Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Their Trailing Skies for Vestment
by Joseph Green
and Shelby Vick

by Nathaniel Heely

Mapping in the Darkness
by Siobhan Gallagher

Hard Passage
by Holly Schofield

by Linda A.B. Davis

In Therapy With an Alien Cabdriver
by John Skylar

Dancing in the Black Blizzard
by Devin Miller

by Michael McGlade

Don't Think Twice
by Jack Ryan

Two in the Hand
by Jeff Samson


A Force of Gravity
by J. Richard Jacobs

Gravitational Waves
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips




In Therapy With an Alien Cabdriver

By John Skylar

What’s Yiddish for Nebbish?

ANOTHER GRAY, BORING DAY. I’D popped down to street level because I got tired of the hails from gray, boring business suit people up on the higher levels. I never pick up boring people. Call it profiling. A habit of my species. I’ve been on Earth nearly five years already, driving a cab, and I still felt pretty separated from humanity.

Maybe it had something to do with my envirosuit. I’m always separated from them by a thick and airtight enclosure, filled with the warm, wet, and Earth-poisonous gases of my homeworld. It also hides my “special” anatomy; my frog-like skin, my extraneous sensory tendrils ... the stuff that might make a fare think twice about hailing me. But, because it keeps me separated from the rest of the world, it makes me feel like I have a right to judge the people I see out on the street.

Not too many people were out on the main level, either, so I swung by the library. There’s always people—interesting ones—on the ground level by the library.

That’s when I spotted him. Young guy, but getting older. One of those bookish, hooked, Jewish noses. Glasses. And he had one of those little hats on, too. Kept looking up like it might rain. It never did that day, but he didn’t know that when he hailed me.

He had a pile of books the length of my right arm, and I thought we might get into some deep discussion of those holy texts his people are known for. When he got in I was a little bummed to see things like “Modern Spacecraft Engineering” written on all the spines. That’s interesting too, though.

“Where to, buddy?” I asked as he settled into the back of the cab.

“Lex and 53rd, at ten stories.” All business, this guy.

“Hey! I know that place, that’s Mayflower Design Labs. First ship I flew in was a Mayflower, a Brightliner.”

The kid snorted. “How’d an alien like you end up in a Brightliner? That’s one of my grandfather’s designs.”

“Oh jeez, kid! Your grandfather is Mike Mayflower?”

“Mike Epstein, actually. And my dad is Ari Epstein, you know, the Mayflower kid with five top ten designs? Mayflower’s just a trade name. Seriously, how’d you—”

“Hey, jackass!” I slammed on the brakes and the horn at the same time. Someone had cut me off while I was climbing altitude. “Sorry, kid. Where I come from, things were pretty backward ’til you folks showed up. Other spacefarers overlooked the place—not much oxygen. See the suit?” I pointed out my skintight, pressurized helmet number. At least, as best I could with both hands on the wheel.

“Shit, that must’ve been a long time ago, dude!”

I swerved around some hovering traffic. “Hey, kid, don’t remind me. Yeah, first ship I ever laid eyes on was a Brightliner. So you a designer like your dad?”

He frowned into the rearview mirror. “Like my dad? No, but everyone seems to think I should be.”

“Whaddya mean, kid?”

His frown got worse. “Ugh, everybody in my family tells me your grandfather was married by your age or your father had already designed three top sellers by 40, you’re only four years away! Every damn family Bar Mitzvah or wedding I gotta hear about this, and you know the worst part is, they’re right! I’m mediocre. I’m a damned ...” He trailed off into his despair, which seemed to be outside the cab window.

“Jeez, kid. Listen, it can’t be that bad.”

He reddened. “Not that bad? My best design was the Grasshopper! It didn’t even make the top 20! And I can’t even keep a steady girlfriend, the girl I want hates me and the girl who wants me, I can’t stand.”

I came to a red gate and had to stop, so I turned around to face him. Not like he’d be able to see anything but the tip of my ...“nose”... through the smoky air in my helmet. “You said a Grasshopper? Oh, geez, kid, that’s a great design. I flew one of those, once.”

He laughed, but still his eyes focused outside the window. “You flew a Grasshopper? No way. Not a chance in hell. We only made a few thousand, and we stopped ten years ago.”

