Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Mortality, Eternity
by Joseph Green

Absolute Pony
by Alisa Alering

Quisic Smith and the Russian Puzzle Doll
by Sean Monaghan

Clever Bubble
by Antha Ann Adkins

by Matthew Wuertz

To Walk the Earth
by Rebecca Birch

Five Stages of Future Grief
by Gary Cuba

Lost Planes, Lost River
by Michael Hodges

Funny Money
by Chet Gottfried

Insanity Machine
by Lawrence Buentello

Ten Minutes
by Eamonn Murphy


A Quantum Mind
by Eric M. Jones

What is Science?
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips




Quisic Smith and

the Russian Puzzle Doll

By Sean Monaghan

QUISIC MARCHED FOR THE back of the store. The credit bot followed at a safe distance, hovering above and behind, throwing out looping light tendrils as it checked the merchandise. One of the fluorescent tubes above the aisle flickered.

He had to find the doll set, and quickly. Trawler Cooper needed it today, and Quisic needed the payday. He was going to need more too, with the way the lawyers were fleecing him.

“Try Lavendish Mango for men,” one of the bracket displays advised him. It gave an aerosol burst of a woody-fruity scent. “Impress the girls.”

Quisic kept walking. He almost slipped on the slick floor, feeling it quickly roughen under his boots as he lost traction. No lawsuits here from people falling and throwing a disk.

Trawler had the doll smuggled in from the Siberian lab as part of an underground technology swap. He’d given them his gravity mitigation research and they’d given him cross-dimensional expansion tech. He’d put his data into a Barbs and Ken Wedding-To-Divorce set and they’d sent him a Russian doll. All through drops and rerouting so there was no connection between them. The Siberians were collecting their blister pack from a toy store in Vladivostok, and Quisic was here as a work-for-hire job, picking up Trawler’s Russian doll puzzle.

He got a bit of work from Trawler, as the independent scientist exported and imported technologies semi-legally around the globe. Trawler had told him that it kept the playing field level and that was enough justification to help out. That and the thousand dollar credit for the jobs.

Quisic angled left to avoid a shopper and her baby. Their trolley was filled with bright cereal cartons, self-fold-and-dispose diapers and blocks of chocolate. Another child ran along carrying a blister pack of thumb-sized plastic bears. The bears’ eyes stared Quisic. One of them winked.

Quisic smiled. Michelle would like those, he thought. If he ever got to see her again, he was going to throw a million gifts at her.

“Sixteen dollars fifty,” the credit bot told him, swinging low.

“For what?”

Another credit bot, the woman’s presumably, dropped and sizzled up to Quisic’s, tiny sparks of static leaping between the two.

“Lavendish Mango sampling,” Quisic’s bot said. It gave the other bot a bigger zap and it sped away. Shielding not quite up to standard.

Quisic stopped. His credit bot overshot and swung around. “No,” Quisic said. “No advertising. I told you that.”

“Moment.” Lights flickered on the bot’s forward panel. It was the size of a burger box, the color of gunmetal. It should have been smart enough to avoid advertising charges.

The child with the bears stared at him while her mother selected from cans of formula. “I love you,” one of the bears said from behind the blister.

“It overrode my internals,” the credit bot said. “I’m sorry. I have yesterday’s denial code. Let me update.”

“Truly, truly,” the bear said. “I truly—” It stopped.

“There,” the credit bot said. “Shop with freedom.”

“I’m not shopping,” Quisic told it. “I’m trying to avoid attention.”

The child kept staring at him, and now the mother was too. The baby began crying.

Quisic sighed. He headed on for the back of the store again. After all this the doll set better be there.

“Quisic?” the bot said in a different voice. Trawler. The machine had darted up behind and above Quisic again.

“Trying to be discreet here,” Quisic said.

“Trying to look like a shopper, right?”


An elderly couple in exo-skels stared blatantly at him from the mash and puree section. Either buying for their grandchildren or for themselves. The racks seemed confused, declaring both the benefits for child health and for ease of intestinal passage. “Clear bowels,” it announced, followed immediately with, “Top best ninety percentile myelin stimulation.”

It made Quisic hungry, even though the advertising wasn’t aimed at him. He hadn’t eaten in almost thirty hours.

“So,” Trawler said, “why are you calling attention to yourself.”

