Avasarala turned the lights back on. The windows became dark mirrors again; the storm was pressed back outside.
“Tell me we didn’t enforce it,” Avasarala said.
“We didn’t enforce it,” Soren said. “We have a surveillance detail on him and his team, but the situation on the station isn’t conducive to a close watch. Plus which, it doesn’t look like Mars knows he’s there yet, so we’re trying to keep that to ourselves.”
“Good that someone out there knows how to run an intelligence operation. Any idea what he’s doing?”
“So far, it looks a lot like a relief effort,” Soren said with a shrug. “We haven’t seen him meeting with anybody of special interest. He’s asking questions. Almost got into a fight with some opportunists who’ve been shaking down relief ships, but the other guys backed down. It’s early, though.”
Avasarala took another sip of tea. She had to give it to the boy; he could brew a fine pot of tea. Or he knew someone who could, which was just as good. If Holden was there, that meant the OPA was interested in the situation on Ganymede. And that they didn’t have someone already on the ground to report to them.
Wanting the intelligence didn’t in itself mean much. Even if it had been just a bunch of idiot ground-pounders getting trigger-happy, Ganymede was a critical station for the Jovian system and the Belt. The OPA would want their own eyes on the scene. But to send Holden, the only survivor of Eros Station, seemed more than coincidental.
“They don’t know what it is,” she said aloud.
“They smuggled in someone with experience in the protomolecule for a reason. They’re trying to figure out what the hell’s going on. Which means they don’t know. Which means …” She sighed. “Which means it wasn’t them. Which is a f**king pity, since they’ve got the only live sample we know about.”
“What would you like the surveillance team to do?”
“Surveillance,” she snapped. “Watch him, see who he talks to and what he does. Daily reports back if it’s boring, real-time updates if it runs hot.”
“Yes, ma’am. Do you want him brought in?”
“Pull him and his people in when they try to leave Ganymede. Otherwise stay out of their way and try not to get noticed. Holden’s an idiot, but he’s not stupid. If he realizes he’s being watched, he’ll start broadcasting pictures of all our Ganymede sources or something. Do not underestimate his capacity to f**k things up.”
Another flash of lightning. Another roll of thunder. Another storm among trillions of storms that had assaulted the Earth since back in the beginning, when something had first tried to end all life on the planet. Something that was on Venus right now. And spreading.
“Find a way for me to get a message to Fred Johnson without Nguyen or the Martians finding out,” she said. “We may need to do some back-channel negotiation.”
Chapter Ten: Prax
Pas kirrup es I’m to this,” the boy sitting on the cot said. “Pinche salad, sa-sa? Ten thousand, once was.”
He couldn’t have been more than twenty. Young enough, technically, to be his son, just as Mei could have been the boy’s daughter. Colt-thin from adolescent growth and a life in low g, his thinness was improbable to begin with. And he’d been starving besides.
“I can write you a promissory note if you want,” Prax said.
The boy grinned and made a rude gesture.
From his professional work, Prax knew that the inner planets thought of Belter slang as a statement about location. He knew from living as a food botanist on Ganymede that it was also about class. He had grown up with tutors in accent-free Chinese and English. He’d spoken with men and women from everywhere in the system. From the way someone said allopolyploidy, he could tell if they came from the universities around Beijing or Brazil, if they’d grown up in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains or Olympus Mons or in the corridors of Ceres. He’d grown up in microgravity himself, but Belt patois was as foreign to him as to anyone fresh up the well. If the boy had wanted to speak past him, it would have been effortless. But Prax was a paying customer, and he knew the boy was making an effort to dial it back.
The programming keyboard was twice as large as a standard hand terminal, the plastic worn by use and time. A progress bar was slowly filling along the side, notations in simplified Chinese cycling with each movement.
The hole was a cheap one near the surface of the moon. No more than ten feet wide, four rough rooms inched into the ice from a public corridor hardly wider or better lit. The old plastic walls glittered and wept with condensation. They were in the room farthest from the corridor, the boy on his cot and Prax standing hunched in the doorway.
“No promise for the full record,” the boy said. “What is, is, sabé?”
“Anything you can get would be great.”
The boy nodded once. Prax didn’t know his name. It wasn’t the sort of thing to ask. The days it had taken to track down someone willing to break through the security system had been a long dance between his own ignorance of Ganymede Station’s gray economy and the increasing desperation and hunger in even the most corrupt quarters. A month before, the boy might have been skimming commercial data to resell or hold hostage for easily laundered private credit. Today he was looking for Mei in exchange for enough leafy greens to make a small meal. Agricultural barter, the oldest economy in humanity’s record, had come to Ganymede.
“Authcopy’s gone,” the boy said. “Sucked into servers, buried ass deep.”
“So if you can’t break the security servers —”
“Don’t have to. Camera got memory, memory got cache. Since the lockdown, it’s just filling and filling. No one watching.”
“You’re kidding,” Prax said. “The two biggest armies in the system are staring each other down, and they’re not watching the security cameras?”
“Watching each other. No one half-humps for us.”
The progress bar filled completely and chimed. The boy pulled open a list of identifying codes and started paging through them, muttering to himself. From the front room, a baby complained weakly. It sounded hungry. Of course it did.
The boy shook his head.
“Collateral,” he said, and tapped twice on a code. A new window opened. A wide hall. A door half melted and forced open. Scorch marks on the walls and, worse, a puddle of water. There shouldn’t be free water. The environmental controls were getting further and further away from their safe levels. The boy looked up at Prax. “C’est la?”