By Stirling Edgewood
Chapter 2: Estranged Bedfellows
As soon as she was out of site down the corridor, he moved to another shaft and wriggled and limped his way to the propulsion section. A row of hoppers full of powdered fuel stretched in a motionless line in front of the empty maw of the fuel feeder. He had fixed it exactly forty-one times, replacing rollers and bearings, re-aligning the tracks, adjusting the weight and balance sensors. Once he even opened the propulsion section doors to find the entire compartment filled with powdered propellant. He had shoveled out tons of powder, filling nearly every available empty space on the ship, to create enough space to get to the broken powdering machine and fix the sensors that automatically shut it off when full. But after the forty-first malfunction, he found he was unable to get it working again. He had tried readjusting, realigning, and replacing every part for which he had a spare. He had even fabricated several new parts from scraps and other spare parts on the ship. But the feeder stood in stubborn rest. He wasn’t even really sure what was wrong with it.
He fed the fueling system by hand several times each day, moving hoppers loaded with combustibles from the powdering machine to the engine feeder. Yet his flesh was unequal to the malfunctioning mechanical autofeeder. With each log period, due to lack of thrust, the ship began drifting perilously off-course. Further study of the fueling mechanism drawings and schematics were of no help. Limited to the two dimensions of the paper that contained them, they seemed somehow inadequate to the task of relating the true nature of each part. He wondered if somehow a three-dimensional rendering of the rollers, gears, belts, fans, and innumerable other components would reveal the fault. Something he could view from any angle, and twist, rotate, or flip as needed to place them in proper configuration and alignment. If only such a thing were possible.
The lifeline of fuel and supplies shot out to the ship was critical to their mission, critical to their very existence. Without them the ship would drift further and further from their preplanned path. And if the travellers missed their target, in the vast infinity of space, they were doomed to drift for eternity through the void.
The home world from which they came was light years distant. Any change of course could only be communicated at the speed of light, bounced through a series of radio repeaters, arriving after decades. The retargeted supplies would arrive decades later. The supply targeting was based on the planned course, with only slow adjustments based on course corrections years out of date. The deceleration funnel covered only five thousand square miles to account for course errors. At their current rate of drift, the supply stream had moved perilously close to the funnel’s edge. He began the arduous task of pushing the heavy fuel hoppers to the propulsion feeder by hand. Working nonstop, with little sleep, nearly every waking hour, he had managed to stop the drift. Yet, the time spent in this valiant effort meant that the innumerable other repairs on the aging ship were left undone.
His training prohibited him from de-hibernating the only other passenger aboard ship unless it became critical to the mission. It spoke of the limited life support capability of the ship. With the resupply, it could support the two crew in hibernation indefinitely. One awake and active individual would tax the supplies and systems. He was living with the many malfunctions from the strain created by only himself. With both crew members consuming air, water, and food, and producing wastes that needed cleaning, processing, and recycling, even if life support didn’t break down from the stress to the system, the supplies might be exhausted all too quickly.
The ship’s dangerous drifting while the equipment repairs piled up left the mission in a precarious position. A fire in life support that damaged the water purifier resulted in gradually increasing levels of toxics in the drinking water, and he had no time to diagnose or repair it. Reluctantly, he had awakened his crew mate.
After shoving a few dozen hoppers of fuel into the feeder, he picked his way back to the habitat. He looked at the maintenance desk and saw a dozen glass tubes with tiny electronics inside lined up neatly. Apparently her inspection of the radio transmitter had found some tubes that needed replacement. As all of the spares were already in use, he would need to repair these, painstakingly re-melting and blowing the glass for those with cracks, and delicately reconnecting the wires and resistors for those with problems in the electronics. Already tired from his physical exertions, he groaned at the thought of this new task. He went into his sleeping closet to clean up. He grabbed a body wipe and started removing the fine grey-black grit. As he turned to dispose of the soiled wipe, he chuckled, noticing that his waste bin was gone. “Perhaps I am fated to perpetual untidiness.” He chortled to himself, deciding to skip the personal hygiene and get back to work.
He sat back down at the engineering desk and took up his pencil and slide rule, carefully calculating the ship’s trajectory, using the estimated weight and energy content of the fuel he had added to determine a course correction that would optimize the reception of resupply shots.