“No joke, kid. One of my last spacer piloting gigs. We were running resupply for guerrilla fighters, resisting a Tree Man warlord out of Watanabe’s Star. They wanted me to take something with a little more heft, like an AY-22 or a Beast, but I wasn’t gonna have any of that shit, you know?”

“Hah, with all the weird gravity filaments out there? Those ships would be sitting ducks!”

“I know—nobody gets that! No, I wanted a Grasshopper. Better mass distro, a lot easier to handle. Couple of idiot groundpounder mercs didn’t see it my way, but I told them I wouldn’t fly unless it was light and fast. Those medical supplies needed to get there, you know?”

The kid wasn’t looking out the window anymore. “So what happened?” he asked from the edge of the backseat.

“Well, we got pinned down in a nebula by two Tree Man cruisers. Big and bristling types, just like their owners. I guess Powell’s Race designed them that way. We got pretty banged up, but you know as well as me that the Grasshopper is a real tough design for its weight class. I almost thought we wouldn’t make it out, but then I’d planned for the enemy to think that too.”

“How’s that help you? They could just pick you off, easy.”

I turned back to the airway. The gate light changed, and the cars behind me started to honk. “Heh, kid. That was the idea. They thought it’d be easy, so they kept their distance ’til we had to come out of the cloud. Didn’t want corrosive gases messing with their guns. So I drifted us over, all quiet like, to a grav filament, and then hit everything to the max and bugged out on full engines. They couldn’t chase me down without tearing their ships to pieces.”

His lips spelled out “wow,” but there was no sound. I got the feeling that these spaceshipwright Jews didn’t hear too many good stories about their designs.

“Yeah, and I couldn’tve done it in another ship. Only the Grasshopper can go from zero to full burn that fast and that hard. You built a good ship there, kid. Damn good ship.”

“Thanks, man. I just wish everybody else had seen that.” He looked at his feet.

“You think they didn’t? Those mercs on board tripped over themselves to apologize. They ordered a dozen of them to use as outriders and blockade runners. They’ve been tearing up engagements all over with ’em.”

“Shit! I’d heard a rumor, there was an uptick in used sales, but I didn’t know—” He cracked his first real smile.

“Oh, yeah, kid. Sometimes it takes awhile for something to be appreciated. You know I hear they said the Brightliner was a fuel-wasting piece of shit when it came out, took a couple years for it to catch on. Maybe there’s a lesson in that, you know?” We were getting close to his stop. I clicked the meter over so he could pay.

“What do you mean, dude?” He swiped his card.

“I mean that maybe comparing yourself to your old man in hindsight, there’s no way you’ll compare yet. You’re just getting started. Sometimes, it just takes awhile. He’s had a whole life to get where he got. You build some good ships, kid! And if you bring that to love, too, no doubt you’ll find a partner as keen as you are. You just gotta be patient. Wait for the right time to jump. Like your Grasshopper.”

There was a long pause, even though the cab was stopped and it was time to get out. “Yeah, buddy, I guess you’re right, Mr., uh ... how’s that name said?”

I laughed. “Just call me The Cabbie, kid. You’d need vocal cord surgery if you tried my real name. Have a good one! I’ll think of you next time I’m in a Grasshopper.”

He got out and strutted down the skywalk. Before I pulled away, I noticed he never once looked up to check for rain.

Vote Early, Vote Often, Vote Chen

It’s always fun to blow down Park Avenue at the classy elevations. It’s a hell of a thing to zip through a line of green traffic gates while hunting for that killer fare.

This particular day, the sun shone with that golden August light that threatens to disappear into September. To think I never knew such things on my homeworld.

On normal days, I find a man in a suit uninteresting as a fare. On a Sunday, though, the dark man on the corner in his beige suit was an irresistible person to bring into my cab. I pulled over the moment I saw him. A Blasian guy, with the soft, tapered almond eyes and dark skin that he shared with a good thirty percent of the middle class. No doubt a management worker in charge of some huge factory complex halfway around the world or in orbit, or something.

I slid to a stop right next to the tenth-story sidewalk and he opened the transfer door and extended the bridge. That’s when I recognized him.

As he hopped into the cab, I said, “Hey! Aren’t you—”

“Yeah, Rick Chen.”

“You’re running for mayor or something, right?”

He laughed. “City Council.” This guy was all smiles, but they looked more like a plastic mask over his face than real emotion. Human faces might be a second language to me, but I’m pretty fluent.

