Science Fiction Theater Magazine
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R. G. Currell
CAROLYN THE SWEET,
© 1998, Science Fiction Theater, R. G. Currell
New Calender Year,2165 A.A.
Carolyn the Sweet wondered just what she was going to do with herself, now that she was up rooted from her home and her daughter and her work. Carolyn didn't like it but there she was, standing off to one side on the small Bridge of the Automated Interstellar Shuttle Copernicus that was detaching itself from the American Docking Strut of First World Space Dock, which orbited the planet Earth, her home world. The bright globe of the Construction Pod filled the Main Screen, where the new generation Starship Ebony was being built. This would be one of her last glimpses of home for a long time, she was thinking.
"Come on, relax, Honey," her husband Lieutenant Commander Frank Fraser said. "You're just going to love this! Trust me!"
But she didn't like it already. And she never liked it when Frank said, "Trust me."
The Automated Interstellar Shuttles had been making the runs to the Vega System for over twenty years now, but there were still those who still couldn't trust an unpiloted craft to take them fifty light-years out. Carolyn the Sweet was one of them. "I still don't like it," she said.
The computer spoke up, "Detached and trolling. Standing by for destination and flight instructions."
Lieutenant Commander Fraser answered, "Destination: Vega Solar System, designation, SAO 67174. Orbital Base Fortunian I. Standard departure. Standard running. Maximum Light Space velocity."
Plotting course," the computer replied.
"Look over there at the Navigation Station," Frank pointed at the green lights flashing on the console on the starboard side. "Now, watch the Helm panel."
The computer came back on line. "Transferring course settings to the Helm."
Green lights flashed on the port Station. "System check," said the computer. All the lights on the Main Console butted up against the square viewer wall started flashing amber. They turned green but continued to flash. Then they were solid green. "System check complete. All in the green."
Frank winked at Carolyn the Sweet and said, "You see? Nothing can go wrong."
"Standing by for orders to depart."
"Depart," Frank replied. "Viewer aft." The Main Viewer winked off and then came back on, showing reverse angle. First World Space Dock shrank a little, until they could see it as a globe with spikes sticking out of it. "Ahead standard Inducer Engines."
Carolyn the Sweet hadn't seen the external view of First World Space Dock before and she took in a short, fast breath. "It looks like an ornament on top of a Christmas tree."
The computer's voice came over the speaker again. Departure at zero nine hundred hours, October seven, NC 2185 After Advent.
As the Copernicus swung around to a Constellation Lyra alignment, to the left of Hercules, the Earth moved into view behind the Station and dwarfed it. The Inducer Engines and Inertial Compensators and Dampers kicked in and the Earth shrank rapidly until it was a point of light. "Viewer forward," the Lieutenant Commander said. And the Main Viewer blinked again.
"Switching to C Drive -- now. Accelerating to maximum cruising Light Space Speed -- now."
The field of stars on the viewer elongated themselves, as the Newtonian-Quantum Light Space wrapped itself around them. "Computer."
"Inform me when we reach the three parsec limit to destination."
"Affirmative, Lieutenant Commander Fraser."
To Carolyn the Sweet he said with a grin, "It even knows who I am. Now this is living: The deck of a ship under your heels. The Sea of the stars in the View. The land of the past in your wake. And the hope of the morrow is new.
"Always keep your wits about yourself, and you'll always come home," he said.
Sometime later. 'Now this is romantic.' Frank thought. 'The stars, the wife, the coffee, and the privacy.' He turned and looked at her profile against the light-sprinkled, blackened Space, as they sat in the Dining Compartment. Her porcelain complexion looked good to him contrasted against the darkness. Frank reached over and tangled his rough fingers in her corn silk hair and smiled. "Hey, Carolyn the Sweet?"
"Want to make love?"
"No? What happened to all that old spontaneity?"
"We just did spontaneity."
"So we did. You know, I've always wanted to bring you out here. To Space." He laughed and Carolyn the Sweet looked at him quizzically. "I feel like Don Quixote: to sally forth and roam the world. To search for adventure. To mount a Crusade. To raise up the weak and those in need. To have my squire and my Lady at my side." Frank patted her shoulder in a tender kind of way.
"I just can't wait to meet Sancho," she said dryly, as she thought of them riding off into some sunset to fight wind mills instead of dragons this time. "What am I going to do on this Orbital Base, while you and Harper are out saving the Galaxy from distinction?" She faced him squarely, her sarcasm wasted.
"Fortunian I is a First Class Orbital Base. There'll be plenty for you to do there. Besides, Natilie will be there. She always comes along with Joe. I'm sure the two of you will have a lot in common, once you get to know each other."
"Like what?" Carolyn the Sweet asked.
"Like.... Well, you're both women," he said lamely.
"I guess that's a start, Frank."
Bing bong. "We are coming up on the three parsec limit, Lieutenant Commander Fraser." The Computer announced from the small speaker in the overhead.
"Come on. Let's go. I want you to see the view of Vega from here. It's breathtaking."
"Aren't you glad we didn't make love? We might have missed this."
Of course since they were moving in Newtonian-Quantum Light Space, they were much closer by the time they reached the Bridge. Lieutenant Commander Fraser had taken this into account, naturally. So, they were just about where he wanted them to be, as he took the old Command Chair. "computer."
