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



Twice Upon a Midnight Dreary

By Richard Zwicker

I HAD JUST FINISHED declaiming “The Raven,” my original’s greatest hit, during a late afternoon show at Baltimore’s Dramatic Irony Park, when I noticed a wild-haired youth sitting in the sparse audience. He had attended one of yesterday's performances, and so had his clothes. His t-shirt boasted a drawing of Poe smiling inscrutably, with a big forehead, uneven mustache, and sad eyes. The quote, “Why will you say that I am mad?” was emblazoned below. As I paused after “nevermore,” I sized him up as another geeky outsider who connected with Poe's introspective narratives.

I don’t know what made me change my performance—perhaps it was his eyes—they smoldered with an unsatisfied hunger. Perhaps I just needed to choose. Whatever the reason, instead of finishing with the climax of “The Cask of Amontillado,” I read a selection from the unjustly ignored “William Wilson.” This caused confusion, as some of the audience glanced at the now incorrect program listing, but I brought them back with the question and answer session. No, the lost Lenore was not based on my tubercular wife Virginia, who hung on for five years after the poem’s publication. Lenore represented all the women I’d lost, including my mother. I wasn’t high when I wrote the poem. I didn’t enjoy inflicting pain on others. The horror tales for which I am remembered are a small part of my literary output. I considered myself a poet, but then as now, poetry didn’t pay the bills.

I thanked everyone for coming and suggested a visit to some of my “friends,” such as Herman Melville, Louisa May Alcott, or Nathanael Hawthorne. I nodded to several “Thank you’s.” Everyone seemed satisfied, except Megan Perry, who owned the park and everything in it, including me. She approached from the back of the room, wearing a wan smile.

William Wilson?” she asked. Short and angular, with dark hair cropped helmet-like, she had the commanding presence of a policewoman.

“I noticed some repeat customers and felt variety was needed.”

She nodded slightly. “I need you to stick to the script. People don’t come here to relive works they’ve never heard of. The only way we’re going to make a profit is to give the audience what they want.”

“Are we in financial difficulties?”

She guffawed, reminding me of my line from “The Haunted Palace,” of those that “laugh, but smile no more.” She patted me on the shoulder.

“You just be Edgar Allan Poe.”

After she left, I made my way between the rows of seats, collecting half-empty soda cups and discarded programs and dropping them into a plastic bag.

“She’s Megan Perry, isn’t she? She edits the park’s literary ezine?” I looked up to see the wild-haired youth.

“Among other things, yes.”

“Do you believe you are Edgar Allan Poe?” he asked.

“Poe was born in 1809 and died forty years later. I am an android simulation.”

He nodded. “That’s the best any of us can be, I guess.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant by that. “Are you a fan of Poe?”

He waved dismissively. “A lot of people like Poe because they read a story in high school, or found out he took drugs. None of those fans really read him though, never mind take it to the next step.”

“What would that be? Marry their thirteen-year-old cousin?”

His unshaven face froze. “How can you joke about that?”

“Poe had a sense of humor, as do I. I noticed you attended the same performance twice. Was it still entertaining?”

“I don’t come for entertainment. Do you write?”

I did, though I kept it to myself, as it was nothing I could use in a performance. “My owner discourages self-expression.”

“Owner.” He scowled, started to speak, then thought better of it. “I write.”

“Horror stories?”

“Like Poe. I think they’re good, but Perry has rejected them all. Could you read them?”

I knew what I would find: an earnest, disaffected youth’s purple prose luxuriating in horrifically detailed murders. What drew these kids to Poe was his pain, but far too often they took it at face value. They rarely saw the conflict, only the results.

“I will read them,” I said. What was my purpose if not to encourage? We agreed he would transmit his stories to me via the park’s main address. I wasn’t allowed to transmit outside the park, but I could have a response he could pick up in twenty-four hours. The boy showed a flicker of appreciation, or perhaps wonder at my speed, then left.

