Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


From Gaia to Proxima Centauri
by Milo James Fowler

Suck the Oil Out With a Straw
by Robin White

L’enfer, C’est la Solitude
by Joe Vasicek

Tea With Silicate Gods
by Auston Habershaw

by Andrew Muff

Gina Starlight’s Got the Blues
by Sandra M. Odell

Passing History
by Bill Adler Jr.

A Planet Like Earth
by E.K. Wagner

Shorter Stories

Cold Deaths
by Michael Haynes

Leviathan Buffet
by Sarina Dorie

by Hall Jameson


How Far is Heaven?
by Gary Cuba

A.I. Invasion or A.I. in Education?
by Jason M. Harley



Comic Strips




Passing History

By Bill Adler Jr.

TOMMY COULDN’T BELIEVE THAT he got a C on his American History exam. He was an A student who knew American history backwards and forwards. He read historical novels, essays, and diaries. His favorite television network was the History Channel. Tommy consumed every word of his assigned textbooks the way his friends ate Doritos, and then read more. When he walked down the street, he imagined the world that had existed decades and centuries ago. He saw storefronts from the 1900s and horses on cobblestone streets from the 1820s. He witnessed the Empire State Building being built when he was in Herald Square. He spied men and women darting into speakeasies in the 1920s. Tommy probably knew more about American history than his teacher did. Heck, he could teach American history.

And that’s what he wanted to do. Tommy was unequivocal on his college applications: he wanted to be a historian. He planned to study at the best university, Yale. It was foretold, too. He would study at Yale. He had the grades, the SATs, and, he was sure, the very best recommendations from his teachers.

History was more than a window to the past for Tommy. History was a roadmap toward the future. What made history’s map more interesting than any other guide, Tommy believed, was that as we learned more history and corrected our understanding of the past, we set in motion new, unanticipated futures.

But a C. How was that possible? The grade put Tommy’s path to Yale in jeopardy. There must have been some mistake.

“I don’t understand how I got a C on this exam,” he said to Mr. Stewart, his 11th grade American History teacher.

“I was surprised that you blew such a basic question, too,” Stewart replied as he put his pen down. He was sealing somebody’s permanent record, Tommy thought, hoping that it wasn’t his. Stewart spoke in a staccato cadence, inhaling air and pausing for a fraction of a second on each proper noun. “The Vietnam War ended in January 1972. After the American withdrawal on December 25, 1971, the North Vietnamese army quickly quelled the South’s military, marched into Saigon, and captured the capital. The North and South were reunited.”

“What?” Tommy asked.

“I don’t know what you were thinking when you wrote that the war ended April 1975 with the capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese army.” Stewart slowly removed his glasses and looked at Tommy with the kind of gape that somebody gives their dog when they find a bag of doggie treats ripped open and spilled out on the kitchen floor.

“I’m sure that the war ended in 1975,” Tommy said. “I didn’t need to, but I read over those pages last night in The Origins of Modern America.”

“Did you?” The drawer creaked as Stewart opened it. Although the textbook was thick and heavy, and the mere sight of it made Tommy’s lower back twinge, Stewart effortlessly removed the book from the draw. He let The Origins of Modern America drop with a loud thunk on the desk, flipped it open, and quickly thumbed to the page he was looking for. “Read,” he commanded.

Tommy subvocalized the words on the page as he read. He couldn’t believe the paragraphs unfolding before his eyes. The timeline infographic piled onto his confusion. But there it was. And more: “Historians believe that the unification of North and South Vietnam, the development of a powerful Vietnamese army, the subsequent invasion of Cambodia, defeat of the Khmer Rouge, and the execution of their leader Pol Pot, prevented a genocide by the ruthless leader of the Khmer Rouge.”

Tommy’s brain was swimming. Something was wrong. Something was wrong with him.

“I’m sorry,” he said to Mr. Stewart. “I don’t know what happened.” Tommy paused for a few seconds and then asked, “May I take a retest?”

