Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Uses of Nirvana
by Mark Silcox

A Place for Oysters
by Sandy Hiortdahl

by Steven Young

A Switch in Time
by David Steffen

by Richard Wren

Mostly a Question of Molecular Bonds
by Steve Bates

Panic Button
by Seth Chambers

When the Robots Struck
by Eamonn Murphy

John Cochran’s Amazing Flight
by J. Richard Jacobs

by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Vegan State
by Mark Ayling


Mining Data on UFOs
by Preston Dennett

Trip the Light Fantastic
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Uses of Nirvana

By Mark Silcox

AFTER MY CONVERSATION WITH Stefan, it took me a long time to collect my thoughts. At least a dozen of them were distributed amongst the several coin-sized cerebral plug-ins that lay scattered across my desk, amidst a detritus of candy wrappers, Post-It notes, and half-empty Chinese take-away boxes. A few of the little devices had handwritten labels, but most of them were impossible to tell apart.

It was always this way whenever we got on the phone together. As Stefan went off on one of his long rhapsodies about Beat poetry, quantum cosmology, or Plato’s “Republic,” I’d be frantically swapping out my vital cognitive functions for Encyclopedia data-chips, obscure foreign language corpora, and mental arithmetic accelerators. By the time we were both talked out, I’d be bristling with exciting new ideas to offload the next morning, but my basic sensorium would be stripped down to a raw nub.

It was past one in the morning. I was dizzy and over-caffeinated, and couldn’t stop blinking. The air around me was filled with the sickly aromas of beef chow mein and overheated circuit board. The double-density chip protruding from the eastern rear-left edge of my skull was almost full to capacity with my oldest friend’s reminiscences about his recent trip to the Himalayas, and with all of the reasons he’d given me to explain why he was seeking out even colder, more isolated places, in pursuit of some abstract goal that I still didn’t fully understand. Something or other to do with a bunch of Chinese religious texts from the first century.

I knew that I’d be in real trouble if I couldn’t locate the plug-in with my REM sleep protocols. I had a busy day at the office ahead. I’d almost reached the panic stage when Marjorie appeared in the doorway of my study, looking ravishing in a cerulean negligee.

“Morning Harry,” she said, stifling a yawn. “Are you two finished solving the world’s problems yet?”

“Can’t find my dreaming chip,” I grumbled. “I know it’s around here
somewhere ... ”

She drifted into the room and surveyed the mess before me, her cool hands coming to rest on my shoulders. After a few seconds, she reached out and lifted up one of the cardboard cartons to reveal the missing piece of hardware. It was the same tiny rectangle of silicon that I used to store all my proximate visual mapping algorithms. No wonder I’d been at such a loss.

“Bless your patient soul, my love.” I nudged the crucial chip back into my skull.

She just smiled.

“Do you ever think that life might have been easier,” I asked her, “back when all we had was neural tissue to keep our thoughts in order?”

“That sounds a lot like Stefan talking. Is he on another back-to-nature kick?”

I nodded sheepishly. “He’s moving into a synthetic igloo on the southern coast of Baffin Island. He left behind all of his technological plug-ins except a single chip for fishing, fire-building, and predator evasion. He says he wants to spend some time making better friends with his limbic brain.”

My wife reached out and brushed a damp lock of hair away from the edge of my neocortical interface. “Well, that’s OK for him,” she said, “but I never would have looked at you twice if all you’d had inside that head of yours was wetware.” She leaned forward to kiss me gently on my right temple, and whispered into my ear. “You know I’ve always loved you for your mind.”

We climbed into bed together. I lay beside her with my eyes open for a moment, watching the activation lights from her own ring of plug-ins flickering gently, as her leftover conscious half-thoughts expired quietly in the darkness. In the moments before I fell asleep, I found myself wondering exactly what she’d meant by her compliment.


I didn’t hear from Stefan again for another couple of months. Then out of the blue he called me from a local number and invited me out for coffee.

We met that afternoon at a café near my office on the Upper East Side. The first thing I noticed when I arrived was how all the other patrons were glancing furtively over at him from behind their giant scones and triple-lattes. At first, I thought this was because of the strange array of chunky hardware that flickered like a halo round the top of his head. Stefan had always preferred a slightly retro brand of oversized, colorfully decorative plug-ins that gave him sort of a mad cyborg look.

Then, as I sat down, I noticed that the tips of the last two fingers of his right hand were missing.

He grinned at me as I pulled up a chair. “Frostbite. The Doctors said regrowth would take a week or two. It feels weird, but also sort of interesting.”

