Alternatives, Chapter 09

Manned Maneuvering

Mark Apoapsis

“They wrestled, and became friends.”
— Epic of Gilgamesh, c. 5000 BCE.

“Morning, Frank.”

“Afternoon, Dave. You still using the SLPXU?” Frank was in his underwear, like Dave. Apparently he was going to break his routine and start his own exercise before breakfast.

“Naw, I did my ten-minute stint already. You go ahead.”

“Trying to make sure your favorite model stays in shape?” Frank asked, stretching and yawning.

Dave said nothing. He hoped he wasn’t blushing.

“I did half an hour on it before bedtime. I was thinking of going running. Wanna run with me, Dave?”

“I don’t know. I’ve had a long day.”

“C’mon, You’d have more energy if you exercised more. How about a game of curve ball, at least?”

“You never stop, do you, buddy? It’s no wonder you’re in such great shape. Too bad there’s no one here to really appreciate it,” he lied.

“It’s more than just for show. Look, I’ll demonstrate. C’mere.”

Dave approached him warily. Frank grinned as if in anticipation. That was Dave’s only warning. As soon as he was in reach, Frank’s left hand shot out and grabbed the hem of his T-shirt, yanked it up, bunched it around his fist, and hoisted him off the ground.

Dave gasped in surprise. He’d never had another guy do this to him before. He’d never even seen anyone do it, in all the months he’d spent on the Moon and on the station. It was an amazing feeling. He wasn’t scared; he trusted Frank completely and knew he was only being playful. There wasn’t even much physical discomfort at his reduced weight being supported only by Frank’s fist and his own twisted shirt — Frank could almost have held him up by the throat without choking him much. So there was nothing to distract him from the illusion that was was being held powerless by a man of super-human strength. Short of kicking his friend in the stomach — as his dangling feet were in a good position to do — he was pretty much helpless. It was surprisingly exciting.

“Put me down!” he protested, that being the most acceptable reaction that came to mind.

“Is that an order?” Frank asked.

“Huh?” Officially, Dave recalled, he was in command of the mission, and Frank was his deputy commander. But they’d never once stood on ceremony; each of them made the minor decisions on his own shift, and they always consulted one another on long-term decisions. Despite the quasi-military tradition for space missions, a two-person hierarchy on a year-long outbound journey seemed pointless, and only likely to cause resentment.

“If you order me to let you go, then of course I’ll do so immediately. If you beg me to let you go, well, I’ll think about it.”

“Oh...” So that was it. Frank was giving him the freedom to play along to the fullest, while still knowing he could end it if things got out of control, by using specific wording. Interesting idea.

“So, Dave, are you ordering me?”

Dave hesitated. “I’m begging you, Frank. Put me down. Please!” He wondered if Frank had noticed the bulge under his shorts. If he noticed, what would he make of this strange reaction to being manhandled?

“No,” Frank said thoughtfully, “I think I’ve got you just where I want you.” Dave squirmed in his grasp. Frank grabbed the waistband of Dave’s shorts with his right hand, holding him steady.

HAL watched with some concern, but so far, Poole was loosely following the approach HAL himself had suggested, although HAL would have thought the aggressive way he was carrying it out would be in violation of some interpersonal taboos. Clearly there was much to learn about the complexities of human cultures, even the one that had created and programmed him. The need for a command prefix code, or “Simon says,” was puzzling. He tentatively classified this whole activity as some sort of social ritual, perhaps a dominance display, in addition to its primary function of inducing Dave to increase his exercise activity. He could probably summarize it in the tables of his weekly Crew Psychology Report as “Horseplay.”

