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Page 26 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

Avasarala reached for her hand terminal and opened a connection to Soren.

“Ma’am?”

“When I said don’t hurry, I didn’t mean you should take the whole f**king day off. My tea?”

“Coming, ma’am. I got sidetracked. I have a report for you that might be interesting.”

“Less interesting if the tea’s cold,” she said, and dropped the channel.

Putting any kind of real surveillance on Mao would probably be impossible. Mao-Kwikowski Mercantile would have its own communications arrays, its own encryption schemes, and several rival companies at least as well funded as the United Nations already bent on ferreting out corporate secrets. But there might be other ways to track communications coming off Venus and going to Mao-Kwik installations. Or messages going down that well.

Soren came in carrying a tray with a cast-iron teapot and an earthenware cup with no handle. He didn’t comment on the darkness, but walked carefully to her desk, set down the tray, poured out a smoky, dark cupful of still-steaming tea, and put his hand terminal on the desk beside it.

“You could just send me a f**king copy,” Avasarala said.

“More dramatic this way, ma’am,” Soren said. “Presentation is everything.”

She snorted and pointedly picked up the cup, blowing across the dark surface before she looked at the terminal. The date stamp at the lower right showed it as coming from outside Ganymede seven hours earlier and the identification code of the associated report. The man in the picture had the stocky bones of an Earther, unkempt dark hair, and a peculiar brand of boyish good looks. Avasarala frowned at the image as she sipped her tea.

“What happened to his face?” she asked.

“The reporting officer suggested the beard was intended as a disguise.”

She snorted.

“Well, thank God he didn’t put on a pair of glasses, we might never have figured it out. What the f**k is James Holden doing on Ganymede?”

“It’s a relief ship. Not the Rocinante.”

“We have confirmation on that? You know those OPA bastards can fake registration codes.”

“The reporting officer did a visual inspection of the interior layout and checked the record when he got back. Also, the crew didn’t include Holden’s usual pilot, so we assume they’ve got it parked-and-dark somewhere in tightbeam range,” Soren said. He paused. “There is a standing detain-on-sight for Holden.”

Avasarala turned the lights back on. The windows became dark mirrors again; the storm was pressed back outside.

“Tell me we didn’t enforce it,” Avasarala said.

“We didn’t enforce it,” Soren said. “We have a surveillance detail on him and his team, but the situation on the station isn’t conducive to a close watch. Plus which, it doesn’t look like Mars knows he’s there yet, so we’re trying to keep that to ourselves.”

“Good that someone out there knows how to run an intelligence operation. Any idea what he’s doing?”

“So far, it looks a lot like a relief effort,” Soren said with a shrug. “We haven’t seen him meeting with anybody of special interest. He’s asking questions. Almost got into a fight with some opportunists who’ve been shaking down relief ships, but the other guys backed down. It’s early, though.”

Avasarala took another sip of tea. She had to give it to the boy; he could brew a fine pot of tea. Or he knew someone who could, which was just as good. If Holden was there, that meant the OPA was interested in the situation on Ganymede. And that they didn’t have someone already on the ground to report to them.

Wanting the intelligence didn’t in itself mean much. Even if it had been just a bunch of idiot ground-pounders getting trigger-happy, Ganymede was a critical station for the Jovian system and the Belt. The OPA would want their own eyes on the scene. But to send Holden, the only survivor of Eros Station, seemed more than coincidental.

“They don’t know what it is,” she said aloud.

“Ma’am?”

“They smuggled in someone with experience in the protomolecule for a reason. They’re trying to figure out what the hell’s going on. Which means they don’t know. Which means …” She sighed. “Which means it wasn’t them. Which is a f**king pity, since they’ve got the only live sample we know about.”

“What would you like the surveillance team to do?”

“Surveillance,” she snapped. “Watch him, see who he talks to and what he does. Daily reports back if it’s boring, real-time updates if it runs hot.”

“Yes, ma’am. Do you want him brought in?”

“Pull him and his people in when they try to leave Ganymede. Otherwise stay out of their way and try not to get noticed. Holden’s an idiot, but he’s not stupid. If he realizes he’s being watched, he’ll start broadcasting pictures of all our Ganymede sources or something. Do not underestimate his capacity to f**k things up.”

“Anything else?”

Another flash of lightning. Another roll of thunder. Another storm among trillions of storms that had assaulted the Earth since back in the beginning, when something had first tried to end all life on the planet. Something that was on Venus right now. And spreading.

“Find a way for me to get a message to Fred Johnson without Nguyen or the Martians finding out,” she said. “We may need to do some back-channel negotiation.”

Chapter Ten: Prax

Pas kirrup es I’m to this,” the boy sitting on the cot said. “Pinche salad, sa-sa? Ten thousand, once was.”

He couldn’t have been more than twenty. Young enough, technically, to be his son, just as Mei could have been the boy’s daughter. Colt-thin from adolescent growth and a life in low g, his thinness was improbable to begin with. And he’d been starving besides.

“I can write you a promissory note if you want,” Prax said.

The boy grinned and made a rude gesture.

From his professional work, Prax knew that the inner planets thought of Belter slang as a statement about location. He knew from living as a food botanist on Ganymede that it was also about class. He had grown up with tutors in accent-free Chinese and English. He’d spoken with men and women from everywhere in the system. From the way someone said allopolyploidy, he could tell if they came from the universities around Beijing or Brazil, if they’d grown up in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains or Olympus Mons or in the corridors of Ceres. He’d grown up in microgravity himself, but Belt patois was as foreign to him as to anyone fresh up the well. If the boy had wanted to speak past him, it would have been effortless. But Prax was a paying customer, and he knew the boy was making an effort to dial it back.

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