Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
Editor

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Fiction

Quarantine Summer
by Rebecca Birch

Calling Time on Candy
by Mark Patrick Lynch

Revenge in Shanty Town
by Seth W. Kennedy

A Boy’s Apocalypse
by Eric Del Carlo

How to Be a Foreigner
by Karen Heuler

Could They But Speak
by David Steffen

Bob’s Day Out
by Mark Bondurant

Everybody Comes to Rick’s
by Tim McDaniel

Equations in the Mirror
by Therese Arkenberg

Pangaea
by R.W. Warwick

Articles

If We Find ET What Will ET Be?
by J. Richard Jacobs

Regarding Fermi’s Paradox
by Eric M. Jones

Articles

Cargo Cultism
by Eric M. Jones

Regarding Fermi’s Paradox
by Eric M. Jones


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A Boy’s Apocalypse

By Eric Del Carlo

“WHEN I WAS A BOY,” SAID FELIX BROGAN, “I desperately wanted an apocalypse to occur.”

Tracy Kraus took a long, studied pull on his Red Stripe, wondering if, after two-plus years, the shoe was about to drop. But sitting across from his comrade of long acquaintance, in the untidy confines of Felix’s house, Tracy considered the eager light in the other man’s eyes.

After a moment Tracy asked, “Do you mean something ... biblical?”

Felix was a shortish, thickish man, not committed to either dimensional definition. Even so, he had a gnome-like quality about him, something brooding, preoccupied and vaguely unnatural. He was, of course, a high-flown academic and intellectual, ensconced as he had been for the past decade in various research programs.

He grunted a laugh. Felix, Tracy knew, thought agnostics dangerously delusional.

“No. Nothing supernatural. Something grittier, and decidedly manmade. Nuclear war. You remember, don’t you, Trace? When World War III was inevitable between the US and the USSR? Everybody seemed to think so at the time.”

He and Felix were contemporaries, and Tracy had the gray in his beard to prove it. He was built much leaner than Felix, and he too had pursued a scholarly path in life. He had arrived at a much more conventional place, however: historical faculty at the university. People liked to say that history breathed; it was alive. It wasn’t. History was a dull dead lump of what had gone, and reinterpreting it and remeasuring its particulars changed nothing.

It had taken Tracy Kraus some time to arrive at that grim conclusion.

Felix continued, still with that odd avid light in his close-set eyes. “In those days”—he meant their childhoods of the 1970s—“we were long past duck-and-cover. Cynicism had set in. There was no sense of war of that magnitude being survivable. We were doomed, and we all knew it.”

“That’s pretty much how I remember it.” Tracy lifted an eyebrow. “Why, though, did you want that to happen?”

But Felix waved it away. “Oh, just pre-adolescent mopery, I’d say. If the world was blasted to glowing atoms, I wouldn’t have to feel so lonely anymore. All that sort of nonsense.” Another gesture, sharper, even more dismissive, as if emotions like that weren’t worthy of acknowledgment.

Suddenly Felix was out of his chair, reaching into a box of papers Tracy hadn’t noticed on the floor. Penelope was away. Penelope was almost always away. For the past two years Felix and his wife had kept up a de facto separation, with Penelope traveling the globe to further her geologic studies. Felix, on his own, didn’t keep a neat home.

Tracy came here once a week for a kind of academicians’ enclave that would have been insufferably clich├ęd had the two of them sipped cognac and played chess. More often, it was beer and ESPN highlights. If not an actual friendship, it was a reasonably comfortable association.

“What’s that?” Tracy asked, leaning forward in his own chair, piqued by the sight of the thin stack of yellowed papers Felix had withdrawn from the equally aged cardboard box.

“This”—his eyes shone even more brightly—“this is my magnum opus, age seven or eight. Did I ever tell you I wanted to be a writer when I was a boy?”

“No.” The two of them hadn’t met until college.

“Well, I did. I wanted to write science fiction. I loved the idea of making up a future. Just deciding that this is what will happen, here it is! The power of that ...”

Tracy shrugged. He’d had several academic tomes published, but that accomplishment felt hollow now.

“Have a look.” Felix handed over the pages.

They were from a notebook, unlined. The clumsy faded block lettering had been done with some sort of a marker—too big, leaving blots of ink at the tail of some of the letters.

the people

Tracy almost chuckled at that “22th,” instead of “22nd.” But he could feel Felix’s eyes on him. It was a mistake any earnest third grader could make, Tracy decided as he set down his Red Stripe and gave the sheets his full attention.

What followed wasn’t a narrative. The papers contained brief, crude character sketches, along with testimonies apparently written in the voice of each of the proposed story’s players. It emerged that World War III had indeed come, devastating the Earth and leaving only seven human survivors—all male, all soldiers. Four from the U.S. or associated countries, three from the Soviet Bloc. The kicker was that the war was still being fought by these lingering few.

