(Previous chapter is here.)

Ahhhhhhhhhhhh.” Prime Minister Norine Maciel threw water on her face and neck and paused for a moment to let the sensation sink in. When did I get so old? she asked her reflection in the bathroom’s mirror. Was it this job, or would it have happened anyway? She had lived only 60 Earth years, but felt sure she looked 70. The lighter g was supposed to help. Certainly the job didn’t help. This day didn’t help.

Norine Maciel told herself: I have this job because of days like this. Because I must decide before someone else does.

“Madam Prime Minister?” called a voice from outside the bathroom.

“In a minute,” she called back. This day had been coming for a while. She had told her daughter to take more precautions, but somehow right now the last thing she wanted to say was I told you so.

“Madam Prime Minister?” called the same voice from the same place.

“One minute, I said!” Sorry lady, she said to herself. You don’t get to stay home curled up in a ball with a pint of McPepsanto pistachio. There’s a tiny little thing resting on your shoulders called the fate of Mars.

“Madam Prime Minister,” said a man standing next to her.

Like a whip on a bridle, Norine flipped her head to see her closest aide, a rumpled, crinkled middle-aged man who had been raised on Earth’s subcontinent. “Chatterjee, what in God’s name are you doing here?”

“The press needs you to make a statement…”

“No, what are you doing here. What’s the point of hiring a male aide if he’s going to follow you into the ladies’ room?”

Chatterjee laughed nervously, then swallowed. “Oh, was that a joke?” His boss glared at him. “Ahem. Ah, when are you going to make a statement?”

“I don’t know, Chatterjee,” Norine Maciel sighed. “Perhaps when I learn if my grandson is going to live?”

“Madam Prime Minister, I’m sorry, but…General Rhodes has made a statement. We can’t let him control the narrative.” Chatterjee tapped his ring, and a hologram of General Rhodes appeared in the bathroom. Rhodes was old-school British, some would say imperial-British; he had wide shoulders and a by-jove demeanor, like stories of haughty imperialists. He and Norine had never gotten along, and she was already irritated before he opened his mouth.

“This was a strike for independence, for a return to original Mars,” the holo of General Rhodes said. “By all means, we regret any loss of life. We also know that no group of people, anywhere, has become free without blood being spilled. We know that this governm…”

“Did I say I wanted to watch this?” The Prime Minister interrupted.

“No, Madam.” Chatterjee froze the 3-D image in midair. “Sorry, but…”

“Is there any other news? From within this hospital, perhaps?”

“No. Well, Julia has arrived.”

What? Why didn’t you say so?”

Norine Maciel left the bathroom and entered the small lounge. Everyone in the room stood up, even though they were all family – Julia, Martina, Peoria, and Norine’s genteel husband Pablo. Norine approached her younger daughter, pulled her into an embrace, and said “Oh, Juliana, thank you for coming.”

“I’m sorry I’m late, Mom.” Julia wiped her bloodshot eyes. “I had my ring off for boball.”

No doubting those tears, thought Norine, but that was a long boball game. The room’s Facrogle holo-scroll announced: 23 dead, at least 46 wounded in attack on mall; Rhodes refuses to condemn…

A knock sounded. “Only the people who work here bother to knock,” groused Martina as she opened the door.
Norine looked over the nondescript doctor who entered and closed the door behind him. “Mrs. Maciel, I have your news,” the doctor said to Martina. “Uh, should we talk privately?”

“Peoria,” Pablo said, “Vamonos.”

“But I want to hear!” Norine’s granddaughter protested.

“You’ll find out in good time.”

“You always say that,” she harrumphed. “But it’s never a good time.”

“You don’t have a choice,” ordered Pablo, and he and Peoria left the room on little mouse feet. After a look from the Prime Minister, Chatterjee followed them.

Seeing Martina stiffen her lower lip reminded Norine of old vids of herself – hardly for the first time. Martina commanded the doctor, “Go ahead.”

“Your son…will make it. He’s in critical condition, but the worst is over. Your husband saved his life.” The Prime Minister exhaled as though a boulder had been lifted off of her. The small man continued, “However, the shrapnel lodged in his lower back…we removed it but…his spine is…beyond repair. He’ll probably never walk again.”

Norine felt a cold dagger twisting in her heart.

Martina’s face had turned to stone. “And my husband?”

“We…we did everything we could. I’m sorry, but he’s gone.”

Julia burst out crying. Martina narrowed her eyes at her; Norine didn’t like Martina’s reflex disdain of Julia’s sentimentality. The Prime Minister reached out and held her older daughter in a tight embrace. “I’m sorry, my love, my darling, I’m so, so, sorry.” Norine glanced at Julia, whose crimson-tinged eyes flitted between her mother and sister. Norine guessed that Martina looked less shaken than her own mother. After a moment, Norine whispered, “There are no words…”

“Oh, there are words, Mom,” interrupted Martina, breaking the embrace. “You just have to say them.”

