Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Working with Pete. A short story.

Pete and I stood by the big board where work orders were pinned up. They’re all on a computer, but we aren’t allowed to touch it for some reason. So they get printed out and pinned up on a wall.

“We can’t do that one.” He muttered, afraid someone would hear him. “We’re still waiting for the materials.”

“Right. Forty lengths of titanium angle.”

“Was it forty?” He gaped. “I thought it was four.”

“No matter.” I shrugged. “We can’t do it today anyway.”

“Why not?” He asked very astutely.

“We don’t have the materials.”

“Ah.” He thought as deeply as he could.

“Well, what about this one?” He pointed.

“I don’t care,” I said. “Let’s just grab one and get out of here before Fuckhead comes along.”

Just at that exact moment, Fuckhead, our immediate supervisor here on the station, stepped around the corner with a blank look on his face.

“Oh, there you are.” Coming from a man who normally set my teeth on edge, this was welcome news.

“Yes. Here we are.” I said it brightly; and chipper, too.

If he knew I loathed him, it would just lessen my displeasure.

“I need you guys to go over and fix loading dock four.” Assistant Commodore Bradley McGoohan was a didact and a pedant, which Pete would interpret as something that hung around the neck.

“Okay.” I was hoping to shut him off.

He’s not really in the military, although he might have been in the Space Cadets when he was younger.

“There’s the closer for the access hatch on the bulkhead in Bay Nine.” Pete mentally reviewed it out loud. “Then there’s the leaking seals on door thirteen-twenty-two-A, or the porthole replacement in personnel and administration.”

“No. I need you guys to go over and fix loading dock four,” McGoohan informed me, ignoring Pete altogether, which makes him either smarter or a whole lot smarter than I am.

“The guy from the other side called.” Give Pete an ‘A’ for persistence. “He was asking about the door to the recycling area. And don’t forget the broken lock on that toilet stall in the bachelor’s quarters.”

“We don’t really have enough materials for the job.” Bradley fixed me with a glance.

“Why not?”

“Because we only have about four lengths, and we need forty.”

“How in the hell did that happen?” His voice rose and the beginnings of a dull red flush crept up his neck.

Craning his neck a little and peering up in mystification, Pete waited for my answer along with the boss.

Pete was lead hand, due to having about five minutes more seniority than I do. Old Pete was in charge of ordering materials for the door and hatch repairs on the space station. His last name starts with a ‘D’ and mine with a ‘J,’ so he is senior man. He disembarked first. That’s the way the cookie crumbles.

“I don’t know.” I tried to subdue a pained expression.

“That’s okay. Some idiot probably just read four point zero when it really said forty.” Then he turned to Pete. “And you were supposed to be looking after her.”

McGoohan turned and did the one thing he was good at and went away.

“So…what do you want us to do?” Pete asked rather plaintively, and the boss-man spun around like a figure skater.

“I need you to go over and fix loading dock four!”

Bradley, unlike me, doesn’t take a whole lot of brain-dead, can’t be bothered-to-wake-up, why shouldn’t I point a loaded gun at your kid’s head, I checked and it’s not loaded, applied stupidness, gross ignorance, carelessness, just plain nonsense and applied idiocy from Pete.

That’s my job and he doesn’t cut my grass, as the saying goes.

“He wants us to go over and fix loading dock four,” I added reasonably enough to good old Pete.

“But why?”

“Because it’s broken,” Bradley and I said simultaneously, and both at once, with mutually reinforcing degrees of peevishness on both of our parts.

Pete was having a good day, at least so far. The important thing was that someone had made a decision and thank God it wasn’t him.

When Pete started using his head around here, things began to get really scary.


Left to our own devices, Pete managed to bang his head, and snag his helmet faceplate on the top of the hatchway. Since he’s eight inches shorter than I am, that’s a unique accomplishment, although our one-third gee status might be a partial excuse. He’s only been here three months, after all. I resolved to keep fingers and toes clear of pretty much everything for the rest of the day, or in other words to stick to standard operating procedure.


“Don’t put grease on those threads, Pete.”

“No, it’s too tight.”

I grabbed his arm.

“It’s an oxygen bottle, Pete. It will blow up.”

“Oh. Right. It’s a good thing you remembered!”

Pete yanked up his tool pouch by the buckle on the end of the strap and oddly enough, everything fell out.

“Aww, fff…” About then, Melanie, one of the scientists growing space-dope, local jargon for dope manufactured in space, walked past.

“Hi, Melanie!” She accidentally kicked a hex-driver, lost for days now, the length of the corridor.

