Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Clean Limbs of Robots
by Francis Marion Soty

Garbage Miners
by Sean McLachlan

All Comms Down
by Anne E. Johnson

Do Stand-Up Bots Dream of Electric Hecklers?
by James Aquilone

by Timothy J. Gawne

Human Faces
by Karl Dandenell

Charybdis Run
by Nathan Ehret

by Jennifer Campbell-Hicks

Halieis Anthropon
by A.L. Sirois

by Richard Zwicker

You Need to Know
by Michaele Jordan


Animated Pictures
by J. Miller Barr

by Eric M. Jones




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



All Comms Down

By Anne E. Johnson


THE EXCEPTIONAL LEFT THE Milky Way right on schedule.

“The crew is thoroughly prepared for every eventuality,” Captain Medda Kim assured her first officer, Banjeree. Although it wasn’t in the budget, Medda had insisted on hours of mandatory extra training for Deep Space. That training had started on Earth two months before takeoff, and had continued daily for the three months it took to get this far.

They would remain in Deep Space for almost two years before they reached the edge of the galaxy called Benkin Fields. There, on the planet Alendara, earlier colonists awaited their arrival.

“Two years is a long time not to know quite where you are,” Medda admitted solemnly.

Banjeree laughed; his sense of humor was one of the reasons Medda valued him. “Our people are so ready,” Banjeree said with a twinkle in his eye, “they wouldn’t even be surprised if a Null Dragon attacked the ship.”

Medda allowed herself a small smile. It disappeared as she pictured the lumpy veins she’d seen in victims of space bends and the screeching madness that had taken over most of the surviving crew in the first intergalactic flight. One of those madwomen had been her grandmother, who had suffered severe mental illness the rest of her life.

“Sometimes I think made-up creatures like Null Dragons would be preferable to what might actually face us out here,” she said to Banjeree.

Not picking up on the trauma in Medda’s thoughts, he laughed again. “I dare say, my daughter agrees with you, Captain. She’s rather obsessed with Null Dragons.”

“So was I at that age,” Medda said quietly. “I used to dip my finger in shampoo and draw Null Dragons on the bathroom mirror. I always imagined them having feet shaped like snowboards.”

“My daughter believes their heads are like wheels, spinning as they fly through Deep Space.” After another friendly laugh, Banjeree finally seemed to notice that Medda wasn’t laughing with him. He placed a hand on her forearm. “The crew are prepared, Captain. The Exceptional itself is prepared. There has never been a better constructed vessel. It can withstand all the pressure issues. And it is stocked with every imaginable medication, piece of equipment, and byte of info that we might require to survive.”

“I know you’re right,” Medda conceded. “However, some things can’t be foreseen.”

Banjeree squinted at her. “But we’ve studied all the data, prepared for every possible outcome.”

“That’s my point exactly,” said Medda. “This is Deep Space. The impossible can happen here.”


“Goodbye, Milky Way,” sighed Police Officer Ndu Francia, gazing out the aft window of the Exceptional’s observation deck. His K-9 partner, a German Shepherd named Ba’al, whimpered slightly and swished her tail. The Milky Way Galaxy stretched like a membrane of organic tissue across black space. “Are we gonna make it?” he asked the universe, not really concerned about it.

He liked the idea of two years of quiet before he had to enter the new colony. People wore him out.

Noticing a red light flashing on his wrist band, he said to Ba’al, “Too bad this ship is full of people, eh, girl?” He balled his fast and raised it to his mouth. “Report location and incident type,” he commanded.

“Location: Q-4, U-27. Incident: Assault,” the wrist monitor recited.

“That’s us,” Ndu told Ba’al. He tapped the “Officer Responding” button and bolted up the stairs two at a time. Ba’al yipped happily and trotted by his side. Although they passed by the entryway to the trans-ship monorail, Ndu decided not to ride it. “Not far. The run will do us good.”

