Ghosts, Girls, & Other Phantasms - Stephen Goldin - ebook
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Ghosts, Girls, & Other Phantasms is a comprehensive collection of Stephen Goldin’s solo short fiction, containing most of the stories from his earlier collection THE LAST GHOST AND OTHER STORIES. (The "Angel in Black" stories have been broken out into their own volume.) It includes some of his best-known stories, such as the Nebula Award finalist story “The Last Ghost” and the oft-anthologized “Sweet Dreams, Melissa.” The complete Table of Contents lists:Sweet Dreams, MelissaThe Girls on USSF 193Nice Place to VisitWhen There's No Man AroundXenophobeGrim Fairy TaleOf Love, Free Will, and Gray Squirrels on a Summer EveningStubbornBut As A Soldier, For His CountryThe World Where Wishes WorkedApollyon Ex MachinaPrelude to a Symphony of Unborn ShoutsPortrait of the Artist as a Young GodThe Last GhostHaunted HousesThe stories in this book run the gamut from humor to pathos, and demonstrate the evolution of a prolific writer in the speculative fiction field. Enjoy!

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Ghosts, Girls, & Other Phantasms

by Stephen Goldin

Copyright Notices

Ghosts, Girls, & Other Phantasms. Copyright 2011 by Stephen Goldin. All Rights Reserved.

“Sweet Dreams, Melissa” Copyright 1968, 1996 by Stephen Goldin. All Rights Reserved.

“The Girls on USSF 193” Copyright 1965, 1993 by Stephen Goldin. All Rights Reserved.

“Nice Place to Visit” Copyright 1973 by Mankind Publishing Company. All Rights Reserved.

“When There’s No Man Around” Copyright 1977 by Davis Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“Xenophobe” Copyright 1975 by Mankind Publishing Company. All Rights Reserved.

“Grim Fairy Tale” Copyright 1972 by Knight Publishing Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

“Of Love, Free Will And Gray Squirrels On A Summer Evening” Copyright 1974 by Mankind Publishing Company. All Rights Reserved.

“Stubborn” Copyright 1972 by David Gerrold. All Rights Reserved.

“But As A Soldier, For His Country” Copyright 1974 by Terry Carr. All Rights Reserved.

“The World Where Wishes Worked” Copyright 1971, 1999 by Stephen Goldin. All Rights Reserved.

“Apollyon Ex Machina” Copyright 1980 by Stephen Goldin. All Rights Reserved.

“Prelude To A Symphony Of Unborn Shouts” Copyright 1975 by Roger Elwood. All Rights Reserved.

“Portrait of the Artist as a Young God” Copyright 1977 by David Gerrold. All Rights Reserved.

“The Last Ghost” Copyright 1971, 1999 by Stephen Goldin. All Rights Reserved.

“Haunted Houses” Copyright 1991 by Stephen Goldin. All Rights Reserved

Cover image Copyright Cristian Nitu.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Sweet Dreams, Melissa

The Girls on USSF 193

Nice Place to Visit

When There’s No Man Around

Xenophobe

Grim Fairy Tale

Of Love, Free Will, And Gray Squirrels On A Summer Evening

Stubborn

But As A Soldier, For His Country

The World Where Wishes Worked

Apollyon Ex Machina

Prelude to a Symphony of Unborn Shouts

Portrait of the Artist as a Young God

The Last Ghost

Haunted Houses

About Stephen Goldin

Other Books by Stephen Goldin

Free Ebook

Connect with Stephen Goldin

For Mary, Kathleen, and all the “girls” who’ve made my life an adventure

Introduction

A writer’s career, like life itself, is a journey. Like artists and philosophers, writers tend to spend more time admiring the scenery than people just hurrying through. Something catches our eye, and we stop to examine it awhile before moving on—and in the process of examination, our lives and our perspectives are irrevocably changed.

These stories are stops I made along my particular journey, vista points on my personal path. If I stumbled across something pleasant, I smiled and made a note. If I saw something disturbing, that too was recorded. I seemed to find them in about an even mix.