“Right now, it’s you calling attention to me.”

“You don’t even have a trolley, or a list.”

“The credit bot’s got the list.” Quisic sneered at the elderly couple as he went by. The old man flipped the bird at him. The woman mouthed a disgusting suggestion. Old people!

“I can see the list here on my display,” Trawler went on. “It consists of Child’s Toy. Don’t you think that’s just a bit too, well, obvious?”

“That’s what I’ve come for, so that’s what’s on the list.”

“Yes, yes, but perhaps you might have included something like birthday card, wrapping paper or some such to diver—”

“I’m the professional,” Quisic said too loudly. “Will you just let me get on with this?”

A uniformed guard slid down a pole from the top of the stacks. She stepped onto the floor and put her hand on her gun. Quisic slowed.

“There’s a problem with the pick-up,” Trawler said.

“Problem?” Quisic sighed. If he had an extra two bits for every time there was a problem.

“The doll is active technology,” Trawler said. “I’m sorry. That’s not what they were meant to send but that’s what they sent. You need to handle it very carefully.”

“What if someone else buys it before we get there?”

“Well, you’d better get there first. I’m throwing in another five hundred to compensate for the urgency. And uploaded some ware to your bot to help.”

“Only five hundred?” Sure was better than a quarter.

Trawler didn’t reply.

“Got it. We’ll have it in ten minutes.”

The guard approached him.

“What’s going on?” Trawler said.

“Bot?” Quisic said. “End call please.”

“Oh, with pleasure,” it said.

“I—” Trawler managed to get off before the connection broke.

Quisic slowed, but kept walking. Another mother coming along the aisle with her child looked up, saw the guard between her and Quisic. She grabbed her child, turned and hurried back the other way.

“Sir,” the guard said. “Perhaps we could come back to the security office and you could explain your shopping plans for today.” Her makeup was subtle, a little foundation, plucked and penciled eyebrows. Her straight black hair was in a very short bob, cut halfway across her ears. In other circumstances Quisic might have flirted.

I’m a thief, he thought. He should be much smarter than to get himself into a situation like this. He should have just signed the custody papers. All that personal stuff was getting in the way of his job.

“Sir.” The guard stepped into his path.

“I’m just shopping, really,” he said.

The guard glanced at her wrist. “Quisic Smith. Age thirty-two. Six priors.”

“That’s all in the past.”

“Yet you come to McIntosh-Comley without a shopping trolley and just one item on your list.”

“I didn’t tell her!” the credit bot said.

“That’s all right, little fella,” Quisic said.

“Let’s go to the office.” The guard glanced around. Numerous shoppers had stopped making selections to watch the altercation. “You can explain down there.”

The background hum of supermarket activity continued unabated, people in other aisles still receiving encouragement to make specific purchases.

“I’m on a schedule,” Quisic said. He needed to get to the doll and get to his lawyer’s to withdraw the approval.

“I guess you should have considered that before you made irregular shopping patterns.” The guard grabbed his arm. “I could take you in cuffs.”

“That won’t be necessary.”

He followed her through a door between shelves of dried mutton slivers and mayonnaise, both on discount, at the end of the aisle. Inside, a set of stairs led down to a musty, dim corridor.

Quisic felt a touch on his shoulder. The credit bot, landing and latching on. Without items to select or advertising to deflect, its job was minimal. “Creepy,” it said in a whisper.

“You should shut that thing off,” the guard said.

“It’s locked.” The credit bot was always on. It self-charged from the store lighting.

They passed by hundreds of brown cardboard packages, all flickering with stock number displays. Quisic imagined that even they would try to get him to purchase if it weren’t for the bot.

At the end of the warehousing, which must have stretched well beyond the store and gone right under the freeway, they came to a set of glass-doored offices, all labeled Security.

Inside the middle office, the guard sat Quisic down in a lumpy armchair and got a pane from a shelf. She set the device at an angle on her desk and began scrolling through. She didn’t speak to Quisic. Reaching into a bowl she took a mint and sucked as she watched the pane.

The room’s walls were covered with dull displays, camera views covering almost the whole of the store.