“Madam Prime Minister!” Chatterjee entered the lounge without knocking. “They won’t give us another room.”

“That’s fine,” Martina said curtly. “Just do it here.”

Julia looked taken aback. “Do what?”

Martina gave her mother a look. The Prime Minister in turn gave the doctor a look, who asked them both if he could be excused. After he left, Norine asked Chatterjee, “How’s the jamming here?”

As Chatterjee tapped his ring, the Facrogle holo-scroll read Fate of John Peabody and Drigo Peabody still unknown…and the scroll dissolved into thin air.

“We’re secure, but…” Chatterjee folded his arms. “Well, you know, your daughters must leave.”

“You’re deciding whether or not to go to war.” Martina put her arm around Julia’s shoulders. “I think that applies to those of us who will be on the front lines.”

“Uh, Mom, I can…” Julia hesitated. “…go check on Dad, if you…”

“I want both my children right here, right now,” the Prime Minister said flatly. “Go ahead and link us.”

Chatterjee harrumphed, opened his briefcase, and pressed a few buttons. Within a few moments, the small lounge was invaded, as it were, by the holographic presence of a conference room with a large table – reduced in its projection to coffee-table size – around which sat eleven Senators of Mars.

The next half-hour proceeded almost exactly as Norine predicted. Everyone offered their condolences, but it didn’t take long for Senator Falke to agitate for war, nor for Senator Samoset to advocate for peace. Senator Weaver suggested that Senator Nystrom and Senator Uribe were collaborating with Rhodes, and of course they angrily repudiated her.

It was funny, Norine reflected, not merely how predictable the arguments, but how predictable the arguers. It seemed as though certain industries produced certain kinds of people to lead them. Pharealth, Facrogle, and BankBank inevitably appointed geniuses, the smartest people in any room. Holly Guen-hye, Samir Samoset, and Amy Mansourian were perfect examples. Norine liked geniuses, but wondered about their…well, superiority complexes. Texrom, the energy monopoly, invariably appointed some Senator who was bald, barrel-chested, bellicose, and Teutonic, like Florian Falke. McPepsanto preferred the corpulent and excessive, like Mario Lazio, for reasons Norine could never understand. Twiya tended to blend the glamorous and the bohemian – and Yoshimura was all that.

Uniparney, the entertainment monopoly, always seemed to appoint…well, smart, no-nonsense women who were also former actresses, like Jodie Weaver. Norine Maciel smiled. She was lucky Hollywood long ago decided to make studio locations out of the most picturesque parts of Mars, and charge premium prices for content originated there. Not that she loved living half her life as a reality show, but exposure was part of life since Roman times. McPepsanto provided the bread, Uniparney provided the circuses. Hence Norine had long ago learned not to open her mouth unless she was ready for both worlds to hear what she had to say. She used to tell herself she lived a complex interior life that “they” would never understand, but in recent years she’d wondered if her private self was really all that different from her public self.

Senator Lazio claimed Norine’s recent actions had infuriated all the rurals, and in response Senator Yoshimura, of Twiya, calmly presented holo-scrolls of the charts and percentages – pro-war Aresians, pro-peace Aresians, chances of success if X, Y, and Z happened, and so on. Senator Guen-hye, of Pharealth, and Senator Mansourian, of BankBank, worked hardest to find increasingly untenable middle ground. The wily Senator Cagampang, of Dupowme, mostly concerned himself with sarcastic cheap shots against the Prime Minister.

One Senator, Desmond Ngorongoro of Wazgretco, behaved like Norine: he listened attentively, saying next to nothing. Or was he watching Martina and Julia through the projection? Norine looked across the lounge at the two of them, knowing that within an hour, she would have to break one of their hearts.

Norine prided herself on predicting outcomes, but she also knew that human beings were ersatz, fluid. Well, so was capitalism, despite how calcified it sometimes looked from a planet run by twelve corporations. The Big 12’s “little” competitors were always looking for an advantage, a way into Mars. After the terraforming, after the almost-unfathomable investment of time – most of a century – and money – quintillions of dollars – put into Mars by the Big 12, they were not going to simply sit back and open everything up to others. The terraforming could never have happened without the foundational promises of exclusivity, no matter how Norine’s younger daughter wished it were otherwise.

Of course, capitalism’s flexibility had permitted a few non-Big 12 industries to flourish on Mars – mostly lawyers and other whores, as the saying went. But the best lawyers, like Holly Guen-hye, were typically brought into exclusive contracts by a single corporation, in her case Pharealth after she’d won about a hundred malpractice lawsuits for them. Just then, Holly was using those skills to try to mediate between the Senators. Norine was using her skills to let her colleagues reveal and extend themselves, even hang themselves out to dry – always the best time for negotiation.