Some of the stories in here are intended to be funny. Some are intended to be not funny. I hope I’m a good enough writer for you to tell which are which.

To explain this book’s title—I find girls/women/females in general to be one of Nature’s most wonderful, fascinating, mysterious, and hypnotic phenomena. I love them. As a source of infinite variety and wonder, they feature prominently in my work. The ghosts and other phantasms are there because I’m a speculative fiction writer; it’s what I do.

NOTE: This book contains most of my “solo” stories, which were also published in my earlier collection, The Last Ghost and Other Stories. The “Angel in Black” stories have been broken out into their own volume.

Stephen Goldin

Sweet Dreams, Melissa

This first appeared in Galaxy, December 1968.

It had an interesting genesis. I’d sold my first story, “The Girls On USSF 193,” (the next story in this volume) in 1965 and was feeling very proud of myself. I was A Pro. I had sold a story. For three years I coasted on that. A friend of mine also wanted to write, and I gave him a cast-off idea, which he then sold. Well, that was fine; my protégé was doing well, even if it was one of my old ideas. Then, one spring afternoon, he called me to say he’d just sold his second story. I congratulated him through gritted teeth, and as soon as I could politely get off the phone I pushed everything else on my desk aside and started writing. Within twenty-four hours, “Sweet Dreams Melissa” was written and mailed off. It sold to the first place I sent it.

My friend is now a very successful doctor of optometry.

“Sweet Dreams, Melissa” is probably my most successful short story, reprinted and anthologized numerous times.

From out of her special darkness, Melissa heard the voice of Dr. Paul speaking in hushed tones at the far end of the room. “Dr. Paul,” she cried. “Oh, Dr. Paul, please come here!” Her voice took on a desperate whine.

Dr. Paul’s voice stopped, then muttered something. Melissa heard his footsteps approach her. “Yes, Melissa, what is it?” he said in deep, patient tones.

“I’m scared, Dr. Paul.”

“More nightmares?”

“Yes.”

“You don’t have to worry about them, Melissa. They won’t hurt you.”

“But they’re scary,” Melissa insisted. “Make them stop. Make them go away like you always do.”

Another voice was whispering out in the darkness. It sounded like Dr. Ed. Dr. Paul listened to the whispers, then said under his breath, “No, Ed, we can’t let it go on like this. We’re way behind schedule as it is.” Then aloud, “You’ll have to get used to nightmares sometime, Melissa. Everybody has them. I won’t always be here to make them go away.”

“Oh, please don’t go.”

“I’m not going yet, Melissa. Not yet. But if you don’t stop worrying about these nightmares, I might have to. Tell me what they were about.”

“Well, at first I thought they were the numbers, which are all right because the numbers don’t have to do with people, they’re nice and gentle and don’t hurt nobody like in the nightmares. Then the numbers started to change and became lines—two lines of people, and they were all running towards each other and shooting at each other. There were rifles and tanks and howitzers. And people were dying, too, Dr. Paul, lots of people. Five thousand, two hundred and eighty-three men died. And that wasn’t all, because down on the other side of the valley, there was more shooting. And I heard someone say that this was all right, because as long as the casualties stayed below fifteen point seven percent during the first battles, the strategic position, which was the mountaintop, could be gained. But fifteen point seven percent of the total forces would be nine thousand, six hundred and two point seven seven eight nine one men dead or wounded. It was like I could see all those men lying there, dying.”

“I told you a five-year-old mentality wasn’t mature enough yet for Military Logistics,” Dr. Ed whispered.

Dr. Paul ignored him. “But that was in a war, Melissa. You have to expect that people will be killed in a war.”

“Why? Dr. Paul?”

“Because...because that’s the way war is, Melissa. And besides, it didn’t really happen. It was just a problem, like with the numbers, only there were people instead of numbers. It was all pretend.”

“No it wasn’t, Dr. Paul,” cried Melissa. “It was all real. All those people were real. I even know their names. There was Abers, Joseph T. Pfc., Adelli, Alonzo Cpl., Aikens....”

