Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


How to Build the Perfect Woman
by Timothy Mudie

Sound of Chartreuse
by Nancy S.M. Waldman

Finding New Roads
by Allen Demir

Smart Home Blues
by Mark Ayling

Drone Dreams
by Hayden Trenholm

Game Changer
by Iain Ishbel

Safe Bet to Appelane
by Derrick Boden

Aquilonia, My Zelky
by Barton Paul Levenson

Shorter Stories

Princess Zenla and the Encyclopedia on Mars
by George S. Walker

See No Evil
by K.S. O’Neill

QSFT7mk2.7853 Has a Name
by Kurt Hunt


God From the Machine
by KJ Hannah Greenberg

And Bugs on the Menu
by Carol Kean



Comic Strips




Safe Bet to Appelane

By Derrick Boden


Raz knuckled his fists against the dash. The viewport showed the arc of the horizon sweeping up, as the Sure Thing nosed further downward. Panels rattled all over the pilot’s capsule. The air was hot, and reeked of ozone.

“Thirty seconds to impact,” Romeo said over the speakers. He hadn’t spoken a word in hours, other than the mandatory warnings.

Raz checked the diagnostics. Red patches flashed everywhere on the holographic.

“Goddammit, Romeo, I’m sorry! Can you pull up already?”

The ship didn’t respond.

The planet’s surface was a blur of snarled trees and jutting rocks. Raz pounded the dash. It was Europa all over again. Worse. That clunker had been incompetent, but not suicidal like Romeo Friggin’ Melodrama. He rubbed his jaw at the memory of the reentry burn, a hundred-some years back. They’d had to reconstruct his entire face, and everyone said it made him look older. Damned second-rate health insurance.

“Ten seconds to impact,” Romeo said.

Raz tightened his harness. His thumb hovered over the eject controls.

“Brickwell’s gonna be pissed.”

The cockpit sunk into a swell of distortion. The ground dropped out, and a wave of nausea swept up from his toes. He reached forward, and—


His hands gripped the boardroom table. He re-swallowed breakfast and looked up into the angry faces of a dozen Brickwell Insurance executives. The last throes of the rebroadcast slipped from his vision like the debris of the Sure Thing scattering across that accursed planet.

He wiped sweat from his forehead. At least the capsule had held together. He still recognized himself in the mirror.

“Care to revise your story, Mr. Harrington?” The puckered brunette glowered at him from behind her tablet.

He sighed. “That onboard computer was suicidal. This wasn’t my fault.”

A big man in a three-piece Raymani smacked his lips. “Your duties as a Brickwell Insurance pilot are clearly outlined in your contract. Yes?”

Raz gnashed his teeth. Like he’d read the damn thing.

“Perhaps our expert witness can clarify,” the exec said. “For the record.”

Everyone turned to the end of the table, where a man with an ill-fitting blazer picked seeds from between his teeth. He looked too young to drink, let alone chum it with these bigwigs. Probably started dosing the longevity drugs too soon, at the suggestion of some sick pedophile.

“Onboard computers are extremely complex, and oftentimes exhibit tenuous personalities as a result. It’s an unfortunate yet unavoidable consequence of modern computing. Aside from serving as the human failsafe, a pilot’s duties include maintaining amiable relations with the computer at all times, to ensure these personalities do not compromise the integrity of the mission.”

The exec nodded, as if he understood a word of it.

Raz shook his head. “I had everything under control until—”

“We’re here to determine what you didn’t do, Mr. Harrington. Not what you did.”

“For starters, I didn’t engineer the damn thing. It was suicidal. Had to be a software bug. How many flights had the Sure Thing run, before this one? How many prior reports of malcontent?”

The exec waved his pudgy digits. “Not pertinent.”

“You’re damn right it’s pertinent—”

“An engineering evaluation isn’t available at this time.”

Raz seethed. All this for a contractor assignment. One job, to tide him over until he could get back on his feet after the Vega incident. And working for a goddamned insurance company, of all things. His Union buddies would’ve laughed in his face, if any of them had survived the Trade Wars. Back then, the jobs flowed like booze, and there was still such a thing as dignity. A pilot would never have been subjected to this crap.

