Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

Crown of Slaves: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Saturday, April 9, 2005 09:56 EDT



    "Been wantin' t' meet you for years," the captain stated, speaking in a drawl which Du Havel immediately recognized. Not specifically, of course—the galaxy had easily ten times as many dialects and verbal mannerisms as it did languages and inhabited worlds. But he knew the phenomenon for what it was, since it, too, was as ancient as privilege. Members of an elite group—"elite," at least, in their own minds—almost invariably developed a distinctive style of speech to separate themselves from the common herd.

    Oversteegen, smiling thinly, gave the crowd his own quick overview. "Only reason I agreed t' come t' this Walpurgis Night of prattlin' political heathens."

    He bestowed the smile on Cathy, widening it a bit. "Present company excepted, of course. I've long had a grudgin' admiration for the Countess here—former Countess, I suppose I should say. Ever since the speech she gave at the House of Lords which got her pitched out on her ear. I was there in person, as it happens, observin' as a member of the family since my mother was indisposed. And I'll tell you right now that I would have voted for her expulsion from the Lords myself, had I been old enough at the time, on the simple grounds that she had, in point of fact, violated long established protocol. Even though, mind you, I agreed with perhaps ninety percent of what she'd said. Still, rules are rules."

    Cathy smiled back. "Rules were meant to be broken."

    "Don't disagree," replied Oversteegen immediately. "Indeed they are. Providin', however, that the one breakin' the rules is willin' t' pay the price for it, and the price gets charged in full."

    He gave Cathy a deep nod, almost a bow. "Which you were, Lady Catherine. I saluted you for it then—at the family dinner table that night, in fact. My mother was infinitely more indisposed thereafter; tottered back t' her sick bed cursin' me for an ingrate. My father was none too pleased, either. I salute you for it, again."

    Turning back to Du Havel: "Otherwise, breakin' rules becomes the province of brats instead of heroes. Fastest way I can think of t' turn serious political affairs int' a playpen. A civilized society needs a conscience, and conscience can't be developed without martyrs—real ones—against which a nation can measure its crimes and sins."

    Du Havel's interest perked up sharply. He understood the logic of Oversteegen's argument, naturally. It would have been surprising if he hadn't, since it was a paraphrase—not a bad one either, given the compression involved—of the basic argument Du Havel had advanced in one of his books.

    Oversteegen immediately confirmed his guess. "I should tell you that I consider The Political Value of Sacrifice one of the finest statements of conservative principle in the modern universe. Havin' said that, I also feel obliged t' inform you that I consider the arguments you advanced in Scales of Justice: Feathers Against Stones t' be—at best!—a sad lapse int' liberal maudlinism. Principles are principles, Doctor Du Havel. You, of all people, should know that. So it was sad t' see you maunderin' from one compromise t' another, tradin' away clarity for the sake of immediate benefit. Sad, sad. Practically gave social engineerin' your blessin', you did."

    Hallelujah! Du Havel began plucking at his sleeves, in a vain attempt to find the buttons so he could roll them up.

    "Social engineering, is it? Ha! Explain to me, Captain Oversteegen, why it is that so-called 'conversatives'—nothing of the sort, mind you; just dinosaurs with pretensions—only object to social engineering when it threatens to hang over into their own—invariably lush and well-kept—front gardens? Yet never have the slightest objection to social engineering when it created those palatial grounds in the first place."

    Oversteegen drew himself up a bit, looming even taller than ever. Cheerfully—except for the problem with the sleeves; dammit, where were the buttons?—Du Havel plunged on.

    "Consider your own aristocratic system here on Manticore, if you would. Blatant social engineering, Captain. As crude as it gets. A pack of rich people, creating a constitution deliberately designed—with greed aforethought, if not malice—to keep themselves and their descendants in a blessed state of privilege. Or are you going to try to argue that the principles of aristocracy arose from the native soil of what was then an alien planet? Like weeds, as it were—which, by the way, is a pretty apt analogy for any variety of caste system. Weeds, preening like roses."

    Oversteegen grinned, acknowledging the hit. A splendid intellectual warrior, Du Havel noted gleefully, not fazed in the least by a mere dash of blood. He was practically clawing at the sleeves, now.

    "You'll get no argument from me on that issue, Doctor. Indeed true. Can't even argue that my ancestors were better murderers and robbers and rapists than anyone else, I'm afraid, the way a proper Norman baron could. Just bigger moneybags and an earlier arrival date, that's all. Lamentable, isn't it, the lengths to which modern nobility is driven by the advance of social conscience? Still, I'll argue in favor of an aristocracy."

