Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Stone 382
by Sean Monaghan

A.I. Oh!
by Tom Doyle

Castle of the Slave
by Aliyah Whiteley

Home From Home
by Mark English

Aliens With Candy
by Michael Andre-Driussi

A Cumdumpster Kid
by Rebecca L. Brown

Harmony, Chaos, and the Reign Thereof
by Kyle White

Potential Killer
by Fredrick Obermeyer

Cinderella's Holo-Wand
by Sarina Dorie

Ears, Eyes, Nose ... and Throat
by Jez Patterson


Cargo Cultism
by Eric M. Jones

Coronal Mass Ejection by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Stone 382

By Sean Monaghan


Keith saw him reach towards his console glass and tap it. Keith wished the kid wouldn’t do that. It was a nervous habit that was just irritating. Mostly Keith liked Jimmy, but sometimes his little habits annoyed him more than they should. Twenty-three years old, fresh out of training, and cocky. Too long cooped up in the tiny stations.

“Hello?” Jimmy said. “You hear me?” He turned in the swivel chair, adjusting the harness with one hand and tapping the bubble with the other. “Incoming.”

“I heard you.” Keith had the timer on his own console active. The Caspian would be arriving at the stone in eighty minutes. Hopefully he would get an hour or two with Sue before the behemoth of a ship skimmed off again.

“No,” Jimmy said. “Another vessel.” He grinned a little. “Not the Caspian.” Jimmy’s head was shaved shiny, with just a palm-sized circle exuding ropey hair from the back of his skull. Keith thought he looked like a marionette, and had probably taken plugs from a mink or a marmoset to thicken the hair.

Keith looked back at his console. The bubble of glass had the timer front and center. “Seventy-nine minutes,” he said in a whisper.

“What’s that?”

Keith didn’t respond. He beckoned an active spread around the bubble and the widgets jiggled themselves so the countdown moved up a little and the current active spread box swung into its place. The stone pulled the transit data out of the vaporskips and fed it through to the consoles. He could see the Caspian, inbound from Earth via stone 236. The vapors ruffled the data into clear locations. If the Caspian crunched itself out of the vaporskips right now, it would be adrift in interstellar space billions of miles away.

“See it there?” Jimmy said. “See that one?” He’d released himself from his harness and had maneuvered up against Keith’s seat.

“I see it,” Keith said. Jimmy was right. There was a second inbound ship. On the bubble it looked like nothing more than a fuzzy blob. “How long do you give it?”

“Fourteen minutes. That’s not going to be enough time for it to recalibrate and skip on.”

Keith had done the math already. Sixty-five minutes. A little over an hour to let the vanes re-image and find the next strand of the vapors the ship would ride out to wherever it was headed. “How big do you think it is?” An hour might be enough for a little runabout to reset. Something the size of the Caspian would take a good three hours.

“It’s small, I think,” Jimmy said. “But not that small.”

“We won’t know until it gets here.”

Jimmy pushed his way back to his seat. “They’re going be in deep trouble, I can tell you. They’re off the schedule.”

“I’m going out in the tender,” Keith said. “See if we can’t tug them off the stone before they start recalibrating.”

Jimmy shook his head. “That’s even possible?”

“It’s in the protocols. Emergency dislodge.” At least Keith thought it was.

“I’ll come along.” Jimmy flipped himself around and kicked off the back of his seat.

“No, you stay here. You need to keep an eye on the Caspian’s approach.” Keith took a look at the bubble, still trying to figure how a ship could have gotten into the vapors and be on approach without being on the list.

“Well, that’s a waste of time,” Jimmy said. He was already undogging the control room door. “I can’t talk to them, I can’t—”

“Just stay here, all right? Do your job.”

“Sheesh.” Jimmy turned on the door and kicked back to his seat. “You just want to hang out with Sue.”

Keith let that pass. Of course he did. He only got to see her every few months. Another six and he’d be shot of this place. He might even try to get on her crew.

He made his way quickly through the accessways. The little station was a set of six pill-shaped habs, linked with access tubes and all glued to the underside of the stone. Practical and sterile, the station was all hard-edges and brass fittings. It stank of grease and aluminum and just a little of burned rice from Jimmy’s cooking misadventures. In a way, Keith liked its decluttered straightforwardness: everything in it had a function and nothing more. The control room was the most ornate, with its padded seats and bubble consoles and coffee maker. The rest was emergency equipment, fuel crystallization stills and machine shops. Nothing much they could do for a visiting starliner—like the Caspian—in an emergency, but sometimes the little ships got into trouble and needed a way station to effect repairs.

Maybe that’s what they had coming in now.

“Keith?” Jimmy said through the station’s tannoy.

Swinging around, Keith flicked a switch on the side of one of the station’s speakers. “Go ahead.”

“Fourteen minutes is wrong. More like ten. It’s coming in faster than we thought.”

“How can that be?” Nothing accelerated through the vaporskips. They faded out at departure and faded in at arrival. There was one speed, if you could call it a speed, when you were bypassing constraints like the speed of light.

“Yeah, not my department, really,” Jimmy said. “But I’ve got nine minutes here. Maybe less.”

