“Park them a safe distance away, and have our transports pick them up?”

“They’ll never agree to that.”

“So let’s find out what they will agree to.”

Avasarala quietly stood up and headed for the door. Her personal assistant—a European boy named Soren Cottwald—detached himself from the back wall and followed her. The generals pretended not to notice her exit, or maybe they were so wrapped up in the new set of problems she’d handed them, they really didn’t. Either way, she was sure they were as pleased to have her out as she was to leave.

The hallways of the United Nations complex in the Hague were clean and wide, the décor a soft style that made everything look like a museum diorama of Portuguese colonies in the 1940s. She paused at an organics recycling unit and started digging the shells out of her bag.

“What’s next?” she asked.

“Debriefing with Mr. Errinwright.”

“After that?”

“Meeston Gravis about the Afghanistan problem.”

“Cancel it.”

“What should I tell him?”

Avasarala dusted her hands over the waste container, then turned, walking briskly toward the central commons and the elevators.

“Fuck him,” she said. “Tell him the Afghanis have been resisting external rule since before my ancestors were kicking out the British. As soon as I figure out how to change that, I’ll let him know.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I also need an updated summary paper on Venus. The latest. And I don’t have time to get another PhD to read it, so if it’s not in clear, concise language, fire the sonofabitch and get someone who knows how to write.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The elevator that rose from the common lobby and meeting rooms up to the offices glittered like spun diamond set in steel and was big enough to seat dinner for four. It recognized them as they stepped in, and began its careful rise through the levels. Outside the windows of the common areas, the Binnenhof seemed to sink and the huge anthill of buildings that was the Hague spread out under a perfect blue sky. It was springtime, and the snow that had touched the city since December was finally gone. The pigeons swirled up from the streets far below. There were thirty billion people on the planet, but they would never crowd out the pigeons.

“They’re all f**king men,” she said.

“Excuse me?” Soren said.

“The generals. They’re all f**king men.”

“I thought Souther was the only—”

“I don’t mean that they all f**k men. I mean they’re all men, the f**kers. How long has it been since a woman was in charge of the armed forces? Not since I came here. So instead, we wind up with another example of what happens to policy when there’s too much testosterone in the room. That reminds me: Get in touch with Annette Rabbir in infrastructure. I don’t trust Nguyen. If traffic starts going up between him and anyone in the general assembly, I want to know it.”

Soren cleared his throat.

“Excuse me, ma’am. Did you just instruct me to spy on Admiral Nguyen?”

“No, I just asked for a comprehensive audit of all network traffic, and I don’t give a f**k about any results besides Nguyen’s office.”

“Of course. My mistake.”

The elevator rose past the windows, past the view of the city, and into the dark shaft of the private-office levels. Avasarala cracked her knuckles.

“Just in case, though,” she said, “do it on your own initiative.”

“Yes, ma’am. That was my thought too.”

To those who knew Avasarala only by reputation, her office was deceptively unassuming. It was on the east side of the building, where the lower-ranked officials usually started out. She had a window looking out over the city, but not a corner. The video screen that took up most of the southern wall was left off when it wasn’t in active use, leaving it matte black. The other walls were scuffed bamboo paneling. The carpet was industrially short and patterned to hide stains. The only decorations were a small shrine with a clay sculpture of the Gautama Buddha beside the desk, and a cut crystal vase with the flowers that her husband, Arjun, sent every Thursday. The place smelled like fresh blooms and old pipe smoke, though Avasarala had never smoked there and didn’t know anyone who had. She walked to the window. Beneath her, the city spread out in vast concrete and ancient stone.

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?”