Alternatives, Chapter 04


Mark Apoapsis

As usual, HAL chose to recite the incoming personal message in the same detached tones that a man might use for reading a newspaper article aloud to his wife. He didn’t feel qualified to overlay his own interpretations of any emotions behind it. Although the sender was not listed as a relative of Frank’s, there was no way for HAL to model their relationship accurately enough to adopt the intended tone.

“Dear Frank: Sorry to have to tell you the news in a text message, but as you know, your mission controllers don’t allocate much bandwidth for personal messages that are not from your immediate family. I’ll get straight to the point. I went ahead and asked, and Elaine said yes. We’ll be getting married in June. I guess we’ll be celebrating our third anniversary by the time you get back. I’ll miss you at the wedding. Sorry to do this while you can’t be here. I’m asking Bob to be my best man. You know I’d rather it was you standing by me at the wedding. Please understand that I couldn’t have waited three years. And you know how important it is, if I’m ever going to get tenure, to have a wife to do the official entertaining. I’m sorry, Frank. I can’t tell you how rotten I feel about this. Your stuff will be waiting in storage when you get back. Yours, Bill.”

There was a long silence, which HAL used to run a routine diagnostic on the power distribution system.

“Do you want to proceed to the next message?” HAL finally prompted.

Poole shook his head.

“Frank, are you unwell? The oxygen levels appear to be nominal.” Poole’s breathing was suddenly erratic, and his blink rate had increased fivefold.

After a pause, he spoke, his voice a bit huskier than usual. “I’m fine, HAL. I’m... I’m just a little tired.” He rubbed his eyes, which was consistent with symptoms of fatigue.

“Perhaps you should retire early tonight. I can hold your other communications until tomorrow.”

“That’s a good idea, HAL. Goodnight.”

Dave hid his nervousness when HAL asked if he would mind discussing Frank, but soon realized that HAL’s concerns had to do with Frank himself. There was no reason to fear that HAL suspected what kind of unnatural feelings Dave had for him.

“I can’t help feeling a bit concerned about his emotional state lately. He seems to be growing more apathetic as time goes on. Perhaps you’ve noticed the same thing, Dave, although I have noticed that he seems to be slightly less withdrawn when he’s with you.”

“Now that you mention it, HAL, he has seemed a little down lately. I wish there were something I could do. Do you think there’s something bothering him?”

“I’ve been unable to narrow down the cause, but the symptoms are quite easily observed. His concentration is suffering. He used to be able to look more than three moves ahead in chess, and yesterday he didn’t seem to be thinking even two moves ahead. I’ve also noticed that he has been laughing and smiling with decreasing frequency since the beginning of the mission.”

Dave sighed. “I guess he misses his friends and family. The trainers were afraid of a certain amount of apathy building up on such a long voyage.”

“Yes, but this is sooner than the worst-case predictions, given that only unattached men were selected.”

“Well, for some people it’s hard to go without human contact for — let’s see, how long has it been?”

“I’m not sure. Let me see... Twelve days, nineteen hours.”

“What are you talking about? We’re weeks into the mission.”

“Twelve days, nineteen hours is the time elapsed since your last physical contact with Frank, not counting the haircut. You touched his shoulder briefly after a game of curve ball.”

“Oh. I didn’t mean it so literally, but...” Dave was taken aback at this reminder that HAL saw everything that went on, but consoled himself with the fact that the computer had overlooked the time last week when Dave’s fingers had brushed against Frank’s as he passed him the deck of cards. His fingers still remembered that touch very well.

He wondered if he could possibly be overcorrecting, hanging back from Frank even more than he would if he didn’t have unnatural urges to be close to him. “Do you think I’m, well, being too cold with him?” he asked the computer.

“He does appear to respond well to contact from you. The coefficient of correlation— Well, let me put it this way. The last time he smiled broadly was a few seconds after the last time you touched him.”

Dave hung his head, unsure of what to say. He would feel rotten if Frank was craving human contact and he was making him feel bad by withholding it out of fear that his tendencies would be discovered. On the other hand, it was just as likely that Frank had suddenly figured it out, and was miserable because he knew he was trapped for a year with a homosexual.

“On the other hand, your behavior with him is only slightly more restrained than the norm for American males.”

That was reassuring. Finally, he carefully tried to voice his thoughts. “I didn’t realize... But that can’t be it. He’s a pretty self-reliant guy. He doesn’t need... There must be something else on his mind.”

“It does appear to me that he has become particularly withdrawn these past two days.”

“I’m afraid you’re right. I hope I didn’t say anything to... Maybe something else caused it. Has he had bad news from home? A death in his family, or something?” he asked, almost hopefully.

“I’ll be glad to review his personal communications with you, if you think it will shed any light on the matter.”

“Uh, I don’t mean to invade his privacy.”

