Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Clean Limbs of Robots
by Francis Marion Soty

Garbage Miners
by Sean McLachlan

All Comms Down
by Anne E. Johnson

Do Stand-Up Bots Dream of Electric Hecklers?
by James Aquilone

by Timothy J. Gawne

Human Faces
by Karl Dandenell

Charybdis Run
by Nathan Ehret

by Jennifer Campbell-Hicks

Halieis Anthropon
by A.L. Sirois

by Richard Zwicker

You Need to Know
by Michaele Jordan


Animated Pictures
by J. Miller Barr

by Eric M. Jones




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Clean Limbs of Robots

By Francis Marion Soty

Originally published as “The Clean Limbs of Robots” in the Spring, 1991, issue of “StarShore” magazine, this story barely survived. According to the author, it was badly edited, with some paragraphs missing. Only about 300 copies were printed. Then the magazine folded. The author has since revised and updated it. We are pleased to present it anew. —Ed.

WITH JARRING SUDDENNESS a hand clasped his shoulder, vigorously shaking him.

“Hardy! Hardy, come out of it, man. Go to inactive mode.”

He came swimming back toward his soft body as though rising from the dark and pressurized depths of the sea, without the comforting stops at decompression stages. To help himself break away, Hardy Dighton closed his eyes, reluctantly hiding the shining beauty. In the dark and quiet, he forced his hands to stillness, then slowly straightened fingers and thumbs. He had not been holding a tool; a good time to withdraw.

Moving very slowly, Hardy pulled his forearms and hands out of the sensegloves. He could not resist opening his eyes, briefly, for a last glimpse of clean, hard brightness ... then pulled back the neck flap, flipped the helmet release, and raised it over his head, to float above the Number 2 Robotic Operator station. The transition back inside, after twelve hours as an assembler operator, still felt too abrupt. The subdued lighting inside the Control Center seemed weak, insufficient ... After a moment, suddenly self-conscious and feeling very awkward and clumsy, he quickly unzipped his pants and removed the relief tube, then slipped his feet out of the motion and attitude joypedals.

Hardy stretched arms and legs several times before releasing the body straps and floating free. He had been fine while on-station. Now, back in his soft body—which was badly out of shape because he had been exempted from the required exercises for several months—he felt tired, and stiff in every joint.

Soft body? Have to watch that. Hardy added it to the list of items he must remember not to speak aloud. He managed to smile as he turned to face his relief. “Hi, Max. Joyce and I made good progress on Section 7.” A quick glance at Station 1, in sight around the sharp curve of the free-floating Control Center, revealed that his co-worker had left without waiting for him. The two remaining first shift operators, their stations hidden from sight on the opposite side of the mass of Center, were just entering Tunnel 1, now overhead. “There’s a fair supply of main struts available, for a change, and the first shipment of the rim ring is due in today. With luck, you can make milestone nine on this shift.”

“Devoutly to be wished,” said Max Weinrob as he pulled his lean, hard body onto the rigid seat and strapped in. He looked younger than his fifty-two years, but dark spots showed under both eyes. “I’m tired of these twelve-hour days. And Julia—man, she’s about ready to go ground-side without me! And she wouldn’t be back, and there goes my marriage.”

The words brought the face of his own wife into Hardy’s mind. He realized he hadn’t thought of Pert once since donning the helmet; a major benefit of this push to get the first 500-meter orbiting radio dish finished. It also brought the blessing of less time spent with Pert in their small, cramped compartment.

Max had seen his expression change. He served as lead assembler on Space Station Unity, making him Hardy’s first-line supervisor. “Are you and Pert having problems?” His voice held real concern. “All the crew thinks you’ve been acting a little distant lately.”

“They do?” That news worried Hardy for a moment, but then he saw an easy answer. “Yeah, we’re not getting along that well. I think maybe coming up here was a mistake for Pert. And since her main complaint groundside was that I spent too much time up here ...” he shrugged.

“Yeah, well, some wives adapt to working up here, and some don’t. I hope it turns out okay for you two.”

Max turned around, pulled the helmet down over his head, and locked it in place. Hardy knew that this short conversation would appear in his supervisor’s weekly report, and his emotional stability was going to be called into question again. Have to watch that.