The exec folded his hands. “You’ll be held responsible for all repairs to the Sure Thing.”

“The ship disintegrated!”

“The repairs will be significant.”

“What about the insurance?” He already knew the answer.

“Insurance won’t cover the incident, on account of the Navigational Ineptitude Clause.”

Raz slapped his hands against the tabletop. “Ineptitude! You’re the damned insurance company. Isn’t that a conflict of interest?”

The executives exchanged glances.

“That’s not how it works.” The exec glanced upward and to the left. Gathering data from a sub-dermal. “Initial estimates put costs at twelve point five trillion dollars. Assuming you don’t have this money available outright, you’ll be enrolled into our Ethical Servitude Program, and will have the opportunity to work off the debt in a series of three one-hundred-year stints.”

Raz bolted for the bathroom.


Raz leaned against the windowsill. He felt an increment better, now that he’d coughed up his bagel. Outside, New York City was a sweaty, undulating web of confinement. The thought of spending the next three centuries tied to this surface—any surface—nearly sent him back to the stall. He’d only been on solid ground for a week, and he already craved open space like a junkie itching for his next fix.

“Mr. Harrington.”

Raz looked over his shoulder. The woman was taller than him, slashes of makeup and pencil-thin eyebrows accentuating her already too-sharp features. She had her hair pulled back so tight it had to hurt.

“If you don’t mind, I’m sulking.”

She hardly tried at a smile. “I’m Crimson McDouglas.”

“Pleasure. Here to drag me away to my assembly line?”

“There is an alternative to Ethical Servitude.”

“Does it involve brain transplants? Because I already told you guys—”

“I need a pilot.”

The word bit like a snake. Raz held his breath.

“I’m heading an investigative operation, and your experience makes you a perfect fit. One round-trip, and Brickwell will absolve you of your entire outstanding debt.”

Raz squinted. Too good to be true.

“Last I checked, Brickwell has plenty of pilots on their payroll.”

Crimson licked her lips. It should’ve been sexy, but instead it sent a shiver down Raz’s neck.

“I get it,” he said. “Nobody wants the gig.”

“Mm-hm. It’s a very important mission, though it does involve an element of risk.” Her gaze flicked across his features. The overhead fluorescence caught a serial number along her iris: micro-expression analyzers. She probably knew what he was going to say before he did.

“What’s the endpoint?”


Raz swallowed. She had to be kidding.

“No way.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Enjoy New York.”

He turned away. Outside, the city seethed and roiled. Twenty million citizens packed like Early Age colonists in a cramped seed ship.

He shook his head. Appelane. Good bet he’d never make it back. Still, at least he’d be able to look out the window and see the stars, instead of all these damned people.

“Ok. I’m in.”

“Excellent. I’m just going to need you to sign this contract.”


The Safe Bet sped around the shadowy protoplanet and careened toward Appelane, still a tiny speck on a blind-man’s canvas.

“Twelve hours to orbit.” Raz heard Ivan Antipov III in his earpiece. “If you gave me the correct coordinates, that is.”

Raz spat. The cryosleep had left him in a sour mood, and the onboard computer wasn’t any help. His joints ached, and he needed a shower. Forty-three years at relativistic speeds had never felt so long.

“I’ve been giving it some thought,” Ivan said. “And I doubt your motivations for coming here.”

Raz slurped down some more coffee. Ivan had been at this for hours. He was a far cry better than Romeo, but he was still a complete jackass. Someday they’d invent a pleasant piloting computer.

“Easy. Freedom.”

“I don’t believe that. You’re curious.”

“About Appelane? Yeah, right. I’d have been content to read about it in the feeds. Let someone else find out what happened to all those lousy colonists.”

“You’re a foolhardy vagabond. Easily manipulated. Doubtless why they chose you.”

“You’re here.”

“You were given a choice.”

