Fisher's home was a free-flying teardrop in a close orbit around Proxima Centauri. The red-gold ball of the faded dwarf-sun
hung over the wide promontory, washing the open gardens and pool with light. The globe was fixed and large, like a rose window
in the transept of a great cathedral. Golden light poured through the transparent plexan vault at the wider end fading to
black toward the sharper end, where the stars shone over the master suite. Electromachinery and storage were tucked away beneath
the flooring; all portals, moorings, beacons, and arrays emerged below so that nothing interrupted the continuity of the heavens
above. In keeping with this sensibility, a small starship attending the home was parked below the visible horizon.
Marten escorted his
visitor along a stone path composed of tombstones salvaged from European churchyards. Few names were readable; the letters
mostly had become hollowed depressions and the artwork merely contours, although the occasional worn, winged skull or angel
would stare up vacantly as they passed. The men had full glasses of Czech pilsner and they walked together with the practiced
ease of men used to the company of people who might kill him at any moment but who also might have something profitable to
The visitor, Richard Alvarez, was the darker and more athletic of the two. Richard was sort of relieved to finally face his
albatross but he was also not a little terrified at the prospect of seeing his former lover. Marten had stolen Beth away during
a time when Richard was mired in the Inquiry and self-pity. Or perhaps, Beth had merely found something better. Regardless,
it was not a reunion Richard looked forward to. With some satisfaction he noticed that Marten Fisher was exceedingly gracious
and-it seemed-even apologetic.
Richard paused at a life-size marble statue in the classical style of a nude man leaning on a club.
"Hercules?" he asked.
"Adam," Marten said. "Note the Tree of Knowledge."
"It looks like a club."
"Note the Serpent
entwined around the Tree of Knowledge."
"Ah," Richard said. "I thought that was a vine."
"Note the apple in Adam's
left hand," Marten said.
"Okay, I get it," Richard said. "Is it authentic?"
"Venetian, from the late
15th century," Marten said with pride.
"No, he was from Florence."
"I'm all out of Renaissance
"Tullio Lombardo." Marten said. "He signed his same, right there on the base."
said, feeling more stupid.
"It was originally part of a tomb made for the doge Andrea Vendramin, where it was paired
with a figure of Eve that I haven't been able to locate."
Richard considered that Marten and Ben would get along fine.
"I have a friend
you should meet," he said.
Marten deflected Richard's appreciative nod.
"It came with a book."
sought to redeem his powers of observation: "There're cracks in it."
"I know. The pretty lady at A-List who takes your
money said that only the cognoscenti could tell. You're plainly a philistine like me, and we can both see the damage. But
it's old, so I bought it."
"The cracks give it a certain authenticity, I guess," Richard said. "Something doesn't
hang around for a thousand years without picking up a few flaws."
"Actually, it was broken in New York early in the
"During the Great Jihad?"
"Unrelated," Marten said. "It was smashed while on display at the Metropolitan Museum."
"Who was the Adam
Marten smiled. "They never fingered a suspect, and museum officials claim it was a case of spontaneous pedestal
failure. But I suspect it was a radical feminist. An act of gender retribution, such as the British suffragette who hacked
Velazquez's Venus or the American activist who shot Andy Warhol."
Richard nodded appreciatively.
"The book is extensively
indexed," Marten said.
"Still, you're retaining stuff you've read," Richard said. "I require extensive
space voyages for that. So tell me, what is the gain in destroying something beautiful?"
"Well, there is the whole
Genesis affair," Marten said. "Man blames woman for casting him out of Paradise and so he enslaves her."
"And so feminists
destroy art as retribution against men?"
"Oh," Richard said. "Him. What did He do to them?"
"He made them
women, of course," Marten said. "Unable to resist enslavement. The feminists developed self-loathing into art, or
anti-art. They hated God so much for making them women that they tried to turn him into one of them."
"Was this in the
"It's something of a theory I've developed over time," Marten said. "Attack cultural icons long and
hard enough, and those who value them will put them away for safe-keeping. Once gone from the public consciousness, icons
are hard to bring back, except as a fad or a market brand. In either case, they've lost their power. It's the same with beliefs
Richard paused and took in the splendor of the three-star extended Centauri system.
"I think it's jealously,"
he said finally. "People attack things more beautiful then themselves, or achievements that they could never approach
with their own efforts. It's an attempt by the mediocre to insert themselves into the lives of their betters, hoping that
they can catch some of the glory for themselves. It's a way of enabling some sort of influence on a society that is otherwise
beyond their control."
