The sky above Ganymede was a graveyard. Gray drifting detritus of every sort edged the thin atmosphere of the moon. Girders, glass, machinery, hull plates; all daunting satellites gone dark. Courseless bodies caught in the low orbit of a body already caught in the drag of another’s.
The field of ruin was clearest from the cordoned off decks of AG-dome 10, or so Doctor Praxidike Meng decided as he surveyed the disrepair, ducking and dodging security features. From the safety of the civilian districts, the debris overhead looked little more than a passing metallic dream. An afterthought in stationwide updates assuring that all would be salvaged. All would be saved. The war was over.
But Prax had stood under the dome as it cracked in half. Ducked for cover as the orbital mirrors crashed down. Held his breath until his eyesight went black while monsters were let loose over the horizon.
Prax owed his survival to mere chance. That and the fact the Martian designed failsafe barriers held.
They were holding even then— an earth year to the day after the collapse. The atmo-blister extended from upper second quadrant down to the base deck, sealing where the paneled rotunda wall had been sheared apart. Prax knew the blister was far more than it appeared, more than a polymer parachute. More than the way it seemed to billow and flag from the surface doldrums. It was hyper-reinforced, radiation resistant. And even then, Prax also knew it was never advisable to touch one— inching closer, closer still—
He reached out with both hands. Ungloved, no suit— only his lab coat and planting vestments covered in three days worth of soil buildup. It was cold to touch, unetched, never still. He pressed out farther. Found taut resistance. The faint unbreathable climate behind it pushed back, out of reach.
It made sense then. What had brought him there. The recklessness that bypassed the security channels in triplicate, that pushed through the jammed doors, risked the unmoored walkways. The overhead siren song of a static channel he could not turn off. It guided the slow, sure movement that retrieved a stem trimmer from his pant pocket. Released the pen tipped blade with a practiced flourish and aimed for the barrier that kept him alive.
Loss of integrity in the polymer would be disastrous. The barrier would give way with a growing hiss, the oxygen would rush out, radiation would seep in. The sweat trailing cross Prax’s brow would freeze solid, flowing out an imaginary drain. The last thing he would ever see through the eye of the wound, the shattered satellites decrypting the radio silence of the dead:
Nothing is ever saved.
* * *
Of the many self-destructive impulses Prax has given into the first Remembrance Day, this makes the least sense. The compulsion to stop by AG-hub central desk to lock away his steam trimmer. There’s no shortage of sharp apparatus in the lower laboratories and the trek up to the ruined AG-dome is locked down and cleared behind him.
But he took the time, for what little peace of mind he had left, counted the lack of security as the smallest blessing, retreating only then to his lab.
Prax never noticed the lit red light of the security cam above him.
* * *
His presence and vocal prompt brought every screen to life with angry red warnings. Between the varied and irregular equipment that arrayed every available surface shined the countdown to curfew. Twenty minutes left. It was later than Prax had anticipated. Though he never had any intention of following his fellow botanists home, any more than he desired to join them at the remembrance ceremonies hours earlier. His empty hutch would be waiting for him right where he left it. Right where Mei left it.
Below the cramped, ramshackle line of microscopes laid his personal hand terminal still running a tab of Mei’s ever-present vitals. Transmitted in real time, it appeared she had been well fed before she was put to bed. Her heart rate, average. Blood pressure and endocrine levels showed no distress. A selfish part of Prax wished for any sign to the contrary.
Prax was ready to set into his night’s work, perhaps first re-steeping his thermos of tea when a clanging knock from the doorway behind him rang out.
Prax couldn’t bite back the sigh, or even bring himself to turn around. “If you’re here to kick me out, let me remind you these soybean strains could feed generations if they don’t stabilize the Belt first.” An oversell as well as an oversimplification. The strain Prax was working on was resilient but it was no a botanical miracle. It was also three greenrooms down. The tray of rice seedlings in front of him was less impressive. The hired gun turned security didn’t need to know that, however.
“Beratna,” scoffed a bored voice, “you say same ji-ral last night, eh? And night before that.”
Prax almost recognized the candor. One of Johnson’s men or OPA — Prax couldn't tell the difference anymore. The extremists usually loved the lofty promises of the work he had been assigned. Belter grown food for Belter mouths. It had gotten Prax out of more than a few scrapes.
Just not that night, it seemed.
“The curfew is for looters and ration thieves,” Prax said, changing tactics. “Not the people trying to increase the rations. Just let me work.”
The guard tuts his tongue against his teeth, a universal sign of agitation understood in both Inner Standard and Belter Creole. “Bossmang say you go, so you go. Pow, ya?”
Prax rubbed the ridges of his eye sockets, saw sore spots along the edge of his vision. He was more exhausted than he realized. The argument wouldn’t be worth it. As valuable as he had made himself to the station, they would not be above dragging him out by his neck to keep him in line. That and the guard in question looked to be only just outgrowing his teenaged features. Prax had been down and out for a while now, but being overpowered by the boy would be one indignity too many.
