“I think so. It must have. They took her just before the first incident. Her and several of the others in her group.”
“She has an immune disorder. Myers-Skelton Premature Immunosenescence. Always has had.”
“My sister had a brittle bone disorder. Hard,” Alex said. “Is that why they took her?”
“I assume so,” Prax said. “Why else would you steal a child like that?”
“Slave labor or sex trade,” Alex said softly. “But can’t see why you’d pick out kids with a medical condition. It true you saw protomolecule down there?”
“Apparently,” Prax said. The food bulb was cooling in his hand. He knew he should eat more—he wanted to, as good as it tasted—but something was turning at the back of his mind. He’d thought this all through before, when he’d been distracted and starving. Now, in this civilized coffin hurtling through the void, all the old familiar thoughts started to touch up against each other. They’d specifically targeted the children from Mei’s group. Immunocompromised children. And they’d been working with the protomolecule.
“The captain was on Eros,” Alex said.
“It must have been a loss for him when it happened,” Prax said to have something to say.
“No, I don’t mean he lived there. He was on the station when it happened. We all were, but he was on it the longest. He actually saw it starting. The initial infected. That.”
“Changed him, some. I’ve been flyin’ with him since we were just fartin’ around on this old ice bucket running from Saturn to the Belt. He didn’t used to like me, I suspect. Now we’re family. It’s been a hell of a trip.”
Prax took a long pull from his food bulb. Cool, the paste tasted less of wheat and more of honey and raisin. It wasn’t as good. He remembered the look of fear on Holden’s face when they’d found the dark filaments, the sound of controlled panic in his voice. It made sense now.
And as if summoned by the thought, Holden appeared in the doorway, a formed aluminum case under his arm with electromagnetic plates along the base. A personal footlocker designed to stay put even under high g. Prax had seen them before, but he’d never needed one. Gravity had been a constant for him until now.
“Cap’n,” Alex said with a vestigial salute. “Everything all right?”
“Just moving some things to my bunk,” Holden said. The tightness in his voice was unmistakable. Prax had the sudden feeling that he was intruding on something private, but Alex and Holden didn’t give any further sign. Holden only moved off down the hall. When he was out of earshot, Alex sighed.
“Trouble?” Prax asked.
“Yeah. Don’t worry. It’s not about you. This has been brewin’ for a while now.”
“I’m sorry,” Prax said.
“Had to happen. Best to get it over with one way or the other,” Alex said, but there was an unmistakable dread in his voice. Prax felt himself liking the man. The wall terminal chirped and then spoke in Amos’ voice.
“What’ve you got now?”
Alex pulled the terminal close, the articulated arm bending and twisting on complicated joints, then tapped on it with the fingers of one hand while keeping hold of the coffee with the other. The terminal flickered, datasets converting to graphs and tables in real time.
“Ten percent,” Alex said. “No. Twelve. We’re moving up. What’d you find?”
“Cracked seal,” Amos said. “And yeah, you’re very f**king clever. What else we got?”
Alex tapped on the terminal and Holden reappeared from the hallway, now without his case.
“Port sensor array took a hit. Looks like we burned out a few of the leads,” Alex said.
“All right,” Amos said. “Let’s get those bad boys swapped out.”
“Or maybe we can do something that doesn’t involve crawling on the outside of a ship under thrust,” Holden said.
“I can get it done, Cap,” Amos said. Even through the tinny wall speaker, he sounded affronted. Holden shook his head.
“One slip, and the exhaust cooks you down to component atoms. Let’s leave that for the techs on Tycho. Alex, what else have we got?”
“Memory leak in the navigation system. Probably a fried network that grew back wrong,” the pilot said. “The cargo bay’s still in vacuum. The radio array’s as dead as a hammer for no apparent reason. Hand terminals aren’t talking. And one of the medical pods is throwing error codes, so don’t get sick.”
Holden went to the coffee machine, talking over his shoulder as he keyed in his preferences. His cup said Tachi too. Prax realized with a start that they all did. He wondered who or what a Tachi was.
“Does the cargo bay need EVA?”
“Don’t know,” Alex said. “Lemme take a look.”
Holden took his coffee mug out of the machine with a little sigh and stroked the brushed metal plates like he was petting a cat. On impulse, Prax cleared his throat.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Captain Holden? I was wondering, if the radio gets fixed or there’s a tightbeam available, if maybe there was a way I could use some time on the communications array?”
“We’re kind of trying to be quiet right now,” Holden said. “What are you wanting to send?”
“I need to do some research,” Prax said. “The data we got on Ganymede from when they took Mei. There are images of the woman who was with them. And if I can find what happened to Dr. Strickland … I’ve been on a security-locked system since the day she went missing. Even if it was just the public access databases and networks, it would be a place to start.”
“And it’s that or sit around and stew until we get to Tycho,” Holden said. “All right. I’ll ask Naomi to get you an access account for the Roci’s network. I don’t know if there’ll be anything in the OPA files, but you might as well check them too.”
“Sure,” Holden said. “They’ve got a pretty decent face-recognition database. It’s inside their secure perimeter, so you might need to have one of us make the request.”
“And that would be all right? I don’t want to get you in trouble with the OPA.”
Holden’s smile was warm and cheerful.
“Really, don’t worry about that,” he said. “Alex, what’ve we got?”