Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Narrative of a Slave
by Robin Wyatt Dunn

Song of C
by Jørn Arnold Jensen

Ready or Not
by Holly Schofield

Each Day I Walk These Hollow Streets
by Andrew Barton

Neanderthal Autumn
by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt

Plasma Breach
by Mord McGhee

By the Light of Several Silvery Moons
by Eamonn Murphy

Packrat Machine
by Karl Dandenell

Shorter Stories

Teaching Acute Coronary Syndrome to an Alien
by Devin Miller

by Bill Suboski

We’ve Only Just Begun
by Chris Bullard


Tales From the Greenhouse
by Joseph Green

And a Tale of the Tail
by Eric M. Jones



Comic Strips




Each Day I Walk These Hollow Streets

By Andrew Barton

HALF A BOTTLE OF LAST NIGHT’S cheap slivovitz was still wet in Taryn Liang’s throat as the doors to police headquarters whispered shut behind her. At four-seventeen in the morning the tea in her hip flask was enough to chase dreams away, but if anything depended on her quickness the world was already doomed.

“Glad to see you made it in before daylight,” said Jenny Kobayashi, prim and pleated in her uniform. “Don’t I remember you sleeping until noon when you had the chance?”

“Don’t get me started,” she said, rubbing her forehead. She’d been wrestling headaches since she came back from Libertalia. “This couldn’t have waited?”

“Like all those cases you dragged us into couldn’t,” Kobayashi said with a smile. “Just think of it as balancing the equation.”

“Fine.” An icon in the corner of her glasses flashed green, and Kobayashi came around to lead her along. “What do I need to know?”

“Ever hear of Fumie Tsujimoto?” Taryn nodded as they stepped into an elevator. Tsujimoto’s seventh-game, ninth-inning run had still been echoing when Taryn had first landed in Vancouver. “Murder. Alarms went off just after one, security found her with a bat in her hand and her husband and kid’s skulls cracked.”

“Sounds straightforward,” Taryn said. “Where do I come in?”

“She keeps screeching about how it wasn’t her, that she couldn’t control herself, and she made an official request to loop IRIS in based on that. The sort of story you’d come up with after you killed your family in a rage, right?”

“I suppose,” Taryn said as the doors clunked open. She could handle people who wanted to stitch together monsters in their basement or rewire peoples’ brains to make a few extra dollars, but the casual brutality that came from burning greed or desire? She left that to people who could squirm into a mind knocked askew.

They’d left Tsujimoto fermenting in one of the interrogation rooms, a cold box with mirrored walls where she sat shivering. There was no room for lies in there—Tsujimoto had nothing to look at but herself, reflected again and again, until the regret ricocheted so fast and so sharp that something broke. Taryn swallowed her fatigue and stepped into that small, cruel world.

“Good morning, Ms. Tsujimoto,” she said. “I’m Taryn Liang, International Research and Investigation Service. I understand—”

“You’ve got to listen,” Tsujimoto said. She seemed short for a baseball player, with less suggestion of genetic engineering than Taryn herself, but her frame was firm and well-cared for. “I didn’t do it. I didn’t, I couldn’t ...”

“I’m here to listen,” Taryn said. “Tell me why.”

“Because that’s not me!” She fought her way through every word. “I’m not a murderer. I could never! I must have been under some kind of mind control ... when I woke up, they ...”

“I understand,” Taryn said. “Ms. Tsujimoto, you’ve been fitted with a cerebrospinal mediator, haven’t you?”

“Yeah,” Tsujimoto said between tears. “After that accident, I’d have been out for good without it.”

“I see.” A hundred years before, Tsujimoto would have spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair, but with that specialized computer bridging the gap between her brain and body she’d taken Vancouver to the top of the world. “Isn’t it possible that this could have been a dream event? Something strong enough that your mediator picked up on impulses it shouldn’t have?”

I don’t dream about killing my family!” Tsujimoto slammed her fists against the desk and set the metal warbling. “This is already a living nightmare. Please ... there has to be another answer here. There has to be!”

“I’ll do what I can.” Whether Taryn believed her story didn’t enter into it—she had to approach the investigation from as objective a start as she could manage, and see where the evidence led her.


By the time she’d finished the paperwork, fingers of sunlight were tracing out paths between the solid, vaulting towers of Vancouver’s urban forest. Though the trains were running, it would be daylight before Taryn could get home and fight the morning for whatever scraps of sleep were left. She found a quiet spot at the back of a teahouse to drain a fresh cup and put her theories in order, then took a train east to the Silver Bubble.

