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Page 130 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

Bobbie hesitated a moment, then walked over to the crate and flipped it open. Inside sat a 2mm electrically fired three-barrel Gatling gun, of the type the Marines designated a Thunderbolt Mark V. It was new and shiny and exactly the type that would fit into her suit.

“This is amazing,” Bobbie said after catching her breath. “But it’s just an awkward club without ammo.”

Holden kicked the crate on the floor. “Five thousand rounds of two-millimeter caseless. Incendiary-tipped.”

“Incendiary?”

“You forget, I’ve seen the monster up close too. Armor piercing doesn’t help at all. If anything, it reduces soft-tissue damage. But since the lab stuck an incendiary bomb into all of them, I figure that means they aren’t fireproof.”

Bobbie lifted the heavy weapon out of the crate and put it on the floor next to her newly reassembled suit.

“Oh, hell yes.”

Chapter Forty-Seven: Holden

Holden sat at the combat control console on the operations deck and watched Ragnarok gather. Admiral Souther, who Avasarala had assured everyone was one of the good guys, had joined his ships with their small but growing fleet of Martians as they sped toward Io. Waiting for them in orbit around that moon were the dozen ships in Admiral Nguyen’s fleet. More Martian and UN ships sped toward that location from Saturn and the Belt. By the time everyone got there, there would be something like thirty-five capital ships in the kill zone, and dozens of smaller interceptors and corvettes, like the Rocinante.

Three dozen capital ships. Holden tried to remember if there had ever been a fleet action of this size, and couldn’t think of one. Including Admiral Nguyen’s and Admiral Souther’s flagships, there would be four Truman-class UN dreadnoughts in the final tally, and the Martians would have three Donnager-class battleships of their own, any one of which could depopulate a planet. The rest would be a mix of cruisers and destroyers. Not quite the heavy hitters the battleships were, but plenty powerful enough to vaporize the Rocinante. Which, if he was being honest, was the part Holden was most worried about.

On paper, his team had the most ships. With Souther and the Martians joining forces, they outnumbered the Nguyen contingent two to one. But how many Earth ships would be willing to fire on their own, just because one admiral and a banished politician said so?It was entirely possible that if actual shooting started, a lot of UN ships might have unexplained comm failures and wait to see how it all came out. And that wasn’t the worst case. The worst case was that a number of Souther’s ships would switch sides once Martians starting killing Earthers. The fight could turn into a whole lot of people pointing guns at each other, with no one knowing whom to trust.

It could turn into a bloodbath.

“We have twice as many ships,” Avasarala said from her constant perch at the comm station. Holden almost objected but changed his mind. In the end, it wouldn’t matter. Avasarala would believe what she wanted to believe. She needed to think all her efforts had been worthwhile, that they were about to pay off when the fleet arrived and this Nguyen clown surrendered to her obviously superior force. The truth was her version wasn’t any more or less a fantasy than his. No one would know for sure until everyone knew for sure.

“How long now?” Avasarala said, then sipped at the bulb of weak coffee she’d started making for herself in place of tea.

Holden considered pointing out the navigation information the Roci made available at every console, and then didn’t. Avasarala didn’t want him to show her how to find it herself. She wanted him to tell her. She wasn’t accustomed to pressing her own buttons. In her mind, she outranked him. Holden wondered what the chain of command actually looked like in this situation. How many illegal captains of stolen ships did it take to equal one disgraced UN official? That could tie a courtroom up for a few decades.

He also wasn’t being fair to Avasarala. It wasn’t about making him take her orders, not really. It was about being in a situation that she was utterly untrained for, where she was the least useful person in the room and trying to assert some control. Trying to reshape the space around her to fit with her mental image of herself.

Or maybe she just needed to hear a voice.

“Eighteen hours now,” Holden said. “Most of the other ships that aren’t part of our fleet will beat us there. And the ones that don’t won’t show up until it’s over, so we can ignore them.”

“Eighteen hours,” Avasarala said. There was something like awe in her voice. “Space is too f**king big. It’s the same old story.”

He’d guessed right. She just wanted to talk, so he let her. “What story?”

“Empire. Every empire grows until its reach exceeds its grasp. We started out fighting over who got the best branches in one tree. Then we climb down and fight over a few kilometers’ worth of trees. Then someone starts riding horses, and you get empires of hundreds or thousands of kilometers. Ships open up empire expansion across the oceans. The Epstein drive gave us the outer planets …”

She trailed off and tapped out something on the comm panel. She didn’t volunteer who she was sending messages to, and Holden didn’t ask. When she was done, she said, “But the story is always the same. No matter how good your technology is, at some point you’ll conquer territory that you can’t hold on to.”

“You’re talking about the outer planets?”

“Not specifically,” she said, her voice growing soft and thoughtful. “I’m talking about the entire f**king concept of empire. The Brits couldn’t hold on to India or North America because why should people listen to a king who’s six thousand kilometers away?”

Holden tinkered with the air-circulation nozzle on his panel, aiming it at his face. The cool air smelled faintly of ozone and oil. “Logistics is always a problem.”

“No kidding. Taking a dangerous trip six thousand kilometers across the Atlantic so you can fight with colonists gives the enemy one hell of a home-court advantage.”

“At least,” Holden said, “we Earthers figured that out before we picked a fight with Mars. It’s even further. And sometimes the sun is in the way.”

“Some people have never forgiven us for not humbling Mars when we had the chance,” Avasarala said. “I work for a few of them. Fucking idiots.”

“I thought the point of your story was that those people always lose in the end.”