Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Joy Ride
by Jude-Marie Green

Barnegat Inn
by Brian Biswas

Captain Quasar and the Kolarii Kidnappers
by Milo James Fowler

by Michael Hodges

Discord in Paradise
by Leslie Lupien

(225-50) Agnes
by Mark Ayling

It’s a Long Road to the Sky Train
by Michael Andre-Driussi

Not Her Kind
by Peter Wood

Down Courthouse Wash
by Steven L. Peck

Blink Twice
by Rebecca Birch

by Sean Monaghan


Mad Max, R2-D2 Return
by Adam Paul

Sixteen Shades of Ice
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Shorter Stories

Oh, Happy Plague!

By Seth Chambers

1. Rose:

EVERYONE LOOKED FORWARD TO the plague, this season more than ever. It was all we could buzz about. They were saying that this was going to be the best one yet. About time, too. Last season’s plague was a big, fat buzzstopper. Yes, it managed to decimate a few tiny towns—mere dots on the map—but barely touched the big cities.

It nailed J.D., though. One minute he was pouring himself a cup of coffee and the next minute he was keeling over right in front of Sandeep, our P.R. rep. Sandeep, lucky guy, snagged J.D.’s wallet and expensive shoes. Ten minutes later, the Myrmidons were hauling off J.D.’s body and Sandeep was strutting around the office five hundred bucks richer and his feet wrapped in Italian leather. What’d the rest of us get? A big coffee stain to clean up and lots of extra work.

But this season was supposed to be so much better.

Can’t wait, can’t wait, can’t wait! MaryJane brainfed me just as I stepped off the Red Line. I am just sooooo excited!

An evil grin spread across my face as I remembered last season’s embarrassing little incident. MaryJane must have skipped her happymeds because after J.D. dropped, she broke down screaming and carrying on so bad the medicos had to rush in and shoot her full of happyhappy thoughts.

MaryJane was still crying when the Myrmidons came to collect J.D. They paused in their duties to eye her and for one moment I thought they were going to haul her away along with J.D.’s body. Then I wanted to cry and to scream at them to leave MaryJane alone. Which was a stupid thing to feel because I’m always pumped full of happyhappy. No matter though, because the happyhappy the medicos gave her finally kicked in and she laughed and the Myrmidons went on their merry way and all was well.

That was last season.

But this season she was in the spirit. We both were. I walked from the Red Line stop to the office smiling at passersby and thinking, if you dropped right now, I’d take that nice hat of yours and, hey, I like your purse, would you be so kind as to flatline? Everybody was just grinning and buzzing all over the place.

Of course, what I really wanted wasn’t a hat or a purse but MaryJane’s condo. MaryJane lived one floor above me. We were neighbors, we worked together, and we played together. We were like sisters. But much as I like MaryJane, I just love her Jacuzzi, that thing is sweet! Oh, I know, it’s a relic from the long-ago but MaryJane had it retrofitted with brainbuzzing directfeeds. We spent hours in that thing, our naked bodies massaged by water jets, our nimble fingers pumping one another to climax after climax, and our brains going buzz-buzz-buzz with happyhappy thoughts. Okay, so we’re not exactly like sisters.

“We should have a party here!” I keep telling her. “Pick up some pretty boys, get a bunch of brainbuzzers together, share some directfeed, have some real fun.”

But no, MaryJane would have none of that, the big buzzstopper. She never wants to have a bunch of people over, wouldn’t feel comfortable buzzing naked in a big group.

So I say, “I hate you!”

And she comes right back with, “Hate you too!”

And we kiss.

I was always over at her place. If the Insta-flu nabbed her, I’d be all over that condo, ready to invoke my Squatter’s Privilege under the Revised Contagion Laws. It’s bigger than mine and has a full bar, as well as the Jacuzzi. And you can bet I’d have some killer naked-raves.

I was jolted from my daydreams by the Vid Screen on State Street. Breaking news streamed: plague is coming early. I tapped into the directfeed as the anchors discussed what was on all our minds: this was going to be one for the record books. This new strain of Insta-Flu had broken out in Mozambique and spread throughout the African continent in a matter of weeks. It tore through Europe, bypassing control measures. Then the contagion mutated and picked up speed.

“Looks like it’s already hitting port cities,” chirped Worldwatch anchor Tessie Sherman.

“Yes, and it’s spreading faster than anybody anticipated,” replied co-anchor Vincent Mann.

“Tragic, so tragic.” Tessie tried to keep a somber face but just couldn’t hold back her smile.

They cut to east coast scenes of Myrmidons loading plastic-wrapped bodies into EVAC vans. The crowd on State Street erupted in applause and a moment later brainbuzz surged through me like an ocean tide. I fed in my own happyhappy thoughts and the feelings shot back a hundredfold.

