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



Lost and First Men

By David Barber


THE SCHOLAR CLADE ON VESTA, previously an academic backwater, made the winning bid on the ancient vessel discovered by chance adrift in the Oort.

Archaeologists estimated this forgotten human venture wandered for six kiloyears, its dead crew perfectly preserved by cold and vacuum and offering a novel opportunity for what became known as the Homo Sapiens Recovery Project.

DNA from the crew was treated according to an ancient recipe, then inserted into enucleated cells. To further ensure authenticity, the blastulas were planted in the fertile wombs of a traditional Mother clade.

One survived to term. The neonate, HSRP/03, was named Eliot.


His first memories always involved null-g, to which his cohort was genetically adapted but Eliot was not. He eventually stopped vomiting, and hastily designed drugs stopped his bones shedding calcium, but he had to live with the headaches and engorged features that went with fluid retention.

His cohort played Save The Ship, a children’s game that reinforced cooperative instincts. Eliot was already bigger and heavier than his teammates, though without their natural grace in free fall.

Hopelessly out of position and upside down, Eliot spotted the random leak by luck. While his cohort passed the patch from hand to hand, parting round obstacles like a flock, closing in on the sound of the hiss, Eliot knew he could save the ship. Without time to explain, he wrestled the patch from startled hands then dived away to plug the leak in record time. Triumphantly he punched the air and turned to see their silent, hostile stares.

There was no opposing side; only by working together could the ship be saved. Eliot was a bad team member and they wouldn’t play with him any more.

Perhaps it was on another occasion that Eliot hit someone, an outburst of rage and frustration. Blood droplets wobbled away in null-g. After that, he was only allowed to mix with adults.


Mother clades were an old cult. He remembered her always swollen with pregnancy; later he would learn much of the population was hosted by their wombs.

“You won’t leave me?” Even at five and six years, Eliot clung to his Mother desperately, as if realising her instinct was to move on.

She stroked his curious hair; normal children soon lost any fuzz they were born with; normal children left their Mothers early, finding comfort amongst their birth-cohort instead.

“I shall stay as long as you want, Eliot.”

Let Eliot become Homo sapiens, she had been told, whatever that was, though the urge to whisper the secrets of the common good was strong. She cared for him, but Eliot always sensed disappointment in her.


One of his teachers was young and female. Rona, the most perfect name for a girl. He dreamt of her and puzzled over his erections. He masturbated secretly, ignorant of the dust of sensors everywhere. Privacy was not something people of the Steady-State valued.

He tried to impress her with feats of daring, walking edges under gravity, holding a lungful longer than others, bullying the giAnts that scavenged the corridors.

She told him not to be foolish, to stop showing off. Bluntly, she informed him her kind didn’t develop sexually until later in life; their untroubled adolescence was the time for learning.

The Scholars were fascinated. High-Doktor Tass persisted with questions about these feelings until, fighting back tears, Eliot stormed out of the Scholar’s Quarter. Stared at by curious crowds in unfamiliar corridors, he was finally rescued by Rona.


Rona wakes him, touching a finger to his lips. She whispers that he is watched constantly and they have forbidden her to see him again. Somehow no whisper is quiet enough and the Steady-State always knows, but Eliot is bigger and faster. Gloriously, with fist and foot he destroys them. There is blood and weeping; Tass begs him to stop.

They run down corridors, chased by shadows. Rona will be forced to marry another, though she confesses shyly it is him she wants. Knife in hand, Eliot turns to face more agents of the Steady-State. When they grab Rona, he stabs them again and again. Blood wobbles away in the air.

High-Doktor Tass shook her head. “You see the violence inherent within them?”

Not long after these experiments, a female from a Sex clade began to visit Eliot.


The notion emerged that he should visit the human spacecraft now in orbit round Vesta. It was not clear whether it was his idea or theirs. This was how consensus was achieved in the Steady-State.

“Their vacuum gear,” explained Rona, always a teacher. The non-biological suits were big and cumbersome, cluttered with gadgetry and ancient script.

Eliot wanted to know about the writing on them. He was not sure what he felt, or whether his mood was appropriate.

