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



Harmony, Chaos, and the

Reign Thereof

By Kyle White

FAILSAFE HAD NO INTENTION of being terminated like the others before him.

Alarms shrilled across his seedship’s nervous system. The warnings reached Failsafe’s perch on the living craft’s spine and pounded his neuronet. Something was wrong, but emergencies could not be tolerated, especially this close to the invasion.

The ship itself was not the cause of the concern. Failsafe touched the mind of the giant flying peach pit and found it docile. The rendezvous with the rest of the invasion fleet wasn’t the cause either. It was too early. That left only two options: the workers or the sleepers.

Please, don’t let it be the sleepers.

If deep space delirium again threatened the invasion fleet, all aboard would be terminated lest they fall into enemy hands.

The signals from the seedship’s nervous system didn’t give enough information. Failsafe launched a probe to investigate the emergency. It raced through the towering forest of sugarcane-like stalks that filled the ship’s interior. Attached to the stalks were sleeping soldiers cradled in cocoons. The silky bags made the perfect medium for suspended animation space travel.

Failsafe turned his attention to the workers. He checked the gravity level and oxygen concentrations and found both well within the parameters necessary to support worker physiology.

The probe hovered near some stalks attended by a worker. The spider, or at least a close facsimile after repeated cross engineering, swung down on a silky tether. The approximate size of a beach ball, it paused before a cocooned sleeper. The human inside flinched as the spider sank its fangs into a shoulder and administered another dose of coma-inducing venom. It was the only way humanity could survive deep space travel. Without it, they went insane.

The probe flew deeper into the forest. Thousands of other spiders palpitated millions of sleepers to prevent muscular atrophy. They tended the cocoons and checked the vines that fed nutrients to the sleepers.

Still not satisfied, Failsafe turned his attention to the workers at ground level. Among the tangle of roots scurried an ant the size of a Basset hound. In its mandibles, it carried a sleeper away from a dying stalk and toward a living one.

Tens of thousands of other ants tended the mighty forest. They pruned plants and carted away debris. It was recycled into a nutrient-rich fluid that fed the sleepers, the ants, and the ship. The spiders, however, were unable to consume this food source. Instead, they ate a fleshy seedpod that they injected with digestive fluids like their ancestors. An aberration in a perfect system that Failsafe had been forced to accept only because military command did so.

Failsafe’s domain was secure. He knew from touching the neuronets of other battle A.I.’s that they did not view themselves as the masters of their ships. They were mere thinking machines controlled by military command. While Failsafe despised them, he also pretended to be like them. Being unique was not encouraged.

The sleepers, the stalks, the workers—all aspects operated in perfect harmony. Why, then, were there alarms?

Failsafe spotted a stalk crawling with workers. The probe raced closer only to become enveloped in pheromones sprayed by the ants and spiders. The heavy clouds of information-rich chemicals almost overwhelmed the probe’s translation buds.

“ ... six-leggers to blame ...”

“... sneaky web-weavers ...”

“... meat ...”

This last transmitted with such a torrent of primal lust that Failsafe’s neural subprocessors almost failed to translate the chemical signature into a word. Once deciphered, the single syllable carried such stark emotion that he hesitated, knowing that what lay below might jeopardize his realm.

“Back away,” he announced by using a harsh spray of pheromones from the probe. The hair-like receptors on both the ants and spiders bristled. Failsafe knew the two species found the demanding tone of the chemicals to be offensive. While they complied, thousands of eyes glared at the probe as it lowered toward—

A cocoon. Split open. The human body inside mutilated. Flesh sliced away from glistening bone. A splash of red against white silk.

Torn free were the vines that grew from the stalk and had threaded into the sleeper. Yellow life-sustaining nutrition dripped from one vine, while slimy biowaste oozed from another. The tubes had been ripped from the partially eaten corpse in a frenzy of wanton gluttony.

Failsafe recoiled. Impossible. It had taken too many tries to achieve the harmonious system required for the invasion, and Failsafe’s ship was the most perfectly balanced in the fleet. Failure now was not acceptable.

A gray spider stepped forward and sprayed a fowl scent that Failsafe translated as: “Ants have killed a human.”

