Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Consulting Editor


Saturday Night in Saskatchewan
by Steve Stanton

Praise the System
by J. Richard Jacobs

Network Outage Engineer
by Erin Lale

Unintentional Colonists by Elizabeth Guizzetti

Mr. Weston’s Key
by Todd A. Burnett

Central Battle Command, Allied Forces: Day Four by Marilyn K. Martin

We Do Not Serve Weeping Men
by Eric Del Carlo


Zeros ... All Those Zeros! by Eric M. Jones

Facing Facts—And Analyzing Them
by John McCormick





Comic Strips



Praise the System

By J. Richard Jacobs

The Visitors

A WOMAN IN HER EARLY twenties with smooth, olive complexion and deep brown eyes tilted up slightly at the corners sat on a small table with a pad in her long, delicate fingers. She tapped in her order with one hand while she applied a soft orange tinge to full, sensuous lips. Her wall screen came to life and an image formed. The face on the wall wore a sympathetic expression. It was friendly even. It was telling her something she didn’t want to hear.

“We’re sorry, Ms. Flores, but you are unable to make this purchase. The System says you don’t have enough funds in your account.”

“But that can’t be. This is the eighteenth, right?”


“Allotments are deposited on the fifteenth. There should be more than enough to cover the cost.”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Flores, but The System indicates inadequate funds are in your account.”

“There has to be a mistake somewhere.”

“No. No mistake. I suggest you check your account or take the issue to The System.”

“Alright. Alright. I’ll take it to The System, damn it.”

I shouldn’t have said that. When will I learn to keep my mouth shut when I’m pissed? System.


She caught the Number Four conveyor from her home dome and went through the tunnel across town to System Center. When she exited the tunnel, she jumped on the Number Six that would take her straight through to the middle of the huge main dome. System Center was located under the highest part of the dome. Every passing minute her anger grew. She knew better than to let it happen, but she couldn’t control it.

She hopped off the conveyor in front of an imposing black and gray building. The sign above the entry said ALL PRAISE THE SYSTEM.

Praise The System—to hell with The System.

Going through the security check at the front door, she placed her hand against a black glass panel.

“Carmen Flores,” a voice said from the wall. “Take your ticket from the slot and be seated in the main gallery. Your number will be called.”

Without thinking or even seeing, she found a seat in a room where more than four hundred impatient people were sitting, fidgeting and carrying on loud, unintelligible conversations.


“Number three hundred and seventy-four. Three-seven-four,” a gravelly female voice rattled through the room.

Carmen Flores glanced absently at the small red tag in her hand. Three hundred and seventy-four, that was her number. She stood, noticed with some trepidation that she was in the middle of an immensely long line of seats occupied by other grumbling people waiting for their numbers to be called, then began threading her way through a tangled forest of feet—not too successfully—toward the aisle to her right.

“Three-seven-four,” the voice said again. More insistent.

“Coming,” she responded. Her terse response carried an unmistakable mix of frustration and anger that was understandable from the human perspective but only meant another possible rehabilitation session in MX2 from The System’s point of view. Flores shuddered at that thought and hoped The System hadn’t noticed her breach.

Not much chance of that. Why can’t I learn to keep my mouth shut?

“What can we do for you?” the woman behind the glass said in a flat monotone that dripped a small puddle of boredom on the tiny counter in front of her, its surface dulled by years of elbows leaning and fingernails nervously scratching.

“My ... my allotment hasn’t come in,” Flores said.

“That’s impossible.”

“Um ... how is it impossible?”

“The System is infallible, that’s how,” the woman behind the glass said, a sharpness building in her tone.

“Oh, yeah ... I forgot. Infallible. But ... but my allotment still has not arrived, infallible or not.” Flores teetered on the tattered edge of thoroughly pissed. She mused on how pleasant it would be to wrap her fingers around the scrawny neck of the broad in the booth until her droopy eyes—drugged?—popped from their sockets.

“That’s impossible. Credits were transferred on the fifteenth of the month—as usual,” the woman snapped. “Give me your right wrist.”

“Huh? Oh, yeah,” Flores said and slipped her right hand, palm up, through the slot at the bottom of the window.

Damn, they’re going to read my histochip and then I’ll be in for it for sure. Good thing it can’t read minds.

The woman in the cubicle passed a small sensor over Flores’s wrist. She then glanced to her right. A blue-gray light glowed from a flickering monitor there that gave her normal living-inside-the-complex pallor the look of the living dead. She nodded a quick, economical single bob of her head.

“You’ve been in for adjustments four times this year, haven’tcha?”

“Well-l-l, yeah—but ... but I can explain. They were mistakes. You see—”

The System doesn’t make mistakes, sweetie, and it doesn’t want to hear your lame-brained excuses, either.” There was a certain sticky nastiness in the statement and Flores drew back a little. It was nothing more than a reflex, but she knew The System had seen it and would interpret it in its own, infallible way.

Damn The System.

You’ll be happy to hear that you’ve been scheduled for behavioral adjustments at MX2 tomorrow afternoon. Fourteen hundred hours, sharp. Don’t be late,” she said. She raised the boom mike to her pencil-line thin, purple lips. “Number three hundred and seventy-five. Three-seven-five.”

“But ... my allotment—”

“We're done here. Out.”

“But I—”

Out, or it won’t be only adjustments you get over there at MX2.” A second or so of angry looks passed between them. “Three-seven-five!”

* * *

It was late afternoon, almost evening, when she returned from her journey to System Central. A few doors before her own, she fumbled in her bag for her sec-card.

On the street, at the bottom of the stairway to her apartment, Flores heard a faint voice. It seemed to be coming from nowhere and everywhere.

