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Page 203 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

There were holes in it, though. If the OPA had been playing with the protomolecule, there had been no sign of it. And Fred Johnson’s psychological profile didn’t match with terrorist attacks. Johnson was old-school, and the monster attack was decidedly new.

“There’s been a firefight, miss. Holden and his people have met armed resistance. They’ve set a perimeter. The on-site analyst can’t approach.”

“Resistance? I thought this was supposed to be unused. Who the f**k are they shooting at?”

“Shall I query?”

“God damn it!”

Forty light-minutes away, something important was going on, and she was here, in a bedroom that wasn’t hers, trying to make sense of it by pressing her ear to the wall. The frustration was a physical sensation. It felt like being crushed.

Forty minutes out. Forty minutes back. Whatever she said, whatever order she gave, it would get there almost an hour and a half behind what was clearly a rapidly changing situation.

“Pull him in,” she said. “Holden, Burton. Their Pinkwater friends. And this mysterious botanist. Bring them all in. Now.”

Ameer in Atlanta paused.

“If they’re in a firefight, miss …”

“Then send in the dogs, break up the fight, and take them in. We’re past surveillance. Get it done.”

“Yes, miss.”

“Contact me as soon as it’s done.”

“Yes, miss.”

She watched Ameer’s face as he framed the order, confirmed it, sent it out. She could practically imagine the screen, the strokes of his fingers. She willed him to go faster, to press her intent out past the speed of light and get the damn thing done.

“Order’s out. As soon as I hear from the on-site analyst, I’ll reach you.”

“I’ll be here. If I don’t take the connection, try again until I wake up.”

She dropped the link and sat back. Her brain felt like a swarm of bees. James Holden had changed the game again. The boy had a talent for that, but that in itself made him a known quantity. This other one, this Meng, had come from her blind side. The man might be a mole or a volunteer or a stalking goat sent to lead the OPA into a trap. She considered turning off the light, trying to sleep, then abandoned it as a bad bet.

Instead, she set up a connection with the UN’s intelligence research database. It was an hour and a half at earliest before she’d hear anything more. In the meantime, she wanted to know who Praxidike Meng was and why he mattered.

Chapter Nineteen: Holden

Naomi, prep the ship. We have to get off this moon. We have to do it right now.”

All around Holden, the black filaments spread, a dark spider’s web with him at the center. He was on Eros again. He was seeing thousands of bodies turning into something else. He thought he’d made it off, but Eros just kept coming. He and Miller had gotten out, but it got Miller anyway.

Now it was back for him.

“What’s the matter, Jim?” Naomi said from the distance of the suit radio. “Jim?”

“Prep the ship!”

“It’s the stuff,” Amos said. He was talking to Naomi. “Like from Eros.”

“Jesus, they …” Holden managed to gasp out before the fear welled up in his mind, robbing him of speech. His heart banged against his ribs like it wanted out, and he had to check the oxygen levels on his HUD. It felt like there wasn’t enough air in the room.

Out of the corner of his eye, something appeared to scuttle up the wall like a disembodied hand, leaving a trail of brown slime in its wake. When Holden spun and pointed his assault rifle at it, it resolved into a bloodstain below a discolored patch of ice.

Amos moved toward him, a worried look on his broad face. Holden waved him off, then set the butt of his rifle on the ground and leaned on a nearby crate to catch his breath.

“We should probably move out,” Wendell said. He and Paula were helping hold up the man who’d been gut-shot. The injured man was having trouble breathing. A small red bubble of blood had formed in his left nostril, and it inflated and deflated with each ragged gasp the man took.

“Jim?” Naomi said in his ear, her voice soft. “Jim, I saw it through Amos’ suitcam, and I know what it means. I’m getting the ship ready. That encrypted local traffic? It’s dropped way off. I think everyone’s gone.”

“Everyone’s gone,” Holden echoed.

The diminished remains of his Pinkwater team were staring at him, the concern on their faces shifting to fear, his own terror infecting them even though they had no idea what the filament meant. They wanted him to do something, and he knew he had to, but he couldn’t quite think what it was. The black web filled his head with flashing images, running too quickly to make sense, like video played at high speed: Julie Mao in her shower, the black threads surrounding her, her body twisted into a nightmare; bodies scattered across the floor of a radiation chamber; the zombielike infected staggering off the trams in Eros, vomiting brown bile on everyone around them, even a drop of the goo a death sentence; video captures of the horror show Eros had become; a torso stripped to a rib cage and one arm dragging itself through the protomolecule landscape on some unknowable mission.

“Cap,” Amos said, then moved over to touch Holden’s arm. Holden yanked away, almost falling over in the process.

He swallowed the thick lemony-flavored saliva building up in his throat and said, “Okay. I’m here. Let’s go. Naomi. Call Alex. We need the Roci.”

Naomi didn’t answer for a moment, then said, “What about the block—”

“Right f**king now, Naomi!” Holden yelled. “Right f**king now! Call Alex right now!”

She didn’t reply, but the gut-shot man took one final ragged breath and then collapsed, nearly dragging the wounded Wendell to the floor with him.

“We have to go,” Holden said to Wendell, meaning We can’t help him. If we stay, we all die. Wendell nodded but went to one knee and began taking the man’s light armor off, not understanding. Amos pulled the emergency medkit off his harness and dropped down next to Wendell to begin working on the wounded man while Paula watched, her face pale.

“Have to go,” Holden said again, wanting to grab Amos and shake him until he understood. “Amos, stop, we have to go right now. Eros—”

“Cap,” Amos interrupted, “all due respect, but this ain’t Eros.” He took a syringe from the medkit and gave the downed man an injection. “No radiation rooms, no zombies puking goo. Just that broken box, a whole lotta dead guys, and these black threads. We don’t know what the f**k it is, but it ain’t Eros. And we ain’t leaving this guy behind.”