“Ah,” Bobbie said.

“Oh,” Cotyar said a moment later.

“Yes,” Avasarala said. “When that happens, I will declare this an illegal seizure of my person, and you will get me this ship.”

Chapter Thirty-One: Prax

With every day that passed, the question came closer: What was the next step? It didn’t feel all that different from those first, terrible days on Ganymede, making lists as a way of telling himself what to do. Only now he wasn’t only looking for Mei. He was looking for Strickland. Or the mysterious woman in the video. Or whoever had built the secret lab. In that sense, he was much better off than he had been before.

On the other hand, he had been searching Ganymede. Now the field had expanded to include everywhere.

The lag time to Earth—or Luna, actually, since Persis-Strokes Security Consultants was based in orbit rather than down the planet’s gravity well—was a little over twenty minutes. It made actual conversation essentially impossible, so in practice, the hatchet-faced woman on his screen was making a series of promotional videos more and more specifically targeted to what Prax wanted to hear.

“We have an intelligence-sharing relationship with Pinkwater, which is presently the security company with the largest physical and operational presence in the outer planets,” she said. “We also have joint-action contracts with Al Abbiq and Star Helix. With those, we can take immediate action either directly or through our partners, on literally any station or planet in the system.”

Prax nodded to himself. That was exactly what he needed. Someone with eyes everywhere, with contacts everywhere. Someone who could help.

“I’m attaching a release,” the woman said. “We will need payment for the processing fee, but we won’t be charging your accounts for anything more than that until we’ve agreed on the scope of the investigation you’re willing to be liable for. Once we have that in hand, I will send you a detailed proposal with an itemized spreadsheet and we can decide the scope of work that works best for you.”

“Thank you,” Prax said. He pulled up the document, signed off, and returned it. It would be twenty minutes at the speed of light before it reached Luna. Twenty minutes back. Who knew how long in between?

It was a start. He could feel good about that, at least.

The ship was quiet in a way that felt like anticipation, but Prax didn’t know exactly what of. The arrival at Tycho Station, but beyond that, he wasn’t sure. Leaving his bunk behind, he went through the empty galley and up the ladder toward the ops center and then the pilot’s station. The small room was dim, most of the light coming from the control panels and the sweep of high-definition screens that filled 270 degrees of vision with starlight, the distant sun, and the approaching mass of Tycho Station, the oasis in the vast emptiness.

“Hey there, Doc,” Alex said from the pilot’s couch. “Come up to see the view?”

“If … I mean, if that’s all right.”

“Not a problem. I haven’t been running with a copilot since we got the Roci. Strap in right there. Just if somethin’ happens, don’t touch anything.”

“I won’t,” Prax promised as he scrambled into the acceleration couch. At first, the station seemed to grow slowly. The two counter-rotating rings were hardly larger than Prax’s thumb, the sphere they surrounded little more than a gum ball. Then, as they drew nearer, the fuzzy texture at the edge of the construction sphere began to resolve into massive waldoes and gantries reaching toward a strangely aerodynamic form. The ship under construction was still half undressed, ceramic and steel support beams open to the vacuum like bones. Tiny fireflies flickered inside and out: welders and sealant packs firing off too far away to see apart from the light.

“Is that built for atmosphere?”

“Nope. Kinda looks that way, though. That’s the Chesapeake. Or it will be, anyway. She’s designed for sustained high g. I think they’re talkin’ about running the poor bastard at something like eight g for a couple of months.”

“All the way where?” Prax asked, doing a little napkin-back math in his head. “It would have to be outside the orbit of … anything.”

“Yep, she’ll be going deep. They’re going after that Nauvoo.”

“The generation ship that was supposed to knock Eros into the sun?”

“That’s the one. They cut her engines when the plan went south, but she’s been cruisin’ on ever since. Wasn’t finished, so they can’t bring her around on remote. Instead, they’re buildin’ a retriever. Hope they manage too. The Nauvoo was an amazin’ piece of work. Of course, even if they get her back, it won’t keep the Mormons from suing Tycho into nonexistence if they can figure out how.”

“Why would that be hard?”

“OPA doesn’t recognize the courts on Earth and Mars, and they run the ones in the Belt. So it’s pretty much win in a court that doesn’t matter or lose in one that does.”

“Oh,” Prax said.

On the screens, Tycho Station grew larger and more detailed. Prax couldn’t tell what detail of it brought it into perspective, but between one heartbeat and the next, he understood the scope and size of the station before him and let out a little gasp. The construction sphere had to be half a kilometer across, like two complete farm domes stuck bottom to bottom. Slowly, the great industrial sphere grew until it filled the screens, starlight replaced by the glow from equipment guides and a glass-domed observation bubble. Steel-and-ceramic plates and scaffolds took the place of the blackness. There were the massive drives that could push the entire station, like a city in the sky, anywhere in the solar system. There were the complex swivel points, like the gimbals of a crash couch made by giants, that would reconfigure the station as a whole when thrust gravity took rotation’s place.

It took his breath away. The elegance and functionality of the structure lay out before him, as beautiful and simple and effective as a leaf or a root cluster. To have something so much like the fruits of evolution, but designed by human minds, was awe-inspiring. It was the pinnacle of what creativity meant, the impossible made real.

“That’s good work,” Prax said.

“Yup,” Alex said. And then on the shipwide channel: “We’ve arrived. Everyone strap in for docking. I’m going to manual.”

Prax half rose in his couch.

“Should I go to my quarters?”

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