Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Mortality, Eternity
by Joseph Green

Absolute Pony
by Alisa Alering

Quisic Smith and the Russian Puzzle Doll
by Sean Monaghan

Clever Bubble
by Antha Ann Adkins

by Matthew Wuertz

To Walk the Earth
by Rebecca Birch

Five Stages of Future Grief
by Gary Cuba

Lost Planes, Lost River
by Michael Hodges

Funny Money
by Chet Gottfried

Insanity Machine
by Lawrence Buentello

Ten Minutes
by Eamonn Murphy


A Quantum Mind
by Eric M. Jones

What is Science?
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Mortality, Eternity

By Joseph Green

ALEX TURNED TO LOOK AT ANITA as he heard the heavy wooden lab door close behind them, raising his eyebrows in question. She understood immediately, and nodded; this was probably their last chance before they would be tied up again.

With his next step Alex spun around on his heel. Anita did the same, and attacked the armed guard walking two paces behind them. Alex went for the second man, just turning away from the door.

Anita, always very fast, reached the closer guard before he had time to react. Out of the corner of his right eye, as he took two fast steps toward the second soldier, Alex caught a glimpse of a stiffened hand smashing into the man’s forehead, precisely between the eyes. The blow would stun him for the few seconds Anita needed to land two more hard strikes, on each side of his neck.

The two burly guards, both well-trained soldiers in their early forties, had not dreamed the two slimly built and unarmed young adults would actually attack them. They had untied their hands and feet after the helicopter landed, to enable the captives to grasp the handrails as they crossed the narrow, dangerous wooden bridge connecting the heliport on the cliff top to the old seafront castle. They had no way to know the in-house school at the Institute For Longevity trained its students extensively in the martial arts; as much a part of their curriculum as math and human physiology. The value of the bodies they inhabited had been revealed to the eight classmates five years ago, at age fourteen. They needed to be capable of defending themselves if threatened or attacked. Small arms and the rifle range had become as familiar to them as electron microscopes and Petri dishes.

The extra distance Alex had to cover almost proved fatal. Though surprised, the guard had time to draw his bulky rocket pistol. Alex used his forward momentum to hurl himself in a flat dive toward the man’s stomach, bracing his neck for impact and chopping at the rising muzzle. He connected, forcing the barrel away as the gun fired. The minirocket went past his ear with an audible hiss. Alex heard it strike flesh behind him, a sound like that of someone slapping his thigh, as his head rammed into the soldier’s midsection.

Alex and the guard went backward and down, in a tangled heap. Unharmed, he rolled off the man and was back on his feet in a second. The guard lay curled up in a ball, trying to recover the air that had been pushed out of his lungs. But he had managed to keep his grip on the pistol, and tried to raise it. Alex took a quick step forward and kicked it out of his hand, stepped back, pivoted on his left foot and kicked again, this time with a boot heel to the man’s left temple. The guard visibly relaxed into unconsciousness, his body uncurling slightly and arms falling to his sides.

Alex turned and looked for his wife. Anita stood facing him, over the prone body of the other soldier. She held her left forearm with her right hand, supporting its weight. He could see by the looseness with which it hung from the shoulder that the minirocket had broken the humerus. And blood was pouring from both the entrance and exit wounds.

Anita needed help. But some of the extensive military training they had received, boring and seeming useless at the time, kicked in. The most urgent need was to secure the area. The rocket pistol had bounced off the door and lay almost at his feet. Alex scooped it up, checked that the safety was off, and turned to the interior of this hidden lab. He could see throughout the entire single large room, and only two people were visible.

Two Latino men in white lab coats, one plump and elderly, the other much younger and with the build of an athlete, stood gaping at them from behind a littered table, twenty feet away. The fight had started and ended so quickly they hadn’t had time to think or react. But now the younger one pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and started pressing buttons.

Alex took quick but careful aim, and shot him in the center of the chest. His mouth gaped open, as if he wanted to scream but could not, and the younger scientist fell behind the table.

A veteran of a hundred virtual simulations where he had been forced to shoot someone, Alex found the reality far more disturbing. But he could not let that affect him now. Later, if they survived this international kidnapping, he would have time to think about what it meant to actually kill another human being.

