Flora embraced Maryam under the gaze of their respective security details. The alien spacecraft was on the wrong side of the Earth to be watching, but somehow Flora felt its gaze upon them too, from 48,000 kilometres beneath her feet.
“A shame about the delay,” Maryam whispered. She was, as always, so polished, every strand tucked neatly into her glorious blue headscarf, her lipstick fresh despite the kiss still drying on Flora’s cheek. “Such a short drive, but there was traffic. It always strikes me as eerie that Canadians never sound their horns.”
“Well, is there any point, with automatic cars?” Flora asked, airing out a long-mothballed smile.
“Certainly not, but that doesn’t stop us in Delhi. It’s a comfort to say one’s piece, even to no real effect. Well, we have started late, and there is so much to discuss.”
Click click click they walked into Flora’s residence. Maryam took her arm, in that way she had of pulling people within her defences, from greeting to affection at film-edit speed.
How long had it been since the last time they had spoken as friends? That midnight glass of wine in Montreal, it must have been, after the last climate conference before the Great Revolt. Maryam had rambled brilliantly about iodine levels in soil. Yes, they had been busy, yes, they had been tired, but it had been so much easier to be friends then, two public intellectuals with private lives.
Now they were prime ministers on a heavy grey morning. Summits and state dinners. A small price it was, one friendship, in the wide sweep of history. The two of them were instruments carrying out the people’s will.
The new politics was not perfect but it was working. It could work. Oh, but it would have been nice to have a few more years to work out the kinks and earn the public’s trust, before such a great test. Only two years since the Great Revolt, and Maryam only in office a year, and Flora six months, and both of them using modelling systems barely older than their own terms.
After the years of blood and famine, of flood and drought, so many nations had sought refuge in tyranny. Order and hatred could not feed the survivors but it gave them comfort. Canada and India had been among those few who had emerged with their institutions intact, but their survivors were just as angry as those in other states, and had lost all trust in politics. They wanted certainty, just as the people who lauded their dictators did.
Maryam had requested this “personal” meeting, but it could hardly be personal, not today, not two hours before the heads of the world’s eighteen battered democracies were to meet to form a coalition of the brutal.
They sat in the parlour, alone save the guards outside the door.
“How are Zaynab and the girls?” Flora asked, as Maryam sipped her glass of water.
“Aisha is off to university next year.”
“I know,” Maryam shrugged. “I keep insisting that they stop growing up but they don’t obey. And you? How are you keeping?”
Flora nodded. “I’m all right. Your flowers were beautiful, by the way.”
“Well. It was the least I could do. I was, truly, so sorry, Flora. Bill was a good man. A good scientist too. I relied on him, you know, did I ever tell you? To give me the straight goods about modelling when I was at the World Bank. And I always—well, I admit I always felt a little better about the months that would go by sometimes when we didn’t chat, you and I, when things got busy, because I knew you had Bill. Cowardly of me, I think.”
Maryam took her hand and Flora patted it. Maryam’s long habit of putting her beating heart out on the table was how she disarmed people. But Flora had no arms to surrender anyway. It was only habit, all habit. They were in their fifties; their personalities were like the grooves in Flora’s grandmother’s antique records.
“I have missed you, Maryam. But I’m all right. There is always work to do.”
“Tell me your own opinion about something, would you?”
“Do you think the aliens are telling the truth? Are they being pursued?”
So that was how Maryam wanted to start. A personal meeting, my ass.
And what a question! It was a great effort just to translate the alien communications. The spacecraft had only been in Earth orbit a week, and already there were as many interpretations even within Canada as there were stars in the sky.
But in every translation, the refugees asked for protection from a pursuer, a pursuer intent on obliterating their enormous spacecraft and all life upon it.
They asked for asylum on Earth.
One week they had been in geostationary orbit now, as if they thought that by staying still they would give less cause for alarm. Yet the world was indeed alarmed. Yesterday, when the leaders arrived in Ottawa, their motorcades had passed police barricades to hide the protesters from view. Some of the protesters wanted asylum for the aliens, as if that were possible. Most favoured the pathogen scenario: destroy the refugees as quickly and neatly as possible, mark the spacecraft in some way so their pursuers would know there was nothing left to blow up.
Flora did not favour that approach, and not only because Canada’s modelling algorithms scored it third on the list because of the obvious risks of trying to introduce a pathogen: there would need to be some contact with the alien spacecraft, and they didn’t know anything about their biology anyway. Presumably they shared some characteristics with humans, as they wanted asylum on Earth, but that left a vast scope for the makers of the pathogen to narrow down.
