Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Crowd Control
by Gareth D. Jones et al.

Blank Space
by David Wright

Robot of Dorian Graham
by Richard Zwicker

Seven Styles of Mortality
by Cathy Douglas

Lightning Strikes
by Sean Monaghan

2038: A Mars Odyssey
by Brian Biswas

Innovation Stopped
by William R. Eakin

Midnight in Absheron
by Edward Ashton

Full Fathom Five on Chemical Freedom
by Robin Wyatt Dunn

by Aaron Rasmusson

Shimmer and Fade
by Daniel Nathan Horn


UFOs: the Truth is Not Out There
by Eric M. Jones

Off on a Comet
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Robot of Dorian Graham

By Richard Zwicker

I CLIMBED ONTO ONE OF THE STOOLS flanking the rectangular bar and motioned for a draught beer. It was just after midnight, and a weekday, so only a few seats of the Satellite were occupied. Earlier in the evening I’d appeared as a guest on “The Now Show,” promoting my twenty-first “Linc Stash, Detective” novel, and it had put me in a foul mood. I often got asked how closely I’d modeled the character on myself. My standard response was: Linc flaunted the rules, was cool because he didn’t care, and was confident he’d find a reasonable facsimile of all the answers. He was me if I had more time to figure things out, more years to live, more chances to undo my mistakes. He was me if the deck was stacked, but it wasn’t. As I stared at The Satellite’s ceiling mirror’s reflection of my paunchy body, sagging face, and colored dark hair, I had to wonder how much these interviews helped my sales.

“How are you doing tonight, sir?” asked a rich baritone voice.

The robot bartender placed a mug of beer in front of me and smiled affably. He had the bland appearance of a clean-cut man in his mid-twenties modeling leisurewear.

“Fine, thank you.” I would have to get much drunker to engage in a deep conversation with a robot. It sensed my lack of interest in talking and retreated to a neutral position in the center of the bar. It wasn’t that easy to escape robots, however. At the far end of the room a 3D video projection showed a robot baseball game between the Los Angeles Rockets and the New York Lasers. The announcer noted that Rocky Marsden, the Laser’s pitcher, had just thrown a 217 kilometers per hour fastball. I didn’t recognize the announcer’s voice and wondered if he were a robot.

“I know you,” a furtive, wheedling voice said. I turned to see a short, beady-eyed man wearing a white shirt and a loosened tie. His hair looked bristly, like a scouring pad.

“Who am I?” I asked.

“Someone who’d like to buy a robot.” He said this as if announcing the discovery of the Northwest Passage. I thought, my God, they’re everywhere.

“You’re basing this on the fact I’m watching robot baseball?”

His body relaxed. “No. It’s what I sell. I would have said that if you’d been eating a bowl of granola.”

I almost felt sorry for the guy. People were fed up with robots taking over everything. “I’ll respond with equal honesty. I hate being solicited when I’m trying to have a quiet drink.”

He sidled close to me. “I bet you hate being solicited regardless of what you’re doing. But I’m a seller, so here I am. Would you rather talk to a robot bartender or to a tradesman humbly plying his wares?”

“I’d rather talk to a beautiful woman of low morals.”

His eyes lit up. “How about a beautiful android woman with no morals.”

I was open-minded about robots, but not that open. “No.”

He tapped me on the shoulder. “Understand me. Though my job is to sell, my goal is customer satisfaction. You came in here for a reason. Maybe I can help. If I can’t, I swear on my name, Martin Keller, that I will not try to sell you anything. What could be fairer than that?”

My need to talk overcame my need to trust, and I spilled my frustrations about my last few uninspired novels, the forced interviews, and my losing battle against middle age.

“I’ve seen the movies. It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Graham,” Keller said after I’d finished. “Sadly, creams don’t work against aging, and plastic surgery, is, at best, temporary, and you eventually look worse. I’ve heard stories where skin can be completely replaced by an artificial covering but ...” he sighed. “It’s in its infancy.”

“So there’s nothing you can recommend,” I said, relieved.

“On the contrary. You need a robot.”

“I sense a circular pattern to this conversation.”

“It could do your speaking tours.”

“It wouldn’t be the same.”

“No. You would no longer have to compare your appearance—which for your age is fine, I assure you—with that of Linc Stash. With a robot in your preferred image, Linc Stash’s unfair advantage over you, of never aging, vanishes.”

I thought about it. Perhaps I could fool the public, which had an inaccurate vision of me anyway. “Is it legal to pass a robot off as myself?”

