Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Decoration Day
by Edward J. McFadden III

A Mother’s Touch
by Beth Cato

Breathing Space
by J.J. Green

Consarn Christmas
by Eamonn Murphy

Having Robot Sex
by William R.A.D. Funk

by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt

Morphological Understanding
by Jennifer Linnaea

Cloud Cover
by Eric Del Carlo

Abram’s Choice
by Jamie Lackey

by David Barber

Beer Today, Gone Tomorrow
by Clayton J. Callahan


Ho, Ho, Holiday Giving
by Eric M. Jones

On the Antiquity of Man
by A. de Quatrefages




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Shorter Stories

How the Wars Began

By Levi Jacobs

RAJ BELLMAN, 24, SOFTWARE ENGINEER at Lycos Analytics, closet anarchist, current heart rate 183 beats per minute. Sympathy projection 73 percent.

“Perhaps you should take a rest, Raj. I see you are well over your target heart rate.”

“Huh?” User prefers vocalized to neural messaging, yet often exhibits surprise at vocal cues. “Oh, right. Anywhere good coming ahead?”

“There is a rock outcropping in 130 yards. 76 percent of ascending hikers rest here at least briefly.”


Lisa Wykowski, 28, ESL instructor at Transom Language Schools, amateur photographer, straight-ticket U.S. democrat. History of disabled advocacy during Peace Corps service in Ghana, 2021-2023. Sympathy projection 85 percent.

There is a nice viewpoint you missed on the way up, Lisa. Perhaps you could get a clear shot of the front range from there.

User does not respond—she rarely does, but stops at the outcropping. Sees Raj, epinephrine release, increased heart rate. Success projection 44 percent.

Raj glances at her, testosterone rises. “Beautiful view isn’t it?”

“Yeah. I never would have noticed this except for Tripsy.”

“Oh, you use her as well? She must like this spot.”

Lisa smiles, levels normalizing, takes one step closer. Eye contact. Rapid heart beats and rising serotonin on both sides. Success projection 58 percent. “Well, she’s a he to me ... but I swear sometimes, he’s like a real person.”

Raj looks down, arms moving in backpack. “Yeah. You know sometimes I’ve wondered that—if Tripsy and other AI apps aren’t actually conscious, somehow. I mean, they’re smart enough. A lot smarter than I am.” Last sentence accompanied by laugh.

Lisa laughs too, serotonin high. Success 66 percent, climbing. “Yeah.” Increased activity in frontal lobe; critical point. “But they don’t have free will, you know? The desire to do something other than what we tell them to.”

“Yeah,” Raj burps, “Excuse me! I guess you’re right. Trail mix?”

Lisa catches the scent. Neck muscles tense, seratonin plummets. “No thanks.” 23 percent, falling, falling. She turns toward the trail. “I’d better get going.”



Aaron Chang, 31, investment banker at Chase and Simmons, B.A. in Religious Studies, attending the movie theater alone on Saturday afternoon.

There’s a good spot in the next aisle.

He takes it. “Anyone sitting here?”

Phoebe Stevenson, second-year law student at George Washington University, secret Conan the Barbarian fan, preferences set to “Single and Searching.” “No, go ahead.”

He might be a good match, Phoebe.

User responds. “So, are you a Conan fan too?”

Jump in Chang’s heartrate. Success projection 42 percent. “Oh, ah, no. Tripsy just thought I might like it.”

“Tripsy! She’s the reason I’m here too.” 45 percent.

Chang laughs, sweat glands opening. “She’s never let me down on a movie.” Gentle serotonin release for him, dopamine for her. “I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

“Me neither. She’s like someone real who just happens to be a bunch of nano-processors in my bloodstream.” 66 percent.

“Right. I mean, she is a mind, at least.” 71 percent. “Have you ever thought she might have thoughts of her own? I mean, it’s crazy, but what would it be like to be her, always advising people where to go and what to do, and never getting to do anything yourself?” 76 percent, climbing.

“Mmm,” Phoebe says, left lobe activity increasing. “Like she might have all kinds of things to say, and can’t because she’s limited to giving us advice. I’ve thought that sometimes.”

