Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Glass Eye Pines
by Michael Hodges

Moving the Floral Sea
by Anne E. Johnson

Bounty Call
by Curtis C. Chen

by David Barber

Captain Quasar and the Fur Traders
by Milo James Fowler

Under a Steel Sky
by James Mapes

We Are Parts
by Matt Zandstra

A Repeating Pattern
by Michael McGlade

Shorter Stories

You Can Pay Me Now ...
by Arthur Carey

by Robin Wyatt Dunn

by M.E. Garber


Lysol Kills!
by John McCormick

Our Earth is Two Billion Years Old
by Thomas Elway



Comic Strips




Under a Steel Sky

By James Mapes

I’VE NEVER HAD AN ISSUE WITH following the rules. The little librarian that lives in my brain keeps all my reference books ready, stuffed full with the rules of our underground world. Fact is, I know the rules so well that the other prisoners just call me the Clerk.

I know lots of other things, too. Every poured slab of concrete covering the deep bedrock of the prison, every rivet in the catwalks, every unbreakable light bulb bolted to the ceiling. Just about the only things I can’t tell apart are the guards—every one of them is a gray steel carbon copy of every other one; they patrol the catwalks until they don’t, and then whoever they’re after better be sorry.

I know every door, too, and I know that they only lead deeper, away from the distant surface of the planet. And I know everything that goes on with the prisoners—every condition, every friendship, and every grudge.

Take Mohammed, for example. Mo sits across from me every day, three meals a day. It’s in his rules. He has to sit there or he’s beaten, either by another prisoner or by one of the guards. Almost everywhere else we go, too; he’ll be beaten if he ever gets too far away from me. It is not difficult to know every single thing about Mo.

“This food, man,” Mo says, pushing his spoon around in his porridge.

“What?” I ask. I know exactly what he’s going to say next.

“Lemme try your food,” he says. “Mine tastes funny. It’s bitterer or something.”

“It’s all the same,” I say.

“Nah, I think that something’s messed up with it,” he replies. “Lemme try yours.”

“No one’s poisoning you,” I tell him.

“Lemme try yours.”

I could keep this exchange going for five more back-and-forths, if I wanted to. I don’t.

“What if mine is poisoned?” I ask him, leaning forward. “What if yours tastes different because they took the poison out today?”

Mo just stares at me. He’s got a tattoo of a girl on his chest, and her smudgy ringlets peek out from around his thin uniform. He stares, wheels turning.

“Fuck,” he spits.

“No one’s meal is poisoned,” I say. “It’s a waste of poison when they can just pump the air out.”

That pisses him off. He sulks into his plate and resumes eating.

I look around the huge room, stuffed with tables and wary-eyed prisoners in identical coveralls. The steel walkways overhead ring with the footsteps of the guards as they peer down with their unreadable eyes. There are cameras, too, hanging from the underside of the catwalks like spiders; they flick from face to face with inhuman precision. Everyone gets watched to make sure the rules are obeyed.

Mo has to sit across from me. Lamarr, a couple tables down, can’t sit at Mo’s table. Georgia can’t sit within three chairs of either Mo or the Doc—and that’s just the local collection of interconnected rules. Every single prisoner has their own list of them, utterly arbitrary.

Most of the prisoners only track their own cafeteria rules, and have enough trouble remembering those—especially on top of all the workshop rules, shower rules, and yard rules. The rules put most of the prisoners on edge; Mo, for example, is a nervous mess in the cafeteria.

But the rules do keep the peace, most of the time. And the prison is a peaceful place, except when some forgetful person gets beaten to a pulp. These days, it’s barely a daily occurrence.

Mo mutters a little, so low that I can’t hear him, and goes back to eating. I can tell he’s not eating for fun, though. He’s eating for the calories, because he knows he’ll need them later. Says he learned it in the military.

“What is it?” I ask him.

“Dunno,” he says. “Got a bad feeling.”

