“Sir, I regret to inform you that I have been unable to find anyone willing to release the early draft of the report to me.”
“Are you standing at attention?” Avasarala said, looking up at her for the first time. “Jesus. I’m not about to march you out to the firing squad. Did you try everyone on the list?”
“Yes, I—” Bobbie stopped for a moment and took a deep breath, then took a few more steps into the office. Quietly she said, “No one talks to me.”
The old woman lifted a snow-white eyebrow.
“It is?” Bobbie said.
Avasarala smiled at her, a warm, genuine smile, then poured tea out of a black iron pot into two small teacups.
“Sit down,” she said, waving at a chair next to her desk. When Bobbie remained standing, Avasarala said, “Seriously, sit the f**k down. Five minutes talking to you and I can’t tilt my head forward again for an hour.”
Bobbie sat, hesitated, and took one of the small teacups. It wasn’t much larger than a shot glass, and the tea inside it was very dark and smelled unpleasant. She took a small sip and burned her tongue.
“It’s a Lapsang souchong,” Avasarala said. “My husband buys it for me. What do you think?”
“I think it smells like hobo feet,” Bobbie replied.
“No shit, but Arjun loves it and it’s not bad once you get used to drinking it.”
Bobbie nodded and took another sip but didn’t reply.
“Okay, so,” Avasarala said, “you’re the Martian who was unhappy and got tempted over to the other side by a powerful old lady with lots of shiny prizes to offer. You’re the worst kind of traitor, because ultimately everything that’s happened to you since you came to Earth was because you were pouting.”
“Shut the f**k up now, dear, the grown-up is talking.”
Bobbie shut up and drank her awful tea.
“But,” Avasarala continued, the same sweet smile on her wrinkled face, “if I were on the other team, you know who I’d send misinformation leaks to?”
“Me,” Bobbie said.
“You. Because you’re desperate to prove your value to your new boss, and they can send you blatantly false information and not really care if they f**k your shit up in the long run. If I were the Martian counterespionage wonks, I’d have already recruited one of your closest friends back home and be using them to funnel a mountain’s worth of false data your direction.”
My closest friends are all dead, Bobbie thought.
“But no one—”
“Is talking to you from back home. Which means two things. They are still trying to figure out my game in keeping you here, and they don’t have a misinformation campaign in place because they’re as confused as we are. You’ll be contacted by someone in the next week or so. They’ll ask you to leak information from my office, but they’ll ask it in such a way that winds up giving you a whole lot of false information. If you’re loyal and spy for them, great. If not and you tell me what they asked for, also great. Maybe they’ll get lucky and you’ll do both.”
Bobbie put the teacup back on the desk. Her hands were in fists.
“This,” Bobbie said, “is why everyone hates politicians.”
“No. They hate us because we have power. Bobbie, this isn’t how your mind likes to work, and I respect that. I don’t have time to explain things to you,” Avasarala said, the smile disappearing like it had never been. “So just assume I know what I’m doing, and that when I ask you to do the impossible, it’s because even your failure helps our cause somehow.”
“We’re on the same team here. Team Let’s-Not-Lose-Together. That is us, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Bobbie said, glancing at the Buddha in his shrine. He smiled at her serenely. Just one of the team, his round face seemed to say. “Yes it is.”
“Then get the f**k back out there and start calling everyone all over again. This time take detailed notes on who refuses to help you and the exact words they use in their refusal. Okay?”
“Solid copy on that, ma’am.”
“Good,” Avasarala said, smiling gently again. “Get out of my office.”
Familiarity might breed contempt, but Bobbie hadn’t much liked Soren right from the start. Sitting next to him for several days had ratcheted up her dislike to a whole new level. When he wasn’t ignoring her, he was condescending. He talked too loud on his phone, even when she was trying to carry on a conversation of her own. Sometimes he sat on her desk, talking to visitors. He wore too much cologne.
The worst thing was he ate cookies all day.
It was impressive, given his rail-thin build, and Bobbie was not generally the kind of person who cared at all about other people’s dietary habits. But his preferred brand of cookie came out of the break room vending machine in a foil packet that crinkled every time he reached into it. At first, this had only been annoying. But after a couple of days of the Crinkle, Crunch, Chomp, and Smack Radio Theater, she’d had enough. She dropped her latest pointless connection and turned to stare at him. He ignored her and tapped on his desk terminal.
“Soren,” she said, meaning to ask him to dump the damn cookies out on a plate or a napkin so she didn’t have to hear that infuriating crinkle sound anymore. Before she could get more than his name out, he held up a finger to shush her and pointed at his earbud.
“No,” he said, “not really a good—”
Bobbie wasn’t sure if he was talking to her or someone on the phone, so she got up and moved over to his desk, sitting on the edge of it. He gave her a withering glare, but she just smiled and mouthed, “I’ll wait.” The edge of his desk creaked a little under her weight.
He turned his back to her.
“I understand,” he said. “But this is not a good time to discuss— I see. I can probably— I see, yes. Foster won’t— Yes. Yes, I understand. I’ll be there.”
He turned back around and tapped his desk, killing the connection.
“I hate your cookies. The constant crinkle of the package is driving me insane.”
“Cookies?” Soren said, a baffled expression on his face. Bobbie thought that it might be the first honest emotion she’d ever seen there.
“Yeah, can you put them on a—” Bobbie started, but before she could finish, Soren grabbed up the package and tossed them into the recycling bin next to his desk.