The option that the Canadian models scored highest: urge the quickest destruction of the spacecraft, even if that meant a debris field in orbit, while doing nearly nothing directly. A Canadian solution if ever there was one: speak loudly and carry a small stick.
“I don’t see any reason to doubt their fears,” said Flora, carefully. “You believe they are not true refugees?”
Maryam made a little movement of her shoulders that might have been a shrug.
“I can’t say. It is possible they have no means of travelling from their spacecraft to Earth, since they have not yet done so. But they seem to know when the pursuer will arrive, although they have difficulty conveying information to us about time and distance. We think… We think they wait not because they have to, but because they choose to. They know they have a certain time before their pursuers arrive, and once that time has elapsed they will land on Earth, with or without permission. They have the technology to travel here across unfathomable distance. They must have the means to travel from orbit to the surface.”
Flora nodded, acknowledging. This was an analysis of some value. The bureaucrats would be pleased when she relayed it; they would feed it to the hungry algorithms. Of course, Canada’s modellers had reached the same conclusion, but it was a relief to have it confirmed.
India had the best modellers in the world, its technology born early of the necessity of climate change, its politics born of the violent consequences that had struck there first.
Maryam, as prime minister, as friend, had offered her a token.
“Our highest scoring option is to destroy the spacecraft, for all the obvious reasons,” said Flora. “But we do realize that the quickest and safest options for its destruction will create debris, and devastate everything in geosynchronous orbit.”
“Not of great consequence to Canada,” Maryam said, inclining her head graciously.
Canada would suffer, of course, if some of its satellites were damaged, and it was as vulnerable to global recession as any country. But unlike India and the other democratic powers, its assets in space were few, and replaceable.
Unlike India, it did not rely on the solar power fed back to Earth by the vast Archimedes Array.
“No,” Flora agreed. “Debris in orbit would not be devastating to Canada. But unacceptable, I am sure, to India.”
Maryam paused. “Yes. Unacceptable.”
There were other options on the list, but they were vastly expensive, or took time. The great powers could try to build a decoy spacecraft; Canada had not even bothered to model that cost in time or money, and no one knew how much time remained. They could tow or nudge the spacecraft back into space, but no one knew what weapons, real or improvised, the refugees might have. It seemed unlikely they would accept that without at least trying to fight back.
“One option,” Maryam said, “is to terminate all life on the spacecraft without destroying the spacecraft itself.”
“One option? The option, I should think, from India’s perspective. And the perspective of many Canadians, even though it is third on our list, after explosion and attempted nudge. Isn’t pathogen the option India’s modellers prefer? India has so much to lose from the explosion scenario.”
Maryam’s gaze locked on Flora’s. She was not smiling.
“What if we granted them asylum?” Maryam asked softly.
Flora’s skin prickled. “You’ve seen that future?”
The Indian modellers must be good indeed if they could judge the likely consequences of taking in an apparently vast number of alien refugees. There were so many unknowns that Canada’s modellers simply could not compute the outcomes enough to assign it a score. Not only were the aliens themselves an unmodellable factor, but the pursuer might attack the Earth if it harboured them.
It was an unthinkable policy; most voters wouldn’t stand for such a course.
“I haven’t seen any future, and neither have you,” said Maryam, curtly. “Modelling isn’t time travel.”
Maryam was always a little too fond of an argument. She and Flora had argued so long over whether Trixie Belden was better than Nancy Drew that Flora had simply given up and read all the Trixie Belden books as a sign of capitulation. No one was ever smart enough to give Maryam a good challenge so she challenged herself, flipping arguments over and tying them in knots until she couldn’t get out without a sulk, or, more usually, a roar of rueful laughter.
“It is as near to time travel as we’re ever likely to get,” Flora said, trying to keep her voice even and patient. “Some of your near-term small-scale models are approaching 100 percent accuracy, so I’m told, complete with simulations. If it’s not showing you the future, it’s showing you a one-to-one map.”
Maryam spread her arms wide. “There is no map. The future is not a country. It’s a border with nothing but mist beyond. If we think we know what path into the mist is best, we are deluding ourselves.”
Was Maryam downplaying India’s capabilities for some reason? There was indeed such a thing as a best path. Flora did not know what algorithms India used, to dilute utilitarianism and reflect its country’s values—each of the countries who used modelling software to keep faith with their people kept such information secret. But each country’s modelling software weighed values and regional concerns and precedence, and came up with an overall score for each outcome, as Canada’s did.