“It’s as legal as lip-syncing, and it happens more than you think. If you write the speech, he’s saying your words. As for questions from the audience, what difference does it make who answers an inane question?”

I was intrigued. “I’d have to see a sample of your work.”

He smiled. “You’re looking at one.”

“What, the bartender?”

“No, me.”

“You’re a robot? You lied to me!”

“No, I allowed you to think I was human to make a point.” He smiled. “This could work for you.”

On the 3D screen a robot baseball player hit a towering homerun. I don’t know if it was the alcohol, my confusion, or my lack of energy to resist, but I heard myself say, “Tell me more.”


The pre-production work was thorough. The real Martin Keller, an older, chain-smoking variation on his robot, made a video of me in every imaginable position: sitting, walking, running, falling, sleeping. He then conducted an in-depth interview that dragged on for three days. For the robot to be a close approximation, my answers needed to be as honest as I could make them. If I wanted a more streamlined version of myself, without certain guilts, phobias, and fetishes, I should answer accordingly. I chose the honest route. After all, I wanted this robot to be like me. And it wasn’t as if I would have to live with him 24/7. I could turn him off at any time.

In a month Keller appeared on my doorstep with my robot. Despite the trick he had pulled on me when we first met, I was struck by how identical the robot looked to me. Then I realized that wasn’t exactly true. He looked better than I did. His dark brown hair had a more lifelike tint than my colored hair, and his hairline was lower. He had it parted down the middle, the way I wore it years ago before opting to comb it to the right. His face was wrinkle-free and his body more streamlined, lacking my paunch. He looked like a thirty-year-old version of me. He stuck out his hand.

“I am a robot facsimile of Dorian Graham. Pleased to meet you.” His voice rang rich and confident. We shook hands.

“Robot facsimile of Dorian Graham is a bit of a mouthful. What do you want to call him?” Keller asked.

Though I had no children, as a writer I’d had plenty of practice coming up with names. I went with Auguste, in honor of Edgar Allan Poe’s detective, Auguste Dupin. I could tell by Keller’s blank smiling face that he’d never heard of him.

“What do you think?” he asked me.


Keller turned to Auguste. “What do you think of your owner?”

Auguste stared at me. “His appearance matches his data.”

I chuckled nervously. “That’s a rather robotic response.”

“Don’t worry,” Keller said. “He knows what to say in a crowd. For you there was no need to tailor his response. Get to know him. Send him out on an errand. Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back.”


At first, I found our conversations stilted. I asked Auguste how he felt being a copy of someone, but he had no real feelings about that or anything else. He offered to simulate how a robot might feel in that situation, but I told him not to bother. I had enough fiction in my life. In time, I came to enjoy having Auguste around. When I got up in the morning, my coffee and toast were ready. He did the vacuuming, dusting, and laundry. Freed of these tasks and living in a more ordered space, I hoped my writing muse would reappear. I put in the time at my computer, but everything I spoke into it came out choppy and trite. I was staring into space when Auguste said, “Is it by choice that you waste a lot of time?”

The innocence of the question didn’t make it less irritating. “Sometimes the writing doesn’t flow.”

“Maybe I could help. I have the text of all the Linc Stash novels. I could extrapolate and create a new one.”

I wasn’t getting anywhere, so I got up and motioned for him to sit in my chair. “Knock yourself out.”

Auguste started dictating. Though he spoke at twice-normal conversation speed, I recognized his first scene from the pattern of my novels. A young woman working late at her job hears a knock at the door. Upon opening it she recognizes the person and lets him in. She prattles on until interrupted by the man’s hands on her throat. The scene ends with her still body on the floor.

It was the rush of words more than the words themselves that mesmerized me. He would have the novel completed in a few hours. What if it was better than mine? Auguste clicked off the microphone. “Should I stop?” he asked, at normal speaking speed.

“No,” I said. “I just need to go for a walk.”

I walked the Los Angeles streets for hours, feeling as if what I had in common with Linc Stash had been removed and placed into that robot.

On my return, Auguste met me at the door and announced the novel was completed. To my relief, it wasn’t very good. Each scene led seamlessly to the next, and the prose was clean and concise, but the writing was flat. All the supporting characters were types. The villain, rather than moving the plot, was pushed around by the turning of its gears. The dependable Linc parodied himself, steely-eyed in the face of danger and blunt in his put-downs of women who insisted on sleeping with him for that very reason. Even the inner conflict that haunted Linc, the question of why he bothered righting wrongs in a society that rewarded them, was predictable and failed to bring the character to life. I laughed. Auguste sucked as a writer, though I wondered if he would improve.

