The ensigns find Jala crumpled in a corner of the observation deck. When they try to help her up she goes limp and resists and will not take her eyes off the planet in front of them, splayed against the dark of space, its surface being consumed by a coruscating rash of flame.
‘No,’ she says. ‘No.’
The ensigns look at each other. One of them is a small blonde woman and there are tears streaming town her face and the glossy streaks gleam yellow-red with the light of the blaze. She sniffs and wipes her face and tugs gently at Jala’s arm.
‘Sir,’ she says. ‘It’s doing you no good watching this.’
Jala doesn’t move. After a while the ensigns try to move her again. She pulls back, twice. Then, abruptly, a sob wracks her skinny body, and she goes limp.
They carry her out into the corridor where people are running about to the sound of wailing klaxons. They all know why Jala is like this and they know that there is nothing they can do to help her, but that does not stop them offering to help, and watching horror-struck as the three continue on their way. Two of them smiling and shaking their head. One of them languishing between the others, as if dead.
When they arrive at her quarters they lower her gently into her bed. She sits there, arms folded in her lap, tears streaming down her face. Staring at her the blank screen on the wall as if expecting an urgent message any moment. The ensigns speak as if she wasn’t there.
‘Will she be alright?’ says the blonde woman.
The other one is half-Ansuli and her purple hair is long and clamped protectively around her neck. A few strands reach out towards the ensign like an anemone waving in the sea.
‘Don’t know,’ she says, through baleen teeth. ‘Come on.’
Jala begins to rock back and forth and the movement grows wilder until finally it propels her to her feet. She marches over to the wall and pushes a panel and it hisses and slides aside. Nestling behind it, in a foam bed, is her gun. She takes it out and clips in the fusion biscuit and it whines to life. Then she tucks it into her waistband and wipes her tears and heads out.
She wends her way expressionlessly through the panic and pushes people aside when they try to speak to her or else are in the way, oblivious to their rank or their anger. She walks into Commander Xripsac’s office and sees Ambassador Ngon Lua folded like a spider into one of Xripsac’s padded red chairs. He looks up when she lifts the gun and points it straight at his head. He doesn’t flinch when she releases the safety. He just holds up his hands and says, ‘Don’t you want to know why, Specialist Jala?’
Her hands are shaking. Xripsac pounds his tentacles against his pressurized booth. His voice comes over the speaker and the translator renders it taut with tension.
‘Specialist Jala,’ he says. ‘Lower your weapon immediately.’
‘It’s alright, Commander,’ says Ngon Lua. ‘She has every right to shoot me. But, Specialist, I would very much like the opportunity to explain myself before I die.’
Jala hesitates. She walks over to a chair and sits down and puts the weapon on her lap, barrel still pointing at Ngon Lua, index finger looped through the trigger.
‘Go on,’ she says.
‘Well, you see,’ says Ngon Lua. ‘I’ve cut the Promethean knot.’
She closes her eyes. She already knows that she will not have the heart to kill him.
For her first few weeks on Prometheus Station she dutifully eats in the mess every night so everyone knows that she is not antisocial or arrogant. She only needs to mention twice that she is from Zoar and the questions about her past dry up. In any case everyone knows she has been sent there to work with Ambassador Ngon Lua and so they are already a little in awe of her. Once she is certain everyone likes her enough to tolerate her she reverts back to her old ways and doing so feels, as always, like she is shedding old skin.
She still has nightmares, but there is no one there to see the aftermath. When she is wide-eyed and shaking and slick with sweat. Other times her memories concuss into the present like meteors. The more observant notice her eyes lose focus and her body goes stiff. But they also notice that she recovers quickly, and acts as if nothing happens. And they know well enough not to pry.
When she is alone she spends her time reading about Ngon Lua. She finds pictures of him from his last success, him with the leaders of two warring planets. Before he brought them together they would not even offer medical help to each other’s wounded. Now they have built a station together on the world they were fighting over, and in one corner of it is a statue to him. She sees only a skinny and stooped old man, taller than everyone else, standing behind the two leaders. Smiling gently, as if they were two of his own children, long estranged, and now reconciled by his hand.
