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




A Mother’s Touch

By Beth Cato

INTERPLANETARY LEAGUE COMMANDER LENA Sanchez had witnessed the reverent emptiness of deep space, the transcendent artistry of Quentallian-class engines, and the majesty of Yosemite Valley on Earth, but nothing rivaled the beauty of the lucundi of Carmel IV.

The lucundi uncoiled with a ripple of scaled muscle and sinew, graceful as the whiplash of a satin scarf. Its wings flared out with a violent snap as the long neck arched. Amber eyes squinted across the distance, appraising her. Sanchez stared back in awe, pulsing pain in her skull momentarily forgotten, spear drooping from her hand.

“Dragon” was the quaint old Sol term for the lucundi of Carmel IV. Sanchez used to love fairy tales and medieval fantasy vids—all that stuff about chivalry, dragons, knights, nobility in the face of tyranny. As a kid, it’d been damned near an obsession, and probably a reason her colony elders set her on the military track from such a young age.

She had imagined dragons many times as a girl, and now the native lucundi made everything real. Tears filled her eyes. The dragon roared, and she couldn’t help but shudder at the intensity of the sound. The wings extended, easily thirty feet in span, and the beast took to the air. Its gaze on her did not waver.

Sanchez tottered on her feet. It would be easy to just stand there and die. After all, that’s why she was on Carmel IV. Her body had rapidly degraded over the past few weeks and she had little time left. Already, she relied on pain-numbing patches to stay conscious and mobile.

This pitched battle was her chosen suicide, but as the dragon approached, Sanchez realized two things.

She was acutely alone, and she didn’t want to die.


A servile robo buzzed nearby. Sanchez lifted her head, gasping at the pain, and uncurled from her fetal position on the floor. The robo rolled by, immediately followed by another. If the robot staff was stirring, another shuttle must be headed planetside. There had been several over the blur of the past few weeks.

Sanchez hadn’t emerged from her hiding spot in a back building of the complex. She, the decorated veteran soldier, survivor of campaigns on dozens of worlds, hiding. Cowering. She loathed her own weakness, her overwhelming sense of helplessness.

She should have died when she was supposed to.

Even now, she could walk into the lucundi pen at any time. The robos operated a hatchery on site, and a young dragon awaited her and anyone else who arrived, but she couldn’t do it.

Gritting her teeth, Sanchez dragged her body several feet to where the contents of a med kit scattered across the floor. Her fingers fumbling, she tore open another pain patch and slapped it beneath her shirt. Another. Another. The searing fog of pain dissipated, even as her heart galloped in her chest. A patch or two more and she’d overdose. Not a terrible way to go, not when her body was bound to last only a few more days, anyway.

But even now, with all odds stacked against her, Sanchez couldn’t stop fighting to stay alive. Was that stupidity, stubbornness, or both? Hell if she knew.

Sanchez straightened her spine, her legs feeling strangely long and wobbly after days clenched tight in a ball of misery. She had to go out, talk to this newcomer. She had been tempted to approach the other visitors—and succumbed to her newfound craven nature instead—but now she was at the brink: this would likely be the last person she would ever see. The pain may have corroded her thoughts, but at this point she knew one thing: she needed to talk to someone. Just be near someone. Maybe the strange urge arose from a lifetime of barracks and shared tents and constant companionship. In every battle, there had been the comfort of knowing that someone had her back, someone who knew her by name or ID and would care if she fell.

She stepped outside, wincing at the sharp yellow light of the twin suns, and stared upward in wait of a silver streak in the atmosphere. Beyond the high fence, the young dragon scuffled and roared as if it knew dinner was on the way.

Sanchez flinched. The lucundi she faced had been the most beautiful thing she had ever seen, and she killed it. Watched its shimmering red scales dull to the color of dry human blood. Sat there, limp, as the robos ignored her and sliced apart the carcass for disposal.

The robos would do the same to her when it was time. Their tidy precision lacked the dignity that her fellow soldiers would have granted the task.

A soft line marred the red sky above. Sanchez fidgeted from side to side, grimacing. The pain had faded to numbness, but she still didn’t feel right or normal. Strange how only a month ago she had been hale, excited about the centuries of life that awaited her with the new rejuv treatment.

The shuttle set down with a whirl of red Carmellian dust. Sanchez coughed against her arm, the sudden exertion almost dropping her to her knees. The dragon roared again, and she snarled back.

She hobbled to the edge of the launch pad, noting the small security turrets on the shuttle had pivoted to face her; she would only leave the planet one way. The robos whirred to the opening supply bay, a silver casket aloft in their arms, and exchanged it for pallets of food and goods.

