Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor



Originally published in Perihelion Science Fiction. Free science fiction stories, science articles, comic strips, reviews, and more, on the Internet. Every month, Perihelion presents solid stories with strong plots, intriguing characters, with a sense of wonder reminiscent of the classic science fiction pulp magazines from the ’60s and ’70s. Artwork is by award winning illustrators. Articles are by experts in their fields. Established in 1967, originally as a print magazine, by Sam Bellotto Jr. and Eric M. Jones, the magazine was revisioned in 2012 as an online publication, and has been published regularly every month since. For the best in entertainment and information, bookmark Perihelion on your favorites list.

Copyright © 2015 by Holly Schofield.

Fermi’s Garage

By Holly Schofield

“WHERE ARE THEY?” I LOOKED UP at the moonlight pouring through the trusses on Tom’s half-built garage.

“The contractors? They said they’d be back four days ago,” he said, pushing the stroller back and forth with one foot. Tom’s two-month-old daughter, Helga, grinned out at me and blinked, the nictitating membranes descending like clear glass over her eyes.

“What about your building contract? The deadlines and penalties kick in now, surely?” I sat on the cold foundation wall, keeping my distance from Helga. The contractors had broken ground on Halloween, I remembered, and Tom had put fake gravestones in the shallow excavation, startling the neighborhood kids who shortcutted down our shared alley. The bare studs had gone up after Christmas, and now, in the mid-May dusk, jutted up like skeletal ribs.

Tom’s voice was low. “Jackie, there was no contract. They were all I could get in this rock-and-roll economy. They said take it or leave it. I couldn’t even get a quote from another contractor.” He rocked the stroller harder, sending up a small cloud of sawdust. “They got another job, down on Ross Street. I’ll be lucky to see them again before fall.” He gave the stroller a hard shove in disgust, probably more than he intended. Helga sat up, looked at me, and placed her hands neatly on her knees Buddha-style. I might be a grandma to most of the neighborhood kids but, with Helga, I just smiled and kept my seat. I knew better than to hold out a finger.

“She snapped a rattle right in half yesterday,” Tom said and chuckled indulgently. “I’m thinking of getting some of those rubber dog toys—to use as teething rings, you know?” Helga gripped the edges of the stroller, visibly bending in the sides.

“I still don’t see how you passed all the federal gene-tweaking rules, Tom. I know how hard it was to get my hips replaced, and it’s umpteen times harder to get approval to improve a baby.” The cold concrete helped to relieve the constant ache in my pelvis. Perfect technology, the new hips were not.

“It’s what and who you know.” Tom said, his sympathy evident. “My paper on shortened telomeres gave me the reputation that gave me the contacts with the feds. Helga’s genes are a prototype, sure, but it’s a given that the laws will soften. Who wants to inherit HIV-sensitivity? Or cystic fibrosis? Or osteoarthritis? Who doesn’t want their kid to be better, smarter, stronger? The feds’ll eventually approve the techniques for everyone, given time and public pressure.”

“What about the folks who say we should just go with evolutionary pressure and leave well enough alone?” I rubbed my index finger where Helga’s jaw had crushed the tendons a month ago.

Tom hesitated. “Last conference, at Phoenix,” he said slowly, “There were rumors about some gene research that’s currently being peer-reviewed on the quiet. It seems that Homo sapiens’ evolution has suddenly—and, by that, I mean over the last 15,000 years—stopped. Just stopped. In its tracks.” I must have looked puzzled because he put a firm grip on Helga’s leg and pulled off one of her tiny pink socks. “Jackie, look at her terminal phalanges—her toenail isn’t any smaller than babies’ were generations ago. And she still has a plantaris muscle, useless as it is.”

I uh-huh’d, still not grasping his point.

He looked me in the eye. “Neither of those are genes I changed.”

“I thought each generation’s pinky toes are smaller than the last?” As public liaison for the astronomy department at Western Alberta University, genetics weren’t on my mental radar much but I tried to keep current in most disciplines.

“That theory’s been disproved. And directional selection—improvements in our body shape—things like more height or an expanded brain case: those have also halted. Like someone slammed on the brakes.” His bicep bulged in the effort to hold Helga’s leg steady enough to replace her sock. “As a species, we’ve stabilized, become static, for no known reason. If this paper gets published, it will blow the world of evolutionary understanding wide open.” He grinned suddenly, like a little boy. “We always think we have a handle on a theory until we actually try to do it. Just like home renovation.”

We both looked up at the bleak wooden shell above. Clouds scuttled by and I shivered in the evening chill. “Whatcha gonna do, Tom? About the garage?”

He thumped a hand against the nearest stud. “I figure the framing they did was the hardest part, so I can do the rest myself. It’ll take me a year of weekends and I may have the usual DIY disasters but what choice do I—” My cell rang and he politely stopped mid-sentence.

