“Regardless,” Prax said, “I think we should probably hurry.”
The plan was simple enough. Amos would reenter the cargo bay and free the captain as soon as the bay doors had shut behind the intruder. Naomi, in ops, would trigger the doors to close the moment the creature had gone after the radioactive bait. Alex would fire the engines as soon as doing so wouldn’t kill the captain. And the bait—a half-kilo cylinder with a thin case of lead foil to keep it from attracting the beast too early—would be walked out through the main airlock and tossed into the vacuum by the only remaining crewman.
Prax floated in the airlock, bait trap in the thick glove of the environment suit. Regrets and uncertainty flooded through his mind.
“Maybe it would be better if Amos did this part,” Prax said. “I’ve never actually done any extravehicular anything before.”
“Sorry, Doc. I’ve got a ninety-kilo captain to haul,” Amos said.
“Couldn’t we automate this? A lab waldo could—”
“Prax,” Naomi said, and the gentleness of the syllable carried the weight of a thousand get-your-ass-out-theres. Prax checked the seals on his suit one more time. Everything reported good. The suit was much better than the one he’d worn leaving Ganymede. It was twenty-five meters from the personnel airlock near the front of the ship to the cargo bay doors at the extreme aft. He wouldn’t even have to go all the way there. He tested the radio tether to make sure it was clipped tightly into the airlock’s plug.
That was another interesting question. Was the radio-jamming effect a natural output of the monster? Prax tried to imagine how such a thing could be generated biologically. Would the effect end when the monster left the ship? When it was burned up by the exhaust?
“Prax,” Naomi said. “Now is good.”
“All right,” he said. “I’m going out.”
The outer airlock door cycled open. His first impulse was to push out into the darkness the way he would into a large room. His second was to crawl on his hands and knees, keeping as much of his body against the skin of the ship as humanly possible. Prax took the bait in one hand and used the toe rings to lift himself up and out.
The darkness around him was overwhelming. The Rocinante was a raft of metal and paint on an ocean. More than an ocean. The stars wrapped around him in all directions, the nearest ones hundreds of lifetimes away, and then more past those and more past those. The sense of being on a tiny little asteroid or moon looking up at a too-wide sky flipped and he was at the top of the universe, looking down into an abyss without end. It was like a visual illusion flipping between a vase and then two faces, then back again at the speed of perception. Prax grinned up, spreading his arms into the nothingness even as the first taste of nausea crawled up the back of his tongue. He’d read accounts of extravehicular euphoria, but the experience was unlike anything he’d imagined. He was the eye of God, drinking in the light of infinite stars, and he was a speck of dust on a speck of dust, clipped by his mag boots to the body of a ship unthinkably more powerful than himself, and unimportant before the face of the abyss. His suit’s speakers crackled with background radiation from the birth of the universe, and eerie voices whispered in the static.
“Uh, Doc?” Amos said. “There a problem out there?”
Prax looked around, expecting to see the mechanic beside him. The milk-white universe of stars was all that met him. With so many, it seemed like they should sum to brightness. Instead, the Rocinante was dark except for the EVA lights and, toward the rear of the ship, a barely visible white nebula where atmosphere had blown out from the cargo bay.
“No,” Prax said. “No problems.”
He tried to take a step forward, but his suit didn’t budge. He pulled, straining to lift his foot from the plating. His toe moved forward a centimeter and stopped. Panic flared in his chest. Something was wrong with the mag boots. At this rate, he’d never make it to the cargo bay door before the creature dug through and into engineering and the reactor itself.
“Um. I have a problem,” he said. “I can’t move my feet.”
“What are the slide controls set to?” Naomi asked.
“Oh, right,” Prax said, moving the boot settings down to match his strength. “I’m fine. Never mind.”
He’d never actually walked with mag boots before, and it was a strange sensation. For most of the stride, his leg felt free and almost uncontrolled, and then, as he brought his foot toward the hull, there would be a moment, a critical point, when the force took hold and slammed him to the metal. He made his way floating and being snatched down, step by step. He couldn’t see the cargo bay doors, but he knew where they were. From his position looking aft, they were to the left of the drive cone. But on the right side of the ship. No, starboard side. They call it starboard on ships.
He knew that just past the dark metal lip that marked the edge of the ship, the creature was digging at the walls, clawing through the flesh of the ship toward its heart. If it figured out what was going on—if it had the cognitive capacity for even basic reasoning—it could come boiling up out of the bay at him. Vacuum didn’t kill it. Prax imagined himself trying to clomp away on his awkward magnetic boots while the creature cut him apart; then he took a long, shuddering breath and lifted the bait.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m in position.”
“No time like the present,” Holden said, his voice strained with pain but attempting to be light.
“Right,” Prax said.
He pressed the small timer, hunched close to the hull of the ship, and then, with every muscle in his body, uncurled and flung the little cylinder into nothing. It flew out, catching the light from the cargo bay interior and then vanishing. Prax had the nauseating certainty that he’d forgotten a step, and that the lead foil wouldn’t come off the way it was supposed to.
“It’s moving,” Holden said. “It smelled it. It’s going out.”
And there it was, long black fingers folding up from the ship, the dark body pulling itself up to the ship’s exterior like it had been born to the abyss. Its eyes glowed blue. Prax heard nothing but his own panicked breathing. Like an animal in the ancient grasslands of Earth, he had the primal urge to be still and silent, though through the vacuum, the creature wouldn’t have heard him if he’d shrieked.
The creature shifted; the eerie eyes closed, opened again, closed; and then it leapt. The un-twinkling stars were eclipsed by its passage.