While we have to wait until February to take in the second season of The Expanse, the sixth installment of the book series, Babylon’s Ashes, will hit bookshelves next week — and we have an excerpt.
[Series spoilers ahead.]
Two centuries in the future, alien life has appeared in our solar system, along with a gate that leads to thousands of new worlds. The alien protomolecule caused massive political turmoil across the planet, and the balance of power shifted dramatically after a group of radicals known as the Free Navy bombarded Earth with asteroids.
Now, the Free Navy has plans to seize power across the system. James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are dispatched to Medina Station at the end of the solar system to stop the Free Navy. But deep inside enemy territory, they find their local troubles may be dwarfed by much greater ones.
Both parts of pseudonym James S.A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) sat down with The Verge to talk about the novel. “A lot of people feel like Nemesis Games didn't have as satisfying an ending because there's still a bunch of stuff [left hanging],” Abraham said. Babylon’s Ashes will wrap up the remaining storylines from Nemesis Games, and help set the stage for the final three books in the series “because they are the one big plot arc coming to the finale.”
With Babylon’s Ashes hitting bookstores, the authors have turned to the next novel in the series, which will be titled Persepolis Rising. They’re also planning another Expanse novella. “The next novella is not about a character you have met before,” Abraham explained. It will tie in closely with Babylon’s Ashes. “You don’t need to read the novella,” he continued. “It just reads better if you have more context.”
Chapter Three: Holden
There was something to be said for living a life that didn’t involve lengthy interrogations. By that standard, at least, Holden had not lived his well. When he and the rest of the Rocinante’s crew had agreed to be debriefed, he’d guessed that it would be more than just the events surrounding the attack on Earth by the Free Navy. There was more than enough to talk about, after all. The chief engineer on Tycho Station who’d been exposed as a mole for Marco Inaros, the abduction and rescue of Monica Stuart, the loss of the protomolecule sample, the attack that had nearly killed Fred Johnson. And that was just for him. Naomi and Alex and even Amos would have whole volumes of their own to contribute.
He hadn’t expected that the questioning would spread out from there like a gas to fill all available space. For weeks now, his days had been filled with twelve to sixteen hours of talking through anything and everything in his life. The names and histories of all eight of his parents. His school records. His abortive naval career. What he knew about Naomi, about Alex, about Fred Johnson. His relationship with the OPA, with Dmitri Havelock, with Detective Miller. Even after hours of review, he wasn’t sure about that last one. Sitting in the small room across from the UN interrogators, Holden had done his best to take apart his life until that point and lay it open before them.
The process chafed him. The questions cycled back and jumped around, as if they were trying to catch him out in a lie. They went into strange little cul-de-sacs—What were the names of the people he’d served with in the Navy? What did he know about each of them?—and stayed there far longer than seemed justified. His two primary questioners were a tall, light-skinned woman with a long, serious face named Markov and a short, pudgy man called Glenndining with hair and skin the same color of brown. They took turns pushing him and building rapport, subtly cutting him down to see if he’d get angry and what he’d say when he did, and then being almost uncomfortably affectionate with him.
They brought him limp, greasy sandwiches to eat or fresh pastries with some of the best coffee he’d ever had. They turned the lights down almost to darkness or brightened them until they were nearly blinding. They strolled in the hopping lunar shuffle down through the hallways from the docks or they stayed in a cramped steel box of a room. Holden felt as though his personal history was being scraped down to dry pulp like a lime at a really cheap bar. If there was a drop more of juice in him, they’d press it out somehow. It was easy to forget that these were his allies, that he’d agreed to this. More than once, he’d been curled up in his bunk after a long day, hovering on the edge of sleep, and found his mind half-dreaming plans to break the ship out of prison and escape.
