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




By David Barber

1. Gang

TO WEAR THE ENGINEER tattoo there’s a test.

Kay comes up behind Arp and takes his arm, propelling him down corridors where most lights are missing. The bruising grip on his bicep never loosens. They are heading for an airlock.

Kay and Arp are names from an earlier generation, declaring their break with the world left behind.

The Chief Engineer waits by the lock next to the row of ancient suits; he carries the sidearm inherited from his father. Some wonder if there are still bullets for it, but no one has tried to find out, Parker is that sort of man.

Kay creaks the airlock door wide. “Get in.”

Arp hesitates. The Engineers run everything in the Aft decks; joining them is escape from the drudgery of everyday.

“It’s about trust,” shrugs Parker. “We have to be able to trust you, and you have to trust us.”

Except Arp doesn’t trust Kay, doesn’t trust the look on his brutal face, and Kay is caught off guard as Arp bundles them both into the lock and slams the door.

“You crazy little ...”

Parker peers curiously through the small round port.

“Not funny, Chief,” Kay shouts.

When the door unlocks again, Kay has his hands at Arp’s throat and Arp has his hand poised over the vent button. They stand motionless.

“Welcome to the Engineers, kid,” says Parker.

2. Waste

The boy was tired of scrubbing crud. He wiped his nose, smearing his cheek with chlorophyll. The boy is Arp. He hasn’t even imagined joining the Engineers yet.

The old man carried on explaining how the green boomed and busted. Booms, you tapped off the extra green; busts, you dumped it into the recycler and started again; but the tank had to be clean first. Now the boy knew this too.

The man was almost the last contact with the old world. When he died a decade later, Arp and his like were finally released from the past, free to invent themselves instead.

“Tell me about when they threw things away.”

The man roused himself. Opinion had it the boy daydreamed too much and was odd.

“I mean, how’d they throw things away?”

“Worlds are big. They just left them someplace.”

Perhaps the boy wasn’t very bright. People said IQ was dropping because of some build-up in the closed loop; or something essential getting lost, nobody really knew. Nobody even knew how to find out. Some said it was nonsense, but then the stupid would say that.

“Like stuff,” Arp suggested.

Stuff was the irreducible exhausted residue that recycling wouldn’t touch any more; lots of strains had gone weak.

“No,” said the man irritably. “Not like stuff. What do we do with stuff?”

They stored bricks of stuff in the hope that somebody would come up with a use for it.

The man tried to recall the stories he’d heard as a child.

“Alright. Say a man has a worn-out shoe. He’d just throw it away and get a new one.”

Arp understood new; each daymeal was new. It might be yeastcake or krillstick, and sometimes it was vegetables. Vegetables were best. It was the notion of wasting things he didn’t get.

“But where’s the new shoe come from?”

“Look,” said the man, impatient now. “They took things from the pile they hadn’t used yet, and when they’d used them up, they got thrown on another pile. Alright?”

The man didn’t smack him much, though he got angry more often these days. Arp couldn’t get past that first pile getting smaller.

Nightmeal was krillstick and green. Too salty. The man usually read until his eyes got tired. There was talk of tithing books again; cellulose for the bulk feedstock. The man shook his head. It was iron and magnesium the green needed. Grumbling, he looked everywhere for his book.

The clean tank would be filled with fresh green tomorrow. Hiding behind it, Arp thought hard about waste. Something not put in the recycler. He tried to see what that meant. You could tear it up and scatter it, but that was just mulching. You could even eat it and it still wouldn’t be wasted.

It took hours to move blocks of stuff, bury the book deep and cover it up again. He’d thrown the book away. He said it out loud. He’d wasted it. Arp savoured what it was like to be selfish.

3. Violence

Arp didn’t want to become like the old man, but you had no choice about being prenticed. Arp was spindly for his age, with ribs like ladders. His features were pale and sharp and his gaze guarded. He didn’t understand why the girls didn’t like him, and something in his solitary nature provoked boys too.

When they tried to trip him up, he would step round them. It was like having the old man instead of a mother and father. It was how the world was, but this time one of them surprised him with a stinging blow on the face, and Arp had to be dragged away, still clawing and screaming and punching.

