“He thinks you’re an admiral.” Naomi laughed.
“Larson, put on an environment suit. Do it fast.”
“Sir, yes sir!”
The suits they had in the airlock storage lockers would at least have their own air supplies. That would cut down on damage from the radiation the young sailor was absorbing. And an airtight suit would reduce the risk of protomolecule infection as they made their way through the ship.
Holden waited until Larson had shrugged into a suit, then transmitted the override code to the hatch and it slid open. “After you, Larson. Command information center, as fast as you can. If we run into anyone, especially if they’re throwing up, stay away and let me deal with them.”
“Yes, sir,” Larson said, his voice fuzzy over the static-filled radio, then pushed off into the corridor. He took Holden at his word and led him on a fast trip through the crippled Agatha King. They stopped only when a sealed hatch blocked their way, and then only long enough for Holden’s suit to convince it to open.
The areas of the ship they moved through didn’t look damaged at all. The bioweapon pod had hit farther aft, and the monster had headed straight to the reactor room. According to Larson, it had killed a number of people on the way, including the ship’s entire contingent of Marines when they tried to stop it. But once it had entered engineering, it mostly ignored the rest of the crew. Larson said that shortly after it got into engineering, the shipwide security camera system had gone off-line. With no way to know where the monster was, and no way out of the airlock storage room, Larson had hidden in a locker to wait it out.
“When you came in, all I could see was this big, lumpy red thing,” Larson explained. “I thought maybe you were another one of those monsters.”
The lack of visible damage was a good thing. It meant all the hatches and other systems they came across still worked. The lack of a monster rampaging through the ship was even better. The thing that had Holden worried was the lack of people. A ship this size had over a thousand crew persons. At least some of them should be in the areas of the ship they were passing through, but so far they hadn’t run across a single one.
The occasional puddle of brown goo on the floor was not an encouraging sign.
Larson stopped at a locked hatch to let Holden catch his breath. The heavy hazmat suit was not built for long treks, and it was starting to fill up with the stink of his own sweat. While he took a minute to rest and let the suit’s cooling systems try to bring his temperature down, Larson said, “We’ll be going past the forward galley to one of the elevator bays. The CIC is on the deck just above. Five, ten minutes tops.”
Holden checked his air supply and saw that he had burned nearly half of it. He was rapidly approaching the point of no return. But something in Larson’s voice caught his ear. It was the way he said galley.
“Is there something I should know about the galley?”
Larson said, “I’m not sure. But after the cameras went out, I kept hoping someone was going to come get me. So I started trying to call people on the comm. When that didn’t work, I started having the King do location checks on people I knew. After a while, no matter who I asked about, the answer was always ‘the forward galley.’”
“So,” Holden said. “There might be upwards of a thousand infected Navy people crammed into that galley?”
Larson gave a shrug barely visible in his environment suit. “Maybe the monster killed them and put them there.”
“Oh, I think that’s exactly what happened,” Holden said, taking out his gun and working the slide to chamber a round. “But I seriously doubt they stayed dead.”
Before Larson could ask what he meant, Holden had his suit unlock the hatch. “When I open this door, you head to the elevator as fast as you can. I’ll be right behind you. Don’t stop no matter what. You have to get me to that CIC. Are we clear?”
Larson nodded inside his helmet.
“Good. On three.”
Holden began counting, one hand on the hatch, the other holding his gun. When he hit three, he shoved the hatch open. Larson put his feet against a bulkhead and pushed off down the corridor on the other side.
Tiny blue flickers floated in the air around them like fireflies. Like the lights Miller had reported when he was on Eros the second time. The time he didn’t come back from. The fireflies were here now too.
At the end of the corridor, Holden could see the elevator door. He began clumping after Larson on his magnetic boots. When Larson was halfway down the corridor, he passed an open hatch.
The young sailor started screaming.
Holden ran as fast as the clumsy hazmat suit and his magnetic boots would let him go. Larson kept flying down the corridor, but he was screaming and flailing at the air like a drowning man trying to swim. Holden was almost to the open hatch when something crawled out of it and into his path. At first he thought it was the kind of vomit zombie he’d run into on Eros. It moved slowly, and the front of its Navy uniform was covered in brown vomit. But when it turned to look at Holden, its eyes glowed with a faint inner blue. And there was an intelligence in them the Eros zombies hadn’t had.
The protomolecule had learned some lessons on Eros. This was the new, improved version of the vomit zombie.
Holden didn’t wait to see what it was going to do. Without slowing his pace, he raised his pistol and shot it in the head. To his relief, the light went out of its eyes, and it spun away from the deck, spraying brown goo in an arc as it rotated. When he passed the open hatch, he risked a glance inside.
It was full of the new vomit zombies. Hundreds of them. All their disconcertingly blue eyes were aimed at him. Holden turned back to the corridor and ran. From behind, he heard a rising wave of sounds as the zombies moaned as one and began climbing along the bulkheads and deck after him.
“Go! Get in the elevator!” he screamed at Larson, cursing at how much the heavy hazmat suit slowed him down.
“God, what was that?” Naomi said. He’d forgotten she was watching. He didn’t waste breath answering. Larson had come out of his panic-induced fugue and was busily working the elevator doors open. Holden ran up to him and then turned around to look behind. Dozens of the blue-eyed vomit zombies filled the corridor behind him, crawling on the bulkheads, ceiling, and deck like spiders. The floating blue lights swirled on air currents Holden couldn’t feel.
“Go faster,” he said to Larson, sighting down his pistol at the lead zombie and putting a bullet in its head. It floated off the wall, spraying goo as it went. The zombie behind it shoved it out of the way, which sent it spinning down the corridor toward them. Holden moved in front of Larson to protect him, and a spray of brown slime hit his chest and visor. If they hadn’t both been wearing sealed suits, it would have been a death sentence. He repressed a shudder and shot two more zombies. The rest didn’t even slow down.