Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
Editor

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


 

 

Originally published in Perihelion Science Fiction. Free science fiction stories, science articles, comic strips, reviews, and more, on the Internet. Every month, Perihelion presents solid stories with strong plots, intriguing characters, with a sense of wonder reminiscent of the classic science fiction pulp magazines from the ’60s and ’70s. Artwork is by award winning illustrators. Articles are by experts in their fields. Established in 1967, originally as a print magazine, by Sam Bellotto Jr. and Eric M. Jones, the magazine was revisioned in 2012 as an online publication, and has been published regularly every month since. For the best in entertainment and information, bookmark Perihelion on your favorites list.

Copyright © 2014 by Richard Wren.

Arena

By Richard Wren

THE PIERCING, CLEAR STAR SLID smoothly up from the unbroken horizon just as it had for uncounted millennia. The light smeared evenly over the unresisting flat landscape, occasionally sparkling on its metallic surface. Many ages had passed since shadows had been seen on this world where the loftiest peaks soared to a single metre in height. The only curve on the land was the surrounding arc of the world’s own edge. No hill or valley marred its perfect symmetry.

This was the airless cinder of a world, blasted with nova-heat by its treacherous sun. A world that had come close to total destruction in a stellar furnace that had stripped off its fertile soils and teeming oceans, almost boiling its very heart. This unfortunate world that was now one of the universe’s freaks. A world of smooth, nearly pure core metal. A small, heavy, airless world. A world called “Arena.”

Freidrich Johanneson could hear the sports commentaries in the next room even over the rumble of the ships braking systems dropping them into orbit. He had heard them all before. In his long career as a professional Dust-gun player he had heard every possible combination of clich├ęs and buzzwords used by the commentators to keep the spectators happy in between battles. He peered out at the approaching battlefield below. He had made it to Arena for four consecutive Olympiads now, but the view of the dazzling world and the ring of television studios and hotels in orbit still set his pulses racing. “The gleaming portals of Arena” as the song had it.

Johanneson smiled. He was thirty-eight years old and this would definitely be his last final at Arena but he would make sure people remembered it. “The Greenman is back!”

He grinned and pushed himself from the window to drift into the next room. His two teammates in the Galaxy-famous “Lunar Emeralds” were relatively new to the interplanetary level but they were both good men. Sam Morgan and David Clinton hailed him as he floated in. They were playing for the cameras but you did that sort of thing at their age. They were both quick-witted and fast, but they needed Johanneson to make them into a team.

“Hey, Freddie!” Sam waved with bravado “You ready to dust off a few Reds with us?”

Johanneson floated up to his comrade, prompting the surrounding cameras to back up for a wider-angle shot. The tableau before them would already be watched by billions across the spiral arm.

“I’m ready when you are, Sam.”

“Mr Johanneson, how would you rate your chances with the Scarlets?” A lone human reporter had manoeuvred out from behind the drifting cameras.

Freidrich smiled. He wished that just one day a reporter would think of a more original way of phrasing this tired old question. Still, you had to keep the fans informed. “Well, the Pansor system has a long tradition of good duster teams and this team is no exception. But I think we’ll give a good account of ourselves down there.”

He waved his dustgun meaningfully.

The cameras zoomed in for a close up, although every fan watching knew perfectly well what a dustgun looked like. The small pistol was used to fire pellets of dust at high speed. In the low gravity, and airlessness of Arena, the dust went into orbit at only a metre or so altitude.

“And what about Garuba, the Scarlets’ captain?”

“Garuba’s one of the best there is. I’ve played him several times at small-scale over at the Antares station.”

“But he’s only one of the best? I seem to recall he beat you at your last meeting.”

Johanneson would not be baited. “That was Antares. This is Arena.”

A light started to flash over the airlock door. The three men gave one last wave to the cameras before getting kitted up in their shining green spacesuits. Camouflage on Arena was strictly against the rules.

“So, while the teams prepare, we can have a closer look at this year’s adaptations of the tools of the trade.” The reporter held a dustgun in one hand and a magnetsole in the other.

“The dustgun is largely unchanged since the last Olympiad. The only new innovation is the fact that the new dust pellets are composed of microgranules rather than solid particles. According to the experts, these little beauties should make the dust cloud spread much faster as it orbits Arena. That will make things a lot tougher for both teams. The aim of the game, of course, is to avoid those clouds at all costs. Once you’re hit by the high speed particles, micropunctures in your suit will rapidly leak your oxygen supply, trigger the suit alarm and after that ... Well, you’re back to the changing rooms with your tail between your legs.”

“Then there’s every duster’s best friend, the magnetsole.” The reporter heaved up an object into view. It had a flat plate and a handle.

