Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Talus Slope
by Joseph Green

Who Benefits From War?
by Hayden Trenholm

Those Magnificent Stars
by Clare L. Deming

A Soldier Undreams
by Bret Carter

Eating Disorder
by Len Dawson

My Shaigetz
by Marcy Arlin

Two Timing
by Rik Hunik

To Dance With the Girls of Ios-5
by Ted Blasche


Psychology and Science Fiction
by Ann Gimpel, Ph.D.

Get Up and Go Somewhen
by J. Richard Jacobs

In Time For Evolution
by Eric M. Jones




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Talus Slope

By Joseph Green

THE THIN WHITE HOSPITAL blanket that covered Fancy Bencze to the neck barely rose and fell with her slow and shallow breathing. The oxygen feed in her small nose formed a black line of ugliness above the short, full lips, and the lightly tanned skin over the strong cheekbones failed to hide an unhealthy pallor.

“She’s been this way since an animal tender found her collapsed by Agriculture’s imprint machine early this morning, Dr. Schumly,” said the plump, gray-haired nurse who had escorted me to the room. “Her mother will be here in the morning, and she and the neurologist will decide ... what to do. Are you a medical doctor?”

“No. Physics,” I answered. This was a teaching hospital, operated by the huge University of Florida in Gainesville, and “doctors” were more common in the streets than dogs.

The matronly nurse looked disappointed. She turned and left, carefully leaving the door half-open. The second bed in this antiseptically clean and soulless room, hospital standard issue, remained empty. Fancy and I were alone.

I pulled the barely padded visitor’s chair to the side of the bed. Sitting, I stared at the slack, expressionless face of the only woman I had ever loved. Her closed eyes had a noticeable slant, the dominant epicanthic fold some invading Mongol ancestor, centuries ago, had added to a Hungarian woman’s line of descent. The very dark eyebrows, thick and unplucked, and the unusually long eyelashes, also untouched, made those deep brown eyes her best feature.

Was I going to lose her in the morning? Or in all that really mattered, was Dr. Fancy Bencze already dead?

It might not make headlines, but I’d bet it would still be a major news story if mother Denise decided to pull the plug tomorrow. Like that seemingly routine industrial accident in Wisconsin back in the eighties, when a production line worker died at an auto assembly plant. The news spread widely because of the unique cause of death—a human being killed by a robot. Fancy’s passing would draw that same morbid interest; first person known to die from overusing the new imprint machine.

It must have seemed like a dream come true for Fancy, to be called by our alma mater and offered a job in animal intelligence research using imprinting. The lead scientist, Dr. Aguilar, had heard of her through her former teachers when he came here from the University of Georgia, two years ago. He had looked up the two papers she had published while in veterinary school. The interest and talent were clear. He would have had to know Fancy as the obsessive-compulsive she was to understand that sometimes you shouldn’t give someone what he or she most wants.

I pulled back the blanket and sheet, lifted Fancy’s left arm, and placed it outside the covers when I pulled them up again. Now I could sit with the exposed hand held between both of mine.

“Why did you do it, Fancy?” I asked, keeping my voice to a bare whisper. The monitors would pick up anything louder. “Why does it always have to be you?”

But of course I knew the answer. From the day we first met in tenth grade, it had been Fancy leading myself and a small circle of friends into Zen Buddhism, a serious study of holistic healing, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM became a watchword in our little group), herbal folklore, etc. She once told me she had been interested in medicine and health since elementary school. At some point during that hectic sophomore year she had picked the path less traveled by, deciding she wanted to be a veterinarian. Her last two years had been a frantic rush to make up for some of the science and math courses she had missed when her interests were too wide-spread. She took more classes at the local community college than in our high school.

Fancy had succeeded, of course, and entered the University of Florida well along on the veterinary school track. Fancy was not a genius—she consistently scored about ten points below that on the standard I.Q. tests—but she more than made up for it by an ability to concentrate on a set goal with ferocious and unswerving determination.

The door swung inward and the same nurse entered. “Visiting hours are over. I’m afraid you’ll have to leave now, sir.” Her stern expression softened slightly when she saw that I was holding Fancy’s hand.