A passenger door lifted to reveal a woman in a brown pantsuit. The engines caused her short silver hair to whirl and lash at her cheeks.

Silver hair? Sanchez gawked. Most everyone had modified their hair to maintain its youthful or preferred coloration—she certainly had, or her hair would be starting to streak as well. She flashed back to an image of her mother, defiantly proud of her silvering black hair.

How strange. Sanchez hadn’t seen her mother since she was five, hadn’t thought of her in decades. The chemical high from the patches likely had Sanchez’s synapses firing like crazy, stirring up strange memories and associations.

This newcomer didn’t walk with military bearing, but she did have a steely spark in her eye. Not a surprise, really. To choose Carmel IV, you had to be a fighter.

“I’m Tonya Yi,” the woman said in a loud, hoarse voice. Dark shadows haunted her eyes and she wavered slightly on her feet. By the gentle creases in the woman’s face, Sanchez estimated her to be in her fifties, probably about twenty years older than her. Sanchez nodded in greeting. A line of robos rolled past hauling pallets towards the complex.

“I didn’t expect anyone to be here,” said Ms. Yi. Behind her, the engines revved and the shuttle rose straight up.

Sanchez waited until the noise faded. “No, ma’am,” she said, ignoring the unsaid question.

“You’re military?” Ms. Yi perked up, scrutinizing her.

Sanchez turned away. She wasn’t anything now. Forcing her steps to be brisk, she led the way towards the main building.

“My daughter’s enlisted. 3rd Interplanetary Expedition Force.” Pride warmed her voice.

“Ah. The Scrum Beetles. Tough bunch.” Sanchez couldn’t help but smile. She’d been in a bar fight with that lot once—on the same side, thankfully.

“Yes, she—”

The lucundi roared. Ms. Yi gasped, stopping. “That’s it?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Ms. Yi sucked in a breath. “I want to go there now.”

“Ma’am—Ms. Yi—you don’t have to go right away. All your favorite foods were just delivered. You can live it up for a few days.” Sanchez forced her lips to shut; she sounded like some damned advertisement. She shouldn’t be asking this stranger to dally. The woman was obviously suffering or she wouldn’t be here.

“If I’m going to do this, then I just want to get it over with.”

Sanchez understood that. Respected it. Hated it. She had been the same way. Even so, she debated leading Ms. Yi elsewhere. Any anesthetics on-site were labeled in some damned code only the robos could read, but there were belts that could be used for rope, and ...

The dragon rumbled again, and she flinched. What the hell was she thinking? She’d come here to playact being a knight, for God’s sake. Ashamed, Sanchez turned away. “Follow me.”

In the armory, Ms. Yi paused and looked around. “I suppose it’s silly to wear armor at all, considering why I’m here.”

“No.” Sanchez stood a little straighter. “If ... you wanted suicide, you could have done that on your homeworld. This is meant to have some dignity. Symbolism.”

“Ah, yes. Knight versus dragon.” Ms. Yi stripped down and reached for a body suit. Only two pain patches stood bold on her skin. “I used to read those stories to my kids.”

“You did?” Sanchez frowned. Had her mother read those stories to her? Her face was so faint in memory, her voice more so. That silver hair seemed the boldest thing of all.

Ms. Yi continued, “But those tales always had happy endings. Reality, well ...”

Sanchez opened her lips, indignant, then shut them again at the sudden realization that she had expected a happy ending. Not the castles-and-princesses kind, but the sort earned from a damned hard life with a sweet reward.

She shivered off the reverie as Ms. Yi tugged the bodysuit up completely. “Ma’am, before you cover your skin, you should apply a lot more pain patches—”

“No.” The word was a snarl as Ms. Yi fastened a clasp at her shoulder.

“The dragon isn’t ... always fast.” The young lucundi must have toyed with the last person like a cat with mouse. Sanchez had heard the screams, even from indoors.

Still, it was a faster death than what their current life spans offered.

The new rejuvenation drug had promised to keep Sanchez’s current cellular age in stasis, her body living for centuries.

Then the immediate test results came back: she was an anomaly, one of the .0001 percent to experience an adverse reaction. Instead of a longer lifespan, she’d be dead in weeks, succumbing to incurable cancers and agonies that otherwise no longer existed in civilized society. The Interplanetary League regarded it as a kindness to permit such anomalies the means to choose their own death. She chose the lucundi of Carmel IV.

Ms. Yi hefted a spear, her face grim. Glowing arrows along the wall pointed towards the dragon’s pen.

