Sylvie Knows

Dedicated to every waitress who ever served me food at two in the morning and to Cliff for a great idea.

The improbable Sylvania Latour, with her improbable name lifted straight from 20th century film noir, her improbable size-a zeppelin walking on its mooring ropes-and equally improbable pink beehive hair, got off the shuttle to Sedna about fifteen years ago and ever since has made a name for herself as the Queen of the Canteen. The fifteen hundred colonists on Earth's farthest outpost in the solar system, where the sun is a bright dot in the sky and the temperature rarely makes it above 240 below zero Celsius, live in an enormous underground hub of offices, labs, and living quarters and the center of that wheel of activity is the auditorium-sized community room where the Canteen has truly become the hearth of this home.

And it's here that Sylvie holds court. She cooks, she hosts, she serves, but most of all she impresses everyone, especially the new comers, with her clairvoyance. Yes, Sylvie never gets an order wrong because she knows, quite literally, what you want to eat before you even sit down at the table or counter.
The kids especially have fun with her.

"Hey, Aunt Sylvie" — they all call her that — "what do I want today?"

Playing along, she puts her hand to her head dramatically and in a whiskey-soaked voice announces, "I'm seeing fries and a soy burger with a Coke, hold the ice."

Of course, she's right, and the kids giggle and laugh when she adds in a basso profundo, "Sylvie knows! She always knows!" After which she usually turns her bulk towards the kitchen where she or one of her faithful staff whips up the meal.

"Go ahead, ask her," some old timer will encourage a newbie.

"So Sylvania . . ."

"Please, please, it's Sylvie."

"OK, Sylvie. I feel weird asking, but . . ."

"Listen they all do it," she launches into her machinegun spiel: "They wanna see if Sylvie's ever gonna get an order wrong. I know what you want; I see it up here," pointing to her fabulous hair, "so why bother writing it down? Do you see a PalmPad? Has anyone ever seen me with any kind of recording device? Have I ever, ever, ever gotten an order wrong in all these years? Never. Please, Mr. Barrington..."

"How'd you know my . . ."

"Please, Tom — may I call you that? — Sylvie knows. So relax and enjoy the salmon with dill sauce. And with it you'd like the oven browns with extra gravy, even though your doctor has warned you. Tsk, tsk." She winks and turns on her black patent leather stiletto heels.

This is always quite the sight: All that weight supported on apparent pinpoints. Of course, it's a great costume, a magnificently contrived illusion: the heels, the fishnet pantyhose, the sky blue waitress outfit with the skirt way too many inches above the knees, the pointed rhinestone glasses, and that shock of cotton candy pink hair swirled into a hive so lacquered it would crack off if you touched it. Central casting couldn't have come up with a better cliché of the 1950's waitress-and Sylvie knows it.

She's even extended the illusion to the canteen itself, using the Base replicators to whip up red-checkered table cloths, revolving leather-topped bar stools for the counter, not to mention the yellow and red plastic mustard and ketchup containers on every café-sized table.

Quite simply, Sylvie loves her role of Canteen Momma and unofficial Base psychologist.

Until just now, perhaps.

Today, the latest shuttle takes returning personnel back to Pluto Base and from there on a freighter back to Earth — a nearly 8 billion mile journey in total that takes over a year even with the latest fusion and plasma technology. It's hard to say goodbye to people you've lived with for two years at a time, the length of most tours of duty. But it's also an adjustment to get used to the hundred or so freshmen getting off the boat, teams of young scientists doing research on this frozen outpost at the edge of the so-called Oort Cloud. They're naturally scared being so incredibly far from their homes on Earth, Mars, or Europa; a place where a simple message on the HyperNet can take over 75 minutes to get to its destination and a reply just as long. A place where the sun is nothing more than a laser bright star among millions. A place where excursions to the surface mean entering a landscape of inexpressible, incomprehensible bleakness and cold. A place that takes over ten thousand years to orbit the sun just once. A place named for the Inuit goddess of the sea who lives angrily at the bottom of Earth's Arctic Ocean. Face it, a place where every fact seems to be measured in some extreme-coldest, farthest, darkest, and definitely most grim.

No wonder crazy, fabulous Sylvie who arrived from her miserable life on Earth a decade and a half ago is seen as the best thing-dare we say it? — since sliced bread.

Her ability to read minds, to know and feel things, was discovered when she attended grade school. She just seemed to recognize automatically what people felt, what they were thinking, what they were planning to do. Unfortunately, early on Sylvie — we'll call her that for now; she's had many identities over the years — got in trouble when her natural penchant for being outgoing and fun-loving prevented her from keeping her bits and pieces of acquired information to herself. She would innocently blurt things out and inadvertently cause a ruckus. It was one thing to say, "O, Mrs. Brown, you're thinking about going on vacation next week but you don't know how to tell your husband." It was quite another when she'd add, "But Mr. Brown won't mind; he'll have more time to spend with his girlfriend then."

As she grew older, these indiscretions were kept more under control, but people were still wary in her presence, afraid that her sixth sense would somehow reveal something they didn't want known. Sylvie came to appreciate that people liked to have their secrets, their private thoughts — who doesn't? — but that such privacy seemed almost impossible around Sylvie.


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