President Miriam Rena sat across from General Georg Reoviro, their reflections clearly visible, though grayed, in the smooth surface of the oak table whose surface was broken only by a small stack of papers and a single black telephone.
“I appreciate your concern, General, but we’re well equipped to deal with any of these contingencies ourselves. I know the men would be technicians, but the popular perception, both in Somata and internationally, would be that you were taking an aggressive stance. The parliament would be under immense pressure to at least build up troops in the area, as you can well understand, and I can’t guarantee what the outcome might be.”
General Reoviro nodded his head, his pursed lips and angled eyebrows professing that he truly commiserated with the president’s plight. Reoviro was a trim Prokaryote, a little past middle age, made all the more handsome by the tinge of silver now showing around his temples. His spiked hair, whose length stretched regulations just a bit, added to the youthful appearance of his face, giving the overall impression of an energetic young man playing the part of a middle aged general in a school play. He had been sent to represent the Union of Prokaryotic People’s States’ interests not because he was the senior member of the military–which in fact he was–nor because he was seen as the real power behind President Alexander Escherichia’s throne–which he was as well–nor because he was acquainted with the facts of the case–which he most certainly was not–but because he had a reputation among government circles as the most charming gentleman in the capitol. There were many rumors, none as yet substantiated, about amorous exploits that included, along with the many pretty young interns, several wives of the most important civil and military leaders.
Reoviro had risen from obscurity during the political upheavals following the abdication of President Viktor Kampulobacter. Young Prokaryotic Unitists had been demonstrating in favor of a new constitution granting full citizenship and equal rights to Archaea and establishing a parliamentary system with an equal number of seats for Bacteria and Archaea alike, and some even went so far as to include Eukaryotes in this scheme. Kampulobacter had been on the fence as to whether some level of appeasement might not silence the protestors, but he feared any sign of weakness might open up a crack that could topple the de facto dictatorship whose privileges he had enjoyed half his life. At last he decided to test the waters: he would allow the establishment of a parliamentary committee whose members would be chosen by him and whose role would be to gauge popular opinion in the provinces on various government policies and report that information to himself during the semiannual meeting of the provincial governors. The committee was not parliamentary in any sense, but the news of its establishment stirred up expectation of further freedoms and privileges among the educated public. When these failed to show themselves, many felt it was high time to take action and show the president that he was not the master and they were not his slaves. A massive protest was planned in the main square. Kampulobacter heard about the protest–there was little that slipped by his agents–and he called out the military to prevent what he saw clearly would spell the end of his regime. But the protest began before the military installments had time to fully block the roads leading to the square. And even after the roadblocks were in place, sympathizers had opened their front and back doors and lines of protesters filed through strangers’ living rooms and kitchens, passed through back gardens and patios until they arrived through the cramped shade of little alleys, open shops, and other houses into the empty space, gleaming cream brick and open sky of the plaza. In the center of the plaza, a colorful mass was growing. With every additional protester, its common voice grew louder until it seemed that every pent up frustration, every petty grievance, every feeling of dissatisfaction with the shortcomings of life in general were being released in a massive flood that would wash away Kampulobactor, the army, the government, the face of the earth!
Amid this roar of voices, a deeper grumble began to be heard. At the mouths of the six streets that opened onto the square could be seen the tan uniforms of the Special Forces, and behind them rolled six tanks. These troops had been given orders by General Raúl Escherichia: They would surround the outside of the square and speak to the protestors over loudspeakers, delivering an ultimatum: “go home or we will be forced to fire.” But when the protestors heard the ultimatum, they only shouted louder. A young Bacterian ran out toward the soldiers yelling “fire away if you have to, but we are home!” A second later, three cracks were heard, three puffs of smoke began to rise, and the young man sank to the ground, struck by three rubber bullets in quick succession. As he crawled back toward the protesters, a group of young men ran out and carried him back to where a makeshift tent had been set up with water and medical supplies. A few in the crowd around the young man began to chant “we are home, we are home!” A phrase that loses much of its melodic rhythm in translation, and soon the chant spread through the crowd until it echoed off the shop fronts and facades of public buildings, filling the square with a single phrase as though it were the cry of one massive throat.
“We are home! We are home!”
These words washed away bureaucratic delays, ethnic repression, petty vindictiveness, bribes, blackmail, nepotism, food shortages, supply shortages, energy shortages, inclement weather, hangovers, domestic disputes, romantic rejections, slights, betrayals, pet peeves, careless accidents, imprudent indiscretions, embarrassment, fatigue, boredom, all that should not have been.
