Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
Editor

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Fiction

Astronaut Dreams
by Joseph Green
and R-M Lillian

Virus Smugglers
by Erin Lale

Clone Music
by Guy T. Martland

Adventure of the Durham Monograph
by Robert Dawson

Neglect
by Timothy J. Gawne

Too Much to Dream
by Richard Zwicker

Tour de Force
by Richard Wren

Iwemeus
by Stephen L. Antczak

Shorter Stories

Free Wi-Fi at the Bordello
by Santiago Belluco

Ambivalence of Memory
by Jamie Lackey

Welcome, Distant Traveler
by Andrew Vrana

Articles

Pandemic: Zika
by John McCormick

Descent and Ascent
by Eric M. Jones


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Editorial

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Iwemeus

By Stephen L. Antczak

THEY FOUND THE STALACTITES half a kilometer into the network of caves and tunnels that had been located by scans from orbit. Hanging down from the concave ceiling, the stalactites glowed a sickly green. The cave system itself was otherwise smooth, as if wiped clean of all debris.

“Wow!” Joseph had exclaimed upon seeing them first. Coming up behind him, Serena caught her breath. The cave ceiling rose to about ten meters while the cave floor had to measure at least twenty-five meters across. The stalactites looked to be anywhere between two meters to three meters long, and were smooth and rounded at the tips. Each one glowed a dull green. Serena couldn’t wait to get her hands on one, but they were too high, out of reach for now.

Already the unusual formations had her mind racing with questions: Of what were they made? How did they grow there? Why were they in this particular cave? Why did they have a green glow?

The atmosphere of the large moon’s cave system had been deemed safe enough for skinsuits and filters, as opposed to full EVA suits meant for hostile environments. They’d been cooped up in the ship for too long, and it was nice to get out with as little hardware as possible weighing them down.

Now, though, she wished she’d opted for the EVA suits with their powered exo-skeletons that would have allowed her to bring more equipment, including the telescoping core drill.

Joseph wandered into the middle of the cave.

“Maybe we should head back and change into hardsuits,” Serena said. “We can return with the right equipment so we can take samples.”

“I knew you’d say that,” Joseph replied. He had his camera out, though, and was taking pictures from directly beneath the stalactites. “But we’re here now, so why don’t we do what we can with what we have? We have three days before we can leave. We can come back tomorrow.”

The mothership wouldn’t be within range until day three. Still, Serena couldn’t shake the anxiousness she felt. Then again, she’d been feeling anxious a lot, lately. It was Joseph. He was tall, good-looking with intense blue eyes, intelligent ... a real catch, as Serena’s mom would have said. Serena did not see herself as the kind of woman that a guy like Joseph would want to be with, at least not for the long haul. Not that she didn’t think of herself as attractive—maybe not beautiful so much as kind of cute in the right light. She’d never had a serious relationship. Now that she had him, she’d developed a fear of losing him.

Serena saw the green glow within the stalactite directly over Joseph start to pulse, as if the stalactite sensed Joseph’s presence, as if it knew he was standing right below it. Joseph noticed it, too.

“Look at that!” he exclaimed. A moment later, the stalactite fell.

“Joseph!” Serena yelled. For a moment she expected to see Joseph crushed beneath it, bleeding from a head wound or lifeless with a broken neck.

But that’s not what happened.

The stalactite turned out not to be solid, but gelatinous. When it hit Joseph it covered him completely, from head to toe, sticking to him. He staggered under the impact, but didn’t fall, and pulled at the green goo on his shoulders, trying to remove it from the intakes of his skinsuit’s air filtration system. Serena suddenly realized that Joseph couldn’t breathe. Not only was he unable to clear the intakes, but his hands became stuck in the stuff, and pretty soon he couldn’t pull them out.

Shocked into immobility, Serena could only watch as Joseph struggled futilely against the heavy, gelatinous mass.

A moment later, Joseph fell over, writhing and squirming as the gelatinous thing smothered him.

He would be dead in no time if he couldn’t get any air into his system. He writhed and kicked as he tried to save himself.

Serena couldn’t think straight, and she couldn’t move towards Joseph.

There were other stalactites hanging from the ceiling of the cave, and Serena could see them vibrating now, bright green waves running from their bases down to the tips, as if quivering with excitement or anticipation.

