Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Decoration Day
by Edward J. McFadden III

A Mother’s Touch
by Beth Cato

Breathing Space
by J.J. Green

Consarn Christmas
by Eamonn Murphy

Having Robot Sex
by William R.A.D. Funk

by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt

Morphological Understanding
by Jennifer Linnaea

Cloud Cover
by Eric Del Carlo

Abram’s Choice
by Jamie Lackey

by David Barber

Beer Today, Gone Tomorrow
by Clayton J. Callahan


Ho, Ho, Holiday Giving
by Eric M. Jones

On the Antiquity of Man
by A. de Quatrefages




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Breathing Space

By J.J. Green

CHRIS COLLINS EXHALED, INCHED himself forward a foot or so, then rested. He took shallow breaths. The narrowness of the rock tunnel wouldn’t allow anything more. His headlamp lit the way ahead. Four or five feet in front, the rough limestone opened out. His left arm lay stretched out in front of him, his right was trapped by his side. Chris’ neck hurt from holding his head up, so he let it fall to the tunnel floor. Loose shards of rock pricked his cheeks, but the pain was preferable to the ache of his neck. Now, all his headlamp illuminated was the wall of the tunnel, a few inches from his eyes.

“How you doing? Much further?” Mark Logan’s voice came from somewhere beyond his feet, sounding as though he was far distant.

“Another few feet.” Chris’ words were instantly damped by the tunnel walls. He exhaled, puffing dust from the floor into his eyes. They watered. He blinked. He couldn’t reach them to wipe the dust away, not even with his free left arm. He blinked again, clearing the blur as best he could. He exhaled again, gentler this time, and inched his body farther forward.

Pain from aching muscles and sore knees, hips, shoulders and elbows suffused through him, but as he lay there, thinking about the thousands of feet of rock and earth above and below, Chris couldn’t resist a grin. The first few times he’d done this, he’d sweated in fear, unable to clear his mind of the image of himself permanently trapped, slowly dying of thirst and exposure, never to see sunlight or feel fresh air on his skin again. Now, seasoned caver that he was, he relished the challenge.

“See anything yet? ” Mark’s faint voice crept into his ears.

“No ... just ... no. Nothing.”

He could see discoloration on the tunnel wall a little way ahead. But rock coloring was always irregular. It could be anything.

Mark’s question brought him back to the present and his mood sank a little. Was this the kind of place where Tedeschi had died? Had he tried a little too hard? Gone just a little farther than was safe, and got stuck? Unable to move forward or back. Jammed solid, and alone. Until his lamp battery died and he was left in darkness so complete you couldn’t see your hand before your face. Did he try calling out, even though the rock around him deadened his loudest shout to a whisper? Did he scratch his fingers to the bone, hopelessly trying to dig through solid rock with his bare hands? Chris shivered and shook the images from his mind. Just concentrate on finding his body.

Exhale. Ease forward. Rest and breathe. Exhale. Ease forward again. The tunnel didn’t seem to narrow any further. He had just enough room to breathe. A few more feet and he’d be through the opening ahead, which looked big enough to sit up in and take a rest.

“Can’t see you anymore.”

“Must be about twenty feet, then.”

“Would I fit?”

“Probably not. It’s pretty tight in here.” There was no way Mark would fit. He wasn’t out of shape or anything. Just beefy. Great for drilling out rock or shifting it, hauling gear, but not the best body for a dedicated caver. Chris was grateful for his own wiry frame.

“Dang it. I can’t ever fit anywhere. Worst goddamn caver ever.” Chris could see Mark in his mind’s eye, leaning into the tunnel to talk to him, his doughy face wearing that dumb look he got whenever he tried to think too much.

“Why’d I even come along? No use to anyone ... I should do something else, you know,” Mark’s faint monologue drifted through the tunnel. “There’s gotta be a lot of jobs for a guy like me. Mountain rescue, EMT... ”

“Yeah, sure Mark. You’re scared of heights and you faint at the sight of blood. Now shut up, I’m nearly through.”

Chris’ head was level with the discolored rock. Strange. It seemed to smell a little ... off. His left hand brushed the surface as he eased by. It didn’t feel any different. But the smell ... he couldn’t place it. It was like nothing he’d ever smelled before.

