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Page 51 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

Her hand terminal chimed a priority alert. She turned off the water and grabbed a bathrobe, wrapping herself tightly and double-knotting the stay before she accepted the connection. She was years past flashing someone over a hand terminal, no matter how much she’d drunk. The connection came from someone in priority surveillance. The image that flashed up was a middle-aged man with ill-advised mutton-chop whiskers.

“Ameer! You mad dog. What have you done that they make you work so late?”

“Moved to Atlanta, miss,” the analyst said with a toothy grin. He was the only one who ever called her miss. She hadn’t spoken to him in three years. “I’ve just come back from lunch. I had an unscheduled report flagged for you. Contact immediately. I tried your assistant, but he didn’t answer.”

“He’s young. He still sleeps sometimes. It’s a weakness. Stand by while I set privacy.”

The moment of friendly banter was over. Avasarala leaned forward, tapping her hand terminal twice to add a layer of encryption. The red icon went green.

“Go ahead,” she said.

“It’s from Ganymede, miss. You have a standing order on James Holden.”

“Yes?”

“He’s on the move. He made an apparent rendezvous with a local scientist. Praxidike Meng.”

“What’s Meng?”

In Atlanta, Ameer transitioned smoothly to a different file. “Botanist, miss. Emigrated to Ganymede with his family when he was a child. Schooled there. Specializes in partial-pressure low-light soybean strains. Divorced, one child. No known connections to the OPA or any established political party.”

“Go ahead.”

“Holden, Meng, and Burton have left their ship. They’re armed, and they’ve made contact with a small group of private-security types. Pinkwater.”

“How many?”

“The on-site analyst doesn’t say, miss. A small force. Should I query?”

“What lag are we at?”

Ameer’s brown-black eyes flickered.

“Forty-one minutes, eight seconds, miss.”

“Hold the query. If I have anything else, I can send them together.”

“The on-site analyst reports that Holden negotiated with the private security, either a last-minute renegotiation or else the whole meeting was extemporaneous. It appears they reached some agreement. The full group proceeded to an unused corridor complex and forced entry.”

“A what?”

“Disused access door, miss.”

“What the f**k is that supposed to mean? How big is it? Where is it?”

“Should I query?”

“You should go to Ganymede and kick this sorry excuse for an on-site analyst in the balls. Add a clarification request.”

“Yes, miss,” Ameer said with the ghost of a smile. Then, suddenly, he frowned. “An update. One moment.”

So the OPA had something on Ganymede. Maybe something they’d put there, maybe something they’d found. Either way, this mysterious door made things a degree more interesting. While Ameer read through and digested the new update, Avasarala scratched the back of her hand and reevaluated her position. She’d thought Holden was there as an observer. Forward intelligence. That might be wrong. If he’d gone to meet with this Praxidike Meng, this utterly under-the-radar botanist, the OPA might already know quite a bit about Bobbie Draper’s monster. Add the fact that Holden’s boss had the only known sample of the protomolecule, and a narrative about the Ganymede collapse began to take shape.

There were holes in it, though. If the OPA had been playing with the protomolecule, there had been no sign of it. And Fred Johnson’s psychological profile didn’t match with terrorist attacks. Johnson was old-school, and the monster attack was decidedly new.

“There’s been a firefight, miss. Holden and his people have met armed resistance. They’ve set a perimeter. The on-site analyst can’t approach.”

“Resistance? I thought this was supposed to be unused. Who the f**k are they shooting at?”

“Shall I query?”

“God damn it!”

Forty light-minutes away, something important was going on, and she was here, in a bedroom that wasn’t hers, trying to make sense of it by pressing her ear to the wall. The frustration was a physical sensation. It felt like being crushed.

Forty minutes out. Forty minutes back. Whatever she said, whatever order she gave, it would get there almost an hour and a half behind what was clearly a rapidly changing situation.

“Pull him in,” she said. “Holden, Burton. Their Pinkwater friends. And this mysterious botanist. Bring them all in. Now.”

Ameer in Atlanta paused.

“If they’re in a firefight, miss …”

“Then send in the dogs, break up the fight, and take them in. We’re past surveillance. Get it done.”

“Yes, miss.”

“Contact me as soon as it’s done.”

“Yes, miss.”

She watched Ameer’s face as he framed the order, confirmed it, sent it out. She could practically imagine the screen, the strokes of his fingers. She willed him to go faster, to press her intent out past the speed of light and get the damn thing done.

“Order’s out. As soon as I hear from the on-site analyst, I’ll reach you.”

“I’ll be here. If I don’t take the connection, try again until I wake up.”

She dropped the link and sat back. Her brain felt like a swarm of bees. James Holden had changed the game again. The boy had a talent for that, but that in itself made him a known quantity. This other one, this Meng, had come from her blind side. The man might be a mole or a volunteer or a stalking goat sent to lead the OPA into a trap. She considered turning off the light, trying to sleep, then abandoned it as a bad bet.

Instead, she set up a connection with the UN’s intelligence research database. It was an hour and a half at earliest before she’d hear anything more. In the meantime, she wanted to know who Praxidike Meng was and why he mattered.

Chapter Nineteen: Holden

Naomi, prep the ship. We have to get off this moon. We have to do it right now.”

All around Holden, the black filaments spread, a dark spider’s web with him at the center. He was on Eros again. He was seeing thousands of bodies turning into something else. He thought he’d made it off, but Eros just kept coming. He and Miller had gotten out, but it got Miller anyway.

Now it was back for him.

“What’s the matter, Jim?” Naomi said from the distance of the suit radio. “Jim?”