Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Plague Clone Blues
by Mark Anthony Ayling

Raise the Black Flag
by Harold R. Thompson

If You’re Listening, We’re Going to Try Something
by Sean Monaghan

Coyote Tears
by Bob Sojka

Apprentice’s Test
by Wayland Smith

Suite 15
by Andrew James Woodyard

by R.K. Nickel

Student Database Notes
by Tim McDaniel

Shorter Stories

Fly Robin Fly
by C.E. Gee

What Do You Think?
by John Hegenberger

by K.S. Dent


Tesla’s Death Ray Wall
by Eric M. Jones

Cats Abound in Science Fiction
by Erin Lale



Comic Strips





By R.K. Nickel

THERE WAS NOTHING LIKE a long shower to wash away the weeks of interminable vacation. The tropical islands of Mehenaar had been unquestionably beautiful, but one could take only so much beauty. After a time, lounging in an unchangeably perfect climate can begin to feel like a hellish sort of stasis.

Nya preferred heat and steam and a good day’s work. Logically, she understood that some people liked to lie back and enjoy the sun, but she could never really wrap her head around it. It was probably just genetics. Not that she gave much merit to genetics. She was better than that, she thought, literally, as she stared up into the stream, eyes wide open. The water didn’t bother the shining mechanical orbs sitting in her eye sockets. And there was no need for her to scrub her duralloy-enhanced skin. Nya flexed her fingers. It was good to be back.


“Welcome.” Dern tapped a few buttons, and a profile appeared in Nya’s eyes, tiny projections that only she could see.

“What’ve we got?”

“Panic trooper. Overloaded a civ tower.”

“Dead?” She asked, flipping through the files with blinks of her eyes.

The man responsible for the attack didn’t look dangerous, but they never did. The pictures were unflattering. Clammy skin, eyes too small for his head, curly hair that could stand to be washed.

“Nearly two thousand.” Dern was everything this criminal wasn’t. Though he was blandborn, even blind luck got it right sometimes. Dern stood nearly two meters tall, skin the color of charred wood, eyes that could command a situation or listen with understanding.

Nya had little time for understanding. She was a soldier. Right and the wrong were Dern’s territory. “Where do I go?”

“You don’t want to know the why of it?” Dern picked up a cup of tea off his desk and took a sip, then sputtered. It clearly hadn’t cooled off.

“Does it matter?” she asked.

His eyes flicked downward then, but it was a momentary thing. “He’s fled The Unity. Streamed off world.”

That was new.

It took a lot of power to open a stream. Your average panic trooper was just some misguided fool trying to prove a point by putting fear into The Unity. They wouldn’t have access to that kind of equipment, much less the funds to use it.

“We’re leaving tonight,” Dern said.

Also new. Dern was operations. Nya was the point person.




Nya always kept a pack ready for travel, so her prep was already complete. She waited at the Dock, blinking through more of the dossier, pausing as footage from a neighboring civ tower played across her vision much faster than real time. She watched the power surge lick its way up the structure, setting off small explosions, melting support beams.

After a while, death began to look the same. Sheered metal, broken bodies, raging fires. It had all stopped affecting her. Actually, now that she thought about it, she couldn’t remember it ever affecting her. And why should it? She had this job for a reason. Someone had to be able to think logically in the face of all this.

She blinked back through what little information they had on the trooper. It all seemed so ordinary. Mind polluted by a resistance sect, rewired until he believed what they believed, then sent on a mission to sow chaos. Nya would ensure that he reaped exactly what he deserved.

Before long Dern arrived. She still didn’t understand why he was joining her. His presence was…inefficient.

“You won’t slow me down,” she told him.

“Hello to you, too.”

“I didn’t say hello.”

“I know what you said.” He sounded exasperated. “Oarsman says the Stream is ready.” They approached the machinery.

“See you on the other side,” Dern said, winking. Winking?

And then the Stream opened.

It felt like falling, a fall that would never end, but this was no smooth acceleration. There were rocks and jolts along the way. Huge shifts of momentum as you were swept this way and that, crashing into the flotsam of the cosmos. Nya never got used to it. She never wanted to. It was painful, a deep, dissociative pain that struck at the core of her being. She felt a buzzing in her brain, more powerful than a drug. It was something away from time, something without breath, a moment free from heartbeats, a journey without color.

