Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Breeding Season
by Sean Mulroy

Personal Artifacts Lost
by Marilyn K. Martin

Lover’s Moon
by Ronald D. Ferguson

When it Comes Around
by Auston Habershaw

by Nolan Edrik

Shuffleboard on the Hubble Deck
by Iain Ishbel

This Perilous Brink
by JT Gill

Only a Signal Shown
by L.E. Buis

Shorter Stories

Thunder Lizard
by William Suboski

Blue Harvest
by Andrew James Woodyard

Heat of the Night
by Gareth D. Jones


From Oshkosh to Tomorrow
by Joyce Frohn

A Primer on Quantum Field Theory
by Eric M. Jones



Comic Strips




Only a Signal Shown

By L.E. Buis

CARTER HAIG OPENED HIS EYES as the fab hood retracted above him with a faint whine. A readout on the pod flashed the date and time.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

The cargo bay was empty. The lights were dim. The deck was stark and bare, occupied only by the dark rows of empty pods connected with lines of supply tubing to nutrient tanks along the bulkheads. The tanks made up most of the ship’s cargo. Except for the pod where he lay, the equipment was dead, shut down and mothballed until it would be needed.

The vessel’s AI answered him.

“We are approaching a ship,” said TJ.

Her voice echoed faintly in the empty chamber.

“A ship?” said Haig.

“An alien ship,” said TJ.

“You’re sure?” he asked.

“I am 99.9 percent certain.”

Haig closed his eyes. “How far away?” he asked.

His voice sounded rusty and unused, mainly because it was. The body was only a few hours old. It felt weak, as if his muscles had atrophied from nonuse. But that wasn’t right. His real body had been dead for a hundred years now—along with his brain. The fabrication was all handled from stored DNA codes, and this new body was equipped with a digital copy of his stored consciousness. He had wondered how it would feel. It felt like himself, but just now he didn’t have time to analyze that in detail.

“About one AU and closing,” said TJ. “I felt the need for persons of authority. Because you are the Project Manager, I have fabricated you.”

Haig lifted one hand and rubbed it over his eyes, eased out a breath. He needed to see if he could sit up. TJ was rushing things, he knew. Normally fabricated crew got a while to sleep it off.

“Help me out here,” he said. “Who else have you fabricated?”

“A-214 and R-384,” said TJ.


“Luis Santiago and Manda Stark.”

“They know about the alien ship?”

“They are in disagreement,” said TJ. “The points seem unresolvable.”

“Oh, Christ,” he said.

“Should I initiate fabrication of anyone else?”

Santiago was in charge of Security and Stark was head of Engineering. TJ must have been pretty concerned that there was an argument. Tiamat was a colony ship, and her resources had to last over a four-hundred-year voyage. To conserve, she normally ran with zero crew, but she did have the option to fabricate humans to make repairs and handle trouble. But then, in some cases, the crew could turn out to be the trouble. Fabricating more people wasn’t likely to help.

“No,” he said. “We’ll deal with it.”

That said, Haig reached for the grab bars and pulled up to a sitting position. He pushed the switch that lowered the side rails, swung his legs out of the pod. He felt a quick surge of dizziness, doubled over until he had control of it. Then he pushed up to a standing position. The pod readouts flickered green in the dusky light. It was cold in the bay, and the deck was even colder under his bare feet. The air stank of machines, oil, and the thin nutrient slurry the fabricator used to make everything from entrées to human bodies.

Haig managed to get to a storage locker, found a pair of coveralls and some clogs that looked like they might fit. It was close enough. He fastened the snaps of the coveralls with clumsy hands, rolled up the sleeves. By then his stomach had settled some. He ran his fingers through the snarls of his hair and shuffled off for the hatch, moving like an old man. It was a good thing the gravity was only Mars standard, he thought.

By the time he got up to the crew quarters, he was feeling better. The new body was young, made to tight specs—once up and running, it ought to serve well. In the glow of the overhead lights, his skin looked fresh as a child’s, unmarked by scars, wrinkles or radiation. He leaned against a bulkhead.

“TJ” he said. “Where are they?”

“On the bridge,” said the AI.

“Let them know I’m coming,” he said.

