Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
Editor

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Fiction

Remy’s Town
by Megan Neumann

Periscope
by Andrew Hook

Her Robot Babies
by Brent Knowles

Beyond the Reach of Proof
by Seth W. Kennedy

Here Is a Fighter
by Eric Del Carlo

Invasive Species
by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt

Deciphering an ET Opening Screen
by Marilyn K. Martin

I Once Was Lost
by Edward Morris

Navigate
by Melanie Rees

Respect of Headwaiters
by Tais Teng

Toy Soldier
by Leon Chan

Articles

A Case Against Saucers
by John McCormick

Atomic Light Bulbs
by Popular Mechanics


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Periscope

By Andrew Hook

IN THE FUTURE, ALL THE CHINESE were speaking perfect English in American accents. Despite the fact that American English became perfect English, little else appeared to have changed.

Dr. Swe Swe Win popped the answer into the air tube transfer system, then ran a hand through his thick black hair. He glanced over to the window where darkness had fallen slowly, as though a black blind being pulled downwards over the view. Looking out he couldn’t see out. The building was surrounded by the night: ambushed. Or, that was how it felt. Especially when working alone. It reminded him of the days when Aung San Suu Kyi’s League for Democracy party had been suppressed. Sometimes it felt that night had fallen during the day.

He shuddered and decided against concentrating on his task. It was too late to think straight and the road from the complex could be dangerous at this hour. There was no longer a threat from bandits, but all animals were as attracted to lights as the humble moth. He had narrowly avoided a rhinoceros once, and didn’t care to encounter one again.

All the doors were electronic, detecting the tiny sensors in his fingertips as he approached them and opening on cue. He moved effortlessly through the building, his soft shoes almost polishing the floor as he walked. His eyes were tired. He removed his glasses, rubbed his index fingers against his eyelids, and when he reopened his eyes, tiny lights glittered his view of the white-painted walls.

He wondered what they would think of the message. It wasn’t his role to interpret—and even if he wanted to, there would be no sense in it. Others were employed to detect repetitions and patterns. His job was simply to operate the machine.

The answers it gave were numerous, often conflicted. But it gave answers, that was the thing. It was the only machine that could.

Dr. Swe Swe Win walked through the final door which—sensing the building was now empty—employed its security system in absentia. The night was humid. It felt as though a cloak had been thrown over him, one that had been seeped in animal musk and warm moisture. He detected his own body odour, masked by the air-conditioning within the building, but given full reign now that he was outside. The air was alive with insects and the loud ki-wao call of a male peafowl continued into the night, although it mainly cried at dusk.

Security lights illuminated the car park and his solitary vehicle. During the journey home, he passed small shops set back from the roadside; corrugated metal sheets formed a shell from within which wooden tables held all manner of foodstuffs. He held back from grabbing something quick, decided to wait until he arrived home. Despite living alone, he liked taking the time and effort to make a good meal. On occasion, when Hlaing came to visit, she would compliment him on his culinary skills and gorge herself.

Sometimes, when he ate with her, he wondered if they were already in the future.

Other times—when her hand reached out to clasp his in a moment of passion—he wondered if they were already in the past.

***

His house was large for the District. It was raised on concrete pillars to avoid the monsoon floods. The surrounding land had been owned by his parents. He had inherited it and knocked down their humble home, added to the property as he rose through the ranks. Now it was spacious and light, expensive but not ostentatious. He didn’t know what those in the surrounding villages thought of it, and didn’t much care. The machine—if nothing else—had told him the future was changeable, and it was important to hold onto things whilst you had the chance.

He parked and entered the property. Headed straight for the kitchen and threw the ingredients together for mohinga: a fish soup made with chickpea flour, garlic, onions, lemongrass, banana tree stem, ginger fish paste and catfish served with rice vermicelli. Whilst mostly eaten for breakfast, it felt like breakfast at this time of the night, and he would save some for when morning came so as not to waste the surplus.

There were no messages on his answering service from Hlaing, so he switched on the television and watched the world at war. When that failed to amuse, he channel-hopped through a variety of cut-price reality and game shows and finally turned the screen black and stared at his reflection staring back.

