Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Curfew Tolls the Parting Day
by Joseph Green and Shelby Vick

Probing For Aliens
by Clayton J. Callahan

Love and Death at 300,000 Metres
by Louis Bertrand Shalako

Hurry Up and Wait
by Holly Schofield

by Eric Del Carlo

by Eoin Flynn

Monologue for Two Voices
by Robert Pritchard

Sleep, Mr. Teasdale, Sleep
by J. Richard Jacobs

In Deep Shit
by Django Mathijsen


Politics and Story Structure in Science Fiction
by Erin Lale

A New Flu Pandemic
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Curfew Tolls the Parting Day

By Joseph Green and Shelby Vick

AUSTIN DEVEREUX LOOKED UP from the patient medical records on his computer screen when he became aware of a faint crackling, hissing sound; a noise strange even to his diminished hearing. It came from a dark, vertical line that had appeared in the air in front of his desk. About five feet high, a thin slit with no apparent width, the line hovered just above the floor of his small office. Some mechanism he did not understand enabled him to see into the narrow opening—and past it, to the strangest view he had encountered in his seventy-one years of life.

Austin seemed to be looking out over a vast, panoramic vista, extending to some far distant horizon; an ocean of red-black flames, with tall crests restlessly rising and falling like waves in a sea of fire. The low, continuous crackling sound brought back a traumatic childhood memory, of a wooden house that had burned down directly across the street from the family home, when he had been nine.

Austin became aware of a tall black presence, well beyond the opening, riding the flame-tops as if floating on them. Austin’s strange visitor seemed to be about twice human height, with some indefinable avian quality ... he saw huge black wings stir, rise, and slightly spread.

After a few paralyzed seconds, Austin felt invisible fingers probing at his mind. Instead of reading his thoughts the intruder brought information, a block of data it implanted firmly in Austin’s permanent memory. Suddenly he understood. This dark crack was a type of gateway between dimensions. What lay beyond it was so strange and alien his brain had to reinterpret what the eyes and ears reported, to make it comprehensible to human senses. And that applied to the giant bird as well.

Austin had been auditing Maria Clementi’s evening class on American poetry this semester, an old pleasure renewed. This week they were studying his favorite poet, Edgar Allan Poe; had just finished analyzing “The Raven.” Staring at the winged alien, even though aware his eyes were deceiving him, Austin almost expected to hear “Nevermore!” come echoing between the dimensions.

A few more seconds crept by, and the crack winked closed.

Austin sat looking at a side wall of his cramped university office, at shelves lined with mostly outdated medical books. He felt slightly dizzy, his breathing fast and heavy, as if from an adrenaline surge.

Odd; there had been no previous indications of dementia, no earlier warnings that his mind had followed his body into serious decline. But what he thought he had just seen could not possibly be real.

Austin had read a lot of science fiction in his youth, though little fiction of any kind for decades now. He had just experienced a serious delusion, a fantasy conjured up from some long-buried memory of a story that must have deeply impressed him. The only sensible thing to do was disregard it, go on about his day, and see if he experienced any more such problems. If he did, if his mind was failing, he could not possibly continue to risk the welfare of his patients. He would have to give up his private practice, stop teaching ... but the thought of doing either was unbearable.

After a moment Austin shook his head, as if that could clear it of delusional fantasies, placed both hands on the arms of his chair, and used the added leverage to spare his arthritic legs the full burden of getting him to his feet. No births were likely for the next week, but he wanted to make his daily hospital rounds and check on three recent mothers. He had a meeting with José Philippa at eleven, to get the results of the DNA analysis on the Dessalines baby, two afternoon classes to teach back here at the medical school, and the poetry class at seven. A full, busy Thursday.

Austin took the elevator down from his third floor office, but was nevertheless limping badly before he reached his car in the faculty parking lot. There would be no need for hospital rounds tomorrow; all three of his patients were going home in the morning. He would have to find some way to fill those empty hours. Austin always put in ten to twelve hour workdays, and avoided television. This enabled him, usually, to fall asleep easily at night, despite the fact Darleen’s side of the wide, warm airbed had been vacant now for two years.