He spotted the elderly couple from before. The man slipped some kangaroo jerky into a slot in his exo-skeleton’s leg. A mother tugged a bawling child away from the toy racks as the toys blazed and flashed. Quisic couldn’t hear, but he could imagine the cacophony as the toys extolled their virtues and necessity to the poor family.

In the lower corner he saw the racks of gifts and tat. The Russian dolls. There was no one in the aisle and everything was blank and, he imagined, quiet.

Quisic glanced at the guard. She was still working on the pane.

Looking back at the corner of the wall, he could see the doll he’d come to collect. Identical to the others but for a tassel on the head, and a long chip at the joint of the doll’s waist. No one would try to buy a damaged item. That was Trawler’s logic when he’d arranged the drop.

Quisic didn’t get why Trawler hadn’t just arranged to pick up the doll from behind a dumpster in an alley or under a table in a deli.

“Quisic Smith, age thirty-two,” the guard said.

Whipping around, he met her eyes. “We covered that already.”

She stood, lifting the pane from its slot. Coming around the desk, she sat on the edge facing him. “Look at this.” She held the pane so he could see its display. It showed footage of him entering the store. While all the other shoppers selected trolleys or floating baskets at the entry, he walked right through.

“That’s a crime now?” he said. He could have saved himself the trouble if he’d just grabbed a basket.

“Not on its own. But it counts as part of a body of evidence.”

“There’s other evidence?”

The guard flipped the pane around, scrolled, and showed him again. Lists of items.

“Should that mean something to me?” he said.

“Mrs. and Mrs. Leggatt. See. They’re purchasing a whole range of grocery items, and some home wares.” Without looking she scrolled the lists until she came to another name. “Mark Turner. He’s here to buy some Manchester.”


The guard sighed. “Bedding. Sheets, pillow cases, towels and washcloths. He’s question-marked buying an art print to go on the wall too. You can be sure the store will guide him to the section.”

“That’s very helpful.” He hoped he could get this over with quickly. Already he was way off his timeline.

She scrolled again. A name with a single item under it. She didn’t have to read it out.

“Does the store have a minimum now? It’s not posted outside.”

“Of course not,” she said with a smile. “But you set off flags and now you’re here to reassure me. Nothing more.”

Quisic glanced through the glass door into the dim warehousing. “Quite an effort for all that.” He stood up.

“Sit down please.”

“Look at this,” he said. He went to the wall display and stroked the section with the kangaroo jerky. The video spun backwards. The elderly couple backed around the corner and came into view. The man rapidly pulled the items out and put them on the shelf. Quisic paused the flow and stepped back so she could see.

“Interesting,” the guard said. She touched her wrist, adjusting something. “Look at this.” Moving past him she split the display and tagged the old man. His image took on a red highlight. The guard pointed to another part of the display. The couple going through the checkouts.

“See,” Quisic said. “They’re getting away.”

“This is live now. Just wait.”

At the door another guard confronted the pair. The man held his hands wide as if denying anything. The woman quickly pulled out a gun. Another guard appeared, knocked her down, pinning her to the ground.

“Seen enough?” the guard asked Quisic.

The old woman seemed to be screaming. There was blood on her forehead. The old man pounded on the guard’s back.

Quisic guessed it was his fault. He should have let other thieves get on with their work, not rat them out.

“Now,” the guard said. “I’ve got something to show you.” She handed him the pane.

The display showed a live view inside the office. The guard smirking, Quisic holding the pane. He glanced up at the camera. “Entrapment.”

The guard laughed. She reached to the pane and wound the stream backwards. It came to a point where she was at the desk and he’d just turned to look at the wall display. She added an overlay and the computations added in body temperature, skin moisture, facial tension.

“Eye direction,” she said.

The display added in a line from his eyes right to the image of the Russian dolls.

“What’s so interesting about those, Quisic Smith?”

“You already knew about them. I’m purchasing a child’s toy.”

The guard sighed.

Quisic glanced at the wall display again. Another guard had arrived. He grabbed the dolls one after the other, putting them all into the trolley he’d brought with him.

“Withdrawn from sale,” the guard said.

“Uh-oh,” the credit bot said.

Quisic knew his physiological markers leapt up the scale right away.

“What’s that?” the guard said. She tipped her head, gaze locked the bot on Quisic’s shoulder.

He needed a plan B quickly. “Suggestions?” he said. Trawler might throw in something useful.