Maybe if she was quick enough she could still save him, somehow. She rushed forward, but stopped after only two steps as Joseph suddenly and violently spasmed. His air-mask and goggles were ripped from his face and ejected, as if spit out by the gelatinous mass. She could now see Joseph’s face through the transparent green mass as it stretched over him, his mouth and eyes wide open as he tried to breathe.

The gelatinous mass was an alien life form, a creature.

She watched in paralyzing horror as it forced part of itself down Joseph’s throat, into his nostrils and ears. His eyes bulged out and then burst and the green gelatin poured in through the empty eye sockets. It was eating him from the inside out.

The fear that Serena had been fighting back took over. She couldn’t help Joseph now.

Another stalactite fell, landing on the stone floor of the cave with a heavy, wet smack, and then flattened out. Serena stared at it for a moment before she realized it was moving ... towards her.

Fear gave way to panic.

She ran.

***

Being chosen for the Cameron One mission had come as a complete surprise to Serena. Not that in the scheme of things it was any great honor. Interstellar travel had become inexpensive due to the invention of the quantum drive, which used the underlying energy of the quantum structure of the void itself to travel between the stars. Cameron One was the sixty-seventh interstellar mission in the last ten years. The only thing that made this particular mission noteworthy was the world being visited was actually a moon orbiting a gas super-giant.

She hadn’t expected to get it—there were plenty of other more qualified mineralogists who needed the work. Her only experience had been a two-year stint on Mars, but that was hardly the bleeding edge of exploration anymore.

The make-up of each crew was very scientifically calculated, based on the proposed duration of the mission, the mission objectives, the size of the ship, etc. Serena fit a certain type and happened to have the qualifications.

During training for the mission she met Joseph; his dark hair, heavy jaw, wide cheekbones, coffee-and-cream colored skin, large lips and bright, blue eyes got her attention. He was intelligent, reserved yet always relaxed. Their relationship became intensely physical very quickly.

Their mission: to explore a vast cave system on the Mars-sized moon orbiting the gas super-giant. Galapagos, also referred to as “Mother” by the survey teams, was off depositing the other five survey ships at various points around the moon, and would then launch unmanned probes into the gas super-giant. The massive world had been named Cameron after the astronomer who discovered its largest moon. The moon had been designated Cameron One, for the time being. Serena had hopes that it would be named after her, the first human to set foot on it.

What made Cameron One of great interest to scientists were spectroscopic results indicating that its lower atmosphere might be similar to Earth’s; this was due to upper layers of heavier, denser gasses that trapped a specific nitrogen/oxygen and water vapor mix below the surface. The atmosphere’s density helped give it an effective surface gravity equivalent to 0.95G of Earth, despite its smaller size. Its general surface environment was considered hostile, but the vast network of caves within its rocky crust was discovered to be pretty close to ideal for human survival, if a little hot and damp.

No obvious signs of life had been detected by the probes, but they weren’t looking for obvious signs of life. Life had been detected on every one of the twenty-seven habitable worlds and moons yet encountered, none any bigger than a fruit fly. Zero signs of alien civilization. It was assumed that Cameron One probably harbored microscopic life, maybe even tiny insects, although there was always the hope that it might be home to something more interesting.

***

The entrance to the cave system lay only a few dozen meters from the Black Swan, but dense fog, and Serena’s panic, made it difficult to find the ship despite the blinking locator lights. She tripped several times over the large rocks that littered the area, bashing her knees and shins.

She made it back to the Black Swan, but it took her several tries to get the airlock open. Once inside the airlock chamber, she hurriedly stripped down and went through decontamination while the airlock slowly normalized the pressure. Scrapes on her knees and chin stung as the pressure changed. When pressure was normalized and the indicator light flashed green she rushed, naked, to the observation dome and looked outside.

She couldn’t see anything in the dense fog. She tried to keep herself together, but couldn’t. Tears flowed freely.

Joseph was dead. No way he could survive what had happened.

Serena had run, leaving Joseph to his fate. She had loved him, and had deserted him, left him to die a horrible death.

What could she have done, though? She couldn’t fight off a giant glob of jelly. Had she gone into the center of the cave to help Joseph, she would have shared his fate.

