Alternatives, Chapter 07


Mark Apoapsis

“Let’s drink and be merry, all out of one glass.”
— traditional Celtic tune

Without a supporting community to provides goods, Dave had few options if he wanted to give Frank a tangible birthday present. And any birthday party without sufficient presents, decorations, or a real cake was indistinguishable from an ordinary day — just like all those stretching monotonously before and behind the two explorers until they reached Jupiter.

He didn’t want to risk giving him anything too personal, like a sketch of him — not even a fully clothed one. Frank might see sentimentality from another guy as a sign of weakness, and Dave didn’t want to lower his friend’s estimation of him. Bad enough that he was doing something for his birthday at all; he didn’t need to get mushy about it. Sketching anything else for him would be too artsy. Giving him something from their common stores seemed pointless. So the only obvious source of presents was his meager personal payload allotment.

He knew that neither of his eight-tracks of classical music would be appreciated. Frank preferred disco and Barbra Streisand, and had threatened to break Dave’s neck if he played “The Blue Danube” once more in his hearing. (In fact, HAL had gotten very concerned over that, and both men had had to explain the notion of playful aggression and mock violence to him). That left few choices. Yet one luxury, smuggled aboard inside his shaving kit, fit neatly into the established patterns of his limited relationship with the other man.

In their daily routine, there were few things they regularly did together. They’d sporadically tried chess, card games, and curve ball, but aside from their weekly allotment of one hour of television uplink — which the two always watched together, rarely speaking to each other except for obligatory comments about sports — the only activity they shared on a regular basis was meals. Dave always tried to take his lunch break at the same time as Frank was eating breakfast. Since coffee was almost the only freshly prepared, non-reconstituted product onboard, it was the highlight of their meal. Ironically enough, Dave had always settled for freeze-dried in his apartment on Earth, and was getting fresh coffee only here, where everything else was freeze-dried. The food consisted of mush, in a selection of colors and approximations of flavor. Nutritionally balanced mush, to be sure. Enriched mush, mush chock full of the roughage that was becoming recognized as an important factor in preventing heart disease and cancer — if they lived long enough, in their profession, to worry about having their old age cut short — but mush nonetheless.

The coffee, in contrast, was surprisingly good, much better than typical office coffee on Earth, and an order of magnitude better than what the poor souls at Clavius had to endure. Not fresh-ground, but at least vacuum packed (the hard way, starting with a full atmosphere of pressure and pumping it out). The pressurized, gravity-independent coffee maker in the main body of the ship, the latest Starbrewer commercial model, made a dark, flavorful, espresso-like coffee, much better than what came out of the carousel’s automatic galley, so Dave had made a custom of bringing a bulb down to Frank right after he woke up. Something about savoring one of their few available pleasures together appealed to Dave. With this incentive, he was trying to overcome his freeze-dried bachelorhood background and was learning to perfect the water temperature, pressure, and measurements. There were about a dozen settings to tweak on the Starbrewer, an engineer’s dream. Frank usually didn’t acknowledge the quality of the result beyond muttering “Thanks” as Dave handed him the bulb, but he seemed to enjoy it, and any way that Dave could give his friend pleasure was okay by him.

Now it made the perfect setup for a surprise. There was no wrapping paper onboard, and of course a present needed to be disguised in some way.

“Thanks,” muttered Frank predictably as Dave handed him the bulb. He set it down beside his juice cup and continued reading his morning newspaper upload on the display lying at his elbow. A minute later, though, he picked it up and took a sip. His eyes widened and he jumped to his feet (actually, he overshot and literally jumped a foot in the air) and looked at Dave. For a minute, Dave was afraid that Frank was about to spit his gift right back in his face. But he managed to swallow, and quickly got his coughing under control. Dave resisted the temptation to take this as an excuse to pound him on the back. He didn’t want to push his luck with too much physical contact.

Frank stared at Dave accusingly. “Is this what I think it is?”

“Um, sorry if you don’t like it. I just thought—”

“No, it’s just that it took me totally by surprise.” Frank sipped a little more cautiously and nodded.

“Well, that was the idea. Maybe it was a dumb idea, but I thought I’d surprise you for your birthday.”

“How did you— oh, of course, HAL must have told you. Thanks, Dave! And you succeeded.”

