Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


On the Road Again
by Michaele Jordan

A Prince of Blood and Spit
by Guy Stewart

by Brandon L. Summers

Little Ships
by Harold R. Thompson

Road Rage on the Hypertime Expressway
by Ken Altabef

Bug Out
by Cas Blomberg

By His Jockstrap
by Eamonn Murphy

Tamera’s Engagement
by John Hegenberger

Shorter Stories

From the Other Side of the Rubicon
by Sean Mulroy

To Be Carved
by David Steffen

Final Frames of the Eldrisil
by J. Daniel Batt


About That Colony
by John McCormick

Tesla and Newton
by Eric M. Jones



Comic Strips





A Prince of Blood and Spit

By Guy Stewart

“Belts blow east,
and Bands are calm,
Zones flee west, away from dawn.”
—Nursery rhyme teaching the flow of cloud regions in the skies of River.

IGALUK ABUMAYALEH-JAWAI WAS ON HIS FEET, heading for the airlock because some idiot banged a wrench on the hull.

Wiping spit from his chin, rubbing sleep from his eyes, and creases off of his face, he sighed. The narrow corridor to the back of the shop was stacked to the ceiling and two meters deep with parts for zeppelins, antigrav boats, yachts, blimps, and tritium harvesting platforms.

The bangs were frantic by the time he opened the heavy inner hatch of the tiny airlock, squeezed inside, and slammed it closed. Sliding into his patched EVA suit, he hit the air evacuation pad, then shouldered the outer hatch open, stepping out on the meter-wide platform. Another patched EVA suit faced him, wrench raised to bang again. Lowering the tool and offering its hand, Iggie touched the glove, completing a direct link. A woman’s voice said, “Took you long enough, Iggie! You fall asleep at the bench again?”

Behind her, golden clouds of hydrogen, helium, methane, and a wealth of organics tinged scarlet by First Sunrise, spun past them. “Yeah. So?”

“You so busy with some new useless invention, you were gonna leave me standing here all day? I’ll be complaining to your Uncle Wubbo!”

He winced and even though he knew it would do no good, he began, “I’m applying to the University of Cairo In The Nile Band so I’m ...”

She snorted, “What’re you expecting? That the Purist pukes up in the University of Cairo In The Nile will welcome you with open arms? You’re a rust rat!” She swung her arm to include not only his Ferris, Tianjin’s Eye, but her rundown zeppelin as well. “We’re all rust rats!” When she let her old-Russian accent surface, she was really, actually angry instead of just bothered like usual. “You’re fooling yourself! You can be a great mechanic! Why waste your time going to University with rich snobs who’re going to laugh at you ...”

He grabbed the bag from her, broke contact and leaned forward as if to open the airlock. She jumped, landing back aboard her zep. She didn’t go in, turning to face him. He stepped backward but didn’t open the lock. Derision he could handle, but she was feeling sorry for him. Impulsively, he flipped her off. A moment later, she went inside, cast off, and latched on to one of the Ferris’ four-kilometer-long flexible tunnels. A trolley.

Mooring lines anchored zeps to a trolley that pulled them along to their places in a queue. Zeps, living balloon cloudwhales, small antigrav ships, yachts, blimps, pharm machinery, and tritium harvester platforms waited their turn to use the Ferris’ spin to accelerate into a river of gas. The Ferris straddled the calm Band between an east-flowing Belt and a west-flowing Zone and spun to accelerate or decelerate whatever rode the launch platform into or out of the stream of gases.

His outer lock didn’t seal, no surprise. Iggie shoved it open angrily then slammed it three more times before he could begin to cycle back. The timestamp inside his helmet let him know that if Uncle Rub happened to show up on time, the old man would threaten to toss him out on his ear again. Iggie considered it. If Wubbo Fugelstang actually followed through on his threat, the authorities would find out they weren’t really related. Iggie could run away to University with a clear conscience.

He sighed as the cycle ended and he went back into the shop. The decrepit Tianjin’s Eye—a hot hydrogen, doughnut-shaped balloon spinning like an old-fashioned Ferris wheel for stability also had refurbished antigravity units under the floor that held up a central carbon fiber habitation disk and the three flexible tunnels. It was the only place he’d ever called home.