In the northern hemisphere there are two continents, and one of these snakes mountainously up and over the north pole like a great blotchy spine. At its southern end it flares into a many-lobed fan of highlands and thousands of rivers run down from these onto the plains. These sprawl and quicken and then sprawl again, over and over, until finally, as they approach the sea, they swell into each other and drown the land in a shallow expanse humming with life. From space, when Prometheus’ light falls at the right angle, the whole complex lights up like the glowing red head of some colossal axon.
This is where Jala goes when she has time to herself.
She turns all her comms off on the way down, but for the emergency beacon, and stares through fire-licked windows at the rising red-and-black surface. The clouds whisk past and the dark splotches on the ground harden into countless flat-lobed tree-things that she knows, up close, smell of licorice and are moist to the touch.
When the shuttle lands she hoists her backpack and sprays herself with insect repellent and it too smells like sugar and aniseed. Outside the stench of the place hits her with a rush and always it takes her a few moments for the nausea to pass and her nose to go numb to it. At first she wore a breather but then she told herself that she wanted to be there, be really there, and getting used to the alien aroma of the place was a small price to play. Besides, the smell of a thing is made of the thing itself, and so to turn away from it is to turn away from everything. At least, this is how she rationalizes her watering eyes and the sniffles that always linger for hours after she has returned to the dry antisepsis of the station’s filtered air.
The ground is spongy near the marsh and covered with feathery grass as high as her knee. She closes her eyes and runs her hands over the tips as she goes and it is soft and flesh-warm to the touch. As she does so the leaves flinch and recoil lazily and she has to remind herself that in fact it is not grass but the tails of countless long-tailed necrotrophs, buried face-first into the soil, their long proboscises reaching down to the carcass of some immense and unspeakable beast decaying somewhere beneath her feet. Billions of them populate these plains, all the way to the point where the water deepens into the sea and they cannot stick their breathing apparatus up into Prometheus IV’s wet skies.
It is almost always overcast on her trips and she sweats the instant she steps out of the shuttle. The liquid lingers on her face and on her body, pungent and sticky and she is used to that too, now. She trudges around the edge of the water and up a ridge. The creatures in the lowlands skulk about in the worm-grass, wide-eyed, watching her go. She has seen things that look like rabbits, but with long, stilty legs, and ears that reach the ground. There are predators too, winding thing like ferrets, and she has seen them use their vestigial wings to swoop through the water.
One day, half way up the slope, something approaches her that looks like a giant seal. It comes closer, fearless, huge eyes reddish and riven with black cracks, snorting with the effort of moving its blubbery torso. It stops a few feet away from her and she crouches and holds out her hand. After a while it twitches its nose – its whiskers are bright blue and curl like tentacles – and comes closer. After a while it lets her touch it and its skin is soft and moist. When she brings her fingers away they smell like burnt wood and anise. The creature follows her, puffing, up the hill and into the forest. It lies next to her when she sits down and sniffs at her food. She holds out a palmful of rice and curry and it nibbles the stuff with teeth like plates of horn. Then it gags and spits it out.
She spends a day with it, lingering under the fat mushroom-headed tree-things, protected from the fierce Promethean light. In that cocooning dimness the universe and its tumult seems so far, and perhaps not even real. She forgets who she is and where she comes from and falls asleep with her arm around the seal-thing, its face nestled against her chest.
When she wakes up she is drenched in sweat, and alone. She never sees it again, though she comes back to the same spot, many times.
When Ambassador Ngon Lua arrives on the Mbegu, a Union cruiser so huge that when it is docked Prometheus Station looks like prey caught in the jaws of some great steel predator. Jala watches it pull in, underside scarred and flecked with windows and the drowned in the droning red light of the neighbourhood star. With it comes a whiff of the world she has left behind, like cold clinging to a visitor on a wintry night.
The Ambassador is already folded into an armchairin Commander Xripsac’s office when she arrives. Next to him is a small metallic suitcase. Up close she sees that he is hunched and skinny, barely more than skin over a skeleton, and his hair wispy and white and hanging about his head in clumps. He does not acknowledge her arrival and neither does the Commander and so Jala stands stock-still and silent while they chat. Then he fixes his gaze on her – intense and unwavering – and she thinks yes, skin over a skeleton, but a skeleton made of steel.
