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



Charybdis Run

By Nathan Ehret

SOMETIMES, AS A BOY, I’D IMAGINE the sky as nothing but a black cardboard box with lots of holes poked in it to let the light in. That, I could handle; I’d just pretend I was sitting inside it and I could reach out and touch the walls if I wanted. Other times, the box seemed inverted, and I could reach out and touch the stars, but behind them the black walls went on forever and ever and ever. The Charybdis Black Hole is much like that.

It is a divot in space where someone has forgotten to fill in the stars. And we’d come to reach a hand into the nothingness and see what was on the other side. Twenty-five hundred light years from Earth—six months of travel in a sublight cruiser. Hell of a long ways from home. Which is what made it all the stranger when the external com crackled to life.

I disregarded it at first; passed it off as nerves about the probe launch. Then more noise, louder this time. I frowned. No other ships had been commissioned to this sector for the next fortnight. For that matter, there were no other vessels in the fleet equipped with gravitic dampeners strong enough to survive Charybdis’ pull.

SRV Schwarzschild. Please respond. SRV Schwarzschild, do you read me?” the incoming voice said. It was somehow familiar.

“This is Captain Julius Faraday of the Schwarzschild. I read you,” I said. The com was calibrated to receive off-ship transmissions only, so I knew it couldn’t be one of the crew. I requested identification.

“This is Lieutenant Kate Ogawa, Captain. You’ve got to listen to me—”

“Ogawa? What the hell are you playing at?” I said. A little callous, maybe, but I’d long ago realized that being stationed at the edge of a black hole has a way of eroding pleasantries. “How in God’s name did you hack your way onto the external transmission?”

“—don’t have much time, Captain. I’ve extended my com by syncing it to Alice’s range, but the signal’s getting weak ... Wanted to say that we fixed Alice. Just some meteoric damage; the readings should come along fine now. Don’t blame yourself for what happened. It was my own choice.”

“What the hell has happened? Alice hasn’t even been launched yet.” I realized I was yelling through the com as though that would really make an iota of difference.

“There’s something here that I didn’t expect. I can’t begin to describe it, but ... Just tell Michael not to worry, will you? I’m all right. We’re both all right.”

“Who’s all right?” said a voice from behind me. It was Kate Ogawa, this time in person. I turned around just as she was pulling her way up the last few rungs of the ladder to the Schwarzschild’s small bridge. I blinked a few times and glanced back at the screen. The signal was dead.

“Did you ... how did you tap into the external com?” I said.

She gave me a quizzical look. “I didn’t, Captain. What do you mean?”

“Nothing,” I said. It couldn’t have been her. I lowered an eyebrow in consternation. “You ... just someone’s crass idea of a prank.”

She shrugged her petite shoulders and walked to the viewport above the com module. The largest window on the ship, it was slightly convex, and scuffed with the scribbles of white felt markers. Charms of a sort, for people who believe in those sorts of things. One marking for every celestial body the Schwarzschild had researched. I would just as well have it left clean.

Brushing a few strands of obsidian hair from her eyes, Kate pulled a marker from her pocket and drew a big white circle around the edge of Charybdis.

“Is the rest of the crew prepped?” I asked, as Kate slipped the marker back into her pocket.

“Aye, aye, Cap’n,” she said, giving me a mock salute. I didn’t suffer fools easily, but I’d run at least a half dozen missions with Kate, so I let her irreverence slide.

“Michael’s in engineering, monitoring Alice’s vitals,” she continued. “Viviane’s already suited up, and Diana’s doing what she does best.”

I fixed her with a stern look.

“That is, she’s off shift, sleeping in her bunk,” Kate corrected herself.

“Very good,” I said, trying to keep my thoughts from wandering. Whoever had sent that transmission, it must simply have been a prank. It must have been. “Let’s have at Charybdis, then, and see what’s on the other side.”


“Confirm Alice’s status,” I said. Looking out the window, I could see Kate and Viviane floating off to the right near the engineering port. They were making some final adjustments to the probe. The gentle awkwardness of their movements lent them an infantile air.

“Alice is ready to jump on your mark, Captain,” said Viviane through the com. She waved one hand in my direction. Her voice was muffled by static, but I could sense her excitement.

In the centre of the bridge’s field of view was the black hole itself. Though it was a few hundred clicks from our position, the Schwarzschild would have long since been pulled in if not for our gravitic dampening fields. No human had ever explored the inner workings of a black hole before, and I wanted to make sure that none of us were martyred in the act.

