Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Consulting Editor


Monkeys and Empire State Buildings
by James K. Isaac

Debbie Does Delta Draconis III
by Sarina Dorie

Becoming Einstein
by George S. Walker

No Good Conscience
by Edward J. Knight

Last Log of the Vancouver
by David Falkinburg

Saving the Galaxy and Taking Names
by Justin Short

Diplomacy in Springtime
by Jennifer Linnaea

Onkeymay Usinessbay
by Doug Donnan

Inside Magic Circles
by Brent Knowles


Cosmic Life Rays
by John McCormick and Beth Goldie

A Lost World On the Polar Ice
by Fitzhugh Green




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips




Inside Magic Circles

By Brent Knowles

Scenario: Deadline

THE HALL TERMINATED IN AN unused expansion joint at the edge of the star flung station. Beyond the thin wall of green-gray steel was a vast and empty abyss. The woman paused, toying with her ponytail.

She existed in two realities; the reality the Guardians wanted her to see and the reality she could, if she concentrated, discern through the hazy shroud of their conjured illusions. The Guardian’s world was full of soft flowing lines, as if the station’s metal corridors had been shaped by the hands of master artisans. The real world was a bleak and forgotten space station named Lykos.

The woman, Helen, called her co-conspirator and asked if she was ready. They spoke over an archaic radio channel, bypassing the Guardian’s wireless network and their constant surveillance.

Ali replied, “Almost, I—”

“Just hurry your ass up! It doesn’t have to be perfect.”

Unlike Helen, Ali was safe and comfortable in her dorm room, her dark hair probably spread out over her pillow top while that wretch Bryan rubbed her feet. Ali, the artiste, at work on her tablet. Ali was not on the front lines, breaking curfew, like Helen.

Three weeks until next term’s students ran through the Aptitudes; three weeks to hack the simulations, to change the world. Not enough time.

A billboard materialized: Ali was finished.

Every child of Lykos was given ocular implants so that they always saw an annotated version of the station. During the Aptitudes, additional information appeared to guide trainees through various work related scenarios and towards the one career path out of twenty best suited to their ability.

Ali’s hacked billboard displayed a simple message when viewed straight on: There is nothing here. You are lost.

Yet when Helen shifted her gaze, viewing the digital message from the side, the billboard bent and elongated, nubs erupting from it, morphing into a tree, or at least what Ali thought a tree looked like. It was magnificent until a face appeared on its surface.

Helen tugged her ponytail. The face was that of the First Guardian, the current ruler, elected by the other nineteen Guardians, the puppet masters of Lykos.

“Ali, get rid of that. You’ll confuse the trainees,” Helen said, “ They’ll think we are endorsing her.”

“Bullshit,” Ali said, “ it is a statement, that we are all—”

A clang of metal in the distance and Helen ended the call, pushing herself against the steel wall, sucking in her breath, and then silencing herself. Her ears strained. Off in the distance she heard two sets of footsteps against the metal.


Helen backtracked and fled.

Scenario: Managing Workloads

She had been awarded the position of Instigator (leader of the Shadowers) last month, just days after completing her Aptitude simulations. For a term she would coordinate dissent aboard the station and she had drafted Ali to be the primary artist for this semester’s protest. A simple enough decision given that Ali had always wanted to be a Shadower and that she was also the only artist Helen knew (and possibly the only artist on Lykos).

Helen now slid shut the door to her sleeping closet and stepped across the bare patch of floor to settle, cross-legged, onto her bed, the sole furniture in the room. Helen was in above satisfactory physical condition but she knew she had barely escaped.

She opened a wall panel and unrolled a sheath of flattened silkworm jerky. Another night survived so that she might live another day in her cage. A cage shared with two thousand others. A cage their ancestors had consented to. Traitors, all of them. And every generation that did nothing—traitors too. Even her ambitious and powerful father, the man who had led the initiative to mine the asteroids, still accepted this cage (albeit his was larger and better furnished than most).

She swallowed the last of her silkie, guilty now, as she swatted crumbs away. These bugs, which provided their clothing and their food, were in cages too. Cruel cages at that; killed while in their silk cocoons; killed before they could become what they should.

Helen tapped her ear bud and reactivated her connection.

“You made it,” Ali said, “though I suppose you were never in any real danger.”

Bristling, Helen replied, “Just because my father is—”

“Slow your spin,” Ali said, “I wasn’t talking about your dad. You are first-in-class, remember? You have the perfect cover.”

