“Awww, come on,” Holden said with a grin. “You know me. I’m James Holden. I helped bring down your pals at Protogen, and now I’m about to finish that job with you. I’m also the one that found your daughter after the protomolecule had killed her. So I’ll ask again: Was it worth it?”

Mao didn’t answer.

“A dead daughter, a company in ruins, millions of people slaughtered, a solar system that will probably never have peaceful stability again. Was it worth it?”

“Why are you here?” Mao finally asked. He looked smaller when he said it. He wouldn’t make eye contact.

“I was there, in the room, when Dresden got his and I’m the man who killed your pet admiral. I just feel like there’s this wonderful symmetry in being there when you get yours.”

“Antony Dresden,” Mao said, “was shot in the head three times execution style. Is that what passes for justice with you?”

Holden laughed. “Oh, I doubt Chrisjen Avasarala is going to shoot you in the face. Do you think what’s coming will be better?”

Mao didn’t reply, and Holden looked at the MP and gestured toward the conference room door. They almost looked disappointed as they pushed Mao into the room and attached his restraints to a chair.

“We’ll be waiting out here, sir, if you need us,” the larger of the two MPs said. They took up flanking positions next to the door.

Holden went into the conference room and took a chair, but he didn’t say anything else to Mao. A few moments later, Avasarala shuffled into the room, talking on her hand terminal.

“I don’t give a f**k whose birthday it is, you make this happen before my meeting is over or I’ll have your nuts as paperweights.” She paused as the person on the other end said something. She grinned at Mao and said, “Well, go fast, because I have a feeling my meeting will be short. Good talking to you.”

She sank into a chair directly across the table from Mao. She didn’t look at Holden or acknowledge him at all. He suspected that the record would never reflect his presence in the room. Avasarala put her terminal on the tabletop and leaned back in her chair. She didn’t speak for several tense seconds. When she did, it was to Holden. She still didn’t look at him.

“You’ve gotten paid for hauling me back here?”

“Payment’s cleared,” Holden said.

“That’s good. I wanted to ask you about a longer-term contract. It would be civilian, of course, but—”

Mao cleared his throat. Avasarala smiled at him.

“I know you’re there. I’ll be right with you.”

“I’ve already got a contract,” Holden said. “We’re escorting the first reconstruction flotilla to Ganymede. And after that, I’m thinking we’ll probably be able to get another escort gig from there. Still a lot of people relocating who’d rather not get stopped by pirates along the way.”

“You’re sure?”

Mao’s face was white with humiliation. Holden let himself enjoy it.

“I’ve just gotten done working for a government,” Holden said. “I didn’t wear it well.”

“Oh please. You worked for the OPA. That’s not a government, it’s a rugby scrum with a currency. Yes, Jules, what is it? You need to go to the potty?”

“This is beneath you,” Mao said. “I didn’t come here to be insulted.”

Avasarala’s smile was incandescent.

“You’re sure about that? Let me ask, do you remember what I said the first time we met?”

“You asked me to tell you about any involvement I might have had with the protomolecule project run by Protogen.”

“No,” Avasarala replied. “I mean, yes, I did ask that. But that’s not the part that you should be caring about right now. You lied to me. Your involvement with weaponizing the Protogen project is fully exposed, and that question is like asking what color Tuesday was. It’s meaningless.”

“Let’s get down to brass tacks,” Mao said. “I can—”

“No,” Avasarala interrupted. “The part you should be caring about is what I said just before you left. Do you remember that?”

He looked blankly up at her.

“I didn’t think so. I told you that if I found out later you’d hidden something from me, I wouldn’t take it well.”

“Your exact words,” Mao said with a mocking grin, “were ‘I am not someone you want to f**k with.’”

“So you do remember,” she said, not a hint of humor in her tone. “Good. This is where you get to find out what that means.”

“I have additional information that could be of benefit—”

“Shut the f**k up,” Avasarala said, real anger creeping into her voice for the first time. “Next time I hear your voice, I have those two big MPs in the hallway hold you down and beat you with a f**king chair. Do you understand me?”

Mao didn’t reply, which showed that he did.

“You don’t have any idea what you’ve cost me,” she said. “I’m being promoted. The economic planning council? I run it now. The public health service? I never had to worry about it because that was Errinwright’s pain in the ass. It’s mine now. The committee on financial regulation? Mine. You’ve f**ked up my calendar for the next two decades.

“This is not a negotiation,” Avasarala continued. “This is me gloating. I’m going to drop you into a hole so deep even your wife will forget you ever existed. I’m going to use Errinwright’s old position to dismantle everything you ever built, piece by piece, and scatter it to the winds. I’ll make sure you get to watch it happening. The one thing your hole will have is twenty-four-hour news. And since you and I will never meet again, I want to make sure my name is on your mind every time I destroy something else you left behind. I am going to erase you.”

Mao stared back defiantly, but Holden could see it was just a shell. Avasarala had known exactly where to hit him. Because men like him lived for their legacy. They saw themselves as the architects of the future. What Avasarala was promising was worse than death.

Mao shot a quick look at Holden, and it seemed to say, I’ll take those three shots to the head now, please.

Holden smiled at him.

Chapter Fifty-Four: Prax

Mei sat on Prax’s lap, but her attention was focused with a laser intensity to her left. She put her hand up to her mouth and gently, deliberately deposited a wad of half-chewed spaghetti into her palm, then held it out toward Amos.

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