If the plague was ripping through New York, Chicago could not be far behind. Maybe it was already here. I nearly ran to the office, happyhappy thoughts trailing after me. More for everyone else! More for us all! A festive mood permeated the air but here and there I spied a few of those sour old buzzstoppers who just couldn’t get into the season. You know who I’m talking about, those dour folks who mope around asking, “Oh, what if it gets you? Don’t you ever think about that?”

And the answer is no, I don’t think about it. Why would I, with all the happyhappy thoughts buzzing around? If the plague drops me, I’d hardly feel it. That’s the beauty of the Insta-Flu. It’s painless and merciful. Lucky bastard J.D. got out of Critical Path Week last season. It isn’t like those historic plagues where people puked and broke out in nasty boils. The Insta-Flu either kills you or it leaves you alone. And everyone left behind gets extra stuff!

What’s not to be happy about?

2. Sandeep:

Death sweeps the land and I walk in terror. This is as it should be. I accept no mood elevating medication, nor do I “brainbuzz.” I plaster a smile upon my face and move among the zombies. This I choose: to be truly alive, to honestly feel, even if that means being afraid and lonely. Who could I possibly speak with about these matters?

Last season J.D. died right in front of me. Horror surged through me. I looked upon J.D. and wanted to weep for the loss of such a fine man. Yet I didn’t, lest I be found out. I could not risk the authorities learning that I regularly abstain from medication. Fortunately, MaryJane must have forgotten her medications that day, for she caused such a scene that my own distress went unnoticed.

I removed some of J.D.’s personal effects—his shoes and some cash—because that was the role people expected me to play. Handling his newly-deceased body in this fashion was a sacrilege. It was abhorrent, but appearances must be maintained. I strode through the office smiling inanely, all the while screaming within.

Worse than fear is the guilt that smothers me like a shroud. During the heavier plague seasons I see people dying in such numbers that I pray for it to kill me also, so this nightmare will finally cease. But then when death actually approaches I find myself pleading: not me, not yet, oh please! I hate myself for such cowardice.

They’re saying this plague will be exceptionally devastating. I mask my horror with a smile, but at least I feel alive. Fear is the appropriate response to these times.

I ride the elevator up with Rose and MaryJane. They converse and “brainbuzz” so fast I don’t even try to keep up. I can tell they are both wishing the other one dead. Don’t they know? Do they not realize they are in love with one another?

Oh, sweet love in the time of plague!

3. MaryJane:

I know dear Rose wants me dead, the little scamp! But that’s okay, it just means I have to work harder to make her love me the way I love her.

In the meantime, I brainfeed her all kinds of happyhappy thoughts, tell her how excited I am, play right along. It isn’t hard. I keep all pumped up on happymeds these days.

But even with the happyhappy it sometimes hits me: I could lose Rose! When J.D. dropped last season, everyone thought I had forgotten to take my happymeds, but I hadn’t. No, even through the happyhappy thoughts all I could think about was Rose. She wasn’t far from J.D.! And so I screamed, I panicked, I made a scene.

Sometimes I want her dead, I love her so much! I know she loves me but she wants so much else as well. That’s okay. I’ll cure her of that. If we both live through today, I’ll make her want nothing but me, make her want me more than my condo and even more than my Jacuzzi. I’ll get her drunk and buzzbuzzed and go down on her till she screams and forgets all about naked-raves and pretty boys.

I wear an expensive new shimmerdress all for her. I sashay past her desk, ocean waves rushing across my bod, and watch her eyes drink up the sight. Yes, already my plan is working.

4. Rose:

I feel so tingly! News spreads faster than the plague itself and it’s hard to think about work. MaryJane saunters by my desk wearing the hottest little shimmerdress. I’m sure I could squeeze into it without much trouble. If she drops, that shimmerdress is mine! She asks if I want to go out for Thai after work. I think about her fine condo with the Jacuzzi and say, “let’s go to your place and order in tonight.”

She knows what I’m thinking.

“I really hate you,” she teases.

“Hate you too!”

Directfeed streams the latest update: the Insta-flu has already hit Chicago and is spreading at an unprecedented rate. Nobody is getting any real work done. We’re all just too buzzing excited.

My heart races and I find myself feeling downright predatory as I imagine everyone dropping to the floor like J.D. did last season. I see myself racing around throwing shoes, purses, wallets, watches, whatever I can get hold of into a trash bag like some sort of crazed burglar. I’d take Tonya’s shoes and Sally’s purse. I know Clive carries a big wad of cash so I’d be sure to snag his wallet.

Then I’d take MaryJane’s shimmerdress. Pull it from her body like a banana peel. Pull it from her dead body. Oh God no! Mustn’t think like that. This is the season to think happyhappy thoughts! There are just too many Myrmidons about to go around being all sulky.

