite the unfairness of the whole situation—it wasn’t my fault I was born male—I felt guilt burning in my veins. Caustic, like I’d been injected with the blood of a creature of a wildly different genetic structure. I remembered the lessons at the academy. About us all needing to prove our usefulness to society, even at the most basic levels. Though it wasn’t explicitly said, it was inferred: the female of the species was, unavoidably, more useful than the male. They were born with crucial roles already written into their DNA. Males were not much more than simple anecdotes.

And so it was most of my male schoolfriends had simply given up, gone on to join the rest of the no-hopers who populated the wide margins of society. I was the only boy in my class at the college and had long been seen as something of an oddity, a throwback to the times when men made it their niche to be good with their hands. Nowadays the received wisdom was that men simply didn’t have enough hands.

I stared out of the window, no longer scared of my fate but in fact numbed to it, as one would be to something unalterable, like moonrock or the harshness of life on Earth. Alexis and her girls would finish me off, punish me for my complaint. And there was god-nothing I could do about it. Fact of life, girlfriend.

As I stared out the window though, and in my yeah-yeah anaesthetized state, I began to see something different in the layout of the base. I began to see the tunnels as tubes, as parts of a system which was remarkably similar to the female human body. And as we made our Fallopian way towards a certain yet-to-be-born fate, I saw myself as, yet again, an outsider to all of this. I’d complained to Morgan that I was being ostracised but hadn’t the very fact of me—the worm between my legs—already set me apart?

No amount of menial labour could change that. No amount of tinkering, fixing, moulding and welding, could alter me, the true alien here.

“I’m sorry,” I breathed.

Collins tutted elaborately. Rolled her eyes. “Typical fuckin’ man,” she said. “Always apologising, but never know what they’re really supposed to be sorry for.”

“What’s waiting for me when we get to sector nine?” I asked, not really expecting an answer. Which was just as well, because I didn’t get one.


We reached the outskirts of sector nine without further incident. And I felt my stomach drop deeper and deeper within me as we passed more and more directional arrows and yellow signs indicating we were close to our destination. Soon the tunnel opened out, became wider, more expansive. We met a couple other zippers: a catering operative vehicle and one from the security team. But Collins showed a heretofore unseen driving skill to avoid a collision with either of them, and then in drawing our zipper to a halt just in the right place in front of the sector nine checkpoint.

Vehicle access readers processed the zipper’s plates and scanned our identification badges. There was a slight delay as I had to flip mine back round the right way after I’d been fiddling with the lanyard. And then the red and white barrier, like a horizontal barber’s pole (again with the Earthly metaphors and similies; it was as though I couldn’t let go of the old place, the old ways) lifted, allowing our zipper to push on through.

Alexis was waiting for us over the other side, leaning against the uneven walls, and examining her long, red nails.

There was another word for those nails: talons. And there was another word for those sharp little teeth of hers too. Fangs.

The last time I’d seen Alexis was in the corridor outside Morgan’s office, and then she’d simply been wearing her Rigger’s scrubs. Now though, she’d dressed aggressively, to make a point. In fact, she resembled that version of herself which she’d shown me in the bar, when she’d practically bankrupted poor Winter in the poker tourney. Although she was wearing coveralls, she’d made them more than the standard garb. She’d upgraded, through simple, yet effective, use of accessories, such as the golden buttons in place of the common or garden zip. The spurs she’d affixed to her stock issue boots, and her shoulder pads were like an exclamation mark.

But the most striking aspect of Alexis, I now understood, was her fiery red hair. Most of the other Riggers had crew cuts, but Alexis had long, luxurious locks. And it was this fact which had always made her seem so ... self-confident, so calculating. Her hair was a statement. She was a statement.

Propaganda made flesh.

She catwalked up to the driver-side window of the zipper and motioned for Collins to wind it down. Collins acquiesced. “Hello dear,” said Alexis, addressing me, “so glad you could make it.” Her voice was slippery. Snakey-sounding. She leaned in through the window, and I caught the heady whiff of her perfume. It was like a winning hand in a poker tourney; overpowering.

“I didn’t make the complaint,” I said, in a voice which was like I’d swallowed a voice. “I know you saw me at Morgan’s office, but I never actually complained.”

Alexis shared a look with Collins. Then she snaked her head back round to me, and it was as though her eyes turned me to stone. “That’s as may be,” she said, “but you wanted to. That’s what matters. You thought there was something to complain about. You thought there was something ...” She sniffed. “... Rotten ’bout the way we do things and you set about trying to rock the applecart. You threatened to throw our entire ecosystem out of balance, didn’t you? And for that, you shall be punished.”


