FIT AT FORTY

Second Sergeant Brain Talmo licked the frosted sugar off his uniform, gloved finger. He was currently stationed at the very back of the interstellar vessel, The Valiant, carrying the 45th Heavy Army Battalion of the United Solar States’ war machine. He was stationed back there as punishment for a colossal fuckup that had enraged the Colonel. Since the colonel wasn’t allowed to execute Brian, he was sent to the farthest spot away from him that Brian could be placed for the voyage out to the front lines.

It was a forty year journey that USS scientists calculated at a mixture of thirty percent awake time, and seventy asleep. You stayed awake a year (with normal eight hours of rest in an artificial day), slept for three. Any more or less awake time and you ran the risk of losing your mind. Generals and enlisted. Same for everyone. The three years kept asleep were cryo, so everyone on the journey was aging ten years and avoided participating in thirty.

Since Brian had nearly caused the whole expedition to be doomed from the start, his first awake year he was told to march straight to the aft of the vessel. During his awake years he was restricted to the tail.

That didn’t bother him too much.

There wasn’t a lot of people from the battalion this far back, past all ten thousand of the mecha and their repair garages. It wasn’t even worth it most of the time to get to the hub so most people stuck in the tail just stayed there. There was a hundred assorted crew stationed there all for different reasons.

Brian just mostly kept to his assigned schedule of monitoring the people who monitor some really boring, yet vital equipment and in his free time he read or ate or played board games with other bored crew members. Sometimes he drank. Most of the time he just ate.

He knew he was way past the acceptable weight for his crew position and would not pass his upcoming physical when they arrived. And that scared the shit out of him. If he wasn’t fit to serve in his official position as an non-commissioned officer, that meant since they couldn’t just send him back that he would be given a new role and that role, no matter how out of shape he had become would be placed right on the front line where the first rough neck platoon leader would immediately use his overweight body as a body shield during the first battle that Brian would be involved in.

Brian had just turned thirty when he boarded the vessel. As an officer he was permitted to make the journey without the normal age restriction for enlisted, combat-ready soldiers applying to him.

His job, had he done his part in maintaining his fitness level properly, would have been to stay behind with the besieged colonists helping them sort out the carnage and damage that ten years of fending off a wave after wave of attacking hostile aliens had created. The large colony was still there but it had been depleted to half its original population of ten thousand. Besides carrying fifteen hundred troops from three battalions and all their equipment, the vessel also had decades worth of non-perishable foods destined for the people of Pluton to help aide in their recover when the tide of war had turned.

As an officer currently assigned to the colonists, Brian had direct access to the on-board warehouses full of dried beans, ramen noodles, canned goods, pre-packaged frozen foods, and pallets of chemically infused baked goods like twinkies and cupcakes.

The binge eating started out of boredom and self pity at being stuck so far away from the main core of the vessel. At first he would take the time to walk over to the storehouses, about three miles from his position at the tail, and he would sample the goods. He told himself he was doing quality control but that was a lie.

Then within less than two waking years, he started taking the mobile lift with a large storage dolly attached to the back. He would load up on all his favorites, which also happened to be the most caloric and haul it back to his station. He would dole out some of what he brought back to the people he was in charge of as a way to encourage them to keep a blind eye to his black market buffet and they did. No one said a word.

Not even the doctor assigned to performing the quarterly physicals for the men and women stationed in the tail end. All that Dr. Hartford, a late twenties racoon-eyed military medical school near-dropout would tell him is that he was going to fail the deployment physical and that he wouldn’t be able to help Brian out of it.

Brain, in a spiral of shame about his eating and his failures, didn’t care for the first seven waking years. But when he woke this time, saw that his body fat index had climbed to thirty five percent, and saw how his gut blocked out all chances of Brian seeing his feet or his penis without the help of mirror, he knew he had to get help.

He didn’t want to die a fat mess on the front lines. What would his family back home think? His parents were likely going to be dead, although he had still gotten three years worth of loving messages when he woke the last time.

