Saturday, August 7, 2004

Chapter One

Alcântara, Brazil
7 August 2059

The United Nations Space Exploration Commission offices were officially in New York, but policy issues were usually decided by a group of senior administrators stationed at the Hawking Flight Center in Brazil. The Americans often referred to it as New Houston and most of the U.S. staff members could often be found at a tavern of that name when they weren't on duty. James Taller was an exception. So when he stepped into the bar more than a few conversations halted in mid-sentence as the regulars stopped to stare.

Taller seemed oblivious to the stares as he searched the room briefly, then made his way directly to a dimly lit booth in the rear. The booth's two occupants were arguing animatedly as Taller approached. Neither noticed him until he was standing right next to them. Amy Correa and Gregory Lynch glanced up in unison as Taller began to speak, "Greg, Amy, glad I found both of you here. I just received the Undersecretary's report on the preliminary budget requests. We're in trouble."

Greg Lynch leaned back in his seat and motioned for Taller to sit down, "Grab a seat and tell us all the gory details, Jim. Or would you rather we go back to the office?"

Taller shot them both a quick smile as he started to slide into the booth, "No, I really think I could use a drink--a stiff one at that."

Amy eyed Taller with a mock stare of amazement, "Greg, did I hear the man correctly? He wants a drink? The same man who never accepts an invitation to grab a cold one after work. This must be one genuinely bad budget report."

"Do you want to know how bad it is?" Taller asked her. "I stopped and tried to buy a pack of cigarettes on the way over here--completely forgot they've been illegal for, what, ten years now?"

For a moment the three of them sat and eyed each other, Greg Lynch broke the silence, "There's Connie, wave him down. I think all three of us might need a drink. If it's going to be as bad as all that, maybe we should just have him leave the bottle."

Following a wave from Amy, Sean O'Connor--Connie to his friends--dutifully made his way to their booth. He surprised Greg and Amy by greeting Taller like an old friend. Taller added to the surprise by inviting the bar owner to join them. As Connie retreated to get their drinks Taller held up a hand to forestall the questions he could see forming on his companion's lips. "Just wait, just wait. Connie and I have known each other since long before New Houston. We don't see each other that often these days, but we maintain a lot of the same cloudlets and mailing lists. And I'd bet he's got more contacts in New York or D.C. than the three of us put together. It wouldn't surprise me if he already knows everything I'm getting ready to tell the two of you."

Greg glanced at Amy and jerked his head in Taller's direction, "You sure this is the same guy we've worked for the last seven years? Next he'll just happen to mention in passing that he's got a wife and kids he never told us about."

Amy replied in a stage whisper, "Yeah, or maybe he'll get up and do a strip-tease across the tables. Nothing much he does now could surprise me. Geez, you think you know a guy...."

They studied Taller to see if he was responding to their jibes, but he pointedly ignored them. James Taller heard them, but his mind was racing along. What am I, five years older than them? Yet they're like son and daughter to me. And in a few minutes I'm going to bring their world crashing down. Damn, I haven't even had that drink yet and already I'm getting maudlin.

His reverie was broken by the reappearance of Connie toting a bottle under one arm and some fresh glasses. "OK folks, is this a celebration or a wake?" Connie looked at the three of them waiting for a response. Amy and Greg looked at Taller. Connie proceeded to start filling glasses, "Ah, a wake it is then. Who's delivering the eulogy?"

Taller accepted a glass from Connie and gave the proprietor a studied look, "I am, I got a copy of the UN's five-year budget proposal this afternoon."

Without reacting to the words, Connie continued to fill glasses, but he met Taller's eyes as he filled his own, "I've heard rumors--none of them good. So, just how deeply are they going to cut?"

Taller drew in a breath and slowly let it out again, "All the way. They're phasing us out of existence. Five years and we're done."

Greg was the first to react, "No fucking chance! They'll never get away with it."

Amy stuttered out, only slightly less shaken, "How? We've ... I mean the Mars colony, the LaGrange stations, they can't just shut them down. Whose bright idea is this?"