‘You must be Specialist Jala,’ he says. ‘Take a seat.’
Jala salutes and complies.
‘Specialist Jala will be working with you during the negotiations,’ says Commander Xripsac.
‘Yes, I know.’ The Ambassador leans forward, twig fingers intertwined, and eyes still fixed on Jala. ‘You’re Zoari, I take it?’
‘You had family there?’
‘Were you there?’
‘It must have been a terrible experience.’
She pauses. Then: ‘It was, sir. Quite terrible.’
‘Yes. Terrible. I hope that you are quite recovered.’
Jala nods and says nothing. Ngon Lua scans her face for a few moments, and then sits back.
‘So,’ he says. ‘Specialist Jala. What is your evaluation of the situation here?’
‘My evaluation, sir, is that we are in dire need of your insight and guidance.’
‘Explain to me as you would to a child.’
‘Sir.’ Jala closes her eyes and lets the words fall into place. ‘On one hand we have the Eshim, whose motives we understand, but disapprove of. On the other hand we have the Gophrithim, whose motives we do not understand, but whose actions we approve of. Both sides have tremendous resources, have clashed before, and believe the other owes them recompense. They have elevated Prometheus IV to a level of importance far greater than it actually has. Mishandling this situation could result in billions of deaths on both sides.’
‘The key is to meaningfully engage with the Gophrithim. I believe that in the end we can negotiate with the Eshim, but we must look to be dealing fairly with the Gophrithim in their eyes. We don’t have to worry too much about the opposite; the Gophrithim don’t care about such things, as far as I can tell.’
‘So – something that looks fair to the Eshim, and gets through to the Gophrithim?’
‘I look forward to your thoughts on that very matter, sir.’
Ngon Lua blinks, expressionless. Then he leans back until his face is poitned at the ceiling and his Adam’s apple pops out against his throat, and laughs.
‘Very diplomatic, Specialist. Very good. What if I told you I hadn’t a clue? Would you entertain the possibility that there is no solution to the Promethean Knot?’
‘Pardon me, sir?’
Ngon Lua cocks his head.
‘The Promethean Knot. Like the Gordian Knot.’
‘I don’t follow.’
‘The Gordian Knot. You’ve heard of Alexander the Great, yes?’ Ngon Lua looks at Xripsac’s chamber. ‘He was an ancient Earth king, and conqueror.’
‘I have heard of him,’ says Xripsac.
‘He arrives at a city called Gordium, and there he finds this rope tied up on a knot – something connected to the legend of the foundation of the place, I forget. Alexander arrives and they challenge him to undo the knot. He looks at it, and then whips out his sword, and slices the knot in half. That’s his solution. What we are faced with here is a similar situation, don’t you think? A big, tangled knot, impossible to pick apart. Perhaps we are going about it wrong. Perhaps, like Alexander, we would be better off just cutting through it.’
He peers at Jala
‘Sir,’ she says eventually. ‘We would need a very large sword.’
Ngon Lua’s bony frame convulses with laughter again. Then he gets up.
‘She’ll do,’ he says, reaching for his suitcase. ‘I will retire now. The trip was exhausting.’
‘We have dinner prepared -’ says the Commander.
‘No, no dinner. I’ve things to do, then bed. I’ll order something light later.’
‘Our chef will be disappointed, Ambassador.’
‘In my experience, Commander Xripsac, there are three feelings common to all sentient creatures in this galaxy – love, fear, and disappointment. And accordingly, there are three feelings that all sentient things are equipped to deal with.’
‘What of your team? Will they be dining?’
‘No team. It’s just me on this mission.’ He picks up his suitcase and clutches it to his chest. ‘It only take one man to swing a sword.’
The Eshim make the first move.
