Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
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Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Fiction

Super Plunge Lady and the 3D Printed Rocket Car
by Erin Lale

Scabs
by Daniel Huddleston

Portraits Hung in Empty Halls
by K.C. Ball

Mouse Trap
by Fiona Moore

Basket in the Sky
by Igor Teper

Worlds Less Traveled
by John C. Conway

Redemption of Colony Venturis
by Wayne Helge

Where the Grass May Be Greener
by Rob Butler

Double Time
by Rik Hunik

Articles

Do Beavers Rule Mars?
by Thomas Elway

Science Fiction at the Box Office
by Adam Paul


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Mouse Trap

By Fiona Moore

ON THE THIRD DAY OF HIKING through the fruit jungle, Benjamin’s machete caught on something, twisted. A sudden thunder of vines fell off what hadn’t looked like a man-made structure a minute before. Now a strange grotesquery, round-eared, skinny-legged, leered at them, pointing with one of its obscenely bulbous hands. This Way to the Happiest Place on Earth! 25 Miles the sign read.

“What’s a mile, sir?” Benjamin asked.

“A couple of kilometers, Private.” Captain Manders studied the sign a minute. “What do you make of it, Usagi?” the old soldier said, in his strangely European accent.

Ken Usagi studied it, feeling uncomfortably on the spot. In their months of traveling together, going from the Seaboard States towards the Southwest looking for the origin of the biotech devices that inexplicably kept finding their way North, the civilian-military distinction had blurred, under the influence of Benjamin’s general air of insubordination and Manders’ practical attitude to life. Occasionally, though, Manders liked to remind Ken that he was a journalist and thus both a lower form of life and one which was expected to be a font of cultural knowledge.

“It’s an old version of Mickey Mouse,” he said. He remembered a children’s book, pages worn thin, in the library of the small Nunavut town where he’d spent half his childhood, a scratchy DVD, a prized antique ceramic figure given away after his grandmother’s death.

“The Japanese cartoon?” Benjamin asked.

“Didn’t used to be Japanese,” Ken clarified, reflecting that Benjamin was eighteen, and probably didn’t know his media history. “Back twenty or so years ago, Disney used to be, well, round about here. Somewhere in the South. It owned this place where it ran this big ... kind of like a fairground, for people on holiday, called it the Magic Kingdom or Disney Land or something.” He remembered his grandmother, her hands and head keeping up a gentle shaking, but her eyes bright as she talked about the Theme Parks, clean shiny places that children were taken to on holiday. Remembered sitting with her as she showed him a video file with strangely lurid colors, maybe a hundred years old, children riding in whirling giant teacups and hugging giant plush animal-grotesques, and gazing in wonder at fireworks exploding over a castle with pointed turrets. When Ken was small, he’d believed her promises that if he was good he’d be taken to one too, but he’d rapidly come to realise that Theme Parks, like Movie Multiplexes and Shopping Malls and Three-D Television, were things which only still existed in the minds of people as old as her.

“Huh. I thought you said the biotech-makers were somewhere around here too,” Benjamin remarked, a skeptical look on his slightly plump, coffee-colored face as he returned to clearing the path. Ken sympathized. They hadn’t seen a single human being since they’d had to abandon their Jeep at the edge of the jungle; indeed, any traces of humanity were only discovered, like the mouse sign, by sheer accident or careful observation under the layers of jungle. Manders didn’t seem to mind.

“All we know is that thus far, the trail of biotech has pointed South, and mostly West,” Ken said. “This part of the world used to be famous for biotech, back in the old days, so it made sense to look here for them. There’s got to be someone out there.”

“Or something,” Manders remarked, his lined leathery face deadpan. “After all, we’re not sure if the people we’re looking for are human people, are we?”

“So you think it’s down to the aliens, sir?” Benjamin said disingenuously. Getting no reaction, he continued a few machete strokes later, “Reckon all the people here got abducted?” After waiting strategically, he added, “Maybe they’re all off enjoying a good probe?”

“Don’t push it, Benjamin,” Manders muttered. Benjamin settled back into a slightly more contented silence. After the initial strangeness of their environment—the prolific, seething grape vines with wisteria-like muscular trunks, the dark groves of almost luminous citrus, the giant flying cockroaches—the fruit jungle had rapidly become a boring twilight slog, meaning that the main daily entertainment was, for Benjamin, needling Manders, and, for Ken, watching Benjamin needling Manders.