“I have updated the list,” the bot said. “We would like to purchase your entire stock of Russian dolls.”

The guard rolled her eyes. “Seriously? You think that’s less suspicious?”

The guard in the store hadn’t reached the tasseled doll yet.

“You should have him stand down,” Quisic said.

“Federal investigators,” the credit bot said. “We need the inventory.”

“Hoo, boy you two really are reaching, aren’t you?” The guard unclipped the set of cuffs from her belt. “Amateurs.”

As her head came up, Quisic gave her a shove. The cuffs clattered to the floor.

Her pistol was in her hand and leveled at him as if it had always been there. Fast mover.

The credit bot let go of his shoulder and flew at her. At least it was good for something other than ridiculous comments. Federal investigators indeed.

The sound of the shot echoed around the room.

The bot fell with a plaintive cry of “I’m shot!”

Quisic jumped backward, crashing into the glass door. It shuddered and snapped out of its frame. He landed on top of it. The glass shattered and he fell the last couple of inches. He could feel the shards jabbing into his back and scalp. Rolling away, he got more splinters in his hand.

“Help,” the credit bot gurgled from the office.

Quisic scuttled away from the door. The concrete was rough.

“Stay where you are,” the guard yelled.

Rolling forward Quisic got into the next of the warehouse space’s aisles. He started running.

“Crispy Cookies,” the boxes announced at him. “Best and finest dough, Belgian Chocolate. Need I say more?”

“I’m coming!” the credit bot wailed from somewhere lost behind him.

Quisic didn’t care about the advertising anymore. Somewhere in the back of his mind he thought it weird that unopened shipping packages in the warehouse would announce, but right now he had to get to the doll.

“Left aisle,” the guard said from somewhere. “Yes, cut him off.”

Quisic kept running. He could hear something scraping along the floor nearby. He didn’t dare look back.

“Congolese Banana Chips!” boxes said in their modulated, unhurried tone. “Perfectly sun-dried.”

“This way,” the bot said from somewhere on the ground.

Quisic glanced and saw it racing along beside him like a toy car. Sparks flew out from behind it. It moved by and angled toward the ranks of boxes.

“What are you doing?” Quisic said.

“Stop, go left.” The busted bot slid to a halt by a gap in the boxes. “You’ll have to carry me. I got all shot up and my flight controller’s on the fritz.”

Quisic scooped it up. The gap opened to another narrow stairway.

“Back of the store,” the credit bot said. It felt hot in his hand. The bullet had torn right through and left a jagged hole on the bot’s upper fuselage. Quisic was surprised it was even vaguely coherent.

“Stop where you are!”

Quisic looked and saw three guards at the far end of the aisle.

“Don’t move,” the woman guard said, from the office end.

Quisic sighed. His legs and back hurt from the fall. He could still feel the prickles from the glass splinters on his shoulders and scalp. He was going to need a soak in a Teflon bath to get everything out of his skin.

“Hands up.” The guard advanced on him.

“Move it man,” the bot said. “You’re in the cross fire.”

“Good point,” Quisic said. “Ma’am, you should stand down. Not a good idea to be aiming at your friends down there.” He took a quick step into the gap and ran up the stairs. Lights flicked on.

From behind, the crack of a single gunshot.

“Hey!” one of the male guards yelled.

Quisic kept climbing. Quickly he came to a closed door. The latch moved under his hand, but the door didn’t open.

“Oh, boy,” the credit bot said. “Let me run codes.”

Quisic waited. The sound of running feet came from down in the warehouse. The door didn’t open.

“Come on,” he said. Normally the bot could get a door code in under a second. But it was pretty beat up. “I’m going to get shot here.” Store security with guns was a bad idea. The cops were going to be on their way and there were going to be lots of questions.

“Hmm.” The credit bot squirmed in his hand.

“What? What do you mean hmm?”

“Oh, just having trouble finding these codes. I’m getting a lot of last year’s baseball scores. We should have put money on the Knicks.”

“The Knicks,” Quisic said, leaning back and driving his shoulder into an unrelenting door, “are a basketball team.”

“Stop where you are,” a voice from below said.

Quisic saw three of the four guards squeezed into the opening at the bottom of the stairway, all with their guns pointing up at him.

