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



Dancing in the Black Blizzard

By Devin Miller

IN CAPTAIN GABE MASON’S FAMILY, brothers came first. It was a lesson in loyalty his father—Admiral Carl Mason, Mars Fleet—instilled upon his three sons at an early age. It was the essence of leadership and of teamwork, a value which Gabe would only come to fully understand when being buried alive on a planet he had come to hate.

Since humanity’s great exodus off of land and into space, the military had assumed the role of testing planets for human civilization. Honorable responsibilities, under the right circumstances. Mason hoped for forests. Prairie. Oceans and lakes. He got Lanerick.

In the northern hemisphere, two oceanic plates floated together and crushed a third plate between them. Massive mountain ranges traveled for hundreds of miles along the coasts, and any storm that tried to pass over them faltered and died. Five inches of rainfall fell on two thousand square miles of open, flat land. Mason stared out at it and did not sigh in front of his men.

Leadership is about exuding a presence that your followers can feel. That was his father talking—an adaptation of that old maxim: Lead by example. If he sighed, let his shoulders slump, stared at his feet, his men would sense it. They would do what followers do, and follow it.

He checked his watch. Thirteen minutes to high noon. He looked south, shielded his eyes. A pillar of dust moved across the ground—hardened, cracked, unforgiving. He kicked at it with the toe of his boot.

“Captain Mason to well team.” The radio sent a signal two miles east. “Our boys are coming back. It’s thirteen minutes until noon.”

“Well team’s here, Captain.” The voice was female—Potter, the environmentalist. “Want us to close up?”

“Give it another five minutes. If something changes I’ll be in touch.” He attached the radio to his belt. “Allen!”

A woman poked her head out of one of the inflatable habitats. Green eyes, dark hair, lithe figure. Disciplined. Intelligent. Everything he wanted, except on Lanerick.

“Sir?” Her voice was strained. She stepped out into the sun holding a crate. Boxes of food, bins of equipment, and barrels of water made the habitats cramped. Inside, they reeked of rubber and chemical treatments. It was the price to pay for safety—from the sun, but mostly from the blizzards.

“It’s twelve minutes until noon. You need a hand? It’s time to start sealing up.”

“I’d love a hand, sir.”

He’d hoped so. He called to his other lieutenants to start locking down the town, then jogged to Allen’s habitat. A desert terrain vehicle—DTV—idled in back. Two seats in the front, small storage rack behind them. He grabbed a bin and carried it inside.

A second DTV roared into town. The dust plume stretched skyward. Three men jumped off and began unloading the bags into the habitat that Mason assigned for storing the seeds. The seeds were important. The seeds had saved the mission. After thirteen weeks of them, Mason almost wished they hadn’t discovered them.

Lieutenant Allen grabbed another bin, followed Mason into her habitat and set it down in the giant stack. She wiped her brow and threw her sweat on the floor, where it disappeared. Mason rubbed his forehead and cheeks against the foamy wall. He heard the soft swishing sound that meant the water was being recycled, went back outside.

“How’s the ship’s supply today?” he asked.

“Still ahead of schedule.” Allen lifted another crate. Lean, tight muscles. She waited for him to pick a box of dried food. “Getting lower every day though. Three, maybe three and half weeks left.”

He nodded, hefted the box onto his shoulder, noticed her watching him work out of the corner of his eye. He knew about her relationships, of course—he had had to when interviewing for his team. These missions weren’t for people in committed relationships. He remembered her brushing the question off—she was smarter, harder working, more ambitious than all the men she had ever liked. They were followers.

“Blizzard!” the lookout shouted. He rang a bell. “Blacktop on the horizon!” Mason stopped. Allen stopped. Everyone looked south. A rolling shadow rose from the horizon line—a mirage at first—then a growing, looming threat.

Mason ducked into the habitat, dropped the box, checked his watch. Two minutes until noon. They plotted the storm times every day; one standard deviation began at five till noon and ended at eleven after.

“Well team?” Mason radioed.

“We’re all set over here, Captain,” Potter’s voice said. “The well’s secured and everyone’s sealed inside.”

“Good work. We’ll be in touch.”

“Good luck.”

Mason walked back around the habitat, shouting to the town as he went. “Seal it up! It’ll be about two minutes so work quick. Bates, lock down that DTV. Dorley, the ship?”

“She’s ready, sir.”

