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Science Fiction

The Third Party

By David Moles
Sep 29, 2018 · 12,064 words · 44 minutes

From the author: It’s been ten thousand years since the deluge, ten thousand years since the world of Salomé was cut off from every other human colony, ten thousand years since the collapse of civilization in the interstellar diaspora. Now not one but two interstellar civilizations have found Salomé again. The missionaries of Community Outreach, bringing the promise of freedom. And the traders of Marginal, LLC, bringing the promise of profit. And no one’s asking the people of Salomé what they want.

It was closer to dawn than midnight when Cicero pushed aside the bar's canvas half-curtain. He brought a gust of wind and rain in with him, the wind blood-warm, the rain with the green taste of a stagnant pond.

There were three stools in front of the plywood counter, and the middle one was occupied. Cicero chose the one on the left and sat down heavily.

“Where have you been?” demanded the man on the middle stool. The language he used had no more than fifty speakers in the world.

Cicero ignored him. The bartender set a wooden cup in front of him and poured in three fingers of cloudy spirit. While it settled, the old man dished out a bowl of soup and set it down next to the cup. Cicero dipped a hand into his algae-stained rain cape and pushed a handful of zinc coins across the bar.

The other man sighed.

Cicero reached past him for the bottle of hot sauce and poured a generous dollop into the soup bowl. “Faculty reception,” he said. “Couldn't get away.” He stirred the soup with his long spoon. “You had to pick the first night of storm season, didn't you? It's pissing down out there.” He took a noisy slurp from the short spoon and followed it with a gulp from the cup.

“Damn it, Cicero—”

“I'm joking,” Cicero said. He balanced a fish-ball on the long spoon and eyed it critically before popping it in his mouth. “I was followed,” he said around the mouthful. “Took me a bit to lose them.”

The other man tensed. “Dealers?”

“What?” Cicero swallowed and put down his spoons. “Of course it wasn't the dealers! Do you think they'd use people? They'd use, I don't know, drones or something.”

“Right,” the other man said, relaxing.

“Marius,” Cicero said, “what's gotten into you? It was the Specials or it was the Secret Empire, and either way I left them behind before I was out of the District. Strictly local.”

Marius sighed and rapped on the bar to signal the bartender. Now it was Cicero's turn to wait impatiently while the bartender set down another bowl and refilled both cups.

Finally Cicero shrugged, and turned his attention back to his soup. “There wasa reception,” he volunteered, around another mouthful of fish. “At the Chancellor's. For the new Semard Professor of Inapplicable Optics. Had a nice chat with him about luminiferous ether.”

“That's brilliant, Cicero. You're supposed to be teaching political economy, not physics.”

“I'll teach what I damn well please,” Cicero said mildly.

He was quiet for a moment, sipping his drink. After a little while he looked up.

“Talking of dealers,” he said. “They were at the University today. Two of them. Nosing around the library.”

“What were they looking for?” Marius said.

“I don't know,” said Cicero, “but I didn't like it. They weren't even in local clothes. I don't know who the librarians thought they were.”

“Listen, Cicero,” Marius said. “Galen's thinking about going home.”

“And leaving Salomé to the dealers?” Cicero said. “Pull the other one.”

“I'm serious,” Marius said. “The consensus in Outreach is that it would be the safest thing.”

Cicero put his drink down.

“Fuck the consensus,” he said.

He waited for Marius to say something, and when the other man remained silent, said:

“What are you going to do?”

Marius sighed. “I don't know. Wait till they make a decision, I suppose.”

Cicero looked down, toying with his cup. They were both silent for a little while.

“Marius,” Cicero said eventually. “If we do go back—is there anyone you're going to regret leaving behind?”

“Plenty of people,” said Marius. “The whole workers' movement, for a start.” He looked at Cicero, and saw the expression on his face.

“Oh,” he said. He shook his head. “No. Not like that.”

Cicero sighed.

“You're in a tight spot, aren't you?” said Marius.

“I suppose I am,” Cicero said.

He caught the first eastbound train back to the University District. It was nearly empty; the only passengers in Cicero's car were a couple of comatose, second-shift City clerks, slinking back to their families in the suburbs after drinking away the week's wage packet.

He felt very alone, all of a sudden. He was not supposed to be alone. Somewhere overhead were the two Community Outreach ships, Equity and Solidarity; there were analysts and computers, there was the QT network linking them to the Outreach offices at Urizen and Zoa, and through them to the rest of Outreach and to the Community at large. Some small but perceptible fraction of the Community undoubtedly was, right now, focusing its attention on this world, this continent, this city; perhaps even on Cicero himself.

The train passed the dockside shantytowns and the skeletal, rust-streaked shapes of waterfront cranes, and came out onto the long high span of Old Republic Bridge. For a moment the clouds parted; on the left was the great sparkling gray-green bay, with the darker green of the inland sea beyond, and on the right was Basia, bright and dirty and beautiful, wrapped in tropical foliage from the wooden houses of the poor to the gilded, steel-framed spires of the City.

A million people in Basia. A hundred million more scattered over the surface of Salomé. Working. Sleeping. Praying. Stealing. Killing one another, with knives, and bullets, and poor sanitation, and bad fiscal policy. Making love.

“Fuck it,” Cicero said aloud, making one of the sleeping clerks snort and look up.

He wondered how many of the researchers and experts and self-styled authorities really understood what they were doing. Very few, he suspected. It was all very well for them to talk about the weight of history, about emergent complexity and long-term consequences, about gradual change in due course—when they never had to face the people whose lives were being turned upside-down by their decisions, face them and look them in the eye.

It was all very well for them to suggest that Outreach abandon Salomé to the dealers.

To suggest that he abandon Thalia.

The train reached the end of the bridge and started the long climb up to the green-topped cliffs on the opposite side of the bay, and the rain closed in again.

Cicero took a quick, deep breath, and let it out slowly.

“Fuck it,” he repeated. “I'm staying.”

He waited in the shadows of the barred gate of Palmer College as the University proctor made his way along the lane, pausing every few yards to rustle with his long staff among the stalks of climbing bamboo that overgrew the red walls of Graces, Palmer's ancient rival. The walls had stood against fire and riot and war in their time, but generations of peace had left them untested by anything more violent than the annual brawl with Palmer. And now that Graces was a women's college, there was not even that; any insults Palmer's undergraduates offered to the student body of Graces were on a purely individual basis.

When the proctor was out of sight, Cicero looked up and down the lane, tied back his hood and sleeves, and scrambled into the wet greenery. As generations of truant undergraduates had discovered—and the proctors knew full well—the bamboo was more than strong enough to support a climbing body, and its leaves more than deep enough to hide one.

Five years in Salomé's low gravity had done nothing for Cicero's muscle tone, but he made it to the top, and then along the tiled roofs to Labriola House, where he swung down into the open quad and onto the third-floor balcony. He unslung his satchel, paused for a moment to arrange his gown and brush the wet leaves from his hair, and knocked on the first door he came to.

After a little while, a sleepy maid opened it.

“Good morning, Leah,” said Cicero. “Is Miss Touray receiving visitors?”

The maid bobbed up and down. “She'll receive you, sir, I'm sure,” she said. “She's been up all night at her books. It'd be an act of charity, sir, if you'd convince her at least to close her eyes for a few minutes before chapel.”

“I shall see what I can do,” Cicero said.

