Once he started on the subject, it was hard for him to stop. In many ways, Ganymede had been the center of civilization in the outer planets. All the cutting-edge plant work had been there. All the life sciences issues. But it was more than that. There was something exciting about the prospect of rebuilding that was, in its fashion, even more interesting than the initial growth. To do something the first time was an exploration. To do it again was to take all the things they had learned, and refine, improve, perfect. It left Prax a little bit giddy. Bobbie listened with a melancholy smile on her face.

And it wasn’t only Ganymede. All of human civilization had been built out of the ruins of what had come before. Life itself was a grand chemical improvisation that began with the simplest replicators and grew and collapsed and grew again. Catastrophe was just one part of what always happened. It was a prelude to what came next.

“You make it sound romantic,” Bobbie said, and the way she said it was almost an accusation.

“I don’t mean to —” Prax began, and something cold and wet wriggled its way into his ear. He pulled back with a yelp, turning to face Mei’s bright eyes and brilliant smile. Her index finger dripped with saliva, and beyond her Amos was laughing himself crimson, one hand grasping at his belly and the other slapping the table hard enough to make the plates rattle.

“What was that?”

“Hi, Daddy. I love you.”

“Here,” Alex said, passing Prax a clean napkin. “You’re gonna want that.”

The startling thing was the silence. He didn’t know how long it had been going on, but the awareness of it washed over him like a wave. The political half of the room was still and quiet. Through the forest of their bodies, he saw Avasarala bending forward, her elbows on her knees, her hand terminal inches in front of her face. When she stood up, they parted before her. She was such a small woman, but she commanded the room just by walking out of it.

“That’s not good,” Holden said, rising to his feet. Without another word, Prax and Naomi, Amos and Alex and Bobbie all followed after her. The politicians and the scientists came too, all of them mixing at last.

The meeting room was across a wide hall and set up in the model of an ancient Greek amphitheater. The podium at the front stood before a massive high-definition screen. Avasarala marched down to a seat, talking fast and low into her hand terminal. The others trailed in after her. The sense of dread was physical. The screen went black and someone dimmed the lights.

In the darkness of the screen, Venus stood in near silhouette against the sun. It was an image Prax had seen hundreds of times before. The feed could have come from any of a dozen monitoring stations. The time stamp on the lower left said they were looking back in time forty-seven minutes. A ship name, the Celestine, floated beneath the numbers.

Every time the protomolecule soldiers had been involved in violence, Venus had reacted. The OPA had just destroyed a hundred of its half-human soldiers. Prax felt himself caught between excitement and dread.

The image scattered and re-formed, some kind of interference confusing the sensors. Avasarala said something sharp that could have been show me. A few seconds later, the image stopped and reframed. A detail screen showing a gray-green ship. A heads-up display marked it the Merman. The image scattered again, and when it re-formed, the Merman had moved half an inch to the left and was spinning end over end, tumbling. Avasarala spoke again. A few seconds’ lag, and the screen went back to its original image. Now that Prax knew to look, he could see the tiny dot of the Merman moving near the penumbra. There were other tiny specks like it.

The dark side of Venus pulsed like a sudden, planetary flash of lightning under the obscuring clouds. And then it glowed.

Vast filaments thousands of kilometers long like spokes on a wheel lit white and vanished. The clouds of Venus shifted, disturbed from below. Prax had the powerful memory of seeing a wake on the surface of a water tank when a fish passed close underneath. Vast and glowing, it rose through the cloud cover. Spoke-like strands of iridescence arced with vast lightning storms, coming together like the arms of an octopus but connected to a rigid central node. Once it had climbed out of Venus’ thick cloud cover, it launched itself away from the sun, toward the viewing ship, but passing it. The other ships in its path were scattered and hurled away. A long plume of displaced Venusian atmosphere caught the sun and glowed like snowflakes and slivers of ice. Prax tried to make sense of the scale. As large as Ceres Station. As large as Ganymede. Larger. It folded its arms—its tentacles—together, accelerating without any visible drive plume. It swam in the void. His heart was racing, but his body was still as stone.

Mei patted his cheek with her open palm and pointed to the screen.

“What’s that?” she asked.

Epilogue: Holden

Holden started the replay again. The wall screen in the Rocinante’s galley was too small to really catch all the details of the high-resolution imagery the Celestine had taken. But Holden couldn’t stop watching it no matter what room he was in. An ignored cup of coffee cooled on the table in front of him next to the sandwich he hadn’t eaten.

Venus flashed with light in an intricate pattern. The heavy cloud cover swirled as though caught in a planetwide storm. And then it rose from the surface, pulling a thick contrail of Venus’ atmosphere in its wake.

“Come to bed,” Naomi said, then leaned forward in her chair and took his hand. “Get some sleep.”

“It’s so big. And the way it swatted all those ships out of the way. Effortless, like a whale swimming through a school of guppies.”

“Can you do anything about it?”

“This is the end, Naomi,” Holden said, pulling his eyes away from the screen to look at her. “What if this is the end? This isn’t some alien virus anymore. This thing is what the protomolecule came here to make. This is what it was going to hijack all life on the Earth to make. It could be anything.”

“Can you do anything about it?” she repeated. Her words were harsh, but her voice was kind and she squeezed his fingers affectionately.

Holden turned back to the screen, restarting the image. A dozen ships blew away from Venus as though a massive wind had caught them and sent them spinning like leaves. The surface of the atmosphere began to roil and twist.

“Okay,” Naomi said, standing up. “I’m going to bed. Don’t wake me when you come in. I’m exhausted.”

Holden nodded to her without looking away from the video feed. The massive shape folded itself into a streamlined dart, like a piece of wet cloth plucked up from the center, then flew away. The Venus it left behind looked diminished, somehow. As though something vital had been stolen from it to construct the alien artifact.

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