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“No—”

“Yes. Yes it could. We could be leaving a couple million dead people behind right now who don’t know it yet. Melissa and Santichai? Remember them? Now think of them stripped down to whatever pieces the protomolecule finds most useful at the moment. Think of them as parts. Because if that bug is loose on Ganymede, then that’s what they are.”

“Jim,” Naomi said, a warning in her voice now. “This is what I’m talking about. The intensity of your feelings isn’t evidence. You are about to accuse a man who’s been your friend and patron for the last year of maybe killing an entire moon full of people. That isn’t the Fred we know. And you owe him better than that.”

Holden pushed up to a sitting position, part of him wanting to physically distance himself from Naomi, the part of him that was angry with her for not sympathizing enough.

“I gave Fred the last of it. I gave it to him, and he swore right to my face he’d never use it. But that’s not what I saw down there. You call him my friend, but Fred has only ever done what would advance his own cause. Even helping us was just another move in his political game.”

“Experiments on kidnapped children?” Naomi said. “A whole moon—one of the most important in the outer planets—put at risk and maybe killed outright? Does that make any sense to you? Does that sound like Fred Johnson?”

“The OPA wants Ganymede even more than either inner planet does,” Holden said, finally admitting the thing he’d feared since they’d found the black filament. “And they wouldn’t give it to him.”

“Stop,” Naomi said.

“Maybe he’s trying to drive them off, or he sold it to them in exchange for the moon. That would at least explain the heavy inner planets traffic we’ve been seeing—”

“No. Stop,” she said. “I don’t want to sit here and listen to you talk yourself into this.”

Holden started to speak, but Naomi sat up facing him and gently put her hand over his mouth.

“I didn’t like this new Jim Holden you’ve been turning into. The guy who’d rather reach for his gun than talk? I know being the OPA’s bagman has been a shitty job, and I know we’ve had to do a lot of pretty rotten things in the name of protecting the Belt. But that was still you. I could still see you lurking there under the surface, waiting to come back.”

“Naomi,” he said, pulling her hand away from his face.

“This guy who can’t wait to go all High Noon in the streets of Tycho? That’s not Jim Holden at all. I don’t recognize that man,” she said, then frowned. “No. That’s not right. I do recognize him. But his name was Miller.”

For Holden, the most awful part was how calm she was. She never raised her voice, never sounded angry. Instead, infinitely worse, there was only a resigned sadness.

“If that’s who you are now, you need to drop me off somewhere. I can’t go with you anymore,” she said. “I’m out.”

Chapter Twenty-Three: Avasarala

Avasarala stood at her window, looking out at the morning haze. In the distance, a transport lifted off. It rode an exhaust plume that looked like a pillar of bright white cloud, and then it was gone. Her hands ached. She knew that some of the photons striking her eyes right now had come from explosions light-minutes away. Ganymede Station, once the safest place without an atmosphere, then a war zone, and now a wasteland. She could no more pick out the light of its death than pluck a particular molecule of salt from the ocean, but she knew it was there, and the fact was like a stone in her belly.

“I can ask for confirmation,” Soren said. “Nguyen should be filing his command report in the next eighteen hours. Once we have that—”

“We’ll know what he said,” Avasarala snapped. “I can tell you that right now. The Martian forces took a threatening position, and he was forced to respond aggressively. La la f**king la. Where did he get the ships?”

“He’s an admiral,” Soren said. “I thought he came with them.”

She turned. The boy looked tired. He’d been up since the small hours of the morning. They all had. His eyes were bloodshot, and his skin pallid and clammy.

“I took apart that command group myself,” she said. “I pared it down until you could have drowned it in a bathtub. And he’s out there now with enough firepower to take on the Martian fleet?”

“Apparently,” Soren said.

She fought the urge to spit. The rumble of the transport engines finally reached her, the sound muffled by distance and the glazing. The light was already gone. To her sleep-deprived mind, it was exactly like playing politics in the Jovian system or the Belt. Something happened—she could see it happen—but she heard it only after the fact. When it was too late.

She’d made a mistake. Nguyen was a war hawk. The kind of adolescent boy who still thought any problem could be solved by shooting it enough. Everything he’d done was as subtle as a lead pipe to the kneecap, until this. Now he’d reassembled his command without her knowing it. And he’d had her pulled from the Martian negotiations.

Which meant that he hadn’t done any of it. Nguyen had either a patron or a cabal. She hadn’t seen that he was a bit player, so whoever called his tune had surprised her. She was playing against shadows, and she hated it.

“More light,” she said.

“Excuse me?”

“Find out how he got those ships,” she said. “Do it before you go to sleep. I want a full accounting. Where the replacement ships came from, who ordered them, how they were justified. Everything.”

“Would you also like a pony, ma’am?”

“You’re f**king right I would,” she said, and sagged against her desk. “You do good work. Someday you might get a real job.”

“I’m looking forward to it, ma’am.”

“Is she still around?”

“At her desk,” Soren said. “Should I send her in?”

“You better had.”

When Bobbie came into the room, a film of cheap paper in her fist, it struck Avasarala again how poorly the Martian fit in. It wasn’t only her accent or the difference in build that spoke of a childhood in the lower Martian gravity. In the halls of politics, the woman’s air of physical competence stood out. She looked like she’d been rousted out of bed in the middle of the night, just like all of them; it was only that it looked good on her. Might be useful, might not, but certainly it was worth remembering.

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