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“I don’t think we need to do that, sir,” Naomi said.

“Why not?”

Naomi raised her hand, pointing back behind Holden and Prax both.

“Because I’m pretty sure that’s the Roci setting down over there,” she said.

Chapter Twenty-Two: Holden

The secret landing pad lay in the hollow of a small crater. When Holden crested the lip and saw the Rocinante below him, the sudden and dizzying release of tension told him how frightened he’d been for the last several hours. But the Roci was home, and no matter how hard his rational mind argued that they were still in terrible danger, home was safe. As he paused a moment to catch his breath, the scene was lit with bright white light, like someone had taken a picture. Holden looked up in time to see a fading cloud of glowing gas in high orbit.

People were still dying in space just over their heads.

“Wow,” Prax said. “It’s bigger than I expected.”

“Corvette,” Amos replied, obvious pride in his voice. “Frigate-class fleet escort ship.”

“I don’t know what any of that means,” Prax said. “It looks like a big chisel with an upside-down coffee cup on the back.”

Amos said, “That’s the drive—”

“Enough,” Holden cut in. “Get to the airlock.”

Amos led the way, sliding down the crater’s icy wall hunched down on his heels and using his hands for balance. Prax went next, for once not needing any help. Naomi went third, her reflexes and balance honed by a lifetime spent in shifting gravities. She actually managed to look graceful.

Holden went last, fully prepared to slip and go down the hill in a humiliating tumble, then pleasantly surprised when he didn’t.

As they bounded across the flat floor of the crater toward the ship, the outer airlock door slid open, revealing Alex in a suit of Martian body armor and carrying an assault rifle. As soon as they were close enough to the ship that they could cut through the orbital radio clutter, Holden said, “Alex! Man, is it good to see you.”

“Hey, Cap,” Alex replied, even his exaggerated drawl not able to hide the relief in his voice. “Wasn’t sure how hot this LZ would be. Anyone chasin’ you?”

Amos ran up the ramp and grabbed Alex in a bear hug that yanked him off his feet.

“Man, it’s f**king good to be home!” he said.

Prax and Naomi followed, Naomi patting Alex on the shoulder as she went by. “You did good. Thank you.”

Holden stopped on the ramp to look up one last time. The sky was still filled with the flashes and light trails of ongoing battle. He had the sudden visceral memory of being a boy back in Montana, watching massive thunderheads flash with hidden lightning.

Alex watched with him, then said, “It was a bit hectic, comin’ in.”

Holden threw an arm around his shoulder. “Thanks for the ride.”

Once the airlock had finished cycling and the crew had removed their environment suits and armor, Holden said, “Alex, this is Prax Meng. Prax, this is the solar system’s best pilot, Alex Kamal.”

Prax shook Alex’s hand. “Thank you for helping me find Mei.”

Alex frowned a question at Holden, but a quick shake of the head kept him from asking it. “Nice to meet you, Prax.”

“Alex,” Holden said, “get us warmed up for liftoff, but don’t take off until I’m up in the copilot’s chair.”

“Roger,” Alex said, and headed toward the bow of the ship.

“Everything’s sideways,” Prax said, looking around at the storage room just past the inner airlock door.

“The Roci doesn’t spend much time on her belly like this,” Naomi said, taking his hand and leading him to the crew ladder, which now appeared to run across the floor. “We’re standing on a bulkhead, and that wall to our right is normally the deck.”

“Grew up in low grav and don’t spend much time on ships, apparently,” Amos said. “Man, this next part is really gonna suck for you.”

“Naomi,” Holden said. “Get to ops and get belted in. Amos, take Prax to the crew deck and then head down to engineering and get the Roci ready for a rough ride.”

Before they could leave, Holden put a hand on Prax’s shoulder.

“This takeoff and flight is going to be fast and bumpy. If you haven’t trained for high-g flight, it will probably be very uncomfortable.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Prax said, making what he probably thought was a brave face.

“I know you’re tough. You couldn’t have survived the last couple weeks otherwise. You don’t have anything to prove at this point. Amos will take you to the crew deck. Find a room without a name on the door. That will be your room now. Get in the crash couch and buckle in, then hit the bright green button on the panel to your left. The couch will pump you full of drugs that will sedate you and keep you from blowing a blood vessel if we have to burn hard.”

“My room?” Prax said, an odd note in his voice.

“We’ll get you some clothes and sundries once we’re out of this shit. You can keep them there.”

“My room,” Prax repeated.

“Yeah,” Holden said. “Your room.” He could see Prax fighting down a lump in his throat, and he realized what the simple offer of comfort and safety probably meant to someone who’d been through what the small botanist had over the last month.

There were tears in the man’s eyes.

“Come on, let’s get you settled in,” Amos said, leading Prax aft toward the crew deck.

Holden headed the other way, past the ops deck, where Naomi was already strapped down into a chair at one of the workstations, then forward into the cockpit. He climbed into the copilot’s seat and belted in.

“Five minutes,” he said over the shipwide channel.

“So,” Alex said, dragging the word out to two syllables while he flicked switches to finish the preflight check, “we’re lookin’ for someone named Mei?”

“Prax’s daughter.”

“We do that now? Seems like the scope of our mission is creepin’ a bit.”

Holden nodded. Finding lost daughters was not part of their mandate. That had been Miller’s job. And he’d never be able to adequately explain the certainty he felt that this lost little girl was at the center of everything that had happened on Ganymede.

“I think this lost little girl is at the center of everything that’s happened on Ganymede,” he said with a shrug.

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