At last he reached the spot where the tunnel widened. Easing his aching muscles, he sat up. His neck and head were still bent by the tunnel roof, but the extra room felt like luxury. After taking a breather, he bent his head down to get a closer look at the next section. A wider hole, and what looked like a chamber. He let out a whoop.

“What can you see?”

“It opens out. Room size.”

“Anything there?”

Chris checked. “Can’t see anything.”

Freshened with excitement at his discovery of the room, Chris quickly wormed through the remaining short tunnel and stood up. He stretched his shoulders back and shook out his legs. Swinging his headlamp around, he examined the chamber. More discolored rock, two or three tall narrow openings that led deeper into the cave, and ... nothing. No sign of Tedeschi. No sign anyone had ever been here. Chris was most likely the first human ever to set foot in the place.

He peered into each opening in turn, then leaned down to call into the tunnel he’d entered through.

“No sign he came this way.”

“Dang it.”

“There’s three ways here. I guess I should call it a day.”

“Guess so. It’s getting late anyway. Time to head back.”

Safety rules required recovery teams to stick together, never to go off alone. He could tell Mark which passage he was taking, but if he had an accident farther on, would Mark remember? And if there was another choice of ways soon after, things would get confused. Ignoring safety rules was what killed Tedeschi. He satisfied himself with a long look through each of the openings. They all led tantalizingly down. The recovery team had already gone as deep as the research team Tedeschi had belonged to, the deepest humans had ever been. This new route Mark and he had found would break all the records.

After a regretful last look around, Chris squatted down to return the way he’d come.


At base camp that night they watched the recordings from the expedition five weeks previously, when Tedeschi had disappeared. There he was, familiar to them all now. A small man. A good size for a caver. Lean but fit, carrying a ton of gear without it seeming much effort. No amateur. He moved over the rock at a measured pace, wasting no energy.

They watched him disappear into a sump, then fast-forwarded the recording to the point when he reappeared, grinning, giving a thumbs up, a sign he’d found a way through. The delight on his face was what distressed Chris a little. He knew that feeling. All the recovery team did. Tedeschi was one of them. He’d come here for the same reasons they were all here. The same reasons they did the crazily dangerous things they loved to do. And now he was dead. Somewhere down here his body was lying in the dark.

As they were watching they heard the sound of more cavers arriving. Their team leader, John Marsh, paused the recording and turned to the watchers.

“It sounds as though our guests are here. We’ve a member of Tedeschi’s team joining us. Dr. Surtees, a leading speleobiologist. She might be able to shed some light on conditions that influenced Tedeschi’s disappearance.”

Chris and Mark exchanged puzzled looks. Tedeschi had taken off alone and got stuck or lost. There wasn’t any need to look for more causes than that. Caving was damned dangerous. People who didn’t follow the rules died. Sometimes they died even when they did follow the rules.

A tall woman stepped into the lamplight, begrimed from the journey down to the base camp. She dropped her pack heavily to the floor and sat down on it, resting her elbows on her knees. Her face was shadowed and lined. She nodded and smiled wanly at the recovery team members.

“Hi, everyone. Mr. Marsh? I’ve brought supplies for myself.”

“Call me John. We’ve plenty to spare, Dr. Surtees. Please help yourself if you need anything. There’s some flat ground toward the back to set up camp. I guess you already know that.”

Dr. Surtees didn’t reply. She seemed transfixed by the frozen image on the screen: Tedeschi smiling into the camera, giving a thumbs-up.

After an awkward pause John said, “Well, I’m sure you and your companions know how to make yourselves at home.” He started the recording again and the new arrivals walked off to find an area to settle for the night. Dr. Surtees stayed where she was.

Chris studied her instead of the recording. He’d watched it so many times, he didn’t think there was anything else to learn, but she was something new. She’d been there when Tedeschi went missing and would have been part of the first search, when they still had some chance of finding him alive. That must have been pretty harrowing. Yet here she was again, after what must only have been a few days topside. He couldn’t read her expression. What had motivated her to return to look for the body?

When the recording had finished and they were wrapping things up, Chris decided he would try to find out. He held up a hand.

“I was wondering if Dr. Surtees would like to say anything? Can she tell us anything that might help us locate Tedeschi’s body?”

She turned to look at him slowly, as if coming out of trance.

