“All right, Mr. Danelle, I’m not kidding! Put the pie down!”
The man in the blue jumpsuit with the pie in his hand did not move. Instead, he glared past Thomas at the man behind him. Both men were covered in roughly equal amounts of pastries, from head to foot. The man with the pie was clearly looking for a way to throw his past Thomas at the other man, and Thomas couldn’t help but consider how stupid the scene must have looked to the patrons of the shop, who stood about laughing.
“Mr. Danelle,” Thomas said, when it was evident the man was too upset to pay much attention, “I want you to understand the situation you’re in. As absurd as it may seem (he waited for the laughter to die down, before continuing), you are assaulting this man. He is also guilty of assaulting you…”
“And he has no business treating me like an idiot, just because I didn’t like his doughnuts!” the man with the pie snapped. “They were stale, and they had sand or something in them!”
“They did not have sand in them!” The store owner began to step around Thomas, but backed behind him again when Mr. Danelle raised his pie again. “It was just sugar! Sometimes, if you don’t mix ingredients properly, sugar can join in lumps. It may have been a lumpy mix…”
“It was sand! Sand!”
“But it was not sand!”
“Mr. DePaul!” Thomas glanced over his shoulder at the shopkeeper, keeping a wary eye on Danelle. “Would you please tell Mr. Danelle that you’re sorry for making a bad batch of doughnuts?”
“Well, of course I’m sorry! I mean, it’s not like I’d do that purposely! I have a business!” He turned to the many patrons and onlookers around them. “I make good pastries! I want to please my customers! I just made one batch of doughnuts with some lumps in them. One batch! It won’t happen again!”
“There, Mr. Danelle,” Thomas stated, “he said he was sorry. Now will you put the pie down?”
“He hit me first! With a cantaloupe!”
At the sound of that rebuttal, the crowd roared with laughter. Thomas himself had to fight to keep from smiling, but the crowd’s reaction seemed to enrage Danelle further. He raised his pie up again, and cocked his arm back.
Thomas took a step closer to Danelle. “You know, I’d really hate to lock you up for throwing a pie at a Peacekeeper. But if you don’t put the pie down, I’ll lock you up anyway for disobeying the direct orders of a Peacekeeper. And I’m very, very close to doing that right now.”
He turned to look at DePaul. “In fact, I’ll lock both of you up if you both don’t stop yelling at each other and try to settle this like men, and not children!”
Danelle stepped forward, bringing his pie arm down and holding the pie in front of him. “Are you calling me a child?”
Thomas immediately raised his arm. He struck Danelle’s hand, bringing the pie up and impacting it into Danelle’s face. The crowd exploded in laughter, as bits of piecrust and blueberries fell from Danelle’s face.
“Consider yourself disarmed,” Thomas said sarcastically. “Now then: DePaul said he’s sorry for giving you a bad doughnut. Would you like to discuss compensation for the purchase?”
“Compensation!” DePaul cried. “Look what he’s done to my shop! Who’s going to pay for—”
Thomas cut him off. “Did you throw the cantaloupe at him?”
DePaul hesitated, then stammered, “I thought he was gonna hit me.”
“Sorry, Mr. DePaul,” Thomas shrugged. “It looks like you’re going to have to… uh… eat the loss.”
This last remark proved to be the climax of the incident, and as DePaul and Danelle began to clean themselves off and argue over compensation, Thomas separated himself from the crowd and headed for the Peacekeeper station. A few steps out of the shop, he hurriedly checked himself for stray bits of pastry. Satisfied he was clean, he hurried on to his morning appointment.
“Hi, San.” Thomas entered the office and hung his jacket on the wall hook. “Sorry I’m late. Had to make a stop at DePaul’s bakery. Is she here?”
San, sitting at the CO’s desk, was perusing the daily dispatches when Thomas walked in. “Yes,” she said without looking up. “She’s in the conference room. What did you get at DePaul’s?”
“Nothing, thank goodness.” San looked up then, as Thomas started into the conference room past her. She started to speak, but he was already around the corner and closing the door.
