Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


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

by R.W. Warwick


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

Regarding Fermi’s Paradox
by Eric M. Jones




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips




Equations in the Mirror

By Therese Arkenberg

MICHAEL HAMEND, THE YOUNGEST NURSE and the one she felt most comfortable asking, admitted that while it wasn’t usual for patients to want to look around the operating room beforehand, it wasn’t unheard of, either. He managed to “fit you in a tour” after her third consultation with Doctor Matheson.

“I only hope it doesn’t scare you off,” he said with a laugh as he opened the door.

“I’m not afraid.”

“Of course, Ms. Jacobs.”

“You can call me Eva.” She realized he was giving her that look, the sort of timid admiration that had been thrown her way again and again since the day she came in. It hadn’t seemed like such a drastic operation at the time, not until she learned they sent across three time zones for Dr. Matheson, the inventor of the Golden Operation. Come to think of it, Matheson received that look even more often and with greater intensity than she did, which was only right. She might become the masterpiece, but he was the real artist.

“Eva,” Michael said. “Right. Well, welcome to—here.” He threw an arm out expressively. “Oh, please don’t touch anything. It’s sterilized.”

Three disc-shaped lights the size of serving platters stared down at an operating table upholstered in green leather. Monitors and cabinets covered the walls. Dry tiles rasped under her shoes, and the cool air raised goosebumps on her arms. All in all, it wasn’t much.

“Do you have the, um ... instruments in here?” Eva asked.

“Do you want to see them?”

“Well ... yes.”

He chuckled, a little nervously, she thought, and rummaged in one of the cabinets. “You’ve got a strong nerve.”

She shrugged, though he couldn’t see her. “I studied to be a nurse for a while.”


“Yeah. I stopped, though.”

He closed the cabinet, balancing a tray filled with thin-handled tools. “Oh? Why?”

“The patients. The first few years at school they never taught me to deal with people, only dummies and models. Once I found out ... I went into sales. I still have to deal with people, just not, you know.”

“I know.” He laughed. “I don’t mind working with people. Sometimes I think the doctor does, though.”

“Dr. Matheson? Do you know him well?”

“It’s a feeling I get. I listen to all he says ... I know a lot about him, but I don’t know him.”

She nodded. Between Michael helping Dr. Matheson prepare for the surgery and Dr. Matheson preparing her for the surgery, she couldn’t say for sure who had spent more time with him, but she didn’t know the doctor any better than he did.

“He’s very good at what he does, though.” Michael sounded sincere enough, but she wondered if he said it to reassure her, or because everyone else in the hospital said the same.

He held out the tray of tools. “If you want to look ...”

Pliers, forceps, staples, a variety of knives and scalpels, hooks—

“Is that a hammer?” she asked.

He nodded. “Sometimes, in a rhinoplasty, we have to break the nose to reset it.”

She winced. “Oh. Sorry. Forgot that was part of the ... procedure.”

“It’s okay.” Her eye alighted on a dark glint among the stainless steel and plastic handles. “What’s that one?” Only after she lifted it did she remember Michael’s warning about the sterilization.

He didn’t seem to remember it himself. “Scalpel,” he said. “The blade’s made of obsidian.”

Eva peered closely at it. The cutting edge of the blade was rippled like water; the rest was flat and night-black. She saw a tiny, pale smudge in the depths of the obsidian, a faint reflection of her face.

“Volcanic glass,” Michael added. “Sharper than steel. That means the cuts are smaller and heal better. A lot of ancient tribes used it—well, not for surgery.” He grinned. “The Aztecs had obsidian knives for cutting out prisoners’ hearts.”

“Glass, huh?” She watched the pale blob-reflection wiggle as she spoke. “So that’s why it’s like a mirror.”

“Maybe. I guess it’s kind of barbaric—cutting into people with flakes of rock.”

“Shards of glass,” Eva said. She returned the scalpel to the tray. I’m going to be operated on with mirrors.

Michael laughed as he returned the tray to the cabinet. “Seen enough?”

“Yes, thanks.”

It wouldn’t be long before she returned to this room. The surgery was in three days. Three days and Doctor Matheson would work his art and make her perfect. Three more days to wait and be un-perfect and normal.


Two days before the surgery, she was called in for a press conference.

She sat with Doctor Matheson, behind a table in a room with a low, light-checkered ceiling. On the other side of the table sat five or six representatives of the press—one of them seemed to come and go. Doctor Matheson wasn’t breaking, interrupt-dinner news, but he was news, especially on the local level. He was, after all, a brilliant surgeon from across three time zones. Eva probably wouldn’t be on TV, but she’d make the second or fifth pages of a few papers. Matheson had been covered in all the medical journals ages ago.

“First off,” a woman said in a tone that suggested she usually spoke into a microphone, “What exactly is the Golden Ratio?”

Matheson answered the question, in a measured, even tone like a poet reading his own poetry.

It started with the Fibonacci numbers—beginning with one, each number is added to the one preceding it in the sequence. One and zero is one. Then one and one is two. Two and one is three. Three and two is five.