The immediate problem was how to report it in the realtime telemetry stream. Along with heartbeat and other vital signs when he was in a position to measure them, he was required to report on the status of each crewman, both waking and hibernating, every ten seconds. Unlike the weekly report, which could be “essay,” this was multiple choice. He was required to fill in a five-bit field, much like filling out a questionnaire every ten seconds asking “Which of the following 32 categories best describes the primary activity this crew member is presently engaged in?” That sort of thing worked reasonably well for the ship’s mechanical subsystems, but he was beginning to find it a rather sterile way to summarize human behavior. Still, it was not his place to redefine the telemetry dictionary. He pondered the choices again. “Horseplay,” “Roughhousing,” and other terms meaning “Playful Mock Violence,” were not on the list. The only provision for violence was to classify it as the catchall “Off-Nominal Deviant Behavior,” which would only be appropriate if Frank were, for example, stabbing Dave with a knife, or trying to kiss him. After a moment, he finally settled on “Recreation: Physical, Competitive,” for now, and stayed alert for further clues.

“What are you going to do with me?” Dave demanded, trying to keep the excitement out of his voice.

“Hmm. I think...” Still clutching Dave’s waistband, Frank ran the thumb of his right hand in an arc over Dave’s exposed belly, playing with the line of hairs that led up to his chest and down into his shorts. Again Dave writhed in his grip. “I think I’m going to drop you,” he admitted through gritted teeth, as his left arm finally started to shake from fatigue. He let go and stepped back, massaging his biceps.

“Now you try to do it to me.”

Surprised, Dave said, “With pleasure.” He approached slowly, rubbing his hands.

HAL noticed that both crew members seemed to be enjoying themselves, and appeared much less withdrawn than usual. Their faces were more mobile and were suffused with a healthy color indicating increased capillary blood flow, and their pupils were dilated. There were also subtle changes in the configuration of their lower bodies, of which he had only coarse perceptual models. He continued transmitting a “Recreation: Physical, Competitive” status in his running report on each of them.

Dave doubted he could lift Frank, but it would be fun to try. Frank obligingly held his arms away from his sides, palms out, and allowed Dave to tug his shirt out of his shorts and wind it around his fist, exposing his hard belly. He stood passively as Dave ran his knuckles up the length of his chest, lifting the shirt to reveal his chiseled pectoral muscles and the sparse black hair between them, until his fist was under his chin. When he had satisfied himself with his grip on Frank’s shirt, he strained to lift the other man, but barely got his toes to clear the ground before he had to set him down with a grunt. “Guess I can’t throw you as far as I can trust you,” he quipped with a shy grin.

“Told you you’re out of shape, pal. I must weigh all of, what, twenty-five, thirty pounds?”

“Feels heavier,” Dave panted.

“What are you going to do when we get back to Earth?”

“Stop bench-pressing other men?”

“Very funny. Technically, it’s closer to ’cleaning and jerking other men.’ But you know what I meant.”

“No, I don’t,” Dave retorted, feeling defensive despite himself. “I’m doing my exercises.”

“Yeah, the bare required minimum.”

“It’s enough to keep my bones in reasonable shape, and enough to let me stand up when get back. I can readapt once I’m home.”

“Maybe you could, but I’m not going to let you take the chance, buddy. Besides, you need to be able to defend yourself.”

Dave spread his arms and looked around elaborately. “Against who?”

Frank lunged at him and wrestled him to the floor. In less than a minute of tussling, he had Dave’s arms and legs pinned and his weight resting comfortably on top of him. “See? That was way too easy,” Frank grunted, easily resisting Dave’s struggles. “How am I supposed to,” he raised his voice slightly, “find creative new ways to exercise without it getting monotonous,” and continued in a quieter tone, “if I don’t have a partner who can best me some of the time?”

“You want a wrestling partner?” Dave asked in confusion.

Ignoring the question, Frank forced both of Dave’s arms above his head, and shifted his grip so that he was pinning both of his wrists with his right hand, leaning on him with his scant weight. He used his left hand to squeeze Dave’s biceps, then he ran it over his pectorals through his thin black T-shirt. “You need to build up those muscles, pal.”

(“Poole status: Performing Diagnostics,” HAL reported in the next update, with the internal equivalent of a shrug.)