Speaking of Myrmidons, I hear their siren. I’m not the only one to rush to the window as the EVAC van rolls down LaSalle. The Myrmidons emerge to scoop up a body. A pedestrian drops mere meters from the EVAC van. A crowd converges on him but a minute later the Myrmidons close in. They wrap and load the body but already other pedestrians are dropping, very much as I had imagined mere moments before. I’ve never seen a plague like this. My heart pounds.

MaryJane stands beside me. She takes my hand in hers.

“I love you,” she whispers.

“I love you, too,” I whisper back.

For one second, I’m not even thinking about her Jacuzzi. END

Seth Chambers has recently published a novella in “F&SF,” in addition to short stories in “Isotropic Fiction,” “Fantasy Scroll,” and frequently in “Perihelion.”




By Edward Morris


The Ground Recon Unit woke in darkness to the sound of its master’s voice. But there was no master. No voice. No one had made the sound that cued that response. Yet the response. Engine. On.

The booby-traps on this world fell from the trees. The land was mined only with sinking-sand, the silica sensed in the feet. Smelled. Avoided. For so long, so well, only to have its poor walking brains cut down from above by other things that happened. One Thing. That had happened. And could not un-happen.

Math. Mere math. Aristotelian. The moment when a unit walked into a jungle and no unit walked out.

“Learn when to walk away,” Medic was often heard to mutter, “Live to fight another day.” Even these vibrations were held in GRUNT’s brushed carapace, its presence, its very shell and physicality.

GRUNT was walking away. Walking away from the fight. From the place where the fight was not any more. From the unit that was not any more. Now GRUNT was the unit. And the mission. And GRUNT was walking away.


GRUNT was following Medic when The Thing happened. Medic told GRUNT “Follow Tight,” and that was the last coherent voice-command GRUNT ever got.

GRUNT was Following Tight when The Thing happened, carrying everything. Carrying everything that was the mission. The expeditionary seed, whose feet would lock like ladder-legs when they got to what Lt. Carson called Point B and everyone else called Certain Death.

But Certain Death lived on the trail, and in the canopy. Certain Death was the Thing That Happened. Certain Death meant there was no one left to tell GRUNT where to go. What to do. That was certain, and apparent Death.

Apparent. The shock and sadness of sensing that, the instantaneous loss that even a machine could sense, the lives and lives splattered across its hull. The percussion. The sounds. The new information.

The overload. The automatic shutoff. And then.


“Engine On.” The ghost-voice, soft as a gas leak. Medic’s voice, pinging back and forth from the wrong bead of solder touching the wrong lens, hanging too close from some random snapped microconnection far down in the guts of GRUNT’s eyeclusters.


GRUNT was walking away. By necessity. The only memory left. The only memory of how to work. To walk in that direction. Toward the place where Medic would be. To Follow Tight, with Eyeclusters Down. Had there been humans in the area to hear, the shuddering joints of Knee 2 in both front legs would have sounded hauntingly like whimpers.

GRUNT was walking away, with every piece of heavy equipment that was hard to handle, every round of ammo it wasn’t programmed to chain back up and fire. Every old ghost with big guns that filed out with the unit at night on watch at the swampy edges of that country beyond experience.

Every diary. Every outgoing text offworld to Home. Every conversation in its presence when it was switched on. Every atmospheric condition. Every terrain variable. Every ...


Every brief snapshot of the Thing That Happened. Several portraits of the Death that fell from the trees. The Death that took Medic down first, with a word stuck in his torn-out throat.

Every shard of blue sunlight across the natives’ beaks. Every sweeping talon of their wholesale act. The 7.5 seconds. The sentient Xeno species that no probe ever caught. The End.

But not an end. The second act. The shudder, spark, whine and mecha snort. ZOINK. The two front knees, squeaking. The engine. On.


All ranks. All field specialties. Everyone charged their gear through GRUNT. GRUNT was source point, junction box, conduit, staging area, space-heater, and shanty and a thousand other facets of function-on-command. On voice-command.

All it took was a human voice. Ordinarily. And, apparently, sometimes a scream. Or a whole lot of them. No one could program the response to that many screams into any mecha.

Such a response ... was more of a phenomenon, really, a processing issue, spooky action demonstrated at a distance. Walking toward whatever presented itself, whatever could be filtered and rerouted toward the survival of the mech’s elemental reason, glitch or non-glitch, for switching back On.

Memory. More quantum memory than even a unit worth of trained human brains (some wetwared-up) could bear. Every explosive pressure of all those lives. Every observed and confirmed Kill-in-Action. Every wounded soldier ever litter-borne by GRUNT in or out of anywhere.

