Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Carillion’s Schemes
by Michael Hodges

by Edward H. Parks

It Don’t Mean a Thing
by A. Miller

Morning Glories
by Jude-Marie Green

Take a Good Look
by Holly Schofield

Fifty Kilograms
by Jim Stewart

Jupiter Hero
by Rob Pearce

Breaking Eggs
by Justin Woolley

To Hunt a Sky Eel
by Daniel Ausema

Gone Fishin’
by Thomas Canfield

Archangels of Heaven
by Leslie Lupien


Faster Than a Speeding Bullet
by Eric M. Jones

A Turn to the Dark Side
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips




Fifty Kilograms

By Jim Stewart

WHEN THE “WHAT ROUGH BEAST” First Navigator Vizec Cohal Iuzuke-Navarro walked into the dim little all-night stim-bar near the University of New Kuala Lumpur, he drew a lot of stares, as well he might. Even though he was out of uniform, dressing down in a blue-gray chapan coat of the sort that was popular down here, anyone could see he was near-c aristocracy. It wasn’t just his short, stout build and tree-trunk legs, obvious even through the fold of loose pants tucked into boots tied to the knee. It was his blatant air of complete authority and disdain for the planebes around him, who, stuck at microluminal speeds, would live and die in what would be a few short interstellar hops for him and his crew.

When he looked around the café, all the bleary-eyed overworked students nervously turned their attention back to their nanoprocessing actisheets piled around their tables, or to muttered conversations over bottomless steaming mugs of mattefedré extract.

One person, a tall, thin, pale woman with long dark hair, didn’t look away. She hadn’t been looking in the first place. Instead, she remained engrossed in her work, shuffling manically between actisheets and old passive texts and scribbling out equations that looked intimidating even from where the Vizec was standing.

Intrigued, Cohal walked over to her table, pulled out a chair, and sat across from her. An absent-minded wave of his hand brought someone scurrying from behind the counter with a cup, a pot of mattefedré, and a vial of viscous red shybloom vine sap for sweetener.

At first he was annoyed by her apparently defiant refusal to acknowledge his presence. But after a few minutes he realized that she really hadn’t noticed that he was sitting there.

“Your homework late?” he finally asked.

She jumped and gathered her actisheets around her like a mother hen. He got the satisfaction of watching a moment of surprise before she resumed control of herself.

“A little light on your feet down here, aren’t you?” she said. “It’s more your gravity up on the Gagarin Barbell.”

“It gets dull up there. All the desperate plan ...”

“Planebe. Go ahead and say it. You think we don’t know what you call us?”

“All the would-be consorts and tray-haulers walking around with lead backpacks in hope of becoming Invited and spending the rest of their miserable lives confined to a few hundred square feet on the Service Deck. I decided to come down to the University to see if anyone’s working on anything interesting. That’s why we sponsor the school after all.”

She looked up at him, torn between doubt and hope. If a ceestoc family sponsored a student’s research project, it could make a career. But then the project would become that family’s property, to use or discontinue as they saw fit. And being a man, his interests could be entirely extracurricular.

“What do they call you on the ship?”

“Call me Cohal.”

“Certainly they don’t call you that. What are you, an Assistant Director?”

“Vice Executive.”

She was alert enough now not to act impressed.

“You can call me Zal,” she said.

“For Orzala,” he answered. “What family are you from? Isupzai? Marwat?”

“My mother was a Megawati,” she said, in a tone meant to cut off discussion of family. “My father, who knows? No one’s going to kill you for my honor, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Is there any reason that should be necessary?”

“Certainly you’re not just interested in my research.”

“How should I know,” he said, “not having had a good look at it?”

She showed him an abstract of the work; it was a theoretical discussion of the role of exotic matter in the creation of a white hole. This set off alarm bells in his head. Exotic matter was strictly the property of the ceestocs, with only a bit preserved planetside for research purposes. But he played dumb, giving a shrug.

“Mm. A bit over my head. Maybe I’ll run it by some of my friends who work in Propulsion.”

He made a move to get up and leave, knowing she wouldn’t call his bluff and let him.

“Wait,” she said. “I think it would interest you. I could reveal more in private where everyone wouldn’t see.”

Her hair was long, uncovered and wild. Revealed hair was more common around the University than it had been on his last visit twenty years ago, which worried him. Not that he put any stock in the offshoot of Qutbism that enthralled so many of the locals, but faith always made the planebes easier to control.


