THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 856, January 24, 2016
We live in a moral leper colony.
Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise
"Ambassador," he said, shaking the hand of the man wearing "soup and fish". "It's very good to see you here. I sincerely hope you enjoy yourself."
The Nicaraguan ambassador responded enthusiastically, his host being one of the wealthiest, most famous, and most powerful men in the world. Overtly political guests, the host reflected, especially foreigners, were a rarity at this particular event, but this one was married to a DuMore, one of the Rhode Island DuMores, and so it was unavoidable.
Dismissing the fellow, Richfield Chen gazed down with a satisfied feeling from the head table on the dais, at the enormous room below him, filled, so it seemed, with white linen, glittering crystal and tableware, mostly middle-aged men in tuxedos and mostly younger women in sky-high heels and expensive, revealing dresses. Occasionally it was the other way around, middle-aged women in dresses that were too revealing, accompanied by tuxedoed younger men with expensive, silly haircuts. Somewhat less frequently, the silly haircuts and tuxedos were affected by both companions. It was all the same to Chen, all the same.
An enormous security staff, very heavily but unobtrusively armed, and dressed in the same attire as the guests (tuxedos and glittering gowns, albeit especially tailored), guarded every entrance, watched every window, making certain that the uninvited, uninitiated public — and in this case that most particularly included the round-heeled mass media—knew absolutely nothing of what went on at this annual affair. The guests here, by invitation only, were the individuals who believed they actually ran the country, owned it and everything (and everbody) in it. It was the single night of the year in which they could revel in it fairly openly—at least among their peers—and freely.
"The dinner is served by convicts," Chen explaioned to another guest, a Buddhist monk in saffron robes, "nobody guilty of anything violent, of course: former businessmen serving time for excessive competitiveness; others for having been too innovative, taking unfair advantage over their less-gifted colleagues in whatever avenue they pursued, coldly, calculatedly seeking a profit at the expense of human values. Instead of the usual waiter garb, they wear comically-striped prison clothes of a kind that have been abandoned for more than two centuries."
The monk made somewhat bored and non-committal noises, but he was politically important in his native Myanmar, and Chen was determined to bring the man around to his own way of thinking. He continued explaining.
"Add to their number a smattering of trafficers in West American currency, importers of illegal objects and materials from there or from the so-called 'Settled Worlds'. (The list of contraband is secret so that criminals can be taken by surprise.) Antisocial miscreants of every kind imaginable in East America—a phrase that very few here would ever utter. Officially this is still the United States of America, whether or not those states west of the "Webb Line" choose to participate."
The Burmese monk raised his eyebrows, his interest apparently piqued at last, by this insider's confession to internal American division.
"The stubborn non-participation of those western states, in fact, offers certain benefits to anybody who knows how to make the best use of them. I consider myself an industrialist, and have never held nor sought political office of any kind, myself." Nor, in fact, had he ever actually manufactured anything, preferring to buy up companies he found teetering on the fiancial brink, building them up, breaking them down, reselling the parts or the whole before he became bored with them.
Chen had also bought and sold American Presidents for most of his adult life. And owing to a precedent first established during the Civil War, Chen's Presidents had the power to appoint individuals to occupy those seats, in Congress and the Senate, left vacant by the west's insane but adamant refusal to send elected representatives to Washington.
Under his patient, thoughtful direction, Chen's people provided lists of suitable candidates—aspiring politicians who would support the appropriate policies—to the White House. His own son-in-law, an extremely ambitious young fellow by the serendipitous name of Maxwell Promise, had been identified as one of those suitable candidates. He would now receive an appointment—Chen would make the announcement tonight; it was to be a birthday surprise for his daughter—as the United States Senator from Nebraska, a place to which, he was willing to wager, young Maxwell had never been and couldn't point out on a map.