Leadership is a juggling game—you’re only successful if you can keep all the balls in the air. Drop one, the whole show comes crashing down. That was one of his oldest brother’s favorite analogies. James was the most creative of the three Mason brothers. Right now, he was in orbit around Saturn, captain of one of the larger cruisers. Gabe hadn’t heard from him in thirteen weeks.

Allen jogged out beside him. Three crates left. They both grabbed one and hustled inside. Mason tossed his on the pile and it landed funny; the crates leaned, then crashed to the ground, bounced around the habitat, blocked the door, knocked him back.

He cursed, started picking them up, arranging them. Allen helped. Mason peeked outside and saw that half the sky was a wall blacker than deep space, churning and boiling and charging, and he worked harder. He held them steady until Allen put the last crate on top, then sprinted outside.

“Captain!” Allen called. The wind picked up, blew her hair around her face. On the hard ground, pebbles jumped and danced.

“There’s one more,” Mason said. He put it on his shoulder, cut off the DTV, hurried back to Allen’s habitat. She stood in the door, watched the growing mass tower overhead like a tsunami of solid shrapnel. Around town, hisses sounded that meant the other habitats were sealed off. Mason saw no one else outside.

She moved to let him pass, then shut the door and locked a lever into place beside it. A loud hiss and a puff of dust came from the bottom of the door—they were set inside. Quiet. The walls began to vibrate. Mason looked out the window, spoke into the radio. “Thirty seconds, people. Everyone in place?”

In ten seconds, all twelve of his men reported in.

“Good work today, team. Settle in and get some rest. Good night. Over.”

Encouragement—it’s Pavlovian. Classical conditioning breeds followers who can do anything you want. That was Erik, the theorist. He had read all the books, and was one of the few who could actually put that knowledge into practice. A month before Gabe left for Lanerick, Erik volunteered to lead a top secret team onto one of Jupiter’s moons to infiltrate a smuggling ring; he’d be out of communication for a year.

Quiet again. The walls shook more—a soothing hum—a gentle vibration. Through the window, the violent light dimmed to darkness. Allen lit a lamp and stood beside him, looking out. Then the storm hit.

It pounded against the habitat walls, but like every day of the past thirteen weeks, the habitats withstood the barrage. Mason allowed himself a sigh. Nothing about Lanerick had been easy. Being awake in the dark night confused his rhythm, and the morning hours of sunlight drained his energy with their intensity.

Allen put a hand on his arm, squeezed. “Nice work.”

“Getting tired of these blizzards.”

“At least they’re predictable.”

“I hate routines.”

She laughed. He looked at her, smiled. They were alone for the next six hours. A similar storm to the one outside suddenly came to life in Mason’s head. Imagining being relaxed with her, being carefree. Thinking how it would break down what he’d built here. Wondering why it was so necessary. Cursing his military discipline.

They looked at each other for a moment. Allen brushed her hair behind her ear, looked through the doorway to where her cot stood, pristine.

“I’ll sleep on the floor,” Mason said.

“Right. I’ll get the extra bedding. Bathroom’s through there.”

“I know, Harper.” Calling her by her first name. Wondering if he regretted it. “They’re all set up the same.”

He went into the bathroom, splashed water on his face from the basin. Mud washed off his cheeks, his hands. He urinated on the floor, watched it become absorbed, walked back out into the main room. Along the wall opposite the boxes and crates, Allen had set up a thick comforter to act as a mattress, a pillow, a hefty blanket on top. He took his boots off in a corner while she dressed another pillow and dropped it in place.


“No problem. Gabe.” She smiled. “See you tonight.”

He nodded. “Good night.”

She slipped into her room, turned, looked at him, shut the door. Mason took his shirt off, slid between the blankets, stared at her door for a few minutes before the exhaustion of the previous night and morning took over and he passed into sleep.

* * *

He awoke to silence now. The raging blizzards were monotonous background noise, easy to sleep to. The silence after the wind finally died pounded his head until he opened his eyes and stared around. Dusky light through the window—dark red, deep orange, reflected off suspended dust. He pulled the blanket to his shoulders and let himself doze. Couldn’t fall asleep again without the storm.

Sounds came through the habitat walls—people chatting and laughing, the scratch of rakes and brooms moving dust drifts, the roar of a DTV bringing the well team back into town. Lieutenant Allen came out of her room and squatted beside him.

“Sleep okay?”

“Until the storm stopped.”

