Prax pointed at one of the doors.
“This one,” he said. “Look at the hinges. It’s built to allow a gurney through.”
The passageway on the other side was warmer and the air was more humid. It wasn’t quite greenhouse level, but near to it. It opened into a long gallery with five-meter ceilings. Fitted tracks on the ceiling and floor allowed for moving high-mass equipment and containment cages. Bays lined it, each, it seemed, with a research bench not so different from the ones Prax had used as an undergraduate: smart table, wall display, inventory control box, specimen cages. The shouting voices were louder now. He was about to say as much, but Amos shook his head and pointed down the gallery toward one of the farther bays. A man’s voice came from that direction, his tone high and tight and angry.
“… not an evacuation if there’s no place to evacuate to,” he was saying. “I’m not giving up the one bargaining chip I have left.”
“You don’t have that option,” a woman said. “Put the gun down, and let’s talk this through. I’ve been handling you for seven years, and I will keep you in business for seven more, but you do not—”
“Are you delusional? You think there’s a tomorrow after this?”
Amos pointed forward with his shotgun, then began a slow, deliberate advance. Prax followed, trying to be silent. It had been months since he’d heard Dr. Strickland’s voice, but the shouting man could be him. It was possible.
“Let me make this perfectly clear,” the man said. “We have nothing. Nothing. The only hope of negotiation is if we have a card to play. That means them. Why do you think they’re alive?”
“Carlos,” the woman said as Prax came to the corner of the bay. “We can have this conversation later. There’s a hostile enemy force on the base right now, and if you’re still here when they come through that hatch—”
“Yeah,” Amos interrupted, “what happens then?”
The bay was just like the others. Strickland—it was unmistakably Strickland—stood beside a gray metal transport crate that went from the floor to just above his hip. In the specimen cages, a half dozen children lay motionless, sleeping or drugged. Strickland also had a small gun in his hand, pointed at the woman from the video. She was in a harshly cut uniform, the sort of thing that security forces adopted to make their staff look hard and intimidating. It worked for her.
“We came in the other hatch,” Prax said, pointing back over his shoulder.
One syllable, spoken softly. It rang out from the transport cart louder than all the weeks of explosions and gauss rounds and screams of the wounded and dying. Prax couldn’t breathe; he couldn’t move. He wanted to tell them all to put the guns away, to be careful. There was a child. His child.
Strickland’s pistol barked, and some sort of high-explosive round destroyed the woman’s neck and face in a spray of blood and cartilage. She tried to scream once, but with significant portions of her larynx already compromised, what she managed was more of a powerful, wet exhalation. Amos lifted the shotgun, but Strickland—Merrian, whatever his name was—put his pistol on the top of the crate and seemed almost to sag with relief. The woman drifted to the floor, blood and flesh fanning out and falling gently to the ground like a blanket of red lace.
“Thank God you came,” the doctor said. “Oh, thank God you came. I was stalling her as long as I could. Dr. Meng, I can’t imagine how hard this has been for you. I am so, so sorry.”
Prax stepped forward. The woman took another jerking breath, her nervous system firing at random now. Strickland smiled at him, the same reassuring smile he recognized from any number of doctor’s visits over the previous years. Prax found the transport’s control pad and knelt to open it. The side panel clicked as the magnetic locks gave up their grip. The panel rolled up, disappearing into the cart’s frame.
For a terrible, breathless moment, it was the wrong girl. She had the black, lustrous hair, the egg-brown skin. She could have been Mei’s older sister. And then the child moved. It wasn’t much more than shifting her head, but it was all that his brain needed to see his baby in this older girl’s body. All the months on Ganymede, all the weeks to Tycho and back, she’d been growing up without him.
“She’s so big,” he said. “She’s grown so much.”
Mei frowned, tiny ridges popping into being just above her brow. It made her look like Nicola. And then her eyes opened. They were blank and empty. Prax yanked at the release on his helmet and lifted it off. The station air smelled vaguely of sulfur and copper.
Mei’s gaze fastened on him and she smiled.
“Da,” she said again, and put out one hand. When he reached for her, she took his finger in her fist and pulled herself into his arms. He held her to his chest; the warmth and mass of her small body—no longer tiny, only small—was overwhelming. The void between the stars was smaller than Mei was at that moment.
“She’s sedated,” Strickland said. “But her health is perfect. Her immune system has been performing at peak.”
“My baby,” Prax said. “My perfect girl.”
Mei’s eyes were closed, but she smiled and made a small, animal grunt of satisfaction.
“I can’t tell you how sorry I am for all this,” Strickland said. “If I had any way of reaching you, of telling you what was happening, I swear to you I would have. This has been beyond a nightmare.”
“So you’re saying they kept you prisoner here?” Amos asked.
“Almost all the technical staff was here against their will,” Strickland said. “When we signed on, we were promised resources and freedom of a kind most of us had only dreamed about. When I started, I thought I could make a real difference. I was terribly, terribly wrong, and I will never be able to apologize enough.”
Prax’s blood was singing. A warmth spread from the center of his body, radiating out to his hands and feet. It was like being dosed with the most perfect euphoric in the history of pharmacy. Her hair smelled like the cheap lab shampoo he’d used to wash dogs in the laboratories of his youth. He stood too quickly, and her mass and momentum pulled him a few centimeters off the floor. His knees and feet were slick, and it took him a moment to realize he’d been kneeling in blood.
“What happened to these kids? Are there others somewhere else?” Amos asked.