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Page 45 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

A small boy lay on the table. He was skinny, with a mop of unruly black hair and dark skin. His clothes were bright: yellow pants and a green shirt with a cartoon crocodile and daisies. It wasn’t immediately clear what had killed him.

Holden heard a commotion and turned around to see Prax, red-faced and struggling to get past Amos to the table. The mechanic was restraining him with one arm in a grip that was halfway between a wrestling hold and an embrace.

“It’s not her,” Holden said. “It’s a kid, but it’s not her. A boy. Four, maybe five years old.”

When Amos heard that, he let the struggling Prax go. The botanist rushed to the table, flipping the sheet over and giving one quick cry.

“That’s Katoa,” Prax said. “I know him. His father …”

“It’s not Mei,” Holden repeated, putting a hand on Prax’s shoulder. “We need to keep looking.”

Prax shrugged his hand off.

“It’s not Mei,” Holden said again.

“But Strickland was here,” Prax said. “He was their doctor. I thought if he was with them, they’d be …”

Holden said nothing. He was thinking the same thing. If one of the kids was dead, they could all be.

“I thought that meant they’d keep them alive,” Prax said. “But they let Katoa die. They just let him die and they put him under this sheet. Basia, I’m so sorry …”

Holden grabbed Prax and spun him around. The way he imagined a cop would.

“That,” he said, pointing at the small body on the table, “is not Mei. Do you want to find her? Then we need to keep moving.”

Prax’s eyes were filled with tears and his shoulders shook in silent sobs, but he nodded and walked away from the table. Amos watched him carefully. The mechanic’s expression was unreadable. The thought came unbidden: I hope bringing Prax was a good idea.

Across the room, Wendell whistled and waved a hand. He pointed at Naomi’s network access rig plugged into a port in the wall and gave the thumbs-up.

“Naomi, you in?” Holden said while he pulled the sheet back up to cover the dead boy.

“Yep, I’m in,” she said, her tone distracted as she worked with the incoming data. “Traffic in this node is encrypted. Got the Somnambulist started on it, but she’s not nearly as smart as the Roci. This could take a while.”

“Keep trying,” Holden replied, and signaled to Amos. “But if there’s traffic on the network, someone’s still here.”

“If you wait a minute,” Naomi said, “I might be able to give you the security cameras and a more up-to-date floor plan.”

“Feed us what you can, when you can, but we’re not waiting.”

Amos ambled over to Holden and tapped the visor of his helmet. Prax was standing alone by the glass cube, staring into it like there was something to see. Holden expected Amos to say something about the man, but Amos surprised him.

“Been paying attention to the temperature, Cap?”

“Yeah,” Holden replied. “Every time I check it says ‘cold as hell.’”

“I was just over by the door,” Amos continued. “It went up about half a degree.”

Holden thought about that for a moment, double-checking it on his own HUD and tapping his fingers on his thigh.

“There’s climate in the next room. They’re heating it.”

“Seems likely,” Amos said, shifting the big auto-shotgun into both hands and thumbing off the safety.

Holden motioned the remaining Pinkwater people over to them.

“It looks like we’ve come to the inhabited portion of this base. Amos and I go in first. You three”—Holden pointed at the three Pinkwater people who weren’t Wendell—“follow and cover our flanks. Wendell, you cover our asses and make sure we can get back out in a hurry if things go bad. Prax—”

Holden stopped, looking around for the botanist. He had quietly slipped over to the door into the next room. He’d taken the handgun Amos had given him out of his pocket. As Holden watched, he reached out and opened the door, then walked deliberately through.

“Fuck me,” Amos said conversationally.

“Shit,” Holden said. Then, “Go, go, go,” as he rushed toward the now open door.

Just before he got to the hatch, he heard Prax say, “Nobody move,” in a loud but quavering voice.

Holden burst through into the room on the other side, going right while Amos came through just behind him and went left. Prax stood a few feet past the door, the large black handgun looking improbable in his pale, shaking hand. The area itself looked a lot like the one they’d just left, except that this one had a small crowd of people in it. Armed people. Holden tried to take in everything that could be used as cover. A half dozen large gray packing crates with scientific equipment in various states of disassembly in them squatted around the room. Someone’s hand terminal was propped up on a bench and blaring dance music. On one of the crates sat several open boxes of pizza with most of the slices missing, several of which were still clutched in people’s hands. He tried to count them. Four. Eight. An even dozen, all of them wide about the eye and glancing around, thinking about what to do.

It looked to Holden very much like a room full of people packing up to move, taking a short lunch break. Except that the people in this room all had holsters at their sides, and they had left the corpse of a small child to rot in the next room over.

“Nobody! Move!” Prax repeated, this time with more force.

“You should listen to him,” Holden added, moving the barrel of his assault rifle in a slow scan across the room. To drive the point home, Amos sidled up to the nearest worker and casually slammed the butt of his auto-shotgun into the man’s ribs, dropping him to the floor like a bag of wet sand. Holden heard the tramping of his Pinkwater people rushing into the room behind him and taking up cover positions.

“Wendell,” Holden said, not lowering his rifle. “Please disarm these people for me.”

“No,” said a stern-faced woman with a slice of pizza in her hand. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Excuse me?” Holden said.

“No,” the woman repeated, taking another bite of her pizza. Around a mouthful of food, she said, “There are only seven of you. There are twelve of us just in this room alone. And there are a lot more behind us that will come running at the first gunshot. So, no, you don’t get to disarm us.”