Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Crowd Control
by Gareth D. Jones et al.

Blank Space
by David Wright

Robot of Dorian Graham
by Richard Zwicker

Seven Styles of Mortality
by Cathy Douglas

Lightning Strikes
by Sean Monaghan

2038: A Mars Odyssey
by Brian Biswas

Innovation Stopped
by William R. Eakin

Midnight in Absheron
by Edward Ashton

Full Fathom Five on Chemical Freedom
by Robin Wyatt Dunn

by Aaron Rasmusson

Shimmer and Fade
by Daniel Nathan Horn


UFOs: the Truth is Not Out There
by Eric M. Jones

Off on a Comet
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Lightning Strikes

By Sean Monaghan

WITHIN NINETY SECONDS, DAVID BRON could tell that the main shield would fail before the ship had completed aerobraking. Teach him to steal from a junk trader’s yard. Already the cramped cockpit was heating up.

Throwing the main nacelles open, he gave a burst on the rockets. The ship screamed.

Worst thing to do, of course. The engines would rip off their pylons. He’d have no control if he did make it to the ground. The ship would be unsalvageable.

Things he would worry about if he planned on leaving.

“Water,” the cockpit dash said. “Electrolyte solution.” A tube sprang out at mouth height.

Bron batted it away. Angling the nacelles he tried to gain altitude, tried to pull out of the descent.

“Water.” The tube sprang up again. “Electrolyte solution.”

If he could get back into orbit, he could find a station. Make an emergency dock— this clearly counted—and steal another vessel.


“Knock it off. I’m concentrating here.”

A glassy bead of the liquid seeped from the tube’s end. The solution ran down the length.

“You are dehydrated.”

It wasn’t working. The nacelles were open, but not giving enough thrust.

Well, if he had to coax his way down, that was that. Topaz was an underpopulated world anyway. It might take hours to find a station. Hours he didn’t have.

If there were any stations.

“Angle too steep,” the dash told him.


“Pull out to orbit. Await rescue.” The thing was snarky. Dash brains got that way when they were stolen.

“Can’t do it.” The HUD showed him a trajectory that put him into the ground at better than three thousand miles an hour. Fifteen degree angle.

“Spin around. Utilize tail assembly and nacelles as ablative surfaces.”

“More like it.”

“Consequences,” the dash went on. “Loss of full engine package. Loss of vessel.”


“Cockpit survival not assured.”

“It’s a pod, right?” The ship was a Convair Runner 4. All the Convairs had ejectable cockpits.

“It was a pod,” the dash told him. “Before Trader Mack refitted it for low altitude operations. Ship is a single unit now.”

Great, Bron thought. All this way just to burn up. Or squash flat.

He had no choice in the matter. Hadn’t had any since he’d gotten the news about Gerry. You didn’t let your son immolate himself. Even if the kid was performing some esoteric art piece thirty light years away. Even if you were in jail yourself.

The ship shuddered and he smelled smoke.

He could see the irony. Father burns to death, trying to prevent son’s lightning dance.

“Advise mask,” the dash said. A breathing unit sprang up next to the drinking tube.

Bron took a sip from the straw. Leaning to the right, he let the mask nestle over his face. A pair of lenses folded up and sealed around his eyes. The cool air tasted sweet.

“Altitude, eighty four kilometers,” the dash said.

Bron grabbed the yoke and hauled the ship around. She didn’t want to come. With a thump, the whole thing jerked and dropped. Twisting and shaking.

“Port nacelle involuntarily ejected,” the dash said.

The ship entered a flat-out spin. The screaming of her surfaces sounded like it was doing his ears permanent damage.

“Drogue,” Bron said.

“Not advised.”

He punched up manual control. Back in his two years in the military he’d learned that when a situation is hopeless, you lose nothing with desperate measures.

The drogues released.

The spinning lessened. He had about fifteen microseconds before they shredded in the heat. Twisting the yoke, he opened up the flat retros.

“Little help here,” Bron said. His reflexes weren’t fast enough to manage the complexities of firing the right sequence.

The ship jerked as the drogues’ lines parted.

“I have to tell you,” the dash said, suddenly more conversational, “releasing the main chutes will be difficult with the drogues gone.”

“Let’s deal with that if we live long enough to need them. Help me.”

“Acknowledged.” The brain took over the job of firing the retros. The ship continued to shake and scream. The interior heat had to be over sixty Celsius already. Soon the beige paneling would start buckling and melting.

The HUD flickered. It showed their velocity at sixty-seven thousand kilometers per hour, changed to eight hundred. Shot back up to eighty thousand. Altitude showed zero.

The HUD shut down entirely. All he could see were plasma streams. One of the window joins glowed back at him as if it was about to fail.

