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




To Walk the Earth

By Rebecca Birch

CALDRESS MAI DRIFTED AT THE edge of slumber in an old, repurposed monastery perched on a crag over the sea. Her pregnancy made it impossible to find a comfortable position and her tendons rebelled against the constraints of her mechanically reinforced joints. She groaned and readjusted her limbs, wishing Maxwell were with her, as she had every night for the past five months. Ever since he’d hidden her away, promising to return before the baby came, no matter the danger.

The refugees who shared the monastery commune, seeking an escape from the jacked-in, regimented life outside its ancient walls, were welcoming, but Caldress desperately missed the feeling of Maxwell’s arms around her in the night and the sense of peace and safety he brought simply by being near.

A concussive blast shook the building. The pitcher on her bedside table fell, shattering with a sharp crack. Caldress’ stomach lurched and she rolled to a sitting position. Cold tremors ran down her back and arms.

They’d found her.

Half-blind, eyes sticky with sleep, she fumbled in the table’s open drawer. A thick ceramic shard pierced her palm and she bit back a curse. She should have remembered to be careful after so many months of wearing flesh.

The pain helped clear the fuddle from her brain. She pulled out the fragment and tossed it away, shoved aside a pile of folded letters, and grabbed the sonic stunner hidden beneath.

Shouts echoed down the stone hallway, broken by staccato blasts of gunfire. Real ammunition. She’d waited here too long. Her presence had endangered the commune.

Caldress shoved her feet into her wool slippers and pulled on a robe, tying it with trembling hands. Her palm throbbed. She pressed it against her lips and tasted blood.

The shouts drew nearer.

Caldress yanked the drawer open wider and grabbed the letters. In the dark room, she struggled to make out the crabbed scrawl inked onto the pages. She’d never managed to train her modified hands to master the delicate skill of writing. Which letter held the lie? She should have thought to keep it separate.

Always should have. Would she ever learn not to wait? To be someone who chose to take action?

Moonlight filtered through the open window at the far end of the room. Not much light, just enough to cast a dim glow over the braided rug. In the distance, waves thundered against the cliffs. She raced for the moonbeam. Her hip pistons hitched and whined. The pregnancy stressed her mechanical components in ways they were never meant to accommodate.

She held up the letters. There. The note Maxwell had insisted she write. The deception he made her promise to leave behind if anything went wrong—that she’d lost the baby, her created body unable to sustain life. Splotches blurred the ink where her tears had fallen on the page.

Someone screamed in the corridor.

Another blast shook the monastery. Caldress staggered, catching herself against the wall with her injured hand. The stunner clattered to the ground. She tossed the letter onto the bed and shoved the rest into the deep pockets of her robe. All her hopes and fears, every day of her exile, were scrawled on those pages. A legacy for the child.

Someone yanked on her chamber door. The slide-lock clattered, but held. “Break it down,” said a low, grating voice.

Caldress grabbed the stunner and flicked off its safety. It stuttered to life with a fitful whirr. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d charged it. It had been too easy to believe that going off the grid would be enough to hide her and the baby until Maxwell could come for them. Cursing her carelessness, she ducked into the closet and closed the door.

Plunged into blackness, she shoved through the press of fabric toward the back wall. The closet reeked of mothballs. The stench was overwhelming to her pregnancy-heightened senses. At the far wall, she touched the hidden trigger of the escape panel, but a crash from inside her room froze her in place. She held her breath.

“The cyborg’s not here.”

“Search the room.” The speaker’s baritone grate sent a tremor down Caldress’ spine.

Her hand twitched on the release. Escape was so close, but the mechanism would make a sound too loud for the soldiers to miss. Instead of escaping into the tunnels that honeycombed the compound, she shrank into the corner of the closet. Hidden behind a curtain of simple shifts and gowns, she pointed the stunner towards the door.

“Check under the bed.”

A muffled thud and a grunt. “It’s not down there, Sir.”

“I’ll check the closet.”

Sweat broke out on the back of Caldress’ neck. The stunner trembled in her hands. With a whoosh of air, the door opened.

“Phaugh.” The voice was so close Caldress felt sure the man should be able to hear her heartbeat. “What a stench.”