“I’m sorry, I—”

“Don’t apologize. It was very thoughtful. I love... rum in coffee. It is rum, right?”

“Yeah. I realize I was taking a chance. I don’t really know what your tastes run to.”

Frank, just starting another sip, suddenly had another coughing fit just as Dave finished speaking.

“Hey, are you all right?” asked Dave in alarm. “Don’t force yourself to drink it if you don’t like it.”

Frank held up a hand. “It’s not that,” he choked. “Sorry.” He cleared his throat and gave one final cough. “It’s good, really. Just give me a minute to warm up to it. I really do like rum. I’m... just not used to it first thing in the morning.”

Dave mouthed a curse. “Sorry, Frank, I forgot about the time difference.”

Frank tugged at the white terrycloth bathrobe he was wearing, a reminder of the implications of the crew rotation. “Moron,” he observed with a grin.

“Yeah. I’ll fix you a fresh cup with no rum. Let me have that back; no sense in wasting it.”

“No way, buddy! You gave this to me, and I’m going to enjoy it. You just need to give me a minute to adjust. ’These things must be done dellllicately,’” he said, imitating a high-pitched scratchy voice that Dave vaguely associated with a kid’s movie Frank must be quoting from. Frank hesitated. “Where’ve you been hiding this? You can’t have very much. No way would they have let you bring any alcohol aboard openly. There’s some sneaking Temperance Society movement about this business.”

“I smuggled it aboard in my shaving kit,” Dave admitted. “I’ve got more, but not much. Not enough to get both of us drunk more than once, I’m afraid. I figured I’d save the rest to celebrate Jupiter Orbital Insertion. While it’s still just the two of us. I don’t really have enough to share with Charlie, Victor, and Jack.”

“They’d probably prefer a frozen daiquiri or something,” Frank quipped. He held up the bulb and looked at Dave with gentle brown eyes. “This was generous of you. You could have hogged it all.”

“It’s about all I had that would make a good birthday present.”

He took another sip, seeming to fully appreciate it now. He threw his head back and closed this eyes. His Adam’s apple bobbed as the delicious forbidden cargo slid down his throat, and he gave a little groan of pleasure.

He was probably just pretending to enjoy it to make Dave feel better. The poor guy probably didn’t even like rum, had probably never drunk rum in his life.

“Mmm. Smooth. Some kind of dark Jamaican variety, right?”

Okay, Dave admitted to himself. Frank had done this before. “Barbados.” “Mount Something-or-other.”

“It’s so good,” sighed Frank. “It’s been so long since I had any.” He greedily sucked more, giving the bulb a gentle squeeze to coax more out. Suddenly he chuckled, looking at the bulb in his hand.

“What’s so funny?”

“Um. That my shipmate is a rum smuggler.”

Inspired by the image, Dave spontaneously answered, “Aye, matey. We can pretend that we’re pirates back in the good old days, when a man didn’t need a doctorate to get a berth.”

“Arrr!” growled Frank lustily, throwing his arm around Dave. Dave noticed with some alarm that Frank had barely touched his breakfast before draining more than half of the spiked coffee. “All we need is a parrot.”

Dave glanced over at the nearest of the red camera lenses that represented HAL’s presence. Frank caught the gesture, and both men burst out laughing uncontrollably, holding on to each other as if for support in the scant gravity. It felt good. “Avast!” Dave shouted, randomly digging into his dim knowledge of nautical terms.

“Oh. Sorry,” Frank said, letting go of him and sitting back in his own chair.

“S’okay,” Dave muttered, wondering in disappointment why Frank had gotten uncomfortable with the contact so suddenly.

“So, me hearty,” Frank asked before the silence had extended too long, “Exactly how many casks of rum did you say you smuggled aboard?”

“Just five of those little plastic airline bottles,” Dave answered lamely.

“Oh well. I guess there’s only so much you can hide in your shaving kit.”

“You realize, it wasn’t you I was hiding them from. Otherwise I’d have hidden them in your shaving kit.”

“Hey! I just shaved today,” Frank pointed out, giving him a playful poke in the stomach. “Wanna feel?”

“Not really,” Dave lied.

Frank lifted the bulb to his lips again, then glanced back at Dave and asked, “Didn’t you pour a cup for yourself?”

