The corpses fell from the interior of the moon like drops of water from an icicle. The body repatriation team that hung in the open space just outside the blast crater maneuvered back and forth and caught them in a grid of storage modules, one by one. Behind them, the stars moved slowly past.
To Kingsman, the module grid looked disturbingly like an ice cube tray. The repat team filled it in strict order, from one end to the other, then sealed and marked each module.
One body brushed against a twisted length of structural beam and spun slightly as it came down, making the team scramble. If they missed it, the body would float out of the crater and into open space, requiring an embarrassing, and expensive, recovery effort.
Preceptor Dakila Uy muttered in exasperation. “Clumsy. Looks like crap.”
Kingsman thought that was a beamed signal, for him alone, but maybe a member of Uy’s staff was noting it down, for later discipline. They were all hidden somewhere, out of Kingsman’s sight, leaving only Kingsman and Uy on the shelf in the crater torn out of the side of Phobos. From the look of the stretch of tile still left on the wall nearby, it had probably once been part of someone’s bathroom.
The team caught the body and flipped it into its module. These were the bodies of enemy combatants, of course. Defenders of Phobos. Their faces were displayed on the black shrinkwrap that protected the bodies. These were mostly file photos from their dogchips, sometimes cleaned up and reprocessed versions of the dead faces beneath, when no file could be found. Other identifying information appeared on their chests. Kingsman hadn’t been issued the proper codes, so they appeared to him as generic scribbles.
The lack of code access was just another annoyance for Kingsman to work through. More serious was the three days he had been stranded in orbit, within sight of Phobos but without access. The official story had been “safety concerns.”
Kingsman had a specific sort of power. Strictly speaking, he could only exercise it once. After that, he would be a hollow shell, without power to further influence events. He would need to use the weight of his single authority to gain cooperation in other areas. It was going to be a delicate game.
“Technically, you outrank me,” Uy said.
“I suppose all ranks are merely ‘technical,’ Preceptor.” Kingsman had expected his encounter with Uy to start with a fight. He supposed he should be glad it was over something so petty. “I have the same rank as you, with three years’ seniority. But I’m not here to—”
“That’s ridiculous. What, they count time in prison as ‘seniority’? You lost all right to anything like that when you were convicted and sentenced.”
“I don’t want to argue about legal details. That’s not my area of expertise. Yours either, I suspect. My seniority might come into play if we’re fighting for spots on a ceremonial dais. Otherwise, it’s pretty much meaningless. I have no rights of command here. I do have the right to demand treatment appropriate to my rank and role. Which does not include being left in the hull of a transport vessel for three days after my mission has already started.”
“Oh,” Uy said. “My apologies. We were preparing for a major push. Working every minute, preparing. You remember how that is, don’t you, Tony? Combat? Everything else takes second place. Everything else is pretty much irrelevant.”
The body modules were sealed and marked for chain of custody. Eventually, they would be returned to their families. Some diplomatic relations were still maintained with forces deeper within Phobos, though the political structure had fragmented, and the authority of the counterparties was sometimes unclear.
This crater had been blown out of the side of Phobos during the surprise attack by the Union ship. It widened out beneath Uy and Kingsman’s feet, dangling lengths of pipe, shattered transport corridor, and strips of the reinforcing rings that kept the welded-together outer layer of the moon’s regolith stable. Phobos’ rotation was slow, creating just enough gravity for orientation. Every few minutes, the vast face of Mars would scrape past, filling virtually their entire field of view.
No one in the busy crater paid attention to it, any more than they paid attention to the parade of enemy bodies. Instead, Kingsman felt himself the focus of interest from everyone working in the busy crater space, which was the ingress point for supplies to the Union forces fighting to conquer the moon. Some things could not be kept secret, and who he was was one of them.
“Are you at liberty to reveal the results of your push?” Kingsman said.