So Prax packed up his satchel, powered down each device. Stowed away his less-than-faithful hand cannon when the guard diverted his attention. He followed behind the guard, realizing he did know his face from somewhere. Placed him as one of Mei’s regular station-mandated escorts to school.
“Things get rough out there real soon,” the boy said, his thick accent interrupting Prax’s draining stream of thought.
“How so?” he asked with caution.
“A year since the Tumang shoot the Pomang, the Pomang shoot the Tumang.”
Prax frowned. “You think the ceremonies will turn violent?
As if summoned, they passed a vid station broadcasting on the outer emergency channel. Warships and missile trajectories mapped out. Evacuation warnings for stations near and far. More dead Earthers. More dead Martians. More and more Belter civilians caught in the crossfires.
“The Inner's vid channel on every station. We know real soon who come to shoot us next,” the boy remarked, seeming as bored with wartime developments as had been with botany. Prax understood the former at least. The fatigue from front-line news was real. One disaster fed into the next until they stopped being distinguishable from the rest. The famine and the fear were all that stayed fresh in Belter’s minds.
“So much for the armistice,” Prax sighed.
“The what ?” asked the boy.
“Hudna,” Prax translates so the boy could understand. His Lang Belta had much improved as of late. The constant interaction with Belter guards and escorts and OPA’s racketeering and nosing in on his research had all but guaranteed that. “The station could very well be in a panic soon,” Prax realized aloud.
“That why you clear out, ya? Cause same thing always happen next, sasa ke? They come for te aqua, they come for te agro.”
“The desperate always presume the AG-domes have stores of food hoarded somewhere,” Prax bemoaned. It was a naive dream but understandable last resort when all other options whittled away. “The early crop growing in the enclosures will be disappointing to anyone expecting grain or edible vegetation. They’ll probably just destroy my seedlings.”
“You gon wait here to stop em?” mocked the guard. “They bash you saberlo todo face in. Then you compost for you little beans.”
“Just reminiscing on humanity is all,” Prax muses, following the lead out. “How eager we are to ruin the things that might save us—”
Then Prax saw it.
Amidst the footage was the clear familiar image, a chisel-shaped warship caught in the volleys of railgun fire. Prax stopped in his tracks to the annoyance of his youthful minder, but he couldn't move, couldn't hear the voice overlay save for the words “terrorist,” “Holden,” and “protomolecule.”
The jittery beat of his heart echoed in his ears. Reverberating sounds and likenesses Prax hadn’t let himself think on in weeks. The cramped feel of a vac-suit, a mariner valley drawl over a shortwave commlink, turning tight corners to avoid coming upon lover's quarrel, strong steady hands beside him in a gallery steeped in greenage, those same hands finding Prax other places—
And just as quickly as it had appeared, the Rocinante vanished from view. Instead replaced with some United Nations officials talking over scans of a debris field, bloviating about terrible costs.
Prax did not realize until after the security officer prodded him along that the field of wreckage could very well have been what was left of the Rocinante.
The Belter boy clearly put two and two together. “You the doc who know dem boys, ya?”
“Used to,” Prax breathes.
“Everybody got ah Holden story. One day maybe I tell you mine, ha! Maybe I tell you bout Miller, ya?”
The name felt familiar, and not just because it was commonplace; a name etched into a plaque on the paneled walls of the Rocinante. Just as he had been at the ship mechanic's urging behest.
Before Prax could inquire any further, the boy cut in again, “Now you wanna take the lit route, ya?” asked the boy, “pass electric and te aquifer.”
“Fastest way to hutch district,” Prax answered.
“You no take that crossing,” he insisted, serious all at once and shaking his head. “Not tonight, to pochuye ke? You go long round and down. Away from te aquifer, away from all roads to it. If they bash you in commonway and you get rolled out an airlock, you not even compost. And then how you beans feed generations?” the boy laughed.
Prax nodded. It was smart, almost obvious. The path to the water was just as dangerous as loitering near it. But Prax felt the after-effects of a week's worth of over-stimming with caffeine chip packets, his judgment hazed over, buzzing.
“Taki,” Prax thanked him.
“Ya, ya, saberlo todo,” and he stepped aside for prax to carry on without him.
“Üzgün,” Prax apologizes, Lang Belta sliding off his tongue. “Keting nem to?”
“You no remember me?” the boy tutted in joking offense.
“I know Mei likes you is all.” The half remembered image of the tattooed, curly-haired guard came into full view; oft seen on the peripheries of early mornings packing Mei off to school. Prax tried and often failed to follow the schoolmasters’ advice that Mei needed more healthy separation from her father in light of her strides towards healing. The chattering young man was one of the few stations provided escorts that Mei liked enough not to plead with her father to tag along. Not that Prax hadn’t followed after anyway. Any separation at all felt like a betrayal to her, like a continued failure on his part.