"That's just pathetic," Marten said.
"Is that your love of humanity talking?"
"I just prefer
not to think of people that way."
"You'd rather they be impassioned zealots?"
"Absolutely," Marten said. "In
my opinion, it's just too boring to contemplate some asshole's suffering mediocrity. I prefer vandals of conscience and ideology."
"Spoken like a card-carrying Phalangist."
"I had to turn in my card to get this place," Marten said, smiling.
"But you're not wrong. It's fun being a true believer."
"How is it fun? I thought it was all mental torture and disillusionment."
"Have you ever
"Well," Marten said, considering. "How about basic belief? Do you believe in anything?"
"I believe in
myself," Richard said.
"Good for you. How about something larger than yourself? The Service, perhaps? Family? God?"
Richard felt the wounds
in his heart at each mention. The Service, family, God: they had failed him and he had failed them. If Marten Fisher was being
clever, he hid it well with earnestness.
"I believe in the job I am doing," Richard said.
"I wish I could have said that when
I was working," Marten said wistfully. "Do you know what we believe in? The Phalangists, I mean. We believe in Earth."
"You're in luck,"
Richard said. "I've just come from Earth. It's real."
"You know what I mean," Marten said. "We believe in the
idea of Earth. The driving philosophy of the Phalangist Party is to make the universe Earth. We've put this philosophy into
practice, one world at a time. Thanks to us, there's no such thing as an endangered species."
"Earth species, you mean,"
Richard said. "Terraforming has made millions of aboriginal species on a half-dozen worlds extinct."
"This is one of
the main reasons why I left," Marten said. "But for the sake of argument, the Phalangist calculation is that tigers,
blue whales, and Homo sapiens are more valuable than alien bacteria, lichens, and bugs."
"Do you not find it ironic
that Earth scorns you for this?"
"That doesn't matter to the Phalangist," Marten said. "And keep in mind that I have
renounced my party and my people and now live in exile."
"Noted," Richard said, finding it difficult to muster much in
the way of sympathy for the defector.
"The Phalangist believes that the men of Earth have abandoned their mission and so their birthright,"
Marten said. "The Rock scared a lot of people. And there was a time when the Grey War wasn't going so well. Earth's strategists
and think-tankers thought man needed more egg baskets. Not just bases and colonies under plastic but living, breathing open-sky
worlds. Terraforming and seeding appropriate planets was an insurance policy against a killing blow that might land one day,
either by an act of God or an enemy."
"Or by our own hand."
"Right, but you guys kept burning new planets even
after the iSUN declared terraforming immoral," Richard said.
"Immoral!" Marten snorted. "The iSUN outlawed terraforming
because they were winning the war and decided that they didn't need to hide any eggs after all. Like so much legislation,
the morality of the thing only became an issue once it was convenient."
"I could level much the same criticism at you believers,"
Richard said. "The early Phalangists remade Pavise and Odyssey before the iSUN prohibition. Afterward, they gave up plans
for Hydra but kept working on Troy, which was far enough out to be effectively beyond any law enforcement. True believers
would have made a stand at Hydra, on principle."
"You would think that the iSUN would have found the resources to
enforce its highly moral laws even out to Troy. On principle."
Richard nodded. "Point taken."
Moments later a tray
floated by with two freshly poured pilsners. Marten and Richard replaced them with empty glasses, and the tray returned whence
it came. The two men both had used the interval to muster their arguments, which came forward as they continued walking through
"You know, the anti-terraforming laws didn't even pass the General Assembly at first," Marten said. "It
wasn't until adaptation techniques had been developed and commercialized that terraforming was made a universal crime. Only
after man found that it was less expensive for him to alter himself than to alter his worlds did he consider the latter sufficiently
reprehensible to make a law against it."
"The market strikes again," Richard said. "I have always found it fascinating how
self-interest on an economically significant scale nearly always tends to produce more good than the most altruistic public
"Perhaps that may be the case," Marten said. "But it also tends to produce results that some find
singularly unacceptable. Take adaptation technology. Phalangists find the notion of altering the genetic makeup of man to
be obscene. Pornographic. I find it fascinating that progressives nearly always forget that ideology trumps self-interest
in some minds. There are people who are willing to sacrifice quite a lot in order to win a war of ideas."