I could see why the others in the café were creeped out. These days almost any manner of bodily disfigurement can be surgically corrected for the cost of a cheap haircut. Stefan’s injury brought him pretty close to freakshow territory.

“It’s good to see you, Stef,” I said. “Marjorie and I were worried you’d been eaten by polar bears.”

“I did wear myself out a little this time,” he said. “Didn’t really have the body fat for the climate up there. And Arctic cod cooked over a campfire loses its novelty value rather quickly.”

I chuckled, shaking my head. “I still wish I could have traded places with you. I bet you had all sorts of epiphanies while I was busy touring factories and writing dull reports.” I always find myself talking this way to Stefan. As a matter of fact, I quite enjoy my job at the bank. It’s only when he and I are hanging out together that chasing huge chunks of capital around the globe suddenly seems desperately trivial and mundane.

He sipped his tea in silence for a minute or two. “I wanted the solitude,” he said eventually, “because I’d been reading some very strange Buddhist texts about meditation, from the Pāli Canon. I did get into some quite interesting states of mind up there during the first few weeks.”

“I remember you saying that that was your goal, back when we talked on the phone.”

“Mm, gosh, that conversation seems a long time ago. Looking back, I’m not really sure why I specifically chose the Arctic. But there certainly wasn’t anyone else around.”

A waitress delivered warm croissants. Stefan tugged off the corner of his and dipped it into his teacup. I held my hand out palm upward. “Got anything you’d be willing to share?”

“I did keep a very small set of records.” He dug into the pocket of that ancient sport jacket of his with the ragged left shoulder, and pulled out a single, half-sized chip with a scratched casing. “Just a few visual and cognitive snapshots. I overwrote all the other sensory data to save space. You know I’m always curious to hear your reactions.”

I swapped the chip into a spare port beneath my temporal bone where I’d been storing a batch of dull revenue projections from a meeting earlier that day.

Immediately, my visual field was filled with a shimmering, pure-white landscape. From above the horizon came the weak glow of a distant sunset. Although there was no sound, I could tell from the way that the snow swirled and crested that a strong wind was blowing. The only other image was of a small campfire in the left foreground. The flames quivered and guttered beneath a barely adequate grey canvas canopy.

As my eyelids fluttered closed, the perspective moved from left to right across the broad, featureless panorama. The POV was quite low to the ground, as though Stefan was sitting in some posture suitable for meditation.

I was used to his mental recordings being very different from the kinds of noisy mass-market plug-ins you can buy at any corner store these days for therapy, education, or entertainment. But this one really was remarkably austere. He’d told me that there was cognitive data as well as visual images stored on the chip, but I didn’t pick up any traces of thought at all for the first few moments.

Then, very slowly, vague patterns began to register in the snow as it drifted across the long stretches of tundra before me. Through Stefan’s eyes, I saw weird faces, animal shapes, and shadowy vistas form and dissolve. Each new image called forth a broad spectrum of associations—memories from childhood, scenes from books and movies, half-remembered conversations. Some of these reflections were familiar from our late-night talks, but many others were utterly strange to me. I could feel my lips moving as I registered the encoded memory of a long fragment of poetry. The verses seemed to echo the patterns in the long cascades of sunlit snow.

It was like a lucid dream. Or hypnosis, maybe. Stefan had obviously been careful not to include any images of his own body—not once did he ever hold out an arm or glance down at his feet.

After a while, his thoughts got more focused and simpler, and certain concept/image pairs began to recur almost rhythmically. Mother, I felt him thinking whenever the snow spun in circles in his peripheral vision. Then Lover, whenever the wind died down for a spell, then Music, whenever the flames of his campfire flashed upward for a moment. After each of these sustained thoughts, he would tilt his head backward until there was only a sky full of drifting snowflakes left to see—white on white, softly descending. And then he would very slowly whisper to himself, Goodbye.

I don’t know how many times this pattern repeated itself before I reached up and withdrew the plug-in. As soon as it was out, I felt myself shiver all over, as though the chill of the arctic air Stefan had deliberately edited out had somehow caught up with me.

I was completely in awe. I felt as though my mind had been dragged out of my body and scrubbed all over to a bright new polish. “My God,” I said, passing a hand before my eyes. “That was ... that was amazing, Stefan. I’ve never been anywhere like that before. I only wish there was more of it.”

Then I glanced around the café. All of the people who’d been there before were gone. The coffee in front of me was stone cold and Stefan’s pot of tea had been cleared away. The tall windows were filled with the grayish light of early evening.

Stefan was looking at me with his usual thin, ambiguous smile, but I sensed a trace of concern in his expression. “Welcome back,” he said in a quiet voice.

“Eh? How long was I checked out for?”

