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Page 66 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

Bobbie sat hunched at her desk, the sheer physical bulk of the woman making the furniture seem like something from grade school. Soren was elsewhere, which was fine. His training wasn’t military.

“So you’re in an entrenched position with a huge threat coming down onto you, right?” Avasarala said, sitting down on the edge of Soren’s desk. “Say you’re on a moon and some third party has thrown a comet at you. Massive threat, you understand?”

Bobbie looked at her, confused for a moment, and then, with a shrug, played along.

“All right,” the marine said.

“So why do you choose that moment to pick a fight with your neighbors? Are you just frightened and lashing out? Are you thinking that the other bastards are responsible for the rock? Are you just that stupid?”

“We’re talking about Venus and the fighting in the Jovian system,” Bobbie said.

“It’s a pretty f**king thin metaphor, yes,” Avasarala said. “So why are you doing it?”

Bobbie leaned back in her chair, plastic creaking under her. The big woman’s eyes narrowed. She opened her mouth once, closed it, frowned, and began again.

“I’m consolidating power,” Bobbie said. “If I use my resources stopping the comet, then as soon as that threat’s gone, I lose. The other guy catches me with my pants down. Bang. If I kick his ass first, then when it’s over, I win.”

“But if you cooperate—”

“Then you have to trust the other guy,” Bobbie said, shaking her head.

“There’s a million tons of ice coming that’s going to kill you both. Why the hell wouldn’t you trust the other guy?”

“Depends. Is he an Earther?” Bobbie said. “We’ve got two major military forces in the system, plus whatever the Belters can gin up. That’s three sides with a lot of history. When whatever’s going to happen on Venus actually happens, someone wants to already have all the cards.”

“And if both sides—Earth and Mars—are making that same calculation, we’re going to spend all our energy getting ready for the war after next.”

“Yep,” Bobbie said. “And yes, that’s how we all lose together.”

Chapter Twenty-Four: Prax

Prax sat in his cabin. For sleeping space on a ship, he knew it was large. Spacious, even. Altogether, it was smaller than his bedroom on Ganymede had been. He sat on the gel-filled mattress, the acceleration gravity pressing him down, making his arms and legs feel heavier than they were. He wondered whether the sense of suddenly weighing more—specifically the discontinuous change of space travel—triggered some evolutionary cue for fatigue. The feeling of being pulled to the floor or the bed was so powerfully like the sensation of bone-melting tiredness it was easy to think that sleeping a little more would fix it, would make things better.

“Your daughter is probably dead,” he said aloud. Waited to see how his body would react. “Mei is probably dead.”

He didn’t start sobbing this time, so that was progress.

Ganymede was a day and a half behind him and already too small to pick out with the naked eye. Jupiter was a dim disk the size of a pinky nail, kicking back the light of a sun that was little more than an extremely bright star. Intellectually, he knew that he was falling sunward, heading in from the Jovian system toward the Belt. In a week, the sun would be close to twice the size it was now, and it would still be insignificant. In a context of such immensity, of distances and speeds so far above any meaningful human experience, it seemed like nothing should matter. He should be agreeing that he hadn’t been there when God made the mountains, whether it meant the ones on Earth or on Ganymede or somewhere farther out in the darkness. He was in a tiny metal-and-ceramic box that was exchanging matter for energy to throw a half dozen primates across a vacuum larger than millions of oceans. Compared to that, how could anything matter?

“Your daughter is probably dead,” he said again, and this time the words caught in his throat and started to choke him.

It was, he thought, something about the sense of being suddenly safe. On Ganymede, he’d had fear to numb him. Fear and malnutrition and routine and the ability at any moment to move, to do something even if it was utterly useless. Go check the boards again, go wait in line at security, trot along the hallways and see how many new bullet holes pocked them.

On the Rocinante, he had to slow down. He had to stop. There was nothing for him to do here but wait out the long sunward fall to Tycho Station. He couldn’t distract himself. There was no station—not even a wounded and dying one—to hunt through. There were only the cabin he’d been given, his hand terminal, a few jumpsuits a half size too big for him. A small box of generic toiletries. That was everything he had left. And there was enough food and clean water that his brain could start working again.

Each passing hour felt like waking up a little more. He knew how badly his body and mind had been abused only when he got better. Every time, he felt like this had to be back to normal, and then not long after, he’d find that, no, there had been more.

So he explored himself, probing at the wound at the center of his personal world like pressing the tip of his tongue into a dry socket.

“Your daughter,” he said through the tears, “is probably dead. But if she isn’t, you have to find her.”

That felt better—or, if not better, at least right. He leaned forward, his hands clasped, and rested his chin. Carefully, he imagined Katoa’s body, laid out on its table. When his mind rebelled, trying to think about something—anything—else, he brought it back and put Mei in the boy’s place. Quiet, empty, dead. The grief welled up from a place just above his stomach, and he watched it like it was something outside himself.

During his time as a graduate student, he had done data collection for a study of Pinus contorata. Of all the varieties of pine to rise off Earth, lodgepole pine had been the most robust in low-g environments. His job had been to collect the fallen cones and burn them for the seeds. In the wild, lodgepole pine wouldn’t geminate without fire; the resin in the cones encouraged a hotter fire, even when it meant the death of the parental tree. To get better, it had to get worse. To survive, the plant had to embrace the unsurvivable.

He understood that.

“Mei is dead,” he said. “You lost her.”

He didn’t have to wait for the idea to stop hurting. It would never stop hurting. But he couldn’t let it grow so strong it overwhelmed him. He had the sense of doing himself permanent spiritual damage, but it was the strategy he had. And from what he could tell, it seemed to be working.

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