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




Worms of Titan

By Brian Biswas

TITAN IS A DARK PLACE, its surface one-tenth as bright as Earth. The daytime temperature is about ninety-eight kelvins. Titan’s atmosphere is composed primarily of nitrogen (ninety-seven percent) and methane (two percent), with the remainder consisting of trace amounts of noxious elements such as hydrogen cyanide. A forbidding world, certainly, but one teeming with organic compounds, many deep within lakes that cover much of the surface, and which make human exploration difficult. It was a welcome surprise, then, when in the spring of 2186 the first rovers discovered those same compounds near the superstratum of Titan’s rocky regions.

The Titan Life Project, as it was known on Earth, was the brainchild of Dr. Raul Ravencroft. Raul was a brilliant and ambitious man in his early fifties, with a Ph.D. in astrogeology from Caltech. He had short, curly black hair, sparkly light-brown eyes, and a slightly hooked nose. A tall, imposing man with a booming baritone voice, he walked with a limp, the result of a motorcycle accident when he was nineteen.

A decade of planning ensued, and after an uneventful year-long journey, a team of three dozen scientists and engineers landed on that mysterious world. Most of Titan was covered with methane lakes, but within thirty degrees of the equator, where Base Alpha was located, it was relatively dry. The base had been prepared by the usual robot swarm. Three facilities were constructed: living quarters, science labs, and engineering—nearly a square kilometer of habitable space enclosed in a pressurized bubble. It utilized technology similar to that employed in the construction of bases on Mars and Europa.

Six months later, the crew of Hovercraft TRI-2 was traveling from Base Alpha to the Adiri Plateau, a bright feature just west of a larger dark region known as Shangri-La. It was a forty-five minute trip. There had been a report the previous afternoon of an important discovery from drilling station Gamma-24. Or rather, of a discovery; its importance would be for the crew to determine.

The terrain was flat and littered with boulders and pebbles. There were hills in the distance, but because of the constant methane fog they were rarely visible. There were few craters, no mountains to speak of.

Ken Swift was at the controls. Almost two meters tall, thin as a reed, with a mop of red hair, Ken hailed from the Europa colony. There he had managed a fleet of hovercraft and had serviced the robots that helped run the colony. He was twenty-eight years old, unmarried.

Martha Bell was gazing out a porthole at the harsh landscape as they rumbled by. It never ceased to amaze her: hydrocarbon dunes formed by gentle easterly winds, and rocks composed of frozen methane and water ice. Martha was in her mid-thirties, a frosty woman, with shoulder-length dark-brown hair and hazel eyes. She’d earned a Ph.D. in astronomy from Stanford a decade before and later taught in the physics department at UC Berkeley. Bell was an expert—the expert—on the moons of the outer solar system.

Jacob Fry was in the rear of the craft, reading over the latest data sent back by the drilling station. Jacob was a geologist specializing in alluvial sedimentation, and had done field work on Europa. Before that he had served on Mars, working with Dr. Ravencroft on what became known as the Ravencroft Drilling Technique: a novel way of quickly extracting and analyzing soil samples. Jacob’s discovery of underground rivers in the north polar region had established his name in scientific circles. It was hoped that Martian microbes inhabited the rivers, but none were ever discovered. He was in his early forties, divorced, with a son and daughter back on Earth.

“Think they’ll find anything this time?” It was Martha. “Ravencroft seemed pretty excited ...”

“Doubt it,” Ken replied. “Probably just another false alarm. How many have there been?”

“A couple dozen,” Martha replied with a frown.

Eighteen drilling stations were in operation, seventeen in Shangri-La and one in Adiri (another half-dozen were planned for that region). Each robotic drill plumbed to a depth of one meter and retrieved six cubic centimeters of substrata. This was transferred to a suite of three machines: the mass spectrometer, the subsurface mass analyzer, and the gas chromatograph. A sample was examined and the results transmitted to Base Alpha every two hours. Similar drilling stations had been in operation on Mars and Europa for years. The brainchild of Dr. Ravencroft, it revolutionized planetary exploration. The drilling stations had been in operation for over six months and had uncovered nothing but sludge.