“My muscles are just fine, thank you.” Dave grunted.

“They’re not letting you go anywhere right now, are they? Are you sure you have them engaged?” he taunted. His hand moved down. “Here, let’s take a look under the hood.”

“Hey!” Dave cried out to no avail, as Frank once again pulled his shirt up to his chin. He arched his back, and succeeded in raising the other man off the floor but not in throwing him off. That just gave Frank the opportunity to reach underneath him and pull the shirt off his back. As Dave sank back, exhausted, Frank worked the shirt over his head.

The deck plates were a little cold against his bare back. Other than that, they made a fine wrestling mat. They were hard and unyielding, but his body rested on them lightly, even with Frank’s weight on top of him. And they were pretty clean; he and Frank took turns swabbing the decks every week, and that was overkill, with no dirt being tracked in and only two not-very-fuzzy mammals living aboard. If it had been just him, Dave would have been willing to let it accumulate for months.

But he’d never expected to find himself lying half naked on the floor like this, with Frank on top of him. He was keenly aware of how vulnerable he was now, with his arms tangled in his own shirt, and his chest, stomach, and armpits completely exposed. His friend still had one hand free, and if he found out how ticklish he was in certain spots, Dave was doomed.

But Frank just studied Dave’s heaving chest and commented, “Mmm. Not bad at all. But — no match for me.” He twisted around, planted a knee in Dave’s bare chest, and tugged off Dave’s shoes, and then his socks. Dave realized that he had now lost any chance of standing up without Frank’s permission. The traction of his bare feet against the floor would be roughly the same as it would be on wet soapy porcelain on Earth, so the other man could sweep his feet out from under him with no trouble at all and be waiting for him by the time he hit the ground. Even if he succeeded in getting to his feet, he’d probably slip if he tried to run away.

“Now let’s get your shirt off so I can see your arms.” Straddling Dave’s chest, his bare knees squeezing Dave’s naked flank, he wrestled the shirt completely off. Then he paused to wad it up and toss it anti-spinward, as carefully as if they were playing a game of curve ball. Dave failed to block the toss and rescue his shirt, but seized the opportunity to grab a fistful of Frank’s own shirt and use it try to pull his head within range. Frank laughed at him, pried his hands off, and pinned his arms above his head again. “OK, now you can start trying to break away. I want to watch your muscles flex.”

Insulted, Dave renewed his efforts.

“Mmm, nice! Keep trying. Hard as you can.”

Although Frank was breathing hard, he could obviously enjoy keep Dave helpless indefinitely, and would enjoy doing so. After several minutes of humiliatingly futile struggle, Dave stopped and glared at his crewmate. “I’ll get you for this, buddy!” he whispered fiercely.

“It will be a long time before you’re strong enough to get me back,” Frank pointed out. “But you’re beginning to feel why it’s important to be a match for me, right?”

“How do you mean?”

Frank leaned closer, sliding his grip down to Dave’s bare upper arms — dangerously close to ticklish territory. “Humans have been hierarchical primates for most of our history. The space age, even agriculture, hasn’t been around long enough to make a dent in the instincts we have ingrained in us. Right?”

(“Poole/Bowman Status: Discussion: Scientific/Technical.”)

“Anything you say, Frank. You sure pick the strangest times for an anthropology lesson.”

“Or the strangest methods.” Frank leaned close to Dave’s face and whispered, “Aren’t you afraid of having your position as alpha male challenged?”

“What the hell are you talking about, Frank?”

“Talking? Even talking is a pretty recent invention, in the grand scheme of things.” Pressing his cheek, rough with a day of stubble, against the bottom of Dave’s recently shaven jaw, Frank ran his tongue along his neck and began nibbling gently on his throat. Dave moaned softly and closed his eyes, feeling his body going completely limp, submitting to whatever Frank might have in mind. Well, not completely limp. One part of him hadn’t been limp since about five seconds after Frank had first hoisted him off the ground by his shirt.