Keith didn’t wait to confirm the changing readings. He pushed off the wall and scooted through the main machine shop and right out to the docked tender. The little ship was built on the same design as each of the station’s units, with mechanical handling arms bolted on around the end, and cockpit windows machined into the hull. Keith liked the tender. It handled well and all the functional controls reminded him of the Nautilus. He could imagine it was actually a submarine exploring cerulean depths.

He slipped into the pilot’s seat and strapped in. “You there?” he said, pulling on the headset.

“Loud and clear.”

“Still arriving early?”

“It’s coming in hot.”

By which, Keith assumed, Jimmy meant “Yes.”

With a shove on the docking lever, he detached the tender from the station. He always had a moment’s vertigo when he took the little vessel out. The stone was arbitrarily below the station. It helped to orient themselves with its grey shimmery surface at their feet, rather than overhead, hanging above them like some rocky overhang.

Each time he moved off in the tender, the zero-g and the shift away made him feel upside down. The station was on the bottom of the stone and the visiting ships arrived on the top with their orientation reversed. The stone was an oblate sphere, sixty meters in diameter on the short axis, two hundred on the long. Even though the lowest levels of the arriving ships were so close, down was up and up was down. Usually their vanes hung over the edge of the stone, and even the smallest ones dwarfed the little station itself.

“Seven minutes,” Jimmy said. “You want me to feed that data through to your bubble there?”

“Yes, good.” Keith tipped the yoke, flipping the tender over so the stone was above him. As he moved away from the station, he saw the time data and chart appear on the bubble. “Give me Caspian too.”

“Not a problem.”

The data came up. Seventy-seven minutes.

Keith had a glimpse of their donut hanging fifteen kilometers away. Mostly they spent their time in there—a five hundred meter wide inflatable torus centrifuge. The donut had just few enough home comforts to remind him that he wasn’t at home. It wasn’t as Jules Verne as the station, but it was still pretty basic.

“I’m going topside,” he told Jimmy.

“Got you on my scope.”

Keith gave a burst on the main nacelle and pushed out a hundred and fifty meters, turning as he went. Another burst and the tender came to a stop. He flicked on the lights.

“Three minutes,” Jimmy said.

“What happened to four, five and six?”

“Like I said, coming in hot. Coming in like a rocket.”

Jimmy, Keith thought, was never as funny as he liked to think. “Are you getting my feeds?”

“Crystal images here,” Jimmy said. “The stone looks like it’s in good shape.”

As if it would change. Keith eased the tender up and back a little with the retros. In the lights, the stone glistened. Its slick surface was smooth beyond polishing. The combination of technologies created an exterior that gave it a gloss to the molecular level. He liked to think he was done marveling at it, but it still struck him as stolen. Human ingenuity on found abandoned alien technology. A skipping stone to the stars. One of dozens, very soon to be hundreds, spread out through the spiral arm.

The station seemed tiny, fragile. Slung under the stone it looked like a fly that could be knocked off with the flick of a finger. Keith imagined that he could see the strands and tendrils of the vapors, reaching out into the vast darkness at the tiny constant stars.

“Thirty seconds,” Jimmy said.

Keith glanced at the bubble console. The fuzzy blob overlaid the station. Looking back up through the cockpit windows he saw it beginning to fade in. Jimmy’s analogy about coming in like a rocket was wrong. Despite their relative speed, ships transiting the vaporskips were effectively stationary. Like a lump of coal on a conveyor. The vapors were the mechanism, but the stones were like a point on the conveyor. Keith smiled to himself as the ship became more substantial. No real-world analogy could do it justice.

“Fifteen,” Jimmy said.

As it came in, Keith saw the ship was like nothing he’d ever encountered before. It was big. Probably three hundred meters high, and a little narrower than the stone. It stood up like a building.

With a flick, it arrived fully.

The stone tipped to the side.

Over the radio, Jimmy yelped.

“Whoa,” Keith said.

The stone and new ship slowed, then rocked back like a yacht rolling in swell.

“You all right, Jimmy?” What was the ship? Its surface was translucent, like a thick gel. Inside it looked like a rock. Like an asteroid. It was still rolling side to side, but slowing down.

“Can you see this?” Jimmy said. His voice was high, fast.

“You’ve got the feeds?”

“I told you. Is that a meteor?”

Keith sighed. He could feel his heart pounding. How had the stone moved like that? It floated in vacuum, but stayed still under the influence of the vapor threads.

“My gyros are out over here,” Jimmy said.

Keith kept staring at the thing standing up on the stone. A vessel. Its translucent surface rippled under the tender’s lights, refracting and reflecting. A kind of skin, he thought, but like blueberry Jell-O. Or like the gel applied to some of the medical equipment he’d had to suffer through after the accident.

“Will you talk to me?” Jimmy said. “Please.”

“I’m here.”

“I know you’re there. I can see all your readouts. What’s happened up there? Nothing arrives like that.”

“You said it was coming in hot.” Maybe that was it. This vessel arrived using a different technique to the regular ships. He had seen it fade in, though. Not so very different.

“What is it?”

