Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Talus Slope
by Joseph Green

Who Benefits From War?
by Hayden Trenholm

Those Magnificent Stars
by Clare L. Deming

A Soldier Undreams
by Bret Carter

Eating Disorder
by Len Dawson

My Shaigetz
by Marcy Arlin

Two Timing
by Rik Hunik

To Dance With the Girls of Ios-5
by Ted Blasche


Psychology and Science Fiction
by Ann Gimpel, Ph.D.

Get Up and Go Somewhen
by J. Richard Jacobs

In Time For Evolution
by Eric M. Jones




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Eating Disorder

By Len Dawson

WHEN I GOT TO THE CRIME scene the medical examiner was kneeling on the floor next to the victim, poking around in a gaping hole where the poor guy’s stomach should’ve been. And judging from the guy’s injuries, he’d been killed by just the sort of doomsday thing I’m paid to watch for but hope I never find.

I learned about the dead man while working on my weekly status report when Josh, our techie who monitors the communications passing between several other government agencies, yelled, “Got one, Ron,” from his cubicle across the room.

I hurried over to his desk to ask him why he thought it was an event.

“Because,” he said, “the cop who called it in said most of the victim’s midsection was missing. He said it looked like the guy had swallowed an explosive device and it went off.”

Brenda, our receptionist, had heard Josh call to me, and by the time she’d joined us the commotion had also caught the attention of our boss, Dennis, who made a rare and unwelcome appearance, coming out of his office to yell, “If you people don’t have enough work, I can make some more staff cuts,” as he headed our way.

Josh scribbled a note and handed it to me just before Dennis pushed his way between me and the others like a predator culling me from the herd.

“What the hell’s going on?” he demanded.

Brenda, bless her heart, tried to distract him by saying, “I’m taking donations for John’s wife. She had a baby yesterday.”

Dennis turned around to face her and repeated the phrase, “Taking donations?” as though he couldn’t understand why anyone would do that.

By way of an explanation she said, “It’ll probably cost a little more, but I thought we’d get them something fun instead of the usual baby shower stuff.”

Dennis told her, “Well, make it quick,” then spun around, poked me in the chest and said, “I want to see you in my office.”

Then he added, “Now,” forcefully, and told the others, “Get back to work,” before storming off.

I had a pretty good idea what to expect and knew I wouldn’t like it, but did as I was told because I need the job. I followed him into his office, closing the door behind us then standing awkwardly in front of his desk while I waited for him to sit down.

Dennis put me on notice to pay attention by clearing his throat. “I haven’t seen this week’s status report yet, so I know you’ve got something better to do than waste your time on whatever that nonsense was out there.”

I never tell him any more than I have to, so I said, “Suspicious death,” and left it at that.

“I don’t care what it is,” he said, waving his hand dismissively. “But if the press finds out you’re looking into it I’ll have your job and your pension.”

Hoping to avoid a lengthy discussion because I wanted to get to the crime scene before forensics hauled the victim’s body away, I told him, “No problem,” and tried to sound sincere. Then I stood up and headed for the door hoping he’d give up and let me leave. I was wrong.

“Hey,” he said, “I’m not done with you.”

I stopped at the door, twisting around to look back at him, but left my hand on the doorknob so I’d be ready for a quick exit when I got the chance. He tapped his pencil on his desk blotter nervously as he stared at me. His blood pressure rose visibly whenever one of us left the office because according to him it afforded us, “An opportunity to do something stupid.”

Unfortunately our job didn’t get us out of the office much; unfortunate because annoying him was one of the job’s few perks.

“How many times do I have to explain this to you?” he asked. “This bioengineering disaster stuff is just a bunch of scientific sounding bullshit someone dreamed up to scare Congress into funding us. If anybody actually believed it they’d make us part of Homeland Security.”

Dennis’ version of what happened conveniently leaves out most of what really happened, like Congress creating our department because of some dire predictions made by a group of academics at one of their hearings. After the hearings, a frightened Congress set us up as a special branch of the FDA, and charged us with regulating new bio-engineered food additives.

