Bear the Ember, Chapter 4

Chapter 3: Berate Expectations

By Stirling Edgewood

Copyright 2020

Chapter 4:  Sub-Coupe-Taneous

“Best hopes for the log period,” he said encouragingly as she emerged from her closet.

“Do you not mean, ‘Best Hopes for the day’?” she asked.

“Having no true day or night, but only log periods governing our cycles, I find this more appropriate,” he replied. “I have prepared some tea,” he added.

She took a swallow, and grimaced. “Is this the daily fare?” she inquired scornfully.

“Indeed,” he confirmed. “I must say it has greatly improved with the sulfurous essence removed from the water. My sincerest gratitude to you for rectifying the water purification system.”

“It was the least of my latest endeavors,” she acknowledged.

“I observe that you have reclaimed your waste bin. I pray it will keep your closet orderly and presentable,” he said graciously.

“I hazard it would do so, were it available for that uses. Alas, I heat-liquefied it and reformed it into replacement piping for the water purification repairs,” she replied mournfully.

“A noble sacrifice,” he laughed.

“A painful incident attended the procedure,” she complained, displaying a patch of heat-blistered flesh.

“Ah, you poor creature. I would that every ache of yours would be visited rather upon me,” he said earnestly, moving to caress her injured flesh.

She began to draw back from him, then stopped herself, and stiffly proffered the wound to his touch. A look of slight disgust marred her features, however.

“Shall we review our list of urgencies?” he recommended.

“Yes, but,” she began, “are you certain you are quite well?” she continued nervously.

“In all regards,” he replied enthusiastically. “Your mere presence invigorates me in every region — mind, body and spirit,” he assured her.

“Yet you display some aspect of unwholesomeness,” she pressed. “Perhaps your long toils have rendered some disadvantage.”

“Nonsense, I assure you I am wholly sound,” he protested.

“Still, I harbor some concern. As official health officer, I count it my duty to inspect your vital signs,” she insisted.

“Very well then,” he relented. “Perhaps my closet will serve as impromptu examination room.”

In his closet, she stiffly directed him to undress and lie down on his bed. She shined bright lights at him, peered at him closely through a magnifying glass, and probed his body. The nearness of her bending over him, her touch, and feminine scent began to agitate him, and though his mind willed it not to be so, his body began to respond. As her examination moved lower, she perceived his aroused state, gasped, and backed away.

“Forgive my exuberance,” he said placatingly. “The nearness of such beauty has excited me to this state.”

She stared at his tumescence, with a look of surprise and fascination.

“Do not concern yourself, for though a portion of my corpus reacts most amorously to your presence, I would only act upon these feelings were you complicit, and even so, I am most committed to our mission, and could not endanger it with an untoward act,” he continued in calm tones.

She seemed uncertain for a moment, as if reconsidering, or regretting, a momentous decision. Then a look of determination overcame her. “Tis no matter,” she said angrily.

“I beg your assistance, in providing me a towel from the shelf behind you. I shall conceal this intrusion, and since that organ shows its unimpaired function, I believe you can forgo it’s inspection.”

She handed him a towel, which he placed over the source of her distress. Then she approached the bed, and completed the examination.

“All in order then,” he said, beginning to rise.

“Yes, but, um, you present one inadequacy,” she said uncertainly.

“Indeed?” he replied, surprised. “Yet I feel quite wholesome.”

“Nonetheless,” she plunged forward, “you appear to suffer a deficiency of certain nutrients.”

“Do our comestibles not provide all that is needed for our regular function?” he inquired uncertainly.

“In most aspects,” she continued. “But, perhaps the strain of long exposure to the rigors of the ship and the void have created a shortfall.”

“Well then,” he replied, bemused, “how shall it be remedied?”

“I shall refresh your levels presently,” she replied, producing a glass vial and a syringe. She drew a small aliquot from the vial, then moved toward him.

“I question the necessity –“ he began, but she had already jabbed the needle into an exposed limb, emptying it into his body.

