She doesn’t know who he is; doesn’t even know that she should know him. He’s pretty certain that he knows why: she probably thinks that all Tectonese—no, wait, all Spongeheads--look alike.
She’s not alone in that. Buck has been encountering humans with that attitude from the moment the ship crashed, and he still isn’t used to it. After all these years, even after all the things he’d learned from Moodri and Marilyn, the assertion that “they all look alike” never fails to set off a slow, simmering rage in him. Who would have ever guessed that he’d be grateful for such ignorance one day?
To be fair, he hadn’t recognized her either. He’d like to think that it was because he’d been too scared to look around the courtroom during his trial, but in his hearts, he knows that isn’t the case at all. Before he’d met Sal, he’d thought that all Terts looked alike. In the end, few things are quite so universal as unthinking prejudice.
He may not have recognized her, but he did take note of her the moment he laid eyes on her. She’d met him with a dark, brooding glare of hatred, one that hit him like a physical blow the moment he entered the room. Uncomfortable, Buck asked an obvious question to relieve the tension. “I’m looking for the Philosophy Circle. Is this it?”
“Depends,” growled the girl with the glare. “Are you planning to join? If so, this is actually the Underwater Basket Weaver’s Collective. I don’t see any reeds with you, so perhaps you’d best move along.”
A tall boy with a sparse beard let out a high-pitched giggle. “Charlene’s joking,” he said quickly.
“Like hell I am,” Charlene snarled quietly.
The boy continued desperately, obviously pretending that he hadn’t heard the hostile girl’s interruption. “Please! Come and join us! We don’t have any Newcomers in our group and we’d really appreciate that perspective.”
Everyone other than Charlene echoed his plea so Buck stayed, but it was the longest afternoon of his life. Although most of the group wanted him there, the rage he sensed from that one human made him reluctant to give out his human name. He told everyone to call him Finiksa, defiantly staring at the hostile girl as he did so. She sneered at him and he felt vaguely vindicated by her distaste.
After the meeting, the ratty-bearded boy took him out for coffee, perhaps as a thank-you to him for staying. “I’m sorry about Charlene. She’s the most rational person you’d ever hope to meet, except when it comes to Newcomers.”
“What exactly is her problem?” Buck demanded. “Even Purists are normally more subtle about hating my people.”
“Her brother was killed by a Newcomer,” the boy (who was named Greg) answered sadly. “What really gets her is that the guy who killed Will barely got a slap on the wrist. Apparently his father is some sort of big-wig in the Newcomer community and pulled all sorts of strings to keep his kid out of jail.”
“That’s terrible,” Buck said earnestly, “but it doesn’t excuse her. Some Newcomer beats the system and we’re all to blame? That’s insane!”
“I know. You’re right. I’ve tried to tell her that but she just says that if it had been a white college boy who’d died, then that Newcomer would be rotting in jail. Since I’m not black, I don’t know what I’m talking about.” Greg shrugged. “Maybe I don’t. Privileged white males are hardly the best authorities on the fairness of the judicial system. It takes one minority to understand another.”
“What’re you saying?” Buck asked suspiciously.
“Please come back, Finiksa. You seem like a good guy; if anyone can change Charlene’s mind, it’s you.”
Buck shook his head furiously. “No way. Look. If she’s a racist, then that’s her problem; not mine.”
But somehow, despite his determination, Buck wound up agreeing to return. He wonders whether he knew, on some subconscious level, that Charlene was his problem, despite all assertions to the contrary. There was certainly no rational reason for him to go back, but return he did. The next meeting went no better than the first and after the third one he was done.
“I’m sorry, man, but I can’t take any more of this. I have a full schedule and Philosophy Circle was supposed to be my way to recharge. I can’t say that I’m having a lot of fun, though, facing all that senseless hostility.”
Greg sighed deeply. “I’m sorry you’re quitting but I can’t say that I’m all that surprised. You’re not exactly the first Newcomer Charlene Campbell has chased away from our group.”
Buck felt both his hearts stop for a moment. When they restarted, they were pounding so fast that he could feel blood racing wildly throughout his body. “What did you say?”
Greg looked surprised. “That you’re not the first Newcomer to quit our group. Surely you don’t think you’re the only Tectonese at UCLA with an interest in philosophy?”
Buck shook his head, as much to clear it as to negate Greg’s statement. “I never thought I was. No, I meant, what did you say Charlene’s last name was?”
