Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Rules Concerning Earthlight
by Dale Ivan Smith and K.C. Ball

Waters of Lethe
by Ian Sales

Return of the Mayflower
by Gerald Warfield

Life Out of Harmony
by Rebecca Birch

Our Old Crossed Stars
by Travis Knight

Another Time in France
by Sylvia Anna Hiven

His Special Birthday
by Chet Gottfried

Sucks to Be You
by Tim McDaniel

8 Minutes, 15 Seconds
by Levi Jacobs

by Steve Rodgers

One-Way Ticket
by Milo James Fowler


Cool Facts About Cats
by Eric M. Jones

A Real Krell Brain Boost
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Life Out of Harmony

By Rebecca Birch

HUMBOLDT CRANE CHEWED ON HIS bottom lip and tapped a subconscious S.O.S. on the control panel with one finger. There hadn’t been time to reinforce the hull of his modified skimmer after his last foray below the surface of Cygnus-7’s atmospheric cloudbank. Not with his daughter Eloise frozen on the edge of death in a barely functional cryo-chamber.

The abrasive crystalline clouds churned against the viewscreen—swirls of ruby, cobalt, and topaz tearing at the already compromised protective shielding with a metallic shriek like sandpaper on steel. A subtle vibration hummed through the hull, the telltale warning of impending intake valve blockage. Humboldt dragged his gaze from the view-screen to the display board. The illuminated surface blinked erratically, making it impossible to get a clean read on the sensors.

Cygnus-7 crystals were unique in the universe. They emanated sound waves, blending into a fugue of precisely calibrated harmonics, able to synthesize and transmit thoughts, memories, dreams—all the base components of the human soul. They were also interdicted by every governing body in the known galaxies and nearly impossible to harvest. Priceless, life-giving, and lethal.

Humboldt had always prided himself on being able to maintain detachment. The danger was part of the game. A dash of old world sriracha to spice his black market procurement. With Eloise at his side, they’d mastered the art of riding the cloudbanks, skirting the line between profit and calamity.

Humboldt’s gut twisted. They were the perfect team. This shouldn’t be happening.

The skimmer shuddered and the displays went dark, then sputtered fitfully. Humboldt cursed under his breath and whacked the panel’s far right edge with the side of his hand. “Come on, SADIE. Hold it together a little longer.”

The lights stabilized and Humboldt sucked in a breath of stale air. He glanced towards the cryo-chamber bolted to the rear wall. A reassuring yellow glow emanated from the chamber’s control screen. Whatever glitch was affecting the display hadn’t touched the chamber yet.

Humboldt allowed himself a moment of relief. If the power keeping Eloise on ice failed, this whole venture was useless.

The skimmer’s eerily calm female voice emanated from the speakers. “I am doing my best. Eloise did not have a chance to recondition my intake valves for intra-nimbus flight before—”

“Not now, SADIE,” Humboldt interrupted.

The vibrations increased, juddering Humboldt’s teeth. He couldn’t let himself think about the accident. Couldn’t let weakness distract him. Numbing tingles erupted in his fingers and they clenched reflexively. Detachment. Where was his damned detachment?

He forced himself to take slow, even breaths. “Give me a detailed read on intake valve three.”

“Intake valve three on central display. Sensors indicate crystalline residue partially blocking intake. Intake system failure predicted in under three minutes.”

Humboldt ran a quick mental calculation. Assuming nothing failed outright, he should be able to harvest enough crystals to save Eloise. It was a big assumption. No one else was foolish enough to ply these cosmic waters. There would be no help if he couldn’t pull SADIE out of the cloudbank. But, if he failed, he wasn’t sure there was much reason to keep living at all.

“Recommend immediate lift thrusters and departure from crystalline atmosphere.”

Nervous energy set Humboldt’s foot tapping on the hollow metal sheet covering the access to SADIE’s wiring. “Negative,” he said, “I’m not giving up on this.” Humboldt wiped his mustache with the back of his hand. His sweat smelled of the phytonutrients he injected daily to maintain optimal health. “Continue on programmed trajectory.”

A low whine, like a diamond drill on Jovian-pressed steel, rose up from somewhere underfoot, in the region of intake valve three. Humboldt visualized the propeller blades sucking the crystals through the processing filter, blowing the resulting concentrate into the ship’s containment canister. How much build-up would make that kind of noise? How much would it cut back harvest efficiency?

And why hadn’t SADIE responded?

“Acknowledge command, SADIE.”