Stewart raised his eyebrows. “You know, Tommy, if it had been anyone in this class other than you, I’d say no. I usually don’t allow retests, but I’m going to today. Right now, in fact.” He put his glasses back on. “I hope you don’t have any activities planned for after school.”

“No, sir. Thank you, Mr. Stewart.”

“I’m going to assign you three questions. I want you to write three one-page answers.”

Tommy felt lighter, the constricting oppressiveness of being destined to go to some college in Ohio or North Carolina loosening. Tommy was confident that he could write essays on any topic in American history.

“Oh, and Tommy,” Stewart asked. “Please write neatly. I don’t want to spend the entire evening trying to figure out what you said.”

The first question was about the World War’s impact on the Great Depression. The next was on the effect on America of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957. And the last asked the causes of the anti-vaccine movement. Easy as pie, Tommy hoped.

He didn’t have history again until Thursday, so he had to wait nearly forty-eight hours to find out whether or not he would be getting into Yale. When Thursday came around, to say that Tommy was pleased to hear the words “A+” and “”terrific” in the same sentence would have been an understatement.

“I’m going to tear up your previous exam score,” said Stewart. “Let’s chalk up that flub about the Vietnam War to too little sleep, shall we?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

Tommy still watched the television news before dinner, although it was far from the best source of information. He watched the network news, CNN, MSNBC, and even Fox. He didn’t feel more informed when watching those shows, but he believed that it was useful to absorb the same news that many other Americans watched. His view was that history wasn’t just something from the past, it was being created all the time. People were part of history, shaping it as individuals and as hordes. Knowing what other people knew was part of the job of a historian. Tommy would sometimes grit his teeth when trite and superficial reports about important events were pawned off as news. He cringed while watching, especially if he had read about a particular event earlier in the “New York Times” or heard a report on NPR.

Tommy was half-paying attention to the anchor when the man’s golden voice said, “NASA reported today that average global temperatures have stabilized at a point-nine Fahrenheit increase for the past twelve months. Massive Antarctic glacier melting is no longer forecast, and the planet is no longer in danger of tipping into unthinkable climate change. This is a direct result of the Global Climate Treaty between the United States and China that the Obama Administration pursued seven years ago with vigor during the first year of its administration ...”

“What!” Tommy shouted at the television.

“Tommy? Are you okay?” his mom asked from the kitchen.

“Fine,” Tommy called back. Though he wasn’t. The world was 1.4 degrees hotter this year than it had been a century ago. Arctic and Antarctic ice was melting. Coral reefs were dying. Extreme weather was the norm around the world. And there had never been a climate treaty between the U.S. and China. Last December there was a global climate agreement in Paris, and ...

Tommy pulled out his phone. He googled “Paris Climate Conference,” “United Nations Climate Agreement,” and several other combinations of what he knew to have happened not too long ago. Nothing. There were only reports about the American-Chinese climate treaty, how that had inspired and coerced other nations to reduce their fossil fuel use, and how the world may have been spared a catastrophic future. And there was also this in “The Economist”: “Political capital is a scarce resource. Barack Obama had to choose: fix the world’s climate or America’s broken (some would say non-existent) health insurance. Obama worked tirelessly to save future generations from disease, death, and destruction, but in doing so, he could not save this current generation of Americans from the ravages of not having health insurance. A painful choice, but the right one to make.”

Tommy felt sick. Not about the NASA report, but about the fact that he was totally ignorant of it. Maybe I’m tired. Maybe I need to go to the movies. Maybe I need some kind of therapy, Tommy said to himself, though he doubted it. He considered therapy only because it’s a required thought when you have some kind of cognitive issue, as Tommy had now. But I’m just tired, he reassured himself. I need to sleep. I need to spend more time watching junk television like most kids do.

But Tommy couldn’t help frightening himself with introspection; he was not the boss of his own thoughts. He wanted to become a historian more than anything. Yet he was forgetting important history. Worse, he was getting history wrong, getting facts wrong that he knew perfectly well. Or thought that he knew.

