Parts of the air battle were going terribly. M.U. had managed to staunch the bleeding of the early phase, where the losses were near 1-to-1. At this point, the A.A. had about 70,000 planes left, and M.U. about 26,500. Perhaps the A.A. had led with its best soldiers, more likely the ones with the most experience in non-Earth g. Perhaps M.U. had overcome an early case of nervousness. Whatever the case, M.U. was doing incrementally better, occasionally knocking out two enemy planes simultaneously, which never failed to inspire a standing whoop and cry from the generals and senators in the war room.

The mothership was hovering about 10 km above sea level, 5 km above the top of Mt. Sharp. General Chan-Ocha chose to keep his vessel above the mountain, not New Jerusalem itself, roughly as Norine had predicted. This gave Chan-Ocha several advantages. He could see missiles coming, thus any more nukes would be little more than jokes. If the mothership had been closer, the Prime Minister might have launched drones, but considering how far they had to travel, she dared not take the risk of the A.A. taking them over. A battle directly over the city would not have gone well for either side. Norine couldn’t risk falling planes hitting civilians, and Chan-Ocha couldn’t risk falling planes missing civilians – those missed civilians, Norine trusted, would have made quick work of any A.A. flight crew.

General Rainier sat about five seats away from the Prime Minister in the war room. She leaned in, looked over at her, and inquired in her French accent, “Norine, if we continue at this rate, is it going to be enough?”

Norine looked back. “Depends on what you mean by enough.”

“No, Madam, I think it depends what you mean by enough.”

The Prime Minister knew that Rainier was right. The problem was that Norine couldn’t be sure. Sure, she had simulations and percentages at her fingertips that generals of previous centuries could never have imagined. Yet war remained a messy business, subject to too many vicissitudes. It’s not like there was a cut-off point: if we knock down this many planes, then we win. Well – other than knocking down all of them. Chances of that: .000000000000001%.

It was also difficult to bake the Trojan Horse gambit into the odds. In the last few minutes, a lieutenant had entered the war room for his first time, to give Chee information that could only be delivered in person. Chee dismissed the lieutenant and ran the info through a manual sheet of codes. After what seemed like an eternity, Chee made a pre-arranged head signal, and he and the Prime Minister absconded to the private communications room.

“Madam, the Horse is on its way to the barn.” He paused. She waited. She could tell something was wrong. He exhaled. “Wittgenstein is dead. And Martina went after the decoy, Madam. And…there are four soldiers on the Trojan Horse.”

Norine did the math in her head. “Martina is on the Trojan Horse?”

“I believe so, Madam,” was Chee’s answer.

Norine wanted to punch someone, anyone in the face. How could her daughter be so stupid? Did she want to make her kids into orphans? “Do you have an image of Martina from inside her ship? From before she left the city?”

Chee clicked his ring. “I think I can bring that up, Madam…”

Within a few moments, they had a new holo to consider: in prep for the day’s events, Martina dressed in an Asian Alliance uniform and even dyed her hair black. Though the Asian Alliance had many blonde, European-descended soldiers in their Russian squadrons, Martina clearly knew that she’d attract less attention as a brunette. She had this planned the whole time, wángbā.

Norine looked at her ring to see that Chatterjee felt she was urgently needed in the main war room. To him, everything was urgent.

To Chee, Norine said, “Can’t we…at least text their jet somehow?”

Not this t…no, Madam.” Chee steadied his voice. “Like us, the A.A. has radar set up to catch any attempt by us to talk to anyone on their planes. Such a text, whether it gets through jamming or not, will set off alarm bells all over the mothership. They have to stay dark.”

Norine knew all that; it didn’t keep her from wanting to strangle Chee at that moment.

“Besides,” added Chee, “What can we really say or do now? It’s all on them.”

Norine saw Chatterjee’s ping again. What was so urgent? She walked calmly into the war room to a sight no one had ever before witnessed.

Without quite losing its place over Mt. Sharp, the mothership began to block the sun. All part of the A.A.’s little plan. Like a window shade slowly closing, a shadow rippled over the outskirts of New Jerusalem, before making its way straight to the city’s heart. Norine wondered about some of the cameras – atop places like the mini-Petronas Towers and the mini-Eiffel Tower – were their operators separatists? The shots of the shadow enveloping the city could hardly have looked more sinister.

