She still wanted to hit him. Instead, she poured herself a shot without offering him one.
“But it ain’t a sign of their problem—it’s a sign of ours. When we should be accommodating them, we keep... we keep throwing it in their faces. And we’re not going to stop
throwing it in their faces, are we?” He scowled. “It’s not in our nature.” Sighing, he pointed toward her and asked, “Can I..?”
“Here.” She handed him the cigarettes, more gently than before, but she didn’t offer to light it this time.
He did it himself and inhaled, appeared revitalized, and went on more carefully. “Every thing we do is against them,” he said, utterly serious. “Every job we take away—every school that fills up before their applications even get looked at—every woman who chooses to bang someone like me instead of someone like them. Don’t think for a second that didn’t factor into the Lucknow thing; I know all those clubs still let the pretty girls
in without the swab.”
That was true; Swastika tried and couldn’t recall having ever been asked to submit to one, while the boys lined up out the door.
“Every insult to injury we add, is one more person who’ll be glad when we’re against the wall. When the mass of them rises up, crushes us with their foul, diabetic obesity, they’ll be there, adding their weight.” He frowned. “We’re so few compared to them. We’re so defenseless. We don’t even realize it... and we keep pushing them. I just hope we’ll be in Alpha Cen by the time it really kicks off.”
“When what kicks off?”
He threw up his hands. “When what k—the war
She shook her head, finally laughing at his absurdity. “That’s why I adore you, Geoff. Your optimism.”
“You don’t see it.” He shook his head with a sad smile. “Forget your Muslims—our Christians are worse. Every election I’m worried they’re finally going to get the votes to... I don’t know what. I don’t want to come off as crazy—”
“—I don’t want to say, that they’re going to put us all in camps.”
“Oh my God. You’re actually speaking this out loud. To another person.”
“No, you’re right: it’s not gonna be like that,” he said with profound and ugly certainty. “Not with our God-given right to own firearms, it isn’t. We’ll die in the streets before we get suckered into a gas chamber by a bunch of stagnants, won’t we?”
She stared at him, resting her temple on her palm, her face surely conveying an uncomprehension compounded with discomfort.
“They’re already preparing the ground for the big fight. You don’t pay attention. Did you forget?”
“I must have,” she said impatiently.
“They banned us from the armed services two years ago.”
It paused her a little. “I didn’t—I didn’t know that.”
? You’ve really gotta stop relying on Chuykov’s temper tantrums as your primary news source, Swastika. They’re too ephemeral.”
She shrugged. “Current events don’t interest me. I was always teased about it in uni.” An old memory sparked a small smile—“It took constant, terrible shrieking by an old boyfriend to even get me to vote. You remind me of him, a bit, except he had dark hair, and he was sane.”
“That’s shameful, you know that? Did you even manage to vote correctly?”
“Of course. Who else’s party do you think I would’ve voted for?”
“You might have hit the wrong button,” he supposed. “I think you’re the first one I ever met who didn’t care about politics.” He laughed aloud. “Especially in this
country, of all places.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who cares more than you. Do you really think all this endears you to people?”
“No, but I am endearing in many other respects, hence I can speak truth.”
“As you see it, yes, and if not alone, then lonely...”
“No, not that lonely. But I didn’t live my whole life in a city cleared by a clever property tax regime for sole inhabitance by the genetically engineered—or the naturally-born near-as-damnits. Hence, maybe I come off as cranky and hard to be around for some people who did
She grumbled. “I grew up outside Chandigarh. I went to school
with sta—the naturally born. Damn it, you’ve almost got me using hate speech now. I don’t have anything against them!”
“Right. I’m sure some of your best friends are unmodified humans.”
“Shut up. My best friend in uni was naturally born.”
“When was the last time you talked to one?”
“The last time I talked to my parents
, Geoffrey,” she told him immediately, with relish.
He halted, which almost satisfied her, but then he said, “You didn’t actually answer the question.”
She thought about it, and her smile fell away. “Damn,” she said, a little mechanically. It had been eight months ago. She’d been busy—
“And how about that best uni friend of yours?”
“That’s... it’s irrelevant.” She wavered. “It’s not my fault I don’t see her anymore. She went all the way out to Dhaka, of all places. I’m not taking a trip out there
“I’ll bet. So what? Inter-not?” he wondered.
“No, of course I still talk to her—all the time. I don’t immediately recall when the last time was.”
“And all your other
staggy friends, eh, Swas?”
“Where the hell are all your natural friends, Geoff?” she shot back.
“I don’t have any. So I want to hear all about yours. I want to know whatever happened to them.”
“I graduated. I got a job. I grew up and I grew out of them,” she said, as if she was being asked bizarre, obvious questions by a space alien, before realizing the tone and content of her answers. She tried to recover and explain—“But that was their problem, not mine! They’re still my friends—I still talk to them. But we drifted apart. They didn’t have the same interests
, Geoff. They didn’t work as hard
as I did—”
Geoff just started laughing.
