Errinwright smiled and cracked his knuckles. He looked tired.
“The ships that will get there?”
“The Bernadette Koe, the Aristophanes, and the Feodorovna, sir.”
“Those, yes. What are you going to tell the Martians about them?”
“Nothing if they don’t bring it up,” Avasarala said. “If they do, I can dismiss them. A minor medical support ship, a transport, and an itty-bitty gunship to keep off pirates. I mean, it’s not like we’re sending a couple of cruisers. So f**k them.”
“You’ll say it more gently, I hope?”
“Of course I will, sir. I’m not stupid.”
She took a long breath, letting the air hiss out between her teeth.
“It’s the damn bogeyman,” she said. “I’m getting daily reports, but we don’t know what we’re looking at. The network it built across the planetary surface is finished, and now it’s breaking down, but there are structures coming up in a complex radial symmetry. Only it’s not along the axis of rotation. It’s on the plane of ecliptic. So whatever’s down there, it’s orienting itself with the whole solar system in mind. And the spectrographic analysis is showing an uptick in lanthanum oxide and gold.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Neither does anyone else, but the brains are thinking it may be a set of very high-temperature superconductors. They’re trying to replicate the crystal structures in the labs, and they’ve found some things they don’t understand. Turns out, the thing down there’s a better physical chemist than we are. No f**king surprise there.”
“Any link to Ganymede?”
“Just the one,” Avasarala said. “Otherwise nothing. Or at least not directly.”
“What do you mean, not directly?”
Avasarala frowned and looked away. The Buddha looked back.
“Did you know that the number of religious suicide cults has doubled since Eros?” she said. “I didn’t until I got the report. The bond initiative to rebuild the water reclamation center at Cairo almost failed last year because a millennialist group said we wouldn’t need it.”
Errinwright sat forward. His eyes were narrow.
“You think there’s a connection?”
“I don’t think there’s a bunch of pod people sneaking up from Venus,” she said, “but …I’ve been thinking about what it’s done to us. The whole solar system. Them and us and the Belters. It’s not healthy having God sleeping right there where we can all watch him dream. It scares the shit out of us. It scares the shit out of me. And so we all look away and go about things as if the universe were the same as when we were young, but we know better. We’re all acting like we’re sane, but …”
She shook her head.
“Humanity’s always lived with the inexplicable,” Errinwright said. His voice was hard. She was making him uncomfortable. Well, she was making herself uncomfortable too.
“The inexplicable didn’t used to eat planets,” she said. “Even if the thing on Ganymede didn’t come up off Venus on its own, it’s pretty damn clear that it’s related. And if we did it—”
“If we built that, it’s because we found a new technology, and we’re using it,” Errinwright said. “Flint spear to gunpowder to nuclear warheads, it’s what we do, Chrisjen. Let me worry about that. You keep your eye on Venus and don’t let the Martian situation get out of control.”
“Yes, sir,” she said.
“Everything’s going to be fine.”
And, looking at the dead screen where her superior had been, Avasarala decided that maybe he even thought it was true. Avasarala wasn’t sure any longer. Something was bothering her, and she didn’t yet know what it was. It only lurked there, just underneath her conscious mind, like a splinter in a fingertip. She opened the captured video from the UN outpost on Ganymede, went through the mandatory security check, and watched the Marines die again.
Kiki and Suri were going to grow up in a world where this had happened, where Venus had always been the colony of something utterly foreign, uncommunicative, and implacable. The fear that carried would be normal to them, something they didn’t think about any more than they did their own breath. On her screen, a man no older than Soren emptied an assault rifle clip into the attacker. The enhanced images showed the dozens of impacts cutting through the thing, the trails of filament coming out its back like streamers. The soldier died again. At least it had been quick for him. She paused the image. Her fingertip traced the outline of the attacker.
“Who are you?” she asked the screen. “What do you want?”
She was missing something. It happened often enough that she knew the feeling, but that didn’t help. It would come when it came. All she could do until it did was keep scratching where it itched. She shut down the files, waiting for the security protocols to make sure she hadn’t copied anything, then signed out and turned to the window.
She found that she was thinking about the next time. What information they’d be able to get the next time. What kind of patterns she’d be able to glean from the next time. The next attack, the next slaughter. It was already perfectly clear in her mind that what had happened on Ganymede was going to happen again, sooner or later. Genies didn’t get put back into bottles, and from the moment the protomolecule had been set loose on the civilian population of Eros just to see what it would do, civilization had changed. Changed so fast and so powerfully that they were still playing catch-up.
There was something there. Something in the words, like a lyric from a song she almost remembered. She ground her teeth and stood up, pacing the length of her window. She hated this part. Hated it.
Her office door opened. When she turned to look at Soren, he flinched back. Avasarala took her scowl down a couple of notches. It wasn’t fair to scare the poor bunny. He was probably just the intern who’d pulled the short straw and gotten stuck with the cranky old woman. And in a way, she liked him.
“Yes?” she said.
“I thought you’d want to know that Admiral Nguyen sent a note of protest to Mr. Errinwright. Interference in his field of command. He didn’t copy the secretary-general.”
Avasarala smiled. If she couldn’t unlock all the mysteries of the universe, she could at least keep the boys in line. And if he wasn’t appealing to the bobble-head, then it was just pouting. Nothing was going to come of it.