Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Au Pair, or Else
by Lee Budar-Danoff

Frail World
by R.A. Conine

Electra Had a Daughter
by Juliana Rew

This Long Vigil
by Rhett C. Bruno

Old Clothes
by Eric Del Carlo

Good Behavior
by Genevieve Williams

Saving Time
by John Hegenberger

World Away
by Alan Garth

Shorter Stories

Dreams to Dust
by Jamie Lackey

Virtual Ghosts
by Adam Gaylord

Olympus Mons
by James E. Guin


Science of Dogs
by John McCormick

Not Lost in Space
by Eric M. Jones



Comic Strips





Frail World

By R.A. Conine

WHENCE COME I AND WHITHER go I? That is the great unfathomable question.
—Max Planck.

The last day dawned California bright and clean. Like most L.A. mornings, it was charmingly lit, placid looking and an utter lie. Terrible things were squirming and feeding beneath the surface of that deceitfully sunny paradise.

Karl’s marriage had been a nightmare far longer than it had been tolerable. There were hints of seriousness of course but no indication that the constant fighting and bickering had reached a tipping point from which there was no return. He did not know then, when he rose from the clean sheets, that he was ready to press the button. Despite the ceaseless punishment, emotional scarring and dark vengeful wishes, he didn’t really understand what he was capable of, or just how far she had pushed him.

On the final day, when the shouting started in earnest, he retreated to the basement as usual. It was his only real strategy, though it wasn’t a winning one. He didn’t win fights with Gale Ann Dryden, emphasis on Gale. He merely weathered them.

Despite the fact that there was no victory in retreat, the dark sanctuary of the converted root cellar did offer some tactical advantages. She didn’t usually bother to follow him down the creaking wooden steps. She had an unreasoning fear of spiders, mold, and holes in the earth.

Thus the furious assaults on his senses and ego were temporarily allayed. But only temporarily. She didn’t let a damned thing go. She didn’t rest until victory was hers, he was cowed, and her warped idea of justice was achieved. It was likely the only bliss she knew, outside of spending his money.

There were times when Karl misjudged the seriousness of the argument and stayed too long aboveground. When the fight neared the violent breaking point, she was much more likely to pursue him down the stairs. But even then, she didn’t stay long on his turf.

She was deeply uncomfortable in that place, some primal part of her bridling at the tomblike, dirt-caked confines. Her future belonged to the cold, worm-ridden earth. She was going to be there a very long time. But for now, for the moment, she was a part of the upper world, a brilliant place full of neon-lit malls, hard-muscled men and glittering pleasures. She hated the basement. She hated it even more than her pathetic husband.

In better times, when her distaste for him and razor-edged arrogance were very small parts of her personality, she had more than once expressed an interest in his work. She did not hesitate, in those early days, to pull up a stool to his workbench and question him about his obsession.

“What is all this?” she asked him the week after their triumphant return from champagne-splashed Cabo. They were still basking in the memories of lush, oil-slathered pleasures, the urgency of muscular bodies pressed to orgasmic limits, and endless combinations of possibly illegal contortions and penetrations.

She said, “You spend so much money on this stuff. I know you’re old and you like futsy things, and you’re smart and all. But what are you trying to do?”

Karl said, “First, I’m not old. I’m only forty-five. Second, I work for the university and most of this equipment is on loan. It’s the electricity to run it that costs money. They won’t help with that. Second, what I’m trying to do isn’t easy to explain. I’ve been trying to make it comprehensible to students and actual theoretical physicists for nearly twenty-six years, longer than you’ve been alive, m’dear. They’re all interested in colliders and understanding how subatomic particles interact in the real world. They hope big machines with lots of moving parts will give them better glimpses of the fundamental nature of time. That’s not going to happen.

“I’m experimenting on a much smaller scale, on the Planck level. This is where quantum theory breaks down because gravity as a unifying force becomes almost irrelevant. Gravity is very big in quantum cause and effect scenarios. It rules nearly just about everything in our upper universe. On the Planck level, its effects are nearly inconsequential. It’s like diving down very deep into the ocean where the sun doesn’t really matter anymore. Some of the radiation gets through, but not much. You’re much closer to the cold, dark truth down there, to what the true fabric of the universe really looks like.