“It’s your birthday.”

“Here,” he said, offering the bulb. “Have some of mine.”

“No, I couldn’t,” Dave stammered, shying away from Frank’s outstretched hand.

“What? You afraid I’ll give you a cold? There’s not a virus in sight on this whole ship.” He took another sip. Then, locking eyes with Dave, he slowly and deliberately ran his tongue around the rim of the drinking tube. Solemnly, he pressed the bulb against his crewmate’s chest, with a look of challenge.

After a long pause, feeling the warmth of the bulb starting to seep into his chest, even through the thick gray material of his flight suit, Dave removed Frank’s hands from the bulb, raised the glistening tube to his own mouth, and sucked out a precious mouthful of the spiked coffee. It may have been his imagination, but he thought he detected a residual hint of mint from Frank’s toothpaste on the tube, and more complex under-tastes; then the taste of rum and coffee overwhelmed it. He savored the flavor of it in his mouth, then finally swallowed. Before handing it back, he ran his own tongue up the full length of the tube, in long strokes starting at the base and ending at the tip, turning it to cover every possible side. Frank, he noticed, was watching raptly. Finally, he handed it back, resisting the temptation to press the warm container against Frank’s bare chest. His robe was parted just enough to reveal the sparse hair at the center of his chest as he intently leaned forward.

Frank took the container and sipped from it almost reverently until it was nearly empty. Finally, he tilted it carefully, enlisting the forces of the carousel to gather the remaining liquid at the bottom, and sucked the last few drops up the tube and into his mouth. Finishing, he turned back to Dave without speaking, his dark smoldering eyes seeming to express some hidden emotion.

“Happy birthday, Frank,” Dave said softly, and inadequately. With only a slight hesitation, he allowed himself to reach out and rest his right hand on Frank’s shoulder. Frank’s left hand gripped his shoulder firmly in return. For a second, in the light gravity, Dave had one of the sudden dizzying shifts of perspective he sometimes got in zero gee EVAs, when his mind suddenly decided that a new direction was “down.” It seemed as though Frank was struggling to resist some powerful force that was trying to draw him down into Dave’s arms, and that the strong grip on Dave’s shoulder was all that was holding him at arm’s length.

Then the moment passed, and Frank released his shoulder. He searched Dave’s face. “Dave. I —” he began, in a husky voice. He took a deep breath. “So, uh, there was something I’ve been wanting to ask you.”


“If they hadn’t had to remove the movie projector from the manifest to save mass, and you’d had room for exactly one film, which one would you have picked?”

“What?!” sputtered Dave. It seemed like such a non sequitur. Was Frank trying to break the mood deliberately with the first stupid thing that came to mind? No, of course not; the only “mood” to be broken was all inside Dave’s own head. He’d just been projecting his own feelings onto Frank. He had no idea what Frank was really thinking.

“Just a game,” Frank said lightly.

“Is this in lieu of ’Pin the Tail on the Donkey’?”

“Sure, whatever. You get one movie. What’s your all-time favorite?” There was something queer in the way he asked it, as though it was a test, and one that Frank was desperately hoping Dave would pass.

“I don’t know. Can I choose a T.V. show, like one of the better Star Trek episodes from the mid-70’s?”

“Has to be a movie.”

“Well, that lets out science fiction. I wouldn’t want to waste my one choice on some Grade B movie when I could have a big-budget blockbuster. I dunno. Ben-Hur, I guess.”

Frank looked startled. “Ben-Hur?” he echoed incredulously.

Dave felt a little defensive. “What’s wrong with Ben-Hur?”

Frank chuckled. “Nothing. I kinda liked that one myself, now that you mention it. It’s just not what you’re supposed to say. Not the answer I was hoping for.”


“But it’s an honest answer, isn’t it?” he added thoughtfully.

“Well, yeah. I guess so. It was the first thing I thought of.”

“Which parts did you especially like?”

“I don’t know. I hardly remember it. I was a kid when I saw it.”

“Which parts do you remember, then?”

“The scene with the two main characters, old boyhood friends, I think, meeting again and clasping each other’s arms, and drinking together. I remember two spears sticking into a rafter together. And the— um, the scenes on the ocean.” He stopped short of describing his clear memory of sweating, muscular slaves straining at their oars, sometimes falling over their comrades in their exhaustion. He hoped this wasn’t some kind of trap.

