There was something eerie about the Rocinante at night, Alex thought. This ship, this beautiful, magnificent ship had been his home for years now, but during the night, it transformed and became something else. During the night, Alex sometimes missed the comfort and security only a planet could offer. During the night, he missed his home.
When everyone else had already gone to sleep, the Roci felt empty - and not empty at the same time. The low hum of the engine seemed a lot louder in the small hours and the hull creaked as it cooled, the life support turning down the temperature when everyone was supposed to be tucked into bed. Everyone but Alex.
As he ventured through the corridors of the familiar ship, he was aware of every little sound and the humming suddenly threatened to cover up the footsteps of an approaching monster and the creaking masked the attack that was sure to follow every second now. After the events of recent years, after the Protomolecule and countless battles, Alex told himself that it was normal to be scared. Everyone on his team was scared of something, maybe even Amos even though he would never willingly admit that.
Then, under the noise of the engines, Alex noticed a different sound, a sound so strange for this time of night that it almost made him turn around and head the other direction so as not to disturb anyone’s privacy, but it also sparked his curiosity. The panting was definitely human, rhythmic and accompanied by the clanging of metal, leading Alex to the only possible conclusion. He wasn’t the only insomniac on this ship.
Determined to see who it was, Alex peered around the corner into the room and spotted a tall, strong figure of the Martian Marine as she lifted weights Alex could only dream of moving. His first instinct was to retreat, to give Bobbie the space she obviously needed because why else would she have chosen to work out in the middle of the night, but instead, he remained exactly where he was, mesmerised by the sight in front of him.
Bobbie was an impressive woman, to say the least, and Alex had little doubt that she could kill him in a matter of minutes if she set her mind to it, but she was also quite pretty and Alex felt drawn to her. It wasn’t her strength or her pleasant features as much as it was her origin. She was a Martian, just like him, a little piece of the home he had left behind right here on the Roci.
“Have you come to stare at me or is there something else you want?” Bobbie suddenly asked.
Alex straightened his shoulders, taken by surprise because she had had her back turned towards him the entire time and he wasn’t entirely sure whether she had heard him or something else had given him away.
He opened his mouth to respond, but Alex didn’t know what to say when Bobbie turned around, but he felt relieved when he noticed the smile on her face.
“I’m a Martian Marine,” she said, “would be a fine day for the enemy if they can just sneak up on me.”
Alex smiled at her in return, the friendly tone in her voice lifting his spirits. “I just heard a noise, that’s all,” he explained. There was more that he wanted to say, but Bobbie seemed to guess it before he had a chance to say anything else.
“Checking for monsters under the bed,” Bobbie concluded with a soft shrug. “I haven’t seen any. You can sleep tight, Sailor.”
He uttered a reluctant laugh even though he couldn’t quite say why. Maybe it was the ridiculousness of a grown man being scared of monsters while this woman didn’t seem to be afraid of anything. In fact, Alex was quite sure she had seen worse horrors.
When Alex didn’t move, Bobbie’s face suddenly took on a more sombre expression. It was as if she had realised it wasn’t as simple as checking for monsters under the bed because even though they couldn’t be seen, it didn’t mean that they weren’t there. She blew the air out between her teeth and reached for the nearest towel to dry the sweat off her neck.
“Since your captain’s an Earther, does that mean this ship has some decent tea?” Bobbie wanted to know. “The old lady drinks it. I think it’s not an unpleasant drink to have before sleep.”
With an apologetic smile, Alex shook his head. “All we have are substitutes.”
Bobbie shrugged. “It’ll do.”
Bobbie was right. Some nights, the substitute tea made for an excellent nightcap. Other nights called for something stronger, but no less a substitute for the classic alcohol they drank back on earth. That was really what humanity’s exploration of space was all about, wasn’t it? Instead of discovering something new, they kept trying to rebuild what they originally had. Instead of going back home to his real family, Alex was seeking solace in Bobbie’s company because it reminded him of home. They were two insomniacs, stealing a few hours of shared solitude while no one else was watching.
“What would you plant in your garden?” Bobbie asked him seemingly out of the blue. A few nights ago, they had started to dream about what they would do on a newly terraformed Mars even though they were both painfully aware that neither of them would live to see that happen.
Alex leaned back in his seat, exhaling sharply, thinking. He looked around the galley, hoping to be inspired, but his mind remained blank. “Probably something pretty. Couple of flowers. A few trees. You?”
“Cherry trees,” Bobbie replied without thinking. In fact, Alex was sure that she had thought about it and for a long time, too. But as always, her features soon turned serious again. After everything she had seen, she could never just be happy for too long. “Do you think that in a few generations, the Martians will be just like the Earthers?”