Their respective Parliaments would vote non-confidence in a heartbeat if either Flora or Maryam strayed from relatively high-scoring policies, or tried to change the algorithms—the Technological Constitution, as Flora had called it in her campaign—without Parliamentary consent.
“Do you want to go back to the old days?” Flora asked. “You want to be a demagogue, talking points first and policies second? We fought for evidence-based policy, you and I. I still have my Shut Up and Listen tee-shirt somewhere.”
Maryam laughed. That brilliant laugh. “So do I.”
Flora shuffled forward on her chair to close the distance between them, so they could speak more softly.
“Then tell me, if you haven’t got a model of the asylum scenario, why even consider it?”
“Are we off the record? Can I trust you?”
Flora blinked. “Of course.” She was answering the second half of the question, the half that mattered.
“What if asylum is the best path, if we take the interests of all humans and…and aliens too?” Maryam asked. “What if we just can’t see it?”
Flora shook her head. “It isn’t a path at all. We don’t have enough information.”
“We have right and wrong.” She looked slightly pleading now, terrifyingly sincere.
Flora raised her eyebrows.
“Maryam, we each know what’s best for our people, not because of intuition or ideology or wishful thinking or false promises but because we can act on the evidence we have. It’s anti-democratic—it’s treason, damn it—to willingly go against it.”
“And we’d be out on our asses if we tried,” Maryam said with a grin. “So you’re going to be a good prime minister and adopt the policy at the top of the list. What is your model telling you?”
Flora leaned back.
“To support a coalition. The explosion scenario. We don’t know how much time we have before the pursuers come…or before the escape pods do.”
“And you’re all right with that?” Maryam spread her arms out.
“No,” Flora said. “No of course I’m not all right with that. Neither are half the protesters out there. But the only possible outcomes we could score were the nudge, the tow into space, the pathogen scenario, and the annihilation in orbit. There wasn’t enough information for the asylum scenario. We don’t know the first thing about these creatures, what disease they might carry…nothing. And we don’t know whether we have the technology to fend off their attackers when they come. If you’ve got more information, give it to me and I’ll feed it to the algorithms happily. If you don’t, spare me the undergrad lecture.”
“All right. Information is what you want? What if your models learned that India, for example, had managed to decode some communication, and knew that if the refugees were granted asylum, the pursuers would respect that asylum, for cultural reasons. What if you knew that?”
What a datum to drop on her here, now, in private. “Does India know that?”
Maryam’s mouth twisted into something like a grin. “What if Canada’s modellers believed India knew it,” she whispered, “and vice versa?”
Flora shook her head. An argument was one thing but they had lost the luxury of toying with monstrous ideas long ago. They were not undergrads pouring out the dregs of pitchers, but prime ministers struggling to keep their shattered countries together.
“Garbage in, garbage out,” she said. “The models would be useless. Anyway we can’t lie. The algorithms won’t take one person’s word, not even the prime minister’s. That’s how Canada’s is designed anyway and I am sure you have similar safeguards.”
Again, an opportunity for Maryam to drop information about India’s models, but again she did not. Not even now, in the midst of treason.
“You and I turn on our recorders,” Maryam said, “and then we have the conversations we need to have, two conversations, and we stream them back to our listeners. India hears that Canada knows the asylum scenario will work. Canada hears that India knows it. They both change their votes, changing the information available to the other countries. Et voilà.”
Flora’s hands were shaking. She grabbed her knee to stop it.
“That is what I fought against, Maryam, this notion that we must lie to the people for their own good.”
“But you’re only considering a closed system, which can only determine what’s best for Canada. We don’t have a system for considering the whole planet—I mean, the UN had its little duct-tape operation but that’s gone now anyway. Again, again, we fail to think big enough—the same reason we did nothing about climate change. Would you really kill these refugees, so callously? You’re the worst kind of idealist, Flora, if the idea is more important than life and death.”
“Millions of refugees die, on this planet, every year, whether I am callous or not.”
“And millions of wrongs make this right? Then consider the technology. We have no idea how these aliens travelled here, or from what distance—do you? We don’t. We can’t translate their words for distances or time or their homeworld, we can’t make any sense of it. But imagine what we could learn if we had them here on Earth, and their ship too, or parts of it. Their computers or whatever they use. And we would have allies in the universe—dangerous allies perhaps but Flora, Flora, did you really ever think you would see the day when first contact came and we all turned away, whistling, pretending not to see?”