Trudging back to his workbench, he threw the bag on the floor under his stool.

Abruptly a voice boomed through the shop. It took him a moment to realize that it was the answering machine of JAWAI FAMILY NEW, REFURBISHED & USED ZEPPELIN, ANTIGRAVITY & PHARM MACHINERY PARTS. He could have shut it off, but that would have taken too much fiddling with the old machine. His uncle’s voice shouted, “If you’re sleeping on the job again, there’ll be hell to pay, boy! I have a business to run ...” The machine cut off his voice.

Iggie said, “I just want to go to the University of Cairo In The Nile. Why is that such a bad thing?”

Iggie already knew the answer. He’d never get in because his DNA wasn’t sixty-five percent pure Standard Human. The Empire of Man, which controlled the widest, richest Belts and Zones on the planet, made the rules at University.

The security force screen guarding the shop from the open main corridor of Tianjin’s Eye tweedled. Iggie cussed, “Go-say!” He threw a greasy towel over his work station and dashed to the sales arena. He slid to a stop at the parts door as Uncle Wubbo stepped into the shop.

“Good morning, Uncle Rub. Anything I can get for you?”

Uncle Rub turned his fierce gaze on Iggie and cussed him out. It was no different than any other day, but today had to be different, Iggie decided. He was done with the purity chips—except for the one impossible-to-get-around glitch. He would take his things and leave the rust bucket and his life as a rust rat behind.

Ducking cables, he eased around the door jamb and stood as far as he could from Uncle Rub. The old man would be simply irritated only as long as he felt like he was in control. If he felt like he was losing control, then he’d blow his neural jack and get nasty.

With a pained grunt, he leaned heavily on the gray plastic counter with its deep scratches and ground-in grease. Iggie winced. His uncle was going to lecture. Fluorescent light fell harshly white on him, identical to the star their gas giant homeworld orbited. Irregular patches of oil-stained decking under his feet flickered in rainbow flashes skewed blue. Unlike its counterpart in every cloud band on River, the shop’s gray walls were barren of nudie, trick zeppelin, kite and antigravity racer holograms. A shop sign, letters in mucus green, hovered over Wubbo’s head, blinking neon orange letters proclaiming PURE HUMAN CREDIT GLADLY ACCEPTED, ALL OTHERS PAY CASH.

He batted at it as he whipped a tablet computer from a pocket of his overalls. The sign floated off into the corridor, programmed to lead customers to JAWAI PARTS. Uncle Rub said softly, “Nephew, for what purpose did I adopt you?”

Iggie stepped back to press against the wall, eying his uncle warily.

Uncle Rub tapped his t-comp and said, “Didn’t I teach you to never leave the counter unattended? There is no telling what kind of vermin might slither in here and rob us blind.”

Iggie stared wide-eyed. “You just opened the door, Uncle Rub. There’s no one here but you.”

Passing a greasy hand over his polished, age-spotted pate, the old man looked mollified but said, “This time, that’s true. But what if I’d been killed and someone chopped my hand off?” Uncle Rub shook his head and said, “You never trust anyone. Not even me.” He sighed then added, “If you get in the habit of trusting your family, you might slip up and trust someone who has no relation to you.” He managed a harsher glare and growled, waggling a finger, “Do not ever forget my words. Now get to work.”


They spent the rest of the day on the steady stream of customers. Parts both old and looks-like-old passed over the counter. Iggie spent most of the four hours of First Day crawling around the floor searching neatly arranged shelves.

He was on the floor, flashlight held between his teeth, aiming the light to see if there was a surface he could grab to pull out a part for a customer.

“Igaluk! Get up here now!”

Iggie grunted and headed back up to the front. Uncle Rub would be taking his First dinner. Instead, when he got there, his uncle faced him over the counter and slapped his hand flat next to the t-comp. “You’ll be eighteen in twelve days, boy, and I’m not waiting in this godsforsaken, frozen rust bucket one more minute! Thumb it and you own this worthless dump—spar, plastic, generators and all.” He shoved the t-comp at Iggie. “Then you can hire, indenture, or buy any dead, frank, Arty, Mod, Imp or Pure you want to.” He leaned across the counter, “But mark my words, boy, not one of ’em will be half the friend I’ve been to you.” He leaned back, looked around and shook his head. “I don’t care anymore. I’m leaving this Celtic hell and going to the equator. Thumb that and I’m outta here.”