But Mei had always needed more help than Prax could give alone. Nicola and her parents had been sure to remind him of that.
“You tell sésata mali that when the school open again, Diogo,” he pounded his fist to his chest in promise, “he be there to take her. And when you home, you tell Mei-Mei she not be scared of the vids. Tell her the belt take care of the belt.”
“I’ll tell her, Prax lied and descended the girdered staircase.
* * *
The omnipresent vibration of the station overtaken by noise and movement of nervous Belters pushing and shoving behind sealed doors and flashing signs. The growing tremors rattled the metal paneled corridors rattled beneath Prax’s feet. Somewhere, he heard an echoing flood warning. The aquifer had been compromised.
Prax wondered briefly if it was just his exhaustion, or if the unrest around him had become so factual and tedious that it rated as low a concern and diminished yield of lady palm last harvest cycle.
CURFEW IS NOW IN EFFECT. PLEASE RETURN TO YOUR HOMES. CURFEW WILL LIFT AT—
From the underbelly of the station, he couldn’t see it, but he felt it. The gravity of the mirrors reflecting down at them. An orbit they could never run from, only pass down to their children.
In a fretful turn, Prax checked his hand terminal. Mei’s vitals read she was at rest, cycling through rem sleep and digesting a full belly. The locator pinged her at the upper district. Decent security and walled off. Safe from whatever futile property damage and riotous fervor might commence. It pained him to admit, but she was safer there than in the hutch district with him.
Before Prax could begin his ascent from the lower leveled walkways, something behind him boomed with such clangor he half expected the hallways to burn red with Klaxon alarms.
Not an explosion, he reasoned. Not atmospheric loss, they’d all be dead in an instant. No. It was voices. Human voices. Different tongues rising in unison. Cheering, jeering sounds. Chanting, stomping in time, seeming to rattle the station from the inside out. It wasn’t a riot. It was jubilant.
Prax stowed away between two steel beams as a gaggle of boys rushed past him. Guards quickly followed, yelling about vandalism. The boys countered with an echoing “Remember the Cant!”
He wished the boys luck as they dared mill through the dead-end hutch district. So aptly named for the homes stacked atop each other like cages for animals. Prax’s was somewhat more comfortable than most, but not by much. Accommodations from the OPA and so they could best surveil him. Not that Prax expected any invasive searches tonight. Whatever scrolled past the news feeds had clearly resolved itself at least somewhat to benefit of Belters. The celebrations he had passed showed no signs of settling down, curfew forgotten by all.
Prax was half tempted to pull out his hand terminal to see for himself when he saw it. The brown, dried trail across the threshold of his door. Unmistakably blood.
Prax pulled off his satchel. Let it slide to the floor and retrieved its contents. The last gift that had been slipped into his hand when he bade farewell to the Rocinante. Prax slipped his finger onto the trigger, had to make his threat look convincing.
“If you're looking for rations,” he called out, calmly as he could, “Sorry to say but I don't have any. And if you're looking for scrip, I have even less—”
A pointed pause held in the air, prolonged by the telltale rustling of a body somewhere inside, moving closer. His plants. The intruder was in his greenroom-
“Tell me you got your gun out at least,” came the familiar voice rounding the corner and- no. It couldn’t be.
There he was. His Earther solid frame taking up too much space in the doorway, dwarfing everything around him designed for the thinner, spindly bodies of Belters. Just as imposing as Prax remembered with his shirt off, bearing scars and tattoos that Prax recalled and some he did not. His face was leaner under his unshaved beard, sharper than it had been the last vid message sent months ago. It was also streaked with dried blood Amos hadn’t gotten around to cleaning as he was otherwise unconcernedly helping himself to Prax’s medkit.
“Gonna lend me a hand?” Amos asked, not offering any explanation at all.
“Yes… yes, Of course,” Prax closes the front door behind him, putting the gun down on the counter.
“The safety, doc,” Amos chastises.
Amos gives him a look.
“Ran out of ammo a while back," Prax explained. "Had to fire a few warning shots.” Amos doesn't like this any better but does not question it either. “How exactly did you expect me to stock up on martial Martian rounds on Ganymede, anyway?”
It was a question aimed to tease, but Amos weighed ruefully on the matter.
“We'll have to fix that,” he promised as Prax moved closer, surveying the damage. He found several knicks and bruises and a burn along Amos’s right arm. He seemed to have rightly plied those wounds with the most medical attention, but he could not quite reach. With his hands on the larger man’s shoulders, Prax led him down into a chair at the cramped dining table. There laid what was left of the medicine and all of Prax’s stashed alcohol, plus a bottle of gin Amos had brought himself.
