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




Little Ships

By Harold R. Thompson

MERRIT CANNING HAD NEVER HAD the shakes before. He said so to the squadron medical officer, Dr. Helena Han, in the sick bay aboard the battle carrier Thermopylae, en route to Mars. Doc Han performed a general brain scan, then asked Merrit to hold both hands out in front of him.

“Your scan is normal and matches your baseline,” she said, “and you’re not trembling very much, really.”

“It’s worse than this sometimes,” Merrit said. “I think I might be ... scared, Doc, but I don’t know why.”

Doc Han consulted the text and images that hovered in the air between her and her patient.

“Your Profile is Type One,” she said. “Unusually Suited for Combat. You love being a soldier, love war, and thrive in that setting.”

He nodded. “Yes.”

Doc Han bit her lip. “You say you’re scared? Profiles don’t change, Trooper Canning. It’s part of who you are, why you were eligible for the Third Tactical Launchship Squadron in the first place. If you were anyone else, I’d guess that you were scared about going into battle, but not for your Profile. You should be looking forward to it.”

Merrit thought about that.

“I’m not afraid of battle,” he insisted. “I’ve been in this war since it started, and I’ve survived. I’m not afraid to die defending the Earth.”

“Then what do you want me to do?” the Doc said. “I can give you something to calm your nerves, but it will compromise your reaction time. Or I can go further and do some more tests on your central nervous system, try to get to the bottom of this. Both options will mean a full report to Captain Joyce and light duties until we sort it out.”

Something exploded behind Merrit’s eyes. This was not what he had wanted, why he had sought out Doc Han’s help. He wanted this fixed so he could perform to the best of his ability. He was not looking for a way out.

“No! I can’t miss this fight.”

Doc Han stared at him for a moment. “Then what do you want me to do?”

Merrit sighed. It was time to retreat.

“Nothing,” he said. “I’ll come back when this is over.”


They were all Type 1 and Type 2 Profiles in the Third Tactical Launchship Squadron, born soldiers like Captain Budge Joyce, First-Point Lyra Amble, and Spence, Hank, Spiro, Lennox, Yoshiro, Merrit’s comrades in arms. War was a rare thing, and only people with Types 1 to 3 Profiles were cleared for actual combat, because they would not incur severe psychological damage.

Third Tactical was Merrit’s second family, and he could not bear to think that he was somehow different from them now.

He sat with his hands tucked under his arms. Now and then his teeth would chatter, but he kept his jaw clamped shut. The ship was accelerating at 0.7 gees, giving it a semblance of gravity so that every member of the fleet could actually rest his or her butt in an actual chair to listen to an interpacket address from General Ruske Omeyer, Commander, Mars Expedition.

Merrit sat in the back row in Third Tactical’s shared quarters.

“Last intelligence reports put the JA concealed amongst the Yecchin Links,” the General said, gazing out from the three-dee screen. A globe of Mars appeared in the air in front of him, showing the massive arrays of the orbiting habitats known as the Yecchin Links. “Gaining control will be a simple pattern of orbital passes in three consecutive waves of Little Ships, with a second orbit for good measure.”

The Little Ships were what they called their launchships, small spherical craft with enough room for one pilot, a fuel core, four fission powered ion thrusters (two aft and two forward), and armed with dual eleven-millimetre railguns and dual solid-state high-intensity laser emitters. They did not carry heavy shielding, and Merrit had lost three in combat. The memories of those near misses were still fresh, but he found they were good memories, of escape and personal triumph, so it could not be fear of losing another Little Ship that was bothering him.

“The enemy are thought to have embedded their own tactical craft within the Links themselves,” the General continued. “The structures have been evacuated, but they are of inestimable value and we must do our best to keep them intact for future use by rooting out this ruthless enemy.”

“Easier said than done,” Lyra commented, and Merrit nodded in agreement. Saving the Links would tie one hand behind their backs, but it could not be helped. Command was thinking of the future, for this would certainly be the final battle. The JA, or Jovian Alliance, had their backs against the wall, and this was their last garrison, their last occupying force after a long, bitter struggle. But it had been the JA who had decided that humanity’s destiny lay with their budding spacer cultures, that their technology was superior and that they needed Earth’s resources to progress and evolve. So they had chosen war, killed two billion people and caused quadrillions of dollars of damage to resources and property.