She nodded. “It gets to me, too. The quiet after.” She stood and looked out the window. “Brinks already lit the fire. Looks like he’s made some biscuits. Shouldn’t you be out there, giving orders? What if he makes something you don’t like?”

He smiled at her tease. “Men under command must be given some independence from their commanders. Otherwise, how can they ever know if they’ve learned, or if they can act independently, or if they can become leaders themselves?”

“Another of your father’s wisdoms?”

He sat up, slipped on his boots. “No. That one’s my own.”

In the center of town, a fire crackled and popped in a pit carved in the brutal ground. Only the lowest line of sky was still red; strange constellations against the dark blue; cool night breeze; dim steel-blue lights outside each habitat door; the ground smoothed like a river stone from the blizzard; people sitting around the fire sipping thick black coffee.

Brinks poured Mason a cup, handed him a muffin on a plate with a handful of seeds. The seeds were black and triangular, a centimeter in length. Mason took a bite of the muffin, felt his teeth crunch and grind the seed particles baked into it. When he first tried them, they tasted like pecans; now, he tried not to gag with each bite.

“Official time on that one was two minutes after twelve,” Potter said. She had a clipboard; Mason scanned it. “Right in with the rest of them.”

“No problems with the well?”

“No sir.”

“Good. Have some seed muffin.”

“Oh, no thanks Captain. I talked to Brinks a second ago—he said he was making sandwiches on seed buns for lunch. There’s only so much baked seed I can take in a day.”

“Brinks!” Mason said. “Can’t we get some variety in our diet? You need to get a little more creative with your cooking.”

Brinks looked up from tending the fire. “No one’s making you eat it, Captain.”

“Brinks’ cooking is a sensitive subject, Captain,” Dorley said. “Don’t hurt his feelings or you’ll end up eating bread with dirt baked in it instead of seed.”

“I’m with the Captain,” Potter said. “Too much longer, and I’ll take the dirt.”

The team finished dinner and began work. The first four hours consisted of settlement maintenance—tedious seal care on each habitat, flushing the ship’s engines of sand, food and water accounting, all performed in teams Mason assigned. He and Lieutenants Sellers and Dixon took a DTV to the well and brought back ten gallons of water.

The rest of the night, they lived as a colony would live: they washed clothes, filtered and recycled the water; they hunted small desert mammals and cooked them in a stew with seed spice; they shared stories; they helped each other.

Mason saw the horizon lightening to the east; it reminded him of Earth, but he saw the team physician McElroy watching it with him, so he hid his nostalgia. “Who’s got field duty this lovely morning?” he asked.

“I know I do, and I think Dorley and Adams are with me,” McElroy said.

Mason nodded. “Go ahead and round them up. Get the DTV ready to go out there in fifteen.”

“Yes sir.”

They loaded the rack with cloth sacks, water jugs, blunted tools called seed scissors they’d fashioned to scrape the seeds off the plants, towels for saving sweat. “Bring me back those delicious seeds, boys,” Mason said.

“You probably like eating them more than I like harvesting them,” Dorley said. He climbed onto the storage rack, settled among the supplies. “See you in a few hours, Captain.”

The DTV sped south; the characteristic dust cloud climbed high, red and gritty in the first rays, already hot.

The well team, like the field team, rotated members daily. They took the second of the three DTVs, with equipment to measure water for safety. With the last DTV, Allen, Potter, and Mason brought supplies from the ship into town—jugs mostly, of fuel, coolant, and cooking oil. Slow, laborious work, but there was no hurry.

Allen passed the captain a jug, stopped to wipe her brow. “Not too much more of this.”

He scanned the cargo bay, large, but with lots of floor space showing now. “Three weeks was probably about right.”

She smiled smugly at this approval of her assessment, picked up another jug, brushed his hand as they exchanged it, blushed. Tried to hide it with exertion. Mason knew she was a professional, and it wasn’t appropriate to show intimacy toward a superior. But he wondered if she noticed how often they were paired together in teams, if she remembered he made the schedule.

By thirty minutes to noon, they were exhausted. Mason wanted a shower before the storm. On the way back to his habitat, his radio crackled to life, and Dorley’s voice blasted through.

“Captain! Do you copy? We have a problem down here.”

Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. That’s the ticket to production. It’s step one of organization, the core of focus. Without priorities, chaos reigns. His father. The lesson had meaning in all aspects of life, but especially in leadership. Mason grabbed the radio and responded. “Mason here, Dorley. What’s going on?”

