Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Super Plunge Lady and the 3D Printed Rocket Car
by Erin Lale

by Daniel Huddleston

Portraits Hung in Empty Halls
by K.C. Ball

Mouse Trap
by Fiona Moore

Basket in the Sky
by Igor Teper

Worlds Less Traveled
by John C. Conway

Redemption of Colony Venturis
by Wayne Helge

Where the Grass May Be Greener
by Rob Butler

Double Time
by Rik Hunik


Do Beavers Rule Mars?
by Thomas Elway

Science Fiction at the Box Office
by Adam Paul




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips





By Daniel Huddleston

I PLACE THE SPOON ON THE TOP of my napkin and pick up the glazed mug, leaning back in the chair, enjoying the aroma, looking up to watch crowds of people walking past on the sidewalk. The afternoon sunshine of early autumn is glowing on their backs and shoulders as they pass. This café has always been a great spot for people-watching. Tiffany and I used to come here often. We’d get that extra-warm welcome whenever we dropped in, and eventually the eyes of the waiters stopped doing that perfunctory dart to the upper-right corner of their glasses; they could welcome us by name without even doing any facerec.

That welcome has cooled now. They’ve never asked me about Tiffany, which I guess makes sense. Couples are always forming, always breaking up. Waiters don’t tend to ask questions.

Not that I’ve ever given the staff much of a chance to ask, really. Ever since the accident, I haven’t been able to find much reason for stepping outside of my apartment. Most regular business can be handled on-line. Food can be delivered. As for work, the home office is in California. I telecommute.

Today was the day when I finally couldn’t take it anymore, though. Those white walls ... those closed shutters ... that glass screen that was my only real window outside ... I had to get out. So this morning I showered, shaved, and dressed, and as if on autopilot came straight to this café, the same café where I used to go with Tiffany. Now I sit alone by the window watching the crowds walking past. Businessmen in suits and ties, passing at a hurried clip. Casually-dressed students in groups of three or four, laughing and flirting. Married women pushing strollers. The occasional city worker in purgatory orange coveralls, wearing sunglasses at least, if not the full mask and hood. I sip my coffee and stare through the long window into that other world, wondering how on earth I can ever find my way back to it.

I never got isolated like this before the accident. Tiffany was always around, and she’d drag me outside a few times a week for eating out, shopping, movies, or just a stroll. I enjoyed those things, of course, but for me it never mattered so much what I did as who I did it with. I went out to be with Tiffany. We got along well together. So well, in fact, that I had even bought her a ring. Tiffany had expensive tastes, and I had made my decision fully aware that I would never be a rich man with her around. Though after the funeral, I learned that I hadn’t known the half of it.

Outside, a high-pitched shriek and the screeching of brakes catches my attention for just a moment, but from my viewpoint I can see nothing out of the ordinary. At the sound of those brakes, though ... at the sound of that shriek ... all the terrible memories come flooding back to me. I hear low moaning from the stained asphalt ... the wail of sirens ... I watch the body being taken away ...

We never made it down the aisle, and there are those who tell me I’m very lucky we didn’t. At those times I simply have to contain my anger, reminding myself just how long it’s been since I’ve had any patches or upgrades.

It’s true that Tiffany had been in deep. Way deeper than I could have easily paid our way out of. Though she’d never cheated so much as a dime on her taxes, one day the IRS had come demanding two hundred thousand dollars in penalties, all because of a couple of information reports she hadn’t known she was supposed to file back when she’d lived in Italy. Nationally, tax revenues had been down that year, and bureaucrats had quite deliberately gone hunting for recent expats they could bleed with fines. Tiffany’s case had hardly been unique; a lot of young people had had their dreams of living abroad turned into nightmares overnight.

I stare at my reflection as it dances on the surface of the coffee. I try for a while to think about something else, wondering helplessly why I had even come to this place.

Suddenly, I notice a commotion outside. Raised voices barely penetrate the glass, but there is another shriek, and I see that the orderly parade of humanity on the sidewalk outside has clearly been disrupted. A postman has pulled off his bright orange hood, revealing the stiff, dead face underneath. He’s grabbed hold of a passing businessman, and even though in the pit of my stomach I know what’s coming, I still can’t believe my eyes when he opens his mouth as wide as it will go and bites down on the arm that his poor victim had raised up in self-defense.

