Alternatives, Chapter 10


Mark Apoapsis

“I would like to think he enjoys doing it,
but perhaps that’s too strong a word...”
— Frank Poole, 3001, Arthur C. Clarke

Dave woke up the next day to the familiar background noises of the carousel section instead of to the close, quiet hiss of his bed’s air supply. Had he fallen asleep on the tanning table, like Frank? No, he was in his hibernaculum, wearing his pajamas. He’d left the lid open in his exhaustion, apparently. He still felt exhausted, although he’d slept deeply, and it seemed as if every muscle in his body was complaining. His eyes focused on a gray blur bending over him.

“Frank! Is something wrong?”

“Nope. I just wanted to help you get an early start on your exercises this morning.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. My muscles are still aching from yesterday.”

“Maybe I’ll let you off with half an hour, then, just this once. If you’re real good.”

Dave groaned. “You’re joking, right? And won’t that keep you up past your bedtime?”

“Nope!” Frank explained cheerfully. “I woke you up two hours early so you can get an early start.”

“You bastard! You probably did it so I’d be too tired and weak to resist.”

“The thought had occurred to me, but considering how easy you were to handle yesterday, without the sore muscles, I don’t think I need any extra advantage.”

“Go away.”

“Is that an order?”

Dave groaned again. He remembered now: he could order him away. But he wouldn’t. He might not come back. He closed his eyes, half hoping his sadistic crewmate would go away like a bad dream. He felt Frank’s fingers sliding under the silk of his pajama tops, unbuttoning it, stopping to play with his chest hairs, unfastening another button, moving further down... He shuddered at the sudden cold air on his chest as Frank ripped the pajamas open.

“I coulda brought you coffee in bed, but I figured that water would be healthier to drink before exercising.”

The mention of coffee might very well be part of his crewmate’s diabolical torture plot, as far as Dave was concerned. Water didn’t sound nearly so—

He yelped, taken completely unaware as the ice water was squirted onto his chest, and sat up with a jerk. Frank grabbed his shoulders to prevent him lying down again, then got hold of a bare foot, and half dragged, half launched him out of his hibernaculum. Gripping his upper arms, he set him down on the lid and roughly stripped him of his unbuttoned pajama tops. “Now, are you going to come quietly, or do we have to do this the hard way?” Frank asked, brandishing the bulb of ice water.

After half an hour of exercise, every minute of which made his muscles scream in protest, he could hardly move.

“What you need now, my friend, is a good massage.”

“No way, you sadist! I hurt enough as it is!”

“Ah, but that’s only because you wouldn’t let me give you one yesterday. Remember? Here, if you’re too sore to walk, I’ll even carry you.” He slung Dave’s weakly struggling form over his back and began striding toward the tanning table.

“Spinward? With another man on your back? Show-off!”

Frank responded by breaking into a jog, panting only slightly. He could probably have carried him under full Earth gravity with no trouble, Dave realized.

He laid him out, face down, on the tanning table cum massage table, not necessarily in that order. He went immediately to work vigorously kneading his aching back muscles. Dave writhed under his touch, begging for mercy. Frank pounded his back with his fists, forcefully enough to bounce his chest repeatedly clear of the table. Then he held Dave’s arm against his own uniformed chest and dug his thumbs into every painful muscle up and down his arm, one by one. When he rolled up the silk pajama leg and began kneading his calf muscles, Dave managed to plant a bare foot squarely in the center of his chest and kick him a meter into the air. He landed halfway in Dave’s bed. Dave struggled up on one elbow to peer over in concern. What if he’d knocked him out? Should he go over and... no, Frank was climbing out. Dave thought about trying to escape while he had time — not that there was anywhere to go — but it was hopeless; his bare feet wouldn’t provide enough traction in this gravity to allow quick motion. Frank came back to the table and went at him again, this time firmly holding onto the edge of the table with his right hand. His left pushed the thin silk all the way up each of his legs, almost to his crotch. He imprisoned Dave’s foot under his right arm and began savagely squeezing the muscles up and down his legs, working his way slowly upward, stopping only when the bunched-up silk pajamas kept his fingertips from sliding in any further. Finally he flipped him over onto his back and started on the front of his sore shoulders. He began working down toward his chest. “Tell me if you’re ticklish anywhere,” he said solicitously. Dave whimpered. “You are? Good. That will save on ice water in the future.” His fingers began lightly, systematically, exploring Dave’s torso.