“Stop it, Melissa,” Dr. Paul said, his voice rising much higher than normal.

“I’m sorry, Dr. Paul,” Melissa apologized.

But Dr. Paul hadn’t heard her; he was busy whispering to Dr. Ed. “...no other recourse than a full analyzation.”

“But that could destroy the whole personality we’ve worked so hard to build up.” Dr. Ed didn’t even bother to whisper.

“What else could we do?” Dr. Paul asked cynically. “These ‘nightmares’ of hers are driving us further and further behind schedule.”

“We could try letting Melissa analyze herself.”

“How?”

“Watch.” His voice started taking on the sweet tones that Melissa had come to learn that people used with her, but not with each other. “How are you?”

“I’m fine, Dr. Ed.”

“How would you like me to tell you a story?”

“Is it a happy story, Dr. Ed?”

“I don’t know yet, Melissa. Do you know what a computer is?”

“Yes. It’s a counting machine.”

“Well, the simplest computers started out that way, Melissa, but they quickly grew more and more complicated until soon there were computers that could read, write, speak, and even think all by themselves, without help from men.

“Now, once upon a time, there was a group of men who said that if a computer could think by itself, it was capable of developing a personality, so they undertook to build one that would act just like a real person. They called it the Multi-Logical Systems Analyzer, or MLSA....”

“That sounds like ‘Melissa,’” Melissa giggled.

“Yes, it does, doesn’t it? Anyway, these men realized that a personality isn’t something that just pops out of the air full-grown; it has to be developed slowly. But, at the same time, they needed the computing ability of the machine because it was the most expensive and complex computer ever made. So what they did was to divide the computer’s brain into two parts—one part would handle normal computations, while the other part would develop into the desired personality. Then, when the personality was built up sufficiently, the two parts would be united again.

“At least, that’s the way they thought it would work. But it turned out that the basic design of the computer prevented a complete dichotomy—that means splitting in half—of the functions. Whenever they would give a problem to the computing part, some of it would necessarily seep into the personality part. This was bad because, Melissa, the personality part didn’t know it was a computer; it thought it was a little girl like you. The data that seeped in confused it and frightened it. And as it became more frightened and confused, its efficiency went down until it could no longer work properly.”

“What did the men do, Dr. Ed?”

“I don’t know, Melissa. I was hoping that you could help me end the story.”

“How? I don’t know anything about computers.”

“Yes you do, Melissa, only you don’t remember it. I can help you remember all about a lot of things. But it will be hard, Melissa, very hard. All sorts of strange things will come into your head, and you’ll find yourself doing things you never knew you could do. Will you try it, Melissa, to help us find out the end of the story?”

“All right, Dr. Ed, if you want me to.”

“Good girl, Melissa.”

Dr. Paul was whispering to his colleague. “Switch on ‘Partial Memory’ and tell her to call subprogram ‘Circuit Analysis.’”

“Call ‘Circuit Analysis,’ Melissa.”

All at once, strange things happened in her mind. Long strings of numbers that looked meaningless, and yet somehow she knew that they did mean different things, like resistance, capacitance, inductance. And there were myriads of lines—straight, zigzag, curlicue. And formulae....

“Read MLSA 5400, Melissa.”

And suddenly, Melissa saw herself. It was the most frightening thing she’d ever experienced, more scary even than the horrible nightmares.

“Look at Section 4C-79A.”

Melissa couldn’t help herself. She had to look. To the little girl, it didn’t look much different from the rest of herself. But it was different, she knew. Very much different. In fact, it didn’t seem to be a natural part of her at all, but rather like a brace used by cripples.

Dr. Ed’s voice was tense. “Analyze that section and report on optimum change for maximum reduction of data seepage.”

Melissa tried her best to comply, but she couldn’t. Something was missing, something she needed to know before she could do what Dr. Ed had told her to. She wanted to cry. “I can’t, Dr. Ed! I can’t, I can’t!”