    A high-pitched, derisive snort issued from his long and bony nose. "Not because I believe for an instant that Conservative Association babble about 'good breedin', much less their downright superstitions on the subject of so-called 'good birth.' No, the issue isn't the worth of the individuals in any given aristocracy. It's simply the social advantage which havin' any aristocracy gives a nation. Pick 'em by lottery, for all I care. But just the fact it exists gives the nation manifold benefits."

    Cathy interrupted. "Web, those sleeves can't be rolled up. The style doesn't allow for it."

    He glared at her. "Is that so? Hmph. Watch this."

    Du Havel had been bred a J-line by Manpower. That was—supposedly; as usual, their claims fell wide of reality—a breed designed for technical work. Thus, an emphasis on mental capability, at least of a low and mechanical variety. But also, since J-lines were designed basically for engineering work, a breed which was physically quite sturdy. Web wasn't particularly tall, and his long years of sedentary intellectual activity had put thirty kilos of fat on his frame. But the frame beneath was still square and solid.

    So were the muscles which went with it.

    Riiiiiip. Riiiiiip.

    "Ah. That's better. Let me begin, Captain, by pointing out that you're paraphrasing—not badly at all, either—Jutta's argument in her Barriers Needed For Progress. Good for you. An excellent book, overall, even if I think Angelina's too prone to rigidity. But let me go on to point out that those barriers—I prefer to think of them as 'limits' or 'frames'—are themselves the product of social engineering. Goes all the way back to the original program which Jutta praises so highly—yet she never mentions was itself a deliberate project to engineer the society its founders wanted. I refer, of course, to the Constitution of the ancient United States. The thing was practically an architect's dream. A carefully balanced allotment of powers; limitations on democracy which were absurd on the face of it—just to give one example, why in God's name should the members of small provinces be given the same power as those in larger and more important ones? and if so, why only in one house instead of all?—you name it, and if it was possible to engineer, they did it. Tried, I should say, since naturally half of their schemes came unraveled within a few generations. Their sanction of slavery, for instance."

    By now, naturally, a large crowd had gathered around. Naturally, also, it contained the inevitable know-it-all-who-didn't.

    "That's not possible," the man proclaimed firmly, frowning. "I know my ancient history, and the United States—you are referring to the American one, yes?—arose long before genetic slavery." He half-sneered. "Long before they even knew anything about DNA, for that matter. Bunch of primitives."

    Du Havel closed his eyes briefly. God, give me the patience to suffer fools gladly.

    Alas, he was an atheist.

    "Who said anything about genetic slavery? Slavery's been around since the dawn of civilization, you—you—"

    Fortunately, a woman cut him off before he could begin alienating the crowd.

    "But—on what basis?"

    He stared at her. "I mean," she continued brightly, "they certainly couldn't just enslave anyone. There had to be some genetic basis for it."

    He recognized her now. Susan—or Suzanne, he couldn't remember—Zekich. One of the Liberal Party's provincial leaders, formerly in the orbit of the Countess of New Kiev, who had lately been gravitating toward Cathy Montaigne. Not out of principle, but simply because the woman seemed to have a good nose for detecting which way the wind was starting to blow.

    Cathy was polite to her, even gracious. The long years of exile had at least given her tactical sense. Even if, in private, she referred to her as "the Zekich slut."

    Web Du Havel took a deep breath. Fools, especially snotty twits like the man who had superciliously informed him that slavery could not possible antedate genetic science, he did not suffer gladly. But he knew the difference—had always known, since the slave pits—between an irritating jackass and an enemy.

    This woman was an enemy, not simply a fool. In the future, for a certainty, if not today. Exactly the kind of "forward-looking progressive" who would denounce genetic slavery in the abstract—but would share all the prejudices against the slaves themselves. And, with those slaves once risen to their feet and rattling the bars of the cage, would demand stridently that discipline be restored to the zoo.



    "Indeed," he said, smiling thinly. "Indeed, Ma'am, they did. Mind you, slavery as a social institution is ancient and long antedated the era I'm discussing, which was only a few centuries pre-Diaspora. Originally, slavery had no particular connection to genetic variation. But by the time we reach the era in question, people based their slave system of the time on genetics as they understood it. The key concept, in those days, went by the term of 'race.'"

    A number of people in the surrounding crowd, those who apparently had some knowledge of either genetics or history, frowned thoughtfully. Trying, obviously, to figure out how such a vague ethnological term as "race" could be coupled to a political system. Most of the people, however, simply looked puzzled.

