NAKED TO THE WORLD
This story featuresmale petrification. If that's not what turns you on there are lots of places where you can find the female variety, so don't despair!
Converted to HTML using Word '97
The gag about life being like a sewer comes from a song intro by Tom Lehrer. I got the gag about the parachutist and his folding bike from a 1960s edition of the British newspaper strip The Perishers by Dennis Collins and Maurice Dodd, but it's probably a lot older.
So there we were: David and Philip and me. Three men in a tub. And the tub had sprung a leak.
The Tub in question was our interstellar exploration vessel, which officially went by the glamorous name of UXC-1271K. Ancient flatscreen vids about space exploration used to talk about "boldly going forth" or some such, but there was nothing particularly bold about our mission. Once the initial excitement about visiting unknown planets wore off, we found ourselves stuck in a claustrophobic little ship that had seen better days (or to be truthful, better decades). Even for the pittance the Universal Exploration Company paid us, we might have expected something slightly better.
Tub wasn't exactly an affectionate name. Lacking the sleek lines of a starcruiser or the efficient design of a Galactic Navy vessel, it made up for those qualities in the sheer awfulness of its design and construction. Almost every day there would be a malfunction of some kind which would involve crawling through a service conduit that was just too narrow for comfort, and trying to repair the breakdown with tools that were never quite right for the job. David had become our Chief Engineer by default (he had once unwisely admitted to being slightly less ignorant of technical matters than the rest of us, and so tended to get saddled with the messiest jobs), and was of the opinion that construction of our class of ship had been offered to the lowest bidder. Not in terms of credits, but of brain cells. Still, we counted our blessings. Cramped, smelly and dirty as our old Tub was, at least it managed to get us from A to B at reasonably good hyperspeed, and nothing had ever gone seriously wrong with the propulsion or life support.
It was about 19:00, ship time, and we were relaxing, as best we could, in our cabins. We were all feeling a little light-headed, not from excitement but from the fact that the artificial gravity was only operating at about 60% of normal. David, pointing out that this would cause us to lose muscle tone, had stepped up our exercise routines to compensate. Slave driver. It wasn't as if he'd ever have to worry about muscle tone. He could easily have posed for a classical Roman statue. Nude, of course. Not that David was ugly, but to my mind he wasn't in Philip's league. I have to confess that the image of Philip naked had crossed my mind from time to time... well, every five minutes, to be honest. But it was only a fantasy. He and David were already lovers (they were as discreet about it as they could be, but just try keeping something like that a secret within the confines of a small spaceship. If you don't have a spaceship of your own, substitute 'shared apartment'.)
Perhaps they would have let me join in if I'd asked, but I'd never been able to bring myself to. So I spent my sleep-periods alone and fantasised. About men, yes, but women too. And men with men, and women with women.
And statues. I'd never understood why, but the thought of statues, and especially the notion of people being turned into statues, was an incredible turn-on for me. It was years before I learned that it is a recognised fetish - Reverse Pygmalion Syndrome - and when I found out I wasn't sure whether to be relieved that I wasn't the only one, or resentful that my statuephilia wasn't my own grubby little secret any more.
At any rate, I had never told Philip or David about it for fear that they'd laugh at me. But every time I managed to sneak a glance at Philip showering I couldn't help dreaming of him frozen upon a pedestal in my own back yard, where I could look - and touch - to my "heart's" content.
I was pondering the best pose for him when the accident happened.
We were only fifteen light years from Earth, and after spending eight months in each others' company the thought of being less than a week away from home - so near, yet so far! - meant we were in an almost unbearable state of anticipation.
The mission could hardly be called an unqualified success. We had hoped to find new worlds to colonise, or contact an unknown species that hopefully wouldn't point any nasty weapons at us. Instead all we found was a new species of interstellar bacterium, which - thank God - the ship's anti-contamination system had managed to kill before it could kill us.
(By mutual consent, and strictly against company policy, we destroyed the specimen and erased all our records of it. Such a bacterium would be of considerable interest to certain people, but they were not the kind of people we liked very much.)
We had also gathered data on hundreds of sterile balls of rock and gas, which would almost certainly be of great interest to planetary scientists, but since we'd been cooped up in the Tub for so many months, our enthusiasm for science had waned a bit. To be absolutely truthful, so had our enthusiasm for life....
But not to the extent that were ready to lose it. When the alarms sounded we immediately rushed from our cabins to the Bridge, only to be thrown against the bulkheads as the ship lurched.
"What's happening?" cried David, trying to regain his balance.
