Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Running Tangent
by Dale Ivan Smith
and K.C. Ball

Food, Glorious Food
by Joey To

by Dave Creek

by Siobhan Gallagher

An Island in Your Arms
by James Patrick Riser

Rim’s End
by John Walters

by Holly Schofield

Ooze Love
by Andrew James Woodyard

Shorter Stories

Deus Ex Machina
by Erin Lale

It’s, Like, So Boring at the End of the World
by Amy Sisson

by Robin Wyatt Dunn


Making Sense of it All
by Libby McGugan

Is There Life in Space?
by Peter Cawdron



Comic Strips




Running Tangent

By Dale Ivan Smith and K.C. Ball

THE MEET DIDN’T GO THE way I planned.

“At Jack Inn,” the ape’s web-link had said. “After first-shift change.”

The Jack Inn’s a current joint on ring one that caters to vrazi scum—no-talent plug-in grunts working cargo for the haulers in and out of Dockside. The ape was vrazi, one of a troop of demi-human laborers some AI on Mars gengineered from chimpanzee and human DNA. The Dockside manager, a level-five AI we called Willow Wisk, had bought their contracts; brought the troop out to Over Enceladus a few years back.

He paid them decent wages, I suppose. Even so, the ape sold me information from time to time; betrayed his employer, family and class because he was a junky and current isn’t cheap. There are vrazi I respect, a few I come close to calling friend, but none of them were juiceheads.

So no love lost between the ape and me, but I trusted him because the stuff he brought to me had always turned out to be true. Stupid me. I got comfortable, even though one of the first things I’d learned in boot camp was comfortable can get you killed.

I showed up forty minutes early, undercover and packing extra punch. The Jack’s not what you would call a fancy joint; no reason it should be. When you’ve got a current plug jammed in your input/output jack—juice tickling your brain’s pleasure center—you don’t pay much attention to décor.

Just a narrow, low-ceilinged room, dim-lit and filled with small booths and tables. Half of them were occupied. The manager kept the air-conditioning cranked high; the place still reeked of sweat and cum and carelessly-cleaned piss that had dribbled down some juicer’s leg.

A bot server rolled up as I settled at a table against the wall; a glistening black plastic bar about the size of my little finger slid from its torso. A wireless current plug.

“How much time would you like, ma’am?” the bot asked.

“Later,” I said. “I’m waiting for someone.”

The bot didn’t move. “Sit and wait for free at the library. In here, you buy a plug or move along.”

I sighed and flashed the tin. “I’m waiting for someone,” I said again.

The plug slid out of sight. “Sorry, officer,” the bot said, as it turned to roll away. “Take all the time you need.”

No muss; no fuss. God bless programming sub-routines. Too bad it didn’t work that way on human or vrazi.

The ape showed up just after shift-change, pushing through the door with that aggressive, shoulders-forward, knuckles-near-the-floor gait all apes have. His long, ropy-muscled arms were shaved and covered with old-world gang tattoos. I caught a whiff of cheap cologne he’d splashed on after work.

He spotted me, but never slowed; just tipped his head to signal I should follow him, then headed for the back. The bastard moved fast. By the time I got to the narrow hall that led to the rear exit, the door latch had clicked into place behind him. I pushed through the door into a service corridor.

The ape was waiting for me. So were his friends; a second ape and a digger, one of the wiry human-terrier mixes who mined the moons and rings of Saturn. Both apes were almost naked. The digger had tricked himself up all in black leather.

“Hey there, Kex,” the ape said.

“What have you got for me?” I asked.

The ape curled his lip, showing off big, yellowed fangs. “A swell surprise,” he said. “One you ain’t gonna like.”

The second ape laughed; deep and guttural and nasty. The digger drew his own lips back and growled. Four years in the Belter Marines taught me you didn’t wait. I threw myself at the digger, drawing weapons as I moved. The mutt was fast, I’ll give him that, but not faster than my backhand.

The slug-thrower I’d drawn smashed into his skull, just where his neck met his jaw. I heard the plastic casing of the pistol crack, but watched the digger drop like an empty suit of clothes.

The apes weren’t any faster. The first one, my informant, went over backward into the wall, his face blown to smithereens by the three slugs I got off before the pistol jammed. His buddy turned to run. I brought up the sliver gun in my other hand and stitched half a clip of one-inch steel needles along his spine—from ass-crack to shoulder blades.

The whole thing hadn’t taken much more than thirty seconds. I drew a cleansing breath, stepped toward the apes to bar-code the bodies with the reader in my badge—and heard the little crunch of sound behind me.

I spun in time to see the digger on his knees, lunging at me. The hard-headed bastard might have been groggy, might have puked up his lunch, but he was alert enough to know what to do with the twelve-inch vibro-blade he held.

The step toward the apes had saved my life. The knife raked my ribs just below my breasts, but I was those few inches from a killing blow. Be damned if I’d let vrazi scumsome vrazi mutt get a second chance at me. I ignored the sudden rush of pain, wrestled the sliver gun into line and held the trigger down.

A rush of two-inch needles sliced through the digger’s up-turned eye and finished him.


Imagine a torus two kilometers in diameter. Spin that torus on its center line in the cold expanse of space at one rotation per minute. That provides centripetal gravity—close to Earth norm—on the far inner surface. Pump in an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere; add light, water and temperature control to get a place that will sustain life.

Set seven of those toruses to spinning at the same speed, one atop another around an open central shaft. Add two toruses of lesser diameters at each level, so you have concentric rings. Connect the rings by vertical and horizontal access spokes, with powered slide-ways and high-speed lifts.

That’s Over Enceladus. A collection point for ore and other raw materials, a factory for parts and equipment, and transport hub for material headed to Centauri Bound, the interstellar ship AI are building in orbit around Saturn.


The stage-one and stage-two inner-concentrics were known as Dockside because all incoming vessels docked and off-loaded in a giant two-level open bay within the central shaft.

Cutter’s medical office was on level one.

It took forever to get there. Slide-ways between the stages seemed to creep; I swore the lifts had stopped. And at the inner concentric, I still had a fifty-meter hike.

Blood seeped between my fingers. With each step, the wound throbbed that much more. Before I’d gone ten strides, my insides began to burn, as if they were on fire.

Cutter’s office was a storefront set between an employment assigner and a financial counselor. The door scanned me before it opened. Clientele might be high-class, but Cutter still took precautions.