“Look—I’m not going anywhere. You can call security, and I’ll fight them. They’ll have to beat me down with clubs. It’ll be noisy. Listen to me—please! I’m not immediate family, but if you can reach her mother, she’ll tell you it’s OK for Aaron Schumly to be here.”

I’m only five-foot seven, but I led the wrestling team in high school because my father bequeathed me the body of a gorilla—barrel chest, bowed legs, long and strong arms. The adult Fancy just reached five-foot three. Once when we were walking across campus at the U. of F. with a pair of tall male friends behind us, my arm linked with Fancy’s, the slightly mocking voices of our friends suddenly broke into an old folk song, a beautiful one from the last century, with a verse that spoke of how well “we fit together walkin’.” That was the moment I knew with certainty, despite our quarrels and separations, that I’d found the one true love of my life.

The motherly nurse’s expression went from anger to alarm to sympathy in a quick-change show of emotions. She hesitated a moment, then awkwardly patted my shoulder and left. I held the passive, barely warm hand, and stared at Fancy’s attractive but hardly beautiful face. I had almost seduced her in tenth grade, but not quite made it. And early in the eleventh, when she had to devote all her time and energy to those needed extra classes, she told me to date other girls if I wanted sex. I had, and we went our separate ways for two years, until we both entered the U. of F. and she again felt secure enough to make time for me in her life. She remained a virgin until we moved in together to start our second year, when for once I became the teacher and she the willing pupil. And the next two years were the happiest I had ever known, or expected to see in this lifetime.

Most of those two years I lived with Fancy passed as if in a frantic, rushing dream. But during the summer before our senior year she found her true great cause, the one that again drove us apart. Fancy had taken a course on animal intelligence the past semester, and gotten so interested she continued studying on her own at home. Both of us were working during the three-month break, Fancy at Disney’s Animal World and myself at Universal Studios. We had been forced to move out of our Gainesville apartment, storing our rag-tag collection of furniture while we lived with our respective parents in Orlando.

In mid-August Fancy’s mother, Denise, and her life-companion, Kelly, invited me to eat with them, as they did about once a week. In the middle of dinner Fancy, without warning, abruptly changed both our lives. She had recently formed the conviction, full-blown as if sprung from the head of Zeus, that all animals were intelligent. Homo sapiens differed from the rest only in degree. From time immemorial, mankind had misused and mistreated the rest of the animal kingdom, including enslaving, killing and eating them. And it was time to stop.

I looked down at what was left on my plate of a very tender steak, the redness of the rare meat partially hidden by a layer of sliced mushrooms. Denise, slender, blonde and still very attractive at forty-three, put down her fork and stared at her daughter. She had refused to tell Fancy who provided the sperm that became half of her heritage, but did say he was of Hungarian extraction, like herself, and very handsome. It had been by artificial insemination, of course; Denise would let no man touch her body. The daughter had clearly been dominated by the father’s genes, to the consternation of both birth mother and co-parent Kelly. And somehow Fancy had missed the “beauty” genes on both sides, coming in short, sturdy and attractive instead—but with those slanted and truly lovely very dark brown eyes.

“That’s not a new idea, dear,” said Denise.

I continued eating my steak, with the sinking feeling it might be a very long time before I enjoyed another.

“I know, mother. But it certainly hasn’t been generally accepted. We’ve lived on meat so long it’s become a habit; a bad and unhealthy one. It’s time to change that.”

I looked at Fancy’s plate; nothing on it but vegetables and pasta.

Denise, who saw another obsession coming, looked helplessly at Kelly, who immediately jumped in. “Honey, I saw a science program recently that said we are who and what we are because our ancestors ate meat.” Kelly, tall, dark-haired, strongly built, had told me a surprising number of clueless men made moves on her. “It said you get so much more energy from meat than vegetables that eating it freed up time for activities other than food gathering, like developing weapons, tools, better shelter, learning about medicinal plants, and so on. It led to civilization! And the chimpanzees have started down that same path, with their practice of catching and eating monkeys.”

“Lions and tigers eat nothing but meat, and you don’t see them getting any smarter,” said Fancy. “Every essential amino acid is now available from a plant, or can be manufactured. We are past the point where our bodies actually need animal flesh.”

