“Prep the ship!”
“It’s the stuff,” Amos said. He was talking to Naomi. “Like from Eros.”
“Jesus, they …” Holden managed to gasp out before the fear welled up in his mind, robbing him of speech. His heart banged against his ribs like it wanted out, and he had to check the oxygen levels on his HUD. It felt like there wasn’t enough air in the room.
Out of the corner of his eye, something appeared to scuttle up the wall like a disembodied hand, leaving a trail of brown slime in its wake. When Holden spun and pointed his assault rifle at it, it resolved into a bloodstain below a discolored patch of ice.
Amos moved toward him, a worried look on his broad face. Holden waved him off, then set the butt of his rifle on the ground and leaned on a nearby crate to catch his breath.
“We should probably move out,” Wendell said. He and Paula were helping hold up the man who’d been gut-shot. The injured man was having trouble breathing. A small red bubble of blood had formed in his left nostril, and it inflated and deflated with each ragged gasp the man took.
“Jim?” Naomi said in his ear, her voice soft. “Jim, I saw it through Amos’ suitcam, and I know what it means. I’m getting the ship ready. That encrypted local traffic? It’s dropped way off. I think everyone’s gone.”
“Everyone’s gone,” Holden echoed.
The diminished remains of his Pinkwater team were staring at him, the concern on their faces shifting to fear, his own terror infecting them even though they had no idea what the filament meant. They wanted him to do something, and he knew he had to, but he couldn’t quite think what it was. The black web filled his head with flashing images, running too quickly to make sense, like video played at high speed: Julie Mao in her shower, the black threads surrounding her, her body twisted into a nightmare; bodies scattered across the floor of a radiation chamber; the zombielike infected staggering off the trams in Eros, vomiting brown bile on everyone around them, even a drop of the goo a death sentence; video captures of the horror show Eros had become; a torso stripped to a rib cage and one arm dragging itself through the protomolecule landscape on some unknowable mission.
“Cap,” Amos said, then moved over to touch Holden’s arm. Holden yanked away, almost falling over in the process.
He swallowed the thick lemony-flavored saliva building up in his throat and said, “Okay. I’m here. Let’s go. Naomi. Call Alex. We need the Roci.”
Naomi didn’t answer for a moment, then said, “What about the block—”
“Right f**king now, Naomi!” Holden yelled. “Right f**king now! Call Alex right now!”
She didn’t reply, but the gut-shot man took one final ragged breath and then collapsed, nearly dragging the wounded Wendell to the floor with him.
“We have to go,” Holden said to Wendell, meaning We can’t help him. If we stay, we all die. Wendell nodded but went to one knee and began taking the man’s light armor off, not understanding. Amos pulled the emergency medkit off his harness and dropped down next to Wendell to begin working on the wounded man while Paula watched, her face pale.
“Have to go,” Holden said again, wanting to grab Amos and shake him until he understood. “Amos, stop, we have to go right now. Eros—”
“Cap,” Amos interrupted, “all due respect, but this ain’t Eros.” He took a syringe from the medkit and gave the downed man an injection. “No radiation rooms, no zombies puking goo. Just that broken box, a whole lotta dead guys, and these black threads. We don’t know what the f**k it is, but it ain’t Eros. And we ain’t leaving this guy behind.”
The small rational part of Holden’s mind knew Amos was right. And more than that, the person Holden wanted to believe he still was would never consider leaving even a complete stranger behind, much less a guy who’d taken a wound for him. He forced himself to take three deep, slow breaths. Prax knelt by Amos’ side, holding the medkit.
“Naomi,” Holden said, meaning to apologize for yelling at her.
“Alex is on his way,” she replied, her voice tight but not accusing. “He’s a few hours out. Running the blockade won’t be easy, but he thinks he’s got an angle. Where is he putting down?”
Holden found himself answering before he realized he’d made the decision. “Tell him to land in the Somnambulist’s berth. I’m giving her to someone. Meet us outside the airlock when we get there.”
He pulled the mag-key for the Somnambulist out of a pocket on his harness and tossed it to Wendell. “This will get you on the ship you’re taking. Consider it a down payment for services rendered.”
Wendell nodded and tucked the key away, then went back to his injured man. The man appeared to be breathing.
“Can he be carried?” Holden asked Amos, proud of how steady his voice sounded again, trying not to think about the fact that he would have left the man to die a minute before.
“No choice, Cap.”
“Then somebody pick him up,” Holden said. “No, not you, Amos. I need you back on point.”
“I got him,” Wendell said. “I can’t shoot for shit with this hand busted.”
“Prax. Help him,” Holden said. “We’re getting the hell out of here.”
They moved as quickly as injured people could back through the base. Back past the men and women they’d killed getting in and, more frighteningly, the ones they hadn’t. Back past Katoa’s small, still corpse. Prax’s gaze drifted toward the body, but Holden grabbed his jacket and shoved him toward the hatch.
“It’s still not Mei,” he said. “Slow us down and I leave you.”
The threat made him feel like an ass the moment it left his lips, but it wasn’t idle. Finding the scientist’s lost little girl had stopped being the priority the instant they found the black filaments. And as long as he was being honest with himself, leaving the scientist behind would mean not being there when they found his daughter twisted into a monster by the protomolecule, brown goo leaking from orifices she hadn’t been born with, the black threads crawling from her mouth and eyes.
The older Pinkwater man who’d been covering their exit rushed over to help carry the injured man without being asked. Prax handed the wounded man off to him without a word and then slid in place behind Paula as she scanned the hallways ahead with her machine pistol.
Corridors that had seemed boring on the trip in took on a sinister feel on the way back out. The frosted texture that had reminded Holden of spiderwebs when he’d come in now looked like the veins of some living thing. Their pulsing had to be caused by adrenaline making his eyes twitch.