Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Decoration Day
by Edward J. McFadden III

A Mother’s Touch
by Beth Cato

Breathing Space
by J.J. Green

Consarn Christmas
by Eamonn Murphy

Having Robot Sex
by William R.A.D. Funk

by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt

Morphological Understanding
by Jennifer Linnaea

Cloud Cover
by Eric Del Carlo

Abram’s Choice
by Jamie Lackey

by David Barber

Beer Today, Gone Tomorrow
by Clayton J. Callahan


Ho, Ho, Holiday Giving
by Eric M. Jones

On the Antiquity of Man
by A. de Quatrefages




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Decoration Day

By Edward J. McFadden III

SERGEANT WILLIAM ROSELLA CIRCLED the top of a tall mesa on his military issued aircycle 6000, the Painted Desert a mosaic of red rock, green scrub pine, and brown sand slipping by below him. He turned the craft sharply to the right, and sped off towards home. Rosella hadn’t been Earthside in a long time, and he didn’t know if anyone would be at the old family almond orchard. A sharp pain pierced him where his titanium leg met the flesh of his reinforced hipbone, and he shuddered, the aircycle listing to one side as he cringed in pain.

He had paid a high price on the last campaign, and it was no small wonder he was alive. A computer controlled telescopic eye now bulged from his left eye socket thanks to a piece of shrapnel, and his left leg and left arm had been severed, replaced with titanium reinforced prosthetics. He looked half machine as he rode the aircycle, the surgeons at the VA hospital opting to not grow skin and muscles over the artificial limbs until they knew for sure that Rosella’s joints had accepted them, and that all connections were functioning within design parameters.

Rosella throttled up the bike and the aircycle hissed forward, its teardrop chassis powered by an air rocket in the cycle’s tail. The infantry soldiers called the bikes “sperm-cycles” because of their fat tear-shaped front and narrow tail.

Rosella was nervous about going home. He’d been at war most of his adult life, and he was afraid he didn’t know how to be around regular people. The citizens of Earth he had encountered so far seemed like a spoiled, arrogant, impatient, unappreciative group, and if one of them started with him about the war, who knew what might happen if one of his circuits blew? He hoped the tranquility of the almond orchard would provide him some peace so he could sleep. His nightmares and flashbacks had been so bad since he left zero-g that his mind was starting to crack in subtle ways, his reality slipping away.

Sunshine reflected off his titanium leg, and Rosella thought about the price he had paid so the desert below, and all of Earth, could be safe. When the first wave of Slythene arrived there had been no opposition to a draft in most countries, and he along with many other people under the age of twenty-eight were trained to fight in space, even though the human race had no experience fighting that type of war.

Lines of green, red, and orange rock streaked the cliffs and mesas of the Painted Desert. His family orchard rested on the northern slope in a temperate valley fed by an offshoot of the Little Colorado. Robert might be there. Maybe some other family, Robert’s kids, or maybe there would be no one. Secretly, this is what he hoped for.

Aside from his physical injuries, the battle stress he had endured had made him irritated and bitter beyond what he thought possible. He was always angry, and no one could complete a task to his satisfaction. The killing, however justified, left scars on him that he was never allowed to show. Weakness was not an option.

Rosella’s ship had dropped him at moon base, where he had caught a shuttle to the space elevator. The six days caged in the elevator had been miserable, but still pure luxury compared to the space cruiser. Being only a notch above a grunt, and being what they called “nonessential,” a regular space plane to the surface was too expensive for the likes of him.

He banked the aircycle left, and saw the orchard in the distance: ordered green rows perpendicular to a blue twisting stream. He slowed the aircycle, and dipped downward, racing five meters above the surface. His dust-tail stretched behind him in a tight spiral, and he began checking his gauges, preparing to land.

Rather than land by the house, Rosella circled, and came in from the south, pulling up above a field of tall grass next to the orchard. The aircycle hovered for a moment, and then touched down in the tall grass. Rosella got off the bike and lifted the seat, retrieved his duffel bag, and pressed a button on the aircycle’s handlebars to initiate the security system. He made a mental note to disconnect the aircycle’s communication equipment so he could ride without being tracked by command.