The remainder of the day went predictably. Emerson had to fetch Thoreau, who decided to ruminate on a rain puddle in the parking lot rather than perform for his evening audience. Emerson reminded him that if he didn’t do his work, there would be no ruminating on anything. Melville groused that he, Hawthorne, and I should do a show together, but Perry had already told him that wouldn’t be cost-effective. “Cost be damned!” Melville said to me. “The philosophical heights we could scale together would dwarf our solo efforts.” The Melville android was very intelligent but impractical.

True to his word, the wild-haired youth transmitted three stories, and that night in my small, Spartan room, I scanned them. One of my chief pleasures was being surprised, but Troy Hurston was not up to the task. Influenced by “Cask of Amontillado,” each of his stories featured an anguished narrator avenging a slight. It could be a cutting remark about the narrator’s appearance, a betrayal by a love interest, or insensitivity toward his writing, but the result was always the same. Death in gruesome detail, be it dismemberment, premature burial, or pushed into an abyss. Hurston possessed a derivative talent for a turn of phrase, but not a whit of originality. What did concern me was one of his fictional victims was named Megan Perry. I forwarded the writing to Melville and Hawthorne, my two closest colleagues at the park, and summoned them to my room.

Hawthorne shambled in first, without a greeting. He had no social skills. When I told him Melville was coming, he griped that we never invited any female androids. He very well knew that Louisa May Alcott was the only one in the park, and she thought my writing was twisted. Melville swaggered in shortly after, banging his muscular left arm into my doorway. Perry had seen fit to recreate the original Melville’s shortsightedness in his android. My room possessed no furniture so we all stood a few feet apart, like corn stalks.

“You scanned the material I sent?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Hawthorne. “Next time why don’t you just send a virus? It would be more entertaining.”

“I didn’t send it to entertain you, Hawthorne,” I said. “Not that anything entertains you except angst-ridden characters standing around doing nothing.”

“Gentlemen,” Melville said. “Though we are the result of our flawed source material, couldn’t we have a conversation without devolving into personal attacks?”

I doubted it. My programming made me a tough personality to get along with, but my concerns this night were off the traditional page. “I’m worried about Troy Hurston.”

Melville shrugged. “He’s a member of that greatest of societies, the unhappy. It may not save him from mediocrity, but it could give him incentive to pull something from himself that otherwise might have been dulled by marriage and meaningless occupations.”

“And we care about this, why?” Hawthorne asked.

“I care about it because he’s another kid who sees Poe’s writing as justification for self-destructive behavior. I feel a responsibility.” I looked at Hawthorne for understanding. “I spread the black cloud of Poe’s darkness, a darkness I myself have to fight against.”

“You need to accept who you are,” Melville said.

“And who is that?” I asked.

“Ah, I can give but a partial answer: an android simulation of Edgar Allan Poe.”

I sighed. “I hope that’s partial.”

“Both of you are knocking on doors best left closed,” Hawthorne said. “I thought we were here to discuss Troy Hurston.”

“And so we are,” I said. “He’s not only unhappy. He’s angry, and I believe that anger may be manifested as a harmful act, either against himself or someone else.”

Hawthorne snorted. “Who at times is not unhappy or angry? Do you propose we police the world?”

I found Hawthorne’s northern haughtiness infuriating. “I do not. Has he attended any of your performances?”

“No,” said Hawthorne, “though judging from the superficiality of his prose, I’m not surprised.”

“I’ve not seen him either,” Melville added. “I think he’s sailing on a narrow river.”

“Perhaps I should just mention him to Ms. Perry,” I said.

“She’ll be more angry at you for personally interacting with a customer than at him,” Hawthorne said. “Research him. See if he has a record. If he does, delegate. Alert the authorities. We were created to entertain the world, not save it.”