"You know, I can
see why OSI considered you so valuable," Richard said. "You have the mind of an alien."
"A reformed alien,"
Marten said, smiling. "I have the brainstamp to prove it. But of course, my former colleagues would say that your ideas
are the ones alien to our nature."
The tombstone path had brought the men to the edge of glade surrounding a starlit pool. Richard
stopped up short, his breath seized. The figure of a nude woman traversed the pool underwater. Although distorted by the surface
ripples her form was unmistakably athletic and long. Her strokes were effortless. Hair trailed over her back like coal smoke.
When she reached the pool's near edge she pulled herself up with strength and grace.
Bethlehem Stern came out of the water, dripping,
lovely. Wavy dark strands of hair fell over her shoulders and continued as rivulets down her body. She was dark with the memory
a Mediterranean sun that had never touched her.
"I think she timed that just for you," Marten said softly, carefully, aware of the ground.
Richard trembled. But
not with anger. Marten had disarmed him, and he felt the invisible hand of friendship.
"What ugly things are you saying about
me?" Beth called.
Her voice sang, of course. Richard started to hate her again. But then couldn't.
"Nothing, Starlight," Marten called
back. "I was just noting your timing. Dinner is in twenty minutes and you aren't dressed."
"I said that I wouldn't
be joining you." Beth found a towel. "You don't mind, do you, Richard."
Richard knew the atonal finality. It was
same when she left him. He had wept then, and he still tortured himself replaying that scene in his mind from multiple angles.
The loss of dignity hurt more in the long run than the loss of his love to a stranger. Richard had forgiven the stranger.
Had even forgiven Beth.
"I'd like a minute, later," Richard said, managing to keep his voice steady.
Beth looked at him. Her almond,
brown eyes showed interest. Scientific curiosity? They shifted to Marten. Amusement?
Marten sipped his beer. The diplomat.
"Well, of course,"
Beth said, smiling gently. "I'll see you later. Don't drink too much."
Beth shed her towel and Richard couldn't
help but watch her as she disappeared, perfect, down the garden path past a bronze Diana, into the leaves. She left wet foot
traces on the tombstones.
"It's amazing how they can still give you orders," Marten ventured, sotto voche.
Beth's voice rang back from
the green: "And don't talk about me."
They let the garden swallow it. Then Marten smiled, a little guiltily, and mimed a shiver.
"Ooh, I had dreaded
"Don't worry about it," Richard said, feeling odd strength. "I signed the articles of surrender years
"I thought you were coming out here to kill me," Marten said. "You help bring me in from the cold,
and I steal your girl."
"I can let you say that because it isn't true. It was her doing, not yours. Although, I might
have killed you then if I hadn't felt so sorry for myself."
"And if I didn't have priority OSI security protection," Marten
said. He indicated the suddenly silver globe of a buzzguard that emerged among the tree branches overhanging the path. Richard
recognized it as a combat model.
"Nice," Richard said. "I left mine on the spaceship. As a gesture of trust."
"I bet my buzzguard
can beat up yours," Marten said.
"You're a jerk," Richard said.
"I really am," Marten agreed.
Dinner was shellfish. It stated with a roll-up
raw bar and proceeded to chowder and a main course of spiny lobster. It was all fresh and no doubt obscenely expensive. They
opened the bottle of champagne Richard had brought and afterward Marten opened the box of gift cigars, which he shared.
"I've come to
you with a problem," Richard said.
"I will do whatever I can to help you," Marten said.
"We require a service."
"Now it's we?"
"You don't think
I could have gotten a visitor's permit otherwise, do you?" Richard tried to seem serious but non-threatening. "Much
less on my own."
"I had thought that odd," Marten said, wreathed in lazy smoke. "Which is why the notion that you might
want to kill me did cross my mind."
"Well, you're considered much too valuable," Richard said. "But we are calling in
"Hmm," Marten said. "I've been very cooperative up to this point. I should think that I have already
provided your OSI friends with enough intelligence on Phalangist methods and operations to justify the effort expended to
bring me out. You haven't even asked me what you want me to do and you're already playing on my supposed sense of obligation."
Richard said. "I'm new at this."
"At what? Coercion?"
"Skullduggery," Richard said.
Marten smiled. "So out with it, then."
"We need you to
create a deep, persistent low-pressure cell in an Earth-like atmosphere."
The smile faded. "You want what?"
"A really big
cyclone," Richard said, twirling his cigar. "One that will last for several weeks and that won't move around too
much. You can do that, right?"