“Interesting. I think most people remember the chariot race.”

“That’s the scene where Ben-Hur yanks his Roman friend’s whip out of his hands when he turns it on him, right?”

Frank raised his eyebrows. “Uh. Yeah.” He stared at Dave. “What about other movies? Did you ever see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?”

“That’s pretty good too. Was that the one I was supposed to pick?”


“What’s the right answer, then?”

After glancing around, apparently unconsciously, Frank said in a low voice, “The Wizard of Oz.”

Dave barked a laugh. “You’re joking! And you were laughing at my choice?”

“Either that, or something starring Marilyn Monroe or Bette Davis,” Frank said firmly.

“That’s what you were hoping was what I’d say?” He didn’t generally get much out of movies focusing on glamorous women, although it came as no big surprise that Frank felt differently when it came to women.

“Yeah. Oh well.”

“I guess we just have different tastes in movies.”

“Not really. Those aren’t the kind of movies I like, either. Well, except maybe the first one — there’s certainly something appealing about visiting a strange new world. But those are what I would have picked anyway, if you’d asked me the same question.”

“Frank, you’re not making any sense. Maybe you’d better get some food down on top of that rum.”

He waited while Frank finished his breakfast. Then he went to the controls and called for the bread pudding that had been the closest thing to a cake that he and HAL could program the oven to make, with a chocolate bar from Dave’s personal stash melted over the top. “We don’t have any candles, so you have to come over here to the console.” He set the container down, and HAL dimmed all the non-critical lights except for thirty-three small yellow indicators just above the “cake.” Dave and HAL broke into “Happy Birthday.” There was something peculiar about the way HAL sang it, and it took Dave a few seconds to realize that it was the first time he’d heard this song sung on-key. “Okay, go ahead, blow ’em out.”

Sitting in front of the “candles,” Frank closed his eyes tightly, opened them to look briefly at Dave, and closed them again briefly. Then he took a deep breath, and blew over the bread pudding “cake.” As pre-arranged, HAL made the indicator lights flicker, and turned all them off in rapid sequence as Frank swept his breath over them — all but two that sputtered and steadied again. Laughing, Frank blew again to put out the last two. It was good to hear him laugh.

“You’re getting old, Frank. Remember when you could do that it one breath?”

“You know,” said Frank, suddenly serious, “the symbolism of blowing out candles has never struck me before. It means I got through another year of life and I’m still breathing. Thanks.”

“Oh, it was no trouble, and kinda fun. I just wish I’d thought to pack real candles.”

“No, I mean thanks for helping me get through it still breathing. The micrometeoroid the other day.”

Dave shifted uncomfortably. “Just doing my job.”

Frank snorted. “And you were so wrapped up in doing your job that you forgot how to dress yourself?”

“It was an emergency situation,” Dave protested. “There wasn’t time—”

“To fix your zipper? Seems to me there was plenty of time, while you were waiting for HAL to pump down the pressure and open the door. You must have been preoccupied.”

Dave sighed. “I kept thinking you were going to lose consciousness before you could get the patch on,” he admitted.

“Yeah... There were a few bad moments when I wondered the same thing. I hope they redesign that damn cap.”

“I’m sure they will. Good job on your incident report, by the way.”

“HAL helped. It would have taken me hours to get it to sound that polite. Anyway, I wanted to say that it was a real relief when you came to the rescue, and I knew for sure I was going to make it.”

“I... was glad to help.”

“I mean, I could probably have handled it myself, but it was nice to have someone I could lean on if I had to.”


“And then... later, while we were waiting for the flight deck to repressurize, and you—”

“Forget it happened. It didn’t mean anything.”

“Bullshit. Of course it meant something! It meant we’re buddies, and that you didn’t want to lose me. It meant at least that. Don’t deny me that much, Dave!”

“Oh, yeah, of course, Frank,” he assured him earnestly. “Take it easy. I didn’t mean it that way. I was incredibly relieved I hadn’t lost you. And yeah, I’d do anything for you, take any risk! Anything that didn’t endanger the mission. If you’d been breathing vacuum in there, I’d have ordered HAL to blow the hatch and let me try to save you, if there were the slightest chance you were still alive.”

