Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
Editor

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Fiction

Falling Sun
by Arley Sorg

With Hostile Intent
by Eamonn Murphy

Between First Dawn and Last Dusk
by Emily McCosh

Piranhacane
by Stephen L. Antczak

Black Starburst
by Barry Charman

Captain Loop Jamaan’s Conversion
by Trevor Doyle

Tumbler’s Gift
by Geoff Nelder

Zoo Hack
by James Van Pelt

Shorter Stories

Terminate and Stay Resident
by Robin Wyatt Dunn

World Champion
by Sean Mulroy

I Love Lupi
by Holly Schofield

Articles

It’s a Puzzlement
by Terry Stickels

It’s Invisible
by Eric M. Jones


Cover

Editorial

Comic Strips

Reviews

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Perihelion Reviews

Humans and Superhumans

A DULL CHILD GIVES YOU NO GRIEF, but the smart ones dream up all sorts of mischief, testing the stamina, patience, and mental resources of parents and teachers. Then there’s the Wunderkind—“a precocious child with mental capacities that are just a wee bit beyond amazing,” J. Richard Jacobs writes in “Twisted Tails IX: Wunderkind.” This anthology brings ten authors together to tell tales (twisted, indeed) about super-precocious brainiacs “with strange, unusual, sometimes dangerous talents that challenge the very fabric of the Universe.”

For the record, Wunder (Voon-dair) is German for wonder, Kind (Kint) for child. Germans capitalize their nouns and have three words for “the,” perhaps as a way of showing off their supposedly superior intellects. The brain power of Homo sapiens is what allowed Germans of the Neandertal Valley to decimate the last of the bigger, stronger Homo neanderthalensis, but I wunder. Er, wonder. Jacobs pinpoints the trouble with bright people in his Foreword: “Some of our precious Wunderkind are all grown up, as children are prone to do if they are lucky enough to survive, while others are still on their way to their frightening adulthood.”

In that vein, Jacobs delivers the most chilling cautionary tale ever with “Tommy Two,” the story of a boy too smart for anyone’s own good. Told from the father’s point of view, the ol’ “dull child gives you no grief” theme launches the tale when Dad goes to mow the lawn, but “This wasn’t his lawnmower. Odd bits of metal protruded from it here and there, and what appeared to be miles of dangling wires hung all over it as if a drunken spider had tried to spin a web of copper and failed. Tommy again.

Tommy can explain. He’s fixed the mower to make rocks turn to dust before Dad hits them. “It’s just simple quantum electrodynamics at work,” Tommy says. “And boy does it work. You’ll see.”

“Sounds dangerous” is Dad’s refrain, while Tommy’s is, “Don’t worry Dad. It’s cool. You’ll really, really like it.”

After twelve years of showing his parents he knows what he’s doing, it is perhaps understandable that they leave Tommy to his own devices rather than try to supervise his inscrutable experiments. His latest project, his biggest secret, keeps Tommy occupied long hours in the shed in their backyard. No, nothing blows up, but the revelation at the end hits like a stack of TNT.

Intelligence, like youth, may be wasted on the young. Unbridled creativity and brain power may be too much for them to handle. Tommy’s story hit close to home for me. I keep thinking of the three Eagle Scouts who graduated top of the class yet rocked our community, several years ago, the last week before they were meant to go off to college. Smart enough to build a bomb, they were, but not smart enough to keep it from going off in Grandpa’s barn. One survived, with third-degree burns over most of his body. His mother suddenly contracted cancer and died a year later, perhaps due to all the grief she wouldn’t have suffered if her child had been a little dull. Stress can kill.

From this local tragedy I internalized a sort of maternal wisdom that has me snorting at “My kid Is a Class Valedictorian” bumper stickers. How much sleep do these high achievers get? One valedictorian from our son’s alma mater went on to graduate from Notre Dame, become a hot shot lawyer, and drop dead of a brain aneurism at 33. High achievers thrive on stress.