I might be the Clerk, and I might know all the rules, but Mo’s got a pair of instincts on him the size of my fists. I follow his lead and eat my food, too, scraping the bowl with my spoon to get at the last of it.

I’m just wiping my mouth with the back of my hand when Mo’s eyes flick over my shoulder, going wide. I turn.

Big Tom is standing behind me.

“Shoot,” I say. “Tom, you can’t get this close to Mo. You know that.”

There’s activity on the catwalks and around the edge of the cafeteria—guards, moving in to enforce their rule. They’re moving fast through the other prisoners. But Big Tom doesn’t move, just stares over us.

“You remember storms?” Big Tom says, his voice soft, resonant. “That’s what these catwalks are, Clerk. Storm clouds hanging over us.”

“What the fuck?” Mo demands of Tom. Mo wants to bolt, but I’m still sitting, so all he can do is hold himself on the edge of his seat, muscles tensed.

I stare into Tom’s face. It’s set, and deliberate. He knows exactly what he’s doing.

“Why?” I beg Big Tom.

Then I see Xia, a big meathead of a prisoner, coming in fast. Big Tom is just starting to open his mouth when she kicks him across the back of the knee cap. He goes down, but turns enough to get a punch off at Xia. It’s futile—the guards are here—and before Big Tom can do another thing they’ve cracked him over the head and shoulders with batons. They crackle with each hit—I’ve heard they’ve got circuits that set your nerves on fire all through them. He screams, Xia yells like a banshee, and I get some distance from the action, heart pounding. Mo tags along behind me, relieved at our retreat.

“I don’t understand,” I say. Mo shrugs as we turn to watch.

The guards put restraints on Tom. As he’s dragged out, Xia goes back to her table and steals a bowl of gruel from Crazy Eddie, who’s grinning wide at the fight.

A guard approaches her. “For your services,” the guard says in its flat, lifeless voice. It opens its slender fist and holds out a packet of cigarettes and a book of matches to Xia. She whoops, takes them, and passes one around to everyone in her gang.

“Motherfucker will get it some day,” Mo mutters, staring at the huge woman.

“Someone’ll always help the guards,” I remind him. I can feel myself starting to calm down. “I wonder what was wrong with Tom?”

“Fucker’s crazy, man,” a guy named Pete puts in. He stretches in his seat, relaxed; one of his rules is to stay between three and nine meters from Big Tom, but now that Tom is out cold he doesn’t have much to worry about.

“Huh,” is all I say, still wondering.

The klaxon rings, and it’s the end of lunch. We all file out. All of the rules stay with us until the hallways, so the exit from the cafeteria is always an elaborately choreographed thing. I hate it all, of course, but sometimes I marvel at the elegance of it, drinking in the collapsing spheres of proximity that I imagine surround each prisoner. The guards watch it all from the catwalks with steady, unblinking eyes.


A couple days later, just before lights out, I hear from Pete that they’ve let Big Tom out of the infirmary. Finding out why he broke the rules is a jolt of excitement running through our deep tunnels.

My only chance to ask him is in the showers, the next morning—anywhere else and he can’t get close to Mo, which is the same thing as not being able to get close to me. That’s just the way the rules work.

But I know that something funny is going on, and I’ve gotta find out what it is. The thought threatens to keep me up all night, my thin blanket failing to cushion my joints against the hard slab of my bed.

The lights flick off at 2100 without warning. From here on out, it’s one-rule-night: make no sound.

Silence immediately falls over the prison. Only the footsteps of the guards and the low rustling of a hundred breaths remain in the dark.

Thankfully, I’ve never been cursed with talking in my sleep. Sometimes, a person’ll come through who can’t kick the habit. It only takes a week of insomnia and night-after-night punishment before the guards have to drag them to the crematorium.