“Over here!” Alex ordered the second man in Spanish, gesturing with the pistol barrel.

The older, obviously senior scientist had raised his hands in surrender. He looked down at his colleague on the floor, started to say something, but instead walked around the table and toward Alex. The other man was already dead, or clearly beyond help.

Alex turned back to the two guards. The man he had kicked remained unconscious, but the one Anita had downed was stirring. Alex reached him just as he managed to sit up, and delivered another hard boot heel kick to the side of the head.

Alex pointed the pistol at the plump scientist as he reached Anita. “Are you a medical doctor?”

“I was,” said the elderly man. “Haven’t practiced in years.” His voice sounded unsteady, but he had himself under control.

Alex nodded. Finally, a bit of good luck. Scientists specializing in life extension came as often from the biological community as the medical. “Stop the bleeding. Splint that arm,” he ordered, gesturing at Anita.

The doctor nodded, and led Anita to a chair by the table. He walked quickly to the wall on their left, opened a large white box marked with a red cross, and selected the emergency supplies he needed. Returning to Anita, he dumortalitymped the items on the table, picked up a pair of blunt-nosed medical scissors, and quickly snipped off her shirt at the shoulder. He applied a flexible tourniquet three inches above the wound, pulling it tight. The bleeding on both sides of the arm slowed to an ooze.

The doctor turned his head to look at Alex. “I need some help here!”

Alex nodded, but hurried to the door and locked it first. He laid the big pistol on the table, well out of reach, before stepping to the other side of Anita. She looked up at him and smiled, but he could see she was suffering serious pain.

Anita would have to endure the pain for now. They could not afford to dull her senses with a sedative.

The doctor cleaned the blood off Anita’s arm, then placed thick pads of gauze on both wound openings and gestured for Alex to hold them. As Alex applied pressure he locked them tightly in place, using an inch-wide roll of medical tape.

The doctor handed Alex two plastic splints and indicated where to place them, an inch below the tourniquet. He held them on both sides of the broken arm, opposite the two bandages, as the older man checked to verify the bone ends were in place against each other. Anita winced, and shuddered from the added pain, but said nothing. The doctor bound the splints firmly in place. Then he took off his lab coat, cut off the lower part below the arms, and used the long strip to fashion a wide sling. With Anita’s arm supported, he checked the bandages for bleeding, found only seepage, and released the tourniquet.

Alex and the doctor watched together to see if the bleeding resumed. When the bandages remained white, the other man nodded in satisfaction. “Someone will need to open that up again, check for bone splinters, clean the area. But this will do for now.”

“Thank you, doctor,” said Alex. It seemed clear the scientist had done his best to help Anita, despite a lack of recent practice. “You just saved your life.”

The elderly man nodded, turned around, and placed both hands behind his back, wrists crossed. Alex bound them firmly together with the medical tape, then ordered him to sit on the floor with his back against the table. He used the last of the roll to attach the doctor’s hands to one sturdy metal leg.

Alex took another roll of tape from the emergency kit and bound and gagged the two guards, hands behind their backs and linked to their feet. It would have been safer to shoot them, but he was not capable of killing unconscious men.

“Better gag the doctor too,” said Anita, voice low. She tested her strength by standing up, and though her footing seemed unsteady, she gestured Alex away when he stepped toward her.

“I didn’t hear the chopper take off,” said Anita as Alex fastened a thick pad of gauze over the doctor’s mouth. “If we can reach it ...” Both had received enough training to fly light aircraft, or operate a small transport helicopter.

Alex saw that Anita had regained some strength. But she would become weak again when blood loss, and shock from a serious wound, had their effect.

“It’s our best chance,” Anita went on. “It’s only an hour’s flight back to the border. But I don’t think I could make it on foot through that jungle we flew over on the way in.”

“No, you’re right. We’ll try for the chopper,” said Alex.