Austin still taught three classes at the U. of South Florida Medical College, and in his restricted private practice, mother after mother for whom he had delivered her first child came back for the second ... and usually last. A hectic schedule kept Austin from falling back into the darkness that had overwhelmed him when Darleen died.

It was totally unfair to lose a life partner that way, after two wonderful daughters and forty-three years of happy marriage. But the brain cancer had gone undetected until it became inoperable, Darleen’s annual physicals showing no signs. One of her last coherent thoughts had been to beg him to go on living, teach more students how to be doctors, deliver more babies. She understood him better than anyone else in the world, knew that he would not want to continue living without her.

When he arrived at Hillsborough County Hospital and headed for the maternity ward, Austin managed to put the strange hallucination out of his mind. The women and babies under his care deserved the best, and that included his undivided attention. Working with new mothers, for the two days most insurance companies allowed for recovery, was Austin’s second favorite duty. Only the actual deliveries, the bringing of a new life into the world, that first sound of a baby crying in indignation at being separated from its mother, gave him greater personal satisfaction.

Austin accepted only planned natural births now, referring women who wanted Cesareans on to other, always younger, Ob-Gyns. Surgery had become difficult for his twisted fingers, though he could still use a scalpel in an emergency. And he had cut back the gynecological part of his practice when he turned sixty-five, with a resulting reduction in his patient list. Six years later he was starting to regret that decision.

Austin studied the three charts at the nurse’s station, then started his short rounds, lingering a few minutes with the first two patients to chat. When they checked out tomorrow, they would be departing from his patient list as well. Both already had a gynecologist, and had returned to Dr. Devereux only to have their babies. The third patient, seventeen-year-old Kaya Dessalines, had stayed for four days at his insistence, but she too would go home in the morning.

Kaya was nursing her baby when he knocked and entered, one plump dark breast extended to the tiny boy snuggled against her chest. Kaya, a first generation American, unmarried, still lived with her Haitian immigrant parents. They had chosen Dr. Devereux because their state-furnished insurance was inadequate, and his fees were lower than those of the younger obstetricians.

Kaya smiled at her doctor. Austin had reassured and comforted her, his youngest patient in several years, through the pain and trauma of a first delivery.

Kaya lifted the baby up to Austin. He held it in the crook of his left arm, gently feeling the small, fuzz-covered head with his free hand. The infant, comfortably full, promptly fell asleep.

The oddity was not visible to the eye, but apparent to Austin’s experienced fingers. The anterior fontanel, much wider than normal, reached almost from side to side, a rectangle instead of the usual ragged lozenge. He could almost feel the swiftly expanding brain through this unusually large opening. The posterior fontanel matched the anterior, also abnormally large. And although not detectable by touch, the CAT scan he had ordered revealed that the four normally thin cracks between the parietal bones were twice the usual width.

Kaya tucked the young breast back inside the nursing blouse, and looked up at her obstetrician. “Every time you pick ’im up, you check ’is head. And Tuesday they took ’im to make x-rays. But the hospital pediatrician looked at ’im twice, and she says his head’s just fine. Is there something wrong with my baby you know about that she don’t?”

Austin returned the infant to Kaya’s side without awakening him, and carefully lowered himself into a visitor’s chair. The second bed in the room was vacant at the moment, and they were alone.

“The x-rays showed what I expected, that young Henri has unusually large—” he stopped, searching for non-technical words. “You remember we talked about how a baby has soft places in its skull at birth, making the delivery easier by letting the skull compress as it squeezes through the birth canal? Well, little Henri’s soft places are larger than usual.”

“What does that mean, Doctor D? That I shouldn’t drop ’im on ’is head?”

Austin had to chuckle. “Yes, exactly. Not that you would have anyway.”