“You’ve been in my greenroom,” Prax accused, spying the telltale dirt under Amos’s nails when he offers the first shot. Prax downed it obediently, as well as the second.
“Just looking at the hanging plants,” Amos said admiringly, then winced at Prax's pressing touch along his shoulder.
“Oh, the spider plants? They’re wonderful oxidizers. Easily transferable and divided up into different cabin systems—” Prax found it was no trouble to drone on to Amos’s rapt attention, picking through the amateaur medical instrumentation to stitch and seal the skin beneath his fingers.
“I saw the Rocinante on the news stream,” Prax said, shaking the bottle of antiseptic spray. “There was a battle. Thought you’d still be out there in the Titania quadrant near the Ring.”
“Time lag and red tape,” Amos said. He looked bleary-eyed, probably from the sleepless roundtrip from Uranus to Jupiter and sitting who knows how long in the dark of Prax’s hutch. “They ain’t calling it a battle, either.”
“Another incident, then?”
Amos laughed. “Protomolecule exposure. Some kind of containment failure. The fleets panicked. Wanted to nuke each other. Nearly nuked us.” Amos holds very still while Prax applies the medi-gel sealant to his knuckles, resolving to work his way up to the burned skin.
“Both sides swore they didn't have samples,” Prax interjected.
“And you believed them?” Amos chuckled. “We barely made it out.”
“Trust me, I can see just how close the shave was.” He didn’t have the right tools for treating a burn. He was thankful Amos had had the sense to treat it first elsewhere, probably onboard the Rocinante. The state of the art medical care Amos had at his disposal otherwise did beg the question; what was he doing here?
“Fire on board,” Amos supplied, mistaking Prax’s silent train of thought. “And before that my vac suit got knocked around like a pachinko ball.”
“Lucky you didn’t snap your neck when—”
“Where's Mei?” Amos cut in suddenly. Prax looked up from where he wrapped bandages to the broad Earther’s midsection. Found an impassive face, not at all pained by the less than delicate of Prax’s medical inexpertise. But in the corner of his eye, at the edge of his features, Prax thought he saw the trace of something. Disappointment or worry or something he didn’t have a name for.
Leaned back, Prax pulled out his pad. Threw up a scan of her data feed onto the central hutch screen. Amos read it interest, his finger tracing her vitals.
“School is out of session for a week and I promised her a trial run overnight with Nicola’s parents,” he explained. “Well… it was a trial run three days ago. Now…”
“Now?” Amos prompted.
“She's having fun,” Prax couldn’t help but sigh. “It wouldn't be fair of me to drag her home so soon.”
“She should be here with you,” was all Amos said.
It was what Prax wanted to hear. But it was not the truth. Nothing that simple. “She's better,” Prax tells him. “She doesn't need me to tuck her in. And all my hovering over her just makes her feel…”
The space between them dulled to a quiet thrum and Prax wasn’t sure what to fill it with. He could talk about all the ways Mei had improved, all the ways she no longer needed Prax by her side day and night just to be sure her doctors wouldn’t steal her away. How talk therapy with the other kidnapped children suffering Myers-Skelton had bolstered her childlike understanding to something akin to survivorhood. Explain the excited glee Mei had harbored when her mother’s family finally reached out, olive branch and monetary support in hand. Prax had watched them bond, left out and feeling both stagnant and lost.
Prax couldn’t bring himself to say any of it.
“The med-stations are better equipped for this,” he told Amos, who simply nodded. “With anti-scarring gel. And antiseptic that isn’t so close to expired.”
Amos hummed absentmindedly in agreement.
“I'm asking why make the choice to come here? When you have to know by now, I’m not this kind of doctor.”
Amos smiled at Prax’s bemusement. Prax tried not to think about the warm flush he felt inside himself over it.
“Alex is riding some bull.”
“He wouldn’t shut up about it,” Amos continued to not explain. “A sacred Martian artificial-grav mechanical bull-shit-riding. Like the cowboys used to do. He’s probably already broke a bone or two.”
Prax could have pointed out that none of it made any more sense, but Amos pressed on. “And Naomi’s out doing belter karaoke… and I think the Cap’s eating the red kibble ghost pepper challenge.”
“I can think of less idiotic ways to kill myself than those peppers.”
“Like?” Amos asked.
“I don’t know… tampering with an atmo-blister, for one.” Prax hadn't meant to say that. It was the drink, he supposed. It had to be. He shook it off. “I still don’t understand what you mean by any of this—”
“Like I said, Alex wouldn’t shut up about the mechanical bull. Said he'd done it before when he was younger. Went on and on about how the closer we get to death, he never stops to think about what he didn’t do, only the things he’d never get to do again . So he’s off riding a bull. Naomi is singing her favorite Belter songs. And Cap is trying to win that shirt he lost out on the last time the Cant stopped over these parts.”
“They’re celebrating,” Prax realized. It seemed everyone but him could find a reason to.