“Well, I am certain it will increase my wellness considerably,” he said with resignation. “Shall we proceed to our duties of the log period?” he said encouraging.

“In just a moment,” she replied mysteriously.

Ignoring her demurral, he began to rise. But as he did, a feeling of calm cheerfulness began to build in him, and, he thought, a gentle music began to play, as if bright bells were ringing nearby.

“You have provided me with a most uncommon supplement,” he remarked.

“Ah, I see it begins to take effect,” she replied with satisfaction. “This particular restorative is in fact an intoxicant, stocked in the case of an ungovernable crewmember. Its action renders the receiver pliant in response to all direction, while increasing vigor and alertness.”

“Yes, I do feel uncommonly enthused, and compliance would seem to be in order,” he replied with jarring pleasantness. He stood and addressed her, “To what task should I commit?”

“You will require dosing daily, so do not allow me to forget,” she commanded.

“I will remind you upon this same hour next log period,” he replied obediently.

He stood, ready for her orders. The music seemed to grow louder. “Odd the action of this medicinal,” he commented. “My mental faculties display no impairment, and I may evaluate the reality about me, and the result of decision. Yet I am rather unable to place any weight upon their outcomes.” He paused momentarily. “I believe this to be the perpetual state of all feminine ruminations.”

However, she was not paying attention to his words, but instead stared with confusion at the towel, which had not fallen to the floor, but rather dangled from his rigid sex.

“I was led to believe the narcotic would also dampen the animal spirits,” she puzzled.

“Ah that,” he explained. “A minor omission from the tome. I was instructed in the effects of the toxicant unofficially before departure. It does indeed suppress reproductive ardor, but specifically in the female, the effects on the male being uncertain. Uncertain until now, I suppose. One would surmise it displays perhaps the opposite effect on the male. I would also note that the narcotic had uncertain effects on some experimental subjects, and a few experienced ungovernable emotions. However, the effects on male subject were deemed irrelevant, since it was intended only for use upon females. Of course, it was most politic to disguise this intent from any female crew member.”

“Outrageous!” she choked. “To what purpose was this deception bent?”

The music swelled joyously in his mind. “It is wholly unconventional for a female to participate in councils of decision, for reason of intemperate and hysterical motivation. Considering the event of dehibernation of both crew members, and recognizing the womanly propensity to petulance and laxity in matters of productivity, the councilors judged it wise to present a veneer of equal authority in decisions, to encourage the feminine component to more eager cooperation. Similarly, recognizing the balancing female proclivity toward over-exertion and duplicitous subterfuge in matters pertaining to romance, they provided the serum with action against the amorous nature of women. Indeed, their expectation was wholly that the masculine contingent of the crew would recourse to application of the intoxicant to the feminine, never that it would be applied by the weaker sex to the stronger.”

“Preposterous!” she protested. “What possible fault of decision or action could be attributable to a woman that would not fall with equal happenstance upon a man?”

“Various lapses and errors of judgement were considered. Chief among them the foolhardy course of attempting a return to our home planet. Especially before all paths toward successful completion were tried to exhaustion, regardless of risk.”

Though he had not moved, she took a step back as if she had been slapped. Then collected herself.

“Well, that fully demonstrates the folly of the councils of men,” she said defiantly. “For I have indeed determined that the continuation of this voyage is impossible given our deteriorating state, and intolerable given the grossly errant selection of certain crewmembers.”

“Well,” he mumbled agreeably, the music growing to a pleasant crescendo, “I find myself unable to measure the profit of any decision, and so defer to your unimpaired faculties.”

“I have sent a communique, informing our originators, that you have wantonly violated my honor, and in light of that, I cannot continue, and we must withdraw from this venture, and return home,” she informed him officiously.

“We shall not arrive,” he said mildly, “or, in the small risk that we arrive, we shall discover a lifeless sphere of scorched rock.”

“Absurd!” she exclaimed. “The return will certainly progress with greater expedience, and I, at least, will be welcomed into the loving embrace of family and subjects. You, however, will likely be tried and executed for your offenses.”