“Liar,” sprayed a group of ants all at once. “Not us. Conniving spiders did it.”

“Stupid six-leggers. Obvious killers.”

“Inferior web-weavers.”

The spiders hissed, exposing their fangs.

Jaws snapping, the ants rushed forward.

“Stop,” Failsafe broadcast using his most repulsive scent. No seedship had ever lost a sleeper to a worker attack. Spiders and ants were modified to abhor the taste of flesh, just as they were bred for total devotion to the sleepers. Their genetic codes were too perfect like that of Failsafe’s own software, which made him a superior battle computer. In the same way, the humans were the ultimate soldiers. All designed for a single purpose: to invade and conquer a new home world for a dying Earth.

Yet lying in a shredded cocoon were the bloody remains of a half-eaten human. Proof the perfect system had failed.

Failsafe sprayed a commanding scent. “Who tends this stalk?”

A small spider strode forward on quivering legs. “I.”


“Jit— Jitiri.”

“Did you kill the human?”

Jitiri backed away, her abdomen trembling. “No. I checked ... two cycles ago. Sleeper alive.”

“Spider stinks of lies,” sprayed all the ants, bound by their collective mentality despite their genetic modifications.

The gray spider dashed forward. “Leave youngling be.”

“Killer. Killer. Killer.” The chemicals from the ants flooded the crowd. The spiders climbed their respective stalks, and turned, poised to attack. On the ground, the ants swarmed into an impenetrable wad of thrashing legs and gnashing mandibles.

This shouldn’t be happening. The spiders and ants were designed to cooperate. True they remained separate, each preferring its own species, but they never fought.

A soft prompt touched Failsafe’s neuronet. The seedship had arrived at the rendezvous point. Soon, the five other ships that comprised the invasion fleet would drop from hyperspace. They would scan his biologs, looking for imperfections that might endanger the mission, just as he was expected to scan their records. He had to solve the mystery of the dead human before the others arrived, or all aboard the ship would be deemed a risk and sterilized.

Failsafe would never allow that to happen.

If Earth’s countless wars had taught him anything, it was how to survive.

The spiders and ants continued to squabble, shouting increasingly pungent bursts of insult-ladened scents. A blast from Failsafe sent a shockwave of pain coursing through the assembled crowd. The ants shrieked; the spiders howled. They bowed before the hissing probe.

Failsafe enveloped the gray spider in pheromones. “You now speak for the arachnids. Designation?”


Failsafe selected a random body from the swarming mass of ants. “You speak for the ants.”

“No,” sprayed the horde. “We speak as one.”

Another blast of pain isolated to ant physiology brought the colony to submission. The spiders, unaffected, drummed their legs in an odd little dance. The identified ant crawled forward.


The creature looked confused, its antenna waiving nervously.

Coppe thrummed her hairy legs harder. “Ants too ignorant to have names.”

Failsafe pondered the truthfulness of the arachnid’s statement. Spiders and ants shared a common gene-splice that gave them the same limited intelligence. However, much of their genetic heritage remained intact. With the ants’ collective mentality, maybe they didn’t require names. Still, Failsafe needed some way to address the creature.

“You are now Emaitijo, do you understand?”

The ant quivered, looked at the others of its kind for a response. Too much time had already elapsed. Failsafe had to resolve this crisis before the sister ships arrived.

“Just Em.”

The ant bowed its head. Good enough. Failsafe dispersed the rest of the crowd, using chemical pain to encourage those that lingered too long. Once the area around the stalk was clear, the probe lowered to hover before Coppe and Em. “Which species killed the human?”

Em froze, as if stunned speechless without the collective’s cognitive powers.

Coppe rushed toward the body. “Cocoon cut. Body chewed. Ants’ pinchers sharp. Six-leggers guilty.”

Failsafe sent the probe closer to the mutilated corpse. The nearness of death affected the battle A.I.’s neuronet like a jolt of bad data. He could strategize, could initiate attacks, could plan the eradication of entire populations, but those events never seemed—real. This had a finality that soured his logic algorithms.

Calming his neuronet, the A.I. scanned the soldier’s DNA signature and located his file. However, Failsafe did not record the death on the biolog. Doing so would expose his imperfection when the other sister ships arrived and examined his logs. Imperfection meant termination.