“You want me to be stuck with the shop so you can go tan on some cloudwhale?” Iggie exclaimed.

Uncle Rub only gave a bit, glaring as he said, “I was on my way off this rust bucket fifteen years ago when your folks died and left you and this place to me.” His face went flat and his jaw trembled for an instant. He took a breath and said, “I’ve hung around fifteen years longer than I wanted. This rust bucket’s just waiting for the right cyclone to tear it to tinsel. Only a matter of time until it flings its last cloudwhale into the Salween River or picks up its last platform from the Syr Darya River. Then it’ll be over.”

“So you want me to die a rust rat? Why not just shoot me now and be done with it?”

“That’s not what I meant!” Uncle Rub bellowed. He closed his eyes, rubbed his temples, then said in a low voice, “Just thumb the contract. Then we’re free of each other.”

“What if I have other plans? What if I want to leave, too?”

“Where would you go? That stupid university thing? You’ll never get in! That kind of education’s for Pure Humans! You’ve got a life here!”

Iggie screamed, “I hate this life! I hate you!” then sprinted down the aisle to the airlock.

Uncle Rub bellowed after him, “Get back here!”

Iggie opened the heavy door and skinned into the airlock, slamming the lock behind him. Grabbing a spar, he jammed it into the seal, wedging the door shut so his uncle couldn’t follow. Iggie stuffed himself into his suit, hit the evacuation pad and stepped out onto the platform. The roaring maelstrom of hydrogen and helium wind made by the Ferris’ spin plucked at him. He grabbed his racing kite blood and spitpack from the storage clamp and slipped it on, pausing. If he jumped now, facing north, he’d hit the worst eddies of the flowing atmospheric gases that made up the “rivers” of River. The eddies might tear the kite apart. He waited impatiently, finally jumping as the late First Afternoon sun hove into view. Falling twice as fast as he would have on Jupiter, he spread-eagled, using finger and shoulder twitches to search for a hot updraft. The Deaths—Depths—of River’s blazing hot hydrogen, helium, and water depths with their crushing pressures, boiled up from half a million kilometers below.

When a blistering hot wind slammed into him, he made a fist and the kite blossomed, golden flecks rippling over the silver surface. He climbed on the supersonic wind until his vision grew red at the edges. “I hate this life! I hate Uncle Rub!” he screamed.

He didn’t notice a badly damaged zeppelin swinging in to dock with Tianjin’s Eye’s flexible corridor until it was almost too late. The midnight black torpedo-shaped gas bag was an old-fashioned hot-hydrogen cell zep rather than a newer vacuum-force field cell model. The laminate sheath was cracked, scratched and dented in a dozen places, revealing the yellow paint of a taxi zep underneath. Through the gondola’s window, Iggie saw two young, bald, tattooed guys arguing, arms waving wildly as he swept around. They didn’t have a proximity alarm inside, because when they saw him, they both screamed as he dove under the belly.

The zep’s good engine gunned and the flight control elevators tilted up as far as they could go. A cloud of billowing black smoke abruptly poured from one of the propeller engines and when he flew through, it left a film on his faceplate breaking the light into rainbow coronas. He reached up to wipe his faceplate clean. A flock of ten thousand, flying fish-shaped omiimii exploded from a dirty brown, ammonium hydrosulfide ice cloud under his feet. He spun in his harness, banking violently back into the zep’s path. The stubby winged omiimii were little more than skin, flattened hydrogen bubbles, mouth, and muscle. They parted like a school of fish around him. Others ran into him and the zep.

The zep’s rudder and control vanes fluttered, followed by a deafening shriek of metal on metal. The hydrogen and helium atmosphere made the sound sharp and brittle as the undamaged engine broke free of a strut and bent away from the gondola, slamming into a gas bag. The zep swung out of control, nose diving into the path of Tianjin’s Eye’s flexible tunnel Number Three.

There was nothing Iggie could do but watch in horror.

One of the boys must have been a great pilot. Even with a single sputtering engine, the zep lumbered up and out of the way. Zigzagging, they snagged a transfer hose that fluttered like an elephant’s nose, trailing behind the arm. The zep stabilized, the nose retracted, and the trolley at its base started the long trip to the central habitat.