“The lucidity with which I view the progression of events from your communique is quite fascinating,” he said with a touch of wonder in his voice. Then he continued, “For the phrase, ‘wantonly violating my honor’ will be interpreted with most cruel prejudice by the blackguards who disfavor the armistice. The rape of royalty is customarily attended by hostilities. Recall the War of Honor Restored some centuries ago.”

She looked puzzled.

“It is known as the Slaughter of the Whore’s Revenge in your realm,” he explained.

“Let there be war then,” she spat defiantly. “It is the natural state of things.”

“I believe you to be in the right, if history is any measure. Our race has fought wars uncountable. Yet recent innovations bring unprecedented capability for devastation,” he explained matter-of-factly. “In demonstration,” he continued, “the electromagnetic coil accelerator that provides our continual stream of resupply, if turned on the planet, will achieve devastating effect. Our resupply packets are accelerated to astonishing velocity, which imparts them with prodigious energy. A single packet catapulted toward our planet would contain more destructive potential than all explosives previously employed in all history. I judge a projection toward the more thickly peopled cities to engender deaths in excess of ten millions. Some half dozen or so of these projections would be possible with each planetary rotation.”

“You prattle such nonsense,” she said dismissively. “The intoxicant has addled your mind. You must now turn to your duties.”

“Quite so,” he agreed, now humming along with the beautiful sounds filling his mind. He took some steps toward the door, then suddenly jerked back and nearly fell to the floor as his head struck a pipe running along the ceiling.  The pain seared like a hot brand, and from the locus of that agony, a black mist spread in his brain, blotting out the music.

“Cumbersome oaf!” she laughed at him with scorn.

The pain grew and expanded from the point where his flesh was wounded, suddenly filling him with a savage feeling, displacing the euphoria. The blackness swelled, encroaching into seemingly every cell of his being.

He turned toward her with a look of horror, desperately demanding, “What have you done?” His features twisted into a warped snarl. “You nasty, detestable harlot,” he seethed. “To have undone our mission, that alone is a deed of unfathomable vileness. But to condemn our world to certain annihilation,” he hissed. “You are the undoing of an entire race! No punishment could provide sufficient cruelty to mete out proper justice. I would thrash you to tattered rags,” he threatened.

She gaped at him fearfully, shocked at the sudden change in his demeanor.

“You must repair this catastrophic error,” he ordered.

Then, seeing the vile of narcotic on the table, he picked it up. “With this, you would…you would…” His voice began to falter, as the pain began to ebb, and the sweet sounds of bells pushed back the mist.

As his features softened, she looked at him, confused for a moment. Then said, soothingly, “Forgive me, I am only a helpless maiden, unschooled in the designs of the strong and wise.”

“Perhaps…” he began uncertainly, his mental symphony breaking into a pleasant movement.

“Yes,” she cooed. “There is nothing to fear. You are simply dreaming of these ill happenings. Dream on, for your mind needs rest.”

“Surely,” he said, growing more pliable, “a dream.”

“It is certain,” she assured him. “Naught but a fantasy. I am true in all things. Now, the vial you hold.”

“This?” he asked, proffering it toward her.

“Yes, just that,” she agreed pleasantly. “It is of great need to me. Let me have it.”

“Um…” He muttered, moving toward her.

“Yes, that’s right,” she coaxed. “It would please me enormously to have it. Give it to me.”

He extended the glass container toward her, and she reached out gingerly to take it, closing the distance between them, drawing nearer and nearer to the substance she needed to master him. But as she touched it, something odd welled in him. Perhaps it was instinct, the automatic drive for survival. Or it might have been a thirst for revenge against her perfidy. Or even simply doubt. But he suddenly clamped down on the vile, his grip contracting, constricting with a growing pressure, tighter and tighter. And then with a ferocious squeeze, the container crunched. A mixture of clear fluid and his dark blood dripped to the floor.

“Ah!” she gasped. “Therein lies the sole supply. We have no other.”