The “animated discussion”—never called an argument—was on, and somewhere in the middle of it, Fancy managed to tell me she was going to cut expenses by sharing an apartment with two other girls in September. The unspoken message; I was too large a distraction, demanding more of her time and energy than she could now afford to give. As in high school, she had to be free to devote herself entirely to the new cause.

There was a “spare” steak left, and it ended up on my plate, as usual. I smothered it with mushrooms and ate it as if thoroughly enjoying every bite, my gaze seldom leaving Fancy’s face. The two older women were silent over coffees, both having caught Fancy’s carefully chosen words, and noting my act of defiance.

I found a bachelor pad to share with another loser when I returned to Gainesville, and seldom even spoke to Fancy that last year. Then a grandmother died, and my parents suddenly had enough money to send me to MIT for graduate school. I didn’t see Fancy for the four straight years she followed the veterinary track at the U of F. We were both back home in Orlando, recuperating after earning our doctorates, when we ran into each other in the lines for popcorn at a local multiplex. We said a casual hello, and exchanged a few words. In two weeks Fancy would start her first full-time job as a veterinarian, at a clinic in Key Largo. I had received an offer for a post-doc research assistant teacher’s post at Duke in the fall.

We were seeing the same movie, and I found her again when we exited back into the lobby. I needed to visit the bathroom, but wanted to talk to Fancy more urgently. “How are you going to continue your work on animal intelligence with a full-time job?” I asked her.

Fancy had let her thick, coarse black hair grow long, brushing her shoulders. Beneath casual jeans and a peasant blouse, the short, sturdy body looked a little thin. “Working at home, off the Internet, mostly; that’s all I can do now. Mom lost her job, and Kelly’s supporting them. We’re totally out of money. I have to work.”

I had only to see Fancy again to realize that every woman I had known since breaking up, even Elaine with whom I had lived for two years at MIT, were pale and bloodless substitutes. But Fancy was still on a mission, and until she completed that self-assigned task, there was no room in her life for another commitment.

I moved to North Carolina, settling into the comfortable life of a promising young teacher/researcher in physics. But though I continued to date frequently, including going to bed with those who were willing, none of the relationships lasted. Somehow each woman sensed I was incapable of falling in love, my heart already taken; they soon moved on.

At some point I finally faced up to the fact I could never be happy without Fancy. I had to win her back, no matter what conditions she demanded. I started calling Kelly, after first extracting a promise she would not tell Fancy (this meant Denise also knew, of course; but both women had never shown anything but firm support when it became clear their daughter was strictly hetero). I learned Fancy had started dating again in Key Largo, even bringing one guy home to meet mama and Kelly, but none lasted. I suspected she was just satisfying her sexual needs, as with me; and I hoped we shared the same commitment problem. Men were usually more willing than women to indulge in casual sex, but eventually the serious ones wanted more.

It was about two a.m., and the hospital had grown quiet. I felt thirsty, but didn’t want to leave the room even for a moment. The nurse had left a water carafe and glass on Fancy’s tray table, on the opposite side of her bed. A patient being in a deep coma was no reason to change hospital routine. I walked around the bed, poured myself a glass of still-cold water, and stood there drinking it. For no reason other than idle curiosity, I opened the shallow drawer in the table. It held only one item, a green-backed lab notebook.

It had to have been with her when the animal tender found her this morning. Some helpful EMT, thinking she might need it when she came to, had thoughtfully brought it along, and it wound up in the drawer.

I opened the little book and saw what I expected, a history of Fancy’s own imprints. Imprinted learning, though still in the developmental stage, had already proven that a two-semester textbook could be crammed into a person’s head in a single forty-minute session. And retention was considerably better than that obtained by old-fashioned study, discussion and tests.

With humans, imprinting had by law been limited to adult, fully formed brains. Strange and unacceptable results had emerged from the few early attempts to imprint teenagers. Many researchers were now cautiously probing for the upper limits, the point at which a given brain could be damaged. Eventually someone was certain to go too far. The world waited, primed and ready, as it had been for that initial death caused by a robot.

I returned to my chair, arranged the movable lamp at the head of her bed to provide an acceptable light, and opened Fancy’s notebook.

