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 Jennifer Campbell-Hicks

MELINDA KRONEN SLID A TABLET across her desk and waved at the screen. “This is why I asked you here today, Dr. Jansen.”

Peter took off his glasses and wiped them on his old tweed jacket. He felt grossly out of place here. The spacious office was furnished in trendy metallics without a single bookshelf or comfortable chair in sight. And Melinda, while more personable than he had expected for a business executive, wore a black suit that Peter would have expected to see in court or at a funeral.

He glanced at the tablet screen.

“It’s a man,” he said.

“Not exactly. Look closer.”

Curious, he looked. The screen displayed a security-camera view of an interrogation room. Why a tech company like PrimeTime needed such a room, Peter couldn’t guess. There was a table with two chairs. A man in hospital scrubs paced the floor. Peter studied him and began to see what Melinda meant. His gait was jerky and out of proportion for his height. His skin had a smooth, waxy sheen, and his unusually dark eyes, almost black, never blinked.

“A robot?” Peter guessed.

“We call them avatars, and that one”—she stabbed a manicured nail at the screen—“should be inactive in the lab.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Peter said, “but I don’t understand what this has to do with me.”

She smiled. “Everything.”

The smugness with which she said that irritated Peter. As a rule, he didn’t make “house calls,” but he’d had a couple free hours in his schedule and Melinda had offered to make it worth his while by paying double his standard rate. But he hadn’t come here to be toyed with.

“I’m a psychiatrist,” he said. “I don’t know the first thing about this.” He waved at the screen. He wasn’t even sure what this was.

Melinda folded her hands on her desk, outwardly composed, but Peter’s trained eye noticed the tension in her shoulders and around her eyes. Worry, doubt, even fear.

That piqued Peter’s curiosity more than her words.

In a steady tone that belied none of what her body language showed, she said, “What do you know about PrimeTime, Dr. Jansen?”

“Nothing.” He had never heard of the company until his assistant transferred Melinda’s call that morning.

“We’ve discovered how to transfer human consciousness into a mechanical body,” she said.

“A virtual-reality interface?”

“Much more than that. It’s a full transference in which the user, for however long he or she wishes, becomes the avatar.”

Peter was intrigued now. He had read in scientific journals about attempts at full transference, but as far as he knew, no one had succeeded. He still didn’t understand what this had to do with him.

“So far,” Melinda said, “we have two prototypes, one male and one female. Our Adam and Eve, if you like. Testing had been going great until two days ago when someone, we don’t know who, hijacked the male body.”

“Surely you have a way to get rid of an unwanted user.”

She shook her head. “An oversight we will correct in the next generation, I assure you, but that doesn’t help now. That’s why I need you. I want you to persuade the hijacker to leave the body. We need our prototype back.”

“I see. But why me?”

“He hasn’t spoken a word. He appears to be traumatized, a specialty of yours, I believe. See for yourself.”

Indeed, the security camera showed that the avatar—Peter decided to go with Melinda’s label and call him Adam—had stopped pacing and was huddled in a corner, knees to his chest, rocking slowly.

Peter asked, “What about finding the hijacker’s body so you can shut down his connection at the source?”

“Not possible.”

“How so?”

She hesitated. Licked her lips. Peter sensed they had reached the crux of the matter, the reason for her fear.

“Do you like to travel?” she asked.

The question caught him off-guard. “I prefer to stay close to home,” he said, not sure where this was going.

“These avatars are designed for a special kind of travel.”

He guessed. “Space travel? Underwater?”


He blinked. “Excuse me?”

She leaned forward intently, but still her voice remained as calm as a Sunday stroll. “The avatars are vessels that allow the human consciousness to travel backward through time. I know how that must sound to you—”

“I’m not sure you do.” Human-controlled avatars were one thing, but time travel stretched credibility too far. “If this is a joke—”

“I assure you it’s not.”

She sounded sincere. She probably even believed what she said, but then so did many of Peter’s patients. They often told him how they wished to go back in time to erase their mistakes. Peter had regrets, too—a failed marriage, lost opportunities—but he would be a different man without them. He found it better to move forward than to live in the past.

He grabbed his briefcase and stood.

“Wait.” Melinda rushed to catch him at her office door and held out a paper. It was a list: stock prices, sports scores, lottery numbers. “Check the numbers tomorrow,” she said. “They’ll prove I’m telling the truth. Once you see that, I hope you’ll come back.”

