The bright blue eyes narrowed. The smile grew less warm.
“You think my executives and I were less than forthcoming? I put powerful men in prison for you, Assistant Undersecretary. I burned bridges.”
Distant thunder mumbled and complained. The rain redoubled its angry tapping at the pane. Avasarala crossed her arms.
“You did. But that doesn’t make you an idiot. There are still things you say under oath and things you dance around. This room isn’t monitored. This is off the record. I need to know anything you can tell me about the protomolecule that didn’t come out in the hearings.”
The silence between them stretched. She watched his face, his body, looking for signs, but the man was unreadable. He’d been doing this too long, and he was too good at it. A professional.
“Things get lost,” Avasarala said. “There was one time during the finance crisis that we found a whole auditing division that no one remembered. Because that’s how you do it. You take part of a problem and you put it somewhere, get some people working on it, and then you get another part of the problem and get other people working on that. And pretty soon you have seven, eight, a hundred different little boxes with work going on, and no one talking to anyone because it would break security protocol.”
“And you think …?”
“We killed Protogen, and you helped. I’m asking whether you know of any little boxes lying around somewhere. And I’m very much hoping you say yes.”
“Is this from the secretary-general or Errinwright?”
“No. Just me.”
“I’ve already said everything I know,” he said.
“I don’t believe that.”
The mask of his persona slipped. It lasted less than a second, nothing more than a shift in the angle of his spine and a hardness in his jaw, here and gone again. It was anger. That was interesting.
“They killed my daughter,” he said softly. “Even if I’d had something to hide, I wouldn’t have.”
“How did it come to be your girl?” Avasarala asked. “Did they target her? Was somebody using her against you?”
“It was bad luck. She was out in the deep orbits, trying to prove something. She was young and rebellious and stupid. We were trying to get her to come home but … she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Something tickled at the back of Avasarala’s mind. A hunch. An impulse. She went with it.
“Have you heard from her since it happened?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Since Eros Station crashed into Venus, have you heard from her?”
It was interesting watching him pretend to be angry now. It was almost like the real thing. She couldn’t have said what about it was inauthentic. The intelligence in his eyes, maybe. The sense that he was more present than he had been before. Real rage swept people away. This was rage as a gambit.
“My Julie is dead,” he said, his voice shaking theatrically. “She died when that bastard alien thing went down to Venus. She died saving the Earth.”
Avasarala countered soft. She lowered her voice, let her face take on a concerned, grandmotherly expression. If he was going to play the injured man, she could play the mother.
“Something lived,” she said. “Something survived that impact, and everybody knows that it did. I have reason to think that it didn’t stay there. If some part of your daughter made it through that change, she might have reached out to you. Tried to contact you. Or her mother.”
“There is nothing I want more than to have my little girl back,” Mao said. “But she’s gone.”
“All right,” she said.
“Is there anything else?”
Again, the false anger. She ran her tongue against the back of her teeth, thinking. There was something here, something beneath the surface. She didn’t know what she was looking at with Mao.
“You know about Ganymede?” she said.
“Fighting broke out,” he said.
“Maybe more than that,” she said. “The thing that killed your daughter is still out there. It was on Ganymede. I’m going to find out how and why.”
He rocked back. Was the shock real?
“I’ll help if I can,” he said, his voice small.
“Start with this. Is there anything you didn’t say during the hearings? A business partner you chose not to mention. A backup program or auxiliary staff you outfitted. If it wasn’t legal, I don’t care. I can get you amnesty for just about anything, but I need to hear it now. Right now.”
“Amnesty?” he said as if she’d been joking.
“If you tell me now, yes.”
“If I had it, I would give it to you,” he said. “I’ve said everything I know.”
“All right, then. I’m sorry to have taken your time. And … I’m sorry to open old wounds. I lost a son. Charanpal was fifteen. Skiing accident.”
“I’m sorry,” Mao said.
“If you find out something more, bring it to me,” she said.
“I will,” he said, rising from his seat. She let him get almost to the doorway before she spoke again.
Turning to glance over his shoulder, he looked like a still frame from a film.
“If I find out that you knew something and you didn’t tell me, I won’t take it well,” she said. “I’m not someone you want to f**k with.”
“If I didn’t know that when I came in, I do now,” Mao said. It was as good a parting line as any. The door closed behind him. Avasarala sighed, leaning back in her chair. She shifted to look at the Buddha.
“Fat lot of help you were, you smug bastard,” she said. The statue, being only a statue, didn’t reply. She thumbed down the lights and let the gray of the storm fill the room. Something about Mao didn’t sit well with her.
It might only have been the practiced control of a high-level corporate negotiator, but she had the sense of being cut out of the loop. Excluded. That was interesting too. She wondered if he would try to counter her, maybe go over her head. It would be worth telling Errinwright to expect an angry call.
She wondered. It was a stretch to believe there was anything human down on Venus. The protomolecule, as well as anyone understood it, had been designed to hijack primitive life and remake it into something else. But if … If the complexity of a human mind had been too much for it to totally control, and the girl had in some sense survived the descent, if she’d reached out to her daddy …