One of his first tests was running errands for me. With goggles and a microphone I saw everything Auguste saw and could speak for him if I wished. I expected the sensation to be like watching a movie, but it was more than that. Even in a 3D movie I never felt so surrounded. Lacking such visual capabilities as a zoom, wide-angle, or microscopic lens made his sight more lifelike. Though I could not feel what Auguste felt, when someone bumped into him on the street, my memory supplied the sensation of contact. I felt like a spirit that had invaded someone else’s body.

As my objective was to pass him off as me during public speaking engagements, I had not planned on letting anyone know the truth about Auguste. I was forced to alter that plan one night when Francine, a nurse I thought I’d broken up with, walked into my apartment.

“I know you weren’t expecting me, but this is what you get for not responding to my texts. I was afraid you’d become a hermit and ... who’s vacuuming?” she asked, noticing the noise. Francine was about four years younger than I, though the pressures of raising two daughters by herself made the years more pronounced on her face. She liked to jog, however, and compared to me, maintained good physical shape.

“That’s ... Auguste,” I stuttered.

“Who?” she asked. I followed her into the bedroom where he was cleaning. She walked up to Auguste, folded her arms, then turned to me. I told him to turn off the vacuum.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

Francine was intelligent, and in the time we had been seeing each other, I learned bold-faced lies made the situation worse. Evasions had a slightly higher efficacy, however.

“He’s a robot. I got him about two weeks ago. I thought I’d write better if I lived in a neater, more orderly apartment.”

“Why does he look like a younger you?” When I didn’t answer her question, she turned to Auguste, a fixed smile on her face.

“Can you lie?”

“Certainly. Would you like me to?”

“Ha! He aims to please.” She turned to me. “Unlike some people. Don’t give me this crap about neatness. Your threshold for clutter is as high as any single man’s. What’s going on?”

She sagged, as if realizing she could no longer ask me this question. I gently put my hands on her shoulders, and she less gently brushed them off. “Getting Auguste was an impulse. I don’t know if he’s going to work out, but I’ll let you know.”

“You’re letting me know now.” She picked up her pocketbook, reassumed her fixed smile, and left.


Friday evening I sent Auguste to the “Aurora,” a nightclub known for being a good place to meet members of the opposite sex. Inside, a band played an up-tempo Latin song, fronted by a slinky brunette singer in a tight, low-cut dress. In front of the stage was a small dance floor flanked by tables, two-thirds of them occupied. Auguste stood on the second floor, leaning on a railing overlooking the first floor. In the dim light he fit in perfectly with the eighteen or twenty men watching the singer and five couples dancing. I found it liberating to see all this without pressure to strike up an awkward conversation with a stranger. This made me more observant, and I noticed some very good-looking women glancing at him. Whereas I would have been more furtive, Auguste had no problem meeting and returning the stares of these admirers. What if he brought one home? Well, I wouldn’t let him do that. I was a wordsmith, after all. If necessary, I could come up with something to offend even the most love-struck female. My intention for this experiment, however, was to not interject anything except as a last resort.

“Do you come here often?” a female voice asked. So much for my being more observant. I hadn’t noticed the petite blonde approach Auguste.

“No, this is my first time,” he answered. “And yourself?”

She smiled wistfully. “Once in a while. Would you like to sit down?” She motioned to two chairs at the bar.

“That would be acceptable.” I winced at the robotic sentence. It didn’t stop the blonde though, who climbed on the chair ahead of Auguste. She introduced herself as Jennifer. Auguste told her his name.

“Could I buy you a drink?” he asked.

“Sure. I’ll have a margarita.”

He ordered her drink, as well as a draught beer for himself. Auguste could eat and drink, though neither affected him. His body eliminated anything it ingested.

“It’s more comfortable sitting down in a place like this,” she said, after a sip of her drink.

“Why is that?”

“Don’t you feel the tension? There’s so many people in here looking for something. It charges the atmosphere.”

“What are you looking for?”

She laughed. “What everyone is, I guess. Love and all that. But it’s not easy to find. This place is a shortcut, and most shortcuts don’t work.”

“But you have to try.”

She raised her glass. “I’ll drink to that.”

The cameras in Auguste’s eyes gave the impression she was looking directly at me, and I started to feel sad. She wasn’t looking at me, and I wasn’t talking to her. I wasn’t even there, except as a voyeur. Also, it was obvious she hoped Auguste might provide a measure of happiness and trust, when we were just using her to measure Auguste’s ability to appear human in public. I found myself not listening, allowing the conversation to take its course. Auguste kept his eyes on Jennifer’s face, which offered a clear view of her generous cleavage.

