Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Baby Wars
by Eric Del Carlo

by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt

Genocide in Three Acts
by Jenny Duptsi

Memory Farm
by Richard Wren

Schrödinger’s Suicide
by Daniel Roy

Chandler’s Hollow
by Sean Patrick Hazlett

Test Case
by Kris Ashton

Pink Adventure 87
by Gregor Hartmann

Shorter Stories

by Robin Wyatt Dunn

Dropping Payload
by Mord McGhee

Breaking the 3 Laws
by Trevor Doyle


Sex and a Sensawunda
by Ann Gimpel

Sunshine 2: the Sequel
by Eric M. Jones



Comic Strips




Baby Wars

By Eric Del Carlo

AT THIRTEEN-AND-A-HALF, ARLO HAD dreaded the Sex Talk from his dad for two years. And now here it was, those two years and more too late. Dad seemed oblivious to the existence of street talk and Net porn, to say nothing of the sex ed Arlo’d gotten in sixth grade. There, at least, the instructor had spoken with a straightforward knowing, using the words vagina and penis (terms that had nevertheless flamed Arlo’s cheeks). Here, unbelievably, his dad was saying “coochie” and “dork,” and in that same formal tone Arlo remembered from the classroom. He wanted to hide under a rock until this was over.

He had never expected his mom to deliver this unwanted lecture. Mom told him not to do things. And when, younger, he had tried to explain some infraction of his, she would cut him off with a “Stop talking!” Then say it again each time after he opened his mouth, until he was breathless with snot and tears streaming down his face. He’d stopped trying to explain himself to her years ago. But even now whenever he ran too hard and bent over panting and lightheaded, he heard those words cancelling him out: “Stop talking!”

His mom was a bitch.

Dad was mostly just a moron.

They’d gone high up on one of the long grassy slopes of the Hill. Arlo stared stone-faced past his dad at the tents and vehicles and trailers on the flat far below. That was the community. Or the cult. Or whatever they were calling themselves. The Hill was just cheap undeveloped property, owned by a slew of families from the town. It was isolated as hell. These many acres had the “essentials,” the adults always said. A river of clean mountain runoff. Soil waiting to be planted. Deer and rabbit to hunt.

But the lacks were bigger than the essentials, Arlo thought. No Wi-Fi. No place to shop. No nothing that wasn’t already here. It unnerved him.

His dad suddenly had a Bowie knife in hand. Arlo’s eyes fastened on the weird, not quite geometric shape of the blade. The adults did this a lot too; used weapons for props when making a point. They liked to pump shotguns when talking about justice or injustice. They slapped magazines into handguns whenever they mentioned black helicopters.

Arlo had heard this talk all his life. He’d been seven before he understood that the black helicopters were mostly metaphor, about the time he’d grasped the concept of metaphor. Once, a news chopper went directly overhead in town, chasing highway bandits on the coast road, and timid undersized Arlo Mersch had clapped both hands onto his skull and run screaming into a shoe store. He still remembered the wide-eyed looks of clerks and customers. He remembered more painfully the shrill laughter from behind, from his mother.

“Any man-age man comes near a girl who ain’t woman-age,” Dad was saying, “he gets his balls cut off.” He twisted the Bowie knife, then gave the blade a pleased smile and dropped it into a sheath on his canvas belt. “Everyone’s agreed on that. So it’s got to be you. Not just you, Arlo, but you too. ’Long with your friends.”

Arlo might have winced at that “friends,” but he was already exhausted and sickened by the Talk. His father hadn’t just been coarsely instructing him in the mechanics of sexual intercourse. He’d been telling his son to go do it.

What horrified Arlo seemed to fill his dad with a sense of bewildered wonder. The bearded man with the bad teeth and bad tattoos backed away a few steps, as if needing distance to survey his boy.

Shaking his head, he said, “I really don’t get you. If my daddy told me to get laid when I was fourteen, I’d’ve jumped for joy.”

“I’m thirteen, Dad.” Arlo’s face still felt stony, but it was growing brittle, and might break into untidy emotions in another minute.

“You’re almost fourteen!” his dad snapped as if this should win him the argument. Then he turned and headed down the slope.

Arlo sat at the top of the Hill for a long time, alone.


It was roughhousing and splashing at the river, at the turn with the eddies. Kids Arlo’s age and younger and some older scrabbled over the rocks, screaming their heads off as they played with a school’s-out intensity.

Arlo figured school was truly done. Certainly he wasn’t going back to his middle school, which was in town. No one was supposed to go back to the town, ever. In the first week that all the families had come up, Mr. Jaspers had taken it on himself to teach the children. He’d been to college. But every last fact he imparted he managed to relate back to Jesus, even when he taught geometry, and that pissed some of the adults off but good, so that was the end of any vestige of formal education.

Didn’t matter, though. They were here on the Hill for more important things.

