“These are the only ones I was able to save. They’ve all been sedated for evacuation,” Strickland said. “But right now, we need to leave. Get off the station. I have to get to the authorities.”
“And why do you need to do that?” Amos asked.
“I have to tell them what’s been going on here,” Strickland said. “I have to tell everyone about the crimes that were committed here.”
“Yeah, okay,” Amos said. “Hey, Prax? You think you could get that?” He pointed his shotgun at something on a nearby crate.
Prax turned to look at Amos. It was almost a struggle to remember where he was and what they were doing.
“Oh,” he said. “Sure.”
Holding Mei against him with one arm, he took Strickland’s gun and trained it on the man.
“No,” Strickland said. “You don’t … you don’t understand. I’m the victim here. I had to do all this. They forced me. She forced me.”
“You know,” Amos said, “maybe I’m coming across as what a guy like you might call working class. Doesn’t mean I’m stupid. You’re one of Protogen’s pet sociopaths, and I ain’t buying any damn thing you’re trying to sell.”
Strickland’s face turned to cold rage like a mask had fallen away.
“Protogen’s dead,” he said. “There is no Protogen.”
“Yeah,” Amos said. “I got the brand name wrong. That’s the problem here.”
Mei murmured something, her hand reaching up behind Prax’s ear to grip his hair. Strickland stepped back, his hands in fists.
“I saved her,” he said. “That girl’s alive because of me. She was slated for the second-generation units, and I pulled her off the project. I pulled all of them. If it wasn’t for me, every child here would be worse than dead right now. Worse than dead.”
“It was the broadcast, wasn’t it?” Prax said. “You saw that we might find out, so you wanted to make sure that you had the girl from the screen. The one everyone was looking for.”
“You’d rather I hadn’t?” Strickland said. “It was still me that saved her.”
“Actually, I think that makes it Captain Holden,” Prax said. “But I take your point.”
Strickland’s pistol had a simple thumb switch on the back. He pressed it to turn the safety on.
“My home is gone,” Prax said, speaking slowly. “My job is gone. Most of the people I’ve ever known are either dead or scattered through the system. A major government is saying I abuse women and children. I’ve had more than eighty explicit death threats from absolute strangers in the last month. And you know what? I don’t care.”
Strickland licked his lips, his eyes shifting from Prax to Amos and back again.
“I don’t need to kill you,” Prax said. “I have my daughter back. Revenge isn’t important to me.”
Strickland took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Prax could see the man’s body relax, and something on the dividing line of relief and pleasure appeared at the corners of his mouth. Mei twitched once when Amos’ auto-shotgun fired, but she lay back down against Prax’s shoulder without crying or looking around. Strickland’s body drifted slowly to the ground, the arms falling to the sides. The space where the head had been gouted bright arterial blood against the walls, each pulse smaller than the one before.
“Or that,” Prax said.
“So you got any ideas how we—”
The hatch behind them opened and a man ran in.
“What happened? I heard—”
Amos raised the auto-shotgun. The new man backpedaled, a thin whine of fear escaping from him as he retreated. Amos cleared his throat.
“Any idea how we get these kids out of here?”
Putting Mei back in the transport cart was one of the hardest things Prax had ever done. He wanted to carry her against him, to press his face against hers. It was a primate reaction, the deepest centers of his brain longing for the reassurance of physical contact. But his suit wouldn’t protect her from the radiation or near vacuum of Io’s sulfuric atmosphere, and the transport would. He nestled her gently against two other children while Amos put the other four in a second cart. The smallest of them was still in newborn diapers. Prax wondered if she had come from Ganymede too. The carts glided against the station flooring, only rattling when they crossed the built-in tracks.
“You remember how to get back to the surface?” Amos asked.
“I think so,” Prax said.
“Uh, Doc? You really want to put your helmet back on.”
“Oh! Right. Thank you.”
At the T intersection, half a dozen men in security uniforms had built a barricade, preparing to defend the lab against attack. Because Amos tossed in his grenades from the rear, the cover was less effective than the locals had anticipated, but it still took a few minutes to clear the bodies and the remains of the barricade to let the carts roll through.
There was a time, Prax knew, that the violence would have bothered him. Not the blood or bodies. He’d spent more than enough time doing dissections and even autonomous-limb vivisection to be able to wall off what he was seeing from any particular sense of visceral horror. But that it was something done in anger, that the men and women he’d just seen blown apart hadn’t donated their bodies or tissues, would have affected him once. The universe had taken that from him, and he couldn’t say now exactly when it had happened. Part of him was numb, and maybe it always would be. There was a feeling of loss in that, but it was intellectual. The only emotions he felt were a glowing, transforming relief that Mei was here and alive and a vicious animal protectiveness that meant he would never let her leave his sight, possibly until she left for university.
On the surface, the transports were rougher, the wheels less suited to the uneven surface of the land. Prax followed Amos’ example, turning the boxes around to pull them rather than push. Looking at the vectors, it made sense, but it wouldn’t have occurred to him if he hadn’t seen Amos doing it.
Bobbie was walking slowly toward the Rocinante. Her suit was charred and stained and moving poorly. A clear fluid was leaking down the back.
“Don’t get close to me,” she said. “I’ve got protomolecule goo all over this thing.”
“That’s bad,” Amos said. “You got a way to clean that off?”