He didn’t want to die alone. When they embarked, before the accident that punitively shunted him to the back of the vessel, he had even imagined starting a life on the colony after the war had ended. He was hoping to find a nice woman to settle down with. There were many that were on the ship with him that he had connected with and there were many more on the planet surface.

None of that would matter if he didn’t get in shape before they landed. He was scheduled to turn forty a few days before their forty year journey had ended and the real work began. He was determined to be fit by the time they got there. Once he was safely behind the front lines sorting out the mess of war for the colony, he could go back to his daily doses of heavily processed foods that he had come to enjoy.

He had to get back in shape and he had three waking years and thirty slumbering years to figure out a way to do that.

— -

Brian sat in Dr. Hartford’s office waiting for the Dr. to finish recording the health (or lack of health) data into his touchpad. Brian coughed out of awkward nervousness. He was technically a much higher rank than Dr. Hartford but in this room, Hartford was the one who could decide his fate and both men knew where Brian was heading.

Once he was done recording Dr. Hartford motioned to Brian indicating he could put his uniform back on. Brian wheezed when he bent over to pull up his stretched pants.

“So Brian.” Dr. Hartford always sounded bored when he talked and he probably was. “Year seven or ten. Your weight is…”

There was a long uncomfortable pause.

“Two hundred and eighty pounds.” He tapped the touchpad with a stylus like a metronome. “That’s one hundred pounds over your commissioned healthy weight and one hundred and twenty pounds from your ideal weight.”

“I know doc. I’m trying to get in better shape, I really am.”

“Well. You have three waking years.” Dr. Hartford had no bedside manner. Each statement came at Brian like a rapid fire fact trying to knock him out. “If you start a proper diet and exercise plan right now, you might make it to your ideal weight. But it will require discipline and dedication.”

“Yes. I want to start. Right now. Today. I didn’t eat breakfast. I can skip lunch.”

“If you want to lose weight, you can start by giving me your warehouse key.”

Brian flinched at that idea.

“I think I had better hold onto that.” Brian wheezed as he pulled his stretched shirt over his head. “I would get in a lot of trouble if that key was misused.”

Brian wasn’t sure but he thought he detected a subtle eye roll from Dr. Hartford. Probably because Brian had systematically abused the warehouse system himself to get him into this dilemma. Brian wasn’t sure why he didn’t turn over the key but he was positive that his fears had something to do with it.

“Hold up your touchpad please.”

Brian complied and Dr. Hartford used the proximity feature to load a diet and fitness regiment onto his touchpad.

“To have a chance at making your goal weight for safe approval for your officer assignment on Pluton. This is the safest process for your goals.”

With nothing more to say but excuses, Brian decided to roll with it and see where it got him. He left Dr. Hartford’s office and went back to his station. He gamely saluted back to the crew on deck and wedged himself into his hard to fit into command post chair. He had to angle himself on his right side to allow the fat to breath.

He spent the first few hours of his shift studying the documentation, diet plans, videos and exercises that Dr. Hartford had provided and it all made no sense to Brian. He felt like he was in over his head. There was too much to pay attention to. Too many choices that he couldn’t make.

Feeling discouraged, Brian unwedged himself and went to his station locker. Opening it up, he found the small slice of comfort he was hoping he hadn’t already consumed. The unopened package of heavily processed donuts was like a field of wild flowers blossoming after a strong desert rain.

The next day Brian went back to the warehouses and vowed to start his diet and exercise plan by the next quarterly visit to Dr. Hartford.

— -

One waking year and three slumber years later, Brian weighed in at three hundred and four pounds. An almost twenty five pound increase from the year before. Two years until touchdown and he felt defeated and demoralized that he was on a fast track to being a speedbump on the battlefield. At this rate, his own soldiers might just end his misery for him after they drop him out in the middle of the battlefield.

“Doc. What can I do? I have two years and I almost have to lose half my bodyweight to get ready for deployment.”

“What happened to the diet and exercise plan I gave you four years ago?”

“It was so hard to follow. I got discouraged. I won’t. I can’t. I can’t let that happen again. You must have another way to lose this weight. Can I get it suctioned out?”