As the shards of glass bit into him, the black mist rushed back with redoubled force. He let out a roar of rage and pain, and with a sudden explosion thrust her against a wall, and began shaking her slight frame with powerful jerks. She felt as if her organs were rattling in her shell. Something unyielding battered against her abdomen with each shake.

Then he suddenly stopped, and threw her to the deck. She laid on the floor, whimpering with pain and fear.

“Get up, you disgusting animal!” he commanded. “If you were not indispensable, if your murder would not be the unmaking of my every sacrifice through this multitude of tiresome years, I would wreak my horrible vengeance on every atom of your being. Even now, my will hardly masters my passion. Get out! Get out now, and get quickly about the business of putting this ship to rights in every way. And dare not make any further communication to our mother world, nor make any effort to hinder this vessel or my person, or I will surely prove inadequate to restrain the monstrous beast that rages in my breast!”

She rushed out of the room in terror.

He stood still for moment, attempting to control the roaring rage inside. Gradually the black mist in his brain faded, and the alluring music slowly overtook his senses. With renewed amicability, he strolled, naked, out of his sleeping closet. She was not in sight. Realizing that continuing to ensure that the thrusters were properly fueled was the highest priority, he proceeded to the propulsion area.

As he passed through the shaft leading to propulsion, the cheerful melody blew away the remaining blackness, and he began humming along with the orchestra in his mind. Strolling through the door leading to the powdering and feeding equipment, he looked down, noting with amusement that he retained his excited state.

“Well little fellow,” he greeted the inappropriately erect organ. “I hazard that you are on the verge of overstaying your welcome. And though your company is quite pleasant, I harbor some doubt that you will prove of much use in my present endeavors.”

He pulled the lever activating the powdering machine, and it ground to life. “Yet still, I may find some occupation for you. Can you serve to pry loose a recalcitrant hatch cover? Or perhaps you are of sufficient fortitude to heft a bucket of powder?” He chuckled a bit to himself, then turned to shoveling processed fuel into a hopper. When it was full, he began to shove it toward the fuel feeder.

With some surprise, he found it much easier than usual. “The narcotic provides uncommon vigor,” he declared. And with some enthusiasm, he thrust the hopper briskly, gathering momentum with each step. But he misjudged the distance to the feeder, and the hopper suddenly bounced against it, ricocheting back with a loud clang.

The unexpected reversal of direction caught him off guard. The hard metal of the hopper, impelled by the weight of powdered fuel loaded into it, struck him squarely, knocking him suddenly to the deck. The ship seemed to lurch and spin in dizzying gyrations, and he felt as if he were falling into a dark hole. As the world grew blurred and dim around him, and his thoughts unfocused into a foggy swirl, he mumbled incoherently, “Shame. Tragedy. The distance. The sacrifice. Fruitless.” Then his body relaxed into unconsciousness.

After she left his sleeping closet, she rushed into the life support section. She remembered from the list that repairs to the air supply were a priority, and started to examine it. But her hands were quivering, and she found it impossible to control her movements enough to remove the cover and begin an inspection. Her thoughts revolved between fantasies of vengeance on the wicked fiend that shared her prison, and the terror and helplessness of the memory of being shaken in his powerful grip, as if she were a wad of discarded paper caught in a gale. She gingerly touched the bruises on her shoulders and abdomen.

She listened fearfully to the sounds of the ship, searching for signs that he was coming to finish her off. Eventually the shaking subsided, and she set about the repairs. Gradually, she became absorbed in the work, and after some hours, the repair complete, a desperate weariness filled her. She moved slowly and with trepidation along the shaft, listening intently for his approach. She emerged into the area that served as control room and kitchen, and was relieved to find that he was not there. She began to head toward the safety of her sleeping closet, but then realized the thin door would provide only a temporary barrier, should he decide to make good on his threats.