There is a moment in which times seems to freeze over. No one moves, myself included. We can’t believe what we’re looking at. At last, the screams of the businessman punch through the paralyzing haze of horror and disbelief in our minds. Others rush to the businessman’s assistance and quickly drag the postman off of him. I get up from my chair and run outside, completely forgetting to pay for the coffee.

Outside, I can see them coming from the west side, toward downtown. Orange-clad postal workers, sanitation workers, pages, repairmen. They’ve ripped off their masks and their glasses, revealing their dead eyes, their dead flesh, their wounds, and the scars of their failed operations. Something seems wrong with them, though. They’re moving slowly, stiffly, awkwardly—much more so than they normally do—as though they were monsters out of some old horror movie.

Near the door, the crowd is holding down the dead postman. His neck is twisting back and forth and his mouth is snapping open and closed, seeking careless fingertips in vain. The victim is standing nearby, not wounded too badly, though his jacket sleeve is stained with blood. I push my way through the crowd and look down at the dead man. Fresh blood glistens on his lips in the warm afternoon sun.

His alarm should have gone off by now, but it hasn’t. The only sirens I hear are the ones from distant emergency vehicles.

For a moment I stand paralyzed with indecision. I can’t be this lucky, can I?

Suddenly, I feel a huge swell of hope welling up inside.

I waver for only a few seconds and then take off at a run. First, I plow through a group of terrified men and women fleeing in the opposite direction. Then I head straight at the orange-clad sanitation workers who are chasing them. They’re slow and clumsy—not hard to dodge at all if you’re not playing the role of their opposite number. I’m almost to my car when an elderly meter-reader comes shambling toward me from the curb. I hate to do it, but I tip her backward before she can bite me and she falls right over. Again, no alarm goes off.

I can’t be this lucky.

I throw myself into my parked car and start the engine. I pull out my phone and enter a tracking code. This produces a number which I feed into the car’s GPS system.

Two weeks after Tiffany was pronounced dead, she was assigned postal duty, and I spent a whole day following her around on her delivery route, mapping it out on my phone. This was not so I could follow her. It was so I could avoid her. For an unpatched mind like mine, it can be incredibly traumatic to encounter a dead loved one on the street. The wounds that had just started to heal are ripped open all over again. So to spare myself any unexpected, unnecessary pain, I mapped her route so I could stay off it. Today is the first time I’ve ever used the GPS to actually go looking for her.

The car’s navigation system produces the answer I need almost instantly: at this time of day, she should be a few miles east of here. I throw the car into gear and peel out from the curb, but immediately have to slow back down to a crawl. Even without other cars trying to get through, the streets are a scene of utter chaos.

I lay down on the horn. I have to get through these people before she wanders too far off course for me to find. Swerving back and forth, dodging pedestrians both living and dead, I slowly make my way forward. Whenever a corpse stands in my way, I go really slow, nudging it out of the way with my fender before proceeding.

I can’t get over the chaos. People are acting like they really are in some kind of retro horror movie. Are they role-playing unconsciously? A few walking corpses are not something a big crowd of healthy adults should need to worry about. Still, the mind can be a strange thing, no matter how many times you try to patch it.

Finally, I get free of the crowd, but another snarl of traffic is waiting just two blocks away. I wonder if it would be faster to run, but quickly discard the idea; how can I steal the body if I’m on foot?

Steal the body?

Yes, I realize. That is what I am going to do.

All in all, it takes nearly half an hour to get to the neighborhood I’m looking for. Along the way, I see grim evidence of the first fatalities of the day. Had there been a massed attack on that corner? Or had those bodies been dead already? Either way, I can see plainly that it’s too late to do anything for them now, so I pass on by and keep driving.

Once I get close to where Tiffany should be, I park at the curb and take off running. It’s a residential neighborhood with high-rises lined up like dominoes. Small parks break the monotony here and there. I scan the scene ahead for any sign of hunter’s orange.

Nothing. The scene is almost normal. That makes sense; there aren’t all that many city workers compared to the entire population. They’re probably massing at only certain key points in the city.