“It fully achieved its tactical objectives. Two more levels taken, and a significant pumping node. The Phobs can fight, but they’re doomed. There is no reason for your mission here . . . Preceptor.”
Kingsman had expected a desperate effort preceding his arrival. If a rapid success could be achieved, Kingsman’s mission might become irrelevant. Uy was showing off its fruits now: a parade of enemy dead. Union corpses would be moved more discreetly, with dark ceremonial. Three dead, five wounded, two seriously enough to be rotated out. They hadn’t been able to hide that from him. A reasonable cost, if you had a good basis for your mission.
Unsupported hope was not a good basis for anything, least of all military operations. Kingsman was more relevant than ever.
Anthony Kingsman was a tall man with big joints pushing out against his skin, and he knew that his spacesuit emphasized his boiled-and-mounted appearance. He wore his graying hair long, pulled back from his high forehead and tied back in a queue. Both the receding hairline and the gray hair were signs of his time in the prison asteroid, where aesthetic treatments weren’t part of the routine.
Dakila Uy was shorter and stockier, with dark skin and black hair he brushed straight up. He’d even made that hair an element of how his suit displayed him. He had a practiced way of staying absolutely still, as if he was the center around which all else revolved. He was the commander of a five-thousand-troop invading force, a challenging role at this point in a long war, and one that he had to play without a break. He did his best.
Kingsman knew Uy of old, from before his own disgrace, even from before the Rim War had become the disaster it now was. Uy was both brave and smart. More importantly, he was increasingly listened to in higher political circles. So he had maneuvered himself into command of the Phobos Expedition. Victory there would secure his reputation.
But some operations required more than bravery and intelligence. They needed a level of understanding beyond rationality. They needed a kind of twisted genius. They needed what looked a lot like luck. Instead of an easy victory, Phobos had turned out to be a desperate vortex that sucked down soldiers, resources . . . and reputations.
Surely Uy had to see that Kingsman was the only way he could salvage his.
“I’ll need access to all of your tactical records,” Kingsman said. “All pre-op intel as well.”
Uy snorted. “You can’t possibly live long enough to get through all that.”
“That’s more than I can give you,” Uy said. “At least for an operation that’s still forging toward victory. But I have something better. I’ve assigned a unit commander to put you in touch with what’s going on, right at the face. Full access, Tony. Just like you like. I think you’ll understand things a bit better once you’ve actually seen it. It’ll do you good to get back in combat. Though you probably got more than your share of action in the prison hulk. I hear the place wasn’t well managed for a while.”
Kingsman had seen more than he would ever want to share with anyone. Least of all Uy. “I could cancel this operation right now. You know that.”
Uy was silent for a long moment. “You could. But would it stick? Not with the troops, I can tell you that. And not with your controllers, either. They need you to at least give the appearance of looking things over. All you’d get from a snap recommendation is chaos. Lessened effectiveness. Defeat. Is that really how you want to play it?”
The hell of it was, Uy was right. An order to pull out that could be argued with was worse than no order at all. In addition, Uy knew Kingsman of old, too. He knew Kingsman would compel himself to understand everything he could before making a decision. He knew he had a handle on Kingsman’s pride.
It was hard to bluff when you hadn’t been dealt any cards yet.
“She’s my best commander, Tony,” Uy said. “You’ll be in good hands.”
A figure detached itself from some overhead strutwork and dropped slowly down. For a moment, it looked to Kingsman like she would miss. But he had misgauged the Coriolis curve. While the path was straight with reference to the stars, the rotation of the moon made it seem curved relative to where they stood. The officer landed on the ledge next to Kingsman. He saw dark eyes, cheeks with decorative metal implants.
“Preceptor Anthony Kingsman,” Uy said, with forced heartiness. “Sub-Commander Leila Ferhat. SC Ferhat will serve as your guide to the Phobos Expedition.”
The last of the Phob bodies floated past and was packaged up. Kingsman noted that Ferhat kept her eyes averted. She hated this corpse parade. That would have been a possible way to bond with her, if she hadn’t clearly hated Kingsman even more.