And then she was there, standing on a foreign planet as though nothing had happened. Dern stood beside her, eyes closed. He seemed to be recovering. Moments later, a Longdock winked into existence—their transportation home.

Nya looked up at the sun, which seemed to fill half the sky. A red giant. This planet must have been extremely far out in its ancient solar system, the inner planets now clearly consumed. Their deaths had paved the way for new life. Such was the cycle.

“It’s beautiful.” Dern’s voice brought her back to the surface.

All around them, the ground was carpeted in thick, red-and-gold ferns, blowing rhythmically in a gentle breeze. The trees were tall, curled things, branches like fingers trying to grasp the sky. They were leafless, and their bark was that same red and gold. The atmosphere was richer, too, higher levels of oxygen adding a certain buoyancy of the spirit to each breath.

“Do you hear that?” Dern asked. Nya’s ears attuned themselves. There was a low sound, just on the edge of hearing, a quiet permeation. And it was coming from the trees. To Nya, it felt simultaneously a baleful lamentation and a joyful ode. That all the plants could sing in one note, a unified voice, defied reason.

“I’ve heard of this,” said Dern. “I didn’t think it was real.”

“What is it?” she asked.

“The echo. They say it changes you somehow.”

“Then best not to listen.”

Ignoring the almost imperceptible hum, Nya examined the foliage around them. It was, in fact, beautiful, but the beauty lay not in the plants’ coloration or texture or shape, but rather the information that they contained.

“Here,” she said, leaning low and rubbing a whisper-soft fern between her fingers. In moments, she’d performed a quick scan of the surrounding foliage, and traces of organic cells that matched those of a human had lit up in her mind’s eye, creating a path leading toward a distant valley. The Oarsman had said he’d be able to track and chart the same Stream as the panic trooper. It appeared he hadn’t simply been boasting.

“I don’t see anything,” Dern said, leaning down next to her. She could sense the heat coming off his body, hear his breathing.

“That’s why they send me to do these things.” She stood quickly and set off at a brisk pace. The trooper had a long head start, and who knows how much help he could have on this planet. He must be high up in the resistance if he’d been able to orchestrate an escape Stream. This could be big for Nya, the case she’d been waiting for.

Nya could hardly remember how long she’d been a tracker. It had been a long time, that was certain. She’d entered the program when she was very young, before memory. There, she’d trained, and been trained, eventually formed into the person she was. And throughout it all, she’d had her sights set higher.

That carrot of advancement: leading an elite team on missions of great import. Fighting the resistance at its core. She enjoyed the simple hunts, yes, but she was always sent to kill small units. Maybe if this turned out to be something more, they’d finally see what she could really do. She already poured her entire life into this job. Wasn’t that enough? She was twenty-six, and she’d eschewed countless experiences in the name of focus. Friendship, sex—these things were unimportant distractions. She’d even severed ties with the couple she’d referred to as parents. It was work and more work, and it was about time she got rewarded.

As they walked briskly through the plants, Nya began to notice that Dern was slowing. His breath was labored, and he was covered in sweat. Blandborn could never keep up.

“You should wait by the Dock,” Nya told him. “I’ll track down this killer, see what he knows, and return.”

“No,” he panted, catching up to her.

“I’ll move much faster, and it’s not as if I need the—”

“No,” he said again, more firmly this time.

“Dern, it’s not your fault. You simply weren’t designed as well. I accept that.” He seemed displeased by that. “What?”

“We’re going together,” he said, attempting to inject firmness into his voice.

“It hardly makes sense for—”

“No, Nya. I’m your superior.” This was uncharacteristic. “Is it that hard to slow down once in a while? Look around you, for god’s sake.”

“An archaic expression.” She turned her head, doing as he commanded. The red-and-gold forests were much the same in the soft glow of the afternoon light. “And I see no reason to glance from side to side when the path forward is so clear.”

He sighed then. It seemed as though he would say something more, but he held his tongue, then simply said “I’ll try to keep up.”

Nya never understood how easily blandborn took offense at simple truths. She was objectively better. It wasn’t as if it were her doing. She didn’t expect praise or credit. People simply were the way they were, and it was folly to hope you could be anything else. A master craftsman would not use a wrench to drive home a nail. Why, then, would The Unity weigh down this mission with her inferior superior? Nya gnawed at the problem as she walked, once more leaving Dern behind, but she could come to no reasonable conclusion.