Another half hour passes in vain. That half hour is filled with desperate, random searching and occasional, not-so-random punching and kicking, but just when I am beginning to think my cause is hopeless, I spot a slender female figure up ahead of me. She’s standing on someone’s porch, banging her hands against the door. I run straight for her, not even pausing to catch my breath. I don’t know how much longer this attack will last, so there’s no time to waste.

Tiffany looks down at me as I come running up the driveway toward her. Actually, she isn’t looking at me at all. A small camera implant is what’s doing the looking.

She bares her bloody teeth and staggers forward in my direction. To any bystander, the scene must look like some horrific parody of an overblown love story. Film us in slow-motion, put a blaring ballad on the soundtrack, and we’d be all set. At the instant of our long-delayed reunion, however, we don’t fall into each other’s arms. She reaches out for me, but I duck her arms, swerve around to her back, and put her in a headlock from behind. I jam my forearm under her jaw so she can’t bite me. Her fingers scratch and claw furiously, but that I can manage. I pull her backward and she loses her footing. I start dragging her off in the direction of my car.

Her alarm doesn’t go off.

My car’s an awfully long way from here by this point. As I drag her sluggish, struggling form along, one thing surprises me: she’s still so warm.

I understand why. Most of her flesh wasn’t allowed to die in the hospital, and the city has kept her life support implants going ever since. She still eats, still metabolizes, still lives in a way ... even though her mind, her soul, the Tiffany I knew and loved, is long gone, never to return.

At last I reach the car, pop the trunk, and start trying to shove her inside.

A few residents come out to watch.

Yeah, a few stares are to be expected. Only one guy tries to stop me, but I’m able to ward him off with ... well, Tiffany. I wheel her around at him and she nearly snaps his nose off. Finally, I get her into the trunk and close the lid.

“What’s the matter with you!” the man asks. “I’m calling 911!”

I am so out of breath I can’t even answer by that point. If I could have answered, I would have wished him luck getting through on a day like today. Instead, I simply stagger to the driver’s seat and fall in. It takes three tries just to get the key into the ignition.

I hear thumping from the trunk the whole way back. Night is falling by the time we get home. Somehow, I manage to get her into the elevator without being seen, and then it’s a long ride up to the eighth floor where I live. I’m in luck; no one else tries to get on along the way, and no one is waiting in the hall when I get off. Most living people must be long since holed up indoors by this point.

I drag the still-struggling Tiffany into my apartment and lock her up in the bathroom. For a few minutes, I can hear her fumbling around, but she fortunately doesn’t make too much racket.

By this time, my entire body is trembling. I collapse into my swivel chair and turn on the computer. While I’m waiting for it to boot up, I also turn on the television to get a better idea of what’s going on outside.

I see a news anchor urging people to stay indoors. I change the channel and see a representative from the sanitation bureau standing beside a spokesman for the police. He’s talking about cyberterrorism, but there are a lot of wiggle-words when he tries to talk specifics. I need to get a look at what’s infecting her myself.

After I catch my breath and stop shaking, I get up and head back to the bathroom. With another considerable expenditure of effort, I manage to get Tiffany out of the room and lashed to a chair using some old computer cables I haven’t used in ages. Then I run a wire from my computer to the exposed connection port under her ear, and feel grateful beyond words for universal hardware standards as it snaps into place.

Once she’s secure, I turn toward the PC. Hacking through the first firewall is simple; hacking through the second less so, but I’m still in within ten minutes. With a little tweaking around, I manage to shut down her major motor functions, and finally, she stops struggling. That part was easy in itself, but as I start to poke around inside the machine in her head, I realize that it is actually rather complex. Clearly, it will take some time for my machine to map it all out. I start the process, get up, go to the kitchen and make a cup of coffee.

Then I make another cup of coffee.

There’s some new information on television now. Apparently, the FBI is getting close to identifying the hacker behind today’s attack.

I set the second cup of coffee down beside Tiffany and undo the cables I’d used to tie her to the seat. She slumps down in the chair, but makes no voluntary movements.

