Alternatives, Chapter 12

Gravity Assist

Mark Apoapsis

“Frank Poole’s immediate reaction
was one of utter astonishment,
followed by overwhelming joy.”
— 3001, Arthur C. Clarke

Dave floated weightlessly, four feet above the floor, as it sped by him carrying its familiar tables, and consoles covered with papers. It felt like flying: he was magically weightless, zooming past objects under normal gravity. He’d found by experimentation that an outstretched position worked well for minimizing air resistance; Superman had had the right idea.

It had taken him days of practice to learn to push off from the hub just hard enough to come down quickly, yet still slowly enough that he could cancel out his momentum by throwing his rolled-up flight suit into a corner by his bed as he passed. Fortunately, he used to sky-dive, and was already practiced at hitting the ground rolling. It was easy to tuck and roll when he finally drifted into the moving floor, which wasn’t going all that fast. Just about jogging speed, in fact, so it was no worse than tripping while jogging. He’d managed to learn to do it without collecting any bruises. Bruises would have been impossible to hide from Frank. There were very few parts of his body that were not exposed to Frank’s view every day, these past few weeks.

By now, he was good enough to hover like this for a couple of minutes if he wanted to, before his residual motion carried him to floor, or the breeze tugging at his underwear finally dragged him down. He’d even learned to steer a little, using air resistance. It was kind of fun, really, and almost worth doing just for the exhilarating feeling of watching the floor rush endlessly past — of being able to fly when everything else was tied to the ground.

Today was the day all his practice would pay off. For the first time, he was engaging in his new hobby not in the late morning but in the evening. Two neatly made beds swung past him under their clear covers, followed by the oblivious mummy-like shapes of Hunter, Kimball, and Kaminski. Only HAL knew he’d been doing this — and HAL didn’t know his true reason. HAL had been concerned at first that he was risking a concussion if he hit one of those beds, but he finally admitted that the danger was minimal — after Dave put things in perspective by threatening to go on an unauthorized EVA to satisfy his “need for speed” outside instead, as Frank had recently had a chance to do.

The figure of his crewmate came jogging down into view. Frank was pushing himself to complete the last few laps, and as was his habit, he had his head lowered in determination, his eyes half-closed in concentration. Dave had timed it perfectly. Frank was just speeding up into the final sprint, just as he usually did just before finishing with a brisk walk to cool down. The guy looked nearly exhausted. Good! That would take the edge off him. His exhaustion would ensure his quick defeat. That, and the surprise factor, and the new muscle Frank himself had helped — forced! — Dave to build up. Speaking of being tied to the ground...

It went better than he had dared to hope. Frank opened his eyes at the sound of Dave clearing his throat, just in time to see Dave hurtling through the air at him in an arc — or so it must have seemed from his point of view. He tackled the running man at chest height, bowling him over. He managed to wrap his arms tightly around him as they rolled on the floor. Their momentum had canceled out fairly neatly, as he’d hoped based on his mental calculations on the data he’d asked HAL for.

“What the—? That was a dirty trick, you bastard!” Frank wheezed. Before he could recover his breath or his wits, Dave rolled their entwined bodies under the dining table — which was near where they had come to rest, not entirely by accident. Frank managed to free one arm, but Dave kept the other pinned to his side for the moment.

After a token struggle, Dave allowed his shipmate to roll on top of him. It wasn’t as if the thirty-pound weight of whichever man was on top would be of much advantage in pinning the one on the bottom. He concentrated instead in getting leverage. Meanwhile, he found his face pressed against Frank’s shoulder.

“I hope you like having my sweaty T-shirt in your face,” Frank panted. He seemed to think he had gained the upper hand figuratively as well as literally. “I oughta make you eat it.”

“I wasn’t planning to leave it on you,” was Dave’s muffled reply.

