Prax closed his eyes, picturing the vectors.
“We’re almost there, then?” he said.
“Very nearly,” Alex said. “Eighteen, twenty hours.”
“How’s it going to play out? Are the Earth ships going to catch us?”
“They’re gonna catch the hell out of us,” Alex said, “but not before we get that pinnace. Call it four days after, maybe.”
Prax took a spoonful of the soup. It tasted just as good as it smelled. Green, dark leaves were mixed in with the lentils, and he spread one open with his spoon, trying to identify it. Spinach, maybe. The stem margin didn’t look quite right, but it had been cooked, after all …
“How sure are we this isn’t a trap?” Amos asked.
“We aren’t,” Holden said. “But I don’t see how it would work.”
“If they want us in custody instead of dead,” Naomi suggested. “We are talking about opening our airlock for someone way high up in the Earth government.”
“So she is who she says she is?” Prax asked.
“Looks like it,” Holden said.
Alex raised a hand.
“Well, if it’s talk to some little gramma from the UN or get my ass shot off by six destroyers, I’m thinkin’ we can break out the cookies and tea, right?”
“It would be late in the game to go for another plan,” Naomi said. “It makes me damn uncomfortable having Earth saving me from Earth, though.”
“Structures are never monolithic,” Prax said. “There’s more genetic variation within Belters or Martians or Earthers than there is between them. Evolution would predict some divisions within the group structures and alliances with out-members. You see the same thing in ferns.”
“Ferns?” Naomi asked.
“Ferns can be very aggressive,” Prax said.
A soft chime interrupted them: three rising notes, like bells gently struck.
“Okay, suck it down,” Alex said. “That’s the fifteen-minute warning.”
Amos made a prodigious sucking sound, the white tube withering at his lips. Prax put down his spoon and lifted the soup bowl to his lips, not wanting to leave a drop of it. Holden did the same, then started gathering up the used bowls.
“Anyone needs to hit the head, this is the time,” he said. “We’ll talk again in …”
“Eight hours,” Alex said.
“Eight hours,” Holden repeated.
Prax felt his chest go tight. Another round of crushing acceleration. Hours of the couch’s needles propping up his failing metabolism. It sounded like hell. He rose from the table, nodded to everyone, and went back to his bunk. His knee was much better. He hoped it would still be when he next got up. The ten-minute chime sounded. He lay down on the couch, trying to align his body perfectly, then waited. Waited.
He rolled over and grabbed his hand terminal. Seven new incoming messages. Two of them supportive, three hateful, one addressed to the wrong person, and one a financial statement from the charity fund. He didn’t bother reading them.
He turned on the camera.
“Nicola,” he said. “I don’t know what they told you. I don’t know if you really think all those things that you said. But I know I never touched you in anger, even at the end. And if you really felt afraid of me, I don’t know why it was. Mei is the one thing that I love more than anything in life. I’d die before I let anyone hurt her. And now half the solar system thinks I hurt her …”
He stopped the recording and began again.
“Nicola. Honestly, I didn’t think we had anything left between us to betray.”
He stopped. The five-minute warning chimed as he ran his fingers through his hair. Each individual follicle ached. He wondered if this was why Amos kept his head shaved. There were so many things about being on a ship that didn’t occur to you until you were actually there.
He erased all the recordings and logged into the charity bank account interface. There was a secure request format that could encrypt and send an authorized transfer as soon as light-speed delivered it to the bank’s computers. He filled it all out quickly. The two-minute warning sounded, louder and more insistent. With thirty seconds left, he sent her money back. There was nothing else for them to say.
He put the hand terminal in place and lay back. The computer counted backward from twenty, and the mountain rolled back over him.
“How’s the knee?” Amos asked.
“Pretty good,” Prax said. “I was surprised. I thought there’d be more damage.”
“Didn’t hyperextend this time,” Amos said. “Did okay with my toe too.”
A deep tone rang through the ship, and the deck shifted under Prax. Holden, standing just to Prax’s right, moved the rifle to his left hand and touched a control panel.
“Yeah, it was little rough. Sorry about that, but … Hold on. Yeah, Cap. We’ve got seal. And they’re knocking.”
Holden shifted the rifle back to his other hand. Amos also had a weapon at the ready. Naomi stood beside him, nothing in her hands but a terminal linked to ship operations. If something went wrong, being able to control ship functions might be more useful than a gun. They all wore the articulated armor of the Martian military that had come with the ship. The paired ships were accelerating at a third of a g. The Earth destroyers still barreled down toward them.
“So I’m guessing the firearms mean you’re thinking trap, Cap’n?” Amos asked.
“Nothing wrong with an honor guard,” Holden said.
Prax held up his hand.
“You don’t ever get one again,” Holden said. “No offense.”
“No, I was just … I thought honor guards were usually on the same side as the people they’re guarding?”
“We may be stretching the definitions a little here,” Naomi said. Her voice had just a trace of tension in it.
“She’s just a little old politician,” Holden said. “And that pinnace can’t hold more than two people. We’ve got her outnumbered. And if things get ugly, Alex is watching from the pilot’s seat. You are watching, right?”
“Oh yeah,” Alex said.
“So if there are any surprises, Naomi can pop us loose and Alex can get us out of here.”
“That won’t help with the destroyers, though,” Prax said.
Naomi put a hand on his arm, squeezing him gently.