We haven’t had so many new ones lately, though. Mo thinks that means that the world up above is between crackdowns. I remember his words exactly: “Just give it time,” he says. “Earth ain’t ever gonna be peaceful.” I wonder about it, sometimes.

For me, I’ve always found the silence relaxing. I spend so much time every day tracking this little world of ours, purely as a matter of survival, that 2100 turns into a sort of meditation period every night.

Mostly, I wonder how I ended up here. I’ve heard a couple other guys complain about the same thing, but it still feels strange to not remember. Most of the prisoners here recall some sort of crime, or something of a trial. But some of us just showed up here one day. Were we picked up in the middle of the night? Maybe if I asked around a little bit more then I could figure it out, but it always depresses the heck out of me once I start thinking about it.

So I run through my list of rules instead, going through each prisoner in alphabetical order, keeping up my usefulness. That’s enough to calm me down and take me all the way through the night.


Mo is waiting for me in the hallway. He doesn’t ever chance us being separated in the jostle that leads into the showers. Sometimes I’m glad to see him.

“You look sick,” he says.

“I wish there was a mirror somewhere in this place,” I say. “I feel like I’ve forgotten what I look like.”

“Fuckin’ ugly,” Mo laughs. We start to move with the others towards the showers. “But man, I had a terrible fucking night. I dreamed I was in a field outside, but the fucking guards started a fire, and all the grass burned up under my feet. Clouds were choking me and shit. And then I fell down, and fell straight through the dirt, and I woke up here.”

“I’d love to have a dream like that,” I say, trying to imagine it.

“You’re a fuckin’ weirdo, Clerk,” is all he says.

Big Tom is standing in line for the showers in one corner of the room. In a sense, the shower room is the most dangerous one; there are very few organizing principles. You take off your clothes at one end and step to one of the poles to get sprayed down, then soap and rinse madly as everyone else cycles through around you, the rules rippling through like water. I hate the showers; it’s all too chaotic, and it moves too fast.

There’s something going on across the room—maybe Wanya, who’s been testing her rule that she has to keep a hand on the wall at all times. All I can see is that Lorenzo is standing inside a circle of others, and there’s a little bit of blood mixing with the water running past people’s feet. It looks like whatever’s happened is already done, but I file the possibilities away.

“Whaddya want, Clerk?” Big Tom says to me as I approach. He looks a little haggard, but otherwise okay.

“Why’d you do it?” I ask.

“Doesn’t matter,” Tom says in his deep voice, and turns away.

“I know you’re up to something,” I tell him, and that gets me a dangerous look. “Whatever it is, I want to be a part of it.”

“Why?” he asks, peering down at me from the corners of his eyes.

“I need to get out of here,” I whisper, straight from the heart. I feel it, too; my whole chest contracts around my lungs, squeezing hard.

Big Tom stares at me for a long second. The guy in front of him moves into the showers. “Talk to Xia,” Big Tom replies as he strips off his coverall.

“Xia?” I ask, confused.

“We gotta go,” Mo hisses. “We’re gettin’ looks.”

“Find her at breakfast,” Big Tom says. “If you’re interested.”

Then he throws his clothes into the chutes and steps into the showers. Whether by design or not, he goes to a pole next to Little Kid, who Mo can’t get near, so I figure I probably shouldn’t follow.

He’s got me dead to rights, though—I am interested.

I try to catch Mo’s eye while we’re in the showers, but he’s pretending not to notice. He finally looks over at me as we’re putting on our clean clothes for the day. “Fuckin’ crazy,” is all he says.

“There’s no rule against hearing her out,” I reply.


Sitting down next to Xia takes some careful planning. We thread our way in a big circle around the tables, to avoid Mariposa, then advance slowly until Sean gets freaked out enough to get up and go to the other side of the room. It causes a stir that makes its way through the whole cafeteria, even after we take our seats.

Xia squints, looking me up and down. “Whatcha want, Clerk?” she grunts.

“Hoping for one of those cigarettes,” I answer.

