Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


A Breath of Aphrodite
by Rebecca Birch

An Undiplomatic Incident
by Paul R. Hardy

Deus Ex Parasitus
by Josh Pearce

Dust to Dust
by Richard Wren

Space Horses
by Diane Ryan

Mercy Park
by Patrick Wiley

Patient, Creature
by Andrew Muff

by Timothy J. Gawne

Shorter Stories

Turn Off, Tune Out and Reboot
by J.R. Hampton

Sky Widows
by Matthew F. Amati

Crottled Greeps
by John Teehan


This is the Way the World Ends
by Carol Kean

A Reason for Returning to the Moon
by Eric M. Jones



Comic Strips





Dust to Dust

By Richard Wren

NAOMI TYLER TOOK THE FIRST breath in her newly printed body while the solvents steamed slowly off her unblemished skin. She had no hair, nipples, or genitals. She would have no use for any of those items for this task. Likewise, she had not bothered to print out her digestive system. The job should only take a couple of hours—no time for a meal.

She had, unfortunately, been given a nose and sense of smell. The homely stench hit her as soon as the printer door opened and the air from the little cabin drifted in. Sweat, stale food, and farts all competed to grab her attention. She would adapt—it wasn’t the first time she had visited a survey pod.

The cause of the odour was a man whose body was far more complete than hers and had become far too comfortable living in this cosy pod. This was the Ops room—just enough space to swing a cat, with a seat and smooth console all extruded from the pod’s base material. The living quarters and entertainment suite were off to the left but she had no intention of going in there.

Survey pods were of standard construction and had to be private and comfortably habitable for years on end. Being happy with your own company was critical for any survey officer but even with the considerable comforts of the pod, the solitary life was not for everyone. This man had settled in well.

Her nose twitched involuntarily at the nasal onslaught. “Officer Charles Coney?”

The man lounging in the console chair wore a pair of standard shorts and shirt that had once been neatly pressed. The history of marks and stains told of weeks of use. He turned at the sound of his name, finished a mouthful of something sticky and pushed the food container into the eraser unit. “Call me Chas. Welcome to pod 223.”

He looked down at his clothes and absent-mindedly rubbed at the stains, an action that did little to help.

“Sorry. I haven’t been used to company.” He set the air system to start removing any objectionable chemicals in the atmosphere.

Naomi stepped out of the printer. Her body was dry now, slim and pale—smaller than her original back on Earth but adequate for this simple inspection check. Only her mind was the same as ever—a perfect copy that would be returned to its owner at the end of the job. Tampering with that would be highly illegal.

Despite being small, bald, and naked, Naomi stood with hands on hips, every inch an officious member of Survey management. “You requested an inspection, Officer Coney. I believe that you reported an unusual phenomenon?”

Without invitation, she stepped across the cabin to stroke an apparently anonymous corner of the console. A simple, visible light view of the world in question materialised in the air before them.

Chas Coney shuffled aside to let her take the controls. “As you can see, it’s just like my report.” He was still licking his fingers.

Indeed it was, but somehow there was nothing quite like seeing it in real time. The world below was a perfect banded grey sphere—absolutely perfect. It was slightly smaller than Earth but with no mountain or valley more than a tenth of a millimetre as far as could be measured. An object as suspiciously perfect as this could only be artificial. It was certainly an object worthy of inspection—even worth the expensive radio link that had carried her pattern to this remote outpost.

“So, have I found one? Is this the ninth Enigma?”

Inspector Tyler looked haughtily down on him. His clothing was now pressed as smooth as could be achieved with hands, and his hair had been hastily slicked down. The air smelt slightly fresher.

“We do not refer to them in that way in the Survey Guild, Officer Coney. If you are talking about the eight natural anomalies so far discovered then yes, you may have discovered the ninth.” She turned to face the image again.

“Natural my ass” Chas muttered, but not too loudly. The Enigmas were the disputed evidence for the only intelligence beyond Earth ever found by the Guild, despite a thousand years of hunting.

But, evidence or not, what incredible phenomena they were—an entire asteroid made of pure crystal in the Keplerwunfive system, the mosaic of perfectly hexagonal lakes under the orange clouds of New Titan, the bands of pure metal that wrapped the minor planet of Barnard 556/B.

So far eight Enigmas had been found, all separated by hundreds of light years and bearing no resemblance to the others, save the huge scale and purity of the materials involved—right down to the atomic level. Humanity had used nanotechnology for centuries, but surely these vast projects were proof of an old civilization with far greater powers. It was commonly believed so, but each Enigma was so unlike the others that many honest, impartial investigators were desperate to find natural causes for them.

The alternative—that they were all made by one ancient, godlike people would be revolutionary and the conservative Survey program wanted to avoid such things.

Inspector Tyler peered at the dull, grey globe before them. She knew the basic facts from the report but it was still remarkable. This world rotated once every thirty-two hours but its appearance remained constant—endlessly smooth with only geometrically perfect bands of lighter and darker grey. But these bands weren’t like cloud systems, running parallel to the equator.

