Prime Minister Norine Maciel boarded the First Spaceship along with Chatterjee and Senators Samoset, Weaver, Guen-hye, Falke, Ngorongoro, and Yoshimura, as well as their bodyguards. As their ship rose, the New Jerusalem skyline shimmered in the dawn’s early light. Sure, maybe it wasn’t any prettier than Shanghai or New York from this same distance, but this was all built in defiance of Mars’ natural laws, and you could never convince Norine that that wasn’t special. From high above, the trains connecting New Jerusalem to the rest of the planet became little humming toy caterpillars on glowing lines. It was amazing what had been accomplished in roughly 40 Earth-years.
The sight calmed Norine. As the ship moved on and the city receded into the distance, she felt a renewed anxiety. She knew it wasn’t smart for her to hate anyone, but she despised New Moscow Czar Elena Vasileva. Something about her haughty demeanor…just don’t let her get the best of you, Norine told herself.
Their passenger bay was filled with screens and scrolls. One news channel featured a speech by Senator Felipe Cagampang of Dupowme, explaining why he reluctantly had to join Rhodes’ confederacy. Mars United’s latest chance-of-victory percentage flashed: 9%.
“Shut these off, Chatterjee,” said the Prime Minister.
Chatterjee shut off the screens, saw an alert flashing on his ring, opened his personal holo, and blanched.
Samoset was looking at something similar. “Uh, Prime Minister? You’re going to want to see this.”
They brought it up on the main screens. It was Martina fighting a woman – could one call it fighting? Sims of Muay Thai were less savage than this battle. Unconfirmed scrolled tweets identified the woman as Azalea. Whoever she was, Norine had rarely seen anyone do this well against Martina.
For some reason, Norine flashed back almost thirty E-years, to the first time Martina seriously scraped a knee. There was blood everywhere, but Martina barely seemed to notice; Norine was more upset. That’s when she knew that her first-born, if she inherited her mother’s innate abilities, could be even a better fighter than her mother in her heyday. Could be.
But right now, Norine watched as her daughter endured a lot more than a knee scrape. She watched her beaten to the edge of mortality.
Were they really arguing over politics as they fought? Or was that just clever editing? The vid concluded with a rapid montage of Azalea pummeling Martina as she said, half in voice-over, “We will never, never surrender.”
Weaver was trembling with fury. “I want to kill that bitch.”
Even Falke looked whiter, and he was already the color of chalk. “Madam,” he said, “I am very sorry.”
“It’s viral,” Samoset said with a heavy sigh. “One-tenth of our planet’s already seen it.” Norine knew everyone on Mars would see it within hours. And everyone on Earth within a day.
Chatterjee tapped his chin. “Should I tell the pilot to turn around?”
“That might be the separatists’ plan.” Falke’s color remained polar. “To disrupt your meeting with New Moscow.”
Norine shook her fist at herself. “We can’t keep the Russians waiting.”
“This could be considered good news,” Yoshimura affected a delicate tone. “She’s alive.”
“So where is their jībā list of demands?” shouted Norine. The five of them looked mousy. “Sorry, I’m…it’s not you.”
“Norine,” said Guen-hye, “Under the circumstances, no one can blame you.”
“Madam,” said Chatterjee, “It’s understandable, it’s…”
“I want to be alone,” said the Prime Minister. She went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. If this were the first time Martina had courted danger, that would be justifiable. Her husband had been killed, her son permanently injured. Anyone in those circumstances would want revenge.
Jodie Weaver walked into the small bathroom and closed the door behind her. “Jodie, I said I wanted to be alone.”
“Yeah, I heard you. You’re not in this alone. You and I are going to win this war together.”
“Thank you, but, that’s not…”
“Just tell me what you’re thinking, Norine.”
Oh, very well. Norine inhaled. “Martina has always had this obsession with proving everyone wrong, or weaker, than her. All her life, she would stay up all night until she had the best score on a VG. All her life, she would finish the last level of a sim and then complain that Uniparney didn’t provide a higher level. She had to be the best at every game, every subject, every test, every measure of society.”
“And often, she was,” said Jodie. “She beat my boys regularly, I remember that.”
“The thing that I could never make Martina understand is that constantly trying to prove you have no weakness is in itself a weakness. Someday, I told her, someone would exploit that. And that day could be today.”