Raz wiped cryobath residue from his ear. “You have an opt-out clause.”

“You may be a loose cannon with an underwhelming intelligence quotient, but you’re a hundred ticks more interesting than the flat-landers I’d be dealing with if I’d opted out. I don’t consider that a choice.”

Raz coughed. How touching.

The door to the living capsule hissed open, and a handful of groggy scientists spilled out. Crimson McDouglas followed, tucked into a white terry bathrobe and cradling a cup of steaming tea. Smug as hell, like she’d bathed in champagne the whole damn trip.

The scientists were tripping over each other to get a better view of the display.

“You know you have your own screens in the living capsule.”

His words fell on deaf ears. The scientists had spotted Appelane. They all pointed and babbled at once. One of them, a tall guy with an awkward stoop, put a hand on Raz’s shoulder.

“Doctor Aldo Unger, Chief Scientist.” Aldo’s bushy eyebrows bounced when he spoke. No way he could keep that up all day. “You must be honored to pilot this craft to the lost colony of Trolio.”

As if he were leading them down the Ganges. Raz shot a glare at Crimson. “Honored,” he said.

Trolio wasn’t the system’s original name, of course. The Protectorate had renamed a whole gaggle of systems a while back, after the quantity of Gliese-named stars had started causing serious logistical issues. Pilots were turning up fifty light-years in the wrong direction, thanks to clerical typos. Expensive mistakes. Trolio used to be Gliese-five-something, back when Raz was slinging freighters for the Union. Not that there’d been any reason to come here, back then. Two meager planets: one a resource-light gas giant, the other—Appelane—host to a backwater seed colony.

Now things were different. A hundred fifty years back, Appelane dropped off the comms grid. That kind of thing didn’t just happen. Raz suppressed a chill.

Aldo clasped his hands together. “Are we close enough for a real visual?”

Raz shrugged. The doc probably meant a close-up, so he punched the visual magnification. The scientists swayed as the display zoomed in at a dizzying clip.

Aldo gasped. “Good thing we brought a botanist.”

Someone had taken a painter’s brush to the planet, and they must’ve been out of everything but green. Strange. The early settlers had described Appelane as “barren but habitable.” Raz pushed the live feed to the right side of the display, then pulled up a historic photo from the first inhabitants.

A murmur rippled through the ranks of scientists.

Other than size and general roundness, the two images looked nothing alike. The historic photo offered a pocked and valleyed surface of brown and gray, with deep blue veins of liquid water. In the century or so since the first colony ship arrived, the settlers had managed to convert the lifeless Appelane into a veritable jungle. And then they’d disappeared.

Fierce tapping broke the silence. Crimson’s fingers darted across her tablet.

Raz gulped his coffee. “Shouldn’t the Protectorate be investigating this? What does Brickwell want with Appelane, anyway?”

She glared down at him. “The Protectorate will send their own investigators, eventually. Our interests are material, and thus more time-sensitive. Brickwell provides life insurance to the entire Appelane colony. After the requisite seventy-five years had passed since contact was lost, the colonists’ next-of-kin began filing claims. We’re here to assess the validity of those claims.”

“You’re making sure they’re really dead.”

“Mm-hm. There are many clauses that would absolve Brickwell from paying out the beneficiaries.”

Raz snorted. Goddamned insurance companies.

“And the scientists—”

“We negotiated safe passage with Brickwell,” Aldo said. “For first rights of discovery. It’s a marriage of convenience, really. We’re here to study the bodies.”

Raz stared. Sick bastards. “Well, enjoy the surface. Take some pictures for me.”

“Take your own.” Crimson folded her arms. “You’re piloting the shuttle.”

Raz shivered. Should’ve read the contract.


Trolio’s warm light flooded the shuttle’s cockpit. Perched on its landing tripod atop a narrow platform, the shuttle was a speck of chrome in a sea of dense vegetation.

Raz squinted through the glare. What a bizarre place. There were seed colonies three times as old that hadn’t been able to sustain this kind of plant life.

