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The Human Division #13: Earth Below, Sky Above
By John Scalzi
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2013 John Scalzi
All rights reserved.
"I'm not going to lie to you, Harry," Hart Schmidt said. "I'm a little concerned that you've taken me to a maintenance airlock."
"I'm not going to toss you into space, Hart," Wilson said. He tapped the outer portal of the airlock, which had among its features a small porthole made of a thick, transparent alloy. "It's just that the airlocks are one of the only places on this whole godforsaken tub where you can find an actual one of these."
"Don't let Captain Coloma catch you calling the Clarke a tub," Schmidt said.
"She knows it's a tub," Wilson said.
"Yes, but she wouldn't like you to say it," Schmidt said. "She'd start the purge cycle on this airlock."
"The captain's on the bridge," Wilson said. "And anyway, she's got a lot of better reasons to space me than me making a crack about her ship."
Schmidt peered at the porthole. "This isn't going to be a very good view," he said.
"It'll do well enough," Wilson said.
"There are lots of monitors on the ship that will give you a better look," Schmidt said.
"It's not the same," Wilson said.
"The resolution on the displays is better than your eyes can resolve," Schmidt said. "As far as your eyes are concerned, it will be exactly the same. Even better, since you'll be able to see more."
"It's not the eyes that matter," Wilson said. "It's the brain. And my brain would know."
Schmidt said nothing to this.
"You have to understand, Hart," Wilson said. "When you leave, they tell you that you can never come back. It's not an idle threat. They take everything from you before you go. You're declared legally dead. Everything you own is parceled out according to your will, if you have one. When you say 'good-bye' to people, it really is for the last time. You don't see them again. You never see them again. You won't know anything that ever happens to them again. It really is like you've died. Then you get on a delta, ride up the beanstalk and get on a ship. The ship takes you away. They never let you come back again."
"You never considered the idea you might come back one day?" Schmidt said.
Wilson shook his head. "No one ever did. No one. The closest anyone ever comes to it are the guys on the transport ships who stand in front of the room full of new recruits and tell them that in ten years, most of them will be stone dead," he said. "But even they don't ever come back, really. They don't leave the ships, at least not until they get back to Phoenix Station. When you're gone, you're gone. You're gone forever."
Wilson looked out the porthole. "It's a hell of a thing, Hart," he said. "At the time, it might not seem like a bad deal. When the Colonial Union takes you, you're seventy-five years old, you've probably had some major health scare and a few minor ones, you might have bad knees and bad eyes and maybe you haven't been able to get it up for a while. If you don't go, then you're going to be dead. Which means you'll be gone anyway. Better to be gone and live."
"It seems reasonable," Schmidt said.
"Yes," Wilson agreed. "But then you do go. And you do live. And the longer you live — the longer you live in this universe — the more you miss it. The more you miss the places you lived, and the people you know. The more you realize that you made a hard bargain. The more you realize you might have made a mistake in leaving."
"You've never said anything about this before," Schmidt said.
"What is there to say?" Wilson said, looking back at his friend. "My grandfather used to tell me that his grandfather told him a story about his grandfather, who immigrated to the United States from some other country. What other country, he wouldn't say; he never talked about the old country to anyone, Grandpa said, not even his wife. When they asked him why, he said he left it behind for a reason, and whether that reason was good or bad, it was enough."
"It didn't bother his wife not knowing where he came from?" Schmidt asked.
"It's just a story," Wilson said. "I'm pretty sure Grandpa embroidered that part. But the point is that the past is the past and you let things go because you can't change them anyway. My grandfather many times over didn't talk about where he came from because he was never going back. For better or worse, that part of his life was done. For me, it was the same thing. That part of my life was done. What else was there to say?"
"Until now," Schmidt said.
"Until now," Wilson agreed, and checked his BrainPal. "Quite literally now. We skip in ten seconds." He turned his attention back to the porthole, silently counting off the seconds.
The skip was like all skips: quiet, unimpressive, anticlimactic. The glare of the lights in the airlock were enough to wash out the sky on the other side of the porthole, but Wilson's genetically-engineered eyes were good enough that he could make out a few of the stars.
"I think I see Orion," he said.
"What's Orion?" Schmidt asked. Wilson ignored him.
The Clarke turned, and a planet rolled into view.
"Hello, gorgeous," Wilson said, through the porthole. "I missed you."
"How does it feel to be home?" Schmidt asked.
"Like I never left," Wilson said, and then lapsed into silence.
Schmidt gave him a few moments and then tapped him on the shoulder. "Okay, my turn," he said.
"Go look at a display," Wilson said.