When he had first devised the machine—completely by accident, he hadn’t failed to admit that—tests had been extensively made on his vision, sanity, and peripheral mental health. It was almost despite his background as a physicist of notable repute that his revelation became accepted, and following confirmation that his discovery was genuine, the money began to flood in. Offers to develop the machine were thick and fast, and whilst many attempts were made to copy it, they couldn’t work without the integral ingredient: himself. The machine was patented with Dr. Swe Swe Win named as one of the components. Eventually, he had accepted the offer made by the League for Democracy and the competition backed off. The ruling party held respect—and respect authenticated the machine. And by association, authenticated himself.

It was exactly the kind of luck which had led him to meet Hlaing. And from then onwards enabled them to engage in their relationship.

She had discovered him in the staff canteen, eating boiled eggs dipped in fish sauce and chili. Sitting next to him, her thigh-length skirt exposed her soft brown skin. This was the first thing he noticed. The scars from the cigarette burns. He admired her audacity, her lack of shame. The fact that she was able to work within the complex indicated that the torture was in the past. He offered her an egg and she reciprocated with a fried fish cake. Her accompanying smile as white as a cigarette. Not that she smoked.

One evening she caught his arm as he was leaving the building. Her voice carried soft low tones into the forest which absorbed them quietly.

“Dr. Swe Swe Win, they say you can predict the future.”

He shrugged. “Prediction is for others. I can simply see the future.”

“Isn’t that the same thing?”

“Unfortunately not.” He pulled out a photograph from inside his jacket pocket. The one he always used to explain his situation simply and explicitly. “Look at this.” He passed the photograph to her. It was black and white, depicted a curving piece of silver-looking metal. On the curve, white light indicated the reflection of a flash.

As she held it he noticed her fingernails were bitten to the quick.

“What is it?”

“Not yet,” he said. “Do you see it?”

She shrugged. “Yes, I see it. But what is it?”

He took the photograph from her hand, turned it around so that she might view it from all angles. She kept shaking her head. “You can see it,” he said, “but you cannot predict what it is. You cannot see it for what it is. This is a close-up of one section of a household water tap. But you aren’t given enough to be able to recognise it. You might be able to guess at what it is. But you might also guess at a lot of things that it isn’t. You can see it, but you don’t know it. This is what the periscope gives me: the ability to see the future but not to understand it. I am unable to place it in context. That job is for others, although whether they are successful or not, I am unable to tell. Again, I don’t see enough of their work to enable me to predict it.”

She nodded slowly. He was unsure whether she understood.

“And it is only you,” she continued, “who can see it?”

“Currently only me,” he confirmed.

She smiled suddenly. He felt the floor slipping away. “I just wondered,” she said. “There are rumours about you.”

“Rumours?”

“Not here. Outside.”

He started to walk towards the exit, then realised she meant the rumours came from outside; not that she wanted to talk to him outside. But then she followed and she kept following all the way to his car, to his home, to his table, to his bed.

***

“Can you ask it anything?”

He shook his head. “I can only receive.”

“If you could ask it anything. What would you ask?”

He sat up. The bedsheet fell from his body, exposed him to the waist. He leant forwards. She saw how his spine pushed against his skin and she ran a finger from top to bottom. Then back again.

He shuddered.

The question was a frequent one. He changed his answer each time, depending on who he was with. On occasion, he would reply that he would ask when there would be world peace. Sometimes he said he would discover the date and means of his death. Other times, whether he would have children. He alternated between the universal and the personal, between the serious and the humorous. With Hlaing he wanted to answer: I would ask whether there is a future for us in the future. But the very nature of the question contained a doubt that they might have a future together. So instead he said: “I would ask whether I will succeed in giving Hlaing an orgasm.”

She laughed and punched his arm: friendly, but not without vigour. “There are other ways to discover this,” she said. “Try again.”

Her laughter always concealed a question, just as her smile always held an answer.

***

He awoke alone. He could smell the traces of the mohinga in the air, rotated by the air-conditioning, and wondered how long he had slept. Daylight forced its way through the metal blinds covering the window: almost buckling them, and throwing horizontal shadows on the opposite wall. Hlaing hadn’t responded to his telephone calls after he had eaten his meal. He wasn’t sure whether he should be worried, or not.

