Home > Cibola Burn (Expanse #4)(12)

Cibola Burn (Expanse #4)(12)
Author: James S.A. Corey

“Yep,” Holden said, and accepted the steaming cup from him. “I don’t like coming here.”

“I understand. I appreciate you doing it anyway,” Fred said and collapsed into his chair with a sigh that seemed excessive in the one-third g of the station’s spin. But then the pressures pushing down on Fred had little to do with gravity. The five years since Holden had met him hadn’t treated the man kindly. His formerly salt-and-pepper hair had gone entirely gray, and his dark skin was lined with tiny wrinkles.

“No sign it’s waking up?” Holden said, pointing his coffee cup toward a wall screen that was displaying a blown-up image of the spherical Ring Station.

“I need to show you something,” Fred said, as though Holden hadn’t asked the question. At Holden’s nod, Fred tapped on his desk and the video screen behind him came to life. On it, Chrisjen Avasarala’s face was frozen mid-word. The undersecretary of executive administration had her eyes at half-mast and her lips in a sneer. “This is the part that concerns you.”

“— eally just an excuse to wave their cocks at each other,” Avasarala said when the video started. “So I’m thinking we send Holden.”

“Send Holden?” Holden said, but the video kept playing and Fred didn’t answer him. “Send Holden where? Where are we sending Holden?”

“He’s close when he’s out at Medina, and everybody hates him equally, so we can argue he’s impartial. He’s got ties to you, Mars, me. He’s a fucking awful choice for a diplomatic mission, so it makes him perfect. Brief him, tell him the UN will pay for his time at double the usual rates, and get him on New Terra as fast as possible before this thing gets fucked up any worse than it already is.”

The old lady leaned in toward the camera, her face swelling on the screen until Holden could see the fine detail of every wrinkle and blemish.

“If Fred is showing this to you, Holden, know that your home planet appreciates your service. Also try not to put your dick in this. It’s fucked enough already.”

Fred stopped the recording and leaned back in his chair. “So…”

“What the hell is she talking about?” Holden said. “What’s New Terra?”

“New Terra is the unimaginative name they gave to the first of the explored worlds in the gate network.”

“No, I thought that was Ilus.”

“Ilus,” Fred said with a sigh, “is the name the Belters who landed there gave it. Royal Charter Energy, the corporation with the contract to do the initial exploration, call it New Terra.”

“Can they do that? People already live there. Everyone calls it Ilus.”

“Everyone here calls it Ilus. You see the problem,” Fred said. He took a long sip of his coffee, buying himself time to think. “No one was ready for this. A shipful of Ganymede refugees commandeered a Mao-Kwik heavy freighter and blew through the Ring at high speed as soon as the first probe results came out. Before we’d had time to pick up the pieces from our initial incursion. Before the military blockade. Before Medina was ready to enforce a safe speed limit in the Ring space. They came through so fast we didn’t even have time to hail them.”

“Let me guess,” Holden said. “The Ilus Gate is on the opposite side from the Sol Gate.”

“Not quite. They were smart enough to come in at an angle to avoid slamming into the Ring Station at three hundred thousand kph.”

“So they’ve been living on Ilus for a year, and suddenly RCE shows up and tells them that, oops, it’s really their planet?”

“RCE has the UN charter for scientific exploration on Ilus, New Terra, whatever you want to call it. And they’re there because the Ganymede refugees landed there first. The plan was to study these worlds for years before anyone lived on them.”

Something in Fred’s tone of voice tickled at Holden’s mind for a second, and he said, “Wait. UN charter? When did the UN get to be in charge of the thousand worlds?”

Fred smiled without humor. “The situation is complex. We have the UN making a power grab to administrate all these new worlds. We have OPA citizens settling one without permission. We have an energy company getting the exploration contract on a world that also just happens to have the richest lithium deposits we’ve ever seen.”

“And we have you,” Holden said, “setting up to run the turnpike everyone has to take to get there.”

“I think it’s safe to say the OPA has fundamental disagreements with the idea that the UN is unilaterally in charge of handing out those contracts.”

“So you and Avasarala are back-channeling this to keep it from turning into something bigger.”

“There are about five more variables than that, but as a start, yes. Which is where you come in,” Fred said, pointing at Holden with his coffee mug. Printed on the side of the mug were the words THE BOSS. Holden stifled a laugh. “Nobody owns you, but Avasarala and I have both worked with you, and think we can do it again.”

“That’s a really stupid reason.”

Fred’s smile gave away nothing. “It doesn’t hurt that you have an atmosphere-rated ship.”

“You know we’ve never actually used it, though, right? I’m not keen on the first in-atmosphere maneuver happening a million kilometers from the closest repair bay.”

“The Rocinante is also a military design, and —”

“Forget it. No matter what your coffee cup says, I’m not going to be the boot on the colonists’ neck. I won’t do that.”

Fred sighed, sitting forward. When he spoke, his voice was soft and warm as flannel. But it didn’t hide the steel underneath it.

“The rules governing how a thousand planets are run are about to be made. This is the test case. You’ll be going in as an impartial observer and mediator.”

“Me? As a mediator?”

“The irony’s not lost on me. But things have already started to go bad there, and we need someone keeping it from getting worse while three governments decide how the next one will work.”

“You mean you want me to make it look like you’re doing something while you figure out what to do,” Holden said. “And going bad how?”

“The colonists blew up an RCE heavy lift shuttle. The provisional governor was on it. He’s dead, along with a few scientists and RCE employees. It won’t help our negotiations if Ilus turns into a full-blown war between Belters and a UN corporation.”

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