Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Watchman, What of the Night?
by Eric Del Carlo

Enemy From Nowhere
by Jeffery Scott Sims

Dance by the Light of the Moon
by Milo James Fowler

Continue Program?
by Seth Chambers

Perfect Blue, Scorched Black
by Rachael Acks

Catastrophic Failure
by David Steffen

Twice Upon a Midnight Dreary
by Richard Zwicker

Screwed by Frankie Frog
by Tim McDaniel

Infinite (∞) LDK
by Ryu Ando

by Sara Backer


Time in a Bottle
by Eric M. Jones

A Real Death Star
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Watchman, What of the Night?

By Eric Del Carlo

POST-FIREFIGHT LAUGHTER CARRIED us down out of the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was good clean hysteria, raucous, belligerent, all looka-me-looka-me still-alive-still-alive. I was breathing gunpowder and sap, the latter from the bullet gouges out of the redwood I was squatted behind for eight straight hours. We had stalemated with a group of apparently equal strength up at a summit, and had sniped at each other all night. Feints, flanks. Nothing worked. Close enough I’d heard their raghead jabber among the moon-silvered trees. They finally withdrew. One casualty for our unit. We wrapped him up, kept the ants off him, traded off hauling him down with us.

Because we were here, and because the sun was booming over a day that looked to our eyes to be outrageously alive, we went to the Boardwalk. It was all still there, all still falling apart. Beautiful. I pointed wildly at the sagging lattice of the roller coaster, with a boy’s remembering. We went scrambling out onto the sand, daylight warming everything. One by one we stripped and plunged into the water. I seethed with vitality. I dove under the waves and clawed at the mucky bottom; I came up ahyahyakking like a dolphin, and was pelted with handfuls of seaweed and guffaws.

Sometime later, muscles straining and head light, I was standing on the sand. Teenagers pointed and giggled at my nakedness, and I grinned and shrugged. I wanted a beer. I wanted about fourteen hours of sleep. I stood there in the sun until I was dry enough to put my fatigues back on. We’d left our semis in a tepee stand. And as the others came to collect theirs, a solemnity overtook us. Or maybe they were just as tired as me. They had to be.

Dressed, strapped, they dispersed. We’d been a unit, briefly; now we weren’t one. I had never seen any of them before, and now there wouldn’t be time for stories, for the where-you-froms?, the instinctive search for mutual acquaintances and experiences.

“Where’re you going?” asked the last one to go. I was going to linger on the beach a moment, it seemed. He wore graying jeans instead of camo pants. His question was almost bashful. His nose cut a shadow all the way down to his jawline.

“San Francisco,” I said, deciding it there. We’d done a mission; now we had respite. Yeah, I’d go north. I’d go see my birthplace.

In the distance I heard the pops of gunfire. I went up onto the boardwalk itself, and a vendor handed me a hot dog—what we call a hot dog now—and made windshield wiper movements with his hands as he refused my money.


It was a rust-sided Amtrak locomotive, dragging mostly flatbeds piled with steel and copper piping. More of the ongoing salvage out of San Jose, as its population shrinks toward a still-defining center. I got into the only enclosed car, a—more or less—converted livestock carrier, floor still reeking of bleach, but with not too decrepit mattresses scattered around. My bedmate was clipping her toenails, calling out an “I’m sorry” every time one went flying. “De nada,” someone said in a raspy Eastern European accent.

She let me borrow the clippers, and I did my toes too, glad my feet were clean from the swim at the beach. Then I was out. The train’s slow swaying clatter was a lullaby. I got about a third of those fourteen hours, and it felt good. Woke up on my side, an arm curled around the butt of my chopper. The older woman on the mattress with me—she wore an Air Corps jumpsuit, patched with duct tape—had me spooned, buzzing a snore against my shoulder.


It took about another hour, after disembarkation at Oakland, to get into the city proper. You can’t count on regular services, transportation maybe least of all, but I was so used to the improvising, the contriving, the fast and cheerful hustles.

Dusk was on San Francisco when the trawler put in, with lots of backslapping well-wishing from the crew. I was all grins again, without the post-traumatic euphoria this time. I zipped my coat to my Adam’s apple, with rolling fog catching the moonlight. No summer here. But that was fine. I went to the foot of Market Street and raised my arms. I would’ve howled in glee as well but didn’t want to be obnoxious about it. Even so, a whitened fragile old-timer came up and demanded a high five. I gave him a gentle one.