His hand reached through to the wall on the far side of the closet. Caldress’ finger tightened on the trigger. The pulse of the stunner’s energy cell felt weak and erratic. She wasn’t sure it had enough charge to incapacitate even one man, let alone two. Maxwell had tried to convince her to bring a pistol, but Caldress refused. All human life was sacred. Her constructed cortex left no room for argument.

She hadn’t counted on how much the child would sway that equation. The stunner felt painfully inadequate.

The soldier swept his arm towards her. Gowns shoved Caldress back against the wall. Heavy linen clogged her airways. Her pulse raced, thudding in her ears. The moth-protectant stench irritated the back of her throat. If she took a breath, she’d choke.

“Sir, come take a look.”

His hand was so close, Caldress could make out the hairs on the back of his knuckles. A spasm shot through her chest. Tears stung her eyes. A surge of nausea tried to heave its way up her throat.

“What is it?”

“There’s blood on the wall, Commander, and the window’s open. The cyborg must’ve gone through it.”

The hand pulled away. Caldress’ knees buckled. She clung to the nearest dress to keep from collapsing.

Heavy footfalls crossed the room, followed by a string of curses. “Follow it. The abomination must be terminated. If word gets out that a cyborg has conceived we’ll be facing an insurrection.”

“Yes, Sir.”

The baby turned over inside her.

Communicator static buzzed to life and the rasp-voiced man spoke. “The cyborg fled. Eldris is in pursuit.”

The cough Caldress was smothering rippled through her core, nearly making her gag. Desperate, she engaged her mechanical overrides, damping the input from her nervous system. The reflexive need to clear her breathing passage dimmed into a mild annoyance. For the moment, she was grateful, but she’d pay for it later.

The sound of crumpling paper reached her ears. “It left a letter behind.”

A static-blurred voice replied, “Send the rest to join Eldris and bring the letter to me.”

“On my way.”

“And, Commander,” said the voice, “leave no witnesses.”


The commander ran from the room, bellowing orders. Caldress waited until she could no longer hear his footsteps, then dug her fingers into the panel’s hidden release. It creaked and swung open.

She stepped through into blackness and staggered down into the tunnel, her uninjured hand on the wall to guide her, the sonic stunner still clasped in the other. Dust and cobwebs clung to her fingers. The uneven ground forced her to keep to a cautious shuffle.

As soon as she judged she’d put enough distance between herself and her room, she disengaged the overrides. The cough she’d been smothering knocked her to her knees. Uncontrollable spasms shook her until the last remnants of the moth-repellent cleared her lungs.

Trembling and spent, Caldress fell back against the tunnel wall, pulled her knees to her belly and wrapped her arms around them. Tons of rock blocked any sound from above, but she couldn’t help trying to listen for gunfire. People were dying. Because of her.

When she arrived, the members of the commune had embraced her, ignoring her awkward movements and the telltale silver color of her eyes, the hallmark of every cyborg. When her pregnancy became evident, not a soul urged her to leave, despite the danger of harboring a violator of the Selective Procreation Statutes.

Most wonderful of all, they’d never questioned that Caldress was a person. They called her by her name, instead of her designation. The way the soldiers referred to her as it turned her insides to ice.

She could still remember snippets of her existence before Maxwell had spirited her away after a routine maintenance visit and given her the forbidden blessing of a soul—the overwhelming sensation of self that had blossomed when he shifted her command controls from her mechanical cortex to the incomprehensible biomass of her mind. Before, her orders were everything. Her life belonged to the government, her body nothing more than a flesh-wrapped automaton, to serve when and as commanded.

Maxwell changed everything. Creator, lover, savior.

“The Selective Procreation Statutes are a travesty,” he’d often said. “Everyone has the right to walk the Earth like the stars walk their heavens, and everyone should be free to pass that life on again.” Sometimes he would touch her face and smile. “Do you think I was wrong to find a way to make that happen? I know what my teachers would say. That I’m immoral. Depraved.”

“It’s not wrong to find a way to give life.” He had thought she meant the fetus just then beginning to take root in her womb, but it was more than that. It was her own soul, her own life.

Caldress shivered and flipped off the stunner’s power. The humid summer air didn’t reach the underground, and the thought of what was transpiring above chilled her even more. How many had been killed?

