“I find myself wishing we had a really long stick,” Holden said, looking around at the various objects stored in the cargo bay, hoping to find one that suited his need.

“Uh, Cap’n?” Amos said. “It’s looking at us.”

Holden turned back around and saw Amos was right. The creature hadn’t moved anything but its head, but it was definitely staring up at them now, its eyes a creepy illuminated-from-within blue.

“Well, okay,” Holden said. “It’s not hibernating.”

“You know, if I can knock it off that bulkhead with a shot or two, and Alex kicks on the engine, it might just tumble right out the back door and into the exhaust plume. That oughta take care of it.”

“Let’s think about—” Holden said, but before he could finish his thought, the room strobed several times with the muzzle flash of Amos’ shotgun. The monster was hit multiple times and knocked into a spinning lump floating toward the door.

“Alex, just—” Amos said.

The monster blurred into action. It flung one arm toward the bulkhead, the limb actually seeming to get longer to reach it, and yanked down hard enough to bend the steel plates. The creature hurtled up to the top of the cargo bay so fast that when it hit the crate Holden was hiding behind, the magnetic feet lost their seal. The cargo bay seemed to spin as the impact threw Holden back. The crate, just behind him, matched his velocity. Holden slammed against the bulkhead a split second before the crate did, and the magnetic pallet snapped onto the new wall, trapping Holden’s leg beneath it.

Something in his knee bent badly, and the pain turned the world red for a moment.

Amos began firing his gun into the monster at close range, but it casually backhanded him and threw him into the cargo airlock hard enough to bend the inner door. The outer door slammed shut the second the inner door was compromised. Holden tried to move but his leg was pinned by the crate, and with electromagnets rated to hold a quarter ton of weight under a ten-g burn, he wouldn’t be moving it anytime soon. The crate controls that would shut the magnets off showed the orange glow of a full seal ten centimeters beyond his reach.

The monster turned back to look at him. Its blue eyes were far too large for its head, giving the creature a curious, childlike look. It reached out one oversized hand.

Holden fired into it until his gun was empty.

The miniature, self-contained rockets the recoilless gun used as ammunition exploded in tiny puffs of light and smoke as they hit the creature, each one pushing it farther back and tearing large chunks of its torso away. Black filaments sprayed out and across the room like a line drawing representation of blood splatter. When the last rocket hit, the monster was blown off the bulkhead and thrown down the cargo bay toward the open doors.

The black-and-red body tumbled toward the vast swatch of stars and darkness, and Holden let himself hope. Less than a meter from the doors, it reached out one long arm and caught the edge of a crate. Holden had seen what kind of strength was in those hands, and knew it wouldn’t lose its grip.

“Captain,” Amos was yelling in his ear. “Holden, are you still with us?”

“Here, Amos. In a little trouble.”

As he spoke, the monster pulled itself up onto the crate it had caught and sat motionless. A hideous gargoyle turned suddenly to stone.

“Gonna hit the override and get you,” Amos said. “The inner door is f**ked, so we’ll lose some atmo, but not too much—”

“Okay, but do it soon,” Holden said. “I’m pinned. I need you to cut the mags on this crate.”

A moment later, the airlock door opened in a puff of atmosphere. Amos started to step out into the bay when the monster jumped off the crate it was sitting on, grabbed the heavy plastic container with one hand and the bulkhead with the other, and threw the container at him. It slammed into the bulkhead hard enough that Holden felt the vibration through his suit. It missed taking Amos’ head off by centimeters. The big mechanic fell back with a curse and the airlock doors shot closed again.

“Sorry,” Amos said. “Panicked. Let me get this open—”

“No!” Holden yelled. “Stop opening the damn door. I’m trapped behind two goddamn crates now. And one of these times, the door is going to cut my cable. I really don’t want to be stuck in here without a radio.”

With the airlock closed, the monster moved back over to the bulkhead next to the engine room and curled up into a ball again. The tissue in the gaping wounds caused by Holden’s gun pulsed wetly.

“I can see it, Cap,” Alex said. “If I stomp on the gas, I think I can knock it right out those doors.”

“No,” Naomi and Amos said at almost the same time.

“No,” Naomi repeated. “Look where Holden is under those crates. If we go high g, it’ll break every bone in his body, even if he somehow isn’t thrown out the door too.”

“Yeah, she’s right,” Amos said. “That plan’ll kill the captain. It’s off the table.”

Holden listened for a few moments to his crew argue about how to keep him alive, and watched the creature snuggle itself up the bulkhead and seem to go back to sleep.

“Well,” Holden said, breaking into their discussion. “A high-g burn would almost certainly break me into tiny pieces right now. But that doesn’t necessarily take it off the table.”

The new words that came over the channel seemed like a thing from another world. Holden didn’t even recognize the botanist’s voice at first.

“Well,” Prax said. “That’s interesting.”

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Prax

When Eros died, everyone watched. The station had been designed as a scientific data extraction engine, and every change, death, and metamorphosis had been captured, recorded, and streamed out to the system. What the governments of Mars and Earth had tried to suppress had leaked out in the weeks and months that followed. How people viewed it had more to do with who they were than the actual footage. To some people, it had been news. For others, evidence. For more than Prax liked to think, it had been an entertainment of terrible decadence—a Busby Berkeley snuff flick.

Prax had watched it too, as had everyone on his team. For him, it had been a puzzle. The drive to apply the logic of conventional biology to the effects of the protomolecule had been overwhelming and, for the most part, fruitless. Individual pieces were tantalizing—the spiral curves so similar to nautilus shell, the heat signature of the infected bodies shifting in patterns that almost matched certain hemorrhagic fevers. But nothing had come together.

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