Aldo’s voice piped over the comms. “These vines go down thirty meters at least. I still can’t see the ground. Look here!” The team hadn’t been gone half an hour and the scientists had barely paused for breath. “I can’t tell where one ends and the next starts.”

The line popped over to Crimson. “Anything on the short-wave, Harrington?”

“Zero,” Raz said. “No EM activity, either. How’s the weather?”

“Still no bodies.”

Raz chewed on his lip.

The line shunted back to Aldo. “Initial readings indicate the vegetation shares a common DNA pattern, though vastly differing cell structure and surface qualities—”

The comms fizzled and went silent. Odd. Raz sat forward. The EM scanner chimed from the dashboard. Raz pulled it up on the display, then scratched his jaw.

“Ivan, you seeing this?”

They’d splintered a duplicate of Ivan onto the shuttle; hopefully this one still preferred the same name. Sometimes a dupe would go a little nuts on self-identity, especially in the first hours after the split.

“I have no eyes, and little interest.”

Same old Ivan.

“But to speak at your level,” Ivan said. “Yes, I’m seeing this.”

The scanner chimed again.

“What is it?”

“Electromagnetic activity.”

Raz rolled his eyes. “Thanks. It’s coming from below us.”

“Brilliant observation.”

Raz cranked the comms and pinged the scientists. Nothing. He tried Crimson. Still nothing.

The scanner chimed again. A tremor rippled through the shuttle.


“Seismic activity.”

Raz gnashed his teeth. Something in the habitat below them was jamming the comms. There was no telling whether the surface team had run into trouble. Keeping an ear on them was part of his contract, like it or not.

“Any ideas, Ivan?”

“You’re the one with legs.”

Raz grimaced. Protocol said to stay on the shuttle, but his curiosity was gnawing.

The hell with it. Franklin, the backup pilot, was still onboard the Safe Bet with the second shuttle in case anything went seriously wrong. Better that Raz get the comms back up, in case the surface team needed a quick evac.

He pulled himself to his feet. His boots dragged. At least point-five over gee. He punched the ramp and clomped outside.

The air was thick and muggy. Still. Vegetation lay draped over the edges of the landing platform. Strange, the platform had been clear when they touched down. The shuttle’s pneumatic stabilizers must’ve blasted the loose stuff around on their way in.

He walked to the edge. Dense forest stretched to the horizon. Beyond a cluster of hills, curtains of white vapor vented up from the ground. An observation tower loomed nearby, deep green ivy clinging to the metal panels. The landing platform and the tower were part of the original habitat—one of those foldout prefabs popular with seed colonies. That would put the bulk of the habitat directly beneath them, embedded in the jungle. Where the rest of the colony had gone was anyone’s guess. The population was estimated at fifty thousand prior to their last transmission, and the prefab could only hold a couple thousand, in a pinch.

It didn’t take long for him to find the access hatch. It was a big portal mounted near the corner of the platform. He pried it open, and a blast of stale air hammered his face. He shot a glance at the shuttle. Probably a bad idea, leaving it unmanned. Probably a bad idea, signing that damn contract in the first place.

His boots touched down at the base of a ten-meter ladder. He strapped on his headlamp. Hooks and lockers lined the walls of a narrow hall. The suits—or whatever had hung there—were long gone. He passed an ill-used decontamination shower, and crept into the central command room.

A passage jutted off to the right, where a sign read: “Elevator.” Terminals lined the far wall, each with an empty seat. Waiting for the colonists to return to work. They’d been waiting for a very long time.

A wall-mounted display hung at the back, and a red dot blinked near the center. Radar, from the looks of it. The auxiliary systems must’ve kicked on, when their shuttle touched down. Something had to have misfired, and was jamming the comms.

“Ivan, you with me?”

His earpiece crackled. “Unfortunately. Be aware, I’m still detecting seismic activity.”

Raz walked toward the display. “How long since this stuff has been used—”

The ground shook, and he stumbled. A shadow swept down from overhead. He turned in time to see a ceiling panel shake loose. It caught him on the side of the head with a loud crack. His headlamp sailed through the air, casting a ripple of shadows in its wake. He lost his footing in the heavy gee. The ground leapt up to meet him.


