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Overburden

The runoff had broken the sandbags overnight; by the time Davis got to the office, somebody was skimming dead carp from the top of the pond.

The rain was pissing down and the big nets must have been borrowed to shore up the sandbags, because the soldier was using a hand skimmer. Davis watched her sluicing the net hypnotically back and forth, piling up hundreds of bodies, scraping the oil off whenever it got too heavy to lift or too slippery to hang on to anything, until the living fish were rippling the surface again in commas of grey and orange. It was Tuesday. They were at war with Cirrus Prime.

Sylvia had brought in coffee (a little too cold, as always, because of the milk she put in it), and Carter wasn’t due in until practically lunch, so he sorted through a few reports—the paper already curling at the edges from the damp—and choked down as much coffee as he could stand until the reports gave him acid stomach and he had to give it up. The filtered water here tasted staler than the stuff from transit, and he’d dismiss it except that water rights were half the reason Cirrus Prime had brought down the Glorious Forces and he’d been called up to the post.

When Carter came in, Davis was already waving him to a chair.

“It’s a bad idea, Carter. Arming anyone just gives them something to point at you as soon as you disagree.”

Carter dropped himself into a chair too small for him and sniffed. “Maybe so, Colonel, but later is later. For now we’re all pointing them at Cirrus Prime. Some artillery, some guns. We’ll handle whatever comes up after that.”

Davis ran his tongue over his teeth. It was easy for men like Carter to suggest this kind of thing—find a stranger you think you can make into a friend, give them a gun, hope for the best—but Carter wasn’t the person being asked to decide the future. He was a soldier. He wasn’t sitting in an office that had been a formal dining room once, facing the sculpted gardens some traitor had devised for his country house before the Glorious Forces had liberated it, constantly being reminded of the stakes if he should fail. The job of a General was to divine success from a string of failures. And though no one liked to talk about it, particularly Carter, before Cirrus Prime there had been Cirrus; but then someone had handed some guns to a stranger and hoped for the best.

Davis had been on this planet for seven years, trying to drag a promotion to General out of the rain and the mud and people who couldn’t recognize how this was going to end; he wasn’t sure how much stomach he had for handling what came next. The coffee was already gnawing at him. Maybe he’d have to give in to Sylvia’s nagging and let her bring him pastries from the officer’s mess on her way back from coffee. Something to soak up the damage.

“You have someone on the inside?” he asked finally. He wondered how long a pause it had been.

If it had been too long, Carter didn’t betray anything. He nodded—once, downward only. He’d been a soldier all his life, and had developed economy in everything, a quality Davis tried to appreciate for its value in the field. (It was useless in meetings; Davis had to do all his own presenting, which was always the downside of requesting Carter for a long-term assignment.)

Outside, the soldier was loading the carp into the garbage pod, one shovelful at a time. With every slop, two or three slid back onto the mess at her feet, gleaming scales slimed over with black on whatever side they’d died on. He wondered if she was being punished for something. He couldn’t imagine being assigned to the carp every day. Better to be stuck filling sandbags.

“All right,” he said. “Check out their leadership and whoever’s next in line. Let’s make sure this is a happy family before we invite them in.”

“Sir,” Carter said, and left without another word, like he was happy, and that as much as anything worried Davis until it was time to go home.

• • • •

At his house, Catherine brought him a drink as soon as he’d settled at the dinner table, which meant she was worried about his good opinion or that she wanted him to stay home while she went off and did something. He sipped it; it was the one they distilled from the honey up in the mountains north of the crater, the one they couldn’t make any more. Whatever it was, she was serious about it.

“What did you forget?”

She smiled, a quick tick of her lips and then gone, and smoothed her skirt as she sat down. “That benefit’s tonight. For the filtration plant, for the water.”