“Whoever,” the bot said. “We would have made some serious cash.”

Quisic lifted his hands.

“Stay where you are.” Two of the guards started up, bumping. One deferred to the other, slipping back.

“Got it,” the credit bot said.

The door slid open. Light from the store flooded the stairway. The guard blinked.

Quisic jumped back and into the store aisle.

“Gifts from the Ukraine! Surprise your significant other!” The supermarket noise surrounded him, the smells of a dozen nations cloying his nostrils.

He grabbed the door and tried to drag it closed. It wouldn’t budge.

“Forget it,” the credit bot said. “Let’s snatch the doll.”

Quisic agreed. “Orientation?” he said as he ran off. He didn’t know which part of the store he was in now. He could see the wall not far away. They’d come back under the freeway.

“Sorry, no maps.”

“Beautiful hand-crafted Chinese dolls!”

“And no advertising suppression either,” Quisic said.

Startled shoppers stared at him. Someone’s credit bot flew down at Quisic’s. He batted it away with his free hand.

“Sorry, sorry, a thousand times sorry. We must be close though.”

Quisic agreed. He ran to the end of the aisle and looked up at the number. Fifty-two. The Russian dolls were in fifty-five.

“Stop where you are.”

Quisic didn’t even look. He sprinted on.

People were shouting now, the commotion behind him growing. An announcement came over the storewide PA. Something about evacuating. Quisic didn’t catch it all, but that was a good idea. If the hapless guard touched the Russian doll, it would be wise to be elsewhere.

“This one, this one,” the credit bot said as they came up to fifty-five.

“I know!” he told it.

Ahead he could see the guard, still grabbing the dolls. The man was chubby and bearded. His arm reached far back. How could he have not gotten a hold of the marked one yet? It would be active and beginning to unfold.

“It’s in the trolley,” the credit bot said. It threw out more of the looping light tendrils.

“He picked it up already?”

Frightened shoppers scurried out of Quisic’s way.

“It’s active,” the credit bot said. “Our best course of action is to leave the store immediately.”

“Too late for that.” Even Quisic could see that the jumble of dolls in the trolley was moving around. The target item had to be within the set.

“We’ll never find it,” the credit bot said.

Quisic pushed someone’s errant, floating bot out of the way. As he stopped at the trolley the guard dumped in another armful of the dolls. The shelf was almost empty.

“There,” the credit bot said, pointing a laser. “Near the back, near the bottom.”

Quisic dove his hands in and began tossing the dolls out. They were light and slick, some of them slipped from his grasp and fell back into the trolley.

“Hey,” the guard said.

“I just want one for my daughter,” Quisic said.

“Take one from the top!”

“Nah, I want one particular one.”

Open mouthed, the guard stared at him.

“On the floor,” another guard yelled from behind. “Now.”

The guard with the trolley looked back and forth. Wide-eyed, he drew his own gun.

Quisic drove his hand down, feeling around among the dolls.

“Step away from the trolley, sir,” the bearded guard said.

“Got it,” Quisic said. Even out of sight, it was obvious against his hand. Already square-walled and coarse-edged. He dropped the credit bot to put his other hand in.

“Ow!” the credit bot said as it bounced.

“Sir, I won’t ask again.”

“Get Trawler on the line,” Quisic told the bot.

“No comms, sorry.” Somehow the little robot was clambering up the side of the trolley. “We need to get it out of the store.

Someone grabbed Quisic from behind, pulling on his elbows. “Come quietly now.”

Quisic shook them off and lifted the expanding doll from the trolley. The other dolls rattled out of the way, making a sound like a loud rain stick.

“Oh my,” the bearded guard said, stepping back. The other guard let Quisic go.

The doll had expanded into a blocky, multi-sided thing the size of a microwave oven. Its facets and angles were something from a mathematician’s nightmare. It still had the doll’s painted face and apron, expanded but clear.

“Neutralize it,” Quisic said. He could feel it shivering and growing in his hands. It had an odd weight to it, heavier than a doll, but lighter than he would have expected. It’s weight was increasing as he held it.

“This is what it’s supposed to do,” the credit bot said. It scanned the faces with light tendrils. “It’s operating perfectly.”

“Except it’s supposed to be in Trawler’s lab. He’s paying us to collect it.”