I put a hand on the top of her head and scratch her yellow hair affectionately. It isn’t dirty or oily. Someone’s been washing her regularly. Back when she was hit by that car, most of the bleeding was internal. No damage is visible on her face. Still, in the time since I saw her last at the funeral, she’s lost so much weight. I cannot put into words how sorry I feel for her at this moment—how much I would give to see her reach out of her own volition and take a drink from that coffee mug.

According to the news, there’s a simple enough reason why the city has not yet been able to restore control over its dearly departed, deeply indebted public employees: every municipal office from which the debugging might be done is currently under siege by hordes of walking corpses. The virus apparently directed most of them to converge on those buildings: an obvious trick to make this stunt go on for as long as possible.

At last my PC is able to isolate the virus that’s taken over Tiffany’s body. It’s spectacularly simple. Whoever did this did almost no original work himself. The first part is just basic viral code that can be generated by any number of illegal construction toolkits. This code is attached to a freeware script commonly used in open-source video games and CG animation—a very simple AI designed to move the virtual skeletons of 3-D characters through complex virtual environments. This particular script was designed for simulating the movements of many characters at once. A look around the Net reveals pre-made data sets you can just plug into it: movements for simulations of marching bands, groups of dancers, attacking armies, regular people on sidewalks, and ... bingo! Retro-style zombie invasions.

Simple, yet elegant. Utterly unprofessional. Most likely the work of some script kiddie on 4chan.

About the time I realize this, a press conference turns up on television. An arrest has been made, but the name of the suspect cannot be revealed because he’s a minor. A minor who was apparently obsessed with old horror movies.

“No prior arrests,” the police spokesman says. “The only atrocities he was guilty of before today were his spelling and grammar.”

Bingo, again.

I turn back to the computer. Now that I know what’s infecting her, I know how to get rid of it. It only takes a couple of minutes’ work, and then the virus is defanged and deleted.

The next task is a bit more complex. I need to permanently disable her alarm and any GPS tracking that might also be in there.

Don’t get me wrong. I do appreciate the fact that the city takes steps to ensure that bodies aren’t stolen. I get that. I understand that when these corpses finally earn enough money to pay off the debts they incurred during life, their families will want them back in as good a condition as possible for burial or cremation.

But unlike the rest of Tiffany’s family, I’m not so patient. I’ve always been oddly protective of my brain for some reason. I’ve kept illegal viruses out using legal software, and with illegal software I’ve kept the government mods at bay. For years I’ve been running software that emulates the federally-mandated patches and modifications within an isolated shell. That fools the scanners whenever I go in for checkups or go through airports. The scanners see what they want to see, while my original mind is left running untouched underneath.

The only negative is that I’ve never been able to accept what has been done to Tiffany. I never let myself be modded to make such acceptance possible.

On television, the cameras have switched to a street-level scene. A large group of union workers is now marching through the middle of the city, waving a big flag and singing a fighting song in unison.

They are headed for city hall, the telop informs me. In their hands I can see jackhammers, chainsaws, and rivet guns. A spokesman for the labor union comes on, claiming that they’re about to do the job the police couldn’t. He also goes on to say that Congress should act immediately to pass legislation banning the use of corpse labor, rattling off as he does so the long ID number of a recently-introduced bill that would apparently do just that.

My eyes narrow. Maybe it’s my imagination, but those guys seem to have gotten their little army together awfully fast considering the chaos of today. I wonder for a moment if that kid who got arrested might actually be a fall guy.

Not that it matters either way to me. As the union army begins its bloody confrontation with the confederacy of the dead, I realize that I’m now in a race against time. If I can’t deactivate the alarm and any tracking devices that are in her head, Tiffany will never get the chance to rest in peace, and I’ll end up in prison for my troubles. Did I even realize until this moment how much I’m gambling on this?

I take a second look at the virus I dissected earlier. In it, I find the first half of my answer. Since no alarms were going off in the streets, the virus clearly had some way of shutting them down, even if by accident. I find some code whose function I don’t know, and follow it to the data blocks it’s targeting in her brain. I don’t know whether those blocks control a beacon or an alarm, but I disable them right away.

If worse came to worst, I guess I could just format the whole thing, but if I did that, she would never walk again. Her life support would shut down and she would finally grow cold and stiff. This would not only be unpleasant; it would greatly complicate the eventual disposal of the body.