“Some people think it looks like foam. I think it looks like a surge of trillions of bubbles, each one representing a unique state of existence. That’s where Planck’s and Einstein’s theories wash up and meet, on a beach in a theoretical, weightless, frictionless, zero-energy bubble far below the place where we live and breathe. It’s an awfully small universe. And it’s pretty empty. You wouldn’t find much to eat there. That’s kind of a joke. It wouldn’t be hospitable to us at all. At least that’s what we think the place would be like.

“We can’t know, really. We’ll never get a look at that level of reality, no matter how good our science gets. And it’s so frail. You can’t imagine how delicate that whole structure is. Just being aware of a Planck bubble on our level can wipe it out all the way down there, like a massive storm blowing away a fishing village.

“Still, if you could reproduce that state, or somehow safely allow humans to interact with it, you would discover that nothing matters in terms of time, distance, velocity, or gravitational forces. You could go anywhere instantly and never age or die.”

Gale smiled warmly, falsely. “Does that mean I could shop forever?”

“Yes,” he agreed. “And you wouldn’t even have to get in the car to go to the mall.”

She nodded. “It sounds like poetry. I can almost understand what you’re saying.”

But she didn’t understand. She didn’t really care. She was only pretending because she wasn’t sure how heavy a hammer he might wield. In those early days, she was a stranger in his house. She didn’t want to antagonize him early, risk physical injury and endanger the relationship before she gained the upper hand. It was best, she knew, to fake it until she learned his pressure points and weaknesses. Then she would be in control.

She planned to run the usual scam, spending his money, entertaining his ideas about marital bliss for a while and then hitting him with the divorce papers when it looked like the well was drying up. The state of California was very cooperative in this effort. She got half just for making it to the altar and saying two words.

She’d done it before. He was a step down really, from the two aging male stars she’d already bled dry and destroyed. There had been others, too, less important pricks she’d screwed and screwed over. Sometimes they got clingy. Sometimes she had to deal with it using unsavory methods. She’d buried her third husband. He was jealous and mouthy and got on her last nerve. So she broke his back and legs with a baseball bat while he slept. Then she bundled him, still screaming, into the back of her Cadillac and drove deep into the Mojave desert. She spent all night digging the hole and cursing him. She wasn’t unkind about it. She offered to kill the bastard if he’d just shut up. But he didn’t. So he went into the ground wide awake. She felt nothing. It was his call.

Karl Lazenby wasn’t that sort of trailer trash. But he wasn’t really important either. He was a TV celebrity scientist, a D-lister at best. He was right up there with Bill Nye the Science Guy. Sometimes Karl made the rounds of the late night talk shows. He was known for his dry wit and outlandish (i.e. silly) theories. He was the kind of personality Leno and Letterman loved, a deadpan, serious fellow who clearly failed to grasp how tedious and ridiculous he sounded.

Letterman, with his ever keen eye for pop culture, pinged off the Dos Equis guy and labeled Karl, “The Most Boring Man in the World.” Karl didn’t seem to care. No matter how much eyebrow waggling and guffawing he heard, he just kept on talking, somehow making everything more amusing. Now and then, he was even kind enough to interrupt to ask what the heck was so funny.

Television was where Gale learned of and latched onto him first. He was a widower and that was always good. He made boatloads of money for the university. Largely due to his gullible celebrity status, his complex theories and lectures attracted plenty of Federal grants, Department of Defense contracts, individual investments and intrigued (though later baffled) students. He earned a bit more through speaking tours and had written and sold a book or two, dull heavy tomes with uninspiring titles like, “Allusion and Degeneration in Cosmology: Advocating Inventive Resistance.”