Later that morning he was due another meeting in the capital. The complex wasn’t situated far from Naypyidaw. It had been established on the eastern side of the country, close to the Shan Hills. The parallel mountain ranges appeared ridged at dawn and dusk. During the height of the day they shimmered, were ephemeral: appeared transient.

The meeting was to establish his success with the periscope. He had a handful of notes of recent predictions: the worldwide domination of the Chinese, the plethora of fuel-less buses, the collapse of the Parisian Eiffel Tower, three synchronistic views of children playing football in a dusty playground, their shirts worn and torn. He would also tell them of the new animals, the lights in the sky, a newspaper report on the final production of rubber with a date he had been unable to read.

Their enthusiasm drifted between each report. Sometimes they were eager to hear of local issues, other times global. At the last meeting they had been obsessed at what he considered to have been a UFO over the American White House. He had to explain with what seemed like an inordinate amount of difficulty that a UFO did not translate as an extraterrestrial visit.

“A UFO is just that,” he said, trying to keep his voice monosyllabic, using as few English words as were necessary. “It’s an Unidentified Flying Object. The key word is Unidentified. What I saw was unidentifiable by me. This does not mean it is a spaceship. It simply means it was unidentified.”

He had taken the photograph of the tap out of his pocket and meant to show it to them as an example of what can be seen and what cannot be seen; but glancing at it before he handed it around he realised that the silver curvature resembled a UFO itself at one angle, and quickly he pocketed it again. Then cursed himself for calling it a UFO when quite clearly he could identify it, as it was himself who had taken the photograph.

In his other pocket his wallet contained a photograph of Hlaing taken whilst she slept. She was unrecognisable. He had taken time to position himself carefully for the shot. The arc of her back, the base of her neck, the rise of a buttock. They had been sleeping together and when he returned from the bathroom the image had seemed so perfect that he had to immortalise it. When he showed it to Hlaing she hadn’t been sure it was herself. It was another example of what can and can’t be seen. For a while afterwards she became convinced he had photographed another woman, and whilst their relationship hadn’t frosted, he wondered if the photograph had captured a part of her that had subsequently been lost.

In his house he also had another photo of Hlaing. One that was grainy black-and- white, a fuzzy close up. Her head was in profile, her short black hair cutting a distinct edge against the lower part of her face. One eye was pressed to the fisheye at his front door. His security camera had captured the image when he was out and he had only seen it on his return from work.

Like the security camera, a periscope is an instrument for observation from a concealed position. Unlike the security camera, the common periscope is a simple construction: a tube with mirrors at both ends set parallel to each other at a forty-five degree angle. Dr. Swe Swe Win’s periscope was also of such a simple design. What wasn’t simple—what was totally unexplainable—were the images that he received when he looked into it.

A house fire—possibly central European. A train crash—most certainly Japanese. A city filled with skyscrapers and low flying aircraft. A shop selling human flesh. A children’s activity area, a military zone, a wasteland. A barrel with an indistinguishable word written on one side in large yellow letters. A discothèque impossible to pinpoint without sound. The interior of someone’s mouth—possibly at the dentist, maybe in torture. Once: the decapitation of their current political leader. Some images he didn’t write down. Others he replaced.

From the sublime to the mundane: each and every image came from the future. He somehow knew this: that nothing came from the past. Yet it was impossible to say it for certain other than he had convinced himself of the fact as a necessity to maintain his funding. No one was interested in events that had already happened. Everyone wanted to know what was to come.

Yet. Dr. Swe Swe Win paused in his musings as he rode the bus to the capital. He sighed. Squeezed his eyes tight. Ran a hand through that thick black hair of his. Like the Western tale of the “Emperor’s New Clothes,” no one dared counteract the visions, few raised questions over their authenticity. The fact that each image came without date didn’t concern them. Whilst they did want to know the future, they were also afraid of it. With many of the images, they were glad that they didn’t know when or where they might occur.

His house, his wealth and social status: it all floated on a bamboo raft on Inle River. The slightest upset and underwater he would go.

A submarine’s periscope was more complex than a simple periscope. Prisms were used instead of mirrors, providing magnification, like two telescopes pointed into each other. If they both had different individual magnification, then the difference between them caused an overall magnification or reduction.

