Alternatives, Chapter 05


Mark Apoapsis

Frank was standing at the foot of the ladder as Dave descended. His arms were crossed in front of him, and he looked like he was in a foul mood.

“There you are. You left your breakfast tray on the table. When are you gonna learn to put your shit away, instead of leaving it around to rot?”

“Sorry, Frank. I was running late for my shift on the flight deck, and then—”

“What was the big hurry? It’s not like we do anything useful up there during cruise. It’s just make-work.” He let Dave edge past him, then followed him as he walked around the carousel.

“I know it’s no excuse—”

“You got that right. There’s never any excuse for leaving loose items unsecured on a ship.”

“The gravity is pretty steady in this section—”

“You know better than to rely on that! What if the bearings seized up?”

“Sorry, Frank. I guess I’m a land-lubber at heart. I’ve been trying my best to live up to your standards.” He thought he’d been doing pretty damn well; the carousel was amazingly orderly for a place shared by two guys for several months with no visitors. Much more shipshape than his own place back on Earth had ever been.

“You engineers are almost as bad as academic types. My apartment in San Francisco looked like a frigging college dorm whenever I came home from so much as one week in Houston.”

Dave knew perfectly well that Frank’s PhD was in Astronautical Engineering, the same as his, but Frank was obviously not in a mood to be logical. “Why did you decide to room with an academic type in the first place?” he asked out of curiosity.

“Excuse me?” Frank asked indignantly.

“It’s a simple question. Why did you pick that particular roommate if you thought he was sloppy?”

“That’s none of your goddamn business.”

“Sorry. I was just curious. Why didn’t you try living with an ex-Navy pilot with the same habits of neatness? You must have friends who are ex-Navy?”

“Way too many,” he said under his breath, and then yelled, “Don’t change the subject, damn it!” He gestured angrily at Dave’s bed, ahead of them and above them. “As I was saying, it’s bad enough I have to pick up your dirty socks—”

“Hey, c’mon, I’ve only done that twice, and it’s been—”

“—let alone having to scrape encrusted food off your plates. You’d probably leave the meat sitting out of the freezer overnight if we didn’t have a computer guarding it,” he shouted, snacking his palm against the glassy lid of Kaminski’s hibernaculum as they passed it, leaving a handprint on its spotless surface.

“Frank, what’s been eating you? This isn’t about—”

“Maybe it’s that my shower water ran out after about ninety seconds today.”

“Oops. Sorry, I lost track of—”

“And look, here’s that big notepad I’ve seen you carrying around, lying right on the console.”

“Uh, give me that. I’ll put it away.”

“No, you left it out. I want to see what’s inside.”

“It’s just some sketches.” Dave felt a sense of panic.

“What do you think you are, an artist or something?” Frank flipped angrily through the crude sketches in the front. Then he slowed down. “Hey, some these aren’t half bad,” he said grudgingly. He flipped past a few more sketches of the mummy-like figures of their crewmates, seeming to be surprised out of his anger. “I didn’t know you were an artist.”

“Just learning, as you can tell from the crap at the beginning. It’s just to pass the time.”

“These are really nice renderings, Dave. I think you’re improving.” He’d reached the first one where Dave had gotten both the perspective and the shadows right at the same time. The next one was a closeup portrait. “That’s Charlie Hunter, isn’t it?”

“Uh-huh,” Dave acknowledged nervously, and tried in vain to think of something to add to distract Frank from looking further, but he was already flipping to the next page.

“I like the way you rendered the frost on Jack’s eyelashes and his upper lip,” Frank commented. “Makes him look even handsomer, somehow.” He walked over to Kimball’s hibernaculum, rested his hand on the already smudged glass lid despite its coldness, and peered down at the young scientist, frozen at the peak of his life until the ship arrived at its destination. If a disaster disabled the ship, Jack would sleep on in eternal youth forever as the ship circled the sun or escaped to the stars. At least, for as long as the nuclear power and the electronics lasted. After a moment, Frank observed, “The frost is actually on his faceplate, though, mostly.”

“Artistic license. And sort of a reference to his name.”

“Huh? Oh, I get it. Jack Frost. Nice touch!”

