Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Clean Limbs of Robots
by Francis Marion Soty

Garbage Miners
by Sean McLachlan

All Comms Down
by Anne E. Johnson

Do Stand-Up Bots Dream of Electric Hecklers?
by James Aquilone

by Timothy J. Gawne

Human Faces
by Karl Dandenell

Charybdis Run
by Nathan Ehret

by Jennifer Campbell-Hicks

Halieis Anthropon
by A.L. Sirois

by Richard Zwicker

You Need to Know
by Michaele Jordan


Animated Pictures
by J. Miller Barr

by Eric M. Jones




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips




By Richard Zwicker

ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS HOMICIDE detective Nick Palance noticed about the luxurious home of Andre and Zoie Lavoie was books—rows of them, from the floor to the ceiling, lining every room. Books without pictures intimidated Palance under normal circumstances, but particularly today as he was on headache medication that reduced his brainwave activity to the equivalent of a stagnant pond.

“Is this a home or a library?” Palance muttered.

“It’s a crime scene,” his partner Marian Formsby said with the finality of a twenty-two year police veteran. She was a big-boned woman with some curves, but those did little to decrease her wind resistance. She ran her fingers along the metal bars that fortified the windows and door. “Not the most trusting types. When I see bars like that, I ask myself, Who’s being restrained, the thief or the resident?

Palance nodded. “Or the window washer.” He might be sedated, but one-liners were the last to go. A decade younger than his partner, his hunched, wiry frame, sunken eyes, and straight, thin mouth made him look older. He didn’t talk much, but his body language often said, “Fuck it.” He approached an earnest-looking cop named Kibling whose clean-cut features could have been manufactured by the company that made his blue uniform. “Who reported this?”

“The daughter,” Kibling said. “She was to meet her mother for lunch. When mom didn’t show, the daughter called her. No answer. She came here around 3 p.m. and found the mother and father dead.”

Formsby noticed a distraught brunette, late twenties, sitting at the dining room table, staring at a cup of coffee as if it were the Bermuda Triangle. Opposite her sat a younger, pudgy, dark-haired man in a t-shirt and suspendered pants, playing with a smartphone.

Formsby introduced herself and Palance, then offered to postpone their conversation, but Elise, the daughter, wanted to help as much as possible. That wasn’t much. Her parents had no enemies, no money problems, didn’t do drugs, and hadn’t been acting strange. Formsby thanked her, then glanced at the young man, who hadn’t taken his eyes off his phone.

“That’s my brother, Jaffrey,” Elise said. “He’s still in shock.”

Palance thought he looked more “in videogame.”

Before they could talk to Jaffrey, Kibling led the detectives to the living room. The bodies of Andre and Zoe Lavoie were sitting upright, he in an old-fashioned rocker, she in an easy chair, slightly reclined. Both stared sightlessly into open books held in rigor-stiffened hands.

“Murder mysteries?” Formsby asked.

“He’s reading Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell. She’s got The Golden Day by Lewis Mumford,” Kibling said. “Mean anything to you?”

“He wasn’t banking on an afterlife,” Formsby said. “Don’t know the other book, though I’d guess it’s referring to some other day.”

“No signs of broken entry. Looks like a double suicide,” Kibling added.

Palance accidentally brushed against the rocking chair, causing it to move. Despite his drugged state, he jumped, reached for his gun, and nearly fell, all in awkward slow motion. “Christ, I almost wasted this chair.”

Formsby shook her head. “If you made a double suicide pact with your spouse, would you read these books?” she asked Palance.

“If I made a double suicide pact with my ex-wife, she’d say, after you.”

“I’d choose something lighter. An Agatha Christie novel or something funny so I could get in a last laugh.” She typed “The Golden Day” on her iPod, then frowned. “Who reads an analysis of 19th century American literature on the day they’re going to kill themselves?

“Zoe Lavoie, professor of American literature at Harvard,” Kibling said.

“She thought she’d bone up on Hawthorne and Melville on the day she was offing herself? That’s dedication. Do we know what the husband did?” Formsby asked.

“Taught philosophy, also at Harvard.”

“Two impractical fields. Let’s see what the medical examiner comes up with. If it was poison, it was fast-acting to freeze them into reading positions.” Formsby stared into the eyes of the two victims. “Readers have a look in their eyes, a discernment. I’d expect to see fear, disgust, awe—something. These look like glass eyes put in by a taxidermist.” She turned to Kibling. “Get pictures of the bodies and all possible points of entry. We’ll canvas for witnesses.”