Eventually, the sun sank behind the horizon, filling the sky with swirling crimson along the way. It made little difference to Nya. Her eyes were wired to see in a much wider spectrum and could map her surroundings based on heat signatures. She could go four days without sleep and show only an eighteen percent decline in functionality. But Dern. Nya closed her eyes for a moment.

“We should make camp,” she said.

“I’m fine.” Always acting tough.

Instead of responding, Nya unslung her pack and began pulling out overnight equipment. Not long after, the pair of them sat beside a portable heat source, much more even than a fire, and dull enough that it wouldn’t give away their position.

They sat in silence for a time, and Nya eased her hearing back to its full frequency, allowing the echo to wash through her. It seemed as if, on some unknowable level, she were connecting to the world around her, the undulations of the ferns somehow matching the rhythms of self, the swaying of the trees in time to the pumping of her oxygen-enhanced blood. She felt herself grow content, awash with a sense of commonality and belonging—feelings Nya was entirely unused to.

Finally, with what seemed more effort than was merited, Dern asked, “How was your vacation?”

“Pleasant,” she said.

“Do anything fun?”

“Lounged on the beach, ate too much good food.” She stopped to think then. Why had she done that? Her time on the beach was unfulfilling, and the food was simply expensive. She shook it off and continued. “Went swimming with a Dorian Tortoise,” she said at the exact same time that he said “swimming with a Dorian Tortoise.”

“Did someone tell you about that?” she asked, confused. Dern simply shook his head, which Nya found quite unsatisfying. “Is The Unity tracking me?” It was one downside of built-in tech—she was always connected.

“Yes and no.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s The Unity,” Dern said. “They do a lot of things.”

“That sounds dangerously close to discordance, Dern.”

“Are you going to report me?” he asked, looking her straight in the eye. She wasn’t used to people looking at her like that. Especially someone with those eyes, and that face, and—

“And do all that paperwork? Break in a new operator? Not a good trade off.”

“Very logical,” he said.

“Thank you.”

“I didn’t mean it as a compliment.”

“It is a fact. I merely thanked you in an effort to be polite.”

In the quiet that followed, Nya analyzed the native insect life. At least twenty-three separate species, with some variations in tone based on gender. Nothing worth looking into—they posed no threat. She turned back to Dern. Somehow he, too, seemed to sway in time to the harmony of this place.

Dern settled into his high-capacity carbon-string heat blanket, staring up at the stars. After a moment, he turned to her. “What do you dream of?” he asked.

“My teeth falling out,” she said, “which is common, even for genborn.”

“What do you want? What do you hope for?”

“I’m satisfied, though I deserve a promotion.”

“I’ll start,” he said. “I want to raise a cat.”

“The old earth beast?”

“The very one,” he said, smiling.


“They seem to infest ancient literature. I want to know why.”

“Toxoplasmosis. It’s well known that cats infected ancient humans with a parasite that caused them to enjoy cats, thus helping propagate their species. They’re some of the oldest genetic programmers.” She couldn’t understand what he couldn’t understand.

“I know why. But I want to know why. I want to feel it, to experience one curled up on my lap as if I were an Egyptian, to stroke its soft fur, hear it purr in delight.”

“Like I said, I’m satisfied.”

“There could be a whole life for you, if you chose it,” he said. “Don’t you ever want…something else?”

She looked at him then, really looked at him. She’d never considered sex with Dern, and suddenly she wondered why. He was the most athletic, least incompetent person she knew. Then again, she’d never really considered sex with anyone. She’d always told herself that it simply didn’t matter to some people.

If there was a time for it, it was now. They weren’t likely to make any more progress tonight. They were off-planet, nothing else to do. Vaguely, in the back of her mind, she knew that people worried about sleeping with their coworkers, that feelings might develop. What feelings, she wondered.

She’d had major boosts of serotonin and dopamine before, of course. The hunt did that for her. It probably wasn’t much different. Still, perhaps there was logic in increasing her base of understanding. Her enemies slept with one another, did they not? And understanding them would help her predict their actions.

“What if I told you I had a secret?” Dern asked.

Was this going the way she thought it was going? She was supposed to feel something, she knew. Elevated heart rate, nerves, those things adolescents referred to as “butterflies,” never knowing they were referencing a long-dead insect. She searched herself. Nothing.

