Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Monday, March 28, 2011
Saturday, March 26, 2011
Saturday, March 19, 2011
Thursday, March 17, 2011
ACCORDING TO HER father Ernest du Bois, Melissa had been born a soldier. He was not a military man, and did not understand why God had blessed him – that was always his phrase, even when presented with intransigence that would have undone a lesser man – with a child so stern and unyielding. But Ernest was himself gifted with patience, if not understanding.
When she was four Melissa’s older brother Vincent died. Vincent was two years older than Melissa, and later in life her memories of him were just flashes, images and impressions; but her memories of her parents’ grief were clearer, sharper, altogether more lasting. Her Mama, Rebecca, withdrew from the world so severely that, looking back years later, Melissa suspected she had been suicidal, though Rebecca did not kill herself.
When Melissa began school that fall, it was not Mama who took her to St. Margaret’s: her father walked with her, every morning, holding her hand all the way there. It was her first strong memory: her hand, in Papa’s, on the way to school, morning after morning. When he picked her up in the afternoon, he wouldn’t hold her hand unless she asked him to, and she rarely did. They walked home together discussing what had happened that day, in school or work. But in the mornings she would take his hand, stepping out their front door, and not release it until she had stepped through the front gate of the school.
MELISSA WAS BORN on August 4, 2046, in Narbonne, a small town near the Gulf of Lyon, in the Mediterranean. The town had only some forty thousand residents, the year Melissa was born. It was not quite a beachside town, though Melissa and her parents lived inland only ten kilometers.
Melissa’s mother was a therapist, and her father a nurse. After her brother’s death, for most of two years, her mother did not work much. It made no real difference in their lives; there was enough money, new clothes, food, medical care. The essentials of Melissa’s life was secure, and would have remained so barring a disaster depriving her of both parents. Fortunately no such disaster occurred: her mother, with the passage of time, resumed an interest in the day to day details of their lives together, though by then the cast of Melissa’s relationship with her mother was set; Melissa would rarely seek Papa’s approval before deciding upon a course of action, and never Mama’s.
SHE GREW TO adulthood in Narbonne. Her parents rarely traveled even on business, and never for pleasure: Melissa had never left Narbonne until, at thirteen, her school had arranged a field trip to the Louvre. It was 630 kilometers to Paris, not an unreasonable distance on one of the bullet trains that networked France; except that Narbonne was too small to have a stop. The nearest stop was in Beziers, a nearby town about twice the size of Narbonne.
That morning they arose early and caught a bus to Beziers, then boarded the 6:15 A.M. Express to Paris. The Bullet rode through an evacuated tunnel just barely wide enough for it. It scared some of her classmates: at its top speed the Bullet traveled through the vacuum at nearly 600 kilometers per hour. It wasn’t so bad in the underground portions of the tunnel, when you couldn’t see anything, but during the portions where the Bullet rose above ground, the sense of speed was frightening, and some of Melissa’s friends had to close their eyes.
Melissa wasn’t worried about the speed as such; the rapidly passing landscape did not frighten her. She was thinking, though, about an incident six years ago, when she’d been seven: a Bullet in New York had been destroyed in a terrorist attack. Terrorists had left a bowling ball in the tunnel. The Bullet had vaporized the bowling ball, but it had also made contact with the side of the tunnel. In the resulting crash everyone aboard the Bullet, over eight hundred people, had died.
No one claimed credit. Melissa, at seven, had been baffled by that. She was clear that the ideologs who had committed the attack were wicked – “wicked all the way through,” she had informed her parents – but she had been baffled by the intent. If the terrorists did not claim credit, who would take them seriously when they made demands? Clearly they wanted to scare people – not that she was afraid, she assured her parents, because France was safe, not like Occupied America … but it made no sense to her.
But even while telling her parents that she wasn’t afraid, she wondered if she was really. She’d never been on the Bullet – maybe if she were riding it, knowing what might happen, she might feel differently?
Six years later she found that no, she wasn’t frightened, not even a little. But, riding the train, she had flashes of what she would recognize later as anger, thinking about the sort of people who would destroy something like the Bullet, take all those innocent lives, and not at least accept responsibility for their actions. It was, she concluded, that they were afraid – afraid to stand and fight, because they knew they would lose. So they used the tools of cowards, and struck at the weak rather than the strong.