“It’s a ship,” Keith said. As he watched, the translucent skin folded away. Parts of it slapped over, thickening and exposing the solid ship. Slots opened in the sides of the inner part and the gel slipped away inside.

He heard Jimmy huff. “I’m coming out there.”

“Stay where you are.”

“It’s protocol,” Jimmy said. “Didn’t you read the manual? Evacuate the station in the event of malfunction.”

Not that Jimmy was one to follow the manual on any day-to-day basis. Anyway, Keith thought, the stone didn’t malfunction. It was a tightly coiled mass of inorganic and organic solids that translated between the vapors and regular space. There was nothing to malfunction.

All of the gel had gone now.

Keith edged the tender in closer. On one hand he knew he should try to get a line to the vessel and haul it off the stone so that Sue and everyone on the Caspian could arrive safely. In the back of his mind, though, was the thought that this was alien. Any other vessel would have standard bollards he could get a line fixed to so that he could vector away. That was in the manual. If there was a problem with something skipping out, with another vessel inbound, and a general failure in the docked vessel’s own maneuvering rockets, then he would have to haul it off. He couldn’t remember what the margin was there. It was either six hours or eight hours. Just to make sure there was plenty of buffer.

“Have you cut comms?” Jimmy said.

“I’m thinking. How long until our ship arrives?” He nudged in a little closer.

“We just clicked under an hour. Fifty-nine minutes, fifty-three. Fifty-two.”

Keith remembered his last dinner date with Sue. Back on Earth. Laksa with spring rolls at a little place just outside Kuala Lumpur. He’d been a month out of hospital and she was skipping on to Rigel. She’d been promoted to second officer.

“I’ll be back in a few weeks,” she’d told him, but he had seen in her eyes that she’d already gone. He hadn’t known what it would be like when she came back.

And now he was here, hanging out for a visit.

From just a hundred meters off, the new arrival looked huge. It wasn’t ship-like at all. Unless he’d seen the slots in the sides open—they had vanished now—he would have thought it was just another rock. Its surface was gray and irregular. It might have been teleported from Yosemite. On a planetary surface it would be something rock-climbers bragged about scaling.

Keith let the tender drift in closer. He swiped the video feeds around the bubble and expanded the main camera. Even magnified, the hull looked like rock, with an irregular rough grainy surface.

“Are you going closer?” Jimmy said.

Good, Keith thought. At least he was still at his post. “We need to figure this out.”

“We need to warn the Caspian. They can’t skip here.”

On a human level, he was right. In the early days of skipping there had been some spectacular accidents when a ship arrived while another was waiting to leave. But even if they could get a message through, there was nothing the incoming ship could do to change its trajectory or arrival time. Just like a stone across a pond, once a ship had skipped from one point, its arrival position and time were pre-determined. On a technical level, it was impossible. Ships in the vapors were uncontactable.

“I’m going to try to haul it off anyway,” Keith said. The tender had closed to within sixty meters now. He imagined he could see cracks and crevices in the surface. Places where birds might nest.

“What are you going to hook on to? I just looks like a sheer cliff to me.”

As he came closer, Keith could see more and more detail. Striations and grooves in the face as if a glacier had left the marks, scoring its way past before melting back to the arĂȘte. Perhaps it really was a rock. Once upon a time, humans had hollowed out asteroids and turned them into habitats. Even spun them up for centrifugal gravity like their own donut. Some of them would have looked almost like this thing.

He pushed in to ten meters from the face. He could see individual fissures on it, but there was nothing to grab hold of with the cables. “I’m going to look higher,” he told Jimmy.

With a burst on the attitude jets the tender began to travel along the rock-ship. Up, he thought, as if he was in an elevator car.

As he rose he saw something higher up. A deeper, wider hole in the side. Darker than the main face, the hole was probably ten or twelve meters across. There were some cables or conduits pointing out from it. At first he thought that it might have been a weapons array. A hole that fired some kind of plasma pulse or projectile. But as he rose he wondered if it was damage. The edges of the hole were blackened.

“We’ve got something going on,” Jimmy said. “There’s movement. Something’s moving.” His voice increased in pitch.

“Moving? Where?”

“Three o’clock. Your three o’clock. Four. And around. Further. Oh boy. Something’s coming out. It’s all coming through your video feeds. You should be able to see it. You need to back off. Get away. I can see it.”

Keith hauled around the feeds and expanded them out.

Nearly invisible in the black of space, dark shapes shifted, obscuring stars.

“Get out of there,” Jimmy said, his voice almost a screech.

Keith felt his pulse coming up again. He pulled the tender back and turned it. The big lights moved with the vessel, shining out across the shapes.

“Oh, no,” Jimmy said.

They were suits, Keith thought. White shapes, with multiple limbs, some flexing. All about the same size. Arms, legs, and a bulbous head. In a helmet. They would probably stand about two meters tall.

“Keith. Keith. Just get back here.”

“Stop freaking out, Jimmy.”

There were six of them. Their suits weren’t really white, he saw as they drew closer. They were coated in something like the translucent material that had been on the exterior of the rock-ship.

“Oh, man.”

“Jimmy. Focus. Can you send out more cameras? I want to see what that hole up there is.”