The incident location was a large storage closet. “Some jerks fighting over TP rations, probably,” Ndu grumbled, drawing his stun gun. “You go easy, girl,” he whispered to Ba’al. “These pathetic types deserve to live with dirty bums, but not necessarily get their arms torn off.”

Hearing a scuffle behind the closed door, Ndu planted his feet wide and pressed his back to the adjacent wall. “Get ready. Three. Two. One.” Swinging around, he pulled the door open. “Police!”

It wasn’t toilet paper thieves. A middle-aged man lay on his back between two shelving units. A young woman knelt on top of him, hands to his throat.

“Hey. Hey!” Ndu shouted. “Stop it now.” When she ignored him, he holstered his gun and rushed forward. It took very little effort to slip his arm around the woman’s slender waist and lift her off her victim. Although she struggled and squirmed, Ndu handcuffed her to a vertical support on a metal shelf. “Now you just hang tight,” he commanded awkwardly. Her fury embarrassed him. He was glad when Ba’al growled, making him seem tougher than he felt.

“You okay, sir?” He helped the man sit up. “You look familiar.”

The man coughed and tried to speak, but it was the woman who said, “He’s famous. Doctor Leung Chao-Lin.” She spat onto the concrete floor. “Deep Space expert.” The last word was tinged with acid.

Ndu shook his finger at the woman. “Hush. I’ll tell you when it’s your turn.” To Ba’al he said, “If she talks, bite her.” Ba’al sat and panted; the woman growled, as if she were the dog.

“Are you really a doctor?” Ndu asked, patting the man on the back.

“What that, er, lady says is true. I was just walking down the corridor. She jumped me. Pulled me in here. Started strangling me for no reason.”

“Ha,” said the woman. Ba’al let that word go.

Dr. Leung glared at the woman. “I’m not hurt. But you should lock that person up. She’s unstable.”

“We’ll review the case. Here.” Ndu handed the doctor a small tab screen. “Enter your ID and you’ll be sent a statement form to fill out.”

While Dr. Leung typed, Ndu unlocked one side of his perp’s handcuffs and attached it to his own wrist.

The doctor got to his feet and handed back the screen. “Thank you, officer. I’ll see myself out.” He left, slamming the storeroom door behind him.

Ndu turned to the woman. “Now, what’s your story? Name first.”

“Karin Rosen.”

He read her her rights, but she wasn’t impressed. “Wish I’d killed that bastard Leung.”

“Well, you’ll get locked up if you’re convicted, so you should probably stop talking.”

Ndu opened the door, pushing her out. Ba’al trailed behind. “What’d that doctor do to deserve getting his windpipe squashed?” he asked Karin.

“He lied.”

“What’d he lie to you about?”

She stopped short. “He lied to all of us. About Deep Space.”


“And the donkey, the kitty, and the rooster lived together in that house forever after. The end.”

Zulaikha Akhami closed the story book. The children on the floor around her clapped and giggled. “Did you like that one?” Zulaikha asked them.

A clever boy named Danny said, “That was nice, Miss. But we want to hear about the hero kids.”

“Yeah!” agreed little Yuko through her bucktoothed smile. “Hero kids on Ethepthal.” The name of their ship, Exceptional, came out full of lisps and spittle. “That story again, Miss!”

The other kids joined in, begging and clapping. Zulaikha hoped the expression she used to mask her annoyance seemed gentle enough. She certainly wasn’t annoyed at the kids―never that!―but at some of their parents.

Last time she’d made up a story about kids having an adventure in Deep Space, there’d been complaints. “You’ll scare them,” claimed one officious idiot in a raw silk hakama worth more than Zulaikha’s entire wardrobe. “Your job is to soothe them, obfuscate their fear of the unknown. They’d be better off taking Daxapril, aware of nothing, than heightening their terror with your cheap attempts at entertainment. Stick with nursery rhymes and coloring books, Miss Akhami.”

As much as Zulaikha loved to make up tales, she feared for her job. “Let’s read The Stars of Benkin Fields,” she offered lamely. It wasn’t a very good story, but it fulfilled her mandate to prepare the pupils for their new life in the new galaxy.