Zal shared a room with another student, but she called ahead and told the girl to find a reason to be out that night. The Vizec followed her up the stairs to her room discretely, a few minutes after she went up. Though not forbidden, consorting with a planebe was frowned on by both the locals and ceestocs. While a planebe man might react with anger—even violence—Cohal’s shipmates would have wondered why he would bother with the Barbell full of would-be consorts willing to do anything a ceestoc asked for a chance at an Invitation.

When Cohal came in the room, Zal had placed the table between them and was leaning over her closed elbows, her actisheets on in a pile before her. He felt guilty for a moment, but was not going to have come up these stairs for nothing. He walked around behind her, and her slender shoulders approached her ears.

Cohal leaned over her and put his hand on one shoulder.

“What was it you wanted to show me?” he asked.

“A white hole violates entropy if there is any matter present. But I theorize that if there is a certain portion of exotic matter inserted into what otherwise would be a black hole it can reverse the gravitational status.”

“Like a spark creates a bright fire. Orzala, in Pashto, isn’t it?”

Rather than counter his junk-scientific metaphor she stood up and embraced him, and engaged him in an awkward kiss. He returned the embrace.

After a moment, she stepped back. Obviously she'd never done anything like this before.

“I should bathe first,” she said.

Before he could tell her that she already smelled delicious, she disappeared in her bathroom, locking the door. He heard the faucet running, and quickly began to be bored. Perhaps he should have had his fun on the Barbell after all.

He perused the equations on the actisheets. There was no security on her work—no indication that she saw it as anything more than a graduate thesis. As a navigator, Cohal of course had studied his theoretical physics, but navigation was more about mastering the technology of the navigational computers than understanding the intricacies of how they plotted their routes.

On the third page he saw a diagram that stopped him short. It was false-3D, twisting and moving on the page, and looked like an hourglass-shaped basket opened at either end woven from multicolored red and yellow arrows, its shape defined by red horizon lines.

His worst fears immediately confirmed, he lost interest in what might happen when she came out of the bathroom, and began to hack into her work. Pulling a crystal hundred-terabyte chip from his pocket, he began moving her work into its memory, simultaneously removing it from the actisheet’s nanomem. Then he looked through the University nets for her backup trail, which was easy to penetrate and delete given his ceestoc root-level access. Leaving a pile of blank actisheets, he disappeared down the stairs before she came out of the bath.


The Gagarin Barbell was not symmetrical as its name implied. Rather, one end was a massive ball, about half a billion tons, made of stable super-heavy transactinide elements with atomic weights greater than 200. Thick, long carbon nanofiber cables connected this to the habitable portion of the Barbell, a long, curved plate with tens of stories of habitations. The whole arrangement spun across the center axis of the cables—which was near the uninhabited ball and the disembarkation point of the space elevator—and created artificial gravity in the plate. When the crew of a ship was on board, the Barbell’s spin was accelerated to increase the gravity. But the maximum centrifugal force possible before the coriolis effect made everyone sick was still only a bit more than half of the near-3Gs that the ceestoc crew would be used to.

For Vizec Iuzuki-Navarro, it was still more than he was happy with. As did many of the interstellar crew, he always felt a bit off-balance and nauseous on the Barbell. It was often said that the only good solution to the problem was to get horizontal, preferably with an aspiring Invited underneath.

Cohal, however, was too busy. As soon as he got to his well-stocked room, he sat down before an interface and began plowing through the University computers in search of the sources of Orzala Megawati’s paper, each of which he uploaded to the ship’s computers and deleted from the University’s. This was going to cause a ruckus with the administration down there; removing texts from the school’s servers was on another order from simply stealing a lowly student’s research paper. But these were esoteric and rarely accessed works; by the time anyone figured out what had happened the Vizec expected the “What Rough Beast” would be halfway to New Titania and no one could do anything about it.

He had not yet shown anyone else what he had stolen from Zal. He would get to it when he had time, but soon he was going to have to start plotting the slingshot launch out of the New Io system. And he didn’t want to show anyone anything before he was sure of what he had to show. But he did do a little research in a conversation with First Engineer Vizec Ukume Cabeza de Vaca McNeil.

“Kum, what do you know about wormholes?”

McNeil lightheartedly made the sign of a cross and hissed, apparently some reference to the Adventism that still held sway in many of the Theresa Crescent planets.