"Disrupt Standard Programming. Disengage the C Drive. Standard Speed on Inducer Power. Magnify Viewer." He sat back and watched the elongation of the stars vanish and then the characteristic blinking, as the view changed. And there it was.
Centered in the screen was Vega, a sort of white, blue-white star. About a third the way to the edge of the square screen, there was what appeared to be a smudgy, ill-defined ring around it. "There it is," he said.
"A ring Nebula?" Carolyn the Sweet asked.
"No. The center star is Vega. The ring around it is -- is a ring around it. Like the rings around Saturn or Uranus. But this is a ring around a star, not a planet! It used to be a gas giant, millions of years ago. From the width of the band and some of the velocity anomalies in its orbit around Vega, we can tell that the gas giant was struck by a solid planetary body coming in from the side in the opposite direction. They both broke apart. Now, after millions of years all that mass has formed the ring you see now. All the mass is traveling at different velocities, of course. Close up, we can see it is composed primarily of frozen hydrogen, the remnants of the gas giant. And mixed in are rock chunks up to four miles across, which are the remnants of the invading planetary body."
Carolyn the Sweet was nodding her head as she listened. "Where are the other planets?"
"Computer," Frank called.
"Augment. Planetary Orbits."
The Main Viewer blinked again. When it came back on, there were nine elliptical orbits around Vega. "These are the orbits, anyway. The planets are A through I: Apollo, Bellona, Callisto, Demeter, Eileithyia -- the Ring, Fortuna, Ganymede, Harpocrates. They're all in alphabetical order, so they're easy to remember."
"And if you notice the relationships between the distance of the orbits, you'll notice the pretty much follow Bode's Law," Fred went on to explain.
"What's Bode's Law?"
"All right. Well. Take the numbers 0, 3, 6, 12, 24, 48, 96, 192. Now, except for the beginning, each number is doubled, right?"
"Right," Carolyn said, as she tried to visualize all of this.
Now, add 4 to each number. That gives us 4, 7, 10, 16, 28, 52, 100, 196. That is the approximate distance of each of the planets in millions of miles. And it follows Bode's Law remarkably."
"So," Carolyn the Sweet said pensively, "what does all of that mean?" She shifted her gaze from his face back to the viewer to contemplate the orbits and their relationships and its existential meaning.
"It all means -- well. I guess it all means that the Lord was a God of order, when he created all of this." He kind of shrugged. "Every 'what' or 'how' deserves a Scientific explanation. But every 'why' is a theological Question," he said. "Computer."
"Resume Standard Program."
"Executing -- now."
They watched as the star field elongated in Newtonian - Quantum Light Space.
THE VEGA COLONIES.
SIXTH PLANET, FORTUNA
ORBITING BASE, FORTUNIAN I.
NEW CALENDER YEAR, 2185 A.A.
The eyes of all the men sitting around the table were on her, as the couple approached. So, the young Lieutenant Commander introduced her as the first-order-of-business. And etiquette be damned. "This is the wife...," he said, motioning toward her with a hand.
Her sideways glance and nod were pleasant looking, but told nothing. Even the husband could not see the cold, blue steel behind the warm brown eyes. Her clasped hands squeezed themselves and felt their own tensions. But she said nothing.
".... Carolyn the Sweet," Frank finished. "Isn't she just the sweetest woman in the Vega System?"
Nods of ascent swept around the table and muttered greetings rose with all the uniformed men. She heard the chair legs scrape across the steel deck as they moved. Certainly, none of the men had ever seen a woman who appeared as sweet, or who appeared to have such a mixture of unquestionable poise, of undoubted sensuality, and of child-like innocence all at the same time, outside the orbit of the asteroid belt of Vega before. And they had conceivably seen very few like her within the Inner Rim of the Terran Solar System itself either, Earth in particular. But surely, never outside the Home Solar System!
Standing there, she was bridled beauty, this Carolyn the Sweet, "the wife", as she'd been introduced. Inside she was more than a little uneasy about all of this attention. 'All of the wrong things for all of the wrong reasons,' she thought. She had waist-lengthed, golden-blonde hair that was spilling over one shoulder, like a tender water fall with long rivulets and tiny ripples, splashing against the background of a deep and lively blue jump suit. It was worn just tight enough to accentuate her slender and svelte figure and demure enough to leave everything to the imagination, which is another way of saying she didn't wear clothes to show off anything more than clothing. And her perfume drifted through the room like a subtle hypnosis.
Rose brushed her cheeks, as she felt a wave of heat radiate from her face. And she had a delicate, turned-up nose that graced her face with a divinity of sorts. She smiled at each of them and her lips pushed up a small wrinkle of flesh onto her high cheek bones. It was just darling. Endearing. Something in the smile brought the taste of her lipstick to her tongue. Then, she nodded her head, as she thought to herself, 'Embarrassing.' But she would never do that to Frank in public. Embarrass him. And in private? she asked herself. With Frank's being gone over half the time, she just couldn't ruin their occasions together with arguments. Could she?
Carolyn the Sweet had expected to see Harper there, but didn't. And she wanted to meet this Natalie -- 'that means Christmas Child? Doesn't it?' she thought -- but she didn't need to meet her overly much, not from what Frank had said about her. They had arrived yesterday on the same kind of automated space shuttle, so they were probably fashionably late to skip another introduction ceremony. She couldn't say that she blamed them for that. After a ride in a fully automated shuttle, one needed to calm ones nerves and drain the doubt. At least she did. The rest of the men she didn't know. And she had the distinct feeling that after the introductions were over with, she still wouldn't.