He lifted his left hand. "May I introduce my daughter and her new husband?" Gwendolyn Chen Promise was one of those rare Asian females who managed somehow to be unattractive. Chen admitted it to himself: all of the expensive makeovers and cosmetic surgery on the planet hadn't been able to make the homely girl look a bit better. Chen blamed it on her mother, a non-Asian he'd disposed of something like a decade and a half ago. His current mistress, a spectacular redhead (one of the big advantages to not being directly involved in politics) sat beside him on his right. Another pair of beauties, a stunning blonde and a sultry brunette, whom he also liked to keep handy, sat across from him, seemingly escorted by two of his junior excutives whom he knew to be safely homosexual. In fact they were a couple, themselves.
He was aware that his son-in-law discreetly kept mistresses of his own, and his daughter's needs were satisfied by a chauffer. Domestic bliss.
Although this dinner was an annual event, Chen always tried to make sure there was a theme, some current occasion to be celebrated, or, failing that, an historical milestone to be commemorated. As luck — and a little artful management—would have it, there was just such an occasion available tonight. Chen rose, and before he could clear his throat, an expectant hush fell over the vast, high-ceilinged room.
One of the finest things money can buy, he thought, smiling, is silence.
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," Chen began, "to the annual 'Dinner With No Name', an event so exclusive the Bilderbergers, the French Masonic lodges, even the Bavarian Illuminati, can't get in." There was a ripple of polite laughter. He told the same joke every year.
"As you are all no doubt aware," he went on, warming to his topic, "the first of these magnificent banquets was held over a guttering candle, wedged in a souvenir wine bottle, in one corner of a basement lunchroom that was all that remained of the Bank of America's California headquarters after the 'Big One' of 2023. It is said that the menu that evening consisted of a can of Spam split twenty-three ways, and the contents of every vending machine that was left in the building."
This time the laughter and applause were genuine. It was a great story, Chen thought, not for the first time, for all that it was total fiction, created for him out of whole cloth decades ago by a talented 3DTV situation comedy writer who had possessed the courtesy and aplomb to expire shortly afterward. Nobody in that Bank of America building had survived the Big One of 2023. It had practically been at the epicenter.
"Since then, we have come a considerable distance," Chen finished the thought. The applause rose until it sounded like angry surf on a storm-lashed beach, rattling the room's huge and complicated crystal chandeliers.
"A considerable distance. We celebrate that tonight, as always. But, as we should, we look ahead to the future, as well, in this case the immediate future, as we recognize the launch, tomorrow morning, of a joint United States/United Nations expedition to the Red Planet, Mars."
The applause became ambiguous, a trifle tentative. He'd taken some care not to evoke the previous six expeditions to Mars, each of which had ended tragically—gruesomely—but everybody here would have them in mind. The high-resolution photographs taken from orbit and illegally distributed on the Internet by West Americans had burned themselves into the souls of three generations, as had the space shuttle disasters of the late 20th century. The subject couldn't be avoided, Chen knew. It just had to be gotten through before he could continue.
As consolation he took a quick look at his son-in-law's face. The boy was a laugh riot, although he didn't know it. Promise detested the concept of space exploration and settlement—it was one of the few issues that he and his father-in-law disagreed on—believing that it ultimately threatened to deprive their class of subjects it could control, whose labors it could tax at the present rate of 85 percent. Basically, the man saw astronauts and would-be colonists as runaway slaves.
Expressed in those terms—although he would never admit it publicly, of course, even here—Chen viewed space exploration and settlement as a way to expand the plantation. If anything, he felt stung by the way East America had been outdone at every turn in space exploration (among other things) by certain private, international, non-governmental entities. Organizations like the infamous Curringer Corporation had successfully terraformed and settled the asteroid Pallas, and were now performing similar feats elsewhere in the Solar System.
"I don't have to tell you," Chen continued, "this mission to Mars is vitally important to us for many reasons." In fact, he thought, he did have to tell them. In his view, there was scarcely an individual in this room—below the dais—with the raw brain-power of a sea urchin. Very few of these creatures could remember public events that had taken place more than a year ago. They were generally inclined to agree with the last individual they'd spoken to. If the lights in this ballroom were to go out suddenly, he guessed cynically, they'd likely eat one another before it occurred to any of them to feel for the doors.
"Aside from the scientific knowledge it has to offer us, as well as the advanced technology it promises to help us develop, we have a serious moral responsibilty to assure that the planets—the stars, the universe—remain in politically, environmentally responsible hands."