She had to leave—she knew it—but where would she go? Maxwell had promised to come for them before the birth, but she was already close to eight months along and there’d been no word since he secreted her at the monastery. She wanted to believe he was still coming, but part of her had begun to doubt. What if he’d been caught? What if he were already dead?

No. She wouldn’t think that way. Maxwell was smarter than anyone. He could elude the trackers. Nothing would keep him from finding her again. He loved her. He told her so time again. Against his judgment, against his training, he loved her. Besides, where else could she hide? No matter how hard she tried to blend in, her mechanical nature and silver eyes would give her away.

The baby kicked her ribs and she gasped at the sharp pain. Then she realized she was doing it again—choosing inaction. Once more putting herself in a position to be the should have.

Not this time.

Caldress lurched to her feet. Cramps corded her thighs. She stifled a cry, her teeth denting the skin on the back of her hand. After a few long, slow breaths, the pain eased. Caldress turned and continued up the tunnel.

She ignored several smaller passageways, leading down from other chambers, and kept to the wider tunnel, following its twists and turns with her fingertips. There was only one exit from this passageway, high on the cliff overlooking the sea. Maxwell had shown her the monastery’s blueprints on the awful day of their betrayal.

He’d hurried her into his personal flyer, designed in the shape of his family’s stylized eagle crest, before the sunrise. “We have to run,” he’d said, his face leached of color under his russet curls. “They’ll kill you, if they find you, my love. They’ll kill the baby. I know a place for you to hide.”

“What about you?”

The flyer slid into the gray-blue predawn sky. “I have to go on without you, for a little while. To find a place we can raise the child. Where we can bring others who struggle against the Statutes.”

Caldress hadn’t thought to ask Maxwell how he’d found the commune. All that mattered was a place to hide until he could return for her. Now, it felt like an elaborate trap. A trap she had to escape.

She strained to hear any sound of the surf, or to catch the scent of brine. The exit had to be nearby.

“There’s a door here,” came a shout from behind. “Someone bring a light.”

Caldress quickened her pace, stumbling over unseen divots. She raced through the inky darkness, ignoring the cobwebs that clung to her face and hands. A rhythmic pounding echoed down the tunnel. Too deep to be footsteps, it had to be the sea.


Her breath came in shallow pants. The ligaments at the corners of her womb protested with sharp twinges.

Behind her, voices bounced off the walls, and pale light filtered past in erratic sweeps. Brief flashes illuminated the half-eroded walls ahead. The pathway angled upwards. Caldress’ legs burned and she struggled to drag more air into her cramped chest.

The ground shook. Caldress braced against a wall, afraid to move. A loud rumble sounded and a heavy chunk of ceiling crashed down, smashing into Caldress’ hip. Something internal snapped like tinder in an explosion of pain. An involuntary cry forced its way free. Her leg crumpled and she collapsed in an inelegant pile, her cheek mashed into the dirt floor.

The tremor subsided, but Caldress’ heart raced as fast as a bird’s. The bombardment had weakened the monastery’s infrastructure. Tons of ancient stone could crash through the tunnel roof at any moment.

She looked ahead. Pale light filtered down the tunnel. In the distance, an arched opening framed a tapestry of stars. Warm, salty air blew past. She tried to rise, but her left hip refused to hold her weight. Panic rose in a swelling wave, sweeping her under. Her ear buzzed, tingles raced through her fingers and toes. The tunnel seemed to tilt and sway. A whimper clogged her throat.

The soldiers’ voices drew nearer, close enough that she could make out the commander’s distinctive rasp. “I heard something. The cyborg’s close.”

Caldress squeezed her eyes shut, ran a hand over her swollen belly, and blew out a slow breath, willing the dizziness away. Panic had no place here. Not if her baby was going to live. If she couldn’t walk, she’d crawl.

Her right knee throbbed when she put her weight on it and her left leg hung useless from the hip down, but her arms still worked. Caldress inched toward the archway like a crippled lizard. The stunner in her right hand put her off-balance, but she wouldn’t leave it behind. It was her only way to defend herself and the baby.

She focused all her energy on reaching the end of the tunnel. Just a little more. One more crawl. One more inch. One more sharp, piercing pain. Nothing else mattered. If the soldiers caught up to her in this tunnel, she was lost. Outside, she had a chance. Maybe there were others who had managed to escape. Someone who would help her.