“How are we doing?” he asked.

“Fifty five klicks altitude. Five thousand kilometers per hour. Looking nice.”

Sweat ran down his face.

“Hydration,” the dash said.

“When we’re on the ground.” Bron kept his hands on the yoke.

The screaming lessened. The HUD flickered back to life. Momentarily. It vanished too quickly for him to get any information from it. Probably would have been wrong anyway.

“Extending wings,” the dash said.

“Wait,” Bron said.

“Nominal altitude. Extending wings.”

Bron looked for the cutout button. The brain had to be overheating. It wouldn’t endanger itself intentionally, but it might fall back to default programming.

There. A graded switch. Mechanical. He thumped it.

No response.

He dialed it back to 3.

Still nothing. He heard a hefty whining from aft. At least they were flying straight and even now.

“Wings unlocked.”

“Wait until we’re lower.” He turned the dial to 0.

“No chute capacity,” the dash said.

“You’ll tear the wings out at their roots. Look at your airspeed.”

A moment’s pause, then, “Acknowledged.”

With the HUD out, Bron tried to get data from the dials and consoles. The old-style altimeter showed fifty thousand feet. Good old Convair for installing practical equipment.

Of course, he only trusted it fractionally more than anything else.

It looked like the ship was starting to even out. The plasma had streamed away and he could see cloud formations. No sign of any lightning.

“How’s our speed?” he said.

No response. He tapped the call button beside the dash’s speaker, but got nothing back.

“Still there?” he said.

Nothing. Looked like he was on his own. He should be used to that. He’d been pretty much on his own since Melinda walked out three months before Gerry’s birth.

Bron let go of the yoke with one hand and pulled out his little sailwand. He’d pilfered the unit from the spincycle warehouse years ago and left it with his stash. Didn’t even know if the thing still worked. If it did, he might be able to override any of the dash’s dead systems and pull up some telemetry. Even some control.

The sailwand’s tip flickered with the activation light and the small sail unfurled. Data came up on its surface. He couldn’t talk to the thing, but it might be able to hijack the dash’s interface.

The yoke jerked. The whole ship shuddered. The sailwand flipped out of his hand.

Stretching, he grabbed for the spinning device. It smacked against the edge of the dash. The sailwand splintered. A tear appeared through the sail. The display darkened.

Bron cursed. He put his hand back on the shaking yoke.

Already the altimeter read forty-two thousand. He’d lost eight thousand feet in just a few seconds.

At least he’d slowed through aerobraking. It even felt like he’d dropped under the speed of sound.

Too bad he was stuck in something with all the maneuverability of a space rock.

The dash was black and dead. None of the usual telltale lights to show active or problem systems. Every system had a problem now.

In the central console with the throttles and airbrakes, there were other mechanical controls. He flipped up the bakelite-kevlar cover and pulled on the chute release.

In theory, the drogues should have punched out. Dragged the main chutes with them. He’d already melted the drogues off.

Something below him thumped. The ship pitched.

“Chutes away,” he said. “How about that?”

The dash didn’t respond.

The hadn’t expected it.

The ship pitched back again. Something wailed. Air screaming across the open chute bay.

The chutes hadn’t worked.

So much for that.

Bron wished Gerry all the best. He hoped his son survived the storm atop Demeter’s Spire.

Art piece indeed.

Bron wondered if somehow sticking around would have made a difference. If he’d pushed and tried to be with the boy more.

Probably would have only been a bad influence. Running stolen spincycle parts was no kind of career. At thirty-eight, Bron had spent almost half his adult life inside.

Prison was no kind of place for his son to ever end up. Perhaps this art kick was the perfect thing.

Even if the boy’s chances of survival seemed even slimmer.

Twenty years old and already in demand for his performances.

Ahead Bron saw mountains. Coming at him fast.

“Stupid call anyway.” He looked over the dash and displays again. Some vain hope that there might be some way to ...

The wings.

On the central console. The controls.

He might even be slow enough now.

Reaching under, he wrenched the lever. It jammed up. He gave it another tug.

Completely stuck.

The glassy, icy mountains almost filled the viewport.

Bron pulled again. Still nothing.

Cursing again, he thumped his harness release—the harness wasn’t going to save him if he hit the rocky face ahead—and got out of the seat.

He crouched right in at the back of the console. With both hands he pushed the lever. Years ago he’d lifted weights. He’d had thighs like trunks. Now, he felt like a fifty-pound weakling.

The thing wouldn’t move.

Just as it felt like the lever was going to snap off, it jerked up through the slot. Something in the ship scraped and whined. The ship’s nose pitched up. Bron stumbled back.

“Wings,” the dash said.

“Welcome back,” Bron said. He scrambled forward.

A siren sounded.