“Got that off your chest now?”
Norine had to smile a little.
“Look, Norine, quick subject change. Don’t trust everyone. I’m watching for leaks and moles, but you need to be watching too. Don’t tell the Senators anything you don’t have to.”
“Even the Senators?”
“Especially the Senators.”
The two women walked back into the main passenger bay.
“Any news from the Ten-Percenters?” the Prime Minister said to no one in particular.
“You’ll know the moment we do,” was Yoshimura’s reply. Norine wanted to call them, but such a transmission could, if Rhodes was smart, easily give away the Ten-Percenters’ position. She had to wait for Chee to ping her.
Norine hated waiting like a cat hated falling in water. Like mother, like daughter.
“I feel I have to say this one more time.” Falke’s color was returning. “I don’t like what we’re doing here. Outside of Amy Mansourian administering Melas, we are Mars United’s government, and New Moscow wants to take us hostage.”
“The generals are empowered,” replied Yoshimura, “To act without us.”
“Right, besides,” Samoset said, “The sims give only a 19% chance…”
“Remember what happened on the last 20% chance?” Falke retorted. Norine silently calculated about a 97% chance that Falke had been waiting to say that.
“They won’t take us hostage,” speculated Guen-hye. “They wouldn’t dare. They’d violate all our agreements.”
“One of us has to violate those first.” Falke clenched and unclenched his fists. “Right now we can easily conquer them.”
“So,” Norine sighed, “dozens more casualties, and impressed Russian soldiers looking to stab my other soldiers in the back? I don’t think so.”
Falke thought so, Norine knew.
After a smooth flight through the atmosphere and a total travel time of about an hour, the First Spaceship slowed for its approach to New Moscow. Norine felt that from this distance, the massive snow globe resembled the top part of a jellyfish, with its buoyant shiver and its softly glowing lights.
This snow globe had been hovering in space, in Mars’ orbit, since Gazprom sent it almost 70 E-years ago. Of course, it had undergone massive structural upgrades, but still: 40 M-years in one orbit. New Moscow never aligned with the Big 12 and was the only snow globe that never landed on Mars. The decision looked wise during the civil war, when the Big 12 took over the remaining civilian billionaires’ snow globes. People assumed that the Russians would want to settle on Mars at some point, but no. New Moscow had always refused to join Mars United. Nor, to be fair, did it join the confederacy launched by Rhodes. The Russians preferred remaining in space to jeopardizing their independence.
Norine Maciel knew the history only too well. She’d lived it when she was a Senator. She knew that the Russians weren’t going to give up an iota of independence. Nor would she ask that. The A.A. mothership occasioned a truly unprecedented situation. If New Moscow refused to help, they could well be enslaved along with everyone in Mars United. Or…New Moscow might still be taking direction from Old Moscow, nominally part of the A.A. Based on com intercepts, Norine doubted that.
“So how much are you going to give up, Norine?” asked Falke.
“It’s not that simple, Florian,” said Samoset. “She might limit or space out the durations of certain resource extensions. She might ‘pay’ in the form of pledged military aid in the future. She might work futures in exchange for help with the A.A.’s Russian contingent. There’s a lot of variables.”
“So, how much are you going to give up, Norine?” asked Falke again.
Norine Maciel decided that if Weaver was right about moles, this might be a good time to shut up.
The only thing Norine wanted from her co-travelers was the exact amount of planes in New Moscow’s arsenal – and they’d all already professed not to know. Amazing that New Moscow could still keep such a secret in this day and age, but the cavity in the bottom of their snow globe hadn’t been filmed in decades, and could theoretically hold – 10,000 planes? 20,000? 25,000? New Moscow was smart enough never to even reveal it on a ring, because M.U. would have intercepted that by now. 20,000 planes joined with M.U.’s 35,000 was still a lot less than the A.A.’s 100,000, but Mars-g trained pilots and gunners could have a true fighting chance in such a scenario; depending on weather, some sims put them at almost 45%.
The First Spaceship enjoyed a smooth landing into the space port under New Moscow. The Prime Minister instructed Chatterjee to remain on board, watch the public and private feeds, and ping her ring the moment news came of Martina. Norine Maciel de-planed, shook many Russian hands, and air-kissed many Russian cheeks. As she did, she looked around at the parked planes. In this confined hangar, it was hard to see the end of them, but there were clearly thousands.