“Don’t even say that word. If anyone ever figures out how to make one, you and I will be out of business. This ship won’t be good for anything but hauling trash to the Kuiper Belt.”

“But I thought it was impossible to make a wormhole transversible.”

“And we want everyone to go on thinking that. Some planebe scientists were working on making one out on Pyerun here. They say that the accelerator they made near the core is still in there.”

Pyerun was a brown dwarf whose wide elliptical orbit took it about 150 AU from the star of the New Io System. Pyerun’s mass was equivalent to 75 Jupiters, and if it had been much bigger it would have begun regular fusion and the New Io system would have been a binary.

“The experiments didn’t work out?”

“You could say that. They had stolen some exotic matter to make the wormhole traversable, but our agents here found out about it, shut the whole thing down, and executed everyone involved.”

“But would it have worked?”

“Hell if I know. But no one is ever going to find out. We destroyed all of the equations, diagrams and software on everyone’s computer, even ours. Even if that accelerator is still in there, no one is going to figure out how to use it. There’s not going to be another mathematician like Angar Isupzai for another hundred generations.”

Angar. What’s that for, embers?”

“Now I’m supposed to be an expert on Pashto, too? Look, stop thinking about this. You make sure we don’t run into anything, and I’ll figure out how to move the ship, okay?”

So Cohal buried the paper in his secure archives and got down to work plotting the timing of the slingshot approach to Pyerun, which would be near the far end of its orbit for the next few local decades. There were a lot of factors, including the relative orbits of New Io and the other gas giants, avoiding the larger portions of the meteor field between them, and maximizing the slingshot approach without accidentally plowing into the planet, which would be a physics research project all by itself if anyone would have lived to experience it.


They were about a week out of New Io when he thought of the research paper again. This was the most unpleasant part of the trip. They were still far short of the near-luminal speed that would put them in a different time-frame than the planebes. And after having spent a couple of weeks in planetary gravity, they had to get re-accustomed to the steady 2.87 Gs the accelerating ship maintained as it approached near-light speed.

All of which was nothing compared to what was going on with the new Invited on the Service Deck. They were suddenly finding out that the weights they had been walking around with at .87 gravities for the last few years were nothing compared to what they would need to be accustomed to the huge accelerational gravity. And that was not including the weight they would have to carry—or lay under.

There were two kinds of Invited, the servers and the consorts. The servers provided food and drinks for the entertainment portion of the Service Deck, where the crew could relax when not busy. The consorts believed they had come along as companions for their hosts, until the ship took off and they learned their so-called host was little better than a pimp.

To the crew, the Invited were no more than disposable housepets, extra weight that could be gotten rid of if necessary. Cohal always wondered why it didn’t occur to all those who wanted an Invitation why a ship with a crew of a hundred should need five to eight new Invited over what was for them every few months. Invited who couldn’t handle their job, or who committed suicide when they realized what they’d gotten into, frequently were sent out the airlock. In fact, the Service Deck and everyone confined to it was considered so disposable that the deck could be easily detached and left behind should it become necessary to save weight and speed up the ship.

Like most of the rest of the crew, Cohal didn’t go down to the “SD” for this part of the trip. He was too busy, and it was too grim to watch the new Invited get up to speed with their duties.

He was in a private room on the “SD” sipping some expensive New Titania port when he thought to begin looking over the paper again. He brought it up on the screen of his communicator unit, and began scrolling up and down, trying to take apart the math. Even with the help of her sources and some of his own graduate physics textbooks, however, he had to admit her math was too sophisticated for him, so he couldn’t tell if it was valid or not.

He began thinking about having a more experienced consort from an earlier Invitation invited to his room as a distraction. But suddenly he felt a guilt about the situation that he hadn’t before. He imagined seeing Zal’s face on the consort, and the appeal of the idea disappeared.

Just then he got a call on his communication unit. It was a private call, so he opened it. To his shock, it was Zal’s face on the screen.

“Hello, Vizec,” she said, in a brave-terrified voice.

Her face was pale, and her eyes looked sunken in their sockets. Her head was pushed back into a pile of rags.

“How did you get my communication-unit code?”

“Did you think you were the only one who stole something in my apartment?”

It took him a second to figure out what her immediate response meant. They were already a few light-weeks outside the system now.

“Holy Byelobog,” he said. “You’re on the ship! Where are you?”

