They had their usual fare for breakfast—kasha and complaints. “I don’t see why you have to fly to Earth so soon,” Amelia said to her husband, ladling out his Russian oatmeal while he avoided her gaze. She was wearing her favourite sloppy sweater and jeans; Victor, a silk suit imported from the angry blue planet. “We have enough money for now.”
“Loon-Jing won’t be able to afford college,” Victor said in his Serious Voice.
“She’s nine. There’s time.”
“But there might not be a job. The United Nations is offering one now.”
“I don’t want to go to college,” Loon-Jing said. She tugged painfully at her blonde forelocks.
“You’ll do as you’re told,” said her father. He blew on his kasha warily. As usual, Amelia had made it too hot. She was, after all, an American-Martian: Hot food was a delicacy in a frozen world. “It’s only ten months,” he said uncertainly.
Being half-Martian, Amelia was too polite to weep. She wrinkled her nose and ducked her chin, showing only the trace of a pucker. “Ten months. And then what?”
He finished the kasha and went to the door, then turned and went to her. “Life as usual, that’s what.” He stood on his tiptoes to kiss her elegant brow. “We’ll talk tonight.” But outside he hailed an unmanned roving taxi to take him to the spaceport.
The taxi passed a gnarled and empty sentry box, twisted by a micro-missile years ago, during the revolt. The nearby hospital was jammed with patients, four to a room, spilling into the vacant wings of the adjacent university—the reverse of Earth, where schools were crammed and hospitals empty. Victor turned away from the window. Short and stooped, he had a habitual grimace that telegraphed his perspective on Mars. The other passenger in the taxi was an American tourist: Lanky, middle-aged, and blissfully unaware. “Why is Mars going bankrupt?” asked the tourist, a high and lonesome tenor.
“Martian life is expensive,” Victor said. “Crazy spells. Injuries from bone loss and low gravity. Dehydration when the water treatment plant freezes. To pay the costs, the government taxes every citizen ten thousand maras.”
“Ten thousand what?”
“The mara is the Martian currency. Are you new? Anyway, new migrants are less hardy than the astronauts who came back in 2058. They cost more to take care of.”
“The pioneers. They pay high taxes like everyone else. They are not thrilled to be penalised for their efficiency. Thousands are flying back to Earth.” Pioneers like Victor.
“It must be hell to leave your family for a year.”
That startled Victor. He must have been sub-vocalizing. He tried to smile away his embarrassment. Really, he did not despise his separation from Amelia and Loon-Jing. An intellectual, he welcomed Family but wearied of his own. “I must leave my wife and child on Mars because UN rules permit only skilled workers to migrate to Earth.” The UN governed Earth—and the Martian colony, through the Loyalists. “My wife has no graduate degree. She looks after our daughter.”
“So why go to Earth?”
“After taxes, I would earn more.”
“Earth isn’t like Mars. It’s diverse. That cuts costs. Every nation there has its young. Being healthy, youths lower the of illness. On Mars, the severity of the environs destroys any romance of living in space, so few youths fly in from Earth. The colony is old and sick and costly. That pushes up the taxes, which eat up the paycheck.”
“Was that the reason for the revolution?”
“That was five years ago. The Loyalists were selling lithium to the UN cheap. They didn’t make enough to pay off their sprees, so they raised taxes each year, as regular as Einstein’s clockwork. The Revolutionaries seized power to cut taxes—and raise export prices, which the UN won’t pay.”
“I take it that you’re not a Revolutionary.”
“I believe that we’re approaching the spaceport. Nice to meet you.” Victor buried his head in a newspaper.
The usual news. The Revolutionaries had executed another traitor. He turned the page with a snap. Another fool throwing his life away. Where were the political news? Ah, on an inside page—unlike the sports. Tensions were rising between the two planets, and they might soon come to fisticuffs. Poor Martians were desperate to migrate to Earth. Which was why Victor was bracing for a grilling at the Amity spaceport in New York City.
“Why are you on Earth?” asked the rail-thin guard called Fatso.
“For a job.”
“No kidding. What kind of job? Why don’t you stay on Mars where you belong?”
They were sitting in the windowless interrogation room in stifling heat. Fatso slurped his coffee; Victor longed for a cup. The tripling in gravity due to travelling from Mars to Earth had fatigued him. His lips felt thick, and he had trouble forming words.
“I’m a financial architect. What do you do for kicks?”
“Crucify Martians. What’s a financial architect doing on Earth?”
That was the one question he couldn’t safely answer. He pulled out his invitation from the UN Financial Programme and pushed it over to Fatso, who didn’t look at it. “I’m waiting,” the guard said. Slurp.
“Look,” Victor said. “The Martian government is on the verge of insolvency. Its costs are rising, and the taxpayers can’t pay much more. I happen to have a pretty good idea of when it will default and how.”
Fatso looked confused. “This is not my bailiwick.” He studied the letter, chewing his lower lip, then stamped Victor’s migration papers. “Three days, tops.”
“Three days? The UN contract is for ten months.”
“Welcome to New York.”
The UN Building was a monument to arrogance. For decades, experts on terrorism had pointed out its vulnerability in the densest corner of one of the densest cities. With 200 stories, the tower was a tinderbox for a low-flying jet; or, from ground zero, for a suicidal youth with a small explosive flask hidden in his rectum; or, for that matter, for a shy Martian bean-counter with incendiary information.
Victor was in the Secretary-General’s meagre tallow-walled office, wearing his best rumpled suit, hiding behind a steaming cup of tea while he calculated how much information to divulge and how much to conceal for later leverage. “I’ll tell you what I know, if you’ll provide a lifetime pension to my wife and daughter.”
“The United Nations does not cut deals,” Hoshino Yamamoto said. He wore a blue seersucker suit with a five-point scarlet handkerchief to shame the mundanely dressed.
“Neither do I.” Victor got up to leave.
“Wait a minute.” Yamamoto pressed a desk button. His office door silently closed. “The United Nations does not cut deals. But the Secretary-General, from time to time, may agree to mutually beneficial arrangements. How big of a pension?”
Victor sat down. “Two hundred thousand dollars a year.”
“Dollars? Do you mean maras?”
“I want my family to live here.”
Yamamoto pushed another button. The door locked. “What you’ve just said would be treason on Mars. Fortunately, I didn’t hear it. Why do you want them to live on Earth?”
Victor looked at him.
“I get it,” Yamamoto said. “The pension is not a problem. Smuggling your family out of Mars is. Did you know that the Revolutionaries have a tail on you? Don’t worry, he’s not very good. But we may need to work with the opposition.”
“They’d be happy to help us bankrupt the Martian government. They’ve been out of power for five years, and they’re hungry. Which Loyalists do you know?”
“Your best friend, father-in-law, and ex-neighbour, Nurmatovich.”
“Boris? He’s an electrical engineer.”
“My foot. He might know how to switch on the kitchen lights. He’s an informer for your favourite political party. You could look him up. He’s in town.”
Boris Bogdanovich became a political analyst at the United Nations at age 23, destined to be a scrivener but seething for excitement. He jumped at an offer to become an undercover agent for the UN on Mars, where the Revolutionaries met in secret cells. On the violent red planet, he quickly wed a Martian to establish his credibility, raising a quiet daughter named Amelia, inculcating her in the principles of the Loyalists. And he refined his considerable gift for passing the buck.
Victor’s parents were neighbours to Boris—and veteran financial analysts for the Loyalists, before the Troubles with the Revolutionaries. Victor’s career in finance was predestined. Boris took the ambitious youth in hand to urge him to infiltrate the Marxist “reading circles.” As Victor advanced in the ranks of the Revolutionaries, Boris encouraged, as a counterweight, his courtship with Amelia. Which didn’t take long to flower, Victor thought wryly. Loon-Jing arrived in the first ten months of dating. But the passion soon faded—for her, because she was phlegmatic; for him, because he doted on the new. To him, Loon-Jing was an unfortunate accident. That made her Amelia’s responsibility, not his.
“We think we have a solution,” said Boris in his falsetto to Victor. His pale face was drawn in both cheeks by missing teeth. They were waiting for hamburgers in one of Manhattan’s cheapest and therefore safest restaurants. The stench of sizzling fat was overpowering. “The Martian government, Revolutionary or Loyalist, has promoted family reunions since the early days of the colony, when the astronauts were separated from their kin. We’ll organize a reunion here in the Big Apple, on the occasion of your timely demise.”
“Faked, of course. Next week, you will take to your bed with double pneumonia. Probably the flight from Mars left you dangerously weak. Your wife and daughter will be summoned. Once they reach New York, the UN will grant them refugee status.”
Living like refugees. Victor thought back to when he was eleven years old and Amelia six. She recruited him for her dollhouse. “You can be Daddy.”
“Only if you pay me,” he told her.
“How much?” she said.
“How much do you have?”
“Give me five.”
She gave him all ten, and he had managed her finances ever since—a job of some moment, since her father had settled his fortune upon her. This turned into cash when she turned twenty-one.
That was when he had met Amelia, as opposed to passing her on the street. They were two panicked students in the colony’s rudimentary program for graduate economics. They had been inseparable then. He took an experimental bite from his burger. “What about my fatal illness?” he said to Boris.
“What if something goes wrong?”
“The UN will disavow you, and the Revolutionaries will strangle you for apostasy.”
“Do you want to try it?”
“Do I have a choice?”
The burgers were soggy. Exiting the restaurant, Victor noticed the man on the street corner, wearing horn-rimmed glasses, sedulously reading The New York Times upside down.
Victor risked calling his wife. “You and Loon-Jing are coming to Earth. Make plans.”
“Mars is home.”
“When your house is on fire, you find a new home.”
“I just want you back.” Her voice trembled. “Why can’t we have a normal life?”
“Daddy,” said a high-pitched voice. “I won’t go to college if you don’t come home!”
“A normal life?” he said to Amelia. “On Mars?”
The man in horn-rimmed glasses stared at the ground, as if listening hard to a phone bud. Victor hung up.
Ambling to his hotel, Victor thought not of his tail but of his marriage: As he distanced himself from his family, he spent more time pleading his case to himself. Amelia followed him on his financial errands, out of the puppy love that her father encouraged. Victor had paid little attention to her. He was mesmerised by maths, which purged his mind of scattershot thoughts in lieu of a pure mission, a problem to solve. With pouts and coquettish glances, Amelia was just a walking distraction.
But at the University of Mars, the curriculum left them both at sea. Their mutual commiseration gave him the strength he needed to stick it out in the program for another year, and another. Amelia was not so emboldened. When she flunked out, the onus was on Victor to learn enough to earn for the family. Long nights of black coffee, scrawled equations—and solitude: A necessary evil that became a blessing.
He could pinpoint the day when the music died. With her father’s help, Amelia had taken a job as a tax clerk in a sleepy town on the subway line. The station was only 200 meters from Amelia and Victor’s home, but infatuated he accompanied her on the early morning walk. She cherished those minutes. As Victor bore down on his studies, he labored further into the night, until he went to bed only two hours before Amelia’s commute. One morning, when she tried to rouse him for the walk, he pretended to be asleep. And for the mornings after.
As his equations caught fire in the academe, his family life paled. Wife and child became for him mere ciphers at the obligatory neighbourhood shindig. To his daughter’s charming pouts, copied from her mother, he was cold. As the years wore on, Amelia turned quietly anxious, Loon-Jing headstrong. Surely, he said to himself, they were in a long-run equilibrium. Surely the paycheck that he left at Amelia’s plate every Friday morning, nine-tenths of his income, was enough. Even so…Victor was a connoisseur of guilt, which he assuaged by reading the Martian Accountants’ Code of Practice.
On Mars, the leader of the Revolutionaries was boring his official guest by mumbling through the man’s memo.
Finally Christian Stone looked up from the paper, his mouth forming an O with surprise. “Victor Alexeyich Khrushchev has sold out to the UN?”
“I saw it with my own eyes,” David Levitt said, polishing his horn-rimmed glasses.
“He rewards lenity with perfidy.” Stone was a poet before turning to his current, more lucrative profession. He pulled nervously at his wedding ring. “Where are Victor’s wife and daughter?” he rasped.
“Still at home, I suppose.”
“No. They’re in prison for abetting treason. Or they will be, once I make this phone call.”
Amelia was packing Loon-Jing’s suitcase when the Martian police battered down the door, cursing in a farrago of Russian and English. Swinging her pigtails, Loon-Jing sank her teeth into a tempting male ankle, so the cops bruised her a bit. Amelia was a sheep in sheep’s clothing. The police handcuffed mother and daughter and whisked them to the jail above the government offices, which were safely subterranean from an attack by the UN or other aliens and heated by scarce groundwater. Perks for jerks, said Loyalists.
The two inmates shared a cell. It was no hardship. Under the Revolutionaries, all of Mars was half prison, half garrison. The only difference between the cell and the city was the food: Prison cuisine was edible. They were munching on a hothouse salad when the guard showed up to take them to the court in a small hut connected to the jail by a walkway underground.
It was a humdrum Sunday morning. The passage had only two guards, unmistakable in the glowing maroon uniforms of the Revolutionaries. Loon-Jing pranced ahead. “Watch your step,” said a guard to Amelia, taking her arm—and propelling her down an emergency exit. Another guard scooped up the child and sent her spinning after her mother. At the end of the exit was a rover with the engine running. “A little help from your friends,” the driver said. The guards piled into the back seat, one on each side of the two prisoners.
“Who are you?” Amelia said.
After 20 minutes of jolts, the rover arrived at a hut identical to the four around it. Three men stood before the entrance blooming with yellow roses. “Welcome to the safe house,” one said to Amelia. Behind him, the greeter wearing horn-rimmed glasses smiled.
“Mars will default in two months, in July,” Victor said between mouthfuls of a ham sandwich. He was at lunch with Boris at their favourite hole-in-the-wall. “Revolutionaries in the know have already sold their Martian securities. The largest creditor to Mars is the World Central Bank, which might as well prepare now for the evil day. Otherwise it may face a run on the Earth dollar. That would force it to buy up dollars by selling Mexico’s peso and so forth. The Bank might run out of those currencies.”
“Meaning what?” Boris said. Slimmer than a toothpick, he toyed nervously with his food.
“Meaning trouble. Exchange rates will go haywire. Nations will stop trading. Earth’s economy will fall apart. Where is my family?”
“In a Loyalist safe house. Why do you ask?”
“Why? It’s my family.”
“Which comes first for you, duty or family?”
“In exchange for giving them the default date, the Loyalists will protect my family. I don’t have to choose.”
“What will you say the next time?” Boris’s pale eyes glinted “Your wife is my only child.”
You’ve been telling me for years to put politics first, Victor thought. But he said, “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”
“You crossed it a decade ago. My daughter was gabby, happy-go-lucky. And then she married you. Now, whenever you’re in the room, she barely peeps.”
“I am not a tyrant. Let’s get back to real issues. Is my family safe?”
“We must spirit them away in a few days.”
“What are the chances that they can break free?”
“What are the chances for growing orchids in the Valles Marineris?”
At the spaceport on Mars, a stylish young woman with a solemn child approached the migration gate for departures to Earth.
“And you are…?” the guard said, looking up from his history book.
“Professor Cecilia Sylvester,” Amelia said stiffly. “This is my daughter Raisin. I’m returning to Earth to care for my dying husband.”
“Economist in London.” She looked down decorously. “I’m afraid that I might have lost my accent during my months on Mars.”
“Can you tell me—who was Keynes?”
“Um, Abel’s brother.”
“One minute.” He conferred briefly with a burly guard, then turned beaming to Amelia. “You’re good to go. This way, please.”
As Amelia and Loon-Jing cantered down the walkway, a steel door behind them clanged shut and bolted. A tall Revolutionary police officer stepped out of an office on the side and stood before them. “Mrs. Khrushchev, you and your daughter are still under arrest. We’ll have that arraignment now.”
“They’re back in custody,” Boris said. “The Revolutionaries had a mole in the safe house.”
“The Revolutionaries are offering a deal: A free one-way trip to Earth for Amelia and Loon-Jing, in exchange for you behind bars on Mars. You know that the Revolutionaries whack political prisoners. Of course, your wife said no.”
Victor looked away. He hadn’t truly talked to his wife for years. As the marriage aged, he became more clinical. Dinner took too long, or the meat was too plain. Loon-Jing was too noisy, he couldn’t work. He didn’t have time for his mother-in-law. To his bitching, Amelia always gave ground, promised to do better, and usually did, which was exactly what he did not want her to do; he wanted her to hold her ground, to fight back, to set the boundaries that he, too accustomed to power at home and work, could not set on himself. But she was too Martian for that, too deep in her diurnal love.
He turned to the flyblown window and thought of the southern highlands of Mars, pocked with ancient sinkholes, garish against the light pink sky. How alien eternity seemed. He thought of Loon-Jing. His eyes still on the shattered window, he said softly, “And I say yes.”
In the nape of a Martian canyon, the two guards tied Victor’s hands and feet to a rusty stake. Tears sprang to Victor’s eyes, more out of frustration than fear. “May your God have mercy,” chortled the hulking guard, and he yanked off Victor’s helmet. Victor writhed like a speared fish. After a minute he was still, his head cherry-red from the carbon dioxide of the atmosphere and bloated from the low pressure of the thin atmosphere, his face grotesque from the swirling dust.
Watching the televised execution from Earth, Amelia was numb, comforted only by the thought that she could do nothing to save her husband since he had died 40 minutes before. As always in her marriage, she lived on contingencies.