“Confirmed,” I said. “Deploy in three, two, one ...”

I saw a quick flash of silver as the probe jettisoned past the window. The probe itself, Alice, was nothing but a small sphere of sensors on the tip of a meter-long shaft, whose base was fletched with solar panels like the feathers of an arrow. She was tethered to the Schwarzschild with a length of mass-less dendritic cable, in order to transmit readings back to the ship.

“She’s a go, Captain. Alice has gone down the rabbit hole,” Viviane said. Kate broke her silence with an ecstatic ululation.

“Let’s see how far down she goes,” I said. I looked at the screen to my right, showing Alice’s data. A more extensive report of the readings was being monitored by Michael in engineering, but this was enough for my purposes. Tensile force on the cable was negligible and the Schwarzschild’s gravitic dampeners weren’t even at half capacity yet. Things were going as well as any of us had a right to hope for.

Which is, perhaps, why it did not last long.

Alice’s feed soon began to flicker.

“I’m getting some faulty readings from Alice, Captain,” Michael chimed in over the ship com. “Probably the result of gravity fluctuations. Keep an eye on the cable so that it’s not pulled out all at once.”

“Affirmative, Freeman. I’ll see what’s going on,” I said. Switching to the external com, I alerted Viviane and Kate to the readings.

Starting nearest the Schwarzschild, where there were still some slack coils of cable, Viviane and Kate began pulling themselves along it, checking it for integrity.

“Have you found any tears?” I asked them after a few minutes.

“Negative, Captain,” Viviane said. “But there’s something wrong with my com. I think—” She gasped as the cable suddenly pulled taut—probably from one of the gravity fluctuations Michael had mentioned. One of its coils cinched around Viviane’s ankle, pulling her along with it as it reeled towards Charybdis.

“Viviane! See if you can pull on one end of the knot. Try and loosen it,” I said, helplessly. At the rate the cable was being drawn out, she had less than a minute before she’d pass the horizon.

There was no response. I reiterated my order. Still nothing. Her com must have gone dead. I checked Alice’s readings again; it had passed the threshold.

“I think she’s gone over the horizon,” I said.

“Maybe not yet.” Kate’s voice came across small and tentative. She angled herself along Alice’s trajectory and started following the tether into the vacuous blackness. “I think I can still get to her in time.”

“Belay that. Return to the ship at once. Lieutenant Shears has passed beyond our ability to help.”

There was a silence, and then Kate said, “I’m sorry, Captain. I think my com’s going FUBAR. I can’t hear you.”

Like hell it was.

By now the probe was eighty-seven kilometers from the Schwarzschild. Despite its small size, it was still conspicuous against the shape of Charybdis. It had passed the event horizon, so no matter how far away it got, it would always remain visible to us. It would always seem just within reach. One of the many perversities of the universe.

“Lieutenant Ogawa, you’re drifting too close to the horizon! If you cross it, we won’t have enough power to reel you back in. I don’t want to lose another crew member,” I said. Even the most junior of spacers knew that you didn’t play games with a black hole.

A few moments of silence and then, “I’ve reached her, sir. She’s all right!” Kate’s voice crackled through the quiet like an electric charge. “Her leg is still tangled in the tether, and it looks like something’s wrong with her com ... I’ll try to—”

More silence.

I stared at the screen, frozen with impotent rage. My hands curled into fists and I tried to steady my breathing. I could still see both of them out there with Alice. Three defiant pinpoints of light, so visible against the inky swell around them. I could see them, but they weren’t really there.

I thought back to the off-putting transmission I’d received from Kate just moments before launch. I’d brushed it aside as pre-flight hijinks. Or a lucid daydream—too much stress, too little sleep. But now? No. I shook my head and suppressed a shudder.

At that moment, I heard someone climbing up to the bridge from the aft ladder. It was Michael, and he was humming as he struggled up the last couple rungs.

“Alice is back in shape now, Captain. Seems like our guys fixed her good,” he said with a quick smile.

I’d always been slightly repelled by those people who laugh in absurd and inappropriate situations. Chalked it up to malicious or cruel intent. But it’s neither of those things, really. Sometimes ... what else is there to do? I laughed then, to my infinite shame.

Michael must have seen the pained look on my face, heard the sadness behind the laugh. His expression darkened. “What is it, Captain? How are Kate and Viv?”

It took me a minute or two to articulate, and a few more for Michael to register the gravity of the situation. He had a strong will, I’ll grant him that. Or at least he put on a convincing façade.