“Well. Where to, boss?”

“City Hall. Gotta put in a registration form for the election.”

“You do that yourself?” I asked as we pulled away.

“I kind of like to.” He paused to look out the cab window. “Reminds me I’m an actual person. It’s ... easy to forget.”

Now that was an invite to talk if I’d ever seen one.

“That politics thing getting you down?” I tried to ask it all casual-like. These humans, they spook easy when it comes to talking about their feelings. Damn shame my race isn’t telepathic, much.

Rick looked at me in the rearview for a long moment. Thanks to my faceplate, he couldn’t tell I was looking back. Finally, he said, “Oh, what the hell. Yeah, politics sucks.” He sighed, hard.

“Wow ... and here I thought you were winning the polls by a huge margin.”

“Well, that’s the thing! I am.”

I had to switch into manual control for a moment to change lanes around a double-parked hovertruck. “So what’s the problem then, buddy? Didn’t you want to win?”

He laughed. “See, that’s the thing. I’m the frontrunner. Everybody wants a piece of me. Construction firms, gangs, transport contractors, municipal supply companies! They all want me in their pocket. The offers keep coming, and coming ... and it all makes me feel dirty.”

I scoffed at the idea, or at least did the best my species can do for the same effect. “Yeah, no doubt. So you’re pretty anti-corruption, huh?”

“It’s most of my platform. But everyone is offering these huge benefits, and everyone on the council takes them ... the whole thing makes me sick, but I’ve got kids to put through university! I don’t know if I can handle this, I feel like I’m gonna crack. It already keeps me up at night.” He massaged his forehead with his hand.

“You know, there’s a lot to be said for staying strong when you’re in tight spots like that.”

“Oh yeah? You’d know something about that? I can’t even believe I’m telling you this. I’m just at my wits’ end, and plus ... who’d believe you?” He laughed.

I hit the accelerator, because he laughed at me. “You think I’ve been a hack forever, buddy? I do this ’cause I like it. I own my cab, and my medallion. I’ve been a lot of things in a lot of places, to a lot of people. I do this for the fun of it.”

He frowned. “I’m sorry, I—”

“Anyway, what I was gonna tell you about was a time I was a private investigator on Vega Station, after it got converted to general use.”

“Vega station? That was destroyed by Powell’s Race sixty years ago.”

“Yeah, I know. Like I said, I haven’t been a cabbie forever.” I took a deep breath, and made the next turn. “So I was a private eye on the station, looking into mislaid shipping and really anything else you’d expect in a border station. The proverbial smoldering redhead walked into my office with a job. Of course, shecabbie was actually green, bald, and had eight arms, but ... well, she’s more relatable as a redhead.”

Chen laughed, so I figured I was hitting the right angle. I stopped at a red gate.

“Yeah, so she walks in telling some sob story about how her dead husband came in on a shipment to the station and now she can’t find him, he was a victim of the war, and she wanted to lay him to rest.” Well, okay, she wanted to lay her eggs in him. That’s how her species works. I thought it was better not to worry my fare with that. “This was the kind of job I loved; beautiful woman, single like you wouldn’t believe, and a chance to help out a war hero. I jumped at it.”

Rick just nodded. He was interested, but I could tell I’d lose him if this didn’t get really exciting soon.

“It didn’t take me long to figure out that that was a huge load of crap. Within the first twenty four hours, I ran into her husband on the station. Very much alive, too. I tried to ask him what was going on, but he took some shots at me.”

“Damn. That’s more exciting than being a councilman, for sure. What did you do?” There, back on the hook. He tapped a finger on his knee, but other than that I had his attention.

“Well, most of my jobs those days were murky. One way or another, I found out that my customers were operating in some gray area as much as the criminals they had me track down. But usually they didn’t lie about people being dead, and usually I didn’t get shot at. Usually. So I gave myself a new job. I tailed my lady employer for a day, and found that the old fox was in regular contact with a few different old clients of mine. Shady people. Most important, they were shady types whose employees I knew. But everyone I asked sent me straight to their boss. I ended up in rooms with everyone. Scotty the Greek, Frankie the Martian, Kk’kzek the Bug Lord, you name ’em. And every single one wanted me to find this guy, and wouldn’t tell me why. They were offering huge amounts of money, too. Huge. I could’ve retired right there, and all I woulda had to do was give up where I found him. I guessed they wanted him dead, or worse.”

