This is Book 7 of The Expanse series
Ah, yes, the Expanse series. Again, as before, reading this book was like coming home. Yes, the plot starts twenty years after the end of the last book, yes, the book includes Holden and his righteous ass, yes, everyone is the same and everyone isn't the same, twenty years changes a lot.
The ship is transferred to Bobbie, we all saw that coming. The dynamics of the power exchange are tense, we all, also, saw that coming, if only because we react similarly when our worlds shift, and James S. A. Corey, I mean, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, know how to write people.
I read enough "but I don't want to spoil it for you!" blurbs to know someone dies somewhere in the book, so I went ahead and read the plot summary on Wikipedia, which does spoil that particular plot point for the reader. I actively wanted to know so that I could read the book in peace, ymmv.
I noticed I started reading more slowly in the second half of the book, and recognized I was going it so that the book would last longer. I did enjoy the book (unlike Cibola Burn, which nearly turned me off the series), and would recommend the series to any science fiction fan (if only so that they could see Holden's actions at the end, so worth it).
In the time he’d worked with Winston Duarte, Paolo had found much to admire in the man. The high consul was intelligent, given to astounding leaps of comprehension on complex topics but still measured and thoughtful in his decision making.
Duarte valued the counsel of others but was decisive and firm once the information was gathered. He could be charismatic and warm without ever seeming false or insincere. But more than anything else, Paolo respected his total lack of pretension.
Many lesser people, holding a position like absolute military dictator of an entire planet, would wrap themselves in pomp and glittering palaces. Duarte had instead built the State Building of Laconia.
“The ironic thing?” Duarte said. “I’ve always rejected the great-man idea. The belief that human history was formed by singular individuals instead of broad social forces? Romantic, but …” He waved a hand vaguely, like he was stirring fog. “Demographic trends. Economic cycles. Technological progress. All much more powerful predictors than any one person."
But as an objet d’art, Terra was hard to beat. Humanity had done its level best to kick the shit out of the slowly spinning egg. Overpopulation, exploitation, atmospheric and oceanic imbalance, and then three military-level meteor strikes, any one of which would have fucked up the dinosaurs. And here it still was, like a soldier. Scarred, broken, reimagined, rebuilt, and remade.
Time was supposed to heal all wounds. To Drummer, that was just a nice way of saying that if she waited long enough, none of the things that seemed important to her would turn out to matter. Or at least not the way she’d thought they did.
It was an excellent question. Policy was a ratchet. If she pulled the trigger, gave the order that the next unauthorized ship through was going to be turned into scrap metal and regrets, it wasn’t something she could pull back from.
Someone much better at this than she was had taught her to be very careful doing something if she wasn’t ready to do it every time from then on. But, Christ, it was tempting.
“There are always people who are wary of change. And that’s a good thing. Change should be watched, moderated, and questioned. But that conservative view shouldn’t rein in progress or put a damper on hope."
She’d grown up in a universe where people like her were disposable, and she’d lived long enough for fortune’s wheel to lift her up higher than Earth’s sky.
Time healed all wounds, but it didn’t erase the scars so much as decorate them.
Age showed up in unexpected ways. Things that had always worked before failed. It was something you prepared for as much as you could.
It seemed to her that the real sign you were getting old was when you stopped needing to prove you weren’t getting old.
She climbed the short ladder up through the hatch into the cockpit, trying to enjoy the ache in her shoulders the way she’d once enjoyed the burn after an intense workout. As an old drill sergeant had told her, pain is the warrior’s friend. Pain reminds you that you aren’t dead yet.
“You really think they’ll be dumb enough to make a play?” Bobbie asked.
“I don’t want to bet my life on other people being smart,” Holden said.
“Voice of experience?”
“I’ve been hurt before.”
That seemed to be the human pattern — reach out to the unknown and then make it into the sort of thing you left in the first place. In Holden’s experience, humanity’s drive out into the universe was maybe one part hunger for adventure and exploration to two parts just wanting to get the hell away from each other.
“You should come back soon, then,” she said. “And stop hooking up with all the girls on Medina.”
“I would never be unfaithful to you.”
“Damned right you wouldn’t,” Drummer said, but there was laughter in her voice too now. Drummer knew that she wasn’t an easy woman to love. Or even to work with. There weren’t many people in the vast span of the universe that could navigate her moods, but Saba was one of them. Was the best at it of anyone.
Even for a woman born to the void, it was overwhelming. And everyone seemed to want her to control it for them. To take responsibility for it all so that they could feel like someone, somewhere was in charge.