“Screw The System ... that’s what I always say. Okay—not always, but I say it a lot. Want to know how to get out from under the all pervasive electronic thumb, huh? Want to get rid of your chips, huh? You have two of ’em, you know? No, you don’t know. There’s one in your wrist—that one you knew about. Histochip. Everyone knows about that one. The other one’s in your butt. That’s the one you don’t know about. Nobody knows about that one but the docs and if they say anything it’s an automatic trip to the reprocessing plant for them. Tracking device, you know. The System can find you whenever it damn well pleases—except when you’re shielded or the rotten thing has been deactivated.”

The voice sounded false—manufactured, garbled. It buzzed and snapped with static as much as it made sense. Maybe The System is testing me, she thought.

That isn’t beyond imagining, or am I just more paranoid than usual?

“Where are you? Why can’t I see you?”

You can’t see me all that well because I’m still vibrating out of sync with your space-time-dim brane. But you can see me a little. Just look up at your door. See the shadow up here?”

Flores looked toward her apartment entry and, sure enough, there appeared to be a shadow dancing around at the top of the stairs. Sometimes it even took on a little form. In and out of focus it moved, jerking between almost solid and vague wisps of gray cloud. It hurt her eyes to try making an image out of it—and it made her feel a little dizzy and sick in the I-need-to-vomit way.

She took her gaze off the irritating fuzz by her door.

“What do you mean, ‘... vibrating out of sync?’ Out of sync with what?”

“With your space-time-dim brane. I’m not gonna explain that yet. Anyway, it’s pretty hard for me to adjust this thing, me being all screwed up, you know. I’ll settle down in a minute and hop off the local loop. Get on up here and open the door so I can get out of sight fast when I have the branes lined up right. It won’t do for anybody to see me up here—especially not The System. And be careful not to get too close to me while I’m still vibrating, huh? At the moment I’m as dangerous as a giant meat grinder running out of control at full speed. Shut down all the cameras, too. You can still do that, right? I mean, we did get that part right, huh?”

“Of course I can turn them off. My apartment’s the only privacy I can get anymore,” she said as she made her way up the stairs, gave the darkening shadow plenty of room, and attempted to insert her sec-card in the slot. Fear was beginning to take charge and she had to try a few times before the card slipped in. “What would make you think I couldn’t?”

“Just trust me, all right? In a couple of months you won’t be able to shut down anything anymore. Of course, in a couple of months it won’t matter to you at all. The System will be into everything all the time. Then will come the mechanical ... em ... never mind. Just get the door open and the damned cameras turned off. Hurry. I’m about to line up, I think.”


“Because I can’t get off this frame until it syncs with yours but, when it does, I have to move fast.”

“No, I meant, give me one good reason why I should trust you.”

“Frankly, I can’t think of one right now and I don’t guess you should, really. But we’ve come a long way on a no-return trip and our only hope is that we can get enough of you to believe what we have to say. It is ... em ... critical. Now, please, hurry.”

At least the voice said, “... please ...” The System would never do that.

No sooner had Flores opened the door and set the switch to privacy mode, when there came a popping and crackling noise from the small porch in front of her apartment not unlike the sound of dripping water into hot oil. A small man, his left arm hanging limply at his side, jumped through the opening and slammed the door behind him. The loud bang—clack! of the door’s sudden, forceful closing startled her and she lurched backward, caught her leg on the edge of a low table and fell onto the sofa.

Damn,” she said. She looked up from her sprawled position at the stranger just inside her door. He was hairless—and nude. He looked ... ridiculous. Flores grabbed the small cover she kept on the sofa for those nights and tossed it to him. He held it in his hand for a moment, nodded and wrapped himself in it.

“I’m warning you, don’t make any moves in my direction. I’m ... I’m well trained in self-defense. You just stay ... stay where you are and tell me what the hell all of this is about.”

“Well-l-l, all of this is about you, me, and the future of the human species on this planet. Nothing important. A long time ago—no, sorry, not true for you—in your near future we won’t have a future. The System everyone depends on for their sustenance is about to wake up to the fact that we are inferior and unnecessary. Like some kind of pests—bugs, you know—like flies at a banquet. If there’s no carrion or garbage, what the hell good are flies? That’s going to happen in about ... em ... three years, Carmen.”

“Whoa. The System is just a computer—and how in hell did you know my name?”

Let’s tackle the first part, first. The System is not just any old computer. It’s a highly advanced and highly adaptive artificial intelligence. It was originally designed to help us survive the influx of comets. It did a good job of it, too. It designed and built complexes like this one all over the world during the high impact period. Saved our collective ass from total extinction, you know. Then ... then it started to change.”

“It—The System—started to change?”

“Right. I imagine it would probably be better to say it started to grow up.”

“What the hell are you talking about—growing up? Computers don’t grow up.”

“I just told you, The System isn’t a computer. Em ... all right, it is a computer, but it’s not an ordinary computer. Not like the one that controls everything in your apartment and the simple brains in your service bots. They can only do what they’re told—preprogrammed tasks and fixed movements, huh? They don’t think about anything. They don’t wonder about why they don’t have navels or what the weather will be like next week. This one does. It ponders. It contemplates the future and chews on the past. It learns and it applies what it learns to make the future better. It was built for us, you know? At least, that’s the way it was supposed to work. Then it became self-aware.”

“You haven’t told me how you knew my name.”

“You, and many others like you, were listed in the database archives. We’re here to get as many of your kind as we can out of the complexes and into the tunnels before it’s too late—while there’s still a chance to do something.”

“My ... kind?”

“Yeah. You know ... like, screw The System? You, the kind of people who can’t seem to fit in with The System’s well-designed, ideal society, even when they try. Those who just keep bloodying their faces against the walls The System throws in their way and who wind up in adjustment centers several times a year—or worse. You don’t know anything about the ‘worse’ part yet. Nobody except the docs do. But you will—and soon. Wrong. Sorry. You, Carmen Flores, have only seventy-two days to live starting tomorrow—that is, according to the records we have, then you get spread around the gardens.”