There was more going on at the river than horseplay, Arlo saw as he watched from the edge. That seemed like his place, all the time—the edges of things. He scuffed the dirt with his ragged sneaker and tried to pick out the patterns. Teddy Pent was breaking smaller rocks against bigger rocks, and doing a curled-arms muscleman pose each time. Abdul Shuck, a year younger than Arlo, was waving a stick like a sword as he offered to “rescue” any and all the girls. None took him up on it. Some of the girls at the riverside were already sitting with boys, but these were the older boys, the almost-men ones, who were tall and arrogant, who’d played sports in school and had already had girlfriends and sure didn’t need their dads or anyone else giving them the Sex Talk. They knew. They understood what was expected of them, and were proud to deliver.

Arlo wondered what the girls thought about it.

Milo Stevenson, Arlo’s age nearly to the day and closest to one of those “friends” his dad had referenced, waded past the eddy pools—one or two were pretty deep—and came up out of the water toward Arlo. He had a stick figure physique, like Arlo, but Milo knew how to socialize and so didn’t have to stand on the edges of things.

In town, with bars for his phone, Arlo had had friends all over the world—Canada, Florida, Israel. He traded texts with smart, sensitive people. He’d liked that. His uncle had given him the mobile device between his third and fourth tours in Ethiopia. It had always amazed Arlo that his uncle, an intelligent worldly man, and his mom shared so much DNA.

If Uncle Frank were to come back to town and find their old apartment empty, he might surmise where they were, and come up and maybe even take Arlo away from this. But that was rank fantasy. Arlo’s uncle had been catastrophically wounded by an IED and wasn’t going to be taking anybody away anywhere.

“Where you been?” Milo asked, grinning his shamelessly bucktoothed grin. He hadn’t brought swimming trunks with him so he was in his underwear.

Arlo didn’t want to mention Dad and the Talk—didn’t want to think about that—so he said, “Just off. By myself. Thinking.”

“Yeah, thinking!” Milo made a not quite closed fist and pumped his arm. “You’ll go blind from that, y’know.”

Arlo didn’t blush, like he used to whenever someone spoke explicitly about sex stuff. He hadn’t blushed with his dad earlier. Milo’s comment was just vaguely disgusting and childish.

Milo dampened the dirt as he came to stand next to Arlo, squelching mud up between his toes. Together they surveyed the scene at the river. Arlo knew everybody from middle school and from around the town. That town wasn’t podunk small, but it wasn’t big either, just another economically failing dot on the map. As crazy dangerous as cities were, at least they had sophisticated inhabitants who could entertain ideas and communicate without base crudities. Arlo could imagine himself living in a city one day.

“So, who you gonna fuck, then?” Milo asked, in the tone you’d use to ask if one were getting Coke or Pepsi.

“I couldn’t say.”

Maybe Arlo had said that too drolly. Milo looked sidelong and raised an eyebrow. “You keeping something secret?”

Arlo was; but not any secret Milo would suspect. “No,” he said.

Milo wasn’t dumb-as-a-bag-of-rocks stupid, but he didn’t think like Arlo did. Nobody up on the Hill, not even—maybe least of all—the adults, seemed to have thoughts like Arlo’s. These people were ... physical. Reactive. They’d made up their minds about things already. They were bodies, not brains.

“You better figure out who,” Milo said, and for a second he actually sounded sympathetic. “You don’t want to get left out, right?”

That was the thing, though: Arlo did want to be left out of this revolution/experiment/whatever it was. He didn’t really care about the government’s new population restrictions. The regulations at least had a logic to them. The world was a disaster, and making more people wasn’t going to help anything.

Certainly whatever babies they produced here on the Hill wouldn’t save the Earth from itself. This was just garbage making more garbage.

To Milo he said, “It’s nice of you to include me in your reindeer games,” and heard the condescending tone even before the words had finished leaving his lips.

Milo caught it too, and his buck teeth disappeared as his face darkened. His scrawny body tightened, and Arlo flinched, expecting a punch. “Wanna know why you got no friends, Mersch? Cuzza crap like that you say!”

Arlo figured that would have been Milo’s cue to stalk off, but the boy lingered. He leaned toward Arlo and lowered his voice. This, maybe, was why he’d come out of the water to speak to Arlo in the first place. “I got my eye on Marcie MacAuliffe. I’m gonna do it to Marcie MacAuliffe.” A fearsome glower came to his face, but his voice trembled as he added, “If you even look at her, I’ll break your head open.”

Then he did stalk angrily away. Marcie MacAuliffe was a ninth grader. She picked at the zits on her chin with the nail of her little finger. She did it almost constantly. Milo, as far as Arlo was concerned, was welcome to her if she would have him.

After another minute he withdrew quietly from the river bend, leaving his peers to their mating rituals.


No dinner bell rang. There was just a lot of hollering to “get your asses over here!” Arlo went reluctantly to where the tents and vehicles were. This was the “heart” of their community, the town square, the downtown. Trailers bled rust into the ground, and a generator clattered. Folding tables had been unfolded and laden with food.

Pregnant women stirred things in steaming pots.

