Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Mickey A. Goes to the Moon
by Ronald D. Ferguson

To Make it to Hilion
by Dori Peleg

Deep Down Here
by Kathryn Michael McMahon

by Eric Del Carlo

Run Program
by D.K. Latta
and Jeffrey Blair Latta

Between Two Worlds
by Bill Suboski

Radiance in a Dark Lens
by Derrick Boden

Those Golden Years
by Chet Gottfried

Shorter Stories

Earthly Hosts
by KJ Hannah Greenberg

Fried Chicken You Can’t Refuse
by Peter Wood

by Richard Wren


2075: A Day in the Life
by Curt Tigges

Forensics Under Fire
by John McCormick



Comic Strips





Run Program

By D.K. Latta and Jeffrey Blair Latta

DOGGERY SHIFTED IN HIS SEAT as the Kel 600 All-Terrain Workstation & Environment Suit lumbered over the rocky terrain. Inside the womb-like cavity of the massive armour, Doggery rocked and shimmied as it trudged up an incline, the aging gyros not quite compensating the way they should.

He had practically been raised on a sailing boat off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, back on Earth, so he could take the rocking better than many. Years ago he had worked in an earlier generation of Kel—a 427 or 425, he couldn’t recall which—and what he remembered worst was the heat. Fortunately that particular bug seemed to have been worked out for the Kel 600, which maintained a more optimum internal temperature. Earlier generations of Kels were like suits of armour. The 600, though sporting two arms and two legs, stood a good three-and-a-half metres tall and two metres across at the chest. It was more like a vehicle, with the “wearer” nestled in its chest cavity, operating it by a combination of levers and keyboards.

He typed some commands, sending the Kel 600 lurching up onto the crest of a hill. Through the viewscreen he surveyed the valley dipping gently before him, purple and scarlet gases roiling and undulating across the mushroom-shaped growths that passed for foliage hereabouts.

Blinking lecherously overhead through shifting gases was the tight ball of a sun.

A console light flashed. He thumbed his communicator. “This is Doggery.”

“Hey, Dog,” came a husky, female voice. “How you doing?”

“Better now that I hear your voice, Narna.” Hardly thinking about it, his fingers danced across the command keyboard, typing out RUN PROGRAM: COMMENCE PERIMETER THERMAL SCAN AND DISPLAY.

“I missed you when I woke up this morning,” said the voice.

He watched a grid display superimpose itself over the valley, red hot spots detailing temperature and depth. “If I’m going to spend twelve hours in this fish bowl, I figured I should get an early start.” That also distinguished the 600 from some earlier Kel makes. It was designed for extended shifts. The atmosphere could be recycled for three days, and it had all the amenities of a home base. He sipped the coffee in his hand—one of those aforementioned amenities—and winced. It had grown lukewarm. With his free hand he typed on the board RUN PROGRAM: COMMENCE PROTOCOL BETA. The massive armour lumbered down toward the shallow valley, practically self-motivating. Once it had its instructions, his function was little more than troubleshooter.

“I thought maybe you were getting cold feet about the wedding.”

“Not me. Third time’s the charm, as my step-daddy used to say,” he laughed. Then he dropped the coffee down the disposal shoot. The lid spiralled closed and the recyclers hummed to life.

“You told your daughter, yet?”

Doggery pursed his lips. “Not yet.” He didn’t tell his daughter much about anything these days. Their communications were short and polite. One might almost think she lived a galaxy away rather than with a research team a hundred and some klicks north. That was one of the sources of irritation between them. He didn’t see why he had broken his back all these years, sending her to the best schools, giving her the education he never had, just so she could end up wasting her life on this godforsaken planet.

“Dog ...”

Wilfully oblivious to her chiding tone, he decided hot coffee was definitely in order. He typed RUN PROGRAM:

Suddenly the suit listed sickeningly. The moan of straining metal echoed from one leg. He swivelled to the diagnostic board, fingers rattling across the keys, eyes hungrily consuming the information scrolling across his screen.