Merrit had enjoyed every minute of the effort to destroy the JA, but now, on the eve of the final push, he was losing it.

He could not lose it now. Not now.

Lyra turned to Merrit with a smirk on her thin face.

“So we’re taking out the last of the JA with Little Ships alone,” she said. “I’d prefer it if we had support from some bigger guns, but I guess we’re already starting to think of life after the war. Can’t wreck that expensive space habitat!”

Merrit looked at her. “We can do it,” he said, though he felt like a fraud. “We don’t need any support.”

A shudder ran through his body, and Lyra gave him a questioning look.

“Just a little cold,” Merrit said. “I’ve always found these carriers to be too cold.”


Thermopylae used Canopus as a lock for its run in to Mars, just like old Mariner 4 from over a century ago, and arrived in orbit on schedule, taking up a position almost ten thousand kilometres out. General Omeyer gave one last briefing to his troops, saying, “Two-forty Intelligence Command has identified the enemy positions. It’s clear they still hold the Links, but their numbers and exact dispositions are difficult to discern. Every power system in the orbiting habitats has been fired up to mask any weapons signatures. Visual identification will thus be essential, and every position must be marked when it opens fire. The second and third waves will eliminate those revealed positions.”

There were four squadrons, or a hundred ships, in the first wave, with six squadrons in the second wave, and ten in the third wave, more than enough for mopping up.

“Good luck and good hunting,” the General said, one of his catch phrases. It was time to go.

Merrit moved in a daze as he followed his squadron mates, pulling themselves along the central corridor in micro-gravity, using the guidewires as they headed aft for the launch bays. Merrit had not been sleeping well, and had fumbled with his skintight pressure suit, fumbled as well with his helmet and comm link. His hands were shaking again. He still had no answers. He had deceived his comrades, his family, for these past several weeks, had pushed the problem aside and hoped that it would go away.

It had not gone away.

The Little Ships were lined along the sides of the launch bay, as tight as peas in a massive pod. These were the latest models, Mark Fives coated in light absorbing carbon microfibers to make them harder to spot in visible light. Merrit knew they were safer to fly, but he still missed his first three ships with their custom paint schemes, his first a blue shark, the second a ball of red and yellow flames, and the third a baseball, white with red stitching.

East targets, he knew, but stylish.

“Hatches open,” came the voice of the Launch Master over helmet comms, and the circular hatch in the top of every ship flipped open. “Board your vessels.”

Merrit pulled himself into his ship and strapped into the saddle. His first task, as per standard procedure, was a series of systems checks, a comforting routine, and when he was done, he noticed that his hands were not shaking quite so much, and that was good, though he had no doubt the shaking would return.

The automated launch sequence commenced, beginning with the ships of the first wave, squadron after squadron, until it was the second wave’s turn and the specific turn of Third Tactical. Merrit tensed as he felt the electric pistons pushing his ship out of its launch alcove and into the void. His aft thrusters engaged, shoving him back in his saddle and driving his ship down into its pre-programmed position in orbit, in line fifty kilometres from his “wingmen.”

“Descending to thirty-seven hundred kilometers above the surface,” said Captain Joyce over the comm, replacing the voice of the Launch Master.

Merrit watched Mars on one of the three tactical image displays that surrounded his forward view port. It would take several hours to get all of these ships into their planned orbits. Time to wait. Toggling the light filters in his helmet, he let the stars visible through his view port fill his plane of vision. The stars would keep him calm, he told himself. Space was not dark, but velvet sprinkled with bright sparkling ice. Some people said it made them feel small and insignificant, but for Merrit it was the opposite. Space always made him feel big.


Mars was a massive rusty ball as the waves of Little Ships crossed its daylight side. Merrit opened his port and starboard view ports, wondering if he could get a visual on his wingmen, but with their aft thrusters now cut, the blue flames extinguished, the ships could only be marked by the faint glint of light from the muzzles of their guns.

“Sound off,” Joyce said over the comm.

“Lyra,” came the first reply, from far to the right, from First-Point.

“Spence,” was next, and so on down the line until Merrit said, “Merrit,” using his given name, as had become their custom. They were human beings, not numbers or call signs.

