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Page 166 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

Errinwright scratched his chin.

“I’m not sure that’s how our opposites on Mars see it,” he said.

“Then they can protest. We’ll send out dueling press releases and threaten to cancel the meeting right up to the last minute. High drama is wonderful. It’s better than wonderful; it’s distracting. Just don’t let the bobble-head talk about Venus or Eros.”

His flinch was almost subliminal.

“Please, can we not refer to the secretary-general as ‘the bobble-head’?”

“Why not? He knows I do. I say it to his face, and he doesn’t mind.”

“He thinks you’re joking.”

“That’s because he’s a f**king bobble-head. Don’t let him talk about Venus.”

“And the footage?”

It was a fair question. Whatever had made its attack on Ganymede, it had started in the area held by the United Nations. If the back-channel chatter was to be trusted—and it wasn’t—Mars had a lone marine’s suit camera. Avasarala had seven minutes of high-definition video from forty different cameras of the thing slaughtering the best people Earth had standing for it. Even if the Martians could be convinced to keep it quiet, this was going to be hard to bury.

“Give me until the meeting,” Avasarala said. “Let me see what they say and how they say it. Then I’ll know what to do. If it’s a Martian weapon, they’ll show it by what they bring to the table.”

“I see,” Errinwright said slowly. Meaning he didn’t.

“Sir, with all respect,” she said, “for the time being, this needs to be something between Earth and Mars.”

“High drama between the two major military forces in the system is what we want? How exactly do you see that?”

“I got an alert from Michael-Jon de Uturbé about increased activity on Venus at the same time the shooting started on Ganymede. It wasn’t a big spike, but it was there. And Venus getting restless just when something happens that looks a damn lot like the protomolecule showed up on Ganymede? That’s a problem.”

She let that sink in for a moment before she went on. Errinwright’s eyes shifted, like he was reading in the air. It was something he did when he was thinking hard.

“Saber rattling we’ve done before,” she said. “We’ve survived it. It’s a known quantity. I have a binder with nine hundred pages of analysis and contingency plans for conflict with Mars, including fourteen different scenarios about what we do if they develop an unexpected new technology. The binder for what we do if something comes up from Venus? It’s three pages long, and it begins Step One: Find God.”

Errinwright looked sober. She could hear Soren behind her, a different and more anxious silence than he usually carried. She’d laid her fear out on the table.

“Three options,” she said softly. “One: Mars made it. That’s just war. We can handle that. Two: Someone else made it. Unpleasant and dangerous, but solvable. Three: It made itself. And we don’t have anything.”

“You’re going to put more pages in your thin binder?” Errinwright said. He sounded flippant. He wasn’t.

“No, sir. I’m going to find out which of the three we’re looking at. If it’s one of the first two, I’ll solve the problem.”

“And if the third?”

“Retire,” she said. “Let you put some other idiot in charge.”

Errinwright had known her long enough to hear the joke in her voice. He smiled and tugged absently at his tie. It was a tell of his. He was as anxious as she was. No one who didn’t know him would have seen it.

“That’s a tightrope. We can’t let the conflict on Ganymede become too heated.”

“I’ll keep it a sideshow,” Avasarala said. “No one starts a war unless I say they can.”

“You mean unless the secretary-general issues the executive decision and the general assembly casts an affirming vote.”

“And I’ll tell him when he can do that,” she said. “But you can give him the news. Hearing it from an old grandma like me makes his dick shrink.”

“Well, we can’t have that, certainly. Let me know what you find. I’ll speak with the speech-writing staff and make certain that the text of his announcement doesn’t color outside the lines.”

“And anyone who leaks the video of the attack answers to me,” she said.

“Anyone who leaks it is guilty of treason and will be tried before a legitimate tribunal and sent to the Lunar Penal Colony for life.”

“Close enough.”

“Don’t be a stranger, Chrisjen. We’re in difficult times. The fewer surprises, the better.”

“Yes, sir,” she said. The link died. The screen went dark. She could see herself in it as a smudge of orange topped by the gray of her hair. Soren was a blur of khaki and white.

“You need more work?”

“No, ma’am.”

“So get the f**k out.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She heard his footsteps retreating behind her.

“Soren!”

“Ma’am?”

“Get me a list of everyone who testified at the Eros incident hearings. And run what they said in testimony past the neuro-psych analysts if it hasn’t already been.”

“Would you like the transcripts?”

“Yes, that too.”

“I’ll have them to you as soon as possible.”

The door closed behind him, and Avasarala sank into her chair. Her feet hurt, and the presentiment of a headache that had haunted her since morning was stepping forward, clearing its throat. The Buddha smiled serenely, and she chuckled at him, as if sharing a private joke. She wanted to go home, to sit on her porch and listen to Arjun practice his piano.

And instead …

She used her hand terminal rather than the office system to call Arjun. It was a superstitious urge that made her want to keep them separate, even in ways as small as this. He picked up the connection at once. His face was angular, the close-cut beard almost entirely white now. The merriness in his eyes was always there, even when he wept. Just looking at him, she felt something in her breast relax.

“I’m going to be late coming home,” she said, immediately regretting the matter-of-fact tone. Arjun nodded.

“I am shocked beyond words,” he said. Even the man’s sarcasm was gentle. “The mask is heavy today?”

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