“Can you send this version to Admiral Souther?”

“Oh, no. It’s not cleared for release.”

Avasarala looked at him, her expression empty.

“Are you clearing it for release?”

“I am clearing it for release to Admiral Souther. Please send it immediately.”

Michael-Jon bobbed a quick nod, tapping with the tips of both pinkies. Avasarala took out her own hand terminal and sent a simple message to Souther. WATCH AND CALL ME. When she stood, her legs ached.

“It was good seeing you again,” Michael-Jon said, not looking at her. “We should all have dinner sometime.”

“Let’s,” Avasarala said, and left.

The women’s restroom was cold. Avasarala stood at the sink, her palms flat against the granite. She wasn’t used to fear or awe. Her life had been about control, talking and bullying and teasing whoever needed it until the world turned the direction she wanted it to. The few times the implacable universe had overwhelmed her haunted her: an earthquake in Bengal when she’d been a girl, a storm in Egypt that had trapped her and Arjun in their hotel room for four days as the food supplies failed, the death of her son. Each one had turned her constant pretense of certainty and pride against her, left her curled in her bed at night for weeks afterward, her fingers bent in claws, her dreams nightmares.

This was worse. Before, she could comfort herself with the idea that the universe was empty of intent. That all the terrible things were just the accidental convergences of chance and mindless forces. The death of the Arboghast was something else. It was intentional and inhuman. It was like seeing the face of God and finding no compassion there.

Shaking, she pulled up her hand terminal. Arjun answered almost immediately. From the set of his jaw and the softness of his eyes, she knew he had seen some version of the event. And his thought hadn’t been for the fate of mankind, but for her. She tried to smile, but it was too much. Tears ran down her cheeks. Arjun sighed gently and looked down.

“I love you very much,” Avasarala said. “Knowing you has let me bear the unbearable.”

Arjun grinned. He looked good with wrinkles. He was a more handsome man now that he was older. As if the round-faced, comically earnest boy who’d snuck to her window to read poems in the night had only been waiting to become this.

“I love you, I have always loved you, if we are born into new lives, I will love you there.”

Avasarala sobbed once, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, and nodded.

“All right, then,” she said.

“Back to work?”

“Back to work. I may be home late.”

“I’ll be here. You can wake me.”

They were silent for a moment; then she released the connection. Admiral Souther hadn’t called. Errinwright hadn’t called. Avasarala’s mind was leaping around like a terrier attacking a troop transport. She rose to her feet, forced herself to put one foot in front of the other. The simple physical act of walking seemed to clear her head. Little electric carts stood ready to whisk her back to her office, but she ignored them, and by the time she reached it, she was almost calm again.

Bobbie sat hunched at her desk, the sheer physical bulk of the woman making the furniture seem like something from grade school. Soren was elsewhere, which was fine. His training wasn’t military.

“So you’re in an entrenched position with a huge threat coming down onto you, right?” Avasarala said, sitting down on the edge of Soren’s desk. “Say you’re on a moon and some third party has thrown a comet at you. Massive threat, you understand?”

Bobbie looked at her, confused for a moment, and then, with a shrug, played along.

“All right,” the marine said.

“So why do you choose that moment to pick a fight with your neighbors? Are you just frightened and lashing out? Are you thinking that the other bastards are responsible for the rock? Are you just that stupid?”

“We’re talking about Venus and the fighting in the Jovian system,” Bobbie said.

“It’s a pretty f**king thin metaphor, yes,” Avasarala said. “So why are you doing it?”

Bobbie leaned back in her chair, plastic creaking under her. The big woman’s eyes narrowed. She opened her mouth once, closed it, frowned, and began again.

“I’m consolidating power,” Bobbie said. “If I use my resources stopping the comet, then as soon as that threat’s gone, I lose. The other guy catches me with my pants down. Bang. If I kick his ass first, then when it’s over, I win.”

“But if you cooperate—”

“Then you have to trust the other guy,” Bobbie said, shaking her head.

“There’s a million tons of ice coming that’s going to kill you both. Why the hell wouldn’t you trust the other guy?”

“Depends. Is he an Earther?” Bobbie said. “We’ve got two major military forces in the system, plus whatever the Belters can gin up. That’s three sides with a lot of history. When whatever’s going to happen on Venus actually happens, someone wants to already have all the cards.”

“And if both sides—Earth and Mars—are making that same calculation, we’re going to spend all our energy getting ready for the war after next.”

“Yep,” Bobbie said. “And yes, that’s how we all lose together.”

Chapter Twenty-Four: Prax

Prax sat in his cabin. For sleeping space on a ship, he knew it was large. Spacious, even. Altogether, it was smaller than his bedroom on Ganymede had been. He sat on the gel-filled mattress, the acceleration gravity pressing him down, making his arms and legs feel heavier than they were. He wondered whether the sense of suddenly weighing more—specifically the discontinuous change of space travel—triggered some evolutionary cue for fatigue. The feeling of being pulled to the floor or the bed was so powerfully like the sensation of bone-melting tiredness it was easy to think that sleeping a little more would fix it, would make things better.

“Your daughter is probably dead,” he said aloud. Waited to see how his body would react. “Mei is probably dead.”

He didn’t start sobbing this time, so that was progress.

Ganymede was a day and a half behind him and already too small to pick out with the naked eye. Jupiter was a dim disk the size of a pinky nail, kicking back the light of a sun that was little more than an extremely bright star. Intellectually, he knew that he was falling sunward, heading in from the Jovian system toward the Belt. In a week, the sun would be close to twice the size it was now, and it would still be insignificant. In a context of such immensity, of distances and speeds so far above any meaningful human experience, it seemed like nothing should matter. He should be agreeing that he hadn’t been there when God made the mountains, whether it meant the ones on Earth or on Ganymede or somewhere farther out in the darkness. He was in a tiny metal-and-ceramic box that was exchanging matter for energy to throw a half dozen primates across a vacuum larger than millions of oceans. Compared to that, how could anything matter?

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