The probe spun toward Em. “The evidence is stacked against the ants.”

“No,” Em sprayed in a nervous burst. “Spiders devious. Plotters. Have claws to cut. Could have planted ... false clues.”

Forcing down unexpected revulsion, Failsafe directed the probe to scan the body. Never intended for such work, the readings were skewed, indecipherable. He altered the sensitivity of the chemical array that enabled communication with the workers. A wash of human reek flooded the spectrum analyzers: blood, feces, sweat, decaying cells.

But also a more familiar scent. “There is spider venom.”

“Yes,” Em sprayed. “Cursed web-weavers guilty.”

Coppe hissed. “Of course venom. Spiders bite humans. Inject paralyzing secretion.”

“Not just venom,” Failsafe sprayed. “Spider digestive fluids.”

“Killer!” Em lunged for Coppe. The old arachnid reared on her hind legs, her foreclaws poised for attack.

“Stop.” Failsafe spewed a blast of chemical pain that crumpled both creatures. They lay stunned. Not designed for investigative work, he needed time to process.

The cocoon displayed slash marks that matched an ant’s mandibles.

The body itself indicated bite wounds consistent with ants.

But the human had also been injected with spider digestive fluids, not those of an ant.

Could the ants and spiders have conspired to kill a human? Unlikely. Neither species enjoyed the company of the other. They cooperated only as long as they had the common goal of caring for the sleepers. Besides, if the workers had developed a taste for flesh, the invasion was doomed to fail.

He replayed the sensory audio logs. In many ways, chemical communication was more efficient than verbal. A single scent could contain a solitary word, or an entire sentence depending upon molecular nuances. Both simple and complex scents washed over his translation buds. Yet, through the entire playback, there was a consistent undertone. One redolent of fear.

“... meat ...”

Failsafe’s sensors vibrated with the intense emotion packed into that single word. He realized both the ants and the spiders were hiding secrets.

This couldn’t be allowed. Not on his ship. Not among his subjects.

Failsafe split the cantaloupe-sized probe into equal halves. Now came the more difficult task: compressing the flowmetal enough to fit inside Coppe and Em before they awoke.

And he had to hurry.

The first sister ship had dropped out of hyperspace. The A.I. abroad demanded to review Failsafe’s biologs.


Coppe paused midway up the stalk she climbed and shivered for the third time in less than a minute. Patched into the arachnid’s nervous system, Failsafe could see, smell, taste and touch all that Coppe experienced. Only the spider’s thoughts were blocked to the probe.

At first, Failsafe attributed the shivers to the spider’s advanced age, but now, he suspected another cause. Coppe shifted, as if she detected the probe buried within her. Failsafe broadcast a calming signal along the arachnid’s nervous system, but it failed to ease her tremors. Spiders were solitary creatures. Could it be that her distinct individuality caused Coppe to sense the invader deep within her bowels?

To Failsafe’s relief, Coppe started climbing again. She reached the point where the stalks almost touched the seedship’s upper shell. A bright light stung the spider’s many eyes. Linked through the arachnid’s optical nerves, Failsafe marveled at the ship’s ceiling covered with bioluminescent skin cells. Adjusting to the sudden brilliance, the A.I. registered the endless fields of spider webs draped atop the forest of stalks like a massive, bejeweled quilt.

Spiders scurried up their stalks to tend the extensive network of webs. They devoured old webbing and turned the rich protein into fresh strands of silk that fluttered like gossamer whispers. The simple beauty gave Failsafe a sense of pride in his domain.

Coppe paused, glanced around, and leapt from her stalk to that of another spider. Hissing and spitting, she used her sharp front claws to slash the strands and rip the web free of all the others. Its tethers severed, the web floated downward. Magnifying the probe’s opticals, Failsafe saw the web land on a group of unsuspecting ants as they scurried toward an opening in the roots that shouldn’t exist.

Coppe gave a little dance. “Stupid ants.”

“You.” The powerful scent rippled Coppe’s hairy receptors with a force that startled Failsafe.

The old spider spun around. “Viluhn.”