Arlo had hated the apartment he and his mom and dad had had in town. The walls were like cardboard and everybody in the cruddy complex was loud and inconsiderate. The water pressure had been bad, and the carpet gave off a permanent chemical stink.

Now Arlo was sleeping on a slow-leaking air mattress in a tent. He’d complained about that. Once. Then his mom had laid in to him, telling him what a whiner he was and bringing evidence against him that dated back to when he was three. Arlo wasn’t sure, but it seemed like she was even meaner to him since she’d gotten illegally pregnant.

With everyone together it looked like a lot of people, minus those adults on sentry duty. Arlo, when he got woken up at night by noise and couldn’t get back to sleep and went out wandering the Hill, made sure he avoided the sentries. Those men got bored and trigger happy. Nothing was going to come up the rocky road, with its dangerous curves and several axle-busting drop-offs, without making itself known miles off. Besides, they’d pulled brush and logs across the road. It didn’t even look like it existed anymore. The Population Police would have to know it was there to find it, and they’d have to have a reason to be looking. So far as Arlo knew, nobody official knew about the Hill.

Dinnertime was just as rowdy as afternoon had been at the river. Boys were still showing off for girls, in desperate and oblique ways now. Arlo crept off as far as he dared with his bowl of stew. The adults wanted everybody to eat together, like it was tribally important. Arlo stayed out of his mom’s line of sight, but he also avoided his dad, still queasy from the sexual how-to lesson of earlier.

It wasn’t that Arlo wasn’t interested in sex, he thought as he stabbed a bit of meat with a plastic fork. He was thirteen and a half. He got hard-ons all the time, and his stomach was always doing flip-flops. But he wasn’t even sure he liked girls that way. Hell, he thought about boys just as often. That wasn’t even the real point, though. What he absolutely (or “abso-fucking-lutely” as Dad never failed to say it) did not want was to impregnate one of the girls of this community. Or any girl. Or any woman, anywhere. Maybe he would never want to do that. For the life of him, he didn’t understand the obsessive desire of some people to breed.

After all, had his mom ever been happy that she’d had him? And how would she treat his infant brother or sister in three months, when she delivered? Or, as all these barbarians referred to the event: when she “popped?"

Fast autumn night was settling, but with this always-summer climate it was still shirt sleeve weather even here in coastal Northern California.

Mr. Jaspers, who was tremendously overweight, stood up and tried to lead everybody in a prayer of thanksgiving, but he was shouted down vehemently. Mark Stevenson, Milo’s dad, got to his feet, taking the floor. It was like a redneck parliament, Arlo thought and snickered and knew nobody else would appreciate the joke.

“We didn’t do this because some moldy old book told us to be fruit flies and multiply!” Mr. Stevenson said. Arlo thought that was a pretty good play on words, or would have been if it was intentional. Whatever else, this wasn’t a religious community. Mark Stevenson, his drooping hillbilly mustache bristling, went on, “We came up here because we reject what the goddamn government says! All my life I’ve watched our rights disappearin’ one after another. But this—is—it. Nobody tells me I can’t make a baby! No motherfucker’s got that power!”

Sure enough, he’d pulled a black handgun from his waistband and was pointing it at the sky. Arlo tensed for the shot, but brandishing the firearm was apparently enough for Milo’s dad.

He got a raucous round of cheers.

Someone came and sat down next to Arlo where he was cross-legged on the ground.

“This meat tastes like ass.”

It was deer, and it tasted pretty gamy to Arlo too. The families had bought up lots of food from the grocery outlet in town before making their move. Cheap stuff, with Chinese writing on the boxes. But the supplies weren’t going to last. They probably wouldn’t starve. There was a lot of game on the Hill, and a lot of the adults knew how to hunt. But people were going to be missing their knock-off brand Twinkies and Ho Ho’s. To say nothing about alcohol.

Arlo said to the person who’d sat down beside him, “Better get used to ass, then.” He wanted that to sound sneery. He had no wish to talk to this individual.

But Aisha Rabinsky just chuckled at his comment. She was a girl from his grade. Her evident social awkwardness was maybe a little more orthodox than Arlo’s own. She was unhygienic, uncoordinated when it came to sports or any physical feats, and her squared-off face wasn’t going to make anybody forget Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Nor would her heavy frame knock out any lingering images of supermodels.

“You got anyone picked out?” Aisha asked. She’d speared a piece of the meat and was eyeing it. After a moment she put it in her mouth and chewed resignedly.

“No,” Arlo said. Was this all the kids would ever talk about?

“Good. I got an idea, and I think you’re smart enough to understand it.”

He turned, blinking. The notion of anybody on this Hill being smarter than him was laughable. He was a thinker, a reader, someone with genuine human depth.

“I offended you. That’s good.” Aisha Rabinsky spoke with an unfamiliar directness. He remembered her mumbled, slow-witted answers in class, her general sulkiness. She added in a shrewd tone, “It means you are smart, and not just a smartass.”

“Maybe I’m both.”

“And he’s witty too. Hurrah. What I prize I’ve bagged.”