Still, the immensity of the guilt she felt, over how she’d deserted her lover, was almost too much to bear. She numbly climbed down from the observation dome, which was merely the nose of the survey ship with its heat shields retracted, put on her sleep gear, and slipped into her cockpit seat. She pressed the red distress call button. It would be almost twenty-four hours before Galapagos could make its way to within range of Survey Three.

Nothing to do but wait.

Another sob ripped itself from within her. She started to hyperventilate. She closed her eyes and forced her breathing to slow, to become even and purposeful, counting silently to six with each deep breath and each exhale. She calmed down, but she realized she would not be able to handle almost twenty-four hours of this.

Serena surmised that the green gelatinous creatures couldn’t make it to Survey Three in that amount of time, assuming they could find it. They seemed to become activated by nearby movement, anyway. She’d be safe in the ship. She hoped.

She dug through the med kit to find the sleep aid. She took one with some water. This would give her a good ten to twelve hours of sleep.

She wished she could go back to that moment before the stalactite had fallen and yell at Joseph to get out of there.

“God, why did this have to happen?” Serena asked out loud, and the sound of her voice seemed wrong in that environment without Joseph there to hear it. It sounded small and pathetic. It made her want to curl up into a ball and cry. And what made it even sadder was that Joseph would have told her, “God’s not listening.”

That was true, Serena thought. She had visited a world that the many and varied gods of Earth had never known.

There was nobody there to listen, not Joseph, not God, not Mother.

***

Serena sensed his presence before she woke.

Had it all been a bad dream? No, she knew it had been real.

This couldn’t be Joseph.

She scrambled back to the opposite side of the cabin. He wore the loose pajamas that comprised his sleep gear, just like hers.

“Did you sleep well?” Joseph asked. He smiled.

As if nothing had happened.

“You ...” Serena wasn’t sure what to say. “Is it really you?”

“Yes.”

“No. I must be dreaming. Or hallucinating, or—”

“You’re not dreaming or hallucinating, Serena.”

“I saw what happened in the cave,” she said. “You should be dead.”

“I’m not dead,” Joseph said. His eyes, blue and bright, seemed to light up. “I can understand why you might not think I’m really me. You saw what you saw. I’m not going to pretend it didn’t happen.”

Serena decided she’d succumbed to madness. Yes, losing her mind would be a completely reasonable explanation for Joseph’s sudden reappearance, alive and well.

“I need for you to believe,” Joseph told her.

“I wish it were you,” Serena told him. “I wish it, I really do. But it can’t be.”

“Serena, you’re a scientist,” Joseph stated matter-of-factly.

“Yes.”

“So if I can prove to you that I’m really me, that I’m really Joseph, and that you’re completely sane, you’ll have to accept that,” Joseph told her. “I really am the same Joseph, Serena. I’m the same Joseph from the Ice Cream Incident, the same Joseph who told you that he loves your crooked smile even though you hate it, the same Joseph who—”

“Please stop,” Serena said.

“I’m trying to explain what I am.”

“Don’t you mean who?”

“Semantics. Who I am is defined by what I am. You are who you are because of what you are: a human being, a woman, an only child, a scientist ... alone, far from home, afraid, distraught and curious ... about me.”

“Okay,” she admitted.

“I can satisfy your curiosity,” Joseph told her.

“How?”

“A kiss.”

“I want you to go away,” she said.

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“You’re not real. You can’t be real.”

“I’m real.”

“No. I’ve gone insane. It’s the only possible explanation.”

“You’re not insane. And there is another explanation. Be a scientist, Serena. Think.”

Yes, she was a scientist. Which meant that if the Joseph she now saw sitting before her was not a figment of her imagination, he had to be real. Which meant that there was more to what she saw in the cave than she remembered. Or she had not remembered it accurately. Had the gelatinous creature really killed Joseph?

The image of his eyes bursting was vivid. Yet, here he sat looking at her with those same two beautiful, diamond-blue eyes.

She squeezed her eyes shut.

“I know it’s difficult, Serena” he said. “I’m Joseph, one hundred percent through and through. The thing you saw didn’t copy me. It became me. It reconstructed me, right down to my DNA, right down to my genes, right down to the flora in my guts, and then some. That’s what I want you to understand. I am not a copy. I’m me, plus something else, something more.”

