Alternatives, Chapter 01


Mark Apoapsis

“I’m not even a particularly good astronomer —
only a particularly healthy one, unaddicted to
cannibalism, homosexuality, post-nasal drip,
and similar habits Not Wanted on Voyage.
Or so the psychologists tell me.”
— Victor Kaminski in early draft c. 1964,
from “The Lost Worlds of 2001,”
Arthur C. Clarke

“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”
— Ishmael, “Moby-Dick,” Herman Melville, 1851

Three weeks underway, the two men were beginning to relax and get the hang of things, despite the odd feeling of seeing the rules they had grown up with — rules they had internalized as laws of nature — violated in their daily lives. Dave Bowman had at first studiously ignored the uncomfortably unnatural sight of tables and chairs upside-down overhead, halfway around the curve of the ship. By now he’d come to accept the sight as normal. The more subtle implications had taken longer for his body, and Frank Poole’s, to get used to.

Dave’s right hand caught the ball deftly, and he smoothly tossed it back to his shipmate, who stood some distance away along the upward-curving white floor. Frank looked as though he were leaning eagerly toward Dave, but Dave knew this to be an illusion. He knew Frank was standing straight, and was not about to fall at Dave’s feet — no more than the chairs were about to come crashing down on his head. Best not to think about what Frank saw when he looked at him; it would only make Dave lose his hard-won sense of balance.

The ball followed a complicated curve and reached Frank at about knee height and at a steep angle, but he agilely scooped it out of the air with his left hand, his feet leaving the ground briefly. It was definitely getting easier for both of them, Dave noticed. At first, just tossing it back and forth between them, directly across the narrow width of the carousel part of the giant spaceship, had been enough of a challenge. A gentle toss aimed directly at the other man’s hand would wind up hitting him in the stomach. Even the act of extending a hand had felt funny. Nothing went straight in the spinning living quarters the two men shared.

That easy-going but frustrating game had been fine exercise for the eye and hand, but did nothing for the heart and muscles. The men hadn’t even worked up enough of a sweat, back then, to force them to take off their heavy gray flight suits. Dave was glad that he and Frank had gotten past that point.

He caught the return toss, but his throw was a little to the side, and Frank had to move quickly to catch it. This threw him off balance, his years of Earth-bred reflexes overcoming his weeks in the carousel. He recovered by steadying himself with a hand against the cover of one of the hibernation chambers. No wonder Dave was always having to wipe Frank’s fingerprints off of Jack Kimball’s lid. It would, of course, take far more than a thump from a crewman’s hand to wake Kimball from his cold sleep.

Dave caught Frank’s next throw easily. He felt he was finally beginning to be able to deal with the complex forces acting on the ball. Although, technically, the ball was just following its natural path, and it was the men’s reference frame that was screwed up, causing them to want to impose external labels like “Coriolis force” to explain why its behavior went counter to their expectations. Anyway, the subjectively twisted path of the ball had begun to seem almost normal by now. Now if only Dave could learn to deal with the equally complex forces that seemed to be acting on his body, tugging at his heart.

He caught himself admiring, once again, the play of muscles in the legs and arms of the other man. “The other man,” indeed. The only other man in his universe. The only other living thing. This wasn’t like being stuck in a so-called “remote” base on Earth or the Moon, where a normal picturephone conversation was possible. His few friends back home were already so far away that communication with them felt more like exchanging videotapes in the mail. Soon the bandwidth would limit them mostly to text, and then it would feel exactly like mail — well, a strange sort of mail that arrived within hours and was read on a screen.

His world had narrowed to one other person, if he wanted to be able to interact. To converse, not just correspond. To touch.

Dave’s curve ball had gotten good enough that he could accurately send the ball a meter over Frank’s head if he wanted to. And he often wanted to. Frank would leap high into the air to catch it quickly, nimbly, before his feet hit the ground again. Usually this caused his loose-fitting black T-shirt to hike up as he reached to snag the ball. For a few seconds, as he fell back to the floor in the lunar-equivalent gravity, this afforded a glimpse of hard abdominal muscles above the waistband of the other man’s white boxer shorts.

