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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Twenty Eight

       Last updated: Tuesday, June 22, 2004 23:53 EDT



    Helen opened the hatch and started to step through it, then stopped abruptly.

    She’d discovered the small observation dome early in her second week aboard Hexapuma. It was never used. The optical heads spotted along the cruiser’s hull, and especially here between the boat bays, gave multiply overlapping coverage. They allowed the boat bay flight control officer far better visibility from the displays in his command station than any human eye could have provided, even from this marvelously placed perch. But the dome was still here, and, in some emergency, with the normal command station knocked out, someone stationed here might actually do some good. Personally, Helen doubted it, but she didn’t really care, either. Whatever the logic of its construction, it gave her a place to sit alone with God’s handiwork and think.

    It was very quiet in the dome. The hand-thick armorplast blister on the bottom of Hexapuma’s central spindle was tougher than thirty or forty centimeters of the best pre-space armor imaginable, and the dome boasted its own armored hatch. There were only two comfortable chairs, a communications panel, and the controls required to configure and maneuver the small, grav-lens telescope. The quiet whisper of air through the ventilating ducts was the only sound, and the silent presence of the stars was her only companionship whenever she came here to be alone. To think. To work her way through things… like the carnage and butchery she’d seen aboard Anhur.

    And that made it a very precious treasure aboard a warship, where privacy was always all but impossible.

    Which was why she felt a sudden, burning sense of resentment when she discovered that someone else had discovered her refuge. And not just any someone.

    Paulo d’Arezzo looked up as the hatch opened, then popped upright as he saw Helen. An odd expression flashed over his too-handsome face -- a flicker of emotions too fast and complex for her to read. Surprise, obviously. And disappointment -- probably the mirror image of her own resentment, if he’d believed, as she had, that no one else had discovered this refuge. But something else, too. Something darker, colder. Black and clinging and bitter as poison, that danced just beyond grasp or recognition.

    Whatever it was, it vanished as quickly as it had come, replaced by the familiar, mask-like expression she detested so thoroughly.

    “I’m sorry if I startled you,” she said stiffly. “I hadn’t realized the compartment was occupied.”

    “That’s all right.” He, too, sounded stiff, a bit stilted. “I was just about finished here today, anyway.” He turned half-away from her to pick something up. His movements seemed hurried, a bit too quick, and, almost despite herself, Helen stepped further into the small, compartment and looked over his shoulder.

    It was a sketch pad. Not an electronic pad: an old-fashioned paper pad, with a rough-toothed surface for equally old-fashioned pencils or pastels or charcoal sticks. Cathy Montaigne sometimes used a similar pad, although she’d always insisted she was nothing but a dabbler. Helen wasn’t so sure about that. Cathy was certainly untrained, and her work wasn’t up to professional standards, perhaps, but there was something to it. A feel. A sense of… interpretation. Something. Helen didn’t have the training to describe what that “something” was, but she recognized it when she saw it.

    Just as she recognized it when she saw Paulo’s pad. Except that Paulo obviously had both the raw talent and training Cathy lacked.

    She inhaled sharply as she recognized the sketch. Saw the shattered, broken hammerhead looming against Nuncio-B, surrounded by wreckage and splintered ruin. It was a stark composition, graphite on paper, blackest shadow and pitiless, blazing light, jagged edges, and the cruel beauty of sunlight on sheared battle steel. And somehow the images conveyed not just broken plating and pieces of hull. They conveyed the violence which had created them, the artist’s awareness of the pain, death, and blood waiting within that truncated hull. And the promise that the loss of some precious innocence, almost like virginity, waited with those horrors.

    Paulo looked back over his shoulder at the sound of her indrawn breath, and his face blanked. He reached out, his hand moving faster, and slapped the cover over the pad, almost as if he was ashamed she’d seen it. He looked away from her again, his head partly bent, and jammed the pad up into the satchel she’d often seen him carrying without wondering what might be inside it.

    “’Scuse me,” he muttered, and started to brush past her towards the hatch.

