“Oh, that’s disgusting,” she yelled at it. If her suit had been opened up to the outside, getting that protomolecule shit on her would have been the least of her problems. But still, how the hell was she going to wash this crap off?

It cocked its head and regarded her curiously. It poked again at her armor, one finger wriggling into gaps, trying to find a way in to her skin. She’d seen one of these things rip a nine-ton combat mech apart. If it wanted into her suit, it was coming in. But it seemed reluctant to damage her for some reason. As she watched, a long, flexible tube burst out of its midsection and began probing at her armor instead of the finger. Brown goo dribbled out of this new appendage in a constant stream.

Her gun status light flickered from red to green. She spun up the barrels to test it and it worked. Of course, her suit was still telling her to “please stand by” when it came to actually moving. Maybe if the monster got bored and wandered in front of her gun, she could get some shots off.

The tube was probing at her armor more insistently now. It pushed its way into gaps, periodically shooting brown liquid into them. It was as repulsive as it was frightening. It was like being threatened by a serial killer that was also fumbling at her clothing with a teenager’s horny insistence.

“Oh, to hell with this,” she said to it. She was about through with letting this thing grope her while she lay helpless on her back. The suit’s right arm was heavy, and the actuators that made her strong when it was working also resisted movement when it was not. Pushing her arm up was like doing a one-arm bench press while wearing a lead glove. She pressed up anyway until she felt something pop. It might have been in the suit. It might have been in her arm. She couldn’t tell yet, because she was too wired for pain to set in.

But when it popped, her arm came up, and she pushed her fist up against the monster’s head.

“Buh-bye,” she said. The monster turned to look curiously at her hand. She held down the trigger until the ammo counter read zero and the gun stopped spinning. The creature had ceased to exist from the shoulders up. She dropped her arm back to the ground, exhausted.

REROUTE SUCCESSFUL, her suit told her. REBOOTING, it said. When the subliminal hum came back, she started laughing and found she couldn’t stop. She shoved the monster’s corpse off her and sat up.

“Good thing. It’s a really long walk back to the ship.”

Chapter Fifty-One: Prax

Prax ran.

Around him, the station walls formed angles at the center to make an elongated hexagon. The gravity was barely higher than Ganymede standard, and after weeks at a full-g burn, Prax had to pay attention to keep himself from rising to the ceiling with each step. Amos loped beside him, every stride low, long, and fast. The shotgun in the man’s hands remained perfectly level.

At a T intersection ahead, a woman appeared. Dark hair and skin. Not the one who’d taken Mei. Her eyes went wide and she darted off.

“They know we’re coming,” Prax said. He was panting a little.

“That probably wasn’t their first clue, Doc,” Amos said. His voice was perfectly conversational, but there was an intensity in it. Something like anger.

At the intersection, they paused, Prax leaning over and resting elbows on knees to catch his breath. It was an old, primitive reflex. In less than .2 g, the blood return wasn’t significantly increased by putting his head even with his heart. Strictly speaking, he would have been better off standing and keeping his posture from narrowing any of his blood vessels. He forced himself to stand.

“Where should I plug in this radio link for Naomi?” he asked Amos.

Amos shrugged and pointed at the wall. “Maybe we can just follow the signs instead.”

There was a legend on the wall with colored arrows pointing in different directions, ENV CONTROL and CAFETERIA and PRIMARY LAB. Amos tapped PRIMARY LAB with the barrel of his shotgun.

“Sounds good to me,” Prax said.

“You good to go?”

“I am,” Prax said, though he probably wasn’t.

The floor seemed to shift under him, followed immediately by a long, ominous rumbling that he could feel in the soles of his feet.

“Naomi? You there?”

“I am. I have to keep track of the captain on the other line. I might pop in and out. Everything all right?”

“Might be stretching the point,” Amos said. “We got something sounded like someone shooting at us. They ain’t shooting at the base, are they?”

“They aren’t,” Naomi said from the ship, her voice pressed thin and tinny by the attenuated signal. “It looks like some of the locals are mounting a defense, but so far our Marines aren’t returning fire.”

“Tell ’em to calm that shit down,” Amos said, but he was already moving down the corridor toward the primary lab. Prax jumped after him, misjudged, and cracked his arm against the ceiling.

“Soon as they ask me,” Naomi said.

The corridors were a maze, but it was the kind of maze Prax had been running through his whole life. The institutional logic of a research facility was the same everywhere. The floor plans were different; budget concerns could change how richly appointed the details were; the fields being supported determined what equipment was present. But the soul of the place was the same, and it was Prax’s home.

Twice more, they caught sight of people scattering through the halls with them. The first was a young Belter woman in a white lab coat. The second was a massively obese dark-skinned man with the squat build of Earth. He was wearing a crisp suit, the signature of the administrative class everywhere. Neither one tried to stop them, so Prax forgot about them almost as soon as he saw them.

The imaging suite was behind a set of negative-pressure seals. When Prax and Amos went through, the gust of air seemed to push them faster, urging them on. The rumble came again, louder this time and lasting almost fifteen seconds. It could be fighting. It could be a volcano forming nearby. No way to know. Prax knew this base would have to have been built with tectonic instability in mind. He wondered what the safeguards were for a moment, then put it out of his mind. Nothing he could do about it anyway.

The lab’s imaging suite was at least the equal of the one he’d shared on Ganymede, with everything from the spidery full-resonance displays to the inferential gravity lens. In the corner, a squat orange table showed a holographic image of a colony of rapidly dividing cells. Two doors led out apart from the one they’d come through. Somewhere nearby, people were shouting at each other.

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