This story uses characters and locations based on the Gunslinger Girl manga written by Yu Aida and published in monthly shōnen magazine Dengeki Daioh. The characters of Kara and Michele are original to myself. The character of Raych is original to Alfisti.
SOCIAL WELFARE AGENCY COMPOUND
"Who in their right mind schedules an Official Visit the week after Christmas?" Kara Deleroux asked rhetorically as she completed packing one of three suitcases laid open on her bed. "Remind me not to vote for the Prime Minister in the next election."
Vote? Is that something we do? Raych wondered from where she sat on the end of her bed, not realizing her roommate was cracking a joke. Having completed the Verifica della Competenza Operativa that allowed her to leave the compound and participate in operations, Raych wondered what kind of test she would need to take to be able to vote. I'm sure Mr. Danilo will tell me when it is the proper time.
"Have you ever been to the United States?" Raych asked Kara. She knew Kara had at least been to Monaco, Geneva and Tokyo. On the other hand, her own handler had not yet to take her outside the Rome metropolitan area.
"No, this is my first time," Kara stated. "Unfortunately, I don't think we're going to be able to do much site-seeing as Michele will be with the PM. Plus we'd have to bring her with us..."
Her? Raych thought.
Fleda Claes Johansson, having packed her one suitcase, sat in a chair to pull on her boots. Today would be her second trip out of the country, though this time she would not be playing the role of Michele's daughter, but instead would be just herself. Not that would make much difference to Kara who, like most of her peers, did not enjoy having to share her handler with anyone, much less another cyborg. And considering that Kara had already missed one holiday and now looked to miss yet another thanks to the Prime Minister, Claes figured that would likely ramp the tension up even more.
For that reason, Claes had considered declining the offer, which she knew Michele had extended out of a mixture of friendship and concern for her spending the upcoming New Year's holiday alone. A favorite of all the cyborgs for his friendly and outgoing nature towards them, he'd seemed to have taken a special interest in her since being assigned the room she'd been using as her library. Claes recalled someone…perhaps it was her father…who'd told her that soldiers were very well-read. Michele had been a high-ranking officer in the Aeronautica Militare and he had brought his own extensive collection of books with him as well as checking out items for her from the Rome civic library system.
A number of the handlers assisted with the girl's education, including Michele, who taught a number of subjects, including World History. He possessed a very sharp mind and she came to enjoy the times they spent discussing various subjects or the latest world or local news, be it in his room or walking the grounds. Therefore, a chance to visit the capital city of the sole remaining superpower and walk the streets with Michele seemed to her a chance not to be missed, even if she could do without the grief she'd likely feel from Kara. She also didn't relish spending the holiday by herself, as the compound usually emptied except for the one fratello that drew the short straw and some core staff. Her roommate Triela was on the autostrada south to Naples with her handler to spend the holiday with Mario Bossi, Roberta Guellfi and Maria Machiavelli. The Croce Brothers and their cyborgs had left for Sicily two days prior and most of the other fratelli were either in-transit or preparing to leave.
Giving herself a final once-over in the mirror, Claes picked up her suitcase and walked over to the Handler's Annex and up to Michele's room. Knocking once, she waited a moment and then opened the door. The room was empty, however she saw his iMac was on so she placed her suitcase at the foot of the bed, pulled a book from the shelf and sat on the edge of the bed to wait. After a short period, the door opened and Michele entered.
"Oh, hello," he said in surprise. "Sorry about the delay. Last minute schedule briefing."
Claes nodded. The Prime Minister's Official Visit would run from the afternoon of December 27th through the evening of the 30th. Michele felt it would be less stressful to fly out on a commercial flight rather than travel with Prime Minister Pisano and his entourage aboard a chartered Alitalia 777. This way they could avoid the scrum of press who would be aboard the official transport.
Kara, who'd been daydreaming of a long holiday weekend snuggled up next to her handler in front of a roaring fire at his Milan residence greeted the decision with mild disappointment, exacerbated when Claes had agreed to come with them, though a promise of that personal time over the New Year's holiday assuaged said disappointment.
Claes quietly read while Michele completed his work, then they walked to the large parking lot and met Ferro, who would drive them to the airport in Michele's Aston Martin DB9 after stopping by the Cyborg Warehouse to collect Kara and her luggage.
