By Stirling Edgewood
Chapter 1: Solitary Refinement
Confined. Compressed. Constrained. Enclosed. Encased. Restricted. Imprisoned.
Technically, his world, his responsibility, his existential burden, encompassed over a thousand cubic miles. It stretched from the 40-foot thick, soft, energy-absorbing aerogel protruding like a clown’s nose on the tip of the craft, through the mile-long fuselage housing optics, communications, hibernation pods, life support, habitat, power, propulsion, RADAR, and innumerable other systems, machines, tools, and supplies. The electromagnetic deceleration apparatus encompassed most of that volume, its net of conductive filaments forming a funnel five thousand miles in diameter at its open end, gradually narrowing over miles to a 10-foot access port. The starship itself clutched within its innards nearly a cubic mile of pressurized volume, guarding it jealously from the cold, ravenous grasp of the nothingness without. It shuttled through the darkness, a needle of contained order probing the endless, vast chaos of space.
His life was circumscribed. Though he could touch every piece of every machine enclosed in the steel hull, each was accessible only through a labyrinth of crawlspaces barely wide enough to squeeze through. The habitat pod itself was only a few hundred cubic feet of space, and most of that occupied by controls and equipment. Pipes, levers, conduits, storage lockers, and every manner of solid obstruction protruded to interfere with movement, so that any journey of two or three feet might require a duck, a twist sideways, a hop and a lunge. His limbs ached for freedom. His soul yearned for release. And every fiber of his being pleaded for the presence, the touch, of another living being, to relieve the excruciating loneliness of his purgatory.
He trembled as he approached the rusted sphere of the hibernatorium. In it lay the only other fully developed living creature aboard. He knew the hollow ball of metal contained another. One he had never seen, never known, never spoken to. He had stared at it many times, but it’s dull, opaque surface had revealed nothing of its occupant. He could only dream about who was within, waiting with eternal patience for him to release her.
She had slumbered in blissful ignorance for the many long years he had labored to guide the ship, to complete his mission. His duty, his training, left him reluctant to awaken her. But his isolation drove him with eagerness to reignite her spirit. Yet now, roiling with opposing emotions, he consoled himself with the knowledge that it was duty itself that impelled him on this course of action.
He pulled firmly on a lever, and the sphere sighed audibly as the top half lifted and slid away. He peered eagerly into the dim hollow. There she lay, floating on a cold, grey soup. He gasped. The room began to swim and blur, his balance only tenuously keeping him upright. His mind reeled with the revelation of what lie inside. She was beautiful.
He had just returned to the habitat to check that the tea and provisions were still warm when she exited her closet.
“You emerge!” He declared. “Welcome. I have composed an humble repast. You must be famished from your long slumber.”
Her step was slow and uncertain, yet still somehow graceful and delicate. She approached the tiny hinged table that could fold against the wall, and unsteadily lowered herself into the only seat.
“Have I truly awakened?” She croaked hoarsely.
“Indeed you have. And I must confess, you are a creature of more divinely inspired comeliness than I dared to dream.” He gushed.
“You are much too kind.” She replied coyly. “I must look a dreadful fright. I feel I am hardly animate.”
“Not at all.” He protested. “The authorities selected us for keenness of wit, uncommon vigor, indomitable health, and accommodating disposition. Yet I suspect, in your instance, an unwritten criterion was imposed, requiring surpassing beauty and elegance.”
“Thank you, your compliments are most agreeably put, though I know them to be promiscuous exaggerations. Perhaps their unspoken standard in your selection was an inestimable charm.”
“If they were equally selective of all attributes, I trust, with your assistance, our current state will be put aright in a blink.” He continued.
“Our current state? Are we not at our destination then?” She asked, somewhat alarmed.
“Alas, no. But come, you are still in an unsettled state. Have some tea, and replenish yourself, before we discuss any inconvenient matters.” He urged.
“Yes, perhaps that is best.” She relented. She took the tube connected to the teapot, and took a short pull, testing its contents. “It’s quite good, actually.” She remarked, and took a long swallow.
“The best in many a light year, I assure you.” He joked.
“I imagine so.” She replied, laughing. “Yet how came I to be garbed so?” She asked, reaching to adjust and straighten her clothes. “I remember not this attire as I entered my slumber. Indeed, I remember bearing no attire at all.” She inquired. “I feel as if I had been dressed by a child.”
