Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
Editor

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Fiction

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

Itstory
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

Peekaboo
by Richard Wren

Articles

2075: A Day in the Life
by Curt Tigges

Forensics Under Fire
by John McCormick


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Editorial

Comic Strips

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Those Golden Years

By Chet Gottfried

CAPTAIN ERICSON GRIPPED THE ARMS of his wheelchair and leaned forward. “What the hell is a plant doing here?” He pointed at a large potted shrub on his left. “We’re pirates. We don’t keep flowers on the bridge.”

Rhonda Green, the weapons officer aboard the deep-space corvette, Golden Hindquarters, swiveled her own wheelchair and faced the captain. “Weapons lock on the GalEx freighter. Permission to fire?”

The captain slapped his wheelchair and shouted, “We can’t decorate our ship as if it were someone’s living room. We have to stay focused. All I want is one final mission, a mission with enough loot for a comfortable retirement. You know, so we can each afford a pair of prosthetic legs. Is that too much to ask? Do it for me—for my ninety-third birthday next week.”

“You were ninety-one last week, Captain,” Marcia Pumice said. The captain winced. His communications officer was a hundred and three years old, apt to say anything, and thought anyone under a hundred had to be sex-mad.

“So I had a couple of birthdays!” the captain said. “Sue me! If you don’t want to do the mission for me, do it for yourselves. Aren’t we old enough to have a final mission with a big payoff?”

“Didn’t we have a final mission last month?” asked Lisa White, their blind navigator and the youngest member of the crew—a mere fifty-two years old.

“We had three other final missions last year,” Marcia added.

“The number of final missions doesn’t matter as long as we score now,” Captain Ericson said. “What’s important is why did someone put a plant on the bridge? It ruins the piracy mood.”

Rhonda Green repeated, “We’ve a lock. OK to fire?”

“Your plant might be a weed,” Marcia said.

“My plant? What are you talking about?”

“Weeds grow anywhere.”

“Then who put the pot there for the weed to grow in?” the captain growled. The plant didn’t look like any weed he had seen on Earth. Its stalk subdivided into various branches, each of which having one or two buds. While he was watching, one of the buds opened into a blue and white flower, reminding him of lips, as if the alien plant intended to enter the conversation.

Marcia turned to Lisa White. “Weren’t you hanging around with that green alien on Cosmo IV?”

“Green?” Lisa asked. “I wonder ...” She tapped her way with a cane while maneuvering her wheelchair next to the potted plant. Lisa didn’t need a wheelchair, but she used it to fit in with everyone else. Captain Ericson admired not only her sense of team spirit but also her body, and it wasn’t just because she had a pair of workable legs. She could do things, lots of things, and they had become lovers. He contemplated marrying Lisa except that he never got around to drawing up a prenuptial agreement.

Ever so gently, Lisa felt the plant, which rotated its flower in her direction and said, “Ma-ma.”

That stunned the captain. Mama? What was she up to on Cosmo IV? Might Lisa have met an attractive piece of greenery there? Was the potted flower the result of their union?

“Lisa,” the captain rumbled. “How could you?”

“How could I what?” she asked.

“You know exactly what I mean: Give birth to a flower!”

“Captain,” she cried, “I’ve never seen, well, felt, this shrub before, and it certainly isn’t my child. I swear it!”

Rhonda Green whipped out her Mark II Auditory Stimulator and threw it at Captain Ericson. She screamed, “What do I have to do to get your rotten attention? The GalEx is at the extreme range of my lock. Do I shoot the damn thing or do I wave bye-bye to it?”

“What are you waiting for?” he screamed back at his weapons officer.

“What? Speak up!”

“Shoot it!” the captain yelled.

“What?”

“Oh hell.” Captain Ericson scooped up the Mark II and tossed it to Rhonda, who inserted the device.

“So do you want me to shoot the GalEx?” she asked.

“That’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? And since when did you need my permission to shoot anything? I remember only last month you blasted that Sigmoid frigate without a word from me.”

“That was an emergency! This is normal operating procedure.”

“Excuse me,” Marcia asked. “Could someone please make a decision?”

“Shoot it! Shoot it!”

Rhonda slammed the fire button without another word. “Oops, I didn’t intend firing a full salvo.”

The GalEx ship exploded into a brilliant ball of white fire.

“Damn,” the captain said. “There goes a neat bit of tracking down the drain.”

