Well, Carter thought grimly, that certainly could have gone better.
He stood in the small central living space of the compact apartment, still frozen in mid-gesture, and stared ruefully at the backside of the front door whose forceful closure mere moments before had quite dramatically terminated the discussion he and his wife had been having. It wasn’t a fight, he reminded himself. The two of them never fought. But heated discussions? Far too common for his liking.
The dying echoes of his wife’s tumultuous exit faded into quiet. He released the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, long and slow, and shook his head. It’s probably just as well that she’s left for a week-long visit with her sister and new-born niece residing in the colony on nearby Vesta, he commented to himself. The two of them needed a cooling-off period. The empty space around him did not argue the point. Carter allowed himself a lingering gaze at the door, then moved across the room to retrieve his leather satchel. He slipped a few documents inside, put on his suit coat, straightened his tie, and left the modest apartment. As he closed the door far more softly than his partner had, he glanced down the corridor to his left, the direction she’d taken to the colony’s aetherport, but caught no sight of her. Undoubtedly, her furious energy had taken her from their home quickly and she had, in all likelihood, rounded the corner ahead before he’d even gotten his coat on.
He turned from the door, moving in the opposite direction. Around him, the air purifiers hissed, the great lungs of the colony here on the asteroid Euphrosyne inhaling and exhaling like a living thing. The Edison gravity generators did their work unseen, emitting a low hum that hovered just above the threshold of human hearing. These weren’t the most up-to-date version of the machines--that system was at least one generation back, if not two--but they were far more efficient and compact than the Rankin generators from the middle of the last century. Some people invent, Carter thought, and other people refine. Edison may not have created the first gravity generator, but he’d improved on the original inventor’s design to such an extent that everyone associated the man’s name with the machines regardless, relegating Rankin to the mists of history and the memories of academics. Such is the arbitrariness of fortune.
That thought jabbed at him and he gave an inaudible sigh. For all his lamenting of fate, he allowed, so much of what we face are the consequences of our own foolish decisions. The argument with his wife was nothing new, a mere variation on the theme which wound through the whole of their marriage, a conflict whose root lay at the heart of their very disparate personalities. Something needed to give, but neither of them wanted to change. He needed to stop expecting her to be something she wasn’t, he told himself. They were never going to stroll the public gardens, discussing literature and philosophy. She came from a different place than he had, one with vastly different concerns and priorities and interests. It’s not as though he hadn’t known this fact when he’d asked her to marry him.
Carter tumbled into memory as he navigated the corridors toward the settlement’s academic quarter and technical college, recalling their meeting seven years ago at a small social gathering of a friend of a friend. Her connection to the host had been similarly vague, for the odds were long that the two of them would have crossed paths otherwise. But her presence had washed over him like an elemental force, her auburn hair neatly braided and her intense blue eyes bright like sapphires. She’d worn a simple but pleasant-looking dress, attire from which one might have accurately placed her among the working classes of Euphrosynian society. Somehow, they’d happened into a conversation regarding the experimental methods being deployed in the colony’s agricultural sector, a project with which he was associated in an advisory capacity and in which she was involved in a far more direct manner.
On impulse, he’d asked her to dinner. It was a spontaneous act on his part, completely out of character; he’d always prided himself on being methodical and prudent. Predictable, a voice in his head countered: cold, unfeeling, repressed. He remembered how she’d blinked at him in quiet astonishment, but had agreed. That dinner led to another dinner, and after that, still another. And then had come that whisper from somewhere deep inside, pushing him without reprieve, without any explanation other than the very real knowing: you must do this. A little more than a month after their first outing, he’d proposed. Her head had quirked sideways, just so, and she’d looked into him with those unsettling eyes. “You’re not ready for a woman like me,” she’d said. “But yes, Carter, I will marry you.”
The corridor traffic slowly thickened as he navigated the subterranean passageways, the hiss of the atmospheric circulators and the hum of the gravity generators getting lost in the swelling buzz of conversation. Carter considered the marvel of technology surrounding him, this stubborn community dug into a rock tumbling through the aether along with countless others in a ragged ring around the Sun. The opening of the space age by the American inventor Jason Henry and his aether engine nearly ninety years ago had caused an explosion of human migration as the inner worlds had been colonized by the Great Powers. Like so many others before him, Carter had come to the Russian-administered Belt at the outskirts of human settlement seeking a new start. Some fled their past: the law, heartache, debts. Some sought their future: adventure, intrigue, excitement. For him, it had been something of a mixture of the two. And here, at the edge of human civilization, at the cusp of the great vastness of the outer solar system which even modern technology could not yet conquer, he’d found some amount of solace, some small measure of peace.
