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Page 268 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

“But it won’t work,” Prax said. “Remember? They escape constraint. And since they can share information, they’re going to get harder to hold to any kind of new programming.”

The room went silent. Prax looked confused.

“They can share information?” Avasarala said.

“Sure,” Prax said. “Look at your energy spikes. The first one happened while the thing was fighting Bobbie and the other marines on Ganymede. The second spike came when the other one got loose in the lab. The third spike was when we killed it with the Rocinante. Every time one of them has been attacked, Venus reacted. They’re networked. I’d assume that any critical information could be shared. Like how to escape constraints.”

“If they use them against people,” Holden said, “there won’t be any way to stop them. They’ll ditch the fail-safe bombs and just keep going. The battles won’t end.”

“Um. No,” Prax said. “That’s not the problem. It’s the cascade again. Once the protomolecule gets a little freedom, it has more tools to erode other constraints, which gets it more tools to erode more constraints and on and on like that. The original program or something like it will eventually swamp the new program. They’ll revert.”

Bobbie leaned forward, her head canted a few degrees to the right. Her voice was quiet, but it had a threat of violence that was louder than shouting.

“So if they set those things loose on Mars, they stay soldiers like the first one for a while. And then they start dropping the bombs out like your guy did. And then they turn Mars into Eros?”

“Well, worse than Eros,” Prax said. “Any decent-sized Martian city is going to have an order of magnitude more people than Eros did.”

The room was quiet. On the monitor, Bobbie’s suit camera looked up at star-filled sky while battleships killed each other in orbit.

“I’ve got to send some messages out,” Avasarala said.

“These half-human things you’ve made? They aren’t your servants. You can’t control them,” Avasarala said. “Jules-Pierre Mao sold you a bill of goods. I know why you kept me out of this, and I think you’re a f**king moron for it, but put it aside. It doesn’t matter now. Just do not pull that f**king trigger. Do you understand what I’m saying? Don’t. You will be personally responsible for the single deadliest screwup in the history of humankind, and I’m on a ship with Jim f**king Holden, so the bar’s not low.”

The full recording clocked in at almost half an hour. The security footage from the Rocinante with its stowaway was attached. A fifteen-minute lecture by Prax had to be scrapped when he reached the part about his daughter being turned into a protomolecule soldier, and this time broke into uncontrollable weeping. Avasarala did her best to recapitulate it, but she wasn’t at all certain she had the details right. She’d considered bringing Jon-Michael into it, but decided against it. Better to keep it in the family.

She sent the message. If she knew Errinwright, he wouldn’t get back to her immediately. There would be an hour or two of evaluation, weighing what she’d said, and then when she’d been left to stew for a while, he’d reply.

She hoped he’d be sane about it. He had to.

She needed to sleep. She could feel the fatigue gnawing at the edges of her mind, slowing her, but when she lay down, rest felt as far away as home. As Arjun. She thought about recording a message for him, but it would only have left her feeling more powerfully isolated. After an hour, she pulled herself up and walked through the halls. Her body told her it was midnight or later, and the activity on board—music ringing out of the machine shop, a loud conversation between Holden and Alex about the maintenance of the electronics systems, even Praxidike’s sitting in the galley by himself, apparently grooming a box of hydroponics cuttings—had a surreal late-night feeling.

She considered sending another message to Souther. The lag time would be much less to him, and she was hungry enough for a response that anything would do. When the answer came, it wasn’t a message.

“Captain,” Alex said over the ship-wide comm. “You should come up to ops and look at this.”

Something in his voice told Avasarala that this wasn’t a maintenance question. She found the lift to ops just as Holden went up, and pulled herself up the ladder rather than wait. She wasn’t the only one who’d followed the call. Bobbie was in a spare seat, her eyes on the same screen as Holden’s. The blinking tactical data scrolled down the screen, and a dozen bright red dots displayed changes. She didn’t understand most of what she saw, but the gist was obvious. The destroyers were on the move.

“Okay,” Holden said. “What’re we seeing?”

“All the Earth destroyers hit high burn. Six g,” Alex said.

“Are they going to Io?”

“Oh, hell no.”

This was Errinwright’s answer. No messages. No negotiations. Not even an acknowledgment that she’d asked him to restrain himself. Warships. The despair only lasted for a moment. Then came the anger.

“Bobbie?”

“Yeah.”

“That part where you told me I didn’t understand the danger I was in?”

“And you told me that I didn’t how the game was played.”

“That part.”

“I remember. What about it?”

“If you wanted to say ‘I told you so,’ this looks like the right time.”

Chapter Forty-Two: Holden

Holden had spent a month at the Diamond Head Electronic Warfare Lab on Oahu as his first posting after officer candidate school. During that time, he’d learned he had no desire to be a naval intelligence wonk, really disliked poi, and really liked Polynesian women. He’d been far too busy at the time to actively chase one, but he’d thoroughly enjoyed spending his few spare moments down at the beach looking at them. He’d had a thing for curvy women with long black hair ever since.

The Martian Marine was like one of those cute little beach bunnies that someone had used editing software on and blown up to 150 percent normal size. The proportions, the black hair, the dark eyes, everything was the same. Only, giant. It short-circuited his neural wiring. The lizard living at the back of his brain kept jumping back and forth between Mate with it! and Flee from it! What was worse, she knew it. She seemed to have sized him up and decided he was only worth a tired smirk within moments of their meeting.

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