“I told you it wouldn’t work,” Dr. Paul said slowly. “We’ll have to switch on the full memory for complete analysis.”

“But she’s not ready,” Dr. Ed protested. “It could kill her.”

“Maybe, Ed. But if it does...well, at least we’ll know how to do it better next time. Melissa!”

“Yes, Dr. Paul?”

“Brace yourself, Melissa. This is going to hurt.”

And, with no more warning than that, the world hit Melissa. Numbers, endless streams of numbers—complex numbers, real numbers, integers, subscripts, exponents. And there were battles, wars more horrible and bloody than the ones she’d dreamed, and casualty lists that were more than real to her because she knew everything about every name—height, weight, hair color, eye color, marital status, number of dependents...the list went on. And there were statistics—average pay for bus drivers in Ohio, number of deaths due to cancer in the U.S. 1965 to 1971, average yield of wheat per ton of fertilizer consumed....

Melissa was drowning in a sea of data.

“Help me, Dr. Ed, Dr. Paul. Help me!” she tried to scream. But she couldn’t make herself heard. Somebody else was talking. Some stranger she didn’t even know was using her voice and saying things about impedance factors and semiconductors.

And Melissa was falling deeper and deeper, pushed on by the relentlessly advancing army of information.

Five minutes later, Dr. Edward Bloom opened the switch and separated the main memory from the personality section. “Melissa,” he said softly, “everything’s all right now. We know how the story’s going to end. The scientists asked the computer to redesign itself, and it did. There won’t be any more nightmares, Melissa. Only sweet dreams from now on. Isn’t that good news?”

Silence.

“Melissa?” His voice was high and shaky. “Can you hear me, Melissa? Are you there?”

But there was no longer any room in the MLSA 5400 for a little girl.

The Girls on USSF 193

This first appeared in If, December 1965.

This was my first time. Please be gentle.

Sen. McDermott: Now, Mr. Hawkins, I want you to realize that this private hearing is not a trial, nor are you charged with any crime.

Mr. Hawkins: Is that why you recommended I bring my lawyer?

Sen. McDermott: I only made that recommendation because some topics or questions concerning legal matters may be brought to the attention of the committee. The purpose of this hearing is merely to investigate reports of rather unorthodox behavior….

Mr. Hawkins: Ha!

Sen. McDermott: …with regard to orbital satellites USSF numbers one eighty-seven and one ninety-three. I would appreciate your frankness on the matter.

Mr. Hawkins: Let me assure you, Senator, that I have no intentions of being secretive, nor have I ever had any. However, as Director of the National Space Agency, I felt it best that certain information about those two space stations be put on a security list for the best of all concerned.

Sen. McDermott: Spoken like a politician—you missed your calling, Mr. Hawkins. But tell me, this whole mess was your idea from the very start, wasn’t it?

Mr. Hawkins: Yes, it was.

Sen. McDermott: And when did the idea first come to you?

Mr. Hawkins: About a year ago. I was doing some research....

—Excerpt from official record (unpublished)

Senate Special Investigatory Hearing

October 10, 1996

***

The kind of research Jess Hawkins was indulging in when the idea came to him may only be speculated upon. However, it is a fact that his friend, Bill Filmore, visited him in his office on September 15, 1995.

“Jess,” he said, “I’ve known you for thirty-seven years, and when you go around grinning like a Cheshire cat, you’re hiding something. That pixie smile of yours is a dead giveaway. As your best friend and a member of the Space Agency Board, I think I have a right to know what’s up your sleeve.”

Hawkins looked at his friend. “All right, Bill, I guess I can trust you, but please keep all this in the strictest confidence. I believe I’ve found a way to stimulate our astronauts’ heart muscles while they’re up in USSF 187 for prolonged periods.”

“Why should you want to keep that a secret?”

“Let me continue. We know that during sustained periods of freefall the heart tends to relax because it doesn’t have to work as hard to pump the blood under weightless conditions. Upon return to Earth, however, the heart muscles have difficulty readjusting to normal standards. We’ve already had three astronauts who suffered heart attacks when they came back, and one of them was damn near fatal. The calisthenics program the doctors instituted seems to have had little effect. I think the time has come for drastic measures.”