His assistant, Stella, sat behind her console, opposite the door. The wall holo behind her showed a live view of Enceladus, the sixth-largest of the moons of Saturn. Its brilliant, ice-covered face shone whitely in the sunlight.

“Jesus, Kex,” she said when she saw my face. “You cut it close this time.”

“Yeah,” I managed.

She came around the desk and took my elbow.

“Come on, kid,” she said. “When you called, I cleared our schedule for you.”

Cutter waited in the exam room. He wore a medico’s white coat, complete with antique stethoscope and surgical scrubs. His head gleamed a metallic blue. Multi-faceted eyes bulged from the sides of his head, as if he was some sort of bug.

Nothing organic about him, though. Word was he was a level-two AI stuck in a mobile robotic surgeon’s housing, as penance for some minor slight. No way to tell. He never spoke about it.

“A work-related injury?” His accent was cultured, old Earth British before the singularity. “You must be more careful, Kex.”

I shucked my clothes and eased onto the examination table. It was body temperature; its surface gave beneath my weight. It felt like the sleep-over sofa in an old friend’s place.

“If I was,” I said. “You wouldn’t have these fancy digs.”

Cutter laughed; a rich baritone rumble. “You overestimate your worth to me.”

“Maybe; maybe not.”

He ran a med scanner over my wound, made sophisticated tsk-tsk sounds and got to work. He touched an instrument to my side.

“Does that hurt?”

“Yes, goddamn you.”

He touched my side again. The pain stopped right away.

“Does that feel better?” he asked.

“Yes.” I wanted very much to sleep.

I met Cutter the day Jimme and I arrived on Over Enceladus, almost two years to the day. We’d been full of dreams and armed with every credit we had to our names, ready to make a fortune, what with Jimme’s brains and my brawn. Off the shuttle, we stood Dockside in a low-gee passenger receiving bay.

Jimme asked, “What shall we do first?”

Before I could answer, the bomb went off.

“You still awake?” Cutter asked.

“Uh huh,” I mumbled, through my memories.

There was a low hiss as he worked at the wound. “You’re fortunate whoever attacked you didn’t put the knife in a few centimeters more or you might not be here.”

More mysterious noises. “Hold still now,” he said.

“Lucky,” I mumbled. “Yeah, that’s me.”

That day in the Dockside bay, the blast blew out the alcove where better-paying arrivals waited. Jimme and I were out in the big room; lucky us. A dozen people got sucked into the vacuum of central shaft before automatic seals plugged the hole.

Four minutes passed while air pressure returned to standard levels. Four minutes. My husband’s brain—starved of oxygen—began to die.

Mine would have, too, if not for the low-oxygen gen-mods my time in the Belter Marines earned me. With those extra minutes, I managed to lug Jimme to the nearest hatch. When it opened, finally, I stumbled through, my comatose husband in my arms.

The two of us were taken to the nearest medico. Cutter.

Cutter touched my shoulder. “The wound should heal entirely within twelve hours, Kex,” he said. “The blood booster I gave you will restore your system to normal levels in sixty minutes. Stay here. Rest. Stella will wake you when it’s time to leave.”

I took a deep breath and smiled. No more throbbing ache every time I sucked in air. He turned to leave.

“Cutter, there’s something I need ask you.”

He leaned again the counter and crossed all four arms. “Ask away,” he said. “Unless it’s something about Jimme.”

“You could fix him, make him good as new, make him him again with a neural implant?”

Cutter stepped from the table. “The answer is still no.”

“Rules get broken every day. You did neural work on me for Tangent.”

“Talk like that can get us both killed.”

He left the room; left me to brood about how a few minutes can make such a difference in a life—and how much I missed my husband, the way he used to be.

Stella poked her head through the door. “Hour’s up. You can go now, Kex.”

Time to check up on Jimme, to see if he’d done something silly or dangerous, spent too much money, or sold off something valuable. It didn’t help to lock up anything. Jimme might not be a genius any more but he still was monkey-clever.

I stopped just outside Cutter’s door to send a web-line to Jimme. Home in twenty minutes.

He tapped right back. Good. Got a surprise for you.

I didn’t want to think what that might be. I headed for the lifts and slides, on the bounce. I’d have been home on time if I hadn’t been intercepted.


A uniformed messenger appeared out of the shadows as I stepped off a slide on stage-two. For an instant, I suspected it was Tangent wearing a human off-print. An off-print allowed the wearer to see and hear, to smell and touch and taste. Most AI refuse to wear one, not just because it violated the Accord, but because it’s considered fetishism.

Use of off-prints is just as illegal as my possession of a neural link, but AI break the rules all the time and expect the others to look the other way.

Humans don’t get that kind of slack.

Anyway, I saw it wasn’t an off-print. No AI would chose to wear an off-print that looked that way. His badge said his name was Pak Arpay, but I didn’t recognize the skin-and-bones. His uniform of tight leggings, knee-high boots, and waist-cut jacket were standard issue. Slate gray with Tangent’s deep-blue trim. But when I wore the colors it worked for me; it didn’t work for this guy.

He was gaunt to the point of being skeletal and the uniform was at least a size too large for his scrawny frame. He could have passed for Moon-born, if he had been another eight to ten inches taller, but as short as he was, he had to be an Earther. No place else in the system could or would have claimed him.

He was heavily armed for a messenger—vibro-knife, a snub launcher, a laser pistol, all hung on a torso harness—and wore his weapons for the world to see.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“Got a message for you, friend. Straight from the boss.” I recognized his reedy tenor voice; the attitude was new. I didn’t care for it one bit.

“This isn’t standard operating procedure,” I said.

“You want the message, or don’cha?”

“I want it.”

“The boss wants to speak to you in person. ASAP.”

“Show me.”

He handed me a chip. I touched it to my pad; it confirmed his message. It didn’t make any sense. Tangent could have made direct contact with me through my neural link.

“Satisfied?” he asked.

“Don’t push it, friend,” I growled.

“Guess you ain’t as important as you thought you were,” he sneered. “ASAP means now, not when you finish burping up your lunch.”

Before he could make a move, I grabbed his harness, pulled him close and applied pressure with my thumb at a spot just above the hollow of his throat. His eyes grew wide and he began to wheeze. He was having trouble breathing.