She wouldn’t have needed to pull out the good booze to convince him to stay home for that. He never liked formal events; his dinner jacket was too big and his uniform pulled at him, and he certainly wasn’t interested in getting more grief about what the Glorious Forces Mine had done to the water. But when she asked him to stay home it always implied that she would look better alone, and that stung—wasn’t he a Colonel? Wasn’t he overseeing the people she was spending her evenings with? Were they so much better than he was, to be worth her time?

“I see,” he said, pressing his tongue to the roof of his mouth to press the jealousy out for something colder. “You want me to stay out of your pet causes so you can do as you please.”

Her eyes were so pale it always startled him a little when she looked at him. He glanced away. Their dining room was more modest than whoever had given way for headquarters; the wallpaper, a deep green with little red sprigs of some native plant no one had ever identified for him, was beginning to peel away from the plaster. The damp, he thought. Maybe the heat from last summer. Nature was always battling you for the things you tried to make beautiful.

“I’d love you to come,” Catherine said finally. “I didn’t know they’d let you.”

They probably wouldn’t. Showing up at a benefit for civilians implied guilt. Really she shouldn’t be going, either, but tonight he thought it was wiser not to fight.

“No, of course you’re right,” he said, and watched her relax into her chair before he added, “This damp isn’t doing me much good anyway.”

“Knows better than to fight a war on two fronts!” General Madison always joked, whenever HQ staff sat in the war room late enough that someone started talking about wives, and Davis always raised his glass and let everyone chuckle. Madison’s first wife had disappeared from Mars while he was losing to colonists on Europa. Davis knew there had to be some length on the leash, or a wife would bolt at the first opportunity.

He sometimes thought he should have married a soldier out of the ranks, who might understand him better. Any table he shared with Catherine always felt longer than it really was. She’d been the daughter of an Admiral, but born after his busy years. She knew nothing of the business. She played three instruments and made pressings of plants with botanical notes calligraphed into the margins.

But after dinner he looked at the line of her long neck, her shoulders in sparkling blue; he watched her threading heavy earrings into the holes in her ears and painting her lips a deep warm purple like she’d been at the wine, and the same warm satisfaction came over him that always came over him when he considered what he had that no other man did.

There was a little tremor underfoot as she bent for her shoes—enough that she paused and held on to her dressing table, but not enough that he felt obliged to get up from his place on the bed and assist her. (She hadn’t offered him her zipper; if he wasn’t going to get to do his favorite part of their evening routine, he didn’t see any reason to drop to his knees for something he didn’t care about.)

“Goodness,” she said after it was over. One hand was pressed to her necklace, and he watched her hand shift up and down by inches as she breathed. “Have they gotten so close?”

“They must have stolen some artillery,” he said.

• • • •

The war room had been the ballroom of the great house once, and Sylvia refused to set foot in it. “Ghoulish,” she’d called it the only time she’d ever seen it, standing in the doorway and staring at the Intelligence officers tacking up the terrain maps as well as they could over the decorative moldings.

At the time, Davis had thought it was superstition. Hire enough civilians from whatever colony you were peacekeeping, and you realized any one of them was as superstitious as the next one. These people wouldn’t even step on a streak of dark stone in the street, because runoff from the mines was bad luck. They lined up patiently to step over it at the thinnest point, the only time Davis ever saw them patient about anything. Superstition turned everyone into a fool.

But Madison and Verrastro argued about Carter’s report, and Davis had been staring at the chandelier long enough that there was a chill at the base of his spine. It wasn’t worth mentioning to Sylvia, of course, but he didn’t like it. The last thing he needed was to start cracking about things the locals didn’t like.

“Cirrus Prime must be the end of the line,” Madison was shouting. He swept his arm across the map to indicate the northern mountains, the desert behind them. “What are we supposed to do, spend the rest of our lives in this backwater trying to get these people to stop behaving like children?”

Verrastro folded her arms. She was with the State branch, and military frustrations never interested her. “Our real problem,” she said, “is that you keep underestimating them. If they were actually behaving like children, one would think you and Davis would have been able to smoke them out by now.”