He wasn’t too rich. But he was an easy knock-off project between major engagements. She needed to be careful. Hollywood was a small town full of wagging mouths. It was best, she knew, to maintain a lower profile for a while. She didn’t want to end up notorious. In that event, she’d be forced to cross the country and milk politicians in D.C. Hell, they were more selfish, ego-stoked and manipulative than she was. And it was cold there. She hated the cold.

Gale had a plan and she had it down. But somehow, almost a year went by before she realized she had wasted months of a very costly and strictly limited lifespan. She got busy making his non-theoretical existence a living hell. She ramped up the personal attacks, slept around, made it public, made plenty of false accusations and started getting physical. A flurry of slaps in the car or a screaming assault with a rolled-up magazine usually did wonders to move things along. Better yet, these little motivators didn’t cause evident wounds or deep bruises that could be used against her in court. She had to be careful with regard to the real violence. She had a tendency to enjoy it too much. It was so easy to let things get out of hand.

She did her best to rein things in, but Karl was strangely slow for such a bright and inquisitive man. For reasons unknown to her, he seemed determined to work through their difficulties. She wasn’t about to put up with that crap.

On the last day, Gale woke up screaming at him. And she didn’t stop screaming until he fled to his little basement hideaway. Then she went after him, not feeling one bit of foreboding or regret. She was going to nail him to the wall. She was going to make him quit, that day, that hour, and sooner if possible.

She was tired of his long, miserable face and his squashy personality. She wanted to be free, and she planned to take half his money before she walked out the door, without the additional expenses and encumbrance of legal maneuvering. She had the papers all ready. He was going to sign them whether he liked it or not, or she was going to reduce him to a gibbering, emotionally wrecked pulp. Apparently, he didn’t know who he was screwing with. If he kept hemming and hawing, he was going to find out.

“Sign it,” she was shouting. “You pathetic waste of flesh. I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!

She backed him into a corner, waving the documents wildly and jabbing at him with a pen. She saw flecks of her own spittle bouncing off his twitching cheeks. He winced, confused. It was deeply satisfying. It felt great.

“You liar!” she screamed. “You slept with that bitch. Now you’re going to pay. Sign it!”

He sidestepped her and she slapped him hard with the papers. His head rocked back and he bared his teeth in a desperate snarl. He reached for something, anything, not sure how far she was going to push him this time.

He tried to reason with her. “I didn’t sleep with ...”

Liar!” she shouted.

His hand fell on the button, the button that powered the Planck rig and the mini-particle accelerator. It was designed to excite elements so small they couldn’t possibly be discovered using any technology, past, present, or future. These were completely theoretical particles yet humans, approaching godlike hubris, just knew they were there. He pressed it nervously, repeatedly, not sure what to do next.

There was a low growl as the generators spun up and she was momentarily distracted. “What?” she asked. “What did you do? What’s that glowing thing? Some kind of trick?” Then she glared at him. “A stupid light show doesn’t make any difference to me. You’re gonna sign this or I’ll kick your scrawny ass. Maybe I’ll just do that anyway. What are you gonna do, fight me? Just lay one hand on me, Karl. I’ll kill you, I swear.”

Gale slapped him with the papers repeatedly, flustering him. He took a desperate step backward and felt a sudden warm glow enfolding him. He had stumbled into the flimsy A-frame made of aluminum tent poles that encased the mini-field. The particle stream was active and very hot. It burned through his t-shirt in a flat second. He felt the skin on his shoulders crisp up like frying bacon. On the one hand he was burning alive. On the other, his crazy wife was all set to put his eye out with a pen. He decided to go through her.

He threw up his hands and shoved her, hoping she’d stumble and provide him with an opening to run for the stairs. She didn’t. She caught herself quickly and came at him with the writing instrument cocked back like a knife. Her eyes were wild, her self-control gone. “You touched me!” she roared.

She stabbed him with the pen, driving it deep into his neck. Then she yanked it free with a satisfied smirk. He felt a warm spray of arterial blood and saw red rain dappling the pristine instruments on a nearby table.

His next thought was completely absurd and kept echoing and reechoing in his head like a bouncy, irksome child’s lyric, It’s all fun and games until someone gets an eye poked out.

