Naomi started the playback, and Bobbie turned away and stared at the bulkhead. Avasarala didn’t watch it either, her attention on the faces of the others. As the blood and carnage played out behind her, she studied them and learned a little more about the people she was dealing with. The engineer, Amos, watched with the calm reserve of a professional killer. No surprise there. At first Holden, Naomi, and Alex were horrified, and she watched as Alex and Naomi slid into a kind of shock. There were tears in the pilot’s eyes. Holden, on the other hand, curled in. His shoulders bent outward from each other, and an expression of banked rage smoldered in his eyes and around the corners of his mouth. That was interesting. Bobbie wept openly with her back to the screen, and her expression was melancholy, like a woman at a funeral. A memorial service. Praxidike—everyone else called him Prax—was the only one who seemed almost happy. When at the segment’s end, the monstrosity detonated, he clapped his hands and squealed in pleasure.
“That was it,” he said. “You were right, Alex. Did you see how it was starting to grow more limbs? Catastrophic restraint failure. It was a fail-safe.”
“Okay,” Avasarala said. “Why don’t you try that again with an antecedent. What was a fail-safe?”
“The other protomolecule form ejected the explosive device from its body before it could detonate. You see, these … things—protomolecule soldiers or whatever—are breaking their programming, and I think Merrian knows about it. He hasn’t found a way to stop it, because the constraints fail.”
“Who’s Marion, and what does she have to do with anything?” Avasarala said.
“You wanted more nouns, Gramma,” Amos said.
“Let me take this from the top,” Holden said, and recounted the attack by the stowaway beast, the damage to the cargo door, Prax’s scheme to lure it out of the ship and reduce it to its component atoms with the drive’s exhaust.
Avasarala handed over the data she had about the energy spikes on Venus, and Prax grabbed that data, looking it over while talking about his determination of a secret base on Io where the things were being produced. It left Avasarala’s head spinning.
“And they took your kid there,” Avasarala said.
“They took all of them,” Prax said.
“Why would they do that?”
“Because they don’t have immune systems,” Prax said. “And so they’d be easier to reshape with the protomolecule. There would be fewer physiological systems fighting against the new cellular constraints, and the soldiers would probably last a lot longer.”
“Jesus, Doc,” Amos said. “They’re going to turn Mei into one of those f**king things?”
“Probably,” Prax said, frowning. “I only just figured that out.”
“But why do it at all?” Holden said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“In order to sell them to a military force as a first-strike weapon,” Avasarala said. “To consolidate power before … well, before the f**king apocalypse.”
“Point of clarification,” Alex said, raising his hand. “We have an apocalypse comin’? Was that a thing we knew about?”
“Venus,” Avasarala said.
“Oh. That apocalypse,” Alex said, lowering his hand. “Right.”
“Soldiers that can travel without ships,” Naomi said. “You could fire them off at high g for a little while, then cut engines and let them go ballistic. How would you find them?”
“But it won’t work,” Prax said. “Remember? They escape constraint. And since they can share information, they’re going to get harder to hold to any kind of new programming.”
The room went silent. Prax looked confused.
“They can share information?” Avasarala said.
“Sure,” Prax said. “Look at your energy spikes. The first one happened while the thing was fighting Bobbie and the other marines on Ganymede. The second spike came when the other one got loose in the lab. The third spike was when we killed it with the Rocinante. Every time one of them has been attacked, Venus reacted. They’re networked. I’d assume that any critical information could be shared. Like how to escape constraints.”
“If they use them against people,” Holden said, “there won’t be any way to stop them. They’ll ditch the fail-safe bombs and just keep going. The battles won’t end.”
“Um. No,” Prax said. “That’s not the problem. It’s the cascade again. Once the protomolecule gets a little freedom, it has more tools to erode other constraints, which gets it more tools to erode more constraints and on and on like that. The original program or something like it will eventually swamp the new program. They’ll revert.”
Bobbie leaned forward, her head canted a few degrees to the right. Her voice was quiet, but it had a threat of violence that was louder than shouting.
“So if they set those things loose on Mars, they stay soldiers like the first one for a while. And then they start dropping the bombs out like your guy did. And then they turn Mars into Eros?”
“Well, worse than Eros,” Prax said. “Any decent-sized Martian city is going to have an order of magnitude more people than Eros did.”
The room was quiet. On the monitor, Bobbie’s suit camera looked up at star-filled sky while battleships killed each other in orbit.
“I’ve got to send some messages out,” Avasarala said.
“These half-human things you’ve made? They aren’t your servants. You can’t control them,” Avasarala said. “Jules-Pierre Mao sold you a bill of goods. I know why you kept me out of this, and I think you’re a f**king moron for it, but put it aside. It doesn’t matter now. Just do not pull that f**king trigger. Do you understand what I’m saying? Don’t. You will be personally responsible for the single deadliest screwup in the history of humankind, and I’m on a ship with Jim f**king Holden, so the bar’s not low.”
The full recording clocked in at almost half an hour. The security footage from the Rocinante with its stowaway was attached. A fifteen-minute lecture by Prax had to be scrapped when he reached the part about his daughter being turned into a protomolecule soldier, and this time broke into uncontrollable weeping. Avasarala did her best to recapitulate it, but she wasn’t at all certain she had the details right. She’d considered bringing Jon-Michael into it, but decided against it. Better to keep it in the family.