The far wall of the conference room, which was glass, was set to outward viewing, and the girl in the room had been facing the window watching the passers-by when Thomas entered. She was standing, and Thomas could tell before she moved that she was slightly uncomfortable, possibly nervous, about this interview. There was something else he could tell about her, as well. Although he couldn’t see her features, or for that matter a single inch of her skin, from behind her, the bright white hair flowing from her head made it more than apparent she was black.
She turned when she heard the door close behind her. Her hair seemed to be feather-light, and danced around her head when it turned. She automatically brought a hand up to brush it aside, although it was not actually blocking her face. Thomas realized he was right when he saw her eyes, the hesitant movements: She was nervous about meeting him.
But it only lasted a moment. As soon as she saw Thomas, she froze. She took in his skin, as sable-black as her own, and his silvery-white hair. Then, she visibly sighed, and smiled. “Commander Beak?” she asked, and her voice had a touch of a Latin accent. When Thomas nodded, she smiled wider and extended a hand. “I’m Reva Poker. Nice to meet you.”
“And you,” Thomas said, shaking her hand. “Please, call me Thomas. We’re informal here. Sit down. I’m sorry I’m late, by the way. There was an altercation at a bakery I passed on my way up here.”
“Oh,” she said. “Then that explains the…” she didn’t finish, but a hand came up and pointed at his face, then to her own chin.
Thomas didn’t understand at first, but a moment later, brought a hand up to his own chin, following the spot that her hand pointed to. His finger touched something sticky, and when he pulled it back and looked at the bluish stain, he sighed. “I though I got away clean, so to speak,” he smiled, wiping the blueberry stain from his chin.
“Well, if that’s the worst you got,” she smiled back. “It could be worse: At least we can’t blush.”
Thomas gave her an amused glance as he finished wiping the stain from his chin. “Right. Well, anyway… can I call you Reva?”
“Thanks… uh, you know this isn’t really an interview, per se. You’ve already been assigned to Midland, beginning duty on, uh-”
“Right. But since you’re here, it’s a common policy for new Peacekeepers to meet their COs before actually beginning duty, if at all possible. So just relax. I just want to know a bit about you, and check your cells.”
“You seemed a bit nervous when I walked in.”
“Oh… well, that was before…” Reva stopped, though better of her answer, and begun again. “Well, it’s just that I’ve had occasion to be looked down upon in the past. You know: I’m pretty, and I’m black. We still tend to be looked at as airheads, in some places. So I was concerned about how you might react when you saw me. Until I saw you.”
“I understand.” Thomas had a fleeting memory of a few weeks back, at an excavation outside of the city, and a certain prejudiced scientist. “Well, I can tell you from experience that the officers here don’t have a problem with me, and they won’t have one with you.”
“That’s good to know,” Reva replied. “I didn’t know there were any blacks in command positions in the force.”
“I think I’m among the first posted. I don’t know if there are any in OCOM or upper level command positions.”
“There aren’t, as far as I know. You should be honored.”
“Thanks.” Thomas had activated his sec, and was looking over the personnel cell on Reva. “You’re from San Dali? Were you born there?”
“I was born near there… my family lived on the frontier for years before they moved into San Dali.”
“Ah. I was born on the frontier, too. Most of my family is still out there. Have you arranged an apartment in Midland yet?”
“Yes… I have a family friend who lives here, and he’s offered to let me move in with him.”
“That’s good: You already know someone in the city. Well, you’ll be meeting plenty of new friends soon, I’m sure.” He looked over the cells again. “You have excellent field stats. Spend much time on the frontier?”
“Well, I haven’t, since I moved into San Dali,” Reva told him. “I was fourteen when we moved into the city. Most of my experience comes from before then.”
“Well, we’ve got a big territory to cover, here… which is why I wanted another PK assigned here. So you’ll be spending your share of time outside, with the rest of us.”
“Good O/D stats, too…” Thomas paused, as he read the information on her weapons experience. “You can throw a bola? What were you, ranching out there?”