Things got hazy after that. He tumbled backward, grabbing at the slender rods of the A-frame and missed. He fell directly into the raging energy field. The last thing he felt was a horrible burning sensation from head to toe.

And then he was lying on his back and staring up at the untroubled and pristine sky.

He blinked.

The view remained the same: the blue vault of Heaven, gauzy cloud trails, and a persistent glow coming from somewhere nearby. He focused on the odd illumination. Not that it wasn’t all very weird. He wondered where the ceiling had gone, and the walls for that matter. He felt a cool breeze rippling over his prostrate form and heard a dull repetitive roar.

He thought inanely, It’s all fun and games until someone gets an eye poked out.

Then he sat up, amazed. The growling drumbeat filling his ears was caused by surging waves breaking against a shore made of mixed sand and volcanic ash. He was on a beach, a somewhat muddy one backed by dense jungle. He was positioned high above the tide line, on the lee side of a dune.

The glow was coming from an A-shaped afterimage hovering in the air a few inches above the sand. He recognized it as a flash remnant of the energy surge that had deposited him in that place, wherever it was.

The basement was gone. All that remained of his favorite hole in the ground was the A-frame energy signature, still stamped on the air. Like a retinal burn the flare remained, refusing to fade, existing on its own against all comprehensible physics rules. It should have faded quickly because the field housing he had constructed to channel the energy was missing. He knew then that he was someplace else, someplace very different. He knew at once that he was far from home, and from that crazy person.

He leapt to his feet, remembering. He clambered up the dune and ran into the tree-line, searching desperately for a weapon. He found a heavy branch covered in green vines and leaves. It was about the size of a baseball bat and comparably weighty. He needed to be ready for her.

He trudged down to the glowing portal and stood there with the makeshift club lifted high, waiting. He expected her to come through at any moment, following him, prepared to finish what she had started.

Self-consciously, he examined the base of his neck with his fingers and found no evidence of the puncture wound. He thought that was very odd. As he was readjusting his grip on the branch he noticed something else. His hands weren’t right. They were drier than he remembered, wrinkled and bony. The nails were long and uncut. They were not the hands he recalled. His wedding ring was dark with age and tarnish. It had been bright and polished before. His clothes, he noted, were falling apart, the stitches giving way. It didn’t make sense.

He waited.

Nothing happened.

Minutes passed.

He considered attempting to return through the portal. In the end, he was glad he didn’t. He probed it thoughtfully with the branch, poking one end through the swirling triangular vortex and twisting it experimentally, like a hot dog over a campfire.

When he withdrew the stick the leaves and vines were dead, aged to a brown, tissue-thin state. A stray wind turned them to dust and the powdery remnants went skittering away on the breeze. He examined the now nude butt end of the branch. The wood was dry and crumbling, long deprived of nutrients, as dead as the leaves it had once fed with life-giving sap.

He dropped the branch, sudden understanding gripping him. He ran down the beach to a tidal pool, knelt by its edge and gazed into the mostly still, dark water which was now and then roiled by tiny marine organisms.

He studied his reflected image and gasped. He was old. By God, he had aged at least a decade and likely more in a just a few minutes. He had an untamed, gray beard. His eyes were wrinkled and hooded. Gin blossoms had sprouted and spread over his nose and cheeks. His once boyish face was deeply lined and skeletal, wizened by age. He looked mad. He looked like a crazy, babbling street person.

He nodded appreciatively at the old man in the pool. Despite all the condescension and cynicism, Karl had gotten it perfectly right. His theories had panned out. When he accepted the truth, he wasn’t afraid or upset anymore. The knowledge gave him comfort in a cold way. The Planck rig had worked. It had functioned to a degree he never imagined possible, drilling past the quantum breakdown level to the stuff of cosmic foam, linking itself to the bubbles upon which the structure of the whole upper universe floated, to the very foundation of anything and everything that existed.