Lights burned an exotic path into the city of my birth. Walking up Market and keeping my eyes above the level of the street, I could almost—well, maybe not almost—see the version from my childhood. Still, it glowed with generous electricity and whirred with the vivacity I insisted it had and always would possess.

Traffic was nearly all pedal, and there was a wonderful disregard for order. Bicycle bells rang; shouts echoed in the skyscraper-made gulch. Someone whizzed past me wearing a shabby red velvet top hat trailing streamers. I passed a corner where competing bongos made a frantic involved rhythm, another where elaborate ceremonial dancing circled a fire lighting a metal drum’s interior.

I hadn’t been back in a while, not on a respite. I still wanted that beer, but I had to get myself a crash first. Not a chore. A church presented itself. That name for the building doesn’t mean what it used to. “Atheism is the new black,” some famous public figure said when I was a baby or before I was born, even. It was that, oddly, which made our enemies so poignantly foreign to me, so other: you heard their broadcasts, the heavily accented English peppered with Arabic incoherencies, all full of godly intolerance; it was like fighting evil, if evil had an imaginary friend.

The doors were chocked wide. Cooking smoke poured out, along with laughing, more music.

I searched for the steward, but didn’t have to look hard. She came out of her office to me, shaking my hand. There was quite the bustle going on, with goods being traded and guitars jangling. I was shown up to a room, one big enough to just fit the pallet that was to be my bed. I said—and meant it—that it looked great, and kissed the middle-aged steward on her cheek. She “Oh, you”-ed me, and blushed, and tittered.

Downstairs again, I ate a bowl of stew; took another when the huge guy with the ladle said I ought to, though I snuck this one to a too skinny boy with a scab on his nose who was practically clinging to my leg. He had a clunky prosthetic foot. He wasn’t the only amputee here. He wasn’t the only child amputee.

I never did get out of the church that night. Luckily they had a brewery of sorts on the premises, and I had my fill. And after that, more than my fill. Winding myself into the blankets, I dropped my head onto the pillow. A real, honest, feather-stuffed pillow. Luxurious.


I dangled my legs off the rear of a burro-pulled wagon that was heading into the Haight with a payload of clanking glassware. The man with the gray flowing hair methodically working the reins had said he knew where I could get real coffee. It was a long way to go, and the wheels rolled through pothole after pothole; but my head wanted clearing. From the back of the wagon I waved. People on the street kept calling out to me. I waved some more.

Daytime took away the electric glamour, of course, but the city was still a beauty to me, her choice days behind her or not. Cloud cover made it a little chilly, but I could see patches of sunlight scouring down off Twin Peaks, moving east; could see as well burnt tracts on those regal slopes, and tried to recall if I’d seen them last time I was here.

I hopped off in the lower Haight, well below Divisadero, and followed the driver’s pointing finger. The storefront had no glass in it, but a crowd spilled out onto the sidewalk. Like always, I was willing to wait, but got passed quickly forward and a moment later had what certainly seemed to be an authentic cup of coffee in my hands. It warmed the old chunky ceramic they were serving it in, and I closed my chilled fingers around the cup, warming them deliciously.

I churned my way through the pack of bodies, looking for somewhere to sit, smiling and nodding, hearing something underlying the general chatter, a kind of anticipatory murmuring. I realized I was being steered. I came to a table, and one seat was swiftly vacated. The other chair remained occupied.

She evidently sensed that something of moment was occurring and looked up from the notebook taking her attention. The patrons were watching, grinning. What did they expect us to do, exactly?

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi.” Her tone was neutral. I heard in it no invitation to sit, but that was plainly what these onlookers expected.

The pressure made it awkward much quicker than it otherwise would’ve been. Not sure who I was trying to save from embarrassment, I said, “Mind if I join you?”

“Of course not.”

So I sat at the small table, and that broke the gawking spell. She kept the somewhat bland expression a moment longer, and I thought that would be it. But as the others returned to their conversations, she leaned toward me and offered a smirk. “Still,” she said with a pleasant wryness, “it is coffee. I didn’t have to pay for mine. Did you?”

I felt an odd sense of relief. She was friendly. Her semiautomatic was propped against the wall behind her chair. She wore a mishmash of military gear. Not uncommon; we outfit ourselves like Confederates, so some officer told me early on, before I knew what that meant.

I took a savoring sip, and it was coffee indeed. It worked its magic on my foggy head. I looked across at her and smiled. She was categories of pigment lighter than me, with fine hair that I wanted to call auburn, only I wasn’t quite sure what that shade was. She had what I did have to call serious features, the planes and angles making her study of the open notebook before her look like her most natural preoccupation. She hovered a pencil stub over what was already written there. I didn’t try to sneak a peek at it.

