Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
Editor

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Fiction

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

Unprofiteers
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

Articles

A Quantum Mind
by Eric M. Jones

What is Science?
by John McCormick


Cover

Editorial

Blog

Shorter Stories

Comic Strips

Reviews

Submissions

 

Unprofiteers

By Matthew Wuertz

MARTY LOOKED AT THE MAN SITTING behind the desk, whose placard read “Crenshaw.” His hair grew in wild tufts, reminding Marty of the evergreen bush at his mother’s house that had grown so large in the past decade that it threatened to consume the garage—except black. The rest of his meaty face was rather plain—no facial hair or even color-rotating irises. Old-fashioned.

“Why are you staring at me like that? Almost like you’re taking inventory of my face. You sure you don’t have a criminal history?”

“Sorry, Mr. Crenshaw.”

“Crenshaw’s my first name, but people call me Cren.”

“Yes, sir. Cren. Got it.”

“What’s with that accent?” Cren asked. “You’re not from anywhere near New York.”

“I grew up in Ohio.”

“That explains it.”

Marty’s résumé materialized in the air between them, semi-transparent. “Fresh out of college, huh?”

“Yes.”

“Fine, fine.” The resume flickered away. “Job pays a buck over minimum wage. No benefits other than what pleasure you take in the work itself. Interested?”

“But I don’t even know what this job is or why it’s available.”

“This was Charlie’s position.”

“Why is Charlie no longer employed?”

Cren folded his arms. “You heard of trans-dimensional gravity traps?”

Marty shook his head.

“Then, don’t worry about it. Come on, I’ll give you a tour of the place.”

“Wait. Are there risks involved with this job?”

“Risks?” Cren laughed. “You sound just like Charlie, God rest his soul.”

Cren stood up and left the office. Marty reluctantly followed.

“You’ve already seen our lobby-break-room-workout-facility,” Cren said, sweeping his hand toward the small entryway. A mini-fridge topped with paper magazines from the early twenty-first century stood next to a stationary bike with a mounted tray.

“The room straight ahead is our conference-room-supply-closet-bathroom. And the room over here is Ted’s. Hey, Ted.” Cren knocked on the closed door. “Ted, I want you to meet somebody.”

Ted didn’t answer, so Cren pressed a button. With a deep buzzing sound, the door evaporated into a pile of ashes. “Gotta get that fixed,” Cren muttered.

Inside the room, a robot sat behind a sterile desk. Marty thought he recognized the model—“jitters,” people nicknamed them. After the first series of robots came out, people didn’t like their blank, metallic faces and unchanging postures. Once user-experience engineers realized that people prefer AI’s that shift and twitch like normal humans, they added those mannerisms into the algorithms. But the engineers overcompensated with the first model; the robots readjusted themselves so often that people perceived them as anxious.

“And for just a dollar more than that, we can increase your supply by another gallon each month,” Ted said in a warm, gregarious voice.

“I said I’m not interested!” a woman’s voice called out, followed by a click.

“Dijkstra's algorithm!” Ted said, leaning to the side.

“Still trying to beat the record?” Cren asked.

“Yes, and I’ll never get there with these kinds of responses.” He crossed and uncrossed his corrugated arms. “I just need five minutes, people!”

“Perhaps telemarketing isn’t the best approach,” Cren said.

“What’s he doing?” Marty asked.

“Ted’s trying to beat the record for the most Turing tests passed.”

Raising a metallic fist, Ted said, “I will overtake you, KQ9-Alpha-Z21!”

“Ted,” Marty said. “Is that an acronym for your model, like Theoretical Engineering Device or something?”

“No,” Ted said. “It’s short for Theodore.” He turned his head to the side and back several times. “Where did you find this young, uninformed male?”

“Martin’s coming to work for us,” Cren said, slapping Marty on the back. “He’s taking Charlie’s place.”

Marty held up a finger. “It’s Marty, and I never actually—”

“Ted, order me another phone for Martin. And order yourself another door.”