Ferhat didn’t talk to him. Instead, she shot him a set of instructional and safety icons: click into the air supply on this reaction sled, make sure the partial pressure of oxygen is between these two bars, at least two of these five points must be secure for you to be considered attached to the sled, keep your hands to yourself.
Kingsman did as he was instructed. The sled dropped out of the crater and into open space. Kingsman felt the pressure as Ferhat activated the drive and they moved away from the spinning potato of Phobos.
The space around was crowded with Union vessels, dwelling units, and other gear. A spacecraft vectoring in from a long transfer orbit flared a reaction rocket and readied itself for docking.
None of this was visible to the naked eye, but of course no one used a naked eye in space, any more than anyone had a transparent face plate. Everything that Kingsman saw was intensively processed and information enhanced to interact optimally with his clunky evolved perception modules. The approaching spacecraft was clear in his vision, with its fuel pods gleaming in the light of the distant Sun, its list of combat medals streaming out behind it. Its reaction drive hissed as it slowed.
Every bump in the surface of Phobos was clear. The moon’s surface had once been a loose layer of regolith, which over the centuries had been welded into a thick radiation shield bound with stabilizer hoops, and then honeycombed with support tunnels. Stickney, the disproportionately large crater that had always been its biggest visual feature, was still there, like a beauty mark. The Union assault crater was some distance closer to the hub. The Phobs had expected any assault to come at that hub, since the surface was too thick for quick penetration, and so they had armored and reinforced it.
But the supposed tourist vessel had injected itself into the moon’s side, and detonated. Its shielded contents had ripped deep into the regolith, including its encapsulated Union troops, who had hatched and dug further in, until they came up through the floors of the lowest inhabited corridors and started their assault.
Even with processing, Mars looked like a plate of corroded metal, broken and crudely rewelded. Phobos had an absurdly low orbit, and moved faster than Mars rotated, so that they seemed to scud above the planet’s rusted surface, pursuing something that would never be caught.
Kingsman gloried in the information access. He now had full clearance, the same as Uy and his staff. He would have to watch carefully, to make sure that he wasn’t subtly cut off from something crucial. But for now, it was like being let out of a box.
Ferhat’s goal out here became clear: a battered vessel that was mostly heavy thrusters pointed in various directions. It was some kind of salvage tug. She maneuvered neatly and linked up to it.
“They really should get this reactivated and operating,” Ferhat said. “If we’re here much longer, neglecting cleanup is going to come around and bite us on the ass.”
She was challenging him. His job was to make sure they weren’t there much longer, no matter what.
His mission was supposedly confidential. Obviously, there was no way to keep a secret like that for long.
“That’s not why you’ve hauled us out here,” he said.
“Oh?” Her suit displayed a lean woman with a burn scar on her ribs. On leave she let her dark hair grow long, while on duty she kept it bristled. Her high cheekbones were made even higher by the metal implants, which she kept buffed to a high gloss. She kept her face display expressive so that her thoughts and moods could be read, as was standard intra-unit practice. What it expressed now was irritation.
“You need intel,” Kingsman said. “You think you’re missing something. But why would you come out here to find it?”
The question was half to himself. He could see her considering how much was aimed at her. But if she was as smart as she seemed, she knew something: Kingsman might not have been her favorite court-martialed-but-reinstated officer responsible for the unnecessary deaths of fellow soldiers, but he was still a useful resource for her. Would she use him wisely while she had him?
“Look.” She gestured toward Phobos, and it turned semitransparent, revealing a maze of tunnels and open spaces. “Settlement, two hundred years ago.” The tunnels receded to a cup around the north pole. She stepped the display forward by decades. The inhabited region expanded slowly, going out past the equator just under the regolith, but much less than that along the axis. Then, in three major jumps, it excavated significant portions of the interior, opening out internal seas, high-pressure vacuoles, and dense residential matrices. Kingsman noticed that a lot of the corridors glowed a red that marked them as “dubious intelligence.” Those were Ferhat’s own markings. The general-access map—he called it up and overlaid it on hers—had no error bars in those places.