Higher IQs usually lead to higher wages, but money can’t buy happiness. It’s lonely, being so much smarter than everyone else, “surrounded by people who haven’t the slightest clue” what the precocious kid is talking about, as the Wunderkind Tony tells us in “Through the Eyes of a Child” by Joe Powers. The title is ironic, because Tony is no mere child, never mind his age in years. “Even the administrators of the so-called schools for the gifted would invariably draw a blank when he started to speak ... very few could actually teach him anything.” Tony “longed for someone who would grasp the concepts he’d long since mastered.”

More or less average in size, with silky blond hair and inquisitive bright green eyes, Tony looks normal—“But appearances can be deceiving; nobody who spent more than a few minutes in his presence ever mistook him for average.” Tony “could read Shakespeare and Tolstoy by the age of two.” At three he took interest in the sciences, particularly astrophysics and cosmology. He’s “also incredibly astute—he picked up on things quickly and seemed to know things that nobody has any business knowing, especially a toddler ... But these were just the things he allowed other people to see.”

Now that’s scary.

“Hawking is a fool,” he tells his mother. Yes, in Tony’s eyes, the famed Stephen Hawing is “so wrapped up in the trees that he can’t see the forest.”

Tony also sees dead people and can communicate with them, but that’s the least of his talent.

At five, Tony announces, with no preface or warning, “Something wicked this way comes.” Shakespeare, he reminds his mother. But Tony has something bigger than MacBeth on his mind. “I am a portal,” he explains. “A conduit for the things on the other side.”

“The ... other side?” poor Mom dares to ask. “Other side of what?”

Things get even scarier after that.

With skillful prose, Powers merges science fiction with horror—something as chilling as “Rosemary’s Baby” without the Biblical stuff.

Something smelly this way comes in “Stinkhole From Beyond the Stars.” Imagine “some fat dude pigged out on chili dogs and beer taking a massive dump in one of those outtwisted taleshouses,” Sam Bellotto Jr. writes. “If I don't stop this thing, the entire planet's atmosphere is gonna smell something like that, forever.”

The wit and humor of Bellotto’s prose shines, as always. Not a word is wasted. The dialogue tells us far more than what the characters are actually saying. Descriptions are economical but precise, e.g., “General Wellington Ciderpump slipped out of his personal copter like a foot from a one size too small sneaker.” Even if Bellotto starts “telling” (writers clobber fellow novices in fiction workshops with this dreaded term), the telling is good:

The General “always wanted to be a cop, a detective. He was a huge fan of police procedural holoshows over the Net ... he joined the United Earth Forces and applied his particularly impressive skills to repelling the aliens. That shot him quickly up the ranks. He made General in record time. And stayed on. The power, the respect, and in no small measure the compensation were gratifying, difficult to leave. It was a position almost as good as being a homicide detective, he continually reminded himself.”

But what can this alien-conquering General do about a micro black hole? The last one was harmless, but this one stinks. And it's spreading.

“Our calculations,” a lab tech tells the General, “put the odor horizon outside the Pentagon by this time next week. As far away as the Kremlin in a month. In less than a year the stench will be planet wide.”

“Stop it, then. Collapse the black hole with one of those magnetic things. Call CERN. Do something, man!”

I can’t, the lab tech whines.

Well, who can?

“Dr. Max Schnickelgruber might.”

“That kid?”

Yes. That one. The kid with the unfortunate last name has an extraordinarily powerful sense of smell, “the olfactory equivalent of an electron microscope.”

Most women, especially mothers, can identify with someone who is able to smell more things than any human really wants to smell. Even a pleasant aroma can become a nauseating stench for women in the throes of pregnancy. To this day, I cannot get within six feet of a certain chain seller of ice cream and smoothies. The smell attaches itself to my hair molecules and I have to rush home to shampoo it out. Oddly, I have no such objection to dogs bringing home the scent of skunk. I’ll gladly sniff horse barns, gas pumps, diesel engines, or even wet dog, but not the cloyingly sweet smell of Coldstone Creamery. Yes, I digress, but not as much as usual.

Max the olfactory Wunderkind is needed, and the entire U.S. Department of Defense searches for him until, at last, he stands outside the cave-like entrance of the micro black hole. His brain “breaks down the stink into its component molecules” but the cave is “impenetrable ... the light stopped dead the instant it met the black and was absorbed ... Probably because black holes, it's been theorized, are a two-way anomaly.”

