Nimit Okeke jolted awake from another murky nightmare in which he lost his reelection campaign. The leering face of that pristine sociopath, Alexandra Vane, was still fresh in his mind. He rubbed his eyes and intended to lie back down, but his comm bleated. It was never too early for the Speaker of the Solar Council and President of Earth to start his day.
A holographic image of one of his aides appeared. Charlie. Or was it Carl? These days, they all looked the same with their engineered teeth and genetically selected cheekbones.
“Mr. Speaker, have you seen the news feeds this morning?”
His ulcer flared painfully. “Not the Zulavians again?”
He activated the media system and violent holograms sprang to life around him–fiery explosions and mushroom clouds framed by a cacophony of talking heads. Another attack on Gliese 581g’s Mining Colonies. Twenty-three hundred dead. Trillions of rupees in damage. It was a political catastrophe.
“Sir,” interrupted the aide, “President Vane of Mars has publicly accused you of inaction and the Gliese Mining Co-Op is demanding compensation. The Media Outlets want a statement.”
“Get the PR Machine to spit out something,” he said. The AI was far better at writing speeches than he was. It had probably already sent personal condolences to the family members of those lost in the attack. “How are the polls?”
“You’re still favored, but your numbers took a slight dip after the assault from Vane.”
He wrestled himself into a pair of tights. “Goddammit, we’ve got to organize a response. I can’t let an unsolicited attack like that go unpunished. Circulate a rumor that Vane’s chief of staff illegally funneled contracts to Martian terraforming companies.”
Nimit loathed Vane. He knew the feeling was mutual after he’d crushed her in the last Solar System election. After discovering that she had once had an affair with a Lumonian gender-bender, Nimit and his political machine had hammered her relentlessly. Vane had been looking for a way to get back at him ever since, and she was taking full advantage of this Zulavian mess.
Carl looked surprised. “Sir? What about the Zulavian attack?”
He grunted. Carl was right. If he didn’t deal with the Zulavian thing, Vane would pummel him bloody with it. “Get Ambassador Clage to–”
His private comm wailed insistently. “I’ll get back to you, Carl.”
“It’s Carter, sir.”
Nimit switched connections and a distorted feed of his brother’s pocked face appeared. He hadn’t seen Walker in six months, and he was worried about him. The tattered gray beard on his brown face made him look alien and wild. “Christ, Walker. Are you okay? You look like hell.”
“Okay? Of course I’m not bloody okay. Those cold-blooded monsters slaughtered two thousand more human beings last night!”
Nimit stepped into a plastic tube that flushed him from his bedroom to the cosmetics lounge. “I don’t have time for one of your rants, Walker. I’ve got real problems. My re-election campaign is in full swing and that goddamn Martian, Vane, is tearing into my numbers.”
Walker was working himself into a frenzy. “How can you be worried about numbers when people are dying?”
Nimit sighed and sat back in the salon chair. Of course Walker would be worked up over the attack. “Yes, we’re all terribly sad about the tragedy.” A quartet of identical-looking, ambiguously-gendered estheticians began vacuuming his pores and decoloring his hair.
“Then when are you going to do something about it?”
“I am! If you bothered to watch the Media Outlets, you’d know we’re taking diplomatic actions and applying lateral economic pressure.”
“That won’t accomplish a damn thing, and you know it! These aliens mean to annihilate us, just like the Quartins. You need to mobilize the Solar Defense Fleet.”
Nimit couldn’t stifle a laugh, causing his hair colorist to add a streak of mauve to his coif. “We can’t go to war! You know that.”
Of all people, Walker should know. Nimit and Walker had fought in the Last War, barely older than children. After annihilating every last one of the Quartins and strip-mining their world for billions of tons of a rhenium isotope used in modern Casimir drives, they’d returned home to a world that called them genocidal murderers. Nimit had reversed his fate by taking up the call for peace, claiming firsthand knowledge of the horrors of war and riding the wave of public opinion into a budding political career.
To this day, Walker still maintained that what they had done was necessary; his vehemence had turned him into a bearded outcast. He was a liability to Nimit’s political career. The situation inevitably made family gatherings into awkward affairs.
“Just because the Media Outlets don’t want to cover it, doesn’t mean that there isn’t public support. Look.” The image of his brother’s face dropped to white noise then gradually readjusted itself into a crude video feed. A few hundred poorly organized vets and college kids were marching through the streets of some semi-inhabited North American city. They waved old-fashioned signs with slogans like Retaliation Not Negotiation and Pacifism Is Not Pro-Life.
“A handful of warniks is hardly a revolution,” Nimit said.