Helen bit her lip. Technically what Ali said was true; as first-in-class for Management (one of the two Aptitudes for which she had qualified) it was her responsibility to improve Management’s testing for the next semester. No coincidence that she been chosen to lead the Shadowers: the movement had selected her because of her success in the Aptitudes.

She could have lied, had she been caught, that she was merely refining the simulation.

“And the record remains unbroken too,” Ali added. It was almost twenty years since an Instigator had been caught.

They knew this because Helen had been given access to a digital dropbox containing the records of past Instigators. The dropbox also hosted copies of much of what had been lost when the Guardians had outlawed music, literature, painting and even the playing of games. Only Helen, for her term as Instigator, had access to their past, to digital books and scans of art, three-dimensional recreations of sculptures and sheets of music.

She heard a murmur over the line, another voice, and she tensed.

“Who’s that?”

“Just Bryan,” Ali replied and annoyance shoved aside tension as Helen rolled her eyes. Like many their age, Ali had a boyfriend but Helen could not understand why. What point in becoming attached only to be assigned a life mate later? And given that Ali and Helen were several pips above average on the physical attractiveness gradient, that would mean an older man.

Ali’s romance was destined to end.

“Well since Romeo is there ask him if he’s finished his tasks.” Ali’s idea, not Helen’s, to draft Bryan into the Shadowers.


Helen sighed, further annoyed. Of course Ali could not understand the reference. Only as current Instigator did Helen have access to the archives.

“Never mind. Just ask him about the placards in level C.” Translucent sheets of plastic were stuck to the walls of the station and used to anchor the images necessary to perpetuate the Guardian’s augmented reality ... and to deliver the Shadower’s message.

“He has,” Ali said.

“Then all we need is the last of your art.”

“Don’t you worry, Helen, that we are rushing into this? Too quickly?”

“We cannot be timid any longer. All of Lykos needs to see our message; we are on the cusp of revolution, of real change. These past decades we’ve been silkies, crawling nowhere. Now we must transform, we must fly!”

“Push too hard and we’ll fall, we’ll fail.”

“Do you want to spend your life washing dishes, Ali?” Helen said, hitting her friend where it hurt. Ali had only passed the lowest rung of Aptitude, the domestic services. “Your art will breathe life into our sterile world. Trust me. We’ll succeed. Like you always wanted.”

And this was the cusp: it had been Ali who had nudged Helen towards this all those years ago.

“If I had known how dangerous idealism would be once it affected an overachiever like you I might have kept my mouth shut.”

Helen laughed. “I don’t think that is possible. You—”

Ali shrieked and that shriek forced Helen to deactivate the feed. She counted to ten before attempting to reestablish the connection but silence greeted her. Ali’s communication bud had destroyed itself.

Which meant Ali had been taken.

Scenario: Loss of Resources

Helen chased the glowing arrows superimposed over the bland and uniform halls of Lykos to Bryan’s dorm room. He had just called, begging her to come to him. It was a week after he and Ali had disappeared.

At a crossroad, about twenty meters from Bryan’s ward, Helen hesitated. Embedded near the roof was an off-center green pixel. Most would have dismissed it as a glitch and even if they had suspected its true purpose they would have ignored it; part of surviving Lykos was blind denial. Helen double-blinked and the dot expanded into a circle.

WONDER! it read and then after a dramatic pause the word wiggled away, replaced by others.

We must be the cocoon.

When those words crawled away the message repeated itself, looping. Always the messages were cryptic: nudging viewpoints across generations. Too slow, too painful a transformation for Helen.

Ali had often mocked Helen’s impatience, insisting that society should not remake itself too rapidly. Else it might replace one monster with another. The people had to change first. That took time.

Helen overrode the codes on the message and deleted it. Too sloppy to have it linger here in such a prominent thoroughfare. Then she continued until she stopped under a bright and yellow arrow over the doorway into what she presumed was Bryan’s room. An array of identical doors stood at attention to her right and to her left, doing little to jar the monotony of the hallway.

The door opened for her, but she hesitated. She had read enough fiction from the archives to be concerned but not enough to be reduced to paranoia. If she were caught she had a dozen excuses at the ready and her father on speed dial.

She gagged as body odor and a more malodorous scent assaulted her, an antiseptic smell, like from the medical wards. Bryan sat in his bed, under his covers, shifting his head towards her. His message this morning had been almost incoherent and she understood why as she took stock of his sweat-covered brow and glazed eyes. He was heavily medicated.

She glanced at the door that would not close—unless hacked, a dorm door could be shut only if a single occupant was inside. Tapping the wall she settled herself into the gray stool that unfolded from it. Her knees touched Bryan’s mattress.

