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Page 284 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

“I thought we were past that.”

“Past being scared?”

“No,” she said, the smile audible in her voice. “Past blaming yourself for it. I’m scared too.”

“I love you,” Holden said, feeling that same electric thrill he always got when he told her, part fear, part boast.

“You should probably keep your eye on your station,” she said, her tone teasing. She never told him she loved him when he said it first. She’d said that when people did it too often, it made the word lose all its power. He understood the argument, but he’d kind of hoped she’d break her rule this once. He needed to hear it.

Avasarala was hunched over the comm station like an ancient mystic peering into a murky crystal ball. The space suit hung on her like a scarecrow’s oversized coveralls. Holden considered ordering her to button up her helmet, then shrugged. She was old enough to decide for herself the relative risks and rewards of eating during a battle.

Periodically she reached into her purse and pulled out another nut. The air around her was a growing cloud of tiny pieces of pistachio skin. It was annoying to watch her cluttering up his ship, but no warship was built so fragile that a little airborne waste would break anything. Either the tiny pieces of shell would be sucked into the air recycling system and trapped by the filters, or they’d go under thrust and all the garbage would fall to the floor, where they could sweep it up. Holden wondered if Avasarala had ever had to clean anything in her life.

While he watched her, the old lady cocked her head to one side, listening with sudden interest to something only she could hear. Her hand darted forward, bird quick, to tap at the screen. A new voice came over the ship’s radios, this one with the faint hiss transmissions picked up when traveling for millions of kilometers through space.

“—eneral Esteban Sorrento-Gillis. Some time ago, I announced the formation of an exploratory committee to look into possible misuse of UN resources for illegal biological weapon research. While that investigation is ongoing, and the committee is not prepared to bring charges at this time, in the interests of public safety and to better facilitate a thorough and comprehensive investigation, certain UN personnel in key positions are to be recalled to Earth for questioning. First, Admiral Augusto Nguyen, of the United Nations Navy. Second—”

Avasarala hit the panel to shut off the feed and stared at the console with her mouth open for several seconds. “Oh, f**k me.”

All over the ship, alarms started blaring.

Chapter Forty-Eight: Avasarala

I’ve got fast movers,” Naomi said over the blaring alarms. “The UN flagship is firing.”

Avasarala closed her helmet, watching the in-suit display confirm the seal, then tapped at the communications console, her mind moving faster than her hands. Errinwright had cut a deal, and now Nguyen knew it. The admiral had just been hung out to dry, and he was taking it poorly. A flag popped up on the console: incoming high-priority broadcast. She thumbed it, and Souther appeared on her terminal and every other one in the ops deck.

“This is Admiral Souther. I am hereby taking command of—”

“Okay,” Naomi said. “I need my real screen back now. Got some work to do.”

“Sorry, sorry,” Avasarala said, tapping at the console. “Wrong button.”

“—this task force. Admiral Nguyen is relieved of duty. Any hostilities will be —”

Avasarala switched the feed to her own screen and in the process switched to a different broadcast. Nguyen was flushed almost purple. He was wearing his uniform like a boast.

“—illegal and unprecedented seizure. Admiral Souther is to be escorted to the brig until—”

Five incoming comm requests lit up, each listing a name and short-form transponder ID. She ignored them all for the broadcast controls. As soon as the live button went active, she looked into the camera.

“This is Assistant Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala, representing the civilian government of Earth,” she said. “Legal and appropriate command of this force is given to Admiral Souther. Anyone rejecting or ignoring his orders will be subject to legal action. I repeat, Admiral Souther is in legally authorized command of—”

Naomi made a low grunting sound. Avasarala stopped the broadcast and turned.

“Okay,” Holden said. “That was bad.”

“What?” Avasarala said. “What was bad?”

“One of the Earth ships just took three torpedo hits.”

“It that a lot?”

“The PDCs aren’t stopping them,” Naomi said. “Those UN torpedoes all have transponder codes that mark them as friends, so they’re sailing right through. They typically don’t expect to be getting shot at by other UN ships.”

“Three is a lot,” Holden said, strapping into the crash couch. She didn’t see him touch any of the controls, but he must have, because when he spoke, it echoed through the ship as well as the speakers in her helmet. “We have just gone live. Everyone has to the count of twenty to get strapped in someplace safe.”

“Solid copy on that,” Bobbie replied from wherever she was on the ship.

“Just got the doc strapped in and happy,” Amos said. “I’m on my way to engineering.”

“Are we heading into this?” Alex asked.

“We’ve got something like thirty-five capital ships out there, all of them much, much bigger than us. How about we just try to keep anyone from shooting us full of holes.”

“Yes, sir,” Alex said from the pilot’s deck. Any vestige of democracy and vote taking was gone. That was a good thing. At least Holden had control when there had to be a single voice in command.

“I have two fast movers coming in,” Naomi said. “Someone still thinks we’re the bad guys.”

“I blame Avasarala,” Bobbie said.

Before Avasarala could laugh, gravity ticked up and slewed to the side, the Rocinante taking action beneath her. Her couch shifted and creaked. The protective gel squeezed her and let her go.

“Alex?”

“On ’em,” Alex said. “I wouldn’t mind getting a real gunner, sir.”

“Are we going to have enough time to get her up here safely?”

“Nope,” Alex said. “I’ve got three more incoming.”

“I can take PDC control from here, sir,” Bobbie said. “It’s not the real thing, but it’s something the rest of you won’t have to do.”

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