PARK HYATT WASHINGTON
Michele awoke to darkness and a strong pain in his left leg. He quickly rolled out of bed in a tangle of sheets and limped around the bedroom to work the muscle cramp out of his leg. The clock radio on the nightstand and blue LEDs announced the time as 8:42 in the evening, telling him he'd slept for a bit over four hours.
Deciding that the best course of action was to take a walk and stretch his muscles, Michele dressed in slacks and a sweater and stepped out of his bedroom into the living area, where he found Claes on the couch watching television with the volume low, dressed in her pajamas.
"I'm sorry, did I wake you?" Claes asked.
"No, leg cramp," Michele replied. "Kara?"
"Still unconscious," Claes replied.
Michele nodded his head. "I'm going to take a walk to exercise my leg muscles. I'll have my mobile on me."
"May I come with you? I'd like some fresh air," Claes noted.
"Of course. Dress warm," Michele noted.
Michele and Claes exited the escalator of the Smithsonian Metro Station onto the National Mall across from the Smithsonian Institution Building to the south and the Museum of Natural History to the north. To the east, the dome of the United States Capitol glowed in soft light and to the west, the marble and granite obelisk of the Washington Monument gleamed under spotlights, the ring of American flags snapping smartly in the chill wind.
Michele started towards the Monument and Claes followed, her boots crunching on the gravel path. They walked along the northern perimeter path of the Monument, the White House visible off in the distance. Continuing west and crossing 17th Street, the pair arrived at the National World War II Memorial. The two slowly walked along the 56 granite pillars representing the States and territories in existence in 1945 and two triumphal arches representing the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters. Her country had been neutral during the great conflict, but she wondered if Michele felt any discomfort standing in this grand monument celebrating victory over his home country of Italy.
At the central pool, they watched the water of the fountains sparkle from lights embedded in the pool bottom for a time before exiting under the Atlantic Arch, and continuing along West Potomac Park towards the Lincoln Memorial, walking between the Memorial's Reflecting Pool and Constitution Gardens. As she climbed the hill leading to the brilliantly lit memorial to the 16th President of the United States, Claes found it somewhat ironic that a society founded in part on the separation of Church and State would build a monument to a Head of State in the architectural style of an ancient Greek temple, identifying the structure as conforming to the Doric order with the fluted columns standing directly on the stylobate without bases. At the top of the steps sat the iconic statue of the President sculpted by Daniel Chester French and carved from blocks of granite by the Brothers Piccirilli, who had emigrated from Tuscany to the United States.
As they visited each of the two chambers on either side of the great statue, Claes recognized significance of the speech given at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania after the battle fought there, though she had to ask Michele the significance of his second inaugural address. When he explained that the American Civil War was in its waning days and that Lincoln was trying to prepare the nation for the difficult reconciliation that lay ahead as well as once again deploring the concept of slavery. Michele noted that Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had been in the crowd that day, along with a number of co-conspirators.
As they made their way back to the steps, Claes stopped and looked out on the city.
"Do you feel it?" she asked Michele as he came up beside her.
"A kind of…feeling…in the air that tells me I'm standing in the capital of the most powerful country in the world."
"Yes," Michele confirmed. "You sense the weight of history here. Much like you might in Rome or Athens."
"I wonder if London had a similar feeling about it one hundred years ago when Britain held power."
"Probably. Beijing will likely have it one hundred years from now," Michele suggested. He started down the steps and Claes followed. When he reached the road that ran around the memorial, Michele headed down a path to the left that led into a dense cluster of trees that opened up to a small plaza with a bronze statue of three young soldiers, positioned so as to look on in silent tribute to their fallen and missing comrades memorialized farther on in two 75m walls sunk into the earth. A National Parks service sign noted this memorial pertained to the conflict between the United States and the former Republic of South Vietnam on one side and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on the other.
As she reached the wall, lines of names softly illuminated by lights appeared to float before Claes. Most of the names had small diamonds next to them, while others had crosses. She turned to Michele to ask what they were doing, but he gently placed a finger over her lips and shook his head. She walked in silence next to him, holding her question until they exited and were looping back through another dense collection of trees towards another sculpture, this of three women attending to a wounded soldier.
"That was very spooky…and powerful," Claes stated.
"Yes," Michele replied. "I apologize for shushing you."
"Don't," Claes stated. "I could feel the solemnity of the place. I did wonder what the symbols were by the names meant."