It was the first consciously political thought she’d ever had.
THE LOUVRE MADE no real impression on her. She saw Voleur’s masterpiece, Je Suis Le Fleuve, while she was there, and found it not to her liking: a red monochrome, a river flowing through a darker, redder jungle. “I Follow The River,” or “I Am The River,” the painting’s name meant: Melissa was sure she was not a river and equally certain she didn’t want to follow what looked a river of blood.
The Mona Lisa left her cold. The Venus de Milo was broken and in Melissa’s opinion wanted fixing. She despised The Oath of the Horatii; weeping women to one side, men playing with swords to the other.
Their tour guide took note of her lack of interest at one point, and told the joke that many visitors to the Louvre hear at some point: “A woman visiting the Louvre,” the tour guide said patiently, “said, ‘I don’t think much of it.’ And a guide, overhearing, said: ‘Madame, one does not judge the Louvre; one is judged by it.’”
“The Palais du Louvre,” Melissa responded, “is a collection of buildings, and surely incapable of judgement.”
The tour guide, who seemed a pleasant young man, was taken aback. He stuttered slightly. “Since 1793, f-for generations, very wise men and women have chosen –”
Melissa interrupted him. Had her Mama been there she would have scolded Melissa for it; even Papa might have, for manners were important in their house. But she interrupted anyway. “I think my judgement better than theirs,” she said firmly, “in choosing what I like. De gustibus non est disputandum,” she added, displaying one of the benefits of a rigorous Catholic education: she could not really speak Latin, but she read it adequately and at thirteen she could quote in Latin as well as anyone.
Their tour guide ignored her after that, which suited her.
They had an early dinner in Paris before heading back, and that dinner stayed with Melissa in later years. The restaurant they ate in was not very good – the school’s budget was limited – but it was as good as her mother’s cooking and a little better than her father’s, and quite a bit better than what she ate in school. She did not realize they’d been taken to one of the cheaper restaurants available, and had she known, would not have cared.
They ended up sitting outside, watching the sun set while the City of Light came alive around them. The pedestrian traffic picked up as people came out for the evening. Melissa drank an after-dinner hot chocolate, watching the sophisticated crowds swirl about her, the young couples in the first bloom of love, old men and women cautiously navigating the traffic, still holding hands, some of them, as if they were still middle school sweethearts, and in the first and clearest of her life’s goals, knew she wanted to live in Paris forever.
SHE GRADUATED FROM high school first in her class, at the age of fifteen, more than two years earlier than most of her childhood friends. She was accepted, as everyone had known she would be, into the PKF Academy at Marseille. They wouldn’t accept students under sixteen, but Melissa would turn sixteen in August, just in time to attend the start of classes in September.
Marseille was 180 kilometers away from home in a straight line– 250 kilometers following the curve of the French coast around the Mediterranean, if one traveled by land. As no Bullet train connected the two cities, and her parents could not afford a car capable of flying directly across the sea, she had to travel by older rail, at a travel time of four and a half hours – which mean that she would have to live in the dorms in Marseille, and not see her parents except on weekends.
It bothered her parents more than it bothered Melissa. They were proud of her, of course – they were French and they were patriots and a career in the Peace Keeping Force, for a girl of her talents and inclinations, was an obvious path. But they were not ready to let go yet, particularly Rebecca. No one brought up her brother Vincent, but no one had to – the shadow of the dead child had hung over all of them, more lightly in recent years, but never forgotten.
Melissa would not miss her classmates; the girls were older than she was and disliked her; the boys older and intimidated by her. She had already said good-bye to her few remaining childhood friends from before she had jumped grades.
She had a last summer together with Mama and Papa before classes started. They spent a lot of it at the beach. Ernest was lighter-skinned than either Melissa or Rebecca, and couldn’t tan and refused to use any of the lotions that would have temporarily altered his skin to withstand the sun better; he didn’t trust the science behind the temporary alteration of the skin’s DNA. Melissa had inherited Rebecca’s skin: she quickly turned brown in the sun and could stay out in the sunlight through the heat of the day without burning or becoming overheated.