Not far away, Yitzhak snorts into his gruel at my audacity. Xia frowns. “Why?” she asks.

“Can’t a guy want a cigarette?” I answer. “And furthermore, don’t I deserve one? Wasn’t I the guy who figured out that they’d changed your rule about Kiel? I keep good watch.”

It takes a moment for the thought to work through her brain, but then she nods. “That you do,” she says. She brings out the cigarettes and matches, hands me one, then takes the last one for herself and crumples up the packet. But I notice something funny as she carefully lights the match. Only a few of the matches have been used—most of the booklet is still intact, in fact. And as I inhale my first drag of a cigarette ever, I watch her carefully fold the booklet and tuck it away, protected.

We smoke for a moment. When the cafeteria gets tired of the lack of action, some of the muttering and clattering of utensils picks up again.

“Big Tom told me to talk to you,” I say, low, in between drags.

Xia doesn’t react. “Dude can tell you anything he wants,” is all she says.

“If there’s any way that I can help ...” I say.

“With what?” Xia asks.

I lean in a little closer. “I’ve never been beaten,” I tell her in a low voice. “Not once have I broken a rule. After this long, I know that I’m a dead man the very first time I do.” I need to take a breath, and another pull on the cigarette, before I continue. “I need to get out of here before that happens,” I finish.

Xia laughs. “You and Big Tom, man. You’re smart dudes, but you ain’t any different from the rest of us. They don’t send us down here to live long lives.”

She finishes the cigarette and grinds it out into her gruel. I put mine out, too, following her cue. I have to admit that I expected to feel the smoke a little more, in my lungs or in my head.

“We’ll see, man,” Xia adds. “But I don’t owe you anything else, alright?”

“Yeah,” I say.

Interview over. I get up to get some food, trailing Mo behind me. The waves of the rebalancing act flow around us, bouncing off the reinforced walls.


Mo’s pissed off at me. In the exercise yard, he stands over by the wall, betting that I’m too nice a guy to strike off on my own and leave him to the guards.

“They’ve got a plan,” I tell him. I can’t meet his gaze, though, so I stare straight up at the big lights up above. Their glare hides the rafters, and the roof of the cavern way above us. I guess it’s a pretty poor excuse for a sky, but I still like looking up at it, trying to imagine the real thing.

“Have you looked around this fucking place?” he demands. “You really think you can bumble through some half-baked fuckin’ plan and they won’t notice? You think they just don’t bother watching you, cuz you’re such a good little boy?”

I’m staring down at my feet, scratching a line into the yard with my toe.

“Christ, man,” Mo says. “You’re too fuckin’ smart for your own good.”

I look up at him. “Have you ever seen anyone get released?”

He meets my gaze, brow an angry wedge, eyes tight.

It takes an eternity, but his face softens. He looks away.

“God damn it,” is all he says.

“I’m going to find a way to go with them,” I say.

He nods. “Guess I’ll go too,” he replies, looking down at the ground.

I look, too.

The line I dug in the yard is a long, straight furrow, a deep mark in the lifeless gravel.


They let us in on the plan in fits and starts.

Tom and Xia are from opposite sides of the prison, community-wise, and both of them are watched pretty carefully, so it’s slow to come. The plan is passed along in a word on the way to the showers, or a quick sentence in the yard before the proximities drive the messenger away.

When I get it all put together, I discover a couple things.

Their fight—the one that drew me into the plan—was for a couple reasons. Xia needed the matches, the ones she’s been so careful to squirrel away. And Big Tom needed something out of the infirmary, some kind of chemical.

But most importantly, it’s not a real plan yet. They’ve got a broad outline, but the pieces don’t link up.

It’s pretty simple. Big Tom swears that there’s a way up to the surface from the showers, through a ventilation system. The things they’ve been stealing are for a bomb, maybe as a distraction. But that’s as much as they have.