Jimmy didn’t reply. Keith could hear his rough breathing. The kid was almost hyperventilating.


“Cameras. Got it. Sending up the rig now.”

“And dial down your oxygen.”

“I’m all right. I’ll be all right.”

The group had almost reached the tender.

“One step at a time,” Keith said. “Get me some good data on the hole, then report.”

“Will do. Fifty-three.”

Keith knew he meant minutes. Until the Caspian arrived. They had to move.

The aliens stopped. He couldn’t tell how they were maneuvering. The translucent material didn’t really cover suits; it covered their bodies. They had some kind of tight-fitting material against their skins, almost like the shirt-sleeves he and Jimmy wore in the stations.

The nearest of them moved again, heading in for the cockpit windows.

“I’ve got the rig coming up,” Jimmy said.

“Good. Throw me the feeds.”

“Will do I— Oh man. Those creatures you’ve got.”

“Someone was flying the ship, Jimmy.”

“They’re coming at you. Back off.”

Keith stayed right where he was. The lead alien came within a meter of the tender’s nose and stopped again. He raised his hand and waved. Keith couldn’t help but wave back. He could see the thing’s face in the tender’s lights. A stretched, narrow visage, the eyes like vertical slits, the nose flattened. Odd, but still a face. The alien stayed where it was, but behind it the others kept moving. Heading up towards the hole.

“Extra-terrestrials,” Jimmy said. “The first ones.”

“Not the first ones,” Keith said. He flicked on the cockpit’s internal lights so the alien could see him.

“The dead ones don’t count,” Jimmy said. “Did you just put on your interior lights?”

“Yes.” Keith thought about the dozens of archaeological sites around the width of the spiral arm. Explored space showed that there had been plenty of intelligent life in the galaxy long before people had moved out of the caves. And all of them had gone extinct, or moved on, leaving behind a wealth of technologies that had never occurred to any human inventor. Some of the mechanisms and ideas extracted from abandoned cities and ships had accelerated human exploration. The stones were the perfect example. An amalgam of alien and human.

“Are you trying to give yourself away? Who knows what they’re going to—”

“Jimmy. Get the rig up to that hole. I think there’s a problem with their ship.”

Jimmy didn’t respond for a moment. “It’s underway,” he said. “Fifty minutes.”

The alien still hung right in front of the tender.

“I’m going out,” Keith said. The tender had a functional external airlock. He could stay in the maintenance suit for seven hours without stressing the system too much. And with the maneuvering pack, he could go and meet the alien.

“You’re insane,” Jimmy said. “Stay in the tender.”

“We need to get their ship off the stone. Hauling it off is never going to work.”

“You don’t know that. You haven’t tried.”

“I’m going to try something else.” In the back of his mind, Keith remembered a thousand movies where the aliens blew up anything that threatened them. He could imagine firing the lines at the ship and being obliterated by some death ray. Better to meet them on equal terms.

“I’m going to lock the tender down,” Jimmy said. “Remotely. I can do it from here.”

“I’m improvising. Give me fifteen minutes. If it hasn’t worked, I’ll come back inside and we’ll figure out the next step.” He was already at the suit rack beside the body airlock.

“We can blow the thing up.”

Keith hesitated, not sure that he’d heard quite right. “Blow it up?”

“Sure. We’ve got enough hydrazine and frozen oh-two to kick it halfway to Polaris.”

Keith pushed back into the nearest suit. It detected him and wrapped itself around his body. The seals came up tight and the drape helmet slipped around his face, hardening into shape. “We’re not blowing it anywhere.” The suit let go of the wall and he popped forward. He grabbed a maneuvering stalk and flipped to the lock.

“If your plan, whatever your plan is, doesn’t work, then we’re going to have thirty-three minutes left to come up with something else.”

“Then start thinking. We’re not blowing it up.” They would probably destroy the stepping stone and not even scratch the alien ship. Though looking at the damage to it, the thing was clearly more vulnerable than its granite-like exterior suggested.

Opening the inner door, Keith nestled into the snug, body-shaped cavity. He didn’t use the locks very often—mostly the tender could dock with a ship and he didn’t have to do EVA. The lock was like a little coffin, just big enough for a grown man in a suit. Something about needing minimum pumping, and bleeding minimum air. To Keith it was just plain claustrophobic.

“Hold on,” Jimmy said. “I saw something there. Just a second.”

The suit lights came on as the inner door closed. Keith felt the suit shift as the air was sucked out of the tiny space. “Saw what?”

“Something as the camera rig came up over the edge. I’m winding it back around now.”


“Intriguing. Something odd where the alien vessel butts onto the stone.”

“Odd?” Keith never liked the lock. The thought always lodged in the back of his head: what if the doors fail and I get stuck in here? It was only a moment or two of feeling trapped, but it often felt like it was going to go on for hours.

“The stone is changing,” Jimmy said. “Like it’s interacting with the ship.”

“You need to be more specific.”

“Is your mix all right there? Your breathing sounds wheezy.”

“Just waiting for the outer door.”

“Oh yeah.” Jimmy went quiet.