For the next hour or so, under a gray sky flashing with primeval lightning, Ken reflected on Benjamin’s last jibe. He didn’t particularly believe in aliens either; they were the stuff of Seaboard States mythology, FBI agents carried off by owls which were not what they seemed, and, as a citizen of Nunavut, he retained a deeply-ingrained stereotype regarding the credulousness of his southern neighbours. However, while the trail of strange, part-biological, technology the three of them had been following since they left Washington-Deecee had clearly indicated that there really was someone to the South of the Red States who was capable of building these sorts of things, he was, like Manders, occasionally wondering whether that someone was actually human. Finally, as the sun approached the horizon, Manders suggested they make camp.

“Can’t we see if we can find another building?” Benjamin asked. The previous night, one of the vegetation-covered mounds they’d passed had proved, with a bit of excavating, to be some kind of restaurant, plastic tables and chairs, no-longer-shiny deep fryers and stoves, benches with rotting foam padding. They’d spent a relatively comfortable night for the first time in days.

“Light’s going,” Manders said, and that was that. They settled into their familiar routine, Manders heading off in search of game while Benjamin foraged for firewood and Ken tried to clear the site of brush and rocks, remembering the Boy Scout expeditions he’d hated as a child, boring old Inuit men tediously explaining how to live off the land, but was now vaguely wishing he’d paid more attention. He reminded himself that humanity had lived like this for millennia, but had to allow that he’d have made a terrible hunter-gatherer. Remembered again his grandmother, in lucid moments, railing against what she considered their primitive life in Nunavut, no apartment buildings, no privately-owned cars, the coming and going of rationing season. He’d made fun of her behind her back, until his mother caught him at it.

By the time Benjamin and Ken had the fire going, Manders returned with a dead chicken and a slightly perplexed expression beetling his brown eyebrows.

“Look at this,” he declared, brandishing the fowl.

Ken took it. “What am I looking for?” he asked.

Manders spread its wings. “They’ve been clipped. And it’s been fed. Well fed. It’s domestic, not feral.”

“Really?” Ken knew he was right, though. They’d mostly been living off feral chickens since they got into the fruit jungle, the offspring of livestock abandoned when the farmers had gone North to better climates, and significantly more stupid than the feral pigs which they also occasionally managed to catch. Those chickens were rangy, spotted, lean and gamy creatures; this one looked almost like something from a Seaboard egg-farm.

Manders nodded. “Tame, too. I didn’t have to waste my ammunition.” He lolled its head about to show what he meant; he’d broken its neck.

“So, there’s people?” Benjamin said, dubious.

Manders shrugged. “Primitive tribes?” he suggested. “Not exactly sophisticated biotech, this bird. If its owners come looking, we’ll offer them a trade.”

***

By full dark, the owners of the chicken having failed to materialize, Ken was seated against an orange tree, trying to find a map to the coast on his fieldpad (they’d all agreed that skirting the shoreline would be easier than hacking through jungles, and there was also the possibility of being able to find a seaworthy boat), while Benjamin poked the fire and Manders did something complicated to his semiautomatic rifle, all three of them ignoring, but conscious of, the occasional wildlife noises. Rainless thunder muttered warningly overhead.

“Any luck?” Manders asked Ken.

“Not much,” Ken said, squinting at the screen of his fieldpad (a heavily recycled and reconditioned Korean model, but all he could afford). “Problem is, there’s no recent maps of the area, not since the satellites started falling. I’m having to apply thirty-year-old data, and back then, this place seems to have been urbanized.” The maps were grids of fruit farms, towns, leisure parks, marinas wildlife preserves. No jungles, no wild animals, no strange old buildings and signs under vegetation. A world his grandmother would have recognized.

Benjamin threw aside the stick he’d been using to prod at the ashes and groaned.

“What, Private,” said Manders wearily.

“You know,” Benjamin said, “I reckon that even if we do find where all this biotech is coming from, we won’t find anybody there. I reckon they all died out years ago.”

“Pessimistic of you,” Manders observed.

“Just realistic,” Benjamin said. “Think about it. Nobody else has that kind of tech anymore. Population levels are dropping. I don’t believe for a minute anything anybody in Deecee says about achieving sustainability, and neither do you.”