I leaned close to his ear. “First, I’m not your friend. Second, I don’t care for your attitude. Third, the only reason I haven’t killed you is because we both work for Tangent.”

I let him go, spun him around and clapped him on his back. He doubled over, puked up his lunch and began to gasp air in by the lungful.

 “Is all that clear?” I asked.

“Yes,” he wheezed.

I grabbed his shoulders, pulled him straight, and spun him back around. He flinched when I patted his cheek.

 “Yes, what?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good boy. Now let’s go see Tangent.”

He shook his head. “I got other messages.”

“Then go deliver them,” I snapped.

He darted off. I turned away from home—Jimme would have to wait—and headed toward the level-three entrance to the worm-ways in the central shaft that would carry me to Tangent’s lair.


No living human or vrazi had ever seen what was inside the metal spheres that were the real-world markers for AI Coldware circuitry in liquid hydrogen, some people say.

On Over Enceladus, it was standard practice for each AI to keep their sphere in a carefully secured and secret location somewhere along the walls of the center core. Access was via magnetic trams that traversed the worm-ways within the central core. I usually boarded the tram to Tangent’s lair at S-checkpoint on level three. For the first time in two years, I found armed guards there. Contract mooks.

I recognized both as decent sorts. Pallas was vrazi of mixed canine stock. I had never heard her speak. Her partner, Stelgard, was human and belter-born.

Pallas wore little more than a weapons harness, and don’t you dare call it a collar. Stelgard preferred body armor that made him look like a man-sized beetle. It scared hell out of most folks. He didn’t care.

I handed him my knives, my maser and taser, snub launcher with six gas grenades, the sliver gun and slug thrower. He glanced at the cracked case, then secured each weapon in a rack.

“You’re a walking armory,” he said.

I shrugged. “I feel naked without it all.”

He grinned. “New hire’s taking after you.”

“You mean that meat sack, Pak Arpay?”

Stelgard nodded. “That’s the one.”

“When did he come on board?” I asked.

“Beats me. Just got the word on him.”

“Come to that, why are you two here?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Just following orders.” If that was so, they hadn’t passed through me.

Pallas deep-scanned me and Stelgard waved me into the tram. I kicked off the entry and grabbed two handholds fastened to the pole that ran the length of the tram. I wrapped a leg around it, too. I had taken this ride before and the Marines had taught me you can’t be too careful.

It was a smooth ride, though. I rode along in silence, without a sense of motion. After a time, I heard, rather than felt, the tram dock.

The hatch slid back. I pulled my way into the airlock and the hatch closed behind me. The lock cycled, the lights turned green, and the inner hatch opened into a waiting room.

“Kex?” Tangent’s alto voice filled the small space.

“You were expecting someone else?” I asked.

“Always the smart ass.”

A hatch on the far side of the room hissed opened to the inner sanctum. Tangent kept it pressurized it for visitors. 

“Come in,” she said.

Handel’s “Water Music” played in the background. Tangent knew my preferences. It was in my files.

“We may not have much anymore, Kex,” Mama used to say, “but we have our music. That makes us great.”

Shame I couldn’t play a note to save my life.

Still, I appreciated music—particularly Handel—and had listened to his “Royal Fireworks” while I was in combat.

The inner sanctum was a hollow cube. I stood on a platform just inside. A web of super-coolant tubes and quantum processors lined the walls. Tangent floated at the center of the cube in a spherical titanium containment shell two meters in diameter. A single cable, five centimeters in diameter, snaked from the shell.

Her access to the world.

“Good afternoon, Kex,” Tangent said, from all around me.

“Hello, chief,” I said.

The metal platform was magnetized; it held tight to the thin steel plates in the soles of my boots and kept me in my place. All the AI used similar tactics, but Tangent didn’t usually follow protocol with me.

Last time I’d visited, three or four months back, she’d given me the freedom to pace a step or two about the platform. Not this time. I couldn’t move an inch.

“How is Jimme?” Tangent asked.

I smiled. “You know. He always has a new scheme.”

“Is he still interested in solar racing?”

“It’s what brought him here; he keeps returning to it.”

“Then it should be encouraged,” she said.

“I try. He tinkers with an old shell, but it’s a long way from being space-worthy. Racing’s an expensive hobby.”

She nibbled at the bait. “Kex, I know resources are tight for you and Jimme.”

“We get by.”

“I am aware his plans can be extravagant,” she said.

This was getting interesting.

I shrugged. “You pay me well enough.”

“I know how much I pay you, but I’ve decided to give you a bonus. I am impressed with your work on this latest case.”

“Thank you. It’s a start.”

The music shifted, still Handel, but the “Royal Fireworks Overture” began.

“You are a most valuable member of my team, Kex.”

She was buttering me up for something. What?

“I like my job,” I said.


A slender pedestal rose from the platform. A chip rested on it’s top surface.

I picked it up. “What’s this?”

“That solar runner Jimme wants.”

What the hell?

“Excuse me.” I said.

Tangent laughed. “Take it, Kex.”

I plucked the chip from the magnetic surface; the shaft slid back into the platform. As it did, I touched the chip to my wrist comp.

Clear title to a working solar runner.

“It’s not brand-new,” Tangent said. “But I had it renovated and refueled. It’s waiting dockside for the two of you, any time you’d like to take it out. You’ll find a few other toys inside.”

What could I say? “This is very generous, but there’s more work to be done on this investigation. It looks to be serious. I think a bonus would be better given at the end, rather than in process.”

“Do you run my enterprises now?”

Her tone was light, but a shiver skittered through me.

“Just saying, chief. Just saying.”

Tangent laughed again. A sound that reminded me of Mama. I suspected Tangent had intended that.

“As I said, Kex, you are a most valuable asset. I need you relaxed and ready to take on a top-priority project.”

Top priority? This investigation was a perplexing puzzle with potentially disastrous consequences. How could she even think about assigning me to another case until we solved this mystery?

I shifted on the platform, much as I could. “What’s the new project?”

She chuckled. “I appreciate your willingness to dive into every task I put before you, Kex.”

Yeah, that was me, all right. Always-Ready Kex.

“I’m not done with this investigation, not even close.”

The lighting changed, grew darker, and the volume of the music climbed.

“Are you questioning my judgment?” There was a dark tone to her voice I had never heard before.

“No, of course not. I just figured ...”

The cube brightened; the volume of the music dropped.

