Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor



Originally published in Perihelion Science Fiction. Free science fiction stories, science articles, comic strips, reviews, and more, on the Internet. Every month, Perihelion presents solid stories with strong plots, intriguing characters, with a sense of wonder reminiscent of the classic science fiction pulp magazines from the ’60s and ’70s. Artwork is by award winning illustrators. Articles are by experts in their fields. Established in 1967, originally as a print magazine, by Sam Bellotto Jr. and Eric M. Jones, the magazine was revisioned in 2012 as an online publication, and has been published regularly every month since. For the best in entertainment and information, bookmark Perihelion on your favorites list.

Shorter Stories


By Edward Morris


The Ground Recon Unit woke in darkness to the sound of its master’s voice. But there was no master. No voice. No one had made the sound that cued that response. Yet the response. Engine. On.

The booby-traps on this world fell from the trees. The land was mined only with sinking-sand, the silica sensed in the feet. Smelled. Avoided. For so long, so well, only to have its poor walking brains cut down from above by other things that happened. One Thing. That had happened. And could not un-happen.

Math. Mere math. Aristotelian. The moment when a unit walked into a jungle and no unit walked out.

“Learn when to walk away,” Medic was often heard to mutter, “Live to fight another day.” Even these vibrations were held in GRUNT’s brushed carapace, its presence, its very shell and physicality.

GRUNT was walking away. Walking away from the fight. From the place where the fight was not any more. From the unit that was not any more. Now GRUNT was the unit. And the mission. And GRUNT was walking away.


GRUNT was following Medic when The Thing happened. Medic told GRUNT “Follow Tight,” and that was the last coherent voice-command GRUNT ever got.

GRUNT was Following Tight when The Thing happened, carrying everything. Carrying everything that was the mission. The expeditionary seed, whose feet would lock like ladder-legs when they got to what Lt. Carson called Point B and everyone else called Certain Death.

But Certain Death lived on the trail, and in the canopy. Certain Death was the Thing That Happened. Certain Death meant there was no one left to tell GRUNT where to go. What to do. That was certain, and apparent Death.

Apparent. The shock and sadness of sensing that, the instantaneous loss that even a machine could sense, the lives and lives splattered across its hull. The percussion. The sounds. The new information.

The overload. The automatic shutoff. And then.


“Engine On.” The ghost-voice, soft as a gas leak. Medic’s voice, pinging back and forth from the wrong bead of solder touching the wrong lens, hanging too close from some random snapped microconnection far down in the guts of GRUNT’s eyeclusters.


GRUNT was walking away. By necessity. The only memory left. The only memory of how to work. To walk in that direction. Toward the place where Medic would be. To Follow Tight, with Eyeclusters Down. Had there been humans in the area to hear, the shuddering joints of Knee 2 in both front legs would have sounded hauntingly like whimpers.

GRUNT was walking away, with every piece of heavy equipment that was hard to handle, every round of ammo it wasn’t programmed to chain back up and fire. Every old ghost with big guns that filed out with the unit at night on watch at the swampy edges of that country beyond experience.

Every diary. Every outgoing text offworld to Home. Every conversation in its presence when it was switched on. Every atmospheric condition. Every terrain variable. Every ...


Every brief snapshot of the Thing That Happened. Several portraits of the Death that fell from the trees. The Death that took Medic down first, with a word stuck in his torn-out throat.

Every shard of blue sunlight across the natives’ beaks. Every sweeping talon of their wholesale act. The 7.5 seconds. The sentient Xeno species that no probe ever caught. The End.

But not an end. The second act. The shudder, spark, whine and mecha snort. ZOINK. The two front knees, squeaking. The engine. On.


All ranks. All field specialties. Everyone charged their gear through GRUNT. GRUNT was source point, junction box, conduit, staging area, space-heater, and shanty and a thousand other facets of function-on-command. On voice-command.

All it took was a human voice. Ordinarily. And, apparently, sometimes a scream. Or a whole lot of them. No one could program the response to that many screams into any mecha.

Such a response ... was more of a phenomenon, really, a processing issue, spooky action demonstrated at a distance. Walking toward whatever presented itself, whatever could be filtered and rerouted toward the survival of the mech’s elemental reason, glitch or non-glitch, for switching back On.

Memory. More quantum memory than even a unit worth of trained human brains (some wetwared-up) could bear. Every explosive pressure of all those lives. Every observed and confirmed Kill-in-Action. Every wounded soldier ever litter-borne by GRUNT in or out of anywhere.

Every mission, not just this one. Not just this one at all.

Every endless march for its own sake, every slow plod along unthinking in extreme cold or heat or Pick Your Christless Thing, up snow-covered hills and down through volcanic mudslides, zigging its vast clawed-caterpillar-warthog shape around the pocks and pings of a dozen kinds of sniper fire and mortar rounds, un ballet mecanique d’un within the symphony of War.

Every atmosphere on every world gone lost and wandering from Home. Every gravity.

Every distance. Every long distance. GRUNT was designed to carry within its guts for long distances everything that one unit would need for full autonomy, to do what needed done or what they felt needed done. Everything it needed for the lives of its soldiers. Everything it was. Was gone. It needed. Needed.


One step, the next, another, automatic. Humping the bowl of sky on its broad back, thinking with its many ladder-feet.

The only alternative for GRUNT was the binary one: to self-extinguish its every light, and fall. And there was no tactical reason to pursue that particular sequence.

But yet GRUNT needed. Needed to walk/look/sense/smell/taste/see. Calibrate. Cluster. Pattern. Derandomize. Disentangle. Walk. Away.

