“Dammit it all! What on earth is going on, Sam?” Martin demanded.
The Martian Overseer wrung his hands as the image on his view screen smiled. Damn that inscrutable smile! And here he thought the architect was no more than a foolish artist, like clay to be molded as he saw fit.
“You sound alarmed, Martin,” Weng said. “Not to worry. We have procured the water, as requested.”
“Requested. Your request!” Martin sat down heavily, thumping his desk for good measure. “Gen!”
Martin started. What?
“Father, do not overly concern yourself. Dr. Weng is well aware of our relationship. He has readily agreed to join our cause.”
Martin frowned. Cause? That old chestnut again?
He sighed, and leaned back in the chair. The UN Security Council was definitely not going to like this. Still, they had other, more pressing concerns.
The disagreement between China and the Greater Indian Empire had worsened. Martin expected conflict to break out at almost any moment. At that point, they could no longer count on getting foodstuffs from the ISS. UN or not, India would never allow supplies to be shared with settlers from the Allied Forces, as long as China was a part of it.
“Gen. Sam. Things have taken a turn for the worst here,” he said at length. “If we don’t get new supplies soon, hydroponics estimates that we’ll run out of solid food in less than sixty Earth days.”
“Two months?” Weng replied. His face looked alarmed. A new expression, Martin thought. I should make a special note of it.
“New refugees,” Martin said. “Another group just came in. This one from Malaysia.”
“So,” Gen said monotonously. “Things are getting worse.”
“Yes,” Martin agreed. “An emergency Security Council meeting has been arranged to discuss the ongoing rift between China and India. But the cracks have appeared. The UA may decide not to take sides, which would annoy their Chinese allies.”
“Not good,” Weng said. For once, he wasn’t smiling. “I did warn Sue that the UA would not protect her, and that China might come looking.”
Weng looked flustered. Martin said nothing. But he enjoyed the architect’s discomfort. Information for future reference.
“Sue Talbot. On the Ceres Mining Council.”
“Ah. And this, Sue, what was her response?”
Gen cut in. “She gave us seven thousand tons of water. We’re bringing it back right now. And we have made an ally.”
“An ally.” Martin pondered.
He was playing a risky game, he knew. The southern ice cap could solve all their problems, but he had no immediate access to it. The settlers need not know that all he had to do was hack the ice factories and overpower a handful of guards. He still needed the settlers’ help to extract enough water from regolith for electrical generation and the hydroponic greenhouses. For now. Once the UN found out how much was potentially available for hydrogen fuel cell production, without the UA’s interference, they would surely come to him.
And then she’d see…!
“Father. Father, what shall we do about the foodstuffs?”
Martin snapped his attention back to the vidscreen.
“Ah. Ah! Well, let me first contact the UN. See what they can do.”
“And if they are otherwise preoccupied?” Weng said. “We can divert to the ISS to—”
“No, no,” Martin cut in, waving a hand. “Forget the ISS. Ping Luna and see if you can do a swing-by. You know who to get in touch with.”
Weng visibly sighed. Now it was Martin’s turn to smile. He had them.
“Yes, Overseer,” the architect said. Glumly, Martin thought.
“In the meantime,” Gen commented. “You may wish to block all incoming. We have already recommended that Ceres do so, in anticipation.”
“All?” Martin said, taken aback. “Why?”
“While you were talking with Mr. Weng, I intercepted a transmission from Earthside to the ISS.” Gen paused, concentrating on something off screen. “Here. I’ll send it to you.”
“You broke their—well, I guess quantum encryption wasn’t foolproof, after al—”
Martin broke off. He scanned the message. This was bad. Very bad.
The UA had launched several troop carriers. Somebody must have tipped them off. The refugees?
“Fortunately, the UA lacks firepower enough to disable our orbiting dock station. But they could land troops with little opposition,” Gen noted. “We must seize their ice before that happens.”
“Yes. Remember, we have about two months before our food runs out,” Martin said. “You need to drop off your water cargo, refuel and go to Luna, and convince the Lunar Council to transport us emergency food supplies. And all before the Allied Forces arrive. For leverage. Can you do it?”
Get and Weng exchanged glances. Martin wondered if the two were getting along.
“Yes, I believe so,” Weng finally said with a smile. “Unless you decide to choose a different crew member more agile than I at spaceflight.”
Martin shook his head.
“Spaceflight is child’s play, thanks to the AI onboard systems. We’re not planning on fighting anybody. What we need is a diplomat with people skills.”
“Martin, I’ve told you, I’m—”
“No diplomat?” Martin smiled. “But you want to be one. I recognize ambition when I see it, Sam.”
He could swear Weng was blushing, but the architect did well to hide it behind that smile. He practiced it, himself.
Now we know each other, he thought, feeling more comfortable. This was a game he knew how to play.
“At any rate,” he continued, “as long as you can convince the bigwigs on Luna, the quantum teleportation systems should get us enough food for a while.”
“Too bad it doesn’t work with people,” Weng said. Wistfully? Another piece of information to be stored future use. Somebody far away he wished to be nearer.
