“Don’t be an ass**le, Nguyen,” Avasarala said. “It’s over.”
The ops deck was silent for a long moment, the tension almost unbearable. Naomi’s voice was the one to break it.
“I’ve got more fast movers. Oh, I’ve got a lot of them.”
“Where?” Holden snapped.
“From the surface.”
Avasarala didn’t do anything, but her tactical display resized, pulling back until the cluster of ships, red and white and the single defiant green, were less than a quarter of their original size and the massive curve of the moon’s surface impinged on the lower edge of the display. Rising like a solid mass, hundreds of fine yellow lines.
“Get me a count,” Holden said. “I need a count here.”
“Two hundred nineteen. No. Wait. Two hundred thirty.”
“What the hell are they? Are those torpedoes?” Alex asked.
“No,” Bobbie said. “They’re monsters. They launched the monsters.”
Avasarala opened a broadcast channel. Her hair probably looked worse than Souther’s but she was well past vanity. That she could speak without fear of vomiting was blessing enough.
“This is Avasarala,” she said. “The launch you are all seeing right now is a new protomolecule-based weapon that is being used as an unauthorized first strike against Mars. We need to shoot those f**kers out of the sky and do it now. Everyone.”
“We’ve got a coordination override request coming through from Souther’s flagship,” Naomi said. “Surrender control?”
“The hell I will,” Alex said.
“No, but track requests,” Holden said. “I’m not handing control of my ship to a military fire-control computer, but we still need to be part of the solution here.”
“The King’s starting a hard burn,” Alex said. “I think he’s trying to hightail it.”
On the display, the attack from the surface of Io was beginning to bloom, individual threads coming apart in unexpected angles, some corkscrewing, some reaching out in bent paths like an insect’s articulated legs. Any one of them was the death of a planet, and the acceleration data put them at ten, fifteen, twenty g’s. Nothing human survived at a sustained twenty g. Nothing human had to.
Golden flickers of light appeared from the ships, drifting down to meet the threads of Io. The slow, stately pace of the display was undercut by the data. Plasma torpedoes burning full out, and yet it took long seconds for them to reach the main stem. Avasarala watched the first of them detonate, saw the column of protomolecule monsters split into a dozen different streams. Evasive action.
“Some of those are coming toward us, Cap,” Alex said. “I don’t think they’re designed to hole a ship’s hull, but I’m pretty damn sure they’d do it anyway.”
“Let’s get in there and do what we can. We can’t let any of these … Okay, where’d they go?”
On the tactical display, the attacking monsters were blinking out of existence, the threads vanishing.
“They’re cutting thrust,” Naomi said. “And the RF transponders are going dark. Must have radar-absorbing hull materials.”
“Do we have tracking data? Can we anticipate where they’re going to be?”
The tactical display began to flicker. Fireflies. The monsters shifting in and out, thrusting in what looked like semi-random directions, but the bloom of them always expanding.
“This is going to be a bitch,” Alex said. “Bobbie?”
“I’ve got some target locks. Get us in PDC range.”
“Hang on, kids,” Alex said. “We’re going for a ride.”
The Roci bucked hard, and Avasarala pressed back into her seat. The shuddering rhythm seemed to be her own trembling muscles and then the firing PDCs and then her body again. On the display, the combined forces of Earth and Mars spread out, running after the near-invisible foes. Thrust gravity shifted, spinning her couch one way and then another without warning. She tried closing her eyes, but that was worse.
“What, Naomi?” Holden said. “ ‘Hmm’ what?”
“The King was doing something strange there. Huge activity from the maneuvering thrusters and … Oh.”
“‘Oh’ what? Nouns. I need nouns.”
“She’s holed,” Naomi said. “One of the monsters holed her.”
“Told you they could do that,” Alex said. “Hate to be on the ship right now. Still. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer fella.”
“His men aren’t responsible for his actions,” Bobbie said. “They may not even know Souther’s in command. We’ve got to help them.”
“We can’t,” Holden said. “They’ll shoot at us.”
“Would you all please shut the f**k up?” Avasarala said. “And stop moving the goddamned ship around. Just pick a direction and calm down for two minutes.”
Her comm request went ignored for five minutes. Then ten. When the King’s distress beacon kicked in, she still hadn’t answered. A broadcast signal came in just after.
“This is Admiral Nguyen of the United Nations battleship Agatha King. I am offering to surrender to UN ships with the condition of immediate evacuation. Repeat: I am offering surrender to any United Nations military vessel on the condition of immediate evacuation.”
Souther answered on the same frequency.
“This is the Okimbo. What’s your situation?”
“We have a possible biohazard,” Nguyen said. His voice was so tight and high it sounded like someone was strangling him. On the tactical display, several white dots were already moving toward the green.
“Hold tight, King,” Souther said. “We’re on our way.”
“Like hell you are,” Avasarala said, then cursed quietly as she opened a broadcast channel. “Like hell you are. This is Avasarala. I am declaring a quarantine and containment order on the Agatha King. No vessel should dock with her or accept transfer of materiel or personnel. Any ship that does will be placed under a quarantine and containment order as well.”
Two of the white dots turned aside. Three others continued on. She opened the channel again.
“Am I the only one here who remembers Eros? What the f**k do you people think is loose on the King? Do not approach.”
The last of the white dots turned aside. When Nguyen answered her comm request, she’d forgotten she still had it open. He looked like shit. She didn’t imagine she looked much better. How many wars had ended this way? she wondered. Two exhausted, nauseated people staring at each other while the world burned around them.