There it was, in her loose but readable script, a carefully documented record of all the imprints she had undergone, including a few words describing the books or papers. A fair number had been available in electronic format, but Fancy had scanned many into memory herself; the machine came with a fully automated high-speed reading unit for books. The times entered indicated she had been coming in night after night, working from three to six in the morning; hours when she usually had the College of Agriculture main building to herself.

Starting shortly after she arrived, Fancy had imprinted book after book, research paper after paper, both from the huge university library and the project’s own materials. It seemed clear, from the titles and brief descriptions of contents, that she had been trying to come up with really irrefutable reasons why humans should recognize all of Earth’s more intelligent animals as equals. Homo sapiens should also give up eating meat, keeping pets, or using animals for labor. Fancy Bencze had never thought in small concepts.

Apparently Fancy had not taken the time to reduce the quantity of an imprint by judicious selections from a whole book, or any form at all of editing. I saw page after page of entries, each with its date, time, title and short description; often even a follow-up evaluation. She had started with the spate of intensive research on dolphin intelligence conducted sixty years ago, before the glowing results were rejected by most of the scientific community. From there she branched out to orcinus orca, and the many studies done on other species or subspecies of the more intelligent cetacea. When she had absorbed everything known there she changed to primates, starting with the early work on Washoe the chimpanzee, and the follow-on studies on Moja, Pili, Tatu, and Dar.

Fancy had gulped it all down with little pre-judgment; from fruitcake speculations to carefully conducted scientific studies, like those at Georgia State and the Yerkes Regional Primate Center. There were papers on the little-studied subject of the complexity and intentionality of chimpanzee communication in the wild. There were old studies of Koko the gorilla, some orangutan research, and the few reports available on intelligence studies of the gibbons; a wealth of data, more than I had realized existed.

I found the number of entries, and the complexity of the subjects, dismaying. It had been firmly established that imprint time depended heavily on depth. Two hundred pages of history, including dates you had to memorize, could be absorbed in the same length session as thirty pages of college-level physics.

There were other studies too, on horses and dogs, pigs and parrots. But Fancy had soon focused on dolphins and chimpanzees as most likely to prove her thesis. She had essentially absorbed just about all the literature on animal intelligence available in English, good science and bad alike. Then she had moved on to the broader field of that strange and mysterious quality, intelligence itself. And again she found volumes of sheer speculation, hard studies of the brain and its functions, and a plethora of material whose value I couldn’t begin to evaluate.

The night nurse, a slim young Hispanic woman, came in and smiled at me as she fluffed the pillow, replaced it under my love’s head, then pulled down the covers long enough to roll her several times from side to side. I glanced at my watch; it was three-thirty a.m.

The nurse left, and I finished the notebook. At the very rear, separated from the rest by some blank pages, were keys and explanatory notes. One of them said Fancy had found a way to disengage the machine’s own data log, so none of her unauthorized imprints were recorded.

Pebble by pebble, boulder by boulder, Fancy had accumulated an enormous mass of material in her brain. She had tried to build a towering edifice of knowledge, one she could draw on for great insights that would convince a skeptical world to change its ways. But those individual rocks were leaning against a mountain of indifference, forming a steep slope that led upward to a hard and solid wall. And eventually she had broken her mind against that sheer rock face, her over-stressed body sliding back down the rough stones to lie dying at the bottom.

I leafed through the notebook, trying to estimate the total amount of data involved. It was huge, but ... a diligent scholar, over many years, might study and learn as much as I saw here. Perhaps the problem was not really the size of the data load, but the speed with which Fancy had absorbed it.

The current safe limits on the size of a given imprint, and the length of time needed afterward for its assimilation, were restrictive; researchers were very cautious with human brains. Everyone in the field knew the loads could be larger and the times between imprints shorter. The questions were by how much, and what allowances to make for each individual. Fancy had not been careless, or unduly reckless. She had carefully documented her march toward those unknown limits, not intending to pass them.

At about five in the morning I was awakened by the young nurse, coming in to hang a new bottle of glucose. That was how I learned I had been asleep. I dozed off again, this time not fighting it, and awoke to the much louder noise of breakfast trays being served down the length of an awakening hospital corridor. To my pleased surprise the day nurse, whom I had not yet met, entered the room bringing a paper cup of coffee and a doughnut.