They got up as Auguste led her to the dance floor, which by now thronged with bodies. They staked out a space and put their arms around each other. It was a slow song. Auguste’s eyes focused straight ahead. I took in the other dancers. Several seemed distracted, looking at other couples instead of their partners. A couple of women had their eyes closed. One man’s dazed eyes gave the impression he was being held up. I wondered if Auguste was just adding to his data.

Later, while seated, Auguste and Jennifer talked to the waiter, who admitted he was a robot. Afterward, I couldn’t resist. I had Auguste ask Jennifer if, with the proliferation of robots into our society, she was worried about mistaking one for a human and getting emotionally involved. She laughed and said, “The day I can’t tell the difference, I’ll give up on relationships.”

An hour and several dances later, I declared the experiment a success. No one during a speaking engagement would get closer than Jennifer. I had Auguste say he enjoyed talking to her but it was late and he had to go. Jennifer’s wan expression said she was disappointed, but not enough to keep her from writing down her phone number and handing it to Auguste.

I greeted him at my apartment around 12:30 a.m. “You’re quite the ladies’ man.”

“She seemed interested,” he said, removing my jacket and hanging it in the closet. “I tried to make my answers believable, though I question whether your decision to leave early was realistic.”

“For my purposes, it was realistic enough.”


The next day I told my agent to get me some speaking engagements. He secured several, the first at Berkeley in five weeks.

Just to be sure, I sent Auguste out the next night to two different clubs. In both a woman eventually drew him into a conversation. He gave no encouragement, which seemed to encourage these women more. I was about to summon him home when I heard his name called out. He turned and saw Jennifer approaching. She walked unsteadily, her eyes unfocused.

“Jennifer, what are you doing here?” he asked.

“That’s a silly question, isn’t it?” she snickered. Reaching to pat his shoulder, she lost her balance, grabbing him with both hands to right herself. Auguste, of course, was unflappable.

“I suppose. It was a lonely Saturday night and you decided going out offered more possibility than staying in.”

“Close enough. Does that answer apply to you as well?”

“Yes. And apparently I was right.”

Jennifer studied Auguste’s face. “You didn’t call me.”

“I considered it, but took the path of least resistance. By calling, I’d risk rejection.”

She guided him to a table as if pushing a small piano. I was fascinated. There was a mechanical aspect to the pursuit of sexual pleasure, with well-defined roles, even in these relatively enlightened times. Her smoldering sexuality didn’t burn for me, yet there was the illusion her eyes had clamped down on me. Keller had said Auguste was anatomically correct—I took his word for it—and was fully capable of simulating the sexual act. I knew this was a kind of porn, and disgusting, yet I couldn’t resist putting it to the test.

I watched as Jennifer maneuvered Auguste to her apartment. His responses to her pointed remarks were polite and noncommittal. To my eyes his kisses and caresses appeared mechanical at best, but that could have been because I, unlike Jennifer, knew he felt nothing. He followed her lead. As she ripped off his clothes, he reached for hers. I felt my body reacting to her bared breasts in front of the cameras. Soon she was mashing her body against his groin and moaning.


I began anticipating the nights. With his good looks and lack of self-doubt, Auguste had no trouble seducing women I could only dream of. Except, I no longer had to dream. Before I’d lived out my fantasies through Linc Stash, but this was a step further. He gave me the visual and the aural. I’d sit in my most comfortable chair, an expensive bottle of wine and snack food at my side. This was indeed the safest sex.

With each hung-over morning I vowed to disconnect myself from Auguste’s nocturnal carousing. At my computer I wrestled with clumsy words and throbbing headaches. Appalled by the feeble results, I wandered the streets. The sun and the pointless wandering of millions of people left me disoriented. I stopped going out, and instead allowed Auguste to resume his dictations, hoping his attempts would inspire me. But instead I counted the minutes until I could send Auguste out again. In time, he suggested clubs he could go to.

One evening Auguste had maneuvered himself into a bedroom with two nubile young women when someone screamed and I got wrenched back into my apartment. Dazed, I looked up at Francine, my goggles dangling in her hand.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, embarrassed. Had I left the door unlocked?

She held up the goggles. Her eyes narrowed, her face lined and expressionless as a potato. “What are you doing?”

She insisted I follow her to the bathroom mirror. I was too surprised to resist. I saw my face bloated and blotched and my belly projecting like a bubble against my dirty t-shirt. I was as sexy as an armpit.