“Didn’t you say it’d take mor’n a year for the biggest soft spot to close?” Kaya persisted. “If it’s extra big, is it gonna take even longer?”

Austin hesitated. He didn’t want to frighten Kaya, but of all the thousands of babies he had delivered, none had had fontanels this large, or of this shape. That was why he had taken part of the blood sample drawn soon after birth to José Philippa, the university’s top geneticist, and asked for an expedited comparative analysis of the skull structure.

“I can’t be certain, Kaya. I’m running some more tests. But yes, that’s what I think. For most babies, the last soft spot fills in completely between ages one and two. For Henri, it may take a little longer.”

Kaya looked intently into Austin’s lined face, as if trying to determine if he would tell her a reassuring lie. “But there’s nothin’ else wrong with ’im?”

“Not that I can see.”

Kaya nodded, accepting the answer as the best she was going to get. “Well, I’m not worried, ’cause an angel came to me las’ night and told me to trust you, ’cause you know what’s best for my baby.”

Austin felt his heart start to beat a little faster. There were no such creatures as angels, but it seemed odd that Kaya had also experienced a delusion, one similar to his own earlier that morning ... a sharp, distinct memory rose in his mind. He again saw the huge, dark-winged alien, floating on its sea of fire, as clearly as if the experience had been real.

“An angel? Are you sure you weren’t just dreaming, Kaya?”

“That’s what I keep tellin’ myself this morning, that I had to be dreamin’. But it was so real ... I woke up ’cause I heard a funny noise, kinda’ loud and not hospital-like. I opened my eyes an’ saw a big golden door, jus’ hangin’ in the air, right there in the middle of the room. The door was open and the noise was comin’ through it; sounded like ocean waves hittin’ on rocks somewhere. A really bright light came through too, that lit up the whole room. There was a tall angel on the other side of the door, sorta’ floatin’ along on a bunch of little white clouds, an angel with big white wings. I was so surprised I sat up in bed. You can’t sit up if you dreamin’, can you?”

“No, I don’t think so,” said Austin. He felt breathless, and his heartbeat had advanced from fast to racing. Kaya, like her parents, believed devoutly in the Catholic faith. Had her brain translated unbelievable images into something she could accept, an angel instead of a Raven, white clouds where he saw a sea of fire? It would be a remarkable coincidence if he and Kaya had suffered such detailed delusions within a few hours of each other.

Austin had a sudden thought. “What did the angel actually say, Kaya?”

“Well, that was another funny thing. He didn’t speak, exactly. He used telepathy or something, to tell me my baby was special, an’ he was gonna’ need some special-type care. He said I could trust you to give ’im that.”

Austin took a deep breath, and felt his heartbeat quietly returning to normal. He struggled to his feet. “Angels never lie, Kaya. I’ll call you as soon as I get the test results, and we know what to do for little Henri.”

Kaya’s gaze moved back to the baby. She placed a finger between the tiny pouting lips, and smiled when Henri began trying to suckle in his sleep.

Austin worked his way through heavy Tampa traffic, back to the university. The going was easier once he neared the wide, sprawling campus, and he parked in his own slot at the medical building.

Austin walked slowly to José’s office on the first floor, his thoughts in turmoil. His rational mind rejected the idea that both he and Kaya had been visited by some alien being from another dimension, some creature with the ability to appear in different guises tailored to the individual. Still, it was equally difficult to accept that they had experienced such similar delusions, so close in time. But if the experiences had been real, then he was not suffering the onset of dementia; could continue teaching, his practice, deliver more babies ...

The huge genetics laboratory, the pride of the university, occupied almost the entire first floor of the medical building. José had three overlapping charts spread across the wide face of his computer screen when Austin entered his corner office, intently studying them.

Dr. José Philippa and the University of South Florida had been major contributors to the Human Genome Project, completed in the ’90s. There were millions of ramifications and permutations still being discovered today, and José had grant money for as long as he wanted to work. But the basics of human inheritance were now well documented.