In the low-gee of the station, the thing bounced and clattered its way up the curving floor panels and disappeared from sight about thirty metres away. The station is a big doughnut, and so is Pete, rather fittingly. Actually, the station is a pair of big doughnuts, with a spindle and some braces holding them together. It’s just like some long and interminably boring space movie which turned out to be all too accurate, insofar as the interminable part went.


Pete opened up the service bug, while on some insane impulse I went around the side and opened up the first tool bin. A handful of tools fell in a leisurely manner to the deck, although I managed to grab an open-ended wrench on the way past.

The door opened and Pete started climbing out, the vehicle lurched forwards, and poor old Pete was hanging half in and half out.

“Whoa!” He squawked while desperately trying to disengage the power system.

The vehicle juddered to a stop, as Pete had accidentally jammed full power to it at about the same time he applied full emergency braking. Admittedly, this is not easy, what with only one foot in the vehicle and the controls well separated inside the cabin in order to prevent such incidents, which are very hard on the machine. The machine was exactly three-point-one centimetres from the heavily dented back wall of the hangar bay, or about average for a Monday.

“I just wanted to check and make sure my saw is in there.”

“It’s not.”

He nodded sagely.

“I knew that.” He turned and climbed back in.

“You are often pretty much half-right about such things.”


It’s hard to out-think someone who is truly stupid, but after the last three months, I was getting pretty good at it.

I was standing well off to one side, having anticipated this part of our morning routine, and so I wasn’t harmed or even crushed.

“I guess you forgot to snap the lid on my toolbox.” He informed me matter-of-factly. “That’s okay. You can pick all that up and load the bug while I go have a shit.”

“Would you like me to put the saw in there?” I asked courteously, which he takes at face value.

“Naw, we’re not going to need it.”

“I think Jerry’s done.” I said it in sheer bliss. “Today’s paper is probably still in there.”

My daily survival largely depended on using reverse psychology of a paranoid-schizophrenic nature to assign simple tasks to Peter that he might safely attempt without killing anyone but himself. This would be a big loss to his long-suffering wife back on Earth. Thank God. I figured out a winning strategy in time to save myself. As I recall, Pete sent me to get the work-completion form signed while he packed up all of his tools, (mine were already secured, because I don’t let him near them,) but the day before is ancient history to a guy like Pete. And it takes Pete a long time to have a shit.

To a guy like Pete, what happened yesterday stays in yesterday, and every day was like his birthday and Christmas, all wrapped up in a fresh box of strawberry douche-filled chocolates.

He climbed in and back out of the bug several times, in anticipation of a blissful half an hour or forty-five minutes alone with the paper.


The reader may think I am being a little hard on Pete, who is after all not here to defend himself. Bear in mind, I had plenty of time to observe the gentleman and I learned not to take my eye off of him for a minute, or even a second. (Unless he was safely taking a shit or something like that.)


“Whoa, Jeez.”


“The other reverse, Pete.”

“Oh, no! Argh.” He gasped.


“The other left, Pete.”

It looked like the door could be closed when we returned, and there was no harm in leaving it open all day. We could just hammer the tracks back into position. We hovered there uncertainly for a while, and Pete discussed with me why it wasn’t necessary to put in a report.

Then it was off to work.


The loading bay door is fairly large, but about forty lengths of titanium angle would have been enough, after straightening out the external sheathing, to have braced and reframed the thing, and quite frankly I was sure I could fix it if only left alone for half a minute. But I’m never too sure if I will live through the day. There were other problems, too.

“How are we going to do this?” He looked at me, as I knew he would.

Let’s face it. I’m the only one out there.

That’s the big drawback with being lowest in seniority. You don’t get any overtime unless it’s the shittiest job in the world, and you are expendable on a whim. In that sense, it really is no different from any other highly-skilled job back home in any type of construction, fabrication, or service industry.

Oh, yeah. they also stick you with a guy like Pete, who killed his last partner, although they don’t talk about it much when I’m around. No one wanted Pete for their helper, so they made him a lead hand and put him in charge of training me. Not that he hasn’t been doing a good job of that, and you have to admit it kind of kills two birds with one stone, um, sooner or later.

“We stick a big ‘out of service’ sign on it, and then we go back and tell Fuckhead to get on the horn and order forty lengths of titanium angle.”

“Four. But don’t worry, we can’t do it anyway.”

“Why not?” I was sure he would get to the bottom of something or other soon enough.

“That’s irrelevant, and anyway I’m not taking his shit. Besides, we can’t order it, because some things are better left unsaid.”

“It probably was my fault. I just wasn’t thinking.”