“I’m buried in the plumbing in your miserable little slave deck.”

“I’m locating you with my comm unit right now. Whatever you do, don’t let anyone discover you.”

He found her in a supply closet, between a tangle of pipes and wires, laying on a pile of stinking rags and discarded clothing. She struggled to sit up when he entered the room. He suspected she had not moved from this location since the ship had got up to its full acceleration. She had it even worse than the Invited because she had not been practicing with extra weights as they had. She had brought some supplies, such as food and water, but they appeared to have run out. That must be why she called him. Near the corner of the closet was a reeking bucket she’d been using for her waste.

“So this is what your so-called Invited are enjoying right now. It must be fun to take some of the best and brightest of a planet and turn them into bellboys and harlots with the strength of a child and less rights than we accord a dog.”

“You think things must be bad for a consort, but at least they have one or two rights.”

“Like what? On their backs or on their stomachs?”

“They have it better than you do. A stowaway is unscheduled inertia, wasted kilograms. I could do anything to you—things you can’t even do to a consort.”

Zal forced herself up on her elbows.

“Go ahead. I can’t stop you. Use me physically the way you used me emotionally planetside. The way you ceestock bastards have been using us lowly planebes for as long as anyone can remember.”

Was the girl frightened? Had she not been, Cohal would have worried for her sanity. But her anger and defiance had won out over the fear. Perhaps she couldn’t stop the Vizec but she would try.

Cohal advanced and stood over her, to show his advantage.

“Don’t flatter yourself, sugar. The Consort Deck is full of planebe wenches who’d do backflips for me if they could stand up.”

The Vizec turned and clomped towards the door.

“Have your fun with those stupid tramps then,” said Zal. “If you won’t help me I’ll find someone else.”

Cohal turned and jabbed his finger at her.

“You ever heard of an airlock party?”

The color of her face showed that she had.

“That’s a myth. They don’t do those, at least not anymore.”

“The heck they don’t. You don’t believe me, I’ll show you a holo. Unless you want to attend one—as the Guest of Honor—you better hope to hell no one else on this ship finds you except me.”


The Vizec did not know why he did not reveal the stowaway. It was true that there had not been an airlock party for a long time, at least on the “What Rough Beast.” But then again, it had been a long time since there had been a reason for one. Stowaways had been common before interstellar ships could spare the weight of a Service Deck; something that Zal probably didn’t know about airlock parties was that the person who brought the stowaway on board often went out the lock with the stowaway. Cohal didn’t bring her aboard, but he was responsible for her wanting to stow away, and the questions could get uncomfortable.

He thought about trying to give her a slightly more comfortable habitation, such as one of the disused consort rooms. But it was too risky. Instead, he tried to make her supply closet a bit more habitable, bringing her mattresses, a portable toilet, and food and drink. He also set up a camera so he could monitor her constantly.

The bigger problem was covering up her extra weight. Fortunately, as navigator, he was the one monitoring this currently. But unless he did some hacking, it would come to the attention of Propulsion sooner or later. He managed to find about 50 kilograms of waste material and extra supplies to dump out to cover up the weight, but he had to go back and conceal the records of the first week. Fortunately, there was a lot of variation during this time in the weight of the micro black hole attached by its gravity to the exotic matter in the propulsion system, so it would take some research to turn the extra weight up. If anyone did, of course, the Vizec might be looking at the wrong side of an airlock himself.

During this time Zal was constantly trying to persuade him to let her look at her research again. He could see on camera that she was exercising to deal with her new 150-kilogram weight. At first she forced herself up on all fours, then fell back to her mattress. Then she slowly began practicing pushing herself up on her legs, standing like a toddler clinging to the nearest pipe. Soon, however, Zal was able to stand face to face with Cohal when he came in.

“You know you’re not going to be able to figure out my work by yourself. Even your fancy Propulsion guys won’t be able to. You may think you know a lot, but the truth is you people are not scientists, just engineers. You know how to use the equations that scientists make up to serve your purposes, but not how to create new ones.”

“Why would I help you create a wormhole that would make our ship into an unnecessary cargo tug?”

“You have a choice, Vizec. You can try to stand against the future and hold the inevitable progress off for a little while longer, in hopes of preserving your sad little place in it. Or you can be a part of it, and help create a new universe, where everyone has equal access to the stars.”

