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Every time the protomolecule soldiers had been involved in violence, Venus had reacted. The OPA had just destroyed a hundred of its half-human soldiers. Prax felt himself caught between excitement and dread.

The image scattered and re-formed, some kind of interference confusing the sensors. Avasarala said something sharp that could have been show me. A few seconds later, the image stopped and reframed. A detail screen showing a gray-green ship. A heads-up display marked it the Merman. The image scattered again, and when it re-formed, the Merman had moved half an inch to the left and was spinning end over end, tumbling. Avasarala spoke again. A few seconds’ lag, and the screen went back to its original image. Now that Prax knew to look, he could see the tiny dot of the Merman moving near the penumbra. There were other tiny specks like it.

The dark side of Venus pulsed like a sudden, planetary flash of lightning under the obscuring clouds. And then it glowed.

Vast filaments thousands of kilometers long like spokes on a wheel lit white and vanished. The clouds of Venus shifted, disturbed from below. Prax had the powerful memory of seeing a wake on the surface of a water tank when a fish passed close underneath. Vast and glowing, it rose through the cloud cover. Spoke-like strands of iridescence arced with vast lightning storms, coming together like the arms of an octopus but connected to a rigid central node. Once it had climbed out of Venus’ thick cloud cover, it launched itself away from the sun, toward the viewing ship, but passing it. The other ships in its path were scattered and hurled away. A long plume of displaced Venusian atmosphere caught the sun and glowed like snowflakes and slivers of ice. Prax tried to make sense of the scale. As large as Ceres Station. As large as Ganymede. Larger. It folded its arms—its tentacles—together, accelerating without any visible drive plume. It swam in the void. His heart was racing, but his body was still as stone.

Mei patted his cheek with her open palm and pointed to the screen.

“What’s that?” she asked.

Epilogue: Holden

Holden started the replay again. The wall screen in the Rocinante’s galley was too small to really catch all the details of the high-resolution imagery the Celestine had taken. But Holden couldn’t stop watching it no matter what room he was in. An ignored cup of coffee cooled on the table in front of him next to the sandwich he hadn’t eaten.

Venus flashed with light in an intricate pattern. The heavy cloud cover swirled as though caught in a planetwide storm. And then it rose from the surface, pulling a thick contrail of Venus’ atmosphere in its wake.

“Come to bed,” Naomi said, then leaned forward in her chair and took his hand. “Get some sleep.”

“It’s so big. And the way it swatted all those ships out of the way. Effortless, like a whale swimming through a school of guppies.”

“Can you do anything about it?”

“This is the end, Naomi,” Holden said, pulling his eyes away from the screen to look at her. “What if this is the end? This isn’t some alien virus anymore. This thing is what the protomolecule came here to make. This is what it was going to hijack all life on the Earth to make. It could be anything.”

“Can you do anything about it?” she repeated. Her words were harsh, but her voice was kind and she squeezed his fingers affectionately.

Holden turned back to the screen, restarting the image. A dozen ships blew away from Venus as though a massive wind had caught them and sent them spinning like leaves. The surface of the atmosphere began to roil and twist.

“Okay,” Naomi said, standing up. “I’m going to bed. Don’t wake me when you come in. I’m exhausted.”

Holden nodded to her without looking away from the video feed. The massive shape folded itself into a streamlined dart, like a piece of wet cloth plucked up from the center, then flew away. The Venus it left behind looked diminished, somehow. As though something vital had been stolen from it to construct the alien artifact.

And here it was. After all the fighting, with human civilization left in chaos just from its presence, the protomolecule had finished the job it came billions of years before to do. Would humanity survive it? Would the protomolecule even notice them, now that it had finished its grand work?

It wasn’t the ending of one thing that left Holden terrified. It was the prospect of something beginning that was utterly outside the human experience. Whatever happened next, no one could be prepared for it.

It scared the hell out of him.

Behind him, a man cleared his throat.

Holden turned reluctantly away from the image on the screen. The man stood next to the galley refrigerator as if he’d always been there, rumpled gray suit and dented porkpie hat. A bright blue firefly flew off his cheek, then hung in the air beside him. He waved it away like it was a gnat. His expression was one of discomfort and apology.

“Hey,” Detective Miller said. “We gotta talk.”

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