"Maybe it's a meteor strike," I said. We had to shout to be heard above the klaxons.
"Not very likely," said Philip. "Even if we weren't in hyperspace, we're still a long way from any solar systems. The chances of hitting anything big enough to cause damage all the way out here are astronomical, if you'll forgive the expression."
"I won't," I said.
"We've lost hyperdrive," said Philip. "We're drifting in normal space."
"Oh, shit," said David, "we've got a hull breach. Losing atmosphere fast."
"Can you lock it down?" I asked.
"It's in the cargo bay. If I seal the main bulkhead it'll prevent any more air from leaking out, but we'll lose atmosphere on the lower three decks." His hands were already flying over the controls.
"That's a lot of air gone," I said. "Will we still have enough to get home?"
"With any luck," David replied. Even as he spoke the alarms died. Hopefully we wouldn't follow suit. "That's it," said David. "Sealed."
Philip said, "If the worst comes to the worst, we've still got the emergency stasis units. We could put the ship on auto, and we wouldn't need to breathe until we woke up."
"I don't want to prick your bubble, or vice versa," said David, "but the stasis units happen to be in the cargo bay. They might have been damaged by whatever happened, or got blown out of the breach."
"We'll burn that bridge when we come to it," I told them. "Right now we have to establish what happened and find out the full extent of the damage. Looks like one of us will have to suit up and inspect the hull from outside."
Philip drew the short straw this time. If I could have thought of a suitable excuse I would have contrived to stop by the suit locker while he was changing, but I was busy checking out the ship's systems with David.
(It was a little ironic... David had the name, but it was Philip who could have modelled for Michaelangelo.)
The diagnostics were not looking good. Anything that could cause us to drop out of hyperspace had to be bad news even if it hadn't also ruptured the hull, but that wasn't the worst of it.
"Well, I've checked all the systems and backups twice," said David. "There's no doubt about it. The hyperdrive is, to use the technical term, fucked."
"Shit," I muttered. "What about the sub-light engines? If we can accelerate to ninety percent of lightspeed we could reach Earth in twenty-some years. That's better than never reaching it at all. In any case, once we're in stasis we'll be there in no time from our point of view."
"I'm afraid not. We've lost all propulsion. We don't even have attitude thrusters. For want of a better word, the ship is completely paralysed."
The situation was beginning to look more hopeless by the minute. "Can we call for help?" I asked.
"Not a chance. The hyperwave transponder was routed through the main hyperdrive circuits."
"Oh. Shit. Don't suppose there's any chance they'll send a rescue mission."
"None whatever. If we were carrying the President of the Solar Banking Federation maybe they'd make the effort, but even then they wouldn't succeed. We're a very small needle in the biggest haystack in existence. Namely, existence."
"Well, how much life support do we have left?"
"On our remaining air reserve we can hold out for about four days."
"Shit," I repeated. Sometimes there really is only one perfect word for a situation. "We'd better start praying that those stasis units still work."
At that moment the radio burst into life. Philip said, "Well, I'm outside the cargo hold right now, and I've got to tell you guys it's one complete fucking mess. Looks as if a bomb went off just inside the bulkhead and ripped it open like a paper bag."
"That's near the main reaction chamber for the hyperdrive," said David.
"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what happened," I said. It was a pretty feeble joke, but the way I saw it we had to keep our spirits up somehow or we'd give in to despair.
"What about the cargo itself?" I asked. "Can you get into the hold to check the damage?"
"Are you kidding? A megasaur could fit through that hole. Sideways. It'll only take me a minute to get inside."
Once inside, Philip had good news and bad news. The stasis units appeared to be intact, but there was no way to tell if they were working without a full diagnostic test. There were a couple of spare spacesuits with full air tanks, which would extend our reserve by a few hours. And although the ship's engines were wrecked the hold contained several unmanned probes.
"How much thrust do the probe engines produce?" I asked. "Maybe we could bolt them around the ship and use them as boosters."
"They wouldn't be very powerful," David told me. "Boosting at maximum acceleration, and allowing for the fact that you need half the fuel to slow down again on arrival, I reckon we'd reach Earth in about five hundred years."
"Assuming the engines still work after the battering they took. Ditto the stasis units."
"Still, five centuries is still better than nothing."
"Five hundred years? That's just about the length of time between Columbus and Gagarin! All our friends and family would be long dead, the Earth would have changed beyond recognition...."
"At least we'd be alive. Anyway, as you say, we still have to assess the full damage. Let's not count all the eggs in our basket before the chickens have hatched."