A bullet whizzed past her ear and hit the wall. Stone shards flew, biting into her face.

She froze, heart thudding against her ribs. Blood trickled down her cheek, warm and wet. They’d shoot her now, unless she could find a way to delay them.

Caldress raised her free hand overhead. “I surrender.”

“Turn around, Cyborg 317. Let’s see if he made you human enough to lie.”

They’d read the letter. The one that was supposed to protect her when all other defenses failed. The one that would hide her baby behind a whisper-thin veil of falsehood and deceit. Like everything else, it had forsaken her.

Caldress obeyed, more to buy herself time than from any desire to follow the commander’s order. Once, his words would have been impossible to ignore. All cyborgs followed the same rigid codes, buried deep in their constructed cortexes. She alone had been given a soul.

“That’s right,” the commander said. “Slowly.”

Caldress shivered uncontrollably. It was over. Her own existence was taboo. Her child, anathema.

Had they already found Maxwell? Could she offer herself as bait? Would they keep her alive in the hopes her rogue creator would return to claim her? Could she live with herself if she traded Maxwell’s life to save her baby?

A fine, salty mist coated her skin. She glanced over her shoulder. The soldiers’ hand-lights nearly blinded her. Five lights. At least five men, possibly more. She blocked the glare with her left arm.

“Keep turning,” the commander said. Strange that she could identify him instantly by his voice, but if she passed him in the street, she would never know. Even now, he was only a faint silhouette.

What would it be like to be invisible? To be one of many in an anonymous crowd? Caldress would never know. She was unique. Maxwell’s finest work. The bridge between what had been and what was to come. So he had told her, and so it must be.

Caldress shifted her weight onto her good leg and turned more fully. The lights gleamed off her gravid belly.

One of the soldiers muttered an oath. “Abomination,” said another, and spat on the ground.

Caldress’ teeth ground together. The added power of her jaw-pistons threatened to snap them. Her gaze took in the contours of the tunnel. Centuries of disuse and exposure to the elements had eroded away parts of the roof. New piles of rubble, darker than the rest, littered the ground. Ragged sections of roof hung down like the fangs of an unevenly worn fossil skull.

Her hand tightened on the faintly humming stunner. “My baby is no abomination,” she said, surprised at the steel behind her words.

“Cyborg 317, you are government property, in violation of the Selective Procreation Statutes and the natural order.” The commander’s voice took on a regimented monotone.

Caldress placed him as the man in the center, the tallest silhouette.

The commander raised his weapon in front of the hand-light, casting it in sharp outline. “I condemn you to death.”

Shooting him would be pointless. There wasn’t enough charge in the stunner to take out all of the soldiers.

No time to think. No time to breathe.

The baby shifted in her womb, as if it sensed the danger. Caldress rolled to her back, thumbed the stunner’s setting to full, aimed at a worn section of the ceiling, and fired.

With a rumbling crash, stones and dirt poured from the tunnel roof. A soldier shrieked. A shot rang out, but the bullet missed her. Caldress dragged herself up the pathway. The lights wavered, dimmed, then vanished behind a mound of rubble. Dust and grit hung in the air.

Caldress blinked away dirt particles. Not a glint of light pierced the caved-in ceiling, and the voices on the far side were muffled.

It worked. She couldn’t believe it.

Caldress sucked in a breath and choked on the drifting debris. Covering her face with her free hand to filter the air, she rolled back to her knees. It wouldn’t take the soldiers long to dig through the rubble, or circle back around to block the far end of the tunnel.

She slid the spent stunner into the pocket with the letters and began to crawl. Too slow. Desperate, she clawed her way up the wall until she was standing on her one good leg. Using the wall to support most of her weight, she staggered towards the distant stars, one step after another until, at last, she stood framed in the stone archway. Wind tore what remained of her braid loose and whipped her hair around her like a medusa. Her robe lashed around her bare legs. The salt breeze filled her lungs.

Moonlight illuminated a thin strip of rocky ledge that ran westward from the mouth of the tunnel to the flat, grassy headland where the monastery loomed over the sea. On the far side of the ledge, the land fell away sharply in a jumbled mass of boulders so steep Caldress felt dizzy just looking at it, but to the east a cliff face blocked the way, rising so high she had to crane her neck to see the top. Impossible.