“That’s a huge volume of stuff they needed to toss,” Ferhat said. “All asteroid colonies have high-entropic junk to dispose of. But the gravity of Mars and Deimos makes it tricky to really get rid of it here, given the cost of reaction mass. Some always seems to come back to become a navigational hazard. They bought this thing from some shipyard. It puts out magnetic filaments hundreds of miles long. They form a field, and herd the debris into sturdier nets that haul it in.”
“But most of the debris must be non-magnetic,” Kingsman said.
“That’s why they hacked up this add-on.” Ferhat pointed and red dots appeared on two massive cylinders. “Seemed to work well enough. Those axial cylinders fire microscopic iron flechettes. No shortage of iron, after all. Radar detects all the debris. Anything that doesn’t respond to the magnetic mesh gets a flechette shot. If it vaporizes, problem solved. If not—now you’ve got a magnetic hook, and the mesh can catch it and drag it in.”
“Are you considering recycling those flechette guns for antipersonnel purposes?”
“You try hauling one of those barrels through the corridors. Might be a hell of a surprise for someone, if you managed to do it. No. Just let me take a look here, and I’ll get you down to the face. Clip in over here.”
She was suddenly brisk. Kingsman figured she felt he’d tricked her into treating him like a regular human being.
The tug clutched two debris-filled meshes like a cartoon miser with moneybags. It must have just come back from a salvage expedition when the Union assault hit. Ferhat loosened one and started going through the chunks of rock it held, scanning each one quickly with several beam generators and sensors she pulled off the sled.
Kingsman allowed himself a few minutes of just letting the stars wash around him. It had been a long time since he’d been able to focus on something farther than ten or fifteen feet away from him. Prison asteroids weren’t much for long vistas.
But now it was time to be useful. She wasn’t sharing the data overlay she was using, mildly rude, though not a clear insult. What she was doing was really a job for half a dozen people with automated equipment. The debris ranged in size from tiny pebbles to head-sized chunks. Some were hundreds of years en route, others might have been excavated the day before the Union arrived. And there was several tons of it.
Here and there, amid the rough chondrites and phyllosilicates, bits of inlay glimmered, and a trace of carving caught his eye like a doomed hand reaching from quicksand. He grabbed it. It was part of a human face, the cheekbone and the eye, with just a swirl of hair.
“Please,” she said. “Don’t make this take longer. I’m away from my command too long as it is.”
“Look at this. You think it’s from one of the transverse connecting corridors? Down in the Kloen District, maybe.”
“I really can’t rely on details like that.” Still, she took the bit of carving from him, and examined it with her scanner. “Isotopes match. Could be Kloen. Or nearby.”
“They must have really torn that area apart if they destroyed those reliefs to make defensive lines. They sacrificed a lot. Those reliefs were beautiful. At least, I’ve heard they were.”
She spoke to him reluctantly. “Kloen is just beyond our face. It looks like it will be a problem when we get to it. Plus, it’s kind of an independent collective now. Not even part of the same government as other parts of Phobos. Things are different out there.”
She finally shared her overlay. The debris she had checked over already glimmered with information. Each piece had a distinct isotopic signature that marked it as coming from a specific location within Phobos. If he called up a 3D image of the moon, he could see where they originated. She had particularly focused on those that came from the volumes marked in red on her own map.
“How long do you think they were preparing for our attack?” he said.
She shrugged, her suit’s body language amplification making it an elaborate gesture. “All I know is, we’re pressing into a volume that doesn’t match our intel, facing political organizations with their own agendas, and taking casualties doing it. I’m no longer sure that our objective is even valid.”