And so, having gotten himself in enough trouble already, he gave her access to her paper, and let her continue her research. He told himself that if she managed to create something, he would have the advantage of controlling it. Perhaps the ceestoc families that had controlled the starships could control the wormholes as well. In truth, however, he was just curious as to what she would come up with.


It took about half a year to get to 99.8 psol, and Zal caused surprisingly little trouble during that time. Cohal would go insane locked in a broom closet for half a year at triple his accustomed gravity. But Zal was living a life in her mind, escaping human contact completely into her equations and diagrams, or so it seemed at the time.

When the ship got this close to c, it was time for Turnaround. Turnaround was a period of about two weeks when the ship stopped accelerating, as any energy devoted to that purpose at this time would be rendered insignificant by relativity. At the end of Turnaround the ship turned around and began decelerating at the same speed, so as to be traveling at a normal speed when they entered the New Titania system.

Turnaround was a holiday for everyone; there was little work to be done by the crew, so they spent most of their time on the Service Deck. It was also, of course, a relief for the Invited from the oppressive acceleration gravity they lived under. Of course, that didn’t mean they hadn’t still to work hard entertaining the crew, but the duties were a lot easier when everyone was experiencing microgravity.

Another thing that happened during Turnaround was that the “What Rough Beast” crossed within fifteen or twenty light minutes of her sister ship, the “Byelobog.” The “Byelobog” and the “What Rough Beast” had worked New Titania/New Io on an alternating route for many years. The two systems were about ten light years apart; the ships staggered their arrival so that one or the other arrived at each system every twelve years. The crews of the “Byelobog” and the “What Rough Beast” had not, for the most part, met each other in person. But during Turnaround they were able to have fairly genuine laser-transmitted virtual interactions. That was how Cohal had met Vizeca Namyatova Debreux-Stoller, the First Communication officer of the “Byelobog.”

During the middle of Turnaround, he made sure that Zal had a few days of supplies, and told her that he would not be back for at least twenty-four hours, because the virtual interactions took awhile. He got the satisfaction of seeing her look a bit jealous, but he didn’t acknowledge it. Having felt too guilty to visit with a service deck consort during the trip, he was more than eager as he hooked up the body support system and connected himself into the virtual simulator through a plug behind his head.

As he had expected, Namyatova had planned for their interaction. Women were reliable that way. As soon as he connected to the sister ship’s system, he found himself standing on top of a windswept mountain, with fantastic vistas of snow-capped peaks stretching into the distance. The wind blew his hair, but Namyatova had kept it from being cold enough to bother him.

Climbing up the hill he saw a huge wooden palanquin bed, bearing the voluptuous figure of one of Namyatova’s favorite avatars. There were eight loincloth-wearing men sweating under the bed, and as the palanquin came near him he saw something disturbingly sentient in their eyes.

“Come on up,” she said, as the sweating palanquin bearers fell to bruised knees.

Cohal looked closer at the palanquin bearers, and confirmed his suspicions.

“You have real Invited in those avatars,” he said.

The Vizeca laughed.

“They get too much of a break during Turnaround if you ask me. It’s good to help them remember who’s on top.”

Cohal would never have considered himself a kind person; that kind of attitude didn’t get you ahead in his business. But forcing people into the unpleasant experience of avatars that could more easily have been simulated, just to enjoy their suffering, was foreign to him. It wasn’t the first time Namyatova had done that sort of thing, but it was the first time it had bothered him.

“Your trip going okay?” he asked, trying to change the subject.

“Routine as always. I saw something you might want to look into. I’ve been tracing your broadcast communications to New Titania and New Io, and noticed that you have an extra signal piggybacking on it. Something very fancy and very hidden, most people wouldn’t even find it. Even I couldn’t decipher it; whoever put it there knew their math.”

“Interesting,” he said, his stomach twisting. “I’ll look into it.”

He tried to forget about it, and reached out for the porcelain skin of Namyatova’s avatar. He had no idea what she really looked like, and she had picked for him a tall Nordic figure that in no way resembled his stout, dark shape in reality.

“Wait a minute,” she said. “You haven’t seen the show yet.”

The bed was turned so the two of them faced a huge, square brick pit at the top of the mountain. Cohal hadn’t seen it before, or perhaps it hadn’t been there. He watched impatiently. He was ready for a bit of physical interaction, but Namyatova was a woman, so he had to do things on her schedule.