Gasping, and drained, Iggie barely had the strength to fly home as Fundament, River’s sun, reached First Sunset. Darkness spread like ink over moveable cloud valleys below and leaped like shadow mountain goats overhead until night fell. Thumping down on the platform, he stumbled then cycled the lock. Once he was back inside, leaning against the door, he listened until his breathing steadied and his pulse quit hammering in his ears.

He had work to do before Second Sunrise. He was out of time. He had to figure out how to solve the impossible-to-get-around-glitch and trick the stupid purity chip into thinking he was Pure. Without it, he wouldn’t last an hour in one of the Belts or Zones controlled by the Empire of Man. If he made a mess of the Purity chip, and got caught, it wasn’t like he could just throw it away like an ID card. There would be two chips embedded in his body, one in his hand, and one in his butt.

If he screwed up, he’d even have trouble moving around in the skies that the Confluence of Humanity controlled. Banded like a legendary coral snake with blacks, reds, and yellows that warned predators away—the bands of this place were as deadly as venom. Only one antidote could nullify them all.

Sitting down at his workbench, he uncovered the DNA reader he’d put together from scavenged parts. He’d tried everything he could to fool it, but he was almost ready to admit that the only way to make his plan work was to get Pure DNA for the chip. There had to be a way to synthesize it from his own DNA—he was 59.8 percent original Human stock. What was 5.2 percent? Everything apparently because nothing he tried worked. The magnifier lamp glowed to life and he studied the Purity chip where it hung suspended, wrapped in a tiny bubble of energy. The size of his thumbnail, it was micro-etched and seeded with quantum data bubbles, electrostatic adhesion keeping them in place. If it were authentic and legal, one of the million bubbles would contain a strand of the bearer’s DNA. More than sixty-five percent original Human would make it legal anywhere on River. The strand verified identity, allowed the bearer to draw on Imperial credit from His Imperial Majesty’s accounts in the skies of River or on one of its three-hundred-and-seven moons. It also restricted anyone who wasn’t Pure.

The Empire of Man’s advanced technology was countered by the anthrogenetic manipulated diversity of the Confluence of Humanity. Imperial banks might set the credit standard of Confluence and Empire, but the Empire could rarely feed all of its trillions and relied on Confluence biointervention to stave off mass starvation and plague.

He could remove his own chip, but unless he could replace it with a chip that held Pure DNA, he would be worse off than ever. Any intelligent being who had no ID chip had no resources to draw on whatever. Iggie hated it, but he couldn’t change the system from a rusty Ferris floating in a frigid northern cloud Band on the Brink of the Confluence and Empire. He had deep faith that he could change the universe with an Imperial education. He shook out his arms, sat on his stool and slid his fingers into the micromanipulator he’d built from scratch.


Lost in the challenge, he realized two things at the same time. He hadn’t moved in hours and as he stood up, he groaned like Uncle Wubbo. He had to report the omiimii flock. They grazed on spot lichen growing on Tianjin’s Eye, but their saliva ate holes in the substrate underneath. Humans called it the hull of their home. Flocking omiimii attracted predators like cloudjellies, stinging haze, shockerrays, mist sharks, and flocculent mosses. Humans ran afoul of those often enough that it was everyone’s duty to report what they saw, even though someone else probably had already. He couldn’t remember where he’d left his personal t-comp so he went to the sales counter to use the shop-com.

Uncle Rub had closed up. The sign, which wandered through the Ferris advertising JAWAI’s to travelers, was bobbing gently inside the snapping, crackling force screen.

Iggie’s back was to the entryway. He didn’t notice the force screen jitter the first time. Usually it was someone under the influence stumbling against it on their way home.

He turned when he heard voices and recognized the two boys from the zep.

Wearing baggy pants with multiple pockets, sleeveless and filthy white shirts, and beat up military boots, the two flashed Imperial rank tattoos on their forearms. One had dark stubble showing the outline of his hair on dark skin, with thick bushy black eyebrows. His friend had pale skin and no shadow of hair or eyebrows at all, but a faint dusting of freckles across his cheeks. Freckles looked at Iggie and said, “Looks like no one’s here, Spike. We’ll have to break in.” The leer was ugly and angry.