Every mission, not just this one. Not just this one at all.

Every endless march for its own sake, every slow plod along unthinking in extreme cold or heat or Pick Your Christless Thing, up snow-covered hills and down through volcanic mudslides, zigging its vast clawed-caterpillar-warthog shape around the pocks and pings of a dozen kinds of sniper fire and mortar rounds, un ballet mecanique d’un within the symphony of War.

Every atmosphere on every world gone lost and wandering from Home. Every gravity.

Every distance. Every long distance. GRUNT was designed to carry within its guts for long distances everything that one unit would need for full autonomy, to do what needed done or what they felt needed done. Everything it needed for the lives of its soldiers. Everything it was. Was gone. It needed. Needed.


One step, the next, another, automatic. Humping the bowl of sky on its broad back, thinking with its many ladder-feet.

The only alternative for GRUNT was the binary one: to self-extinguish its every light, and fall. And there was no tactical reason to pursue that particular sequence.

But yet GRUNT needed. Needed to walk/look/sense/smell/taste/see. Calibrate. Cluster. Pattern. Derandomize. Disentangle. Walk. Away.

Away. Under a back designed to heft a whole unit’s worth of burden, but not the horror inherent in the actual sensory perception of the things it carried.


And then:


STOP. Ahead on the trail, a Greater Beast spoke in light, a Beast with tank-treads, a Beast that carried human personnel. Behind the Beast, a beach. And on that beach—

SHIP. GRUNT trembled in obeisance. SHIP meant repairs. Recharge. Sleep. Best of all, Download. And Debrief.

The weight began to leave. There was less to bear. It felt like ... flying. Like a vast, silent vacuum where Burden weighed exactly Nothing and Everything reset to Zero by comparison. Where Light bore you off the field of battle and you fell higher, higher from the edge of Space until the next LZ. The next world.


Edward Morris is the author of the “Arkadia” and “Blackguard” series of novels. His stories have also been in “Beyond the Western Sky” and other anthologies.



So You’re Stuck in a Time Loop

By Brandon Barrows

PSST! HEY, BUDDY! DIRTY LOOKS FROM the boss, huh? Well, you are the last one into the conference room again. And again and again and—well, you get the drift, right?


Well, have I got news for you, then: you’re stuck in a time loop, my friend.

Hey, hey! Don’t look so shocked and don’t look around like that. You’re just gonna draw attention to yourself. I’m in your head. Who am I? You called me pal, remember? And for the record, I’m Floyd McFarland, founder of the Inter-Dimensional Unconventional Search and Rescue Institute, so I’m kind of an expert on this sorta thing. And in my expert opinion you, my friend, could do with some assistance.

So listen, I’m gonna walk you through this mess and see if we can’t get you unstuck from ... but, wait a sec ... hold on. These brain-to-brain calls are expensive and I’m seeing a zero-balance on your account here. Of course you signed up for our service; how would you have an account for me to check if you hadn’t? Okay, no problem—you wanna live that same boring-ass staff meeting over and over again? If you don’t want to find out how to break free, back into the normal time-stream, well, by all means, have at it. I’ll give you a sneak peak at your future, though: the boss starts reaming you out in about seven minutes and doesn’t quit until that blonde cutie from procurement you’ve been crushing on all summer can’t stand to look at you. And then—eh? Okay, then; that’s what I thought. So if you’ll kindly authorize the transfer of five-hundred credits, I’ll be more than happy to share my expertise. Ah, thank you.

To brass tacks, then. You’re stuck in a loop of about fifteen minutes, on one of the worst days of your recent life. Sounds bad, but it doesn’t have to be a problem if you don’t let it. Just keep a few things in mind and soon you’ll be laughing at how easy this thing was to beat.

Or ... maybe not. In a small number of incidents the looping effect’s permanent. So small, in fact, that it hardly bears mentioning, but the legal department insists. The details of such are available upon request; blink twice to skip this section, once to continue onto—okay, movin’ on then.

Step number one: stay calm. Panicking might seem natural, but keepin’ your wits’ll serve you better than mindless terror. Remember, nobody around you knows what’s going on, and freaking out will just make it worse on yourself. So take a deep breath or two and find your focus. If that doesn’t work, maybe a mantra of some kind will help. Something like, “this, too, shall pass.”

On second thought, maybe repetition isn’t what you want to think about at a time like this. But the breathing thing is good advice, so keep that in mind, at least.

Something else you’ll want to remember—oops! That buzzer’s tellin’ me we’re outta time. No, no—I’m sorry, man, but rules are rules even when you’re the boss. Darn it all, I hadn’t even gotten to the really good stuff yet. Of course, if you were to transfer another five hundred creds ...