“Much to my shame, I confess that you lie in the hibernatorium unclothed. Duty required that I invade you with the impropriety of seeing you in that state, as I carried you with great care and delicacy to your sleeping closet, and performed the necessary processes for your awakening. However, I regret not one moment of it, as I have been audience to a sight of such heavenliness, that were I to perish this instant, I would do so happily, with that exquisite vision etched indelibly in my eyes. If a way were open to protect your modesty, I would have taken it, though with great reluctance. As it is, I acted only in accordance with the dictates of the standard tome.” He laid his hand on a thick book as he said the final word.
She cast a doubtful glance at him, but replied politely, “I am certain you followed the protocol to the letter. Yet, does the standard tome provide for the dressing of those being awakened?” She challenged him.
“Um, not explicitly, no.” He stuttered. “Yet, I felt that, in preservation of your virtue, and to shield my own eyes from a revelation that threatened to overthrow my senses, appropriate adornments were required. Where the tome is silent, we may use our own judgement. Seeing no prohibition to it, I proceeded. Please forgive my inexpert application of your raiment. I am not practiced in the fashions of the gentler sex.”
She laughed with sincere gaiety at this. “You, sir, are most agreeably quick of wit. But perhaps too quick. I would caution proper ladies to be on their guard when you are present. “
He shot her a look of feigned innocence.
“And though improperly applied, it is a tasteful selection.” She added, peering down at the elegant outfit she wore. She looked at him, and seemed to see him for the first time. “I could never hope to have a more handsome clothier.” She added appreciatively. “Although, you do appear to be somewhat more aged than my imaginings. The authorities claimed that the two selected for this journey would be of one kind in years.” An annoyed tone had entered her voice.
“Indeed, and they were true to it. We were of a kind at the outset of our incredible journey. Yet while you dreamed in ageless slumber, I was awakened on occasion to aright unforeseen circumstances. After completing all necessary adjustments, I would return to the hibernatorium to resume my own state of suspended animation. Yet, time and again, I was called forth to manage various difficulties.”
“My sincerest thanks for your labors in keeping us safely upon our task.” She remarked politely. “How long have you been awake?” She inquired.
“Through a score or so of emergencies, by my reckoning, I am now some 15 years your senior.” He admitted with a polite bow of the head.
“Fifteen years? Alone all the while?” She gasped. “Sir, your fortitude is beyond belief. Your revelation fills me with amazement and gratitude beyond repayment. I certainly would have gone mad with loneliness in your place.”
“When weighed against the invaluable treasure I guarded, which has now been incarnated in flesh before me, it was merely the trifling of a humble creature.” He said lightly.
“However, your powers of observation are quite astute.” He added with a lighthearted laugh. “For I have gone surpassingly mad. Even now, I imagine I am having tea with a comely princess, as if I inhabited a fairy tale.”
“Well played!” She exclaimed, laughing with him.
“But even so, I am forever in your debt.” She continued. “Your welcome and the tale of your sacrifice have cheered and enlivened me, and I shake off my long repose. I am eager to address whatever emergency compelled you to call me forth.” She stated boldly.
“Ah, sweet damsel, you remind me of my duty, which requires our introductions to end presently, that we may redress the many pressing needs of this aging, yet nobly faithful steed, that carries us to the stars.” He admitted with a sigh.
“But, perhaps you should tell me of all that has passed first, that I might be better equipped to assist you.” She requested.
“The tale would require much time, of which we are presently in great need.” He said ominously. “I also suspect, through no personal fault, but rather resulting from your recent awakening, that you remain not fully in possession of your faculties, and therefore may find my explanations somewhat incomprehensible.”
“Sir, you alarm me so. The vagueness of your reply only increases it. And I assure you I have regained my self-mastery to the full.” She protested with annoyance, suddenly rising. She faltered slightly, grasped the table for support, then straightened courageously.
“Your eagerness heartens me.” He declared. “Nevertheless,” he pronounced in soft, apologetic tones, “My explication must wait to the morrow. But, if you are feeling well and capable, I have a task which I beg you to perform that will provide us with great assistance.”
“I am yours to command.” She said determinedly.
“If it prove overtaxing, I beg you to leave off.” He warned.
“Upon my honor.” She promised.
“Very well then,” he began. “The radio transmission device lies partway along starboard shaft J. But it –“
“Sir, you patronize me.” She interrupted, protesting. “As you know, I have committed to memory every design of this vessel, and am fully prepared to conduct any process that she may require.”