Philip had of course been listening in over his suit radio, and had more bad news for us. "Sorry to tell you, guys, but it looks like most of the 'eggs' are cracked. The probes got more beaten up than I thought. The best we could do would be to salvage one or two complete engines from the parts."
"Great," muttered David. "I bet the folding bike doesn't work either."
"Folding bike?" I asked.
"Yeah, that's an old Earth joke. This spy's supposed to be parachuted behind enemy lines with a foldable pedal transport, but the 'chute doesn't open. Then he tries the back-up 'chute but that's also fucked, and as he's plummeting to his death he says, 'I bet the folding bike doesn't work either.'"
I shot David a Look.
"Well, I guess it loses a little out of context," he muttered. "We'd better just pray those stasis units work. They're beginning to look increasingly like our last hope."
After completing his inventory, Philip returned to the bridge, bringing the smaller salvageable items with him. The probes were too big to remove from the hold, but he had made sure they were stowed securely in case we needed them, which seemed likely as they had our only surviving engines. The first items David checked were of course the stasis units.
"That's weird," he muttered as he pored over the diagnostic readout.
"What's weird?" I demanded. "Are they working or not?"
"Well, that's the thing. I've got good and bad news, as they used to say. The good news is that the units will freeze us into stasis."
He paused, apparently for dramatic effect. "So if they work, what's the bad news?" I said, taking the bait.
"The bad news is that although we'll be frozen, the stasis units are all malfunctioning in such a way that we will remain fully conscious until they're deactivated again."
"Fully conscious?" said Philip. "You mean we'd be like living statues?"
"Exactly. Instead of just going into stasis and waking up however many years later, we'd be forced to spend every instant of those years fully aware and incapable of moving a mus - " David broke off and turned to me. "Are you all right?"
"Just feeling a bit dizzy," I muttered. "I think the air's starting to get stale." It wasn't the air, of course, but I could hardly tell them the truth.
"Relax," David said. "We've still got more than three days' supply."
"Look," said Philip, "how come they all have the same malfunction?"
"It must have been the radiation. When the hyperdrive blew the stasis units got zapped. Not enough to prevent them from working altogether, just enough to cause big problems for us."
"Well, why can't we just take something to knock us out before we go into stasis?" Philip ventured. (I, of course, was still in no condition to offer an intelligent suggestion. Philip in stasis, I was thinking, Philip frozen and paralysed...)
"Wouldn't work," David was saying. "No matter how deeply unconscious you are before going into stasis, you'll be wide awake the moment the field activated. The stasis field will take over your higher brain functions while your brain itself is frozen."
"Can't you decontaminate the units?" Philip demanded. "Dammit, there's got to be something you can do!"
"I'm sorry. I've checked the readings half a dozen times. The radiation has permanently altered the stasis generators' molecular structures. There's nothing we can do to restore them. Even if we had the right tools we'd probably end up wrecking them."
From somewhere I found my voice. "It seems to me that malfunctioning or not, the stasis units are our only hope of survival. Somehow we've got to figure out a way to endure being frozen for however long it takes to get rescued."
"All right," said Philip, "let's say for the sake of argument that we can endure it somehow. We've still got to figure out a way to get back to Earth."
"Well... I've had an idea about that," I said.
My idea involved using the probe engines. If we could salvage two or three complete engines and a guidance unit, we could strap them together as a single unit. Then all we'd have to do would be to huddle together on the front end, where the probe sensors would normally go, and put ourselves into stasis. Then the probe, with us as payload, would head for Earth.
...And I'd be spending all those long years as a living statue (ecstasy), embracing the frozen Philip (bliss) and David (tolerable). From my point of view it was an ideal solution.
Unfortunately David was quick to point out that it wouldn't work.
Only one of the probe engines was salvageable, and if all three of us attempted to ride home on it, its stabilisers would be overloaded. There was a good chance (define "good" in this context!) that it would miss Earth's solar system altogether, leaving us to drift through the universe frozen like three male Graces for eternity.
"Don't feel too bad about it," Philip told me. "It was a good plan. It's not your fault it didn't work out." And he put his hand on my shoulder.
Afraid of giving myself away, I simply said "Thanks," and turned to go.
David was standing in the doorway. "Phil's right," he said. "It is a good plan, and it could still work, with a small modification."
"How?" said Philip. "If we can't all fit on the probe..."
"Then just one of us will have to go while the others stay behind in stasis and wait to be rescued."