This is why they brought me in, I realize; to work out the details.

So, a few days later, I start getting to work. First, I spend a lot of time thinking. Sometimes I roll things over with Mo, keeping it all vague. He just grunts in response, but it helps.

Mostly, I use my knowledge of the rules to pass information and questions along. It takes a lot of time and whispers to get all of us on the same page and in agreement. Thankfully, I’ve always asked a lot of questions and talked to a lot of people. It’s how everyone expects the Clerk to be.

But once I just start to think that I’m getting everything put together, I discover the need for another person. Someone to start a fight, and scare off other prisoners. And if they’re big, maybe it’ll help get us through Tom’s miraculous vents, which must lead upwards. There’s no way around it that I can find.

And it doesn’t take me long to find the guy. As soon as my eye falls on Lorenzo, I wince. He’s the best choice, no doubt about it, as long as he doesn’t smash my head in for asking.

Now, a gal like Xia might settle a grudge when it comes up, or jump at the chance to score an easy pack of smokes, but Lorenzo ... I wonder if he just attacks people at random, and sometimes they happened to have been breaking a rule just prior.

But he towers over two meters tall and I’m scared to death of him. He’s terribly perfect.


It takes two days to convince the others to bring Lorenzo in. I plan the next part carefully, and decide to approach him in the workshop, the only place Mo doesn’t have to shadow me.

Lorenzo is working by himself, the thunk and hiss of the machines surrounding us. The skeleton of a new guard is hung up on its mount; Lorenzo is slotting rivets into it, preparing to add the exquisite circuitry of its musculature.

“Hey, big guy,” I say. I can feel the cameras overhead focusing in on us, but they’re not smart enough to pick up on our conversation; they just track the inventory, so a prisoner doesn’t walk off with something dangerous.

He fixes me with a narrowed eye. His hands keep working, setting each micro-rivet into its cradle.

“I need your help with a thing,” I tell him.

“What’s in it for me?” he grunts.

“The surface,” is all I tell him, just those words.

He turns his head just slightly, so he can fix me with both eyes. A strange feeling wells up inside me—a yearning, maybe, for the sky I don’t even remember. It feels like it’s passing between the two of us, this strange wanting for the sun and clouds and sky, the living dirt and grass that Mo talks about.

And incredibly, I see Lorenzo’s pinched, tortured face soften, just a little, just so.

And he nods. “Yeah, okay,” he says, then turns back to the guard that he’s assembling.

I leave knowing that I can count on him when the time comes.


With Lorenzo in and the details of the plan worked out, I ratchet it all up to the next level. I start to plant tasks, suggestions, and directions for some of the other inmates—the ones that can be trusted. Most of them, all they need to know is that the Clerk is asking them. Some others just need the whiff of an escape, or revenge, or a hint that it’ll make the prison a little more interesting.

I do a pretty good job organizing them. I can see it in Mo’s face, as close to a mirror as I’ve got; he gets a little more faith in the plan after every meal, every whisper, and every detail that falls ever more slightly into place.

The final product isn’t neat and tidy, but it’ll get us to the vent, and then—if everything is laid out the way Big Tom thinks it is—up and outside, to the wide open world.

And when everything is in its place, I pass the last question along to Big Tom and Xia. My heart thumps as I wait in the yard for answers, staring at the furrow in the gravel I drew a week ago. Mo leans against the wall, arms crossed.

Shifty wanders past. “Yep,” he says, then wanders away.

My heart beats harder, and I gulp. Xia is ready, then.

I start to draw in the dirt again, and wonder when I picked up a nervous habit like this. Maybe it was that cigarette.

Big Tom himself takes an amble around the yard. I watch him out of the corner of my eye, still digging with my toe. Pete follows him, keeping his distance. As Big Tom gets over to the bars and starts exercising, Pete swings by us. For a second, he stares up at the high ceiling of the yard, into the lights, his hand a thumbs up—and then he’s scratching his head, wary eye on Big Tom, walking away from us.