Hardy gripped the edge of a rack, squatted, and waited until the slowly revolving dumbbell shape of Unity brought Tunnel 2 almost overhead. He pushed off, using the forceful leg-thrust of the experienced microgravity worker. Behind him, he heard a slight change in the soft whine of a momentum wheel. One was compensating for his push, edging the floating Control Center back into its precise position in relation to the outer walls of the hub.

Hardy rose through eight meters of open space and into the well-lighted cylindrical tunnel. The access rungs that spread across a third of the rear wall came sweeping toward him with relentless inevitability. He fumbled as he grasped for one, but managed to catch on with his other hand and soften the impact when the wall reached him. He rested for a moment, then went up the rungs head-first until the forward pull on his body grew noticeably heavy. Swinging around, Hardy closed his eyes a few seconds for the new orientation, then descended.

A sharp twinge of hunger bit at Hardy’s stomach as his feet touched the floor of the long, curving central corridor that ran the length of Habitat Module 2. He realized that he had forgotten to eat his second food-bar while on-station. Hating the feel of seventy percent g, after twelve hours of freedom, he turned toward the commons instead of the private compartments, hoping no one would be there at this mid-shift period. He did not get his wish. Marilyn Seminofsky, Pert’s best friend on Unity, sat alone in the wardroom, having a cup of tea.

“Hi, Hardy. Have a good shift?” Marilyn asked, with a smile as obviously artificial as her bright blonde hair. Her thin, nasal voice made anything she said sound like a complaining whine. Although only six years older than Hardy’s forty-two, she had already had a face-lift. The taut, olive-colored cheeks did not go well with the golden hair above, or the loose, slightly wrinkled skin of the neck below.

“Yeah, okay.” Hardy could not force himself to be more than barely civil to her. Anything said to Marilyn went directly to Pert. “Need something to eat; starving.”

Hardy selected a dinner, placed the containers in the microwave, and sat at a different table to wait; a breach of unwritten wardroom etiquette. He heard Marilyn give a loud sniff! of anger, but did not look up. She finished her tea quickly, and left.

Sitting in gravity and eating, Hardy felt fatigue creep over him, starting at his feet and rising up along his aching calves. He seemed to be slowly sinking in a deep pool of weariness. When it reached his mouth and nose, he would drown.

The food was good, as always, but Hardy could not eat all of it. His appetite disappeared as suddenly as the hunger had arrived. He tossed the remainder in the disposal, and placed plate and utensils in the cleaner.

Hardy followed his usual routine of a visit to the communal toilet, including brushing his teeth at the adjacent lavatory. He did not shower. Back at their three by four meter compartment, Hardy used his cardkey and eased the door open. Pretty Princess “Pert” should be asleep at this time, and he very much wanted to avoid waking her. The room was unpleasantly warm, the way she liked it. A desk lamp, turned to shine against the floor at the rear, provided a night light. With the quietness born of long practice, Hardy undressed and changed into loose, comfortable pajamas. Then he easily climbed the rear wall rungs and swung into the left-hand bunk.

The thin, narrow beds were barely eighty centimeters below the high ceiling, leaving the entire floor area clear for other furniture. Hardy turned on his bunk light and picked up the current book. No matter how tired he felt, Hardy liked to read for a few minutes before falling asleep. Ready to pull down the thin but almost soundproof flexcover from its ceiling receptacle, he glanced across at Pert, barely a meter away. She hated the flexcover, complaining that it made her feel as if she were sleeping in a coffin, and always left it up.

Pert had gotten too warm in her sleep, as was often the case, and kicked off the light bed cover. She wore only the bottom half of her pajamas, which she had cut off just below the buttocks. A natural auburn-hair, she had been pretty as a young woman. At forty, a love of good food and a dislike for exercise had led to a well-rounded belly, large, sagging breasts, and bulges on her hips and thighs. On the rare occasions when her job as a computer repair tech brought her to the Control Center, a miraculous change occurred. Microgravity was kind to the overweight. It lifted breasts, rounded sagging cheeks, and smoothed out bulging waistlines. But Pert hated the feeling of weightlessness, and spent as little time in the Hub as possible.