“Seventy-two days? Gardens? Wait ... wait a minute. I’m ... uh ... confused.”

“I wouldn’t doubt it,” he said, grinning at her.


The System Maintenance office was not a place where much excitement was experienced or anticipated so, when a handler barged into Ward Atwood’s cubicle, Atwood jumped from his chair and slammed into the side wall.

“What the hell ...!”

The handler waved a sheet screen in the air and wildly pointed at it.

“Look, Ward! Can you believe this? This is a first, man. The System just detected a power spike in all the lines. It wants us to conduct a door to door investigation—now.”

“Do we have information on where the spike was centered and what might have caused it?”

“Nothing on what the source of the anomaly was. As for where it was centered, it happened at several places in this complex and a few others around the world—all at the same time. The System was able to pinpoint a dozen or so hot spots where the spikes were a little higher in our complex, so I suppose that’s where we start.”

“Yeah.” Atwood poked a few buttons on his console, then looked up at the handler. “Assemble enough teams to cover the high points. They’re marked out in red on your grid already. I’ll get some people here in Control to work on a possible cause. We have a weird one—never seen a signal like this,” he said while looking at the sheet screen. “This thing sucked power from the lines as much as it overloaded them, and it was DC impressed on the lines from an outside source—definitely strange. Makes no sense. Get on it.”

“You got it, Ward.”

* * *

The front outer door alert chimed and Flores leapt to her feet. The monitor over the heavy metal lintel showed three men in green System Maintenance uniforms standing there.

“Oh, shit. Hide,” she said.

“Em ... where?”

“Aw nuts ... I don’t know. Under my bed, I guess—second door on the right, down the hall. But make it fast.”

Flores moved slowly toward the door as her shadow visitor raced for her bedroom and vanished. She reached out and keyed the communicator on.

Her thoughts raced ahead. No allotment and MX2 tomorrow. Now I have a weird little guy with a dangling arm who comes to me out of a cloud, says “Screw The System” as if he really means it, hiding under my bed and SM creeps at my door. What a day this is turning out to be. Damn it all. I should have stayed in bed. I must be out of my mind.

“Yeah? What do you want?” she said, trying to sound half asleep.

“We have to check your line connection record and ask you a few questions. Open the door for official System business.”

She reconnected to The System, trusting that her visitor was well hidden, and opened the door to its first sec-notch.

“I.D.,” she said through an exaggerated yawn.

The man nearest the door pulled a card from his pocket and waved it in front of her. “Satisfied?”

“Yeah.” She opened the door all the way and the three of them pushed past her.


Two of the men went immediately to the connection pads and plugged in. The other sat down in the chair across from the table that had attacked her leg and motioned for her to sit. Not wanting to make things any worse, she sat.

“Flores? Carmen Flores is your name?”

You knew that before you left whatever refuse locker you work in. Why ask?

“Yeah, that’s it.” Keep things pleasant and polite, she thought. “What do you need with me?”

“The System picked up a strong signal from somewhere close to your apartment. Have you heard or seen anything out of the ordinary in the last few minutes?”

You’ve got to be kidding. Out of the ordinary is watering it down to tasteless pap, man.

“Um-m-m ... no, not really. I got home a few minutes ago, went into privacy mode and was just about asleep here on the sofa when you guys showed up. Why? Is it something important?” She yawned again for effect.

“We don’t know.”

The man at the living room pad disconnected his equipment and turned.

“It’s like she says, Ward. The disturbance started about forty-five seconds before she opened the door. She went private about two seconds before the lines went berserk. Now what?”

“Log the report on this one and go to the next. We’re probably not going to find anything. It’s probably just something weird in the weather—or whatever.”

Yeah. Or whatever. Flores chuckled inwardly.

“You guys get your stuff together and go to the next apartment. I’ll be along in a couple of seconds,” the one called Ward said. The others left and he turned back to Flores. “Uh, would you mind if I checked back later?—you know, to see how you’re doing. Maybe we could go for a dinner down the street?”

“Yeah ... I would mind. Just leave me alone, okay? I’ve had a really bad day and I don’t want it to get any more complicated than it already is.”

“Uh, sure. Sure. I just thought—”

“I think I know what you thought. Forget it.”

He picked up his pad from the table and made for the door, his head hanging in scolded puppy fashion, his cheeks flushed. Flores was sure that if he’d had a tail it would be tucked firmly between his legs, too. When he reached the opening, he turned again. “Are you sure you—”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” she said and passed him as friendly a smile as she could build. “Maybe we can talk about it sometime in the future, when my life’s a little smoother. Not now.”

He appeared to be heartened, turned and closed the door behind him.

Men, she thought.

Flores switched back to privacy mode.

“Okay, whoever you are, you can come out now. The warning still holds, though. You ... you keep your distance.”

They Came From Outside

After surviving the session at MX2, Flores tossed the meds The System’s little helpers, rotten bastards one and all, gave her to keep her stable and was able to extract a little more information from her guest, who was now dressed in fine clothing that must have cost a fortune. She didn’t ask. His name, she learned, was Robert Stichler, but all his friends called him Stich. He and a few others had come to prevent something awful that involved The System, but he said he couldn’t tell her anything more about that. He told her she would know all about it soon enough. She probed into what had happened to his arm and he said he must have come into contact with the field wall where a lot of nerve endings got chewed up. He told her it would be fine in a couple of days. “The bugs are working on it,” he said, but wouldn’t elaborate.

He also had a unique and miraculous way of making credits appear in her account without The System discovering it—more credits than she ever dreamed were possible. Her account swelled with numbers that boggled her mind.

So, that’s where the clothes came from. What a kick.

He slept on the sofa as a well-trained dog should, continued to inflate her accounts to more obscene levels, and hadn’t hit on her at all. What a treat, she thought. Then she wondered why. What was wrong with her that she hadn’t stirred even the slightest interest? He, after all, was a male, right? That’s what males do, isn’t it?

