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4: A Meeting of the Petty Gods

ELUL 21, 5820
2250 ZULU

I hated Leonard McBride.

Not personally, of course. I'd never even met him before that night. But I had seen plenty of him on the vid -- the big news on Tuesday, just before we left Luna, had been Quintex Acting CEO Jennifer Galza announcing the formation of the "Liberty In Tranquillity Alliance".

I associated McBride with the ideas and organizations he was fronting, and I saw a man who was abdicating his responsibilities to Earth because he wasn't willing to choose sides in the Torie War. He looked like a fast-talking coward trying to gain power by exploiting the fears of a confused public, and I thought that was wrong.

The Torus has always been under the jurisdiction of the United Nations. Colonies can fly national flags, but the Outer Space Treaties had declared the Torus a free population zone, and most rocks were privately owned anyway. U.N.S.F. bases peppered the Torus, and interplanetary law was still in effect there, but the U.N. would stay out of the way unless someone requested intervention.

Everyone living in the Torus had agreed to allow the U.N. to be an arbitrator and watchdog -- a laissez-faire, hands-off authority, but still an authority. When Tories rode on U.N. transport shuttles, drew supplies from U.N. relief ships, or sought shelter behind a U.N.S.F. frigate during radiation storms, it was with the implicit understanding that both parties were bound by law to an agreement.

And now the Tories had broken that agreement. They could have amended the U.N.S.F. Treaty or applied to the U.N. for new legislation or petitioned for the removal of military forces from the Torus -- all of which the U.N. would have honored -- but instead they chose an armed revolt. They attacked Europa without provocation, without even trying to negotiate. They fired the first shot.

If this had been Earth, the U.N. would simply have pulled out and let the local government sort it out. But there was no other government in the Torus, and the Moroccan and Cambodian and dozens of other colonies, whose parent countries couldn't afford their own space programs, depended on U.N.S.F. for pretty much everything. The U.N. had to stay in the Torus to serve and protect its citizens.

By refusing to support the U.N., I thought, McBride was encouraging apathy: the same apathy that had created Vichy France in World War II and allowed the Holocaust to happen, the same apathy that had prolonged the Hong Kong Riots in 2002 and raised the Curtain Wall around China. The same apathy that always kills the weak and innocent.

Life is full of hard decisions. It was hard for me to stay with U.N.I.A., knowing that Sarah was in the Torus, but we all had to choose. A person can't be in two places at the same time.

McBride didn't choose. Instead, he made the situation worse, telling people that it was fine for them not to care about this conflict, okay to ignore what might snowball into the largest armed conflict in human history, no big deal to forget about a Treaty that had taken decades to negotiate.

I thought he was wrong because I thought he wasn't right. When you're a cop, there are only two sides, and the concept of neutrality is totally alien: either you're for law and order and willing to cooperate, or you're a criminal and you should be locked up, on what charge we can decide later.

A female police officer never forgets her mistakes.

Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches?

I don't even remember why I went downstairs that night. I remember looking over the railing after Lynn had charged upstairs with her revelation, and seeing a U.N.S.F. uniform slicing through the crowd at the edge of the dance floor. I followed the wake and found McBride.

Maybe I had half a mind to punch his teeth in. Maybe I was going to give him a piece of my mind. I do know I was pretty damn drunk.

"Is this seat taken?" I heard myself saying.

He looked up, blinking his dark eyes. The patches and logos all over his jumpsuit made it look like an athletic uniform. His short, black hair arced away from his face half-heartedly, as if unsure whether to stay or go and bereft of direction from its owner.

"I'm married."

"Don't flatter yourself. I just want to talk." I started to sit down.

He held up a hand. "Could I see some I.D., please? My bodyguards are getting nervous right about now."

I fumbled for my U.N.I.A. badge -- slowly -- and slid it across the table. "Bodyguards."

"You won't spot them," McBride said. "Two Quintex officers, one M.S. Lieutenant. All three former U.S. Rangers."


He frowned. "Most people are more impressed."