She wasn’t ignoring me, though. She looked up, returned my smile. We traded a few opening sentences. Then, “I’m Simon Roux.”

“Carly Buck.”

It was better after that. I knew I’d remember her name. Knew that years from this moment I would be able to summon up the name of the girl in the coffee place in San Francisco’s lower Haight: Carly Buck.

We talked a bit more, mostly about—I’m not kidding—the weather. Even so, it didn’t feel clumsy. The coffee sang in my veins, maybe with a little more exhilaration than I could account for. When she chuckled over something I said about San Francisco’s summers being the result of enemy cloud seeding, I realized we were still being surreptitiously watched by the patrons. The laugh had signified something special, and a ripple went through the crowd. Grins were covered by cupping hands. I heard giggles.

She folded shut the notebook. She regarded me for what felt like a silent, measuring—but not judgmental—moment. Then she said, “If I were to hold your hand right now, this place would, I think, erupt.”

It twanged a thrill through me. I tried not to grin too ferociously. “Maybe we could leave here. Together. That would be more”—I almost couldn’t come up with the word—”... suggestive.” I thought, after saying it, that maybe it was too much.

But Carly raised her eyebrows and quirked a corner of her mouth, which dimpled her cheek. I drained my mug. We both reached for our choppers and walked out.


We walked up Haight Street. One of those clear patches rolled over us, and the sunshine found blond strands among her hair. We went at a casual pace, not, I noticed, holding hands.

“How old are you?” she asked with some abruptness.

“Is that a question to ask someone?”

“That’s an old man’s answer.”

“How’s that?” But I was smiling and amused.

“It’s all tsk-tsk. Social niceties.”

“I don’t think I meant that.”

“So why can’t I ask your age?”

“You just did.”

“But why don’t you think I should?”

It was fun; it was banter feeling out the boundaries. She had a nice arch way of talking, like she was sarcastic and sincere all at once.

Eventually I said, “Score.”


“I’m a score.”

“What again?”

“Y’know. Twenty years.”

She socked my shoulder for that, and I heard that laugh again. It was freer-sounding out here on the street. I saw the burro wagon parked outside what, from the faded lettering, had been a haircutting place once. I didn’t see the gray-haired guy.

“Well,” I said, “how ’bout you?”

“How about me what?”

“How old?”

“Oh, Simon.”

“C’mon, you got to, Carly.” That mutual usage of our names, frankly, delighted me. Like it was an indicator. Of some growing intimacy. Or I was reading too much into it.

But she said, “Twenty-six,” and after a pause followed it with, “Think that’s an insurmountable gap?” It was less banter-y. I saw vulnerability flicker in her eyes, which were a color like old brass.

I stopped, turned; I put a hand onto her shoulder and said, “No. I don’t.” Something warm and trembly moved in my gut.

We walked hand in hand after that.


I actually paid for our dinner. I do draw pay, after all. We ate at an upscale place, with burgundy linen on the tables. The looks we got from the older dapper patrons weren’t quite the usual. They made me aware I needed a bath. Carly ate with her semi resting across her knees, conscious of the glances too. It didn’t spoil the meal, though. The candlelight in the room did pleasant things to her already attractive features. When we were done, I pointedly asked for the bill. I flipped Carly for it, glad when the toss came up heads.

The restaurant was on a second story. On the landing heading down, we paused and kissed. I had to blink my way back to reality before taking to the stairs again.


She knew where a party was, and we crossed through the crisp evening. We’d already talked a lot, but hadn’t exhausted even the basic topics.

“I’m from here, actually,” I said.


“Yeah. Native San Franciscans always were rare.”

“Any"—hesitation, the normal kind that everybody uses these days—"... family?”

“I don’t remember my dad. My mom—two years ago, the thing here with the water? Dysentery.” The old family place was out in the Excelsior; I didn’t have immediate plans to go look at it, didn’t see the point.

“Sorry.” She squeezed my hand. We were walking in rhythm, and it was nice.

“You?” I asked.

“Florida. My folks were both in Jacksonville.”

It was a complete story. If somebody said they knew someone who’d sailed on the Titanic, then didn’t say anything else, you knew what had happened.

We covered block after block, making for the Western Addition. Just when I was about to ask exactly where this party was, she halted. Night had closed in, and streetlights burned. I felt that same urgent tempo moving underneath everything, just like when I’d sauntered up Market Street last night. The city thrummed.