Graces' star student was, in fact, at her books. The table that Thalia Xanthè Touray-Laurion bent over was stacked with books, four and five high, and there was paper everywhere the books were not. As Cicero entered the room she kicked her chair back and pushed her hair out of her eyes.

“Cicero!” she said. “What time is it?”

“Thursday,” he said, kissing her. “The sixty-eighth of summer, though storm season seems to have come early this year.” He opened his satchel and took out a small paper-wrapped package. “These are for you,” he said, setting it down on the table. “The fruit filling, I'm afraid; with the dockworkers on strike there's no chocolate to be had.”

She gave him a look, and he amended his answer.

“Six o'clock,” he said.

“Six o'clock!” she said, looking back at her books and papers. “I need a window.” She stood, and stretched. “Oh, Cicero!” she said, turning suddenly. “Did you know that the real numbers can't be counted?”

Cicero's brow furrowed. “I don't know,” he said. “Did I?” He found the coffee press and upended it over the wastebasket to empty the filter. “Is that what you've been working on all night?”

“Yes!” Thalia said. “It's true! And I can prove it!”

Cicero filled the press from Thalia's bedside pitcher and set it on the burner. “What about that statistics thing for Bolte?” he said, trying to light the gas.

“Oh, that,” Thalia said. She fished around among the books and papers and came up with a canary-yellow essay booklet. “Done. Yesterday afternoon.” She picked up a pastry. “God, I'm starving.”

The gas caught. Cicero turned from the burner and picked up the booklet. Explicit quantification of subjectivity effects on prior distributions: an alternative to maximum likelihood estimation. Thalia's handwriting was spare and direct, betraying an abundance of calligraphy lessons but also a distinct lack of patience.

“It's very good,” he said as he turned the pages. “It's too advanced for Bolte, though.”

And not just for Bolte, he thought. He'd had something like it back on Ahania, in History of Mathematics, or it would have been too advanced for him as well. He flipped through to the conclusion.

“Of course the real numbers aren't countable,” he said absently, as he read, though Thalia's overnight project had nothing to do with the essay. “For any countable sequence of them, you can construct a series of nested intervals converging to a number that's not in the sequence.”

He turned a few more pages, and looked up to see Thalia staring at him.

“Cicero,” she said. “I spent all night proving that. I don't think anyone else ever has. You're an economicsprofessor. Where did that come from?”

Cicero shrugged. “I don't know,” he said. “I must have read it somewhere. Eat your pastry; it'll go stale.” He took one for himself.

“I mean it, Cicero,” Thalia said. “You're very bright, and I love you dearly, but you're not a genius.”

“It's all right,” he said. “You are.” He kissed her again. “Did you know that the new Semard Professor says that the speed of light in a vacuum is constant, regardless of the relative velocity of the source and the observer?”

“Yes,” she said. “I read his paper. I meant to write him about it; distance and time would have to vary with the observer's motion for it to work. Stop trying to distract me.”

Cicero sighed. It wasn't Thalia that he was trying to distract; it was himself.

He stood back, looking around the room for a place to sit, and finally settled on the edge of the bed. The mattress was the martially virtuous kind the upper classes of Travalle and Thyatira favored, no more than a little thin cotton stuffing over hard wood, but at that moment it seemed infinitely inviting.

All he wanted to do was take Thalia's hand and pull her down onto it with him, to curl around her with the blankets drawn over their heads, to sleep there forever like enchanted lovers in some fairy tale, caring nothing for professors and colleges, revolutionaries and merchant adventurers. Nothing for orbiting starships overhead, invisible and threatening.

“Thalia,” he said instead. “If I had to go away—would you come with me?”

She looked at him. “Go away where?” she said. “The islands? Port-St.-Paul?”

Port-St.-Paul was the capital of one of Travalle's island colonies; it was supposed to be Cicero's home. Six thousand kilometers of stormy ocean separated the islands from Basia: enough to make it nearly impossible for the University to check his forged credentials, enough to paper over any number of cracks in his cover story.

He'd spent the three subjective years of the voyage from Zoa in a constant mild fever, as specialized medical nano rebuilt him into a Roka islander from the DNA up, blood type and skin color and the shape of his cheekbones and the texture of his hair. The face he saw in the mirror was still mostly his own, and by now he had grown accustomed to the differences—the flatter nose, the hair in ringlets rather than curls, the skin no longer blue-black but a richer, more complex brown that could show a blanch or a blush; all so that to the Travallese, he would appear not alien, but merely exotic. It was still enough to make Cicero an object of curiosity, but he rarely minded that.

No, what he minded was what those things made of his affair with Thalia. Not just a scandal but, in some circles, a lynching offense.

He shook his head. “Never mind,” he said.

His resolve had wavered for a moment. But his choice was already made, a long time ago. If he ever made it back to the world where he'd been born, it would not still be the home he had left. His family, his childhood friends — apart from a few who had made similar voyages, all of them had lived and died while he was traveling between the stars, and there was little chance he would ever see those few again. That was the choice he had made; for Thalia and her people, though he hadn't known them yet. He couldn't ask her to make the same choice for him.

Thalia came and sat down at his side. “I'll take you back to Thyatira,” she said, “as soon as I graduate. We'll get my father to endow chairs for both of us at Scetis Imperial.”

Cicero smiled. “What will your mother say?”

“She'll be livid,” Thalia said. “But that's nothing new. My father will love you.”

He did take her hand then, and drew her to him.

“We'll change the world,” she murmured. “You'll see.”

When Thalia had gone off to chapel Cicero left Graces College the way he had come in. He attended chapel himself, at Palmer. He held office hours, and was either too lenient with the students who came to him, or too severe, or both. He wrote a scathing letter to the editor of the leading City financial newspaper, and a more conciliatory one to Thyatira's leading economic journal.

He even went to the main library and lurked for a while in the Round Reading Room, listening to the rain on the leaded roof, the clanking of the clockwork elevators and the pneumatic hiss of the order tubes. He had some vague idea of confronting the dealers, but either their business with the University was done or they were occupied elsewhere, because they never showed.

Cicero left frustrated but also, on some level, relieved; he had no idea what he would have said to them. He went back to his rooms, then, and sat for a while, watching the rainwater well up in the crevices between the ill-fitting windowpanes.

What am I going to do? he thought.

Cicero's ship, Equity, had been the second to reach Salomé from the Community. Solidarity had arrived first to lay the groundwork for the mission, gathering and recording and transmitting data back by QT so that Outreach could plan how best to bring the lost colony back into human civilization. Equity, trailing the other ship by twenty years, brought the real missionaries: specialists like Cicero, trained to move among the people of Salomé like fish in water.

Equity had been in the Jokanaan system less than two years when the mission's telescopes first spotted the dealers' ship, half a light year away, decelerating out of the unknown beyond. From Golden Age records and vague radio whispers, the Community knew that humanity had once spread much farther than the space they had explored; like any Outreach mission, the mission to Salomé had known there was a chance they would meet a counterpart coming the other way. They hadn't expected it, though. And if they had, they would have expected to meet a civilization not unlike the Community itself.

The truth took some time to dawn on them. While Cicero was immersing himself in his adopted culture, paying the inbound ship no more mind than if it had turned up on the other side of the Community, Outreach linguists were trading dead languages with the newcomers, trying to make sense of paradoxical phrases like intellectual property and exploitation rights. The newcomers' ship had the nonsensical name Elastic Demand; the organization it represented apparently was called something like Marginal, Limited. For their civilization as a whole the newcomers used the word association, which sounded like community but had troubling differences in nuance.

