“Okay,” Prax said, pulling out his terminal and making notes.
“That leaves violence to us. Let’s tool up.”
The smile began and ended at the corners of Amos’ eyes.
Chapter Fourteen: Prax
Prax didn’t understand how near he was to collapse until he ate. Canned chicken with some kind of spicy chutney, soft no-crumb crackers of the type usually used in zero-g environments, a tall glass of beer. He wolfed it down, his body suddenly ravenous and unstoppable.
After he finished vomiting, the woman who seemed to take care of all the small practical matters on the ship—he knew her name was Naomi, but he kept wanting to call her Cassandra, because she looked like an intern by that name he’d worked with three years earlier—switched him to a thin protein broth that his atrophied gut could actually handle. Over the course of hours, his mind started coming back. It felt like waking up over and over without falling asleep in between; sitting in the hold of Holden’s ship, he’d find himself noticing the shift in his cognition, how much more clearly he could think and how good it felt to come back to himself. And then a few minutes later, some set of sugar-deprived ganglia would struggle back to function, and it would all happen again.
And with every step back toward real consciousness, he felt the drive growing, pushing him toward the door that Strickland and Mei had gone through.
“Doctor, huh?” the big one—Amos —said.
“I got my degree here. The university’s really good. Lots of grant money. Or … now I suppose there used to be.”
“I was never much for formal education myself.”
The relief ship’s mess hall was tiny and scarred by age. The woven carbon filament walls had cracks in the enameling, and the tabletop was pitted from years, maybe decades, of use. The lighting was a thin spectrum shifted toward pink that would have killed any plants living under it in about three days. Amos had a canvas sack filled with formed plastic boxes of different sizes, each of which seemed to have a firearm of some kind inside. He had unrolled a square of red felt and disassembled a huge matte-black pistol on it. The delicate metal parts looked like sculpture. Amos dipped a cotton swab into a bright blue cleaning solution and rubbed it gently on a silver mechanism attached to a black metal tube, polishing metal plates that were already bright as a mirror.
Prax found his hands moving toward the disassembled pieces, willing them to come together. To be already cleaned and polished and remade. Amos pretended not to notice in a way that meant he was very much aware.
“I don’t know why they would have taken her,” Prax said. “Dr. Strickland has always been great with her. He never … I mean, he’d never hurt her. I don’t think he’d hurt her.”
“Yeah, probably not,” Amos said. He dipped the swab into the cleaning fluid again and started on a metal rod with a spring wrapped around it.
“I really need to get there,” Prax said. He didn’t say, Every minute here is a minute that they could be hurting Mei. That she could be dying or getting shipped offworld. He tried to keep his words from sounding like a whine or a demand, but they seemed to come out as both.
“Getting ready’s the shitty part,” Amos said, as if agreeing to something. “You want to get right out into it right the f**k now. Get it over with.”
“Well, yes,” Prax said.
“I get that,” Amos said. “It’s no fun, but you’ve got to get through it. Going in without your gear ready, you might as well not go. Plus which the girl’s been gone for how long now?”
“Since the fighting. Since the mirror came down.”
“Chances of another hour making much difference are pretty small, right?”
“Yeah,” Amos said with a sigh. “I know. This is the tough part. Not as bad as waiting for us to get back, though. That’s gonna suck even worse.”
Amos put down the swab and started fitting the long black spring back over the spindle of bright metal. The alcohol fumes of the cleaning solution stung Prax’s eyes.
“I’m waiting for you,” Prax said.
“Yeah, I know,” Amos said. “And I’ll make sure we’re real quick about it. The captain’s a real good guy, but he can get kind of distracted sometimes. I’ll keep him on point. No trouble.”
“No,” Prax said, “I don’t mean I’m waiting for you when you go to that door. I mean I’m waiting for you right now. I’m waiting to go there with you.”
Amos slid the spring and spindle into the shell of the gun, twisting it gently with his fingertips. Prax didn’t know when he’d risen to his feet.
“How many gunfights have you been in?” Amos asked. His voice was low and wide and gentle. “Because I’ve been in … shit. This’ll be eleven for me. Maybe twelve, if you count the one time when the guy got up again as a different fight. Point is, if you want your little girl safe, you don’t want her in a tunnel with a guy firing a gun who doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
As if in punctuation, Amos slid the gun together. The metal clacked.
“I’ll be fine,” Prax said, but his legs were trembling, just standing up. Amos held up the gun.
“This ready to fire?” Amos asked.
“If you pick this gun up right now, point it at a bad guy, pull the trigger, does it go bang? You just watched me put it together. Dangerous or safe?”
Prax opened his mouth, then closed it. An ache just behind his sternum grew a notch worse. Amos started to put the gun down.
“Safe,” Prax said.
“You sure about that, Doc?”
“You didn’t put any bullets in it. It’s safe.”
Amos frowned at the gun.
“Well, yeah, that’s right,” he said. “But you’re still not going.”
Voices came from the narrow hallway from the airlock. Jim Holden’s voice wasn’t what Prax had thought it would be. He’d expected him to be serious, grave. Instead, even during the times like now, when the distress clipped his vowels short and tightened his voice, there was a lightness to him. The woman’s voice — Naomi, not Cassandra—wasn’t deeper, but it was darker.
“Those are the numbers,” she said.