REROUTE SUCCESSFUL, her suit told her. REBOOTING, it said. When the subliminal hum came back, she started laughing and found she couldn’t stop. She shoved the monster’s corpse off her and sat up.
“Good thing. It’s a really long walk back to the ship.”
Chapter Fifty-One: Prax
Around him, the station walls formed angles at the center to make an elongated hexagon. The gravity was barely higher than Ganymede standard, and after weeks at a full-g burn, Prax had to pay attention to keep himself from rising to the ceiling with each step. Amos loped beside him, every stride low, long, and fast. The shotgun in the man’s hands remained perfectly level.
At a T intersection ahead, a woman appeared. Dark hair and skin. Not the one who’d taken Mei. Her eyes went wide and she darted off.
“They know we’re coming,” Prax said. He was panting a little.
“That probably wasn’t their first clue, Doc,” Amos said. His voice was perfectly conversational, but there was an intensity in it. Something like anger.
At the intersection, they paused, Prax leaning over and resting elbows on knees to catch his breath. It was an old, primitive reflex. In less than .2 g, the blood return wasn’t significantly increased by putting his head even with his heart. Strictly speaking, he would have been better off standing and keeping his posture from narrowing any of his blood vessels. He forced himself to stand.
“Where should I plug in this radio link for Naomi?” he asked Amos.
Amos shrugged and pointed at the wall. “Maybe we can just follow the signs instead.”
There was a legend on the wall with colored arrows pointing in different directions, ENV CONTROL and CAFETERIA and PRIMARY LAB. Amos tapped PRIMARY LAB with the barrel of his shotgun.
“Sounds good to me,” Prax said.
“You good to go?”
“I am,” Prax said, though he probably wasn’t.
The floor seemed to shift under him, followed immediately by a long, ominous rumbling that he could feel in the soles of his feet.
“Naomi? You there?”
“I am. I have to keep track of the captain on the other line. I might pop in and out. Everything all right?”
“Might be stretching the point,” Amos said. “We got something sounded like someone shooting at us. They ain’t shooting at the base, are they?”
“They aren’t,” Naomi said from the ship, her voice pressed thin and tinny by the attenuated signal. “It looks like some of the locals are mounting a defense, but so far our Marines aren’t returning fire.”
“Tell ’em to calm that shit down,” Amos said, but he was already moving down the corridor toward the primary lab. Prax jumped after him, misjudged, and cracked his arm against the ceiling.
“Soon as they ask me,” Naomi said.
The corridors were a maze, but it was the kind of maze Prax had been running through his whole life. The institutional logic of a research facility was the same everywhere. The floor plans were different; budget concerns could change how richly appointed the details were; the fields being supported determined what equipment was present. But the soul of the place was the same, and it was Prax’s home.
Twice more, they caught sight of people scattering through the halls with them. The first was a young Belter woman in a white lab coat. The second was a massively obese dark-skinned man with the squat build of Earth. He was wearing a crisp suit, the signature of the administrative class everywhere. Neither one tried to stop them, so Prax forgot about them almost as soon as he saw them.
The imaging suite was behind a set of negative-pressure seals. When Prax and Amos went through, the gust of air seemed to push them faster, urging them on. The rumble came again, louder this time and lasting almost fifteen seconds. It could be fighting. It could be a volcano forming nearby. No way to know. Prax knew this base would have to have been built with tectonic instability in mind. He wondered what the safeguards were for a moment, then put it out of his mind. Nothing he could do about it anyway.
The lab’s imaging suite was at least the equal of the one he’d shared on Ganymede, with everything from the spidery full-resonance displays to the inferential gravity lens. In the corner, a squat orange table showed a holographic image of a colony of rapidly dividing cells. Two doors led out apart from the one they’d come through. Somewhere nearby, people were shouting at each other.
Prax pointed at one of the doors.
“This one,” he said. “Look at the hinges. It’s built to allow a gurney through.”
The passageway on the other side was warmer and the air was more humid. It wasn’t quite greenhouse level, but near to it. It opened into a long gallery with five-meter ceilings. Fitted tracks on the ceiling and floor allowed for moving high-mass equipment and containment cages. Bays lined it, each, it seemed, with a research bench not so different from the ones Prax had used as an undergraduate: smart table, wall display, inventory control box, specimen cages. The shouting voices were louder now. He was about to say as much, but Amos shook his head and pointed down the gallery toward one of the farther bays. A man’s voice came from that direction, his tone high and tight and angry.
“… not an evacuation if there’s no place to evacuate to,” he was saying. “I’m not giving up the one bargaining chip I have left.”
“You don’t have that option,” a woman said. “Put the gun down, and let’s talk this through. I’ve been handling you for seven years, and I will keep you in business for seven more, but you do not—”
“Are you delusional? You think there’s a tomorrow after this?”
Amos pointed forward with his shotgun, then began a slow, deliberate advance. Prax followed, trying to be silent. It had been months since he’d heard Dr. Strickland’s voice, but the shouting man could be him. It was possible.
“Let me make this perfectly clear,” the man said. “We have nothing. Nothing. The only hope of negotiation is if we have a card to play. That means them. Why do you think they’re alive?”
“Carlos,” the woman said as Prax came to the corner of the bay. “We can have this conversation later. There’s a hostile enemy force on the base right now, and if you’re still here when they come through that hatch—”
“Yeah,” Amos interrupted, “what happens then?”
The bay was just like the others. Strickland—it was unmistakably Strickland—stood beside a gray metal transport crate that went from the floor to just above his hip. In the specimen cages, a half dozen children lay motionless, sleeping or drugged. Strickland also had a small gun in his hand, pointed at the woman from the video. She was in a harshly cut uniform, the sort of thing that security forces adopted to make their staff look hard and intimidating. It worked for her.