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Page 13 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

“Are you talking about moving them to the Jovian system?” Nguyen asked. “Or are you taking them in toward Mars?”

“Taking something in toward Earth looks a lot like taking it in toward Mars,” Nettleford said.

Avasarala cleared her throat.

“Do you have anything new on the initial attacker?” she asked.

“The tech guys are working on it,” Nettleford said. “But that makes my point. If Mars is testing out new technologies on Ganymede, we can’t afford to let them control the tempo. We have to get a threat of our own on the board.”

“It was the protomolecule, though?” Agee asked. “I mean, it was whatever was on Eros when it went down?”

“Working on that,” Nettleford said again, biting at the words a little. “There are some gross similarities, but there’s some basic differences too. It didn’t spread the way it did on Eros. Ganymede isn’t changing the way the population of Eros did. From the satellite imagery we’ve got, it looks like it went to Martian territory and either self-destructed or was disposed of by their side. If it’s related to Eros at all, it’s been refined.”

“So Mars got a sample and weaponized it,” Admiral Souther said. He didn’t talk much. Avasarala always forgot how high his voice was.

“One possibility,” Nettleford said. “One very strong possibility.”

“Look,” Nguyen said with a self-satisfied little smile, like a child who knew he was going to get his way. “I know we’ve taken first strike off the table here, but we need to talk about what the limits are on immediate response. If this was a dry run for something bigger, waiting may be as good as walking out an airlock.”

“We should take the meeting with Mars,” Avasarala said.

The room went quiet. Nguyen’s face darkened.

“Is that …” he said, but never finished the sentence. Avasarala watched the men look at each other. She took another pistachio from her purse, ate the meat, and tucked the shells away. Agee tried not to look pleased. She really did need to find out who had pulled strings to have him represent the diplomatic corps. He was a terrible choice.

“Security’s going to be a problem,” Nettleford said. “We’re not letting any of their ships inside our effective defense perimeter.”

“Well, we can’t have it on their terms. If we’re going to do this, we want them here, where we control the ground.”

“Park them a safe distance away, and have our transports pick them up?”

“They’ll never agree to that.”

“So let’s find out what they will agree to.”

Avasarala quietly stood up and headed for the door. Her personal assistant—a European boy named Soren Cottwald—detached himself from the back wall and followed her. The generals pretended not to notice her exit, or maybe they were so wrapped up in the new set of problems she’d handed them, they really didn’t. Either way, she was sure they were as pleased to have her out as she was to leave.

The hallways of the United Nations complex in the Hague were clean and wide, the décor a soft style that made everything look like a museum diorama of Portuguese colonies in the 1940s. She paused at an organics recycling unit and started digging the shells out of her bag.

“What’s next?” she asked.

“Debriefing with Mr. Errinwright.”

“After that?”

“Meeston Gravis about the Afghanistan problem.”

“Cancel it.”

“What should I tell him?”

Avasarala dusted her hands over the waste container, then turned, walking briskly toward the central commons and the elevators.

“Fuck him,” she said. “Tell him the Afghanis have been resisting external rule since before my ancestors were kicking out the British. As soon as I figure out how to change that, I’ll let him know.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I also need an updated summary paper on Venus. The latest. And I don’t have time to get another PhD to read it, so if it’s not in clear, concise language, fire the sonofabitch and get someone who knows how to write.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The elevator that rose from the common lobby and meeting rooms up to the offices glittered like spun diamond set in steel and was big enough to seat dinner for four. It recognized them as they stepped in, and began its careful rise through the levels. Outside the windows of the common areas, the Binnenhof seemed to sink and the huge anthill of buildings that was the Hague spread out under a perfect blue sky. It was springtime, and the snow that had touched the city since December was finally gone. The pigeons swirled up from the streets far below. There were thirty billion people on the planet, but they would never crowd out the pigeons.

“They’re all f**king men,” she said.

“Excuse me?” Soren said.

“The generals. They’re all f**king men.”

“I thought Souther was the only—”

“I don’t mean that they all f**k men. I mean they’re all men, the f**kers. How long has it been since a woman was in charge of the armed forces? Not since I came here. So instead, we wind up with another example of what happens to policy when there’s too much testosterone in the room. That reminds me: Get in touch with Annette Rabbir in infrastructure. I don’t trust Nguyen. If traffic starts going up between him and anyone in the general assembly, I want to know it.”

Soren cleared his throat.

“Excuse me, ma’am. Did you just instruct me to spy on Admiral Nguyen?”

“No, I just asked for a comprehensive audit of all network traffic, and I don’t give a f**k about any results besides Nguyen’s office.”

“Of course. My mistake.”

The elevator rose past the windows, past the view of the city, and into the dark shaft of the private-office levels. Avasarala cracked her knuckles.

“Just in case, though,” she said, “do it on your own initiative.”

“Yes, ma’am. That was my thought too.”

To those who knew Avasarala only by reputation, her office was deceptively unassuming. It was on the east side of the building, where the lower-ranked officials usually started out. She had a window looking out over the city, but not a corner. The video screen that took up most of the southern wall was left off when it wasn’t in active use, leaving it matte black. The other walls were scuffed bamboo paneling. The carpet was industrially short and patterned to hide stains. The only decorations were a small shrine with a clay sculpture of the Gautama Buddha beside the desk, and a cut crystal vase with the flowers that her husband, Arjun, sent every Thursday. The place smelled like fresh blooms and old pipe smoke, though Avasarala had never smoked there and didn’t know anyone who had. She walked to the window. Beneath her, the city spread out in vast concrete and ancient stone.

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