His hand terminal chimed. The two-hour block was up. Prax wiped the tears away with the back of his hand, took a deep breath, blew it back out, and stood. Two hours, twice a day, he’d decided, would be enough time in the fire to keep him hard and strong in this new environment of less freedom and more calories. Enough to keep him functional. He washed his face in the communal bathroom—the crew called it the head—and made his way to the galley.
The pilot—Alex, his name was—stood at the coffee machine, talking to a comm unit on the wall. His skin was darker than Prax’s, his thinning hair black, with the first few stray threads of white. His voice had the odd drawl some Martians affected.
“I’m seein’ eight percent and falling.”
The wall unit said something cheerful and obscene. Amos.
“I’m tellin’ you, the seal’s cracked,” Alex said.
“I been over it twice,” Amos said from the comm. The pilot took a mug with the word Tachi printed on it from the coffee machine.
“Third time’s the charm.”
“Arright. Stand by.”
The pilot took one long, lip-smacking sip from the mug, then, noticing Prax, nodded. Prax smiled uncomfortably.
“Feelin’ better?” Alex asked.
“Yes. I think so,” Prax said. “I don’t know.”
Alex sat at one of the tables. The design of the room was military—all soft edges and curves to minimize damage if someone was caught out of place by an impact or a sudden maneuver. The food inventory control had a biometric interface that had been disabled. Built for high security, but not used that way. The name ROCINANTE was on the wall in letters as broad as his hand, and someone had added a stencil of a spray of yellow narcissus. It looked desperately out of place and very appropriate at the same time. When he thought about it that way, it seemed to fit most things about the ship. Her crew, for instance.
“You settlin’ in all right? You need anything?”
“I’m fine,” Prax said with a nod. “Thank you.”
“They beat us up pretty good gettin’ out of there. I’ve been through some ugly patches of sky, but that was right up there.”
Prax nodded and took a food packet from the dispenser. It was textured paste, sweet and rich with wheat and honey and the subterranean tang of baked raisins. Prax sat down before he thought about it, and the pilot seemed to take it as an invitation to continue the conversation.
“How long have you been on Ganymede?”
“Most of my life,” Prax said. “My family went out when my mother was pregnant. They’d been working on Earth and Luna, saving up to get to the outer planets. They had a short posting on Callisto first.”
“Not exactly. They heard that the contracts were better out past the Belt. It was the whole ‘make a better future for the family’ idea. My father’s dream, really.”
Alex sipped at his coffee.
“And so, Praxidike. They named you after the moon?”
“They did,” Prax said. “They were a little embarrassed to find out it was a woman’s name. I never minded it, though. My wife—my ex-wife—thought it was endearing. It’s probably why she noticed me in the first place, really. It takes something to stand out a little, and you can’t swing a dead cat on Ganymede without hitting five botany PhDs. Or, well, you couldn’t.”
The pause was just long enough that Prax knew what was coming and could steel himself for it.
“I heard your daughter went missing,” Alex said. “I’m sorry about that.”
“She’s probably dead,” Prax said, just the way he’d practiced.
“It had to do with that lab y’all found down there, did it?”
“I think so. It must have. They took her just before the first incident. Her and several of the others in her group.”
“She has an immune disorder. Myers-Skelton Premature Immunosenescence. Always has had.”
“My sister had a brittle bone disorder. Hard,” Alex said. “Is that why they took her?”
“I assume so,” Prax said. “Why else would you steal a child like that?”
“Slave labor or sex trade,” Alex said softly. “But can’t see why you’d pick out kids with a medical condition. It true you saw protomolecule down there?”
“Apparently,” Prax said. The food bulb was cooling in his hand. He knew he should eat more—he wanted to, as good as it tasted—but something was turning at the back of his mind. He’d thought this all through before, when he’d been distracted and starving. Now, in this civilized coffin hurtling through the void, all the old familiar thoughts started to touch up against each other. They’d specifically targeted the children from Mei’s group. Immunocompromised children. And they’d been working with the protomolecule.
“The captain was on Eros,” Alex said.
“It must have been a loss for him when it happened,” Prax said to have something to say.
“No, I don’t mean he lived there. He was on the station when it happened. We all were, but he was on it the longest. He actually saw it starting. The initial infected. That.”
“Changed him, some. I’ve been flyin’ with him since we were just fartin’ around on this old ice bucket running from Saturn to the Belt. He didn’t used to like me, I suspect. Now we’re family. It’s been a hell of a trip.”
Prax took a long pull from his food bulb. Cool, the paste tasted less of wheat and more of honey and raisin. It wasn’t as good. He remembered the look of fear on Holden’s face when they’d found the dark filaments, the sound of controlled panic in his voice. It made sense now.
And as if summoned by the thought, Holden appeared in the doorway, a formed aluminum case under his arm with electromagnetic plates along the base. A personal footlocker designed to stay put even under high g. Prax had seen them before, but he’d never needed one. Gravity had been a constant for him until now.
“Cap’n,” Alex said with a vestigial salute. “Everything all right?”
“Just moving some things to my bunk,” Holden said. The tightness in his voice was unmistakable. Prax had the sudden feeling that he was intruding on something private, but Alex and Holden didn’t give any further sign. Holden only moved off down the hall. When he was out of earshot, Alex sighed.