Gamma-24, the sole drilling station in Adiri, lay sixty kilometers east of Base Alpha. It was situated near one of several ponds in the area. The sludge that had been extracted contained the usual assortment of minerals and organic material, but no signs of life. Yet something had triggered an alarm.

“I’d say,” Jacob broke in, pulling himself away from a video screen, “that Ravencroft needs to rework his experiment. Develop equipment that can drill down a hundred meters. A single meter won’t do. Seismic experiments indicate the substrata changes dramatically at the lower levels.” He scratched the side of his nose and sniffed. “What do we have so far? We’ve discovered a tantalizing soup of organic compounds. But they could have been seeded by asteroid impacts or even ejecta from Saturn’s rings. There’s nothing definitive as far as life is concerned. Only one logical conclusion: we’ve got to probe deeper. Much deeper.”

“Ravencroft doesn’t think so,” Ken said. “He’s convinced conditions for life are amenable near the surface, at least for complex life forms, which, he says, is all NASA cares about. Anything less than their discovery would mean failure in his eyes.”

“That’s absurd,” Martha said.

“Nevertheless, that’s what he believes. If you ask me, he’s been acting erratically lately. Perhaps the pressure is getting to him. Or maybe it’s a result of the space out here.” Ken meant it as a joke, but nobody laughed.

“Suit up,” Jacob said. “We’re almost there.”

The Adiri Plateau was a hilly area with methane rivers that ran down to a central plain covered with pebbles. Its hills were composed mainly of dense water ice. They teemed with organic compounds which rained down from Titan’s thick atmosphere. The rain-filled ponds—it was hoped—had sparked some form of life.

That was Dr. Ravencroft’s theory, anyway.

They were approaching Gamma-24 when the storm hit. Visibility dropped to zero in a matter of seconds. They saw swirling colors of pink, red, and dark brown, heard particles raining down on the hovercraft. Even the craft’s headlamps were unable to penetrate the thick methane fog. Autopilot took over and brought them in the rest of the way.

Titan’s drilling stations, like those on Mars and Europa, were encased in pressurized bubbles. They protected the labs and provided life support for maintenance visits. When the hovercraft arrived, the storm had begun to subside and the crew entered the station without incident.

But then, as is so often the case on Titan, the weather proved to be mercurial once again. They removed their helmets just in time to hear a ferocious clap of thunder. Three more claps followed in quick succession, and a methane rain erupted from blackened skies. They gazed out a window at the scene before them. Streaks of lightning lit up the rock-strewn landscape. They saw a rain so thick it was like a red curtain descending. But because of Titan’s thick atmosphere and low gravity, the raindrops fell at the speed snowflakes fall on Earth.


A low whistle. “Look at this!”

It was Martha, pointing at the sludge bucket.

Ken and Jacob were beside her in a flash, just in time to see six wormlike organisms slithering out of sight into the sludge.

To say they were shocked was an understatement. The area had been extensively analyzed and nothing indicated the existence of multicellular life, only the possibility of methane-based microbes.

Yet there it was. Life. Jacob took out a small metal rod from a tool case and tapped the sludge bucket. Nothing. He tapped the pebbles and subsoil. Again, nothing. He made a depression in the soil, and stirred. A moment later one of the organisms emerged. It was thirty centimeters long, jet black. A second creature poked through. This one was the same length, but lighter in color.

Martha radioed Base Alpha. They were told to seal the bucket and return with it the next day, after the storm had passed.


“Where did they come from?” It was Fred Bouche, chief biologist. Fred was a short, heavyset man with a jaw like a block of granite. “Couldn’t have been a drilling sample. The worms are too damn big.”

“Gamma-24 is located at the edge of Blackwater Pond,” Martha said. “Maybe they live in the pond?”

“Water samples show no evidence of life. No organic compounds. Nothing. Besides, if they came from the pond, how did they get into the sealed station?”

