There was still no reply from Persis-Strokes, but it was probably too early to expect one. In the meantime, the problem was money. If he was going to fund this, he couldn’t do it alone.
Which meant Nicola.
Prax set up his terminal, turning the camera on himself. The image on the screen looked thin, wasted. The weeks had dried him out, and his time on the Rocinante hadn’t completely rebuilt him. He might never be rebuilt. The sunken cheeks on the screen might be who he was now. That was fine. He started recording.
“Hi, Nici,” he said. “I wanted you to know I’m safe. I got to Tycho Station, but I still don’t have Mei. I’m hiring a security consultant. I’m giving them everything I know. They seem like they’ll really be able to help. But it’s expensive. It may be very expensive. And she may already be dead.”
Prax took a moment to catch his breath.
“She may already be dead,” he said again. “But I have to try. I know you aren’t in a great financial position right now. I know you’ve got your new husband to think of. But if you have anything you can spare—not for me. I don’t want anything from you. Just Mei. For her. If you can give her anything, this is the last chance.”
He paused again, his mind warring between Thank you and It’s the least you can f**king do. In the end, he just shut off the recording and sent it.
The lag between Ceres and Tycho Station was fifteen minutes, given their relative positions. And even then, he didn’t know what the local schedule there was. He might be sending his message in the middle of the night or during dinnertime. She might not have anything to say to him.
It didn’t matter. He had to try. He could sleep if he knew he’d done everything he could to try.
He recorded and sent messages to his mother, to his old roommate from college who’d taken a position on Neptune Station, to his postdoctorate advisor. Each time, the story got a little easier to tell. The details started coming together, one leading into another. With them, he didn’t talk about the protomolecule. At best, it would have scared them. At worst, they’d have thought the loss had broken his mind.
When the last message was gone, he sat quietly. There was one other thing he thought he had to do now that he had full communication access. It wasn’t what he wanted.
He started the recording.
“Basia,” he said. “This is Praxidike. I wanted you to know that I know Katoa is dead. I saw the body. It didn’t … it didn’t look like he suffered. And I thought, if I was in your place, that wondering … wondering would be worse. I’m sorry. I’m just …”
He turned off the recording, sent it, and crawled onto the small bed. He’d expected it to be hard and uncomfortable, but the mattress was as cradling as crash couch gel, and he fell asleep easily and woke four hours later like someone had flipped a switch on the back of his head. Amos was still gone, even though it was station midnight. There was still no message from Persis-Strokes, so Prax recorded a polite inquiry—just to be sure the information hadn’t gotten lost in transit—then watched it and erased it. He took a long shower, washing his hair twice, shaved, and recorded a new inquiry, looking less like a raving lunatic.
Ten minutes after he sent it, a new-message alert chimed. Intellectually, he knew it couldn’t be a response. With lag, his message wouldn’t even be at Luna yet. When he pulled it up, it was Nicola. The heart-shaped face looked older than he remembered it. There was the first dusting of gray at her temples. But when she made that soft, sad smile, he was twenty again, sitting across from her in the grand park while bhangra throbbed and lasers traced living art on the domed ice above them. He remembered what it had been like to love her.
“I have your message,” she said. “I’m … I’m so sorry, Praxidike. I wish there was more I could do. Things aren’t so good here on Ceres. I will talk with Taban. He makes more than I do, and if he understands what’s happened, he might want to help too. For my sake.
“Take care of yourself, old man. You look tired.”
On the screen, Mei’s mother leaned forward and stopped the recording. An icon showed an authorized transfer code for eighty FusionTek Reál. Prax checked the exchange rates, converting the company scrip to UN dollars. It was almost a week’s salary. Not enough. Not near enough. But still, it had been a sacrifice for her.
He pulled the message back up, pausing it in the gap between two words. Nicola looked out at him from the terminal, her lips parted barely enough for him to see her pale teeth. Her eyes were sad and playful. He’d thought for so long that it was her soul and not just an accident of physiology that gave her that look of fettered joy. He’d been wrong.
As he sat, lost in history and imagination, a new message appeared. It was from Luna. Persis-Strokes. With a feeling somewhere between anxiety and hope, he went to the attached spreadsheet. At the first set of numbers, his heart sank.
Mei might be out there. She might be alive. Certainly Strickland and his people were there. They could be found. They could be caught. There was justice to be had.
He just couldn’t afford it.
Chapter Thirty-Two: Holden
Holden sat in a pull-down chair in the Rocinante’s engineering bay reviewing the damage and making notes for Tycho’s repair crew. Everyone else was gone. Some more than others, he thought.
REPLACE STARBOARD ENGINEERING BULKHEAD.
SIGNIFICANT DAMAGE TO PORT-SIDE POWER CABLE JUNCTION, POSSIBLY REPLACE ENTIRE JUNCTION BOX.
Two lines of text representing hundreds of work hours, hundreds of thousands of dollars in parts. It also represented the aftermath of coming within a hand’s breadth of fiery annihilation for the ship and crew. Describing it in two quick sentences felt almost sacrilegious. He made a footnote of the types of civilian parts that Tycho was likely to have available that would work with his Martian warship.
Behind him, a wall monitor streamed a Ceres-based news show. Holden had turned it on to keep his mind occupied while he tinkered with the ship and made notes.
Which was all bullshit, of course. Sam, the Tycho engineer who usually took the lead on their repair jobs, didn’t need his help. She didn’t need him making lists of parts for her. She was, in every sense, better qualified to be doing what he was doing right now. But as soon as he turned the job over to her, he wouldn’t have any reason to stay on the ship. He would have to confront Fred about the protomolecule on Ganymede.
And maybe lose Naomi in the process.