Although hyperdrive ships were standard, radio communications between star systems proved impracticable. Mail carriers such as GalEx satisfied the need by sending robotic spaceships containing millions of digitized letters, contracts, money transfers, and lottery tickets. Tracking and apprehending a mail transport represented an awesome opportunity for pirates—as long as they didn’t vaporize the target carrier.

“We might recover something from the wreckage,” Rhonda said.

“Stop staring at your kid, and take us there,” he yelled at Lisa. Luckily he never wrote out the prenuptial agreement. He might have married the two-timing navigator.

“I don’t stare,” Lisa said with dignity, and she tapped her way back to her console.

“Just one little data chip. That’s all we need,” the captain said.

***

In the galley, while the captain and members of his crew were eating, Steve Holden, their chief engineer, reviewed what they had recovered from the GalEx ship.

“I’ve salvaged one chip and extracted five thousand messages, including sixty-five birthday greetings and three hundred ten offers from the treasurer of Oberon V to share sixteen million universal dollars if you let him use your CreditCheap account.”

The captain sighed. He had already lost ten thousand dollars to the political shenanigans of Oberon V.

“Any good stuff?”

Steve shrugged.

“It depends how you feel about a surface raid.”

“Sounds promising to me.”

“Okay, the letter itself doesn’t have as much detail as I’d prefer, but I did some cross-checking to flesh it out. The note is from Joshua Brady, a vice president at the Precious Metals Syndicate, or PMS, to an outfitter called T&A. Brady wants them to transport a thousand gold ingots.”

The captain rubbed his hands. “This is getting better all the time. How large are these ingots?”

Steve shrugged. “The message doesn’t include anything about their size or destination.”

“Uh-oh. Maybe Brady is dipping his hand into the consortium’s pocket. I’d say that the guy deserves a little punishment for stealing. Now, how about a where and when.”

“We’re going to the minor star of a binary system, Methuselah B, and to its fourth planet, New Demeter. It’s an agricultural world with some mining.”

“Who handles the policing?” the captain asked.

“The customary riffraff,” Steve said and then chuckled. “I expect they’ll have Regulan voles.”

Captain Ericson’s face became pale. “Not Regulan voles. They’re six feet tall and have fangs you wouldn’t believe, as well as state-of-the-art weaponry.”

“Nothing like that, Captain,” Steve said. “I meant they have a token military force. We’ll be able to sneak in and out, as long as we’re fast.” Steve handed a card with coordinates to Lisa. “The pickup is set for six days from now at a corporate office close to the mining operations. I figure Brady, despite having the title of vice president, isn’t high on the management rung if he’s working in the sticks and not the capital.”

The captain asked Lisa, “Can we reach Methuselah B within five days.?”

She put the card in a portable console, and her fingers translated the Braille output. “Looks like it. But what if the full shipment isn’t ready?”

Captain Ericson slapped the table.

“Then we’ll take as much as they’ve gathered. It should be worthwhile. Gold is too heavy for easy carting, so they’ll have a decent supply on hand.” He shook his head. “Ingots. Gotta love them! We can trade those babies almost anywhere for food, fuel, and hardware, as well as all the fun stuff, like maybe bioelectric prosthetic legs. You know, the kind that can run by themselves at sixty klicks an hour. I wonder what I should name mine?”

Steve snapped his fingers. “Captain, you’re losing focus.”

The captain adjusted his cardigan sweater, standard issue on the Golden Hindquarters.

“Have I missed anything?”

“The strange part is that our copy of the letter isn’t to T&A itself but to a third party, a John Smith, who has a generic e-address. I figure Smith is a pseudonym, but why him? What’s his part? You know, the whole deal might be a trap.”

The captain laughed. “A trap? I doubt it. It’s probably Brady reassuring a fellow conspirator that their plan is progressing. However, we better get there before anyone else can get their paws on the gold.”

Lisa set her wheelchair in motion. “I’m on my way to the bridge to plot the course. Never fear. We’ll get there in plenty of time.”

The remainder of the crew exchanged significant glances. They had heard that one before.

“We are in a hurry,” the captain said.

Lisa tapped her comm. “Nav, set course to Methuselah B.” She faced the captain. “Happy?”

“A big hurry,” he said.

“Nav,” Lisa added. “All speed priority. Respond.”

“Yes, princess.”

“Your navigation computer addresses you as princess?” Steve asked. “When did that happen?”

“A little touch I programmed.” Lisa did a wheelie and shot out of the galley.

The engines whined, the ship shuddered, and vibrations shook everyone back and forth.

