[Originally appeared in Eclipse Online, January 2013.]
The Martian Embassy in New York is at the north edge of midtown along First Avenue, in a grey building set back from the street by a courtyard and surrounded by a high stone wall.
(“A wonderful design feature,” says the aide who shows her around the first day, as if it had grown out of the ground that way, and they hadn’t just bought out an old woman from what had been a stately brownstone, and built the wall overnight, to better protect the emissary’s interests.)
It’s close enough to the UN to look participatory, and far enough away that she can make the Ambassador’s excuses, if there’s traffic.
Siphiwe lives in a bedroom suite on the fourth floor. The third floor is offices. The second floor is empty, the walls knocked out; they’ll be reception rooms, she’s told, by a contractor who comes by once a week and bangs around in the dust and the mess and promises he’ll be back next week to finish the job.
In the old dining room, with windows painted black and thick brocade curtains pulled tight, stands a glass case resting on a pedestal with a dehumidifier inside; there’s a dimmer on the wall socket that limits the light.
“I’m sorry, the Martian ambassador isn’t open to visitors at this time” is the first thing she says into the phone every day for six months, to someone from CNN or the Associated Press or the Times, because no one should walk through an embassy where the only piece of furniture is holding up the emissary.
There are, according to the biology report, anywhere from a dozen to just shy of fifty of them inside the container.
You can pull out discreet equipment located in the sideboard, and hook it up to the container for a look inside, to see how many are alive and moving.
Twice a week, a biologist, Dr. Edgars, stops by to look at them and sprinkle something into the container.
“You don’t need much,” he says. “They mostly feed on each other.”
“Then the Ambassador’s in the right line of business,” she says, signs the release form on the line for Agent Acting on Behalf.
Siphiwe had done public relations drafting for the Mars Exploration Administration for two years the day she got called into the Director’s office, just after she’d contacted a source at the Ledger sub rosa about information she needed leaked.
“This Administration is at a crossroads,” he said. “We don’t want to go forward with anything unless we know that in the short term AND the long term, it’s good for Mars. We have to keep that in mind, no matter what we do.”
She thought she was getting fired until he explained about the Embassy.
Then she thought he was joking.
“But I’ve seen pictures of the life form,” she said.
“The Ambassador,” he said.
“Who’s ever going to take this seriously?”
“That’s what a diplomat is for.”
“I don’t have any diplomatic experience,” she said.
He waved his hand. “It’s exactly like press releases,” he said. “Just in person. And we wanted someone young – some fresh blood in the Administration.”
That meant they were afraid anyone with actual power was already in someone’s pocket.
(It was a safe bet. Martian transports had to get built, and lobbyists were everywhere.)
“I’m not sure about this,” she said.
She could only imagine what sort of things you got pinched right in the middle of, once you agreed to speak for both sides.
“Well, the position you’re currently filling will be removed from the budget at the end of the year,” he said. “We’ll need to make room for the Ambassadorial Advocate position we’re creating over at the embassy. Of course, we’ll be happy to look for another position within the Administration if you don’t want to make this lateral shift. Don’t look at me like that.”
“You’re the lateral shift, Mark.”
He sighed. “Uncontested. But word from the Board is that it’s either you or Clemens, and I don’t want it to be Clemens. Would you?”
Clemens was also on the PR team, on the public-involvement front, and he was gunning for maximum airtime and a Project Director slot. That was when the lobbyists started taking you out to dinner. In the Bahamas.
He had a postcard on his desk, of a sunset on a tropical island. If you flipped it over, it read in faux handwriting, Wish you were here? IntelliSign Aeronautics welcomes you. Call now!
“Do we have an embassy location?” she asked, after a little silence.
She sends reports to Mark daily, typing at first from the edge of her bed, then from the wooden tray table she buys at the first store in walking distance, and then, weeks later, from a glossy white table in her office.
She selected it – it’s an Advocate’s privilege, apparently, to furnish the embassy in a style to which the Ambassador will be accustomed. She gets white desks, dark bookshelves, sensible chairs; it’s better than nothing.
The reception rooms are still sitting empty. She’s not sure what they want her to put in them; it feels like some sidelong test, to see if she’s up to the job.
(If she wasn’t up to the job, they shouldn’t have asked her, she thinks, hits Send on a report that reads in its entirety, “Ambassador still alive.”)