It didn’t help that, in the dark sky above them, Earth was dying by centimeters. The newsfeeds that remained had mostly relocated to the Lagrange stations and Luna, but a few were still functioning down on the planetary surface. Between the interrogation sessions and sleep, Holden didn’t have much time to watch them, but the snippets he heard were enough. Overstrained infrastructure, ecosystem trauma, chemical changes in the ocean and atmosphere. There had been thirty billion people on the overcrowded Earth, dependent on a vast network of machinery to keep them fed and hydrated and not drowning in their own waste. A third of those, by the more pessimistic estimates, had already died. Holden had seen a few seconds of a report discussing how the death count in Western Europe was being done by assaying atmospheric changes. How much methane and cadaverine were in the air let them guess how many people were rotting in the ruined streets and cities. That was the scale of the disaster.
He’d felt guilty turning the feed off. The least he could do was watch. Be there as the ecosphere that bore him and his family and everyone else not very many generations back collapsed. Earth deserved witnesses. He was tired though, and frightened. Even after he’d killed the feed, he hadn’t been able to sleep.
Not all the news was bad. Mother Elise got a message through to him that the farm in Montana, while badly damaged, had proven self-sufficient enough to keep his parents alive. There was even enough surplus that they’d been able to help with some of the relief efforts in Bozeman. And as the muddy clouds of grit and ash settled down to poison the oceans, more and more relief flights had been able to dive down the gravity well and come back up filled with refugees.
The physical capabilities of Luna Base were beginning to be stressed, though. The air recyclers were being pushed to their limits so that every breath Holden took in the halls and corridors of the station felt like it had just come out of someone else’s mouth. Cots and privacy tents filled the food courts and public spaces. The crew of the Rocinante had given up their quarters in the station and moved back onto the ship to make more space. And also to live in their own bubble of clean air and well-filtered water. It was a little disingenuous to pretend the move was altruistic. The ship was quiet and empty and familiar. The only things that kept Holden from feeling perfectly comfortable were the silence that came from the powered-down reactor and the ghostlike presence of Clarissa Mao.
“Why does she bother you so much?” Naomi asked. They were in their shared cabin, held to the bunk by the moon’s fractional gravity and their own exhaustion.
“She killed a bunch of people,” Holden said, his sleepiness robbing him of the ability to think clearly. “Is that not enough? It seems like it should be enough.”
The cabin was at low light. The crash couch cradled their paired bodies. He felt Naomi’s breath against his side, familiar and warm and grounding. Her voice had the same slushy softness as his. They were both almost too tired to sleep. “That was a different her.”
“Everyone else seems certain of that. Not sure how we got there.”
“Well, I think Alex is still not sure about her.”
“But Amos is. And you are.”
She made a thick sound in the back of her throat. Her eyes were closed. Even in the dimness, he could see the deeper darkness of her lids. He thought for a moment she’d managed to fall asleep, but then she spoke. “I have to believe she can change. That people can.”
“You weren’t like her,” Holden said. “Even when… even when people died, you weren’t like her. You’re not a cold-blooded killer.”
“True. But Amos is Amos. It’s different in my head.”
“Because he’s Amos. He’s like a pit bull. You know he could tear your throat out, but he’s loyal to a fault and you just want to hug him.” She smiled slowly. She could do that. A drawing up of a muscle in her face, and Holden filled with hope and warmth and even a kind of grim optimism that said the universe couldn’t all be shit if it had a woman like this in it. He rested his hand on her hip. “You didn’t fall in love with me for my ethical consistency, did you?”
“Despite it,” she chuckled. Then a moment later, “You had a cute butt.”
“Had? Past tense?”
“I need to get back on the system,” she said, changing the subject. “Don’t let me fall asleep until I’ve checked for updates.”
“The missing ships?” he asked, and she nodded.
As hard as his own inquisition had been, Naomi’s was worse. She’d always been quiet about her past, about how she’d become the woman she was. Now she had traded that privacy away for a blanket amnesty for the crew, and for herself. Her versions of Markov and Glenndining weren’t just asking about a failed naval career and contract work for Fred Johnson. She was their window straight into Marco Inaros. She’d been his lover. The mother of his child, a fact Holden was still trying to wrap his head around. She’d been held captive on his flagship before and after the hammer fell on Earth. He knew the toll the marathon debriefing was taking on him. It had to be a thousand times harder for her.
