“Actually, Lieutenant Archer,” she heard herself say, “I rather doubt you’re going to be as offensive as Mr. Van Scheldt. I hope not, at least, since I don’t see how anyone possibly could be without deliberately working at it.”

            “From what I’ve seen of him so far,” Gervais told her, “I imagine that’s exactly what he did – work at it, I mean.” He saw her blue eyes widen slightly in fresh surprise and smiled faintly at her. “We’re not exactly unfamiliar with the type back home,” he added.

            “Really?” Helga was a bit surprised by the cold edge of her own voice, but she couldn’t help it. “I rather doubt that, Lieutenant. His ‘type,’ as you put it, has had a bit more of an impact on Dresden than I imagine it’s ever had on you.”

            Gervais managed not to blink in surprise or raise any eyebrows, but the harshness, the sudden, unmistakable anger, in her response took him more than a little aback.

            This isn’t just a case of Van Scheldt personally being an asshole, he realized. I don’t know what the hell it is, but it’s more than that. And now that I’ve so nonchalantly wandered out into this particular minefield, what do I do about it?

            He gazed at her for several seconds, and as he did, he realized there was a darkness behind the anger in her eyes. A darkness put there by some memory, some personal experience. He felt certain somehow that this wasn’t a woman who lightly succumbed to prejudice or permitted it to rule her life, and if that was true, there had to be more to the bitterness, the shadows of pain, than the mere casual arrogance and amused malice of a drone like Van Scheldt.

            “I don’t doubt that that’s true,” he said finally. “I’ve done my best to bone up on Talbott since Lady Gold Peak picked me as her flag lieutenant and we both found out we were headed this way, but I can’t pretend to really know very much about the way things have been out here in the past. I’m working on it, but there’s an awful lot of information involved  and I simply haven’t had time to make very much of a dent in it. It’s obvious to me that you and Van Scheldt don’t exactly get along like a house on fire, but I’d assumed he must have personally done something to offend you. Lord knows he’s obviously the sort of jackass who could do something like that as easily as breathing! But from what you’ve just said, I’m beginning to realize there’s more to it. I’m not trying to be flip, and if you’d rather not talk about it, I’ll accept that. On the other hand, if it’s something I should know – something my Admiral should be aware of – so that we don’t inadvertently do the same thing, I’d really appreciate it if you could help further my education about the Quadrant.”

            My God, I think he actually means it! Helga thought. She gazed at him for several heartbeats, frowning ever so slightly, then felt the decision make itself.

            He wants to know why I feel the way I feel? Wants to understand why not all of us are ready to start dancing in the streets just because another batch of oligarchs thinks it can make a profit off of us? All right. I’ll tell him.

            “All right, Lieutenant,” she said. “You want to know why Van Scheldt and I don’t like each other? Try this on for size.” She folded her arms in front of her, standing hip-shot, her blue eyes glittering, and looked up at him. “I’m twenty-six T-years old, and I only received my very first prolong treatments when I went to work for Minister Krietzmann last year. If I’d been three T-months older, I’d have been too old for even the first-generation treatment . . . just like my parents. Just like my two older brothers and my three older sisters. Just like all but six of my cousins and every one of my aunts and uncles. But not Mr. Van Scheldt. Oh, no! He’s from Rembrandt! He got it just because of where he was born, who his parents were, what planet he came from – just like you did, Lieutenant. And so did his parents, and all of his sisters and brothers. Just like they got decent medical care and a balanced diet.”

            Her eyes were no longer merely glittering. They blazed, now, and her voice was far harsher than her accent alone could ever have explained.

            “We don’t like Frontier Security on Dresden any more than anyone else in the Cluster. And, sure, everything we’ve heard about Manticore suggests we’ll get a better deal out of your Star Kingdom than we ever would out of OFS. But we know all about being ignored, Lieutenant Archer, and most of us on Dresden don’t have any illusions. I doubt the Star Kingdom is going to gouge us the way Frontier Security, the League, and the Rembrandt Trade Union have, but most of us take all those ‘economic incentives’ the Convention promised us with a very large grain of salt. We’d like to think at least some of our neighbors were sincere about it, but we’re not stupid enough to believe in altruism or the tooth fairy. And if any of us might’ve been tempted to, there are enough Paul Van Scheldts in the Cluster to teach us better. His family was deeply invested in Dresden even before the Annexation, you know. They hold majority interests in three of our major construction companies, and they could care less about the people who work for them. About the building site injuries, or the long-term health problems, or providing their employees’ families – their children, at least, for God’s sake! – with access to prolong.”

            The depth of her anger swept over Gervais with a pure and consuming power, and it took everything he had not to flinch from it. No wonder Van Scheldt had found it so easy to flick her on the raw!

            And the fact that he obviously enjoys doing it so much suggests he’s an even nastier piece of work than I thought he was. He probably spends his free time pulling the wings off flies.

            “I’m sorry to hear that, especially about your family,” he said quietly. “And you’re right – it’s not something I can really imagine or share from my own experience. My brothers and sisters, my parents – even my grandparents – are all prolong recipients. I can’t begin to imagine how I’d feel if I’d gotten it and none of them had. If I knew I was going to lose every single one of them before I was even ‘middle aged.’” He shook his head, his own eyes dark. “But I can understand why an asshole like Van Scheldt would be able to get to you. And even if I can’t really say I ‘know’ him yet I don’t need to know him to recognize how much he enjoys doing just that. Which, given what you’ve just said about his family’s involvement in your planet’s economy, makes him an even sicker bastard than I’d already thought.”

            Helga twitched as she heard the hard, cold disgust – the contempt – in his voice. She’d heard plenty of contempt from people like Van Scheldt, but this was different. It wasn’t directed at the speaker’s “natural inferiors,” and it wasn’t petty and denigrating. More than that, it was born of anger, not arrogance. Of outrage, not disdain.

            Or, at least, it sounded as if it were. But Dresden had learned the hard way that appearances could be deceiving, she cautioned herself.

            “Really?” she said.

            “Really,” he replied, and he felt a distant sort of wonder at the rock-ribbed certitude of his own tone.

            The back of his brain wondered what the hell he thought he was doing, using terms like “sick bastard” to describe someone he hardly knew to someone he’d barely even spoken to. Yet there it was. He did recognize the self-indulgent sadism required for someone to enjoy mocking the victim of his own family’s exploitative greed and neglect.