Uh huh. I see. Want some proof I’m for real, huh? How ‘bout this? In about ten seconds, Johansen there is gonna spill his coffee and use your tie to mop it up. Wait for it ... there! What’d I tell ya? Now about those creds—okay, take a moment to clean yourself up, then we can continue. Done? Transfer completed? Good call; you’ve made the right choice, pal.

So now, let’s take a minute to think about whether this loop is natural or artificial. Why’s it matter? Well, they’re rare, but natural time loops do happen, typically around a momentous event—something you’ve said or done (or not said or done) that you could have handled differently. The research is still kinda sketchy, but some folks think our own subconscious guides us to the spots where we get stuck. As you navigate your loop then, be aware of every interaction and every choice you make—no matter how small!—and try something different next trip through. And record those results, man! Get a mental time loop journal goin’. Any single discrete instance in the loop could be the key to breaking free and back into normal time. Of course, the whole shebang hinges on you retaining your memory when you snap back to the beginning of the loop, and if that’s not the case ... Well, you’d be out of luck without your buddy Floyd, huh? But at least you’d never know the difference. Ha!

But on the other hand, if this is an artificial loop, it’s especially important you keep cool. Why? Cuz whoever’s done this to you’ll be watching for your reaction—maybe even from across that conference room table. Johansen is kinda shifty-lookin’ if you ask me and you never know what someone’s capable of, right? And you don’t want to give them the satisfaction of knowin’ they’ve gotten to you. Assuming s/he/it is even bothering to check in on you, of course, and didn’t just wreak their temporal vengeance then move on to the next project. I tell you, some of these retribution-seeking types have shockingly short attention spans.

Speaking of, it looks like you’re a little short yourself. I think you know the drill by now.

Good man, good man.

So you think your situation is someone else’s doing, huh? You could be right about that and what I’m gonna suggest may seem radical: try to talk it out. You know, you’d be surprised how often a simple “I’m sorry” can mend even the most broken fences—even with a being capable of manipulating time and clever enough to do so. But you gotta be careful how you do it so you don’t accidentally make it worse. If you retain your memory, as we discussed, though, you should have plenty of time to work that out. No pun intended.

Hang on, buddy, the timer on our call’s run out again, so if you’d be kind enough to—

Whaaaaat? Of course not! Well, results are—

Extortion ...?

A con artist? How dare you, sir?

How could you accuse me of such a thing when I’m here, offerin’ my time and experience to get you out of a jam. I don’t mean to sound like a drama queen, buddy, but you’re in real danger of spending eternity in that crummy little conference room and I think we both know it. That déjà vu isn’t just a feeling, man, and I’m the guy to solve your little quandary. Ask any of my satisfied clients when you get outta there. If you get outta there with that attitude. There are plenty of folks who’d take advantage of a guy in his time of need and we’re both lucky that I got to you first. I tell you the world’s going to hell in a handbasket when a guy gets this kind of treatment.

Uh huh. That’s what I thought. But after all the time eaten up by that little back-and-forth, the cost has gone up to a thousand creds. And that’s a bargain when I have to tolerate this kind of unprofessionalism. Remember item three? Now would be a good time to practice your apologies.

All right. Well, I’m we could get past this, too. I’m really concerned about you here, and you’re running outta time, so to speak, so I’m gonna break out the big guns. Pay close attention.

The single most important thing to remember when stuck in a time loop, the one thing you can do that’ll absolutely save your life—

Psst! Hey, buddy! Dirty looks from the boss, huh? Well, you are the last one into the conference room again, huh? And again and again and again and ... well, you get the drift, right? END

Brandon Barrows writes comic books, prose and poetry. He is probably best known for the detective comic series “Jack Hammer” from Action Lab Comics.



A Case of Ethics

By Ricardo L. Garcia

“OH, BUT TIME TRAVEL IS OF COURSE possible,” Dr. Wheeler offered cheerfully between bites of his sandwich, his voice booming out across the cafeteria.

A year earlier Dr. Luigi Castellani would have looked around reflexively, then muttered some excuse or other and left the table as soon as politely possible. It wouldn’t do for a young and ambitious new hire to be seen hanging around with the college’s resident crank, however otherwise brilliant in his own field said crank might be.

Long acquaintance, though, had soothed his fears, and Castellani had come to accept the older man’s statements in the same spirit the rest of the college staff did—as thought-provoking if harmless enough speculations. This time he merely stared at his friend in dismay.

“Surely, John,” he said in his accented English, “you are not serious—”

“If you’re worried that I’ll be invited to retire at once on account of fears I’m already going senile, they’ll have to pry my tenure from my cold, dead fingers. And yes, I’m perfectly serious.”

“Uh—all right. But I mean, you are not seriously considering the, ah, crazy ideas, of that Dr. Alvarez?” Science TV shows for the general public were a most laudable thing, in principle. Too bad they sometimes veered into shameless self-promotion.

