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Page 103 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

“Nicola,” Prax said. “Don’t. Don’t do this.”

“Praxidike Meng is a violent and dangerous man,” Nicola said. “As Mei’s mother, I believe that she has been emotionally, physically, and sexually abused by him since I left. And that her alleged disappearance during the troubles on Ganymede are to hide the fact that he’s finally killed her.”

The tears were flowing freely down Nicola’s cheeks now, but her voice and eyes were dead as last week’s fish.

“I don’t blame anyone but myself,” she said. “I should never have left when I couldn’t get my little girl away too …”

Chapter Thirty-Seven: Avasarala

I don’t blame anyone but myself,” the teary-eyed woman said, and Avasarala stopped the feed, sitting back in her chair. Her heart was beating faster than usual and she could feel thoughts swimming just under the ice of her conscious mind. She felt like someone could press an ear to her skull and listen to her brain humming.

Bobbie was sitting on the four-poster. She made the thing look small, which was impressive in itself. She had one leg tucked up under her and a pack of real playing cards laid out in formation on the crisp gold-and-green bedspread. The game of solitaire was forgotten, though. The Martian’s gaze was on her, and Avasarala felt a slow grin pulling at her lips.

“Well, I’ll be f**ked,” she said. “They’re scared of him.”

“Who’s scared of who?”

“Errinwright is moving against Holden and this Meng bastard, whoever he is. They actually forced him to take action. I couldn’t get that out of him.”

“You don’t think the botanist was diddling his kid?”

“Might have been, but that”—she tapped on the still, tearful face of the botanist’s ex-wife—“is a smear campaign. I’ll bet you a week’s pay that I’ve had lunch with the woman coordinating it.”

Bobbie’s skeptical look only made Avasarala smile more broadly.

“This,” Avasarala said, “is the first genuinely good thing that’s happened since we got on this floating whorehouse. I’ve got to get to work. Goddamn, but I wish I was back at the office.”

“You want some tea?”

“Gin,” she said, engaging the camera on her terminal. “We’re celebrating.”

In the focus window, she looked smaller than she felt. The rooms had been designed to command attention whatever angle she put herself in, like being trapped in a postcard. Anyone who rode in the yacht would be able to brag without saying a word, but in the weak gravity her hair stood out from her head like she’d just gotten out of bed. More than that, she looked emotionally exhausted and physically diminished.

Put it away, she told herself. Find the mask.

She took a deep breath, made a rude gesture into the camera, and then started recording.

“Admiral Souther,” she said. “Thank you so much for your last message. Something’s come to my attention that I thought you might find interesting. It looks like someone’s taken a fresh dislike to James Holden. If I were with the fleet instead of floating around the f**king solar system, I’d take you out for a cup of coffee and talk this over, but since that’s not happening, I’m going to open some of my private files for you. I’ve been following Holden. Take a look at what I’ve got and tell me if you’re seeing the same things I am.”

She sent the message. The next thing that would have made sense would be contacting Errinwright. If the situation had been what they were both pretending it was, she’d have kept him involved and engaged. For a long moment, she considered following the form, pretending. Bobbie loomed up on her right, putting the glass of gin on the desk with a soft click. Avasarala picked it up and sipped a small taste of it. Mao’s private-label gin was excellent, even without the lime twist.

Nah. Fuck Errinwright. She pulled up her address book and started leafing through entries until she found what she wanted and pressed record.

“Ms. Corlinowski, I’ve just seen the leaked video accusing Praxidike Meng of screwing his cute little five-year-old daughter. When exactly did UN media relations turn into a f**king divorce court? If it gets out that we were behind that, I would like to know whose resignation I’m going to hand to the newsfeeds, and right now I’m thinking it’s yours. Give my love to Richard, and get back to me before I fire your incompetent ass out of spite.”

She ended the recording and sent it.

“She was the one that arranged it?” Bobbie asked.

“Might have been,” Avasarala said, taking another bite of gin. It was too good. If she wasn’t careful, she’d drink a lot of it. “If it wasn’t, she’ll find who it was and serve them up on a plate. Emma Corlinowski’s a coward. It’s why I love her.”

Over the next hour, she sent a dozen more messages out, performance after performance after performance. She started a liability investigation into Meng’s ex-wife and whether the UN could be held responsible for slander. She put the Ganymede relief coordinator on high alert, demanding everything she could get about Mei Meng and the search for her. She put in high-priority requests to have the doctor and the woman from Holden’s broadcast identified, and then sent a twenty-minute rambling message to an old colleague in data storage, with a small, tacit request for the same information made in the middle of it all.

Errinwright had changed the game. If she’d had freedom, she’d have been unstoppable. As it was, she had to assume that every move she made would be cataloged and acted against almost as soon as she made it. But Errinwright and his allies were only human, and if she kept a solid flow of demands and requests, screeds and wheedling, they might overlook something. Or someone on a newsfeed might notice the uptick in activity and look into it. Or, if nothing else, her efforts might give Errinwright a bad night’s sleep.

It was what she had. It wasn’t enough. Long years of practice with the fine dance of politics and power had left her with expectations and reflexes that couldn’t find their right form there. The lag was killing her with frustration, and she took it out on whomever she was recording for at the moment. She felt like a world-class musician standing before a full auditorium and handed a kazoo.

She didn’t notice when she finished her gin. She only put the glass to her mouth, found it empty, and realized it wasn’t the first time she’d done it. Five hours had passed. She’d had only three responses so far out of almost fifty messages she’d sent out. That was more than lag. That was someone else’s damage control.

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