“I’ve let myself go.”

“You need to stop this. Let me help you.”

I promised to sell Auguste, and after about twenty minutes of uncomfortable conversation, she left. I went to bed. I heard Auguste come in but didn’t acknowledge him.

The next morning I got up, turned on the computer, and dictated. From my head I extracted each word like a porcupine’s quill. Each phrase taunted me with its jagged awkwardness. But I persisted and by noon I’d strung together a thousand words. I declined Auguste’s offer to look it over, instead taking a nap. When I got up, I eagerly checked my morning’s work. My heart sank as I stumbled over errors, trite expressions, and pointless dialogue. In frustration, I hit the delete button, then asked Auguste where he was going that night.

I made a few more writing attempts but in the end decided middle age is about dealing with diminishing powers and looks. I could insist on cranking out mediocre writing, just as I could jog every day and be half as athletic as I was in my youth. Or I could accept my situation. Francine sent a steady stream of texts, all variations on “Let me help you,” but I questioned her motives. She was someone who needed to help people. In time she would view me not as a tragic figure but a repulsive one. I stopped responding, and she titled her last text “Poem for Dorian Graham.” It was blank.

That stung, and I brooded for a while, but the truth was, I felt more comfortable living through Auguste. The one drawback was, though I could see and hear what my robot experienced, I couldn’t feel it. Eventually, I called Keller about that. There was something mechanical about his manner on the videophone.

“This is the real Keller, right?” I asked.

He paused. “Mr. Keller is dead.”

“What? What happened to him?”

“He wore out. Anything I can help you with?”

I didn’t know which unnerved me more, Keller’s death or the matter-of-fact tone of Keller2. Not knowing what to say, I stammered what I’d called for, that I couldn’t feel what Auguste experienced.

“We have an interface for that,” Keller2 said. “I can hook you up, if you wish. Just be careful with it.”

“Why?” I asked, though I knew.

“Auguste can do just about anything, with no ill effects, but you can’t. Don’t have him run a marathon or anything.”

“I wasn’t planning on that.”

I’d almost forgotten after the Berkeley reading, but Auguste didn’t. He read flawlessly, then fielded questions on writing and the mystery genre. No one commented on how much younger “I” looked. Of course, the photo on my last book was ten years old.

The interface was everything Keller2 said, and more, a tactile symphony. I recognized it as a siren song that left me a tempest of aches and speeded heartbeats. One morning consciousness came over me like a car crash. A sharp pain in my chest threatened to explode if I moved an inch. All my accomplishments had come to this. A voice inside me said, enough. But it was like a tree falling in an empty forest. No one could hear it but me, the self-loathing former artist, and Auguste, the means of my destruction. He stood in the corner, straight and expressionless as a tombstone.

“Help me,” I said.


A little over a year after I first met Martin Keller, a sense of emptiness drove me back to the “Aurora.” A five-piece band of neatly dressed late ’30s men belted out a thirty-year-old rock song as if it were brand new. I looked around for a place to sit and chose a seat next to a blonde who looked vaguely familiar. It wasn’t until I ordered a draught that I realized it was Jennifer, the woman Auguste had met on his first trip here. A wave of sadness washed over me as I thought, she was still doing this. But then, she could have thought the same thing, had she known who I was.

After the band launched into another familiar song, I leaned over toward her. “Not exactly cutting edge, this group.”

She put down a cigarette next to her drink. “I don’t mind. At least musical groups are still human.”

I nodded. “Don’t like robots?”

She laughed. “We get more and more dependent on them. They’re like a drug.”

“They can be,” I admitted. Both drugs and robots gave the impression of caring when they didn’t. But my experience proved there was a difference. At my lowest point, I asked Auguste for help, and he gave it to me, by leaving. Heroin or crystal meth couldn’t have done that. Of course, I suffered a kind of withdrawal and begged Auguste’s creators to return him, but they refused. They offered to build a modified replacement. It would have taken three weeks, but in that time Auguste’s gesture made me realize I had to live for myself, or stop living. Though I’d been able to write very little since then, it was the right decision. Perhaps, instead of another Linc Stash fantasy, my next book would be a memoir. I wanted to tell Jennifer all of this, but then I’d have to explain how I’d first met and deceived her.

That was from another life. I smiled, picked up my drink, and walked to the other end of the floor. END

Richard Zwicker is an English teacher living with his wife in Vermont. His short stories have appeared recently in “Penumbra,” “Plasma Frequency,” and “Fantasy Scroll.” His previous story for “Perihelion” was in the 12-FEB-2014 update.




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