Davis’ nose itched. The chandelier was trembling, just barely; whomever Carter had given those rockets to was making good use of them.

This morning, the reports had all been casualties. A temple on the edge of the city had fallen—they weren’t sure yet if that was an accident or if someone was trying to send a message to Cirrus Prime. A neighborhood too near to HQ for anybody’s comfort had been knocked to rubble, and another half-dozen houses lost to fire; it would have been more except for the rain. It was funny, probably, to have been saved by the damp; to have a hostile place be so waterlogged that danger couldn’t even survive long enough to reach you.

There had been some attacks in the streets during the fire, which the local constables had reported briskly as people taking advantage of the chaos to steal whatever they could. “Desperate times,” the sergeant had said with a shrug.

They hadn’t told him that all of those little altercations took place well away from the rubble and the fire, and nobody had touched the fallen temple except his own people grabbing souvenirs. Someone had tried to break in to a house in the center of town during the fire. Davis had sat back and looked out at the cobblestones of dead carp across the top of the pond, and wondered which of the factions they were fighting had killed six hundred of their own people as cover to break into a colonist’s house.

It was a failure where blame hung suspended between military and state waiting to see who made the first mistake. All three of them knew it, and no one was willing to say; they’d been fighting for three hours because no one was willing to say.

Madison was pacing now. “Well, according to Davis, Carter has been making plenty of friends. He knows where they are. We can end half this problem right there.”

Davis sighed. “Cirrus Prime isn’t packed into one tidy mountain west of the desert any more, Madison. You blew out their last options there. They’ve scattered into the swamps.”

Madison turned a withering look on him. “The swamps.”

“He’s right.” Verrastro sat back. “We have so much surveillance pointed on that desert it looks like we’re filming tourism ads. There’s nothing.”

“I thought they were protecting the mines.” Madison sounded almost disappointed in them.

Verrastro waved a hand. “No point. Until the sanctions are lifted, nobody can sell any of the copper even if they could sneak it out from under us. They were fighting to keep us off the land, not from getting the profits from the mine. They always knew those were going to Glorious.”

Madison frowned. “Well, the swamps are impossible to get any decent recon in.”

“Well, fuck me, Madison, that must have been just what they thought.”

Before anybody could get enough air for another round of useless bellowing (putting three Colonels in a room with a problem was always going to end in an argument), catering knocked and rolled in a cart with food and coffee.

It took him longer than it should have to recognize the stocky Private who was serving him, and when he did he was too excited to be subtle—he grabbed her wrist. She stiffened, but when he let go, she held still. Without the cap her face was broad and open, the eyes wide-set and dark; she was a local, then.

“I didn’t realize we’d recruited so many of you that we have Privates left over to scoop pond scum.”

She blinked. “Sir.”

It was such a flat reply it was insubordinate, somehow, like she was trying to make him feel foolish. He looked her over, slowly, to make it clear he disapproved. “So when you’re not on carp duty, you’re making my food?”

She glanced to Verrastro like she was embarrassed, but she said, “No, sir. Evans is the cook at HQ. I’m delivering.” That had stolen his joke, so he had to settle for, “Well, that’s small comfort. Dismissed,” and she had to hastily set up the rest of the coffee things on the sideboard as she left. Madison noticed and rolled his eyes, which gave Davis some satisfaction.

He had a bad habit of feeling for people, wishing he could reach out to them. It was good to be reminded sometimes that this was the only type of government in which everyone found their level honestly. The reasons he put Carter into the field with so much autonomy were the same reasons this private was loading fish onto a truck. The Glorious Forces were a machine of merit; everyone was just as they should be.

• • • •

Verrastro came into his office halfway through the carp soldier’s work and sat down.

“We should dispatch some soldiers to the mine with the locals,” she said quickly, like if she got it out before he could think about it he might agree.

He didn’t bother looking over; the carp soldier had moved on from skimming the dead fish off the top to trying helplessly to shovel them into the truck, and it was doing him no end of good. The movement was hypnotic, and her failure very satisfying. “You’re joking.”