Reva smiled. “God, no! My whole family can throw bolas… it’s sort of an old family tradition. I guess we used to be ranchers.”
“Well, it’s not something you’re likely to need around here,” Thomas mused. “Still, it is a non-lethal weapon. If you want, I’ll authorize you to carry one with your other equipment. Provided you can keep it from tripping you up. Any other special weapons training you’ve had?”
“Well, I can use a bullwhip, too. But I didn’t bring one. Scares the men away.”
Thomas smiled widely. “I’ll bet.”
Thomas saw Reva to the door of the station. “We’ll look forward to seeing you on Tuesday,” he said. “Feel free to stop by anytime before that.”
“Thanks, I might get an early start once I’ve settled in. ‘Bye.” Reva shook his hand and left. Thomas closed the door behind her, and stepped over to the mini-kitchen to get a drink.
San, long-since finished with the dispatches, got up from Thomas’ desk and moved to a chair on the other side. “So? What’s she like?”
“Sounds like she’ll make a good officer,” Thomas said. “Good frontier experience… we can always use that. Good overall ratings from OCOM. And she’s got a good personality, shouldn’t have any trouble dealing with people.”
San nodded. “I did get the impression she was a bit nervous when she came in.”
“She’s a bit uptight about being black, apparently,” Thomas confided. “I guess she had some bad experiences when she was younger. I think she’ll be okay, though. I seemed to be a calming factor on her, I noticed. I’ll keep an eye on her.”
“I’ll bet you will.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means, I can think of worse people to have to keep an eye on.” San smiled and raised an eyebrow. “Or, surely you didn’t only notice she was black?”
“Smart-ass,” Thomas commented.
That evening, Thomas sat at his desk, finishing up the reports for the day. Noticing the time, he looked over at Frank, who was reading a tablet by the door. “Well, that’s it for me, Frank. I’m going to knock off. The house is yours.”
“Okay, Thom,” Frank replied. “See you in the morning.”
Thomas grabbed his jacket from the wall hook as he walked over to the door that separated his apartment from the PK station. “See you in the morning.” The door opened for him, and he entered his apartment, depositing his PK jacket in the closet by the door. From there, he went into the kitchen, where he fixed himself a drink and a light snack.
About midway through his snack, his wall sec chimed. “Incoming message from First Commander Stang.” The sec waited for his reply with a blinking question mark in the middle of the forest image that was displayed there.
Thomas finished the cracker and cheese in his mouth, and said, “Accept.” Instantly the forest was replaced by the face of a woman in an office that, Thomas knew, was on the Jetstream Stratoplatform stationed high over the NA(s) territories. Bettina Stang was Thomas’ immediate superior, and someone who had a very high opinion of his abilities. Unfortunately, Thomas had the sneaking suspicion that her opinion was colored by her obvious attraction to him. And although she was certainly a lovely woman, she just wasn’t quite the girl Thomas was looking for.
“Hello, Thomas,” Bettina smiled. “How’re you doing in Midland?”
“Oh, it’s great down here. How’s life in the clouds?”
“We’re fine here. I hope I’m not interrupting anything?”
“No. I just came off duty, actually. If you’d called me three minutes earlier, you would have caught me at the station.”
“Well, I just called because I wanted you to know that I forwarded your report regarding the Tulsa excavations to OCOM. They were very impressed with your researching and finding that vault. Gold stars for you and your staff.”
“Thanks, Betty,” Thomas said. “It’s always nice to know people are looking out for you.”
“Oh, I am,” she nodded. “And I’m going to keep looking out for you, until I get you attached to my staff up here.”
“Now, Betty, you know I couldn’t stay up there long. I get cramps if I can’t walk barefoot in grass every so often.”
“I may have some imported. Anyway, you know I’ll hold a slot open for you. Just sing out.”
“I will.” Thomas took a sip from his drink. “Oh… I had a chance to meet with Reva Poker today.”
