Holden slid the used towel into its cycling chamber and pushed off toward the compartment hatch and up the crew ladder to the operations deck.
Not that it was much of an ops deck. The Somnambulist was nearly a hundred years old and definitely at the end of her life cycle. If they hadn’t needed a throwaway ship for this mission, Fred’s people would probably have just scrapped the old girl out. Her recent run-in with pirates had left her half dead to begin with. But she’d spent the last twenty years of her life flying the Ganymede-to-Ceres food run, and she’d show up in the registry as a regular visitor to the Jovian moon, a ship that might plausibly arrive with relief supplies. Fred thought that with her regular arrivals at Ganymede, she might just get waved past any customs or blockades without a look.
That, it seemed, had been optimistic.
Naomi was belted into one of the operations stations when Holden arrived. She wore a green jumpsuit similar to his, though the name on her pocket read Estancia. She gave him a smile, then waved him over to look at her screen.
“That’s the group of ships that are checking everyone out before they land.”
“Damn,” Holden said, zooming the telescopic image in to get a better look at the hulls and identifying marks. “Definitely UN ships.” Something small moved across the image from one of the UN ships to the heavy freighter that was currently at the front of the line. “And that looks like a boarding skiff.”
“Well, good thing you haven’t groomed in a month,” Naomi said, tugging at a lock of his hair. “With that bush on your head and that awful beard, your own mothers wouldn’t recognize you.”
“I’m hoping they haven’t recruited my mothers,” Holden said, trying to match her lightness of tone. “I’ll warn Amos that they’re coming.”
Holden, Naomi, and Amos waited in the short locker-filled hallway just outside the inner airlock door for the boarding party to finish cycling the ’lock. Naomi looked tall and stern in her freshly washed captain’s uniform and magnetic boots. Captain Estancia had skippered the Somnambulist for ten years before the pirate attack that took her life. Holden thought Naomi made a suitably regal replacement.
Behind her, Amos wore a jumpsuit with a chief engineer’s patch and a bored scowl. Even in the microgravity of their current orbit around Ganymede, he seemed to be slouching. Holden did his best to emulate his stance and his half-angry expression.
The airlock finished cycling, and the inner doors slid open. Six marines in combat armor and a junior lieutenant in an environment suit clanked out on mag boots. The lieutenant quickly looked over the crew and checked them against something on his hand terminal. He looked as bored as Amos did. Holden guessed that this poor junior officer had been stuck with the shit duty of boarding ships all day and was probably in as big a hurry to be done as they were to leave.
“Rowena Estancia, captain and majority owner of the Ceres-registered freighter Weeping Somnambulist.”
He didn’t make it a question, but Naomi replied, “Yes, sir.”
“I like the name,” the lieutenant said without looking up from his terminal.
“The ship name. It’s unusual. I swear, if I board one more ship named after someone’s kid or the girl they left behind after that magical weekend on Titan, I’m going to start fining people for general lack of creativity.”
Holden felt a tension begin at the base of his spine and creep up toward his scalp. This lieutenant might be bored with his job, but he was smart and perceptive, and he was letting them know it up front.
“Well, this one is named after the tearful three months I spent on Titan after he left me,” Naomi said with a grin. “Probably a good thing in the long term. I was going to name her after my goldfish.”
The lieutenant’s head snapped up in surprise; then he began laughing. “Thanks, Captain. That’s the first laugh today. Everyone else is scared shitless of us, and these six slabs of meat”—he gestured at the marines behind him—“have had their senses of humor chemically removed.”
Holden shot a look to Amos. Is he flirting with her? I think he’s flirting with her. Amos’ scowl could have meant anything.
The lieutenant tapped something on his terminal and said, “Protein, supplements, water purifiers, and antibiotics. Can I take a quick look?”
“Yes, sir,” Naomi said, gesturing toward the hatch. “Right this way.”
She left, the UN officer and two of the marines in tow. The other four settled into alert-guard poses next to the airlock. Amos elbowed Holden to get his attention, then said, “How you boys doing today?”
The marines ignored him.
“I was saying to my buddy here, I was saying, ‘I bet those fancy tin suits those boys wear bind up something awful in the crotch.’”
Holden closed his eyes and started sending psychic messages to Amos to shut up. It didn’t work.
“I mean, all that fancy high-tech gear strapped on everywhere, and the one thing they don’t allow for is scratching your balls. Or, God forbid, you get outta alignment and gotta give the works a shift to create some space.”
Holden opened his eyes. The marines were all looking at Amos now, but they hadn’t moved or spoken. Holden shifted to the back corner of the room and tried to press himself into it. No one even glanced in his direction.
“So,” Amos continued, his voice full of companionable good cheer. “I got this theory, and I was hoping you boys could help me out.”
The closest marine took a half step forward, but that was all.
“My theory is,” Amos said, “that to avoid that whole problem, they just go ahead and cut off all those parts that might get caught up in your suit. And it has the added benefit of reducing your temptation to diddle each other during those long cold nights on the ship.”
The marine took another step, and Amos immediately took one of his own to close the distance. With his nose so close to the marine’s armored faceplate that his breath fogged the glass, Amos said, “So be straight with me, Joe. The outside of those suits, that’s anatomically correct, ain’t it?”
There was a long, tense silence that was finally broken when someone cleared his throat at the hatch, and the lieutenant came into the corridor. “There a problem here?”
Amos smiled and stepped back.
“Nope. Just getting to know the fine men and women my tax dollars help pay for.”