Nine weeks into her tenure, Siphiwe is still waiting on a liaison from the UN to tell her what, precisely, her official duties are.
Maybe there aren’t any. She’s not sure at what point circumstances would convince anyone to induct Mars into the United Nations. This might be a game – something set up by people who need to make sure transports take off on time and require an ambassador in a creaky house in Manhattan as the front for their real business.
(If she’d been asked to grease any wheels, this would make more sense. This would be just the sort of job you wanted someone like her to take, then, probably.
She clearly wasn’t the right person for anything else. That’s why she babysits a Petri dish.)
She gets a letter from the Associated Press about Ad Astra’s newest passenger model, a single-company alternative to the Administration’s coalition transports. More responsive, they promise. More luxuries on your journey.
Handwritten at the bottom: “Please let me know if the Ambassador would like to comment.”
She’s not sure what’s worse; if they’re mocking her, or if they’re serious.
The sixth time she asks, she gets an official brief from the Administration.
She is to protect the Mars Administration’s reputation abroad, maintaining good relations with the MA’s partner nations for the continuation of smooth trade, and promoting a planetary character of egalitarian discovery and exploration.
(“If this is just a cover for some scandal planetside, don’t think I won’t take it out on the Ambassador,” she said.
“Please don’t,” Mark said, though it sounded like he was trying not to laugh. “We’ll replace you as soon as one of the homegrown kids up there can hold down a job. Just, tread water over there. You’re wonderful at it,” he promised, like it was a compliment.)
The Martian Embassy on Mars is in a repurposed meeting room off the dais of the main Mission Control center, in the glorified-shipping-container city of Metropolis Mons, sitting in the shadow of the mountain.
It has a staff of two.
One of them is Andrew Rasmussen, a liaison from the Interplanetary Space Administration, who was reassigned to emissary detail as soon as the ambassador was confirmed.
The other, Prana Lakshmi, is unwilling and part-time; she’s the biologist who pulled the first life forms from the pocket of rock, and her Ambassador designation is just so she can examine under the umbrella of diplomatic immunity.
Dr. Lakshmi shows up to the introductory video briefing, which happens as soon as Siphiwe’s hooked up for video.
Though of course she wears a suit for protection outside, Siphiwe imagines Dr. Lakshmi’s clothes are pressed with red-dust creases from where she’s been excavating.
She definitely looks like she’d rather be rolling around outside suitless than standing in the briefing.
“Good morning,” Siphiwe says. Someone from the Administration did East Coast-to-Mars time differences; she’s pretty sure it’s morning there.
“Well, good morning,” Rassmussen says, grinning into the camera so hard his image fisheyes. “Have we ever been curious to meet you! We wonder about things back on the Old Green – they treating you all right, Ambassador Abasi?”
“Advocate Abasi,” she corrects. “We have an ambassador.”
Dr. Lakshmi makes eye contact with the camera for the first time.
“Of course,” he says, “and it’s good to have you both on board. How are you finding things?”
“Administrative,” Siphiwe says.
Rassmussen courtesy-laughs and says something. Dr. Lakshmi smiles, just for a second, and real.
A sympathetic member of the team, Siphiwe thinks, and just the idea of a team is enough to keep her smiling through the rest of the brief.
She’s never opened the sideboard herself. Dr. Edgars does it. She keeps the lights on and the temperature controlled, and that’s all she can be expected to do.
She spends a lot of time writing note cards to ambassadors on a very long list, like she used to when she received presents and her mother would make her sit down and scratch out Thank Yous before she could use them.
It makes her feel useless, but on the upside, at least she’s an old hand.
(She sends Mark a report. She erases the word ‘farce’ once or twice.)
The UN sends an invitation to a Martian welcome reception Siphiwe hasn’t even heard about.
She’s not sure from the wording who even organized it – is it being held in their honor? Was she supposed to have hosted a reception already and they did it without her to avoid a scene? They must know better how these things are qualified.
(Usually, it’s easier to tell when there’s an ambassador in residence.)
Dr. Edgars comes by, frowns into the instruments.
“Have you seen this?” he asks.
Siphiwe rests one hand lightly on the scope, like she briefs the Ambassador daily and looking at it is natural.
(She doesn’t know why she’s never looked, she thinks. She’s seen the photographs, grainy black and white, but it’s different to watch them twitching – swimming? – in the magnifier.)