Collins giggled. Alexis smiled too. With her mouth. Her eyes remained set like diamonds. “And what happens when there is a threat to an ecosystem?”

I couldn’t answer. Once again I felt like the dunce in class.

“The ecosystem closes ranks. Expels the outsider.” She slapped the side of the zipper and then turned her back, started marching down the tunnel, in the direction of the generators. Her feet loud on the metal floor, sounding like a million thrusts of a knife into an unguarded body. Echoing too, off the uneven concrete so that the sound waterfalled through my brain, hammered at my ear drums. And then I felt the thrum of the zipper’s engine underneath us, and Collins set us to following Alexis farther into the depths of sector nine.

Sector nine was by far the largest of the sectors, and was almost certainly the one housed farthest under the crust of the moon’s surface. I’d seen the schematics in the Induction Room. The drawing had reminded me of a bee’s hive back on Earth. Same lumpen, almost womby shape. Same kind of honeycomb centre of it, as though each separate room were actually a bubble. There were more generators present in nine as in the rest of the base put together; all of them powering the experimental area at its heart. The artificial environment which was half Earth, half here. The scientists were stocking it with eels which they’d genetically modified now: some of the Riggers had dubbed the place “the Garden of Eden.” But now I was here, I saw nine was actually nothing like Eden.

In fact, it could only have been the polar opposite. Hell, or purgatory.

Yes, purgatory; that space of torment and interrogation.

Nine stunk, like some workshop of filthy creation, or like death. The smell echoed back off the honeycomb concrete just as the sound of Alexis’ feet did. The smell carried over and above the oily, worky smell of the zipper. The smell was like a ticking clock, and I was unable to ignore it.

Collins dragged us to a halt halfway down a tunnel and, in the gloom, with my mind frazzled by fear, it took me a while to understand why we’d stopped here of all places. But then I saw Alexis again, this time leaning against the jamb of an open door. And she beckoned us to follow her inside, into the belly of the beast.

“But we can’t,” I said, gesturing to the huge “Keep Out” sign which was emblazoned across the door.

Collins offered me a thin-lipped smile. “Of course we can. Hell, if the scientists knew what we had planned, they’d pretty much award us the freedom of the base ... Course, coz of that pesky thing known as ethics, or as political correctness, they’re not able to do what they really should be doing ... We just thought we’d save ’em some time. Fuckin’ get the ball rolling, so to speak.” She prodded me in the chest. “Now, out.”

I had no choice but to climb out of my compartment, and, on watery knees, I went to Alexis. She offered me a fangy smile and then held the door for me as I walked through, heading directly for fate, or destiny, or doom.

Through the door, it was very strange. The floor was no longer metal, but appeared to be made of some kind of foamy material which glooped around my feet as I walked. Almost it felt as though the floor was alive. And this impression was only reinforced by the walls, which seemed to be breathing. Or perhaps it was simply my yeah-yeah paranoia.

I was right to be paranoid. Because Collins and Alexis were walking so close to me now, it was as though I was being walked to my execution. And, in case I was in any doubt as to the fact of it, that this situation was bad, Alexis was muttering a snarled commentary, reminding me of my faults.

“You are a scourge. You are spam. You’re unwanted. Unnecessary. Redundant.”

And I felt as though I was. I knew that I was. My feet dragged in the foam, as though it was made of quicksand, but my heart hammered as though it contained a cock, a monkey, and a rabid dog, all scrabbling to be let out.

Presently, the corridor opened out, just as the tunnel had when we reached the entry/exit barrier into sector nine. The reason why quickly became apparent. We’d reached the hub of all activity in the base. The huge, dome-shaped central cavity which was “the Garden of Eden.” The glass was, on first view, opaque, but it quickly became clear that this was simply because it was so dark inside the dome. And now, underfoot, the floor seemed to suck and chew at me, as though it wanted to consume me. And it was warm. I realised, finally, that this was the effect of the generators. This was the energy it had created. A kind of visceral electricity which pumped and throbbed about us as though the whole of it was alive.

“Wonderful, isn’t it?” said Alexis. Her voice honeyed, her breath stroking the tiny hairs which surrounded my ears, and somehow, unaccountably, drawing a response out of me, out of that terrible, pointless part of me which she so hated. Which was perhaps exactly the effect she was searching for.

