Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Conversations With a Garbage Truck
by Margret A. Treiber

Freshly Brewed
by Preston Dennett

by Barton Paul Levenson

Gift of Nibelung
by Olga Godim

by Fonda Lee

Send in the Humans
by Harold R. Thompson

Rhythm of the Rain
by Samuel Van Pelt

Worms of Titan
by Brian Biswas

Shorter Stories

by C.R. Hodges

by David Steffen

Fast Time Machines at Ridgemont High
by Fred Coppersmith


Madness of the Winter Soldier
by Erin Lale

Resistance Fighters
by John McCormick



Comic Strips




Rhythm of the Rain

By Samuel Van Pelt

MY GHOST ARM GRAPPLED WITH the branch like a lemur, and I swung across into Cindy’s treehouse. If I ever needed to get away, there wasn’t a better place than on top of the world, looking down on the sun setting over Lake Washington. Cindy let me use it when she wasn’t around. I landed on the floor with a ructious thump, and her potted lily fell to the floor as its rickety shelf came unhinged from the wall. Thank God the pot didn’t crack, but, somehow, she would know I dropped it anyway.

I pulled the nail out of the tree trunk; it had sunk too deep to hold the shelf. I would rather have used my right hand, but my ghost fingers were much stronger than the fleshy ones I’d managed to keep. Cindy said eventually I’d be ambidextrous, but I think she was just showing off that she knew how to say that I could use both hands.

I picked the shelf from the ground and rested it on the nail. I hammered it in with my palm so the shelf wouldn’t fall again. Soil had dropped through the cracks in the treehouse floor, but the lily was unblemished. It looked clean resting alone in the middle of the small room. Cindy was a good homemaker.

She’d also pinned paintings of the desert on the walls. The windows were small, and gave a view of the water and the houses across the waves, but Cindy wanted to move to Arizona. “The sun is out in Phoenix as often as the Space Needle is in Seattle,” she said.

I’m sure, if I hadn’t been there to knock it down, the pot would have fallen in the brewing storm. The sun poked below the clouds now, like a porchlight in the fog, but, soon, the southern clouds would ride up across Lake Washington and pour down until the roads ran as rivers and the trees swayed together like stalks of corn.

I grabbed a camping chair from the corner. It was red and dusty. Leaves fell from the hinges as I unfolded it. Cindy’s treehouse wasn’t free from the weather. I set the chair in front of the window and sat down. The sun was about fifteen minutes off the horizon. I released my arm in my mind and it pulled from my fingers back into my shoulder. I liked that I didn’t have to always carry the ghost appendage with me. It sucked strength from the rest of my body and left me feeling hungry.

The doctor who gave it to me said I’d get used to it and I’d leave it on all the time. “Every arm is different, but these guys are driven by nanobots. A billion little robots working together to make you whole again.” He smiled like a superhero, but he was wrong. The robot arm didn’t make me whole, it was a swarm of beasts that I had to work to control. They swam from my stumped shoulder to the tips of my fingers at kilometers per hour and my arm looked like a river raging in a vase.

It was a short procedure. He didn’t even take me into the surgery theater. He popped me up on the reclining bed in an outpatient room, and asked “Does your arm hurt anymore?” He said that they couldn’t install the ghost arm until the pain went away from the amputation. I told him “no,” and he took two needles from a tray. The first held a black fluid. He slid that into a vein in my right arm and pushed it in quickly.

“This is so you can tell your arm what to do. It will travel through your body and help translate the electrical signals from your brain into something the nanobots can understand.” It felt like molasses crawling through my arteries.

The second needle held an effervescent liquid, blue and milky. He poked that into the raw, just healed skin of my stump and delivered it slowly. He made injections at thirteen sites in the amputated arm, and each one of them hurt like a rusty spoon digging at my new skin.

“This is your arm,” he said, “Every little sparkle in this vial is a robot that is going to listen to your body. You’ll be able to shape it into an arm with five fingers and it will be just like before.” Just like before except the accident still happened.