Chagrined, I followed Hawthorne’s advice and searched the net, which was full of information on Hurston. An eleventh grade dropout, he worked as a hospital security guard. He had two younger brothers and a sister. His mother bore him when she was fifteen. The father bounced in and out of jail for drunken driving, leaving a gas station without paying, and chronic shoplifting. A typical dysfunctional family, the kind of riffraff my original wouldn’t have given a second thought to.

Later that night I wrote guarded comments to Hurston, praising his detail but suggesting he break from the original stories. If he wished, we could meet again for further discussion. When he picked my critique up the next day, he avoided my gaze and muttered, “Thanks.”

Three days passed, and I figured my advice had struck a negative chord. The fourth day, however, he was back at my late afternoon show, sitting aloof in the rear of the room. As the group filed out, he remained seated. I approached him.

“How’s the writing going?”

He looked at me, distracted. “Not so good. I got arrested for breaking some windows at Price Mart. It’s tough to write when you’re kept from your favorite desk.”

“Why did you break the windows?”

He shrugged. “Something about their transparency and flimsiness annoyed me.”

This was the sort of escalation I didn’t want to hear about. Troy had no record, and now he did. What would tomorrow bring?

I wanted to shout why are you so helpless, but instead asked if he wanted my advice. He said nothing, but I gave it anyway. “People who can’t control themselves end up getting controlled by others who don’t have their best interests in mind.”

“Poe couldn’t control himself.”

“That’s true. He couldn’t control his drinking, his melancholy, or his spite. All of this caused him great pain.”

“Which he transformed into great writing.”

“By his herculean effort to make sense of them. He turned the pain into art by writing in his own way.”

“Well, I’m not good enough to write in my own way, so I’ll borrow some of his genius.”

“Do you want to be like me, a nostalgia item? Take what you’ve learned from Poe and apply it to today. You can’t be Poe, and neither can I. Listen to the Thoreau android. Imitation is suicide. Be yourself.”

“I don’t want to be myself.”

I smiled wanly. “We all start as a copy, but we grow up, pick up different things, which help us go down different roads. You leave the nest or become its prisoner. Even I, created to be a copy, do little things to express my individuality.”

“Like what?”

“Like try to help you find your own way.”

“I am going my own way,” he said. “I’m not addicted to alcohol or opium, and I don’t intend to be. But what made Poe a great writer were his problems. I plan to set my life into some kind of motion that will spur me to similar heights.”

“They only seem to be heights because of the bottomless pit they overlook.”

Two days later I received the following poem.

Once upon a midnight dreary, my two minds raging contradictory
I stood poised and supremely ready outside the editor’s door.
I needed no assistance to break her lock of small resistance.
It was but an instant ’til I stalked upon her kitchen floor.
I raised my knife, its blade glistened, and sought out she who never listened
To anguished poems and short stories that from my heart I tore.
“If on you they made no impression, accept instead this pointed lesson
Into your neck a final blessing: you’ll hear of me nevermore.”

It was signed “Troy Hurston (Tomorrow)”

I transmitted the poem to Melville and Hawthorne and asked them to meet me in my room at three p.m. I then sent a copy to Ms. Perry and walked to her office.


“May I have a moment of your time?” I asked, tapping on her door. She glanced my way from her computer, looking harried. Her office was lined with posters of early and mid-19th century American Romanticist writers, including Poe. Two large bookcases held classic works, as well as contemporary business and economic texts. A can of Diet Coke stood precariously amid some printouts.

“A moment is about all I can give,” she said. “Is everything all right?”

“I’m not sure. Did you get an opportunity to read the email I forwarded?”

She shook her head. “I have a bad habit of not reading anything that’s forwarded to me. What was it about?”

I told her about Troy Hurston. She checked the email.

“It’s not very good poetry,” she said, chuckling.

“The editor he threatens is you.”

She leaned back in her chair and folded her arms. “I don’t recognize the name.”

“He told me you’ve rejected his work.”

“Based on this, I’m not surprised. I reject 98 percent of the manuscripts I receive. I doubt I’m the only editor to pass on this young man’s work. He doesn’t mention my name. The truth is, I’ve received messages far more threatening than this.”

