“You’re a liar, and—” she started; then something he’d said made her stop. “Wait, ‘once you arrive’? You aren’t coming?”

“I’m afraid not,” Mao said, smiling up at the white jacket who placed another plate in front of him. This one had what appeared to be a whole fish, complete with head and staring eyes.

Bobbie gaped at Avasarala, who was frowning at Mao now.

“I was told you were personally leading this relief effort,” Avasarala said.

“That was my intention. But I’m afraid other business has removed that option. Once we finish with this excellent dinner, I’ll be taking the shuttle back to the station. This ship, and its crew, are at your disposal until your vital work on Ganymede is complete.”

Avasarala just stared at Mao. For the first time in Bobbie’s experience, the old lady was struck speechless.

A white jacket brought Bobbie a fish while her lush prison flew at a leisurely quarter g toward Jupiter.

Avasarala hadn’t said a word on the ride down the lift to their suite. In the lounge, she stopped long enough to grab a bottle of gin off the bar, and waggled a finger at Bobbie. Bobbie followed her into the master bedroom, Cotyar close behind.

Once the door was closed and Cotyar had used his handheld security terminal to scan the room for bugs, Avasarala said, “Bobbie, start thinking of a way to either get control of this ship or get us off of it.”

“Forget that,” Bobbie said. “Let’s go grab that shuttle Mao’s leaving on right now. It’s within range of his station or he wouldn’t be taking it.”

To her surprise, Cotyar nodded. “I agree with the sergeant. If we plan to leave, the shuttle will be easier to commandeer and control against a hostile crew.”

Avasarala sat down on her bed with a long exhale that turned into a heavy sigh. “I can’t leave yet. It doesn’t work that way.”

“The f**king game!” Bobbie yelled.

“Yes,” Avasarala snapped. “Yes, the f**king game. I’ve been ordered by my superiors to make this trip. If I leave now, I’m out. They’ll be polite and call it a sudden illness or exhaustion, but the excuse they give me will also be the reason I’m not allowed to keep doing my job. I’ll be safe, and I’ll be powerless. As long as I pretend I’m doing what they asked me to, I can keep working. I’m still the assistant undersecretary of executive administration. I still have connections. Influence. If I run now, I lose them. If I lose them, these f**kers might as well shoot me.”

“But,” Bobbie said.

“But,” Avasarala repeated. “If I continue to be effective, they’ll find a way to cut me off. Unexplained comm failure, something. Something to keep me off the network. When that happens, I will demand that the captain reroute to the closest station for repairs. If I’m right, he won’t do it.”

“Ah,” Bobbie said.

“Oh,” Cotyar said a moment later.

“Yes,” Avasarala said. “When that happens, I will declare this an illegal seizure of my person, and you will get me this ship.”

Chapter Thirty-One: Prax

With every day that passed, the question came closer: What was the next step? It didn’t feel all that different from those first, terrible days on Ganymede, making lists as a way of telling himself what to do. Only now he wasn’t only looking for Mei. He was looking for Strickland. Or the mysterious woman in the video. Or whoever had built the secret lab. In that sense, he was much better off than he had been before.

On the other hand, he had been searching Ganymede. Now the field had expanded to include everywhere.

The lag time to Earth—or Luna, actually, since Persis-Strokes Security Consultants was based in orbit rather than down the planet’s gravity well—was a little over twenty minutes. It made actual conversation essentially impossible, so in practice, the hatchet-faced woman on his screen was making a series of promotional videos more and more specifically targeted to what Prax wanted to hear.

“We have an intelligence-sharing relationship with Pinkwater, which is presently the security company with the largest physical and operational presence in the outer planets,” she said. “We also have joint-action contracts with Al Abbiq and Star Helix. With those, we can take immediate action either directly or through our partners, on literally any station or planet in the system.”

Prax nodded to himself. That was exactly what he needed. Someone with eyes everywhere, with contacts everywhere. Someone who could help.

“I’m attaching a release,” the woman said. “We will need payment for the processing fee, but we won’t be charging your accounts for anything more than that until we’ve agreed on the scope of the investigation you’re willing to be liable for. Once we have that in hand, I will send you a detailed proposal with an itemized spreadsheet and we can decide the scope of work that works best for you.”

“Thank you,” Prax said. He pulled up the document, signed off, and returned it. It would be twenty minutes at the speed of light before it reached Luna. Twenty minutes back. Who knew how long in between?

It was a start. He could feel good about that, at least.

The ship was quiet in a way that felt like anticipation, but Prax didn’t know exactly what of. The arrival at Tycho Station, but beyond that, he wasn’t sure. Leaving his bunk behind, he went through the empty galley and up the ladder toward the ops center and then the pilot’s station. The small room was dim, most of the light coming from the control panels and the sweep of high-definition screens that filled 270 degrees of vision with starlight, the distant sun, and the approaching mass of Tycho Station, the oasis in the vast emptiness.

“Hey there, Doc,” Alex said from the pilot’s couch. “Come up to see the view?”

“If … I mean, if that’s all right.”

“Not a problem. I haven’t been running with a copilot since we got the Roci. Strap in right there. Just if somethin’ happens, don’t touch anything.”

“I won’t,” Prax promised as he scrambled into the acceleration couch. At first, the station seemed to grow slowly. The two counter-rotating rings were hardly larger than Prax’s thumb, the sphere they surrounded little more than a gum ball. Then, as they drew nearer, the fuzzy texture at the edge of the construction sphere began to resolve into massive waldoes and gantries reaching toward a strangely aerodynamic form. The ship under construction was still half undressed, ceramic and steel support beams open to the vacuum like bones. Tiny fireflies flickered inside and out: welders and sealant packs firing off too far away to see apart from the light.

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