Not long after Ngon Lua arrives three mining ships wink into orbit around Prometheus IV. Jala can see them from the observation deck as they loop around the planet in low orbit like three fireflies. They deploy the Mbegu and it follows the three ships at a distance, tracking their moves. Within a few hours of arrival they have begun descending into the atmosphere. A day or so after that they land in the southern hemisphere and deploy an army of automated workers who consume the forest around them and leave a great glistening expanse of machinery in their wake. They build barges also, and within a week these are shuttling on and off the planet with the precision and regularity of a line of ants.
Jala analyzes news from the Eshim homeworld and compiles reports and spends hours on the bridge, watching the Eshim expand their operations, figuring out precisely what it is they are shipping off the planet. She scans the system for Gophrithim retaliation and so she is the first to notice a swarm of drones arriving in the scattered disk, three AU distant, and begin clumping asteroids together.
The only thing she does not do is speak to Ngon Lua, because he is impossible to find. She messages him, but he does not respond. She goes to his quarters and knocks on the door and though she can hear him humming, he does not answer the door. One night she wakes from a nightmare of blood and fire and wanders the corridors, sleepless and tense. She sees him near the bridge, staring up through the windowed ceiling at the immense red-black-and-white hemisphere of Prometheus IV suspended overhead. She walks up behind him, but he strides away and his long stilt legs carry him faster than she can keep up. He turns a corner, and so does Jala. But by that time he is gone, leaving nothing behind but the dimming thud of his footsteps.
A few days later Jala is preparing to visit the surface again when Ngon Lua appears at her side without warning, silent and unheralded. She yelps, and then clamps her jaw shut.
‘Hello, Specialist Jala,’ he says.
‘Ambassador. I’ve been looking for you for several days. The Eshim have established -’
Ngon Lua waves his hand, fingers splayed, as if he were swatting ball away from his face.
‘Yes, yes, I know, don’t fret. You’re going to the surface?’
‘Yes. I -’
‘Take me with you.’
Jala pauses. Then: ‘With me?’
‘To the surface?’
‘That’s what I said.’
He folds in next to her, hunched over in the seat, wordless and fretful. He has his little silver suitcase with him and keeps it clamped between his knees. Jala eases the juddering shuttle out into the raw red light of Prometheus and then swings it down towards the planet. Through all this Ngon Lua keeps his eyes on Jala’s hands and watches her handling the controls like an egret watching a pond.
‘I’d like to land, if I may,’ he says.
‘It’s best if we let the computer do that, sir,’ says Jala.
‘No. I’d like to.’
‘Have you landed one of these before?’
He glances at her, a look like knives.
‘Of course I have.’
He has, but not for a long time. Jala can tell from the way the shuttle yaws left and right before thudding down on a hillside with the grace of a tumbling elephant. It slides a little way down the scree and when they come out there are two long gouges in the worm-grass, filling now with their sticky bluish blood. The Ambassador stares at the gashes for a few moments, clutching his suitcase to his chest. Then he makes his way up the hill.
Jala follows in his distended shadow. He walks for a kilometre, and then another. Jala struggles to keep up with him. Sometimes he stops and peers at the horizon, twitching his nose. Sometimes he bends over and touches the ground and lifts his fingers to his face, sniffing and grimacing. Every now and then he looks at Jala and every time he does he looks as if he had forgotten she was there, and then as if he was about to say something, and then as if he’d decided that it was best if he stayed quiet.
Eventually they find their way to a quick-flowing brook at the bottom of a shallow valley. On the opposite side are two bipedal creatures with little clawed hands. They stare at the two humans, eyes wide, mouths gaping, haloed by the big red disk of the sun.
‘Are they carnivorous?’ says the Ambassador.
‘I don’t know, sir,’ says Jala, sweating and panting. ‘We don’t know much about the fauna here.’
‘You come here often, is that right?’
He breathes in deep.
‘I can see why. It is as if time has not yet begun here.’
She has never thought of Prometheus that way before but now that he has said it she realizes that yes, that is precisely it. That this was a world that had not yet begun to measure itself, and so still felt infinite.
‘It’s a fascinating place,’ she says. ‘Nothing here can clearly be divided into plant and animal, like they can elsewhere. The trees have lungs and the animals can photosynthesize.’
‘Is that so?’