Catching Frank’s return toss, Dave tried a high one again this time and watched hopefully as Frank jumped high to catch it. The trick had worked much better earlier in tonight’s game, when Frank’s T-shirt had still been dry. Now sweat had plastered both men’s shirts to their chests. Well, that had its advantages, too. Dave secretly got a perverse pleasure out of being able to make the other guy sweat as much as he did. Frank was in excellent shape, so it was a challenge to wear him out, to get him breathing hard. He was panting very satisfactorily right now.

Dave pushed aside the troubling thought that the pleasure he was getting out of watching his crewmate’s well-muscled chest rise and fall, outlined underneath the increasingly wet T-shirt, might be abnormal. It was just perversity, and a natural sense of competition with another man. Not perversion, and an unnatural sense of attraction. Still...

Suddenly he heard the ball bounce off the glass lid of his bed, and saw it roll under the tanning table behind him. He scrambled to dig it out. Straightening, he turned back to face Frank. He was using the hem of his T-shirt to wipe sweat off his brow, briefly exposing a smooth, tanned chest, gleaming in the bright indirect lighting. The poor guy had no way to know the effect this unselfconscious gesture was having on his crewmate. Dave stared shamelessly for as long as his shipmate’s vision was obscured by the black cloth, then made a show of studying the ball.

“Did it occur to you to ask HAL to turn up the dehumidifier?” Frank asked him. Dave looked up; his crewmate was grinning wryly at him.

To avoid answering that question, Dave called out, “HAL, from now on, when we’re engaged in an activity similar to this, please try to maintain relative humidity below twenty percent.” He felt compelled to add, looking squarely at the nearest red fisheye camera lens, “As you suggested. You were right.”

“Of course, Dave. I’d be happy to do that in the future,” came the pleasantly modulated reply from a hidden speaker. The 9000 series was the result of the breakthrough made at NSCA in the 1990’s that had forever changed the way the nation thought about computers. There were a handful of others like HAL, including the nearly identical SAL, who was serving as their mission simulator computer on the ground. HAL had been selected as their onboard computer, rather than his twin, because pre-mission tests showed that both Frank and Dave responded better to a male voice. There were fewer than a dozen 9000 mainframes in operation, although there was a promising startup company in Vacuum Tube Valley that was working to make it possible someday for every major university and every government agency to have its own artificially intelligent computer.

Talking to HAL felt just like talking to another intelligent being. But it wasn’t enough, Dave had found. Never before had he realized so clearly that satisfying his need for intellectual companionship still left a burning need for another kind of companion, the kind who shared human weaknesses and pleasures, the kind you could talk to about human emotions. The kind you could touch. At least in theory, there was nothing to stop Dave from touching Frank.

Dave was disturbed to find his carefully repressed desires surfacing so often lately, now that the initial pressure and excitement of the beginning of the mission had passed, and the dreary routine of the long cruise phase was just beginning. He was widely read, and had taken an Abnormal Psychology course as an undergraduate, so of course he was aware that there was such a thing as sexual inversion. But he didn’t really have any reason to question his own manhood. Sure, he hadn’t had much time for a social life back on Earth, but that was because he’d buried himself in his work so much. That dedication to achievement was part of what had gotten him to where he was now. He’d had a few girlfriends, and had been dating a woman when he had to break it off to go on this voyage. Nothing serious; he was too much of a gentleman to try anything with her without being married, or at least engaged. They hadn’t been engaged, of course, or he never would have been selected for this multi-year mission. Only men who had no serious attachments back on Earth had been considered. Being single was the main qualification required — along with ten to fifteen years of piloting or science experience and a PhD, of course. Close to nine out of ten candidates had been rejected out of hand due to having girlfriends, wives, or children.

So what was wrong with him, that he could actually find something physically appealing in another guy? Especially a very sweaty guy, dressed in boxer shorts and a grungy T-shirt? Not a sight any normal person should see anything sexy in. He’d better remove the immediate cause of his temptation, before his feelings broke through the tight control he kept over them. This would be a good time, while his crewmate was catching his breath.

“Had enough, Frank?”