The lab had only the one door, but two large windows had been installed on the east-side wall. Alex raised the wide lower pane, locked it in place, punched a hole through the plastic mosquito screen with his fist, then enlarged it until he could extend his upper body through the opening. The sun had been setting as they landed, but enough light remained for him to see the series of metal rungs, anchored in the thick stone wall, that he had noticed when crossing the hazardous wooden bridge above. They provided a crude, added-on fire escape, leading from the roof forty feet above, past a vertical series of modern windows cut into the old stone walls, to the rocks over fifty feet below. This centuries-old castle occupied the end of a short, rocky promontory. A road led from the courtyard below to a jagged breach in the opposing cliff.

Alex drew back, and Anita pushed through the opening far enough to look around. She pulled her head back inside and said, “No guards in sight. But we have to deal with that sentry in the pillbox on the roof.”

The guard force here at the elderly President’s secret laboratory had built a pillbox twenty feet from the end of the wooden bridge, equipped with a .50-caliber mounted machine gun and apparently manned at all times. Alex had noted its coverage on the way in. On one end, a narrow open slot provided a clear view across the length of the bridge and the width of the heliport; on the other, a second slot allowed the gun to cover both the elevator and roof access doors.

Anita looked at Alex. Her voice sounded almost normal when she said, “Sweetheart, I see just one way. That elevator at the end of the hall wasn’t guarded when we came down. I’ll take it up to the roof, and when the door opens I’ll make a run for the bridge. The guard will have to leave his pillbox to grab me. You can be waiting just below the rooftop, and shoot him when he shows himself.”

Their two escorts had joked with the man on duty as they went past, asking if he had arrested any beautiful seƱoritas who had managed to ride the elevator to the roof. The guard had responded that yes, he had one in the little holding cell now, and was going to give her his full attention when the coast was clear. The badinage between the men meant nothing to the two captives at the time, but it had provided them with valuable information Anita now put to use.

“He won’t shoot me,” Anita went on. “A woman, alone, with one arm in a sling and no weapon showing. You can bet that everyone knows why we’ve been brought here, and El Presidente will have his hide if he kills one of us. I’ll run as if I’m going to dodge around the pillbox on the east side.”

If the unsuspecting guard left the pillbox to intercept Anita, he would have to come within a few yards of the edge where Alex waited. The roof was probably not well lighted at night, but they would have to keep lights focused on the bridge and castle access doors. It should be enough for Alex to hit the soldier at short range.

It was a straightforward, simple plan, and should work. But it had one major drawback, of which Anita was well aware. It required Alex to climb through the window and ascend those metal rungs for forty feet, above the jagged rocks waiting below.

And Alex was acrophobic.

Alex’s problem had come to light when the class started serious mixed martial arts and military programs. Until then, no one had noticed that Alex avoided heights. The psychologists assigned to their training and education had worked with Alex, to little effect.

Anita had at first made fun of him when his classmates discovered his weakness. She was a mocking, smart-mouthed companion on the sports fields, surprisingly strong for a girl of fourteen, and blindingly fast. She could beat him and the three other boys in most sports that required primarily speed and agility. He would never have believed, then, that he would come to love the tall, lean, boyish teenager, or that he would die for her now if that became necessary.

All eight children had been selected by scientists at the Institute For Longevity at age eight, after a long series of tests. All came from long-lived but very poor families, where the parents were willing to surrender them to the government full-time for a very special education—and in return receive substantial monthly stipends. The eight learned later that their heredity provided them with an unusually good rate of telomere replacement, the primary driver that determined the life cycle of individual cells. All else being equal, each person lived a long or shorter life depending on healthy cell division. The average human cell could duplicate itself about fifty times, the telomeres becoming shorter after each division. New telomeres were created, but not enough to equal the lost. Eventually a cell became unable to divide. Sometime later it reached apoptosis, and died without replacement.

At age sixteen the sexually mature young adults signed consent forms, and began supplying semen and eggs to the biologists. The eggs from each female were fertilized in vitro by semen from each male, creating sixteen separate lines. All eggs were nurtured to the blastocyst stage, which were pulled apart to perform experiments on the individual cells.

Alex and the three other males had been required, once a month usually, to masturbate and ejaculate into a tube holding a specially prepared buffering solution. This seemed a small indignity compared to what the females endured, which was having their bodies invaded at every ovulation, to capture the precious egg.