Marten worked his mouth but nothing came out. Then: "I'm stunned."
"You want me to
help you terraform a planet?"
"No." Richard leaned forward. "But we want you to apply your skills and knowledge
to create a carefully controlled atmospheric event on a particular world."
"But you're asking me to use such skills and knowledge
that I have sworn never to apply again." Marten was clearly agitated. "I signed documents!"
"I know. This
is the skullduggery part."
"Oh." Marten was quiet for a moment. "Whom do you represent, exactly?"
"It's an OSI matter,"
Richard said. "No footprints, though. Don't worry, we can pay you. That is, I have a budget."
Marten glared at him.
"I've sold out my own people and left a fortune behind because I didn't want to do those things
anymore. Now you're offering to pay me to fuck with somebody's atmosphere?"
"We just want some technical assistance,"
Richard said. "In an advisory capacity."
"And that makes it okay?"
"If it was okay I wouldn't be here," Richard said. "The
fact is, something is very much not okay and people like me have to get involved."
"And you need people like me to help
"That's the way it works."
"So I take it this little thing you're running is against the law."
Richard said. "But it does have official sanction."
"Oh, well, in that case..." Marten sighed. "You know, things
are simpler in the Phalangist Sphere. There's a Covenant. There are policies. There are agencies to pursue those policies.
You'll find surprisingly little bullshit."
"Things are more complicated out here."
"In your democratic Treaty Area."
gestured. "Look what happened to me."
Marten nodded. "That wasn't fair."
"Whatever. One of the things we live with is that
there are many, many sides to every issue. And every side has an interest group. The pressure of the various groups working
from different angles moves an issue along until a sort of inertia takes hold. Nobody is really satisfied, but enough people
are less unhappy than they had been. Life moves on."
"Democracy," Marten snorted.
"It's not fair," Richard said,
agreeing. "But it's a very naturalistic process, don't you think? Very much like nature. Everything moving at cross purposes
until a sort of balance is achieved. A beauty and harmony in the whole."
"Now who's the fanatic?"
Richard laughed. "I'm
not pushing the system. I'm just trying to live in it."
"So you're saying that your interest group is going to act on something
before others can stop you?"
"Sometimes it's better to ask for forgiveness afterward than to ask for permission beforehand."
Richard shrugged: "Relatively
"Do I have a choice, here?"
"We need your help," Richard said. "I'd like to have your cooperation, too."
Marten eyed Richard
warily. "Maybe you should tell me what the issue is."
"Fair enough," Richard said. "Do you know about the planet
"I've heard of it." Marten reflected, considering his words. "Outre Mer's a refugee world for abductees
released by the Greys. They've been quarantined there for reeducation, no?"
"Something like that," Richard
said, finding Marten's choice of language intriguing and not entirely inappropriate. "The so-called refugees have taken
over the provisional government."
"I take it they didn't ask for permission."
"And they don't want forgiveness, either,"
Richard said. "They want to be recognized as a sovereign world."
"So? Let them have it."
said, seeing his own initial reaction reflected in Marten's. "The problem with Outre Mer is that there's a sentient aboriginal
species living on a large island continent in the southern hemisphere. The refugees have been interfering with them and we
have to put a stop to it."
"Why were refugees settled on a world with a native species if there wasn't supposed to be
"I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time," Richard said.
"Are the settlers exploiting the natives
for slave labor or something?"
"Just the opposite," Richard said. "They're educating them and teaching them how
to use tools."
"Yes, well, it's against the law."
"And yet you tell me that you intend to violate
the law yourself."
"Like I said, it's complicated," Richard said, a little exasperated. "The duranni need to be protected."
"That's what they
call the natives."
"Okay, fine," Marten said. "What do you need me for?"
"OSI has decided to take corrective
action before the political situation becomes unfavorable."
"Meaning, before anybody figures out what you're up to."
"Our hands will
soon be tied," Richard agreed.
"So you don't trust your esteemed governmental institutions and non-governmental organizations
to arrive at a suitable result?"
"There will be a result, and it will seem suitable for some," Richard said. "But
not for us."
"And why is that?"
"I don't know."
"They didn't tell me."
Richard said. "I was told that I didn't need to know."
"And you're fine with that?"
"My feelings have nothing to do with
it. I have a job to do."
Marten frowned. "And a radical low-pressure cell will do what for you, exactly?"