The bridge hatch slid sideways as he approached, and the two faces turned to look at him. Manda had bright spots of pink on her cheeks. TJ must have been right; there was an argument, Haig thought. Santiago looked annoyed, too. Manda stayed seated, but the man pushed up.

“Haig,” he said.

Looking at them, Haig felt a faint surprise. The effects of the fabrication weren’t something he had really considered.

When he’d last seen Luis Santiago in Port Candor on Mars, the man had been fifty years old, stocky and slow-moving, but now he looked like a punk kid. Manda had been sixty-something, her body ravaged and her face scarred and pitted from years of radiation exposure. Now her skin was smooth and flawless, her hair framing her face in a blonde cascade. She looked the way he’d first known her years ago. Beneath the nondescript coveralls, her body was rounded and firm.

“Luis, Manda,” Haig said, acknowledging both of them. He dropped into one of the bridge chairs, let out his breath. “What’s going on?”

TJ had the surround display up. Manda gestured to where a single bright star burned too close. Luis turned in his seat, touched the controls. The angular resolution shifted, and then Haig could see the ship design. It looked vaguely organic, a hooded cobra with what must be plasma sails opened like the mouth of a monstrous, carnivorous flower.

“Course?” he asked.

It was TJ that answered.

“We are on a near interception course,” she said. “Without correction, we will pass within seventy-five kilometers of the alien ship.”

“Damn,” said Haig.

“That’s a screamin’ understatement, ain’t it?” said Santiago.

Haig couldn’t deal with the energy this would take right now. He closed his eyes, eased out a breath.

“Let’s get something to eat,” he said.


TJ served a dinner that looked like pork chops and roasted potatoes. It was actually a concoction of nutrient slurry from the tanks, but wasn’t bad, only tasted a little off.

The three of them sat at a table in the mess room to eat. The ship was quiet and empty around them—the scrape of their implements sounding loud against the food trays. Tiamat was a small ship because plans for the voyage didn’t include live people. The colony was all just stored DNA files and materials for synthesis.

During the years of planning before the launch, the three of them had been part of a close-knit unit. The personalities of his staff should be familiar, Haig thought, even if these new faces weren’t. Still ...

He glanced up, found Manda was watching him.

“What is it?” he asked.

She actually colored a little, embarrassed that she’d been caught staring. “You look different,” she said.

“We knew it would happen,” he said.

“That was all theory,” she said, “but living it is something else.”

“Won’t being younger affect our judgement?” asked Luis. He studied one hand, closed his fist, spread the fingers again. “It seems like I remember everything, but—”

“You think we’ve lost something in the process?” asked Haig.

“That’s a scary idea,” Manda said. “There are always gaps in digital files.”

“It’s what we’ve got to work with,” said Haig.

Luis shoved at his tray. “So what are we going to do?” he asked. “We’re totally cut off here—on our own. Shouldn’t we fabricate more people to deal with this? Information Services? Ethics?”

“If you do four, you’ll need to do five,” said Manda.

Luis raised his eyebrows. “Why’s that?” he asked.

Haig knew what she meant.

“Decision theory,” he said. “You need an odd number of people on a committee so there won’t be a tie vote on any decision.”

Santiago ran a hand through his spikey black hair, frowned.

“What if we screw up?” he asked. “Are three of us enough to take this on?”

“You want to spread the liability out?” asked Manda.

“We need a big enough committee to look at the options,” explained Haig, “but small enough to actually decide on what to do. Given how limited the ship’s resources are for life support, economics is a constraint. I think the three of us need to do it.”

Santiago’s frown darkened.

“Economics?” he said. “Don’t give me that crap.”

Haig shoved his tray away, too, sat up straighter in the hard, plastic chair. “Take it easy,” he said. “You know what I mean.”

“Right,” said Luis. “All those people stored, four hundred years of potential.” He frowned again, cracked his knuckles. “TJ,” he said. “Let’s see that ship again.”

A view of space blossomed around them, accompanied by a faint, eerie song of plasma wind. Beyond Tiamat’s bow lay their destination, the sharp, bright points of Alpha Centauri A and B against the braided cloud of the Milky Way. On the port side lay the dim red-dwarf Proxima Centauri. Off Tiamat’s starboard side, the cobra hood of the alien ship stood out against the dense array of stars. TJ added a data scroll to the display—position and velocity vectors.