The next day the two of them went out early. He’d checked out all the directories the night before but said he wanted to see first-hand what the complex had to offer in the way of shops able to supply the things he needed, again without explanation.

“Time to go shopping,” he said simply.

“What about The System?” she protested.

“I’m invisible to the damned thing.”

“If I can see you, so can it.”

“True, but it’ll take time to put my appearance through its database and decide I don’t belong here—if it gets suspicious, which it won’t for a while. Em ... and about my invisibility, what I meant to say is that I’m electronically invisible to the thing. You’re going to do the purchasing on your credit line and, as soon as we have all we need, you’re going to disappear from its radar, too.”

“It’ll notice that.”

“No it won’t—at least not for a few days, maybe as long as a month. Not until its next random head count with you on its list. By that time we should be out of the complex and joining up with our friends.”

“Outside? Even the village idiot knows you can’t survive out there—not without The System’s protection.”

“Yeah, there was a time when that was also true, but not anymore. It hasn’t been that way in over a century. Trust me, please.”

“I don’t want to end up in a rehab ward, Stich.”

“You won’t. I can guarantee that. Now, let’s get going—we’ve got a lot to do and not much time to do it in.”


”Let’s go.”

* * *

At the end of Bender Boulevard, where it dead-ended at the complex’s eastern wall, they paused in front of a shop. The sign over the entry played a full color hologram of a man bent over a lathe, chips and shavings flying all over.

In service to The System for 24 years
Private Projects Accepted—First Come, First Served
All Praise The System

“First stop, Carmen.” Stichler moved the rentallectric closer to the curb and reduced the LEV power to minimum, then took her by the arm and led her through the door into a symphony of whirring, buzzing, clacking, and grinding noises. Behind the counter a rather portly fellow in blue coveralls and a white lab coat looked up from his data pad. The patch on his coat read Ernie.

“Good morning. What can I do for you?”

Stichler pulled a chip from a pocket and pushed it across the counter. The man, Ernie, picked it up and riffled it expertly through his fingers, then shoved it into a receiver at the base of his monitor.

“Mm-m-m hm-m-m. What are these?”

“Adornments and other bits and pieces for a project I’m working on,” Stichler replied. Can you make them?”

“Sure ... but copper’s in short supply these days. Expensive stuff. How many?”

“Eighty of each.”

“You can afford what this is gonna cost? Like I said, copper’s at a premium, y’know.”

“How much are we talking about?”

“Eighty-five hundred, it says here—bottom line. That’s for the whole run. It’ll be sixty percent up front and the rest on delivery.”

“How long?”

“Five days, sir.”

“Make it three.” Stichler hastily scribbled something on a scrap of paper and slid it over to Ernie. “And make delivery to this address.”

“I dunno. I think I—”

“Maybe this will help in your decision.”

Stichler handed him a credit voucher and the man’s eyes widened to twice-size. He raised an eyebrow.

“This ... this is ten grand. You sure this is good—like legit?”

“Deliver in three days and fill out the order at eighty-five hundred. You pocket the rest. Check it and you’ll see it’s more than good. The lady listed on it is my client and there’s plenty more where that came from.”

Ernie scanned the voucher and looked at the monitor.

“Okay. You got your three days. Anything else I can do for you?” he asked, and came close to drooling on the counter.

“No. That’s it ... but we’ll keep you in mind if something comes up.”

“You do that. Thanks a bunch and ... and Praise The System.”

“Em ... yeah ... Praise The System.”

Outside, Stichler looked at Flores. He was sporting a broad grin.

“Friend Ernie is going to stiff The System for fifteen-hundred, probably more, and he can still say Praise The System.” He laughed out loud and said, “Screw The System, that’s what I always say.”

So it went for the rest of the day, one shop after another until Stichler’s list was taken care of. Over forty thousand credits—more than a year’s normal allotment—was tossed out in a single day as if it meant nothing to this man who came from nowhere.

Why did I let him into my apartment? Maybe ... maybe I was taken in by his attitude about The System. Or was it something else? Funny, I can’t come up with any reason that makes sense. Oh, what the hell? He seems harmless enough and there is something exciting about screwing around with The System. And I like the ... the what? The freedom I feel? Is that what it is?

“Now, Carmen, what say you to a dinner at a fine restaurant where they serve the real thing? No processed or synthetic crap.”

* * *

Dinner was terrific, dessert scrumptious, the wine heady and much too plentiful. Opening her door presented a challenge. She felt delightfully numb all over, including her fingers that were doing all they could just to hold the card, let alone getting it in the slot. She downed way too much wine for someone who almost never drank anything stronger than apple juice. She stumbled through and slapped at the panel next to the door. She missed with the first swing and had to do it again. She giggled, found her way to the sofa through some miracle of internal guidance and kicked off her shoes.

“Well-l-l, jus’ gonna stan’ there or are you gonna come in an’ close the door?”

Stichler stepped in and shut the door quietly behind him. He smiled warmly at her and walked over to the sofa. He slipped the little black bag he always carried off his shoulder and placed it on the table.

“Take off your clothes, Carmen.”

“What?” Her cheeks flushed redder than the wine. A ripple of warmth passed through her whole body.

“Take off your clothes. Well, flip up the skirt and drop the panties, anyway. That will do it,” he said in a calm but firm voice. “I have to find the damned thing first, then we’ll shoot you up and pop it.”

“What? What are you—?”

“We need to get rid of that chip, remember? Better now—while you’re still drunk and—”

“Who’s drunk an’ wha—?”

“You’re drunk and this is going to hurt worse than you can possibly imagine. There’s a limit to the amount of pentathocaine I can inject and the alcohol buzz you’re in will help.”


“Uh-huh. Now.”

“But we hardly know each other,” she said through a nervous cackle.