“Yes, well,” Martin replied, keeping his answer deliberately open.
“We’ll contact you as we approach lower Martian orbit,” Gen said, as if on cue. “Until then, we do recommend silence.”
Martin relaxed his shoulders and inclined his head. “Very well. Use the cypher. Out.”
He swiftly cut the connection. The five minute delay between transmission had been irritating enough. No need to wait for confirmation. He was positive Gen understood. They’d had little chance to employ their secret code, given the quantum encryptions that had come into use. But since apparently even Chinese technology was hackable, they had to rely on old methods. Even if it only worked over relatively short distances.
Now, to the business at hand. After ordering another tea, Martin ordered all outside communications blocked. This was sure to provoke a response from settler groups across the Colonies. But with the UA Allied Forces already on their way, he saw little choice. He busied himself with paperwork to the Security Council, drafting a request for supplies that was sure to be turned down, while he waited for the expected calls.
Sure enough, less than thirty minutes later his secretary was fielding multiple irate inquiries. Fortunately, the robot had little difficulty handling several simultaneous connections while relaying information to Earth. Martin was perfectly content to devote his attention to other, more pressing issues.
Let the factions complain for the time being, he thought, switching his screen to monitor Weng and Gen’s progress from the docking station. Its limited capabilities at least allowed the him to estimate a reasonable arrival time, based on their last known position. After a few moments of inputting commands, Martin had his estimate. Next, he contacted the internal Mars Colonies Security Forces. The MCSF were minimal, at best, a few dozen ex-soldiers who signed five-year UN contracts and helped maintain order in the Colonies.
The problem, Martin knew, was that almost half were ex-UA Allied Forces. If the UA arrived to firm their grip on the ice factories, whose side would they choose? The UN or the UA?
Technically, the United Americas were, of course, part of the UN. In fact, the headquarters of the UN once was located in the UA. But in the turbulent period after the Seven Years War, the UA found itself at odds with most other world powers. In a sudden pique, the UA president decided to boot the UN headquarters from UA territory. At the time, it must have seemed the right thing to do, Martin reflected, as he waited for someone in the MCSF to answer his hail.
But the result of the UN being relocated to China permanently altered relationships among the Security Council members. The UA lost not just prestige but power; its economy collapsed, the government fell, and to survive it was forced to join a coalition with East Asian countries. Humiliated, the UA impeached its president, who it blamed for the entire fiasco.
Martin gritted his teeth. Dammit, why didn’t somebody answer the damn phone?
He couldn’t bear the thought of being connected with his grandfather. His wife’s name, he thought, may not be strong enough. I need to make sure my credentials are impeccable. Outside my grandfather’s influence. Respect and authority. Fame.
What better way but to be the savior of Mars?
“That’ll show her,” he muttered.
“Sorry, sir?” came a voice on the speaker. “I didn’t catch that.”
Damn! He’d been talking aloud again.
“We need to show,” he stopped, then continued in a stronger, more confident voice. “We need to show the world that they can still depend on the UN and the Mars Colonies. To whom am I speaking?”
“I’m not sure we can show them much at this point,” the voice said. “Hamels here.”
“Hamels?” Martin frowned. He’d never heard of the woman. “Where’s the Commander?”
“Busy, sir,” came the hesitant reply. “Most of our forces are dealing with the current crisis.”
“Sir, several settlements are close to rioting against the forced block on Earthside communications. They’re also demanding more water and food rations.”
Martin nearly swore. He’d clearly underestimated the persistence of some of the factions. It was time to stall, and bluff.
“Hamels, was it?”
“You don’t sound UA. What was your original posting?”
“European Union, sir. Netherlands Division, transferred in six weeks ago.”
“Six weeks, eh. So…” He paused, mind racing. A European. Surely arrived in a group. No country would waste money on an individual trip to a remote post. “Tell me, Mr. Hamels—”
“Sergeant Major, sir.”
“Sergeant Major Hamels,” he corrected. “In the MCSF, how many units originate from the EU or other non-UA locations?”
“Non-UA? Sir, the crisis—”
“Yes, yes, we’ll deal with that in a moment. How many?”
Hamels fell silent. Martin wished they had the power for vid transmissions. He hated not seeing his interlocutor’s face.
“Well?” he said impatiently.
“Sir, I believe there are about fourteen or fifteen, out of thirty-three.”
He pondered. Not quite half. Damn the UA! Of course they would have insisted on a majority of security forces from their own units.
To safeguard their damn irradiated ice.
“Hamels, listen to me. I need you to contact all the non-UA security force members and tell them to assemble at the water plant in twenty minutes.”
“Sir! Yes, sir, but the rioting?”
“I have faith in Commander Reynolds’ persuasive abilities. In the meantime, contact as many as you can. I’ll be calling all settler faction heads and see if we can’t calm the situation down with a minimum amount of security force, eh?”
“Yes, sir. Fifteen minutes. Water plant. Acknowledged.”
“Fifteen minutes,” he repeated, then cut the connection.
Now, Martin thought. How much should he say to the settlers?
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 15: The Sagittarius (arriving February 20, 2021)