Norine hadn’t spoken for almost ten minutes when Senator Florian Falke looked like a boilermaker about to burst. “We cannot afford to be bogged down in this endless discussion! Madam, you must make a statement now.”

“And say what?” the Prime Minister asked.

“And say this means war!” Norine didn’t have to look to feel that Martina was smiling, and Julia wincing.

“Just wait a minute,” said the reedy, nerdy Senator Samir Samoset. “What aren’t we thinking of? What are our unexplored alternatives? Can we give Melas more control over some resources?”

“You’ve got to be kidding!” Falke made a noise like he’d choked on his own neck. “We’ve given them plenty, and all they ever want is more. They will never be satisfied until Mars United is no longer united! You want to give them more power! Would you give a painful tooth more power or would you yank it out by the root?!”

“Look, Falke,” replied Samoset in his typically unflappable tone. “You realize Senator Rhodes is hoping you’ll say that, hoping that we’ll think that. He wants to provoke an asymmetrical response. He wants us to attack him with our full forces, because he sees the same simulations we do. The harder we hit Melas, the more likely Earth is to intervene, all the way up to the 20% number.”

“If we do nothing,” growled Falke, “if we give away the farm, that will simply encourage more of these attacks. Three bombs in two months was enough, I don’t want a fourth. We’ve given them months to pay their back taxes. People, every great power has eventually faced this decision. The ones that survived went to war.”

“Can we stop this jībā now?” Senator Mario Lazio stood up, his belly rolling like jelly in zero g. “If M.U. starts a civil war, it’s a power grab for the government and for the corps with high INVEST FAIR scores.” Like everyone on both planets, Prime Minister Norine Maciel knew them by heart: I, Independence from government subsidies; N, Non-automation; V, Veteran-first hiring policy; E, Equality/diversity; S, Sustainability; T, Transparency; F, Family-friendly policy; A, Animal welfare; the second I, Investment in virtue (always a bit of a moving target); and R, Robin Hood-like Redistribution. Ten metrics, each on a scale of 1 to 10, meaning 100 would be a perfect score. No company ever scored 100. “Though we’ve been warning you urbans for 50 years,” Lazio continued, “that you’re going to make yourself obsolete if you keep ceding power to a federal government…”

“To the people, Lazio,” said the unsentimental Jodie Weaver, her black skin making her 50 years look more like 30, Norine thought. “To the only representatives elected by the citizens of Mars.”

“A good corporation like McPepsanto takes care of people better than the people ever could.”

In moments like these, Norine thought of an old song, The turkeys go gobble, gobble/Senators squabble, squabble…

“Why can’t we kill just Rhodes?” Martina said, out of nowhere. “Don’t we have agents that can infiltrate where he is?”

“We ran those simulations as well,” said Senator Yoshimura, who scrolled up some new graphics. “Fifty-fifty chance of success.”

“A lot of things have to go right,” Senator Guen-hye added. “If it fails, we look particularly incompetent and he gets great propaganda…”

“So what?” Senator Ingrid Nystrom murmured.

Even if it succeeds,” Falke shouted, “It doesnt make any difference! They just replace him with one of his top people. Just like one of us would replace Madam Prime Minister.”

“So let’s vote already,” said Senator Lazio.

“Can someone tell me why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?” The Senators looked around in astonishment, until they realized that had come from Julia Maciel.

“Excuse me, little lady,” scoffed Falke, “did you get that from a Facrogle scroll?”

“What if I did?” answered Julia. Norine suppressed a smile that Julia was finding her spine. “I mean, war is not healthy…aren’t you sick of it?”

“Julia!” Martina’s voice was as if her sister had lit the curtains on fire. “Mom already said non-lethal force!”

“People will still die, just fewer…or their injuries may last longer…”

Wángbā, Julia!” Martina yelled. “Your nephew will never walk again!”

“I know, but someone has to walk away from violence first.”

“Not us!” exclaimed Martina. Norine well knew the context: Echus Chasma, site of a massive anti-government protest a year ago, where Martina had insisted on bringing her sister to do her first active guard duty. When things got violent, Julia blamed Martina for inciting and then killing some of the protestors; Martina blamed Julia for poor soldiering.

“It feels like Drigo’s injury is giving you and them the excuse to do what you wanted anyw…” Julia froze, and Norine knew she knew she’d gone too far.. “Martina, I’m sorry.”

“I don’t want sorry,” Martina fumed. “I want you to honor your commitments. If Mars United is at war, I need you with me in the front lines.”

Falke’s head looked ready to explode. “Norine!”