Steve’s face became pale, and he looked at the captain.

“Lisa’s a bit moody. What did you say to her?”

“Nothing,” Captain Ericson grunted.

***

Four days later, Lisa whirled the Golden Hindquarters close to New Demeter.

“See,” she said. “I told you I’d get you there in time.”

No one replied. They were too busy white-knuckling their wheelchair arms during Lisa’s approach.

Their ship bounced about the upper atmosphere while everything unattached scattered across the deck.

Everything, the captain thought, except that damned flower pot. Someone must have weighted it with rocks. It was a myth, of course, that a pot required stones on the bottom, but no one ever listened to his advice unless part of a direct command. And what kind of respect could he earn by telling them how to fix up a flower pot when everyone knew that rocks were needed for drainage?

The ship quieted down and everyone breathed a collective sigh as Lisa put them into a geosynchronous orbit over the coordinates Steve had given her.

Captain Ericson clapped his hands to get their attention.

“Has anyone detected us, Marcia?”

“Not on any channels I’ve been scanning. I estimate we have two or three hours before anyone discovers us, depending on how much noise we make down below.”

“Very good,” the captain said. “Now listen up. Rhonda, Lisa, and Marcia stay aboard. The rest of us will shuttle down and take the gold. I don’t expect any problems, but we’ll use the attack wheelchairs. Are they ready, Steve?”

Steve nodded. “Batteries charged and weapons loaded. They’re lined up next to the shuttle.”

Each attack wheelchair had twin 15 millimeter recoilless machine guns mounted to its arms. The left fired a soft-nosed round, whereas the right gun alternated armor-piecing and explosive ones.

“Shit,” Rhonda said. “Why don’t I ever get to play with those?”

“Because I don’t expect those gold ingots to be sitting unprotected. They’d have a security detail, and we might need covering fire from the ship.” The captain turned to Lisa. “Have you examined our target?”

“The offices are in a building set on the outskirts of a nothing village. They have a lot of land, and there’s a newly cleared field east of the building, as if they were expecting a ship to touch down in the area.”

“Perfect!” The captain always admired Lisa’s ability to map a site. Pity she had to be unfaithful. And with a vegetable, of all things. He could understand if her lover were a man, but an alien? What was up with her?

***

At twilight, on New Demeter, the two-story office building of CMC appeared larger than Captain Ericson had expected. There were several sheds. He wondered how Brady came by all those ingots. The mining operation nearby was for nickel and copper, but a more immediate problem was on hand.

“The building has steps.” The captain counted. “Eight of them! Why didn’t Lisa warn us? How are we supposed to get inside the place?”

Captain Ericson had seven crewmembers on his left and six on his right. Closest to him were his two lieutenants for conducting a raid: Steve Holden and Amanda Kelly.

Steve and Amanda looked at each other, and from the look, Captain Ericson guessed that he was forgetting something. “What?”

Steve grinned at him. “Hover mode.”

“Right, sure ... let’s get up in the air and say hello.”

The captain pressed the hover button and everyone else followed suit.

A buzz sounded in the captain’s ear: a communication from Rhonda Green on the Golden Hindquarters.

“Captain, two ships are closing in on us.”

“So what’s your problem?” Captain Ericson asked. “They have no business being here. If T&A ships, they’re way too early, and you should teach them a lesson. No one shows up early—unless they’re willing to face the consequences. And if those ships are other pirates, well, we got here first.”

“What if they’re government ships?”

“So when did that ever stop you? You wanted to shoot something. Here’s your opportunity. Now don’t bother me unless you get into trouble. We’re about to make a withdrawal.”

“Uh-oh. A third ship has joined them.”

“Why are you bothering me over the comm when you should be fighting them?”

“It’s three to one!”

“If you get yourself killed, I’ll never speak to you again. Over and out.”

The captain turned to Amanda. “Why don’t you knock on the front door and see whether Joshua Brady is home?”

Amanda hovered ahead of the others, and when ten meters from the door, she fired a short burst. Her bullets shattered the door, but an alarm started ringing.

A group of armed men immediately came out the destroyed doorway and opened fire.

“Return fire!” the captain screamed. “I don’t want to see a single villain left alive.”

His crew mowed down the first dozen, but then another security detail appeared. They were also taken out.

During the fighting not only the door but the walls next to it were destroyed, somewhat compromising the structure.

“Anyone hit?”

Two crewmembers had sustained wounds but were still mobile.

Body armor is a definite plus during a raid, the captain thought.

