She smiled a greasy smile at Holden, then took another bite. Holden could smell the cheese-and-pepperoni smell of good pizza over the top of Ganymede’s ever-present odor of ice and the scent of his own sweat. It made his stomach give an ill-timed rumble. Prax pointed his handgun at the woman, though his hand was now shaking so badly that she probably didn’t feel particularly threatened.
Amos gave him a sidelong glance as if to ask, What now, chief?
In Holden’s mind, the room shifted into a tactical problem with an almost physical click. The eleven potential combatants who were still standing were in three clusters. None of them were wearing visible armor. Amos would almost certainly drop the group of four to the far left of the room in a single burst from his auto-shotgun. Holden was pretty sure he could take down the three directly in front of him. That left four for the Pinkwater people to handle. Best not to count on Prax for any of it.
He finished the split-second tally of potential casualties, and almost of its own volition, his thumb clicked the assault rifle to full auto.
This is not you.
“We don’t have to do this,” he said, instead of opening fire. “No one has to die here today. We’re looking for a little girl. Help us find her, and everyone walks away from this.”
Holden could see the arrogance and bravado in the woman’s face for the mask it was. Behind that, there was worry as she weighed the casualties her team would suffer against the risks of talking it out and seeing where that went. Holden gave her a smile and a nod to help her decide. Talk to me. We’re all rational people here.
Except that not all of them were.
“Where’s Mei?” Prax yelled, poking the gun at her as if his gesture would be somehow translated through the air. “Tell me where Mei is!”
“I—” she started to reply, but Prax screamed out, “Where’s my little girl!” and cocked his gun.
As if in slow motion, Holden saw eleven hands dart down to the holsters at their belts.
Chapter Seventeen: Prax
In the cinema and games that formed the basis of Prax’s understanding of how people of violence interacted, the cocking of a gun was less a threat than a kind of punctuation mark. A security agent questioning someone might begin with threats and slaps, but when he cocked his gun, that meant it was time to take him seriously. It wasn’t something Prax had considered any more carefully than which urinal to use when he wasn’t the only one in the men’s room or how to step on and off a transport tube. It was the untaught etiquette of received wisdom. You yelled, you threatened, you cocked your gun, and then people talked.
“Where’s my little girl!” he yelled.
He cocked his pistol.
The reaction was almost immediate: a sharp, stuttering report like a high-pressure valve failing, but much louder. He danced back, almost dropping the pistol. Had he fired it by mistake? But no, his finger hadn’t touched the trigger. The air smelled sharp, acidic. The woman with the pizza was gone. No, not gone. She was on the ground. Something terrible had happened to her jaw. As he watched, her ruined mouth moved, as though she was trying to speak. Prax could hear only a high-pitched squeal. He wondered if his eardrums had ruptured. The woman with the destroyed jaw took a long, shuddering breath and then didn’t take another. With a sense of detachment, he noticed that she’d drawn her pistol. It was still clutched in her hand. He wasn’t sure when she’d done that. The handset playing dance music transitioned to a different song that only faintly made it past the ringing in his ears.
“I didn’t shoot her,” he said. His voice sounded like he was in partial vacuum, the air too thin to support the energy of sound waves. But he could breathe. He wondered again if the gunfire had ruptured his eardrums. He looked around. Everyone was gone. He was alone in the room. Or no, they were behind cover. It occurred to him that he should probably be behind cover too. Only nobody was firing and he wasn’t sure where to go.
Holden’s voice seemed to come from far away.
“Would you please take his gun away now?”
“I’m on it.”
Amos rose from behind one of the boxes nearest the wall. His Martian armor had a long pale streak across the chest and two white circles just below the ribs. Amos limped toward him.
“Sorry, Doc,” he said. “Givin’ it to you was my bad call. Maybe next time, right?”
Prax looked at the big man’s open hand, then carefully put the gun in it.
“Wendell?” Holden said. Prax still wasn’t sure where he was, but he sounded closer. That was probably just Prax’s hearing coming back. The acrid smell in the air changed to something more coppery. It made him think of compost heaps gone sour: warm and organic and unsettling.
“One down,” Wendell said.
“We’ll get a medic,” Holden said.
“Nice thought, but no point,” Wendell said. “Finish the mission. We got most of them, but two or three made it through the door. They’ll raise an alarm.”
One of the Pinkwater soldiers stood up. Blood was running down his left arm. Another lay on the floor, half of his head simply gone. Holden appeared. He was massaging his right elbow, and the armor showed a new scar at his left temple.
“What happened?” Prax asked.
“You started a gunfight,” Holden said. “Okay, let’s move ahead before they can set up defenses.”
Prax started noticing other bodies. Men and women who had been eating pizza and listening to music. They’d had pistols, but Holden’s people carried automatic shotguns and assault rifles and some had military-looking armor. The difference in outcome hadn’t been subtle.
“Amos, take point,” Holden said, and the big man moved through the doorway and into the unknown. Prax moved to follow, and the head of the Pinkwater people took his elbow.
“Why don’t you stay with me, professor,” he said.
“Yes. I’ll … all right.”
On the other side of the door, the nature of the rooms changed. They were still clearly in the old tunnels of Ganymede. The walls still had their webwork of mineralized frost, the lighting was still old-fashioned LED housings, and the gray walls showed where ice had melted and refrozen during some climate system glitch years or decades before. But walking through that doorway was walking from the land of the dead into something living. The air was warmer, and it smelled of bodies and fresh soil and the subtle, sharp scent of phenol disinfectant. The wide hall they entered could have been the common room in any of a dozen labs where Prax had worked. Three metal office doors were closed along the far wall and a rolling metal freight gateway hung open ahead of them. Amos and Holden went to the three closed doors, Amos kicking each in turn. When the third flew open, Holden shouted something, but the words were lost in the bark of a pistol and Amos’ return shotgun fire.