“We are home! We are home!”
In each mind rose the brilliant sun of a new day. In each mind that day was his. In each mind that day was now.
“Fire!” General Escherichia could see clearly that his career held no place in this new day and was giving the order to silence those words before they could flow out of the plaza. But his soldiers stood still. They too could see the new day. No more disciplinary hearings. No more being overlooked for promotion. No more salary delays. Suddenly a young captain could be seen moving toward the general. He seized the megaphone and stepped resolutely onto the tracks of an idling tank.
“Yes! You are home! We are not your enemy! We are not here to attack you! We are here to protect you!”
By now the crowd began to grow silent, listening to the strong voice of this young soldier that rang out clearly, echoing above their heads as though it came from that new sun that had promised so much.
“Who is our enemy? Who should we fear? Who should we fight?”
“Kampulobactor!” Rang out from that massive throat.
“Kampulobactor, yes. But not the man. The idea! What does he stand for? Disunity! Repression! The past! No, it’s not Kampulobactor we need to fight, it is the one thing he refused to fight, the other! He spends his time bludgeoning Bacteria, arresting innocent Archaea, suppressing and persecuting Prokaryotes regardless of age or sex. And meanwhile, who reaps the benefits?”
Here and there a voice called out “That damned Kampulobactor!” or “Him and his filthy minions!”
“You may well say Kampulobactor, but I say no. He lives in fear! He knows we are strong! He knows he will fall sooner or later! No, it’s not Kampulobactor. Do you know who are the true beneficiaries of his petty scheme? The Eukaryotes!”
A great shout and applause broke into the young officer’s speech, drowning the words that followed. It was as if the young man had taken away a single, far off, abstract object of hatred and given each one his own personal object of hatred to do with as he pleased. The speech continued for almost an hour, touching on such topics as “strength in unity” and “the reawakening of Prokaryotic peoples everywhere,” but everything of consequence had been said. When the crowd finally dispersed, it broke into small bands and attacked first any shops along the plaza owned by Eukaryotes, then any houses and public buildings known to be owned or used by Eukaryotes, then any houses, shops or buildings so much as rumored to be somehow connected with Eukaryotes.
The event did succeed in taking the pressure off of Kampulobactor for several weeks, but as the violence continued, despite the death or flight of the last Eukaryote, the president tried to restore order by establishing martial law. This only provoked more ordinary citizens to join the cause for Prokaryotic unity, until finally Kampulobactor was forced to abdicate and leave power in the hands of the military. They attacked and annexed several small Eukaryotic states on their borders, assembled and dissolved several governments, and promoted and disgraced several generals, until they were left with an arrangement that closely resembled life under Kampulobactor, except that there were very few Eukaryotes left, Raùl Escherichia’s son Alexander was president, and the young officer who had made such a moving speech in the plaza was now a general. Now that general, older and less volatile, but with the same fire in his eyes was scouting out the possibility of further penetration into Eukaryotic territory.
“I fully understand your predicament, madam president. We too are bound by our parliament’s good pleasure, and I can assure you, it was no simple matter convincing my own people of the mutual benefits of this economic alliance.” General Reoviro emphasized the word “economic,” and his tone seemed to say “oh, don’t let this uniform fool you, I’m speaking as a civilian, as a personal friend.” Reoviro was in fact wearing one of his best dress uniforms, the one he usually reserved for official ceremonies, meetings with heads of state, and when he particularly wished to impress a lady. Since this occasion combined all of these, it seemed to him quite natural to be wearing his gold epaulettes and a bouquet of metals, despite the fact that his stated mission was to offer technical support to a small Eukaryotic state suffering some shipping delays lately. What he did not mention was that these delays had been caused by sympathetic prokaryotes living in the GI Region who had been hired to sabotage equipment in several nutrient absorption plants.
“Rest assured we’ll do everything within our power to prove our good intentions.”
“I’m sure, general, that you would do exactly that were I in a position to accept your generous offer. But it’s really not my decision.”
President Rena, despite the polite tone she was attempting to adopt, did not at all intend to accept that “generous offer” on any terms, with or without parliamentary approval. She did not trust the UPPS, and to tell the truth, she was suspicious of all Prokaryotes. But despite her convictions, she found it hard to ignore his arguments. And what was worse, she actually found herself gazing into Reoviro’s bright grey-green eyes and allowing her mind drift dangerously close to thoughts unbecoming to a lady of her family, whether or not she is president of a sovereign nation.