She barely noticed that she was being introduced to the Station Commander of Orbital Base, Fortunian I, as her eyes were now starring out through the transparent steel observation window, where Fortuna hung suspended in the coal black of a star-sprinkled space.
"Carolyn," Frank's voice called her eyes back into the room, he sounded a little perturbed.
"Oh! I'm terribly sorry. I was just. It was just. It's just so beautiful," she said. "I was just hypnotized by Fortuna, that's all. I'm sorry." Carolyn apologized.
The Base Commander laughed -- the way a man laughs when amused by an innocent child. "I really don't mind being up-staged -- by a more commanding presence. We've become too familiar with her, perhaps. Yes, she is beautiful. Fortuna." He whispered it almost affectionately. "She's what we're all here for. To get to know her better." Then he turned back to her. "I am Commodore Jerry Paterson. May I call you 'Carolyn the Sweet', too?"
She wanted to say, "No!" But she just nodded and lifted one shoulder in the cute way that she knew men liked. She would never tell a lie. Well, she wouldn't actually tell a lie. But she would let others draw their own erroneous conclusions about things.
"Good," Commodore Paterson said. "May I have the honor of introducing you about? Your husband won't mind?"
He didn't really wait for an answer. Commodores never have to. As he swept his arm around to indicate all the men, Carolyn couldn't help but notice how his well-defined muscles moved, even under his thick military coat. Not the type of man she expected to find in a desk job.
"Carolyn the Sweet," the Commodore said formally, "May I present my Executive Officer and Second-in-Command, Captain Alexander Vox. Captain Vox actually takes care of the day-to-day details of running Fortunian I. I just suggest what is to be done. He decides how it is to be carried out. He is good at it, too."
"Captain Vox," Carolyn said formally. She tried to extend her hand around the Commodore, but it was awkward and the almost subliminal shake of the Captain's head told her it was not appropriate, under the circumstances. So, she nodded, instead. And she noticed the fragrance of the cologne drifting off the Commodore. It had a cheap smell to it.
"Carolyn the Sweet," the Captain acknowledged with a nod that seemed to accentuate the light scar on his left cheek. She didn't think it detracted from his appearance, though. 'In fact,' she considered, 'some women would find it to be -- what? -- Interesting? Appealing? Sensual?'
"Misses Fraser. Yes, Carolyn the Sweet. Yes of course," said Captain Vox quickly like rain drops falling. "I've known your husband for -- well it seems like decades now. As a matter of fact, it has been decades now. And from time to time he has shared a story here and an anecdote there with us. So, it seems to me that I have known you for a long, long time now, too."
"In short, then, Carolyn, Captain Vox says he likes you. Now over here, Carolyn the Sweet," the Commodore indicated, "we have the Commander of the Fortunian Diplomatic Corp, Commander Ramon Gomez."
"Commander Gomez," Carolyn said with a slight bow of the head, as she looked at the ruddy face with coal black hair pulled almost straight back in tiny waves. He was the only man in the room who wasn't hansome, she thought -- 'but if Harper ever shows up, he won't be.'
"The pleasure is mine," he said with clipped words in a tight accent. And roving eyes.
Carolyn the Sweet thought that the pleasure was all his -- and what he might well have said was that he would like more pleasure to be his. But Carolyn wanted to be careful not to judge people too quickly on the basis of first impressions. So, she wouldn't judge this man. Yet.
"And finally," the Commodore was saying, just as Lieutenant Commander Joe Harper and his wife Natile strolled up, heavy into some highly animated discussion. And Carolyn was pleasantly impressed by the way the Commodore barely missed a beat during the interruption. "Finally, we have our Chief of Security, Commander Leroy Evans."
"Commander Evens," Carolyn greeted the man, as she looked at his round face accentuated by its receding hair line -- 'Tough? Powerful? Unmovable?' she thought.
"Misses Fraser," he said in what she interpreted as his stiffish and most formal voice.
'-- perhaps that's to be expected from the Security Chief', she thought.
"And of course you know Joe and Natalie Harper," the Commodore said, as he wound down. "They arrived last evening, so introductions have already been made for them."
Carolyn gave Harper the briefest of nods, filled with the slightest civility, but addressed the Commodore, "Harper I know, of course. But I've never met her. Natalie."
"No?" The Commodore asked with a face that made the question a genuine one.
"No, Commodore, We've never met," said Natalie.
"Oh," he commented, a little confused at this. "Well, then, Misses Joe Harper, this is Misses Frank Fraser."
The two women shook hands formally but didn't smile. Carolyn the Sweet stole one of those quick looks at Commodore Paterson, which he acknowledged with a smile. He thought it was a friendly gesture, which Carolyn thought was just as well. It kept the peace -- 'Misses Frank Fraser, indeed!'
Looking the other woman over, Carolyn concluded that her husband's assessments had been pretty much accurate -- 'but a woman can't always count on those things from a man,' she thought. Natalie was, indeed, a voluptuous woman with the most generous curves she'd seen that could be called -- 'what? magnetic? to men.' And she had a personality that was -- 'what? Effervescence? Too positive. Voluminous? Too imprecise. Uninhibited? Bingo. That was it! Sexy? That, too.'