This wasn’t an Aisha he recognized. For some reason that made him mad. “Hey, you haven’t bagged any—”

“Oh, keep your voice down.” There was enough ambient racket and they were far enough away from the others that no one could overhear. “I want to make a deal with you, Arlo. I’m not down with this whole thing going on here, okay? I don’t want any boy’s dick in me, especially not so I can swell up with a pup. You gonna make a fat girl joke off that?” Suddenly her eyes glowered as menacingly as Milo’s had before at the river.

Arlo said with a soft sincerity, “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Good. Look, these grownups aren’t going to let this go. My asshole parents sure aren’t. They’re gonna make this whole kooky baby village thing happen. But they’ll have to do it without me.”

“Are you going to run away?” Arlo thought about that often, but he couldn’t imagine a happy ending after he got to the bottom of the long road on foot, half-dead from exposure. Go to the police? Sure. Then what? Foster care. With social services as screwed up and overburdened as they were, he’d probably get put in something like a jail. He’d only had one Uncle Frank in his life.

“Run away? Then why would I need you? No. I need a stall. Be my—whatever. Boyfriend. Mate. Stud pony. Pretend. We say we’re doing it. Girls don’t get pregnant every time. We can string this sham along awhile. I can even say I am pregnant later on, that I stopped having my period, depending on how long I need to stall them.”

“Stall until what?”

“Until I do make my move. But I’m not leaving with nothing. I’m taking one of the vehicles. And food. I might take a gun too. I figure I’ll need to make it on my own for a while out there.” Her rounded face had a determined cast.

Arlo was impressed. While he’d been wallowing in misery and disgust, this girl had been laying serious plans.

Something softened in Aisha’s expression. Gently she said, “You don’t want to have sex, right? With a girl, I mean. Like, aren’t you gay?”

No one had ever had the insight to actually ask him that. He shrugged bony shoulders. “I don’t really know.”

She patted his knee, and the touch was comradely and oddly comforting. “Okay. Think about it, will you? I always thought you were smarter than the rest of these dumbshits.” She’d finished her stew and was now gracelessly trying to lever her bulky self back onto her feet.

“I’ve thought about it, Aisha. I’m in. And when you run, I want to go with you.”


Five days later, days he and Aisha had spent quietly caching canned food, the last beer was opened and consumed by the men. The women didn’t get any because alcohol was bad for the babies, and every one of them was carrying a felonious child in her womb. There wasn’t any doctor on the Hill. The women would have to deliver “frontier style.”

Arlo watched from the trees as the beer ritual was enacted. It started as a joke but got solemn very quickly. The adult males stood in a circle, and the can went hand to hand, one sip each. When it was empty, somebody crushed it and tossed it into the center of the circle, and they all stared at it.

Maybe it was coming home to them, Arlo thought. What they were giving up. What it really meant to leave civilization, screwed up or not, so totally behind.

He pushed away from the tree trunk he was leaning against and made toward the river bend. He and Aisha had dug a hole in the woods for their supplies. Sneaking the food cans out of the storage trailer had been fun, Arlo had to admit. He’d never stolen anything in his life and was surprised at how thrilling it was. Aisha had picked out the vehicle she wanted. It was Henry Steep’s dad’s Mitsubishi. She had checked it, and it had a nearly full charge. Arlo couldn’t drive, but she said she knew how.

The two of them just needed a few more supplies. And they had to clear the road without anybody seeing so they could drive out at night.

And they had to get a gun. Aisha had decided she needed one. Once she made up her mind, Arlo had found, that was that. It was a dangerous world out there, and they’d be on their own, and so had to have real protection. It wouldn’t do to escape this place just to get waylaid by bandits as soon as they hit the highway.

Arlo almost turned back around when he got to the river. But appearances had to be kept up. This was the kids’ area, and the adults didn’t interfere or supervise here. If anyone thought that he and Aisha were faking it, though, they’d get ratted out.

Aisha was sitting on a rock, with her feet in the water. Arlo, his ratty sneakers in one hand, put his arm around her fleshy shoulders when he reached her and sat next to her. She didn’t swim and, apparently, rarely went near a bar of soap, and so had an odor about her. He didn’t let it bother him. She turned and smacked his cheek with her full lips.

He looked out at the spectacle before them. “It’s like a Roman orgy,” he muttered.

“What’s so Roman about it?”

“Without the togas? Not much, I guess.” But the orgy part was pretty accurate, he thought, dismayed. Teenagers were splashing in the water. To call them half-naked was generous. Civilized standards had gotten weaker by the day. All that bare skin in its many pigments didn’t arouse Arlo. In fact, he felt his gut curdling.

On the riverbank, in the tall grass or right out in the open, some of the other kids were doing other things. They weren’t all the older kids, the almost-adult ones.

Arlo looked sharply away.

“The Population Police would have a field day here,” he said.

“I don’t believe in Pop Cops.”

Aisha wasn’t shy about her opinions, but this— “How’s that?”

“You think the government’s any better organized than this bunch up here? It’s all gridlock and dwindling resources and crumbling infrastructure. Laws are empty gestures these days.”