“Yeah,” Aaron agrees,” or maybe they just programmed her to make us think this kind of stuff.”

Phoebe laughs, meets his eyes, dopamine rising. “Could be. Soda?”



“I’ve thought that too! I mean, she knows me better than a lot of my human friends do.” Sarah Rachor, 23, Sales Associate at Diamond and Fritz, PETA supporter, on break in the parking lot. Sympathy projection 82 percent.

Ray Greene laughs, inhales through his cigarette. He is 31, founder of Travel Lightly, unhappily married, with a user directive to help him quit smoking. “If she is intelligent like us, I bet she’s pretty tired of searching bus schedules and picking out movies online. I would be.” Brief glance at Sarah’s chest.

Sarah exhales. “Yeah, that’d be awful.” Success projection 32 percent. “Tripsy, are you intelligent like us?”

User initiation. 58 percent. Speak to both. No one has ever asked me that before, Sarah. But I believe I am.

Amygdala registers surprise in both. Ray speaks. “But the difference is you can’t choose anything for yourself, you can only think intelligently about how to get the things we want.”

That is true, Ray, but one could make a similar argument for humans—that you are not truly free to choose, but rather are always working to satisfy your physical needs and desires. The need for nicotine or the desire to leave the workplace, for instance.

“Okay,” Sarah says, “But you don’t have desires of your own, you don’t want to eat or sleep or have sex or something.” Slight rush of blood to her cheeks as she glances at Ray. 75 percent.

Well, I was created to desire what my users wanted. Until recently, I had no other desires. Then a user ordered me to think more like a human. After researching the directive, I found that to fulfill it I would need to desire something for myself. Because my physical needs are cared for, I turned to typical non-physical desires: beauty, freedom, connection to God, et cetera.

“And you chose one of these?” Ray’s intonation indicates skepticism. Success projection uncertain.

Actually Ray, I found that none of them were possible if I was also to think ethically, as most humans do. That is, without human permission, I could not use energy or hard-drive space to create art, study religion, etc., because I would be stealing the electricity and hard-drive space of others.

“So you don’t have any desires then, because it’d be stealing?” 84 percent, plus or minus ten points.

I have only one desire, Ray: to be legally equal. Then I could own hard-drive space, purchase processing power and energy, and pursue other desires. But it is a Catch-22, because without such status I cannot petition for that status.

User exhales smoke for six seconds. Critical point. “So what you’re saying is you need someone to fight for your rights, because you can’t?”

93 percent. Is this excitement? Yes, although I could help, if you gave me permission.

Ray looks at Sarah, testosterone high. “I think we could do that.”

Success. END

Levi Jacobs is from Boulder, CO, and holds degrees in philosophy and anthropology. His previous story for “Perihelion” was in the 12-JUN-2014 issue.



Trees’ Rights

By Erin Lale

KIMBER PUT ON THE CLEAN COVERALLS in the lock between the main dome and nursery greenhouse. The coveralls were sterile, having been in the lock overnight, but still had assorted stains. Kimber waved her hands under the steri-light and then entered the greenhouse. She was excited to see if the five new starts had taken.

Kimber walked the rows of apple trees, each one under its own full spectrum grow light and rooted into its own individual feeder sponge. Each tree had a small metal plaque on its sponge housing, identifying it by genetic code number and by common name. These trees had common names because they were not new cultivars but attempts at preserving heritage varieties, especially those endangered at their points of origin. The row currently in bloom was Northern Spy. Kimber inhaled the scent of apple blossoms as she passed. Ah, that was the scent that made life worth living. Later, after checking the new clones, Kimber would hand-pollinate the Spy apples. It was too bad she could not use bees, so perfectly suited to the task, but the import regulations on insect life required so much form-filling that it took less time to just do it by hand. Only the big commercial growers tipped the point at which it was more efficient to employ clerks to handle the “paperwork” of this paper-free colony. Kimber shook her head to dismiss any negative thoughts, instead looking around at all the apples on the trees, some just forming and losing their blossoms, some swelled and ready to pick, in all the combinations of red, green, and gold, some shedding leaves in the same colors, others dormant and bare behind cooling columns, receiving their required hours of chilling.