“What’s the name of our planet?” she asked the class as she pulled the picture book from the shelf.

“Alendara,” they answered in a bored chorus.

“That’s right!” Zulaikha tried to fill the room with excitement that she didn’t feel. Not convinced, the kids squirmed as she read.

It was a quiet boy named Ven who started the revolt. “The Exceptional kids went down the hall,” he dared to say, interrupting the official story. Everyone turned to him, even Zulaikha, waiting.

When he looked back at them silently, the girl called Maria jumped in. “They went up to a big door. They opened the door. Inside was a big, scary, um ...”

“Penguin!” shouted a girl in the back. The class squealed with giggles.

“Okay, now. Settle down,” Zulaikha commanded kindly, as only an elementary schoolteacher can.

“Tell us about the penguin,” begged Danny.

Zulaikha wove her fingers together and nodded. No point in resisting. The kids quieted down. An adventure about a penguin loose on the Exceptional began to take shape in Zulaikha’s mind. She saw flashes of the plot: the penguin waddling around the ship’s swimming pool with the kids following; the penguin stumbling outside the gravitational zone and finally getting a chance to fly as the children cheered.

“Once upon a time,” she said to the wide-eyed kids, “the animals in the Bio-Preserve on a Deep Space ship called Exceptional decided to go exploring.” She reached over to pull Maria’s fingers out of her mouth as she continued. “The chimpanzees, being very smart, watched the attendants enter the door code. They put bits of banana peel in the latches of their cages so they would slide right open.”

“And they got out?” asked Danny.

“Sshh!” warned his classmates, and they turned their bright eyes back to their teacher.

“They did get out,” she told them. “And they opened the cages of the weasel, the skunk―,” a pause for giggles―, “and the lion.”

“Did it eat people?” Yuko asked in a whisper. The children gasped.

Zulaikha could already hear their parents complain, so she soothed them quickly. “No, no. The lion went to the laundry room and fell asleep on a pile of warm sheets just out of the dryer.” Her audience relaxed.

“But the most adventurous of all the animals was the penguin, named Mister Po. Mister Po knew ...”

A strange sensation came over Zulaikha, a mild numbness crawling up the back of her skull. She knew clearly what she wanted to say, that Mr. Po had heard he was flying through space, but he didn’t believe penguins could fly. Zulaikha did not say this. Her tongue lay dead in her mouth.

The children kneeled up, begging her to continue, but she could not form a single word.


“Deep Space systems check,” Medda commanded.

“We’ve already done three today,” mumbled Banjeree.

Medda snapped her head toward him. “I wasn’t asking you to do anything. As usual.” She couldn’t understand why she’d felt so infuriated all day.

Banjeree stood before her, his tireless grin spread across his face and his hands folded over his belly. “Captain,” he began, “a full systems check is recommended only once in two weeks. With twenty-four months left before we reach the Benkin Fields Galaxy, I would most respectfully point out that such frequent checks might overtax a system that must last two years without recourse to ...”

“I will not tolerate this insubordination!” As soon as she’d barked those words, Medda slapped her hand over her mouth. She’d never before spoken like that to Banjeree. Also, she knew his warning was the reasonable advice of a systems expert concerned for the mission’s viability.

The shock on Banjeree’s face mirrored what she felt. “I do apologize, Captain,” he said hoarsely.

Having no idea how to make up for her outburst, Medda simply said, “Dismissed.” Once Banjeree had left the room, she told the computer, “Cancel Deep Space systems scan.” The other crew members on the bridge were staring at her, so she pretended to be busy.

Two hours later―two empty hours of staring into the nothingness on the outer monitors―Medda paged Banjeree.

He shuffled in, offering up a weak smile under red-rimmed eyes. “Yes, Captain?”

Medda swallowed a lump of guilt in her throat. She was determined to get their work back on track. “Anomalies report?” she asked, as she did every afternoon.