Chen’s eyes were locked tight on me, now. He’d stopped fidgeting, too. “Wow, so everybody and their mother wanted a piece of you, and you had no idea what it was all about?”

“Not a clue, except it had to do with some random guy, it was a big deal, and it wasn’t legal. I figured I had two choices: track down the husband or talk to my original client. The husband had tried to kill me, so I figured I’d try the client out. At least I might get laid instead of shot.”

Rick laughed, and I got us through a slow traffic gate right before it changed.

“Yeah, so, I went back to the spider queen at the center of the thing. Did she try to seduce me? Well, I can’t say I don’t take bribes. But I only found out what she wanted when I put a gun to her head. Turns out she was a high class hooker for the smugglers on station. Not the little pilots, but the bosses running the shipping operations. Not a spot you want to be if you have plans to live long. Those guys, they’re smart. Anybody who might overhear something, they like to dispose of. So she was keeping a blackmail file on every one of them.”

His eyes went went wide. “And the guy they were after got a hold of it?”

“Oh, it was worse than that. See, he wasn’t her husband. He was her brother. He didn’t like her line of work, so he figured if he took her most prized possession he could convince her to get out of the game and go home. He took her favorite idol, but he didn’t know it was more than an idol. There was a real big score coming in. The only cryopreserved specimen of Powell’s Race in existence, stolen from a top-flight government lab. These crime lords figured they could wake the monster up and offer to sell themselves to its Empire for a huge amount. They wanted military enhancement, a cushy spot once the Powell’s forces took over, a bunch of perks. But they also didn’t want any of the other underworld groups to get an exclusive with the guy. So they used my special lady friend as a go-between, sending her from boss to boss to work out a deal that’d benefit them all. And this girl’s idiot brother stole a data archive of all those meetings, hidden in the idol. The crime lord who got his hands on that would have evidence of treason against all the others. So they all wanted that archive, and they all wanted both sibs dead. When I got home from that little call, I heard they whacked the sister an hour after I left. Damn shame, too—I’d offered to stay with her for the night and keep her safe, but she turned me down.”

“Shit, man. What did you do? You knew where the brother was, you could’ve made quite a killing.”

I nodded and laughed. His stop was coming up on the right, and I started to slow down. “I did the only thing I could do. I told each boss I’d found the idol and the brother, and I had them both on a ship on one of the docking platforms. It was an old junker that wouldn’t fly anymore. I said I’d give them both up for the mentioned fee—and I didn’t say anyone else was coming to the party. I called in sick that day, and the bosses blew each other apart. By the time the station police showed up there were something like thirty dead gangsters. The rest went to lockup.”

His eyes really went wide. “That’s incredible! You played off everyone thinking they could buy you. You’re a smooth operator, man.” An unspoken “if you’re telling the truth,” hung in the air.

I let out a deep laugh. “I wouldn’t say that, but it wasn’t my first rodeo, that’s for sure. I was thinking you could do the same. If all these people want you in their pocket, why not get them all when they’ve put themselves out there. Make a name for yourself as the man who put down the corrupt. That’s the kind of mayor who can make a name for himself, don’tcha think?” I pulled the cab to a stop.

“You know, I think you’re right.” His smile went ear to ear. He tipped me double.

Quod Erat

I like to hit some of the oldest parts of the city whenever I can. New York has been around awhile—longer than my race has had space travel—and there’s something spooky about it. Some human culture or another said there were giant faeries that embodied a city’s personality. If that’s true, I’d love to grab a beer with New York’s.

Point is, I was down in the financial district near ground level to see the sights. It’s not a bad area for fares either, what with the orbital transfer point near the energy exchange. In fact, it was there that I saw her. It was about five a.m. so I figured her for a commuter with trading interests in the U.K., but she looked really worse for the wear, eyes red and makeup streaked as I pulled up. I figured her for some kind of Desi, from her rich brown skin, with little wrinkles here and there to hold in the extra years. And also from the fact that everyone in the orbital energy business started off somewhere on the Indian subcontinent.

I pulled up and let her in. No question of it, she’d been crying, and for a good long while.

“Good morning, ma’am. Fresh in from orbit, I see. Where can I take you?”

She was a strong one, one look through the rearview could tell me that. The woman glanced at the mirror herself, and in her eyes I could tell there was an acknowledgement that I’d noticed her sorrow. Through her eyes, I saw her gather her strength.

