Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


19th in Love
by Gerard Mulligan

Nelay and the Blunt
by Clint Spivey

Fletcher’s Mountains
by Michael Hodges

Robert and Sarah, Across the Multiverse
by Matthew S. Dent

Boccaccio in Outer Space
by Chet Gottfried

Invoking Fire
by Guy Stewart

Seven Seconds
by Charles Payseur

by Simon Kewin

Coming of AGE
by Bob Sojka

A Journey Through the Wormhole
by Brian Biswas


A Taste for Physics
by John McCormick

Scale of the Problem by Eric M. Jones




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips




Seven Seconds

By Charles Payseur

JAKE WAS TRENDING UP fifteen percent from the time he woke and rolled off of the crowded mattress on the floor to the time he made it downstairs to the darkened street and started looking for a place open to feed him. It was three in the morning, the sky overhead a vague darkness above the bright lights of the city, the flood of noises that even now surrounded him, and he breathed it in. He could never sleep with company, had waited there, eyes closed tight, the bodies around him, and waited for the chime from his pants to tell him that it was time to move on. How many he had left back in the abandoned room he couldn’t say, forgot if the winning pledge had been two men and three women or three and three. He just wanted to forget. He reached his hand into his pocket, searching for his cigarettes, but he remembered that They had decided he would quit, and his hand brushed against the cold surface of his Dream instead.

Pulling it out, the small square of technology instantly springing to life, he gazed at the screen, found that his agent had already started a campaign to raise the funds for him to eat, giving Them, the fans, the choice of where he would go, all pledges toward losing locations refunded less the small service fee. In twenty seconds it was done and he had two hundred to spend on food at a bar across town, the Monkey’s Paw, or two hundred to get there and eat, he supposed, and so he walked to the curb and tried to hail a cab. He stood for a while, his eyes paying more attention to his Dream than to the yellow cars that passed him by. It would take a while, always did, for the drivers could not see the lacework of small sensors woven into his clothes, implanted in evenly spaced precision under his skin. All they saw was the dirt and the haunted look of the rail thin man with his hand extended, his eyes locked on his Dream.

As if asleep his hands moved across the surface of the Dream, finger tapping small messages, updating his feeds, wake and hunger on one, then in afterthought, concert soon. The Dream translated it, placed appropriate text and links, made it sound the way it was supposed to, enthusiastic and loud. Finally a cab stopped and Jake saw that he had slipped five percent, saw the notes from his agent to do something unexpected. Sliding the Dream back into his pocket, Jake opened the door and sat quietly, told the driver the location of the bar and started humming a slow melody, hoping it would dissuade the man from starting a conversation.

Three blocks later, while the cab was just picking up speed after a light, Jake opened the door and threw himself out, landing mostly on his feet as he quickly oriented himself and sped into an alley, the shouts from the cabbie falling futilely at his heels. His agent would be happy, as would the cabbie once legal caught up with him, reimbursed him plus some to keep Jake on the good side of the police, but it meant that he was walking the rest of the way to the bar, which meant an hour before he ate. His stomach protesting, Jake pulled back out the Dream, saw himself trending almost fifty percent higher, in the top hundred artists now and probably on his way to the top by the end of the night when the concert was. More campaigns were running along the side of his vision, and he saw one end; steal a bike blinked at him, and Jake let his eyes return to the world, to the alley he was still walking down.

No bikes, and Jake let his legs take him to a new street, tall apartment buildings, finally saw a bike rack and got closer to examine. All seemed locked tight, a mass of chains and bars, and he began to go from one to the next, looking for the most common series, the four zeroes that were the manufacturer default. Finally one came up, zero-zero-zero-four, and he turned the last digit to zero and felt the lock come free, didn’t smile as he removed the block and pulled the bike from the rack.

It was sturdy, a woman’s bike from the slanted bar but he didn’t care. He almost felt bad about it, but legal would buy the owner a new bike anyway, and he needed to eat. Mounting, he began to ride in the direction of the bar, the night air soothing whatever objections his mind threatened to make. Now the lights were flying past and he kept to the sidewalk, certain that there would be few people out walking and that he didn’t want to be on the roads at this hour.

The sensors about him seemed almost to buzz as he moved, straining a bit more in the increase of data, the more sensations and angles to record. He slowed to give them a break and pulled out his Dream, checking the display. He was still trending up, top fifty now, and already there were compilation pieces of his works. It amazed him how fast they worked, how fast every action was converted into an art, into something titled “The Perfect Theft,” a refining of his actions, frames condensed, blurred, made into the mathematical perfection of the act, all grace and beauty as the numbers fell into place. His whole life was just a series of images, and these compilations, these pieces of art, seven second videos that captured the essence of the act, were his gift, delivered with the precision of the sensors covering him and compiled from every possible angle to just the one that worked best.