“Me on the other hand,” Amos started again. “I can't think of too many creative ways to celebrate. What else is booze and fucking for?”
“Amos—” Prax trailed. The alcohol was already half gone. That just left the one other thing.
“I thought about it,” Amos stood up. The space contracting around him, the world narrowing in on the two of them. “And the only thing I wanna do again—” Amos was on him. Pushing Prax up against the paneling, bodies meeting as Prax angled up, grabbing ahold of Amos.
“Careful,” Prax warned, half delirious, half fearful of his handiwork. “I just bandaged that.”
“You can fix it later,” Amos murmured and swooped down for a kiss.
* * *
Their only other time together, fresh off of Io. The mars bound missiles were downed and Mei and the other children were blissfully asleep. All of them overcome with their own exhaustion but Prax had roamed the halls of the Rocinante, restless and searching. He'd found Amos in the weapons gallery after hunting through the machine shop. Tried all he could to keep his composure so he didn't fall to his knees, right out of his mag-boots and onto the floor weeping in gratitude. Prax had waited to thank him, after all. Amos saying, again and again, would only accept it after the job was done and Mei was safe and sound aboard the ship. And now Prax couldn’t even get the words out. Simply stood before the man, dumbstruck and humble and not having meant to kiss Amos, but he had. Joyous and honest, pulling down at the man, scratching his nails through his shorn brown hair, pressing their lips together as if it were all he could do to speak. Prax tried to apologize after but never got the chance. Not when Amos had him up against the bulkhead, limbs wrapped around each other. He’d peeled Prax out his jumpsuit, out of every leftover trace of tension. Pulled him out from under the fear and dread. Every what-if and close shave draining out of him under Amos’s hands and mouth. Amos clicked his mag-boots on, kept him upright while Prax slung his arms around his shoulders, tightened his legs around his waist and ground against each other. Prax whispered endless nonsense in Amos’s ear, begging him, thanking him over and over. He’d saved Mei. He'd saved Prax. He’d saved everything. It was all too much to ever say and all Prax could do was hold on for the ride. Let Amos guide him and take him down as far as he needed to go.
* * *
Amos looked surprised when the back of his head hit the pillow, eyes wide and pupils blown under Prax’s growing ministrations. Perhaps he was unsure how the doctor got the better of him, righting himself above Amos from the rolling heap they had become over the bed covers. Or perhaps he had expected more foreplay, more protestations- if so, he quickly learned better.
“Easy, Doc,” Amos warned with a delicious shiver. Prax was straddling him and pulling at the old Pur’N’Kleen jumpsuit bunched at his hips, pleased to find Earther still had a telling penchant forgoing undergarments. “Still gotta take this off,” Amos remind him, eyeing Prax’s own clothes.
“We didn’t last time,” Prax pointed out, impatient and heated and half starved. He had not realized how much he needed this; to feel something cutting through the numbness and the absence. Pashang- he’d been drowning for so long and not known it, not until he felt Amos and the burn of oxygen returning to his lungs.
“Lots of things we didn’t do last time,” Amos said amiable as ever, “doesn’t mean we can’t now.” So Prax let Amos undress him, suspenders first, lab shirt second. His hands are everywhere, catching fire over Prax’s skin. But he stopped, his attention settling on the wide healed over gash on the side of Prax’s abdomen. He traced it mindfully once, twice, but never breaking eye contact. It’s a new mark, left from months after the Rocinante left the Ganymede.
And it makes Prax strangely grateful for the incident that left it there— the bloody first few days of the restoration effort that Amos knew nothing about. Something frantic and biting inside Prax is grateful to have survived it on his own, to have Amos trace out the proof and wonder, even if he didn’t ask.
Amos did not ask. Instead he leaned up to kiss Prax up his chest and throat. Eased and erased all petty thoughts of hurts and aches and missing the man beneath him. Their bodies caught in a perfect friction and Amos is digging his fingertips too hard into Prax’s hips but he loves every second, and he’ll love every bruise.
“You ready for this, Doc?” Amos asked, having produced a tube of necessities in hand but from where Prax had no idea. If Amos can read Prax the way he think he can- not his mind, his feelings, but his body- then he knows there were few men before him and definitely never an Earther. The size difference between them was far from unpronounced, nothing to make light of or to rush through- no matter how much the doctor wanted to.
Prax answered with hauling the Earther up for another kiss, gnashing and needy. Amos chuckled, bucked up against Prax, satisfied he knew what he’s getting into. The splayed hands on his ass make steady work of prep it, but not fast enough for Prax.
“Don’t tell me I’m the only play you’ve gotten since Io,” Amos grinned, his slick hands grasping for purchase, but Prax already had their bodies aligned. He’d had forgotten how mouthy Amos could be even in the throes of sex, but that and every other thought leaves his head when he finally, finally sunk down.