His face was not yet healed from the beatings the Auxiliaries had given him ... a splotch of black beneath his left eye, a scab across his nose.

“When will Ali be released?” She cared about her friend but she also cared about finishing the Shadower’s work. She needed to know how this affected her schedule.

“I don’t know.” His hollow voice bounced from wall to wall, until it limped near enough to her that she could grasp his words.

Her chair creaked as she stiffened.

“Did you tell? Did she?” The bud was destroyed and all of Ali’s work was kept in the hidden Shadower archives to minimize physical evidence, but confessions were evidence too.

“I haven’t seen her since,” Bryan said. He closed his eyes but that did not stop tears from leaking out. “They charged us with unlicensed fornication.”

Helen released a relieved sigh. This made sense. They had been warned since middle school to avoid hooking up. The two would receive a harsh fine and permanent marks on both their records.

“Where is she then? They just let you go and not her?”

Bryan laughed but the noise barely qualified as such.

“What is it?” Helen asked, annoyed at his uneven mirth.

“They didn’t just let me go.”

Her chair creaked again. “Whatever. I know. You’ve been marked and fined, Bryan. I’m sorry but you two knew the—”

“Fined?” His voice stole out of his throat, almost a shriek and her skin crawled as he tossed back his covers.

As he showed her the extent of the fine.

Scenario: Contingency Planning

A five-year-old Ali pressed her chalk against the bedroom floor, her cot already pulled into the wall to give the girl room to draw the circle around herself.

“When we step inside this,” she declared, her tongue pressed against her cheek, deep in concentration, “we are on Earth.”

Helen shook her head, refusing to enter the circle. “This is a game, Ali.”

“And games are four-bid-den,” Ali sang. “Come on. Step inside!”

“Why?” Helen asked.

Ali grinned. “Because it’s fun, silly.”

Helen’s eyes snapped open, momentarily disoriented to find herself on the floor of a large auditorium.

At work.

Other work spaces touched hers, their boundaries delineated by orange tape (not unlike dream-Ali’s chalk circle). They were empty. A tap on her tablet’s screen revealed that it was well past curfew.

She longed to curl back onto the floor and into the dream memory. Their first magic circle had been drawn three days after Helen’s mother had died; Ali’s parents had cared for Helen while her father grieved and sorted himself out, while he focused on returning to work and life as a productive citizen. Fatherhood a necessary but second-order priority.

Despite her obvious skills Helen had always been a poor candidate to join the Shadowers because she had always stood on the verge of accepting the system. She respected efficiency and Lykos was efficient but never again would Helen need another reminder of why she fought.

The Guardians had castrated Bryan.

She winced, her fingers tightening into white freckled fists. Lykos was too terrible in its efficiency.

“It will be a happier place,” she whispered, retaking the promise she had made in the magic circle with Ali, crying into her friend’s shoulder, lamenting the loss of a mother whom Helen had barely known. A tough-as-nails pilot who surveyed asteroids and, despite a lack of tact, manner and breeding, had caught the eye of Helen’s father. A reckless mother, a reckless pilot on too narrow a flight path, crushed between two asteroids.

The twenty Guardians insisted they made the rules they made, restricted the freedoms they restricted, because it was the only path to survival. Even freedom needed rationing aboard Lykos. That if given the choice the rational and logical citizens would have chosen the Guardians to lead anyways.

Why waste the time and the expense for an election?

“Debris that,” Helen muttered. Who would choose to be led by such monsters as the men and women of the Twenty?

This tyranny was an unnecessary and cruel exaggeration. When all of Lykos learned of Bryan’s punishment things would change. Even the old-timers would finally open their eyes. This would be the nature of the hack, the modifications she would make to their shared augmented reality.

“Just give us the choice,” Helen whispered, “let us choose who leads and who follows.” She would not demand all the freedoms of the world they had abandoned. Just this.

As it always did when Helen was confronted by a problem, her mind drifted towards the solution, she imagining Bryan’s disfigurement plastered at every junction. It would not be ignored.

She was a competent manager but she knew she needed a dreamer to help her pierce the fabric of their shared but false reality.

Helen still needed Ali.

Scenario: Follow Precedent

“I’m sorry,” a young Helen whispered, she had dragged her feet across the chalk circle, smudging it.

“No worries,” Ali said, grinning and clasping Helen’s hand in her own. “It is magic. A game. Outside our circle is where we leave our rules, our worries and our sorrows. In here: anything is possible.”

Helen smiled and warmed herself in the memory before the bitter taste of the baked silkie denied her the pretending. She swallowed the last of her breakfast. She had slept the night in the office to avoid being detained for curfew violation and her body was none too pleased by that, creaking and cracking as she scurried down the hall.