The Kel had stumbled into a crusted over thermal vent—precisely what he had hoped to avoid by calling for a thermal scan. But the Kel was notoriously ill-equipped to correlate programs. Once told to commence Protocol Beta—searching for valuable gas pockets—it ignored thermal readings. That was his job. Instead he’d been chatting with Narna.

He grabbed the manual levers, ignoring both the diagnostic and the command keyboards. The suit shifted again as he sunk deeper into the magma-like fluid that pooled up in the vents. He spared a glance at the spiking exterior heat gauges; the suit was resisting the scalding substance well enough. But if he sank too far, he might not be salvageable by a rescue team.

He’d be buried alive in oozing magma.

He twisted the control levers and the massive arms reached out. Squeezing the nobs, he caused the hands to close about the lip of the vent. The soft dirt crumbled beneath steel fingers and the suit sank further. Cursing, he flung the arms forward again. This time, the grip held. Shaking sweat from his eyes, quelling panic, he very carefully eased the levers forward. He heard the arms groan as they attempted to drag the massive body up. This particular suit was getting old. The company had bought it as army surplus and there was the danger it was just no longer up to its tasks.

A gear shrieked somewhere. Through the viewscreen Doggery saw the ground shift under him as the Kel hauled itself up onto more stable terrain.

At last, it stood upright, gases swirling about it.

Doggery took a deep, shuddering breath, clenching and unclenching his fingers nervously. He reached unsteadily for his coffee ... and realized he had none. Grinning, he typed in RUN PROGRAM: COFFEE.

The Kel started walking as it resumed its interrupted program and Doggery waited for the coffee. Gas mining was a damned way to make a living, he thought ruefully.

He looked at the communicator, realizing Narna was unaware of his brush with mortality. He wondered if she worried about him roaming this inhospitable terrain. He knew he worried about his daughter.

He didn’t fancy her living with the locals—the heebies, as the miners called them. It wasn’t too long ago that they’d been at war with the heebies. Primitive as the creatures were, they had given the Earth people a lot of grief.

That’s why a team was sent to live among them. To understand them. To make sure the conflicts of the past didn’t recur. But his daughter hadn’t seen what a heebie could do to a man. Not that they could do anything to a man in a Kel, Doggery thought, affectionately patting his console. But though the atmosphere of this planet was death to humans, the heebies, with their carapaces, could move freely inside a human habitat. And they could do a lot of damage with their mandibles to anyone not wearing a Kel.

He shook himself from his reverie. “Sorry, luv, my mind wandered,” he said. “What were we saying?”

Silence answered him.

“Narna?” It was not like her to be petulant.

Even if she had left, someone should still be on radio duty. He twisted the frequency dial. Electromagnetic discharges could interfere with transmission signals—one of the reasons a man in a Kel was used here, instead of a remote controlled walker. But he wasn’t even picking up static.

The communicator had just frozen. He leaned back, rubbing his stubbly chin.

A blown fuse? he wondered. But weren’t there backups? Shouldn’t the Kel have alerted him to a fault? He glanced at the view screen—and his eyes flared. The Kel was moving away from the valley. Instantly his hands went to the command keyboard. RUN PROGRAM: ABORT PROTOCOL BETA. STOP AND AWAIT PROGRAM COMMANDS.

The Kel continued to lumber heavily over the terrain.

Running his tongue over his lips, he typed the commands again. Again the Kel gave no indication of having received the instructions.

Could the interior communication be off-line as well? he wondered. But it was a separate system from the exterior communicator. He shifted in his chair, finding the contoured seat strangely uncomfortable all of a sudden.

Hesitating but a moment, he reached out and grabbed the manual levers and settled his feet on the pedals. He applied pressure, the manual controls were programmed to interrupt and override any programmed functions.

The levers didn’t budge. They were frozen.

Slowly it dawned on him that he was completely locked out of the Kel’s controls. “Come on, you friggin’ bastard,” he said between clenched teeth, suddenly feeling angry, “Where do you think you’re going, eh?”

There was, naturally, no response.

