. . . bode-lee go . . .

Bindlestiffs
by Donna M. Recktenwalt ©2013

"Snicklefritz!!"

At the unexpected epithet I started and turned to stare at the man who had uttered it - not in his usual bantering way, but as an epithet of power. It wasn't like Karl to swear at all. He was, usually, one of the most serene, mellow of men.

But now he was pasty-skinned with fatigue, his cheeks hollow with strain. I permitted myself a weary smile. "Go to bed, Karl," I said gently. "You've done all you can for now. Get some sleep, come back when you're feeling better. Lonny can take it from here."

"Lonny doesn't know beans about this system."

"That's exhaustion talking, Karl. You trained him yourself."

The chief engineer laid down his tools with a sigh. "Yeah. I did, at that."

"Sleeping pill, Karl. Followed by at least six hours of rack time. That's an order."

"I'll feel worse."

"You can't feel worse than you do now."

"Don't bet on it." But he followed the order, weaving away down the passageway like some awkward marionette, or a man drunk. A good man, Karl. A man stretched, almost, beyond his limits.

We all were. Stretched taut, edges dulled, eyes glassy. Not a good way for a crew to be. But Electra was far out from anywhere, her maintenance long overdue. It was way past time for r and r and restock. We were short on everything - air, water, food, medical supplies, ordnance, patience.

Mostly patience.

Karl slouched down the hall, disappeared into one of the berthing compartments. I wished him pleasant dreams.

Even sweet and even-tempered Noreen was alternating between morose and snappish. She'd been doing her share of swearing, too, these last few days. Can't say I blamed her much, or for preferring her own bed to mine. I wasn't the best of company, myself. The rank taint of stale sweat is hardly an aphrodisiac, and with the shortage of water we hadn't bathed or done laundry in weeks. The lack was all too evident.

Well, at least ... Electra was running, every cubic inch of her moving purposefully through space.

At least the Maclin Environmental System was operational, although far from optimal.

And we hadn't lost any of our crew - yet.

Down in sickbay Alden was tending our first and so far only casualty. I'd ceased asking for status reports; I couldn't bear the look in Alden's eyes when he was forced to give them. Bad enough that he had to sit by and watch a man dying from his own organics, unable to ease or aid him.

Mark had been down in the status tubes, working to free the jam-up caused by our collision with - whatever it had been; none of us was certain, even now - when the coupling broke free, subjecting him to a full dose of the highly toxic radioactive catalysts used for chemical recovery. We knew, even as Mark did, that it was ultimately fatal, the only questions those of time and agony. How long would his body, its internal regulators destroyed, destroy itself in that gruesome combination of fluid and fire?

When the pain became too great, Alden began to use the last of our precious store of painkillers, knowing that he would himself have to watch until the end or take an active hand and terminate the torment himself. Not an easy task, especially to one he had loved as a son.

But that's life, or death. Rarely does it provide what you expect.

I sighed, rubbing gritty eyes and looking around the bridge once more. Half crew. We'd gone to it four days before, another step to conserve air. A man asleep uses less than one awake; and well rested men are better at their tasks than those who are tired, even when the issue of strain remains unresolved.

Familiar faces - Noreen, Chad, Raman. Tired faces. Flat, blank eyes. On the men, ragged beards, combed but not clean. The women now wore their hair cropped unfashionably short, slicked back, out of their eyes. Hardly beautiful, but practical. Would any of us ever luxuriate in a bath again, or have the luxury of clean clothes? Were we slated to die out here?

I'm too stubborn to give up. Fortunately, so are my crew. Electra wouldn't quit either.

Noreen measured out two rations of water and passed one to me along with the status pad. I signed, activated archive mode, handed it back. The water was pure, but it tasted stale, cardboardy, vaguely metallic.

"Nine days, at best," she said, sitting down cross-legged beside the command chair and staring at the ring of monitors above us. "At worst? Who knows? We could be dead now and unknowing, a ship filled with corpses, going nowhere."

"We're not corpses yet," I reminded her, "and we're going to Waverly Three. No telling how long it may take, though, or whether we'll be aware enough to know once we get there."

Noreen opened her eyes - large, pale blue eyes tinged with gray - and glanced up at me, head supported against the bulkhead behind her. "I dreamed about cryo again," she said. "Have you thought about that?"

"More than I want to. Yes, it would better the odds for those left behind, awake, but I've serious doubts about those who'd go under. Our supplies are too low to guarantee their revival. Ordering cryo would be like ordering death."

"Don't read it that way, Derek. A lot of us have talked about it, in private. At least a third of the crew are willing to go into cryo voluntarily."

"So I've heard. I can't condone it, though, Noreen, nor ask it of anyone."

"I know that. So do they. But how would you feel if some of us - by our choice, not by your order - were to take that road?"

