In the darkening sky, Venus burned.
In the twelve years she had been at this desk, in this room, everything had changed. The alliance between Earth and its upstart brother had been an eternal, unshakable thing once. The Belt had been an annoyance and a haven for tiny cells of renegades and troublemakers as likely to die of a ship malfunction as to be called to justice. Humanity had been alone in the universe.
And then the secret discovery that Phoebe, idiosyncratic moon of Saturn, had been an alien weapon, launched at earth when life here was hardly more than an interesting idea wrapped in a lipid bilayer. How could anything be the same after that?
And yet it was. Yes, Earth and Mars were still unsure whether they were permanent allies or deadly enemies. Yes, the OPA, Hezbollah of the vacuum, was on its way to being a real political force in the outer planets. Yes, the thing that had been meant to reshape the primitive biosphere of Earth had instead ridden a rogue asteroid down into the clouds of Venus and started doing no one knew what.
But the spring still came. The election cycle still rose and fell. The evening star still lit the indigo heavens, outshining even the greatest cities of Earth.
Other days, she found that reassuring.
“Mr. Errinwright,” Soren said.
Avasarala turned to the dead screen on her wall as it came to life. Sadavir Errinwright was darker skinned than she was, his face round and soft. It would have been in place anywhere in the Punjab, but his voice affected the cool, analytic amusement of Britain. He wore a dark suit and a smart, narrow tie. Wherever he was, it was bright daylight behind him. The link kept fluttering, trying to balance the bright with the dark, leaving him a shadow in a government office or else a man haloed by light.
“Your meeting went well, I hope?”
“It was fine,” she said. “We’re moving ahead with the Martian summit. They’re working out the security arrangements now.”
“That was the consensus?”
“Once I told them it was, yes. The Martians are sending their top men to a meeting with officials of the United Nations to personally deliver their apology and discuss how to normalize relations and return Ganymede to blah blah blah. Yes?”
Errinwright scratched his chin.
“I’m not sure that’s how our opposites on Mars see it,” he said.
“Then they can protest. We’ll send out dueling press releases and threaten to cancel the meeting right up to the last minute. High drama is wonderful. It’s better than wonderful; it’s distracting. Just don’t let the bobble-head talk about Venus or Eros.”
His flinch was almost subliminal.
“Please, can we not refer to the secretary-general as ‘the bobble-head’?”
“Why not? He knows I do. I say it to his face, and he doesn’t mind.”
“He thinks you’re joking.”
“That’s because he’s a f**king bobble-head. Don’t let him talk about Venus.”
“And the footage?”
It was a fair question. Whatever had made its attack on Ganymede, it had started in the area held by the United Nations. If the back-channel chatter was to be trusted—and it wasn’t—Mars had a lone marine’s suit camera. Avasarala had seven minutes of high-definition video from forty different cameras of the thing slaughtering the best people Earth had standing for it. Even if the Martians could be convinced to keep it quiet, this was going to be hard to bury.
“Give me until the meeting,” Avasarala said. “Let me see what they say and how they say it. Then I’ll know what to do. If it’s a Martian weapon, they’ll show it by what they bring to the table.”
“I see,” Errinwright said slowly. Meaning he didn’t.
“Sir, with all respect,” she said, “for the time being, this needs to be something between Earth and Mars.”
“High drama between the two major military forces in the system is what we want? How exactly do you see that?”
“I got an alert from Michael-Jon de Uturbé about increased activity on Venus at the same time the shooting started on Ganymede. It wasn’t a big spike, but it was there. And Venus getting restless just when something happens that looks a damn lot like the protomolecule showed up on Ganymede? That’s a problem.”
She let that sink in for a moment before she went on. Errinwright’s eyes shifted, like he was reading in the air. It was something he did when he was thinking hard.
“Saber rattling we’ve done before,” she said. “We’ve survived it. It’s a known quantity. I have a binder with nine hundred pages of analysis and contingency plans for conflict with Mars, including fourteen different scenarios about what we do if they develop an unexpected new technology. The binder for what we do if something comes up from Venus? It’s three pages long, and it begins Step One: Find God.”
Errinwright looked sober. She could hear Soren behind her, a different and more anxious silence than he usually carried. She’d laid her fear out on the table.
“Three options,” she said softly. “One: Mars made it. That’s just war. We can handle that. Two: Someone else made it. Unpleasant and dangerous, but solvable. Three: It made itself. And we don’t have anything.”
“You’re going to put more pages in your thin binder?” Errinwright said. He sounded flippant. He wasn’t.
“No, sir. I’m going to find out which of the three we’re looking at. If it’s one of the first two, I’ll solve the problem.”
“And if the third?”
“Retire,” she said. “Let you put some other idiot in charge.”
Errinwright had known her long enough to hear the joke in her voice. He smiled and tugged absently at his tie. It was a tell of his. He was as anxious as she was. No one who didn’t know him would have seen it.
“That’s a tightrope. We can’t let the conflict on Ganymede become too heated.”
“I’ll keep it a sideshow,” Avasarala said. “No one starts a war unless I say they can.”
“You mean unless the secretary-general issues the executive decision and the general assembly casts an affirming vote.”
“And I’ll tell him when he can do that,” she said. “But you can give him the news. Hearing it from an old grandma like me makes his dick shrink.”
“Well, we can’t have that, certainly. Let me know what you find. I’ll speak with the speech-writing staff and make certain that the text of his announcement doesn’t color outside the lines.”