“Good. I’ve given your current work to another operative to mop up. I expect you to get started on this new line right after you get back.”


“I’ve giving you four days off to relax; spend some time with your husband. The two of you can take that solar runner out and stretch her legs.”

“Who’s going to do the mop-up?” I asked, cautiously.

“Someone I’ve promoted to investigator. Someone I trust almost as much as I trust you. Pak Arpay.”

I had almost forgotten about Arpay.

Right then I knew the AI I faced might sound like Tangent and might act like Tangent, but wasn’t Tangent, couldn’t be the level-five I’d worked for the last two years. The lair suddenly felt icy-cold, even though I knew it remained room temperature.

Stay calm, I whispered to myself. This wasn’t the place to panic. I had to get out of there, though. The longer I remained, the better chance this imposter would have to figure out by bio scan that I was stressed.

“Okay,” I said. “Jimme will love it. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

The grip on my boots released. I turned and pulled my way out of the cube, through the air lock and back into the tram. The ride away passed in silence. At the top, I slithered through the hatch.

“Things in the green?” Stelgard asked me.

Hell no,” I wanted to say, but I forced a smile. “Clean and green,” I said.


I let myself into the four-room flat Jimme and I occupied on level two.

“Hey, Jimme,” I called, as I closed the door behind me.

“I’m in the lab, Kex,” Jimme called.

“The lab” was the room in our apartment farthest from the entrance. Most folks would have used it as a second bedroom or an office. It had the only door inside the apartment that could be locked. Jimme had transformed it into a workshop and when he shut himself inside, I let him be.

I poured myself a double shot of vodka and gulped it as I made my way to the lab. The door was closed; I knocked.

“It’s not locked, Kex,” Jimme called. “Come on in.”

The room was crammed with old computing equipment, sensor outputs, a chemical synthesizer, an ancient 3D printer, a cold fusion array and a dozen WALDO units of descending size.

Jimme had spent a bundle on the cold fusion array, bought it from a vrazi thief. It didn’t work, but Jimme swore it was worth every cent he spent. Another cash boondoggle. AI hadn’t pursued cold fusion; had declared it a dead-end. It was left to wishful-thinking humans, like my husband—along with perpetual motion machines and gear that transformed lead to gold.

Jimme wore a vrazi digger’s mining helmet—sizes too large for him—and a pair of armored gloves. With the deep-tinted visor and the breathing mask, he looked like the villain in some old, flat-screen space opera. The helmet featured inputs for external cams and sensors, twin cameras mounted on the sides.

He tapped at an ancient keyboard that outputted to a foil screen pasted to the wall, between a centrifuge and the 3D printer. Programing code danced across the screen.

“How can you see in that thing?” I asked.

“Inputting from remotes,” he said, and glanced my way. “Love the view!”

Cheerful as always, that was my Jimme.

“What are you working on?”

“Reengineering an old idea. An autonomous program to assist in AI communications.”

“AI don’t need apps for that,” I said. “They’re already autonomous self-aware programs.”

Jimme grinned. “It’s not for them. It’s for us, to talk to them non-verbally.”

“Direct input?”


“Jesus, Jimme. That sort of research violates the Accord. You’ll get us both shoved through a lock!”

“You worry too much, Kex,” he said. “Besides, it doesn’t work, but it’s fun and I’m learning all sorts of things playing with this thing.”

“How much did the helmet cost?”

“Nothing. I traded something for it.”


Jimme stopped coding and looked at me. In the helmet, he looked like a giant bug. After a time, he shrugged and turned back to the keyboard.

“I forget.”

“Damn it! What about the predictive intelligent system you were working on?”

“Don’t yell at me, Kex. It scares me when you yell at me.”

I drew a cleaning breath and cranked back the volume. “I’m sorry, hon. What about the predictive intelligent system?”

“I got bored. How’s Tangent?”

The chills hit me again. “What do you mean?”

He stopped tapping at the keyboard. “I mean how did your visit with Tangent go?”

“How did you ...”

He interrupted me; touched my shoulder with his fingertip, then turned it up to show me a small black dot resting there.

“Snooper profile,” he said. “I wanted to test an extension of this app, so I spawned and piggybacked it on a station drone. It was waiting for you at the checkpoint. I lost signal while you were in with Tangent. So what’s up with her today?”

“Jimme, you can’t run spy ops like that. You could wind up breathing vacuum; we both could, if you got caught.”

Jimme laughed. “Won’t ever happened.”

“Why not?”

He turned his attention back to the keyboard. “You know why not. You’re too good at what you do to get caught and I’m too smart. Too pretty, too.”

He hit a final key. The coding stopped and Jimme lifted his helmet. His blonde hair stuck out in all directions like wiring from a severed cable. His blue eyes were bright, but he wouldn’t look at me for long, couldn’t concentrate. His gaze kept darting around the room.

“Did you know water geysers have shot up recently, down on the surface?” Jimme asked, his mind stutter-jumping to another topic.

“Would you like to check out those geysers?” I asked.

Sometimes the old Jimme peeked through for an instant. The look he gave me just then sent a shiver up my spine. “How would we do that?” he asked.

I tossed the solar runner chip to him. It tumbled in the lesser gravity. He scooped it from the air and clicked it into his reader. His eyes grew wide.

“Hot damn, Kex! This is a solar runner and you own it!”

“Uh huh.”

“When can we take it out?”

“Tomorrow morning, if you want. I’ve got four days off.”  

“What happened?” he asked me. His joyful grin was gone, replaced by genuine concern.

“Tangent pulled me off the anomalies investigation.”

“You’re first investigator and her enforcer,” his said. “It’s not like her to ...”

I leaned in and laid my index finger across his lips. “The walls have ears,” I whispered, close to him. 

For that instant, my Jimme was back again. “What’s going on?” he whispered back.

I drew back from him. “You know,” I said, at normal volume. “I can tell you’re itching to try out that runner. Why don’t we take her out tonight. We’ll have lots of time to talk.”

He nodded, as if he understood. “Okay.”

His eyes lost focus and he began fiddling with his tablet. Images of various meals cycled on the comp tab’s screen. “Right now I’m hungry,” he said. “Are you hungry?”

“I’ll fix something,” I said, and headed for the kitchen.

“I’d like Pad Thai,” Jimme called. “Oh. There’s a message for you.”

“From who?”

“Just read it,” he said.