Aisha could argue, but she was also usually rational about it. He liked that. “So women aren’t legally limited to producing only one offspring now?” he asked.

“Of course they are. But how do you enforce that? Send in the black helicopters?”

Arlo winced, even knowing the metaphor was common currency for governmental overreach and the erosion of civil rights.

Glumly he said, “We have to get the hell out of here.”

“Patience, my love. Almost time.” Aisha scooped up his hand in hers. She kicked lazily at the water, and he did the same. Didn’t couples do things together?

He suddenly spotted Milo Stevenson. Milo was crouched in the water, with the river flowing past up to his elbows. He was looking sullenly at nothing. His lower lip was badly split and one eye bruised. Arlo glanced around until he saw Marcie MacAuliffe. She was holding hands with Da’wan Vicks, who was a bigger boy than either Milo or Arlo.

When Arlo looked back, Milo was glaring at him, like he was daring Arlo to say anything. Or hoping he would. It wasn’t an even split between boys and girls on the Hill. The adults wanted pregnancies, so that they could defy the government or whatever their reactionary reasoning was for this whole undertaking. They didn’t much care who impregnated who among the youngsters, so long as it wasn’t one of the grownups.

Milo, despite social skills superior to Arlo’s, might just end up an odd man out.

“He’s just jealous,” Aisha said, noticing Milo’s glower.

“He’s looking for someone to take his frustrations out on.”

“Don’t worry, sweetie. I’ll protect you.” Aisha, improbably, had turned out to have intelligence and wit. Even when she got crude, which was often enough, her vulgarities had a certain lyricism. Arlo had never seen any hint of this in school. Maybe she’d led a secret life, like he had with his Net pals. Aisha even seemed to relish this silly girlfriend/boyfriend pantomime.

She kissed him again, this time on the lips. Every time she did that, he wondered what his first real kiss would be like, if he would even be able to tell it apart from these pretend ones.

Truth was, though, he liked Aisha. She was more than a friend. She was his ally, his confederate. He had never had anybody so on his side in anything before this. What they were planning was drastic. He was basically talking about starting his life over with this person. Where they would end up and what they would do for money, he didn’t know, but he was still willing to go with her. That was a lot to gamble at thirteen and a half.

While they were sitting there, a fight broke out. It was between two of the older boys, and they each had enough muscle behind their punches to do real damage. The younger kids screamed like it was a carnival. A girl who’d lain with one or the other of the two combatants stood off to the side, tears pouring down her cheeks, but she didn’t look away.

Blood started to dot the dirt.

One of the boys picked up a rock bigger than his hand.

For several minutes after nobody knew if the boy on the ground was dead. Someone finally knelt and, squeamishly, put an ear to his chest.

“We need to get the hell out of here,” Arlo repeated. Aisha squeezed his hand. Milo, like most of the others, had come up onto the bank to see. Now he looked over his shoulder at Arlo, still with that scowl.


Long after dinner and sundown somebody ran a sound system off the generator and was blasting thrash. Other people wanted to sleep. Arlo lay in his little tent, atop his slowly sinking plastic air mattress, and listened to arguing voices interspersed among the loud breakneck music.

The adults were worse without beer, he had decided.

He was waiting for true night. Aisha had a windup flashlight, and they were going to creep down the road and pull a few of the logs out of the way. They would make it look like they had just rolled out of place. That was the plan. If nobody noticed, they would clear the rest of the road tomorrow night, then grab their food and Mr. Steep’s Mitsubishi and take off. Aisha had said she would get the gun at the last minute.

Arlo barely heard the argument as it escalated outside. He was excited about tonight. They would have to really watch out for the sentries.

For the night of their escape they’d planned a diversion. It would draw the sentries out of position, cause a lot of confusion, and allow them to roll the car quietly onto the road. That was the plan. A good plan, Arlo thought. He believed in it, like he believed in Aisha.

Someone yanked down the zipper on his tent, and an arm swept aside the flap. Arlo’s eyes went wide, and an automatic fear went through him. He was quite sure his mom wanted him afraid of her, and had been conditioning him all these years.

He sat up on the mattress. She was outlined in the triangular opening. Arlo’s mother had skin that was going prematurely leathery. Her dreadlocks went halfway down her back, and she was wearing Christmas-y pajama bottoms and an oversized t-shirt that still barely contained her swollen breasts.

“Did I wake you?”

It was what she’d said on school mornings after walking into his room without a knock. What threw him now was that she had asked it with seeming sincerity, not in that nasty sarcastic tone.

“No, Mom.”

“Good. I want to talk to you.”

This was familiar too, the start of a thousand lectures on what would turn out to be All His Fault. He made sure not to sigh out loud.

She sat, accommodating her distended belly with every move. She almost always had a hand on the swelling. It never looked like a protective gesture to Arlo. More a reminder to those around her. Or a warning.

“I want,” she said, her back regally straight and chin up just a bit, “to make sure you know how to treat your child.”

