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Page 136 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

“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.

He took a compact semiautomatic pistol and holster out of the locker. Naomi watched while he loaded the weapon’s magazine and three spares, but she didn’t speak. He had just pushed the last round into the final magazine when Amos floated into the compartment, dragging a large red suit behind him.

“This is our best, Cap,” he said. “For when shit has gone truly wrong. Should be plenty for the levels they’ve got in that ship. Max exposure time is six hours, but the air supply only lasts two, so that’s not an issue.”

Holden examined the bulky suit. The surface was a thick, flexible rubbery substance. It might deter someone attacking with their fingernails or teeth, but it wouldn’t stop a knife or a bullet. The air supply was contained under the suit’s radiation-resistant skin, so it made for a big, awkward lump on the wearer’s back. The difficulty he had pulling the suit to himself and then stopping it told him its mass was considerable.

“Won’t be moving fast in this, will I?”

“No,” Amos said with a grimace. “They’re not made for a firefight. If the bullets start flying, you’re f**ked.”

Naomi nodded but said nothing.

“Amos,” Holden said, grabbing the mechanic’s arm as he turned to leave. “The gunny’s in charge once you hit the surface. She’s a pro, and this is her show. But I need you to keep Prax safe, because he’s kind of an idiot. The only thing I ask you to do is get that man and his little girl safely off the moon and back to this ship.”

Amos looked hurt for a moment. “Of course I will, Captain. Anything that gets to him or that baby will already have killed me. And that ain’t easy to do.”

Holden pulled Amos to him and gave the big man a quick hug. “I feel sorry for anything that tries. No one could ask for a better crewman, Amos. Just want you to know that.”

Amos pushed him away. “You act like you’re not coming back.”

Holden shot a look at Naomi, but her expression hadn’t changed. Amos just laughed for a minute, then clapped Holden on the back hard enough to rattle his teeth. “That’s bullshit,” Amos said. “You’re the toughest guy I know.” Without waiting for Holden to reply, he headed out to the crew ladder, and then down to the deck below.

Naomi pushed lightly against the bulkhead and drifted over to Holden. Air resistance brought her to a stop half a meter from him. She was still the most agile person in microgravity he’d ever met, a ballerina of null g. He had to stop himself from hugging her to him. The expression on her face told him it wasn’t what she wanted. She just floated in front of him for a moment, not saying anything, then reached out and put one long, slender hand against his cheek. It felt cool and soft.

“Don’t go,” she said, and something in her voice told him it would be the last time.

He backed up and began shrugging his way into the hazmat suit. “Then who? Can you see Avasarala fighting through a mob of vomit zombies? She wouldn’t know the CIC from the galley. Amos has to go get that little girl. You know he does, and you know why. Prax has to be there. Bobbie keeps them both alive.”

He got the bulky suit over his shoulders and sealed up the front but left the helmet lying against his back. The boot mags came on when he hit them with his heels, and he pushed down to the deck and stuck there.

“You?” he asked Naomi. “Do I send you? I’d bet on you against a thousand zombies any day of the week. But you don’t know the CIC any better than Avasarala does. How does that make sense?”

“We just got right again,” she said. “That’s not fair.”

“But,” he said, “tell the Martians that me saving their planet makes us even on this whole ‘you stole our warship’ issue, okay?” He knew he was making light of the moment and immediately hated himself for it. But Naomi knew him, knew how afraid he was, and she didn’t call him on it. He felt a rush of love for her that sent electricity up his spine and made his scalp tingle.

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