Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Watchman, What of the Night?
by Eric Del Carlo

Enemy From Nowhere
by Jeffery Scott Sims

Dance by the Light of the Moon
by Milo James Fowler

Continue Program?
by Seth Chambers

Perfect Blue, Scorched Black
by Rachael Acks

Catastrophic Failure
by David Steffen

Twice Upon a Midnight Dreary
by Richard Zwicker

Screwed by Frankie Frog
by Tim McDaniel

Infinite (∞) LDK
by Ryu Ando

by Sara Backer


Time in a Bottle
by Eric M. Jones

A Real Death Star
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips





By Sara Backer

ON SCREEN, THE TINY PLANET was too perfectly round and smooth, almost entirely covered by vegetation, and enveloped in a gently oscillating light lavender haze. It looked like a green gumball rolling in a chiffon scarf.

“Still no communication?” I asked Jonah.

He shook his head.

“I think they’ll do business,” I decided. “They’re so remote, we’ve got to have something on board they want. Let’s move in.”

“Wait, something just came in,” Jonah said. “No visual contact, just a single word.”


“Stop,” Jonah said.

“Stop what?”

“Just stop.”

“Okay, we’ll stop.” I leaned into the microphone. “This is Captain Charlotte Wall of the Gray Traders Fleet—”

I broke off my introduction. We were much closer to the planet than we should have been. Now, the lavender haze had emerged as a fine mesh—a large, delicate, glowing net. It grew closer still. I turned to my helmsman. “Wallop, did you accelerate?” I hoped he hadn’t been drinking.

“No, Captain,” Wallop said. “I stopped the ship. The planet is what’s moving— toward us. Quickly.”

As the planet approached, its surrounding haze appeared to be a flexible grid. “It’s a net. Get us out of here.”

Wallop worked his console. “Nothing’s happening.”

“Brunghese, how’s our power?”

Brunghese de la O was an extremely bright young engineer with a passionate nature. She could have had a government space career if she had learned to control her temper. She reminded me of myself in my younger years.

“We have plenty of power, Captain,” Brunghese reported. “The problem must be in the interface.”

“Well, find a way to fix it,” I snapped. The lavender veil was upon Windraker’s nose. Inexorably, we plunged into it.

What happened next was quiet and steady. The mesh wrapped itself around Windraker, slowly and methodically. Helpless, we saw the phosphorescent web engulf our ship. Then we saw nothing.

It might have been easier to see nothing as blackness, as if it were merely the lack of light limiting our vision, but it was whiteness that we saw. Not cloudy or mobile like fog or smoke, but solid and bright. Perhaps it was like being packed inside a glacier—an airy, room-temperature glacier.

I looked down. My own body had been incorporated into the whiteness. I moved my hand in front of my face. I felt my hand move, but saw nothing. I wasn’t blinded; I knew my eyes were seeing. It was just that everything—even my eyelashes—had been lost in a white light.

I called to the others on the bridge. “Jonah? Wallop?” No reply. “Brunghese?” I knew I had spoken, but my ears couldn’t hear my own voice.

I felt for my arms ... and felt nothing. In a spurt of panic, I reached for my hair, my face. I had all the sensations of reaching, but none of being touched.

I breathed deeply to steady myself, and was able to feel air enter my lungs, though it made no sound. That calmed me enough to venture a step forward.

My foot didn’t land on the floor. It held, suspended, wherever I moved it. As an experiment, I tried to step up. It was as if an imaginary step formed itself under my boot. But when I tried to raise my other foot, the first pushed the imaginary step back down, preventing me from “climbing” the white space.

I knew the layout of the bridge by heart, but my hands and feet were unable to feel any landmarks. My consciousness and sense of my corporal being remained, but I had no physical reality with which to interact. I wondered how my crew was faring, deprived of sensation as I was. It occurred to me that we might be moving through each other, for all we knew. I decided to remain still and wait.

