“Well,” Alex said after a minute. “There’s your problem.”

He was trying to make a joke. Had made a joke. Normally, Holden would have laughed at his exaggerated drawl and comic obviousness. Alex could be very funny, in a dry, understated sort of way.

Right now, Holden had to clench his hands to stop from strangling the man.

Amos said, “I’m coming up,” at the same moment Naomi said, “I’m coming down.”

“Alex,” Holden said, pretending a calm he didn’t feel. “What’s the status of the cargo bay airlock?”

Alex tapped twice on the terminal and said, “Airtight, Cap. Zero loss.”

Which was good, because as frightened of the protomolecule as he was, Holden also knew that it wasn’t magic. It had mass and it occupied space. If not even a molecule of oxygen could sneak out through the airlock seal, then he was pretty sure none of the virus could get in. But …

“Alex, crank up the O2,” Holden said. “As rich as we can get it without blowing the ship up.”

The protomolecule was anaerobic. If any of it did somehow get in, he wanted the environment as hostile as possible.

“And get up to the cockpit,” he continued. “Seal yourself in. If the goo somehow gets loose on the ship, I need your finger on the reactor overrides.”

Alex frowned and scratched his thin hair. “That seems a little extreme—”

Holden grabbed him by the upper arms, hard. Alex’s eyes went wide and his hands came up in an automatic gesture of surrender. Beside him, the botanist blinked in confusion and alarm. This was not the best way to instill confidence. In other circumstances, Holden might have cared.

“Alex,” Holden said, not able to stop himself from shaking even while clutching the pilot’s arms. “Can I count on you to blow this ship into gas if that shit gets in here? Because if I can’t, consider yourself relieved of duty and confined to quarters immediately.”

Alex surprised him, not by reacting in anger, but by reaching up and putting his hands on Holden’s forearms. Alex’s face was serious, but his eyes were kind.

“Seal myself into the cockpit and prepare to scuttle the ship. Aye, aye, sir,” he said. “What’s the stand-down order?”

“Direct order from myself or Naomi,” Holden replied with a hidden sigh of relief. He didn’t have to say, If that thing gets in here and kills us, you’re better off going up with the ship. He let go of Alex’s arms and the pilot took one step back, his broad dark face wrinkled with concern. The panic that threatened to overwhelm Holden might get out of his control if he allowed anyone to feel sympathy for him, so he said, “Now, Alex. Do it now.”

Alex nodded once, looked like he wanted to say something else, then spun on his heel and went to the crew ladder and up toward the cockpit. Naomi descended the same ladder a few moments later, and Amos came up from below a short time after that.

Naomi spoke first. “What’s the plan?” They’d been intimate long enough for Holden to recognize the barely concealed fear in her voice.

Holden paused to take two more long breaths. “Amos and I will go see if we can’t drive it out the cargo bay doors. Get them open for us.”

“Done,” she said, and headed up the ladder to ops.

Amos was watching him, a speculative look in his eyes.

“So, Cap, how do we ‘drive it’ out those doors?”

“Well,” Holden replied. “I was thinking we shoot the shit out of it and then take a flamethrower to any pieces that fall off. So we better gear up.”

Amos nodded. “Damn. I feel like I just took that shit off.”

Holden was not claustrophobic.

No one who chose long-flight space travel as a career was. Even if a person could somehow con their way past the psychological profiles and simulation runs, one trip was usually enough to separate those who could handle long periods in confined spaces from those who went bugfuck and had to be sedated for the trip home.

As a junior lieutenant Holden had spent days in scout ships so small that you literally could not bend over to scratch your feet. He’d climbed around between the inner and outer hulls of warships. He’d once been confined to his crash couch for twenty-one days during a fast-burn trip from Luna to Saturn. He never had nightmares of being crushed or being buried alive.

For the first time in his decade and a half of nearly constant space travel, the ship he was on felt too small. Not just cramped, but terrifyingly constricted. He felt trapped, like an animal in a snare.

Less than twelve meters away from where he stood, someone infected with the protomolecule was sitting in his cargo bay. And there was nowhere he could go to get away from it.

Putting on his body armor didn’t help this feeling of confinement.

The first thing that went on was what the grunts called the full-body condom. It was a thick black bodysuit, made of multiple layers of Kevlar, rubber, impact-reactive gel, and the sensor network that kept track of his injury and vitals status. Over that went the slightly looser environment suit, with its own layers of self-sealing gel to instantly repair tears or bullet holes. And finally, the various pieces of strap-on armor plating that could deflect a high-velocity rifle shot or ablate the outer layers to shed the energy of a laser.

To Holden, it felt like wrapping himself in his own death shroud.

But even with all its layers and weight, it still wasn’t as frightening as the powered armor that recon Marines wore would have been. What the Navy boys called walking coffins. The idea behind the name being that anything powerful enough to break the armor would liquefy the marine inside, so you didn’t bother to open it. You just tossed the whole thing into the grave. This was hyperbole, of course, but the idea of going into that cargo bay wearing something that he wouldn’t even be able to move without the power-enhanced strength would have scared the shit out of him. What if the batteries died?

Of course, a nice suit of strength-augmenting armor might be handy when trying to throw monsters off the ship.

“That’s on backward,” Amos said, pointing at Holden’s thigh.

“Shit,” Holden said. Amos was right. He’d been so far up his own ass that he’d screwed up the buckles on his thigh armor. “Sorry, I’m having a hard time staying focused here.”

“Scared shitless,” Amos said with a nod.

“Well, I wouldn’t say—”

“Wasn’t talking about you,” Amos said. “Me. I’m scared shitless of walking into the cargo bay with that thing in there. And I didn’t watch Eros turn into goo at close range. So I get it. Right there with you, Jim.”

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