“Yes… the new PK you sent me. She starts Tuesday. Well, she arrived in Midland today, and I had a chance to meet her, informally.”
Bettina seemed to search her memory for a moment, then nodded. “Oh, yes. The black girl.”
Thomas hesitated before he replied. “Yes, that’s her.”
“Does she look like she’ll work out, then?”
“Oh, yeah, she should do fine. According to her record, she’s just what we need around here.”
“That’s why we okayed her request for posting there,” Bettina said. “Besides, I knew you wouldn’t have any problem with her. I’ve got a few commanders who would’ve fought me to keep her off their station.”
Thomas was suddenly aware that he didn’t like where this conversation was headed. “Well, you won’t have that problem here,” he said, slightly defensively.
“I’m sorry, Thomas,” Bettina said. “I know what that sounded like. Believe me, we didn’t allow our decision to be swayed by her being black, one way or the other. She asked to be posted at Midland, her stats showed she was qualified, and we gave it to her. If she doesn’t work out, tell us and we’ll pull her. Okay?”
Thomas knew Bettina well enough to know she was being honest with him. “Okay. Sorry, I know you wouldn’t do that. It’s just that, she was obviously concerned about it when I spoke to her. I guess it’s got me thinking about it, now.”
“Well, don’t give it a second thought,” Bettina told him. “About her, or you. Personally, whenever I give it any thought, I just laugh.”
“Laugh?” Thomas repeated. “Why’s that?”
“Well, calling her, or you, ‘black’, implies that the rest of us are ‘white’. To me, that’s funny.” She smiled, her full lips reaching up to broad cheekbones, and Thomas had to smile as well. Her distinctly African features, with a skin tone not much lighter than the tea in Thomas’ hand, would hardly be considered ‘white’ by any means. “Well, I won’t keep you from anything. Keep in touch, Thomas.”
“I will, Betty. Good night.” He let her close the connection, then settled back into finishing his snack. He tried to clear his mind of the conversation he’d just finished, but after a few minutes he realized he couldn’t get the subject out of his mind.
He remembered being concerned enough with it himself, at a much younger age, to research the phenomenon known as Promelanicus-related Melanosis, in order to understand why other children in his tribe were not the same color as he… and why that difference sometimes made him the brunt of the kind of cruel jokes children tend to play on each other. What he discovered, in the cells of the tribe’s library that day, made clear just how cruel skin color could be.
It was long before he had been born, at the end of the twentieth century, when industrial pollutants had made their mark on the atmosphere of the planet. Part of the Earth’s protective atmospheric shell, known then as the Ozone layer, had been thinned in many areas and completely compromised in others. As a result, the amount of ultraviolet light falling on Earth was significantly increased. As this was also the time when Hydemias were still referred to as cancers, and were generally considered mysterious and deadly maladies, cancers of the skin became the primary concern of anyone venturing out of doors.
There were numerous lotions and balms created, designed to offer temporary protection against the penetration of ultraviolet rays. Most of them were only slightly or completely ineffective, however, and did little to alleviate the problem.
Then a new player in the drama appeared, in the form of a pharmaceutical magnate whose loss of a daughter to skin cancer drove him to create the 100% effective skin protection. After years of research, he had created a drug which, when administered intravenously, would boost the protective properties of the natural melanin in human skin, and fight off the harmful rays of the Sun. The drug did all it was claimed to do, and before long it was offered to the general public.
Of course, before the public itself could get their hands on the drug, there were certain channels that had to be followed… agencies that would retest the drug, and certify it safe for human consumption. These agencies began their tests, and the public anxiously awaited the results. The first tests proved positive, and there was every indication that the drug would soon be on store shelves. Some of the later tests were much more precarious, however, and the drug’s release was delayed for months. There was a great deal of pressure from the public, and the pharmaceutical company, to release the drug. Years later, there would be allegations that the testing agencies bowed to pressure, possibly bribes, to okay the drug. Little was ever proven, but eventually, the drug did become available.
