“Only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”
~ Albert Einstein
What were they going to do about her?
Roderigo sighed, looking up at the night sky wondering when Proxima was going to get down. She was smoking. Which was neither a good sign, but was an indefinite show of her morbidity.
Looking up with weary eyes, Roderigo shook his head. Each time she came back from an assassination, Proxima had come back more and more damaged. Roderigo could relate to her sorrow, but more so in the killing of his friend Octavius. That guy was hard to yell at, let alone kill.
He sighed again, watching Medea sleep across from him, on the other side of the camp fire. The soft, slow firelight made the young girl’s sleeping face glow in the darkness. It was a good thing she was asleep. Now, perhaps, Roderigo could climb up that blasted tree and talk some sense into Proxima. His own way. Without the fear of being a bad influence to the youngest of their group.
Roderigo got up, putting a torch between his teeth, and made for the tree. Taking his time, he climbed – cursing every time his foot or hand slipped or a branch cut him or smacked him between the eyes. Finally, he sat uncomfortably on the thick bough across from where Proxima was seated. He caught her stubbing a spent cigarette on her right arm – which was riddled with small, round scorch marks. She didn’t even know he was there or, if she did, didn’t take any notice of him.
“You not gonna say somethin’?” he asked.
Proxima said nothing, took another cigarette out of a packet, lit it and began smoking again. The tiny specks of carbon danced around Proxima’s face in the synthetic light of the torch.
“This is it, then?” persisted Roderigo, “You’re jus’ gonna brood? And take no notice of anything else?”
Still no response.
“What about Cato?”
Proxima shuffled away from Roderigo a little. But she still didn’t say anything.
“Octavius really made an impression on you, eh?”
Proxima’s head rose a little, her eyes widened, tears gathering in their corners.
“Don’t cry,” Roderigo said, leaning on the trunk of the tree, cracking his neck muscles, “Octavius does that to everyone he meets. Jus’ plain charmin’, he is.”
“And I killed him,” croaked Proxima, holding the cigarette between finger and thumb.
“Do we really have to go through this again?”
“But he didn’t deserve it, and I never wanted to and –”
“Don’t you ever get sick of repeatin’ yourself?” Roderigo paused and pointed at her, “You know what your problem is? You think too much. It’s normal to feel guilty, but you take it up too many levels, Vixen,” he shook his head, “I wonder what you’d be like as a soldier. Would you be contemplatin’ the innocence and guilt of every other bugger you kill in the other army?”
Proxima shrugged, still not looking at Roderigo, “I just think they shouldn’t have died that way. I shouldn’t have killed them. Not Octavius. Not the General. Not even the Minister. It wasn’t fair.”
“We all take our turn in dying, Vixen. And as far as the Empire’s concerned, there is no such thing as ‘fair’ in war.”
“I shouldn’t have been made lord over the souls of people. That’s Death’s job, not mine. To choose who dies and who lives... And the Dyonuxiots seem to have a sense of fair play.”
“For the last time, Vixen, you were pushed into this!”
“I pushed myself into this!” Proxima blew out smoke and gazed at the full moon in the black velvet sky. No stars were out tonight. Where they hiding in shame for her crime? And left the waxing moon to glower at her, alone and unwavering in his stare? The full moon was always said to wake evil spirits. Would they punish her this night?
“And now,” she continued, “I’m beginning to wonder – is this what Cato would have wanted?”
“Blimey, o’ course not!”
And, for the first time in a long time, Proxima regarded Roderigo.
He suppressed a smile, “O’ course Cato would never want you to do this. He didn’t bring you up to run around killin’ people – whatever the sort! No. If he’d had a say, as soon as he went into coma, he would have asked Sheldon to give you a strong sedative or the other to keep you down ‘til he got up again. Or died, in which case he’d have asked your memory to be removed. Or something o’ that kind, you know? He’d have never let you brave the forest, kill a General, a Minister and an Ambassador, even if you did sustain minimal external damage. But,” Roderigo smiled, “if your positions had been reversed, Cato would have done this for you.”
Proxima bowed her head, as if ashamed at the thought of abandoning Cato, and nodded slightly. She seemed to lose interest in her cigarette.
“I admire that about you two,” Roderigo continued, “You have some sort of… familiarity, which the rest of us seem to have lost. You watch each others’ backs. You keep each other safe,” he snorted humorously, “And the pair o’ you ain’t even lovers! You’re like father and child, only more like friends – really how it ought to be. Ever since I met Cato back when I was a scamp, I ain’t never thought of him as a family man. And then I met the two of you, and I knew something in him had changed, like. He was somehow more… whole. You know? Like he’d found an actual purpose in his life that he was fulfilling. Some of us walk around without ever finding our purpose, Vixen, and you were born with one. I guess that sounds like it ought to make you happy, but I know it don’t. You don’t want that purpose – fighting for an Empire that just don’t fight fair. But Cato gave you another purpose, to fight for him and fight for yourself. Shouldn’t you find some comfort in that?”
“Should I?” said Proxima.
“He’s done so much for you,” said Roderigo, “And now you’re paying it all back. He won’t be happy with what the Empire’s done with you, but he’ll be right as rain when he hears of all the things you’ve done for him.”
“Assuming he doesn’t die.”
“Bloody –!” Roderigo caught himself and smacked his forehead, “And they call me pessimistic!”
“I’m sorry,” said Proxima, raising a hand, “I know you’re trying to help, Roderigo. I just wish I didn’t have to kill Octavius. He was so understanding and all…” she sighed, smiling like an idiot to herself, “I think I may have been a victim of infatuation on sight of him. He was just… so… lovely.”