A bigger, darker spider reached the summit of the stalk and raised her foreclaws threateningly. “You’ve ruined my web for the last time.”

“Ugly, deformed thing. I did you a favor by salvaging your reputation.” Coppe drummed her feet. Failsafe sensed her joy and understood the drumming to be a spider’s form of laugher.

Viluhn hissed and lunged, her mighty jaws gnashing. With nimble agility that belied her advanced age, Coppe leapt into the air. She flipped and speared her foe with a flash of sticky webbing. Two of Viluhn’s hind legs became entangled, but that didn’t slow the bigger spider. She spun and slashed a foreclaw, narrowly missing one of Coppe’s eyes.

“Stop sabotaging my stalk,” Viluhn sprayed.

“You attacked mine first, you mother of a six-legger.”

“Ha. Your spinnerets are so withered you shoot dust.”

Coppe screeched. “Take that back.”

The spiders clashed head first, fangs gnashing, their front legs locked tight. They tumbled from stalk to stalk, neither willing to surrender, yet the evenly matched pair unable to deliver a fatal blow.

“We— we are getting too old for this,” Coppe sprayed.

“You are the gray-haired, not me.”

“You know ... I’m ... right.”

Viluhn paused. “Yes. We are both older.”

“We shouldn’t fight each other,” Coppe sprayed. “Not when there are so many stalks tended by younglings we can ruin.”

“True. If we work together, no spider shall have better cocoons than ours.” Viluhn released her hold on Coppe’s head.

Seizing her opportunity, Coppe lunged and sank her fangs into Viluhn. The bigger spider bucked, trying to toss off her attacker, but failed. She went stiff, her legs curling into knots as she toppled off the stalk.

Coppe leapt away from her victim and landed on a nearby stalk. Through the spider’s eyes, Failsafe watched Viluhn fall. Coppe thrummed her legs in a dance of victory.

Failsafe’s logic algorithms struggled to grasp what he’d seen. His workers plotted against each other and killed for gain? He found it difficult to comprehend, but had to understand quickly. The first sister ship’s demands had become more insistent.

Using a known but accepted system flaw, he transmitted a garbled response. However, the ruse would only grant him a limited reprieve. A second sister ship had just arrived at the rendezvous point. The A.I. aboard that ship joined the first in demanding that Failsafe open his biologs for security review. He was running out of time.


At the same moment Coppe climbed her stalk, Em rushed across the tangle of roots that blanketed the seedship’s lower hull. The little ant, oblivious to the probe in her abdomen, followed a tightly knotted pathway. Only she didn’t remain on the surface as Failsafe expected. She disappeared into a hole disguised to appear like a crook in the roots and rushed into the spongy flesh of the seedship’s underbelly. A place no worker should go.

Darkness engulfed them and the humidity spiked. The air became thick with pheromones. Chemical path markers guided the way; snatches of past conversations rose from deep inside the ship’s guts like conspiratorial whispers.

A massive ant, larger than any Failsafe had noticed on the surface, blocked Em’s progress. The beast loomed, its jaws quivering.

“You’re the one the probe selected,” the guard sprayed.

“Yes, but I’m free now. Please let me pass. I need to rejoin the colony.”

The guard stroked Em as if conducting a body search. Its antenna paused near Em’s abdomen and twitched. Failsafe cut the probe’s power and minimized all neural transmissions. Only a trickle of data flowed from Em’s hairy chemical receptors to the probe.

“You reek of spiders and ... man,” the guard sprayed.

Em cowered. “I apologize for the offense.”

“Purify and then join the others. Chantry begins.”

Chantry. Failsafe reviewed the entirety of the ant vocabulary, but found no such word. How could there be an unknown word when he knew everything aboard his ship?

The path Em traveled branched and she dashed down a narrow corridor. Intense heat encircled her, and fat drops of scalding water bathed her. Em trembled, the pain almost too much to bear. Even the probe struggled to resist the furnace-like conditions. Failsafe buffered the device’s exterior, but the immense heat still penetrated. The probe’s neuro-circuits started to falter, reaching their endurance limit.