As he was swerving through the cabin to reach the navigation controls, his crewmate suddenly popped out of the life support shaft and collided with him, knocking them both off balance. They clutched each other awkwardly, and together, managed not to fall. Their eyes met briefly, both showing surprise, relief, gratitude. Then they quickly sprang apart, both looking down with embarrassment. In the cramped space, their backs to opposite walls, they only managed to separate by a few inches.
“Are you still of one piece?” He inquired solicitously.
“Merely shaken.” She replied demurring. “Our paths seem to have suddenly crossed.”
“Yes, the ship is cluttered with inconveniences that augment the hazards of collisions and misbalancing. These chances increase with the number of tenants. As written in the tome, chapter 19, codicil –“
“Do you patronize me further?” She said, annoyed. “You are well aware that I am most intimately acquainted with the tome.” She objected.
“My sincere regrets.” He responded. “I intend no condescension. I merely wrap the gift of my apology in a codicil.”
“Your apology is no gift. It is a solemn duty.” She shot back haughtily. “You must take further care of your self-navigation within the vessel. I will not have my person tossed about and damaged by clumsiness.”
“Oh!” She gasped, looking down. “You have contaminated me.” She began brushing away the streaks of fuel dust that testified to where their bodies had touched.
But he had stopped listening to her, and was staring intently at her face.
“But hold. The tome states that we are to be complete strangers, unknown to each other.” He murmured, half to himself.
“The tome again!” She objected.
“Yet I feel a strange sense of recognition viewing your countenance. As if we had previous introduction.”
“Not a bit likely, as I am not accustomed to consorting with the lower classes.”
“Alas, not in the flesh, yet I have gazed upon your visage in my history. Indeed, in photographs.” He continued, heedless of the note of irritation building in her tone. “I fear I must have been too distracted with your many other charms to look with judiciousness at your face.”
“It is ill-mannered to remind those you have trespassed of your past indiscretions sir. Your liberties during my dehibernation were most unwelcome. I will be sore pressed to forget them should they continually resurface.”
His head cocked forward and examining her features closely.
“Sir, you prove too bold, look not at me as a shop keep examining his produce.” She commanded.
“Nay, as a jeweler appraising a rare and invaluable gem,” he whispered, absentmindedly. “Here my guess is true. My recognition has hunted the forest of my memory, and trapped a most amazing association. You are she. Most improbably, yet decidedly, she.” He said, with a touch of wonder in his voice. “I thought it a bit of fanciful charm, yet, when last we met, I named your rank aright.”
“You forget yourself. Perhaps instead of delivering unwelcome chastisements that I heed not the tome, you should renew acquaintance with its noble content. Chapter 41, Codicil 19, Sub 8 vigorously prohibits the revelation of our identities while aboard. Furthermore, sub 9 bars all labor to ascertain such identity.” She instructed.
He chuckled. “This journey’s remainder will be devilishly ticklish.” He noted with amusement.
“Mock me not, you rogue!” She warned with rising heat. “Your intemperate manner! Your low speech! Your casual treatment of my person and property! These all reveal your commonness and low birth! I accepted that I would wed the man who shared this perilous journey. Even that he might prove below my station. But never could I credit that I would have to drop my hand so low to the one who would take it!” She shouted at him.
At this, he guffawed heartily.
“Take no amusement in my predicament!” She yelled.
“My dear princess,” he drolled, “it would be a rare hand indeed that would needs reach down, that I might take it.”
“What can you mean by this?” She demanded, her head thrusting angrily toward him, staring hotly into his eyes. “I believe you are nothing but a clever peasant. The gutter was your cradle, and a filthy beast your moth–“ She suddenly stopped, recognition dawning over her face.
“It cannot be.” She whispered hoarsely, fully aghast at her discovery. “No. I disbelieve it.”
“Our beliefs may labor as yoked beasts under a heavy lash, yet still they cannot shift the plow of reality,” he remarked.
“You cannot be he! This is an affront beyond measure! An outrage of so gross proportion as to insult heaven itself!” She exclaimed.