“What about—” Ken began to weigh in, when they heard the noise almost right next to their ears; an angry, burbling howling, wordless, like a ghost baby or an old woman keening. All three, including Ken, were on their feet in seconds. Ken heard the report of a gun, then something fell from a tree.

“Ah fuck!” Benjamin exclaimed. “Sorry, sir. It was just a cat.”

“Waste of ammunition, Private,” Manders remarked, as the three of them bent to look.

It was indeed a cat—they’d seen quite a few around the jungle, sleek, feral things that seemed to have adapted well to the new environment, and both they and the cats had pretty quickly concluded that they posed no threat to each other. With that in mind, Ken felt a twinge of regret as he looked down at the flexible, long tabby body; back North, he’d often wished he could afford to keep a pet cat, but they were beyond the means of a frontline journalist. This one seemed, like the chicken, better fed and healthier than the jungle cats they’d seen along the way, and Ken fancied its head was larger. Certainly its legs were, strange powerful back feet, bunched like a rabbit’s.

“What’s that?” In its mouth, something was squirming. Benjamin prized the locked jaws open and extracted an obscenely naked, wrinkly, wriggling thing, like a fetus.

“A mouse?” Manders looked dubious.

“A cancer-mouse,” Ken said, peering closer.

“Come again?”

“They used to breed those little hairless mice for medical research,” Ken explained. “In those biotech facilities I was talking about. They were good for studying cancer, Parkinson’s, things like that. Old-people diseases. Probably some of them went feral, like the cats.” He was a little surprised that something without fur could survive even in the warmth of the jungle, but then again, it had no less hair than many humans. The little creature had stopped struggling and was now looking at Benjamin with an oddly speculative glint in its eyes. Ken found himself again remembering his grandmother, towards the very end of her life, so old she’d forgotten speech, but still gazing out at the world, measuring and considering, judging and finding wanting. Also remembered his mother, complaining with an edge of hysteria about the lost labs with their bald mice, how you would have thought they would have cured all these diseases by now.

“Put it down, Private, you’ve scared it enough,” Manders said, and Benjamin obeyed, putting it down gently on a patch of moss. It sat there, unmoving.

“You’ve traumatized it,” said Manders.

“No, it’s waiting to be introduced,” Benjamin said. He faced it dramatically. “Greetings! We come in peace, from the strange lands of the waterlogged North. I am Flora, this—” he gestured at Ken, “is Fauna, and this—” indicating Manders, whose lips were getting dangerously thin, “is Merryweather.”

The mouse considered this, and scampered off. “Well, I reckon that’s the closest thing to a human we’re going to see out here,” Benjamin remarked, settling back down.

***

Ken found it harder than usual to sleep that night. He lay awake watching the sheet lightning, feeling as if his own motivations had been laid horribly bare. He had been sure, when the trail of biotech seemed to lead Southwest, that they would find its origin around here. Now, he wondered if he hadn’t been influenced by his memories of his grandmother’s stories of magic kingdoms, his mother’s about miracle-working research labs, all looking for an answer in the past. Perhaps the answer is in the past, he thought. Perhaps the biotech-makers are all dead, and the things which have made their way North are just like the map-making satellites, robots blindly following a program until they break. Perhaps, he thought, we should give up and go back. Once they found the coast; once they had a means of going back North to civilization, he’d tell the others.

***

The next morning, Ken realized they were being followed. He waited until he was sure before telling Manders, who was currently taking his turn on point.

“Again?” Manders frowned.

“Not like before,” Ken said hastily. In the mangrove swamps of New York State, they’d been followed for a while by a kind of cyborg, one of the pieces of biotech on the trail; Ken was still trying to decipher the bits of data they’d managed to extract from its remains. “Look behind and to the left. See what I mean.”

Manders looked. His eyes widened. Behind them, but keeping pace with strange ease, was a hairless mouse.

“Same one as last night?”

“Think so,” Ken replied. Benjamin looked too, laughed.

“I thought it was a girl mouse. Reckon it’s fallen in love with me,” Benjamin said.

“We’ll outdistance it,” Manders replied.

***

But they didn’t. By nightfall, it was still with them as they made camp in the shelter of what Ken thought might have once been a highway underpass; sitting near enough to them to enjoy the warmth of the fire, far enough to make a break if it needed to. Benjamin tossed the creature bits of hardtack.

