Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Conversations With a Garbage Truck
by Margret A. Treiber

Freshly Brewed
by Preston Dennett

by Barton Paul Levenson

Gift of Nibelung
by Olga Godim

by Fonda Lee

Send in the Humans
by Harold R. Thompson

Rhythm of the Rain
by Samuel Van Pelt

Worms of Titan
by Brian Biswas

Shorter Stories

by C.R. Hodges

by David Steffen

Fast Time Machines at Ridgemont High
by Fred Coppersmith


Madness of the Winter Soldier
by Erin Lale

Resistance Fighters
by John McCormick



Comic Strips





By Barton Paul Levenson

FEWER THAN TEN OF US waited in a lecture hall meant for a hundred. I was painting my nails metallic green—I like the shimmery colors—when a guy came into the row from the right. He made his way past dozens of perfectly empty seats until he stood right next to me.

I looked up. There are some ET students at the University of L-4, and this guy was definitely an alien. His skin was a dark mahogany with fine hair covering it, like the hide of a horse or deer, and he had a bizarre-looking head. At first I thought the two branching, ramifying spirals of something that looked like blond wood were part of a hat, leaning toward each other like a roof. Then I saw a thick root went beneath the mahogany-colored skin at each temple. “May I sit next to you?”

“Yeah, sure. I’m Pat Cantro.” I extended a hand.

The guy stared at it.

“Humans shake hands when they meet,” I explained. “Hold out your hand and I’ll show you.”

He held out a hand—seven digits and the same brown hide. The fingers didn’t have fingernails or claws, but little black bumps at each fingertip like half-cones, curved side out. I shook his hand. “Have a seat.”

He sat down. “I am Mussauny of the Village of Slauk.”

“Pleased to meet you.”

Another alien, short and with bright-blue skin and hard chopping plates for lips stopped in front of me—I sat in the front row, just behind the rail. “What are you doing?”

“I’m painting my nails, sweetheart.” I was a little annoyed that he was so blunt. I reminded myself he might not know he was being impolite.

“Why? Is this a medical treatment?”

“Cosmetic. The women of my species thought this one up a long time ago, and I perpetuate the ancient and honorable custom of my ancestors to accentuate my mysterious beauty.”

“I would make a good mate for you. I, Arrun Kegk Wy Cheeow Dunnek, am renowned as a lover and am very ambitious.”

“Sorry, sweetheart; not interested. Thank you for applying to Cantro University. We’re sorry we can’t always accept all qualified applicants.”

He looked at the guy with the horns, or antlers, or whatever they were. “A predator is always a better lover than a prey animal.”

Mussauny blinked. “I am not a prey animal. I am an intelligent being.”

“A predator is always a better fighter, too. It’s in the genes.”

“I have no intention of fighting you. Go away.”

“I will go when I feel like it.”

“Boys, boys,” I said. “Class is about to start. Why don’t we—”

“I am no boy,” Arrun said. “I am a man—and more of a man than this grass-eater will ever be.”

“I eat bread, not grass,” Mussauny said.

Arrun started to laugh, but cut it off abruptly when the teacher entered the room. Instructors at L-4 wear the white full-citizen’s suit instead of the blue student’s suit. “Let’s all find seats,” she said. The rest of us—Arrun and some humans who had been watching the argument—quickly sat down. “My name is Sheila Tsang, and this class is Survival in Primitive Environments. Turn on your Pads and click the SPE-101 icon. If you don’t have that link, download it now.”

I shut down the paint applicator and opened my Pad. “Hey, uh, Mussauny. I’m sorry that guy was giving you a hard time. I guess he thought we were lovers and wanted to muscle in, or something.”

“We are not yet lovers,” Mussauny said, “But I cannot say I do not find the idea attractive. Though we are of different species I find you a strikingly beautiful being.”

“You’re a sweetheart,” I said.

“To those of you carrying on private conversations,” Dr. Tsang said, “Let me remind you that the first step in learning Survival in Primitive Environments is learning survival in classroom environments. A tip there is to cut out the small talk when your instructor distributes her pearls of wisdom.”