He tried to throw his duffel over his shoulder, but his thin metal fingers got caught on the bag’s strap, and it fell to the ground. He still wasn’t used to the metal hand, but the doctors assured him things would be easier once it was covered with muscle and skin, just like his leg and arm. He didn’t know about that. His real leg socket hurt badly from the imbalance caused by the titanium leg, and he couldn’t see how his body would ever be centered again. He limped between the almond trees, long irrigation ditches lining each row. The almond trees had taproots that went deep, and the long, dry winters provided the perfect dormant period for the trees.

He broke free of the orchard and saw the house. Everything was still, save for a wind chime that rattled and swayed over the porch. Rosella could see a vegetable garden to the left, and grape vines on tall trellises to the right. It was exactly as he remembered it.

He stepped onto the porch, and saw his reflection in the glass window of the front door. His crew cut was growing in, and long stubble covered his head. The eye socket with the mechanical eye was totally black, and his face was scarred in several spots from other injuries. What would his family think? What would he look like to them? The war had taken so much, and even Earthside it was still taking, and always at the forefront of his thoughts. He wondered if the high-ups considered what happened after the fight? How wars extended well beyond the official dates of deployment? He doubted it. The brass only cared about the brass, and about winning, and though most of them had never fought themselves, their righteous indignation drove them as if the Slythene were waiting on their doorstep.

“Hello,” came a voice from behind him, and Rosella spun around. An old man stood there, looking at him with tear-streaked eyes.

“Hi,” said Rosella, and he dropped his bag, and took a hesitant step forward, his metal arm hitting his metal leg and ringing.

The two men hugged for several moments, father and son embracing after many years apart, the elder man crying freely. Rosella felt very little. He didn’t know if he was capable of feeling anymore. Almost every friend he’d ever had was dead, and the battles and hiding in space had numbed him to the point of total detachment.

“Come. I’ll open a bottle of wine,” said the old man, and he led Rosella to a table in the middle of the garden.

“You alone?” asked Rosella.

The old man looked down at his feet, more tears leaking from his eyes. “Yep. Everyone’s gone.”

They sat in silence, Rosella afraid to ask any questions for fear of the answers. When they finished the first bottle of wine, and had started on the second, Rosella worked up the courage to ask how the folks Earthside felt about the war.

“It’s hard to describe how people feel. We’re so detached from what’s going on up in space that few people fully understand the situation. People get pissed when they see what the war costs, and most choose to forget that forty percent of the world’s jobs are directly related to the war effort, and if the war were to end the world economy would crash. Also, since the average Earthling has never seen a live Slythene, they only peripherally understand the threat, and therefore aren’t afraid.”

“They’d be afraid if they saw what I see in my dreams,” said Rosella, looking away from the old man.

“Well, they only see what the Earthside media chooses to show, and that’s not very accurate.” They drank their wine, a gentle breeze pushing through the orchard, bringing the fresh scent of earth and herbs from the garden.

“Strange that I’ve given up my life for the ungrateful shits,” said Rosella.

“You have to understand that wars of the past were much different, much closer to home. The threat was tangible, a monster that threatened to take your children and kill your women. Your war is so different, so far away.”

In the past, soldiers coming home from battle were respected, and got certain benefits, but over the years these honors had diminished significantly. Now they wanted to hide soldiers like Rosella, make believe the war wasn’t even going on so people could shop, go on vacation, and live normal lives while the world’s young people got blown to chopped meat and spread all over space. Eventually, there would be a shortage of soldiers, and that would cause major problems.

When they finished their third bottle of wine, the old man asked, “How does it feel to take a life? I mean, I know you’re separated by spacesuits, and ships, but you must feel something when you kill.”

“Killing makes me feel like there’s an invisible barrier between me and the rest of the human race. I’m an outcast, a freak of nature,” said Rosella.

The old man started to speak, but Rosella was on a roll, the memories flowing like the wine, his mind unable to differentiate between flashbacks and reality. “When the Slythene’s ships started coming, and they tried to set up camp on the Moon, the war was understandable. We stood at one end of the Sea of Tranquility and they stood at the other. We blasted each other until me and twelve other soldiers were standing. Despite the spacesuits and lasers, it was old school. We could see into the enemy’s eyes—all nineteen of them.