Rebecca and Melissa played volleyball in the sand as often as they could find competition, while Ernest sat under an umbrella and read on his handheld. They usually beat other women, and sometimes played and beat men – though men and boys who had lost to them once had a habit of making themselvs scarce. There was such a thing as male ego.
“I wish Papa liked volleyball,” Melissa said at one point, as they sat in the beach chairs by the volleyball nets, drinking water from their sports bottles, waiting for more competition to arrive. A few windsurfers were busy out in the bay, though there was just barely enough wind to keep their brightly colored sails full. “He wouldn’t quit just because he’d lost a few games.”
Rebecca smiled at her. “No, Papa is an unusual man. Better than most of them. He just can’t handle the heat.”
Melissa nodded. She knew that well enough. They went running together in the morning sometimes, when it was cool, all three of them, and Papa’s endurance was at least as good as theirs, perhaps better. “I just wish we could do more things together.”
Rebecca said simply, “I wish you wouldn’t go.”
Melissa shook her head without answering.
“Not this year at least,” Rebecca continued. “I wish we hadn’t let you skip two grades.”
Melissa shrugged. That, she knew, had mostly been her father’s doing anyway. It hadn’t been important to him – he knew Melissa was bright, knew she was driven, and while none of this appeared to impress him particularly, seemed perfectly content that Melissa should have her way in most matters. If she wanted to study harder material, he was content that she have the chance to. If it meant she would leave home for university (or, as it turned out, the Academy), earlier than she would have otherwise, well, all children left home eventually.
Of course, from Mama’s perspective, it meant that she was losing Melissa two years too soon. “Mama, I’m going. I’ll perform well. When, in eight or ten years, they offer to make me an Elite” – Melissa had no doubt they would – “I will accept.”
“You’ll never have children,” Rebecca said very quietly.
“No,” Melissa agreed, “I won’t.”
HER SIXTEENTH BIRTHDAY came and went, the summer waned, and the day before she went to Academy they went rowing in the morning on the Canal de la Robine, had lunch at the beach, and then had dinner together at home. Her mother cooked Melissa’s favorite dinner, fresh bread with mushroom chicken and artichoke hearts over wild rice, and her father baked a blueberry pie – their respective strengths. Neither was a great cook, but the resulting dinner could not have been improved on in the best restaurant in Paris, for Melissa’s purposes.
The dinner proceeded pleasantly, and afterward they watched the 100th Anniversary reissue of an old flat classic, Lawrence of Arabia. It was Ernest’s favorite movie, and Melissa had never seen it before. For the reissue the studio had retrofitted the old movie with depth, traceset cues for smell, taste, and touch, plus the usual viewpoint options. Ernest hadn’t bothered asking if anyone else wanted those things; he turned them all off, positioned the flat screen at the front of their holofield, and they watched the movie as it had been produced, a century before. He didn’t even enable the French audio track; all of them spoke English well enough. He did, in a very limited compromise, turn on the French subtitles.
The movie immediately became one of Melissa’s favorites. It was a product of its time – a movie made in 1962, portraying the last days of World War I. In its three and a half hours only one woman’s face was seen, a nurse in the final scenes. It was not supposed to be a homosexual romance, either – in those days, even in 1962, such things were considered perverse and no one would have made such a movie. It was clear that the story’s – hero was not too strong a word – hero, T.E. Lawrence, was gay, though Melissa was not sure if Lawrence himself was supposed to be aware of it; in those days people often hid such things even from themselves, the social stigma against it was so strong. But it was a love story, regardless; between Lawrence and the young prince, Sherif Ali, who fought together, successfully, to free the Arab tribes from the rule of the Turks.
When the movie was over, Ernest said, “We must go to bed now, and you should too.” Her parents were coming with her on the train to Marseille, though they would not be permitted to enter the Academy with her; the Academy discouraged parents even remaining in town after dropping their children off, and Ernest and Rebecca would return to Narbonne the same day. “Perhaps you should not mention this movie when you talk with your new friends at Academy,” he went on.
It seemed an odd piece of advice. “Why?”