Carter slowed as a pair of students stepped ahead of him through the entrance to the college’s library. The welcome aroma of books and parchment washed over him and he gave a soft smile of gratitude. This place was something of a sanctuary of his, a retreat often sought in the wake of “discussions” of the sort he and Immy had just had.
He blew out another breath at the reminder of their parting. How right she had been. He wasn’t ready for a woman like her. Carter frowned to himself. Yes, he was too set in his ways. Yes, he needed to be more flexible, more open to change. And yes, that kind of change was rarely easy and often very challenging. But she was relentless and pushed him--God! how she pushed him--far past the comfortable boundaries he’d set around his life. Where he was planned, she was rash. Where he was deliberate, she was incautious. Her reckless passion clashed with his studied intent. Theirs was a marriage of fire and water. I’m a creature of the mind and she’s a creature of the heart, he said to himself and not for the first time. How did I ever think a combination like that could work out well?
And yet he loved her. Or so he told himself. But what, he wondered, is love, exactly?
He was so caught up in his own thoughts that he didn’t see the woman coming out from the stacks to his right until he’d already collided with her.
“Pardon me, miss,” he said politely, recovering from his surprise and stepping aside to allow her to pass.
“Doctor,” the woman shot back, the grey-green clouds of her eyes swirling angrily. She wore a modestly-tailored, long-sleeved dress of a rich aquamarine and her dark brown hair was neatly pinned in an understated but stylish arrangement. “I did not spend nine years studying at Frederick William University to be called ‘miss’.”
Carter found himself rather caught off-guard by her vehemence. “I’m very sorry…”
“Blasted library director,” the woman continued, running over his attempt at an apology. “Can’t grant me access to the archives without the sign-off of a faculty member, he says. Doesn’t see why a woman would require such access in any event, he says. Of all the--” She stopped suddenly, then closed her eyes for a moment before opening them again, her expression smoothing over. “None of which is your fault, sir. I apologize for my rudeness.” She held out her hand, but like a man would. “Doctor Elizabeth Williams.”
“Carter Michaelson,” he replied, shaking her hand firmly. “Doctor Carter Michaelson.” He recalled now hearing that one of the first female doctoral students had recently graduated from the flagship university of the Austro-German territory on Mercury. A bold step, even in the final year of this fairly progressive opening decade of the twentieth century. “Might I be of service to you in some way?”
Her eyebrows rose slightly at his title. “Would you happen to be on the faculty here?”
He nodded. “I’m only an adjunct professor of mathematics,” he explained. “But I believe that would meet the director’s requirements.” He paused for a moment, considering her. “What is it from the archives you are wanting to review, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Why exogeology?” Carter asked. “And why focus on so remote a region as the Belt?”
The two academics sat at a small table in a quiet corner of the campus cafe, steaming cups of tea on petite saucers set before each of them. Carter had selected his usual, a mild blend grown here on Euphrosyne. His companion, on the other hand, had chosen some off-world variety--Venusian, he thought--and the iridescent violet liquid shimmered brightly in her porcelain teacup.
Elizabeth looked at him directly. “Because I was told I couldn’t do it; that no woman could possibly handle the mental rigor of such a demanding discipline. As to the Belt…” She paused, reached for her cup, and took a sip of her tea. “Two main reasons. First, it is a fascinating subject and the question of the Belt’s origin is very much still open for debate.”
“And the second reason?”
“The Belt is expansive,” she replied, a sweeping gesture with her free hand emphasizing her point. “A new scholar might have room to establish herself without too much interference.”
Carter nodded absently. That made a fair amount of sense. “And your current project?”
“I thought to begin with an overview analysis of prior surveys,” she replied, warming to her subject, “supplemented by selective sampling where needed to provide a more comprehensive data set. For the past several months, I’ve been collecting samples and copying those previous reports. I’d saved the latter tasks for the end of my travels, as I’d thought it would be easier to access archives than to gather specimens from the field.” Her expression brightened. “Plus I was just itching to get outside.”
“You’ve done exterior fieldwork?” Carter asked, his surprise evident. “In an excursion suit?” He tried to imagine the woman sitting across from him encased in one of those bulky outfits, with their brass helms and small glass portholes, looking so much like the deep-sea diving suits after which they had been designed.
One corner of Elizabeth’s mouth turned up in a half-smile. “Of course.”
“But…” He trailed off, gesturing to her dress.
“It is entirely possible for a woman to wear trousers,” she replied evenly.
Carter felt his face flush. He hadn’t thought of that, he realized, and gave an embarrassed shrug. “I see.” He cleared his throat, struggled to regain his balance, then held out an open hand toward her notebook. “Might I be permitted to see your notes?”
She considered him with a mild confusion, but handed the notebook over. “I didn’t realize you were versed in exogeology.”