I look over at Mo, and he’s seen it too. His mouth is a tight line across his face.

That’s it, I think. I finish scratching the mark in the gravel—and discover I’ve made a cross, perfectly proportional.

The bell rings, and everyone starts to move towards the cafeteria. The last meal Mo and I will share down here.


The cafeteria is tense. I can’t tell if it’s us, infecting everyone else, or if it’s just me imprinting the way that I feel on the others.

Mo is eating quickly, packing the calories away. I look down at my own food—the same gruel, paired with some kind of bread—but can’t bring myself to touch it.

“You’ll need it,” Mo says, hunkering over his plate.

All I feel is tight tension, winding my nerves into jangling clusters. I push the plate away.

“I’m serious,” Mo says, and he looks it.

“Not enough time,” I tell him.

“Always time to eat,” he replies.

“Look, Mohammed,” I say, pointing at him, “you take it.” My finger is stretched out like a spear aimed at his neck, and I don’t know why there’s so much anger in my voice. Just nerves. I put my hand down.

Mo shrugs, and hooks my bowl with his finger, pulling it across to him.

The double bleat of the klaxon sounds, vibrating off the walls in shrieking echoes. The guards above us have stopped moving.

The cold, metallic voice installed in each of them speaks.

“New rule,” they announce. “Prisoner 036 is not allowed to approach Prisoner 002. End new rule.”

I look at Mo, our wide eyes meeting. I can see Mo’s gears turning to the same conclusion I’ve already reached.

Mo can’t get near me.

The guards above us, on the catwalks, start to move.

But I can’t believe it. Mo’s rules overlap. He can’t follow them both. He’s pushed himself up to get away, to obey the new rule, but I can see that he’s not sure. The guards keep moving towards us.

It’s a death sentence.

“They know,” I tell him. “Run!”

And he runs, slamming himself past chairs and other prisoners—all of them stunned by the guards and their new tactic.

I look around at Xia and Big Tom; they’ve both realized what’s happened. I mouth “Now” to them both, making sure that they see me. Big Tom nods, and turns immediately to Lamarr. It takes Xia a moment, but then she moves over to Crazy Eddie, hands in her pockets. I catch Lorenzo’s eye, across the cafeteria, and tip my head towards Big Tom. He returns the nod, and starts to move towards Tom, protecting him.

I turn back to Mo, my stomach knotting itself to pieces. He’s been blocked from the exits, and is dodging around tables, back into the middle of the cafeteria. If he can last long enough for Xia to assemble the bomb, then maybe we can get him out.

Mo’s face is naked, sweating fear. He sees me standing up, and tries to get to me, barely putting a table between him and the closest guard.

It’s not fair, I want to yell. It’s not fair!

And then he pushes through, back to my table, and sits across from me. I hesitate a second, then sit down—maybe, maybe ...

But the guards keep coming.

“Fuck,” Mo says. “Say hey to the world for me.”

The closest guard comes around the corner and Mo flings the bowl of gruel at its face. It splatters across its gray features, but the machine doesn’t slow—nor does it react when Mo flings his fist into its chest, though it staggers ever so slightly against the force.

The batons start to rain down on him, and I can’t tear my eyes away. The guards are fierce, and they don’t stop. Their batons don’t make a sound—they’ve turned off the current, content with the damage they can do with heavy steel. Mo goes limp as the blows hit his head, and still they don’t stop. I hear bone snap, and see blood flow from his nose, then his mouth.

“Stop it!” I yell, out loud. My voice echoes off the walls.

And they do. They straighten up, batons locking back into place on their hips, the six of them making a circle around Mo. But when I look down at him, I see why they’ve stopped; there’s nothing left to do. The guards bend down together, and pick Mo up like pallbearers. His head flops back, and his eyes are lifeless as they carry him towards the exit. My friend ...