“Hopefully not something discordant,” she said. His face was unreadable.

“Good night, Nya, and may you have pleasant ... dreams.”


Days progressed much the same as they continued the hunt. Nya tracked, Dern tried to keep up, they pushed forward through forests, over hills, alongside rivers. It was the longest Nya had ever been out on assignment. The longest by far. And with a partner, at that. It was strange, to be so long away from the The Unity. Strange, indeed, though all her self-tests returned normal.

All the while, Dern talked, and talked, and never of anything important. He seemed to seek a common ground Nya doubted existed. He spoke of childhood, relating stories of his brothers, of the moments they’d shared, the trouble they’d gotten into. Nya had no brothers, no sisters, or if she did, she didn’t know them. She had been raised by The Unity, trained for a specific task. Hers was not a childhood, but rather a journey toward a goal, which she preferred.

Dern spoke of the stars, romanticizing their colonization. He spoke of exotic animals, of ancient heroes, of unsolved mysteries. On more than one occasion, Nya attempted to quiet his ceaseless blather, but her heart wasn’t in it. There was something strangely pleasant about his torrent of words. They were a calming brook that seemed to slow down the world around her, as if his voice was its own sort of echo.

She seemed to be almost falling prey to his zest for life. More than once, she’d stopped when he’d wanted to, and they’d eaten a strange piece of fruit (after analyzing it for toxins, of course). They’d watched the sky-consuming sunsets. They’d listened to the birds. They’d even swum in a natural hot spring. Dern’s dark cheeks had turned nearly red when Nya had stripped down. Such foolishness. They were merely bodies. Hers was without blemish, water rushing off of her skin with ease. His, on the other hand, was asymmetric. He had a small scar just above his left nipple, and too much hair on his chest, she thought. She wondered what it would feel like to run her fingers through that hair.


“This doesn’t make sense,” Nya said, examining the biotraces in the ferns. “There are nearly a dozen distinct genetic markers here. This is no lone panic trooper.” A dozen markers. This could be exactly what Nya was looking for. But if this were a more serious threat ...

“Why are you here?” She turned to face Dern, suddenly wary. This whole thing had rubbed her the wrong way from the start. The dossier was too easy, too obvious. Of course a panic trooper couldn’t stream off planet. Of course there was no reason for Dern to join her. “Why did The Unity send you? What’s going on?” she demanded, hand hovering over her pulse gun. She reminded herself that Dern wouldn’t stand a chance against her.

“I’m helping you,” he said, raising his hands, placating. “Let’s not get crazy.”

She analyzed his face, sensed his heartbeat. Elevated, but not overly so. His face twitched, but only slightly. He was nervous, but then again, she was close to drawing her gun, and they were alone on a strange planet. She couldn’t be sure he was lying.

“I should continue on my own,” Nya said.

“Nya, listen,” he said, stepping closer.

“I’m going to be facing who knows how many discordants out there—”

We’ll be facing them, and maybe they won’t be all that bad,” he said.

“Won’t be all that bad? They overloaded a civ tower, Dern. Two thousand people.”

“You believe that?” Another step closer.

Did she? “I do.”

His face was close to hers. “Look me in the eye and tell me you care. Tell me you actually care about the people in that tower and I’ll leave. Tell me the only reason they’re important isn’t because you get to hunt and to kill and maybe get that goddamn promotion. Look me in the eye and tell me that.”

She stared at him, feeling a bitterness she wasn’t used to. That anger wouldn’t serve her, but she couldn’t fight it back down. Maybe it was the echo, stoking her emotions to greater height. She glared, doing her best to be intimidating. And then she looked away. He was right, but that’s why she was good at her job. She truly didn’t care.

“That’s what I thought.” He turned away, disgusted, and she found that she didn’t want him to be disgusted. Nya had never been so profoundly uncomfortable in her entire life. She wanted to say something to make it right, and she hated it. She’d never had so little power.

That’s when the beast struck.

It flew from the trees faster than even Nya could track, a half-dozen barbed tails whipping in a deadly whirlwind. Its fur was a rippling field of red, a perfect camouflage on this world, and it raked two deadly pincers along Dern’s gut before either of them could react.

