Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Peripheral Hope
by Derrick Boden

by M. Luke McDonell

Penal Eyes
by Frederick Obermeyer

Tells of the Block Widowers
by Jez Patterson

Cretaceous on Ice
by K.C. Ball

Some Quiet Time
by Eric Cline

Three Breaths
by Karl Dandenell

by Kathleen Molyneaux

Shorter Stories

Left Hand Awakens
by Beth Cato

Laws of Humanity
by Alexandra Grunberg

Aggressive Recruiting
by Drew Williams


Remakes, Sequels Sizzle in 2017
by Joshua Berlow

Calderas: Doomsday Underfoot
by John McCormick



Comic Strips





By M. Luke McDonell

VIRGINIA HAD A GOOD CONNECTION to the inexpensive Ro-Body she’d rented for her trip to London, but the damn thing wouldn’t move. She sat paralyzed on a bench as the other tourists reeled around the walled-in area, giddy as New Year’s Eve drunks as they tried to figure out how to pilot their mechanical bodies.

Back in New Jersey, she jabbed the Connect button on the back of her left wrist repeatedly as her camera eyes in London scanned the flashing metal mob for a customer service rep. She had to get going. Philippe was waiting for her. After nearly eight months of dating she was finally going to meet him in the flesh. Well—he’d be in the flesh at least. Neither of them could afford a trans-Atlantic flight. She couldn’t even afford this.

She also couldn’t afford to wait. The words I love you had been zipping around inside her like hyperactive fireflies for the past six months, threatening to escape at an awkward moment and startle them both. Saying it for the first time in virtual didn’t feel right, especially with the glitches and the lag.

Her nervous jabbing slowed once she’d had a few minutes to take in her surroundings. What was this place before it was a Ro-Body franchise? A school? A prison? The nearly five-meter-high walls were ancient, layers of jumbled gray stones dissected every meter or so by an uneven line of faded red brick. Arched doorways had been filled in with hefty, square-cut stones sometime in the less distant past. Atop it all, a jagged tangle of barbed wire sliced through the illusion of being in another time, the sharp spikes announcing she was still in the 21st century.

An eternity passed before a technician noticed her immobility and meandered over, the tools hanging from his belt clanking out a tuneless jingle only a mechanic could love.

“You all right, Miss?”

The techs in New Jersey wore crisp, khaki uniforms. This guy, who wasn’t much older than she was, maybe twenty-five or twenty-six, looked like he’d slept in his coveralls, not bothered to shower, then crawled to work by way of a filthy alley. Was this a British thing? No employer in her hometown would let someone like this interact with customers.

“I can’t move,” she said. “I need to get going. I’ve got a date. He’s probably already here.” The speakers didn’t activate, but he watched the face-screen attentively.

“No sound output, eh?” He moved to the left, out of her field of view, and she heard the slap of flesh striking metal. The SecondSkin she wore back in the States obediently jerked her head to the right, albeit not violently.

“Hey!” she cried. Clearly the speakers were now working, as the nearby tourists looked at her questioningly.

“Fixed that, didn’t we?” The technician smiled and Virginia was treated to the sight of a pencil-sized gap between his front teeth.

“I still can’t move.” She’d have leaned away from him if the metal skin she wore would obey. The man was almost comically ugly.

“Nah?” He reached a hand to her chest, pulled a door open and stared at her midsection in a disconcerting manner. Virginia reminded herself that her actual breasts were thousands of miles away.

“You got the oldest rig on the lot.” He unclipped a can of compressed air from his belt and stepped away before spraying. An ominous cloud of dark gray soot billowed from the center of her body like a backfire from an old combustion-engine automobile. When it cleared, he pulled what looked like steel-tipped chopsticks from his shirt pocket and gingerly poked them into her belly, muttering a progress report as he worked.

“That looks fine. Battery is good. What fool did this wiring?” A loud buzz startled him and the chopsticks flew. He picked them up, prodded, and the buzz recurred.

He sighed like a doctor about to tell a patient very bad news. “Your motor control board is fried.”

Virginia didn’t know much about robots but she was pretty sure motors were an important component. “You’d better fix it fast. I’m meeting someone at noon.”

“Fast isn’t an option. We don’t have any spare parts for these old machines. I’ll have to rebuild the board from scratch.”

“Put me in another body then.”

A frown made his homely face even more unattractive. “I’m really sorry. I told my boss we needed to keep more spare bodies on hand. He’s a cheap bastard. I’ll refund your payment and give you a half-off coupon for the next time you rent, but it can’t be today. We’re completely booked.”

This couldn’t be happening. She and Philippe had been trying for months to meet. Paris didn’t allow Ro-Bodies within city limits after that incident at the Moulin robodyRouge, so she couldn’t go there. They’d made plans to get together in New Jersey or New York, but Philippe—a gallery assistant with a demanding boss—had canceled at the last minute numerous times. Today he was absolutely, positively going to be at the University of London for a conference and when he finished with morning sessions they’d go on their first “real” date.