Even when the newcomers' quaint obsession with commerce had earned them the nickname dealers, and some of Cicero's counterparts back in the Community—experts in development economics—had begun to voice concerns, neither the Outreach offices nor the Salomé mission took those concerns very seriously. It simply did not seem possible for the principles that applied to orphaned, poverty-stricken planets like Salomé, with their joint-stock companies and steam-powered colonial empires, to apply to an interstellar civilization.

And then Marginal's sales force landed in Basia, the capital of the largest of those empires, and announced its presence to the Travallese state.

And Outreach—and the Salomé mission, in particular—suddenly had to take those concerns seriously after all.

Cicero had been taking it for granted that, having come to save the people of Salomé from themselves, Outreach would as a matter of course save them from the dealers as well. Abandoning an entire planet, to be swallowed up by a civilization so dysfunctional it carried the idea of property across interstellar space, was not to be thought of.

It had never occurred to Cicero that Outreach might decide the problem was just too big to handle.

And if it's too big for Outreach to handle, he thought, where does that leave me? What can I do, alone?

He picked up Thalia's essay booklet and leafed slowly through the pages, not so much reading as simply tracing the shapes of the words.

With the Outreach mission gone, Thalia and the rest of Salomé's people would be helpless. Cicero had to do something; there was no one else.

A knock at the door interrupted his thoughts. It came again; and then, as he stood, he heard the rattle of keys.

He went to answer it, and found the college porter with his master key already out. Old Professor Alier was with him, the Rector of Palmer himself. Next to Alier was a stocky, middle-aged man in a round hat and a black raincoat that was at least ten years out of style, followed by two uniformed City policemen.

“Professor Alier,” Cicero said pleasantly, as the rector and the man in the round hat came inside. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“This is a damned unpleasant business, Cicero,” Alier said. “The College has placed a great deal of trust in you, and you've chosen a fine way of repaying it.” He turned to the man in the round hat. “You will keep the name of the College out of it, won't you?” he said.

Cicero's mind raced. It couldn't be that the college had discovered his affair with Thalia; that would be a matter for University discipline—or the masked 'knights' of the Secret Empire—not the official police. And while his teachings were certainly subversive, he doubted that even his enemies on the economics faculty would take them so seriously as to have him arrested. Marius' work, of course, was quite openly subversive, and if the authorities had somehow been aware of Cicero's connection to it, they would most certainly want to talk to him. But he didn't think that was possible.

No, the dealers were making their move, and using the Travallese state to do it; that was the only plausible explanation.

Cicero was rarely in contact with Equity and Solidarity and the rest of the Outreach mission. For emergencies he had a simple voice phone, implanted behind his right ear. Hopefully it still worked; he hadn't used it since training.

He worked his jaw to activate the phone. There was an answering buzz along his jaw.

— Trouble, he subvocalized.

The man in the round hat had a lower-middle-class, City accent. “We'll do our best, sir,” he was saying to Alier. In a reassuring tone, he added: “I don't mind telling youthat in most of these cases, we avoid the inconvenience of a trial.”

“Trial?” Cicero said. “What the Devil are you talking about?” He turned to the Rector. “Professor, who are these people?”

“Don't pretend to be thick, Cicero,” Alier said. “This gentleman here, Mr.—?” He looked at the man, and when no name was forthcoming, cleared his throat and started over. “This gentleman here is with the Special Police. They seem to think you can help them with their inquiries.”

“Actually,” the Special told Cicero cheerfully, “we think you're guilty of espionage, sedition, subversion...” He leaned close, and his tone became confiding. “...and several other charges that we expect to enumerate before the day is out.”

A murmur in Cicero's ear distracted him.

— Is it the dealers?

He'd expected one of the communications people, but it was Livia, Equity's captain and the Outreach mission's nominal second in command.

— Must be, he told her.—All local so far, though, he added. He tried to cover it with a cough.

— Look, Livia said. —We've got our own troubles up here.

“There must be some mistake,” Cicero said aloud.

To Livia, he added: —I'm about to be arrested.

— String them along, Livia said. —When we know where you're being taken we'll find a way to get you out.

Right, Cicero thought. String them along. How am I supposed to do that?

The Special shook his head. “I'm afraid we don't make mistakes of that sort, sir,” he said. He nodded to one of the uniformed policemen, who produced a pair of manacles, and turned back to Cicero. “I'll just take that, if you don't mind,” he said.

Cicero looked down and saw that he was still holding Explicit quantification.

I mind,” came a voice from the balcony. Cicero looked and saw Thalia coming up the stairs, and his heart sank.

She came up and addressed herself to Alier. “That's my essay for Professor Bolte, sir. I asked Dr. Cicero to give me some advice on a few points.”

The Rector blinked. “Miss—Touray, is it?” he said. Cicero watched the conflicting emotions that passed over Alier's face: irritation, embarrassment, and an evident fear of upsetting one of the University's richest and most well-connected students. Alier turned to the man from the Special Police. “Surely there's no need for Miss Touray's essay to be taken in evidence,” he said.

“Here,” Cicero said, handing Thalia the essay. Their eyes met, and as their fingers touched briefly, Cicero's composure faltered.

His fingers tingling from the moment of contact, he slowly released the booklet. Cleared his throat, he said: “I'm sure this—” with a nod toward the policemen “—will all be cleared up shortly. I'll see you Friday at the usual time.”

“Right,” the Rector said. “Run along now, child.”

Thalia nodded and, with a backward glance at Cicero, turned to go.

“Just a moment, please—Miss Touray,” the Special said, reaching out to bar the way. “That wouldn't happen to be—” he fished a piece of paper from his pocket and glanced at it “—Miss Thalia Xanthè Touray, Touray-Laurion, would it?” His pronunciation of the Thyatiran names was much better than Cicero would have expected.

Thalia nodded wordlessly.

The Special smiled. “Well, that's a bit of luck,” he said. “Two birds with one stone, as you might say.” He handed the Rector the piece of paper, and said to Thalia: “I've a warrant for your arrest as well, you see.”

Fuck, Cicero thought.

And he turned to the policeman with the manacles, and with the heel of his right palm hit the bridge of the man's nose so hard that his neck snapped.

The other policeman swore and rushed in, knocking the Rector aside. Cicero kicked him in the stomach and sent him reeling back into the porter's arms.

“Run—” he started to say, turning toward Thalia.

And something hit him very hard in the back of the head.

Thalia watched Cicero crumple to the ground. She'd hardly seen the man in the round hat move. He stood over Cicero and exhaled slowly through pursed lips.

“That was a close one,” he said, to no one in particular. He rubbed his knuckles.

The surviving policeman was throwing up in the doorway.

“Constable,” the man said sharply. “If you're sufficiently well rested, you'll oblige me by taking the young lady into custody.” He turned to the Rector, who was still pressed up against the wall, eyes wide with shock. “A cup of tea's what you'll be wanting, sir,” he said. “Sorts you out a treat. We've things well in hand here.”

“Yes,” Alier said, rather unsteadily. “Yes, I'll just—” He trailed off, looking from Cicero's still-breathing body to the dead policeman and back again.

As the other policeman picked up the fallen manacles and went to put them around Thalia's wrists, the man in the round hat took Alier's arm and propelled him gently toward the doorway.

“On second thought, perhaps a small whisky,” he said. Nodding to the porter, he added: “See that he gets one.”

“Right you are, sir,” the porter said.

