Holden hit pause and felt a chill go down his spine. Stagnating in a quagmire of petty ethical constraints. He didn’t need Moynahan to tell him which company would snatch a man like that up. He’d heard almost those exact words spoken by Antony Dresden, the architect of the Eros project that had killed a million and a half people as part of a grand biology experiment.

Carlos Merrian had gone to work for Protogen and disappeared. He’d come back as Strickland, abductor of small children.

And, Holden thought, the murderer too.

Chapter Thirty-Five: Avasarala

On the screen, the young man laughed as he had laughed twenty-five seconds earlier on Earth. It was the level of lag Avasarala hated the most. Too much for the conversation to feel anything like normal, but not quite enough to make it impossible. Everything she did took too long, every reading of reaction and nuance crippled by the effort to guess what exactly in her words and expression ten seconds before had elicited it.

“Only you,” he said, “could take another Earth-Mars war, turn it into a private cruise, and then seem pissed off about it. Anyone in my office would give their left testicle to go with you.”

“Next time I’ll take up a collection, but—”

“As far as an accurate military inventory,” he said twenty-five seconds ago, “there are reports in place, but they’re not as good as I’d like. Because it’s you, I’ve got a couple of my interns building search parameters. My impression is that the research budget is about a tenth of the money going to actual research. With your clearances, I have rights to look at it, but these Navy guys are pretty good at obscuring things. I think you’ll find …” His expression clouded. “A collection?”

“Forget it. You were saying?”

She waited fifty seconds, resenting each individually.

“I don’t know that we’ll be able to get a definitive answer,” the young man said. “We might get lucky, but if it’s something they want to hide, they can probably hide it.”

Especially since they’ll know you’re looking for it, and what I asked you to look for, Avasarala thought. Even if the income stream between Mao-Kwikowski, Nguyen, and Errinwright was in all the budgets right now, by the time Avasarala’s allies looked, it would be hidden. All she could do was keep pushing on as many fronts as she could devise and hope that they f**ked up. Three more days of information requests and queries, and she could ask for traffic analysis. She couldn’t know exactly what information they were hiding, but if she could find out what kinds and categories of data they were keeping away from her, that would tell her something.

Something, but not much.

“Do what you can,” she said. “I’ll luxuriate out here in the middle of nowhere. Get back to me.”

She didn’t wait fifty seconds for a round of etiquette and farewell. Life was too short for that shit.

Her private quarters on the Guanshiyin were gorgeous. The bed and couch matched the deep carpet in tones of gold and green that should have clashed but didn’t. The light was the best approximation of mid-morning sunlight that she’d ever seen, and the air recyclers were scented to give everything just a note of turned earth and fresh-cut grass. Only the low thrust gravity spoiled the illusion of being in a private country club somewhere in the green belt of south Asia. The low gravity and the goddamned lag.

She hated low gravity. Even if the acceleration was perfectly smooth and the yacht never had to shift or move to avoid debris, her guts were used to a full g pulling things down. She hadn’t digested anything well since she’d come on board, and she always felt short of breath.

Her system chimed. A new report from Venus. She popped it open. The preliminary analysis of the wreckage from the Arboghast was under way. There was some ionizing in the metal that was apparently consistent with someone’s theory of how the protomolecule functioned. It was the first time a prediction had been confirmed, the first tiny toehold toward a genuine understanding of what was happening on Venus. There was an exact timing of the three energy spikes. There was a spectral analysis of the upper atmosphere of Venus that showed more elemental nitrogen than expected. Avasarala felt her eyes glazing over. The truth was she didn’t care.

She should. It was important. Possibly more important than anything else that was happening. But just like Errinwright and Nguyen and all the others, she was caught up in this smaller, human struggle of war and influence and the tribal division between Earth and Mars. The outer planets too, if you took them seriously.

Hell, at this point she was more worried about Bobbie and Cotyar than she was about Venus. Cotyar was a good man, and his disapproval left her feeling defensive and pissed off. And Bobbie looked like she was about to crack. And why not? The woman had watched her friends die around her, had been stripped of her context, and was now working for her traditional enemy. The marine was tough, in more ways than one, and having someone on the team with no allegiance or ties to anyone on Earth was a real benefit. Especially after f**king Soren.

She leaned back in her chair, unnerved by how different it felt when she weighed so little. Soren still smarted. Not the betrayal itself; betrayal was an occupational hazard. If she started getting her feelings hurt by that, she really should retire. No, it was that she hadn’t seen it. She’d let herself have a blind spot, and Errinwright had known how to use it. How to disenfranchise her. She hated being outplayed. And more than that, she hated that her failure was going to mean more war, more violence, more children dying.

That was the price for screwing up. More dead children.

So she wouldn’t screw up anymore.

She could practically see Arjun, the gentle sorrow in his eyes. It isn’t all your responsibility, he would say.

“It’s everyone’s f**king responsibility,” she said out loud. “But I’m the one who’s taking it seriously.”

She smiled. Let Mao’s monitors and spies make sense of that. She let herself imagine them searching her room for some other transmission device, trying to find who she’d been speaking to. Or they’d just think the old lady was losing her beans.

Let ’em wonder.

She closed out the Venus report. Another message had arrived while she was in her reverie, flagged as an issue she’d requested follow-up on. When she read the intelligence summary, her eyebrows rose.

“I’m James Holden, and I’m here to ask for your help.”

Avasarala watched Bobbie watching the screen. She looked exhausted and restless both. Her eyes weren’t bloodshot so much as dry-looking. Like bearings without enough grease. If she’d needed an example to demonstrate the difference between sleepy and tired, it would have been the marine.

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