Which, he assumed, was why she threw herself into the mystery of the missing ships. She’d been the first among them to notice that the set of vessels that had vanished in their transits through the ring gates and the stolen Martian warships that became the Free Navy didn’t overlap. Some ships were stolen by Marco and his crew, and some just vanished without a trace. There were two things going on, and he couldn’t begrudge her wanting to spend her off time focused on the other one.
But she had to sleep. If for no other reason than his belief that if she finally slept, he would too.
“I promise nothing,” he said.
“Okay,” she said. “Then wake me up early so I’ll have time to check before the next session.”
He lay beside her in the gloom until her breath stuttered, deepened, became the regular, powerful pulse of sleep. When he was still awake after five minutes of listening to her, he knew his own rest wasn’t coming. He stood, and for a moment, she went silent, moving up toward wakefulness before the deep breath returned. Holden let himself out.
The halls of the Rocinante were also dim, set for a night cycle. Holden made his way to the lift. Voices filtered to him from the galley: Amos’ affable rumble and the thinner, reedy sound of Clarissa’s voice. He paused, listened, then hauled himself up the ladder to the ops deck. The lunar gravity was light enough that using the lift seemed silly, so he just pulled himself up, hand over hand, until he got there. The cabin lights were out, so Alex was only lit by the backsplash from the screen.
“Hey there,” Alex drawled as Holden settled himself into a couch. “Can’t sleep?”
“Apparently not,” Holden sighed. “You?”
“I hate the gravity here. It feels like we’re moving too slow. I keep wanting to gun the engines. But there aren’t any engines and we aren’t going anywhere. It should be a drive holdin’ me down, but it’s just a big hunk of rock.” Alex gestured toward the newsfeed playing silently on his screen. A woman in a bright red hijab was speaking earnestly into the camera. Holden recognized her as a well-respected Martian journalist, but he couldn’t remember her name. “It just keeps coming. They’re calling it a mutiny. Keep talking about dereliction of duty and abandoning their post and black market sales of equipment.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“Sounds better than what it was,” Alex said. “It was a coup. It was a civil war, only instead of fighting, a fifth of the military just packed themselves off through the ring gates with all our stuff. Well, all our stuff they didn’t trade to these Free Navy assholes.”
“Any word where they were going?”
“Nope,” Alex said. “At least none they’re reporting.”
The woman in the hijab—Fatim Wilson, that was the name—vanished, but the feed spooled on with images of empty docks on Mars and then a group of protesters milling around and shouting at the camera. Holden couldn’t tell what they were for or against. The way things were now, he wasn’t sure they’d have been able to tell him either.
“If they ever come back, they’ll all be tried for treason,” Alex said. “Makes me think they weren’t planning to get back home anytime soon.”
“So,” Holden said. “Martian coup. Free Navy killing the shit out of Earth. Pirates stripping down all the colony ships that were heading out. Medina Station’s gone dark. And we-don’t-know-what eating some of the ships that go through the gates.”
Alex opened his mouth to reply, but his screen flicked and chimed. A high-priority connection request.
“One damned thing after another,” Alex said, accepting the connection, “when it ain’t a whole bunch of damned things at once.”
Chrisjen Avasarala appeared on the screen. Her hair was perfectly in place, her sari a gemlike shimmering green. Only her eyes and the set of her mouth showed the fatigue.
“Captain Holden,” she said. “I need to meet with you and your crew. At once.”
“Naomi’s asleep,” Holden said without pausing to think. Avasarala smiled. It wasn’t a pleasant expression. “So I’ll go wake her up. And we’ll be right over.”
“Thank you, Captain,” the acting ruler of Earth said and signed off.
Silence filled the deck. “You notice how she didn’t say anything obscene or offensive?” Holden said.
“Did notice that.”
Holden took a deep breath. “That can’t be good.”
From the book BABYLON’S ASHES by James S.A. Corey. Copyright © 2016 by James S.A. Corey. Reprinted by permission of Orbit Books, New York, NY. All rights reserved.