“Lytle, Dean, and Brown. Should be Park and 64th, at eighty stories.”

I frowned. Well, what passes for frowning in my race, anyway. “I know the firm.” Estate disputes, family law, all that. This was no ordinary stressful morning.

I turned off the cab stand and got us headed uptown. Easy, this time of morning.

“So you folks are closing a new sale, huh?” I knew she wasn’t.

“What?” I think she’d just got used to me not speaking. “No, no, this is a personal appointment.” She sighed, broken by a single sob.

Time to start narrowing the options. “They’re a good firm. They handled my wife’s assets after she got killed in the war. Good people, for lawyers.”

That got a laugh. But then she said, “I’m sorry about your wife,” and I knew from the even tone that it she hadn’t lost someone.

That left the other option. “Well, by then she hated me anyway. At the time I thought if the enemy didn’t take me out, she would.”

For the first time, the lady in the back laughed. “You’re sick,” she said, but she laughed through a sniffle.

“I figured you could use a laugh. I guess you know the territory, huh.”

“Yeah, you could say that.”

I slammed on the horn. Some cocky bikeplane messenger cut around me, so I had to swerve to a higher altitude so I didn’t kill the poor kid. “Say what?”

“Yes, yes I said. You trying to kill us, buddy?” She started to sob again. Damn, bad timing.

“Sorry ma’am, kid didn’t look before he leapt.”

“Typical man.” She laughed, but I didn’t think it was that funny.

“So it’s a jerk of a man you’re trying to get rid of, Mrs.?”

“Garcia, soon to be Chakavarti again. And I don’t want to talk about it. But he is a jerk, a lying, cheating bastard with ... my mother was right, you know. I never shoulda dated a Latin guy, even if he did remind me of her family. She said, They all lie, Deepa, just look at my brothers, they—”

“Hey, hey, Deepa, stereotyping him is just gonna make the target bigger. For your one, I could find you ten Latin guys I’d raise a family with down at the cab depot.” Now I started to get it; she wasn’t from old sun-miner stock. She was one of the newcomer desispanics, probably took shit from everyone and their matriarch growing up for it, too.

She laughed, almost a sort of shriek. “Because they’d go for a forty-year-old woman who’s so focused on her career she can’t even remember her own kids’ birthdays? I shouldn’t even be surprised he cheated with that whore, I was never even around long enough to notice.” She started to cry for real again. “I’m a failure all around is what it was, sir, as a mother and a wife and—”

“Hey now, blaming yourself isn’t going to help either. It’s hard out there, trying to manage kids and work. I should know—I’ve been a mother too.”

This shocked her out of her tears. “What?”

I caught her eye in the rearview. “Hey lady, you don’t know how my species works. Don’t you judge me.”

She laughed at that one.

“I been a lot of places, lady, and I’ve done things I’m proud of and things I’m not. Been a parent a few times, on several sides of the fence. I got one kid who’s running her own moon. She still sends me a beam every few days, too, just to see how I’m doing, and I couldn’t even afford to get her really good nutrient broth during her gestation years. Once I had this son—this was during the war—and his Ma never forgave me for not letting her eat me after we mated, but the kid just absolutely loved me no matter what I did. I was a gunrunner during the war at first, but then I got bogged down into it and had to start fighting for my side. The wife’s ship got assigned to my task force, and we ended up having to block a fleet push straight out of the Powell Volume.”

She gasped.

“Yeah, that’s what I said when they told us what was coming.” I came to a stop outside the law firm and started to run the meter. “They fight fierce, that Powell’s Race, and I lost a third of my ships. Including the one with my wife aboard. She was such a beauty.”

“Your wife?”

“Well, her too. But the ship, the Queen Elizabeth’s Defender—the QED, if you’re a math geek—now she was really something.”

Her jaw dropped. Her receipt hung from the backseat printer, and a draft from the window tossed it about with no regard. Mrs. Garcia did not move. “The QED? Are you kidding? Everyone knows that ship. It ended that war, pushed the damn Spikers back into their volume and saved billions.”

