Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
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Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


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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

Ecology
by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt

Morphological Understanding
by Jennifer Linnaea

Cloud Cover
by Eric Del Carlo

Abram’s Choice
by Jamie Lackey

Longshot
by David Barber

Beer Today, Gone Tomorrow
by Clayton J. Callahan

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Ho, Ho, Holiday Giving
by Eric M. Jones

On the Antiquity of Man
by A. de Quatrefages


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Morphological Understanding

By Jennifer Linnaea

FOREWING LENGTH 55.2-125.0 CM. HEAD: frons shining bronze with blueish reflections, vertex and neck shining black with blueish gloss, laterally and medially lined silver; antenna bio-luminescent purple or pale green; labial palpus first segment very long, shining ochreous; second segment about one-quarter of the length of third, posteriorly shining pale silver, anteriorly and apically black; third segment dark blue, lined deep purple laterally. —Excerpt from “Morphology of the Extraterrestrial Quasi-Lepidoptera Sapien of Region 3419, referred to locally as the Lichen-mound Protectors” by Dr. Yuuki Veronesi, “Journal of Modern Xenobiology”

Yuuki’s secondskin clung desperately to her endemic skin as she fled along a shale-filled gully at the edge of the Fossil Lands. It implored her in Haptic Transfer—the tactile, emotion-based language that let it communicate with humans—to slow, to calm, to stop sweating so it could get its grip back. Behind her she heard the whirring of the Fossil Land Protectors’ wings. They wanted her to slow down, too. So they could kill her and mount her thorax on the wall.

She ran harder.

The Lichen-mound Lands were still three days hard trek away. Between here and there, the Greenpools Land: potentially disputed territory. The Greenpools Protectors had been reduced by plague to one-twentieth their previous numbers. She wasn’t sure her pursuers would respect their border, which suddenly appeared as the gully opened up onto a soggy, foul-smelling beach. The river that flowed beyond was weed-choked, sluggish, and stank of rot and pestilence. Nevertheless, that border was the only hope she had.

The secondskin sent waves of alarm as she flung herself into the river, wading clumsily with her arms held high above her head. She could feel it fighting to protect her from whatever was down there, felt it slip and strain against her. Worse to die of infection than to have her head pincered off, she knew, but her primal survival instincts were in charge now, and dying of plague was in a future that that part of her could care less about. The Fossil Land Protectors, whose whirring had increased in pitch and volume, were now. The hairs on the back of her neck rose—they were so close behind her that she caught the breeze made by their forewings, the length of which, among other things, had caused her all this trouble.

She reached the far bank and kept running. Or at least, tried to run. The land on this side of the river was swampy and with every step she plunged up to her shins in fetid mud. Within fifty meters of the river she was making hardly any progress at all.

Her secondskin beseeched her to stop; it was losing its battle to stay joined to her.

She stopped. But not because of what her secondskin wanted. She stopped because while she had no weapons, not any chance of winning a contest of force against her pursuers, nonetheless the thought of getting killed from behind stung her pride.

She turned to face them.

They were hop-flying back across the river. They had respected the border.

Yuuki, whose name meant courage but who had never felt less courageous in all her life, put her hands on her knees and sucked in one deep breath after another.

Her relief didn’t last. I couldn’t hold, her secondskin told her wordlessly. She had taxed it beyond what it could endure, far beyond what it had been bred for. She felt its remorse and grief as it died.

***

She was a xenobiologist, not a linguist; not an anthropologist or diplomat. That she could speak to the Quasi-Lepidopterans at all was only because they had quickly learned the Earth scientists’ languages. They were used to learning languages—each of them had to know ten or twelve just to get by, being bordered on all sides of their territory by “neighbors,” which meant to them sometimes allies, sometimes enemies, sometimes gene or information sources or trading partners, but never to be trusted. She had learned that last too late after her article on Lichen-mound Protector morphology had gone live. She’d been away from her comfortable home with them, on a field trip to collect morphological data from the Fossil Land Protectors, when the Fossil Land folk turned on her. They called her a traitor, a spy, and worse. It seemed that range of lengths of the forewings, the precise color shades of the frons—all of it— were primary indicators of something (she couldn’t understand quite what) and a closely guarded secret among each regional group. And the Lichen-mound folk weren’t the only ones interested in reading what the scientific journals from Earth said about them. So were the Fossil Land people, the Hollow-Reed Dwellers, the Cliff-Clinging Ones. She had given secrets to the enemy.