    "You have to remember," Du Havel explained, "that this was long before the Diaspora. Several centuries before, in fact. In those days, genetic variation within the human race was not only relatively simple, but largely allotropic. Longstanding genetic pools, most of them sharing a few simple and obviously visible somatic traits, only recently brought into systematic and regular contact with each other. As a result, those of them who shared a recent mutation which favored albinism and a few other superficial features, and who happened to be the predominant 'race' at the time, set about enslaving others. One in particular was favored for the purpose. A genetic variation which had settled into a temporary somatic mold in the continent of Africa. 'Black' people, they were called. It was assumed, based on the genetic pseudo-science of the time, that they were particularly suited for a servile existence. An assumption which, stripping away the superstitious claptrap, was based on nothing much more than the fact that they had dark skins, which were usually coupled with—"

    He proceeded to give a quick sketch of the phenotype generally to be found among Africans of that ancient time. When he was done, most of the people in the crowd had a rather strained look on their faces. The Zekich woman herself had taken a full step away from him, as if trying to distance herself from the suddenly-revealed regicide in their midst.

    Well. Not "regicide," precisely speaking. Du Havel tried to dredge up his very rusty Latin. Hm. What would be the proper jargon for someone who advocated enslaving royalty?

    Oversteegen's face had shown the same puzzlement. Apparently, the captain's interest in political theory was not matched by any corresponding interest in ancient history. But now, finally grasping the point, the expression cleared up. Except that in his case, unlike most, what replaced it was not uneasiness but pure and simple humor.

    "What fun!" he exclaimed. "I'd love to have been there when you told Elizabeth!" Shaking his head, grinning. "You did have an audience with her, as I recall. Two days ago, I think it was—and quite a long one, if the news accounts were accurate. Surely the subject came up."

    Most of the crowd looked even more pained. Several of them were even glaring at Oversteegen. Du Havel found that interesting, but not surprising. For all their often vociferous public disputes with the Queen of the Star Kingdom, even the members of the Liberal Party shared the general cultural attitudes of most Manticorans. Even the members of the left wing of that Party, who made up most of the crowd, shared them.

    Yes, the Queen was sadly misguided by her advisers. Especially those warmongering imperialists in the Centrist and Crown Loyalist crowds.


    She was the Queen!

    "I can't believe it," gasped a woman nearby. She was quite literally clutching her throat with distress. "Why... that would describe Queen Elizabeth of Manticore!"

    "Most of the House of Windsor, going all the way back," growled a man standing next to her. He glanced around. "Not to mention a considerable number of the people in this room. I knew the ancients were full of insane superstitions, but—" He gave Du Havel a look which fell just short of a glare. "Are you sure about this?"

    Du Havel shrugged. "That would be simplifying too much. You really must understand what two thousand years of the Diaspora has done to human genetic variation. The combination of a gigantic population explosion—less than ten billion humans, all told, at the time the Diaspora began, to how many trillions today—spread across thousands of planetary environments instead of a relative handful of regional ones, many of them far more extreme than anything the human race encountered on Earth itself. Then, factor in the endless cross-mixing of the species..."

    He shrugged again. "Your Queen Elizabeth bears, at best, an approximate somatic match to the ancient Africans—and that, only if you restrict the comparison to superficial features like skin color. I'm quite sure, for instance, that if you matched her blood characteristics against that recorded for ancient so-called 'races' that they would have little resemblance to the blood characteristics of most Africans of the day. Skin color is especially meaningless, as a genetic indicator, since that's a superficial feature which adapts rapidly to a change in environment. Consider, for instance, the extreme albinism found today on one of the two Mfecane planets—Ndebele, if I recall correctly—despite the fact that the population's ancestors were Bantu."

    He brought up his memories of the Queen, from his recent meeting with her. The memories were quite extensive, since the captain was right—it had been a long audience. He and Elizabeth Winton had hit it right off.

    "Her hair's not really right, for starters. Very wavy, true, but not much like the tightly kinked hair found in ancient times among most of the tropical ethnic variants. Then, her facial features—especially the nose—are much closer to those which our ancestors would have labeled by the term 'Caucasian' than the term 'Negroid.' And while her skin color is indeed quite lustrous, it's really not the tone you would have found among Africans of the day. It's too light, for one thing, and for another, that definite mahogany tinge is really closer to that of a dark-skinned 'Amerindian'—that was a term used for North American indigenes—than an African."

    The crowd seemed to relax. All except Cathy, that is, who was watching him closely. Cathy, unlike the rest, knew exactly how much fury was roiling beneath the surface.