Alex frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that they had a paradise handed to them. Clean air, clean oceans, plants and animals and they destroyed and polluted it all. Is that what our people will become once we start taking it for granted?”
“Nah.” He shook his head. “We’ve worked too hard for that. We wouldn’t just destroy it once we have it.”
Bobbie regarded him for a long moment, her eyes scanning him until Alex was beginning to feel a little uneasy under her gaze. Surely, she thought he was being naive.
“Did I miss a crew meeting?”
Both Alex and Bobbie turned their head, surprised to find Amos blocking the door to the galley. Normally, the tall, intimidating Earther was fast asleep at this time of night, which was why Alex and Bobbie had had the galley to themselves during the past couple of nights, but something seemed to have roused Amos from his sleep.
“You don’t have any leftover lasagne, do you?” he asked excitedly and took a seat at the table, completely oblivious that he was disturbing the fragile peace.
Alex looked up, meeting Bobbie’s gaze and the amusement was visible on her face. He, however, wasn’t at all amused. During his small, stolen moments with Bobbie, the last thing Alex wanted was competition.
His entire body was in pain. Some of the muscles he hadn’t even been aware of until now were burning so badly that he threatened to collapse under the agony at any given moment and yet, Alex pushed on, lifting his torso up over and over again only to have it drop back to the floor. In the back of his mind, he questioned his own sanity and wondered how he had ever let anyone talk him into working out.
Then, Bobbie burst into laughter next to him. “You’re pathetic, Sailor,” she remarked, obviously greatly amused by his pain.
Alex sank to the floor, completely out of breath and unable to lift even as much as a hand. Of course, he was out of shape. He had never expected to keep up with Bobbie’s Martian Marine workout schedule, but he also hadn’t expected to hit the wall during the very first exercise.
“Come on, give me five more sit-ups,” Bobbie said, panting, and when Alex turned his head, she noticed that she was still at it, still working out without even shedding even a single drop of sweat.
He wanted to be able to keep up with her, he really did, but right now, the pain just didn’t seem to be worth it. Bobbie paused to look at him, a deep frown on her face and Alex only now realised that he had been staring, admiring the level of fitness he was never going to achieve.
“Hey, this was your idea,” she argued.
Alex laughed. “I had hoped you’d go easy on me,” he admitted.
Bobbie turned her gaze away and continued her exercise regimen. “Never,” Bobbie replied, leaving Alex no other choice but to set his body into motion again.
However, he was sure to regret it for the following days.
“Did you injure yourself?” Holden asked, raising an eyebrow at the limping Alex as he joined the rest of the crew at the kitchen table.
Bobbie started to chuckle immediately and Alex wasn’t sure whether to glower at her first or at Amos who was grinning at his breakfast. Knowing Amos, Alex was about to hear something he wasn’t going to like and he was already dreading the Earther’s comment.
“To clarify, I didn’t injure myself,” Alex explained, carefully sitting down on one of the kitchen chairs. Even when he was no longer relying on his legs, his entire body hurt from last night’s ordeal. “I, uh, I’ve started to work out, that’s all. Trying to get into shape.”
“Don’t laugh at him,” Naomi scolded her friend. “I think it’s a great idea. Especially since it looks like we’re just going to keep heading into danger.”
“Yeah, I’m sure he’s been heading very deep into very dangerous territory,” Amos mumbled with his mouth full.
While the rest of the crew looked rather confused, Alex needed a moment to understand just what Amos was implying, but he had no chance to defend himself when Amos continued, raising his hands in a surrendering gesture.
“I’m just saying that it’s a small ship and if you want your private business to stay private, maybe you should keep it down a bit.”
“Okay, I’m confused,” Holden admitted, looking around the breakfast table for someone to elaborate. “What’s going on?”
“I think Amos is trying to imply that Alex and I are sleeping together,” Bobbie replied. Alex spun around to look at her, surprised by how casual her voice sounded.
“Which, uh, which we’re not,” Alex added and he could feel the heat rise into his cheeks. It felt like they had been caught doing something naughty when their late-night meetings were actually innocent. They were friends, bound together by a common origin, by shared dreams that would never come true, by the same nightmares.
“Look, I’m not judging,” Amos replied instantly. “Whatever floats your boat.”
“You’re welcome to join us,” Bobbie said, challenging him with the tone in her voice, “but I don’t think you’ll last any longer than Alex under the Martian fitness regimen.”
The Earther responded with a broad, mischievous grin. “I’d be interested to find out whether I’d last longer than Alex.”