    “Wait.” Her hand closed on his elbow before she even realized she was going to speak. He stopped instantly, looking down at her hand for perhaps a second, then looked up at her face.

    “Why?” he asked.

    “Because --“ Helen paused, suddenly aware she didn’t know the answer to that question. She started to release her grip, ready to apologize and let him go. But then she looked into those gray, aloof eyes, and they weren’t aloof. There was a darkness in them, the same darkness, Helen knew, which had brought her here to think and be alone. But there was an edge of something else, as well.

    Loneliness, she thought wonderingly. Perhaps even… fear?

    “Because I’d like to talk to you,” she said, and was astonished by the fact that it was the truth.

    “About what?” His deep, resonant voice carried the familiar standoffishness. Not rude, or dismissive, but with that unmistakable sense of distance. She felt an equally familiar flicker of irritation, but this time she’d seen his eyes, and his sketch. There was more to Paulo d’Arezzo, she realized, than she’d ever bothered to notice before, and that sent a dull throb of shame through her.

    “About the reason you’re here.” She waved her free hand at the quiet, dimly-illuminated dome. “About the reason I’m here.”

    For an instant, he looked as if he meant to pull free and continue on his way. Then he shrugged.

    “I come here to think.”

    “So do I.” She smiled crookedly. “It’s hard to find someplace to do that, isn’t it?”

    “If you want to be left alone to do it,” he agreed. It could have been a pointed comment on her intrusion into his solitude, but it wasn’t. He looked back out at the pinprick stars, and his expression softened. “I think this has to be the most peaceful spot in the entire ship,” he said quietly.

    “It’s the most peaceful one I’ve been able to find, anyway,” she agreed. She pointed at the chair he’d been sitting in when she arrived. He looked at it, then shrugged and sat back down. She settled herself into the other chair, and pivoted it to face him.

    “It bothers you, doesn’t it?” She twitched one hand at the closed sketch pad in his satchel. “What we saw aboard Anhur -- that bothers you as much as it bothers me, doesn’t it?”

    “Yes.” He looked away, out into the peaceful blackness. “Yes, it does.”

    “Want to talk about it?”

    He looked back at her quickly, his expression surprised, and she wondered if he, too, was remembering their conversation with Aikawa in Snotty Row.

    “I don’t know,” he said, after a moment. “I haven’t really been able to put it into words for myself, much less anyone else.”

    “Me, either,” she admitted, and it was her turn to look off into the stars. “It was… awful. Horrible. And yet…” Her voice trailed off, and she shook her head slowly.

    “And yet, there was that awful sense of triumph, wasn’t there?” His soft question pulled her eyes back to him as if he were a magnet. “That sense of winning. Of having proven we were faster, tougher -- smarter. Of being better than they were.”

    “Yes.” She nodded slowly. “I guess there was. And maybe there should have been. We were faster and tougher -- this time, at least. And they were exactly what we joined the Navy to stop. Shouldn’t there be some sense of triumph, of victory, when we stop murderers and rapists and torturers from hurting anyone else, ever again?”

    “Maybe.” His nostrils flared as he drew a deep breath, then shook his head. “No, not ‘maybe.’ You’re right. And it’s not as if you or I gave the orders, or fired the weapons. Not this time. But the truth is, when you come right down to it, however evil they might’ve been -- and I grant you, they were evil, any way you want to define the term -- they were still human beings. I saw what happened to them, and my imagination’s good enough to picture at least some of what it must’ve been like when it happened. And no one should feel triumphant over having done that to someone else, however much they may have deserved to have it done to them. Nobody should… and I do. So what does that say about me?”

    “Feeling qualms about wearing the uniform?” she asked almost gently.

    “No.” He shook his head again, firmly. “Like I said when we were talking with the others. This is why I joined, and I don’t have any qualms about doing the job. About stopping people like this. Not even about firing on -- killing -- people in other navies who’re just like you and me, just doing what duty requires of them. I don’t think it’s the actual killing. I think it’s the fact that I can see how horrible it was and feel responsible for it without feeling guilty. Shouldn’t there be some guilt? I hate the fact that I helped do that to other humans, and I regret that it had to happen to anyone, but I don’t feel guilty, Helen. Sick at heart. Revolted. Horrified. All those things. But not guilty. What does that say about me? That I can kill people and not feel guilty?”