Anything is possible.

Helen knew literature and she knew sculpture and she knew painting. She knew these things had all existed in the past and this made her wiser than most every citizen of Lykos.

Or so she hoped.

She needed to be more careful than before. In a world without guidance from the past or the imagination of others, so much remained to be learned by trial and error. And some lessons were only learned when it was too late to change their outcome.

By denying Lykos art, the Twenty had also denied them possibility and anticipation. Better to be born without eyes and without ears.

Helen was improvising, letting the words of the dead, and not the rulebooks of Lykos, guide her. Not towards a guaranteed solution (as training always promised) but towards reducing uncertainty.

Helen had special rights: in order to improve her own training curriculum she was permitted access to any other Aptitude’s training system. Today Helen invoked the security Aptitude, the method by which Auxiliaries became Auxiliaries.

Her world was overlaid with new meaning, words and icons relevant to a security officer—bright red messages with hard lines replacing the more subtle interface of the average citizen. Helen invoked a menu of scenarios and scrolled through it until she found Where to Detain a Terrorist.

Helen needed an artist to start her revolution. Before Ali’s abduction Helen had intended to give Lykos an ambitious shove towards freedom but now she would crack open the shell of the station and tear out the rotten core inside. She needed Ali.

Be Vigilant. The security bubbles constantly reminded her to keep watch over the imaginary felon she was leading towards wherever prison aboard Lykos was hosted. She had to fight from smiling, this the kind of game she and Ali might have played inside their circles.

She stopped at a T intersection and read the security billboard there.

Assess criminality. Reformable offenders are to be transported to the left for rehabilitation. Serious offenders to the right.

She had never been to this section of the station but like all citizens of Lykos she had an accurate sense of where she was amidst the station’s layout. The left branch ran near the civil center. The right ran elsewhere, towards the station’s fringes, parallel to the same tunnels that led to the shuttle hangars but below them.

“Which one?” she murmured.

“You are not supposed to be here.” She jumped. Two men stood behind her and both wore the blue-gray uniform of an Auxiliary. She had not heard their approach.

Her mind switched into autopilot as she rattled off lies. They let her talk for twenty minutes before they took her name and identification.

Then they released her.

Scenario: Reassessment Costs Resources

It should have been Ali, Helen thought as she tapped the wall to close her dorm room door. Ali had wanted to be Instigator, had talked about it all the time. She had wanted to drape the world in virtual elegance to gently remind Lykos of what beauty was.

The door refused to close and Helen swore.

Though buoyed by her success in bluffing the Auxiliaries, Helen was exhausted. Lying to them, it had almost been too much, she had almost confessed everything. And she had not rescued Ali.

She swiped again and the door chirped in protest again.

“It won’t work,” her father said. She spun, shocked to see him sitting on her bed.

“What are you doing here, dad?” Of all the days he might visit her, why today? Her stomach churned because she knew.

He crossed the room, hugged her.

“I’m here reminding you,” he said, his whisper terse and low and frightening, “that you are my daughter as much as hers. Time to make a choice. I gave them Alison; that was your first warning, this must be your last.”

She trembled in his arms and he mistook it for fear.


“Shhhh,” he said, “just know, I cannot protect you past this.” He released her.

“You won’t stop me,” she said. “I’ll show you all; what they’ve done to Bryan. Then Lykos has to change!”

She might not have an artist but she would do it herself, somehow.

Her father sighed and reached past her, she flinching, as he triple tapped the wall. A small video screen appeared beside her bed. He did not need to change a channel, there was only one.

“They’ve been running this for days, Helen.”

And then she was alone, his footsteps receding as she leaned against her wall, trembling. The door chirped: it could close now, if she wanted it to.

Her gaze wandered to the screen and if her father’s words had not taken the fight from her the images did. Faces of recent criminals rolled across the screen, Bryan and Ali’s included. Helen moved towards it, her door finally sliding closed.

On the screen was video footage of Bryan’s dismemberment. Helen tugged at her hair as she settled onto the bed. After Bryan’s punishment they showed Ali’s execution.

Helen’s friend was pale faced but blank of expression as she stood in the air lock, those final seconds, long past now, Helen supposed, before the lock opened. Before the prisoner was expelled.

Helen read the captioning beneath the video.

This footage has been released to better inform citizens of why our rules are necessary. The text rambled on, explaining this transparency was a recent amendment to court procedure. A promise, the transcript said, to Lykos, that all crimes and all evidence and all punishments would be more transparent in the future.