“Listen, we can’t just keep—” she stopped, perhaps realizing that it wasn’t wise to suggest his methods might be failing. “Treating these people like bystanders,” she finished.

“If they want the mine back, Colonel Verrastro, all they have to do is turn in whomever among them is working with Cirrus Prime and the Glorious Forces will be happy to negotiate an end to the sanctions.”

“They don’t care about the sanctions, Colonel Davis.”

“Cirrus Prime cares.”

“Cirrus Prime wants the land,” Verrastro said. She sounded very tired. “They know the mine is dry, Davis.”

He forced his face to stay calm. He counted a dozen fish scoops before he turned from the window. “What?”

She raised her eyebrows slowly, punctuating herself like a joke. “They never cared about the mine. They wanted the overburden—the lake water—before the chemicals could get into it. That was the fight.”

There was a flicker of satisfaction that they’d lost; the water was tainted and their fight had availed them nothing. But it couldn’t last in the face of so much that the state had been keeping from him.

Feeling stupid, he said, “But the Forces sent us here to protect the copper.”

“The Forces sent us here to prove a point about what happens when you revolt against the Glorious, Davis.”

He sat back in his chair. If she was right, that point had given them the Republic, and the militia, and Cirrus, and Cirrus Prime, and now a damp office and a peeling house across the city and cold sour coffee and a bunch of Colonels jockeying for General and so many desperate locals they were scraping ponds for the hope of three meals a day, and seven thousand dead since Davis had landed in the dust-choking desert you couldn’t believe was only a hundred miles from this swamp, and not an ounce of copper to show for it.

Out on the lawn, the carp soldier was scraping slime off her shovel with her knife. Davis envied her. She knew what she was meant to be doing; at some point, her duties ended.

• • • •

The tremors had come close enough to the city that he met Carter at one of the safe houses; whatever group of these wretched people was shelling the other, Carter couldn’t afford to be seen by some spy cutting across the gardens or through the kitchens to report.

It was a hovel at the edge of town, mud bricks and elevated chairs and a clean sluice grate in the middle of the room, cozy enough that Carter must have bargained off one of his own people, even if Davis thought it got more depressing by the second.

Davis had been coughing and picking dirt clods from the soles of his boots for nearly ten minutes by the time Carter arrived, hat pulled low over his eyes to make him blend in with the locals. (Maybe it did; everyone here was a foot shorter than Carter, but no one ever seemed to look at him twice.)

“I’m sure that when I told Colonels Madison and Verrastro two days ago that the weapons shaking them awake in their beds were not rockets we had given anyone, I was correct,” Davis said.

After a second, Carter nodded—just the once. “Understood.”

“Understood, or yes?”

Carter had taken up a position near the door, hunched to avoid the ceiling; he never sat if he could help it, but Davis hadn’t realized the depth of the habit.

“Yes,” Carter said, and licked his teeth.

“Good. Because if you were giving out presents without my permission, that would be treason.”

“Sedition, sir.”

“Usually the commanding officer gets to decide the charge in a court martial, Carter.” He took a breath. “Are any of your people living in The Dawn of the Sun Across the Mountains?”

Carter didn’t move.

“I ask because during the fire, someone broke into a house there. If that house belongs to one of your assets, they handled themselves so poorly that someone killed six hundred people to find out what they knew.”

“Or it’s a rich house that—”

“And if that house doesn’t belong to one of your assets, then whoever you sent to look into the people who live there killed six hundred strangers to cover a little breaking and entering.”

“I’m not involved with that,” Carter said.

It felt like it was too slow in coming, though it was hard to tell. Davis had had a headache since he’d read the police report; his stomach was sour from the maintenance reports and the request for more money to hire locals to help scrape out bodies.

“Six hundred people, Carter. Families, in the middle of the night, in the center of the city, when we’re trying to push the fighting back toward the desert. Do you know how that looks?”