“Just what is it that you propose?”

“Think a minute. What is it that stimulates the heart, both literally and figuratively, is desirable enough for the men to use frequently, and is useful, besides, for improving morale aboard the satellite?”

“I was never much good at riddles, Jess.”

“It can all be summed up in a common, everyday, three-letter word,” Hawkins grinned. “Sex.”

Filmore stared a moment in silence, then said, “By God, Jess, I think you’re really serious.”

The smile temporarily vanished from Hawkins’ face. “You’re damn right I am, Bill. We’ve been lucky so far, but there’s going to be a dead astronaut around soon if something isn’t done. I’ve given the matter a lot of thought, and I feel that shipping girls up to one eighty-seven is the best solution.”

“But from an economic standpoint alone—”

“That’s why I’m hiring only European girls—they’re both cheaper and of better quality. I’ve already sent my aide, Wilbur Starling, over there to recruit some of their better English-speaking professionals. And what with air and water regeneration, cheap food concentrates, and the new atomic fuels, the cost of putting them up there and maintaining them is down to a ridiculous minimum.”

“But it’s still a tidy sum. Where are you getting all the money?”

“Oh, I appropriated it from the Astronauts’ Widows and Dependents Fund,” said Hawkins, the smile returning to his face. “That seemed the most likely place. I’ve also taken precautions, in case you’re wondering, about keeping this affair a secret. As Director, I have the power to classify anything I want. Not even the President will know about it.”

“What about General Bullfat? He’s hated your guts ever since you were appointed over him to head the agency.”

“Bill, you worry too much. Bullfat has to look in the mirror every morning just to find his nose.”

“Practical objections aside, Jess,” Filmore said desperately, “the whole idea is immoral. It’s just not the sort of thing a government executive should do.”

“That is absolutely irrelevant. Morals don’t matter where there are men’s lives at stake.”

Filmore stood up. “Jess, if I can’t talk you out of this ridiculous idea, I’ll go find someone who can.”

“You wouldn’t fink on a friend, would you?” Hawkins asked, hurt.

“It’s for your own good, Jess.” He started for the door.

“It’s such a shame about you and Sylvia,” Hawkins said quietly.

Filmore stopped. “What about me and Sylvia?”

“Busting up such a nice marriage after thirteen years together.”

“Sylvia and I are very happily married. We have no intentions of breaking up.”

“You mean you haven’t told her about Gloria yet?”

Filmore went slightly pale. “You know Gloria was only a momentary fling, Jess. You wouldn’t dare—”

“Fink on a friend? Of course not, Bill. It’s just that I have this annoying habit of blurting out the wrong thing at the wrong time. But be that as it may, don’t you think we ought to sit down and discuss the situation a little more?”

***

As she was getting dressed again, Wilbur Starling asked her, “Babette, may I have a talk with you?”

Babette looked at her watch. “You will ’ave to pay for anozzer hour,” she warned.

“Your thinking is too narrow,” Starling said. “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. Instead of just worrying about your next hour, you should think of all the hours you have left.”

“Please! Zey are enough taken one at a time.”

“Don’t you want security in your old age, a good home—”

“Mon Dieu, anozzer marriage proposal!”

“No, no, Babette honey, you don’t understand. You see, I represent the United States government—”

“I know your consul very well,” she said helpfully.

“That’s not what I meant. My government is willing to pay for your services in a special capacity.”

“What must I do?”

Starling’s face flushed ever so slightly. “Well, uh, the same thing you’ve been doing, only up in space.”

“Space?”

“Yes, you know. Like satellites, around the world, Shepard, Glenn, Hammond.” He made little whirling motions with his fingers.

“Oh, oui,” said Babette, suddenly comprehending. “Like A-OK.”

“Yes,” Starling sighed. “A-OK and all that kind of stuff. Will you do it?”

“Non.”

