Story art by M Wayne Miller.
From the author: How is life valued? When the planet reaches twelve billion, Mandira must decide whether the 1% with the money to escape Earth, or those whose personal values support the needs of the many over the needs of the few, deserve to be protected. When the results of her choice could trigger war on Mercury, her decision becomes even more complex. Nominated for the 2019 Prix Aurora Award.
The speeder came to a halt. Helmeted against construction debris, Mandira jumped to the gravel and hurried through the unfinished tunnel to the cavern, stark in the glare of wall-mounted sodium diode floodlights. A scatter of workers looked on with concern at a man on a stretcher attended by two women in medic-green. Christine, the foreman, spotted Mandira and detached herself from the huddle of overalled workers. "Help just arrived. He's stable."
Below a high, jagged ceiling that would one day dome a "village green," an array of machines, from forty-foot stone saws to towering bucket wheel excavators, gnawed at the far wall of the cavern. Echoes from the cavern walls and overlapping shadows rising up like ghosts cast by the horizontal yellow lights, gave the construction site a Hellish appearance. The air, churned up by to beetle-like haulers, was made choking-soft by clouds of dust. Nearby, a handful of two-man runabouts and three elevator scaffolds shooting steel fibre-reinforced shotcrete, idled. A dozen or so black gaps in the cavern walls indicated future living, shopping, office and industrial complexes for the colony's expansion.
Colony. Mandira made her way over the uneven rock of the construction site to the fallen man. She had to get that language out of her head. Mercury was no longer an Earth colony. They were their own city, their own planet with their own name. Mosaic. She knelt by his side. "Hey, Ahbed."
Ahbed quirked a cramped smile. "Mandira." Her name sounded exotic on his tongue. "What the hell are you doing down here?"
"Ducking out of work to check on a friend. But I could ask you the same," she chided. The engineer, born on Earth, was short and muscular but prone to an array of physical ailments like swollen disks, back pain, and fragile bones. "Your doctor put you on a reduced schedule. You're supposed to be home, taking Vitamin D and full spectrum light." Not this yellow glare.
"There were details I wanted to inspect," he grimaced.
She had to admit the work was going well, probably because Ahbed was in charge.
One of the medics lifted her head from her handheld. "It's his back this time, Mandira." The medic returned to Ahbed's stretcher. "Ahbed, face it. You're going to have to let Christine supervise this project."
"I'm an Earthling. Need to pull my weight."
"Not for a while, you don't," the medic said. "Check with the doctor, but I'm guessing you're going to be off work for a few weeks this time."
"This is your third fracture, Ahbed," Mandira reminded him.
Ahbed's smile dampened. "Hell. Damned Earthlings, eh?"
"Ahbed —" Mandira warned.
"Kind of makes you wish you hadn't kept us after the war."
The tone was neutral but the words stung. "Mercurians don't discard you because you can't clean a septic tank." An idea popped into her head. "How about I put it in your native language: I don't want you using up hospital resources."
He laughed and the winced. "Now you make sense."
Mandira squeezed his hand.
Christine returned. "Mandira?" She held out her com. "Olivia called." Mandira's daughter was her administrative assistant. "She needs you. Says it's urgent."
Mandira took the com. "Hi, Olivia. I'm on my way."
Olivia tapped the com to disconnect from her mother, and slumped back into her chair in Mosaic's Council office. She toyed with the computer, then gave in and listened to the recording for the third time, her vision inundated with a flood of images.
Ghosts, from her childhood. Daddy, the last time she saw him, walking alone down that corridor from their quarters. At school, the teacher trying to carry on, but the little ones cried and the older ones, like her, just wanted to know what was happening. Make it go away.
And those short, ugly Earthlings. To hell they were her cousins. They came from a planet with its own oxygen. A planet with food and farms and animals. A paradise—Olivia had seen pictures. A planet they had ruined. And then they'd come here, to Mercury, trying to take the little the colonists had.
Mandira had hardly debarked from the speeder and entered her office when Olivia sprang from her chair and delivered the news. "There's a rocket inbound to Mercury Space Station. From Earth."
The abrupt delivery of the information struck Mandira like an assault.
"They want clearance to dock." Olivia closed the door and leaned on it protectively.
Clearance to dock. She breathed. At least—this time—Earth was asking.
Olivia's desk, arrayed with screens, tabs, a mic and headset, stood against one wall. Orderly. A couple of chairs and a couch grouped around a low table to welcome visitors. The door to Mandira's office, closed. Nothing out of place. Nothing chaotic.
Now this. Such a mundane request. Clearance to dock should be nothing. No reason to call her from checking on a construction site accident—or take her from her friend's side. But—
Mercury had nothing a delegation from Earth could possibly want. No heavy metals worth dragging up the sun's gravity well. Only enough water and imported organics to keep their three thousand people alive. Heat energy that could not be exported.
Nothing but a new space to live, another insurance against the threat of a dying planet, and that, Earth had already taken when they established their outpost here. But now, Mosaic was its own state. Its own world. Not Earth's.
"Are the Earthlings armed?" The language was harsh, but she had to be direct.
"They say not," Olivia said. "But I'm betting they are."
Mandira rubbed her face. There was no way of knowing whether their automated station could outgun the approaching ship. Likely, not. "When do they want to dock?" How much time did she have to formulate a response?
"Sunspot activity's been playing havoc with communications so the message was broken up—what's new?—but, three days from now." To her credit, Olivia was calm and professional. But she'd lived through the war of independence, too. She'd been fourteen and, like Mandira, born on Mercury.