“Really? Because I’ve got a half dozen other arguments I’ve been working on for why it’s not a terrible idea.”
“Oh yeah, hold on to those,” Holden said. “I’m going to flip my opinion back and forth for weeks.
“That you were letting the universe down by not taking on every fight there was? Because I worked on that one for a while. I’ve got some good lines practiced up.”
Time and age, sorrow and laughter had taken some of the curve out of her cheek, left her skin a little looser at her neck. They weren’t young anymore. Maybe you could only really see that someone was beautiful when they’d grown into themselves.
There was a certain luxury to the thrust gravity of steady acceleration. Hooking your nethers to a vacuum toilet was one of the indignities space travel occasionally forced you into. On the float, with nothing to pull your waste away, it was that or have pee globes sharing your living space. Being able to just sit on a toilet in the crew head and relax for a moment while you did your business was something to appreciate.
Plan it through before you go in, because once the bullets start flying, the time for thinking is over. All you can do is move and react.
Holden was Holden. He’d need to take the weight for every bad thing that happened, and to overstate his appreciation for the good ones. It’s what made him him. He projected selfless heroism on everyone because that’s what he wanted to see in people. It was the same thing that caused most of the problems in his life — most people weren’t who he wanted them to be.
This I understand.
“No one is ever ready,” the admiral said. “But you don’t know that until after it’s happened.”
“Yeah, but my favorite thing about Holden was knowing he’d take a bullet for any one of the crew. Pretty sure you actually have taken a few for us, so that ain’t changing,” Amos said, then paused for a moment.
“Don’t let things sit for too long. It’s always tempting to just ignore the things that aren’t actually on fire just at the moment, but then you’re also committing to spend your time putting out fires.”
It wasn’t even that she was worried about the outcome of this particular encounter. It was that there was a better approach, she’d told them what it was, and they weren’t going to do it. And her ship — her people — were going to shoulder some part of the unnecessary risk. There was no scenario ever that was going to make that okay with her.
"I mean, I’m all for forgiveness and bygones being bygones, but it’s easier to stomach that after the assholes are all dead.”
She opened a channel to the rail-gun emplacements before she was consciously aware she’d done it, the certainty growing in her even as she got the lock that it wouldn’t be enough. That nothing would be. But there was a way you did these things. An order to battle, even when the battle was doomed.
“It’s … magnetic?” Naomi said, her tone managing to be authoritative and astounded at the same time. This is what it is, but I don’t believe what I’m seeing.
“Is that possible?” the duty officer said, her voice small and tight.
“Only if you define ‘possible’ as things that have already happened,” Naomi said,
“Yes, sir,” she said. “Are you taking command?”
“No, I’m not. But this is the right thing to do, and we need to do it now. So we should do it. Please.”
Her expression fell a degree. She’d hoped someone in authority had arrived. Someone who knew what to do. He recognized the hope and the disappointment both.
Watching it all happen from his position in the ops center, Holden found that he had to admire the level of training and discipline the Laconians displayed. They left no doubt that they were absolutely in charge, and they responded to any aggression with immediate lethal force. But they didn’t abuse the civilians. They didn’t push anyone around. They showed nothing that looked like bravado or bullying. Even the violence didn’t have any anger behind it. They were like animal handlers.
"Loyal citizens of the empire will know only peace and prosperity, and the absolute certainty of their own safety under our watchful eye. Disloyalty has one outcome: death.”
“Ah,” Naomi said, though it was more a long exhalation than a word. “The nicest totalitarian government ever, I’m sure.”
“By the time we figure out all the ways it isn’t,” Holden said, “it will be too late to do anything about it.”
“Will be?” Naomi asked. “Or is?”
“You’re about to fuck up,” Avasarala said, and her voice was harder than stone. “I can keep that from happening. And we can have that conversation here in front of these poor fucking shitheads, or you can roll your eyes and humor the crazy old bitch with a cup of tea and we can have a little privacy. You can blame me for it. I won’t mind. I’m too old and tired for shame.”
“It was a dick move,” Avasarala said, pouring a cup of tea for herself and then another one for Drummer. “It’s my fault. I overreact when I’m scared.”
“How am I about to fuck up?”
“By trying to get back your losses,” Avasarala said. “It’s not just you either. You’re going to have advisors on all sides who want the same damn thing. Mass a force to reclaim Medina, find a way to coordinate, take the fight back to Laconia. Through a massive effort and at tremendous cost, push our way back to the status quo ante.”
“You don’t think we can get the slow zone back?”