“You need to spend more time with friends and vegging,” a reassuring and assertive voice said to him. Tommy had called Christopher, one of his three close friends, and asked if he wanted to come over after school the next day to hang out, throw a ball around in the park, maybe watch something junky on television, too. He’d invited Christopher to dinner without asking his mom, because she was always fine having his friends over for dinner. Normalcy. That was the key.

Tommy was more tired than he knew and fell quickly asleep. He didn’t remember a single dream.

“Yahoo Profits Exceed Expectations” was the right-hand column headline in Friday morning’s “New York Times.” “The search giant’s profits have made Yahoo the world’s most valuable company ...”

“No!” Tommy said, spewing cereal from his mouth, strawberry, blueberry and banana adding unwanted color to the table.

“What’s the matter?” his father asked. Tommy’s family had breakfast together every morning or as many mornings as possible. His mother and sister also looked up from their wheat flakes at Tommy.

“Um. I think I left my homework on my desk. Can I get it?”

“Yes. And when you’re back, please clean up that mess on the table.”

Tommy sprinted down the hall. He pressed a key on his laptop to wake up the screen so he could google “Yahoo.” Only there was no Google. He searched for it on Yahoo—the one and only search engine that seemed available to him—but the results were zip. How could that be? How could there not be any company called Google, no Google search engine? Tommy opened his online calendar, which as far as he could remember had been a Google calendar, but it now said “My Yahoo Calendar” on the top of the monitor with a lavender YAHOO! on the right hand side of the screen. The calendar entry he’d made the night before, “Hang out with Chris,” was still there. The time was still there: “3:30 p.m.—11 p.m.” The note “Chris here for dinner” was still there. But it was a Yahoo calendar, not a Google one. Not the calendar he knew to exist and had entered data in the day before.

I’ll sort this all out, Tommy said to himself. He was in a whirlpool in a murky rainforest, sunlight obstructed by colossal leaves in freakish geometric shapes. He was alone, with only unnatural, primordial animal sounds around him, which got closer as the whirlpool swirled faster, pulling him deeper down, cold water pressing against his chest making it hard to breathe. His mouth and nose got closer to being entirely underwater. He reached out to an unreachable tree branch and a cold wind froze his fingers in place.

“Tommy?” his dad shouted from the dining room. His father’s normally placid voice rang sternly. Tommy remembered the mess he’d left on the table.

“Coming,” Tommy shouted back as he got up from his desk.

Tommy couldn’t help himself: he had to read history during his subway ride to school. Despite the Lexington Avenue line being so packed that he could barely hold his phone in front of his face, Tommy managed to type in “wik ...” and Yahoo completed the rest: Wikipedia. OMG. There was nothing about a climate treaty between the United States and China. But there was! I just saw it yesterday on the news! Tommy shouted silently, though on this noisy, crowded New York subway nobody would have heard him or cared if he’d screamed those words at the top of his lungs. He opened the “New York Times” app and searched for “Obamacare,” which he knew for sure Obama had shepherded through Congress. Thousands of search results appeared. Back to Wikipedia Tommy went. The Vietnam War had ended in 1971 and there had never been the slaughter and death of 1.5 million Cambodians—the world that Tommy knew.

For the first time, Tommy was relieved that he didn’t have history that day. He didn’t think he could cope with getting more facts wrong in his head. It may have been extreme tiredness that first caused the world to look like a box of unrelated jigsaw puzzle pieces, but history class would only mess up his mind even more.

Instead, he had English, math, chemistry, Spanish, and gym—all good. All safe. Tommy needed that time to chill and think. Or to think less. He wasn’t sure what he needed, but he was grateful that the weekend was starting in seven hours.