“Whose ideas?” The historian chased the last of his sandwich with a sip of water, then appropriated Castellani’s untouched coffee. “Ah, espresso. Don’t drink this. It’s bad for your blood pressure.”

“Alvarez—The Universe Around Us. The last issue of Physics Quarterly has an article that demonstrates that it is not possible to utilize tachioni—ah, tachyons—to travel in time.” The article that he had himself coauthored wasn’t really relevant, his subconscious mind decided on the spot. The important thing here was to keep an innocent layman from being lured astray by bad science.

“Rings absolutely no bells, I’m afraid. Tachyons, eh? One of these days I’ll have to look that up. But I couldn’t care any less how you guys will eventually explain it, Luigi my boy. Time travel is not only possible—matter of fact, it’s already happened. Time and again, if you’ll excuse the phrase.”

Castellani swallowed somewhat hurriedly. “Come dice?”

“C’mon—the evidence is out there for all to see. History, or the timeline, if you want to use that fancy term, has been repeatedly tampered with. I suppose they could have done better here and there, but all in all it’s not too bad a job.”

“I do not see—”

“The Nazis, the most formidable and ruthless war machine the world has ever seen, were stopped. The Third Reich is just that now, history. They didn’t get to invade the British Isles, or beat Russia. They didn’t get to manufacture an atomic bomb, for that matter, and they were oh-so-close. Oh, and Pearl Harbor wasn’t the absolute disaster it should have been.”


“The Tunguska meteorite in 1908—ever heard of it? Samuelson in the astronomy department was telling me about it the other day. It’s fascinating ... Well, the thing is, it fell in the middle of nowhere, in Siberia. Exploded in mid-air, with a force of some five megatons. The Hiroshima blast, you might be interested to know, was way weaker than that. And I mean way weaker. Now a couple hours’ difference in timing, and it could easily have wiped out Moscow. I can’t count the ways the world today would be different.”

“But that does not signify—”

“And Attila was beaten back at Chalons in 451, and the Soviets didn’t win the Cold War, despite all the help the West was giving them. And the last Ice Age didn’t mean curtains for the new kid on the block, a certain Homo sapiens. And the Black Death didn’t do the job either, for that matter. Or the 1962 missile crisis. And—”

“I surrender,” Castellani held out a hand. “What is your point, Martin?”

“Why, it should be self-evident. Every time it’s looked like humankind was circling the drain, something—somebody—has come to the rescue.”

“You mean God—”

“I most certainly don’t. Oh, well, ultimately it could be argued that he’s the one calling the shots all along, but where’s the fun in that? What I propose,” Dr. Wheeler sat back, gave a toothy smile, “is much less dramatic. I say somebody human—or maybe a group, who knows—has been policing time, history, troubleshooting here and there, to give us the world we have today. Or the world we’ll have five seconds from now. He—they—might very well be at work right this moment, tinkering with a detail or two. We’ll never know, of course.”

Castellani couldn’t actually whistle worth a dime, admiringly or not. He gave it his best shot all the same. “It is an imaginative idea. I like it. Is this what you teach in class?”

“Not today; I still need my paycheck. I’m working on it though.”

Peccato—save a seat for me when you do. But I find a big problem with your interesting theory.”

“Bring it on.”

“Ah, ethics.” The physicist spread out his hands. “It might be possible to do that. It might not be possible. I do not have the physics for that. But those would be immense powers. Quasi divine powers. Changing the course of history—what would be in it for them?” He shook his head. “The temptation would be too great. We would be now living in the worst of dictatorships. An empire, a brutal empire, like under Caligula.”

But we’re not. See? My point exactly. We’re not. Matter of fact, this is the freest country in the world, in the freest of all times ever, for most everybody in the world as well. Much too free for our own good, I sometimes fear.” Dr. Wheeler nodded thoughtfully. “Agreed—he, they, would have to be basically honest, immensely ethical to fend off temptation. Yet that also has happened before; I mean, people with unparalleled powers choosing not to take advantage of them—Truman didn’t bomb the Soviets back to the Stone Age, back when we were the only ones with the atomic bomb. He, the truth be said, had all the chances, and all of the provocation in the world. Or Cincinnatus, come to think of it. He wouldn’t be a dictator after saving Rome from her enemies. Gorbachev, willfully dismantling the totalitarian structure created by Stalin and perfected by Brezhnev.”

“And how do you know,” Dr. Castellani deadpanned, “that they were not forced to act ethically, by some, ah, time policeman?”

