“There was a night when we were out at something, Arjun and I. We got home late, and we’d been fighting. Ashanti was in the kitchen, washing dishes. Washing clean dishes by hand. Scrubbing them with a cloth and this terrible abrasive cleanser. Her fingers were bleeding, but she didn’t seem to notice, you know? I tried to stop her, pull her away, but she started screaming and she wouldn’t be quiet again until I let her resume her washing. I was so angry I couldn’t see. I hated my daughter. For that moment, I hated her.”
“And I remind you of her how exactly?”
Avasarala gestured to the room. Its bed with real linen sheets. The textured paper on the walls, the scented air.
“You can’t compromise. You can’t see things the way I tell you that they are, and when I try and make you, you go away.”
“Is that what you want?” Bobbie said. Her voice was crawling up to a higher energy level. It was anger, but it brought her back to being present. “You want me to agree with whatever you say, and if I don’t, you’re going to hate me for it?”
“Of course I want you to call me on my bullshit. That’s what I pay you for. I’m only going to hate you for the moment,” Avasarala said. “I love my daughter very much.”
“I’m sure you do, ma’am. I’m not her.”
“I didn’t call you in here and show you all of this because I was tired of the lag. I’m worried. Fuck it, I’m scared.”
“You want a list?”
Bobbie actually smiled. Avasarala felt herself smiling back.
“I’m scared that I’ve been outplayed already,” she said. “I’m afraid that I won’t be able to stop the hawks and their cabal from using their pretty new toys. And … and I’m afraid that I might be wrong. What happens, Bobbie? What happens if whatever the hell that is on Venus rises up and finds us as divided and screwed up and ineffective as we are right now?”
“I don’t know.”
Avasarala’s terminal chimed. She glanced at the new message. A note from Admiral Souther. Avasarala had sent him an utterly innocuous note about having lunch when they both got back to Earth, then coded it for high-security clearance with a private encryption schema. It would take her handlers a couple of hours at least to crack it. She tabbed it open. The reply was plain text.
THE EAGLE LANDS AT MIDNIGHT PETTING ZOOS
ARE ILLEGAL IN ROME.
Avasarala laughed. It was real pleasure this time. Bobbie loomed up over her shoulder, and Avasarala turned the screen so that the big marine could peer down at it.
“What’s that mean?”
Avasarala motioned her down close enough that her lips were almost against Bobbie’s ear. At that intimate distance, the big woman smelled of clean sweat and the cucumber-scented emollient that was in all Mao’s guest quarters.
“Nothing,” Avasarala whispered. “He’s just following my lead, but they’ll chew their livers out guessing at it.”
Bobbie stood up. Her expression of incredulity was eloquent.
“This really is how government works, isn’t it?”
“Welcome to the monkey house,” Avasarala said.
“I think I might go get drunk.”
“And I’ll get back to work.”
At the doorway, Bobbie paused. She looked small in the wide frame. A doorframe on a spaceship that left Roberta Draper looking small. There was nothing about the yacht that wasn’t tastefully obscene.
“What happened with her?”
Avasarala closed her terminal.
“Arjun sang to her until she stopped. It took about three hours. He sat on the counter and went through all the songs we’d sung to them when they were little. Eventually, Ashanti let him lead her to her room and tuck her into bed.”
“You hated him too, didn’t you? For being able to help her when you couldn’t.”
“You’re catching on, Sergeant.”
Bobbie licked her lips.
“I want to hurt someone,” she said. “I’m afraid if it’s not them, it’s going to wind up being me.”
“We all grieve in our own ways,” Avasarala said. “For what it’s worth, you’ll never kill enough people to keep your platoon from dying. No more than I can save enough people that one of them will be Charanpal.”
For a long moment, Bobbie weighed the words. Avasarala could almost hear the woman’s mind turning the ideas one way and then another. Soren had been an idiot to underestimate this woman. But Soren had been an idiot in a lot of ways. When at length she spoke, her voice was light and conversational, as if her words weren’t profound.
“No harm trying, though.”
“It’s what we do,” Avasarala said.
The marine nodded curtly. For a moment, Avasarala thought she might be going to salute, but instead, she lumbered out toward the complimentary bar in the wide common area. There was a fountain out there with sprays of water drifting down fake bronze sculptures of horses and underdressed women. If that didn’t make someone want a stiff drink of something, then nothing would.
Avasarala thumbed on the video feed again.
“This is James Holden—”
She turned it off again.
“At least you lost that f**king beard,” she said to no one.
Chapter Thirty-Six: Prax
Prax remembered his first epiphany. Or possibly, he thought, the one he remembered as his first. In the absence of further evidence, he went with it. He’d been in second form, just seventeen, and in the middle of a genetic engineering lab. Sitting there among the steel tables and microcentrifuges, he’d struggled with why exactly his results were so badly off. He’d rechecked his calculations, read through his lab notes. The error was more than sloppy technique could explain, and his technique wasn’t even sloppy.
And then he’d noticed that one of the reagents was chiral, and he knew what had happened. He hadn’t figured anything wrong but he had assumed that the reagent was taken from a natural source rather than generated de novo. Instead of being uniformly left-handed, it had been a mix of chiralities, half of them inactive. The insight had left him grinning from ear to ear.
It had been a failure, but it was a failure he understood, and that made it a victory. The only thing he regretted was that seeing what should have been clear had taken him so long.
The four days since he had sent the broadcast, he’d hardly slept. Instead, he’d read through the comments and messages pouring in with the donations, responding to a few, asking questions of people all over the system whom he didn’t know. The goodwill and generosity pouring out to him was intoxicating. For two days, he hadn’t slept, borne up on the euphoria of feeling effective. When he had slept, he’d dreamed of finding Mei.