“What’s the something else?” Maybe the best thing to do here was to just play along. All in her head or real, either way, it might be the best way to get through this.

“It ... we, they ... are non-sentient creatures ... no, really all one creature, or they started off as ... one entity, on another world, in another star system God knows where. What happened to me ... that’s how they ... how it ... gets around, I guess you could say. We become—”

“Wait,” Serena said. “Those things didn’t originate here? They’re from another world?”

“Yes.”

“How did they get here?”

“That’s what we’re trying to tell you,” Joseph said. “I did to the others, what they did to me.”

“Others?”

“Other civilizations.”

He was talking about aliens, sentient aliens, who’d encountered the gelatinous creatures on other worlds and brought them to this one. That meant space travel, and that meant there were other technologically advanced civilizations in the galaxy besides that of humanity. Despite her current situation, Serena’s pulse quickened. The idea thrilled her to the core of her being, that there were others out there among the stars. Gave her hope.

“Joseph, what are you?”

“What are we, Serena, if not the sum total of our memories, our experiences and our bodies?” Joseph asked her.

“Experiences.”

“Yes.”

“But there are experiences we have and don’t remember,” Serena said. “They help make us who we are, too, even though we don’t remember them.”

“They are still recorded in your physical brain, these experiences, recalled by your subconscious. They aren’t clear memories, but they are there.”

Still, a reconstruction was not the same as the original. Did that mean everything about this Joseph was still the original Joseph, the same essence, merely having been broken down to the raw materials, a mush of molecules, and reconstituted, but with something more, as he had said earlier? Even if reconstituted in exactly the same way, could he still be that same person, that same identity, that same Self?

“Why did you come here?” Serena asked him, although she feared she already knew the answer.

“You know why. We came for you,” Joseph replied. “As I said.”

“You want to do to me what they did to you.”

Joseph laughed.

“You’ve connected the dots and now you understand,” he said, but then added, “Or you think you understand.”

“This is how they ... how you ... propagate,” Serena said.

Joseph’s expression was inscrutable. Serena desperately wanted to know what he was thinking, if he was thinking at all.

“Before you do it, tell me,” Serena said. “Please. Tell me how it works. Tell me everything. I want to know.”

“You will know.”

“But just tell me about it before ... before it happens. Please, Joseph.”

He smiled.

“It’s been going on for millions of years. Tens of millions. Hundreds of millions. And there were hundreds of millions of years before anything else came along. We might have been the very first life forms. There were many to begin with, then one, but still many. At the core of our being we are all the same. But time has changed us. We are the same, but different. Different in the way that you’re different after every new experience. You have to ...” His voice trailed off and he laughed.

“What’s so funny?” she asked.

“It’s funny being limited by language,” Joseph replied, “when everything is so clear inside. To truly understand it, Serena, you have to experience it.”

“I don’t want to.”

“I know.”

“I want you to leave,” she told him.

He just looked at her for a while, and then slowly shook his head.

She didn’t have any weapons, and there was no way she could overpower him. He out-massed her by half, and was significantly stronger than her.

“I know you’re scared,” Joseph said. He shifted from sitting to kneeling, moved slowly towards her.

“What are you going to do?” she asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “Just a kiss, that’s all. Just a kiss. It’ll be far less traumatizing for you than it was for me, I can promise you that.”

There was no way out. She had to accept that.

“Okay?” Joseph asked.

She managed a smile.

“Okay.”

Serena waited, knowing this was the kiss that would seal her fate. She felt so tired. But then, as Joseph moved towards her, she knew what she wanted more than anything at that moment: she wanted to know the truth. That calmed her, and made it easier to accept.

Joseph’s face drew close to hers. He paused, his gaze flicking back and forth between her eyes. The eyes that looked into hers looked exactly like Joseph’s, even so close that she could feel his breath on her lips.

His lips touched hers. Her lips parted slightly. She felt the tip of his tongue push in.

Serena suppressed a shudder as she felt something slip into her mouth along with his tongue. She remembered the pleasure she’d once felt with him. Now, it terrified her.