Virginia might have hyperventilated if the suit she wore hadn’t adjusted the oxygen level to compensate for her shallow breaths. “It has to be today. My boyfriend came from Paris to meet me. He’s in the waiting area now.”

“Hey, hey, calm down. Lemme see what I can do.”

The technician pulled a scarred black screen from a thigh pocket and dragged a finger across it. “I’ve got a body coming back at two p.m. that isn’t scheduled to go out again until four p.m. I’ll need to change the oil, but I can let you have it for an hour.”

“I can’t wait! I need one now. Philippe is a very busy man. He’s—”

She stopped herself. She didn’t have to explain.

The technician laughed. “He’s a fool if he can’t wait a few hours for a pretty girl like you.” He peered closely at the screen. “That is your real face, isn’t it?” His smile broadened. “Most people don’t add freckles.”

Virginia drew in a quick breath. “The enhancement isn’t working?” Crap. She wasn’t wearing makeup. She’d gotten out of the habit.

“You don’t need it.”

He winked and Virginia could swear his muddy brown eyes flashed blue. Was he flirting? She wasn’t sure. In virtual, flirting was triple underlined and covered in bright flashing lights. In physical life, things were more difficult to decipher. So difficult she’d pretty much given up.

“I definitely do,” she said. “You know how it is.”

“I don’t.”

“You don’t hang out in virtual?”

The technician held out his hands as if to repel an invading army. “God no. When I’ve got free time I build robots. Real robots. I don’t need to go online and pretend to be one.”

“It isn’t about pretending. It’s about meeting people. I’ve got to enhance or no one will talk to me. I’m already considered conservative for sticking with basic human. At the least, I need to be attractive.”

The technician groaned. “You are attractive. Be yourself. Find a bloke who likes freckles.”

“Trust me, I tried ... Robbie.” She belatedly noticed his name embroidered in exuberant script above the left breast pocket of his tan coveralls. “I’m five-four with mousy brown hair and an average face. Add in the fact that I’m a math major at a commuter college in Newark and the result is when I show up in a room full of supermodels and three-headed giraffes in a simulation of my real skin, I’m less interesting than the wallpaper. I mean that literally. One of my friends designs fractal wallpaper and her stuff is amazing.”

Robbie slapped his chest. “I majored in math with a minor in cybernetics. And look,” he waved his hand at the decaying walls that surrounded them, “I got my dream job! In another year I’ll be a manager and after that I can open my own franchise.”

“I’m not looking for a dream job,” Virginia said.

“Ah, right.” Robbie squatted down so they were face to face. “How’d you end up with a guy from France? They’re all short, you know. Big noses. Bad hair.”

She smiled, warming to this rude tech despite herself. “He isn’t short and he has great hair.”

“You sure about that?”

“Of course. We both enhance but we’ve been turning it down bit by bit.” Just last week Philippe nervously revealed a scar he’d been hiding—a thin white line that ran across his right cheek. He’d been skiing off piste at Val d’Isère and had an unfortunate run-in with a pine tree. Every flaw he revealed made him more endearing.

Ugly Robbie raised an eyebrow. “You know that you can’t always trust—”

“I do know. People in virtual fake things. He isn’t bullshitting. I’ve checked him out. I’ve got Verif-Eye. He is who he says he is and his projection is ninety-five percent accurate.”

Robbie held up hands defensively. “Fine, fine. Do you want the body at two p.m. or not?”

Virginia tried to contact Philippe, but security within the rental compound was tight. Until she’d gone through customs, she’d not be able to message him.

“I don’t know if he can stay. Could you ask him?”

The one archway that wasn’t filled with stones led to immigration and the waiting room. She suspected Robbie could travel that tunnel freely.

Robbie stood and brushed at his pants. Whether it was to clean them or his hands was unclear. “Fine, missy, I’ll negotiate with your ninety-five percent accurate boyfriend.”

He tapped the screen with both thumbs, then looked up, brows creased. “He isn’t in the waiting room.”

Virginia hovered between relief and disappointment. If Philippe was running late this might work out.

Robbie continued. “He’s here, in an RB-387. Latest model.” He pointed to a sleek Ro-Body across the yard. It had its hand on the shoulder of another machine and tinny, feminine laughter ricocheted around the enclosed space.

“What’s he doing in a body? He’s supposed to actually be here,” Virginia said.

“Let’s ask him,” Robbie said.

He worked his way through the thinning crowd. Most people had gotten the hang of the bodies and were now happily stomping across Tower Bridge or teasing the guards in front of Buckingham Palace.

Robbie rapped sharply on the back of the Ro-body’s skull.

