“Do you know why that is?”

Holden shook his head, afraid if he spoke, it might come out as a squeak.

“It’s because,” Fred said, “I’m the f**king boss. I run this outfit. You’ve been pretty useful, and you might be again in the future. But I have enough shit to deal with right now without you starting another one of your crusades at my expense.”

“So,” Holden said, letting the word drag to two syllables.

“So you’re fired. This was your last contract with me. I’ll finish fixing the Roci and I’ll pay you, because I don’t break a deal. But I think we’ve finally built enough ships to start policing our own sky without your help, and even if we haven’t, I’m just about done with you.”

“Fired,” Holden said.

“Now get the hell out of my office before I decide to take the Roci too. She’s got more Tycho parts on her now than originals. I think I might be able to make a good argument I own that ship.”

Holden backed up toward the door, wondering how serious that threat might actually be. Fred watched him go but didn’t move. When he reached the door, Fred said, “It wasn’t me.”

Their gazes met for a long, breathless moment.

“It wasn’t me,” Fred repeated.

Holden said, “Okay,” and backed out the door.

When the door slid shut and blocked Fred from view, Holden let out a long sigh and collapsed against the corridor wall. Fred was right about one thing: He’d been excusing himself with his fear for far too long. This righteous indignation you wield like a club at everyone around you. He’d seen humanity almost end due to its own stupidity. It had left him shaken to the core. He’d been running on fear and adrenaline ever since Eros.

But it wasn’t an excuse. Not anymore.

He started to pull out his terminal to call Naomi when it hit him like a light turning on. I’m fired.

He’d been on an exclusive contract with Fred for over a year. Tycho Station was their home base. Sam had spent almost as much time tuning and patching the Roci as Amos had. That was all gone. They’d have to find their own jobs, find their own ports, buy their own repairs. No more patron to hold his hand. For the first time in a very long time, Holden was a real independent captain. He’d need to earn his way by keeping the ship in the air and the crew fed. He paused for a moment, letting that sink in.

It felt great.

Chapter Thirty-Three: Prax

Amos sat forward in his chair. The sheer physical mass of the man made the room seem smaller, and the smell of alcohol and old smoke came off him like heat from a fire. His expression couldn’t have been more gentle.

“I don’t know what to do,” Prax said. “I just don’t know what to do. This is all my fault. Nicola was just … she was so lost and so angry. Every day, I woke up and I looked over at her, and all I saw was how trapped she was. And I knew Mei was going to grow up with that. With trying to get her mommy to love her when all Nici wanted to do was be somewhere else. And I thought it would be better. When she started talking about going, I was ready for her to do it, you know? And when Mei … when I had to tell Mei that …”

Prax dropped his head into his hands, rocking slowly back and forth.

“You gonna sick up again, Doc?”

“No. I’m fine. If I’d been a better father to her, she’d still be here.”

“We talking about the ex-wife or the kid?”

“I don’t care about Nicola. If I’d been there for Mei. If I’d gone to her as soon as we got the warning. If I hadn’t waited there in the dome. And for what? Plants? They’re dead now anyway. I had one, but I lost it, too. I couldn’t even save one. But I could have gotten there. Found her. If I’d—”

“You know she was gone before the shit hit the fan, right?”

Prax shook his head. He wasn’t about to let reality forgive him.

“And this. I had a chance. I got out. I got some money. And I was stupid. It was her last chance, and I was stupid about it.”

“Yeah, well. You’re new at this, Doc.”

“She should have had a better dad. She deserved a better dad. Was such a good … she was such a good girl.”

For the first time, Amos touched him. The wide hand took his shoulder, gripping him from collarbone to scapula and bending Prax’s spine until it was straight. Amos’ eyes were more than bloodshot, white sclera marbled with red. His breath was hot and astringent, the platonic ideal of a sailor on a shore leave bender. But his voice was sober and steady.

“She’s got a fine daddy, Doc. You give a shit, and that’s more than a lot of people ever do.”

Prax swallowed. He was tired. He was tired of being strong, of being hopeful and determined and preparing for the worst. He didn’t want to be himself anymore. He didn’t want to be anyone at all. Amos’ hand felt like a ship clamp, keeping Prax from spinning away into darkness. All he wanted was to be let go.

“She’s gone,” Prax said. It felt like a good excuse. An explanation. “They took her away from me, and I don’t know who they are, and I can’t get her back, and I don’t understand.”

“It ain’t over yet.”

Prax nodded, not because he was actually comforted, but because this was the moment when he knew he should act like he was.

“I’m never going to find her.”

“You’re wrong.”

The door chimed and slid open. Holden stepped in. Prax couldn’t see at first what was different about him, but that something had happened … had changed … was unmistakable. The face was the same; the clothes hadn’t changed. Prax had the uncanny memory of sitting through a lecture on metamorphosis.

“Hey,” Holden said. “Everything all right?”

“Little bumpy,” Amos said. Prax saw his own confusion mirrored in Amos’ face. They were both aware of the transformation, and neither of them knew what it was. “You get laid or something, Cap?”

“No,” Holden said.

“I mean, good on you if you did,” Amos said. “It just wasn’t how I pictured—”

“I didn’t get laid,” Holden said hesitantly. The smile that came after was almost radiant. “I got fired.”

“Just you got fired, or all of us?”

“All of us.”

“Huh,” Amos said. He went still for a moment, then shrugged. “All right.”

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