She wondered whether any of it mattered.
The only real player near enough to talk to without lag turning the conversation utterly epistolary was Souther, and as he was still putatively on the same side as Nguyen and preparing to face battle with the ships protecting her, the opportunities were few and far between.
“Have you heard anything?” he asked from her terminal.
“No,” she said. “I don’t know what’s taking the f**king bobble-head so long.”
“You’re asking him to turn his back on the man he’s trusted the most.”
“And how f**king long does that take? When I did it, it was over in maybe five minutes. ‘Soren,’ I said. ‘You’re a douche bag. Get out of my sight.’ It isn’t harder than that.”
“And if he doesn’t come through?” Souther asked.
“Then I call you back and try talking you into going rogue.”
“Ah,” Souther said with a half smile. “And how do you see that going?”
“I don’t like my chances, but you never know. I can be damned persuasive.”
An alert popped up. A new message. From Arjun.
“I have to go,” she said. “Keep an ear to the ground or whatever the hell you do out here where the ground doesn’t mean anything.”
“Be safe, Chrisjen,” Souther said, and vanished into the green background of a dead connection.
Around her, the galley was empty. Still, someone might come in. She lifted the hem of her sari and walked to her little room, sliding her door closed before she gave her terminal permission to open the file.
Arjun was at his desk, his formal clothes on but undone at the neck and sleeves. He looked like a man just returned from a bad party. The sunlight streamed in behind him. Afternoon, then. It had been afternoon when he’d sent it. And it might still be. She touched the screen, her fingertips tracing the line of his shoulder.
“So I understand from your message that you may not come home,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” she said to the screen.
“As you imagine, I find the thought … distressing,” he said, and then a smile split his face, dancing in eyes she now saw were red with tears. “But what can I do about it? I teach poetry to graduate students. I have no power in this world. That has always been you. And so I want to offer you this. Don’t think about me. Don’t take your mind from what you’re doing on my account. And if you don’t …”
Arjun took a deep breath.
“If life transcends death, then I will seek for you there. If not, then there too.”
He looked down and then up again.
“I love you, Kiki. And I will always love you, from whatever distance.”
The message ended. Avasarala closed her eyes. Around her, the ship was as close and confining as a coffin. The small noises of it pressed in against her until she wanted to scream. Until she wanted to sleep. She let herself weep for a moment. There was nothing else to be done. She had taken her best shot, and there was nothing to be done but meditate and worry.
Half an hour later, her terminal chimed again, waking her from troubled dreams. Errinwright. Anxiety knotted her throat. She lifted a finger to begin the playback, and then paused. She didn’t want to. She didn’t want to go back into that world, wear her heavy mask. She wanted to watch Arjun again. Listen to his voice.
Only, of course, Arjun had known what she would want. It was why he’d said the things he had. She started the message.
Errinwright looked angry. More than that, he looked tired. His pleasant demeanor was gone, and he was a man made entirely of salt water and threat.
“Chrisjen,” he said. “I know you won’t understand this, but I have been doing everything in my power to keep you and yours safe. You don’t understand what you’ve waded into, and you are f**king things up. I wish you had had the moral courage to come to me with this before you ran off like a horny sixteen-year-old with James Holden. Honestly, if there was a better way to destroy any professional credibility you once had, I can’t think what it would have been.
“I put you on the Guanshiyin to take you off the board because I knew that things were about to go hot. Well, they are, only you’re in the middle of them and you don’t understand the situation. Millions of people stand in real danger of dying badly because of your egotism. You’re one of them. Arjun’s another. And your daughter. All of them are in threat now because of you.”
In the image, Errinwright clasped his hands together, pressing his knuckles against his lower lip, the platonic ideal of a scolding father.
“If you come back now, I might—might—be able to save you. Not your career. That’s gone. Forget it. Everyone down here sees that you’re working with the OPA and Mars. Everyone thinks you’ve betrayed us, and I can’t undo that. Your life and your family. That’s all I can salvage. But you have to get away from this circus you’ve started, and you have to do it now.
“Time’s short, Chrisjen. Everything important to you hangs in the balance, and I cannot help you if you don’t help yourself. Not with this.
“It’s last-chance time. Ignore me now, and the next time we talk, someone will have died.”
The message ended. She started it again, and then a third time. Her grin felt feral.
She found Bobbie in the ops deck with the pilot, Alex. They stopped talking as she came in, a question in Bobbie’s expression. Avasarala held up a finger and switched the video feed to display on the ship monitors. Errinwright came to life. On the big screens, she could see his pores and the individual hairs in his eyebrows. As he spoke, Avasarala saw Alex and Bobbie grow sober, leaning in toward the screen as if they were all at a poker table and coming to the end of a high-stakes hand.
“All right,” Bobbie said. “What do we do?”
“We break out the f**king champagne,” Avasarala said. “What did he just tell us? There is nothing in that message. Nothing. He is walking around his words like they’ve got poisoned spikes on them. And what’s he got? Threats. No one makes threats.”
“Wait,” Alex said. “That was a good sign?”
“That was excellent,” Avasarala said, and then something else, something small, fell into place in the back of her mind and she started laughing and cursing at the same time.
“What? What is it?”
“‘If life transcends death, then I will seek for you there. If not, then there too,’” she said. “It’s a f**king haiku. That man has a one-track mind and one train on it. Poetry. Save me from poetry.”