The scientists were in Base Alpha’s main analysis lab, one of the largest rooms in the compound. It was packed with equipment: spectrometers, imagers, microscopes, computers, and several gene analyzers. Fred was hovering over an analyzer, feeding it data about the worms’ structure.

“Give us a few hours and we’ll know more,” he said.

Ken strode into the room, carrying a tablet computer. “Take a look at this,” he said, putting it down on a desk.

Martha glanced over his shoulder. “More worms,” she sighed. “Taking pictures of our new friends?”

He shook his head. “Planaria.”


“Didn’t you notice? The worms look like Earth planaria. Much larger, true, but the overall structure is the same. Slender bodies. Triangular heads with two eye spots. A central white striation running the length of the body.”

“That would be quite a coincidence,” Martha said with a touch of sarcasm.

“Right. It was simply an observation.”

“An interesting observation.” It was Fred Bouche, turning to face them. He rubbed his chin and added, “Planarians are among the earliest representatives of the phylum Platyhelminthes and have been around for millions of years.” He looked over at one of the microscopes. “What do you think you get if you cut a planaria in two?”

“A dead planaria?” Ken chuckled.

“Two living planaria. Two identical living planaria. They are essentially immortal, being composed primarily of pluripotent stem cells. As such, they have existed virtually unchanged for all that time. They are nearly impossible to kill and have been found in every habitat on Earth, from the polar caps to the equator. It’s possible they migrated from Earth after a period of meteoric bombardment. Of course, gene analysis will give us a conclusive answer.”


When Martha walked into Fred’s lab several hours later, he was staring at a computer screen with a nervous frown.

“Martha,” Fred said, looking up from the screen. “Boy, am I glad to see you ...”

“That doesn’t sound good.”

“Those worms ...”

“Titanian organisms, right?”

Fred groaned. “Hardly. Ken’s planaria. Turns out they don’t just look like Earth planaria. They are Earth planaria.”

Martha gasped.

“I’ve run the data through the analyzer twice with the same results. Down to the last gene these creatures are identical to Schmidtea mediterranea, a species of planaria used in genomic research.”

“That can’t be. They’re larger than common planaria, for one thing.”

“That’s what confused me. At first. They’ve been genetically altered to resemble an extraterrestrial species.”

“You mean they were planted? How is that possible?”

Fred explained. “Normally, a genetically altered organism is easily detected by running its genomic structure through a gene analyzer and comparing it against a database of known gene sequences. Subtle variations from a known sequence are detected by the analyzer with near one hundred percent accuracy. The Optima database we use lists literary millions of sequences. And, in fact, the first time I ran our organism’s sequence through the analyzer it found no variations from any known sequences, yet no matches either. In other words, it looked like a completely new organism. The Schmidtea mediterranea genome was related, true, but even so there were significant structural differences in the genetic code. But then I noticed something odd. One of the differences reported was the sequence GATTTAGCAA and the related sequence GAUUUABCAA, where uracil, a protein that replaces thymine in RNA, appears in the DNA sequence. RNA is responsible for the expression of genes, not the structure itself.

“So when I programmed the analyzer to substitute uracil for thymine in those sequences, the Titan organism’s genome was identified as a variant of Schmidtea mediterranea. In other words, whoever did this was able to convert some of the organisms’ DNA into RNA and thus alter not the genes themselves, but the gene’s expression. The result: larger than life but otherwise quite ordinary planaria. Mutants, basically. The work of Man.”

Martha uttered a low whistle.

“I was lucky. If I hadn’t run the data through the analyzer a second time, I never would have noticed the match. But I did. And that means someone else’s luck has just run out.”

“Who would have the knowledge to do this?”

Fred took a deep breath. “I would, of course. And I can think of several people on Earth.” He bit his lip, his face reddening. “Oh, and there’s one other person.”


“Dr. Ravencroft.”

“Ravencroft? That’s crazy, Fred. Surely you’re not implying the man would rig his own experiment?”