The man watched them go down the stairs. When the sound of their footsteps had died away, he turned and knelt down between the bodies, feeling behind Cicero's left ear as if looking for a pulse. He seemed not to find it, and turned Cicero's head to check the other ear; but then, as Thalia watched in growing horror, he reached inside his coat and drew out a small penknife.

“What are you doing?” she said, as the man slipped the narrow blade under the skin, and the dark blood welled up. She struggled in the policeman's grip, and the man in the round hat looked up, fixing her with a cold glare.

“Quiet, now, miss,” he said. “Right now you're a material witness. You don't want to become a suspect.” He went back to what he was doing, fishing around in what was becoming a small pool of red, and came up with a teardrop of gold, no larger than the nail of Thalia's little finger. “There we go,” he said. He tugged a handkerchief from Cicero's pocket and used it to clean the knife, which he folded and put away. Then he pressed the handkerchief against the wound. “That ought to do it.”

He stood, holding the golden drop up to the light.

“What—” Thalia began.

“Hush,” the man said, holding up a hand.

Thalia became aware of a tiny buzzing noise, like a faint and distant wireless voice caught by chance in between stations. It sounded angry—and worried.

“There's some as would give a king's ransom to have this under their microscopes,” the man told Thalia. He let the thing fall to the tiles. “But the price of letting some others listen in would be much higher than that.”

And he crushed the golden teardrop under his heel.

“Assault on an officer, resisting arrest, and willful murder,” the Special announced as he came into the room. “I knew we'd find some way to lengthen your charge sheet, professor, but I didn't expect you to help us do it.”

“I'm not a professor,” Cicero said. There was a maddening trickle of blood beneath the bandage over his right ear.

Murder. He felt it again, the crack of bone, traveling up his arm with the shock of impact. Willful murder.

They were in the old wing of the Alicata Prison, he thought: stone walls and floor, and a steel door with a window of thick safety glass, so the guard outside could see and assist if Cicero became violent. There was little danger of that. Thick chains ran from his wrists through eye-bolts in the floor to his ankles, crossing under the heavy wooden chair on which he sat; he could shift a little in his seat, but that was all.

“Well, I can't very well call you spy, can I?” the Special said. He was standing; at the moment he was looking out the tiny window into the hall. “And I very much doubt that Alexander Cicero is your real name.”

“I'm not a spy, either,” Cicero said. “I'm an assistant lecturer in economics.”

The Special turned to face him. “What you are, professor, is something we have yet to determine.” He leaned forward and put his fists on the table. “Don't try to convince us you're innocent. You gave up any pretense of that when you killed a constable.”

“Shoot me for that, then,” Cicero said. “Why should I give you anything else?”

The Special smiled and stood up. “Oh, we won't shoot you. You're far too valuable for that. No, I expect we'll keep you alive.” He walked around behind Cicero and leaned forward “Possibly for weeks,” he said softly, into Cicero's good ear. “Some of our specialists are quite good at that.”

Cicero twisted around until he could just see the Special out of the corner of his eye.

“Why don't you just tell me what you want?” he said.

“What I want?” the Special asked. He came around to the other side of the table and leaned over it to look Cicero in the eye. “What I want, professor, since you're kind enough to ask, is for you, and the rest of your kind, to go back where you came from.”

“You mean Port-St.-Paul?” Cicero said. “Because—”

He never saw the blow coming. It struck him just below his wounded ear and snapped his head sideways. The pain was blinding, but through it he heard the voice of the Special, leaning close:

“See here, professor. I've worn a mask before now. I've ridden with the Secret Empire. I've seen an islander hanged just for complimenting a fishmonger's wife on her dress, and I've held the rope that did it.” He grasped Cicero's hair and pulled his head back, and his face, twisted with anger, swam into focus. “But I'd let that leering sodomitical beach-monkey have my own dear daughter before I'd let your lot have my country.” He let go. “At least the islander was human.”

The blow had made Cicero bite his tongue. He turned his head to the side and spit blood.

“I'm as human as you are,” he said, and instantly regretted it.

The Special gave a short, humorless laugh. “The imitation's clever; I'll give you people that.” He pulled out the other chair and sat down, studying Cicero's face. “I see that the accusation doesn't surprise you,” he said with a thin smile.

Cicero closed his eyes. Yes, that had been stupid; it would have been better to keep quiet.

Still, he thought. Better the state than the dealers. No way out now but forward. He took a deep breath and expelled it.

Opening his eyes, he said:

“We're human. And we're here to help.”

The Special snorted. “Are you, now?” he said. “And your friends?” He took out a file folder and opened it. “'Philip Marius,'“ he read. “'Profession, machinist. Charges, unlawful assembly, industrial combination, and sabotage.'“ He turned the page. “'David Solon. Profession, journalist. Charges, treason, subversion, incitement and libel. Jeanne Megaera, nurse: espionage, licentious behavior, vitriolage, solicitation and attempted murder. Cyrus Mus...'“

The Special read another half-dozen names. It sounded like the state had a complete catalog of the Outreach missionaries in Travalle and its colonies. Cicero supposed the dealers had given it to them. He hoped at least some of the others had managed to evade capture.

“And then there's you, professor,” the Special concluded. “I don't pretend to understand what, exactly, the Council of Economic Advisors thinks you're guilty of. But since you've signed your own death warrant two or three times already this afternoon, I think the question is—pardon the expression—academic.”

He closed the folder. “It's an interesting idea of help you people have, professor,” he said.

“I didn't say we were here to help you,” Cicero said.

The Special gave him an appraising look. “Point taken,” he said. “Who, then? The islanders? The criminal classes?”

“Your grandchildren,” Cicero said. “And your grandchildren's grandchildren.”

The Special snorted. “Out of the goodness of your hearts, I suppose.”

“Call it that if you like,” Cicero said.

“How noble of you,” the Special said. “My grandchildren didn't ask for your help, professor. And they don't need it.”

“It's our help or the dealers’,” Cicero said.


“Marginal,” said Cicero. “You know who I mean.”

“Oh, yes,” the Special said. “The illustrious Marginal Limited Liability Corporation. Your competition. Now that they've arrived, you're offering to play fair with us, is that it?”

Cicero opened his mouth to speak, but the Special cut him off. In the accent of the dockside slums, he said:

“'Give me one last chance, sir, I swear I'll reform.'“ He shook his head. In his own accent he said: “How often do you think a copper hears that, professor? A good try, but much too late.” He stood up and knocked on the glass. The guard outside peered in and then opened the door. “My coat,” the Special said. “And my hat.”

“Yes, sir.”

As the guard fetched the Special's things, Cicero raised his voice. “Do you think Marginal will play fair?” he said. “They'll eat you alive!”

The Special took his coat and hat from the guard. Draping the coat over his arm, he turned to Cicero and said:

“Odd, professor; that's just what they said about you.”

The door closed, and Cicero slumped down in his chair. His mouth was full of the taste of blood, and the taste of failure, too.

At least it's not Thalia sitting here, he thought. They wouldn't treat her like this. She'll be safely on her way home by now.

“I am a citizen of Thyatira,” she said, before the man even had time to sit down. “I demand to speak to the High Commissioner.”

The Special reached out casually and slapped her across the face. Thalia froze, too shocked even to raise her hand to her cheek.

The man took off his hat. “None of that, now, miss,” he said, his voice mild. “We know very well who you are; we even know that you're the High Commissioner's cousin. He'll hear about this in due course.” The man leaned forward. “The question, miss, is: what else will he hear about?”