“Yeah. I suppose it’s officially past time for me to get up the flight deck, anyway. Want to fight over who gets the shower first?” he offered facetiously.

Trying to suppress the images that sprang to mind unbidden — the two of them wrestling each other to the ground to decide the issue, declaring it a draw, trying to squeeze into the tiny shower stall together... — Dave said, “Um, you go ahead. And don’t worry about leaving enough water for me. I can shower after I get up. It should be halfway recharged by then.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t do that to you. I can make it quick. Although, heh, I have to admit a nice long one sounds real appealing right now.” He pulled his shirt up again to mop at the sweat still accumulating on his forehead. This time he was just an arm’s length away, and Dave caught a whiff of masculine aroma, the smell of good clean sweat earned in friendly exertions.

Extra shower time was one of the few pleasures Dave could give to his shipmate, and Dave felt as though he would do anything in his power to make this man happy, to give him a few moments of pleasure. Nothing abnormal about that, he told himself; with only one fellow man to be considerate to, it would be selfish not to consider Frank’s needs as carefully as his own. He knew Frank would enjoy this; he could empathize completely with how good a long shower would feel right now. The rare smile that had greeted his offer was enough of a reward.

“I’m too tired to do anything but sleep anyway,” he lied politely. “And there can’t be enough water molecules for two decent showers in the tank, given how many of them are out here at the moment, streaming out of our pores! You go ahead.” He clapped his shipmate on the shoulder — surely that was within acceptable bounds, he judged, after a game of curve ball, and to punctuate his generosity — and allowed himself to add “Enjoy it, buddy.”

“Thanks! And listen, Dave, thanks for spending your evening with me. We should do this more often— okay? We’re getting pretty good at curve ball now.”

Dave’s heart raced. Half of his waking hours overlapped with Frank’s, and he wished he could spend every minute of that time in his company, doing just about anything. “Yeah, I guess so,” he mumbled. As he turned away, he thought Frank looked a little disappointed at this vagueness. The man must be a fanatic for exercise.

Pulling open a drawer beneath his bed, Dave found that he had only one fresh pair of underwear left, so if he wanted to reserve that to change into after tomorrow’s shower, he’d have to sleep in his sweaty T-shirt and shorts. That, or go naked under the somewhat scratchy blanket. Then, in a back corner of the drawer, he noticed a Mylar package he’d almost forgotten, labeled “PAJAMAS, SILK, DK GRY, 1 SET, M.” It was unopened. It had always seemed easier just to sleep in his underwear. Besides, he noticed that Frank did the same, so Dave would have felt like a sissy, to be fussing with pajamas. But now it seemed stupid not to put them to use. He pulled out the package. It was hardly bigger than a man’s fist; silk was amazingly compressible. It seemed to weigh almost nothing. Probably the choice of silk had been a cost-cutting measure, to save a few hundred dollars worth of fuel lifting it from Earth up to the ship.

He glanced overhead at the shower, almost halfway around the carousel and upside-down, just in time to look down the length of Frank’s bare leg disappearing into the stall. He peeled off his own shirt and shorts, enjoying the cool air as it dried him while he was opening the Mylar package and shaking out its contents. When he pulled on the soft silk pajamas, they felt sensuously comfortable against his skin. He climbed into his hibernaculum and slid the transparent cover shut. “HAL, please set my humidity in here to five percent, temperature ten degrees cooler than usual, then gradually raise them back to normal over the next twenty minutes. And give me five milligrams of melatonin and a little sleeping gas. And full theta-wave induction, please.” Sleeping in a chamber equipped for cryogenic hibernation had its advantages. Even without hooking up, he could tap a fraction of its amenities to cool off his overexerted body — and his overactive mind.

The last of the sweat evaporated from his body, the molecules quietly being sucked away through the air vents, on their way to join Frank in the shower. With his hands firmly clutching the blanket where it was pulled up to his shoulders, he closed his eyes, imagining Frank’s enjoyment right now, as the cool refreshing waters — first his own share, then Dave’s share — pounded his shoulders, coursed over his chest, rippled over his stomach, slowly flowed down his legs...

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