Rena had come into the meeting fully prepared to reject any proposal the general had to offer. Now she was beginning to lose her focus.
Miriam Rena was born into one of the oldest and most respected families in Kidney, and had lived a charmed life. She had never stepped foot outside her own province before her successful bid for presidency last year. She appeared on the national stage more by the incompetence of her rivals than by her own merit. Albert Core had been leading the conservative camp until the Labor Party found and released documents that opened an investigation into his financial dealings while president of Somata National Oil. Meanwhile, the Labor Party’s favorite son Gary Lymph had been caught visiting a particular hotel well known for the beauty of the young girls who could somehow afford to take permanent rooms there, indefinitely occupying whole suites.
When the election was actually held, a half-dozen candidates had made it to the debates, but Miriam Rena was the only one left who had actual experience in government and who could speak without accidentally insulting and marginalizing half of her voter base. She ran on an independent ticket, under the slightly awkward slogan of “Breaking down walls, building up the economy,” by which she had meant she would ignore the polarizing social issues and party affiliations, and focus on supporting industry, creating jobs and balancing the budget.
When she began her presidential run, Rena had never actually met a prokaryote other than the criminals processed at Kidney. Then in the final stage of campaigning she spent several weeks in the GI Region giving speeches at factories and city halls in little backwater towns where eukaryotes were only seen in movies and on TV. The GI Region had been founded by enterprising Eukaryotes in the last century, but had since been mainly operated by migrant Archaeans and a few Bacterian dissidents who settled in the region fleeing the repressive political climate up north. Perhaps because the only thing that these refugees had in common was their aversion to current trends in Prokaryotic politics, the three provinces that made up the region had always been politically volatile and were held to be the most important campaign stops.
Rena saw herself as above judging people by such superficial markers as domain, so she did her best to fit in. She even tried to adopt a “prokaryote accent” when speaking here, throwing in a few vulgarisms that were not quite swears. But she kept reflecting on how the coarse manners and even coarser language of these farmers, factory workers and local governors would be received in the elegant social circles of Kidney. Despite her professions of respect for all domains, and despite the fact that the GI Region was the backbone of the economy, producing three quarters of the gross national product, she still felt a personal aversion to all Prokaryotes, Archaean and Bacterian alike. In fact, although she had studied history in school and had taken several university courses on regional politics, she could never quite remember the difference between Bacteria and Archaea, and the obscure political and religious differences that had led to century-long wars in the past completely eluded her. She was fairly familiar with the basic facts of “military coupe” that had ousted the UPPS’s stable if a bit autocratic Kampulobactor regime, ushering in the recent political turmoil and nationalistic power posturing that now threatened to destabilize the whole region. Now some USSP general, some prokaryote was asking for a meeting when what she really needed to be doing was rerouting supplies and cutting into the reserves stored up in Liver and out in Os. But who was this well-dressed, handsome man waiting patiently in her office? She had been prepared for him to be rude. She had been prepared for him to be aggressive. She had been prepared for him to be vulgar in every sense of the word. What she was not prepared for was the half smile and arched eyebrows of a man who’s sure of his cause and even more sure of his own irresistible beauty.
“I’m sorry, general, even if I wanted to adopt your plan, I just don’t have the authority to approve entry visas for such a large number without asking parliament to establish a committee to investigate the matter and approve funds.”
“Ah yes, I am very familiar with parliamentary committees, meetings, financial statements… I completely understand why you would be reluctant to wade into that bog. But if you would allow me to present my full proposal to parliament, I have no doubt they would be ready to rewrite the constitution in order to accept.”
Rena gave him a stern look.
“Just a form of speech, you know. They would be ready to… walk on water.” Reoviro flourished his hand. “Does that suit you, Miriam? I may call you Miriam, mayn’t I?”
Rena noticed that at some point he had switched to using the familiar form of “you,” and wondered how long it had been. Why hadn’t she noticed? It was those eyes, those brilliant, luminous… She turned away suddenly, shaking her head, then looked at the general still more severely, then her face shifted into an icy formality.
“I’m sorry, general, I have a very important engagement I must attend to. I would be delighted to conclude this discussion at another time.”
“Perhaps this evening, over dinner?”
Each facet of the general’s face was deployed in a position of such strategic charm that Rena had to look away as she said with an involuntary sigh, “I’m afraid I will have to decline the general’s kind offer. Goodbye.”
