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



Jupiter Hero

By Rob Pearce

I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING HERE. I mean, I’ve probably got as much of a clue on how to fix this damn regeneration unit as anybody aboard, which still means I’m fiddling in the dark. Literally too. But I have no idea why I’m even here. Why would they let a useless waste of space like me on this ship? The ship. The most complex, most intense space mission ever devised, crewed by the brightest and best of mankind ... and me.

The irony is that I was headhunted. Seriously. This senior guy from DSA called me out of the blue. Actually he used the full Deep Space Authority name; probably figured I’d forgotten, what with being back on Earth for four years. He said he wanted me for a very special mission. Naturally I asked why, and he gave me the whole “why would we not want the hero of Jupiter Station” line. Hero indeed. It’s been so exaggerated it’s lost all connection to the truth.

Actually I was probably overstating things by calling myself useless. Back on Jupiter Station I was a promising and eager young technician. Perhaps “burned out” is more the term I want.

Anyway, the DSA guy went on to tell the usual version: how I spotted the vent gas first, grabbed the only available suit knowing full well it was low on O2 and utterly out of propellant, jumped un-tethered right to the edge of the leak and worked the manual override to save the day. And that makes me a hero. Never mind the three guys who had to go on emergency spacewalk to save my dumb ass. Never mind that with a bit of common sense I could have fixed it from inside. Never mind that risking my worthless life didn’t need the slightest courage. I can’t even remember what I was feeling morbid about, but I clearly remember not caring if I died.

Of course I didn’t tell the DSA guy that. He was offering me a job for pity’s sake, and the sort of job I’d have given my right arm for back when I was young and enthusiastic. The grunt work I was living off back on Earth bored me stupid. I guess I should have been trying to improve my lot but what would have been the point? I’d only have wasted my time getting a string of rejections.

But apparently the DSA wanted me. Or perhaps I should say they wanted me back. They offered me Chief Engineer on mankind’s first interstellar exploration vessel. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds, more like a glorified plumber, but it’s still a great job. I never did work out why they thought I was the best candidate. To be honest, I didn’t want to ask: if I got them to thinking about it, they might have realised they wanted somebody better qualified. Or less unstable. They did the full set of psych tests on me too, but either they ignored the results or I was having a particularly good day when I took them.

So here I am, in a space suit (full tanks this time!) tethered to half a million tonnes of the highest technology ever developed, trying to fix a fuel regenerator that some idiot put on the outside where only a maniac would try to fix it. Hey, maybe that’s why they wanted me.

I can see where the problem is. It’s a stuck valve. All that technology and it’s a tiny sticking valve that brings it down. I could probably replace it in half an hour if this was the waste recycling plant back on Earth. Well, assuming I could have found a spare; they never kept stock and ordering new meant waiting months. Of course, the DSA knew that ordering from here would be impossible, so we do have stock of vital parts. But we also have a machine shop on board to make bits like this valve. I could expect to get one in perhaps 500 hours. About three weeks Earth time. I’ve called in and had them dig out the spec sheet, but I’m going to try a temporary repair of the old one.

That’s another job that would be easy with some gravity and atmosphere. I could remove the cover panel, main feed line, pressure regulator, bypass valve and line, venturi filter, intercooler, heater feed cables and anything else in the way. I could place them all neatly on a clean tray and expect them to still be there when I was ready to reassemble them. And I could do most of it with three spanners and my fingers. Then I could remove the sticking valve, dismantle it and rinse all the bits under a stream of solvent.

Out here, I’ve got a clear tie-neck bag tied to the grab rail for the smaller bits. They work OK for putting stuff in but everything shuffles round while you’re working and they never come back out in the right order. And when your fat gloves knock the wrong one out you can’t just drop it back in, you have to catch it before it floats away to be lost forever. Without spilling anything else in the process, of course. I learned that in my first month back on Jupiter Station. That’s why I prefer to tie the bigger parts on bits of string. Before unbolting them. I made that mistake a few times back then, and felt an idiot every time. I don’t think that’s what had got me down when I did the “hero” thing but maybe it was part of it. Losing a vital component of a recycling plant just looks stupid, but on a space station it could kill everybody aboard. Even more so on a deep-space ship like this.