“Acknowledged.” There was a pause, then, “This isn’t what Eloise would want.”

Humboldt gritted his teeth so hard his jaw twitched. “My girl walked the edge with me every day. She wouldn’t ask me to back away from danger.” Eloise. His brave girl, now a woman grown. If SADIE was this operation’s mind, then Eloise was its soul. The blazing sun at the center of Humboldt’s universe.

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it,” SADIE replied. Once, in another life, her voice would have been laced with mingled sarcasm and frustration, pitched low and thick as warm molasses. Now, it maintained the cool, toneless delivery that only served to remind Humboldt of how everything was different—how she was different, and how he’d made her that way.

Now wasn’t the time to argue with his ship. She could have it out with him once Eloise was out of danger. “Give me a performance analysis on intakes one, two, and four.”

“Valves one and four functioning at half capacity. Valve two sixty-percent occluded.”

The whine intensified, piercing Humboldt’s skull.

“Valve three at eighty-five percent occlusion. Internal temperature passing tolerance levels. Recommend powering down valve three.”

Humboldt held his breath and glanced at the containment canister, its transfer tube already hooked up to the cryo-chamber, where the crystals would incorporate Eloise’s consciousness into their harmony. Not enough crystals and there wouldn’t be a full transference—a tapestry of consciousness with missing threads no needle could ever mend.

The multi-colored miasma filled the canister only halfway. Sweat rolled down Humboldt’s temple and soaked into his sleeve. “Keep going, SADIE. There isn’t another chance at this.”

“Likelihood of electrical failure in case of intake valve burn-out, ninety-five percent. One-hundred percent certainty resulting electrical failure will disable cryo-chamber. Captain,” the slightest of hesitations, “she’s my daughter, too.”

Humboldt lurched out of his seat and staggered to the cryo-chamber, clinging to the frame to keep upright in the trembling ship. He looked through the filmy glass window at Eloise’s face. Burns covered her whole right side, blistering over the bridge of her nose, her eyelid melted into the skin of her cheek. Yellow ooze had hardened into scales over what had been weeping wounds before he managed to stow her into the chamber.

The chamber blocked the rest of her, but he could still see her mangled right arm, the exposed tips of her finger bones. He could still hear her screams from the instant when the fuel-cell she’d been working on ruptured, coating her in caustic liquid before SADIE’s auto-safety protocols could kick in and suck the rest out into the vacuum of space.

His hand splayed over the icy surface of the glass. “It’s going to be okay, kid,” he said. “Your dad’s going to make everything okay.”

“Ninety percent occlusion in valve three. Failure imminent. Please, Captain.”

Without all four valves, there was no chance of returning to the safety of the upper atmosphere with enough crystals to save Eloise. Not without risking permanent damage to both the ship and himself, but he didn’t have a choice. “Shut down valve three.”

Humboldt counted his breaths. One ... two ... three ...

The horrible whine vanished and the skimmer’s flight steadied. “Valve three offline. Failure averted.”

Caught between relief and frustration, Humboldt’s shoulders slumped and he closed his eyes for a moment. “Recalculate time to full capacity for sentience transfer.”

“There are other calculations that would be preferable. Distance to nearest medical trauma facility with capabilities to treat significant burns—”

Humboldt slammed his fist into the wall, wincing at the impact. “Even if we could cobble the energy to run the cryo-chamber all the way, what would that gain her? You know what kind of pain she’d face. A lifetime of surgeries, and even then she’d never be the same.”

Like his own father. It was why the older man had chosen the solitary life of a black market scavenger. Nobody to snicker at the melty-man, Pop had said so often it was the only thing Humboldt could still hear in his father’s voice. Nobody to show him pity to his face, then mock him behind his back. He taught Humboldt every day that hell was being trapped in a twisted body. It led to a twisted mind.

Humboldt wouldn’t condemn his only child to that same purgatory. Not when there was an alternative. His experimental transfer procedure had worked once. It would work again. Better this time. The circuitry he’d constructed as a failsafe in case of emergency was more advanced. Her voice wouldn’t lose its tart edginess. Her whip-quick intellect wouldn’t slow when it ran through the processors. Everything that made Eloise who she was would be preserved. “I’m giving her a better life.”

SADIE replied in her implacable monotone. “Do you think that my existence is a life, Captain? I disagree. So did Eloise.”

“Calculate the time to full capacity,” Humboldt growled, “or God help me, I’ll institute command overrides.”

