He did it anyway.
Basia Merton—KatoaDaddy, Mei called him—was a thick-necked man who always smelled of peppermint. His wife was pencil thin with a nervous twitch of a smile. Their home was six chambers near the water-management complex five levels down from the surface, decorated in spun silk and bamboo. When Basia opened the door, he didn’t smile or say hello; he only turned and walked in, leaving the way open. Prax followed him.
At the table, Basia poured Prax a glass of miraculously unspoiled milk. It was the fifth time Prax had come since Mei had gone missing.
“No sign, then?” Basia said. It wasn’t really a question.
“No news,” Prax said. “So there’s that, at least.”
From the back of the house, a young girl’s voice rose in outrage, matched by a younger boy’s. Basia didn’t even turn to look.
“Nothing here either. I’m sorry.”
The milk tasted wonderful, smooth and rich and soft. Prax could almost feel the calories and nutrients being sucked in through the membranes in his mouth. It occurred to him that he might technically be starving.
“There’s still hope,” Prax said.
Basia blew out his breath like the words had been a punch in the gut. His lips were pressed thin and he was staring at the table. The shouting voices in the back resolved into a low boyish wail.
“We’re leaving,” Basia said. “My cousin works on Luna for Magellan Biotech. They’re sending relief ships, and when they put off the medical supplies, there’s going to be room for us. It’s all arranged.”
Prax put down the glass of milk. The chambers around them seemed to go quiet, but he knew that was an illusion. A strange pressure bloomed in his throat, down into his chest. His face felt waxy. He had the sudden physical memory of his wife announcing that she’d filed for divorce. Betrayed. He felt betrayed.
“…after that, another few days,” Basia was saying. He’d been talking, but Prax hadn’t heard him.
“But what about Katoa?” Prax managed to say around the thickness in his throat. “He’s here somewhere.”
Basia’s gaze flickered up and then away, fast as a bird’s wing.
“He’s not. He’s gone, brother. Boy had a swamp where his immune system should’ve been. You know that. Without his medicine, he used to start feeling really sick in three, maybe four days. I have to take care of the two kids I still got.”
Prax nodded, his body responding without him. He felt like a flywheel had come loose somewhere in the back of his head. The grain of the bamboo table seemed unnaturally sharp. The smell of ice melt. The taste of milk going sour on his tongue.
“You can’t know that,” he said, trying to keep his voice soft. He didn’t do a great job.
“I pretty much can.”
“Whoever … whoever took Mei and Katoa, they aren’t useful to them dead. They knew. They had to know that they’d need medicine. And so it only makes sense that they’d take them somewhere they could get it.”
“No one took them, brother. They got lost. Something happened.”
“Mei’s teacher said—”
“Mei’s teacher was scared crazy. Her whole world was making sure toddlers don’t spit in each other’s mouths too much, and there’s a shooting war outside her room. Who the hell knows what she saw?”
“She said Mei’s mother and a doctor. She said a doctor—”
“And come on, man. Not useful if they’re dead? This station is ass deep in dead people, and I don’t see anyone getting useful. It’s a war. Fuckers started a war.” There were tears in his wide, dark eyes now, and sorrow in his voice. But there was no fight. “People die in a war. Kids die. You gotta … ah shit. You got to keep moving.”
“You don’t know,” Prax said. “You don’t know that they’re dead, and until you know, you’re abandoning them.”
Basia looked down at the floor. There was a flush rising under the man’s skin. He shook his head, the corners of his mouth twitching down.
“You can’t go,” Prax said. “You have to stay and look for him.”
“Don’t,” Basia said. “And I mean do not shout at me in my own home.”
“These are our kids, and you don’t get to walk away from them! What kind of father are you? I mean, Jesus …”
Basia was leaning forward now, hunched over the table. Behind him, a girl on the edge of womanhood looked in from the hallway, her eyes wide. Prax felt a deep certainty rising in him.
“You’re going to stay,” he said.
The silence lasted three heartbeats. Four. Five.
“It’s arranged,” Basia said.
Prax hit him. He didn’t plan it, didn’t intend it. His arm rolled through the shoulder, balled fist shooting out of its own accord. His knuckles sank into the flesh of Basia’s cheek, snapping his head to the side and rocking him back. The big man boiled across the room at him. The first blow hit just below Prax’s collarbone, pushing him back, the next one was to his ribs, and the one after that. Prax felt his chair slide out from under him, and he was falling slowly in the low g but unable to get his feet beneath him. Prax swung wild, kicked out. He felt his foot connect with something, but he couldn’t tell if it was the table or Basia.
He hit the floor, and Basia’s foot came down on his solar plexus. The world went bright, shimmering, and painful. Somewhere a long way away, a woman was shouting. He couldn’t make out the words. And then, slowly, he could.
He’s not right. He lost a baby too. He’s not right.
Prax rolled over, forced himself up to his knees. There was blood on his chin he was pretty sure came from him. No one else there was bleeding. Basia stood by the table, hands in fists, nostrils flared, breath fast. The daughter stood in front of him, interposed between her enraged father and Prax. All he could really see of her was her ass and her ponytail and her hands, flat out at her father in the universal gesture for stop. She was saving his life.
“You’d be better off gone, brother,” Basia said.
“Okay,” Prax said.
He got to his feet slowly and stumbled to the door, still not quite breathing right. He let himself out.
The secret of closed-system botanical collapse was this: It’s not the thing that breaks you need to watch out for. It’s the cascade. The first time he’d lost a whole crop of G. kenon, it had been from a fungus that didn’t hurt soybeans at all. The spores had probably come in with a shipment of ladybugs. The fungus took hold in the hydroponic system, merrily taking up nutrients that weren’t meant for it and altering the pH. That weakened the bacteria Prax had been using to fix nitrogen to the point that they were vulnerable to a phage that wouldn’t have been able to take them out otherwise. The nitrogen balance of the system got out of whack. By the time the bacteria recovered to their initial population, the soybeans were yellow, limp, and past repair.