“Open up! My daughter’s in there!” He sounded like a madman, but someone inside heard him or saw him on the security monitor. The articulated steel plates of the door shuddered and began to rise. Prax dropped to the ground and scrambled through.
He hadn’t met the new teacher, Miss Carrie, more than a few times, when dropping Mei off or picking her up. She couldn’t have been more than twenty years old and was Belter-tall and thin. He didn’t remember her face being so gray.
The schoolroom was intact, though. The children were in a circle, singing a song about an ant traveling through the solar system, with rhymes for all the major asteroid bodies. There was no blood, no bullet holes, but the smell of burning plastic was seeping through the vents. He had to get Mei someplace safe. He wasn’t sure where that would be. He looked at the circle of children, trying to pick out her face, her hair.
“Mei’s not here, sir,” Miss Carrie said, her voice tight and breathy at the same time. “Her mother got her this morning.”
“This morning?” Prax said, but his mind fastened on her mother. What was Nicola doing on Ganymede? He’d had a message from her two days earlier about the child support judgment; she couldn’t have gotten from Ceres to Ganymede in two days …
“Just after snack,” the teacher said.
“You mean she was evacuated. Someone came and evacuated Mei.”
Another explosion came, shaking the ice. One of the children made a high, frightened sound. The teacher looked from him to the children, then back. When she spoke again, her voice was lower.
“Her mother came just after snack. She took Mei with her. She hasn’t been here all day.”
Prax pulled up his hand terminal. The connection was still dead, but his wallpaper was a picture from Mei’s first birthday, back when things were still good. Lifetimes ago. He held up the picture and pointed at Nicola, laughing and dangling the doughy, delighted bundle that had been Mei.
“Her?” Prax said. “She was here?”
The confusion in the teacher’s face answered him. There’d been a mistake. Someone—a new nanny or a social worker or something—had come to pick up a kid and gotten the wrong one.
“She was on the computer,” the teacher said. “She was in the system. It showed her.”
The lights flickered. The smell of smoke was getting stronger, and the air recyclers were humming loudly, popping and crackling as they struggled to suck out the volatile particulates. A boy whose name Prax should have known whimpered, and the teacher reflexively tried to turn toward him. Prax took her elbow and wrenched her back.
“No, you made a mistake,” he said. “Who did you give Mei to?”
“The system said it was her mother! She had identification. It cleared her.”
A stutter of muted gunfire came from the hallway. Someone was screaming outside, and then the kids started to shriek. The teacher pulled her arm away. Something banged against the drop door.
“She was about thirty. Dark hair, dark eyes. She had a doctor with her, she was in the system, and Mei didn’t make any kind of fuss about it.”
“Did they take her medicine?” he asked. “Did they take her medicine?”
“No. I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
Without meaning to, Prax shook the woman. Only once, but hard. If Mei didn’t have her medicine, she’d already missed her midday dose. She might make it as long as morning before her immune system started shutting down.
“Show me,” Prax said. “Show me the picture. The woman who took her.”
“I can’t! The system’s down!” the teacher shouted. “They’re killing people in the hallway!”
The circle of children dissolved, screams riding on the backs of screams. The teacher was crying, her hands pressed to her face. Her skin had an almost blue cast to it. He could feel the raw animal panic leaping through his brain. The calm that fell on him didn’t take away from it.
“Is there an evacuation tunnel?” he asked.
“They told us to stay here,” the teacher said.
“I’m telling you to evacuate,” Prax said, but what he thought was I have to find Mei.
Chapter Four: Bobbie
Consciousness returned as an angry buzzing noise and pain. Bobbie blinked once, trying to clear her head, trying to see where she was. Her vision was maddeningly blurry. The buzzing sound resolved into an alarm from her suit. Colored lights flashed in her face as the suit’s HUD sent her data she couldn’t read. It was in the middle of rebooting and alarms were coming on one by one. She tried to move her arms and found that although weak, she wasn’t paralyzed or frozen in place. The impact gel in her suit had returned to a liquid state.
Something moved across the window of faint light that was her helmet’s face shield. A head, bobbing in and out of view. Then a click as someone plugged a hardline into her suit’s external port. A corpsman, then, downloading her injury data.
A voice, male and young, in her suit’s internal speakers said, “Gotcha, Gunny. We gotcha. Gonna be okay. Gonna be all right. Just hang in there.”
He hadn’t quite finished saying there when she blacked out again.
She woke bouncing down a long white tunnel on a stretcher. She wasn’t wearing her suit anymore. Bobbie was afraid that the battlefield med-techs hadn’t wasted time taking her out of it the normal way, that they’d just hit the override that blew all the seams and joints apart. It was a fast way to get a wounded soldier out of four hundred kilos of armored exoskeleton, but the suit was destroyed in the process. Bobbie felt a pang of remorse for the loss of her faithful old suit.
A moment later, she remembered that her entire platoon had been ripped to pieces before her eyes, and her sadness about the lost suit seemed trivial and demeaning.
A hard bump on the stretcher sent a jolt of lightning up her spine and hurled her back into darkness.
“Sergeant Draper,” a voice said.
Bobbie tried to open her eyes and found it impossible to do. Each eyelid weighed a thousand kilos, and even the attempt left her exhausted. So she tried to answer the voice and was surprised and a little ashamed of the drunken mumble that came out instead.
“She’s conscious, but just barely,” the voice said. It was a deep, mellow male voice. It seemed filled with warmth and concern. Bobbie hoped that the voice would keep talking until she fell back asleep.
A second voice, female and sharp, replied, “Let her rest. Trying to bring her fully awake right now is dangerous.”