The others would be better. They’d be used to things like this. They knew that they’d survive. His hindbrain wasn’t at all sure. Needles dug into the flesh of his thigh, injecting him with another cocktail of hormones and paralytics. Cold like the touch of ice spread from the injection points, and a paradoxical sense of ease and dread filled his mind. At this point, it was a balancing act between keeping his blood vessels elastic enough that they wouldn’t burst and robust enough that they wouldn’t collapse. His mind slid out from under him, leaving something calculating and detached in its place. It was like pure executive function without a sense of self. What had been his mind knew what he had known, remembered the things he remembered, but wasn’t him.
In this altered state of consciousness, he found himself taking inventory. Would it be okay to die now? Did he want to live, and if he did, on what terms?He considered the loss of his daughter as if it were a physical object. Loss was the soft pink of crushed sea-shell, where once it had been the red of old, scabby blood. The red of an umbilical cord waiting to drop free. He remembered Mei, what she had looked like. The delight in her laugh. She wasn’t like that anymore. If she was alive. But she was probably dead.
In his gravity-bent mind, he smiled. Of course, his lips couldn’t react. He’d been wrong. All along, he’d been wrong. The hours of sitting by himself, telling himself that Mei was dead. He’d thought he was toughening himself. Preparing himself for the worst. That wasn’t right at all. He’d said it, he’d tried to believe it, because the thought was comforting.
If she was dead, she wasn’t being tortured. If she was dead, she wasn’t scared. If she was dead, then the pain would be all his, entirely his, and she would be safe. He noticed without pleasure or pain that it was a pathological mental frame. But he’d had his life and his daughter taken from him, had survived in near starvation while the cascade effect ate what was left of Ganymede, had been shot at, had faced a half-alien killing machine, and was now known throughout the solar system as a wife beater and pedophile. He had no reason to be sane. It wouldn’t help him.
And on top of that, his knee really hurt.
Somewhere far, far away, in a place with light and air, something buzzed three times, and the mountain rolled off his sternum. Coming back to himself was like rising from the bottom of a pool.
“Okay, y’all,” Alex said across the ship’s system. “We’re callin’ this dinner. Take a couple minutes for your livers to crawl up off your spinal cords, and we’ll meet up in the galley. We’ve only got fifty minutes, so enjoy it while you can.”
Prax took a deep breath, blowing it out between his teeth, and then sat up. His whole body felt bruised. His hand terminal claimed the thrust was at one-third g, but it felt like more and less than that. He swung his legs over the edge, and his knee made a wet, grinding pop. He tapped at his terminal.
“Um, I’m not sure I can walk,” he said. “My knee.”
“Hang tight, Doc.” Amos’ voice came from the speaker. “I’ll come take a look at it. I’m pretty much the closest thing we’ve got to a medic unless you wanna hand it over to the med bay.”
“Just don’t try to weld him back together,” Holden said. “It doesn’t work.”
The link went silent. While he waited, Prax checked his incoming messages. The list was too long for the screen, but that had been true since the initial message had gone out. The message titles had changed.
BABY RAPERS SHOULD BE TORTURED TO DEATH
DON’T LISTEN TO THE HATERS
I BELIEVE YOU
MY FATHER DID THE SAME THING TO ME
TURN TO JESUS BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE
He didn’t open them. He checked the newsfeeds under his own name and Mei’s and had seven thousand active feeds with those keywords. Nicola’s only had fifty.
There had been a time that he’d loved Nicola, or thought that he had. He’d wanted to have sex with her as badly as he’d wanted anything before in his life. He told himself there had been good times. Nights they’d spent together. Mei had come from Nicola’s body. It was hard to believe that something so precious and central to his life had also been part of a woman who, by the evidence, he’d never really known. Even as the father of her child, he hadn’t known the woman who could have made that recording.
He opened the hand terminal’s recording fields, centered the camera on himself, and licked his lips.
Twenty seconds later, he closed the field and erased the recording. He had nothing to say. Who are you, and who do you think I am? came closest, and he didn’t care about the answer to either one.
He went back to the messages, filtering on the names of the people who’d been helping him investigate. There was nothing new since the last time.
“Hey, Doc,” Amos said, lumbering into the small room.
“I’m sorry,” Prax said, putting his terminal back into its holder beside the crash couch. “It was just that during that last burn …”
He gestured to his knee. It was swollen, but not as badly as he’d expected. He’d thought it would be twice its normal size, but the anti-inflammatories that had been injected into his veins were doing their job. Amos nodded, put a hand on Prax’s sternum, and pushed him back into the gel.
“I got a toe that pops out sometimes,” Amos said. “Little tiny joint, but get it at the wrong angle on a fast burn, hurts like a bitch. Try not to tense up, Doc.”
Amos bent the knee twice, feeling the joint grind. “This ain’t that bad. Here, straighten it out. Okay.”
Amos wrapped one hand around Prax’s ankle, braced the other on the frame of the couch, and pulled slowly and irresistibly. Prax’s knee bloomed with pain, and then a deep, wet pop and a nauseating sensation of tendons shifting against bone.
“There you go,” Amos said. “We go back into burn, make sure you got that leg in the right place. Hyperextend that again right now, we’ll pop your kneecap off, okay?”
“Right,” Prax said, starting to sit up.
“I’m sorry as hell to do this, Doc,” Amos said, putting a hand on his chest, pushing him back down. “I mean, you’re having a lousy day and all. But you know how it is.”
Prax frowned. Every muscle in his face felt bruised.
“What is it?”
“All this bullshit they’re saying about you and the kid? That’s all just bullshit, right?”