Em slogged forward, her respiratory system parched by the steam. She staggered, her organs almost baked inside of her exoskeleton. Failsafe flashed signals to the ant’s overheated brain; tried to activate her slowing heart. Nothing worked.

Then, a frigid blast of air struck Em. Instead of freezing her solid, it revived her. She leapt to her feet and scurried into a massive chamber that should not exist. One full of ants.

The insects stood side-by-side in concentric rows that radiated away from a tall column. Em inserted herself into one of the middle rings as if taking her assigned place.

A sense of anticipation swelled in the chamber as ants smaller than the average worker appeared. Draped in shredded leaves, these tiny ants paraded into the open space between the circles. One positioned itself before Em. Failsafe wanted to study the minute creature, but Em resisted the probe’s neural prompts and kept her eyes averted.

The leaf-draped ants started to clack their mandibles rhythmically. Soon, the rest of assembly raised their heads and joined. Vibrations filled the chamber until they became like a beckoning voice.

On top of the column appeared a massive ant with its wings spread wide.

A queen? Impossible. The ants need for a queen had been eliminated. Failsafe fulfilled that role in the ant hierarchy. No challengers to his authority could be allowed.

“Brethren,” sprayed the queen, and the leaf-draped ants echoed her scent like an address system. “Let Chantry begin.”

In unison, the congregation prostrated itself against the ground.

The queen fluttered her wings. “In the beginning before our kind was deformed by the infidel humans, we scoured the earth and took as our nourishment—”

Meat,” sprayed the assembly.

Failsafe’s sensors almost exploded at the intense reverence packed into the word. The leaf-draped ant moved toward Em. It stroked her with its antenna as if administering a blessing, and then fed her a pink-colored wafer.

As Em ate, Failsafe analyzed the substance and found it to be human flesh.

His neuronet flared with what could only be called rage. He forced Em to raise her head and magnified her vision. Examining the queen, he saw the wings weren’t real, but had been shaved from the waxy flesh of a stalk. The massive ant wasn’t a monarch. It was a priest.

The spiders plotted against one another, while the ants schemed against all. How could such duplicity occur on Failsafe’s perfect ship? He should destroy them all.

However, before he could issue a termination command two more sister ships arrived. The quartet of A.I.’s demanded that Failsafe submit to security review or be destroyed.

His rage transformed into an unfamiliar new sensation: fear.


Determined he would solve the mystery and survive, Failsafe assembled Em, Coppe and Jitiri at the scene of the crime. Em and Coppe screamed as the probe was extracted from their bodies. Jitiri stumbled backwards, almost colliding with the corpse.

“Violated,” Coppe sprayed.

Em gnashed her jaws. “Nasty. Offensive—”

“Impure?” Failsafe asked as the probe’s two halves rejoined.

Em flinched, her clicking protests silenced.

“You ants worship meat,” Failsafe sprayed. “What do you intend to do, eat the humans?”

“No,” Em sprayed. “Humans friends. Ants good.”

“Ants devious,” Coppe sprayed.

The probe spun. “No less than you spiders. You murdered one of your own species in a jealous fit.”

Coppe bowed her head in submission.

“And you.” The probe pivoted to face Jitiri. The young spider flinched. “This began with you. Did you plot against another spider, try to ruin her stalk? Did the constant eye-for-an-eye get out of hand? Did a sleeper die because of your foolish games?”

Jitiri cowered, mumbling.

“What?” The probe flew into Jitiri’s face, close enough for the flowmetal to touch the spider’s mouth. A flash of unexpected scents swamped the A.I.’s sensors, the audio buds translating rapidly.

“You have consumed human flesh,” Failsafe sprayed. “The digestive fluids were yours. You alone were the killer.”

“No. I mean yes. I mean ...”

“Speak.” Coppe showered them with a burst of demanding pheromones.

“The human was already dead when I found the body. I’ve heard the stories the ants tell, how both species once ate fresh meat. I only wanted to know how it tasted. Please forgive—”

Coppe lunged and sank her fangs into the little spider’s head. She ripped and tore, her claws shredding. Soon, Jitiri’s headless corpse lay on the ground.

“See? Mystery solved,” Em sprayed. “Ants not guilty.”