“Campbell. Why? Does it matter?”
“It might,” Buck said slowly. “And what did you say her brother was called? Will? Short for William?”
“I’ve only heard Charlene refer to him as Will, but it probably stood for William.” Greg looked at him cautiously, knowing that something was off but not what. “Did you know him?”
Buck let out a long, slow breath, wondering how to answer that question. Did he know William Campbell? No, he’d never known William Campbell at all. He’d never hung out with the man, or had a soul-searching conversation with him, or even greeted him on the street. On the other hand, he’d stared into Campbell’s eyes and watched his soul depart, a casualty from the gun in his own hands. There was no way to express the connection he’d had with William Campbell other than a quiet, “Yeah, I knew him. Pretty well, actually.” He laughed shortly, a bitter sound with no humor in it at all. “You know what? Forget it. I’d like to stay in the group. I’ll see you next week.” And with that, he fled, leaving Greg to pay for his coffee without a single word.
An old nightmare attacked him that night, one that he’d thought he’d never have again.
He’s with his old friends, the ones from Slagtown. They’ll later beat the crap out of him simply because he dares to befriend a Tert, but in his dream they’re still his friends and he’s happy.
The wall falls in and Campbell’s there with a water gun. “You picked the wrong place to hunker, Slag! How about a little saltwater, Spongehead?”
And then it’s chaos. One of his friends is screaming from a saltwater burn and a human is groaning from being beaten by a Tectonese and the loft is getting trashed. Everywhere he looks, boys are fighting and none of it makes sense to him. He’s just standing there, wondering whether he should jump in and help his friends or whether he should take off and leave them to their madness, when Campbell barrels towards him with a metal bar. He ducks and then he does run. He doesn’t look where he’s going though and plows right into another guy, one holding a gun. They fall down the stairs together, wrestling for the gun the entire way. He knocks the guy unconscious and somebody yells at him, “You’re dead, Slag!” He hears a gun going off, but he rolls and the bullets miss him.
He yells, “Don’t! Wait! Stop! Please,” and maybe he’s yelling at himself, but he never stops. He never waits. He rolls and pulls the trigger as soon as he’s on his back. Only after the guns goes off does he look to see what he’s done, look to see Campbell grab his stomach and slowly sink down. Look Campbell in the eyes and watch his soul depart.
He knows that in reality his friends congratulated him at that point and then they all ran, but that doesn’t happen in the dream. In his dream, Charlene is there, grieving over her brother and cursing all Slags. Never him-—he’s invisible-—but hating all of his people indiscriminately for his actions. A black fog of hate rises up from her and descends upon every Newcomer he’s ever met and swallows them up, leaving him alone in a sea of pointless rage.
When he was still a boy, he’d believed everything his uncle said to him. Moodri told him that he needed to face his wrongdoing with honor and he’d foolishly thought that was all that was required of him. He’d gone to the courthouse thinking about what he needed to heal his own psychic wound, never about the man he’d killed. After the trial he thought about how unfair it was for him to be put on probation even after the jury decided he’d acted in self-defense and was, in effect, innocent. And once he’d realized that probation had very little effect on his life, he’d stopped thinking about the incident at all.
Buck thinks about Campbell now. Campbell, a gangbanger who’d gone out to get a job and tried to turn his life around… only to lose everything when a Newcomer gang stole the company truck. Campbell, a young man with a family who’d loved him, a family who would never stop missing him. Campbell, a soul that would never reach its full potential because his body was destroyed by a bullet. He realizes that he was never truly punished for taking William Campbell’s life and the injustice of his escape is crushing him.
Since society never punished him, he punishes himself. He goes to Philosophy Circle once a week and never misses a meeting, not even during Finals’ Week. He doesn’t go for the flow of ideas, nor to pursue friendships, or even for the favor he’s currying with the club advisor. (In fact, he’s beginning to loathe philosophy and is thinking about changing his major.) He goes for one reason and one reason alone: to be stared at by Charlene Campbell, to soak in her hatred and accept it as his due.
He thinks his willingness to accept her abuse is changing Charlene. She’s becoming less caustic, less automatic in her hatred of all Newcomers. Her wounds are beginning to heal and Buck thinks that is where his redemption lies. His soul is tied to hers and the day she stops hating is the day he will be truly free. For him, peace on Earth begins with her and he truly believes it will come… some day.