“Why aren’t you at your post?” Wendell snapped when he saw her.

“Guthrie called for backup. Said he was gut-shot and about to pass out. I brought him some adrenaline and speed.”

“Good call,” Wendell said.

“Uchi and Caudel?”

“Didn’t make it,” Wendell said.

The woman nodded, but Prax saw something pass over her. Everyone here was losing someone. His tragedy was just one among dozens. Hundreds. Thousands. By the time the cascade had run all the way out, maybe millions. When death grew that large, it stopped meaning anything. He leaned against the nitrogen bath, his head in his hands. He’d been so close. So close …

“We have to find that ship,” he said.

“We have to drop back ten and punt,” Holden said. “We came here looking for a missing kid. Now we’ve got a covert scientific station halfway to being packed up and shipped out. And a secret landing pad. And whatever third player was fighting with these people while we were.”

“Third player?” Paula asked.

Wendell gestured to the carnage.

“Not us,” he said.

“We don’t know what we’re looking at,” Holden said. “And until we do, we need to back off.”

“We can’t stop,” Prax said. “I can’t stop. Mei is—”

“Probably dead,” Wendell said. “The girl’s probably dead. And if she’s not, she’s alive someplace besides Ganymede.”

“I’m sorry,” Holden said.

“The dead boy,” Prax said. “Katoa. His father took the family off Ganymede as soon as he could. Got them someplace safe. Someplace else.”

“Wise move,” Holden said.

Prax looked to Amos for support, but the big man was poking through the wreckage, pointedly not taking either side.

“The boy was alive,” Prax said. “Basia said he knew the boy was dead and he packed up and he left, and when he got on that transport? His boy was here. In this lab. And he was alive. So don’t tell me Mei’s probably dead.”

They were all silent for a moment.

“Just don’t,” Prax said.

“Cap?” Amos said.

“Just a minute,” Holden said. “Prax, I’m not going to say that I know what you’re going through, but I have people I love too. I can’t tell you what to do, but let me ask you—ask you—to look at what kind of strategy is going to be best for you. And for Mei.”

“Cap,” Amos said. “Seriously, you should look at this.”

Amos stood by the shattered glass cube. His shotgun hung forgotten in his hand. Holden walked up to the man’s side, following his gaze to the ruined container. Prax pushed away from the nitrogen bath and joined them. There, clinging to the walls of glass that still stood, was a network of fine black filament. Prax couldn’t tell if it was an artificial polymer or a natural substance. Some kind of web. It had a fascinating structure, though. He reached out to touch it and Holden grabbed his wrist, pulling him back so hard it hurt.

When Holden spoke, his words were measured and calm, which only made the panic behind them more terrifying.

“Naomi, prep the ship. We have to get off this moon. We have to do it right now.”

Chapter Eighteen: Avasarala

What do you think?” the secretary-general asked from the upper left pane of the display. On the upper right, Errinwright leaned forward a centimeter, ready to jump in if she lost her temper.

“You’ve read the briefing, sir,” Avasarala said sweetly.

The secretary-general waved his hand in a lazy circle. He was in his early sixties and wore the decades with the elfin charm of a man untroubled by weighty thoughts. The years Avasarala had spent building herself from the treasurer of the Workers Provident Fund to the district governor of the Maharshta-Karnataka-Goa Communal Interest Zone, he’d spent as a political prisoner at a minimum-security facility in the recently reconstructed Andean cloud forest. The slow, grinding wheels of power had lifted him to celebrity, and his ability to appear to be listening lent him an air of gravity without the inconvenience of an opinion of his own. Had a man been engineered from birth to be the ideal governmental figurehead, he still wouldn’t have achieved the perfection that was Secretary-General Esteban Sorrento-Gillis.

“Political briefs never capture the really important things,” the bobble-head said. “Tell me what you think.”

I think you haven’t read the f**king briefs, Avasarala thought. Not that I can really complain. She cleared her throat.

“It’s all sparring and no fight, sir,” Avasarala said. “The players are top level. Michel Undawe, Carson Santiseverin, Ko Shu. They brought enough military to show that it’s not just the elected monkeys. But so far, the only one who’s said anything interesting is a marine they brought in to be a flower arrangement. Otherwise, we’re all waiting for someone else to say something telling.”

“And what about”—the secretary-general paused and lowered his voice—“the alternative hypothesis?”

“There’s activity on Venus,” Avasarala said. “We still don’t know what any of it means. There was a massive upwelling of elemental iron in the northern hemisphere that lasted fourteen hours. There has also been a series of volcanic eruptions. Since the planet doesn’t have any tectonic motion, we’re assuming the protomolecule is doing something in the mantle, but we can’t tell what. The brains put together a statistical model that shows the approximate energy output expected for the changes we’ve seen. It suggests that the overall level of activity is rising about three hundred percent per year over that last eighteen months.”

The secretary-general nodded, his expression grave. It was almost as if he’d understood any part of what she’d said. Errinwright coughed.

“Do we have any evidence that ties the activity on Venus to the events on Ganymede?” he asked.

“We do,” Avasarala said. “An anomalous energy spike at the same time as the Ganymede attack. But it’s only one datapoint. It might have been coincidence.”

A woman’s voice came from the secretary-general’s feed, and he nodded.

“I’m afraid I’m called to duty,” he said. “You’re doing fine work, Avasarala. Damn fine work.”

“I can’t tell you what that means coming from you, sir,” she said with a smile. “You’d fire me.”

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