In the kitchen, I slipped a food pack into the microwave, and then checked incoming calls. One message waited. An eyes-only for Jimme from Roscoe.

“This message is for you,” I yelled.

“No,” Jimme called back. “It’s for you.”

Roscoe was a level-five AI in charge of waste management, including the atmospheric cyclers. The job was far beneath his level, but as I understood, he was being punished for something he had done a while back. He wouldn’t talk about it, any more than Cutter would speak about his own faux pas.

He was crotchety, didn’t care for company, and was more than a little mad. Paranoid as hell, too; he tried to kill me once.

It’s not important why.

He apologized afterward. He and I had worked out our own version of the Accord. Roscoe wouldn’t ever fuck with me again and I wouldn’t talk about what he’d tried to do. 

Since then, we’d developed a relationship built upon our mutual distrust. From time to time, he’d feed me useful bits of information; occasionally I looked the other way when I found him up to something.

His eyes-only message was hours old and was to the point. It only contained two words. Kex! Help!


When I got to the cul-de-sac outside Roscoe’s digs, in a neglected corner of the Warrens, the place was under siege. Visibility was limited because of all the smoke. The place stank of blood and viscera, burning fuel and lubricants. Broken pieces of Roscoe’s legion of security bots were piled everywhere.

Bodies, too, human and vrazi, Some so badly savaged it was hard to tell who or what they had been in life. A human and two vrazi diggers—all that seemed to be left alive—worked on the bulkhead with a laser cutter. Two meters past their little party lay half-dozen more bodies—two Diggers and three humans—scattered around an armored access hatch. A tool cart was parked outside the combat area. A titanium containment sphere rested in a charging cradle on the cart.

I wasn’t Jimme at his best, but I could do simple math. The sphere held an intelligent system. Just like the one that now pretended to be Tangent.

Blue-Ash ran station systems, including maintenance. If AI could be arrogant, Blue-Ash would take pride of place in the AI arrogance department. He enjoyed blackmailing by withholding maintenance. If I felt the need to run a coup, he would be the first to go. Next, Tangent ran security and communications. Both made sense, as they wielded the most power.

Roscoe handled refuse and sewage reclamation.

All I could think of: Roscoe was a nosy bastard and he had poked his figurative nose where whoever was behind this didn’t want it. They had come after him, but had miscalculated how hard it would be to get him.

Slagged remains of what had to have been a maintenance bot lay amongst the bodies. They had hacked it, figuring to follow the bot inside, but Roscoe must have electrified the floor around the armored hatch and tried to fry them all.

From the look of it, the goons had nearly burned through the bulkhead. I hunkered down around the corner and waited. Let them do the work.

I needed to talk to Roscoe, and after the goon squad had lain siege to his hole, Roscoe wouldn’t be in any kind of mood to chat, unless I could get close enough to persuade him.

Ten minutes later, a circular section of the bulkhead fell forward. Time to lend a hand. The human was the easier target. The Diggers had thicker bones in their skulls, and they wore blast helmets. Suited me.

I drilled the human in the back of the head with my laser. By then the vrazi were turning around. I tossed out a flash bang grenade and charged, knife at the ready.

The closest vrazi came at me, hard and loud. I dodged his heavy fists and sliced his neck when he got close. I caught the second vrazi with my armored shoulder and sent him into the far bulkhead. He still had lots of fight in him. He got in a punch that made my world turn starry for an instant, but I planted my knee in his groin—hard—then hit his solar plexus with the hilt end of my knife. He went to his knees and began to puke his guts out.

I wanted someone to talk to, so I double-tapped him with my taser, then tied him up with nano-fiber cord from the tool cart and gagged him with a hunk of duct tape for good measure. Then I stepped closer to the hole they’d cut.

“Roscoe,” I yelled. “It’s Kex.”


“Roscoe, you called for help.”

A speaker in the hall buzzed into life. “You’re late. I called you hours ago. Look at all the bots you’ve cost me.”

“I just got the message. You sent it through Jimme. You should have sent it direct to me.”

“Couldn’t risk it. I took a chance sending it low priority to Jimme.”

“Why did you call me?”

“I couldn’t trust anybody else. I’m not certain I can trust you now.”

I turned toward the armored hatch, in case the cameras were still working, and resisted flipping him the bird. “I just saved your ass, didn’t I? Least you can do is talk to me.”

He cranked the volume to eleven and his words echoed along the corridor. “You let ’em cut a damned hole through my wall!”

“You sound bitter, Roscoe.”

“Damn right, I’m bitter.” He cut the volume back. “Eleven minutes, forty-seven seconds. That’s how long you sat on your fat ass over there and let me worry.”

“So you saw me.”

“Damned straight I saw you, you ugly meat sack!”

“Timing is everything, Roscoe.”


“Can I come inside?”

He paused almost five seconds; an eternity for an AI. At last, he spoke. “You talked to Tangent recently?”

“That’s why I’m here,” I said.


I wiped blood off my face and pointed at the sphere in the charging cradle. “If I’m right, there’s an intelligent system in that containment sphere. I believe these thugs planned to swap you out.”

“You’re serious?” Roscoe said.

“I am. I believe they’ve already done just that to Tangent. Blue-Ash, too. Maybe others.”

“I knew it!” He paused a second, long enough for an AI to sort through the whole mess. “You can come in.”

I started for the hatch.

“But fix that hole before you do. I’ll send what work bots I got left to lend a hand.”

“After we talk.”



I could almost hear him sigh. “All right, but let’s make it quick.”


I went in through the hatch and stood on the metal platform before Roscoe’s gleaming containment sphere. A magnetic field held me in place.

No music here; no soft lighting. Roscoe’s cube was so brightly lit I had to squint against the glare. Wall speakers crackled when Roscoe spoke.

“Okay, what’s your plan?”

“I need to talk to Tangent. She can help us put the pieces together.”

“So use the fancy gizmo in your head.” Roscoe was one of the few who knew about the link.

“I’ve tried. No answer.”

“So she’s either permanently disconnected or out of range.”

“Let’s assume she’s out of range,” I said.

“All right; we’ll start there. If they took her off Over Enceladus, we’ll need to boost the signal.”

“How do we do that?” I asked.

“We could siphon power from the grid.”

I didn’t care for that. Power usage reports were available to AI instantly. If what might be left of the AI council learned what had happened things could get very ugly very fast, not just for the culprits, but for everyone.