That left only the two options: the wide expanse of the grassland or the perilous rockfall.

If the moon were new, she might have risked the easier ground, but it was bright enough that anyone could easily spot her. She had to choose the rockfall.

Caldress swallowed, dropped to her knees, and inched toward the precipice. The roar of the waves crashing below filled her ears. Spray coated the rocks. Caldress tested a foothold. Her slipper slid off the slick stone. She kicked the slippers off, stuffed fist-sized rocks inside, and tossed them over the edge where they couldn’t give away her hiding place.

Once again she tried a foothold. Her toes curled against the rock, clinging to the rough surface. Enough grip to give her a chance. Barely.

The sound of footsteps cut over the ocean’s din. Caldress didn’t dare take the time to see who was coming, or how close.

She wished she knew how to pray.

Digging her fingers into the hard soil at the edge of the ledge, she levered herself out over the rocks. Her belly hampered her, pressing hard against the stones. Her first step held, but when she tried to put her weight onto the injured leg long enough to find a new hold, it buckled. She scrabbled to keep a grip. Her fingers slid helplessly over the hard ground.

When Caldress reached the last knuckle-width of ledge, someone caught her wrists, yanking her to a stop. Her stomach clenched, stealing her breath. They’d found her.

Caldress looked up and found herself staring at a woman’s hard face. She recognized her from the commune, always silent, always watching her with eagle-sharp eyes. Those eyes now held no welcome, but Caldress nearly sobbed at seeing a familiar face.

“Do you want to die?” the woman said, just loud enough to be heard over the surf. “Because you will if you go this way.”

“They’ll kill the baby,” Caldress said, finding a solid grip with the bare toes of her good leg.

“You’ll kill it yourself! I wouldn’t have thought you were a fool.”

“I can’t go west,” Caldress said. “They’ll find me. It has to be down.”

The woman glanced over her shoulder, then back down again. “You’re lucky I expected you’d run this way. I managed to grab a rope on my way out, but it’s too short. Untie your belt. Give it to me.”

Afraid to let go with both hands, Caldress fought to loosen the tie one-handed. It came free slowly, and she handed it up. “What’s your name?” she asked.

“I left it behind when I left my old life. My name has no meaning.”

“It does to me,” Caldress said.

With quick hands, the woman tied Caldress’ belt to the end of the rope, then pulled off her own and added it to the chain. She measured its length with her gaze, glared at it, then slithered out of her robe and leggings. Her lean, toned body, just beginning to wrinkle with age, gleamed in the moonlight as she tied her clothing onto the rope. A medallion hung at her throat on a leather cord. She pulled it over her head and handed it to Caldress.

“Take this with you.”

Caldress shoved it into the pocket with her letters.

“I’m going to tie the rope to a rock,” the woman said. “If they come, I’ll shout, then throw it over the edge. I’ll try to distract them. The rest is up to you.”

Caldress nodded. Her robe flapped around her like a crazed gull. A lump constricted her throat. “Why are you helping me?”

The woman froze for a moment, staring into the distance, then shook herself. “They took me into custody when I got pregnant,” she said. “I wasn’t supposed to breed. My bloodline didn’t meet their criteria. I begged them. Pleaded to keep my baby. They terminated it. My child.” She snapped the rope taut between her hands, as if contemplating using it to strangle someone. “I ran. Away from their scrutiny. Away from their network and their everywhere eyes.”

“I’m sorry.”

The woman shook herself. The silver strands in her short hair glinted in the moonlight. “Ready?”

Tremors rippled through Caldress’ body. Her heart stuttered. “Yes.”

“Good. May the winds be with you.”

“Thank you,” Caldress said. They seemed such small words, but she didn’t know what more to say.

The woman disappeared from sight, then the end of the rope sailed past. Caldress grasped it with both hands. The woman reappeared, kneeling at the edge of the precipice. “Once you’re down, you hide. You survive. Bring that baby into this world. Prove there’s a future for everyone.”

There was a pause, filled with the thunder of the surf. A hard-shelled bug scuttled down the rock beside Caldress’ right arm and she watched it go, envious of its sure footing. With her firm grip on the rope, Caldress allowed herself to glance below. Heavy mist shrouded the base of the rockfall. Her vision tunneled and her head swam.