When he had left, the president stood at the window, watching guards pace back and forth in front of the iron gates that separated the Presidential Palace from the bustle of shoppers and tourists wandering through Aortic Plaza. She caught the bright blue and gold of a dress uniform that disappeared into a diplomatic limousine flying red and green UPPS flags. She turned back to the conference table and glanced through a pile of maps and plans the general had left.
“Am I crazy? No! I shouldn’t even consider cooperation with the UPPS. And yet… If they were able to supply technicians and a few labor crews as quickly as the general promises, the Pedal supply chain could be up and running before the markets open on Monday. All it would take is a few dozen crews stationed in and around Duodenum… Yes, it would be best to confine them to the GI Region where Prokaryotes wouldn’t be likely to cause any public disturbance…”
Just then there was a knock on the door.
“Sorry to interrupt you, Madam President, but Mr. Amygdullah would like to speak with you. He says it’s urgent.”
It could be rightly said that the finance minister Abu Hussein Amygdullah only interrupted the president in cases he deemed urgent, but then, he tended to deem minor fluctuations in the market as urgent, so Rena had learned to take his daily financial crises with a grain of salt. But today his news was more serious. He burst into the office and immediately began pacing up and down, alternately wringing his hands and pressing them to his eyes.
“Have you seen the news? It’s a disaster! What are we going to do? What are we going to do!”
“Please sit, Abu. Tell me. What is it? I haven’t seen anything yet.”
Her voice was calm and it seemed to reassure Amygdullah. He sat for a moment trying to collect himself, still moving his body, still mentally pacing the room.
“It’s like the whole GI Region is going crazy. Workers at Central Enteric Nutrient Processing are on strike, and other factories are joining them.”
He stood up unconsciously and resumed his rapid pacing.
“They just walked off the job! Can you believe it? Left all that machinery running with no one watching it! They let a whole bolus through without processing or decontamination, and all this hazardous waste started spilling out into traffic along Superior Mesenteric Turnpike. The Enteric Police got their Clotting Agents out there right away to stop traffic, but now everything down there’s pretty much shut down. Do you realize what this is going to do to our supply chain? The economy? We’re sunk! You’ve gotta get down there. You’ve gotta talk to those workers.”
Rena sat back in her office chair, closing her eyes and silently flicking one corner of a stack of papers on her desk. Suddenly she sat up and picked up the phone.
“Don’t worry, Abu, I know how we can get through this in one piece.”
The general readily agreed to supply ten technicians and a crew of workmen to clean up and repair the damage caused by the labor disputes in the Enteric. The next morning, a long train of Prokaryotes marched through the border crossing at Esophagi, and Rena gave an impassioned speech before the assembled parliament, cabinets and members of the press, explaining the need for open cooperation that broke down not only petty internal differences, but international boundaries, all for the sake of greater economic stability both in Somata, and in the region as a whole. When she had finished, several older cabinet ministers sat on their hands, but the vast majority broke into a spontaneous ovation that lasted all of five minutes.
Many of the promised repairs were made. Most of the toxic waste was neutralized by Enteric Police or sent to Kidney for processing. But there was still unrest in the GI Region. The technicians and workmen stayed on and were soon joined by further technicians and workmen. Each surge was explained and justified first by Reoviro to Rena, then by Rena to the public. But then it started.
First a group of workers walked off the job at Sphincter Operations near Duodenum, then a group of technicians and workmen stormed the chemical production plants at Rugae, then armed mobs simultaneously stormed factories and processing plants throughout the GI Region.
When President Rena got the news, she was heartbroken, but not surprised. She had answered the call, listened, acknowledged the news, and thanked Amigdullah, all with the same calm. She sat for a moment, resting her head on her hand, stood and looked out at the gates, the crowd now rushing by, probably toward the bank, and then turned resolutely back to the telephone waiting on the oak table. She had allowed herself to trust a man against her better judgement. This would never happen again.
“Jack? Get me General Diaphragmtus… Hello, General? How soon can you deploy troops? Yes, tonight would be sufficient, but I would prefer this afternoon. Ideally, I’d prefer yesterday! Yes. I understand. I will speak to parliament. Yes, I’m sure we can get the vote before your men are in place, just get then moving. Thank you, General.”
The battle was rapid and decisive. Reoviro had not expected such an aggressive response and had armed his men only minimally. Although there were significant losses on both sides, particularly among the innocent Prokaryotes of the GI Region, General Diaphragmtus managed to capture, destroy or expel the hostile troops before they were able to gain any major strategic target. Within 24 hours, the last UPPS soldier had fled across the border at Esophagi.