Nobody called it Jixiang Stadium. The building crouched on old industrial land between the highway and the high-tide line, a frozen soap bubble painted with silver, where Tsujimoto had quit at the top of her game. With the actual crime scene locked down tight, it was as good a place as any for her to cast a line.

Her credentials took her to the Foresters’ offices near the top of the bubble. The hallway was lined with photos, some static team shots or players posing with bats on their shoulders, while others replayed unlikely catches or base-clearing home runs, as well as threadbare mitts and ragged baseballs going back decades. The General Manager’s office took a place of pride at the end of the hall, flanked by green and gold 2077 and 2086 championship pennants. Silence brought the pain back, that tinny screeching that faded in and out, but she didn’t have to deal with it for long before the office door whispered open.

“Agent Liang?” It was a man’s voice, old and tobacco-stained. “I’m Trace Magnusson, come on in.”

Magnusson’s office overlooked the Bubble’s baseball field, its rows of seats dark while robot tenders glided across the turf like insects. Magnusson himself moved like a career sportsman grown too old and ashen for the game, and his chipped, weathered eyes were hidden behind smartglasses.

“Elf, eh?” Taryn’s hair was short enough that the points of her ears couldn’t be hidden. “You must be here about Fumie. Just unreal. Goes to show no matter how close you work to someone, you never know them if they don’t want you to.”

“That’s right.” Some people spent their lives learning to be impenetrable, waiting for their targets to make themselves vulnerable. She’d learned that almost too late in half a dozen places. “It’s an unfortunate situation.”

“Have to say, I’m not sure why IRIS is tied up in this,” Magnusson said. There was a twitch in the corner of his eye as he spoke, a barely-perceptible curl in his lip—a lie, or just a quirk? “Shouldn’t you be out dealing with chimeras or rogue nanotech?”

“Vancouver Police requests our assistance from time to time,” Taryn said. Better that Magnusson didn’t know where the request had really come from. “What can you tell me about Ms. Tsujimoto?”

“Hell of a player,” Magnusson said. “She’s the sort of person who’s got all her energy in the game. Tell you the truth, though, part of me’s not surprised something like this happened. Right after she won it for us, that boyfriend of hers went and knocked her up. Guess it took her this long to realize how much she hated that her family took everything away.”

Taryn hid herself behind an unsmiling face. It was the sort of explanation any lawyer would’ve pounced upon—see, she did dream about killing them, it was a crossed wire in her mediator, how can there be a crime without conscious intent—but it felt too dismissive. Tsujimoto could’ve rented an exowomb, or spent nine months practicing swings in a simulator.

“I suppose that’s a possibility,” she said. “Has Ms. Tsujimoto been involved with the team at all since her retirement?”

“She kept a skybox,” Magnusson calmed down as the conversation led away from the crime—relief that he didn’t have to think about it anymore, or something else? “Some players, the game meant everything to them. Being so close to the field but not on it would be torture, like having to stand at the gates of heaven. Better that they just stay away. I guess it got too hard for her.”

“I understand,” Taryn said. To have gone so high, only to be brought down to normal and wonder if it had all been a dream, could tip the most balanced of minds. “I know this is indelicate, but was there ever anything to suggest that Ms. Tsujimoto was using performance enhancers?”

“Absolutely not!” Magnusson thumped his fist against the desk. “We don’t condone that kind of cheating. We earned our titles by the skills of our players, not pharmacology. Fumie used Pacifica Blue, just needed it to loosen up, and there’s nothing illegal about that.”

Taryn’s tongue recoiled in bitter memory. She’d given Pacifica Blue a try in the weeks after she’d come back from Libertalia, when doctors frowned and worried over her. The slivovitz worked just as well in the end, and at a better price.

“I see,” she said while she filtered through her observations. “I’m not suggesting this was anything condoned by the team. Only that even after her recovery, Ms. Tsujimoto might have felt she needed some kind of edge. I’m sure you know that some of the enhancers out there have long-term effects.”

“Fumie wasn’t an idiot,” Magnusson said. Confident at first, but his shoulders sagged as he thought over his own words. “Not when I knew her. Two years can turn someone into a whole new person. Families, right? Who needs ’em?”

Taryn didn’t let herself be baited. Magnusson deflated, then there was a soft chime and he looked up and to the right, at some notification scrolling across the inner edge of his lenses. His pupils were wide and deep and black, like bowling balls in pans of milk.

