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Page 256 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

It wasn’t hard to understand how Errinwright and Nguyen and their cabal would turn their backs on Venus, on the alien chaos that was becoming order and more than order. She felt it too, the atavistic fear lurking at the back of her mind. How much easier to turn to the old games, the old patterns, the history of warfare and conflict, deception and death. For all its horror, it was familiar. It was known.

As a girl, she’d seen a film about a man who saw the face of God. For the first hour of the film, he had gone through the drab life of someone living on basic on the coast of southern Africa. When he saw God, the film switched to ten minutes of the man wailing and then another hour of slowly building himself back up to do the same idiot life he’d had at the beginning. Avasarala had hated it. Now, though, she almost understood. Turning away was natural. Even if it was moronic and self-destructive and empty, it was natural.

War. Slaughter. Death. All the violence that Errinwright and his men—and she felt certain they were almost all of them men—were embracing, they were drawn to because it was comforting. And they were scared.

Well, so was she.

“Pussies,” she said, and restarted the playback.

“Venus can think,” Michael-Jon said instead of hello or any other social pleasantry. “I’ve had the signal analysis team running the data we saw from the network of water and electrical currents, and we’ve found a model. It’s only about a sixty percent correlation, but I’m comfortable putting that above chance. It’s got different anatomy, of course, but its functional structure is most like a cetacean doing spatial reasoning problems. I mean, there’s still the problem of the explanatory gap, and I can’t help with that part, but with what we’ve seen, I’m fairly sure that the patterns we saw were it thinking. They were the actual thoughts, like neurons firing off.”

He looked into the camera as if expecting her to answer and then looked mildly disappointed when she didn’t.

“I thought you’d want to know,” he said, and ended the recording.

Before she could formulate a response, a new message from Souther appeared. She opened it with a sense of gratitude and relief that she was slightly ashamed of.

“Chrisjen,” he said. “We have a problem. You should check the force assignments on Ganymede and let me know if we’re seeing the same things.”

Avasarala frowned. The lag now was over twenty-eight minutes. She put in a standard request, expedited it, and stood up. Her back was a solid knot. She walked to the common area of the suite. Bobbie, Cotyar, and three other men were sitting in a circle, the deck of cards distributed among them. Poker. Avasarala walked toward them, rolling through the hips where movement hurt. Something about lower gravity made her joints ache. She lowered herself to Bobbie’s side.

“Next hand, you can deal me in,” she said.

The order had come from Nguyen, and at first glance it made no sense at all. Six UN destroyers had been ordered off the Ganymede patrol, sent out at high burn on a course that seemed to lead essentially to nowhere. Initial reports showed that after a decent period of wondering what the f**k, a similar detachment of Martian ships matched course.

Nguyen was up to something, and she didn’t have the first clue what it could be. But Souther had sent it and thought she would see something.

It took another hour to find it. Holden’s Rocinante had departed Tycho Station on a gentle burn for the Jovian system. He might have filed a flight plan with the OPA, but he hadn’t informed Earth or Mars of anything, which meant Nguyen was watching him too.

They weren’t just scared. They were going to kill him.

Avasarala sat quietly for a long moment before she stood up and went back toward the game. Cotyar and Bobbie were at the end of a high-stakes round, which meant the pile of little bits of chocolate candy they were using for chips was almost five centimeters deep.

“Mr. Cotyar,” Avasarala said. “Sergeant Draper. With me, please.”

The cards all vanished. The men looked at each other nervously as she walked back into her bedroom. She closed the door behind them carefully. It didn’t even click.

“I am about to do something that may pull a trigger,” she said. “If I do this, the complexion of our situation may change.”

Cotyar and Bobbie exchanged looks.

“I have some things I’d like to get out of storage,” Bobbie said.

“I’ll brief the men,” Cotyar said.

“Ten minutes.”

The lag between the Guanshiyin and the Rocinante was still too long for conversation, but it was less than it took to get a message back to Earth. The sense of being so far from home left her a little light-headed. Cotyar stepped into the room and nodded once. Avasarala opened her terminal and requested a tightbeam connection. She gave the transponder code for the Rocinante. Less than a minute later, the connection came back refused. She smiled to herself and opened a channel to ops.

“This is Assistant Undersecretary Avasarala,” she said, as if there were anyone else on board who it might be. “What the f**k is wrong with your tightbeam?”

“I apologize, Madam Secretary,” a young man with bright blue eyes and close-cut blond hair said. “That communication channel isn’t available right now.”

“Why the f**k isn’t it available?”

“It’s not available, ma’am.”

“Fine. I didn’t want to do this on the radio, but I can broadcast if I have to.”

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” the boy said. Avasarala took a long breath and let it out through her teeth.

“Put the captain on,” she said.

A moment later, the image jumped. The captain was a thin-faced man with the brown eyes of an Irish setter. The set of his mouth and his bloodless lips told her that he knew what was coming, at least in outline. For a moment, she just looked into the camera. It was a trick she’d learned when she’d just started off. Looking at the screen image let the other person feel they were being seen. Looking into the tiny black pinpoint of the lens itself left them feeling stared down.

“Captain. I have a high-priority message I need to send.”

“I am very sorry. We’re having technical difficulties with the communication array.”

“Do you have a backup system? A shuttle we can power up? Anything?”

“Not at this time.”

“You’re lying to me,” she said. Then, when he didn’t answer: “I am making an official request that this yacht engage its emergency beacon and change course to the nearest aid.”