Taking a deep breath, he tried to reassess his circumstances. The hollow cavity began to feel very tight and small. His fingers scrambled over the key board. RUN PROGRAM: LOCATE BASE ON VISUALS. At last the Kel responded, as the image on the viewscreen rotated, displaying an impressive panorama of the surrounding terrain, before settling on a grey and white dome blinking distantly through the vaporous mist.

Relieved the suit was responding, he typed, RUN PROGRAM: STOP. PERFORM IMMEDIATE SELF-DIAGNOSTIC TO—

He stopped typing. The Kel wasn’t responding. It would show him what he wanted to see, apparently, but no more. It would not let him direct its steps. It would not let him signal that distant, grey and white structure.

For the first time, Doggery began to grow afraid.

At first it had seemed like a glitch, an inconvenience. But now—now he began to consider his predicament. He couldn’t signal anyone at the base about what was happening. How long before they would even notice he was out of his pre-planned area? Would they just assume he was tracking a promising gas anomaly and let it go?

It could be hours before anyone suspected anything.

He stared at the dwindling habitat dome, looking like a doll’s house at this distance. A momentary thickening of gases obscured it entirely, as though wiping it from existence.

Steady on, boyo, he told himself. The suit’s good for a few days. Sooner or later they’ll figure out something’s wrong. Yessir. Then ... then ...

Then what? How far astray would the Kel have taken him before they realized he was in trouble? If the communicator was down, probably the transponder was, too. The planet was bad for fly-bys—what with all the gases and ionic discharges. The terrain was bumpy and treacherous—bad for ground vehicles. That’s why they had the Kels. Back at base they had—what? A Kel 514? A half dozen 300s? And that taped together 427? None had the range or the stamina of the 600.

“Come on, boyo,” he muttered out loud, hoping the sound of his voice would provide a comfort. “Who’s ever heard of someone dying in a runaway Kel? It’s just a glitch. You’ll laugh about it when it’s over.” He tried to grin, but couldn’t.


The Kel continued walking.


Doggery opened his eyes with a start. He looked around drunkenly for a moment, only gradually remembering where he was, what was happening, and that he must have drifted off from nervous exhaustion.

Suddenly he realized the communicator light was blinking. “Thank you, Jesus!” he said, though he had never been a praying man. He thumbed the switch. “This is the Kel 600—go ahead.”


He thumbed it again. “Come in?”

And then he realized that, though the Kel was informing him someone was attempting contact, it was not permitting communication. Doggery kicked the wall. “Goddamn you, you right filthy Jesus-be-damned hunk of junk!” he screamed.

The Kel responded to his kick no more than it had to his command prompts.

By now the cavity was growing particularly cramped and Doggery, who had never felt so much as a twinge of claustrophobia in his life, began to feel like he had been buried alive.

Steady, he told himself. Steady. Someone’s signalling you. That’s a good thing. Someone knows you’re in trouble. Help can’t be far away.

Assuming they did know. After all, just because they now realized his communicator was down didn’t mean anyone would assume the problem was more serious than that. Even assuming the signal was meant for him. Perhaps the Kel had just intercepted a stray transmission.

He had to figure out if anyone was aware of his situation.

The main guts of the suit were secured behind double plating, but some secondary systems were not similarly encased. He secured the safety harness, then swivelled his seat about and rolled it over until he hung upside down before the communication panel. He clawed at it, prying off the face. He winced as metal cut under his nail, then grinned as the plate came off and clattered down into the base of the cavity. Blood pooling around his fingernail, Doggery silently scrutinized the workings of the communicator.

Satisfied, he patted various pockets on his overalls until he found what he wanted. He drew a nano-torch from his thigh pocket and unclipped the accompanying contact lens. He slipped the contact over his left eye, and blinked, momentarily disoriented, as that eye now saw from the point of view of the nano-torch’s one-hundredth of a millimetre head. Cautiously, he prodded the torch into the guts of the communicator, jostling miniaturized connections that were otherwise invisible to the naked eye.