“This will get bigger. Once the people learn what’s at stake, they’ll support you.”
“They can support me at the polls next month. Until then, I’ve got Vane to deal with.”
“Speaker Okeke,” said the cosmetic electrologist. “It’s time for your galvanic current therapy.”
“Get yourself cleaned up and go see a therapist, Walker. I don’t need Vane using you against me any more than she already has.”
“Nimit, listen to me!”
Nimit killed the connection.
“Which face would you like today, sir?” asked one of the estheticians.
Nimit switched the wall-screen to transparent. Dawn was just beginning to spill over the horizon of the Atlantic. The stars still shone against a carpet of navy. One of those stars was Gliese 581, twenty light years distant. The Zulavian problem seemed impossibly far off. Now Vane, there was a problem close at hand. “Let’s go with the Jimmy Carter, today, shall we? I’ve got an enemy to crush.”
The artist nodded. “An excellent choice, sir.”
The Cabinet Dome echoed with a cacophony of media feeds and shouting cabinet members. “Speaker Okeke,” said Chief Diplomat Rodgett, “Thank God you’re here.”
Nimit raised his hands. “What’s the situation, people?”
“The Media Outlets are reporting that all human colonies had been destroyed on Gliese,” Rodgett said. “There’s wild speculation about prisoners of war and the dining habits of Zulavians.” The diplomat shook his head. “They’re just cycling between shots of the planetary bombardments and Vane’s public accusation.”
Nimit pounded a fist on the table, trying to look authoritative. “I want to know what we’re doing to handle this.”
“We’re transmitting out requests for diplomatic negotiations in all known languages, but thus far we’ve received no response,” Rodgett said. “The Department of Commerce has secured agreements from the Galactic Coalition–the Lumonians, the Maaslings, and the Liets–that will immediately terminate all trade with the Zulavians.”
Nimit shoved aside a stack of reports. “Not the attacks! Let the xenoeconomists sort that out. I’m talking about Vane. I want every scrap of filth we’ve got on Vane, her family, or her employees. We’ve got to reestablish narrative dominance, people!”
“Sir, we just learned that Vane’s second cousin is on the board of a corporation accused of genetically engineering dogs to breathe methane for use in Venusian gambling dens.”
Nimit clapped his hands. “Delicious. Slap a bioethics violation on him and flood the Media Outlets with all those clips of Vane yammering on about family values. We’ll choke her with her own talking points! What’s the PR Machine say, Alie?”
Alison Booz, his Technical Advisor, was interfaced with a quantum computer spanning an entire wall of the Cabinet Room. Alison had joked more than once over drinks that it was his PR Machine and her cunning use of it that had won him his last two elections. Now she wrinkled her nose. “The Zulavian thing has already gotten out of hand. You need to do a live press conference. You’ll have to take questions.”
Nimit drummed his fingers on the table and said nothing. Public speeches were fine. He had the face and the voice. But off-prompter, he struggled. Maybe he’d come to rely too heavily on the PR Machine and his team, but dammit, he was a decision-maker, not a debater. “Fine. In the meantime, do something about these damned Zulavians. Offer them stock in the Media Outlets. They’d have to be crazy not to consider that offer.”
Two hours later, a smiling intern was helping him onto the elevated platform in the Briefing Center that smelled of freshly boiled plasticrete. She was probably the same age he was when he went off to fight the Last War, and looked just as cunning and vicious.
“We just received notification that the Zulavians’ advance wing has reached Pluto Colony,” she whispered. “The Media Outlets just lost two broadcast relay ships.” She patted him on the shoulder like he was an elderly family member–to be humored but not taken seriously.
Nimit grunted. “What’s my angle?”
“Stick to your pacifist guns, sir. And look for opportunities to turn the questions back to Vane and the election.”
He climbed onto the stage before a gaggle of human and robotic journalists. He furrowed his brow and shifted his jaw in that way that he knew projected gravitas. He paused, allowing the broadcast systems to transmit a 3-D hologram of him to billions of homes across the solar system.
“My fellow citizens,” Nimit said, “Let me first express my condolences. Countless lives have already been lost. We find ourselves in a tragic and difficult situation, but we are doing everything in our power–”
“Mr. Speaker, can you tell us any further information about the movements of the Zulavian fleet?”
“I’m afraid that’s classified.”
“Is military intervention a strategic possibility?”
He softened his brow, trying to appear fatherly and wise. “I saw firsthand what can happen when human beings go to war. Every year I make the pilgrimage to the Quartin Heritage Site and remember the cost of our violence. Our civilization has advanced beyond that barbaric stage. We are an enlightened species. We have evolved beyond war.”