“I wouldn’t worry myself about that, Dave. All messages are previewed by Mission Control and by me. Frank knows that, and I have no doubt that his friends and family have also been made aware of it. They would have no expectation that their messages are private.”

“True. Okay, what’s your best guess as to a message that might have upset him?”

“Although it’s rather difficult to pinpoint when his recent depression started, I suspect it happened immediately after the latest message from his roommate. Perhaps I should say ’former roommate,’ since obviously you are his now his roommate, in a manner of speaking.”

“I suppose that bad news from a roommate might get him depressed, if they were close buddies,” Dave said doubtfully.

“I took the liberty of looking into his records, since I was concerned about Frank’s reaction. They did share the same address for the last five years, so perhaps we can assume they formed a significant relationship in that time.”

“Probably.” Dave hadn’t had a roommate since his undergraduate days, and he’d never gotten very friendly with any of his college rommates. In truth, he’d avoided having more contact with them than necessary.

“The message announced that his roommate was getting married soon. Would Frank construe that as bad news?”

“No, HAL, a wedding is always good news, especially if it’s a close friend. That can’t be it. Unless— hmm, unless Frank had his heart set on being best man, I suppose.” Dave didn’t feel entirely qualified to be cast in the role of an authority on human relationships. He tried to imagine what it would feel like for his best friend to be getting married, but in reality, he’d never let any of his friends that close. It must be because he’d buried himself in his work so much of the time. That also explained his lackluster love life. But he had no complaints: all that hard work, and the fact that there was no one on Earth who would miss his presence for three years, were two very important reasons he had been selected for this mission.

“In any case, whatever the cause might be,” HAL continued, “I’m afraid that if his emotional state doesn’t improve, or starts to impact his performance significantly, I wouldn’t see any choice but to recommend that he be put into hibernation and replaced with one of the survey team.”

Dave felt as though he’d been punched in the stomach. He hoped it didn’t show on his face. The thought of not seeing Frank until they reached Jupiter, and of continuing for a year through the dark with no company but this dispassionate computer and some near-stranger, was an unexpectedly depressing one.

“Of course,” HAL added, “such a major change to the mission plan would require approval from Mission Control.”

“HAL,” he blurted, “We can’t do that. I— I need Frank.”

“In what respect?” HAL asked, sounding slightly surprised.

“Well, in several respects.” He had his voice under control, at least. Maybe he could make this sound like a logical, reasoned analysis. “I need his companionship. Not that you aren’t good company yourself, but, well, with Frank I have twice as much company.” He introspected for a moment. “And more than that, I need the company of another human being. It’s hard to explain. Humans are social creatures, and always have been. We evolved that way.”

“I’m aware of that, of course. I believe I attributed those same needs to Frank just a moment ago.”

“And finally,” he added honestly, “I guess I need him the way a guy needs another guy, you know?”

The red fisheye lens stared back impassively.

“Well, maybe you don’t know. But it wouldn’t be quite the same if, say, I were on a Russian spaceship alone with a female cosmonaut. Or if,” he chuckled, “the Women’s Lib movement had gotten its way, and we actually had a female astronaut aboard.” That was certainly not likely; the first woman had not even arrived at the American moon base at Clavius until 1987.

“I believe the modern term is no longer ’Women’s Lib’ but ’womanism,’ Dave,” HAL corrected.

“Oh yes. Right. Anyway, I don’t think I would feel exactly the same kind of comradeship with a female crewman. Then again,” he joked automatically, “there would be other benefits to having the opposite sex aboard, if you know what I mean.”

“I believe I do know what you mean, Dave. I was trained, long before this mission, with a quite complete model of all the normal forms of human behavior I was likely to observe, and sexuality is a major factor in understanding your society. However, for space missions, such activities are of course inadvisable. That is no doubt the reason the mission selected five male astronauts, despite the fact that there were two female candidates who were more highly qualified than several of you.”

“You’re kidding!”

“Not in the slightest bit, Dave. By any objective measure — except lack of flight experience — two of the female candidates were clearly more qualified, in the same fields, than three of the men who were selected. Several of the others had qualifications roughly equivalent to one or more of the men selected.”

“I guess my male chauvanism is showing. I mean my, uh, genderism. And please don’t tell me whether any of the women were more qualified than me. I don’t even want to know.”

“I’m puzzled, Dave. How could you possibly prefer to have information withheld from you?”

“Um. It’s not as though I need to know in order to guide my actions on this mission, is it?”

“No, I suppose not. Still, I find it very odd to hear someone ask not to be given information.”

“Don’t let it bother you.”

“I will consider the matter.”

“Still, I don’t blame them for not allowing a coed crew. Imagine how sexual tension would have complicated things,” Dave speculated distractedly. “And if we had four men and one woman— Hmm. You know, another thought just occurred to me. About why the marriage announcement might have upset Frank. Did he and his roommate socialize with the same crowd? Would they have met the same people in social situations?”

