“Where you are’s as good as anyplace. Just put the web on in case we bump against somethin’,” Alex said. And then, his voice changing to a stronger, more clipped cadence: “Tycho control, this is the Rocinante. Are we cleared for docking?”
Prax heard a distant voice speaking to Alex alone.
“Roger that,” Alex said. “We’re comin’ in.”
In the dramas and action films that Prax had watched back on Ganymede, piloting a ship had always looked like a fairly athletic thing. Sweating men dragging hard against the control bars. Watching Alex was nothing like it. He still had the two joysticks, but his motions were small, calm. A tap, and the gravity under Prax changed, his couch shifting under him by a few centimeters. Then another tap and another shift. The heads-up display showed a tunnel through the vacuum outlined in a blue and gold that swept up and to the right, ending against the side of the turning ring.
Prax looked at the mass of data being sent to Alex and said, “Why fly at all? Couldn’t the ship just use this data to do the docking itself?”
“Why fly?” Alex repeated with a laugh. “’Cuz it’s fun, Doc. Because it’s fun.”
The long bluish lights of the windows in Tycho’s observation dome were so clear Prax could see the people looking out at him. He could almost forget that the screens in the cockpit weren’t windows: The urge to look out and wave, to watch someone wave back, was profound.
Holden’s voice came over Alex’s line, the words unidentifiable and the tone perfectly clear.
“We’re looking fine, Cap,” Alex said. “Ten more minutes.”
The crash couch shifted to the side, the wide plane of the station curving down as Alex matched the rotation. To generate even a third of a g on a ring that wide would demand punishing inertial forces, but under Alex’s hand, ship and station drifted together slowly and gently. Before Prax had gotten married, he’d seen a dance performance based on neo-Taoist traditions. For the first hour, it had been utterly boring, and then after that, the small movements of arms and legs and torso, shifting together, bending, and falling away, had been entrancing. The Rocinante slid into place beside an extending airlock port with the same beauty Prax had seen in that dance, but made more powerful by the knowledge that instead of skin and muscles, this was tons of high-tensile steel and live fusion reactors.
The Rocinante eased into her berth with one last correction, one last shifting of the gimbaled couches. The final matching spin had been no more than any of the small corrections Alex had made on the way in. There was a disconcerting bang as the station’s docking hooks latched on to the ship.
“Tycho control,” Alex said. “This is the Rocinante confirming dock. We have seal on the airlock. We are reading the clamps in place. Can you confirm?”
A moment passed, and a mutter.
“Thank you too, Tycho,” Alex said. “It’s good to be back.”
Gravity in the ship had shifted subtly. Instead of thrust from the drive creating the illusion of weight, it now came from the spin of the ring they were clamped to. Prax felt like he was tilting slightly to the side whenever he stood up straight, and had to fight the urge to overcompensate by leaning the other way.
Holden was in the galley when Prax reached it, the coffee machine pouring black and hot, with just the slightest bend to the stream. Coriolis effect, a dimly remembered high school class reminded Prax. Amos and Naomi came in together. They were all together now, and Prax felt the time was right to thank them all for what they’d done for him. For Mei, who was probably dead. The naked pain on Holden’s face stopped him.
Naomi stood in front of him, a duffel bag over her shoulder.
“You’re heading out,” Holden said.
“I am.” Her voice was light, but it had meaning radiating from it like harmonic overtones. Prax blinked.
“All right, then,” Holden said.
For a few seconds, no one moved; then Naomi darted in, kissing Holden lightly on the cheek. The captain’s arms moved out to embrace her, but she’d already stepped away, marching out through the narrow hallway with the air of a woman on her way someplace. Holden took his coffee. Amos and Alex exchanged glances.
“Ah, Cap’n?” Alex asked. Compared to the voice of the man who’d just put a nuclear warship against a spinning metal wheel in the middle of interplanetary space, this voice was hesitant and concerned. “Are we lookin’ for a new XO?”
“We’re not looking for anything until I say so,” Holden said. Then, his voice quieter: “But, God, I hope not.”
“Yessir,” Alex said. “Me too.”
The four men stood for a long, awkward moment. Amos was the first to speak.
“You know, Cap,” he said, “the place I’ve got booked has room for two. If you want the spare bunk, it’s yours.”
“No,” Holden said. He didn’t look at them as he spoke, but reached out his hand and pressed his palm to the wall. “I’m staying on the Roci. I’ll be right here.”
“You sure?” Amos asked, and again it seemed to mean something more than Prax could understand.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Holden said.
“All right, then.”
Prax cleared his throat, and Amos took his elbow.
“What about you?” Amos said. “You got a place to bunk down?”
Prax’s prepared speech—I wanted to tell you all how much I appreciate …—ran into the question, derailing both thoughts.
“I … ah … I don’t, but—”
“Right, then. Get your stuff, and you can come with me.”
“Well, yes. Thank you. But first I wanted to tell you all—”
Amos put a solid hand on his shoulder.
“Maybe later,” the big man said. “Right now, how about you just come with me?”
Holden leaned against the wall now. His jaw was set hard, like that of a man about to scream or vomit or weep. His eyes were looking at the ship but seeing past it. Sorrow welled up in Prax as if he were looking into a mirror.
“Yeah,” he said. “Okay.”
Amos’ rooms were, if anything, smaller than the bunks on the Rocinante: two small privacy areas, a common space less than half the size of the galley, and a bathroom with a fold-out sink and toilet in the shower stall. It would have induced claustrophobia if Amos had actually been there.
Instead, he’d seen Prax settled in, taken a quick shower, and headed out into the wide, luxurious passageways of the station. There were plants everywhere, but for the most part they seemed decorative. The curve of the decks was so slight Prax could almost imagine he was back on some unfamiliar part of Ganymede, that his hole was no more than a tube ride away. That Mei would be there, waiting for him. Prax let the outer door close, pulled out his hand terminal, and connected to the local network.