“Not really,” she replied. “How’d the extraction go?”

“Got enough kids to start a singing group, but a little shy of a baseball team,” Amos said.

“Mei’s here,” Prax said. “She’s all right.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Bobbie said, and even though she was clearly exhausted, she sounded like she meant it.

At the airlock, Amos and Prax got in and nestled the transports against the back wall while Bobbie stood on the rough ground outside. Prax checked the transport indicators. There was enough onboard air to last another forty minutes.

“All right,” Amos said. “We’re ready.”

“Going for emergency blow,” Bobbie said, and her armored suit came apart around her. It was a strange sight, the hard curves and layers of combat plate peeling themselves back, blooming out like a flower and then falling apart, and the woman, eyes closed and mouth open, being revealed. When she put her hand out for Amos to pull her in, the gesture reminded Prax of Mei seeing him again.

“Now, Doc,” Amos said.

“Cycling,” Prax said. He closed the outer door and started fresh air coming into the lock. Ten seconds later, Bobbie’s chest started to pump like a bellows. Thirty seconds, and they were at seven-eighths of an atmosphere.

“Where do we stand, guys?” Naomi asked as Prax opened the transport. The children were all asleep. Mei was sucking on her first two fingers, the way she had when she was a baby. He couldn’t get past how much older she looked.

“We’re solid,” Amos said. “I say we get the f**k out of here and glass the place.”

“A-fucking-men,” Avasarala’s voice said in the background.

“Copy that,” Naomi said. “We’re prepping for launch. Let me know when you’ve got all our new passengers safely in.”

Prax pulled off his helmet and sat beside Bobbie. In the black sheath of her base garments, she looked like someone just coming back from the gym. She could have been anybody.

“Glad you got your kid back,” she said.

“Thank you. I’m sorry you lost the suit,” he said.

She shrugged.

“At this point, it was mostly a metaphor anyway,” she said, and the inner airlock opened.

“Cycle’s done, Naomi,” Amos said. “We’re home.”

Chapter Fifty-Two: Avasarala

It was over, except that it wasn’t. It never was.

“We’re all friends now,” Souther said. Talking to him without lag was a luxury she was going to miss. “But if we all limp back to our corners, we’re more likely to stay that way. I’m thinking it’s going to be a question of years before either of our fleets are back up to what we were. There was a lot of damage.”

“The children?”

“Processing them. My medical officer’s in communication with a list of doctors who deal with pediatric immune problems. It’s just about finding their parents and getting them all home now.”

“Good,” she said. “That’s what I like to hear. And the other thing?”

Souther nodded. He looked younger in low gravity. They both did. Skin didn’t sag when there was nothing to tug it down, and she could see what he’d looked like as a boy.

“We’ve got transponder locks on a hundred and seventy-one packages. They’re all moving sunward pretty fast, but they’re not accelerating or evading. Pretty much we’re standing back and letting them get close enough to Mars that disposal is trivial.”

“You sure that’s a good idea?”

“By ‘close,’ I mean still weeks away at current speed. Space is big.”

There was a pause that meant something other than distance.

“I wish you’d ride back on one of ours,” Souther said.

“And be stuck out here for another few weeks with the paperwork? Not going to happen. And besides, heading back with James Holden and Sergeant Roberta Draper and Mei Meng? It has all the right symbolism. Press will eat it up. Earth, Mars, the Outer Planets, and whatever the hell Holden is now.”

“Celebrity,” Souther said. “A nation of its own.”

“He’s not that bad once you get past the self-righteousness. And anyway, this is the ship I’m on, and there’s nothing it’s waiting to repair before it starts its burn. And I’ve already hired him. No one’s giving me any shit about discretionary spending right now.”

“All right,” Souther said. “Then I’ll see you back down the well.”

“See you there,” she said, and cut the connection.

She pulled herself up and launched gently across the ops deck. It would have been easy to push down the crew ladder shaft, flying the way she’d dreamed of as a child. It tempted. In practice, she figured she’d either push too hard and slam into something or else too gently and have air resistance stop her with nothing solid close enough to reach. She used the handholds and pulled herself slowly down toward the galley. Pressure doors opened at her approach and closed behind her with soft hydraulic hisses and metallic bangs. When she reached the crew deck, she heard the voices before she could make out the words, and the words before she saw the people.

“… have to shut it down,” Prax was saying. “I mean, it’s false pretenses now. You don’t think I could be sued, do you?”

“You can always be sued,” Holden said. “Chances are they wouldn’t win.”

“But I don’t want to be sued in the first place. We have to shut it down.”

“I put a notice on the site so it gives a status update and asks for confirmation before any more money gets moved.”

She pulled herself into the galley. Prax and Holden were floating near the coffee machine. Prax wore a stunned expression, whereas Holden looked slightly smug. They both had bulbs of coffee, but Prax seemed to have forgotten his. The botanist’s eyes were wide and his mouth hung open, even in the microgravity.

“Who’s getting sued?” Avasarala asked.

“Now that we have Mei,” Holden said, “Prax wants people to stop giving him money.”

“It’s too much,” the botanist said, looking at her as if he expected her to do something about it. “I mean …”

“Surplus funds?” Avasarala asked.

“He can’t quite retire on what he’s got,” Holden said. “Not in luxury, anyway.”

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