Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Water for Antiques
by Robert N. Stephenson

by Sierra July

Skipper Jeremiah Dudd
by Mark Ayling

If You Could Choose One Day
by Simon Kewin

It’s the Martian Way
by Bob Sojka

Know, Oh Emperor
by L. Joseph Shosty

Abernathy’s Snowflake
by Aaron Polson

Lost and First Men
by David Barber

by Mark Bilsborough

These Undiminished
by Conor Powers-Smith

by George Sandison


Inside Death Valley
by Eric M. Jones

Is Global Warming Good?
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



These Undiminished

By Conor Powers-Smith

THE CHAMBER WAS DIM AND COOL. The crowd noise penetrated the thick stone walls, but only at the cost of its immediacy. A large crowd. Phelsuma allowed the tender scales on her belly to brush briefly, sensuously against the floor. She had an impulse to flick her tail in anticipation, but restrained herself. Muscle memory was a precarious thing.

The crowd noise, though muffled, was decipherable. From the eager murmur, and the sigh that followed—seven parts relief, one part disappointment—she judged the separation had been successful. Now the babble rose and fell as the dance commenced.

It sounded like a safe routine. There were flares of appreciative chirping, a few gasps from the easily impressed, but the crowd was generally subdued. She counted six passes, all safe. When it was over, the chirping was no more than polite. They were still in possession of their breath; it had not been taken from them. They had not been changed in any way, but remained as they had been before.

The expectant buzz that filled the next minutes was gratifying. Finally the chamber door slid gratingly up along its track, and the baking sunlight marched across the floor.

She emerged with the stiff, haughty gait that was her privilege and her necessity, right legs striding together, then left, tail rigorously motionless. It was a good tail, elegantly tapered, supple, responsive. It might have been one of her best, though she could not yet know for sure.

Beyond the high fences, thousands of arrowhead snouts swiveled, twice as many shiny black eyes stared. A ripple of altered skin tones swept the males in the crowd, sea green deepening to forest, sandy brown to rust. Though Phelsuma blinked her membranes dismissively, she was pleased to be still so desired.

Orraya waited in the center of the arena, shivering with unspent adrenaline. Phelsuma stopped before her, and said, “Your survival proves your skill.”

Orraya’s response was just as ritualized. “Your words ease my loss.”

Phelsuma scanned the younger female’s abbreviated form, a paler green than her own vibrant shade. Her eyes reached Orraya’s stump, and she said, “What is lost will return.”

Orraya looked at Phelsuma’s tail as she echoed, “What is lost will return.” Then she moved off, and Phelsuma stood alone.

She sank to her belly to signal her readiness, and the massive gate at the far end of the arena began to rumble laboriously upward. Almost immediately, a great, hairy paw, claws already extended, shot out from beneath the gate, furrowing tracks in the loose sand.

The crowd buzzed to see the beast’s impatience. As the paw withdrew into the shadows, Phelsuma flicked her tongue and steadied her gaze, the full rapture of fear taking hold.

The gate was only half raised when the beast squeezed beneath it, and surged forward into the arena. The pointed ears that crowned its flat, avid face towered fully four tails above Phelsuma. Its own tail, strangely uniform in circumference, and longer than Phelsuma’s entire body, lunged fluidly through the air behind it. Its coat was predominantly orange, but pure white on the paws, and on the belly all the way up to lower jaw.

It came to a sudden, impossibly graceful stop, and scanned the arena. Only after it had recognized the feast in the stands, and the impossibility of reaching it, did it turn its shining yellow eyes on Phelsuma.

It sank low, and crept forward, stalking her with classic, deadly care. Its head swayed back and forth almost imperceptibly. Its eyes were slender black diamonds set in amber. One could lose oneself in their strange mammalian depths.

It paused, and shifted its weight, preparatory to the pounce. Phelsuma spun, took one bounding step, and felt its paw land squarely on her tail.

It was a fine strike, perfectly placed: near enough to the center of the tail to apply the requisite pressure, but far enough down toward the slender tip that the beast would not have a reasonable chance of maintaining its hold. Phelsuma clenched the muscles at the base of her tail, and flung herself forward. The sharp ache of separation was nothing beside the electric satisfaction that swept like a thunderstorm up her spine.

She turned, to see the beast transfixed. Its cold eyes had grown fevered, their black diamonds bulging almost into full circles. Its tail was a frantic velvet whip. Its whiskers quivered as its head bobbed and swayed. Its paws swept the air, scoured the ground, came away empty, always empty.

In front of the beast, Phelsuma’s tail danced. All the long months of practice and visualization, the endless repetitions for the sake of muscle memory, played themselves out on the sand, and in the air.

The phantom tail, still clinging to her body with ghostly obstinance, danced too. It could not execute the leaps and somersaults of its unshackled physical counterpart, but instead mimicked the million intricate twitches necessary to preload those movements.

It was not a safe routine. All the classical maneuvers were present, but their execution was inimitably her own, their procession pure, fluid novelty. As her tail rose on its tip, spun a full seven-hundred twenty degrees, and leapt into the air, there to execute three tightly curled flips, she allowed herself a momentary awareness of the crowd.