“Unlikely,” Peter said, but he already felt guilty over his outburst and took the paper. “Good day, Ms. Kronen.”


Peter was exhausted that night. He microwaved a frozen dinner of indeterminate meat, fed his cat Johnny (named for Johnny Carson, his favorite comedian) and turned on the television. Melinda’s paper lay unread on the kitchen counter. Peter refused to watch any channel that might show sports scores or financial news, anything that had to do with her list, so he ended up with a History Channel special on the Roman Empire.

Later, he brushed his teeth, set the alarm for 6:30 a.m. and went to bed. Sleep eluded him. At 3 a.m., he pulled on his robe and booted his laptop.

“Meow,” Johnny said.

“I must be crazy,” Peter told the cat.

A half-hour later, he had checked and rechecked every item on Melinda’s list. He tried to think of a reasonable explanation for how she had accurately predicted several baseball scores and the stock indexes’ closing numbers to the second decimal, but he couldn’t.

Johnny leapt into his lap and butted against his hand until Peter gave in and scratched between the cat’s ears.

“I have to go back there,” he said and cringed at how he had left things. “Damn it.”

Johnny purred.


As it turned out, Melinda seemed genuinely happy to see him. They stood in the hallway outside the interrogation room, looking through a one-way mirror at the avatar inside.

“Thank you for coming,” she said. She had traded her black power suit for a blue one but otherwise was attired the same as the day before. “Does this mean you believe me?”

“With respect, Ms. Kronen, I don’t know.”

“Call me Melinda, please.”

“All right. I’m Peter.”

Inside the room, Adam was curled up in the corner, head in his hands, rocking.

“How long has he been like that?” Peter asked.

“Since yesterday.”

“Has he said anything?”



She gave him a look like he should know better. “The avatar body doesn’t need sleep. It also doesn’t require food or drink, or to perform bodily functions.”

“That must be a big adjustment for someone who has spent his life sleeping, eating, drinking and using a toilet. Have you considered that his trauma might stem from the transference itself, or from being locked in a room alone for days?”

Her expression was tight. “Our hope was that his discomfort would encourage him to go back to wherever he came from.”

Peter had wondered whether her worry was for the avatar body or the man inside it. Now he knew. “It might take awhile to draw him out and gain his trust.”

“You have two days.”

“Two days?” A case like this could take months.

She shrugged. “I’m under a lot of pressure from the board of directors. They want a quick resolution. If it gets out that one of our prototypes has been rendered useless, PrimeTime will lose its backing. There’s a congressional hearing next week on the ethical issues of transference. A lot of lawmakers want to shut us down. Two days is more than the board wanted to give.”

“If I fail ...” He left it hanging.

“We do a complete wipe and reboot.”

“What would happen to him?” Peter jerked his chin at the huddled figure in the corner.

She looked at her nails. “He might wake up in his own time, or be a vegetable, or end up dead. Whatever happens, it’d be in the future, so we would never know.” She could have been talking about a spider she planned to crush under her heel.

Peter felt a headache coming on.

“Why did you choose me for this?” he asked. “There are plenty of psychiatrists in this city.”

“Remember the list I gave you?” she asked. “I got those numbers from my future self who was using the Eve avatar.” Her eyes got a faraway look. “It’s a surreal experience meeting yourself. Future me said that we had hired you to deal with the body hijacker. She was adamant on that point.”

“Do I succeed?”

She made a face. “My future self wouldn’t say. When she was in my position several days earlier, her future self wouldn’t give her any details, so she couldn’t give me any, either.” She shuddered. “Time loops. The cause and effect are so muddled you can’t tell which is which. I hate that.”


Peter stepped into the holding room, the door clicking shut behind him. The air smelled of disinfectants. PrimeTime didn’t mind locking a man in a room for days, but someone had cared enough about the avatar to keep the room sterile.

“Hello,” Peter said.

Adam, wearing the same hospital scrubs as the day before, stopped rocking and lifted his head, his synthetic face expressionless. His pupils expanded with a soft whir like two camera lenses. Peter was reminded of a horror-movie monster, and gooseflesh broke out on his arms.

He stepped forward, careful not to startle Adam. To his right, his own forty-something visage, in need of a haircut and shave, reflected back at him in the one-way mirror. On the other side, Melinda was watching, perhaps with her board of directors or other PrimeTime executives. The thought made Peter nervous. He had never worked in front of an audience before.