“They seem…lethargic,” she hedges.
He nods sagely. “Not sure what needs to change,” he says. “According to the specs, we’re doing everything right.”
“I’ll look into it,” she says, with a conviction born of years in PR. “Thank you for bringing it to my attention. I’ll be in touch.”
The next time she talks to Mars, she tells them the trouble.
“We’re not sure what the problem is,” she says. “The doctor here is doing all that’s necessary, biologically. Do you have any ideas to make the Ambassador’s stay more comfortable?”
Dr. Lakshmi says, “Send it home. It needs home soil, and it’s not like it has duties – you know what, this is all insanity to even be talking about. You took it two hundred million kilometers from home so it can sit in a room while gets paid to go to parties and pretend.”
Rasmussen blinks into the camera, looking like he desperately wishes he knew enough about tech to cut the connection.
“I’m doing the best I can, for someone who’s getting asked the Ambassador’s opinions,” Siphiwe says, and Rasmussen cuts in before she can say more, reassures her like she was looking for compliments, because that’s why a man like that gets appointed to liaise with Mars.
But Dr. Lakshmi looks at Siphiwe like she’s realizing maybe she’s not the only person who walked out of their first MA appointment meeting needing a drink.
The United Nations hasn’t made up its mind about changing names – there are traditions at stake, apparently, and several rounds of voting – but the “Peace to All Nations of the World” lettering across the arches in the lobby is hidden under a temporary banner that reads “A Union of Planetary Nations, a Universe of Peace.”
She wonders what they plan to do about the “If thou hast no sympathy for the troubles of others/Thou art unworthy to be called by the name of a human” on the wall outside.
On her way in, a middle-aged gentlemen introduces himself as Lucas, the American representative. She shakes hands, because the American donation numbers are right at the top of the list the Administration gave her.
“How’s the stunt?” he asks, friendly.
She blinks. “Beg pardon?”
His smile never wavers. “I appreciate what they’re doing by hiring someone. It’s cute to play up the idea. Commitment to the image. I think it’s sweet.”
“Actually,” she says, “I’m here as an official state representative of the Mars Administration.”
“Oh, no no, I got it,” he assures her with half a wink, smile never dropping, and ducks inside the party.
That night she shakes a lot of hands; the Administration partner nations – Switzerland, Canada, Japan, Russia, Germany, France – need attention, and she tries to be amenable. This is her first opportunity to greet the people who have been trying to invite a Petri dish to their dinners of state for the last six months.
She takes note of who’s who, and after an hour of watching the flow of the room, she finds herself desperately wishing for a translator.
She doesn’t particularly need one – she has English, Swahili, and perfectly good French, which gets you through an evening pretty well – but she’s a representative of the Mars Administration, and standing her alone makes her look as if she has so little to say.
Still, there’s no real need. She’s just treading water.
She glances around her, smiles at no one in particular, takes a glass of champagne.
She gets a video alert in the middle of the night. Dr. Lakshmi’s on the other line, alone.
“It’s about the life form,” she says.
Siphiwe has a moment of dissonance, where she thinks at the same time, The more sensible term, and also, You mean the Ambassador.
“We’ve reached the end of the preliminary life-scan,” Dr. Lakshmi says, looking half-apologetic, half-panicked. “We’re going to keep looking, farther down, but for now, I think what you have there is all we’ve got to show for indigenous life.”
Siphiwe closes her mouth with a click.
She’d always assumed the dish downstairs was a symbolic offshoot of some larger, robust colony held safely on Mars, growing dutifully in a lab under the watchful eye of people trained to take care of these things.
Back home, animals went extinct in the wild sometimes; she always felt sick, when word reached her, as if she’d had them as pets, or could have done something.
Then she gets angry.
“Why did you send it all down here? We’re not equipped to troubleshoot anything!”
“Orders came in,” Dr. Lakshmi snaps. “You can’t exactly keep back a clipping and pretend you didn’t understand what they were asking.”
They probably thought more was coming; it was probably the result of great optimism, and some anxious PR person with a good idea.
It was probably Clemens, she realizes; he thought a move like that that would lock up the posting for him.
It might still, she thinks, if they fail at this.
Siphiwe asks, “When are you going to tell the Administration?”
“I’m not,” Lakshmi says, grim. “Rasmussen would lose it if he even knew we were talking. He insists on the party line about Mars teeming with life, and I’m not risking my place here saying otherwise.”