He glanced over at the wall clock. Stefan never wore a watch. “A little over two hours,” he said. “It’s past six. I hope Marjorie didn’t cook dinner for you.”

Two hours?” I blinked and looked down at the warm synthetic chip I was still holding in the palm of my hand. “But ... it felt like just a few minutes.”

He nodded. “I would often lose track when I was up there. The weak light makes it hard to tell the time of day.”

Suddenly I was very excited. “Ohmigosh,” I said, stepping up out of my chair. “Stefan, this is really something big. You’ve discovered a whole new ... a new something, anyway. It’s hard to describe.”

Stefan’s forehead wrinkled. “You think so? I thought the trip was rather a failure, to be honest.”

“You did? What on Earth were you hoping for?”

He sighed. “Well, you know,” he said, “the same thing that all meditation is aimed toward, I suppose. Nirvana? Or, perhaps just something a bit like it?”

I placed the chip very carefully onto the table between us. “Well I don’t know if that’s the right name for what I just experienced. But whatever it was, Stefan, it certainly needs to be shared.”

“Shared?” He looked straight into my eyes, then down at the chip. A rare but unmistakable hint of genuine perplexity crept into his voice. “Really? With whom? Just anybody? But ... why would we want to do that, Harry?”

“Seriously, Stefan?” I held a hand against my forehead, feeling nearly overcome. Had I really been entranced by the patterns in the snow for all that time? “You really think that what you felt while you were up there isn’t something that thousands of people want more of in their lives?”

He just gave me that same, placid, bemused look, and shrugged. “I ... I suppose I can see how it might be. Yes, I guess that would be ... something good, perhaps.” God bless him. It was clear that he’d never even considered the idea.


I keep an extensive library of chips that record my memories and impressions from past meetings with venture capitalists. It didn’t take me long to recall a few conversations with investors who’d already dabbled in the plug-in industry. It’s a pretty weird sector of the economy, full of gamblers, aesthetes, crackpot philosophers, and would-be futurists. It turns out that trying to anticipate the kinds of thoughts people want to have ported into their minds is like trying to hit a knuckleball in the dark.

The guy who eventually put up most of the money for the project was from an old Texas oil family. He was strangely ambivalent about the recording itself. “That’s some weird juju you got on there, son,” he said to me, after checking out Stefan’s chip at the end of a boozy lunch at some underlit Manhattan steak house. “But I guess it’ll find a market. There’s oddballs everywhere.”

We set up a bunch of focus groups. Almost all of them were split right down the middle over the appeal of what they saw when they plugged replicas of Stefan’s chip into their cortices. Some were totally enraptured in the same way that I had been. Others compared the experience to watching paint dry. A very small percentage clawed the chip out of their temples more or less immediately and refused to put it back in for any price. This startled me at first, but the neurotechs we hired said they would sometimes get the same reaction when they played people antique recordings of pop songs from the early part of the century.

When I gave a copy of the chip to Marjorie to try, she unplugged after less than five minutes. “Horrible! Just ... horrible!” she said. “All of those dreary, angry-looking faces in the snow! And goodbye to what, exactly? I always knew Stefan had a morbid streak. I’m sorry, honey, but I can’t see how you’ll ever get this thing to sell.”

Selling it turned out to be the least of our worries.


The guy standing outside our front door was wearing a tie-dyed shirt and a single diamond earring. That didn’t fool me for a second.

“Good afternoon, sir,” he said. “May I speak with a Mr. Harold ... ?”

“You’re a government man, aren’t you?”

He swallowed and fished in the pocket of his too-tight pants.

“What agency?” I asked him. “IRS? Treasury? Consumer Protection? The earring looks totally fake.” Lately these guys had taken to dressing like throwback hippies rather than spooks, for some god-unknown reason. They were always wasting our time snooping around at the office, but they’d never dropped by my own home before. “I wish you people would go back to black suits and dark glasses. Those retro outfits put you on a much clearer footing.”

Marjorie walked up behind me. “Won’t you please come in?” she said.

“Thank you, Ma’am.” He stepped inside and offered me his hand. “My name’s Crawford. I actually work for the good ol’ FBI.”

This took me a little more by surprise. I shook his cool hand wordlessly.

“My husband has had some bad experiences with regulatory agencies in the past, Mr. Crawford. Please forgive us. Would you care for a cup of coffee or tea?” Like most of her blueblood family, Marjorie excelled at a style of icy cordiality that I’ve never quite been able to master.

While she went off to brew up some Earl Grey, Crawford and I sat down in the living room together. “Congratulations on the success of Northern Silence,” he began.