Of lives? Dollars? I decided not to ask. “That so? The way I see it, it took everyone working together to do that. My wife and I, we just got on the tip of the spear and prayed for our lives. Listen, lady, the point is that I got my old lady killed. I don’t care what I saved, because I killed my son’s mom. My job came first, and I put it first, and I hurt a lot of people. My son was young then. He didn’t understand. I told him I’d keep his mom safe and I didn’t. I felt like a failure, every minute of every day that I raised that kid. He kicked and screamed at first. He told me he hated me. And then one day, he told me he loved me. And he kept telling me. Until I loved myself. He learned that I did what I had to do to save people, and he realized I never wanted it to turn out that way. His mother would have done the same thing. You get it? Sometimes you do what you gotta do, and the people you love, they’ll understand because you did it for them, no matter what happened. You’re not a failure as a mother, or as a wife. If your husband cheated, that’s on him. If you didn’t spend enough time with your kids, that’s on you, but there’s always still time, lady, if you start today. Call your kids when you get out of your meeting.”

“That’s ... quite a speech, sir. It gives me a lot to think about, but you must be right, or at least I want you to be. I can’t believe I’m talking to the man who commanded that task force, it’s ... I mean you’ve saved so many people, what are you doing driving a cab?”

I blew the thick atmosphere away from my faceplate so she could see me smile. “I’m still saving people, lady. You think about what I said. And get going! You’re gonna be late for that phone call if your meeting runs too long.”

Past Priveleged

A lot of hacks really hate the outer boroughs. I agree—at least when it comes to Jersey City or Westchester—but I do love me a good Brooklyn fare about once a month. I like to remember that it’s like a whole other city, right outside Manhattan, just a little lower to the ground. Plus, my permit gives me free altitude range up to five hundred stories, so you can really get a hell of a view in Brooklyn at heights where across the river you’d still be deep in Manhattan canyons.

I was on my way back from one of these high flying breaks when I caught sight of a white girl on Eastern Parkway at ground level. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-three years old, and it looked like she had her entire house and home packed in suitcases all around her. I figured there must be some kind of story there, and it’s hard enough to get a cab in Brooklyn—that’s one of those basic laws of the universe—so I pulled over.

I hopped out to help her with her bags.

“Thank God you stopped, man, I’ve been waiting for like fifteen minutes and everybody’s just blown on by.” She looked me up and down, not able to figure out a thing from my envirosuit or my face hidden behind the smoky environment in my helmet. “What are you, anyway?”

I laughed. “A cab driver who knows a spaceport fare when he sees one. What are you?”

She looked at her feet. “A mistake. Let’s get in the cab.”

I slammed the trunk down and did what the lady told me. Safe in my heated seat, I asked, “All right, where to, Calamity Jane?”

She gave me that “snirk” noise that humans make when a joke is funny and painful. “LaGuardia suborbital.”

“Oh, you’re an Earth local. Sick of the City?” I took it out of park and gave the thing gas.

She scoffed. “More like the City’s sick of me. Been here ten months. Two of ’em with a job, and not two in a row.” She brushed some brown hair away from reddened eyes.

“Geez. That’s really rough, lady. Crap luck, that is.” In Brooklyn, it gets real easy to fly and chat. No traffic at the high altitudes.

“Yeah? It’s luck, then? I think it’s my own damn fault, for not trying hard enough, for not being tough enough, for not being born in the right era, for being born with the wrong skin color, for getting this goddamn useless degree in economics of all things. Yeah, it’s my own damn fault.” Tears were not going to be far behind talk like that.

I’d heard this same sob story from white kids in the City since I got here. My species’ skin color varies with time instead of genetics, so I never understood the insecurities of being a majority-turned-minority, and all the baggage that comes along. Sure, my people had their ideologies to hate each other with, but nothing that stared you in the face like with humans. Seemed stupid to me either way. Being different is the only thing that makes life interesting.

The degree thing, now that I could understand. “It’s not your fault it didn’t work out here.”

She stifled a sob. “Yeah? And how does some alien in a baggie know anything about that?”

I laughed. I could forgive the girl for that, a little bit. Obviously not a spacer, though. “Oh I’d know a fair lot more than you’d expect, girl. Let me guess, you majored in economics because you found a beauty in it? A harmony you didn’t see anywhere else?”

The spiral into tears stopped. “Yeah ... I did. Even though I knew AIs could handle the real work of it on their own, I couldn’t stop myself. How’d you know?”