They all took an elevator to the “surface” – the floor that bisected the snow globe, depth-wise. Here was Red Square, or at least the Mars version. The czar’s aide rode with the Prime Minister in a glorified golf cart to the New Kremlin. The Senators rode in other golf carts, just behind. Norine knew Czar Elena Vasileva could have just met her at the space port. Instead, it was like they wanted to show her the capital. Norine knew – everyone knew – they had rebuilt Red Square here with more green landscaping than its Terran counterpart, like honeysuckle-bush-speckled rivers running past the onion-domed cathedrals. And though temperatures remained constant in the snow globe, they had put a few sprinkles of fake snow on top of a few spires – for that Russian touch. Right, right, beautiful, Norine thought. Moving on.
At the entrance to the Kremlin, Czar Vasileva met their golf cart with a big smile. Old age had barely dimmed her beauty; she was still thin and broad-shouldered, like a well-preserved statue. Vasileva hugged and kissed the Prime Minister like they were sisters. She turned both of them to face the cameras, making sure that the New St. Basil’s Cathedral was in the background for the photos.
“Ready to go in?” Vasileva said in English.
“Da,” said the Prime Minister of Mars United.
They walked to a ceremonial room directly duplicated from a part of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Sumptuously framed, Peter-the-Great-era paintings set off two classical stuffed armchairs. Norine and Elena sat down in them. The six Senators stood off to one side, along with a lot of senior New Muscovites.
The Prime Minister’s ring projected a small translater holo in front of her face. Elena Vasileva projected a similar holo in front of her face.
“So,” Elena Vasileva’s Russian was translated, “To what do I owe the pleasure of this royal visit?”
It’s not royal, Norine thought, but that could be a translation issue. “Let me start by saying how thrilled I am to be here in New Moscow and how honored I am that you have chosen…”
“Let’s slice the crap, Norine,” Elena Vasileva’s translated words said. “What do you want?”
“I’m sure you know that our planet is under attack. For the first time, we face a massive and hostile invasion from Earth.”
“Perhaps the translation isn’t working? What do you want?”
“What’s in it for us?” Elena Vasileva asked.
“Not becoming slaves to General Rhodes.”
“Well,” said the Czar’s translated words, “I know that sounds plausible to your Senate allies, but what if I told you we aren’t worried about that?”
“Might I ask why?” Norine Maciel tried to say nonchalantly.
“This isn’t our war. You’re the one who started a war.”
“I did not!” Norine, she told herself, defensiveness isn’t going to help. She took a deep breath. “Elena, I have truly appreciated your restraint in not joining Rhodes’s confederacy. But I’d hate to think you were just waiting to see who won the war.”
“We’re Russians, Madam Prime Minister. We know patience.”
“Call me Norine. Elena, can I talk to you woman to woman? Between you and me, am I missing something?”
“I’m sure you’re missing plenty of things,” said the Czar icily.
Now Norine knew to wait.
“Norine. We can’t help you.”
“So, you have a private agreement with Rhodes?”
“What makes you ask that?” The Czar’s expression was Sphinx-esque.
“You just said you aren’t worried. That makes me think you might have a private treaty of some kind.”
“I don’t really care what you think,” said the Czar.
“Well, Elena, do you care about Okinawa? Taiwan? Borneo? Those places had agreements with major powers too, over the centuries. Know what happened to them?”
“They aren’t us,” said Elena Vasileva.
“I forget, what happened to Kamchatka fifty years ago?”
Now the Czar drew breath. Her words were translated as, “You’re surrounded by a lot of yes-men, aren’t you?”
Norine glanced briefly at the Senators. “Not as much as you might think.”
“Norine, can I talk to you woman to woman?”
Norine leaned in, their faces barely separated by the translation holos.
“You are weak,” Elena Vasileva said firmly. “You might have been some kind of popular movie star, but you’re a terrible leader. Everyone senses your weakness. The minute you came to office, Rhodes pressed his advantage. The minute he attacked your son-in-law, you fell into his trap by leveling Melas and increasing sympathy for his cause on two planets. And you didn’t even have the guts to kill him, no doubt because your terrible advisers told you that with him alive you might still have a chance with some confederates. And now…your weakness will mean the end of independent Mars. You and your people thought Mars would be different, would be for weak people. You were wrong. On every world, victory belongs to the strong, as you’ll find out in seven months.”