“I’m not sure. I think you probably already know everything I could tell you. Ted went missing two days after we made our final camp right here. We sent for help and searched for three weeks. Then it was decided there was no chance of finding him alive and we were recalled to the surface. We searched as far and as deep as we could, but you guys know the geology down here. It’s a labyrinth.”

“How about his state of mind? What do you think made him go off like that? He was experienced. It was a little odd, don’t you think? Was he acting out of character?”

A strange expression passed over Dr. Surtees’ face.

“No one knows why Ted took off. We couldn’t figure it out. We woke up one morning and he was gone. As far as we could tell he hadn’t taken more than basic equipment with him. You know this already, I’m sure.”

She stood up and hauled her pack onto her shoulder. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m really tired.” She walked away.

Chris turned to Mark and raised his eyebrows.

Mark shrugged. “She’s tired. It’s a long way from topside.”

“We’re all tired,” replied Chris. “But why is she even here?”

“Why are any of us here? What’s the point? That guy’s long dead, and he’s buried deeper and sleeping sounder than anyone else will be, ever.”

“Don’t start getting philosophical on me again, Mark. We’re here to do a job. If it was me I wouldn’t want to be left alone here, dead or not. We should do our best to find Tedeschi and take him home. That woman was here when he disappeared. Maybe she can tell us something useful to know, even if she doesn’t think she can.”

Mark yawned. “Ask her tomorrow. Take her along with us if you like. I’ve never met a cave biologist. I bet she’s got some good stories to tell.”

“Maybe. Not about here, though. There’s nothing down here but us, as far as I’ve seen. But, yeah, I’ll see if she’ll join our team.”


In the morning, Mark groaned as Chris shook him awake.

“Shut up, it’s still early,” Chris whispered.

“Jesus, let me sleep, man. What’s the time? ”

“Wake up, I want you to come with me. Hurry up.”

Mark sat up and ran his hands through his hair. “What’s the matter?” He put on his hard hat.

Chris leaned forward to speak into his ear. “I just saw that Surtees woman leave the cave. Christ, you stink.”

“Yeah, well, you’re no eau de cologne yourself. She got up and left by herself? Why? Where’s she going?”

Chris pointed to one of the many passages leading from the large cavern they’d camped in, just visible in the twilight of the dimmed camp lights.

“We’re following her, right?” Mark grinned. He’d pulled himself out of his sleeping bag and was tying the laces on his boots.

Chris nodded. “If we wake up Marsh or wait we’ll lose the element of surprise.”

Mark chuckled. “Been reading Sherlock Holmes again?”


Stepping carefully around sleeping bodies, the two made their way to the passage entrance. Turning their headlamps to the lowest setting, they began to walk down the passage. After half a minute Chris stopped and whispered in Mark’s ear.

“I’m going to turn off my lamp. You hang back and I’ll walk in the light from yours, okay?”

Mark nodded.

In light that it would have been impossible to see in, after a few days topside, Chris stepped forward, holding his hands out in front of him. The passage rose gently. There was no floor, just rough stone, so both men had to frequently grip the walls to keep their balance. In places the passage narrowed so tightly they had to turn sideways to pass through.

The feeble light from Mark’s headlamp threw shadows from jagged rock formations that jiggled and rose and fell as he walked. Chris strained his eyes to make out where to put his next step, and to check for light from Dr. Surtees’ lamp ahead. Suddenly, the light from Mark’s headlamp surged as he rushed forward. Chris felt Mark grab his shoulder and he turned to find out what the problem was. Mark put his finger to his lips. Then he heard it too, so clearly he didn’t know why he hadn’t heard it before. Tap, tap, tap. He’d heard that sound so often it was unmistakable—a hammer and chisel on stone. But as soon as he recognized it, the sound stopped. Chris and Mark looked each other in the eyes. Had she heard them approaching? There was nothing for it but to continue on.

Struggling to make his way in the puny light from Mark’s lamp, Chris half walked, half climbed forward, wincing inwardly at the slightest sound from his boots on the rock. He strained his eyes trying to see a glow in the darkness ahead, but there was nothing.

After another two or three minutes, his right boot trod on something soft. A small grunt issued from the object.

“Dr. Surtees?” Chris stepped back, bumping into Mark as he came up from behind. The soft black shape he’d mistaken for a rock unfurled itself and elongated to human height. Chris and Mark turned their lamps on full, and Dr. Surtees did the same. Even in lamplight, her face shone red. Chris glanced down and saw her holding a plastic sample bag and hammer and chisel. The three stood in silence a moment, then the woman turned up her chin and gazed into Chris’ eyes.

