“Those people,” she said, pushing herself to her feet and slowly heading toward the crew ladder, “are not the real problem. Venus might be housing the advance party of the first empire whose grasp is as long as its reach. And this f**king protomolecule has exposed us for the petty, small-town bosses we are. We’re getting ready to trade our solar system away because we thought we could build airports out of bamboo and summon the cargo.”

“Get some sleep,” Holden said to her while she called up the ladder-lift. “We’ll defeat one empire at a time.”

“Maybe,” she said as she dropped out of sight, and the deck hatch banged shut behind her.

“Why isn’t anyone shooting?” Prax said. He’d come up to the operations deck trailing after Naomi like a lost child. Now he was sitting at one of the many unused crash couches. He stared up at the main screen, his face a mix of fear and fascination.

The big tactical display showed a muddled mass of red and green dots representing the three dozen capital ships parked in orbit around Io. The Roci had marked all the Earth ships green and the Martian ships red. It created a confusing simplicity out of what was in actuality a far more complex situation. Holden knew that friend-or-foe identification was going to be a problem if anyone started shooting.

For now, the various ships drifted quietly above Io, their enormous threat merely implied. They made Holden think of the crocodiles he’d seen at the zoo as a child. Huge, armored, filled with teeth, but drifting on the surface of the water like statues. Not even their eyes blinking. When food had been thrown into the pen, they’d exploded out of the water with frightening speed.

We’re just waiting for some blood to hit the water.

“Why isn’t anyone shooting?” Prax repeated.

“Hey, Doc,” Amos said. He was lounging in one of the crash couches next to Prax. He projected a calm laziness that Holden wished he himself felt. “Remember how on Ganymede we were facing down those guys with guns and no one was shooting right up until you decided to c**k your gun?”

Prax blanched. Holden guessed he was remembering the bloody aftermath of that fight. “Yes,” Prax said. “I remember.”

“This is like that,” Amos said. “Only no one’s cocked their gun just yet.”

Prax nodded. “Okay.”

If someone finally did break the whole situation loose, Holden knew that figuring out who was shooting at whom would be their first problem. “Avasarala, any word yet on the political landscape? There’s a whole lot of green on that board. How many of those dots belong to us?”

Avasarala shrugged and went on listening to the ship-to-ship cross talk.

“Naomi?” Holden said. “Any ideas?”

“So far Nguyen’s fleet is targeting only Martian ships,” she replied, marking ships on the main tactical board for everyone to see. “The Martian ships are targeting back. Souther’s ships aren’t targeting anyone, and Souther hasn’t even opened his tubes. I’m guessing he’s still hoping for a peaceful resolution.”

“Please send the intel officer on Souther’s ship my compliments,” Holden said to Naomi. “And ask him to get us some new IFF data so this doesn’t turn into the solar system’s biggest clusterfuck.”

“Done,” Naomi said, and made the call.

“Get everyone buttoned up in their suits, Amos,” Holden continued. “Do a hat check here before you go below. I hope we don’t start shooting, but what I hope will happen and what actually happens are almost never the same.”

“Roger,” Amos said, then climbed out of his couch and began clumping around the deck on magnetic boots, checking the seals on everyone’s helmets.

“Test test test,” Holden said over the crew radio. One by one everyone on the ship responded with the affirmative. Until someone with a higher pay grade than his decided which way things were going to go, there wasn’t much else he could do.

“Wait,” Avasarala said, then hit a button on her console, and an outside channel started playing on their suit radios.

“—launch immediately against targets on Mars. We have a battery of missiles carrying a lethal biological weapon ready to fire. You have one hour to leave Io orbit or we will launch immediately against targets on Mars. We have a—”

Avasarala turned the channel off again.

“It seems a third party has joined the circle jerk,” Amos said.

“No,” Avasarala replied. “It’s Nguyen. He’s outnumbered, so he’s ordered his Mao cronies on the surface to make the threat to back us off. He’ll—Oh, shit.”

She hit her panel again and a new voice spoke over the radio. This one was a woman’s voice with a cultured Martian accent.

“Io, this is Admiral Muhan of the Martian Congressional Republic Navy. You fire anything bigger than a bottle rocket and we will glass the whole f**king moon. Do you read me?”

Amos leaned over to Prax. “Now, you see, all this is them cocking their guns.”

Prax nodded. “Got it.”

“This,” Holden said, listening to the barely restrained fury in the Martian admiral’s voice, “is about to get seriously out of hand.”

“This is Admiral Nguyen aboard the UNN Agatha King,” a new voice said. “Admiral Souther is here illegally, at the behest of a civilian UN official with no military authority. I hereby order all ships under Admiral Souther’s command to immediately stand down. I further order that the captain of Souther’s flagship place the admiral under arrest for treason and—”

“Oh, do shut up,” Souther replied over the same channel. “I’m here as part of a legal fact-finding mission regarding improper use of UN funds and material for a secret biological weapon project on Io. A project which Admiral Nguyen is directly responsible for in contravention of UN directives—”

Avasarala cut the link.

“Oh, this ain’t good,” Alex said.

“Well,” Avasarala said, then opened the faceplate on her helmet and let out a long sigh. She opened her purse and pulled a pistachio out of it. She cracked it and thoughtfully ate the meat, then put the shell in the nearby recycling chute. A tiny bit of the skin floated away in the microgravity. “No, actually, it should be fine. This is all posturing. As long as they keep comparing dicks, no one will shoot.”

“But we can’t just wait here,” Prax said, shaking his head. Amos was floating in front of him, checking his helmet. Prax shoved him away and tried to get to his feet. He drifted away from his crash couch but didn’t think to turn on his boot mags. “If Mei is down there, we have to go. They’re talking about glassing the moon. We have to get there before they do it.”

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