It was dreadful stuff, of course. Beyond neophyte. But the first-person accounts, despite the bumblings and misspellings, had a curious power. There were mentions of ruins and everything freezing (nuclear winter?), but more poignantly, the dogged fighters sounded burnt-out, ragged, despairing.

Tracy read, then reread a page ascribed to one Tommy Ace:

we dont

“It’s ...” He reached for his beer. “It’s awfully heavy for a seven- or eight-year-old.”

Felix was nodding. “Yes. It was going to be my book. The People Left. A tale of glum useless warfare, set against the backdrop of a shattered Earth.”

“Did you write any more of it?” Almost reluctantly Tracy handed back the age-brittle sheets.

“What? Oh, no. Of course not.” Felix thumbed the papers. “I had no talent for this sort of thing. I mean—look. One of the characters is named John Crane and another one’s called Crane Oscoe. How creative of me! Or there’s this. Geg Pohyz. Geg. I had a relative named Greg. Maybe I was trying to spell his name. But Pohyz? What, I ask you, is that? Did I think it sounded Russian?”

“You were a kid,” Tracy said, hearing the defensive note in his voice and wondering why he was justifying the primitive work to its very creator. But what he’d read had gotten to him.

As Felix dealt the papers back into their box, he said, “However, I can recall, just looking at these scribblings, how vividly I saw this apocalyptic world of mine. The fractured and fragmented cities of the future. Everything was connected by elevated super-trains. Trons, I called them. In that world they were silhouetted against radioactive sunsets, skeletal and forlorn. The soldiers were all men of the line, foot soldiers. They didn’t know how the war had started, who’d launched missiles first. They wore futuristic combat suits, scratched and scorched, as they prowled through the splintered landscape, looking for the enemy, operating purely on frayed soldierly instincts. In my imagination it was clear, graphic. But you, Trace, were always the writer. I still can’t put together two sentences.”

Penelope had always liked Tracy’s writing. That, perhaps, was their first moment of intimacy, when she had read one of his histories and taken him aside at a dinner party and lauded him extravagantly. Tracy had felt the force of her for the first time, an intensity part cerebral, part sexual. By then, he was already doubting himself as an academic, and he had seized on her adulation. He had needed it.

Later on, he would need her; and he would come to have her, a frantic little affair, not even four occasions of true lovemaking all told. But enough to derail her marriage to Felix. And enough, once the reckless intrigue was done between them, to sink Tracy permanently in an intellectual despair from which he never expected to fully emerge. History had died for him the day Penelope had gone.

What he had never learned, though, was whether or not Felix Brogan had ever discovered their liaison.

Penelope had sworn she’d never told her husband a thing. But it wasn’t past Felix to have learned the truth, and to have carried on with Tracy in their semi-friendship—maybe to one day spring the accusation on him, or, just as likely, have dismissed Tracy’s part in the infidelity as something grubby and beneath notice. Much like his contempt for his own boyhood anxieties that had driven Felix to pen those strange disturbing pages of a war-ravaged future.

It was, however, quite true that Felix couldn’t construct a decent sentence, much less write a paper or a book. His brain simply wasn’t built that way. He saw through things. He perceived deeper, esoteric patterns in the universe. It made him valuable as a researcher, as a pure architect of ideas. Others did the polishing, but Felix’s concepts and breakthroughs were the stuff of legend among his fellow researchers and think-tankers.

Felix fetched two more Red Stripes from the kitchen. He set one beer bottle, already opened, next to Tracy.

Tracy wanted to talk more about Felix’s childhood writing or even his long-ago ambitions to be a science fiction writer, but Felix was already off onto the next subject and there was no bringing him back.

“Immersive virtuals,” Felix said. It was the program he was currently involved in, funded by either the government or some omnicorp, or some blend of the two.

Resigned, Tracy took a swallow of beer. Felix, of course, wasn’t supposed to discuss such matters outside the secure limits of his research team, but, again, there was no stopping him; and it didn’t much matter since Tracy couldn’t follow a tenth of what was being said. To Felix these ideas were alive and vital. For Tracy the abstracts were no more animated than the lifeless stretch of history humankind had left behind itself.

He zoned out entirely at one point, only becoming aware of his lapse when he snapped sharply back into the present moment. Felix, who needed no encouragement when he got going like this, was still talking at the same steady clip, in the same tone. His eyes, however, retained that eerie eager light from earlier.

Tracy saw that he’d consumed three-quarters of his beer. He would finish this one, then leave, having satisfied the requirements of his curious pseudo-friendship with the man whose wife he had seduced two years ago.

“Penal applications,” Felix said.

“Sorry?” It was the first thing Tracy had said in quite some while, it felt like.