The Accord—the agreement between AI and humans—set boundaries and gave humans and vrazi freedom within constraints. We weren’t to interfere with AI plans or attempt to run big operations, like stations or planets.

“We can’t do that,” I said. “It would be noticed.”

I could almost hear Roscoe’s evil grin. “I thought you knew better, Kex. The day I can’t suck a little free power from the grid, I’ll close up shop and be a bot.”

“All right. Go ahead.”

Another pause. “You haven’t told me what’s in it for me if I do get through to Tangent.”

“I figured you’d see the obvious.”

He paused another nano-second. “Which is?”

“If what I’ve said is true, if you get through to Tangent, you’ll earn her gratitude and she can be generous. Wouldn’t you like to get out of garbage reclamation?”

“I could work with whoever’s trying to take over.”

“After they just tried to eliminate you?”

“There is that,” Roscoe said.


“I don’t need you to contact her. I could just fry you.”

I played my ace, or in this case, my queen. “You can talk to her, but she’ll believe me. And if she’s off-station, and I think she is, will you want to go get her?”

“I haven’t been off station since I arrived and I never plan to; not until I leave.”

If I could have moved my feet, I would have fidgeted. The clock was running. We didn’t have much time before pals of these dead guys might come looking for them.

 “Do you trust anyone well enough to send them after her?”

“No, but why should I trust you?”

“I’m Tangent’s chief enforcer and she pretty much runs the council. At the very least, it’s a loyalty test. It’s a win-win, Roscoe. Are you in?”

“All right, Kex, you made your point.”

A pedestal rose beside me. An input/output cable slid from the pedestal and snaked up my arm of its own accord. It reached my shoulder and eased around my neck. I felt it click into the socket at the base of my skull. 

<Now what?> Roscoe asked, inside my head. 

<Simple>, I replied. <Access my neural link. It’s a direct line to Tangent, and doesn’t depend on station architecture. All I need from you is a boost to signal.>

A moment later, Tangent’s voice sounded in my mind. <Kex!>

<Hey, Chief. Glad to hear your voice.>

<Good to hear yours, too, and well done. Roscoe’s given me a report on the situation there.>

<How did they get to you?> I asked.


I clenched my fists. That slimy bastard. It figured he’d be the one to be involved.

<How ... never mind. Where are you?> I asked.

<On a rock out in the rings, I think. Come and get me.>

<I’ll be there soon as I can.>

<Time is important. This is worse than you imagine.>

<How can it be worse?>

<I’ll tell you when you get in range.>


<Roscoe has connections. He can arrange a working solar runner.>

<No need. You don’t know it, but you already gave me a working ship and I have a pilot.>


Turned out, getting off station was the easy part.

Dockside, I flashed the chip that showed ownership and the security bot pointed the way to the racer. The ship was long and sleek and an elegant jet black. Barely enough circumference for either one of us to stand up inside.

Jimme was beside himself. He laid his hand on the fuselage and closed his eyes. “I dub thee Martian Sylph,” he said.

There was enough old Jimme there that I almost cried.

We suited up and settled into the cockpit, reclining in the heavily padded flight seats. Jimme showed me how to plug my flight suit into ship systems and we each slipped a comm bud into our ears.

Jimme played with the controls for a time and then touched his bud. “Solar runner Martian Sylph calling control. Requesting launch.”

 A woman’s voice murmured in my ear. “Control to solar runner Martian Sylph. Launch in three minutes.”

Jimme settled the digger helmet onto his head and dropped the visor into place. The time clicked by; the voice came again. “Launching Martian Sylph.”

I was pressed back into my seat, as we hurled along the hydraulic launch track. Then pressure disappeared and we were coasting toward open space.

The voice of Control returned, as we passed the lip of the station. “Minimum thrust, Martian Sylph, until you’re clear.”

Pressure returned again, although nowhere nearly as severe, and we moved away from Over Enceladus.

Jimme remained silent, intent upon his controls, and so I held my peace, as well. More minutes passed, and then: “Martian Sylph, you are free for full acceleration.”

Jimme turned his head toward me. The camera lens on his helmet reflected the control panel lights. “Full acceleration can be brutal,” he said. “Are you ready?”

“I was a marine,” I said. “I’m always ready. Go for it.”

As Jimme’s finger touched the button, I heard another voice in my head. Faint, as if at great distance, but understandable.

<Hurry, Kex! Fast as you can. Trouble’s not far away.>


Then full acceleration kicked in and everything went gray.


We were in free-fall when I woke up again.

Jimme’s fingers danced across the piloting console. The ship’s exterior might be elegant, but runners are built for racing. The interior was so Spartan, with bare-metal panels and exposed conduit, that it had a home-made look to it. 

Something a clever kid might cobble together.

“It’s going to be close,” Jimme said, not taking his eyes away from the displays.

“What is?”

<Intercepting Arpay.>

It was Tangent; back inside my head again.

<What’s that asshole got to do with this?>

<Jimme picked up a signal while you were asleep. If Jimme got the figures right, Arpay’s runner is ahead of you and on a direct course with my hiding place.> 

<Maybe he’s just dropping by to say hello,> I said.

<Perhaps. In any case, if Jimme’s plan works, we’ll have a surprise for him.>

<We’ll be waiting for him?>

<No. You’re not going to arrive in time, but Jimme’s sending along a little friend.>

I turned to Jimme. “You catch all of that?”

He rapped on the digger helmet. “You bet.”

“So what’s this about a little friend?”

“I took the time to catch a good-sized hunk of rock with the tractor field, found it on the outer edge of the E-ring. Already moving fast, in more or less the right direction. So I nudged it into a nice, tight Hohmann transfer; added speed. I’m tracking it and it’ll be arriving soon.”

I didn’t say a word. I’d seen the maneuver used when I was in the Marines. If Jimme did it right, his rock would hit Arpay’s runner hard enough to leave a mark.

Leave a mark. Marine cant for: punch a damned big hole through armor. In this case, it would result in vented contents or—even better—loss of structural integrity and death of crew. My sweet, simple husband still had it in him to be a ruthless killer. He just looked upon it as if it were a game.

I shut up and let him fly.

The Martian Sylph continued maximum acceleration; I focused on not blacking out. The display that marked Arpay’s runner showed him drawing ever nearer to the moonlet where Tangent waited. We were now moving at twice the relative velocity of Arpay, but he would still arrive at the moonlet before us.