Pert lay on her side at the moment, facing Hardy. Her ample stomach sagged on the firm mattress, seeming to flow toward him like a white wave of flesh, as did one large, blue-veined breast. The other one lay partially flattened across its mate. The muscles of the bottom thigh seemed to yield like jelly, molding to the flat bed. She had one arm over her eyes, to shield them from the light. The skin and loose flesh of biceps and triceps drooped like thick pink curtains over forehead and cheek.

Pert breathed in gentle sighs, with a noticeable pause after each exhalation, as though she did not intend to inhale again. Looking at his wife of eight years, Hardy thought this surely must be the most ugly and disgusting creature he had ever seen. Memories of some of the times they had been physically intimate, all now a year and more past, suddenly swarmed through his mind as though attacking him. His stomach grew queasy. Turning away, Hardy lowered the flexcover and tried to lose himself in the book. He did not succeed, but sleep came in minutes anyway.

Pert was gone when Hardy awoke. She had the day off. Only the operator teams and their support personnel had to work through what was normally a day of rest. They were two weeks behind schedule on the assembly of the big radio dish, and groundside was pushing hard for the crew of Unity to complete it.

Hardy did not feel like eating breakfast, and skipped the meal. Joyce Dobbins had already relieved Angie Andreson and was strapping in when he arrived at Center. His partner, a small, brown-haired, middle-aged woman, had gone through three marriages and now chose to remain single, and apparently celibate. Joyce shared a compartment with another single female, an older, crusty maintenance engineer. The partners did not talk that much when not on station, but Hardy had gotten the impression that Joyce, too, preferred the hours spent in her hard body to those in the soft.

Hardy felt a noticeable easing of tensions as he relieved Max, and slipped into the sensegloves and helmet. He closed his eyes to avoid disorientation, and opened them to a view of the giant radio dish they were assembling, floating alongside Unity a kilometer away.

Hardy felt at ease again. The beauty ... always, the sharply defined, clear and shining beauty ... bringing with it peace, and calm, and a serenity of spirit he did not want to remember could only be temporary.

Hardy saw that Max and his partner had not quite finished installing the eight ring-attachment assemblies. Two were left, with eight curved-segments of the outer ring parked nearby. It would be he and Joyce who would reach another major milestone today, finishing the assembly of the first segment of the outer ring.

Joyce came into sight from his left. He gazed for a few seconds at the hard, clean, lines of her body ... so different from the soft and sagging flesh of Pert. The bright sunlight outlined a hexagon three meters high and two wide, with a rectangular box on top that housed the three telescopic lenses. Any sharp swing of the operator’s eyes to right or left in the helmet automatically switched lenses in the assembler. Two powerful four-segment working arms, with a reach of over three meters, extended from side panels near the front. Most heavy work required first locking to some fixed member, by a powerful electromagnet on the bottom end, or extensible clamps on the back side if the metal was nonferrous.

Hardy and Joyce had worked together for five months on what were essentially repetitive tasks, requiring a minimum of oral communication. She went after one of the two remaining attachment assemblies, while he clamped to the outermost strut. Joyce was back in minutes, thrusters flaring, as she nudged the assembly within his reach. He caught it deftly and moved it clean limbsinto position, holding it firmly in place as she activated the first locking device. Then he could release from anchored mode and join her in the careful dance of movement, lock activation, check, and movement again, as they buttoned up another major component.

Behind the two busy assemblers a shining web of aluminum alloys stretched for 240 meters, curving back and down to the almost completed centerpiece. In the distance Hardy could see the opposite, balancing Segment 11, rising gracefully out and up toward the rim. The sunlight reflected brightly off the bodies of the two assemblers working there.

Beyond Segment 11 loomed the white and shining form of Unity, two cylindrical, curved modules, each thirty meters in length, attached by long metal tunnels to a central spherical core. The space station slowly revolved its way around the Earth, providing gradually increasing artificial gravity from the zero-g core outward, until it reached seventy percent in the two habitat modules

The realization that his soft body was actually inside that round core, that he was not in reality floating here in space, occurred to Hardy. He dismissed the thought immediately, hating to be reminded. Instead, he noted with pleasure that they would probably have their first ring assembly in place an hour ahead of their friendly competitors working on Segment 11.