‘Yes.’ She points off to the left where the reddish sea rambles across the horizon in a crimson strip. ‘There are fish analogues that fly too, sometimes in great flocks. Up to where the air is thinner. The glide from sea to sea that way.’
‘How do they breathe?’
‘The air is moist enough for them to deploy exterior gills. They look like Elizabethan collars, fluttering about their necks.’ She looks over to the Ambassador. ‘I’m sure you’ve seen things as spectacular, though, sir.’
‘I have indeed.’
‘Is there anywhere else like this?’
The Ambassador smiles.
‘No. Nowhere is quite like anywhere else. You only have to look at any place for any length of time to see that.’ He waves at the sky. ‘We use words to generalize, but only because our minds are so small. Only because we can’t hold the real diversity of things clearly in our head. There are things I remember, though. Some more vividly than the others.’
He looks at her, side eyed, and she says nothing. Then he smiles and continues.
‘I was in Old Tokyo once, a long time ago.’
‘Yes, on Earth. They put me up in a place called Shinjuku. It used to be tall buildings and lights and there was a huge train station, but now it’s just shanties, as far as the eye can see.’ He sniffs. ‘A great brown mass of ragged houses and sweltering people. They’re all happy enough, which is strange. They’re all just getting on with it. I was the peculiar one, wandering around with my mouth open, probably, gaping. I’ve never seen better-organized poverty. The gutters were clean and they’d done a good job patching up the roads and they’d even reclaimed some of the bigger buildings. But what I remember is this. In the middle of all it was this homeless man. He was just lying by the side of the road, people streaming by. I could smell him as I approached and smelled him long after I’d passed. I remember him lying there, people walking by, out in public. His face was tilted back, his mouth a little open, his forehead furrowed. He looked totally ecstatic.’ Ngon Lau chuckles. ‘Then I noticed his hand moving under his sheet. He was masturbating.’
‘That is revolting.’
‘I think so, sir, yes.’
The two creatures across the river take off suddenly, hopping like kangaroos, their fat tails as rigid as wood.
‘I don’t,’ says the Ambassador again. ‘I think that man is all of us. Here in this vast universe, where suns collide and seas burn and diamonds the size of cities float in black oceans of burning gas. We’re just here, doing what we can, dealing with what we have. Every now and then we have to turn inwards and hold ourselves.’ He clutches his suitcase to his chest and turns the full force of his gaze to her. ‘You must agree, Specialist Jala. That the universe is huge and cruel, and sometimes the only way to survive is to close your eyes to it? Isn’t that why you fled to the edge of the Union? Isn’t that why you spend so much time on this world, where no one can speak back to you?’
She can’t hold his gaze for fear that he will see how right she is. Instead, she stares at her feet, at the swirling waters, at the distant silhouettes of the kangaroo-creatures, bounding away atop their mirroring shadows.
‘I don’t know, sir,’ she lies.
The Ambassador keeps watching her. Then he turns and walks back the way he came. Jala follows him back up the ridge as the sun sets, fattening and tremulous, and blood-red dusk turns to star spangled night.
‘We should begin laying plans for negotiations when we return, sir,’ says Jala. ‘I am sure the Gophrithim will be here soon.’
‘Yes, I suppose we should.’ The Ambassador places his suitcase in the shuttle and puffs.
‘You must be looking forward to the negotiation.’
Ngon Lua sighs.
‘You know,’ he says, ‘After a lifetime of putting out other people’s fires, now I mostly just wish they wouldn’t set them in the first place.’
When the Gophrithim begin their retaliation they do so swiftly and without warning, just as they do everything. There is a burst of comms chatter that no one can understand from their asteroid-belt construction site. Then the massive clump of rock they have been working on bursts out of orbit atop a clutch of giant thrusters. The Mbegu tracks its progress and once its trajectory is confirmed they wait for orders from Xripac.
‘Stand down,’ says Xripsac.
‘Should we inform the Eshim?’ asks the captain.
‘No. That is against protocol. Besides, they’ll know.’