Summoning pepperoni pizza, platinum, an armored ATV with turret-mounted twin machine guns, and the largest cement mixer ever, Max tests his genius. His mission is to make sure that “when the entire planet wakes up each morning, whatever time zone they're in, they aren't going to have to suck in a nauseous mixture of decomposing roadkill, vomit, and dirty diapers.” He’s counting on the fact that “Platinum is a reliable catalyst, an essential element in a number of chemical reactions.”

The ending is a welcome change from the theme of horror that underscores most of this anthology. Then again, depending on your literary and gastronomic tastes, this could be one nightmare of a resolution, after all.

A sort of “Twilight Zone” atmosphere unites most of the stories, which include "harder" science fiction but, as summarized on “Perihelion’s” Submissions page, “hard” science fiction doesn't always require rockets, robots, and little green men. The science in this collection verges more on mutations, telepathy, time travel, and Homo “other sorts” living among us.

Homo solaris, for one.

“We are all first-offs, every one of us, and we’re all making our way through uncharted territory,” the snide heroine tells us in “Ralphie’s End” by John Klawitter. Since the first scrap of organic DNA on this planet replicated itself, every next bit of DNA evolved over eons and ages from that first bit. But the “sol-clit” crowd at school didn’t evolve; they “jumped from what every bit of living matter had been to this new thing, the thing that we are today and apparently will be until the world as we know it comes to an end. That makes us a grand experiment, I suppose. Certainly, you could call us advanced models. Or, just say it like it is: Hi, I’m a Homo solaris.”

Ralphie is their pet. “We’d gotten him from Animal Control and we’d had him for over fifteen years now, ever since he was a young scamp. In that time he had become an integral part of our lives, the way pets are meant to do, but there is a down side to that ... Pets don’t live a long time, and you can’t let yourself get too attached, you have to be ready to say goodbye. You tell yourself there’s a pet heaven and the fantasy is that someday you will see each other again in the great by-and-by,” and the loss of Ralphie is at the heart of this story. The ending stings like the bite of a dog you thought you could trust. This is the darker territory of the campy “Twilight Zone.”

Things stay dark with “That Kid” by Biff Mitchell. I keep hearing Rod Serling narrate these stories and seeing them in old-school black-and-white. “That Kid” has some extraordinary skill, though none of the point-of-view characters can guess what it is. His classic good boy image is part of his mystique.

There was something strange about that kid. He looked normal. He played computer games and watched TV like any other normal thirteen-year-old. He talked normally ... just like any grade ten student. He wore the same kind of clothes as the kids he hung with. He didn’t have any tattoos or piercings. He was a slightly above average student, but nothing spectacular. It was certain to see that, even at thirteen with all that youthful potential ahead, this kid wasn’t going to discover a cure for cancer or win any gold medals ... But Justin knew there was something not quite right about that kid.”

The math teacher can’t articulate it, either. “He taught math for Christ’s sake ... and it doesn’t get any more logical than that. But there was something wrong and he couldn’t define it with numbers and theorems. He couldn’t define it with words.” Words like “if this, then that ... But he could feel it, like a mathematically impossible connectedness. Its shape was something organic, but transcendent. Something that would vanish the moment you touched it.”

Readers, if any of you guess what it is before getting to the end, please post a comment at “Perihelion’s” Feedback page. Go ahead and gloat, you Wunderkind.

Another mysterious high school student haunts her community in “Eye of the Beholder” by Carrol Fix.

Everything appears normal. Springfield High School “represented the social hub of this small Missouri town and its surrounding farmland, where parents and family members supported their aspiring offspring as they stepped over that invisible boundary between childhood and adulthood.”

That tricky rite of passage, that eternal challenge to the parent: seeing our fledglings safely out of the nest.

Another math teacher puzzles over the Wunderkind, this one a girl with three followers—one of those controlling Queen Bee types.

“Her name was Brittney. From the beginning, I had trouble remembering the names of her friends—Mary, Sylvia, and Allison—but hers became branded into my memory, like golden letters on the backdrop of my consciousness. I felt connected to her, in a student/teacher relationship that fulfilled my desire to teach like none I had ever known before.”