One slip and she’d die.

“For what it’s worth,” the woman said, “my name was Noori.”

Caldress shaped the word around a slow exhalation. Noori. Soft and round on the lips. Strong as the winds that whistled through the monastery’s ancient halls.

The panic ebbed. Caldress’ augmented hands ratcheted down on the clenched fabric. Her fingers might not have mastered penmanship, but brute strength they had. She forced her gaze back up—stared at the rope, her hands, the pitted surface of the rock. Anywhere but down.

Caldress pushed herself off the rocks. She hopped down the wall, twisting wildly, unable to control her descent with her injured leg. Her shoulders and elbows took the brunt of it. Blood seeped from too many abrasions to count.

Down and down. The mist turned to spume near the rockfall’s base. Salt stung her wounds.

A sharp report tore over the ocean’s din. Noori shrieked, and the wind shredded her voice into tatters. Caldress grabbed a handhold, then let go of the rope, clinging like a limpet to a protruding boulder. Another shot. Noori howled again. The makeshift rope fell, like a worm caught in a whirlpool, and vanished into the spray.

A deep shadow behind the next boulder caught Caldress’ eye. She should be able to wedge herself into the space. All she had to do was get there before the soldiers reached the ledge. If both her legs were working, it would have been easy. A simple shift to her left, then one long step over nothingess, and she’d be safely hidden.

Nothing was easy now.

If she were human, this would have been impossible. But she was other. She was more. The cyborgs had been built for conditions beyond the capabilities of their creators.

For the first time since Maxwell awakened her soul, Caldress embraced the otherness. The strength that came from her augmentations was a gift now, not a burden. The constructed cortex that dampened input from her nervous system made her formidable, not weak.

She engaged her mechanical overrides, turning the pain to a muted hum. Her pistons vibrated with power ready to be unleashed. Despite the damaged hip, Caldress felt like she could move the world. One little body was nothing.

Gathering her energy, Caldress plotted her path. In a rush of motion, she launched herself upwards. The stone face raced to meet her. She twisted her hips at the last moment, shielding her womb. Her fingers clung to a knuckle-deep crevice.

Without letting her momentum die, she swung to the next grip. Her fingers slipped on the slick rock. The surf pounded beneath her feet. Nothing more than air hung between herself and oblivion. She gouged her augmented hands into the stone, her skin shredding on the rough surface.

With one last thrust, she landed in the shadowed shelter of the boulder. The darkness concealed a shallow cave, and an overhang hid her from above. She scuttled backwards into the opening.

A shape plummeted past Caldress’ cave. She caught a glimpse of silver hair and twisting, naked limbs.

Noori. Dead.

Caldress had feared as much, but her constructed cortex diverted her grief. It raced ahead, calculating, weighing options. The soldiers would search for her. Maybe they’d choose the grasslands first, but she had to expect they would search the rockfall too. There was nowhere left to run. All she could do was make herself invisible and wait.

She gathered rocks from the cave floor and piled them in the opening until she wedged a last rock, the size of her head, into place, blocking out the stars.

Caldress shoveled dirt into the remaining crevices, straining her ears for any sound of the soldiers. When she was satisfied she could do no more, she rested against her new-formed wall.

The immediate crisis addressed, Caldress ached to switch off the overrides, but she didn’t dare. The pain of her injuries would cripple her.

Her thoughts turned to Noori. Brave, angry, Noori. She knew she should weep, but her cortex blocked the tears. Her chest felt ragged, gaping and raw with grief she couldn’t voice.

A cramp shot across her back. Caldress sucked in a startled breath. The sensation was different than any she’d felt before. It spread from the small of her back, around to the base of her womb. Gingerly, she laid a hand on her belly. It felt hard to the touch.

Impossible. It was too soon. Maxwell had explained labor to her, so she wouldn’t be frightened when the time came, but this wasn’t what she’d imagined. She was supposed to be safe in the haven he’d gone to build for them. Where the soldiers would never find them.

