Varad Ranjani tapped his fingers, bleeding nervous energy against the metal table at which he sat in the ship’s mess. The room was cold. It was always cold in space but maybe more so in the Bulldog, a ship that seemed to have life support in name only and heaters that burned out at regular intervals. Water bled down the steel bulkheads, leaving trails of rust behind that gave the tiger ship literal stripes. He couldn’t tell whether it was leakage through the inner-hull or condensation but neither seemed a beneficial portent.
His head snapped around at the sound of the skipper banging down the stairs from the quarterdeck. His eyes were too wide but he also realized his limited power to modulate them.
Tom Rodriguez stopped short at seeing Varad, alone in the dim. He grinned through a heavy black beard and wiped his greasy hands on an also greasy rag.
“Heaters should be on in a minute,” Tom said in Spanish.
“Nah,” said Tom.
He shook his head and went to the kitchen behind Varad. Finding the percolator, he shook it to determine its contents. What was left he poured into a mug.
“The Alcubierre fields were pulling more juice than they should have. Quick fix.”
“Okay,” Varad said. His voice quivered like a singer’s vibrato. He stroked the salt and pepper mustache at arched over his thick upper lip.
“Don’t worry,” Tom said, pulling up the chair next to him. “She’ll make it. She always does.”
Varad didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. His deep brown eyes did all the speaking in the low light. Tom watched him with a look of equal parts pity and sadness. Reaching inside his coveralls for cigarettes he offered one. Varad waved them away but Tom took one for himself and set fire to the end, eyes never leaving the delegate’s.
“I don’t envy you,” Tom said.
“I don’t envy me either,” Varad said.
“We’ll be at the Kuiper belt by mid-day,” Tom said. “Earth by tomorrow.”
“Well… The Meadowlands anyway,” Tom replied. “You can take a mag-lev for about forty bucks into the city.”
“Assuming they aren’t waiting for me at the port…”
No one was waiting for Varad Ranjani at the Meadowlands Space Port. The Bulldog landed without so much as a second look. There were no inspectors rushing up to check its cargo or customs agents to ensure citizenship. All of officialdom was concerned with the other side of the equation, preventing people from running out to the colonies and goods from leaving Earth.
Varad emerged into the light of a sun he hadn’t felt in thirty years, shielding eyes now used to the dim red star of the Hwon system. He disappeared into a throng of workers, ship crews, and police, attracting not a single look of suspicion with his small-wheeled luggage and leather satchel.
He navigated through the crowd, following signs that directed him down random corridors of the port, all promising the mag-lev station at the end of the journey. An hour later, both tired and unable to breathe because of the hot, heavy, carbon dioxide laden air, he found the station and reveled for a moment in its air-conditioned chambers.
Varad opened his satchel and produced a purse of United States Dollars. It was expense money provided by the Congress for his business there and expensive to buy as those paying attention to the political weather had driven up the price. The Colonial Dollar had never been worth so little. He popped a fifty-dollar coin into the ticket machine, entered the code for Penn Station, and was returned a ticket with a dollar and fifty-four cents rattling down the chute as his change.
The train glided into the station, only the crackle of electricity providing any clue as to its arrival. He boarded, looking like any one of the hundred other commuters scanning their digital readers with lazy indifference. Varad swiped his ticket past the scanner and took his seat for the five-minute ride.
If New York had changed from how it had been a hundred or even two hundred years before, it was only in what made up the traffic on the street. The cars gliding down 7th Avenue would have made less sound than the train were it not for their ceaseless honking. They honked to signal turns, sudden braking, the changing of lanes, and sometimes–it seemed–just to say hello. The Pennsylvania and New Yorker hotels still loomed with stoic menace over the station and Times Square could be seen just upstream the river of vehicles. Wuchiu may have been a large city for Kaesŏng but the sheer pandemonium of New York made Varad’s senses to want to shut down like the Bulldog‘s heaters as his brain attempted to absorb the chaos.
He pressed on, walking more with determination than actual confidence to the edge of the sidewalk and signaling a taxi with a wave of his arm. A yellow cab swerved through three lanes of angry, honking traffic and stopped with a squeal of brakes beside him. The driver popped the trunk into which Varad loaded his luggage. Varad slammed it shut and climbed into a rear door.
“Lexington y cuarenta y nueve,” Varad said.
The cabbie glanced back through the rearview mirror. All Varad could see was confusion.
“I don’t speak Spanish, my friend,” the cabbie said in Punjabi.
Varad glanced at the Taxi and Limousine license wedged into the plexiglass barrier separating him from the driver. The name of the driver: Singh. Varad grinned for the first time in over a month.
“Lexington and 49th,” Varad replied in his native language. “The Marriott.”
“No problem,” said the cabbie in English. Varad didn’t speak it but he knew a few phrases, that being one of them. “Where are you from,” the cabbie asked, swerving back into the flow of traffic. Varad held on for dear life. “Mexico?”
“Kaesŏng,” Varad replied.
“Ah! My sister went to Gangwon! That’s near you, yes?”
“It’s around the same star,” Varad said. “So–”
“So, closer than here. You’ve come a long way.”
“Yes,” Varad mumbled.
“Of a sort.”
“Will you be going back?”
The cabbie glanced back again through the mirror. Varad wished he would keep his eyes on the road but somehow the car continued to avoid collisions.
“That’s the question,” Varad said. “Isn’t it?”
The room Congress booked for him was impressive. It was on the sixteenth floor which, considering the height of the surrounding structures wasn’t so far up, but any disappointment was compensated for in enormity. Beyond the lounge and bedroom, there was also a sunroom from which he could spy the former UN, now UUHA, headquarters. The concierge promised the glass panels enclosing it would protect against all of the most harmful ultraviolet rays but Varad wasn’t concerned. He had, after all, spent the prior six weeks in space protected from radiation by nothing more than steel, a foot of water between two hulls, and an invisible electromagnetic field generated by unreliable coils. The turquoise glass edifice on the East River was the only thing occupying his mind.
He took a sip from a long necked beer and picked up the phone’s handset. He tickled the buttons with his fingers and placed it back on its cradle. Varad assumed someone at UUHA was waiting for his call but communications between the colonies and Earth was unreliable at best. Even if they received the message that he was coming, Varad couldn’t be sure what the response would be. The UUHA was still mightily pissed about Xiao Peng being given the boot. Varad was certain his presence would be even more unwelcome news.
He picked up one of the notepads the hotel had littered the tables in his suite with and composed a letter to his family in longhand. There were computers in the colonies, of course, but writing something out before typing it in was relaxing. It gave him a moment to collect his thoughts. What he wrote was a short letter–five pages in an ornate, looping hand–but the result captured his state of mind. He folded it in thirds and tucked it into the safety of his sport coat.
With that accomplished, he picked up the phone and dialed the number written and underlined twice in his calendar. The line chirped three times.
“Colonial Office. Bill Kelly,” said an Australian voice.
“Señor Kelly,” Varad said, choking on the words. He cleared his throat and began again, using what little English he possessed. “Señor Kelly, this is Varad Ranjani. Ivan Boldyrev gave me your number.”
“Mister Ranjani,” Kelly said as if sighing. He continued in Spanish, “We’ve been waiting for your call.”
“I’ve just arrived.”
“The communiqué said you had some kind of resolution to present the General Assembly?”
“Well,” said Kelly. He sounded as if he might be paging through a magazine as he spoke. “We might be able to squeeze you in sometime next week but the Assembly’s schedule is pretty full right–”
“I haven’t traveled six weeks in a flying wreck to be put off until next week, Mister Kelly.” Varad could feel his speech quicken, the words tumbling over one another, and tried to modulate himself. The results were mixed. “As a delegate of the Songy people and a representative of the Independent Congress, I will be seen tomorrow.”
He glanced up at date on the bedside clock and saw that it was Wednesday.
“Or Friday at the latest.”
“I’m sorry, Mister Ranjani, but Governor Choi Dae represents Kaesŏng to the Assembly. Without–”
“Governor Choi was removed from office shortly before I left,” Varad said, cutting Kelly off a second time. “I’m surprised you haven’t heard.”
The line was silent except for the occasional digital pop. Varad’s left foot tapped a nervous rhythm. He took a long sip on his beer and waited for a reply. It was a long time coming but when it did, Kelly’s boredom had dissipated.
“And how many governors are left, exactly?”
“Every governor that has not yet stepped down or stood for election has been removed,” Varad said.
A new silence ensued.
“Does your resolution address this?”
“I will bring this to the Secretary-General then,” Kelly said. “How may I reach you?”
“I’m at the Marriott East Side,” Varad said. He read off the number on the phone. “Room 1601.”
“You’ll hear from me shortly.”
Varad hung up and sank like a child into his chair. He cradled the beer between his legs and breathed in and out, in and out, in and out, attempting a rudimentary mind over matter control of his heart rate. He wasn’t sure how these things were done in the past but a suspicion began creeping through his mind that they had probably gone smoother.
The offices of the Secretary-General were not as nice as Varad Ranjani had supposed. In fact, they were somewhat on the drab side. In contrast, Varad’s spartan offices on Book Street in Wuchiu seemed downright opulent. The only extravagance on display was the one thing UUHA had nothing to do with: the Manhattan skyline.
In many ways, it reflected perfectly the Secretary-General. Kimberly Mertens was a woman of small stature and simple dress, favoring a plain brown skirt suit over something with flair. Her hair was cut into an immaculate bob of brown with blond highlights, framing a face where black-rimmed glasses were the dominant feature. It gave the most powerful person on the planet something of a thirty-year-old appearance. She was, in fact, fifty-six but only the smirk lines around her mouth betrayed any hint.
The sun was rising over Queens and the reflected light off the surrounding skyscrapers cast a golden glow throughout the room. It warmed Varad even with his chilly reception. He sat silent in a chair before the Secretary-General’s desk while she read through one of the ten handwritten copies of the resolution. The other nine were stowed, he now regretted, in his leather satchel.
Kimberly Mertens looked up when she was finished and glared at Varad for a minute, as if trying to make a decision. She shook her head and removed her glasses, rubbing balled up hands into weary eye sockets.
“It’s too early in the morning for this,” she said, speaking in Spanish. Varad had heard rumors she could speak in six different languages. If they were all as fluent as her Spanish, she had quite a knack.
“I don’t know if there’s ever a good time for this,” Varad replied in tones audible over the whine of the air conditioner to a listener with exceptional hearing.
On Galileo when they voted to approve the resolution, Varad had thought it a good idea. He still thought it a good idea. He just realized that resolving to follow a course and delivering the news required two different forms of courage. Mertens may not have been the most imposing of people and her physical office not the most impressive but her title and the building carried a gravity beyond one person.
“I see your signature here,” she said. “One, four, seventh from the bottom?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
“I assume this has been disseminated throughout the colonies?”
“No, ma’am,” he said, shaking his head. “Twenty-six other copies were made to be returned with the delegates beyond my ten. An announcement will be posted on the network after I address the General Assembly or,” he said, looking for a calendar but finding none. Mertens was entirely digital. “Eight weeks after my departure from Galileo. Just in case…”
“Just in case we don’t allow you to deliver this?”
“Or you execute me.”
Mertens smirked and put her glasses back on her button nose without denying the suggestion.
“I find some of the charges made here to be stretching the truth at best,” she said. “For instance, ‘We have had our legitimate charters revoked and our laws abolished?’ The only legitimacy is what we give you.”
“We believe that our own organized democracies are legitimate in and of themselves,” Varad said. He settled comfortably into his chair. That point was his own personal contribution and he was versed in the arguments on both sides.
“And ‘transported large armies to our worlds to bring death, destruction, and tyranny’,” she asked.
“You invaded Galileo in sixty-six,” Varad replied. “Death and destruction may be rhetorical flourishes but certainly tyranny isn’t.”
“And where does treason fall?”
“Each planet has petitioned for seats in the General Assembly,” said Varad. “And each time we were denied. What other course of action was left to us. And treason is a rhetorical flourish of your own, is it not? We are not your property. We have signed no charters owing allegiance to any nation on Earth much less the inappropriately named Universal United Human Authority. There is no treason here, merely the formal assertion of independence we’ve believed since colonization began.”
Mertens leaned back in her large executive desk chair. The back towered over her head with two feet of clearance and gave her the appearance of an impostor in another’s office. She folded her hands across her lap. Varad felt the urge to go on but wondered where the line of insolence might exist and whether he may have already crossed it. The Secretary-General just sat, watching him with unblinking eyes as if in a trance. Varad crossed and uncrossed his legs as the mental discomfort found physical expression.
“Are you empowered to negotiate on any of these issues,” she asked, remaining still except for the movement of her lips.
“I am not,” he said. “My only function is to deliver these documents to you and to the General Assembly. Beyond that, my wife would hope my next function to be returning to Wuchiu safely.”
“You may deliver your message, Mister Ranjani,” she said, leaning forward and reaching for her telephone. “But I would think I don’t have to warn you what the General Assembly might think of this.”
“Madame Secretary-General,” called out the representative of Chad. “This is nothing less than our colonies rebelling against their home world and treason on this Ranjani-person’s part.”
The translation followed a second later in Varad’s headset. He sat before the Assembly and could feel the heat of their hatred as sure as though his hand hovered over a stove’s burner. He kept his hand on his satchel on the floor with two copies of Congress’ resolution still inside. Mertens, who sat next to him, had been two feet closer before the Articles of Independence were read. Now, every time she stood to speak, she reseated herself an extra inch away.
“To allow this is to concede that the Earth has no power over the future expansion of humanity into the universe,” the representative continued. “And as the birthplace of humanity, we must put an end to this now.”
The Assembly erupted in a translation-delayed chorus of cheers. Chad had been the fifteenth representative to express the same sentiment but the approval had no less enthusiasm. Rather, it was the opposite. Hands banging on desks echoed throughout the hall. And it grew louder as each country added their insight.
Varad tried to sit high in his chair, to take the abuse directed toward him and his colleagues back home with stoic determination but each shout made him feel smaller as he slipped in slow motion under the table.
The speeches and shouts lasted for hours, well into the night. Mertens was a dozen feet away now and safe from any projectiles that might be hurled at Varad by the front row. When action was proposed, Varad had become inured to the noises of the chamber. His concern was no longer about looking brave in the face of adversity as he was staying awake. In his boredom induced trance he almost missed the Chinese proposal on what to do with him.
“Madame Secretary-General,” said China. “I propose that Ranjani, as a signatory to this paper we behold with as much respect as that with which we wipe our asses, be held by the Secretariat to stand trial for treason.”
“Hear, hear,” cried Spain.
“Seconded,” said the United States.
Applause erupted as Varad looked with new desperation from side to side. There was no escape. A man or burly woman wearing a sky-blue uniform shirt, black tie, and–perhaps, of most importance–a gun guarded each door. Varad rose to his feet and attempted to smooth his creased gray suit jacket. The noise died to a minimum with only the occasional shout of “traitor” echoing down to him.
“You may hold me for treason,” he said in Punjabi. “But of which country? I come originally from India but have lived for decades on another world. And any conviction would be unjust and suspect–”
Whatever else he had to say was drowned in a tidal wave of outrage. Varad looked at his polished black shoes and kicked them together once, then twice, before returning to his seat under a barrage of verbal abuse.
Mertens stood and banged her gavel until the room quieted. Her face showed nothing but boredom and she continued banging as though she had nothing better to do and nowhere better to go until they acceded to her will. Ten minutes later, the Assembly did.
“To hold Mister Ranjani,” she said. “I require a simple majority of the Assembly. We will do so orderly. We will do so quietly. We will do so and then we will adjourn until tomorrow.”
She looked from face to face to face, searching for any that might argue with her pronouncements. She found none. Varad was not surprised. She was a force of nature in a five-foot-three-inch package.
“Now,” she said. “The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. How do you vote?”
Twenty minutes later, Varad Ranjani was led away by two policemen in their cheery blue uniforms. His leather satchel remained on the floor, under the chair, leaning against a stainless steel leg, alone.
“Varad,” Kimberly Mertens said through the bars of his cell.
He glanced up from his writing, saw his visitor, and returned to work without even a grunt. He was no longer writing on hotel stationary. Instead, it was toilet paper, unspooled into a three inch by sixty-foot scroll. It was ripped in places where his pen had torn through but every inch was covered in his neat hand. He had only a foot left to fill. Four other rolls were stacked on the shelf, already containing with his missives.
“Varad,” she said again. “It’s time.”
“This is a sham,” he said, not looking up. “And it will not convince anyone.”
“You may still recant,” she said. “The Assembly has been clear that your sentence will be commuted if you recant your signature.”
“If it will reveal you as tyrants, you may spill my blood with my blessing,” he said. He dotted his final period and struggled to his feet.
In the two months since he was taken into custody, Varad had lost enough weight to take on a gaunt, almost skeletal appearance. He refused all food, haircuts, showers, and shaves and cut quite the sad figure because of it. His time had been spent writing final thoughts. He had accepted death the moment his cell door slammed shut and locked with a sound not unlike the knell of a dying bell.
“We’re not going to kill you, Varad,” Mertens said. She clicked her tongue off the roof of her mouth and shook her head. “That is just too much trouble. You’re just going to go away. A week, month, maybe a year from now, no one will even care.”
The cell door opened a final time and two guards entered, armed only with batons against the stick figure of a man. Varad Ranjani offered no resistance as they fitted him with handcuffs and leg chains. His eyes flashed with momentary panic as if he might try to fight but it faded as the last cuff clicked snug around his ankle.
The guards led him from his cell and he shuffled beside them with sad obedience. Kimberly Mertens watched him down the hall, silent except for the clinking of his chains and the whisper of his slippered feet dragging along the concrete.
A third guard entered the cell with a plastic box. He set it on the cot and removed the lid. He tossed in the few personal effects Varad had been allowed: pens, a watch, a book. They didn’t begin to fill it. When all that was left was the toilet paper scrolls, he began unspooling the rolls. He tore off segments four feet long, bunched them up and tossed them into the toilet.
Mertens watched the process, unmoved. She checked her watch and took a deep breath.
“Make sure it’s all destroyed,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am,” said the guard.
She swiveled on her heal and followed in the direction Varad had been led. At the end of the hall was a door and outside that door waited a van into which Varad would be loaded. But Mertens was not headed for that door. She exited through another that would lead her back onto the streets of Brooklyn. Varad Ranjani had been enough trouble and she hoped the hole into which he was placed was a deep dark one, one from which he would never again emerge and she could forget the name. After all, if not for people like him, why keep such places?