I thought about it, much as I had thought about it the night before and the weeks and months before that, and came to exactly the same conclusion, which was no conclusion at all. I finally shook my head.

"I don't know, Noreen."

"Well, I do," she said, her voice waspish at the edges. "I know there are enough cryo packs left for every person on this ship that wants one to have one. I know the stock of revivant is low, because we've been rendering it for the essentials; and I know that all those who choose cryo face possible death by nonrevival. But I also know that those who choose it enhance the available choices for those who don't.

"Derek, even I long for cold sleep, and rest, even if it means the beginning of the longest sleep of all. So do many of the others. We knew the risks when we came aboard. Signing on a vessel like Electra - well, anyone who goes into space acknowledges they'll probably die far from home. We all die someday Derek. I'd rather it be easy than painful. If my time is now, so be that, too." She stopped then, staring at the monitors but seeing bright new suns and endless voids, the dreams of every spacefarer.

"I can't condone it," I said after a time. "I can't order or request it, but I can release the stores. Any who choose may use them at will. Just advise the computer so I know what crew is still awake and available." Suddenly I felt very, very tired. I closed my eyes, feeling leaden, feeling I'd just signed the death warrants for more than a dozen good men and women.

"Thank you, Derek." Noreen paused on her way out, very briefly, to kiss my grimy forehead.

***

The first cryo-select signed down an hour later. By the watch change, two more. By the next day a dozen had requested their packs, retired to the cryo chamber, inserted the needles and gone into deep, supposedly dreamless, sleep.

To my relief, Noreen's name wasn't among them.

***

"How can you do this?" Alden demanded, catching me in the galley. I'd just successfully poured another jolt of caffeine into a mug; I'd been awake now for close to 40 clock hours and my hands were shaking.

"Do what, Alden?"

"Order cryo without my authority." The medic's eyes snapped with anger.

"As ship's doctor you have that authority - if I order it," I told him wearily, sitting down at the table for just a moment's respite. "I didn't."

"What?" He reached across me, poured his own mugful, sat down.

"I didn't order it. Some of the crew requested it, voluntarily. I simply authorized it."

"Derek, you're getting tired. You know the risks as well as I do."

"And as well as they do!" I pointed out. "I know I'm getting tired, and slow, and careless, just like everybody else aboard this ship. Don't lecture me, Alden. I'm in no civil mood for it. Yes, I know the risks - all of them, and I accept them. Presumably, so do they."

"Cryo. Without a control chamber, without stabilizers, without surety of additional revival supplies ..." He muttered on, face half-hidden by his mug. "It's a terrible risk."

"It's a gamble," I agreed. "But one they're prepared to take for the chance at real life, if not for themselves, then for the rest of us. At least in cryo they can rest. And if this is living," I countered, gesturing at the low light levels, the thin stuff that served now for coffee, the gray faces around us, "no food, no air to speak of, no joys - just bare survival - I'm not so certain this is that much better than cryo, Alden. At least they're at ease. Out here, in the real world, we're still worrying, still feeling pain, despair." Alden dropped his eyes, as at private pain, then looked at me square.

"Are you that discouraged, Captain?" His voice was dangerously gentle.

I met his penetrating stare square on. "I am," I said.

"Then perhaps you should think seriously about cryo, yourself." With that parting salvo he rose, wiped his cup dry and strode down the passageway, leaving me staring aghast at his departing back.

Cryo? Me?

No.

It's not that I'm afraid of it. I've been through it - several times, in fact, and have had no bad effects, no bad memories. There's an unpleasant taste in your mouth just before you go under, and for a while after you wake. There's the infamous weakness and disorientation, but they aren't too bad and go away after a while.

What's bad is the lack of control. You have none, no control at all. Once the needles are in place, once the chemicals begin coursing through your veins, slowing your system, you're at the mercy of any malfunction in the equipment designed to maintain you, any evil whim on the part of those still awake. One error by those monitoring you, one incorrect setting or maladjustment by the computers, and the cryo sleeper is dead. Perhaps not at that moment, perhaps not until much later, and the sleeper never the wiser but dead just the same.

Accidents do happen. Failure of the support equipment does occur.

So do murders.

I know. I was there. I had to judge the man. Memory of the madness in his eyes is with me still.

Control is the key.

I'm the Captain. I have the ultimate, and final, control. I'm not about to relinquish my post, delegate my responsibility, any more than Alden was about to give up his, as medic and advisor and friend.

***
His mental slap in the face was just what I needed.

Time for some clear thinking, for answers, for action. When I arrived back on the bridge I had a plan in order.

"Noreen, plot me a prognosis - time to Waverly Three against environmental supplies. Calculate with and without stasis adjustments. Factor in fuel masses and speeds and whatever other variables you can think of. I want the best possible and worst possible scenarios. Get on it."