The dash swore. “Proximity.”

Bron grabbed the harness. It slipped through his hand.

Ahead he saw the mountains. A ridgeline.

It looked like they would impact just below it. He could see strata in the rocks.

“Problems with these control surfaces,” the dash said.

Bron pulled back on the yoke. It should have shifted from the hypersonic tail vanes to the wing flaps. He pushed left. The ridge seemed to drop that way. At least they could angle off.

Almost before he realized they’d passed the ridge.

He felt a moment’s relaxation. And saw another ridge ahead.

“Big range,” he said.

“Reaches ahead three hundred kilometers,” the dash told him.

“I guess it’s out of the question to glide that far?”

“Rhetorical,” the dash said. “I have a sense of humor too.”

“Wonderful. Was that why you gave me the silent treatment?”

“I was dazed for a moment. But seriously, over the next ridge there is a lake. That could serve as a landing point. It’s long. Between the mountains.”

“Great. Escapee father survives horrific re-entry only to drown on landing.”

“You’re very pragmatic.” Lights blinked on across the dash. Some green, some amber. Most red.

“And you’re flying the ship now?”

“Regaining control. Regrowing systems and rerouting where I can. If there was a hard strip we could almost land normally.”

“The lake will do.” The next ridge reared at them like an angry cat arching its back. “Will we clear that?”

“Going to try something,” the dash said. “With your permission.”

“Go ahead.”

Right away two contrails speared out from just below the viewport. Not contrails, Bron realized. Exhausts.

“Missiles?” he said.

“The ship is equipped.”

“Weaponry?” Bron said. “The ship is armed?” If he’d realized that at the start he might have thought twice about stealing it. “Is there a personal arms locker?” He had no idea where he was going to come down. A gun could be useful.

“No locker,” the dash said. “The weaponry is standard obstruction clearance.”

“Standard?” First time he’d come across it.

“Standard on mercenary and fugitive recovery ships.”

How about that? he thought. He’d stolen a bounty hunter’s ship. Probably not in the wreckers to be broken down at all. Probably just pawned.

Which meant that some bounty hunter was going to come looking for it.

The projectiles exploded against the mountainside. Flames and smoke billowed up. Mushroomed.

Flying rock came back at the ship.

“Uh-oh,” the dash said.

A rock slammed against the viewport. Cracks spiderwebbed around. Rocks kept falling. The hull clanged. Some of the green lights flicked to red.

“The spaceframe’s failing,” Bron said.

“Hold on.”

After a few seconds they were through the worst of it. They flew into the smoke. Bron was blinded. Some of the acrid particles forced themselves in through the cracks.

He expected obliteration any second.

The ship burst into clear air. Ahead he saw the shining blue waters of the alpine lake.

Almost before he could take it in, the ship touched down. She gave a mighty thwack and bounced. Skimming a few times, the ship slowed. The whole hull ticked and pinged.

“Any landing you can—”

“Don’t say it,” Bron said. “Anyway. If the hatch is still working, I’m swimming away from this one, not walking.”

“Humor. I like it.”

“Hold on.” Bron reached under the main panel and ejected the brain. It dropped into his hand. The size of a baseball, but soft and light like marshmallow. It was warm to the touch.

As the ship slid across the surface, he hunted for the sailwand. Even busted it might still work as an interface for the brain.

There, lying at the back of the cockpit against the wall. As the ship wallowed, he stuck both items in his flightsuit pockets and stood up on the central console.

He ninety-percent expected the overhead emergency hatch to be jammed too. It popped open at his touch.

“How about that,” he said, half-thinking the dash would reply. Only a brain now, it wouldn’t speak until he got it hooked up to something.

With a heavy thud, the hatch flipped outwards. Bron pulled himself up. The air smelled suddenly fresh after the burnt, scalded atmosphere of the cockpit. Standing on top of the cockpit he saw he was at least a half mile from the nearest shoreline.

And that looked like it was cliffs, too. Nowhere to easily climb out.

He could see the ship’s tail settling into the freezing water.

Bad days could always get worse, he thought.

From the distance he heard an engine drone.

He spotted the craft. A small flitter probably a third the size of his tiny re-entry vessel. The flitter had blue and gold markings on a white fuselage. Front and rear whirling ribbons kept it aloft.

In moments it was hovering over him. A bright star on the underside was marked with the legend “Eirvirke Police.” A rope with a harness dangled from the side and a helmeted head looked out at him. Downwash from the ribbons made catspaws across the icy water.

Looked like he was headed back to jail.

Bron waved and fitted the harness around his waist. As he cinched it, the rope pulled and jerked him off his feet. Below him, the ship lurched but stayed afloat. The flitter’s winch whined.

