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They both looked up as she turned the corner.

“Hi,” she said. Soren was smiling at her, but he was always smiling. Smiling, for him, was protective coloration. Camouflage. The other man was large, fit, and wearing an excessively casual outfit that tried too hard to look like it belonged in a seedy pool hall. It clashed with the man’s military haircut and ramrod-straight posture. Bobbie had a feeling she’d seen his face before, but in a different setting. She tried to picture him with a uniform on.

“Bobbie,” Soren said, giving his companion one quick glance and then looking away. “You play?” He picked up a pool cue that had been lying on one of the tables, and began chalking the tip. Bobbie didn’t point out that there were no balls on any of the tables, and that a sign just behind Soren said RENTAL BALLS AVAILABLE ON REQUEST.

His companion said nothing but slid something into his pocket. Between his fingers Bobbie caught a glimpse of black plastic.

She smiled. She knew where she’d seen the second man before.

“No,” she said to Soren. “It’s not popular where I come from.”

“Slate, I guess,” he replied. His smile became a bit more genuine and a lot colder. He blew the chalk dust off the pool cue’s tip and moved a step to the side, shifting toward her left. “Too heavy for the early colony ships.”

“Makes sense,” Bobbie said, moving back until the doorway protected her flanks.

“Is this a problem?” Soren’s companion said, looking at Bobbie.

Before Soren could reply, Bobbie said, “You tell me. You were at that late-night meeting in Avasarala’s office when Ganymede went to shit. Nguyen’s staff, right? Lieutenant something or other.”

“You’re digging a hole, Bobbie,” Soren said, the pool cue held lightly in his right hand.

“And,” she continued, “I know Soren handed you something his boss had asked him to take to data services a couple days ago. I bet you don’t work in data services, do you?”

Nguyen’s flunky took a menacing step toward her, and Soren shifted to her left again.

Bobbie burst out laughing.

“Seriously,” she said, looking at Soren. “Either stop jerking that pool cue off or take it somewhere private.”

Soren looked down at the cue in his hand as though surprised to see it there, then dropped it.

“And you,” Bobbie said to the flunky. “You trying to come through this door would literally be the high point of my month.” Without moving her feet she shifted her weight forward and flexed her elbows slightly.

The flunky looked her in the eye for one long moment. She grinned back.

“Come on,” she said. “I’m gonna get blue balls you keep teasing me like this.”

The flunky put up his hands. Something halfway between a fighting stance and a gesture of surrender. Never taking his eyes off Bobbie, he turned his face slightly toward Soren and said, “This is your problem. Handle it.” He backed up two slow steps, then turned and walked across the room and into a hallway Bobbie couldn’t see from where she was standing. A second later, she heard a door slam.

“Shit,” Bobbie said. “I bet I’d have scored more points with the old lady if I’d gotten that memory stick back.”

Soren began to shuffle toward the back door. Bobbie crossed the space between them like a cat, grabbing the front of his shirt and pulling him up until their noses were almost touching. Her body felt alive and free for the first time in a long time.

“What are you going to do,” he said through a forced smirk, “beat me up?”

“Naw,” Bobbie replied, shifting to an exaggerated Mariner Valley drawl. “I’m gonna tell on you, boy.”

Chapter Twenty-Six: Holden

Holden watched the monster quiver as it huddled against the cargo bay bulkhead. On the video monitor, it looked small and washed out and grainy. He concentrated on his breathing. Long slow breath in, fill up the lungs all the way to the bottom. Long slow breath out. Pause. Repeat. Do not lose your shit in front of the crew.

“Well,” Alex said after a minute. “There’s your problem.”

He was trying to make a joke. Had made a joke. Normally, Holden would have laughed at his exaggerated drawl and comic obviousness. Alex could be very funny, in a dry, understated sort of way.

Right now, Holden had to clench his hands to stop from strangling the man.

Amos said, “I’m coming up,” at the same moment Naomi said, “I’m coming down.”

“Alex,” Holden said, pretending a calm he didn’t feel. “What’s the status of the cargo bay airlock?”

Alex tapped twice on the terminal and said, “Airtight, Cap. Zero loss.”

Which was good, because as frightened of the protomolecule as he was, Holden also knew that it wasn’t magic. It had mass and it occupied space. If not even a molecule of oxygen could sneak out through the airlock seal, then he was pretty sure none of the virus could get in. But …

“Alex, crank up the O2,” Holden said. “As rich as we can get it without blowing the ship up.”

The protomolecule was anaerobic. If any of it did somehow get in, he wanted the environment as hostile as possible.

“And get up to the cockpit,” he continued. “Seal yourself in. If the goo somehow gets loose on the ship, I need your finger on the reactor overrides.”

Alex frowned and scratched his thin hair. “That seems a little extreme—”

Holden grabbed him by the upper arms, hard. Alex’s eyes went wide and his hands came up in an automatic gesture of surrender. Beside him, the botanist blinked in confusion and alarm. This was not the best way to instill confidence. In other circumstances, Holden might have cared.

“Alex,” Holden said, not able to stop himself from shaking even while clutching the pilot’s arms. “Can I count on you to blow this ship into gas if that shit gets in here? Because if I can’t, consider yourself relieved of duty and confined to quarters immediately.”

Alex surprised him, not by reacting in anger, but by reaching up and putting his hands on Holden’s forearms. Alex’s face was serious, but his eyes were kind.

“Seal myself into the cockpit and prepare to scuttle the ship. Aye, aye, sir,” he said. “What’s the stand-down order?”

“Direct order from myself or Naomi,” Holden replied with a hidden sigh of relief. He didn’t have to say, If that thing gets in here and kills us, you’re better off going up with the ship. He let go of Alex’s arms and the pilot took one step back, his broad dark face wrinkled with concern. The panic that threatened to overwhelm Holden might get out of his control if he allowed anyone to feel sympathy for him, so he said, “Now, Alex. Do it now.”

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