Congress meant well, but it hasn’t worked out because the food industry began funneling truckloads of money into congressional campaign coffers. So now when Congress funds our agency it’s with the proviso that we won’t disrupt the flow of money by angering the food producers. And to ensure that wouldn’t happen, Congress put a disbeliever in charge of us.

I wanted to confront him with the truth—that he was worried more about disruptions to his income than he was about the public’s welfare, but to avoid a lecture I assured him I’d be discrete. Then I opened the door to leave, because as far as I was concerned our meeting was over.

“I’m warning you,” he said, wagging a finger at me.

As I closed the door I heard, “You’re outta here if the press gets word of this.”

Even though I was in a hurry, I took a detour through the office to tell Josh, “Nice work.”

The guy in the next cubicle heard me coming and stood up to announce, “Hey, Ron, we’re ordering your favorite takeout.”

He was referring to LingLing’s Wings N’ Things. I wished I didn’t have somewhere to go. For me, food has always been a vice, but after my wife left me, food became an addiction, especially LingLing’s. The large helping I ingested two or three times a week would no doubt ensure my early demise, but it was worth it. So a struggle of cosmic proportions raged between my desire for LingLing’s sweet and sour chicken and my need to get to the crime scene before the body was moved.

“Can’t today,” I told him as I hurried past, the look of wonder on his face somehow satisfying. I had already decided to pick up some LingLing’s takeout on my way home after work, but I didn’t tell him that.

Even though I risked getting a traffic ticket on my way to the crime scene it was still twenty minutes later when I turned down a narrow side street lined with low-rent brownstones. Two double-parked police cars and an ambulance, all with their lights flashing, had traffic blocked in both directions. Crime scene tape, strung haphazardly all over the neighborhood, looked like a giant yellow cobweb.

I showed my badge to get through the clog of uniforms and civilians milling about on the sidewalk then took the stairs to the victim’s second floor apartment. Although the place had seen better days, the tattered condition of the furniture was nothing compared to the state of the victim: an overweight middle-aged man with a round fleshy face, pudgy nose, and wispy blond hair. His body, what was left of it, was slumped in a badly stained and nearly-threadbare recliner.

A man in a white lab coat, who I assumed was the ME, was kneeling on the floor next to the victim. Built like an ant, with an oversize head held precariously above his narrow shoulders by a pencil-thin neck, the man needed to be put on a regimen of steroids and free-weights. With his face hovering just inches from the cavity in the dead man’s stomach, he used a pencil to poke the grisly pile of internal organs in the victim’s lap. As I walked around the recliner to get a better look, two things became obvious immediately: I didn’t have the stomach for something this gruesome, and we had an event on our hands.

“What happened to him?” I asked as casually as I could, while silently vowing never to eat again.

His head snapped around and he focused two bright-green eyes on me. He made a face at me then stood up. That's when I spotted a fresh-looking smudge of bloody viscera on his lab coat. Afraid it could be harboring a microscopic man-eater, I pointed at it. “You’ve got some of the victim on you,” I said.

“Who the hell are you?” he asked.

I stepped back, because I was worried about the goo on his coat even if he wasn’t. Hoping to avoid a scene I flashed my badge at him, but did it quickly so he wouldn’t have time to read it. I have yet to meet someone who’s intimidated by a badge with the Food and Drug Association’s insignia on it. It’s real enough but no one takes it seriously, and who can blame them; it’s not as though we could actually arrest anyone, and most people don’t live in fear of their name appearing on an FDA report. Luckily for me he didn’t look closely at it. Apparently he thought I was just another one of the federal agents who routinely got in the way of the local police, because he went back to examining the victim and ignoring me.

Just then a young woman sporting a man’s haircut, but no makeup or jewelry, burst into the apartment. She was wearing an ill-fitting suit, one that looked to be tailored for a man’s body. Attractive in spite of her attire, her appearance was obviously of little concern to her.

She scowled when she spotted me. “What’s the story here, Jack?” she demanded, eying me warily as she approached.