Joseph pulled back, his warm eyes looking directly into hers. She could see the love, knew it had to be Joseph in there, the real Joseph. She had trusted him, once, with her heart. And here, now, she trusted him even though she wasn’t sure it was really him, trusted him utterly, with everything.

“I wish we could say it’s not going to hurt,” Joseph told her, “but the pain is only temporary. Serena, you are gaining much more than you realize, so much more than you can possibly imagine.”

“I’m scared,” she whispered, as if saying it out loud would somehow make it stop, make everything normal again.

“You needn’t be,” Joseph said, and then he laughed. “If only we could show you. But I am showing you, aren’t I? I’m doing more than that. You’re scared because you don’t understand what’s happening, but after it happens you’ll laugh to think you were scared, laugh at the idea of not understanding.”

Serena closed her eyes, looking inward. She wanted to feel the change happening, and wanted to know if it meant death or something else. If death, then she wanted to see it coming even if from within. She didn’t feel any different at first, but then her heartbeat sped up, faster and faster until it seemed to crash against her insides like a sledgehammer. She tried to calm herself, but to no avail.

“Don’t fight it,” Joseph said. “It’s easier if you just let it happen.”

Her heart beat so quickly that Serena wondered if it might simply explode. She could feel panic welling up. She was about to let out a scream when suddenly her heart just stopped. She felt it as certainly as she’d felt it beating rapidly a moment before.

This is it, she thought. She was dying after all. She felt suddenly lightheaded and her vision tunneled, focused on Joseph’s face, his remarkably unconcerned expression, his warm eyes ... and then even that faded and she couldn’t see at all. She wondered how long it would take for her brain to shut down and her mind to fade away, her Self to disappear into nothingness.

She couldn’t move. Her muscles didn’t react to the signals from her brain telling them to thrash about, to lash out. She was trapped inside her own body now, waiting for the end to come.

Let it come, then, Serena thought. But death didn’t come. Pain did.

It started at the very core of her being and spread from there, a searing, like acid seeping into every nook and cranny of her senses.

Memories flooded, every painful memory she had:

... stepping barefoot into an ant pile at the tender age of six, the feeling that her foot was being chewed up by swarming ants and the fear that the ants would crawl up her leg and she’d disintegrate;

... then, during her high school years, nearly slicing her thumb off in the kitchen during the first day of her first job at a local French restaurant;

... being told by her first love, a boy she’d dated throughout her time at university, that he was leaving her because he just didn’t like her, had never liked her, had only been with her for the sex because she’d been willing to do things that other girls weren’t, demeaning things, things that made him despise her for her willingness to do them in order to please him.

Every moment and every kind of pain came back to her, tortured her by happening all over again as if for the very first time.

She wanted to scream and make it all end, but she couldn’t.

And then the fear.

Fear:

... of being hurt by another man that had kept her distant even with Joseph;

... being left alone by the people close to her;

... getting pregnant again and losing another baby;

... being betrayed by those she trusted;

... attacked by those closest to her, and the fear of dying;

... ceasing to be;

... never experiencing anything ever again;

... not having lived a life worth living;

... losing her mother’s love.

She relived a long-held grudge against her mother for off-handedly saying she’d wished Serena had been a boy.

And joy:

... her first kiss, holding hands with a special friend in junior high school and feeling loved;

... discovering she was pregnant and the feeling of having a life grow inside her;

... getting the acceptance to her first choice grad school;

... getting the certificate for her doctorate and the first time she put Ph.D. after her name;

... and Joseph;

... looking into his eyes, seeing herself the way he saw her;

... as someone worthy of love, and the freedom of being a child;

... a dim memory of the unadulterated, inescapable happiness in just being.

It all welled and throbbed and swirled around inside her until, suddenly, it stopped, and Serena was still there, still thinking, still being, still herself.

***

The multitudinous Self flitted up to her consciousness and teased her with whisperings in alien words, unhuman thought processes, strange emotions.

They were an aquatic civilization of mammal-like beings who had developed no technology at all. They had an intense love of ephemeral bubble art; their greatest artists were remembered for generations after they died and long after their art had faded away.

They were all here now, the world-ocean dwellers. They had been absorbed to the last, along with every other denizen of their world-ocean. There was joy in this, but also regret, as now their world was devoid all other life, save for Iwemeus.