Haig closed his eyes against the sudden shift in perspective. With his blood sugar coming up, he felt better able to deal with this now. He knew the alien ship’s design was likely just functional. Still, that shape looked ominous.

“Ouch,” said Manda. She had closed her eyes, too. “That gives me a bad case of vertigo.”

Luis laughed harshly. Starlight gleamed off his cheekbones. “You don’t feel awed?”

“I feel exposed,” she said.

“You ought to,” he said.

Haig frowned at his tone, noted the sharp look Manda sent back at him. Clearly there was something going on between them. Regardless, they needed to get this discussion underway. The chairs in the mess weren’t quite as comfortable as the ones on the bridge, but they had the advantage of being close to the coffee maker. He set down his cup.

“Let’s get down to business,” he said. “What are our options here?”

“Contact or no,” said Manda.

“Attack or no,” said Luis.

They looked at him.

“Attack?” Manda said.

“There are important security issues here,” he insisted.

“You can’t be serious,” she said. “Look what we could learn from this contact.”

“We don’t know what kind of ship that is,” said Luis. “I could throw out a bunch of scenarios. It could be a colony ship like ours, some kind of troop carrier. They could be pirates, or maybe a scientific discovery mission. Let ’em get too close and we could end up on their dissection table.”

Manda rolled her eyes.

“Humanity might never have another chance for a contact like this,” she said. “Look at their ship. That’s an advanced, starfaring civilization out there. There could be commercial value, trade. I vote for contact.”

Haig rubbed at his chin, looked at her. “You think we should send them a signal?” he asked.

“Definitely,” she said. “We could make up something neutral ... a math sequence ...”

“If we send any kind of signal,” said Luis, “they can decode it for information about us and where we’ve come from. We can’t afford to let out any information about ourselves at all.”

Haig tapped his nails on the tabletop, thought about it.

“I’m with Luis to a point,” he decided finally. “It’s not worth the risk. We’re not on a contact mission. Our objective is to make it to our destination safely and set up the colony.”

The color flushed back into Manda’s cheeks. Her eyes flashed.

“How can you say that?” she asked. “We have the opportunity to add to the sum of human knowledge here. Who knows when we’ll have another chance?”

“TJ can record scan information about the ship into the log,” said Haig. “We can send it back to Earth, but we have to be aware of the economics of the situation—plus the ... the ...”

He waved a hand at the screen, at the enormity of the emptiness around them.

“Thermodynamics,” said Manda. “That’s the word you’re looking for.”

“Okay,” he said, “but look, we can’t just stop and hang around to see what they’re doing. It’ll be bad enough if we end up having to make a course change. Do we have enough fuel for something like that?”

“TJ can calculate a trajectory correction,” said Manda, “and we have plenty of fuel as long as it’s minor, but you’re right—we can’t just stop and then start up again. We’d need something more than just a light sail for that. It means we have to make a decision fast, and get going on a plan for contact.”

“A plan?” said Santiago. “That is frickin’ stupid. What if they’ve been tracking us—set an interception course to head us off?”

On the screen, the ship hung like a hungry flower against the bright cloud of stars.

“You’re catastrophizing,” said Manda, “inflating the danger. Haig ...” she said, appealing to him.

Haig quirked his mouth. “It’s about decision theory again,” he told her. “The solution isn’t always what you want, Manda. The committee will have to decide.”


There wasn’t any need to vote right away. It was something they really needed to sleep on, Haig thought. There were six private cubicles, designed for whatever crew TJ might think they’d need at a given time, plus a general area that could be converted for extra living space if they needed it.

His cubicle had pale green walls and just a bunk, one chair and a small storage cabinet as furniture. He kicked off his clogs and turned down the lights, lay down on the bunk. He thought he’d fall asleep immediately, but the coffee must have been stronger than he thought. Once he closed his eyes, the memories came flooding in.

The most prominent one was Heather, of course, and the kids. They were nearly a hundred years dead by now, but it didn’t feel that way. It seemed like he’d seen Heather just yesterday. She had gone with him to the lab, waited in the outer office while they’d taken the DNA sample and digitized his consciousness—knowing it was a kind of good-bye. She had squeezed his hand and smiled when they called his name. Heather hadn’t been chosen for the colony mission because of defects in her DNA—the requirements had been strict—but they’d known that at the time, of course. He’d thought it would be easy, cutting off the past, but now ... it felt like a big loss.

