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Page 199 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

“Aye, aye, Cap,” Amos said, putting down his shotgun. He took two grenades of his own, pulled the pink plastic strip-pins, rolled the live grenades through the gateway, and scooped his gun back up. The doubled detonation was deeper than the first one had been, but not as loud. Even before the echo faded, Amos, Holden, Wendell, and the one remaining soldier ducked through the gateway, weapons blazing.

Prax hesitated. He was unarmed. The enemy was just beyond the threshold. He could stay here and tend to the gut-shot man. But the image that wouldn’t leave him was Katoa’s still body. The dead boy wasn’t more than a hundred meters away. And Mei …

Keeping his head down, Prax scuttled through the doorway. Holden and Wendell were to his right, Amos and the other soldier to his left. All four were crouched, weapons at the ready. Smoke stung Prax’s eyes and nostrils, and the air recyclers groaned in protest, fighting to clear the air.

“Well now,” Amos said, “that’s f**king queer.”

The room was built on two levels: an upper catwalk a meter and a half wide, and a lower floor two meters below it. A wide passage led away at ten o’clock on the lower level, and a door on the upper level stood open at one o’clock. The pit below them was chaos. Blood soaked the walls and had sprayed up to stipple the ceiling. Bodies lay on the ground below them. A thin steam rose from the gore.

They had been using equipment for cover. Prax recognized a microcentrifuge smashed almost out of its casing. Inch-thick slivers of ice or glass glittered among the carnage. A nitrogen bath was tipped on its side, the alarm indicator showing it had locked down. A massive blot array—easily two hundred kilos—lay at an improbable angle, a child’s toy thrown aside in the ecstasy of play.

“What the hell kind of ordnance are you packing?” Wendell asked, his voice awed. From the wide passage at ten o’clock came shrieks and the sound of gunfire.

“I don’t think this was us,” Holden said. “Come on. Double-time it.”

They dropped down to the killing floor. A glass cube like the one they’d seen before stood in shattered glory. Blood made the floor slick underfoot. A hand still wrapping a pistol lay in the corner. Prax looked away. Mei was here. He couldn’t lose focus. Couldn’t be sick.

He kept going on.

Holden and Amos led the way toward the sound of fighting. Prax trotted along behind them. When he tried to hold back, let Wendell and his compatriot go first, the Pinkwater men gently pushed him forward. They were guarding the rear, Prax realized. In case someone came up from behind. He should have thought of that.

The passageway opened out, broad but low. Industrial loading mechs, amber indicators showing idle, stood beside pallets of foam-coated supply boxes. Amos and Holden moved down the hall with a practiced efficiency that left Prax winded. But with every turn they reached, every door they opened, he found himself willing them to go faster. She was here, and they had to find her. Before she got hurt. Before something happened. And with every body they found, the sick feeling that something had already happened sank deeper in his gut.

They moved forward quickly. Too quickly. When they reached the end of the line—an airlock four meters high and at least seven across—Prax couldn’t imagine that there was anyone behind it. Amos let his automatic shotgun hang at his side as he tapped at the airlock controls. Holden squinted up at the ceiling as if something might be written there. The ground trembled and set the hidden base creaking.

“Was that a launch?” Holden said. “That was a launch!”

“Yeah,” Amos said. “Looks like they’ve got a landing pad out there. Monitors aren’t showing anything else on it, though. Whatever that was, it was the last train outta here.”

Prax heard someone shouting. It took him only a second to realize it was him. Like he was watching his body move without him, he dashed to the sealed metal doors, pounding them with his clenched fists. She was there. She was just out there, on the ship lifting away from Ganymede. He could feel her like she had a rope tied to his heart and every moment pulled it out of him a little more.

He blacked out for a second. Or maybe longer. When he came back to himself, he was slung over Amos’ wide shoulder, the armor biting into his belly. He pushed up to see the airlock receding slowly behind them.

“Put me down,” Prax said.

“Can’t do it,” Amos replied. “Cap says—”

The stuttering of assault rifle fire came, and Amos dropped Prax to the ground and squatted over him, shotgun at the ready.

“What the f**k, Cap?” Amos said.

Prax glanced up in time to see the Pinkwater soldier cut down, blood spraying out of his back. Wendell was on the ground, returning fire around a sharp corner.

“Missed someone,” Holden said. “Or else they called in their friends.”

“Don’t shoot them,” Prax said. “What if it’s Mei! What if they have her with them?”

“They don’t, Doc,” Amos said. “Stay down.”

Holden was shouting, words rolling out of him too fast to follow. Prax didn’t know if he was talking to Amos or Wendell or Naomi back on the ship or him. It could have been any of them. All of them. Four men came around the corner, weapons in hand. They wore the same coveralls that all the others had worn. One had long black hair and a goatee. Another was a woman with skin the color of buttercream. The two in the middle could have been brothers—the same close-cut brown hair, the same long noses.

From somewhere to Prax’s right, the shotgun spoke twice. All four fell back. It was like something out of a prank comedy. Eight legs, swept at once. Four people Prax didn’t know, had never met, just fell down. They just fell down. He knew they were never getting back up.

“Wendell?” Holden said. “Report?”

“Caudel’s dead,” Wendell said. He didn’t sound sad about it. He didn’t sound like anything. “I think I broke my wrist. Anyone know where they came from?”

“Nope,” Holden said. “Let’s not assume they were alone, though.”

They retraced their steps, back through the long, wide passages. Past bodies of men and women they hadn’t killed, but who were dead now anyway. Prax didn’t try to keep from weeping. There was no point. If he could keep his legs moving, one foot in front of the other, it was enough.

They reached the bloodied pit after a few minutes or an hour or a week. Prax couldn’t tell, and all options seemed equally plausible. The ruptured bodies stank, the spilled blood thickening to a black currant jelly, the opened viscera freeing colonies of bacteria usually held in check by the gut. On the catwalk, a woman stood. What was her name? Paula. That was it.

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