“Amos?” Naomi said. “I’m seeing you’re still in the cargo bay. Is there a problem?”

“Might be,” Amos said. “Our guy left something behind.”

“Don’t touch it!” Holden’s voice was harsh as a bark. “We’ll get a torch and burn it down to its component atoms.”

“Don’t think that’d be a good idea,” Amos said. “I’ve seen these before, and they don’t take well to cutting torches.”

Prax levered himself up to standing, adjusting the slides on his boots to keep him lightly attached to the airlock floor. The inner airlock door chimed that it was safe to remove his suit and reenter the ship. He ignored it and activated one of the wall panels. He switched to a view of the cargo bay. Holden was floating near the cargo airlock. Amos was hanging on to a wall-mounted ladder and examining something small and shiny stuck to the bulkhead.

“What is it, Amos?” Naomi asked.

“Well, I’d have to clean some of this yuck off it,” Amos said. “But it looks like a pretty standard incendiary charge. Not a big one, but enough to vaporize about two square meters.”

There was a moment of silence. Prax released the seal on his helmet, lifted it off, and took a deep breath of the ship’s air. He switched to an outside camera. The monster was drifting behind the ship, suddenly visible again in the faint light coming out of the cargo bay, and slowly receding from view. It was wrapped around his radioactive bait.

“A bomb,” Holden said. “You’re telling me that thing left a bomb?”

“And pretty damn peculiar too. If you ask me,” Amos replied.

“Amos, come with me into the cargo airlock,” Holden said. “Alex, what’s left to do before we burn that monster up? Is Prax back inside?”

“You guys in the ’lock?” Alex said.

“We are now. Do it.”

“Don’t need to say it twice,” Alex said. “Brace for acceleration.”

The biochemical cascade that came from euphoria and panic and the reassurance of safety slowed Prax’s response time so that when the burn began, he didn’t quite have his legs under him. He stumbled against the wall, knocking his head against the inner door of the airlock. He didn’t care. He felt wonderful. He’d gotten the monster off the ship. It was burning up in the Rocinante’s fiery tail even as he watched.

Then an angry god kicked the side of the ship and sent it spinning across the void. Prax was ripped from his feet, the gentle magnetic tug of his boots not enough to stop it. The outer airlock door rushed at him, and the world went black.

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Avasarala

There was another spike. A third one. Only this time, there didn’t seem to be any chance of Bobbie’s monsters being involved. So maybe … maybe it was coincidence. Which opened the question. If the thing hadn’t come from Venus, then where?

The world, however, had conspired to distract her.

“She’s not what we thought she was, ma’am,” Soren said. “I fell for the little lost Martian thing too. She’s good.”

Avasarala leaned back in her chair. The intelligence report on her screen showed the woman she’d called Roberta Draper in civilian clothes. If anything, they made her look bigger. The name listed was Amanda Telelé. Free operative of the Martian Intelligence Service.

“I’m still looking into it,” Soren said. “It looks like there really was a Roberta Draper, but she died on Ganymede with the other marines.”

Avasarala waved the words away and scrolled through the report. Records of back-channel steganographic messages between the alleged Bobbie and a known Martian operative on Luna beginning the day that Avasarala had recruited her. Avasarala waited for the fear to squeeze her chest, the sense of betrayal. They didn’t come. She kept turning to new parts of the report, taking in new information and waiting for her body to react. It kept not happening.

“We looked into this why?” she asked.

“It was a hunch,” Soren said. “It was just the way she carried herself when she wasn’t around you. She was a little too … slick, I guess. She just didn’t seem right. So I took the initiative. I said it was from you.”

“So that I wouldn’t look like such a f**king idiot for inviting a mole into my office?”

“Seemed like the polite thing to do,” Soren said. “If you’re looking for ways to reward my good service, I do accept bonuses and promotion.”

“I f**king bet you do,” Avasarala said.

He waited, leaning a little forward on his toes. Waiting for her to give the order to have Bobbie arrested and submitted for a full intelligence debriefing. As euphemisms went, “full intelligence debriefing” was among the most obscene, but they were at war with Mars, and a high-value intelligence agent planted in the heart of the UN would know things that were invaluable.

So, Avasarala thought, why am I not reacting to this?

She reached out to the screen, paused, pulled back her hand, frowning.

“Ma’am?” Soren said.

It was the smallest thing, and the least expected. Soren bit at the inside of his bottom lip. It was a tiny movement, almost invisible. Like a tell at a poker table. And as she saw it, Avasarala knew.

There was no thinking it out, no reasoning, no struggle or second-guessing. It was all simply there, clear in her mind as if she had always known it, complete and perfect. Soren was nervous because the report she was looking at wouldn’t hold up to rigorous scrutiny.

It wouldn’t hold up because it was a fake.

It was a fake because Soren was working for someone else, someone who wanted to control the information getting to Avasarala’s desk. Nguyen had re-created his little fleet without her knowing it because Soren was the one watching the data traffic. Someone had known that she would need controlling. Handling. This was something that had been prepared for since well before Ganymede had gone pear-shaped. The monster on Ganymede had been anticipated.

And so it was Errinwright.

He had let her demand her peace negotiations, let her think she’d undermined Nguyen, let her take Bobbie onto her staff. All of it, so that she wouldn’t get suspicious.

This wasn’t a shard of Venus that had escaped; it was a military project. A weapon that Earth wanted in order to break its rivals before the alien project on Venus finished whatever it was doing. Someone—probably Mao-Kwikowski—had retained a sample of the protomolecule in some separate and firewalled lab, weaponized it, and opened bidding.