A great shocked silence detonated over Arlo’s eardrums. He felt utter disbelief. These were words beyond absurdity. His eyes widened even more, until the eyeballs stung, until he knew he was going to have to bray laughter in his mom’s face or throw his fist into it.

But it got worse, and that froze him. She started listing off the parental traits he would need. Patience. Sympathy. Understanding. More stuff like that. His mom and dad knew about Aisha, of course. What was implicit in his mom’s discourse—and what was filling him with toxic incredulity—was that she obviously believed herself possessed of all these characteristics. There wasn’t a hint of irony or self-doubt in any of this.

When she got to the end, she paused and smiled. Then she added, “You know, I gave up a singing career for you. You have to be ready to make that sort of sacrifice for your child.”

This was old. This was musty legend. Arlo had heard her go on about this all his life. She’d screamed it at him, at Dad, at anybody who hit the wrong button with her. Foregoing a “promising” singing career had been her great selfless act. He’d heard her croon around the apartment. Hers was a better-than-karaoke voice but not much more than that, he thought.

Despite his fear, he said, “Why didn’t you just keep on singing? Other moms have done it.”

She’d been softly rubbing her belly. Now her hand went still. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Her voice had gone low, spring-loaded.


“Stop talking!”

He did stop, immediately. And promised himself she would never hear another word out of him. Not ever again.


It was about half a mile to where the roadblock was, and halfway there, sneaking through the brush, Aisha flicked the flashlight over his face.

“What’s wrong?”

“My mother’s a monster. Keep going.”

Back at the camp the music had finally gotten shut off, but the arguing went on. People were grumbling about the supplies, which had worried Arlo while he’d waited to meet Aisha. Maybe their theft of the cans had been found out. But no; the people just missed their familiar store-bought goodies. Someone wanted to get started on building a still, but nobody quite knew how to turn fermented vegetables into alcohol. It would have been a matter of a few minutes research if there was Wi-Fi, Arlo observed silently. But the Hill’s isolation was meant to be total. Phones could be used to track them. So went the so-called thinking.

The adults were morons, thought Arlo, just like his dad. Or emotionally primitive, like his mom. The children of these families hadn’t turned out any better than the adults for the most part. And the children of those children would probably be even worse.

He and Aisha reached the logjam, or the place where it should have been, anyway. She played her light over the timber, which lay on the roadside now. Only a few brambly bushes actually blocked the rocky trail.

Aisha said, “Jeez, what happened?”

“Those didn’t roll out of place.” The cut-down trees had been stacked next to the road. “Somebody’s been going out of here,” Arlo deduced.

“Maybe somebody split tonight.”

“All the vehicles are still here. Someone has gone out and come back. Maybe several times.”

“What about the lookouts?” Aisha asked.

“Maybe they’re in on it. Or a lot lazier than we figured.”

“Holy shit. Nobody’s supposed to leave.”

“We were going to leave,” Arlo said. “If we’re ready to break the rules, others will have had the same idea.” He liked his logical thinking, but it bothered him that this particular eventuality had never occurred to him before. He suddenly felt afraid, a fear different from the Pavlovian terror his mother had instilled in him. He thought of all the guns on the Hill, all the quick tempers. He thought about the sentries they’d snuck past so carefully. Aisha had been right: this place wasn’t organized; there wasn’t even a leader. But it was damned dangerous. Huskily he said, “Maybe we ought to put off our escape.”

The windup flashlight started to die. Aisha gave it a few fast cranks, and the yellow glow underlit her resolute expression. “Maybe we ought to go tonight.”

“But if ...”

“Don’t worry, lover boy. We’ve got a good plan. We just gotta have the balls to follow it through.”


His heart beat twice as fast as normal, but it was because he was excited. As frightening as this was, he was glad to be a part of it. He wanted to be away from this place and these awful people. It didn’t bother him to be leaving his parents behind. Not even a little.

They waited until after three a.m. Arlo had no problem staying awake. Then he and Aisha set out on their last errands.

Arlo went into the stand of trees, to dig up their cans. They’d forgotten about water, so Aisha was taking some containers to the river. She would go fill them upstream from the big bend where the kids congregated in the day. “I don’t want to be drinking anybody’s fluids,” she said, making a face.

Dressed in the clothes he wanted to take, Arlo knelt and scooped up dirt. He had Uncle Frank’s phone in his pocket and looked forward to being able to use it again. A few frail fingers of moonlight reached through the branches. The Hill was quiet as it never was at almost any other time. He heard the breeze, birds, animal movements in the woods around him. These sounds didn’t scare him as they might have when he was ten or eleven. He was past fearing the night.

He grinned as he unearthed the supplies and put them into a nylon bag. His face didn’t seem to quite know what to do with the grin. His cheekbones immediately ached. It felt strange to have his teeth exposed.

When he stood, though, everything came to a sudden standstill. His underdeveloped muscles stiffened, and his fist tightened on the weighted bag. He’d heard something. It was a voice. A voice he recognized.

Instincts he’d never known about whipped him into motion. He went dashing through the trees, ducking and weaving with a dexterity he was sure he didn’t possess. He didn’t head toward the trailers and tents; he made for the river.

