“Let’s get in there and do what we can. We can’t let any of these … Okay, where’d they go?”
On the tactical display, the attacking monsters were blinking out of existence, the threads vanishing.
“They’re cutting thrust,” Naomi said. “And the RF transponders are going dark. Must have radar-absorbing hull materials.”
“Do we have tracking data? Can we anticipate where they’re going to be?”
The tactical display began to flicker. Fireflies. The monsters shifting in and out, thrusting in what looked like semi-random directions, but the bloom of them always expanding.
“This is going to be a bitch,” Alex said. “Bobbie?”
“I’ve got some target locks. Get us in PDC range.”
“Hang on, kids,” Alex said. “We’re going for a ride.”
The Roci bucked hard, and Avasarala pressed back into her seat. The shuddering rhythm seemed to be her own trembling muscles and then the firing PDCs and then her body again. On the display, the combined forces of Earth and Mars spread out, running after the near-invisible foes. Thrust gravity shifted, spinning her couch one way and then another without warning. She tried closing her eyes, but that was worse.
“What, Naomi?” Holden said. “ ‘Hmm’ what?”
“The King was doing something strange there. Huge activity from the maneuvering thrusters and … Oh.”
“‘Oh’ what? Nouns. I need nouns.”
“She’s holed,” Naomi said. “One of the monsters holed her.”
“Told you they could do that,” Alex said. “Hate to be on the ship right now. Still. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer fella.”
“His men aren’t responsible for his actions,” Bobbie said. “They may not even know Souther’s in command. We’ve got to help them.”
“We can’t,” Holden said. “They’ll shoot at us.”
“Would you all please shut the f**k up?” Avasarala said. “And stop moving the goddamned ship around. Just pick a direction and calm down for two minutes.”
Her comm request went ignored for five minutes. Then ten. When the King’s distress beacon kicked in, she still hadn’t answered. A broadcast signal came in just after.
“This is Admiral Nguyen of the United Nations battleship Agatha King. I am offering to surrender to UN ships with the condition of immediate evacuation. Repeat: I am offering surrender to any United Nations military vessel on the condition of immediate evacuation.”
Souther answered on the same frequency.
“This is the Okimbo. What’s your situation?”
“We have a possible biohazard,” Nguyen said. His voice was so tight and high it sounded like someone was strangling him. On the tactical display, several white dots were already moving toward the green.
“Hold tight, King,” Souther said. “We’re on our way.”
“Like hell you are,” Avasarala said, then cursed quietly as she opened a broadcast channel. “Like hell you are. This is Avasarala. I am declaring a quarantine and containment order on the Agatha King. No vessel should dock with her or accept transfer of materiel or personnel. Any ship that does will be placed under a quarantine and containment order as well.”
Two of the white dots turned aside. Three others continued on. She opened the channel again.
“Am I the only one here who remembers Eros? What the f**k do you people think is loose on the King? Do not approach.”
The last of the white dots turned aside. When Nguyen answered her comm request, she’d forgotten she still had it open. He looked like shit. She didn’t imagine she looked much better. How many wars had ended this way? she wondered. Two exhausted, nauseated people staring at each other while the world burned around them.
“What more do you want from me?” Nguyen said. “I’ve surrendered. I lost. My men shouldn’t have to die for your spite.”
“It’s not spite,” Avasarala said. “We can’t do it. The protomolecule gets loose. Your fancy control programs don’t work. It’s infectious.”
“That’s not proven,” he said, but the way he said it told her everything.
“It’s happening, isn’t it?” she said. “Turn on your internal cameras. Let us see.”
“I’m not going to do that.”
She felt the air go out of her. It had happened.
“I am so sorry,” Avasarala said. “Oh. I am so sorry.”
Nguyen’s eyebrows rose a millimeter. His lips pressed, bloodless and thin. She thought there were tears in his eyes, but it might have been only a transmission artifact.
“You have to turn on the transponders,” Avasarala said. And then, when he didn’t reply: “We can’t weaponize the protomolecule. We don’t understand what it is. We can’t control it. You just sent a death sentence to Mars. I can’t save you, I cannot. But turn those transponders back on and help me save them.”
The moment hung in the air. Avasarala could feel Holden’s and Naomi’s attention on her like warmth radiating from the heating grate. Nguyen shook his head, his lips twitching, lost in conversation with himself.
“Nguyen,” she said. “What’s happening? On your ship. How bad is it?”
“Get me out of here, and I’ll turn the transponders on,” he said. “Throw me in the brig for the rest of my life, I don’t care. But get me off of this ship.”
Avasarala tried to lean forward, but it only made her crash couch shift. She looked for the words that would bring him back, the ones that would tell him that he had been wrong and evil and now he was going to die badly at the hands of his own weapon and somehow make it all right. She looked at this angry, small, shortsighted, frightened little man and tried to find the way to pull him back to simple human decency.
“I can’t do that,” she said.
“Then stop wasting my time,” he said, and cut the connection.
She lay back, her palm over her eyes.
“I’m gettin’ some mighty strange readings off that battleship,” Alex said. “Naomi? You seeing this?”
“Sorry. Give me a second.”
“What have you got, Alex?” Holden asked.
“Reactor activity’s down. Internal radiation through the ship’s spiking huge. It’s like they’re venting the reactor into the air recycling.”