There was a tap at the cubicle door.

It was so light that at first he wasn’t sure of it. The second time it was louder, and he sat up. It had to be one of two people, of course.

It was Manda.

“Haig?” she said.

The hallway was dim, but the light caught in her hair, outlined the curve of her shoulders.

“Manda?” he said. “What is it?”

“I can’t sleep,” she said. “I guess I’m ... lonely. Can I come in for a minute?”

He hesitated, but he’d just been feeling the same thing—the loss, the emptiness.

“Sure,” he said. He moved back to let her in.

“It’s been a long time,” she said.

She wasn’t talking about the hundred year gap the time and date readout showed. What she meant was that it had been a long time since they had both been young like this. They’d first worked together on a project to build a geothermal electric plant just after he’d gotten out of school on Earth. He’d been in construction management back then, still green and uncertain. She’d been older and more assured, with a couple of years of engineering experience already under her belt. It was before he’d even met Heather, or even thought at all about settling down to marriage. He wasn’t surprised to find the attraction was still there.

He’d thought Manda just wanted conversation, some reassurance of humanity in this empty vacuum, but instead she moved against him in the dimness, laid her face on his chest. The top of her head fit beneath his chin, left him smelling the fresh, womanly scent of her hair. By instinct he closed his hands around her waist, found it curved the way he remembered. She moved her head slightly.

“I’ve missed you,” she said.

“For all these years?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “Really. Why did you have to go off and get married?”

“Didn’t you have a fiancé?” he asked.

“Not until after you left,” she said.

“I had to go,” he said. “I got a job on Mars.”

She shifted, turned her face up, and he kissed her. He felt a second of guilt, but Heather was dead—he, himself was dead. This was ... what? A second chance? A second go at life?

Manda tightened her arms around him. He could feel her softness, her need.

“Haig,” she whispered, “what are we going to do?”

“We’re going to Alpha Centauri,” he said. “We’ve got a mission to accomplish.”

“You know what I mean,” she said. “Humanity has been looking for centuries, but nobody really thought what would happen if we actually found somebody out here.”

“Yeah,” he said. “But at least the problem is limited here. If we were in Sol’s system, there’d be a panic.”

Of course, there would be people who reacted the way Santiago had, frantic to set up a defense system, ready to launch a pre-emptive attack on any alien ship they sighted before it got any place close to Earth.

“Why did they waste all those years sending out signals,” asked Manda. “Couldn’t they predict there’d be that kind of reaction?” She moved, and her hair brushed his chin. “I guess it was acceptable just because nobody really believed they’d succeed.”

“We’re no more equipped to make a decision on this than a caveman,” he admitted.

“Woman,” she said.


“A cavewoman,” she repeated, “looking out at the unknown.”

“Yeah, sure,” he said. He nuzzled her ear, feeling the heat of her body against him. She stirred, slid her hands down his back.

“Haig?” she said.

“What?” he asked.

“Will you vote with me tomorrow?”


“Please?” she said. “I think it’s important.”

He felt a sudden prickle of anger. This might look like the same girl he’d known all those years ago, but she wasn’t the same. Regardless of the young body, she was a sixty-year-old woman, a lot more complex than the girl he had known.

He let go of her, stepped back. She tightened her arms as he moved, and he had to pull to get away from her.

“Is that what this is about?” he asked.

“No,” she said. “Haig ...”

“Manda,” he said. “I can’t let you influence my decisions, either now or later. I’ve got a job to do.”

“Son-of-a-bitch,” she said.

She only sounded halfway angry. After she was gone, he tried to tell himself that maybe she was just talking about the situation, and not really cursing at him at all. Still, it got to him. It was a long time before he went to sleep.

“Haig,” said TJ.

He jerked awake.

“What?” he said, still groggy. “What is it?”

“This may be an emergency,” said TJ. “Manda Stark is leaving the ship.”

“What?” he said again.

“She has activated one of the shuttles in the hold and has opened the bay doors.”

“Oh, damn,” he said. He jerked up to a sitting position. “Why didn’t you wake me earlier?”

“I had to analyze the behavior,” said TJ. “Is this a problem?”

