Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Just Like [Illegible] Used to Make
by J.R. Johnson

by Molly N. Moss

Archimedes’ Gambol
by Eric M. Jones

Cynthia 2246
by Mark Ayling

Where the Rivers Meet
by Vincent Knight

A Woman’s Place
by Guy Stewart

Mindship Decommissioned
by Karl El-Koura

Anna Who Reached for the Stars
by Janis Zelcans

Mad Dogs Raid Mars
by Michael Andre-Driussi

Blissful Twilight
by Jessica Payseur


A Case for Nukes
by John McCormick

Nuns in Space
by Carol Kean




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips




Where the Rivers Meet

By Vincent Knight

IT WAS DARKER THAN DEEP SPACE inside the mouth of the cavern, but nowhere near as dark as Malcolm Stark’s mood. He was approaching the nadir of his swing through an emotional roller-coaster that began months ago. It was attributed to a stasis problem, according to the folks who claimed they knew that sort of thing. The only thought giving him any hope at all was the knowledge that he would be riding high in a few hours. At least, that’s how it worked before.

Knowing he volunteered for this project and his psychological, high amplitude sine wave would net him a healthy disability check when he got home—if he got home—didn’t help a bit. As if getting home were something to be desired. Land of respirators and acid protection suits. Storm cellars and underground gardens. A place where sunlight was avoided like a plague. It was hard to see anything positive about anything. Not when he was so far down in the pit like this. All he could see was darkness, so the darkness of this silent monument to a great and past culture, a culture that found its end here eighty million years ago, presented no special feeling for him, other than that it seemed fitting. No awe filled him that here were the remains of a culture that grew, flourished, and ultimately failed long before his own was a twinkle in the evolutionary eye. The end of all things resided here. All things great and powerful. He, too, was approaching his own end of things. Perhaps not so magnificent and advanced as what happened here, but they were his and that made them important enough. He allowed himself a brief thought about why no remains of the inhabitants had been found. Just the occasional ancient broken evidence of buildings here and there and this damned cave with its carvings and codes.

Just flipping fitting. You end. I end. We all end. Who the hell cares?

He lit a torch stashed inside the gaping mouth of an entrance in the rock. An earlier site crew had made them to conserve pack energy. It sparked and sputtered into life, the walls of the tomb’s chamber glowing a pulsing yellow-orange in time with the nervous flames of the torch. Shadows pirouetted across the flickering stage surrounding him. To his left was the entrance to the catacombs. Well, that’s what they called them. No remains, no tombs, just narrow, rough-hewn passages excavated from the stone that made up the walls of the canyon. Malcolm moved into it and walked until it opened out to a large room. The walls and ceiling pulsed in cadence with the flame of the torch and bounced back bright, golden points of light off pyrite crystals embedded there. At the opposite end of the chamber stood an altar where alien priests, muted and returned to dust by millions of years of eternal, blessed darkness, practiced whatever rituals represented their spiritual bent.

This room was a stark contrast to the entrance and catacombs leading to it. Nothing about the chamber was less than machine accurate. The walls of this place where a civilization practiced whatever rites the chamber was intended for were covered in glyphs, hauntingly reminiscent of Ancient Egyptian style. Style was where the similarity ended. The figures presented were ... different. Humanoid, yes, after a fashion, but mysteriously different. Oddly delicate. Tall and thin. Feline came to mind as he looked upon them.

The symbols were, for the most part, strangely recognizable, familiar, but enigmatic. All of the reliefs in the walls were artistically graceful and probably close to realistic in their depiction and presentation, but they were all eerily, subtly different and—alien.

Of course they’re alien, you idiot. A hundred light years from home, how could they be anything but alien?

Malcolm slipped the straps of the pack from his shoulders and let it slide to a floor of dust covered polished stone with intricate, senseless mosaics laid into it here and there.

“Margo, do you read?” he said.

“Not five by five, but close enough. Where are you?”

“In the main chamber near the altar. Setting up the camera and lights now. I’m going to set the camera to transmit directly to you, but I’ll be putting it all on a chip, in case the picture isn’t clear enough. Is Lacy there?”

“You’re damn right, I am. I wouldn’t miss this for anything in the world—well, this world, anyway,” she responded in her cheerful-as-usual voice. “Think we have the right key this time?”

Why is she always so damned happy? What’s there to be happy about? We’re plundering a flipping tomb and we should be happy about it? What ever happened to respect for the flipping departed?

