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



Panic Button

By Seth Chambers

A PLASMA CHARGE BLASTED a crater in the hard-packed ground. The heat wave hurled me aloft. I landed hard, the impact exploding all air from my lungs.

Time stopped.

My body suddenly forgot how to breathe. A high-pitched tone, like when a holovision loses its signal, screamed in my head. For some moments, my own body was an alien entity. Its hand fumbled for the Panic Button on my equipment belt. I looked on in curiosity, as if from far away, as my own fingers flicked the safety cap. My thumb was actually resting on the Button when Salgado charged up and hit the dirt next to me. He stuck his burned face right in front of mine.

“Don’t!” he said. “Don’t you dare!”

The moment passed and my lungs sucked in a delicious draught of air. Oxygen flooded my system once again and I was back in my body.

Fiery tongues of plasma rained around us. Distant Crawler tanks searched rubble for survivors. We were cut off from our unit, our ammo was nearly spent, our mission was a bust, and the chain of command was non-existent. The landscape was a bleak canvas dotted with demolished trees, the charred skeletons of factories, and those relentless Crawlers. We were screwed, but damn it was beautiful, in a grotesque kind of way.

This would be a fine moment to push my Panic Button.

“Panic Button is for pussies!” Salgado said, as if reading my thoughts. “Come on. We can make it to that building. It’s gotta have a basement, somewhere we can hole up.”

Cursing, I removed my fingers from the Button.

King ran up, screaming.

“We need to get the fuck out of here! Now!”

“Always the brilliant strategist,” I said.

“I’m still alive. Now let’s haul ass!”

“Hold one sec,” said Salgado, unslinging his rocket launcher. It takes a brave man to stay calm under fire. Salgado was the bravest. He sighted on the nearest Crawler, adjusted the angle, and let loose with a rocket. It arced just right and nailed the Crawler, sending the tank for a tumble. The Crawler ended up on its back, flailing its stubby legs.

“Take that, fucker!”

That bought us some time but it wouldn’t be long before the Crawler righted itself. Salgado, King, and I made for the demolished factory.

“Watch out,” I said, pointing. “Berserker mines over that way.”

We made it to the factory and yes, it did have a basement. We clambered down an elevator shaft and hid ourselves as best we could. I thought of Burke and Davidson and all the rest who had pushed their Panic Buttons. They were all dead now. It was just Salgado, King, and me left.

“Look here,” said King. “You can see them.”

We watched the Crawlers through a crack. They seemed to be milling about. A lot of times the Crawlers won’t bother with stragglers. Other times ... Well, other times it can get ugly.

“Nasty things look alive,” said King.

“I think they are,” I said. “I think the tanks and their drivers have some sort of symbiotic relationship.”

We didn’t know much about the Crawlers or the gruesome Trundlers that drove them. The Trundlers didn’t give us much chance to study them.

“Guess it’s break time, fellas,” said King.

We still kept an eye on the Crawlers but let ourselves relax a bit. I lit a cigarette, passed the pack. I never used to smoke or curse or run screaming on pure adrenaline, but combat changes a man.

I took a long drag on my Marlborough and slumped to the floor. My adrenaline ebbed and my hands began to shake.

“You know what I think?” said Salgado.

King and I only looked at him.

“I think it’s Biblical, these Trundlers, attacking like this.”

“Biblical?” said King. “I don’t remember reading about them in the Bible. Lot of weird stuff in there, I’ll grant you, but nothing like that.”

“No, but remember that passage, something about how you should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted?”

“That’s the Bible?”

“Somewhere, yeah. Point is, we were all getting too comfortable. Servos doing everything but wiping our asses.”

“Get old enough,” I said. “They’ll do that, too.”

“Not me,” said King. “I hit two hundred, they can put me down like an old dog.”

“Suicide’s a sin,” said Salgado. “No matter how old you get, no matter how sick or broken. God gives you life, you don’t throw it away. That’s in the Bible, too, says God has fixed his cannon against self-slaughter.”

“You really know your Bible,” I said.

King shook his head. “If suicide is such a sin, then what in God’s name are you doing here? This is about as suicidal as it gets.”

“This here is honorable!” said Salgado. “We are fighting the good fight, defending hearth and home.”

“You were saying something about the Trundlers.”

“Yeah. They come just as humankind seems to have it made. Everybody’s all comfortable and smug. Nobody really does anything anymore, we’re content to let the servos do it all. My grandma tells me about how people used to cook and paint pictures and stuff, but nobody does that now, what’s the point? It’s not like anyone can do anything half as good as a servo unit.”

“That’s ...”

I was going to say that’s crazy, but stopped. He had a point. The Trundlers came like a thief in the night. What a wake-up call.

“And these fucking Crawlers?” said Salgado. “This fucking war? Best thing to ever happen to me. My grandparents tell me about a time when people had to work thirty, forty hours every week.”

King and I scoffed.

“They look at me like I’m a bum. But the worst thing is, I always felt like a bum. Never knew what to do with myself and if I were scrubbed from the world it wouldn’t matter in the least. Then the Trundlers come along, they unleash holy hell, and suddenly I knew what had been missing from my life: a mission.”

“They’re ugly damn things,” said King. “But I know what you mean. Day I told the family I was going off to fight, suddenly I was a hero. My old man hugged me and cried. What about you? Why’d you sign up?”

“Me?” I said. “I was just bored.”

“Ain’t bored now, are you?” said King. “Oh, look, our friends are about to crash this party.”

Two Crawlers converged on us. We found another crack in the rubble and spotted a third.

