“We came in the other hatch,” Prax said, pointing back over his shoulder.
One syllable, spoken softly. It rang out from the transport cart louder than all the weeks of explosions and gauss rounds and screams of the wounded and dying. Prax couldn’t breathe; he couldn’t move. He wanted to tell them all to put the guns away, to be careful. There was a child. His child.
Strickland’s pistol barked, and some sort of high-explosive round destroyed the woman’s neck and face in a spray of blood and cartilage. She tried to scream once, but with significant portions of her larynx already compromised, what she managed was more of a powerful, wet exhalation. Amos lifted the shotgun, but Strickland—Merrian, whatever his name was—put his pistol on the top of the crate and seemed almost to sag with relief. The woman drifted to the floor, blood and flesh fanning out and falling gently to the ground like a blanket of red lace.
“Thank God you came,” the doctor said. “Oh, thank God you came. I was stalling her as long as I could. Dr. Meng, I can’t imagine how hard this has been for you. I am so, so sorry.”
Prax stepped forward. The woman took another jerking breath, her nervous system firing at random now. Strickland smiled at him, the same reassuring smile he recognized from any number of doctor’s visits over the previous years. Prax found the transport’s control pad and knelt to open it. The side panel clicked as the magnetic locks gave up their grip. The panel rolled up, disappearing into the cart’s frame.
For a terrible, breathless moment, it was the wrong girl. She had the black, lustrous hair, the egg-brown skin. She could have been Mei’s older sister. And then the child moved. It wasn’t much more than shifting her head, but it was all that his brain needed to see his baby in this older girl’s body. All the months on Ganymede, all the weeks to Tycho and back, she’d been growing up without him.
“She’s so big,” he said. “She’s grown so much.”
Mei frowned, tiny ridges popping into being just above her brow. It made her look like Nicola. And then her eyes opened. They were blank and empty. Prax yanked at the release on his helmet and lifted it off. The station air smelled vaguely of sulfur and copper.
Mei’s gaze fastened on him and she smiled.
“Da,” she said again, and put out one hand. When he reached for her, she took his finger in her fist and pulled herself into his arms. He held her to his chest; the warmth and mass of her small body—no longer tiny, only small—was overwhelming. The void between the stars was smaller than Mei was at that moment.
“She’s sedated,” Strickland said. “But her health is perfect. Her immune system has been performing at peak.”
“My baby,” Prax said. “My perfect girl.”
Mei’s eyes were closed, but she smiled and made a small, animal grunt of satisfaction.
“I can’t tell you how sorry I am for all this,” Strickland said. “If I had any way of reaching you, of telling you what was happening, I swear to you I would have. This has been beyond a nightmare.”
“So you’re saying they kept you prisoner here?” Amos asked.
“Almost all the technical staff was here against their will,” Strickland said. “When we signed on, we were promised resources and freedom of a kind most of us had only dreamed about. When I started, I thought I could make a real difference. I was terribly, terribly wrong, and I will never be able to apologize enough.”
Prax’s blood was singing. A warmth spread from the center of his body, radiating out to his hands and feet. It was like being dosed with the most perfect euphoric in the history of pharmacy. Her hair smelled like the cheap lab shampoo he’d used to wash dogs in the laboratories of his youth. He stood too quickly, and her mass and momentum pulled him a few centimeters off the floor. His knees and feet were slick, and it took him a moment to realize he’d been kneeling in blood.
“What happened to these kids? Are there others somewhere else?” Amos asked.
“These are the only ones I was able to save. They’ve all been sedated for evacuation,” Strickland said. “But right now, we need to leave. Get off the station. I have to get to the authorities.”
“And why do you need to do that?” Amos asked.
“I have to tell them what’s been going on here,” Strickland said. “I have to tell everyone about the crimes that were committed here.”
“Yeah, okay,” Amos said. “Hey, Prax? You think you could get that?” He pointed his shotgun at something on a nearby crate.
Prax turned to look at Amos. It was almost a struggle to remember where he was and what they were doing.
“Oh,” he said. “Sure.”
Holding Mei against him with one arm, he took Strickland’s gun and trained it on the man.
“No,” Strickland said. “You don’t … you don’t understand. I’m the victim here. I had to do all this. They forced me. She forced me.”
“You know,” Amos said, “maybe I’m coming across as what a guy like you might call working class. Doesn’t mean I’m stupid. You’re one of Protogen’s pet sociopaths, and I ain’t buying any damn thing you’re trying to sell.”
Strickland’s face turned to cold rage like a mask had fallen away.
“Protogen’s dead,” he said. “There is no Protogen.”
“Yeah,” Amos said. “I got the brand name wrong. That’s the problem here.”
Mei murmured something, her hand reaching up behind Prax’s ear to grip his hair. Strickland stepped back, his hands in fists.
“I saved her,” he said. “That girl’s alive because of me. She was slated for the second-generation units, and I pulled her off the project. I pulled all of them. If it wasn’t for me, every child here would be worse than dead right now. Worse than dead.”
“It was the broadcast, wasn’t it?” Prax said. “You saw that we might find out, so you wanted to make sure that you had the girl from the screen. The one everyone was looking for.”
“You’d rather I hadn’t?” Strickland said. “It was still me that saved her.”
“Actually, I think that makes it Captain Holden,” Prax said. “But I take your point.”
Strickland’s pistol had a simple thumb switch on the back. He pressed it to turn the safety on.
“My home is gone,” Prax said, speaking slowly. “My job is gone. Most of the people I’ve ever known are either dead or scattered through the system. A major government is saying I abuse women and children. I’ve had more than eighty explicit death threats from absolute strangers in the last month. And you know what? I don’t care.”