Nya drew her pulse gun and fired in one smooth, fluid motion. In half a heartbeat, the gun beamed a laser that analyzed the structure of the target and followed with a directed resonant burst of high-powered infrasound, melting a huge chunk of flesh off the creature.

It spun, angry, leaving Dern alone to clutch at his spewing wounds, and charged Nya. She fired again, melting away another huge chunk of meat before it crashed into her.

She flew back, instincts kicking in, and discarded her pack as she rolled, coming up in a standing position. Somehow she’d lost her grip on the gun, but she readied herself, focusing her eyes, calming her breathing, letting her enhanced adrenaline do its work.

They tumbled together, beast and man, in a desperate struggle for life. Tails flashed for Nya’s vitals, and it took almost all of her superhuman focus to twist, dodge, and deflect the incoming barbs. Her eyes could track each trajectory perfectly. Her brain could analyze the appropriate maneuver. There was no danger of her muscles cramping or of fear causing her to make a mistake. She was a perfectly designed fighting machine.

She wasn’t designed to take on something this size.

It cut her. Again, and again. She let it, always choosing the highest priority parry or roll, allowing her strengthened skin to be struck in places that didn’t matter, sacrificing blood and breath and energy, waiting for an opening. The damage her gun had inflicted had to affect the beast sometime. Its wounds were leaking no small amount of strange, purple fluids.

There, favoring its leg. Nya waited, then launched herself to the side as the thing came for her, kicking a heavy boot straight into the worse of the two wounds. The creature yowled, an almost insectoid sort of wail, and stumbled. Nya sprinted back to her gun, dove, leveled it, and fired off four more shots before the thing could get to her. Its momentum carried it nearly to her feet.

Despite the heat, its corpse steamed.

Recovering in a matter of breaths, Nya hurried to Dern. He was pale but conscious, blood blending perfectly into fern and soil. He tried to smile, but it turned into a wince. “That thing was fast,” he said.

“Don’t talk,” she said, and immediately began searching through the pack. She pulled out medical supplies and quickly injected the wounded areas with a numbing agent.

“That feels much better.”

“I said don’t talk.”

Next came the nanoskin, which was really just a synthetic, pseudo-organic gel that your body wouldn’t reject. And then the needle. It was archaic, Nya thought, to have to stab someone to heal them, but they hadn’t found anything better in a pinch. Sure, in a lab, whole parts of you could be completely upgraded, but on the road, the human body was still its own best med bay. A disturbing thought.

Nya worked quickly, and it was clear Dern was in no danger. “You should be able to keep moving,” Nya said, “but it would probably be better to rest for at least one night.”

“I don’t want us to fall behind.”

She considered this, once again thinking that it clearly made the most sense for her to go on alone, but all she said was, “it’s only one night.”

That night, Nya built a fire, a real fire. Dern had asked for it, and she thought perhaps it might keep predators at bay. Plus, somehow, the unevenness of its flickering warmth seemed almost comforting, a living tumult of unconstrained motion. She cooked the beast. It was in no way the best thing she’d ever tasted, but at least it was a change of pace from standard rations. She worried that it might not give her the nutrients she needed to maximize tomorrow’s chase, but when she voiced her concerns, Dern told her to shut up, not unkindly.

The stars overhead were like nothing Nya had ever seen. Entirely new constellations, which meant that this planet was in a different section of the galaxy altogether. They were a long way from home.

Home. It wasn’t a concept Nya often thought of. It seemed like it should have more meaning than it did. It seemed, she thought, that it did have more meaning, but that she was somehow unable to grasp it.

Dern grunted in pain, and Nya turned her gaze from the unfathomable sky. He was reaching for his canteen, clearly struggling.

“I’ll get it,” she said, and walked past the tongues of dancing light to where Dern lay, head leaned against his pack. She picked up his canteen, and his eyes met hers. She couldn’t believe how long it took to unscrew the top, or maybe it only felt that way. Something about his gaze changed the rhythm of things. She tried to analyze it, ran a quick scan of her body. And couldn’t place it.

Hardly realizing what she was doing, she touched the canteen to his lips, and he swallowed, wincing as the water worked its way down into his wounded belly. She pulled the canteen from his lips.

He just smiled at her. Why didn’t he say anything? Was she supposed to intuit his thoughts? Nothing about him was rational. It was beyond frustrating. It was infuriating. Why did The Unity saddle her with such a pointless responsibility?

She kissed him.