“I did the same thing. No, no, don’t laugh. Not econ, not for me—my people didn’t have anything so fancy before the human fleet came along. We were somewhere around your Renaissance. My parents were pretty important. Not a lot, I suppose, but enough that they could send me to a university to study. Our wealth was in livestock. Big fluffy guys, like yaks. We used them for draft animals and meat. Scrambids, the humans called them, after First Contact. I never felt peace like I did out in the pastures, hanging out with the farmhands and chatting while the scrambids munched on wirefruit.

“So when I got to college, I studied scrambid husbandry. Breeding, management, all that. I figured I’d take over the family business when I got out.” I paused there to look at her. The homey romance of it must have got her hooked, because there wasn’t a sign of tears anymore, just her eyes looking at my reflection. I went on.

“Then the humans came, with spaceships and technologies like ground trucks and meat synthesizers. The whole business changed overnight. We became a niche business for the idle rich. Most of our land turned useless and we couldn’t move volume. Our whole position in the social order—and it was a nice position—got turned on its ass. Eventually, my parents couldn’t keep the farm up. They sold their land and retired. The only place I’d ever called home got developed into a spaceport. All I could do was hang out and watch. One day, I watched my people’s first starship take off from the fields I used to play in. I realized I was hanging onto a past that was totally gone.”

She did a take. “Wow, that’s ... How did you recover from that? Your whole life, just ripped away ... all your dreams ...”

“Well, it took me a few years to come around, I gotta be honest with ya. Eventually I just realized that even though the farm was gone, I was still here. I was still who I was, and I was still smart and there were still big open spaces in the universe. Ones I could explore and learn to love. It all dawned on me when I watched that first ship take off.

“So, I just walked into the spaceport, and signed up to work the second ship. It was time to leave the cradle. Time to take my smarts with me and see what else was out there. And boy were they ever desperate for crew. Experienced spacers were few and far between. I learned on the job—I learned a lot—and eventually ended up here.”

“Wow. That’s ... you know, it’s a sad story, but in a weird way, it makes me think I could do something with my life besides sulk at my parents’ house. One day I could be a cab driver.” She gave me a glare.

“Look down on me if you want, lady, but I own this cab. I chose this. I’ve been everything you can imagine. Private investigator, freighter pilot, general, you name it. All the shit jobs this side of the universe, and I wouldn’t turn down this cab or the people I meet driving it for anything. Wouldn’t even give up this ride with you.”

That speech kinda shut her up. Not sure I wanted that. We were pulling up to the outskirts of the spaceport. I wanted to make sure she really got the message. “Listen. All I’m saying is that the world can change in a second and you can lose all the privileges you learned to expect, but nothing can never take away who you are and the smarts you have. Wherever it is you’re going, you can make something of yourself if you can learn to adjust. You see that city down below you there? It’s a place you’re always gonna remember, just like I remember the last time I saw the old farm. It’s always gonna be part of you, and you’re gonna bring that experience to anything you do. That’s gonna make you special. Special enough to do whatever you put your mind to.”

I started the dive towards the LGA departures dropoff.

Tree Hugger

He was not out of place in my life, but he was out of place on a New York street corner. Hell, he would’ve been out of place anywhere in Union Space. Just the sight of him turned on my stress response. The long, slender finger-claws, the hardened, barky skin, and the cybernetic enhancements all made an unmistakable picture: this was a Tree Man, and a veteran of the war, at that.

I pulled right over to his outstretched finger-claw, wondering all the while what this slave monster was doing on Earth. I saw stumps on him from about two prior treemansets of arms. This guy had really been in the shit. Close up, though, it was easier to see why “Tree Man” was so derogatory. His skin looked more like a brown rhino or a really tough, bald boar. Didn’t change how I thought of his species.

He slumped into the back of my cab without looking at me, and then glanced up when I didn’t immediately ask, “Where to?” I think the look of horror—hard to notice on such a monolithic, alien face, but there—showed he’d realized his mistake.

“I guess you know who I am, then,” I joked. For most species, the smoky gases inside my envirosuit would have obscured my face even through the helmet’s clear surface, but Tree Men were genetically enhanced to see a lot more wavelengths than most species.

A low rumble started in his chest. A different hack might have been frightened, but I knew what this meant. Moments later, a smooth male voice came from a metal box strapped around his neck—his only clothing, if you could call it that. Of course, the translator was cybernetic to some degree. Just like Powell’s Race liked its slave species to be. “I do not believe it, but yes, I know who you are. I had heard rumors you were here. But then there are many rumors about you. No doubt my story will be another one.”

