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“You’re sure?”

Mao’s face was white with humiliation. Holden let himself enjoy it.

“I’ve just gotten done working for a government,” Holden said. “I didn’t wear it well.”

“Oh please. You worked for the OPA. That’s not a government, it’s a rugby scrum with a currency. Yes, Jules, what is it? You need to go to the potty?”

“This is beneath you,” Mao said. “I didn’t come here to be insulted.”

Avasarala’s smile was incandescent.

“You’re sure about that? Let me ask, do you remember what I said the first time we met?”

“You asked me to tell you about any involvement I might have had with the protomolecule project run by Protogen.”

“No,” Avasarala replied. “I mean, yes, I did ask that. But that’s not the part that you should be caring about right now. You lied to me. Your involvement with weaponizing the Protogen project is fully exposed, and that question is like asking what color Tuesday was. It’s meaningless.”

“Let’s get down to brass tacks,” Mao said. “I can—”

“No,” Avasarala interrupted. “The part you should be caring about is what I said just before you left. Do you remember that?”

He looked blankly up at her.

“I didn’t think so. I told you that if I found out later you’d hidden something from me, I wouldn’t take it well.”

“Your exact words,” Mao said with a mocking grin, “were ‘I am not someone you want to f**k with.’”

“So you do remember,” she said, not a hint of humor in her tone. “Good. This is where you get to find out what that means.”

“I have additional information that could be of benefit—”

“Shut the f**k up,” Avasarala said, real anger creeping into her voice for the first time. “Next time I hear your voice, I have those two big MPs in the hallway hold you down and beat you with a f**king chair. Do you understand me?”

Mao didn’t reply, which showed that he did.

“You don’t have any idea what you’ve cost me,” she said. “I’m being promoted. The economic planning council? I run it now. The public health service? I never had to worry about it because that was Errinwright’s pain in the ass. It’s mine now. The committee on financial regulation? Mine. You’ve f**ked up my calendar for the next two decades.

“This is not a negotiation,” Avasarala continued. “This is me gloating. I’m going to drop you into a hole so deep even your wife will forget you ever existed. I’m going to use Errinwright’s old position to dismantle everything you ever built, piece by piece, and scatter it to the winds. I’ll make sure you get to watch it happening. The one thing your hole will have is twenty-four-hour news. And since you and I will never meet again, I want to make sure my name is on your mind every time I destroy something else you left behind. I am going to erase you.”

Mao stared back defiantly, but Holden could see it was just a shell. Avasarala had known exactly where to hit him. Because men like him lived for their legacy. They saw themselves as the architects of the future. What Avasarala was promising was worse than death.

Mao shot a quick look at Holden, and it seemed to say, I’ll take those three shots to the head now, please.

Holden smiled at him.

Chapter Fifty-Four: Prax

Mei sat on Prax’s lap, but her attention was focused with a laser intensity to her left. She put her hand up to her mouth and gently, deliberately deposited a wad of half-chewed spaghetti into her palm, then held it out toward Amos.

“It’s yucky,” she said.

The big man chuckled.

“Well, if it wasn’t before, it sure is now, pumpkin,” he said, unfolding his napkin. “Why don’t you put that right here?”

“I’m sorry,” Prax said. “She’s just—”

“She’s just a kid, Doc,” Amos said. “This is what she’s supposed to do.”

They didn’t call the dinner a dinner. It was a reception sponsored by the United Nations at the New Hague facilities on Luna. Prax couldn’t tell if the wall was a window or an ultrahigh-definition screen. On it, Earth glowed blue and white on the horizon. The tables were spread around the room in a semi-organic array that Avasarala had explained was the current fashion. Makes it look like some ass**le just put them up anywhere.

The room was almost equally people he knew and people he didn’t, and watching them segregate was fascinating in its way. To his right, several small tables were filled with short, stocky men and women in professional suits and military uniforms orbiting around Avasarala and her amused-looking husband, Arjun. They gossiped about funding-system analysis and media-relations control. Every outer planets hand they shook was an inclusion that their subjects of conversation denied. To his left, the scientific group was dressed in the best clothes they had, dress jackets that had fit ten years before, and suits representing at least half a dozen different design seasons. Earthers and Martians and Belters all mixed in that group, but the talk was just as exclusionary: nutrient grades, adjustable permeability membrane technologies, phenotypic force expressions. Those were both his people from the past and his future. The shattered and reassembled society of Ganymede. If it hadn’t been for the middle table with Bobbie and the crew of the Rocinante, he would have been there, talking about cascade arrays and non-visible-feeding chloroplasts.

But in the center, isolated and alone, Holden and his crew were as happy and at peace as if they’d been in their own galley, burning through the vacuum. And Mei, who had taken a fancy to Amos, still wouldn’t be physically parted from Prax without starting to yell and cry. Prax understood exactly how the girl felt, and didn’t see it as a problem.

“So living on Ganymede, you know a lot about low-gravity childbearing, right?” Holden said. “It’s not really that much riskier for Belters, is it?”

Prax swallowed a mouthful of salad and shook his head.

“Oh, no. It’s tremendously difficult. Especially if it’s just a shipboard situation without extensive medical controls. If you look at naturally occurring pregnancies, there’s a developmental or morphological abnormality five times out of six.”

“Five …” Holden said.

“Most of them are germ line issues, though,” Prax said. “Nearly all of the children born on Ganymede were implanted after a full genetic analysis. If there’s a lethal equivalent, they just drop the zygote and start over. Non-germ line abnormalities are only twice as common as on Earth, though, so that’s not so bad.”

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