She’s already risking it, Siphiwe thinks, but she opts for, “Why tell me?”
Laskhmi shrugs; it doesn’t make her look any less purposeful. She says, “I thought maybe you’d want to know better.”
After a moment, Siphiwe says, “I see,” casts a glance toward the staircase that leads to the audience room of the only Martian Ambassador there is.
She sends a report to Mark, without mentioning Lakshmi, expressing concern over the life form and its lack of replication.
He calls her as soon as it’s light out.
“It should work out one way or the other,” he says. “There’s no way it’s the only living thing on the planet. They’d never have agreed to send it if it was, would they? Just do what you can, and let the biologists up there do what they do.”
She’s been in PR a long time; she knows a cycle of blame when she hears one. Mark and Rasmussen will get increasing amnesia about whatever happened to the orders or the first Martian sample.
“But you sent it to be the Ambassador here,” she says. “What if it dies?”
“It’s mostly there as a symbol, for our partner nations who are supplying the settlement. If the sample fails, then we’ll come up with a Plan B.”
Strangely, she finds herself bristling at the thought of doing this without an Ambassador.
“I don’t think we should treat it like a sample,” she says. “I think that if this is really going to be the Martian Embassy, we have to be respectful and look at the long term.”
“We are,” he says, in a tone that suggests she’s arguing more than he’d like.
She thinks about the thousands of species on Earth who are in as much trouble as the one downstairs.
She thinks about what all their advocates have been able to do for them; it’s about the same as what she’s just been told.
But this is the only life there is, as far as she’s concerned, and she’s the only advocate it has.
“I’ll keep you posted,” she says, smiles, hangs up.
She writes six notes, in elegant hand, to the Mars Administration member nations – Canada, the USA, the UK, Switzerland, Russia, Japan – inviting them to the Embassy for refreshments, and to meet the Ambassador.
She calls Dr. Edgars to make an emergency visit to the emissary.
She calls Mars.
“I’m going to impress some people,” she says.
Rasmussen grins into the camera. “Excellent. How can we help? What do you need?”
She looks over his shoulder, tells Lakshmi, “A photograph.”
It’s a photo of the panorama you can see from the meeting-room window just at nightfall – the vast rocky expanse of sepia, the blue sky sweeping overhead, deep with twilight, the two moons hanging like lamps.
She commissions a mosaic of it for the courtyard.
There should be something impressive for the other Ambassadors, when they come for the party.
“It will take three weeks,” the part-time secretary points out.
“Fine,” says Siphiwe.
“It will eat all the rest of your furniture budget.”
She says, “Fine.”
If the room is stark, it will push people toward the windows, to look at the mosaic.
If they ever start to feel like Siphiwe feels – that it’s useless, or grandstanding, that it’s all just treading water – they should look out at the courtyard and remember how far their colleague has come to be here, from the red dirt of home.
Siphiwe sends the report from Dr. Edgars to Lakshmi from a dummy account, so she can determine if anything is dangerous before Siphiwe leaks it to the Ledger.
She gets a price quote for the amount of equipment that would be necessary to replicate Mars growing conditions. (It’s ten digits long. Even Dr. Edgars says, “Sorry about that.”)
Over the next few weeks, accompanied by the scrape of mortar as the tiles go into the wall outside, Siphiwe does some accounting, to see how the numbers line up.
She feels like she’s floating, and too heavy; the same tight feeling in her chest as when she was a child and they told her that some species or another was gone, and her little stomach twisted as she tried to back time and adopt the last ones before it was too late.
She’s done a lot of foolish things in her life; maybe fundraising for a paramecium is the least of them.
She puts out an ad for a translator fluent in Japanese and German, who can flank Siphiwe on the other side of the secretary, and make the guests at home when they come.
The money will come out of Siphiwe’s salary.
Her Ambassador is an as-yet-unclassified amoeboid organism, sitting on a pedestal in the Martian Embassy, and it is going to have the necessary entourage it needs to be taken seriously.
It will have to, if it’s going to survive.
By the time the mosaic is finished, it’s almost winter, but the colors are just as bright as the photo Lakshmi sent, and it seems warmer in the courtyard than on the street outside.
The first time Siphiwe looks at it, she has the oddest impulse to unhook the Ambassador, hold the dish up to the window like it will think it’s back home again, and flourish.