"I used to be a cop," I growled. "Chicago, Homicide. Ninety-six percent clearance rate."

"Well, hell, have a seat!" He returned my badge, smiling too broadly. "Let me buy you a drink!"

I sat down and ordered a drink, trying to remember the wicked insult I had intended to deliver. Before I could say anything, McBride ambushed me.

"Why did you quit?"

The question seemed to materialize in my brain without having passed through my ears. It wasn't McBride's voice, or anyone else's, for that matter -- it was a pure thought.

For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and the year of my redemption has come. I looked, but there was no one to help, I was appalled that no one gave support; so my own arm worked salvation for me, and my own wrath sustained me. I trampled the nations in my anger; in my wrath I made them drunk and poured their blood on the ground.

"Why did you betray the United Nations?" I spat back.

He hesitated for a split second. "Do you always answer a question with a question?"

"Does that bother you?"

I started laughing. I couldn't stop for minutes. When I regained my composure, McBride was still wearing that smug, Buddha-meets-Mona-Lisa smile on his soft-edged but squarish face.

"You're very drunk." He wiped a drop of saliva from his cheek. I didn't even have the presence of mind to be embarrassed. "I hope you've got someone to drive you home."

"That's classified."

"Fair enough." He took a sip of his drink. I stared at mine. "You're probably wondering what I said to Captain Onato."

"You chewed him out pretty good."

"I asked him to resign his commission and join the Alliance. He declined."

"What the hell did you expect?"

He shrugged. "So what did you want to talk to me about, Miss Eves?"

I lied. "I forgot."

"Well, then. How's Lenara?"

"Lenara?" It took my brain a moment to connect the name to the person. "I don't know. Lonely. Worried. She couldn't come on this -- uh -- trip with us."

"Why not?"

"That's classified too. Besides, Othello isn't going to let an A7 go running around the Torus now, it's, you know, a, a -- jick." For some reason I couldn't think of the phrase.

"'War zone'?" McBride offered.

"Yeah, that. War zone. Dangerous place around here."

He was smiling again. "You're really drunk."

"Hey, I don't have to take this from you. Jicking traitor."

"Now, why do you say that?"

"Oh, I dunno ... maybe because you left U.N.I.A. at the beginning of a civil war and are now encouraging people to follow your yellowbellied apathetic lead. Maybe that's why. Because you care more about making a fast buck than saving the U.N."

"Don't talk about things of which you have no knowledge."

"Go to hell --"

He threw the rest of his drink in my face. Ice water. The sensation shocked me into silence.

"I don't have to explain myself to you, but I will, because I respect you. Lenara did some work on Project Theory back in the forties, and I know she wouldn't hire someone who wasn't the best. Besides, I used to be a cop."

I frowned. "You were never a cop!"

"Federal law enforcement. U.N.I.A. Now shut up and listen.

"You don't seem to understand why this war is happening. Most people don't. It's not important whether or not you believe that those aliens are really out there. The mere idea that they could be, and the fact that it's a highly polarized issue, are all you need to understand.

"Here's the thing: Can you name the last time a democratic government started a war?"

I thought hard about it, but a clammy face and a growing headache convinced me to give up after a few seconds. "No."

"That's because it's never happened. In over eight thousand years of recorded human history, no democracy has ever initiated an armed conflict. It's hard enough to get two hundred million people to agree on health care legislation; there's no way you're going to get a majority to agree to spend exorbitant amounts of money and equipment and human lives unless there's a very good reason.

"And that reason has always been defense. Self-defense, really. The United States of America stayed out of the second World War until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Democracies don't want war; that's why they hold elections instead of revolutions.

"So why are we at war now? The United Nations and the collective Torus are both democracies. Neither should have any desire to attack the other.

"In fact, they don't. But now they both think they do. It's the same mistake that was made in Vietnam by the U.S., in the Falkland Islands by Britain, and which is still being made in the Middle East by the Arabs and Israelis.

"The Tories thought the U.N. was spying on them. A clear and present danger. Because of that, the Tories actually attacked Europa. The U.N. has to respond now. They have no choice."