Chas ran her through a high-speed two-month recording. “The side facing its sun always has a central spot of paler grey, the cold side facing away is always darker. That’s not just illumination—the surface actually changes colour as the world turns in order to keep a constant temperature. Likewise, the bands towards the poles are darker.

“There may be conduction through the planet as well, but this changing colour system keeps the whole world constantly within a couple of degrees of two nine five Kelvin.”

The Inspector observed that Coney had withheld this temperature information from his report. Perhaps he thought he wouldn’t be believed and needed an Inspector to confirm it.

“Almost a perfect temperature for life. Is there any down there?”

The man shrugged then, a little shamed by this sloppy gesture, sat up straighter and answered more formally. “None detected, but it would have to be underground. No atmosphere.” The survey hermit of the last year was remembering how a Guild Officer should act—after all, he could become famous with this discovery.

Naomi Tyler noted his change of posture. “Well, let’s find out. Assemble a Lander for me.”

Professional and purposeful again, Officer Coney busied himself at the console while Inspector Tyler left the Ops room by a small door that formed to her right.


An hour later and in a new uniform, Coney watched as the projected view from the console showed the transparent ovoid and four splayed legs of the Lander, a time-honoured design, descending towards the smooth grey. He knew that it was approaching the drab world but with no landmarks below, scale was impossible to tell. There was just an almost straight horizon, space-black above and grey below.

Inspector Tyler, peering down from her bucket seat was also struggling with the lack of perspective. Only the altimeter would save her from the jarring surprise of unexpected contact with the ground. Right on cue, as the readout reached zero, the little craft touched down with a slight bounce of shock absorbers. Unbuckling, she stood to see the ground better through the glass bubble. There was something odd. The probe’s legs, where they touched the surface, appeared hazy.

“Is that atmosphere?” Coney tried to process a better view from his console but Inspector Tyler, only two metres away from the mist, recognised it immediately.

“It looks like dust” she said. Still naked, she pressed her face to the clear bubble of the Lander body “but it’s behaving in a very organised way. This isn’t just disturbance from the landing.”

As she watched, the grey dust rose up, forming into loose fingers and strands.

Coney was not happy. “I recommend you prepare for takeoff. That stuff could be anything. It could be corrosive”

She calmed him. “It’s okay. I can see the Lander legs perfectly through the phenomenon. In fact, I think I know what that material is.”

To Coney she seemed overly relaxed—but then she was just a printout. It wasn’t like her real body was in any harm.

The mist rose higher into fluffy cloud shapes, some reminiscent of large mushrooms and others like low, twisted shrubs. The dust streams waltzed into more complex shapes, gradually rising but never making direct contact with the lander’s legs.

As seconds then minutes ticked by, denser threads wove up through the mist, giving a more solid look to the nebulous patterns. The universally grey fog was tinged with colour now—browns, blue-green, and splashes of red slowly emerging within the loose shapes.

The red was the giveaway.

“Flowers!” she exclaimed. “These are plants, or something similar. I can see branches now, spreading out and up above the lander. I knew it! Those dust particles are nano-devices building a forest. Perhaps the whole world is made of them.” In her curiosity, she had not noticed how high the mist had risen.

Officer Coney was still concerned. “Can you still take off if you need to?”

“Don’t worry, there’s clear sky above me.” She looked up to a new miracle. The sky was becoming blue—still dark, but no longer the black sky of space. “Do you detect any atmosphere forming?”

Her observer was angry that he had not seen this process begin through his console sensors, but everything was happening so quickly. “Confirmed. Fifteen percent oxygen with considerable water vapour—hence the blue sky.”

It was then that Coney did see something else begin and felt better about his earlier lapse.

It was something big. Something really big. “Inspector, you might want to look directly north, right at the horizon.”

Naomi Tyler stood to peer over the twisting, no longer grey jungle and braced her hands against the curved sides of the lander’s bubble. But there was no need to strain for a view—the new wonder refused to be obscured. As she looked, naked and vulnerable, a mountain rose, physically growing as she watched. There was no rumble or quaking of tectonic plates, just the quiet, unhurried manufacture of this new geology, one particle at a time. She had no idea how such a mass could be constructed at such speed. The nanotechnology being used here was obviously far in advance of Earth’s.

Although far off at the newly misted horizon, details were visibly assembling themselves down and along the rising slopes. Tyler strained to peer into the distance as the mineral features formed, oozing along the mountainside. There was a pattern, a very familiar pattern—metallic copper bands ran up and down the slope, woven between silvery ones that formed along the peak like contour lines. The metals shone their purity in the sun, each strap easily a hundred metres wide.

There was no doubt. Those bands had been seen before. Barnard 556/B.

Inspector Tyler couldn’t drag her eyes from the panorama but whispered to her colleague. “Well, mister Coney. May I be the first to congratulate you on your discovery.”


Coney had wanted the Inspector to return right then, before another mountain possibly emerged underneath her, but Tyler had been adamant. Her body wouldn’t last much longer—it was already beginning to starve. She must investigate as much as she could while she had the chance. She knew what she had to do next.