He often saw that moment, standing there, panting, following their horrified gaze down to the eyeball gripped in his fist.

The family of the blinded boy came for Arp, and the old man defied them, demanding a fair hearing. It was the first time Arp saw Chief Parker up close, his famous sidearm, the authority he wore so lightly.

“You do this?” he asked Arp, indicating the boy with the bandaged eye.

Arp nodded mutely. It must have been him.

The other boys were brought in one by one and the Chief Engineer quickly spotted the contradictions in their stories. Soon there were derisive hoots from the crowd.

“My boy still lost an eye,” muttered the father.

Parker turned on him. “You want an eye for an eye?”

The family glanced uneasily at one another.

“Only fair,” the father insisted.

“Fair? Your boy started it. Five against one.” Nods from the crowd.

Because Arp had no parents to offer compensation, the Chief said Arp should be sent away to another deck. Anything happened to him there, he warned, the family would answer to the Engineers. Arp didn’t understand, but he had gained a name and was avoided.

Years later, someone with their own reputation for violence could not believe the stories about this scrawny youth and easily had him curled up in a corner whimpering. Arp came back later and broke bones with a metal pole. Folk whispered he was crazy. The Engineers, who stood aloof from all this, noticed him.

4. Stories

After nightmeal, when the lights dimmed, the grownups would sit and talk. Arp’s favourite stories were “The Boy Who Could Do Better,” and the scary one about the dark decks.

The boy who could do better never settled. He stirred recycling slurry, but didn’t like the stink and thought he could do better. He shovelled dirt on the farm decks, but got blisters and thought he could do better. He cleaned out tanks, but got filthy with green and thought he could do better. And so on. Arp misunderstood the stories. He also wanted more than life on the decks could offer.

Sometimes bits were added, like how the boy tried being Captain, but got tired of eating and drinking and sitting in a big chair all day and thought he could do better. Arp hated when folk laughed at that.

And there were different endings. The boy thought he could do better on the Outside, and opened an airlock. Arp tried to imagine that. Or the boy thought he could do better on the dark decks. That got mixed up with the scary story.

A boy—it was always a boy, no girl would be that stupid—gets lost on the dark decks and hears footsteps. He gets lost and senses something close behind. He gets lost and feels a breath on his neck. And so on. Then the storyteller grabs a child and tickles them.

What can we put in the bubbling pot? For there is nothing to eat on the dark decks.

Nothing to see in the dark, put my eyes in the pot.

Nothing to hear in the dark, put my ears in the pot.

Nothing to say, put my tongue in the pot.

Don’t need your laugh, (more tickling) put that in the pot.

What will you put in the bubbling pot?

Each child had to say something different to put in the pot. Arp once said his head, and everybody laughed. He was angry and pleased at the same time.

Years after, he ended up with an Engineer’s tattoo, scavenging on the dark decks.

5. The Dark Decks

Arp held the lamp high and shadows danced on the walls of the empty space.

The dark decks were unheated and unlit; the ones nearest to Engineering already stripped of anything useful. Scavenger gangs hurriedly ripped copper wire from the walls, or dragged machinery back to be cannibalized. They didn’t believe the stories, but were always in by nightmeal. They knew of no creatures but themselves, yet some deep instinct warned them otherwise. Only Arp worked alone, a sure sign he was a strange one, folk said.

These corridors had been abandoned long ago, during the mutiny, when all the decks forward of Engineering were denied electric and the great doors lowered for a generation. Them that sides with the Captain, dies with the Captain, a Chief Engineer famously said in the story.

Tradable items can still be found in empty rooms: books, scissors, odd things, like two glass discs in a plastic frame. This picking over of the past wasn’t what he wanted to do either. Peering, he held the lamp closer. There in the dust, were footprints.

He backed out into the corridor, where frost glittered on the walls and his breath clouded the air. For a foolish moment he thought he heard something, and swung the lamp this way and that. Something without eyes, without ears.

“Wait,” insisted something with a voice like a man.