The first colonists to survive Mercury's brutal conditions long enough to dig a habitat sufficiently deep for survival had depended on Earth's support. But Earth demanded repayment, and Mercury had no precious metals like the asteroid colonies, or deuterium like Mars. Only ideas. Their stark frontier had been a catalyst for new tech on recycled shoestrings. But the then-Mercurian administration did not want to part with intellectual properties for what they considered to be less than their value. To avoid the crushing debt and loss of control over their inventions, the colony declared independence, renamed itself, and hunkered behind their lone surface access at the north pole, daring the Earthlings to dig them out.
The war was brief. The Earthlings mostly fought Mercury, not the colonists. But the terror of those weeks underground, watching screens showing nothing but the petrified, almost-blank faces of technicians waiting for news from the combat zone, had been hell. They fought not only Earth aggressors, but heat, cold, vacuum, and radiation fluctuations in the planet's tumultuous magnetosphere. Mercurians didn't live in Hell. They lived beneath it.
Wondering about Sven...her husband, Olivia's father...on the front line, in the space station. That had been Hell, too.
Earth's forces could have nuked their surface superstructure and buried them alive, but they didn't. Perhaps they guessed that someday, they might want to return.
"They want a response, Mom."
Mandira blinked. The blunt demand reminded her of Ahbed's language.
"They said they messaged us half a dozen times already," Olivia said, "and they don't want to stay in orbit any longer than they have to."
"Arriving in three days?" The last contact Mercury'd had from Earth was nine years ago. The last of Earth's solar sail vessels had taken what was left of their army and a hundred and ninety-three Mercurian prisoners of war. Sven. Not once had they responded to Mercury's pleas for the return of their loved ones.
That had been the end of Mercury's colonial period and the inception of its independence from Earth. And, effectually, complete isolation. Inescapable self-sufficiency.
"Do you want to hear the recording?" Olivia asked.
"Yes." Mandira perched on the corner of her daughter's desk. "But first, tell me everything."
Olivia blew out a long breath. "They want to normalize relations." She lifted her head. "To that end, they're returning their prisoners from the war."
"Mom, most of the members of Council are going to recommend taking them. I know Dad is one of the prisoners. But...a hundred and ninety-three POWs, Mom. You know we can't feed and house that many. Not after we absorbed all those Earthling prisoners."
Sven. A kiss, his rough cheek, then a glimpse of his eyes inside the bubble of his helmet. His tall, slender frame as he joined the others entering the elevator to transport to the polar launch pad.
"I know," Mandira said. But there were saved spaces. Unfilled with babies. Waiting for...today.
Not enough, though. Not a hundred and ninety-three.
"And they said nothing about taking their own back. Even if Ahbed and the others would want to go with them."
"Contact the Earth ship. Give them permission to dock."
Olivia's jaw whitened. "You know Earth doesn't protect prisoners of war."
"That's a rumour without substantiation."
"They'll be starved. Their bones will have been crushed by Earth's gravity," her daughter said tersely. A drain on the community's resources.
"Even if we don't take the prisoners, Council needs to meet with the delegation to hear them and respond." Of course. Mandira pushed herself off the corner of the desk and went to her office. "Ready a shuttle to take the inner Council to the space station. Include Ahbed, if his doctor will allow him to be transported." She stopped at the door. "Arrange a tech crew to program the station to receive the Earthlings and screen them for weapons."
"Mom!" Olivia strode across the room, her fingers flexing as if she wished she had something to grab. Or throw. "If we have resources for more colonists —"
"I know, Olivia." She took a breath.
"Couples have been applying for babies —"
"I know. You and Kaamil want a child." Two years on the list seemed like forever. Whenever Mandira had occasion to visit the school, she could see Kaamil's love for kids in his infectious enthusiasm.
"Lots of people want a child." Olivia closed her eyes and lowered her voice. "Don't you want a grandchild?"
Don't you want your father back? Mandira wanted to scream. She made a fist, and pushed her frustration into it, touching it to her lips. "We haven't accepted the prisoners, Olivia." She looked into her daughter's eyes. "And we won't." She opened her fist and took her daughter's hand. "Not without hearing what the Earth team is proposing. It's up to Council."
Olivia set her lips in a hard line. "I'll arrange the tech team."
The hospital ward's ceiling spread even illumination over the white tile floor, mimicking a sky Mandira had never seen. The squat room, screened from Mercury's lethal heat and radiation by a kilometer of rock, was one of Mosaic's oldest, built for her grandfather's generation, and the synthetic light was meant to be healing. Perhaps it was.
The steel and glass dividers had mostly been pushed back on their tracks, but the cubicle closest to the medic's station remained, its glass frosted for privacy. Mandira nodded at the medic and ducked into the cubicle, closing the door behind her.
Ahbed lay flat in the hospital bed, nearly naked, reading his tab under a cloud of full spectrum pinlights designed to activate an increased dose of Vitamin D, to help his bones absorb more of the supplemental calcium his doctor had prescribed. His cubicle was bare but for the usual medical gear, and a scraggly spider plant in a dried-out pot. It was one Olivia had thrown at her in a fit of rage when she was fifteen, and Mandira had donated it to the hospital. But water was scarce, and clearly other priorities had had to come first.
"Mandira." Ahbed rolled up his tab and set it on the table beside him, disturbing the pinlights. "Sorry about being such a pain, before. You need me riding a desk for a while? Can do."
She smiled her acceptance of his apology. "I'm meeting with the Council in half an hour. If your doctor agrees, can you join us?"
Ahbed tilted his head in surprise. "Me?"
"Everyone's a member of Council, depending on need. We can convene here." The walls could be repositioned. "A delegation from Earth will be at the space station in three days to re-establish diplomatic ties and return our prisoners of war."