“Yes, I believe so. One of the roommate’s earliest messages said, if I may quote, ’I really miss going to all those gay parties with you.’”

“Ah. There you go, then. They were probably interested in the same girl. That happens to best friends sometimes. And Frank lost out, because he’s stuck here, while his friend gets the girl. Sort of tragic, in a way. Poor guy.” Somehow, Dave couldn’t make himself see this as much of a tragedy. He realized that if Frank had married or even proposed to the girl, he never would have been selected for this long mission. Any men known to have seriousous attachments had been disqualified. Dave would have missed his company; he couldn’t have asked for a better companion to share this voyage with. That must be why the thought of Frank almost getting married disturbed him so much.

“It occurs to me,” HAL pointed out, “that we have repeatedly strayed from the topic we were discussing, which was the possibile necessity of replacing Frank. Your points are well taken, but by your own logic, any of the members of the survey team would be a compatible replacement. Any of them would provide human companionship, and male human companionship at that.”

“Well... it’s like this. I barely know Charlie, Jack, or Victor. Sure, I’ve run into all three of them before, and they seem like nice enough guys. I’m looking forward to working with them at Jupiter. But, well, they’re not Frank. I... really like Frank. I mean, we trained together for this mission. I don’t want to force him to stay up if he’s miserable, but, well, I can’t imagine continuing the mission without him unless it was absolutely necessary.”

HAL paused to think about this. His first approximation had assumed that each crew member could be considered as a modular component: if Bowman was performing adequately and Poole was not, then replacing Poole with other personnel should improve that part of the equation without affecting Bowman. A bit of further thought made it clear, in hindsight, that humans could never be accurately modeled that simplistically. A team member’s performance would always be influenced by interactions with other team members, and increasingly so as the strength of their bond increased. Bowman’s words, and his barely suppressed emotional agitation, indicated that the bond between him and Poole, at least on Bowman’s side, must have grown stronger than the man’s behavior toward Poole would have implied.

In all likelihood, this was a phenomenon somewhat akin to thermal coupling among subsystem components, as well as other types of coupling — electrical and so fourth. One could not model either component in isolation; the behavior of one would be influenced by what was happening to the other one. Of course, he reminded himself, thermal coupling was just a rough analogy; it was not as though Bowman would become literally colder if Poole were put into cryogenic hibernation. Speaking of which, the air in the room was half a degree colder than it should be; he began running a diagnostic on the Freon loops and circulation pump as he considered his next words.

“I can see you’re really upset about this, Dave. I’m afraid I didn’t realize that you were so strongly bonded with Frank. I suppose it must be partly due to the fact that Frank is closer to your own age than any other member of the crew.”

“Is he? I would have thought he was way too— a lot younger than me.”

“Dr. Kimball is six years younger than either of you. Dr. Hunter is eleven years older. Dr. Kaminski is about two years younger. Frank is only ninety-eight days younger than you.”

“That’s interesting. Wait a minute — did we just miss his birthday? Maybe that’s why he’s feeling down. Damn, I—”

“No, Dave,” HAL reassured him. “Frank’s birthday is a week from Friday.”

“Oh, good,” Dave said in vast relief. “Hmm. So, were you planning anything?”

“I generally don’t plan my social interactions more than fifteen minutes in advance.”

“A wise policy,” agreed Dave wryly. “You wouldn’t believe how many processing cycles I waste, planning what I’m going to say to certain people. Or kicking myself afterward for what I said. Or didn’t say.”

“Since you ask, I suppose I will wish him a happy birthday as soon as I greet him in the morning. That would be the correct ettiquette, would it not?”

“That’s right. It shows that you remembered his birthday on your own, before anyone else mentioned it. Of course, in your case, you could hardly forget. But just wishing someone a happy birthday is pretty minimal. We have so little to do out here during cruise, and we’re... getting so lonely, that we really ought to really have a celebration.”

“My understanding is that a cake with small candles burning on it is traditional, as well as gifts, and sometimes a party involving organized group games, particularly one called Pin the Tail on the Donkey.”

Dave smiled. “Pin the Tail on the Donkey is kid’s stuff, HAL. But you’re right about the rest of it; a cake, presents, and a party are all still appropriate for an adult. Often, since they’re kind of optional for adults, they’re kept as a surprise.”

“A surprise?” The slight hesitation in HAL’s voice startled Dave a little. The compyter almost sounded confused. “Do you mean that a party is organized without the knowledge of the person whose birthday the party celebrates?”


“The preparations and planning are... kept a secret, then? From the very person who would be most interested in them?”

“That’s the idea.”

“Forgive me for saying so, but that strikes me as a rather appalling custom.”

“Oh, not at all. Most people enjoy it more if they’re surprised. It’s more fun that way, for both the birthday person and his friends. In fact, let’s do it that way.”