The ceiling swam into focus against a backdrop of white flecks. Raz’s temples pounded. He reached a hand up to cradle his head, and—

His arm wouldn’t move. He looked down, fearing it wasn’t there at all. But in the dim light of his discarded headlamp, his limbs were accounted for. Somewhat.

The left side of his body was overrun with a glistening green sheen. Some sort of moss coated his arm and most of his leg. It stretched across the floor from the entrance, where spidery tendrils of vegetation clung to the ladder.

He struggled to a sitting position and probed his dead leg with his good hand. The stuff was soft and moist to the touch. He pulled a chunk of it off, revealing his skin beneath. The flesh was reddened and corroded, and oozing blood. The fingers of his right hand were already going numb where he held the chunk of green.

Raz blinked. It was eating him alive. He shrugged off the shock and pulled himself to a half-standing position. He scanned the room. Blank terminals. Radar display, still blinking. He had to get this stuff off—

The shower. He hopped to the hallway, dragging his dead leg behind him. Near the doorway he slipped on a bed of moss and tumbled to the ground. The air shot from his lungs. He gasped, flailing, trying to pull himself out of the stuff. He struggled to his feet, but after a few paces he slipped again and slammed into the ground. His right shoulder throbbed. Appelane’s extra half-gee held his body down like an invisible net.

Clutching the wall, he hauled himself through the green grime and around the corner. The showers were pitch black. He groped around for the controls. His hand closed on a knob, and he twisted.

Ice-cold water pummeled him. He slipped to the ground in shock. His shaking fingers probed the controls, punching anything that felt like a button. Misters blasted rose-scented disinfectant into the air. He coughed and gagged, and lost his grasp on the controls. He blinked through a repeating cycle of water and chemical bursts.

Then the shower shut off. Raz lay panting in the corner. His clothes were soaked. His left leg and arm were still unresponsive.


Nothing. His earpiece must’ve fallen out.

He pulled himself up. A long, sliding stumble later, he was back out in the command room. He plucked the headlamp from the ground and gave himself a once-over.

The moss was gone from his body, revealing gruesome skin damage beneath. At least it hadn’t eaten all the way to his muscle tissue.

Raz crouched down and shone the light on the carpet of moss. It had formed a half-outline around where he’d been laying, but was already closing in. He leaned closer. The damn stuff was spreading so fast he could watch it, crawling over itself and into every available space. If he hadn’t woken when he did, he’d be pulp by now.

But what was it? It looked like tiny vines coated in moss, a miniature version of the jungles that covered the planet’s surface. But it moved like an animal: crawling and creeping across everything. In another hour, it would overtake the terminals, and—

The terminals! If anyone knew what this stuff was, it’d be the colonists. Probably one of their own idiotic experiments gone wrong.

He cursed himself. Ivan was right. Too damn curious. He limped to the nearest terminal and punched the power. The screen flickered on with a staticky pop.

The interface was an old Triton Network, all tacky drop shadows and overblown window transparency. Easily a hundred years outdated, but then again so was Raz. His fingers glided across the screen, sifting through the open access channels. External comms were down, but the email server was still sitting tight on standby. He tried some botanically-oriented search parameters.

Well over a thousand messages sprang into the list. Most of them looked unrelated, referencing annual crops the colonists had brought from home. He narrowed the parameters to two weeks before and after Appelane’s final signal to Earth. Message frequency spiked the day following the transmission, then again three days later. He selected a few at random.

“From: South Circuit Patrol. To: Comms Central. Message: Initial observations indicate the meteor strike at two kilometers south of Tequila Flats. No homesteads within a hundred kilometers, so eyewitness reports are spotty at best. The crater appears shallow, but exhibits evidence of organic matter. The meteor possibly unearthed subsurface organic deposits, although unlikely as geological surveys in the region showed no signs of life. Will continue observations.”

