“Shit,” Holden said. Then, “Go, go, go,” as he rushed toward the now open door.
Just before he got to the hatch, he heard Prax say, “Nobody move,” in a loud but quavering voice.
Holden burst through into the room on the other side, going right while Amos came through just behind him and went left. Prax stood a few feet past the door, the large black handgun looking improbable in his pale, shaking hand. The area itself looked a lot like the one they’d just left, except that this one had a small crowd of people in it. Armed people. Holden tried to take in everything that could be used as cover. A half dozen large gray packing crates with scientific equipment in various states of disassembly in them squatted around the room. Someone’s hand terminal was propped up on a bench and blaring dance music. On one of the crates sat several open boxes of pizza with most of the slices missing, several of which were still clutched in people’s hands. He tried to count them. Four. Eight. An even dozen, all of them wide about the eye and glancing around, thinking about what to do.
It looked to Holden very much like a room full of people packing up to move, taking a short lunch break. Except that the people in this room all had holsters at their sides, and they had left the corpse of a small child to rot in the next room over.
“Nobody! Move!” Prax repeated, this time with more force.
“You should listen to him,” Holden added, moving the barrel of his assault rifle in a slow scan across the room. To drive the point home, Amos sidled up to the nearest worker and casually slammed the butt of his auto-shotgun into the man’s ribs, dropping him to the floor like a bag of wet sand. Holden heard the tramping of his Pinkwater people rushing into the room behind him and taking up cover positions.
“Wendell,” Holden said, not lowering his rifle. “Please disarm these people for me.”
“No,” said a stern-faced woman with a slice of pizza in her hand. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Excuse me?” Holden said.
“No,” the woman repeated, taking another bite of her pizza. Around a mouthful of food, she said, “There are only seven of you. There are twelve of us just in this room alone. And there are a lot more behind us that will come running at the first gunshot. So, no, you don’t get to disarm us.”
She smiled a greasy smile at Holden, then took another bite. Holden could smell the cheese-and-pepperoni smell of good pizza over the top of Ganymede’s ever-present odor of ice and the scent of his own sweat. It made his stomach give an ill-timed rumble. Prax pointed his handgun at the woman, though his hand was now shaking so badly that she probably didn’t feel particularly threatened.
Amos gave him a sidelong glance as if to ask, What now, chief?
In Holden’s mind, the room shifted into a tactical problem with an almost physical click. The eleven potential combatants who were still standing were in three clusters. None of them were wearing visible armor. Amos would almost certainly drop the group of four to the far left of the room in a single burst from his auto-shotgun. Holden was pretty sure he could take down the three directly in front of him. That left four for the Pinkwater people to handle. Best not to count on Prax for any of it.
He finished the split-second tally of potential casualties, and almost of its own volition, his thumb clicked the assault rifle to full auto.
This is not you.
“We don’t have to do this,” he said, instead of opening fire. “No one has to die here today. We’re looking for a little girl. Help us find her, and everyone walks away from this.”
Holden could see the arrogance and bravado in the woman’s face for the mask it was. Behind that, there was worry as she weighed the casualties her team would suffer against the risks of talking it out and seeing where that went. Holden gave her a smile and a nod to help her decide. Talk to me. We’re all rational people here.
Except that not all of them were.
“Where’s Mei?” Prax yelled, poking the gun at her as if his gesture would be somehow translated through the air. “Tell me where Mei is!”
“I—” she started to reply, but Prax screamed out, “Where’s my little girl!” and cocked his gun.
As if in slow motion, Holden saw eleven hands dart down to the holsters at their belts.
Chapter Seventeen: Prax
In the cinema and games that formed the basis of Prax’s understanding of how people of violence interacted, the cocking of a gun was less a threat than a kind of punctuation mark. A security agent questioning someone might begin with threats and slaps, but when he cocked his gun, that meant it was time to take him seriously. It wasn’t something Prax had considered any more carefully than which urinal to use when he wasn’t the only one in the men’s room or how to step on and off a transport tube. It was the untaught etiquette of received wisdom. You yelled, you threatened, you cocked your gun, and then people talked.
“Where’s my little girl!” he yelled.
He cocked his pistol.
The reaction was almost immediate: a sharp, stuttering report like a high-pressure valve failing, but much louder. He danced back, almost dropping the pistol. Had he fired it by mistake? But no, his finger hadn’t touched the trigger. The air smelled sharp, acidic. The woman with the pizza was gone. No, not gone. She was on the ground. Something terrible had happened to her jaw. As he watched, her ruined mouth moved, as though she was trying to speak. Prax could hear only a high-pitched squeal. He wondered if his eardrums had ruptured. The woman with the destroyed jaw took a long, shuddering breath and then didn’t take another. With a sense of detachment, he noticed that she’d drawn her pistol. It was still clutched in her hand. He wasn’t sure when she’d done that. The handset playing dance music transitioned to a different song that only faintly made it past the ringing in his ears.
“I didn’t shoot her,” he said. His voice sounded like he was in partial vacuum, the air too thin to support the energy of sound waves. But he could breathe. He wondered again if the gunfire had ruptured his eardrums. He looked around. Everyone was gone. He was alone in the room. Or no, they were behind cover. It occurred to him that he should probably be behind cover too. Only nobody was firing and he wasn’t sure where to go.
Holden’s voice seemed to come from far away.
“Would you please take his gun away now?”
“I’m on it.”