It took a lot to move and to face the first dark moments of the day, and Kiril always felt a jagged twinge of guilt whenever he had to break Hal’s dreams and subject him to the hard/cold end of whatever might have started the night before.
Hal moaned a near-coherent complaint and held Kiril in a clenching embrace.
“Nyet,” he said, quietly. “You still have one hour of good sleeping.”
“Bullshit,” Hal grumbled, and for a moment it sounded as if he’d swallowed a bear. “I’m awake now.”
“Then stay warm,” Kiril said. “Sleep one more hour for me.” And it took something of a fight to disengage: first from Hal’s lingering sleeper’s hug, and then from the bedding itself. He moved gingerly and flinched at the chill in the cramped, dark cabin. He sat, for a moment, toes curled under and against the unwelcome chill of the foamed-metal deck-plates. No matter how they tweaked the thermostats in Environmental Engineering, the decks were always cold: a cruelty to naked feet. There was a faint, sustained tremor and Kiril read the ship’s disposition with the tips of his toes and the arch of each foot. The Rusalka was steady-on-course with a good three hours remaining until hard deceleration. “Sleep,” Kiril said, twisting at the waist and leaning down to kiss Hal’s forehead, cheeks, and lips. “I’ll see you later. I’ll see you after we dock.”
He felt the perpetual deck-tremor: he could hear it if he listened, the sustained, groaning whisper of the ship’s spin-gravity motor; but there were tricks a spacer knew to keep from hearing that. All a spacer had to do was forget to listen, and that was easy enough, but the feet could never forget to feel vibrations underfoot, because vibrations were what told a spacer any number of vital things. Now, however, Kiril’s feet were interested in telling him how cold the deck plates were, and how his toes carried the rime of sleep-sweat between them.
“Yeah,” Hal said. “When the thunder stops.”
When the thunder stops. Deceleration (the thunder) would occur during Even Shift, while Hal kept to his post on the bridge: while Hal sat at the Number 3 control boards, as calm and aloof as any of old Africa’s Masai herdsman with skin as brown as the husk of a pecan, and eyes as cunning as clever as any playful devil’s. Kiril smiled at the thought, the image, curious—as always—at what Hal saw in a lanky, pale Siberian like himself.
“Have a good day,” Kiril said.
“I love you,” Hal said. “Stay out of trouble.”
“I love you too.”
He was due for a long, long shift in Engineering Ops: nursing the boards and keeping an eye on the gauges, telltales, and differential readouts. It was easy work: warming a seat more than anything else, but it was what a spacer did…easy work until a situation went red-line-critical. It happened, sometimes, and all it took was micro-meteor at just the right angle-of-intersect, just the right velocity, and easy work turned into the nightmare of damage control, breach control, and maybe the long, agonizing yawn of catastrophic decompression. It was always hard to walk away from warmth with Hal when that particular threat loomed on just this side of abstract possibility. The Rusalka was just sunward of Ceres, and so the danger was there. Right there. Close enough to think about….
Kiril touched his thumb to the biometric reader set into the shower-cubicle door, and flipped the minimum-use toggle. He’d waited in line and shared yawning, near-groggy small talk with the guy in line before him. There were twelve shower stalls in this section of the habitat. There was no way he’d pull a tense shift without a shower and a shave, and no way he’d dawdle until the line of grumpy Even Shift crew grew to an uncomfortable length. He got to stall #8 in reasonable time, as the line behind him lengthened.
He drew a deep breath, keyed in an underwear request, and braced himself for the first and all-important step into the inevitability of the day. Deceleration was always hard on the nerves, and if there were ever small mercies in the universe, one was that he’d pull duty during that long, thunderous time: he’d have something to do…he’d have something to think about, something to focus on while the Rusalka pushed hard against its forward momentum.
The shower door opened and he stepped into the two-meter space, sealed the door behind him spread his arms and legs for maximum shower exposure; he wiggled his toes against the floor grilles; there were high-pressure spray nozzles under the floor grating, in the walls, in the ceiling. He closed his eyes, and listened to the countdown chime: fair warning before a skin-prickling blast of cleaner and high-velocity water spray stripped the night’s accumulation of dead skin and sweat from the surface of his body. He tried not to think of each nozzle as the muzzle of a gun, though the analogy fit in more ways than one.
There’d been a time—once, and long ago—when showers were soft things, full of steam and the scent of expensive soaps, shampoos, and conditioners: a time when water slanted down from a single piece of plumbing. There’d been a time when he’d dried off with a cloth towel and left it to dry, without ever cringing at the waste of evaporation. But things were different on Earth. Things were different, now: faster, and harder, though—ultimately—no less pleasant. He hadn’t known Hal in that other life. On Earth. He hadn’t known the big trade haulers (like the Rusalka) on the Terra-Jovian routes. Though he studied (what else was there to do in that rat-ass little Siberian village?) he hadn’t actually known how to read the motion and the status of a ship with his feet, his spine, or his fingers placed on one bulkhead or another. And now, as the final alert chime sounded one second before the skin-searing blast of shower spray, he flinched and held his breath through the concussive hum of a compressor cycling on. His muscles clenched at the sound of a hollow pop, and the burning tickle of a million granules of crystal, buffing him to a dull, ivory sheen.
He kept his eyes closed.
There were signs all over the place advising precisely that: and there were horror stories, interplanetary myths, about this spacer or that one, blinded by an expanding cloud of high-velocity shower droplets. Hal always laughed at the stories and Kiril laughed with him; no one ever thought that the signs and the warnings were for people who had a hard time remembering that only half the spray was water, and only the most tragically-hilarious drunk time stories involved spacers blinded (temporarily) by soap in the spray.
His ears popped and his lungs seemed to expand as the vacuum cycled, sucking gray grade water into the decontamination and recycling cisterns.
Within two minutes it was all over, and he stood—bone dry—in the residual scent of antibiotic soap and flat recycled water.
All that remained—
—was to open the shower-booth door, claim a pair of shorts from the laundry dispenser, shave, dress…
…and face the day.
Her Impossible Question
Hopefully, you've enjoyed reading this as much as I've enjoyed reading it. And now that I'm done, I suspect that, contest or not, the Rusalka will be zooming around the solar system, doing whatever it is a ship of her class designation would do. I'm kind of curious about it now...what's her mission? What stories might she tell...I guess, in time, we'll see. Until then, enjoy this wee glimpse.
I simply called this piece "Shower Scene" because I couldn't think of another title, and "Majestic Interlude" didn't fit what I was writing about.
I've never read a shower story that kept me so darn interested. There's the right amount of abstract and scientific detail to make it easy (as usual for you!) for me to slip entirely into this universe. I have loved following along with several of your characters, as no one of them has left me without wanting more. However, Kiril and Hal have possibly made their way into my favorites. I want to go wandering the halls with the two, and I really want to see what deceleration is like. It is obviously quite an event, and where will they stop, I wonder? What new world waits just beyond those metal walls?
I have the tiniest critique and it is that you use the descriptor "Pecan" for skin color very frequently. To be sure, it is an awesome adjective, and makes it pretty easy to visualize the character, but I'd like to see your color palatte expand a little bit more. You succeed so well in pretty much every other area, it took some digging for me to find anything for you to improve upon!
And now, to whisk this off to my favorites, and here's to reading some more of your fantastic work! I have left it off for FAR too long!