“Okay, you two go back to the shuttle and help Marks and Sparks guard the ship. I don’t trust the folks from PMS. They’re too trigger-happy. The rest of you, follow me.”

Once inside they turned on their wheel lights and scoured the main hall. They found empty offices as well as stairs leading up and down.

“Amanda, your group will take the upper level, and Steve and I will lead his group below. The ingots got to be somewhere obvious. They’re too big to hide under a mattress.”

In the basement, the crew met further resistance and cut down a half-dozen guards. They could hear gunfire from upstairs, which annoyed Captain Ericson. There was too much shooting, and his people must be running short on ammo.

“Single or short bursts only. The word is conserve.

“I’m out,” Steve confessed, “but I’ve a flame thrower built into my chair.”

“When did you add that to the kit?”

“I rigged it a couple of days ago and named it Novaburn.” He grinned and patted his weapon. “She’ll wipe out whatever is in her path in pretty orange, yellow, and red flames.”

The captain patted Steve on the back. “Let’s skip Novaburn for now. I don’t want the building to catch fire until after we’re gone.”

The basement had plenty of rooms to explore, as well as a few more mercs, but the crew didn’t find any gold ingots.

“Damn,” the captain said. “I wonder whether there’s a sublevel?”

“No elevators or anything looking like an elevator,” Steve said.

“Let’s go back upstairs. Maybe Amanda had better luck than we did.”

Both teams met in the main hall. Amanda didn’t find the gold, but she was singing.

“What’s up with you?” the captain asked.

Amanda hiccupped. “Plenty of booze upstairs. Gin and vodka, just what you’d expect on an agricultural planet. Or on a mining operation.”

“How many times do I have to tell you, no drinking until I begin?”

“Can I get back to you on that?” she asked. “I have to check my notes.” She carefully backed away from the captain.

“Funny that no one tried to surrender,” Steve said. “And every person had a weapon.”

“What sort of business is PMS running?” Captain Ericson asked. “No gold ingots, the bastards. I’d kill any left alive if I had known this was for nothing.”

Amanda wheeled over to them.

“Two things, Captain.”

“What? I only told you no drinking twice?”

“It’s not about drinking.”

“No, it’s never about drinking. How many times do I have to save your petite ass when you’re drunk?”

“Goddamnit, Captain, shut up for a minute. I pulled a collar pin from one of the bodies. Look at what it says.”

Captain Ericson examined the pin. “I don’t have to read it. The shape says everything: T&A.”

Amanda nodded. “We’ve been fighting a messenger service, not mine workers or staff.”

“So they showed up early after all. Well, it didn’t do them much good.”

“That’s the first thing,” Amanda said. “The second is that via infrared I’ve spotted over a hundred T&A thugs in formation outside.”

“A hundred?” The captain cursed heartily. “Did you say a hundred? Where did they all come from?” He set the comm for the Golden Hindquarters. “Hey, you up there. It’s about time we had some covering fire.” After a few seconds without any reply, the captain roared, “Help me, Rhonda!”

Marcia answered. “Rhonda’s too busy for chit-chat. We’re still battling two enemy ships.”

“Still? What’s taking you so long? We could use a little assistance down here.”

“Rhonda knocked out two, but then another ship joined them. Honestly, you’d think we were in the middle of a war.”

“Can you handle them?”

“No problem, but it’s going to take a while. Can you keep your guys at bay until Rhonda is ready?”

“I guess we’ll have to. Comm me when you’re able to come in.”

The captain looked everyone over.

“What’s our ammo situation?”

Half his crew were completely empty, and everyone else had a few rounds at most. The dead T&A mercenaries had handguns and a few rifles lying around, but the recoil from those would be hell on a hovering wheelchair.

One of the crewmembers called out and held up an energy weapon.

“Good find, Natasha,” Captain Ericson said. “It’s a Needlemaster 75, right? Be careful with it; it explodes if you fire too often.”

“I’ve handled them before.” Then she dropped the weapon. “Damned fingers,” she muttered and picked up the Needlemaster 75. “Honestly, Captain, it won’t happen again.”

“That’s all right, Natasha. You’ll do fine.”

“Do you want me to scatter them with the Novaburn?” Steve asked.

The captain shook his head. “Nope, too many bad guys. Of course, it’s another question as to why there would be another hundred of them. That’s way more than needed to handle a shipment, even with extra security. Whatever, we’ll hold out until the Golden Hindquarters is free. Your flame thrower will keep them from entering if they try to rush us. Also, they may try to sneak inside and attack from above.”

