“Ah,” Holden said, looking crestfallen.
“Why do you ask?”
“No reason,” Naomi said. “He’s just making conversation.”
“Daddy, I want tofu,” Mei said, grabbing his earlobe and yanking it. “Where’s tofu?”
“Let’s see if we can’t find you some tofu,” Prax said, pushing his chair back from the table. “Come on.”
As he walked across the room, scanning the crowd for a dark, formal suit belonging to a waiter as opposed to a dark, formal suit belonging to a diplomat, a young woman came up to him with a drink in one hand and a flush on her cheeks.
“You’re Praxidike Meng,” she said. “You probably don’t remember me.”
“Um. No,” he said.
“I’m Carol Kiesowski,” she said, touching her collarbone as if to clarify what she meant by I. “We wrote to each other a couple of times right after you put out the video about Mei.”
“Oh, right,” Prax said, trying desperately to remember anything about the woman or the comments she might have left.
“I just want to say I think both of you are just so, so brave,” the woman said, nodding. It occurred to Prax that she might be drunk.
“Son of a f**king whore,” Avasarala said, loud enough to cut through the background buzz of conversations.
The crowd turned to her. She was looking at her hand terminal.
“What’s a whore, Daddy?”
“It’s a kind of frost, honey,” Prax said. “What’s going on?”
“Holden’s old boss beat us to the punch,” Avasarala said. “I guess we know what happened to all those f**king missiles he stole.”
Arjun touched his wife’s shoulder and pointed at Prax. She actually looked abashed.
“Sorry for the language,” she said. “I forgot about her.”
Holden appeared at Prax’s shoulder.
“Fred Johnson just put on a display,” Avasarala said. “Nguyen’s monsters? We’ve been waiting for them to come closer to Mars before we took them down. Transponders are all chirping away, and we’ve got them all tracked tighter than a fly’s … Well, they crossed into the Belt, and he nuked them. All of them.”
“That’s good, though,” Prax said. “I mean, isn’t that good?”
“Not if he’s doing it,” Avasarala said. “He’s flexing muscles. Showing that the Belt’s got an offensive arsenal now.”
A man in uniform to Avasarala’s left started talking at the same time as a woman just behind her, and in a moment, the need to declaim had spread through the whole group. Prax pulled away. The drunk woman was pointing at a man and talking rapidly, Prax and Mei forgotten. He found a waiter at the edge of the room, extracted a promise of tofu, and went back to his seat. Amos and Mei immediately started playing at who could blow their nose the hardest, and Prax turned to Bobbie.
“Are you going to go back to Mars, then?” he asked. It seemed like a polite, innocuous question until Bobbie pressed her lips tight and nodded.
“I am,” she said. “Turns out my brother’s getting married. I’m going to try to get there in time to screw up his bachelor party. What about you? Taking the old lady’s position?”
“Well, I think so,” Prax said, a little surprised that Bobbie had heard about Avasarala’s offer. It hadn’t been made public yet. “I mean, all of the basic advantages of Ganymede are still there. The magnetosphere, the ice. If even some of the mirror arrays can be salvaged, it would still be better than starting again from nothing. I mean, the thing you have to understand about Ganymede …”
Once he started on the subject, it was hard for him to stop. In many ways, Ganymede had been the center of civilization in the outer planets. All the cutting-edge plant work had been there. All the life sciences issues. But it was more than that. There was something exciting about the prospect of rebuilding that was, in its fashion, even more interesting than the initial growth. To do something the first time was an exploration. To do it again was to take all the things they had learned, and refine, improve, perfect. It left Prax a little bit giddy. Bobbie listened with a melancholy smile on her face.
And it wasn’t only Ganymede. All of human civilization had been built out of the ruins of what had come before. Life itself was a grand chemical improvisation that began with the simplest replicators and grew and collapsed and grew again. Catastrophe was just one part of what always happened. It was a prelude to what came next.
“You make it sound romantic,” Bobbie said, and the way she said it was almost an accusation.
“I don’t mean to —” Prax began, and something cold and wet wriggled its way into his ear. He pulled back with a yelp, turning to face Mei’s bright eyes and brilliant smile. Her index finger dripped with saliva, and beyond her Amos was laughing himself crimson, one hand grasping at his belly and the other slapping the table hard enough to make the plates rattle.
“What was that?”
“Hi, Daddy. I love you.”
“Here,” Alex said, passing Prax a clean napkin. “You’re gonna want that.”
The startling thing was the silence. He didn’t know how long it had been going on, but the awareness of it washed over him like a wave. The political half of the room was still and quiet. Through the forest of their bodies, he saw Avasarala bending forward, her elbows on her knees, her hand terminal inches in front of her face. When she stood up, they parted before her. She was such a small woman, but she commanded the room just by walking out of it.
“That’s not good,” Holden said, rising to his feet. Without another word, Prax and Naomi, Amos and Alex and Bobbie all followed after her. The politicians and the scientists came too, all of them mixing at last.
The meeting room was across a wide hall and set up in the model of an ancient Greek amphitheater. The podium at the front stood before a massive high-definition screen. Avasarala marched down to a seat, talking fast and low into her hand terminal. The others trailed in after her. The sense of dread was physical. The screen went black and someone dimmed the lights.
In the darkness of the screen, Venus stood in near silhouette against the sun. It was an image Prax had seen hundreds of times before. The feed could have come from any of a dozen monitoring stations. The time stamp on the lower left said they were looking back in time forty-seven minutes. A ship name, the Celestine, floated beneath the numbers.