Holden was right, though. The thin-faced, desperate people they passed had been food scientists and soil technicians, gas exchange experts and agricultural support staff. If Ganymede Station died, the cascade wouldn’t stop here. Once the last load of food lifted off, the Belt, the Jovian system, and the myriad long-term bases in their own orbits around the sun would have to find a different way to get vitamins and micronutrients for their kids. Prax started wondering whether the bases on the far planets would be able to sustain themselves. If they had full hydroponics rigs and yeast farms and nothing went wrong …
It was a distraction. It was grasping anything other than the fear of what would be waiting behind that door. He embraced it.
“Hold up! All y’all.”
The voice was low and rough and wet, like the man’s vocal cords had been taken out and dragged through mud. He stood in the center of the ice tunnels intersecting before them, military-police body armor two sizes too small straining to keep his bulk in. His accent and build said he was Martian.
Amos and Holden paused, turned, looking everywhere but at the man before them. Prax followed their gazes. Other men lurked, half hidden, around them. The sudden panic tasted like copper.
“I make six,” Holden said.
“What about the guy with the gray pants?” Amos asked.
“Okay, maybe seven. He’s been with us since we left the ship, though. He might be something else.”
“Six is still more than three,” Naomi said in their ears. “You want me to send backup?”
“Hot damn. We’ve got backup?” Amos asked. “Gonna have Supitaya p**n come down and talk ’em all to death?”
“We can take them,” Prax said, reaching for the pistol in his pocket. “We can’t let anyone—”
Amos’ wide hand closed over his own, keeping the gun in his pocket and out of sight.
“These aren’t the ones you shoot,” Amos said. “These are the ones you talk to.”
Holden stepped toward the Martian. The ease with which he held himself made the assault rifle on his shoulder seem almost innocuous. Even the expensive body armor he wore didn’t seem at odds with his casual smile.
“Hey,” Holden said. “There a problem, sir?”
“Might be,” the Martian drawled. “Might not. That’s your call.”
“I’ll take not,” Holden said. “Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’ll be on—”
“Slow down,” the Martian said, sidling forward. His face was vaguely like someone Prax had seen before on the tube and never particularly remarked. “You’re not from around here.”
“I am,” Prax said. “I’m Dr. Praxidike Meng. Chief botanist on the RMD-Southern soy farm project. Who are you?”
“Let the cap’n do this,” Amos said.
“He’s pretty good at it.”
“I’m thinking you’re part of the relief work,” the Martian said. “Long way from the docks. Looks like you lost your way. Maybe you need an escort back to where it’s safe.”
Holden shifted his weight. The assault rifle just happened to slide forward a few inches, not at all provocatively.
“I don’t know,” Holden said. “We’re pretty well protected. I think we can probably take care of ourselves. What kind of fee are you … um, escorts asking?”
“Well now. I count three of you. Call it a hundred in Martian scrip. Five, local.”
“How about you follow us down, and I arrange passage for all of you off this ice ball?”
The Martian’s jaw dropped.
“That’s not funny,” he said, but the mask of power and confidence had slipped. Prax had seen the hunger and desperation behind it.
“I’m going to an old tunnel system,” Holden said. “Someone abducted a bunch of kids right before everything went to hell. They took them there. Doc’s kid was one of the ones that got snatched. We’re going to get her back and politely ask how they knew all this was coming down. Might be resistance. I could use a few people who know what end of the gun points forward.”
“You’re f**king with me,” the Martian said. From the corner of his eye, Prax saw one of the others step forward. A thin woman in cheap protective weave.
“We’re OPA,” Amos said, then nodded at Holden. “He’s James Holden of the Rocinante.”
“Holy shit,” the Martian said. “You are. You’re Holden.”
“It’s the beard,” Holden said.
“My name’s Wendell. Used to work for Pinkwater Security before the bastards took off, left us here. Way I figure, that voids the contract. You want to pick up some professional firepower, you ain’t gonna find better than us.”
“How many you got?”
“Six, counting me.”
Holden looked over at Amos. Prax felt Amos shrug as much as saw it. The other man they’d been talking about was unrelated after all.
“All right,” Holden said. “We tried to talk to local security, but they didn’t give us the time of day. Follow me, back us up, and I give you my word you’ll get off Ganymede.”
Wendell grinned. He’d had one of his incisors dyed red with a small black-and-white design on it.
“Anything you say, boss,” he said. Then, lifting his gun: “Form up! We got us a new contract, people. Let’s get it done!”
The whoops came from all around them. Prax found the thin woman beside him, grinning and shaking his hand like she was running for office. Prax blinked and smiled back, and Amos put his hand on Prax’s shoulder.
“See? Told you. Now let’s get moving.”
The hallway was darker than it had seemed in the video. The ice had thin melt channels, like pale veins, but the frost covering them was fresh. The door looked like any other of a hundred they’d passed on the way in. Prax swallowed. His stomach ached. He wanted to scream for Mei, to call her name and hear her call back.
“Okay,” Naomi said in his ear. “I’ve got the lock disabled. Whenever you guys are ready.”
“No time like the present,” Holden said. “Open it up.”
The seal around the door hissed.
The door opened.
Chapter Fifteen: Bobbie
Three hours into the first big meeting between the Martian and UN diplomats and they’d only just got past introducing everyone and on to reading the agenda. A squat Earther in a charcoal-gray suit that probably cost more than Bobbie’s recon armor droned on about Section 14, Subsection D, Items 1-11, in which they would discuss the effect of past hostilities on commodity pricing pursuant to existing trade agreements. Bobbie looked around, noticed that everyone else at the long oak table was staring with rapt attention at the agenda reader, and stifled the truly epic yawn that was struggling to get out.