“These hand-held magnets are the easiest way to keep moving fast and low over the metal surface of Arena.” He flicked a switch and the magnetsole slammed itself against a metal doorframe, nearly wrenching itself out of the reporter’s hand.

The reporter attempted a smile while flexing his fingers. “And with that sort of pull, it’s hardly surprising that Sam Morgan received a nasty wrist strain earlier in the season. Will that affect his performance today? We’ll soon see as we go live to the surface of Arena!”

***

Freidrich Johanneson didn’t waste time watching the landing craft return to the studios. On the exact opposite side of the planet, the Scarlets had been dropped. Although the Greens knew each Scarlet’s location, it was still dangerous. He hailed his comrades on their private channel. “Okay, I want two bursts each to cover the equatorial zone, then Sam, you head south. Dave comes with me.”

Six green dust pellets shot silently to the horizon. Already they were starting to spread. In ten minutes or so they would be back at this point but the dust lane would be fifty metres across. The dustguns’ memories recorded the time and direction of the shots.

“Well, don’t stand there. Go, go go!”

The three men holstered their guns and scattered towards the poles, taking long low glides over the shimmering metallic surface. The magnetsoles were a strenuous but effective means of locomotion here; they needed muscle power and timing. At speeds of up to sixty kilometres an hour, a duster could pull his arm out of its socket if he forgot to switch off the magnet for the next step. The magnetsoles clumped down heavily between each gliding swoop as, one in each hand, the players heaved themselves across the smooth landscape. Freidrich and David slowed down gradually when they were clear of the equator.

“Hey, Skipper. Red mist at four o’clock!”

They both spun between their two clamped ’soles like gymnasts between parallel bars, slowing with the ease of long practice to turn and see better. A red fog was moving rapidly along the horizon from left to right. “It’s okay. The Reds are scouring out the equator as well. The whole area will be a no-go zone within the hour. Come on.”

The poles were likely to be the clearest and safest places for the time being. Garuba and his boys knew that too. The two Greens approached the north warily. Their concentration was interrupted by the radio.

“Freddie, Dave. I’ve got myself a whole cluster of Scarlets down here. All three of them.”

“Right, Sam. How far are you from the south pole?”

“As close as I can be. I’m lying flat out on the ground. If I budge an inch they’re bound to see me.”

Dave joined in the conversation. “I don’t get it, Sam. Why would they keep the entire team together? They just make a bigger target that way. One fluke hit and they’re all gone.”

“Beats me, Dave. They’re just standing there three abreast with ... Shit!”

“Sam. What the hell’s going on down there?”

“Rapid fire skipper! They’re firing continuously and slowly turning clockwise. The first shots were facing away from me which means ...” He calculated furiously on his gun. “The first salvo should hit you in four minutes from dead ahead then further impacts approaching from anticlockwise as you see it.”

Blitzing the whole planet from one point was a devastating but risky strategy. Johanneson nodded inside his helmet. “Come on Dave, we’re heading south for the winter. Sam, they’re all yours.”

Keeping as low as possible, Sam aimed the dustgun and fired. At this short range, the pellet hardly had time to spread at all. It imbedded itself between the shoulder blades of the middle Scarlet with a silent splat. The cloud exploded soundlessly, concealing the unfortunate target as he was knocked over by the impact. Satisfying but ineffective—only one hit per pellet.

Sam peered through the thick green fog that was slowly settling onto the ground. The other two were in there somewhere, probably unharmed. There—movement! He fired three more times into the emerald nebula. One shot ricocheted off something, forming a green comets’ tail that cascaded down onto the metallic surface, the others just punched holes in the descending mist.

The dust settled quickly on this airless world and Sam crouched tensely as the veils fell to the ground. The whole episode had occurred with such uncanny silence that Sam’s imagination had supplied the sound effects. Now even that was silent. As the scene cleared, two of the Scarlet team were sitting propped against each other, stunned but otherwise unhurt. Their suit alarms started almost simultaneously in Sam’s radio. The third one was nowhere to be seen.

“Sam, you okay?”

“I’m fine skipper. I got two of them. The other one must have done a runner. Are you clear of that salvo?”

“We should be, but how many more did they fire off?”

“Not too many. They can’t have covered an area more than about forty-five degrees. If they were trying to blitz the entire Arena, it was a damn dangerous stunt. The shots would eventually all come back around and smack them in the face.”

“After getting us, though.”

“I guess. Number three can’t have got far. I want to stick around and see if I can find him.”

“Okay. Keep in contact.”

Sam propped himself up on his elbows. He stretched with as much luxury as his suit could accommodate. Time to move on a little way.

Had he not rolled onto his side to pick up his ’sole he would have seen where the blast came from. It was a gale of blood red that sent him rolling and sliding across the ground. When he finally came to a stop and righted himself, the cause was obvious. Two Scarlets sitting propped against each other. A third Scarlet kneeling behind them.