The small, muscular man whistled and the movement made the flicker of pinlights dance on his skin.
"Council needs to devise a response, as well as a communication strategy for informing our people."
"You're taking back your prisoners of war?" The stocky man's eyes sharpened.
"That's not yet been determined." She sat, stretching her long legs out in front of her. "I've been re-reading information about Earth, but I need insight. Advice."
"That's a given."
Ahbed frowned at the ceiling. "There are significant differences in basic assumptions on Earth from what you might be used to. You'll need to filter anything the delegates say through a different mindset."
"Give me whatever you've got."
"All right," he said with a faint nod. "Earth's size." He formulated his words. "Ten billion when I left, and counting."
"Walk me through it."
"The size difference dictates everything." He waved and the cloud of lights pivoted to reposition themselves, swirling the dapple of light on his skin. "Here, every person is essential. Cross-trained. Contributes to each life-critical system, as well as to their own specialty. We—have to—keep everyone healthy and happy. No discarded people."
He made the Mercurian system sound calculated. Was it? "We do care for one another," she pointed out.
"My point." Of course Ahbed understood. It was his bluntness that discomfited. "I'm still stunned you took me in—all of us from Earth—after the war. Gave us full citizenship. Earth doesn't care a rat's ass about the POWs it takes."
The debate on Council had been fierce, but they'd lost 193 members and taken in only 157—untrained, fragile individualists, of which fourteen had died, mostly in accidents related to their physiology. The tenuous balance among food, water and labour wobbled precariously and two Mercurians died before they found a new equilibrium. It had been controversial. "You got nine years of cleaning septic tanks out of it."
"And construction work, and child care, and training in small animal husbandry, and a career in civil engineering. Oh, and a wife."
Mandira suppressed a quirk of a smile. "Back to your knowledge of Earth. Ten billion."
"Right." Ahbed tried to shift to look more directly at her, then grimaced at the pain and settled back, his pinlights swirling. "Birth control by war, famine, and disease. Hasn't worked out too well for them."
"Competition dictates success."
"Precisely. They don't use our system, each person getting what they need." He nodded at the spider plant on the shelf above him and she could see that it wasn't desiccated, after all. Someone, foolishly, had given it a sprinkle of water. "Earthlings get as much as they can take. The most successful are the ones who convince others to put them in positions to create laws. Comprender?"
"Nothing has value for its own sake, only for what it can provide. POWs have proved they're too cowardly to fight to the end, and therefore, they are no longer soldiers. They no longer have value." He closed his eyes in pain. "And there's no reason to care for what you don't value."
The Earthlings had docked at the space station, been scanned by security software, and their weapons—defensive, they'd protested—confiscated. Below, the Mercurians' shuttle had catapulted on a horizontal trajectory from the north pole to the planet's dark side. Their space station's orbit was in fact a solar orbit, calculated to keep the fragile oasis hidden from the star's scorching blast by Mercury's shadow.
The Mercurian shuttle docked at the opposite end of the space station from the Earth ship, and with no portholes, Mandira had not seen the visiting craft's exterior; nor had she had time to tour its interior, though she was curious. She was told it was larger and more luxurious than any structure she'd ever seen. It had arrived bristling with stun guns, missiles and bombs. More than any space ship had a right to possess.
Still, a part of her, a cynical part, argued that the two delegations were equally balanced. Earthlings might by nature be more aggressive, but Mercurians had their own weapons and, with the delegation on their turf, held valuable hostages, if it came to fighting.
If hostages were valuable.
The dosimeter on Mandira's shoulder was a reminder of the time pressure they were under to conclude the talks. She floated in freefall, pushing herself into the station's central tube to the meeting pod. Her inner Council were already present, including Ahbed—his pain, spiked on launch, now eased in the low gravity of orbit. The delegation from Earth arrived at the pod.
Mandira stabilized herself at a handhold. "Welcome." She held out her hand.
A man, short and muscular like all those she had met from Earth, propelled himself forward and grasped a handle near hers. Like the rest of his delegation, he wore an elaborate black jumpsuit with more material than was strictly necessary, emphasizing the breadth of his shoulders and forming small, intricate constrictions at his waist, elbows and knees that hampered free movement. Even in the diffuse, bluish light of the space station, his complexion was ruddy.
"My name is Jim Cairns." He shook her hand. His accent was thicker than Ahbed's, and Mandira had to listen hard to understand him. "These are my associates. My aide, Ms. Nelson; Mr. Birch, Mr. Adair and Ms. Chesney."
Mandira nodded, and introduced her team. "I understand your delegation is interested in opening diplomatic relations between our two planets, and that you have brought Mercurian prisoners of war, to return to us as a gesture of good faith. If this is so, let me thank you for your acknowledgement of Mercurian autonomy as an equal member at this circle."
"Thank you...Mandira." Cairns frowned slightly, as though parsing her words and formulating his thoughts. "First, let me assure you, our requests are small. Second, we understand that the lives of your comrades captured in war are of value to you. We respect your position and at great cost have brought your people back. Of the prisoners taken to Earth, seventeen have survived the hardships of injury recovery, Earth gravity and transport."
Seventeen. Had she understood him correctly?
Sven. Was Sven one of them? And which others? Mandira had known so many—
"Only seventeen?" Denba whispered. "When 193 were taken? After only nine years?"
"For this, we apologise, and we hope the gesture of returning these seventeen to you will dispose you toward listening to our submission."
Mandira pressed her lips together and breathed through her nose, trying to calm the race of her pulse. "Are the remaining seventeen in good health?"
A flutter of regret passed across Cairns' face. "Some...are better than others."