While the computer continues its search I go back over to Tiffany. She almost looks like she’s sleeping now. I see her chest rising and falling ever-so-slightly with her lifeless breathing.

Suddenly, the still silence of the night air is pierced by the shrill sound of countless alarms going off outside. I look out the window. An orange-clad corpse is standing still out in the street, waving its arms in the air with its mouth wide open, blaring out the siren call at deafening volume.

Tiffany, however, remains silent.

One relief leads to another worry.

Is a GPS still active?

Are police headed this way already?

Unlikely. The police still have far too much else to worry about at the moment.

I take Tiffany’s lifeless hand in my own. “Don’t worry,” I say softly. “I’m going to get you out of this soon, and then you’ll be able to rest at last. You’ll finally be going where your debts can’t follow you.”

I feel myself tearing up as I talk to her. My voice cracks.

I realize why. It’s because I don’t want to say goodbye. With my brain unmodified and unadapted to the society I now live in, I haven’t been able to say goodbye yet. To her family, she’s long gone, but not to me. Not when I’ve always known that she was still out there somewhere walking around. What I had thought was grief at the funeral had been more akin to the sadness of a simple breakup. It was nothing at all like what I’m feeling now.

Now it comes crashing in on me: the time for the final farewell is almost here. The sirens outside are like a ringing in my ears, only broken when a chime from the computer announces the completion of the brain-mapping. I quickly locate the GPS and its backups and disable them all.

And with the final keystroke, I collapse back into my chair.

At last, we are alone.

After a long moment, my hands go back to the keyboard. Without even thinking about it, I begin mapping her motor controls to my keyboard.

After a little bit of work, she sits up straight in the chair where she had been slumped down until now. She crosses her legs, ladylike, just like she used to.

I don’t open her eyes, but slowly I move her hand over to the coffee cup. I try to make her pick it up.

Grabbing hold of something is a very complex task. I give it up after the second try, certain that further experimentation will result in nothing but spilled coffee.

Tiffany is now cut off from the central AI that had controlled her body before. I realize now that I’ll have to write her a new one in order to walk her out of here. I’ll also need to get her into some clothes that aren’t hunter’s orange.

I go back out on the net and download one of those AIs for computer game animation. It has walk cycles for women. Normal walk cycles. Not zombie walk cycles.

I open up a data file and start taking it apart and putting it back together.

I start teaching Tiffany to walk again.


By the time dawn breaks, the last of the sirens outside are gone. Tiffany sits across the room from me, sipping coffee from a cup. She gets up, stretches unconvincingly, and says, “Do you want me to fix you some breakfast?” The voice is a slurred parody of the voice I remember.

I’ve been awake all night. Once a programmer gets one thing working, he can’t wait to build on it, and I’ve made a lot of progress already. “That sounds wonderful,” I say. “Just a bowl of cereal, though. I don’t want you messing around with the stove just yet.”

Tiffany smiles slightly and laughs so unreassuringly that for the first time in my life, I wonder if I really made the right choice in keeping the government out of my brain.

The thing is, Tiffany’s computer brain uses her own original nervous system to transmit orders to her muscles. If her brain can still do that much, isn’t it possible that more than just motor controls are still preserved? Isn’t it possible that some part of Tiffany herself might still be in there?

One thing has led to another. Now that I’ve thought of it, I can’t leave it alone. I have to know now, and so I keep working.

Tiffany’s not on a wire anymore. I’ve got wireless transmission set up now, so she’s free to move around the apartment.

I know it isn’t her. I know she’s merely being controlled by an AI puppet master for now. At the touch of a key the strings would snap and she’d fall to the floor right away.

Even so, I dig deeper and deeper into the interface where artifice and gray matter merge. With my fingers, I call into that darkness, saying, as it were, “Are you there, Tiffany? Can you hear me?”

I work another day and another night, still without sleeping.

And finally, I collapse from exhaustion.


It’s morning again when I wake up.

I’m lying in bed, covers pulled up around me, wearing pajamas I don’t remember putting on. From the direction of the kitchenette come the sounds and smells of frying eggs.

I start to pull myself up from the bed, but a sudden tension stops me.

A wire runs from the port behind my left ear to the computer on the desk by my bed.