“You’re the nosy one from last night, aren’t you?”

“Hey, I’m just trying to find someone’s remains. Not sure what you’re doing here, though.”

Surtees tensed and drew herself up, then her face relaxed a moment and her eyes shone wet. She looked away and when she turned back she’d resumed her fixed, unreadable expression. She lifted the sample bag and tools.

“I just wanted to collect some samples. It was stupid of me to hide like that. I don’t know why I did it. Let’s go back to the camp.”

She tried to pass the two men, but it wasn’t easy in a passage barely wide enough for one person, especially when the men clearly weren’t going anywhere.

“Tedeschi went off by himself, and died,” Chris said. “Now you go off alone, too. Knowing full well what happened to your team mate. For samples? You could collect them anytime. And you said you were here to help the search.”

“I ... it’s just ... these rocks.” Surtees hesitated. “It’s too hard to explain.” She forced her way roughly past Chris and Mark, and set off down the passageway.

Mark was just recovering from being thrust into the wall when Chris pushed him aside again as he rushed after Surtees. He grabbed her shoulder and spun her round.

“Look, ma’am, this isn’t good enough. We’re down here risking our lives to try to find the body of your team mate, and here you go breaking safety rules again. What the hell?” Chris’ voice rose. “You want us to have two bodies to find down here? You want to end up like Tedeschi? Lying in the dark, alone, maybe hurt, dying of thirst, or slowly freezing to death? You think that’s a good way to die?”

As he spoke, the guarded look fell from Surtees’ face and she collapsed to the floor, head in hands, sobbing.

“Don’t ... please stop ... please.” Her voice was muffled by her hands.

Chris stood over her, his hands on his hips. He threw a bemused, exasperated look at Mark, who seemed as confused as he was.

“Dammit, lady, what is it with you?” He stood indecisively for a moment, then reached down and grabbed Surtees’ shoulders, lifting her to her feet. She shrugged his hands away and wiped her face on her sleeve.

“I’m sorry. You’re right. I appreciate everything your team is doing to recover Ted’s body. I can’t explain. You’ll think I’m crazy.”

Chris sighed.

“Let’s just forget about all this, okay? We’ve found you now, so we’ll go back to camp and start over, alright?”

Without answering, head down, Surtees started off down the passage, gripping the walls for support. Chris was about to follow when he noticed that she’d left her sample bag on the floor where she’d collapsed.

“Hey.” He picked it up.

Surtees came back and took the bag from his hand, then stumbled away again. Chris and Mark followed, a little more slowly, so that a gap opened between the pair of them and the woman. Chris felt Mark poke him in the back. He turned his head.


“You made the cave biologist cry.”

Chris rolled his eyes and continued scrambling through the passage.


Exhale. Inch forward. Stop to breathe. Exhale. Another few inches. Chris couldn’t decide if it was his toes or his hips or his stomach that propelled him forward. Right arm lying ahead of him, left arm pressed against his side. Headlamp lighting the way ahead. He was nearing the discolored rock again.

Behind him, Mark and Surtees were waiting for him to reach the farther chamber. The woman and her strange behavior occupied Chris’ thoughts. Back at camp, he’d pressed her again, more gently this time, to explain why she’d gone off by herself, but she’d remained closed-lipped. Changing the subject, Mark had asked her about the samples she was collecting. She wasn’t much more forthcoming, only mumbling something about how they’d looked interesting in the lab. When Chris had remarked the color was the same as another patch of rock he’d seen the day before, she’d got very excited and asked to go with them to see it.

So here he was again. Once he was through, Surtees would follow. As a pair, they could explore some of the passages leading from the chamber. On the way back, Surtees could take rock samples.

Chris’ face eased past the discolored patch, inches from it. The smell seemed stronger today, and the rock glistened slightly in the beam from Chris’ headlamp. Strange stuff. Chris was sure he’d never come across this kind of rock before. But then, he was more than nine thousand feet below ground. Who knew what might be down here? He looked ahead. The tunnel walls seemed narrower than before, which couldn’t be possible. There were no cracks from shifted rock. Yet ... it looked so narrow, impossibly narrow. How could he fit through? If the tunnel really was as narrow as it seemed, how had he managed to get this far? Would he be able to get out again? Chris started to feel the edge of panic. He pushed the feeling away, willing himself to breathe deeply to calm himself. But he couldn’t breathe deeply. He was too tightly jammed, his chest barely fitting within the available space. Sweat broke out on his face. His lungs worked against the constricting force of the tunnel walls. He began to pant.