Even though she was looking at me, I assumed “Jack” was the name of the ME kneeling by the victim’s body, and that her question had been directed at him. I was wrong.

“Who the hell are you?” she demanded.

I held my badge up and she took it away from me. “You want to tell me what you’re doing on my turf?” she said, studying my badge like it was an alien artifact.

I thought she should’ve introduced herself, as a professional courtesy, and I told her so.

She smiled and said, “Detective Blanchard,” but it was a small and tight smile, not a happy one. “Now how about telling me what you’re doing here?”

I walked to the other side of the room so the ME wouldn’t hear me; at least I hoped that was the case. Judging from her expression, Blanchard was annoyed. She probably couldn’t see any need for secrecy, but she followed me anyway. It’s not that I didn’t trust the ME to be discrete, but it’s difficult enough to convince one disbeliever that cannibalistic micro-organisms exist. It’s a lot tougher to convince two of them.

I quietly recited the bland official version of our group’s mission. “I work for a special branch of the FDA that was set up to oversee the development and deployment of engineered food additives.”

With her tightly closed lips twitching slightly, as though she was suppressing a laugh, she tipped her head a little to the side. She said, “You’ve got to be kidding,” loud enough to draw the ME’s attention.

When I told her, “For thousands of years, people have used spices to disguise the stench of spoiled meat,” she scoffed and said, “You’re telling me that the guy in there was attacked by a foul-smelling steak?”

Her grit was a nice change from the spineless wet-naps I usually got stuck with, and if this was the real thing, I’d need an ally on the police force. But I needed her to take the threat seriously. Hoping a microscopic invader wouldn’t seem so fantastic if she knew how it got there, I gave her a short history lesson.

“One day some well-intentioned cerebral types developed some non-natural food additives, and life got better for the consumer. The next big breakthrough came when someone realized that by properly marketing the additives they could significantly increase food sales, and they could do so without incurring the exorbitant costs associated with actually improving the food. The profits earned by the companies selling those additives were staggering.”

“What the hell?” she said, shaking her head again, the pitch of her voice half an octave higher.

I’m used to skepticism. It’s an occupational hazard. So I ignored her outburst and forged ahead. “But they’d unleashed a monster. The food industry told the public it was nano-technology, a modern marvel that promised all kinds of miracles, most of it unsubstantiated hype, carefully worded to avoid future lawsuits. But with billions of dollars at stake, food additives are already being tested; additives they claim can scrub the cholesterol from our arteries and dissolve unwanted fat. And if that sounds too good to be true, it is. Because fueled by risky science and insatiable greed, they’re creating microscopic life forms that can be lethal, life forms that have no natural predators and can reproduce at astonishing rates.”

She stared at me, grimacing as though she’d eaten something that hadn’t agreed with her.

I told her, “When the scientific community found out about this they lobbied Congress. An alarmed Agriculture Committee established our group.”

With her face contorted so she looked to be in pain, she opened her mouth to say something, but only got one unintelligible syllable out before she closed it again, as though she’d given up.

She could’ve just walked away, but she didn't. I took it as a good sign and continued. “It’s my job to monitor the production of bio-engineered substances. And when a problem is reported, it’s my job to prevent it from becoming a doomsday event.”

She blinked and said, “A what?”

“Alright,” I said. “Here’s what you need to know. That guy in there ate something he shouldn’t have, and it ate a hole in him.”

“You know what I think?” she said. “I think your science fiction is more fiction than science.”

I told her something had escaped from one of the research labs, and that it terrified me.

It got a smile out of her, and a wisecrack. “Tell me, do you chase rogue recipe ingredients too, or just fugitive food additives? That’s as hard to say as it is to believe.”

“Think about it,” I told her. “A bunch of greedy investors hire some kids with lots of college degrees and very little sense to develop a new life form. Those over-educated lab coats design a molecular-sized robot to eat the cholesterol out of our arteries. And because the approval process is expensive and the company wants to be sure it’ll be profitable, it runs trials on mass-producing the stuff before it’s been approved. It’s a statistical certainty that they’ll eventually produce a defective batch. And the lab assistants actually working with the stuff are all too often high school dropouts or illegal aliens who have no idea what they’re handling. To them the bad batch won’t look any different than any other batch. One of them could cross-contaminate an additive that’s being used on the food production line in the same factory.”