“Why not? Maybe because it is his experiment. He’s spent years on this mission. Having found nothing, he needs to give it the illusion of success. I’m sure you’re aware of the latest reports from Earth. This is the most expensive mission in the history of the space program. There’s talk of budgetary cuts. Severe cuts. Heck—there’s talk of scrapping the entire mission!”

Martha shrugged. “I’ve been with NASA ten years. I can’t recall a time when that wasn’t the case.”

“I’m afraid it might really be true this time.”

“Besides,” Martha said after a short pause, “aren’t you jumping the gun? There’s no proof Ravencroft did anything.”

“None at all.”

“What to do?”

“Nothing,” Fred said, “but wait.”

“And aren’t you forgetting one other thing? The worms. What’s to be done about them?”

“My report will show exactly what I’ve found. And we take it to Ravencroft. Honestly, Martha, I don’t know who is behind this, but one thing I do know: those worms are no more native to this place than you or I.”


“I see.” It was Dr. Ravencroft. He was seated at his office desk, gazing at Martha and Fred who sat across from him, looking grim. “I see—but I don’t understand. Who would do such a thing—and why? Surely they’d realize any such doctoring would eventually be discovered.”

“Doesn’t make sense to us, either,” Martha said. “Unless ...”

Dr. Ravencroft was stone-faced. “Unless what?”

“You can’t deny that, until now, we’ve found nothing on Titan,” Fred said, brusquely. “The pressure to produce positive results must be immense.”

Dr. Ravencroft scowled. “If either of you believe I’d succumb to such pressure ... I urge you to speak plainly!”

“No,” Fred replied. “We don’t believe it. But it does seem like a logical explanation. And that means NASA is likely to believe it. And that would spell the end of this mission and of the search for life on the outer worlds for some time to come.”

“And we can’t have that,” Martha interjected. Her hazel eyes were burning brightly.

Dr. Ravencroft sighed. “I agree with you completely,” he said. “And that’s why we must keep this to ourselves.” He eyed them closely. “Agreed?”

Martha looked at him uneasily. “Yes,” she said. “That’s the best course.”


The official report, as relayed to Earth, said the warning on drilling station Gamma-24 was due to a computer malfunction: a cooling unit had begun to fail intermittently. The problem was corrected when a new unit was swapped in. There was no mention of organisms, extraterrestrial or otherwise. As far as NASA was concerned, the only thing found during six months of testing were traces of organic compounds. That wasn’t what they wanted to hear, after literally thousands of soil samples had been analyzed, but it was preferable to learning that the entire experiment may have been rigged.

Nothing out of the ordinary happened for the next six weeks, at least as far as the search for life was concerned. There was, however, an incident involving several members of the team, including Dr. Ravencroft, that nearly ended in tragedy. It occurred when they were engaged in field work inside Crater Miranda, which was located on the southern edge of Shangri-La, about 150 kilometers from Base Alpha. The scientists were surveying the area, having flown out in a hovercraft earlier that morning.

The sky was salmon-pink and dotted with thick, gray clouds composed of methane and cyanide gas. The nearby terrain was smooth, but farther away there were narrow gullies, like furrows in a farmer’s field. The team had encountered such depressions before; in fact, they were ubiquitous in the Shangri-La region. They were composed of frozen methane nodules and water ice mixed with sedimentary pebbles. It was believed that the gullies had been formed by rivers of methane which flowed across the plain, depositing the building blocks of life.

Titan’s atmosphere was thick and its gravity low, resulting in a surface pressure only one-and-a-half times that of Earth. In fact, pressurized suits weren’t needed to compensate for the moon’s atmospheric pressure; instead, they offered protection from the cold and Titan’s poisonous atmosphere. Because of the low illumination, surface features were obscured; it was as if one were looking at the landscape through fogged lenses of odd curvature. And now, as the scientists worked inside the crater with its rim rising around them, it all led to a surreal, claustrophobic feeling that was quite disorienting.

“Dr. Ravencroft. You okay?” It was Paul Mercer, a member of the biology team. He had noticed the chief scientist gazing about for what seemed an inordinately long time.