“Jackie, it’s Laura, from the Mars Now blog? Have you heard?” The voice was mildly familiar and the tone was urgent.

“Heard what?” I subvocalized a command to my phone to project a news site on a sheet of plywood propped against the wall in front of me. The top headline blinked at me: Water makers found on Mars.

“Water makers?” I said. The term meant nothing to me and I still couldn’t place the voice.

“So you heard. I need an opinion and I need it now. Before all the nay-sayers post, you follow?”

I remembered her now. Laura worked for the pro-Mars-settlement movement.

“I’m reading it now,” I said, “The Mars rover found alien machines that are making actual H-two-oh? Is this for real?” I subvocalized a crosscheck. NASA insider tweets verified the story although NASA itself had not yet released a formal statement, or even a supratweet.

“Alien machinery! Terraforming Mars! Isn’t it cool?” Laura was so enthralled she’d lost her usual articulateness. That was one of the reasons I’d given her quotes before. She was the genuine article—a Mars fan.

“Well, I don’t think terraform is precisely the right word ...” I said, then hesitated. I knew whatever I said next would be tweeted, blogged, and spread to a thousand websites in seconds. “Let me get back to you in about five minutes.” I hung up on her wails of protest.

“Holy shizzle.” Tom reverted to his childhood curse words. “Aliens!” He picked up Helga absently and sat on the foundation wall next to me. “The Fermi paradox, that aliens would have come if they could have come—that’s blown away then?” He tried to keep up with other disciplines, too, but research information seemed to flow like a tsunami these past few years.

“Maybe. Let’s take things at face value for now.” I explained the crosschecks I’d done to my confidential contacts at NASA. “Whatever this is, whether the rover is reporting bad data or not, it’s a PR opportunity. Someone, a person, not a probe, is gonna have to check this out. Space travel to Mars. This could be the break we need.” Tom knew all about my driving ambition to put a human on Mars and my theory that doing so would kickstart the economy.

I thought it over. I must be missing something. “Why would aliens modify Mars? More importantly, why now?” I made a goofy face at Helga. “Why now, little cutie? What’s changed?”

Tom and I looked at each other. “The rover,” we said together.

“But Curiosity has been there eleven years,” I said, “and it’s almost dead.”

“Perhaps it took the aliens that long to reach Mars?” He bounced Helga on his knee.

I nodded. “Prevailing theory does have them owning FTL.”

Helga kicked a leg, Tom almost dropped her, and he put her back in the stroller, setting her on hands and knees. She immediately kneeled and smiled at us with toothless gums.

“This is surreal.” My head spun as my fingers flicked over various news sites. “Something else must have changed.”

“Maybe the aliens’ve finished modifying those nearby exoplanets, Gliese and whatnot, and they’re tackling our solar system next?”

“Funny, Tom.” I sat back and flicked my phone dark. All the news sites had the same, limited information. My heart was thudding and I wanted to howl like a wolf. A lifetime of hoping. And now they had arrived.

“Or, they’ve finished modifying Earth and now they’ve gotten the Mars reno job?” Tom’s teeth gleamed in the moonlight.

I aimed for a joking tone but didn’t quite bring it off. “Here’s a thought. They’re not planet sculptors. They’re gene sculptors.” I said. “Think about it. There’s another recent development: our new ability to edit our DNA.”

“Hey, you’re right, the timing fits. A lot of those techniques are less than a year old.” Tom went on about recent developments in homologous recombination and chimeric proteins and plasmic vectors but I let the tsunami of words wash over me and tried to connect some dots.

“Tom, it all jibes. The aliens have finished modifying us. They’re done. Evolution has apparently stalled, remember?” I pointed at Helga’s feet then leant my head back against a stud. Above, constellations shone through the disappearing clouds. “Like your garage contractors, they’ve left us to finish the job ourselves. On ourselves.”

Tom squeezed his eyes shut for a moment then opened them wide. “So now they’re ready to create Martians? They’ve spent the last year travelling from Earth to Mars?” He rubbed his face. He was starting to take this seriously, too. After a moment, he managed a grin. “Come to think of it, that’s kind of slow. Must be paid by the hour.”

My answering grin was weak and probably lopsided. “These aliens do remind me of home reno contractors. Have you ever known one to finish a job or to be on time?” Helga stood on wavering legs, reaching for an errant nail protruding above her head. I continued, glad my voice had steadied. “I guess our DIY skills are about to get a workout.”

Helga chortled, grasped the nail in her chubby fist and bent it upwards, toward the stars. END

Holly Schofield has been published in “AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review,” and “Tesseracts.” Her previous story for “Perihelion” was in the 12-APR-2014 issue.