Chapter Fifty-Five: Holden

Holden dreamed.

He'd been a lucid dreamer most of his life, so when he found himself sitting in his parents' kitchen in the old house in Montana, talking to Naomi, he knew. He couldn't quite understand what she was saying, but she kept pushing her hair out of her eyes as she munched cookies and drank tea. And while he found that he wasn't ever able to pick a cookie up and take a bite out of it, he could smell them, and the memory of Mother Elise's chocolate chip oatmeal cookies was a very good one.

It was a good dream.

The kitchen strobed red once, and something changed. Holden felt the wrongness of it, felt the dream slipping from warm memory into nightmare. He tried to say something to Naomi but couldn't form the words. The room strobed red again, but she didn't seem to notice. He got up and went to the kitchen window and looked out. When the room strobed a third time, he saw what was causing it. Meteors were falling out of the sky, leaving behind them fiery trails the color of blood. He somehow knew they were chunks of Eros as it crashed through the atmosphere. Miller had failed. The nuclear attack had failed.

Julie had come home.

He turned around to tell Naomi to run, but black tendrils had burst through the floor and wrapped her up, pierced her body in multiple places. They poured from her mouth and eyes.

Holden tried to run to her, to help her, but he couldn't move, and when he looked down, he saw that the tendrils had come up and grabbed him too. One wrapped around his waist and held him. Another pressed into his mouth.

He woke with a yell in a dark room that was strobing with red light. Something was holding him around the waist. In a panic he began clawing at it, threatening to tear a fingernail loose on his left hand, before his rational mind reminded him where he was. On the ops deck, in his chair, belted down in zero g.

He popped his finger into his mouth, trying to soothe the abused fingertip he'd damaged on one of the chair buckles, and took a few deep breaths through his nose. The deck was empty. Naomi was asleep down in her cabin. Alex and Amos were off duty and presumably sleeping too. They'd spent almost two days without rest during the high-g chase of Eros. Holden had ordered everyone to get some shut-eye and had volunteered to take first watch.

And then had promptly fallen asleep. Not good.

The room flashed red again. Holden shook his head to clear the last of the sleep away, and refocused his attention on his console. A red warning light pulsed, and he tapped the screen to open up the menu. It was his threat panel. Someone was hitting them with a targeting laser.

He opened up the threat display and turned on the active sensors. The only ship within millions of kilometers was the Ravi, and it was the ship that was targeting them. According to the automatic logs, it had just started a few seconds earlier.

He reached out to activate the comm and call the Ravi as his incoming-message light flickered on. He opened the connection, and a second later, McBride's voice said, "Rocinante, cease maneuvering, open your outer airlock door, and prepare to be boarded."

Holden frowned at his console. Was that a weird joke?

"McBride, this is Holden. Uh, what?"

Her reply was in a clipped tone that was not encouraging.

"Holden, open your outer airlock and prepare for boarding. If I see a single defensive system wake up, I will fire on your ship. Is that understood?"

"No," he said, not quite able to keep the annoyance out of his voice. "It's not understood. And I'm not going to let you board me. What the hell is going on?"

"I've been ordered by UNN Command to take control of your vessel. You're charged with interfering with UNN military operations, unlawfully commandeering UNN military assets, and a list of other crimes I'm not going to bother reading right now. If you do not surrender immediately, we will be forced to fire on you."

"Oh," said Holden. The UNN had discovered that their missiles were changing course, had attempted to reprogram them, and had discovered that the missiles weren't listening.

They were upset.

"McBride," Holden said after a moment. "Boarding us won't do any good. We can't give you those missiles back. And it's unnecessary, anyway. They're just taking a little detour."

McBride's laugh sounded more like the sharp bark of an angry dog just before it bit.

"Detour?" she said. "You handed three thousand five hundred and seventy-three high-yield thermonuclear interplanetary ballistic missiles over to a traitor and accused war criminal!"

It took Holden a minute.

"You mean Fred? I think traitor is a bit harsh - "

McBride cut in.