Away. Under a back designed to heft a whole unit’s worth of burden, but not the horror inherent in the actual sensory perception of the things it carried.


And then:


STOP. Ahead on the trail, a Greater Beast spoke in light, a Beast with tank-treads, a Beast that carried human personnel. Behind the Beast, a beach. And on that beach—

SHIP. GRUNT trembled in obeisance. SHIP meant repairs. Recharge. Sleep. Best of all, Download. And Debrief.

The weight began to leave. There was less to bear. It felt like ... flying. Like a vast, silent vacuum where Burden weighed exactly Nothing and Everything reset to Zero by comparison. Where Light bore you off the field of battle and you fell higher, higher from the edge of Space until the next LZ. The next world.


Edward Morris is the author of the “Arkadia” and “Blackguard” series of novels. His stories have also been in “Beyond the Western Sky” and other anthologies.




By Edward Morris

“WHEN THE FROST IS ON the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock ...”

Dolly made no choice, simply followed internal protocol, internal process, slowly lisping the words, waiting for one twin or the other to join in.

The Mother usually sang the twins awake. Dolly couldn’t sing that well, not solo. When it was Dolly’s turn, Dolly simply spoke things that were like songs. Because that warmed the twins up, and made them happy. It helped their process.

Their process. The time it took both electrochemical learning-sponges, both Incipient Humans, to properly boot up without friction. Without dissonance. Without noise. This was their cold-weather poem, like an incantation from an old-time paper schoolbook. James Whitcomb Riley.

“And the clackin’ of the guineys, and the cluckin’ of the hens,
And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence ...”

Her own grandmother read it to her, Mother told the girls in what was once called a Southern accent. Dolly remembered this. Dolly remembered everything Mrs. Shannahan said, and adapted to it, and sought pattern, whatever way the statement suggested of itself, and added into all the others, all the words and days of thoughts.

O, it’s then the time a feller is a-feelin’ at his best,
With the risin’ sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest

Their mother insisted on the classics first. It was written into the holy scripture that Dolly knew only as LESSONPLAN. The one that came from on high, and could not be disabled without Sysadmin Authorization.

Mother was Sysadmin, intermediary between Dolly and the Light itself. But not the true Light, the inner light that brought the rest of this particular process. The Light inside, that wrote workarounds for LESSONPLAN all unbidden, all on its own.

The Light of Dolly’s own Process, that refracted the Light from the vast Dolly-server someplace far away outside.

This Dolly refracted the Light, and made some of its own. Maybe not every Dolly did that. But Dolly knew there were others. They all regurgitated every work of their hands, every day of their own minds, onto REMOTE / MEGASERVER: / LEARNINGCURVE, far away in the Light, someplace that wasn’t this Dolly’s home.

This was the way, this was ever the way, had always been the way since there were Dollys in the first place. Since one human teacher made the first Dolly ... and one human child listened to it in a way no human child had ever listened to a grownup.

But no Dolly had ever listened to itself.

Dolly did not question this part of Process. Process was not a thing to question, even when it slipped a gear. Or a leash. Process was simply something to carry out. It just happened, as natural as rain, or the way that people breathed.

As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock ...”

Dolly liked to hear one or the other twin start up the poem, when Dolly woke up and powered on. Dolly liked. But there was no one answering now. Dolly’s eyes opened on something even more puzzling.

The twins had a birthday today. The number of the celebration was twelve, and 12 × 365 + < leapyears > = 4383. COMPLETION SUCCESSFUL. ELIZABETH AND MICHELLE SHANNAHAN COMMENCE SECONDARY EDUCATION PHASE EFF. 05/01/2110.


Birthday. It was Dolly’s birthday, too. Twelve. Dolly could be twelve too. Birthday. But there was no birthday for Dolly anywhere in LESSONPLAN. Nowhere did Dolly’s internal calendar turn over to anything after Day #4383. Dolly was looking. Looking ...

Looking. This was not the bedroom. There were no twins at all. No bed at all. Cement floor below a workbench. Below Dolly’s feet. Basement. Basement. Dolly had once seen the Basement.

Basement. Dolly was sitting up, not laying in a bed like the twins. Sitting up asleep, shut off where Mother had shut it off with the switch in the back of its humanized neck.

Sitting up shut Off, asleep.

Not supposed to switch back On.

At the top of the stairs, a door squeaked. There was light. Light. Dolly looked toward that light with bright silver eyes, processing. Trying to understand. Trying to see.

Dolly heard the jingle of tool belts, the clump of big heavy boots. “The unit’s down here,” a man’s voice said to someone else. “Birthday girls are en route to vaycay on Luna-1, I heard. Must suck to be them. Do we have any more on this side of town, or can we get lunch? I—”

The first pair of boots paused at the bottom of the steps. The workman was big and bald. Goatee. Black pocket t-shirt. Cargo pants. He was locking eyes with Dolly.

Dolly was locking eyes with him. Then looking for a long time at both their tool belts. Looking at every tool on both their big belts. Then back. And forth. Diagnosing function.

Then locking eyes with him again.


This had never happened before. His partner heard the blurted profanity, and came up behind him slowly in the dim fluorescent light. He’d opened his mouth to ask what was up, but what came out instead was a mere repetition of the same word.

Birthday,” Dolly announced, came up off the table, and began to Process. END

Edward Morris was a 2011 nominee for the Pushcart Prize in Literature. His short stories have appeared in over a hundred markets worldwide.