“You... think he looks handsome?” Dave wasn’t used to hearing guys comment on the attractiveness of other men. Dave had certainly noticed that Jack somehow managed to look cuter frozen than most guys did at their best, but he never would have mentioned it

“Well, he’s a little pale and waxy-looking right now,” Frank allowed. He looked up, to stare intently at Dave. “But wait until he emerges from his cocoon, fresh and alive and gay and young.”

“I didn’t know you were an incurable romantic, Frank.” As Dave spoke, a strange look crossed Frank’s face for a split second, and then was gone before Dave could identify it. “If it’s half as bad as in training, he’ll wake up feeling more like stale and dead on his feet and miserable.”

Frank sighed and studied the floor, his shoulders slumping.

“As for young, I happen to know he’s only only a few years younger than us, and the trip to Jupiter will only widen that gap by one year. He’ll still have to face the big Three-Oh, sooner or later.”

“Yeah,” grunted Frank, hardly seeming to have heard. Finally he raised the sketchbook again, admired the picture some more, and flipped slowly through the next few pages. “More of good old Jack in the box, I see. Good choice of subject—” Then he stopped suddenly at the next page, and Dave peered over his shoulder, knowing what he would see, with a sinking feeling despite the steady gravity equivalent provided by the carousel.

“I, uh, got tired of drawing ’still life’,” he explained lamely.

“Don’t apologize. Do I really, um, look this good?” breathed Frank, with wonder in his voice.

“Well,” Dave said lightly, “I admit it took all my artistic ability to turn that ugly puss of yours into something that wouldn’t frighten away the ship’s rats.” He congratulated himself on coming up with a satisfactory ritual insult on short notice.

Frank didn’t deign to reply, or was too absorbed to hear. He flipped slowly through a few more pictures of himself sleeping under the blanket in his hibernaculum. Then he stopped short again. Dave gulped.

“I guess I did fall asleep once or twice on the tanning table,” Frank admitted.

Dave stared at his feet. “Yeah, well... I got up in the middle of the night one time to take a leak, and with the table being right next to my bed, I couldn’t help but... Well, I hope I didn’t violate your privacy. I know we don’t get much on this ship.”

Flexing his muscles under his uniform, apparently unconsciously, Frank asked again, “Am I really in as good shape as you’ve made me look here?”

“Well— yeah. In the right light, from the right angle, you really do look that muscular. I actually had to combine several different —” he groped for the right term, but he’d never had any formal art training, whereas his pre-mission geological cross-training was fresh in his mind “— phase angles. To get each muscle to look its best, see.” That was close to the right term, anyway. It suggested the process of finding just the right viewing and lighting angle that reflected a sheen of sweat. If only he could paint! Or getting the play of light and shadows to highlight the sparse hair in the center of Frank’s chest...

“Just how long did it take you to make all these... biomorphological observations?” asked Frank, sounding amused.

Dave couldn’t meet his eyes. “Okay, I admit it. After the first time, I got in the habit of trying to catch you asleep on the table. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep, knowing you were napping there with your head half a meter away from mine. I don’t know what I would have done if you’d woken up.”

Come to think of it, it was really touching that Frank trusted him enough, on a subconscious level, to stay asleep, stretched out completely defenseless, while Dave loomed over him long enough to capture every inch of his all but naked body on paper. If only Frank knew what kind of man he was trusting, things would be different, Dave reminded himself.

When Frank didn’t answer, he babbled on, trying to make light of it, “Strictly scientific observations, like you said — biomorphological analysis. I’m trying to answer the scientific question of, um, what forces shaped this rugged terrain.”

“The exercise machine, actually,” Frank answered dryly. “And thanks. I never guessed I was... modeling for you all this time.”

“Who did you think... took off your sun goggles?”

“Oh. Heh. I guess I assumed I knocked them off in my sleep. I never thought to ask HAL about it.” He looked back at the sketch. “But that’s okay. You can take off whatever you want, if you make me look this good.”

Dave caught his breath and tried not to read too much into what was surely an innocent joke. Frank could have no idea that there was anything wrong with Dave.