Suddenly from behind them a frightened man was dragged by two burly guards towards the pit. The guards appeared to be simulated avatars, but the avatar of the man had someone in there. They hurled him down into the pit, and he stood with a realistically twisted ankle.

“Dubrally was a consort I picked up from New Io two visits ago,” Namyatova murmured. “Quite reliable, too, until I found him messing around with one of Vizec Carnaby’s consorts behind both our backs. I wanted these fellows under the palanquin to see the result of defying the ceestoc.”

Cohal was getting a sick sensation in his stomach as she began nibbling in his ear. Suddenly a gate in the side of the pit fell open, and a hideous animal came out of the side of it. It had reptilian, insectile and mammalian features, with a long, slithery body, chitinous plates across its back, and long, terrifying fangs.

Cohal tried to block out the sound of Dubrally scrambling helplessly against the wall and screaming to Namyatova for mercy, and focus on the beautiful avatar in front of him. But the sound and smell of the man’s death was too distracting. When it was over, he was relieved.

“Wait,” she said. “Now they’re bringing in the girl.”

He disconnected, pulling his plug and jerking the feeding tube out of his throat in order to vomit all over the floor of the VR chamber. He would tell her that he had trouble with his unit, and that’s why he’d disconnected. As a service robot came in to vacuum up his vomit, he raced back to the screen where he was able to watch Zal in her chamber. Somehow he needed to confirm to himself that she was not in that horrible pit.


New Titania was much more industrious and modern than New Io. The shipyard here was able to do far more in terms of repairs and upgrades, and exotic matter was generated at a steady pace, only to be placed immediately in a lockbox under the control of the ceestocs.

The visit was dull. There was no planetary leave because of too much guerilla activity. The role that religion played in keeping the populace out of the ceestoc’s hair on New Io was instead played by interracial squabbles here on New Titania, which was far more ethnically diverse.

He called on Zal’s closet as little as possible during this time, instead making a number of joyless trips to aspiring consorts on the Schmitt Barbell, in order to keep anyone from getting suspicious of him.


The ship was a day and a half from pulling away from the Barbell when he entered Zal's broom closet and found it vacant. His stomach an empty pit, he raced to the nearest server access point and began frantically searching through the video cameras all over the deck for Zal, knowing that he wouldn’t find her.

It was about a half an hour later when he got a private, one-way message from the escaped stowaway.

“Sorry I didn’t tell you before I left, Cohal,” she said. “But I couldn’t take the risk. I’m on the surface now, and you’re not going to find me. You have to decide, Vizec. Run away at 99 psol, and try to freeze time, or leave the ship, join us, and blast forward into the future. Don’t be a coward and make the wrong choice.”

Of course she had been sending communications to like-minded people on New Titania, and presumably New Io all along. Cohal turned and faced toward the exit to the Barbell and the space elevator, but his feet wouldn’t go forward. Instead, he began erasing all signs of her presence from the broom closet.


They were about thirty days into decel towards New Io when the Vizec was dragged out of bed and hauled before a panel of all the Vice Executive Crew, and the Captain, Chezec Babustan Chinzing-Ali, who had a sad look in his eyes. Cohal bowed his head and awaited his fate, knowing it had only been a matter of time before his coverup had been revealed.

“Coco,” said Chezec Ali. “Why did you do it? We have thirty consorts on the ship who will do anything you want. You could have taken anyone from the Barbell.”

Cohal saw an opportunity. They knew he had a stowaway, but they didn’t know anything else.

“The one I wanted wasn’t on the Barbell,” said Cohal. “She couldn’t have been Invited. I loved her.”

It was easy to say. He wasn’t lying.

The Chezec sighed and leaned back against his chair.

“The penalty hasn’t changed. I should be tossing you out the airlock. You’ve always been a good navigator, but bringing a stowaway can’t be forgiven.”

It would be a relief, really, a quick death by burning cosmic rays and suffocation.

“I’ve decided to offer some mercy, however,” continued the Chezec. “Instead of being put out the airlock, you will be left on New Io, and be stripped of your name, position and title. Until we arrive, you’ll be confined to a locked room on the Service Deck.”

Cohal, no longer a Vizec, was not given a chance to ask for the supposedly less merciful punishment.


He often came to the café where he had met Orzala, though even if anyone were still here who’d seen him enter more than thirty years ago would not recognize him as the same man. His once stocky build had atrophied in planetary gravity, making him barely distinguishable from any other planebe, which was what he now was.

