“No evidence that Mao-Kwik knew what the equipment was for,” Soren said. “After Protogen was exposed, Mao-Kwik was one of the first to turn over information to the investigation committee. If they—and by ‘they,’ I mean ‘he’—hadn’t turned over a terabyte of confidential correspondence, Gutmansdottir and Kolp might never have been implicated.”
A silver-haired man with a broad Andean nose walking the other way in the hall looked up from his hand terminal and nodded to her as they drew near.
“Victor,” she said. “I’m sorry about Annette.”
“The doctors say she’ll be fine,” the Andean said. “I’ll tell her you asked.”
“Tell her I said to get the hell out of bed before her husband starts getting dirty ideas,” she said, and the Andean laughed as they passed. Then, to Soren: “Was he cutting a deal? Cooperation for clemency?”
“That was one interpretation, but most people assumed it was personal vengeance for what happened to his daughter.”
“She was on Eros,” Avasarala said.
“She was Eros,” Soren said as they stepped into the elevator. “She was the initial infection. The scientists think the protomolecule was building itself using her brain and body as a template.”
The elevator doors closed, the car already aware of who she was and where she was going. It dropped smoothly as her eyebrows rose.
“So when they started negotiating with that thing—”
“They were talking to what was left of Jules-Pierre Mao’s daughter,” Soren said. “I mean, they think they were.”
Avasarala whistled low.
“Did I pass the test, ma’am?” Soren asked, keeping his face empty and impassive except for a small twinkle in the corners of his eyes that said he knew she’d been bullshitting him. Despite herself, she grinned.
“No one likes a smart-ass,” she said. The elevator stopped; the doors slid open.
Jules-Pierre Mao sat at her desk, radiating a sense of calm with the faintest hint of amusement. Avasarala’s eyes flickered over him, taking in the details: well-tailored silk suit that straddled the line between beige and gray, receding hairline unmodified by medical therapies, startling blue eyes that he had probably been born with. He wore his age like a statement that fighting the ravages of time and mortality was beneath his notice. Twenty years earlier, he’d just have been devastatingly handsome. Now he was that and dignified too, and her first, animal impulse was that she wanted to like him.
“Mr. Mao,” she said, nodding to him. “Sorry to make you wait.”
“I’ve worked with government before,” he said. He had a European accent that would have melted butter. “I understand the constraints. What can I do for you, Assistant Undersecretary?”
Avasarala lowered herself into her chair. The Buddha smiled beatifically from his place by the wall. The rain sheeted down the window, shadows giving the near-subliminal impression that Mao was weeping. She steepled her fingers.
“You want some tea?”
“No, thank you,” Mao said.
“Soren! Go get me some tea.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the boy said.
“Of course not, ma’am.”
The door closed behind him. Mao’s smile looked weary.
“Should I have brought my attorneys?”
“Those rat f**kers? No,” she said, “the trials are all done with. I’m not here to reopen any of the legal wrangling. I’ve got real work to do.”
“I can respect that,” Mao said.
“I have a problem,” Avasarala said. “And I don’t know what it is.”
“And you think I do?”
“It’s possible. I’ve been through a lot of hearings about one damn thing and another. Most of the time they’re exercises in ass covering. If the unvarnished truth ever came out at one, it would be because someone screwed up.”
The bright blue eyes narrowed. The smile grew less warm.
“You think my executives and I were less than forthcoming? I put powerful men in prison for you, Assistant Undersecretary. I burned bridges.”
Distant thunder mumbled and complained. The rain redoubled its angry tapping at the pane. Avasarala crossed her arms.
“You did. But that doesn’t make you an idiot. There are still things you say under oath and things you dance around. This room isn’t monitored. This is off the record. I need to know anything you can tell me about the protomolecule that didn’t come out in the hearings.”
The silence between them stretched. She watched his face, his body, looking for signs, but the man was unreadable. He’d been doing this too long, and he was too good at it. A professional.
“Things get lost,” Avasarala said. “There was one time during the finance crisis that we found a whole auditing division that no one remembered. Because that’s how you do it. You take part of a problem and you put it somewhere, get some people working on it, and then you get another part of the problem and get other people working on that. And pretty soon you have seven, eight, a hundred different little boxes with work going on, and no one talking to anyone because it would break security protocol.”
“And you think …?”
“We killed Protogen, and you helped. I’m asking whether you know of any little boxes lying around somewhere. And I’m very much hoping you say yes.”
“Is this from the secretary-general or Errinwright?”
“No. Just me.”
“I’ve already said everything I know,” he said.
“I don’t believe that.”
The mask of his persona slipped. It lasted less than a second, nothing more than a shift in the angle of his spine and a hardness in his jaw, here and gone again. It was anger. That was interesting.
“They killed my daughter,” he said softly. “Even if I’d had something to hide, I wouldn’t have.”
“How did it come to be your girl?” Avasarala asked. “Did they target her? Was somebody using her against you?”
“It was bad luck. She was out in the deep orbits, trying to prove something. She was young and rebellious and stupid. We were trying to get her to come home but … she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Something tickled at the back of Avasarala’s mind. A hunch. An impulse. She went with it.