Philippe withdrew his hand from the woman’s shoulder—Virginia could see it was a woman now, one with anime-large eyes—and turned quickly. Robbie said something, pointed, and Philippe sauntered towards her. He wore the body easily and Virginia realized this was not his first time renting.

“I am so sorry,” he called when he was still meters away. “There was a strike, I couldn’t get a train.”

He slowed. His achingly handsome face, crisply displayed on the curved monitor, creased in confusion. “Virginia? Is that you?” His charming French accent turned her boring name into Vair-jhin-ee-ah, a woman she desperately wanted to be.

“Yes, it’s me. I can’t move. The motor control board is broken.” In Newark, she reached for him. In London, she was as still as the bench she sat on.

“But your face? What is wrong with that? Is the screen broken too?”

For a moment she’d forgotten she was ordinary Virginia. Boring, plain Virginia.

Robbie lingered a meter away, watching and listening.

“It is. The enhancer isn’t working.” She tried to smile.

Philippe stepped back quickly, as if he’d strayed too near the edge of an unstable cliff. “Mon Dieu. You say you only use ten percent enhancement, but what is this? This is not my Virginia. I cannot.” He raised his hand to his forehead dramatically, as if acting out distress in a silent movie. “You have deceived me. Nous sommes fini. Finished.”

He glanced over his shoulder. The woman with the anime eyes waved. He began to back away.

“Not so fast, mate.” Robbie grabbed his arm. “Let’s make this fair.”

He snapped open the chest plate to expose a control panel so complicated it could have been pulled from an autobus. Philippe struggled, but Robbie flipped a switch and the body froze.

“You want to see his one hundred percent handsome face?” he asked Virginia.

She nodded.

He fished out a blue and yellow umbilical cord and disconnected it. Philippe’s face wavered, turned to static, and was replaced by that of an older Caucasian man with greasy, thinning gray hair and bleary, bloodshot eyes.

Virginia gasped. The man gave a smug yellow grin and disconnected. The screen went black.

Robbie shook his head. “Arsehole.”

“Who was that?” Virginia asked.

Robbie consulted his screen. “That was Tom Watkins, connected via our Phoenix, Arizona facility. He’s got Platinum Explorer status. Meaning, he’s logged over one hundred hours in the last month.”

“But, Philippe?”

Robbie’s mouth twisted into a strange, sideways S-shape. “I don’t think there is a Philippe.”

Virginia couldn’t have moved now even if her body worked. Philippe wasn’t real? He’d set up a camera on his tiny balcony above Canal St. Martin and read her poems by Apollinaire. He’d taken her to the top of the Eiffel Tower. They’d watched movies in his bedroom and ...

“Hey, don’t cry.” Robbie knelt before her. “I shouldn’t have done that, but he was a twit. Us math majors need to stick together, yeah?”

Virginia tried to wipe her tears but her gloved hand hit the helmet. “I used Verif-Eye. He’s real. He has a red Fiat. He lives on Boulevard de la Bastille.”

“There might be a Philippe Martel at that address. I’ve heard about this. Piggybacking. Find a real person, pretend to be them. Not quite identity theft, not quite illegal, and not something we know how to deal with yet. You two probably communicated on your own private channel and I’m guessing he’s completely wiped it by now. No way to prove he lied to you.”

“I’m such an idiot. He isn’t even French? How can that be? He had the most beautiful accent.”

“There’s software for that. It can modify your voice, insert a foreign word every so often. Oh, bollocks. I’m not helping, am I? I’m no good at this.”

He stood, face suddenly alight. “I’ve got an idea. Don’t disconnect.”

He disappeared and a few moments later Virginia’s view of the world spun dizzily. She no longer looked at a dirty stone wall. Instead, she focused on a battered Ro-Body seated on a bench, face-screen blank. Robbie caught her as she fell.

“Whoa there! You can move now. Be careful.”

She grasped his arm and saw the shiny silver hand Philippe, or whoever he was, had just been wearing.

Robbie winked. “We seem to have a spare body after all.”

She steadied herself then nearly fell again when she took in her surroundings. The practice yard vibrated with color and texture. The sky was a bright robin’s egg blue streaked with delicate downy white clouds. In between the bursts of raucous laughter from her fellow tourists, she heard birdsong and the rustle of the leaves, and distantly, honking horns. Each stone in the wall was unique. Robbie held her hand as she stumbled towards it. How had she mistaken this for gray? The roughly-hewn block in front of her was a jumbled mass of green and white and black and bits of it sparkled like diamond. She leaned forward and the body’s camera, sensing her need, zoomed in until obsidian mountains surrounded her.

“This is amazing,” she said. Better than any virtual environment she’d ever experienced.