I almost blurted, You mean I don't get to embrace Philip? but managed to keep silent. It wasn't as good as my original plan, but at least we would all still get to become statues.
David said, "By my calculations a stripped-down probe carrying one man will be able to accelerate to half the speed of light. That means it'll reach Earth's solar system in about thirty years. Once he arrives in the neighbourhood the probe engine will fire again and decelerate him to a few hundred metres per second. Some patrol ship is bound to detect the probe's exhaust and investigate. When they find him they'll unfreeze him and he can tell them to send a rescue mission, which will only take another week to reach us. Thirty years is a long time, I admit, but it's better than five centuries."
"Well," said Philip, "that just leaves the question of whether it's possible to stay sane while frozen and helpless for thirty years."
"Yes, I wasn't sure that was possible," said David, "but then I did some more checking and I realised that although the stasis generators will keep us conscious, they'll freeze our emotional states. You know that old saying, 'life's like a sewer - what you get out depends on what you put in'. Well, it's the same here."
"You mean," I said, "that if we go into stasis feeling angry or depressed we'll stay angry or depressed for the whole trip."
"Exactly. So all we have to do to survive with our sanity intact is to make sure we enter stasis feeling calm and relaxed. And there's something else that'll help. We've still got some working neurostim units." The neurostims were small medical devices designed to provide local anaesthesia in case of serious injury, but as we had all discovered, they could be used to generate almost any conceivable sensation. "They use heavy neutrinos, which means they'll work through the stasis fields, and I can program them to produce orgasmic sensations every so often to make the wait a bit more enjoyable."
"So," I said, "now all we have to do is decide who stays and who goes."
"I suggest we draw for it," said David. "All agreed?" We nodded.
Let it be Philip who goes, I prayed. I would give anything to see him as a statue.
It wasn't Philip.
It was me.
David suggested we all try to grab a few hours' sleep before setting up the probe. I could hardly sleep for anticipation, of course. It was really happening! I was going to be a statue!!
That night I didn't need a neurostim unit to provide me with ecstatic sensations.
And so next morning we set to work. David went EVA and brought the working probe on board through the one undamaged cargo airlock. Using the gymnasium as a makeshift hold, we set to work stripping it down to reduce its mass, until there was hardly anything left of it but the engine and directional thrusters. David meanwhile took three neurostim bracelets and began the somewhat fiddly process of reprogramming them.
After a couple of hours, the probe was ready. Stripped of its panelling and lying on its side, it didn't look very impressive, just a slightly tapered cylinder about three metres long covered with tubing. But upon that humble device was resting our sole chance of rescue.
"OK," said David, "I've finished programming the neurostims. They use zero-point quantum energy taps, which can literally run forever, so there's no danger of them running down. While we're in stasis they'll give each of us a sustained level five pseudo-orgasm every thirty-six hours. That ought to be enough to keep us sane and happy until we're rescued. Come on, Phil, let's power up the stasis units."
While they went off to do that, I walked over to the table where David had set the neurostims. One level five orgasm every day-and-a-half? That might be enough for David, but not for me. So while he and Philip were working on the stasis generators I surreptitiously reprogrammed the bracelets. It was a fiddly procedure, since the controls were small and awkwardly positioned - perhaps the neurostims were designed by the same people who designed the Tub! - but after a few minutes I succeeded. Now all three were programmed to produce level ten orgasms - the highest setting, which I used myself only when I felt I needed a special treat. And what could be more special than being a statue?
Then I set about altering the duration. That was even trickier, but once I was finished the bracelets were set to activate every twelve hours. With any luck David wouldn't notice the alterations. I did think about setting them to operate every six hours, but that would have been greedy.
After a while David and Philip returned, carrying one of the drum-shaped stasis units between them. A pair of spacesuit boots was securely strapped to one side of the drum. "Well," said David, as they set the unit on the deck. "This is it. Now these are the ship's coordinates, allowing for thirty years of drift. Listen very carefully and memorise these figures." He went over the figures with me several times until we were both absolutely sure I'd got them right. "OK," he said. "It's time to gaze upon Medusa. Remember to think happy thoughts, now."
"All right," I said, and began to strip.
"Um, you know, we're not really that desperate to conserve weight," muttered David.
"Indulge me," I said. "If I'm going to be a statue I'm going to be a nude statue. After all," I grinned, "where will you and Phil be while you're frozen, eh?"