The alarm light inside his suit started to flash. It was red. Damn.

***

“Well, you can’t ask for a more exciting battle than this. The Scarlets were obviously trying for a quick win there, but maybe they were a little too impetuous. This means that the Emeralds have a one man advantage, but they will have to deal with Garuba who is still fighting down there. Join us again shortly when we can ask the men themselves just what happened, when they return from the surface.”

***

Johanneson switched off the public announcement frequency. He and Clinton were immediately aware of Sam Morgan’s fate. Still, he had tipped the odds in their favour. Two Scarlets down, one to go.

“Okay Dave, this is where we split up. On his own, Garuba hasn’t the fire power to continue his blitz strategy. He’s got to head north to avoid his own shots. We’re going to take him from two sides.”

“Okay. What if I take longitude twenty? That should avoid most of the dust.”

“Fine. I’ll take ninety. We should be able to spot him between us. If he’s not in this quarter of Arena, we’ll get together this side of the equator.”

With Dave gone, Freidrich Johanneson made his own shoulder-pulling way south. This was one of the worst parts of the game and Freidrich hated it. It was tedious and exhausting—trying to hunt down a lone man on all this ... he looked around him. All this nothing. Just smooth, tarnished metal and nothing else. The sun would be setting in a few minutes. He squinted at the unwinkinarenag, blue-white glare. The sun. Maybe Garuba would get to this quarter if he could because if he kept to the west of us he would be virtually invisible against the glare of the sun. And the west was where Dave was heading. They could beat Garuba to it.

“David, I’ve had a thought.”

“Skipper?”

“Keep a close look out to the west of you. Garuba may try to approach us with the sun behind him. Suggest you get as far west as you can before you continue south.”

“Will do.”

Arena’s blue star was below the horizon now, but there was still some light from the orbital ring above. Johanneson allowed himself a brief glance at the sky. Up there was the solid band of hotels, bars, television studios, and orbital cameras. Up there were the fans, the reporters, and the pundits. Directly above, the band was still illuminated by the sun. To the east, it became a dark bracelet studded with floodlights and further decorated with lines of lit windows. Up there were comfy seats, viewing lounges, and chilled beers.

Freidrich Johanneson, veteran of four Olympiads, flexed his aching shoulders. “I’m getting too old for this.” he muttered before picking up his ’soles again.

***

The next brief rest for Johanneson was a blessing in the form of Dave Clinton in his headphones.

“I’m heading south at twenty degrees now, skipper. Seen anything at your side?

“Not a thing and, frankly, I’ve had enough of this messing about. I want you to get as close to the Scarlets dust-lane as you can and fire into polar orbit every five degrees as you come back towards me. I’ll do the same from this side. Whether Garuba’s somewhere around here or moving north on the other side of Arena will make no difference. We’ll get him in a pincer.”

“That’s more like it!” Dave Clinton was as bored with the search as his captain. “I’m as good as there already, skipper!”

“Just don’t take any risks with that dust-lane, Clinton!” Dave was good but too headstrong.

David Clinton skimmed over the ground like an emerald catamaran on a still lake. At last they were doing something more positive. The fans didn’t like a slow search and Dave was in full agreement. Action and fancy shooting—that’s what they were paying for. And now they were going to get some. Even the real buffs would appreciate this manoeuvre. Building on the Scarlet’s own attempt at blitzing Arena to trap Garuba on a thinner and thinner slice of ground was a beautiful irony that the fans would ... whoops!

Clinton’s personal reverie was broken and so was his grip on the ’sole. With one ’sole lost, he continued at high speed, but slowly rising from the surface. His first reaction to contact Johanneson stopped short. This was embarrassing—bobbing along, waiting for gravity to reclaim him. Dave thrashed his legs so that his body turned. There was the red dust-lane. His dusters experience allayed the initial panic. On his present course he would sail safely over the top and land with a slight bump on the other side. There was nothing to do but wait the five or so minutes it would take to happen.

He was perfectly safe—as long as Garuba really was on the other side of Arena.

***

Three green pellets flung themselves towards the North Pole before Johanneson continued towards his team mate in the west. The sun was well down now and the brighter stars, not drowned out by the floodlights, could be seen. It was convenient to use a small cluster of three stars near the horizon to keep himself westward bound.

Nearly time for another shot. Johanesson swung around his ’soles and came to a stop. He found due north with his gun then checked the direction visually against his stars. As he looked, a fourth star suddenly burst into life amongst the other three as if something had risen up out of the shadows below into the sunlight. It was bright and green.

Johanneson didn’t need to think twice “Dave, are you okay?”

The reply was muffled and embarrassed. “Er, yeah. Okay, skipper. Had a little problem with ...”