When he did, Tangent would be in immediate danger.

Jimme stayed ice cold the whole time. The man who could never focus for more than a few minutes at a time spent the next two hours very focused. He was oblivious to the danger, didn’t care one whit about the high stakes of the game he played.

I suspected Tangent was doing something to him via the helmet. Or maybe it was just because he was doing something he loved. I was the one who sweated. Images kept playing over and over in my head. Arpay pulling Tangent from her prison to make off with her. Him cracking Tangent’s titanium sphere.

While I worried, Jimme maintained acceleration. Time passed, and then he said, “Any second now.”

The screened flared. A hard, blue-white light filled the dim interior of the cockpit for an instant; then like a flash of summer lightning it was gone. With any luck, so was Pak Arpay.

“Hang on,” Jimme said, still working the console, his voice light and unconcerned. “Here comes de-acceleration.”

The world grayed away again.



I drew a deep, shuddering breath, turned the best I could and reached for my husband. “Jimme?”

<He’s still out. Wake up, Kex.>

It was Tangent. Another voice pushed its way inside my head, too. A voice from the past—my old drill sergeant—hammered at me, too.

You come out of blackout hauling ass! Got that, maggot!

I groaned; forced open my eyes. Jimme was slumped over in his seat, eyes closed.


<I told you he’s still out. But his vital signs are normal, which is excellent considering the stress you both experienced. He hit the brakes awfully fast.>

The display framed the nearby moonlet. The data feed said it was two hundred meters along axis.

I could see a crevice that ran right down the middle. Fresh impact pockmarks peppered the ice, highlighting a debris field. The remnants of Arpay’s runner.

<Kex! Talk to me. Are you all right?>

<I’m fine, chief. Just admiring Jimme’s aim. Arpay’s ship is in bits and pieces up here.>

<No survivors?>

<Doesn’t look to be,> I said.

<Good. Get your ass down here now. We’ve got to get back as soon as possible.>

I unbuckled the harness and maneuvered from my seat, using hand holds to pull myself to the equipment locker. I expected a standard EVA suit. Instead, a vacuum battle suit waited for me. A self-repairing unit. Composite ceramic armor plates. Brilliant white to deflect laser strikes. And a nice selection of armament hung everywhere that I could reach.

There was a built-in augment frame as well. With the frame, and the right fulcrum, I could lift the Martian Sylph. Only Belter marines were supposed to have access to a suit like this one.

Tangent jumped in again. <I had Roscoe smuggle it aboard while you collected Jimme.>

“Sweet!” Jimme breathed, from behind me. “Battle armor. Do I get one, too?”

I spun around. “Jesus, Jimme,” I snapped. “Don’t sneak up on me like that. You scared the hell out of me.”

He made a face. “Who else is here but you and me?”

“It doesn’t matter. Just don’t do it again.”


I began the task of slithering into the armor. Jimme pulled a standard EVA unit from the locker. He was suited up while I was still dressing. He grinned when I finished.

“You look like a giant water-bug,” he said.

“Everybody’s a comedian,” I said.

Jimme left the standard helmet in the locker and sealed his digger helmet to the suit.

“Is that thing air-tight?” I asked.

“We’ll see,” he said. “Are you all set?”

“Yes, but ...”

Jimme didn’t wait to hear me out. He punched in the sequence for the EVA airlock and atmosphere bled from the ship. Before I could say another word, he stepped outside. I hurried after him and stepped into an ice-particle flurry.

“Are you okay?” I called.

“Absolutely,” I heard Jimme say. “You?”

“I’m okay.”

I was, too. Inside the battle armor, I felt like I’d come home. The shush of processed air. The flicker of heads-up displays. The rush of strength from the augmented frame and the comforting weight of those familiar weapons, ready to deal out destruction.

Like a lot of things, you don’t really know what you’ve been missing until you come back to it.

“All right,” I said. “Remember; you wait until I’ve secured an area and I give you the okay.

“But there aren’t any survivors,” Jimme replied.

“How do you know?”

“I saw the explosion; so did you.”

“Even so, you wait.”

Tangent interrupted. <Kex, the sooner I’m extracted, the better. There may be a wiper on my housing, set to a timer.>

My skin went cold, despite the suit’s warmth. An AI wiper was illegal—banned throughout the solar system. That didn’t mean Arpay and his friends, whoever they might be, didn’t have one.

<Okay. On the way.>

Tangent had to be hidden in the crevice, just beyond the debris field. 

I scanned the space ahead. No sign of life or an AI signal, but that didn’t mean a thing. I expected we’d have to find Tangent’s hiding place by sight, not sensors.

“I see her,” Jimme shouted. “I’ll get to work.”

“Wait!” I shouted back. “I haven’t cleared the area!”

Jimme jetted past me. I tried to catch up, but his suit gave him more mobility. He pirouetted like a ballet dancer and jetted down into the crevasse. 

Tangent sounded frantic. <Missile launch from the moonlet’s south axial pole.>

“Kex, there might be a survivor, after all,” Jimme said.

No kidding.

I killed my jets, launched a counter-measure weasel and cut suit power. The weasel pinged like crazy. The missile went for it and my visor flared white. As soon as I could see again, I powered up and hit the jets.

All I could think of was that bastard Arpay was on the rock, and so was my Jimme.

“I’ve reached Tangent,” Jimme called, over the comm.

“Get out of there!” I radioed back. “Arpay’s still alive!”

“I heard,” he said. “I’ll hurry. You take care of him.”

“Damn it, Jimme! Get out of there!”

“I’m all right,” he said. “I got this.”

I had to act, but if I tried to intercept Arpay, the next missile most likely would knock me into my next life.

From the flight path of the first missile, Arpay must be in the crevasse. I had to assume he could reach Jimme as fast or faster than I could. I had one option open to me, an old Belter move.

I squatted on my hands and knees. “Lock,” I told the suit. “Max force on servos.”

It responded with inhuman speed to my commands, pressing with its full force against the rock. Before I could even blink, the heads-up display hit Max Out.

“Release,” I hissed, and the suit pushed itself high into the ice-particle cloud.