They were hers, as completely as the beast. Even the lowest among them, even the children, knew somewhere within themselves that in the dance was the whole history and prehistory of their species, every momentary triumph and ultimate tragedy, every brave defiance of a murderous world. It was not a part of their daily lives, as it hphelsumaad been of their ancestors’, to know the special terror of the prey, and the ecstasy of escape. But they were capable of knowing.

With an understated flourish, she began her passes, prancing unhurriedly along the monster’s left side, ducking beneath its tail as she made a slow, crabwise circle of its rump, moving back along its right side, passing its head less than a tail’s length away. Standing before it again, she rose briefly onto her hind legs, presenting her pale yellow underbelly. Still intent on her dancing tail, the beast showed no sign of interest.

She passed twice more on the right, each time shaving the distance between herself and the monster’s panting side, until she could feel its short, fine hairs brushing her back. She gave it two full seconds of her belly, bringing the crowd to such a height of tension that its murmur briefly penetrated her studied mental solitude. She made to pass on the left, but skidded to a stop halfway down its side, turned, and darted beneath its belly, emerging on the far side to echoing acclaim.

She returned to stand before it, and watched, and waited, eyes never deigning to focus on the monster. Her tail finished a series of sixteen side-to-side flicks, and she shot forward.

Her tail fluttered into the air, the cunning subtlety of the launch making it appear to ride a summoned updraft. The beast’s head rose with it, but still Phelsuma felt its hot breath down her back as she passed beneath, into the great shadow thrown by its body. Already she had kept the beast in place, transfixed, long enough that the sand in its shadow was noticeably cooler than that outside.

She veered to the side, thrust her right legs into the glaring sunlight to show them to the crowd, sidestepped left, displayed her left legs. Hidden again, she turned, and watched the silhouette of her tail, dancing against the hard light. Then the beast’s head descended, cutting off the sunlight like a gate slamming down.

She backpedaled quickly, slowed as she felt the warm light roll across her stump, her lower back, her back legs, heard the crowd again, buzzing and chirping as they sought her and, one by one, found her.

She withdrew into the shadow. A moment later, the monster’s belly descended precipitately, and the crowd gasped. Though she had expected it, Phelsuma nearly gasped too, as the beast’s whole weight sank low enough to exert a slight but ominous pressure on her back.

It lifted, and there was a glimmer of sunlight ahead. She skittered forward, and stopped. The beast sank low again, and there were those in the crowd who were screaming now, and parts of Phelsuma’s mind which were echoing their cries.

As the beast rose, Phelsuma sprinted forward, then slowed. Her tail alighted, only long enough to launch itself again. The beast’s head and paws rose to follow, and Phelsuma emerged into the sunlight, and the crowd’s deafening welcome. She trotted forward, then turned and reared, giving the beast her belly again.

She was gazing up at the sky when the crowd noise changed, plunging suddenly from delight to despair. She dropped down to all four feet just in time to see the tip of her tail disappearing into the beast’s mouth with a faint, wet crunch.

She had barely begun to turn when the orange avalanche swept down on her. Its claws entered her at the hip, and a moment later its teeth found her side. She was lifted, but fell, the soft ground suddenly hard. She groped to regain her feet, but was still flat on her belly when the teeth came again, lifted her again. Then she was back on the ground. She could not tell if she had been merely dropped, or actually thrown. She moved in some way, unsure of what she was doing and to what purpose. It swatted her, its paw ripping away ribbons of scale and flesh even as it sent her skidding and tumbling through the sand.

A quartet of feet rushed past her, then another. She swiveled her head to watch the two keepers rushing away, slowed by their thickly padded black uniforms, and the long poles strapped to their backs. They were rushing along the ceiling, and the ceiling was made of sand, and along the ceiling was a swathe of bright red blood like a path. They followed the path, but did not walk on it.

Far away, nearly lost in a growing dimness which was not night, she saw others rushing in from all sides. Some were already standing on their hind legs, leveling their shock sticks in their forefeet, thrusting them at the hissing, snarling beast. Pops and sizzles, and the reek of singed hair, reached her from a great distance. The beast turned, and ran; swept beneath the great gate, and disappeared into the shadows.

Two doctors were beside her, their forefeet moving busily, their legs and bellies covered with blood. As she became aware of their presence, two others lifted her onto the back of a cart, and she was wrenched into sickening motion. She caught a glimpse of the ground behind her as the cart sped her away. There could not be so much blood in the world, much less in her own small body.

She was inside, she thought. The darkness sweeping over her, around her, through her, was deeper. She was lifted again, onto a table. The busy forefeet returned, many pairs now, those that had been clean becoming bloody in an instant.

She did not know why their frantic attention should strike her as absurd. They must know she was beyond their help, but it was not absurd to attempt the impossible. She had done so herself. Today she had failed, but even that had been only a partial failure. Perhaps, after all, they would succeed. Where there was a chance of success, and even where there was not, it was not absurd to try. And as she watched them work, it no longer seemed so. END

Conor Powers-Smith currently lives on Cape Cod, where he works as a reporter. He is an Active Member of the SFWA. His stories have appeared in “AE,” “Daily Science Fiction,” “Nature,” “Abyss & Apex,” and other publications and anthologies.