“My apologies, Agent Liang, but as you can imagine I’ve got plenty of demands on my time.” Magnusson pushed away from his desk and went to the window, where he stood with hands clasped behind his back. “Let me put you in touch with a few of Fumie’s mates from when she was on the team—if this wasn’t her own mind at work, I’m sure they’d want to make sure that gets out as much as she would.”

“I’d appreciate whatever assistance you can offer,” Taryn said, standing up herself. Her watch whistled, and its face dimmed as a fresh notification marched across. Three names with contact information in tow. “Thank you for seeing me.”

Magnusson stood overlooking his diamond, his battlefield in chalk and artificial turf. Taryn edged out of his office and didn’t breathe until she was in the corridor again, where she nearly walked into a tall, pale, antenna-thin man in casual wear and carrying a battered briefcase. Though he frowned at her, there was no malice in the rest of his face. There was something odd to Taryn’s eye about the way he carried himself as he stepped away, a disharmony in the rhythm of his gait that didn’t mesh with the rest of him.

“Pardon me, ma’am, are you all right?” he asked in a kindly tone. “You just look to be out of sorts, is all.”

“No, thank you, I’m all right, I was just heading out.”

“Don’t I know that feeling. That was almost my game, you know.” The man pointed at the 2077 championship pennant with his free hand, then offered it to her. “Clark Sloane. Used to be one of the best five-tools the Foresters ever had.”

“Taryn Liang,” she said as she accepted the handshake. His skin was cold but rough—ten years out of the game hadn’t made him weak. “I suppose you’ve got those cybernetic legs to thank for that.”

“You’ve been reading up on me,” Sloane said with a grin. “Damn things put me out of the game. Fan, are you?”

“The way you walk,” Taryn said. “I notice things.”

“Oh,” Sloane said, slumping as he withdrew his hand. A sliver of disappointment that she wasn’t a fangirl waiting for some ex-baseball player to sign her chest. “Well, it’s easy enough to find your way out of here. Take it a step at a time.”

“Thank you,” Taryn said, and walked away. She didn’t look back, but couldn’t help but feel that Sloane was watching her until she slipped out of sight.


“I don’t understand why you’re dumping so much effort into this,” Kobayashi said when Taryn called in to report. With rush hour past, there were only a couple dozen people waiting on the platform while a strong wind blew in from the west. “This is the sort of case prosecutors need to buy new underwear for. Tsujimoto is manipulating you. Get a grip, sweetness.”

“I remember,” Taryn said. “You’ve got me wondering, though—what kind of bat was it?”

“It was her trophy bat,” Kobayashi said. “2086 championship keepsake, solid wood, etched with all the players’ names. Some collectibles nerd is probably crying over it right now.”

“Let me know if anything fresh comes up. I’ll check in later.” The train arrived with a rush of wind and an electric sigh, and she found a place to stand before it pushed out again while she wrestled with herself. Part of her agreed with Kobayashi’s dismissiveness, but the rest—it couldn’t be that simple. What would Tsujimoto really have to gain by dragging IRIS into it?

At least with Snowdon off to that conference in Seattle, she wouldn’t fill the office with her incessant theories. The local IRIS office was small, just two agents in an aging office block, but it was close to home with plenty of light coming in off the river. She followed up with the names Magnusson had given her back at the Bubble, and inside twenty minutes had an appointment with Jibran al-Baldawi, who owned a duplicate of Tsujimoto’s skullcracker and was only a season removed from the field.

Xanadu Place towered over the West End, a hundred-story needle of titanium and glass that bent the clouds and cast a shadow clear across the water. The moment she stepped out of the elevator onto the ninety-third floor, a service robot glided up to her. Where most serbots either hid the workings beneath artificial skin or plated them with polished chrome, this one was done up with ticking joints, a chest filled with clicking gears, and an ornamental wind-up key projecting from its back. There was nothing clockwork about the cameras that were its eyes except for the slight whirr as they focused on her.

“Welcome to Leonardo’s at the Xanadu, honored madame,” the serbot said in a click-clacking voice. “I regret to inform you that Leonardo’s is a private facility, and you do not appear to be on our list of members. Are you joining a party, or would you prefer to register for membership?”

“I’m here to meet Jibran al-Baldawi,” she said. Even outside its doors, the air carried the smell of liquor, marijuana and expensive tobacco. “Taryn Liang. I’m expected.”

“Of course,” the serbot said. “Please come with me, Madame Liang.”

The bright lacquered doors opened with a hiss as the serbot approached. The temperature jumped five degrees as Taryn stepped inside, and the air itself felt thicker. There was a Renaissance feel to the decor, with polished marble columns carved into sculptures and models of improbable flying machines strung from the ceiling.