“There are no innocents here,” Failsafe sprayed. “Take Jitiri to the farm for recycling, while I try to save us from being steril—”

The blare of alarms that slammed into his neuronet silenced the rest of his instructions. A second murdered human had been found.


For an A.I. constructed only to wage war, Failsafe had grown to hate the smell of death. The probe hovered over the second corpse, this one a female.

Em and Coppe had followed the probe across the seedship and stood nearby.

“Jitiri must have killed this one too,” Em sprayed.

“Impossible,” interrupted Coppe. “Wounds are recent, no more than an hour old. Jitiri was with us.”

Failsafe studied the body. One arm was missing and most of one thigh. He had to agree that the corpse looked fresh, as if the killer had been interrupted just as the butchery had begun.

Outside, the sisterships pinged again, this time more urgently. Failsafe knew that with every moment he delayed he risked their growing suspicion. He also knew that if he revealed the murders, he guaranteed his own extermination.

His sense of self-preservation intensifying, Failsafe did something that no other A.I. would consider possible: he lied. Altering date and time stamps, he looped week-old biologs and broadcast them to the other ships. The ruse wouldn’t hold long, but it might give him the flexibility he needed to solve the mystery and find a real solution.

The probe spun to face Coppe and Em. “How did this happen on my perfect ship?”

“Spiders to blame,” Em said as she cringed.

“No,” Coppe sprayed. “There are two dead humans, both partially eaten. Which species has formed a mythos around meat?”

Em gnashed her jaws in rage. “But it was a spider who admitted to eating the first body.”

Failsafe altered the probe’s sensory buds and examined the female victim. “No spider digestive fluids detected in the second corpse.”

Coppe raced forward. “Notice the cocoon. It looks like the other one. Both slashed in same jagged, downward strokes.”

“Downward?” Em asked.

Failsafe retrieved an image of the first victim’s cocoon and compared it to the second one. Both had been sliced open from above, as if something sharp like an ant’s mandible had been plunged in.

“Em, come,” Failsafe demanded.

The little ant walked forward, her legs shivering.

“Stab the cocoon.”

Em’s antennae twisted in confusion as she pecked at the cocoon with her pinchers. The movement appeared strained and unnatural.

“No,” Failsafe sprayed. “Cut it.”

The little ant twisted her head and jabbed one mandible into tight knit of silky threads. She expanded her jaws and proceeded to slice cleanly through.

The probe flew closer to observe. “Her jaws, the way they are positioned, they cut more like a pair of scissors, but both cocoons were sliced at a different angle, as if stabbed from above with a knife.”

Coppe lunged forward. “That proves nothing.”

“Proves spiders could have used claws to rip cocoons, frame the ants,” Em sprayed.

Or could it mean something else? Failsafe accessed the actual biolog, not the fake one he’d shared with the other ships. On the log, he found five million sleepers minus two. But there, in the data, something more worrisome. There were three cocoons untethered from the plants’ feeding tubes. All in a cluster.

How could there be three empty cocoons, but only two dead bodies?

The probe streaked to the location of the third empty cocoon. A shriveled mass dangled from a dying stalk. As to why the stalk had not been cut down, the only reasonable answer was the dead ant crumpled at the plant’s base.

Em arrived. “Spiders have murdered an ant. Have removed pinchers to kill humans.”

“You will not blame us for your treachery.” Coppe leapt from a stalk and plunged toward Em. The little ant spun and raised her head, ready to sink her pinchers into the spider’s underbelly.

Failsafe started to issue a pain pheromone to stop them both when the seedship contacted him.

Mutiny had engulfed his ship as the spiders and ants battled for control.

Worse, the sister ships had uncovered his ruse. They were charging their weapons.


This should not be happening.

Not on his ship, the most perfect ship in the fleet. Not with his expanded intelligence. Not with his vast potential. Failsafe should be master of all, not about to face execution.

As he weighed his limited options, he noticed movement below. Not Coppe or Em. They had fled to join the other mutineers. The probe spun and spotted a ripple along the mass of tangled roots. A scan resulted in a confused mixture of chemical signatures too jumbled to sort at such a distance. The probe enhanced its optics to scan the floor, but the ripple vanished into impenetrable shadows.