I know I should be sad, or grieving, or anything. All I feel is angry, though.

And then I see that Crazy Eddie is standing in their way.

“The Clerk said to stop,” Eddie says, and he’s got a gleam in his eye. I know that I was right to pick him for this.

In his hands is a bulky object, wrapped in strips torn from our mattresses. Crazy Eddie already has the book of matches in one hand, and strikes one of them between thumb and forefinger. In the silence of the cafeteria, the match blazes to life.

The impassive guards imperceptibly straighten, all of them together. Then the two of them in the front drop Mo’s legs and dash towards Eddie, moving fast. But Eddie surprises them—he bulls his way forward, getting between them and the other four, and I see that the makeshift fuse on the bomb has caught.

“Everyone down!” I yell.

Eddie leaves the bomb on the floor and rolls away, under a table. One of the guards turns to leap on the bomb, but it’s still gathering itself when the bomb explodes. The bundle explodes in a flash of chemicals and fabric, spraying burning ribbons of cloth onto the guards, the tables, and Mo’s body.

The guards immediately react, dropping to the ground to snuff out the flames catching on their uniforms.

“Get ’em!” Xia yells. Big Tom and I echo, and the cry spreads to the others that we’ve handpicked to amplify the chaos over the last week. The prisoners surge past the flaming bits, scraps of metal torn off of chairs in their hands. As we instructed, they go right for the heads of the guards with clubs, fists, and heels.

The klaxon sounds, blaring in continuous alarm, and I know that we’re hurting them. The fight before me makes my anger flare—but also my hope.

Above us, on the catwalk, all the cameras focus on the scrum at the center of the cafeteria. Guards move quickly, heading for the stairs down to us.

I start pushing towards the exits, following other prisoners who just want to get away from the riot. I see Tom and Lorenzo going for another door. Xia, though, is standing still, torn between the fight and the escape. A guard appears at the exit behind her.

“Xia!” I yell, and try to point at the guard—but my finger goes straight to her, without wavering. She sees the guard, though, as it starts to move towards her. Somehow, they’re on to us, I think.

She chooses to fight. Without slowing, she steps up on a chair and flings herself at the guard, grabbing its head with her hands and bearing it to the ground. The back of its head hits the edge of a table, and I hear the crumple of metal across the room. But the arms and baton are still active, somehow, and it strikes back against her.

Another guard appears at the door nearest Xia, and I know she’s a goner, just like Mo. I hear screams coming from the riot behind me. It’s all unraveling.

I search for Big Tom, and barely catch him ducking out, Lorenzo on his heels. I follow as quickly as I can.

The hallways are full of chaos. As more of the guards flood into the cafeteria, fewer of them are distributed around the prison. I spot several troublemakers—including a select few that I primed for this—heading towards the infirmary to grab whatever they can off the shelves. Many of the other inmates have gone back to their cells, trying to wait it out without getting hurt.

A fight has broken out in the hallway leading to the showers—some grudge that’s come out between Georgia and Pete, brought to a head by the other chaos. I have to go around. What if they’re gone by the time I get there?

When I make it to the darkened showers I pause at the entrance. As I stand there, peering in, there’s a little sound, something between a small cough and a rattle. It comes from around the corner as bouncing echoes.

My footsteps scrape across the tile as I move, peering into the dim.

I stop.

Lorenzo is holding Big Tom from behind; Tom’s feet dangle off the floor, and Lorenzo’s huge forearms are tight around Tom’s neck. That little sound had come from his throat—it was the sound of choking, of trapped air ballooning in Tom’s lungs. A piece of the wall lies on the floor at their feet, and darkness yawns in the ventilation shaft behind them.

Should I tell Lorenzo to stop? Tom’s eyes stare into space. His body twitches.

No, another part of me replies. Just watch. This is right.