“There’s been an accident. McElroy was driving the DTV into the next row and the ground collapsed beneath the front tire. Some kind of sinkhole or something, maybe an animal’s den. It fell on top of his leg. We pulled him out, but he thinks it’s broken, and it’s burned. Pretty bad. From the pipes.”

Mason took his finger off the communication button and cursed. Pressing the button again, he said, “Can the DTV run?”

“No way. Its front axle is all bent to hell.”

“We’ll be right there.” He turned back toward the storage habitat, where Allen was just finishing unloading; he yelled her name. “Bring the DTV! Hurry up!”

She heard the urgency in his voice, set the last jug of fuel on the dirt and jumped into the driver’s seat. He climbed in before she had stopped beside him. “To the field,” he said. “McElroy’s hurt. Step on it.” He checked his watch. “Less than twenty minutes.” He knew the dangers of being caught out in a storm—hurricane-force winds, debris big enough to kill a man, grit as sharp as shrapnel.

A dark shadow against the brown ground ahead—the field. Several hundred plants, waist-high, dark green, flimsy, small waxy leaves. Each grew four cone-like structures at the top, each cone with hundreds of compartments. A new compartment opened every day, revealed a small black seed that would be blown away by the storm, carried off to settle in some unforgiving soil far away.

The busted DTV’s nose and front wheel lay buried. Dorley stood and waved his hands over his head; Adams squatted next to McElroy, supine, his leg bent outward in the middle of his shin, pants burned away, skin beneath blackened. His face was pale; he looked at Mason.

“I’m sorry, Captain.” His voice was weak, hollow, throat dry. “I was the one who wasn’t supposed to get hurt.”

“No time for that, good doctor.” Mason grabbed beneath his shoulders, motioning for Dorley and Adams to grab the legs.

“Easy there, gentlemen,” McElroy said. “Easy!” He winced as they lifted him, set him across the storage rack, let his good leg dangle in the passenger seat, secured his broken one with the seat belt. McElroy swooned, lay flat on the rack, gasped. Mason looked at Dorley and Adams—their eyes searched the DTV for space that didn’t exist.

Mason came around to Allen in the driver’s seat. “Take him back, put him in his habitat, on the infirmary bed.”

“Blizzard’s coming,” Adams said. “Wind’s picking up. There’s the blacktop.”

“Hurry!” Mason said.

“What about you three?” Allen said.

“Priorities,” he said. Their eyes met. “We’re going on foot.”

“It’s over a mile—”


She spun the wheel back toward town, spewed up dust as the tires gripped the ground and accelerated. Mason didn’t wait for the dust to settle—he took off at a near sprint. Dorley and Adams followed.

“Captain, we won’t make it,” Adams said. “That storm will be on us in ten minutes.”

“If we’re lucky it’ll take that long,” Dorley said.

Mason drew his radio. “Well team, storm’s coming. You sealed in over there?”

“Almost,” Brinks’s voice responded. “We’ll be all set in another minute. You running somewhere, Captain? You sound out of breath.” Brinks chuckled. “Captain?”

Mason hooked the radio to his belt, stared forward at Allen’s dust plume, ran for it. His men’s boots pounded on either side of him. Wind tugged at his hair, blew against his back. He felt dirt on it already.

Allen’s DTV was a wavy silhouette ahead. The dust behind it stopped; unclear figures bustled between it and the habitats. Mason checked off a mental note—they would be safe. She would be safe. The others would tend to McElroy. He imagined them facing south, seeing their own hazy shapes on the hot ground, not quite as dark as the looming wall of churning grit behind them, growing taller, gaining on them.

Mason saw the town, saw people still running around, scolded them for not being sealed inside yet. He memorized the direction. The storm roared behind them; he felt its presence in his shoulders and neck. With seconds to spare, he stopped, wrapped his arms around both his men, and hit the dirt.

The force was phenomenal—overpowering—terrifying. The wind dragged the three men across the ground; they blindly curled into one large ball and made themselves small against the ground.

Within seconds, their legs were buried beneath fine grains and gravel. Mason tried to open his eyes, found he could only look north. His ears stung from flying pebbles. The blackness was nearly absolute.

Roaring to match the storm, Mason put his boots beneath him, locked elbows with Dorley and Adams, and pushed himself to his feet. Sand poured off. “Get up!” he shouted. “We’ll be buried in minutes!”