By the third day, the ache was slightly muted. This time Dave climbed meekly out of bed when Frank unbuttoned his pajamas and threateningly rested his fingers, unerringly, on the most ticklish spot on his stomach. At the SLPXU, Frank held out his hand and simply said “Take it off, pal,” and Dave shrugged out of his pajama top and handed it to his tormentor.

Frank made him work out for a full hour again, including twenty endless minutes with the SLPXU in rowing-machine mode. Dave had been wrong to think that every muscle in his body was aching; rowing seemed to require a few new ones. Frank seemed to be especially enthusiastic about egging him on through this one; it must have fit with his pirate fantasy or something. “Pull, me hearty! Pull like your very life depended on it! Pull like you want to break this damn machine! Look, it’s Halley’s Comet coming to overtake us! Pull harder! Put your back into it! Snap your spine, why don’t you! Only pull!”

Later, with Dave lying limp and exhausted on the massage table, Frank experimented with another light gravity trick. He was able to walk barefoot on Dave’s bare back, even jump up and down. It was actually less painful than his hands. He stepped off Dave and rolled him over with one foot, like a vanquished opponent on the battlefield, then stood on his chest, his long toes curling around his chest hair.

He propped one foot on Dave’s chest, put the other on the table near Dave’s armpit — he was still lying spread-eagled as Frank had arranged him — stuck his big toe into his arm pit and started tickling. Dave managed to gather enough strength to throw him off balance and send him flying off the table. This time he bounced off Kaminski’s hibernaculum and eventually landed on the floor. He tried to get up too fast and his bare feet slipped.

“You okay?” Dave called in concern.

“Yeah, and I guess I deserved that,” he admitted, rubbing the shoulder that had struck the cold hard glass. “But I’ll make you pay for it tomorrow, anyway.”

He slept in boxer shorts and T-shirt again that night, in anticipation of the forced exercise session. The shorts were slightly more comfortable to exercise in, and the T-shirt had no buttons to add to the sting when used as a whip. After the exercise session, Frank blindfolded him with his own T-shirt before carrying him toward the massage table. Without warning, he dropped him, not onto the padded table, but onto something icy cold — a hibernaculum lid, he saw when Frank pulled the shirt off his head. Wearing nothing but his boxers, he cried out in his anger and his shame at the unexpected touch of cold glass all along his body.

“Hey, keep it down,” Frank taunted. “You’ll wake up Victor.”

Frank climbed on top and straddled him, holding him down and kneading his back muscles. Apparently he intended to make him endure the cold for the entire length of the daily massage. Frank’s strong hands felt incredibly warm by contrast. As Dave lay face down, seeing only the waxy face of his hibernating crewmate, sightlessly looking out through the glass faceplate where the frost was all on the inside, he realized how much he appreciated the warm touch of his living shipmate, even if it came disguised as cruelty disguised as gentleness.

HAL had just reached the conclusion that this use of a hibernaculum lid as a massage table must be another instance of horseplay, when the latest scheduled uplink window opened, and data began arriving from Earth, relayed through the Deep Space Network station in Mare Insularum. An audio message from Mission Control itself was the first item to arrive.

“X-ray Delta One,” said the bored voice of the capcomm, in the stilted cadence used for official radio communication, “this is Mission Control, for Flight Computer.” This one was for him, then. “Restricted access.” Perhaps about the secret mission objective?

“Roger your Crew Psychology Report of 0300. We have a request from the Flight Psychologist. He’s curious about the activity you labeled ’horseplay’ in your summary tables in the last report, and why it suddenly consumes ten percent of the crew’s time. He requests a video downlink of candid surveillance footage of the crew activities you put in that category.” The capcomm had paused at this point, then added in a subtly different tone, “No priority specified, so default this to Priority Ten until we hear otherwise. We’d better assume that he wants high quality video, so don’t bother sending it if you have to compress it; just hold it until you can send all the frames uncompressed. Mission Control out.”

A video and sound recording of the current activities would serve, until a better example came along, HAL decided. He had plenty of storage space at the moment, so he recorded three minutes of high quality video. It would have to wait until at least the downlink window after the next one, waiting for the higher priority traffic to be sent.