I shut up and ran the program.


From that moment on, Arrun never missed an opportunity to snipe at Mussauny. If Mussauny offered an opinion on something, Arrun would be sure to take the opposite side—as nastily as possible. Here’s one I recorded:

“Let’s talk habitable planets,” Dr. Tsang said. “The ones where no spacesuit is needed. These include planets too young for intelligent life, planets inhabited by Colonizer species, even low-population Galactic Club planets without rural surveillance. What one thing could you have on hand to help you stay alive on such a planet? Give me your views. There’s no wrong answer.”

“A whole Galactic Club science expedition,” I said. Some people laughed.

“True, you’re safer with lots of equipment and friends. But what if you’re alone and stranded? Starship crash, separated from your unit during a War of Suppression, lost hiking in the woods on some world without good surveillance. More answers?”

“Food,” someone said.

“Good thought. On average ninety percent of alien life will be indigestible. Ten percent will poison you or give you anaphylactic shock. Exceptions are rare, so food is good to have.”

“Wisdom,” Mussauny said. “Simple wisdom.”

“The answer of a grass-eater,” Arrun said. “I say the most valuable asset in a primitive setting is ferocity. The determination to fight and not to die. I do not intend to sit around and think beautiful thoughts in a place where I might be killed by predators or natural disaster.”


Here’s another:

“Run your review programs now,” Dr. Tsang said. “You’ll note that performance on this test varied widely, though I’m glad to say none of you actually flunked it. Ladies and Gentlemen, Hermaphrodites and Neuters, some of you are going to have to do more studying.”

“Some of us are from different planets,” Mussauny said. “We were raised in diverse cultures and this perhaps caused some difficulties adjusting to a human-taught course. I mean no offense.”

“None taken. But if it’s a problem for you, it’s your responsibility to recognize the problem and take appropriate steps, like applying for tutoring.”

“Cultural difference is irrelevant anyway,” Arrun said. “It’s your genes that determine your intelligence and ferocity. Some species take naturally to learning survival and some do not. In particular, I expect predators to do better at this course than grass-eaters.”

“Biological determinism is rather unpopular among humans these days,” Dr. Tsang said.

“Will my expressing an unpopular view result in a lower grade? Do I not have the right of free speech?”

“It won’t, and you do. But try not to disparage other students because of their species. Classroom disruption is not considered free speech.”

“Thank you, Doctor Tsang,” Mussauny said.

“A shame you need a teacher to defend your delicate ears,” Arrun said.


The worst incident happened the last week before the Final. “Watch me today,” Mussauny said. “I have been studying the relevant sciences on my own, and today I will have an answer for Arrun if he brings up his biological determinism.”

“It might be better not to interact with that guy at all,” I said. “I don’t.”

“I know. I blame you not. Yet today I will be prepared.”

We filed in and took our seats. “The subject today is survival when food supplies are low,” Dr. Tsang said. “What factors apply here?”

Arrun raised his hand. “We predators will show greater endurance. We are used to a cycle of famine and feast. Grass-eaters, on the other hand, which graze continuously, cannot expect to take the disruption in food intake well.”

“This is, of course, completely irrelevant,” spoke up Mussauny. “The roads to intelligence are few, which explains why we all have roughly similar body plans. We descended from predators, omnivores, herbivores, and so on, but in fact almost all intelligent species are omnivores. Even given differing diets, however, we have so long adapted to the social roles of eating that to speak of the eating habits of our remote ancestors has almost no bearing at all. To see if a creature will take starvation well, the important factors would be its size and metabolic rate, the climatic conditions it is adapted for, and perhaps most important, the cultural conditions under which it was raised. Did its family practice ritual fasting for religious or economic reasons? Did it learn self-discipline from parents, tutors, or some school or order it belonged to? That is what is relevant here.”

“And what, exactly, does a grass-eater know about relevance?”

Dr. Tsang said, “In this case, rather a lot. Mussauny is quite right and has given a good basic summary of what I wanted to hear. I would venture to say that he has done the required reading, and perhaps read outside sources as well. I would be surprised to learn that you had.”