Just at that moment Dr. Ravencroft swooned and crumpled to the ground.

He was hurriedly brought back aboard the hovercraft. His helmet was removed and oxygen administered. His face was ashen, but he quickly revived.

A hole the size of a pin was discovered in his spacesuit the next day back at Base Alpha. It might have been caused by high-velocity dust particles which were known to rain down during the occasional dust storm. The suits were checked before every excursion, but that didn’t mean a breach might not go undetected.

Dr. Ravencroft was placed under observation in the medical wing for twenty-four hours. He complained once or twice of feeling light-headed and of an unsettled stomach. The medical technician said that was normal, the result of having succumbed to Titan’s noxious gases, however briefly.

Even so, his stay was extended another twenty-four hours, just to be certain he was fully recovered. During that period, he was visited by everyone on Base Alpha, most notably Fred Bouche who spent hours at his side.

He felt responsible, Fred told the med tech when the man came through later to check up on the patient. Raul had been under immense pressure and Fred’s report only made things worse. If the chief scientist hadn’t been so preoccupied, perhaps he would have spotted the compromised spacesuit. As it was, the mission very nearly ended right then and there. Without Dr. Ravencroft’s leadership, and with little to show after months of work, NASA would have had no choice but to bring back the remaining members of the expedition.

On the morning of the second day, however, Dr. Ravencroft was pronounced recovered and he was released.


Two days later, in the early morning hours, an alarm was triggered on drilling station Gamma-32 in the central Adiri plain.

Once again Martha, Ken, and Jacob suited up and boarded the hovercraft. The journey to Gamma-32 was uneventful. The light was dim as usual, not much brighter than Earth under a full moon, but it was that rarest of Titanian days when the clouds parted to reveal a dull red sky with streaks of pink and orange. The extra visibility allowed them to see the hills of Adiri in the distance. Titan’s misty veil having lifted, giant Saturn loomed softly overhead, filling nearly a third of the sky. It was a spectacular sight.

At about the halfway point a call came in from Base Alpha. It was Jen Rogers in Communications. “Greetings, folks,” she said cheerfully. “Looks like you’re headed to the right place. Today’s report from Gamma-32 just came in. Microbial life. It’s been detected.”

“On Gamma-32?” It was Martha.

“No doubt about it. According to the data, methane-based multicellular life forms. And something else, though we’re not sure what.”

Ken and Jacob whooped and hollered. Martha was more subdued. “Could be more of those fake worms,” she said.

And that’s what they found when they entered the airlock of Gamma-32, thirty minutes later. Hundreds of organisms slithering across the floor and climbing the walls, leaving green, sticky slime in their wake. They looked like the organisms on Gamma-24. But they were much larger. Up to a meter in length. And then there was that residue ...

“These things weren’t extracted during the drilling process,” Martha said. “And they definitely aren’t Earth planaria.”

Jacob grimaced. “If someone’s playing a trick on us, they have an odd sense of humor.”

“This is no trick,” Ken said. “These things are real. Some mutant life form. Fred is going to want one to examine.”

“How do you propose we—” Martha began, but stopped short when she heard a sound from an adjacent room. The main lab.

They entered cautiously, expecting to find more of the worms slithering about. There were none. They did see several sludge bucketsworms, all empty, and, near the front of the room, a subsoil analyzer and two computer stations.

Unfortunately that wasn’t all they found.

A body. A human body, slumped over a computer terminal, about ten meters away. There was a fist-sized hole in the back of the spacesuit. Blasted with a laser gun. The fabric was blackened and blood oozed from the wound.

Martha uttered a cry and rushed towards the body.

From the shadows in the back of the room, Fred Bouche emerged with his laser weapon drawn. Both Jacob and Ken saw the movement and wheeled around. Martha was fixated on the body and did not notice. Fred glared at Jacob and Ken with icy eyes, then trained his weapon on Martha.

Jacob cried out, “Bouche, put that weapon down!”

Hearing Jacob’s words, Martha tumbled to the floor. Fred fired but missed, the laser beam hitting one of the drilling station’s generators which exploded in a shower of sparks and debris.