“Yeah, right. I’d like to see you try to—” Frank grunted in surprise as Dave flipped both of their bodies several inches into the air, landing on top of him and managing to get Frank’s free arm pinned under him. He had Frank’s T-shirt halfway off before they landed. He yanked it up to one shoulder, then quickly flipped Frank onto his belly and stripped the shirt off of his back. While Frank was still recovering from the quick series of moves — and he must still be confused by the surprise of the whole attack — he managed to pull his shirt over his head and to knot it loosely around Frank’s arms. It should hold for few seconds.

He pivoted quickly, remembering to avoid banging his head on the underside of the table. Using his legs to impede Frank’s arms from untangling from the shirt, he grabbed an ankle, quickly untying and unlacing the shoe, then tugging it off. The other shoe took a little longer, with Frank now thrashing under him, but he imprisoned the leg against his chest, and eventually removed the shoe — and with it, any hope Frank might have of escaping. He decided to leave Frank’s socks on for now, even though he was sure he could get them off easily. Socks offered even less traction than bare feet. He flipped his friend back over, straddled his hips, and watched over his shoulder in satisfaction as his feet scrabbled futilely for purchase.

Frank would struggle free of his shirt in a few seconds if he let him, so he hunched further forward and twisted the shirt in his left fist, pinning his arms over his head against the floor. Triumphantly, he patted his captive’s bare belly, laughing. This was great! It had taken less than ten seconds to respond to Frank’s taunting challenge for him to get his shirt off.

“Excuse me,” said HAL’s voice out of nowhere. “Are the two of you all right?” Frank stopped struggling and looked up at Dave in apprehension.

“We’re fine, HAL” called Dave. They were out of sight of all of the cameras, he was sure of that.

“Yeah, fine, HAL. We’re just exercising,” Frank explained hollowly. Well, no doubt exercise was a side-effect of their roughhousing.

“Are you quite sure? I can’t see you under the table. You did collide fairly forcefully, and I’m concerned by the fact that neither of you has gotten to his feet yet.”

Both of them called out further reassurances, and HAL didn’t press them further.

Dave leaned close to Frank’s face and whispered, “What was that you were saying about a sweaty T-shirt?” He ran his right hand possessively over Frank’s bare chest to emphasize the point.

“So now you’ve got my sweaty armpit to deal with instead. All I have to do is hold your face against it,” Frank threatened powerlessly, struggling to free his arms, “and you’ll probably pass out. Then I can—”

Impulsively, he nosed Frank’s exposed armpit. This instantly shut him up. Dave didn’t mind good clean sweat. On the contrary! He breathed deeply, enjoying the masculine aroma of his shipmate. Musky, with nutty overtones. Unable to stop himself, he licked the other man’s armpit. Liking the taste, he began attacking it in earnest with his teeth and tongue. Frank writhed beneath him, moaning softly. Still, he couldn’t be very ticklish there. If he’d done the same to Dave, Dave would have been wracked with laughter and gasping for air. Dave rolled Frank partly onto his side for better access, pinning his wrist firmly under his head. He set his chin on the bunched muscle at the side of his chest, and continued relentlessly probing with his tongue.

“What do I taste like?” whispered Frank weakly when Dave finally withdrew. Dave grinned and thrust his tongue into Frank’s mouth, running the tip over every inch of Frank’s tongue in an effort to share the taste. After a few seconds, he let go of both of Frank’s arms to cup his face and grip his shoulder, but Frank made no move to break free. Instead, strangely enough, he wrapped his arms around Dave’s back, as though he still hoped to pin him.

Dave moved his mouth down to nibble on Frank’s throat, his tongue rasping against the stubble. This had the same effect on Frank as it’d had on Dave once, when their positions were reversed. Frank relaxed his grip, and even tilted his head back submisively as if to offer more of his throat. His heart was racing; Dave could feel it through the one thin layer of cloth still separating their bodies. Each shuddering breath that filled Frank’s chest lifted Dave like a lifeboat tossed by the sea.