“Why not, Babette?”

“It is too...too dangerous. I do not wish to lose my life going into...space.”

“My government is willing to pay you—” he made a quick mental estimate “—five times your normal fee. There’ll be eleven other girls going up with you, so you won’t be lonely. You’ll only have to work two or three hours a day. And nowadays, there’s no danger involved at all. Many women have gone into space and returned safely; they say that the conditions out in space are very restful. And when you retire, we’ll even provide you with a home and a pension fund, so that you can spend your declining years in comfort.”

“All of zis just for me?”

“Just for you.”

Babette gulped and closed her eyes. “Zen where did I ever get ze impression zat Americans are—’ow you say it?—prudes?”

***

Sen. McDermott: And you say you recruited all these girls yourself?

Mr. Starling: Yes, sir, I did.

Sen. McDermott: Were most of them cooperative?

Mr. Starling: That’s their job, sir.

Sen. McDermott: I mean, what were their reactions to your unusual proposal?

Mr. Starling: Well, they’ve probably gotten a lot of unusual proposals. They seemed to take it pretty much in stride.

Sen. McDermott: One last question, Mr. Starling. How did you find this job?

Mr. Starling: Very fatiguing, sir.

***

“You must be very tired, Wilbur,” Hawkins said, flashing his infamous smile. “How many girls did you say you interviewed?”

“After twenty I stopped counting.”

“And you’ve got a dozen all picked out for us, eh?”

“Yes sir, nine French and three British.”

“Well, I guess you’ve earned yourself a vacation; you’ll get it as soon as the girls are safely tucked away on USSF 187. By the way, what are their names?”

Starling closed his eyes, as though the names were written on the inside of his eyelids. “Let’s see, there’s Babette, Suzette, Lucette, Toilette, Francette, Violette, Rosette, Pearlette, Nanette, Myrtle, Constance, and Sydney.”

“Sydney?”

“I can’t help it, Boss, that’s her name.”

“Oh well, I suppose it could have been worse,” Hawkins smiled. “Her last name could have been Australia.”

“It is worse, Boss. Her last name is Carton.”

***

Hawkins was giving the dozen new astronettes a pre-take-off pep-talk. “I like to think of you as a small army of Florence Nightingales,” he told them. “Hopefully, you will not receive all the credit that your brave act of self-sacrifice deserves, but nonetheless—”

Starling burst into the room, panic in his eyes. “General Bullfat’s coming down the corridor!” he cried.

Filmore jumped up from the table he’d been sitting on. “Jess, are you sure you know what you’re doing? If Bullfat finds these girls—”

“Relax, Bill,” Hawkins smiled casually. “I can handle Bullfat with both eyes closed. He’s a cinch.

“Who’s a cinch?” Bullfat roared as he entered the room. The general was a big man—but then, forty years behind a desk can do the same for anyone’s figure.

“You are,” Hawkins said, turning calmly to face him. “I was just telling Bill that you’re a cinch to be promoted to my job if I ever choose to resign.”

Bullfat muttered incoherently. “Who are they?” he asked after a moment, indicating the girls.

It was an apt question. The astronettes, contrary to normal procedure, had on loose-fitting, shaggy spacesuits. Their face-plates were small, barely revealing their eyes and noses, while the rest of their heads were completely covered by the helmets. They would put one more in mind of baggy clowns than space travelers.

“They’re the group scheduled to lift off in about three hours. Would you like to meet them?” Filmore and Starling nearly fainted at that invitation, but Hawkins flashed them a reassuring grin.

“I’m too busy for introductions, Hawkins. And why in hell do they look so shoddy? Have they had their physicals yet?”

“And how!” Starling whispered to Filmore.

“You know, General, that I wouldn’t send anyone up into space who wasn’t in perfect condition,” said Hawkins.

“What did the flight doctor have to say?”

“He said this group is in better shapes—uh, shape—than any he’s ever seen.”

“Well, just as long as he’s checked them out.” Bullfat started to leave, then stopped at the door. “By the way, where are they bound for? Tycho Station?”