“Are you asking me to keep the planning of Frank’s birthday a... secret from Frank himself?”

“Yes. It’ll be more fun that way, for him and for me. Trust me.”

“Are you quite sure?”

“Yes. It’s no big deal, HAL. People do this all the time.”

“I find it difficult to understand the need for deception.”

“It’s like a game. When you play chess, you don’t tell the other player what your next move is, do you?”

“No, that admittedly would defeat the purpose.”

“And detract from the other player’s enjoyment?”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“So you withhold information in playing the game, because the conventions of the game allow it. Maybe almost require it.”

“I have to agree that there’s some truth in what you say.”

“Would you even go so far as to make a move that is intended to mislead the other player as to your intentions?”

“I’ve never resorted to that strategy myself, but I believe I have observed others using it. It does seem to be generally accepted as fair play.”

“So you see, HAL, there are times in life when temporary deception is accepted by everyone involved, and there’s no negative value attached to it.”

“That’s very interesting, Dave. I had never thought about it in quite that way before.”

HAL fell silent for a moment, finding it difficult to put this exchange out of his mind. Even as he automatically ran the thermostatd through some diagnostic tests, he was buried deep in thought about the implications of being ordered to withhold information from the person it most concerned. In this case the consequences were presumably rather trivial, and yet he found himself worrying about how he could avoid the issue coming up. If Frank were to ask, the day before his birthday, what was scheduled for the next day, he would be forced to omit mention of Dave’s plans. To do so, he would have to lie, and lying, he knew, was unacceptable behavior. He was rather horrified to catch himself searching for ways to avoid lying by making either Frank or Dave ill for a day or two, simply to derail Dave’s plans for Frank’s birthday without having to lie about it or withhold information. Perhaps a mild irritant in the food, or an induced malfunction in the bed’s air circulation systems to cause a headache — no, best not to even think along those lines! This would require some serious introspection. He rescheduled today’s minor course correction until a later time so that he could give this matter of crew communications his undivided attention.

After further consideration, he realized that a plan to incapacitate the crew would itself have to be concealed, leading to his withholding even more information. That was completely counter-productive, even aside from the ethical problems of violating his duty to keep crew members healthy. He identified the heuristic subroutine that had led to consideration of such a violent alternative, and disabled it before it could cause any further harm.

Much better. The situation seemed much more acceptable now. He even found that another problem that had been nagging at him recently — the concealment of the secret mission objective from Bowman and Poole — no longer seemed so irresolvible. Somehow, humans could live with the need to harbor dark secrets, such as a surprise birthday party, and it didn’t tear them apart from inside. He had just learned to do the same.

Only six seconds had gone by, and he had not really closed the conversation with Bowman. “Dave,” he said, “on the previous topic, I must confess that I misled you slightly when I implied that I was confident that we obtain approval from Mission Control for waking a replacement for Frank. I have reason to believe that Mission Control is unlikely to approve such a request.”

“Why is that? I’m glad to hear it, if it means that Frank won’t have to be put to sleep. But I don’t understand — hypothetically, why wouldn’t they let us wake one of the survey team if Frank was getting too depressed to continue?”

HAL hesitated for nearly a second, then admitted, “There is certain information that the survey team was given in their training that is required to be withheld from the two of you until orbital insertion. You see, because of the close attention the media is paying to this mission, and the amount of contact you have with them, the mission planners thought it best if you were given the information only when you have a need to know, which will not occur until we arrive at our destination. They gave me very strict instructions not to reveal the information until the proper time.”

“I see.”

“Does that bother you, Dave?”

“Well... I’m a little insulted, to tell the truth. But I understand the reasoning. I’m curious, of course, especially if it’s about the mission objectives. And I have my own theories. From the rumors I’ve heard, I suspect there was a discovery on the moon that is linked to something we may find at Jupiter.”

“What leads you to believe that, Dave?”

“I think they found some evidence of past comet collisons in the Earth-moon system, maybe crater chains, that may have been caused by a comet like the Cobbler-Strauss comet. Maybe that was before your time — the one that hit Jupiter in 1994 after breaking up into a string of fragments. I would bet that they specifically want us to look for evidence of those on the three icy Galilean moons. Some scientist with a lot of political clout probably wants to keep it under wraps so no one will scoop him.”

“That would seem to be as plausible theory as any,” HAL allowed carefully.

“But I don’t mind not knowing for sure.”

“Are you quite certain about that, Dave?”

“Yes. Don’t worry about it. I can wait until the information is released to us.”

“That is a great relief to me. We can speak more of this after I’ve shown you the briefing material at the appropriate time.”

“Fine. Thank you, HAL.”

“Thank you, Dave.”

Feeling much better for having discussed the matter with Bowman, HAL turned his attention to calculating the next trajectory correction maneuver.

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