“Uh, Doc?” Amos said. “There a problem out there?”
Prax looked around, expecting to see the mechanic beside him. The milk-white universe of stars was all that met him. With so many, it seemed like they should sum to brightness. Instead, the Rocinante was dark except for the EVA lights and, toward the rear of the ship, a barely visible white nebula where atmosphere had blown out from the cargo bay.
“No,” Prax said. “No problems.”
He tried to take a step forward, but his suit didn’t budge. He pulled, straining to lift his foot from the plating. His toe moved forward a centimeter and stopped. Panic flared in his chest. Something was wrong with the mag boots. At this rate, he’d never make it to the cargo bay door before the creature dug through and into engineering and the reactor itself.
“Um. I have a problem,” he said. “I can’t move my feet.”
“What are the slide controls set to?” Naomi asked.
“Oh, right,” Prax said, moving the boot settings down to match his strength. “I’m fine. Never mind.”
He’d never actually walked with mag boots before, and it was a strange sensation. For most of the stride, his leg felt free and almost uncontrolled, and then, as he brought his foot toward the hull, there would be a moment, a critical point, when the force took hold and slammed him to the metal. He made his way floating and being snatched down, step by step. He couldn’t see the cargo bay doors, but he knew where they were. From his position looking aft, they were to the left of the drive cone. But on the right side of the ship. No, starboard side. They call it starboard on ships.
He knew that just past the dark metal lip that marked the edge of the ship, the creature was digging at the walls, clawing through the flesh of the ship toward its heart. If it figured out what was going on—if it had the cognitive capacity for even basic reasoning—it could come boiling up out of the bay at him. Vacuum didn’t kill it. Prax imagined himself trying to clomp away on his awkward magnetic boots while the creature cut him apart; then he took a long, shuddering breath and lifted the bait.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m in position.”
“No time like the present,” Holden said, his voice strained with pain but attempting to be light.
“Right,” Prax said.
He pressed the small timer, hunched close to the hull of the ship, and then, with every muscle in his body, uncurled and flung the little cylinder into nothing. It flew out, catching the light from the cargo bay interior and then vanishing. Prax had the nauseating certainty that he’d forgotten a step, and that the lead foil wouldn’t come off the way it was supposed to.
“It’s moving,” Holden said. “It smelled it. It’s going out.”
And there it was, long black fingers folding up from the ship, the dark body pulling itself up to the ship’s exterior like it had been born to the abyss. Its eyes glowed blue. Prax heard nothing but his own panicked breathing. Like an animal in the ancient grasslands of Earth, he had the primal urge to be still and silent, though through the vacuum, the creature wouldn’t have heard him if he’d shrieked.
The creature shifted; the eerie eyes closed, opened again, closed; and then it leapt. The un-twinkling stars were eclipsed by its passage.
“Clear,” Prax said, shocked by the firmness of his voice. “It’s clear of the ship. Close the cargo doors now.”
“Check,” Naomi said. “Closing doors.”
“I’m coming in, Cap’n,” Amos said.
“I’m passing out, Amos,” Holden said, but there was enough laughter in the words that Prax was pretty sure he was joking.
In the darkness, a star blinked out and then came back. Then another. Prax mentally traced the path. Another star eclipsed.
“I’m heating her back up,” Alex said. “Let me know when you’re all secure, right?”
Prax watched, waited. The star stayed solid. Shouldn’t it have gone dark like the others? Had he misjudged? Or was the creature looping around? If it could maneuver in raw vacuum, could it have noticed Alex bringing the reactor back online?
Prax turned back toward the main airlock.
The Rocinante had seemed like nothing—a toothpick floating on an ocean of stars. Now the distance back to the airlock was immense. Prax moved one foot, then the other, trying to run without ever having both feet off the deck. The mag boots wouldn’t let him release them both at the same time, the trailing foot trapped until the lead one signaled it was solid. His back itched, and he fought the urge to look behind. Nothing was there, and if something was, looking wouldn’t help. The cable of his radio link turned from a line into a loop that trailed behind him as he moved. He pulled on it to take up the slack.
The tiny green-and-yellow glow of the open airlock called to him like something from a dream. He heard himself whimpering a little, but the sound was lost in a string of profanity from Holden.
“What’s going on down there?” Naomi snapped.
“Captain’s feeling a little under the weather,” Amos said. “Think he maybe wrenched something.”
“My knee feels like someone gave birth in it,” Holden said. “I’ll be fine.”
“Are we clear for burn?” Alex asked.
“We are not,” Naomi said. “Cargo doors are as closed as they’re going to get until we hit the docks, but the forward airlock isn’t sealed.”
“I’m almost in,” Prax said, thinking, Don’t leave me here. Don’t leave me in the pit with that thing.
“Right, then,” Alex said. “Let me know when I can get us the hell out of here.”
In the depth of the ship, Amos made a small sound. Prax reached the airlock, pulling himself in with a violence that made the joints of his suit creak. He yanked on his umbilical to pull it the rest of the way in after him. He flung himself against the far wall, slapping at the controls until the cycle started and the outer door slid closed. In the dim light of the airlock proper, Prax spun slowly on all three axes. The outer door remained closed. Nothing ripped it open; no glowing blue eyes appeared to crawl in after him. He bumped gently against the wall as the distant sound of an air pump announced the presence of atmosphere.
“I’m in,” he said. “I’m in the airlock.”
“Is the captain stable?” Naomi asked.
“Was he ever?” Amos replied.
“I’m fine. My knee hurts. Get us out of here.”