Gym was a nightmare. Not the typical kind of high school nightmare, like when your physical incoordination is exposed to your peers, or when being picked last for a team sport solidifies your status as undesirable underachiever. Tommy, never Fieldston’s first- or even second-choice pick for anything having to do with sports, would have preferred the embarrassment of a typical gym class a thousand times over to what happened that day.

Sumo class.

Tommy’s partner was Takeshi-san, a kid he was pretty sure hadn’t been in his class of two hundred students yesterday. Takeshi beamed as their gym teacher paired them off for a match.

“When did we start doing Sumo wrestling in gym class?” Tommy asked Takeshi in a hushed whisper as they crouched on the mat. Takeshi’s eyes were fixed on Tommy’s face, ready to strike, pounce, punch, pressure, or wrestle—Tommy had no idea what came first or at all in this sport—the moment that Mr. Wylde said go.

“Huh?” Takeshi replied. “Are you trying to throw me off my game?”


Tommy spent the next hour in the school nurse’s office, ice on his shoulder. During that time, he discovered what was different from the way he remembered things—or thought he remembered things. Franklin Roosevelt had never issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing the forced internment of 110,000 Japanese during the Second World War. Instead, Japanese Americans fought beside Anglo soldiers. Japanese Americans supported the war by donating their innovation and hard work to making weapons for the Allies. Japanese Americans became spies in Tokyo. Because of everything they’d done, the Second World War ended in 1942, and America had embraced Japanese culture. Almost every high school had Sumo wrestling, and ramen noodle restaurants were nearly as popular as diners. Tommy folded his arms on the desk in the nurse’s office, despite the additional shoulder pain it caused, and rested his head. Resigning himself to this path toward madness, he moaned into his arms. Tommy felt a vast hand reach down from the sky, touch his head, and steep his brain with psychosis. Two days before, if you had asked Tommy what he wanted most, he would have said, “To study history at Yale.” Today all he wanted was his sanity back.

Tommy did the best he could to hold it together for the rest of the day. He did that by talking with as few people as possible and reading as little as he could get away with. Mostly, he stared into space or listened to music when it was allowed. He took the bus home. Riding the subway in a dark tunnel, a closed space packed with thousands of strangers, was more than he could handle. Tommy understood the power of enochlophobia and claustrophobia. Whatever he had, whatever the name of what his illness was, he did not want to feed it phobia that it would thrive on.

At the 79th Street stop, a girl about his age got on. She had short black hair, wore a woolen skirt that looked like the uniform of some private school he couldn’t identify, and carried a backpack burdened with textbooks. She sat down next to Tommy and pulled a spiral notebook out of her backpack. On the top of the page was a drawing that Tommy would rather not have seen because it reinforced his cascading insanity: The East and Hudson rivers overflowing into Manhattan, consuming the city’s skyline. Below that picture, the girl wrote: “Why can’t I google this?”

It took nearly a half-minute before Tommy could speak. When he finally willed his vocal chords to work again, Tommy said to her, his voice a weak whisper, “I used to be able to google, too.”

The girl clipped the purple marker to the top of the page and looked up from her notebook. “You're not insane,” she said.

“What do you mean?” Tommy asked.

“Google, the Vietnam War, Japanese internment, D.B. Cooper’s capture, marijuana being legalized in 1969 ... the histories that are different. You’re not misremembering things.”

“I don’t know about D.B. Cooper and pot being legalized in the sixties.”

“You must have started skipping recently, then,” she said as she brushed a lock of hair from in front of her eyes. “I’ve been skipping for five weeks. Events have happened that never happened and events that never happened did happen.” She paused for a moment. “Do you understand?”

“I know that. History is wrong here. Sometimes events revert back to the way that they were, but sometimes they stay incorrect.”

“That’s partially right,” she said. “I’m Mae, by the way.” She extended her hand.


“Right. Let’s get off this bus and go to a Starbucks where we can talk.”

Tommy nodded and they got off at the next stop. There was always a Starbucks nearby, or so he assumed.