I checked on Fancy, and knew it had to be my imagination when it seemed she was breathing even more slowly than when I first saw her.

At eight the resident neurologist, Dr. Humphries, arrived. He sent me out of the room and did an exam. When he called me back in it was just to learn there had been no real change, and Fancy’s mother would be here soon.

Denise and Kelly arrived just before nine. Fancy’s mother looked haggard, and her co-parent strong and supportive. Kelly gave me a quick hug. Denise rushed to the bed. She found the slight but steady breathing of her daughter more reassuring than I did; some of the strain had faded when she turned to face me.

“Hello, Aaron.” I was certain that Denise liked me, but she did not extend a hand, and I knew better than to expect a hug. “The nurse said Dr. Humphries would be back later to talk with us. Do you know what he’s going to say?”

I had to admit I didn’t. And I kept my expectations to myself. Brain damage cases sometimes make almost miraculous recoveries. There was always hope.

We had just settled down to wait, myself and Kelly sitting on the second bed, when a tall, thin man with a jutting chin, a perpetually worried look, and a thick mass of curly gray hair pushed in the half-open door. “Hello, I’m Dr. Aguilar— Fancy’s project head.”

The two women introduced themselves, and when Aguilar extended a hand to me he said, “Aaron, right?” When I nodded, surprised, he added, “Your name was the only one on the notification list except her mother’s.”

“Dr. Aguilar.” There was suddenly something very cold and hostile in the tone of Denise’s voice. “You were her supervisor; you knew about her imprinting. Can you tell me why this happened?”

Aguilar caught the change instantly, and I could almost see his attitude go from concern to defense. “No; but I do know it didn’t happen from the officially approved imprints she received. They were well within the established safe limits.”

I moved past Aguilar to the bedside tray table, extracted the lab notebook from the drawer, and handed it to him. He scanned a few pages, and I saw his face turn pale with shock. “This—this little mark here; that means this was one of her authorized imprints, right? I recognize several of these; none of the unmarked ones.”

“Yes, notes in the rear explain her system. I estimate at least four more sessions for every one with that little notation. You never saw this book?”

Aguilar slowly shook his head. “No, of course not; this is an unofficial record. There’s a file in the lab’s dedicated computer for all staff imprints. She knew I would have stopped her if ... I never dreamed ...” he paused, took a deep breath, then went on, “We have to have an M.D. notified and on standby when we do a human imprint, for God’s sake! University rule.”

I looked at Denise and Kelly, and they both nodded. We three knew Fancy better than her boss ever would. We could have dreamed she would overdo something, when trying to accomplish some great goal she had set for herself.

Aguilar was still scanning the notebook. “This is really meticulous; the official logged in chronologically with the unauthorized. Data size, absorption and assimilation times, everything. I need this book. The current safe limits on our chimps are pretty low; this can help us reach for much higher ones. We burned out one of our most promising subjects early in the program, and since then we’ve been imprinting at really slow rates.”

“Human data will be that useful on chimps?” I asked, surprised. Aguilar looked at me as if I should have known that, and nodded.

Denise reached and took the notebook from Aguilar’s hand. “You just said this was an unofficial record, so it isn’t school property. I’ll need it for the lawsuit I’ll be filing.”

Aguilar stared at the hurt, pain and anger in her face, then looked away. “I understand. But before you talk to an attorney, would you like to see what Fancy was doing? I can provide a tour of the lab this afternoon, after two.” He looked my way, by his glance including me in the invitation.

Denise looked ready to refuse, but Kelly caught her elbow. “Fancy would want us to understand her work, why she was imprinting so heavily.” Her voice was soft, but firm. Finally, Denise nodded.

“Good. Then I’ll meet you in the lobby of the Agriculture Building at ten after two. And please bring the notebook. I at least need a copy.”

Aguilar half bowed, to a stony silence, and left.

I suddenly realized I was ravenously hungry. Kelly came with me to hunt for the cafeteria, while Denise remained with Fancy. We found little to say over a healthy and tasteless late breakfast. Denise ate the jellyroll and coffee we brought back for her in a smoldering silence.