"The diamonds are for those killed in action and the crosses are for those missing," Michele replied.
They exited the tree line and crossed the paved north end of the reflecting pool and entered another copse of trees. As she exited on the other side, Claes stopped in her tracks and sucked in her breath.
"Ghosts," she whispered.
Before her 19 spectral figures dressed in full combat gear extended into the distance along a triangular wedge of strips of granite and juniper bushes. Made of stainless steel and eerily lit from below by pinpoint lighting, they did indeed appear to be apparitions floating above the ground.
Claes reached out and took Michele's gloved hand in her own, squeezing it tight, as they walked along the path towards the circular reflecting pool ahead. Located to his inside, Claes' eyes locked on each statue as they passed. Her artificial eyes made maximum use of what ambient light existed and in the granite surrounding she could see the tally of the US and UN soldiers killed, wounded, missing and taken prisoner during the 3 years, 1 month and 2 days of the conflict that raged across the Korean Peninsula between the summers of 1950 and 1953. As they walked up the other side past a long wall of highly polished granite, the photographic images of soldiers, equipment and people involved in the war sandblasted into it added to the otherworldly and ethereal effect and Claes pressed closer to Michele.
The monument exited onto a side street that led to Independence Avenue and they walked hand-in-hand back towards the Smithsonian Metro Station.
"Such fitting monuments," Michele commented.
"In what way?" Claes asked.
"The World War II Memorial is grand and epic, much like the War itself, while the Korean and Vietnam Veterans Memorials are sobering reminders of the dark side of human conflict. The dark gash of the Vietnam Memorial mirrors the gash that conflict inflicted on America's psyche. And the steel soldiers in rain parkas slogging up one more damned hill is a fitting reminder of what a dirty, gritty struggle the Korean War was."
As a student of history herself, Claes understood what Michele meant on at least some level. She'd also noticed the difference in mood each memorial elicited in those in attendance. At the WWII Memorial, the people present talked animatedly and snapped pictures of themselves and the monument. At the Lincoln Memorial, those present were less animated, especially as they climbed the steps and took in the statue of the President. But those few who descended the dark paths to the Korean and Vietnam Memorials grew quieter until the only sounds were the wind in the trees and the splashing of the water features, those present feeling that to speak, much less laugh or giggle, would be an almost profane act.
As she and Michele continued east, Claes could see the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and beyond, across the Tidal Basin, the Jefferson Memorial. To her left, the Ash Woods of the West Potomac Park suddenly ended and in the distance she could see what appeared to be a small white Roman temple.
"What is that?" she asked, pointing.
"I don't know. Let's find out, shall we?" Michele suggested and the two walked towards it. Unlike the other structures they had visited that evening, all clean and well lit, this one showed the accumulated effect of decades worth of weathering and was dark except for a soft light reflected off the domed ceiling. The cobblestones on the path that led to it were cracked and grown with weeds, while the marble was coated in grime and leaves swirled across the floor from the breeze blowing through it. Claes climbed the steps into the interior as Michele walked along the perimeter to a large wooden sign hidden in shadow. By the light of his iPhone, he read out the inscription, which identified the structure as a memorial to the people of the District of Columbia who had served in World War I.
"It seems so neglected," Claes observed, using the toe of her boot to scrape the leaves off an inscription on the floor. She took a seat on a stone bench and Michele joined her.
"Every generation seems to forget how terrible war is, until they have a taste of it," Michele explained. "No one is left who was alive when the 'War to End All Wars' was fought and so this memorial is buried in the corner amongst the trees, forgotten and neglected. Eventually, no one will be alive who fought in the Second World War and most of those who served in Korea and Vietnam have handed the reins of power to the children of those who sent them.
"Unlike back home, the people in this country conducting wars today are not touched by it, so nothing reminds them that real people are fighting and dying. And the last time Americans fought a foreign power on their own soil was two centuries ago. Culturally, there is no reminders of the horror of war, so it becomes just another political option, instead of the last resort."
"When the conflict with Padania and the Five Republics Faction is over, do you think they will erect a memorial to us?" Claes asked. "Or will our memorial just be graves in an old monastery, neglected and forgotten like this one?"
"I don't know, Claes…I don't know…"
"We should probably get back," Claes suggested a short time later. She rose, turning to offer Michele her hand. They crossed Independence Avenue to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial where they flagged a cab back to the hotel.