“In some circles it’s thought subversive,” he said. “They’re wrong, they lack imagination to think so. The Unification of our time is not the Turkish Empire of World War I … but some people have argued the connection, and some people take the argument seriously. Twice foolish,” he added. “David Lean” – the film’s director – “and the writers died decades before the Unification War. The movie is based on T.E. Lawrence’s writing from after World War I. They are reading intent where there could not possibly have been any.” He paused. “But be careful anyway. You have been raised in a patriotic household, but where you are going, you will meet patriots who will make us seem suspect and insufficiently proud.”
Melissa could not imagine such a thing (though it turned out that, as was so often the case, Papa was right.)
She kissed them both and went to bed. Later that night, something awoke her, some low noise – she lay in bed motionless, wondering what it was – a bird? – before she realized it was, from her parent’s bedroom at the other end of the hallway, with two closed doors between Melissa and her parents, the sound of her mother crying.
MELISSA DU BOIS’ four years at the Peace Keeping Force Academy in Marseille were without doubt the four best years of Melissa’s life up to that point. At least some of the men were not afraid of her – with the exception of her own father they were the first men she had ever met whom she had not completely intimidated, with her looks, her body, her athleticism, her intellect, her poise and reserve, or by all of those things in short succession.
Finding men who were not afraid of her was surprisingly pleasant. She was not tempted to sleep with any of them – they were usually upperclassmen and too old for her, and she knew her parents would have disapproved. “Men do not value what comes too easily,” was all Ernest had said on the subject, but Melissa thought it likely he was correct; he had been correct about most of the things he’d bothered to state explicitly, in her life. Melissa was still a virgin at sixteen, and in no hurry to change that.
But there was no denying the attention was enjoyable.
MELISSA LEARNED TO speak idomatic English and passable Chinese. She learned a pragmatic grasp of hand to hand combat, most of which consisted of harming your opponent quickly and savagely and then separating long enough to acquire a weapon. She learned to use every common weapon and how to improvise a startling variety of weapons from common objects. She learned to recognize a bomb, and how to build one.
She learned psyops – how to interrogate a prisoner, how to survive interrogation if captured. How to gain trust, how to manage distrust.
She studied Unification Law and PKF regulations. She studied military history and economic history and politics; one fairly technical paper she wrote on the evolution of intragovernmentalism into supranationalism, and how those things flowed directly from the lessons of World War II and became the basis of the European Union and later the Unification, aroused enough comment within the Academy that it was submitted for publication to a well regarded historical journal, not long after her eighteenth birthday.
A common subject, regardless of class, was the problem of Occupied America. Over four decades after the end of the Unification War, the Johnny Rebs were still functioning – not effectively, in the opinion of most of Melissa’s instructors, but still functioning and worse, popular. Stories about the Rebs, movies about the Rebs, portrayed them as heroes, as patriots – not in a proper sense, not patriotic to the idea of the stable and just society that only the Unification had ever provided to humanity in the entire history of the word; but to abstractions of justice and liberty that were impossible to measure.
“Make no mistake,” one instructor pointed out at the end of a period of discussion, “by any metric you care to name, Occupied America is a better place to live today – we leave aside the question of New York for the moment – than at any time in the history of the American people. They live longer, they live healthier. Infant mortality has decreased to nearly zero. Hunger is rare and starvation nonexistent. Drug and alcohol addiction is a fraction of the problem it once was. Crime of all sorts – violent crime, murder, rape; nonviolent crime, burglary, embezzlement, theft – are at levels previously unknown in American history.
“One would think they would be happy … but they are not. And were not, even before the Troubles began in New York. For Wednesday, a paper giving your theory as to why.”
AT LEAST IN part due to her excellent English, at the age of twenty-one she found herself walking a beat, showing the flag, airing the uniform … in the city of Santa Monica, California, Occupied America.
California was a state Melissa could only just have found on a map before her arrival in it; she knew not much about it otherwise, for all her studies at Academy concerning Occupied America. Los Angeles she knew something about – the part of it called Hollywood had been the most productive source of filmed entertainment during the twentieth century, and Humphrey Bogart had lived there.
