Ushtu Marilunu Azgal, nemambu of Ragasin, sat on the mat in her office, rubbing her forehead in vexation. Between the Fonns and the invaders from Tishighal, it looked like Ragasin, or even the nation of Talaza, would never have peace. Ushtu herself had not known peace for twenty years.
As a child, she had known nothing but kindness and joy. Her parents had sheltered her as much as they could from disturbing or depressing facts. Even harvesting water from the air, growing vegetables hydroponically, and sheltering in the family house for the whole winter had just been normal parts of life. At age twelve, Ushtu had finally learned they were signs that Stal was dying. Since that time, she had had nightmares about wandering the ocean bottom, alone and parched with thirst, or being smothered by blowing clouds of dust.
Ushtu had to suppress a shudder. Stal's decline was hard enough to deal with without enemies trying to destroy Talaza. She looked at her surroundings, taking deep breaths to calm down. The soil-brick walls were hung with paintings, mostly of the ancient ocean, lakes, and forests. She sat on a rug embroidered with long-extinct flowers. Her desk, a table low to the ground, was metal, but painted to look like wood. Many people criticized Ushtu's obsession with Stal's past, but she didn't care. There was nothing wrong with dreaming about happier times.
There was a knock on the door. Ushtu rose to answer it, her heart feeling lighter. She recognized that knock: it was from the person she loved most in the world. She opened the door and saw Kemlil standing there.
Ushtu folded Kemlil in her embrace and kissed her. "I'm so glad to see you," she said.
Kemlil returned the kiss. "And I you. Have you been working too hard again?"
"How can I do anything else?" Ushtu released Kemlil and gestured to the mat. "The Fonns are slaughtering Talazan troops on the border of Kantal."
"Oh, no." Kemlil's pale skin turned even paler, and her brown eyes widened as she sat down. "Have you asked the Queen and the Kraluma to send more troops?"
"I've contacted them by communicator and by letter." Ushtu sat down in turn. "They refused; said they wouldn't send troops to fight a war of attrition."
"What about the tribes in the south?"
Ushtu shook her head. "I've tried recruiting them, but they've refused to fight with us. I suppose it isn't surprising, but it is disappointing."
Kemlil sighed, and her shoulders slumped. "Then the Fonns have got us. We're doomed."
"Hopefully not," said Ushtu. She ran a hand through her black hair. "But we haven't the strength to fight both Fonnwinn and Tishighal."
"We're not fighting Tishighal," said Kemlil, sounding confused.
"If their rockets keep landing here and if I can't keep them out of Ragasin, we may have to," Ushtu said. "Perhaps the Queen will come to her senses. Perhaps we'll drive the Tishighali off our planet forever."
Kemlil shuddered. "I hope not. We're good friends with the Tishighali oxygen farmers near us."
Ushtu groaned. Not this again. Ushtu tolerated the Tishighali oxygen farmers, since they were helping to keep the planet habitable, and as long as they didn't bring invasive species to Stal. But she was not friends with them and would never be. She told Kemlil so.
"But it's unfair to fight a whole planet when there are good people on it," Kemlil protested
Ushtu was tempted to roll her eyes. "Then we might as well make peace with Fonnwinn. There are probably good people there."
"Well, I—I wouldn't want to do that," Kemlil said slowly, "but we've been fighting the Fonns for hundreds of years. The Tishighali started coming here only fifty years ago."
"And have caused more damage than the Fonns ever could!" Ushtu's voice rose. After breathing deeply, she added, "They've robbed us and given us diseases and murdered us. They bring their plants and animals here and destroy our ecosystems. They refuse to abide by our laws." She spoke quietly, but inside, she was exasperated. What would it take to make Kemlil see?
"Perhaps the Tishighali in the north are like that," Kemlil said, "but the ones here aren't. They follow your laws."
"And how long do you think they'll continue to follow the laws?" Ushtu said. "More and more of them are coming here every day. In a few generations, they may outnumber us."
Kemlil fell silent. She bit her lip and stared at the floor. Perhaps she finally sees, thought Ushtu, but it was unlikely. Kemlil was too optimistic and good-humored to face the facts about the Tishighali. She would probably even make friends with the miners and the politicians in the north. Then again, her cheerful personality had made Ushtu fall in love with her two years ago.
Wrenching her mind back to the present, Ushtu asked, "You didn't come here to talk about Tishighal, did you?"
"No, I just dropped in to talk, and give you some bad news," Kemlil said. "My father will be home tonight."
"I thought he was staying on the Kallar farm."
"He changed his mind. He's invited the Kallars to stay with us."
Ushtu groaned. "Then I shan't be able to come to your house."
"I don't see why we have to keep our relationship secret," Kemlil said. "If we told my father—"
"No," said Ushtu firmly.
"But if we—"
"No. Think of what people would say."
"But you're a nemambu. You can do whatever you want, and nobody will mind."
Ushtu shook her head in exasperation. "You still think that? I could be deposed or voted out in the next election."
"Well, I don't see why."
"Haven't you listened to the Queen and the Kraluma? 'We must repopulate our planet. It is the duty of every adult on Stal to produce offspring.' Ushtu rubbed her aching temples. "I don't know which the Kraluma disapproves of more: my beliefs about Tishighal or the fact I'm not married to a man."
"Let me rub your head for you," said Kemlil. She scooted towards Ushtu's back and began to massage her forehead. It was so relaxing that Ushtu closed her eyes.
"We could use artificial insemination," Kemlil suggested. "Or adopt a child."
"If only we could," Ushtu said wearily.
"Why shouldn't we?"
"I already said: because—"
"I know, I know; you could be voted out." Kemlil stopped rubbing Ushtu's forehead. "Sometimes I wonder how I ever fell in love with a politician," she said lightly.
Ushtu smiled ruefully. "Sometimes I wonder how I ever fell in love in the first place."
Kamlil put her arms around Ushtu. "Well, I'm glad you did, of course."
Ushtu kissed her, feeling a lump in her throat. She wiped the tears from her eyes with the neck of her tunic.
"Oh, love," Kamlil said, rubbing her back, "don't cry! We'll get through this somehow. We'll win the war."
"I wish I could believe you." Ushtu's voice trembled; she had to swallow several times to speak more firmly. "All I want to do is protect our country and our planet. If we win this war, if we can stop the planet from drying up and losing its atmosphere, I'll be happy."
The "Kraluma" is the Prime Minister of Talaza. A "nali" is a Martian week that lasts nine days.