He raised an eyebrow, waiting for her to speak. When she said nothing, he smiled faintly, and sat down. He took out a folder and was quiet for a moment, leafing through it.

“Will he hear—for instance—that you're an islander's whore?” he suggested, looking up at her.

Thalia kept her face impassive. They couldn't blackmail her by threatening to tell her family. Cousin Milos already knew, from Embassy Intelligence. It was Thalia's mother who was going to be the problem, and for that confrontation, she had long been prepared.

The Special seemed to see that his shot had gone wide. “Well,” he said. “I suppose that would be a manageable scandal. A few tongues will wag... probably set the cause of women's education back twenty years, if it gets in the papers...” He shook his head sadly. “Oh, and your professor-boy will hang for it, of course. But one aristo's daughter having a little what-you-fancy behind closed doors, that's hardly the end of the world, is it?”

Thalia didn't answer.

“But what if it was the end of the world?” the Special said.  He waited, studying her with unblinking eyes.

“What do you mean?” she eventually said.

The Special smiled. “I'm a reading man, miss,” he said, “though I expect I don't look it, not to the likes of you. Magazines, mostly. Penny dreadfuls. A bit beneath you, I dare say. But they tell me you're interested in science, so perhaps you know the sort of thing I'm talking about. Airship Stories. Wireless Stories. Astonishing.”

Thalia had been reading Airship Stories since she was eleven years old. One of the chauffeurs had used to buy it in town, and sneak Thalia his copies when he was done with them.

“They ran a serial in Astonishing last year,” the Special continued. “I don't know if you read it. ‘Mask People of Naaman’, it was called.”

“Shape-changing monsters from other planets,” Thalia said. “Sensationalist trash.”

The Special gave her half a smile. “Where's your professor-boy from?” he said.

Thalia looked at him. “You don't need me to tell you that,” she said.

“Oh, I know where he says he's from, miss,” the Special said. He referred to the folder and read out: “‘Port-St.-Paul, East Chatrang, Roka Archipelago.’ I was hoping he might have been more honest with you.”

She couldn't help laughing. “If you're expecting to tell you he's a Naamanite ‘Mask Person’, you're more stupid than you look.”

“I'm not so smart as you, miss,” the Special said, “but I'm not stupid, either. I know he's not from Naaman.” He smiled. “He's from somewhere much farther away than that.”

Thalia started to laugh again, and stopped, seeing the Special’s face. His expression of faint amusement hadn't changed.

“You're serious,” she said.

The Special opened up the folder. He took out a grainy photograph, pushing it across the table for Thalia to examine.

“I expect you recognize Dr. Rosmer and Senator Oradour-Monatte,” the Special said. “But these two; have you seen either of them before?”

The photograph showed the steps outside the Round Reading Room of the University Library. There were four men on the steps: one she recognized as a senior librarian, another as a Travallese politician. But the other two—

Their features were odd, foreign. They were short and stocky, more so even than Cicero. Both of them had strangely pale hair; the color was impossible to tell from the photograph, but Thalia didn't think it was the gray of old age. One of them, Thalia realized after a moment, was a woman; she hadn't seen it before because the two were dressed almost identically, in dark, close-fitting trousers and coats buttoned to the throat, cut like nothing she had ever seen before. Neither wore a hat, and the woman's hair was even shorter than the man's.

Thalia shook her head mutely.

“No?” the Special said. “That's reassuring. The one on the left—” he leaned forward, and tapped the picture “—calls himself Allen Macleane. The woman's called Bernadette Parker.” He pronounced the foreign syllables carefully.

“And who are they?” Thalia said.

The Special sat back. “it's not who they are, miss, it's how far they've come. Since their last port of call—twenty light-years.”

Thalia's bewilderment must have been plain.

“A light-year is—” the Special started to say.

“I know what a light-year is,” Thalia interrupted. “That's absolutely mad.”

The Special shrugged. “I don't claim to know how they did it, miss,” he said. “But they're here.”

“Why?” Thalia said. “What do they want?”

“That's also a matter of some debate,” the Special said. “They say they want trade. Not in gold or cloth or salt fish, which as I'm sure you've worked out wouldn't be worth the cost of shipping. In knowledge. Art, music, scholarship, literature.”

“That still wouldn't be worth the cost of shipping,” Thalia said.

“Right again, miss,” said the Special. “What Mr. Macleane and Miss Parker and their friends—they call themselves ‘Marginal’, Marginal Limited Liability Corporation—propose to do, is to set up a sort of interstellar semaphore or radiotelephone, connecting Salomé with—with the stars, I suppose, or at any rate the ones they know.” He smiled. “We send them scratchy recordings of the Reunion Philharmonic and they send us the plans to build space-ships of our own.”

“That hardly sounds like fair trade,” Thalia said.

The Special tapped the side of his nose. “Do you know how the Archipelago Company makes its money, miss?” he asked. “Used to be, they'd buy wool and pig iron and timber in the islands and sell it here, in Basia; buy woven cloth and steel tools and whatnot here and sell them in the islands. They still do a bit of that, of course. But about fifty years ago some enterprising Company factor realized it would be cheaper to build mills and factories right there in the islands. Now most of what the Company sells in the islands is made in the islands, in Company mills and Company factories, out of wool from Company herds and iron from Company mines, and what they mostly ship back to Basia is money.”

“It's not just plans for space-ships they're proposing to sell us, then,” Thalia said. “We wouldn't know what to do with them, any more than an Eastern Desert tribesman would know what to do with the plans for a steam locomotive. It's science, and engineering, and everything we'd need to understand those plans. They could teach us so much...”

“For a price, miss,” the Special said. He seemed to think Thalia had missed his point. “For whatever the market will bear.”

“I know,” Thalia said. “I have studied economics, don't forget.”

“Not for a moment, miss,” said the Special. “But you see where this leads. As the only source of all that knowledge, there's no limit to the price they could set on it. Within a century these people might own half the world, the way the Company owns half the Archipelago.”

“Within a century these people will probably have sold off their stakes and retired,” Thalia said, “but I take your point.”

Then she shook her head.

“This is mad,” she said. “Even if it's all true, you can't think possibly think Dr. Cicero is one of them.”

It would explain so much—Cicero's hard-to-place foreignness, his indifference to convention, the way he combined an understanding of the most esoteric things with an ignorance of the most trivial ones. But while it was no trouble for Thalia to imagine Cicero as an alien, the idea of Cicero as an avaricious colonial speculator was laughable.

The Special stood up. He was silent for a moment, pacing, looking out into the corridor.

“The Marginal expedition arrived about three years ago,” he began. “They came straight to the Senate and announced themselves; explained where they came from and what they proposed to do for us. The Senate wanted proof, naturally. They showed us plenty of gadgets and trinkets, but the Senate—Senator Oradour-Monatte, actually, the man you see in the picture—wanted more; some taste of all this knowledge they were proposing to sell us. ‘Tell me something,’ he said. ‘Something I don't know.’ And do you know what they told him?”

The Special stopped his pacing and turned to face her.

“They told him, miss, that there was another expedition, already here. A different lot of space-people, from some other—some other constellation, I suppose—altogether.”

Thalia stared at him for a moment, then nodded. slowly “You think Cicero's one of them,” she said.

“Miss,” the Special said, “I'm quite sure of it. That thing I cut out of his ear proved he's not from this world, but even without it I have plenty of evidence.” He pulled out the other chair again and sat down. “Don't waste my time pretending you don't believe me,” he said.