He’d fallen into and traveled straight down an active energy corridor, right to the Planck-sized universes that were the stuff of conjecture and skepticism in the scientific community. He should have been dead. There was nothing down there to support life, not a single requirement necessary to sustain a complex organism like a human being.

Immediately, he knew where the other geniuses and giants of the scientific field had gone wrong. They believed, as reasonable rational men, that everything at the Planck level of existence, no matter that it was all theoretical, would still have to comply with specific laws. That was incorrect. Apparently, if there were any rules at play in the sub-structures of energy and matter where cosmic foam existed, these didn’t conform to the limited idea-sets minted with highly fallible human reason and logic.

Human thought, they believed, would blow away a Planck bubble. Just thinking about it on such a high level was enough to roil and disrupt those miniature ecosystems. Not so. Instead, thinking about a bubble had an entirely different sort of effect. The Planck universe was actually influenced and reshaped by conscious reflection. In his journey through the vortex, during his long sleep, he had created the world he ultimately landed in. He had sculpted a warm place out of the miniature weave of the universe.

The addition of Karl Lazenby to the chaotic Planck underworld had carried with it rules and physical laws necessary to sustain his existence. These had been added to one of the bubbles and here he stood, alone in an empty world, surrounded by billions of hollow, echoing universes.

Time was of great interest to him. He understood that it moved differently down in this sub-universe at the foot of creation. Everything appeared to flow quickly in keeping with the rate of energy transmission, or perhaps the speed of his own thoughts. After all, he had created the place. His unconscious mind had set the highly capricious and arbitrary rules.

No matter what happened down on his level, the rules governing the upper world were still in place and set in stone. According to the mechanics of the larger physical universe, time was still flowing normally, passing in its usual graceful way. It was performing as expected within the vortex generated by the accelerator field. That energy remained connected to everything normal, predictable and Earthly. Thus the branch had aged significantly during its interaction with the stream. Just like the branch, he too had aged severely while in contact with the field.

The end result was that normal or “upper-time” was very slow compared to Planck-time. Things were passing much more quickly at his end of the spectrum. From his perspective, it would be a long time before Gale was able to take the few necessary steps, cross the basement floor and step through the portal wielding her murderous pen. It might take years for that to happen, if it did at all. When she arrived she would be somewhere in her mid to late-thirties.

He would be older still, frail, or perhaps dead. There was no guarantee that this instant universe contained nourishment capable of sustaining him. If it did, he was going to have to scrap to get at it. He wasn’t prepared to live off the land. His width and breadth of knowledge touched on many subjects, but foraging and bare-bones survival weren’t really in his wheelhouse.

He couldn’t return through the portal. Based on the way he had aged, life as he knew it would be nearly over. Minutes would have passed in real-time but he would be a man in his seventies. The effects and consequences might be even more serious on the return journey. It was possible he wouldn’t survive a second transition.

He was going to have to make do. “Perhaps,” he thought, “I can observe this universe and figure out a way to record my thoughts. Maybe someone will find my bones and my writings and they’ll wind up as scientific proofs down the line. That would be nice. I was right after all. They need to know I was right.”

He reached down into the tidal pool and swirled the muddy water with his fingers. A bizarre miniature crustacean with dozens of legs rose to the surface and thrashed about. Karl plucked the creature from the liquid and looked at it critically. He wondered why his unconscious mind would make such a thing, why it wouldn’t instead create a world filled with whipped cream and strawberries and grilled steaks that grew on vines.

He frowned. There were no easy answers. Food was the thing now. He had to decide what he could and couldn’t eat. He wondered whether the critter was edible. He suspected, when he got hungry enough, he wouldn’t even ponder such questions.


Gale gazed at the ebb and flow of the energy field for several long moments. She hesitated, but then her murderous fury carried her over the top. Where Karl went, she would follow, straight to Hell if necessary. He wasn’t going to hide or run away any longer. He was going to give her what she wanted, or she was going to kill him.