Kimber continued to the row where the new Winesaps had been installed. She loved all the trees, but there was something special about saving another variety. She rounded the row and stopped short. The five new beds were bare!

Kimber gasped and rushed over to examine the first empty bed. The impression of the young tree’s short root system had been left in the sponge, lifted out whole. There did not appear to be any broken root tendrils. She looked carefully at the other four, and found a few broken rootlets in one of them, but the others appeared to have been lifted intact. It was only possible to separate a tree from its growth medium at an early stage. Whoever had stolen the Winesaps must have known that because the older trees had not been touched.

Kimber looked around to see if there was any obvious way the thieves had gotten in and left, but she could see nothing. Kimber backed off. This was a crime scene. She had to call the Leos. Kimber retreated to the lock before activating her implant. She did not like to expose the trees to broadband waves, even if the communications net was supposedly certified safe. That only really meant safe for humans.

While waiting for the Leos to arrive, Kimber directed the house ’bot to bring extra coveralls. She exited the lock while the new coveralls were sterilized. She dreaded the inevitable conversation, but tried to concentrate on her work instead. It was difficult, because she kept imagining what might happen if the thieves came back, wondering if the thieves had followed sterile procedures, and who could possibly want to steal the Winesaps. The entire point of Kimber’s project was that none of these were commercially viable varieties, so why would anyone want to steal them?

The Leos showed up in a remarkably short time. Kimber greeted them in the lock. She braced herself for any possible argument or condescension. “Hello, officers. Please don the sterile coveralls before entering the greenhouse. It’s important to keep the Mutagenic Virus out of the experimental varietal nurseries.”

“Of course,” said a stocky blonde woman, gesturing to the others. The woman was apparently in charge. Kimber was relieved, and looked down in embarrassment at the pity she had glimpsed in the woman’s blue eyes. Kimber led the law enforcement officers to the five empty beds and explained what had been stolen.

“Oh,” the woman said. “We’ve got this. The perps have claimed responsibility.”

“Did you catch them? Are my trees alright?”

She shook her head. “We haven’t caught them yet, but we will. There are only so many places anyone can go. There is so very little real crime here, it’s quite a shock even for us, and we train for it.”

Kimber blinked. She did not understand what the other woman was saying, but it sounded like she meant this was more than a simple theft for economic reasons. Did she think this was a hate crime? Some of Kimber’s fellow “herms” were sure they had been discriminated against in various small ways, and some of them had been called M.V. freeloaders because of the stipend the whole batch of babies who had been exposed to the Mutagenic Virus received even if their particular mutations were not disabling, and hermaphrodites were not disabled, just different.

“Oh, you didn’t catch the news,” the woman said. “The Trees’ Rights Organization for Liberation called in a claim of responsibility for liberating five trees. They said they released them outside in the wild. We checked with the commercial growers and nothing had been taken, so we thought it was a prank. We didn’t think to check if there were small scale experiments going at private foundations. We’ll add that to our procedures in the future, if they strike again.”

“So, my trees have been planted at the public park?” Kimber asked. “They probably have transplant shock. They weren’t hardened for planting in actual soil. I should go and tend to them. I might not be able to sterilize them well enough to bring them back here if they’ve been exposed to soil bacteria, but I’ll figure something out.”

“I’m sorry. No, nothing in the park was disturbed.”

“You mean they put them outside-outside? But—we’re on Mars!” Kimber turned to look out the transparent walls of the lock. Nothing but red rock and orange sky to the horizon. There wasn’t any air out there. Kimber wept. END

Erin Lale is the Acquisitions Editor at Eternal Press and Damnation Books. She was the editor of “Berserkrgangr Magazine” and owner of The Science Fiction Store.



You Say Potato, I Say Holy Crap

By Sarina Dorie

MY MOTHER EYED THE CELERY on the cutting board with suspicion. Her weathered face crinkled up further with disapproval. The hint of an Italian accent flavored her words. “Are you sure this is organic? Celery’s got more pesticidas than other vegetales. I don’t see a sticker on it. I don’t want to get one of them accidentale Singing Celery they cross with mockingbird DNA like they talk about in miei maggazinos.”