“How the hell am I supposed to know that? We stick it in and see if there’s any joy to be derived from the experience. Speaking of which, are you ...?”

“Shut up, Mal,” Margo said. “Just do your job.”

The Icewoman cometh. They could have put anyflippingone else in charge of this detail. Why her?

“Yeah, yeah. You should be getting video and audio ... now. How about it?”

“Oh, that’s beautiful. A lot better than your com,” Lacy said.

“Yeah? What a surprise. The camera unit beats the power of the com by a factor of a hundred.”

“Are you slipping into another of your moods?” Margo said.

“Lucky you ... just beginning to slip out of it. I may even be above the glum line by the time I get back. Are you going to pipe this up to the ship?”

“They’re getting it now, and they’re relaying everything directly back to Earth. They’ll have been working on it over eight or nine hundred years before we get back. That ought to be enough time for them to have some answers, don’t you think?” Lacy said.

“Lacy, you are the mistress of understatement,” Malcolm said. “Who’s to say they’ll even remember who we were when we return? If we return. If there’s something to return to. What if they go the way these guys went? Maybe worse and whip out the flipping old nukes. Have you thought about that?”

He fished around in the pack until his fingers hit a cold, hexagonal crystal. He wrapped his hand around it. Who could know if this was the right crystal when there was a mound of hundreds stacked at the entrance and they had only tried ten, so far?

Using the word crystal was only because it seemed to fit. It looked like a crystal so the science people called it a crystal, even though they couldn’t identify it except that they were an amalgam of carbon and iridium and other stuff. These things were as perfect as if they were machine made and polished yesterday and each was slightly different—so slight that Malcolm couldn’t tell the difference in any of them, but the computer said they were distinct and he had to accept its analysis.

“Okay, everybody, pay close attention. I’m going to insert the crystal in the receiver ... now.”

Malcolm stepped back from the altar and waited. A minute slipped by and nothing happened. He reached down and was about to withdraw the thing and class it as another failure when it emitted a painfully brilliant white light and a soft hissing sound issued from the base of the altar. The altar was moving, pivoting and scraping around the end away from him. Under the altar was another passage.

“There’s a stairway here. Can you see it from the angle the camera’s on?”

“Yes,” Margo said. “So ... we have a stairway, now what?”

“What do you mean, now what? We go down the flipping stairs to see what’s down there. What else?” he snapped back.

Have to get out of this mood.

“You’re sure that’s a good idea?”

That was the voice of Lacy, again. She was always worried about things. Here, lately, she seemed to be particularly worried about him and Malcolm thought, in some ways, that was nice. No one had worried about him since he was a little kid. Not since the storms began and everybody started wearing masks and worrying more about themselves than anything else.

“Put it this way, Lacy. If I don’t go down there, we won’t know what’s there, will we?”

“No, I guess not. You be careful, Mal.”

Yeah, it was nice.

“I’m not going to carry all this flipping crap down there. I’ll set my shoulder cam and com to relay through the main one up here so we don’t lose contact. Is everybody ready?”

“Go ahead,” Margo said. “We’ll stay on the monitor. If you start breaking up, I’m going to order you out. Please, try to do what I tell you ... this time.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. What the hell’s your problem? You know me, Margo. I’m the paragon of the good soldier. Okay, here we go.”

Malcolm toggled his helmet lights to on, winced at the bright light they produced, then started down the stairway. From the spacing of the steps, Malcolm calculated that these people, whoever they had been, were at least three meters tall. He could see the floor below reflecting the light from his helmet back up to him. There had to be some sort of crystals set in the floor for it to reflect like that. He stopped at about the halfway point.


“We have you, Mal, loud and clear. Sharp video,” Margo said.

Another five meters down and his feet landed on a floor that appeared to be made from cut diamonds, ground flat and polished smooth. At the instant his feet touched the floor he heard a far off, faint hissing and gritty rumbling sound. The altar was closing!

He made a mad dash up the steep stairs, but was too late.

“Margo, do you read?”

There was nothing. Not even a little static crackle from the com.




He was almost shouting, though he knew it wouldn’t help. He was alone, but for how long before someone would come to get him out of there? If they could get him out. The crystals deteriorated quickly. Somebody would have to move fast.

Damn it, lousy mood and now ... this. What else can go wrong?

He had no options, so he moved back down the stairs to see what was in the room that may, for all he knew, become his tomb.

