But he had been. The fact that the women were using him in turn didn’t make him feel better about it.
Because Naomi was so physically different from the ideal that growing up on Earth had created, he had just not seen her as a potential sexual partner when they’d first met. And that meant he’d grown to know her as a person without any of the sexual baggage he usually carried. When his feelings for her grew beyond friendship, he was surprised.
And somehow, that changed everything about sex. The movements might all be the same, but the desire to communicate affection rather than demonstrate prowess changed what everything meant. After their first time together, he’d lain in bed for hours feeling like he’d been doing it wrong for years and only just realized it.
He was doing that again now.
Naomi slept on her side next to him, her arm thrown across his chest and her thigh across his, her belly against his hip and her breast against his ribs. It had never been like this with anyone before her, and this was what it was supposed to be like. This sense of complete ease and contentment. He could imagine a future in which he hadn’t been able to prove he’d changed, and in which she never came back to him. He could see years and decades of sexual partners, always trying to recapture this feeling and never being able to because, of course, it wasn’t really about the sex.
Thinking about it made his stomach hurt.
Naomi talked in her sleep. Her mouth whispered something mysterious into his neck, and the sudden tickle woke him up enough to realize he’d been drifting off to sleep. He hugged her head to his chest and kissed the top of it, then rolled over onto his side and let himself fade.
The wall monitor over the bed buzzed.
“Who is it?” he said, suddenly as tired as he could remember ever having been. He’d just closed his eyes a second earlier, and he knew he’d never be able to open them now.
“Me, Cap,” Alex said. Holden wanted to shout at him but couldn’t find the energy.
“You need to see this,” was all Alex said, but something in his voice woke Holden up. He sat up, moving Naomi’s arm out of the way. She said something in sleep-talk but didn’t wake.
“Okay,” he said again, turning on the monitor.
A white-haired older woman with very strange facial features looked out at him. It took his addled mind a second to recognize that she wasn’t deformed, just being crushed by a heavy burn. With a voice distorted by g-forces mashing down on her throat, she said, “My name is Chrisjen Avasarala. I’m the UN assistant undersecretary of executive administration. A UN admiral has dispatched six Munroe-class destroyers from the Jupiter system to destroy your ship. Track this transponder code and come meet me or you and everyone on your ship will die. This is not a f**king joke.”
Chapter Forty: Prax
Thrust pressed him into the crash couch. It was only four g, but even a single full g called for very nearly the full medical cocktail. He had lived in a place that kept him weak. He’d known that, of course, but mostly in terms of xylem and phloem. He had taken the normal low-g medical supplements to encourage bone growth. He had exercised as much as the guidelines asked. Usually. But always in the back of his mind, he’d thought it was idiocy. He was a botanist. He’d live and die in the familiar tunnels, with their comfortable low gravity—less than a fifth of Earth’s. An Earth he would never have reason to go to. There was even less reason he would ever need to suffer through a high-g burn. And yet here he lay in the gel like he was at the bottom of an ocean. His vision was blurred, and he fought for every inhalation. When his knee hyper-extended, he tried to scream but couldn’t catch his breath.
The others would be better. They’d be used to things like this. They knew that they’d survive. His hindbrain wasn’t at all sure. Needles dug into the flesh of his thigh, injecting him with another cocktail of hormones and paralytics. Cold like the touch of ice spread from the injection points, and a paradoxical sense of ease and dread filled his mind. At this point, it was a balancing act between keeping his blood vessels elastic enough that they wouldn’t burst and robust enough that they wouldn’t collapse. His mind slid out from under him, leaving something calculating and detached in its place. It was like pure executive function without a sense of self. What had been his mind knew what he had known, remembered the things he remembered, but wasn’t him.
In this altered state of consciousness, he found himself taking inventory. Would it be okay to die now? Did he want to live, and if he did, on what terms?He considered the loss of his daughter as if it were a physical object. Loss was the soft pink of crushed sea-shell, where once it had been the red of old, scabby blood. The red of an umbilical cord waiting to drop free. He remembered Mei, what she had looked like. The delight in her laugh. She wasn’t like that anymore. If she was alive. But she was probably dead.
In his gravity-bent mind, he smiled. Of course, his lips couldn’t react. He’d been wrong. All along, he’d been wrong. The hours of sitting by himself, telling himself that Mei was dead. He’d thought he was toughening himself. Preparing himself for the worst. That wasn’t right at all. He’d said it, he’d tried to believe it, because the thought was comforting.
If she was dead, she wasn’t being tortured. If she was dead, she wasn’t scared. If she was dead, then the pain would be all his, entirely his, and she would be safe. He noticed without pleasure or pain that it was a pathological mental frame. But he’d had his life and his daughter taken from him, had survived in near starvation while the cascade effect ate what was left of Ganymede, had been shot at, had faced a half-alien killing machine, and was now known throughout the solar system as a wife beater and pedophile. He had no reason to be sane. It wouldn’t help him.
And on top of that, his knee really hurt.
Somewhere far, far away, in a place with light and air, something buzzed three times, and the mountain rolled off his sternum. Coming back to himself was like rising from the bottom of a pool.
“Okay, y’all,” Alex said across the ship’s system. “We’re callin’ this dinner. Take a couple minutes for your livers to crawl up off your spinal cords, and we’ll meet up in the galley. We’ve only got fifty minutes, so enjoy it while you can.”
Prax took a deep breath, blowing it out between his teeth, and then sat up. His whole body felt bruised. His hand terminal claimed the thrust was at one-third g, but it felt like more and less than that. He swung his legs over the edge, and his knee made a wet, grinding pop. He tapped at his terminal.