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Page 298 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

“Come to your nana,” Avasarala said.

“What’s a nana?” Mei asked.

“I’m a nana,” Avasarala said, gathering the child to her. Her body wanted to put the girl against her hip, to feel the weight bearing down on her. In microgravity holding a child felt odd. Good, but odd. Mei smelled of wax and vanilla. “How much longer before we can get some thrust? I feel like a f—like a balloon floating around in here.”

“Soon as Alex and Naomi finish maintenance on the drive computers, we’re out of here,” Amos said.

“Where’s my daddy?” Mei asked.

“Good,” Avasarala said. “We’ve got a schedule to keep, and I’m not paying you people for floating lessons. Your daddy’s talking to the captain, Mei-Mei.”

“Where?” the girl demanded. “Where is he? I want my da!”

“I’ll get you back to him, kiddo,” Amos said, holding out a massive hand. He shifted his attention to Avasarala. “She’s good for about five minutes, then it’s ‘Where’s Daddy?’”

“Good,” Avasarala said. “They deserve each other.”

“Yeah,” the big mechanic said. He pulled the child close to his center of gravity and launched up toward the galley. No handhold for him. Avasarala watched him go, then turned to Bobbie.

Bobbie floated, her hair sprayed softly out around her. Her face and body were more relaxed than Avasarala remembered ever having seen them. It should have made her seem at peace, but all she could think was that the girl looked drowned.

“Hey,” Bobbie said. “Did you hear back from your tech guys on Earth?”

“I did,” Avasarala said. “There was another energy spike. Bigger than the last ones. Prax was right. They are networked, and worse than that, they don’t suffer lag. Venus reacted before the information about the battle could have reached it.”

“Okay,” Bobbie said. “That’s bad, right?”

“It’s weird as tits on a bishop, but who knows if it means anything? They’re talking about spin-entanglement webs, whatever the hell those are. The best theory we’ve got is that it’s like a little adrenaline rush for the protomolecule. Some part of it is involved with violence, and the rest goes on alert until it’s clear the danger’s passed.”

“Well, then it’s scared of something. Nice to know it might have a vulnerability somewhere.”

They were silent for a moment. Somewhere far off in the ship, something clanged and Mei shrieked. Bobbie tensed, but Avasarala didn’t. It was interesting to see people who hadn’t been around a child react to Mei. They couldn’t tell the difference between pleasure and alarm. Avasarala found that on this ship, she and Prax were the only experts in children’s screaming.

“I was looking for you,” Avasarala said.

“I’m here,” Bobbie said, shrugging.

“Is that a problem?”

“I don’t follow. Is what a problem?”

“That you’re here?”

She looked away, her expression closing down. It was what Avasarala had expected.

“You were going down there to die, only the universe f**ked you over again. You won. You’re alive. None of the problems go away.”

“Some of them do,” Bobbie said. “Just not all. And at least we won your game.”

Avasarala’s cough of a laugh was enough to set her spinning slightly. She reached out to the wall and steadied her drift.

“That’s the game I play. You never win. You just don’t lose yet. Errinwright? He lost. Soren. Nguyen. I took them out of the game and I stayed in, but now? Errinwright’s going to retire with extreme prejudice, and I’m going to be given his job.”

“Do you want it?”

“It doesn’t matter if I want it. I’ll be offered it because if the bobble-head doesn’t offer it, people will think he’s slighting me. And I’ll take it because if I don’t, people will think I’m not hungry enough to be afraid of any longer. I’ll be answering directly to the secretary-general. I’ll have more power, more responsibility. More friends and more enemies. It’s the price of playing.”

“Seems like there should be an alternative.”

“There is. I could retire.”

“Why don’t you?”

“Oh, I will,” Avasarala said. “The day my son comes home. What about you? Are you looking to quit?”

“You mean am I still planning to get myself killed?”

“Yes, that.”

There was a pause. That was good. It meant Bobbie was actually thinking about her answer.

“No,” she said. “I don’t think so. Going down in a fight’s one thing. I can be proud of that. But just getting out to get out. I can’t do that.”

“You’re in an interesting position,” Avasarala said. “You think about what to do with it.”

“And what position is that? Ronin?”

“A traitor to your government and a patriotic hero. A martyr who didn’t die. A Martian whose best and only friend is about to run the government of Earth.”

“You’re not my only friend,” Bobbie said.

“Bullshit. Alex and Amos don’t count. They only want to get into your pants.”

“And you don’t?”

Avasarala laughed again. Bobbie was at least smiling. It was more than she’d done since she’d come back. Her sigh was deep and melancholy.

“I still feel haunted,” she said. “I thought it would go away. I thought if I faced it, it would all go away.”

“It doesn’t go away. Ever. But you get better at it.”

“At what?”

“At being haunted,” Avasarala said. “Think about what you want to do. Think about who you want to become. And then see me, and I will make it happen for you if I can.”

“Why?” Bobbie asked. “Seriously, why? I’m a soldier. I did the mission. And yes, it was harder and stranger than anything I’ve ever done, but I got it done. I did it because it needed doing. You don’t owe me anything.”

Avasarala hoisted an eyebrow.

“Political favors are how I express affection,” she said.

“Okay, people,” Alex’s voice said across the ship’s PA. “We’re back up and commencing burn in thirty seconds unless someone says otherwise. Everybody get ready to weigh something.”

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