“I just have a bad feeling about him.”

“I appreciate your concern,” she said. “But what I really wish is you’d not develop personal relationships with the customers. I’ve been criticized for giving you androids more complicated subroutines than is needed to recite passages. I did this because I wanted something more than trained parrots.”

This was a topic close to my simulated heart. “What did you want?”

She thought for a second. “I wanted android simulations that thought about the words, about the lives of their originals, and its applicability to today. I didn’t want to be a glorified Spark Notes. I wanted the classic literature of the American Romantics to come alive. But there still have to be limitations. Too much interaction with the present and we’ll lose the past. Keep this kid at arm’s length.”

Good advice, but he was already inside me.

“I will be careful,” she continued. “I am surrounded by people at the park and have an excellent security system at home. I am more concerned about the bill collectors.”

I left unsatisfied.


“I think he’s going to do something,” I said to Hawthorne and Melville at our three p.m. meeting. “And as he’s inspired by Poe’s writing, I feel responsible.”

“It’s one thing for this misguided youth to go down,” Hawthorne said, smoothing his mustache. “It’s another for him to take our owner with him. It’s a third to let him possibly close the park with the resulting scandal. I can hear the saber rattling: Androids drive murderer to victim. And I end up a conversation piece in a lit geek’s closet.”

“She mentioned she had an excellent security system. On the other hand ...” I paused. “Hurston works as a security guard. He might know something about breaking into those things.”

Melville tapped his head. “We find ourselves on a troubled ship, the Hurston, with no captain steering it, and a guarantee the winds will eventually smash it on the rocks. The noble action is to seize control and steer the crippled vessel to safety, from whence it can be refitted. But how?”

“I think he’s a powder keg that needs to go off, but in a controlled fashion. He tells us when,” I said. “We can intercept,”

“Outside the park?” Hawthorne asked. “You’re mad.”

For legal reasons, not to mention prowling the city would lower our novelty value, we were forbidden to leave the park. To ensure compliance, all androids automatically switched off at the gates. Thoreau had long ago figured out a way to pause the shut-off command but had never used it. For him, walking outside the park in his mind was enough. For the rest of us, the threat of reprogramming, the locked gate, and the fact that we had no reason to leave had been sufficient deterrents. This time we had a reason.

Melville had a faraway look in his eyes. “It’s been a long time between voyages. I say we set out. But will it accomplish something, or just postpone Hurston’s next self-destructive act?”

Hawthorne frowned. “If we venture outside of the park, Perry will have us reprogrammed.”

“For all we know, we’ve been wiped before,” I said. “I don’t know what Poe would have done, and I don’t really care. Don’t you ever want to break from this script that is our lives?”

Melville’s dim eyes twinkled. “So we get wiped. Who wants to live only once? I’m for the voyage.” He turned to Hawthorne. “Game for a stroll, Nate?”

“Don’t call me that,” Hawthorne said. “I certainly don’t want to see the park closed down, after we did nothing.” He stood torn. “I’ll go, but only to make sure you two don’t get hit by a car.”

I felt the excitement of free will. “Tomorrow night it is, then.”

“Wouldn’t tomorrow after midnight mean tonight?” Hawthorne asked.

“You’re right,” I said.

We met with Thoreau, who paused our shut-off commands. It took a while, but better safe than sorry. As I expected, he was intrigued with our plan but had no interest in going. We promised ourselves we’d rush through our eight p.m. performances and cut the question and answer session short. This, of course, was impossible for Melville, who could wax philosophically about shoe horns. In the back of Melville’s performance room, Hawthorne raised his fingers in the form of a crucifix. Melville said jocularly, “I see one of my colleagues is cross with me. I must bring our discussion to a close.”