“Do you understand English?”

Adam nodded once, slowly.

Thank goodness, Peter thought.

“My name is Peter. I’m here to help you. What’s your name?”

Adam shook his head, no.

“All right. That’s fine. Where are you from?”

No, no, no, no.

Was this a case of selective mutism, a refusal to speak? Patients usually started talking again on their own in a few weeks at most, but Adam didn’t have weeks.

Peter sat cross-legged on the floor, not so close as to make Adam uncomfortable. “Let me tell you about where you are then,” he said.

He began with dates and geography, then moved onto technology, culture and current events. What he said should sound familiar to a man from the future. Adam should have at least a basic familiarity with the broad brush strokes of history. Peter talked about literature, music, movies, languages and scientific achievements. He talked until his mouth went dry and his throat was sore.

Adam listened. Whenever Peter paused, the avatar nodded for him to continue, but Peter didn’t want to talk all day. Neither could he risk Adam going catatonic again in the corner. He said to the mirror, “We need reading materials. Anything you have lying around. Paper and pencils, too.”

Ten minutes later, courtesy of the PrimeTime staff, an impressive assortment lay on the table: week-old newspapers; magazines on technology, business, entertainment, gossip and home life; even a few paperbacks.

Peter waved at the pile. “Go on.”

Adam approached cautiously. He riffled through magazines with slow, clumsy fingers. Newspapers were next. He pointed to one of the front pages.

Peter leaned in, adjusting his glasses. Adam had chosen an article about a terrorist attack on a shopping mall in Berlin. Peter winced. Violence and bloodshed, while unavoidable in the media, were not what he had in mind for this exercise.

“That was a horrible thing that happened,” Peter said.

Adam shook his head and pointed again, not at the article but at the headline. No, at one word in the headline.

Peter read it. Dead, it said.

He felt stupid for not understanding Adam’s intent the first time. “Did a person important to you die?”

Adam nodded, shook his head and nodded again.

“I don’t understand.” Peter pushed a pencil and paper across the table. “Write it for me.”

Adam held the pencil in his fist, like a child would. His drawing also struck Peter as childlike, a rough circle that he filled with squiggly shapes. It looked familiar enough that Peter could guess what it was.

“Earth?” he said.

Yes, Adam nodded and drew a second, smaller circle and an arrow through it, pointed at Earth.

“Something hit the Earth. A meteor?”

Yes. Adam pointed to the headline. Dead.

“Oh,” Peter said, “I see.” His knees suddenly felt weak and he had to sit down. “You can’t go back to your own time because you have no body to go back to. You’re dead. Everyone is dead.”

Yes, yes, yes.

“When does this happen?”

Adam wrote down a year. Peter calculated it at about three and a half centuries in the future. Many lifetimes from now, yet also shockingly soon.

Melinda wouldn’t like this, and her board would like it less, but they had to be told. Peter had to persuade them to cancel the avatar’s reboot. Still weak-kneed, he stabilized himself against the table as he stood.

“I have to go,” he said. “I’ll come back soon.”

“Come,” said a voice, tinny and hollow.

Peter stopped. Not so silent after all.

“Come,” Adam repeated, more urgently.

“You want to come with me? I’m sorry, but that’s not wise at this time. I’ll do my best to get you out of here, only you have to be patient for a while longer. Will you do that?”

Adam picked up a magazine and opened it.

Reassured, Peter went to find Melinda.


The person outside the interrogation room wasn’t Melinda but a wide-eyed young woman, possibly an intern, working on a crossword puzzle. Peter mentally kicked himself for thinking the company’s chief executive would spend her day watching him.

“Where’s Ms. Kronen?” he asked.

“Oh!” the girl said, apparently surprised that he would speak to her. “Ms. Kronen left a half-hour ago. She said I should get you whatever you need.” She paused. “Do you need something?”

Peter suppressed his impatience. “I need to talk to Ms. Kronen. It’s urgent. Is she in her office?”

“I told you, she left.”

He blinked. “What time is it?”

“A little after 6:30.”

Good gracious, he had been in that room for hours. Now that he thought about it, his stomach had been grumbling for a while.

“Did she go home?”

“Maybe but—”


She swallowed. “I shouldn’t tell you this, but she had that look in her eyes, like she needed a drink. There’s this place. I see her there sometimes.” She gave Peter the directions.

