The two remaining Pinkwater soldiers who weren’t Wendell scuttled forward, pressing their backs to the wall on either side of the freight gateway. Prax started toward them, but Wendell put a restraining hand on his shoulder. The man on the left side of the door ducked his head into the doorway and then out again. A bullet gouged a streak in the wall where it missed him.
“What can you give me?” Holden asked, and for a moment Prax thought he was talking to them. Holden’s eyes were hard, and the scowl seemed etched into his skin. Then Naomi said something to make him smile, and he only looked tired and sad. “All right. We’ve got a partial floor plan. Through there, we’ve got an open room. It drops down about two meters, with exits to our ten o’clock and one o’clock. It’s built like a pit, so if they’re setting up defense here, we’ve got the high ground.”
“Makes it a damned stupid place to set up a defense, then,” Wendell said.
Gunfire chattered, three small holes appearing in the metal of the freight gateway. The people on the other side were nervous.
“And yet the evidence suggests …” Holden said.
“You want to talk to ’em, Cap?” Amos said. “Or do we head straight for the obvious thing?”
The question meant something more than Prax understood; he could tell that much. Holden started to say something, hesitated, and then nodded toward the doorway.
“Let’s get this done,” he said.
Holden and Amos jogged toward the gateway, Prax and Wendell close behind. Someone was shouting orders in the room beyond. Prax made out the words payload and evac, his heart going tight. Evac. They couldn’t let anyone leave until they found Mei.
“I counted seven,” one of the Pinkwater soldiers said. “Could be more.”
“Any kids?” Amos asked.
“Didn’t see any.”
“We should probably look again,” Amos said, and leaned out the door. Prax caught his breath, expecting to see the man’s head dissolve in a rain of bullets, but Amos was already pulling back when the first shots started.
“What are we working with?” Holden asked.
“More’n seven,” Amos said. “They’re using this as a choke point, but the fella’s right. Either they don’t know what they’re doing, or there’s something in there they can’t pull back from.”
“So either panicking amateurs or something critical to defend,” Holden said.
A metal canister the size of a fist rolled through the gateway, clanking. Amos picked the grenade up casually and tossed it back through the doorway. The detonation lit the room, the report louder than anything Prax had ever heard before. The ringing in his ears redoubled.
“Could be both,” Amos shouted conversationally from very far away.
In the next room, something shattered. People were screaming. Prax imagined technicians like the ones from the previous room shredded by shrapnel from their own grenade. One of the Pinkwater soldiers leaned out, peering into the haze of smoke. An assault rifle blatted, and he pulled back, clutching his belly. Blood poured between his fingers. Wendell pushed past Prax, kneeling by his fallen soldier.
“Sorry, sir,” the Pinkwater man said. “Got careless. Leave me here and I’ll guard the rear as long as I can.”
“Captain Holden,” Wendell said. “If we’re going to do something, we’re better off doing it soon.”
The screaming in the other room got louder. Someone was roaring inhumanly. Prax wondered if they’d had livestock in there. The bellowing sounded almost like an injured bull. He had to fight the urge to put his hands over his ears. Something loud happened. Holden nodded.
“Amos. Soften them up, then let’s head in.”
“Aye, aye, Cap,” Amos said, putting down his shotgun. He took two grenades of his own, pulled the pink plastic strip-pins, rolled the live grenades through the gateway, and scooped his gun back up. The doubled detonation was deeper than the first one had been, but not as loud. Even before the echo faded, Amos, Holden, Wendell, and the one remaining soldier ducked through the gateway, weapons blazing.
Prax hesitated. He was unarmed. The enemy was just beyond the threshold. He could stay here and tend to the gut-shot man. But the image that wouldn’t leave him was Katoa’s still body. The dead boy wasn’t more than a hundred meters away. And Mei …
Keeping his head down, Prax scuttled through the doorway. Holden and Wendell were to his right, Amos and the other soldier to his left. All four were crouched, weapons at the ready. Smoke stung Prax’s eyes and nostrils, and the air recyclers groaned in protest, fighting to clear the air.
“Well now,” Amos said, “that’s f**king queer.”
The room was built on two levels: an upper catwalk a meter and a half wide, and a lower floor two meters below it. A wide passage led away at ten o’clock on the lower level, and a door on the upper level stood open at one o’clock. The pit below them was chaos. Blood soaked the walls and had sprayed up to stipple the ceiling. Bodies lay on the ground below them. A thin steam rose from the gore.
They had been using equipment for cover. Prax recognized a microcentrifuge smashed almost out of its casing. Inch-thick slivers of ice or glass glittered among the carnage. A nitrogen bath was tipped on its side, the alarm indicator showing it had locked down. A massive blot array—easily two hundred kilos—lay at an improbable angle, a child’s toy thrown aside in the ecstasy of play.
“What the hell kind of ordnance are you packing?” Wendell asked, his voice awed. From the wide passage at ten o’clock came shrieks and the sound of gunfire.
“I don’t think this was us,” Holden said. “Come on. Double-time it.”
They dropped down to the killing floor. A glass cube like the one they’d seen before stood in shattered glory. Blood made the floor slick underfoot. A hand still wrapping a pistol lay in the corner. Prax looked away. Mei was here. He couldn’t lose focus. Couldn’t be sick.
He kept going on.
Holden and Amos led the way toward the sound of fighting. Prax trotted along behind them. When he tried to hold back, let Wendell and his compatriot go first, the Pinkwater men gently pushed him forward. They were guarding the rear, Prax realized. In case someone came up from behind. He should have thought of that.
The passageway opened out, broad but low. Industrial loading mechs, amber indicators showing idle, stood beside pallets of foam-coated supply boxes. Amos and Holden moved down the hall with a practiced efficiency that left Prax winded. But with every turn they reached, every door they opened, he found himself willing them to go faster. She was here, and they had to find her. Before she got hurt. Before something happened. And with every body they found, the sick feeling that something had already happened sank deeper in his gut.