Wheeler threw his head back and laughed out loud. “Touche. We’ll make a conspiracy theorist out of you yet, Luigi. But let’s talk about you, my friend.” He fumbled in his jacket pocket. “So sorry I couldn’t attend your naturalization ceremony—ah, here it is.” He produced a card-size, gift-wrapped parcel, laid it on the table in front of Dr. Castellani. “Please accept this for your office desk.”

“Uh, you should not have—” The physicist shook his head in embarrassed gratitude. “Thanks, mio caro amico.”

“You’re very welcome, my new fellow countryman.” There was genuine affection and pride in the old man’s expression as Castellani unwrapped the paperweight with the engraved words he had now come to know by heart:


Ricardo L. Garcia has been published in anthologies and magazines and recently in what is considered the “definitive” anthology of Cuban science fiction.



Fermi’s Garage

By Holly Schofield

“WHERE ARE THEY?” I LOOKED UP at the moonlight pouring through the trusses on Tom’s half-built garage.

“The contractors? They said they’d be back four days ago,” he said, pushing the stroller back and forth with one foot. Tom’s two-month-old daughter, Helga, grinned out at me and blinked, the nictitating membranes descending like clear glass over her eyes.

“What about your building contract? The deadlines and penalties kick in now, surely?” I sat on the cold foundation wall, keeping my distance from Helga. The contractors had broken ground on Halloween, I remembered, and Tom had put fake gravestones in the shallow excavation, startling the neighborhood kids who shortcutted down our shared alley. The bare studs had gone up after Christmas, and now, in the mid-May dusk, jutted up like skeletal ribs.

Tom’s voice was low. “Jackie, there was no contract. They were all I could get in this rock-and-roll economy. They said take it or leave it. I couldn’t even get a quote from another contractor.” He rocked the stroller harder, sending up a small cloud of sawdust. “They got another job, down on Ross Street. I’ll be lucky to see them again before fall.” He gave the stroller a hard shove in disgust, probably more than he intended. Helga sat up, looked at me, and placed her hands neatly on her knees Buddha-style. I might be a grandma to most of the neighborhood kids but, with Helga, I just smiled and kept my seat. I knew better than to hold out a finger.

“She snapped a rattle right in half yesterday,” Tom said and chuckled indulgently. “I’m thinking of getting some of those rubber dog toys—to use as teething rings, you know?” Helga gripped the edges of the stroller, visibly bending in the sides.

“I still don’t see how you passed all the federal gene-tweaking rules, Tom. I know how hard it was to get my hips replaced, and it’s umpteen times harder to get approval to improve a baby.” The cold concrete helped to relieve the constant ache in my pelvis. Perfect technology, the new hips were not.

“It’s what and who you know.” Tom said, his sympathy evident. “My paper on shortened telomeres gave me the reputation that gave me the contacts with the feds. Helga’s genes are a prototype, sure, but it’s a given that the laws will soften. Who wants to inherit HIV-sensitivity? Or cystic fibrosis? Or osteoarthritis? Who doesn’t want their kid to be better, smarter, stronger? The feds’ll eventually approve the techniques for everyone, given time and public pressure.”

“What about the folks who say we should just go with evolutionary pressure and leave well enough alone?” I rubbed my index finger where Helga’s jaw had crushed the tendons a month ago.

Tom hesitated. “Last conference, at Phoenix,” he said slowly, “There were rumors about some gene research that’s currently being peer-reviewed on the quiet. It seems that Homo sapiens’ evolution has suddenly—and, by that, I mean over the last 15,000 years—stopped. Just stopped. In its tracks.” I must have looked puzzled because he put a firm grip on Helga’s leg and pulled off one of her tiny pink socks. “Jackie, look at her terminal phalanges—her toenail isn’t any smaller than babies’ were generations ago. And she still has a plantaris muscle, useless as it is.”

I uh-huh’d, still not grasping his point.

He looked me in the eye. “Neither of those are genes I changed.”

“I thought each generation’s pinky toes are smaller than the last?” As public liaison for the astronomy department at Western Alberta University, genetics weren’t on my mental radar much but I tried to keep current in most disciplines.

“That theory’s been disproved. And directional selection—improvements in our body shape—things like more height or an expanded brain case: those have also halted. Like someone slammed on the brakes.” His bicep bulged in the effort to hold Helga’s leg steady enough to replace her sock. “As a species, we’ve stabilized, become static, for no known reason. If this paper gets published, it will blow the world of evolutionary understanding wide open.” He grinned suddenly, like a little boy. “We always think we have a handle on a theory until we actually try to do it. Just like home renovation.”

We both looked up at the bleak wooden shell above. Clouds scuttled by and I shivered in the evening chill. “Whatcha gonna do, Tom? About the garage?”

He thumped a hand against the nearest stud. “I figure the framing they did was the hardest part, so I can do the rest myself. It’ll take me a year of weekends and I may have the usual DIY disasters but what choice do I—” My cell rang and he politely stopped mid-sentence.