The officer pulled him inside and shunted the door closed. Bron detached the harness.

“Am I under arrest?” he asked.

The woman took off her helmet. She was about Gerry’s age, dark-haired with a face too stern and serious to be pretty. Her badge read “Jarvis.” Not even an initial.

“Escaped prisoner, stolen vessel, no flight plan, very poor choice of re-entry vector. Yes, I’d say you’re under arrest.” Her vowels were drawn and her consonants clipped but he could understand her all right.

“Figures,” Bron said. “Do I get a call?”

“A call?” she asked.

“Can I speak to someone? My son?”

“You get three calls. Lawyer, employer and a third of your choice.”

Bron nodded. Topaz had some open laws, he recalled.

“Except,” she said, putting her hand to her ear, “Central say they’ve rescinded some of your rights in the interim.”


“You’re already a wanted felon. Someone called McGursky or McCluskell has put a blanket shutdown on your activities.”

“McDougall,” Bron said. “Figures.” Through the window he could see the edge of the lake. He and Jarvis sat in a four-seat cabin behind the cockpit. There was no access through. The mountains sped by.

“You know this person?” Jarvis said.

“Sure. Been tracking me since I left, I’m sure. He’s put me away twice before.”

“Bounty hunter?”

Bron shrugged. He didn’t have to converse with her anyway. What he needed was some kind of a plan to get out of here and find Gerry. It would have to wait until they landed.

He had a bad feeling that Thom McDougall would be waiting on the pad.

“If I can’t make a call, can I at least send a message? My son should know I’m here.”

Jarvis nodded. “Let me check.” She took an odd-looking sailwand from her breast pocket. The sail popped open and she gestured at the face. After a moment she looked up at him.

“Well?” he said.

Her head gave the slightest shudder that might have been a nod. Or not. “No,” she said.

“Can you send a message for me?”

“Stop asking.”

Bron snorted. The cabin’s interior was constructed from aluminum and what looked like wood. Strips of the metal holding the grainy panels in place. The four seats were cushioned with soft plush velour.

“Are we going far?” Out the window he saw them crossing another ridge.

“Eighty kilometers,” she said. “Vastrian.”

“A city?”

She gave a quiet laugh. “Nominally.”

“Is it far from Demeter’s Spire?”

“Demeter’s Spire? You are thousands of kilometers off target, son. It’s not even on this continent.”

Bron didn’t know why she’d called him “son,” but that wasn’t good news about the distance. “No chance of booking me over there?”

Now she gave a full-bodied laugh. “That’s really another jurisdiction. Another country entirely. Don’t tell me you come from one of those places with a world government?” She made the phrase sound like an insult.

“Multi-planetary, in fact,” he said.

She made the same shuddering motion with her head.

She didn’t speak again through the rest of the journey.

Fifteen minutes later they began passing over a blocky cityscape of red roofs. Multi-story dwellings separated by narrow, grassy strips.

The flitter landed on the pad at an official-looking building. Bigger than the dwellings, with tall open windows and a busy stream of people from the street to the main door. Jarvis took him inside.

Very quickly they processed him through a series of bland rooms. The only decorations were the occasional scrawled initials. A robot slug slipped across the walls, cleaning. The initials wouldn’t last long.

They stripped him, took the busted sailwand and the dash brain. They asked him about the brain.

“Souvenir,” he told them. “Used to play ball with my kid.” He was sure it sounded sarcastic.

When they let him dress, they gave the brain back. Different rules, he guessed. And unfamiliarity with how the Convair had worked. Not that the brain would be any use to him without a wand anyway.

McDougall would never have been so careless. Probably wouldn’t even have given his outfit back.

Jarvis stayed with him right up until they put him in a cell.

“I just wanted to come see my son,” Bron said as she reached to the panel to seal the door. “Save his life.”

Jarvis hesitated.

“He’s Gerry Bron. The artist.”

“I suppose I should have heard of him?”

“He’s on some performance art kick. Planning to stand atop that metal peak in the middle of a lightning storm.”

“Lightning conductor.”

“I guess.”

“No,” Jarvis said. “That’s the name of the piece. Lightning Conductor. It’s been on the news. Bit of controversy about it.”

“He’s going to kill himself.”

“Probably,” Jarvis said. Bron thought he heard an element of sympathy in her voice.


“Got kids myself,” Jarvis said. “Do anything for them, you know. But still doesn’t excuse hurting others.”

“Didn’t hurt anyone,” he said.

“Not what it says here. Couple of spincycle yards and repair shops went bankrupt waiting for judgments after your shenanigans.”

Bron shrugged. “I guess. Needed the money.”

“You’re all the same,” she said. “Unrepentant.”

“I am now my son’s in harm’s way.”