“Okay,” Naomi suddenly interrupted the conversation, setting her mug down on the table’s surface with a loud clang. “I think we’ve had enough innuendos for today.”
Alex was grateful for Naomi’s intervention and turned his attention back towards his breakfast, but even as he avoided everyone’s looks, he could still feel his ears burning with embarrassment.
Alex watched Bobbie stir the sauce just like he had taught her to, absent-mindedly cutting the basil he had nicked out of the cupboard. The Roci galley had a wonderful stock of plants which served as decor as well as a purifier, but tonight, he had decided to steal a couple of leaves for their midnight snack. Yet even though Bobbie acted as if nothing had happened, Alex still felt the subject weighing on his mind.
“I need to apologise for Amos,” Alex said after a while, still embarrassed about the less well-behaved members of his crew. To Amos, everything was dirty, everything was simple and Alex couldn’t really blame him after the tales he had heard of his adolescence in Baltimore. For Alex, however, it was different and his friendship with Bobbie wasn’t something he had kept secret from his crew out of shame, out of fear about how they would react, no, he had kept it a secret because they were the only two Martians on the Roci and he finally had a living being to talk to instead of only the ship itself. Alex wasn’t going to let Amos ruin that for him by insinuating that his intentions were less than innocent.
“No, you don’t,” Bobbie replied. When she looked up, she was smiling at him. “Amos just likes to tease. Also, I think he was a little bit jealous. You shouldn’t have corrected him.”
The frown on his face deepened with every word Bobbie said and Alex wasn’t quite sure he understood her correctly. “You say I should’ve let him believe we’re, uh-”
“Having sex? Yeah.” She shrugged. Then, Bobbie suddenly burst into laughter. “Especially when he assumes it was the cause of your limp.”
Alex quickly averted his eyes and he could feel himself blush again. “I don’t think I find it quite as funny as you do,” he admitted sheepishly.
The thought of him and Bobbie having sex was not one he had allowed himself to have. Of course, it had crept into his head occasionally, sneaking in when she had smiled at him or when he had watched her for maybe a moment too long, but Alex had always pushed it aside as quickly as it had come. Bobbie was a desirable woman, there was no doubt about it. She was smart and strong and once Alex had earned her trust, she had even shown her sense of humour, but there was no way that someone like Bobbie would ever see more in him than a friend.
He realised too late that Bobbie had stopped stirring the sauce and was now looking at him with the inquisitive gaze of a Martian Marine. Slowly, he raised his head, not sure whether to look back or avoid her eyes. Then, she took a step closer, reminding Alex once again that they were the same height - and that her training enabled her to overpower and kill him on the spot if she wished to.
“Are you scared of me?” Bobbie wanted to know, her voice dead serious.
“Right now?” Alex chuckled nervously. “A little bit.”
“Good,” she concluded.
When she leaned forward to kiss him, his eyes widened in surprise. It was not something Alex had expected to happen, but it didn’t mean that he was going to complain about being kissed by a beautiful woman.
Alex breathed in carefully, but he was too afraid to move even though his arm threatened to fall asleep under the weight of Bobbie’s head in the confined space of his bunk. In his mind, he went over the events of the last couple of weeks and still, it wasn’t exactly clear to him how they had moved from threatening each other to lying in each other’s arms. No matter how it had happened, Alex decided to thank the universe for it because, for the first time in years, he could sleep peacefully. No monsters, no nightmares. Bobbie was able to drive them all away and he chuckled to himself when he imagined the horrors of the universe being scared of the woman next to him.
“What’s so funny?” Bobbie mumbled sleepily.
“Nothing,” Alex told her.
She turned around in bed to face him, finally releasing his arm, and when she looked at him, Alex thought she was trying to read his mind. Sometimes, he had the feeling that she actually could.
“If you’re going to tell me that I’m beautiful or some other cliché crap, I’m going to punch you,” she threatened and Alex didn’t doubt for a second that she actually would.
Bobbie wasn’t that kind of woman. They didn’t have that kind of relationship. It wasn’t so much love between them as it was a different but no less strong bond. Out here in the depths of space, it was so easy to get lost, so easy to go adrift, so easy to cling to the nearest particle that was even remotely alike. In moments like this, Alex thought Bobbie felt the exact same thing. She was a little piece of home right here in his arms, something to cling to when everything else just rushed past or faded away.
“Go to sleep, Sailor,” Bobbie told him and closed her eyes.
Alex leaned forward and left a brief kiss on her forehead before he sank back into the pillows. Soon, they would surely have to face the war again, face the monsters, so Alex was grateful for a few stolen moments of peace.