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There was a high violin-string whine at the back of Prax’s voice. The tension was getting to him. It was getting to all of them, but Prax was the one who was going to show it worst and first. Holden shot a look at Amos, but the big man just looked surprised at having been pushed away by the much smaller scientist.

“They’re talking about destroying the base. We have to go down there!” Prax continued, the panic in his voice starting to shine through.

“We’re not doing anything,” Holden said. “Not until we have a better idea how this is going to shake out.”

“We came all this way so that we can not do anything?” Prax demanded.

“Doc, we don’t want to be the ones to move first,” Amos said, and put a hand on Prax’s shoulder, pulling him back down to the deck. The little botanist violently shrugged it off without turning around, then shoved off his couch toward Avasarala.

“Give me the channel. Let me talk to them,” Prax said, reaching for her comm panel. “I can—”

Holden launched himself out of his crash couch, catching the scientist mid-flight and hurling them both across the deck and into the bulkhead. The thick layer of anti-spalling padding absorbed their impact, but Holden felt the air go out of Prax when his hip slammed into the smaller man’s belly.

“Gah,” Prax said, and curled up into a floating fetal ball.

Holden kicked on his boot mags and pushed himself down to the deck. He grabbed Prax and pushed him across the compartment to Amos. “Take him below, stuff him in his bunk, and sedate the shit out of him. Then get to engineering and get us ready for a fight.”

Amos nodded and grabbed the floating Prax. “Okay.” A moment later the two of them disappeared down the deck hatch.

Holden looked around the room, seeing the shocked looks from Avasarala and Naomi but ignoring them. Prax’s need for his daughter to take precedence over everything else had almost put them all in danger again. And while Holden intellectually understood the man’s drive, having to stop him from killing them all every time Mei’s name came up was stress he didn’t need right then. It left him angry and needing to snap at someone.

“Where the hell is Bobbie?” he said to no one in particular. He hadn’t seen her since they had put in to orbit around Io.

“Just saw her in the machine shop,” Amos replied over the radio. “She was fieldstripping my shotgun. I think she’s doing all the guns and armor.”

“That’s—” Holden started, ready to yell about something. “That’s actually really helpful. Tell her to button up her suit and turn her radio on. Things might be going south in a hurry here.”

He took a few seconds to breathe and calm himself down, then returned to the combat operations station.

“You okay?” Naomi asked over their private channel.

“No,” he said, chinning the button to make sure only she heard his reply. “No, I’m actually scared to death.”

“I thought we were past that.”

“Past being scared?”

“No,” she said, the smile audible in her voice. “Past blaming yourself for it. I’m scared too.”

“I love you,” Holden said, feeling that same electric thrill he always got when he told her, part fear, part boast.

“You should probably keep your eye on your station,” she said, her tone teasing. She never told him she loved him when he said it first. She’d said that when people did it too often, it made the word lose all its power. He understood the argument, but he’d kind of hoped she’d break her rule this once. He needed to hear it.

Avasarala was hunched over the comm station like an ancient mystic peering into a murky crystal ball. The space suit hung on her like a scarecrow’s oversized coveralls. Holden considered ordering her to button up her helmet, then shrugged. She was old enough to decide for herself the relative risks and rewards of eating during a battle.

Periodically she reached into her purse and pulled out another nut. The air around her was a growing cloud of tiny pieces of pistachio skin. It was annoying to watch her cluttering up his ship, but no warship was built so fragile that a little airborne waste would break anything. Either the tiny pieces of shell would be sucked into the air recycling system and trapped by the filters, or they’d go under thrust and all the garbage would fall to the floor, where they could sweep it up. Holden wondered if Avasarala had ever had to clean anything in her life.

While he watched her, the old lady cocked her head to one side, listening with sudden interest to something only she could hear. Her hand darted forward, bird quick, to tap at the screen. A new voice came over the ship’s radios, this one with the faint hiss transmissions picked up when traveling for millions of kilometers through space.

“—eneral Esteban Sorrento-Gillis. Some time ago, I announced the formation of an exploratory committee to look into possible misuse of UN resources for illegal biological weapon research. While that investigation is ongoing, and the committee is not prepared to bring charges at this time, in the interests of public safety and to better facilitate a thorough and comprehensive investigation, certain UN personnel in key positions are to be recalled to Earth for questioning. First, Admiral Augusto Nguyen, of the United Nations Navy. Second—”

Avasarala hit the panel to shut off the feed and stared at the console with her mouth open for several seconds. “Oh, f**k me.”

All over the ship, alarms started blaring.

Chapter Forty-Eight: Avasarala

I’ve got fast movers,” Naomi said over the blaring alarms. “The UN flagship is firing.”

Avasarala closed her helmet, watching the in-suit display confirm the seal, then tapped at the communications console, her mind moving faster than her hands. Errinwright had cut a deal, and now Nguyen knew it. The admiral had just been hung out to dry, and he was taking it poorly. A flag popped up on the console: incoming high-priority broadcast. She thumbed it, and Souther appeared on her terminal and every other one in the ops deck.

“This is Admiral Souther. I am hereby taking command of—”

“Okay,” Naomi said. “I need my real screen back now. Got some work to do.”

“Sorry, sorry,” Avasarala said, tapping at the console. “Wrong button.”

“—this task force. Admiral Nguyen is relieved of duty. Any hostilities will be —”

Avasarala switched the feed to her own screen and in the process switched to a different broadcast. Nguyen was flushed almost purple. He was wearing his uniform like a boast.

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