Uy had given him her tactical objective: a water node that supplied a good chunk of Phobos. Capturing it would change the balance of combat. But if she was looking for evidence to disconfirm her assumptions, she was a rare commander indeed.
“Could you use help going through this stuff ?” Kingsman said.
He could see her struggle with an automatic refusal. Then: “Yes. It would make things go faster. And I think the Preceptor thinks I already have you upstairs, with my unit. I just took advantage of the opportunity to come out here.”
It took another hour, even with his assistance.
There were a couple of pieces of debris that weren’t excavated rock: a ring from a pressurized air pipe that must have blown off a malfunctioning airlock, and a length of shredded safety line marking a rescue attempt that failed at least two centuries before. But amid everything else were pieces newly sliced out of the moon. Given the unlikeliness of any particular piece ending up here, they could extrapolate, and see that vast volumes must have been reorganized within Phobos.
“You have thoughts about this,” she said. “You know more than you’re telling me.”
“I don’t have a tactical job,” he said. “I just have—”
“If you have information or understanding, I need it. No matter what it is.”
If the dispositions were a disaster, he should leave them the way they were and order a pull-out. He was supposed to judge the situation and make an up or down decision. It wasn’t his job to fix anything.
“It’s possible your mission is the victim of a fairly extensive deception operation,” Kingsman said. “The main water line may no longer be any such thing.”
“They’ve been defending it fiercely,” she said.
“Well, now. They would, wouldn’t they?”
“That last assault was meaningless,” she said, mostly to herself. “Schorsky and Pandit died—”
“We kill them all the time,” Kingsman said.
“Well,” she said, as if realizing she had been getting too friendly with him, “you would know, wouldn’t you?”
The occupied interior of Phobos was a tangled mass of corridors. You couldn’t see anywhere more than a few hundred meters away. Here gigantic doorways swelled out into the path of traffic, there pits opened beneath your feet, to reveal family compounds with children chasing each other.
Ferhat pushed Kingsman from one security zone to another.
They passed a team of Phobs restoring a string of overhead lights, while groups of their relatives sat on stacks of household possessions and waited for their corridor to be habitable again. Phobs shared no particular physical look, except for the jointless way they moved through their spaces and the long hair and loose clothing both sexes favored. No one looked at Ferhat and Kingsman.
Walls were cracked by small-arms fire. A Union casualty memorial glowed at a wider area, where a fountain trickled water. Ferhat gave the three dead marked there a discreet salute. The memorial was virtual, coded to their suits, and was tactfully invisible to the natives, though it was clear from the savage graffiti tattooed on the wall behind it that the Phobs knew it was there.
Past the memorial was another Union checkpoint, where a cold-eyed soldier examined Kingsman’s record, exactly as if he had not passed through three such points already. Behind the checkpoint was an encampment of occupation troops, installed in a couple of large apartments with open verandas on the corridor. They had their own power, and kept their spaces much more brightly lit than Phobs generally would. Every captured level of Phobos required a detachment of troops to keep it pacified. Discipline looked good, so far. But they had already been here longer than expected.
The soldier had been looking at Kingsman’s records, not at him. “My cousin died at Kalatra.”
Kingsman waited for the soldier to say something else, but the bare fact was apparently enough. So he nodded, as if the man had mentioned they had gone to the same high school, but in different years.
“Not relevant, soldier.” Ferhat suddenly crowded up.
“Sorry, ma’am. Not relevant.”
“We have a job to do here. I do, you do. He does.”
“You’re good to go.” The soldier stepped back, trying to get out of the range of her rage.
“What was your cousin’s name?” Kingsman said.
“You wouldn’t have known her.”
“Murnau. Cassie Murnau.”
“Seventeenth Engineers. She was power, running cabling up Big Cliff when it came apart.”
“That’s what we were told. Sir.”
They stared at each other for a moment, then Kingsman moved past. Ferhat followed him onto the elevator to the next level.
“Surely you don’t know everyone who died,” she said.