“Jackie, it’s Laura, from the Mars Now blog? Have you heard?” The voice was mildly familiar and the tone was urgent.

“Heard what?” I subvocalized a command to my phone to project a news site on a sheet of plywood propped against the wall in front of me. The top headline blinked at me: Water makers found on Mars.

“Water makers?” I said. The term meant nothing to me and I still couldn’t place the voice.

“So you heard. I need an opinion and I need it now. Before all the nay-sayers post, you follow?”

I remembered her now. Laura worked for the pro-Mars-settlement movement.

“I’m reading it now,” I said, “The Mars rover found alien machines that are making actual H-two-oh? Is this for real?” I subvocalized a crosscheck. NASA insider tweets verified the story although NASA itself had not yet released a formal statement, or even a supratweet.

“Alien machinery! Terraforming Mars! Isn’t it cool?” Laura was so enthralled she’d lost her usual articulateness. That was one of the reasons I’d given her quotes before. She was the genuine article—a Mars fan.

“Well, I don’t think terraform is precisely the right word ...” I said, then hesitated. I knew whatever I said next would be tweeted, blogged, and spread to a thousand websites in seconds. “Let me get back to you in about five minutes.” I hung up on her wails of protest.

“Holy shizzle.” Tom reverted to his childhood curse words. “Aliens!” He picked up Helga absently and sat on the foundation wall next to me. “The Fermi paradox, that aliens would have come if they could have come—that’s blown away then?” He tried to keep up with other disciplines, too, but research information seemed to flow like a tsunami these past few years.

“Maybe. Let’s take things at face value for now.” I explained the crosschecks I’d done to my confidential contacts at NASA. “Whatever this is, whether the rover is reporting bad data or not, it’s a PR opportunity. Someone, a person, not a probe, is gonna have to check this out. Space travel to Mars. This could be the break we need.” Tom knew all about my driving ambition to put a human on Mars and my theory that doing so would kickstart the economy.

I thought it over. I must be missing something. “Why would aliens modify Mars? More importantly, why now?” I made a goofy face at Helga. “Why now, little cutie? What’s changed?”

Tom and I looked at each other. “The rover,” we said together.

“But Curiosity has been there eleven years,” I said, “and it’s almost dead.”

“Perhaps it took the aliens that long to reach Mars?” He bounced Helga on his knee.

I nodded. “Prevailing theory does have them owning FTL.”

Helga kicked a leg, Tom almost dropped her, and he put her back in the stroller, setting her on hands and knees. She immediately kneeled and smiled at us with toothless gums.

“This is surreal.” My head spun as my fingers flicked over various news sites. “Something else must have changed.”

“Maybe the aliens’ve finished modifying those nearby exoplanets, Gliese and whatnot, and they’re tackling our solar system next?”

“Funny, Tom.” I sat back and flicked my phone dark. All the news sites had the same, limited information. My heart was thudding and I wanted to howl like a wolf. A lifetime of hoping. And now they had arrived.

“Or, they’ve finished modifying Earth and now they’ve gotten the Mars reno job?” Tom’s teeth gleamed in the moonlight.

I aimed for a joking tone but didn’t quite bring it off. “Here’s a thought. They’re not planet sculptors. They’re gene sculptors.” I said. “Think about it. There’s another recent development: our new ability to edit our DNA.”

“Hey, you’re right, the timing fits. A lot of those techniques are less than a year old.” Tom went on about recent developments in homologous recombination and chimeric proteins and plasmic vectors but I let the tsunami of words wash over me and tried to connect some dots.

“Tom, it all jibes. The aliens have finished modifying us. They’re done. Evolution has apparently stalled, remember?” I pointed at Helga’s feet then leant my head back against a stud. Above, constellations shone through the disappearing clouds. “Like your garage contractors, they’ve left us to finish the job ourselves. On ourselves.”

Tom squeezed his eyes shut for a moment then opened them wide. “So now they’re ready to create Martians? They’ve spent the last year travelling from Earth to Mars?” He rubbed his face. He was starting to take this seriously, too. After a moment, he managed a grin. “Come to think of it, that’s kind of slow. Must be paid by the hour.”

My answering grin was weak and probably lopsided. “These aliens do remind me of home reno contractors. Have you ever known one to finish a job or to be on time?” Helga stood on wavering legs, reaching for an errant nail protruding above her head. I continued, glad my voice had steadied. “I guess our DIY skills are about to get a workout.”

Helga chortled, grasped the nail in her chubby fist and bent it upwards, toward the stars. END

Holly Schofield has been published in “AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review,” and “Tesseracts.” Her previous story for “Perihelion” was in the 12-APR-2014 issue.






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