“Yes,” Prax said. “That’s it.”
The boy nodded and hunched back over his console.
“I need it before the attack. Before the mirror came down,” Prax said.
“Hokay, boss. Waybacking. Tod á frames con null delta. Only see when something happens, que si?”
“Fine. That’s fine.”
Prax moved forward, leaning to look over the boy’s shoulder. The image jittered without anything on the screen changing except the puddle, slowly getting smaller. They were going backward through time, through the days and weeks. Toward the moment when it had all fallen apart.
Medics appeared in the screen, appearing to walk backward in the inverted world as they brought a dead body to lay beside the door. Then another draped over it. The two corpses lay motionless; then one moved, pawing gently at the wall, then more strongly until, in an eyeblink, he staggered to his feet and was gone.
“There should be a girl. I’m looking for who brought out a four-year-old girl.”
“Sa day care, no? Should be a thousand of them.”
“I only care about the one.”
The second corpse sat up and then stood, clutching her belly. A man stepped into the frame, a gun in his hand, healing her by sucking the bullet from her guts. They argued, grew calm, parted peaceably. Prax knew he was seeing it all in reverse, but his sleep-and calorie-starved brain kept trying to make the images into a narrative. A group of soldiers crawled backward out of the ruined door, like a breech birth, then huddled, backed away in a rush. A flash of light, and the door had made itself whole, thermite charges clinging to it like fruit until a soldier in a Martian uniform rushed forward to collect them safely. Their technological harvest complete, the soldiers all backed rapidly away, leaving a scooter behind them, leaning against the wall.
And then the door slid open, and Prax saw himself back out. He looked younger. He beat on the door, hands popping off the surface in staccato bursts, then leapt awkwardly onto the scooter and vanished backward.
The door went quiet. Motionless. He held his breath. Walking backward, a woman carrying a five-year-old boy on her hip went to the door, vanished within, and then reappeared. Prax had to remind himself that the woman hadn’t been dropping her son off, but retrieving him. Two figures backed down the corridor.
“Stop. That’s it,” Prax said, his heart banging against his ribs. “That’s her.”
The boy waited until all three figures were caught in the camera’s eye, stepping out into the corridor. Mei’s face was petulant; even in the low resolution of the security camera, he knew the expression. And the man holding her …
Relief warred with outrage in his chest, and relief won. It was Dr. Strickland. She’d gone with Dr. Strickland, who knew about her condition, about the medicine, about all the things that needed to be done to keep Mei alive. He sank to his knees, his eyes closed and weeping. If he’d taken her, she wasn’t dead. His daughter wasn’t dead.
Unless, a thin demonic thought whispered in his brain, Strickland was too.
The woman was a stranger. Dark-haired with features that reminded Prax of the Russian botanists he’d worked with. She was holding a roll of paper in her hand. Her smile might have been one of amusement or impatience. He didn’t know.
“Can you follow them?” he asked. “See where they went?”
The boy looked at him, lips curled.
“For salad? No. Box of chicken and atche sauce.”
“I don’t have any chicken.”
“Then you got what you got,” the boy said with a shrug. His eyes had gone dead as marbles. Prax wanted to hit him, wanted to choke him until he dug the images out of the dying computers. But it was a fair bet the boy had a gun or something worse, and unlike Prax, he likely knew how to use it.
“Please,” Prax said.
“Got your favor, you. No epressa mé, si?”
Humiliation rose in the back of his throat, and he swallowed it down.
“Chicken,” he said.
Prax opened his satchel and put a double handful of leaves, orange peppers, and snow onions on the cot. The boy snatched up a half of it and stuffed it into his mouth, eyes narrowing in animal pleasure.
“I’ll do what I can,” Prax said.
He couldn’t do anything.
The only edible protein still on the station was either coming in a slow trickle from the relief supplies or walking around on two feet. People had started trying Prax’s strategy, grazing off the plants in the parks and hydroponics. They hadn’t bothered with the homework, though. Inedibles were eaten all the same, degrading the air-scrubbing functions and throwing the balance of the station’s ecosystem further off. One thing was leading to another, and chicken couldn’t be had, or anything that might substitute for it. And even if there was, he didn’t have time to solve that problem.
In his own home, the lights were dim and wouldn’t go bright. The soybean plant had stopped growing but didn’t fade, which was an interesting datapoint, or would have been.
Sometime during the day, an automated system had clicked into a conservation routine, limiting energy use. In the big picture, it might be a good sign. Or it might be the fever break just before the catastrophe. It didn’t change what he had to do.
As a boy, he’d entered the schools young, shipping up with his family to the sunless reaches of space, chasing a dream of work and prosperity. He hadn’t taken the change well. Headaches and anxiety attacks and constant, bone-deep fatigue had haunted those first years when he needed to impress his tutors, be tracked as bright and promising. His father hadn’t let him rest. The window is open until the window is closed, he’d say, and then push Prax to do a little more, to find a way to think when he was too tired or sick or in pain to think. He’d learned to make lists, notes, outlines.
By capturing his fleeting thoughts, he could drag himself to clarity like a mountain climber inching toward a summit. Now, in the artificial twilight, he made lists. The names of all the children he could remember from Mei’s therapy group. He knew there were twenty, but he could only remember sixteen. His mind wandered. He put the image of Strickland and the mystery woman on his hand terminal, staring at it. The confusion of hope and anger swirled in him until it faded. He felt like he was falling asleep, but his pulse was racing. He tried to remember if tachycardia was a symptom of starvation.
For a moment, he came to himself, clear and lucid in a way he only then realized he hadn’t been in days. He was starting to crash. His own personal cascade was getting ahead of him, and he wouldn’t be able to keep up his investigation much longer without rest. Without protein. He was already half zombie.