“A sentience that can be overridden cannot be considered a life. You’re making a mistake.”

“Execute command override code Crane-omega-two-seve—”

“Estimated time to completion of harvest, two minutes and twenty-eight seconds. Twenty-seven. Twenty-six ...”

Humboldt let his breath out in a whoosh, grateful he hadn’t needed to finish the code. He didn’t like the idea of placing Sadie under his command. She’d been his partner. His wife. The mother of his child. When the cancer took root, love had driven him to find a way to save her.

No one had done it before—transferring a sentience into a non-organic host. His customers could afford to pay desperate men and women for their younger, healthier bodies. Men and women whose own lives were lost to the crystalline harmony imbued with the buyer’s sentience. Gone forever, with nothing left behind but a fat check to benefit their heirs.

Some called it murder. Humboldt called it calculated suicide. A valid form of employment.

Like the old trade in replacement organs, Cygnus-7 crystal transfers were highly illegal and prohibitively expensive. Even with the profits from his procurements, Humboldt couldn’t afford a human host for Sadie—most of their earnings went into upkeep on the skimmer—so his technical expertise had transformed Sadie, his wife, to SADIE, Sentience-Activated Donor-Intellect Engine, the first of her kind.

“Intake valves one and four at sixty-five percent occlusion. Valve two at seventy-three percent. Hull abrasions nearing critical levels. I have diverted available power to protective shielding. This should maintain hull safety levels long enough to finish procurement, but with the added drain of the cryo-chamber, there will not be enough power to maintain life support and shielding.”

Humboldt pressed his thumbs against his temples. “If we keep life support until the last possible moment, how much time will there be between failure and return to the safe zone with completed harvest?”

“Approximately fifteen seconds, but you will have lost consciousness before that time. Your survival would be in question. Life support within the cryo-chamber may also be compromised.”

Humboldt’s gaze drifted to the view-screen. So many colors. So beautiful. Eloise had loved these moments inside the clouds. Ship-bred, this was the only place she’d ever seen all the shades of the rainbow. After a run below, it was all she could talk about for hours on end. How she couldn’t wait to get back and see it again.

“SADIE,” he asked, “what do you see outside?”

“Sensors show increased harmonic vibrations. Fluctuations in chemical make-up of crystalline particles. High wind-speed.”

“The colors?”

SADIE didn’t answer right away. The ship was starting to shudder again, and a strange hum shivered through the hull, working its way from Humboldt’s feet through his chest. Warm lassitude slid through his veins. The long forgotten taste of a fresh-bitten apple bloomed on the back of his tongue.

“I have no eyes, Captain,” SADIE finally replied. “I see nothing.”

Humboldt sank down to the floor, resting his back against the side of the cryo-chamber. The swirling colors seemed to draw closer, the view-screen filling more of his field of vision. “Do you remember apples? We used to pick them ripe from the tree on your mom’s farm when we were kids. You’d lick your fingers and groan like you’d never tasted anything better.”

“I remember it happened, but nothing more. The memory exists in my circuits as data.” Orange lights flashed on the display panel. “If we break off now, there is still a chance to reach a medical facility.”

Humboldt closed his eyes, but the colors continued to dance on the back of his lids like the kaleidoscope he’d played with as a child. Before the fire had changed everything.

It had rained the next day. The wet asphalt scent of the hospital grounds was forever embedded in his mind. He’d never be able to smell it again without reliving that walk beside the social worker. The hollow in his heart where his mother should have been. The overwhelming dread of what he’d find inside the facility.

Humboldt gave his head a rough shake. This was now, not then, and his daughter needed him. “Maintain course.”

“Eloise will never taste an apple. She wanted to, you know. I have records of her logs. She wanted to see the old world. To breathe the smell of a true atmosphere. To feel grass underfoot.”

“She never told me that.”

“She wouldn’t. She loves you too much.”

Humboldt staggered to his feet and braced himself over the cryo-tube. “Play it back, SADIE. Let me hear.”

Static blurred the recording, but not enough to block Eloise’s familiar voice. “I dreamed about it again last night. Apple trees, like in the still images, but the branches were moving in the wind. I wonder what that would feel like. Does wind have a smell? Maybe someday Dad’ll be ready to take a break from this life. To bring me home. Just for a few days, even. I feel like I’m missing out on part of being human.”

Something heavy clogged Humboldt’s chest. His throat constricted. He stroked the glass, shaking his head. “I never knew.”