Natalie was all the things that Carolyn the Sweet knew she could never be -- in public, anyway. And then Carolyn thought that the woman's breasts were too big for her to be going around braless like that. Now, Carolyn knew she could dress like that tastefully, but her innate modesty forbade it.
Meanwhile, Frank and Joe were hugging like long, lost brothers, patting themselves and each other on the back over their recent promotions to Lieutenant Commander. It was those promotions that had brought them out to Fortuna in the first place -- to be Wing Commanders in the Diplomatic Corp. This would be the first time they would not be serving physically side-by-side in over ten years, since the Moon Conflicts. They had been Ensigns in the Special Forces Battalion back then. Now, they were Lieutenant Commanders in the Diplomatic Corp. And Carolyn was feeling good about that. She was proud about that. Her husband was a diplomat instead of a soldier -- maybe he would be free of Harper's influence now. Still, she wondered about it -- After meeting the Chief Staff Members of the Fortunian Diplomatic Corp. It must be wise, she thought, to have military-experienced men doing Diplomatic Missions. But looking around the table now, Carolyn saw an abundance of testosterone and muscle and no -- what's a male brain hormone, anyway?
So, after a few moments of clamorous chatter, they all took seats and some Enlisted men came around and took orders for their drinks. Carolyn was sitting right at the end of the table, with her gender counterpart sitting directly across from her -- arranged no doubt, she thought. She felt they weren't welcome on a number of levels. Next to them, Frank and Joe sat facing each other, while the higher ranking Officers sat beyond them. And the informal meeting started.
Commodore Paterson stood and raised a glass that had just been placed before him by one of the functionaries they called Enlisted Personnel -- Carolyn didn't like that very much, either. The Commodore said, "And now that introductions are out of the way and we're all one big, happy family together, I bring this informal meeting to order. The subjects we are about to discuss are personal and the means we'll use to discuss them is alcohol."
"Here, here!" somebody said.
"How's the wife?" the Commodore asked his Executive Officer.
"Last time I tried her. Fine," answered Captain Vox.
Carolyn Fraser bristled inside. Carolyn the Sweet smiled on the outside, as she picked up her generic citrus juice. It had come from a food processor that made everything out of the same stuff they harvested below on Fortuna. Still, it reminded her of home in Avalon-by-the-Lake, during the good times. Her well-to-do, Middle America family had plotted her course and she was dutifully fulfilling it. She had grown up to be the most mature and perfect "girl". Now, she was the reserved and most perfect wife. And everybody was happy. She was happy, wasn't she? She was just a "small town girl" fortunate enough to be in a big, off-world place -- of course I'm happy. Only an ingrate wouldn't be.
Carolyn the Sweet noticed that Natalie had a tall, thick glass of some kind of liqueur and was drinking from it thirstily. She fancied she could smell the sour odor of it. Perhaps not -- 'would she be wearing that as perfume?' They exchanged eye contact but broke it almost immediately.
Avalon-by-the-Lake, Carolyn thought, as she watched the shadow of one moon glide across the surface of Fortuna. How very wonderful it was to be here. But how very wonderful it was to be there, too. Avalon-by-the-Lake. If she were there, she would be doing the routine she had established for when Frank was away. Enjoying it, too. Now she was in a big Orbit Machine flying around Fortuna, doing what all these people expected her to be doing. Avalon-by-the-Lake. She wondered how things were back home. If only Richard could see me now, she thought. Here I am having drinks with people who make the news! Odd she should think of her old High School sweetheart after all this time. Perhaps not. He and Frank are alike in many ways. They both played quarterback, just on different fields.
"What do you think, Misses Fraser?" Natalie was saying from opposite her. She was slapping a paperback book between them -- 'like a challenge,' Carolyn thought. Misses Fraser, indeed. Kind for kind.
"I'm sorry, Misses Harper. I'm afraid I was just watching the shadow of one of the moons on Fortuna's surface."
Well, Mrs. Harper's eyes flashed that flash that only women can see. Perhaps men just don't care enough, or they just feel they're above being bothered. She held her tongue and went back to the issue at hand. "We've been talking about Evelyn Wind. What do you think of Evelyn Wind?" Natalie tipped the book up so that Carolyn the Sweet could read the title: The Middle East Alternative.
"I've never read a book by this author," Carolyn answered honestly -- sort of.
"But you have heard of her, surely?" protested Natalie.
"What about her?" Carolyn asked evasively.
"She's the Harlequin Queen. She's the great Harlequin writer. She's...."
"A feminist," Joe Harper threw in.
That didn't endear him to Carolyn in the least. But then, Joe Harper, Lieutenant Commander Joe Harper, wasn't one of her favorite people in the first place. It was as though he had many demerits and had missed the chance of making one credit, a credit that wouldn't have mattered much in the balance, anyway.
"Carolyn the Sweet doesn't read books like that, anyway," Frank threw in. Perhaps he thought he was coming to her aid. That didn't endear him to either of the women.
"She's not a feminist," Natalie defended. "Evelyn Wind is an Alternate History writer in the Romance Genre. Evelyn Wind simply shows that there are better alternatives to the way men resolves conflicts. Not every conflict needs to be shot at or blown up. Her character, Dorothy Stele, is a symbol for all women, in more general terms, and resolves conflicts peaceably where men solve them forcibly."
