“That don’t sound healthy,” Amos said.

The ops deck went silent again. Avasarala reached to open a channel to Souther but stopped. She didn’t know what she’d say. The voice that came over the ship channel was slushy and drugged. She didn’t recognize Prax at first, and then he had to repeat himself twice before she could make out the words.

“Incubation chamber,” Prax said. “It’s making the ship an incubation chamber. Like on Eros.”

“It knows how to do that?” Bobbie said.

“Apparently so,” Naomi said.

“We’re going to have to slag that thing,” Bobbie said. “Do we have enough firepower for that?”

Avasarala opened her eyes again. She tried to feel something besides great, oceanic sorrow. There had to be hope in there somewhere. Even Pandora got that much.

Holden was the one who said what she was thinking.

“Even if we can, it won’t save Mars.”

“Maybe we got them all?” Alex said. “I mean, there were a shit-load of those things, but maybe … maybe we got ’em?”

“Hard to tell when they were running ballistic,” Bobbie said. “If we missed just one, and it gets to Mars …”

It was all slipping away from her. She had been so close to stopping it, and now here she was, watching it all slip past. Her gut was a solid knot. But they hadn’t failed. Not yet. Somewhere in all this there had to be a way. Something that could still be done.

She forwarded her last conversation with Nguyen to Souther. Maybe he’d have an idea. A secret weapon that could come out of nowhere and force the codes out. Maybe the great brotherhood of military men would draw some vestige of humanity out of Nguyen.

Ten minutes later, a survival pod came loose from the King. Souther didn’t bother contacting her before they shot it down. The ops deck was like a mourning chamber.

“Okay,” Holden said. “First things first. We’ve got to get down to the base. If Mei’s there, we need to get her out.”

“I’m on that,” Amos said. “And we got to take the doc. He ain’t gonna outsource that one.”

“That’s what I was thinking,” Holden said. “So you guys take the Roci down to the surface.”

“Us guys?” Naomi asked.

“I’ll take the pinnace over to the battleship,” Holden said. “The transponder activation codes are going to be in the CIC.”

“You?” Avasarala asked.

“Only two people got off Eros,” Holden said with a shrug. “And I’m the one that’s left.”

Chapter Forty-Nine: Holden

Don’t do this,” Naomi said. She didn’t beg, or cry, or make demands. All the power of her request lay in its quiet simplicity. “Don’t do it.”

Holden opened the suit locker just outside the main airlock and reached for his Martian-made armor. A sudden and visceral memory of radiation sickness on Eros stopped him. “They’ve been pumping radiation into the King for hours now, right?”

“Don’t go over there,” Naomi said again.

“Bobbie,” Holden said over the comm.

“Here,” she replied with a grunt. She was helping Amos prep their gear for the assault on the Mao science station. After his one encounter with the Mao protomolecule hybrid, he could only imagine they were going loaded for bear.

“What are these standard Martian armor suits rated for radiation-wise?”

“Like mine?” Bobbie asked.

“No, not a powered suit. I know they harden you guys for close-proximity blasts. I’m talking about this stuff we pulled out of the MAP crate.”

“About as much as a standard vacuum suit. Good enough for short walks outside the ship. Not so much for constant exposure to high radiation levels.”

“Shit,” Holden said. Then: “Thanks.” He killed the comm panel and closed the locker. “I’ll need a full-on hazard suit. Which means I’ll be better in the radiation, and not bullet resistant at all.”

“How many times can you get yourself massively irradiated before it catches up with you?” Naomi said.

“Same as last time. At least one more,” Holden replied with a grin. Naomi didn’t smile back. He hit the comm again and said, “Amos, bring me up a hazard suit from engineering. Whatever’s the hardest thing we’ve got on board.”

“Okay,” Amos replied.

Holden opened his equipment locker and took out the assault rifle he kept there. It was large, black, and designed to be intimidating. It would immediately mark anyone who carried it as a threat. He put it back and decided on a pistol instead. The hazmat suit would make him fairly anonymous. It was the sort of thing any member of the damage-control team might wear during an emergency. If he was wearing only a service pistol in a hip holster, it might keep anyone from singling him out as part of the problem.

And with the protomolecule loose on the King, and the ship flooded with radiation, there would be a big problem.

Because if Prax and Avasarala were right, and the protomolecule was linked even without a physical connection, then the goo on the King knew what the goo on Venus knew. Part of that was how human spaceships were put together, ever since it had disassembled the Arboghast. But it also meant it knew a lot about how to turn humans into vomit zombies. It had performed that trick a million times or so on Eros. It had practice.

It was entirely possible that every single human on the King was now a vomit zombie. And sadly, that was the best-case scenario. Vomit zombies were walking death to anyone with exposed skin, but to Holden, in his fully sealed and vacuum-rated hazmat suit, they would be at worst a mild annoyance.

The worst-case scenario was that the protomolecule was so good at changing humans now, the ship would be full of lethal hybrids like the one he’d fought in the cargo bay. That would be an impossible situation, so he chose to believe it wasn’t true. Besides, the protomolecule hadn’t made any soldiers on Eros. Miller hadn’t really taken the time to describe what he’d run into there, but he’d spent a lot of time on the station looking for Julie and he’d never reported being attacked by anything. The protomolecule was incredibly aggressive and invasive. It would kill a million humans in hours and turn them into spare parts for whatever it was working on. But it invaded at the cellular level. It acted like a virus, not an army.

Just keep telling yourself that, Holden thought. It made what he was about to do seem possible.

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