The corridors by the relief center were packed like a slaughterhouse. Men and women, many of them who looked stronger and healthier than he was, pushed against each other, making even the widest spaces feel narrow. The closer he got to the port, the more light-headed he felt. The air was almost warm here, the barn-hot of bodies. It stank of keytone-acrid breath. Saint’s breath, his mother called it. The smell of protein breakdown, of bodies eating their own muscles to survive. He wondered how many people in the crowd knew what that scent was.
People were yelling. Shoving. The crowd around him surged back and forth the way he imagined waves might press against a beach.
“Then open the doors and let us look!” a woman shouted, far ahead of him.
Oh, Prax thought. This is a food riot.
He pushed for the edges, trying to get out. Trying to get away. Ahead of him, people were shouting. Behind him, they pushed. Banks of LEDs in the ceiling glowed white and gold. The walls were industrial gray. He put a hand out. He’d gotten to a wall. Somewhere, the dam burst, and the crowd flowed suddenly forward, the collective movement threatening to pull him swirling away into the flow. He kept a hand on the wall. The crowd thinned, and Prax staggered forward. The loading bay doors stood open. Beside them Prax saw a familiar face but couldn’t place it. Someone from the lab, maybe? The man was thick-boned and muscular. An Earther. Maybe someone he’d seen in his travels through the failing station. Had he seen the man grubbing for food? But no, he looked too well fed. There was no gauntness to his cheeks. He was like a friend and also a stranger. Someone Prax knew and also didn’t. Like the secretary-general or a famous actor.
Prax knew he was staring, but he couldn’t stop. He knew that face. He knew it. It had to do with the war.
Prax had a sudden flashbulb memory. He was in his apartment, holding Mei in his arms, trying to calm her. She was barely a year old, not walking, the doctors still tinkering to find the right pharmaceutical cocktail to keep her alive. Over her colic wail, the news streams were a constant alarmed chatter. A man’s face played over and over.
My name is James Holden and my ship, the Canterbury, was just destroyed by a warship with stealth technology and what appear to be parts stamped with Martian Navy serial numbers.
That was him. That was why he recognized the face and felt that he’d never seen it before. Prax felt a tug from somewhere near the center of his chest and found himself stepping forward. He paused. Beyond the loading doors, someone whooped. Prax took out his hand terminal, looked at his list. Sixteen names, sixteen children gone. And at the bottom of the page, in simple block characters: Get help.
Prax turned toward the man who’d started wars and saved planets, suddenly shy and uncertain.
“Get help,” he said, and walked forward.
Chapter Eleven: Holden
Santichai and Melissa Supitaya p**n were a pair of eighty-year-old earthborn missionaries from the Church of Humanity Ascendant, a religion that eschewed supernaturalism in all forms, and whose theology boiled down to Humans can be better than they are, so let’s do that. They also ran the relief depot headquarters with the ruthless efficiency of natural-born dictators. Minutes after arriving, Holden had been thoroughly dressed down by Santichai, a frail wisp of a man with thinning white hair, about his altercation with customs officials at the port. After several minutes of trying to explain himself, only to be shouted down by the tiny missionary, he finally just gave up and apologized.
“Don’t make our situation here any more precarious,” Santichai repeated, apparently mollified by the apology but needing to drive this point home. He shook a sticklike brown finger in Holden’s face.
“Got it,” Holden said, holding up his hands in surrender. The rest of his crew had vanished at Santichai’s first angry outburst, leaving Holden to deal with the man alone. He spotted Naomi across the large open warehouse space of the relief depot, talking calmly to Melissa, Santichai’s hopefully less volatile wife. Holden couldn’t hear any shouting, though with the voices of several dozen people and the grinding gears and engine whine and reverse alerts of three lift trucks, Melissa could have been flinging grenades at Naomi and he probably wouldn’t have heard it.
Looking for an opportunity to escape, Holden pointed at Naomi across the room and said, “Excuse me, I—”
Santichai cut him off with a curt wave of one hand that sent his loose orange robes swirling. Holden found himself unable to disobey the tiny man.
“This,” Santichai said, pointing in the direction of the crates being brought in from the Somnambulist, “is not enough.”
“The OPA promised us twenty-two thousand kilos of protein and supplements by last week. This is less than twelve thousand kilos,” Santichai said, punctuating his statement with a sharp poke at Holden’s bicep.
“I’m not in charge of—”
“Why would they promise us things they have no intention of delivering? Promise twelve thousand if that is what you have. Do not promise twenty-two thousand and then deliver twelve,” he said, accompanied by more poking.
“I agree,” Holden said, backing out of poke range with his hands up. “I totally agree. I’ll call my contact on Tycho Station immediately to find out where the rest of the promised supplies are. I’m sure they’re on the way.”
Santichai shrugged in another swirl of orange.
“See that you do,” he said, then steamed off toward one of the lift trucks. “You! You! Do you see the sign that says ‘medicine’? Why are you putting things that are not medicine in that place?”
Holden used this distraction to make good his escape, and jogged over to Naomi and Melissa. Naomi had a form open on her terminal and was completing some paperwork while Melissa watched.
Holden glanced around the warehouse space while Naomi worked. The Somnambulist was just one of almost twenty relief ships that had landed in the last twenty-four hours, and the massive room was quickly filling up with crates of supplies. The chill air smelled of dust and ozone and hot oil from the lift trucks, but under it there was a vaguely unpleasant smell of decay, like rotting vegetation. As he watched, Santichai darted across the warehouse floor, shouting instructions to a pair of workers carrying a heavy crate.
“Your husband is something else, ma’am,” Holden said to Melissa.
Melissa was both taller and heavier than her tiny husband, but she had the same shapeless cloud of thinning white hair he had. She also had bright blue eyes that nearly disappeared in her face when she smiled. As she was doing now.