“You were telling me about what you meant. Interacting?” A green tell-tale flickered up inside the suit’s visor and the outer door began opening. Keith felt his breathing ease.

“It’s kind of growing into it. You know those accelerated time films of stuff like fungus growing? The tendrils going through wood? It’s like that. The stone is growing up into the base of their ship. It’s freaky.”

“Throw me the footage.”

The door popped away and Keith saw the alien hanging there no more than five meters away. Keith pushed out of the lock, feeling the suit stiffen as the attitude jet arms folded into place. He took the control stick at his waist and gave a puff, then reversed as he came up to the alien.

It bared its teeth at him. Its head quivered inside its own helmet.

“Hope you know what you’re doing, boss,” Jimmy said.

“Likewise.” Keith smiled at the thing, letting it see his teeth too. Living aliens. Extraordinary. He wondered why he wasn’t terrified. “There are probably protocols for this,” he said.

“You want for me to look them up?” Jimmy said.

“Just show me what the cameras are seeing.”

“Oh yeah.”

Keith pointed towards the hole in the alien ship. Glancing up he could see a couple of the others hanging around it.

The alien’s head quivered again. Its odd mouth closed like a nighttime flower.

An image formed up on the visor’s inner surface. Keith recognized the edge of the stone but there was something odd with it. Like Jimmy had said, it seemed to be growing. Tendrils of it had expanded up around the edge and seemed to be merging with the ship. Growing into it. It reminded him of old high school experiments where altered genetic material would coalesce with blocks of dead cells overnight.

“How are they doing that?” Jimmy said. “There’s no way you can haul it off now.”

“It’s borrowed technology,” Keith said. “I guess these are the guys we borrowed it from.” Keith held his arms out wide towards the alien. It lifted one arm, pointing at the hole.

“Borrowed? Oh, that’s right.”

“Yeah. Lots of our stuff is these days.” Keith nodded at the alien, then angled his own jets, heading up towards the hole.

“Maybe they’ve come to claim it back.”

Keith saw the alien following. It looped around him, then flew a parallel course.

“Are you moving?” Jimmy said. “You are. You’re getting too far away from the tender.”

“I’m going up to look at the damage.”

“Did you forget the Caspian?”

Sue was aboard. He was incapable of forgetting. To Jimmy it was just another ship—but neither of them was likely to forget the schedule. Not for any ship. But especially not for Sue, as far as Keith was concerned.

“You need to get back here and we need to figure this out,” Jimmy said.

“I am figuring it out.”

“This is because of your graft, isn’t it?”

Keith couldn’t answer that. He could feel the differentness of the leg constantly. He doubted that it was responding to the aliens’ presence, but that had always been a theoretical possibility. It was clear that the aliens knew more about the technologies bedded into the stone than he did. More than the people who’d built it. Perhaps the aliens knew more about his leg too. It had been constructed from similar principles to the stone: alien technology wedded to state of the art cloned prosthetics. The leg was as much alien genetics as it was his own.

Keith remembered coming awake in the hospital, Sue waiting by the bed.

“Hey,” he’d said. They’d only been dating a couple of weeks and here she was holding vigil.

“You’re awake.” She’d taken his hand.

The accident—which he couldn’t recall—had taken his right leg at the knee. The pilot of the other vessel had lost his life. As Sue sat with Keith, she’d filled him in on all the details.

“The new leg’s been clone-grown, over a standard cartilage frame. It’s taken, and the bones are forming. You’ll be on your feet in a couple of weeks.”

“On my foot,” he’d told her. “The other foot’s an alien.”

“Well, yes. You going to complain?”

The other guy had died. Keith had nothing to complain about. Especially waking up to find her at his side.

“Jimmy,” Keith said. “You need to focus on figuring out things are your end, not trying to trip me up.”

“What am I going to—”

“Get the rig moving. Get as much information as you can. We need to collate that and work out how we’re going to shift this thing.”

“We’re not shifting it. Didn’t you see? It’s growing into the stone. They’re bonded.”

Keith had a feeling that he understood that. “I think it’s part of their repair process. They’ve been damaged somehow and they’re here for repairs.”

“They just happened to come here, right?”

“We borrowed their technology. Now they’re borrowing it back.”

“Did you think about how they maybe got damaged? Maybe they got shot up and whoever shot them is not far behind.”

“Collate the data, Jimmy.”

Jimmy muttered something more, then the channel went quiet.

Keith came up on the hole. He adjusted the jets and looked over the lip. It seemed as if there had been an explosion inside. The edges of the rock-like hull were bent out from a blackened hollow. In the damage he could see flattened tanks and shredded conduits. There were damaged hatches and twisted and cracked structural members. The bent edges showed the hull had a thicker cross-section than any human ship—perhaps over a meter—but in a way he’d expected it to be more than that. The hull was thick, but it was still a shell like any ship, rather than a hollowed-out asteroid.

Around the hole the aliens were working with bright lights. He watched one of the nearest. The alien held both hands out to a wrecked cable bundle. Between its hands a spherical light grew, expanding out to the full width of the alien’s reach. With its hands on the ball of light, the alien pushed it forwards. The cables spun into the light. The alien moved along with more and more of the cables whirling into the light. After a moment it stopped and the alien yanked the light away. The light began shrinking. The cable had vanished.