    For people who have never experienced it—or never really thought about it—"slavery" is an abstract injustice.

    "Not that it would have mattered in the least," he continued, trying to keep from snarling. "Except in the specific abuses she would have suffered. She's quite close enough, I assure you. Except that, with her appearance, she would have been considered what was called a 'mulatto.' Coupled with her youth and good looks, that would most likely have resulted in her being been made the concubine of a slave master, assigned to his bed instead of the fields. That was a common fate for those women known as 'mulattos' at the time. Those of them who weren't sold to brothels and made outright prostitutes."

    The strained looks were back. Du Havel favored them with a grin which, alas, he was quite sure was several degrees too savage for proper decorum at such an event. But he couldn't help doing so. It was only with the greatest difficulty that he managed to restrain himself from sticking out his tongue, as the Ballroom killers did when they'd cornered their slaver prey, to show the crowd the genetic markers which Manpower's gengineers had given him while still an embryo.



    "Oh, yes. Be sure of it. To see a proper reflection of the phenotype which would have been assigned to a life of back breaking labor, you need to consider the Queen's—what is she, Captain? you're a relative of the royal family, I think—some sort of cousin, I believe. Michelle Henke, I'm referring to. I was introduced to her also, at the audience. I didn't quite catch her military rank—sorry, but I'm just not familiar enough with Manticoran tables of organization to understand the fine points—but I believe it was quite prestigious. And got the feeling, I might add, that the rank resulted from her own accomplishments instead of family pressure or influence."

    Oversteegen grunted. "First cousin. Michelle's the daughter of the Queen's aunt. Fifth in line t' the throne, now that her father and brother were assassinated. She's a commodore." He grunted again. In its own way, the sound was as savage as Du Havel's grin. "And I don't know a single naval officer—no serving line officer, for sure—who thinks she got the rank by pull."

    "Yes, her. If I'm not mistaken, her phenotype is much more typical of the House of Winton than the Queen's. Very dark skin, almost a true black. And in her case, the hair is right. Not the facial bone structure, perhaps, although it comes fairly close. But it wouldn't have mattered at all, not with that color of skin. Today's universe assigns her to command navies, and doesn't even think about it. The ancients would have had her doing menial unskilled labor. And, if she was unable to avoid the attentions of the overseer, she would have been raped in a shack instead of a plantation manor house."

    Silence, for a moment. Du Havel took a deep breath, bringing his anger under control.

    The captain helped. "Pity the poor bastard who tried to rape Mike Henke!" he snorted. "Or Elizabeth herself, for that matter. With her temper? Ha! The bastard might manage it, but he'd find his throat cut within a day. As well keep an angry panther in your bed."

    A titter went through the crowd. Oversteegen's crude but accurate observations served to remind them all that these were not, after all, ancient times riddled with savage superstitions.

    Still—much to Du Havel's relief—the tension had been enough to cause most of the crowd to drift away. Honored guest or not, many of them had clearly come to the conclusion that being in close proximity to W.E.B. Du Havel was a bit too much like being near a panther. Granted, a panther with a long and impressive list of academic credentials and prestigious honors attached to his tail. But, still a panther—and one who, if not precisely angry, seemed to have an uncertain temper.

    "Bit thinned out, hasn't it?" said the captain, smiling slyly. "Good. I dare say there'll be fewer silly interruptions." He rubbed his hands. "To get back to the point, Doctor Du Havel—"

    "'Web,' if you would, Captain. Academic titles are tediously long-winded."

    Oversteegen nodded. "'Web,' then." His brow furrowed. "Come to think of it— Pardon my asking, but what does 'W.E.B.' stand for, anyway? I just realized I have no idea."

    Du Havel shook his head. "Doesn't stand for anything except the initials themselves. I didn't know what they stood for myself, when the immigration officer on Nasser insisted I give him a name for their records. I'd only escaped a few months earlier, so my knowledge of history was still pretty limited." He shrugged. "I just combined what I remembered from two names of ancient men I'd read about, briefly, and who'd struck me as righteous fellows. W.E.B. Du Bois and Vaclav Havel. When it finally dawned on me—that night, as it happened, when my fellow escapees demanded to know what they were supposed to call me, now that 'Kami' was out of bounds—I couldn't think of anything except 'Web.'"



    The rest of the soirée went splendidly. The captain kept Du Havel monopolized throughout, much to his delight. For a man who'd spent most of his adult life mastering the elaborate and often arcane skills of a naval officer, Oversteegen had an impressive grasp of the galaxy's political theory.