The research had been going well, the scientists pleased with the results they were achieving, when at age eighteen and legally adults, Alex and Anita had given them an ultimatum. Let them marry, or they would leave the program. And they would reveal its existence—the Institute operated this highly secret special campus on a military base in Arizona, with full Defense Department support—to the world at large.

The Institute director had grudgingly accepted their terms, partially because none of the other six wanted to marry, and Anita agreed to let them continue harvesting her already fertilized eggs. They also started letting the young adults leave the campus occasionally, as couples, for nights out in the nearest large town. The psychologists had argued that interactions with someone other than their peers was necessary for normal social development. And that had led to the killing of two guardian MPs in civilian clothes, the kidnapping of Alex and Anita, and the smuggling of their unconscious bodies out of the States and into the hands of the elderly dictator ruling this small Central American country. The Institute had obviously not concealed the program, and its goal of healthy human life extension, as well as they had thought.

That breach of security had led to this desperate need for Alex to overcome his acrophobia, and climb out the laboratory window.

He had to do this. Acrophobia was all in the mind; an emotional reaction, not based on reality. Alex pushed his upper body through the remaining screen at the left side of the window, turned until he was sitting on the wide sill, and grasped the highest metal rung within reach. He gripped it firmly ... and froze.

Alex faced inward to the wall, unable to pull his body up and off the window sill. After a long moment he heard Anita tear off some remaining screen and extend her upper body out the window. He turned his head enough to look into the lovely face, framed by shoulder-length black hair, that he had grown to love more than his own life. The dark brown eyes looked intently into his.

“You can climb!” Anita’s voice was a low, harsh whisper, fiercely demanding. “You have to, sweetheart. It’s our only chance.”

Alex saw a gray pallor beneath the dark olive of Anita’s skin; shock was setting in. They had to move while she still had the strength to run across the roof.

There were dark stories about the dictator who had ruled this small country for two decades. His attempts to prolong his already long life had been discussed in class, as an example of the wrong approach to healthy life extension. The rumors had it that he had already tried replacing his blood with that of young children; hormone replacement therapy for men; and caloric restriction, The last might have worked to some extent; he was now past ninety.

And then the old man had somehow learned of the Institute, and its highly secretive work on prolonging life. He had ordered the kidnapping of two of the experiment subjects, and had them brought to his own country. He did not understand that this primitive lab, and the poorly trained scientists who manned it, could never hope to duplicate the work of the Institute. This last effort to extend his life was as hopeless as all the others. But that would not stop the dictator from trying whatever measures his paid scientists devised. He would have the two young Americans ground into sausage and eat them for breakfast, if that would prolong his own life for even a year.

Alex had overheard several conversations between the intelligence agents who had kidnapped them, before they were drugged and carried aboard a government plane with diplomatic privileges for the flight here. He had identified the country, and its ruler. The rest was easy enough to put together.

“Alex, I’m taking that elevator up to the roof. If you’re not in position when I try for the bridge, I’ll be captured. Now get moving!”

Anita withdrew from the window. She hurried to the long table, where Alex had placed the pistol taken from the second guard. She checked that the safety was off, then tucked it inside the sling, wedging it between her lower arm and the cloth. She walked to the heavy door, unlocked and opened it, and peeked down the hallway. It was empty—most of the garrison probably at dinner—and she could see the elevator doors at the end. She hesitated, trying to calculate how long it would take Alex to climb that forty feet. If she arrived ahead of him, she would have to deal with the guard alone. And she did not like her chances of getting the pistol out of the sling while the guard had her covered with his sidearm, the most likely scenario.

Anita glanced at her watch, and decided to wait two minutes.

In the stillness of the early night Alex heard Anita’s steps as she crossed the room to the table, and guessed that she was getting the second pistol. A moment later he heard the creak of the old lab door’s hinges when Anita opened it. She was on her way to the roof. And if he wanted to save her from a likely shoot-out with the roof guard, he had to climb ... now.

Alex closed his eyes, pulled his body on through the window, hung for a second by his hands as his feet searched for a rung—found it, and immediately started climbing.