Unlike the beast, he was the best thing she’d tasted. It was so much more than taste, like each star up in that sky had shrunk to a single, infinitesimal pinprick of heat, burning where their lips touched, a fusing, a blazing fusion as they fell into each other’s gravity, condensing until the distance between them was merely atomic, a thing not worth measuring.

He grasped at her, hungry despite having eaten, eager despite the pain. This is what it was, she thought. To love? To lust, at least. She didn’t know. Had never known. How had she gone so many years? She knew adolescence should have taken care of all this, gotten it out of the way—oh, but it wasn’t something to be gotten out of the way. It was to be reveled in, to devour, to sink your teeth into and never relent, never relent so that it could not end.

She pulled away, sucking in air. She hadn’t breathed. She panted, flush with the heat of the fire, the heat of him. He wasn’t smiling anymore. His look held so much more.

“I never thought…” he said, trailing off.

“I—” she searched her mind, unsure what to say. The moment was wriggling away from her, brain working to expel these strange new feelings. She could feel them slipping between the cracks of her grey matter, disappearing into the darkness around them. Where were they going?

“Sex has, sex has many benefits,” she said.

His look changed. She couldn’t tell how, but one moment, there’d been a light there, a light beyond the reflection of the stars, and the next, well, the next there hadn’t.

“It can promote healing, reduce pain,” she continued, not knowing why she was saying these things. She wanted to say something better. Anything but this. “We can’t travel tonight anyway. It would provide a greater experience base.”

He tried to turn away, but it was clearly painful. He struggled, gritting his teeth. She hated it. Don’t turn away, she thought. Don’t turn away. But she couldn’t make herself say it. It was like she was waging a war in her own head, and she was losing.

“I want to help you,” was the most she could manage.

“So that we can hunt down whomever these people are and murder them. Yeah, I know.”

“They killed—”

“You have no fucking idea what they’ve done, Nya.” He practically spat. “All you know is what The Unity wants you to know.”

“What do you mean?”

“You have no idea what you are.”

“Is this about my splice? I told you, I don’t care that you’re blandborn. It’s not a choice.” She tried to get close to him again. She was still hovering just inches from his face, but it seemed a chasm.

“Don’t you ever question anything?” He was nearly yelling, though he had to clutch his gut. “Stop to think about the point of it all? Don’t you ever wonder about who made you?”

“Not really.” Where had it gone? She couldn’t even remember how it felt anymore. Something about stars, about fusion. It had all seemed so terribly romantic. Romance. An archaic concept, a simple fact of evolution necessary to help propagate the species. It was simply—dammit. It had been more.

She leaned in again, trying to kiss him, trying to get it back, but he jerked his head away. “I thought you wanted this,” she said, almost pleading.

“You don’t even know what wanting is. You’ve never made a real choice. You’re not even a person.”

Nya’s eyes stung. She was crying? She couldn’t remember ever crying before. She didn’t understand it. His words didn’t matter. She should just sleep, continue on in the morning.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “No, I’m sorry. It’s not, it’s not your fault.” He reached up a thumb to wipe away her tears. “I’m sorry. You just need to figure out what you want, Nya. You can do it. It’s in there, somewhere. It’s in there.” He did turn away then, fighting through the pain.

That was the end of it, a silencing of their conversation.

In less than an hour of bitter silence, Dern was asleep, but Nya could not join him. She was so good at shutting off her brain. It seemed to prefer to revert to a blank slate, all thoughts dropping away to nothing, focused only on the hunt. But tonight was different. Tonight, Nya lay heart-wrenchingly awake, a mess of firing neurons seeking solace and finding only confusion.

Never made a choice. No one had ever made a choice. Dern thought he wanted things, thought he made choices, but only because he was wired to think that. Ancient creatures that hadn’t ever felt wants had died out, failed to pass on their genes. Taste in food was simply a way to ensure a body received proper quantities of protein, and calcium, and, and beings without a sex drive didn’t reproduce, and thus, the chemical called love was born. It was all so painfully true. Or was it? Nya had always been so sure, and now…

Finally, she made a decision.

She crawled to Dern and straddled him in a quick, graceful motion, planting a kiss on his dry lips. His eyes flew open. All she said was “I want this.” And this time, he must have believed her, because he kissed her back. She slowly stripped off his clothes, a delicate process as she tried to avoid his wounds. He pulled off her shirt in turn, and she wriggled out of her thick pants.