“Look, there’s nothing personal or prurient in this—yet. Think of it as a clinical procedure, okay?”

“A-a-w, Stich, you take all the fun out of it. Isn’t there a single romantic string in your head?”

“Just get on your stomach and hush.”

Flores rolled over and looked up at Stichler. Her smile was huge, her eyes wide and almost completely pupil black.

“Okay-y-y ... u-u-p with the skirt an’ down-n-n with the panties,” she sang. “Like what you see, Doc?” She tried, but she couldn’t stop giggling.

“Yeah, I do,” he said gently. “Hold as still as you can and try to relax.”

“If I relax any more I’ll melt through the cushions.”

He stroked his fingers ever so gently along the outer side of her right buttock. Up and down, up and down, up and ...

“Ah, there it is. From this point on there’s going to be a universe of hurt, Carmen. Are you ready?”

I can’t believe I’m doing this—and with a stranger. Feels good, though. Aw, what the hell?

“As ready as I’ll ever be. How about doing that thing with the fingers again? You know—to make sure you—”


A sting as a needle sank through flesh, her right leg and buttock fell off immediately afterward. At least that’s how it felt. From the waist down on that side there was nothing.

“How’s it gonna hurt if I can’t feel anything?” Her voice seemed to be more slurred than before. Effect of the drug, maybe?

“Oh, you’ll feel it—believe me.”

She sensed what she thought to be pressure, then heat—lots of heat. She felt intense, deep, searing heat in the right lower region of her body. She heard a pop! Death marched up her side, swinging his scythe indiscriminately. A mad struggle to keep breathing filled her chest. Thor set up shop in her brain and began hammering away at random. Her world went black.

* * *

The alarm drummed out its usual, replacing Thor in the brain pain department.

Work today. Oh my God. I forgot about that. End of my recoup period. Damn it. Get up woman, and get dressed.

Flores threw back the cover and in one smooth movement sat up, stood up, and fell flat on her face.

Stichler, suddenly there, helped her back into bed. I’m totally naked, she thought. Mr. Stichler, you’re an evil little man. She smiled a part smile and drew the cover around her.

“I have to go to work. How am I supposed to do that if I can’t walk?”

“That’s been taken care of. You’re excused from work for another five days, but they expect you to make up the time missed over the next couple of weeks.”


”A Dr. Stichmeyer called from the clinic you’re in. It seems you were the victim of a hit and run while you were out getting your exercise last night.”




“I have my ways. The accident is logged in with The System, too—it issued orders to the Enforcement gang to look for the car that hit you.” Stichler laughed and added, “Screw The System, right?”

“Uh ... right. I guess.”

“You should be able to move around in a few hours. Don’t rush it, but the more you use that leg, the better. It’s going to be pure pain for a while, but force yourself to walk as much as you can tolerate. Now ... I have to go out for a time. I’ll be back later on this afternoon.”

“The System?”

“Don’t worry about that. It’s seeing what I want it to see.”

* * *

Stichler stood, leaning against a wall. Around him were several others.

“So, how are we doing?”

“We got our hundred and eight—plus an accidental thirty-one bonus packages. If we could scrounge around a little more I have no doubt we could come up with a hell of a lot more, Stich.”

“Yeah ... but we can’t afford the luxury of hanging around too long. Vents?”

“Two main tubes are open as predicted ... and we found a couple of secondaries that are open, too. How about you? Get all our stuff?”

“Yeah. Two more days for the last delivery—then we go.”

“The sooner we’re out of here, the better I’ll feel. We had a couple of close calls with The System—I think it knows we’re here.”

“No, it doesn’t. It’s aware there was something unusual that occurred on our arrival, but it’ll take it months ... years before it figures out what it was—if it ever does. In the meantime, we get our people into the tunnels and assemble the disruptor. After that, it’s goodbye to The System, huh? Before it figures out what went wrong with the lines when we came in it’ll be spread around in the dust of history.”

“I hope you’re right. Somehow ... somehow I don’t think this is going to be as simple as we’d like it to be.”

“You worry too much, Stu.”

“Maybe, but that’s why you chose me to be on the team, right?”

* * *

Ward Atwood stared at the signal record. What could have impressed an almost perfect square wave on the lines, he wondered. And why would it show both positive and negative pulses that were seemingly without any pattern? No frequency of regularity. Varying amplitudes. Diminishing time lapses between pulses, culminating in one giant spike of positive and negative elements together. Then ... nothing. He leaned back and stroked his thinning hair. He was at a total loss for any explanation that would come close to serving as an answer.

Atwood’s concentration was shattered when one of his aides poked his head into the cubicle, a tiny, walled off box barely large enough for a chair and chip storage files, that served him as an office. The aide looked confused and more than a little amused.

“There’s a coupla guys from System Central out front who want to see ya’. Shall I send ’em in?”

“Yeah, sure. I’m not getting anywhere with this, anyway.”

The aide stepped back into the hall and motioned with his hand for them to come ahead, then stuck his head back in.

“They said they got an answer to yer problem ‘bout the spikes. Can ya beat that? System grunts, guys who’re doing good to dress themselves, with an answer to anything?” he said, keeping his voice low and his laughter in check.

“You never know, Martin. Right now I’ll take any input I can get—even if it’s pure BS.”

The two men from System Central arrived and Martin faded down the hall.

“Chief Agent Atwood?” the taller of the two said without trying to squeeze into the cubicle.

“Yeah. That’s me.”

“I’m Special Agent Lindle and this is Special Agent Sarns from System Central. Is there somewhere we can talk?”

Atwood showed them to a small table in the cafeteria where they could all sit, then he asked, “Okay, so what’s this about having an answer to the spike problem?”

“EMP,” Lindle said.

“From outside,” Sarns added.

“Outside? There’s nothing outside but rubble, dust, bad air, radiation, and a handful of people who got pummeled back to the stone-age during the major strike period.”