So I’ve tied my bits of string to everything in sight and I’ve double-checked them all. The gauges confirm the system’s depressurised and my guys have told me it’s drained. Time to get the spanners out. I’m always a bit hesitant at this point. This is when I find out if I’m about to save the mission or kill us all.

I wasn’t always so cautious, but like I said I got bitten by overconfidence. When that airlock blew out on Jupiter Station I didn’t have to grab a space suit because I was already in one. I’d been repairing a transmitter down that end, and it had taken longer than it should because I’d had to chase down a drifting pre-amp module. My first thought when I saw the debris wasn’t that I needed to fix it. My first thought was that I’d caused it. I hadn’t, as it happens. It really was just a coincidence. But at the time I didn’t know that and I reacted out of guilt.

It’s funny how I’d managed to forget that. Perhaps I’d blocked it out in therapy. Yeah, that’s right, DSA sent me to a shrink after my heroics. They thought I was suffering post-traumatic stress from nearly suffocating. Actually I was trying to figure out whether I deserved to be alive when I’d nearly killed everyone.

One thing the shrink did manage to sort out was making me realise I didn’t belong in space. Much better to hide me away where I can’t do any real damage. That recycling station was the right place for a guy like me.

I didn’t quit the DSA immediately, though. Technically I returned to Earth on sick leave. One of the DSA’s great social care innovations, that. You can be on psychiatric care leave for years, possibly the rest of your life, and never get officially written off. Says something about the working conditions that they have to do that.

Oops, nearly lost my spanner. I guess I should concentrate on the job. The big plumbing all came apart quite easily so I got caught out by the heat exchanger bracket being a pig. Whoever designed it should be made to build matchstick sculptures while hanging upside-down in a straitjacket. Might make him think a bit harder next time.

Right, that’s the last of the obstructions, and the valve fixings are loose. One last check that nothing’s un-tethered. Looks good. OK, here we go.

“How’s it going Sam?” Emma’s timing is impeccable. Good thing she has one of those voices you can never be angry with. I suppose it’s part of the job description, just like her constant cheerfulness. As Maintenance Operations Co-ordinator she has to ask guys to risk their lives in the face of imminent disaster while still keeping up everyone’s morale.

“Not three bad.” I always say that. It’s a stupid old joke but it’s become a tradition. It stops people trying to get a real answer.

“Chef wants to know if you’ll be finished in time for dinner.”

Yeah, right. Likely story. Dinner will be about an hour after my oxygen runs out, and Emma knows it. She’s reminding me that I’m halfway through the tank and I need to get a move on.

“What’s he making?” If we’re talking in code I can obfuscate as well as the next guy. Besides, I’ve got the valve free and in my glove now, a few more seconds and I can give a real answer.

“Caneton aux cerises with honey roast parsnips and roast potatoes, followed by raspberry Pavlova with fresh whipped cream.”

Oh, if only! Still, it makes me smile. That was my suggestion for the perfect dinner, back when Emma was fielding grumbles about the discomfort of space travel, right at the start of the mission. I guess an uncannily good memory is part of her job description too.

“I’m about to start reassembling,” I tell her. It’s almost true: now that I’ve got the valve out I can see what’s jamming it and I reckon I can pull it out. My toolkit includes a pair of fine-nose pliers that I can use even with these gloves on. Whether I can poke something in to press the pintle back at the same time is another matter. It’ll make the extraction a lot easier if I can.

Back on Earth I could try holding the valve in one hand, pushing the pintle with an Allen key in the other, then tipping it up to let the obstruction fall out. Gravity is nice like that. Out here I need to be creative.

There’s a pipe end just by my knee—or at least it was by my knee when I took the valve out—that will do the trick. The valve sits in it moderately securely, as long as I hold it from drifting out. Pressing the pintle in will do that, so I’ll have a free hand for the pliers. Yeah, that looks like a plan.

