Holden let go of the rim of the hatch and dropped a half meter to the bulkhead, which angled below him, then slid to the deck. The only other visible damage was a hunk of bulkhead plating stuck in the wall exactly on the other side of the reactor. Holden couldn’t see any way that the shrapnel could have gotten there without passing directly through the reactor, or else bouncing off two bulkheads and around it. There was no sign of the first, so the second, incredibly unlikely though it was, had to be what had happened.
“I mean, really close,” he said, touching the jagged metal fragment. It was sunk a good fifteen centimeters into the wall. Plenty far enough to have at least breached the shielding on the reactor. Maybe worse.
“Grabbing your camera,” Naomi said. A moment later she whistled. “No kidding. The walls in there are mostly cabling. Can’t make a hole like that without breaking something.”
Holden tried to pull the shrapnel out of the wall by hand and failed. “Amos, bring some pliers and a lot of patch cabling.”
“So no on the distress call, then,” Naomi said.
“No. But if someone could point a camera aft and reassure me that for all this trouble we actually killed that damned thing, that would be just swell.”
“Watched it go myself, Cap,” Alex said. “Nothin’ but gas now.”
Holden lay on one of the sick bay beds, letting the ship look his leg over. Periodically a manipulator prodded his knee, which was swelled up to the size of a cantaloupe, the skin stretched tight as a drum’s head. But the bed was also making sure to keep him perfectly medicated, so the occasional pokes and prods registered only as pressure without any pain.
The panel next to his head warned him to remain still; then two arms grabbed his leg while a third injected a needle-thin flexible tube into his knee and started doing something arthroscopic. He felt a vague tugging sensation.
At the next bed over lay Prax. His head was bandaged where a three-centimeter flap of skin had been glued back down. His eyes were closed. Amos, who had turned out not to have a concussion, just another nasty bump on his head, was belowdecks doing makeshift repairs on everything the monster’s bomb had broken, including putting a temporary patch on the hole in their engineering bulkhead. They wouldn’t be able to fix the cargo bay door until they docked at Tycho. Alex was flying them there at a gentle quarter g to make it easier to work.
Holden didn’t mind the delay. The truth was he was in no hurry to get back to Tycho and confront Fred about what he’d seen. The longer he thought about it, the further he got from his earlier blind panic, and the more he thought Naomi was right. It made no sense for Fred to be behind any of this.
But he wasn’t sure. And he had to be sure.
Prax mumbled something and touched his head. He started pulling on the bandages.
“I wouldn’t mess with those,” Holden said.
Prax nodded and closed his eyes again. Sleeping, or trying to. The auto-doc pulled the tube out of Holden’s leg, sprayed it with antiseptic, and began wrapping it with a tight bandage. Holden waited until the medical pod was done doing whatever it was doing to his knee, then turned sideways on the bed and tried to stand up. Even at a quarter g, his leg wouldn’t support him. He hopped on one foot over to a supply locker and got himself a crutch.
As he moved past the botanist’s bed, Prax grabbed his arm. His grip was surprisingly strong.
“Yeah,” Holden said, patting his hand. “We got it. Thanks.”
Prax didn’t reply; he just rolled onto his side and shook. It took Holden a moment to realize Prax was weeping. He left without saying anything else. What else was there to say?
Holden took the ladder-lift up, planning to go to ops and read the detailed damage reports Naomi and the Roci were compiling. He stopped when he got to the personnel deck and heard two people speaking. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he recognized Naomi’s voice, and he recognized the tone she used when she was having an intimate conversation.
The voices were coming from the galley. Feeling a little like a Peeping Tom, Holden moved closer to the galley hatch until he could make out the words.
“It’s more than that,” Naomi was saying. Holden almost walked into the galley, but something in her tone stopped him. He had the terrible feeling she was talking about him. About them. About why she was leaving.
“Why does it have to be more?” the other person said. Amos.
“You almost beat a man to death with a can of chicken on Ganymede,” Naomi replied.
“Gonna hold a little girl hostage for some food? Fuck him. If he was here, I’d smash him again right now.”
“Do you trust me, Amos?” Naomi said. Her voice was sad. More than that. Frightened.
“More than anyone else,” Amos replied.
“I’m scared out of my wits. Jim is rushing off to do something really dumb on Tycho. This guy we’re taking with us seems like he’s one twitch from a nervous breakdown.”
“And you,” she continued. “I depend on you. I know you’ve always got my back, no matter what. Except maybe not now, because the Amos I know doesn’t beat a skinny kid half to death, no matter how much chicken he asks for. I feel like everyone’s losing themselves. I need to understand, because I’m really, really frightened.”
Holden felt the urge to go in, take her hand, hold her. The need in her voice demanded it, but he held himself back. There was a long pause. Holden heard a scraping sound, followed by the sound of metal hitting glass. Someone was stirring sugar into coffee. The sounds were so clear he could almost see it.
“So, Baltimore,” Amos said, his voice as relaxed as if he were going to talk about the weather. “Not a nice town. You ever heard of squeezing? Squeeze trade? Hooker squeeze?”
“No. Is it a drug?”
“No,” Amos said with a laugh. “No, when you squeeze a hooker, you put her on the street until she gets knocked up, then peddle her to johns who get off on pregnant girls, then send her back to the streets after she pops the kid. With procreation restrictions, banging pregnant girls is quite the kink.”
“Yeah, you know, ‘squeezing out puppies’? You never heard it called that?”
“Okay,” Naomi said, trying to hide her disgust.
“Those kids? They’re illegal, but they don’t just vanish, not right away,” Amos continued. “They got uses too.”