Brittney is quickly bored in this advanced placement course with its theory of equations, number theory, non-Euclidean geometry, advanced survey of mathematics, and history of mathematics. Her control over her friends seems to extend to their parents, and to teachers, and just about anyone Brittney wants to control. What is her game? How does she do it?

The Wunderkind never tells.

After the awfulness of Chris and Brittney, I was ready for something nice, especially on seeing the familiar name of Chet Gottfried with a story titled “Anyone Nice.”

Anyone who has admired Gottfried’s wildlife photography and backyard squirrel shoots (check out his Facebook page) would not expect the dark theme in this story. The opening line:

“Danny, why don’t you ever kill anyone nice?”

Danny Wilson’s mother has a bullwhip attached by a clip on her belt. “She boasted that she could flay the hide off a mosquito, if it had a hide worth flaying.”

Danny’s family, everyone in his neighborhood, share a peculiar pastime: killing nice people. Danny is the black sheep. He only enjoys killing bad people. “His parents tried torture, drug therapy, and grounding to help him change ... Danny was a disgrace, and during family gatherings they locked him in a closet.”

Danny is a Wunderkind, however, so the reader can be sure he will surprise us. The question is how.

The most unusual tale in “Twisted Tails” may by Mark Ayling’s “Prodigious,” in which an artist has such tremendous talent, his paintings are lethal to behold.

When I was nine years old, I, Jeremy Calzone, famed artist and former child prodigy/psychological wunderkind, found my mum sprawled on the floor of our open plan apartment ... She’d been staring at one of my paintings ... Dad found me, returning from work late, the lights out in the living room, his wife, Julia Calzone, dead on the living room floor.”

As Calzone continues to slay people with his artistry, a mysterious video emerges on YouTube. A strange looking gentleman in a black suit, the Collector, holds a blowtorch and apparently has set out to burn all of Calzone’s paintings—and whoever buys them.

Reading like a noir thriller, the story is riveting, mysterious, and eerie.

Fans of military historical fiction will enjoy the premonitions of Nathaniel in Geoff Nelder’s “Eidolon Redoubt.” Stone battlements, muskets, cannonballs, a watchtower with a full-sized moat, and a gal named Liz who risks her life to teach soldiers how to cook a simple soup. The Eidolon Redoubt is a watchtower built in 1809, but the real story is why it is used only once.

“Felix” by W. A. Fix is the tenth tale in this book. Felix is the kind of Wunderkind anyone would want to be: “He learned at an incredible rate and at times simply knew things without knowing how. If he wanted something, it seemed to just come to him.” This does not make him popular, however. “In elementary school, he always won at recess games—to the point where the other kids didn’t want to play with him.” Felix is careful not to let anyone know he can read minds, put words in people’s mouths, control their bodily functions, spike their emotions, make them sleep. He “did everything he could to keep his inconspicuous profile intact” but the government sends agents to his door, wanting to interview him “for entry into one of their programs and selection by the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars,” and possibly “a full ride scholarship to Harvard, Princeton, or Yale.” Every parent’s dream, but not Tony’s. He has to rely on more than his wits to get to the bottom of this one, and the ending is, of course, full of surprises.

In all, these are fascinating and provocative tales, chilling and horrifying in a way that’s safe to enjoy because we don’t know any Wunderkinds in real life, just as we don’t know any superhumans or AIs or manipulators who remain as inconspicuous as Felix while secretly getting us to—

Oh no. Is this how politicians get elected? (“Twisted Tails IX: Wunderkind,” Edited by J. Richard Jacobs, Double Dragon eBooks)4stars —Carol Kean

 

Frantic and Frustrating

ADMITTEDLY I’M NOT THE TARGET demographic for this film. I’ve never played the video game from which the movie“Ratchet & Clank” was developed. And I’m not a kid. However, I hoped that there might have been some entertainment value in this film for me. I was cheered by the voice presence of John Goodman, an actor I’ve always appreciated. Alas, my hopes were set way too high and they were soon dashed. Coming out of this movie, I felt like I had been repeatedly punched in the face, and I felt queasy and nauseous. I don’t even want to think what this movie would be like in 3D. You’d have to be braver than I am to attempt a 3D viewing.