With a vague intent of using it as a weapon, she hefted a wrench, deciding that she could not be at peace until she at least knew what the dangerous maniac was up to. The door to his sleeping closet was still open. Peering cautiously into the opening, she realized he was not there. She began a slow investigation of the ship, but did not find him down any of the maintenance shafts. “Surely he cannot still be about the fueling,” she mused. Listening carefully at the door to the propulsion section, she heard only the slow grind of the powdering machine. She attempted to open the door a crack just large enough to spy through, but was knocked back as a stream of black powder suddenly shot out, forcing the door wide open. The grey-black grime continued to pour through the door. The room was filled with a black mist. Looking in, she realized about two feet of powder had accumulated in the propulsion section.

“The careless menace has neglected to shut off the powdering machine when he was through!” she exclaimed. “Well, I certainly shall not shoulder the burden of tidying up this mess. I give no regard to whatever threats he may fling at me. But where could he be?” An odd fear tickled her conscience, and she thought about the endless space between herself and her home.

She searched the ship again, with no success. “Perhaps he exited the vessel for external repairs,” she said, puzzled. She went to the air lock, and seeing both void suits stowed and unused, she grew more confused. “He could not possibly have abandoned ship,” she pronounced decidedly. Then, after thinking a moment, she surmised, “This vessel encompasses a volume too inconsequential to have missed him in passing.” Then she wandered back to the propulsion section. The powdering machine continued it’s slow grind, dumping fuel onto the growing pile covering the deck. “The disarray increases,” she said disgustedly. Not wanting to wade through the contaminating powder, she went around a bend and shut off a valve in the pipe supplying the steam that powered the machine. It slowed, then stopped. She returned to the doorway.

She looked at the powdering machine. At the granules still cascading from its mouth. At the deep, dark layer of blackness, nearly infinite, like the black void all around her. The tickle in her conscience became a jab. An aching hollowness expanded inside her. The thout of the many lonely years ahead of her, returning alone to her home planet.

“No, he could not be,” she said confidently. “No, certainly not,” she said. But doubt had crept into her voice. She looked around furtively for a moment. “Well, it would be just desserts for that villain,” she proclaimed angrily. But as she stood fuming, emptiness overtook her. The walls of the ship, the hull itself, seemed to be shrinking, the air seemed suddenly dense and viscous, and her lungs began to labor to draw each breath. And though the ship seemed a horror, something inside her knew that beyond the ship lay something far more terrible. An infinite abyss, an unfathomable, icy blackness that yearned hungrily to engulf her in its endless oblivion. The terrible void of nothingness seemed to seep through the ship’s hull, surrounding her, drowning her, filling her with an incomprehensible dread.

 “Sir, do not…” She trailed off. “Sir, you cannot…”And a paralyzing realization washed over her. “You must not…” She was alone. Completely alone. Besieged by an eternity of lightless void. “Please,” she begged. On an endless journey. “Oh, please, please no,” she pleaded. With no one. “Please,” she whispered, “do not, you cannot, you must not, leave me, here, alone.”

She rushed into the propulsion room, plunging into the black drifts, groping with wild abandon, flinging dust in every direction. Again and again, she pushed into it, scooping, shoveling, plowing, sweeping with her bare limbs, until her body was raw and bleeding from the abrasive particles.  The soot ground mercilessly into her, blackening her clothing and her body. Her movements grew slower as she wearied, but she pressed on, searching deeper into the piles and drifts, each thrust more painful, until finally she collapsed in exhaustion.

“Come back to me,” she panted. “Come back. I need you.” Lying prone and motionless, her limbs still half buried from her last effort, too weary to withdraw them, she stared numbly across the seeming ocean of ebony sand, to where it ended by the fuel feeder. An odd shape protruded up from the drift. Slowly the meaning of the shape registered in her mind. “No, it couldn’t be.” She thought. She jumped up, rushed over, hesitated for a moment, then, abandoning all modesty, grabbed it firmly. It was surprisingly strong, as if she had grabbed a rod of iron. Yet pleasingly soft, as if covered in velvet. With a strength that surprised herself, she heaved with every drop of energy left in her weary figure. The dust sighed as it parted, and she drew him out of the blackness.

Chapter 5: Target Praxis

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