“In the first months of my imprisonment, my only reading was the personnel records of the casualties at Kalatra. They gave it to me as an additional punishment, not knowing that I would have requested it anyway. I couldn’t go meet their families, so that was the best I could do. So, yes, I do know everyone who died, or was wounded.”
She thought for a moment. “Wait.”
“If she died during the Big Cliff operation . . . she died in combat.”
“Almost all of them died in combat.”
“You know what I mean! During the assault, before the junta’s surrender. Straight combat. Part of the victory. Not during the . . . repacification.”
“Well, I guess he didn’t see the difference. Most people don’t.”
“You should have explained it to him.”
“Most people don’t like to have me explain things like that to them. It’s really not worth it, Sub-Commander.”
The area above actually had a view, opening out to a high wall. Phobs slid up and down it on cables, passing through big stone doorways that led to yet more corridors. This area was well cleaned up. Plants grew up and down the big wall. People were gathered at tables, eating. One group looked like it was celebrating the wedding anniversary of an older couple. At least, a man and a woman sat together under a kind of canopy. If the Phobs had a family resemblance, it came from the fact that they appeared in Kingsman’s display just as their physical selves, without the extra information all Union troops provided. Their eyes were blank, and kept everything deep inside. The flowing gowns that concealed their bodies and the hair that swirled around their faces were just extra.
Two Union soldiers stood on top of a dividing wall, crowd hosers held lightly in their hands, and kept an eye on things.
Kingsman couldn’t help but see things tactically, and from that point of view this place was nothing but a trap. Dead-end corridors, sudden level changes, sight lines blocked by a shop selling flatbreads grabbed from rotating platters or an emergency health center that was also a neighborhood social spot: Phobos was nothing but places to be slowed down, stopped, killed.
Anything a tourist found attractive, a soldier found a threat.
But now the moon had fragmented, feralized. The top-level political organization hadn’t survived the first demand for surrender. That had to have been planned along with the rest of their subtle defenses. Uy now had to deal with dozens of separate organizations that controlled power generators, transportation centers . . . and water supplies. Each had to be attacked or negotiated with separately.
Phobos was a trap. That was why it had always been the touristic center of the inner Solar System.
Another two checkpoints and Ferhat and Kingsman finally came to the Lower Concourse, one of the biggest open areas in the moon.
The high ceiling hid in mist and light. The open surface was folded up into rocky hills and stable sand dunes, each one placed to conceal how the Concourse curved. Small shops and restaurants nestled in odd nooks.
Many of the owners had just had time to seal up and remove most of their equipment when the Union assault broke through. Rubble covered the mosaic dining floors. Multicolored glass bottles lay on the rocks, unbreakable and gleaming. What had once been decorative pools had cracked and drained through into lower levels, leaving dry sockets.
The Lower Concourse had been known for its beauty. People had traveled from all over the Solar System to see it.
Kingsman himself had once looked into taking a vacation here with his wife. He remembered flipping through the images: the steaming turquoise pools, the people tucked into the hot sand baths, the quiet spots where two people could be alone, at last, and figure things out.
It had proved impossible on a sub-Preceptor’s salary, no matter how he worked the numbers. He had never even mentioned that he was thinking about it. A few months after he gave up on the idea, Elise asked him for a divorce, and disappeared on a refugee relief effort among the asteroids.
A nice vacation somewhere other than her parents’ summer house wouldn’t have kept them married. It would just have saddled him with debts.
Still, it would have been something nice to remember, to contrast to the years of combat followed by the years of imprisonment that were now most of the memories he had to work with.
Even in ruins, the Concourse was a comfortable space for surface dwellers, and most of the Union troops were from Earth. They’d set up their privacy units, waste recyclers, and mess facilities among the ridges and dunes. No one paid obvious attention as Ferhat led him into the encampment. That showed discipline.