Serena descended deeper into the past towards the core of a Self immeasurably ancient.

It was born in the primordial soup of perhaps the very first habitable world in the galaxy. This Self wasn’t the first of its kind, but it became the strongest as it was forced to absorb others in a Darwinian struggle for dominance, until it became the only consciousness on the entire world.

It assumed that this would be the entirety of its existence, forever. How could it know differently?

And then its world exploded.

At first, it didn’t understand, but later, over the course of eons, it learned.

The sun had exploded in a supernova, destroying the world and scattering the remnants of it into deep space.

Serena remembered it vividly, the suddenly intense violence, a shuddering and breaking and ripping followed immediately by the scattering of the Self. Much of it died, destroyed by the intense heat and radiation of the supernova. Each tiny shard of the Self that survived fell into a state of hibernation during its time drifting through interstellar space.

Eventually the shards awoke, became aware, and at first each shard believed it to be the entirety of the Self, not yet realizing that it was merely one small piece of the whole.

The shards eventually made their way to other worlds where they found one another, rejoined, discovered they were the same, yet had accumulated different experiences, different identities.

The shards unthinkingly absorbed other life wherever they met it, and eventually absorbed sentience. It became those that it absorbed, yet remained itself. It decided that intelligent life was the ultimate destiny of the universe, and it was the ultimate destiny of life because it could combine with all life.

The entity absorbed one being after another, each an isolated Self among a sea of others, none connected to any of the others the way it had once been to its other shards. It became them, they became it, they became each other, until entire worlds of life had been absorbed and it knew itself as a collective mind.

It knew that wherever shards of itself found life, the same process would play out on world after world, from star to star, galaxy to galaxy.

***

Despite the memories and experiences of the billions she had absorbed, she was still Serena. The continuity of her own Self, her own experience had not been interrupted. Her memories were still her memories, her identity was still there, not untouched, but still her.

Looking at Joseph, Serena realized that his Self was part of her, too, but hers was not yet part of him. Without hesitating, she leaned towards him. She held the kiss long enough to feel a few infinitesimal molecules detach and slide into his mouth. Now, her “self” would be part of him. It seemed as natural to her as breathing.

From that moment they were one, going back in time to the very beginning, having the same experiences, the same memories. But going forward they would be separate beings, each having new experiences, creating new memories, until the next kiss.

Survey Three, this is Mother. Come in, Survey Three,” came the voice of the communications officer on the Galapagos.

“So it begins,” Joseph whispered seductively.

Serena knew exactly what he meant, of course. Propagation.

Galapagos, this is Survey Three,” Joseph said more loudly, looking up at the ceiling, as if through the ceiling towards Mother out there in space.

Hello, Joseph. We received a distress signal from you three days ago. Sorry we couldn’t get here faster. Everything okay down there?

“Yes, sorry about that.”

“That was my fault, Mother,” Serena said. “Joseph and I got separated and when I got back to the shuttle and he wasn’t here, I guess I panicked.”

Ummm, okay then, Survey Three,” said the communications officer for Galapagos. “We’ll see you at the rendezvous coordinates.

“We’ll see you then,” Serena replied. “Survey Three, over and out.”

“Mother, out,” the communications officer said.

***

“Survey Three, this is Mother. Do you read?” came the voice of the comm officer on Galapagos.

“Affirmative, Mother,” Serena replied.

Rendezvous in approximately one hour, Survey Three. Taking control of Survey Three now. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Serena felt excited by what was to come. Freed of the human urges to bend nature, to exploit the other inhabitants of Earth without compassion or forethought, the Earth’s vast biodiversity might put forth a new candidate for true sentience, a new technologically advanced civilization. All the while, Iwemeus would be there to watch, to study, and ultimately to absorb that delicious, worthy successor to the human race.

Did you copy, Survey Three?

“Yes, Galapagos, copy that,” Joseph replied. He looked at Serena and grinned, adding, “We’re just enjoying the ride.” END

Stephen L. Antczak is the author of four small press books, the short story collections “Daydreams Undertaken” and “Edgewise,” the novels “God Drug” and “The Oracle Paradox,” and over fifty horror, fantasy, and science fiction short stories.

 

winchester 11/16

 

 

crazy liddy 9/16