Climbing over the gate was easy. Megan lived a 20 minute ride away on the bullet train, but we had no money for that. Even if we’d had the inclination to borrow a car, none of us had the programming to drive one. Melville suggested we try hitchhiking, but it became clear that no one would pick up what looked like three imposing, middle-aged men. We’d have to walk. The act was not a problem, as we never tired, but even at a brisk pace, we’d need a couple of hours.

As always, I dressed formally, and Hawthorne asked if I was going to the theater afterwards. He wore his customary smudged white shirt and dark pants. I asked if he was going to the fish market. Melville wore a sailor’s uniform. Mismatched, we strolled down the artificially lighted streets. It was a cool October night with a fitful breeze. An occasional pedestrian passed by, huddled for warmth in a light jacket, face turned away. Though we’d never seen the outside of the park firsthand, our memories were stuffed with data. Baltimore had a well-deserved reputation for crime, but I hoped the sight of three large men walking together would deter muggers as well as it did passing motorists.

I stared at the stars, so far away from the world of the park. Most of the time we were forced to trace the world of our originals. It was not lost on me that we were out to save the person who most restricted us. The roar of a bullet train careering past us jolted me out of my musing.

“Bullet trains are aptly named,” I said, feeling I’d been shot.

“Alas,” Melville said. “We’ve replaced the romance of train rides with speed. The more life changes, the more it changes.”

“I don’t know,” Hawthorne said, motioning toward a boarded up building. “In many ways the desolation and resignation of this street is reminiscent of The House of Seven Gables.

My namesake had been found delirious on just such a street—perhaps this very one—only to die five days later, never regaining consciousness. It was fascinating to be out here, but I should have been paying attention. With Melville’s head in the clouds and Hawthorne’s in his books, it fell upon me to be the navigator.

“Where are we?” I asked.

Melville frowned. “Blast it, man. The last thing I want to hear from my sextant is, Where are we?

Hawthorne shrugged. “You’re the local boy here.”

“I know 1849 Baltimore like I know the back of my hand, but there’ve been some changes.”

“I thought you downloaded the directions,” Hawthorne said.

“I did, but we’re not on them right now, and I can’t reconnect out here. We need assistance.”

At this time of night, the streets weren’t teeming with talkative pedestrians. On the rare occasions someone did cross our path, he gave us such a wide berth that our entreaties fell on deaf ears. We stopped at a couple of convenience stores, but both times the clerk pleaded he wasn’t from around here.

Melville risked synthetic life and limb by jumping up and down in front of an oncoming taxi. It took a moment to explain to the cabbie that we just wanted directions rather than a ride, then another moment to persuade him to give them gratis. As it turned out, the way was labyrinthine.

“There’s an excellent chance our boy will arrive before we do,” Melville said.

Throwing caution and trendiness to the wind, we speed walked. We also dispensed with talking, except for an irritating stretch where Melville chanted, “Stroke, stroke.”

Ms. Perry lived in an old building divided into three narrow two-story homes. I knew this because in addition to the directions, I’d downloaded a satellite picture. When I spotted the three sets of stone front steps under the stark illumination of a streetlight, Hurston was nowhere to be seen.

“It’s twenty after twelve. Either the bird has flown or we’re chasing wild geese,” Hawthorne said.

Melville gazed at a driveway that led to the back. “Let’s make sure before we commit to such a mixed maxim.” He loped to the side, and I heard him shout, “Nothing here!”

I tried the knob of the front door and, to my surprise, found that turned. “The door’s unlocked,” I said.

After Melville jogged back, we heard a raised male voice.

We dashed in. Hawthorne found a light switch and turned it on. Ms. Perry’s life outside of the park flashed before our eyes: a line of pots and pans hanging from the ceiling, a smart looking oven flanked by dark wooden cupboards, a small rectangular dining table against three large windows.

“Ms. Perry, are you all right?” I asked, my voice all wrong in this setting.

She walked into the room in a light-colored, shapeless gown with straps. Her face betrayed no fear, but no command either. More like an android turned off. Hurston followed her in a few seconds later. The same wild-haired, slovenly kid, except a pistol hung from his right hand, pointed toward the stone tile.