Mandira's breath became short. "Continue."
POWs weakened his position, or whether he was genuinely sorry for the poor health of men and women his people had assaulted and captured nearly a decade ago, Mandira couldn’t say. “In exchange for these prisoners and other material goods from Earth— medicines, atmospheric nitrogen, bioactive soil, hydrocarbons,"—something she couldn't make out—"heavy metals, water reclamation machines, tools, software—we request you accept a negotiable number of refugees from our planet."
The members of her team shifted with the news. Refugees were the one thing they could not accept.
"Ten billion Earthlings..." Denba whispered
"As I say, a negotiable number," Cairns said. "Earth's population has been declining for some decades, but not swiftly enough to prevent massive suffering."
"Describe your suffering," Mandira said. "We need to understand the reasons should we take your people."
Beside her, Olivia stiffened.
"The same conditions that brought your grandparents from Earth as colonists have worsened," he said.
As if their only claim to Mercury was that they’d arrived on it a hundred years ago. As if bleeding, sweating, working, living, and dying here, as if fitting Hell’s basement for habitation, had not provided every Mercurian a moral claim to be here.
"Overcrowding," Cairns continued, and his expression was open and vulnerable as if he had not just insulted them. Was it an act? "Insufficient food. Poisoned air and water. Changing climate. War."
"We can't accept a billion, a million, or even a thousand," Olivia said with Earthlike frankness. The Mercurian team stilled. She was discussing numbers, implying an agreement in principle that Council had not authorised. Did Cairns pick up on the subtlety?
"We will bring a number agreed on in negotiations," Cairns said patiently. An assumption. That they would take some.
"Have you spoken to Mars?" Mandira had to steer the conversation back to neutral ground. "We're not in good communication, but I understand they have multiple colonies and a much more hospitable climate. Or the moon? Or the outer colonies?"
"Mars, the moon, the asteroid colonies—they've all taken as many Earthlings as they can manage."
Of course. Mercury would never be their first choice. Olivia touched her sleeve, and Mandira knew the others in her party had questions, but she ignored them. "How—how by God's grace—would you determine which refugees would make the trek across the solar system to join us?"
"The cream of civilization. Only the best."
"Highly educated people. Researchers. Teachers. Artists. Politicians. Engineers and architects. Business people. Scientists."
Drones. Like bees, individuals who leeched a lifetime's resources from the community, though only one in a hundred of them might make a significant contribution.
"And if we tell you we need plumbers, construction workers, doctors, electricians, and computer technicians," Olivia challenged, "could you supply these?"
"Of course." Cairns did not miss a beat. "In addition."
The rich had already paid their passage. First in the queue.
"Would these artists and scientists cross train in the trades?" Demba asked. "The most menial chores?"
Cairns' face darkened. The others showed a mixture of disgust and contempt. And...fear?
"My colleague does not ask because we wish to humiliate your people," Mandira clarified. There was no benefit in Cairns believing they'd insulted them. "Every one of our colonists, regardless of specialty, is cross-trained—and serves—in basic support roles, not only for expertise insurance, but to facilitate empathy and understanding. I repaired a broken generator four days ago."
The man's complexion, if anything, took on a more profound hue and his eyes burned into hers. "They can," he said in a low voice. His compatriots' grim faces hardened, but none protested.
"For each Earthling we accept, our miners must tunnel several acres of agricultural space. We'll need additional illumination for crops. Mine more water from the ice in the pole's craters. Break down more oxides for oxygen. Build plumbing. Build living space."
"But you have—or, had—room for 193 returned prisoners, did you not?" Had a hint of assurance crept into Cairns' eyes?
"We took in 157 Earthlings after the war," Mandira said. "And we have couples applying to bear babies."
Shock rippled across the faces of the delegates.
"Refugees would have to abide by our strict laws on procreation," Ahbed said.
Olivia's breath became sharp and short.
Cairns' jaw tightened. "If these laws are administered equally among all Mercurians, the refugees will abide by them."
So be it. "I will discuss Mosaic's response to your request with my Councillors."
The delegation from Earth was well disciplined, and yet they seemed to Mandira to relax, ever so slightly. What had she missed?
Her own team, in contrast, felt stiff, flanking her. "As for the prisoners of war, we will take them now."
The Council retired to the lounge, a pod they'd designated as their inner Council chamber on the station. Mandira hovered near a handhold while Demba strapped himself to a grip by Ahbed's bed. The spider plant that had clung to the shelf in Ahbed's hospital room was clamped to the table between them. He'd brought it with him?
The scraggle of narrow leaves brought to mind stories of her great-grandfather. The first colonists. No home, scant water, not enough of anything, desperation fueling invention. Like this under-watered plant, though, they had survived. Come through Hell to thrive in Hell's basement.
Olivia closed the port behind them. "How could you have done that!" Her face was livid.
Mandira stared at her daughter. Ahbed turned his head even as he sent the snack canister drifting toward Demba. Demba caught it absently, his mouth a small 'o' of surprise.
"Are we an inner Council, or are you a dictator?" Olivia hissed in a low voice.
Shock shifted Mandira into a professional reaction. "What concerns you?"
"You took his bait. You took the prisoners."
Mandira's cheeks heated and her tongue sharpened. "Don't we stand by kin? We're not Earthlings." She cast a quick glance at Ahbed in apology. "It is within our value system to lessen their suffering as soon as humanely possible."
"That man. Cairns," Olivia snapped. "He end-played you, Mother." The directness of her words were as unsettling as the words themselves.
"Now, Olivia —" Ahbed began.
Mandira slowed her breathing, took control of herself, spoke quietly. "No decision has been made about the refugees."
