“What’s in that other box the Martians gave you?” Amos asked, pulling off one oversized magnetic boot.

“A present for Bobbie,” Holden said. “I’d like to keep it quiet until I give it to her, okay?”

“Sure, no problem, Cap’n. If it turns out to be a dozen long-stemmed roses, I don’t want to be there when Naomi finds out. Plus, you know, Alex …”

“No, it’s a lot more practical than roses—” Holden started, then rewound the conversation in his head. “Alex? What about Alex?”

Amos shrugged with his hands, like a Belter. “I think he might have a wee bit of a thing for our ample marine.”

“You’re kidding.” Holden couldn’t picture it. It wasn’t as though Bobbie were unattractive. Far from it. But she was also very big, and quite intimidating. And Alex was such a quiet and mild guy. Sure, they were both Martians, and no matter how cosmopolitan a person got, there was something comforting in reminders of home. Maybe just being the only two Martians on the ship was enough. But Alex was pushing fifty, balding without complaint, and wore his love handles with the quiet resignation of a middle-aged man. Sergeant Draper couldn’t be more than thirty and looked like a comic book illustration, complete with muscles on her muscles. Unable to stop himself, his mind began trying to figure out how the two of them would fit together. It didn’t work.

“Wow,” was all he could say. “Is it mutual?”

“No idea,” Amos replied with another shrug. “The sergeant ain’t easy to read. But I don’t think she’d do him any deliberate harm, if that’s what you’re asking. Not that, you know, we could stop her.”

“Scares you too, does she?”

“Look,” Amos said with a grin. “When it comes to scrapes, I’m what you might call a talented amateur. But I’ve gotten a good look at that woman in and out of that fancy mechanical shell she wears. She’s a pro. We’re not playing the same sport.”

Gravity began to return in the Rocinante. Alex was bringing up the drive, which meant they were beginning their run to Io. Holden stood up and took a moment to let his joints adjust to the sensation of weight again. He clapped Amos on the back and said, “Well, you’ve got a full load of torpedoes and bullets, three Martian warships trailing you, one angry old lady in tea withdrawal, and a Martian Marine who could probably kill you with your own teeth. What do you do?”

“You tell me, Captain.”

“You find someone else for them to fight.”

Chapter Forty-Five: Avasarala

As I see it, sir,” Avasarala said, “the die is already cast. We effectively have two courses of policy already in play. The question now is how we move forward. So far I’ve been able to keep the information from getting out, but once it does, it will be devastating. And since it is all but certain that the artifact is able to communicate, the chances of an effective military usage of these protomolecule-human hybrids is essentially nil. If we use this weapon, we will be creating a second Venus, committing genocide, and removing any moral argument against using weapons like accelerated asteroids against the Earth itself.

“I hope you will excuse the language, sir, but this was a cock-up from the start. The damage done to human security is literally unimaginable. It seems clear at this point that the protomolecule project under way on Venus is aware of events in the Jovian system. It’s plausible that the samples out here have the information gained from the destruction of the Arboghast. To say that makes our position problematic is to radically understate the case.

“If it had gone through the appropriate channels, we would not be in this position. As it stands, I have done all that is presently within my capabilities, given my situation. The coalition I have built between Mars, elements of the Belt, and the legitimate government of Earth are ready to take action. But the United Nations must distance itself from this plan and move immediately to isolate and defang the faction within the government that has been doing this weasel shit. Again, excuse the language.

“I have sent copies of the data included here to Admirals Souther and Leniki as well as to my team on the Venus problem. They are, of course, at your disposal to answer any questions if I am not available.

“I’m very sorry to put you in the position, sir, but you are going to have to choose sides in this. And quickly. Events out here have developed a momentum of their own. If you’re going to be on the right side of history on this, you must move now.”

If there’s any history to be on the right side of, she thought. She tried to come up with something else that she could say, some other argument that would penetrate the layers of old-growth wood that surrounded the secretary-general’s brain. There weren’t any, and repeating herself in simple storybook rhyme would probably come off as condescending. She stopped the recording, cut off the last few seconds of her looking into the camera in despair, and sent it off with every high-priority flag there was and diplomatic encryption.

So this was what it came to. All of human civilization, everything it had managed, from the first cave painting to crawling up the gravity well and pressing out into the antechamber of the stars, came down to whether a man whose greatest claim to fame was that he’d been thrown in prison for writing bad poetry had the balls to back down Errinwright. The ship corrected under her, shifting like an elevator suddenly slipping its tracks. She tried to sit up, but the gimbaled couch moved. God, but she hated space travel.

“Is it going to work?”

The botanist stood in her doorway. He was stick-thin, with a slightly larger head than looked right. He wasn’t built as awkwardly as a Belter, but he couldn’t be mistaken for someone who’d grown to maturity living at a full gravity. Standing in her doorway, trying to find something to do with his hands, he looked awkward and lost and slightly otherworldly.

“I don’t know,” she said. “If I were there, it would happen the way I want it to happen. I could go squeeze a few testicles until they saw it my way. From here? Maybe. Maybe not.”

“You can talk to anyone from here, though, can’t you?”

“It isn’t the same.”

He nodded, his attention shifting inward. Despite the differences in skin color and build, the man suddenly reminded her of Michael-Jon. He had the same sense of being a half step back from everything. Only, Michael-Jon’s detachment verged on autism, and Praxidike Meng was a little more visibly interested in the people around him.

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