She momentarily grit her teeth behind a closed mouth. “And it’s your
problem too—you don’t work very hard, either.” She leaned forward, pointing an accusing finger in his face. “That’s why you have the time
to complain about things you see on the Internet. Your responsibilities end at the heliopause and we already know what’s in our solar system. You plotted one course, and you were done. Myself? I’ve got a hundred crore flightplans left to do—that’s a billion, for your culturally handicapped brain.” She swept forward and tapped his forehead in what proved to be an irritating fashion, as he swatted her hand away. “And I mean it almost literally. We don’t have a half of a percent of a full map of the approaches to Alpha Cen, so I’ve got to make one, before we plow through whatever’s there at an appreciable fraction of light speed
.” She calmed down, and added, “And I only have a half century to finish.”
He laughed and grumbled simultaneously, a neat trick of his. “I’ve had time to complain, all right.”
She made a questioning noise, regarding him with sudden sympathy. “Geoffrey. You were with NASA before...”
“I’m not sure how your space program works. Did they force you out?”
“Not exactly,” he answered slowly. “NASA’s a civilian agency. They’ll get around to cleansing it eventually, I’ll bet. But I still get my pension. I knew when to get out. I think the first sign was when they told me, ‘Hey, Christopher, here’s our settlement offer, now get out.’ ”
She didn’t know what to say for a moment, and settled on “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah. Things are tough all over, whether you want to believe it or not. If all it were, were just America, I’d say let it go to hell. Right now my patriotism extends not much further than hoping the country can keep sending me my check. But that’s not all it is. It’s a barbarian country, Swas, like the Visigoths. And they’re as dangerous as Visigoths with nukes. I don’t think you really feel it, because you’re Indian, maybe just because you’re Mumbaikar.” His voice shifted back into sarcasm, “Citizen of the greatest city in the greatest country on the planet. Well, maybe you just can’t see it at all—because it’s happening over there.”
“It sounds like a shame, like a stupid chauvinist thing, and I do feel bad for you, Geoff. Because you’re my—well, despite it all, you’re my friend. But you’re the only American I even know. I don’t want to sound rude, but you’re painting this as profoundly affecting my life, or my country, but it doesn’t.”
“Really? You don’t think so? They’re phasing the genetically engineered out of the military and putting a monopoly of force in the hands of stags and you don’t see that affecting y—?”
She broke him off with a nasty laugh. “Am I meant to be afraid that the U.S. has raised a terrifying army of normal humans
“Why should I care if the Americans want to cripple their military?”
“Because a man with a gun is already a superhuman, by any metric that counts,” he said with complete seriousness. “He can effect lethal change in another person’s body from half a mile. The bullet won’t notice your impeccable design. It’ll tear into your flesh and your bone just the same as anyone else’s.” He considered. “Maybe it won’t tear quite as far. But far enough.”
“You’re overreacting. You always overreact. And about what, Geoff? We’re not just some random minority they can push into a corner and forget about. We’re essential to everything on this planet,” she said proudly. “We provide the wealth they rely on. The world economy doesn’t run, without us.”
“You’re right. No group of people has ever been targeted, because they were perceived as running the world economy for their own benefit. Right, Swastika?”
She sighed loudly and slapped her forehead, almost involuntarily. She was sure she ought to be offended, but at this point she was inured to it—she was merely annoyed.
“Stop that, and listen to me!” he shouted, and there was pleading in his voice. “You really don’t think it’s bad?” He bolted upright onto his feet. She fixed her eyes on him warily. “Then listen
!” he repeated. “A bill went up three weeks ago in our Senate to declare us incapable of holding public office! Not that we do
as long as there’s a democracy in America and the procedure is so expensive. Then there’s the vote! Fifty-three against. Four Senators in the right frame of mind, Swas—and America becomes an apartheid state! I know it probably wouldn’t beat the House, right yet; I know even if it did, the courts would still invalidate it the next day. That’s not the point. It’s not the Goddamn point
She continued to watch him as he paced back and forth, suspecting that he might try to jump through the window; but he remained silent for a few seconds, catching his breath. She asked, coolly, “Are you done with your Yevgeniy Chuykov impression yet, Geoff?”
He was barely chastened, but he sat back down. “The point
is,” he said gravely, “that hatred has gotten so normal for them—so usual—that the people who don’t want to offend anybody
are still willing to hate us so openly, too.” He dragged hard on his third cigarette, exhaled an ugly cloud of smoke.
“I’m sorry about your Third World country, Colonel,” she said, knowing this was almost cruel.
He stared at her, and it was clear that for a moment he couldn’t decide to be angry or not; but he laughed, and shook his head. “That’s where your Mr. Singh nailed it,” he said, suddenly calm again. “Absolutely nailed it. Public funds for the process. Not free, it’s never gonna be free—but accessible. Something you can actually dream about your kids being even if you’re not. We never could get that through. Someone tries every few years. But it’ll never happen, not with the Goddamned Christians on one side, and the Greens on the other. And they’re about as bad, but at least they don’t hate you quite so, um—metaphysically.”
He laughed again, bitterly again, pouring another round of shots. He even managed to revive his smile.
“But there’s hope!” he cried. “I saw a shirt on some teenager, the last time I visited my folks. You know what it said?”
“ ‘Jesus was an Augment.’ Salud.”