And he was running, corridor after corridor, his heart pounding and air rasping in his throat, unable to look back for fear of a breath on his neck, until he stumbled over his own feet amongst the racing shadows, and the lamp slopped its oil, a faint blue flame rippling over the deck and there was nothing he could do but wait to be swallowed by the dark.

After a very long time he imagined he could see again. Stepping forward, hands outstretched, he sensed a vast space, as big as Engineering, and high above were stars. He was seeing by starlight.

Arp was too intent to notice a glimmer and a faint tapping sound getting louder. Something had sniffed him out, and he whimpered. He whimpered.

“Wait,” said the man’s voice. And then a girl. “We have good news.”

6. The Bridge

They climbed deck after deck, all dark and cold. The man hobbled ahead with a lamp.

“What’s wrong with his foot?”

The man gripped a length of pipe that clinked on the deck like an extra step. The girl in the shadows beside Arp never stopped talking.

“Secretly, Jeck carries the staff in case of monsters in the dark.”

“I’m not deaf,” Jeck called back.

“We are going to the Bridge. We have something wonderful to show you.” Her voice sounded odd and thick.

“So you’re Officers?”

The girl made a wet sound, like a laugh. A girl, but unafraid of the dark decks.

“The Captain has a message for your Chief.”

“How do you manage without electric?”

She didn’t laugh now.

“There was backup, separate from your reactors. Called thermoelectric, but it is never enough.”

“But shutting the doors worked. Oh yes,” Arp had forgotten the limping man. “We are only a handful now. Amy is my cousin. Everybody I know is a relative. You would have won in the end.”

“Jeck is having a crisis of faith,” Amy whispered.

7. The Captain

They called this grizzled old woman Captain.

She took Arp to one side, touching his arm. “Amy says you are an Engineer. And young.”

She lifted her face towards him in the dim light and he saw she was blind.

“Not that young.”

Her fingers found the telescope. “Do you know what this is?”

Arp peered at the blurred specks that she said was their Destination, long foretold, almost close enough now to be touched. The Instructions prophesied wet green worlds, and it had come to pass. But the Bridge must have electric again. They had to turn and begin slowing. The Instructions were clear on this.

“I thought it was ...”

“What? Just a story?”

“... not for us.”

If the Chief Engineer saw for himself, insisted the blind Captain, then he would surely believe.

Arp was almost afraid to ask. “And how long ...”

The Captain found his hand and patted it, like a blessing.

“You will live to see Planetfall.”

Arp rolled the word around his mouth. He could imagine the metal instruction sheets, like they had in Engineering. He could imagine the cry of discovery. But he couldn’t imagine worlds green and wet.

Jeck had not waited, but the girl, Amy, offered to guide him back to decks he knew. As she lit a lamp, he saw her face was horribly split, from under the nose down into her mouth.

8. Planetfall

“What you want the Chief for?”

“Something I come across,” said Arp, reluctantly. “He’ll want to hear.”

Kay waited him out. “Chief’s a busy man.”

They never liked each other. Kay had risen in the Engineers, in charge of the Drive, a job Arp shrugged at. The Drive was a vast sealed unit, and even adjusting the dials back to the positions shown on the Instructions was a ceremony performed only rarely.

“They have electric.”

Kay’s smirk faded.

“Stop messing with him,” said the Chief Engineer from the door. “What’s all this about?”

Once started, Arp couldn’t stop. About the blind Captain and the things wrong with her kin. The telescope and the wet green worlds. How they needed the electric for turnaround. The way the Captain had said Planetfall, and how it was what he had looked for all his life. He did not say this.

“Don’t sound like a threat,” decided Kay. “Sounds like they’re barely hanging on.”

“I can take you to the Captain.”

Parker pursed his lips. “They show you some dots and claim one’s Eden. And it pops up now, after all this time, just when they’re getting desperate?”

“But it’s Planetfall.” It was all so clear to Arp. “Folk need to hear.”

Parker sent Kay out with murmured orders, then studied Arp. “I’ve seen the instructions for Turnaround. Every Chief Engineer gets to read them. Says we have to turn off the Drive.” He let that sink in. “But what if we couldn’t light it again? And they warn everything floats. The Farm decks. The Pools. Everything.”