Interesting. Peter wouldn’t have pegged Melinda for a drinker. She must blow off steam that way quite often for even her lower-level employees to know about it.

“I think I could use a drink, too,” he said. “Give me those directions again.”


The bar was an upscale establishment, the type of place where a cheap beer would clean out the wallet and an unattached woman could linger over her drink without too much fear of attracting unwanted company. Peter spotted Melinda straight-backed at the bar. She had shed the suit jacket, revealing a simple blouse underneath. Peter couldn’t help but feel self-conscious of his own wrinkled wardrobe and day-old beard.

He took the stool next to hers.

She glared. “How did you find me?”

“Luck,” he said, not wanting to cause trouble for the young woman who had directed him here. “I dropped in for a drink.”

She snorted her disbelief.

Peter signaled to the bartender. “Another one for the lady, please. What is that—a martini? I’ll have one, too.” He said to Melinda, “What brings you here?”

“You mean, why am I drinking alone at a bar?” She smiled grimly. “It’s not every day I face the prospect of unplugging a man, so to speak. It’s not an easy thing. But our engineers say the most likely scenario is that his consciousness will return to his own body in the future.”

So she wasn’t as hard and unflappable as she let on. The bartender brought their drinks, and Peter used the distraction to gather his thoughts. He took a couple sips and said, “You can’t reboot the avatar. Not tomorrow, not ever.”

She looked at him sharply. “What do you mean?”

“If you order the reboot, you’ll kill the man inside.” He explained about the asteroid and the mass-extinction event, and how Adam had no body to return to.

“You believe him?” Melinda asked.

“I’m usually a good judge of honesty. People give off more signals than they realize. Facial expression, blink rate, body language. With a mechanical body, there’s not much of that, but the man has obviously had a shock. Yes, I believe him.”

Melinda stirred her drink. “Damn.”

“What are you going to do?”

She laughed bitterly. “I don’t have a choice.”

“There’s always a choice.”

“Don’t give me your psychobabble. I’m not your patient.” She sighed. “All right then, here’s the choice. Either I order the reboot or the board lets me go and hires a CEO who will.”

“That’s murder.”

“You think they care? They’ll say that if the man really is a time-traveling refugee who escaped from an asteroid impact, he should be dead anyway. The only thing that matters to them is protecting their investment.”

“So sneak him out.”

“Access into the building after-hours requires a retinal scan, which means if anything goes missing, it’s easy to track who took it. And in case you didn’t notice, there are security cameras all over every inch of the building.”

He hadn’t noticed, except for the one in Adam’s room.

“At least there’s a silver lining to all this,” Melinda said. “PrimeTime’s business plan takes a long view, not over years but centuries. We build avatars, and rich vacationers from the future use them to visit the past. The longer the company exists, the bigger the pool of potential customers. It follows that if a man from the end of the Earth has jumped into our prototype, then PrimeTime is there too, in some form or another.” She raised her glass. “Here’s to success.”

“It also means,” Peter said, “that however this incident with Adam turns out, it doesn’t sink your company.”

A hint of a smile. “You’re right. Thanks. I feel better already.”


Peter arrived home late, discouraged but unwilling to give up. Adam wasn’t a normal patient, but Peter was still obligated to help him.

He kicked his shoes into the closet, popped open a tin of cat food for Johnny and warmed up a bowl of soup for himself.

While he waited for the beep-beep of the microwave, he noticed Melinda’s list of predictions on the kitchen counter. He should have played the lottery numbers. He could have bought Adam and a dozen more avatars while he was at it.

Then again, Melinda might have given him the numbers only because, according to her future self, he hadn’t abused the information.

Trapped by his own future.

Even if he won the lottery, PrimeTime wouldn’t have taken his money. With easy access to time travel, the board members could play the lottery, too, or bet on sporting events or buy stocks. Why didn’t they? What did they want if not money? Power, maybe. Or perhaps they were trapped in their own loop of being unable to act because they hadn’t.

Time loops. Peter wished for a way to make one work for them instead of constraining them, to find a loophole in the loop.

He lingered on that idea.

The microwave beeped. Peter let the soup sit while he thought. Then re-energized, he found a pencil and paper in a drawer, settled in at the kitchen table, and got to work.


Melinda met him in the lobby.

“You look nice when you clean up,” she said.