There was a computer somewhere that was pouring through the data even as he rode, even as he updated again, cool air, guilt, hunger still. There were formulas for pleasure, ways to analyze what appealed to each sense, to vision and to smell and touch, things that were now accepted as universal, that preyed upon the common human instincts. And They, the public, the fans, craved it always, craved the art that the computers created, refined from real life into something almost godlike. It was something wholly inhuman, requiring what would have taken a human mind three years just to process. The data of the minute and a half it took to steal the bike would have been impossible for a human mind to decide what the best angle was, the most important moments to make up seven seconds; seven seconds that was as long as any performance could last, the limit of human attention.

Putting the Dream away, Jake concentrated on swerving around the sidewalks, making for light poles and other obstacles before turning at the last moment, jumped down onto the curb and then hopped back up, his muscles well in control of the bike and feeling like putting on a show for anyone following the live feed. Eventually he recognized the area around the bar he was heading for, and as it came into view he pointed the bike at the road and then swung himself off it, letting it ride forward alone, a ghost rider careening out into the road. Horns blared as a car jerked to the side to avoid it, and the bike crashed against the opposite curb, clattering to the ground and landing, one wheel still spinning as it came to rest.

Mind already preparing himself for food, for sustenance, Jake opened the door to the Monkey’s Paw and stepped inside, hunching his shoulders and hanging his head a bit, his eyes warily assessing the room. Despite the time, either very early or very late, the bar was fairly crowded, small groups clustered around a few tables and the bar populated by what seemed to be college-aged kids. Jake steered himself to the bar, found a bowl of peanuts and began eating, his hands furiously opening shells and tossing them onto the floor. A tired looking woman, middle-aged but in shape, breasts held up by will and what must have been a tight bra, walked over to him and stood without talking as he continued eating, pausing only long enough to order a bourbon on the rocks.

She set it down in front of him, waiting as he brought out his Dream and she scanned it quickly to lift the funds required. He noticed her take a thirty dollar deposit as well for good behavior before returning down the bar to the kids that looked more willing to tip. Jake wondered what he looked like to her, wondered how at thirty-five he could already turn people away so quickly. It hardly mattered. Picking up the glass in front of him, Jake began to eat out the ice, savoring the simple taste of it, even surrounded by the bourbon. It would probably be the only water he had all day, and he wanted to enjoy it. He continued to eat the peanuts, wondering if the place even served food, wondering if he could somehow slip something to the bartender to bring him a water disguised as vodka.

But even that would be a betrayal to Them, and so he crunched noisily on his ice and checked his Dream. Trending had slowed in ascent, still headed upward but slower now. He had time, he knew, as people went over the adventure to get here, a new video titled “Ghost on Wheels” appearing in his feeds. Food now, thanks, he updated, letting the Dream convert it into something more like They wanted, graciousness that they had chosen this place for him. A note from his agent informed him that the two men shooting pool not far away were plants, and Jake set the Dream to chime when he started trending down.

It didn’t take long, things like eating and drinking old hat at this point, a whole library of things he couldn’t do for too long anymore. He was lucky perhaps that things like “Anatomy of a Poop” were consistently good for his stats, that some people could make entire careers just learning how to go to the bathroom. After the fight it was something he would have to do, an old favorite of his agent to post the bathroom videos for every bar or restaurant he visited. As the Dream chimed in his pocket, though, Jake downed the rest of his drink and stood, shaking slightly under the sudden intoxication, and set his eyes on the two men shooting pool, their large frames radiating a sort of intimidation. They looked like bikers, probably forty years old, both bald with a series of scars crisscrossing their scalps and tattoos covering exposed biceps, which looked a bit like sides of ham.

Jake could have guessed right away they were plants, not real, just actors his agent had set up once he knew where Jake was headed. But what was a trip to a bar without a brawl, and They typically hated men like the ones shooting pool, unplugged individuals who spurned society. They knew that Jake didn’t have a chance against them, but he was now a hero and cartoon all in one, had to impress and captivate, had to be the underdog that tried. He walked over there, pretending to be more drunk than he was, and waited, giving Them a good look at the men, who played humorlessly, angrily, like the game was all they cared about. Jake smiled and then darted forward, snatching the eight ball from the table and standing triumphant, the orb held aloft over his head, a mocking sneer on his face.