“I assure you, I have every confidence that you may recite the manual of upkeep down to the comma and paren, and recreate every illustration down to the artist’s accidental drips from his pen. And this knowledge would have been of flawless service at the outset of our trek. However, much and more has changed in the time between then and now. I beg you to indulge my diversion, for you will find it of true worth in this task.”
“My sincerest apologies, good sir, please continue.” She responded placatingly.
“The original evacuated tubes of the radio apparatus, of XT design, have proved susceptible to excessive warming and frequent failure. This required the fashioning of less powerful tubes of XY type and applied in their stead, but also necessitating an additional tranche of tubes to provide similar strength of radio signal. The volume of the apparatus being insufficient to house the increased tubes, I prepared an improvised covering that you may recognize as being in the shape and coloring of –“
He broke off, as if suddenly remembering something, and then exclaimed “Ah, damn my forgetfulness!”
“Please continue, my ears are open and patient to your instruction. But do endeavor to refrain from vulgarities.” She encouraged him.
“Alas, I am embarrassed to admit yet another indiscretion.” He replied with shame.
“Do tell.” She responded teasingly.
“The cover bears a remarkable resemblance to one of the waste bins with which our sleeping closets were originally provisioned.” He admitted.
“Very resourceful of you.” She remarked. “Although,” she continued languidly, “Upon my awakening, I was somewhat perplexed by the lack of a waste bin in my own closet. Surely an oversight by the ships provisioners, I surmised. It couldn’t possibly be through the action of my gallant crewmate. A man of such chivalrous bent would certainly have used his own accoutrements, rather than sacrificing my convenience,” she said between laughs, with an air of feigned accusation.
“You have it to rights, as always, good lady. The waste bin covering the radio apparatus is indeed my own.”
“Well then, what of mine?” She prodded.
“Well, um, in the event that my closet grew somewhat cluttered with refuse, and considering you did not require it in your slumber…” He trailed off. “I had every intent of returning it prior to your revival!” He protested. “I plead a failure of memory induced by my over-weary state!”
“Good sir! Must I remind you of chapter 26 of the tome, codicil 12, subtext 8, which clearly states that entry into a crewmates sleeping closet is strictly forbidden?”
They both laughed with abandon for few moments.
“Alas, my gallant prince is revealed to be a common sneak and petty thief to boot.” She chuckled when their guffawing subsided. “But my curiosity is aroused. How many emergencies have occasioned your trespass into my boudoir?”
“Ahm, perhaps more than I could scarce admit. More than would my inconstant memory allow the counting of, in any event.”
“It seems you have been a frequent visitor in my absence. I pray you refrain from future trespass, lest you become an unwelcome guest.” She said with a hint of testiness.
“With utmost gratitude for your forbearance.” He replied soothingly.
“And what else of my valuable possessions have been repurposed to different service?” She pressed.
“Ah, well, certainly a few pencils, sacrificed on the altar of mathematics for various calculations. And all the notebooks, for the paper in which we are in endless undersupply. The hand mirror now faithfully stands in stead for one of its likeness in our telescopic equipment, which perished under the strain of a vacuum breach that resulted in a sudden chilling. Some select articles of your clothing with uncommon close stitching also serve an integral part of the water purifying apparatus. And the air purifying apparatus. I suspect I have forgotten some other hardy volunteers, but promise to faithfully relay their new employment the moment they jump to recollection, or upon your discovery, whichever comes first.”
They both laughed again.
“Perhaps I can redeem myself through some deed of excessive courage and foolhardiness my princess. Slaying an interstellar dragon, or retrieving a rare magical void rock?” He conjectured. “But let us bear the ember.”
“Rest assured, noble gentleman, you require no new deeds to prove your character. I have every confidence that your actions were necessitated by direst want. Your sacrifices repay your indiscretions an hundredfold.” She responded thankfully.
“I must reply, fair lady, with no exaggeration, that you are truly an inestimable gift, a divine answer to my desperate prayer, and I would have not an hundred of any other in your stead.”
“I shall retire to my much depleted stores to find something more appropriate for ship’s labor than this finery.” She announced.
He stared after her. She moved with hypnotizing allure, even after only being awakened from hibernation for a few hours. She was small, only about half his mass, and he envied her lithe navigation of the obstructions littering their complicated space. Her twistings, turnings, bends, and stretches riveted his gaze to her attractive figure, as they advertised her feminine curves. As she moved through the door, without looking back or breaking stride, she chided him. “Do not gawk so. It is unbecoming.”