“One thing I like, in looking at these closer, is, well, you obviously did a flattering job of making me look strong and tough, but somehow you managed, at the same time, to make me look a little vulnerable.”

Dave had worked hard to capture that aspect of Frank. He’d achieved it in one of the sketches, in particular, by balancing several elements: a well-muscled arm flung across his eyes against the light, the fingers curled. The patch of soft dark hairs under his arm rendered in fine, light strokes. The suggestion of stubble on his exposed throat. He was pleased that Frank had noticed that subtlety. But at the same time, Dave was embarrassed, because it was a projection of some deep feelings he wasn’t ready to admit to. During the hours that he was the only man awake, he seemed to feel a deep-seated protective instinct to guard his sleeping comrade from harm. He felt a little echo of that even for the men in hibernation, who were nearly strangers to him, and whose chiseled muteness bore as much resemblance to death as to normal slumber. But a warm, breathing fellow explorer really seemed to trigger some ancient instinct. It was as though it didn’t matter whether they were on a hunting party with a warm fire to keep the dark at bay, or in a ship that was a little cocoon of light and warmth hurtling through the cold and endless dark of space. It sounded almost natural when he thought about it that way. Did all guys feel like that? No, who was he kidding? Even if they did, he knew his feelings for Frank didn’t stop there. They went way beyond what was normal. He might as well admit that, if only to himself.

“I just draw what I see,” was what he finally fell back on. “I guess everyone looks a little vulnerable when they’re asleep.”

“Sometimes I watch you when you’re asleep too,” Frank confided unexpectedly. “I get to feeling kinda lonely when I’m the only one — the only human being — awake within a hundred million miles. All alone out here.”

That Frank would offer him this rare glimpse of a genuine vulnerability, beneath the somewhat tough exterior he projected, overwhelmed Dave. He swallowed and allowed himself to put a hand on Frank’s shoulder, look him directly in the eye and say quietly, “You’re not alone, pal.”

Frank blinked rapidly and reached for Dave’s shoulder. Dave hastily withdrew his hand and recoiled a step, then mentally kicked himself for the automatic reaction. To fill the silence, and provide an acceptable interpretation of what he’s said, he amended, “I’ll bet you have a lot of family and friends waiting for you back home.”

Frank sighed. “Yeah. My mom and dad, my brother and his wife, and... maybe a few other people.”

“Ah,” Dave said knowingly, hearing the hesitation before the vague reference to “other people.” “I’ll bet you have a whole string of girls waiting for you on Earth.”

“Something like that.”

“Not on Earth? Oh, yeah, those girls on the station are pretty, aren’t they? How about that elevator operator, eh?” In truth, Dave could hardly remember what she had looked like, but he clearly remembered two good-looking young men commenting on her as they left the elevator.

“You like the women on the station?” asked Frank in amused disbelief. “In those ridiculous little pink hats?”

“C’mon, you’re not claiming you didn’t find any of them attractive?” teased Dave in a knowing tone.

Frank studied him thoughtfully, then said, “Well, there was one. Do you know Dorothy?”

“I don’t think so. Where does she work?”

“Oh, um, she works, well, in the Departures Lounge. Sending people back home.” Frank gave a deep sigh, presumably longing for this Dorothy. His brown eyes could look remarkably sad and lost sometimes.

“No, I wouldn’t have met her, then. My last trip down was four years ago, and I doubt any of those girls were even out of high school then.”

“Just thought I’d ask,” Frank mumbled. “You never know.”

HAL was pleased to see Poole taking an interest in Bowman’s artistic hobby. This was surely an improvement over his recent brooding. Discussion of the sexual merits of various women was an even more wholesome sign, since it was high on the list of expected social interaction in an all-male environment.

Looking back over the conversation, though, he was a bit puzzled by the look that had crossed Poole’s generally impassive face for one single incomputable flash of time, when discussing the after-effects of cryo-suspension. Cross-referencing it with his facial expressions database, he decided it could only be interpreted as a look of wild hope, followed by disappointment, neither of which HAL could account for. He couldn’t free himself from the suspicion that there was something troubling the man, something difficult to define in terms of the standard psychological models. Whatever it was, Bowman appeared to also be failing to pick up on it.

Next chapter