Strickland licked his lips, his eyes shifting from Prax to Amos and back again.
“I don’t need to kill you,” Prax said. “I have my daughter back. Revenge isn’t important to me.”
Strickland took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Prax could see the man’s body relax, and something on the dividing line of relief and pleasure appeared at the corners of his mouth. Mei twitched once when Amos’ auto-shotgun fired, but she lay back down against Prax’s shoulder without crying or looking around. Strickland’s body drifted slowly to the ground, the arms falling to the sides. The space where the head had been gouted bright arterial blood against the walls, each pulse smaller than the one before.
“Or that,” Prax said.
“So you got any ideas how we—”
The hatch behind them opened and a man ran in.
“What happened? I heard—”
Amos raised the auto-shotgun. The new man backpedaled, a thin whine of fear escaping from him as he retreated. Amos cleared his throat.
“Any idea how we get these kids out of here?”
Putting Mei back in the transport cart was one of the hardest things Prax had ever done. He wanted to carry her against him, to press his face against hers. It was a primate reaction, the deepest centers of his brain longing for the reassurance of physical contact. But his suit wouldn’t protect her from the radiation or near vacuum of Io’s sulfuric atmosphere, and the transport would. He nestled her gently against two other children while Amos put the other four in a second cart. The smallest of them was still in newborn diapers. Prax wondered if she had come from Ganymede too. The carts glided against the station flooring, only rattling when they crossed the built-in tracks.
“You remember how to get back to the surface?” Amos asked.
“I think so,” Prax said.
“Uh, Doc? You really want to put your helmet back on.”
“Oh! Right. Thank you.”
At the T intersection, half a dozen men in security uniforms had built a barricade, preparing to defend the lab against attack. Because Amos tossed in his grenades from the rear, the cover was less effective than the locals had anticipated, but it still took a few minutes to clear the bodies and the remains of the barricade to let the carts roll through.
There was a time, Prax knew, that the violence would have bothered him. Not the blood or bodies. He’d spent more than enough time doing dissections and even autonomous-limb vivisection to be able to wall off what he was seeing from any particular sense of visceral horror. But that it was something done in anger, that the men and women he’d just seen blown apart hadn’t donated their bodies or tissues, would have affected him once. The universe had taken that from him, and he couldn’t say now exactly when it had happened. Part of him was numb, and maybe it always would be. There was a feeling of loss in that, but it was intellectual. The only emotions he felt were a glowing, transforming relief that Mei was here and alive and a vicious animal protectiveness that meant he would never let her leave his sight, possibly until she left for university.
On the surface, the transports were rougher, the wheels less suited to the uneven surface of the land. Prax followed Amos’ example, turning the boxes around to pull them rather than push. Looking at the vectors, it made sense, but it wouldn’t have occurred to him if he hadn’t seen Amos doing it.
Bobbie was walking slowly toward the Rocinante. Her suit was charred and stained and moving poorly. A clear fluid was leaking down the back.
“Don’t get close to me,” she said. “I’ve got protomolecule goo all over this thing.”
“That’s bad,” Amos said. “You got a way to clean that off?”
“Not really,” she replied. “How’d the extraction go?”
“Got enough kids to start a singing group, but a little shy of a baseball team,” Amos said.
“Mei’s here,” Prax said. “She’s all right.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Bobbie said, and even though she was clearly exhausted, she sounded like she meant it.
At the airlock, Amos and Prax got in and nestled the transports against the back wall while Bobbie stood on the rough ground outside. Prax checked the transport indicators. There was enough onboard air to last another forty minutes.
“All right,” Amos said. “We’re ready.”
“Going for emergency blow,” Bobbie said, and her armored suit came apart around her. It was a strange sight, the hard curves and layers of combat plate peeling themselves back, blooming out like a flower and then falling apart, and the woman, eyes closed and mouth open, being revealed. When she put her hand out for Amos to pull her in, the gesture reminded Prax of Mei seeing him again.
“Now, Doc,” Amos said.
“Cycling,” Prax said. He closed the outer door and started fresh air coming into the lock. Ten seconds later, Bobbie’s chest started to pump like a bellows. Thirty seconds, and they were at seven-eighths of an atmosphere.
“Where do we stand, guys?” Naomi asked as Prax opened the transport. The children were all asleep. Mei was sucking on her first two fingers, the way she had when she was a baby. He couldn’t get past how much older she looked.
“We’re solid,” Amos said. “I say we get the f**k out of here and glass the place.”
“A-fucking-men,” Avasarala’s voice said in the background.
“Copy that,” Naomi said. “We’re prepping for launch. Let me know when you’ve got all our new passengers safely in.”
Prax pulled off his helmet and sat beside Bobbie. In the black sheath of her base garments, she looked like someone just coming back from the gym. She could have been anybody.
“Glad you got your kid back,” she said.
“Thank you. I’m sorry you lost the suit,” he said.
“At this point, it was mostly a metaphor anyway,” she said, and the inner airlock opened.
“Cycle’s done, Naomi,” Amos said. “We’re home.”
Chapter Fifty-Two: Avasarala
It was over, except that it wasn’t. It never was.
“We’re all friends now,” Souther said. Talking to him without lag was a luxury she was going to miss. “But if we all limp back to our corners, we’re more likely to stay that way. I’m thinking it’s going to be a question of years before either of our fleets are back up to what we were. There was a lot of damage.”