Thunderous applause. He could have said "notorary environmental sojac" and they would have reacted the same way, just like trained seals. It was a spinal reflex that the government and certain organizations had been grinding into them all since the mid-20th century.
"We all remember vividly," he lied, "how we lost lovely green Pallas, second largest of the asteroids—which should have remained the common heritage of all mankind—to a criminal band of selfish, greedy, exploitative, polluting capitalists, rampant, unapologetic individualists like the notorious William Wilde Curringer whose heirs still cling obscenely to the world they stole from the rest of us, today."
Never mind that when plastics billionaire Curringer found Pallas, it had been a naked, airless rock six or seven hundred miles in diameter. The truth, this evening, would do nothing to advance Chen's cause.
"We dodged a bullet in the early 21st century, when fluctuations on the surface of the sun miraculously compensated for man-made global warming, ending the death-threat that we were unable—and unwilling — to deal with by ourselves. An angry Earth punished us all in 2023, nevertheless, savaging southern California and killing twenty million people."
Chen took his time, refusing to hurry his speech. When dinner was finally served, he knew, it would consist of tofu, carefully molded into the shape of a lobster and dyed fire engine red, accompanied by a warmed yellow liquid—he could swear it was a petroleum fraction — to dip it in. He and his three young women would enjoy the real thing later on tonight, or perhaps something just as politically incorrect, possibly Japanese sirloin—before getting on with the evening's real entertainment.
"Today humanity stands on the precipice, the crumbling brink of losing even more. The sociopaths of Pallas openly look forward to destroying Ceres—'terraforming' it, they say, as if it were something to be proud of—the largest, most majestic of the 'flying mountains'."
Perfunctory applause. A few boos here and there. He waited it out.
"We may be too late to save Ceres," he told them. "Time will tell. We are doing everything we can, things you'd really rather not know about. Extreme circumstances often call for extreme measures. But I tell you it is still within our power to save a major planet from these evil plunderers, and in this unusual instance I don't mean the Earth."
The audience reaction this time was mixed, uncertain.
"We have gambled heavily, invested much on Mars." Including, he thought, the lives of almost three hundred people, "because there is so much to win or lose. Mars has the same surface area as all of the land on Earth put together. Think of it: all of Asia, all of Europe, all of Africa, all of Australia, all of North and South America combined."
With an environment less hospitable than that of Antarctica, he thought. Anyone who wanted to go and live in such a place had to be stark, raving mad, but there were uses to which such madmen could be put.
He took a deep breath. Here goes, he thought. "Just as important, no, perhaps even more important in the long run, is that absolutely sacred principle, attested and agreed to in dozens of treaties, signed in good faith by many among this government's predecessors more than a century ago, that ownership of Mars—and of every other body in the Solar System—is 'the common heritage of all mankind'. It is not that of the spoiled, grasping, evil Pallatian settlers squatting on their fancied-up country-club asteroid. They are what President Theodore Roosevelt called 'malefactors of great wealth'. They must therefore be warned, in the strongest possible terms, that the planet Mars falls legally, beyond debate, under United Nations protection and control."
Tumultuous applause followed this assertion. "United Nations" was yet another term, like "environment", that never failed to set the trained seals off, even though its actual track record made the Third Reich look like the Ladies' Gardening Society. And yet "under United Nations protection" actually meant "under East American control", he thought. And for all practical purposes, that means under my control.
Time now to wave the "bloody shirt".
"My friends, unless we want to see the planet Mars turned into private property—" he spat the words. "Owned and controlled by ruthless profiteers, converted into a replica of America's Wild West, we cannot stop trying to attain a permanent foothold before they do it."
He paused for breath and to let the words sink in.
"If we were to stop trying now, then all two hundred eighty-eight members of the six previous U.S./U.N. expeditions will have sacrificed themselves for nothing. Today we possess the means, and for a long time, we have had the method—Dr. Robert Zubrin's ingenious and groundbreaking 'Mars Direct' plan, first enunciated in the late 20th century.
"The question before us is, do we have the will?"
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