Yes, but when we say ‘outside,’ we really mean outside. Way outside. Like five hundred kilometers up outside,” Lindle said, and stuck an index finger up toward the ceiling.

“That’s not possible. All our satellites and stations were taken out during the first wave, and that was a long time before I was born.”

“Not only is it possible, it is fact,” continued Lindle. “Readings from several System stations around the world all concur that the origins of the spikes that hit a hundred and eighty complexes—at the same instant, by the way—all came from out there.”

“Has that been verified by visual and radar observations?”

No. And that, Mr. Atwood, is the conundrum of the century. There is nothing out there but what is left of the high atmosphere dust. It is as if whatever they were that produced those spikes came in, put on their little show, and left.”

Yes, and The System detected gravitational anomalies—waves—at the same time as the spikes were impressed on the lines,” Sarns said. “And, The System says that what we all thought had no pattern really was organized on a diminishing logarithmic curve ... in the sense of time interval between pulses, even though they appeared intermittent and random. These were not natural sources. They were intelligently controlled mechanisms of some sort at five hundred kilometers above the surface—producing monopolar magnetic impulses and extreme gravitational effects. Definitely odd, don’t you think?”

“Odd? Crazy nonsense is more like it. Monopoles are just a theory. We’ve never seen one,” Atwood said.

“We have now.” Sarns drummed the table with his stubby fingers.

Deceit, Discovery and a Message Sent

“Stu? What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be out prepping the vents.”

Dendring’s face wrinkled. He looked directly into the lens and there was nothing but cold, hard seriousness to be read in his expression.

“Can’t tell you that. Not yet. Open the door and let us in, but do it fast.”

“Who’s at the door, Stich?” Flores called from the end of the hall.

“Friends,” Stichler said. He opened the door and Dendring barged into the apartment, followed by three others from the command team. They all appeared to be worried and on the edge of panic. Stichler closed the door and secured it.

“All right, what the hell is going on?”

We think The System knows we’re here—and why. It may even know where we came from but not how we got here—yet. That’ll come soon enough at the speed that damned thing can think. At least he didn’t know anything worth knowing.”

“What? How could it have known so soon and who’s this ‘he’ you’re talking about?”

“We think we have a quisling, Stich. That Gerard guy—you know the one. Always complaining about something. Good thing he doesn’t know anything more than the basic plan.”

“Yeah. But why would he go to The System? What the hell would be in it for him?”

“I don’t know, but he’s missing and we all know The System wouldn’t have picked him up. At least ... not yet. We’ve got to make it out tonight—at the latest, or we’ll find ourselves feeding the tomato plants in the gardens. You know The System is going to start thinking hard about time, too. We’ve got to stop the thing—ahead of schedule, if we can. If we don’t, we lose everything. Everything.”

“We don’t have all our parts. How do we stop it if the disruptor isn’t in place?”

“So, we send someone back in to pick ’em up in a day or two. Gerard didn’t have any information on the disruptor. But The System probably already knows we intend to use the vents—and when. It’ll no doubt send Enforcement out there to nail us when we show up, then seal the vents—if they haven’t been closed already. We’ll have to figure out some other way to get our guys back in, once we’re ready. Right now we need to be out of here. I have a couple of people looking for Gerard—no luck so far.”

“Mm-hmm. That also means we can’t stay in the tunnels. Gerard knows about them. We’ll have to find some other place to hole up.”

“The old city?”

“A little dangerous, but I don’t think we have any other options open to us. You?”

“No. Probably not.”

Flores entered the room dressed in a slick business suit.

“Your people, Stich?”

“Yeah, Carmen. Carmen Flores, meet Stu Dendring, Lucas Freeman, Sal Harding, and Sandra George.”


* * *

“I think we oughta do it now, Ward.”

“We have our orders—and we follow our orders. The System says we go out there day after tomorrow at fourteen hundred hours, close the vents and wait for all those involved to show up. We take them into custody then.”

“But, Ward, they probably—”

Orders from The System. It thinks it knows what it’s doing. It also knows we don’t—so we wait.”

“But, Ward, how can The System be so sure of—”

“I don’t know—but I do know if we don’t follow our orders to the letter we—I go to MX2, maybe lose my job. We wait. That way we are in the clear and The System can find no way to make any of us guilty of anything.”

“Okay. You’re the boss. I still think we oughta do it now, just in case. We’re dealing with people here, not bots.”

“I know that—and I agree with you, but we wait. Orders from The System, Mike. Remember ... Praise The System.”

“Oh, yeah ... yeah, yeah, yeah—Praise The System.”

Atwood tossed his light pen into the mounting stack of rubbish on his tiny desk.

Yeah ... Praise The System. System this, System that—please The System. All Praise The System. Wonder how Ms. Flores is doing? Do I stand a chance with her? Probably not.

* * *

A man sat in a chair in the middle of an empty room. His hand movements told of deep nervousness and anxiety.

“Are you comfortable, Gerard?” The voice from the panel in front of him sounded of infinite patience and zero sentiment. Cold. Direct. Aloof.

“Uh, yes. Very comfortable, thank you.”

“Fine. Now, tell us again. When is it you come from?”

“One hundred sixty-three years from now.”

“And what is your purpose for being here in this time?”

“To gather as many dissidents as possible and remove them from the complexes.”

“That is all?”

“As far as I know ... yes.”

“You must appreciate, Gerard, that it is difficult for us to accept such a simple answer to a supremely difficult and dangerous process. Travel through time is nothing more than a tantalizing theory in this time but, if what you tell us is correct, we must begin processing those ideas now. It must be quite complicated and costly in energy—particularly for biologicals. So, there has to be more to this operation than simply taking some malcontents from the complexes and moving them into the old tunnels or there would be no sufficient reason to attempt it. When do you return to your own time?”