"Deactivate the false transponders leading our missiles away from Eros, and reactivate the transponders on the surface, or we will fire on your ship. You have ten minutes to comply."

The connection dropped with a click. Holden looked at the console with something between disbelief and outrage, then shrugged and hit the battle stations alarm. Deck lights came on all over the ship in an angry red. The warning Klaxon sounded three times. In less than two minutes, Alex rushed up the ladder to the cockpit, and half a minute behind him, Naomi threw herself into her ops station.

Alex spoke first.

"The Ravi is four hundred kilometers away," he said. "Ladar says her tube is open, and she's got us locked."

Clearly enunciating his words, Holden said, "Do not - I repeat, do not - open our tubes or attempt to get a target lock on the Ravi at this time. Just keep a close eye on her, and prepare to go defensive if she looks like she's firing. Let's not do anything to provoke her."

"Shall I begin jamming?" Naomi said from behind him.

"No, that would look aggressive. But prep a countermeasures package and have your finger on the ready button," Holden said. "Amos, you in engineering?"

"Roger that, Cap. Ready to go down here."

"Bring the reactor up to one hundred percent and pull control of the point defense cannons to your console down there. If they shoot at us at this range, Alex won't have time to fly and shoot back. You see a red dot on the threat console, you open up with the PDCs immediately. Copy?"

"Roger that," Amos said.

Holden blew a long breath through his teeth, then opened the channel to the Ravi again.

"McBride, this is Holden. We are not surrendering, we are not going to let you board us, and we aren't going to comply with your demands. Where do we go from here?"

"Holden," McBride said. "Your reactor is coming up. Are you getting ready to fight with us?"

"No, just getting ready to try and survive. Why, are we fighting?"

Another short harsh laugh.

"Holden," McBride said. "Why do I get the feeling you aren't taking this seriously?"

"Oh, I absolutely am," Holden replied. "I don't want you to kill me, and believe it or not, I have no desire to kill you. The nukes are on a little detour, but this isn't something we need to go down in flames over. I can't give you what you want, and I'm not interested in spending the next thirty years in a military prison. You gain nothing by shooting us, and I will fight back if it comes to that."

McBride cut the channel.

"Captain," Alex said. "The Ravi is startin' to maneuver. She's spraying clutter. I think she's gettin' ready to make an attack run."

Shit. Holden had been so sure he could talk her out of it.

"Okay, go defensive. Naomi, start your countermeasures. Amos? Got your finger on that button?"

"Ready," Amos replied.

"Don't hit it until you see a missile launch. Don't want to force their hand."

Sudden crushing g's hit Holden, stuffing him into his chair. Alex had started maneuvering.

"At this distance, maybe I can out-turn her. Keep her from bein' able to take a shot," the pilot said.

"Do it, and open the tubes."

"Roger," Alex said, his professional pilot's calm not quite able to keep the excitement about a possible battle out of his voice.

"I've broken the targeting lock," Naomi said. "Their laser array is not nearly as good as the Roci's. I'm just drowning it in clutter."

"Hooray for bloated Martian defense budgets," Holden replied.

The ship jerked suddenly through a series of wild maneuvers.

"Damn," Alex said, his voice strained by the g-force of the sharp turns. "The Ravi just opened up on us with her PDCs."

Holden checked his threat display and saw the long glowing pearl strands of incoming rounds displayed there. The shots were falling well behind them. The Roci reported the distance between the ships as 370 kilometers - pretty long range for computer targeting systems to hit a wildly maneuvering ship with a ballistic shot from another wildly maneuvering ship.

"Return fire?" Amos yelled into the comm.

"No!" Holden yelled back. "If she wanted us dead, she'd be throwing torpedoes. Don't give her a reason to want us dead."

"Cap, we're out-turnin' her," Alex said. "The Roci's just too fast. We'll have a firing solution in less than a minute."

"Roger," Holden said.

"Do I take the shot?" Alex asked, his silly Martian cowboy accent fading as his tension rose.


"Their targeting laser just shut off," Naomi said.