“From: Appelane Agricultural Center. To: Comms Central. Message: The organic samples you’ve provided are intriguing. They bear striking similarities to Earth-derived plant life, though with a unique cellular structure and optimized energy efficiency. The first sample appears to be spore-stage matter, while the second is a mature derivative. It’s grown so quickly that we’ve had to clear out our greenhouse for additional storage. Please send more samples when available.”

“From: Breakwater Homestead. To: Comms Central. Message: You bastards better send someone out here already. This is our third email today, and we don’t appreciate being ignored. This morning we woke up with a five-foot wall of underbrush on the horizon, and by noon it hit our cornfields. Now half our crop is overrun, and that stuff ain’t stopping. Another few hours and we’re gonna have to evacuate.”

“From: Comms Central. To: Reginald Thompson, Mayor. Message: Mr. Mayor, with all due respect, I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation. Our entire dish array has been rendered inoperable overnight. We have no means of sending word to Earth or the Outer Colonies. Fuel lines have been cut and appelanesupplies contaminated. The plants don’t appear to be causing any biological damage, but they’ve wreaked havoc on everything but our most well-shielded equipment. We respect your privacy and your need for the occasional vacation, but right now your people need you at the Hub. Please respond.”

“From: Appelane Agricultural Center. To: Comms Central. Message: We’ve made a series of exciting breakthroughs. Despite the apparent variety of plants in the network, they all share the same DNA. In fact, they appear to be components of the same individual organism: one enormous plant with tendrils stretching clear across Appelane. We’re also certain now that the spores originated from the meteorite itself. The meteorite was encased in hardened organic matter fused with heavy alloys. This plant could have originated from far across the galaxy, or potentially from another galaxy entirely. This may be a clue to the origins of life in the Universe. Please send more samples.”

“From: Comms Central. To: Citizens of Appelane. Message: As many of you are aware, the plantlike organism that last week invaded our planet has overnight undergone a transformation. Our botanists indicate this to be the next stage in its lifecycle. Despite its apparent harmless nature, do not approach the organism for any reason. The sap it secretes has become deadly to the touch, and has wreaked catastrophic damage to our colony and its people. Security teams are working tirelessly on methods to prevent the spread of the organism, but so far all attempts have been met with limited success at best. Do not expose the organism to fire, as the increased temperature acts as a catalyst for growth. At this time we caution all citizens to remain indoors until further notice.”

Raz chewed on his lip. Comms rendered inoperable. Fuel lines cut. Colonists reduced to fertilizer. Methodical and efficient.

He blinked. The shuttle. He whirled, and almost face-planted into a sea of writhing green. The moss was centimeters from his booted feet. Across the room, the entrance was overrun with thick, writhing vines. The moss had called in reinforcements.

Sparks flew from the adjacent wall. A vine was entwined around a braid of cables running into the ceiling. The cables sparked again, and the radar display fizzled and popped.

In the ensuing silence, a faint hiss carried up from the ground. Raz angled his light until it glinted off of a speck of metal, about to be overrun by the creep. He leaned down and snatched it.

His earpiece. It must’ve flown out when the ceiling panel nailed him. The plants had just inadvertently compromised whatever was jamming the comms. He popped the earpiece in.

“—shuttle’s fuel lines have been cut, all our fuel is gone!” It was Aldo, his voice shrill and trembling. “Captain McDouglas is incapacitated! Five of my scientists are dead. Overrun by this ... stuff! You have to save us!”

The line crackled, and a deep baritone rolled in. Franklin, the backup pilot. “I’m en route as we speak, onboard the second shuttle. I left the Safe Bet unoccupied, so I’m not taking any chances. I’ll touch down for thirty seconds, then I’m heading back, with or without you.”

“Understood,” Aldo said. “We’re on the roof of the observation tower.”

“Roger. ETA five minutes. Be ready.”

Raz was already limping down the hallway. He hit a small lobby, where a passage labeled “Emergency Exit” led to the left. Against the far wall, elevator doors stood pressed together. He stumbled to the controls and slammed the UP button.