“Sounds like the plot from one of those B-movies they made back in the fifties,” she said, “the ones starring frightened girls wearing tight sweaters.”

“And what if it gets into the breakfast cereal your kid wolfs down before he goes to school?”

“Nice try,” she said, “but I don’t have a kid.”

Then she handed back my badge and told me, “If you stay out of my way, and you don’t touch anything, I won’t arrest you. And keep this to yourself. I don’t care if people think you’re nuts, but I don’t want anybody to think I believe your nonsense.”

Having dismissed me as harmless, she turned her attention to the ME, crossing the room to hover over him while he inspected the victim. “What have we here?”

Glancing up from the pile of visceral goo in the victim's lap the ME said, “Intestines,” rather matter-of-factly. It may have been an attempt at humor.

“Yeah, I figured that much out on my own,” she said. “What I’d like to know is what happened. You think you could help me out with that?”

I hoped to hear a plausible explanation for the condition of the deceased, one that wouldn’t require my services. I didn’t hear one. Instead, the ME told Blanchard the guy was supposed to meet a friend, and that when he didn’t show, the friend came looking for him. It was the friend who called 911.

“And that’s the way his friend found him,” Detective Blanchard asked, “with that big hole in him?”

The ME focused those disturbing green eyes of his on her. “I don’t know,” he said. “Why don’t you ask him?”

Then he told her this was the strangest stiff he’d ever seen, and judging from his bald head and the deep creases on his face, med school was a distant memory for him. So I figured he’d probably seen some pretty weird stuff.

“And by strange you mean what?” she asked.

“When I got here he still had his shirt on.”

I told him that wasn’t strange where I come from.

Blanchard gave me a dirty look and told me, “I’ll handle this if you don’t mind.”

The ME said, “Think about what it would take to do this kind of damage. Then think about the fact that this guy had his shirt on when I got here, and that it was intact and buttoned, soaked with blood but intact. You tell me, what kind of nut job would take off someone’s shirt and do this, then put the guy’s shirt back on and button it up?”

Blanchard said, “Drugs,” as though the one word explained everything.

The ME shook his head, disagreeing with her rather vehemently. “That doesn’t begin to explain this.”

“Don’t over think it,” she said. “Their brains don’t work the same way ours do.”

With a big grin she nodded her head in my direction and told him, “This guy believes some fugitive food additive made a break for it by tunneling its way out of the guy’s stomach.”

Before he had time to come up with a wisecrack, Detective Blanchard picked up where she’d left off with her theory. “The gangs that run the drugs in this town can be real creative, especially when it comes to killing off their rivals. I figure someone was muscling in on someone else’s turf and that mess in the easy chair was a warning to back off.”

The woman was pigheaded. I had to give her that. I assumed she’d been exposed to so many drug related killings it was the only motive her mind would accept anymore. But it still didn’t make sense to me and I can be just as pigheaded. Besides, ever since my first look at the victim something had been bothering me. Afraid I’d be sick if I so much as glanced at him again, I had avoided the temptation. But by then I was desperate for something I could use to convince Blanchard we had an event, so I took another look at the victim. My stomach did a few cartwheels, but I spotted the anomaly and I told her about it.

“Look as his ribs, detective. Does he look like your typical homicide victim? When my dog’s done with a bone, that’s what it looks like, not a spot of blood or meat on it.”

The ME told us he’d noticed the bones too, but hadn’t found any evidence an animal had been gnawing on them. I asked him if he’d ever seen a stiff with bones that clean.

He shook his head. “Only ones that have been in the ground long enough for the bugs to do their work.”

As far as I was concerned, it was more proof that the killer was some new and frightening molecular life form. Nothing else made sense. As I mulled over that thought my cell phone rang. It was Josh calling to ask if we had an event.

“It sure looks that way.”

“Jesus, Ron, you want me to send in reinforcements?”