Dave moved down and licked his stomach for awhile, swirling the sparse hairs with his tongue. Frank showed no sign of being ticklish there either, damn him. It wasn’t fair: he’d outwitted him, overpowered him fair and square, and the other man was now willingly submitting himself to Dave’s tender mercies, for a change. But Frank was impervious to one of the main torments he’d been inflicting on Dave. And the other torments weren’t available either: there was no ice water handy, and Frank didn’t have sore muscles for Dave to dig his thumbs into. He did writhe very satisfactorily, though, when Dave rubbed his rough chin against his belly. That was something, anyway. “Skipped shaving just for you, pal,” Dave explained. For such a brave man, Frank could whimper real good.

Dave began systematically exploring his captive’s torso with light strokes of his fingertips. Ribs, that was it. Frank was moderately ticklish around his ribs, especially right between them. Now Frank tried to resist, and Dave had to hold down his arms again. Still he thrashed under each light stroke, and Dave had to get him into a half nelson to hold him completely motionless. He paused, fingering the ribs. “Say ’uncle’,” he demanded.

“No way,” Frank panted.

“Suit yourself.” With his erstwhile tormentor now pinned helplessly, Dave began tickling the exposed skin in earnest, alternating between light strokes with his fingertips and feathery brushes with his hair. Frank’s curses were soon lost in helpless laughter that paused only for deep sobbing breaths. After a few minutes of this, Frank managed to gasp, “Please! Stop! I’ll... do... anything!”

“Anything?” Dave breathed into his ear.

“Name it. What do you,” he panted, “want me to do? In exchange... for letting me go?”

Dave could think of several interesting possibilities, but he shied away from most of them. Yet he had to accept the offer of surrender and stop this now. Much as he’d have liked to humiliate and torture Frank a little longer — after all, he had weeks to pay back for — he was getting worried again about what HAL was making of this. They’d been under the table for several minutes now, with Frank’s bare legs sticking out.

“How about posing for a sketch? It occurs to me I’ve never had a chance to draw someone who was actually awake. Think you could hold still for an hour? On your own, I mean, without me holding you down?”

“You, sir, have got yourself a deal.”

“How do you want me?” Frank asked once he was sitting on the tanning table. Without Dave holding onto his arm all the way there, he’d have slipped at least twice in his socks. “Should I put my shirt back on, or...” he glanced down shyly at his shorts, “or what?”

Dave grinned and said nothing for a moment, running his eyes over Frank’s body, savoring the spoils of victory. Finally he told him, “Go towel off and put on your pajamas. I think, um, the folds of the silk would make an interesting, uh, artistic effect. Here, wait, we’d better take your socks off so you can walk.”

A few minutes later, Frank padded back, wearing his pajamas. He slipped once on the way, in his bare feet, and started to fall slowly, but was able to recover. When he reached the table, Dave picked him up with the arms and set him down where he wanted him. He arranged him in several different lounging positions until he found one to his liking. He carefully brushed Frank’s hair with his fingers so that a few strands of it fell across his forehead as if by accident. Then he unbuttoned the pajama top and spent ten minutes getting it to casually fall in just the right way to expose Frank’s muscles and sparse chest hair to best advantage. Soft silk against hard muscle: a nice contrast. “Hold still, now,” he ordered, picking up his sketchbook. “Oh, yeah! That’s perfect, the way you’re looking at me! Keep doing that.” It would be a pleasant challenge to try to capture the unreadable mix of emotions in those smoldering eyes.

Dave kept expecting HAL to ask embarrassing questions, but when HAL remained silent, he began to relax and concentrate on Frank. Perhaps the computer had some basic cultural knowledge about how artists normally worked with human models. After all, nude modeling had a very respectable history, and by that standard, this must superficially look tame, especially if he didn’t understand how many liberties Dave was taking with Frank’s dignity and modesty. Hopefully he also wouldn’t notice the physical signs of Dave’s very unprofessional reaction to this excuse to touch and stare at Frank.

Studying his model closely, he suddenly realized he was going to have to edit out the obvious tent in Frank’s pajama bottoms. Him too? How long had that been there?

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