The signal light indicated the Kel was able to receive, so the problem was not in the actual apparatus. The problem was more localized, so he felt he should be able to bypass whatever was freezing communications by frying the primaries with surgical precision, forcing the Kel to engage the emergency backups which, hopefully, would be unaffected by whatever glitch was infecting the main system. He ratcheted up the levels on the nano-torch. There was a spark.

“Come in. Dog, can you hear me?”

Doggery thumbed his nose at the Kel. He rotated his seat till he was upright and popped out the contact lens. “Narna!”

“Dog! What happened? Where are you?”

“Damn Kel’s gone screwy” he said. “It’s completely shut me out of half its systems.”

“Christ,” came Narna’s voice.

“Times two. I really need some suggestions here, luv,” he said, allowing a certain droll jauntiness to seep back into his voice now that he had someone with whom to talk.

“OK. I’m sending for a supervisor. Do you know where you are? Your transponder signal’s completely cut out.”

“Give me a minute.” He typed, RUN PROGRAM: LOCATION AND GEO-POSITIONING. After a moment, a topographical map superimposed itself over the lurching landscape. “Seem to be heading due north. I’m already ninety klicks from where I should be.”

“North?” The speaker was silent. “Dog, you’re headed for heebie territory.”

Doggery stopped for a moment, allowing a shudder to tickle his spine as he remembered the bodies he’d seen torn apart by heebie mandibles during hostilities. Then he shook himself. He was in a Kel suit. It’d take more than a bite to get inside this thing. He hoped. “Tell me how to stop this thing, Narna.”

“Doggery?” interrupted a new voice. “This is Supervisor Tartax cutting in. I understand you’re having a bit of trouble with your Kel suit?”

Doggery snorted at the understatement.

“OK, well ... it’s a pickle, I’ll say that.” Realizing he was sounding pessimistic, Tartax quickly added, “I, uh, I’ve got the suit specs displayed before me, so we’ll figure something out. Don’t you worry. Now, was there any sort of power surge or, um, any kind of warning signal before this happened?”


“Did you hit anything? Maybe accidentally lean on a key or something?”

“I don’t think so. I mean—no,” he said after considering it, “no I didn‘t.”

“OK, no problem. Um, let me see ...” There was a long pause as the supervisor presumably scrolled through the specs. “Right, um, you see, Doggery—uh, you like to be called Dog, right?” Only by Narna, Doggery thought, but he didn’t say anything. “You see, Dog, there’s no indication of Kels malfunctioning in this way. Usually it just shuts down if something’s wrong.”

“Maybe it doesn’t think anything’s wrong,” interjected Narna angrily.

Doggery wanted to tell her to calm down, but didn’t.

“Well, see, that’s a concern,” admitted the supervisor. “You see, a Kel is programmed and counterprogrammed to recognize when it’s malfunctioning. It’s supposed to know when something’s wrong even before its wearer does. It’s one of its premiere safety features. If it, uh, if it fails to acknowledge it’s having a problem, then ...”

“Then you don’t know how to stop it,” Doggery said flatly.

There was silence. “We’ll ... we’ll figure something out, Dog. You’ve got air for a few days. We’ll figure something out.”

“But he’s headed right toward heebie territory,” said Narna.

“What?” responded the supervisor, startled. “Um, look, I’m going to call up, OK? I mean, um, this could be, well ... I’m going to get some direction on this, OK? Tartax out.” Then there was silence. It was a more chilling silence than when he couldn’t communicate at all. No one had anything to say.

“How ... how you doing, Dog?” asked Narna at last.

“Feeling right Jesus hot and stuffy in here. You know, I was able to override the communication lock, but I don’t think I can even get at the other systems. Damn fool way to build a suit, eh? I’m only a few decimetres from the motors and stuff, but they might as well be on one of the moons for all that I can cut through the plates.”

“It’ll be OK ... right?” she said suddenly.

