Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Astronaut Dreams
by Joseph Green
and R-M Lillian

Virus Smugglers
by Erin Lale

Clone Music
by Guy T. Martland

Adventure of the Durham Monograph
by Robert Dawson

by Timothy J. Gawne

Too Much to Dream
by Richard Zwicker

Tour de Force
by Richard Wren

by Stephen L. Antczak

Shorter Stories

Free Wi-Fi at the Bordello
by Santiago Belluco

Ambivalence of Memory
by Jamie Lackey

Welcome, Distant Traveler
by Andrew Vrana


Pandemic: Zika
by John McCormick

Descent and Ascent
by Eric M. Jones



Comic Strips





Virus Smugglers

By Erin Lale

MERLE TURNED OFF THE COAST highway and inhaled a lungful of salt air. She stopped on a boat launch access road. The long drive from Nevada was done, so she put on her work light and made her modifications. She started by tuning her truck for drag racing, adjusting the Cameo Carrier’s timing. Then she laid her temporary lines. She connected the six big tanks in the truck bed to a temporary switch on the dash.

The main engineering limitation on her truck’s speed wasn’t what was under the hood, but the body style. A Trademaster V8 was a Trademaster V8 whether it was in a Cameo Carrier or a Corvette. The truck wasn’t as aerodynamic and had a higher center of gravity. That mattered more under normal real-world highway conditions than it would under perfect drag strip conditions. The beach was a short straightaway without the sudden wind gusts of the desert.

Merle added a yellow button and red button, humming a retro tune from her truck’s era. The two buttons were temporarily affixed to the dash by a bolt; she was going to have to replace the dash surface anyway, because it had cracked in the sun over the years. The yellow button dropped the tailgate. The red button was for the smoke shop specials. Those fireworks were legal where they came from—legal on the reservation where they made their own laws. The extra firewall between the tanks and the launch platform had already been installed before she left on her trip.

She got in and started her truck. The big engine, still fully warmed up from the drive out of Nevada, idled in a reassuring deep thrum. Her memory echoed the technical specs she had recited to Petra when they had first met: 145 horsepower at 4,000 rpm, peak 238 pound-feet of torque at 2,000 revs, a twin-throat carburetor and a 7.5:1 compression ratio. Merle patted the dashboard. “Ready for our big adventure, Red?”

Petra had approached Merle last weekend at the Primm Antique Auto Rally. It had been a bright October day in the Mojave Desert. Petra’s long black hair blew in the desert wind, and Merle had noticed that it was worn off at the ends, not cut. Petra had been wearing some seriously pricey silver and turquoise jewelry, and when the conversation had first turned from the technical specifications of Merle’s truck to how Merle could make money with her truck, Merle had expected that Petra was going to tell her she was shooting a movie.

Petra explained, “We need virus samples to culture, but of course nobody will dare sell them to us and risk the wrath of Big Pharma.”

“Still not seeing what that has to do with me,” Merle said.

“We need a fast vehicle to get in and out of a quarantined city with those samples. Whoever does it has to be clean of tracking devices. No Net use. No Implant. No GPS in the vehicle.”

“So you fished the classic car run?”

Now, here she was: Ocean City, California. Merle drove down the access road in low gear. She had to use her lights until she turned out onto the sand; the sun wasn’t up yet. Once on the beach, she killed the headlights and followed the pale line of the sand shining in the starlight between the cliffs and the dark sea. She crept slowly along the beach in the early morning chill. Just outside her open window, low tide waves crashed. When the water advanced up the beach, it would hide her tire tracks.

She turned onto the dry sand and stopped behind an outcropping of rock from the sea cliff. She put on the respirator mask she had used when she had painted the truck. Her memory again supplied details she had lovingly memorized: Cardinal Red with Sand Beige trim, an authentic color combination for the 1956 model year. She had proudly recited that to Petra at the car show. Now there was a filter over the air intake of the respirator unit ... to keep out measles germs. Merle was immunized, but she still didn’t want to inhale the wild strain she was here to collect. Additionally, the mask would prevent facial recognition technology from identifying her with red light cameras or other surveillance devices.