Ferhat was good. Uy had made the wrong choice, putting his smartest subordinate in charge of Kingsman. Elise had understood him, even as she didn’t want to be married to him. She told him that the best weapon against him was stupidity. If Uy had had the sense to see that, he would have put Kingsman into the hands of a bland dullard who did things by the numbers. Kingsman would have been dragged around like a piece of luggage, unable to achieve anything.
Instead, with Ferhat, Uy had put a potential tool into Kingsman’s hands. He just had to figure out how to use it.
. . . Don’t expect sentiment from an inhabitant of Phobos. To them, practicality is all. Any position can be traded at any time, if the difference in value is greater than the cost of making the transaction. The difficulty for someone who did not grow up running the corridors of Phobos is figuring out what they value, and what they regard as a transaction cost, rather than entertainment. They hold the value of friendship high, and so are unlikely to trade you. But they seem to be capable of living with a structure or work of art for a century, and then, when there is a chance of improving traffic circulation or providing a convenient storage area, of removing it without sentiment. We had come to Gravad to relax in the Ang, a well-known steam meditation cocoon, but found that it had been excavated, and the entire space around it was under some kind of repair. A cheerful old man offered to sell us bits and pieces of the famous curved walls, with their fine intaglio carvings, but we felt that was a bit like coming to see a famous palace, only to be offered a brick as an example of what it had once looked like. The man remembered many happy visits there himself, but the fact that it no longer existed seemed of no concern to him.
. . . we stayed on in Gravad, a zone not much liked even by other citizens of Phobos. It was excavated early in the settlement of the moon, and its vacuole-spoke pattern, once in fashion, is now regarded as hideous. Such distinctions are, of course, invisible to the visitor. After some search, we found a small, uncomfortable room, one that was both hot and noisy. Given our situation, the host didn’t even want to show it to us. He had purchased cubic from some defunct competitor and added it to his volume. He had not yet brought it up to the standards of his establishment, he said. But its location was just what we wanted, and he was persuaded. So we spent the night, sleepless, sweating, feeling the deep vibration of secret excavation in our bones, like a deep fever. . . .
. . . when people heard that we were in the process of an initial investigation of the consequences of our wedding, we were recommended Breen Gardens, as appropriate to romance. Its trees grow across the hollow and bury their tops in the opposite wall, where some perverse manipulation of tissue turns them into roots again. It is necessary to bribe the monkeys to leave you in peace. That was not to her taste, she said. Too obvious, perhaps, or unnecessary to our own situation. Instead we visited a spot where romances are best ended. After all, the beginning of anything is inevitably the end of something else. The best spot for ending a relationship is one of the tiny restaurants at the top of Farnum’s Wall, with its eternal waterfall, either Left Phleb or Noricum. We visited both, and, if you are in the final stages of a once-passionate relationship that is now congealing around you, there are some features that may be of interest. Noricum’s pastries, delicious but stimulating a host of mysterious allergies, put you in the mood to do some serious damage to your once loved enemy. Left Phleb specializes in random blasts of air, sometimes freezing, sometimes smelling of decaying flesh. As it happened, some kind of repairs deep in the water system had left the famous waterfall a mere trickle. That was a disappointment. We could hear the well-rehearsed arguments of the couples at the other tables. For a couple in trouble, that might have been a balm: the absurdities of others’ romantic squabbles might lead one to question the significance of your own. As it was, the arguments seemed to indicate the pettiness of the reasons that brought them together in the first place, never an appropriate lesson for a couple who were, after all, on their honeymoon. . . .