“Not yet. I don’t know if this is contained, and I’m afraid the spectacle of a HAZMAT team could cause a panic. I’ll call you if ...”

He cut me off. “Oops, gotta go—the takeout’s here. Call if you need help.” Then he hung up on me.

While Detective Blanchard and the ME traded war stories, competing to describe the most gruesome crime scene, I quietly wandered off to check out the rest of the victim’s apartment.

Stepping into a dingy little kitchen, I saw an old metal sink cabinet and a hodgepodge of mismatched cupboards, and my nose was assaulted by a particularly obnoxious odor. A pile of dishes in the sink and a conspicuous buildup of grime around the cupboard door handles suggested that the victim didn’t have a live-in girlfriend.

There was barely enough room for a table and two chairs in the little room. The one plate on the table had crusted-over food smudges on it. The chair closest to the plate was further away from the table than the other chair, suggesting that someone had been sitting there and had pushed the chair back to get up.

I tracked the nasty smell to some moldy food on one of the dishes piled in the sink. And there was another scent; a much fainter and disturbingly familiar one, but I wasn’t able to locate the source before detective Blanchard burst into the room.

She immediately pinched her nose because of the smell. Then she gave the room a quick scan and said, “The perp came up on him from behind, grabbed him around the neck and dragged him into the other room before cutting him open.”

I told her I didn’t buy her theory and that, “With such a nasty wound there should be signs of a struggle.”

“Hell, that’s not a wound,” she said, grinning, “that’s a crater.”

I ignored the wisecrack and told her there should be blood and guts all over the kitchen.

She said, “Maybe the perp took the guy somewhere else to filet him.”

I told her that filet sounded disrespectful.

“How about gutted?” she asked. “Do you like that better?”

I ignored her crude attempt at humor and asked her, “Why take the guy somewhere else to kill him?”

“I don’t know,” she said, “maybe it was part of some bizarre cult thing.”

I found an out-of-the-way spot of wall to lean on, and while I watched her look through the cupboards, I pressed my case. “First of all, a big guy like that would be hard to move. And secondly, why would the killer risk being seen moving a body?”

She looked back over her shoulder and frowned at me. “Why are you giving me such a hard time?”

I told her, “It’s BS”.

She grinned and said, “It’s BS alright.”

“No,” I said, “BS stands for Bio Synthesized, as in bio-engineered food additives, like the one that ran amok and killed that poor slob out there.”

“Well, judging from this kitchen,” she said, “you’re right about the slob part.”

“And if I’m right about what killed that guy, and it gets the chance to reproduce and spread, it could mean the end for all of us.”

“Well, now,” she said, sarcastically, “that is a really dire prediction.”

I told her it was my job to prevent outbreaks of this sort, and to contain them if it was too late for prevention.

“Okay,” she said, grinning, “assuming you’re right, what should I be looking for?”

I shook my head. I had no idea. She shook her head too then pulled a chair from the table over to the counter. I watched her climb up and stand on the counter to feel around over the cupboards. I asked her what she expected to find up there.

“Something someone wanted to keep out of sight.”

“Do you really think a weapon that could do that kind of damage would be hidden up there?”

She spun around and glared at me and said in a voice loud enough to be heard by the uniformed cops out in the hallway. “You can go with your bio-engineered bullshit! But I think there’s a rational explanation for this!”

Then she paused and took a deep breath, adding in a much quieter and much calmer voice, “Like maybe the perp didn’t want us to know how he killed the guy, so he poured acid on the wound after he killed him.”

Then she froze and stared at the wall and I thought maybe she’d come to her senses. A few moments later she snapped her fingers as though she’d had an inspiration. “You think it was an inside job, don’t you?”

She grinned then burst into laughter which she fought back just long enough to say, “This gives a whole new meaning to the term eating out.”

Then, between gasps for breath, she said, “And they say cholesterol will kill you.”

She laughed uncontrollably after that. When the ME stepped into the doorway with a scowl on his face, she asked him, “What’s eating you?” as she struggled for breath.

The ME shook his head and said, “Christ” then left the room.