Further into the hole Keith saw a different kind of movement. Like that stop-motion film of a seed. Tendrils from the stone were reaching right up into the damaged section. The two were bonded, just as strongly as his own lower leg was bonded to his knee.

“Thirty minutes,” Jimmy said. The radio hissed for a moment, then went quiet as he closed the channel.

“Roger that.” Keith looked around for the alien who’d first come up to the tender. It had moved somewhere into the hole and he’d lost track of it. He didn’t know how to tell them apart.

The suit’s pack had a schematics panel. He slipped it out and unrolled it. As big as a serving tray, with similar handles, the panel let spacewalkers draw diagrams quickly. Keith used his gloved-finger to write “Help” across the face. He didn’t for a moment expect them to understand, but at least they would get that he needed to communicate.

Help?” Jimmy said. “You’re going to need to do a whole lot better than that.” All the keystrokes relayed to the station’s bubble displays.

“Jimmy, you’ve got work to do.”

The channel went dead again.

Holding the panel out with one hand, Keith maneuvered around. He made a circuit through the nearest part of the hole. I’m the first human inside an active alien vessel, he thought. Even though he wasn’t technically within the hull, he was at least within its regular layout.

One of the aliens broke away from repairs and came to him. Keith held the panel still for a moment then waved it clear. He held up one finger, then used the finger to draw a single line on the panel. One. The alien moved around to his shoulder to see better. Good, Keith thought.

With a twist he looked at the alien and held up two fingers. Then he drew a zero after the one. Two, in binary. Universal language, apparently. He’d read about it years ago and prayed he could remember enough to be able to convey time.

He held up three fingers, waved the zero away and drew another one. Eleven for three.

The alien shifted a little and held two hands in front of Keith’s visor, two fingers up on each. It waved at the screen. Both ones faded away and the alien stroked on a one and two zeros.

“You see that Jimmy?”

“You’re talking to the aliens?”

“You saw it draw?”

“Yeah. Even with a death toll in the hundreds, at least we will have documented you teaching the alien’s basic math. Well done. You’ll get some award for that.”

Keith ignored him. He waved away the alien’s number and called up a clock. He set it to do a count down from thirty minutes, then switched it to binary.



The display flickered with each change.


The alien stared at the countdown for a moment, then turned to look at Keith.

“You lost a couple of minutes there,” Jimmy said. “It’s down under twenty-six now.”

At last he was being helpful, even if he wasn’t concentrating on his work with the cameras.

“Can you update the panel remotely? Throw the actual time up?” Keith hoped the jump wouldn’t confuse the alien further.

“Sure. I don’t think you’re going to convince them to leave. I’m going to prep explosives.”

Keith didn’t reply.

The display gave an extra flicker and changed to 10111110010.

In tiny figures in the corner it read 25:22. The seconds clicking down at the same rate as the big binary figures.

“Mind if I take the cutting torch on the skiff to the stone? You know, where they’re joined on.”

“Don’t think that’s such a good idea.”

“Gather data, right?”

“Yeah. Keep coming up with ideas, though. We might still think of something.”

Moving down, the alien brought its helmet close to Keith’s leg. Turning, the alien peered in close. It reached around to touch the knee and moved its hand down Keith’s calf.

When the alien came back to face him, it’s eyes were fluttering like a hummingbird’s wings.

“Okay that’s weird,” Jimmy said.

“It recognizes the leg is mostly not mine,” Keith said. He wondered if it created a kind of kinship. The alien hadn’t suddenly stabbed him, or tried to break the leg off. They were comfortable with amalgams. Like the stone.

“Oh,” Jimmy said. “You’re blood-brothers with him now.”

The alien drifted around in front of Keith. It had its fingers splayed out wide. Keith held his own hand up the same. The alien blinked more slowly. It looked away into the damage.

Keith looked in, following its gaze. He could see where repairs were being effected. The tendrils of the stone opened and exuded pieces. The other aliens took the pieces and moved them around, fitting them into place. It seemed makeshift. He didn’t know how bad the damage was, but if it had been one of the liners with a hole like that it would take a full dry-dock to complete repairs. Any job that might happen out here would be a temporary patch at best.

The alien moved again, reaching for the panel. It waved its hands. Keith cleared the display, shrinking and shifting the binary countdown up to the top edge.

The alien pointed at the count, and drew a single line across the blank part of the panel and followed it with a series circles. Keith counted sixteen.


“Jimmy?” Keith said.

The alien pointed at its number. It turned and pointed at the repair activity. Then it pointed at Keith’s countdown and held its hand up splayed out again.

A question.

Pointing, at least, was universal. And binary.

“What?” Jimmy said.

“It drew a number on the panel.”

“Eighteen hours,” Jimmy said. “If it means seconds.”

Keith waved at the panel and the digits automatically converted to a hard font. A couple more commands and the long figure began counting down.



Looking back at the alien Keith pointed at the hole then held his hand up with the fingers splayed.

“It did that sum in its head,” Jimmy said. “Maybe they think in binary.”