She’d never undressed with anyone before, not like this. As far as she could recall, before this trip, the only time she’d ever gotten naked was for those long showers. She was aware of the night air on her skin, aware of how strangely vulnerable she was. Even with her duralloy skin, she bristled with fear, used to always having extra layers of protection.

But the vulnerability went far deeper than that. She opened herself to him, opened her mind to the idea of him, opened her legs to the animal strength of him. The mingled pain and pleasure exploded through her brain, racing through the nerves in her chest, in her toes. Long-darkened passages opened in her thoughts, a flood of being, of living, an echo, threatening to overwhelm her.

He grunted from the pain of his wounds, from the ecstasy of being inside her, and Nya reveled in their intermingling. All her life she had been alone, she knew that, but she’d never known that she’d been so, so alone.

They burned together, a passion more blinding than this planet’s red sun. Their flames whirled, stoked by pleasure, all consuming, until finally Nya cried out, a more primal sound, a more real sound, than she had ever expected. She tensed, her whole body shuddering, and felt Dern pulse inside of her in pumping rhythms. Rhythms. This whole planet was awash with rhtyhms. She sank into him. After that, she slept.

The next morning, Nya awoke naked, and cold, and instinctively drew her body closer to Dern’s for warmth. Suddenly, she was alert. What she had done was perfectly reasonable, wasn’t it? It was more than reasonable. It was wonderful, but wonder was a stranger, and she was unsure how to greet it, so she stood, and dressed, set about preparing a meal.

“Smells good,” said Dern.

“I found some wild nuts not too far away.” They’d add a bit of flavor.

She finished cooking breakfast, a protein mush, now with nuts, but found she had little appetite. She couldn’t identify exactly what she was feeling, but it was something, and the fact that it was something was perhaps more incredible than whatever the individual feelings might have been.

For all that, breakfast passed in a strangely comfortable silence, after which Nya checked Dern’s wounds, and he proclaimed himself ready for travel, so the two set off. Soon enough, Nya saw that the tracks had slowed. They were close. As they travelled, they talked, really talked. There was so much Nya didn’t know about the world, about any world, and she reveled in her newfound interest.

Dern was more than happy to explain, spinning tales of adventure and of hardship. His life had not been so simple, so linear. What would it be like, Nya wondered, to move through life in such a drifting fashion. Perhaps if she focused less, the walls of her spirit would crack and a bit more—she wasn’t sure—a bit more something would be able to seep through. When they got back planetside, she would have to get to the bottom of all this. Some clinical experimentation in not being so clinical.

The hunt was still beautiful, certainly, but Dern said he’d take her to the lava flows on the eastern islands, that they could Stream to the ice moons of Sharenon. She wanted it all, and she wanted him again. Maybe that was all she really needed. She’d almost forced him into it that morning, but she couldn’t shirk her duties quite so fully.

Perhaps after the hunt. Once their mission was complete, she could easily explain that Dern had needed to heal, so it had taken longer than expected to return to the Longdock. “Dern,” she said, excited by the idea, “once this is over, perhaps—”

A sound from just over the next rise. A man’s voice. “Over there,” she said, her idle fantasy forgotten. “We’ve found them.” And she took off at a splice-enhanced run.

“Nya, wait!” Dern shouted, trying to keep up. He didn’t stand a chance.

She made it to the top of the rise, dropping behind a boulder for cover. In the valley below, beside a small pool of water, stood nearly thirty men, women, and children. What? There, off to one side, was the man from her dossier. She blinked the image back up, she hadn’t realized she’d stopped doing that. There was so much she’d stopped doing. She altered her hearing, blocked out the echo. She had her orders.

She stood, raised her weapon, and pointed it at the man. “Nya!” Dern shouted, finally beside her, and the commotion caught the attention of all those by the pool. Some of the children screamed, but the mothers comforted them.

“You,” she said to the man, “are charged with overloading a civ tower and murdering nearly two thousand people.”

“I told you they’d find us,” said a woman to the man from her files.

“Do not be afraid,” he said to the woman. “God has led us here, for this place shall be our salvation. We must have faith.” He drew the woman the young child with his likeness in close, hugging them tight.

“What’s going on? Who are these people?” Nya shouted at him, advancing.