“Christ, Doc,” Amos groaned, eyes sealed shut, “you’re tighter than a new whore’s—” and Prax shoved a fistful of fingers into Amos’s filthy mouth.
They stayed like that with Prax seated against him, shuddering and clenched tight, taking in the raw, wrung-out feeling of being filled so completely. The stretch of his body around Amos’s cock was overwhelming, so dizzying he would have bowed over if not for the hands on his waist. His own erection ached and Prax all but swatted Amos’s hand away with his free hand.
Not yet. Not yet. Not yet.
Prax gave a tentative rock, hissed in pleasure. The sound did something to Amos, who bit down on his fingers and gripped Prax tighter by the hip bones. If bone could bruise, Prax was sure that would do it.
He ground down against Amos again and again, pulled his hand from his mouth. Breathless and beading sweat, he asked, “you going to let me do all the work?”
“You tell me,” Amos returned, blissed out and voice harsh. “You’re clearly the one running the show.”
It did not sound like a complaint. The opposite of one, in fact. Not for the first time it occurred to Prax how unlikely a pair they were. How someone like Amos, the indomitable, the unreachable man that he was, would want anything from Prax; a simple man of simple needs and formidable hurts. But Prax had long since stopped taking the Earther’s long, cold gaze for empty. Saw instead the searchlight fire inside and how it never wavered over Prax. How it never stopped asking- begging- to know what was the right thing to do next.
“Fuck me,” Prax commanded.
And Amos obliged, moving and thrusting, slow and deep. It was a punishing, aching pleasure at the joint of their bodies. It left Prax strung tight, with his spine arched and taut, pushing down all he could to meet the rise and fall of the hips below him. Amos’s eyes were screwed shut, lips parted, whispering absolute filth about the clutch and feel of Prax. Prax can’t catch most of it, the words slide right in and out of him, half lucid and scorching, too much sensation being dragged out of him to grasp at any one thing.
Prax strained harder, pushed and gnashed, chased the feeling of oblivion. He wanted Amos and only Amos, without any other thought or sensation stirring around his head.
Prax wasn’t certain if he told Amos to turn them over or if Amos was simply so fluent in the braille of carnal need that he read it in his skin. But Prax found himself pressed back onto the bed, eyes to the ceiling, his waist canted up and legs wrapped around Amos. There was a moment where neither of them moved, adjusted to the new angle but more so watching. What Amos was looking for was as much a mystery as everything else about the man. Instead what he found was Prax’s permission to drive into him for all he was worth. Prax held on, clutching Amos as he groped and pulled at Prax’s too hard cock until they finally made a mess of each other, collapsing together like space matter; like bodies of heat and density pulled too close, dissolving one another.
* * *
“I lied earlier,” Prax told when Amos when he regained the ability to speak. He ducked out of his shower, tentative and slow in his movements but clean again. “When I said I didn't have any rations- I’ve some decent imitation fish, leftover soy mash, and even some real cheese.”
Amos raised an eyebrow.
“Perks of being a valued belter scientists,” Prax smiled.
“They should be keeping you somewhere better than this,” Amos remarked, waving a hand to the crammed close metal cupboards and Mei’s things laying about.
“It’s not so bad,” Prax promised. “There’s room enough for me and Mei and all my plants. Actually, some of the lady palm could use thinning out,” mused Prax. “And the spider plant is a bit overcrowded- You could take some,” Prax added, throat suddenly thick, “for when you go back. Install it in the Rocinante’s green hub.”
It hurt to come to terms with; Prax did not want Amos to go.
He did not know how to ask him to stay.
So Amos, who had accepted a slice of cheddar, was chewing thoughtfully before deciding it was authentic, missing Prax’s faltering needy spiral entirely, thankfully.
“If the sounds outside are anything to go by, the festivities aren’t over,” Prax suggested, “we could get some station air, refuel and really get back to celebrating.”
Amos smiled. Broad and earnest and intrigued, like a man of simple carnal pleasures. He looked like he might just pounce, jumping straight to the end and Prax wouldn’t complain. But when Amos looped his arms around Prax there’s a firmless to his grasp. A tightness in the intonation of his voice.
“First, tell me about the atmo-barrier.”
The truth about any atmo-barrier, the hard unmitigated facts: they are dangerous contraptions. Failsafes deployed in only the worst of disasters. Like ancient life rafts or air bags, they came with risks and instabilities. In order to seal the vacuumed habitable world from the airless void of space while maintaining atmosphere and pressure, the leaked chemicals transference and minute radiation. Short exposure was tolerable whereas none at all was always preferable.
Prax knew this. Amos knew this. Every belter and space-faring inner knew this.
Prax shook his head. Fakes a level, unchanged face. “What’s there to say about them? You’re the mechanic. You would know more than I could—”
Amos looked unmoved. Impassive and smiling in that forced way that Prax was beginning to recognize. His default when he did not know what mimed emotions to fall back on.