The alien twisted its hand, closing up the fingers. Ten fingers, Keith thought. They’ll think in decimal too, but can run with binary.

“And that’s way too long,” Jimmy said. “Caspian’s only twenty minutes out.”


The decimal display dropped from 20.00 to 19.59.

“They’re not going anywhere,” Jimmy said. “They’re using the stone to help repairs. Surely it knows that something’s coming?”

“Let me keep working on it.”


Keith moved the alien’s countdown out of the way. He’d only been trying to find a common ground so he could begin explaining. At least they had numbers. He drew a picture of the stone from side on. A rounded rectangle. He let the alien look at that for a moment and added in the outline of their ship. He alien kept staring. Keith added a black spot to show the repairs. He wiped the ship off and drew in an outline of the Caspian, trying to show the size—about twice as big as the alien ship—and the basic layout, with the thick fins that would hang over the stone’s edge.

Beside the ship he drew a zero and linked that to the twenty minute binary count.

The alien looked at him, then back at the display.

The drawings were crude, but Keith hoped that it could understand.

The alien reached in and waved Keith’s drawing away. It sure understood how the panel worked. It drew its own picture. A kind of a fish, Keith thought, with a tail and eyes and fins. Two circles with lines through them, like a diameter symbol and then a series of dots.

The alien pulled back, held up and twisted its hand, closing up the fingers.

As if it had explained everything.

“Well,” Jimmy said. “Looks like you’ve got that communication down just fine.”

Keith almost barked at him. The kid wouldn’t do any better. “Pull it into the computer,” Keith said. “The image. Get it to figure out what it means.”

“The computer?”

“How long have we got?” Keith could see the time himself. Sixteen minutes.

“What is the computer going to be able to do with it?”

“I don’t know, but what’s it doing right now?”

“Well, nothing really.”

“Exactly. Exhaust our avenues.”

“Then we’ll blo—” the channel cut out.

Jimmy realizing that he was being out of line, Keith thought. Probably still planning to try to blast the ship off the stone with a makeshift detonation. Keith wondered if they might have to just do that. Not until the final minute, he thought.

The alien held its hand up with the fingers splayed again.

Keith had another idea. “Jimmy? Has your rig got distant photos? Of the ship on the stone.” Keith imagined that the thing was riding up the side taking close-ups only. “Give me a full photo on the panel. And one of the transit photos of a ship.”

“You’re confusing me.”

How hard could it be? “Two photos. One of this ship on the stone. One of a liner.”

“Gotcha. The Caspian? I don’t know if—”

“It doesn’t matter. Just a ship. Two photos.”

“In a second.”

Keith waved the alien’s unintelligible drawing off, realizing as he did that there were going to be people who would want everything to study later. He guessed that the panel recorded it all and wasn’t just discarding the record of alien contact.

A picture of the Erbert appeared on the panel. A moment later a photo of the alien ship came up.

“It’s from the donut,” Jimmy said. “The camera rig’s only taking close ups.”

Keith was already drawing on the panel. He made a circle around the photo of the alien vessel and the stone. He joined it to the long binary count with a line. He did the same with the Ebert’s photo and the count on the Caspian.

The alien stared.

“We’re under twelve minutes,” Jimmy said.

Again the hand came up with the fingers splayed.

Keith stared back at the alien. It could make a seventeen digit binary calculation in its head, but it didn’t understand diagrams or photographs.

“That’s not working,” Jimmy said. Not a question.

“You better get that package prepared.” Keith hated doing it, but they were running low on options.

“It’s practically ready. I don’t think I can do any damage, though. Probably a bad move to wreck the first occupied alien ship to stray into sight.”

There were plenty of dead ships. Nothing like this one, but most just about as strange.

“Hold off,” Keith said. He let go of the panel and flipped around, jetting back for the tender.

“You got another idea?”

“I think so.”

It took less than a minute to get to the airlock hatch. At the emergency slot, he punched in for a vent. It would take too long to cycle through.

“What are you doing?” Jimmy said. “Are you leaving?”

“I need some props.” He thumped the override and the outer hatch burst open. His vision filled with a momentary billowing of vapor. The tender shuddered as the retros automatically fired against the venting. He squeezed in though the widest part of the gap and kicked across the cabin. Opening the kitchen equipment locker he pulled out prepackaged meals, utensils, squeeze tubes and blister packs of vitamins. He found a cylinder mug and grabbed one of the disk-like meals.

“You vented,” Jimmy said.

“Yeah.” Keith moved to one of the passenger seats and ripped the cushion from it. Using one of the turn stalks to twist around, he started back for the lock and saw the alien pulling itself through.

“Uh-oh,” Jimmy said.


“You. I’ve got the tender’s internal camera up. You’ve got company.”

“I can see that.”

The alien spun to Keith’s orientation. It looked around the tender’s interior slowly. After a moment it looked back at Keith and drifted closer.

Keith positioned the meal in between them. He gave the foil pack a little spin to keep it steadier. He lifted the mug and put it on top of the meal. If the alien didn’t get diagrams, maybe it would get models. The spinning meal as the stone, and the mug as their ship. The alien stared and lifted its hand with a twist again. It didn’t understand.