“Game’s up, Bouche,” Jacob said. “We know what’s going on between you and Ravencroft.”

In response, Bouche aimed his weapon at the opposite wall and fired. The beam hit the wall, which exploded, raining debris throughout the room and fracturing a section of an embedded window. How many more blasts could the structure take before Titan’s poisonous atmosphere leaked in, overcoming them all?

“Don’t be a fool,” Jacob said.

Bouche laughed and pointed the gun at the window. “One more shot should do it,” he said. His face was red with rage.

“Fred, good God, no!” Jacob cried. “Don’t throw away your life like this.”

A moment of hesitation from Bouche was just enough.

Taking advantage of the chaos, Ken had maneuvered off to the side and along the wall, and now he lunged forward, tackling Bouche and pinning him to the floor.

Bouche dropped the weapon and burst into tears.

“Got him!” Ken cried to Martha. She picked herself up off the floor and quickly reached the terminal, turned the body over and saw the turgid face of Dr. Raul Ravencroft, his features frozen in the agony of death. “Raul?” she said in disbelief. “Oh, my God ...”

Jacob rushed over, saw the body, and recoiled in horror. “Perhaps not,” he stammered. “Look at his eyes ... No, not eyes. Eye-spots. Planarian ocelli.”

Martha’s own eyes opened wide in disbelief. There was a gaping hole in Ravencroft’s chest, and the cavity was swarming with baby planaria. “What happened to him?” she gasped. “And his face ...” She forced herself to look away.

“Jacob! Martha! Over here.” It was Ken. “What in the world is this?”

Jacob slung the dead scientist’s body over his shoulder. He and Martha made their way across the lab to where Ken was kneeling.

“Ravencroft’s been murdered,” Martha told the astonished technician. “Laser bolt through the chest.”

Jacob pointed. “Bouche?”

“Or what’s left of him,” Ken replied. “Look at that ...”

It was a planaria, clinging to the side of Fred Bouche’s neck. Slimy, acidic, hypnotically undulating. And in the scientist’s countenance, there was an eerie alien expression. Probing. Questioning. And undoubtedly intelligent.

Martha screamed.

Another explosion. This time from outside the lab.

“Let’s get out of here!” It was Jacob. “Life support’s been breached. The whole place is on fire!”

They carried the limp body of Raul Ravencroft and a weeping Fred Bouche to the hovercraft. En route to Base Alpha, Martha radioed the news. “One dead,” she told a startled Jen Rogers. “One ... status unknown.”


The alien organism had not attached itself to Bouche, as they had assumed. Rather, it had grown from within. The appendage was surgically removed and placed in a specimen dish for study. It certainly looked like a Titanian planaria. Only in miniature. About ten centimeters long, two centimeters wide. And covered in translucent greenish slime. A culture was taken and sent off to the lab for analysis.

But everyone knew what must have happened.

“Infected by the organisms he studied,” said the doctor, Herbert Richter, when the results came back. “The only questions are where and when it occurred. And how it was able to infect the host body.”

Answers that would need to come from Fred Bouche.

When Bouche recovered from surgery, he confessed to the planting of evidence and the murder of the Chief Mission Scientist.

“They made me do it,” he said to Sally Gimble, acting Base Commander. Gimble was forty-six years old, a veteran of colonies on the moon and Mars. Well-respected. And wicked-smart.


“The worms.”

She eyed him closely, “Fred, how did you get infected?”

“Some type of alien osmosis, I guess.” Bouche shrugged. “We followed proper lab procedures. Must be something we don’t understand.” His voice was harsh and raspy. It was as if he was forcing out the words.

Gimble paused. There was no easy way to say this. “Tissue samples show planarian DNA throughout your system ...”


“Are they controlling you now?”

“I don’t know. I think so. They must be.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I feel like I’m underwater. In some deep, dark Titanian lake.”

Richter broke in, “He’s fighting something, Sally. I don’t know how much of this we can trust—if anything.”

“Fred ...” Her tone was sharp.


