“Clear,” Prax said, shocked by the firmness of his voice. “It’s clear of the ship. Close the cargo doors now.”
“Check,” Naomi said. “Closing doors.”
“I’m coming in, Cap’n,” Amos said.
“I’m passing out, Amos,” Holden said, but there was enough laughter in the words that Prax was pretty sure he was joking.
In the darkness, a star blinked out and then came back. Then another. Prax mentally traced the path. Another star eclipsed.
“I’m heating her back up,” Alex said. “Let me know when you’re all secure, right?”
Prax watched, waited. The star stayed solid. Shouldn’t it have gone dark like the others? Had he misjudged? Or was the creature looping around? If it could maneuver in raw vacuum, could it have noticed Alex bringing the reactor back online?
Prax turned back toward the main airlock.
The Rocinante had seemed like nothing—a toothpick floating on an ocean of stars. Now the distance back to the airlock was immense. Prax moved one foot, then the other, trying to run without ever having both feet off the deck. The mag boots wouldn’t let him release them both at the same time, the trailing foot trapped until the lead one signaled it was solid. His back itched, and he fought the urge to look behind. Nothing was there, and if something was, looking wouldn’t help. The cable of his radio link turned from a line into a loop that trailed behind him as he moved. He pulled on it to take up the slack.
The tiny green-and-yellow glow of the open airlock called to him like something from a dream. He heard himself whimpering a little, but the sound was lost in a string of profanity from Holden.
“What’s going on down there?” Naomi snapped.
“Captain’s feeling a little under the weather,” Amos said. “Think he maybe wrenched something.”
“My knee feels like someone gave birth in it,” Holden said. “I’ll be fine.”
“Are we clear for burn?” Alex asked.
“We are not,” Naomi said. “Cargo doors are as closed as they’re going to get until we hit the docks, but the forward airlock isn’t sealed.”
“I’m almost in,” Prax said, thinking, Don’t leave me here. Don’t leave me in the pit with that thing.
“Right, then,” Alex said. “Let me know when I can get us the hell out of here.”
In the depth of the ship, Amos made a small sound. Prax reached the airlock, pulling himself in with a violence that made the joints of his suit creak. He yanked on his umbilical to pull it the rest of the way in after him. He flung himself against the far wall, slapping at the controls until the cycle started and the outer door slid closed. In the dim light of the airlock proper, Prax spun slowly on all three axes. The outer door remained closed. Nothing ripped it open; no glowing blue eyes appeared to crawl in after him. He bumped gently against the wall as the distant sound of an air pump announced the presence of atmosphere.
“I’m in,” he said. “I’m in the airlock.”
“Is the captain stable?” Naomi asked.
“Was he ever?” Amos replied.
“I’m fine. My knee hurts. Get us out of here.”
“Amos?” Naomi said. “I’m seeing you’re still in the cargo bay. Is there a problem?”
“Might be,” Amos said. “Our guy left something behind.”
“Don’t touch it!” Holden’s voice was harsh as a bark. “We’ll get a torch and burn it down to its component atoms.”
“Don’t think that’d be a good idea,” Amos said. “I’ve seen these before, and they don’t take well to cutting torches.”
Prax levered himself up to standing, adjusting the slides on his boots to keep him lightly attached to the airlock floor. The inner airlock door chimed that it was safe to remove his suit and reenter the ship. He ignored it and activated one of the wall panels. He switched to a view of the cargo bay. Holden was floating near the cargo airlock. Amos was hanging on to a wall-mounted ladder and examining something small and shiny stuck to the bulkhead.
“What is it, Amos?” Naomi asked.
“Well, I’d have to clean some of this yuck off it,” Amos said. “But it looks like a pretty standard incendiary charge. Not a big one, but enough to vaporize about two square meters.”
There was a moment of silence. Prax released the seal on his helmet, lifted it off, and took a deep breath of the ship’s air. He switched to an outside camera. The monster was drifting behind the ship, suddenly visible again in the faint light coming out of the cargo bay, and slowly receding from view. It was wrapped around his radioactive bait.
“A bomb,” Holden said. “You’re telling me that thing left a bomb?”
“And pretty damn peculiar too. If you ask me,” Amos replied.
“Amos, come with me into the cargo airlock,” Holden said. “Alex, what’s left to do before we burn that monster up? Is Prax back inside?”
“You guys in the ’lock?” Alex said.
“We are now. Do it.”
“Don’t need to say it twice,” Alex said. “Brace for acceleration.”
The biochemical cascade that came from euphoria and panic and the reassurance of safety slowed Prax’s response time so that when the burn began, he didn’t quite have his legs under him. He stumbled against the wall, knocking his head against the inner door of the airlock. He didn’t care. He felt wonderful. He’d gotten the monster off the ship. It was burning up in the Rocinante’s fiery tail even as he watched.
Then an angry god kicked the side of the ship and sent it spinning across the void. Prax was ripped from his feet, the gentle magnetic tug of his boots not enough to stop it. The outer airlock door rushed at him, and the world went black.
Chapter Twenty-Eight: Avasarala
There was another spike. A third one. Only this time, there didn’t seem to be any chance of Bobbie’s monsters being involved. So maybe … maybe it was coincidence. Which opened the question. If the thing hadn’t come from Venus, then where?
The world, however, had conspired to distract her.
“She’s not what we thought she was, ma’am,” Soren said. “I fell for the little lost Martian thing too. She’s good.”
Avasarala leaned back in her chair. The intelligence report on her screen showed the woman she’d called Roberta Draper in civilian clothes. If anything, they made her look bigger. The name listed was Amanda Telelé. Free operative of the Martian Intelligence Service.