“Should have thought of that before you busted out of the pen.”

Bron nodded. “Should have thought of that before I even got sent away.”

“I hear you.”

She held her hand up. “Enough talk. I’ve got to lock you up. Sorry.”

The door slid shut. It locked with a solid clunk.

Bron stepped back and took in the cell. Polished stone walls, as if it had been milled from a mountain. Probably artificially cast from a granite amalgam. That’s how his last cell had been made.

He’d become very familiar with that.

A high bunk was built over a double row of cubbies. Presumably if he got convicted that was where he would store his few personal belongings.

A retracted toilet bowl and basin showed in hollows in the wall next to the bunk. Another niche held a plastic tumbler. It all smelled sterile, as if they’d come in with a big hose of disinfectant and eradicated all evidence of the previous occupant.

There wasn’t even a wand or a physical book to read. Already they were punishing him.

Bron paced. Without a wand he didn’t know the time. Any minute now, Gerry would be walking out into the storm.

Stupid kid.

Bron had read up about Demeter’s Spire. A metal mountain. Located at the tip of a low peninsula that reached out fifteen miles from the mainland. Right into the path of ocean storms.

Close to twenty percent of all lightning strikes on the whole planet centered on the spire. Its hematite and nickel heart attractive like the biggest sunflower to a bee swarm.

The thing dissipated its charge deep into the crust. There was still conjecture about how the mountain had gotten there. Was it a meteor that hadn’t splintered? An alien spacecraft? Or some combination of the two?

Or perhaps it was simply a natural upthrust from the planet?

None of that mattered to Bron.

Gerry had sent him a schematic of the suit he was going to wear as he climbed to the summit. Two hundred feet above the black ocean, wearing an insulated cage. Performing to the music of Clancy Jonah while he danced through the year’s biggest storm.

Bron’s heart grew heavier as he waited. As if he was growing a lump of solid hematite in his chest.

He smiled at his own dumb metaphor.

His son was already dead.

Bron sniffed, glad he was in solitary. The guys back on Devereaux wouldn’t have let him forget if they saw anything like teary eyes.

Hours passed before anyone came back. Bron imagined them bringing him the news that Gerry had been incinerated in multiple lightning strikes. Synchronous within seconds.

Jarvis. She stood in the open door, mouth a thin line.

“Tell me,” he said.

“McDougall’s on the planet. He’s on his way here to take you home.”

“Don’t have a home.”

“You know what I mean. Back to the pen.”

“Yeah. What happened to my son?”

“That’s the other thing. It’s starting now.”

Bron perked up. “He’s still alive? I mean, hasn’t gone up the mountain?”

“Don’t be so paranoid. The news people are very excited. No one thinks he’s going to die. Apparently his suit is very smart.”

“Pity he isn’t.” Bron knew the news people loved this kind of thing. Live transmission of someone dying violently. Hits skyrocketed and so did revenue. Bad news was good for the companies.”

“I’ll put it on,” Jarvis said. She stepped into the cell and waved her wrist at the granite wall.

A rectangle spread across the stone and an image clarified in the space. A video feed.

“Nice trick,” Bron said.

“Sure. I’ll leave it on.”

“How far away is McDougall?” The picture resolved to show a zoomed shaky view of a fat man walking up a hill. Gerry, in his cage suit. The suit bulked him up.

“Half-an-hour. He set down at your original intended arrival location. He’s had some trouble finding local transport.” Jarvis smiled and actually winked.

“Trouble, huh? You haven’t seen trouble like you’ll see when he arrives.”

“Sure. He’s still got to go through local protocols. Might slow him down further.”

“Thank you,” Bron said. “I can watch my son being electrocuted without interruption.”

She gave him a grim smile. “That’s not what I meant.”

“I know. Appreciate your kindness.”

“Huh.” Jarvis stepped back and the door closed.

Bron stared for a moment. He wasn’t used to people showing that kind of consideration.

Made him suspicious.

The video feed showed another view. Sunset. Far off, Topaz’s bluish sun settled at the horizon. Gold streaked up into storm clouds. To the right, heavier black clouds rolled in towards the peak.

Bolts of lightning struck the ocean. Every one of them angled out, reaching for the mountain.

An inset showed Gerry still climbing.

The news commentator described the number of strikes per minute and the number of terawatts discharged with each. The numbers meant nothing to Bron, but they sounded impressive.

He wanted to shut off the display and bury his face in the bunk’s mattress. He was surprised to feel that. Really, he wanted to get out there and wrench Gerry off the mountain. Teach the kid a lesson.

The storm crept closer.

No. Bron wasn’t going to sit here.

He kicked the door. It echoed back at him. He lifted his foot and kicked again, this time with his sole. The door shuddered, but didn’t give.