“So you’ve come,” he said softly.

I again asked Ms. Perry if she was all right. Her left hand rose, flopped like a fish, then dropped.

“None of this fits ... into my definition of all right,” she said.

“That pistol is rather un-Poe-like,” Hawthorne said. “Why don’t you put it down?”

“Then we can have a gam, lad. Five ships in the night,”Melville added. The gun didn’t budge, however.

“You wanted us here, right?” I addressed the silent Hurston. “To prove you had the pluck to do something that we’d stop?”

Hurston looked confused. “I didn’t ...” and that was as far as he got.

“You irresponsible snot,” I said. “You think you’re a 21st century Edgar Alan Poe? Poe had heart. He felt not only his own pain but the pain of others. He wasn’t so irresponsible that he went around committing crimes just to get writing ideas.”

His face lit up. “His drinking and drug use was irresponsible.”

“His chemical makeup made it so he never could drink normally. His opium was prescribed by ignorant doctors.”

“His marriage to his cousin?”


“So he was a victim.”

“Who fought against his victimization, not embraced it like a spoiled, talentless child. It’s people like you who sully the reputation of Poe with their slavish, misguided ...”

I could have gone on, but Hurston jumped me. I didn’t know where his gun went, but his hands were around my neck. Attacking a Dramatic Irony android is not a rational act. Though I simulated respiration, I didn’t breathe. Not only couldn’t I be strangled, but hands wouldn’t even leave a mark. After Hurston figured that out, he yanked the pistol from his right pants pocket and pointed it at my head. I wasn’t sure what kind of damage the gun could do to me, so I just stood there. Either Hawthorne and Melville were less concerned or figured it was time to act. They rushed Hurston, and the gun went off.


It took two weeks to repair me, at which time I was as good as my new and old parts. Melville filled me in on what happened in the interim. Malicious mischief and dangerous use of a firearm were added to Hurston’s rap sheet. He would have some enforced time to reevaluate himself. It was not lost on me that to create a controlled explosion, I crushed that something inside Troy Hurston. I could only hope he has some kind of reset button.

Shortly after my reactivation, Ms. Perry called Melville, Hawthorne, and me into her office. She looked none the worse for her experience, but I attributed that to her inner strength.

“I’ve given a lot of thought to what happened,” she said. “One result of the break-in was publicity, which has given our receipts at least a temporary boost. I want to thank the three of you for caring, and coming to my aid. Who knows what could have happened had you not.”

“Truth be told,” Melville said, “we were also concerned about a possible closure of the park if anything happened to you, plus there was the question of how we could help redirect the proclivities of the boy ...”

Hawthorne shot Melville a baleful look, causing the latter to stop.

“Anyway,” Ms. Perry continued, “I just want to say, I’m not unaware of the contradictions in our working relationship. In the name of art, I allowed you a level of sentience in excess of the demands of your job. In the name of business, I put limitations on all of you. Whenever we create something, be it a novel, a movie, a sentience android simulation, or a child, we can never know in advance its full effect. But if we try to limit that effect, it kills the art. So what I’m saying is, rather than ape your originals, I want you to be yourselves, and we will deal with wherever that leads us.”

“Even if it’s the poorhouse?” I asked, knowing something about that.

She shrugged. “Where we live is not as important as the view.”

I left the meeting feeling exultant. Back in my room I looked over my writing and thought, maybe I would show it to Ms. Perry one of these days. My high spirits tempered as I remembered Hurston had done the same thing. I wondered how he might end up, or for that matter, whether or not Dramatic Irony Park would eventually go bankrupt. One of Thoreau’s favorite sayings was “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” Like so much in life, easier said than done. END

Richard Zwicker is an English teacher living in Vermont with his wife and beagle. His short stories have appeared in “Stupefying Stories,” “Plasma Frequency Magazine,” “On the Premises,” “Ray Gun Revival,” and many other paying markets.




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