Keith put his feet into a couple of floor stirrups and held the meal. He took the mug away, let it drift, and pointed to the meal. Turning a little, he pointed out through the cockpit windows and down at the stone. He brought the mug in fast and stopped it above the plate. Holding them together with one hand he pointed at the alien, then at the mug, then out the windows at the alien ship. The alien kept staring.

“We’ve got a couple of minutes,” Jimmy said. “I’ve got my package in position. We’ve got to try it.”

Keith was almost ready to admit he might be right. He didn’t know what kind of damage the bomb might do, but they were out of time.


“Give me one minute.”

“It’s too fine.”

“It’s not your call.”

“I’ve got my finger on the switch.”

“Just wait.”

Keith got the cushion with his free hand and brought it in fast, knocking the mug away. The Caspian’s arrival. He pointed to himself and then at the cushion. He wished he hadn’t abandoned the panel with its countdown. An essential part of what he was trying to communicate.

“It doesn’t get it,” Jimmy said. “I don’t even know what you’re trying to do there.”

“The best I can.” Keith thought of Sue. He didn’t know what was going to happen when the Caspian arrived. Whatever happened it was going to be messy.

“I’m going to blow it.”

The alien reached out and took the cushion and foil meal from Keith. It pushed the cushion a little to the side. Taking the mug, it put it on top of the meal as Keith had.

“Hold on, Jimmy. Wait.”

“I’m on a countdown. Caspian will be here in fifty seconds. We don’t want it caught in the explosion. Fifteen seconds until I blow it.”

Keith felt astonished that Jimmy was capable of building a bomb at all.

With its fingers wide, the alien held the mug and the meal together. It reached out and took the cushion.

“You’ve got ten seconds,” Jimmy said.

The alien inverted the mug and meal with a twist of its flexible wrist. It brought the cushion in to nestle on the exposed side of the meal.


Both ships at the same time. The aliens were going to turn the stone over. Keith remembered it rocking when their vessel arrived. They used the stones, but differently.

The Caspian would be safe.



“Get out of the station,” Keith said. “Get out fast.”

“Three. What?”

“Shut off the bomb. Get to the other tender and get off the station. They’re going to flip the stone over.”

“You got that from—”

“Get out. Shut off the bomb.” Keith pushed out of the stirrups and grabbed the pilot’s chair. He pulled right up to the windows.

“Sheesh. It’s off. Don’t worry.”

“Get out. Get out fast.”

“I’m getting. I need to suit up.”

“Listen to me. They’re turning the stone over.” Already he could see it shifting. The behemoth turned to his right, moving as if there was a fulcrum through the stone’s axis.


The alien ship rotated faster. It had passed halfway. “Can’t you feel it?”

“I’ve got velocity.”

“And the Caspian’s going to land on the underside. Where the station is. Where you are.”

“It’s due in twelve seconds,” Jimmy said.

“Get out.”

“I’m in shirtsleeves.”

“Are you close to the tender?” If he could get into transport he could get out fast.


The alien ship had almost completed its rotation. Keith could see the station. It looked tiny, fastened to the middle of what had been the stone’s arbitrary underside.


“I’m going to blow the module.”

“That’s too risky.”

Keith could see a shimmer in space over the station. The outline of the Caspian as the ship coalesced out of skip space.

“Because I’ve got time for a safer option?” Jimmy said. “You need to get further back.”

Keith wanted to call out again. The ship was thickening in front of his eyes. Reaching back, Keith activated the retro rocket controls and shunted the tender back. He found himself up against the windows, with the alien flopped against his back. Keith’s head was twisted, but he could see the Caspian’s hull form up a few hundred meters away. The tender had enough distance. Against the acceleration, Keith reached again and shut off the retros.

He drifted off the window and the alien slipped away.

“Good morning stone 382,” a voice said. Sue. “This is the Caspian. It’s nice to be back.”

Keith’s breath caught for a moment. The Caspian was safe. The aliens had known what they were doing the whole time. Knitting the stone to their ship.

“I read you,” Keith said. “Welcome.”

“Hi Keith. We’ve got some odd readings here. Looks like we landed on the wrong side of the stone? I think we crushed the station.”

“Yeah.” Keith closed his eyes. Jimmy had been kind of annoying at times, but a good kid. “I’m on the tender. I’ve got a long story for you.”

“Well, you can tell me over dinner, if you like. Oh, we’ve got your tender on the scope, but there’s a piece of the station spinning away. Looks like it made an emergency blow just before we arrived.”

“Jimmy.” Keith felt his shoulders relax. “I’ll go get him, then we’ll come over and tell you about the aliens.”


Keith turned to the alien still hanging in the cockpit. It let go of the cushion and the mug and held one hand up with the fingers splayed. Keith held his hand up likewise and wondered if it wanted to come help him retrieve Jimmy. END

Sean Monaghan works as a librarian in New Zealand. He has had numerous stories published in New Zealand and elsewhere, including “Aurealis,” “Bewildering Stories,” and “The Colored Lens.” He has been a finalist in the Writers of the Future.


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