The state paid for the procedure. The drunk that jumped from the overpass and landed on my parents’ car was still alive, but he didn’t have any money. My dad swerved as the man’s limp body pushed through the shattered window. We crashed into the bridge railing and disappeared into the river. That’s what I remembered.

The camping chair wasn’t comfortable. The seat hung too low because one of the metal bars that crossed the back and supported its structure was broken. The armrests had cup holders but the bottoms were torn through. It was probably for the best; I hated carrying drinks up the rope ladder. The backpack pulled me off balance, and, more than once, I fell halfway up and broke the collection of glass soda bottles I was carrying.

When Cindy was here, we’d listen to music. She brought her cell phone and I brought a headphone splitter. I tried to convince her that we should bring some speakers, but she told me they would get ruined by the rain. It was alright, I guess. We got to sit closer together sharing headphones.

The sun clipped the horizon and the gray sky turned orange. Rays bounced off the mountains and up against the low Kirkland clouds. The water was still dark, but in a moment, I was sure, the orange of the sky would spread out against it like a fire laid out against a campground. This was the best part of the day.

My arm hurt. Rain clouds rolled up around Mt. Rainier. The bots that flowed in my stump bit like they were trying to escape and swim up into the lightning storm burgeoning on Kirkland.

The bark of the tree creaked as someone put weight on the rope ladder. Every step up twisted the two bolted knots one way or the other and squealed through the small room. They were quick and consistent, like the ticking of a clock. The climber was probably Cindy; she climbed faster than anyone else. She didn’t usually come up for sunset, though.

It was only six meters from the ground to the narrow door. The door was situated between the thick trunk and a tree branch that slid out over it. Cindy and her dad built the house together, and the first thing he did was free climb up the side of the oak, and tie the ladder to a sturdy branch. “Here’s where we start, Cindy. This is our home from now until it’s finished!” She told that story a lot.

Cindy’s rough white hands came into view first. She skipped rungs as she scaled the ladder like a monkey. Her fleshy fingers wrapped around the wooden dowels like ice hooks. She faced the interior of the house, opposite the way I liked to climb. It looked risky to me, just another chance to fall. She was barefoot, and when she got to the top she lifted her right leg around and placed it on the narrow ledge outside the treehouse. She kept her ghost foot on the ladder for support.

“Gross!” She said. She pulled the rest of her body around, and her long brown hair got caught on the rope ladder; it tugged her head as the ladder shifted in the wind. My chair was just over one meter from her, and my stump hung out like a thumb.

“Can you put that away or bring out the entire thing? You look like a weirdo.” She flicked my arm as she walked by to the window. Cindy was thin; she could only turn her foot off if she were sitting, and she didn’t like to sit.

“You have one, too,” I said.

“Yeah, but I don’t leave it out in your treehouse.”

“I don’t have a treehouse.”

“So?” She walked around the room, inspecting her creation. The walls were thick, and clean. Her father bought them from a lumberyard. The floor was uneven, in places, but only because they didn’t want to cut large hunks of wood out of the tree.

“What happened?” She stopped at her lily.

“Just a little carpentry; I made your shelf stronger.”

“Did you ask?” Cindy inspected my handiwork. Hopefully, she didn’t remember how much soil was in the pot.

The sun was almost halfway gone now. It spread out on the lake. I wanted to watch it, but if I looked away from Cindy she might notice the flower.

“Cindy, let’s watch the sun go down.”

“Aren’t you a little male to be watching sunsets, Hook?” I hated that nickname. She knew it, too.

“Aren’t you a little mean to be a girl?”

Cindy tilted the potted lily toward her. Loose soil from its fall feathered down the slope and gathered in the curve of the pot around her fingers.

“Hey, you want to see if the blueberries in Yellow Cat Farm are ripe yet?” She loved stealing blueberries.

She dropped the pot back onto the shelf and turned around. “That’s a kilometer away; I’m not walking around with a cripple so you better put your arm on.”