Facrogle’s camera tech was subject to the same proximity jamming as everything else, though Samir Samoset sometimes claimed otherwise. For example, Samoset claimed to be providing the Prime Minister with exclusive live feeds of secessionist Senators. Amy Mansourian and Akio Yoshiumura had already fled the planet; under current topsy-turvy logic, Norine counted that as support, or at least refusal to actively assist Rhodes. Felipe Cagampang had moved to Melas to coordinate with Mario Lazio, and Norine watched a feed of the two of them running around a control room, apparently cheering on their jets. Thanks to the Battle at Binto City and aggressive federal registration, Dupowme and McPepsanto combined barely had 500 rebel jets to their names, but they were behaving like their kids were winning a boball match. That is, if it was them: Norine suspected that Felipe, or one of his people, had found the camera and was trying to fool any viewers by playing a loop of the same ten minutes or so of the two Senators moving around. She didn’t bother to share her suspicions with Samoset.

If the feed of Desmond Ngorongoro was on a fake loop, the Prime Minister would barely be able to tell. Simply put, he just sat there. Months before, Norine had implored him to remember his African heritage and what happened to his Congolese ancestors under Leopold II. That was the only time Norine ever saw him angry; he warned her not to presume. Was Norine the only one who thought about 19th-century Africa, she wondered? Looking now at Ngorongoro’s Sphinx-esque expression, it was hard to tell.

The imposed solar eclipse of New Jerusalem lasted about an hour. As feeds became more defiant, the mothership lessened its eclipsing function. The Prime Minister predicted that Chan-Ocha would now finally be willing to respond to her many invitations to chat. They’d all said the same thing: Dear General Chan-Ocha, I would love to speak to you over vid-phone – or however you prefer. I hope we can avoid more needless loss of life. Prime Minister Norine Maciel.

Samoset’s face lit up. “We have a reply!” He banged out a couple of taps. “Ready for General Chan-Ocha now?”

“Let them wait a moment.” Prime Minister Norine Maciel said to Chatterjee, “Come here.”

They went into the communications room. “Give me your ring.”

“But why?”

“Just give it to me, Chatterjee.” He did. “Well, how’s my makeup and hair?”

“Uh, you look beautiful, Madam,” he replied.

She walked out into the war room. “Well, people, my assistant says I look ‘beautiful.’”

Weaver rolled her eyes.

“You can’t go by him,” said Guen-hye. “Yes, you look authoritative.”

Falke looked perturbed. “Madam, just one question. Has diplomacy worked once during this war?”

“That’s hard to measure, Florian,” she answered. “We don’t know how much worse things would have been without it.”

“Don’t we, Madam? Our best success came when we struck them hard, at Melas. Ever since, things have gone terribly.”

Norine half-expected him to say Youre not cut out for diplomacy, Madam. What a pep talk this already was, moments before her first live chat with the men trying to conquer the planet. Norine said officiously, “I don’t see what harm I can do with dialogue.”

“I do,” replied Falke. “We could be nuking them now. From the surface.”

“Those missiles will be deflected or fall on us or both.”

“You look weak. The strong prey on the weak. They push just a little harder to make the weak suffer a little more.” Norine thought, maybe while theyre pushing, they get just a little more careless. She tapped into Chatterjee’s ring.

Norine tightened her face and turned it to Samoset. “Put them on.”

After a brief flicker, the war room went a little weak at the televised sight of General Chan-Ocha. His neck was somehow wider than his head, and his pockmarked face seemed to suggest that he had no problem with taking on more scars.

Norine decided to pretend she was talking to Peoria. “General Chan-Ocha?”

The General answered, “Prime Minister?” in heavily accented English.

“Thanks for taking my call,” Norine said.

He replied in Mandarin, which was translated on the scroll as I wish wed meet in better events. Norine decided that must have meant I wish we could have met under better circumstances.

God knew how she was being translated. She tried speaking slowly. “Well, General, you’ve made your point. You’ve blown up our moon. You’ve littered Mt. Sharp with bodies. You’ve cast our capital into shadow. You’ve scared the wits out of half of Mars. Now, is there any way we can end this without more loss of life?”

General Chan-Ocha laughed. The translation read, “You think we’ve traveled from Earth to Mars just to make a deal?”

Samoset gave Norine a hand signal that meant that this video was now being broadcast all over both planets. Whether it was hacked or just directed by the A.A., Norine wasn’t sure. Probably it didn’t matter.

“I thought we could both try to avoid losing more soldiers,” said Norine.

“No,” answered General Chan-Ocha with a smile, “You thought you could delay the inevitable.”

Weaver gave Norine the “rolling hands” gesture, meaning: do it.

Norine Maciel jutted out her jaw. “It’s a shame that you’re just a pawn of the Chinese.”

