“So,” Amos said, drawing the word out to almost three syllables. “The bad guys are probably on Io?”
“Yes,” Prax said.
“Well shit, Doc. Coulda just said so.”
The thrust gravity was a full g but without the subtle Coriolis of Tycho Station. Prax sat in his bunk, bent over his hand terminal. There had been times on the journey to Tycho Station when being half starved and sick at heart were the only things that distracted him. Nothing physical had changed. The walls were still narrow and close. The air recycler still clicked and hummed. Only now, rather than feeling isolated, Prax felt he was in the center of a vast network of people, all bent toward the same end that he was.
MR. MENG, I SAW THE REPORT ON YOU AND MY HEART AND PRAYERS ARE WITH YOU. I’M SORRY I CAN’T SEND MONEY BECAUSE I’M ON BASIC, BUT I HAVE INCLUDED THE REPORT IN MY CHURCH NEWSLETTER. I HOPE YOU CAN FIND YOUR DAUGHTER SAFE AND HEALTHY.
Prax had composed a form letter for responding to all the general well-wishers, and he’d considered trying to find a filter that could identify those messages and reply automatically with the canned response. He held off because he wasn’t sure how well he could define the conditions set, and he didn’t want anyone to feel that their sentiments were being taken for granted. And after all, he had no duties on the Rocinante.
I’M WRITING YOU BECAUSE I MAY HAVE INFORMATION THAT WILL HELP WITH THE QUEST TO RECLAIM YOUR DAUGHTER. SINCE I WAS VERY YOUNG, I HAVE HAD POWERFUL PREMONITIONS IN MY DREAMS, AND THREE DAYS BEFORE I SAW JAMES HOLDEN’S ARTICLE ABOUT YOU AND YOUR DAUGHTER, I SAW HER IN A DREAM. SHE WAS ON LUNA IN A VERY SMALL PLACE WITHOUT LIGHT, AND SHE WAS SCARED. I TRIED TO COMFORT HER, BUT I FEEL SURE NOW THAT YOU ARE MEANT TO FIND HER ON LUNA OR IN A NEARBY ORBIT.
Prax didn’t respond to everything, of course.
The journey to Io wouldn’t take much more time than the one to Tycho had. Probably less, since they were unlikely to have the chaos of a stowaway protomolecule construct blowing out the cargo bay this time. If Prax thought about it too long, it made his palm itch. He knew where she was—or where she had been. Every hour was bringing him closer, and every message flowing into his charitable account gave him a little more power. Someone else who might know where Carlos Merrian was and what he was doing.
There were a few he’d set up conversations with, mostly video conversations sent back and forth. He’d spoken with a security broker based out of Ceres Station, who’d run some of his tariff searches and seemed like a genuinely nice man. He’d exchanged a few video recordings with a grief counselor on Mars before he started to get an uncomfortable feeling that she was hitting on him. An entire school of children—at least a hundred of them—had sent him a recording of them singing a song in mixed Spanish and French in honor of Mei and her return.
Intellectually, he knew that nothing had changed. The chances were still very good that Mei was dead, or at least that he would never see her again. But to have so many people—and in such a steady stream—telling him that it would be all right, that they hoped it would be all right, that they were pulling for him made despair less possible. It was probably something like group reinforcement effect. It was something common to some species of crop plant: An ill or suffering plant could be moved into a community of well members of the species and, through proximity, improve, even if soil and water were supplied separately. Yes, it was chemically mediated, but humans were social animals, and a woman smiling up from the screen, her eyes seeming to look deeply into your own, and saying what you wanted to believe was almost impossible to wholly disbelieve.
It was selfish, and he knew that, but it was also addictive. He’d stopped paying attention to the donations that were coming in once he knew there was enough to fund the ship as far as Io. Holden had given him an expense report and a detailed spreadsheet of costs, but Prax didn’t think Holden would cheat him, so he’d barely glanced at anything other than the total at the bottom. Once there was enough money, he’d stopped caring about money.
It was the commentary that took his time and attention.
He heard Alex and Amos in the galley, their voices calm and conversational. It reminded him of living in the group housing at university. The awareness of other voices, other presences, and the comfort that came from those familiar sounds. It wasn’t that different from reading the comment threads.
I LOST MY SON FOUR YEARS AGO, AND I STILL CAN’T IMAGINE WHAT YOU ARE GOING THROUGH RIGHT NOW. I WISH THERE WAS MORE I COULD DO.
He had the list down to only a few dozen. It was mid-afternoon in the arbitrary world of ship time, but he was powerfully sleepy. He debated leaving the remaining messages until after a nap, and decided to read through them without requiring himself to respond to each one. Alex laughed. Amos joined him.
Prax opened the fifth message.
YOU ARE A SICK, SICK, SICK MOTHERFUCKER, AND IF I EVER SEE YOU, I SWEAR TO GOD I WILL KILL YOU MYSELF. PEOPLE LIKE YOU SHOULD BE RAPED TO DEATH JUST SO YOU KNOW WHAT IT FEELS LIKE.
Prax tried to catch his breath. The sudden ache in his body was just like the aftermath of being punched in the solar plexus. He deleted the message. Another came in, and then three more. And then a dozen. With a sense of dread, Prax opened one of the new ones.
I HOPE YOU DIE.
“I don’t understand,” Prax said to the terminal. The vitriol was sudden and constant and utterly inexplicable. At least, it was until he opened one of the messages that had the link to a public newsfeed. Prax put in a request, and five minutes later, his screen went blank, the logo of one of the big Earth-based news aggregators glowed briefly in blue, and the title of the feed series—The Raw Feed—appeared.
When the logo faded out, Nicola was looking out at him. Prax reached for the controls, part of his mind insisting that he’d somehow slipped into his private messages, even as the rest of him knew better. Nicola licked her lips, looked away, then back at the camera. She looked tired. Exhausted.
“My name’s Nicola Mulko. I used to be married to Praxidike Meng, the man who put out a call for help finding our daughter … my daughter, Mei.”
A tear dripped down her cheek, and she didn’t wipe it away.
“What you don’t know—what no one knows—is that Praxidike Meng is a monster of a human being. Ever since I got away from him, I’ve been trying to get Mei back. I thought his abuse of me was between us. I didn’t think he’d hurt her. But information has come back to me from friends who stayed on Ganymede after I left that …”