Carter nodded, said not unkindly, “Bad for you.”

It took Davis a moment to summon the wherewithal to even look Carter in the eye. If there had been any doubts in his mind that Carter had been part of this, they had evaporated. This was what happened when you gave people a long lead.

Davis considered handling it. If he stood up and murdered Carter, no one would find the body for days. Davis could blame it on whatever wretches Carter had been courting for resistance and pardon Cirrus Prime. Cirrus Prime would know who the traitors were, and by the time the dust settled Cirrus Prime would assume they had a deal with the Glorious Forces. It would be easy to pick them off after that. If Carter really was a soldier, he’d be happy to die to end this war in weeks.

Carter was looking at him, though—looking at him like he had seen. Davis took a breath. Another. Another.

“You’re wrong,” Carter said quietly, “and you’re a coward.”

Davis sat where he was until sundown, for safety.

• • • •

They were nearly late for the performance and Catherine had promised she’d be ready, so he let the driver pull up and sat back to wait the inevitable three minutes it always took Catherine to decide she was fit to be seen.

It took her four, this time, and when she came out Davis swallowed a stab of disappointment. Her dress was deep blue and long everywhere, hem and sleeves and neck; not so much as a glimpse of her collarbones. She looked like a lump of ore.

Behind her was the carp soldier, carrying a bundle in her arms.

“What the hell is she doing here?” Davis asked before he could get hold of himself, and he felt the bottom drop out of his throat at the look Catherine gave him. Then a fit of coughing overtook him, which was convenient—he could look away to close the window without looking at her.

“I met her at the benefit,” she said slowly, like Davis was a child who didn’t understand why he was being scolded. “She was one of the waitstaff. Colonel Verrastro introduced us. Her brother was hurt last week in that awful fire, and I told her I would help her if I could.”

He had an image of that squat little soldier racing through the upstairs gallery of their house, shoving the ivory carvings into the sack she’d brought, but he knew better than to even joke about it. “Food,” he guessed instead.

“I didn’t think we’d miss a loaf of bread and some redfruit.” Then after a beat, like an accusation, “She kept saying how generous it was of you.”

He kept his eyes on the road until he felt her shift her attention out the window; the loss of her regard was like lifting a stone off his chest, and he could catch his breath long enough to think.

Their house was in The Two Faint Stars First Touch These Hills, and around them the houses spread out among lawns and vines that were still bright and healthy, a long green tongue lolling toward the city center.

“You’re right,” he said finally. “It looks good for the Forces that you’re helping those in need. I was concerned that showing favoritism to one soldier would cause some unrest in the ranks, but I’m sure you told her not to mention it to anyone.”

It was perfect—an apology, twisted just enough to remind her that the stakes were always going to be higher for him.

She was still looking out the window, where the green had given way to pale grey sidewalks and spindly little trees kept carefully off the ground in stone planters. It was barely raining, and the place was crowded. When he’d first arrived here he’d thought of it as a good sign, that people were getting on with things. Now it just made him nervous, and he looked from one face to another all the way to the concert hall.

The gala performance was meant to benefit the Glorious Forces, but there was plenty of color to break up the pale blue of dress uniforms. Davis realized that some of the benefit must have been to civilians in letting them come. Good idea, he supposed, except that he was so fucking sick of civilians.

Madison and his fourth wife were seated next to them, of course, and Davis nodded politely and tried to remember her name; he turned to Catherine for help, but she’d breezed past him to say hello to some of the lesser officers and even one or two of the local families, draped in purple and green and red and yellow. He bit the inside of his mouth.

“Glad you could make it,” said Madison, somehow still too loud even in a hall of a thousand people. “Can you believe what they’re performing?”

Davis glanced down at his program, but Sylvia was at his shoulder with a question about when he wanted the car brought back (Master of the Sky bless Sylvia, the only person he could remotely count on to save him from small talk in the abandonment of his wife), and by the time that was finished Catherine was coming back and taking her seat like nothing was wrong, and the lamps were being dimmed.