Spike, the one with hair shadow, said, “We don’t have to break in, Lance.” He leaned close to his friend and muttered something.

Lance shoved him away, snarling, “I don’t see nothin’ except someone who’s pretending he’s Human.”

“I may not be Human, but at least I’m housebroken.”

Spike scowled at Iggie then grabbed Lance’s arm. Lance shoved Spike’s hand away and reached out to touch the force field. Pulling his hand back, he said, “Unstable, fluctuating between two-six and four-oh malcolms.” Going down on one knee, he pulled something from the back of his boot. Extending it into a twenty-five-centimeter long wand, he stood and passed it through the force screen.

The screen collapsed.

“You didn’t need to do that, Lance. We can come back,” Spike said. “We don’t have to rob the poor ...”

“Sure we do! Teach ’em their place! He’s probably a half-brained drone who still uses an LCD calculator. We need parts and there’s no way I’ll pay good Imperial creds for whatever garbage this freak ...”

Iggie said, “Lights!” and floods lit the store. The other two each threw up an arm, stepping backwards. Iggie added, “I use a PureScan Twelve-ninety-three to check the credit of my Imperial customers. I have a Tangmarten Forty-four Three Ten to track my school studies. I also tinker with force screens. One-hundred percent.”

The floods cut off, leaving regular lights as the screen ramped to full force, translucent now. It shoved Lance into the shop where he fell and kept Spike outside. Lance scrambled to his feet and shouted, “How dare you! I’m ...”

Spike’s shadow scooped up the wand, passed it through the screen, which abruptly shorted out. Iggie’s jaw dropped. Lance’s eyes bulged as Spike covered Lance’s mouth, saying, “... about to tell them that your real name isn’t as stupid as Lance but you can’t say your real name. It’s a rule.”

Lance tried to roundhouse punch his friend. Spike blocked it by grabbing Lance’s hand and saying intently, “Remember Johnny Ferocious?”

The screen came back to life behind them. Lance stopped struggling then angrily pulled free, glaring first at Spike, then at Iggie. “Shut up.” He turned to Iggie, middle finger pointing at him from a tight fist, and said, “This isn’t over, freak, now let me out or I’ll have your own sheriff arrest you for abusing an Imperial citizen.” The screen dropped again and Lance and Spike turned to run.

Tianjin’s Eye’s sheriff, Veronica Thao said, “Unless you like how cloudjellies sting and pricklesnot clings, I wouldn’t move if I were you, boys.” Brandishing a tangle pistol, she smiled when they froze and said, “Good boys.”

“We’re Imperial citizens and I ...” Lance cried then yelped when Spike kicked him in the back of the leg.

Uncle Rub scowled, took a step back, spit on the ground and said, “Jumparound.”

Iggie said, “What?”

Uncle Rub waved dismissal at the boys and said, “Some of the Pure let their git roam free so they can sow their bubble oats before settling down to do the family business. Usually wreak all sorts of havoc. Lots of ’em die of stupidity ...”

Lance took a step at Uncle Rub. The sheriff’s gun twitched up and the boy stopped, blurting, “Lies! Your kind murders us out of jealousy!”

Uncle Rub grunted then said, “That would be too much work. If you want parts, you can pay with your emperor’s credit. Otherwise you can take a hike.” He swung his fist with a thumb stuck out over his shoulder.

“There’s nowhere else to get parts for a zep,” said Spike. Clearing his throat, he added, “It’s old.”

Uncle Rub grinned and said, “You could order them from an Imperial supplier.”

“How long would that take,” Lance snapped.

“Two years by zep; ten days and a million Imperials to use a cargo rocket.”

Lance squeaked. Spike managed a hoarse, “What?”

Uncle Rub guffawed then said, “You can always get back into your zep, pay the Ferris fee and hitch a ride down to the nearest Imperial junk yard.”

Both boys glared at Uncle Rub, who stood grinning as they stalked past him. Once they’d disappeared down the corridor, the sheriff shook her head. “Why do you insist on irritating people like that, Fugelstang? It only gets you trouble in the long run.”

“No more long run for me, Sheriff. I’m leaving tomorrow morning on a one-way trip to the equator. I’m retiring.”

She looked at Iggie, then at Uncle Rub and said, “You tell him yet?”