I laughed. “You’re right to think that few will believe you. Now, you really need a cab ride?”

Another low rumble issued forth. “Yes. I must go to my workplace.”

If my jaw worked like human jaws, it would’ve dropped. “Workplace? What?”

“Yes. I work at 1 World Trade, at the eighteen hundred altitude extension. I am returning from a social psychology appointment. Does that answer your questions, Admiral?”

Never call me that,” I spat. “Not here. And yes, it does answer my questions. But it opens new ones.” I turned on the meter and started to move. “I have many, but let’s start with how on God’s green Earth you came to be ... on God’s green Earth ... after a war where your masters, killed vast numbers of Union citizens.”

He nodded, black eyes locked on me in the rearview mirror. “From anyone else, your question would insult me. But you are a special case. I was isolated from my flight group during the Betelgeuse Engagement. The FTL Neutralization Field went up, and I was stranded on the wrong side with a few others, but none with whom my implants allowed me to share thoughts. We were not even of the same species. The Union fleet captured us. We were to be killed, except that a human researcher wanted to understand the implants given to us by—” he paused, and I knew that he was unsure if he should name them in my presence. He decided against it, “by Powell’s Race. We were spared. Dr.—”

“Dr. Erwin Gottesmann discovered how to unlink you from the Powell’s Race instantaneous mind link slave system. Now I remember. I just didn’t realize any of you had come to Earth.” We stopped at a traffic gate, but my mind was miles away. “There’s my next question, I guess. Why the social psych appointments? Didn’t Erwin give you telepathic training on human behavior?” The gate changed and I put the accelerator to the floor.

My passenger neatly compensated for the breakneck speed. Definitely wasn’t lying about that space combat experience. I’d bet he had some ground experience, too. It’s easy to be versatile when you’ve been genetically and mechanically enhanced. He answered in the middle of our ascent. “I do know the rules, you are correct. But rules and practice are so different, and I have instincts that Powell’s Race built in on a deep level. It is difficult to adjust, when I was so used to being linked to my brothers in arms at all times. A kind of link you’ll never know.”

I switched lanes twice to get around a lumbering truck. “Praise Allah on that one.”

“Joke if you want, but it is difficult for me. No doubt you know what it is like to lose someone close to you. No doubt you blame me for it. But I was a brainwashed slave, and that is part of the problem, too. Here, in this cab, it is easy. You are the master, and I am the subordinate. This is how I am bred to think. But in my job? I am not a telepath anymore. I cannot read who is thinking what, and whose ideas will get the most support from our boss. Sometimes I fight when I should agree, thinking that I am as justified as I was when I was ten minds at once. No training software can teach me to reverse that.”

I had to feel for the guy. Being born into a slave-species wasn’t his fault. That did not justify the Tree Men’s atrocities, but it did make me pause to think, as I went through another traffic gate. This was a being with intelligence. Perhaps with amorality, too, but still he could could learn the pain that he and his brothers had caused.

While I like to think that every fare teaches me something, it’s rare for one to change my own perspective. It was a short trip, so with the last minute or so I decided to put my wounds aside and help him out.

I locked eyes with him in the rearview mirror. Don’t worry, just for a second—I’m a safe enough driver. “You know, some of that’s on you, too. Humans get through life just fine with all those problems. They’re used to being led or to following, and they’ve never been able to read each other’s minds. I know your training softs probably covered it, but buddy, you’ve got to try asking before you make assumptions about what people are saying or doing to you. That’s how the humans get through it, and you can manage that way too. You’re intelligent. I respected your people, at the very least, when we fought. I respect you for trying to succeed here. You just gotta play by some new rules. It’s a new game.” We pulled up to his stop. “Oh, and the fare’s on me.”

His eyes flashed green, his “lips” trembled, and he got out of my cab without another word. I’d heard about that eye color thing, but I’d never seen it. The closest human emotion to it? I guess ... you’d call it rapture. I sat idling on the corner for a long time after he left. END

John Skylar is a life scientist, journalist, and author of both fiction and nonfiction. His work has appeared on “Mashable,” in “The Huffington Post,” in “Strange Bedfellows” from Bundoran Press, and in “Lakeside Circus” magazine, among others.




ad rates


adjacent fields