And so, naked except for my socks, I stepped onto the stasis unit and slipped my feet into the boots. This was the moment of no return. Once the boots were fastened I could not step off the stasis generator. I stood up straight. David had told me to stand upright with my hands by my sides in order to provide a balanced configuration for the probe. I tried to remain calm and relaxed like David had said, but my nerves were tingling with anticipation.
David knelt beside the unit and pressed the button. There was a low humming. It's happening, I thought. It's happening! I can't move! I really can't move a muscle! I'm turning into a statue! YES!!!
"Whoa!" said Philip. "Is that a side effect of the stasis, or is he just pleased to see us?"
"I don't know," said David, "maybe it's a reaction to being frozen while conscious." (If only he knew, I thought...) "In any case, he'll be the first man ever to keep it up for thirty years!"
"Guess that means you and I will be the second and third, doesn't it?" said Philip, kissing David.
"Hey, not here. He can still see us, you know."
"I know. I also know he's had the hots for me all these months and been too shy to do anything about it. And now you and I are going to spend thirty years in each others' arms while he's all alone out there."
I wanted to reply, but the freezing process was complete. I couldn't believe how rigid and immobile my body had become. I couldn't even blink.
Turning to me, Philip said, "Maybe when this is over the three of us can... you know... get together. I'd like that." Then he walked around my "pedestal" for a while, examining me from all sides. "You know," he said, "you look great as a statue. Like a youth by Donatello or Giambologna, only slightly more... explicit. I hope whoever finds you appreciates art." Then he stepped onto the pedestal - he was in no danger of being frozen because the stasis field was concentrated on my body - and kissed me on the cheek. "Good luck, kid," he said. "I'll look forward to seeing you again." And he kissed me again for an endless moment, and embraced me and fondled my back, chest, neck, buttocks, arms, legs and erection. It was lucky for him that my body hairs had all been flattened beneath the atom-thick stasis field. If they'd been frozen in their original positions they would have acted like millions of pieces of razor wire, cutting him to shreds. As it was, though, my frozen body must have felt as smooth as marble, and of course I was able to feel his touch through the field. It was pleasurable even though I wasn't capable of orgasm. I love you, I wanted to tell him. But I was sure he already knew.
There's not much more to tell. David, showing no sign of jealousy at his lover's behaviour toward me, grinned and slapped me on the back - then winced because he'd forgotten how hard my body had become. "I always said you were a hard man to deal with," he said. Once he'd finished massaging his hand he strapped a neurostim bracelet onto my arm (just as I hoped, he hadn't noticed that I'd reprogrammed it). Then he and Philip turned me and my stasis unit sideways, then bolted and strapped it to the probe as securely as they possibly could. Then they wheeled the probe with me as its payload into the cargo airlock, and with another cry of "Good luck!" closed the inner door. A few minutes later I was launched into space. The probe circled the broken Tub for a while, orienting itself, then turned away from the ship and fired its main engine, boosting at full acceleration in what I sincerely hoped was the direction of Earth...
So here I am, the first man ever to feel space upon my naked skin and live; the ultimate one-man spaceship. I stand upon my pedestal gazing at right angles to my direction of travel. My erection points in the same direction like some ridiculous antenna. The view is monotonous. When you've seen one star, you've seen them all. Perhaps I should have asked David to rig up a mirror so I could see where I was going - but then the view ahead probably wouldn't look very different. Even at half the speed of light there is no visible movement in the position of the stars. I could almost imagine myself to be some ancient Greek hero who had been chosen to be set amongst the constellations forever, proud to receive such an honour from his gods, only realising when it was too late that once he became a constellation he could never move again...
I think of David and Philip, frozen in their thirty-year embrace. I don't know what position the rescuers will eventually find them in, but I often fantasise about them, lying there on the bunk with the stasis generator underneath, their bodies entwined, their mouths open in frozen cries of ecstasy; looking in short like some pornographic Roman statue that a museum would buy for a billion creds because it's "art". I'm happy for them. As for me, I got my wish. Being a statue is not quite what I expected, but I am frozen in a state of perpetual excitement and anticipation.
And then there's the neurostim. If anything, the pseudo-orgasms it produces feel even more intense in my frozen state. But I did make one small mistake when I reprogrammed it - and, I presume, David's and Philip's too. Because, instead of giving me orgasmic sensations every twelve hours, it does so every twelve MINUTES. It's almost more than I can stand, and of course in my immobility it's impossible to remove or deactivate the bracelet.
I keep trying to figure out how many twelve-minute periods there are in thirty years, but mental arithmetic never was my strong suit.
Oh, my. Here it comes again.