Of course it didn’t. This was a jail cell.

Even here on Topaz it wasn’t easy to break out of jail. His last break, back on Devereaux, had taken months of planning. Weeks and weeks of acquiring the right passwords and equipment. Buttering up the right guards.

He wasn’t getting out of here with the sole of his boot.

Bron kicked again anyway.

Angry, he overbalanced and fell. He landed on his side.

On the Convair’s brain.

Bron smiled. “Knew there was a reason I kept you.”

He stood and pressed the little white ball against the corner of the stone wall’s display.

The brain suckered on and gray tendrils branched across the display’s surface.

“Ship’s telemetry offline,” the display said with the brain’s voice. “Correction. New location. Ship disconnected.”

“Can you open the door?” Bron said.

“Where are we?” The tendrils continued to spread. “Oh.”

“Yes. Get me out of here.”

The bottom section of the screen changed views. A schematic of the building appeared. Bron’s cell highlighted in red.

“This is a police department,” the dash brain said.

“Just unlock the door.”

“Can’t do it. Do I need to list the reasons why?”

On the remainder of the screen, Gerry continued his walk up the steep path. The clouds reared like rodeo stallions.

“First,” the brain said, “you stole me. I don’t have to listen to you. Second, I couldn’t get into their security even if—”

“Enough,” Bron said. “Can you access the news feed?”

“Sure? Why?”

“Let me talk to the newscaster.” Maybe he could convince someone to go and stop Gerry.

As the brain busied itself, the feed’s camera panned across the watching crowd. Hundreds of people. Perhaps thousands. There were bleachers and stalls selling burritos and sodas. Some midway rides.

“It’s a whole festival,” Bron whispered. He wondered if there was some way he could hack into the brain and force it to override its good conscience. Maybe if he had the right tools and a couple of days.

It looked like only a few minutes before the storm rolled into Gerry. It could happen any second. The strikes seemed stronger. The water boiling.

Bron took a breath and closed his eyes. Surely they wouldn’t have such a live audience if something could go wrong.

Or perhaps that was exactly why.

He knew he was only going to end up tying himself up in knots if he tried to think it through like that.

“Got a line to the reporter,” the brain said. “You should know that you’ve violated at least five local laws just by making the connection.”

“I’m allowed a call,” he said. “That’s standard.”

“Not in this part of Topaz. Not for you today, anyway.”

“Hello?” a female voice said from the display. “Who is this?”

“Go ahead,” the brain said.

“I’m David Bron,” Bron said. “I’m Gerry’s father.”

“Uh-huh. You’ve got about thirty seconds before I’m back on.” She looked in from the side. A young freckled redhead. She squinted at him. Not broadcasting, Bron thought.

“I’m his father,” he said. “Gerry. The lunatic climbing up that hill.”

She brightened. “Oh yes. Can I get a camera on you? Can I interview you?”

“A camera?”

“Got it,” the brain said. A tendril wavered along the screen’s side and a flat circle the size of his thumbnail grew across the wall.

“Okay,” the woman said. “I see you. Hello to all of you who’ve cycled into our cast here. You’re back with Claudia Schiven on Postopost. As you know, any moment now, Gerry Bron will step into the lightning in our performance feature event.

“Right now we’re talking with Daniel Bron, Gerry’s father. Daniel recently escaped from a penitentiary on Devereaux. Some of you will have seen the chase as he crashed through the atmosphere.”

“You saw that?” Bron said. In the corner of the screen he could see himself in an inset. He looked haggard and exhausted.

“Daniel’s now in custody at Silgar security. Apparently he’s hoping to speak with his son.”

“I want to stop him,” Bron said. He didn’t bother correcting her on his name.

“I’m counting eight felonies now,” the brain said.

“Can I speak with him, at least?” Bron said.

Claudia gave a sly smile. Almost wicked. She looked over her shoulder. “Well, I think it’s too late for that. The show’s about to begin.”

As if choreographed, a lightning bolt struck the mountain top. The whole display flared white. Bron could practically taste the ozone.

“Stop him,” Bron said. His voice squeaked out at least an octave higher.

Claudia nodded. “I’m sorry, it’s just too late. You heard it folks, a desperate father—”

The screen blanked.

“Huh,” the dash brain said.

The cell door whipped open. A big man strode in. Before Bron even got a chance to get a good look, he found himself manhandled to the floor.

“Took some finding,” a gruff voice said.


“Lucky, is all,” Bron said. He yelped as McDougall shoved his arm further up his back.

“I’ll break it.”

“All right,” Bron said. “I’ll quiet down.” He felt something sticky on his ankle. Some kind of restraint he guessed.