They do. They scramble to evacuate. A great cloud of little life-pods and ships scatters from their mining site, some of them just moments before the asteroid punches through Prometheus IV’s atmosphere. Ripples propagate in gauzy circles as it passes and when it makes contact with the surface it explodes so brightly that for a moment snowcapped mountaintops halfway across the planet light up like beacons. Jala finds Ngon Lua in a crowd on the observation deck, all squinting against the glare.
‘They called the Eshim bluff, sir,’ she says.
‘Of course they did. They don’t know what a bluff is. You’d think the Eshim would know that by now.’ He shrugs. ‘Looks like they wanted war.’
‘Is this it, then?’
He watches the explosion spread and then soften and dissipate into the atmosphere in silence. Then he looks at Jala, and smiles.
‘Rest up, Specialist Jala,’ he says. ‘I will speak to you again in a few hours.’
Jala salutes. She is glad the old man finally seems to be doing something.
‘The Promethean Knot?’
Ngon Lua crosses and recrosses his legs and she can hear his knees clicking from halfway across the room.
‘Yes. Like I told you. Like Alexander. Now neither party has any reason to fight. They will make peace, and retreat, and my job here is done.’
‘Setting fire to a whole planet.’
‘And killing billions of creatures.’
‘Yes. Saving trillions in the process.’
Ngon Lua’s smile fades.
‘My whole family died. Did you know that? Did you know that my whole family died on Zoar?’
‘I am sorry. That wasn’t my intent, Specialist.’
‘So you admit it? You admit it was you?’
Ngon Lua nods.
‘Yes, Specialist. It was I who set fire to Zoar.’
The memories blister their way through her for an instant and she does not resist. The towering tsunami of flame rising up and behind her mother in those last few instants. So bright she could almost feel it all through the screen. The buildings melting in the distance and the sky turning black with ash. That final moment – her mother, open-mouthed and anguished, skin already raw, saying something her scorched throat could not finish. Then the dead screen and a blooming hollowness that still sits inside her like a black womb.
‘It was that suitcase of yours, wasn’t it?’ she says.
Ngon Lua nods. ‘Yes.’
‘What was it?’
‘A high intensity fusion chamber. Much like the one in that gun, I believe, but several order of magnitude more powerful.’ Ngon Lua points to the bare patches on his head and smiles again. ‘Just a small part of the price I had to pay for holding something like that close to me for so long.’
‘There were nine hundred and ninety eight million people on Zoar. There were children.’
‘There are always children,’ says Ngon Lua. ‘There are children on Eshim worlds, and on Gophrithim worlds, and across the Union. There are children yet to come. Future generations who will suffer for a piece of rock. I did this for them.’
‘You could have negotiated.’
‘What was there left to negotiate over? You know the fleet was moving into position. The Union would have gone to war over your homeworld, and to assert its right it would have rained gravity bombs down on a thousand worlds and dismissed a billion deaths as collateral and that, Specialist Jala, is precisely what they would have been.’ Ngon Lua closes his eyes and leans back. ‘Have you ever seen elephant seals fight, Specialist? They crush their own young in rage. The same way the Union would have over Zoar. In the same way the Eshim and the Gophrithim would have in a war over this planet. But now two wars have been averted, and trillions who otherwise would have died, live.’
‘You’re a war criminal. You’re a murderer. That was genocide.’
Ngon Lua nods.
‘All this is true. And it is your duty to take me home and see to it that I am given my due punishment.’
She stares at him for a moment and the meaning of his words wrap around her like a net in the dark. She cannot breathe. She gets up and staggers out of the Commander’s office, dropping her gun as she goes. Ngon Lua gets up and picks it up and ejects the fusion biscuit, pocketing it in three pieces, and follows her out.
She walks slowly down the corridor, the Ambassador trailing her, and back to the observation chamber. Overhead most of Prometheus IV is ablaze. A seething ocean of red-and-yellow fire has consumed the whole planet and in its midst is a small black circle of unburned land, contracting like a pupil until it is gone and there is nothing left but fire.
‘It is time for you to go home, Specialist Jala,’ says the Ambassador.
The Mbegu slides into sight above in silhouette. Jala turns to the Ambassador.
‘Give me back my gun,’ she says.