Then, recited Doctor Matheson, each Fibonacci number can be divided by its predecessor. Two divided by one, three by two, five by three—as the numbers grew higher (34/21, 55/34, 89/55), the ration between them approached 1.6180339…

That irrational number was Phi. And Phi was the Golden Ratio.

“And how is that ratio applied in your famous surgery?”

Matheson looked justifiably annoyed at being reminded that his surgery was famous, but he answered readily enough. Length of nose, width of chin, the position of the eyes, even the size of the two front teeth could be measured quantitatively for perfection. The ideal human face was in line with the Golden Ratio. Through various procedures, he could make such a face.

He never shared his procedures, but he explained in detail the various proportions of the face until a wit in the back of the room asked, “Doctor, was your first love medicine or geometry?”

Medicine. After that, art. He discovered while drawing human figures the sections of the human body, how the dimensions of the head could be used to measure everything from shoulder width to the length of the legs, how eyes ideally spaced could fit a third eye exactly between them, how ...

How interesting, they said. Then they turned to her.

Name? Eva Jacobs. Age? Twenty-seven in two weeks. Occupation? Saleswoman at a perfume outlet. Yes, health insurance covered at least part of the procedure. Yes, she made enough to afford the rest.

“Why are you looking into this procedure?”

“Well ... I wanted cosmetic surgery in the first place ...” The fingers of her left hand absently traced down her face: to too-wide mouth from eyes set too close together, down too-thick nose to too-thin chin, all over a spotty, dull complexion. Yes, she wanted it ... needed it, really. Looks mattered; you learned that in sales quicker than anywhere, especially when you made commission. Who would buy cosmetics from a woman who needed the product more than you did?

One of the reporters asked what she thought of the social influences behind the procedure, behind the entire bastion of cosmetic surgery. “You never hear of a man getting Golden Ratio’d.”

Actually, Doctor Matheson intoned ...

She looked into the swarm of reporters, and her eyes caught on a glint of black. Dark like obsidian, she thought, like the little mirror scalpels waiting in the operating theater—it was a woman’s broach, black cut-glass gems set in a silver flower-shaped frame. The glass was cloudy, reflecting only a glare from the lights overhead.

She knew she had to stop looking for her reflection. It was going to change soon, anyway.

The reporters were still waiting for her answer to the previous question, why she was after the Golden Operation.

“I wanted some surgery done, and my insurance was good, so I figured, hey—since I can afford it, why not be perfect?”

The journalists nodded and wrote that down. If they were disappointed by such a commonplace explanation, they didn’t show it.

Someone asked Matheson more about his previous surgical experiences, and he was glad to answer them, and the attention of the press conference moved away from her. Eva didn’t mind. She sat silently, staring at the flat, white, unreflective plastic of the tabletop.


“Nervous?” There was a grin in Michael’s voice, but it was impossible to see behind the surgical mask.

“Not much,” Eva said. She felt her hands tighten on the handles of the gurney.

“We’re going to move you to the table now, and then we’ll put you under. Okay?”

She nodded. Her insides churned busily at nothing. She hadn’t eaten for the past twelve hours, preparing for the surgery. She wondered now if food would have settled her stomach, or only made it worse.

They moved her onto the table, beneath the giant lights. There was a cold sting in her right arm from the anesthesia IV. In most cases cosmetic surgery could be done with only localized painkillers, but not when they were working on her entire face.

She thought doing it all at once was part of Matheson’s mystique. His technique was good enough for it, and he was theatrical enough to prefer an immediate unveiling to one done piece by piece.

When she woke up, it would be with a new face.

Behind a pair of smoky glasses hovering over her, she could see Matheson’s wide green eyes. They were well-spaced, and overall he was a handsome older man, but she realized that even if he wanted it there was nobody on Earth who could perform the Golden Operation on him. He was unique, and in an odd way it cut him off from the benefit of his own work.

He told her to start counting as the anesthesia took hold.

“One,” she said. She could see the shape of her head in his glasses; only the shape, no detail. “Um ... one. Two. Three.” She realized she had repeated one.

One, one, two, three ...

“Five,” she said. “Eight. Thirteen. Twenty-one ...”

Michael chuckled and patted her arm. Doctor Matheson’s expression was impossible to puzzle out.

“Um, thirty-four ...”

She hoped she hadn’t messed anything up by counting with the Fibonacci sequence. She remembered hearing, maybe from Michael, that the counting was just supposed to distract her and give them some idea when the anesthesia ... was taking ... hold ...

It came like a black wave, rippling at the edges, and as she lost consciousness there was a moment of confusion where she thought she could see her reflection, somewhere—then it was gone.


Michael, two other nurses, and Doctor Matheson all informed her independently that the surgery had gone well, everything about it was normal and fine, that the facial dressings could be removed in twenty-four hours, and the swelling would go down in three to five days. Then she could really see what her new face looked like. The delicacies of the Golden Ratio in the human form could easily be lost, it seemed, in bruises, incisions, and puffiness.