"Her solutions are never realistic," the Commodore suggested.
"Why wouldn't they work?" Natalie queried him.
"Her methods indicate that she never cares about the myriad details of conflicts and resolution, only about the too-broad issues. And she apparently feels that men do all their thinking with their glands, my dear."
'Was that a subtle put-down?' Carolyn asked herself.
"Well then," Natalie said, "I rest my case.
Carolyn smiled genuinely at her for a brief moment, then recalled what Natalie symbolized to her, how she herself could never be any of those things. So, Carolyn the Sweet leaned forward to address Jerry Paterson.
"Yes, Carolyn the Sweet?" The man's demeanor changed from cloudy to sunshine. He dabbed the corners of his mouth with a serviette.
"Won't you tell me about your rank of Commodore? I find that interesting."
"Commodore is above Captain and below Rear Admiral. Is that what you mean, Carolyn the Sweet?"
"No. Commodore is a wartime rank. There's no war. So, why is there a Commodore on Fortunian I? During Peacetime?"
Many of the eyes around the table looked at her with disbelief and then turned to the Commodore with interested anticipation.
"Good question, that, Carolyn the Sweet. The truth of the matter is that this is a temporary rank, while I am here. When our present Diplomatic Mission, our Diplomatic Crisis, is over I will go back to the rank of Captain or be promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral. So, it's unusual, certainly. But it's all very -- temporary."
"I see," said Carolyn. "So it all depends on the outcome of the Diplomatic Mission?"
Carolyn the Sweet could see that this was as far as the conversation was going to go on the subject. In her direction anyway. Still, she had her hopes that all he said were true.
Carolyn smiled and nodded, as though she were satisfied. And then he nodded back, as though he'd answered something. But then, Carolyn knew all about letting people draw their own conclusions from inadequate answers -- 'people concluded what they wanted the answer to be -- generally', she thought. "Thank you, Commodore."
"Any time, Carolyn the Sweet."
Carolyn the Sweet was standing by the wall-sized plate of transparent steel in the stateroom she and Frank would be sharing until his departure tomorrow, noon. Fortuna was looking up at her and she had been hypnotized by it for some time now. She could hear Frank moving around in the back room. Packing. Rattling things.
Slowly, she walked over to the window and touched a barely visible pressure sensitive panel and the whole wall changed to a full-lengthed mirror. And she regarded herself. She regarded Carolyn the Sweet, an identity that the world of family and loved ones cared for, and the person that the expectations of others had molded her into being. Of course, she was proud. She liked everything about herself on the outside. But she liked herself on the inside too. The trouble was they weren't exactly the same. In some ways, she thought, they weren't at all the same.
The outside of herself in its many dimensions was what the world loved her to be. The inside was what her inner world wanted her to be. But she knew they could never be friends.
With one hand, she unzipped the jump suit half way to her naval. She pulled it out a little. Her other hand gathered up her long hair and pulled it onto the back of her head. Then she slouched slightly and she looked at the sensuous mirror-image in a sultry sort of way. "Have you ever met Evelyn Wind, the Harlequin Queen?" she asked. But it wasn't right. It didn't sound quite right. She turned and faced the mirror from the other side, as she pinned her hair back to stay in place. With that done, she walked up to the mirror, hands on hips, faced it squarely, lifted her chin as Carolyn the Sweet never does and asked again in a more sexy voice -- or in one she tried to pass off as sexy -- "Have you ever met Evelyn Wind, the Harlequin Queen?"
A laugh interrupted her from her fantasy. She turned to see Frank standing in the door way -- leaning against the door jamb. He was laughing. He was laughing at her.
She was embarrassed.
"My dear, Carolyn the Sweet," he said, "You don't have to be any Evelyn Wind. You don't have to be any Harlequin Queen. Not for me. All you ever have to be is my wife. All you ever have to be is here for me when I need you. And I'll be here for whenever you need me. Because I adore you as no man has ever adored a woman." He took her tenderly into his arms and loosed her hair so that it fell in its long ribbons of silk. Just the way he liked it.
Carolyn leaned her face against his strong shoulder. She closed her eyes and looked content. But she was not comforted.
"You don't have to be anything, Carolyn the Sweet. You don't ever have to do anything. I'll always take care of you. And you'll always be Carolyn the Sweet."
His words, aimed to comfort her, missed their mark.
Carolyn the Sweet stood alone in the Officer's Lounge by the Observation Window and smelled her coffee more than she sipped it or tasted it. Her outward composure was one of pleasant serenity. She made sure it always was. She made sure no one ever caught her with her guard down. Almost never. But Frank just had. Her secret was almost betrayed. That composure was one of the things about her that made men want to protect her, as though she were a damsel in distress. She guessed it made them feel like knights in shining armour. And it was one of the things that made men aware of her universal appeal.
Fortuna was outside. But she wasn't looking down on it. She was looking farther up, over to one side. Carolyn the Sweet was looking at the tiny dots out there. the dots that were the ships forming up for departure. There were three wings comprised of three ships each -- little triangles forming one larger triangle. 'In the old days, that would have been called a Battle Wing. But this wasn't the old days,' she thought. The specks of light that were tugs had already moved off and were coming back for the last time to Fortunian I. A few of them veered off to return to the planet below, where Submersible One hunted the oceans of hydrogen and ammonia methane. The great food processor worked around the clock to feed everyone in the Vega Colonies.
