Prax shook Alex’s hand. “Thank you for helping me find Mei.”
Alex frowned a question at Holden, but a quick shake of the head kept him from asking it. “Nice to meet you, Prax.”
“Alex,” Holden said, “get us warmed up for liftoff, but don’t take off until I’m up in the copilot’s chair.”
“Roger,” Alex said, and headed toward the bow of the ship.
“Everything’s sideways,” Prax said, looking around at the storage room just past the inner airlock door.
“The Roci doesn’t spend much time on her belly like this,” Naomi said, taking his hand and leading him to the crew ladder, which now appeared to run across the floor. “We’re standing on a bulkhead, and that wall to our right is normally the deck.”
“Grew up in low grav and don’t spend much time on ships, apparently,” Amos said. “Man, this next part is really gonna suck for you.”
“Naomi,” Holden said. “Get to ops and get belted in. Amos, take Prax to the crew deck and then head down to engineering and get the Roci ready for a rough ride.”
Before they could leave, Holden put a hand on Prax’s shoulder.
“This takeoff and flight is going to be fast and bumpy. If you haven’t trained for high-g flight, it will probably be very uncomfortable.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Prax said, making what he probably thought was a brave face.
“I know you’re tough. You couldn’t have survived the last couple weeks otherwise. You don’t have anything to prove at this point. Amos will take you to the crew deck. Find a room without a name on the door. That will be your room now. Get in the crash couch and buckle in, then hit the bright green button on the panel to your left. The couch will pump you full of drugs that will sedate you and keep you from blowing a blood vessel if we have to burn hard.”
“My room?” Prax said, an odd note in his voice.
“We’ll get you some clothes and sundries once we’re out of this shit. You can keep them there.”
“My room,” Prax repeated.
“Yeah,” Holden said. “Your room.” He could see Prax fighting down a lump in his throat, and he realized what the simple offer of comfort and safety probably meant to someone who’d been through what the small botanist had over the last month.
There were tears in the man’s eyes.
“Come on, let’s get you settled in,” Amos said, leading Prax aft toward the crew deck.
Holden headed the other way, past the ops deck, where Naomi was already strapped down into a chair at one of the workstations, then forward into the cockpit. He climbed into the copilot’s seat and belted in.
“Five minutes,” he said over the shipwide channel.
“So,” Alex said, dragging the word out to two syllables while he flicked switches to finish the preflight check, “we’re lookin’ for someone named Mei?”
“We do that now? Seems like the scope of our mission is creepin’ a bit.”
Holden nodded. Finding lost daughters was not part of their mandate. That had been Miller’s job. And he’d never be able to adequately explain the certainty he felt that this lost little girl was at the center of everything that had happened on Ganymede.
“I think this lost little girl is at the center of everything that’s happened on Ganymede,” he said with a shrug.
“Okay,” Alex replied, then hit something on a panel twice and frowned. “Huh, we have a red on the board. Gettin’ a ‘no seal’ on the cargo airlock. Might’ve caught some flak on the way down, I guess. It was pretty hot up there.”
“Well, we’re not going to stop and fix it now,” Holden said. “We keep the bay in vacuum most of the time anyway. If the inner hatch into the cargo area is showing a good seal, just override the alarm and let’s go.”
“Roger,” Alex said, and tapped the override.
“One minute,” Holden said over the shipwide, then turned to Alex. “So I’m curious.”
“How’d you manage to slip through that shit-storm up above us, and can you do it again on the way out?”
“Simple matter of never bein’ higher than the second-highest threat on anyone’s board. And, of course, not bein’ there anymore when they decide to get around to you.”
“I’m giving you a raise,” Holden said, then began the ten-second countdown. At one, the Roci blasted off of Ganymede on four pillars of superheated steam.
“Rotate us for a full burn as soon as you can,” Holden said, the rumble of the ship’s takeoff giving him an artificial vibrato.
“There’s nothing below us that matters,” Holden said, thinking of the remnants of black filament they’d seen in the hidden base. “Melt it.”
“Okay,” Alex said. Then, once the ship had finished orienting straight up, he said, “Givin’ her the spurs.”
Even with the juice coursing through his blood, Holden blacked out for a moment. When he came to, the Roci was veering wildly from side to side. The cockpit was alive with the sounds of warning buzzers.
“Whoa, honey,” Alex was saying under his breath. “Whoa, big girl.”
“Naomi,” Holden said, looking at a confusing mass of red on the threat board and trying to decipher it with his blood-starved brain. “Who’s firing at us?”
“Everyone.” She sounded as groggy as he felt.
“Yeah,” Alex said, his tension draining some of the good-old-boy drawl out of his voice. “She’s not kidding.”
The swarm of threats on his display began to make sense, and Holden saw they were right. It looked like half of the inner planets ships on their side of Ganymede had lobbed at least one missile at them. He entered the command code to set all the weapons to free fire and sent control of the aft PDCs to Amos. “Amos, cover our asses.”
Alex was doing his best to keep any of the incoming missiles from catching them, but ultimately that was a lost cause. Nothing with meat inside it could outrun metal and silicon.
“Where are we—” Holden said, stopping to target a missile that wandered into the front starboard PDC’s firing arc. The point defense cannon fired off a long burst at it. The missile was smart enough to turn sharply and evade, but its sudden course change bought them a few more seconds.