Schmidt smiled. "Come on, Harry," he said. "You know it's not the same."CHAPTER 2
"This is a bad idea," Colonel Abel Rigney said to Colonel Liz Egan over pasta.
"I agree," Egan said. "I wanted Thai."
"One, you know that it was my turn to pick," Rigney said. "Two, you know that's not what I'm talking about."
"We're talking yet again about the summit between us and the Earthlings at Earth Station," Egan said.
"Yes," Rigney said.
"Is this an official thing?" Egan asked. "Are you, Colonel Rigney, communicating to me, the Colonial Defense Forces liaison to the Department of State, a statement from your superiors that I will be obliged to deliver to the secretary?"
"Don't be like that, Liz," Rigney said.
"So, no," Egan said. "It's not an official communication and you're just taking advantage of our lunchtime to kvetch again in my general direction."
"I'm not comfortable with that assessment of the situation," Rigney said. "But yes, that's basically correct."
"Are you opposed to the summit?" Egan said, twirling her pasta on a fork. "Have you joined the ranks of those in the CDF who think we need to go to Earth with guns blazing and try to take over the place? Because that will be an adventure, I have to tell you."
"I think the summit is likely to be a waste of time," Rigney admitted. "There are still too many people pissed at the CDF down there on Earth. Then there are the people who are pissed at the Earth governments for not letting them emigrate or enlist before they die. Then there's the fact there are still a couple hundred sovereign states on that planet, none of which wants to agree with anyone else, except on the subject of being unhappy with us. It will all end up with yelling and screaming and time being wasted, time that neither we nor the Earth really have. So, yes, waste of time."
"If the summit were to go off as originally planned, I would agree," Egan said. "Although the alternative — no summit, the Earth turning away from the Colonial Union, the Conclave waiting in the wings to sweep it up as a member — is considerably worse. Engagement is key, even if nothing gets done, which it won't."
"That's not my actual concern," Rigney said. "If our diplomats and theirs want to talk until they are blue in the face, then I wish them joy. I have problems with the setup."
"You mean having it on Earth Station," Egan said.
"Right," Rigney said. "It'd be better to have it here at Phoenix Station."
"Because there's no environment the Earthlings will find less intimidating than the single largest object humanity's ever built," Egan said. "Which incidentally will also serve to remind them just how bottled up we've kept them for the last two hundred years or so." She stuffed pasta into her mouth.
"You may have a point," Rigney said, after a second of consideration.
"I may," Egan said, around her pasta, and then swallowed. "We can't have the summit here, for the reasons I just enumerated. We can't have the summit on Earth because there's nowhere on the planet short of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station where there wouldn't be riots, either by the people who hate the Colonial Union or by the people who want us to get them off that rock. The Conclave, of all people, offered to host the summit as a quote unquote neutral third party at their own administrative rock, which I will remind you is an order of magnitude or two larger than Phoenix Station. We definitely don't want the Earthlings to make any inferences off of that. So what are we left with?"
"Earth Station," Rigney said.
"Earth Station indeed," Egan said. "Which we own, even though it's above Earth. And that is in fact going to be a negotiating point."
Rigney furrowed his brow. "What do you mean?" he said.
"We're offering to lease it," Egan said. "The lease strategy was approved this morning, in fact."
"No one told me about it," Rigney said.
"No offense, Abel, but why would anyone tell you?" Egan said. "You're a colonel, not a general."
Rigney pulled at the collar of his uniform. "Stab me again, why don't you, Liz," he said.
"That's not what I meant," Egan said. "I wouldn't know about it, either, except that I'm the liaison, and State needed the CDF to sign off on this. This is an agreement far above both of our pay grades. But it really is a masterstroke, if you think about it."
"Us losing our sole outpost above Earth is a masterstroke?" Rigney said.
"We're not going to lose it," Egan said. "We'll still own it, and mooring rights will be part of any deal. It's a masterstroke because it changes the nature of the game. Right now Earth has no egress into space. We locked up the planet for so long that there's no infrastructure for space travel. They have no stations. They have no spaceports. They hardly have spaceships, for God's sake. It will take them years and a few multiples of their yearly global output to gear up. Now we're offering up the one way into space that's already there. Whoever controls it will control trade, will control space travel, will control the destiny of Earth, at least until everyone else on the planet gets their act together. And you know what that means."
"It means we make someone else the target and take the heat off of us," Rigney said.
"For starters," Egan said. "And in the immediate time frame also disrupts any united front they may have had going. You said it yourself, Abel. The nations of Earth can't agree about anything except being angry with us. In a single stroke we look apologetic and reasonable, they start fighting among themselves and scrambling to make alliances and deals —"
"And we can pick and choose among the players, play them off against each other and work deals to our advantage," Rigney finished.