She slid out of Red and fixed a mirror on the rock formation. She took a moment to admire her Cameo Carrier in the predawn sky glow, and the beautifully restored fiberglass shell which hid steel beneath. It was magnificent from its hooded headlights to its faired-in vertical taillights. It faced toward the surf with a splayed grin of a grille, forever smiling at the road before it, a Cadillac of a truck. Merle hoped it wouldn’t acquire any unsightly laser-gun scorches.

Then Merle got back in and watched the beach in the mirror as the light slowly grew in the sky, timing the patrol. The patrols were meant more to keep people in the city than out, and whoever was in that single seat, solar-powered dune buggy with Disease Control printed on the side never looked in her direction.

While she watched the beach, she pushed play on the old-fashioned audio player Petra had supplied; she said it would explain why Merle was about to break into a quarantined city. Other than for the money, of course. Merle touched her pants pocket and felt the round shape of the sample of her pay that Petra had given her in advance, thirty grams of 99.9 percent pure silver, mined and minted by the Paiute Tribe. There was a briefcase full of them waiting for her back in Nevada.

The voice on the recording had a surprising accent, very British, Oxonian perhaps. “The best medical care that money can buy. But how many people have gone into debt, had to sell everything they own, just to obtain medicine? It isn’t right to profit off sickness. Big Pharma cares nothing ...”

The gulls started crying. Merle was ready to cross the beach.

The British professor droned on, oblivious to his audience. “Adjuvants provoke an immune response, not safe for a percentage of the patients. Big Pharma’s only concern is economy of scale. We seek the best outcome for ...”

Merle booked out across the sand. She made it into the beach parking lot and from there onto Waterfront easily. She turned into the city and dropped her speed so as to avoid undue attention from the municipal police.

Merle spared some attention for the professor again as she drove up the quiet streets. He was saying, “Big Pharma owns the politicians, who turn a blind eye to drug companies’ inflated prices. They’ve passed laws for years preventing consumers from being able to shop for cheaper medicines. Now they’ve allowed Big Pharma to police the industry. Less costly alternatives are contraband. Independent labs are raided and destroyed. Except ...”

Dawn came golden to the pastel walls of Ocean City. Merle used the warm light to check her hand-printed directions. She drove up a few streets and then over. There weren’t many cars on the road at this hour, but the few she passed were all the boxy modern solar variety. Solar cars had no noses or trunks protruding below the roof because they were designed to maximize the size ratio of the flat solar roof to the weight of the vehicle. The engineering limitations to a solar car’s performance was the amount of power that fell on the solar panel, the panel’s efficiency, and the weight it was trying to move at a particular speed. Solar cars tended to be both lighter and slower than older gas-powered vehicles, or electric-battery operated or hybrid vehicles. One of the cars on the street at this time of day was a rusting beater of a hybrid whose owner was tossing newspapers out the window. People in Ocean City read print newspapers? That was pretty retro. The hybrid used by the paperboy was unremarkable. No one really wanted a hybrid; it couldn’t operate without gas and was not of interest to serious classic car collectors, so they ended up in the hands of the working poor, who would take whatever the market valued the least.

“By the grace of God and the National Health Service, long may it reign ...”

She pulled into the driveway at Jimmy’s address. The building was an obnoxious shade of pink, and towered multiple stories over the street, casting a long shadow in the morning light. As instructed, she beeped twice and then got out of the truck.

Something sounded different. The audio player on the passenger seat was still running, and now it sounded quieter because she wasn’t sitting right next to it. Merle realized she had stopped paying attention to it. She left the door open and listened as she pulled on disposable gloves and waited for Jimmy. “Now you understand. People are desperate to purchase inexpensive vaccines, free of adjuvants and preservatives, but that’s criminal. Big Pharma has used its influence with politicians to make medicines other than its exorbitantly expensive, mass manufactured, one-size-fits-all products, illegal ...”

A pigeon cooed from a window ledge above her truck. “Hey, bird. You better not shit on my truck, or I’ll be making pigeon pie.”

The pigeon flew down to the driveway.

The professor’s voice continued to come from the open door of the truck. “Our group works with the Snow Mountain reservation underground ...”

The building’s door opened and a skinny teenager came out. Jimmy wore an old fashioned white cloth surgical mask that did not quite hide red pocks on his face. He was sick. He also wore heavy plastic gloves that came up over the cuffs of his long-sleeved blue shirt. He carried a small white Styrofoam cooler case, old, scuffed, gouged with long scratches in a couple of places, tied shut with a frayed yellow rope. Clearly, it was the most disposable container he could find.

