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Page 196 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

The older guy shrugged and nodded, then turned to Amos. “Don’t I get a grenade too?”

“Nah,” Amos said, “Paula’s cuter than you.” He counted down from five, and Holden went through the door, same as last time.

He’d been ready for another featureless gray corridor, but on the other side there was a wide-open space, with a few tables and dusty equipment scattered haphazardly around the room. A massive 3-D copier emptied of resin and partially disassembled, a few light industrial waldoes, the kind of complex automated supply cabinet that usually lurked under desks in scientific labs or medical bays. The mineralized webwork was on the walls but not the boxes or equipment. A glass-walled cube two meters to a side sat off in one corner. One of the tables had a small bundle of sheets or tarps piled on it. Across the room another hatch stood closed.

Holden pointed to the abandoned equipment and said to Wendell, “See if you can find a network access point. If you can, plug this into it.” He handed Naomi’s hastily rigged network bridge to him.

Amos sent two of the remaining Pinkwater people up to the next hatch to cover it, then came back to Holden and gestured with his gun toward the glass box.

“Big enough for a couple kids,” he said. “Think that’s where they kept ’em?”

“Maybe,” Holden said, moving over to examine it. “Prax, can you—” Holden stopped when he realized the botanist had gone over to the tables and was standing next to the bundle of rags. With Prax standing next to the bundle, Holden’s perspective shifted and suddenly it didn’t look like a pile of rags at all. It looked very much like a small body under a sheet.

Prax was staring at it, his hand darting toward it and then pulling back. He was shaking all over.

“This … this is …” he said to no one in particular, his hand moving out and back again.

Holden looked at Amos, then gestured at Prax with his eyes. The big mechanic moved over to him and put a hand on his arm.

“How’s about you let us take a look at that, okay?”

Holden let Amos guide Prax a few steps away from the table before he moved over to it. When he lifted the sheet to look under, Prax made a sharp noise like the intake of breath before a scream. Holden shifted his body to block Prax’s view.

A small boy lay on the table. He was skinny, with a mop of unruly black hair and dark skin. His clothes were bright: yellow pants and a green shirt with a cartoon crocodile and daisies. It wasn’t immediately clear what had killed him.

Holden heard a commotion and turned around to see Prax, red-faced and struggling to get past Amos to the table. The mechanic was restraining him with one arm in a grip that was halfway between a wrestling hold and an embrace.

“It’s not her,” Holden said. “It’s a kid, but it’s not her. A boy. Four, maybe five years old.”

When Amos heard that, he let the struggling Prax go. The botanist rushed to the table, flipping the sheet over and giving one quick cry.

“That’s Katoa,” Prax said. “I know him. His father …”

“It’s not Mei,” Holden repeated, putting a hand on Prax’s shoulder. “We need to keep looking.”

Prax shrugged his hand off.

“It’s not Mei,” Holden said again.

“But Strickland was here,” Prax said. “He was their doctor. I thought if he was with them, they’d be …”

Holden said nothing. He was thinking the same thing. If one of the kids was dead, they could all be.

“I thought that meant they’d keep them alive,” Prax said. “But they let Katoa die. They just let him die and they put him under this sheet. Basia, I’m so sorry …”

Holden grabbed Prax and spun him around. The way he imagined a cop would.

“That,” he said, pointing at the small body on the table, “is not Mei. Do you want to find her? Then we need to keep moving.”

Prax’s eyes were filled with tears and his shoulders shook in silent sobs, but he nodded and walked away from the table. Amos watched him carefully. The mechanic’s expression was unreadable. The thought came unbidden: I hope bringing Prax was a good idea.

Across the room, Wendell whistled and waved a hand. He pointed at Naomi’s network access rig plugged into a port in the wall and gave the thumbs-up.

“Naomi, you in?” Holden said while he pulled the sheet back up to cover the dead boy.

“Yep, I’m in,” she said, her tone distracted as she worked with the incoming data. “Traffic in this node is encrypted. Got the Somnambulist started on it, but she’s not nearly as smart as the Roci. This could take a while.”

“Keep trying,” Holden replied, and signaled to Amos. “But if there’s traffic on the network, someone’s still here.”

“If you wait a minute,” Naomi said, “I might be able to give you the security cameras and a more up-to-date floor plan.”

“Feed us what you can, when you can, but we’re not waiting.”

Amos ambled over to Holden and tapped the visor of his helmet. Prax was standing alone by the glass cube, staring into it like there was something to see. Holden expected Amos to say something about the man, but Amos surprised him.

“Been paying attention to the temperature, Cap?”

“Yeah,” Holden replied. “Every time I check it says ‘cold as hell.’”

“I was just over by the door,” Amos continued. “It went up about half a degree.”

Holden thought about that for a moment, double-checking it on his own HUD and tapping his fingers on his thigh.

“There’s climate in the next room. They’re heating it.”

“Seems likely,” Amos said, shifting the big auto-shotgun into both hands and thumbing off the safety.

Holden motioned the remaining Pinkwater people over to them.

“It looks like we’ve come to the inhabited portion of this base. Amos and I go in first. You three”—Holden pointed at the three Pinkwater people who weren’t Wendell—“follow and cover our flanks. Wendell, you cover our asses and make sure we can get back out in a hurry if things go bad. Prax—”

Holden stopped, looking around for the botanist. He had quietly slipped over to the door into the next room. He’d taken the handgun Amos had given him out of his pocket. As Holden watched, he reached out and opened the door, then walked deliberately through.

“Fuck me,” Amos said conversationally.

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