“You said earlier that you could think of stupider ways to kill yourself than red kibble peppers.”
“I was speaking in hyperbole.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Amos stated, undeterred. “But I know I could smell ozone coming off you when you walked in.”
He picked up Prax’s lab coat from where it had been strewn across the floor and lobbed it at him. It reeked a chemical stench.
“I worked too damn hard to keep you alive,” Amos growled threateningly, “just for you to fuck it up now, Doc.”
“Whatever your thinking, that’s not why I—” but Amos won’t so much as let Prax defend himself until he swallowed down twice the recommended tablets of VitE and ToxiCan. Prax could swear the level of exposure nowhere near warranted the regimen of anti-toxins, even from the run of the mill brands every good Belter kept in their toolkits. But Amos was withdrawing right before his eyes, words and reasoning landing nowhere.
Prax had never seen him angry before. At least not at him.
“Is this what you were thinking about when we were in bed,” Prax accused. He knew it was pointless and petty but it was all he had in his defense. As far as compartmentalization went, none was on par with Amos. But this?
“I was thinking about fucking you when I was fucking you,” Amos pointed out matter-of-fact. “Thought you had to have a reason to be this fucking stupid. Now I'm just thinking about locking you up somewhere. Somewhere I can keep you safe.”
All Prax’s indignation bled out of him.
“I didn’t go up there to hurt myself—”
“And I might believe that if you didn’t just ride me like I had the last dick on Ganymede.” Amos spoke with certainty, like he knew the signs, knew the steps of the human spiral. Of the gamut of emotions that eluded him, it seemed that desperation was not among them. Prax wondered if Amos could smell that on him as well.
Amos throws Prax’s his lab coat down the disposal chute, glad to be rid of it. He keeps his back turned to Prax. “Tell me why you did it.”
“It wasn’t- I didn’t plan it. I just had to.”
“That ain't good enough and you know it.”
“I don't expect you to understand,” Prax conceded, rubbing his temples.
Amos turned to face him, eyes steely and cold. “Would Mei understand?”
“No,” Prax bit back, his own anger growing. It was a low blow and they both know it. “Because she is a child. Because it is still my job to protect her from the few terrible truths about the world she hasn’t already been forced to learn. Because that's not what I meant at all. Its you. I can't make you understand, Amos.”
It was hard not to wither under Amos’ glare. Prax fumbled on his feet, made his way back to bed. Sat down and sucked in a ragged breath. There were words crowding around the back of his throat, suffocating each other and himself. There was too much to say. He’d waited too long to say it.
“It’s been a year, Amos. Since the incident. Since they took Mei,” Prax scrubbed at his eyes. Pashang, he did not want to cry. “I know that it shouldn’t matter. I mean, an Earth year is meaningless on Jupiter. An arbitrary amount of time but for the longest it felt like we, she and I were getting better. But then the date got closer and closer it felt like something was coming back around, like an orbit. And I was the only one that could feel it.”
Amos said nothing. Prax didn’t expect him to. He knew the man didn’t have the emotional bandwidth for any of it to penetrate.
“Does anything haunt you, Amos?” Prax asked, head hung in hands. “Even a little. Something you dwell on… until it gets under your skin. Until nothing you think feels safe or sane? Because that’s why I went up to the AG-dome. To not hurt myself. To choose… to feel something.”
Amos still stood silent. His face gave away nothing.
“I know it doesn’t make sense. I just push it to the side most days. But the more I think about what happened a year ago, the less grateful I feel. Like me and Mei didn’t make it out alive. Like we only made it out to wait for a danger that never left.”
“There’s always danger,” Amos monotoned. “You live in space, Doc. Every belter knows that.”
Prax looked away. “I told you I couldn’t make you understand.” It felt like a cheap explanation. A cop out in the face of contronation. “I just… I was being morose. And stupid. I know it isn’t good enough but sometimes people just- backtrack.”
Amos did not look convinced. But he stood closer then, a hand reaching out to Prax’s hip. “Back to what?”
“I don’t know- but it has to feel like something,” Prax confessed. “Some days it's a person or a place, a mechanical bull… and other days something it worse.”
* * *
Outside the cabin door, the world raged on. Inside, unsaid words floated like debris as resources dwindled. Amos declared they needed more booze and that was willing to let Prax out from under his watch long enough to split up looking for provisions. Prax was a little thrown by the resumed talks of celebrating, as if the Earther had not just witnessed a man fall apart in front of him. But it was Amos. Changeable and unreadable, always.
The station security gave up trying to control Ganymede population hours ago. There was no sign of curfew being observed by anyone, rich or poor. The shops were open and vendors and tradesmen advertising throughout the walkways. They both regrouped under the belter spice bazaar, hauling bags under the metal tent spokes and plastic tarps.