“Hello, Austin. I’ve been going over that abnormality with the large fontanels.” A short, slightly plump man of forty-six, with olive skin, black curly hair, and often blood-shot dark brown eyes, José had taken Ph.D.s in physiology and genetics. He knew more about the human body than most practicing M.D.s “You studied the CAT scan. How large do you think that brain will be when young Henri reaches maturity”?

“In gross terms, about three-and-a-half pounds.”

Austin carefully lowered himself into a chair in front of José’s desk, suffering only a few minor twinges of pain. “That’s why I asked for the analysis.”

“Seven or eight ounces above normal.” José nodded. “I saw why you wanted that breakdown on the skull. It’s bad news, Austin. The larger fontanels just don’t make enough difference to provide the needed room. Some time before its first birthday, that baby will die from extreme intracranial pressure. And one will get you ten it’ll go undiagnosed; just another SIDS crib death.”

It was the answer Austin had dreaded, but expected. “Did the analysis show why this happened? Is it just an anomaly, or—”

José studied one of the charts on his screen for a moment, then leaned back in his chair. “No, it’s not an anomaly. I got really curious when I realized what we were dealing with here. Haven’t had much sleep the past two nights, and half my post-docs are ready to quit, but I have some preliminary answers for you. The change is real. It’s the activation of a large clump of unexpressed code, sleeping genes as the press calls them. The allele is dominant, and all of Henri’s descendants would inherit. But there won’t be any, since the skull can’t enlarge enough to accommodate the growth. It’s going to be an unsuccessful mutation, as most are. And maybe that’s just as well.”

Austin stared at his colleague, unable for a moment to concentrate. José’s words had triggered something inside his own head, brought a recently installed dormant memory surging to the front, into conscious awareness. It felt strange, to realize he had already been informed of everything José had just explained—except for that odd last remark.

José had returned to studying his charts. The geneticist had an air of watchful waiting, as though expecting some strong reaction from his visitor.

“Why do you say it’s just as well, José? Is there something you’re not telling me?”

José looked up. “The one other—fact—I have to share is that I sent several urgent notes yesterday, to some of your colleagues. They all had to go back and check; you’re the only one who caught it on the first exam. But they’ve been calling and texting me this morning. There are at least two other babies with enlarged fontanels in the Tampa-St. Pete area alone. God knows how many throughout the country. One of ours has Vietnamese parents, the other Anglo. This isn’t an isolated mutation, Austin. There’s some mechanism at work causing those inactive genes to kick in. And I’ll bet you it’s a world-wide phenomenon.”

Austin took a deep breath, trying to lean back and relax in the uncomfortable straight-backed chair. But he could not pretend to be surprised. And he would have bet his last dollar that every one of those new mothers, in a dream or some other form of communication, had received a message from whatever god or goddess they believed in. Each had been told that their baby was special, and to do whatever was needed to preserve its life. Kaya was far from alone.

José was still waiting. “And do you want to share some—some non-fact speculations with me?” Austin asked.

José finally smiled. “Been waiting for that one. Big thought first. Any mutation has to prove itself in the real world, but brain enlargement has been the marker for advancement in what became our species for two million years; no reason to think that’s changed. I speculate that if all the Homo sapiens superior—that’s what I dubbed them, because they certainly are a new species—could somehow grow up and breed, between dominant births and continuing mutations I wouldn’t give Homo saps another ten generations. And that’s you and me and our children’s children, my friend.”

Austin nodded. “But as it is, you’re saying we’re going to see several million babies die over—oh, the next decade?”

“If the preliminary indications are a good forecast, yes. I wouldn’t expect the change, whatever it was that caused those inactive genes to express now, to continue indefinitely. Nature knows when a mistake happens, and it soon stops. I’d sacrifice my first-born to understand what coded us for a major physiological change like this, but I doubt we’ll ever know.”

Oh, I already do! Austin considered telling José that a huge dark avian creature from another dimension had been manipulating the human genetic code, apparently for millions of years. The desire to share that datum faded very quickly.