The Prime Minister looked at Weaver for moral support. Weaver looked like a tiger about to strike. Norine Maciel affected a passive gaze, and remembered her next line. “You would have done better?”
“Of course,” Elena Vasileva said casually.
“Then join me. Our armies can be in a fifty-fifty alliance. You control half my soldiers.”
“And half of the planet’s resources?” said Elena. Samoset tried to get Norine’s attention, but Norine waved him off with an eyebrow flicker.
“We both know you already effectively control, say, 10 percent.”
Elena Vasileva smiled like the cat that ate the canary.
“Okay, 20 percent,” continued Norine. “I can’t offer you controlling interest in the planet.”
“You can if you want to beat the Asian Alliance.”
“How much do you think you can help me, Elena? How many planes are you offering?”
“You don’t have enough.”
“It’s not just numbers. It’s skill. They train in space.”
Norine wasn’t getting anywhere this way. Bottom line time. “You get shared control of the army, and 20 percent of Mars’ resources.”
“40 percent, including what you don’t control now.”
“20 percent is final.”
“I don’t believe you.”
The Prime Minister looked at Falke, who was practically frothing at the mouth to take New Moscow by force. Norine leaned in. “You know, Elena, we could do this the hard way. It’s not like consequences are going to get worse for me.”
Elena stood up. “We’re done.” All the advisers shifted a bit.
“I want you to remember this moment, Elena.” Norine stood up as well. “The moment that your people could have avoided slavery over a few…” Norine remembered the exact word she wanted: “…rubles.”
Elena stood as well, and laughed. “For a thousand years, people have made these threats. Genghis Khan. Napoleon. Hitler. And for a thousand years, Muscovites have never become slaves.” She turned on her heel.
“That was because of the dead of winter on Earth! This is terraformed Mars!”
“You see how you sounded there, Norine?” Elena turned around, parting her advisers. “You sound weak because you are weak. Before you go, would you like to know why I don’t take you hostage?”
Norine’s kept her eyes from flitting to Falke; she knew his nostrils would be flaring.
“Because I wouldn’t want anyone else even temporarily in charge of Mars United. No one could possibly be weaker than you.” Elena switched off her translate holo. Her advisers surrounded her like a curtain coming down on actors. To shout anything now would be weak.
Norine was furious. When she returned to the passenger bay of the First Spaceship, the news feeds were blaring.
Chatterjee said quickly, “No news on Martina.”
The bay was full of Dupowme chairs swiveling on columns near screens. Norine laid her hands on one of them; she couldn’t quite tear it from its moorings, but she did rip the main body off of the column.
“Madam Prime Minister,” said Samir Samoset, “now that you’ve gotten that out of your system…”
The Prime Minister swung her mostly-chair at the Facrogle holo-feeds, barely disrupting them. She focused her fury just enough to target the Applokia projectors. Norine felt relieved to swing it, to hit things, to disrupt things. Bam, bam, bam! Two, three, then four feeds fizzled out. Norine was still full of rage. She used what was left of the chair to smash in the physical wall screens.
Bodyguards came to the door, but Falke waved them down. Yoshimura was aghast; Ngorongoro was shaking his head; Weaver was smiling. After Norine’s fury seemed spent, Guen-hye said, “All right, now that you’ve gotten that out…”
“Chatterjee,” managed the Prime Minister, “get General Chee on the phone!”
Guen-hye lost her passive expression. “Norine, if you do that…”
“Chatterjee! Get him talking to me right now!”
The Senators looked askance, even Weaver. Norine wondered if she was losing her only allies. Is that what happened to Martina and the Ten-Percenters after she beat up that phony Rhodes?
So what if it did?
After some tense moments, Chee answered. “Yes, Ma’am, has the situation changed?”
“No!” The Prime Minister replied, “Is there any update?”
“Ma’am, you realize this call may notify them where we…”
“Any update, Chee?”
“…Well, we think we know where they are, Ma’am. We’re fairly sure.”
“Then why don’t you get my daughter?”
“…I guess now we will, Ma’am.”
The Prime Minister slumped down in her chair, feeling all eyes on her, and absolutely no desire to tell them what she was thinking. Which was: maybe my best can’t save Mars United, but I can at least try my best to save my child.