Avasarala waved a hand as if she were shooing flies. “What’s communications look like?”
“Robust,” Cotyar said. “We’ve set up a private network and have been given the backup tightbeam and radio array for your personal use. Bandwidth is significant, though light delay will be an increasing factor as we move away from Earth.”
“Good,” Avasarala said, smiling for the first time since they’d come on the ship. She’d stopped looking tired a while ago and had moved on to whatever tired turns into when it became a lifestyle.
“None of this is secure,” Cotyar said. “We can secure our private internal network, but if they are monitoring outbound and inbound traffic through the array we’re using, there will be no way to detect that. We have no access to ship operations.”
“And,” Avasarala said, “that is exactly why I’m here. Bottle me up, send me on a long trip, and read all my f**king mail.”
“We’re lucky if that’s all they do,” Bobbie said. Thinking about how tired Avasarala looked had reminded her how tired she was too. She felt herself drift away for a moment.
Avasarala finished saying something, and Cotyar nodded and said yes to her. She turned to Bobbie and said, “Do you agree?”
“Uh,” Bobbie said, trying to rewind the conversation in her head and failing. “I’m—”
“You’re practically falling out of your f**king chair. When’s the last time you got a full night’s sleep?”
“Probably about the last time you did,” Bobbie said. The last time all my squaddies were alive, and you weren’t trying to keep the solar system from catching on fire. She waited for the next scathing comment, the next observation that she couldn’t do her job if she was that compromised. That weak.
“Fair enough,” Avasarala said. Bobbie felt another little surge of affection for her. “Mao’s throwing a big dinner tonight to welcome us aboard. I want you and Cotyar to come with. Cotyar will be security, so he’ll stand at the back of the room and look menacing.”
Bobbie laughed before she could stop herself. Cotyar smiled and winked at her.
“And,” Avasarala continued, “you’ll be there as my social secretary, so you can chat people up. Try to get a feel for the crew and the mood of the ship. Okay?”
“I noticed,” Avasarala said, her tone shifting to the one she used when she was going to ask for an unpleasant favor, “the executive officer staring at you when we did the airlock meet and greet.”
Bobbie nodded. She’d noticed it too. Some men had a large-woman fetish, and Bobbie had gotten the hair-raising sense that he might be a member of that tribe. They tended to have unresolved mommy issues, so she generally steered clear.
“Any chance you could talk him up at dinner?” Avasarala finished.
Bobbie laughed, expecting everyone else to laugh too. Even Cotyar was looking at her as though Avasarala had made a perfectly reasonable request.
“Uh, no,” Bobbie said.
“Did you say no?”
“Yeah, no. Hell no. Fuck no. Nein und abermals nein. Nyet. La. Siei,” Bobbie said, stopping when she ran out of languages. “And I’m actually a little pissed now.”
“I’m not asking you to sleep with him.”
“Good, because I don’t use sex as a weapon,” Bobbie said. “I use weapons as weapons.”
“Chrisjen!” Jules Mao said, enveloping Avasarala’s hand in his and shaking it.
The lord of the Mao-Kwik empire towered over Avasarala. He had the kind of handsome face that made Bobbie instinctively want to like him, and medically untreated male-pattern hair loss that said he didn’t care whether she did. Choosing not to use his wealth to fix a problem as treatable as thinning hair actually made him seem even more in control. He wore a loose sweater and cotton pants that hung on him like a tailored suit. When Avasarala introduced Bobbie to him, he smiled and nodded while barely glancing in her direction.
“Is your staff settled in?” he asked, letting Avasarala know that Bobbie’s presence reminded him of underlings. Bobbie gritted her teeth but kept her face blank.
“Yes,” Avasarala replied with what Bobbie would have sworn was genuine warmth. “The accommodations are lovely, and your crew has been wonderful.”
“Excellent,” Jules said, placing Avasarala’s hand on his arm and leading her to an enormous table. They were surrounded on all sides by men in white jackets with black bow ties. One of them darted forward and pulled a chair out. Jules placed Avasarala in it. “Chef Marco has promised something special tonight.”
“How about straight answers? Are those on the menu?” Bobbie asked as a waiter pulled out a chair for her.
Jules settled into his chair at the head of the table. “Answers?”
“You guys won,” Bobbie said, ignoring the steaming soup one of the servers placed in front of her. Mao tapped salt onto his and began eating it as though they were just having casual dinner conversation. “The assistant undersecretary is on the ship. No reason to bullshit us now. What’s going on?”
“Humanitarian aid,” he replied.
“Bullshit,” Bobbie said. She glanced at Avasarala, but the old woman was just smiling. “You can’t tell me that you have time to spend a couple months doing the transit to Jupiter just to oversee handing out rice and juice boxes. And you couldn’t get enough relief supplies onto this ship to feed Ganymede lunch, much less make a long-term difference.”
Mao settled back in his chair, and the white jackets bustled around the room, clearing the soup away. Bobbie’s was whisked away as well, even though she hadn’t eaten any of it.
“Roberta,” Mao began.
“Don’t call me Roberta.”
“Sergeant, you should be questioning your superiors at the UN foreign office, not me.”
“I’d love to, but apparently asking questions is against the rules in this game.”
His smile was warm, condescending, and empty. “I made my ship available to provide Madam Undersecretary the most comfortable ride to her new assignment. And while you have not yet met them, there are personnel currently on this vessel whose expertise will be invaluable to the citizens of Ganymede once you arrive.”
Bobbie had been around Avasarala long enough to see the game being played right in front of her. Mao was laughing at her. He knew this was all bullshit, and he knew she knew it as well. But as long as he remained calm and gave reasonable answers, no one could call him on it. He was too powerful to be called a liar to his face.