“What more do you want from me?” Nguyen said. “I’ve surrendered. I lost. My men shouldn’t have to die for your spite.”

“It’s not spite,” Avasarala said. “We can’t do it. The protomolecule gets loose. Your fancy control programs don’t work. It’s infectious.”

“That’s not proven,” he said, but the way he said it told her everything.

“It’s happening, isn’t it?” she said. “Turn on your internal cameras. Let us see.”

“I’m not going to do that.”

She felt the air go out of her. It had happened.

“I am so sorry,” Avasarala said. “Oh. I am so sorry.”

Nguyen’s eyebrows rose a millimeter. His lips pressed, bloodless and thin. She thought there were tears in his eyes, but it might have been only a transmission artifact.

“You have to turn on the transponders,” Avasarala said. And then, when he didn’t reply: “We can’t weaponize the protomolecule. We don’t understand what it is. We can’t control it. You just sent a death sentence to Mars. I can’t save you, I cannot. But turn those transponders back on and help me save them.”

The moment hung in the air. Avasarala could feel Holden’s and Naomi’s attention on her like warmth radiating from the heating grate. Nguyen shook his head, his lips twitching, lost in conversation with himself.

“Nguyen,” she said. “What’s happening? On your ship. How bad is it?”

“Get me out of here, and I’ll turn the transponders on,” he said. “Throw me in the brig for the rest of my life, I don’t care. But get me off of this ship.”

Avasarala tried to lean forward, but it only made her crash couch shift. She looked for the words that would bring him back, the ones that would tell him that he had been wrong and evil and now he was going to die badly at the hands of his own weapon and somehow make it all right. She looked at this angry, small, shortsighted, frightened little man and tried to find the way to pull him back to simple human decency.

She failed.

“I can’t do that,” she said.

“Then stop wasting my time,” he said, and cut the connection.

She lay back, her palm over her eyes.

“I’m gettin’ some mighty strange readings off that battleship,” Alex said. “Naomi? You seeing this?”

“Sorry. Give me a second.”

“What have you got, Alex?” Holden asked.

“Reactor activity’s down. Internal radiation through the ship’s spiking huge. It’s like they’re venting the reactor into the air recycling.”

“That don’t sound healthy,” Amos said.

The ops deck went silent again. Avasarala reached to open a channel to Souther but stopped. She didn’t know what she’d say. The voice that came over the ship channel was slushy and drugged. She didn’t recognize Prax at first, and then he had to repeat himself twice before she could make out the words.

“Incubation chamber,” Prax said. “It’s making the ship an incubation chamber. Like on Eros.”

“It knows how to do that?” Bobbie said.

“Apparently so,” Naomi said.

“We’re going to have to slag that thing,” Bobbie said. “Do we have enough firepower for that?”

Avasarala opened her eyes again. She tried to feel something besides great, oceanic sorrow. There had to be hope in there somewhere. Even Pandora got that much.

Holden was the one who said what she was thinking.

“Even if we can, it won’t save Mars.”

“Maybe we got them all?” Alex said. “I mean, there were a shit-load of those things, but maybe … maybe we got ’em?”

“Hard to tell when they were running ballistic,” Bobbie said. “If we missed just one, and it gets to Mars …”

It was all slipping away from her. She had been so close to stopping it, and now here she was, watching it all slip past. Her gut was a solid knot. But they hadn’t failed. Not yet. Somewhere in all this there had to be a way. Something that could still be done.

She forwarded her last conversation with Nguyen to Souther. Maybe he’d have an idea. A secret weapon that could come out of nowhere and force the codes out. Maybe the great brotherhood of military men would draw some vestige of humanity out of Nguyen.

Ten minutes later, a survival pod came loose from the King. Souther didn’t bother contacting her before they shot it down. The ops deck was like a mourning chamber.

“Okay,” Holden said. “First things first. We’ve got to get down to the base. If Mei’s there, we need to get her out.”

“I’m on that,” Amos said. “And we got to take the doc. He ain’t gonna outsource that one.”

“That’s what I was thinking,” Holden said. “So you guys take the Roci down to the surface.”

“Us guys?” Naomi asked.

“I’ll take the pinnace over to the battleship,” Holden said. “The transponder activation codes are going to be in the CIC.”

“You?” Avasarala asked.

“Only two people got off Eros,” Holden said with a shrug. “And I’m the one that’s left.”

Chapter Forty-Nine: Holden

Don’t do this,” Naomi said. She didn’t beg, or cry, or make demands. All the power of her request lay in its quiet simplicity. “Don’t do it.”

Holden opened the suit locker just outside the main airlock and reached for his Martian-made armor. A sudden and visceral memory of radiation sickness on Eros stopped him. “They’ve been pumping radiation into the King for hours now, right?”

“Don’t go over there,” Naomi said again.

“Bobbie,” Holden said over the comm.

“Here,” she replied with a grunt. She was helping Amos prep their gear for the assault on the Mao science station. After his one encounter with the Mao protomolecule hybrid, he could only imagine they were going loaded for bear.

“What are these standard Martian armor suits rated for radiation-wise?”

“Like mine?” Bobbie asked.

“No, not a powered suit. I know they harden you guys for close-proximity blasts. I’m talking about this stuff we pulled out of the MAP crate.”

“About as much as a standard vacuum suit. Good enough for short walks outside the ship. Not so much for constant exposure to high radiation levels.”

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