“No. We do not have that kind of equipment on board.”

“Can you give me some kinds of supplements or a designer drug to speed up my metabolism? Don’t we have that for the marines who face endless combat?”

“I could but that would get me court martialed. Nothing is kept under tighter security on a ship like this than messing with the Marines Corps drugs. You could steal a nuke before you could stand a chance of getting those drugs out of their medical offices.”

“What about the gravity on the planet? Isn’t it supposed to be lighter? Maybe I only have to lose fifty pounds. I could lose fifty.”

“Nice try but no. They will check body mass as well as weight. And it is quite obvious that you are not fit for your assignment.”

“Fuck!” Brian had to yell. His alternative would be to burst out in tears in front of the doctor. Dr. Hartford turned his back to Brian and organized his supplies while the officer got a hold of himself.

“If I start today and stay true to the diet and the exercise, what do you think? Do you think I have a chance at getting to the target weight?”

“If you start today and use this updated program that will be harder and more intense,” Brian saw a new program appear on his touchpad as Dr. Hartford talked. “You might have a chance. I don’t recommend it but we are no longer under normal circumstances at this point and you have to do what you have to do to get in shape.”

Brian had nothing else to say. He almost wished he could have a heart attack and spare himself the hardship. He quietly left the office and went back to his station. He didn’t go right to his chair, which he had the armrests taken out of so he could sit in it again. He went right to his locker and grabbed the pack of donuts he had stashed away in there. He turned with a savage look to the trash chute in the back of the locker room prepared to eject the unwanted sugar into the ether of space.

He stopped himself with the chute open. He looked at the sugary comfort. He had to think to himself if this was really worth it. Could he really get in shape in a two year time span? It seemed impossible to him. And the more he thought about it, the more bleak it sounded to his unhealthy mind.

Brian caved and at the entire package of donuts hovering over the trash chute wondering if it was big enough, would he have the courage to shoot himself into space.

— -

A combined four years later, and Brian was back in Dr. Hartford’s office. There was no talk about recovery. Both men inherently knew that with one year left to go before landfall and one more cycle of sleep, they would arrive at their destination and Brian would be too large to pass his physical exam. He would be put on a front line transport as soon as possible and the front line officers would throw him right onto the field. They wouldn’t waste supplying him with any body armor, if they could even find something that would fit him. They would give him a standard rifle only because he had a right as a soldier to defend himself, no matter how pathetic that attempt would be.

Then he would be left to die wherever he landed since no one would come pick him up in a tank or mecha since that would be seen as a waste of time and resources.

He would be left to die and now, with Dr. Hartford staying silent and not offering any healthy advice, the reality was present.

“So. I know things look bad but is there anything? Anything at all I can?” Brian couldn’t stand the judgemental silence that followed his question. He didn’t wait for Dr. Hartford to finish the official documentation. He stormed out the office. Well, he managed to arduously shuffle his large frame out the office which caused him to lose his breath.

Brian didn’t clock in for duty that day. He had never missed a shift before and he kind of wished he had so he could be thrown in the brig. But being thrown in the brig would only make the impending fear he was facing worse since they would take away all his privileges like having a warehouse key and they would still roll his fat ass out onto the battlefield as soon as they landed anyway.

He could afford to miss one shift.

He wanted to drown himself or throw himself out a service door bay into the liquid still night of outer space but sort of like how he was a coward about turning down bad food and exercise, he was a coward about suicide.

As the last donut disappeared down his own trash chute, he turned back around and leaned his back against the wall. He slid down and flopped onto the ground where he started softly sobbing to himself.

An engineer taking a short break found him in the locker room with his head in his arms. Everyone in the tail knew Brian and everyone knew the risks he was taking as he ballooned in weight but no one really talked to him about it. The general rule was that if Brian was the one who wanted to self sabotage his way into a gory, painful death, that was his business and it wasn’t really up to anyone else to interfere.

But Landa, a middle management engineer from a quite part of the world they left back home still had some of her sympathy intact.

“Hey sir. You okay?” Landa offered an olive branch of sympathy.