Frank and Joe were out there. They would be commanding the lead ships of the two Support Wings, as they're called. The Mission Command Ship would take the Point, the lead. Commander Gomez would be in charge of the Mission and in command of his ship, with Commander Evans at his side. They were all capable men and the Mission was a realistic one -- 'Everything will be just fine,' Carolyn thought. So why did she have this feeling? Why did she have these forboding thoughts and doubts about the Mission? She tasted her coffee and hoped it would rinse the taste of uncertainty from out of her mouth. But it didn't. Carolyn the Sweet shifted uneasily where she stood and noticed the reflection of Natalie on the inside surface of the transparent steel. Natalie was watching them too. For a brief moment, Carolyn wondered what would be the thoughts of this other woman's mind. Just what would she think about?
Carolyn glanced at the youngish woman's clothes and thought them too tight for her generous figure. She knew that if she had Natalie's hips, she would soften the lines with softer fabric and grace the curves of the form by simply wearing a size larger. And Carolyn the Sweet thought she would never wear a top that tight or a front that open -- if she had breasts like those. So, Carolyn wondered if Natalie really knew what she looked like. 'Many people don't,' she reminded herself. Judging by what many people wear, they must have absolutely no objectivity about themselves and the way they look at all. 'But, Natalie didn't look all that bad,' Carolyn concluded. In fact -- secretly -- Carolyn would like to be something like her. But not a lot like her. Then Carolyn decided the bright colors she was wearing weren't quite right for her dark complexion, either. If her complexion were very dark then yes. But it was only a little dark. She looked a little Slovak. That was okay. She'd seen beautiful Slovaks before. 'But Natalie could use a make-over.'
"There they Go," Natalie announced. "There's enough testosterone over there to bawled a gorilla."
Carolyn smiled, as she watched the formation move slightly away then make a tight turn to the right so they could make a quick fly-by. All the ships blinked their running lights about the same time, as though to salute and pass in review. Then they were gone. How long they would be gone depended on the complexity of the zone dispute around the third moon, Semele, where they mined for the life sustaining salts. As it happened, all orbits around the planet Fortuna were under Interstellar, Universal Jurisdiction, but the space around the moons were ill defined and open to interpretation and disputes. So, the Fortunian moon, Semele didn't belong to anyone. None of this did. It was just the rights to the space around it all that was under dispute. In this case, Semele.
"They left for the Moon Conflicts just like that," Natalie said. "Different ships, of course. Same people, though, or what's left of them."
Carolyn finally turned and faced the other woman. "You were there?" she asked Natalie. Then, she walked over to one of the tables opposite the great window and took a seat.
"Like now. I watched them leave from First World Space Dock. They didn't come back for seven months. Those who made it back at all, that is. Two thirds didn't. Joe carried Frank back against orders. They were going to Court Marshal Joe for it. But at the last minute they needed a hero to generate support for the Service, so they Gave Joe the Silver Star instead."
"And that's why Frank owes Joe."
"Is that what you think?" Natalie laughed, then sat down across from Carolyn the Sweet and regarded her for a time. Natalie was thinking that Carolyn was man's perfect little woman -- the everything little woman; the unthreatening little woman; the subordinate little woman; yes, the perfect little woman. Almost. In a way, Natalie wished she could be a little like her, that she could act a little like her, that she could have some of her composure, and have some of her, well, class. Yet, she saw the slender woman as a creature in a chrysalis. And Natalie wondered what would emerge if ever she broke through the solid outer crust of illusion. Carolyn wasn't answering. And Natalie wanted to say something that would help.
"No. Frank doesn't owe Joe anything. They've worked together too long for that. They're trying to live an ideal. Two, really. They can't live one without destroying the other. They just want to be what's expected of them. But they want to be what they expect of themselves, too. 'East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet, 'till earth and sky stand presently at God's great judgment seat'."
Carolyn the Sweet stood abruptly. She drank down the final slug of coffee and said, "I'm going for a refill." And she was gone.
Natalie stood and caught up with her. She was half sorry she had said anything. But she wasn't about to apologies. After all, she had said nothing she thought was out of line. They had crossed the room in a rush and arrived at the coffee dispenser, just to one side of the main frame computer terminals. "Your first time off-planet, isn't it?" she asked Carolyn.
"No," answered Carolyn. "I lived with my father aboard First World Space Dock for my final year of High School. That's when I met Frank. We fell in love. Married. I went back home to stay with my mother. Still do, when Frank's away." She relaxed a little, after all, this conversation was turning a little neutral. "But Frank nagged me about it this time, until I agreed to come along. I really didn't want to come -- to space again. And look! Here I am in the Vega Colonies." Carolyn pressed the pressure sensitive pad on the machine and let out a long breath. "How many times have you been off-planet?"
"Oh, twenty. Maybe twenty-five. Every time Joe's on Mission. I always come along, just to see him fly off with the boys. What do you do on-planet, when you're waiting?"
Of course, Carolyn didn't want to say. But she answered, "I write. Ah, letters. To Frank. Every day. I keep a ridged routine to keep myself from being bored. What do you do off-planet, while you're waiting?" Carolyn the Sweet took the cup of hot coffee out of the slot on the face of the machine and smelled its half bitter aroma.
