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Page 297 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

“The children?”

“Processing them. My medical officer’s in communication with a list of doctors who deal with pediatric immune problems. It’s just about finding their parents and getting them all home now.”

“Good,” she said. “That’s what I like to hear. And the other thing?”

Souther nodded. He looked younger in low gravity. They both did. Skin didn’t sag when there was nothing to tug it down, and she could see what he’d looked like as a boy.

“We’ve got transponder locks on a hundred and seventy-one packages. They’re all moving sunward pretty fast, but they’re not accelerating or evading. Pretty much we’re standing back and letting them get close enough to Mars that disposal is trivial.”

“You sure that’s a good idea?”

“By ‘close,’ I mean still weeks away at current speed. Space is big.”

There was a pause that meant something other than distance.

“I wish you’d ride back on one of ours,” Souther said.

“And be stuck out here for another few weeks with the paperwork? Not going to happen. And besides, heading back with James Holden and Sergeant Roberta Draper and Mei Meng? It has all the right symbolism. Press will eat it up. Earth, Mars, the Outer Planets, and whatever the hell Holden is now.”

“Celebrity,” Souther said. “A nation of its own.”

“He’s not that bad once you get past the self-righteousness. And anyway, this is the ship I’m on, and there’s nothing it’s waiting to repair before it starts its burn. And I’ve already hired him. No one’s giving me any shit about discretionary spending right now.”

“All right,” Souther said. “Then I’ll see you back down the well.”

“See you there,” she said, and cut the connection.

She pulled herself up and launched gently across the ops deck. It would have been easy to push down the crew ladder shaft, flying the way she’d dreamed of as a child. It tempted. In practice, she figured she’d either push too hard and slam into something or else too gently and have air resistance stop her with nothing solid close enough to reach. She used the handholds and pulled herself slowly down toward the galley. Pressure doors opened at her approach and closed behind her with soft hydraulic hisses and metallic bangs. When she reached the crew deck, she heard the voices before she could make out the words, and the words before she saw the people.

“… have to shut it down,” Prax was saying. “I mean, it’s false pretenses now. You don’t think I could be sued, do you?”

“You can always be sued,” Holden said. “Chances are they wouldn’t win.”

“But I don’t want to be sued in the first place. We have to shut it down.”

“I put a notice on the site so it gives a status update and asks for confirmation before any more money gets moved.”

She pulled herself into the galley. Prax and Holden were floating near the coffee machine. Prax wore a stunned expression, whereas Holden looked slightly smug. They both had bulbs of coffee, but Prax seemed to have forgotten his. The botanist’s eyes were wide and his mouth hung open, even in the microgravity.

“Who’s getting sued?” Avasarala asked.

“Now that we have Mei,” Holden said, “Prax wants people to stop giving him money.”

“It’s too much,” the botanist said, looking at her as if he expected her to do something about it. “I mean …”

“Surplus funds?” Avasarala asked.

“He can’t quite retire on what he’s got,” Holden said. “Not in luxury, anyway.”

“But it’s yours,” Prax said, turning to Holden with something like hope. “You set up the account.”

“I took the Rocinante’s fees already. Trust me, you paid us generously,” Holden said, hand out in a gesture of refusal. “What’s still in there’s all yours. Well, yours and Mei’s.”

Avasarala scowled. That changed her personal calculus a little. She’d thought this would be the right time to lock Prax into a contract, but Jim Holden had once again ridden in at the last moment and screwed everything up.

“Congratulations,” Avasarala said. “Has either of you seen Bobbie? I need to talk to her.”

“Last I saw, she was heading for the machine shop.”

“Thanks,” Avasarala said, and kept pulling herself along. If Praxidike Meng was independently wealthy, that made him less likely to take on the job of rebuilding Ganymede for purely financial reasons. She could probably work the civic pride angle. He and his daughter were the face of the tragedy there, and having him running the show would mean more to people than all the facts and figures of how screwed they’d all be without the food supplies back online. He might be the kind of man who’d be swayed by that. She needed to think about it.

Once again, she was moving slowly and carefully enough that she heard the voices before she reached the machine shop. Bobbie and Amos, both of them laughing. She couldn’t believe that she was walking in on an intimate moment, but it had that tickle-fight sound to it. Then Mei shrieked with delight, and Avasarala understood.

The machine shop was the last place in the ship, with the possible exception of engineering, that Avasarala would have thought about playing with a little girl, but there she was, arms and legs flailing through the air. Her shoulder-length black hair flowed around her in a whirl, following the gentle end-over-end spin of her body. Her face was bright with pleasure. Bobbie and Amos stood at opposite ends of the shop. As Avasarala watched, Bobbie caught the little girl out of the air and launched her back toward Amos. Soon, Avasarala thought, the girl would start losing her milk teeth. She wondered how much of all this Mei would remember when she was an adult.

“Are you people crazy?” Avasarala said as Amos caught the girl. “This isn’t a playground.”

“Hey there,” Amos said, “we weren’t planning on staying long. The captain and the doc needed a minute, so I figured I’d haul the kiddo down here. Give her the tour.”

“When they send you to play catch with a child, they don’t mean that she’s the f—that she’s the ball,” Avasarala said, moving across to him. “Give that child to me. None of you people has any idea how to take care of a little girl. It’s amazing you all lived to adulthood.”

“Ain’t wrong about that,” Amos said amiably, holding out the kid.

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