    He looked at her, the gray eyes bottomless, and she folded her arms across her breasts.

    “It says you’re human. And don’t be too sure you don’t feel guilty. Or that you won’t, in time. My father says most people do, that it’s a societal survival mechanism. But some people don’t. And he says that doesn’t necessarily make them evil, or sociopathic monsters. Sometimes it just means they see more clearly. That they don’t lie to themselves. There are choices we have to make. Sometimes they’re easy, and sometimes they’re hard. And sometimes our responsibility to the people we care about, or the things we believe in, or people who can’t defend themselves, doesn’t leave us any choice at all.”

    “I don’t know.” He shook his head. “That seems too… simplistic. It’s like giving myself some kind of moral get out of jail free card.”

    “No, it isn’t,” she said quietly. “Believe me. Guilt and horror can be independent of each other. You can feel one whether you feel the other or not.”

    “What are you talking about?” He sat back, his forearms on the chair armrests, and looked at her intently, as if he’d heard something she hadn’t quite said. “You’re not talking about Anhur at all, are you?”

    Once again, his perceptiveness surprised her. She considered him for a few seconds, then shook her head.

    “No. I’m talking about something that happened years ago, back on Old Earth.”

    “When the Scrags kidnapped you?”

    “You knew about that?” She blinked, and he actually chuckled.

    “The story got pretty good coverage in the ’faxes,” he pointed out. “Especially with the Manpower connection. And I had reasons of my own for following the stories.” Again something flickered deep in his eyes. Then he smiled. “And neither your father nor Lady Montaigne have been particularly… inconspicuous since you came home.” His expression sobered. “I’ve always figured the newsies didn’t get the whole story, but the part they did get was bloody enough. It must’ve been pretty bad for a kid -- what, fourteen T-years old?”

    “Yeah, but that wasn’t what I meant.” He raised both eyebrows, and she twitched her shoulders uncomfortably, unable to believe she was about to tell Paulo d’Arezzo, of all people, something she’d never even told Aikawa or Ragnhild. She drew a deep breath. “Before Daddy and… the others found me, and Berry and Lars, there were three men. They’d grabbed Berry and Lars before I came along. They’d raped Berry and beaten her -- badly. They were going to kill her, probably pretty soon, I think. But I didn’t know that when they came after me.”

    He was staring at her now, his eyes wide, and she drew another breath.

    “I was already pretty good at the Neue-Stil,” she said flatly. “I was scared -- I’d just gotten away from the Scrags, and I’d known they were going to kill me if I didn’t make a break. I had all the adrenalin in the galaxy pumping through me, and nobody was going to make me go back. So when these three came at me in the dark, I killed them.”

    “You killed them,” he repeated.

    “Yes.” She met his eyes steadily. “All three of them. Broke their necks. I can still feel the bones snapping. And I felt nauseated, and sick, and wondered what kind of monster I was. The nausea comes back to me, sometimes. But I remember I’m still here, still alive. And that Berry and Lars are still alive. And I tell you this completely honestly, Paulo -- I may feel nauseated, and I may wish it had never happened, but I don’t feel guilty and I do feel… triumphant. I can look myself in the eye and tell myself I did what had to be done, without waffling, and that I’d do it again. And I think that’s the question you have to ask yourself about Anhur. You’ve already said you’d do the same thing again if you had to. Doesn’t that mean it’s what has to be done? What you have to do to be you? And if that’s true, why should you feel guilty?”



    He looked at her silently for several seconds, then nodded slowly.

    “I’m not sure there isn’t a gaping hole in your logic, but that doesn’t make you wrong. I’ll have to think about it.”

    “Oh, yeah,” she agreed with a wry smile. “You have to think about it, Paulo. A lot. I sure as hell did! And don’t think for a minute I’m not having a few bad moments over what happened to Anhur. You’d have to be psycho not to. Just don’t get all bent out of shape trying to take the blood guilt of the universe onto your shoulders.”

