A photograph is a lie agreed upon, captured in time. There is an image of Major Delmarre taken on the very first day, and I carry it with me still. Delmarre is at the centre in his formal Navy plumage, reaching across to draw his neighbour’s attention to the photographer. I stand somewhere near the back, trying to tidy my sash and grimacing as I do. And the image loops: smiles and camaraderie at the front, distraction and discomfort to the rear. And again. And again.

I spent much of that first day at the periphery of things. Like the others I hovered nervously in Delmarre’s dining room, remarking upon the old-fashioned naval art – from Earth, Delmarre told us, all originals. He had an eye for a genuine article, he said, and winked. He winked at no one in particular, but everyone was charmed – myself included, I should say. The members of the Right Hand guffawed, closed in, brushing stray bits of dust off their own black-and-white sashes, and began to stretch their diplomatic muscles. I hung back and asked to see the pilot.

“Not possible,” said one of Delmarre’s officers. “The pilot is currently engaged in other duties.”

“Good to hear,” I said. “They quite often take to bed after that approach. On Eighth Landing we have a tradition that a government representative should personally congratulate pilots who make the descent. I have a tag here made out of steel from the first colonists’ ship. We give one to each pilot each time they touch down. It’s one of the hardest approaches in any of the settled worlds, and it always deserves acknowledgement when it’s done right.” I gestured towards a porthole and the mountains of scrap-iron gathered beyond. “A lot of ships break up. Some pilots say that the Eighth Landing descent is a religious experience.”

The officer was unmoved. “Well, like I said, the pilot’s busy.”

We ate canapes and elaborate salads, and then dined on prime cuts of Eighth Landing beef, brought aboard by the Right Hand and prepared by Delmarre’s personal chef. Throughout the meal, Delmarre plied us with wine – from Earth, he told us, like his art – and the members of the Right Hand unused to the deceptive fruitiness grew drunker.

After dinner he took us down to the bowels of the ship, showed us his soldiers’ living quarters, the engine room, the deck (still no pilot), and the shuttle’s pregnant belly where masses of crates and camouflage-patterned earth-moving machines sat dormant. We made all the proper appreciative sounds; we still thought of ourselves as clients more than as an occupied people.

And then we retired to Delmarre’s quarters again, toasted ourselves and each other, toasted people and places and things some of us had never heard of; toasted with sincere enthusiasm. The photographs were taken, a junior officer with a squadron of drones trying to capture the group in its proper light, trying to soak in the genuine affability in the room.

Twilight crept in through the landing-ground’s distant wreckage. Delmarre left his little knot of Navy men and Right Hand delegates and cruised the room – refilling drinks, slapping backs – until he positioned himself beside me. I watched the whole manoeuvre with bemused admiration and gave him a little nod as he recovered from his bow.

He said, “My name is Delmarre,” as if anyone could have missed it.

But I played along. “Ellen Stern. I’m the Left Hand.”

Delmarre had a contradictory attitude about him, something that might have been called eagerness to please in a less intelligent man. I sensed him poised on the edge of a decision – whether to impose his authority or affect familiarity, whether to condescend to the tall woman standing by an ancient naval portrait.

I liked him immensely. I’m not ashamed to say it. It’s an article of faith in our community: ships crash, winds blow hardest in the dry season, and nobody who ever met Major Delmarre disliked him.

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