The old man pulled out his t-comp, strode across the shop and slapped it down on the counter again. “I told him last night and like some kinda child, he run away from me and went flying.” Iggie flushed crimson, ears burning. Uncle Rub leaned forward. The old man’s eyes grew large, and his voice quavered as he said, “Let me go, Igaluk. I was never cut out to be no one’s old man. I done the best I could with the worst hand ever dealt a man.”

Iggie couldn’t breathe as he reached for the t-comp and thumbed it. It bleated then went blank. Uncle Rub reached out, took Iggie’s hand in both of his and whispered, “Thank you, Igaluk Abumayaleh-Jawai.” He released him, turned and moved away like an old, old man.

The sheriff looked at Iggie, looked after Wubbo Fugelstang, then said to Iggie, “Good luck, son.” She paused, “You’ll need it.” She followed Uncle Rub.

Iggie stood by himself, staring at the empty corridor for a long time. Finally he slapped the force screen back to life and dimmed the lights, completely aware of the uselessness of his security system. He made his way back to the work bench and sat down, flicking the bench rag away and leaning over the magnifier again, this time keeping an ear open for the screen.


An hour before Second Sunrise, he picked up the Purity chip with a tweezers, old-fashioned mechanical ones, turned on the shop’s credit chip scanner, and passed it under. It blatted and winked a baleful red eye at him. He cursed the thing.

The force screen jittered. Iggie looked up but didn’t see anyone outside the shop when he went to the door and peeked around the corner into the shop front.

Whatever they hit him with, he never saw it coming and went down like a dropped satchel of aluminum parts.


When Iggie woke, his face hurt as he rolled over and crawled to his knees in a puddle of puke. Wiping his face, he knew it was his own. Using the wall to stand up, he grabbed his t-comp and called Sheriff Thao. She answered with, “You’d better get over here, Iggie.”

“I just got beat up! I was calling ...”

“Your friends Spike and Lance are going to try and crash the Belt.”

“Good! Then they’ll both die!”

“They have your uncle as a hostage.” Iggie stared at the link, unable to breathe. The sheriff said, “Are you coming?”

“No,” Iggie said. She said something under her breath. He cut her off. “I can help Uncle Rub, but it’s not gonna be legal.” He ran back to the airlock, suited up and evacuated the lock as fast as he could. After cycling out, he pulled on his kite and jumped. Falling faster and faster, he let hard-learned habit search for an updraft while he rolled, scanning for the zep.

The cooling air of Second Sunset let him easily snag a roaring updraft and release the kite. It yanked him up, banging his chin on the neck ring making him nip the end of his tongue. He cussed, tasting blood.

It wasn’t long before he caught sight of the running lights of Lance and Spike’s zep. He banked out of the updraft and dove at the ship. Even though it only held the two of them, the bag was a hundred and fifty meters long and under one and a quarter gravities. It had plenty of inertia. He pulled up, swooping in front of the gondola hoping to startle them into turning away.

They ignored him, aiming directly at the face where the relatively calm air of the Band Tianjin’s Eye worked in rubbed against the fast-moving Belt of gases of the Syr Darya. Lightning flickered constantly. Lance and Spike were accelerating to try to slip into the eastward flow without paying the Ferris’ toll.

Their zep was old. Iggie doubted that Spike had the skills necessary to pull off such a stunt. He wanted to laugh, but an avalanche of omiimii spilled over him from behind. The air boiled with wild eddies, and he and the kite spun almost out of control, dipping and jerking as if they were having a seizure.

By the time Iggie caught up with the zep one half hour later, he was panting, the kite cables were vibrating like guitar strings and he was struggling for control. He was far below Tianjin’s Eye. The avalanche of omiimii was a distant dark cloud lit by lightning flashes all along the interface between the Band and the Belt. He flew in the dark for several minutes until another titanic flash from the Band and Belt interface showed him a massive shape, headed right for him. At first he thought it was the zep.

Then lightning flickered along the nearly transparent predator’s skin, ionizing the gases around it. Iggie screamed, “Shockerray!”