Greg jumped right back in, "It's that damn Kovalev isn't it? All that bastard Russian wants is aid, aid, aid, and more aid."

"No, Greg," this from Connie, "my guess is that Grantsburg is behind this. He's getting hammered domestically. The right wants the U.S. out of the UN altogether and the left thinks the UN is wasting money on space when there are more pressing humanitarian causes around. Am I right so far, Jim?"

"Pretty much," Taller answered, "he's going to resurrect NASA so that our space program will be independent, but that's just on paper. In reality there won't be any appropriations behind it. Meanwhile, the UN can't continue its space program without U.S. support, so they're just going to phase it out. The revenue will be redirected to more liberal causes and Grantsburg will have silenced some critics from each side of the aisle."

"The shuttle fleet will be divided up; the U.S., Russians, Brazilians, and Chinese will get the bulk of it. There seems little doubt that their respective militaries will be the only major players left in space. And we know what kind of projects they'll be running. The rest of the UN equipment will be auctioned off--probably for scrap metal."

Staring morosely into his glass, Greg's voice was almost devoid of emotion, "Grantsburg. I can't believe the little weasel sold us out. To think, I actually voted for the guy."

"Jim," said Amy, "what happens to the Mars colony? They can't just abandon them."

"Not directly or immediately," responded Taller, "the colonists will get support as long as the JUNO can be kept in service, but you've seen the reports; the old freighter only has a half-dozen trips left in it at most. In two years they'll call them all home. If they don't come back then, they'll be on their own."

"Does Sudhara know all this, Jim?" asked Amy.

"Amy, what Udaya Sudhara doesn't know isn't worth knowing. I spent a few minutes looking at her last few requests for the colony before I came over here. She's pretty darn close to having the Mars colony self-sufficient, a lot closer than most people think. I'd say she saw this coming a long time ago. And I don't think she's planning on coming home."

"That..." said Connie, tapping the rim of his glass thoughtfully, "could cause some political fireworks. The right wants us out of the UN, but they won't put up with an independent Mars."

"Senator Sewell will have a fit," said Greg, smiling at the thought. "He wanted a U.S. military officer in charge on Mars from the very beginning."

"You're right," said Taller. "I think Sewell miscalculated. He called in every favor, twisted a lot of arms, and used every ounce of political muscle he had left to get this through. His biggest fear is an independent Mars. He thinks by pulling the plug right now that their only choice is to come home. He underestimates Udaya. And ironically, it was his attitude from the outset that caused Udaya to accelerate her plans for Mars' self-sufficiency."

"And do you think the Brazilians or the Chinese will be any happier?" said Connie. "Even the Russians still have dreams of empire."

"Udaya's going to have to walk a tightrope," said Taller. "She has to persuade everyone that independence means neutrality - that she won't play favorites. Otherwise, someone _will_ come after her. Maybe even try to take out the whole colony."

"First strike!" said Greg.

"No, they wouldn't," said Amy, not very confidently.

"Would you put it past your own government?" said Connie.

"Look," said Taller. "We're going way too fast here. I didn't mean to start down this road. I just wanted to break the news to you before you heard it from someone else. That and we need to start thinking about what we can do with the money and time we have left."

"Bloody hell," said Greg. "We can fight this. We've had to fight to survive before and always somehow managed to stay afloat."

"Jim, have you talked with Senator Michals?" asked Amy.

"That's how I got word - Karen Michals forwarded her copy of the report to me," answered Taller. "She also told me that this was a battle she couldn't win. She doesn't hold out any hope of defeating this."

"Looks like we're stuck with lemons," said Connie. "Got any recipes for lemonade, Jim?"

"Well, we only have a couple of days before this hits the news. I want to announce our plans at the same time. The press and public might just assume our final mission proposals and the phase-out are all part of the same plan - and if we're lucky none of the governmental types will fight us on it. Maybe they'll throw us this small bone. So we need to work fast."

"How high should we aim?" asked Greg.

"As high as we can," said Taller. "The sexier the better. If we can catch the public's imagination it will make it that much easier to push through. Let's make it something important. This could be the last major space project for a long time."

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