Al-Baldawi was waiting for her in a mahogany booth with a city view. He hadn’t been exaggerating when he’d said it would be quiet—apart from a few serbots, Leonardo’s was empty. He nodded to her as she settled in, though his eyes were dark and distant, and the serbot scuttled away to rejoin the background clockwork tick-tock. There was an empty tumbler on her side of the table, and al-Baldawi held one just like it filled with something clear.

“Have something,” he said. “It helps.”

“Not today, thanks.” She put a hand to the side of her head as the pain came back. The rest of the bottle would have to wait until there was no one watching. “Thank you for meeting with me.”

“It’s for Fumie, not you,” al-Baldawi said. “Because I still believe in her. So, go ahead. Eliminate some possibilities.”

“What’s your relationship with Ms. Tsujimoto?” Taryn felt like she was descending into a cave, asking such basic questions. If this had been a normal investigation, officers would’ve hammered in the spikes and left glowsticks behind.

“We’re friends from when we were on the team together, and only that,” al-Baldawi said. His face was etched with worry and grief. “I haven’t seen her for a week, she’s been busy getting her house in order. I know how cops think about motive, but she was satisfied with life.”

“Her house in order? What do you mean? Has there been something new going on with her recently?”

“We were planning on going into business together,” al-Baldawi said. He drained his tumbler and looked outside for a moment. “Living off the embers of fame didn’t appeal to us. We were going to start a brewery, one of those craft places. Made by real hands and not robots. Traditional stuff.”

“I can understand,” Taryn said. “There’s no shortage of robots around here.”

“They control these ones from a remote center when things get busy,” he said, still not meeting her eyes. “I don’t get it. I mean, she even gave up drinking after she had her kid. Said she didn’t want to ruin things. Tell me, does that sound like someone who’d want to do something that horrible?”

“I can’t say,” Taryn said. That was the beauty and curse of humanity, to be a walking pile of contradictions. “Was she under any stress from your project? It’s possible her mediator picked up on something subconscious.”

“Maybe. She kept things tied up inside.” He looked into his tumbler and shook his head. “Listen to me, she was and all that. Like she was the one who died. Guess you never can tell sometimes. Weird to think how we were all here yesterday and everything was like it should be, and now this ...”

“You were here with Tsujimoto before the crime?” Taryn leaned forward, reading every twitch on al-Baldawi’s face. The police hadn’t bothered to trace Tsujimoto’s movements in the hours leading up to the murder—why would they have needed to, when only the last seconds were what really mattered? “What time?”

“Around seven-thirty,” al-Baldawi said. “Trading stories, drinking down, smoking up—well, not Fumie, really. I had to hop a little after eleven, but things were still pretty active then.”

“I’m sure they were,” Taryn said as she fought to hold her neutral expression. If she could corroborate it, that put Tsujimoto inside Leonardo’s less than two hours before the crime was committed. It wouldn’t be the first time some fine, upstanding soul had staggered home under starlight with a belly full of beer and a head full of rage. “I’m going to need to know what she’d been doing here, and who was here besides the two of you.”

“Management keeps a running log of the orders, but they’re not going to open that box without a warrant,” al-Baldawi said. He looked up and to his right for a moment and shook his head. “It was just a few beers. Listen, I’ve got to return a message ... I remember that Fumie spent some time out on the balcony last night. Maybe you’ll be able to find something out there. Heard you sort are good at that.”

Taryn sniffed as al-Baldawi slid out of the booth. People had been giving themselves pointed ears back when genetic engineering was just a science fiction dream. Now it was all too easy for parents to choose some advantageous attributes, add the ears, wrap the package up and call it an elf, and in her twenty-six years she still hadn’t decided whether or not she should be thankful for hers. Elves were uncommon enough that she usually met with curiosity rather than anger, but for every person who looked past her ears there was someone who expected her to be emotionless and logical or some arrogant archer.

She slid out of the booth and stepped out onto the patio, a cobblestone semicircle projecting out with only a transparent, chest-high wall shielding her from a nine-hundred-foot fall. It would have been a fine spot on a clear and windless night, but a brace of grey clouds had scudded in off the Pacific with a pattering drizzle. There were some chairs and tables and a few poles topped with ashtrays but no cameras that she could find, or any indication that Tsujimoto had even been there.

The door breezed open behind her. Clicking clockwork advertised a serbot well enough—coming out to put away the chairs, perhaps, or drag them out of the rain. The sort of work that could have been done by a human for pocket change. As she looked out over the city, the clicking of the serbot’s ornamental mechanisms only became louder.