The audio command message was followed by a short burst of routine technical uplink, ephemeris data and the like, which HAL duly processed. Then the day’s personal messages started coming in. The first one, coincidentally, was from the same man serving as capcomm, a video message addressed to Poole. It was unusual for him to send a personal message to the crew, but not unexpected. The man was in the astronaut corps himself, and had trained for his part of the mission with Poole and Bowman and become friendly with them. HAL recalled that his service record showed that he had also served with Poole when both men were in the Navy.

His recorded image glanced to the side for an instant before speaking. “Hey, Frank. Just wanted to mention: I ran into your mother in the cafeteria after her last press interview. She complained to me about how short your messages have been getting. I don’t know what’s keeping you so busy up there, buddy, and it’s none of my business, but if I were you I’d start sending much longer messages to your parents.” He smiled, but HAL noticed that in one frame he seemed to look distressed for an instant. “Right away. Or you could be in all sorts of trouble, old buddy. Remember the time you forgot to write to her during that leave in Amsterdam? Oh, and you should probably tell Dave to do the same thing, to be on the safe side. Be... seeing you.”

Next week, after only half an eternity of SLPXU torment, Frank said casually, “You know, Dave, something just occurred to me. You’re probably skimping on your aerobic exercises too. When’s the last time you went running?”

“When’s the last time you shaved?” he retorted.

Frank leaned down and rubbed his rough cheek over Dave’s belly. “What do you think? Two days or so?” It felt like sandpaper, and Dave had to steel himself not to cry out. “Can’t be much more, or it would be softer,” he observed, moving up to his chest. Dave managed to limit his reaction to a soft moan. Finally Frank withdrew, released him from the restraints, and filled a squirt bulb with ice water. “Spinward, matey. I’ll give you a ten-second head start.”

A video of Poole driving Bowman around the carousel with a whip should be an appropriate supplement to the horseplay samples still awaiting downlink to the Flight Psychologist, HAL decided. They were still queued behind some Priority Eight personal video messages to family members.

After another week, it was almost a routine, and the muscle soreness had subsided. Dave wasn’t sure when Frank’s massages had crossed the line from pain to pleasure, but he found himself looking forward to them as he went to sleep each night, and missing the touch throughout the day once Frank had gone to bed.

Even the exercise sessions themselves were no longer so painful, and he was starting to see improvements in his body — tighter stomach, better defined muscles. Frank noticed it too; one day, as Dave was straining his body against the counterforces exerted by the SLPXU, Frank commented on how tight his abdominal muscles were getting, lightly tracing the lines with his fingers. Apparently a sheet of firm muscles was no armor against tickling, because the light touch still had the intended effect. Over the past two weeks, he’d endured a dozen lashes and countless squirts of icy water, usually as stoically as the time he’d accidentally burned his hand by overheating his food. Tickling, though, broke down his control every time.

“I’ll get you for this!” he managed to gasp out.

“In your dreams, pal.”

“X-ray Delta One, this is Mission Control, for Flight Computer. The attitude control engineer has requested that you increase the telemetry rate on the catalytic bed heaters to three hundred packets per minute instead of six. Put these additional packets in the Priority Nine telemetry queue. Also, I’ve got the hibernation respiration engineer requesting that you acquire ten minutes of video of Hunter, Kimball, and Kaminski, twenty-four frames per second, no compression, and put that in the Priority Nine telemetry queue also. Nothing to be concerned about HAL; their vitals look good. Just a routine engineering check.”

“How much longer are you going to force me to do this?” Dave demanded as Frank literally dragged him out of bed the next morning.

“Until you’re strong enough to fight me off.”

Dave groaned in despair.

“I must say that your renewed discipline in following an exercise program is commendable,” HAL told Dave that afternoon. “I’ve measured a marked improvement in your cardiovascular condition and skeletal structure. It’s recently been my pleasure to report to Mission Control that both waking crew members are in excellent condition.”

“Uh, thanks very much, HAL. Um, speaking of which, I’d like to ask you a fitness-related question.”

“Of course.”

“How much does Frank weigh?”

“Are you speaking of his mass, or his weight in the carousel?”

“How about a relative figure, compared to me?”

“His mass is currently 96% of your own. Of course, if you jogged as much as he does—”

“Since you mention it, I have a question about that, too. Exactly how fast does he jog?”

“He typically averages about two to three meters per second, Dave.”

“Roughly as fast as the carousel itself, then?”

“Yes. The fitness goal is to achieve approximately Mars-equivlanent gravity when jogging, with short sprints to approach more closely to Earth-equivalent.”

