Friday, September 5, 2008

Relationships by Piers Anthony

Lieutenant Nuria White was bored, restless, and angry, not necessarily in that order. Nothing Atoll, as the island post was unfondly nicknamed, was a stockade for non-violent military transgressors, and there was no associated town or countryside. All around it was bleak sea, its monotony broken only by the daily visit of the supply ship and occasional inspection helicopters. There was nothing to do outside of her job, and that duty was strictly routine and hardly demanding.

She knew why she was here. She was, by all accounts (and her mirror), a beautiful young woman. Her superior officer had gotten persistently fresh, and she had finally reported him for sexual harassment. She had made her case, with notes and witnesses; he had been reprimanded and shipped out. But not long thereafter, she had been reassigned here. She couldn't prove it was retaliation, but of course it was. This was the way things worked, in real life.

In fact, many, perhaps most, of the personnel here at the atoll had suffered similarly. This was, in fact, if not in name also a stockade for the administrative personnel. Make things uncomfortable for the Army, and it made things worse for you. Everyone knew it. But, she was stuck here for a tour of six months, or a year, or until her enlistment expired, depending on how angry or forgetful the brass were. Women were not supposed to stand on their rights. They were especially not supposed to embarrass the service by making a stink. If she had not properly understood that before, she certainly comprehended it now. She smoldered, but understood.

She fathomed also that a fair number of the prisoners had been railroaded or had taken the hit for miscreants higher in the chain of command. It wasn't that they were stalwart citizens, but neither did they deserve to be confined. The true wrongdoers remained in power. Yet the convicted were stuck with their sentences. Who would believe them, anyway? Aside from hapless folk like her.

Reality being what it was, she tended to retreat mentally into her private realm, where she was her alter ego Nuance, a person respected for what she was. Nuance would not simply accept retaliation; she would find clever ways to make the world serve her needs. Nuria masked the assets of her body, for example; Nuance gloried in them. Nuance would not have protested sexual harassment directly; she would have found a way to harass the man back, making him sorry he had tried, without complicating her own career. Somehow. Nuance was competent, but subtle. Unfortunately, Nuria was competent but straightforward. That was her tragedy.

There were things she did not understand about this dull reality, though. Such as the daily Happy Hour, when the post virtually shut down and almost everyone who wasn't physically confined disappeared. Where did they go? What were they doing? She had inquired, but others evaded answering. Obviously, something was happening, but the personnel here did not trust her to appreciate it. Her curiosity had almost reached the point of dampening her anger, but as a straight-laced lower echelon lady officer, she was unable to fathom the riddle.

Well, maybe it was time to let Nuance take over. Nuance would do what it took, and damn well achieve respect in the process. Nuance always found a way, with few if any regrets.

She made her routine morning inspection of the women's barracks. They were in order, as usual. There was surprisingly little prisoner unrest here; most of them seemed to be on chronic good behavior. She knew that wasn't normal. That was another minor mystery. Surely, the prisoners should be even more restless than the administrators. Certainly, they weren't saints. She had seen their records--that was part of her business. Petty thefts, prostitution, bad checks, drug abuse, or just plain bad luck. A number were chronic offenders, yet here they behaved like stalwart citizens. She had even seen some walking the premises outside the stockade, playing on the limited beach, swimming, seemingly unsupervised yet taking no advantage of it. She had inquired, and been gruffly advised that trusties were granted privileges. Sensing the resistance, she had not pushed it. She would surely find out in due course.

But she knew that not all of them were trusties. Their records indicated that some should be kept closely confined, yet they were not--and they behaved. She had mentioned this to a fellow lieutenant. He had glanced at her obliquely and inquired, "So what are you going to do about it--blow the whistle?" It wasn't really sarcasm; he had blown the whistle on financial improprieties, and been sent here. He understood her situation perfectly. And told her nothing. No one would. She knew she would have to fathom it for herself. Now she was ready to do so.

She spied a female convict she had seen at the beach. Suddenly, she had a small inspiration. If the supervisory personnel wouldn't tell her, maybe the prisoners would. If she inquired appropriately.

"What does it take?" she asked, standing just outside the high wire fence.

The woman gazed at her a moment. "You have been here a month, ma'am."

"And am stir-crazy," she confessed.

"See Famish."

"Who?" But the woman had already faded into the throng. Still, it was a significant response. Had there been nothing, the woman would have been confused. Instead, she had reacted as if expecting the question.