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Page 218 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

“Your daughter is probably dead,” he said again, and this time the words caught in his throat and started to choke him.

It was, he thought, something about the sense of being suddenly safe. On Ganymede, he’d had fear to numb him. Fear and malnutrition and routine and the ability at any moment to move, to do something even if it was utterly useless. Go check the boards again, go wait in line at security, trot along the hallways and see how many new bullet holes pocked them.

On the Rocinante, he had to slow down. He had to stop. There was nothing for him to do here but wait out the long sunward fall to Tycho Station. He couldn’t distract himself. There was no station—not even a wounded and dying one—to hunt through. There were only the cabin he’d been given, his hand terminal, a few jumpsuits a half size too big for him. A small box of generic toiletries. That was everything he had left. And there was enough food and clean water that his brain could start working again.

Each passing hour felt like waking up a little more. He knew how badly his body and mind had been abused only when he got better. Every time, he felt like this had to be back to normal, and then not long after, he’d find that, no, there had been more.

So he explored himself, probing at the wound at the center of his personal world like pressing the tip of his tongue into a dry socket.

“Your daughter,” he said through the tears, “is probably dead. But if she isn’t, you have to find her.”

That felt better—or, if not better, at least right. He leaned forward, his hands clasped, and rested his chin. Carefully, he imagined Katoa’s body, laid out on its table. When his mind rebelled, trying to think about something—anything—else, he brought it back and put Mei in the boy’s place. Quiet, empty, dead. The grief welled up from a place just above his stomach, and he watched it like it was something outside himself.

During his time as a graduate student, he had done data collection for a study of Pinus contorata. Of all the varieties of pine to rise off Earth, lodgepole pine had been the most robust in low-g environments. His job had been to collect the fallen cones and burn them for the seeds. In the wild, lodgepole pine wouldn’t geminate without fire; the resin in the cones encouraged a hotter fire, even when it meant the death of the parental tree. To get better, it had to get worse. To survive, the plant had to embrace the unsurvivable.

He understood that.

“Mei is dead,” he said. “You lost her.”

He didn’t have to wait for the idea to stop hurting. It would never stop hurting. But he couldn’t let it grow so strong it overwhelmed him. He had the sense of doing himself permanent spiritual damage, but it was the strategy he had. And from what he could tell, it seemed to be working.

His hand terminal chimed. The two-hour block was up. Prax wiped the tears away with the back of his hand, took a deep breath, blew it back out, and stood. Two hours, twice a day, he’d decided, would be enough time in the fire to keep him hard and strong in this new environment of less freedom and more calories. Enough to keep him functional. He washed his face in the communal bathroom—the crew called it the head—and made his way to the galley.

The pilot—Alex, his name was—stood at the coffee machine, talking to a comm unit on the wall. His skin was darker than Prax’s, his thinning hair black, with the first few stray threads of white. His voice had the odd drawl some Martians affected.

“I’m seein’ eight percent and falling.”

The wall unit said something cheerful and obscene. Amos.

“I’m tellin’ you, the seal’s cracked,” Alex said.

“I been over it twice,” Amos said from the comm. The pilot took a mug with the word Tachi printed on it from the coffee machine.

“Third time’s the charm.”

“Arright. Stand by.”

The pilot took one long, lip-smacking sip from the mug, then, noticing Prax, nodded. Prax smiled uncomfortably.

“Feelin’ better?” Alex asked.

“Yes. I think so,” Prax said. “I don’t know.”

Alex sat at one of the tables. The design of the room was military—all soft edges and curves to minimize damage if someone was caught out of place by an impact or a sudden maneuver. The food inventory control had a biometric interface that had been disabled. Built for high security, but not used that way. The name ROCINANTE was on the wall in letters as broad as his hand, and someone had added a stencil of a spray of yellow narcissus. It looked desperately out of place and very appropriate at the same time. When he thought about it that way, it seemed to fit most things about the ship. Her crew, for instance.

“You settlin’ in all right? You need anything?”

“I’m fine,” Prax said with a nod. “Thank you.”

“They beat us up pretty good gettin’ out of there. I’ve been through some ugly patches of sky, but that was right up there.”

Prax nodded and took a food packet from the dispenser. It was textured paste, sweet and rich with wheat and honey and the subterranean tang of baked raisins. Prax sat down before he thought about it, and the pilot seemed to take it as an invitation to continue the conversation.

“How long have you been on Ganymede?”

“Most of my life,” Prax said. “My family went out when my mother was pregnant. They’d been working on Earth and Luna, saving up to get to the outer planets. They had a short posting on Callisto first.”

“Belters?”

“Not exactly. They heard that the contracts were better out past the Belt. It was the whole ‘make a better future for the family’ idea. My father’s dream, really.”

Alex sipped at his coffee.

“And so, Praxidike. They named you after the moon?”

“They did,” Prax said. “They were a little embarrassed to find out it was a woman’s name. I never minded it, though. My wife—my ex-wife—thought it was endearing. It’s probably why she noticed me in the first place, really. It takes something to stand out a little, and you can’t swing a dead cat on Ganymede without hitting five botany PhDs. Or, well, you couldn’t.”

The pause was just long enough that Prax knew what was coming and could steel himself for it.

“I heard your daughter went missing,” Alex said. “I’m sorry about that.”

“She’s probably dead,” Prax said, just the way he’d practiced.

“It had to do with that lab y’all found down there, did it?”

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