The transmission was cut short as a squirt of red shot up from beyond the horizon. It slammed into the green star and burst into vermillion streamers in the sunlight. Johanneson fired three shots at the source of the red dust but it was unlikely to do any good. Garuba knew that he had given away his position and would be moving now as fast as he could.

Once more the wail of a suit alarm filled the airwaves.

***

“Damn, damn, damn!” Johanneson had hoped for an organised and well controlled ending to the game.

Now with only two men and a whole planet to hide on, it was going to finish as a brawl, a dust-up as the fans called it. Oh, it was exciting for the viewers, all right, but it was damn exhausting for the players. At this stage of the game it was a matter of moving fast, putting as much dust into orbit as possible with rogue dust lanes everywhere. His opponent was ten years younger than him and the Scarlet’s captain was well aware of it.

Seconds after Johanneson’s three shots, he saw the spreading ball of red heading towards him. It had started. With a grunt, he heaved himself across the landscape, half a dozen strides taking him clear of any immediate threat. Each step with the magnetsole was more painful than the last now. He had to stop for a rest. Even the stopping manoeuvre wrenched his shoulders unbearably.

Guessing at Garuba’s direction, he fired over a dozen pellets in a wide fan behind him. He glanced around anxiously. There was no immediate return fire but it was getting very difficult to make out the dust now that the star was well below the horizon. The floodlights above made distant dust lanes shimmer like dim mist in the dark. Faint and insubstantial.

If Garuba had made it to the day side, then his enemy had outwitted him. The Red could, at least, see the dust heading his way. With this depressing thought, Johanneson lay back with his head on the ground to get his breath back. His dreams of a fourth Olympiad success seemed very foolish now. He would be lucky to get out of this without Garuba totally humiliating him. This was far worse than Antares.

A sound snapped him to attention and he swivelled around quickly to look in all directions. Only then did the absurdity strike him. A sound on an airless world? His radio was off so sound was impossible. He leaned down and pressed the metal of his helmet against the ground again. He could hear a regular clanging. Arena was ringing like a bell! It must be Garuba and the sound of his magnetsoles hitting the ground with each step. The sounds were getting slowly fainter which meant he was heading away, but to be heard at all he must be within a kilometre or so. Johanneson cursed silently. It was infuriating not to be able to work out a direction from the noises.

Still, one thing was for sure. Garuba was on the same dark side as he was. That made things a little more even, but Johanneson still remembered that ten years age difference with a heavy heart and heavier arms. He suspected that the same thoughts had prompted Garuba to follow him onto the dark side. The younger man was playing to the crowd.

The frustrations were compounded knowing that Garuba was near but heading away from him. His opponent could be just below the horizon—a matter of thirty seconds by magnetsole!

The dust had been spreading and closing in around him. No wonder the Red was moving off so quickly. Johanneson gripped his ’soles, ready to move then stopped. He was too tired to outrun all the dust now and it was only pride that had made him think otherwise. What he needed was a high vantage point to avoid the dust and see Garuba. And there was only one way to get it.

Against all his training and experience, Johanneson crouched with his feet flat against the smooth surface. Only half his mind had thought this through but he wanted to do it before the other half could object. This was not a position for a Dust-gun player, where keeping low and fast was vital. Before caution could have its say, he sprang upwards launching himself straight up off the planet.

In the dark of night the sun couldn’t illuminate him. As long as he stayed in Arena’s shadow, he was a faint and swiftly rising dot. Below him, breakers of dust rolled over where he had stood. A swirling maelstrom of green and red as dust lanes buffeted and collided.

As the views below broadened, he saw Garuba moving at high speed away from a pincer of two emerald lanes. Johanneson fired three shots which impacted just before the pincer closed.

The suit alarm was like sweet music on the airwaves.

***

Freidrich Johanneson, still rising swiftly, gazed down over the shrinking battle field. This would be his most enduring memory of Arena, a swirling globe of emerald and scarlet, the aftermath of the galaxy’s greatest sporting event. He had wanted people to remember his last Olympiad and they certainly would now. Hopefully, the purists wouldn’t object too much to his unorthodox technique.

Johanneson kicked and twisted his body to look up at the gleaming portals of Arena and wondered if people were watching him right now. Of course they were. And it would certainly give the pundits something new to talk about. He didn’t think that it was actually possible to jump right off the planet but it might take the authorities quite a while to get him down again.

Searching along the slowly approaching band of metal he looked for the large picture window of the main lounge bar.

“I could really use a chilled beer right now.” END

Richard Wren has been writing fiction for the last twenty years. He runs an Environmental Field Centre in the U.K. and teaches biology and astronomy. He has also written a novel based on the Gaia theory and a novella about evolution.

 

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