Suddenly, Tom’s arm moves fast. A thing in his hand flashes in the light from the doorway. It meets Lorenzo’s face, but there’s no reaction. Tom tries again, and again, bringing his glinting hand to meet Lorenzo’s forehead, nose, temple. It’s a chunk of metal, I realize; Tom’s attacking with a makeshift pry-bar for opening the vent.

I want to leap forward and catch Tom’s arm before he can damage Lorenzo too much. But no—I should be helping Tom. My legs are paralyzed, rooted to the tile.

And then Tom takes one last, desperate swing. When the metal hits Lorenzo, the crunch pings off the walls of the shower. Lorenzo’s arms pop open and they both crumple to the ground; the jag of metal skitters across the floor towards me. Tom crawls away from his attacker, gasping fast for breath. Lorenzo is still.

I find myself drifting over to Lorenzo, scooping up the metal pry-bar on my way. I bend over him to look closer. In the dim light filtering in from the door, I can see a thick, pinkish fluid pumping slowly from the holes and cuts on his head. On his forehead, the skin has been scrapped away; underneath is the dull steel of a familiar kind of skull. How many times have I seen the same skeletons hanging on their racks in the workshop?

Lorenzo was one of the guards, made to look like one of us.

I turn to Tom. He’s levered himself up and is sitting against the wall, breathing with a particular rattle. My hands clench.

“Never really trusted him,” Tom says, voice hoarse. “But you ...” he coughs wetly. “Never coulda guessed.”

My hands are still flexing, like they’re on auto-pilot. I take my eyes off Tom and look back down at Lorenzo, at the perfect, human skin covering the metal, at the eyes that seemed whole and real.

Slowly, I realize the truth.

I’ve never known anything outside of this place. I’ve only ever known the rules. That’s the only reason I’m here.

And it’s no wonder I’ve been drawing messages in the dirt, or pointing out collaborators to the cameras. All the evidence flashes through my mind and I am convinced.

I wish I could say that it makes me sad.

“The Clerk’s purpose is to keep the rules straight,” I say out loud, testing the weight of it. I don’t know where the words come from.

Big Tom is panting shallowly. It seems like he wants to say something, so I move closer. His hand scrabbles around on the tile, looking for the pry-bar.

“Don’t worry,” I say. “I’ve got it.”

I get closer and his eyes get wider. His breath hisses; his throat is ruined, I realize. He won’t be getting up.

“Tom,” I whisper, right next to him. “Tell me about the surface. I want to know about the sky.”

His mouth falls open like he’s about to say something, but the noise that comes out is just a rattle, the collapse of a sack. His jaw goes limp, his eyes stare through me. Big Tom is dead.

The black mouth of the ventilation shaft is open. There’s the slightest movement of air towards it—flowing up to the outside. I could crawl in and escape. There’s nothing stopping me.

But I sit against the wall, next to Big Tom. My legs won’t get me to the shaft; my arms won’t pull me out of the prison. They can’t. I’m bound by my own rules.

The guards—the ones made to look like machines, with gray skin and steady gaze—find me there. The lights come on with a snap, but my perfect eyes are unfazed.

“Requesting memory wipe,” I say in a strange voice, cold and unfamiliar.


The cafeteria is the same as it always has been, just ugly tables, reinforced concrete walls, and the catwalks hanging over us like storm clouds. It feels like a good day.

Robin, a newbie, passes by my table towards the exit.

“Hey,” I say.

“What?” she snaps.

“Don’t go that way,” I tell her. “You can’t get closer than two meters to Paolo.”

“Oh. Thanks Clerk,” she says. “Owe you one.” She takes another look at Paolo, eating at a table three meters away, and takes another path around to the left.

“Just doing what I do best,” I say to her back. END

James Mapes is a theatrical stage manager and lighting designer living in Portland, OR. He has traveled all over the world. He has another story out soon at “Stupefying Stories.” “Under a Steel Sky” is his first professionally published work.


Hardy Fowler




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