“Of course,” Prax said.
“Because you know, sometimes things happen, you didn’t even mean them to. Have a hard day, lose your temper, maybe? Or shit, you get drunk. Some of the things I’ve done when I really tied one on? I don’t even know about until later.” Amos smiled. “I’m just saying if there’s a grain of truth, something that’s getting all exaggerated, it’d be better if we knew it now, right?”
“I never did anything that she said.”
“It’s okay to tell me the truth, Doc. I understand. Sometimes guys do stuff. Doesn’t make ’em bad.”
Prax pushed Amos’ hand aside and brought himself up to sitting. His knee felt much better.
“Actually,” he said, “it does. That makes them bad.”
Amos’ expression relaxed, his smile changed in a way Prax couldn’t quite understand.
“All right, Doc. Like I said, I’m sorry as hell. But I did have to ask.”
“It’s okay,” Prax said, standing up. For a moment, the knee seemed like it might give, but it didn’t. Prax took a tentative step, then another. It would work. He turned toward the galley, but the conversation wasn’t finished. “If I had. If I had done those things, that would have been okay with you?”
“Oh, f**k no. I’d have broken your neck and thrown you out the airlock,” Amos said, clapping him on the shoulder.
“Ah,” Prax said, a gentle relief loosening in his chest. “Thank you.”
The other three were in the galley when Prax and Amos got there, but it still felt half full. Less. Naomi and Alex were sitting across the table from each other. Neither of them looked as ruined as Prax felt. Holden turned from the wall with a formed-foam bowl in either hand. The brown slurry in them smelled of heat and earth and cooked leaves. As soon as it caught his nose, Prax was ravenous.
“Lentil soup?” Holden asked as Prax and Amos sat on either side of Alex.
“That would be wonderful,” Prax said.
“I’ll just take a tube of goo,” Amos said. “Lentils give me gas, and I can’t see popping an intestine next time we accelerate being fun for anyone.”
Holden put a fresh bowl in front of Prax and handed a white tube with a black plastic nipple to Amos, then sat beside Naomi. They didn’t touch, but the connection between them was unmistakable. He wondered whether Mei had ever wanted him to reconcile with Nicola. Impossible now.
“Okay, Alex,” Holden said. “What’ve we got?”
“Same thing we had before,” Alex said. “Six destroyers burning like hell toward us. A matching force burning after them, and a racing pinnace heading away from us on the other side.”
“Wait,” Prax said. “Away from us?”
“They’re matching our course. Already did the turnaround, and they’re getting up to speed to join us.”
Prax closed his eyes, picturing the vectors.
“We’re almost there, then?” he said.
“Very nearly,” Alex said. “Eighteen, twenty hours.”
“How’s it going to play out? Are the Earth ships going to catch us?”
“They’re gonna catch the hell out of us,” Alex said, “but not before we get that pinnace. Call it four days after, maybe.”
Prax took a spoonful of the soup. It tasted just as good as it smelled. Green, dark leaves were mixed in with the lentils, and he spread one open with his spoon, trying to identify it. Spinach, maybe. The stem margin didn’t look quite right, but it had been cooked, after all …
“How sure are we this isn’t a trap?” Amos asked.
“We aren’t,” Holden said. “But I don’t see how it would work.”
“If they want us in custody instead of dead,” Naomi suggested. “We are talking about opening our airlock for someone way high up in the Earth government.”
“So she is who she says she is?” Prax asked.
“Looks like it,” Holden said.
Alex raised a hand.
“Well, if it’s talk to some little gramma from the UN or get my ass shot off by six destroyers, I’m thinkin’ we can break out the cookies and tea, right?”
“It would be late in the game to go for another plan,” Naomi said. “It makes me damn uncomfortable having Earth saving me from Earth, though.”
“Structures are never monolithic,” Prax said. “There’s more genetic variation within Belters or Martians or Earthers than there is between them. Evolution would predict some divisions within the group structures and alliances with out-members. You see the same thing in ferns.”
“Ferns?” Naomi asked.
“Ferns can be very aggressive,” Prax said.
A soft chime interrupted them: three rising notes, like bells gently struck.
“Okay, suck it down,” Alex said. “That’s the fifteen-minute warning.”
Amos made a prodigious sucking sound, the white tube withering at his lips. Prax put down his spoon and lifted the soup bowl to his lips, not wanting to leave a drop of it. Holden did the same, then started gathering up the used bowls.
“Anyone needs to hit the head, this is the time,” he said. “We’ll talk again in …”
“Eight hours,” Alex said.
“Eight hours,” Holden repeated.
Prax felt his chest go tight. Another round of crushing acceleration. Hours of the couch’s needles propping up his failing metabolism. It sounded like hell. He rose from the table, nodded to everyone, and went back to his bunk. His knee was much better. He hoped it would still be when he next got up. The ten-minute chime sounded. He lay down on the couch, trying to align his body perfectly, then waited. Waited.
He rolled over and grabbed his hand terminal. Seven new incoming messages. Two of them supportive, three hateful, one addressed to the wrong person, and one a financial statement from the charity fund. He didn’t bother reading them.
He turned on the camera.
“Nicola,” he said. “I don’t know what they told you. I don’t know if you really think all those things that you said. But I know I never touched you in anger, even at the end. And if you really felt afraid of me, I don’t know why it was. Mei is the one thing that I love more than anything in life. I’d die before I let anyone hurt her. And now half the solar system thinks I hurt her …”
He stopped the recording and began again.