Frank’s left hand released his right arm and slid down the length of his naked torso, where his closely clipped nails began scratching Dave’s unprotected belly. Dave whimpered slightly, but offered no further resistance. All the fight had gone out of him. After what seemed like an eternity of this treatment, he felt Frank roll off of him, and was almost disappointed. But then he felt a hand slide under his bare back, and another under his knees. The other man was easily lifting his limp form and carrying him anti-spinward. Dave had no idea where his friend was taking him, or what he planned to do with him there. He savored that uncertainty.

Then he felt himself being stuffed into a familiar alcove, into the seat of the cage that was their exercise machine, or more officially, the SLPXU, or Spring Loaded Personal Exercise Unit. It had been specially designed for space travel, and would work in low gravity or even in zero gravity, and did not add massive weights to the payload.

It had some Velcro straps to hold the user in place, but since this unit was not in zero gee, they never used them. Until now. Frank was strapping him in. His eyes flew open. “Nooo! Let me go.”

“That didn’t sound like an order.”

“Please! I’ll do anything!”

“Good. What you’re going to do is to work out for an hour. ” Frank folded his arms across his chest. “And I’m gonna watch.”

(“Bowman status: Exercise, Non-aerobic. Poole status: Supervising Routine Operations,” HAL reported judiciously.)

“Anything— but that,” said Dave firmly.

“Okay, you want to clean the zero-gravity toilet? No, just joking. This is more fun to watch.”

Dave glared and said defiantly, “Okay, so you can put me in here. Maybe you can keep me from getting out. But how were you planning to force me to exercise?”

“I’m glad you asked that.” Frank took a drinking bulb and filled it with ice-cold water from the dispenser that was efficiently located next to the SLPXU. “If you cooperate, I’ll let you have some.” He held the tube to Dave’s lips, and allowed him one sip, just enough to make him realize how thirsty he had gotten from the wrestling. Then he pulled it away. “And if you stop exercising...” He squirted some of the ice-cold water onto Dave’s chest.

Dave gasped and sat bolt upright, and Frank took the opportunity to splatter more cold water down his spine. “Frank! You bastard! You’ll pay for that! As soon as I can get out of this thing.”

But Frank planted his hand on his chest and pushed him down again. “And, if you actively resist, I have a more extreme incentive in mind.” He walked two steps and picked up Dave’s shirt from where he’d accurately tossed it earlier. Holding the shirt in his right hand and the ice water in his left, he advanced on Dave. Dave freed his hands and reached down to the straps on his ankles, but Frank pushed him down and refastened the straps. He held Dave’s T-shirt in his teeth to free his hands to do so — which didn’t seem strictly necessary, come to think of it.

“Now, my fast friend,” Frank said as he watched him struggle uselessly against the restraints, “I’ll show you the extreme incentive.” He wet one end of the shirt thoroughly with the ice water, then tested it by whipping it against his own knee. “Yeah, that’s painful enough. And I didn’t even do it that hard. This will do nicely.”

Even the tiny drops of icy water flying off as it slapped Frank’s knee had stung Dave’s exposed skin where they hit his flank. Craning his neck, Dave could see a slightly reddened area on the skin above Frank’s knee.

How did he get into this situation? Stripped to his shorts, strapped almost spread-eagled to a metal rack, with his trusted companion threatening him with a makeshift whip if he didn’t do his bidding, and not another living soul within a hundred million miles? And why didn’t he call a halt to it, when he knew he could still do so with four words?

Frank rubbed the dry part of the cotton against his own cheek, then lightly drew a corner of it across Dave’s chest, just brushing the hairs, and then down the sensitive flesh of his abdomen. “Nice material, your shirt. Want to feel it against your skin again?” He flicked the wet end in the air, showering Dave’s unprotected body with icy droplets; he had to grit his teeth to stay silent. “Start exercising, matey. Now.”

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