"We," I said. "We. You're still a citizen of Earth."

He nodded. "Fine, we. We have to respond because we're committed to defending our colonies. My point is, the threat has always been something else, but this time it's physical too. It's not the U.N. -- it's the Frogs."

I hiccupped. "Now you're reaching."

"Come on, we've both lived at Paperless! Do you believe that U.N.I.A. was running black ops in the Torus? Do you think they wanted to? Even if you believe that, do you think they'd be so sloppy about it?

"And if not that, do you think that one of the corporations was responsible for the sabotage and piracy? Ariane? Quintex? Do you really think a multi-planetary corporation is going to jick around with three billion of their best customers?"

His voice had become more strident, if not louder. He leaned forward and seemed to grow bigger in size.

"I am not neutral in this conflict. But in order to attack the real enemy, I have to turn my back on the other two sides. I don't like doing it, but I prefer it to taking part in a civil war which should not be happening at all. I've seen the enemy, and it's not us.

"Do you think I enjoyed asking Captain Onato to resign his commission? That was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I went to school with that man. I am the godfather of his children.

"I didn't expect him to agree with me. Hell, I'm glad he didn't. He belongs in the Navy. He belongs on that ship.

"I only wish he wasn't going to die because of it."

Melodramatic idiot, I thought to myself. "What are you, psychic or something?"

He only smiled. "I knew your father."


"Project Theory. He gave a couple of lectures on cosmology and astrophysics. Of course you didn't know that; it was all classified Top Secret. But you should ask him about it the next time you see him. You'll be in Manhattan for Rosh Hashanah, right?"

I laughed. "You are psychic."

He shrugged. "One of my many useless talents. I want to tell you something your father told the Project team back in the forties."

"I can't wait."

"Quote. Pure logical thinking cannot yield us any knowledge of the empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it. Propositions arrived at by purely logical means are completely empty as regards reality. End quote. Albert Einstein.

"Your father thought Project Theory was a waste of time because we had no hard evidence that extraterrestrial life even existed. He was right -- but then, so were we. We have evidence now, at least, we had it for a short time."

I nodded slowly. "So you feel justified in wasting your time on Project Theory now, because you have personal knowledge of an alien threat to humanity. Fine. What about the war? That's real too, and a much more immediate threat."

"That's what the Alliance is for. Didn't you read our press release?"

"I was breathing liquid for most of yesterday."

"I'll give you the short version. U.N.S.F. will stay in the Torus to serve and protect its citizens, but because this is a shooting war, they're going to be doing more protecting than serving. Supply ships are going to be scarce, and passenger ships even scarcer.

"Somebody has to help the neutral parties in the Torus. Remember Ted Turner's billion-dollar donation to the U.N. back in the 1990s? Charity is just another form of advertising."

"So you're all a bunch of self-serving publicity hounds."

"Whose actions have the significant secondary effect of saving hundreds of thousands of lives which would otherwise almost certainly be lost."

"But why should the Tories leave your Alliance alone? They don't trust Quintex or Ariane any more than the U.N. For all they know, you've been in on this alien hoax from the start. Maybe this was the primary purpose of Project Theory -- to manufacture a convincing smokescreen for the establishment of interplanetary martial law.

"Hell, what's to stop someone from blowing you out of the sky just for fun?"

McBride paused, staring straight at me, not smiling.

"Why don't you ask your sister?"

He vanished before I could take a swing at him.

Lynn. "Natty, you are really drunk!"

Me. "Shut up."

"What's this in your pocket? 'Leonard McBride, Liberty in Tranquillity Alliance...'"

"What? Gimme that."

"He gave you his business card."

"Bastard. Must have done it when I wasn't paying attention..."

Marvin. "Are you sure you two didn't do more than just talk?"

Lynn. "Hey, maybe you should check your wallet, too."

Me. "Shut up."

I crumpled the card, plastic biting into my palm, and threw it onto the floor of the elevator. My last mistake of the evening.


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Last modified: 03 Aug 1998