“We have one,” Kibling said. “The son, Jaffrey, saw the whole thing.” Kibling pointed at the young man sitting across from Elise.

Formsby gave Kibling a “When were you planning on telling me?” look. Kipling retorted with a “Wait for it” smirk. As the two detectives approached him, Jaffrey looked up and smiled shyly at the officers.

“I’d like to ask you some questions,” Formsby said to Jaffrey as the two detectives approached him.

Jaffrey paused his game, gazed at Formsby, and mooed.


The next morning Palance found his partner at her desk, her hand around a steaming mug of coffee, a scowl on her face. On the wall a TV screen was showing an interview with a nerdy kid who insisted he’d been abducted by aliens. As there’d been a recent slew of alien news stories, Palance watched intently for a few seconds, then turned away.

“Did you get anything from our interview with Ben and Jerry?” Palance asked.

“Who?” Formsby’s face screwed up. “Oh, Jaffrey. Show some respect, will you? Some of my best friends are mentally challenged—and all of my bosses.”

“What I want to know is who he calls with that smartphone.” Palance noticed Formsby massaging her forehead. “Are you OK?”

She grimaced. “I’m listless, my joints ache, my eyes feel as if I just butterfly-kissed a crown of thorns, and I think I caught your headache. How is your medication working?”

“Like I had a balloon for a head transplant, except I don’t feel as buoyant.”

“Maybe I’ll hold off on meds until I join the circus. One of us needs to be thinking.”

“I might be building up a resistance. This morning I was able to work the toaster. Did the tox report come in on the Lavoies?”

“Yeah. No poison in either of them. No marks on the bodies No suicide note, even though they’re both literary types.” Formsby punched the air. “They were murdered. I just don’t know how.”

“Maybe by the aliens that abducted that guy on TV.”

“While we’re waiting for them to confess, let’s pay Harvard a visit.”

They got a list of all the students enrolled in classes with either of the dead professors. Zoe Lavoie taught three classes, each in a full auditorium. Any bad grades came from a teaching fellow, not Professor Lavoie, who spent most of her time polishing her lectures and researching her next book. Her detachment from her pupils made her seem an unlikely target. Andre Lavoie taught smaller classes. His “Human and Machine” class had only five students in it, one of whom hadn’t shown up since the first day. Andre had a reputation of being dull but an easy “A.” On a hunch, Formsby asked for a list of any chemistry majors taking a course from either of the victims. Zoe had five and Andre none. The five Zoe had seemed so well-adjusted, Formsby wanted to kill each of them.

The next morning Formsby called in sick. Worried, Palance phoned her from the station.

“Am I calling at a bad time?” he asked, when Formsby finally answered.

“If it’s between 9:15 a.m. today and 9:14 a.m. tomorrow, it’s a bad time,” Formsby said, her voice swollen with a yawn.

“Let me check my watch. My concern is, what if something else big comes up and I have to partner with Rafferty?” Rafferty was a stickler who did everything by the book, it being the only one he’d ever read.

“I hadn’t considered that. Right now I’m focusing on the basics, like breathing.”

“I’ll check in a few hours when I’m sure you’re taking a nap.”

Palance reread Formsby’s report, Kibling’s and Elises’s statements, and the medical examiner’s report. When that didn’t inspire anything, he called Kibling, only to learn that he was out sick. Thinking it odd that three people from the crime scene had fallen ill, he called Lake, the medical examiner. She was in but said if she felt any worse, she’d have trouble distinguishing between herself and the corpses.

“Everyone from the crime scene is ill, except me,” Palance said to the examiner. “Why am I so special? Let me count the ways.” He got lost after one. “I’m taking Zenaphron, for headaches. That’s the commercial name. I can’t pronounce the medical one.”

“Neither can I,” Lake said. “When it comes to multiple, unpronounceable names, pharmaceuticals are worse than Russian novels. Zenaphron shouldn’t make you immune to anything though, except a healthy liver.”

Palance decided to check on Elise, the Lavoies’ daughter. He got her cell number from Formsby’s report. She was also ill.

“The thought of grabbing my cell from the nightstand was almost too much for me,” she said, her voice weak.

“It’s as if something floating around in your parents’ house has knocked everyone except me for a loop,” Palance said.

“Jaffrey’s full of energy for his video games.”

“Your brother? He’s staying with you?”

“He can’t live by himself.”

“Does he take any medication?”

She read him a laundry list of drugs—more like two laundry lists—but Zenaphron wasn’t on it. Palance asked her to email him the information.

After clicking off, Palance tried to make sense of it all. Everyone exposed to the Lavoie’s home was ill except him and Jaffrey. What did the two of them have in common? Nothing, except because of the side effects of Zenaphron, both of them were mentally challenged. As he texted his suspicions to Formsby, he thought, who ever heard of a virus that cherry-picked intelligent people?


Palance was on autopilot as he walked into the squad room the next morning. His dreams of being awake all night had been so vivid that he believed them. His size twelve shoe rammed the front leg of Rafferty’s desk, causing Palance to fall spinning into his poorly cushioned swivel chair, the impact flattening his coccyx. Rafferty thought it was hilarious.

“You OK, Palance?” asked Rafferty. He had already turned away, exposing the back of his shaved head, which reminded Palance of a flesh-colored snowball.

“It only hurts when you laugh, Rafferty.”

Palance’s eyes fell across the room to Chief Borgstrom, who sat upright in his office, his phone pressed against his ear. Borgstrom’s round face had lost its luster. He said something Palance couldn’t hear, clicked off, and approached the two detectives.

“Kibling, Elise Lavoie, and Lake are dead,” he said.

“Oh shit,” Palance said. He speed-dialed Formsby. There was no answer.


Formsby lay in her bed, her mouth half open. Palance, who’d been let in by the super, had never seen her look so vapid. He’d tried and failed to find a pulse, but that didn’t surprise him. He had trouble finding his own. A slight rise and fall of her blankets proved she clung to life. His face itched under the gas mask Borgstrom insisted he wear. If Formsby died, he didn’t know what he was going to do. The two of them often clashed like a warm and a cold front, but every so often they made a perfect storm.

“Jesus Christ!”

The sound of Formsby’s voice nearly made Palance hit the ceiling. After he came down, he asked, “Partner? You’re alive!”

“No thanks to that mask you’re wearing,” Formsby gasped.

“Oh, that’s a precaution. Everybody in the Lavoie’s home that night, except me and Jaffrey, has gotten sick. Of those, you’re the only one still alive. When you didn’t answer, I thought ... well, are you feeling any better?”

“As a matter of fact, I am.” She propped up her pillow and sat against it. “My body was fighting something, and losing. My motor skills were seizing up. I thought I was history. Then, don’t ask me why, the picture of you banging into the Lavoie’s rocking chair came into my mind. Clear as a bell, I heard you say, I almost wasted that chair. Then an awful pun came into my head.”

“What was it?”

“To err is human, but to forgive is divan.”

“That is awful, or it would be if I knew what a divan was.”

“It’s a kind of chair. The moment I thought up that pun, I swear I heard a groan in my head. Since then, I’ve been recovering.”

“Wait a minute. You think the groan came from the virus? That you repulsed it with stupidity?” Palance asked.

“I don’t know what to think. But it’s no crazier than your theory, that we’re up against a virus attracted to intelligent, educated people.”

“So our secret weapon is bad puns? I may have been born at the right time after all.”

“But that means we’re fighting a sentient virus.” She shook her head. “That idea is so idiotic, maybe that’s what saving us.”

“Whatever. Let’s get you well first.” He noticed a wadded up piece of paper on the floor and picked it up. “What’s this?”

Formsby tried to grab it away but failed. “Nothing.”

Palance opened the paper and read it out loud: “I regret that I have one life to give for my country, because if I had two, I’d still fucking be alive!” He patted her shoulder. “That’s my partner.”


In their press conference, neither Formsby nor Palance said anything about intelligence-sucking viruses, but somehow the story leaked and the press ran with it. Headlines ranged from “Smart virus kills seven” to “Braaaaainnnns!” For the next couple of days, whenever an academic in the city took ill, it was a front-page story. Student attendance at the city college dropped fifty percent. Insert Crowbar, an extremist group celebrating stupidity, offered one of the more popular theories, that Earth was being invaded by aliens called Ingesters that fed on brains.

Desperate for clues, the two detectives, as well as Jaffrey, underwent complete physicals. Of the three, Jaffrey was by far the healthiest. Formsby had high cholesterol while Palance suffered from hypertension. A scan revealed the two detective’s brains had a slightly darker than normal tint. The doctor checked a two-month old scan of Palance’s head, taken when he’d first complained of headaches. It was lighter. Neither the doctor nor her colleagues had any idea why.


“My brain has always been a mystery to me,” Palance said as he and Formsby walked out of the doctor’s office.

Formsby wore a distant look, as if a surgeon had pointed her eyes inward. “Maybe we should stop resisting the absurd and say there really is a brain-eating virus that prefers smart people. The virus could be connected to the tint on our scans.”

“The darkness representing damage?”

“Or evidence the virus is still there, but dormant.”

Palance shivered. “Then let’s not wake it up.”

“I disagree. Supposedly, you were saved by Zenaphron, so what if you go off it? That could reactivate the virus and give us something to work with.”

“What do I do if works? Slap a pair of handcuffs onto my head?”

“You can always go back on Zenaphron. Look, we’re a team, so we can set a double trap for the virus. We’ll start reading the great books. We’ll be so smart, the virus will get a hard-on for our brains, and then maybe the doc can isolate the virus and figure out how to kill it.”

“There are plenty of people in the city smarter than us. Why haven’t they been attacked?”

Formsby shrugged. “How should I know? I called the Alien Help Desk but I couldn’t understand the technician’s accent. Do you have a better idea?”

Palance thought for a moment. “Wait until the movie comes out?”


They adopted Formsby’s plan, though neither found it easy. Formsby accidentally dropped a hard-cover copy of the annotated “War and Peace” onto her bare foot, breaking a toe. Instead of hobbling in, she texted Palance that she was taking a couple of personal days to focus on her reading, though she planned to switch to lighter fare. Palance stopped taking Zenaphron, which produced a whanger of a headache. That night, despite the pain and his fear of higher-end reading, he tackled a public domain printing of “Nina Baltatka.” “C’mon, Trollope, stop fucking around,” he said after about an hour. His eyes were so bleary, he increased the print of his e-reader to maximum size. Moments later, the screen went white. Palance clicked on some icons, to no avail.

“I wish to speak to you,” the e-reader said, its words uninflected. Afraid his device had been possessed by a porn virus, he hit reset, but nothing happened. “On behalf of my species, I would like to apologize,” the voice continued.

Not used to receiving apologies from his e-reader, Palance sat stunned. “Are you an Ingester?” he asked, remembering the anti-intellectual group’s term.

“That is not our word, but yes, we live on the brainwave energy.”

“So do we! Knock it off!”

“I said I was sorry. That’s better than you humans. Do you apologize to poultry before turning them into Chicken McNuggets?”

Palance was going to lie and say he was a vegan, but Trollope had so baked his brain that he ended up saying he was a lesbian.

This confused the Ingester. “We are not here to invade. We just stopped for sustenance, then left your solar system for grayer matter.”

“So you’re out in space now?”

“My colleagues are. I’m still in your brain.”

“What? Get the hell out!”

“I can’t, yet. Normally, after we feed, we reproduce, and within one Earth day the offspring—that’s me—leaves the brain to return to the ship. The Zenaphron, which is like kryptonite to us, almost killed me though. The only reason I’m not pushing up the ganglia is because you stopped using it. I’m nearly strong enough to leave now. Unfortunately, with the ship gone, I’ll cease to exist shortly after exposure.”

“Sorry. I guess.” The thought that this thing could read his mind—how else would it know about kryptonite—was mortifying.

He wondered why it would leave his brain if it resulted in its death.

“I have no choice,” the Ingester said. “Eventually, I’ll become too big for you to host me but too small to feed on unopened human brains. I’m communicating by computer because your brain would short circuit if I did it by thought. I’m talking with you now because of the offspring in your partner.”

“Marian? What about her?” Palance asked.

“I’ve been in communication with a colleague. He was gravely wounded by that divan pun, but is healing and has no intention of giving up without a fight. When he’s strong enough, he plans to jump from her head into yours, steal my energy, then impregnate as many brains as possible before he fades away. He hopes if enough of our kind can join energy, they can survive on your planet.”

“He told you all this?”