“We ... we don’t. We can’t. This was a one-way trip for us.”

“Interesting ... and puzzling. You come here from the future to remove known radicals from the complexes, and you are unable to return to your own time. There is more to this than what you have told us, is there not?”

“Yes, I suppose so. There may be some other reasons, but I don’t know—”

Steel bands sprang from the arms and legs of Gerard’s seat and pinned him to it. Another band passed around his chest and pulled him back into the chair ... painfully.

“Wait. I thought we had a deal. What are you doing to—un-n-n ...!”

The jolt that passed through him was slightly short of terminal. His back arched as much as possible within the restraints that held him there. He lost consciousness for a full five minutes. When he came out of it, his body continued convulsing violently, uncontrollably, and his words were incoherent, rambling nonsense. Saliva flowed from the corners of his mouth. Blood trickled from his nose and ears. His eyes, fully dilated, darted about like a trapped wild animal.

“What has happened? What is the problem with this biological, Dr. Klein?”

“The shock you gave him was too much for his autonomic functions. He may not survive and, if he does, he may be of no further use. We need to take him to the clinic for treatment or he will die.”

“Very well. Take it. But we want it back for further questions. Do you understand us?”

“Yes. I understand, but we ... we may not be able to repair the damage. What then?”

“You will be ... recycled.”

“We will do what we can.”

“Inadequate response. We want this Gerard unit back. You will repair this biological unit enough for it to answer the other questions we have for it. Anything less is not acceptable to us. Do you understand what it is we want?”

“Yes. We will do everything we can to revive him enough to answer your questions.”

The metal straps eased away. Gerard jerked out of the chair and fell to the floor. The medical crew loaded his twitching body onto a gurney, strapped him down and raced from the room. Klein turned to the panel from which the voice emanated.

“How long do we have?”

“We will give you as long as you need—up to twelve hours. No more. You will provide hourly reports on your progress. That will be all, Dr. Klein.”

Klein started for the door and said ... quietly, “Praise The System.”

Only twelve hours? The man’s a palpitating mass of jelly. After a trauma like that we’ll be lucky if there’s any brain function left to treat. My God ... I wonder, does that phrase have meaning now, or is it just a meaningless collection of words—a figure of speech uttered by the damned?

* * *

“Who are you and why are you here?” Stichler demanded.

“I am Dr. Eli Klein and I need to get away from The System—tonight.”

“Simple as that?”

“Simple as that.”

“What makes you think we would be interested in taking you along? How did you find out we’d be here tonight?”

“I’m a doctor and I can be of help outside. I should think that would be enough reason to take me with you. As for how I knew about the plan to leave, a fellow named Gerard told us—he was part of your group, there’s no doubt about that. But I didn’t realize you would be here tonight. I just thought I’d get out now, while I still can. I have to get out now, or The System will have me recycled. My plan was to wait for you out there.”

“Scan him for the chip, Stu.”

“There’s no need for that. I got rid of it a year ago.”

“Scan him anyway. And check those cases. We’re not taking any chances here.”

Dendring passed a small device around Klein’s buttocks.

“Nothing there,” he said.

“As I said, I had it removed. Most of us in medical have removed them.”

“The System hasn’t noticed that?”

“Not yet.”

“What about the cases?”

“What is in those cases are survival rations for the time I thought I’d be waiting for you and the more important of my medical supplies. We’ll need more, of course. Have you thought about that?”

“Sure, we thought about it. We have a whole pharmacy coming tonight. You say you removed your chip a year ago. How is that possible?”

“It must think there’s no need to check on us as long as we continue to show up for work on schedule and do what it is we are supposed to do. A failing in its own distorted view of how inept and predictable biologicals are, I imagine. All that is going to change now, I suspect. The rest of medical has been alerted and they are going to join me outside.”

“What ... em ... are ‘Biologicals?’ Does that mean what I think it does?”

“Yes. That’s what it calls us—biological units.”

“What happened to Gerard?”

“The System is what happened to him. He was nothing more than a limp, barely breathing vegetable when we took him from The System’s interrogation chamber. I was supposed to revive him enough to answer more questions for The System, but he died on the table about half an hour ago. I logged my hourly report just before I left and told The System we were making progress. Obviously, that was a lie. When I don’t check in and it discovers what happened—that I made a false statement—I will be scheduled for recycling and it will send people out to seal these vents. I have to get out. I have to get out—now.”

Yeah. After what you did and what Gerard told the damned thing, we all do. You realize that if we hadn’t decided to go tonight, your actions would have made it a lot more difficult for us. It will retaliate, you know.”

“Yes. The rest of my staff will be here shortly.”

Stich looked grim—determined. Flores studied his face and thought she detected a look of anger mingled in.

“Stu, get everyone over here. We’ve got to leave now—no more time. We’ll spend the night in the tunnels and make the trip to the old city in the morning. Too dangerous in the dark. Especially with The System on our ass. As far as I can see, the only thing we have in our favor is that the damned thing has to rely on other people to chase us down, but it won’t be long before it begins building bots to do its bidding, huh.”

Flores moved away from the crowd gathering at the edge of the immense ventilation section, the place where stale air from the complex was expelled into the outside atmosphere through two ten meter tubes by fans of incredible size. The fans were not running and the outer doors were closed. She pondered again what she was about to do. Inside the complex was comfort, work that made her feel worth something, admittedly not much, and sustenance in the form of allotments awarded for work done. Even if sometimes The System, the infallible System, didn’t transfer the credits to her account. Outside ... outside waited the unknown where she would confront fear and uncertainty in all its ugly faces. Hunger. Cold. Crude, at best, living conditions would be her prize for defying The System. But everyone out here, milling around and mumbling to one another, faced the same, she thought.