“Thank you, HAL. That’s about what I thought. That’s very interesting.”

Maybe, Dave thought, brains had given his ancestors some competitive advantage after all.

Over the next few weeks, Dave began to feel he now would have a chance of fighting Frank off if he tried hard enough. But he wasn’t interested in just fending him off. He wanted to get the upper hand, so that he could pay him back for these weeks of humiliation. He had to admit to himself that he was enjoying the humiliation at Frank’s hands, but the thought of humiliating Frank in return was even more appealing. So he continued to put up a token struggle, but always held back. To completely overpower Frank, he was either going to have to get a lot stronger than him — which he didn’t think would ever happen — or take him by surprise.

Despite his resolve, he did grapple Frank to a standstill at the massage table when his merciless tickling got to be too much to take for a minute longer. After a long struggle that left them both red in the face and sweating, he had Frank’s head held firmly against his own bare chest, locked in the crook of his elbow. “If I let you go, will you go to bed without touching me again?”

“Maybe. Ow! Okay, okay! Leggo!”

Released, Frank backed away, holding his palms out in surrender. Both men were breathing hard as they stared at each other. “I could really use a shower to cool off, Dave. Am I allowed one, before I’m sent to bed?”

“Yeah, go ahead. But leave me some cold water this time, damn it!”

As though to put him in his place again, Frank worked him extra hard the next day, and when Dave felt he’d had enough and refused to continue, Frank tightened his bonds until they were almost painful. Then he shot stream after stream of icy cold water down onto his chest until the hair was slicked down and his nipples had hardened. He concentrated on not crying out, on keeping his ragged breaths from coming out as sobs. Finally Frank released his hands, forced him to double over, and re-bound his wrists to his ankles, only to begin squirting the ice water down his spine. A whimper escaped his clenched jaw.

“Excuse me.” The polite voice out of the air took them both by surprise. HAL had been so scrupulous about not addressing them during the exercise periods that Dave had forgotten that he was “there” — and everywhere in the ship — whether he was speaking or not. It was easy to fall into the trap of thinking of him as though he were a person. And a person — or at least any person Dave had met — would certainly not have stood by and watched what Dave and Frank were doing without some question or comment. A very tolerant and understanding person might have found excuses to be elsewhere, or at least turned his back. HAL was everywhere, and he had no back.

Both men froze and waited for HAL to continue. “I’m sorry to interrupt Dave’s exercise period, Frank.”

Frank whispered, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” glancing down to meet Dave’s eyes. He looked nervous.

“That’s okay, HAL. What’s up?” Dave called out cautiously.

“I’ve spotted what I believe to be an uncharted asteroid, directly ahead of us.”

The men relaxed and breathed a sigh of relief, then grinned at each other’s reaction. Frank asked, “You sure this isn’t the one we expected to encounter next month?” Quickly, he released Dave’s wrists.

“It most certainly is not, Frank. The orbit of Asteroid 7794 is quite well characterized, and I’m quite sure we won’t be encountering it for twenty-nine more days. There is no question that this is a different asteroid.”

Well, the observatories at Clavius and Chelenka hadn’t charted more than a tiny fraction of the asteroids, after all. Dave asked, “How close will we come to it?”

“About nine hundred kilometers, Dave. Closest approach will occur less than six hours from now.”

Less than a thousand kilometers! Dave looked at Frank, who had an excited expression that mirrored the one Dave was sure was on his own face. They’d known they were passing through the asteroid belt, but they hadn’t expected to come this close to one without even trying. Even the planned encounter next month wouldn’t be that close. This would be the closest look anyone had gotten of an asteroid, and they would be the first to see it. In his eagerness to get up, he almost forgot about the Velcro straps still holding his ankles. Frank helped him free himself. They both headed for the ladder, but Frank restrained him with a hand on his bare shoulder. Dave was clad only in shorts. He would not even be able to walk in the non-spinning part of the ship without at least his Grip Shods.

“Wait,” said Frank, who was still wearing his uniform. “A few minutes won’t make a difference. You get dressed, and grab a quick hot shower if you want to. I’ll go up and set things up.” He clapped him on the back, not hard.

As Dave sheepishly headed for the shower, Frank called down from the ladder, “You know, Dave, I’m hurt. When it was just me dying up there, you had the presence of mind to put on at least your flight suit and shoes.”

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