“I hope you will excuse the language, sir, but this was a cock-up from the start. The damage done to human security is literally unimaginable. It seems clear at this point that the protomolecule project under way on Venus is aware of events in the Jovian system. It’s plausible that the samples out here have the information gained from the destruction of the Arboghast. To say that makes our position problematic is to radically understate the case.
“If it had gone through the appropriate channels, we would not be in this position. As it stands, I have done all that is presently within my capabilities, given my situation. The coalition I have built between Mars, elements of the Belt, and the legitimate government of Earth are ready to take action. But the United Nations must distance itself from this plan and move immediately to isolate and defang the faction within the government that has been doing this weasel shit. Again, excuse the language.
“I have sent copies of the data included here to Admirals Souther and Leniki as well as to my team on the Venus problem. They are, of course, at your disposal to answer any questions if I am not available.
“I’m very sorry to put you in the position, sir, but you are going to have to choose sides in this. And quickly. Events out here have developed a momentum of their own. If you’re going to be on the right side of history on this, you must move now.”
If there’s any history to be on the right side of, she thought. She tried to come up with something else that she could say, some other argument that would penetrate the layers of old-growth wood that surrounded the secretary-general’s brain. There weren’t any, and repeating herself in simple storybook rhyme would probably come off as condescending. She stopped the recording, cut off the last few seconds of her looking into the camera in despair, and sent it off with every high-priority flag there was and diplomatic encryption.
So this was what it came to. All of human civilization, everything it had managed, from the first cave painting to crawling up the gravity well and pressing out into the antechamber of the stars, came down to whether a man whose greatest claim to fame was that he’d been thrown in prison for writing bad poetry had the balls to back down Errinwright. The ship corrected under her, shifting like an elevator suddenly slipping its tracks. She tried to sit up, but the gimbaled couch moved. God, but she hated space travel.
“Is it going to work?”
The botanist stood in her doorway. He was stick-thin, with a slightly larger head than looked right. He wasn’t built as awkwardly as a Belter, but he couldn’t be mistaken for someone who’d grown to maturity living at a full gravity. Standing in her doorway, trying to find something to do with his hands, he looked awkward and lost and slightly otherworldly.
“I don’t know,” she said. “If I were there, it would happen the way I want it to happen. I could go squeeze a few testicles until they saw it my way. From here? Maybe. Maybe not.”
“You can talk to anyone from here, though, can’t you?”
“It isn’t the same.”
He nodded, his attention shifting inward. Despite the differences in skin color and build, the man suddenly reminded her of Michael-Jon. He had the same sense of being a half step back from everything. Only, Michael-Jon’s detachment verged on autism, and Praxidike Meng was a little more visibly interested in the people around him.
“They got to Nicola,” he said. “They made her say those things about me. About Mei.”
“Of course they did. That’s what they do. And if they wanted to, they’d have papers and police reports to back it all up, backdated and put in the databases of everywhere you ever lived.”
“I hate it that people think I did that.”
Avasarala nodded, then shrugged.
“Reputation never has very much to do with reality,” she said. “I could name half a dozen paragons of virtue that are horrible, small-souled, evil people. And some of the best men I know, you’d walk out of the room if you heard their names. No one on the screen is who they are when you breathe their air.”
“Holden,” Prax said.
“Well. He’s the exception,” she said.
The botanist looked down and then up again. His expression was almost apologetic.
“Mei’s probably dead,” he said.
“You don’t believe that.”
“It’s been a long time. Even if they had her medicine, they’ve probably turned her into one of these … things.”
“You still don’t believe that,” she said. The botanist leaned forward, frowning like she’d given him a problem he couldn’t immediately solve. “Tell me it’s all right to bomb Io. I can have thirty nuclear warheads fired now. Turn off the engines, let them fly ballistic. They won’t all get through, but some will. Say the word now, and I can have Io reduced to slag before we even get there.”
“You’re right,” Prax said. And then, a moment later: “Why aren’t you doing that?”
“Do you want the real reason, or my justification?”
“I justify it this way,” she said. “I don’t know what is in that lab. I can’t assume that the monsters are only there, and if I destroy the place, I might be slagging the records that will let me find the missing ones. I don’t know everyone involved in this, and I don’t have proof against some of the ones I do know. It may be down there. I’ll go, I’ll find out, and then I will reduce the lab to radioactive glass afterward.”
“Those are good reasons.”
“They’re good justifications. I find them very convincing.”
“But the reason is that Mei might still be alive.”
“I don’t kill children,” she said. “Not even when it’s the right thing to do. You would be surprised how often it’s hurt my political career. People used to think I was weak until I found the trick.”
“If you can make them blush, they think you’re a hard-ass,” she said. “My husband calls it the mask.”
“Oh,” Prax said. “Thank you.”
Waiting was worse than the fear of battle. Her body wanted to move, to get away from her chair and walk through the familiar halls. The back of her mind shouted for action, movement, confrontation. She paced the ship top to bottom and back again. Her mind went through trivia about all the people she met in the halls, the small detritus from the intelligence reports she’d read. The mechanic, Amos Burton. Implicated in several murders, indicted, never tried. Took an elective vasectomy the day he was legally old enough to do so. Naomi Nagata, the engineer. Two master’s degrees. Offered full-ride scholarship for a PhD on Ceres Station and turned it down. Alex Kamal, pilot. Seven drunk and disorderlies when he was in his early twenties. Had a son on Mars he still didn’t know about. James Holden, the man without secrets. The holy fool who’d dragged the solar system into war and seemed utterly blind to the damage he caused. An idealist. The most dangerous kind of man there was. And a good man too.