“Ah—so that’s what you’re here about? You’ve got to be kidding me.” I was feeling irritable, partly because of my own reaction to the guy’s arrival, but also because I hated the silly, smarmy name we’d chosen for the mass-market version of Stefan’s chip. “We’ve had some modest success with it, yes. A few hundred units sold in test markets. We’re thinking of a nationwide release in a week or two. Has somebody been pirating them? I can’t think why else you guys would have any ... ”

Crawford held up a hand. “I’m afraid it’s something a little less straightforward than mere piracy. But perhaps I should begin by reassuring you—please don’t take my visit today to imply that the bureau imputes any criminal responsibility to either you or Mr. ... Runesson, is it?”

I nodded, although he’d pronounced Stefan’s last name wrong. Government spooks seem to do this as a matter of policy.

“Well, that’s certainly a relief,” said Marjorie in a stiffly twinkling voice, as she glided back toward us with the tea tray.

Crawford took his teacup with a “thank you, ma’am” and sipped quietly for a few seconds. My wife sat beside me on the sofa and slid her hand into mine. I normally welcome Marjorie’s presence during uncomfortable conversations, but this time I somehow found myself wishing she wasn’t there.

“We’ve been having some interface problems with your plug-in,” said Crawford eventually. “Or at least, we initially thought they were interface problems. We actually haven’t discovered anything wrong with the hardware itself.”

“I should hope not,” I said. The mention of interface problems did worry me. I’d read horror stories on the web about dirty commercial chips that produced infections, wetware incompatibilities, and massive cognitive dissonance. The plug-ins were usually cheap third-world knock-offs, though. “The production company we chose is famous for quality, as I’m sure you know.”

“Indeed. Nonetheless, let me describe some examples of what we’ve seen.” Crawford leaned back a bit in his chair. “A group of assembly-line workers at a factory in the suburbs of Pittsburgh bought a single copy of Northern Silence at a local tech outlet, and passed it around during their lunch break. Two of them got into a fistfight over the chip, and had to be broken up by four security guards. One fellow needed surgery afterwards.”

“A fight? Over Stefan’s recording? That’s very difficult to fathom. It’s hardly the sort of thing that you’d expect to provoke violence.”

“Perhaps so,” said Crawford. “But there have been even stranger incidents. Some undergraduates at Oberlin College purchased a four-pack of the chips on a Friday night and plugged in together. Quite a common practice these days, amongst college kids. They were found sitting together on the floor of a dorm room the following Sunday afternoon, in a state of near-catatonia.”

I swallowed hard. This sounded a lot more like my own experience back in the café.

“I’m afraid I don’t quite understand, Mr. Crawford,” said Marjorie. “I’ve used the plug-in myself. It’s not to my own taste, but there’s certainly nothing addictive or subversive on it, at least as far as I could tell. Have you tried it?”

Crawford set aside his porcelain teacup and shook his head. “My supervisor at the bureau did, though. A man I’ve admired for most of my career. He’s always believed in taking a hands-on approach to our investigations. He put the chip into his head at 9:10 a.m. four days ago. At three o’clock that afternoon, his secretary found him sitting at his desk, wide awake, with his eyes closed. He’d spilled his morning coffee over some confidential files, and he’d also, um ... ” Our visitor paused to clear his throat. “Pardon me. He’d also soiled himself.”

“Good lord,” I said. “This is ... I can’t ... I mean, we did have a few strange reactions in our focus groups, but nothing like what you’ve just described.” It took me a few seconds to gather my wits. “I can see why you needed to visit me here, Agent Crawford, and I apologize for my earlier tone. We obviously need to take this chip straight off the market.”

His facial expression changed quickly from vaguely servile embarrassment to focused determination. “That was initially going to be our suggestion. But then, just this morning, I had a long conversation with one of the government’s smartest consultants on Sino-American relations. A woman who does most of her work for the CIA. She seems to think that your chip might have certain non-commercial applications.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re no doubt aware of the continuing difficulties faced by U.S. manufacturers who are competing directly with the Chinese.”

“Uh, sure.”

“Perhaps you’re also aware of the fairly common practice throughout the East of equipping factory workers with plug-ins that contain wireless receivers.”

I was utterly bemused. “Sure, I think I read about that in a magazine article. They transmit attention-focusing algorithms, or propriaception overrides. Weren’t there some horrible failures of implementation though? People collapsing from fatigue, having breakdowns, and so on?”

Crawford nodded. “Most of those problems were eventually ironed out. Though not before the usual human rights types over here managed to get a lot of prohibitive laws passed. No American company today could even think about using those sorts of technologies.”