The Starbucks at 52nd Street, half a block from where they had gotten off the bus, was unusually crowded for four o’clock on a sunny April afternoon. The streets were empty, as if everyone wanted an afternoon caffeine fix at the same time. Coffees in tow, Tommy and Mae found a table.

“Let me see your fingers,” she said, reaching to pull his hand toward her even before Tommy had agreed.

“You have white spots on your fingernails like I do,” she said.

“What does that mean?” Tommy asked.

“I don’t know. I’m just noting it. I didn’t notice the spots on my fingernails before I started skipping.”

“Why do you call this skipping?” She released his hand and he looked at his fingernails, observing for the first time that there were indeed white spots on them. Whiteout white. Six of them.

Mae said, “You’ll see more spots over time. The more you skip, the more spots you’ll develop. I call it skipping because that’s what I think we’re doing. We’re skipping into different timelines. Events aren’t actually changing in the world. Instead, we’re moving into different worlds, or more precisely, different universes with different timelines. There are an infinite number of timelines with an infinite variation of events, so some physicists believe. My dad’s a science reporter for the Times and he’s one of those who think that we’re just one universe in an infinite multiverse.”

“If there are an infinite number of universes with an infinite variation of events, why are just one or two things changed every time we skip? Why don’t we see things like dinosaurs roaming the streets or everyone speaking Old English?” Tommy asked.

“Because we only skip to nearby universes. It takes energy to move from one multiverse to the next, according to my dad, and the more distant the universe, the more energy needed, so we move to an adjacent universe, where things aren’t too different. In universes farther away from ours, more events are divergent. If we keep skipping, then we’ll eventually end up in a world where things are pretty weird, and possibly where we can’t survive,” Mae explained. “It happens fast, too. I don’t know if there’s a pattern to how often we skip into other universes, but I’ve skipped in as short an interval as thirty minutes. Sometimes it can take a day between skips.” She added, “That’s assuming that you can tell when you’ve skipped, because sometimes you can’t.

“I haven’t told my dad about this, because I’m sure he wouldn’t believe a word of what I said. But I’ve asked him in general about multiverses and he said that it takes a cosmic amount of energy to transport from one universe to the next. We’re—you and me—getting just enough and the right kind of energy to move into a nearby universe.”

Tommy didn’t know if she was right or not. He smiled anyway.

“What are you smiling for?” Mae asked.

“I guess because this really means I’m not crazy,” he answered.

“Probably not,” Mae said. She smiled back at him. “Listen. I have to go. My parents eat early and they expect me to be home. But tomorrow’s Saturday, so we can meet, okay?”

“Great, yes. We need to talk more. I want to get off of this broken ferris wheel. Maybe we can figure out a way. Maybe we can block this energy that’s pushing us into different universes,” Tommy said before taking a sip of his coffee.

“See you tomorrow at ten a.m. Sound good?”

“You bet.” Tommy waved at Mae as she turned around and mouthed goodbye from the door. Hope tasted sweet in Tommy’s mouth.

The moment Mae exited through the Starbucks-logoed doors, something monstrous plucked her off the ground. A creature’s claws, scooping together, swiftly, deliberately. Massive. Taloned and covered with thick, granite-gray mica that oozed a yellow pus. Puddles of red instantly dotted the sidewalk where Mae had stood a blur before. Tommy didn’t see what the claws were attached to and didn’t want to see it. He couldn’t hear Mae scream, though he was certain that she must have screamed during whatever few seconds she had between when the creature grabbed her and when she was eaten.

Tommy guessed that if he waited a little longer before going outside, perhaps until his coffee was cool enough to drink, he would skip to the next world, where he would be safe from this particular danger in this universe. But after that? He looked at his fingernails and counted the white spots. END

Bill Adler Jr. lives in Japan, originally from New York City. His books include “Outwitting Squirrels” (which The Wall Street Journal called a masterpiece), “Boing Boing,” “Boys and Their Toys,” and “How to Negotiate Like a Child.” He also writes science fiction.


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