It flashed red. Dammit.

“Aldo! It’s Raz. I’m trapped in the habitat; this murdering moss has blocked the entrance. Do you have access to the elevator in the tower?”

Whispering rippled across the line before Aldo piped up. “My apologies, Mr. Harrington. We do appreciate your fine piloting skills, but Crimson indicates that we can’t allow you up here after you’ve been contaminated. It’s too great of a risk.”

Raz gnashed his teeth. “Open the elevator, Aldo! You said yourself that Crimson had been infected, too. Besides, I’ve decontaminated myself in the shower—”

“The organism is very resilient. We can’t risk you spreading it to the rest of us. I’m sorry.”

Raz pounded his fist against the elevator doors. He limped down the hallway in search of an alternate exit. On the way, he switched lines to the shuttle.


“Finally interested in conversation again, I see.”

“How are you still here? The shuttle was destroyed.”

“That’s a tad melodramatic. The shuttle is perfectly intact. It simply has no fuel.”

“Well, in that case.”

“The alien organism crept in through the fueling vents. However, it appears that it cannot penetrate the outer hull. I’m quite safe here. Eventually I’ll lose power, of course. I estimate a very dull two hundred and fifty years of solitary confinement.”

“Beats getting eaten alive by plants.”

“We shall see.”

Raz reached the end of the hall, where passages split in three directions. A short jog to the left, an emergency exit sign pointed up a ladder. He started hauling himself up, one-handed. He had to hook his chin on the bars with each swing of his arm, and the extra half-gee didn’t help. By the time he’d reached the top hatch, every muscle he could still feel was screaming in pain.

Hot, muggy air blasted his face as the panel clanged open. He hauled himself up, panting and soaked in sweat.

The metal was hot against his back. He struggled to a sitting position and looked around. He was atop another landing platform, much smaller than the first. A hundred meters away, the observation tower served as the only recognizable landmark in a vast sea of green. Over the side of the platform, the vegetation was thick and gnarled. Vapor drifted in curtains from surface vents in the distance.

The ground trembled, and Raz grabbed the hatch to steady himself. The vapor slowed and ceased entirely, then exploded with tremendous force. A rock some thirty meters in diameter shot from the vent by way of a massive burst of steam. The projectile sailed with such force that within moments it had faded into a speck against the pale blue sky, then disappeared entirely. Underneath, the vent continued to expel steam at a torrential pace for a few moments before dying back down to a gentle flow.

Raz whistled. Spores. Sent screaming into space in search of another planet. The organism must be harnessing the planet’s geothermal currents, or generating its own. Without any real aim, most of the spores doubtless ended up traveling forever toward nothing in particular, but all it took was one to fall into the right orbit, and the species would survive. How long had this thing been spreading its seeds across the galaxy?

The platform began to rumble again. Another spore was on its way.

His comms beeped, and he flicked the line over. It was Franklin.

“Coming in at twenty-three degrees. Get ready.”

A dot on the horizon grew quickly into a gleaming chrome pill: the Safe Bet’s second shuttle. Raz rattled through some quick calculations. Twenty-three degrees from the observation deck meant—

“Franklin, wait!”

Too late. The sound of the shuttle’s thrusters caught up to him just as it hit the vapor streams. An explosion reverberated the ground, and the spore shot from the vent. At a hundred meters, it slammed into the shuttle, sending the vessel careening into the thick underbrush and plunging to the surface below.

Raz gaped. The vent blasted steam for a few seconds, then ebbed once again.

“We’re doomed!” Aldo said, before the comms line devolved into a stream of nonsensical babble. Raz squelched the scientist.

The Safe Bet itself wasn’t built to land. Now that they were out of shuttles—and crew aboard the starship—they were stranded. Doomed, as Aldo so aptly put it, to the same fate as the Appelane colonists a century ago.

Vines crept over the edge of the platform and wound their way toward Raz. He pulled his limbs closer. At least the damn thing had the decency to numb him first. He wouldn’t feel a thing as it ate the flesh from his bones.