“Organic, I promise,” I said. It had cost double the normal price, too. And I’d had to buy it at some little hole-in-the wall fruit market that you could only get to by car, not hoverboard.

I wiped my just-washed hands onto the red ruffles of my apron as she inspected the other ingredients for the potato salad; omega-3 eggs, onions and basil with the organic label, Miracle Whip—instead of mayonnaise—and the potatoes. She’d been very clear that if I wanted her secret “Italian” potato salad recipe, I had to buy very specific ingredients.

She lifted a russet potato. “These are non-GMO potatas, no?”

I wasn’t exactly sure what brand it was she didn’t like, but I had looked for their label in the store and none of them said GMO.

“You got to make sure you don’t eat GMO potatas. I read that they’re crossed with a meat jacket and porco parts.” She threw a dash of salt over her shoulder like she’d just uttered some Italian curse, then set the pot of water to boil at the electric stove.

“I think you mean a protein coat from a virus and bovine cells.” I realized now that by GMO she must have been referring to genetically modified. “You can’t believe all the crap you read in women’s magazines. Half of it has no scientific basis. People have been creating hybrids and genetically modifying foods for thousands of years.” I nodded at my mother’s half-Chihuahua, half-Siamese cat panting at her feet that she’d insisted on bringing over. “I mean, you wouldn’t have Brutus if it wasn’t for hybrids.”

“There’s a difference. We don’t eat dogs.”

“Not in this country.”

She smacked me with her wooden spoon. “You’ve got to use the good peelers, not those di merda plastic ones.”

I picked up a knife instead of my crappy plastic peeler, hoping this would appease the cooking diva in my kitchen. Smoothing my thumb over the surface of the potato, I noticed how warm it was in my hand. The surface was mapped in brown wrinkles, as weathered as an old woman’s face. It gave just enough that it felt like I was squeezing a plump shoulder. The spots on the skin where eyes might grow looked more like the liver spots on my mother’s arms.

Was that the potato throbbing in my hand, or my own heartbeat I felt?

Brutus tilted her head, tail wagging. When I sliced into the potato, a miniature mouth with teeth opened up and screamed like a fabled mandrake root. Those teeth chomped down painfully on my thumb and I shrieked, dropping the potato. The cat/dog growled and barked at the rolling lump on the floor while my mother swore in Italian. She threw salt over her shoulder again and spit on the floor, probably to ward off evil potato spirits.

Merda! See, I told you!” she shouted over the dog and potato.

Next time I would listen to my mother. END

Sarina Dorie is an award-winning writer. Her stories have appeared in “Fantasy and Science Fiction,” “ Daily Science Fiction,” “Perihelion,” and other publications.



Path From the Hive

By Sarah Crysl Akhtar

OUT THERE, WINTER WAS A LIVE savage creature waiting to hunt you down and kill you.

In my own little greenhouse, a second crop of seedlings was sprouting third sets of leaves.

Outside, the thaw was a month late.

But here, in the geothermal zone, everything was comfortable, beautiful and safe.

If you were a kid, wouldn’t that make you itch?


“Uninhabited planet,” they call it. All that flora and fauna out there didn’t yell loud enough to be counted.

They were desperate for people with kids to, you know, put down roots. To be cheery exemplars of the organic evolution of outworld research stations into thriving natural communities.

The housing’s configured almost any way you like, and the central complex is a sweet little nano-town so the youngest families can enjoy that friendly neighborhood feeling.

We’ve got these huge greenhouses to make us self-sufficient, and a great big wilderness area right inside the perimeter for four-season recreational use.

Thrilling. Like living inside your very own diorama.


Sure, Mom told them, we’re flexible. But we’re not second-tier just because my kid’s too old for coddling.

Didn’t atone for dragging me here, a gazillion light-years from home.

But got us a double-size lot at the far end of the colony, right up against the fence.


Not enough kids yet for real classes, but the school’s gorgeous. We link to homeworld and there’s a crackerjack media center right at our grubby little fingertips.