“How the fuck would I know? But I do know you can’t get it back as your first step. And I know how much you want to. It feels like if you’re just smart enough, fast enough, strong enough now, it won’t have happened the way it already did. But that’s not how it’s going to work. And I know how consuming that grief can be. Grief makes people crazy. It did me.”
“I’m telling you he came back because he thinks he can win,” Avasarala said. “And if he thinks that, you should prepare yourself for the idea that it’s true.”
“There’s no point, then,” Drummer said. “We should just roll over? Put our necks under his boot and hope he doesn’t step on us too hard?”
“Of course not. But don’t talk yourself into underestimating him because you want him to be the next Marco Inaros. Duarte won’t hand you a win by being a dumbfuck. He won’t spread himself too thin. He won’t overreach. He won’t make up half a dozen plans and then spin a bottle to pick one. He’s a chess player. And if you act on instinct, do the thing your feelings demand, he’ll beat us all.”
“I’ve seen this before. This is us getting paved over. All we can do now is try to find some cracks to grow through.”
“Cracks?” Alex said, then sat back down with a thump. “How long I known you? Half the time I still got no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.”
In the distance, the Belters were pulling things out of their coats and bags. Bobbie felt the surge of adrenaline in her blood the same moment as the calm descended on her: danger followed immediately by the well-cultivated response to danger. It felt like being home.
"Bringing Laconian focus and discipline to Medina Station and the other systems isn’t a matter of imposing our customs and rules on them.”
“I’m surprised to hear you say that.”
“Our discipline is ours, sir. The same actions can have different meanings in different contexts. What would be routine back home would seem draconian here. Anything harsher than routine will read as a wild overreaction. I believe the high consul would agree that underreacting to this would be a more persuasive show of authority.”
“I’m really wishing Titan were still on that list of options.”
“That’s waiting for yesterday, sweetheart.”
I love this response. Going to co-opt it.
Naomi murmured, shifted her pillow, and fell back into it without ever quite breaching up to consciousness.
Naomi shifted again, pulling the pillow over her head. She sighed. Her eyes stayed closed, but she was with him again. Awake, but not ready to admit it.
“Been brooding the whole time?” she asked.
“Some of it, yeah.”
“Did it help?”
The deep human instinct to come together in crisis. To take care of each other. In its best light, it was what made humanity human.
Bobbie had never really thought about how much communication changed when every time you spoke, you had to be close enough that the other person could stab you if they wanted to. Never before, anyway.
History was a cycle. Everything that had happened before, all the way back through the generations, would happen again. Sometimes the wheel turned quickly, sometimes it was slow.
“I’m thinking this through while I’m saying it, so just …”
“Got it,” Holden said. “Whatever it is, take a swing at it. We’ll work it out.”
“I’ve heard that story,” Bobbie replied. “Wish I’d been here to back you guys up in that fight.”
Clarissa shrugged. “The story’s more fun than the actual experience was. You didn’t miss much.”
“I’m as surprised as you are,” Avasarala said. “Though I feel like I shouldn’t be. I actually read history. It’s like reading prophecy, you know.”
Singh assumed there was a faith element to the risk that he was just missing. In his opinion, faith was generally for people who were bad at math.
Panic and alarm were exhausting. He was exhausted by them, and Medina was exhausted too. It was already shifting into its new routine.
But the fear was eroding her bit by bit and taking away all the things that let her recover. Like a recycling pond with a plugged drain, she was filling with shit, and sooner or later, she’d overspill. It wasn’t a source of anxiety. It was just something she knew about herself, as if she were thinking about some different woman.
She should have been kinder, wiser, more cunning. She should have been something other than what she was. There had to have been a moment when she could have chosen something different, when all of this could have been stopped. She couldn’t think when it had been.
His expression was almost rueful. That would be a pose, of course. A decision he’d made about how to appear. She hated that, even knowing that, she felt herself hoping he could be reasoned with. Wanting to like him, because then maybe he’d like her. Stockholm syndrome’s first, pale roots. She pushed the gentle impulse away and summoned up her hatred.
It was the nature of bad news to spread, and once it was out, it was out forever.
There were two ways to hide something. Either put it where no one could see it or leave it in plain sight with a thousand others just like it. If the alarm went off in the secure room, that would mean one thing. If a bunch of alarms went off all through the engineering and dock levels, and it was only one, maybe the guards had panicked. It would just be more noise in the chaos. Unremarkable.
Situations like this one, they could see death coming, and it didn’t matter. Death still came.
..., and she waited for the joy to fade before she risked thinking about it again. It was always dangerous when the universe fell down in a pattern where the thing you wanted and the wise path were the same.