"It will contain
the effects of our actions."
Marten considered that. His eyes popped open. "Jesus, you're going to gas them!"
"We're going to
treat the contaminated regions," Richard said, hardly believing the words were coming out of his mouth. "This will
leave a viable population of uncontaminated duranni outside the affected area."
"I call it mass murder."
"It is that."
Marten's face twisted
in resistance. Richard saw flashes of fury. Of defiance.
"What about the people?" he said. "The human beings?"
"That's not your
problem," Richard said, on guard. "But to answer your question, I have some discretion if I can induce them to leave."
"Are you going
to gas them, too?"
"The biochemical agent to be employed is duranni specific," Richard said. "If it comes to it..."
His brain raced. High-yield nukes on the population centers. Negligible fallout. Recovery teams train and deploy within a
year. In a generation it will be like we had never been there. "...we'll use other means to remove the human population."
Marten didn't hesitate.
"I don't want any part of this."
Richard tried with all his strength to keep his expression as neutral as possible. Here was a man,
ostensibly in his own house, fighting to keep some portion of why he had come here alive. The house was expensive, exclusive,
filled with priceless art treasures, and for all intents and purposes a gulag. That might describe any number of upscale houses
in unregistered orbits around a multitude of minor stars. Even Richard's own house, situated in one of the most desirable
locations in known space, a place that many would consider priceless due to the natural beauty of its environs, was merely
the home of a man who had traded in his family to pursue a dream. The dream had failed and the house was an empty place that
would be removed upon his passing.
"If you do not cooperate, Marten," he said slowly. "You will be deported back to
the Phalangist Sphere."
Real fear. And anger.
"But, but my deal?" Marten sputtered. "I'll be executed!"
"Then help us,"
Richard said. In his mind he thought: It's really not that hard. "We'll be grateful."
Marten hung his head for a moment,
as if reviewing all of the betrayals he had undertaken to reach the seat in which he now sat. Then he sagged back into his
"Do you know, I haven't tasted open air in four years? We..." Marten paused, embarrassed, tearing up. He composed
himself. A handkerchief appeared and vanished. "I took some leave on Forge before the final stages of the Maya ignition.
Before you and your people brought me out."
Although they had been softly delivered, the words ‘you and your people' landed like blows.
The same people who had brought Marten Fisher willingly out of his old life had destroyed Richard's: Gustavo Franco. Aye-Aye
Zar. Beth. Now Richard was shattering Marten's fragile world, one that he had been attentively building for himself, perhaps
at the expense of others.
"I can build you a Kinder Torch," Marten said, defeated. "It will create a thermal
low-pressure column that will draw the surrounding air into it. But I'll need detailed information on Outre Mer's topography,
climatology, and celestial mechanics."
"You'll have it," Richard said, empathizing with defeat.
"How much time do we have?"
"A few weeks."
"Not much time,"
Marten said. "I can do the theoreticals, but I don't have access to materials and components, much less skilled engineers."
"There's a tug
a few hours behind me," Richard said, gesturing heavenward "It's going to take this whole place to Erie."
"Think of it as
house arrest," Richard said.
"At Erie you'll be loaded aboard the prime mover Centauri Conveyor for the rest of the trip. In the meantime,
you'll be able to order what you need over the Aethernet. I've set up a trading account for you. Some of the necessary components
have apparently been stockpiled. There's a catalogue you can access."
"Convenient. What about you?"
"I'm going to
take my ship ahead," Richard said. "I have a number of arrangements to make."
"Marten, look, I'm sorry."
"Save it," Marten said. "I know you're just the messenger."
Although it wasn't meant to, Marten's comment wounded
him. The truth of it cut surprisingly deep.
Later, in a grotto where a small marble boy urinated water into a bowl, Richard and Beth sat on
separate concrete benches.
"I'm glad you landed on your feet," Beth told him.
"I'm staggering a little," Richard
"At least you've had some time to be with your daughter."
"Yes," he said. It just seemed easier to lie. "It's been
"And now you're off into space again."
"Yes." Richard reached into his pocket. "I have something
"You're not going to offer me a ring, are you?"
Beth laughed as if it were a harmless joke. Richard let the little cruelty
slip by without comment.
"A friend wanted me to give you this," Richard said.
He produced a datastick. Beth hesitated, smile fading.
But she reached for the smooth cylinder as if compelled and took it. They avoided touching hands, although Richard hoped they