“Prep my suit, Captain. I’m making an EVA,” he said. His face was cold and expressionless as a dead man’s.

I tried to soften my voice, but it had little effect. “Negative. They’re beyond anyone’s help now, Freeman. We both know that Alice’s tether is calibrated to withstand only her mass. The Schwarzschild doesn’t have enough power to counteract the black hole and pull them back out.”

“You’ve always been cold, Captain,” Michael said, his voice thinly controlled. “But I didn’t think you were a bastard. My wife’s out there! And Viviane! You can still see them, for God’s sake!” He jabbed a finger in the centre of the circle Kate had drawn on the window.

I shook my head. “You know that means nothing. They crossed the horizon ten minutes ago. Viviane’s loss was unfortunate enough, but Kate ... should have followed orders.”

Michael took a step toward me. “That doesn’t—”

“We still have the survival of the three remaining crew to consider, not to mention the success of the mission.”

“Screw the mission. Screw you!” He took another step. “What good is anything if we just let them die?”

“You knew the risks inherent to this mission, Lieutenant. So did Ogawa and Shears,” I said. “There is nothing you can do. We still need you functioning here. You will return to engineering and continue your duties until relieved.”

Michael’s nostrils flared and I could tell he was trying to furnish a viable retaliation. Nothing forthcoming, he climbed back down the ladder without another word.

Everything I’d told Michael had been utterly sensible, logical; perhaps that’s why I felt so contemptible.


A half hour later, Diana woke up from her sleeping shift and climbed to the bridge. Other than putting a mandatory human face on our sponsor, Janus Industries, Diana Karloff had no real function aboard the Schwarzschild. I suspected that she felt this stigma more keenly than her stiff bearing let across. I sometimes even felt pity for her ... but other times? Diana was Diana.

She remained as expressionless as Michael when I briefed her on the situation, but in a different way. Whereas his had been the stoic rancor of a man in irons, hers was nothing but calculated acceptance.

“You did the best you could, Captain. On behalf of Janus, we mourn the loss of—”

“It’s just you and I, Karloff. Spare me the corporate grieving.”

“Very well,” she said, drawing herself up and folding her hands behind her back. With her tight black ponytail and aquiline demeanor, it was hard not to be a little intimidated. “Can I assume the probe is still functioning properly?”


She sighed. “At least this mission’s not a total loss, then. How long do we have?”

“I’d ballpark another hour of readings. We’ve got two hundred clicks of cable left, before the tension reaches the point where we have to retract it.”

Without Kate and Viviane, I silently added. Neither the cable nor the Schwarzschild were powerful enough to reel Alice back in with additional masses attached.

“Very good, Captain. Again, Janus Industries appreciates your stoicism and rationale in this tragedy. It ...” She paused and placed an unsteady hand on my shoulder, as though unsure of how to proceed. “... it must be hard for you.”

“Not as hard for me as for Michael.”

“Michael. Lieutenant Freeman. He’ll be all right?”

“I doubt it. But he’ll survive.”

“I don’t—I’ve got to start up a report on this. Excuse me, Captain.”


After Karloff left the bridge, I stared silently at the screens for a while. Alice was still sending back data, but her feed was becoming increasingly sporadic. It felt almost sacrilegious to sit here so calmly watching the monitors when a hundred kilometers away two of our crew were drifting helplessly to their deaths. Charybdis would soon crush them whole, while I sat and watched.

Karloff had been correct, of course. I’d made the right call. Didn’t make the decision sting any less, though. I glanced back at the monitors and noticed Alice’s feed had finally died. I was about to activate her retrieval system when the external com crackled to life once more.

Schwarzschild, come in. Schwarzschild, come in,” the voice said. I stared at the display. I knew that voice. Answering the transmission was suddenly as appealing to me as addressing a funeral.

Before answering the call, I sent out a ship-wide alert, summoning Karloff and Michael back to the bridge. It was time to settle things.

The voice over the com was repeating its address when the two crew members had finished climbing onto the deck.

“Captain ...” Michael said, between breaths. He looked even more shaken than before, and his face was drawn and pale. “What is my voice doing on the com?”

I shook my head brusquely. I had a suspicion about what was happening, but I was reluctant to give credence to it. “I was hoping you could tell me, Freeman.”

“Captain Faraday, do you read me? This is Lieutenant Michael Freeman. Are you still there?” the transmission said.