Doggery opened his mouth, then closed it. The whole point of a Kel was that it was a state-of-the-art protective suit. The Kel Corporation basically had had a monopoly on deep space and environment suits for half a century because no one else built them half as well. They kept you safe. They were designed to keep things from getting in. Which was a bad thing if you were trapped in one.

“Doggery?” asked a new voice suddenly. “This is Major Chatto. How are you holding up, Dog?”

“All right, I guess. Sorry to be such a bother.”

The major laughed, but it sounded forced. “No bother. I think we met, once, a few months back. They tell me you’re a true original, Dog. A real trooper.”

Doggery waited silently.

“I’m going to level with you, Dog. You’re apparently headed toward heebie territory.”

Doggery rolled his eyes and wanted to say, Narna was the one who told you guys that!

“That’s not so good. We have relations calmed down between them and us, but it’s a tenuous calm. We’ve even got a team living with them, hoping to learn about them. Hoping to make the peace last. But, you see, Dog, the heebies are still pretty touchy about their territory.” There was a pause. “Dog, we’re really concerned about what might happen if you walk that Kel into heebie territory. They might think it’s an invasion—no matter what we tell them. They don’t have much high-end technology of their own, so they really aren’t going to appreciate the difference between a malfunction and a deliberate act. They might react very badly. You remember the hostilities, right, Dog? You remember how bad the heebies can get when they react badly, right? There are about a hundred people in that research team living with the heebies, Dog. A hundred unarmed humans trying to forge a peaceful future for everyone.”

Doggery felt cold, his fingers numb. “My daughter’s part of that team.”

“You must be very proud of her, Dog. She must be a remarkable woman. Takes after her old man, I’m sure.”

Doggery just grunted.

“We don’t want anything to happen to your daughter, do we, Dog? Or to those ninety-nine other people? No we don’t, and that’s why we’re going to figure out a way to stop that Kel. OK? We’re going to figure this out together, Dog.”

Narna’s voice: “Why can’t you evacuate the team?”

“It would take too long,” said the major. “And if our people—our peace envoys—suddenly pack up and try and leave just as the Kel comes lumbering over the horizon—well, that’s liable to set them off, too. We really—I can’t stress this enough—we really have to stop that Kel suit. So let’s put our heads together. Now the Kel is a damn fine piece of hardware. I’ve never used one for mining or exploration, but I have worn combat models. They are superior machines. Just the top. So we have to figure out why it’s doing what it’s doing, or we have to figure out a way to physically stop it.”

“Any ideas?” Doggery said hoarsely.

“Well, supervisor Tartax tells me you don’t recall it giving any signs it was malfunctioning, nor can you recall pushing anything you shouldn’t. To be honest, Dog, we can’t rule out deliberate sabotage. Now walk me through it, Dog. What did you do just prior to becoming aware of a problem?”

Doggery told him about going over the hill. About chatting with Narna. About falling in the vent. That part intrigued the major and they went over it back and forth. Did the external heat gauges shoot into the red? Was there any indication of a breach? To all questions the answer was negative; they could see no clue in it. At last, the major was silent, then said, “I’m going to call up, Dog. I’m going to get some direction, OK? You hold tight.” And then his voice was gone.

Doggery stared as the landscape rolled and swayed before him while the Kel lumbered determinedly forward—ever northward. Somewhere through the opaque purple and red swirls, beyond the mushroom growths and over the rise—not this rise, or the next, but somewhere—lay heebie territory. It was weird, he thought. To claim there was a line between here and there, us and them, a demarcation invisible to the naked eye. There was no fence, no wall, no strip of tape. Yet step beyond this invisible line ...

He buried his face in his hands. “Oh, Jesus, God, Mary and Joseph,” he whispered. He wasn’t a fool. He knew what the major had been trying to tell him. They couldn’t let the Kel cross that invisible, non-existent line. They just couldn’t. A hundred people might die, and the hostilities could start up again, killing even more. And he was just one guy in a suit. One guy measured against a hundred lives.

It wasn’t fair, he thought. He was getting married, for Christsake. He had a daughter that he had always hoped he could patch things up with one of these days.