Denise and Kelly had been on a vacation trip to Hawaii when the call came, and gotten little sleep on the return flights to L.A. and then Orlando. Denise finally collapsed, sound asleep on the spare bed, to hostile looks from the plump day nurse when she entered to move Fancy’s inert body around a little.

Dr. Humphries finally returned just before noon, now in surgeon’s green— apparently he had been operating—and we awoke Denise. At first he gave us nothing but platitudes, then finally said the burnout had been massive, that with the imprint machine we were in new territory, no one knew with certainty what to expect, etc. He wanted to have it both ways, saying there was no hope while at the same time trying to hold out one, just because this was a new way to fry your brain. When Kelly finally asked the tough question, how long Fancy had to live, Humphries admitted he didn’t know. The body’s autonomic systems were still functioning, but there were signs of incipient failure.

Dr. Humphries left as quickly as he decently could, and we settled back down to wait. At a quarter to two we decided Fancy was not going to die today, and all three left for the tour of Dr. Aguilar’s lab.

Aguilar himself met us in the lobby. We signed the visitor’s log and the tall veterinarian escorted us into the restricted interior. We walked south down a long hallway, lined with offices and small labs on both sides. Aguilar opened a door marked “Interspecies Communications Laboratory,” and we entered a very large corner room. The unmistakable smell of too many animals kept in one area hit my nostrils. Two young women, apparently students or graduate assistants, were working at computers on a table near the entrance. Denise silently took Fancy’s private lab notebook from her purse and handed it to Aguilar. He gave it to the two women to be copied.

About twenty large cages were arranged against the right side and rear walls, each holding a chimpanzee. A closer look indicated about a third were bonobos, the smaller, less aggressive primates who had been reclassified as a separate species. In age they ranged from half-grown to graying adult, of both sexes.

“Did Fancy keep you up to date on what we’re doing here?” Aguilar asked as he paused in front of one cage. A young adult male bonobo sat inside, calmly looking back at us. Behind him a powered lift door gave access to the outside. I had noticed the huge fenced enclosure on the side and rear, covering at least three acres, when we parked in front of the building. The other cages had similar exits. Apparently the subjects could physically interact with each other when outside, but not here.

“Just that you were doing some interesting work on animal intelligence, and she wanted to be a part of it,” Denise answered.

Aguilar nodded. “We haven’t provided a lot of detail yet, but there are several papers going through referees now. In essence, we’re trying to use the new capability of the imprint machine to teach our closest relatives a comprehensive interface language, one that bypasses the vocal cords. We use a combination of images and associated signs, with some selective scent-based reinforcement. The ability to program in known scents was a real breakthrough; smell goes directly to some innate response mechanisms, in us as well as chimps and bonobos.”

Aguilar paused, giving me a chance to say, “I thought chimp-human communication had already been established, using sign language.”

Aguilar shook his head. “There was a big flurry thirty to forty years ago, but it faded when chimpanzee and gorilla signing turned out ambiguous. We’ve followed up on some of the work at Georgia State by creating a large group of signs on special computer keyboards, and we tie those in with carefully selected images and printed descriptive words when we imprint. Both Pan species are capable of abstract thought, as I suspect are gorillas, dolphins, orcas, and probably several others. We just have to create a language in which they can communicate those thoughts to us.”

“And you’ve done that?” asked Kelly.

Aguilar hesitated, then said, “Our early papers are on individual results. We’ve had problems adapting the imprint machine to be effective on Pan brains. Sad to say, most imprints don’t take, but the occasional one that does proves it can be done. Since you can’t change the brains, our only choice is rework the programs and machines. That’s our focus at the moment, but I’m finding it difficult to get technical support. We need a lot more successes before we can definitively say we’ve proven the total concept.”

“And that’s what Fancy was working on. That’s why she left a good job to come back here,” said Denise. Her voice sounded tired.

“I had no way of knowing—” the pain on Aguilar’s face was real. I realized he would not have hired Fancy if he had suspected what she might do ... and now had done.

The rest of the tour passed in a dream-like haze for me. Both Denise and Kelly, like myself, had taken only the minimum mandatory biology courses in college. But Aguilar kept to non-technical terms as much as possible, and we had no trouble following him.