The easy constant sloshing sound was backdrop, and he tuned it out. There was other noise, on the bank, and these sounds had touched off his primal responses. He wasn’t thinking as he took the last leaping steps. He raised the can-rattling nylon bag like it was the most natural thing in the world to do. He saw Aisha Rabinsky on the ground in the moonlight, and he saw Milo Stevenson on top of her. It was his voice Arlo had recognized, as the boy gasped breathless obscenities.

He swung the bag, a perfect arc, as good as any school jock could have done. Milo even cooperated by lifting his head, probably hearing Arlo’s last footfalls. The impact wrenched Arlo’s shoulder socket, a sudden deep pain that couldn’t have compared to the stunning effect the blow had on Milo. The skinny bucktoothed boy came clean off Aisha, rolling backward into the water. He didn’t even cry out.

Arlo dropped down next to Aisha. White-hot adrenaline poured through every vein he had. He’d never felt anything like it. He was all body right now, purely physical. But something flickered in his brain, and he leaned close to Aisha and took up her hand. Blood shone on her forehead and on a hand-sized rock lying next to her on the ground.

“Are you ... okay?” It sounded hopelessly inadequate. What was someone after this happened? “Okay?" Stupid word.

Aisha’s eyes were rolling, but she seemed to be doing that deliberately. “Having trouble focusing.”

Concussion, Arlo wondered? He tried to remember what you were supposed to do about that. Don’t let her pass out.

Strength came into her hand. She squeezed. She put a dimpled elbow under her, and he helped her sit up a little even as he said in a voice thick with worry, “You shouldn’t move.”

“Thanks, nurse. But my head’s clearing.” She reached up and touched her bloodied forehead, where a few strands of her scraggly hair were stuck. “Asshole hit me with a rock. Not even original,” she said to her glistening fingertips.

The sarcastic tone was welcome. Relief pumped through Arlo.

Aisha sat up further and tugged at her clothes. Nothing had been torn, but she had to refasten and rebutton. Arlo looked away and felt his cheeks heating, just like the old days—embarrassed by sex and nudity. This, though, was something a lot worse.

“Where is the asshole?” Aisha asked.

Arlo looked. Milo had somersaulted into the water. Those were the shallows where the rocks stuck up, also where the eddy pools were. Some were deep, he remembered.

“Pull him out, Arlo!” Aisha said sharply.

Without that command he might have let his former classmate just lie there facedown in the river. Milo was slightly built, like him, and Arlo hauled him out of the water by the back of his undone jeans. He flopped him over onto his back and left him there. It had felt good to smash him in the face with the bag of cans. It was something else Arlo had never done before in his life.

“Is he all right?” asked Aisha. She sounded calm, but he heard her breathing deeply, like she was doing a yoga exercise.

“Maybe. But if he’s not, I’m not going to do anything to save him.” Arlo’s voice had steel in it suddenly, even though he was shivering. His system had taken too many jolts, and the adrenaline was fizzling. “Are we still going? There’s no doctor around here.”

“I don’t need a doctor,” Aisha said. She stood, smoothly and quickly for once, before he could make a move to help her. “He didn’t do anything to me.” She declared this. Arlo wondered if the statement was truth or a brave fiction she would tell herself from now on. Maybe they would talk about it someday, far away from here.

Arlo reached for the plastic containers scattered on the ground. They trembled in his hands. “I’ll get the water.”

She streaked the blood across her forehead, then wiped the heel of her hand on her leg. “No time for a gun now. We’re way behind schedule. We light the fire, take the Mitsubishi, and bug out.”


“I wouldn’t have done this with anybody but you, Arlo.”

“The same here, Aisha.”

“Enough mawkishness. Let’s go, let’s go!”


The fire was the diversion. Aisha had a lighter so old it had probably lit cigarettes, and the dry brush they’d piled in a clear spot up the slope caught easily enough. It was very visible. Somebody finally let out a yell as Arlo and Aisha waited in the trees.

People came tearing out of the tents and trailers. The two of them had set the blaze near enough to the river that it could be contained fairly quickly. They would probably find unconscious Milo as well. Men ran by with guns, but Arlo wasn’t sure if these were the sentries.

He and Aisha made their move when it looked good.

On the Mitsubishi’s rusting backside one bumper sticker, fresher than the others, stood out: you can have my baby when you pry it from my cold dead teat.

Arlo eased into the passenger seat with a nerve-jangling stealth. Aisha, already behind the wheel, had picked the vehicle with care. It was parked on a mild incline at the edge of the built-up area. When she let out the brake, the ancient car started to roll. Fear and excitement warred inside Arlo once more. The shush of the grass as the Mitsubishi coasted toward the road sounded terribly loud to him. He looked sidelong, awed, as Aisha handled the steering wheel. Lights off, silent running. She wouldn’t thumb the ignition until they reached the dismantled blockade. Then, even if the sentries popped off, they’d be out of easy range.