She clicked the ballpoint pen defiantly. She wanted to break his neck regardless of his behavior or acquiescence. She decided to do it, but only if she could discover a reliable way to hide the corpse. She thought about it hard. Then an old plan and pleasurable memories came flooding back, slicing through her hot rage like ice water. “The desert,” she thought with a little orgasmic thrill. “It’s big enough to hold more than one body.”

She gazed at the glowing A-frame contraption that had swallowed him up. She had no idea what it really was. She suspected it was some magician’s trick, a subterfuge designed to give him a running start. She shrugged, stepped through the thing and felt a horrible burning. She screamed.

She woke still screaming. Eventually, she realized she was alright, unhurt, and lying in the sun. She looked around. She was stretched out on a beach. There was a little thatched hut up by the windblown dunes. There was plenty of evidence that someone lived there, a burnt-out campfire inside a ring of stones, a heap of picked-over tiny crustacean shells, scraps of rope woven from vines, and footprints. There were plenty of footprints all over that beach.

She shivered. “Karl?” she asked tentatively.

“Here, darling,” he said gently. A cold shadow fell over her. Her husband appeared and hovered near her head like a monstrous insect prepared to devour its prey. He was gaunt and skeletal, bearded, wrinkled, and deeply tanned. He was old. He was so damn old.

He was carrying a rock, a large smooth stone. He smiled. His expression was helter-skelter terrifying. She felt her skin prickle and her mind screamed at her to run. Instead, he began to talk and she listened.

“Twenty-five years,” he murmured wonderingly. “My goodness it took you a long time to get here. You know, fifty doesn’t suit you. Your looks are all gone. You look like the woman you really are. Now we see the true nasty, gold-digging whore who is Gale Ann Dryden. You’re a dried-up, useless old bitch. Useless to me. Snappity, crackly, pop.”

She felt the ache in her bones. Something was wrong with her. She didn’t understand. She tried to push him aside and rise to her feet. But he shoved her back down, grinning savagely. “I’ve been waiting for you a long time. You know what?”

She shook her head numbly.

He continued, nearly babbling. “Universes aren’t made of the stuff you think. They’re full of rich foamy goodness.” He trailed off and she thought he was done speaking. But then he added, “Not much food around here. Hardly anything to eat. You can’t eat cosmic foam.”

“You’re crazy,” she shouted.

And he yelled right back. “I’m not crazy! You’re crazy. You fucking whore! I’ve been alone a long time. And always hungry. You know what it’s like to be hungry? You’d do anything for a meal when you’re hungry. Ate some of my own toes once.” He waggled a bare, butchered foot at her and she was horrified at the sight of the dirty pink stubs.

“Karl,” she said, seized by sudden knowing fear. “Please. You’re not yourself.”

“Snappity, crackly, pop!” he declared dramatically. “I’m who I always was. And you’re who you are. That’s the bubble for ya. Nothing but truth in here. The truth is, I’m a hungry man and you’re a good-for-nothing whore!” He peered at her comically.

She held up a hand, pleading with him. “Karl, we can work this out ...”

He brought the rock down hard on her unprotected skull. He found the crunch of breaking bone deeply satisfying.

Later, as he sat beside the fire with a full belly, he picked his teeth with the pen she had carried all the way from the upper universe. He’d been wrong about Gale. She was good for something after all. She tasted mighty fine and there was enough meat left to last him a few meals.

The pen would be useful too. He’d been waiting a long time to record his thoughts and observations. The divorce papers were blowing up and down the beach. After he gathered them, they’d provide a nice forgiving writing surface and a brief log of his early activities. When he exhausted the paper, he’d be forced to use bark. His thoughts were important. Not that they made much sense anymore. Nothing made any sense.

“God’s in the bubble,” he gibbered. “Snappity, crackly, pop! Pop, pop, pop!” He whistled the weird, cheery notes of “Pop Goes the Weasel” and the tune echoed all along the empty beach. END

R.A. Conine is a Navy veteran and former counter-intelligence and anti-terrorist analyst. His published novels include “Dreamtime,” “Hellpointe,” and coming soon, “Lords of Dust.” He is a member of the HWA and the National Freelancers Union.


screaming eagle


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