The steel rungs were well anchored, reassuringly solid under his hands and feet. Alex climbed rapidly, eyes still closed, until he felt he had covered most of the distance. When he paused and opened his eyes, looking up only, he was about eight feet below the top.

Alex climbed until his head was just below the waist-high parapet that edged the roof. He thought of rising high enough for a quick look toward the pillbox, but decided not to risk it. With captives in the castle, the sergeant of the guard would be conscientious in making his rounds, the guards more alert than usual. Better to wait until he heard the elevator doors open, and the guard challenge Anita.

Alex fixed his gaze on a rough spot in the wall, eight inches from his eyes, and waited.

Anita glanced at her watch a dozen times during the two minutes. Finally the time arrived, and she stepped into the corridor, closed the door behind her, and walked quickly to the elevator. It seemed an interminable wait as she heard it ascending from some floor below—probably the dining area where the garrison had gathered—before it finally arrived and the access and elevator doors opened. She stepped inside and pressed the button marked Tejado. Both sets of doors closed, and this time it seemed only seconds before they opened again, onto the roof.

Through the firing slot in the pillbox Anita saw that the same guard remained on duty. Alerted by the sound of the rising elevator, he had turned on an overhead light and taken his position at the handles of the gun. The barrel was pointed at the elevator doors, apparently their standard protocol; it had been aimed at them earlier as they crossed the wooden bridge.

Expecting the sergeant of the guard, the alert soldier stood ready for inspection. But it took him only a second to realize the captives who had passed by here only an hour ago had escaped from custody. He bent over the handle grips of the .50- caliber and aimed it at Anita.

Anita felt the first touch of dizziness, a light-headed feeling that told her she had only minutes to go before her body collapsed. Stepping out of the elevator, she drew on her last reserves of strength and started around the pillbox at a run, on the right side. If she had guessed wrong about the guard’s reaction, she would die now.

The guard did not press the trigger. He could see that Anita was alone, and had one arm in a sling. Instead he yelled in Spanish for her to stop. When she ignored him and kept running, passing out of his sight, he cursed and opened the pillbox metal access door, on the seaward side. He started around the pillbox, drawing his pistol as he ran.

Anita swerved further outward, as if to trying to get past the guard before he could intercept her. He moved a few steps away from the pillbox and stopped, blocking her way to the bridge. The guard aimed his handgun at Anita, but again did not fire.

The wary guard refused to move far from the security of his pillbox, and the mounted machine gun, This was as close to the east castle wall as he was going to come.

Scattered light from two spotlights focused on the bridge and roof access doors dimly illuminated the area. Anita saw the guard pull a cell phone out of his pocket and start to dial one-handed. She had no choice but to act, despite what had become a problematic shot.

Now Alex!” Anita said aloud, in complete faith that she would not have to try for the pistol in the arm sling, almost certainly taking a rocket before she could draw it out and fire.

Alex straightened up from where he crouched below the top of the parapet, left hand firmly grasping the top rung, pistol in his right. The guard, his eyes on Anita, saw Alex appear behind her, only head and shoulders exposed, large rocket pistol extended. Instantly he moved his aim to Alex and shot, then turned and ran for cover behind the pillbox.

Alex tried to take careful aim in the dim light, and was slow to fire. As a rocket hissed past a full yard high, he pressed the trigger. His own rocket accurately passed through the space the guard had occupied a half-second ago.

Using only one hand, Alex pulled himself up and over the parapet. When his feet hit the stone roof he ran for the pillbox, pistol now held in both hands and aimed low, where he expected the guard’s head and shoulders to reappear from around the corner.

Anita fought off another surge of lightheadedness and ran for the opposite side of the pillbox, drawing her pistol free of the arm sling. If she could get behind it before the guard managed to shoot Alex, she could take him from the rear.

But the guard was either well trained, or thinking on his feet. Instead of stopping and returning to the same corner, he continued on down the short length of the pillbox and around the short end. He cautiously extended his head past the corner, saw Anita running toward him, and aimed his pistol at her.

Anita, gun already extended and finger on the trigger, shot him in the face before he could fire. The guard fell, his pistol and cell phone clattering to the floor.