Brian heard her but was too ashamed to look up at her. He instead mumbled something incoherent into his chest.

“Sir?” Landa tried again. “I know things seem real bad but maybe there is still a way.”

Brian stopped sobbing. He didn’t raise his head up but he tried to listen in closer. Landa could tell he was waiting for more. She almost regretted starting to share this idea but since she had already begun, and there would be no way to blame her for it and make it stick, she thought why not.

“Well. I don’t know if you know this but the warehouses are all off the grid for the neural networking that takes place when the vessel transfers over to the slumber cycle.”

Brian, barely audible, responded. “How would that help me? I can barely even fit in my sleep chair now.”

“Right. That’s the point.” Landa deposited an energy bar wrapper she had stored in her pocket into the trash chute next to Brian.

“If you are in the warehouse when the slumber cycle starts, your brain and your body will stay awake. Since those areas are restricted to everyone, the people who designed the ship didn’t see any need for the neural network toxins that keep us safe and stable during three years of slumber to be pumped into places like the warehouse or the mecha garages. So during slumber and hyperspeed travel, those areas are places that a human mind can stay active.”

“Oh. Okay.” Brian was starting to see where Landa was taking this.

“Thought you might find that interesting.” She coughed awkwardly. “Give your tough situation.”

“What happens to a human who is not under the influence of the toxins while the vessel is in slumber mode?”

“The experiments that showed those results are highly classified but what I’ve seen myself is that the body stays dormant in the sense that you don’t age physically but the downside if your mind will live through five or six years or more for every year you are in slumber. Could be a lot more. But no one knows for sure because all the people that have gone into slumber mode without toxins are long gone.”

“Why are you telling me this? Why do you care?”

“I may be on my way to help fight a war that if we win will make me start a new life on a new planet but where I’m from, I was raised to not give up hope and if you don’t mind me saying sir, you look like you could use some hope.”

He was touched by her kindness. Brian didn’t know what to say. But he now knew what he had to do for the next year.

The rest of the ninth year he started dieting and getting ready. He followed Dr. Hartford’s earliest and simplest plan to get him back in shape. He made sure he walked the vast aisles of the warehouse stores to start getting his body back in shape. Once the ship went into slumber he was going to have three years to lose the hundred and fifty pounds he was carrying around. It wouldn’t be easy but there was literally no other choice but certain death.

He located and tagged all the healthiest foods he could find in the storehouses. Even though the corporate companies were the ones who sponsored the food donation to the colonies which is why there were so many unhealthy items, Brian was able to locate stores of canned beans and high impact protein bars.

By the time the year was closing to an end and the entire vessel was prepping for the last slumber cycle before they arrived at the Pluton solar system, Brian had his life back in order. He had managed to lose fifty of the hundred pounds and all the people in the tail were rooting for him even as the slumber launch got close and most who saw his progress also saw how futile it was since he had clearly not lost enough weight.

None suspected that he wasn’t going to be in his slumber chair the day the switch happened and that was just the way he liked it.

The a week before the final slumber was scheduled to begin, just as Brian was settling into his chair for his normal monitoring shift, he was suddenly summoned back to the doctor’s office for an unscheduled checkup.

Brian was stunned to find Colonel Barrows, the same colonel who relegated him back to the tail at the start of the journey in the little medical office room alongside Dr. Hartford. It only took one withering look from Colonel Barrows for the past nine years of shame and guilt about what he had done to come back to him.

After the perfunctory salute, Colonel Barrows lit into Brian. “I see you are unfit for service Sergeant Talmo. I should have expected as much. I was prepared to never see you again but my wife encouraged me to see if you had improved since we last spoke. She wanted me to see that people can change. That people can improve and be better people. Clearly she was did not know you as well as I do. I see that nothing has changed.