“I have done the required reading,” Arrun said stiffly.

“Good, let’s hope your test scores reflect it.”

The rest of the class proceeded more calmly, though I noticed Arrun staring at Mussauny pretty often. When “Class is over!” sounded from our Pads and everyone rose to leave, I made my way over to Mussauny. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Of course.”

“I mean, I want you to come with me, okay?” I wanted to get him away from that area before Arrun could start anything.

“You seem agitated. I do tend to take things in a somewhat leisurely way, I know.” He was walking as he spoke. “I do not mean to seem unfriendly.”

“I know. I didn’t think you were. But come with me.”

We made it outside the room, but before I could get Mussauny down the hall any distance Arrun came up beside him. “Hey, grass-eater.”

Mussauny kept walking.

“I said, hey, grass-eater!

“That is not my name.”

“Hi, uh ... Hi, Arrun,” I said. “Interesting class, I thought. That bit about when to sleep and when not to—”

“Men are speaking, human female, so hold your tongue.” He plucked at Mussauny’s sleeve and Mussauny stopped walking and swung to face him—a quick, intimidating move.

Arrun stood his ground. “I don’t need any grass-eater to make trouble for me with an instructor.”

“Yet you continually try to make trouble for me. Your whining is like that of a small child who hits his companions and cries when they do the same to it.”

“I don’t cry when I fight, grass-eater.” And he swung and hit Mussauny’s jaw. Mussauny flew back against the wall of the corridor.

The lighting went from white to flashing red. The crime siren came on. “Warning!” the school AI said. “Arrun Kegk Wy Cheeow Dunnek! Stop all violence at once or we will stop you!

Arrun blinked, looking around him. The lighting went back to normal. A silver sphere came through the air toward us and stopped two meters away. “I am the police and judicial unit L-4 PJU 65. Arrun Kegk Wy Cheeow Dunnek, from surveillance data, I judge you guilty of assault and battery on a fellow student, Mussauny of the Village of Slauk.”

Arrun kept blinking. Everyone in the corridor had stopped to listen. They began to gather around the tableau of aliens, police robot, and me.

“I see you have no known prior criminal record and may not have been raised in a culture conducive to peaceful conduct. These will be treated as extenuating circumstances. Please be aware that any attacks on other people, unless excused by extreme youth or context such as that of a martial arts class, self-defense, or defense of another, are against the law on L-4. Unless you immediately agree not to begin violence in the future you will be deported to your homeworld, home habitat, or home vehicle.”

Arrun was silent.

“Unless you immediately agree not to begin violence—”

“I agree. I can see it would be futile in any case.”

“Your word will be held as binding.” The sphere rotated in place until its ill-defined front faced Mussauny. “Mussauny of the village of Slauk, do you require medical assistance?”

Mussauny had already regained his feet. He rubbed his jaw. “No. Thank you for your prompt intervention.”

Arrun walked away. The other students started walking again.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

“Surprised, shocked, in minor pain, but otherwise all right,” he said. “I see that you were trying to aid me earlier. I apologize for my obtuseness. I am not used to a world where intelligent beings suddenly attack other intelligent beings.”

“Hey, that doesn’t happen every day here! Didn’t you see how quickly the cops showed up? We don’t tolerate crime on L-4.”

“I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry. I am angry and frustrated. I should not take it out on you. Please accept my apologies.”

“No problem.”

I thought that would be the end of it.


The next day I headed for the MacDonald’s in Sector Seven when I spotted Mussauny sitting in the stairwell. It was a funny place to sit, but I decided to just go around him and not mention it. Then I saw he was crying.

The stairs in Sector Seven are pretty wide. I sat down next to him. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

“Blockin’ the stairs, buddy,” a guy behind me said.

I turned. “So go around, numbnuts!”

“Asshole,” the guy said, but he went around.

I put an arm around Mussauny’s shoulders. “What’s wrong? Do you want to talk about it?”

“Look.” He held out his Pad.

There was writing on the screen, but it was in some kind of weird alien script that made frequent use of circles and loops. It looked like Greek letters taking a bubble bath. “Could you switch that to English?”