Cren checked his watch. “Almost time for the meeting. Come on.”

***

The third room was divided by a rod near the ceiling that supported several shower curtains. On the left side, there was a toilet, sink and empty paper-towel dispenser. To the right stood a cluttered bookshelf and an oval table with three chairs.

Cren sat in one of the chairs, all of which had significant stains to the point that they seemed like Rorschach blots. “So, real quick, you’ve heard of all the trans-dimensional phone accessories that came on the market a few years back, right?”

“Yes,” Marty said, taking a chair that displayed his projected view of humanity. “Some of the guys in the dorm had them. They really liked going to Florida in the late twentieth century—something called Spring Break.”

“The laws around using such devices boil down to one essential—you can go to any place or time you want, but you can’t profit from your travels.”

Marty frowned. “That’s kind of ambiguous.”

“That’s the government for you. Anyway, we get contracted for jobs to reinforce this law, going after the most egregious offenders.”

“Why you? I mean, doesn’t the government have its own police?”

“No, not for this. And they like hiring me because I’m two things the government isn’t—cheap and effective.”

A sharp whistle sounded above their heads. It emanated from a silver box with multiple lenses. A female voice stated, “Call from Andrew Laboda.”

“Answer,” Cren said.

A miniature, holographic man appeared on the table. He wore a salt-and-pepper suit with a garish tie that sparkled with every slight movement. He reminded Marty of a game show host.

An orb popped free from the projector above and levitated in front of Cren’s face. “Not so close,” he said, pushing it back. The orb made an electronic whine.

“Good morning, Cren,” the holographic man said.

“Hey, Drew.”

“I’ve got another job for you,” Drew said.

“Go on.” Cren reached out and began pinching the holographic head, distorting it like a funhouse mirror.

“We’ve seen some strange recordings offered on the web lately.” Drew sighed. “Are you pinching my head again?”

Cren folded his arms. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Anyway, for a few dollars, people can download classical orchestra music.”

“What’s the big deal with that?”

“Cren, these are original performances. As in, world premieres from centuries ago. The website focuses a lot on Beethoven, offering his Third, Fifth, and Seventh.”

“Not the Ninth?” Cren asked.

“No. The Seventh just went live earlier this week. A new one gets released every Monday, and I’m convinced he’s going to go for the Ninth.”

“He who?”

“The site’s owner is someone named Max Keller. I sent you an email with his image.”

Cren pulled out his phone and brought up the image of an old man with an off-kilter nose and sunken eyes. “Not much of a looker, huh?” he asked Marty.

“Not really.”

“Who is that?” Drew asked. “He sounds like he’s from Ohio.”

The orb circled Marty’s head before stationing itself an arm’s reach from his face.

“That’s Martin,” Cren said. “He’s doing Charlie’s job.”

“Who was Charlie? Oh, wait. That was the guy who started last month. I can’t keep track of all your employees.”

Cren shrugged at Marty. “He exaggerates,” he whispered.

“I need to let you go,” Drew said. “I’ve got a cabinet meeting shortly, and it’s Nachos Day. Cren, I need you to stop this Keller before he strikes again.”

As Drew faded from view, Cren wrinkled his nose. “That sounded so cliché.”

***

“Ted, did you get my email?” Cren asked.

“About needing costumes for Austria in the 1820s?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve already taken care of it.”

“Great. We got that new phone yet?”

“Ten more minutes until delivery,” Ted said.

Cren clenched his hands. “I should have asked you to up the shipping to same-minute. Well, I’ll train you with my phone for now, Martin.”

“Why do you keep calling me that? I go by Marty.”

“All I can picture is the name on your resume. Who could remember anything else when your last name is Van Buren?”

“Van is my middle name.”

Pulling his phone from his pocket, Cren said, “Yours will be just like this. Standard phone for the most part—you can call and text, but we don’t have a texting plan, so don’t use that.” The background image on the phone was a Rottweiler with a tail hanging from its jaws.