Thalia shook her head. Cicero was going to tell me, she thought. He almost did, this morning, when he talked about leaving. He must have thought I wouldn't believe him.

Would I have believed him?

“So what do they want?” she said.

In answer, the Special took out another photograph. She couldn't tell where or when it had been taken. It showed Cicero, in the clothes of a common dockworker, in conversation with another man, similarly dressed. He might have been Cicero's brother, though his features were heavier and his hair was not so straight; at any rate he was from the same part of the world.

“Have you seen this man before?” the Special said.

“Never,” said Thalia.

“He goes by the name of Philip Marius,” the Special said. “Nasty piece of work. He's a saboteur and an anarchist, among other things. It's the talkers in the workers’ movement, men like Maspero and Coser, that get their names in the newspapers, but it’s our boy Marius who gets things done. Sure you haven't seen him?”

“I’m sure,” Thalia said.

The Special sighed. “Well, miss,” he said, “the gentlemen from Marginal may be bent on enslaving us all, in the end, but they're men of business. By the standards of men of business, they've been quite amicable—negotiating directly with the Senate, providing the state with the odd bit of helpful information now and then.” He tapped the photograph of Cicero and the anarchist, Marius. “But your professor's lot—they've been much less polite. Ten years and more they've been watching us, without so much as an introduction; five years they've walked among us in secret, stirring up civil unrest, corrupting our poor and our young folk. Infiltrating factories, hospitals, churches... and universities.”

“Teaching political economy to the children of the upper classes hardly qualifies as corrupting young folk,” Thalia said. “If it does, the entire University faculty is guilty.”

The Special smiled knowingly. “We can leave the professor's private life—and yours—alone for now,” he said. “What's been keeping me awake nights—and what I wanted to know from you—isn't that; it's the thought that your professor, and his friend Marius, and the rest of their friends, might have been working with Mr. Macleane and his lot. Playing both ends against the middle, you see—against us.”

“And have they?” Thalia said.

“I wish I knew, miss.” The Special shook his head. “But I don't think so. I find your witness to Dr. Cicero's character oddly persuasive. He may be a liar, a murderer”—he drew the word slowly out, and Thalia flinched—“an anarchist sympathizer, and an alien spy, but he's not a capitalist. And besides—”

A tentative knock came at the door.

“Come in,” the Special said sharply.

A uniformed prison guard entered.

“The van's ready, sir,” he said.

“Right,” said the Special. “I'll be along in just a moment.”

“Yes, sir.” The door closed.

The Special gathered up the photographs and put them back in the folder. He put the folder back in his bag and stood up.

“‘And besides’?” Thalia prompted.

“What?” the Special said.

“Besides what?” Thalia said. “What's the other reason you don't think Cicero's friends and this Marginal Corporation are working together?”

“Ah, that.” The Special knocked on the door, and the guard opened it. “Well, miss, between arresting your young man and a few of his friends, arranging a little riot outside Marginal's offices in the City, and a few other pieces of misdirection.... Assuming they're not just staging it for our benefit, it looks as though we've had the two sides shooting at each other for the past hour and a half.”

He tipped his hat to Thalia.

“Ta, miss,” he said, and she heard the click of the lock behind him.

The guards maneuvered Cicero—with some difficulty, because of the manacles and leg irons—through the narrow corridors, and down several flights of stairs. He tried to count the number of flights, and to remember how tall the Alicata Prison was, how many stories, but he couldn't keep the figures in his head. He kept seeing the gables of Trilisser House, counting the steps of the spiral staircase up to his rooms. His ear was bleeding again, but with his hands bound there was no way for him to do anything about it.

They came out into a covered carriageway, so long and dark it seemed to be underground. Both ends of the arched passage were sheets of rainwater, and what daylight made it through was gray-green and cheerless.

A van was waiting, windowless and unmarked. The Special took a seat up front, beside the driver. The guards bundled Cicero into the back, and climbed in behind him. He was not entirely surprised to find the compartment's opposite bench already occupied, and the slumped figure of Marius wedged there between two other guards. Marius was in a bad way. Unlike Cicero, who was still in the academic robes he'd been wearing when he was arrested, Marius was dressed in green prison coveralls, patched and stained, and some of the stains were fresh. Bloody bandages covered his right eye and right ear; his right side was bloody as well, and there was dried blood and vomit down the front of his chest. Cicero couldn't tell whether he was even conscious.

The engine started, and the van lurched into motion. There was a brief rattle of rain on the roof, and the van stopped again; the doors were opened, and Cicero had a quick glimpse of a wide courtyard, enclosed by high walls and overlooked by towers. Then his view was blocked by the Special again, and two more guards, draped in rain capes and carrying carbines. One of the guards had a tablet and a pen.

“Prisoner number 91264, alias Philip Marius,” that one said. The Special gestured to Marius, and the guard looked up, making a note on the tablet. “Prisoner 91186, alias Alexander Cicero.” The guard on Cicero's right took Cicero's manacled hands and raised them. The guard with the tablet made another note.

“To be taken from the Alicata Prison to the Imaz Prison,” the Special said.

“That's what it says here,” the guard with the tablet said. He tore off a sheet and handed it to the Special. “There you go.”

“Ta,” said the Special.

They closed the doors again, and the van started moving. The storm was blowing in earnest now. Cicero could hear it, the wind shrieking across the roof of the van, throwing rain against the sides like handfuls of gravel. Between the wind and the state of the road, evident in the jouncing of the seat and the noises of complaint from the suspension, he half expected the van to tip over at any moment. It was hot and close, and he found it hard to breathe.

The Imaz. The Alicata was an ordinary prison, for ordinary criminals. The Imaz was where they took the dangerous prisoners, the ones who had tried to escape, and the sort of political prisoners whose allies or followers might be expected to attempt a rescue. Cicero supposed he fell into all three categories.

How did they get people out to the Imaz, anyway? It was on an island, he knew that, the prison built within the walls of an old medieval sea-fort. Storm-season waves in the inland sea, funneled by the narrow, cliff-steep shores, regularly topped fifty meters. No boat could survive those waters, and only a brave fool would trust himself to Salomé's rickety, experimental dirigibles—certainly the police, even the Specials, had none.

The van's journey seemed to be tending up, into the hills, not down to the port. Maybe they weren't being taken to the Imaz at all; at least not directly.

The van came to a stop, and from the cab Cicero heard muffled conversation. There was the metallic clang of a gate being opened, so the van jerked into motion again, but only for a little while. The wind died down, and the rain on the roof ceased, as they came into a tunnel, or a garage. Where were they?

The door opened on a dark, clanking space that smelled of machinery, and of the storm. The guards hauled Marius out, and the Special said to Cicero: “Out you go, then.”

The van was parked beneath a wide sheet-metal awning supported by steel girders. They were at the top of the kilometer-high cliffs that made up most of the inland sea's southern shore, looking out into the storm. Far out to sea, across the white-topped, gray-green waves, the sharp rock of the Imaz emerged from the dark, wind-whipped clouds like the prow of a warship in the fog.

Four cobweb-thin cables, two above and two below, stretched towards them. On the far end they faded into the rain, invisible, but closer by Cicero could see that they were in fact thick as a man's wrist, and steel. Next to the van beneath the awning was a mass of machinery, man-high wheels and pulleys and a clattering steam engine, and Cicero saw that it was drawing in the upper pair of cables, and paying out the lower. He looked out into the storm again and saw a car, suspended between the cables, slowly making its way towards them. Cicero was suddenly overwhelmed with vertigo.

