Alternatives, Chapter 08


Mark Apoapsis

HAL paused in his task of recalibrating the engine gimbal mechanism to focus his attention on Poole, who was towelling off his hair after a shower. He was easiest to talk to after his exercises, so this would be as good a time as any. HAL waited discreetly until Poole was dressed presentably, and then said: “Good evening, Frank. Did you enjoy your exercise period?” Poole’s breathing had returned to a normal rate, so HAL reset the carousel life support parameters back to their nominal values, except to keep it a bit dry and warm until Poole’s damp hair could finish drying.

“Yes, HAL, it was great. Thanks for turning the oxygen up. You can put it back to normal now, I’ve caught my breath.”

His natural endorphin high would also ebb soon, so this was the perfect moment for a talk. His apathy had shown signs of improvement after his birthday; his reaction to the surprise had been everything Bowman had promised, but he had slowly been withdrawing again in the weeks since then.

“By the way, Frank, speaking of exercise, do you mind if I ask a favor of you?”

Poole stared at him and raised his eyebrows. That usually indicated a quizzical expression, which HAL decided to interpret as “I have no idea what favor I could do for you, or what it has to do with exercise, and am curious to find out.”

“I couldn’t help but notice that Dave is not complying with the exercise requirements with nearly the enthusiasm that you are, Frank. As you know, it’s an important mission requirement that all non-hibernating crew members follow a regular a exercise regimen to maintain proper cardiovascular, skeletal, and muscular condition, especially given that the carousel provides only lunar-equivalent gravity.”

“And Dave isn’t?”

“He’s complying with the requirements the Flight Surgeon specified, but no more than that. He seems to regard it as rather a chore.”

“Is he gonna be okay to go back to Earth at the end of the mission?” There was a barely detectable creasing of his forehead, perhaps indicating concern for the other man.

“His condition is within acceptable bounds, and it will stay that way if he maintains his current level of activity. His trend, though, seems to be toward spending less time exercising, and that could become a problem over the course of the mission. Also, if you don’t mind my saying so, the two of you have been engaging in somewhat fewer physical recreational activities together than was the case earlier. I am factoring those into my projection as well.”

“Yeah, we really ought to do that more often.” His posture was now telegraphing shyness, for some reason. “I’ve wanted to, but our schedules never seem to mesh, and... I don’t want to push him to spend more time with me.”

Interpersonal interactions were a very difficult problem to model. HAL had only a fuzzy idea of what unwritten rules of conduct Poole felt he was following, so he said cautiously, “Any form of exercise that you both agree on would be a very healthy step, and both of you would probably benefit psychologically, as well, from more social interaction. On the other hand, the most efficient form of exercise would be to spend more time using the SLPXU, if he were only willing to do so. You yourself have been more than conscientious about using it. As a result, you are, by all measurements, in excellent physical shape.” It was a simple, undistorted fact. If it also worked as flattery, so much the better.

“Uh, thanks, HAL. Does this have to do with the favor you wanted to ask?”

“Well, I thought you might be willing to talk to Dave about it, man to man. I’ve tried speaking to him about it on several occasions, but he’s rather defensive about this issue. You seem to actively enjoy your own exercise periods, so I thought that you might be able to somehow impart your motivation onto him — particularly given that he often seems to enjoy those occasions when he has exercised in your company.”

Poole shuffled his feet and glanced down, as though to hide his expression. A lower camera, mounted at eye level for a seated person, picked it up anyway: pleased, mixed with a hint of embarrassment and confusion. “Really? Guess it makes sense, then. For me to talk to him.”

HAL added encouragingly, “Anything you could do to motivate Dave would be very much appreciated. Because you are both male humans of similar age and comparable physique, you are in a much better position than I to empathize with him, and you can also serve as a role model. I would suggest comparing the time you each spend exercising, and then pointing out — or even demonstrating — the superior results that you have achieved.” He noted that Poole’s face reddened slightly at this. “Of course, I realize that any such comparison of strength touches upon complex and sensitive issues in your culture, which are, quite honestly, beyond the capabilities of my current anthropological models. I encourage you to use your own discretion and imagination in deciding how best to achieve this goal.”

This speech seemed to be persuasive. Listening to it, Poole looked up, his eyes gleaming, and a smile crossed his face. Any kind of smile was rare enough, except on the infrequent occasions when Poole and Bowman were enjoying their free time together. This smile was an entirely new type; it was one that he had never seen on Poole’s face. His extensive database of human facial expressions suggested that it could be classified as something known as a “wicked grin,” but that was not very illuminating. It was usually associated, he read, with pleasurable anticipation of the flouting of some social more, usually harmlessly. Without more experience, HAL estimated that it would take him on the order of a year to work out all the possibilities and guess which one applied to this situation. He would simply have to wait and find out.