“Maryam, come on,” Flora snapped. “This isn’t about our dreams or our choices and you know that. You’re being disingenuous. You think because we are friends, you can come here and wind me up—”
“Why not? You may as well be made of gears and punch-cards, and me too. We wanted our politics to be led by evidence, not by rois fainéants. And that is what we have become. Casting votes based on algorithms, transmitting information. The first prime ministers to use technological constitutions. And the last. We have made ourselves obsolete, before our first terms are even out.”
It was clear now, why Maryam had come to her. She had thought she could use their friendship to get what she wanted, to trick her own people.
Flora leaned back in her chair. “I hope you find a way to salve your conscience,” she whispered. “As for me, I have a summit to host.”
Sylvester met her at the door. He looked harried, but then it was the business of a chief of staff to look harried. He probably looked harried at the cottage.
“What did Maryam Khan want?” he muttered as they walked to the car.
Flora paused. Off the record, Maryam had said, but Maryam should know better. Did it matter, now, when the summit was to begin in a few minutes, the decisions already made? The modelling software wouldn’t change a policy-score solely on Flora’s own testimony about anything, but it would be a datum, something to add to the next piece of evidence about Maryam’s plans. Information was always of value to the polity, even if a politician couldn’t put it to immediate use.
“Anything worth telling Poss?” Sylvester asked, when Flora said nothing.
Sylvester always called the modelling system Poss. It had been short for Policy Outcome Simulation and Scoring, once upon a time, when it was still an academic experiment, when Sylvester had been in high school. It would never not sound ridiculous to Flora.
“Maryam Khan and I are old friends,” she said, finally, taking refuge in simple honesty.
She needed time to process, to sift the information from the emotion, to distill the public’s due from Maryam’s contrariness.
The presidents and prime ministers gathered in the hotel ballroom were delegates in the truest sense, there to cast their votes from among the policies their respective algorithms scored highest. Each of them a conduit for their people, unbribable, unpersuadable. There to use all their humanity to winkle information from each other and feed it to machines, to let drop only so much as was needed, and to cast their votes according to the guidance of evidence.
Each of them had a first choice and a second choice, and most likely a third choice too, depending on the votes of the other countries.
There was nothing to fear, when one knew there were literally no better choices one could make than the ones they had come to select.
And yet, it was a very big room, so big it dampened their voices under a ceiling vaulted in gilt and plaster, and beyond that a very big sky, vaulted in geodesics of the spacetime.
Flora switched on her recorder, using her wristband. Lights fluttered on the temples and ears around the table, a dozen heads of government streaming audiovisual from their lenses and earpieces. On the record.
She stood and got through her speech, reading the text displayed on her contact lenses. Canada would support the explosion scenario, was willing to contribute a small percentage of the funding. Its fair share, she called it with a straight face. She had to soften her focus so she didn’t really see Maryam sitting opposite her, watching, but just a blurred shape, the outline of her friend.
Each of the leaders spoke in turn. No surprises.
Some of the great powers spoke in favour of the tow scenario, but the middle powers spoke in favour of explosion. While none of them could risk damage to their assets in orbit, there was no time for anything else.
“We have decided the best path for Nigeria is to destroy the aliens with as little collateral damage as possible…”
“It is beyond any nation’s capability to achieve this project without risking debris or an extended period in physical contact with the migrants, who, we in Pakistan believe, may be capable of violence in some way…”
“We are ready to put Brazil’s launch capabilities at the service of the coalition…”
All of them using we, as Flora had. Not the royal we, not anymore. This was the politics she had striven for, the politics of the collective. Democracy, at last.
Maryam sat very still, looking at each speaker in turn. Beside her sat President Wei, so elegant and petite. She and Maryam had a good relationship, or so the news sites said. Perhaps Wei was Maryam’s Plan B. She might have been convinced by the technological argument, perhaps. Wei would be the last to speak, after Maryam. A one-two punch at the end? New information for all the bots to process?
Maryam stood. She coughed, her perfect pink fingernails over her perfect lipstick, a very small sound in that very big room.
“I believe this is an opportunity for humanity,” she said. “I believe that we cannot turn away a hitherto undreamt-of species who have asked for asylum on this planet, without turning away from every hard lesson humanity has learned, is still learning, with each bloody and difficult day. That path is the easiest but it leads to an age of darkness. With asylum comes more information than any of us here can imagine. Then we—we, the human civilization—can make truly informed policy. We can act with all the available facts before us, instead of holding one hand over our eyes while we push buttons with the other. I believe in model-based policy. But I believe the best policy comes from the biggest possible model.”