“Not in so many words,” said the Ingester. “But as he and I are the only ones of our species left on Earth, I’ve come to know him. He must be stopped. You need to go over to your partner’s apartment tonight. When I give the signal, embrace her. I’ll kill her offspring, steal his energy, and leave you in peace. It could be over in a second.”

“I need to run this by her.”

“Tell her you’re coming over, but not the reason. If you do, it will alert her offspring.”

“Why tonight?”

“It’s Wednesday. She’s not going into work until Monday. By then, her offspring could be too strong and might overpower me. It must be done now.”

Palance scratched his head but stopped when the Ingester emitted a squeaky laugh. “I’m trying to figure out why I should I believe an alien species that eats brains, but I’m coming up blank.”

The computer stood silent, then crackled, “Some people befriend cows, pigs, and sheep. Others eat them. No one wishes for their extinction. We must survive, but we have no desire to wipe out humanity. The offspring in your partner’s brain is a rogue, however. There’s no telling what it could do if it’s not stopped now. Do you really want to take that chance?”

“I really don’t want to embrace my partner.”


Palance continued to have misgivings as he rode the elevator in Formsby’s building. As insurance, the Ingester suggested he take along some Zenaphron, which either he or his partner could swallow if necessary. Besides, by Monday he and Formsby would be working side by side again. This merely forced the issue.

As he approached Formsby’s apartment, the door opened slightly, revealing the left half of his partner’s skeptical face.

“What was so important that—”

A flying bear hug interrupted her sentence. Almost immediately after, a lower toned “Ooofff!” came from Palance, in response to Formsby’s knee in his groin. She staggered back a few steps, while Palance crumbled like a lump of snow slipping off a roof.

“Don’t ever do that again,” Formsby said.

Palance groaned, “In what alternate universe do you think I would?” Then he heard a soft drilling sound. Drowsiness suffused his body. He looked up and saw an accordion-like ray of energy connecting his head to Formsby’s. Long seconds passed. What looked like a multi-stranded ball of string in the center of the ray grew larger and darker. He tried to direct his thoughts to his Ingester, but got no response.

“Formsby,” he gasped. “Back away.”

“I can’t,” she said, her eyes wide with fear.

Palance willed his hand toward the pocket that contained the vial of Zenaphron, but lying on his right side, he couldn’t reach it. His life flashed before him: asking Mary Jane to the prom the day before he had sex with her older sister; signing up for the army reserves because he didn’t want to do a paper on the appeasement of Benito Mussolini; investing his life savings into Napster. Was every twist and turn just a prelude to a tag-team of Ingesters sucking his brain? It couldn’t end this way. As his consciousness faded, he felt giddy, then an idea popped into his head. He pursed his lips and shouted, “To a frog, every day is Fly-day!”

The energy accordion shuddered. A few strands of the ball twisted like worms, then fell loose. Palance and Formsby’s eyes met. Formsby nodded.

“All for pun and pun for all!” Formsby chanted.

Formsby’s iPad, lying open on the table, flickered on. “Hey, stop that.”

Palance wracked his brain, but all he could do was repeat the divan line, to no effect. The Ingesters had adapted. Silence hung in the air like wet laundry.

“All that twitters is not told!” Formsby thundered. The strands resumed unraveling. Smelling victory, she went in for the kill.

“He who laughs wurst has the ingredients for a German sandwich!"

The energy link shook like a heaving stomach. Ugly, pulsating smudges pocked its length. Formsby’s iPad emitted a noise not unlike a dying car engine.

“Stop pun-tificating!” it roared, then gasped. “Oh nooooooo!” A metallic-sounding raspberry rent the air, and the energy link lost definition and vanished. A smell of toxic smoke filled the room. Formsby lurched to a window and flung it open. She then helped Palance to his feet.

“Puns are addictive,” he said.

Formsby slapped him in the face. “Why did you come over here tonight? You ought to have your head examined.”

“I did have my head examined. My only defense is I was under alien influence.”

Formsby looked around at the lack of evidence “No one is going to believe this. It has cold case written all over it. Kibling, Lake, and Elise deserve better.”

“Yeah, everybody does,” Palance said sadly. “But I learned long ago to put my negativity in a box and dwell on the positive.”

Formsby folded her arms across her chest. “The Ingesters have been defeated.”

“And for a while I upgraded my reading.”

And their dry one-liners, which made life as homicide detectives possible, had survived intact. 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-SEP-2014 update.