“Ditto,” Frank said softly. “And Dave...”


“If... if that’s all the hug meant, I’m a very lucky man. Not every man has even one buddy he can depend on, who would gladly put his life on the line for him. I... can’t tell you how much that means to me. I don’t want to ever throw away that kind of friendship, whatever else happens between us—”

“If you’re talking about the argument we had a few days ago, don’t worry. I wouldn’t let a trivial argument get in the way of the big picture.”

“Oh, that. Forget it. I’m sorry about snapping at you then. It wasn’t really you I was mad at. Maybe I’m going a little stir crazy. And... well, to tell the truth, I was having misgivings about the personal price I paid to get on this mission.” He looked away.

“If you want to talk about it...”

“No. Thank you. Look, Dave, what I want to say is, your friendship is the most important thing in the world to me right now, next to getting to Jupiter, and I don’t want you to let anything threaten it. I don’t want you to feel you’re under any pressure to make it, um, more than that. So if that’s all the other day meant — that we’re buddies and you were afraid of losing me — I’m very happy with that. Don’t think I’m not.”

Could Frank have picked up on Dave’s unnatural urges and be warning him to cool it or lose his friendship? Dave couldn’t stand losing Frank’s friendship; it was all he had. “That’s... all it meant,” he lied. Anything to make Frank happy.

Frank let out a breath. “Okay,” he said, very softly, a slight catch in his voice.

“I’m still waiting for a slice of that cake. You’re the birthday boy; you’re supposed to make the first cut.”

Frank brightened, and picked up the fork-spoon to dish out portions for himself and Dave.

It didn’t taste half bad. Fortunately, Dave had forgotten what real birthday cake was supposed to taste like. After they’d finished off what passed for the crumbs, he announced, “Now, I did get you one present that is actually wrapped — sort of. You’ve got to keep in mind that I had, er, limited resources.” He held out a small package sealed in Mylar and explained sheepishly, “So I stole your own pajamas, and now I’m giving them back to you.”

Frank laughed. “I never got around to breaking those out. I did notice you’ve been wearing yours lately.”

“Did you.” Dave always went to sleep with his blanket pulled up nearly covering his shoulders, and he knew he didn’t toss and turn in his sleep — probably thanks to the artificial sleep aids or the light gravity — because he woke up in the same position. It seemed to him that a casual glance, as Frank passed by, wouldn’t be enough to let him notice whether his shoulders were covered with black cotton or dark gray silk. A longing gaze? No, Frank had said something the other day about just needing another human to look at. He’d just been watching him breathe. Or maybe he was just good at spotting details. Dave knew his psychology: what he was doing was projecting his own abnormal desires again. He didn’t know any homosexuals personally, but there was no way anyone could mistake Frank for one of them.

“How do yours feel?” Frank asked, as he finished ripping open the package and shook out the dark gray silk.

“Real comfortable.” Hastily he added, “I discovered that a few weeks ago when I had nothing clean to wear. Guess I kinda got in the habit.”

“I might never have tried them. Thanks for the gift.” He seemed sincere.

“One last present before I hit the sack, Frank. This one isn’t something tangible.”

Frank raised his eyebrows.

“I know how much you enjoy showers.”

Frank waited, lips parted slightly. He seemed to be holding his breath.

“So I took a real short shower first thing yesterday morning, and I didn’t take a shower at all this shift.”

Frank barked a laugh. “That’s supposed to be a present for me?” he teased, poking him in the ribs. “I have to live with you, you know!”

“C’mon, you know what I’m getting at. The water’s been recharging ever since, and it should be just about at max. Take a nice, long shower. I want you to drain the reserves dry. I can wait until tomorrow evening.”

“Ah! Too bad we can’t be more efficient about those showers.”

“How do you mean?”

“Never mind.” Frank looked away. “I don’t want to...”

“You’re not suggesting we... No, of course not.”


“You’re not suggesting we... share the shower, are you?”

Still turned away, Frank said, “I’ve shared showers with other guys lots of times. It didn’t necessarily mean anything.”

Dave stammered, “Yeah, but, uh, this one really isn’t... I don’t think that tiny stall... They didn’t... It’s not really designed for two men!”

Frank sighed. “Unfortunately, you’re right. Like so many other things in this world.”

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