“Is there a problem?” Taryn turned toward the serbot, and though its intentions were impossible to read, she didn’t like the way it approached her. “Can I help you with something?”

The serbot lunged for her with arms outstretched. She dodged right, but it followed and latched onto her forearm with a heavy hand that squeezed. She cursed herself for not being ready for it—with no humans on the floor, Leonardo’s serbots would have been built to force uncooperative members off the premises when necessary. Its intent was clear—a nine-hundred-foot fall would take care of any investigator, genetically engineered or otherwise.

She braced her legs against the wall and tried not to wonder whether it had been made to spec. All the serbot needed was a second of distraction, an instant of weakness, and she’d be in its arms and over the side. She breathed and gave her arm a jerk toward the gap between the robot’s thumb and forefinger—in an instant she was free, and this time she seized the robot with both hands. If it wanted to pitch her over the side now, it’d have to clamber over the wall itself.

Taryn wasn’t about to give it that opportunity. She entangled her legs with the serbot’s, a dance too fast to follow but which told her that nobody had gone to the trouble of teaching it martial arts—or whoever was teleoperating it. After a long tango she outstepped the robot and swept its legs away. It fell with a crash and a succession of pops as some of the clockwork gave way, but still it moved.

She went for one of the smokers’ poles. About two feet high, solid aluminum, heavy enough that it didn’t need to be anchored but not so heavy they couldn’t be moved. A black cloud of spent ashes billowed into the drizzle as she hefted it like a club. The serbot was already finding its footing, but with slow and uncertain motions. It raised its arms to shield itself against her first strikes, but only her first. She kept at it until the serbot’s arms and legs were pounded clear, then called the police in.

She had just finished when al-Baldawi stepped out onto the balcony. He noticed the wrecked serbot and his eyes went wide, but before he could make a sound she stood wall-firm in front of him.

“Just had to return a message, did you?” she asked in a mocking tone. “Awfully convenient. I don’t know what happened, officers, I only left for a couple of minutes and when I came back she was gone. Is that how it was supposed to go?”

“What the hell—”

What the hell is right,” Taryn said. “What the hell is going on when I get attacked by a serbot, when you’re the only one who even knew I was here? What the hell were you thinking?”

“I don’t know what you’re on about! I told you, I had to return a message, about the business plan!” Al-Baldawi had backed into the outer wall, and fear danced in his eyes. “I didn’t do this!”

Someone did, and I’m sure the cops will love listening to you explaining your way out of it,” she growled. “The cops don’t like me much, but they like murderers even less. Better start talking unless you want to understand what Tsujimoto’s going through, pure and personal.”

“I don’t, I—hang on, hang on, the list!” He backed into the wall and wiped sweat off his forehead. “You must have tripped the list when you got let in. That’s how someone could know. I—I never subscribed, but it’s this thing where when the bots let in a woman who meets ... certain standards, they flash pictures around to everyone who is subscribed.”

Taryn suppressed a shudder, but the prospect still made her skin crawl. Even though things weren’t nearly as bad as they had been at the turn of the century, there remained plenty of men out there who looked for power and dominance, if only by proxy. To know that there were strangers out there leering at her image, cowards on the far end of a wireless connection—

“Tell it to the police.” Although she hadn’t brought her stunner out to Leonardo’s—not that an electrolaser would have done much good against the serbot—no investigation was complete without a roll of cufftape. She gave al-Baldawi the standard speech as she secured a fair strip around his wrists. “You’d better hope someone makes a better suspect than you do.”


Kobayashi was waiting when Taryn arrived with al-Baldawi in tow. A pair of impassive officers took him away for processing, leaving Kobayashi standing with one hand on her hip and wearing a smirk.

“You really know how to make things complicated, don’t you?” Kobayashi asked. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were taking revenge for being saddled with this.”

“It’s easy to make things complicated when you stop squinting,” Taryn said. The door creaked open to admit the two officers who’d responded to her call from Leonardo’s, dragging the killer serbot’s wreckage behind them. “Besides, I already found something to take my frustrations out on. You just worry about that boltbag.”

“You and your interesting luck. I ...” Kobayashi said, then stopped as if she had to force the words out one by one. “Thanks for not making us scrape you off the street.”

“Never knew you still cared,” Taryn said with a wink and a grin. The two of them were like comets, spending most of their time in the outer darkness, but every once in a while they sailed close to the sun.

