“They got to Nicola,” he said. “They made her say those things about me. About Mei.”
“Of course they did. That’s what they do. And if they wanted to, they’d have papers and police reports to back it all up, backdated and put in the databases of everywhere you ever lived.”
“I hate it that people think I did that.”
Avasarala nodded, then shrugged.
“Reputation never has very much to do with reality,” she said. “I could name half a dozen paragons of virtue that are horrible, small-souled, evil people. And some of the best men I know, you’d walk out of the room if you heard their names. No one on the screen is who they are when you breathe their air.”
“Holden,” Prax said.
“Well. He’s the exception,” she said.
The botanist looked down and then up again. His expression was almost apologetic.
“Mei’s probably dead,” he said.
“You don’t believe that.”
“It’s been a long time. Even if they had her medicine, they’ve probably turned her into one of these … things.”
“You still don’t believe that,” she said. The botanist leaned forward, frowning like she’d given him a problem he couldn’t immediately solve. “Tell me it’s all right to bomb Io. I can have thirty nuclear warheads fired now. Turn off the engines, let them fly ballistic. They won’t all get through, but some will. Say the word now, and I can have Io reduced to slag before we even get there.”
“You’re right,” Prax said. And then, a moment later: “Why aren’t you doing that?”
“Do you want the real reason, or my justification?”
“I justify it this way,” she said. “I don’t know what is in that lab. I can’t assume that the monsters are only there, and if I destroy the place, I might be slagging the records that will let me find the missing ones. I don’t know everyone involved in this, and I don’t have proof against some of the ones I do know. It may be down there. I’ll go, I’ll find out, and then I will reduce the lab to radioactive glass afterward.”
“Those are good reasons.”
“They’re good justifications. I find them very convincing.”
“But the reason is that Mei might still be alive.”
“I don’t kill children,” she said. “Not even when it’s the right thing to do. You would be surprised how often it’s hurt my political career. People used to think I was weak until I found the trick.”
“If you can make them blush, they think you’re a hard-ass,” she said. “My husband calls it the mask.”
“Oh,” Prax said. “Thank you.”
Waiting was worse than the fear of battle. Her body wanted to move, to get away from her chair and walk through the familiar halls. The back of her mind shouted for action, movement, confrontation. She paced the ship top to bottom and back again. Her mind went through trivia about all the people she met in the halls, the small detritus from the intelligence reports she’d read. The mechanic, Amos Burton. Implicated in several murders, indicted, never tried. Took an elective vasectomy the day he was legally old enough to do so. Naomi Nagata, the engineer. Two master’s degrees. Offered full-ride scholarship for a PhD on Ceres Station and turned it down. Alex Kamal, pilot. Seven drunk and disorderlies when he was in his early twenties. Had a son on Mars he still didn’t know about. James Holden, the man without secrets. The holy fool who’d dragged the solar system into war and seemed utterly blind to the damage he caused. An idealist. The most dangerous kind of man there was. And a good man too.
She wondered whether any of it mattered.
The only real player near enough to talk to without lag turning the conversation utterly epistolary was Souther, and as he was still putatively on the same side as Nguyen and preparing to face battle with the ships protecting her, the opportunities were few and far between.
“Have you heard anything?” he asked from her terminal.
“No,” she said. “I don’t know what’s taking the f**king bobble-head so long.”
“You’re asking him to turn his back on the man he’s trusted the most.”
“And how f**king long does that take? When I did it, it was over in maybe five minutes. ‘Soren,’ I said. ‘You’re a douche bag. Get out of my sight.’ It isn’t harder than that.”
“And if he doesn’t come through?” Souther asked.
“Then I call you back and try talking you into going rogue.”
“Ah,” Souther said with a half smile. “And how do you see that going?”
“I don’t like my chances, but you never know. I can be damned persuasive.”
An alert popped up. A new message. From Arjun.
“I have to go,” she said. “Keep an ear to the ground or whatever the hell you do out here where the ground doesn’t mean anything.”
“Be safe, Chrisjen,” Souther said, and vanished into the green background of a dead connection.
Around her, the galley was empty. Still, someone might come in. She lifted the hem of her sari and walked to her little room, sliding her door closed before she gave her terminal permission to open the file.
Arjun was at his desk, his formal clothes on but undone at the neck and sleeves. He looked like a man just returned from a bad party. The sunlight streamed in behind him. Afternoon, then. It had been afternoon when he’d sent it. And it might still be. She touched the screen, her fingertips tracing the line of his shoulder.
“So I understand from your message that you may not come home,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” she said to the screen.
“As you imagine, I find the thought … distressing,” he said, and then a smile split his face, dancing in eyes she now saw were red with tears. “But what can I do about it? I teach poetry to graduate students. I have no power in this world. That has always been you. And so I want to offer you this. Don’t think about me. Don’t take your mind from what you’re doing on my account. And if you don’t …”
Arjun took a deep breath.
“If life transcends death, then I will seek for you there. If not, then there too.”
He looked down and then up again.
“I love you, Kiki. And I will always love you, from whatever distance.”