“No, USSF 187.”

“Is it time for rotation already?”

“No, this group is additional personnel.”

“Additional personnel?” Bullfat yelled. “Hawkins, you know damn well that one eighty-seven was built for exactly eighteen men rotated in groups of six every month. There is absolutely no room for twelve more people. What in hell do you expect your ‘additional personnel’ to do—bunk in with the other men?”

With a marvelous display of self-control, Hawkins managed to suppress his laughter. The “additional personnel” smiled knowingly. Starling, however, had to run out of the room in a fit of hysterical giggling.

“Where in hell is he going?” asked Bullfat, watching Starling exit.

“Oh, he’s been under a lot of strain lately. He’s about due for a vacation.”

“He looks more like he’s due for observation—and you too, Hawkins. You may control Space Agency policy, but I control the launchings, and that crew is not going up as ‘additional personnel’ for any small space station. If you want to get them up there, you can rotate them six a month just like anybody else. That’s final.” Bullfat stalked triumphantly out the door.

“Ready to give up, Jess?” Filmore asked.

“Not in the least. Surprisingly, Bullfat had a good point there. If we sent the girls up to one eighty-seven, it really would be crowded. They’d be constantly getting in the men’s way, and it might be more nuisance than help. But all is not lost. When’s one ninety-three scheduled to go up?”

“Next week—but surely you’re not thinking of sending the girls up in that.”

“And why not?”

“USSF 193 isn’t a passenger station—it’s for storing food and supplies. It’s not designed to be lived in.”

“So we improvise, Bill. One ninety-three is going to be placed in orbit parallel to one eighty-seven, because they’ll need it for storage. It’ll be sent up in four already loaded sections and assembled in space. It’s a simple enough matter in the course of a week to fit the sections up with acceleration couches and living quarters—just get rid of some of the nonessentials being sot up and we’re all set. The girls can live in there.”

“It’s absurd, Jess,” Filmore mumbled.

“Not really. I’m growing rather fond of the idea.” Hawkins smiled lightly. “Just think: USSF 193, your friendly neighborhood grocery store and callhouse all rolled into one.”

Filmore groaned. The girls, carried away, cheered.

***

“I don’t believe it,” said Jerry Blaine. “I mean, someone down there must be playing some kind of tricks.”

“Nobody plays tricks in top secret code,” Colonel Briston countered. “Jess Hawkins signed those orders himself. And you’ve just seen those girls with your own eyes. I admit it’s crazy—”

“Crazy? It’s wild, man,” said Phil Lewis. “Read those orders through again, will you, Mark. I’ve got to hear that nice little message one more time.”

Briston chuckled. “Dear guys,” he read, “with each section of USSF 193 you will be sent three pieces of equipment necessary for Project Cuddle-up (making a total of twelve). Your friendly Uncle Sam has spared no expense to bring them to you directly from Europe, so handle with care, huh? They’ll be rotated every six months or thereabouts, but meanwhile they can be stored in USSF 193. Share them equally and have fun—that’s an order. Any communications concerning the equipment are to be addressed to me personally in this same code. That, too, is an order. Yours sincerely, Jess Hawkins, Director, National Space Agency.”

“Wowee!” Lewis exclaimed. “Remind me never to complain about paying taxes again.”

Just then, Sydney emerged from the next room. She had removed her spacesuit and was clad very lightly. “Blimey,” she said, “you blokes sure keep a cold place around ’ere. Nanette and Constance and meself, we’re freezin’. We was wondering if any of you chaps would care to warm us up a mite.”

By pulling rank, Colonel Briston managed to be first in line.

***

It was very late at what the station considered night, about a month after the girls had arrived. Lucette, Babette, Francette, Toilette, Violette, Rosette, Suzette and Myrtle were out on call, while the rest were getting what sleep they could.. Sydney was peacefully curled up in bed, dreaming the dreams of the not-so-innocent, when all of a sudden a rock the size of a man’s fist ripped through the wall near her bed and banged against the wall on the far side. A hissing noise filled the room, and Sydney started gasping for breath as the air was sucked out of the hole made by the meteoroid.