"Mandira took nothing," Demba soothed Olivia. "Didn't you hear Cairns? The prisoners are dying. Taking them won't utilise any of the reserved spaces. At least, not for long."
Olivia's lips pressed together, and her eyes, fierce with unshed tears, locked Mandira's.
"It takes very little to bring the prisoners down to Mosaic to die with dignity. With family," Demba said. "To have their ashes recycled into community reincarnation. This is an opportunity to allow their families to move on from grief. Give them closure, confirmation that each of us matters."
Mandira's composure began to revive, and she was grateful for the Councillor's presence of mind.
Ahbed spoke. "We're here to discuss Cairns' proposal."
In her mind, Mandira thanked Ahbed for his gentle redirection.
Olivia, however, was insistent. "Did you count them?"
Olivia shoved herself away from the wall and grasped Mandira's arm. "The delegates. Did you check the station records?"
Mandira probed the girl's furious face, mystified. "We only just arrived."
Olivia pushed herself across the small space to a monitor and called up the archive. "Let's have a look," she clipped. "Computer. Tally the visitors by group. Delegates, crew and prisoners."
"Thirty-six delegates, seventeen crew, seventeen prisoners," the computer reported.
"Computer," Olivia continued. "Report on cargo categories."
"Atmospheric nitrogen, bioactive soil, computers, heavy metals, hydrocarbons, medicines, tools, water reclamation machines."
Olivia turned and addressed them. "We lost 193 prisoners at the end of the war," she said. "We took in 157. It left us thirty-six spaces."
"The delegates," Demba whispered. "Thirty-six."
"And they brought supplies we need, as well as a space ship packed with life support systems, tech, and weapons we can use. Hefty bribe, I think." Olivia looked from one to the other of them. "Seventeen dying prisoners, seventeen crew. Co-incidence?"
Mandira shook her head, an unconscious jerk.
"Cairns is not here on behalf of Earth," Olivia said.
Mandira felt slow, stupid.
"Cairns and his delegates are the refugees." She waited for the statement to sink in. "Check. I'll bet you anything delegates that weren't at the meeting today were Cairns' and Nelson's and the others' families."
Demba spoke slowly. "You're saying..."
"They are not arranging for other Earthlings, Earthlings selected for their match to our needs, Earthlings to come later. They're here now. They have their gifts for us, now." She shook her head furiously. "They are wagering that you—the Council—can't humanely send them back to a dying planet. That you can't say no." Olivia avoided Mandira's gaze. Her words had been too strong, and she knew it.
"Why would they tell untruths?" Demba asked.
"Why not tell us they're the refugees?" Demba repeated.
"Pride," Ahbed said.
"I don't follow."
"The only Earthlings who could make this voyage would be the rich," Ahbed said. "The elite, like they described."
"Leeches," Olivia whispered.
Mandira was not sure their incentive was mere pride. "They might have believed we wouldn't listen to their case."
Olivia's eyes flashed, wide. She turned to the console. "Computer. Have any of the weapons on the visiting ship been fired?"
"Sixteen missile cannon have been fired for a total of two hundred and forty-three rounds."
Demba shook his head. "Why? How?"
"They shot at someone," Olivia said. She caught Ahbed's eye.
"Perhaps this wasn't the only refugee ship to leave Earth," Ahbed deduced. "The war Cairns mentioned. Maybe it was more catastrophic than he let on."
"They could be military," Olivia said. "Fifty trained commandos could overwhelm our three thousand. Do we even know how they obtained the prisoners of war?"
"Cairns didn't want any other ships to beat him here," Olivia concluded. "I feel...sick."
"But do we know that?" Mandira managed. "Aren't we judging Cairns on his presumed intentions? Damning him for being a capitalist?"
"Or for being a murderer?" Olivia fired back.
"We don't know that!"
"You're defending him?" Olivia shot her a look of astonishment, then looked away.
"No! But we need to analyze our assumptions," Mandira said. "Can we take it for granted that the spaceship his group brought here could have transported someone more deserving?" She glared at her daughter, her breath coming fast. "Can't we draw the same conclusion—that these refugees are callous murderers—about anyone arriving here in a spaceship?"
"Who fired weapons."
"We don't know the circumstances. It could have been defensive. We don't know."
Olivia's nostrils flared. "Mercury is ours."
Neither Demba nor Ahbed spoke.
Mandira was embarrassed. How could her own daughter be so heartless? "So we watch the destruction of Earth and do nothing?"
"There is nothing we can do for ten billion people."
"There's something we can do for thirty-six." Mandira bit her lip, realizing in that moment that Cairns' arguments were not as wrong as she'd thought, earlier. "Cairns said it. They're fleeing the same conditions that brought my great-grandparents here as colonists. How can we claim to be morally superior?"
"Because they didn't stop breeding."
There was a silence. Again, Mandira looked down. This point could tear apart the inner Council. The community.
"Humans on Earth want babies as much as we do," Demba said quietly.
Ahbed spoke. "You want a child, Olivia."
"But we limit children. And the ones we do allow, we socialize to our principles," Olivia argued.
"No need to defend your reasons," Ahbed soothed. "Of course you do. I'm glad you do." Olivia opened her mouth to protest, but Ahbed overrode her. "I'm not saying the Earthlings deserve the resources. I'm saying...there's no automatic answer to the question. No...right answer."
"They are not just Earthlings." Olivia turned to face him squarely. "The leaders of a planet—and you know they are the leaders, the decision makers, the ones who've shoved their way to the top of the food chain—the leaders who waged war on us, killed our defenders, took them prisoners?" Olivia fumed, her eyes wild. "Those are the people you want to bring into Mosaic?"