The place was old off-campus student housing. Banners hung from windows. Murals covered the faces. I would’ve had a tough time finding the party on my own—there were likely sites in all the surrounding buildings, music thundering, voices yowling. But Carly led us into a lobby. We picked our way past the defunct elevators and started up the stairs.

A door opened to Carly’s knock, and we were sucked into cacophony. It was fantastic. The lower level rooms were overcrowded, the furniture shabby. The walls were slapped with conflicting paints. Maybe not a whole lot different from when actual students occupied the place.

A woman Carly’s age, stumping on a crutch, shouted hellos over the babble and pounding music. She crooked her arm around Carly’s neck. I pretended to’ve heard her name when we were introduced.

Carly leaned toward me, and our kiss played in my memory. “Give me your chop.”

“What?” But I’d heard.

“Barb’ll keep them locked up. Trust me. Trust her. I don’t want to be the one of the two of us who’s not strapped. Please, Simon.”

I had to overcome a strong negative impulse in order to hand it over. The crutched woman made both our weapons disappear. After, though, I felt like there was more room around me. I breathed deep and easy.

Someone poured something out of a labeled bottle for us, but it wasn’t what the old flaking tag said it was. It didn’t make any difference. It had enough kick and enough mellowness. Carly and I found our way to a couch.

“Are you having a good time?” she asked.

“The best.” I wanted to put emphasis on that but didn’t know which word to stress; so I said again, “The best,” hoping she’d get it. I was gazing hard at her.

The crowd was a wild mix of ages. The too young and too old were mingling freely. This, I remembered, was how they partied in San Francisco, with a lively no-tomorrow attitude. I was grinning. I was a part of it tonight.

“What color’s your hair?” I asked her, running fingertips through it. We were pressed close together, sharing the couch with others. The smell of weed was rife in the rooms.

“Brown. Brownish.”

“It’s not auburn?” The alcohol had pleasantly numbed my lips a bit.

“Not really.” She smiled. “Why?”

I giggled, raising my glass, breathing the pot smoke. The lights dimmed but didn’t go out; it was the second dip since we’d gotten here. It did reset the music, however, and someone mercifully lowered the volume.

Later, Carly got up, and I talked with whoever floated up and wanted a word. I saw the trouble when it came. He was twice my age, heavier than me, drunk—the kind of drunk that shows in over-enunciated words and exaggeratedly precise movements.

“So,” he said, stopping before me and actually rocking back on his heels, like it was a thing he’d seen in a hundred year old movie, “do you, I’m asking, do you honestly, in your heart of hearts, believe that this—this—is the best possible way?”

I think that second this was supposed to indicate my weapon, whose absence he hadn’t noticed. Ahead, I saw all the ways this could play, the arguments he had in his head, the verbal violence he was ready to tap. Maybe even the physical. I could do him serious harm, but that would disrupt the party. Best to simply cut past all of it.

“The other side will patriate you any time you want to go.”

A little pool of watching silence had formed. The heavy man, the offense making his eyes glitter, drew a ponderous breath. Before he released it with the scathing words he had for me, someone among the guests said, “Aw, Bertrand, why don’t you just shut the fuck up.” Which got a big laugh; which also caused the man to turn with elaborate dignity and march away.

I’d thought Carly was going for fresh drinks. She returned with none, with instead a charming conspiratorial smile. She reached down a hand to me. I rose from the couch, and she brushed her lips on my cheek and murmured, “I’ve arranged for a bath. Some hot water. You want ... to join me?”

It was, maybe, that slight hesitancy in her question that most enticed me. I already liked this girl. A lot. But her offer to share a bath, how she’d said it—I could have, right then, responded with some ultimate words. Like that Bertrand guy had just said: with what was in my heart of hearts.

Instead, I just nodded. We went up to the second level of the housing unit. A big man sitting on the stairs blocked others from spilling up here. He let us by, with a smile at Carly. Passing, I saw that his left ear was a nub of scar tissue.

The bath was drawn and waiting. Carly, with some small ceremony, closed the door behind us. I was excited. More than just an excitement of the body. Steam curled from the tub. The tiles underfoot were shades of pastel blue. My heart was beating heavily.

Standing opposite each other, we undressed.

The water was a vast pleasure. It stung my feet and hands. There were bars of soap, of not bad quality. We started off playfully dabbing at each other; but it turned into a more serious scrubbing, scouring away the grime, as if cleansing were the real point of this bath.

My flesh, lathered and sluiced, now glowed. I took Carly into my arms. She was, simply, lovely. I liked how my dusky skin looked against her snowier tones. She was slick with the soap. We kissed again, deeply this time, with unmistakable passion.

