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Page 24 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

“There’s no data showing a launch,” Soren said. “Whatever’s on Venus would have to have gotten out to Ganymede, and there’s no sign of that at all.”

“Whatever’s on Venus thinks inertia’s optional and gravity isn’t a constant. We don’t know what a launch would look like. As far as we know, they could walk to Jupiter.”

The boy’s nod conceded the point.

“Where do we stand on Mars?”

“They’ve agreed to meet here. They’ve got ships on the way with the diplomatic delegation, including their witness.”

“The marine? Draper?”

“Yes, ma’am. Admiral Nguyen is in charge of the escort.”

“He’s playing nice?”

“So far.”

“All right, where do we go from here?” Avasarala asked.

“Jules-Pierre Mao’s waiting in your office, ma’am.”

“Run him down for me. Anything you think’s important.”

Soren blinked. Lightning lit the clouds from within.

“I sent the briefing …”

She felt a stab of annoyance that was half embarrassment. She’d forgotten that the background on the man was in her queue. There were thirty other documents there too, and she’d slept poorly the night before, troubled by dreams in which Arjun had died unexpectedly. She’d had widowhood nightmares since her son had died in a skiing accident, her mind conflating the only two men she’d ever loved.

She’d meant to review the information before breakfast. She’d forgotten. But she wasn’t going to admit it to some European brat just because he was smart, competent, and did everything she said.

“I know what’s in the briefing. I know everything,” she said, standing up. “This is a f**king test. I’m asking what you think is important about him.”

She walked away, moving toward the carved oak doors with a deliberate speed that made Soren scramble a little to keep up.

“He’s the corporate controlling interest of Mao-Kwikowski Mercantile,” Soren said, his voice low enough to carry to her and then die. “Before the incident, they were one of Protogen’s major suppliers. The medical equipment, the radiation rooms, the surveillance and encryption infrastructure. Almost everything Protogen put on Eros or used to construct their shadow station came from a Mao-Kwik warehouse and on a Mao-Kwik freighter.”

“And he’s still breathing free air because …?” she said, pushing through the doors and into the hallway beyond.

“No evidence that Mao-Kwik knew what the equipment was for,” Soren said. “After Protogen was exposed, Mao-Kwik was one of the first to turn over information to the investigation committee. If they—and by ‘they,’ I mean ‘he’—hadn’t turned over a terabyte of confidential correspondence, Gutmansdottir and Kolp might never have been implicated.”

A silver-haired man with a broad Andean nose walking the other way in the hall looked up from his hand terminal and nodded to her as they drew near.

“Victor,” she said. “I’m sorry about Annette.”

“The doctors say she’ll be fine,” the Andean said. “I’ll tell her you asked.”

“Tell her I said to get the hell out of bed before her husband starts getting dirty ideas,” she said, and the Andean laughed as they passed. Then, to Soren: “Was he cutting a deal? Cooperation for clemency?”

“That was one interpretation, but most people assumed it was personal vengeance for what happened to his daughter.”

“She was on Eros,” Avasarala said.

“She was Eros,” Soren said as they stepped into the elevator. “She was the initial infection. The scientists think the protomolecule was building itself using her brain and body as a template.”

The elevator doors closed, the car already aware of who she was and where she was going. It dropped smoothly as her eyebrows rose.

“So when they started negotiating with that thing—”

“They were talking to what was left of Jules-Pierre Mao’s daughter,” Soren said. “I mean, they think they were.”

Avasarala whistled low.

“Did I pass the test, ma’am?” Soren asked, keeping his face empty and impassive except for a small twinkle in the corners of his eyes that said he knew she’d been bullshitting him. Despite herself, she grinned.

“No one likes a smart-ass,” she said. The elevator stopped; the doors slid open.

Jules-Pierre Mao sat at her desk, radiating a sense of calm with the faintest hint of amusement. Avasarala’s eyes flickered over him, taking in the details: well-tailored silk suit that straddled the line between beige and gray, receding hairline unmodified by medical therapies, startling blue eyes that he had probably been born with. He wore his age like a statement that fighting the ravages of time and mortality was beneath his notice. Twenty years earlier, he’d just have been devastatingly handsome. Now he was that and dignified too, and her first, animal impulse was that she wanted to like him.

“Mr. Mao,” she said, nodding to him. “Sorry to make you wait.”

“I’ve worked with government before,” he said. He had a European accent that would have melted butter. “I understand the constraints. What can I do for you, Assistant Undersecretary?”

Avasarala lowered herself into her chair. The Buddha smiled beatifically from his place by the wall. The rain sheeted down the window, shadows giving the near-subliminal impression that Mao was weeping. She steepled her fingers.

“You want some tea?”

“No, thank you,” Mao said.

“Soren! Go get me some tea.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the boy said.

“Soren.”

“Ma’am?”

“Don’t hurry.”

“Of course not, ma’am.”

The door closed behind him. Mao’s smile looked weary.

“Should I have brought my attorneys?”

“Those rat f**kers? No,” she said, “the trials are all done with. I’m not here to reopen any of the legal wrangling. I’ve got real work to do.”

“I can respect that,” Mao said.

“I have a problem,” Avasarala said. “And I don’t know what it is.”

“And you think I do?”

“It’s possible. I’ve been through a lot of hearings about one damn thing and another. Most of the time they’re exercises in ass covering. If the unvarnished truth ever came out at one, it would be because someone screwed up.”

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