Banjeree stepped to his work station and keyed in a code. On his screen appeared a chart of colored bars. “Medical,” he replied.

The answer surprised Medda. “What sort of medical anomaly?”

“I don’t know, Captain. I can see that the medical databases are being used in an unusual way, but can’t tell in what way.”

Clenching her jaw at the pointless fury pulsing through her, Medda growled, “Then call in Dr. Markel.”

Mario Markel was head of Health Services on the Exceptional. That he and Medda weren’t well acquainted yet was a sign of how smoothly health services was running.

“You wished to see me, Captain?” Dr. Markel said politely when he showed up on the bridge. He had the lean, leathered look of a man who took excellent care of himself and might be expected to outlive the century mark.

Still jumpy, Medda saw no reason for diplomacy. “Is there a medical problem on this ship?” she demanded loudly.

It took a while for Dr. Markel to answer. He seemed to look through her. Medda watched a bead of sweat form just above his uniform’s mandarin collar. Absorbing his tension, she felt her own blood pressure rise. “The truth, Doctor, now.”

He nodded, resigned. “There has been an uptick in psych complaints.”

The back of Medda’s neck prickled. “What kind of psych complaints?”

“A wide array,” the doctor replied. “We don’t know if they’re related. But they all might be loosely categorized as problems with communication and personality.”

Medda’s vision darkened and the angles in the room sharpened, as if the space were being pressed together. “Explain,” she demanded. Dr. Markel rubbed his chin. Medda was sure his slow thoughtfulness would drive her mad. “I need to know,” she snapped.

“Er, well.” He took a step away from her, which only made her angrier. “A number of people have lost their ability to speak. With some, it happens all at once. In others, the condition is preceded by uncharacteristic emotional displays. One laughed constantly. One sobbed for two hours before going silent. Several suffered from irrational floods of anger or paranoia.”

At that moment, Medda caught Banjeree staring at her. “What the hell is your problem?” she shrieked.


Ba’al lay under Ndu’s desk at Police Central, her long snout resting across her master’s foot. Karin Rosen sat cuffed to a chair a few feet away.

Trying to ignore the way Karin’s black, curly hair emphasized her brown eyes, Ndu filled out his arrest report. He never had any luck with women, and over the years he’d decided that staying away from them was the best course of action. His job sometimes made that difficult.

He focused on her arrest report. “You’re seriously calling this self-defense?” he asked her. “Are you saying Dr. Leung jumped you first or something? There’s video coverage everywhere on this ship, so we’ll know for sure real soon.”

“He attacked all of us,” she answered morosely. “I was defending all of us. Defending our honor and our health.”

Ndu shook his head. He felt a little sorry for this woman, who seemed unbalanced. “I can give you a number for a lawyer,” he reminded her quietly so his colleagues wouldn’t hear. It wasn’t protocol to encourage a perp to lawyer up and clam up.

“No point in a lawyer,” Karin said, slouching low in her chair. “There won’t be time for a trial.”

“Why you say that? You got an appointment off-ship in the middle of Deep Space?”

It was meant as a joke, but Karin answered seriously. “It’s starting already. We’ll all be affected soon.”

Annoyed but curious, Ndu glanced up from his screen, then down again when Karin’s stray lock of hair sent a jolt of desire through him. “What’s starting?” he asked as gruffly as he could manage.

“The breakdown.”

Ndu rubbed his tired eyes. “Meaning what?”

“Ask Dr. Leung,” challenged Karin. “He thinks Deep Space will shut down our brains.”

Looking enviously at Ba’al licking her paw without a care in the world, Ndu tried to reason with his prisoner. “That can’t be true. We wouldn’t be here.”

“Soon we won’t be,” the mysterious young woman said.

Fear compelled Ndu to argue. “Two other ships’ve gone through to Belkin Fields, and two from there back to Earth. They had all kinds of problems, but shut-down brains? No way.”