The police had a closet-sized office for IRIS liaisons up on the fifth floor, next to an ancient ice machine and surrounded by pipes that rattled like bags of steel dice, but it was enough for what she needed. She streamed and filtered four years of the Foresters and watched Fumie Tsujimoto play. There was an easy, disciplined, practiced fluidity to her movements that didn’t quite accord with Taryn’s own experience with a relaxant like Pacifica Blue—it had been peerless in turning her arms and legs to jelly.

The earliest games showed something different. Tsujimoto had only played in four before the installation of her mediator, and in them she looked uncertain, inexpert, still learning as she went. Taryn correlated games into the night, and as she arranged to test her hypothesis, she felt as if she was descending into a well.

Tsujimoto looked like she wanted to fold up and disappear when Taryn went to see her. They’d transferred her to an interrogation room much like the one they’d sat in that morning—had it only been that morning? She opened the bag she’d carried in with her and set the interface glove on the table.

“What is that?” Tsujimoto nodded at the glove. “Something that’ll tell you I’ve been telling the truth?”

“It just might, at that,” Taryn said. She sat down across from Tsujimoto and put the glove on. “This is a remote interface glove. The sort of thing people use when they’re teleoperating heavy construction avatars, doing remote surgery, that sort of thing. Ever used one before?”

“Why would I have?” Tsujimoto said with a shake of her head. “I played baseball.”

“Did anything unusual happen at Leonardo’s yesterday?”

“Nothing that I remember,” Tsujimoto said. “We got in there a bit before eight, they had some drinks, hit the usual rounds, that sort. I was feeling a bit woozy at the end, though. Could be they had something fresh in the air there.”

“Who’s we?”

“Just the regular knot of us. Chambers, Sloane, Zeeman, Jansen, al-Baldawi ... ex-Foresters, mostly.”

“Clark Sloane?” Taryn asked, leaning in. She’d got a copy of Leonardo’s perv list while going through the games, and he’d been on it. “From the ’77 championship?”

“That’s the man,” Tsujimoto said. “Lives out on Salt Spring but comes over pretty regularly. Guess he wants to hold onto a piece.”

“Interesting,” Taryn said. The glove was synchronized—all that was left was to figure out if she was right. “Ms. Tsujimoto, I’d like you to relax your muscles. Try to be as much at ease as you can.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Tsujimoto frowned at her. “Relax? My family is dead and you all think I did it.”

“I sympathize, Ms. Tsujimoto, and that’s why I’m doing this,” Taryn said. The status display on her watch shone green as the bridge found what it was looking for and burned through. “Just take some deep breaths.”

Tsujimoto breathed, but kept that accusatory glare fixed on Taryn. She couldn’t blame her for it. Waking up to see what she’d seen, to be hustled away with all those fingers pointed at her, the police talking behind her back about how it couldn’t be any simpler ...

She clenched her gloved fist. Tsujimoto’s own right hand mirrored it. She rotated it around, and Tsujimoto’s arm and hand followed.

“What ...?” Tsujimoto’s gaze jumped from Taryn to her own hand and back again, fear and betrayal written on her face. “This is ...”

“Your mediator,” Taryn said. “It picks up instructions from your brain and relays them to the rest of your nervous system. Someone went to a great deal of trouble to make it so that you weren’t the only one with the keys.”

“I can’t believe this,” Tsujimoto said. “So what you’re saying is ...”

“That someone may have accessed your mediator while you were asleep and committed the crime, yes,” Taryn said. “That you were being remotely controlled.”

“I don’t understand,” Tsujimoto said after a long silence. “Why?”

“That’s what I mean to find,” Taryn said. “Whose idea was it for you to start using Pacifica Blue?”

“I don’t remember,” Tsujimoto said. “Just that it helped me out.”

“I used it myself for a time,” Taryn said. “I couldn’t help but find it odd that taking a general relaxant would improve your playing.”

She exhaled and bit down. Tsujimoto had already lost so much—who was she to take away everything else? Was she just like an elf from old stories, destroying a life for no reason other than that she could?

“What are you saying?” Tsujimoto asked with narrowed eyes and an uncertain warble in her voice. She was a smart woman—she’d come to that conclusion whether or not Taryn told her. Better, in the end, for the bad news to come from the world and not her own fears.

“That this wasn’t an isolated incident,” Taryn said, exhaling deeply. “That your mediator was modified to allow someone to remotely control you during games. The Pacifica Blue would have been to keep you in an altered enough state that you wouldn’t realize it.”

“That’s ...” Tsujimoto folded her hands on her lap and stared down at them. “I thought it was just a quirk of the interface. So you’re saying that my life is a lie. That I was just a puppet.”

“I’m sorry,” Taryn said.