“When the war switched to the outer system, then changed to the intercept mission in deep space, we lived in tin cans, watching a screen that looked like an old video game, waiting to fire missiles at a target we would never see.”

Rosella paused, emptying his glass of wine. “I haven’t seen a Slythene in years! For all I know, we could be blowing up nothing. A big ruse to keep the economic engine running.”

“Is that possible?” asked the old man. Father and son knew each other well, yet there were things the older man just couldn’t understand.

Rosella chuckled. “It’s possible. We’re out there in the middle of nowhere, tiny little viewports. We’re almost blind except for the orders and data sent by Space Command. Why couldn’t the whole thing be a hoax? Maybe we ran them off with the first two offensives, and everything else is about money?”

Rosella got up and picked up the fourth wine bottle, downing its contents with one long pull. “The Slythene I saw were taking samples of our dead. It became clear fast that they wanted to be more like us and utilize our planet the way we did. That’s when I realized the futility of my entire life, the utter meaningless mockery of the war. The Slythene were trying so hard to understand humans, converting their mechanical structures into organic bodies so they could beat us. And we ...” Rosella faltered, looking down at his metal arm and leg. His mechanical eye buzzed as it retracted, and a tear slipped down the old man’s face. “And we were trying to become more like them, half-machine. Can’t you see the insanity of that?”

“How did it happen?”

The soldier looked at his artificial leg, and shook his head. “We had a reading on our screen, and the gunner was targeting the spot, getting ready to fire, when our ship went dark. All power gone. I was ten light years from Earth, trapped in a metal box with no power, floating in space with nothing but emergency lights and reserve food rations. I thought we’d starve out there, but then things got worse.

“Something hit us, and I’m not talking about a laser blast or a missile. It was another ship, or an asteroid, but whatever it was caused major damage to our vessel. I was trapped under a section of bulkhead, and my leg and arm were pinned. We had only seconds, because life support had failed, and the emergency doors were closing, sealing off the command section. So, me and two of my shipmates cut off my arm and leg, tied off the stumps, and made it through the airlock with about five seconds to spare.”

“And how did you live with no medics?”

“We floated in the darkness for a week, my two remaining shipmates tending me. We were found by chance when one of our warships saw a contact on screen, and when they got close they were able to tell it was us.”

“Thank god it’s over,” said the old man.

There was a long silence as Rosella looked at his only child.

“Son, you know they’re going to make me go back, don’t you?” said Rosella, staring at his son. Relativistic time was a bitch, and Rosella’s zipping around the cosmos had made his only child thirty-eight years his senior. That was the cost of traveling at eighty-six percent light speed—time slowed, while on Earth it remained the same. Rosella felt the pain of that sacrifice every time he looked at the skin sagging from his son’s bones, and the liver spots that dotted his aged face. He had never met his grandchildren, or Robert’s wife. An entire lifetime had passed while he sat in his tin can floating in space, waiting for his chance to die.

“Not tonight,” said Robert.

That night Rosella slept better than he had in years.


As the days passed, they avoided talking about the end of Rosella’s leave, but the messages had already started coming in from the VA hospital about growing skin on his prosthetics and his malfunctioning comm chip. Rosella had disabled his communication interface, and his mechanical eye had gone dark soon after.

Rosella hadn’t responded to any of the messages. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do, but he didn’t have many options. He could grow his skin, and report for duty, or go AWOL, and make them come for him, which they certainly would. They didn’t drag him across space and time, and spend a fortune fixing him, only to let him shake almond trees. He hadn’t thought there were any other options until he got a message from a fellow spacer, Crawly Lundpeck, a gunner he had served with in the outer rim offensive.

“Craw, you going back?

“Don’t talk like that on an open comm channel, Sarge. A few of us are getting together. You want to come?”

“I’m listening,” said Rosella

“You remember the place we’d always talk about? Where we’d all meet if we were ever free?” asked Craw.