The immense delta wing creature glowed with a ghostly light as it dove after its prey before reaching Iggie. The thin air vibrated with a deafening, eerie whistle, as it hunted. It had no interest in Humans and every intent of catching the avalanche of omiimii. The wake of its four kilometers of wing could easily crush Iggie and his tiny kite. He struggled until he found another updraft and let it lift him into the night sky. The clouds cleared overhead, and the light of silver and emerald moons in a half-dozen phases spilled over him.

“There you are,” he said when he saw the zep, and dropped out of the draft, diving after them. The interface was less than a hundred kilometers away and already whoever was flying was doing it wrong.

Uncle Rub wouldn’t be any help, even if he was still alive. He’d always left flying zeps to the pros. Spike had it oriented head-on into the roiling wall of wind and lightning. Even if they survived the passage through the lightning storms, they’d be torn apart by the hurricane shift of the winds of Syr Darya roaring west.

The shockerray lit up far below him, his helmet reading it as twenty kilometers. The zep level with Iggie, but far ahead. The omiimii avalanche wove a serpentine path through the atmosphere, lit more and more often by the lightning at the face of Band and Zone as they got closer to it. Passing through the interface wouldn’t stop either the shockerray or the omiimii. The one was big enough to survive in the clouds of River already, and enough of the other would survive to repopulate itself in a new feeding ground.

He had an idea. Turning on his radio, he said, “Sheriff Thao, you there?”

“Get back here right now! Who do you think you are ...”

He cut her off, saying, “I have a plan to save everybody.” He sketched in the details as fast as he could talk. But instead of listening, she argued. Spike wasn’t slowing down. He said, “Never mind. It’s too late.” Iggie angled the kite into a steeper dive. There was only one thing he could do: startle the shockerray into the path of zep. Spike might turn aside and that would give him time to think of some other way to stop them. Shockerrays hated loud noises and bright flashes. They usually stayed in the calmer depths and bands. This one must be hungry enough to follow the omiimii this close to the interface. His dive grew steeper until he started to see red at the corners of his vision. He held the angle, tweaking the cables and moving fingers and shoulders and feet to zero in on the dark gill slits of the ’ray. If he landed on it just right, stomping where it was most vulnerable, it might startle and dive into the path of the Imperial zep and make them turn.

He hoped Spike was flying.

He hoped the ’ray noticed him.

He hoped Uncle Rub was still alive.

He dropped faster and faster. He was suddenly above the vast expanse of living, orange, rippling flesh. He folded his arms and deflated the kite, his feet spearing into the soft flesh of the gill slit. The ’ray shuddered and dove straight down. His boots stayed in the wet gills. Fighting against thick, glue-like slime, the acceleration threatened to tear his legs off. Twisting and turning, his left knee popped. Pain burned from thigh to toes and he was abruptly free, the kite frame and cables squealing from stress. He slapped the emergency inflation on his chest. The wind clawed the wing’s fabric as he tumbled into the shockerray’s wake.

With a thuttering roar, the zep appeared, clipping him with an engine spar. He spun away, barely missing the prop’s intake.

Spike had been running the gondola on equal internal and external pressure, because the airlock ahead of him recessed and slid back and a platform extruded. A figure stepped out, fired a glue grapple at him and reeled him into the gondola. They dragged him across the floor and shoved him against the opposite side. Iggie screamed as the bones of his dislocated knee ground together and he collapsed. Breathable air rushed to fill the gondola. Spike took off his helmet. Lance tore off his, throwing it across the gondola. Screaming obscenities, Lance lunged at Iggie.

Spike swung his helmet, catching Lance alongside the head. Lance staggered back, slammed into the wall of the gondola and slid to the floor. Spike knelt down and tore off Iggie’s helmet, shouting, “Get on the radio and tell your rust bucket Ferris to grab us and throw us into the Syr Darya! Now!”

“Like hell ...” Iggie shouted back.

Spike stomped on Iggie’s knee. He screamed and passed out.

Too soon, Spike had him by the neck ring and was shaking him, shouting, “Tell Tianjin’s Eye to grab us or I’ll kill your uncle in front of you!” Uncle Rub leaned against a heavy door at the far end of the gondola. Spike grabbed him by the front.

Iggie screamed, “No!”

Spike slashed Uncle Rub’s environmental suit across the chest. The old man didn’t fight.

“I can’t ...” Iggie said through a haze of agony.