"Don't put words in anyone's mouth," Demba said.
"They don't just bring gravity-born muscle that can harm us." Olivia spoke deliberately, as if she knew how brutal her words sounded. "They bring ideas. A moral code that raises the rights of the individual over the rights of the group."
"So did the prisoners of war they left behind," Demba pointed out.
"Left behind and not claimed back. Doesn't that, in itself, say something?" she asked. "Ahbed and the others —" Olivia turned to Ahbed. "You knew you'd been abandoned. You rejected that value system."
Mandira stared at her, suddenly overwhelmed by fatigue.
"These refugees still believe in the merit of thinkers being freed from the need to provide basic support to the community. An elite class," Olivia said. "Haven't you heard that saying? Something about it being harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter Heaven? They will not give up their sense of privilege. Their ideas will not change."
And...would the Mercurians want the migrants to give up their way of thinking just because it was different?
"Ideas are contagious," Olivia said. "Personal happiness over societal health is seductive."
Demba drew back. "I find it offensive that the refugees would be denied part of this society because of the ideas they hold."
Ahbed spoke. "We can't take them in."
Everyone turned to Ahbed. Olivia's eyes flashed in triumph, but she remained silent.
"If we accept these, more refugees will come," he said. "It will re-ignite the war."
There was silence for a long moment.
"The ship Cairns brought his group in is armed," Demba said. "We can fight off approaching refugee ships with its weapons."
Olivia's brows quirked a frown. "And we want that?"
No one spoke. It was as though the exhaustion that had claimed Mandira had filled the rest.
"I call the question," Mandira said softly.
"Nay." Olivia relaxed her death grip on her handhold.
"Aye." Demba stared at the shelf on the wall below his feet.
"Abstain," Ahbed said. "It's the only thing I can do."
Mandira could find no decision in her heart. "Abstain."
"The Council has no consensus." Demba looked from one to the other.
The thrum of the station vibrated through the close room.
"According to our policies, we have two alternatives," Demba said. "Collect information and debate until we reach consensus, or appoint an arbitrator."
The recycled air in the pod seemed suddenly hot.
"The arbitrator would be Mercury's administrator."
"Radiation exposure limits our window for debate," Ahbed pointed out. "I recommend an arbitrator."
"As do I," Demba said. "Mandira, would you accept this role?"
Did she accept her own crucifixion? The guilt of the destruction of Mosaic, or the deaths of these Earthlings? She closed her eyes. "Olivia, how do you vote?"
The thrum of machinery stretched out. She opened her eyes.
Olivia stared at her fingers, clenched on a handhold. "Arbitrator," she whispered.
A sick feeling roiled Mandira's stomach. "Then..." she took a breath. "I...accept."
Again, there was a silence.
"I will have a decision by eight o'clock tomorrow morning." Would she? But her words rolled out, mechanically. "Until midnight, I will accept any further information or thoughts each of you wishes to provide."
Olivia greeted the technician monitoring the station's exit portal and passed through to the Earth ship. The foreign-built capsule was larger than she'd expected, and cooler, smelling of a different sweat and machinery and...something floral. Like the Earthlings' clothing, its appointments seemed more elaborate than necessity warranted.
The woman Olivia knew as Ms. Nelson startled as she exited the lock, punching a button on her suit and flipping herself to Olivia's orientation, thrusting a baton defensively before her. She grabbed a strap attached to the wall to stabilize herself. "Stop!"
"Sorry." Olivia grasped a handle. The way the woman held baton, a slender metal cylinder with a ring of fins at its center, suggested a weapon, which she hadn't expected. Though on immediate reflection, of course she should've been prepared for Earthlings to be armed and defensive. Olivia held up her free hand to show she was unarmed. "I just wanted to see the prisoners."
"On what authority?" Ms. Nelson seemed as surprised as Olivia was.
Olivia blinked. "My own." What authority did the woman expected her to use? "Our delegation has a decision to make. We need information."
Obviously. Nelson hovered at her end of the airlock, weapon raised, hesitating.
But only for a moment. The other three delegates appeared, also armed, followed by Cairns. Nelson explained Olivia's mission.
"Of course." Cairn flicked a finger and the delegates relaxed and drifted back in a semicircle, batons lowered but not holstered. "I apologize. You surprised us a little. We had no communication from Mandira that you were coming."
"I didn't tell her. I'm only researching." She tried to get her mind around this odd concept. The Earthlings restricted knowledge for decision making? That only those with some granted authority could have access to information? Why?
The subtle cues on the alien faces were hard for Olivia to read, but the Earthlings seemed continually unprepared for even the simplest of gestures. Cairns seemed to flick rapidly through a series of thoughts, culminating in what seemed almost to be a shrug. "Of course. You don't mind if one of our delegates accompanies you?"
This seemed unnecessary. "No..."
Cairns surveyed the curious group. "Ms. Chesney? Would you take...Olivia...to see Prisoner 63?"
"Excuse me," Olivia interrupted. "Could I see Sven Johnsen? If he's here?"
Cairns brow lifted a fraction. "We don't have their names."
"But your computer database —"
He gave a small shake of his head. "You must understand...Olivia." He seemed uncomfortable using her first name. "That information was lost a long time ago."
The man was familiarly proportioned, but crippled and desperately thin. Though Olivia had expected him to be wasted, his appearance nevertheless sent a shock of horror through her. He gazed at nothing, strapped to a bed and attached to monitors and nutrients.
"Here, let me increase his sugar a little and give him a small stimulant." Ms. Chesney pushed herself to the prisoner's console and her fingers flicked over a few pads. The lights brightened. "We've tried to keep the prisoners for the most part pain-free since they came to us."