“Oh, yes, I am sorry. Little friend, translate to English.”

In English it was an email message:

Time: 12:18:44 2665 Mar 05
From: TempUser136
Subject: Your Fate

Do not think you have triumphed over me. Soon we will be out of the reach of officious robots and you will suffer the ugly defeat you deserve. Pray to your grass-eater gods, grass-eater, for you are soon to join them.

“This is great!” I said. “The dumb jerk committed a second offense, Mussauny! We can have him deported!”

“If you mean Arrun, how do we prove it is he?”

That stopped me. The return address was “TempUser136,” an account that had probably already been erased.

“Okay, so he’s cagey. That shows he’s scared of the authorities—with good reason. Forget Arrun, Mussauny. He’s just trying to pull your chain. Blow him off.”

Mussauny made a rumbling noise in his throat which I assumed was his peoples’ laughter. “You make me visualize him as an insect I might send tumbling away with a breath of air.”

“That’s his true place in the scheme of things.”

“But consider that we are soon to take the Survival Final. For ten local days we will have to survive unaided on an uninhabited planet. What is to prevent his tracking me down and murdering me, blaming it on some local predator?”

“Mussauny, that is really paranoid. The guy’s just a creep. We have no reason to think he’s completely insane.”

“He is jealous. Jealous of the attention you give me, compared to the little you give him. Jealousy can be a powerful motivator, especially in cultures which practice marriage.”

“Well, how do you know he’s from a place like that?”

“I looked it up. He is Sharchee.”

Sharchee! No way!”

“Why not?”

“I know about the Sharchee. They’re one of Earth’s client species. Sharchee are huge. They’re built like tanks, and they’ve got beaks out to here. Arrun is just a little squirt, and he’s got a flat face.”

“You are thinking of soldier-caste Sharchee. They were bioengineered as living anti-personnel weapons. Arrun is a natural Sharchee.”

I was embarrassed that an alien from God-knows-where knew more about Sharchee than I did, so I tried to change the subject. “So where are you from?”

“Min Rekkaron. I live in the Dunizape Arcology in the Republic of South Wommelpow.”

“You miss it?”

“All the more, since I may never see it again.”

“Still this paranoia about the Survival Final? Mussauny, they drop us about a hundred klicks apart. Arrun won’t have time to find you, let alone kill you.”

“I would not put it past him to find some way to cheat.”

I sighed. “Well, we’re allowed to go in teams of two instead of alone. Want me to come with you?”

“Would you?”

“Sure,” I said loyally. Actually, I had planned doing it alone, but I wasn’t married to the idea.

He placed a hand on my shoulder. “You care for me, don’t you?”

“Well, yeah.”

He brought his face close. I expected a kiss, but instead he rubbed his face against mine, first one side and then the other. The second time I kissed him.

“Forgive me,” he said. “I am out of control. I didn’t mean to do that.”

“I don’t mind a little necking.”

“But I marked you.”

“Marked me?”

“I rubbed my marking glands on you. Under my eyes.” He pointed to one eye, but I couldn’t see anything.

“So what does that mean?”

“It is a ...” He hesitated. “A sexual thing.”

“Yeah? Well that kind of turns me on.”

He grabbed me and did it again, and this time I put my arms around him and hugged him. We started feeling each other up. He ran his hands through my hair. “Your mane is so long and lovely and soft,” he told me. “I want to wrap it all around my naked body.”

After a minute or so of hugging, I broke away. “Now I should apologize. I’m getting you turned on and I don’t want to carry through.”

“Not here, surely. Come to my room! I have a single!”

“No, look, you don’t understand. We should get something straight.” I sighed. Boy, I hate having a conscience. “My religion says you should never sleep with anybody you don’t intend to live with the rest of your life.”

“What religion is that?”

“Christianity. The two become one flesh, our God told us. Matthew 19:5-6, and Paul fleshes out the observation, you should excuse the expression, in First Corinthians 6.”

“I don’t know your scriptures.”