His chapan coat was ratty, and his boots had barely attached heels. His hands were thick and dirty with physical work. He was a regular, and the other students and the café servers knew him well. Sometimes rumors went around about how he was a fallen ceestoc, used to be a Vizec, was thrown off the ship for a forbidden love. But the stories were more than a decade old now, and no one cared anymore.

There was an old public comm unit that he visited often. People speculated on what he saw on it. Some said it was the status of the day's jagzard races, while others said he tracked decades-old results of solar-yacht races out of the Beira system, or that he was just one of those old men that liked to watch the weather.

But one student said that once, late at night, he saw the old man watching samizdat broadcasts from New Titania. He was watching the face of a beautiful rabble-rouser that had been turning the people against the government there. She was spoken of often in the cafe, quietly of course, with a combination of admiration of her ideals and fear for her life.

No one knew her name, but she went by the nom de guerre of “The Spark.”

In another version of the story, he was speaking into the comm unit himself, as if he could get his own words into an interstellar broadcast to New Titania. But everyone dismissed this story; even the briefest of focused neutrino broadcasts across the stars would cost more than a person like him would ever have in his life, and it would take ten years to get there. But he was a crazy old man, after all.

During the “Byelobog’s” next visit, a square-jawed ceestoc woman came into the café and approached him. Needless to say, this got people interested again. She looked around the café, just as Cohal once had, and immediately knew who she was seeking. Namyatova walked over to Cohal’s table and shook her head sadly.

“I wish you’d have met me before I was like this,” said Cohal. “I almost looked as good as those fancy avatars you used to give me.”

“I know how handsome you used to be,” said Namyatova. “I heard it from your girlfriend, the one who stowed away for you.”

“That's impossible,” said Cohal. “She would never have spoken to you.”

Namyatova smiled cruelly.

“It wasn't by choice, I can assure you of that. They arrested her a few days before we left the system. She had led a useless little putsch, which failed utterly of course. I think she actually thought she was going to capture our ship! Still, she's an impressive girl. She made a good show of a revolution considering all she had to work with were the hopeless would-be revolutionaries that hang around places like this. It's too bad they had to kill her.”

“You saw her killed?” said Cohal.

Namyatova casually waved away a drink offered by one of the waiters.

“Sadly no. We had to leave, and it makes the locals feel better to go through the formality of a show trial before an execution. But you can be sure she's ten years dead by now. Knowing that, you might reconsider that favor you are asking me for.”

“Can you get me on board or not?”

“Not as part of the crew. Certainly you know that.”

“I’ll be your consort,” he said.

Namyatova burst out laughing.

“Oh, you're funny, Cohal. I admit it would be entertaining, having you on the Service Deck as my plaything. But Vizec Carnaby and I ... well, it’s none of your business. No, if you come, you’ll be a tray-hauler, a janitor. You’ll never leave the Service Deck. Your legs have forgotten how to hold you up at three gravs. Is that really what you want?”

Namyatova was enjoying this, Cohal saw. This was her revenge for Cohal severing the VR connection on the previous trip, which would be less than two years ago to her. Making a former ceestoc into an Invited planebe was the worst humiliation she could think of.

“What’s my alternative?” said Cohal, in the most desperate voice he could manage. “Staying here? I don't belong on the surface. Anything's better than dying with my feet on the ground.”


Cohal was scrambling through stinking pipes as the “Byelobog” accelerated towards the slingshot point near Pyerun to begin their long approach to near-light speed. Everyone was battening down for the weeks-long, dull micro-luminal slog.

The poor planebes slogging away on the Service Deck would not initially have been aware of the discussion of the change in the Great Yellow Storm near the equator of Pyerun, which had suddenly ceased to exist. In fact, there appeared to be a hole there. Within a few days, even the miserable ad-screen flickering away in the sewage-processing part of the Service Deck was showing a massive hole curving in from one side of the planet, which now looked more like a balloon with one side pushed all the way in, ready to pop.

About two AUs from the brown dwarf, a ship was accelerating away. Zal’s compatriots had barely escaped from the black hole they had pried out of the cosmic foam using the equations Zal had been sending them over the course of the trip.

On the Control Deck, the debate about whether to continue departure as Pyerun appeared to be eating itself continued for a few days, and then was quickly pushed to the back burner as the Navigator informed the captain that the ship was off-course. Rather than heading for a slingshot point around Pyerun, the ship was heading straight for the self-devouring ball of gas. Efforts to retake control of the ship were useless; the navigation had been hijacked.