It was an opera about the founding of the city. When Davis realized it, he laughed—just once, like Carter would have—and waited for Catherine to elbow him.

But she didn’t. She loved music; leaving music behind was the only thing she’d ever complained about when he brought her on postings with him. He didn’t mind it, actually. It felt like a genteel complaint, the sort of complaint a General’s wife should have. He’d pictured her assembling string quartets someday, when he’d been promoted to a permanent post and didn’t have to always make do in other people’s houses.

Now she sat perfectly still. It was dissonant to him—all the music on this planet sounded like he was hearing it from underwater—but she listened raptly while the chorus sang about the old times, and the lake between the mountains, and the helpful spirits that guided the weary to good soil and pitched the wicked over the far side of the mountain into the desert, and the satisfaction of working together to tame the land and make it bear fruit.

Davis spent most of it hiding his coughs in his shoulder and looking from one face to another. Surely someone from the propaganda ministry would be concerned. But when he finally spotted a little knot of them, seated far enough behind him that they should have been insulted at the view, they were watching just as placidly as everyone else.

They all looked young. That was the problem. No one had thought to send a veteran minister who knew better than to let the people you were fighting remind each other what they stood to gain.

Catherine was crying by the end of it. She got herself under control before anyone could light the lamps again, which pulled them back from the brink of disaster. Still, she was a fool for falling prey to something so obvious, and as the car pulled away he clenched his fists, wondering where else his wife, his representative among his colleagues, had cried like a child facing their first disappointment. At the benefit that was full of potential enemies, standing next to Verrastro? At dinner parties with Madison’s fourth wife where she looked like a miserable hostage in the middle of everyone’s chat? In their own kitchen, where two girls from town did the cleaning and the cooking? How many times had she put them in danger by looking like someone mistreated, someone who could be turned?

This can’t go on, he thought, all at once, like a relief.

As he unzipped her he said, “I don’t want you going out in the evenings any more unless I’m with you.”

She looked as if she’d been expecting it; the line of her shoulders never moved. He thought briefly about dragging corpses out of the pond, about a shovel and a heavy swing.

“Of course,” she said. “Thank you for a lovely evening.”

• • • •

By the time they found Carter’s body, it had been in the swamps so long that someone had to bring Davis the pictures of his tattoos to the war room so the three of them could agree on identification. The rest of the corpse had gotten so waterlogged they couldn’t tell much, and of course the blows that killed him had knocked out his teeth.

“It’s brutal,” Madison said, scraping a hand over his beard. “I don’t know what you had him doing, but somebody didn’t like what he found.”

Davis passed back the pictures. “He was living among Cirrus Prime and recruiting their doubters and their enemies. No one would have liked what they found.”

Carter had often made intelligence work sound like a magic trick; something that required careful preparation through arcane methods, a set of tools you kept to hand to distract suspicion, a sleight of empathy that could make you seem like a friend to anyone who wasn’t looking very hard.

“So where does that leave us?” Verrastro glanced at Madison; she looked a little green.

Madison nodded at her like he understood. “In need of a drink,” he said, and rang.

The carp soldier came with coffee and whiskey. She set up on the sideboard without looking at him; she kept her head down the whole time she handed Verrastro and Madison their drinks. Davis spread out his fingers under the table, like the paws of a big cat warming up to strike. As she served him, he kept his eyes out the window, followed just the edge of her reflection as she moved away, and for a moment he filled with blood all over just thinking about how good it was, how good it was.

As the carp soldier pulled the last inches of the squeaking cart past the door (it rattled as she scraped the door frame, this whole place was coming apart), Verrastro wrapped her hands around her cup and asked him, “What the fuck do we do without Carter?”

Davis took a small breath. He felt light all over; he felt like he had the first time he ever saw Catherine turn and look at him with her long neck and those blank, beautiful eyes. He felt like he knew what to do.