Hardy settled in for a long day of enjoying the only real pleasure and beauty he had been lucky enough to find in his forty-two frustrated years of life.


“It’s over, I tell you!” Pert Dighton had grown tired of the endless suggestions on how to save her marriage. “I want out of here when my contract ends next month! Anyway, our marital problems aren’t what I came to talk about. I want you to do something to help Hardy. He’s slipping away from us, a little more each day. If you don’t pull him off working the assemblers, he’s going to have some kind of breakdown.”

“You’ve said that before, Pert.” Shauna McGarvey kept her voice gentle and expression grave, her standard professional demeanor. Heavier than Pert, she had graying hair and a face starting to show extensive wrinkle lines. At fifty-six she was the oldest person on Unity, a highly experienced paramedic who could do most of the work of an M.D. But psychological problems were not really within her areas of expertise.

“I’ve been keeping an eye on Hardy since your first report,” Shauna went on. “I also looked up his last psych scores, and asked a groundside psychiatrist for an evaluation, including forward projections on any deviations. Hardy shows a very strong devotion to his work, but that’s pretty normal up here. Engineers and others on the old Apollo Program worked so many hours a lot of wives couldn’t take it, and Cape Canaveral became the divorce capital of the U.S. When personal computers first became widespread, the real hackers would sometimes stay at their machines until they fell asleep from exhaustion. I don’t see why you’re so worried about Hardy.”

“It’s more than love for his work,” said Pert. “He’s become totally obsessed with assembler operations. He’d rather be out there than with living people, most of all me. I think he’s starting to identify so strongly with that—that machine—that he thinks he is one! And that isn’t all. He actually likes the vacuum, the—the extra brightness of the sunlight, the sharpness of everything. He’s told me that. What he really wants is to become a robot!”

Shauna leaned back in the swivel chair behind her cluttered lightweight desk. “You still care about him, don’t you.”

Pert’s face visibly stiffened. “Of course I do! He’s a fine person, he’s—he was—a loving and considerate man. This is the third marriage for both of us, and we were hoping—” she shrugged. “Too late now. I just want him to get the help he needs.”

“I’ll talk to groundside again,” Shauna promised, as Pert rose to leave.


He moved up to pass over the gleaming white of a long outer-ring segment, floating forty meters away from the main assembly, then down into the deep blackness of its shadow. He did not feel the sudden cold, as he had not felt the heat of unobstructed sunlight. He reached down to press a switch on his chest. Two shafts of light leaped forward, illuminating the grips on the temporary handling straps. He seized them, locked his body firmly in the predetermined attitude, and put his thrusters on full to start his massive body in motion.

Hardy did not need the ever-present assembly computer, with its watchful radar eyes, to tell him when his load reached four centimeters a second. He stopped the thrusters a tenth of a second before the voice spoke in his ears, a game he loved to play—and usually won. And already he knew that the balance was not quite perfect, that the left side was going to swing slightly forward, and he would need to move to the right and grip the strap there for a few seconds of corrective thrust. He knew, and moved into position, and waited for the slow computer to catch up with him and issue the necessary instructions.

In his soft body Hardy ate a food-bar and drank water without realizing that he had done so. The fact that he occasionally urinated into the relief tube did not reach conscious awareness. He did not feel the pressure of that slightly uncomfortable device, the movement of his hands and arms in the sensegloves, the way his feet moved on the joypedals. He saw the stark contrast of burning bright and intense dark, sensed the joints of his powerful arms pulling in and pushing out, felt the roughened surfaces of the four metal fingers on each hand, tightly gripping ... fully alive, vibrant with health and strength, he experienced the sensations, joyed in the work ... this should never end.


Hardy had difficulty keeping the relief off his face when Pert told him she wanted a divorce. He did not understand the troubled way she kept looking at him as they discussed the fairly simple financial agreement. He readily agreed to let her take sole possession of their groundside co-opt apartment for one-half of what they had invested in it, disregarding any increase in value. Each kept their personal possessions, and she would make arrangements to store his until Hardy’s return. He had already signed up for another three-month stint, the fourth and final one before a groundside stay became mandatory.