It was Namyatova who found Cohal standing by a pried-open computer panel, a pirated processor cable plugged into the back of his head. He smiled at her as she pointed a magjec pistol at him.

“She was right,” he said. “You could kill her, you can kill me. But you can't kill an idea. It's a spark you can't put out.”

“You bastard,” she said. “I saved you from a life planetside, and this is how you repay me?”

“I'm afraid you really believe that,” he said. “That you're doing people a favor by making them your slaves.”

“And what about you? You're killing all the Invited on board, along with us. How is that better?”

“It's a good question. Two hundred Invited will die so that no one will ever be Invited again; is it worth it? One could debate it forever. But as for us, we only have about twelve minutes, because I made my choice.”

“Cohal, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have let Carnaby treat you this way. I was still angry, you understand. We can work something out. I can make you a ceestoc again. Maybe not a Vizec, but ...”

He stopped listening. He was thinking about Orzala. He could hear her voice in his head.

“They don't have to die, Cohal. You can save them, and open the wormhole.”

He laughed.

“What's so funny?” said Namyatova.

“I'm going crazy,” he said. “Right before I die. It's like she's talking to me, but she's ten light years away. And dead.”

“What does she have?” yelled Namyatova. “A skinny planebe girl, and you gave up everything for her?”

“It's just a spark right now, Cohal,” said Orzala. “Not even a millimeter wide, but enough that we can get a signal through. You can light the fire. And you don't have to die.”

Cohal shook his head and unhooked the jack. He knew what he had to do. It was a horrible thing, a betrayal, but he wanted to live.

“Don't you know the only reason I did this was for you?” he said to Namyatova. “I can save the ship, but not from here. You have to take me back. You have to get me off the Service Deck.”

Namyatova hugged him.

“I knew you'd come to your senses,” she said.

He followed her up the corridors of the ship, right up to the lock that led him from the lifetime of slavery to which he'd assigned himself on the Service Deck, and back to the nobility on the Control Deck that was his birthright. Namyatova opened the lock, stepped through, and held out his hand.

“Come on, Cohal, what are you waiting for?” she said.

“I really am sorry, Namyatova.”

He'd timed it well. He only had to wait a few seconds before the lock closed. There was a loud hissing, and then huge mechanical sounds that covered the sounds of Namyatova banging on the other side of the door. He didn't have to hear her screaming in rage as the Service Deck disconnected, while the Control Deck of the “Byelobog” accelerated into Pyerun.

From the Service Deck, speeding along the same path as the “Byelobog,” but falling behind because it was not accelerating, the entertainers, consorts, and small number of terrified crew watched as Pyerun got smaller and smaller and the “Byelobog” got closer and closer.

There is a famous telescopic picture from around this time, of the “Byelobog” seemingly frozen at the Schwarzschild radius of the black hole that Zal’s allies had created out of Pyerun. At that time, of course, the ship had been ripped to shreds by the tides of the black hole, but the light that would have shown that could not escape from the singularity. The only parts of the “Byelobog” remaining were the mini-black hole of the drive and the exotic matter that pushed the ship through space.

That image would have lasted forever if the exotic matter on the ship hadn't thrown open the wormhole, revealing to the people of the New Io System an image of their sister star New Titania, ten light years away, and broadcasts of New Titanians cheering as Orzala spoke to them, as she spoke to the New Ionians and Cohal through a hole in space.

But Cohal didn't hear it then; he was leaning against a door he'd shut on everything he'd been. He didn't know if Orzala's plan would work, or if he'd betrayed Namyatova for nothing. He was thinking that Namyatova had been no worse than most of the people he'd known in his life. How many people are brave enough to question the life they're born to?

The entertainers and consorts did not know what was happening either, only that they suddenly were free from the crushing weight, and at no disadvantage against the few members of the crew remaining on deck. The screens showed a great black circle with white speckles inside it approaching them, but they didn’t know they’d be the first to travel through a wormhole.

But those who had been on a voyage already knew this freedom, this moment of equality. It was just like Turnaround.

From now on, it would all be Turnaround. END

Jim Stewart is a poet and math teacher trying to sell out as a science fiction writer. He is a 2008 Clarion West Workshop graduate. His work has appeared in “Apex Digest.”