Called “Promelanicus,” or Promel on the street, the drug became the rage for all modern Sun-worshippers… the ones with large amounts of disposable incomes, at least, for the outpatient treatments were too expensive for just anyone to undergo. Soon, having the “Promel” treatment was something to impress your friends with, or brag about at work.
The bragging lasted for about twenty years. Then people began to notice that their Promel-treated skin was getting steadily darker, in fact, incredibly darker… and that, even more surprising, that hair, no matter what color, was slowly losing all color. As people aged, skin color as dark as any on the African continent went hand-in-hand with hair as white as silk. The inadequate testing of Promelanicus was finally becoming apparent, as medical circles realized the drug did indeed have undesirable long-term side effects.
But all that was nothing, compared to the birth of the first child to a Promel-treated parent, twenty-seven years after her first treatment. When the child was featured on the cover of every national magazine, skin black as pitch and snowy-white wisps of hair on her head, the public reacted as if shot. Tens of thousands of lawsuits were filed against the makers of Promelanicus, to go with the thousands of lawsuits already on file from the original users, who were now being referred to as the “Victims of Promelanicus-related Melanosis”. This public and financial onslaught was too much for the drug’s makers, who were quickly forced into bankruptcy.
But this was far too little, and too late, for the public. Physicians soon confirmed that the drug had rewritten the genetic code itself, and that it would pass down through the generations just like any other family trait. And although only a small percentage of the public had used Promelanicus, it was understood that it could easily spread through the human population through mixed breeding. Man, in his haste and ignorance, had managed to create a new racial strain in the space of only one generation.
As time went by, “Victims of Promelanicus-related Melanosis” became more than the public would willingly pronounce, and those so afflicted were soon referred to simply as being “black”. This trend had an incredible, albeit backhanded, impact on the rest of the world almost overnight. Since being black was no longer limited to a single race, but could impact anyone of any race, identifying any race by a color did not work any more. People who were formerly referred to by the reference “black” were soon called African, or Afri, after the actual home of their ancestral strains. In a global domino effect, the use of colors to describe races soon ebbed, and races were marked by their regional distinctions.
The one exception to this rule, of course, were the new “blacks.” Regardless of the actual racial heritage of anyone, if they carried the trademark black skin and white hair, they were “black.”
But this was not the worst effect on the populace of the “Promelanicus Catastrophe”, as it soon became known. As the years took their toll on the original users of Promelanicus, a new perception of them began to take shape amongst the public. The first users were being called stupid, ignorant, foolish, for being gullible enough to try an untested drug. Never mind that the drug was considered tested at the time (however inadequately), nor that the government had stamped their seal of approval on it at the time (which was, naturally, revoked, approximately twenty-two years after it had been granted)… it seemed that a purely unscientific, overly emotional and completely ignorant point of view had taken root, and it spread like a weed.
Being “black” became synonymous with being stupid, descended from stupid stock. They became the new second class, the brunt of jokes, the people who could not hold jobs requiring “intelligence,” the ones no one wanted at the best social gatherings. Ironically, this had the effect of kicking all other racial groups into “first class citizen” status, and improving general racial harmony throughout the world… at which point, blacks were no longer considered a race, per se, but instead became a condition. They were handicapped by virtue of skin color, not to mention the incredible ignorance of their parents.
Only the science of Psychology could even hope to explain how, after more than a century, this foolish and archaic notion could still survive. Psychologists, being psychologists, naturally had any number of explanations that they all insisted were valid, but the most popular explanations generally had to do with “transference”, or subconsciously applying the deeds (and faults) of the ancestor to the descendant. As to applying blame to the ancestors, psychologists claimed it was “an easy assumption, since the ancestors are not alive to refute it.”
But even understanding the psychological explanations behind prejudice did little good, because the prejudice was still there. Even today. And Thomas knew it only too well. He remembered the efforts he’d gone through as a youth, to prove to the other children he was as good as they were in every way. Not that he’d achieved physical and mental perfection, but by his teens he had earned the respect of everyone in the tribe, and the admiration of a few of his peers.
