When the answer came, he only wished he’d found it before.
“The time they had, they could have taken her anywhere, Doc,” Amos said. “I mean, not to bust your balls or nothing.”
“They could,” Prax said. “They could take her anywhere as long as they had a supply of her medications. But she’s not the limiting factor. The question is where they were coming from.”
Prax had called the meeting without a clear idea of where to have it. The crew of the Roci was small, but Amos’ rooms were smaller. He’d considered the galley of the ship, but there were still technicians finishing the repairs, and Prax wanted privacy. In the end, he’d checked the incoming stream of contributions from Holden’s broadcast and taken enough to rent a room from a station club.
Now they were in a private lounge. Outside the wall-screen window, the great construction waldoes shifted by tiny degrees, attitude rockets flaring and going still in patterns as complex as language. Another thing Prax had never thought about before coming here: The station waldoes had to fire attitude rockets to keep their movements from shifting the station they were attached to. Everything, everywhere, a dance of tiny movements and the ripples they made.
Inside the room, the music that floated between the wide tables and crash-gel chairs was soft and lyrical, the singer’s voice deep and soothing.
“From?” Alex said. “I thought they were from Ganymede.”
“The lab on Ganymede wasn’t equipped to deal with serious research,” Prax said. “And they arranged things so that Ganymede would turn into a war zone. That’d be a bad idea if they were doing their primary work in the middle of it. That was a field lab.”
“I try not to shit where I eat,” Amos said, agreeing.
“You live on a spaceship,” Holden said.
“I don’t shit in the galley, though.”
“Anyway,” Prax said, “we can safely assume they were working from a better-protected base. And that base has to be somewhere in the Jovian system. Somewhere nearby.”
“You lost me again,” Holden said. “Why does it need to be close?”
“Transport time. Mei can go anywhere if there’s a good supply of medications, but she’s more robust than the … the things.”
Holden raised his hand like a schoolboy asking a question.
“Okay, I could be hearing you wrong, but did you just say that the thing that ripped its way into my ship, threw a five-hundred-kilo storage pallet at me, and almost chewed a path straight to the reactor core is more delicate than a four-year-old girl with no immune system?”
Prax nodded. A stab of horror and grief went through him. She wasn’t four anymore. Mei’s birthday had been the month before, and he’d missed it. She was five. But grief and horror were old companions by now. He pushed the thought aside.
“I’ll be clearer,” he said. “Mei’s body isn’t fighting its situation. That’s her disease, if you think about it. There’s a whole array of things that happen in normal bodies that don’t happen in hers. Now you take one of the things, one of the creatures. Like the one from the ship?”
“That bastard was pretty active,” Amos said.
“No,” Prax said. “I mean, yes, but no. I mean active on a biochemical level. If Strickland or Merrian or whoever is using the protomolecule to reengineer a human body, they’re taking one complex system and overlaying another one. We know it’s unstable.”
“Okay,” Naomi said. She was sitting beside Amos and across the table from Holden. “How do we know that?”
Prax frowned. When he’d practiced making the presentation, he hadn’t expected so many questions. The things he’d thought were obvious from the start hadn’t even occurred to the others. This was why he hadn’t gone in for teaching. Looking at their faces now, he saw blank confusion.
“All right,” he said. “Let me take it from the top. There was something on Ganymede that started the war. There was also a secret lab staffed with people who at the very least knew about the attack before it happened.”
“Check,” Alex said.
“Okay,” Prax said. “In the lab, we had signs of the protomolecule, a dead boy, and a bunch of people getting ready to leave. And when we got there, we only had to fight halfway in. After that, something else was going ahead of us and killing everyone.”
“Hey!” Amos said. “You think that was the same f**ker that got into the Roci?”
Prax stopped the word obviously just before it fell from his lips.
“Probably,” he said instead. “And it seems likely that the original attack involved more like that one.”
“So two got loose?” Naomi asked, but he could see that she already sensed the problem with that.
“No, because they knew it was going to happen. One got loose when Amos threw that grenade back at them. One was released intentionally. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that they’re using the protomolecule to remake human bodies, and they aren’t able to control it with perfect fidelity. The programming they’re putting in fails.”
Prax nodded, as if by doing it he could will them to follow his chain of reasoning. Holden shook his head, paused, and then nodded.
“The bomb,” he said.
“The bomb,” Prax agreed. “Even when they didn’t know that the second thing was going to get loose, they’d outfitted it with a powerful incendiary explosive device.”
“Ah!” Alex said. “I get it! You figure they knew it was going to go off the rails eventually, so they wired it to blow if it got out of hand.”
In the depths of space, a construction welder streaked across the hull of the half-built ship, the light of its flare casting a sudden, sharp light across the pilot’s eager face.
“Yes,” Prax said. “But it could be also be an ancillary weapon, or a payload that the thing was supposed to deliver. I think it’s a fail-safe. It probably is, but it could be any number of other things.”
“Okay, but it left it behind,” Alex said.
“Given time, it ejected the bomb,” Prax said. “You see? It chose to reconfigure itself to remove the payload. It didn’t place it to destroy the Roci, even though it could have. It didn’t deliver it to a preset target. It just decided to pop it loose.”
“And it knew to do that—”