Kay came back in with men, and before Arp understood, he was bundled to the floor, struggling and yelling until someone dazed him with a blow. Kay stood over him, rubbing his knuckles, his big lumpy face red with effort.

Parker shook his head. “We don’t want to go worrying folk.”

“Let’s do the airlock test again, Chief, only this time ...”

“Leave the thinking to me. Arp here knows where the Captain is.”

9. Stars

Parker came back to the same thought like a sore tooth. He couldn’t stand that someone still sat in the Captain’s chair. The mutiny had to be finished. He visited Arp in the lockup and said he’d thought better of things. If Arp would guide them, he would give this blind woman a fair listen.

A line of Engineers followed Arp, holding their lamps high, haunted by their own grotesque shadows, until they reached the hall where you could see the stars. Parker wouldn’t hear of snuffing their lights to look. It never occurred to Arp that the Chief Engineer was afraid.

The men all carried metal rods, like a scavenger gang. Arp watched them whipping them through the air and laughing. It was the loud, excited behaviour of men before a fight. They didn’t think to guard him because no one would go into the dark without a lamp. He looked from one animated face to another, and slipped away.

When they came looking, he howled a terrible warning from the dark and they fled. Later, he heard them again, distant cries of shock and pain as if something had gone wrong. Trailing his fingers along walls, he retraced his steps and sat looking up at the stars.

“I thought you might be here,” said the Captain a long time afterwards.

10. How Stories Begin

On the way back, an Engineer spied something in the darkness and a sudden panic engulfed them, ending with bodies tumbling down a staircase. When the last of the injured were finally carried back, some said Parker was shaking as he shouted for the great doors to be shut, sealing off the dark decks.

Certain that folk would act if they knew about Planetfall, Arp searched for a way aft. He hammered on the doors in frustration, metal on metal, without reply.

The booming echoed round the Aft decks like some furious thing trying to get in. People stayed off the corridors and when the Chief limped out of Engineering days later, it was to promise the doors would stay shut.

11. Beautiful

The people of the Bridge, descendants of the Officers, were not like Arp. Their faith in a Destination was unshakable, and if this one proved false, then the true one would emerge from the Hall of Stars. They began embossing metal sheets with new Instructions. Generations from now, a different Chief Engineer might raise the doors again and they must be ready. If the time came and Turnaround was missed, they would settle back into their bare, cold lives and wait. Arp could not understand them.

Events took years to play out as the speck of their destination grew brighter. Longer than a lifetime for the Captain, who in her blindness had promised Planetfall. Arp had a prentice to the green now, who he scolded for not paying attention. Though he was still the boy who wanted better, it had worn down to a kind of dread that things would end this way after all. He tried to explain to his wife, but words did not come easily to him.

After so long, the airlock nightmare had returned, the one with Kay’s big smirking face looming over him as he struggled, useless and feeble in the tangled blanket of the dream.

That was another man and another life, soothed Amy. You are a good husband, and our daughter is beautiful. But she didn’t understand.

In the dream, Kay was trying to keep him away from the suits hanging by the lock.

12. Outside

Jeck came across him pushing an empty suit under water, watching for a trail of bubbles. He had never been able to like this man from the Aft decks. Arp explained he only needed one suit to be airtight, though there was nothing he could do about the long dead batteries. It turned out they knew their jobs, those old Engineers, and suits still worked without electric, waste air hissing out through a valve in the helmet as long as there was pressure in the tank.

Jeck couldn’t believe Arp was going Outside. Arp planned to bypass the internal doors that sealed off Aft by climbing down the hull on a length of copper wire, to an airlock on the deck below. Then folk would demand the Chief restore electric to the Bridge.

13. Longshot

Amy couldn’t wait longer because the child grew hungry and cold. Arp had promised the doors would be raised and he would climb back to them through the dark decks.

Jeck stayed on, peering through the dusty glass in the door, long after the figure in the big orange suit climbed backwards out of sight, as if swallowed by a dark mouth. He had helped without really believing it was possible, and now Jeck wondered if he would ever see Arp again. He tried to picture him preaching to the people of the Aft decks like a lost prophet.

