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Page 99 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

“I don’t know this Meng fellow, but playing with a few soybeans makes him as much an expert on the protomolecule as it makes him a brain surgeon. I’m very sorry, of course, about his missing daughter, but no. If the protomolecule were on Ganymede, we’d have known long ago. This panic is over literally nothing.”

“He can go on like that for hours,” Avasarala said, shutting down the screen. “And we have dozens like him. Mars is going to be doing the same thing. Saturating the newsfeeds with the counter-story.”

“Impressive,” Bobbie said, pushing herself back from the desk.

“It keeps people calm. That’s the important thing. Holden thinks he’s a hero, power to the people, information wants to be free blah blah blah, but he’s a f**king moron.”

“He’s on his own ship.”

Avasarala crossed her arms. “What’s your point?”

“He’s on his own ship and we’re not.”

“So we’re all f**king morons,” Avasarala said. “Fine.”

Bobbie stood up and started pacing the room. She turned well before she reached the wall. The woman was used to pacing in smaller quarters.

“What do you want me to do about it?” Bobbie asked.

“Nothing,” Avasarala said. “What the hell could you do about it? You’re stuck out here with me. I can hardly do anything, and I’ve got friends in high places. You’ve got nothing. I only wanted to talk to someone I didn’t have to wait two minutes to let interrupt me.”

She’d taken it too far. Bobbie’s expression eased, went calm and closed and distant. She was shutting down. Avasarala lowered herself to the edge of the bed.

“That wasn’t fair,” Avasarala said.

“If you say so.”

“I f**king say so.”

The marine tilted her head. “Was that an apology?”

“As close to one as I’m giving right now.”

Something shifted in Avasarala’s mind. Not about Venus, or James Holden and his poor lost girl appeal, or even Errinwright. It had to do with Bobbie and her pacing and her sleeplessness. Then she got it and laughed once mirthlessly. Bobbie crossed her arms, her steady silence a question.

“It isn’t funny,” Avasarala said.

“Try me.”

“You remind me of my daughter.”

“Yeah?”

She’d pissed Bobbie off, and now she was going to have to explain herself. The air recyclers hummed to themselves. Something far off in the bowels of the yacht groaned like they were on an ancient sailing ship made from timber and tar.

“My son died when he was fifteen,” Avasarala said. “Skiing. Did I tell you this? He was on a slope that he’d run twenty, thirty times before. He knew it, but something happened and he ran into a tree. They guessed he was going something like sixty kilometers an hour when he hit. Some people survive an impact like that, but not him.”

For a moment, she was there again, in the house with the medic on the screen giving her the news. She could still smell the incense Arjun had been burning at the time. She could still hear the raindrops against the window, tapping like fingertips. It was the worst memory she had, and it was perfect and clear. She took a long, deep shuddering breath.

“I almost got divorced three times in the next six months. Arjun was a saint, but saints have their limits. We fought about anything. About nothing. Each of us blamed ourselves for not saving Charanpal, and we resented it when the other one tried to take some responsibility. And so, of course, my daughter suffered the worst.

“There was a night when we were out at something, Arjun and I. We got home late, and we’d been fighting. Ashanti was in the kitchen, washing dishes. Washing clean dishes by hand. Scrubbing them with a cloth and this terrible abrasive cleanser. Her fingers were bleeding, but she didn’t seem to notice, you know? I tried to stop her, pull her away, but she started screaming and she wouldn’t be quiet again until I let her resume her washing. I was so angry I couldn’t see. I hated my daughter. For that moment, I hated her.”

“And I remind you of her how exactly?”

Avasarala gestured to the room. Its bed with real linen sheets. The textured paper on the walls, the scented air.

“You can’t compromise. You can’t see things the way I tell you that they are, and when I try and make you, you go away.”

“Is that what you want?” Bobbie said. Her voice was crawling up to a higher energy level. It was anger, but it brought her back to being present. “You want me to agree with whatever you say, and if I don’t, you’re going to hate me for it?”

“Of course I want you to call me on my bullshit. That’s what I pay you for. I’m only going to hate you for the moment,” Avasarala said. “I love my daughter very much.”

“I’m sure you do, ma’am. I’m not her.”

Avasarala sighed.

“I didn’t call you in here and show you all of this because I was tired of the lag. I’m worried. Fuck it, I’m scared.”

“About what?”

“You want a list?”

Bobbie actually smiled. Avasarala felt herself smiling back.

“I’m scared that I’ve been outplayed already,” she said. “I’m afraid that I won’t be able to stop the hawks and their cabal from using their pretty new toys. And … and I’m afraid that I might be wrong. What happens, Bobbie? What happens if whatever the hell that is on Venus rises up and finds us as divided and screwed up and ineffective as we are right now?”

“I don’t know.”

Avasarala’s terminal chimed. She glanced at the new message. A note from Admiral Souther. Avasarala had sent him an utterly innocuous note about having lunch when they both got back to Earth, then coded it for high-security clearance with a private encryption schema. It would take her handlers a couple of hours at least to crack it. She tabbed it open. The reply was plain text.

LOVE TO.

THE EAGLE LANDS AT MIDNIGHT PETTING ZOOS

ARE ILLEGAL IN ROME.

Avasarala laughed. It was real pleasure this time. Bobbie loomed up over her shoulder, and Avasarala turned the screen so that the big marine could peer down at it.

“What’s that mean?”

Avasarala motioned her down close enough that her lips were almost against Bobbie’s ear. At that intimate distance, the big woman smelled of clean sweat and the cucumber-scented emollient that was in all Mao’s guest quarters.

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