“Are you awake, dear?” Tiffany calls from the kitchenette. “You had me worried.”

Her voice is warm and resonant now. She comes in carrying a tray with breakfast. I see eggs, sausage and orange juice. It smells delicious. I have no idea when I ate last.

Tiffany sets the tray in my lap and sits down at the chair by the desk.

Her eyes are open. They are clear blue. Moist. Alive.

I touch the wire, but she puts a hand on mine. “Don’t!” she says. Then more gently, “Don’t.”

I start to open my mouth, but she shakes her head and touches my lips with her fingers. “First, eat your breakfast. You work too hard. You need to take better care of yourself.”

I have never felt such joy and such revulsion mixed in equal measure. I let go of the wire and pick up the fork. She smiles encouragingly. Suddenly, I break down weeping in uncontrollable sobs. Tiffany comes near and puts her arms around my head. I want to push her away, but she’s so warm. This feels so right, and so nightmarishly wrong.

“Tiffany ...” I whisper again and again. “I’ve missed you!”

“Shhh. Sh. Sh. Sh. It’s okay. I’ve missed you too. But I’m here now. You don’t have to be sad anymore.”

“What are you?”

“Here. Eat your breakfast.”

She takes the utensils out of my trembling hands and starts cutting up the eggs and sausage.

Finally, there’s nothing else for it; I start to eat the breakfast that she made for me. It’s delicious. It’s ... grounding. It brings me back from that emotional wilderness I woke up in. The food gives me strength, and when it’s gone, I take hold of her hands, look into her eyes, and ask her: “Who are you, and what is this wire that’s in my head?”

Tears brim in Tiffany’s eyes. “I’m Tiffany,” she says. “Kind of. A little. You found me. What was left of me. You found what even the doctors couldn’t ... or wouldn’t ... find, and then you collapsed on the floor. That’s when I took over. There was barely enough of me left to operate the computer, but somehow ... I knew where I could find some more.”

“Some more of what?”

“Some more of me.” She runs a finger along the wire, and then tugs playfully at the lobe of my ear just like she used to. “There’s lots of me in here,” she says. “Your memories of me are filling in the gaps.”

“Are you still alive?” I ask. “Are you really, truly still alive?”

For a long moment, Tiffany doesn’t answer. Then she says what I already know deep down. What I know deep down is that I am merely answering my own question by way of her mouth: “Not in any sense that would pass muster medically. I’m a few undegenerated memories, an AI, an animation program, and what you remember of me. And this body will not get better. It will degenerate slowly or quickly, depending on how well it’s taken care of, but it will degenerate.”

I nod. Tears run down my face, but the violent tears have passed.

“Do you want to be like this? What ... what do you want to do?”

Tiffany smiles. “Today, I want to spend with you. I want to go walking in the park ... I want to go drink tea in a café ... I want to see a good concert or play. And then come evening, I want you to walk me back to the station like you used to. I want you to kiss me on the cheek like you used to ... and I want you to say goodbye to me, just like you were supposed to.”

I swallow back a sob. “Where will you go after that?”

Tiffany shakes her head. “Where you can’t follow. Where they can never find me again. Now don’t look so sad. The sun is shining today, and we’re going to make this day a good one. I’ll have you on wireless in another half hour or so, and then we can go out and make a day of it.”

She squeezes my hand. “Thank you,” she says. ”Thank you, thank you, thank you. When that car hit me, do you know what I wished for? I wished for one more day to spend with you. Against all odds, against all reason, you’ve given me that. Thank you. I only wish there was some way to repay you.”

I squeeze her hand back. It is the hand of a dying woman, but not a dead one. Not completely. Not yet. I pull her near and hold her tight, feeling for the first time since this nightmare began that what I’m holding is really her. “You don’t need to pay back anything,” I whisper. “All debts are cancelled.”


We head out into town before noon. Tiffany is wearing some old clothes of mine that fit her well enough. Neither of us want to spend precious time picking out new clothes on a day like this.

First we start off down the sidewalk that leads to the park where we used to meet on Saturdays. To look at the city, you’d never know there had been a zombie plague just a couple of days ago. We walk together among the young and the old. For the first time in ages, I feel like I am on the other side of the glass window at the café.