I was beginning to catch on. “So, Stefan’s—I mean, our product—you want to somehow use it to disrupt these foreign efficiency programs?”

He leaned a little closer toward me. “I’m sure you both understand that this conversation must be kept in the strictest confidence.”

Marjorie nodded quickly. I just stared back at him, still processing what he was telling us.

“We already know how to hack into their in-house transmitters. Our consultant reminded us of the latent religious commitments still held implicitly by much of the Chinese rural labor force. She thinks that the effects of your recording would be relatively benign, at the individual level.”


“She pointed out to us that the average American consumer is much less, um, predisposed toward the kinds of thoughts that Mr. Runesson recorded.”

“So, what you’re saying is, it wouldn’t actually hurt them. Only cut down on their productivity.”

“That is our hypothesis, yes,” said Crawford.

I could already imagine what Stefan would have been saying, if he’d been there. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by Crawford’s suggestion. “It’s not exactly the sort of thing you can test out in advance, though, is it? And I’m not sure how comfortable I am with being responsible—even partially responsible—for an experiment that could cause this much ... ”

That was when Marjorie put her hand on my knee and squeezed gently. “I’m sure that my husband and his partners will be ready to help you with anything that’s in the national interest,” she said. “May I offer you another cup of tea?”


The last time I met Stefan was on the sidewalk just outside of my building. He looked as though he’d been sleeping rough. The old sport jacket was badly torn, and the ports around the top of his skull were stripped clean—not a single plug-in. The skin around the empty orifices looked crusty and infectious. He grabbed me by the shoulder and pushed me back hard against a wall.

“You let them use my thoughts,” he said. “As a weapon.” His breath smelled like stale bread.

I sighed. My investor and I had initially hoped we could keep our military contract a secret. But Stefan was still technically the owner of the copyright, so we couldn’t revoke his password access to company records. He had obviously done a better job than we’d anticipated of hacking the virtual paper trail.

“The whole thing was taken out of my hands,” I told him. “If there had been any way I could have stopped it ... but you know what the government’s like, these days.”

He released me and took a step back. His eyes were fierce and he was trembling all over. I noticed that the tips of his two frostbitten fingers were still missing.

“Jesus, Stefan,” I said, pointing. “What happened there? Didn’t the regrowth cells kick in?”

He held up his disfigured hand in front of me, sneering. “I had them switched off, you son of a bitch! I’ll be like this for the rest of my life, now.”

“Why?” I couldn’t understand. He’d always been an unpredictable guy, but never what I’d consider truly perverse.

A crowd was starting to gather on the pavement. A few commuters coming out of the subway, a toothless panhandler, two women I knew from work. They stared at us silently, some with their mouths hanging open.

“Why? Why do you think? You worthless creep—you salesman. Surely even you can figure that much out.”

“Stefan,” I said. “You’re my oldest friend. I ...”

“I’m doing it for penance, Harry.” He tapped a shaking finger against the side of his head, right next to a deep, raw-looking cerebral input port. “Some things have to be remembered the old-fashioned way.”

One of the women gasped. Stefan seemed to notice for the first time all the attention he’d attracted. He scanned the horrified faces, then leaned forward and spat once onto the sidewalk between us. After that, he turned on his heels and simply walked away.


I’ve been spending a lot of time by myself these days—in cafés, at public parks, at work during the lunch hour. I’ve been trying to capture the same set of sensations that Stefan recorded on his chip. I could just plug it back in, of course —I kept a secret, personal copy of Northern Silence even though the CIA made us turn in all the ones we’d manufactured. But I’m worried that after everything that happened, I might have some kind of aversive response. I certainly can’t afford to be found sitting walleyed in my office in a puddle of excrement.

I think that in order to get it right, you have to figure out the proper list of things to say “goodbye” to, in just the right order. Goodbye city. Goodbye money. Goodbye family. Goodbye friends. Goodbye home. I’ve assembled an expensive suite of cognitive enhancement chips, attention focusing algorithms, and libraries of visual imagery from ice fields and glaciers, but I don’t seem to have found quite the right combination of software, so far. It feels almost like it’s some sort of a code that I have to break.

I practice at home in my study in the early mornings while Marjorie’s still asleep. A few times I’ve felt like I was getting very close. Maybe it would be helpful to actually get on a plane and take a trip by myself up to the Arctic, just for a few days. But I guess I’ll probably never go. END

Mark Silcox is a Canadian citizen currently living in Edmond, OK. His stories have appeared in “Dark Discoveries,” “Aoife’s Kiss,” “All Hallows,” “Polluto,” and “Fear & Trembling” magazines. He is a member of the Codex Writer’s Group.


morris book


Buying from Amazon