“Hardy, I know this won’t do any good, but—I have to say it. You should back out of that next tour while you’re still in the grace period. If you stay up here another three months, I don’t think you’ll ever get away. Your body may come back to Earth, but your spirit will stay up here with—with the other robots. You’re going to have some kind of mental breakdown.”

Hardy stared at her in exasperated amusement. They were alone in their compartment, and could speak freely. “What utter nonsense, Pert. I enjoy my work, sure—but so does almost everyone up here. You’ve never understood that. You don’t feel the way the rest of us do, which is why you never really fitted in. Go groundside, Pert. Find yourself someone who likes to barbecue ribs outdoors on Sunday, and have a good life. Don’t worry about me.”

“I knew it was a waste of time,” Pert said, weariness and frustration in her voice. “But I had to try.”

Pert went away, and Hardy returned to work.

Time passed quickly and pleasantly, and the huge structure they were assembling grew steadily larger.

Some unnoticed number of days after Pert left for Earth, Joyce arrived a little late for their shift. Hardy, already on-station, had to wait a moment before her assembler moved to join him. The sunlight happened to be directly over his shoulder, and on her. He watched as she went through the mandatory initial checkout routine, arms and hands moving in purposeful motions, attitude thrusters sparkling with brief bursts of fire. He became aware, with stark clarity, of the way her arms were exactly the same from end to end ... clean, round, nothing sagging ... the hexagon body, burnished by sunlight to a shining hardness, so beautiful ... Hardy felt a stirring in his loins, a rise of desire such as he had not experienced in many months ... suddenly became aware of his soft body and the urination tube, which had become uncomfortably tight. In embarrassment he closed his eyes for a moment, hid Joyce, and waited for the unruly emotions to subside.

Now he had another reaction he must never mention to Shauna McGarvey—or Max, or anyone else for that matter.

Staying away from his shipmates wasn’t difficult. They readily accepted his reticence, his quiet resistance to being drawn into any form of social activity. The hours stayed long, which kept Hardy both isolated and happy. His supervisors generally acknowledged that he was the best assembler operator of the eight on Unity, and his willingness to work the assigned hours without complaint received praise from higher management.

Hardy felt almost stunned one day when he returned to his quarters—roomy enough, with Pert gone—to see a message on his comscreen. It said to report to Admin for his travel orders; he was going groundside tomorrow. Under the formal notice, Unity commander Rolf Hager had added, “Good job!”

He thought of going to Max Weinrob, and realized that would do no good. The company rigidly enforced the “year maximum” rule. He lay in his bunk, not reading, trying to think of some way to evade the order; but fell asleep without a solution. When he awoke with the problem still on his mind, Hardy decided that he simply could not deal with it at the moment. Besides, he barely had time for breakfast before reporting for his shift.

“Congratulations, Hardy,” Max said when his face emerged from the helmet. “You’re going home with a distinguished service medal. Your output has been the best of anyone for the past year.”

“Do you know what I’ll be doing groundside for the three months before I can come back up?” Hardy asked.

A reserved look slipped across the supervisor’s face. “Ah ... about that, Hardy, I can’t give you a specific return date. Your, ah, psych profile shows a lot of unrelieved stress. The divorce from Pert, and all ... I think medical is going to insist you stay groundside for a year. Sort of get your mental orientation reset to Earth.”

“A year? But—”

“Now the decision is firm, Hardy, so don’t bother filing a grievance. It’s for your own good. You should understand that.”

“I don’t understand any such—!” Hardy stopped when he saw the look on his supervisor’s face. After a long pause, he finally shrugged, and said, “Well, the hell with it then. Let me enjoy my last shift.”

Max looked relieved. He watched Hardy don the helmet, then squeezed his shoulder and left.


Hardy and Joyce were well into their shift when they reached a sequence that required the two assemblers to work side-by-side, free floating, buttoning up an unusually intricate instrument support structure they had just put together. As they neared the last clamps, Hardy sneaked a look at Joyce from his left side view. Her long round arms moved with seemingly slow precision, the strong hands pulling down and securing locking devices. He felt a surge of admiration for the shining beauty of her body, the familiar stirring in his groin ... he was to lose this, give up all that made life worthwhile?