It wasn’t goddamn fair! “Narna?”

“I’m here, Dog.”

“I want ... I want you to look up my daughter, OK? If something happens. Tell her you were almost her stepmother. Maybe you can get along with her better than I could. You’re not as thickheaded as me.”

“Don’t talk like that. You ain’t dead.”

“What do you think we’ve all been deliberately not talking about, luv? This Kel can’t enter heebie territory.”

“But that doesn’t mean—”

“They’ll have to stop it, Narna. And a Kel is a damn hard thing to stop ... gently.”

“Oh, Dog ...” Her voice trembled.

Doggery’s mouth was dry and he suddenly realized he never had got his cup of coffee all those hours ago. He started to laugh, a little hysterically. “The damn suit won’t even make me a cup of coffee,” he said. “It won’t let me steer it, it wouldn’t let me talk to anyone, and it won’t let me drink.” In frustration, he slammed out on the keys, RUN PROGRAM: COFFEE.

Instantly a panel dilated to reveal a cup of steaming coffee.

“Sweet loving Jesus!” Doggery exclaimed, shaking with relief. Instantly he pounded on the keys, RUN PROGRAM: STOP.

The suit kept walking.


“False alarm, Narna,” he sighed wearily, staring at the steaming cup. “I guess it just wants to provide a doomed man with a final drink.”

Suddenly the major’s voice returned. “Dog? I’m looking at a Sat picture. We can see you. You’re approaching the heebie territory. Unfortunately, the suit seems to have circumvented areas with thermal vents—like you fell into before. If it hadn’t, we could maybe have blasted the ground out from under you, let you sink into the magma, and then try and pull you out of there later—it might have bought us some time.” He hesitated. “If you’ve got any ideas, I’m open to them.”

Doggery stared grimly at nothing. “What’s your plan, major?”

There was a protracted, painful silence. Then, “I think you know what I have to do, Dog. I have to stop that suit. I have to, Dog, for the sake of those one hundred people—including your daughter—and for future relations between humans and heebies. I’ve got a missile all keyed and ready to go if I can’t come up with any other plan.”

“Oh, God!” sobbed Narna.

Doggery felt sick. Somehow knowing it, and having it vocalized, were two different things. He popped open the disposal shoot instinctively, just in case he needed somewhere to throw up.

“But the thing is ... your Kel’s stopped transmitting its transponder signal—we can’t get a definite computer fix on you. And Sat visuals are a piss poor way of aiming a missile.”

Oh, Jesus! thought Doggery, clutching his head, his hair slick with sweat. They’ve got to be kidding! This is a joke! It’s got to be! “What ... what do you want?”

“According to the specs, the Kel can vent excess plasma fuel—of up to fourteen cc’s—without the suit registering that as a leak and safety protocols cutting in. My people tell me that twelve-point-five cc’s of vented plasma will be enough for the missile to lock in on.” Again, that silence, as though the major was finding it difficult to proceed. “That means we can only do it once. But we need you to help us find you.”

“Tell him to go to hell, Dog,” begged Narna. “Tell him to shove his missile—”

“Hush up, luv,” Doggery said. “You aren’t making this easy ... for any of us.”

“I’m sorry, Dog. I’m really, truly sorry.” More confidently, the major said, “I’m going to walk you through the venting procedure ...”

“I know how to vent plasma, damn it!” snapped Doggery. “I’ve been walking in suits like this for years.”

“Of course. I’m sorry. I’m going to give you a countdown, OK, Dog? I’m going to countdown, and then you vent. OK? Twenty, nineteen—”

“If you ever get to Earth, Narna, visit the Grand Banks, will you? It’s a beautiful piece of heaven, it is. Never should’ve left it.”

“—eighteen, seventeen—”

He stared around him at the interior of the suit. In a way, he almost felt sorry for the Kel 600. It clearly had no idea what was going on. No idea anything was wrong. No idea it was about to be blasted into scrap.