The two men shared a look and then moved as one at him, huge hands suddenly clutching for him, but Jake dropped under the table and rolled, reaching the other side and sticking his tongue out at them. The men came around opposite sides of the table for him, and now he took the ball and threw it at one of them, who merely ducked, the ball sailing overhead and crashing through a window out to the street. Then Jake reached behind him, found the rack of cues, and took one, length of wood swinging for one of their heads. He wondered what would happen if he accidentally killed one, what would happen if he actually fought for his life.

The large man caught the cue, wrenched it out of Jake’s hands, and then grabbed him by the neck, pulled him close, brought a knee up and into Jake’s gut. Air rushed from his chest as pain shot through him, and Jake reached up and poked the man in the eye with one finger, turned away as the man released him and took a step back, surprised. But the other man was to him then, grabbed him by the back of the neck and lifted him bodily from the ground. He turned and, grabbing Jake’s leg with his other hand, held him entirely above his head for a moment before bringing him down onto the pool table, which obligingly broke in half and cushioned Jake’s fall.

The pain was lessened by the knowledge that it must have been set up ahead of time, that it had the wrong feel for a pool table, that it was soft and broke easily. The bar must have been prepped, and Jake grumbled that the bartender would still keep the thirty dollars even after no doubt being paid ahead of time for the damage. Still, he waited as the two men both dusted themselves off before walking out the door. No one from the rest of the bar came to help him, though the bartender did shout over that she had called the cops. Coughing, his body sore but functional, Jake moved himself out of the former pool table and limped to the bathroom. He peed first, didn’t think he could have done more if he wanted because of how little he had eaten recently.

After he was done, he ran water from the faucet and splashed it over his face. The place reeked, piss and vomit and the dank of a bar bathroom, a nostalgic smell, reminding him hazily of days before all this, when he had been in college and struggling to find an outlet for his music. He pulled out his Dream, sturdy machinery not damaged at all by the fight, and saw the fight was already there, seven seconds from arrogance to pain, a true narrative. He didn’t watch it, though it was tempting; he rarely watched his own art, the small bits of truth the computers created. It wasn’t his anymore, and having to see himself was painful enough without the reminder that people would call him genius for it.

He had settled into the top five, though, on the artists lists, was trending extremely high overall after the brawl, and he imagined his agent would be pleased. He wondered, though, if sleep was in the schedule. Bathroom C-, he updated, giving his honest assessment, and then left the smell and the rest of the bar behind, pressing again outside and into the cool night air. He wanted food, real food, and perhaps some sleep, but he knew that now he was up he wouldn’t get the chance, that like most days, especially ones of a concert, he was booked, and his Dream chimed with news, a message from his agent, hoof it to a mall across town, girls waiting in a closed lingerie store for fun, map directions.

It was the way of things, the pain and pleasure, the defeat and victory, the fact that They wanted to see him rewarded for standing up to the bikers, that They demanded his fortunes be reversed in order to right the wrongs and return balance and hope to the world. Jake shoved the Dream in his pocket and looked for the bike he had crashed, but someone else had already made off with it. He began to walk, knowing that he’d be trending down already, though he’d probably stay in the top twenty until he reached the mall, until the computers could pull seven seconds worth seeing from his life. Sex would bring things up again, perhaps even a series of short movies, one for each girl, for each face, and then perhaps a single, final video to condense them down, a best of movie to feed Them until the concert.

Until then it was just the walk, and Jake kept his eyes down, walking like he didn’t want to be disturbed, like he didn’t have anything worth robbing. He’d been mugged, actually mugged, only twice, the first of them being one of his most popular pieces, the second rather universally mocked as being retreading old ground, trying to catch lightning in a bottle twice. Maybe at three times it would be funny, a sort of mocking of his own foul luck. His agent would like it, would arrange it if Jake ever mentioned it, but he didn’t want to, wouldn’t unless it was that or something worse.

He walked, the buildings growing shorter now, reaching out into the subdivisions and more open areas, more houses now and less apartments. He wished there was something to eat, something to do. His Dream chimed again, and he pulled it out to see collateral damage blinking at him, loving note from his agent. He looked around, trying to spot something large and breakable, a lawn statue or a low street light. He saw in a yard of a string of townhouses what looked like a large glass orb, just decoration but something large and colorful and fragile. He moved to it, glancing about without seeing any signs of bystanders who might actually take him for a threat without recognizing him. He had nothing to use to smash it, but assumed that it would be light enough to take and throw against a tree or something like that.

As he stepped into the yard, however, a sound made its way to his ears, a strange, slow melody, deep and haunting, a slow song played on a guitar. His eyes sped about, hoping that this wasn’t another hallucination from lack of sleep and nutrition, hoping that those were gone for good, but as his eyes adjusted they came upon a small light from what seemed like the back of the townhouse, just a small noise, perhaps someone listening to a song. He froze, and as he waited to ensure no one had seen him, he noticed more about the noise.