The Special caught his eye and smiled.

“All right with heights, are we, professor?”

Cicero didn't answer.

The car was the size of a railway carriage and crudely streamlined, its corners smoothed and sides rounded by bolted sheets of rust-streaked metal. Despite that, it swayed alarmingly as it approached the cliffs, pulling the cables back and forth, and Cicero could hear the wind shrieking across the car's metal skin. The noise abated as the car came under the awning and thumped to a stop. A hatch opened downward, becoming a short flight of steps, and two guards came out, both of them wearing rain capes and carrying heavy machine pistols.

The Special presented his paperwork, and after a quick examination of it the guards stood respectfully aside.

“After you, professor,” the Special said.

The Alicata guards pushed Cicero up the steps and into the car. The interior was lit by a line of incandescent bulbs in wire cages, bolted to the roof. There were four more guards inside, and a number of bare steel benches. The windows of the car were heavily barred.

Marius was brought in on a stretcher, and taken to the other end of the car. Cicero was handed over to the Imaz guards and made to sit, while they fastened his manacles and leg irons to eyebolts beneath the bench.

The Special climbed in, followed by the two Imaz guards, who pulled the door up and dogged it shut. With a lurch, the car began to move, and the wind quickly rose to a screech.

“Time was,” the Special said, taking the bench across from Cicero, “the Imaz was cut off from the mainland ten weeks out of the year. The old kings used to hole up there, during their wars; took the Senate four years to winkle them out of there, during the Reunion. This thing—” he tapped the bench “—was put up thirty years ago, after some rioting prisoners managed to set fire to the grain store during storm season. Most of the guards made it through, holed up in the citadel with their own stores. But there wasn't one prisoner in twenty left alive by winter when the boats made it across.” He gave Cicero a ghoulish smile and added: “Nor many bodies left, neither.”

Cicero turned his head away and closed his eyes. The car was dropping swiftly—there was quite a bit of slack in the cables—and it pitched and swayed as the storm winds pushed and lifted it. Cicero's stomach heaved in sympathy, and he realized suddenly why the seats were all bare metal: for ease of cleaning. He opened his eyes again, which was a slight improvement. The Special, Cicero was annoyed to see, looked quite cheerful; he might have been sitting in a parkside café on a sunny day in spring.

The uniformed guards, though, looked more than a little green around the gills. Cicero tried to estimate his chance of disarming one of them and turning his weapon on the others, and thought that without the manacles and leg irons it might be as high as one in three; but the bolts that held the chains were quite secure.

The Special met his eye, and smiled, and Cicero had the uncomfortable feeling that his mind was being read.

Then the car gave a great lurch, sending the Special and all six guards sprawling, and only the prisoners' chains prevented them from being thrown from their seats as well. The lights went out, and the pitch of the wind rose to a scream.

“Fucking hell,” growled the Special as he picked himself up. “That happen often?”

“No, sir,” one of the Imaz guards said.

“We've stopped moving,” said another, looking out the window.

It was true. Not only had they stopped moving out toward the island, but the seasick pitching of the car had died as well.

“Get the emergency lamp,” the Special ordered. “Signal the station and find out what the hell's happened.”

One of the guards opened a locker beneath one of the benches and took out a battery-operated signal lamp. He went to the end of the car, looking back toward the cliff, and flashed the lamp into the rain.

“It's awful thick out there, sir,” he said doubtfully. He turned around. “I don't know if—”

The window behind him imploded, knocking him flat and sending shards of glass and fragments of metal through the car. At the same moment something—several somethings—hit the sides of the car, and the door blew outward off its hinges.

The Special yelled something, his words impossible to hear over the sudden roar of wind and water, and the car was lit by a white flash as he fired his pistol over the head of the fallen guard. The bullet struck something that Cicero could not quite see, and ricocheted away, shattering another window.

“GET DOWN!” bellowed a woman's amplified voice, a Community voice.

Cicero did his best, leaning forward over his manacled hands. He heard the cracks of electrostatic stunners, and then one of the Imaz guards opened up with his machine pistol; in the muzzle flashes Cicero glimpsed the glassy shape of a suited Outreach missionary, the figure's optical camouflage not quite able to keep up with the rapidly changing light inside the car. The figure went down in a shower of bullets, but more were coming in through the door and the blown-out windows. In moments all the guards were down, and the volunteers—four, of them, men and women—were shutting off their camouflage, the suits turning to bright solid colors.

The missionary who had been knocked down, his suit now spring green, came over and knelt in front of Cicero. He took out a tool, and in a moment the bolts that secured Cicero's chains began to smoke and glow red.

The missionary lifted his mask to reveal a dark, bearded face.

“Lucius,” said Cicero.

“You all right, then?” the man said. Not waiting for an answer, he took out a medical scanner and ran it quickly over Cicero from head to toe.

“I'm fine,” Cicero said. “See to Marius.”

Lucius smiled. “You're not fine,” he said. “But you'll do.” He moved back to examine Marius.

A bright yellow suit proved to be Livia, a very unhappy Livia.

“Led us a chase, didn't you?” she said.

“Pressure of circumstance,” said Cicero. “Are the others all right?”

“Everyone in Thyatira and the Archipelago got out,” Livia said. “We picked Megaera off a hospital roof and Cassia out of the harbor. But Solon's dead; killed resisting arrest. I don't know about Mus and the others in the southeast; one of the other landers was supposed to go after them.”

Cicero tried to remember Solon's face, and found that he couldn't, for all that they, and all the on-world missionaries, had trained together for the better part of five subjective years. A small man, Solon, with a highly refined sense of outrage that had served him well in his cover as a muckraking journalist; that was all Cicero could remember.

Livia glanced down, at a display on the inside of her wrist.

“Come on,” she said. “Equity’s coming for us; we've got twenty minutes, no more.” She turned away. To someone unseen, she said: “Drop the rescue lines.”

I can't let them take me away, Cicero thought.

As much as he wanted to relax, to let himself be bundled aboard Equity like a tired child carried home from a dinner party, he couldn't do that. He realized that, terrible as the idea was to contemplate, on his way to the interrogation rooms of the Imaz he had actually been better off. From there, he at least would have had some chance to turn the Travallese state around, to help Salomé resist the dealers; some chance to see Thalia again.

He stood up quickly.

“Livia,” he said. “I have to get back to the city.”

Livia turned back.

“You're joking,” she said. “Solidarity’s been blown, Cicero. We've lost track of the dealers' ship; they've deployed about half a thousand decoys and automated fighters over our heads, and Equity’s running the gauntlet of them right now, trying to get into position to pick us up. We're leaving this system, Cicero; Outreach is leaving.” She glanced at her display again. “Eighteen minutes, now.” Raising her voice, she said: “Lucius—can we move him?”

Marius answered for himself.

“I can walk,” he said. “Just—let's get away from here.”

“Right.” Livia moved to the door and looked up into the rain.

“Livia—” Cicero said.

“Argue with me on the lander,” she said. A safety line dropped down from above; Livia caught it and clipped it to her suit. The pupal form of a rescue harness followed, and she secured it to one of the handrails.

“Here,” she said, stepping aside.

Cicero heard the lander's fans surge and whine as they fought to keep the lander airborne and to compensate for the surging winds. He made his way carefully to the door, the wind-driven rain stinging his face. The hull of the lander was a smooth gray curve overhead, its open hatch bright and welcoming, surrounded by white emergency lights.