I told her to act her age. Still snickering, she went back to feeling around above the cupboards. Moments later she spun around with an odd look on her face, as though she’d found something.

“Well?” I asked, cautiously.

“I can just see tomorrow’s headline: Consumable Consumes Consumer. Or how about this: Diner Becomes Dinner, or Dinner Dined on Diner?”

Then she climbed down off the counter and came over to me and touched my arm gently. “If you need some company tonight,” she said soothingly, “you can come over to my place. I make a killer meatloaf.”

I told her to grow up.

“Really,” she said, choking back more laughter, “it’s to die for.”

I told her there was something wrong with her, that she needed counseling.

She said, “Eat your heart out,” then made little snorting noises as she tried to stifle the laughter.

Hoping I could avert more wisecracks by ignoring her, I took out the flyer I’d found on my windshield when I left the office. I sat down at the table and scribbled on it, pretending to write myself some notes, and while she went back to looking through the kitchen cupboards, I took the opportunity to assess the situation.

I wasn’t surprised at detective Blanchard’s attitude. Besides sounding crazy, the voice of reason doesn’t have the appeal of the wildly irresponsible promises made by the food lobby. And the public, always desperate for miracles, believes their hype, despite the protestations of academic naysayers with impeccable credentials. And once the miracle genie’s out, you can’t put him back in the bottle.

That’s as far as I’d gotten when the ME appeared at the door and announced he was leaving. Detective Blanchard asked him what was keeping the forensics team.

In the midst of saying, “they had to go out on another call,” his cell phone rang.

And while he was talking on his cell phone, Blanchard’s cell phone rang and she stepped over to the sink to take her call. While she was on the phone, she pulled a wastebasket out from under the sink, dumped the contents on the floor, and poked around in the garbage with her foot. She was still on her call when the ME’s call ended.

Before he left he said, “Tell her I had to go see another stiff. Apparently it’s going to be a busy day.”

Blanchard looked at me when her call ended and she looked genuinely upset. “That was dispatch,” she said. “There’s been a bunch of grizzly deaths reported in the last couple of hours.”

I told her to stop poking at the mess on the floor with her foot, that she was contaminating the crime scene.

She tipped her head slightly to one side. “You don’t get it do you?” she said, and she sounded annoyed. “For the last time, this was a drug deal that went bad. It happens all the time. And it doesn’t matter how nice we keep the crime scene, we never get the perp.”

Having said that forcefully, as if warning me the topic was closed to discussion, she went and looked in the victim’s refrigerator, exclaiming, “Eureka,” immediately after opening the door.

I thought she’d found the murder weapon, but I couldn’t imagine why the killer would hide it in there, or what kind of weapon would need refrigeration.

She spun around and looked at me, bright-eyed as a child with a new puppy. “Looky what I found,” she said, holding up a takeout bag from LingLing’s.

That explained the familiar smell I couldn’t place. It also explained the congealed reddish goo on the plate in front of me. And then I realized what it meant. I took out my cell phone and hit the speed dial key for Josh. When he didn’t answer I tried the office number, and while I waited for Brenda to answer, Blanchard pulled a wing out of the takeout bag.

I yelled at her to put it down and wash her hands, but looking right at me with one hand in the bag and a smirk on her face, she said, “Don’t worry; I’ll leave you some wings.”

A picture had formed in my mind of our office staff slumped at their desks with bags of LingLing’s takeout in front of them, and all of them disemboweled like the guy in the next room.

Meanwhile detective Blanchard had taken a wing out of the bag and was putting it up to her mouth. I yelled at her again but it didn’t do any good. Ginning at me like a fool, she took a bite out of it.

Then she smiled and said, “You look a little pale, mister, like you just saw a ghost.”

“Yeah,” I said, feeling faint, “I’m looking at one.” infinity

Len Dawson has worked as a computer analyst, a free-lance technical writer, and has a degree in history. Dawson has had a series of illustrated articles published by, a short story published by, and two books published by Gypsy Shadow Publishing. He was a 2011 Preditors and Editors Mystery Finalist.