He’d hold her hand, unafraid that she could crush his fingers if she forgot herself and squeezed. He’d wipe the sweat from her brow. It would be difficult, of course. Humans found it so, and she wore the same flesh, but she knew deep inside that she would master the pain without resorting to the overrides. Birth was the last thing that separated humanity from her own kind, and she intended to face it in as human a way as Maxwell had made her capable of.

Not like this. Not alone. Not trapped like a wounded rabbit in its burrow.

The contraction subsided. How long did she have? Hours? A day?

Alone in the dark, she waited. Time and again contractions corded her abdomen, no matter how hard she tried to will them away. Another contraction began, and she heard boots scrape against stone.

Fighting the need to curl around her belly, Caldress forced herself back against her cobbled wall. In moments, one of the rocks shoved into her spine. With all the strength of her augmentations, she held it in place, fighting the soldier’s weight.

Heavy rasps hissed through the dangerously thin wall near her ear. She held her breath, her teeth digging into the sides of her tongue. The man on the far side of the wall cursed in a familiar grating voice. “It’s too slick. I don’t see how it could have come this way. See anything, Eldris?”

“Nothing, Sir.”

A rock shoved against her skull, and Caldress could almost picture the featureless form of the commander pounding his fist against the stones. Caldress’ head throbbed, despite the overrides.

At last, the contraction ebbed, but still she held her breath. Ruddy swirls lined the back of her closed eyelids. She clutched the ground for balance.

“There’s blood in the water, Commander.”

“There would be, after we tossed that tech-free freak over. Can you see any bodies?”

A pause. “Some legs. Some arms. I can’t count them. It’s pretty well pummeled down there.”

“We’ll scour this rockfall one more time, but if we don’t find any evidence, we’ll have to assume the cyborg’s lost to the sea. I’d prefer to have its corpse, but dead will have to do.”

The voices moved off into the distance and Caldress dragged in air. Even if the soldiers gave up the hunt, her baby was too early. Without help, it would die.

She pulled the stack of letters out of her pocket, tracing the crabbed letters with the bloodied tip of a finger. Each one a memory to be gifted to the child. A hope, or a dream. That the baby would grow to know love, joy, humanity. That it would have all that its mother could not.

Despite the constructed cortex, each succeeding contraction sent tears streaming down her face.

When the soldiers finally called their retreat, Caldress collapsed onto her side and lay panting in the blackness. Time slipped by in a blur of muted pain. The thought of holding her child, which had once filled her with radiant joy, now shot waves of dread coursing through her veins. Would it be stillborn? Or would it live long enough to know suffering before death?

After a long time, the darkness drove her to distraction. If nothing else, she wanted to see the child when it came. She forced herself to her knees and pulled away the stones of her prison wall. Dawn painted the horizon in shades of umber and rose.

The ever-moving sea swirled gently far below, now on the ebb tide. Fresh air caressed her sweat-soaked skin. A gull hovered on outstretched wings, the first rays of morning glinting off its feathers.

Caldress released the overrides.

Pain washed over her in waves, but at the same time she became more fully aware of the earthy smell of her cave, the burgeoning warmth of the summer day, the simple fact that she was still alive.

The seagull glided towards the horizon on unseen thermals, weightless and free. What would it be like to fly away from this place to somewhere the soldiers would never find her? If Maxwell ever created another like herself, he should give her wings.

Caldress slid her hand into her pocket and touched the cool metal of Noori’s medallion. She pulled it out and held it up in the light. Her heart skipped a beat. It was the eagle crest of Maxwell’s house, held only by those of his blood. He’d mentioned a sister, long vanished. Had he known Noori was here? He must have. How else could he have known to bring Caldress to this place?

Caldress cradled her head, the medallion pressing into the skin of her brow. Visions of Noori plummeting towards the sea swept Caldress under, drowning her in an ocean of guilt.

Another contraction ripped her back to the present. Without the overrides, she felt like she was being torn in two. How frequently were they coming now? She had no way to tell, but they felt very close. Remembering Maxwell’s instructions, she blew out in staccato bursts until the pain passed.

Panting, she leaned against the ragged stone wall and peered after the gull, but couldn’t find it. The sky had lightened, shifting to robin’s-egg blue, and the first rays of the sun shot across the sea. A bright flash caught her eye, far to the east. She squinted. It couldn’t be another gull. It had to be something metallic.

More soldiers? Possible, but unlikely. This promontory was the last bastion of civilization in the east.