"Which means they've given up trying to cut our jamming," Holden replied, "and have just switched their missiles over to radar tracking."

"Not as accurate," Naomi said hopefully.

"A corvette like that carries at least a dozen fish. They only need to hit us with one to make us dead. And at this range... "

A gentle sound came from his threat console, letting him know that the Roci had calculated a firing solution to the Ravi.

"I've got tone!" Alex yelled. "Fire?"

"No!" Holden said. He knew that inside the Ravi, they were getting the loud warning buzz of an enemy lock. Stop, Holden willed them. Please don't make me kill you.

"Uh," Alex said in a low voice. "Huh."

Behind Holden, at almost the same moment, Naomi said, "Jim?"

Before he could ask, Alex came back on the general comm.

"Hey, Captain, Eros just came back."

"What?" Holden said, a brief image of the asteroid sneaking up like a cartoon villain on the two circling warships popping into his head.

"Yeah," Alex said. "Eros. It just popped back up on radar. Whatever it was doing to block our sensors, it just stopped doing it."

"What's it doing?" Holden said. "Get me a course."

Naomi pulled the tracking information to her console and began working on it, but Alex was done a few seconds sooner.

"Yeah," he said. "Good guess. It's changing course. Still heading sunward, but deflecting away from the Earth vector it was on."

"If it keeps this course and speed," Naomi chimed in, "I'd say it was heading toward Venus."

"Wow," said Holden. "That was a joke."

"Good joke," Naomi said.

"Well, someone tell McBride she doesn't need to shoot us now."

"Hey," Alex said, his voice thoughtful. "If we made those nukes stop listening, that means we can't shut 'em down, right? Wonder where Fred's going to drop those."

"Hell if I know," Amos said. "Just disarmed Earth, though. That's gotta be fucking embarrassing."

"Unintended consequences," Naomi sighed. "Always with the unintended consequences."

Eros crashing into Venus was the most widely broadcast and recorded event in history. By the time the asteroid reached the sun's second planet, several hundred ships had taken up orbits there. Military vessels tried to keep the civilian ships away, but it was no use. They were just outnumbered. The video of Eros' descent was captured by military gun cameras, civilian ship telescopes, and the observatories on two planets and five moons.

Holden wished he could have been there to see it up close, but Eros had picked up speed after it had turned, almost as though the asteroid were impatient for the journey to end now that the destination was in sight. He and the crew sat in the galley of the Rocinante and watched it on the broadcast newsfeeds. Amos had dug up yet another bottle of faux tequila from somewhere and was liberally splashing it into coffee cups. Alex had them flying toward Tycho at a gentle one-third g. No need to hurry now.

It was all over but the fireworks.

Holden reached out, took Naomi's hand, and held it tightly as the asteroid entered Venus orbit and then seemed to stop. He felt like he could feel the entire human race holding their breath. No one knew what Eros - no, what Julie - would do now. No one had spoken to Miller after the last time Holden had, and he wasn't answering his hand terminal. No one knew for sure what had happened on the asteroid.

When the end came, it was beautiful.

In orbit around Venus, Eros came apart like a puzzle box. The giant asteroid split into a dozen chunks, stringing out around the equator of the planet in a long necklace. Then those dozen pieces split into a dozen more, and then a dozen after that, a glittering fractal seed cloud spreading out across the entire surface of the planet, disappearing into the thick cloud layer that usually hid Venus from view.

"Wow," Amos said, his voice almost reverent.

"That was gorgeous," Naomi said. "Vaguely unsettling, but gorgeous."

"They won't stay there forever," Holden said.

Alex tossed off the last of the tequila in his glass, then refilled it from the bottle.

"What d'ya mean, Cap?" he asked.

"Well, I'm just guessing. But I doubt the things that built the protomolecule just wanted to store it here. This was part of a bigger plan. We saved the Earth, Mars, the Belt. Question is, what happens now?"

Naomi and Alex exchanged glances. Amos pursed his lips. On-screen, Venus glittered as arcs of lightning danced all across the planet.

"Cap," Amos said. "You are seriously harshing my buzz."