    “That’s, ah, a… profound bit of advice.”

    “I know,” she said cheerfully. “I’m paraphrasing what Master Tye told me after Old Chicago. He’s a lot more profound than I am. ’Course most people are more profound than me, when you come down to it.”

    “Don’t sell yourself too short.”

    “Sure, sure.” She waved one hand in a dismissive gesture, and he shook his head with what might have been the first completely open smile she’d ever seen from him. It transformed his usual, detached expression into something totally different, and she cocked her head.

    “Look,” she said, feeling a returning edge of awkwardness but refusing to let it deter her, “this may not be any of my business. But why is it that you, well… keep to yourself so much.”

    “I don’t,” he said, instantly, smile disappearing, and it was her turn to shake her head.

    “Oh, yes, you do. And I’m beginning to realize I was even slower than usual not to realize it isn’t for the reasons I thought it was.”

    “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said stiffly.

    “I’m talking about the fact that it isn’t because you think you’re so much better than everyone else, after all.”

    “Because I think what?” He stared at her in such obvious consternation she had to chuckle.

    “Well, that was my first thought. And I can be kind of mentally lazy sometimes. Somehow I never managed to get beyond thought number one to number two or number three.” She shrugged. “I see somebody who’s obviously spent that much money on biosculpt, and I automatically assume they have to have a pretty high opinion of themselves.”

    “Biosculpt?” He was still staring at her, and, abruptly, he laughed. It was not a cheerful sound, and he grimaced as he touched his face. “Biosculpt? You think that’s what this is?”

    “Well, yeah,” she said, a bit defensively. “You’re going to try to tell me it’s not?”

    “No,” he said. “It’s not biosculpt. It’s genetics.”

    “You’re kidding me!” She eyed him skeptically. “People don’t come down the chute looking that good without a little help, Mr. d’Arezzo!”

    “I didn’t say it was natural genetics,” he said, his deep, musical voice suddenly so harsh that she sat bolt upright. His eyes met hers, and the cool gray was no longer cool. It was hot, like molten quartz. And then, suddenly, shockingly, he stuck out his tongue at her.

    It was a gesture she’d seen before -- seen from “terrorists” like Jeremy X and scholars like Web DuBois. But she’d never seen the genetic bar code of a genetically engineered slave on the tongue of a fellow Naval officer. He showed it to her for perhaps five seconds, then closed his mouth, gray eyes still blazing.

    “If you think I’m good-looking,” Paulo said bitterly, “you should have seen my mother. I never did -- or not that I remember, anyway. She died when I was less than a year old. But my father’s described her to me often enough. He had to describe her because he couldn’t show me -- Manpower doesn’t let its slaves have pictures of each other.”

    Helen stared at him, and he stared back defiantly, almost hostilely.

    “I didn’t know,” she said finally, softly.

    “No reason you should’ve.” He drew a deep breath and looked away, taut shoulders relaxing ever so slightly. “It’s… not something I like to talk about. And,” he looked back at her, “it’s not as if I remember ever being a slave. Dad does, and sometimes it eats at him. And the fact that he and I -- and my mother -- were specifically designed to be attractive because that’s what ‘pleasure slaves’ are supposed to be, that does eat at me sometimes. But he’s never forgotten it was the Navy that intercepted the slaver we were on. My mother was killed in the process, but he never blamed the Navy, and neither did I. At least she died free, by God! That’s why he took Captain d’Arezzo’s name for our surname when he filed for citizenship. And why I joined the Navy.”

    “I can see that,” she said, and deep inside she was kicking herself for not having recognized the signs. Surely someone who’d spent as much time with ex-slaves and the Antislavery League as she had should have seen them. But why had he never dropped so much as a hint about it in her presence? He must have known Cathy Montaigne’s adopted daughter would come as close to understanding as anyone who’d never been a slave could!