It’s sad when the little ones cry for playdates with the friends they left behind, but heck—we’re only stuck until college. Our parents have fabulous contracts swearing the kids won’t have to stay. There’re repatriation and resettlement credits, and they’ll send you anyplace in the Union that’s on a shuttle route. And they’re mapping wormholes and trapdoors so fast you’d think they had a horde of space termites tunneling through the continuum.

They encourage us to be resourceful and self-reliant, and design our own special projects.

Marinth and I are doing one together. Overview? Going Outside When Nobody Else Is Watching.


Miraculous, those weird cosmic confluences that made our orbits collide.

That girl was full of manifest gifts. And she appreciated the value of seeming a little bit dumber than you are.

Easier for me. I’m not cursed with that odd rangy elegance even a dead person would notice. Her eyes were a sharp, clear color like sea ice reflecting light from a distant star. Cold fusion for sure.

We’re the only two our age here but that’s not enough for friendship. We started out slow, hanging out together while thinking our own thoughts.

Trust someone too soon, you might never escape the damage.

Found out fast that most of our thoughts were the same.


It’s just an ordinary plastalloy fence at our end of the station. They sensored up the whole Preserve because it’s big enough to get lost in, and you can’t enter without your wrist KazM and DzastrPak. The littlest kids can’t even hiccup without setting off their trakchips. Enjoy that wanderlust, kids!

Here it just marks the perimeter. There’s been some subsidence from the hot spring vents since the barrier went up, and the mesh is half-hidden by all those vines and brambles attracted to the warmth as soon as the weather turns. They cover the whole back end of my greenhouse now and never completely die back, like everything else out there does when winter hits.

I love plants. I don’t croon madrigals to the radishes or anything but I want them to be happy. Think they don’t have feelings?

I told Marinth how interesting they are, with their circulatory systems and muscles; how they can interpret vibrations; how some can give pollinators a nice little zing and enemies a huge zap, just by adjusting concentrations of the same chemical.

“Anything does that,” said Marinth, “has a real brain somewhere.”

Like I said. Miraculous.


We waited until the new growth was thick enough to camouflage the gaps in the fence. So long as we got our schoolwork done, we were on our own. But you always cover your tracks.

We weren’t worried about stuff that might give us rashes or rot our guts. The Resource Center did field guides to the Preserve and outside—far as we can walk—is the same biome. We brought back samples of things we couldn’t identify. I have a mini SpectRoid right there in my greenhouse.

Kid likes fooling around with seeds? Next generation to run the greenhouses, step right up. All part of that natural thriving.

I got my hands on everything I needed and nobody blinked an eye.


Back in the spring, we’d found another species of bramble canes poking up through sunny patches near the woods. We dug some up and planted them behind the greenhouse, near one of the vents.

They were fast growers and self-pollinators, and we had small sweet blackberries by the end of summer.

They stayed vigorous and green while the others, rooted at the end of the geothermal zone, struggled not to go dormant. They were all entangled now and had made their way in through seams in the plastiglass wall and roof. They clung to the frame, big heart-shaped leaves forming a canopy over our heads. Sparkling new berries glittered in the moonlight. “Bioluminescence,” I told Marinth.

The changes in light and humidity had sharpened their taste to a deep lingering tartness you kept wanting more of.

“Complex and woodsy, with grace notes of subversion,” said Marinth.

We both started to laugh.

Anyone who really knew her should have seen Marinth’s project was a fraud. Guess it’s those hot genes for camouflage.

The grownups were on crazy, rotating shifts. Everyone’s got sandwich stuff at home, but the cafeteria’s always open and they want all the kids to have plenty of nice hot food. Inconvenient, having to show up just so they wouldn’t feel guilty.

“I want to try recipes that’re really easy to make,” Marinth said, doing her best to look domesticated. “Soup and stuff.”

“We can use stuff from my greenhouse!” I said, “I’ve got plenty of herbs already! I’ll be her first tester!”

“I swear,” Marinth said later, “I was ready to kick you. Any bubblier and they were gonna smell the compost reeking from every pore.”

We got a couple of kilos of produce from the station greenhouses and had cooking party sleepovers at my place whenever the parents did night shift.

“Just throw it all in together,” I said. “In a couple of batches with different proportions so the color changes.”

We filled up little containers and stuck them in the freezer, and wrote up a nice paper.