I don’t know what this thing is that’s stuck in there. Looks metallic, thin but quite stiff, and curly. I’d better not lose it, even if it’s obviously scrap, because it had to come from somewhere and we’ll need to figure out where in case something critical is about to fall apart. So I’ll pop it in the sample pocket on my suit, which is kind of fiddly, especially with trying to close it one-handed without dropping the—

Shit! Whoa, no you don’t! You come back here you ... Gotcha!

Damn. I’ve lost my pliers. And they were a good pair. At least I caught the escaping valve. All that messing with the sample pocket, the poky thing in my other hand slipped off the pintle. Even after all this time in space I never expect stuff to ping away quite so fast. That would have been a real disaster if I’d lost the valve.

It looks clear now. I don’t want to poke round too much in case I let it fly off again. Time to put everything back together. Reassembly is a reversal of the removal procedure, as the books always say. In my experience they’re usually wrong on that point.

Right, valve goes in there ... umm ... that way round. I think. Shit, why didn’t they use different fittings on each end? Or at least mark it clearly. Come to that, why didn’t I take more careful note of how it came out? Idiot!

I’m sure it goes that way round. The wires come out that way and plug in here. It’s got to be that way.

But what if I’m wrong? What would I break if I fit it backwards? I could kill everyone! Shit!

No, come on, calm down. I can check this. If I try to put it in the other way ... yeah, as I thought, there’s no way the wires reach if it’s backwards.

“Everything OK, Sam?” Emma’s obviously noticed the change in my heart rate monitor. Damn.

“Yeah, fine. Small crisis but it’s all sorted now.” I hope.

Take a deep breath—just one, mind—hold it—relax—breathe out. Now get back to work and put it all back together.

That’s another thing that was different on Earth. If I got in a panic I could down tools and have a tea break. Or just sit there frozen to the spot. That was much more likely, truth be told. But out here you don’t have the luxury—indecision costs lives, if only because you run out of air just as quickly when you’re hesitating as when you’re working. See, I said I didn’t belong out here.

The suit’s telling me my time’s almost up now. The low oxygen ping means there’s half an hour left, but that’s only to the safe limit. Most people breathe quite happily some way past that. In fact they probably wouldn’t even notice anything had changed for another twenty minutes. I was a full forty minutes past the limit in my moment of glory at Jupiter Station, and an hour past before I got rescued.

I’ve still got a mass of bits to refit and I couldn’t tell you what order they go in, but my hands are working on autopilot now and it’s all going together piece by piece. Bit of luck, I should be finished well within that half hour’s grace. Not that it would really matter if I wasn’t. Sure I’m supposedly the chief engineer, but it’s not like there aren’t half a dozen guys could take my place and do a better job. Ship would go on fine without me. They might even be better off. One less worthless mouth to feed with the limited rations. No, I’d decided that wasn’t right, hadn’t I? Should be one less “burned-out” mouth. Or something. Pah! Can’t even bemoan my uselessness with any skill.

Maybe I’ll just let myself drift away and do them a favour. I’ll finish putting this panel back on first: wouldn’t be much of a favour if I force somebody to come out here and finish my job, would it? Only right to put your affairs in order before departing, after all.

There, everything’s back together. I can pack up my tools and ... well, I guess I should return them for the next guy to use. Or at least tie them up safely.

“Hey Sam, it’s Mikhail.” As if I wouldn’t know his accent anywhere. Sickeningly smart guy; knows the ship’s systems backwards. “Are we ready for leak test?”

“Yeah, I’m done, go for it.” Wouldn’t mind seeing if my work was any good before I leave. Still a couple of minutes of air left.

The test looks good, no sign of trouble, and Mikhail’s doing a flow test too. I don’t mind, I can just as easily wait here until I run out of air.

“Looks like you’ve fixed it,” Emma chimes in. “What was the problem?”

So I tell her about the bit of metal, and I remember they’re going to need to identify it. Actually I kind of want to know what it is. Perhaps I will head back in and soldier on. Who knows, I may even feel better in the morning. END

Rob Pearce was inspired to write this by a friend’s efforts to raise money for mental health charities. He has worked in ultra-high vacuum science (albeit indirectly), where the problems are the other way round—keeping the vacuum in and the air out.




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