But his reply was pensive. “It seems our councils have a made a selection of surpassing wisdom. Consider the vast toil accorded to this vessel’s fabrication. The armies of tinkerers, alchemists, miners, and smiths. The mountains of metal, glass, fuel, and gasses. The mental exertions of crowds of philosophers, councilors, mathematicians, and naturalists to first create, and then prove every apparatus, contraption, and contrivance for our furnishment. The many percentages of the summated labor of our two nations, the investiture of the better portion of stored wealth. Our planet was divided between two opposed kingdoms and their vassal states, neither camp capable of the awesome feat alone. Yet, together they bore the ember. In the end,” he concluded philosophically, “a union wholly uncommon, to achieve a feat wholly uncommon.”
“Surpassing wisdom?” She scoffed. “Our families were mortal foes before scribes ever recorded the deeds of our kind. Intrigues, plots, assassinations, and wars are the totality of our congress. Our clans and kin, indeed, we ourselves, are ancestral enemies.” She gasped in horror.
“You forget the great armistice, under which grace our mission was birthed.” He reminded her.
“An armistice under which the peoples of both our nations nearly revolted. The populace concluded that our fathers and their councilors had gone mad.”
“Clever indeed,” he mused thoughtfully. “To open the passenger list to all, then delay the announcement of the select emissaries until after the launch. With our great regents seemingly sacrificing their most dear possessions, the hardest hearts would begrudge not their own inconvenience, and no true patriot would gainsay the alliance, nor withhold support for its long continuance, knowing whose lives depended on its endurance.”
“Unbearable folly, more like.” She rebuked.
“Perhaps you are correct,” he mused. “We would appear to be the butt of a jest so great, the laughter could fill the last empty corner of the void. Two enemies, shut up in a thimble, wholly dependent upon each other to continue, and at the destination, duty-bound to suffer the most intimate relations, that our race might increase and birth a new realm. Masterstroke or mockery,” he guffawed with amusement, “I cannot weigh which is the right. Indeed, I am uncertain which would please me the better.”
“But for I,” She began haughtily, “to wed you?” she continued bitterly. “It is unthinkable. My imagination grasps fruitlessly to discover a fate of greater unpleasantness.”
“I think I should rather enjoy it.” He speculated.
“You would!” She accused.
“Well,” he admitted, “This journey has been rather tiresome, and likely will continue in the same vein, even with your addition to the crew. But upon our arrival…well, not so much the marriage. A bothersome bore, that.” He confessed. “The consummation, however…” He trailed off, his eyes roving lustily over her figure.
“Consummation?” She whispered hoarsely, with a terrified look.
“Quite so.” He continued. “Did you not claim an exceptional comprehension of the tome?” He added nonchalantly. “Chapter 40 provides for the marriage, the consummation immediately succeeding. Rather convenient at times, the tome. For though my flesh is innocent of physical communion, the tome gives lucid direction for exactly 42 steps required for the consummation, with, I must say, rather exquisite detail.”
“Though I am bound by duty to comply with the edicts of the tome, I will submit to our marriage with only the most grudging compliance, and certainly will take no joy in the,” she faltered for a moment, then spat defiantly, “consummation! My form also lies unspoiled by the touch of another, but never have I dreamed that I would bear the ember that its despoiling would come from a hand so hated.”
“You are most certainly obliged to ‘bear the ember’. It is, after all, our motto. From all reports, you would be a creature of profound insensitivity to take no joy in the proceedings,” he observed with a casual mirth. “Well, to be fair, some cold-hearted wretches might resist the pleasures of some of the 42 steps, but I’d wager that a granite carving of a sleeping maid wrapped in chains would be hard pressed to restrain herself at step 37.”
“Ugh!” She spluttered. “You!” she gasped.
“You should refrain from showing such volatility in my presence.” He warned with mock ominousness.
“You threaten me! You are a brute!”
“I would never mar such a stunningly beautiful creature with violence.” He explained. “Yet you turn so increasing adorable when angry. I shall be tempted to continually provoke you to the state.”
Finding herself so overcome with outrage, and unable to utter an intelligible sentence, she strode noisily to her closet, slamming the door loudly behind her.
“When you are through with your childish tantrum,” he called out, “a great number of repairs are in desperate need of your attention. We are, after all, mortally imperiled at this moment. I shall leave a list of priorities on the dining table.”
The door suddenly jerked open. She stood in its frame, angrily glaring at him. “Give. Me. The. List.” She hissed.
“Bravo.” He said approvingly. “I am humbled by your self-mastery. The water purification system must be put to right, and the navigational system recalibrated based upon our present location and course. As those are corrected, we shall review the remaining repairs together and set further priorities.”