Spurred, they stood. He felt them squeeze his arms. Sand piled up at their ankles; running was impossible. Mason put his shirt over his nose and mouth, gulped in air, yelled, “Lift your right leg, knee to your chest, set it down. Now the left, up, down. We’re going to walk the rest of the way.” In seconds the sand was ankle-high again. “Let’s go! Right leg, knee to chest. Left leg, knee to chest. Right, up, down. Left, up, down.”

They plunged ahead. The wind pushed them high while the sand held them low. Each one stumbled, the others held him up. The rhythm kept them going.

“Right, up, down. Left, up, down. Right, up, down. Not much farther!” Mason couldn’t see them, couldn’t see where he was stepping. He felt them and felt them moving with him, and thought that if they didn’t make it, if they got lost and exhausted and buried, Lieutenant Allen would wonder why he had made her go to the field at all, why he hadn’t driven the DTV and taken McElroy back himself. But she hadn’t been raised a Mason. If she had, she’d know that brothers came first.

“Right, up, down. Keep going! We will not be buried! Let’s go—left, up, down.”

He’d seen the town before the storm hit. How long ago was that? They should be there by now. How could they know? Mason couldn’t see five feet in front of him.

Then, not twenty yards to their left, a sound even louder than the roaring blizzard erupted, and hot orange flames cut through the blackness. They subsided almost instantly, but they were enough to show a habitat in the storm.

“Make for it!” Mason said. Adams had fallen from the explosion; Mason hauled him up. “Hey! We’re over here!” All three began shouting. Mason increased the pace. “Right up down! Left up down! We’re going to make it! Head for the flames!”

The wind had extinguished the fire, but they had their bearings back. They didn’t let the sand sit on either foot for barely a second before moving, pushing on, dancing their dance toward that habitat in the darkness. Out of that darkness, a door materialized. He hauled his brothers through; they collapsed on the habitat floor. The roar of the storm diminished to an echo in Mason’s ears.

The dirt on his face was thick; he scratched it off, looked at Adams and Dorley, assessed them for injuries. Satisfied, he looked around at the room full of crates, realized whose habitat this was, and felt a cold shiver he hadn’t thought possible in the desert.

Before his exhausted subordinates could react, Mason was back in the storm, shouting her name. All around him, pelting stones and flying debris and dirt, dirt, dirt. He stumbled blindly; small, sharp rubble poked and slashed at his cheeks and his hands, raised for protection.

“Harper!” he cried. “Harper!”

“Captain!” A voice through the storm. “Gabe!” Screaming at the top of her lungs. “Over here!”

Still more dimly, the voices of Adams and Dorley cut through the wind. They would think he had dived back into this dangerous tempest to save a comrade, as he had done for them. Let them think there was nothing more to it.

And then, at last, a hazy shape, half-crouched, hands cupping her mouth, and the sound of her voice, sweet and relieving. He raced over to her, grabbed her by the arm, and ran with her. The sand and seeds and squall couldn’t stop him now that he had her. Adams and Dorley groped into the darkness and heaved them inside.

They sealed the door as Lieutenant Allen collapsed against Mason, coughing, breathing hard, but unharmed except for a scratch here or there. Mason felt like laughing. His legs were shaking; he couldn’t stand. He leaned with her against the habitat wall, distantly aware of it absorbing his sweat and recycling it. She felt perfect in his arms.

Dorley grabbed Mason’s shoulder. “Thank you, Captain,” he said.

“Thank you, Captain,” Adams echoed.

“Don’t thank me, thank her,” he said. “She saved us out there. What exploded?”

“Fuel jug,” she said. Shrugged. Smiled up at him. “I was desperate.”

“We would’ve been lost. We were lost.”

“But I got lost out there, too. Not much of a rescue if I have to be rescued.”

They looked at each other. Peripherally, Mason saw Adams and Dorley exchange glances and shuffle out of the room. Mason knew what that meant—his men were more astute and perceptive then he wished.

But what the hell.

He held her tight, not thinking how he would justify this later, or what the men would think, or if this qualified as “living as a colony.” They were Gabe and Harper, and their first kiss was one they’d never forget. END

Devin Miller describes himself as a humble fiction writer out of Chapel Hill, NC. He has appeared in “Daily Science Fiction,” “Allegory,” “Electric Spec,” and elsewhere. He has a creative writing minor from UNC, where he won the William H. Hooks award.




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