I pushed the blue monsters from my shoulder. They creeped through the air like lava over even ground. As they gathered around curves, the shape of my arm flowed into focus. It was like running a long way: the beginning felt natural, but then every subsequent step tore into my stomach and ate anything it could get its mouth on. The process was worse once the nanobots got to my elbow, where they turned toward my hand and slowed.

I’d only seen Cindy make her foot once, and it was almost instantaneous. She was sitting on the couch, and she’d fallen asleep. The doorbell rang and her eyes shot open. As she popped from her seat, the ghost foot flew from her calf and had toes before she hit the ground. Her ghost was a lot older than mine, though. She was born disfigured, a lifelong member of the artificial limb club.

When my arm finally formed fingertips, Cindy smiled. “Look at you, back to normal.”

“Come on, it’ll be dark soon.”

Cindy followed me down the ladder. I was quicker on the descent. I gripped the thick, woven rope and slid down like a fireman, while she had to take each step. Above, her right foot glowed blue, like her ghost, but through it I could see the wrinkles and the skin of her flesh. She spread the nanobots over her sole like a forcefield slipper.

“How do you do that?” I asked.

“I’m climbing down a ladder, Hook, it isn’t rocket science.”

“No, your foot. You have bots on both of ’em.”

“I figured that out years ago. They’re in your blood; you can put them anywhere if you think hard enough.” She skipped the last three rungs and dropped to the ground.

“Plus,” she said, “they’re lighter than air and I like running fast.” She bolted toward the lake. Yellow Cat Farm was just off the water. One year, when Seattle took on “more water than a punctured life raft,” as Cindy said, it flooded and they lost half the year’s crop. If they had any warning, they would have put up sandbags, but the flash flood poured in from Waverly and took half their transplanted soil out into the lake.

The sun was below the horizon now, but light still crept along the clouds like vines through cracks in the sky. Cindy’s fleet ghosts bounded along the gravel and propelled her toward the edge of her yard. Every stride lifted one of her legs and revealed a glowing blue footprint in the air. I wished she’d wear shoes; if anyone was watching the fences at Yellow Cat we’d stick out like lightning bugs.

Rain dripped from the clouds and jumped off my ghost like fleas. I chased after her, and she was right. My left arm was a feather. It made me awkward when I ran. I’d turn a bit every step because I wasn’t carrying weight on that side. If she ever had trouble with running, she didn’t show it; she flew across the yard like a seagull.

We ran along the sidewalk chasing the hidden sun. Stars peeked from below the veiny clouds and Cindy left tracks on the uneven surface. Every leaping step trailed glowing nanobots on the rough concrete. They shined brightly at first, then faded the farther she got from her own footprints. She had billions of them, but, if I were a tracker, she’d be the easiest prey in the world to find. I had it better; my ghost didn’t have to fight the ground, but every pump rubbed against the side of my shirt and skinned bots into the air behind me like contrails.

7th Avenue trailed behind us as we turned onto Market. Yellow Cat was a new farm. They plowed over a park to put it in, but, during the day, they let people come in to pick blueberries for a half-buck a liter. At night we were blueberry bandits.

Cindy stopped at the corner of Waverly and waited for me to catch up. Once I got into a rhythm I wasn’t so slow, but she still had to stand there for a while. When I arrived she was peeking through the horizontal wooden plank fence at the edge of Yellow Cat. We wouldn’t sneak in here, but it was a good spot to get a view of the entire property. Blueberries lined the yard from the shore to Waverly. They stood in rows. We were only a couple days from the first harvest of the season. Each bush held bunches of purple beads.

“You took your time. Let’s go, I have a good way in.”

“The same way we sneak in every time?”

“No. I have a new way. It keeps us off the road.” She slinked along the fence. We usually went in through the main entrance. They locked the chain link gate with a loose chain, and it was easy to push through. Cindy liked reinventing the wheel. The rain was mounting and the sky was dark. Sun no longer bounced off the clouds. Gutter water whisked by like a trickling stream.