“Barb said we could use her room ...” she panted when the kiss finally broke, “if, um, if we ...”

The demureness again, just as charming as before. “Yes, Carly. Yes. I’ve got condoms in my coat—” I started to rise from the tub.

Her hand manacled my forearm, drew me back down into the water, which was just starting to cool. Her hair, darkened, was plastered over her skull. Eyes wide and steady and somber regarded me.

“I want to get pregnant,” she said.

Something went tight in my chest. I settled further back in the tub; the spigot prodded me. I blinked. I was reconsidering this entire day, from that moment I’d sat opposite her at the small table in the coffee place.

After I’d run everything through to this present instant, I asked, “You want out?” I heard a deadness in my voice that I didn’t want there.

“I want out,” she said. It wasn’t blunt; but it was plainly stated. Honest. “I’ve been doing this since I was your age.”

That was more time than I’d been deploying all up and down the California’s coast. This wasn’t that Bertrand fellow’s argument. This, I thought, I understood. I even sympathized.

“What’ll happen?” I asked. The hoarse yearning in the question was better than the dead tone of before. “I mean, if you do get ...” The final word simply evaporated. My flesh was starting to chill.

“If I’m pregnant, I’ll get shipped inland. Colorado. Wyoming. All my years of service? I’m due that.”

The states she’d named sounded like foreign countries. Those were safer places. Not safe, but safer, truly.

After a dripping silence, she asked, “What do you say, Simon? Will you?” The vulnerability had returned to her eyes. I shifted and saw moving water reflected on the aged brass hue of those eyes.

The tightness in my chest was now a thickness in my throat. I spoke through it. “Is that all it is, though? Is that all ... all I am, Carly?” A tear rolled from my cheek. Plinked into the water.

She reached to me, to brush that cheek. “No, Simon. That isn’t all of it. Come on. Let’s go to the room.”

I rose with her from the now tepid tub.


Panic woke me. It wasn’t a silhouettes and gunfire panic—I get that sometimes, maybe more often than I used to—but fear, stark and sharp, that she was gone. She wasn’t. She was sitting up next to me in the bed. Her notebook was propped on a knee, the pencil stub scratching.

“What’s it you’re writing?” I asked after good mornings, because I felt I could ask now.

She smiled. “Poems.” There was nothing like an apology in her smile.

I try to read books whenever I get the chance, but I don’t read poetry, or understand it. “You get inspired or something?” I knew how goofy my grin must look and didn’t care.

“I don’t believe in inspiration,” she said; it wasn’t any kind of cutting remark, though. “You just do it. Or you don’t—and you shut up about it.”

I had an elbow under my head, still lying flat. I leaned over and kissed her forearm. There was a pale tissue-thin sheet tacked over the tiny room’s one window. I could see ghosts of the buildings across the street. A helicopter went over—right over, so that I actually saw the shadow. A gunship, heading for the Bay.

When I looked again, she had closed the notebook.

“Barb’s going to want her bed back,” Carly said quietly.


We were walking again, hand in hand, in the midmorning. I tried not to think about how good it felt to have my chopper slung over my shoulder once more. I distracted myself with thoughts of breakfast. I had hash browns vaguely in mind. The street was quiet.

Beneath it all, of course, I was wondering the big questions. How long until you were supposed to know? Would she tell the baby about me when it was old enough to understand? It, had I said? I meant boy. Or girl—

The vehicle, cutting across from a side street, jammed on its brakes, hard enough to leave a smudge of hot rubber on the aging pavement. Numbers were spray-painted on the side; it had been a civilian transport once.

A face, stubbled with gray, leaned out the passenger window. I didn’t recognize the officer but certainly knew he was one.

“I need one,” he called to us, then pointed. “You.”

There was nothing unusual about this. This was how we operated, quick and dirty. No one talks about winning this backlash war that’s come home to roost on our shores; but nobody ever talks about losing it either. The last-ditch, as we say, can go on a long, long time.

I didn’t want our final kiss to be right here, so I left it alone, and said, “So long, Carly Buck.”

Her face was very still. “Goodbye ... goodbye ...” I was grateful she didn’t tell me thank you.

I marched toward the vehicle. The back door opened, and I climbed inside. END

Eric Del Carlo’s short fiction has appeared in “Asimov’s,” “Redstone Science Fiction,” “Strange Horizons,” “Shimmer” and more. He has coauthored several novels with the late Robert Asprin, including the New Orleans set mystery, “NO Quarter.”


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