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Stories from the Verse
Chapter 97: Slade 121
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The meal was the best Slade had had since his arrival in this world. That, he realized, was not saying much, but it was actually rather good. As he enjoyed it, his host opened conversation.
“I’m very interested,” the colonel began, “in this idea you put forward, that the war continues because we need a common enemy to unite us. What gives you that idea--and I’m not saying it’s wrong, only that I’ve never heard it before.”
Slade shrugged. “Well, I suppose it’s a conspiracy theory of sorts, the sort of thing that can’t be proved or disproved because everyone who might know it to be true also knows that it only works if no one knows it’s true. I remember being somewhere where it was often claimed that wars were fought because the people who manufactured the weapons made a lot of money selling them to the armies, sometimes on both sides, and so had a lot of money to spend to buy the votes of government officials to keep the war going. Was it true? It certainly might have been. Government officials who were receiving money from weapons contractors weren’t going to say so; weapons contractors who were paying it weren’t going to say so. You might, if you were Woodward and Bernstein, find a paper trail, telling you that money was moving from manufacturers to politicians, but you couldn’t prove that it was paid to keep the war going. You’d need what they called a ‘smoking gun’, some solid proof that that’s what was happening.
“Now, I don’t think that your arms manufacturers are supplying both sides in this war--if they are, the ghosts are getting a raw deal, because the shades have much better weapons.” He noticed that Mlambo winced at the casual use of the word “shades”, but kept going. “But you’ve got such a, what’s the word I want, separation to extreme ends of an issue?”
“Polarized, m’lord?” Shella offered.
“Right. You’ve got such a polarized world that’s its difficult to imagine that it just happens this way without someone pushing for it. In some worlds that might be a religious thing, that the priests or the church or whoever tells everyone that they have to be or do this to get to heaven, but as Joe noted you people don’t seem to be very religious. It seems rather to be a political thing. I can’t think of any other reason for all the weirdness here.”
“Weirdness?” Mlambo prompted.
“Yeah. I think the first thing I really noticed was that there are no Arabs--that’s not really what I mean, and you probably wouldn’t know what that is. What you don’t have are mixed race babies. You don’t seem to have Romeo and Juliet--the teenagers from different sides of the war who fall in love with each other and run away together. I gather that you do--maybe not you personally, but your people--keep white slaves, and given the, er, proclivities of men it’s difficult to imagine that no slave owner would have thought that his female slave would make an adequate sex partner when his wife was having another of her headaches.”
Shella had that puzzled look on her face that suggested she wanted to ask something, but apparently decided this was not the time.
“So where are the babies from these beddings? We know from your own genetic studies that both sides are human enough that they’d have those children, so what prevents it? As Joe said, either somehow the very idea of touching someone of the other race has been made so disgusting in your minds that no one would ever do it, or someone is killing all those babies in the name of racial purity or something. Now, why would either of those things be true, unless someone was making an effort to get people to believe it? And why would anyone make that effort unless they got something out of it? The only thing I can see that anyone gets is that the leaders stay in power, because they’re selling the lie that the other side is dangerous and has to be destroyed.”
Slade paused to eat a bit of the food, and then continued.
“That’s actually another thing. Given your technology, you could easily have overrun the whites and destroyed them completely. Why haven’t you done so? The best answer is that you need them. Maybe it’s only that having a vast continent of primitives gives you a source for more slaves, so you’re only trying to keep them contained. Yet it might be that they provide that common enemy, that lets your politicians tell you that you have to support their policies so you don’t get overrun by those horrid creatures you call ghosts--and they tell their people the same thing.
“Of course, if it’s true, you can’t expect anyone to admit it. If for one minute your people or their people thought that it was all a lie to keep you all in line, there would be rioting in the streets as the war lost popular support and the kids refused to join the armies.”
Mlambo nodded. “It makes sense, in a strange conspiratorial way. Of course, if anyone were to suggest it, there would be an uproar about patriotism, possibly even charges of treason. The very tool by which they maintain their power becomes the weapon they can turn against dissenters. It is a very dangerous notion--or it would be, if you were black.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’s equally dangerous among the whites. It could end the war, and neither side wants that whatever they tell their people. Of course, I’ve only been here a couple months at this point, but that’s what I see.”
Mlambo picked up the thought. “I had always been taught, as I suppose we are all taught, that whites are inferior violent primates, ape-like creatures. I had never met one. I had seen one in a zoological garden once, but it did not seem to be as civilized as yourself.”