After about twenty long minutes, the whiteness slowly rolled back and Windraker unrolled, like a painting, into sight again. First, I saw the wall to my right. I was relieved to see Brunghese reappear, right to left, her fists clenched and face tight with fear and anger. Then, Wallop’s blond ponytail and the back of his gray uniform rolled into view in front of me, along with the helm and a portion of the viewing screen. I watched myself become visible, my outstretched fingertips flowing into my hand, my wrist, the sleeve of my uniform, until, completely returned, I stumbled from standing on one foot. The rest of the ship and crew reemerged as the whiteness receded, and was gone.

We had passed through the net, and were now in orbit around the green planet.

I looked around, relieved that no one had been harmed. Brunghese was the most upset—losing control is always hardest on engineers—but she plunged into her work, trying to fix the engines. Wallop went over to help her.

I spoke softly to Jonah. “Any insight as to what just happened?”

“It was an unusual and interesting experience for me,” Jonah commented. “In my state of non-sensory awareness, I made telepathic contact with a humanoid on the planet.”

“Good job, Jonah! What did you find out?”

“The planet is called Menden. They say we have killed a Mender technician who was making repairs on their satellite net. They demand reparation.”


Through Jonah, we arranged a meeting aboard Windraker. The Menders were three-fourths our size. Their eyes were the blue of a newborn human, and hooded with an extra skin fold. When they blinked, two sets of eyelids closed down, and remained down for about two seconds. Their skin tones ranged from pale to bright green. They wore simple robes made of plant fiber and dyed with berry juice.

Jonah explained that the Menders didn’t speak; they communicated through telepathy or, when distance or illness hampered telepathy, a tapping code. As a rational telepath, he agreed to interpret if our translation devices couldn’t convey an accurate enough meaning for the tapping system.

The shortest one, a woman slightly over one meter tall, tapped her forefinger rapidly on a three centimeter square pad dangling from her sleeve. She introduced herself as the Menders’ council leader and judge, Lu-en. I stepped forward to welcome her to Windraker and shake her hand. My hand was repelled by a force field.

“All Menders maintain personal force shields,” she tapped. “It makes our lives easier.”

I found this statement odd, but Lu-en continued to introduce the others. The stout man with a shiny green forehead was Jhak-en, the council administrator. The thick crest of his brown hair came just up to my shoulders. The third Mender, a thin, pale man named Rehebu-en, was the husband of the technician, Chi-en, whom they claimed we had killed. Rehebu-en nodded his chin almost imperceptibly and resumed staring at his cloth boots.

Seated in our conference room with Jonah at my side, I began by saying, “Please know it was never our intention to harm any of your citizens. Chi-en’s death was an accident for which we are deeply sorry.”

Lu-en waited as if I hadn’t finished.

Jonah leaned toward me and spoke softly. “That did not fully translate, Captain. There are no Menden concepts for accidental, intention or sorry. You offered denial, followed by two inadequate excuses and an expression of a meaningless feeling. She is waiting for some real information.”

A culture that had no concept of being sorry? This could make them capable of a great deal of damage. I tried again. “Are you certain Windraker was the cause of Chi-en’s death?”

Jonah confirmed the translation device handled that.

Lu-en and Jhak-en looked at each other. They neither smiled nor displayed anger. Rehebu-en had an expression of stoic suffering, but if I hadn’t known his wife had died, I might have said his demeanor was simply serious, or even passively uncooperative. Lu-en pressed her hands together and then tapped on her pad. “We are willing to allow you to see the body of Chi-en.”

“How will her body proved we killed her?” Jonah asked.

“Her body will prove she is dead,” Lu-en responded. “Our recording of your ship breaking through the net will prove the cause of her death.” She placed a computer chip on the table. “Is this compatible with your computer?”

While Jonah examined the chip, I asked the next question that came to my mind. “How is it that you have a record of this event?”

“Menders wear personal recording equipment at all times,” Lu-en answered at once. “It makes our lives easier.”

I began to wonder what kind of people the Menders were, to find it “easier” to live inside personal force fields and to document everything they did. By my standards, this was paranoia, not comfort.

Jonah played the chip through our holographic display. The lavender net, aglow and up close. A spider-like machine outside a shuttle craft. This machine used four front arms to feed torn and fraying lavender strands into its body, and four rear arms to guide the smooth, repaired threads back into the net. From time to time, we saw hands working a miniature spider-machine inside the shuttle. They were well-kept, light green feminine hands. The nails were neatly trimmed and painted dark green.