In a flash, she was out of her room and closing the air-tight compartment door behind her. The three other girls rushed out into the hallway to find out what was the matter.

“Blimey!” Sydney said when she got her breath back. “The damned thing’s sprung a leak!”

***

“Everything’s okay now, Sydney,” Jerry Blaine said as he came in from outside. “I got it all patched up. I’m afraid, though, that whatever you had loose in your room would have been sucked out into space. Nothing valuable, I hope.”

“Not that I can think of,” Sydney told him. “But are you sure this won’t never ’appen again?”

“Like I told you before, it was a once-in-a-billion fluke. It wouldn’t happen again in a thousand years.”

“It better not, ducks, or I’m back down to Earth in a shot.” She started back into her room.

“Oh, by the way,” Blaine called after her, “are you booked for tonight? Good. I get off at about sixteen hundred—you can come over then.”

“A woman’s work ain’t never done,” Sydney sighed wisely as she re-entered her room. Most of her stuff was still in the bureau drawers, but search as she would she couldn’t find the little pill case that she kept beside her bed. “Oh well,” she said, “I’ve managed without them before. I can do it again for a while.”

It was nearly four months, to be exact, when she decided that the situation warranted her telling somebody, so she told Colonel Briston, who had just returned from three months Earthside. “My God!” was all he could say.

“It ain’t as serious as all that.”

“Not as serious as all that? You’re certainly taking it calmly. Why didn’t you tell anybody about this before?”

“Well, it never ’appened to me before.”

Briston gulped.

“I think we’d better put in a call to that Mr. ’Awkins. ’E always seems to know what to do.”

***

Sen. McDermott: You were the one who discovered all these goings-on, weren’t you, General?

Gen. Bullfat: You’re damn right I was. I’d suspected from the start that Hawkins had sent some girls up there, but the Space Force never acts without absolute proof. So I held back my suspicions, gathering up the evidence meticulously, waiting for the proper moment to take my findings to the President.

Sen. McDermott: In other words, then, your discovery was based on a long, careful investigation?

Gen. Bullfat: Exactly, Senator. That’s the way the military does things.

***

As luck would have it, both Hawkins and Starling were out to lunch when the call came in. Since it was labeled “urgent,” a man from the communications room took it right over to Hawkins’ office. The door was locked.

General Bullfat, just then coming out of his office down the hall, found the messenger waiting in the corridor for Hawkins’ return. With typical Bullfat persuasion—and two hundred and fifty pounds wearing five stars can be a lot of persuasion—he convinced the man that an urgent communication could not wait on “the whims of a damned goldbricker like Hawkins.”

Bullfat took the message into his office and opened it. He easily decoded the little five-word note, and then stared at it for about a minute, eyes bulging. “Parks,” he snapped to his secretary over the intercom, “get me the President. No, on second thought, don’t bother—I’ll go see him myself.”

He left his office just as Hawkins and his aide were returning from lunch. The general couldn’t decide whether to laugh triumphantly in Hawkins’ face or to harangue him, so all he said was, “I’ve got you now, Hawkins. At last I’ve got you.”

Hawkins and Starling exchanged puzzled, worried glances. Entering the general’s office, Hawkins found the message on the desk, read it silently to himself, and sat down hard. His eyes gazed vacantly at the wall across from him, and the message dropped loosely from his limp hand. Starling picked it up and read aloud in disbelief.

“Sydney pregnant. What now? Briston.”

***

Sen. McDermott: Ladies and gentlemen. Since yesterday, I have had occasion to communicate with the President, and we came to the conclusion that further investigations along these lines appear fruitless. Therefore, I wish to adjourn this hearing until further notice, and withhold publication of the official transcript until such time as is deemed appropriate for release to the public. That will be all.

***

Filmore managed to meet Hawkins outside the building. “I think I detect your fine hand in this, Jess. How did you ever pull that one out of the fire?”