“Well, you can’t really go by that, can you? Consider it. If the whites caught you and put you in a cage and sold tickets for people to come look at you, would you act as your ordinary civilized self toward your spectators?”
“No, I don’t suppose I would.”
“You would probably be aggressive enough that they would drug you, and then you wouldn’t be yourself anyway. You can’t really see what someone is like when he’s locked up in confinement. You don’t even really know what I’m like, because you’ve only seen me in some very limited situations. I find you to be quite, to use your word, civilized. I would not have expected that from our first meeting.”
“No, I can see that you might not.”
“Meanwhile, I’ve met a few of the white folk while I’ve been here, and although they were quite antagonistic toward Joe, they warmed up to him quite quickly when he started teaching them how to improve their medicine and save more lives and more limbs of their soldiers. They weren’t all nice to him; they weren’t all nice to me. When were you anywhere where everyone was nice to you, that wasn’t a gathering of your own friends or admirers or subordinates? People are people. Skin is skin. You’ve got some differences, but they’re mostly that you have a technological edge and in isolation from each other you’ve developed some distinct cultures--surprisingly similar, really, all things considered, but maybe that’s because you’ve had to learn from each other in this war after all.”
They ate in silence for several minutes before Mlambo continued. “So, how do we fix this?”
Slade laughed. “Yeah, that is the million dollar question. Joe and I were debating the same problem almost from the moment we arrived. You should have been there when he had that first conversation with the young white soldier who asked me when Joe was going to die. The poor kid was completely shocked at Joe’s civilized explanation of how, what was his word, dear?”
“Dehumanizing,” Shella offered.
“Right. By dehumanizing our enemies we remove any guilt we might feel from killing them. We’re not people to you; we’re ghosts, insubstantial unreal imitations of people--and to them, you’re shades, demonic beings in human form. So it’s easy to kill. One thing Joe and I tried to do was get some people on each side to see that the other side is also human. When we were here, we did it by highlighting the fact that I am as fast and strong and indeed as skilled a fighter as anyone here, maybe anyone you know. When we were there, Joe showed that he was kind and concerned and willing to help heal and save lives. Sure, we were doing something else in the process, but the point was to show all of you that the other side is human.
“And the other thing, I think, is you can ask questions. You can get people to consider whether what everyone is taught might not be true. I mean, you can’t even talk about a negotiated peace until you believe that the other side is able to negotiate, and to make promises and keep them. And if there is a conspiracy to keep the war going, the sooner people start seeing that, the sooner it collapses.”
As they finished their meal, the colonel called to have the dishes cleared and dessert delivered. Bob complimented him, and the kitchen staff, on the food, and Shella concurred that it was unexpectedly good. They discussed trivialities for a time, and then the meal was ending.
“I’ve decided,” Slade said, “and I haven’t even told Shella this yet, but I’m headed to the white territory where I’m going to use some of my wealth to acquire a manor somewhere and rename it Slade Manor. You will always be welcome there, although at the moment I don’t know where it’s going to be and I foresee some hazard in getting you there.” He smiled. “You certainly have my respect, Colonel, and my trust, and while I don’t know whether you want to have a white person calling you a friend, respect and trust are probably two critical elements of that.”
“Thank you. I’ll return the invitation, although of course with the military being what it is I can’t guarantee where I’ll be next week, but wherever I am you are welcome.”
Slade chuckled. “Well, it sounds like we hope to run into each other again sometime, but don’t really have much hope of doing so. On the other hand, I’ve had some people vanish from my life and return in some pretty strange ways, so I’m not going to bet against us. Thank you for the meal. I expect we’ll see you in the morning, but things can happen overnight, so let me say good bye and thanks for all the fish”--Mlambo’s face expressed confusion, so Slade clarified. “Sorry, just a weird expression that means thanks for your kindness, or at least I think that’s what it means. Anyway, it’s what I mean.”
“And thank you, Mr. Slade, for the stimulating dinner conversation, and the fascinating view of the world. I am still most intrigued, and will be thinking about your notions for quite a while.”
On that note, the Slades retired to their quarters for the night. They chatted only briefly about the dinner, and were soon sleeping.
There is a behind-the-writings look at the thoughts, influences, and ideas of this chapter, along with twenty other sequential chapters of this novel, in mark Joseph "young" web log entry #257: Verser Relationships. Given a moment, this link should take you directly to the section relevant to this chapter. It may contain spoilers of upcoming chapters.
As to the old stories that have long been here: