Even at this height, where Braea felt a twinge of sickening dizziness, the roars of the crowds below could be heard. They were muffled through the polycarb glass, and when one of many assistants urged Braea to step closer to the edge of her sealed balcony overhanging what seemed like the world below, she got the momentary impression that she could simply keep walking: Out through the glass, into the air and through the station ceiling, out into space and into the unknown and unending dark. She had to stop herself from taking another step lest she bump into the glass wall. The cameras would capture that, as they did everything else, and she couldn't imagine the hundreds of thousands down below all laughing at her.
The floor was carpet-clad but the walls all around them were transparent, and everywhere she looked down below she saw countless tiny heads, like little fallen stars, all of them looking either up at her or at the massive quartet of video screens that hung above her crystal enclosure and flashed her image to the four corners of this floating world. She ventured a quick look up, but the sight of herself cast on those screens gave her even more vertigo than the heights had done.
In that brief glimpse she saw the camera zoom out from her face and show her entire figure in that tight dress she hated. She'd put on weight, first from the stress of what happened to Gerets and then as comfort against the shock when he got back. It was nothing that an expensive designer couldn't fix, she'd been told, but she knew her own body and she knew what she was. Most of the time, at least.
She quickly looked back down and cast a glance at Gerets, who stood beside her and had not made a sound. In this place, with the crowd's overbearing adoration of them and what they stood for, it felt easier, more real, to look at his face, destroyed as it was. It was not their first public appearance after Gerets' checkout from the rehabilitation ward, but she was continually amazed to find herself here.
Gerets was her fiancé. He was a member of the Gallente armed forces. He had been stationed on Caldari Prime during the invasion. Orbital bombardments had hit his barracks, killing everyone else. He'd been so disfigured that they had to use RNA scans to confirm his identity. That's what had happened, and that was how it was. She had to accept that.
His face looked like a child's paper drawing of a man that had been smudged with water and grime before being crumpled into a ball and flattened out again.
She bit her lip, hard. This was how it was. No panic and no backing out.
His costume covered him from neck on down, but Braea knew what lay beneath.
He would be fixed, but not for quite a while, for it was on him to be the symbol of perseverance and strength in the face of stark, brutal reality. This was what they'd done to Our Boys, all the reason we needed to go out there with fire and thunder. After some time - maybe a year or two, or three or four, they'd been told - he would quietly be given the funds needed to fix himself, followed by a total news blackout on him.
She looked to her side and pretended to wave, sneaking a glance at the capsuleer who'd hid in their entourage. He stood off-camera, looking like one of many assistants. His cranial socket was covered with a skin patch which in turn was concealed under a tight hood. He'd showed them the setup when he first came into the deal, explaining that while some people would undoubtedly guess his identity, it shouldn't be publicly acknowledged by anyone on the team. The capsuleer had offered an unknown addition to the funds the Federation had earmarked for Gerets' operation, enough to secure him a watcher's position in the press circus that surrounded the couple. He wasn't shy about his support, though its scope was unrevealed, but this effort wasn't supposed to be about him.
They had agreed, as they had agreed to so much, initially for the hope of a new beginning and eventually for the raw need for an end.
The show ended and they all headed off for the VIP greeting session. The Federation had made substantial advances in the direction of total conquest, the news had said, and whatever else those advances were, they were undoubtedly absolute reason for rejoicing.
On their way into the main floor of the skyscraper, one of the tallest buildings on the station, some of the assistants quietly asked Gerets to follow them to the makeup section. There would be press.
Braea turned to follow them, but the capsuleer touched her elbow. "We're taking a little side route."
She furrowed her brows. The capsuleer said, "We'll get to makeup soon enough, and Gerets'll still be there." He looked towards Gerets and she followed his gaze. The skin on her fiancé's neck had gone reddish and some of the pustules residing on it had pushed their way out, dotting a flabby skin fold that dangled limply over his neckline.
Braea stared at his neck, then walked up to him, gingerly put a hand on his shoulder and said she'd be right along.
Gerets turned and looked impassively at her, then looked away and kept walking.
She told herself, for the thousandth time, that this sullenness was his nerves, nothing more than his nerves and the regimented behavior taught in the army, and not a lack of caring. Then she followed the capsuleer down another path.
They walked down a long corridor inset with soft light and entered a private elevator that took them down only a few floors. The elevator had one-way glass. Braea looked out, unseen at last.