The object drew nearer, glinting in the dawn-light, until it resolved itself into a flyer in the shape of a stylized eagle. Impossible. Pain and exhaustion were making her hallucinate. She rubbed her eyes to force the vision away, but when she opened them again it was still there. Closer now. Its engines thrummed over the churning sea.

Maxwell. He’d finally come.

Caldress waved her hands and shouted, but the flyer soared past. In moments, she heard the roar of landing engines, followed by silence.

She shouted until her throat ached, but there was no response. The ruined monastery was too far away. Maxwell would be searching through the rubble, and the corpses of the innocent people killed for choosing to live free of the government’s rigid controls, and for daring to shelter a woman who was different. He’d have to reason to think to look any further, even when he failed to find her body.

Time and again the contractions came. Closer and closer and closer. It couldn’t be long now before she had to push.

Overhead, engines surged to life. He was leaving.

No. There had to be a way to signal him.

The letters. If she could make a fire, he’d see the smoke. But how to light them?

The spent stunner was still in her pocket. Caldress yanked it free and tore out the energy pack. She dug her nails into the seam along its side, and pulled it apart.

Remnants of the rechargeable cells still glowed. If she could spark them, it should be enough.

She piled the letters, weighting them with a small rock in the center, then set the shelled energy pack beside it. Picking up a palm-sized stone, she smashed it down. Nothing. Again. A tiny spark that blew out before it could catch.

The flyer slid into view outside her cave, circling over the promontory.

Last chance.

Caldress engaged her overrides and pounded the pack with all the power of her augmented strength. It shattered. Blue sparks showered the crumpled letters. They smoldered, caught. Afraid they’d burn out too quickly, Caldress shed her robe and held one sleeve to the flames until they engulfed it.

Fighting a new contraction, Caldress stretched out of the cave, waving the flaming robe. Thick greenish smoke curled skyward.

The flyer continued its arc towards the east. She was too late. The flames licked close, singeing the hairs on the back of her arm. Caldress released her grip and the fiery robe fluttered downward until it hit the water and fizzled, drifting like a charred, limp hank of seaweed.

A new sensation sliced through her. She had to push. The baby was coming.

Even with the overrides, the primal need would not be ignored. Already mostly naked, she pulled off her lower undergarments, lay back in the dirt, and surrendered to the commands of her body. Nothing else existed but the drive to bring the baby into the world.

She switched off her overrides. If this was how it was to be, she wanted to experience it fully, like the human she yearned to be. She discovered her raw throat could still scream. Time blurred into a haze of pain and fear.

Something cool touched her forehead and her eyes flashed open. Worried blue eyes gazed down at her from under prominent russet brows. She was hallucinating again.

“I’m here, Caldress,” Maxwell said, taking her hand.

The once-smooth fingers she remembered were now thick with calluses. He couldn’t be a hallucination.

“You’ll be all right. You’re safe now.”

“The baby,” she gasped. “Now.”

Maxwell shifted towards her legs. Caldress bore down, concentrating all her remaining strength into one last, powerful push. For a long moment there was silence, then a low, thin wail filled the cave.

“It’s a girl,” Maxwell said. “Our baby girl.”

Caldress’ limbs shook with exhaustion, but she reached for the tiny infant. Maxwell settled the girl on her chest. The baby stopped squalling and blinked up at her mother. Her eyes shone a soft silver. Caldress’ lips trembled. Her breath hitched on a sob.

She pulled the baby close and kissed its scrunched, wet, beautiful face. Maxwell smoothed Caldress’ hair off her sweat-soaked forehead. She fumbled beside her with one hand until her fingers found the eagle medallion. She held it out to Maxwell and watched as recognition, swiftly chased by sorrow, flitted across his face.

“Your sister saved us,” she said, cradling the baby. “For you, and the future you’re building.”

Caldress listened to the distant howl of the winds through the monastery and smiled at her child, lost in her wide, silver eyes. “Our daughter’s name is
Noori.” END

Rebecca Birch is a science fiction and fantasy writer based in Seattle. Her stories have appeared in “Perihelion,” “Every Day Fiction,” “Penumbra eZine,” and “Abyss & Apex.” She has also been a finalist in the Writers of the Future contest.