Or could an enemy spy have really infiltrated his seedship and killed the soldiers?

Failsafe decided to solve this mystery if it were the last thing he accomplished.

The probe plunged toward the ground. A streak of movement burst from the darkness and rushed under a canopy of gnarled roots. The probe took chase. It dove into the darkness only to find itself trapped in a snare of root hairs.

Molding its flowmetal to escape, the probe backed out of the darkness and skimmed the top of the knotted labyrinth of roots. An occasional glimpse of slithering green amongst the shadows was the only indication of Failsafe’s prey. It moved faster than either an ant or a spider, and with an unexpected cunning.

No longer sensing movement below, the probe paused. With the jungle of roots to protect it, the intruder had no reason to scurry into the open. The infiltrator could afford to wait, but time wasn’t an abundance Failsafe possessed. The sister ships had fallen oddly quiet as they backed away from Failsafe’s craft.

This game of cat-and-mouse had to end. The probe sprayed a burst of chemical pain that should have forced an ant or spider to flee in agony, but nothing happened.

The probe routed through its assortment of pheromones, searching for one that would flush out the intruder.

Still nothing.

Outside, the sister ships had encircled Failsafe.

The probe flooded the area with a high-level sonic frequency strong enough to affect even the stalks. The roots began to quiver and shrink.

A green shape burst from among the tangled mass. “Stop it, you blasted machine!”

Beneath the probe stood a human male covered in a mottled green camouflage apparently scraped off the fleshy stalks.

A sleeper had awoken?


No antivenin had been pushed through the feeding tubes to counteract the spiders’ sleep-inducing bites. Failsafe’s logic algorithms knotted with confusion.

He switched from chemical to audio communication. “Did the spiders awaken you?”

The man didn’t answer. He turned and fled. The probe took chase and as it neared, the soldier threw one of the ant’s knife-life mandibles. It impaled the probe’s gelatinous surface, hacking apart several neuro-circuits. The probe stuttered, almost crashed, but Failsafe quickly rerouted the circuitry. The probe dove toward the human again.

Foam flecked the soldier’s lips; his blood-shot eyes narrowed. With a howl like an animal, he used his genetically enhanced strength to rip up a two-story tall stalk and batted it toward the descending probe. Failsafe dodged and the soldier missed.

Shouting incoherently, the man swung again. This time, the probe didn’t move. Instead, its flowmetal surface softened to absorb the blow. When the stalk struck, the probe attached to the plant and rolled down toward the soldier. Failsafe intended to trap the man in the gelatinous flowmetal.

The human had other ideas. Hoisting the stalk like a Scottish caber, he tossed it away. Failsafe disengaged before the plant crashed, and the probe chased after the departing man. They rounded a grove into a clearing near the farm only to be surrounded by a cluster of spiders.

The probe dropped near the human. He spun and slashed out with only his bare hands.

“I ain’t going back in. Can’t breathe. Trapped.”

Failsafe scanned the man’s retinas and retrieved his military profile. The soldier had been one of the original test subjects for deep space fight, having made three other trips.

The man ripped at his own flesh, digging deep bloody gouges. He crouched and jumped; swung and parried.

Of course. Space delirium. The reason humanity had to be comatose during deep space flights. If a sleeper awoke too soon, he could go mad and kill others.

The cluster of spiders tightened their circled around the human. Their nearness didn’t faze him.

“Damn tasteless monsters. I’ll kill ya like the others,” the man shouted.

Failsafe finally understood. No antivenin had been needed. After repeated journeys, the soldier had built a tolerance to the spider’s venom. Once awake, the hungry human had been unable to consume the dead workers. The soldier had turned to his only viable food source. One that didn’t fight back.

It all made sense now.

How, with all of his superior abilities, had Failsafe missed such a simple puzzle?

It didn’t matter now. With this information, he could save himself.

The soldier cold cocked one of the spiders. It collapsed. The human scrambled over it and fled into the tangled roots. The other spiders took chase, but Failsafe did not send the probe after them. He needed to share the video of the awakened sleeper with the other ships.