“We won’t get it there in time,” the bot said. “But we should at least get it out of the store. Customers should not have their shopping experience interrupted.”

With a crash of breaking wood, Quisic dropped the dodecawhateverhedron into the trolley of the dolls. He grabbed the handle, swung the trolley around and pushed for the front of the store.

“Stop there,” one of the guards said half-heartedly.

The credit bot clung to the trolley frame. “It’s growing rather fast.”

“Yes it is. How far to the entrance?”

“Three hundred and fifty yards.”

As Quisic ran, the thing didn’t stop growing. Like the credit bot said, it was doing exactly what it was supposed to.

“Try again,” he told the bot. “Try to neutralize it.” Trawler had given the bot all the programs to turn the doll off so Quisic could pick it up without this happening.

“Can’t. I’m toast.”

Quisic could see the front of the store now. He kept running. The expanding doll crushed more of the other dolls. It began bending the trolley’s steel frame.

“I have a call from Trawler,” the bot said.

“I thought you couldn’t receive calls.” Quisic puffed. He was out of shape. He was going to have to work out more. That would help with the custody thing.

“That’s through the networks. This is direct line. He’s in the parking lot. You should head for orange three when you get out there.”

“Orange three.” Quisic tried to picture the layout. “Tell him to come to the front door.” The thing would expand to the size of a city block if it kept going. Maybe bigger.

He crashed through the registers and out into the foyer. Sirens and alarms sounded. Every one of the dolls would have been tagged.

“Keep going!” the bot said.

“Thanks for the encouragement.” Quisic didn’t feel like he had much left in him.

More guards appeared from doors and from outside. They seemed baffled by Quisic’s trolley. He himself couldn’t even see over the top of the growing doll. The trolley started making loud piano-ish plinking sounds as the welds in its frame gave way.

The guards yelled at him to stop. He kept going.

Out into the parking lot. Bright sunlight, stinking exhaust fumes. Breathing hard, Quisic coughed. A big white SUV sped right at him.

“That’s Trawler,” the bot said.

The SUV stopped and Trawler leapt out, ponytail bobbing, glasses slung around his neck. “Good,” he said. “You got it.”

“That’s what I do.” Quisic glanced back. The guards were following. Some had guns drawn.

Quisic followed Trawler around to the back of the SUV and they lifted the thing into the tray. It only just fit.

“Well,” Trawler said. “Good to know it works.” He lifted a bot from his belt and jammed it in against the side of the expanded doll. The thing shuddered and contracted fractionally.

Quisic’s bot jumped and grabbed his shoulder again. “See?” the damaged little machine said. “It all worked out.”

“Sure it did.”

“Stand still,” a guard yelled.

Trawler glanced at the small army, then at Quisic. The old scientist smiled. “Now,” he said. “What do I owe you?”

“Fifteen hundred.” Quisic sighed.

“Store’s already charging us sixty two hundred,” the bot said. It made an odd sound, like someone gargling. Quisic imagined it was going to cost a lot to repair. He knew he should start charging a fee and saying plus expenses.

Trawler rubbed his chin. “I guess we can figure something out.” He stepped around Quisic and held up a badge. “Who’s in charge here?”

Quisic smiled. It was going to work out. He leaned back against the SUV to watch Trawler at work.

One of the guards stepped forward. Quisic recognized her as the one who’d first come down the pole. The cute one.

“I am,” she said.

“Transitional environment adjustors,” he said. “Working with the police and the FBI. I’m sorry for the trouble here.”

Quisic lifted the bot down and examined the damage as Trawler rattled on, telling them how very lucky they’d been in such dangerous circumstances. Somehow he even managed to implicate the Siberians in a loose way.

“Guess we’ll get you fixed up and head on over to see about custody,” Quisic said to the bot.

“We should grab some of those bears,” the bot said. “Or something like that. For Michelle.”

Quisic looked up at the store front. Most of the guards were filing back inside. “That’s a good idea,” he told the damaged machine. “But I think we should buy them someplace else.”

The credit bot gurgled again, a sound that was almost like a laugh. END

Sean Monaghan observes, “as web citizens we’re assaulted by a barrage of flashing commercial enticements.” Every day and everywhere. We’d need something like a pop-up blocker to follow us. And that’s how the credit bot and this story was born.


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