Very suddenly, Hardy could not bear it. He stopped working and turned to Joyce. She became aware of his stillness, and asked, “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing. I just ... this is my last shift, and I wanted to tell you ... that I love you.”

The busy mechanical motions stopped. Hardy felt it when her gaze shifted from ahead to her right, focusing on him. He waited, looking back at her. And then understanding came, and Joyce said, “You mean ... you love me ... like this! As you see me now. Right?”

“I love you because you are so beautiful,” Hardy said simply, and moved to take her in his arms.

“Hardy! Go back, you’re going to tangle ...” and then it was too late. Joyce tried desperately to get away from the long reaching arms, small thrusters sparkling as she changed body attitude. She raised one hand to repel Hardy, and it hit solidly against the raised camera mount. The hexagonal body went into a backward spin, and Hardy lost orientation.

“What’s going on out there!” came the voice of Control over the assembly net. The duty officer had obviously not been listening, but the net automatically recorded everything said. Hardy knew this sudden avowal of his true feelings was going to cause him serious trouble later.

“Hardy! Hit your autostabilizer!” Joyce cried, fear in her voice. Losing orientation was a dangerous problem for an assembler operator.

Hardy closed his eyes and deliberately waited a moment, then reached for the autostabilizer button. It took a few seconds for the hand at the end of the long right arm to reach his chest. The thrusters fired, paused, and fired again. Hardy could feel that he was now motionless, and opened his eyes. He had moved well past the outer edge of the finished rim, ending up facing toward the Earth. Six-hundred kilometers below the great blue bowl of the Pacific Ocean seemed to be wheeling slowly by, while he hung motionless in space. Small, scattered white clouds dotted an otherwise clear sky. But a murkiness dimmed the view, a noticeable haze in the thicker air. Far to his left, a small green island that should have stood out sharply in the bright sunlight instead faded to an amorphous mass.

Without conscious thought, with no decision made, Hardy turned his body until he faced back along his orbit. He aligned himself with the direction of travel, then moved a selector switch on his chest control panel to Emergency Actions. Instantly an alarm sounded. He heard, “Hardy, what’s wrong?” from Joyce, and, “Hardy, you okay?” from Control. And then he flipped the activate switch and pressed the red firing button for his large emergency thruster, without pausing between actions. A stream of fire shot from the centrally placed nozzle on the bottom of his body, and he began moving rapidly away from the radio dish and Unity.

Hardy could not turn off the voices screaming in his ears, but he willed himself to ignore them. At full power he swiftly decelerated, the pull of gravity drawing him into an elliptical orbit whose perigee would be well inside the atmosphere. After less than two minutes the Low on Propellants warning sounded. A few seconds later the thruster suddenly cut off, but it no longer mattered. The change in delta-v would carry him back to Earth.

Hardy extended his long, powerful arms in front and straightened them, like a diver preparing to enter the water. The ocean had grown visibly closer, and more ugly; everything indistinct, wavering and unclear, the little green island now well behind him. Sad, that he had to die in such ugliness. Hardy closed his eyes ...


“I have the power off on his console,” said Control as she and Biganew, the Unity systems engineer who doubled as Security Officer, reached Hardy. “But it’s too late to save that assembler. Thirty million dollars ...”

Hardy remained completely passive as they unlatched his helmet and raised it, then eased his hands out of the sensegloves. He did not react even when they removed his relief tube. Shauna McGarvey arrived as they were putting on the restraints. She took one look at Hardy, whose eyes were tightly closed, and said, “Treat him gently. He’s not really with us now.”


Hardy felt the first touches of air, gentle caresses that would soon turn to an inferno of heat and fury. He kept his eyes tightly shut, not wanting to see the diluted sunlight and misty ugliness of the atmosphere. It would be over shortly, when he heated up enough to start disintegrating. He did not want to know when his eyes failed, or an arm burned away; better here in the darkness ... If he could not have clean, sharp brightness, then let him have utter night ... END

Francis Marion Soty specializes in science fiction stories of a satiric or tragic nature. His recent writings have appeared in “Analog Science Fiction,” “The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction,” and the short-lived “Starshore” magazine.


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