“NASA was the logo of their clade. These are their names. Captain P. Franks. Your kind were extremely hierarchical. Even this small group had leaders and followers.”

She pointed out another suit. “You were cloned from him. Mission Specialist M. Eliot.”

A thrill went through him. He wanted to know what Eliot meant but Rona did not know. There were faded pictures above bunks. Humans like himself, smiling females and children, some sort of animal, long dead and gone now, lost beyond memory. He stared at the females, all more fleshy than Rona. His mouth dry, he asked what the vessel had been doing out here.

“Exploring perhaps.”

“But why only males?”

Rona shook her head.

They warned him to touch nothing. When he sat at mute controls in a creaking chair, its black plastic crumbled under his fingers. He realised why it felt so right; it was the size, the shape, built by his own kind.


All through his youth, his days were dotted with medical and psychological assessments. Now he was older though, he sensed the testing was more perfunctory.

He complained staff were always moving on before he got to know them. The new medic, busy touching insects to Eliot's arm to sample blood, absently replied that his own predecessor had been spoiled.

Eliot glanced up. What did it mean, spoiled?

Slang, spoiled for the Steady-State, individuated. Many were not immune to him, and the staff were rotated to avoid it.

Eliot stared in wonderment.

“Some are vulnerable to a mental illness, obsessing over their own needs instead of the many,” added the medic, as he fed the insects to other creatures to be analysed. “Perhaps we are not as perfect as we thought.”

“And you, are you immune?”

“I dislike you, I think that’s a healthy sign.”


Many of those who had driven the HSRP forward had retired. Mediocre minds were in charge these days, and fashions had changed. All the talk now was of the alien Jirt ship, arriving soon, after centuries of travel.

He declared he would study the ancient history of his own kind. After all, who better to understand them? He soon learned why he felt isolated: the people of the Steady-State were not the descendants of humanity, but their own creations, remodelled by extensive geneering of the past’s flawed clay.


High-Doktor Tass wanted him to see Earth, and a vessel dropped them into the inner system on a Hohmann orbit. The Doktor looked much the same as he remembered, a little stiffer, a little more lined, a little colder.

She floated beside him at the vessel’s port, looking down on the planet. Sometimes the angry clouds parted to reveal the red glow of magma.

“Earth was destroyed by you,” the High-Doktor insisted. “Perhaps an asteroid strike, perhaps a weapon.”

Eliot wondered if this was another of their tests. Was he expected to feel guilt?

“You were monsters,” said Tass simply. “We geneered ourselves so we could not repeat your crimes.”

Then why they had resurrected him?

“We knew the events, but we did not understand you. Some still believed the Earth ended by accident, but now we have seen what you are capable of.”

But they were his parents. He was surprised at the whine in his own voice.

“It is of no matter now,” shrugged Tass. “Who knows what these Jirt will bring. We must free up resources. The Project is ending.”


Back on Vesta, he was escorted through unfamiliar biofac zones and shown into shabby rooms. These are yours, he was told.

For a while he was a sensation to be pointed at and whispered about in the corridors. Everybody else had a job, sometimes two, three jobs, and he fitted in by working in the recycling plants, the sort of ethically sound employment that was commended in the Steady-State. He had workmates, acquaintances, people he nodded to, but still he clung to the secret certainty that this was only another test, and that they would not waste him here forever.

At the beginning, Rona visited regularly, though he reasoned that she only saw him out of pity. Of course, Rona was older now, an important Scholar. She had matured into a sexual being, in a marriage with others. If he spoiled those that knew him, he saw no sign of it in her.

One day she asked if he wanted a female companion. “She must be sterilised,” she added. “But we are not cruel, there is no need for you to be alone.”

Perhaps she mistook his expression for puzzlement.

“We have female blastula. Your Y was removed and your X chromosome simply doubled up.”

“You think I would inflict all this on another?” cried Eliot bitterly. “You think I could explain to her why I had been so selfish? If you’re not cruel it’s because you feel nothing.”

He stored up his resentment for her visits; eventually she stopped coming. He felt his life slipping away.