“We end this,” Davis said. “The mine’s empty, and they’re already angry about the water, so there’s no point saving it. Make our point. Raze it.”

The coffee was sour as ever, but he hardly minded. It wouldn’t be for long.

• • • •

That night, as they sat near the fire in the parlor (him sipping on another glass of the liquor that the bees had made, back when there were bees), he told Catherine they were going to be reassigned, just to watch her eyes light up.

“Where?” she asked.

He didn’t know what would be best, so he said, “Guess.”

“Not Europa,” she said, in a tone that felt safe to deny, and then “Mars?” much more promising, and when he agreed she actually took his hand.

“I’m so glad you’ll be gone from here,” she said, so earnestly that some small fondness scraped at him—a real fondness, like she’d been a good wife all this time. “This has been horrible.”

“It has,” he agreed. He was off balance, now; tenderness upset him.

“I’ll start packing tonight,” she said, and stood with that glint in her eye like a General’s wife, and he was a clever enough man to say, “Later,” and keep her hand in his, and draw her down to him.

She was already asleep by the time he coughed up blood, and realized what he had missed.

• • • •

He had debated doing it quietly, overnight, but that was what a man did when someone had betrayed him and he was small and angry. A General—a leader of men—made examples, and laid groundwork for what was coming next.

So he waited until he was in his office, and then he quietly asked, “Sylvia, who brings up this coffee every morning?”

She jerked a thumb out the window, where the rain was sheeting down nearly sideways; Davis could barely make out the olive drab of the carp soldier, dragging all those fish out of the poisoned pond.

“Either Evans or that conversationalist,” she said, then frowned—lightly, innocently. “Why? If there’s a problem with it I’ll tell Evans. Maybe we can get a kitchen on this floor.”

“No need,” he said. “Can you call in Verrastro?”

“She’s home sick.”

The tips of his fingers went cold. He’d thought this was a vendetta—he’d thought one humiliated soldier had dared to lash out because she was stupid enough to believe it was possible to win a war by conquering one man. But if she’d been clever . . .

“Sick?”

“Real bad,” said Sylvia. “I can get Madison on the line for you if it’s a martial matter?”

“It’s a state matter,” Davis said, “but I can handle it. Can you get the groundskeeper duty sergeant on the line, please?”

It crossed his mind to have the carp soldier confess; it would mean more, he knew, to have a traitor admit to it in public. It would give the people something to consider when their town was in ruins; they would have that grain of doubt that happens so often among conquered people, that someone else could have done more to prevent this, that someone else had failed them. You could keep people fighting amongst each other until the last house was rubble and clay.

But a good General could do that without a confession, and before he did something for the glorious good, Davis wanted one thing just for himself.

He’d told the Sergeant not to interrupt her. He wanted no warning. When the shot came, she still had the net in her hands. After a moment of suspended motion, she pitched forward into the pond, and slowly sank beneath the dead carp; they covered her over, a carpet of grey.

• • • •

By the time he got home, Catherine had packed up half the household. Fifteen crates sat in the front hall. She was at the dining table already, practically alight, and his drink was waiting.

“I guess when you’re leaving a hated place, everything’s a special occasion.”

She smiled back at him, bright and real. “Is it that obvious?”

He laughed and drank, feeling impossibly quiet and content. “Well, I wrapped up my last loose end. No point waiting around. As soon as Madison can recall most of our people, we’re going to finish this and go, so I hope you can keep packing at this rate.”

“Most?”

He nodded. Somehow he didn’t want to explain why there had to be a few real casualties from the Forces when the city fell; he was grateful when she took a heavy breath, said nothing.

“Do you have to be there for it?”

How heroic that sounded, to be standing alone in front of the endgame! Still, better to give credit. “Madison and I must both give the order.”

She hmmed. “I’ll pack alone, then. When do we leave?”

“Two hours past dawn,” he said, and when she said, “Well, that does it for the silverware, then,” he grinned.