It wasn’t coming from a television, a computer, not even a radio. Despite everything he could still tell, still remember what a real instrument sounded like. It was a guitar, acoustic definitely, a thing with simple body. He stopped. The song, someone playing, hit him, and he could hear their fingers hesitating over the strings, only just making chords. He waited. Seven seconds ticked by, then eight, nine, he still couldn’t move, was still held by the strange, stilting tune. A minute went by, or more.

The Dream in his pants chimed, and the music paused, and Jake blinked, the spell broken. He didn’t need to look to know what his agent was telling him. He took the orb quickly, hands grasping the light, glass ball, and ran. As he did he lobbed the sphere up and over the street with all his strength, watched as it made the arc, as it came back down like the New Years ball. It crashed, and with a piercing smash shattered against the pavement, ruined itself in the middle of the road. Jake ran.

Much later, and he was finally at the concert, at the small one story building well outside of town, his side hurting from where he had struck the mannequin earlier, his mouth dry, his stomach screaming for something to eat. But he couldn’t eat, didn’t deserve it yet. It was finally his time, and as he had predicted he was trending at the top of the artists list, the top of most lists. It was finally his time, finally time to perform and play and then afterwards to sleep. Sales would keep up after this, would buy him some rest and some food and some time without the constant distractions. His agent had promised him a trip to France, where his videos and music were even more popular than in the States.

The small building, a studio of sorts, was dark and cluttered, instruments strewn about, recording equipment like the bones of dead elephants among the hallways and rooms. All fiction, really, all for Their benefit, who would only understand something so blatant, so obvious. None of it was really used, none save the recorders sewn into his clothing and skin, which had more resolution than anything here. But it was prop, dressing that They could see and comprehend. Jake moved through it all, equally comfortable, in his element. The building was largely empty, his own preference there, alone and without distraction. There were techs around somewhere, out of sight, making sure it all went smoothly, but Jake tried not to think of them.

The room where he would perform looked like an old recording booth, small and intimate, the walls cushioned to enhance the sound. He walked in and sat on the stool, picked up the guitar that was waiting for him. His Dream was quiet now, his agent holding everything until this concert was over. Jake felt the wooden weight in his hands, the balance of the instrument. It had been meticulously crafted, a work of art in itself, and he took a moment to admire it, a moment only before he sat it on a knee and paused, closing his eyes. The concert, his new material, something different and striking. It was what he wanted, what he needed. He had always wanted to test the boundaries, to push Their appreciation of music, of art.

Taking a deep breath, he began to tap his foot to an invisible metronome, tried to picture the feelings he would imbue into the moment. As he sat in silence, though, the strange tune he had heard earlier flitted into his mind, those simple chords played into the night like a lost braying call. They had only been half formed, not a true song, not art, and yet he was having trouble getting the notes out of his head. There was simply something about that sound, something familiar and disturbing, something haunting. Jake shook his head, and hovered his hand above the strings.

Swallowing once, Jake brought his hand down, strummed the strings without bothering with a chord. And then, letting the sound linger for a moment, he silenced it and stopped. He could feel the sensors in him whirring, capturing everything, and he felt suddenly very tired. But he had done it. He dropped the guitar, listened to it clatter against the floor. It had no more use to him. Concert done, Jake pulled out his Dream and opened it. The praise was already coming in, his agent showering him with promises, trips and women and parties, but Jake hid the messages and instead looked at his feeds, saw the videos start to come in, of him walking down the hall, of the guitar in his hands and it falling. And his triumph, the new songs that were pouring in, one after another.

It was a triumph, he knew, was already being favored for awards, taking over the charts. It was something of a first. Normally an artist sat and played, and from the music they created the computers condensed the best, the most effective and pleasurable. But Jake knew that his own skill didn’t matter, knew that if it was the computers working then all they needed was the smallest amount of data to compile. So he had given a second and a half of noise, only that much, and the computers had analyzed, mixed, overlapped, found the purest joy, almost free of human interference. Jake slumped on the stool. Already there were twenty different songs from that, all at the perfect seven seconds in length, all brilliant, pleasurable, efficient. Jake got up and let himself down in the corner of the small room, and slept. infinity

Charles Payseur lives in Wisconsin. His stories have appeared in “Mustang’s Monster Corral” and “NOTA,” the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire’s arts publication. He was a semifinalist in the 2012 Wisconsin Public Radio Ghost Story Flash Fiction Contest.


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