“Chris? ... Chris ...” He heard Mark’s voice but he was concentrating on forcing down the rising tide of fear that threatened to overwhelm him.

“You’ve stopped. What’s wrong? Are you okay? What are you doing? What’s happening? Chris?”

Instead of Mark’s voice Chris heard, as if far distant, his own panting breaths, rising in tone. A scream began to work its way up his throat. His body seemed to take on a life of its own, and struggled against the rock. He heard his hard hat and boots thumping against the tunnel walls.

Chris.” Mark’s shout broke through Chris’ mental turmoil.

“What’s happening? You okay, man?”

Collins.” It was Surtees. “Chris, move. Move forward. Just keep on going. Move.”

He screwed his eyes shut and inched forward. And again. And again. His fear seemed to subside a little. He opened his eyes and saw the resting space ahead. Focusing on it, he eased another few inches. His panic fell away.

“Oh, Jesus.” He slumped onto the floor of the tunnel.

“Chris? Are you alright?” Mark called.

“Yeah ... yeah, I’m okay. I don’t know what happened. I’m okay now.”

He couldn’t understand what had come over him. He’d never panicked like that before. Was he losing it? If word of his panic attack got back to Marsh, they’d kick him out for sure, for his and their own safety. Would Surtees report what had happened? Probably. Mark was an old friend but he might too, out of concern.

“Sorry, guys. Didn’t mean to scare you. I don’t know what got into me. Hey, maybe I’m the one who should be applying to mountain rescue.”

“Scrawny guy like you? Maybe if they need some pussycats rescued from up a tree,” Mark replied.

Chris allowed himself a small smile and concentrated on getting through the last few feet of tunnel. He was coated in sweat. He could feel it running down his forehead. He chided himself for not wearing a bandanna under his hard hat to keep the sweat out of his eyes. It was on his body too, under his shirt, he felt damp and sore. Sore? Sweat didn’t normally make him feel sore. He identified a site of increasing pain in his side.

“Ow ... ahhh ... Jesus.” Chris squirmed forward. Something was burning the skin on his abdomen, and the searing sensation was growing. He fought forward with all his might, trying to get away from whatever was burning him, but the pain didn’t diminish. He kicked and screamed. Squirming forcefully ahead, he shattered his headlamp against a jutting rock. Plastic shards rained down on his face as, instantly, utter darkness fell. Sightless in the dark, he gave another agonized scream and jerked uncontrollably.

He found himself in open space. He’d reached the chamber at the end of the tunnel. Chris ripped off his shirt and flung it away from him, but the pain in his side didn’t abate. Touching it, he could feel a slimy substance burn the tips of his fingers. How to wipe it off? He crouched down and felt on the floor for his discarded shirt. As his fingers brushed cloth, he gave a sob. Grabbing the shirt, he felt for areas on it that weren’t covered in slime. Not knowing if he was wiping away the slime or his own blood, or maybe both, he wiped his side until the pain eased. He cleaned as much as his tender skin could stand and carefully wiped the traces of slime from his fingers too, then flung his shirt away.

Mark and Surtees were shouting from somewhere in the darkness.

“I’m okay. It’s okay,” he called. “There was something in the tunnel, something, I don’t know. It burned me pretty good.”

“What? What do you mean? Burned you? What was it?” Mark’s voice was a calming sound in the pitch black.

“Some kind of slimy gunk. In the tunnel wall, it must’ve been. Came out as I went past it. After my ... episode.”

“Chris, where was it? Was it in the rock I wanted to sample?” Surtees this time.

“Yeah, I reckon.”

“How are you doing?” Mark again. “Can you come back?”

“I’m not going past that slime again.” Chris faintly heard Mark cursing.

“I smashed my lamp. Can you guys shine a light down the tunnel for me?” A moment later, Chris could see a patch of wall that was less black than its surroundings.

He felt his side. It was wet, with blood he assumed, as it didn’t burn his fingers. The slime must have eaten through his skin. The ache from it was only tolerable because it was less painful than the feeling of being burned alive he’d had before.