“You don’t have to do this,” Sanchez said, hating the snivel in her own voice. She had commanded thousands of soldiers, seen thousands die. This one woman—a stranger—should not matter.

“You want me to suffer?” Ms. Yi’s voice was a dangerous whisper. “I’m told I have a week until I’m bed-bound. To my family, I’m already dead.”

“Tell me about them.”

The stalling tactic worked. A faint smile lifted Ms. Yi’s lips. “I have five kids—we were first generation on our colony, so we didn’t have any reproductive limits then. All of them will probably live for centuries with the new rejuv. I had hoped ... I had hoped for a long life with them. Long enough that our turn on the allotment would hit, and I could have some grandkids.” Ms. Yi turned away, overcome with emotion, her silver hair bobbing against her neck.

Sanchez stared. She remembered something about her mother—something specific, an instant when her hair had glistened just like that.

Sanchez had been sick. Crying. The room was dark, but Mother had been there, a faint light glowing behind her head. Mother’s hum was soft as a distant engine, soothing in its melody. Her hand had touched Sanchez’s forehead then squeezed her hand, the thumb tracing circles atop her knuckles, and everything felt better.

Now, more than anything, she wanted to hear that hum again.

“Enough of this. I want to go out fighting,” Ms. Yi said, moving towards the door.

“No!” Sanchez grabbed her arm. “Don’t!”

“What are you playing at? Stop! Let me go!” Ms. Yi pushed her away. The motion was weak, but so was Sanchez. She staggered backward. Ms. Yi was two steps from the door.

“No! Don’t leave me!” Sanchez cried.

She lunged forward. Her fist struck Ms. Yi in the back of the head, dropping her face-first to the floor. The spear clattered to the ground. Sanchez pulled Ms. Yi’s arms behind her back and pinned her, then stared down, nausea and horror roiling in her belly.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Forgive me,” Sanchez said, slackening her hold. Tears burned in her eyes. “I just—I have to stop you.”

“What are you doing?” Ms. Yi spat blood.

“I thought fighting the dragon would be the best way to go out, just like you. Being a soldier, an officer, was the closest I could ever come to being a knight.” Some knight she was, treating another person like this. “But I ... when I was out there, I fought. I killed my dragon. I know I could die against the new lucundi whenever I want. The door is there, but I ... I don’t want to go like that.” The words tumbled out.

“Then what do you want?”

Sanchez took in a rattling breath. “By the scans of my brain and the tumor’s daily growth, I only have a few days. If I put on any more patches, I’ll kill myself that way.”

Ms. Yi struggled against her, craning her head. “That’s not a bad way to go.”

“Either of us could have chosen to go that route without coming to Carmel IV. I might ... still do that, here. But, I just ...” Sanchez’s voice lowered to a whisper. “I don’t want to go alone.”

I want Mother. The thought was so sudden, so intense, that a sob burst from Sanchez’s lips.

Ms. Yi stopped struggling. “Oh.”

Sanchez scooted off of Ms. Yi, sitting with her knees tucked close to her chin. Beyond the door, the dragon rumbled.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. I’m so sorry I hit you. I know you’re hurting or you wouldn’t be here.” Sanchez choked back another sob. What was wrong with her? She had always been so tough and stoic.

When Ms. Yi sat up to face her, Sanchez expected pity in her eyes, not warmth and tears.

“Oh, child.” Ms. Yi extended a hand. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

Sanchez clenched onto her as a lifeline and closed her eyes. The skin in her grasp was callused and soft all at once, not that different from the faint memory of her mother’s hand. That—that—was the most beautiful thing she had ever known.

For the first time in weeks, Sanchez’s confusion faded, and she knew exactly what to do. Her eyes still shut, she leaned forward into a warm embrace. They absorbed each other’s heat and grief.

Minutes passed. Sanchez released her hold and tottered to her feet. She reached for the nearest spear; she had no intention of using it, but she wouldn’t walk into any battle unarmed, even now.

“I’ve got your back,” she said to Ms. Yi.

The other woman stood, a ghost of a smile on her lips. “Together?”

Sanchez nodded, and the two regarded each other with something beyond words.

Ms. Yi grabbed her spear from the floor. Their free hands twined together, and with matching strides, they walked to the lucundi’s pen. END

Beth Cato is an active member of the SFWA. She is the author of “The Clockwork Dagger,” a steampunk novel from Harper Voyager. Her short fiction is in “InterGalactic Medicine Show,” “Beneath Ceaseless Skies,” and “Daily Science Fiction.”


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