“Florian’s right about the timing,” said Samir Samoset softly, changing the holo image, pressing a few buttons of his own, and bringing up large text that he began reading aloud. “Mars United Resolution 75-14 is on the table. Resolved: To Defend Itself, The Army of Mars United Must Take All Available Non-Lethal Measures to Re-Secure the Binto Province, Including Attacks on a Seceded Binto City and Melas Space Port.”

Norine Maciel was proud of Julia for standing up for herself; too late, she realized she shouldn’t have let Martina see that pride.

Mom!” Martina suddenly yelled, “He maimed your grandson! He murdered John!

“The Prime Minister should vote,” said the taciturn Senator Javier Uribe, opportunistically enough.

“This really should be unanimous,” agreed Senator Ingrid Nystrom, “if we do it at all.”

“Spoken like someone who’s going to vote against it,” said Weaver.

“Jodie, I don’t think that’s helping,” said Senator Guen-hye. “Do you have a counter-resolution, Ingrid?”

“Yes. Resolved: we do nothing.” This was met by predictable scoffs.

The Prime Minister looked around the room to count the votes in advance. With Binto out, she had to get to six, six out of eleven. Four were out of the question – Airboeck, Applokia, Dupowme, and McPepsanto. Would she lose three more?

“All in favor of Mars United Resolution 75-14,” Norine said with a raised voice. “Raise your right hands and say aye.”

Hands went up; people said “aye”: Falke (Texrom), Mansourian (BankBank), Samoset (Facrogle), Guen-hye (Pharealth), Uniparney (Weaver). Just those five.

Norine remained calm. “All opposed raise your right hand and say nay.”

Hands went up and people said “nay”: Nystrom (Applokia), Lazio (McPepsanto), Uribe (Airboeck), and Felipe Cagampang (Dupowme), andYoshimura (Twiya).

Falke’s jaw dropped. Julia’s hands went up in relief, as though she’d been told a tumor wasn’t cancerous. Martina faced the wall, shaking, presumably with rage.

“Wait a minute,” said Senator Uribe. “That’s it?”

Felipe Cagampang smiled at him. “We won.”

“Then the terrorism continues,” said Florian Falke. “Then Melas becomes independent in all but name, and we have to negotiate new contracts with everyone on Earth, and…”

“Do you have the statement?” Norine quickly said to Chatterjee. “Something to the effect that we’re doing all we can?”

“Wait a minute, Madam Prime Minister,” said Chatterjee. “Senator Ngorongoro didn’t vote.” Everyone had assumed that Wazgretco would vote nay.

“Desmond,” asked Uribe, “Did you forget to raise your hand?”

“I didn’t forget,” answered Senator Ngorongoro. “I’ve been waiting to hear from my Prime Minister.”

Norine smiled with closed lips. “I’ve been waiting to hear from you.”

“You lead us, don’t you?” asked Ngorongoro. “Then lead. What do you think?”

“Does that really make any difference?” asked Weaver. “You don’t think she makes enough speeches? You want her to make one just so that you can laugh at her when she’s finished?”

“No speech,” said Ngorongoro. “I want her to decide. I want her to own this war if it happens. Yes or no.”

A mother always knows who’s looking most closely at her children. Ngorongoro knew what he was doing, she thought.

“If you don’t vote, that’s an abstention,” said Holly Guen-hye. “Five to five, and Norine has to break the tie anyway…”

“Oh, I’m going to vote,” Ngorongoro said softly. “I’m going to support my Prime Minister, whatever she decides.”

The rural Senators recoiled. Desmond! they cried and pleaded. Norine couldn’t take Martina and Julia’s looks anymore. She left the room.

 

Twenty minutes later, Prime Minister Norine Maciel was outside Pharealth Emergency Center, inside a custom-made all-terrain vehicle with a special backdrop for occasions like this. She squeezed Pablo’s hand. She stood at the podium. She said to the camera,

“Good day, citizens of Mars United. Most of you have heard about the bomb blast today that killed 25 of our citizens and wounded another 44. Many of you have heard Senator Rhodes’ claims that carving up Mars would somehow improve lives. In fact, the only lives that would improve are those of him and his fellow Binto executives. Rhodes is using explosives to air grievances that were settled long ago, during our war of unification. He could not win this war as a soldier, nor this argument as a Senator, so he has resorted to violence against innocent civilians. We, your government, abhor violence in any form. Yet we will not let our innocent people be bullied into submission.

“Speaking of violence, some of you asked about the fate of my family. My daughter and grand-daughter survived today’s bomb blast intact. My son-in-law has been killed. My grandson…” She looked down. “…will never walk again.” The years of acting training were paying off. Not that the Prime Minister was lying, but that she knew, better than many, how to tell the truth. Norine very slowly raised her chin as she said, “And now, I have a message that I want everyone on two worlds to hear, a message directed at Rhodes and any separatist allied with him.”

Norine narrowed her eyes at the camera and leaned slightly into the mike. “You just messed with the wrong grandma.”

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