"We can dim it both ways if it makes you feel queasy," the capsuleer said.
She blinked, looked at him, then said, "No, no. It's not that."
He leaned his head to one side, but said nothing more.
They left the elevator and walked out onto a floor that was one huge space, stretching throughout at least a third the length of the building. It was beautifully laid out, with touch-sensitive pads that left heat-signature tracks of her steps; furniture of leather and wood; and hologram paintings on the walls. Braea looked hard at each painting she passed, more than anything to take her mind off the world, and something began to catch her eye. It took her a moment, but eventually she spotted it in every one. That one rogue element: Herself. Hidden somewhere in the room would be cameras that took her image, processed it for presentation, and strategically projected it in the landscape of the paintings. She was an underwater diver, a resident in a dirtworld farmhouse, a captain of a spaceship. All the unwitting roles for her to play, a star even less real than the scenery.
She nearly bumped into the capsuleer. He'd stopped and was gesturing for her to take a seat in one of the leather couches. Leather, like wood, was a commodity on the stations and one she felt decidedly uncomfortable with, but the seat he was directing her to had a worn appearance and its leather surface had hairline cracks. "My favorite reading spot," he said.
She realized he was trying to help her feel relaxed and the small gesture set her at ease. She sat. "Is this someone's apartment?" she asked him. "Is it yours?"
He sat beside her, at a respectable distance. "Yes, it is. This is the entryway."
"How much of this floor is yours?"
"All of it," he said. "But I didn't bring you here to impress you."
She doubted it, but said nothing.
"How did all that fanfare make you feel?" he asked.
She narrowed her eyes and remained silent. Although he'd been in the project almost from the start and had remained affable throughout, he was a capsuleer. She and everyone she knew had an ingrained awe of his kind that was equal parts fear, admiration, distrust and wonder. The gulf that existed between him and everyone else was not easily bridged.
Also, she didn't yet know what he wanted out of all this. His monetary gift to the program had been quite substantial.
Also, she was very tired, not least of being stared at by people with ideas in their head about who she was.
"It's uncomfortable," he says. "Doesn't really feel like it's really you they're seeing or want to see. I know how that is."
She debated how forthright she could be with him and decided to try the waters. "Not to be ungrateful, but how I feel is a little complicated and I'm not at all sure I understand it myself yet. Is there a reason we're here? I should be with my husband."
"He's only your husband to be," the capsuleer said. His tone would have felt insultingly dismissive to Braea, but it struck something that she was too bright to write off as mere pride. "That's the big part of the news, isn't it?" he continued. "You two, despite everything, still aiming to get married sometime in the near future. I don't even think you've picked a day, have you?"
"We did," she said. "But after ... after what happened, it's all up in the air."
"Yes. I'm told you were convinced to put it off. Some war message agents came over. Guys who thought our supportive masses would like the idea of the girls supporting our troops but wouldn't quite want to confront the idea of what would happen on the wedding night. And you know what? That delay is actually a good thing."
She firmly ignored thoughts of the wedding night and focused on the capsuleer. Whatever he was leading up to it felt like he was on her side, though whatever side that was she didn't know yet. "Is it?" she said, then bit her tongue.
He smiled again. "It is, actually. The fanfare is necessary for the people, but you'll find they really don't care about the aftermath. Aside from a few newsmen scrounging for follow-up human-interest stories, you'll soon be pushed out of the limelight, never to return."
She looked down. "Maybe that's for the best," she said quietly. She felt so tired.
"Maybe for some," he said. "But I've got my own ideas, and the ability to follow through on them. Half the money is yours, by the way."
"Thanks," she said. She'd heard this said before. Unity and strength; we all stood by each other's side.
"I'm not speaking figuratively. Today's reception is the last in this grueling press run you've been on for the last few weeks. Once you finish it, half the funds allocated to you and Gerets will be put into savings that he can rely on, released in substantial installments over several years, and will cover not only his rebuilding procedures but practically anything else he might desire. He'll get a new body and a better life to live it with.
"The other half of the money is yours and will become immediately available. It's registered to you and is yours to handle as you see fit. You have no more duties. Not to me, not to the government or the press, not to the people, not anyone," he said. "Not even your fiancé."
She stared at him, not knowing what to say.