Flora’s breath shuddered in her chest. Maryam stood alone. There was no surprise play using China; perhaps she had tried—it was unlike Maryam to have no Plan B—but it had come to this. She would speak out, even if it meant slowing down the coalition, or withdrawing India’s material support for a mission that could save India from a new dark age.
She blinked back tears for her friend—tears she did not have the time to interpret.
“I stand here, today, speaking only for myself,” said Maryam, as her peers streamed her words to their bots.
A crackle, and Flora heard Sylvester in her ear.
“Did she tell you she would do this?”
Flora shook her head just enough for her recorder to register the movement: No.
Maryam was still speaking, louder now: “This is not the policy of India, which I do not have the authority to set. It is my belief, as a citizen of India, as a human being and so I will cast my vote.”
And so she would destroy her career, and risk prosecution in India for treason.
Flora swallowed. She looked around the table; would anyone else change their vote because of this? Would this be enough to alter any algorithms?
It was not.
The explosion operation would commence as soon as the coalition could achieve it. There would be no message conveyed to the refugees. Those nations who chose not to join the coalition were bound by the non-disclosure pact.
Maryam’s chief of staff, a dour man as old as Sylvester was young, let Flora into her anteroom at the hotel.
Maryam stood with her back to the door, looking out the vast window at the city below at night. A very small city, it must seem to her, so quiet that only the occasional faint siren rose from the streets.
“You’ve come to tell me I’m wrong, I did wrong,” said Maryam. She didn’t turn.
Flora was there to be a friend. Whatever friendship might mean, whatever freight it could carry.
“You don’t need a lecture from me,” said Flora.
“And when, pray, has that ever stopped you before?” Maryam turned but she was smiling her sad smile. For once she looked—not dishevelled, no, but limp. Tired.
“If there is anything I can do to help you, your situation,” said Flora.
“Thank you for that. And thank you for listening this morning, for not calling someone to take me away on the spot.”
“You were very convincing, at the summit,” Flora said.
Maryam made a little sound, like a cough or a laugh.
“Not convincing enough. I hope, oh I hope, that soon we’ll see escape pods splashing into the oceans. I hope all of this was diplomacy on their part, and that they’ll see that as the pointless exercise it is, before we kill them. I hope… I hope so many things.”
Flora walked closer, stood at the window, close enough to smell Maryam’s perfume, close enough that they would not be overheard.
“I will help you, Maryam. First with your own situation, and then with whatever you choose to do. I can’t stop the coalition and I don’t have the authority anyway. But if you want to make a bigger model, perhaps I can help you with that. If we can convince some countries to link their systems, share information…”
“You still believe that systems will save us?” Maryam was smiling wider now, her old benevolent, slightly patronizing smile. Infuriating, in how it made everyone want to please her. Including Flora.
“Maybe not,” Flora said, “but systems are what I know how to make.”
Maryam nodded a little, her smile twisting now, until Flora realized she was holding something in. A sob, perhaps. How horrible, to think of Maryam sobbing. Maryam of the warm laughs, the open embraces, the all-caps messages of celebration and love. Maryam broken, sobbing, worn to nothing. It must not happen. An unacceptable defeat.
Flora turned back to face the window and pretended not to see the reflection of Maryam composing her face. The reflections of two women wavered, superimposed on the wriggling, streaming lights of the city below a sky of impenetrable darkness.
Maryam was wrong about one thing: Flora knew better than to consider any system closed. Every system had its black box, its question mark, its heart the size of the universe. She had helped design a system to keep politicians honest. And here she was, a politician, trying desperately to lie to her own reflection in a window.
She swallowed, and took Maryam’s hand in hers.
“We don’t have much time,” Flora whispered, “if we are going to warn them.”
Story copyright © 2016 by Kate Heartfield
Artwork copyright © 2016 by Carrion House
Kate Heartfield is a writer and editor in Ottawa, Canada. Her Shakespearean fantasy novella, The Course of True Love, is part of the recent Monstrous Little Voices collection from Abaddon Books. The 2016 steampunk anthology Clockwork Canada from Exile Editions contains her story “The Seven O’Clock Man.” Her fiction has appeared in places such as Strange Horizons and Escape Pod, and in Lackington’s twice before: “Their Dead So Near” in Issue 1, and “Bonsaiships of Venus” in Issue 4.
Carrion House (artwork) a.k.a. Luke Spooner currently lives and works in the south of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first-class degree, he is now a full-time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence.