“I’ll try not to oversell the point in the future. Now get back to work.”
“Yes, sir,” Bobbie said, then stood and walked out of the room. Avasarala blew out a breath, her cheeks ballooning. She was inviting Martian Marines to slaughter her in her own office. She needed a f**king nap. Her hand terminal chimed. An unscheduled high-status report had just come through, the deep red banner overriding her usual display settings. She tapped it, ready for more bad news from Ganymede.
It was about Venus.
Until seven hours earlier, the Arboghast had been a third-generation destroyer, built at the Bush Shipyards thirteen years before and later refitted as a military science vessel. For the last eight months, she’d been orbiting Venus. Most of the active scanning data that Avasarala had relied on had come from her.
The event she was watching had been captured by two lunar telescopic stations with broad-spectrum intelligence feeds that happened to be at the correct angles, and about a dozen shipborne optical observers. The dataset they collected agreed perfectly.
“Play it again,” Avasarala said.
Michael-Jon de Uturbé had been a field technician when she’d first met him, thirty years before. Now he was the de facto head of the special sciences committee and married to Avasarala’s roommate from university. In that time, his hair had fallen out or grown white, his dark brown skin had taken to draping a bit off of his bones, and he hadn’t changed the brand of cheap floral cologne he wore.
He had always been an intensely shy, almost antisocial, man. In order to maintain the connection, she knew not to ask too much of him. His small, cluttered office was less than a quarter of a mile from hers, and she had seen him five times in the last decade, each of them moments when she needed to understand something obscure and complex quickly.
He tapped his hand terminal twice, and the images on the display reset. The Arboghast was whole once more, floating in false color detail above the haze of Venusian cloud. The time stamp started moving forward, one second per second.
“Walk me through,” she said.
“Um. Well. We start from the spike. It’s just like the one we saw that last time Ganymede started going to hell.”
“Splendid. That’s two datapoints.”
“This came before the fighting,” he said. “Maybe an hour. A little less.”
It had come during Holden’s firefight. Before she could bring him in. But how could Venus be responding to Holden’s raid on Ganymede? Had Bobbie’s monsters been part of that fight?
“Then the radio ping. Right”—he froze the display—“here. Massive sweep in three-second-by-seven-second grid. It was looking, but it knew where to look. All those active scans, I’d assume. Called attention.”
He started the playback again. The resolution went a few degrees grainier, and he made a pleased sound.
“This was interesting,” he said, as if the rest were not. “Radiative pulse of some kind. Interfered with all the telescopy except a strictly visible spectrum kit on Luna. Only lasted a tenth of a second, though. The microwave burst after it was pretty normal active sensor scanning.”
You sound disappointed perched at the back of Avasarala’s tongue, but the dread and anticipation of what would come next stopped it. The Arboghast, with 572 souls aboard her, came apart like a cloud. Hull plates peeled away in neat, orderly rows. Super-structural girders and decks shifted apart. The engineering bays detached, slipping away. In the image before her, the full crew had been exposed to hard vacuum. In the moment she was looking at now, they were all dying and not yet dead. That it was like watching a construction plan animation—crew quarters here, the engineering section here, the plates cupping the drive thus and so—only made it more monstrous.
“Now this is especially interesting,” Michael-Jon said, stopping the playback. “Watch what happens when we increase magnification.”
Don’t show them to me, Avasarala wanted to say. I don’t want to watch them die.
But the image he moved in on wasn’t a human being, but a knot of complicated ducting. He advanced it slowly, frame by frame, and the image grew misty.
“It’s ablating?” she asked.
“What? No, no. Here, I’ll bring you closer.”
The image jumped in again. The cloudiness was an illusion created by a host of small bits of metal: bolts, nuts, Edison clamps, O-rings. She squinted. It wasn’t a loose cloud either. Like iron filings under the influence of a magnet, each tiny piece was held in line with the ones before and behind it.
“The Arboghast wasn’t torn apart,” he said. “It was disassembled. It looks as though there were about fifteen separate waves, each one undoing another level of the mechanism. Stripped the whole thing down to the screws.”
Avasarala took a deep breath, then another, then another, until the sound lost its ragged edge and the awe and fear grew small enough that she could push it to the back of her mind.
“What does this?” she said at last. She’d meant it as a rhetorical question. Of course there was no answer. No force known to humanity could do what had just been done. That wasn’t the meaning he took.
“Graduate students,” he said brightly. “My Industrial Design final was just the same. They gave us all machines and we had to take them apart and figure out what they did. Extra credit was to deliver an improved design.” And a moment later, his voice melancholy: “Of course we also had to put them back together, yes?”
On the display, the rigidity and order of the floating bits of metal stopped, and the bolts and girders, vast ceramic plates and minute clamps began to drift, set in chaotic motion by the departure of whatever had been holding them. Seventy seconds from first burst to the end. A little over a minute, and not a shot fired in response. Not even something clearly to be shot.
“Took their suits apart. Didn’t bother disassembling the bodies. Might have interpreted them as a logical unit or might already know all it needs to about human anatomy.”
“Who’s seen this?”
Michael-Jon blinked, then shrugged, then blinked again.
“This this, or a version of this? We’re the only one with both high-def feeds, but it’s Venus. Everyone who was looking saw it. Not like it’s in a sealed lab.”
She closed her eyes, pressing her fingers against the bridge of her nose as if she were fighting a headache while she struggled to keep the mask in place. Better to seem in pain. Better to seem impatient. The fear shook her like a seizure, like something happening to somebody else. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she bit her lip until they went away. She pulled up the personnel locator on her hand terminal. Nguyen was out of the question even if he’d been in conversational range. Nettleford was with a dozen ships burning toward Ceres Station, and she wasn’t entirely certain of him. Souther.