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Page 202 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

The marine chuckled. Then she laughed. Then, seeing Avasarala’s gaze on her own, she sobered.

“That thing that killed your friends?” Avasarala said while the marine was looking her in the eye. “It wasn’t one of mine.”

Draper’s inhalation was sharp. It was like Avasarala had touched a wound. Which made sense, because she had. Draper’s jaw worked for a second.

“It wasn’t one of ours either.”

“Well. At least we’ve got that settled.”

“It won’t do any good, though. They won’t do anything. They won’t talk about anything. They don’t care. You know that? They don’t care what happened as long as they all protect their careers and make sure the balance of power isn’t tilted the wrong way. None of them f**king care what that thing was or where it came from.”

The bar around them wasn’t silent, but it was quieter. The mating dance was now only the second most interesting thing happening at the bar.

“I care,” Avasarala said. “As a matter of fact, I’ve just been given a very great deal of latitude in finding out what that thing was.”

It wasn’t entirely true. She’d been given a huge budget to implicate or rule out Venus. But it was close, and it was the right frame for what she wanted.

“Really?” Draper said. “So what are you going to do?”

“First thing, I’m going to hire you. I need a liaison with the Martian military. That should be you. Can you handle it?”

No one at the bar was talking to anybody now. The room might have been empty. The only sounds were the soft music and Draper’s laughter. An older man wearing clove-and-cinnamon cologne walked by, drawn by the quiet spectacle without knowing what it was.

“I’m a Martian Marine,” Draper said. “Martian. You’re UN. Earth. We aren’t even citizens of the same planet. You can’t hire me.”

“My name’s Chrisjen Avasarala. Ask around.”

They were silent for a moment.

“I’m Bobbie,” Draper said.

“Nice to meet you, Bobbie. Come work for me.”

“Can I think about it?”

“Of course,” Avasarala said, and had her terminal send Bobbie her private number. “So long as when you’re done thinking, you come work for me.”

At the VIP apartments, Avasarala tuned the system to the kind of music Arjun might be listening to just then. If he wasn’t already asleep. She fought back the urge to call him. It was late already, and she was just drunk enough to get maudlin. Sobbing into her hand terminal about how much she loved her husband wasn’t something she longed to make a habit of. She pulled off her sari and took a long, hot shower. She didn’t drink alcohol often. Usually she didn’t like how it dulled her mind. That night it seemed to loosen her up, give her brain the little extra jazz it needed to see connections.

Draper kept her connected to Mars, even if not to the day-by-day slog of the negotiations. That was a good start. There would be other connections too. Foster, in data services, could be brought in. She’d need to start routing more work through him. Build a relationship. It wouldn’t do to march in and insist on being his new best friend just because he happened to be managing the encryption requests for Nguyen. A few no-strings-attached cupcakes first. Then the hook. Who else could she—

Her hand terminal chimed a priority alert. She turned off the water and grabbed a bathrobe, wrapping herself tightly and double-knotting the stay before she accepted the connection. She was years past flashing someone over a hand terminal, no matter how much she’d drunk. The connection came from someone in priority surveillance. The image that flashed up was a middle-aged man with ill-advised mutton-chop whiskers.

“Ameer! You mad dog. What have you done that they make you work so late?”

“Moved to Atlanta, miss,” the analyst said with a toothy grin. He was the only one who ever called her miss. She hadn’t spoken to him in three years. “I’ve just come back from lunch. I had an unscheduled report flagged for you. Contact immediately. I tried your assistant, but he didn’t answer.”

“He’s young. He still sleeps sometimes. It’s a weakness. Stand by while I set privacy.”

The moment of friendly banter was over. Avasarala leaned forward, tapping her hand terminal twice to add a layer of encryption. The red icon went green.

“Go ahead,” she said.

“It’s from Ganymede, miss. You have a standing order on James Holden.”

“Yes?”

“He’s on the move. He made an apparent rendezvous with a local scientist. Praxidike Meng.”

“What’s Meng?”

In Atlanta, Ameer transitioned smoothly to a different file. “Botanist, miss. Emigrated to Ganymede with his family when he was a child. Schooled there. Specializes in partial-pressure low-light soybean strains. Divorced, one child. No known connections to the OPA or any established political party.”

“Go ahead.”

“Holden, Meng, and Burton have left their ship. They’re armed, and they’ve made contact with a small group of private-security types. Pinkwater.”

“How many?”

“The on-site analyst doesn’t say, miss. A small force. Should I query?”

“What lag are we at?”

Ameer’s brown-black eyes flickered.

“Forty-one minutes, eight seconds, miss.”

“Hold the query. If I have anything else, I can send them together.”

“The on-site analyst reports that Holden negotiated with the private security, either a last-minute renegotiation or else the whole meeting was extemporaneous. It appears they reached some agreement. The full group proceeded to an unused corridor complex and forced entry.”

“A what?”

“Disused access door, miss.”

“What the f**k is that supposed to mean? How big is it? Where is it?”

“Should I query?”

“You should go to Ganymede and kick this sorry excuse for an on-site analyst in the balls. Add a clarification request.”

“Yes, miss,” Ameer said with the ghost of a smile. Then, suddenly, he frowned. “An update. One moment.”

So the OPA had something on Ganymede. Maybe something they’d put there, maybe something they’d found. Either way, this mysterious door made things a degree more interesting. While Ameer read through and digested the new update, Avasarala scratched the back of her hand and reevaluated her position. She’d thought Holden was there as an observer. Forward intelligence. That might be wrong. If he’d gone to meet with this Praxidike Meng, this utterly under-the-radar botanist, the OPA might already know quite a bit about Bobbie Draper’s monster. Add the fact that Holden’s boss had the only known sample of the protomolecule, and a narrative about the Ganymede collapse began to take shape.