“I’ll do what I can,” Prax said.
He couldn’t do anything.
The only edible protein still on the station was either coming in a slow trickle from the relief supplies or walking around on two feet. People had started trying Prax’s strategy, grazing off the plants in the parks and hydroponics. They hadn’t bothered with the homework, though. Inedibles were eaten all the same, degrading the air-scrubbing functions and throwing the balance of the station’s ecosystem further off. One thing was leading to another, and chicken couldn’t be had, or anything that might substitute for it. And even if there was, he didn’t have time to solve that problem.
In his own home, the lights were dim and wouldn’t go bright. The soybean plant had stopped growing but didn’t fade, which was an interesting datapoint, or would have been.
Sometime during the day, an automated system had clicked into a conservation routine, limiting energy use. In the big picture, it might be a good sign. Or it might be the fever break just before the catastrophe. It didn’t change what he had to do.
As a boy, he’d entered the schools young, shipping up with his family to the sunless reaches of space, chasing a dream of work and prosperity. He hadn’t taken the change well. Headaches and anxiety attacks and constant, bone-deep fatigue had haunted those first years when he needed to impress his tutors, be tracked as bright and promising. His father hadn’t let him rest. The window is open until the window is closed, he’d say, and then push Prax to do a little more, to find a way to think when he was too tired or sick or in pain to think. He’d learned to make lists, notes, outlines.
By capturing his fleeting thoughts, he could drag himself to clarity like a mountain climber inching toward a summit. Now, in the artificial twilight, he made lists. The names of all the children he could remember from Mei’s therapy group. He knew there were twenty, but he could only remember sixteen. His mind wandered. He put the image of Strickland and the mystery woman on his hand terminal, staring at it. The confusion of hope and anger swirled in him until it faded. He felt like he was falling asleep, but his pulse was racing. He tried to remember if tachycardia was a symptom of starvation.
For a moment, he came to himself, clear and lucid in a way he only then realized he hadn’t been in days. He was starting to crash. His own personal cascade was getting ahead of him, and he wouldn’t be able to keep up his investigation much longer without rest. Without protein. He was already half zombie.
He had to get help. His gaze drifted to the list of children’s names. He had to get help, but first he’d check, just check. He’d go to … go to …
He closed his eyes, frowned. He knew the answer. He knew that he knew. The security station. He’d go there and ask about each of them. He opened his eyes, writing security station down under the list, capturing the thought. Then UN outreach station. Mars outreach. All the places he’d been before, day after day, only now with new questions. It would be easy. And then, when he knew, there was something else he was supposed to do. It took a minute to figure out what it was, and then he wrote it at the bottom of the page.
“They’re all gone,” Prax said, his breath ghosting white in the cold. “They’re all his patients, and they’re all gone. Sixteen out of sixteen. Do you know the probability of that? It’s not random.”
The security man hadn’t shaved in days. A long, angry ice burn reddened his cheek and neck, the wound fresh and untreated. His face must have touched an uninsulated piece of Ganymede. He was lucky to still have skin. He wore a thick coat and gloves. There was frost on the desk.
“I appreciate the information, sir, and I’ll see it gets out to the relief stations —”
“No, you don’t understand, he took them. They’re sick, and he took them.”
“Maybe he was trying to keep them safe,” the security man said. His voice was a gray rag, limp and weary. There was a problem with that. Prax knew there was a problem with that, but he couldn’t remember what it was. The security man reached out, gently moving him aside, and nodded to the woman behind him. Prax found himself staring at her like he was drunk.
“I want to report a murder,” she said, her voice shaking.
The security man nodded, neither surprise nor disbelief in his eyes. Prax remembered.
“He took them first,” he said. “He took them before the attack happened.”
“Three men broke into my apartment,” the woman said. “They … My brother was with me and he tried to stop them.”
“When did this happen, ma’am?”
“Before the attack,” Prax said.
“A couple hours ago,” the woman said. “Fourth level. Blue sector. Apartment 1453.”
“Okay, ma’am. I’m going to take you over to a desk here. I need you to fill out a report.”
“My brother’s dead. They shot him.”
“And I’m very sorry about that, ma’am. I need you to fill out a report so we can catch the men who did this.”
Prax watched them walk away. He turned back to the line of the traumatized and desperate waiting their turns to beg for help, for justice, for law. A flash of anger lit him, then flickered. He needed help, but there wasn’t any to be had here. He and Mei were a pebble in space. They didn’t signify.
The security man was back, talking to a tall pretty woman about something horrible. Prax hadn’t noticed the man returning, hadn’t heard the beginning of the woman’s tale. He was starting to lose time. That wasn’t good.
The small sane part of his brain whispered that if he died, no one would look for Mei. She’d be lost. It whispered that he needed food, that he’d needed it for days. That he didn’t have very much time left.
“I have to go to the relief center,” he said aloud. The woman and the security man didn’t seem to hear. “Thanks anyway.”
Now that he had started to notice his own condition, Prax was astonished and alarmed. His gait was a shuffle; his arms were weak and ached badly, though he couldn’t remember having done anything to earn the pain. He hadn’t lifted anything heavy or gone climbing. He hadn’t done his daily exercise routine any time that he could remember. He didn’t remember the last time he’d eaten. He remembered the shudder of the falling mirror, the death of his dome, like it was something that had happened in a previous lifetime. No wonder he was falling apart.