“Ah, never mind,” Haig said.

He shoved his feet into the clogs, heaved up out of the bunk. TJ brought the lights up in the corridor as he hurried along. The hatch opened at the bridge, and he dropped into the pilot’s chair.

“Screen,” he said.

The surround blossomed around him. The shuttle was already on its way, well away from Tiamat. Beyond, the cobra hood of the alien ship loomed. He hit the comm switch.

“Manda?” he said.

There was an instant of static and then her image came up as an inset in the screen. She was watching her instruments, intent on piloting, but she glanced up at what would be her comm screen.

“Haig?” she answered.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

The hatch opened and Santiago came onto the bridge. TJ must have wakened him, too. He stopped when he saw the shuttle.

“Oh, crap,” he said.

“I’m making an independent decision,” Manda said.

“You could be endangering the mission,” said Haig.

A glow of green light caught in her hair as she turned her head. She narrowed her eyes, tightened her lips.

“Look, Haig,” she said. “Committees are useless in a case like this. We need action. How many successes has humanity had just because someone took charge and did the right thing?”

“How many failures for the same reason?” asked Luis.

“We’re near our closest approach,” said Manda. “If I’m going to intercept them, I have to do it now.”

“TJ,” said Santiago, “arm the defense system.”

Haig jerked his head around, stared at him. “What?”

“She’s not authorized to make contact,” said Luis. “We’ve got to stop her.”

Tiamat had a defense system meant to blow up the chance asteroid that got in their way. It wasn’t much in the way of armament, but it would be enough to blast the shuttle into junk.

“What are you expecting?” Haig asked. “To blow up the shuttle?”

“Yeah,” said Santiago. “What d’you think I mean?”

“But you’ll kill Manda.”

“She’s nuts,” said Santiago. He was working switches, setting up the system controls. “I mean, what the hell is she thinking?”

“She’s a human being,” said Haig. “You can’t just kill her.”

“You got the hots for her?” asked Santiago. “Carter, this is a copy. You can build another one when we get to Alpha Centauri.”

“Armed,” said TJ. “Ready to fire.”

Haig lurched up out of his chair. “Stop it,” he said. “It’s murder ...”

“No, it’s not,” said Luis. “She’s just a copy.”

He was standing over the console, staring up at the 3D image of the shuttle headed for the alien ship beyond. Haig crashed into him, shoved him sideways. They grappled.

“Stop it,” said Manda from the shuttle. “You can’t fire at me. What if they think you’re shooting at them?”

It was immediately clear Haig would lose the fight. He’d forgotten Santiago was trained in self-defense and physical control tactics. After the initial surprise, the man quickly got the upper hand. Haig thrashed, tried to throw him off.

“They could be monitoring the comm,” said Manda. “What kind of message are you sending ...”

Haig was taller, heavier—managed to jab an elbow backward. Santiago fell against the console. He threw out one arm to catch his balance, accidently hit the switch that fired the system.

Tiamat lurched slightly at the discharge. The explosion cut off what Manda was saying. Haig looked up, caught the spray of fire across the screen. Santiago rolled over, looked up, too.

“Oops,” he said.

They waited in apprehension, watching the slow spread of debris. It was a while before they were sure there was no response at all from the alien ship.

Santiago went to sick bay to see about his bloody nose, left Haig sitting alone on the bridge. He sat there a long time, nursing a split lip and frowning at the debris field of shuttle parts. The alien ship would be falling behind them soon, headed off on its steady, uninterrupted course. He wasn’t sure what to do now. They had made a decision by default. Manda was gone.

What did the zero response mean, he wondered. Superiority? Amazement? Was there really anyone alive aboard the alien ship?

Guidelines indicated that he and Luis needed to recycle themselves now to reduce the drain on resources. He tried to deal with that—losing this life, short as it was. Would Santiago agree to it? Would there be another fight?

He rubbed at his face, ran fingers through his hair.

Whatever they did, he needed to leave a log of what had happened. Otherwise, Project Manager Carter Haig would waken in the Centauri System three hundred years from now without any idea. What could he say about this? It seemed important. END

L.E. Buis is a member of the Knoxville Writer's Guild, the SFWA, and SFPA. She has been a quarter-finalist in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest, and recently had four collections of stories and poetry published by That Ridge press.


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