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“Smart play, threatening the ship,” Holden said.

“You were acting like that ass**le Detective Miller, so I just acted like you used to. What I said was the kind of thing you say when you’re not in a hurry to wave your gun around.”

“I wasn’t acting like Miller,” he said, the accusation stinging, because it was true.

“You weren’t acting like you.”

Holden shrugged, noticing only afterward that it was another imitation of Miller. Naomi looked down at the captain’s patches on the shoulder of her Somnambulist jumpsuit. “Maybe I should keep these …”

A small, unkempt-looking man with salt-and-pepper hair, Chinese features, and a week’s growth of beard walked up to them and nodded nervously. He was literally wringing his hands, a gesture Holden had been pretty sure only little old ladies in ancient cinema made.

He gave them another small nod and said, “You are James Holden? Captain James Holden? From the OPA?”

Holden and Naomi glanced at each other. Holden tugged at his patchy beard. “Is this actually helping at all? Be honest.”

“Captain Holden, my name is Prax, Praxidike Meng. I’m a botanist.”

Holden shook the man’s hand.

“Nice to meet you, Prax. I’m afraid we have to—”

“You have to help me,” Prax said. Holden could see that the man had been through a rough couple of months. His clothes hung off him like a starving man’s, and his face was covered with yellowing bruises from a fairly recent beating.

“Sure, if you’ll see the Supitaya p**n s at the aid station, tell them I said—”

“No!” Prax shouted. “I don’t need that. I need you to help me!”

Holden shot a glance at Naomi. She shrugged. Your call.

“Okay,” Holden said. “What’s the problem?”

Chapter Twelve: Avasarala

A small house is a deeper kind of luxury,” her husband said. “To live in a space entirely our own, to remember the simple pleasures of baking bread and washing our own dishes. This is what your friends in high places forget. It makes them less human.”

He was sitting at the kitchen table, leaning back in a chair of bamboo laminate that had been distressed until it looked like stained walnut. The scars from his cancer surgery were two pale lines in the darkness of his throat, barely visible under the powdering of white stubble. His forehead was broader than when she’d married him, his hair thinner. The Sunday morning sun spilled across the table, glowing.

“That’s crap,” she said. “Just because you pretend to live like a dirt farmer doesn’t make Errinwright or Lus or any of the others less human. There’s smaller houses than this with six families living in them, and the people in those are a hundred times closer to animals than anyone I work with.”

“You really think that?”

“Of course I do. Otherwise why would I go to work in the morning? If someone doesn’t get those half-feral bastards out of the slums, who are you university types going to teach?”

“An excellent point,” Arjun said.

“What makes them less human is they don’t f**king meditate. A small house isn’t a luxury,” she said, then paused. “A small house and a lot of money, maybe.”

Arjun grinned at her. He had always had the most beautiful smile. She found herself smiling back at him, even though part of her wanted to be cross. Outside, Kiki and Suri shrieked, their small half-naked bodies bolting across the grass. Their nurse trotted along a half second behind them, her hand to her side like she was easing a stitch.

“A big yard is a luxury,” Avasarala said.

“It is.”

Suri burst in the back door, her hand covered in loose black soil and a wide grin on her face. Her footsteps left crumbling dark marks on the carpet.

“Nani! Nani! Look what I found!”

Avasarala shifted in her chair. In her granddaughter’s palm, an earthworm was shifting the pink and brown rings of its body, wet as the soil that dripped from Suri’s fingers. Avasarala made her face into a mask of wonder and delight.

“That’s wonderful, Suri. Come back outside and show your nani where you found that.”

The yard smelled like cut grass and fresh soil. The gardener—a thin man hardly older than her own son would have been—knelt in the back, pulling weeds by hand. Suri pelted out toward him, and Avasarala moved along after her at a stroll. When she came near, the gardener nodded, but there was no space for conversation. Suri was pointing and gesturing and retelling the grand adventure of finding a common worm in the mud as if it were a thing of epics. Kiki appeared at Avasarala’s side, quietly taking her hand. She loved her little Suri, but privately—or if not that, then only to Arjun—she thought Kiki was the smarter of her grandchildren. Quiet, but the girl’s black eyes were bright, and she could mimic anyone she heard. Kiki didn’t miss much.

“Darling wife,” Arjun called from the back door. “There’s someone to talk with you.”

“Where?”

“The house system,” Arjun said. “She says your terminal’s not answering.”

“There’s a reason for that,” Avasarala said.

“It’s Gloria Tannenbaum.”

Avasarala reluctantly handed Kiki’s hand over to the nurse, kissed Suri’s head, and went back toward the house. Arjun held the door open for her. His expression was apologetic.

“These cunts are digging into my grandma time,” she said.

“The price of power,” Arjun replied with a solemnity that was amused and serious at the same time.

Avasarala opened the connection on the system in her private office. There was a click and a moment’s dislocation while the privacy screens came up, and then Gloria Tannenbaum’s thin, eye-browless face appeared on her screen.

“Gloria! I’m sorry. I had my terminal down with the children over.”

“Not a problem,” the woman said with a clean, brittle smile that was as close as she came to a genuine emotion. “Probably for the best anyway. Always assume those are being monitored more closely than civilian lines.”

Avasarala lowered herself into her chair. The leather breathed out gently under her weight.

“I hope things are all right with you and Etsepan?”

“Fine,” Gloria said.

“Good, good. Now why the f**k are you calling me?”

“I was talking to a friend of mine whose wife is stationed on the Mikhaylov. From what he says, it’s being pulled off patrol. Going deep.”

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