Santa Monica, it turned out, was a beach town completely surrounded by the city of Los Angeles. It reminded her a little of Narbonne, though it was wealthier and more crowded. The beaches reminded her quite a bit of the beaches at home; she found herself going down to Santa Monica and Venice beaches when off duty and playing volleyball with complete strangers. Her accent was still obviously French, but for the most part the people on the beach didn’t seem to care about that, at least not as much as they cared about her killer spike.
She spent most of a year in Santa Monica, teleconferencing with her parents to stay in touch. Her mother got nervous if Melissa didn’t call at least twice a week, despite Melissa’s assurance that she had landed in one of the softest, safest patrol jobs any Peaceforcer on Earth could have dreamed up – but with twice weekly calls, Mama was calm enough, if not noticeably happy. (“Happy is her job,” Papa said once, when Melissa was still very small. “You can’t make another person happy. Our job is to love her whether she is happy or sad.”)
Melissa thought her mother’s worries excessive, but it cost her nothing to check in regularly, to send messages back and forth during the course of the day; though she did get in the habit of blocking personal calls on her earphone while on shift. It was only a little white lie to tell her mother that her C.O. disapproved of personal calls – he did, but he wouldn’t have known unless he’d had cause to review her call records, and it would have taken a disciplinary review before he’d have been permitted to look.
As it happened, in December of 2068, he had cause to look.
LATER MELISSA BUILT up an idea of what had happened that day, only three days before Christmas. The last thing she really remembered was sitting in a PKF Armored AeroSmith at the intersection of Wilshire and 15th Street, explaining wearily to her Captain who was on the phone and twenty kilometers away that she’d had no choice but to override the autocomp and fly directly to the UCLA Medical Center of Santa Monica, because the ambulance wouldn’t have gotten Pierre to a doctor in time. He had chunks blown out of his torso so large that his uniform was the principle thing keeping his spinal column from the air.
After that Melissa didn’t really remember much. She didn’t remember what had happened prior to that, either – at one point a bullet had clipped the back of her skull, digging a furrow in the bone and causing bleeding just the other side of the bone. She’d been, in fact, closer to dying than her partner, and it had required brain surgery by one of Los Angeles’s best human surgeons to save her.
Her performance review decided that Melissa had killed four of the Rebs; her partner had only accounted one. The remaining six had been killed by PKF Elite within minutes of their arrival onsite. The citation added to Melissa’s record concluded that she had directly saved the lives of at least twenty of the Reb hostages – all members of a group of Chinese Christian tourists visiting the U.S. for Christmas.
And they did, Melissa made a point of telling her mother, check her personal phone records before issuing the citation.
IT TOOK A while for her promotion to come through; it was the summer of 2069 before she made Detective. She was twenty-two years old, and along with her promotion came the invitation PKF both feared and desired: she was invited to apply for the Peace Keeping Force Elite. Others might have hesitated, but Melissa knew of no one as young as she who had ever received an invitation: if she turned it down, she knew the odds of receiving another, ever, were poor.
ON AUGUST THE fourteenth, 2069, Melissa du Bois and forty-six other members of the United Nations Peace Keeping Force took their seats aboard the Captain Sir Dominic Flandry, a SpaceFarer vehicle that had been retained to take them to the Elite surgery facility at Spacebase One at L5.
The cabin in which they were to travel had forty-eight seats. After Melissa and her fellow PKF were seated, there remained one empty seat – the aisle seat next to Melissa. No one seemed to know who it was for, but it was soon apparent that the ship would not be taking off until whoever it was arrived.
Melissa waited patiently for a few minutes, then took her handheld out to read. She was halfway through a classic her father had recommended, “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” and had managed to get lost within it again when a tall young man wearing business clothing, carrying a briefcase, was led into the cabin and made his way to the empty seat beside her. Young as he was – he was her age, Melissa guessed, maybe even younger – twenty? Melissa wondered who he was, what gave him the pull to keep their ship grounded until he arrived. She didn’t look directly at him, just studied him from the corner of her eye while continuing to page through her novel.
He sat down and strapped himself in, put his briefcase in the safety web beneath the seat: handsome, blond, and quite strikingly beautiful blue eyes.
He turned to her and smiled, and Melissa allowed herself to look up from her handheld. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Trent the thief. Is there anything I can steal for you?”