"I read a lot," Natalie said, as she made her coffee selection. "Mostly Evelyn Wind. Dorothy Stele -- that's Evelyn Wind's main character -- she's always in conflict. She's in conflict within herself and with her family. She can't do what she wants and what they want at the same time. Every resolution causes more conflict. Anyway, Dorothy tackles some historic event and demonstrates there was a more peaceable way to resolve it -- more peaceable than the way some man or another resolved it. But she always ends up with her basic conflict unresolved."
"Sounds badly plotted to me," Carolyn submitted.
"No. The reader always knows she'll live again in the next book to struggle with that same conflict, but that she'll try another interesting way to resolve it. And along the way, Dorothy will resolve another dozen conflicts. And she'll learn some new things about life. And we'll learn some lessons, too. I think it's brilliant. But then, I'm just a reader. Just a fan. What do I know?"
"I guess you know enough to keep her in the writing business."
"You're kind of like her. You know?"
"You're like Dorothy Stele. Probably like Evelyn Wind, herself. I bet you're perfect just on the outside. But on the inside...."
Carolyn the Sweet set down her hot, steaming coffee, and walked away. Out of the room. To her quarters.
Natalie had just finished loading up her food tray in the Officers' Mess Hall when she noticed Carolyn the Disgruntled, sitting alone, playing with some kind of salad on a plate. So, Natalie walked over to the woman and sat across from her. "Mind if I sit down?"
"Are you going to practice more psychiatry?" Carolyn asked.
"Never knew I was any good at it -- before."
Carolyn laughed and lightened up a little bit. "I've had the most miserable week," she confided. Silence. It became evident that Natalie was giving her the lead. And Carolyn respected her for that. "You never told me what you do off-planet besides reading. We were -- interrupted."
"Well, let's see. As 'the wife'" she stressed sarcastically, "of a Lieutenant Commander, I have pretty much the run of the place around the Bases. But usually there's nothing to do anywhere. There's no place I ever have to be. There's no one thing I ever have to do. The only thing expected of me here is for me to be out of the room by noon, so Rose Marie can clean it up. There's only one place I can not go: the Command Center. Must be apples there, or something. It's pretty much of a bore.
"So, what I end up doing is talking men into giving me unauthorized tours; I watch movies; I listen to music; and I have men doing all kinds of meaningless things for me. Nothing worthwhile. But it's amusing."
Carolyn smiled a very little smile. It was as though she were out of practice. "Men will do just about anything for you, won't they?" she commented, then took a bite of salad.
"Men just want to look down my blouse."
Carolyn laughed and said, 'Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more, Men were deceivers ever, One foot in sea and one on shore, to one thing constant never.' But you seem to let them."
"Sure. I let them. It's a game. An amusement. They all think with their glands, you know. And they stumble all over their tongues. It's really something to see. What was that you quoted?"
"Just a diddy by Shakespeare. Sometimes I throw it around just to impress people. Whenever the time's just right." Carolyn said in a hurry.
"Well your timing was right."
This time, Carolyn laughed -- like the Sweet again. She found that, after all, she was beginning to like this odd woman -- even some of the things that had repelled her earlier. "Men aren't that way with me."
"Ha! Men would die for you. You're just too wonderful to be approachable. You should loosen up."
"Sure. There's a real woman under all that porcelain perfection of yours. Stick around with me. We'll have some real fun. Clean fun. I don't know what you think of me. I'm indiscreet. Sure. But I'm faithful. Stick with me. Get sexy."
"I'm not sexy," Carolyn protested.
"You're not. But that doesn't mean you can't be. Be a little imperfect for yourself."
"I don't know, Natalie."
"Call me 'Nat'."
"Your friends call you that?"
"Nobody calls me that! Ever! But you can."
"Then you can call me anything but 'Carolyn the Sweet'."
Natalie smiled and studdied her for a moment. "Sorry, but nothing else fits. Now, anyway. But I'll settle for just Carolyn."
"A deal, Nat."
"Done. Now, let's see what we can do to sex you up a little bit."
"Only if we can see what we can do to sex you down a bit."
"A deal, Carolyn the ...."
"Don't you dare."
Carolyn the Sweet had just finished transmitting her seventh daily letter to Frank. Every one read like a love letter, with a few chatty, newsy paragraphs at the end, which had been updated from the wire service on the main frame. They were all works of "fourth-degree encrypted literature," as they say in the writing business. She stood and stretched, and looked out at Fortuna. How could anyone take her for granted? Carolyn wondered.
"Carolyn," her friend called, as she walked into the room on the silent carpet.
"Carolyn the, the Different," she said, as she surveyed her friend. "You look good."
"I feel silly."
"You'll get used to the new you."
"Think Frank'll get used to the new me?"
"He'll be in conflict. Trust me," Nat said.
"I'm always skeptical when someone says, 'Trust me'."
Carolyn was wearing the same old, solid colors, all right. Just in a new way. Her dark skirt was cut too short for Carolyn the Sweet. It was a couple inches above the knees and her tight top stopped far above her waist. The neck line was tasteful. But open.
The new Natalie wasn't so radically far from the old, though. Her clothes were a little looser, but her swooping neck line was all that still supported her. A medium length skirt toned down her voluptuous appearance, but her flowing dark hair added a mystical veil over her bare shoulders.
"Shall we go on another tour?" Natalie asked.