“It’s important to me. I won’t make love to anyone who doesn’t intend to marry me.”

“I will marry you.”

“Are you serious?”

“I am serious. You are likeable, kind, and we share interests. Why not?”

“We can’t have kids.”

“That’s assuming we don’t marry others later, as well.”

“Uh, that’s true, but that’s not what I meant ...”

“Thus, I will marry you.”

“If you’re just telling me this to get me into bed with you, and you take it back later, I’ll kill you.”

He pulled back. “I would never do such a thing.”

I hesitated. This was a romantic dream—fall in love with the tall, dark stranger—but I had to tell him my secret. It’s something any human would have seen right away, but Mussauny obviously hadn’t and neither had Arrun. I told him.

“It does not matter,” he told me.

“You still want me?”

“Why would I not? Please come to my room and let me make love to you.”


“I won’t tell you the name of the planet, although you can look it up afterwards if you’re interested,” Dr. Tsang said. We sat in the drop bay of the starship that was to leave us off—and later pick us up, I hoped. With only ten kilograms of supplies per person allowed, most of us just wore jumpsuits, light backpacks, and sneakers, or the equivalent for non-human feet. Roberta Chin wore sunglasses as well.

“The primary is a main-sequence star, type F7. The planet is less than three billion years old, but its evolution has been a bit faster than on Earth or Yoys-Sharcha or Min Rekarron. There’s already a fully-developed land ecosystem. But there will never be intelligent life here; the primary star’s evolving fast and in fifty million years this planet will be a moist greenhouse.”

“A cosmic tragedy,” Mussauny said.

“To mourn an inevitable death betrays weakness,” Arrun said.

“Roberta and Raúl, Pat and Mussauny, you’ve chosen to go in pairs. A word to the lovebirds: don’t let yourselves get so wrapped up in each other you don’t watch your surroundings. Nothing’s more unromantic than getting eaten by a predator.”

Roberta said, “If stalked, I shall remove my clothes. The sight of my naked beauty will make the predator fall at my feet, whereupon I shall tousle its hair and speak words of encouragement, not unlike Pallas and the Centaur.”

“Its idea of beauty and yours may differ,” Dr. Tsang said. “All right, the ship tells me we’re in stable orbit. You’ve all got a panic button in those little neutrino beacons I passed out earlier—but again, don’t activate before pick-up time unless it’s really an emergency. Crying wolf may result in a failing grade. On the other hand, don’t be heroic if your life is really at stake.”

“I have never heard a more certain recipe for failure,” Arrun said.

“I value your input so much,” Dr. Tsang said. “Here we go. Let’s do this quickly. Chan Li-Wing, you’re out first.”

The Uspri teleportal winked on, showing us a wide, sunlit meadow. I smelled alien pollen. Li-Wing said, “Geronimo, or words to that effect!” and jogged outside.

The scene changed. Now it was darker, a glade, and a bird (?) flew across our line of sight too quick to see any details. “Roberta Chin and Raúl Maria Lopez.”

They went through, then turned to face us. “I’ll bring back a centaur,” Roberta said.

“I’ll bring back Roberta, pregnant,” Raúl said.

“Look, Buster—”

A scene change cut off her response. Now we saw a rocky slope, with forest in the distance. “Pat Cantro and Mussauny of the Village of Slauk.” Mussauny and I got up. I held a pseudogun—a reflector dish with a flash unit for bright lights and a capacitor for loud bangs, to frighten alien predators rather than kill them.

We went through the door. I stumbled in the lower gravity, but stayed on my feet. I turned around, wanting to say something witty to the rest of the class.

There was nothing behind us but landscape.


“This is pleasant,” Mussauny said. “Very pleasant.” He inhaled strongly through his nose, swelling his chest. “It reminds me of the hills of my beautiful home world.”

“I thought you lived in an arcology.”

“I do. We have few cities, and they are widely separated so that the rest of the world is preserved in its natural beauty.”

“Let’s find a place to hole up. Maybe we can find a tree to climb. We’ll need a creek, too, for a water source.”

“A walk will be nice.” He took my hand. We walked downhill. A meadow at the bottom led up to a forest.