“We’re screwed,” I said.

“We stand and fight,” said Salgado. “Go around, try to find some stray ammo or anything that can be used as a weapon. There has to be something.”

“Who died and left you in charge?”

“And no Panic Buttons! I swear to all that is holy, either of you puss out and push your Button, I’ll shoot you myself.”

“What do you think they are, anyway?” said King. “The Panic Buttons, I mean.”

“Drugs, of course,” said Salgado. “You push the Button and it shoots you full of drugs, makes you high and stupid. Why else do you think the others got themselves killed? They were stoned. Now move your asses!”

I thought there was more to it but the Crawlers were closing in and there was no time to argue. I found an entire ammo box of M16 rounds. Salgado found rockets for his launcher. What idiot leaves shit like that behind? Dead idiots, most likely, but there weren’t any bodies about.

“Incoming!” King bellowed.

We scrambled for cover as the Crawlers screamed and pummeled the dilapidated building with plasma. The burned out framework shook as the first Crawler approached. It let loose with a violent fusillade that demolished what was left of the factory’s structure. Debris tumbled on us. I grabbed my Panic Button and flicked open the lid. We choked on plaster dust and smoke.

In the distance, another Crawler howled and the tank above us howled in reply. A moment later, it lumbered off. My heart thudded. King laughed.

“Shut the fuck up, dude!” Salgado said.

Relief flooded my body like a drug. I started to close the lid of my Panic Button when a water pipe fell from the ceiling. The metal crashed on top of my hand, jamming my thumb against the Panic Button.

Salgado’s eyes blazed.

“Coward! Miserable son of a puta!

Voices filled my head. Then images. What was going on? It was like a floodgate had opened in my mind. Somebody grabbed my arm but I shook him off. The voices were trying to tell me something. Salgado and King were screaming but seemed miles away.

Then everything became clear.

And I decided that I had enough of this damn war. I hauled my sore, ragged ass up the elevator shaft and charged after that damn Crawler, screaming like a lunatic the whole way. I was vaguely aware of King and Salgado running after me, yelling for me to get the hell back inside. I didn’t care.

The Crawler halted, turned, and hunkered down to paw the charred earth like a bull.

“Here I am! Come get me!”

The Crawler let loose with a single shot. The round blasted right through King’s chest. King fell in a bloody heap.

“Son of a puta!

“You say that a lot,” I said.

Salgado fired a rocket at the Crawler and hit it square on. The tank tumbled and landed on its back. Salgado ran right up and blasted a rocket into the thing’s underbelly at point-blank range. The rocket penetrated, setting off a muffled explosion inside. A hatch opened and the Trundler clawed its way out. Salgado flung the rocket launcher over his back, raised his M16, and put a round through the alien’s center mass. It fell and did not move again.

Salgado whirled on me.

“King is dead! Look at him! You killed him!”

I wanted to tell Salgado that everything was okay, but I couldn’t. It was against the rules.

“You pushed that damn Panic Button.”

I shrugged. “Sorry.”

“Sorry? He’s dead, man. Comprende? We’re supposed to have each others’ back. He died trying to save your sorry ass.”

“So shoot me,” I said.

Salgado raised his rifle, sighted down, and blew my head off.


It’s hard to say what happens when you push the Panic Button. It’s like awakening from a nightmare, even though you’re still in it. You remember that the body you’re inhabiting is not your own. Your own body is safely floating in a containment chamber and hooked up to biometric feeds.

And suddenly, the war is no longer serious. Nobody really dies. But that fact had been temporarily scrubbed from your memory so as to create a more realistic experience.

The war is a sham.

But it’s a necessary sham. Because there are men like Salgado with hot blood who yearn for a mission. There are men like King who want to be a hero in the eyes of their family. And there are men like me who just grow bored, so very bored with this world where there’s nothing to do but sit around and let servitors do the work.

They throw the fake wars for men like us and nobody gets hurt and everybody gets a reminder of why war is such a horrible, horrible idea.

We go and fight, we see our friends killed by enemy fire, we march through Hell. Eventually, we get enough and we push our Panic Buttons and remember that it’s all a high-tech ruse. The Trundlers and Crawlers are nothing more than specialized servo units. The battleground is merely a playground for adults.

A moment after Salgado shot me, I awoke in my containment chamber. Servo units attended to me, their mechanical voices uttering assurances that all was well.

I glance over and see King in his chamber, looking dazed. Probably just processing the fact that the memory of his old man hugging him and calling him a hero is nothing but an implanted memory.

There is much to process. Slowly, I sort out what is real and what is implanted. Servo units disconnect me from the containment chamber. I sit up and the servos help me to the Recovery Station. On the way, I glance at Salgado, floating in his containment chamber, still fighting the good fight. He seems strangely happy.

When I’m ready, I return to the safe, modern world. Servitors cater to my every whim. The cities of the world are self-sustaining and there is no real work to be done.

For a time I was glad to be home, but the boredom soon returned. The war simulation was hell but at least I had a sense of purpose. Now my life seems more devoid of meaning than ever. The boredom burns the tissues of my body like acid.

I live in the very Utopia mankind has sought since it first tasted misery. I hate it. I want to scream but that would only bring a servo unit running with a tonic. I find myself reaching for my Panic Button, but it’s not there. There is no escape. END

Seth Chambers is an ESL teacher and author. His work has appeared in “F&SF,” “Isotropic Fiction,” “Fantasy Scroll,” and “Alien Skin.” He heads The Edgy Writers Workshop, a Chicago-based meetup group for committed authors.




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