Yuuki dragged her slime-encased boot out of the mud and took another step, shuddering with revulsion all the while. She felt feverish even though she knew it was her imagination. As short as the pathogen incubation period on this planet was, it would still take a couple of days for the symptoms to manifest.

When they hit, however, they would kill her in a matter of hours. She looked up at the sky as if she’d be able to see the Orbital high above. How many days across the Greenpools to the Lichen-mound lands? She’d estimated three but now it seemed clear it would be at least double that.

She’d never last that long.

She thought about calling the station and begging them to send a shuttle down. But they would only tell her what she already knew: there was no place in the Greenpools to land one. She could go back to the Fossil Lands and head for the jump pad where she’d come in or else a flat place suitable for shuttle landing, in which case she’d be promptly terminated by the Fossil Land Protectors, or she could make it to the jump pad at the edge of the Lichen-mounds.

Meager a chance as it was, going forward was the only chance she had.

“Why are you here?”

The voice was perfectly modulated, touched with the Chilean accent of Professor Lichuen Sepúlveda, a legendary figure who had done all of the initial contact. “We told the Earth Protectors not to come here.” Yuuki whipped her head around to find the source of the voice, lost her footing, and landed in the mud. Her secondskin, which had shriveled into a placenta-like patch on her belly, finally fell off altogether. She felt it squishing around inside her shirt, sticky and clammy, and fought down the urge to vomit.

“Please, I need asylum,” she said. “And swift passage across the Greenpools to the Lichen-mound Lands. I’ve made a diplomatic error, for which I am deeply sorry. And my secondskin has perished; if I don’t get to the Orbital within several days I’ll die.” And from there, assuming it wasn’t too late to save her life, home to Earth. Her career here was finished.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” said the voice. She pinpointed the sound of it and looked. About ten meters away stood the smallest specimen of Quasi-Lepidopteran she’d ever seen, its forewings held erect and curled to mimic the stunted, fleshy tubules that passed as trees. Mimicry! Its legs, which on a typical Lichen-mound dweller were about a meter in length and double-jointed to facilitate springing, were perhaps only half that, and the jointing was ... quadruple? Would that make up for the length? Well, if it didn’t kill her right out, which it didn’t seem inclined to do, she’d be the first human to see it in action. The Greenpools Lands were Protected by a people who wanted nothing to do with Earth or its envoys and had politely opted out of the studies.

“I’m pleased to meet you,” she said, “my name is Dr. Yuuki Veronesi.”

“The one who betrayed the Lichen-mound Protectors.”

Her hope sank. She’d thought that maybe ... “It was an accident. I didn’t know.”

It fanned its wings slowly. “You approach from the magnet lines. Were you, by chance, a visitor of the Fossil Land Protectors?”

She nodded. “I was. But they tried to kill me when they found out about—”

“Mmm. Your publication. And do you, by chance, carry with you the knowledge of Fossil Land Protector morphology?”

Yuuki felt herself go pale. She’d just told it she was days from death! “Are you,” she said, her voice shaking, “are you proposing I should add to my betrayal by deliberately giving you Fossil Land Protectors’ secrets?”

“Yes.”

Yuuki felt like she’d been struck.

“To save your life. You are fond of your life are you not? Also fond of your data, which will not reach Earth without you.”

Meaning it would “lose” it after she died.

“I can give you something in return,” it said. “Something more than safe and swift passage. Something more than sneaking you onto the jump pad, which the Lichen-mound people will certainly not allow you access to after what you have done.”

She felt a brief moment of sorrow for the Lichen-mound people. They had been her friends.

“W-what?” It sickened her that she was bargaining with it. The Fossil Land Protectors were not her allies but they were ... people, and the thought of them coming to harm because of her made her feel dirtier than the muck coating her arms and clinging to her hair.

“Our own morphological data. Pre-plague—our true evolutionary inheritance. You will not get that information any other way.”

“But ...”

“See? I do not ask anything more from the Fossil Land Protectors than I am willing to tell about myself.”

She gave it the data. There were no accounts of a Quasi-Lepidopteran agreeing to do something and then reneging on the bargain. However, as a scientist, she knew that previous observation of an event did not assure its re-occurrence.

***

In the darkness, their antennae shone blue and pale, rose and gold, each individual owning a slightly different color; and indeed they were named after those colors, far too many shades to be rendered into her language but they tried, saying words like azure and cerulean and cobalt and failing to find so many words for golden shining. All this while they skirted the bogs, traveling fast, staying to the shallow pools and higher, firmer ground that threaded through the land like veins of ore in a rock.

The entourage that traveled with her was small, a band of hunters, but they knew the land and every threat in it, and protected her as promised.