“Chris, you can’t come back, I can’t fit through to get you, and that slime will burn Surtees. I’m going for help,” Mark’s voiced echoed through the tunnel.

“Okay, I guess Marsh might have some ideas.”

“I’ll be back as fast as I can.”

“Chris?” Surtees called.


“You’re at risk of shock, you know? I know you haven’t got anything to cover yourself with, but ... just keep talking to me, okay?”

“I know. Okay.” But he couldn’t think of anything to say.

“You got a wife, Chris?”

“No ... no girlfriend either. Got a kid I see pretty regular. You?”

“Married. My husband’s dean of my university.”


“Well, I get my research funded.”

Chris felt a wave of pain and gasped. He grasped his head in his arms, willing himself not to touch his side.

“Kids?” he called through gritted teeth.

“Not yet.”

He couldn’t think of what else to say to maintain the conversation that could be keeping him alive. Neither could Surtees, apparently, for a while. Then: “That stuff that slimed you, I’m sorry. I had no idea it would do that.”

Through the ache that radiated from his wound, Chris managed to reply, “You know what it is?”

“I only know a little. If it’s the same stuff as in the rock samples I examined topside, it’s got some protein compounds never seen before. It’s amazing stuff.”

“Amazingly goddamned painful.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry, like I said, I didn’t know it could do that. What I’ve seen so far is clearly only the residue of the organism or organisms that you encountered.”

“Uhuh.” Another wave of pain. “Oh Christ.” He wondered how long it would take for help to come. And then what? He couldn’t get out, and no one would be able to get through to him without sliding through the acid slime. Healthy, he could stay there forever while they passed food and water to him, but with the wound on his side, he wasn’t so confident about his chances.

“Chris? You still with me?” He started. He’d been drifting off. He must try to stay awake.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m still here. I’m going nowhere.”

“Talk to me.”

“About what?”

“I don’t know. How did you get started in caving?”

“Mark got me into it. I was going through a rough patch after me and my girlfriend split up.” He breathed through gritted teeth. “I was gonna drive home drunk from a bar one night. Mark hauled my ass outta there, took me back to his place. Took me caving with him next day.”

“He’s a good guy.”

“Sure is. Always got my back, you know? You need someone like that down a cave.”

“Yeah, you’re right. You’re really right.”

There was a pause.

“You go caving with your husband a lot?”

Surtees’ rueful laugh echoed down the tunnel.

“My husband’s never set foot in a cave in his life.”

Another pause.

“But you got someone to watch out for you, right?”

“I did.”

It took a moment to sink in. “Not ...?”

Surtees’ replied quietly, “Yeah.”

“I’m real sorry.”


The conversation lapsed into silence again.

“Were you breathing next to the slime when you had that panic attack, Chris? ... Chris?”


It was a sound that brought him back to consciousness, followed by pain. But he quickly stifled his groan as the memory of where he was, and what the sound must mean, returned. The noise wasn’t coming from the tunnel he’d come through, at the end of which Surtees presumably waited for Mark. It was coming from the other side of the chamber, from one of the three openings he’d found before. It was the sound of something sliding and scuffling toward him through the darkness. Something big.

He strained to see. The only light was the palest shimmer from the narrow tunnel, where Mark or Surtees had set a lamp. It wasn’t enough to see much by, but Chris thought there was a blacker patch of black moving across the floor. What it was he had no clue. Some critter of the deep earth, attracted maybe by all the shouting they’d been doing. As the hairs lifted on the back of his neck and beads of sweat formed on his forehead, the only thing Chris knew was that that thing, whatever it was, could probably see, or hear, or smell a hell of a lot better than he could. That it probably already knew exactly where he was and was coming over to ... what?

Running was out of the question. His only safe route contained acid slime. In the other unexplored tunnels he could get lost, or fall into an unseen chasm, or meet a hundred more of that creature’s friends and relatives. He could call Surtees, but what could she do? And calling out might give the final clue to his whereabouts, just in case the deep cave beast was wondering. His only option was to strike first, to kill or disable the thing before it had a chance to hurt him.