“You bet.” McDougall yanked him to his feet. “You’ve given me a real jurisdiction headache, you know that. Gotta take you back to Devereaux for my check, but first I’ve got to wade through an ocean of paperwork right here. What were you thinking giving broadcast interviews?”

“I just want to stop my son killing himself.”

McDougall laughed. “I get that. Doubt my boys will make it to twenty.”

The man dragged him out and along the hallway. McDougall’s nail-soled boots clicked against the stone tiles. A locked door held them up. Someone on the other side asking questions. Bron recognized Jarvis’s voice.

“You didn’t fill in all the documentation,” she said.

McDougall swore. “Only documentation I need is a Remington,” he muttered.

“Yeah, I heard that,” Jarvis said.

McDougall ran his tongue over his teeth. “I apologize. I’m retrieving this escaped felon under authority of Devereaux order. Precedence on the basis of timeline.”

“Except he’s in our custody.”

“He’s in my custody right now.”

“And,” Jarvis paused, almost for effect, “you’re in our building right now. Technically I could take you in.”

“You ought to be glad to be rid of the scumbag.” He glanced at Bron. “Offence intended.”

“Oh,” Bron said. “Offence taken.” He should have known better, but he pulled against McDougall’s grip. Got rewarded with another Herculean jerk. Bron’s elbow felt like it was about to splinter.

It was hard to concentrate now. Gerry was getting electrocuted. Bron could practically feel it through his cells.

He tried to remind himself that the kid would have taken precautions. Had to have.

Bron just couldn’t help himself. He’d blown it. Not just here, but getting thrown in the clink to begin with.

“I’ll make sure I complete all the documentation once we’re underway,” McDougall said.

“Of course,” Jarvis said.

Bron thought he’d never heard a tone conveying so much sarcasm. The restraint on his ankle shifted. He glanced down and saw the brain. It had tendrils wrapped around his leg, and clutching at his trouser cuff.

That was going to make him easy to track. If he could get away from this guy.

Bron shook his head to himself. This was McDougall.

“Here’s the deal,” Jarvis said. “Five officers will join you on the other side of the door. We’ll guide you to your ship and accompany you until you complete your documentation.”

“Sure thing,” McDougall said. “That seems fair.”

Bron could tell that the man had something else in mind. Bron didn’t know how the bounty hunter had gotten inside, but he doubted it was by regular means.

The door clanked and slid open.

McDougall marched him through.

Ten officers stood there in full battle gear. All anonymous in silvered helmets. Bron recognized Jarvis from her shape. The others were all chunkier. Bron wouldn’t want to take on even a single one of them. Not on his own.

“You said five,” McDougall said.

“I miscounted.” Jarvis stepped forward. The others all moved with her. A practiced formation, like birds flocking. All taking up positions leaving none of them open, leaving no gaps.

“We’ll escort you to your ship.”

“You realize if you touch me I’ll sue.”

“Yes,” Jarvis said. “This is my prisoner. He made requests. You’re interfering.”

“I’m doing my job.”

One of the cops jabbed a baton out. The tip crackled with an electric arc.

McDougall ducked. His foot came up. The boot caught the cop’s gut. He folded in half. Fell to the floor coughing.

Bron screamed as McDougall twisted his arm.

Two more cops came at them. McDougall held on, fending with his feet and free arm.

He produced a short rifle from somewhere. Managed to get off a shot. Another cop went down.

A baton slammed into McDougall’s arm. The rifle clattered to the floor.

He let go of his captive.

Bron flicked his arm around. He fell to his knees, rubbing his injured elbow.

Someone grabbed him. Pulled him away and to his feet.

“Move,” she said.

Jarvis. Already running.

Bron glanced around. Saw McDougall jumping for him.

Bron jumped too.

Cops swamped the bounty hunter. He kept squirming and fighting.

Bron ran. He followed Jarvis. She’d tossed the helmet and her hair billowed.

They ran through the foyer and out the main doors.

A corner of Bron’s mind wondered why he was following her. A cop. His arresting officer.

Outside the building the wide vehicle park was filled with the bulbous plastic and metal shapes of air and ground cars. In the middle, a big spacecraft dominated the space.

It was dark and covered in lines of parallel vanes. A narrow ramp led to a hatchway halfway up the side.

It was at least forty feet high.

Jarvis turned to him. “McDougall’s vessel.”

“I figured. Are you helping me steal it?”

“It’s called confiscation.” She ran on up the ramp.

Bron saw that McDougall’s ship had crushed some other vehicles. The bounty must be higher than Bron had thought.

Inside, the cockpit stank of old laundry and sweat.

Jarvis wrinkled her nose as she got into the pilot’s seat. “I like him even less now.”

“You can fly this?” he said.

“Sure. I’m rated in a few vessels.”

