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Page 164 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

“Fine. Hungry,” Bobbie said, then gave her gelatin another stab.

“We’ll see about getting you some real food, then,” Dr. Trish said, then smiled and left the room.

Thorsson pointed at the chaplain. “This is Captain Martens. He’ll be coming with us on our trip. I’ll leave you two to get acquainted.”

Thorsson left before Bobbie could respond, and Martens plopped himself down in the chair next to her bed. He stuck out his hand, and she shook it.

“Hello, Sergeant,” he said. “I—”

“When I marked my 2790 form as ‘none’ for religious faith, I was serious about that,” Bobbie said, cutting him off.

Martens smiled, apparently not offended by her interruption or her agnosticism.

“I’m not here in a religious capacity, Sergeant. I’m also a trained grief counselor, and since you witnessed the death of every person in your unit, and were almost killed yourself, Captain Thorsson and your doctor agree that you might need me.”

Bobbie started to make a dismissive reply, which was cut off by the lump in her chest. She hid her discomfort by taking a long drink of water, then said, “I’m fine. Thanks for coming by.”

Martens leaned back in the chair, his smile never wavering.

“If you were really all right after what you’ve been through, it would be a sign that something was wrong. And you’re about to be thrown into a situation with a lot of emotional and intellectual pressure. Once we get to Earth, you won’t have the luxury of having an emotional breakdown or post-traumatic stress responses. We have a lot of work to—”

“Earth?” Bobbie pounced on the word. “Waitaminute. Why am I going to Earth?”

Chapter Five: Avasarala

Chrisjen Avasarala, assistant to the undersecretary of executive administration, sat near the end of the table. Her sari was orange, the only splash of color in the otherwise military blue-and-gray of the meeting. The seven others with seats at the table were the heads of their respective branches of the United Nations military forces, all of them men. She knew their names, their career paths and psychological profiles, pay rates and political alliances and who they were sleeping with. Against the back wall, personal assistants and staff pages stood in uncomfortable stillness, like the shy teenagers at a dance. Avasarala snuck a pistachio out of her purse, cracked the shell discreetly, and popped the salted nut into her mouth.

“Any meeting with Martian command is going to have to wait until after the situation on Ganymede is stabilized. Official diplomatic talks before then are only going to make it seem like we’ve accepted the new status quo.” That was Admiral Nguyen, youngest of the men present. Hawkish. Impressed with himself in the way that successful young men tended to be.

General Adiki-Sandoval nodded his bull-wide head.

“Agreed. It’s not just Mars we need to think about here. If we start looking weak to the Outer Planets Alliance, you can count on a spike in terrorist activity.”

Mikel Agee, from the diplomatic corps, leaned back on his chair and licked his lips anxiously. His slicked-back hair and pinched face made him look like an anthropomorphic rat.

“Gentlemen, I have to disagree—”

“Of course you do,” General Nettleford said dryly. Agee ignored him.

“Meeting with Mars at this point is a necessary first step. If we start throwing around preconditions and obstacles, not only is this process going to take longer, but the chances for renewed hostilities go up. If we can take the pressure off, blow off some steam—”

Admiral Nguyen nodded, his face expressionless. When he spoke, his tone was conversational.

“You guys over at Dip have any metaphors more recent than the steam engine?”

Avasarala chuckled with the others. She didn’t think much of Agee either.

“Mars has already escalated,” General Nettleford said. “Seems to me our best move at this point is to pull the Seventh back from Ceres Station. Get them burning. Put a ticking clock on the wall, then see if the Martians want to stand back on Ganymede.”

“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.”

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