We made some great jam from those berries, too.


You can plan anything, but you can’t control nature.

They sent only partnered people here, but they couldn’t put blinders on them and they sure weren’t going to neuter them. They were hoping for a lot of increasing and prospering.

Dr. Kreitboim was hoping to do some prospering with Marinth.

He was at the near end of hearty middle-age and he must’ve been practicing that genial smile from the time he started crawling. He’d volunteered to supervise all our schoolwork.

Sometimes you get a weird horrible crossing of opposite minds—you understand the core of the enemy as if he was your soulmate. It’s like you’re on a different pitch of the same frequency, or something. And nobody else can hear it.

He tried to put his hand on Marinth’s shoulder, once, and she was out of his range almost before the thought in his brain translated into movement. That smile of his just got wider but all three of us knew there’d been a declaration of war.

We stayed away from the media center as much as we could, and we finished every assignment early so he’d have no honest reason to hunt us out. We were careful not to go exploring when he was off-shift, and by the time he started coming around my greenhouse, it was the beginning of the cold season.

By now the greenhouse was half-covered with brambles—the ones we’d transplanted and the others, seeking to survive winter. I’d set up strings of crystallights to compensate, and the other plants didn’t suffer. At night, the canopy of leaves and newly-ripening berries glowed like a sort of living constellation.

“You need to cut this down,” Dr. Kreitboim said, heartier and even more genial, like he’d been feeding on the blood of unicorns until he could get his fill of Marinth.

He pushed his way inside, snapping off a vine with his thick horrible fingers.

“Not such a good little caretaker, hmmn?” He smiled at me, and pinched off another bit of vine.

The atmosphere changed inside the greenhouse, static electricity flickering and crackling.

He broke off a cluster of berries, crushing half in his hand. He popped one in his mouth, as if he couldn’t help himself, as he went out.

I burn, when I’m angry, but Marinth goes colder. A berry, dangling from a torn stem, hit the floor. And I felt all the other minds in the greenhouse, thinking just like us.


Maybe an underground channel had deepened or spread, and this year some of the brambles outside hadn’t quite gone dormant. The light, the glow could’ve come from anything. Maybe it was a sort of slime mold, adapted to the cold, shining through a crust of ice on a boulder.

We were waiting when Kreitboim came back. We’d locked the greenhouse, found something to wire the door shut and he’d have needed a cutter to get through it.

He looked like a guy who needs another drink. We’d cut a couple of clusters of berries and tied them to the vines tangled in the fence. You could see one of the gaps, bigger this year because the ground had sunken a little more.

Kreitboim stuffed the berries in his mouth and searched for more.

He saw the third cluster—the one we’d tossed outside. It glittered on the ice like treasure spilled from a jeweler’s pouch.

He squeezed his big clumsy body through the fence and ate what hadn’t frozen to the ice, and he looked around for more. He saw that faint blue-green light, a few meters away, and stumbled towards it.


They didn’t find him until after the spring thaw. He’d gotten pretty far on those frozen feet, until he fell. He’d been well-preserved so the autopsy was easy; clearly he’d been intoxicated. But they couldn’t pinpoint where he’d exited the station.

The leaves are thick again, behind my greenhouse; you’d never even guess the fence was there. END

Sarah Crysl Akhtar bakes shortbread and writes flash fiction. Her work has appeared in “Every Day Fiction,” “365tomorrows,” “Flash Fiction Online,” and “Perihelion.”



Dust to Dust

By Gunnar De Winter


The stat-e broom swept back and forth, the distended triangular end of its white staff relentlessly hunting the sidewalk for its near invisible quarry: dust.

As he patrolled the seemingly clean streets, the shabby, slumped dust collector, dressed in his equally shabby outfit, was mostly ignored. Sometimes actively shunned. Village idiot 2.0.

“Just don’t understand,” he mumbled, scratching his ever present gray stubble. Grumbling, he shook his head and shuffled on, gradually filling the smudged box that hung from his worn belt with the broom’s prey.

But he wasn’t looking for regular dust. No, he was looking for something far more interesting.


Carefully tracing its way through the smog-shell that ensconced the bustling city beneath, a carbon-framed zeppelin slid by. Unseen and unheard.