Slowly it advanced, shuffling and dragging itself along. Chris had only his ears to guide him, but he knew he had to hit it hard, and make the blow count. Once hit, who knew what the animal might do to retaliate? The sound grew louder as the beast drew nearer. Chris could tell it was nearly upon him. He readied his fist. It sounded like it was inches from him. He struck out with all his might into the darkness. Yes! His fist connected with skin and bone. The creature fell like a nine pin and lay still. Chris’ relief overwhelmed him. First the panic attack, then the slime, and now this? But he’d killed it or at least knocked it out so it couldn’t call its buddies to the feast.

A small, niggling thought entered Chris’ mind. Hitting that creature had felt familiar somehow. What the hell was that thing? He slid his fingers across the tunnel floor, probing for the edge of the beast. It was so still there probably wasn’t any danger of rousing it. He touched its skin, which felt rough and ... very strange. Not scale, or skin or fur, but .... Realization began to dawn. He felt further. It wasn’t skin, it was cloth. Chris felt up the beast’s chest, to its face. He felt ears, nose, mouth, eyes and several weeks’ growth of beard.

“Oh, shit.” He quickly felt the throat for a pulse.

“Thank god.” He was still alive.

“Chris, did you say something? Can you hear me?” Surtees called.

“Yeah, I can hear you.”

“Chris, you’re alive. Thank goodness. You’ve been out for an hour or more ...”

“I’m okay, but, Surtees, I’ve found Tedeschi, or, rather...”

What? What did you say? You’ve found Ted? Ted’s there?”

“Yes, but ...”

Ted? Can you hear me? Ted, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Ted?”

Chris hesitated.

“Ted? Are you there?”

“Surtees, he can’t hear you. He’s ... I ...”

“What’s wrong? Ted, please, hang on, please ...”

“He’s okay. He’s just, er ... fainted.”


Chris leaning heavily on Mark for support, the two of them made their way slowly back to base camp. The morphine shot Marsh had given him had made him woozy without seeming to take away much of the pain. Chris was glad to be out of the drama unfolding at the tunnel entrance, where they’d left Marsh, the recovery team members, Surtees, and the now-conscious Tedeschi. Marsh’s face had indicated he found Surtees’ sobbing over Tedeschi’s prone figure as embarrassing as Chris did.

“So Surtees and Tedeschi were ...?” Mark asked


Mark raised his eyebrows.

“He wanted her to leave her husband, but she wouldn’t, because she’d lose her funding, be out of a job or whatever.”

“Could her husband do that?”

“Don’t know. I suppose so. He’s a university dean, so ...”

“So Tedeschi went off.”

“Went off. I don’t know why. Kill himself? Space to think? Who knows. Got slimed, got lost, nearly died, I found him ...”

“You knocked him out. After he found you.”

“Well, technically ...”

Chris winced as Mark readjusted his arm over his shoulder.

“What I don’t get is, how the hell is he still alive?”

“The slime helped him. Surtees didn’t find out until she was back topside and looking at the samples she’d taken. She said it’s been known for a long time cells don’t work at maximum efficiency. They, er, leak protons—or something.”

“I knew that.”

“Yeah, me neither. But this stuff, it seals some, er, membranes tighter. She figured if it got in your blood ...” He paused. “Anyway, she’d given Tedeschi up for dead, but when she analyzed the samples, she thought there might be just the slimmest chance he was still alive.”

“Huh. That’s why she snuck off this morning.”

“Yeah, she must’ve gone back to where she’d got her samples from the first time, wondering if Tedeschi had passed that way. Hoping to see something. I don’t know. She was crazy with guilt and grief, I think. Maybe she should have just told someone her theory.”

“Well, I don’t believe it even though it’s true.”

“Yeah.” Chris nodded.

“Hey, so you’re super-efficient now.”

“Yeah, well, I’d rather be unslimed and inefficient.”

They walked slowly on. It was going to be a long haul to get to the surface with his injured side, Chris thought, even with Marsh’s expert medical care. He hoped Tedeschi would make it. The poor guy looked like a skeleton. There had been no problem getting him through the tunnel, once Marsh had contained the slime with plastic spray for stabilizing loose rock.

“Hey, Chris.” Mark broke into his thoughts.


“You made the cave biologist cry again.” END

J. J. Green is a science writer who explores the frontiers of scientific exploration
and beyond. She also writes fiction. Her work has appeared in “Mad Scientist Journal,” “Dark Tide Writers’ Magazine,” “Metro Moms” and other publications.