"Karl, what about the engines?" His rest had done some good. His eyes were clear again, even if his skin still had that same unhealthy color. I kept thinking of wallpaper paste, in my aunt's living room years before.

"We're conserving what fuel we can. We gained momentum back there, with the slingshot effect But we haven't been able to maintain it. We're falling off our projected speeds by a factor of .0572 every 12 hours. Better factor that into your calculations, Noreen." He gave an apologetic shrug, but it was hardly necessary. We all knew he was doing his best.

I didn't like the numbers when they came up, although they didn't surprise me. Stone faced, Noreen handed them to me without a word.

It was nine days to Waverly Three, given normal speeds and normal conditions. We were doing considerably less than that. When the decrease factor was included our estimated arrival was dismal, especially since our stores were so low. "How long can a man go without food, Karl?"

"Coupla' weeks, maybe a month."

"And water?"

"A few days, at most."

"How much 'coast' can we get from the engines?" That answer took longer, but eventually came. Enough to reach Waverly Three, assuming no bumps from wayward asteroids or deflections by gravity wells. Arriving mute and deaf, by chance .... drifting through the system, dead as a post.

"Our course is true, Derek. We've fuel enough to this point." His grease-stained finger indicated a point on the three-dimensional stellar map. "Drift will take us straight on in from there, but not soon enough. To arrive sooner we need fuel enough for a burn of ..." He turned to a keypad; calculations flickered across his monitor, "that. That means mass of ..."

It was impossible. I did some serious considering.

"What kind of fuel?"

"Anything, so long as our engines can convert it. Disposables, fittings, organics, metallics. Whatever."

"Noreen, alert the labs. Extra labware, piping, suitable combustible chemicals. Karl, talk to your people - spare parts, cleaning solvents, etc. etc. Ward, get down to environmental - garbage, leftovers, whatever you can find. All the data to Karl."

"We'll try it, Derek," Karl said an hour later. "May be enough, may not, but we won't really know until we try, will we?"

"Try what?" Alden asked, coming up beside me.

"Additional fuel burn. Not fuel, just odds and ends. May be enough to get us to Waverly Three before we all collapse."

"Nice idea." He stayed with me while Karl lead his team, reduced now by five in cryo sleep, through their paces. We didn't feel any difference, of course, but Electra gained a bit of velocity, judging by the gauges.

"Not quite enough," Karl finally said, pointing to the plot. "We'll fall just short."

"By then we'll be out of water," Noreen said, "and air will have been gone for three days."

I shook my head. "There has to be another possibility we haven't thought of yet."

"I'm open to suggestions," Karl said. "Anybody got any miracles handy?"

"Mark," Alden murmured, so quietly that no one else heard him. Then, louder, "I've some spare organics in the med lab. Would they help?"

"Might."

Alden went on his way, returned some time later, looking even more worn than usual.

"Gave your lads about 90 kilos of stuff" he said, avoiding Karl's eyes.

"Every bit helps." Karl, gaze locked on his readouts and plots, failed to notice the medic's expression. At my silent query Alden nodded fractionally; we'd lost Mark.

"We're coming up on empty now," I said, looking around at the gaps in the bulkheads, the missing cushions and gage plates and empty monitor banks. "We've stripped her nearly clean."

"Power coming up, now," murmured Karl as the gauges began to climb, then stabilized. Only a few minutes later those same gauges began to drop again, precipitously. Only then did Karl turn away from his monitors with a weary stretch. "That was your stuff, Alden; thanks. You gave us a good, long burn. We've even enough in the batteries now for maneuvering once we're at dockside."

"Enough for a message buoy?" I asked.

"Just about. What did you have in mind?"

"To Waverly Three. Prepare for arrival of bindlestiffs, date and time, signed Electra."

"He would've liked that," Alden murmured as if to himself. He was staring at the changing plot of our projected course, an odd expression on his face.

"Who?"

"Mark."

"Died in the line of duty and in support of his mission," I said, understanding what Alden could not put into words. I had to read it in my friend's silences, and in his eyes. Mark 's remains were the better part of that 90 kilos of fuel. "His mother will be proud of that, even as I am."

Alden gave an enigmatic glance and very quietly went below. The last of the organics sent the message buoy speeding on its way.

More sedately, Electra followed.

x x x

This reminded me of a Star Trek episode - perhaps one by Elison or Blish. I can readily see the ORIGINAL crew of the Enterprise dealing with this. (Picard, bleeeccchhh; give me Kirk any old day). Hope you liked this as much as I did. Let me (and the author) know on our BBS. (Just an aside: didja notice that the new Star Trek movies focus on Kirk and his buddies rather than the Next Generation? Hmmmm, wonder if the Hollywood guys know something . . .) -GM



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