I was glad Kelly drove when we returned to the university hospital; I almost fell asleep in the car. Walking through the lobby and riding the elevator to Fancy’s room revived me slightly, but I had to sleep soon.

It was almost four p.m. Kelly left, to find rooms for us and catch a short nap. Denise and I stayed, but she was so near exhaustion she lay down on the still empty second bed for a moment, and almost instantly dozed off. I paced the floor to stay awake.

Kelly returned at seven, and took over the watch. I followed Denise to the large motel on 13th street, and the room Kelly had reserved for me. I ordered a meal from room service, and managed to shower off the sweat before it arrived. After eating I collapsed in bed, so fatigued I forgot to set the alarm.

It was almost ten next morning when I finally awoke. A quick call showed Denise was not in their room, so I shaved, dressed, and had breakfast in the motel restaurant. Both women were at Fancy’s bedside when I arrived, along with Dr. Humphries. Denise was crying, a low, muffled sobbing, as she struggled through the tears to sign some form on a clipboard.

Humphries picked up the chart at the foot of Fancy’s bed and wrote DNR in big letters across the bottom. Then he left the room without speaking to me. I was not a relative, and had no further part to play here.

Why?” I asked Denise. “What’s happened?”

“The final tests are in, Aaron.” Kelly tried to keep her voice soft and soothing. “The higher brain functions are gone—just gone. What’s left has kept the body going, but that’s starting to fail now too. They give her one or two more days before they’d have to hook up a ventilator to keep her breathing.”

So it had come, the inevitable, final break, when I had to give up all hope that Fancy could still be saved. I realized, standing there, that on the two times she had left me before, I hadn’t really accepted it. Somewhere deep in my heart, even in the hormone-drenched high school years, I had always expected to return to Fancy. I could live with her obsessions; I couldn’t live a fulfilling life without her.

I turned and walked out without another word. I could curse and scream at Denise, call her a heartless bitch and a cold mother, and none of it would be true. She hurt as much as I did, but she and Kelly had the courage to face the inevitable, and do what Fancy would have wanted.

Outside, instead of getting in my car, some dim instinct for survival sent me walking past the parking lot to the busy highway, and along the sidewalk till it ended. Then I walked on grass, heading east along the road, moving faster and faster, until I was trotting. Only when my breathing grew heavy and sweat rolled down my back did I finally turn around, walk back to the hospital, and get into the rental car. Then I drove at a safe speed back to the motel, and started packing. I couldn’t bear to stay here for the slow wait, while Fancy’s body finished the unrelenting process of dying.

The phone rang. I picked it up, expecting Kelly or Denise. Instead, the voice of Dr. Aguilar said, “Aaron? Glad I caught you. Denise just gave me the news, and said you’d left. Can you come by and see me this afternoon? I want to make you a proposition.”

“I was planning on leaving now for the airport in Jax. What’s this about?”

“Well—” Aguilar hesitated, apparently a habit when trying to be very careful of what he said. “Aaron, I could use some help here. I have plenty of pre-vets and biologists, but I’ve never been able to get a physicist interested. And we really need one on the team. Most of our problems now are with the machinery, not the biology. I have a grant that would let me bring you in on loan from Duke for two years, until we get the bugs worked out. Are you interested?”

In one of those flashes of insight that come about twice in a lifetime, I knew this wouldn’t be good for me. What I really needed was to let Fancy go; let time hide her face, lose her voice. Permit Fancy to die.

“I’m interested,” I said. And with those two words I realized I had taken up Fancy’s cause; that I would never again experience the delectable taste of a mushroom-smothered steak.

I slowly hung up, after Aguilar told me to go home and pack. Somehow, that astute man had known that at the core of my soul, I wanted to continue Fancy’s work. He had already contacted my department head, and it was all over but the paperwork.

Some day in the future I would have to go looking again, find someone who could live with both me and my memories, accept Fancy as a ghost who would always be with me ... but not yet, not yet. infinity

Joseph Green is a charter member of SFWA. He has published five science fiction novels and about 75 shorter works, appearing regularly in “F&SF,” “Analog,” “Galaxy,” and “New Writings in SF.” He was employed for 37 years in the space program. At NASA he specialized in preparing semi-technical publications for the general public.


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