The underbrush around the forest was hard to get through, but when we got in among the trees there was a lot less of it. “This is an old-growth forest,” Mussauny said. “It has been a long time since the last forest fire.”

“How do you know there was a fire here?”

“Forests have forest fires.”

“Is that true on all planets?”

“All habitable planets have weather, and weather sometimes includes lightning, especially in a temperate zone like this.”

“You really know your planetology.”

“It is an interest of mine.”

The trees weren’t like Earth trees. They were thinner. They bent in all directions, but the bending only became noticeable very high up. There was a canopy of tree trunks and giant, circular leaves overhead which blocked out much of the sunlight.

Mussauny stopped and looked at a tree trunk. Its waxy surface was mottled brown and red. He put a hand on it. That part of the tree bulged under his hand, making a ring which rippled its way slowly up the trunk. “Very responsive. My guess is that the motion discourages parasites or leaf-eaters.”

“Could be. Um ... so how do we find a creek?”

“Doctor Tsang reviewed that. Water flows downhill. Find a vale or a ravine. Look for thicker growth.”

We walked through the forest. It was a long time before we found a creek. “This is enough water for our purposes,” Mussauny said. “Do you have the pot?”

“Sure.” Because teaming up allowed us twenty kilograms of supplies between us, we’d consulted beforehand on what to carry. “You don’t want water now, do you?”

“No. I just wanted to be sure.”

“Um ... So why boil water if the alien bacteria or whatever can’t give us diseases anyhow?”

“Small living creatures might burrow or otherwise cause irritation. It is best to kill any organisms in drinking water.”

“Yuck. I’m beginning to appreciate nice, recycled, habitat water.”

“Let us find the largest tree and attempt to climb it.”

We looked for a really huge tree, finally deciding on one a meter thick. Mussauny put a hand and a foot on it, and the rippling started. He tried to ride the ripples up, but they slipped away under him and he fell off, only just keeping upright. “Ah. This will not be easy.”

“Let me try.” I tried to get a firm grip, but it was impossible to hang on. “Boy, talk about discouraging leaf-eaters. They couldn’t even get up there.”

“There must be a way.” He shrugged off his backpack and looked through it; took out a wicked-looking knife. “I will try to cut a foothold.”

He set to, but the knife kept slipping off. After a while, he took to making sharp little jabs to throw off bits of bark. Once the thin layer of wax was removed the knife made more of a dent, and he soon had five fairly large cuts.

He scrambled up, holding the knife in his teeth. Then he tried to hold on and cut at the same time. He slipped and fell, knocking us both to the ground.

“Ow! Get off!” I said. The forest floor had hard seed pods and twigs.

“I am sorry.” He rolled off me and stood up. “This will be more difficult than I thought.”

“Visit Earth with me some time,” I said. “We’ve got some nice national parks, and the trees hold still.”

“What technique can we use that we haven’t used so far?” He bent his head and put his fingertips to his neck, which he did when he was thinking. “My knowledge of biology is inadequate. I have never encountered plants like this.”

I looked up at the tree, trying to think. Mussauny liked natural sciences. I was more into engineering and systems design. Any insights there?

Suppose I were designing a mechanical tree, a robot to simulate these weird alien trees? I’d need some sort of cable or pump system to cause the ripples, a power source—“A power source!”

“What? Have you thought of something?”

“Plants have a very low metabolic rate, right? I mean, they move and fight and stuff, but in slow motion.”

“That is true, generally speaking, but there are exceptions.”

“Forget exceptions. No one ever saw a tree dancing in real time. To move takes energy.” I pointed at the trunk disfigured by Mussauny’s knife. “If we keep setting off that reflex, I’ll bet we can exhaust the stupid thing.”

“That is very wise!”

We fell to slapping and kicking the tree trunk. I suppose it looked kind of mean, but plants don’t feel pain, after all.

The tree just kept rippling.

“Maybe that motion does not take much energy,” Mussauny said after a few minutes.

“It must. The thing’s fifty meters tall.”