Karin leaned forward, ready to share a secret. “It’s different this time.”

“What is?” Ndu asked as he ticked the “Psych issues” box on her form.

Her voice wobbled. “Something’s out here in Deep Space. I don’t think anyone knows what. I’m just a junior architect, not a scientist. But my dad was an astroneurologist, stationed on the Venture.”

Ndu’s ears perked up. There would be no Exceptional without research from the space station Venture. “Your dad lived at the edge of the Milky Way?” He looked at Karin. “And you?”

“I grew up on Earth, thanks for asking. Didn’t see Dad much.” After an uncomfortable silence, she continued. “Anyway, Dad reported to Dr. Leung. And one of the things he reported was a phenomenon they called photic axonal diffusion.”


“Particles of light acting in a way that affect the nervous system. They had evidence that some kind of damaging light particles, like radiation, was seeping out the edge of the Milky Way. It showed up in both the probes and manned pods they sent out. My father reported that pilots experienced stress on the hippocampus section of the brain, affecting communication, motor skills, personality. Something had changed how those light particles behaved since the previous ships made the journey to and from Belkin Fields.”

All the scientific words gave Ndu a headache. “Lady, tell your crazy story to a judge. I just work here.”

“You’re going to die here, and it’s Dr. Leung’s fault. Daddy told Dr. Leung, but he hid the findings. Too much sponsor money at stake. Soon after his report was filed, my dad died on the Venture in mysterious circ—”

Ndu didn’t hear the rest of her sentence because a disturbance across the room distracted him. Assuming someone needed help with an unruly prisoner, he hurried toward Lieutenant Baker’s office, where a bunch of cops had gathered.

“What’s wrong with her?” someone asked. “Call medical.”

Pushing his way to the center, Ndu found the Lieutenant herself down on the floor. She was crying openly. With both hands she reached out to the people staring.

“What’s wrong, Lieu?” Ndu asked.

“She can’t talk,” explained another officer. “She just started crying like that. Then down she went, like she forgot how to stand.”

“What should we do until medic gets here?” Ndu asked.

“There’s nothing you can do.”

They all turned to see Karin Rosen straining at her handcuffs. “We’re all going to turn into that. And there’s no way to stop it.” She glared at them fiercely. “We’ve gone too far.”


Zulaikha stared hopelessly at the crowd of children around her. Twenty-four six-year-olds, and she the only adult. They understood she was sick. They whispered and cried. Some stroked her hair. But none of them knew how to help, and she couldn’t tell them.

Her mouth refused to do anything but gape. It was no use trying to point at the emergency intercom to give them the suggestion to call for medical. She’d lost control of her arm. Although it wasn’t paralyzed, it seemed to decide how to move, independent of her wishes.

“I’ll look at the intercom in an obvious way,” she thought, remembering a docu she’d seen about a woman with cerebral palsy who’d “talked” by looking at images. Unfortunately, Zulaikha’s eyes had become as unwieldy as her arms. Try as she might to turn them toward the intercom near the door, all she managed was to roll them painfully up into her head.

Exhausted, she gave up for a while, resting her head on her knees. Odd, she realized, that she could move into that position voluntarily, but couldn’t point at the door. “It’s only when I’m trying to tell somebody else something that my body shuts down,” she thought.

The kids were getting scared.

“You okay, Miss?”

“I want Mommy.”

“What’s wrong with teacher?”

“I don’t like it―stop it.”

Wanting to comfort them, she worried she was just frightening them more by flailing at them desperately. She needed time to think. Her rest didn’t last long. The children’s confused weeping changed tone, becoming frantic.

Zulaikha raised her head. Bright little Danny, usually so articulate, flopped his mouth like a seabass. His eyes bulged from his slackened face. The other kids, sensing his despair, started to panic. Some crouched on the floor, hands crammed in mouths, muffling hysterical sobs. Some curled up under their chairs or in the play corner, surrounded by toys.