Robbie nodded. “The best body we rent. Almost like being here.” He breathed deep. “Too bad you can’t smell the air. Burning oil, joint grease, and fresh-mown lawn. I’m working on the next-generation sensors. This time next year, you’ll be getting London full up your nose.”

Virginia teetered unsteadily, moving her weight from foot to foot, trying to get her balance.

“You want to take her for a spin? I can take my lunch break now. We’ll go on a proper date, much better than whatever that fake frog had planned.”

So he had been flirting. Virginia evaluated him with her new, ultra-vivid visual sensors. Thick, fleshy lips, dumb cow eyes, and so many blemishes his face was more floral wallpaper than skin—he was no Philippe. But then, she remembered ruefully, neither was Philippe. Robbie had gone out of his way to help her, and his accent was genuinely charming. Plus, he was a math major.

She smiled. “Sure. Let’s go.”

“One thing first.” He pressed a button on a matchbook-sized matte box that hung from his right front pocket. An LED changed from green to red.

Virginia gasped.

Robbie’s hair was a clean, light brown, smoothly brushed back and tucked behind his ears. His eyes, a light, inquisitive blue, were set in a flawless complexion. His smile, brilliant.

“The real me,” he said, abashed. “Sorry I gave you a hard time about using enhancement. I use it too, for different reasons. I’m a captive audience here and,” he gave her arm a playful swat, “silly people fall in love with faces.”

Virginia placed one silver finger against his dimpled chin. “Is this really you? No fooling?”

“No fooling. Come on. Let’s go. I’ve only got an hour. I’ll take you to the river. It looks amazing with your multiband scanner.”

Virginia found it difficult to map the geeky eagerness of the quirky technician onto this new, generically handsome man. Robbie, the first Robbie, could have been one of guys in her undergraduate math program—guys she ignored thanks to her obsession with Philippe.

Robbie took her through the employee line at customs, and a few minutes later they stood in a quiet side street. Virginia gawked at the stately buildings surrounding her. To her right, crisp white marble columns flanked a shiny black door, the knocker and knob lustrous brass. The columns supported a flattened triangle of a roof. Maybe styled after a Greek or Roman temple? She’d never taken art history so she didn’t know, though she could guess the ratio of width to height of the columns. Next to that, a chiffon-yellow building with arched windows and lace curtains and—

Robbie didn’t give her time to take everything in. “Come on, you. I’ve only got forty-seven minutes left. Plenty of old stuff to see along the way.”

The silky strands of his hair glinted mahogany, copper, and gold in the sunlight. She’d never be able to go back to virtual after experiencing the incredible resolution of this body’s cameras. For the first time ever she was in another country and on a real date. Wasn’t she?

Robbie took her hand and led her down the cobblestone street. His fingers were probably calloused and warm, but all she could feel was a slight pressure. She ran her free hand across the rough limestone façade of a bakery they passed and the feeling was identical. Robbie chatted on, recounting the history of the area as her metal robot feet clanged out punctuation.

What was she doing here? She’d sent her soul across an ocean to meet a potential mate, met an unlikely and unexpected candidate, but now what? Hugging Robbie would be no different than wrapping her arms around one of the jaunty black and red postboxes—which were just about her height. Even if she saved every penny from her summer job, she wouldn’t make enough to afford a trip to meet him in the flesh, and he didn’t do virtual.

Virginia slowed to a stop and took in her surroundings. Daffodils and crocuses erupted from rain-damp earth in a flowerbed next to her. She was in London in the spring and the smells she couldn’t smell overwhelmed her.

Robbie tromped ahead, not realizing she wasn’t keeping up.

She’d dialed back the resolution of her real life to make bandwidth for a place where, on a good day, dating consisted of jangling a remotely-controlled metal puppet in front of a beautiful boy, and on a bad, being taken for a ride by a pixel-perfect fraud.

What about the guy at the Ro-Body rental agency in New Jersey who’d spent an hour fitting her into the SecondSkin and showing her how to use the omni-directional treadmill? He was roughly her age, tall with blonde hair, but his eye color? No idea, nor did she recollect what he was wearing, his build, or if he’d smiled as he recited his repertoire of silly, “What do you call a Ro-body?” jokes. Had he been flirting as well? He couldn’t spend that long with every customer.

She breathed in deeply through her nose and smelled plastic, then faintly, mixed with the swirling-cold tanked-in oxygen, cologne. The technician in New Jersey hadn’t been wearing gloves when he’d adjusted the suit’s neckline and hood, carefully tucking in errant strands of her hair. So you can see, he’d said.

“I’m sorry, Robbie,” she whispered.

Virginia disconnected. END

M. Luke McDonell is a San Francisco-based writer and designer. She is fascinated by the way humans use technology to form and sustain relationships. Her debut novella, “The Perfect Specimen” is available on iTunes and Amazon.


screaming eagle 6/15


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