The periscope Dr. Swe Swe Win had designed was mammoth and steel, circular in nature, with mirrors at every conceivable angle. He wasn’t sure of the science in it because he hadn’t expected it to work, but similar to scrying, the periscope delivered images directly to the eye of the beholder. Nostradamus used a bowl of water to see the future whilst he was under a trance. Dr. Swe Swe Win had the periscope.

Yet he was sure science underpinned his visions, because he wasn’t a romantic. He could only imagine that within the circular structure he had recreated the equivalent of a gravitational lens, the light rays bending the boundaries between the future and the past.

But even looking through the periscope couldn’t pinpoint the exact nature of the future. Dr. Swe Swe Win had tried on numerous occasions to perfect the process, until he had realised that it was unnecessary. Sometimes it was even unnecessary to look through the periscope. He could write his answers on pieces of paper and pop them into the air tubes from his own imagination.

Even if, occasionally, that felt like cheating.

“You cheated,” Hlaing had said.

“No, you cheated,” he had said.

It was true. They had both cheated. The periscope told him so.

***

Sometimes when he dreamt and awoke he couldn’t be sure that he hadn’t dreamt through the periscope.

Sometimes he wondered whether the periscope was a state of mind, and not a physical object at all—that the physical object was the rationale behind his condition.

Maybe he was no more than a fortune teller, a shaman. Strange how the word shaman had come to mean something that was false, rather than something that might be true. The future was held on a delicate balance of semantics.

His meeting in the city had been brief. The officials had nodded, one of them had yawned. They had asked their usual questions—tripped around mentioning their own names—and then confirmed he could leave and his work could continue. Despite the air-conditioning within the building, his shirt stuck to his back before he re-entered the humidity of the outside air.

Hlaing telephoned him as he rode home. Passenger proximity affected his answers.

“I missed your message,” she said. “Did you want me?”

“I did,” he said.

“What did you want?”

“You.”

“I can hear traffic noises. You’re still on the bus?”

“Yes.”

“Do you love me?”

“Yes.”

A giggle. “Tell me you love me.”

“I can’t.”

A laugh. “You’re too shy. Tell me you love me when you get home.”

“I will.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

He turned off his phone for the remainder of the journey.

It was only through his dreams that he saw futures with himself and Hlaing. Always twisting, always conflicting.

Greenery hit the sides of the bus. Vegetation attack. The humidity hung in the air—an almost palpable concoction of moist odours. He imagined both the humidity and the passengers were the ingredients in the mohinga. Maybe he would play the role of the onion—a vegetable long associated with fortunetelling properties. By circuitous routes, through unfathomable possibilities, each and every one of the passengers together with all the moisture in the air had arrived at this point simultaneously just for him to have that thought. The staggeringly infinite possibilities of even this one instance terrified him. The future, in comparison, was suddenly impossible to imagine. And—by that very thought alone—became impossible to imagine.

Just as it was impossible to imagine that he had loved Hlaing or that he could ever love Hlaing. Just as it was impossible to imagine that he could ever tell Hlaing that he didn’t love her.

***

They came for him several days later. Whatever it was that he had been doing and which he could no longer do, Dr. Swe Swe Win realised that somehow they had been able to predict the future from his visions through the periscope. Simply because they were no longer able to do so, once he was no longer able to do so.

But they didn’t come with violence, they didn’t come angry. They came to plead that he continue with his work. That the loss of his vision might only be temporary. That he should not reveal this loss to the outside world.

He had nodded and thought of his house and the trappings of wealth and told them he was sure the blip was just that. Temporary.

Yet this in itself was a vision seen through the periscope. As was Hlaing. As were the Chinese Americans talking American English. As was the rhinoceros that nearly ran him off the ill-lit road. As was the air tube which carried his scribblings to unseen parts of the complex, as were his journeys to Naypyidaw, as were the visions of human flesh being sold from street stalls, as were the children kicking footballs in the dust. From the UFO to the IFO, those futures were either fabricated or predicted the first and only time he looked through the periscope.

Which he then discarded, before deliberating what he should do.

Or could do.

Or would do.

Because there were also infinite possibilities which contained none of this. END

Andrew Hook is a British writer who has sold more than 100 stories to various online and print publications. He was nominated for a British Fantasy Society Award in 2003 and 2004. His latest novel, “The Immortalists,” is from Telos Moonrise.

 

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