Then the fever started.

She shook with chills, then sweated; her joints burned and her tongue swelled up so she could hardly talk. Tiny pustules rose on her skin and drained blackish liquid into the mire.

“That is what killed us,” Coral said to her. “Just before your people came.” Coral was the leader, the one who had found her, who had antennae that shone pale pinkish yellow. The others murmured in consent.

“Am I going to make it to the jump pad?”

It thought for a while before it answered. “I don’t know.”

***

Thoughts blurred in her mind with the whirring of forewings. Over and over again people discovered her darkest secrets. They did not keep them for her but wrote them in colored gas among the stars so everyone would know how to hurt her.

She woke. A face looked into her own, a face with brown eyes and a high nose and such thick lips, Quasi-Lepidopterans didn’t have lips and lips were so funny looking, really, if you stopped to consider how very little they—

“Doctor Veronesi. Can you hear me?”

“Where is Brittleflake?” The old one who kept house for her in the Lichen-mound Lands. “Where is Secret?” The child who always came to her in her mound when she was trying to work and asked her endless questions. “Why is it so bright in here?”

“Doctor, what do you remember?”

“My secondskin died.” She took a shuddering breath, and the tears came. “I ran too hard and I killed it.”

A hand came down and rested on her shoulder. It was, she saw, attached to the face hovering over hers. A human—it looked naked without wings or antennae.

The face’s head nodded in sympathy. “What else?”

The secondskin memory was like the first domino. Once it tipped, all the others swiftly fell.

“Did you get the data?” She heard the pitiful waver in her own voice and was ashamed.

“We retrieved all the data you were carrying.”

“Did it include the data on the Greenpools Protectors?”

Shoulders shrugged. “That’s not my area of expertise.”

She had been very, very sick. She held up her arm before her face; it was covered in tiny white scars like a field of stars. “Thank you for bringing me back.”

He—it was a man, she could tell now—smiled. “It’s my job.”

“I need to see the data now,” she said.

He laughed at her. But it was a good-natured laugh, and she found herself laughing too.

***

It took her weeks to heal enough to be told the news. The Hollow Reed Dwellers and the Fire-Peat Protectors had massacred every elder, breeding adult, and child in the Lichen-mound lands. Somehow, her data had allowed them to do it. When she went back the crunching of her boots over the lichen-paved pathways was the only sound.

She went to her old house. It had been a beautiful lavender-gray and green mound at the edge of town. Now there were holes in the walls and inside smelled of the smashed bottles of formaldehyde littering the floor.

She wandered the streets. “Brittleflake,” she called. “Secret?” she whispered. “Come out. You can stop hiding now.”

But no one answered; there was nothing. She left town, walked in the wilds. She went all the way to where the air filled with peat-smoke, and there she stopped.

This was the first recorded genocide among Quasi-Lepidopterans. The victors hadn’t taken wealth or land or prisoners, had just quietly gone back over their borders.

Yuuki thought of the Fossil Land Protectors and felt sick to her stomach.

A crunch behind her made her spin around, her heart in her throat. Someone was standing there. “I thought you might return here,” it said in a perfect voice. “How is your health?”

It looked, if possible, tinier than ever, standing where her Lichen-mound friends had always stood.

“Coral. My health is fine, thank you.” At the station, they’d grown her a new secondskin. It murmured contentedly to itself. “How did you find me?”

It did the Quasi-Lepidopteran version of a human shrug, lifting its prothorax and sort of sliding it back and forth. “I followed your smell from town. Also you disrupt the magnetic lines. Did you study the data we gave you?”

In the shock of hearing about the Lichen-mounds, she’d forgotten.

“Are you going to kill the Fossil Land Protectors the way the Hollow Reed Dwellers and the Fire-Peat Protectors did this?”

“Mmm,” it said. “Maybe.”

“But why? You don’t even want their land, or anything!”

“You’d better go. Swiftly now. The Fire-Peat Protectors know you’re here; they’re coming in large numbers to kill you for a traitor.” Coral leaped away from her, an impossibly long, high leap on its quadruple-jointed legs.

“Don’t you dare,” she shouted after it. “Don’t you dare kill them! I’ll publish your data!” It was, she realized with a jolt, true. Given a choice between the lives of the Fossil Land Protectors and the Greenpools Protectors, it was no contest who would win. No matter that the Greenpools Protectors were named after the most beautiful shades of color in the world. They had threatened her. They had mislead her and used her when she was weak. “I will!”

Behind her, from the direction of the Fire-Peat lands, the whirring of a hundred wings. Coral laughed as it leaped off and left her to murder a second secondskin fleeing from her neighbor’s wrath.