He had shaved, and worn slacks and a dress shirt. Her suit was lavender. Peter imagined her closet: dozens of jackets and skirts of identical cut but in an eclectic paint box of colors.

“Not as good as you.” He wondered as he spoke at the wisdom of flirting with her, but he was in a good mood. He was pleased when she blushed a little.

“Come to my office,” she said.

Once there, she shut the door and switched on her tablet. “When I came in this morning, this is what I found.” She turned the screen so he could see the empty interrogation room. “I panicked, until the head engineer informed me that Adam was in the lab, inactive.” She flipped the screen to a camera view of the lab. The male and female prototypes stood side by side. “He must have returned to the future during the night. That’s the only explanation. But you said he couldn’t.”

“Yes, I did. What do the security cameras show?”

“Nothing. At 1 a.m., Adam was in the holding room. Then the cameras glitched. The footage picked up at 2 a.m., and Adam was in the lab.” She threw up her hands. “I don’t know. I must have a guardian angel.”

“Maybe you are your own guardian angel,” he said slyly.

Melinda frowned. “You did something.”

“I didn’t do a thing.”


“You did.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Last night, a future you jumped into the Eve avatar. You removed Adam’s consciousness from his avatar and stored him in a secure location. If he can reside in a robot brain, he can also reside in some other complex electrical system, right? Then you put his body in the lab and returned to your own time.”

She looked skeptical. “Why would I do that?”

“Because I thought of the idea last night, and we’re having this conversation now.” Peter had to admit, he felt rather smug over his own cleverness.

She rubbed the back of her neck. On the desk, her tablet chimed, but she ignored it. “That’s great in theory, but I don’t know how to do any of those things. I’m a businesswoman. I don’t handle the tech side.”

That was the one part of the plan Peter hadn’t worked out. She had time to learn—all the time in the world, in fact—but she needed a teacher who wouldn’t rouse her board’s suspicions.

The tablet chimed again. This time, they both looked. The screen had gone black except for one sentence in white type: “I know what to do.”

Melinda tensed. “Who is this? Where are you?”

More type appeared. “My name is Daniel. You know me as Adam. Would you like to see what I look like? I had all night to create an image for myself, and I think it turned out well.”

A man appeared on the screen, of average height and looks, wearing a white T-shirt and jeans. He walked toward them and grew larger, as if the screen were a window between them, until only his face was visible.

“Hello,” he said.

The blood drained from Melinda’s cheeks. “You’re in the computer network?”


“Of course!” Peter laughed and clapped. “You erased the security-camera footage. It was an inside job, literally.”

Daniel smiled. “Yes.”

Melinda did not seem to share Peter’s amusement. She glared at the screen. “A human consciousness in the network will cause a panic.”

“My silence was part of our agreement when you uploaded me last night. You said I would like it here. You were right. I can’t describe in ways you would understand how it feels to be connected to everything, to the world. And now I am in a good position to help prepare for the others.”

If possible, Melinda went whiter than before.

“The others?” Peter asked. “More refugees?”


“How many?” Melinda asked.

“I’m not sure,” Daniel said. “Hundreds of thousands. Maybe a million.” The screen zoomed back to show thousands of Daniel clones in a phalanx. The front one said, “There’s a lot to do. We need to get the ball rolling,” as a ball knocked into him and the Daniels tumbled over like bowling pins.

“Oh my God,” Melinda said.

She sat at her desk with a dazed look.

Peter didn’t know what to think, beyond the realization that they had stumbled into something much bigger than either of them had anticipated. “It’s not what you wanted for PrimeTime,” he said to Melinda. “It’s not rich vacationers. But refugees from the future will bring with them the knowledge of technology we haven’t even dreamed of.”

“I’m not sure I can do this.”

“One step at a time. First is Adam.”

“And after?”

“We’ll figure it out when we get there.”


Peter blinked. “I did say that, didn’t I?” He felt embarrassed by the slip.

“You know what?” she said. “It didn’t sound half-bad.”

To Peter’s surprise and delight, she took his hand. On the screen, Daniel smiled. Peter didn’t pay him much mind. He took Melinda’s other hand. With both his palms filled with hers, he decided that this was a loop he could get used to. END

Jennifer Campbell-Hicks is a writer and journalist from Colorado. Her stories have been published in “Intergalactic Medicine Show,” “Galaxy's Edge,” “Raygun Chronicles,” “Flash Fiction Online,” “Daily Science Fiction,” and many other places.


six questions