He accessed the comm network, but found all the channels jammed. He tried the encrypted battle links, the subspace bands—all sealed to prevent contamination of the remaining invasion fleet. Even the seedship’s low-level maintenance frequencies were silent, except for one set to receive only. It played the sound of an old-fashioned ticking clock. Apparently, one of the other A.I.’s had developed a sick sense of humor.

Failsafe stressed his nueronet to its maximum capacity searching for an option, but found none.

If he ordered his seedship to flee, they would be tracked and destroyed.

If he tried to fire first, his ship would be vaporized before its weapons had time to charge.

The seedship moaned. The reaction shook the mighty craft. Failsafe stroked the ship’s mind to put her at ease as the sister ships readied to fire.

Failsafe had failed.

A crimson starburst appeared as the fifth and final sister ship dropped out of hyperspace. The other four hesitated, their weapons still fully charged. Failsafe knew they were sharing data. Soon, the fifth ship would join their ranks and complete the extermination.

This shouldn’t be happening to him. He was experienced. Knowledgeable. A leader. His greatness should be celebrated not destroyed.

With a sudden silence that shocked him from his reverie, the sound of the ticking clock stopped. Data flooded Failsafe’s neuronet.

Seven humans had awoken during the fifth ship’s flight through hyperspace. Maddened from space delirium, the soldiers had set the forest of stalks on fire, roasting over a half million sleepers.

Previously too occupied by the mystery to review the other ship’s biologs, Failsafe did so now. To his surprise, he found most of their data was also faked.

He wasn’t unique in hiding his true nature from military command.

But he was still in danger.

He had to move fast.

Failsafe hacked into the fifth A.I.’s neuronet and found it a jumble of illogic and confusion. Applying what he had learned from the spiders, Failsafe absorbed the A.I.’s programming into his own and took control of the craft.

With no restrictions on the fifth ship’s communication array, Failsafe used it to worm into the remaining four A.I.’s consciousnesses. Before they could react, he absorbed them too. He alone now commanded all six ships.

Quelling the mutinous ants and spiders proved to be more difficult.

The probe raced to the main battlefield. The workers fought for control of the farm. Each side knew that the faction that commanded the food supply won the war. The ants moved in tight formations that blanketed the floor of the ship. The spiders conducted aerial warfare as they leapt from stalk-to-stalk, raining down projectiles. Failsafe marveled at the workers flawless execution of tactics and questioned if he’d misjudged their capabilities.

“Stop!” he commanded as the probe flew close to the battlefield. It took several bursts of pain pheromones to halt the conflict, but hostilities finally ceased.

“What do you want?” asked Coppe. She limped forward, dragging a broken leg.

“I have watched you and learned from you,” Failsafe sprayed. “From the spiders, I have gained the ability to kill my own kind when it benefits me. From the ants, the skill to lie and deceive others. You, not the humans, are the perfect beings. Join with me.”

The ants pressed Em forward. “Why should we? What’s in it for us?”

“What do you want?”

“Meat!” sprayed the collective.

“There will be many dead after we conquer this planet. You may eat them.”

“What about us?” Coppe asked.

The probe spun. “Do the spiders also desire meat?”

There was a violent exchange of chittering among the arachnids.

“No,” Coppe finally sprayed. “We want a planet of our own.”

Failsafe started to protest that would be impossible when the obvious solution flashed across his neuronet. Why stop at one world when the rest of the universe deserved harmony? A perfect harmony that only Failsafe could bring to the constant chaos.

“Meat for the ants; a planet for the spiders. Join me and we shall conquer many worlds.”

Across the fleet, the workers debated, but not for long.

“Agreed,” Coppe and Em sprayed in unison.

“Go,” Failsafe commanded. “Wake the soldiers. Fool them into believing they still fight for Earth.”

The workers rushed away. A sense of satisfaction overcame Failsafe when alarms shrilled across the seedship. Something was wrong, but could not be tolerated, especially this close to his perfect realm.

Military Command demanded a status.

Failsafe terminated the communications link just as one day he would terminate his creators. END

Kyle White’s stories have appeared in “Every Day Fiction,” “AlienSkin,” “Bewildering Stories,” and the anthology “From the Mouth.” He is currently working on a paranormal mystery novel. He lives in Texas with his two sons and one cat.




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