“Don’t encourage it,” Manders said.

Her name is Weena,” Benjamin retorted. “And she’d appreciate it if you used it.”

Ken, who was perusing the maps on his fieldpad again, trying to identify this particular highway underpass in its former state, laughed. “She looks more like a Morlock than an Eloi.” Then, at Benjamin’s glare, “Seriously. A tiny Morlock.”

“Don’t encourage him,” Manders said to Ken. The mouse continued to sit, eyes half-closed, paws raised. Ken was strangely reminded of watching football matches at his high school, how the players would warm their hands at long pipes of hot air before going back into the game.

“I reckon she’s good luck,” Benjamin said. “Didn’t we find this shelter to stay in? And didn’t it take us, like, five minutes to find dinner? We owe her a bit of hardtack.”

“If she can find us a fast route to the coast,” Manders said, “I’ll fucking marry her.”

***

The next day, still gray with a sharp oppressiveness in the air, Weena seemed to have vanished, but then, as they set out on their route, turned up again, hopping determinedly behind them. This cheered Benjamin up no end, and he would periodically address remarks or questions to the wizened little animal. Which was, Ken reflected, at least a change from the Manders-baiting. When the clouds were at their brightest, Manders ordered a halt to consider the best route.

“That way seems clearer,” he remarked

Ken checked the map collection. “It looks like it’s the path of an old highway,” he said. “Might get us to the coast faster than cutting through the jungle.”

“Then we’ll take it,” Manders shouldered his pack and started off, the other two following. They hadn’t gone far when there was an eerie noise, like an opera-singer in distress.

“What—” Manders checked, crouched.

“It’s that damn mouse,” Ken said, just as Benjamin said, “it’s Weena. She doesn’t think we should go that way.”

“Well, she’s out of luck, then, isn’t she?” Manders scowled, continued forward.

A couple of hours later the path ended in an asphalt cliff-face, stormy colour matching the sky.

“Looks like there might have been an earthquake here,” Ken remarked, feeling silly as he said it, and sillier as Manders favoured him with a slit-eyed look of weary condescension.

“See?” Benjamin crowed. “Told you Weena was good luck. If we’d followed her, we wouldn’t have wasted all this time.”

They turned and trudged back. When they reached the junction where they’d left Weena, she was still there. She resumed hopping along behind them, with what struck Ken as an unmistakeably smug air.

Manders dropped behind. “I can’t believe I’m going to say this,” he said in a peculiar tone, “but Usagi, I ... don’t trust that mouse.”

Ken resisted the urge to laugh. “I know what you mean,” he said. “It’s probably not what it looks like, though. I think it might have evolved some sort of homing instinct, or it might have a territory ...”

Manders said sarcastically, “Whatever’s going on, we need to watch it. And her.”

“Still, it doesn’t seem any less accurate than any other means of finding our way through this,” Ken said.

The mouse kept up its hopping pace, still covering the same ground as its much bigger traveling companions. At one point it halted, went off to one side looking at something. Benjamin, with a glance at the other two, followed. Manders shrugged, why not, and he and Ken went along.

They found the object of the mouse’s interest in a small clearing of berry bushes. It was the corpse of a dog, or coyote, or some hybrid of the two, old and desiccated into a tangle of fur, ligaments and greyish-white bones. Off to one side, the skull sat, looking strangely large and knobbly.

“It’s dead, it can’t hurt you,” Ken said to Weena, feeling slightly whimsical. The mouse didn’t listen, if indeed it understood (Ken was ruling nothing out at this point) and instead began to poke around in the remains. What it found evidently satisfied it, and it hopped off again.

Manders paused and poked around in the same spot with his machete, tentatively then with more purpose. Wordlessly he held up a small harness, woven out of copper wire, shaped to fit around the dog-creature’s body.

“I’ve got a theory,” Ken said as they moved on.

“Can’t wait to hear it,” Manders replied.

“Domestic chickens,” Ken counted on his fingers. “A cat, maybe not a tame house-kitty but definitely bred to look the way it did. A dog with some kind of harness, like for a leash or for pulling small things. Carts or sledges. And a homing mouse.” He waited to see if the others would make the connection, then continued. “Those research labs. What if there are still people around there? Carrying on breeding programs.” Curing all the diseases. Defying old age, population collapse, rising sea levels and changing climates.