“I don’t understand,” Tsujimoto said. She looked up long enough for Taryn to see the tears pooling at the corners of her eyes and trickling down. If not for professionalism, Taryn would have joined her. To not only lose your family, but to find out that you’d been manipulated for someone else’s gain ... “There’s nothing special about me. Why would anyone want to do this?”

“That’s exactly what I intend to find out,” Taryn said. “In the meantime, I’ll make sure the police send in someone for you to talk to. I’m just sorry that you had to hear it from me.”

“Thank you,” Tsujimoto said, but there was nothing thankful in her eyes. “I’d like to be alone now.”

Taryn nodded and packed away the glove and the bridge. As she closed the interrogation room’s door behind her, a wave of pain and nausea crashed against her with such ferocity that her legs buckled and she forced herself back against the wall just to stay upright. She hadn’t seen it because she hadn’t wanted to see it. Stories of puppet implants had been told and retold since her grandparents’ day, from soldiers remotely piloted through chips in their heads to factory workers with the soul of a machine. To see something like that in action, to know someone had reached into Tsujimoto’s head and pulled on nerve endings like the strings of a marionette, made her feel as if the floor was about to open up beneath her.

“Al-Baldawi’s story checked out,” Kobayashi said once Taryn found her. “Any other shining notions?”

“Magnusson,” Taryn said. “Someone had to have seen to the mediator.”

“Trace Magnusson?” Taryn nodded, only for Kobayashi to shake her head. “Going to have a hard time with that, sweetness. He’s dead. Preliminaries look like—”

“Don’t tell me. Overdose.” His dilated, deep black pupils had told that story when they’d met.

“Pretty convenient all around,” Kobayashi said. “Remorse, maybe, or just wanting to forget?”

Taryn shook her head. On the face of it, the chain of events seemed logical enough. Magnusson committed the murder, attempted to dispatch Taryn at Leonardo’s, then took a deep whiff of white to calm down after his failure and never had clear eyes again. Except—why? If he was behind the mediator’s modification, why would he do anything that could risk it being revealed? After Tsujimoto took off her Foresters uniform, there should have been no more need for it.

“It doesn’t make sense, not with Magnusson,” Taryn said. “You have anything on Clark Sloane, out on Salt Spring Island?”

“I can find out,” Kobayashi said. “Someone I should know?”

“His name’s come up a couple of times,” Taryn said. “I ran into him in the Bubble this morning, Tsujimoto and Al-Baldawi both say he was at the club last night, and he’s on the perv list. If nothing else, he may have been one of the last people to see Magnusson alive. Sounds like reason enough to set up a chat.”

“I have friends on the islands.” Kobayashi stood close. Their noses touched. “Just remember, I’m the only one in this world allowed to push you off the edge.”


“One of these days,” Taryn said as she looked down toward the tea-black waves, “you’re going to have to tell me how you found a floatplane this quickly.”

“What, and surrender all my secrets?” Kobayashi grinned at her from behind the controls. It was near two a.m. as they left Vancouver’s lights behind, on course toward the dark and rugged Gulf Islands. “I thought you loved mysteries, squeeze. You’ll have plenty of time to figure it out once we figure this out.”

“I wish I could be as confident as you,” Taryn said, aching for the other half of that bottle. “All this guesswork—”

“That’s police work, sweetness,” Kobayashi said. “How much you wanna bet our man Sloane was Magnusson’s dealer? Mags ends up with a briefcase full of premium zip, and in a moment of weakness decides to go out high before he can get dragged down.”

“Could be,” Taryn said. “Or maybe he flipped out at Sloane because I’d been sniffing around. Tsujimoto was supposed to be halfway to Walla Walla by now.”

Kobayashi guided the floatplane down to a smooth landing in Ganges, where a handful of lights burned behind the village’s seawall. A teenager in paint-spattered clothes met them at the dock, and moments after tying up they’d picked up a car from the rank and were humming south toward the forested slopes of Mount Maxwell, where Sloane kept his home among trees that had stood firm for centuries. Taryn didn’t imagine that Sloane’s own story would end with such dignity.

“You know I can’t do anything out here,” Kobayashi said. She’d left her uniform back in Vancouver, exchanging it for a sharp-cut blouse and pants Taryn had bought for her on Dunsmuir Street the last time things had been warm between them. “Don’t mess this up, sweetness.”

“You sound confident for something that was supposed to be open-and-shut.”

“A lot can change in twenty-four hours,” Kobayashi said. “Just be careful. If this guy did try to kill you by remote, he might not hold back when you’re in his face.”