Dern kept pace with her. “Nya, wait. This isn’t what it seems.”

She spun, pointing her gun at him instead. “Do you know something about this?”

“Whoa,” he said, as if reassuring an animal. “Nya, listen.”

“Do you know something about this?!” she asked again, shouting this time, awash with emotions she didn’t understand.

“There’s something I need to tell you, something I should’ve told you.”

“Tell me.” He stepped closer, but she thrust the gun out, and he stopped. “Fucking tell me.”

“Nya, you’re, you aren’t what you think you are.” What? “You, you’re just one of The Unity’s assassins. To them, you’re not a person, but to me, you are. I’ve always thought you were real.”

“I don’t understand.”

“There’s a reason you haven’t done anything, haven’t felt anything. Every time they need you to hunt someone down, they pull you out of cryo and send you on the mission. They manufacture some false evidence to give you a reason to destroy someone who’s displeased them. And that hope for advancement? That’s how they keep you going. But when the mission’s complete, they just wipe your memory and store you away. You’re just a tool to them, a weapon made of flesh.”

“No, that’s not true. I—” But she thought back, thought back as far as she could, and found that her memories were all a haze, closer to the idea of memory than to truth, as if someone had simply told her what ought to be there.

“They designed you to have no purpose but to kill, but I know that’s not you. I know there’s a real you in there. I’ve seen it. I saw it last night. I felt it last night.”

“You’re lying.”

“These people,” Dern said, gesturing to them. “They didn’t kill anyone. They’re refugees, fleeing The Unity for a better way of life, for a chance at freedom.”

At that, one of them broke into a run. Nya spun, fired. The dirt in front of his feet exploded and he stood still. “Nobody move!” she shouted, then turned back to Dern. “That’s why you came on this trip. You knew about this. You’re a discordant. You wanted to help these, these traitors.”

“I wanted to help you.” He stepped closer. “The real you.”

“Don’t move.” Her thoughts were overloading. It couldn’t be true. It was true. She knew it was. More surely than she’d ever known anything. She hadn’t ever known anything, had she? She’d simply been programmed to act. But wasn’t that true of everyone? Was Dern a good man for helping this people? Or was it just in his genes? Dern was a good man. There was no free will. He chose this. He loved her. There was no love.

“I wanted to show you who you could be, I wanted to unlock the person inside. I love you, Nya.” He walked to her. “Every time they woke you up, I loved you a little more. The days when you were with me, I felt alive, and the days when you stored away, frozen—they were cold. We don’t have to go back to The Unity. We have the Longdock. We can go anywhere. I’ll take you to the stars, Nya. You and me, together.”

She was crying again. She hated it, hated all of this. Things had been so easy before. But once again, she felt herself slipping, felt the emotions draining away. She was fighting that inner war, and it was as if her programming had adapted. It had sensed the threat last night, building up immunities.

The pulse gun shook in her hand. Her brain ached, a deep pain, lances of barbed steel more deadly than the beast’s tails. “No, I…” she trailed off. She screamed, then, a high, piercing thing, barely human.

It was like they were trying to erase her thoughts, like some subroutine had kicked in, a last resort, like everything that had happened in the last few weeks were shattering dissipating, turning into nothing more than an echo.

“I love you, Nya.” He came closer, extended a hand. “I’m here. I’m here with you. We can work through this. Go to the medic’s citadel on Chyla, see if they can help you. Whatever it is, we can face it.”

She blinked back tears, raging against herself, wanting only to be with him, to take his hand, to flee everything. She could do it. She could. She gritted her teeth, reached out with her left hand, and grasped his, feeling the warmth of him, feeling how truly, utterly alive he was, how real, and human, and full of emotion, how—

“Dern,” she said as the gun went off. Her voice was a pleading, wilting cry, a desperate, hopeless, manic thing, and the gun fired again, and again, and again, and her voice was lost among the screams.


There was nothing like a long shower to wash away the weeks of interminable vacation. The tropical islands of Mehenaar had been unquestionably beautiful, but one could take only so much beauty. After a time, lounging in an unchangeably perfect climate can begin to feel like a hellish sort of stasis. END

Russ Nickel is a screenwriter in Los Angeles. His first feature film, “Bear With Us,” has won a number of awards on the festival circuit. He is currently working on other screenplays. This is his first professionally published science fiction story.


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