"How did they come to you?" Olivia murmured, unable to keep her eyes from the man's face. His lids fluttered, and he shuddered involuntarily.
"These came to the university bio-kinesiology lab about six months ago." Ms. Chesney floated back toward the entry.
The man blinked and looked around, as if trying to put his world into focus.
"Sir?" Olivia sculled into the man' field of view. "Sir, my name is Olivia Johnsen. I am from Mercury. You are in orbit, now, about our home world. What might I call you?"
A play of responses flickered over the man's face and he swallowed, clamping his jaws closed. Then he squeezed his eyes, chest shuddering with tiny puffs, and a tear drifted into the cool air.
Chesney slipped over, pulling a tissue from a receptacle, and caught the tears, gently daubing his face. She gave him the tissue to hold. "I'm sorry for waking you. It will only be for a few moments."
Olivia watched as the woman retreated. She hadn't expected this response.
"Shin." The man's voice was a papery rasp. He looked, now, about the cabin, alert, absorbing his environment, Olivia guessed, for the first time.
"Shin," Olivia acknowledged. "Can you tell me about your experiences on Earth? Since the war?"
His eyes clouded with memory. "Yes," he whispered, but winced and did not speak.
"Shin?" she took his hand.
"This is hard for him," Chesney said gently. "I'm sorry." And Olivia wondered what she was sorry for.
"Re-entry." Shin's voice strengthened, gruff. "That was grim. And the gravity. I couldn't walk. Hardly move."
Olivia prompted by listening.
"The military base. Then the prison. Then the other prison, by truck at night." His drawn face paled and he seemed to flinch away from something unnamed. "Then...I don't know. A helicopter, I remember that, and another prison. And John was sick so bad. That stink. Lot of them." His eyes flickered. "Hospital, I think. Maybe twice."
Prisons. Trucks. Helicopters. Things Olivia had only read about.
His face crumpled, and he wept silently, quivering.
"I think I need to let him rest," Chesney murmured.
Shin's grip strengthened. "Su Li." He pierced Olivia with a sudden intensity. "Is she alive?"
Su Li. Olivia grinned. "Runs the entire steel parts fabricator farm."
His hand released hers and he fell back in his restraints, panting. A small smile touched his lips.
"Perhaps," Chesney offered, "I can answer some of your questions."
Olivia loosened her grip on the bed handle, allowing her body to shift away from Shin. She nodded.
Chesney returned the medical settings to their former balances. The room dimmed, and Shin shot the woman a look of pain and hatred before his eyes drifted closed and he stilled.
"You have to understand," Chesney said, watching Shin sorrowfully, "we got them from a hospital in Cheng-du when it was being evacuated after the terrorists breached the city wall. They came with no records."
"Terrorists?" Olivia's understanding of Earth was limited to what she'd learned in school, and there'd been no information from earth since the war.
Chesney shrugged. "That's what we called them. Really, they were just desperate people trying to survive. They broke into Cheng-du looking for food."
Refugees. Like Chesney.
"The Mercrurians came tagged as unusual research specimens, so whoever was paying their place in the hospital before they were sent to us must have disappeared. Probably when the government fell. We were fortunate that someone at the hospital in Cheng-du realized that there were still research institutes like ours interested in such oddities. They shipped them to us." Her eyes flicked up momentarily as she recognised her own blunder.
"They thought the prisoners were freaks?" Because of their slender bones.
Chesney nodded with incredulity. "I don't think they even realized the prisoner's potential political importance. We figured they were from Mercury as soon as we saw them, and of course, they were able to tell us."
Political importance. Bargaining chip. Worth only what they could provide the ones who controlled them. Owned them.
"By then, there were only a few islands of civilization left." Chesney nodded in the direction of the door. "We're just damned lucky Cairns had the funds and facilities to get us off-planet. And realized Mercury was a potential destination." She shook her head. "We'd still be back there, and probably dead."
Mandira scrubbed the station septic tank. It needed regular cleaning, but more, she needed mindless work.
She'd sat in an impersonal office, strapped at an impersonal desk, reviewing the Earth ship's manifest. Looked at the photos of each prisoner's face.
Sven was not among them.
She'd gone to the maintenance supervisor then, and asked for work, the ache to see her husband overwhelming her like a heat storm, infusing her body, waylaying her thoughts, churning her stomach, prickling her skin.
She had grieved, nine years ago when Sven walked down that corridor. Grieved when the news came of the fighters' capture. Grieved long nights alone in her room. Now, she grieved again, not just her loss, but his. His years of suffering, loneliness, hopelessness.
How had he died? She'd seen Sven's death in her mind a thousand times, a hundred ways. A slow starvation? A bone-crushing injury? Some earth-bred disease to which he'd never been exposed? Swiftly or slowly? With some caring person at his side? Or alone...
There would be no record, no memory of his death on a chaotic, uncaring Earth. Cairns wouldn't know.
Mandira would never know.
She shook herself. Scrubbed furiously. People depended on her. The dosimeters on their uniforms continued to count. Plans, arrangements had to be made for the good of everyone.
She needed to decide.
Mandira had heard the debate. There was no answer, but she had to give the delegation—and her people—a decision. She must take the responsibility, and the criticism, on her own shoulders. Relieve the Council of being the target of abuse.
She packed up her kit, washed, and floated toward the corridor. The lights were dimmed as most of the crew and the station's inhabitants slept. A caffeine, that was what she needed, though by rights she should get a medic to prescribe it. But there would be one she could access, locked up in the sick bay.