“It must then be very massive and thus have extensive metabolic stores to draw on. Plus it is receiving energy from a very bright sun as we work.”

I was getting mad. “It’s man versus nature! Watch me! I’m bad! I’ll pummel it into submission!”

Mussauny sighed. “Then I will help.”

We kept it up. I was getting tired.

“The ripples ... are slower,” I said.

“Yes. Yes. I think they are.” He said to me. “Keep it up. I will try to climb now.”

He backed off. I kept kicking the tree until he rushed it. I stepped back as he climbed. He made it up five meters, then slipped. I gasped, but he grabbed the tree hard and managed to stop himself. “I ... will climb ...”

He climbed some more. The tree was still rippling, though slowly.

“You’re doing great!” I said. “Another ten, twenty meters and you’ll be into the branches!”

He looked down at me. His sudden stillness made the tree stopped rippling. He gulped.


“Heights,” he said. “I ... I do not like being up this high ...”

“You can do it, man! You’re almost there!”

“Please forgive me ... I cannot continue.” He started back down. The rippling started again. He lost his hold and fell off with a shriek.

I rushed up to him. “Mussauny! Are you all right!”

He looked up at me. “My hands are hurt, but not seriously.” He looked away. “I am not very admirable, am I?”

“I thought you were wonderful.” I gave him a hug and pressed tight.

“Stop. You are kind and loving, but we are not safe yet from hypothetical predators. Perhaps at night—”

He started and I let go. He was looking up. “Yes! Night! At night the leaves will no longer be absorbing sunlight! And in the relative dark the heights will not look so threatening!”

“You won’t be able to see the tree trunk.”

“Evening, then. A major reduction in sunlight may be enough to weaken the tree.” He hugged me again. “We will defeat it yet.”

“Yeah. And when I get you up in that tree ...”


In a few days we had a routine. We had one meal of our limited ration supply in the morning, and drank lots of water. We had another meal in late afternoon. In the evening we beat the tree and then climbed up it to a place where three branches stuck out from one large node. We could sleep there, but making love wedged into a couple of tree branches turned out to be uncomfortable. We got our love-making in during the day.

We talked endlessly. Mussauny told me about his home and I told him about mine. His “family"—apparently the same thing as his “village"—consisted of 196 mothers and their mates and children. They lived in a big complex of rooms on level 77 of his home arcology, a neighborhood called Doozny Duwowp Mun Rekta. “That means cakes to eat in the morning.

“Huh? What does that mean?”

“An old cultural reference. In the ethnic group of most of my parents, the aristocracy was once distinguished by being served tiny cakes in the morning—one cake from each ... there is no word in English. Vassal or servant might be close.”

“So you’re of noble blood?”

“Oh, no! After the Spring Revolution titles of nobility were abolished.”

“What year was that?”

“I looked it up once but I have forgotten. You must remember that our civilization is very old—hundreds of millions of years. We usually use only four or five digits for the current year.”

“Yikes. So how come people remember that bit about the cakes at all?”

“Someone suggested it after a historical special on VV, and a majority voted for it.”

I told him about life on L-4, the dorms for kids and how much kids looked forward to graduating school and being assigned their own apartment. “We always used to say, He laid his advisor. Or she did.”

“What does that mean?”

“Just a dumb joke. The idea was that if you put out for your advisor they’d get you an apartment a year early.”

“Very amusing. Does it work?”

“No. No one would make it with their advisor just to get an apartment.”

“They are too chaste?”

“Heck, no. But it wouldn’t work. The room-assignment programs have to approve room recommendations, and you can’t bribe a program.”


The morning of the sixth day came. I was relieving myself in the creek—downstream from where we got our drinking water, of course. I cleaned up as best I could using only my hand and creek water, then washed up. Tree wax made a crummy substitute for soap, but it was better than nothing. I really missed civilized bathrooms.

When I stood up, I saw something cross the creek upstream. It was big, and headed for our camp. Mussauny was there.

I looked around, but couldn’t see my pseudogun. I panicked until I spotted it, then grabbed it and ran toward camp.

Our backpacks were laid out on the ground. Mussauny had unwrapped a food bar for each of us. He was standing. Arrun faced him. “You!” I said.

He gave me a glance. “I will deal with you once I have defeated your mate. Till then, human female, wait and watch.”

“How did you find us?” Mussauny asked calmly.

“I used a neutrino tracer. They are light enough. I took a chance that you were the nearest double signal—a good bet, it was a fifty percent probability—and obviously I was right.”

“What will you do? Have you secreted a weapon in your supplies, as well? Will you murder me to make some insane point about your superiority?”

“And get indicted for murder after we are picked up? I am not stupid. I will not mind being deported at pick-up so long as I first have the chance to give you the beating you so richly deserve, and then take your mate from you.”

“Fat chance, asshole!” I said. “You think I’d let you even touch me? Or were you planning to rape me? I have news for you, they won’t just deport you for that, they give you personality overlay.”

“And how will you prove it was not consenting? There is no surveillance here.”

“Look at me, sweetheart.”

He did. Moron. I raised the pseudogun and flashed him right in the eyes. “Run, Mussauny!” I shouted.

Mussauny had been looking the wrong way. He stood there blinking. I ran up and took his hand. “Come on!”

“We can’t leave our food!”

“Yes we can! Nobody ever starved to death in four days!” We ran. In a minute we heard Arrun crashing through the forest behind us. He caught up to us, grabbed my shoulder and threw me to the ground. The pseudogun spun away and Arrun kicked it off into the distance.

Mussauny stopped when I fell. “Leave Pat alone!”

“Oh, that’s a really effective defense.” Arrun went to Mussauny and slapped him twice. Mussauny merely put up his forearms. Arrun kept poking and slapping him. “Come on, fight! You’re scared to, aren’t you! Because you’re a grass-eater!”

“My remote ancestors were grazers. I am an omnivore.”

I got to my feet, crying, afraid, and ashamed of myself for it. “You evil son of a bitch!”

Arrun looked at me and opened his mouth, which I guess was a Sharchee grin. “Be grateful. I’m giving you what my people call chatch ounira, a lesson in real life.”

“Really?” Mussauny said.

“A real survivor has the instincts of a predator. Genes make an effective survivor, not culture, not discipline learned from mystics, and I’ll prove it! Fight, damn you! Fight!”

“I won’t fight you, and I won’t acknowledge your pseudoscience babbling as valid.”

“You will fight, and you will lose, because I’m the better man.”

Mussauny laughed. Arrun, enraged, started hitting and kicking him. Mussauny went on laughing until Arrun managed to slap a forearm away and land a really solid blow on his chest. Mussauny yelped.

I charged Arrun and tried to pull him off. He turned and backhanded me across the face. “How dare you. How dare you!” He slapped me again and I retreated, but he came with me, landing slap after slap despite my ineffectual attempts to block.

Mussauny roared, a sound I’d never heard before. Arrun turned back just in time to catch Mussauny’s head-butt in the stomach. The blow lifted him into the air. He thudded back against a tree trunk and sprawled on the ground. Mussauny leaped on top of him. They rolled back and forth, punching and screaming at each other.

I ran back to camp and triggered my beacon.


It was only minutes before a door opened in the sky. Bird-sized tracking robots poured out, clicking and flashing and buzzing back and forth overhead. Then another door opened. Out came two mobile tactical units, spherical robots like the police robot we’d seen earlier.

“What is the emergency?” one asked. “Please direct us to anyone in need of protection or medical attention.”

I led them back to the fight scene. Mussauny sat on Arrun, who wasn’t moving. They had to load Arrun onto a stretcher. As they carried him on board he seemed to wake up. He grinned at me again.

“Still genes,” he said thickly. “He only fought when his genes took over. The most basic instinct there is—to fight to protect the female!”

“I’m male,” I told him. the end

Barton Paul Levenson is the author of over sixty short stories, poems, and essays. He is a two-time winner of the Parsec Short Story Contest. His fiction has appeared in “Electric Spec,” “Daily Science Fiction,” “Raygun Revival” and other publications.


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