Even as he recited the passage from his inaugural speech, he remembered the terrifying videos from his childhood, the shark-like Quartins and the seas of gore and destruction left in their wake. He remembered standing on the bridge of the S.S.S. Avatar as they launched the planet busters. At the time, he hadn’t felt any shame about eradicating an intelligent species from the galaxy. Instead, he had felt safe. Later he had learned that those childhood videos had been propaganda films rather than real journalism, but by that time, the Quartins had been folded into the compost heap of history.
“Isn’t a military campaign possible, though?” the journalist continued. “Despite political pressure, you’ve refused to dismantle our P-Bombs or de-fund the Solar Defense Fleet. Some have called you a closet-warnik.”
Vane, the President of Mars, had been sticking him with that particular needle for years. The electrodes in his cheeks helped him hold his smile in place. “Our stockpile of weapons is one of our strongest diplomatic bargaining chips. It would be foolish to throw that away.”
“Are you saying then that you’re considering a military option?”
Nimit stifled a curse. The bastards were baiting him. “We learned our lesson the last time. War isn’t an answer–it is only an avenue to shame and self-degradation.
“And let’s not forget that there are other important matters at hand,” he continued before they could harangue him further. “We have an entire solar system to govern. Even now, my administration is investigating serious bioethics charges involving–”
“Mr. Speaker,” interrupted a young reporter from one of the Slum Rags. “What do you think of the ‘Love the Zulavians’ campaign that began with the Ecumenical Church of Io? Do you think showing the Zulavians our capacity for love could be a viable diplomatic strategy?”
Nimit snorted. This was too much. “Is that a joke, son? The ECI are certified religious extremists. Do you really think that telling the Zulavians that we love them is going to achieve anything?”
A dozen voices shouted questions. He had pissed them off now. “Mr. Speaker! Are you aware that President Vane has publicly offered his support of the ECI?”
“No more questions!” Nimit shouted. “You’ll be briefed as soon as we have any further developments.” He threw up his hands and fled the stage.
Their diplomatic entreaties went unheeded. Over the next twenty-four hours, the Zulavians razed Pluto Colony and Neptune, destroying mining operations, scientific colonies, and trading posts. The President of Neptune and the Governor of Pluto Colony demanded immediate action. Worse, Vane went on all the interview programs and Nimit’s poll numbers continued to plummet.
“What do you mean my numbers are down?” Nimit roared at his cabinet members.
“Vane outright accused you of being a warnik,” Alie said. Unlike the rest of them, she seemed unperturbed by his outburst.
“I never said we’d go to war!”
“You never said we wouldn’t,” she pointed out.
Nimit rubbed his forehead. His facial injections were fading and he was looking more and more like his ordinary, flat-faced self again. “Where are we with the bioethics thing?”
An aide stared sheepishly down at his notes. “It seems that, umm, well, Mister Speaker…”
Nimit struck the table, spilling his bubble tea. “Well? What is it?”
“It turns out that it was President Vane’s relative who reported the illegal gene modification. It was an undercover investigation. He’s being called a hero.”
Nimit swept aside the bubble tea and pointed a finger at the intern. “Circulate a rumor that Vane eats babies. I want to see it all over the afternoon media cycle!”
“Right, babies. Yes, sir.” The aide scooped up his notes and fled the Cabinet Dome.
“Nimit, you’re not going to get Vane off your back until you deal with the Zulavian invasion,” Alie said. “Not with the Media Outlets giving it full coverage.”
“Invasion? Who’s calling it an invasion?” Nimit kicked his chair away and stomped around the table. “I’d like to chop Vane up into tiny bits and feed her to the Zulavians. Once they got a taste, they’d turn tail and go back to the pitted rock where they came from.”
Defense Minister Avery, garbed in his traditional tabard emblazoned with the olive branch, stood up. “Speaker, the longer you wait to act, the more ground Vane is gaining.”
“And the more people die,” Alie said.
“Indeed,” Avery continued. “Perhaps we should consider the tactic that President Vane proposed, that is, surrendering our stockpile of weapons to the Zulavians.”
“Give them our weapons?” Nimit cried. “That’s just stupid.”
“If we’re completely defenseless,” Avery said, “the Zulavians will recognize that we are no threat to them. They will abandon this campaign of senseless violence.”
“It could stabilize your popularity numbers,” said another advisor. “There’s no way Vane could call you a warnik after that.”
Nimit looked to Alie, who was interfaced with the PR machine.
She frowned. “They’re right. It would stabilize your numbers for the moment.”