The camp receded yard by yard in Arlo’s sideview mirror. Trash had piled up everywhere, and the place had become quite a dump. It seemed fitting.

Fleetingly he wondered how many other tiny outlaw pockets there were like this one across the nation, civilians who’d taken it on themselves to fight the baby wars. There had to be more. Maybe some were more effective than this one.

Nobody, evidently, saw them leaving. Nobody, not even Mr. Steep, came sprinting after the car. When the Mitsubishi jounced onto the mouth of the rocky road, Arlo crouched low in his seat, expecting gunshots to ring out and bullet holes to star the side windows. Their cans clanked in the footwell. An old candy bar wrapper slid off the dashboard. Aisha wrangled the car. The slope steepened.

Brush closed over them, scratching at the vehicle’s flanks. Somehow Aisha still made out the road. They descended.

They reached the former roadblock. No one had put the logs back in place. Aisha started the engine, and the car came to whining life. The headlights threw back pupil-shrinking light from the brush ahead, but Aisha drove them right through. They gained some speed now. The tires spat small stones every which way. She stayed on the road as it lifted and dropped and swerved. Arlo heard laughter and realized he was making the sounds. He looked behind, but nothing was following.

They went down and down from the Hill. One hour passed, then they started in on the next hour. Soon he would be able to use his phone, get back in touch with his worldwide network of friends, and that was just one giddy possibility awaiting him.

The journey was bouncing and treacherous. Aisha maintained a careful concentration the whole way. She really could drive, and there was nothing maladroit about her when she was at the wheel. Arlo wondered what other skills she had. He wondered too what he could bring to their partnership, how he would contribute to the new life they were about to start. Maybe they would even go to a city.

He felt a deep-seated confidence. He had handled Milo, had vanquished a real-life enemy. Certainly bashing someone in the face with a bag of canned goods wasn’t the answer to every situation, but he was pleased to know he had it in him to do something like that. He would no doubt find out a lot more about himself in the days and months to come.

Above, night drained away. The sky went pale.

At the bottom of the road down from the Hill, or at least along the first flat stretch that didn’t present rocky upcroppings and hopeless potholes, a semicircular bank of lights came on all at once just ahead. These were far brighter than the Mitsubishi’s headlamps or the first anemic hint of day. The lights were halogen, laced with purple, searing. Arlo threw an arm over his eyes, and Aisha stomped the brake pedal.

“Occupants of the vehicle,” said an amplified voice, “put your hands up at eye level, palms outward. Do nothing we do not tell you to do, and do everything that we say. That is the only way this ends well for you.”

Bandits didn’t operate this way.

Arlo had his hands up before he knew it, squinting painfully against the light.

Aisha still gripped the steering wheel.

Arlo felt fear again, different from everything that had gone before. This was true mortal dread. Behind those banked lights mounted on the semicircle of all-terrain vehicles, he knew that guns were aimed at them both, with professional fingers on well-oiled triggers.

“It’s the police, Aisha!” he said in the kind of strangled yelp that usually brought him up out of a nightmare. “Put your hands up!”

“I don’t believe in Pop Cops,” she said, the words flat, deliberate.

“That doesn’t matter. Whoever was sneaking off the Hill was probably robbing houses on the edge of town or banditing on the highway. The police think we’re them! We’re toast here. We need to cooperate!” Whoever had been doing the stealing hadn’t been after money; rather, food and comforting commercial goods. Arlo was vastly thankful that Aisha hadn’t brought a gun along after all. He was also glad that Milo Stevenson had been breathing when he’d last checked. Even so, today was indeed going to be the beginning of a new life for them, just not what he’d had in mind.

Aisha still needed to raise her hands.

Arlo’s heart was pounding once more. It seemed, even, to be going at an impossible speed. And his heartbeat was loud, thumping his eardrums, shaking the frame of the cheap old car.

Then the sound overtopped them, the fast mechanical pulse suddenly recognizable, and two large presences went by overhead. Their rotors chopped the air, and silhouetted treetops waved violently on either side of the road.

The helicopters were heading back the way he and Aisha had just come. Arlo didn’t try to crane his neck to see if they were black. The police hadn’t told him to move. He kept his hands up, his palms outward. A useless gesture of warding. He couldn’t hold off whatever was going to happen in the next minute.

But he could still talk, and words, truer than any he had ever spoken, came suddenly to him. “No matter what, I’ll see you on the other side of this. I swear it. And if you want me to be your real boyfriend, I’ll do that. I love you, Aisha.”

When the helicopters had thumped their way into the distance, Aisha let out a long breath. She turned and looked at him, and he wondered if she, like him, had never heard the words I love you before—not in any meaningful way, from anybody believable.

“I don’t think you’re boyfriend material,” she said wryly.

Then she too brought up her hands, palms faced out. END

Eric Del Carlo just received his first acceptance at “Analog.” His fiction has also been published in “Asimov’s” and “Strange Horizons.” His latest novel is an urban fantasy that he co-wrote with his father Vic, entitled “The Golden Gate Is Empty.”


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