We skipped down the border of Waverly until we found, in the red slatted fence, a loose board. Nails at each end poked out and curved. Cindy had used this path before. She pulled the board from the fence; it was just wide enough that she could fit through. Inside, blueberry bushes pushed all the way up to our secret entrance.

Cindy put her real foot in first, and she bent at the waist to slide through. Red paint chipped from the top of the board below her as she moved in. It scraped along her t-shirt and fell onto the grass. She pulled her ghost foot next, and was inside. I followed, but it was a much tighter fit for me.

“Hook, we need some light here, I can’t see any blueberries and I’m not sticking my foot in the air.”

“Why don’t you put some bots on your fingers?” She said she could put them anywhere.

“Stop being a smartass and get over here.”

Cindy was two rows away as I pulled myself into Yellow Cat. I hid my arm in my shirt as I darted between the bushes. Somebody had to be in charge of security at this place. My ghost ached as rain pelted my back.

Her feet sunk in the soft soil below the blueberry bushes. They were half covered, and half-illuminated. She looked like a statue in front of an opera house, with spotlights in its base. Wind ruffled the blueberry bushes and leaves flew into Yellow Cat from surrounding trees.

I reached out, and my ghost fingers illuminated the blueberries like Christmas lights.

“Those look ripe,” Cindy said.

I removed a bunch from the bush and handed it to her. She peeled her shirt up from her belly and rested the bunch in it. The pouch sagged with the weight of the berries. She took four bunches before she wrapped her shirt up and tied it against her torso so they didn’t fall out. Blueberry juice dripped through the white t-shirt onto her stomach and pooled in her belly button.

“Let’s go back to the treehouse and eat,” I said. The rain poured from the sky and gathered around my ears.

“Wait.” Cindy pushed me down. Red and blue police lights flashed just outside our entrance panel.

“How’d they catch us so fast? We’ve only been in here a minute.”

“Don’t be stupid, Hook. They’re probably just pulling somebody over. Let’s go out the front before they see us.” Cindy crouched and walked down the row of blueberry bushes away from Waverly. The front gate was on the Lake Washington side. A small dirt road traced along the shore and entered by the warehouse where they stored picked berries before shipping them to grocery stores.

“Maybe we should turn off our ghosts.”

“You gonna carry me? With one arm?” She kept walking.

Thick clouds covered the sky; apartment lights outside of University Village blinked on across the water. It wasn’t nine yet, but it was dark as space inside Yellow Cat, except for the red and blue lights behind us getting soaked and swallowed in rain. The ground was soft, like walking through a swamp. Soil consumed me up to my ankles, and, as it crawled into my shoes, I was jealous of Cindy and her bare feet.

“Why do they make bots so bright? I feel like a lighthouse.” I wanted to turn my arm off. I wouldn’t need it for the walk home. My legs slugged through the mud and my stomach growled.

“You sound like a foghorn. Stop talking. We’re almost at the gate.”

Lake Washington sloshed against the barrier at the edge of Yellow Cat Farm. The rain raised the level of the water, so every second or third wave overtook the concrete and slid into the soil. The irrigation ditches between rows of blueberry bushes filled quickly, and dumped water into the lake.

Cindy skipped over one of the ditches onto the sloppy gravel drive that led to the gate. It was a longer walk around the farm and back up to Waverly this way, but at least the police officers wouldn’t see us sneaking out of the farm with a belly full of blueberries. When she came to the gate, she pushed on it, but the two bound fences didn’t separate.

“Come on, let’s get out of here,” I said.

Cindy pushed on the right and pulled on the left, but still the gap between them remained smaller than a mousehole.

“I can’t.”

“Stop messing around, Cindy.” I pushed past her and gave it a try myself. I had to be careful when exerting strength on things. I was liable to break them with my ghost. The chains were double wrapped, and we weren’t going to be able to squeeze through them.