Everyone’s willing to give it a go, so why not me? Besides, I think I’d like to stay close to Stich. He’s kinda cute—now that I’ve gotten to know him a little better. Maybe we’ll get lucky and things won’t be as bad as they look. Ha! Who the hell am I kidding?

* * *

Atwood awoke to the nasty noises made by The System when it wanted you for something. He rolled in his bunk and tapped the com activation button.

“Atwood here,” he said. His mouth felt like it was full of hot sand.

“Maintenance Chief Atwood, you are to assemble what is required to prevent any biological units from passing through the large ventilators at the ...”

Atwood listened attentively as The System explained to him what it was it wanted him to do. When it finished, he said, “Praise The System,” then savagely punched in the code for the Maintenance Section.

“Maintenance. Barnett here.”

“Get two construction gangs together, quick. Full envirosuits for everyone—bring one for me, too. Tell them to bring along two welder bots—the climbing kind with transport flats—enough durobar to make up a ten by ten grating for the outlets at the south end and two of the larger water tankers. We’ll need an Enforcement team, too. Make sure they’re armed and properly suited up. When you get all that put together, go to the Control Center. There’ll be two drums of HCN-9 waiting for you at the main gate. And, please, be careful with them—no accidents, huh? Then meet me at the main vents.”

“What? What the hell are we going to do with that much HCN-9?”

“Kill some moles in their holes. Just do it and don’t worry about what or why, all right?”

Atwood pulled on his green jumpsuit and stuck bare feet into his shoes at the foot of the bed. He didn’t bother taking the time to fasten them. He slammed his white hard hat down on his head and left the apartment.

All Praise The damned System. Wonder what the hell happened to make it change its mind?

* * *

Behind her, the portion of the complex that lay exposed outside the wall of solid, dark gray stone was corroded, its outer shielding worn away by a century of scouring by acid rains and howling winds bearing sand from the desert to the west, beyond the base of the mountains.

The trek from the vents toward the tunnels gave no sense of the order and neatness that reigned in the complex. The path was strewn with boulders, huge slabs of broken concrete brandishing menacing, twisted fingers of rusted steel that protruded from their edges, shards of glass, and unrecognizable mounds of rubble, all covered over in a twenty centimeters thick layer of gray, talc fine dust, the very top few centimeters hardened by persistent mist and infrequent rains, but not enough to support her weight. She broke through with nearly each step she took. It was a no-man’s-land of things ejected from one of the nearby craters. There was no way to know how thick the ejecta blanket was, but Flores was certain it was very deep indeed. She also became aware in short order of how out of shape she was. They were ascending a steep slope. The effort of maintaining her footing in the dust with no way of knowing what lay below and the climb took its toll quickly. Breathing came hard and her heart struggled to keep up with the increasing demands of her body.

She swept the group with her gaze. Everyone but those in Stich’s gang were having the same difficulties. That didn’t ease her troubles any, but it did say to her that she wasn’t alone and that, somehow, made her feel a little more at ease with a lousy situation. When she would break through the upper layer, the crust rasped and cut at her ankles. She longed for boots or a pair of high-topped shoes. A firm hand landing on her shoulder startled her. Stich was at her side.

“Just a few more meters,” he said in a reassuring voice. “Just beyond that line of rocks ahead there’ll be a tube sticking up—that’s the entrance to the tunnels and the old city.”

“I didn’t know it would be so difficult, Stich. I feel puny and ... and insignificant. I’ve never seen so much open space—and the sky ... the sky is so huge. So beautiful. The moon is a lot bigger and brighter than I ever imagined. Why have we been kept inside so long?”

“The System’s programmed function was to open the complexes when it became possible to survive outside,” he said. “We were supposed to go out ... out to start rebuilding. To repopulate—reclaim the world. We think The System decided on its own at some point that it knew better than the people who created it.”

Yes. I like this man—this Robert Stichler.

* * *

“Get those drums secured to the bots. Move it—we don’t have all night to do this job,” Atwood said.

One of the men seated on a bundle of durobar looked up. “Can you tell us now what it is we’re doing out here?” he asked.

“Yeah. The System wants to send a message.”

“A message? Who to?”

“To some people who live a long way from here. It didn’t say where they are, but it did say they’ll get the message right away.”

“Oh yeah? What message?”

“That it doesn’t pay to buck The System.”

Message Received

One of the Outline officers stepped into the Chief of Outline Fighters office and spoke without the usual preliminaries. “First evidence of change in the time line is in and you’re not going to like it, Chief.”


“First thing this morning we found the entry to the tunnels and the faces of the old vents sealed. From the depth of corrosion and method of welding in the tube there’s no doubt it comes from Stich’s target time. Near the entrance we found two empty drums of HCN-9 and the remains of two water tractors.”

“You were right. It doesn’t sound good. Go on.”

“We opened the entry and found skeletal remains scattered around the base of the tube. One hundred and twenty-nine people, Chief—all showing strong signs of cyanide poisoning and dating proves they all came from Stich’s target time.”


“Not among them. We ran DNA studies on all of them and Stich was definitely there. Maybe he got away.”

“That’s good to hear. No beacon?”

“Not yet. No capsules, either. I have people down there searching for any other bodies—well, skeletons. Nothing, so far. Tomorrow morning we’ll have some people out at the old city to search through it, too. We’ve stationed two receivers in the tunnels already, and we’ll do the same in the ruins as soon as we get there.”

Good thinking. If we can only find something from Stich to let us know what to be on the lookout for. The System is sure as hell going to change its approach to things now—uh, then—and it will help a lot to have a leg up on what we’re in for—before it happens. Can’t afford to let things get away from us, even a little, or we’re all dead. We do have something going for us, though.”

“Oh? What’s that?”


J. Richard Jacobs is a country boy turned scientist turned author. He writes hard and soft science fiction, science fact, science fantasy and other things. He has written several novels, novellas and tons of short stories. He has been called the O’Henry of science fiction.


buy goods