“I’m not,” he admitted. “I do speak mathematics quite well, however.” He flipped through the book, passing over the pages of script but slowing as equations began to appear. His brow furrowed in concentration as he deciphered the formulae. After a few moments, he commented, “I see that you’re employing a factorial kriging schema in your sampling methodology.” He nodded, continuing to read. “That’s quite effective in circumstances like this.” He paused again. “But I wonder if you oughtn’t consider--” He looked up, cutting off abruptly at his companion’s intense expression.
He closed the notebook and handed it back. “My apologies.”
“Whatever for?” Elizabeth responded, her brow creasing lightly. “I was only shocked at the prospect of being taken seriously.”
“Immy never cares for it when I slip into problem-solving mode,” he replied. “She says that it tends to make me seem too calculating and less approachable.”
“Imogene,” he answered. “My wife.”
An unreadable look washed over Elizabeth’s face, quickly replaced by a polite if slightly forced smile. “I would like to meet your wife, I think.”
Carter shook his head. “She’s just left for a week’s visit with her sister on Vesta.”
“And I will be heading to Luna in three days,” Elizabeth observed. “Oh, well.” She quirked her head slightly. “She must be an amazing woman.”
Carter said nothing for a moment. “Immy is...a force of nature,” he responded finally.
Elizabeth’s smile broadened a bit. “It seems then we are both at loose ends for these next few days. I have my research, of course, but I would truly appreciate a dinner companion and the opportunity to ‘talk shop,’ as they say.”
Carter responded with a smile of his own. “I do know several excellent restaurants in the settlement,” he noted. “And I would be honored to provide you company.”
“Excellent.” She set her empty teacup in its saucer and rose. Carter echoed her movement, standing along with her in a reflexive politeness. “If you would pardon me,” Elizabeth continued, “it has been a long day, though an enjoyable last several hours. I need to get my rest if I’m going to be of any use in the archives tomorrow.”
“Of course,” Carter gave a slight nod of acknowledgment. “Shall I meet you at the library then, perhaps four-thirty standard time?”
“That sounds wonderful.” Another, very genuine smile. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Carter watched as she left the cafe, his eyes following her but his thoughts far away. If only his wife were such a woman, he considered, then perhaps we’d not be at such odds.
You’d like that, wouldn’t you? the Immy-in-his-head replied. You’d like to have someone to dance about with you on the surface of things, talk pretty poetry and the latest fashions of thought. The phantasm frowned. But none of that is real, Carter. None of that is life.
It’s my life, he retorted to the imaginary Immy. I’m an academic. What do you want of me?
He shook his head as he collected his satchel and headed back to an empty apartment, the last question echoing in his mind unanswered.
“But Breton was a narcissistic ass!”
“Of course he was,” Carter shot back with equal vehemence, waving one hand in a vaguely dismissive gesture. “All of the milieu du siècle devotees of l’autre realisme were narcissistic asses.” Their meals sat on the restaurant table between them, half-eaten and seemingly forgotten. “You have to judge an artist’s work on the merit of the art, not the character of the artist.”
Elizabeth shook her head sharply. “No, no, no. The character of the artist is an integral component of the art which that artist produces. You cannot separate the two.”
“Oh, come on, Liz,” Carter leaned in. “You can’t tell me that you’re going to judge--” He broke off as his dinner partner burst into sudden laughter. “What’s so funny?”
“I apologize, Carter,” Elizabeth replied, hiding a smile behind her fingers. “I was just overcome by how delightful this is.”
Carter’s brow furrowed in confusion. “What, exactly?”
“Having a worthy adversary,” she explained. “I cannot tell you how long it has been.” Her mouth twitched as she regained her composure and reached for her tea. “I take it you do not have many opportunities for these kinds of conversations either?”
Carter gave a curt laugh. “Immy neither knows nor cares who Alexandre Breton might have been. She is far too practical for such things.”
“For my own part,” Elizabeth replied, “I can only say that this is consummation for which I have devoutly wished for some time.”
“In that case,” he lifted his own teacup in a salute, “I am most happy to be of service to you.”
“Thank you, Carter.” Elizabeth remembered the chicken marsala on her plate and sliced off a bite with deft motions of her knife. “Doesn’t change the fact that you’re totally wrong about Breton, though.”
Carter coughed into his tea, evoking another light laugh from Elizabeth, and the debate continued with renewed life.
One small part of him stepped back from himself, observing the scene without comment. Next to that part of himself, the Immy-in-his-mind brooded silently. What is the difference between stability and stagnation, that observing aspect of his awareness asked finally. Is it certainty I long for? Or is it something else?