Lu-en halted the display. “For four hours, thirty-seven minutes and ten seconds, Chi-en does her work. Would you like to view it all, or move forward to the moment that she notices Windraker?”

“Forward,” I said.

At the first glimpse of Windraker in the distance, Chi-en began to untangle her hands from the miniature control. Windraker moved closer. When her fingers were free, Chi-en reached for a terminal and tapped her fingernails on a sensitive pad. Clicking sounds returned through her headset.

Chi-en then opened a new program, which displayed a single word in various languages, and started tapping codes into a different pad. Each was the word for STOP.

Windraker sped up—faster than the glide speed of our engines. Chi-en quit tapping the code and pulled one of two violet levers. She had to tap in two access codes before she was able to pull the second lever. Just as she finished, Windraker zoomed into the net.

As our large vessel nosed in, the mesh of the net expanded. Four strands of violet stretched out to allow an entire starship to pass through! But the other parts of the net tightened to a mere three or four meters between each fiber.

Chi-en’s shuttle rocked wildly. The spider-machine lurched off the net and crashed through the window of the tiny craft. The shuttle jerked this way and that, but by the time it freed itself, it was obvious the cabin had depressurized and killed Chi-en.

Lu-en ejected the recording chip. “Perhaps you would like to know that Chi-en’s last action was to loosen the net so that your ship and crew would survive.”

As a rule, I’m not sentimental, but I was moved by this. We were strangers to the Mender, perhaps an enemy as far as they knew, yet Chi-en, knowing nothing about us, chose to save our lives. And I would know nothing about her except the look of her agile green hands. “We had no idea that this was happening,” I said. “We deeply and sincerely regret the death of this woman.”

“Your ignorance is logical,” Lu-en tapped, her face steady and calm, “but of no interest to the council and Rehebu-en. We came solely for reparation.”

Jonah touched my hand. I knew he was warning me not to jump to any conclusions. He asked: “What can we do for you?”

Lu-en and Jhak-en nodded at each other. Rehebu-en kept his head down, still fascinated with his own boots. This time, Jhak-en tapped the code. “In Earth years, Chi-en was forty-one when she died. The average Menden life-span is sixty-two years. Ergo, the Menden society has lost twenty-one working years of an experienced technician. Rehebu-en has likewise lost twenty-one years of societal participation vouchers for his family.”

Chi-en’s husband didn’t even look up at the mention of his name. I wondered if he agreed with the others.

“The Menders have also lost a shuttle craft and much of the equipment on it, detailed in this inventory list. As a gesture of good faith, we are not holding you responsible for the net repair machine, which had only minor damage that might have occurred from daily wear and tear.”

Jonah took the pad from Jhak-en’s hand and showed it to me. “I don’t think we’ll have any problem replacing your shuttle craft and its contents. We’ll have our chief engineer personally handle any technological modifications.”

Jhak-en resumed tapping. “So, all that is left is for you to choose one of your crew members to take Chi-en’s place for the next twenty-one years.”

“Perhaps we can make reparation with medicine, instead? Or technology? Or food?” I suggested. “We are traders; why don’t you tour our cargo and see what you would like?”

Jhak-en shook his head and turned to Lu-en. Lu-en took over the communication. “This is not a matter of negotiation. We request what we’ve lost: nothing else and nothing more. These are the only acceptable terms. If you do not choose a crew member to replace Chi-en in the next hour, we will choose for you. In the interest of responsibility, we will choose one who was on the bridge at the time of the collision.”

“What if we don’t accept these terms?” I asked.

Lu-en shrugged. “Menders are not violent. If you leave, we will let you go. But we will not help you go.”

This baffled me until Jonah signaled to me.

“There is more than what she says,” Jonah said softly. “If we leave, we will go directly to our demise in the net that surrounds their planet. On the other hand, if we accept their terms, they will loosen the net as Chi-en did and allow us to leave unharmed.”

“Can’t you make them understand this was a tragic accident?” I urged him. “We didn’t mean to enter the net or cause any harm.”