Austin thanked his colleague, and left for his own office.

He had an hour before his first class of the afternoon, in this same building. Since Austin no longer ate lunch, that gave him time to relax, or work on his notes. Sometimes he napped in his chair, if the nearby offices were quiet. Today, he sat and stared at the wall.

The two afternoon classes passed in a blur. Austin returned to his office for the lull before the start of evening sessions. The faculty office area appeared deserted. The day caught up with him, and he suddenly felt fatigued. Austin tilted back in his chair for the half-hour snooze he had missed that afternoon.

Austin was usually able to fall asleep easily when tired. Today he reached a pleasant lassitude, still dimly aware of his surroundings ... but then was abruptly awake again. He sat up, knowing from long experience that sleep had just eluded him. But he still felt very fatigued.

Austin found himself staring at his empty visitor’s chair. After another minute, he yielded to a strong impulse. “Darleen, I need to discuss something with you.”

Talking out loud to an imagined deceased wife was an activity Austin had started only recently, one in which he found considerable comfort. Until now he had done so only in the silence and privacy of home. He was perfectly aware the visitor’s chair was empty, but had no difficulty imagining Darleen sitting there, or the answers she would have given.

“I’ve got to talk to José in the morning,” Austin continued. “I’m almost certain he knows how to save those babies. The big question is, should we?”

In his mind’s eye an image of Darleen formed in the old straight-backed chair, turned a little sideways in the way she usually sat. The image clasped her hands in her lap and leaned back. Darleen had refused to let her short blond hair go gray, keeping it a light gold; one of her few affectations.

Darleen solidified, grew more real. Austin seemed to be having a double vision, in one of which the chair sat empty; in the other, occupied by his life-long love, as he had last seen her when healthy. Only the fine lines in her face, thicker around the eyes, indicated she had been sixty-five when the brain cancer struck.

Darleen sat up and turned to face him. “Austin, you’ve devoted your life to delivering babies, and of course your first thought is to save them, even if they aren’t totally human. But maybe you need to step back, re-examine this issue in a little more depth. Nature didn’t intend for these children to survive. Why should you try to change that?”

This was not the answer Austin had expected. Darleen had always been strongly pro-life, supporting abortions only if there was no other way to save the mother.

“As José said, most mutations aren’t successful. This one will soon die out. Let nature take its course, Austin.”

Darleen was expressing sentiments Austin had never heard from her. She had always shared his belief in science, and the certitude that its primary purpose was to improve human life. Humans had been interfering with letting nature take its own course now for thousands of years.

Darleen seemed almost to read his mind. “That creature that appeared this morning—Austin, it’s trying to lead you astray. Listen to me. Save your own kind! Remember what’s important when you talk to José tomorrow—saving our children, and their children.”

Something authoritative, demanding, had crept into Darleen’s voice. Austin could see her clearly now, blue eyes bright, voice high. “Save our children!”

A strange, troubling impression of some strongly feline quality seemed to emanate from the image of Darleen. It brought back to Austin memories of a favorite sex game they had played when young, before the babies came. Austin would pretend to be a dog, and Darleen a cat. She would flee from him, and he would chase her, both naked, throughout the house. When he eventually caught her, their immediate union symbolized, for them, harmony after conflict, joy after stress. It might have seemed a silly game to others, but for the young and newly married couple it had been, for a time, an important part of their lives.

Austin had not thought of that early, most passionate part of their marriage in decades. He wondered why the memory of those deliriously happy times had returned to him now.

Austin violently shook his head. When he focused on Darleen the solid-looking image wavered, dissolved, faded into mist ... but then the mist reformed, grew firm again. This time the person in the chair had thick blond hair, a smiling, handsome masculine face. Austin recognized in the mixed features the son they had wanted, but never conceived. And again the image was overlaid with that strong impression of feline origin, of something essentially cat-like in nature. A deep, pleasant voice said, “Don’t let them trick you, dad. The Ravens want this change for their own purposes, not to benefit Mankind. Don’t let them do it. Fight for us, dad. Save the human children!”