Many hours later, following dinner and a quiet stroll through the modest but well-kept botanical gardens of Euphrosyne’s government quarter, Carter made his way home to an empty apartment, his spirits far more buoyant than he’d felt in many years. And in the back of his mind, another quiet question arose, the implications of which he stubbornly refused to acknowledge.
It was inevitable, having already touched on Science and Art, that their conversation would veer into more dangerous territory that last evening.
“But what of love?” Elizabeth asked, placing her teacup on its saucer.
“What of it?” Carter replied.
“Its nature,” she answered, looking at him steadily. “Its source.”
“Ah,” he responded. “The eternal question.”
“How does desire bring two people together, do you think?” She toyed with her teaspoon absently. “What is it that makes two people want each other in that way?”
Carter eyed her over his own tea. “But I would ask you, Liz,” he rejoined. “Does that which we call love flow from what we want or does it flow rather from what we need?”
Elizabeth didn’t answer, but lifted her cup and held it in both hands. “Do you think it is possible,” she asked quietly, “for two people to be right for each other, but at the wrong time?”
The silent question behind that interrogative remained unspoken. Carter allowed the quiet to sit for another moment. “Isn’t that the basis for every tragedy ever composed?” he asked finally. “The vicissitudes and ironies of fate?”
“I do not believe in fate.” Elizabeth looked past him, somewhere over his right shoulder, a sudden, grim determination undergirding her tone. “I cannot believe that we lack agency in our own lives. That we cannot see that which we desire--” She paused. “And choose to take it.” Her swirling-cloud gaze found his eyes again. “I believe that love,” she stated firmly, “true love, is always a choice.”
She placed her teacup down, slowly, deliberately. “You are a good man, Carter. And you deserve to be happy.” Her slim hand touched his. “I depart for Luna tomorrow morning. At eleven o’clock.” Her hand retreated. “You could...join me.”
Then, without another word and without looking back, she rose from the table and left.
Carter’s walk home that evening was a somber one.
Hours later, he was still sitting in the simple chair positioned in one corner of the apartment’s lone bedroom, staring at a point in space that hovered above the luggage that lay open on the neatly-made bed. It would be simple enough. A frank and honest letter left on the pillow, sufficient for Immy to obtain a divorce decree on the basis of abandonment. He needed few possessions: his sparse wardrobe, his handful of mathematical texts, a memento or two. Most of the funds in their accounts left behind for her, save a small amount withdrawn for this journey and starting again.
Simple enough indeed.
On the one hand, here was a woman whose intellect had sparked something within him which had lain dormant for so very long; a woman who shared a passion for the literary and the scientific; a woman with whom he could all too easily imagine impassioned debates over obscure points of even more obscure philosophies, followed by equally impassioned lovemaking afterwards.
Does love flow from what we want or from what we need?
And on the other hand, this woman--his wife--a veritable force of nature who was his opposite in practically every way; one who had challenged him in ways that struck at the very core of who he thought he was; a reactive agent compelling his self-examination and pushing him to reconsider just about everything he thought solid and certain. But those differences had also produced intense frustration, conflict which only seemed to grow with time...and in the wake of their frequently-heated discussions, the memory of that small, still voice which had told him to marry her, which had told him that she was the very catalyst he needed, seemed all too distant.
True love is always a choice.
A decision resolved itself into a sharp, undeniable conclusion. Carter’s lips compressed into a hard line. He stood and reached for the luggage.
The passenger liner Titania’s Lace, with service from Ceres to Luna, pulled away from the terminal at Euphrosyne, the last of its Belt ports-of-call prior to the final leg of the journey earthward, at half-past eleven local time, the half-hour delay owing to a last-minute booking. The seasoned and efficient crew, however, verified the man’s papers and saw to his small amount of luggage with smooth precision, so that the minor wrinkle in the ship’s departure was quickly smoothed over and the passengers were soon settling themselves for the three week journey ahead.
In accordance with long-standing custom on such occasions, a number of the Lace’s passengers gathered by the viewport in the forward lounge, waving to friends, family, and acquaintances standing at the wide windows of the spaceport terminal as the ship began to maneuver away from the dock. The more observant among the liner’s passengers might have noticed a lone figure standing somewhat apart from the others in the terminal, a man of early middle age observing the proceedings with a flat and unreadable expression. Such things are of passing notice at best, however, and very soon the bridge crew had achieved the necessary separation, the hiss of maneuvering thrusters being replaced by the low, steady hum of the aether engine and its Henry-Germain lens. The rocky surface of Euphrosyne fell away as the Lace turned her course toward the inner system and Luna.
Carter Michaelson watched as the vessel slid into the distance, not moving until it had disappeared into the black aether of space, then turned quietly from the terminal window and went home.