“Telepathy would not achieve their understanding. The closest translation for accident is a Mender word that means a child’s poor excuse. Their word for intention means insanity poor excuse or religion poor excuse. I could not convey feelings for you.”

“I guess you couldn’t.” I sighed. “Can we have more than an hour to make our choice?”

Lu-en sat in silent communication with Jhak-en, and presumably Rehebu-en. “You may have one additional hour.”

Jhak-en added to her message, “But you will then need to compensate Lu-en, myself and Rehebu-en for our extra time as well.”

“All right, then. Two hours.”

The Menders bowed their heads and left for the shuttle dock. I turned to Jonah. “What do you make of all this?”

“The Menders strike me as a rational people. They did not harbor hostility for our mistake, nor did they seek special favors in exchange for Chi-en’s merciful act of saving our lives. They merely want us to make up for their loss. Their terms are actually quite reasonable.”

“I can’t abandon one of our crew to live in exile on a remote planet for the rest of his or her life.” I paced the room. “There’s got to be something else we have that they want.”

“We should visit the planet,” Jonah said. “We have a good reason: Brunghese needs to modify our technology to replace their shuttle craft cargo. The Menders will see us busy meeting one of their terms and we can look around while we’re there.”

“Good idea,” I said. “You and Brunghese meet me at the shuttle dock. Let’s find out all we can about Menden.”


Menden was the twelfth planet in its solar system, far from its sun, En, and formerly uninhabited. The original Menders were colonists from the sixth planet, Khenden. At one time, the surface had had its share of hills and valleys, but the Menders had razed Menden to reduce shade to the minimum. In doing so, they had discovered a pliable, phosphorescent mineral. They had found a way to shape this mineral into the net which they put in orbit around Menden.

With further alterations and enhancements, the net was able not only to absorb light for Menden, but gently accelerate the speed of light. (This, I realized, was how Windraker’s speed toward the net had unexpectedly increased.) The net preserved and amplified what little light their sun gave them. It was dim, but continuous, like a perpetual winter morning in Scotland.

The uniform greenness of Menden was caused by vast, shallow farming. Sprouts and root crops covered the flat fields. Algae farms were grown over deep plankton beds in their shallow oceans. The flat roof of every one-story house and factory was covered with fola beans or other edibles that withstood a lack of light. The basement of every building grew mushrooms. In winter, Menden turned white with snow, and they relied on dried food. They called their two seasons “agricultural season” and “technological season.” This was their summer, and most of their citizens were working in the fields. Only a skeletal crew of top technologists worked year-round, mainly to preserve the net.

Brunghese joined Mender engineers, taking Jonah with her to translate difficult details. Wallop and others offered to work in the fields. Though he said nothing, Jhak-en seemed pleased that we humans were getting to work. Jhak-en informed me that Rehebu-en now had no one to meet his son at school and escort him to the onion fields where Rehebu-en worked. I eagerly volunteered. Over the years, I had learned that the fastest way to get to know a culture is by observing what they teach their children.

The school, like all buildings, was a one-story complex with plants growing on the roof. In the hallway, I was struck by the silence. Babies cried, and small children screamed and laughed, but by the time Menders entered school, they had learned not to make noise.

In one class, quiet green children were curled over their desks, practicing the tapping code with sentence dictation.

“Silence prevents lies.”

“The voice is a weak door for emotions to pass through.”

“Feelings, not stones, cause fights.”

“The greatest virtue is responsibility.”

I moved to the next classroom, where students practiced geometry with their holomarkers.

In the third room, younger children happily dipped cloth into jars of dye and cut pieces to add to a group collage project. The teacher saw me at the door and motioned me inside. She pointed to one boy with alert blue eyes and curly brown hair atop his pale green head. “Go with her, Chibu-en,” she tapped.

I could tell Chibu-en didn’t want to come, but he made no protest other than dawdling in washing his hands and putting his tools away. I smiled and held out my hand. “I’ll take you to your father.”

He refused my hand and stuck out his chin. “I could go by myself.”

“I’m sure you could,” I said, hearing the translator turn my words into clicks. “Would you be my navigator and lead the way?”