When the entire squadron had checked in, Merrit glanced at his central display, where their ships were strings of green dots, three waves making three successive lines, like ranks of cavalry. Looking through the forward view port, he could not see the Little Ships of the first wave, but the Yecchin Links were unmistakable. They looked like an orbiting wall of junk, or like something a kid would build from several playsets that didn’t match, a bizarre collection of cylinders, cubes, cones and spheres and solar arrays and domes and antennae of various designs, all linked by white and red and orange access tubes in a massive box formation. The Links had not been planned. They had just grown as module after module had been added over the years, a floating city for Mars colonists who did not wish, for whatever reason, to live their entire lives on the surface.

“So we’re to preserve this thing,” he said, “for after the war.”

“We should just destroy it,” Lyra said.

Merrit imagined the debris raining down on the planet.

“Cut the chatter,” Joyce commanded. “Engage railguns. Wait for my signal.”

“There aren’t any targets yet,” said Lyra.

“There will be soon,” said Joyce.

Merrit flexed his fingers. He looked at his hands. Still steady.

The Links grew closer. Fifteen minutes passed, then an hour. Merrit watched the green dots of the first wave on his central display.

At about eight hundred kilometres, the enemy opened fire with Stingers, stable plasma beam weapons with an extended range like a high intensity laser. Flashes through Merrit’s forward view port marked where ships in the first wave were taking critical hits. His screen confirmed this as green dots started to turn red.

“Targets identified,” Joyce said. Merrit’s targeting computer had already picked up the Stinger origins, and could track them even if they moved. His starboard tactical display identified seven hundred targets. That meant the JA had them outnumbered.

“Switch to lasers,” Joyce ordered. “They’re embedded in the structure of the Links. Our railguns will do too much damage.”

Merrit shut down his railguns, which fired solid steel spheres, and powered the twin lasers. His computer showed the enemy positions were set deep within the structure of the Links, weapon emitters extended and fed through gaps in the modules. They would be difficult to root out, while the waves of Little Ships, despite their visible light camouflage, would be exposed for their entire run. Another reason to fear, but now his mind seemed to be alight, his heart beating at a normal rate. He smiled.

“Choose targets and open fire on my mark,” Joyce said.

The first wave was nothing but red on Merrit’s tactical display, like a string of blood drops. The amber dots, each one indicating an enemy ship, were so plentiful that it hardly mattered which one he fired at, unless it was already highlighted, indicating one of his comrades had locked it in.

He chose one at random.

“Commence firing,” Joyce said.

Merrit’s first shot was a miss, the lasers reflecting from something. He followed up, firing on pulse mode, and after about ten seconds his target winked out. He chose a second target, fired and missed again, which told him that the enemy positions had some partial shielding against lasers, a reflective or absorbent surface.

“Joyce is down,” a voice said, Spence, and Merrit registered alarm, but just for a split second and he was back to his task of choosing targets and firing, firing, and firing in complete silence, with only the sound of his own breathing and the occasional comment or instruction over the comm. The Links were growing larger and larger in his view port, and now he could see incoming fire as real light. There were beams and flashes all around him, and every flash was a Little Ship turning to dust. He had never seen fire this intense. The Jovians must have been using a new gun, something with more power, the power to completely knock out the launchships in one or two shots. If Merrit was hit, there would be no bailing out this time.

“We’re at fifty-three percent casualties!” Lyra’s voice screamed in his ears.

There were too many red dots on his display, too many comrades gone. They were all Type 1 and had known what they had signed on for, but they were staring at defeat.

Merrit pressed on. The shakes had not returned, and his mind was crystal clear.

“All ships, use thrusters and get into the Links!” said a new voice, identified on the port display as that of Sub Fleet Commander Hines, commander of the second wave. Hines was only supposed to communicate with the squadron commanders, but most of them were already dead.

Merrit hit his aft thrusters, taking in about four gees that slammed him back against his saddle. He took a heading on a gap between several modules, hitting his forward thrusters at the last second to decelerate, just missing an impact with a lattice of connecting tubes. He was inside the Links, but his ship spun like a top for about ten seconds until he could stabilize it. A confusion of beams and explosions spat and flashed beyond his view ports, but he saw that he had five Jovian ships right in front of him. The ships were cylindrical and about three times the size of a launchship, and he had them flanked. Since they were fixed in place, they could not turn their weapons to face him.