The General’s smile vanished. “Excuse me, can you say that again a different way? I think my translate program is broken.”

“I think it’s working fine,” remarked Norine, affecting a nonchalant air. “It’s a shame you don’t have negotiating authority. You could have been eulogized as the man who brought peace to both planets. Oh well.” Norine kept her eyes steady and on the camera, even as she sensed the panic in the room around her.

That’s when General Cecil Rhodes appeared in the frame, taking a seat next to Chan-Ocha. “Hello, everyone on two worlds,” he said in that Buckingham Palace accent of his. Norine tuned out gasps. “This will all be over quickly, and then we can all get back to work. Norine, darling.” He laughed. “Stop trying to confuse the translation.”

“I’m not, Cecil.”

“In simple English,” Rhodes scoffed, “what are you offering?”

“That depends. Is there anything I can say that can stop this battle between our forces?”

“Stop stalling, Norine.”

“Can you answer a yes or no question, Cecil? Would you possibly stop this war with the right offer?”

“It depends on the offer. If…”

“So the answer is yes?”

“Listen, woman…”

Weaver let out a sound somewhere between a groan and a grumble.

“Oh woman is it?” snapped Norine, hoping that the forceful motion masked her tapping her extra ring. “I am the democratically elected leader of a planet. You have hitched your star to a tinpot functionary, subservient to a collected group of dictators. And you can’t answer a yes or no question?”

Two different aides whispered to Chan-Ocha and Rhodes.

General Rhodes looked into the screen again. “Yes.”

Norine said with preternatural calm, “Yes, what?”

“Yes, I can do a deal.”

“See, now, was that so hard?” Norine paused, and leaned in to the camera. She knew that her cameraperson would take that as a cue to zoom into her, putting her chin on the screen’s bottom. “Here, then, is my suggestion. You can forget all about begging me for a deal, because we will never trade away our freedom and our independence. We are Mars United and we will never, never surrender to you or anyone aligned with any other Earth government. So go to hell!

Norine wiped her hand in front of her as she finished, a sort of flourish that also suggested the conversation was over. Seeing the cue, Chatterjee cut off the feed that very moment. The people in the war room held their breath for a moment – and then applauded warmly.

Norine tried to scan the war room.

The feed coming from downtown New Jerusalem looked like the end of a Worlds Cup match. Everyone was bouncing in the streets, cheering lustily. Within less than a minute the people were chanting “Go to hell! Go to hell! Go to hell!”

Norine had given the citizens something to cheer about, but the air war continued apace, and it didn’t look good.

This time, Norine dragged Jodie Weaver into the communications room. After they were alone, she told her, “You saw someone in here fed Chan-Ocha or Rhodes my lie – about the 75%.”

Weaver said, “Yes, it’s just like I told you. There’s a mole.”

“Did you look around in that moment?”

“Yes, and I saw you looking but…everyone was composed. No one gave it away.”

“So that little stunt failed, like everything else.”

“No, Norine, it worked. We know there’s a mole, we just don’t know who it is yet. But yes, they know we know. All right, it worked and failed.” She half-laughed. “Like everything else.”

Norine turned her back on her friend of nearly 40 years.

“Norine, what is it?”

“If Martina dies up there,” said the Prime Minister, “It’s my fault.”

“You ordered her not to go!” replied Weaver. “How do you possibly figure that?”

“Because of…everything, Jodie.” Weaver didn’t look convinced. Norine sighed. “When you met me, I was just like Julia, right? Idealist. Even pacifist. But I turned myself ruthless. Because of men. Because of Mars. You remember. I turned myself into this Martina-like person. And she learned to become me.”

“First, Norine, don’t idealize Julia. She went AWOL. She’s got a lot to figure out. Second, no one ever said we could move to Mars without sacrifices. My boys are somewhere at the bottom of Mt. Sharp right now…”

“I know, Jodie, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry! If they die, it’ll finally be for the right reasons. As monuments to the Mars we should have had all along.” Norine thought, why didn’t Weaver run for President? Oh right, she didn’t want to compromise her ideals. “Third, Norine, Martina is an adult. You can’t possibly put this on yourself.”

“Can’t I?” The Prime Minister wiped back tears.

“Dry those, Norine.” Weaver wiped them away. “The war room can’t see ’em.”

“Exactly,” said Norine.

This could be the end, Norine thought morosely. Their lives are all in my hands, was another thought she wished she could stop having. Im running out of cards up my sleeve. Now they would all pay for her folly. Some with their freedom, the others with their lives.

 

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