“Ratchet & Clank” subjects the viewer to ninety-four minutes of extremely frantic whizzing and exploding mayhem. Everything else is beside the point. Characterization, plot, music, voicing—everything is lost in the spectacle of stuff exploding and whizzing. By halfway through, I was praying it would all just be over.

As previously mentioned, “Ratchet & Clank” is a popular and fun video game. It’s so popular it’s more than just a single video game—there’s been a dozen iterations in the series. I confess I’ve never played one. However, this must have been what managed to green light the movie version. A studio exec realized that that there’s a built-in audience for the movie: everyone who’s ever played it on a PlayStation platform. Also, this must be why the movie is as frantic as the game. The plot and characterization is so thin, it’s as if you’re watching a YouTube video of someone playing the video game.

At the beginning, when we’re desultorily treated to the origin story of Ratchet, the movie makes a smidgeon of sense. However, once the actual plot kicks in, it rapidly devolves into a story so threadbare as to be marginally discernable from all the stuff flying around.

The main character, Ratchet (James Arnold Taylor), is a Lombax, a feline humanoid with gigantic ears. He works as a mechanic for Grimroth Razz, who owns a repair shop. Grimroth is voiced by John Goodman, but all I could think about while watching Grimroth were the tusks in his mouth and whether Goodman had placedratchet pebbles in his own mouth to simulate talking around the tusks. I think he did—Goodman sure sounded like he was talking through tusks. But Grimroth doesn’t do much talking, and whatever wisdom (LOL) was uttered in this movie was contained in Grimroth’s lines—something to do with what being a hero is supposed to be about. The action takes place on planets in another galaxy far away; and as none of the characters are human, it’s difficult to have empathy for them.

Ratchet wants to be a Galactic Ranger, a group of heroes who fight evil and save the day on a galactic scale. The cast includes two female Galactic Rangers—Cora (voiced by Bella Thorne) and Elaris (voiced by Rosario Dawson). I was completely confused trying to tell one from the other. There’s not enough to differentiate them and they are so tangential to the storyline as to be interchangeable. One (or both?) of them likes to shoot stuff, which isn’t surprising. There’s another equally disposable Galactic Ranger named Brax (Vincent Tong), whom I can say nothing about other than he looks like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, sans shell. Ultimately, the only Galactic Ranger who has anything to do with the plot is Captain Qwark (Jim Ward). Captain Qwark has a gigantic chin and is a parody of the over-inflated superhero, obsessed with himself. We’ve seen the likes of Captain Qwark many times before in other cartoons. The plot (such as it is) turns on the fact that Captain Qwark is jealous when Ratchet manages to save the day with the aid of Clank (David Kaye). Clank is a defective bad guy robot who has gone over to the side of the good guys—the Galactic Rangers.

The villain is Chairman Alonzo Drek (Paul Giamatti), who represents the evil corporate boss. He goes around blowing up planets and uses the remaining pieces to assemble a new planet because his own planet is over-polluted. It’s never explained why this is necessary—why can’t he simply take over one planet? Why does he have to destroy planets to assemble a new one from pieces of exploded ones? To expect this movie to make actual sense is asking too much.

It’s hard to know how much of the backstory of this film is familiar to people who’ve played the game. From what I could gather online, there’s a lot of backstory in the games, but it’s not necessarily consistent. I’d bet that the unnecessary profusion of characters stems from the fact that the filmmakers had to include all the characters from the many iterations of the video game.

If there is something I liked about this film, it would have to be the character of Dr. Nefarious, competently voiced by Armin Shimerman of Ferengi fame. He should have been the main villain throughout the film, instead of Chairman Drek.

The theater where I saw the film was pretty empty on the Friday opening night, so at this point it’s unlikely that “Ratchet & Clank” will make back its budget at the box office. But perhaps that’s not the point. The actual purpose may be to get more people to buy the game. (“Ratchet & Clank,” directed by Kevin Munroe and Jerrica Cleland, Gramercy Pictures)onestar —Joshua Berlow

 

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