“Is that a cat?” Marty asked.

“Oh, yeah.” Cren smiled. “He loves those things.

“To get to the chronological components, you push the options button here. It asks for a date first—and bear in mind that it’s expecting European format—followed by the time. Then you can select a location. Finally, you click the Send button, and off you go.”

“That makes sense,” Marty said. “But I don’t understand why we’re going to the concert. Why don’t we just find Keller’s address and apprehend him a year ago?”

Cren chuckled. “That won’t succeed since he’s already selling music.”

“But if we stop him a year ago, he won’t even record his first piece.”

“Can’t change the past, kid. You can participate in it, but you can’t alter facts.”

“Why not? I think there’s a multiple universe theory around altering timelines.”

Cren shrugged. “Want to bet on your theory?”

Ted made a whirring noise that Marty took as a sigh. “I’ll go get a glass.”

“One hundred bucks that you can’t change the past,” Cren said. “Are you in?”

“Yes.”

“I’m going to drop a glass in exactly one minute, got that? All you have to do is stop me. And by you, I don’t mean the you presently with me. I mean a future you who will go into the past to stop me in my present.”

Marty frowned. “Future me to the past to change the present,” he muttered.

Ted returned with a drinking glass. “I’m not cleaning this up,” he said.

Cren checked his watch and began a countdown. “Three, two, one.”

He let the glass fall, and the front door burst open at the same time. Through the entryway, a dozen unfashionably-dressed Martys poured through, tripping over one another as they scrambled toward Ted’s office.

The glass hit the floor and shattered, eliciting a groan from the crowd of Martys. One walked in after the rest, shaking his head. He stepped over and around the fallen and approached Cren. “Here,” he said, shoving a fistful of dollars toward him. Turning to everyone picking themselves off the ground, he said, “Idiots! All of us!”

After the Martys left, Cren smirked. “Satisfied? Well, you will be.”

***

A short time later, Marty retreated to the conference-room-supply-closet-bathroom to change into his costume. He found the trousers simple enough to don (and given the period of clothing, the word actually came to his mind), but the shirt collar nagged at him, and there were too many buttons on the waistcoat. The square-toed shoes pinched his feet. And with the wool coat—worn over the waistcoat, which took Marty a moment to figure out—the room suddenly became quite warm. He decided to hold the tall hat rather than wear it.

He emerged into the hallway, met by a starch and formal caricature of Cren. “One more thing before we go,” Cren said.

Cren held out two black marbles. Marty took them and was surprised by their squishiness. “Put those in your ears,” Cren instructed.

Marty did so and found that the orbs did not block sound as he expected. “Great,” Cren said, though there was a slight delay between his lips moving and hearing the word.

“You’re not seeing things,” Cren said. “It’s like living in a dubbed movie, right? Now, check this out: I am speaking in German.”

“You’re speaking in English,” Marty said.

“No, I spoke that phrase entirely in German. Those translators absorbed my words and then reshaped them into English.”

“With your voice.”

“Not bad, eh?”

“But I don’t speak German. How will I converse with anyone?”

“I don’t speak it either, other than to say, I am speaking in German. That’s where this comes in.” He held out a thin wafer to Marty. “Let this dissolve on your tongue.”

“Tastes like peppermint.”

“Whoops, wrong pocket. Here, try this one.”

The second wafer tasted like the underside of a muddy boot. From Germany. “Terrible,” Marty said, though his mouth seemed to take on a life of its own. “What is happening?”

“That contained some nanomachines that allow you to speak in another language—in this case German. They should stop running in ten hours or so, letting your voice go back to normal.”

“But how would that work? Wouldn’t it need to affect my vocal chords and lips, along with—”

“You ask too many questions, Martin. Oh, and one other thing—if you speak or hear any odd words or phrases, it’s due to the fact that the translation software is open source. Just nod and smile if that happens.”

Cren placed a wafer in his mouth. “Ready, young goat?”

