“Nicola. Honestly, I didn’t think we had anything left between us to betray.”
He stopped. The five-minute warning chimed as he ran his fingers through his hair. Each individual follicle ached. He wondered if this was why Amos kept his head shaved. There were so many things about being on a ship that didn’t occur to you until you were actually there.
He erased all the recordings and logged into the charity bank account interface. There was a secure request format that could encrypt and send an authorized transfer as soon as light-speed delivered it to the bank’s computers. He filled it all out quickly. The two-minute warning sounded, louder and more insistent. With thirty seconds left, he sent her money back. There was nothing else for them to say.
He put the hand terminal in place and lay back. The computer counted backward from twenty, and the mountain rolled back over him.
“How’s the knee?” Amos asked.
“Pretty good,” Prax said. “I was surprised. I thought there’d be more damage.”
“Didn’t hyperextend this time,” Amos said. “Did okay with my toe too.”
A deep tone rang through the ship, and the deck shifted under Prax. Holden, standing just to Prax’s right, moved the rifle to his left hand and touched a control panel.
“Yeah, it was little rough. Sorry about that, but … Hold on. Yeah, Cap. We’ve got seal. And they’re knocking.”
Holden shifted the rifle back to his other hand. Amos also had a weapon at the ready. Naomi stood beside him, nothing in her hands but a terminal linked to ship operations. If something went wrong, being able to control ship functions might be more useful than a gun. They all wore the articulated armor of the Martian military that had come with the ship. The paired ships were accelerating at a third of a g. The Earth destroyers still barreled down toward them.
“So I’m guessing the firearms mean you’re thinking trap, Cap’n?” Amos asked.
“Nothing wrong with an honor guard,” Holden said.
Prax held up his hand.
“You don’t ever get one again,” Holden said. “No offense.”
“No, I was just … I thought honor guards were usually on the same side as the people they’re guarding?”
“We may be stretching the definitions a little here,” Naomi said. Her voice had just a trace of tension in it.
“She’s just a little old politician,” Holden said. “And that pinnace can’t hold more than two people. We’ve got her outnumbered. And if things get ugly, Alex is watching from the pilot’s seat. You are watching, right?”
“Oh yeah,” Alex said.
“So if there are any surprises, Naomi can pop us loose and Alex can get us out of here.”
“That won’t help with the destroyers, though,” Prax said.
Naomi put a hand on his arm, squeezing him gently.
“I’m not sure you’re helping, Prax.”
The outer airlock cycled open with a distant hum. The lights clicked from red to green.
“Whoa,” Alex said.
“Problem?” Holden snapped.
“No, it’s just—”
The inner door opened, and the biggest person Prax had seen in his entire life stepped into the room wearing a suit of some sort of strength-augmenting armor. If it weren’t for the transparent faceplate, he would have thought it was a two-meter-tall bipedal robot. Through the faceplate, Prax saw a woman’s features: large dark eyes and coffee-with-cream skin. Her gaze raked them with the palpable threat of violence. Beside him, Amos took an unconscious step back.
“You’re the captain,” the woman said, the suit’s speakers making her voice sound artificial and amplified. It didn’t sound like a question.
“I am,” Holden said. “I’ve got to say, you looked a little different on-screen.”
The joke fell flat and the giant stepped into the room.
“Planning to shoot me with that?” she asked, pointing toward Holden’s gun with a massive gauntleted fist.
“Would it work?”
“Probably not,” the giant said. She took another small step forward, her armor whining when she moved. Holden and Amos took a matching step back.
“Call it an honor guard, then,” Holden said.
“I’m honored. Will you put them away now?”
Two minutes later, the guns were stowed, and the huge woman, who still hadn’t given her name, tapped something inside the helmet with her chin and said, “Okay. You’re clear.”
The airlock cycled again, red to green, with the hum of the opening doors. The woman who came in this time was smaller than any of them. Her gray hair was spiking out in all directions, and the orange sari she wore hung strangely in the low thrust gravity.
“Undersecretary Avasarala,” Holden said. “Welcome aboard. If there’s anything I can—”
“You’re Naomi Nagata,” the wizened little woman said.
Holden and Naomi exchanged glances, and Naomi shrugged.
“How the f**k do you keep your hair like that? I look like a hedgehog’s been humping my skull.”
“Looking the part is half of what’s going to keep you all alive. We don’t have time to screw around. Nagata, you get me looking pretty and girlish. Holden—”
“I’m an engineer, not a damned hairstylist,” Naomi said, anger creeping into her voice.
“Ma’am,” Holden said, “this is my ship and my crew. Half of us aren’t even Earth citizens, and we don’t just take your commands.”
“All right. Ms. Nagata, if we’re going to keep this ship from turning into an expanding ball of hot gas, we need to make a press statement, and I’m not prepared to do that. Would you please assist me?”
“Okay,” Naomi said.
“Thank you. And, Captain? You need a f**king shave.”
Chapter Forty-One: Avasarala
After the Guanshiyin, the Rocinante seemed dour, mean, and utilitarian. There was no plush carpeting, only fabric-covered foam to soften corners and angles where soldiers might be thrown when the ship maneuvered violently. Instead of cinnamon and honey, the air had the plastic-and-heat smell of military air recyclers. And there were no expansive desk, no wide solitaire-ready bed, and no private space apart from a captain’s lounge the size of a public toilet stall.