Once he’d assured himself that Mei wasn’t among the lists of the dead, he went hunting. The first night she’d been gone, he’d taken out his hand terminal and made a list. People to contact who had official power: security, her doctors, the warring armies. People to contact who might have information: the other parents at her school, the other parents in his medical support group, her mother. Favorite places to check: her best friend’s home, the common-space parks she liked best, the sweet shop with the lime sherbet she always asked for. Places someone might go to buy a stolen child for sex: a list of bars and brothels off a cached copy of the station directory. The updated directory would be on the system, but it was still locked down. Every day, he crossed as many off the list as he could, and when they were all gone, he started over.
From a list, they’d become a schedule. Security every other day, alternating with whoever would talk to him from the Martian forces or the UN on the other days. The parks in the morning after the body checks. Mei’s best friend and her family had made it out, so there was nothing to check there. The sweet shop had been burned out in a riot. Finding her doctors was the hardest. Dr. Astrigan, her pediatrician, had made all the right concerned noises and promised him that she would call him if she heard anything and then, when he checked again three days later, didn’t remember having spoken to him. The surgeon who’d helped drain the abscesses along her spine when she’d first been diagnosed hadn’t seen her. Dr. Strickland from the support and maintenance group was missing. Nurse Abuakár was dead.
The other families from the group had their own tragedies to work through. Mei wasn’t the only child missing. Katoa Merton. Gabby Solyuz. Sandro Ventisiete. He’d seen the fear and desperation that shrieked in the back of his head mirrored in the faces of the other parents. It made those visits harder than looking at bodies. It made the fear hard to forget.
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.