"Pretty soon, we'll be able to take the Commodore on one. He'd see a few new places. And learn a thing or two."
"I bet he would." agreed Natalie. "Let's go 'there'."
"You mean the Command Center?"
"The off-limits Command Center," Natalie affirmed. "Let's go and see it. Now."
So, the two women stalked the quarters like predators, looking for the right kind of prey. And they found him. He was a young Enlisted crewman, whose eyes got as big as his smile. Natalie had said this was just the kind of intelligence they were looking for.
"Excuse me," Carolyn said. ""We seem to be lost. We're looking for the Command Center. Could you take us there?"
"The Command Center," the boy-man repeated, as though he were saying holy words.
"Yes," Natalie confirmed.
"We would be very grateful, if you would show us the way." Natalie bent over eye-openingly to fix a stocking.
"I see," the man said.
Natalie wondered if he were punning her.
Carolyn thought, 'I bet you do.'
But he said, "I don't know. It's off-limits to civilian personnel. I could really get it for that."
"Forgiveness is easier to get than permission," Natalie proverbed, as she leaned over to fix the other stocking.
Then, looking down at her, he said, "Well, I really don't see any harm in it. I suppose. This way."
The Command Center was a disappointment though. Carolyn and Natalie both had bathrooms that were bigger. Two opposite walls were filled with thirty-year-old technology that made their commodes look high-tech. And the end wall held a single, deck gray door.
"This is it?" Natalie protested.
"Yes, Mam," the young man said.
The two Officers on duty looked up but said nothing about the impropriety. Perhaps they were just happy to see women, Carolyn considered.
"What's behind the door?" Carolyn inquired.
"The head, Mam," the boy-man said.
"Thank you, we've seen enough," Natalie announced, then turned and left with Carolyn in tow. They went straight back to the lounge.
Carolyn dropped herself in one of the chairs and laughed. "I think you showed him more than he showed you, Nat."
"Oh well, little unkept promises can get you anything. Even disappointments."
Carolyn sat at the computer console in the Officers' Lounge with a steaming cup of coffee at her side and with a head full of well chosen words. Words to be written. Words to be sent in an information packet. The Commodore and Captain Vox were just leaving. She thought that it was perhaps her arrival that had signaled their departure. Just as well, she thought. She wouldn't have to use the keyboard now. She could compose on audio.
"Typing something out, Carolyn the Sweet?" asked the Commodore in a good conversational tone.
"My daily letter to Frank, Commodore. A love letter everyday gives him a reason for returning. And you just can't imagine how long it takes to write these things."
"Oh, I can imagine that! Guess that's why I write the Wife so few. Well, good luck."
As they left, Natalie walked in and started making her way over. She was about to say something about how long it took her to write letters, but she stopped to listen.
Carolyn had reached over and keyed in the code for audio commands. "Computer, bring up 'Frank' file, latest date."
"Working," the metallic voice said.
The letter popped up on the screen and Carolyn picked up the Computer stylus. "Computer, split screen." It did, so there was a page of text on the left and a blank page on the right.
"Computer, copy 'Frank' file with the following specifications: Level four encrypted transcription; Standard opening," Carolyn used the stylus in the left margin to indicate the paragraph; "Variation on the themes," she selected the main body of the letter in the margins; "Update newsy paragraphs from wire service headlines on file; standard closing; love, Carolyn the Sweet. Execute."
"Working," said the computer.
The blank file on the right began to fill with the edited text faster than any typist.
"Computer, save file as 'Frank' current date."
"Computer, transmit file."
"Computer, new file. EncodedCrypto; encrypted level five; for author's eyes only." Carolyn settled back with her coffee, sipped it and said, "Now for some serious writing."
Natalie, who was still standing behind her, was amazed at her computer skills and letter-writing methods and was now wondering what serious writing her friend had in mind now.
"New file. EncodedCrypto; encrypted level five; for author's eyes only," said the computer.
Carolyn smiled, closed her eyes, and spoke in a voice her friend had never heard before.
"Computer, Style Sheet: Chicago Manual of Style, 44th edition. Generate Front Matter, versos and rectos. Begin text, page 1.
"The Fortunian Alternative. A Novel. By Evelyn Wind.
"Dorothy Stele was a stunning redhead and thought she could be anything she wanted to be. She just couldn't be anything her family wanted her to be. So, now she had to find a way to be something she wanted to be that would make her family proud...."
"Why you little Manx!" Natalie said, as she walked up to Carolyn.
Carolyn watched the words her friend had said crawl across the screen just behind the cursor. "End quote," she said and the computer adjusted the punctuation, "Said her lover. Computer, pause." She was nodding. "Not too bad."
"You.... You're the Harlequin Queen! You're Evelyn Wind!"
"Yes," said Carolyn, as she motioned for Natalie to take a seat. "Come. Sit down by the fire and I will tell you a story. Sit there on the stump and lean in, just close enough to feel the heat of the flames press against your face, like the fingers of warmed gloves in the middle of a cold night."
"I can't wait to hear it," Natalie said, "with your basic conflict resolved."
Evelyn Wind just smiled and said, "Dorothy Stele was a stunning redhead and thought she could be anything she wanted to be. She just couldn't be anything her family wanted her to be. So, now she had to find a way to be something that she wanted to be that would finally make her family proud of her...."