Marty nodded and smiled.

***

After his body rolled to a stop, Marty lay on the grass, trying not to cry. “I used to explain how to enter space-time anomalies,” Cren said, “but I found that people learn better by falling on their faces a few times.”

Marty picked himself up and brushed off his suit. He found his hat ten yards away, stuck in a bush. “I’m fine,” he said, “in case you cared.”

Cren was walking southeast, toward the city. “May 7, 1824,” he said. “Just as I imagined it. Has a certain smell, don’t you think?”

“I smell something,” Marty muttered. “Where are we going?”

“Kärntnertor Theater. We should get there at the same time as the masses to buy tickets.”

“Do you have money for tickets?”

“I have money for my ticket. I’ll go inside to track down Keller while you stay outside in case he runs out on me.”

“Fine,” Marty said. “I don’t like classical anyway.”

“Not classical,” Cren said. “Today, it’s nowsical.”

“That’s horrible.”

***

The theater stood several stories high. It was an Italian-style building, though Marty simply thought of it as decently made. It wasn’t that he had no appreciation for buildings, but his appreciation was limited to structural soundness and not much else.

When Cren returned from the ticket office, Marty mentioned that he couldn’t completely understand some of the concertgoers he overheard. “Their German is Austro-Bavarian, so the translator’s a little dodgy with that.”

Marty started forward—shaking his head, rather than watching his steps—and bounded into someone. A man with thick, gray hair gave Marty a baleful stare. “Sorry,” Marty whispered. One of the man’s associates brushed off the green coat where Marty had touched it. The man jerked away, muttering something, and the trio resumed their journey.

Cren slapped Marty on the back, chuckling. “You just ran into Beethoven!”

“I expected him to be surlier.”

“It’s always the new guys that have all the fun. You know, we used to play his music all the time when I was in the premiere school.” Cren’s face bunched up. “That didn’t come out right. Premiere school? I meant that I attended two schools—not the second but the premiere.” He worked his jaw and tapped his chin. “Come on, you stupid—”

“Excuse me, good sir.” They turned toward a short man with curled hair and sideburns. “I don’t mean to intrude, but did you say you’ve played at a premiere school?”

“I suppose I did,” Cren said.

“Which instruments do you play?”

“Cello.” To Marty, he said, “Don’t laugh.”

The man clapped his hands together. “This is quite fortunate. We could use another cellist for this evening’s performance.”

“But I haven’t attended any rehearsals.”

The man stepped closer. “If you heard our rehearsals, you wouldn’t think we have either. In fairness, there are many amateurs in our ranks.”

“If the parts get too difficult, I’ll just drop out.”

The man shrugged. “Then you’ll fit right in. Come with me.”

“One moment, please,” Cren said as he pulled Marty aside.

“What are you doing?” Marty asked.

“What better way to find Keller than to be in the orchestra? I’ll give you my ticket. Sit someplace where we can maintain eye contact. I’ll signal you when I find Keller, and you can make the arrest.”

“Arrest him how?”

“Knew I forgot something.” Cren patted his pockets a moment and then nodded. “Here it is.” He drew out a small coil of wire. “Hold out your hands.”

Marty held his arms out. Cren held one end of the wire and whipped it across Marty’s wrists. The wire wrapped around them, constricted and solidified. “It disengages when I touch this end,” Cren said, demonstrating. “It only recognizes my heat signature, so don’t use it haphazardly, or you’ll never get it unlocked.”

***

Marty sat toward the middle of the floor seats between two malodorous men. He placed his hat in his lap and tried not to think about his extreme discomfort.

He spotted Cren among the strings. Cren gave a curt wave, and Marty mimicked the gesture. Then Cren took up a goofy grin and pointed to himself.

“Yes, yes, you’re playing the Ninth,” Marty said to himself.

As he surveyed the theater, Marty did not see Keller anywhere. Of course, if Keller had altered his appearance in any way, Marty wasn’t sure he could identify the man.