“Why are we here?” Bron sat in the jumpseat.

“Hang on,” she said. Working quickly she got the engines running. The ship hummed.

Bron bent to look through the viewports. He saw McDougall come out the security building’s door. Cops still fought with him.

“They need to just shoot him.” Bron could still feel the dash brain on his ankle. The thing might come in handy later.

“Got my vote on that.” Jarvis shunted the throttles up and the vessel leapt into the air.

Bron glimpsed McDougall’s face. Astonished.

Well, Bron thought. One little bright light in the day.

“Jumping now,” Jarvis said.

“Jumping? You—” The sudden acceleration cut him off.

The ship hit hypervelocity. A fraction of the speed of light, but still fast. Cassimir balls dampened the crush—otherwise he would have been pancaked—but he could still feel the pressure.

Rule one of spaceflight, he thought: don’t activate the interstellar drive in an atmosphere.

Within moments the acceleration eased. Through the viewports he saw a lightning storm.

“Where are we?” he said.

“Demeter’s Spire. Right where you were headed to begin with.”

The ship settled to the ground. It wasn’t yet night, but the air was dark with the heavy clouds.

“Storm came in slower than expected,” she said.

Lightning strikes occurred every few seconds. All focused on the mountain ahead. Rain pelted. Drips formed rivulets across the cockpit glass. Around the festival, shelters and lightning rods took the brunt of the storm, protecting the crowd.

“Don’t know why you’re worried about your son,” Jarvis said. “What about all those people down there?”

“Thanks,” Bron said.

The strikes weren’t just focused on the mountain, he realized.

They focused on a man.

Gerry stood at the summit. Arms spread wide.

He looked tiny. The bolts stabbed at him.

But not only that. They formed shapes around him. First a circle. Then a braid. A horse, a portrait, a flapping bird. Huge shapes. Fifty, a hundred feet high.

Only momentary, too. They flashed into Bron’s retinas, lingering with reds and golds. As the afterimages cleared, another bolt struck and a new image took shape. A cascading waterfall, a nude, a dancing clown.

“Look at that,” Jarvis said.

“They move too,” Bron said.

A cross, a crescent, a star. A tree in the wind. A leaf expanded, melding with the lingering light on his retina. A caterpillar crawled across the edge of the leaf.

“If you’d have told me it would be this good,” Jarvis said. “I would have bought a ticket.”

Bron grinned. “Then you wouldn’t have been able to rescue me from McDougall.”

“Yeah, I know.”

The storm rolled on. The ship shook with the constant thunder.

Gerry’s images ran on, never repeating. Fruit and fish, Einstein’s equations, flashing versions of the old masters.

Gradually the lightning diminished. Gerry folded his arms and walked down from the mountain.

“Some show,” Jarvis said. “You should be proud.”

“I am.” Bron leaned back into the jumpseat. “I guess you’ve got to take me back now.”

“Soon. Right now I need to escort you out there.” She stood and led him out to the ramp. They walked out into the rain and the crowds.

People clapped and shouted. Some whistled or called Gerry’s name. Bron thought it was going to be impossible to get near him, but Jarvis pulled the cop card and cleared a way through.

Gerry had handlers on either side. Beefy, in black leathers. They weren’t going to give her any ground. They closed shoulders.

“I’ve got his father,” Jarvis said.

“Who?” Gerry said. He pushed through the pair of handlers. His cage suit rattled as he stepped forward. “Dad?”

“Thought I’d come see the show,” Bron said. “Thought you were going to kill yourself.”

“I know what I’m doing.”

“Yeah,” Bron said. “I could see that. I had no idea.”

“Well, you’ve been busy distributing spincycle parts, right? I heard about you, busting up through re-entry.”

Bron nodded. “I’m glad you’re alive.”

Gerry stepped right up to him. “Likewise.”

Bron looked into his son’s eyes. There was still that kid in there. Putting his arms out, Bron pulled him into a hug. The suit crackled. Bron felt a tingle of residual electricity.

As Gerry hugged back, Bron realized what his son meant by “likewise.” Not that he’d survived the lightning storm. In his bravado, he’d never imagined that he might not.

No, Gerry meant he was glad Bron was alive.

Bron held on. He was glad he’d come.

Letting go, he leaned away. “I think I’ve got to go back to jail now.”

Gerry sighed. “Was it worth it, Dad?”

Bron grinned. “Every second.” He grabbed his kid up into another hug. It might be his last for a long time, but it really had been worth it. END

Sean Monaghan has had recent stories in “Asimov’s,” “Andromeda Spaceways,” and “Black Denim Lit,” and also won the 2014 Jim Baen Memorial Writing contest. His previous story for “Perihelion” was in the 12-JAN-2014 update.






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