***

The orbital’s air was cold and hurt her nose with dryness. “The Journal of Modern Xenobiology” refused to publish her article on the morphology of the Greenpools Protectors on the grounds that it might endanger the Greenpools folk and turn a cultural misunderstanding into a war. She self-published. The Quasi-Lepidopterans did not reserve their reading to scientific journals and she knew they would find it.

She waited.

The Fossil Land Protectors demanded she be returned to them for justice. Politicians back on Earth made soothing noises in their direction, but did nothing.

She developed nose bleeds, then ulcers. She wasn’t an anthropologist or a diplomat and she had never cared about those things. Caring about them now woke her up at night, sweating. She read everything published about the Quasi-Lepidopterans on the subject. It didn’t tell her why the Greenpools Protectors were holding steady at an estimated population of several thousand, or if and when they would attack and slaughter the Fossil Land Protectors, or if there was anything, anything at all, she could do to stop it. She drew a sketch of Brittleflake sweeping the walk and hung it on her wall. As did all her attempts at art, it lacked any sense of warmth.

***

She had to steal a lander to go down to the planet because her access to all the jump pads had been terminated. She landed it at the edge of the river that divided Greenpools from the Fossil Lands and walked slowly up the shale-filled gully.

She could save the Fossil Lands Protectors, she knew she could. But in order to do it she had to understand things no one up on the Orbital understood.

In a little while they came. Before they could kill her she put each of her hands on its corresponding shoulder in the pose of peaceful surrender (she had learned that much, from reading) and said, “Please! I must ask you some questions. There are some things I have to know.”

“Ask,” one of them said, and it crouched down in a posture of waiting. The others, a dozen or more, followed.

“Why did the Lichen-mound Protectors die?”

“Because you made them public.”

“I published a bunch of numbers! No one on Earth understands how having that information allowed their neighbors to kill them all without a single casualty! Please, you must tell me.”

It considered her. She shifted and listened to the fossils break under her feet. “Do you know of Darwin’s finches?” it asked.

“Of course.”

“Like them, we evolved, each perfectly adapted to our environment. We to the Fossil Lands, the Greenpools Protectors to the Greenpools ... the Lichen-mound Protectors to the Mounds. Do you understand?”

“No, I don’t understand at all. If no one wants their land or resources then why did they kill them?”

It waved its forewings at her. A soft breeze blew down the gully; it tugged strands of hair free from her ponytail and across her face. Her hand, when she raised it to brush them away, shook.

“If what we are is given away, then we are no longer that thing and yet we cannot be anything else. Thus we perish. You told everyone who the Lichen-mound Protectors were, so they died.”

“I didn’t tell who they were! They were beautiful. They made parks with gorgeous designs of lichen—every texture and color. They walked among them in the morning when it was cool. That’s who they were. They were people who liked to tell jokes and roll around laughing at them. There’s nothing in what I wrote that could say anything about that.”

She paused, her shoulders shaking. She couldn’t have written those things if she’d wanted. She was artless, clumsy, shy. She didn’t understand people.

“You don’t understand,” it told her.

“But why didn’t the Greenpools Protectors die when I published their data?”

They all hissed in unison, appalled. They’d recognized she had done it on purpose.

“Traitor, you published who they used to be. Who we used to be is already dead, thus it cannot die again. Stop bothering us with useless questions.”

It rose and took a step towards her.

“Wait!” She only had one chance. She adopted the surrender posture again and it sank back down.

“I came here to warn you,” she said. “To protect you. Right after you chased me off your land, before I knew what would happen I”—she dropped her voice to a low whisper—“I gave the Greenpools folk your data. They said they might kill you! You must escape!”

They spoke for long moments in their own tongue, which she did not understand. Their small blue sun sank behind the gully wall and plunged them all into shadow.

“It is all right,” it said at last. “The Greenpools Protectors blackmailed us into giving them some genes, because they are small in number and weak. Now their price is paid. Your data was incomplete and if only one neighbor has it, we are not gone. When you are dead this will all be behind us.”

The Quasi-Lepidopterans sighed their human-sounding sighs. They rose. “Are you ready?”

Yuuki hadn’t worn a secondskin this time down. For something else to die for her would have been unconscionable. END

Jennifer Linnaea is an active member of the SFWA. Her work has appeared in “Strange Horizons,” “Daily Science Fiction,” “Flash Fiction Online,” and “Interzone.” Her previous story for “Perihelion” was published in the 12-APR-2013 issue.

 

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