“It’s—” I couldn’t think of anything to say. I fixed my eyes on the glass, trying to see what horrors were within the dome. But I was distracted. There was a yellow warning sign on the glass. “Do not open. Contamination potential.” And somehow, I knew exactly why I was here. How exactly my induction was to conclude.

“You’re going in there,” said Alexis, with a wry smile. Then she began to stroke my arm. I felt electrified, tingly all over. It was wonderful and dreadful at the same time. “We’re going to fix you,” she said.

I had one last shot at escape. “You claim to hate men, but the pills have made you just as bad as us. Can’t you see that?”

Alexis just laughed.


But it was all too late. It was too late when I’d been born, if truth be told. Before I could say anything else, Brant and Vacca materialised out of the darkness and grabbed me by the arms, started dragging me forward, my feet kicking and scrabbling in the dirt. Vacca snarled in my ear: “All men are bastards.” And I wanted to remind her of the time she’d rubbed up against me, like some dog on heat.

Alexis found an opening in the glass. Stroking it and massaging it until her long talons found an edge which was invisible to the naked eye. She clawed at it until we heard a gasp of released air. And then, as unceremoniously as Brant had thrown me out the zipper and into the residence halls, I was chucked in with the eels.

At first, I felt the floor was made out of the same material as the one outside, but all too soon, I realised why it seemed to be moving underneath me. It was alive with eels, pulsing with their unknowable energy, their unconstrained hatred.

Yes, hatred. I felt it coursing into my body, mixing with my bloodstream.

And as my eyes slowly adjusted, I saw eels all about me, constricting my legs, thrashing, writhing, punishing me for who I was, the crime of my sex. The serpents seemed loath to make the final strike though. And for a beat, two, I thought that maybe, just maybe, I might survive.

But then I saw the reason for their reticence. One huge landeel—had to be 20 metres long and thick with it—was languorously slithering forward, parting the rest of them, her smaller, more insignificant cage-mates, like some twitching red sea.

I watched its advance. Watched the way its piebald flanks seemed to contort and stretch as it ejaculated towards me, jagged teeth bared.

I looked desperately back at the crowd, seeing faces pressed up against the glass. Hoping against hope that one of them would feel an ounce of pity; sense it weighing down on them. And act. Rescue me. I saw Morgan was one of their number. Bulky, rock-like, unmoved. As she watched, Collins was grooming her masculine grey mop of hair. Alexis, I now saw, was holding hands with Vacca. A couple apprentices—Yanna and Sal—had their arms locked around each other. They were a team, bonded by the things they shared.

And there was no “I” in their team. I was in the cage, with the eel.

And then the eel was no longer flaccid, but erect, and thumping with violence. Its bloodstream, its genetic memory angry with me and my own DNA imprint.

I should have kicked out at it. Screamed. Raged against the machine of my death. But I didn’t. I let it come. And at the end, at the climax, I felt relief. As the serpent opened its stinking maw to consume me, I felt, at last, at peace here on this terrible moon.

I heard whooping and hollering from outside. Collins’ crying, Go Girlfriend! over and over.

My life didn’t flash before my eyes.

My daddy didn’t appear to me in a vision, giving me one last piece of buck up advice.

This was my funeral, and I was the lone attendee.

Well, there was the stonking great mothership eel whose jaws were dislocating, opening wide for me, as though puckering for the kiss to end all kisses, or else to swallow a goat.

Let it come, I thought.

But, frankly, it never did. The eel’s jaws retracted, bones inside it clicked back together. Its mouth closed, but without me inside it. It stayed above me though, and I got the impression it was sniffing at me, snivelling out some truth of me which I hadn’t quite realised yet. Perhaps it could smell its own ancestors on me, on that bitter, powdery twang which was still stuck in my teeth. Or perhaps it heard the rumbling of my stomach, of my ... now, let’s get this right, scientifically ... womb.

Ah, Christ, I don’t know what stopped it. Some common bond? Sisterhood? It suddenly remembered it had already eaten thank you very much. Like I say, we’re all of us engineers and none of us really know what it’s like to experience otherness.

But we may do soon. The very breasty, cock ’n’ ballsy, period-suffering, stubbly fact of me has thrown one gigantic spanner into the works.

Well, I was always good with tools, wasn’t I?

Now, pass me another of those yeah-yeahs yeah? I need to feel that crunch between my teeth. It’s a craving of mine. infinity

A.J Kirby hails from Leeds, England. He is the award-winning published author of six novels and over 40 short stories. He is a sportswriter for the Professional Footballer's Association and a reviewer for “The New York Journal of Books” and “The Short Review.”


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