“Neither will I,” Taryn said. Her electrolaser was heavy on her hip, and unlike an out-of-control serbot, it would deal quite well with an ordinary man.

Taryn didn’t see the smoke until they were almost on top of it, with the billowing clouds nearly as black as the sky above the treeline. She didn’t feel its furious roar in her bones until the car rounded the last corner and whispered onto a long, hard-packed driveway crowned with what must have been a modest but respectable house before someone set it on fire. It couldn’t have been burning for long—she’d have seen it from the plane otherwise—but there were no other roads up or down this part of the mountain, and they hadn’t passed anything along the way. There was nothing coincidental about it.

“He’s here!” Taryn didn’t bother to shut the door behind her as she leapt out of the car. “He’s gotta be. If we can just ... come on!”

She set off toward the house at a run, the heat biting into her skin, and the gunshot sound of cracking timbers filled the air. At that realization she dove behind a nearby bush, readied her electrolaser, and scanned her surroundings, though the fire’s light would make it difficult for anyone to hide. She wouldn’t put it past a murderer to burn a house down and wait like a spider until the right fly found his web.

“Teelie, don’t be an idiot!” Kobayashi came up from behind and wrapped her arms around Taryn’s midsection. “Don’t act like I can’t read you, sweetness. He’s either dead or he’s gone.”

Taryn had no words for Kobayashi, just a face full of hurt. It wasn’t supposed to be like this—the suspect wasn’t supposed to wise up and flee before she’d finished sewing the net. She couldn’t move her gaze until the flashing lights of one of the island’s fire engines started whipping across her face. A phalanx of spidery firebots disengaged from the engine and scuttled into the burning house to look for survivors and fight the blaze from the inside, while the firefighters in the cab hopped out to unfurl the hoses before noticing the two women crouching behind a bush.

“Are you two all right?” His voice was filtered and ragged—the fire must’ve shot him out of bed only moments before. “Is anyone else here?”

“We’re fine,” Kobayashi said, still squeezing Taryn, as if she didn’t trust her not to charge into the burning house shouting Sloane’s name. “We only just got here.”

The firefighter nodded and hurried back to his job. Taryn lowered herself to the wet grass, and as she tore her gaze away from the burning house that was turning her best leads to ash, tears trickled out of her eyes. She fought to maintain control, her sense of cool detachment that had seen her through Libertalia and New Babel and so many other places, all the way to Tsujimoto’s interrogation room. The stress of the day and the night, the fear she’d forced down when the serbot had attacked, the yawning chasm she’d found herself balancing on the edge of when she’d moved Tsujimoto’s hand—all of it poured out like a thunderstorm while Kobayashi hugged her close, cheek to cheek.

“This wasn’t your fault,” Kobayashi whispered in her ear. “I didn’t believe Tsujimoto at first, you know? Nobody did, except you. You did a great thing today. Don’t forget that. Justice is going to be done because of you.”

“Hollow justice,” Taryn spat. She shook her head and wiped away tears with the back of her hand. “Whether it was him, or someone killed him to keep us from getting to him—”

“No one can hide forever,” Kobayashi said. “They’re already putting the bulletins together. Or look at it this way—someone’s going to have to spend the rest of their life hiding, like a rat, knowing that we’ll always be watching.”

“Maybe,” Taryn said. She stroked her throat and found it raw. “Just ... there was no reason. It’s hollow.”

“Sometimes that’s how things go,” Kobayashi said. “Sometimes that’s the best people like us can hope for.”

“Why?” Taryn asked, wearing a hard look. Kobayashi had no answer for her, and together they watched the fire burn. END

Andrew Barton is a Toronto-based short fiction author whose work has appeared in “Analog,” “On Spec,” and multiple anthologies. He talks speculation and mocks corny comic strip panels on Twitter at @ActsofAndrewB.


hugo noms





Andrew Barton just bashes his keyboard and words spew out. He has been
published in “Analog,” “On Spec,” and the anthologies “Strange Bedfellows” and
“Second Contacts” from Bundoran Press. He lives in the sky with a robot that
needs a lot of looking after. Visit his website here.

Favorite drink: Like Taryn Liang, I’m partial to slivovitz; a slivovitz and coke solves a lot of problems.

Favorite movie: Maybe not total favorite, but I do have a soft spot for “The Fifth Element”—in terms of the worldbuilding and design, particularly, I can’t think of anything else that looks quite like it.

Pet peeve: People saying “intergalactic” when they mean “interstellar.” The words have slightly different meanings, after all.

Advice to NASA: Remember that you weren’t started as a work exchange program for robots.






jamie noble-comp