She was laughing when the girls brought dinner in, and they ate in a happy silence. He couldn’t really eat—his stomach was nothing but acid and his throat was burning—but it still felt like a celebration. He felt, all at once, what you might be supposed to feel when a woman’s really your wife. A wife like a partner. A General’s wife. All at once he wanted to confide in her: about what it felt like to swing that metal bar into Carter’s face, about the agreement they’d all made to level the city and let the snake eat its own worthless tail. It was lonely, suddenly, keeping secrets from her.

“I’m being poisoned,” he said. His vision was swimming; he prayed it wasn’t tears.

She looked over with a spoon of soup halfway to her mouth. “What?”

“Poisoned.” The word made him feel tragic. “I’m dying,” he added.

Catherine was staring at him, aghast. He sat a little straighter in his chair.

“That soldier—the one who came to the house—was poisoning my coffee. She’s taken care of, but the damage might be done. It was the water,” he said, and suddenly the words sounded heavy, as if he couldn’t hold them. He glanced into his soup, flexed his hands under the table. “The water was ruined.”

“Yes,” Catherine agreed.

He looked up. It was dark enough now that the lamp cast strange shadows over her face; earnest, placid. He couldn’t keep her in focus; she looked like a landscape, like a theater with dimmed lights.

“Catherine,” he started. He reached for his liquor glass; his throat was burning. He couldn’t catch his breath, he couldn’t look at his wife. It was really very dim. The glass slipped from his hand.

She said gently, “I told her I would help her if I could.”

• • • •

Verrastro and Madison sat in Davis’ office. Outside, rain beat down against the slimy grey bodies of the carp.

The problem with Davis, Verrastro had realized, was that he never understood the balance in opposing forces. He saw threads of events that somehow led to a single future point. What they did wasn’t a line. It was a web. There was no finish; there were just endpoints that held the rest together.

He was the kind of leader who never asked how deep that pond must be, to spit up so many carp that it took one soldier hours just to scoop them off, only to have another carpet of them waiting the next morning. That pond went deeper into the soil and connected to something more than he could imagine, or it was restocked at night to give one soldier a reason to stay on the grounds and learn everything she could about their habits. Either explanation would have told him something; he’d never asked.

Sylvia, red-eyed, delivered coffee. Neither of them drank.

Madison stared out the window, his hands clasped behind him. “That pond is going to drown this house.”

“Not today,” she said.

After today, it wouldn’t matter. News of Davis’ sedition was already being quietly passed up the line; a Colonel who sent his men to die was doing his job, but one who strangled his own intelligence officers and shot innocent local soldiers was unhinged. (A long illness bravely denied, obviously. Catherine would know what to say; she’d be a General’s wife yet.)

The fire, the Glorious Forces investigators had conveniently discovered, had been set by dissidents trying to punish Cirrus Prime. A few dissidents had actually been happy to hear it; they were organizing. And Cirrus Prime wasn’t happy about the turncoats; one of their agents had walked right up to the gates asking to discuss it.

The whole thing was embarrassing enough to the relevant Ministers that it would be better to declare the battle over and leave an empty mine alone. Cirrus Prime could be brought around to peacekeepers; you could convince people to do anything once you told them they had won. Mine or not, this town still needed someone to represent the Glorious Forces when they were gone.

Outside, the pond was just beginning to spill over; the black-slimed fish coasted gracefully over the edge and out across the manicured lawn. Beneath the carpet of the dead, those that remained were churning the water. It was Friday. They were at war with The Faint Stars.

Genevieve Valentine

Genevieve Valentine is the author of the novels Mechanique, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, Persona, and Icon. She has also written the comics Catwoman for DC and Xena: Warrior Princess for Dynamite. Her nonfiction and criticism has appeared at NPR.org, The Atlantic, LA Review of Books, and the AV Club. Her love of bad movies is evergreen; you can read about it at genevievevalentine.com.