“You sure weren’t!” He grinned. “You know I’m no good at writing up estimates. Anyway, I guess we’d better get out there.”

Pete loves to work. I will give him that. It sure beats sitting there writing up estimates and accident reports.

‘A man defiles himself by his actions,’ Pete once said. ‘And every mind leaves its footprints upon its works.’

“We can’t, Pete.” I sighed deeply.

“Why not?” He stared in sheer disbelief at my attitude.

“Because it’s break-time in fifteen minutes, Pete.” I pointed at the dashboard clock. “By the time we get our gloves on, and you hook up your oxygen bottle…”

“Right.” He reached for the door handle. “So it’s one of them kind of days. The curse is upon you, you’re on the rag and I now I’ll just have to try and show some sensitivity.”


They say life is pretty boring on the station. Not much to do there, but read, listen to music, or watch TV. After a day with Pete, I always found that locking myself into my cabin was pure bliss.

The really strange thing about him was that he wasn’t such a bad person. If you didn’t actually have to work with Pete, he was a sweetheart of a man. He was friendly, and thoughtful, and courteous, and got along well with everybody. I never did figure out where he learned the highly advanced skills in pure time wasting, but that might have had something to do, deep in the turgid recesses of the subconscious mind, (which was the only kind he had,) with the hourly rate.

Sitting there watching Pete make a boiling hot cup of soup in zero gravity was always fun.

Since he wasn’t looking, I flipped my visor down and shut off the radio. Let Pete scream all he wants. I can sleep on break…it’s in the contract.

It sure didn’t take long, what with the low cabin-pressure and high-powered microwave oven, more usually used to heat and soften sticks of pressure-repair putty. Technically speaking this shouldn’t be contaminated with organic materials. What happens is, the sterile putty is also an organic compound, and any uncooked little microorganisms tend to feast on it with relish.

Oddly enough, we didn’t have any disposable wipes, as Pete had ordered me to remove them from the cabin yesterday, as ‘they were just taking up space.’

As the reader may be aware, this contamination weakens the structural bond with the material to be repaired…but I digress.

Anyway, Pete never listened to one single word I ever said, which is a helpful thing to know.

I screwed his oxygen connector into place while he was fiddling with the knobs on the AM/FM radio in the dash, his own installation. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the wire to the antenna came off again because he is simply too smart to tighten it up with a wrench. He’s had the radio in and out ten or eleven times trying to figure out why it won’t go. I never said I was a saint.

I have my own tunes in my suit.


We never worked alone anywhere on the station, inside or out. This was a safety regulation, and there was also a stiffly-worded subsection in our contracts.

To watch Pete extend EXWOP, our 'extensible working platform,' (a ladder in other words,) similar to the one on top of a terrestrial fire truck, without actually puncturing the sidewall of the station was always a joy. At times like that the safest place to be was out of the repair bug and snug in the vastness of empty space anyway. As Pete was fond of pointing out, its un-lubricated ball bearings made the ladder and its work-platform sticky on the rollers…it kind of hung up, and it needed to be maneuvered with authority, according to Pete.

“Oh, God!” Pete gasped, all too close in my helmet. “Is that Sergeant Peacock?”

“Yes. I believe that’s his office right there.”

The round, red face at the window was shrieking some commentary and showing two big fists…no doubt we would be notified, which means that I will be notified, and Pete will have another proud accomplishment to write home about.


“Okay, so I’ll just go up there and start taking the fasteners out.”

“And what do I do? Float around and screw the dog?” Pete spluttered.

Pete is nothing of not a man of actions, lots and lots of actions.

I watched in disbelief. It’s not that his next trick was a new one on me, but because I had seen it fifty times before. Frankly, it really is fascinating.

Poor old Pete was spinning, around, and around, and around.

“Ahhhhh! Pull the plug, pull the plug!”

I took a moment and turned the volume down on my suit while I considered the gravity of the situation.

Poor old Pete shouted and shouted, and we were running out of cord, and I don’t know, for whatever reason I just sort of reached over and yanked the cord out of the receptacle. Slowly, Peter rotated to a stop, cursing and swearing like a trooper.

“You should have reminded me.” He ignored my advice to clip himself to the ladder, which is what all the little clips and clamps are actually for. “Argh, argh, argh.”

“It’s got a lot of torque, Pete.” I agreed, referring to the wrench. “About the same as yesterday, I reckon.”

He struggled helplessly as I tried to unwind, untie and untangle about a hundred metres of electrical cord from him.

“Yeah!” Pete was still mystified as to exactly how I made him do that to himself again. “Maybe even a little more!”