The capsuleer said, "People can be regrown. I've been destroyed enough times to know that, and I understand the process better than most. One day, a while from now, Gerets will be rebuilt. It'll take a long while and will be agonizing even for a man who's experienced plenty of pain already, but it'll happen, at least on a physical level. There'll be physiotherapy and there'll be bad days that slowly get better.
"But there's nothing that can be done for the spirit. That'll have to take care of itself for now. Therapy will help, but after you've been broken and rebuilt, well..." He raised his hands, palms upwards. "You're never the same."
"Why are you doing this?" she said in a whisper. On the wall, her painted simulacrums leaned down with her, nearly invisible in the colorful backdrops.
The capsuleer leaned forward too, resting his face on his hands. "You're a very pretty young woman, and I say that as someone who has absolutely zero interest in you in that way. You could have your choice of men, but you chose this one and you stuck with him. Until now it's been out of love and duty. After this point, it could've been out of duty still, or possibly out of darker motivations."
"If you're implying it was all for the money-" she said, but he interrupted. "No, I'm not. It's for the duty, and for what you once had, and for what you might have in some imagined fantasyland. But you've got smarts behind that pretty face and you know as well as I do that with this kind of commitment there comes self-doubt, even self-hatred, and a twisted kind of loyalty that you can never quite gel to. If you stay with Gerets while he's like this, not just physically deformed but mentally scarred over it, you risk turning yourself into a martyr and poisoning everything you might have had with him."
"Do you want me to leave him?" she said, a small tremor in her voice. "I can't. I can't do that."
"Let me tell you something," he said. "The people who organized this, as far as they're concerned, Gerets is no hero. He's a terribly unlucky everyman, chosen to be a poster boy of what the enemy did to our people and handed a little bone to chew on as a thanks. Before I came into this deal, the plan was to stagger the release of regrowth money so much and thrust it behind such masses of red tape that you'd effectively have been serfs of the government in perpetuity. I brought in ten times what they'd set aside for you, and even that amount is less than I can make in a day. You owe them nothing, nor me, nor anyone else.
"You're not doing this out of sympathy alone," she said in a cold tone.
He raised an eyebrow. "I'm not?"
"I noticed the hints you dropped during the procession. Even if you know what it's like for people to think of you as something you're not, it wouldn't have made you do all this."
He regarded her for a while. His expression quivered slightly, and Braea realized he was trying not to smile. Eventually he said, "Well, you're right. In my defense,altruism was a real factor in my offer. But there's more to it; of course there is.
"I've been hurt, and deformed, and even killed. I've woken up in a clone vat more often than I can recall. I've never gone through what Gerets will, but I've been burned nonetheless." He leaned forward again. "There comes a point, Braea, where you're so far gone that you lose the ability to reach out to the people who matter. When you reach that point, having someone who's there only out of the duty and the darkness, and not out of pure and unfiltered love ... well, that someone will make you want to stay inside and wait for them to go away."
He took her hand. "How long's it been since Gerets touched you?"
She pulled her hand away, and looked at the walls. All her colored selves looked over their shoulders, too.
The capsuleer said, "If you think he doesn't know what's going on-... no, if you think he can't see how you feel, that he doesn't know every thought in your head, you're dead wrong. I spoke to that young man. He's bright. Morose, naturally, but still very bright, and he pays attention. And he's in terrible, terrible pain that you're only going to make worse if you stick around and force yourself to pretend that everything's the same."
"Then what do I do?" Braea said, still not looking at him.
"I had someone who clung to me. She did it for glory, me being a capsuleer, and even after I'd had my head scrambled by too many clonings in too little time, even when I made her life this absolute passive-aggressive hell, she still hung on. And eventually what was left of the love evaporated, because even as I wasn't the same person anymore, neither was she. The balance changed and she changed with it."
He stood up. "I want you to do what's right. This does include being to Gerets what he needs you to be, but to be honest, that's a secondary concern. You shouldn't carry him any more than you should carry a banner for the government's propaganda. Your duty is to yourself, always, and only to others through that. If you can be to Gerets what you want to be, then do it. If not, well, now you have a choice, and an obligation to realize that choice."
She stood up. Her painted selves rose with her.
He grinned slyly. "And heavens, you need makeup. Your cheeks are streaked with tears. You can't be seen like this; think what your husband would say!"
She let out a choking laugh. They walked back to the elevators. The tiles left tracks that gently faded in the wake of their passing.