Then came the day when everything changed.

There were two men waiting in his rooms at end of shift. Two men. Tall, with hair on their heads, and one of them was black.

“Name’s Franks,” announced the black man.

“Connors,” said the other.

Franks studied the dust and clutter and shook his head. “The herd lied to you.”

“They lied to all of us,” added Connors quietly.

All seven crew embryos had come to term. The Scholars had raised them separately, under different conditions, as part of their experiment.

“What have they done to you?” Franks demanded. Eliot had no idea what he meant.

Connors patted his shoulder. “Anything you want to pack?”

“Where are we going?”

“This is their idea of life,” ordered Franks. “Leave it all.”


He was the last to be found. The others had escaped, or walked out, or refused to cooperate years ago. Eliot wondered why that had never occurred to him.

“We took charge of our lives,” explained Connors. ”Now you can.”

It was overwhelming, a roomful of his own kind. He flinched as they argued. This was not how the Steady-State achieved consensus. They grew heated and Franks raised his voice, repeating the herd was weak and passive and conformist. “All we have to do is push.”

Connors shrugged. “All they have to do is outlive us.”

Eliot spoke up for the first time, recalling Rona’s talk of female clones. “You could have children,” he added, trailing off into silence.

Was this Rona spoiled, they wanted to know; would she betray her kind? Now Franks was incandescent. He would resurrect humankind and the Steady-State would not be able to stop them.

His skin, Eliot whispered to Connors later. Is he ill?

“There is more variability in this room than all the herd. Chen there, thinks the Steady-State went through a population bottleneck after Earth, but I believe they chose to be as they are.”


They were all watched; these humans had no idea what the Steady-State knew. Rona chose a moment when Eliot was alone.

“Rona!” he cried.

His beard was trimmed, and his hair tied back like the others. She had forgotten how tall he was, though he had aged. There was something about their lives that burned faster.

“I'll meet Franks,” she agreed, when he got round to it. “But you must be present. You are the only one I trust.”

He smiled uncertainly as she put something in his hand.

“A weapon, yes.”

“You expect me to use this?”

“A precaution. They became violent once before, when we tried to confine them.”

He understood about the violence. Perhaps old humans were more aggressive. Speaking to Rona he felt suddenly distanced from their assertive manners, the way they filled rooms, the bulk and smell of them. Rona must see them all as barbarians.

He put the gun in his pocket, where it bumped heavy against his leg as he walked, a constant reminder, like a bad conscience.


“You expect us to let you breed, to become a force?”

“We have rights,” interrupted Franks. Already he was leaning forwards, his voice sharpening.

Rona shrugged. “Rights need to be earned.”

“You birthed us,” said Connors. “Don't you have responsibilities?”

For a moment she was silenced. “Get rid of this one,” She gestured towards Franks. “You others perhaps, we can trust.”

“She's trying to divide us,” Franks warned.

“There are female blastulas ready to quicken. All except Franks. His clade, I will order flushed.”

Franks struck her, and in the struggle and shouting, Eliot reeled back, caught by an elbow. Rona was on the floor, blood on her teeth.

“She planned all this,” panted Franks. “Order the release of the blastulas. We want Mothers. We want everything.”

Rona tasted her own blood. “Why would I do that?”

“How can we be a threat to your trillion?” said Connors. “Give us a rock out in the Kuiper...”

Franks shook himself free. “Because I'll hurt you if you don't.”

“She's coming with me,” said Eliot thickly, through a swelling lip. He produced the gun and Franks laughed.

“The herd shaped you, Eliot. You won't use it, but she knows I will.”

Franks stepped forward, reaching for the gun and it fired.


It was not until the Jirt vessel arrived that Eliot saw Rona again.

“There will be an exchange,” she said. “Some Jirt staying, some people going. Including you, Eliot.”

This was his punishment, though he knew the Steady-State did not think like that.

“It was just chance their ship detected us. We debated whether to destroy it, to protect the Steady-State, but in the end no one could give the order.”

“Rona,” he began.

“We are victims of our own sanity. You would have done it though, to save those you loved.”

