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“Oh,” Holden added. “Might want to prep an SOS if we can’t get this fixed.”

“Yeah, because we got a lot of people out there who we really want coming to help us right now,” Amos said.

Amos pulled himself into the narrow passage between the two hulls and then out of sight. Holden followed him in. Two meters beyond the hatch loomed the blocky and complex-looking pump mechanism that kept water pressure to the maneuvering thrusters. Amos stopped next to it and began pulling parts off. Holden waited behind him, the narrow space not allowing him to see what the big mechanic was doing.

“How’s it look?” Holden asked after a few minutes of listening to Amos curse under his breath while he worked.

“It looks fine here,” Amos said. “Gonna swap this breaker anyway, just to be sure. But I don’t think the pump’s our problem.”

Shit.

Holden backed out of the maintenance hatch and half crawled up the steep slope of bulkhead back to the engineering hatch. The angry red light had been replaced with a morose yellow one now that there was no atmosphere on either side of the hatch.

“Naomi,” Holden said. “I’ve got to get into engineering. I need to see what happened in there. Have you killed the safeties?”

“Yes. But I’ve got no sensors in there. The room could be flooded with radiation—”

“But you have sensors here in the machine shop, right? If I open the hatch and you get radiation warnings, just let me know. I’ll shut it immediately.”

“Jim,” Naomi said, the stiffness that had been in her voice every time she’d spoken to him for the last day slipping a bit. “How many times can you get yourself massively irradiated before it catches up with you?”

“At least once more?”

“I’ll tell the Roci to prep a bed in sick bay,” she said, not quite laughing.

“Get one of the ones that’s not throwing errors.”

Without giving himself time to rethink it, Holden slapped the release on the deck hatch. He held his breath while it opened, expecting to see chaos and destruction on the other side, followed by his suit’s radiation alarm.

Instead, other than one small hole in the bulkhead closest to the explosion, it looked fine.

Holden pulled himself through the opening and hung by his arms for a few moments, examining the space. The massive fusion reactor that dominated the center of the compartment looked untouched. The bulkhead on the starboard side bowed in precariously, with a charred hole in its center, like a miniature volcano had formed there. Holden shuddered at the thought of how much energy had to have been released to bend the heavily armored and radiation-shielded bulkhead in like that, and how close it had come to punching a hole in their reactor. How many more joules to go from a badly dented wall to full containment breach?

“God, this one was close,” he said out loud to no one in particular.

“Swapped out all the parts I can think to,” Amos said. “The problem is somewhere else.”

Holden let go of the rim of the hatch and dropped a half meter to the bulkhead, which angled below him, then slid to the deck. The only other visible damage was a hunk of bulkhead plating stuck in the wall exactly on the other side of the reactor. Holden couldn’t see any way that the shrapnel could have gotten there without passing directly through the reactor, or else bouncing off two bulkheads and around it. There was no sign of the first, so the second, incredibly unlikely though it was, had to be what had happened.

“I mean, really close,” he said, touching the jagged metal fragment. It was sunk a good fifteen centimeters into the wall. Plenty far enough to have at least breached the shielding on the reactor. Maybe worse.

“Grabbing your camera,” Naomi said. A moment later she whistled. “No kidding. The walls in there are mostly cabling. Can’t make a hole like that without breaking something.”

Holden tried to pull the shrapnel out of the wall by hand and failed. “Amos, bring some pliers and a lot of patch cabling.”

“So no on the distress call, then,” Naomi said.

“No. But if someone could point a camera aft and reassure me that for all this trouble we actually killed that damned thing, that would be just swell.”

“Watched it go myself, Cap,” Alex said. “Nothin’ but gas now.”

Holden lay on one of the sick bay beds, letting the ship look his leg over. Periodically a manipulator prodded his knee, which was swelled up to the size of a cantaloupe, the skin stretched tight as a drum’s head. But the bed was also making sure to keep him perfectly medicated, so the occasional pokes and prods registered only as pressure without any pain.

The panel next to his head warned him to remain still; then two arms grabbed his leg while a third injected a needle-thin flexible tube into his knee and started doing something arthroscopic. He felt a vague tugging sensation.

At the next bed over lay Prax. His head was bandaged where a three-centimeter flap of skin had been glued back down. His eyes were closed. Amos, who had turned out not to have a concussion, just another nasty bump on his head, was belowdecks doing makeshift repairs on everything the monster’s bomb had broken, including putting a temporary patch on the hole in their engineering bulkhead. They wouldn’t be able to fix the cargo bay door until they docked at Tycho. Alex was flying them there at a gentle quarter g to make it easier to work.

Holden didn’t mind the delay. The truth was he was in no hurry to get back to Tycho and confront Fred about what he’d seen. The longer he thought about it, the further he got from his earlier blind panic, and the more he thought Naomi was right. It made no sense for Fred to be behind any of this.

But he wasn’t sure. And he had to be sure.

Prax mumbled something and touched his head. He started pulling on the bandages.

“I wouldn’t mess with those,” Holden said.

Prax nodded and closed his eyes again. Sleeping, or trying to. The auto-doc pulled the tube out of Holden’s leg, sprayed it with antiseptic, and began wrapping it with a tight bandage. Holden waited until the medical pod was done doing whatever it was doing to his knee, then turned sideways on the bed and tried to stand up. Even at a quarter g, his leg wouldn’t support him. He hopped on one foot over to a supply locker and got himself a crutch.

As he moved past the botanist’s bed, Prax grabbed his arm. His grip was surprisingly strong.

“It’s dead?”

“Yeah,” Holden said, patting his hand. “We got it. Thanks.”

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