Anita had to stop and lean against the pillbox wall, feeling faint. Alex walked past her and picked up the guard’s phone. “He didn’t finish dialing,” he said after examining the screen. “We should have a few minutes.”

“Then let’s go,” said Anita, and tried to step away from the supporting wall. She stopped, swaying on her feet. Alex took two quick steps to her right side, pulled her good arm around his neck, and gripped that hand. He slipped his left arm around her waist below the sling. With half her weight supported, Anita could walk. They moved as quickly as they could to the bridge and across the wooden planks to the heliport, this time not holding to the handrails.

Perimeter lights around the circular landing area showed the six-passenger helicopter parked for the night, its four long main blades drooping from the rotor mast. At this safe location, the pilot had not bothered to lock the doors. Alex placed Anita in the right front seat, buckled her in, then hurried around the nose to the other side and got into the pilot’s seat. Like most military aircraft, it had no ignition key. But the heliport lights barely penetrated into the cockpit, leaving the instrument panel in darkness.

“The battery switch,” said Anita, voice faint. “Bottom of the instrument panel, on your left.”

A memory from the long hours of boring and, Alex had always believed, unnecessary military training, kicked in. Anita was right. Pilots sometimes turned off the batteries if a chopper was to be left unattended for more than a few hours. He felt down the panel, passing over dials and other switches, until he felt a small clear space. Below that he found a final switch, and turned it on. The lights on the instrument panel came to glowing life.

The old dictator had required his personal guards to carry rocket pistols, probably because he mistakenly thought them superior to standard handguns. Alex and Anita had enjoyed the benefit of a relatively quiet fire fight on the roof; rockets made much less noise than explosive weapons. Now they were about to make a noise that would immediately alert the garrison a hundred feet away, in the lower levels of the castle.

“I’m going to skip the check list,” Alex said aloud. “We’re lifting as soon as we have flight capability.”

Anita nodded. It would take perhaps two minutes for the first soldiers to crowd into the elevator and reach the roof. They had to be in the air and escaping into the darkness by then.

Alex did a fast scan of the instruments, saw that everything appeared normal, and started the engine.

The engine had not completely cooled. Alex brought it up to operating speed in only a few seconds, and engaged the blades. The engine faltered, coughed, then resumed a full-throated roar. The thrashing blades reached liftoff speed, and Alex took them up and inward over the promontory. Flying by sight only, he kept the vehicle as close as he safely could to the treetops.

Above the engine noise Alex heard two distinct thumps! as minirockets hit the rear wall of the passenger compartment. Their velocity slowing at what was extreme range for a small rocket, neither penetrated the aluminum skin. But they were still within easy reach of the .50-caliber. Alex turned sharply to the north. In seconds they were out of the angle of fire provided by the slot in the pillbox.

Alex checked the fuel gauge; above three-quarters. More than enough to get them to the border, less than a hundred miles to the north. It would be almost impossible for this small country’s air force to scramble and find them, flying without lights, before they reached safety.

After about thirty minutes the worst of the shock had worn off, and Anita regained some of her strength. She looked over at Alex, intently watching the land ahead, and said, “I don’t want to go back.”

“Neither do I. But don’t you think we should, anyway? We owe it to the Institute to check in, before we head out on our own. Besides, we have no money. And we could use their help in setting up new identities, getting through college, finding jobs.”

Anita was silent for a moment, then said, “We’ll have to hide out all our lives. And so will the other six, when they leave.”

“Not if the Institute succeeds. They assured us everything they discovered about healthy life extension would be shared with the world.”

“And we’ll make sure they keep that promise. But I hope it doesn’t happen in time to save El Presidente. That evil old man needs to die.”

Alex grinned. “He will, after we report who took us. The Institute has strong supporters in very high places.”

A few minutes later they intersected a major highway, and Alex turned northwest to follow it. They soon reached a well-lighted border crossing. A mile ahead he saw a sizable city, with an airport on its west side, and headed for it. END

Joseph Green is a charter member of SFWA. He has published five science fiction novels and about 75 shorter works, appearing regularly in “F&SF,” “Analog,” “Galaxy,” and “New Writings in SF.” His previous story for us was in 12-FEB-2013.


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