“—sixteen, fifteen—”

Doggery frowned, remembering what Narna had said. How the suit didn’t seem to realize it was malfunctioning. But the suit was designed to recognize system errors. They had all assumed something had gone wrong, something had screwed with its programming. But what if the reason it hadn’t recognized a malfunction was because it wasn’t malfunctioning?

What if it was operating perfectly?

“—fourteen, thirteen, twelve—”

He looked around wildly at the screen, the boards, the blinking lights. If it was doing what it was supposed to—what was it supposed to be doing? Why had it deactivated its transponder? Why had it frozen communications? Why was it walking northward? What was it walking towards?

“—eleven, ten—”

What if it wasn’t walking towards anything?


What if it was walking away?

Doggery knew the Kels had a safety feature where, if the wearer was incapacitated, they would autonomously continue walking, transporting him to safety. And this particular suit had originally been used by the military. Maybe it wasn’t running toward a goal—maybe it thought it was running away from possible danger, and running silent, so it couldn’t be tracked. But there was no danger, and there was nothing wrong with Doggery himself that would lead the Kel to conclude he was incapacitated. The suit monitored his body functions, so it knew he was all right. It was even giving him coffee.

“—eight, seven—”

No! No, it hadn’t given him coffee. Not at first. He had ordered coffee, and it didn’t give him any. That was it, that was the moment when it had started malfunctioning! Something about the coffee ...


He had ordered coffee, and it started walking. He ordered coffee ... No! No, he ordered coffee, and then he fell in the vent. He climbed out of the vent, by manual control—he hadn’t used the computer for that. He climbed out, and then re-ordered coffee. And the coffee command was ignored and the Kel started walking and implementing some sort of danger protocol.

“—five, four, three—”

Why did he re-order coffee? he wondered. He ordered it once, then again. Why? Because—think, damn it! he ordered himself, wishing that damned countdown would stop echoing in his head. He ordered it twice ... because ... because he hadn’t completed the first command. He fell into the vent before he could. He had typed in the command prompt, and then ...


“Major! Major! What’s a run program?”

The voice barely missed a beat. “Do it! Hurry!”

Doggery typed in RUN PROGRAM: END RUN.

The Kel lurched to a stop, its engines whirring softly beneath him. And that was that. It seemed almost anticlimactic.

Doggery really did think he was going to be sick. Or faint. Dimly he could hear the major’s voice over the speaker saying, “Stand down from missile launch. Repeat, stand down.”

“Wha—?” said Narna. “What’s happened? What’s going on?”

“It’s all right,” said the major, and he started to laugh, a little hysterically. “It’s OK. He’s fine. We’re all fine. Oh, God, do I need a drink.”

Doggery started to speak, but his words caught, his voice cracked. He coughed. “I’ll buy, major.”

“Belay that. I’m buying you a drink. Hell, I’m buying you the whole damn bar!”

Doggery leaned back, trembling, thumbing sweat, or maybe tears, from his eyes. It had been such a little thing—so inconsequential that they had almost missed it. He had typed in RUN PROGRAM: and then stopped in mid command, distracted as the Kel fell into the vent. Using manual controls, he had pulled himself out. All the while, the computer was still waiting obediently to run whatever program he would command. When he got the Kel back on its feet, and re-ordered coffee by typing in RUN PROGRAM: COFFEE, that wasn’t what the computer received. What it got was RUN PROGRAM: RUN PROGRAM: COFFEE.

Or, to its way of thinking, RUN PROGRAM: RUN. Everything else, the extra program and the coffee, were irrelevant to its perceived primary instruction. And that instruction was to engage some previously programmed military safety procedure to be initiated when in danger from an enemy. Something that was, evidently, labelled a run program.

The Kel hadn’t malfunctioned at all. It had just been following the command it thought Doggery had given it.

And Doggery decided he wouldn’t object to lukewarm coffee ever again. END

D.K. Latta is a Canadian writer who has had a few dozen science fiction stories published over the years in “Strange Horizons,” “Daily Science Fiction,” “On Spec,” and other markets. Jeffrey Blair Latta, D.K.’s brother, contributed to this story.


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