There was no way for her to ask. That was the trick of living under the thumb of a dictator. It broke every conversation, even the private ones.
Holden had always been the one who soaked up the fame and celebrity, because for the most part he didn’t notice it. He just kept on being himself, and got vaguely surprised when anyone recognized him.
Some things slipped when you were hiding from authoritarian police squads and trying to topple a conquering army. Linens appeared to be one of those things.
“Alex, I live here,” Naomi said. “I can’t tell you how many times he’s put me here. How many times he’s seen the right thing to do and rushed off to do it without thinking about the price. Without letting me or you or the Roci scare him into being less than his conscience demands. He doesn’t even know he’s doing it. It’s natural to him. Who he is. It’s the only thing about him I’m really angry about.”
“He’s exhausting,” she said. “But we love him.” She sighed. “We do.”
"It’s not I don’t trust, it’s that I don’t trust blind. People are people. Fucked up like we all are, it amazes me when we can even make a sandwich.”
“A man of infinite cynicism,” Naomi said.
If he was going to find something that he could exploit, he had to believe there was good in him, even if he only maintained the illusion for a little while.
"Your empire’s hands look a lot cleaner when you get to dictate where history begins and what parts of it don’t count.”
If there was one thing Laconia’s history taught, it was the power of the right person at the right moment.
The one thing he’d said that stuck with her was, I am a human being. Anything that happens to human beings could happen to me.
Hello, tenant of Buddhism and Stoicism both.
And a though of any thinking person.
"It’d be a better world if there was always at least one right answer instead of a basket of fucked.”
“Don’t worry. These Laconians are just like Earthers. They only think of ships and stations as inside. Comes from growing up in free air.”
“‘The predictable limits of a conceptual framework,’” Bobbie said. A phrase from her classroom on Olympus Mons.
Her heart was pounding. Her muscles ached. She’d just killed two of the enemy. There would always be a little something — that tug on her humanity that came from doing violence. There was a satisfaction too. It didn’t mean she was a good woman or a bad one. It meant she was a Marine.
The green dots shifted, swirling in the display as the ships did in the darkness. A few dove toward the Tempest, moving almost at the same speed as the torpedoes. As gentle as it looked on the display, it was a killing burn. A suicide run for the crews of every ship that did it. More followed suit until dozens of ships were driving down toward the enemy. It was a tactic of unspeakable bravery and desperation.
Drummer didn’t notice that her hands were in fists until the ache caught her attention. She made her fingers open, looked at the little flaps of skin she’d carved off with her nails. The suicide attack reached its peak. It reminded her of pictures she’d seen of cloudbursts over the deserts of Earth. Huge, angry clouds.
“What about evac?” She knew what he meant. If he could blow the reactor, should he? Was the mission more important than living through it?
“You okay?” Naomi asked. Clarissa lifted her hand in the same Schrödinger’s answer she always had, no matter how she expressed it. Always yes, and always no. Yes, I’m fine in that I am not presently in medical collapse. No, having that be what fine meant didn’t ratify her early life choices.
“Thank you. It’s not … what I was expecting.”
“Yeah,” Clarissa said. “It seems like there’s always the way we wanted things to go, and there’s what actually happens.”
“Listen,” Naomi said. “They’re playing our song.”
“Oh my,” Clarissa said, laughing. “We have lived our lives wrong, haven’t we?”
The worst part was that she’d done it to herself. The damage to her body, the wear and the weariness, were all products of conscious, determined choices made by a girl she hadn’t been in decades. She carried the weight of those decisions like a sack of bones. Like a toolbox full of them. Some sins carried their own punishment. Sometimes redemption meant carrying the past with you forever. She’d gotten used to that over the years, but it was still pretty fucking inconvenient.
I teared up at this line.
Yes, so many yeses.
She tried to think what to say that would clarify that, but it was a lot of effort. And what did it matter really if anyone else understood? She knew. Fuck it, she thought. Some things you take to your grave.
The pilot flinched back, shot a look at Davenport. He stared hard at her, like he was looking at his death. Like he was trying to talk himself into being brave and hadn’t quite managed it yet. There was a chance there in the space between who he was and who he was trying to be.
“It’s the reward of old age,” Avasarala said. “You live long enough, and you can watch everything you worked for become irrelevant.”
Freehold was pain. Some days that was a good thing. It gave her something to push against, something to fight. Other days it was just wearying.
"The founding impulse of Freehold is sticking it to the government.”
“Loses some of its shine after you get elected.”
Everything changed, and it went right on changing. A terrible thought when things were good, a comforting one now.