Crawling around the room, Zulaikha wanted to comfort them. But she must have looked nothing like their familiar Miss Akhami. When they backed away, she tried to say, “There, now. Everything’s okay,” but she felt her face spasm.

She reached out to pat Yuko’s shoulder, but her hand, with its fingers crooked menacingly, froze inches from the child.

“Nooo,” Yuko wailed, pulling her sweater over her face.

“I’m so sorry, honey,” Zulaikha longed to say, but couldn’t.

Hoping that regular movement would help alleviate whatever kind of nerve disorder this was, she kept crawling around with a determined rhythm. She was nearing Danny, who hadn’t made a sound in several minutes.

From the tension around his eyes, she could tell he wanted to run, wanted to scream, wanted to call for his mama. But all he could do was stare at his teacher, as blocked from self-expression as she was.

“God, this virus is fast,” Zulaikha thought. “How can I keep it from spreading to the other children?” She focused on trying to outsmart her illness. “If I can crawl,” she thought, maybe I can corral the kids away from Danny.”

The execution of this plan started off fine. She made her way toward the clump of kids still gawping at Danny. But as soon as she came within inches of them, her movements slipped out of her control. Without warning, she flopped flat onto the floor and rolled over manically, sending a trio of girls shrieking.

As soon as Zulaikha gave up on the idea of communicating with the children, she was able to command her body to behave again. She squeezed her eyes shut, hoping that avoiding all those terrified little faces would help her keep her sanity. However, her ears sabotaged that sensible plan. The chorus of cries and whispers around her was growing weaker. Zulaikha wanted to believe it was because the kids were too worn out to sob any more. Instinct warned her that the truth was more sinister.

Reluctantly she opened her eyes and looked around. One by one, the children’s mouths went limp and their eyes filled with silent horror. The illness snatched them all.


Anger threatened to drown Medda. She didn’t know why she was angry. Frustrated, yes. Tired, absolutely. But there was no reason for the rage she felt. It slithered through her veins, heating her blood, controlling her movements.

“Captain, please calm down,” begged Banjeree.

Her intellect told her that his outstretched arms were meant to be caring. Another part of her, something primordial, overrode her reason. She moved suddenly and forcefully, not intending to. Her throat was hoarse from a scream she couldn’t hear. Warm liquid splattered onto her face. Medda squinted and blinked to clear her eyes, opening them to a crimson filter over the world.

And she saw Banjeree lying on the floor, trying to dam a torrent of blood in his abdomen with trembling hands. And she saw the folding knife in her hand, dripping blood. Her hand was not trembling.

An ensign named Li knelt next to Banjeree, sobbing as Banerjee’s life bled away. “Captain, what have you done?” she asked Medda.

“Doctor Markel?” Medda imagined calling. Although she could hear it in her head, she knew her mouth wasn’t forming the words. Scanning the crimson-tinged room, she found the doctor.

“Doctor Markel?” she still couldn’t say. The doctor faced a blank monitor with his back to her. Medda’s voice lay dormant. “Help Banjeree, Doctor. I’ve done something.” There was nothing for him to hear. Nevertheless, Medda sensed that her own silence wasn’t what kept Dr. Markel from turning around.

Pushing through her dread, she reached toward him to poke his shoulder. The little knife in her hand distracted her mid-movement and she dropped the weapon just behind the doctor. At the clattering, the doctor turned.

From the lost, desperate expression on his face and the way his mouth hung open uselessly, Medda recognized his condition. “Same as me,” she tried to tell him with her eyes. If he understood, he didn’t show it. All he showed was fear. His fingers twisted around each other.

Ensign Li gasped at Banjeree’s side. When she turned, Medda saw what she expected: the horrified, vacuous look on Li’s face. Two other crew members circled Li and Banjeree warily.

A young major whose name Medda couldn’t recall entered the bridge. He gave the bloody corpse of Banjeree a quick, wide-eyed look, then saluted Medda. “There’s an airborne sickness, Captain,” he reported with almost hilarious understatement. Apparently he believed she was still in command of the Exceptional.

