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.”
“Sergeant?” the lieutenant said.
The marine stepped back.
“No, sir. No problem.”
The lieutenant turned around and shook Naomi’s hand.
“Captain Estancia, it has been a pleasure. Our people will be radioing you with landing clearance shortly. I’m sure the people of Ganymede will be grateful for the supplies you’re bringing.”
“Happy to help,” Naomi said, and gave the young officer a brilliant smile.
When the UN troops had cycled back through the airlock and flown away in their skiff, Naomi let out a long breath and began massaging her cheeks.
“If I had to smile one second longer, my face was going to crack apart.”
Holden grabbed Amos by the sleeve.
“What. The. Fuck,” he said through gritted teeth, “was that all about?”
“What?” Naomi said.
“Amos here did just about everything he could to piss the marines off while you were gone. I’m surprised they didn’t shoot him, and then me half a second later.”
Amos glanced down at Holden’s hand, still gripping his arm, but made no move to pull free.
“Cap, you’re a good guy, but you’d be a shitty smuggler.”
“What?” Naomi said again.
“The captain here was so nervous even I started to think he was up to something. So I kept the marines’ attention until you got back,” Amos said. “Oh, and they can’t shoot you unless you actually touch them or draw a weapon. You were a UN Navy boy. You should remember the rules.”
“So …” Holden started.
“So,” Amos interrupted. “If the lieutenant asks them about us, they’ll have a story to tell about the ass**le engineer who got in their faces, and not the nervous guy with the patchy beard who kept trying to hide in the corner.”