Prax was trying to compare dried flavor stock when Amos leaned in close. “Doc? What’s morose mean?”
“Oh.” Prax couldn’t help but wonder, not for the first time, what level of education Amos had outside his tech work- if any at all. “It means… Sad but more than sad.” Amos raised an eyebrow. “Meaning, it doesn’t just go away and it makes you angry, almost…” Prax trailed off, decided against the powered stock. “Makes you really angry, actually.”
Amos nodded absently and they say nothing more on the way back to the Hutch district. Again Prax contemplates comm-ing Nicola’s parents, waking Mei and telling her that her second favorite person in the world is on Ganymede. That he wants to see Mei almost as much as her father does.
“Back in Baltimore, I knew this woman,” Amos said when they made it through the front door. “She was licensed, had her worker's permit and everything. She could cross city lines, use all the official channels and get real medicine and food when she had the money for it. None of that black-market shit the unlicensed kids like me scrounged for. She might have been just another whore to her johns but to us? She could go anywhere she wanted. No worrying about the UN or the population police.”
“She used to say the best thing about being documented was riding the hyper-trains. The fastest way to get around Baltimore. But one day there was this accident; a huge collision over a bridge. Bodies everywhere, metal and fuel burning, but out of a dozen cabins, our girl, she’s the only survivor.”
“Lucky,” Prax commented.
“Not really. Because months later, she kept walking back over the bridge. Even after they discontinued railway.”
Prax could guess how this ended. Survivors guilt and copeless sorrow.
“Nah,” Amos shook his head. “She didn’t go out there to hurt herself. She always said she just went out there to sit and think and be glad she was alive. Everything that should have killed her didn't. She thought it meant something.”
Prax could empathize. He had shared a similar delusion once.
“One day she goes out there to sit and think and she hits the water. Bystanders said she slipped.”
“So she drowned.”
“Now that would have been lucky. Or maybe landing in one of the dried up ravines where water used to be. But this river still flowed- that’s worse.”
“Worse, how?” Prax had never seen a body of water. Couldn’t begin to imagine what one would be like.
“The pollution, Doc. The water cooks you alive. Might as well being boiling the way it pulls the meat off the bone.”
“Quite the cautionary tale,” Prax said, eyes downcast. Indifference to the dead had become symptomatic of the life Prax had been left with when the Rocinante plotted it course away from Ganymede. But Amos was there, for what little time they had left. Prax was tired of wasting time on the unresolvable and all the ways they would never understand each other.
There's a set in Amos’s jaw and a bite to his touch when he began undressing Prax again. It was an instant relief, a welcome change of pace warming over Prax’s tired bones. This they could do. This want was something they could both decipher.
“You wanna be morose Doc?” Amos whispered, the word awkward on his tongue, his body fluid as he shoved Prax against the wall. “Do it in here. Because the bad will come back around. That’s just the churn—” Amos hauled Prax up for a kiss, his nails scraped the brittle, panging parts of Prax still exposed. “—but that don't mean you let it find you already standing on a ledge.”
* * *
They are an exhausted heap in the bed again when Prax was trying to doze off. He ached everywhere in the shape of Amos. Felt dull, hot and blunted, perfectly at ease. But he also felt Amos’s attentions, his eyes and hard glances leaving the same pressure as physical touch. Was this what it felt like to be the object of his concern? Had Amos always been this houndingly expressive, or- no. Prax realized he was the one that changed, not Amos. He could read him now. Some inkling of understanding grounded into him, innate and shapeless, but certain.
“I’m not going to run to the nearest airlock to vent myself into space,” Prax grumbled, more than a little cranky. He was too sore and fucked out to explain further. “I’m not crazy.”
“You’re not,” Amos replied with a finality Prax cannot parse out.
He turned Prax over in his hands, dragging him close. In the spread of his arms, Prax saw the raised scarring around his inner elbow. A nearly tapped out vein that matched the healed over scrapes on his knuckles. Prax wondered if that was the closest Amos ever came to dwelling on anything, any hurt. A different way not to feel, to forget.
Drifting off, Prax would dream of radiowaves and flashing signs, Mei’s voice over a commlink, soybeans growing on the moon and Belters with less mispent hope, and the low, low rumble of Amos in his ear. The words phase in and out, telling him, “if Ganymede is too much… if there’s nothing to rebuild here… only a tightbeam away.”
* * *
And in the morning, Amos was gone as well as half the spider plant hanging in the green room. A trail of uprooted recycled soil mapping a hasteful flight from the back rows to the door. In place was a box of regulation ammo. No note, no explanation. Not that Prax would ever expect one.
But when Prax’s hand terminal lit up, one new message was waiting in his inbox. Mei. Smiling with her round happy face, chattering sweetly about Amos comming her before the morning cycle light and all the friends she wanted to see at school and if the guards would still walk her to class even though she was a big girl now and most of all, that she was ready to come home.