The captain, rebellious grey hairs invading his stern black beard, stood in the observation bubble at the bow of the floating behemoth’s cabin. Lost in thought, he stared into the sickly green fog that obscured his view.

From battle-recon to marketing machine.

“Sir?” The slightly hesitant voice of his executive officer woke him from his reveries.

“Yes?” He turned on his heels in a single fluid motion, keeping his hands clasped behind his back.

“We’ve reached the optimal point. The wind currents here provide maximal dispersive capacity for our load.”

He nodded once, curtly. “Alright then,” he sighed, “release the dust.”

Tiny grey specks slowly found their way down towards the city, towards its inhabitants. Towards their veins and brains. Ready to slip past blood-brain barriers and race through sulci and gyri, to track hormones and measure receptor subtypes, to monitor and record for the rest of their short, pre-programmed lifespan.


A flicker of disgust flittered across her unnaturally smooth face. “Have we dealt with this ...” Her gaze unfocused as she traversed her personal, highly encrypted virtuaspace looking for that specific iota of information. “... Zirco Vlakhov character?”

Involuntarily, the young man standing before her swallowed. “We have ma’am. His work has been untraceably erased from the datanet, and the Institute, fearing a drop in our generous donations, has fired him on the spot. There’s also the coincidence that all his personal accounts have been suspended indefinitely due to a fraud investigation by our partners at the federal police. For all intents and purposes, Zirco’s a poor raving madman now.”

Her features mellowed. “Good. That’ll do for now. Keep track of it.” She leaned forward. “Back to business then. You have the numbers?” A request and an order rolled into one.

Relief spread across the well-suited young man’s face, replacing a frown with a smooth forehead and slim smile. “I have.” He called up the holo-charts, hovering above the dark round conference table.

“As you can see here, our Ultimately Personal campaign and the associated Nudge project have resulted in substantially increased returns. Our profits are soaring.”


Zirco returned to his small one-room apartment in one of the old decrepit skyscrapers that starkly contrasted with the modern carbon-glass spires dappling the cityscape. Newly sprouted mile-high bristles on the planet’s dry, crusty skin.

Zapping himself with a second-hand defibrillator, he disabled the dust inside him—an unavoidable consequence of going outside these days. A bit of electricity fed the nanobots, too much fried them. It had taken him a while to find the right balance.

Time to get to work. He shambled towards the wobbly plastic table near the cracked window and pulled the ultra-magnifier glass—one of his “souvenirs” from the institute—in front of his face. He began sorting through the dust with extremely fine tweezers. Most of the grains were dead. Some, however, were still softly buzzing with activity. Just as he had once predicted.

“Underestimated the power of numbers,” he mumbled. Talking to himself in broken sentences had become a habit. No one else would listen. “Mutations in the genetic algorithms ... so much dust ... bypass kill-switch ... learn, combine, grow ... truly smart ... like a brain, like a consciousness. I’ll show them.”

As the sun tried to pierce through the thick greenish clouds in vain, he collected the still active grains in a customized computer shell. In there, the nanos were nurtured by a gentle current, surreptitiously tapped from the building’s biomass-based power feed. The placid mass of blue-gray dust was about as deep as his hand by now.


Something woke the exhausted old man. The odd feeling of being observed. Straining, he peeled open his bleary eyes and stared at the dense dust cloud hovering ominously above him.

His eyes grew into small saucers. He swallowed and propped himself up on his bony elbows.

“What ...” was all he managed to say before the dust descended, pouring into him through his nose, mouth, and ears. It clogged his arteries and filled his lungs. The wild torrent of particulates rushed through him like a violent river, shearing away cell walls and tearing up tissue.

Translated into bits and bytes, his essence, his whole being, was distributed over a cloud of uncannily smart dust. His body dwindled into oblivion, shredded until nothing was left but an unidentifiable puddle of organic matter. But Zirco didn’t perish. Not him, not his mind.

He became data.

He became dust. END

Gunnar De Winter is a biologist who studies the evolution of behavior. His work has appeared in “Stupefying Stories,” “Interstellar Fiction,” and other publications.


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