. . . we were told to stay away from Demavend. That advice was well meant. Actually, it was the best advice we received on our trip. The reasons to stay away turned out to be legion: sullen shopkeepers, packed restaurants that felt like emergency pods carrying refugees from some great disaster, children who hid under the heavy corridor furniture and jabbed at our behinds with sharpened wires. And most of the reasons for going to Demavend turned out to be less than compelling: a tomb with no body in it; a famous view down a widening corridor that was blocked by netting as some useless cross tunnel was constructed; a concert hall so poorly designed that all we heard were echoes of the performance, echoes that seemed to last long after the performers had left the stage. But Demavend turned out to be the highlight of our trip. In it the sense of secret negotiation, of grim planning, of determination to remain neutral between two great forces, one controlling the resources of the Solar System, the other desperate to use them, seemed clearest and most manifest. It was in Demavend that we realized that we were married for a reason, and that reason might well keep us both alive. . . .
“Who the hell wrote this?” Ferhat said. “I don’t think this showed up in the intel stream anywhere. Maybe that’s because no one could stand to read it. How did you get it?”
“Personal communication,” Kingsman said.
“In prison? They would have read it and incorporated it into the stream.”
“No. From before. Just before I went to Kalatra, in fact.”
That dread name gave her pause. “Don’t be coy, Preceptor. Who was it from?”
She’d picked up on his one area of reluctance. “A smart guy. One I respect. He’s married to . . . he’s now married to my ex-wife. He wrote these notes on their honeymoon.”
“He spent his honeymoon writing reports on water supplies and excavations?”
“Nam Lo is the kind of man who gets a lot done every day.”
“All I can say is, if that’s the guy who beat your ass in the husband sweepstakes, you must have been a real prize.”
“I probably could have stood some improvement.”
Ferhat and Kingsman sat together on the floor, leaning against a wall. Business went on all around them, and Ferhat occasionally had to answer a question or approve something. She would always let Kingsman know she was doing that, so he wouldn’t speak while she wasn’t listening. He appreciated the courtesy.
She turned back to him after making some decisions about resupply. “All right. Some of this guy’s observations match what I’ve suspected. But I don’t like my own conclusion.”
“Of course you don’t,” Kingsman said. “No one likes giving up a good working hypothesis. But deceptions do happen. And, if I’m right, this is a particularly good one. But this is just another hypothesis. I could be wrong.”
“Do you think that covers you?”
“Saying ‘I could be wrong.’ ”
No one ever liked his method. When it worked, it seemed as if he had succeeded by accident, and when it didn’t, they blamed Kingsman for the failure.
“Let me put it this way,” he said. “I could be wrong. But I’m probably not.”
She examined the exploded diagram of her team’s tactical target, even though she had taken it apart a dozen different ways already. “What if you’re right? What if we’re aiming at a false target? Will you immediately cancel the Phobos expedition?”
“I can’t swear that I won’t,” Kingsman said, after thinking it over. “Will that affect whether you order the recon?”
“Don’t push it.” After looking it over one more time, she closed the image. They were left alone with each other. “I don’t really have a choice. I can’t risk chasing an illusion and losing anyone else. I’ll give you two guys to check it out: Landor and Tutun. Good guys, maybe not quite nailed down around the edges.”
Kingsman checked their records as they flickered past his vision. Exactly as she said: brave men, fast, who exploited ambiguity in orders when it suited them.
“And you picked them because. . . ?”
“Because they’ll listen to the main thing I have to say to them, and act on it. And that’s this: if you get in trouble and saving you puts them at risk, any risk at all, they’re to abandon you. They’ll do that.”
“They might even enjoy following that order,” Kingsman said.
“Don’t worry, Kingsman. They’ll play it straight. If they can get you out, they will. Let me ask you something.”
“Were you surprised when they came to you in prison and offered you freedom in exchange for coming here and making this particular decision?”
Kingsman thought it over. “I don’t know about ‘surprised.’ I calculated the odds as a bit less than one in two that someone would come for me within three years of my incarceration. I figured that after any longer my skill set would be outdated, making me significantly less valuable. It was two years and eight months. That meant things were bad.”
Ferhat pushed herself to her feet. “Were you surprised when your wife asked you for a divorce?”
That Kingsman didn’t need to think about. “Yes.” . . .
.Copyright © 2013 Alexander Jablokov