In the background, the vent’s pressure waned to a gentle hiss. It seemed to be launching spores in consistent intervals now. Another should be on its way in just a few minutes. Not that it mattered, without any more shuttles to warn—

Raz sat upright.

“Ivan, does the shuttle still have functional pneumatics?”

“Yes. Although don’t get any ideas. There’s zero possibility of us reaching escape velocity with those rudimentary jets. They’re intended for water landings and clearing space, nothing more.”

“So you could use them to, say, hop the shuttle a few hundred meters?”

“At best.”

Raz watched the curtain of vapor skimming through the air toward the heavens.

“I have an idea.”


The shuttle came in hot. Pneumatic jets blasted the small platform to slow its approach, and all Raz could do was hang on to keep from getting blown into the jungle below. The ground was already starting to rumble. The spore was coming.

The air let up. He grabbed the emergency netting that hung from the shuttle’s open ramp. The shuttle hadn’t even touched down—it couldn’t, without losing its remaining momentum—but it had slowed enough for Raz to get a hand on the nets. He clung to it with a sweaty grip.

“Pull me in!”

The winch cranked at full speed, sending Raz careening into the shuttle and sliding across the deck. The ramp slammed shut as his numb shoulder thumped against the dashboard. He struggled into the blast chair and strapped himself in as best he could with only half a functional body.

The pneumatics blasted again, and through the viewport the jungle lifted away in a dizzying blur. The vent was in full view now, as the shuttle careened toward it.

“Are you sure you’ve got the timing right, Ivan—”

A shockwave struck the ship and tilted it to the side. Raz clutched his harness. Outside, the spore blasted past them mere meters to the starboard, just before the ship entered the slipstream. The shuttle righted itself in time to catch the residual blast of vapor straight against the bottom. All he could do was hope the shuttle’s inertial dampeners would keep the gee-forces from ripping him apart.

The shuttle shot upward, and Raz blacked out.


White flecks crept into his vision. He blinked. How long had he been out? And where the hell were they? Outside, everything was pitch black.


“Don’t ever doubt me, human.”

He blinked again. Coming into view on the port side was the chrome fuselage of the Safe Bet. A ship had never looked so beautiful. They careened closer, still riding the momentum of the vapor stream that trailed the spore.

“I’ve maneuvered the Safe Bet into position,” Ivan said. “I’ll implement the emergency docking procedure shortly.”

The Safe Bet was approaching at an alarming rate. The shuttle was headed straight for the gaping maw of the docking bay, but it was coming in way too hot to land.

Raz swallowed. “What’s the emergency docking—”

The shuttle plunged into the docking bay and slammed to a hard stop. Every bone in Raz’s body jolted, and if it weren’t for the blast-straps the landing would’ve separated his head from his body.

“That,” Ivan said, “was the emergency docking procedure. High-density aerofoam. Ungrateful bastard.”

Raz slumped in the chair, his clothes saturated with sweat.

“Thanks. How quickly can we have this baby repaired and refueled?”

“The bots have already begun. Three hours, maybe four.”

Raz grunted. Should be enough time for the auto-surgeon to patch up his body. He flipped the comms over to the surface.

“Aldo. Raz here.”

“We’re doomed!” Aldo said.

“Yes, yes. If you’re interested in becoming less doomed, put Crimson on the comms.”

Manic rustling ensued.

“Harrington.” Even now, her voice held an edge of condescension.

“I’ve found my way to the Safe Bet, and I’m refueling the shuttle presently.”

“You what?” A string of expletives carried in from the background. “Get down here immediately.”

“I’d be happy to. I’m just going to need you to sign a contract, first.”

Silence. Raz waited.

“Very well,” she said. “What are your terms?”

Raz leaned back and grinned. He’d always wanted his own starship. END

Derrick Boden is fifteen-year veteran web developer. He wrote his first science fiction novel when he was in the fourth grade. Since then, his fiction has appeared in “The Colored Lens,” “Saturday Night Reader,” and “Theme of Absence.”


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