“Uh, no,” Bobbie said.
“Did you say no?”
“Yeah, no. Hell no. Fuck no. Nein und abermals nein. Nyet. La. Siei,” Bobbie said, stopping when she ran out of languages. “And I’m actually a little pissed now.”
“I’m not asking you to sleep with him.”
“Good, because I don’t use sex as a weapon,” Bobbie said. “I use weapons as weapons.”
“Chrisjen!” Jules Mao said, enveloping Avasarala’s hand in his and shaking it.
The lord of the Mao-Kwik empire towered over Avasarala. He had the kind of handsome face that made Bobbie instinctively want to like him, and medically untreated male-pattern hair loss that said he didn’t care whether she did. Choosing not to use his wealth to fix a problem as treatable as thinning hair actually made him seem even more in control. He wore a loose sweater and cotton pants that hung on him like a tailored suit. When Avasarala introduced Bobbie to him, he smiled and nodded while barely glancing in her direction.
“Is your staff settled in?” he asked, letting Avasarala know that Bobbie’s presence reminded him of underlings. Bobbie gritted her teeth but kept her face blank.
“Yes,” Avasarala replied with what Bobbie would have sworn was genuine warmth. “The accommodations are lovely, and your crew has been wonderful.”
“Excellent,” Jules said, placing Avasarala’s hand on his arm and leading her to an enormous table. They were surrounded on all sides by men in white jackets with black bow ties. One of them darted forward and pulled a chair out. Jules placed Avasarala in it. “Chef Marco has promised something special tonight.”
“How about straight answers? Are those on the menu?” Bobbie asked as a waiter pulled out a chair for her.
Jules settled into his chair at the head of the table. “Answers?”
“You guys won,” Bobbie said, ignoring the steaming soup one of the servers placed in front of her. Mao tapped salt onto his and began eating it as though they were just having casual dinner conversation. “The assistant undersecretary is on the ship. No reason to bullshit us now. What’s going on?”
“Humanitarian aid,” he replied.
“Bullshit,” Bobbie said. She glanced at Avasarala, but the old woman was just smiling. “You can’t tell me that you have time to spend a couple months doing the transit to Jupiter just to oversee handing out rice and juice boxes. And you couldn’t get enough relief supplies onto this ship to feed Ganymede lunch, much less make a long-term difference.”
Mao settled back in his chair, and the white jackets bustled around the room, clearing the soup away. Bobbie’s was whisked away as well, even though she hadn’t eaten any of it.
“Roberta,” Mao began.
“Don’t call me Roberta.”
“Sergeant, you should be questioning your superiors at the UN foreign office, not me.”
“I’d love to, but apparently asking questions is against the rules in this game.”
His smile was warm, condescending, and empty. “I made my ship available to provide Madam Undersecretary the most comfortable ride to her new assignment. And while you have not yet met them, there are personnel currently on this vessel whose expertise will be invaluable to the citizens of Ganymede once you arrive.”
Bobbie had been around Avasarala long enough to see the game being played right in front of her. Mao was laughing at her. He knew this was all bullshit, and he knew she knew it as well. But as long as he remained calm and gave reasonable answers, no one could call him on it. He was too powerful to be called a liar to his face.
“You’re a liar, and—” she started; then something he’d said made her stop. “Wait, ‘once you arrive’? You aren’t coming?”
“I’m afraid not,” Mao said, smiling up at the white jacket who placed another plate in front of him. This one had what appeared to be a whole fish, complete with head and staring eyes.
Bobbie gaped at Avasarala, who was frowning at Mao now.
“I was told you were personally leading this relief effort,” Avasarala said.
“That was my intention. But I’m afraid other business has removed that option. Once we finish with this excellent dinner, I’ll be taking the shuttle back to the station. This ship, and its crew, are at your disposal until your vital work on Ganymede is complete.”
Avasarala just stared at Mao. For the first time in Bobbie’s experience, the old lady was struck speechless.
A white jacket brought Bobbie a fish while her lush prison flew at a leisurely quarter g toward Jupiter.
Avasarala hadn’t said a word on the ride down the lift to their suite. In the lounge, she stopped long enough to grab a bottle of gin off the bar, and waggled a finger at Bobbie. Bobbie followed her into the master bedroom, Cotyar close behind.
Once the door was closed and Cotyar had used his handheld security terminal to scan the room for bugs, Avasarala said, “Bobbie, start thinking of a way to either get control of this ship or get us off of it.”
“Forget that,” Bobbie said. “Let’s go grab that shuttle Mao’s leaving on right now. It’s within range of his station or he wouldn’t be taking it.”
To her surprise, Cotyar nodded. “I agree with the sergeant. If we plan to leave, the shuttle will be easier to commandeer and control against a hostile crew.”
Avasarala sat down on her bed with a long exhale that turned into a heavy sigh. “I can’t leave yet. It doesn’t work that way.”
“The f**king game!” Bobbie yelled.
“Yes,” Avasarala snapped. “Yes, the f**king game. I’ve been ordered by my superiors to make this trip. If I leave now, I’m out. They’ll be polite and call it a sudden illness or exhaustion, but the excuse they give me will also be the reason I’m not allowed to keep doing my job. I’ll be safe, and I’ll be powerless. As long as I pretend I’m doing what they asked me to, I can keep working. I’m still the assistant undersecretary of executive administration. I still have connections. Influence. If I run now, I lose them. If I lose them, these f**kers might as well shoot me.”
“But,” Bobbie said.
“But,” Avasarala repeated. “If I continue to be effective, they’ll find a way to cut me off. Unexplained comm failure, something. Something to keep me off the network. When that happens, I will demand that the captain reroute to the closest station for repairs. If I’m right, he won’t do it.”