He imagined the Longshot plunging onwards into the night.

14. Good News

It was children, playing amongst the piles of stuff stacked in the dim, unused ways near the airlock, who heard a noise they’d never heard before. The pressurised lock creaked open and an orange creature fell out. After a stunned moment, they screamed and fled.

A crowd assembled to defend their corridors. He unscrewed his fogged helmet and let it roll away.

“It’s Arp,” said someone, puzzled.

“I’ve got good news,” Arp began.

He had not seen beyond this moment, so he told them about Planetfall and the green wet worlds in the telescope. He told them about the blind Captain and her frail kin. He told them about the need for Turnaround, how the doors must be raised and electric restored to the Bridge, how if the dark decks had light, then anyone could go to the Bridge and see for themselves. He was not good with words, but these people were starved and he fed them. They took him from deck to deck to repeat his words. Even those too far away to hear glimpsed his orange suit and hoped something important had happened in their lives.

There are those here today who will know Planetfall, he announced. Imagine that. And your children will grow up there.

What will it be like, they wanted to know.

Of this he was certain. There will be everything we don’t have here.

Eventually Engineers shouldered through the crowd.

15. Pilot

Kay was sent off to see about the shouting and hubbub of voices. Arp had been surprised how old they had grown. Did he think the years he endured in the dark decks had not passed for them too? Kay had put on weight, his neck bulged and his face was dark with blood.

“Good trick with the airlock,” Parker acknowledged.

“Now everybody knows,” said Arp.

“So the blind woman’s dead and you’re Captain, that it?”

“Not me,” said Arp. “You’ll take us to Planetfall.”

Parker laughed. Was Arp giving out jobs now?

“Light the dark decks, and in the light you’ll see for yourself.”

Parker looked at him curiously.

Kay came back, sounding surprised. All that commotion was folk demanding Arp.

“We can still keep a lid on it,” Kay added. Even if the doors got raised, only Engineers knew how to restore electric.

Parker was thoughtful. He would deal with the crowd.

“What shall I do with him?”

“Take him back to the airlock.”

Kay turned his triumphant gaze on Arp.

16. A Sign

Arp’s arms were tied and Kay kept shoving him along the corridor.

“We can say you went back the way you came. We can say anything we like. Folk are stirred up now but it won’t last.”

They turned the last corner and folk were busy by the lock, cutting up the material of the ancient suits. Each had an orange patch fixed to their clothing.

“Arp!” they cried.

Kay struggled but there were too many of them.

“He didn’t want Planetfall,” Arp announced, which was true.

Arp could hear Kay inside the lock, kicking at the door. He was pressing his face against the small round glass, bawling something.

“He’d have tried to stop us,” said Arp, hitting the vent button that opened the outer door.

When they got back to Engineering, Parker was surrounded by an angry crowd. His Engineers had all slipped away.

He lifted a hand from the gun on his hip. “There he is.”

They stood face to face for the second time that day. If Parker was relieved he did not show it.

“Tell them you’ll wear the orange,” Arp said. “Promise them Planetfall.”

“You’re crazy,” murmured Parker, misunderstanding to the end. “Why risk everything?”

“You call this everything?”

Arp raised his arms to quiet the crowd. “I’m no Captain,” he called. “Listen to Parker. He has something to say.”

16. A Note

A genealogy is handwritten in the flyleaf of “For Whom The Bell Tolls.” A list of births, deaths and marriages of the Kern family, similar to one for the Pastons found in “Teach Yourself Guitar.” (see Ref 1) However FWTBT also mentions two historical events; the trial and spacing of Navigator Chen, believed to be contemporary with the mutiny (see Ref 2), and the enlightening of the dark decks by Captain Parker, Hero of Planetfall. This article deals with the latter ...  END

David Barber lives anonymously in the UK. He formerly worked as a scientist. He is currently retired and devotes himself to writing. His stories have appeared in “Daily Science Fiction,” “Shock Totem,” “New Myths,” “and Electric Spec.”