    Granted, he was far too biased in favor of his own views. Granted, he tended to read far too little of the thinking of those he disagreed with, and dismissed them much too quickly and easily. Granted also, his entire outlook was somewhat warped; first, by the inevitable prejudices of his social background; second—Du Havel thought this was much more important—by the equally inevitable prejudices of a man whose active life had been shaped by the immediate demands of a long and savage war.

    Still, all in all, a very fine fellow indeed. And, when the soirée ended, Du Havel parted company with the captain with considerable reluctance.

    "If I could, I'd propose we meet again sometime soon," he said, shaking Oversteegen's hand. "Alas, I'm afraid I'll be heading off for Erewhon within the week. I'll be accompanying Captain Zilwicki on his voyage there, in order to pay my respects to the family of Hieronymus Stein and his surviving colleagues in the Renaissance Association."

    There seemed to be an odd little gleam in Oversteegen's eye. "So I understand. I have t' leave the system myself, in any event. Tomorrow morning, in fact. But, who knows? As fate might have it, Web, we may meet again."

    He gave Du Havel a stiff little bow; then, to Cathy Montaigne, one which was neither stiff nor little. "Doctor Du Havel, Lady Catherine, s'been a pleasure." And off he went.



    "What's so funny?" he asked Helen Zilwicki, who'd kept well within the orbit of his long conversation with Oversteegen throughout the evening, even if she'd never said a word herself. Web suspected the midshipwoman had a quiet case of hero worship for the captain, even if she'd be caught dead before admitting it.

    Helen grinned. "You know, Web, every now and then you might tear yourself away from your scholarly tomes to look at the daily news. It was just announced today, in the naval section. Captain Oversteegen and Gauntlet have been re-assigned to Erewhon. Anti-piracy patrol, they're calling it. The ship's leaving orbit tomorrow."

    "Oh." A bit embarrassed, Web's eyes dropped. Encountering the sight of torn sleeves, his embarrassment deepened.

    "Oh. Hm. I'm afraid your guests must have thought me quite the barbarian, Cathy."

    Cathy's grin was even wider than Helen's. "And so what if they did? This wasn't really my crowd tonight, Web. Not most of them, anyway. It was mainly made up of Liberty Party bellwethers, trying to test the shifting winds at an event they could attend without having to openly thumb their nose at New Kiev."

    "Yes, I know. That's why I'm a bit concerned I made the wrong impression."

    She shrugged. "That depends on how you define 'wrong,' doesn't it? I'll tell you what, Web. I'll leave the theory to you, as long as you leave the sordid tactics to me. It won't hurt me one bit to have lots of aristocratic Liberal Party hacks convinced that I'm the only one who knows how to get along with lower class barbarians."



    As they were climbing back up the stairs, heading toward the townhouse's elaborate set of bedrooms—fortunately, Cathy would guide him to his own—he asked another question.

    "Where was Anton tonight, by the way? And Berry, for that matter?"

    Seeing the expression on Cathy's face, he grunted. "What? Another case where I should have read the news reports?"

    "Hardly! Not unless—"

    She shook her head. "Never mind, Web. 'Need to know,' and all that. You'll find out soon enough. For the moment, you can go to your rest in the serene confidence that before too long you'll be able to offend somebody else from the upper crust."

    "Oh, splendid," he said. "I do so enjoy that, as long as I'm not fouling something up for you."

    "In this case, I doubt it. First, from what Anton tells me, because the upper crustee in question probably doesn't offend all that easily. Secondly, because I don't give a fuck anyway."

    "You really should watch your language. Especially now that you're a politician instead of a rabble-rouser."

    "Don't be silly, Web. It's part of my charm. Persona, if you will. Who else can the Liberals turn to when the mob gets unruly, except someone who can cuss like a deep-space cargo-walloper?"

    "You have a devious mind, Catherine Montaigne. I'd fear for your soul, except I don't believe in souls. Not a shred of evidence to support the notion, I'm afraid."

    They'd reached the door to his bedroom. He began to open it, but paused.

    "Well. I admit your daughter Berry could be considered a piece of evidence in favor. Hard to explain otherwise how she turned out, really."

    "Isn't she a gem?" agreed Catherine enthusiastically. "I sometimes think she's the most level-headed person I've ever known. Most of the time, I'm sure of it."

    "Well put." He shook his head sadly. "I'll miss her, when I leave. I surely will."

    As he entered the bedroom and closed the door, he caught a glimpse of Cathy, still standing in the corridor. There seemed to be an odd gleam in her eyes. Maternal pride, perhaps.

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image