He positioned two crewmembers who had the most ammo by the top of the stairway. Steve and two more stood guard by either side of the open doorway.

“At least the T&A people don’t have any heavy weapons.”

That was when the first mortar shell hit the building. The entire structure shook, and plaster rained down on them.

“Okay, people, time for action. Amanda, you found the booze. Make us some Molotov cocktails. Steve, comm the shuttle and have Marks and Sparks attack the T&A troops on one flank. We’ll give those bastards what they deserve.”

Another mortar struck the building.

Steve said, “Marks and Sparks to the rescue. They’ll be here ASAP.”

“Okay, people. Line up behind me and Steve. Amanda, pass out a cocktail as soon as it’s made. When we hear our guys shooting, we’re leaving, so don’t drink the ammunition.”

***

Captain Ericson thought the bridge never looked so beautiful and was glad to be back. It was a rough mission. He lost three crewmembers and for what? Not a single gold ingot, only a bunch of collar pins. The Golden Hindquarters overcame the enemy ships but had sustained serious damage.

All the same, what was happening with PMS and T&A? Did T&A want to take the gold for itself?

Monitoring communications, Marcia provided a few answers.

“The federated government of New Demeter sends its greetings and thanks. Apparently you broke up a plot by PMS, which hired T&A to take over the government.”

“Huh? We took out maybe two hundred fighters, tops, but that’s hardly enough to conquer anything the size of a planet.”

“Not necessarily,” Steve said. “Everything on this planet is on a small scale. Its parliament has only sixty members. And PMS wouldn’t have to wipe out all of them either, only the members opposed to mining. A well-armed force could have overrun a session—if they had surprise on their side. The ships that Rhonda took out would have ferried the bad guys over there as well as subdue the local defense system.”

“No good deed goes unpunished,” the captain mused. “I bet they’ll try to capture us next.”

“The New Demeter message continues,” Marcia said. “They’re ready to offer you a free pardon for all past crimes, in token of their appreciation. The pardon is valid for all the star systems in this region, but there’s a condition. We either have to give back or pay for the Golden Hindquarters.”

“So that’s their game. They can’t capture us outright, so they ask pretty please for us to return our ship. No thanks!”

“I’m getting another message,” Marcia announced. “This is from Quality Grain Exports, the major corporation on the planet. It’s offering to pay the government the money owed for our ship, as a gesture of goodwill.”

“Ha! You mean they want us to promise never to come back. Well, that’s one way of doing it, although I can’t think of anyone trying that before. But what does it mean in the end? The same as before: We leave empty-handed, with three dead crew.”

“Another message,” Marcia groaned.

“What now?” the captain asked.

“It’s from GalEx.”

“Tell them I don’t know anything about any destroyed GalEx freighters. It’s all news to me. I’m shocked and aghast that anyone—”

“Hold on, Captain. GalEx is offering us a contract. Apparently there are too many pirates in this quadrant of the galaxy, and they want to hire us to carry messages from planet to planet. Their insurance bills for lost mail are way too high, and they’re checking alternative means for maintaining their delivery schedules.”

“Goddamn,” the captain said. “It’s becoming harder and harder to be an honest pirate these days. I guess we’re lucky that they don’t want to send us to a nursing home, but the idea of going legit is really tough. Let’s say we have a vote after dinner.”

Everyone agreed, and Captain Ericson wheeled about the bridge while weighing the possibilities of a new life. He stopped when opposite the potted flower. I suppose, he thought, our days of piracy are numbered, and everyone will want to put up decorations and the like if we go into regular work. He felt like grabbing the stalk, pulling it out, and running over the plant. That Lisa! How could she?

He sniffed the blue and white flower, which then said, “Da-da.”

The captain looked around the bridge. No one was paying attention to him, and no one seemed to have heard the plant. He sniffed again, and it repeated, “Da-da.”

Captain Ericson put a finger in the bowl and felt the soil, which was bone-dry.

“Listen up, people! If we have to have potted plants on this bridge, I want them cared for. Lisa, get your butt over here with a watering can. I’m holding you responsible for the damned thing’s well-being.” He contemplated the flower a moment longer. “We better think of a name for it too.” END

Chet Gottfried is an active member of SFWA. ReAnimus Press has recently published three of his novels. His stories have appeared in “Space and Time Magazine,” “Jim Baen’s Universe,” and elsewhere. He is a frequent contributor to “Perihelion.”

 

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