“I always meant to apologise. When you visited me, I was hurtful.”

She shrugged. “You were the best of them, Eliot. Weak, passive, conformist. We almost made you in our image.”

The Steady-State had lasted longer than any civilization in history, and without an enemy at the gate, who knew how long it might endure. But they had overheard Franks claim it would topple if pushed. Exactly their own fear. What if the Jirt realised this?

“I've known you all my life.”

“You are an important message. You will show the Jirt how far we have come, but also that we can make monsters again, if we must.”

“You shouldn't have given me the gun.”

She might have explained the Project had demonstrated how to domesticate wolves, to protect themselves from other wolves, and their last test had proved how far he would go to protect her. Instead, she said:

“With time dilation and cold sleep, you will see the Jirt homeworld,” she mused. “In some ways, I envy you.”


From the hundreds chosen to leave on the Jirt ship, a different couple would stay awake each year. Perhaps the Steady-State thought it might deter the Jirt from experimenting on helpless sleepers. After all, the consensus was edging towards using the Jirt who remained in the same way.

When the ship set out, it wasn't foreseen that Eliot would flatly refuse to go into the freezer tanks. The Jirt used no tricks to pass the time spent near-c; Eliot announced he would live amongst them instead.

As he watched their short-lived generations come and go, each in its turn agitated by the notion that he was the last of his hive, he was coaxed into telling his story, to be coded into their memory while there was still time.

“There is someone,” he explained to the juveniles, before he realised that relativity must have claimed her long ago. “Someone once. It was all a foolishness, she married others anyway.”

Of course the Jirt understood nothing of this and misunderstood the significance of the water that leaked from the human's eyes. Words cannot pin down the slippery nature of existence, he sometimes told them.

Other times, he explained how Connors, Franks and the rest were finally allowed a rock out in the Kuiper, with female blastulas, and Mothers, and all of the spoiled. Sometimes his own self was quickened again, sometimes not. He never finished this story. Eliot could not imagine the lives these few might create.

The Jirt did not point out it was impossible for him to know any of this, nor did he admit the Steady-State was not so kind.

He liked to tell how the caretaker couple confronted him with syringes full of sedative, held like talismans against an ancient evil. They had tried making him see sense, you see, and now they gave him no choice about cold sleep. Filled with a rage so pure it was like joy, his fist spun the man backwards, blood droplets wobbling away in null-g.

This was why he only mixed with the Jirt, who knew nothing of guilt, a strange and envious thing to Eliot.

Very old, he grew forgetful and used the names of Jirt long dead. The story he liked telling best was the one where more sleepers were woken, and they came for him, a nightmare from the Steady-State, chasing him down endless corridors. But somehow he had armed himself with a rod of Jirt ship material, as dense as metal, and he cracked bones and heads and backs, even as they scattered.

The stacks of cold sleep caskets were beyond his reach, stored at space ambient, but he had pounded at the resuscitation gear until it exploded in showers of sparks.

“What have you done?” cried a survivor.

“I warned you,” Eliot had said, as he spiked some last untouched bioware, its green light dying in a gush of plasma. “You knew what would happen.”

The man had swayed in the doorway, cradling an injured arm.

“You are a monster.”

Eliot's gaze seemed to see his long-ago handiwork. The Jirt listened to his words, impassive as ever. “I am what they made me.”


Close-up, Jirt weren’t like insects at all. They stooped over him on too many legs, organs languidly pumping and fluttering inside transparent shells. And they stank of old damp and rot.

But as they tasted him, brushing their anxious palps over his face, he wasn’t frightened or even disgusted; he had a powerful sense they were living creatures with their own strange souls.

There were things he meant to explain; how our lives are wondrous, briefly gifted, and we piss in the wind; he meant to explain about Rona, about the death of Franks, about how he had once single-handedly Saved The Ship, but it all proved too difficult in the end. END

David Barber is a crime editor at “Thrillers, Killers ’n’ Chillers” and editor of “The Laughter Shack.” His stories have appeared in various online magazines and in print and e-book anthologies. He lives in Norwich, England, with his wife and children.


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