Belter Marines call the maneuver pulling a Newton. From my perspective, the rock’s rotation seemed to accelerate, flying by beneath me. I spotted Arpay hunkered in the crevasse not far from the surface and way too close to Jimme. My husband, eager to get to the containment sphere, ready to begin work, was oblivious to the present danger. I had to get to Arpay in time.

As the surface rolled beneath me, I fired my suit jets and flew anti-spin, gaining even more relative speed. Ten meters from me—and closing fast—Arpay popped into full view.

He brought up the the missile launcher he had already fired once. My jets full on, I thrust my suited arm forward, slug-thrower in my fist, and emptied the twenty-round clip in a single salvo.

The gun kicked, but anti-recoil jets kept it in line, as twenty years of training paid dividends. Fifty-caliber jacketed rounds stitched holes across his suit and helmet.

He let loose the launcher and went limp, as a fan of flash-frozen blood droplets spread out around him. I looked for other antagonists. He was alone.

“Match rotation,” I told the suit.

I began to slow, and as I did I eased myself down into the crevasse. Jimme had keep the faith that I would watch his ass. He had already torn away an anchored camouflage tarp, exposing two containment spheres seated in skeletal metal frames.

TANGENT had been stenciled on one sphere; the other read BLUE-ASH.

Jimme bent over Tangent’s sphere, working on a ring that ran around Tangent’s circumference and held her in the metal frame.

“Are you all right?” I called.

“Course I am,” he replied. “I’ll have her out of this in just a minute!”

<Don’t scratch my shell, Jimme.> Tangent sounded giddy. <I just had it polished.>

<Taking care of it.>

Jimme’s voice was there inside my head, too. I came up behind him, leaned my helmet against his and flung my arms around his suited figure, giving the best hug I could manage.

We had recovered Tangent. Jimme was safe. Whatever else there was could hang fire for the moment.


Jimme pawed through the runner’s lockers, nooks and crannies, and found material to jerry-rig a sling to cradle Tangent during the run back to Over Enceladus.

“Okay,” I said. “Time to get Blue-Ash.”

<Leave him where he is.> Tangent said.

<You don’t figure to leave him here, do you?> I asked.

<The hell I don’t. If he had been more careful, none of this would have happened. I never liked the nasty bastard, anyway. Cover him back up and let’s go home.>

Jimme grinned at me and headed for the hatch. So much for my notion that Tangent was getting sentimental.


Sneaking Tangent back aboard Over Enceladus proved easier than we expected.

While we were gone, Roscoe had managed to worm his way into Blue-Ash’s lair, using information Tangent passed on to him, and was pretending to be the system pretending to be Blue-Ash.

We brought Tangent off Martian Sylph in a crate we labeled RADIOACTIVE MINERALS and set her up in our flat. Jimme worked his magic and plugged her back into the system without a hitch.

It only took seconds for her to bypass her impostor and take control of communications and security again.


Turned out the people behind the take-over were a humans-first group, religious zealots planning to use control of Over Enceladus to sneak one-hundred-twenty of their number aboard the Centauri Bound, then take control of the interstellar ship once her journey had begun.

The four of us—Jimme and I, Tangent and Roscoe—were the only ones who ever learned what had been going on.

Roscoe played Blue-Ash expertly, and no one—AI, human or vrazi—twigged to his performance or that an intelligent system was running his former operation.

Tangent considered it Roscoe’s reward for helping.

Life on Over Enceladus returned to normal quickly. Before three days passed, two hundred humans and vrazi died in a series of random tragic accidents.

One-hundred-fifty of them—illegal residents—were found asphyxiated in an empty cargo hold in the Warrens. Operations records showed it to be unused, so air had been drained away.

“A cost-savings measure,” the new Blue-Ash told council. “I deeply regret their deaths.”    


I opened my eyes and found myself flat on my back on one of the self-adjusting beds in Cutter’s treatment room. Stella stood beside the bed. She smiled when I turned my head to look at her.

“Thought you were going to sleep forever.” Stella had shaved her red hair down to a buzz cut. “Cutter’s been done with you for almost two hours.”

I blinked. “I like your hair.”

Stella nodded and took my hand in hers. “Yeah. You told me that already. Get your ass up off that bed.”

<Cutter’s done with Jimme, Kex. He will be waking soon.>



<I was dreaming.>

<I expect you were. Not about the surgery, I hope.>

<The surgery?>

And it all came back to me.

We had pulled off the rescue. Tangent was where she belonged and Roscoe had become the head of station systems. And as a way of saying thank you, Tangent had authorized surgery.

Two surgeries, actually.

<I owe you everything, Kexanna Han-Riley,> she had told me, two days after Jimme and I brought her home. <It is only right and proper that friends call each other whenever necessary.>


Me and an AI: the best of friends. Go figure that.

While I was unconscious, Cutter had gone back inside my head and upgraded the neural link he had given me two years before, so that I could not only receive and respond, but also initiate contact with Tangent.

I stretched and wobbled to my feet. Cutter’s anesthetic might have dispersed, but I still felt stiffness in my joints. Stella helped me down the hall to the next surgery bay. Jimme lay on a bed there. Cutter waved me over. I examined Jimme, but could see no scars, even though I knew Cutter had installed a neural amplifier in Jimme’s head. The second surgery.

“He’s still under a mild hypnotic,” Cutter said. “I needed it so I could talk to him during surgery. Go ahead; talk to him. I’ve given him a suggestion that he should wake up when he hears your voice.”

I tried once and no sounds came out. Stella handed me a vial of water. I licked my lips, laid my hand on his chest and tried again. “Hey, Jimme.”

“Hey,” he muttered, still groggy.

He sighed, stretched his shoulders, and rolled toward me. “Had the strangest dream, Kex.”


“Yeah. Dreamed I was stuck on the other side of this massive sheet of dura-glass; having the damnedest time talking to you.”

“Still having trouble?” I held my breath.

Tangent whispered in my mind. <Consider this payment on the debt, my friend.> 

My husband opened his eyes. They lit up when he saw my face, and my sweet Jimme—the old Jimme—smiled up at me.

“No trouble here, Sweet Cheeks,” he said. “And I’m ready to make another run when you are.” END

Dale Ivan Smith has been published in “Every Day Fiction,” the “Underground” anthology, as well as at Amazon and Smashwords. K.C. Ball has sold stories to “Analog,” “Lightspeed,” “Flash Fiction Online,” “Perihelion,” and elsewhere.


bone wall 2/2015