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“The better question to me is, how did he know to take them just hours before the shooting started?”

“Yeah,” Naomi said, her voice quiet. “Yeah, how did he know that?”

“Because he’s the reason why things went pear-shaped,” Holden replied, saying out loud what they were both thinking.

“If he’s got all of those kids, and he or the people he’s with were able to start a shooting war between Mars and Earth to cover up the snatch …”

“Starts to feel like a strategy we’ve seen before, doesn’t it? We need to know what’s on the other side of that door.”

“One of two things,” Naomi said. “Nothing, because after the snatch they got the hell off this moon …”

“Or,” Holden continued, “a whole lot of guys with guns.”

“Yeah.”

The galley of the Somnambulist was quiet as Prax and Holden’s crew watched the video again. Naomi had pieced together all the security footage of Mei’s abduction into a single long loop. They watched as her doctor carried her through various corridors, up a lift, and finally to the door of the abandoned parts of the station. After the third viewing, Holden gestured for Naomi to turn it off.

“What do we know?” he said, his fingers drumming on the table.

“The kid’s not scared. She’s not fighting to get away,” Amos said.

“She’s known Dr. Strickland all her life,” Prax replied. “He would be almost like family to her.”

“Which means they bought him,” Naomi said. “Or this plan has been going on for …”

“Four years,” Prax said.

“Four years,” Naomi repeated. “Which is a hell of a long con to run unless the stakes are huge.”

“Is it kidnapping? If they want a ransom payment …”

“Doesn’t wash. A couple hours after Mei disappears into that hatch,” Holden said, pointing at the image frozen on Naomi’s screen, “Earth and Mars are shooting each other. Somebody’s going to a lot of trouble to grab sixteen sick kids and hide the fact they did it.”

“If Protogen wasn’t toast,” Amos said, “I’d say this is exactly the kind of shit they’d pull.”

“And whoever it is has significant tech resources too,” Naomi said. “They were able to hack the school’s system even before the Ganymede netsec was collapsing from the battle, and insert that woman’s records into Mei’s file without any trace of tampering.”

“Some of the kids in her school had very rich or powerful parents,” Prax said. “Their security would have to be top notch.”

Holden drummed out a last rhythm on the tabletop with both hands, then said, “Which all leads us back to the big question. What’s waiting for us on the other side of that door?”

“Corporate goons,” Amos said.

“Nothing,” Naomi said.

“Mei,” Prax said quietly. “It might be Mei.”

“We need to be prepared for all three possibilities: violence, gathering clues, or rescuing a kid. So let’s put together a plan. Naomi, I want a terminal with a radio link that I can plug into whatever network we find on the other side, and give you a doorway in.”

“Yep,” Naomi said, already getting up from the table and heading toward the keel ladder.

“Prax, you need to come up with a way for Mei to trust us if we find her, and give us details on any complications her illness might cause during a rescue. How quickly do we need to get her back here for her meds? Things like that.”

“Okay,” Prax said, pulling out his terminal and making notes.

“Amos?”

“Yeah, Cap?”

“That leaves violence to us. Let’s tool up.”

The smile began and ended at the corners of Amos’ eyes.

“Fuck yeah.”

Chapter Fourteen: Prax

Prax didn’t understand how near he was to collapse until he ate. Canned chicken with some kind of spicy chutney, soft no-crumb crackers of the type usually used in zero-g environments, a tall glass of beer. He wolfed it down, his body suddenly ravenous and unstoppable.

After he finished vomiting, the woman who seemed to take care of all the small practical matters on the ship—he knew her name was Naomi, but he kept wanting to call her Cassandra, because she looked like an intern by that name he’d worked with three years earlier—switched him to a thin protein broth that his atrophied gut could actually handle. Over the course of hours, his mind started coming back. It felt like waking up over and over without falling asleep in between; sitting in the hold of Holden’s ship, he’d find himself noticing the shift in his cognition, how much more clearly he could think and how good it felt to come back to himself. And then a few minutes later, some set of sugar-deprived ganglia would struggle back to function, and it would all happen again.

And with every step back toward real consciousness, he felt the drive growing, pushing him toward the door that Strickland and Mei had gone through.

“Doctor, huh?” the big one—Amos —said.

“I got my degree here. The university’s really good. Lots of grant money. Or … now I suppose there used to be.”

“I was never much for formal education myself.”

The relief ship’s mess hall was tiny and scarred by age. The woven carbon filament walls had cracks in the enameling, and the tabletop was pitted from years, maybe decades, of use. The lighting was a thin spectrum shifted toward pink that would have killed any plants living under it in about three days. Amos had a canvas sack filled with formed plastic boxes of different sizes, each of which seemed to have a firearm of some kind inside. He had unrolled a square of red felt and disassembled a huge matte-black pistol on it. The delicate metal parts looked like sculpture. Amos dipped a cotton swab into a bright blue cleaning solution and rubbed it gently on a silver mechanism attached to a black metal tube, polishing metal plates that were already bright as a mirror.

Prax found his hands moving toward the disassembled pieces, willing them to come together. To be already cleaned and polished and remade. Amos pretended not to notice in a way that meant he was very much aware.

“I don’t know why they would have taken her,” Prax said. “Dr. Strickland has always been great with her. He never … I mean, he’d never hurt her. I don’t think he’d hurt her.”

“Yeah, probably not,” Amos said. He dipped the swab into the cleaning fluid again and started on a metal rod with a spring wrapped around it.

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