Roderigo leaned forward a little, wondering how to respond, “Erm… Is that you thinking out loud, or was I meant to hear that?”
“Am I making you uncomfortable, Roderigo? That’s a first.”
“Is that a smile I see on your face?”
Proxima shook her head, throwing away the cigarette, “Always the best at changing the subject.”
Roderigo scowled, laughing a little at the same time, and said, “Well, a change of subject has seemed to lighten your mood, kid.”
“I suppose… I took his journal. He told me to. Do you think I should read it?”
“Since when has what I think counted for anything?”
“Since I started trusting you. Should I read it or not?”
Roderigo paused a moment, “Up to you, really. But you got four more targets, so if you reckon it’ll upset you too much, then save reading for later.”
“Have you messaged the Twelve?”
“Get to that. Before they think you’re dead.”
“Do they have reason to think so?”
“Prolonged infatuation can lead you to lots of bad ends.”
Proxima laughed, “You sound like you know all about it.”
Roderigo smirked, “Believe me, I do. Now get messaging.”
Proxima paused a moment, but took off the chain around her neck on which the Imocs hung. Roderigo watched her twist it and click it a number of times.
…Unimpressive, he thought.
He was always under the impression that the Imocs had a touch-sensitive, holographic keyboard. He laughed silently at the thought.
Trust them to be stingy, he shook his head.
“What are you laughing at?” asked Proxima.
Roderigo turned his attention back to her, still smiling, “Just thinking on those twats in the Decagon.”
“Something funny about them?”
“What’s not funny about ‘em?” Roderigo shifted in his seat, “They do so much to impress, but they lack justice. They’ve done the Romans shame by taking up their banner.”
“Even Rome had to fall.”
“What do you mean ‘even’?” said Roderigo, “All nations have succeeded and all have failed. It’s the… inevitable end of nations.”
“But… Rome was so great.”
“And that,” he pointed at Proxima, “is exactly what they’ll teach you in school. It’s exactly what the Emperor will tell you. Know why? It makes the Empire look good. It ‘elps enroll expendable soldiers into the Legion. It ‘elps their agenda. Imagine they’d taken on the Greek traditions or that of the Germanians – would they be praising Rome? Hell, no. Because Rome was the cause of demise for those nations. What was it they make you sing in school assemblies? “Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori”? You got any idea what that means?”
Proxima nodded, “Something like: ‘It is good and right to die for your country’.”
“Two words: Brain. Washing.”
“Technically, that’s one word.”
Roderigo ignored her, “Rome was not great. Not from the view of the million people crowded into one city – over seventy percent of them living in poverty. Not to the gladiators that were thrown into the arena. Not to the slaves and the women and the Christians and the people of conquered lands. Rome, in the view of those people, was savage – and the Empire fashions itself thusly.”
“Ranting improves your English.”
“Will you please pay attention?” snapped Roderigo.
“I am,” said Proxima, “This side of you is new to me.”
“Well, I had the time to think about it.”
Roderigo nodded, “Exposure to anti-Empire policies whilst I stayed in Methum ‘elped,” he paused, “Do you know why they did that? Why the Humans took on the Roman uniform again?”
“Because… No, no idea.”
“Because Humans are stupid.”
Proxima looked at Roderigo quizzically, “You realize you are part Human?”
“And your point is what? It’s about time someone realized how stupid we Humans are. Romans were fierce in fighting. They had tactics. They had strategies. They had propaganda. They had order. They killed many, and they spared few – mostly women and children, to keep ‘em as slaves. They made a display of their kills, as a warning and as a sign. They were proud and arrogant. And that is what the Humans wanted again when the Dyonuxiots attacked. They wanted a Golden Age. Funny, since Humans bicker over almost anything.”
“It’s quieted now. You probably didn’t experience it, growing up. But Humans are very, very discriminative – wha’ever the type. People fought people because they were a different color. Because they believed in something else. Because they believed the same thing, but had a different interpretation on the matter. Because one person had more gold or resources than the other. Because they clearly had nothing better to do. Humans have always been at odds with each other. Didn’t the sons of Adam kill each other? The sons of the first bloomin’ man? Didn’t Cain kill Abel? Why? Jealousy. Greed. Resentment. You name it. Humans haven’t changed. And they ain’t no smarter. It was only a matter of time – Aliens would come and destroy us. Humanity has certainly proved that it deserves it.”
It makes sense, she thought, But what is he getting at?
“Are you implying,” she said slowly, “that the Empire and the Human race as a whole should just… die out under the Dyonuxiots?”
“Unless they grow decent brains any time soon, then yes: I reckon that’s what should happen,” said Roderigo with a shrug, “I don’t see any other way this part in history will play out.”
“They’ll make more of us. They’ll make more Half-Castes.”
“Oh, I’m sure they will. But that ain’t changing nothing. The Dyonuxiots are stronger, and there’re much more of them. They’ll learn the difference between Half-Castes and pure Dyonuxiots soon enough. And we’ll go from Half-Castes to outcasts. Them aliens are smarter than Humans can ever ‘ope to be.”
“You’re not much of a philanthropist.”
“Anthropy hasn’t given me many reasons to phil it.”
“You had a family. A Human family.”
Roderigo’s head snapped up. He didn’t say anything for a moment, but then remarked coldly, “Do not go there.”
Proxima stiffened a little, “Fine,” she said firmly, climbing down the tree, “I’m going to bed. But, Roderigo – Humans are still our people. It’s no solution to be a complete misanthropist.”