“What did they have you do?”

His reply was immediate. And insistent. “They made me sabotage the DNA Analyzer results. And then announce I’d discovered the altered data. They want our mission to fail. They want us to leave.” Bouche sighed. “There was no malfeasance. On my part. Or Ravencroft’s.”

“Why not simply attack us?”

“Better to lead us to believe there was no life on Titan. Then we would move on. Isn’t that what you would have done?”

Gimble turned to Richter and said, “Whether it’s intelligence or not is open to question, but it does make sense. In a twisted sort of way.”

“When Ravencroft discovered what I had done, he followed me out to Gamma-32,” Bouche continued. “He confronted me. Wanted to know what the hell I thought I was doing. He’d been infected, too, but not to the degree I had. Not yet, anyway. I don’t think he realized, yet, what was happening. It was only a matter of time, though, and then ...” His voice trailed off.

Moments later he was fast asleep.


“Ever hear of epigenetics?” Jacob asked of a bewildered Ken and Martha the next evening as they were discussing events in the base lounge.

Neither responded readily.

“The modification of the genetic make-up of a species,” Jacob continued. “Bouche was right about the altered planarian structure, but wrong about what caused it. On Earth, epigenetic factors cause slight alterations in the expression of the genetic code. On Titan, apparently their effect is greatly magnified. We’re dealing with alien life forms far more advanced than what anyone thought we’d encounter.”

Martha nodded. “So it’s akin to the old nature/nurture controversy of the twentieth-century?”

“Updated for the twenty-first century. Epigenetic factors don’t change the DNA structure, they change how the structure is read: the epigenome. And it’s more complex than DNA. A gene sequence is basically fixed throughout life; epigenetic markers differ in tissue types and vary over time.”

“Possibly a result of environmental factors,” Ken interjected. “Which explains ...”

“Precisely. Think of the epi as software, the DNA as hardware. Titanian planaria have the same DNA sequence as the Earth variety, but, because of vastly different environmental conditions, the expression of the sequence is far different. It’s still odd, though—how the exact same genetic structure could evolve across the span of space ...”

“It’s something we can never really predict or account for,” Martha said. She took a deep breath. “I wonder if Raul knew what was happening to him? The horror he must have felt.”

“We’re left with a problem,” Ken said a moment later. “What happens to Bouche? We’re a billion kilometers from Earth. Our medical facilities weren’t setup to handle anything like this. And we certainly can’t risk letting the infection spread ...”

Jacob frowned. “Nothing we can do. Bouche must be kept in isolation. We can only assume that the planaria will slowly destroy him—or drive him mad—but maybe not. With life as strange as this, who knows what might happen next.” He turned slowly from Martha to Ken, saw worry etched in their faces. “Look. Bouche knew the risks of this mission like the rest of us. If anyone can pull him through this, though, it’s Richter.”

They nodded grimly.

Sadly, it was not to be. Fred Bouche died two weeks later, writhing in agony, a mass of pulpy planarian flesh. The isolation chamber was promptly irradiated, destroying any alien organisms that remained.

The mood on Base Alpha was somber, as it was back at NASA when news of Fred’s death was received. With the loss of two top scientists, a shadow had been cast over the entire mission. A review of the mission was undertaken back on Earth, as protocol demanded, but which was unsettling to the research team nevertheless, and when word came back from NASA, it was met with sighs of relief: There would be no letup. The work must go on.

“Who would have imagined one of the most ancient Earth species would be waiting to greet mankind in the far reaches of the solar system?” Jacob posed to Ken and Martha shortly thereafter. They were hard at work in Base Alpha’s main lab, Jacob firing up the DNA analyzer to examine samples Ken had just brought in from Gamma-16.

Martha nodded. “A sobering thought.” END

Brian Biswas is listed in the Speculative Fiction Database. His story, “A Betrayal,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has appeared in “Aoife’s Kiss” and “Bewildering Stories.” His previous story for “Perihelion” was in the 12-JAN-2015 issue.


winchester 11/16



crazy liddy 9/16