We walked out into the narrow cobblestone street. Chibu-en kicked a small stone ahead of him, as children on countless planets have done for thousands of years. Suddenly, he turned to face me, and tapped, “Are you the alien who killed my mommy?”

I crouched on my knees to meet his face eye-level. “No, Chibu-en. Your mother died because my ship fell into your net.” I tried to say, “Her death was an accident,” but the translator changed my words to, “I use a child’s poor excuse for her death.”

He eyed me suspiciously. “But you run the ship, so you are responsible. Will you become my new mommy?”

It had not occurred to me before that the crew member Lu-en and Jhak-en requested in Chi-en’s place would be performing more than her technical duties. That certainly explained Rehebu-en’s sullen face.

“No, Chibu-en. Whatever happens—”

“Good!” He interrupted. “Because I don’t want an icky pink mommy—and neither does daddy!” He looked around, expecting to be caught, but we were alone; no one was around to punish his emotional outburst.

“I don’t blame you,” I said. “Your mother was an extraordinary woman.”

He blinked his two eyelids. “You didn’t know her.”

“I know she was a hero. Did you know that she saved all of our lives?”

Chibu-en looked down. “She was like that. She was a dreamer. Daddy says she watched the sky from the day she was born. She always wanted to travel in space, and meet new people from other planets.”

“And instead, the new people travelled through space to meet you,” I said.

He began to cry. “I don’t like aliens. I want my mommy.”

I moved closer to hug him, but his personal force field kept me away.


Back on board Windraker, I knew Chibu-en was absolutely right; as Captain, the ultimate responsibility was mine, and if one of us had to take the punishment, it should be me.

The doors sprang apart as I entered the bridge. I went to Brunghese first. “Have you discovered anything the Menders need?”

“I’m afraid not, Captain.” Brunghese sighed. “Talk about neither borrower nor lender be ... these people are obsessed with self-sufficiency. They solve their own problems, never even leave their planet. No trade, no warfare. Their engineers are careful and patient. They conserve resources to an impressive degree.”

“I see,” I said, disappointed. “Jonah?”

“Perhaps as part of their scrupulous self-sufficiency, the Menders have a keen sense of justice. They would never accept material things in place of a person. They will only accept one of our people’s time in place of Chi-en’s time. I believe we must meet their terms.” Jonah drew himself up straighter. “But you will not need to make a choice among crew members, Captain. I volunteer. As a rational, I will not suffer as much, emotionally, from leaving Windraker.”

“No, you won’t,” I said. “If it comes to that, I’ll take responsibility for the mess I got us into.”

Jonah shook his head. “Your primary responsibility is to the Windraker.”

Brunghese bit her lip. “I’ll go. I’m an engineer, like Chi-en. I would fill her shoes the best.” Her dark brown eyes flashed desperation. She clearly didn’t want to be left behind.

Wallop looked around as if he would be expected to volunteer, next. “Maybe I should ... make us a nice pot of Ketuvian tea?” He winked at me, tipping his hand to indicate he would spike it.

“Stop this sacrificial nonsense at once, and that’s an order! We haven’t got time to indulge in martyrdom.” I glared at my officers. “We still have time to find other options. Our hour’s almost—”

A signal from Menden cut my words short. This time, only Lu-en appeared on screen. “One hour is over. Our shuttle and supplies have been sufficiently replaced. Now, please send Chi-en’s replacement.”

“We need our second hour,” I replied.

Lu-en nodded. “You may have it.” She signed off.

“All right,” I said. “We will find another way out of here. Present your solutions ASAP. I’ll be in my ready room.”

Alone, I stood at my window, trying to see stars through the film of the net, longing to resume our trade route. Had Chi-en looked at the same view with a comparable frustration? How hard it must have been for her to want to be an explorer in a culture that no longer travelled in space. The net was the closest she had ever come to the stars.

There had to be a better solution. What was preventing me from finding a way to make reparation and keep our crew intact? My grief for Chi-en and her son? My loyalty to my officers?

A visitor beeped at my door. “Come in,” I called out.

To my surprise, the visitor was Rehebu-en, accompanied by Jonah.