Then he applied for the International Guard, and found himself in the same position he’d been in as a youth. Again, he found he had to prove he was up to the job of Peacekeeper, and as capable of excelling in it as any other recruit. Fortunately, the disciplines learned in his youth carried him through with flying colors. But along his training, he had come across some others who were not as well prepared for the unusual expectations they were put under. A few simply gave up under the stress (“Many people give up the Guard,” officials would say. “The number of black resignees is not significantly larger than that of resignees in general.” But Thomas knew them a little better than the stats did), and few blacks who stayed in ever made it to Deputy status.
And Thomas let everyone else guess, and usually feigned ignorance on the subject, but he knew very well he was the first black Peacekeeper to command a station and territory. This did not concern him, however, because Thomas also knew his own abilities, and he knew he hadn’t risen to ninth in his class for any reason other than his proven skills and intelligence. He also knew his classmates, and he knew the eight ahead of him were there because they were better than he was, plain and simple. He had nothing to blame being black on, so he did not let it bother him.
But it was hard not to feel sympathetic toward someone else who was bothered.
It was two evenings later that Thomas found himself passing by the same bakery that had erupted in slapstick violence days before. DePaul saw him walk by, and waved cheerfully to him. He had obviously gotten over the loss of product he had suffered during Danelle’s assault, and his customers seemed as numerous and happy as ever. Thomas waved back, and almost didn’t see the pile of boxes with legs until it was too late.
“Look out!” he cried instinctively, though he was the one who hadn’t been watching where he was going. He threw out his arms just as he struck the boxes, and managed to keep all but a small one from toppling to the ground. He couldn’t see the person on the other side of the boxes, but they seemed to have lost control of their load, so Thomas held onto them. “I’ve got them, I’ve got them. I’m sorry, I was distracted, and I didn’t see you coming…”
“That’s okay, I didn’t see you either,” a female voice replied. Thomas saw the girl step out from behind the boxes to pick up the one on the ground. When she stood up, her ponytail of silvery-white hair danced behind her head like a mane of feathers. “Oh—Commander!” Reva laughed, and started to take the packages from him. “I didn’t know that was you.”
“Is this part of your moving chores?” Thomas asked.
“No, I’ve finished moving in,” Reva said. “I just had some other things to buy, and…” she shrugged, smiling.
“Say no more,” Thomas told her. “Is your place far? I can carry these.”
“I’m just three levels down from here.” She took about half the packages from Thomas, so they could both see clearly where they were going. “This does make it easier to navigate. Thanks.”
“Sure. So, how do you like Midland?”
“Oh, it’s beautiful! I’m really looking forward to staying here. CC says I’m going to love it.”
“My roommate. Colin Cortez.”
“Oh, right, you did tell me about him. Are you two engaged?”
“No, just old friends,” Reva said. “Our families go way back together, when we were all still on the frontier. Are you engaged with anyone?”
Thomas shook his head. “I’ve been moving around too much lately, so I haven’t gotten that involved with anyone for awhile.”
“Well, if you’re like every other man in a new city, you must know what all the hospitality houses are like. You’ll have to recommend a good one to me.”
“As a matter of fact, I have stopped in a few of them,” Thomas admitted wryly. “You’ll probably like Dan Wa’s, on forty-nine west. It’s full of men who don’t scare easily, and some even own their own whips.”
“Ha!” Reva shifted her load as she stepped onto the lift. “Do you spend much time there?”
“I think I’ve spent more time helping Rollers break up fights in there, than I’ve spent in there off duty. I prefer The Oasis, on thirty-two north. It’s fun, but not as rowdy. Good mixed crowd, too. A little bit of everybody goes there.”
“That sounds more my speed, too,” Reva said. “I like mixed crowds. It makes me feel like I can be myself, instead of being like everybody else in the place.”
“I know just what you mean.”
“Maybe I’ll see you in there sometime?”
“Probably,” Thomas smiled. “I’m sure we’ll have plenty to talk about.”