Nimit raised his hands. He couldn’t stomach the idea of following Vane. “If I follow Vane’s strategy, I implicitly endorse her position. Besides, what if Vane is wrong? What if the Zulavians keep coming and we’ve got nothing to defend ourselves with?”
Avery and the other cabinet members looked around at one another nervously. “Perhaps we should recess for a few minutes,” Avery said.
By lunchtime, someone leaked a recording of Nimit shouting that he’d like to chop Vane up into tiny bits. The Media Outlets ran a repeating stream all afternoon. Nimit watched his sagging face clog the media pipelines and cursed himself for not spending time with his estheticians that morning.
Defense Minister Avery went on all the news programs in an unauthorized press conference. He all but accused Nimit of planning to use military force against the Zulavians, and promptly resigned. The rest of Nimit’s cabinet–all except Alie–followed in short order. His political opponents called Nimit unstable and those in his own political party began to distance themselves from him on the interview programs. The Media Outlet commentators were beginning to talk about a possible no-confidence vote.
There wasn’t a single rumor that Vane ate babies.
Nimit fled to the Oblong Office, seeking a silent place to think. His private comm beeped again. Another message from Walker insisting that a strike force was ready to launch from Gravisport. The attacks were coming at him from all sides. He didn’t need Walker adding to his stress.
When he saw it was Alie, he relaxed. After working twenty years together, he’d learned to trust her.
He waved her in. “What does the PR machine say I should do now? Ask Vane to marry me and move in together?
She grinned and adjusted her lab coat. “I didn’t ask.”
He grunted. “Don’t.”
“You’re really considering military action?”
He paced the room. “If I raised the fleet, it would be the end of my career. Vane would crucify me. I could be brought up on charges for violating the 66th Solar Amendment.”
Alie poured them both a drink. “Well, you’d better figure out something soon, or stasis-prison is going to be the least of your problems.”
He almost chuckled. “It’s that bad?”
Instead of responding, Alie activated the video feeds and images sprang to life around them. The Zulavians was dispersing Uranus, leaving colorful streaks of luminescent gasses and orbital debris in their wake. It made for a breathtaking funeral. Nimit found himself unable to look away from the carnage.
“Back when we first got into this business together, you wanted to make a difference,” Alie said. “You believed in pacifism, but you’d been in war.”
Nimit vaguely remembered having a conversation like this with Alie in a crowded bar, twenty years prior. “I didn’t want to see our Solar System driven by extremists.”
“These days, you seem more concerned with your poll numbers and your appearance than preventing extremism.”
She was right. Staying in power had become more important than doing his job.
“As a citizen of the United Solar System and your friend,” she said, “I’d advise you do something about the invasion before you don’t have a system left to govern.”
A strange sense of calm settled over Nimit. He took out his private comm and pinged Walker.
“Sorry, brother,” Walker said upon answering. “I heard the news about your cabinet. Things aren’t looking so good for your reelection campaign.”
“Never mind that,” Nimit said. “How soon can you meet me at Gravisport?”
Walker’s eyes widened. “On my way. Commander.”
Nimit turned to Alie. A foolish grin pushed its way onto his face. He felt like a boy who was cutting class and flaunting it in front of the teachers. “What do you think? Am I completely crazy?”
She took a deep breath. “Yes, and it’s inspiring. Let’s go.”
By that evening, Saturn was under attack from the Zulavian advance wing. A hundred thousand protesters went out in unarmed ships and formed a screen around Io, practicing a twentieth-century concept known as “non-violent resistance.” The Zulavians swept them away like asteroid dust. Within a few hours they had reduced the universities and churches of Io to slag.
Vane gave a live press conference to all the Media Outlets. She was perfectly composed, from her salt and pepper hair to her carefully gene-sculpted wrinkles.
“People of Mars and the Solar System at large,” she said. “Our fate hangs in the balance. The Zulavian fleet is approaching. Already, half of our worlds have been lost, countless billions slaughtered or enslaved by our enemies. And Speaker Okeke is unable to cope with the crisis. His cabinet has abandoned him. While he tells you that he has used every diplomatic tool possible, it isn’t true. He refused to consider any of the tactics I proposed. These are not the actions of a leader, but of a man at the breaking point. Consider what might happen if Speaker Okeke were to snap. Decades of economy-crushing war? The burden of genocide?
“Nimit Okeke has failed to address this crisis, perhaps the greatest in the history of humankind. I ask you, Presidents of the planets of the Solar System and members of the Solar Council, will you stand with me and vote no confidence?”
Nimit and Alie, on approach to Gravisport, watched the real-time vote counter climb precariously.
