Like all good novels, this one tries also to
be about life and death, love and hate, beauty
and ugliness, intelligence and stupidity,
and, most importantly, good and evil.
CHAPTER FIVE: Horton Willoughby III
An excerpt from the forthcoming novel Ares
by L. Neil Smith
Attribute to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
[A WORD FROM THE AUTHOR]: I was
surprised to see my initial notes for the novel Ares are dated
August 12, 2002, which means I’ve been working on this book, a
portion of the “Ngu Family Saga”, about the settlement and
terraformation of Mars, off and on, for just over sixteen years.
The book is finally taking shape in a very satisfactory way. When published I believe it will be my thirty-sixth. This chapter is about one of the three sides—colonists (now in revolt) who have been sent to Mars (essentially to die) by the United Nations and the United States of (East) America, those governments themselves, who have now added a company of Marines to enforce their will, and the Pallatian children of Emerson Ngu who are grimly determined to prevent the coming tragedy—all struggling for control of the Red Planet.
Like all good novels, this one tries also to be about life and death, love and hate, beauty and ugliness, intelligence and stupidity, and, most importantly, good and evil. After sixteen years, I make no promises, but it looks like I may be done by Christmas. I hope you will find it worth the wait.
L. Neil Smith
Fort Collins, Colorado
September 1, 2018
Conchita sighed. “Somebody said, once,
‘The higher the fewer’. I don’t know exactly what they meant,
Desmondo, but if it was about folks who are good, smart, and not
crazy, they knew what they were talking about.”
—Conchita and Desmondo In the Land of Wimpersnits and Oogies
The President complained, “Helen, have you seen this … this … outrage?” He pointed at the upper middle 3DTV screen in the double bank of screens that occupied a portion of one wall in the Oval Office.
“Be quiet, Horton.” Bent over the telephone in her hand, his wife, Helen McClellan Willoughby, didn’t bother to look up. She was sitting in his Presidential chair, behind his Presidential desk. He was seated on one of the sofas intended for guests. “Can’t you see that I’m busy? Anyway, I thought you were going to go see Dr. Kraczinski this afternoon.”
Willoughby protested, “But this is absolutely out—!”
“Horton, didn’t you hear me?” To the phone: “Yes, he wants it yesterday—or tomorrow you’re likely to find yourself posted to Khazakstan!”
Helen was always rude to people she perceived as being beneath her, less powerful or wealthy than she—or her husband—was. Willoughby thought it the very height of foolishness, especially with waitresses and nurses who, one way or another, held your life—or simply your comfort—in their hands. He had never agreed to see that Kraczinski quack of Helen’s, and he never would. That had been her idea entirely, and she couldn’t imagine anyone not doing whatever she told him to. Kraczinski was a glorified cosmetician, and nothing more.
Helen wanted the man to darken her husband’s skin a tone or two and give him an extreme permanent, to emphasize his African-American ancestry, just as she had had her own skin lightened and her hair bleached, to emphasize the contrast between them, so that voters and the media would understand how very progressive she was, to be married to a black man, only the second black President in the history of the United States of America. Unfortunately for her, more than half of Willoughby’s immediate ancestors were white. And, despite a massive effort to maintain the illusion, the United States of America, as such, no longer existed.
Willoughby sighed. He would never have guessed in an entire lifetime that the editorial cartoonists would take to depicting him as one of those inflatable clown dummies that, punched on its big red nose, rocks back and then forward so it can be punched again. Every time he was snubbed or insulted by some foreign government—it seemed to happen with increasing frequency as his America’s fortunes declined—or he was harshly criticized by some domestic politician with too high a profile to be disappeared (had Willoughby had that inclination, which he did not), the 3DTV would be filled the next morning with punching clowns all wearing his face.
Punctuated by a big red nose.
“Yes, of course the President wants to see the whole thing right from the beginning!” Helen again, on the phone. “No, I don’t give a damn who else gets to see it, the President wants the jamming shut off now!”
This occasion it had been the new king’s “people”—France had suffered recent, radical changes to whatever Constitution it had possessed; a big golden crown now stood atop the Eiffel Tower—informing the President’s “people” that he didn’t have time for a visit, one head of state to another. His Majesty had been holographed by the cybertabloids the next morning, surfing with the pretty anchorwoman for “News in the Nude”.
Helen: “Yes, yes, he’s watching. What the hell are you waiting for?”
This was all Helen’s doing, he thought. Perhaps she deserved that chair and desk more than he did. She certainly had the “commander” part of “commander-in-chief” down pat. He sometimes wondered why he’d married her. He couldn’t actually remember consciously making the decision to ask her. She wasn’t pretty like that anchorwoman. Or even pleasant. She wasn’t particularly smart. She wore too much perfume. It exuded from her pores and hung on her like a malignant cloud. Her metabolism made it smell like insecticide. They hadn’t had sex together for over fifteen years.