“I know about the sickness,” she told him silently.

Oblivious, or insane, or blinded in the presence of power, the major went on. “Ma’am, I’ve received emergency calls from every sector of the ship. People are, I don’t know, shutting down somehow. I was getting a report from the director of Culinary, but he stopped, right in the middle of talking. Started sort of gagging.” The young major’s voice shook. “Never said another word.”

Medda tried to grunt sympathetically or soften her face, or pat this poor guy on the shoulder. She couldn’t do any of that, and he still hadn’t taken a close look at her or Dr. Markel.

“Whatever happened to the Culinary Director,” the major said, “I guess he couldn’t turn comms off.” He pointed to Dr. Markel, who swayed helplessly in front of the control board. “Kinda like the doc there. Anyway, the comms were open and I could hear everything, you know?” His eyes darted frantically as he described the experience. “Voices suddenly went muffled, like there was someone strangling them. People saying, Call a doctor, or whatever, and then they’d stop talking and start gurgling, and someone else would get all freaked out and crying and say, Call a doctor, and then it would happen to them.”

Finally he looked hard at Medda. “Oh god, oh god, oh god,” he whimpered, folding down onto his knees and wrapping his arms around his shoulders. “It’s everyone. We’re all lost.”

Medda scanned the bridge: the computer systems hummed away. Maybe their programming was so good that they’d take the Exceptional all the way to the Belkin Fields Galaxy, with no help from the humans.

But what if the ship did make it all the way to Alendara? What would the colonists on that planet find? Probably a ghost ship. Certainly a ghost ship.

Medda looked at Banjeree, bled out on the floor. The blood was red. Such pretty red. It was soothing to her eyes, red was.

Sitting cross-legged in a pool of her friend’s blood, Medda laid her hands on his sticky wound. It was still warm.


Ba’al licked Ndu’s face. He wanted to hug his good dog, but his arms wouldn’t move that way.

“Security Ops?” said a stressed voice in the call speaker. “We need help. Is anybody there?”

Ndu, unable to speak, looked around the police station. It was full of people, but were any of them still “there,” he wondered? The young woman, Karin, had managed half a self-righteous speech before the sickness got her and she stopped mid-sentence and started drooling.

“Are you okay, Miss?” Ndu had asked. “You want some water?” Those turned out to be his last words. It didn’t hurt. It was more like numbness. Almost comforting. Ndu had never enjoyed talking anyway.

And he still had Ba’al. She wasn’t affected. Maybe dogs couldn’t catch whatever it was. Or was it just that she couldn’t speak to begin with, so the sickness would do something different to her?

“Help! Please!” cried a voice through the comms. The mute people in the station looked at the speakers.

One who could still talk, an officer much younger than Ndu who had done nothing but weep for the past twenty minutes, pressed “Reply” on the screen. “We can’t even help ourselves,” she informed the caller.

There was no response. Another one down.

The young officer started sobbing again, pressing her hands to her cheeks. She spun and addressed Ndu where he sat. “I don’t know what to do. What should I do?”

Ndu figured his face was blank, and he didn’t try to change it. He didn’t care what she should do. The old him, the Ndu of half an hour before, would have taken her by the shoulders and tried to think of something wise to say. What he actually said, though, would come out all awkward and strange. The young officer would shrink from him, misconstruing his words. It had happened like that a thousand times in his life.

The new Ndu in this new world wasn’t obligated to say anything or fix anything or comfort anyone. He hoped the numbness in his tongue was permanent. He didn’t want to talk. Now he could be left alone.

The only thing he did wish was that he could put his arms around his dog. Ndu closed his eyes and focused on Ba’al’s warm, wet kisses and her concerned panting. No point in watching everyone else suffer; nothing he could do to help anyway.

“God knows,” he thought, “I helped enough people in my time on the force.” He smiled slightly, his eyes still closed. “These last few minutes, or hours, or days, I’m looking out for Number One.”


Zulaikha’s only hope of saving the children was to go for help herself. Even if she couldn’t explain the problem, even if she couldn’t point toward the classroom, maybe a fellow teacher or a parent would recognize her and think to check on the kids.

Crawling on all fours past children who looked at her longingly but only groaned, Zulaikha made it to the hallway. She found a war zone out there. It looked as if a bomb had gone off, but the only thing it had blown up was people’s minds. Victims of the blast wandered aimlessly or stood staring or slumped against walls. Stymied hands hovered near the tears on hollow faces, unable to wipe them away.

There were still a few wretches who could speak, not that it did them much good. A handsome, dark-haired man cradled Zulaikha’s colleague, a science teacher named Michael Wen. “Michael, Michael,” the younger man keened, rocking the man he obviously loved. Michael gawped at nothing. “It’s me. It’s Goren. Can you hear me, Michael?”

“He can hear you,” Zulaikha wanted to say.

Rising to her knees, she tried to push toward Michael and Goren, but her muscles wouldn’t cooperate. “Keep talking to him,” she prayed. “What I wouldn’t give for someone to talk to me right now.”

“I love you, Michael.”

Because Zulaikha’s body had turned her away against her will, Goren’s voice was behind her now. “My poor darling Mich—” A quiet rattling replaced the voice. A heavy thud. Managing to turn, Zulaikha saw Michael roll away from his partner’s limp arms. Goren stared at nothingness.

Zulaikha’s view was cut off by a pair of legs in fashionable plastic jeans. A teenager. She recognized this girl from an incident a month before. The girl had been trouble, mouthing off to everyone. Hadn’t liked life on the Exceptional. Claimed her parents forced her to come along. Now all this girl could do was moan and drool. Pointless. Finished.

Zulaikha rested her face in her hands, trying to remember Earth. Why she’d left. Could it have been so bad that it was worth risking this?

She remembered now. It had been horrible. Abuse. Discrimination. Fearing for her life, not only because of warfare but because, in her culture, women weren’t suppose to love to read. Weren’t supposed to have an imagination. Her imagination had saved her then. The stories she invented had kept her alive until she’d found the call to join the Exceptional crew as a teacher. So much promise. So much hope. Didn’t need her wild stories anymore, except to entertain the children.

Zulaikha looked up now at the silent, fearful people. Worse than Earth. A story began to take shape in her mind, blocking out the horror, replacing the world with a new reality. She narrated to herself.

The stars are beautiful, sighed a princess in a shimmering jeweled gown. More beautiful than you? the dark stranger inquired. He took the princess by the hand and pushed off into space. The stars blazed like ... like ...”

Zulaikha furrowed her brow and concentrated, but she couldn’t come up with a simile that wasn’t trite. “Like fire?” she thought critically. “Like the sun?” Panicked for her story’s sake, she looked around. What if her imagination let her down and her mind became empty? How would she cope?

“The stars blazed like fresh desire.”

That wasn’t her thought, yet somehow it had entered her head. Looking around, Zulaikha tried to tell which of her fellow passengers had thought such a lovely simile. Everyone’s face was blank. It could have been anyone. It could even have been a mind outside the ship. Intrigued, Zulaikha continued the story. “The couple danced from star to star, seeking a safe haven.”

Another mind added, “Monsters were everywhere, but these two people carried safety in their own spirits, an armor of love.”

Another thought-voice joined in. “The two created a planet in Deep Space from the remnants of shattered ships and lives.”

“They floated forever in peace,” another consciousness contributed, “and nothing of the physical world mattered.”

More and more minds found freedom and comfort by linking into Zulaikha’s story. The story grew and changed and twisted and never ended until all the minds grew still. And the Exceptional drifted on. END

Anne E. Johnson writes on a large variety of topics and genres. Her science fiction has been published in “Liquid Imagination,” “FrostFire Worlds,” “SpeckLit,” and elsewhere. She has two science fiction novels published by Candlemark & Gleam.