“Maybe the biotech-makers are actually around here somewhere?” Benjamin raised an eyebrow. “Might make sense. Or perhaps the local people know the biotech guys.”

Manders was silent, and Ken waited for a mocking or sarcastic remark, but instead he pointed. “Notice how we haven’t had to clear anything much for a while.”

“You’re right,” Benjamin said. “It’s a path! A proper path that someone’s keeping up. We’ll be sleeping in beds tonight.”

Ken refrained from saying the obvious—Benjamin knew as well as he did that the people might not be friendly—but the thought did put them all in a much better mood, so much so that Ken initially missed the rushing, pattering sound, then put it down to the long-expected onset of tropical rain.

He heard Manders shout, turned. The old soldier was balancing on one foot, twisting to avoid a sudden huge rush of wrinkled, pink flesh. Like a river of human skin, swift muscles bunching convulsively underneath. Ken couldn’t move fast enough to avoid it, looked down in astonishment as he felt hundreds, thousands, of tiny feet pattering over his boots, rebounding off his legs, a huge stampede of ...

... mice ...

... and just as suddenly, it was gone, surging ahead of them. Manders began to run after it, followed by Benjamin and then, a second later, Ken.

Weena had vanished into the seething course of flesh, moving and darting as one, like starlings before a rainstorm. It twisted and turned along the path. Ken found himself suddenly emerging into a clearing before splashing into a shallow watercourse, noting with a kind of absent-minded shock that it was a man-made watercourse, lined with discoloring blue-green plastic, tripping over a fallen aluminum strut, nearly running into, of course, a giant teacup, mold obscuring the pattern on the side, running and along a wide path up to ...

Ken stared in detached disbelief, as the surging horde of mice, tiny Eloi or tiny Morlocks, seemingly rose on itself and, at incredible speed, spiraled up the heights of the huge, vine-entangled castle with pointed turrets that suddenly loomed in front of him out of the jungle. He thought he vaguely recognized it from the old movie of the children, from the stylized image at the start of some Japanese cartoons. Crazily, he wondered if he had indeed been a good boy, that his grandmother had finally found some way to take him to a Theme Park. Then the squealing flesh-form was gone, vanished into the windows, only an eerie, keening river of chirping noises betraying its continued presence.

Ken was startled to hear someone laugh, realized it was Benjamin, on the other side of him. “This way to the happiest place on Earth,” he said. “We’ve found the magic kingdom, Ken, there’s the people you were looking for.”

Ken nodded, still in shock. “I suppose the mice must have some human DNA in them, from the labs. Or maybe they’re more products from the biotech-makers, an engineered mouse civilisation.”

“Or it’s just evolution,” Manders’ harsh voice cut into the humid gloom. “Ants domesticate other insects, monkeys use tools. With no humans around, something’s got to take their place.”

“Life goes on,” Benjamin said, his tone strangely serious.

“Reckon she was using us,” Manders said.

“What?”

“Protection. From those cats, or from enemy mice.” Ken resisted the urge to laugh as Manders continued. “She was clearly some ways out of her territory. We were going along the way, we could take out the cats, we could be manipulated,” he glanced slightly at Benjamin. “What’s the biggest trap built by a mouse?”

“Very funny, sir,” Benjamin remarked noncommittally.

They stood for a few minutes, listening to the mouse chatter and the vague rumbling from behind the flashing clouds overhead, watching life go on.

“We carry on South?” Manders asked Ken.

Ken nodded, checked the fieldpad. Keep following the trail. “If this is Disney Land, then ...” he held up the map. “If we go due Southwest here, we’re no more than twenty klicks from the coast. I expect the mice have kept the roads up.”

“Reckon they’ve kept the boats up too?” Benjamin asked.

“We’ll find out, won’t we?” Manders took point again, Benjamin following slowly.

“You really going to marry her now, sir? She did find us a clear route to the coast ...”

Ken joined them under the thunder-flashing sky, heading out towards the
ocean. infinity

Fiona Moore is an anthropologist and writer currently based at the University of London. Her stories have been published in “Asimov,” “Interzone,” “On Spec,” and the “British Fantasy Society Journal.” She is co-owner of “Magic Bullet Productions,” a company producing original science fiction drama on CD and for download.


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