“The practical use of immersive virtuals. Truly dangerous criminals may one day be sentenced to terms of comatose inactivity. Strapped to beds, plugged with feeding tubes. But that’s cruel, right? So, create a virtual world for them, something to keep their minds engaged, perhaps with an eye toward rehabilitation. At least it would prevent mental atrophy.”

Tracy found himself blinking repeatedly and rapidly. The implications of this were astounding, if Felix was serious—and when had he ever joked about his work?

“That’s ... disturbing, Felix.”

The other shrugged, another dismissive gesture. The far-reaching ramifications of such a penal program had probably never occurred to him.

“Rehab, you say?” Tracy was finally warming to this subject, finding he had sincere opinions on the matter. “That’s a step shy of outright brainwashing, isn’t it? Invasive behavioral modification by the state! By Christ, Felix, think where that could lead—”

It was Tracy’s turn to hold forth, apparently, to rant while Felix sipped his beer and feigned an attentive attitude. Before Tracy could really let loose about civil liberties and whatnot, though, he caught himself. He remembered suddenly how theoretical these research projects could get, how abstruse. Ideas might be originated and sent off on wildly impractical tangents, until the whole enterprise must resemble nothing so much as a scientific circle jerk in some lab.

Eventually, Tracy’s Red Stripe bottle was empty, and the night was done. It had been a peculiar one, what with Felix’s revelations about his creative childhood and that unnerving stuff about penal comas and immersive virtual realities.

At the door Tracy waited, as he always did, for Felix to finally make his accusation, to damn Tracy for his part in Penelope’s estrangement. But once again there was nothing, no condemnations, no histrionics.

“See you next week, Trace.” Felix offered a hand.

Tracy shook it. “Next week.” And he went out the door, feeling those eyes on his back. All night Felix’s eyes had been strangely bright, but Tracy still could not say what that signified, if anything.

He felt tired, and lost in dull thought as he made his way down the drive to where his car was parked. He felt ... cold? Yes. Quite chilled. Well, the overnights in the area were dipping low lately—

But no. This wasn’t a normal weather effect. The air bit; it seemed to seethe. There was a sudden awful reek in his nostrils—smoke, old burned meat, the hot scent of melted plastics.

Tracy crunched a few steps more down the long driveway.

The horizons glowed, an ominous cobalt color rising toward a torrid pink. Unnatural hues, slowly pulsating. It was night, but no stars shone. The sky was thick with debris, a hard shell sealing in the planet. Ahead, a crooked structure hung against the sickened darkness. Crumbling stanchions held aloft the remains of a narrow roadbed of some sort. Where the line had been broken off, something dangled, a large industrial-looking coach. Streamlined, futuristic ...

A tron.

Felix’s house was gone when Tracy turned back for a look. Or if it was there, it was reduced to atoms. The entire neighborhood was floored in twisted wreckage, a hopeless tangle of destruction. Ice crackled under his heels.

Tracy tried to remember what Felix had said, specifically, about how the proposed immersive virtuals would be introduced to their subjects. Was it nanotechnology? Was it a drug of some advanced design?

Was it something you could, say, slip into somebody’s beer?

And ... how long did the immersive reality last? Tracy thought he knew the answer to that one. It lasted as long as its instigator wanted it to.

A lonesome wind groaned, carrying the stench of the dead, millions of them, and millions more. A senseless war, an unwinnable war. A war—

Now he heard the crunch of another footstep, this one not his own. Tracy merely waited, shivering now, thinking—if he thought at all—of all the dead history behind him, and all the lifeless history forever unwritten before him.

A shadow moved among shadows. The poisonous glow of the night caught the metallic glint of armor where the plates weren’t charred. A figure lumbered into view, plodding steps, the unyielding soldier. Haunted eyes looked out through a shattered faceplate, pinning Tracy where he stood. The fighter held his weapon in his hands, a bulky-looking rifle of some sophisticated make. Did it fire lasers or just projectiles? How had Felix Brogan imagined it in his seventh or eighth year? For that matter, how had the adult version created all this from those simplistic sketches of so long ago?

It didn’t matter how. Felix had managed it. It didn’t even matter where Tracy’s real body was just now, either on a gurney in some sterile lab room or stuffed into a closet. Felix had correctly deduced that if a pleasant virtual world could be created, so could a horrific one.

The figure clomped a few steps closer, his gun leveled. He was near enough that Tracy could just make out the scratched name engraved on the chest. POHYZ.

The two of them gazed at each other for a frozen apocalyptic moment or two.

Finally: “Whose side are you on?” asked Geg Pohyz in a thick Slavic accent.

Tracy Kraus, simply, had no answer. END

Eric Del Carlo notes: The interpolated material in this story—that is, all text and references to “The People Left”—is absolutely authentic. I wrote this when I was approximately seven years old, and include it here from those original pages, misspellings and all, to prove a writerly maxim: “Never throw anything away.”


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