Merle went to her truck bed and opened her ice chest, removed the two kilo bag of ice, and held the ice chest cover open for Jimmy to put his cooler inside. Then she emptied the bag of ice over the cooler and closed the ice chest. She nodded, and Jimmy went back into the building. She peeled off her gloves, put on new ones, put the old ones in the bag the ice had come in, and left the bag on the ground for Jimmy to dispose of later. She had not actually touched anything that was likely to be infectious, just outside surfaces of things she had brought with her, but it didn’t hurt to be extra careful. One just never knew. There was a reason they quarantined cities with disease outbreaks. Everyone was supposedly protected, but that protection was never one hundred percent.

She drove back down the same street she drove up; this time there was traffic. It stopped dead in the middle of the block. What was that up there, some kind of furniture spilled in the road? She leaned out the window to peer ahead. Shit, it was a roadblock.

Four people in the black uniforms of city police, not the army green uniforms of Disease Control, were stopping each car as it went by. As Merle watched, a driver handed his papers out the window to one of the policemen who then stood around for a few minutes, probably conversing with dispatch on his Implant. Another cop kept an eye on the line of cars. The other two cops searched the vehicle. Then they gave the guy his identification back and motioned the next car forward. Big Pharma.

There was no way Merle would let anyone open that ice chest now. When the car in front of her advanced, giving her room to pull into the oncoming lane, she made a U-turn and sped off down a random side street, hoping it would connect to a street leading to Waterfront. She heard police sirens behind her.

Yes! The street connected! She passed Waterfront and sailed down a street leading right to the beach. It did not have official beach access like where she had driven in, but there was only an ordinary curb between her and the sand. She braked and slowed down before going over the curb; it still jolted her to the point where she could feel the suspension settling afterwards.

Now she had sand, but it was dotted with colorful beach towels. Sirens still wailed from the city, and a Big Pharma dune buggy turned towards her. She drove into the surf to avoid the early sunbathers, and left a cloud of spray behind her wheels.

Police cars with flashing blue and white lights poured onto the beach behind her from the street where she had entered, but they were going slowly, having difficulty getting over the curb, as they were low-slung solar cars, and did not have the big wheels and high clearance of a pickup truck.

She saw a stretch of sand farther ahead that reflected a semicircle of shining wetness. The wave must be deeper there. She knew she would have to turn away from the ocean or risk getting Red’s air intake fouled with water. She veered up the beach and saw the dune buggy flanking on a line to where she needed to be. Its driver had known she would have to turn there.

He was catching up!

Someone had pitched a beach umbrella in her path. She beeped the horn and saw someone jump up and get out of her way. She hit the umbrella with a corner of the nose, and it stood on the grille for a moment, stuck by air pressure. She turned the wheel violently, making Red slew to the side. The truck’s right wheels momentarily lost contact with the sand, but the big yellow umbrella was dumped off her grille. It sailed into the air and came down splat on the dune buggy, which zigzagged wildly to clear its windshield.

In her rear view mirror, Merle saw the dune buggy driver thrust a hand clutching a black cylinder out the window. The umbrella owner between her and the buggy clutched his head and fell to the ground.

It was an EMP weapon. An electromagnetic pulse weapon was a nasty weapon to use on someone who had a brain Implant. That innocent beachgoer was going to need emergency brain surgery.

The pulse didn’t affect Merle or her truck. There were no more sunbathing obstacles to avoid. The beach was a straightaway now.

“OK, Red. Let’s go!” She pointed the nose straight over perfect racing sand, put the pedal to the metal, and flipped up the switch on the nitrous oxide.

The abrupt change in speed pushed her back against the seat. Red snaked from side to side until Merle stopped overcompensating and settled into a proper high speed steering style.

Merle glanced in the rear view mirror. That damned dune buggy was still keeping up with her! It was all solar sail and tires. Only a tiny open seat. Its power-to-weight ratio made it fast.

She slowed until she and the buggy both passed the rock outcropping before doing anything about the buggy. The Big Pharma thug might not care about bystanders, but she did. She glanced in the mirror a couple more times to be sure the rock would backstop her shot. Then she punched the yellow button, and felt the jarring of the tailgate dropping through the truck’s frame.

Red slowed more as she ran out of nitrous. The dune buggy started to catch up.

