“How long now?” Avasarala said, then sipped at the bulb of weak coffee she’d started making for herself in place of tea.

Holden considered pointing out the navigation information the Roci made available at every console, and then didn’t. Avasarala didn’t want him to show her how to find it herself. She wanted him to tell her. She wasn’t accustomed to pressing her own buttons. In her mind, she outranked him. Holden wondered what the chain of command actually looked like in this situation. How many illegal captains of stolen ships did it take to equal one disgraced UN official? That could tie a courtroom up for a few decades.

He also wasn’t being fair to Avasarala. It wasn’t about making him take her orders, not really. It was about being in a situation that she was utterly untrained for, where she was the least useful person in the room and trying to assert some control. Trying to reshape the space around her to fit with her mental image of herself.

Or maybe she just needed to hear a voice.

“Eighteen hours now,” Holden said. “Most of the other ships that aren’t part of our fleet will beat us there. And the ones that don’t won’t show up until it’s over, so we can ignore them.”

“Eighteen hours,” Avasarala said. There was something like awe in her voice. “Space is too f**king big. It’s the same old story.”

He’d guessed right. She just wanted to talk, so he let her. “What story?”

“Empire. Every empire grows until its reach exceeds its grasp. We started out fighting over who got the best branches in one tree. Then we climb down and fight over a few kilometers’ worth of trees. Then someone starts riding horses, and you get empires of hundreds or thousands of kilometers. Ships open up empire expansion across the oceans. The Epstein drive gave us the outer planets …”

She trailed off and tapped out something on the comm panel. She didn’t volunteer who she was sending messages to, and Holden didn’t ask. When she was done, she said, “But the story is always the same. No matter how good your technology is, at some point you’ll conquer territory that you can’t hold on to.”

“You’re talking about the outer planets?”

“Not specifically,” she said, her voice growing soft and thoughtful. “I’m talking about the entire f**king concept of empire. The Brits couldn’t hold on to India or North America because why should people listen to a king who’s six thousand kilometers away?”

Holden tinkered with the air-circulation nozzle on his panel, aiming it at his face. The cool air smelled faintly of ozone and oil. “Logistics is always a problem.”

“No kidding. Taking a dangerous trip six thousand kilometers across the Atlantic so you can fight with colonists gives the enemy one hell of a home-court advantage.”

“At least,” Holden said, “we Earthers figured that out before we picked a fight with Mars. It’s even further. And sometimes the sun is in the way.”

“Some people have never forgiven us for not humbling Mars when we had the chance,” Avasarala said. “I work for a few of them. Fucking idiots.”

“I thought the point of your story was that those people always lose in the end.”

“Those people,” she said, pushing herself to her feet and slowly heading toward the crew ladder, “are not the real problem. Venus might be housing the advance party of the first empire whose grasp is as long as its reach. And this f**king protomolecule has exposed us for the petty, small-town bosses we are. We’re getting ready to trade our solar system away because we thought we could build airports out of bamboo and summon the cargo.”

“Get some sleep,” Holden said to her while she called up the ladder-lift. “We’ll defeat one empire at a time.”

“Maybe,” she said as she dropped out of sight, and the deck hatch banged shut behind her.

“Why isn’t anyone shooting?” Prax said. He’d come up to the operations deck trailing after Naomi like a lost child. Now he was sitting at one of the many unused crash couches. He stared up at the main screen, his face a mix of fear and fascination.

The big tactical display showed a muddled mass of red and green dots representing the three dozen capital ships parked in orbit around Io. The Roci had marked all the Earth ships green and the Martian ships red. It created a confusing simplicity out of what was in actuality a far more complex situation. Holden knew that friend-or-foe identification was going to be a problem if anyone started shooting.

For now, the various ships drifted quietly above Io, their enormous threat merely implied. They made Holden think of the crocodiles he’d seen at the zoo as a child. Huge, armored, filled with teeth, but drifting on the surface of the water like statues. Not even their eyes blinking. When food had been thrown into the pen, they’d exploded out of the water with frightening speed.

We’re just waiting for some blood to hit the water.

“Why isn’t anyone shooting?” Prax repeated.

“Hey, Doc,” Amos said. He was lounging in one of the crash couches next to Prax. He projected a calm laziness that Holden wished he himself felt. “Remember how on Ganymede we were facing down those guys with guns and no one was shooting right up until you decided to c**k your gun?”

Prax blanched. Holden guessed he was remembering the bloody aftermath of that fight. “Yes,” Prax said. “I remember.”

“This is like that,” Amos said. “Only no one’s cocked their gun just yet.”

Prax nodded. “Okay.”

If someone finally did break the whole situation loose, Holden knew that figuring out who was shooting at whom would be their first problem. “Avasarala, any word yet on the political landscape? There’s a whole lot of green on that board. How many of those dots belong to us?”

Avasarala shrugged and went on listening to the ship-to-ship cross talk.

“Naomi?” Holden said. “Any ideas?”

“So far Nguyen’s fleet is targeting only Martian ships,” she replied, marking ships on the main tactical board for everyone to see. “The Martian ships are targeting back. Souther’s ships aren’t targeting anyone, and Souther hasn’t even opened his tubes. I’m guessing he’s still hoping for a peaceful resolution.”

“Please send the intel officer on Souther’s ship my compliments,” Holden said to Naomi. “And ask him to get us some new IFF data so this doesn’t turn into the solar system’s biggest clusterfuck.”

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