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Page 48 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

They moved forward quickly. Too quickly. When they reached the end of the line—an airlock four meters high and at least seven across—Prax couldn’t imagine that there was anyone behind it. Amos let his automatic shotgun hang at his side as he tapped at the airlock controls. Holden squinted up at the ceiling as if something might be written there. The ground trembled and set the hidden base creaking.

“Was that a launch?” Holden said. “That was a launch!”

“Yeah,” Amos said. “Looks like they’ve got a landing pad out there. Monitors aren’t showing anything else on it, though. Whatever that was, it was the last train outta here.”

Prax heard someone shouting. It took him only a second to realize it was him. Like he was watching his body move without him, he dashed to the sealed metal doors, pounding them with his clenched fists. She was there. She was just out there, on the ship lifting away from Ganymede. He could feel her like she had a rope tied to his heart and every moment pulled it out of him a little more.

He blacked out for a second. Or maybe longer. When he came back to himself, he was slung over Amos’ wide shoulder, the armor biting into his belly. He pushed up to see the airlock receding slowly behind them.

“Put me down,” Prax said.

“Can’t do it,” Amos replied. “Cap says—”

The stuttering of assault rifle fire came, and Amos dropped Prax to the ground and squatted over him, shotgun at the ready.

“What the f**k, Cap?” Amos said.

Prax glanced up in time to see the Pinkwater soldier cut down, blood spraying out of his back. Wendell was on the ground, returning fire around a sharp corner.

“Missed someone,” Holden said. “Or else they called in their friends.”

“Don’t shoot them,” Prax said. “What if it’s Mei! What if they have her with them?”

“They don’t, Doc,” Amos said. “Stay down.”

Holden was shouting, words rolling out of him too fast to follow. Prax didn’t know if he was talking to Amos or Wendell or Naomi back on the ship or him. It could have been any of them. All of them. Four men came around the corner, weapons in hand. They wore the same coveralls that all the others had worn. One had long black hair and a goatee. Another was a woman with skin the color of buttercream. The two in the middle could have been brothers—the same close-cut brown hair, the same long noses.

From somewhere to Prax’s right, the shotgun spoke twice. All four fell back. It was like something out of a prank comedy. Eight legs, swept at once. Four people Prax didn’t know, had never met, just fell down. They just fell down. He knew they were never getting back up.

“Wendell?” Holden said. “Report?”

“Caudel’s dead,” Wendell said. He didn’t sound sad about it. He didn’t sound like anything. “I think I broke my wrist. Anyone know where they came from?”

“Nope,” Holden said. “Let’s not assume they were alone, though.”

They retraced their steps, back through the long, wide passages. Past bodies of men and women they hadn’t killed, but who were dead now anyway. Prax didn’t try to keep from weeping. There was no point. If he could keep his legs moving, one foot in front of the other, it was enough.

They reached the bloodied pit after a few minutes or an hour or a week. Prax couldn’t tell, and all options seemed equally plausible. The ruptured bodies stank, the spilled blood thickening to a black currant jelly, the opened viscera freeing colonies of bacteria usually held in check by the gut. On the catwalk, a woman stood. What was her name? Paula. That was it.

“Why aren’t you at your post?” Wendell snapped when he saw her.

“Guthrie called for backup. Said he was gut-shot and about to pass out. I brought him some adrenaline and speed.”

“Good call,” Wendell said.

“Uchi and Caudel?”

“Didn’t make it,” Wendell said.

The woman nodded, but Prax saw something pass over her. Everyone here was losing someone. His tragedy was just one among dozens. Hundreds. Thousands. By the time the cascade had run all the way out, maybe millions. When death grew that large, it stopped meaning anything. He leaned against the nitrogen bath, his head in his hands. He’d been so close. So close …

“We have to find that ship,” he said.

“We have to drop back ten and punt,” Holden said. “We came here looking for a missing kid. Now we’ve got a covert scientific station halfway to being packed up and shipped out. And a secret landing pad. And whatever third player was fighting with these people while we were.”

“Third player?” Paula asked.

Wendell gestured to the carnage.

“Not us,” he said.

“We don’t know what we’re looking at,” Holden said. “And until we do, we need to back off.”

“We can’t stop,” Prax said. “I can’t stop. Mei is—”

“Probably dead,” Wendell said. “The girl’s probably dead. And if she’s not, she’s alive someplace besides Ganymede.”

“I’m sorry,” Holden said.

“The dead boy,” Prax said. “Katoa. His father took the family off Ganymede as soon as he could. Got them someplace safe. Someplace else.”

“Wise move,” Holden said.

Prax looked to Amos for support, but the big man was poking through the wreckage, pointedly not taking either side.

“The boy was alive,” Prax said. “Basia said he knew the boy was dead and he packed up and he left, and when he got on that transport? His boy was here. In this lab. And he was alive. So don’t tell me Mei’s probably dead.”

They were all silent for a moment.

“Just don’t,” Prax said.

“Cap?” Amos said.

“Just a minute,” Holden said. “Prax, I’m not going to say that I know what you’re going through, but I have people I love too. I can’t tell you what to do, but let me ask you—ask you—to look at what kind of strategy is going to be best for you. And for Mei.”

“Cap,” Amos said. “Seriously, you should look at this.”

Amos stood by the shattered glass cube. His shotgun hung forgotten in his hand. Holden walked up to the man’s side, following his gaze to the ruined container. Prax pushed away from the nitrogen bath and joined them. There, clinging to the walls of glass that still stood, was a network of fine black filament. Prax couldn’t tell if it was an artificial polymer or a natural substance. Some kind of web. It had a fascinating structure, though. He reached out to touch it and Holden grabbed his wrist, pulling him back so hard it hurt.

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