Merle glanced in the mirror one more time to be sure her target was directly behind her. Then she slammed the red button.

Lights flared as rockets launched from the firewall. Six rockets fired in sequence, each a second behind the other. The first one hit the sand and its white phosphorous payload exploded, bright as a lightning bolt.

The second rocket hit the dune buggy. It flipped end over end, snapping off the big solar collector. The third rocket hit the buggy again as it rolled, impacting one of the gigantic tires as it faced toward the sky. The tire blew and the buggy caught fire and came to a stop.

The driver staggered up from the ground. More rockets hit the sand between the truck and the buggy, hitting farther from the wreck as the truck increased the distance between them. Each time a rocket hit the beach, it blew sand into the air, and the crater burned like a beacon.

A black uniformed city policeman ran out onto the sand from a steep trail that led up to a cliffside sandwich shop on top of the rock outcropping. He pulled his sidearm, and fired red laser pulses at Merle. She juked like a fighter plane, foot on the floor, but she was escaping terribly slowly compared to the extreme speed of the nitrous burn.

The laser shots were starting to find her range, striking dangerously close. She drove into the surf and sent up a cloud of water spray behind her. The laser shots scattered.

Something jerked out onto the sand from a side trail down the cliff. It fired something at her, but whatever it was had no effect. Perhaps it was another EMP gun? At first she thought the figure was a policeman, in a black uniform, but a second glance as she passed it showed it was all metal. It was a police robot.

Merle swerved onto the dry sand in front of the robot and braked hard. She did a burnout, sending a geyser of sand onto the robot. She stomped on the gas and sped off. Glancing in the rear view mirror, she saw the robot grind to a halt after a few steps, the sand in its greasy joints taking its toll. It fired at her again, and again it had no effect.

The robot and any other pursuer was out of sight along the slight curve of the beach by the time Merle reached the access road and had to slow down once more. She startvirus smugglersed up the narrow, steep access road.

Then a drone popped up over the hill. She grabbed for the laser pointer on the seat next to the audio player, but there was nothing on the seat. “Damn!” Her heart hammered in her chest as the drone zipped closer. She realized whatever had been on the seat must now be in the passenger foot well, the result of her braking maneuvers. She glanced away from the road long enough to locate the laser pointer. She unbuckled herself and snagged it off the floor.

She reached the highway as she sat back up straight. Luckily, no one was on the road. She turned onto the black ribbon of road and shined the laser pointer at the oncoming drone to confuse its optics. The drone started to lose altitude. She knew it would not stay confused for long once she stopped lasering it, and then it would be back in the air. Merle braked, and it got out ahead of her. It bounced on the road. Merle sped up and turned the wheel slightly, and ran over the drone. It made a satisfying bump and crunch under Red’s tires.

She kept a sharp eye out behind and ahead and also above, in case of aircraft or more drones. She let out a breath, and slowed down to a normal highway speed.

She only had a few kilometers to go before her next destination. The city police and Big Pharma were not continuing the chase. Merle turned onto the unmarked dirt lane. After a couple of kilometers she drove into the ad wrap plant, safe inside the border of the sovereign nation of the La Jolla.

Two two workers were smoking cigarettes as she cruised to a stop. Merle got out and inspected her truck for laser shots or bullet holes while the workers removed the temporary additions. Red seemed to have escaped unscathed.

Merle patted the dashboard above the steering wheel. “We did it. You and me, Red. We did it.” Well, not quite yet, she still had to deliver the ice chest to the lab in Nevada. That would be a Sunday drive.

Later that day, Merle pulled onto the highway with her truck wrapped in a form fitting black advertisement, featuring a large, pale moon, and sporting three foot high letters loudly announcing, “Drink CoolShine!”

The CoolShine logo shimmered when daylight struck it, and the blue lettering lit up with moving blue lights. Red still had its own paint job underneath the wrap, but it now looked nothing like the truck that had broken out of Ocean City.

“That was fun, wasn’t it, Red? Now we’re cool. And tomorrow we’ll be rich. Let’s get these bugs to Petra.” END

Erin Lale is Acquisitions Editor at Caliburn Press. She was the editor of “Berserkrgangr Magazine” and owner of The Science Fiction Store. She recently edited the anthology “No Horns on These Helmets.” Her latest novel is “Planet of the Magi.”




screaming eagle 6/15


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