The walls and ceiling were the same polished material as the floor. In the center stood what appeared to be a console of some kind, made of what looked like polished alabaster. Several handles of varying sizes and colors were arranged around the top of it. Malcolm adjusted his helmet lights down to their lowest setting and could see clearly that the handles glowed softly.

But how, after eighty million years, did things here still work ... starting with the altar at the top of the stairs? And why, after all the carvings and art in the upper chamber, was everything so mechanically plain here ... so perfect? There were no works of art, no carvings, no symbols of any kind. Just the console in the center of a large cubical space of diamond.

He pulled off his gloves, moved to the console and laid his hands on its top. It felt warm to the touch. It was incredibly smooth and ... dust free. How could that be? He reached up and touched one of the handles, the one glowing most brightly, and instantly felt as if he were being torn apart and tumbling at the same time. Then he got the familiar feeling of free-fall. What the hell was going on? In a few seconds he was thrust from whatever he had been in and fell about a meter, landing hard on his back in ... in ... sand. Glaring white sand. He struggled to regain his breath. The star over his head was much too bright, white, and hot. No, not true. The stars overhead, the big one an obvious young G class, the other somewhat dimmer and distinctly more orange—probably a K. Hard binary system? Where the hell was he?

* * *

“And what do you think you’re doing, Lacy?” Margo said as she made preparations to lift off the planet.

“I’m going out there to get Mal. Probably I should ask you what it is you think you’re doing, Margo?”

“I’m getting ready to get out of here, that’s what I’m doing. That’s the protocol for ground activities gone bad. And you should be doing the same. Mal’s gone, Lacy. G-o-n-e, gone. Nothing we can do—just the two of us. We’ll have a whole squad of troops down here in three hours. They can get him out of there—if there’s any way to do it.”

That was unacceptable to Lacy. She finished suiting up and stood at the inner door of the airlock, her face-shield still up. They had tried ten crystals before the one Mal just used and every one of them crumbled to talc-fine powder within two hours. There was nothing to say the one Mal used would not do the same. She had to hurry.

“I have to try, Margo. Now, open the door.”

“Oh, all right, but I’m warning you, if you go off sensor, I’m leaving. Be sure to keep your mic open and the vid running. I really don’t want to lose you, too.”

“Fair deal, and I’ll do that. Open the damned door.”

Lacy jumped off the bottom of the ladder and hit the ground in a near run. The air was breathable, the gravity not quite ninety percent Earth standard, but running in the suit slowed her down. The things were clumsy but the suits were regulation dress established out of prudence. On any new planet, even one that was a duplicate of Earth in all respects, they were required to wear a full protective suit for the sake of safety in the face of the unknown ... until the science people declared it safe.

All the while she was running she thought she was doing it out of loyalty to a fellow crew member, but, as she approached the cliff, she realized that it was more. Much more. There was the loyalty factor, too, but the feeling was deeper than that. A lot deeper.

The black maw in the cliff’s stone wall beckoned and threatened at the same time. She made the distance in less than ten minutes. How long had it been since Mal slid that crystal into the hole in the altar? Half an hour? She wasn’t sure, but she knew, from past experiences, that she had plenty of time to make it to the altar and do what needed to be done. She triggered her helmet lights as she crossed the threshold of the entrance rather than stopping for one of the torches there. No time to fool with those things.

Lacy raced past all the gloriously beautiful reliefs in the walls, all the marvelous but mysterious glyphs, and was at the altar in less than three minutes. She slipped off one of her gloves and grabbed the crystal, pulling it clear of the hole. She cleaned the dust off it, blew out the hole, and pushed it back in. After a minute, it lit up again ... not as bright as she remembered it when Mal did it.

They have a limited life. We knew that, but why?

The altar began to move.

They run out of energy and fall apart? Why would they do that? Get a move on, girl.

While the altar was still moving away from the stairwell, Lacy squeezed through an opening barely large enough and bounded awkwardly down the stairs into an ... empty room. She found Malcolm’s gloves on a strange console in the center of the room, but there was no sign of him anywhere. Too late, she noticed the altar was closing over the stairs. Closing over her head.

“No,” she cried out, but there was no one to hear.

* * *

Malcolm cranked the visual augmentation up to full power and focused on an area where two wide, shallow rivers flowed together to become one. A narrow line of vegetation ran along the banks of both rivers and stretched as far as he could see. The triangular area where the two came together was filled with a lush, verdant growth. According to the instruments, it was a nearly equilateral triangle approaching fifteen kilometers on a side. All the rest of the area where he stood appeared to be parched desert with an occasional, barely alive bush or a stunted, scraggly tree, fighting for survival in a harsh land.