The truth was that, before his nomination, Willoughby had been more than content in his relatively modest position as a professor at a small but prestigious New England college, specializing in the origin and history of international law. He had spoken to no more than a couple of upper level classes every week. He had written—or at least attached his signature to—half a dozen scholarly publications every year.
He’d enjoyed tenure, a suitable residence, a reserved parking space (although even in the winter, he mostly walked to work, in quiet solitude across the postcard-beautiful campus), his own private table in the faculty club dining room, an attractive, gratifyingly compliant secretary, and membership in the faculty health spa where he enjoyed the sauna and swam laps every morning and evening just like a citizen of Ancient Rome, on whose Twelve Tables of the Law he happened to be one of the world’s foremost authorities.
He hadn’t much enjoyed being President of the United States so far. Outside the groves of academe, he hadn’t encountered a single individual who knew who Hugo Grotius was.
“Helen, look at this!”
There it was again, that blasted punching bag cartoon, crudely animated. This time it was on PNN, the “Progressive News Network”—which had originally endorsed him as a candidate. However, times and circumstances tend to change. The new king of France, Chlodio II, stood high overhead on some kind of medieval castle rampart, threatening in an extremely silly voice and mock French accent to open his nostrils in the President’s general direction. It sounded like a quotation. He wondered where it had come from.
The sudden POP! was more seen than heard. There was a flash, and suddenly, all six screens showed the same image, that of Richfield Chen, the dynamic mercantilist who had more or less hired Willoughby to be President of the United States, much as he had decided (or so it had been rumored) who would be the Prime Ministers of Canada and the United Kingdom, the President of Mexico, and Secretary General of the United Nations.
But not, Willoughby thought with an inward grin, the King of France.
“I don’t have to tell you,” Chen had been speaking to a big banquet audience, “that this mission to Mars is vitally important to us for several reasons. 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 responsibility to assure that the planets—the stars, the universe—remain in politically, environmentally responsible hands.”
There was a roar of applause. As the camera panned across the audience, Willoughby saw that they were wearing fancy evening clothes, tuxedos both black and white, and dresses cut down to there, even when there wasn’t any there there. Some faces he recognized from the news; even more he’d never seen before. This was the famous and mysterious “Dinner with No Name”, the former college professor realized, the most exclusive, secretive annual event in Western Civilization. Even he, the President, was not invited—which annoyed him beyond words—and no cameras or recording devices were ever permitted within the hall.
So where was this live feed coming from? The NSA? the CIA? -
West American Fox?
He turned where he was seated on the sofa, to look at his wife. She was paying rapt attention to the image on the six big screens. “Helen?”
“Yes, yes, Horton, what is it?” Her tone was impatient. She didn’t look away from Chen’s face.
“This is your doing.” He didn’t make a question of it.
“Yes, Horton, it is.” Still she didn’t look at him.
“How did you manage it? Who helped you? Why—”
Finally, she looked him in the eye. “Believe me, Horton, you’ll be far happier not knowing. Now be quiet, please. I’m trying to listen to this.”
Willoughby was grimly aware that, sooner or later, he would have to do something about Helen. True, she had her own capital connections, which he had found useful. Her father had been a highly respected (and greatly feared) seven-term Senator from Maine. But Helen had never wielded anything but borrowed power. She had been almost tolerable as a faculty wife (the politics involved in that were complicated and vicious) but here in Washington the media had started calling her the “Fist Lady” and that simply wouldn’t do, not given the image he wished to project.
The President was more than comfortable permitting others to judge him by his affable, almost passive exterior. Who was it that had coined the phrase, “harmless, lovable little fuzzball”? Somebody else had told him that his patron saint should be Perry Como. He’d had to look the fellow up, but he was not displeased by the comparison. It had allowed him to rise effortlessly among those of his colleagues who seemed eternally to be at one another’s throats, who perceived him as a noncombatant, and who would far rather see him advance than any of their enemies. He was quite happy being the eternal, reliable “anybody but” candidate.
Very few—his wife least of all—understood that, underneath it all, he was made of equal measures of granite and fire. Barring the occasional accident like Andrew Johnson or Gerald Ford, no man had ever been President of the United States who wasn’t. He had allowed Helen to push him into running for the Presidency, just as he had earlier allowed her to nag him into becoming head of the department, and later on, president of the college-wide faculty council. If he had wanted anything else, he would have let her push him into that, as well.
An armchair psychologist might have called him passive-aggressive. He greatly preferred to think of himself as being quite the other way around. True, Richfield Chen’s sudden invitation to run for the Presidency had come as something of a surprise—he’d have said it was as likely as being elected Pope—but it had not intimidated him. If he could simply avoid making too many mistakes, he had reasoned, he would write his own ticket afterward: president of any goddamn university that suited him.
