The return was informal and as soon as they were in the canyon of office towers, Cassie, Galahad and May detoured to the hotel via a shortcut. They all had business in the clinic, so while May talked to Doc about her experiments with rat pituitary glands, Galahad made the rounds of his casualties and Cassie helped Rochelle check charts, take vitals and administer medication. Nisha, bloated and petulant, was on full bed rest. Zach’s breathing was worse and he was starting to bleed from his eyes. The battlefield casualty was still unconscious. It would’ve all been too depressing if not for Julilla, who was weak but in good humor.
“You can’t keep me here,” she said. “I know my rights.”
“You’re welcome to make a break for it anytime,” Cassie told her. “But I have it on good authority that no one’s going to pick you up if you faint in the stairwell.”
“I would never faint.” She struggled to sit, then blinked a few times. “I’m seeing two of you.”
“Better lie back down.”
“No shit. One of you is enough.”
“At least I’m not a Christian Soldier.”
“Then I’d have to kill you, no matter how many of you there are.”
They talked quietly for awhile, with Cassie relating the events of the day and Julilla shaking her head. “No way would I have put up with all those boys prancing around in tights making speeches.”
“It wasn’t so bad. I mean, it was overdone and way too long, but it’s just their way of coping, and better than anything I could’ve put together on short notice.”
“No need to be nice. Those Thespians are freaks.” Seeing the look on Cassie’s face, she added, “But not in a bad way. They know some amazing hand-to-hand combat tricks.” Julilla went on to relate a few stories about the previous day’s battle, but Cassie noticed she didn’t mention Paul or any real mayhem, death, or destruction.
Suspecting she was getting the Disney version of events, Cassie looked at her hands and sighed.
“Did they tell you how David made Galahad do the deed?”
Cassie looked up.
“He chased the little fucker down and disarmed him, then used him as a shield and dragged him to Galahad. He shoved that boy to his knees while he begged for mercy like the cowardly little shit he was. Then your boyfriend blew his brains out, just like that.”
On the other side of the room Galahad was tucking a blanket around one of the wounded. The expression on his face was so gentle Cassie couldn’t reconcile it with that of someone who had shot his own cousin.
“It’s eating at him,” Julilla said.
“He doesn’t show it.”
“What do you want him to do? Cry? I bet there’s a lot of hurt that doesn’t show on your face, either, but that doesn’t mean you don’t feel it.”
May and Doc were making the rounds. After a brief stop at Zach’s bedside, they went to the unconscious soldier where they stood for a long time, heads together, speaking in such soft tones it was impossible to understand their words even from a few feet away.
“I wonder what that’s all about.” Cassie said.
“No telling around here. You sure you can’t spring me?”
“You can leave anytime you think you won’t pass out.”
Galahad came over and reminded Julilla that she was too valuable to the group to take risks with her health. He promised to tie her to the nearest wall post if that’s what it would take to get her to rest. Then he turned to Cassie. Showing nothing in his face or gesture to indicate what was on his mind, he said, “Come with me. I’ve got something I want to show you.”
* * *
Cassie followed him down the hall.
“Try not to make any noise,” he said, as he opened the stairwell door. “And if we run into anyone, do whatever I do and play along.”
Cassie gathered her cumbersome skirt in one hand. Was she finally going to be allowed in on his secret? She started after him, following the beam of his flashlight. They passed the third and fourth floors, where everyone lived, then the fifth and six, where visitors stayed. As they passed the tenth, Cassie felt her thighs burning. She wasn’t used to so much climbing, but Galahad didn’t slow down.
The stairwell ended at the twentieth floor and Galahad opened the fire door so she could go in ahead of him. In the play of his flashlight, this floor seemed no different from the ones downstairs except that it wasn’t dingy with use, and had a hushed feel of cobwebs and abandonment.
“We’re almost there.” He led her to another stairwell and took a set of keys out of his pocket. “There’s a way up without this extra hassle,” he explained. “But I never use it. This way I’ve got a last chance to make sure no one’s behind me.”
