The black-and-red body tumbled toward the vast swatch of stars and darkness, and Holden let himself hope. Less than a meter from the doors, it reached out one long arm and caught the edge of a crate. Holden had seen what kind of strength was in those hands, and knew it wouldn’t lose its grip.
“Captain,” Amos was yelling in his ear. “Holden, are you still with us?”
“Here, Amos. In a little trouble.”
As he spoke, the monster pulled itself up onto the crate it had caught and sat motionless. A hideous gargoyle turned suddenly to stone.
“Gonna hit the override and get you,” Amos said. “The inner door is f**ked, so we’ll lose some atmo, but not too much—”
“Okay, but do it soon,” Holden said. “I’m pinned. I need you to cut the mags on this crate.”
A moment later, the airlock door opened in a puff of atmosphere. Amos started to step out into the bay when the monster jumped off the crate it was sitting on, grabbed the heavy plastic container with one hand and the bulkhead with the other, and threw the container at him. It slammed into the bulkhead hard enough that Holden felt the vibration through his suit. It missed taking Amos’ head off by centimeters. The big mechanic fell back with a curse and the airlock doors shot closed again.
“Sorry,” Amos said. “Panicked. Let me get this open—”
“No!” Holden yelled. “Stop opening the damn door. I’m trapped behind two goddamn crates now. And one of these times, the door is going to cut my cable. I really don’t want to be stuck in here without a radio.”
With the airlock closed, the monster moved back over to the bulkhead next to the engine room and curled up into a ball again. The tissue in the gaping wounds caused by Holden’s gun pulsed wetly.
“I can see it, Cap,” Alex said. “If I stomp on the gas, I think I can knock it right out those doors.”
“No,” Naomi and Amos said at almost the same time.
“No,” Naomi repeated. “Look where Holden is under those crates. If we go high g, it’ll break every bone in his body, even if he somehow isn’t thrown out the door too.”
“Yeah, she’s right,” Amos said. “That plan’ll kill the captain. It’s off the table.”
Holden listened for a few moments to his crew argue about how to keep him alive, and watched the creature snuggle itself up the bulkhead and seem to go back to sleep.
“Well,” Holden said, breaking into their discussion. “A high-g burn would almost certainly break me into tiny pieces right now. But that doesn’t necessarily take it off the table.”
The new words that came over the channel seemed like a thing from another world. Holden didn’t even recognize the botanist’s voice at first.
“Well,” Prax said. “That’s interesting.”
Chapter Twenty-Seven: Prax
When Eros died, everyone watched. The station had been designed as a scientific data extraction engine, and every change, death, and metamorphosis had been captured, recorded, and streamed out to the system. What the governments of Mars and Earth had tried to suppress had leaked out in the weeks and months that followed. How people viewed it had more to do with who they were than the actual footage. To some people, it had been news. For others, evidence. For more than Prax liked to think, it had been an entertainment of terrible decadence—a Busby Berkeley snuff flick.
Prax had watched it too, as had everyone on his team. For him, it had been a puzzle. The drive to apply the logic of conventional biology to the effects of the protomolecule had been overwhelming and, for the most part, fruitless. Individual pieces were tantalizing—the spiral curves so similar to nautilus shell, the heat signature of the infected bodies shifting in patterns that almost matched certain hemorrhagic fevers. But nothing had come together.
Certainly someone, somewhere, was getting the grant money to study what had happened, but Prax’s work wouldn’t wait for him. He’d turned back to his soybeans. Life had gone on. It hadn’t been an obsession, just a well-known conundrum that someone else was going to have to solve.
Prax hung weightless at an unused station in ops and watched the security camera feed. The creature reached out for Captain Holden, and Holden shot it and shot it and shot it. Prax watched the filamentous discharge from the creature’s back. That was familiar, certainly. It had been one of the hallmarks of the Eros footage.
The monster began to tumble. Morphologically, it wasn’t very far off from human. One head, two arms, two legs. No autonomous structures, no hands or rib cages repurposed to some other function.
Naomi, at the controls, gasped. It was odd, hearing it only through the actual air they shared and not through the comm channel. It seemed intimate in a way that left him a little uncomfortable, but there was something more important. His mind had a fuzzy feeling, like his head was full of cotton ticking. He recognized the sensation. He was thinking something that he wasn’t yet aware of.
“I’m pinned,” Holden said. “I need you to cut the mags on this crate.”
The creature was at the far end of the cargo bay. As Amos went in, it braced itself with one hand, throwing a large crate with the other. Even in the poor-quality feed, Prax could see its massive trapezius and deltoids, the muscles enlarged to a freakish degree. And yet not particularly relocated. So the protomolecule was working under constraints. Whatever the creature was, it wasn’t doing what the Eros samples had done. The thing in the cargo bay was unquestionably the same technology, but harnessed for some different application. The cotton ticking shifted.
“No! Stop opening the damn door. I’m trapped behind two goddamn crates now.”
The creature moved back to the bulkhead, near where it had first been at rest. It huddled there, the wounds in its body pulsing visibly. But it hadn’t settled there. With the engines off-line, there wasn’t even a trace of gravity to pull it back in place. If it was comfortable there, there had to be a reason.
“No!” Naomi said. Her hands were on the support rings by the controls. Her face had an ashy color. “No. Look where Holden is under those crates. If we go high g, it’ll break every bone in his body, even if he somehow isn’t thrown out the door too.”
“Yeah, she’s right,” Amos said. He sounded tired. Maybe that was how he expressed sorrow. “That plan’ll kill the captain. It’s off the table.”
“Well. A high-g burn would almost certainly break me into tiny pieces right now. But that doesn’t necessarily take it off the table.”