My mistake was to tell him this one time that I was pulling the Jedi mind trick on him. That was early in our career, and now I don’t fuck around with his head. It’s a full-time job just trying to survive around him. Pete needs to keep his wit about him.

Pete was fit to be tied at my sheer incompetence and lack of respect for his authority over me and his role as my teacher in the training program he had patiently worked out for me over so very many long minutes seated upon the toilet while eating an apple. Having heard such things from Pete before, I took it all with a grain of arsenic. His mercurial pout, visible only to himself in reflection from his helmet faceplate, quickly faded like a plumber’s curse in the shine and glare of his butt-cleavage. (I mean the plumber, not Pete.)


After climbing to the extended work platform, I snapped myself on good and had those nasty old bolts out of there in jig time. I didn’t lose a one either, every one was accounted for in my pouch, and with the velcro strip safely fastened.

“You know they can’t pressurize that chamber until we fix this door.”

“Ah! I was wondering why the rush, but then I thought of Christmas.”

“It will be Easter in another week or so.” He noted it as if for the record.

“No, no. I thought of Christmas,” I replied calmly. “It’s a big job, after all.”

“Yeah! Some asshole drove a fork-bug halfway through it, and now it doesn’t work at all. That’s why they called us. For some reason, when a door gets broken, they always call us.”

“We probably will need that fork-bug, once we get these panels off.”

“Want me to go get it?” Sheer joy was invisible on his homely mug, as I started to remove the bolts from another panel.

I was temporarily holding them in place with just two bolts, and about three turns of the threads.

“No, Pete. We’ll let the bug-lift guy do it, or we’ll have the union and the safety people all over us, er, again.”

Pete was real quiet for a couple of minutes, so I just let him be.

“Yeah, them workplace safety incident report forms are a bugger.” He reached this conclusion after thinking it through in a fairly linear fashion for him.

But it was not to last.


“How the fuck did that get in there?” Pete threw the saw out into space.

Pete was in one of his moods, all of a sudden. He bounced off the open tool-bin, inches above the magnetic running boards of the service-bug. These are meant to walk on, but he never bothers to charge the suit batteries.

“Ahh!” I grabbed him to prevent him from sailing off to the moon or Jupiter or whatever.

“Fuck! We’ll have to use the God-damned torch to cut the angle.” Flecks of spittle appeared on the inside of his faceplate…

“It’s lunch time, Pete!” I slapped him on the arm. “We’ll get it later. Anyhow we can’t.”

“Why not?”

“The hoses are still cut from last time.”

“Oh. Oh, right!” Then he glared at me. “That took some real thinking.”

And let’s face it, I was the only one out there.


“Some days, it just don’t seem worth it,” Pete said.

We sat in the truck, I mean, ‘space-truck,’ eating our lunch, and as usual, for some reason, his absolutely must be composed of watercress, and cucumbers, and alfalfa sprouts, and a lot of stuff it’s actually pretty hard to get around here. It has to be the most luxurious, and expensive and almost unobtainable foods, otherwise the poor guy simply can’t hold anything down. I don’t want to know how he does it, and have never inquired.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “Any day you live through is a good one.”

“That’s easy for you to say—you’ve always got some kind of a woman problem.”


After lunch, he stood at the top of the ladder and emptied his tool belt by throwing literally every tool in it at me as he searched in vain for his tape measure, sitting right there on the work bench back at the shop. Strangely enough, it hadn’t been there when I went to get the saw to cut out the broken framing, so Pete must have taken it off of his belt and put it there so he wouldn’t forget it while he had a shit…and then after a while it was break time again.


“So, what do you think?” Pete considers his art superior to that of Salvador Dali.

It’s distorted enough, and God knows it is idiosyncratic.

“Looks like we really did something today.”

“Well, fuck you then. I don’t care.”


Following his normal pattern, Pete bolted for the showers a half an hour early, leaving me to write up the reports, which after all is a good thing because like many astro-mechanical engineers I can actually spell.

“So what do you think?” Fuckhead came around the corner the moment I put my feet up on the desk, which is actually in the contract too.

“We need forty lengths of titanium angle, and maybe five sheets of the neo-aluminum sheathing, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to ground the bug for a bit of maintenance.”

“How was Pete today?” He asked obscurely, but I knew what he meant.


“It’s only another three months.”


After a quick shower, I grabbed a pair of easy-meals from the dispenser and locked myself in my cubicle until tomorrow. I flipped on the TV, and uttered a deep sigh of resignation, drained of all thoughts and emotions.

I cracked a beer from the mini-fridge and took a big slug.

It’s just so good to be home sometimes.


Photos: NASA, Wiki Commons, Pulblic Domain.

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