Michael—our Michael—pursed his lips and Karloff gasped quietly.

“Yes, this is Captain Faraday. Give me your status, Lieutenant ... Freeman,” I finally said.

“Good! You’re still ... good,” the voice said, and then paused for a moment. “It worked. I’ve crossed the horizon! I’ve made contact with Kate and Viviane. They’re fine.”

“I find that hard to believe, Michael, when you’re standing beside me right now.” I glanced over to Michael to see him frozen in place, one ear cocked towards the speaker. Idly slapping a wrench in one hand, he looked alternately distracted and guilty.

“How can this be happening?” Diana said, her voice uncharacteristically high and wavering. “He’s ... Michael’s right here, for God’s sake!”

“Black holes don’t tend to play nice with human perceptions of space and time,” I said, trying to sound confident, not completely mad. Already faced with the paradox of Kate and Viviane never leaving our sight, who was to say that their present wasn’t our future?

I turned back to the com. “Even if—” I stopped and rubbed a hand through my hair. I couldn’t believe I was actually saying this. “—even if you are Michael from a future time ... Even if you did make an EVA into Charybdis ... Why? I told you there’s nothing we can do. Not for them, not for you. We don’t have the power to retract the probe with any additional masses attached.”

“It’s okay, Captain. Really. There’s—I can’t put words to it, but there’s something here. On the other side. We’re all three of us drifting towards it, Kate and Viv a bit farther on than myself. Like we’re spiralling down the drain of a bath. It’s nothing like any of our calculations predicted.”

“I’m sorry, Lieutenant, but there is no way to verify your surroundings or status. Alice is dead. I must take everything you’ve said as delusional. How is your oxygen?”

“It’s fine, Captain. We each have at least an hour left. Kate and Viv are beyond the range of your com now,” Michael responded. “Soon I will be too. We’ve detached the cable from the probe. It’ll save you a bit of energy while reeling the tether back in.”

I rubbed my temple and gave a ragged sigh. To satisfy my curiosity (not that I believed him; how could I?), I flicked the bridge screen to the probe status. Probe malfunction, it said. Equipment has either been detached or is suffering sensor error. Please retract for immediate repair. “Affirmative,” I said.

There was a slight pause, and then Michael said, “I also wanted to apologize. To you and Diana. This was my choice, my consequence. I told you I wanted to go, but since you wouldn’t have let me leave any other way ... I hope it didn’t hurt too much.”

“Wha—” I whirled around just in time to see a wrench flying towards my face. I fell heavily. Diana was already on the floor, bleeding from her temple. Everything went purply-black.


By the time I came to, Michael was long gone, as was his EVA suit. I could just make out his form slowly pirouetting towards Charybdis. I wish I could say I was happy for Michael, that I hoped he found some peace out there, but the throbbing in my head dissuaded me from having anything but ill feelings towards him.

Diana was still on the bridge. She sat in the pilot’s seat, nursing her head with a freezepack from the medbay. “What was that? How could he? ...” she mumbled softly, staring down at her lap.

I shook my head. There was nothing to say. The universe had played us for fools.

“I know what you all thought of me,” she started again. “The Janus rep. The pragmatic pencil-pusher without a use. But I didn’t want ...”

“I know,” I said. I strode over to Alice’s data screen. Dead, detached. Just like the others. I began retracting the loose tether.

“Michael should have remained on board,” she said. “He was an idiot. He knew—we all knew—that his wife was gone. Beyond help. But he went anyway. Why couldn’t he see that?”

“Love and logic are strange bedfellows.”

She gave a shuddering sigh. “We should leave,” she said. “Now.”

“No argument from me.”

Once Alice’s cable had been retracted, I started powering up the engines. The toll the gravitic dampeners had taken on our fuel reserves had been higher than anticipated, but we had enough juice to leave the system. Barely. The Schwarzschild shuddered and clunked as the flight systems started powering up.

“I wonder what they saw ...” I mused aloud, looking for the last time toward the maw of Charybdis.

“As we’ll never know, does it really matter?” Diana said.

“Not right now, it doesn’t,” I slowly conceded. I could see four points of light, smaller than before, but still there. What greater means of remembrance, than to have yourself writ across the stars? I felt a great loss, of course, and emptiness. But also envy, though I could not have said why. END

Nathan Ehret lives, edits, and teaches English in Vancouver, Canada. When Nathan is not procrastinating, his speculative fiction stories have been known to appear in magazines like “Electric Spec” and “Pseudopod.”


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