She distracted herself by trying to figure out who people were. They’d all been introduced by name and title at some point, but that didn’t mean much. Everyone here was an assistant secretary, or undersecretary, or director of something. There were even a few generals, but Bobbie knew enough about how politics worked to know that the military people in the room would be the least important. The people with real power would be the quiet ones with unassuming titles. There were several of those, including a moonfaced man with a skinny tie who’d been introduced as the secretary of something or other. Sitting next to him was someone’s grandmother in a bright sari, a splash of yellow in the middle of all the dark brown and dark blue and charcoal gray. She sat and munched pistachios and wore an enigmatic half smile. Bobbie entertained herself for a few minutes by trying to guess if Moonface or Grandma was the boss.
She considered pouring a glass of water from one of the crystal decanters evenly distributed across the table. She wasn’t thirsty, but turning her glass over, pouring water into it, and drinking it would burn a minute, maybe two. She glanced down the table and noticed that no one else was drinking the water. Maybe everyone was waiting for someone else to be first.
“Let’s take a short break,” charcoal-suit man said. “Ten minutes, then we can move on to Section fifteen of the agenda.”
People got up and began dispersing toward restrooms and smoking areas. Grandma carried her handbag to a recycling chute and dumped pistachio shells into it. Moonface pulled out his terminal and called someone.
“Jesus,” Bobbie said, rubbing her eyes with her palms until she saw stars.
“Problem, Sergeant?” Thorsson said, leaning back in his chair and grinning. “The gravity wearing on you?”
“No,” Bobbie said. Then, “Well, yes, but mostly I’m ready to jab a stylus into my eye, just for a change of pace.”
Thorsson nodded and patted her hand, a move he was using more often now. It hadn’t gotten any less irritating and paternalistic, but now Bobbie was worried that it might mean Thorsson was working up to hitting on her. That would be an uncomfortable moment.
She pulled her hand away and leaned toward Thorsson until he turned and looked her in the eye.
“Why,” she whispered, “is no one talking about the goddamned monster? Isn’t that why I’m—why we’re here?”
“You have to understand how these things work,” Thorsson said, turning away from her and fiddling with his terminal. “Politics moves slow because the stakes are very high, and no one wants to be the person that screwed it up.”
He put his terminal down and gave her a wink. “Careers are at stake here.”
Thorsson just nodded and tapped on his terminal some more.
For a moment, she was on her back, staring up into the star-filled void above Ganymede. Her men were dead or dying. Her suit radio dead, her armor a frozen coffin. She saw the thing’s face. Without a suit in the radiation and hard vacuum, the red snowfall of flash-frozen blood around its claws. And no one at this table wanted to talk about it because it might affect their careers?
To hell with that.
When the meeting’s attendees had shuffled back into the room and taken their places around the table, Bobbie raised her hand. She felt faintly ridiculous, like a fifth-grade student in a room full of adults, but she had no idea what the actual protocol for asking a question was. The agenda reader shot her one annoyed glance, then ignored her. Thorsson reached under the table and sharply squeezed her leg.
She kept her hand up.
“Excuse me?” she said.
People around the table took turns giving her increasingly unfriendly looks and then pointedly turning away. Thorsson upped the pressure on her leg until she’d had enough of him and grabbed his wrist with her other hand. She squeezed until the bones creaked and he snatched his hand away with a surprised gasp. He turned his chair to look at her, his eyes wide and his mouth a flat, lipless line.
Yellow-sari placed a hand on the agenda reader’s arm, and he instantly stopped talking. Okay, that one is the boss, Bobbie decided.
“I, for one,” Grandma said, smiling a mild apology at the room, “would like to hear what Sergeant Draper has to say.”
She remembers my name, Bobbie thought. That’s interesting.
“Sergeant?” Grandma said.
Bobbie, unsure of what to do, stood up.
“I’m just wondering why no one is talking about the monster.”
Grandma’s enigmatic smile returned. No one spoke. The silence slid adrenaline into Bobbie’s blood. She felt her legs starting to tremble. More than anything in the world, she wanted to sit down, to make them all forget her and look away.
She scowled and locked her knees.
“You know,” Bobbie said, her voice rising, but she was unable to stop it. “The monster that killed fifty soldiers on Ganymede? The reason we’re all here?”
The room was silent. Thorsson stared at her like she had lost her mind. Maybe she had. Grandma tugged once at her yellow sari and smiled encouragement.
“I mean,” Bobbie said, holding up the agenda, “I’m sure trade agreements and water rights and who gets to screw who on the second Thursday after the winter solstice is all very important!”
She stopped to suck in a long breath, the gravity and her tirade seeming to have robbed her of air. She could see it in their eyes. She could see that if she just stopped now, she’d be an odd thing that happened and everyone could go back to work and quickly forget her. She could see her career not crashing off a cliff in flames.
She discovered that she didn’t care.
“But,” she said, throwing the agenda across the table, where a surprised man in a brown suit dodged it as though its touch might infect him with whatever Bobbie had, “what about the f**king monster?”
Before she could continue, Thorsson popped up from his seat.
“Excuse me for a moment, ladies and gentlemen. Sergeant Draper is suffering from some post-combat-related stress and needs attention.”
He grabbed her elbow and drove her from the room, a rising wave of murmurs pushing at their backs. Thorsson stopped in the conference room’s lobby and waited for the door to shut behind him.
“You,” Thorsson said, shoving her toward a chair. Normally the skinny intelligence officer couldn’t have pushed her anywhere, but all the strength seemed to have run out of her legs, and she collapsed into the seat.