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Page 177 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

“Have you heard from her since it happened?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Since Eros Station crashed into Venus, have you heard from her?”

It was interesting watching him pretend to be angry now. It was almost like the real thing. She couldn’t have said what about it was inauthentic. The intelligence in his eyes, maybe. The sense that he was more present than he had been before. Real rage swept people away. This was rage as a gambit.

“My Julie is dead,” he said, his voice shaking theatrically. “She died when that bastard alien thing went down to Venus. She died saving the Earth.”

Avasarala countered soft. She lowered her voice, let her face take on a concerned, grandmotherly expression. If he was going to play the injured man, she could play the mother.

“Something lived,” she said. “Something survived that impact, and everybody knows that it did. I have reason to think that it didn’t stay there. If some part of your daughter made it through that change, she might have reached out to you. Tried to contact you. Or her mother.”

“There is nothing I want more than to have my little girl back,” Mao said. “But she’s gone.”

Avasarala nodded.

“All right,” she said.

“Is there anything else?”

Again, the false anger. She ran her tongue against the back of her teeth, thinking. There was something here, something beneath the surface. She didn’t know what she was looking at with Mao.

“You know about Ganymede?” she said.

“Fighting broke out,” he said.

“Maybe more than that,” she said. “The thing that killed your daughter is still out there. It was on Ganymede. I’m going to find out how and why.”

He rocked back. Was the shock real?

“I’ll help if I can,” he said, his voice small.

“Start with this. Is there anything you didn’t say during the hearings? A business partner you chose not to mention. A backup program or auxiliary staff you outfitted. If it wasn’t legal, I don’t care. I can get you amnesty for just about anything, but I need to hear it now. Right now.”

“Amnesty?” he said as if she’d been joking.

“If you tell me now, yes.”

“If I had it, I would give it to you,” he said. “I’ve said everything I know.”

“All right, then. I’m sorry to have taken your time. And … I’m sorry to open old wounds. I lost a son. Charanpal was fifteen. Skiing accident.”

“I’m sorry,” Mao said.

“If you find out something more, bring it to me,” she said.

“I will,” he said, rising from his seat. She let him get almost to the doorway before she spoke again.

“Jules?”

Turning to glance over his shoulder, he looked like a still frame from a film.

“If I find out that you knew something and you didn’t tell me, I won’t take it well,” she said. “I’m not someone you want to f**k with.”

“If I didn’t know that when I came in, I do now,” Mao said. It was as good a parting line as any. The door closed behind him. Avasarala sighed, leaning back in her chair. She shifted to look at the Buddha.

“Fat lot of help you were, you smug bastard,” she said. The statue, being only a statue, didn’t reply. She thumbed down the lights and let the gray of the storm fill the room. Something about Mao didn’t sit well with her.

It might only have been the practiced control of a high-level corporate negotiator, but she had the sense of being cut out of the loop. Excluded. That was interesting too. She wondered if he would try to counter her, maybe go over her head. It would be worth telling Errinwright to expect an angry call.

She wondered. It was a stretch to believe there was anything human down on Venus. The protomolecule, as well as anyone understood it, had been designed to hijack primitive life and remake it into something else. But if … If the complexity of a human mind had been too much for it to totally control, and the girl had in some sense survived the descent, if she’d reached out to her daddy …

Avasarala reached for her hand terminal and opened a connection to Soren.

“Ma’am?”

“When I said don’t hurry, I didn’t mean you should take the whole f**king day off. My tea?”

“Coming, ma’am. I got sidetracked. I have a report for you that might be interesting.”

“Less interesting if the tea’s cold,” she said, and dropped the channel.

Putting any kind of real surveillance on Mao would probably be impossible. Mao-Kwikowski Mercantile would have its own communications arrays, its own encryption schemes, and several rival companies at least as well funded as the United Nations already bent on ferreting out corporate secrets. But there might be other ways to track communications coming off Venus and going to Mao-Kwik installations. Or messages going down that well.

Soren came in carrying a tray with a cast-iron teapot and an earthenware cup with no handle. He didn’t comment on the darkness, but walked carefully to her desk, set down the tray, poured out a smoky, dark cupful of still-steaming tea, and put his hand terminal on the desk beside it.

“You could just send me a f**king copy,” Avasarala said.

“More dramatic this way, ma’am,” Soren said. “Presentation is everything.”

She snorted and pointedly picked up the cup, blowing across the dark surface before she looked at the terminal. The date stamp at the lower right showed it as coming from outside Ganymede seven hours earlier and the identification code of the associated report. The man in the picture had the stocky bones of an Earther, unkempt dark hair, and a peculiar brand of boyish good looks. Avasarala frowned at the image as she sipped her tea.

“What happened to his face?” she asked.

“The reporting officer suggested the beard was intended as a disguise.”

She snorted.

“Well, thank God he didn’t put on a pair of glasses, we might never have figured it out. What the f**k is James Holden doing on Ganymede?”

“It’s a relief ship. Not the Rocinante.”

“We have confirmation on that? You know those OPA bastards can fake registration codes.”

“The reporting officer did a visual inspection of the interior layout and checked the record when he got back. Also, the crew didn’t include Holden’s usual pilot, so we assume they’ve got it parked-and-dark somewhere in tightbeam range,” Soren said. He paused. “There is a standing detain-on-sight for Holden.”

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