"Exactly so," Egan said. "It changes the entire dynamic of the summit."
"Unless they all decide to put aside their petty differences and focus in on us," Rigney said.
"Seems unlikely," Egan said. "I know you and I left Earth fifteen years ago, but I don't think planetary international relations on Earth have reached the 'join hands and sing songs' stage in that time, do you?"
"I guess the right answer here is, 'Let's hope not,'" Rigney said.
Egan nodded. "So now you see why Earth Station is in fact the very best place for the summit to take place," she said. "We're not just discussing Earth and Colonial Union issues, we'll also be walking the showroom with the floor model."
"Do your diplomats know they've been reassigned to be salespeople?" Rigney asked.
"I believe they're finding out right about now," Egan said. She speared some more pasta.
* * *
"They're going to hate this," Rae Sarles said, at the hastily-convened diplomatic staff meeting on the Clarke. "We were supposed to be here to have a frank discussion about other matters entirely, and we're changing the agenda literally hours before we're supposed to be under way. This isn't how it's supposed to be done."
Wilson, standing in the back, glanced over to Abumwe and wondered just how the ambassador would step on this particular recalcitrant underling's head.
"I see," Abumwe said. "And will you be making that observation to the secretary herself? Or the leadership of the Colonial Defense Forces, who signed off on this plan? Or to the heads of every other Colonial Union department involved in this policy change?"
"No, ma'am," Sarles began.
"No," Abumwe said. "Well, then I would suggest that you don't spend any additional time on how things are supposed to be done, and spend a little more time on what we have to do now. The representatives from the various Earth governments may indeed be surprised that we are now open to leasing Earth Station. But our job, Ms. Sarles, is to make them be happy by the change of events. I trust you might be able to manage this."
"Yes, Ambassador," Sarles said.
Wilson smiled. Head squished, he thought.
"Beyond this, fundamentally, our role has not changed," Abumwe continued. "We have been assigned a series of discussions with smaller and non-aligned countries on Earth. These are third-tier nations in terms of power and influence on Earth, but the Colonial Union is not in a position to ignore or discount any of them, and there is some potential for significant advantages for us ..." Abumwe picked up her PDA to send her underlings their updated mission roles. Each of them picked up their own PDAs as if they were in church, following the lead of their pastor.
Half an hour later, the room emptied of underlings, leaving Abumwe and Wilson. "I have a special assignment for you," Abumwe said.
"Will I be meeting with Micronesia?" Wilson said.
"No, I will," Abumwe said. "As it happens, I am supposed to speak with them about the possibility of establishing a base on Kapingamarangi. It's a negotiation of no small importance, or so I have been assured by the secretary herself. So if you're done condescending to me and my team regarding our assignments, let's continue."
"Sorry," Wilson said.
"Since the Perry incident, the Earth has demanded that no Colonial Union military ships or personnel come to or be stationed on Earth Station or on the planet," Abumwe said. "Outside of an occasional high-ranking individual or two, the Colonial Union has honored that request."
"Oh, boy," Wilson said. "This is where you tell me that my assignment is to guard the Clarke's rivets, isn't it."
"Keep interrupting me and it will be," Abumwe said.
"Sorry," Wilson said again.
"And no," Abumwe said. "Leaving aside anything else, it would be cruel to bring you this close to Earth and keep you confined to the ship. And beyond that, you continue to prove yourself useful."
"Thank you, Ambassador." Wilson said.
"You're still a pain in my ass," Abumwe said.
"Understood," Wilson said.
"The CDF continues to have no formal role in these negotiations," Abumwe said. "However, it also sees your presence as an opportunity to reach out to military organizations on Earth. In particular, we know that the United States will have a small military unit present at the summit. We've alerted them to your presence, and they are receptive to meeting with you. So your assignment has two parts. The first part is simply to make yourself available to them."
"Available in what way?" Wilson asked.
"Whatever way they want," Abumwe said. "If they want you to talk to them about life in the CDF, do that. If they want to talk about CDF military strength and tactics, you can do that as well, so long as you don't reveal any classified information. If they want to drink beer and arm wrestle, do that."
"And while I'm doing that, am I drawing out information from them as well?" Wilson asked.
"If you can," Abumwe said. "You're of low enough rank that the members of that military detail should be comfortable with you as a person. Capitalize on that."
"What's the second part of the assignment?" Wilson asked.
Excerpted from The Human Division #13: Earth Below, Sky Above by John Scalzi. Copyright © 2013 John Scalzi. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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