The cowardly man who nearly caused this mission to be doomed from the beginning is still the man that I am looking at today. I can’t believe I wasted two days of my own precious time to come down here and speak to you in person has no impact. You are a disgrace to this military son. I will personally sign the order reassigning you after your final check up is performed. Good God I wish I was allowed to execute you back when this all started. You are such a disgrace I can’t even…”

And the colonel never did finish his sentence. He pinched the bridge of his nose with two fingers, sighed deeply and turned around and marched out. Dr. Hartford made up some excuse to be busy in another part of his medical offices leaving Brian all alone.

Brian didn’t go to self pity. Instead he went to rage. How dare the colonel overlook the progress he had made. Fifty pounds wasn’t easy. He was ready to prove him wrong, no matter what the cost to his mental health.. This was the final straw.

He was ready for the final slumber mode to begin.

— -

Dr. Hartford was waking from the slumber stage and was trying to shake of the nauseating feeling that sleeping in a suspended state in a room filled with toxins created when he heard the speaker on his touchpad call out for him.

“Yes?” Did someone not wake up from slumber again and they needed him to inject the antidote? That’s usually what these calls were about when they happened right after a doctor woke up.

“Sir. We need you in warehouse number five as soon as possible.”

That surprised the doctor. Why would they need a doctor in the warehouse?

“Was there an accident?”

“Sir. You had better come see this for yourself. It’s. It’s kind of hard to explain.”

Dr. Hartford got dressed in his military doctor’s uniform and proceeded down to the warehouse level of the vessel. He was escorted by a guard who met him at the elevator. They boarded a mecha, the soldier stating that the problem was discovered far from the elevators and it would be quicker to mecha over.

After a five minute drive past rows and rows of food gathered to feed ten thousand people or more for decades, they came to the site of the problem.

Dr. Hartford was never one for strong visceral reactions, but even he couldn’t help but gag at the site. He, of course, instantly recognized his previous patient, even though he was hardly recognizable at this point in time.

A senior officer already on the scene, looked up from his touchpad that he was using to record the investigation to ask, “what do you think happened to him?”

Dr. Hartford took a moment to take in the scene.

The best determination that he had was that Brian Talmo had stowed away in the warehouse during the last slumber cycle in what Hartford wanted to believe was an honest attempt at a hail mary to get himself in shape for deployment. But the pressure of being who he was and the situation he faced combined with the excruciating mental pressure that being awake during a slumber cycle would have created, this monstrosity was the result.

Brian had clearly given up on his fitness goal early and had succumbed to the madness of the time warp. He must have weighed over a thousand pounds and died at some point after hitting that plateau.. He was completely naked, clothing must have given up on him at some point after a few hundred pounds of gaining weight. He was sitting on a pallet mecha and had a couple of drones and robotic arms. He was in the middle of a mess of discarded packaging the size of a whole fleet’s chambers. Bags of urine and feces were thrown in a huge heap directly behind the man.

The whole scene was disgusting and even though Dr. Hartford still hadn’t eaten a solid food in over three years of slumber, he still felt like vomiting.

The officer on the scene handed Dr. Hartford Brian’s touchpad. Skimming through the journal entries about his descent into madness, Dr. Hartford quietly thanked the giant shell of the man for documenting how the process of being awake during a slumber cycle impacted him, It was actually quite eloquent in its message which was summed up quite succinctly in the final entry, dated just a few days before the whole ship came out of the final slumber cycle.

Dr. Hartford read it to himself.

“I am sorry for the way I treated myself and the way I treated the mission, the colonists, and everyone back home on all the habitable planets of our own solar system. I was too scared to be a part of the upcoming battle. I was too selfish and too scared to heal myself from this pain I was feeling. Since I was on my way to my death anyway, and once I realized how hard this was, I gave up.

But at least this way, I was able to end it on my own terms. The ether is a wonderful place to be but it distorts everything. It isn’t three years for everyone one in here to the mind. It is thirty. I have lived a full life in the warp and even though it was the most lonely and painful time of my life, I was able to live it my way.

And now it is finally over and I can be free again.”

Dr. Hartford quietly deleted the final entry and gave the touchpad back to the officer.

“‘Can you please order a forklift mecha? We should eject him into space before we land. At least give him the dignity of not being seen in this state.”

THE END

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