His hand clenched into a fist and his eyes followed the exit tube from the cryo-chamber into the wall of electronics behind, ready to transmit the Eloise-imbued crystals into her new circuitry. How could he sentence her to an existence where she would never have a chance to experience life to the fullest? Without the opportunity to choose for herself if the pain of recovery was worth the gain? “You’re right, SADIE. This is the wrong choice. Take us out. Set new course for the nearest trauma facility.”

The ship jerked so hard Humboldt’s hip smashed on the edge of the cryo-chamber. “What was that?”

“Failure in valve two. Associated power cells offline. Life support has been compromised. Captain, there is now no chance of maintaining both remaining life support and cryo-chamber as far as a medical facility. Likelihood of escaping cloud bank with both of you alive is thirty-five percent.”

A wave of vertigo washed over Humboldt. He panted for air, but couldn’t seem to get a full breath. “This isn’t supposed to happen. We walk the edge, Eloise and me, but we never fall.”

“Containment canister eighty-seven percent full. Valves one and four steady at sixty percent occlusion.”

When had his world turned into a chain of percentages and calculations? He couldn’t pinpoint the moment, but imagined it happened right about the time Sadie’s body had gone cold and her voice, even colder, had first emanated from the ship’s speakers. Percentages were easier than trying to talk about things that used to matter. Even Eloise’s presence hadn’t been enough to fully ward off the emptiness left behind.

Sadie was the one who lived in a metal shell, but now Humboldt realized his own shell was even harder. Struggling to gather enough air to speak, he gasped, “How long ... until we have enough crystals to proceed ... with transfer?” A dark haze seeped in at the edges of his vision. His legs buckled.

“One minute, thirty-three seconds. I estimate you have only half of that left before you lose consciousness.”

Humboldt forced himself to remain upright, staring down at Eloise’s mangled face. The left side, so peaceful. Auburn lashes feathering against her freckled cheeks. So like Sadie. She deserved a chance to live. To make something more of herself.

“As soon as you have enough crystals ... execute sentience transfer.”

“I won’t consign my daughter to this existence, Captain.”

Humboldt rested his forehead against the cool glass window, letting his eyes drift shut. The kaleidoscope was back, and the hum that had hovered at the edge of his awareness pulsed louder, harmonies twisting and weaving like dancers on the stage.

“Not asking you to. Execute transfer into ... organic host.”

“There is no organic host, Captain.”

“Yes, there is. Me. Give her this last gift, then take her home. Let her smell the wind. Touch the rain ...”

“Captain, your consciousness will not survive the transfer.”

“Humboldt,” he said. “You used to call me by my name.”

“Are you certain ... Humboldt?”

Humboldt yanked the thick, needle-sharp end of the transfer cord from its connection slot in the circuitry banks, bit his lip, and stabbed the metallic tube into his thigh. Pain tore a groan from his throat. His stomach clenched and went as cold as if it were filling with liquid hydrogen.

Unable to keep his feet, Humboldt slipped to the floor. His cheek rested on the heated metal, hand pressed palm-flat against the edge of the cryo-chamber. Opening his eyes would be too much effort. “This is my last chance. To be a good father. To be a good man.”

“I will tell her that you loved her.”

Humboldt licked his lips. Rough. Salty. “Loved you, too, Sadie. Always.”

“I know, Humboldt.” Her voice faded until it was hardly more than a whisper. “I know.”

Then there was nothing but darkness until a sudden rush of rainbow brilliance filled his mind. The soft sweep of another consciousness brushed against his own. He reached a thought towards it in a gentle caress.

Dad? Where am I?

You’re safe, kid, he replied. And your mom’s going to take good care of you.

The colors whipped into a maelstrom, and his mind was no longer fully his own. Sparks of Eloise whirled down, down, down, until he could no longer tell which luminous motes belonged to him and which were hers.

He sensed he had only moments before Eloise was all that remained. Would she remember this? This last communion between father and child?

I love you, El. Her radiance was overwhelming. Powerful waves of harmony swept her essence over him. Through him. His girl. His Eloise.

For perhaps the first time in his life, he’d made the right call. If he’d had lips he would have smiled. If he’d had tears, he would have cried. No fear. No regret. He was ready.

Taste an apple for meEND

Rebecca Birch is a science fiction and fantasy writer based in Seattle. Her fiction has appeared in the “Grantville Gazette: Universe Annex,” “Abyss & Apex,” and “Every Day Fiction.” When not writing, she enjoys singing and practicing Tae Kwon Do.


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