“Who did what?” Arjun asked.
“Nguyen. He’s thinking that the Martians are behind the thing. That there’s going to be a second attack on Ganymede. He knows the Martians aren’t moving their fleet there, and he’s still reinforcing. He doesn’t care if it f**ks the peace talks, because he thinks they’re crap anyway. Nothing to lose. Are you listening to me?”
“Yes, I am. Nguyen thinks it was Mars. He’s building a fleet to respond. You see?”
“Do you know what I’m talking about?”
“As a rule? No. But Maxwell Asinnian-Koh just posted a paper about post-lyricism that’s going to get him no end of hate mail.”
“You live in your own world, dear one.”
“I do,” Arjun agreed, running his thumb across the hand terminal’s screen. He looked up. “You don’t mind, do you?”
“I love you for it. Stay here. Read about post-lyricism.”
“What are you going to do?”
“The same thing as always. Try to keep civilization from blowing up while the children are in it.”
When she’d been young, her mother had tried to teach her knitting. The skill hadn’t taken, but there were other lessons that had. Once, the skein of yarn had gotten knotted badly, and Avasarala’s frustrated yanking had only made things progressively worse. Her mother had taken the tight-bound clump from her, but instead of fixing it herself and handing it back, her mother sat cross-legged on the floor beside her and spoke aloud about how to solve the knot. She’d been gentle, deliberate, and patient, looking for places where she could work more slack into the system until, seemingly all at once, the yarn spilled free.
There were ten ships in the list, ranging from an ancient transport past due for the scrap heap to a pair of frigates captained by people whose names she’d heard. It wasn’t a huge force, but it was enough to be provocative. Gently, deliberately, patiently, Avasarala started plucking it apart.
The transport was first, because it was easiest. She’d been cultivating the boys in maintenance and safety for years. It took four hours for someone with the schematics and logs to find a bolt that hadn’t been replaced on schedule, and less than half an hour after that to issue the mandatory recall. The Wu Tsao— better armed of the frigates—was captained by Golla Ishigawa-Marx. His service record was solid, workmanlike reading. He was competent, unimaginative, and loyal. Three conversations had him promoted to the head of the construction oversight committee, where he probably wouldn’t do any harm. The full command crew of the Wu Tsao was requested to come back to Earth to be present when they pinned a ribbon on him. The second frigate was harder, but she found a way. And by then the convoy was small enough that the medical and support ship was a higher rating than the remaining convoy justified.
The knot unspooled in her fingers. The three ships she couldn’t pry loose were old and underpowered. If it came to a fight, they wouldn’t be significant. And because of that, the Martians would only take offense if they were looking for an excuse.
She didn’t think they would. And if she was wrong, that would be interesting too.
“Won’t Admiral Nguyen see through all this?” Errinwright asked. He was in a hotel room somewhere on the other side of the planet. It was night behind him, and his dress shirt was unbuttoned at the top.
“Let him,” Avasarala said. “What’s he going to do? Go crying to his mama that I took his toys away? If he can’t play with the big kids, he shouldn’t be a f**king admiral.”
Errinwright smiled and cracked his knuckles. He looked tired.
“The ships that will get there?”
“The Bernadette Koe, the Aristophanes, and the Feodorovna, sir.”
“Those, yes. What are you going to tell the Martians about them?”
“Nothing if they don’t bring it up,” Avasarala said. “If they do, I can dismiss them. A minor medical support ship, a transport, and an itty-bitty gunship to keep off pirates. I mean, it’s not like we’re sending a couple of cruisers. So f**k them.”
“You’ll say it more gently, I hope?”
“Of course I will, sir. I’m not stupid.”
She took a long breath, letting the air hiss out between her teeth.
“It’s the damn bogeyman,” she said. “I’m getting daily reports, but we don’t know what we’re looking at. The network it built across the planetary surface is finished, and now it’s breaking down, but there are structures coming up in a complex radial symmetry. Only it’s not along the axis of rotation. It’s on the plane of ecliptic. So whatever’s down there, it’s orienting itself with the whole solar system in mind. And the spectrographic analysis is showing an uptick in lanthanum oxide and gold.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Neither does anyone else, but the brains are thinking it may be a set of very high-temperature superconductors. They’re trying to replicate the crystal structures in the labs, and they’ve found some things they don’t understand. Turns out, the thing down there’s a better physical chemist than we are. No f**king surprise there.”
“Any link to Ganymede?”
“Just the one,” Avasarala said. “Otherwise nothing. Or at least not directly.”
“What do you mean, not directly?”
Avasarala frowned and looked away. The Buddha looked back.
“Did you know that the number of religious suicide cults has doubled since Eros?” she said. “I didn’t until I got the report. The bond initiative to rebuild the water reclamation center at Cairo almost failed last year because a millennialist group said we wouldn’t need it.”
Errinwright sat forward. His eyes were narrow.
“You think there’s a connection?”
“I don’t think there’s a bunch of pod people sneaking up from Venus,” she said, “but …I’ve been thinking about what it’s done to us. The whole solar system. Them and us and the Belters. It’s not healthy having God sleeping right there where we can all watch him dream. It scares the shit out of us. It scares the shit out of me. And so we all look away and go about things as if the universe were the same as when we were young, but we know better. We’re all acting like we’re sane, but …”
She shook her head.
“Humanity’s always lived with the inexplicable,” Errinwright said. His voice was hard. She was making him uncomfortable. Well, she was making herself uncomfortable too.