Michael also warned her that some feelings of depression were normal, stemming from pain, censure from family or relatives, the unfamiliarity of her new look, and lingering drugs in her system.

“You’ll need to take it easy for the next few weeks,” he said. “Keep your chin up—literally. Your head should stay elevated for the next two or three days.”

At her first follow-up appointment, a little less than a week later, Doctor Matheson announced that the swelling was mostly gone and her face looked the way that from now on was “normal.” Michael brought out a hand mirror with everything but a trumpet blast and nurses and personnel, presided over as always by Matheson, gathered to watch as she looked at her reflection.

The clear glass of the mirror showed the blue-white walls behind her, the blue-white ceiling overhead, the pale expectant faces over her shoulder, and in the center, a shape, still slightly red, marked with a few narrow red scabs from the surgical incisions.

A shape. It was perfectly symmetrical, proportional, formed as delicately and with as much precision as any artist’s masterpiece. It wasn’t Eva Jacob’s face. It wasn’t a face. It was a mathematical problem, a formula; it was an equation.

The perfect lower lip twisted—the muscles of her mouth ached a little from the motion—and she put the mirror down.

“Surprised?” Michael asked, obscenely cheerful.

“Yeah.” She glanced at Dr. Matheson—as expressionless as stone, as obsidian, as glass—and then at the floor. “It’s okay.”

“It’ll take getting used to.” Michael reached out as if to pat her shoulder, then fell back.

“Right,” she said. “But it’ll be fine. It’s good.”

“Of course,” he said.

She thanked them all, promised she would see them at her second appointment the next week, and left smiling. The grin hurt to the bone.


She had taken a full month of vacation for the procedure. As Michael predicted, she didn’t feel like going out in public yet. She spent the time at home, reading with the television on. She didn’t really want to watch anything, but when the screen was off it was dark and reflective.

She didn’t touch any of the mirrors in her house—she was afraid of doing something reckless, and more, she felt getting rid of one or even covering it or turning it to face the wall would be like an admission of defeat.

Eva awoke in the middle of the seventh night after her appointment and realized she was hiding from her own face. It was ridiculous. So she wasn’t entirely comfortable with how she looked—hadn’t Michael warned her that would be the case? She hadn’t been comfortable with her old appearance, either, and neither had anybody else. Now she looked better.

Now she looked perfect.

Lying awake, she figured there had to be a way to get past it—the discomfort, the alien, uneasy feeling of her own expression’s unfamiliarity. She had to make it familiar.

She rose and went into the bathroom. She flicked the switch that turned on the lights bordering the mirror. It reflected the darkness of the room behind her, as if it were a sheet of black glass.

She tried to ignore the sudden thought of knives and leaned forward, looking deeply into her reflection. Studying it.

Study until it becomes familiar to you. Look until it becomes normal. Tonight, tomorrow, every day after ... fifteen minutes a day, look and study and relearn your own face. You’ll get over it. Everything will be fine.

From the top of her upper lip to the tip of her chin, five-and-a-half centimeters. From pupil to pupil, five-and-a-half centimeters, and from pupil to the corner of her mouth, the same.

From the corner of her mouth to the bottom of her jaw, measuring straight down, 3.3992 centimeters. Distance between eyebrows: 3.3992 centimeters. Five point five times .6180339: 3.3992.

3.3992 times .6180339: 2.1008. Width of each eye: 2.1008 centimeters.

The golden section of 2.1008 was 1.2984: the height, in centimeters, of her open eye, and the distance from her upper lip to the bottom of her nose.

Her mouth was open. She looked at her teeth, the final equation she remembered from Doctor Matheson’s report running through her head: front two top teeth, proportion of height to width: .6180339 ... Those were porcelain chips in her mouth now, specially made and implanted; her old ones had been too wide.

She grasped for the ceramic cup at the side of the sink. It clattered in the darkness, a brittle sound, brittle as glass.

Glass. Obsidian was sharper than steel, her surgery hadn’t left any scars ...

She filled the cup from the sink, drank deeply. It was still too soon after her surgery to gulp; she should have used a straw. She wasn’t really thirsty, and the water was tepid. She spat it out.

Eva wiped her hand across her tender lips, and caught sight of the motion in the mirror. Her hand, moving across the spotless, waxy complexion of an alien face. If it was a face.

She stepped back, hefting the cup like a weapon. Like primitive man throwing stones, before he thought to shatter those stones and make knives from them.

No matter how she tried, how much she stared, it would never get better. It would never be hers. It would never be anything other than an equation.

She hurled her weapon. She put her strength into the throw, and the sound was deafening as the mirror, and the face in it, her face, the equation, shattered into many shards of glass. END

Therese Arkenberg works in Washington, D.C. Her fiction has appeared in “Beneath Ceaseless Skies,” “Daily Science Fiction,” and “Future Fire.” Her science fiction novella, "Aqua Vitae," was recently published by WolfSinger Publications.