Even if her corpse never made it back to the printer, her observations would be beamed up from the Lander. The thought that this body might die here still had the instinctive tang of anxiety, and her heart and breathing rates were high when she left the Lander. Nervous responses could supply useful information. They were important.

There was a faint hiss as the bubble opened, a skin prickle from slightly lower air pressure and a tingle of excitement as she stepped out onto this unbelievable world.

“What does it feel like?” Coney had not left the console in three hours.

“Grass. It feels scratchy under my feet but it’s like grass. And it’s cold—colder than I expected.” Her slim body shivered.

Coney nodded. His temperature estimation was only based on surface conditions. The air could be considerably cooler.

Then something new grabbed his attention. “There’s some activity all around you—dust movement. Can you see anything?”

Naomi looked all around the now sumptuously emerald glade a little nervously before noticing her own body. She examined the back of her hand. It was sprinkled with little black specks. Her whole body was evenly covered with them. Disease? There was a stab of panic before she understood. The specks were elongating, stretched and reformed by the invisible micro-devices that made up this world.

“It appears that a fur coat is being grown for me—or rather, from me. How hospitable.”

The hairs rapidly assembled into a thick coat of fur until Naomi no longer noticed the cold. She stood in the forest clearing like a yeti but with black and white stripes, presumably reminiscent of the previous organic tenants of this planet. Self-conscious but comfortable, she looked around at the now completed scenery. With the lush growth, the flowers and the glittering mountain beyond, this was a beautiful scene, even picturesque. She came to a conclusion.

“Mister Coney, I believe these are the memories of the Enigma builders, recalled by their nanotechnology. The entire planet has been dormant, only wakened by my presence. This is like a showroom of their technology, glimpses of past glories.”

“Are you sure it’s safe?” Coney could still not quite believe the shaggy zebra before him.

“The forest canopy above the Lander has been deliberately left open and I am perfectly warm in my fur. It seems eminently safe to me.” She winced at a pain in her abdomen.

“But I don’t have much more time in this body. These people may have kept me comfortable but they haven’t interfered with my basic anatomy. I respect them for that.” She climbed back into the Lander and hurriedly prepared to return.

As the ovoid bubble rose back up from the surface, Chas Coney set up the disassembling functions of the printer. Once the Inspector’s memories had been beamed back home she would be dismantled.

He stroked the printer’s smooth, white case, removing a piece of dirt that had been there for weeks. Once he would have looked at this device longingly, eager to return home. Now that he had settled into his comfortable life in a pod, his thoughts were merely wistful.

He still had another year of duty here before he could return, but perhaps after his discovery was announced he could get back early. Perhaps. He found that he wasn’t very concerned either way.

It wasn’t so bad here once you got into a routine, and after years of isolation he would probably find it difficult to adapt to a more social life. Here, with food and VR entertainment on tap, it was the ultimate in comfort, really. His perfect man-cave.

Was that what happened to the Enigma builders? Did they just settle into their comfortable cave? Were they somewhere deep in their world enjoying godlike luxury? He wondered what he would do if he had the total control of matter. Humans were only just starting down that route.

The clunk of the Lander attaching to the pod hull interrupted his curious daydreams of nano-paradise. The Inspector stumbled out, gripping onto the smooth sides of the orifice that had formed between the two vehicles. With help, she made it to the printer and sat, breathing heavily.

“Not long now” she puffed. The device had already transmitted all her memory data.

Coney crouched next to her. “I think that this was their home world. This grey ball is their mortal remains. Or perhaps immortal.”

Naomi sighed hoarsely. Her salivary glands had already degraded and her breathing was dry and dusty. “Why do you think they built the Enigmas?”

“Maybe they were markers of some kind, or works of art. This world is positioned pretty central to the other eight. Perhaps it was just saying we were here before going home. I mean, why would you bother exploring if you could manufacture anything imaginable?”

Naomi nodded but she was feeling dizzy. “I can’t believe a culture that powerful would just turn its back on the universe and hide away.”

Coney watched her without concern as she started to crumble. Inspectors didn’t last long, like food containers. The important thing was that her report was winging its way back to Earth. He would enjoy his little slice of fame. But maybe from a distance.


The grey dust of the temporary human settled and Chas sighed, stood up, and crossed to sit in his comfortable chair again. Already the Inspector’s remains were being reabsorbed into the printer. He summoned up a baklava cake, one of his favourites, and stretching, put his feet on the console. Flakes of sticky pastry dripped onto his shirt, ignored.

Ah, he would sort it out later. Maybe after a VR adventure or he could go to a concert. He had another year here to do what he wanted. Life wasn’t so bad.

Leaning back, he settled into his cosy existence. Hiding away from the universe like that—what were those Enigma builders thinking of? END

Richard Wren has been writing fiction for the last twenty years. He runs an Environmental Field Centre in the U.K. and teaches biology and astronomy. His previous story for “Perihelion” was in the 12-FEB-2016 issue.


gawne 5/17


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