And very abruptly, the opposite chair was empty. Austin sat, stunned and silent, in his own.


For dinner Austin decided to walk the two blocks to a favorite small Cuban restaurant, on Fletcher Avenue fronting the campus. He had gotten too much into the habit of driving everywhere, the typical Florida lifestyle, and never exercised. Darleen would have been on his case—

Austin chopped off the thought. At the moment he did not want to think of Darleen, and what he had just experienced.

By lingering over coffee and talking with Donna Ignatia—Austin had delivered three of the plump, motherly restaurant owner’s grandchildren—he managed to pass the time until a quarter to seven. A brisk walk to a nondescript classroom building, near his own, got him back in time for Maria Clementi’s evening class on American poetry.

This was the second and final session on Poe. Austin took his usual place near the rear, listening only, for almost three hours of sometimes impassioned discussion on the work of an undisputed American genius. Besides himself, there were five or six more grayheads in the room. Tampa/St. Petersburg was a huge retirement area, and the university offered discounts to seniors who wanted to do something more interesting in the evening than watch television.

After class Austin drove straight home, tired enough to fall quickly into a dreamless sleep.


José always came in early, at seven-thirty, but Austin was waiting at his office door when the younger man arrived. The geneticist looked grumpy, with eyes more bloodshot than usual, but he managed a brief smile for Austin. “Good morning, friend and colleague. I hope today’s problem is a little less bothersome than Tuesday’s.”

Austin followed José into his cluttered office, and again took the uncomfortable straight-backed chair. He wasted no time with preliminary chatter.

“Isn’t there something we can do to save little Henri?” Austin phrased it as a question, but he saw José staring at him as if he understood that his friend already knew the answer.

José brought his fingers together in front of his eyes, and judiciously studied them. After a moment, without looking up, he said, “Ten years ago, the answer would have been no. Today it’s yes. I stayed late last night; confirmed a possibility with some projections NASA ran for me on their thinker at Ames. I can reprogram the genes that control skull growth, if we do it in the first three months after birth. Henri would develop a really broad and noble forehead, but that would be the only obvious sign. The first time will be a major project, but after that it should become routine. But you know, Austin, something occurred to me on the drive in. Why now? Why did that sleeping little clump of code come to life—I’m pretty sure all over the world—shortly after we developed the capability to intervene and save these babies? Is it just coincidence? I find that impossible to accept. But if not, then it undermines everything we thought we knew and understood about human biology and development; in particular, how mutation works.”

Austin had also done some serious thinking this morning, and reached one firm conclusion. That had not been his usual projected Darleen, a counter-voice from his own memories, yesterday. Some highly advanced being, which his mind interpreted as being of feline origin—as it ascribed the Raven to avian—had strengthened Darleen’s image, and spoken to him through her. Then the intruder had reached deep into Austin’s brain, found a long suppressed desire, and added an unborn son to create more pressure. Said being apparently did not need to open some visible crack in reality to reach into this world, or otherwise announce its presence. It seemed clear that Homo sapiens was an object of contention between two great intervening forces; as his predecessors had been for at least two million years.

Austin chose not to answer José’s questions. And he was certainly not going to share his recent experiences, and have even José doubt his sanity. “I guess you’ve got a lot to think about,” he said as he struggled to his feet.

“Yes, but help me here before you go. The big question is, should we start a crash project for little Henri? And by extension, all the other new super babies? It’s a huge ethical problem, and I’m not happy that you’ve dumped it in my lap.”

Austin opened his mouth to tell José to start work, and with no warning at all a powerful, icy hand suddenly gripped his chest, squeezing it unmercifully. He tried to breathe, to speak, but no words formed. Again he heard the voice of his might-have-been son, now shouting inside his head ... Save the human children!

After a few seconds, the seizure eased. Austin was able to breathe again, and look at José. The geneticist, still studying his hands, had not noticed his friend’s sudden difficulty.