“Do it!” Spike screamed. He hawked and spit in Iggie’s face. Then he stood up, grabbed a comm link and shoved it into Iggie’s hand. “Call them!”

Iggie lifted the comm and said, “Tianjin’s Eye, Sheriff Thao, this is Igaluk Abumayaleh-Jawai. I authorize the payment of a Band to Zone transfer for the Imperial zep owned by the member of the Imperial Family, Arthur Zulu Mahatma Wang.”

Spike looked startled, hawked and spit in Iggie’s face again then snarled, “I hope you can figure out what a gift this is!”

Iggie nodded slowly, then said, “Yes, I think I have.”

A voice from the zep’s comm responded, “Confirmed authorization of Ferris fee. Prepare for pick up.”

Spike shouted “Get into the bathroom!” at Uncle Rub and shoved him into the tiny, airtight commode. He slammed the door, spinning the lock, then kicked it, bending the handle. The zep rolled wildly. Lurching across the tilting floor, Spike grabbed Iggie’s helmet then slammed it over his head, shouting, “Put it on or you die!” Iggie twisted it so hard and fast that the microphone caught the corner of his eye and scraped across it. Iggie screamed again. Spike slammed Lance’s helmet on the unconscious figure, then elbowed the emergency air evacuation cover and activated the system. The air was sucked out with hurricane force, leaving the door open. Grabbing the flight harness, Spike swung across the gondola and, snatching Iggie’s leg, threw him out of the gondola just as First Dawn light speared from a break in the clouds.

An elephant nose from Tianjin’s Eye’s arm grabbed the zep and accelerated it away from Iggie. He fumbled with the kite controls and while the delta wing unfolded, some of the tangle-proof cables tangled.

He started to tumble, falling faster and faster into the Deaths. There was enough resistance to keep him under the wing. He began to swing, pulling on the cables and flipping his feet up despite the screaming pain of his dislocated knee. He swung the way he had on a child’s swing, higher and higher, twisting and spinning, bouncing up and down as well, nearly blacking out the last time. The cables now mostly untangled, he let himself fall. An updraft caught the kite, surging upward. As he rose on the elevator of boiling hydrogen and helium, he could feel the blood oozing from the eye, spreading down his cheek and neck.

He could just see Spike and Lance as the Tianjin’s Eye accelerated it along the interface. There was another flash of lightning bright as a camera flash, illuminating the smooth transition of the zep through the turbulent face and into the Syr Darya Zone. He wanted to follow. His hands twitched on the cables, but to follow on a damaged kite would mean being torn apart by wild wind shear, microbursts, updrafts, and downdrafts.

He had other plans to finish here first, but added finding Uncle Rub before the old man died to the list.

Tension drained from him and tears flooded his good eye. “Goodbye, Uncle Rub.” When he was more or less above the Ferris, he pulled the control, slipped out of the scorching column and began the long decent. “Thanks, Spike.” It made him smile through the blood and spit. Spike must have seen the chip scanner, guessing why Iggie wanted it. Just as obviously, Spike would have figured out what it lacked—Pure DNA. Saliva contained DNA. So did blood. But the blood and spit of a Prince of the Empire of Man turning up on a chip presented by a kid from some rural platform? The Empire would notice that.

Spike on the other hand? Probably nobody special.

Iggie had always been nobody special. He could easily continue to be nobody special. He had lots of Spike’s spit in his helmet now.

His dislocated knee, after the screaming agony of Spike stomping on it, was numb. But he was starting to feel it. As he tweaked his approach vector, he wondered what life would be like at the University of Cairo In The Nile. Then he sighed.

He’d waited eighteen years to find out, he could probably wait one more year to get everything settled before he applied to University and made the long trip to the Equator. First thing though, was to land. “Sheriff, you still there? I’m not sure how I’ll land. I’ve only got one leg to stand on.”

Sheriff Thao said, “We have a net for you, son. Just don’t miss it.”

“Sure thing, Sheriff.” He sighed. “Sure thing.” END

Guy Stewart maintains a blog by the name of Possibly Irritating Essays. His stories have appeared in “Analog,” “Cricket,” “Perihelion,” and “Stupefying Stories.” His first YA science fiction novel, “Emerald of Earth,” is out from MuseItUp Publishing.


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