He looked down. Below—far below—the storm-waves were a dark gray, darker than the lander's hull, gray topped with greenish foam. On one side the rock of the Imaz rose above them, much taller, and much closer, than Cicero would have thought. On the other the cliff was a long shadow, and when Cicero tried to follow its line down to where the curve of the great bay should have begun, where he should have been able to make out some trace of the city, the storm dissolved everything.

“Marius,” he said suddenly. “You first.”

Marius limped up to the door.

“Sure?” he said.

Cicero nodded to the rescue harness. “Go on,” he said. “I'm...” not leaving, he started to say, but his voice failed.

Marius put a hand on Cicero's shoulder, and Cicero saw that he knew.

“Good luck,” he said.

“Go on,” said Cicero.

Marius smiled. He started to step into the rescue harness. Then he glanced at something over Cicero's shoulder, and the smile left his face.

“Down!” he yelled, shoving Cicero aside.

Cicero stumbled and fell back into the tram car. There was a shot, somehow louder than any of the barrage that had filled the car a few minutes earlier; and when Cicero looked up he saw the Special up on one knee, pistol held steady in both hands. The Special's eyes met Cicero's, and the pistol moved, and Cicero saw his death there, in a small circle of blackness.

Cicero froze.

Then stun bolts hit the Special from three sides, and the pistol fell from nerveless fingers.

It took Cicero a moment to get to his feet; his muscles didn't want to work.

He turned to thank Marius, but there was no one there.

And when he moved to the door and looked out, there was no one there either.

Only the lander's futile lights, and the storm-waves, and the rain.

They'd had to sedate Cicero to get him aboard the lander. Livia wasn't happy about that, and trouble would undoubtedly come of it later. But clearly, he'd been raving, demanding to be left aboard the wrecked tram car, even after the locals had shot Marius.

Livia checked her displays. The other landers, with their own cargoes of evacuees, were keeping pace. Behind them, as the dealers’ drone fighter fleet and the Outreach mission’s rear guard finished annihilating each other, the mad fireworks display of fusion bombs and antimatter explosions was finally dying out, after turning Salomé’s night into day.

There was no telling which side, if either, had gained the upper hand back there, but it didn't matter; neither Livia nor Galen wanted to take any more chances, and they were committed, now.

Lucius came forward from checking on Cicero, moving slowly and cautiously under three gravities of acceleration.

“He'll be fine,” Livia said.

Lucius shook his head. “But will he be fine when he wakes up?” he said.

Livia didn't answer, though what she thought was: Damned if I was going to come back without either one of them.

On the forward display, the violet flare of Equity’s drive died, as the starship briefly collapsed its ram field and cut its torch to allow the landers to catch up. Faster than seemed possible, the dark bulk of the ship swept up on them; they floated free for a moment as the lander’s autopilot cut their own thrust, and there was a jerk and a metallic thump as the grapples caught.

Then the thrust built as the starship’s torch came to life again, and they ran for the safety of the deep.

Thalia didn't know how long she waited. She slept for a while, head down on the table; the chair wasn't comfortable, but it was more comfortable than the cold concrete of the floor. At one point the lights flickered, and there were raised voices in the hall, but she was unable to make out the words. At another point a guard in a green uniform brought in a tray with a bowl of oily fish soup and a cup of bad tea. The guard didn't answer any of Thalia's questions, or even look her in the eye.

When the door of her cell opened Thalia expected the Special. Instead there were two armed guards, and another man. The man was on the late side of middle age, and despite his height—he was rather short—walked with a stoop. His hair, where it was not gray, was an odd shade of yellow, like dry leaves. He was wearing a matte gray coat that was not quite like anything Thalia had ever seen before, and looked as tired as she herself felt.

It was some moments before she recognized him as the man from the Special's photograph of the Library steps.

The guards went out, and closed the door behind them.

“Sorry about this,” the man said. The words were clear, but his accent was as strange as his coat. “My name’s Allen Macleane. I'm with Marginal LLC.” He made a strange gesture, holding out his right hand with the fingers together and the palm perpendicular to the floor.

“Yes,” Thalia said. “I know. Does this mean you’ve won?”

Macleane's face reddened, and his hand dropped. He shook his head. “Do you mind if I sit down?” he said.

Wordlessly, Thalia gestured toward the other chair, and Macleane took it.

“Thanks,” he said. He looked down for a moment; his fingers traced designs on the table. “I understand your friend Cicero was rescued,” he said, looking up. “I thought you’d want to know that. His people hit the tram that was taking him out to the Imaz.”

Thalia's heart leapt.

“Does that mean—” she began.

“Does that mean they won?” Macleane said. “Not exactly. We destroyed one of their ships; the other one’s running. Past the orbit of Herodias now, and still accelerating at three Gs. They won't be back any time soon.” He sighed. “But that doesn’t mean we won, either. Our ship, our only ship, is crippled, maybe destroyed; we're trapped here. Without the ship, we’ve got no way to contact our own people, and anyhow they’re too far away to help. All we’ve got left in orbit is machines we can't control. Everyone who was on the ship is dead; my own brother is dead.”

“I'm sorry,” Thalia said. But she was barely listening; she was thinking about the distances between the stars, and about the Semard professor's new theory of light and time.

Oh, Cicero, she thought. Oh, my heart.

He might as well be dead, she thought, that's what this means; he’ll never be back.

But then she thought: No, that’s not what it means at all. It means he’s alive, out there somewhere; and if they keep going, he’ll be alive still, when I’m an old woman and can no longer remember his face, he’ll still be young, preserved in slow time like amber, out there between the stars, chasing the light.

And that was a reason to be thankful. That was a reason to go on.

She realized that tears were running down her cheeks.

I have to pull myself together, she thought. I don’t want this man to think I'm crying for his brother.

But she looked up into Allen Macleane’s lined face and saw that he was wiser than that.

“We both lost,” Macleane said gently. “You’ve won, don't you see? The people of Salomé have won.”

“What do you mean?” Thalia said.

“We came here thinking you were a bunch of barbarians,” Macleane said. “Primitives. I'm sure Outreach—your friend Cicero's people—thought the same way. We didn't take you seriously, you see. When you, I mean the Travallese government, moved against us, we figured Outreach was behind it, just like they figured we were behind the government's moves against them.” He smiled. “Both of us were watching each other so carefully, we forgot there was a third party at the table. You. You played us off against each other beautifully, and we never knew you were doing it.”

“Mr. Macleane,” Thalia said. “I'm not a player in your game. I'm not even a pawn. I'm a spectator. I have only the slightest idea what you're talking about.”

“I'm sorry,” Macleane said. “I didn't mean you, personally. But your people have got us right where they want us. There are only about twenty of us left. If we’re going to survive here it's going to be on their charity.”

“Not my people, Mr. Macleane.” Thalia lifted her manacled hands. “Charity isn't what the Senate of Travalle is noted for.”

“I know,” Macleane said. “They’ll milk us for everything we've got. History, stellar geography, basic science. Technology; weapons, especially, and spacecraft, so they can deal with the next alien arrival on their own terms.” He shook his head. “They don't understand what they’re up against.”

“I’m not one of you, Mr. Macleane,” she said. “I’m not Travallese, either. If Cicero was against you, then so am I. What does this have to do with me?”

“They tell me you’re good at mathematics,” Macleane said.

“I’m amazing at mathematics,” said Thalia.

Macleane smiled.

“Would you like a job?”

This story originally appeared in Asimov's.