“Hope to see you there, Sarge.” Craw terminated the connection. Rosella stood holding the comm box, staring at the wall when his son walked in. Rosella looked at Robert, everything painted on his face as if written there in black marker.

“You should go. I’ll tell them you took off, and I have no idea where you are. If we do it right, I won’t,” said Robert.

Rosella couldn’t believe his ears. What kind of father had he been? Absent. Yet his son wanted to risk his life so he might have one. Rosella didn’t know what to say, or do. The costs of the war continued to pile up every day. Things he had forgotten about out in space, where surviving occupied your time. Why does my son even care? he asked himself, rubbing his metal leg.

“I’m not going anywhere, yet,” said Rosella, and his son smiled.

They spent the better part of a week preparing for when the army came to get him. They’d come in an armored hovercraft equipped with missiles, machine guns, and stun cannons. The stun cannons were what Rosella was most worried about, because the weapon could be used by any fool at a safe distance, so they had created several shielded areas within the house, as well as outside, where they could avoid the stun rays.

Rosella was AWOL three weeks when he showed his son the missile-gun.

“This was supposedly fired during the moon conflict, and I’ve been stowing it since,” said Rosella, laying the weapon on the bed. It was no bigger than an old fashioned flare gun, but fired heat-seeking, armor-piercing missiles instead. “I want you to carry it in your jacket.”

“I don’t think I can fire—”

“You can. It has very little recoil if you hold it with two hands. Good thing soldiers rarely have their bags checked.”

The days wore on, and several communications from officers of increasing rank came in, but Rosella was unfazed. Perhaps they were too busy and would let him skate. He had done his duty, and maybe there was someone at HQ with a heart, but Rosella doubted it. He had petitioned for discharge, citing trauma and past service, and the denial had been swift and clear: we own you, and you are nothing more than an expensive piece of combat equipment.

One day, with a rare rain lashing the desert, Robert found his father standing over a dead armadillo. The creature had been torn open at the midsection, its entrails spilling out onto the sand. It looked as though a coyote had gotten the animal.

“You OK?” asked Robert of his father. It still unnerved the old man to look at his dad, who was thirty-eight, but looked thirty, with his blonde stubble, and honed muscles.

“It’s just ...” he couldn’t find the words. “Death is so much neater in space. Here, all the blood ...” A tear slipped down Rosella’s face. Robert took him by the elbow, brought him into the house, and made him a cup of tea. Despite his armored exterior, Robert could see that his father had been damaged beyond repair, and even if the army were to release him from their grip, he would still have to disappear, away from people. Maybe someday, after years had passed, and all his wounds—both mental and physical—had healed, he might be able to inch his way back into civilization.


They came for him on Decoration Day, a kind of Memorial Day set up for spacers who had died fighting the Slythene. The irony wasn’t lost on Rosella as he watched the hovercraft buzz the almond trees, landing in a small clearing in front of the house.

Their plan was to have Robert greet them, tell them Rosella had disappeared, and see if they left. If they insisted on entering the house, they would fight. Robert was petrified. The missile-gun stuffed in his jacket pocket where he could grab it easily.

“Don’t pull that thing unless you’re prepared to shoot it. They’ll take you down without thinking twice,” said Rosella, as his son twisted up the courage to do the bravest thing of his life. “You sure you’re up for this?”

“Yes.” Robert looked at his father, then the two men embraced. “If this is it, godspeed, dad.” Rosella turned, not wanting his son to see the tear as it slipped down his face.

“Sergeant Rosella. Please come out peacefully. We have no wish to harm you,” came a voice over the hovercraft’s PA.

“Yeah, I’m too expensive to fix,” muttered Rosella.

“You have one minute,” said the voice over the PA.

“You ready,” asked Rosella, and his son nodded.

Robert walked out the front door, hands raised, his jacket hanging open, the missile-gun concealed in a pocket. He stepped forward gingerly, expecting at any moment to be blasted with a stun ray.

“Freeze. Where is Sergeant Rosella?”

Robert kept moving forward.

“Let me warn you that my men have their fingers on the trigger. Don’t so much as stumble.” The voice came from a speaker mounted on the hull of the hovercraft. “Who are you?”