Maybe he could even rid himself of Helen somehow. He was aware that his predecessor Barack Obama had claimed a right—an Executive Privilege—to have anybody killed—including any American on American soil—for any reason he cared to. Now Willoughby wondered if he’d had Michelle in mind. He wondered, too, whether the Special Forces would do it for him. He’d always been nice to them. Then he could find himself another attractive, compliant secretary. Compliance was a highly underrated quality, he thought, in secretaries, at least. Not one of them had ever called him passive-aggressive afterward.
He didn’t have to observe Richfield Chen as intently as Helen seemed to be doing right now to understand the man’s actual motives in employing the United Nations as a screen to send a series of would-be colonial missions to Mars. The fellow obviously thought of himself as Emperor—of precisely what was something to be negotiated later—standing above politics, which he willingly left to underlings like Willoughby and others like him.
Chen’s first purpose was to deflect the attention of the media and the public away from the government’s—for all practical purposes, his government’s—continuing domestic economic and foreign policy shortcomings.
War had once been a practical distraction from domestic failure. But engaging in one ginned-up and ridiculous war after another overseas, mostly against poverty-stricken, under-developed Third World nations unable to defend themselves, didn’t seem to work that well any more. Too often those poor, backward Third Worlders discovered effective ways to fight back after all, utterly humiliating those who later claimed merely to be trying to “uplift” them. September 11, 2001 came to mind.
Secret polling told Willoughby and the party he pretended to be the head of that they were losing popular ground at a rate too rapid to be measured. Various observers in West America had been saying for a long time that the 10,000-year-old Age of Authority was over, and that East America, the tail of a dying dinosaur, was just too stupid to realize it. Thrashing tails could be deadly, of course. Not for the first time, Willoughby considered that it might be best to retire somewhere west of the Mississippi. Helen could always remain in the east, if she preferred.
He started thinking about compliant secretaries again, and had to shake his head to get his mind back on track. It was an effort—and a gesture—highly characteristic of him, so much so that comic impersonators did it without knowing why. And he certainly wasn’t going to tell them.
One by one, each of the first six East American/United Nations interplanetary missions had been disastrous, demoralizing failures. Usually, it was owing to some irrational change that politicians or bureaucrats had made to Robert Zubrin’s original Mars Direct plan, purely for ideological reasons. One unfortunate expedition had been required to waste much of its precious space and weight allowance—that might otherwise have been used to carry more food or medicine—by taking trees to be planted in the soil of Mars. The frozen, desiccated soil of airless Mars.
Before they died, the colonists had burned those trees in a cave for their warmth, bitterly recording the event for their posterity. Those recordings remained a deeply-archived state secret.
Willoughby didn’t relish the idea of another of these dismaying, idiotic failures occurring during his own administration: doomed expeditionaries from a seventh mission to Mars stranded hopelessly on the Red Planet, dying slowly—and all too publicly—for lack of food, water, or air, simply because some pathetically ignorant senator or representative (or worse, some unelected, overzealous, environmental regulator) thought that they should have to take a load of St. Christopher’s medals, or yo-yos, or recyclable diapers with them.
There was already serious talk in Congress of banning powered vehicles—electric cars like they’d taken to the Moon—on the upcoming expedition because “We wouldn’t want to be polluting what little air Mars has left, now, would we?” Even Willoughby understood (he gave himself that much credit) that trying to survive and explore Mars without powered transportation would be like trying to survive and explore 19th century Wyoming without horses.
Beyond that, for all that Chen was leaning heavily at the moment on the ancient “common heritage of all mankind” argument, Willoughby understood perfectly well (as everyone else in Washington would) that the man’s loyal underlings inside various Beltway think tanks would eventually “discover” legal pretexts under which Congress could lay claim to the planet exclusively, as the property of the East American government.
Which belonged, in fee simple, to Richfield Chen.
The same area as all the dry land on Earth. Lacking air and liquid water it was a bit of a fixer-upper, but it was still the biggest real estate grab since the Pope divided the New World between Portugal and Spain.
And it would all belong to one man.
Award-winning novelist and essayist L. Neil Smith is a retired gunsmith, Publisher and Senior Columnist of L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise and the author of over thirty books. Look him up on Google, Wikipedia, and Amazon.com. He is available, at professional rates, to write columns, articles, and speeches for your organization, event, or publication, fiercely defending your rights, as he has done since the mid-1960s. His writings (and e-mail address) may also be found at L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise, at JPFO.org or at https://www.patreon.com/lneilsmith, to which you can contribute, directly. His many books and those of other pro-gun libertarians may be found (and ordered) at L. Neil Smith’s THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE “Free Radical Book Store” The preceding essay was originally prepared for and appeared in L. Neil Smith’s THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE. Use it to fight the continuing war against tyranny.
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