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.”

It was the first time in Holden’s memory that Amos had called him by his first name. Holden nodded back at him, then went about straightening out his thigh armor.

“Yeah,” he said. “I just yelled at Alex for not being scared enough.”

Amos had finished with his armor and was pulling his favorite auto-shotgun out of his locker.

“No shit?”

“Yeah. He made a joke and I’m scared out of my skull, so I yelled at him and threatened to relieve him.”

“Can you do that?” Amos asked. “He’s kind of our only pilot.”

“No, Amos. No, I can’t kick Alex off the ship any more than I can kick you or Naomi off the ship. We’re not even a skeleton crew. We’re whatever you have when you don’t have a skeleton.”

“Worried about Naomi leaving?” Amos said. He kept his voice light, but his words hit like hammer blows. Holden felt the air go out of him, and had to focus on breathing again for a minute.

“No,” he said. “I mean, yes, of course I am. But that’s not what has me freaked out right now.”

Holden picked up his assault rifle and looked at it, then put it back in his locker and took out a heavy recoilless pistol instead. The self-contained rockets that were its ammunition wouldn’t impart thrust and send him flying all over the place if he fired it in zero g.

“I watched you die,” he said, not looking at Amos.


“I watched you die. When that kidnap team, whoever the hell they were, took us. I saw one of them shoot you in the back of the head, and I saw you drop face-first on the floor. There was blood everywhere.”

“Yeah, but I—”

“I know it was a nonlethal round. I know they wanted us alive. I know the blood was your broken nose when your head slammed into the floor. I know all of that now. At the time, what I knew was that you’d just been shot in the head and killed.”

Amos slid a magazine into his shotgun and racked a round but, other than that, didn’t make a sound.

“All of this is really fragile,” Holden said, waving around at Amos and the ship. “This little family we have. One f**kup, and something irreplaceable gets lost.”

Amos was frowning at him now. “This is still about Naomi, right?”

“No! I mean, yes. But no. When I thought you were dead, it knocked all the wind out of me. And right now, I need to focus on getting that thing off the ship, and all I can think about is losing one of the crew.”

Amos nodded, slung the shotgun over his shoulder, and sat down on the bench next to his locker.