“Robert Rosella. My father hasn’t been here in weeks.”

There was a pause. Robert heard the scraping of metal, and a hatch at the top of the hovercraft flipped back on its hinges, and a soldier in full body armor poked his head out.

His helmet was blue, and Robert couldn’t see the soldier’s face behind the blast shield. “Where is he, Mr. Rosella? We know he was here yesterday. We have satellite photos of him walking in the orchard.”

“That was me,” said Robert, but he knew the soldier wouldn’t buy it.

“Don’t think so,” said the soldier.

Robert reached into his jacket, and the hovercraft’s stun cannon chirped, and Robert dove to one side, landing hard behind one of the metal barricades where the stun ray couldn’t zap him. “My father has given his entire life to the war. Can’t you, as a soldier, understand that? He has fought in every space battle humans have ever had. How many battles have you boys been in?” yelled Robert. Silence from the big man wearing the armor.

“Sir, I have my superior on the line, will you speak with him?” asked the soldier with an undertone Robert recognized: pity. “Hold up your weapon and step forward. We won’t harm you.”

Robert rose from hiding, holding the missile-gun high above his head. When he got close to the hovercraft, a soldier appeared from nowhere, took the gun from him, and stopped him in his tracks with a hand on his shoulder.

Robert looked at a small video screen mounted on the side of the hovercraft, where a man wearing more ribbons than Robert had ever seen waited for his attention. “Robert, I’m Commander Gregory. You’ve heard of me?” Robert nodded. According to his father, Gregory was a good one. “I know Sergeant Rosella is there. Does he plan to go down fighting?”

“He does. As do I,” said Robert, but his words were in vain, and the commander knew it.

“Yes. Well, I’m not in the business of killing my best soldiers, but I also answer to someone, and I don’t have the authority to give him his freedom, even if I think he deserves it.”

“What, then?” asked Robert of the battle-worn face on the screen.

“I’ll forget about him for a while,” said the commander. Then the man leaned forward, looking Robert in the eye as best he could. “Tell him to hide in a deep hole. I’m not the final say.” Before the officer’s image blinked out, Robert thought he caught a smile spreading across the man’s face.

As soon as the commander’s image disappeared, the soldiers scurried back into their ship, and lifted away, leaving Robert standing in a cloud of dust.

When Robert went into the house, he saw that his father had gone. Maybe that’s how he’d planned it all along. Maybe his dad just couldn’t say goodbye that last time. His father’s duffel was gone, but there was a postcard sitting on the dining room table. It was a picture of deep jungle with monkeys hanging from trees. In red lettering on the bottom of the postcard, the word Cuzco was printed. He flipped the card over, and the following message was written in his father’s trailing hand:

Burn this after you memorize the name on the front. I’ll leave word there for you. Hope to see you again my son, but if not, may your final days bring you peace. —Love, your Dad

P.S. Don’t forget to light a candle for me on Decoration Day.

Robert struck a match and lit the card on fire, dropping it into an ashtray. He looked around his old house, peered out his window at the almond trees, and thought of his father. He hoped to see him again, though he knew that was unlikely unless he followed his trail of breadcrumbs.

There is a place all soldiers dream about, a place where there’s no enemy, no fighting. It’s one of those dreams they talk about when they’re sitting alone in the dark, halfway across the galaxy, waiting to die. The description of the place changed from soldier to soldier, story to story, but the dream was real. A tangible thing that space soldiers clung to in the darkness, when they had nothing else.

Robert hoped his dad found that place, and that one day, when he worked up the courage, he could join him there. A place where worrying about what to have for lunch was the biggest problem of the day. Robert saw his father there in his mind’s eye, the scars of battle gone, the feeling of loss for his friends and colleagues buried deep, as he sat on a beach, the ocean lapping against the shore and wetting his toes. That was as close to heaven as any soldier could ask for, and that would just have to do. END

Edward J. McFadden III has published more than fifty short stories in places like “Fantastic Stories of the Imagination,” “Tales of the Talisman,” and “The Arizona Literary Review.” His third novel, “Hoaxers,” is available from Crossroad Press.


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