She doesn’t, of course; it wouldn’t help anything, and she feels like a fool.
She gets an audio call from Lakshmi, from what sounds like a phone in the middle of Times Square.
“The station’s bar phone isn’t monitored,” Lakshmi explains at fifty decibels.
“Useful,” says Siphiwe, a touch louder than usual.
“I heard you’re throwing a party for the Ambassador.”
“Yes,” Siphiwe says. “Hoping it doesn’t end up a going-away party.”
“How is it looking?”
Siphiwe flinches. It sounds as though Lakshmi thinks she gives it daily updates. She still hasn’t even checked in on the Ambassador. (These maneuvers have been a matter of process, not of personal observation. She’s no scientist. It’s still just some flecks; there’s no point in pretending there’s more than that.)
“We need to move forward,” she settles on. “Are we clear to proceed?”
“All clear,” says Lakshmi. A little pause. Then, “You want me to send it for you? I will.”
Lakshmi falls silent a moment, holding her breath; the noise of the bar seeps in around the edges of the receiver. It sounds like a lot of people having a good time, without her.
She says, “No, thank you. You’re needed there. Worst case down here, they’ll pay someone else to go to their parties.”
“Their loss,” says Lakshmi, and Siphiwe’s so surprised she grins into the phone like it can see her.
She gets a call from Mark.
“Heard you’re throwing a party,” he says. “I think it’s a great idea, so long as you don’t try to do any policy or fundraising you’re not authorized for. I appreciate this new enthusiasm, but you’re just the advocate, Siphiwe. Try not to overstep your brief.”
He fidgets all through the speech, with the pen on his desk, the end of his tie.
“The party’s to introduce the new mosaic,” she says, uploads a slideshow to him. “I’ve been going to other people’s Embassies for months. It’s about time we gave back, don’t you think?”
Warily, he says, “I do.”
“I wanted our member nations to see it now that everything’s ready,” she says. “They’re anxious to meet the Ambassador, and I wanted to wait until everything was polished and in place. You know I don’t like leaving projects half-finished.”
Warily, he says, “I do.”
Halfway through the reception, she pulls the ambassadors aside, one at a time, asks quietly if they think, looking at the Ambassador, that it doesn’t need a better home than it’s getting.
“I’m concerned,” she says, very seriously, as if there’s a head of state in the bed in the next room. “If it dies, what does that say about the future of Mars – when its own native flora dies?”
A few of them blink twice, take a breath as if they’re seeing tourist dollars drying up, terraforming inventories vanishing.
She knows Ad Astra is set to send a private transport to Mars by the end of the year; if the Ambassador was asked for comment, so were they.
Three of them say, “Let us know what we can do.”
Two of them have good science programs, and supply the labs on Mars with equipment; for them she suggests the world’s rarest party favor.
“It would only be two,” she says, “that’s all we can afford to risk – but I know that your labs would work hard on it, and if not, they could at least send them home, and let Dr. Lakshmi and her team try.”
The Swiss ambassador looks at her seriously, says, “The Ambassador’s lucky to have you.”
For a moment Siphiwe’s off-guard, has to stop herself from looking into the dining room to see if they’ve been overheard.
“Thank you,” she says, when she’s under control. “I’ll mention it.”
And the Swiss ambassador only nods, as if it’s nothing, as if it’s clear who she’s speaking for, and why.
Siphiwe excuses herself a moment, walks out to the hall past the windows, where the mosaic is glittering red as the sun goes down.
It’s been hours since the last of the party was cleared away. The house is silent.
Downstairs, the dark is unbroken, except the alarm sensor blinking green, and the burnt-sienna dim of the Ambassador’s room.
She opens the sideboard, attaches the scope with what she pretends is ease, turns the light up just enough.
(She doesn’t know what dawn on Mars is like, how the light gets in. She’ll find out.)
She looks down the lenses at the Ambassador, the cluster of them together for the last time.
It’s twitching in short, strong bursts; it looks small, and desperate, and determined to go on.
“Good morning, Ambassador,” she says. Her voice echoes a little off the bare walls.
Outside, it’s closer to dawn; if she were looking out the front window, she would be able to see Phobos and Deimos, far-off spheres of white and grey, hovering above the red soil of home.
She says, after a little hesitation, “I have today’s report.”