    “Yeah,” he said, almost as if he’d been reading her mind. “Yeah, I imagine you can see it, if anybody aboard the Kitty can. But it’s not something I talk about. Not because I’m ashamed, really. But because… because talking about it takes away from me. It focuses on where I came from, the cold, sick ‘businessmen’ who built me and never even considered my parents or me human.”

    He looked out the dome, his mouth twisted.

    “I guess you can also understand why I’m not quite so impressed with my ‘good looks’ as other people,” he said in a low, harsh voice. “Sometimes it goes a lot further than that. When you know a bunch of twisted bastards designed you to look good -- to be a nice, attractive piece of meat when they put you on the block or rented you out -- having people chase after you just because you look so goddamned good turns your stomach. It’s not you they want. Not the you that lives inside you, the one that does things like this.” He slapped the sketchpad’s satchel. “It’s this.” He touched his face again. “This… packaging.”

    “I’ve known quite a few ex-slaves by now, Paulo,” she said, keeping her voice normal, “and most of them have demons. Couldn’t really be any other way, I guess. But whatever happened to them, whatever was done to them, and whatever those motherless bastards in Mesa may think about them, they’re people, and the fact that someone else thought they were property doesn’t make it true. It just means people who think they’re fucking gods decided they were toys. And some toys, Paulo d’Arezzo, are very, very dangerous. In the end, that’s what’s going to finish Manpower off, you know. People like Jeremy X. and Web Du Havel. And you.”

    He looked at her suspiciously, as if he suspected she was shooting him a line, and she chuckled again, nastily.

    “Paulo, for all intents and purposes, Cathy Montaigne’s my mom, and you know all about Daddy. Do you think they don’t have a pretty damned shrewd idea how many ex-slaves, and children of ex-slaves, have gone into the Star Kingdom’s military? We get good marks for enforcing the Cherwell Convention. That attracts a lot of people -- people like you -- and the way we attract people like you is one reason we enforce the Cherwell Convention as well as we do. It’s a reinforcing feedback loop. And then, of course, there’s Torch.”

    “I know.” He looked down, watching his right index finger draw circles on his kneecap. “That was something I really wanted to talk to you about -- Torch, and your sister, I mean. But I -- That is, it’s been so long, and --”

    “Paulo,” she said, almost gently, “I’ve known a lot of ex-slaves, all right? Some of them are like Jeremy or Web. They wear where they came from right out on their sleeves and throw it into the galaxy’s teeth. It defines who they are, and they’re ready to rip Manpower’s throat out with their bare teeth. Others just want to pretend it never happened. And then there’s a whole bunch who don’t want to pretend it didn’t happen but who do want to get on with who they are. They don’t want to talk about. They don’t want people to cut them extra slack, make exceptions for them out of some sort of misplaced, third-party guilt. And they don’t want pity, or to be defined by those around them in terms of their victimhood. Obviously I haven’t bothered to get to know you as well as I should’ve, or this wouldn’t be coming as such a surprise to me. But I do know you well enough to know, especially now, that you’re part of that hardheaded, stiff-necked, stubborn bunch that’s determined to succeed without whining, without excuses, or special allowances. The kind who’re too damned stubborn for their own good and too damned stupid to know it. Sort of like Gryphon Highlanders.”

    She grinned at him, and to his own obvious surprise, he smiled back.

    “I guess maybe we are sort of alike,” he said finally. “In a way.”

    “And who’d’ve thunk it?” she replied with that same toothy grin.

    “It probably wouldn’t have hurt to’ve had this discussion earlier,” he added.

    “Nope, not a bit,” she agreed.

    “Still, I suppose it’s not too late to start over,” he observed.

    “Not as long as you don’t expect me to stop being my usual stubborn, insufferable, basically shallow self,” she said.

    “I don’t know if all of that self-putdown is entirely fair,” he said thoughtfully. “I never really thought of you as stubborn.”

    “As soon as I get over my unaccustomed feeling of contrition for having misjudged the motivation for that nose-in-the-air, superior attitude of yours, you’ll pay for that,” she assured him.

    “I look forward to it with fear and trembling.”

    “Smartest thing you’ve said all day,” she told him ominously, and then they both laughed.

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