Austin took a deep breath, and very quickly, hoping he would live long enough to finish, said, “You’d better get that crash project rolling, José.”

The pain came back, as severe as before, but this time he was prepared, and managed a few more words. “You just said the work on little Henri has to start within three months.”

José looked up, and Austin saw the tension fade from his face. “Yeah, you’re right. To heck with our descendants!”

José’s descendents were two boys, now fourteen and twelve. Austin knew he loved them beyond measure, and always found the time to be a good father despite the often long hours in the laboratory.

José noticed the strain on his friend’s face. Before he could speak Austin forced himself to ignore the fading pain, turned away, and started for the door. After a few steps he managed to walk almost normally.


Back in his own office Austin called Kaya, still at the hospital this early in the morning. He told her that Dr. José Philippa had agreed to provide the treatments little Henri needed, and she could trust Dr. Philippa as if the angel himself had recommended him. He would be contacting her soon.

The telephone rang seconds after he placed it back in the cradle. When Austin picked up, José continued as if they were still sitting opposite each other. “One more thing. There’s still a nice large batch of inactive code in superkid’s CNS area, a little—downstream—of the one that just expressed. And both are very old—been around forever. I can’t see nature creating the code for two such major changes, then just letting them sleep for hundreds of thousands of years. This had to be a deliberate design! Natural selection still played its development role, but these advancements were somehow already built in, just waiting for—for the right time to express. Who was the designer? God? Somehow I think you know. Please let me in on it, Austin.”

Austin felt a strong urge to tell José that some promising bipeds had had their genetic code modified, starting millions of years ago, for reasons known only to the beings who did it. These two powerful, once apparently cooperative forces were now fighting, like the birds and cats with which inadequate human senses identified them. Their hapless human charges were caught in the middle.

Austin suppressed the impulse, and kept silent. José waited a moment, then went on, “And one reading I can’t get is the timeline for that next upgrade. It may be a hundred years, or ten-thousand. And do you think our smart babies will be as nice about it as we were, when their time comes?” He hung up without waiting for an answer.

Austin slowly lowered the telephone. The existence of another set of sleeping genes came as a surprise. That little item had not been included in the data package the Raven implanted in his brain. Still, Austin was certain he had made the right choice. The cat entity had lied when it usurped his memories of Darleen. She would never have urged him to let all those babies die.

A touch of frost appeared in Austin’s chest, this time coming on gradually. Somehow he sensed this was natural, not an attack by some outside force; though the earlier seizure might have brought this on. He could almost feel the coldness creeping throughout his body, the warmth and life departing. But before the cold reached his heart he again heard the crackling roar of a burning house, and looked up to see that the crack had reappeared. This time the Raven seemed much closer, directly in front—and staring through the open way directly at Austin, summoning him.

Austin placed his hands on the chair arms, and slowly maneuvered himself
to his feet. “Why me?” he asked aloud as he walked without hesitation around the desk and toward the portal, hoping he had the strength to reach it. He could not know what fate held in store him on the other side. But on this one, only imminent death waited to claim him. When the answer came, he knew it was his own mind translating the message into words.

“You were selected long ago as a conduit, the sole avatar for this world. By agreement, neither side can perform more modifications to your species except through actions by the avatar. But your replacement has been chosen. Since it is time to collect a superior example of Homo sapiens sapiens before the species vanishes, I am bringing you to me.”

To these creatures, whoever or whatever they were, ten generations of human life apparently passed in the blink of an avian eye. They must have collected many such samples, over the course of human development. And some unknown number of generations in the future, at least one more waited to be harvested.

That would be for Homo superior to worry about. Austin walked, limping badly, into the crack. infinity

Joseph Green is a charter member of SFWA. He has published five science fiction novels and more than 70 shorter works in “Analog,” “F&SF,” and several original anthologies. Shelby Vick is the author of “Bluewater,” and “Out of the Dark.”


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