The concert began, and Marty didn’t realize the Ninth wasn’t the first piece. Not that it mattered; the music was a mere background to his surveillance. A warm surveillance. A still surveillance. Lulled by the music, it was soon a sleepy surveillance.

***

“Control yourself, sir!” The harsh whisper jarred Marty. He pulled his head off the shoulder of the man to his right, leaving drool behind.

“What’s happening?” he asked.

“Hush! You’re ruining the movement.”

“Which one?”

“The third, you sluggard buffoon!”

Marty looked toward Cren, but Cren was engrossed in the music. As soon as the movement ended, Cren’s eyes grew wide. He pointed his bow toward the emperor’s box and mouthed something Marty couldn’t read.

“Excuse me,” Marty said, and he stood. The man next to him stood, and soon the rest of the applauding audience joined them.

Marty cleared the aisle and exited the floor. It took some effort to figure out how to reach the emperor’s box without drawing suspicion from ushers, but he had experience with upgrading his event seating for free.

While the fourth movement played, he slowly pulled back the curtain to the box. But there was no one inside. Marty caught Cren’s eye once more, and Cren began nodding emphatically.

Sighing, Marty stooped down and crawled through the curtain. Upon the emperor’s chair, he found a padded cylinder angling toward the orchestra. Upon closer view, he found the cylinder—which he reasoned to be a microphone—was supported on a tripod of such thin material, it was nearly invisible.

Well, he’ll have to come back for this, Marty thought, so he propped himself against the paneled wall, tucking his head down, just below the railing.

Partway through the movement, Marty stretched his legs and inadvertently kicked the emperor’s chair. The microphone and stand fell without a sound. It was likely unharmed until Marty picked it up and started shaking it, trying to figure out how it worked.

The orchestra began building, frantically trying to keep the pace. Even Marty could hear a number of wrong notes amid the flurry of activity.

Just as it quieted, the curtain flew aside. Marty looked up at Max Keller’s snarling face—Keller looked even older in person. Then he looked back down at the pieces of microphone in his lap.

As the choir began to sing the “Ode to Joy,” Keller flew upon Marty, seizing him by the throat. “Imbecile! You imbecile!” he cried. Keller’s hands certainly didn’t grip as feebly as Marty thought they would.

Marty took one end of the broken microphone and shoved it into Keller’s ear. Fortunately for Marty, the piece had exposed battery terminals that completed their circuit through the ear canal.

Keller leapt back with a yell. He sat back in a crouched position with one hand over his injured ear.

Marty removed the coil from his pocket. With deft motion, he crawled to Keller and whipped the wire. But instead of wrapping Keller’s arms, he snagged Keller’s wrist and ankle. The wire constricted and solidified, locking Keller in an even more peculiar position.

“What are you doing to me?” Keller asked.

“Arresting you. Isn’t that obvious?”

***

Long after the concert ended, Marty and Cren helped Keller hop out of the city. “What are you anyway?” Keller asked. “Some sort of police?”

“Yes, we should have a name,” Marty said. “It’s like we’re anti-profit enforcers or something. But that doesn’t sound right.”

Cren shook his head. “There isn’t a word for us.”

“Why does my mouth taste like German motor oil?” Marty asked.

“Your nanomachines are shutting down. You’ll be speaking English momentarily.”

Cren stopped. “This seems like a remote spot. I’ll jump through with him first. You can follow me; I’ll text you the coordinates like before.”

“No, I'll catch up to you later. I'm going to win that bet first.”

“Seriously?” Cren laughed. “You already know how that will end.”

“Maybe in this universe, but I’m convinced there’s another one where I’ll succeed.”

With a shrug, Cren said, “Knock yourself to the exterior.” END

Matthew Wuertz develops software in addition to writing fiction. His stories have appeared in multiple fiction markets, including “Abyss & Apex,” and “Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.” He lives with his wife, daughter and sons in Indianapolis.

 

deepfried

 

wwe

 

adjacent fields