“Sure. I’d be happy to, ah, talk to him about it. But look, HAL, I want a free hand.”

HAL puzzled over the phrase “free hand” a moment. If it was an idiom, it sounded as though it might mean “unpaid assistance.” No, that couldn’t be right; no one on board was charging anyone else for his assistance. Nor could he mean it literally, since body parts were not for sale in the first place. The likely meaning of “free” was “unoccupied,” he speculated, absently noticing a glitch in a nitrogen valve controller and resetting it. He considered the interpretation of “unoccupied crew member,” but discarded that after a moment as well. Poole may have meant “hand” literally, then, or it might be an unfamiliar idiom. More likely, Poole had simply failed to say what he meant, a quite common occurrence with human speakers; for example, Bowman had once said “truthfully answer” when he’d meant “truly answer,” and that was in an interview that would be watched by millions of viewers, when he was choosing his words as carefully as he could. In this case, though, there were no obvious close matches to what Poole may have meant to say.

The trouble with interpreting it as “unoccupied hand” was that humans rarely negotiated the details of resource allocation among their own limbs, and almost never in advance. Nor did Americans use their hands much in talking, although presumably Poole was thinking not just of “talking to him about it,” and had in mind some sort of demonstration or supervision of exercise techniques. (The nitrogen valve controller he had just reset was working again, as expected.) Perhaps Poole’s meaning would become less ambiguous later in the discourse, as this sort of thing often did. Quickly he composed a response before the pause in the conversation could extend much beyond the nominal half-second and become uncomfortable. He decided to assume that “free” meant “unfettered” and that “hand” literally meant the body part.

“Certainly I would never presume to tell you what to do with your own hands, Frank. I’m sure that one hand is quite sufficient for whatever you have in mind, leaving the other free to use as you see fit.”

Poole’s reaction to that was rather unexpected. His eyebrows rose, his jaw dropped slightly, and over the course of remarkably few seconds his face took on a significantly redder shade. Was he angry at the violation of some obscure rule of etiquette? Embarrassed? HAL hadn’t realized that hands were such a delicate subject. He waited for Poole to say something, while fiddling with a pair of redundant cryo-thermostats that were giving slightly inconsistent readings.

After making some odd noises that sounded like a cross between laughter and choking — no doubt another consequence of that unfortunate design defect that had cursed humans and their relatives with one multi-purpose conduit used for speaking, swallowing, and breathing; it was a wonder they managed to multitask it so successfully most of the time — Poole recovered and replied, “Um. Right. ’Free hand’ means, um, the freedom to do as I choose, at my discretion. So, uh, what I meant, was that if I agree to try to, ah, motivate Dave to exercise more, it’s only on the condition that I call the sho— er, that I decide what motivational technique to use, and that you let me do it without interference. Just like you said, I’m in a better position to know how to handle this. I don’t tell you how to modulate downlink subcarrier frequencies, and you don’t tell me how to motivate another guy to exercise.”

“I understand, Frank. Thank you for the clarification. I agree to refrain from interfering — subject, of course, to any overriding concerns about crew safety.”

“Great, then we’ve got a deal.” He paused, and just as HAL was turning his attention back to recalibrating the engine gimbal mechanism, he added soberly, “And believe me, HAL, I would never do anything to hurt Dave. Not in any serious way.”

HAL wondered if there was any emotional subtext to this apparently straightforward stipulation. What really intrigued him, however, was how happy Poole seemed to be at the outcome of this conversation. Instead of withdrawing into his usual apathetic affect, he had gone from being mildly concerned, to cheerfully “wicked,” to angry or perhaps embarrassed, to simultaneously amused and flustered, to quietly earnest, and finally back to a kind of gleeful cheer. Even equipped with the very latest American Psychological Association Models of Normal Male Behavior, HAL found a great deal of Poole’s and Bowman’s behavior mysterious. (The engine gimbal, in contrast, was working perfectly within its predefined specifications.)

After all these weeks of working with these individuals, he still found humans to be among the hardest things in the world to model accurately. Understanding their richly metaphorical and ambiguous language was a full-time job. Interpreting their emotions was even more difficult. Just when one thought one could predict each individual’s behavior, he defied both expectation and explanation. Working with people was indeed an endlessly stimulating challenge.

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