“I am.” Her voice was light, but it had meaning radiating from it like harmonic overtones. Prax blinked.
“All right, then,” Holden said.
For a few seconds, no one moved; then Naomi darted in, kissing Holden lightly on the cheek. The captain’s arms moved out to embrace her, but she’d already stepped away, marching out through the narrow hallway with the air of a woman on her way someplace. Holden took his coffee. Amos and Alex exchanged glances.
“Ah, Cap’n?” Alex asked. Compared to the voice of the man who’d just put a nuclear warship against a spinning metal wheel in the middle of interplanetary space, this voice was hesitant and concerned. “Are we lookin’ for a new XO?”
“We’re not looking for anything until I say so,” Holden said. Then, his voice quieter: “But, God, I hope not.”
“Yessir,” Alex said. “Me too.”
The four men stood for a long, awkward moment. Amos was the first to speak.
“You know, Cap,” he said, “the place I’ve got booked has room for two. If you want the spare bunk, it’s yours.”
“No,” Holden said. He didn’t look at them as he spoke, but reached out his hand and pressed his palm to the wall. “I’m staying on the Roci. I’ll be right here.”
“You sure?” Amos asked, and again it seemed to mean something more than Prax could understand.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Holden said.
“All right, then.”
Prax cleared his throat, and Amos took his elbow.
“What about you?” Amos said. “You got a place to bunk down?”
Prax’s prepared speech—I wanted to tell you all how much I appreciate …—ran into the question, derailing both thoughts.
“I … ah … I don’t, but—”
“Right, then. Get your stuff, and you can come with me.”
“Well, yes. Thank you. But first I wanted to tell you all—”
Amos put a solid hand on his shoulder.
“Maybe later,” the big man said. “Right now, how about you just come with me?”
Holden leaned against the wall now. His jaw was set hard, like that of a man about to scream or vomit or weep. His eyes were looking at the ship but seeing past it. Sorrow welled up in Prax as if he were looking into a mirror.
“Yeah,” he said. “Okay.”
Amos’ rooms were, if anything, smaller than the bunks on the Rocinante: two small privacy areas, a common space less than half the size of the galley, and a bathroom with a fold-out sink and toilet in the shower stall. It would have induced claustrophobia if Amos had actually been there.
Instead, he’d seen Prax settled in, taken a quick shower, and headed out into the wide, luxurious passageways of the station. There were plants everywhere, but for the most part they seemed decorative. The curve of the decks was so slight Prax could almost imagine he was back on some unfamiliar part of Ganymede, that his hole was no more than a tube ride away. That Mei would be there, waiting for him. Prax let the outer door close, pulled out his hand terminal, and connected to the local network.
There was still no reply from Persis-Strokes, but it was probably too early to expect one. In the meantime, the problem was money. If he was going to fund this, he couldn’t do it alone.
Which meant Nicola.
Prax set up his terminal, turning the camera on himself. The image on the screen looked thin, wasted. The weeks had dried him out, and his time on the Rocinante hadn’t completely rebuilt him. He might never be rebuilt. The sunken cheeks on the screen might be who he was now. That was fine. He started recording.
“Hi, Nici,” he said. “I wanted you to know I’m safe. I got to Tycho Station, but I still don’t have Mei. I’m hiring a security consultant. I’m giving them everything I know. They seem like they’ll really be able to help. But it’s expensive. It may be very expensive. And she may already be dead.”
Prax took a moment to catch his breath.
“She may already be dead,” he said again. “But I have to try. I know you aren’t in a great financial position right now. I know you’ve got your new husband to think of. But if you have anything you can spare—not for me. I don’t want anything from you. Just Mei. For her. If you can give her anything, this is the last chance.”
He paused again, his mind warring between Thank you and It’s the least you can f**king do. In the end, he just shut off the recording and sent it.
The lag between Ceres and Tycho Station was fifteen minutes, given their relative positions. And even then, he didn’t know what the local schedule there was. He might be sending his message in the middle of the night or during dinnertime. She might not have anything to say to him.
It didn’t matter. He had to try. He could sleep if he knew he’d done everything he could to try.
He recorded and sent messages to his mother, to his old roommate from college who’d taken a position on Neptune Station, to his postdoctorate advisor. Each time, the story got a little easier to tell. The details started coming together, one leading into another. With them, he didn’t talk about the protomolecule. At best, it would have scared them. At worst, they’d have thought the loss had broken his mind.
When the last message was gone, he sat quietly. There was one other thing he thought he had to do now that he had full communication access. It wasn’t what he wanted.
He started the recording.
“Basia,” he said. “This is Praxidike. I wanted you to know that I know Katoa is dead. I saw the body. It didn’t … it didn’t look like he suffered. And I thought, if I was in your place, that wondering … wondering would be worse. I’m sorry. I’m just …”
He turned off the recording, sent it, and crawled onto the small bed. He’d expected it to be hard and uncomfortable, but the mattress was as cradling as crash couch gel, and he fell asleep easily and woke four hours later like someone had flipped a switch on the back of his head. Amos was still gone, even though it was station midnight. There was still no message from Persis-Strokes, so Prax recorded a polite inquiry—just to be sure the information hadn’t gotten lost in transit—then watched it and erased it. He took a long shower, washing his hair twice, shaved, and recorded a new inquiry, looking less like a raving lunatic.
Ten minutes after he sent it, a new-message alert chimed. Intellectually, he knew it couldn’t be a response. With lag, his message wouldn’t even be at Luna yet. When he pulled it up, it was Nicola. The heart-shaped face looked older than he remembered it. There was the first dusting of gray at her temples. But when she made that soft, sad smile, he was twenty again, sitting across from her in the grand park while bhangra throbbed and lasers traced living art on the domed ice above them. He remembered what it had been like to love her.