He switched to railguns, firing three one-second bursts in quick succession. The five targets burst apart in silent violence, spraying debris in all directions. Something rocked his ship, knocking it out of its orbit, and he found himself outside the Links on an unknown trajectory.

“All second wave ships,” said Hines, “return to your original orbit immediately. Repeat. Return to your designated orbit and prepare for the second pass. The third wave is almost up.”

Merrit keyed in the command for his computer to “resume designated orbit,” and his ship lurched as its thrusters struggled to bring it on line with the other ships that were also emerging from the Links. Several of those ships flashed and disappeared, for the Jovians had guns in the other side of the Links as well, and were firing at the backs of their attackers.

Merrit switched his starboard display to show the view aft. Something large exploded in one section of the Links, and more debris expanded in a cloud. The central display told him that the third wave ships were now engaged. He looked at his hands, saw they were still steady as a rock. If he were to be hit, if he died now, he would die content, knowing he had done what was expected and had not let down his comrades. The fear had not ruled him, and had gone away after all. Or so it seemed.


The surviving fleet’s elliptical orbit took about twenty hours. Time to doze, eat rations, take in the tactical situation, and argue about what to do next. There was a quick reorganization which placed Lyra in command of all six of Three Tactical’s surviving Little Ships.

“New orders,” she said. “We’re to veer to the right two hundred klicks out from the Links, becoming the right wing of the attack. The third wave will veer left and become the left wing. We’re to get in among them and seek out targets from the flank.”

Merrit glanced through his starboard view port. There was Phobos, the big moon, looking like a potato in space. It seemed very close, close enough to touch.

“Increase intervals to one hundred kilometres,” Lyra added, “from the left. We have three hours before the next attack.”

Merrit followed orders, bringing his ship to its new position. He keyed the computer to play some music, something dark and rousing and orchestral.

The hours passed. The Links rose again above the pale Martian horizon, glinting and flickering silver and orange and red. The line of Little Ships began its maneuver, Three Tactical moving to the right. Merrit stared at the cluster of space modules where his deadly enemy still lay in wait, and he knew the plan would not work, that it would be as bad as the first attack and that they would all be destroyed. They were too concerned with saving the Links for after the war.

There would be no “after the war” for the Links.

“Lyra,” he said, “we have to change our plan of attack.”

“Merrit?” she replied. “What do you mean? We have our orders.”

“I mean we don’t have enough ships to root them out. We have to call their bluff.”

There was a pause, but then Lyra said, “It’s against orders, Merrit.”

“Our orders won’t bring us victory.”

She said nothing. A few minutes passed. The Links drew closer.

“Commence firing,” Lyra said.

Merrit fired his railguns in a sweep, tearing into the structure of the Yecchin Links. The mass of tangled modules at once began to break apart, and within seconds became a boiling mass of fragments, falling toward the planet’s surface.


In the launch bay aboard Thermopylae, the peas were no longer so close in their pods. The alcoves were mostly empty, so great had been the losses. But the Second Battle of Mars Orbit had been a victory for the Earth, and those Little Ships that remained would soon be out of commission.

Merrit held the boarding wire above his head and just floated in the microgravity, facing his new black ship that he had piloted only once. Lyra approached him from the hatchway to his left.

“I wanted to tell you,” she said, “that there’s not going to be any charges. They’ve put it down to initiative.”

Merrit nodded. “And I ended the war.”

“Pretty much, Merrit.”

She sighed and rested her hand on his arm, just for a second.

“Don’t spend too much time down here,” she said, and turned and left.

Alone again, Merrit looked at his hands. They had begun to tremble, and as he watched them, the shaking grew worse.

He opened the hatch to his ship and pulled himself in, strapped himself in the saddle. His whole body was trembling now.

This was what he had feared. As the last battle had grown near, he had feared this silence. He was a Type 1, a restless child who had never understood that restlessness until the war had come, and he had been selected; but now his war was done, with none other in sight. He had been born for war in a time when war was rare, and had feared the end.

He shook. The saddle creaked. The shaking did not stop. END

Harold R. Thompson is a member of SFWA. His stories have appeared in “Detectives of the Fantastic,” “Clockwork Canada,” and “Stupefying Stories.” His third novel, “Sword of the Mogul,” has just been released by Zumaya Yesterdays.


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jamie noble