Tiffany sits in a swing, and I push her just like I used to. Then we walk around the botanical gardens and hold hands by the lake, feeding ducks.

Lunch hour arrives, and the streets get busier.

“Are you hungry?” I ask.

“Starved,” she says.

“What are you in the mood for?”

“Whatever you like.”

I smile. It was always like this. We were insufferably considerate of each other as a couple, so it always took forever to decide where to eat. Usually, we’d gravitate to one of our regular hangouts by default. Today, however, I insist: we will eat wherever Tiffany wants to go.

She decides on the café I was at when all of this started. I have no way of knowing, of course, whether she is deciding this on her own, or if my own memories of her favorite places are influencing her.

There is only one thing she has said today that I am entirely sure is of her own will. That is her desire to be left at the station tonight. If nothing else, I know that that desire isn’t coming from me.

“Hey! Look who’s back!” the waiter says when we step in the door. His smile is friendly. I feel happy that he remembers us. That he remembers her. He shows us to our usual table by the big window, where I order a sandwich and coffee, and Tiffany a salad with light dressing and juice. It seems odd to me that Tiffany would have calories in mind on a day like this, but I say nothing. This is Tiffany’s day, to spend however she wishes.

“How are my parents doing?” she asks.

“Very well, last I heard.”

“I’m glad. I wouldn’t want them to grieve very long.”

“Well, there are therapeutic patches for grief, so ...”

The conversation drifts from topic to topic. It feels like I’m just catching up with an old, dear friend now. Her smile is the same as ever. Even the way she eats is still the same. In that body is a computer controlling her life support and nervous system. There is an animation program driving it. There is a home-brew AI controlling that. There are also my memories of her being accessed by wireless. Even so, I have no doubt now that there is a spark of the real Tiffany in there as well.

After lunch we go to a movie. I let her pick the show. Naturally, it’s a weepy love story, but I don’t mind. The movie doesn’t matter if I can sit there relaxed, feeling her warm hand in mine.

After the show, darkness has fallen across the city. We go out for dinner at a more expensive restaurant this time.

This time, she orders steak and potatoes, but she can hardly eat any because she spends so much time talking to me, telling me things—most of which I am painfully aware that I already know. A note of desperation creeps into her manner, but she continues to be relentlessly brave for me.

After dinner, we walk to the train station.

We walk very slowly, but no matter how leisurely the pace, no matter how many detours we take, no matter how many shop windows we stop by, we still get there eventually. She turns to me, bathed in warm yellow light from the station. Tears are brimming in her eyes, but she is smiling at me ferociously.

“Kiss me goodbye?” she asks.

I shake my head slowly.

Her smile breaks. One tear slides down her cheek.

I reach into my pocket, and pull out the ring I had bought for her—the ring I had never had the chance to give her. I take her hand, and though she tries to pull it back in alarm, I can’t let it go. Somehow, I manage to put it on her finger, and then I embrace her, pulling her up tightly against myself.

“What do you think you’re going to do?” I ask. “Where are you going to go? Are you going to go down to the subway platform and just throw yourself under a train? Are you going to walk out into the sea and keep on going?”

“I’m dead,” she whispers in my ear.

“You’re dying,” I whisper back—and then suddenly, the words come pouring out, from where I do not know. “You’re dying just like I am. Like everyone on this planet is dying from the day they’re born. For all I know, you may even outlive me. I’ll let you go when you’re dead, and not a day sooner. Even if there’s nothing left of you but a tiny spark, I’ll keep feeding it, keep blowing on it, keep shielding it for as long as I can.”

Tiffany tries for another moment to pull free of me, but then her strength gives out and she bursts into tears, sagging against my shoulder. Slowly, slowly, her arms wrap around my back, and she squeezes tightly.

“Do you want to go home?” I ask.

A shudder runs through her shoulders, not so much as the question as at its implications. The same shudder runs through mine.

Tiffany squeezes her hand tightly on the ring, and answers at last: “I do.” infinity

Daniel Huddleston is a teacher and translator residing in Japan. His work has appeared in “Abyss & Apex” and “Speculative Japan 3” (as one of the translators). He is the translator of the classic Japanese science fiction novel “Virus” by Sakyo Komatsu.


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space trawler