She passed the lounge, a pod slightly less sparse than most of the others, with games and grouped handholds and color in its walls. She hovered for a moment, taking in the idea, so alien just now, that life could be rich. Fulfilling.
Anchored to a table. Ahbed's spider plant. The one Olivia had thrown at her so long ago, a chip in its ceramic pot.
The port to the conference room opened and Cairns floated in.
"Please, make yourself comfortable." Mandira's pulse throbbed in her throat. She knew what she had to say but wasn't sure she could say it.
Cairns closed the port and took a tether. His broad face was puffy from the lack of gravity, his movements stiff.
"The Council has met, and we would like to confirm some information," she said neutrally. "You are aware that Mercury could not accept, under any conditions, more than thirty-six refugees."
He gave a single, tight, nod, almost a small bow. "It is what we suspected."
"Is it your proposal that the refugees we take are the members of your delegation and your crew?"
He paled slightly under the dull fluorescents, as though he had not expected her to come so directly to this point. "It is." He hesitated, opened his mouth to speak, then closed it.
"And to be clear, you are not negotiating on behalf of Earth, but on behalf of yourself." It was difficult to force herself to speak in the Earthlings' plainspoken manner.
He met her gaze. "I am."
The confirmation burned her stomach. "Your honesty...is appreciated."
His voice was low, strangled. "We understand that even if you have the capacity to accept refugees, you may elect to return some of us to Earth, so that you may also grant permissions to your own people for children. We accept this." She was about to speak, when he bent his knees, the action propelling him lower relative to her position. "Mandira." Cairn's eyes fixed on hers. "If gravity allowed me to sink to the floor, I would supplicate myself before you on behalf of my people. Conditions on Earth —"
"There is no need, sir." She could imagine. She knew a world with limited resources. But a world where strength and slyness and greed were valued, where one saved one's self and one's family by climbing on the heads of others—she shut the images out of her mind.
"You might think people on Earth are monstrous —"
"Not all." Not all monsters. Some were people who'd been repressed. Stepped on. Abandoned. Like Ahbed.
Cairns said nothing, his face drawn, his posture stiff, as he waited for her to speak.
"As I am sure you can imagine, the debate on Council was passionate. However, in the end, I have been appointed arbitrator. There will be strict conditions of training and your service will be required at all levels of support—even the most basic—but we cannot in good conscience send you back to Earth. Your delegation, or your crew."
Cairns face transformed, trembling. Tears flowed and he collapsed, his hands shaking. "Thank you, thank—I don't know what I can —"
Mandira pressed her lips together, flooded with relief and regret. It was done.
"Mom?" Olivia found her mother in the cargo bay supervising the robotic arms and conveyors loading the shuttle. The prisoners would return with the inner Council, and two more shuttles had been ordered from the surface to take the station crew and refugees.
Mandira held out an arm, and Olivia drifted into it, holding her tight for a long moment. The decision had to have been hard for her mother. Olivia was glad she didn't have to face the reactions of the Mercurians. "Are you all right?"
"I'm still shaking." Her mother tightened her hug. "Every so often I get this huge plunge of regret in my stomach. The entire community will pay the consequences of my decision. Whatever they are."
Olivia pushed back to peer into her mother's face. "I had to make a case for what I thought was right."
"I was afraid..." She gave a small shrug. "I'm still afraid."
"Of their ideas." Her mother released her. And...perhaps...another war.
"Yes." Olivia drifted over the measured clacking of the boxes on the conveyor. "It's not fair to expect people to give up their culture. Or even possible."
"New ideas... can be...a strength," Mandira said.
A platitude. Olivia let it slide. "As Mosaic grows and divides, we won't have interpersonal ties to keep us together." She inspected the clamps holding the metallic boxes as they went by. "To keep us all of a mindset, putting community first."
"You might think about applying to move to the new neighbourhood," her mother suggested. "You have the passion to uphold the social norms. We wouldn't want Earthlings to ghettoize themselves there."
"But growth." Olivia could not support the concept. "Look what it did to Earth."
"We must be vigilant. Not outstrip what we're capable of producing," Mandira said. "Growth is a biological fact. Bacteria overgrow their Petri dishes. Only through awareness and conscious work can we limit it." Her mother's words were not comforting.
"We grow until we're stopped." In the hum of the station's electronics Olivia considered this. The boxes came in scatters of two or three, now.
Her mother pushed back a floating strand of hair that had escaped Olivia's tight bun. "If we're going to grow, maybe we'll need more specialization. Thinkers and artists freed from the need to contribute to the basic services."
"A drone class." Olivia couldn't keep the sneer from creeping into her voice.
"Specialists who contribute long term reflection."
"You never did explain how we'll feed or house the refugees, or deal with their individualism." The conveyors really didn't need their supervision. Most of the boxes seemed to have been loaded.
"I don't know. Sacrifice. Community." Her mother smiled thoughtfully. "We pride ourselves on our creativity and invention. I have faith."
This was where she and her mother parted ways. "In what?"
"In Mosaic." Mandira's gaze drifted fleetingly, and Olivia had the sensation she might have been thinking of dad. Wondering if he would understand the position she'd taken. "In our ability to absorb new ideas and incorporate them intelligently."
There was a tap on the port. Demba poked his head in. "Sorry to disturb you Mandira."
Her mother turned.
"Embarking for home in an hour. Is everything aboard?"
The conveyor thrummed softly, carrying no cargo. "I think we're good."
Demba gave her mother a nod, of respect, Olivia thought, and left. "I'll give my pod one last check." Olivia pushed herself toward the port.
She grasped a handle and turned.
"Once Mosaic splits. Call him Sven."
"Your first child."
This story originally appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.