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Page 27 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

The programming keyboard was twice as large as a standard hand terminal, the plastic worn by use and time. A progress bar was slowly filling along the side, notations in simplified Chinese cycling with each movement.

The hole was a cheap one near the surface of the moon. No more than ten feet wide, four rough rooms inched into the ice from a public corridor hardly wider or better lit. The old plastic walls glittered and wept with condensation. They were in the room farthest from the corridor, the boy on his cot and Prax standing hunched in the doorway.

“No promise for the full record,” the boy said. “What is, is, sabé?”

“Anything you can get would be great.”

The boy nodded once. Prax didn’t know his name. It wasn’t the sort of thing to ask. The days it had taken to track down someone willing to break through the security system had been a long dance between his own ignorance of Ganymede Station’s gray economy and the increasing desperation and hunger in even the most corrupt quarters. A month before, the boy might have been skimming commercial data to resell or hold hostage for easily laundered private credit. Today he was looking for Mei in exchange for enough leafy greens to make a small meal. Agricultural barter, the oldest economy in humanity’s record, had come to Ganymede.

“Authcopy’s gone,” the boy said. “Sucked into servers, buried ass deep.”

“So if you can’t break the security servers —”

“Don’t have to. Camera got memory, memory got cache. Since the lockdown, it’s just filling and filling. No one watching.”

“You’re kidding,” Prax said. “The two biggest armies in the system are staring each other down, and they’re not watching the security cameras?”

“Watching each other. No one half-humps for us.”

The progress bar filled completely and chimed. The boy pulled open a list of identifying codes and started paging through them, muttering to himself. From the front room, a baby complained weakly. It sounded hungry. Of course it did.

“Your kid?”

The boy shook his head.

“Collateral,” he said, and tapped twice on a code. A new window opened. A wide hall. A door half melted and forced open. Scorch marks on the walls and, worse, a puddle of water. There shouldn’t be free water. The environmental controls were getting further and further away from their safe levels. The boy looked up at Prax. “C’est la?”

“Yes,” Prax said. “That’s it.”

The boy nodded and hunched back over his console.

“I need it before the attack. Before the mirror came down,” Prax said.

“Hokay, boss. Waybacking. Tod á frames con null delta. Only see when something happens, que si?”

“Fine. That’s fine.”

Prax moved forward, leaning to look over the boy’s shoulder. The image jittered without anything on the screen changing except the puddle, slowly getting smaller. They were going backward through time, through the days and weeks. Toward the moment when it had all fallen apart.

Medics appeared in the screen, appearing to walk backward in the inverted world as they brought a dead body to lay beside the door. Then another draped over it. The two corpses lay motionless; then one moved, pawing gently at the wall, then more strongly until, in an eyeblink, he staggered to his feet and was gone.

“There should be a girl. I’m looking for who brought out a four-year-old girl.”

“Sa day care, no? Should be a thousand of them.”

“I only care about the one.”

The second corpse sat up and then stood, clutching her belly. A man stepped into the frame, a gun in his hand, healing her by sucking the bullet from her guts. They argued, grew calm, parted peaceably. Prax knew he was seeing it all in reverse, but his sleep-and calorie-starved brain kept trying to make the images into a narrative. A group of soldiers crawled backward out of the ruined door, like a breech birth, then huddled, backed away in a rush. A flash of light, and the door had made itself whole, thermite charges clinging to it like fruit until a soldier in a Martian uniform rushed forward to collect them safely. Their technological harvest complete, the soldiers all backed rapidly away, leaving a scooter behind them, leaning against the wall.

And then the door slid open, and Prax saw himself back out. He looked younger. He beat on the door, hands popping off the surface in staccato bursts, then leapt awkwardly onto the scooter and vanished backward.

The door went quiet. Motionless. He held his breath. Walking backward, a woman carrying a five-year-old boy on her hip went to the door, vanished within, and then reappeared. Prax had to remind himself that the woman hadn’t been dropping her son off, but retrieving him. Two figures backed down the corridor.

No. Three.

“Stop. That’s it,” Prax said, his heart banging against his ribs. “That’s her.”

The boy waited until all three figures were caught in the camera’s eye, stepping out into the corridor. Mei’s face was petulant; even in the low resolution of the security camera, he knew the expression. And the man holding her …

Relief warred with outrage in his chest, and relief won. It was Dr. Strickland. She’d gone with Dr. Strickland, who knew about her condition, about the medicine, about all the things that needed to be done to keep Mei alive. He sank to his knees, his eyes closed and weeping. If he’d taken her, she wasn’t dead. His daughter wasn’t dead.

Unless, a thin demonic thought whispered in his brain, Strickland was too.

The woman was a stranger. Dark-haired with features that reminded Prax of the Russian botanists he’d worked with. She was holding a roll of paper in her hand. Her smile might have been one of amusement or impatience. He didn’t know.

“Can you follow them?” he asked. “See where they went?”

The boy looked at him, lips curled.

“For salad? No. Box of chicken and atche sauce.”

“I don’t have any chicken.”

“Then you got what you got,” the boy said with a shrug. His eyes had gone dead as marbles. Prax wanted to hit him, wanted to choke him until he dug the images out of the dying computers. But it was a fair bet the boy had a gun or something worse, and unlike Prax, he likely knew how to use it.

“Please,” Prax said.

“Got your favor, you. No epressa mé, si?”

Humiliation rose in the back of his throat, and he swallowed it down.

“Chicken,” he said.

“Si.”

Prax opened his satchel and put a double handful of leaves, orange peppers, and snow onions on the cot. The boy snatched up a half of it and stuffed it into his mouth, eyes narrowing in animal pleasure.

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