We will have no secrets.

She shuddered. It was not transparency. It was terror. A warning.

And it worked.

Scenario: Loss of Control

The weeks passed and Helen completed her changes to the Management Aptitude, but for the first time in decades the Shadowers did not influence the semester’s testing.

Helen had failed.

Two more hours and she would lose access to the digital dropbox containing the Shadower archive. The encryption key would automatically change and the dropbox would pass to another, more worthy, candidate.

Nobody knew who coordinated this process but Instigators always lost access to the archives; every Instigator always eventually crawled back into the darkness of Lykos. Helen yearned for it.

She slid out from under her blankets. She had been certain of her success but she believed now that it was better that she had failed to raise her revolution. Look at the price Bryan and Ali had paid ... what might it have cost Lykos if Helen had succeeded?

She had done the right thing by quitting.

Helen elevated her bed into the wall, revealing the chalk circle beneath it. She crossed the dried and flaked line and sat in the circle’s center.

Ali appeared beside her, their shoulders touching as they stared out at a vast swatch of greenery, a narrow meadow surrounded by tall, conical trees.

“Good morning bubble-head,” Helen said. Ali smiled and Helen smiled back.

Moths floated like tiny motes of dust but prettier, and she smiled at her dead friend, reminded of all the adventures they had shared within their magic circles. The mining crew trapped on Mobus II, the glamor filled life of receptionist, becoming mothers and star pilots and assembly line supervisors.

All that play had been a kind of training and Helen now wondered if it would have been different for them if they had had the dreams of past generations, if they had drank from the great flow of culture the Shadowers had teased her with.

What did it matter now?

“You lied to me,” Ali whispered. Helen shuddered; in her day dreaming Helen was the sole speaker because Ali was dead. And the dead could not speak.

Should not speak.

“What do you mean?” she whispered.

“You passed two tests. Two Aptitudes.”

Helen shook her head. “You can’t know that.”

But of course Ali could because the only Ali that remained was the memory of the girl in Helen’s head. They both knew that Helen had qualified for management and for a government position.

“I refused it,” she said, “I cannot live in such a cage.”

“Of course you can silly.” Ali plucked a moth from the sky, cradling it in cupped hands. “Not a cage, another circle, Helen. Imagine what might happen if you step inside it?”

And then somehow Ali was floating upwards, hundreds of moths now caught in her grasp, their tiny wings fluttering furiously as they raised the dead girl. The roof of Helen’s dorm spiraled impossibly upwards and Ali flew away, leaving mere echoes.

Helen tried grasping her friend by the ankles before it was too late but she ran out of the magic circle and slammed into the wall.

Scenario: Abandon Lost Causes

Helen’s nose stopped bleeding before she reached the T junction. A squad of four Auxiliaries approached her from the right but were still several meters away. She had called in already, letting them know she was coming down. She had expected them and they her.

Ali had always been right.

The modifications to the training simulation, year after year, had been the closest Lykos had had to real culture ... and their path towards change.

The change in the evidence laws proved that. Somebody in government had fought to modify them and Helen believed now that it was a past Instigator. And that this stranger had also given her the message in the hall near Bryan’s room.

We must be the cocoon.

Clearly Helen was not the wisest citizen of Lykos. Maybe culture was like the silkies ... meant to grow inside a cocoon woven by the hand of man and woman and child across countless generations. Was this the Shadower’s way? Was this how Lykos was meant to change?

If only she knew for certain. She took a deep breath, readying herself.

She had to trust this. Trust Ali. Trust the past Instigators. Trust that the evidence she gave the Auxiliaries would be forced, by virtue of the new laws, to be distributed to every citizen of Lykos. Trust that the gentle nudging of the Shadowers had worked.

An hour of access to the dropbox remained. Enough time to hand over the archives and for them to be copied into evidence: their lost civilization broadcast publicly to every citizen.

One law to break another.

Which would prevail? Helen had two paths ahead of her. Down one she might be released, might pursue her career in politics, in the hope of continuing to force change, from inside the cocoon.

The other path would see her tortured and killed. She remembered Ali in the airlock and she almost turned, almost fled.

But then she thought of Ali, always smiling, in their magic circle, and she smiled too. With a whispered goodbye she stepped towards the Auxiliaries. infinity

Brent Knowles is a writer, programmer, and game designer. He was Lead Designer/Creative Director for BioWare. He has been published in a variety of magazines including “Neo-Opsis,” “On Spec,” and “Tales of the Talisman.” In 2009, he placed first in the third quarter of the Writer’s of the Future Contest.