Intrigued, Cassie followed him through the door. They went up two more flights, to another locked door. Galahad fumbled with his keys, pulled open the door and motioned Cassie through. She stepped into a dark, silent space that felt different from the floors below, but she couldn’t immediately say why. Galahad locked the door behind them, then placed the flashlight in her hand. “Look around.”
Hesitantly, she shone the beam in an arc, illuminating an oak-paneled room with inlaid marble floor, Persian rugs, and a marble fireplace. Paintings and tapestries hung on the walls, and sofas, plush chairs and small tables were artfully arranged for relaxation and conversation.
“Presidential Suite,” Galahad said. “As far as I know I’ve got the only key. And there’s more.”
He led her through the rooms, showing her the dining room with its crystal chandelier, and the private kitchen full of gleaming appliances of brushed steel. He took her past two bedrooms with four-poster beds and feather pillows, then into to a dark-paneled room lined with bookshelves full of leather-bound volumes. This room looked like it had been used recently. Books, papers, pens, and an empty teacup competed for space on the burled desk under the window, and books were left open on the small table between the leather sofa and overstuffed chair.
“It’s beautiful,” Cassie said in wonderment. She looked around while Galahad turned on some battery-powered lanterns. “I had no idea there was anyplace like this here. Or anywhere, any more.”
“That’s why I come here.” He switched off his flashlight and set it aside. “I like to think I’m a civilized person. Down there, we have to act like barbarians to stay alive. But up here I can pretend that I have the luxury of being a decent human being.”
Cassie sensed he was telling her something significant and that it held the key to the mysteries of his behavior. But she couldn’t think clearly with him standing over her like this, with the lanterns casting shadows on the planes of his face and illuminating his eyes like stars. She hoped being civilized included kissing, and a lot more.
Mistaking the reason for her silence, Galahad gestured toward the bookcases. “I’ve been trying to read the classics our civilization was supposedly built on. I used to think if I could understand our origins, I could help get us back on track again. But these books as full of barbarism as our own damn lobby.”
He pulled her to the nearest bookcase. “Look here. The Iliad. Can’t talk about Western Civilization without Homer, right? But the whole plot of the book is about a soldier who won’t fight because someone stole his girl. And the girl who was stolen had no say in the matter; she was a sex slave, spoils of war. Did we really base our civilization on people who thought it was okay to treat women like that?”
“Some guys still do now,” Cassie pointed out.
“And then there’s Plato. Have you ever tried to read The Republic? It’s just a bunch of people talking without ever taking action.”
“Sounds like our pre-Telo politicians.”
“And finally there’s the Bible. Unpunished incest, unpunished murder, but God will hate if you eat a clam.”
“Okay,” Cassie said, frowning. “So you’re saying the past is no help to us?”
Galahad took her hand. “It is. Just not in the way I thought it would be. I began reading these books to find out how to be civilized, but I’m starting to think the only thing that makes us civilized is prosperity.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You wanted to be a conservationist, right? You were into eco things, save the animals and all that.”
“I was a vegetarian, too, except when my mom cooked salmon.”
“But you eat anything you can get now. Even pets.”
“What am I supposed to do? Starve?”
“You’re starving anyway.” He brought her hand to his lips and kissed the bones jutting out from her wrist. “I’ve got something for you.”
As he led her to the kitchen, he continued talking. “You lowered your standards because those standards were luxuries. Only people who are rich in food can say what they will and will not eat. Only those whose lives aren’t in danger can be principled about whether it’s wrong to steal or kill. Our ancestors did bad things because it was the only way to survive long enough to bring a more civilized generation into existence. And now that it’s fallen apart, we’re back at square one.”
“So are we bad or good?”
Galahad rummaged through a cabinet. “I’m beginning to wonder if there’s much difference between the two. Close your eyes and hold out your hands.”
Cassie did as instructed and felt him place something smooth and heavy in her cupped palms. Her heart raced at the possibilities. Was there really food in this place?
“You can look now.”
Cassie opened her eyes and blinked back sudden tears. It was a box of chocolate.