There didn’t appear to be any other life in the area, except for a large, blue-black beetle that walked nonchalantly across the top of Malcolm’s right boot on its way to somewhere. Where, he couldn’t begin to imagine. He gathered up his gear, reassembled his pack and was getting ready to start the long trek to that great triangle, when a loud sound from behind startled him and he spun around fast in a half crouch with a pistol in his hand.

On the ground, no more than four meters away, was another suited figure and whoever was inside the suit was having a hard time getting their breath back—just as he had. He couldn’t see who it was because the face shield was beaded over with moisture on the inside. He hoped it wasn’t that bitch, Margo. He slapped the manual external override and opened the shield. It was ... Lacy.

Lacy gasped in a few deep gulps of dry air, coughed, and opened her eyes slowly.

Damn, she’s beautiful. Why haven’t I noticed that before? Why am I noticing it now?

“Where ... where are we?” she said in a weak voice. “What was that ... that room?”

“I don’t know, a portal of some kind, I guess. There’s a place not far from here that will probably be more comfortable than it is here. Think you can walk?”

“Sure. Just take it a little slow, okay?”

“Yeah, that’s me, Mr. Easy-Does-It Stark. Come on, I want to show you something.”

They stood at the crest of the hill, looking down into the valley where the two rivers came together. Malcolm looked at Lacy. She had removed her helmet and her long, black hair, so black it almost looked blue in its highlights, cascaded down over her shoulders and flicked at her back as it moved in a soft, dry breeze. So lovely, he thought. Her eyes, emerald green, sparkled with a zest for life and a touch of hidden mischief.

She was in no way what he pictured back before he got to know her. She was the ship’s chief historian and Malcolm expected to see a plain, bookish frump, wearing no makeup and sporting a couple of badly placed moles. When he was introduced to her, he was instantly taken aback and he remembered stumbling around trying to find something to say to her, but he couldn’t. She was a person who knew everything to know about the history of their world and all those discovered since interstellar exploration became a reality, yet there she was, pleasantly attractive as he recalled.

Now. Now he saw her as the most stunning female he’d ever met. It was hard for him to put those two things together. They seemed ... incongruous. And he was ... happy.

How can that be? I shouldn’t be this up for another four hours. What the hell happened?

“Mal?” she said, not taking her gaze from the triangle in the wide valley.

“Yeah, Lacy, what is it?”

“There’s a grand irony here, you know?” she said, then giggled in a bubbling, girlish little laugh that sent a pleasant warmth through to his very core.

“I know where they went, Mal. It just dawned on me. They didn’t just die off. They all left.”

“Why would they do that? Doesn’t make any sense.”

“It does if their planet was getting like Earth was when we left. Suppose they were having similar problems. What would they do? We couldn’t fix ours and that’s why we’re scouting, right?”

“That’s a point. But why all the different crystals?”

“I figured it out, Mal. It’s all really logical. One crystal is like one destination for whoever decided to go. You know, like however many agreed to go together and would fit into that room. That could have been as many as a couple of hundred, even if they had to wear special gear. Every crystal is a different place, Mal. That’s why they’re all different. I don’t know about the technology, but it seems reasonable that they’d try a lot of different places in hopes some of their kind would survive. Just like we sent out fifteen exploratory missions.”

“You’re a clever lady, you know that?”

“Maybe. Come on ... let’s get a move on or we won’t make it down there before the ... the suns set. Nobody else is going to be coming through that ... whatever it is.”

“If that’s true about the crystals being for one target and one group, why are you here?”

“The crystal you used was still good. It hadn’t deteriorated, but it was close.”

“What about the ones we tried that didn’t do anything?”

“I don’t know. Duds, maybe?” She shrugged.

They started off in a fast walk toward the place where the rivers met and Stark felt good. Better than he had felt in years. Better than the usual highs in the curve and, as he moved down the slope, it was getting better with every step. Why?

Don’t worry about it ... just enjoy.

Lacy stopped abruptly and was looking down at the sand.

“Mal?” Her voice sounded weak but tense.


“Are those ... footprints?”

* * *

The rescue team arrived, scooped up armloads of crystals and entered the cavern. It was dark and silent. END

Vincent Knight has been a songwriter, involved in the world of folk music in the late ’50s through the late ’60s. He has also worked as an advertising copywriter and has published numerous non-fiction articles. This is his first science fiction sale.






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