Alie grabbed his hand and squeezed it. “I’m so sorry…”
The counter crashed through the two-thirds majority threshold. Nimit was surprised to find that he felt a sort of relief.
All of his communication channels began to buzz and chirp at once. Political rivals and former allies, the Media Outlets, they all demanded his attention. He ignored them. Gravisport was coming up on their left.
Walker was already there. He had shaved and put on his old fleet uniform. He looked more like a 20th century general than a homeless vagrant.
Chief Admiral Charles Braithe saluted them. “It’s an honor to have you here, Speaker Okeke.” Nimit and Walker had served with him on the S.S.S. Avatar during the Last War. Back then, Charles had just been an Ensign.
“Nimit is just fine. In case you haven’t heard, I’m not the Speaker any longer.”
“As a matter of fact, Speaker, I haven’t heard. We’ve received no official notice, so until I hear otherwise, you’re still in charge.”
Nimit turned to the crew gathered at the port. He took a deep breath. “We’ll probably all be court-martialed before this is over. I want to give anyone who doesn’t want to be a part of this the chance to walk away.”
Near the back of the assembly, a young ensign raised her hand. “Sir, haven’t you always said that war is a mistake?”
His own words. “We made mistakes in the past, but if we don’t stand up for ourselves now, we won’t be around to make mistakes in the future.”
None of the crew walked away.
“Chief Admiral, can you get the fleet in a defensive orbit around Mars?” Nimit asked.
Braithe’s face lit up like it had on the day they had dropped the planet busters on Qubin. “Is that an order, Speaker?”
“That’s an order, Admiral.”
That afternoon, President Vane appeared live on all of the Media Outlets and interplanetary broadcast channels. “People of Zulavia, you who are conquerors and heroes. We humans are a peaceful species and have shown no resistance. As a final act of our pacifistic nature, we offer you our defensive stockpile and a voting seat on the United Galactic Federacy. We are at your mercy.”
The Zulavians responded by imploding Jupiter with a singularity micro-bomb.
Nimit stood on the Command Deck of the S.S.S. Leviathan, watching the devastation as they approached Martian orbit. He hailed the Martian Executive Office, and a moment later, Vane’s face sprang to life in front of him, her elegant features twisted into a mask of rage and fear.
“Nimit, you’ve made a grave error. Surrender yourself immediately.”
“You had your turn, Vane. You failed as badly as I did.”
“Only because you’ve illegally seized control of the Solar Defense Fleet. That’s why the Zulavians destroyed Jupiter. It’s your fault! You’ll stand trial for war crimes!”
“You can bring me up on charges after I save your Martian ass,” Nimit said. “War is a terrible solution, but sometimes it’s the only one left.”
He killed the connection and activated diplomatic broadcast channels.
“Zulavian fleet, this is Speaker of the Solar System and President of Earth, Nimit Okeke. You have unlawfully invaded our sovereign space, attacked our planets, and murdered our people. I demand you account for your actions.”
A hologram sprang to life, the first time the Zulavians had responded to any communication effort. The alien was less than a meter tall and covered in gray and black fur. Its glassy black eyes made it look more like a child’s stuffed animal than a ruthless invader bent on total domination.
It grinned, making it look even cuter. “The leader of the humans speaks.” Its voice, translated through the ship’s computer, was embarrassingly high-pitched. “Your cowardice will be imprinted onto our generational memory for eons to come.”
“I demand that you immediately cease hostilities, turn over your commanders for prosecution of war crimes, and withdraw your fleet from Solar System space,” Nimit said, feeling more confident than he ever had in the Briefing Center.
The Zulavian giggled girlishly. “You humans are cowards and pacifists. Submit now and you will be enslaved rather than annihilated.”
“I promise you, if you do not surrender immediately, we will come at you with the full ferocity and determination of the human race.”
“Come then, let us see what pitiful resistance you humans can muster.”
Nimit switched to the military channels, hoping silently that they were still functioning after all these years. “This is Speaker Okeke. By the power of Executive Order one-one-two, I hereby activate every vessel in the Solar Defense Fleet. Prepare for immediate engagement. Let’s blast these murderous teddy bears out of our skies!”
A ragged cheer went up from those on deck, and Walker clapped him on the back. “About damned time!”
Across the solar system, the ships of the Solar Defense Force converged upon on the Zulavian fleet, gleaming like comets. “Commander Walker,” Nimit said, “Fire on my order.”
“Ready to fire, brother,” Walker said.
Nimit felt a rush adrenaline charge up his spine. The lead capital ship of the Zulavian fleet was coming into range. It looked rather like a jelly bean. Nimit closed his eyes and imagined Vane on board.
© 2015, Shannon Rampe