“If we go back, the cops might be gone.” I turned around and looked at Cindy. I couldn’t see through the pouring rain if the police car was still beyond the fence. Dim streetlights poked up at the top and appeared between raindrops. Cindy was sopping. Her blueberry pouch dripped translucent blue fluid continuously down her stomach.

“Okay,” Cindy said. Water ran over the gravel now. Cindy’s blue slippers refracted light along the entire path through the quick flowing streams. She turned and started running back through the rows of blueberry bushes. Rainwater pushed at the bottom of the red fence and flowed through the cracks like a reservoir atop a dam.

The rain wasn’t relenting. Blueberries floated in the irrigation ditches after they fell from their bushes. Cindy and I only got about halfway through the farm before the floodwaters busted through a weakly nailed fence board and rushed into the farm. The first set of bushes collapsed under the weight and Cindy screamed. The hole we made in the fence, several boards up from the ground, was now overflowing.

I remembered hitting the water, when my parents died. I had been asleep in the back, before it all started. I dreamed of an elephant dropping from its circus ball and landing in the arena with a behemoth thump. Waking, I was greeted with crashing glass and water pushing around my parents like a fog. The river was shallow, and left me enough air to breathe, in the back. I sat there with my arm crushed for hours waiting for rescue workers, watching my parents float, buckled, and drowning in their seats.

Cindy tripped at the gravel walk. Maybe the water pushed her over. I didn’t notice until I was halfway over the fence at the front of Yellow Cat and I saw her floating under me. I yelled at her, trying to convince her to stand up, but her ghost was gone. She must have hit her head. There was a moment, when she was just a meter away, that I felt like it was happening again. Cindy was unconscious, floating, and I was trapped above the flood. But I wasn’t trapped.

I slipped from the fence and into the rising water. It pushed me toward Lake Washington. I waded toward Cindy. It was hard to see her, but I flexed my ghost muscles and illuminated half the farm. The blueberries floated in the water around Cindy’s limp body. I grabbed her with my ghost, but the water was too strong to go back to the fence. We were six meters from the concrete barrier and being swept out into the icy waters.

I clawed at the ground with my fleshy right fingers, but the water was too fast. It rushed around me like Niagara. It pushed at my clothes, and Cindy was a sail for it to pull me by. The pouch where she’d put our blueberries pushed open and the fruit released into the sea. Just before the concrete barrier, I remembered Cindy’s slippers.

I pushed and pulled and forced the nanobots through my body. They ate at my shoulders. They gnawed on my stomach. Every little monster took a piece as it traveled through my blood. Some of them, I’m sure, stopped in my heart and took up camp like vagrants without tents. As they crawled into my right arm Cindy fell over the barrier and I clung to the rock with my knees and my fingers and everything I had. She was secured to me, but I wasn’t secured to the ground.

The water rushed faster. The rain poured down from the sky. The thick, veiny clouds rumbled in the air like zeppelins raining down bombs. Yellow Cat was enormous and filled with water. The sky was dark as space and my ghost arm hung out over Lake Washington, holding Cindy tightly. I slipped relentlessly toward the infinite depths.

My bots reached my fingers. They glowed in my nails like Christmas lights. I was illuminated as my body turned out to sea. The rain pushed against my face and poured into me. I pushed, and pulled, and willed the nanobots to protrude from me like silver claws. They were sharp together, like miniature knives. I dug them into the concrete and my arm stretched against the weight of Cindy and me. The silver sparkles formed lattices in my body and supported us against the rain.

I thinned through the storm. Every second ate at me, but I had nowhere to go. I couldn’t stand without being rushed out into Lake Washington.

It slowed, eventually. It felt like hours. It felt longer than I sat with my arm crushed watching my parents float buckled into a watery coffin. But when I could finally see the blue and red lights of the police car flashing on Waverly, I knew we would be okay. And when I finally saw Cindy’s soft eyes open, I knew that we were okay. END

Samuel Van Pelt holds a degree in computer science and makes his living as a software engineer for a large technology company. He loves science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and writes from his home in Seattle.


callahan 9/16