“Rehebu-en, come in, sit down. What can I do for you?”

He perched stiffly on the edge of a padded chair built for a taller race. He tapped, “I forgive you. I release you from reparation on my behalf.”

“Thank you,” I said softly. I tapped the words, though words alone couldn’t express my feeling. “But why?”

Rehebu-en held his stony look. “My wife is irreplaceable. I do not want one of you in my house, raising my son.”

“I understand. Is there anything we can do for you?”

He thought for a moment and his face softened slightly. “You can take Chi-en’s ashes and scatter them in space. She always wanted to fly among the stars.”

“Consider it done.” I matched Rehebu-en’s solemn bow, and Jonah escorted him out.

I hailed the council from my private computer. Jhak-en, with his bushy crest and bright skin, came into view. “May I speak to Lu-en?”

Jhak-en’s face pushed larger onto the screen. “The judge is asleep. I am in charge. We have chosen your engineer, Brunghese de la O, to replace Chi-en. Have her prepare to beam down.”

“Rehebu-en has released us from reparation,” I tapped.

Jhak-en shook his head, and his hair quivered. “He may do that. But that doesn’t release you from your obligation to Menden society. Our council has lost a valuable technician.”

“Lu-en gave us another hour to make our own choice,” I said.

Jhak-en pointed to the time piece on the wall behind him. “You have fifteen minutes left. I was merely being considerate, giving Brunghese a few minutes to pack some of her things. But we’ll take her without them if you haven’t given us someone equally capable in ... fourteen minutes, ten seconds.” He ended the communication.

Years, hours, minutes, seconds. These people kept excruciating ledgers of responsibility, this for that, tit for tat. Twenty-one years for an expected life-span. Plus three more hours for our extra hour ... and the solution came to me.

I ran to the bridge. “Jonah, how many hours would Chi-en have worked for the next twenty-one years?”

“Forty-one thousand, one hundred and sixty,” Jonah readily replied.

“Get me a connection. I want to talk to Lu-en and Jhak-en together.” I turned to Jonah. “Figure out a shift rotation for minimal maintenance of Windraker. Tell everyone to expect a new assignment with considerable overtime, to start in a few minutes. Can you get their cooperation?”

“I’m sure I can.” Jonah’s eyes caught fire as he guessed my idea. “But will the Menders cooperate?”

“Let’s hope so.” I tugged my jacket straight. “I’m ready.”

Lu-en looked sleepy, and Jhak-en began by saying we should add another hour to our reparation for extending her work shift.

“Fine. Since Rehebu-en has released us from personal debt to his family, it seems we owe you 41,160 hours of work, plus four, to complete our reparation.”

Jhak-en began to tap. “You owe us a person who—”

Lu-en stopped his hand. She was willing to listen.

“I offer you 41,164 hours—from our entire crew.”

My offer was met with silence.

“My helmsman reports you are behind schedule in the middle of harvest. Our crew will ensure you bring in this year’s crop on time. As we are all experienced with technology, we will repair your entire net. We will work in our best capacities, and we will not consume any of your resources. Do you find this reparation acceptable?”

Lu-en blinked twice, four times. She and Jhak-en looked at each other. “We do.”


In two weeks, we had finished our reparation and even made a trade with them. They gave us seeds of fola beans and other plants that grew with little light; we designed a computer program to expedite net repair.

Brunghese was concerned that the Menders wouldn’t loosen their net to release us, but I believed their sense of justice would keep them honest.

We knew what to expect from crossing the net this time, and held still as we entered the glacier-like whiteness. Though I wasn’t worried this time, I was nonetheless relieved when the whiteness rolled back and the net accelerated our propulsion away from Menden until it was but a green spot in a lavender blur.

I set the urn of Chi-en’s ashes on the shuttle pad. “Go, Chi-en. Fly among the stars.”

The transport engineer pulled the lever, and the urn vanished.

On my signal, Windraker accelerated and we resumed our course. END

Sara Backer is the author of the acclaimed mainstream novel, “American Fuji.” Her science fiction poetry has appeared in “Asimov’s.” Her stories have been published in “Writers of the Future,” “The Lorelei Signal,” and other literary markets.