Chapter Forty-Five: Holden

Naomi talked in her sleep. It was one of a dozen things Holden hadn't known about her before tonight. Even though they'd slept in crash couches a few feet apart on many occasions, he'd never heard it. Now, with her face against his bare chest, he could feel her lips move and the soft, punctuated exhalations of her words. He couldn't hear what she was saying.

She also had a scar on her back, just above her left buttock. It was three inches long and had the uneven edges and rippling that came from a tear rather than a slice. Naomi would never get herself knifed in a bar fight, so it had to have come on the job. Maybe she had been climbing through tight spaces in the engine room when the ship maneuvered unexpectedly. A competent plastic surgeon could have made it invisible in one visit. That she hadn't bothered and clearly didn't care was another thing he had learned about her tonight.

She stopped murmuring and smacked her lips a few times, then said, "Thirsty."

Holden slid out from under her and headed for the kitchen, knowing that this was the obsequiousness that always accompanied a new lover. For the next couple of weeks, he wouldn't be able to stop himself from fulfilling every whim Naomi might have. It was a behavior some men carried at the genetic level, their DNA wanting to make sure that first time wasn't just a fluke.

Her room was laid out differently than his, and the unfamiliarity made him clumsy in the dark. He fumbled around for a few minutes in her small kitchen nook, looking for a glass. By the time he found it, filled it, and headed back into the bedroom, Naomi was sitting up in bed. The sheet lay pooled on her lap. The sight of her half nude in the dimly lit room gave him an embarrassingly sudden erection.

Naomi panned her gaze up his body, pausing at his midsection, then at the water glass, and said, "Is that for me?"

Holden didn't know which thing she was asking about, so he just said, "Yes."

"You asleep?"

Naomi's face was on his belly, her breathing slow and deep, but to his surprise she said, "No."

"Can we talk?"

Naomi rolled off him and pulled herself up until her face lay next to his on the pillow. Her hair fell across her eyes, and Holden reached out and brushed it away in a move that felt so intimate and proprietary that he had to swallow a lump in his throat.

"Are you about to get serious on me?" she asked, her eyes half lidded.

"Yeah, I am," he said, and kissed her forehead.

"My last lover was over a year ago," she said. "I'm a serial monogamist, so as far as I'm concerned, this is an exclusive-rights deal until one of us decides it isn't. As long as I get advance warning that you've decided to end the deal, there won't be any hard feelings. I'm open to the idea of it being more than just sex, but in my experience that will happen on its own if it's going to. I have eggs in storage on Europa and Luna, if that matters to you."

She rolled up onto her elbow, her face hovering over his.

"Did I cover all the bases?" she asked.

"No," he said. "But I agree to the conditions."

She flopped onto her back, letting out a long contented sigh.


Holden wanted to hold her, but he felt too hot and sticky with sweat, so he just reached down and held her hand instead. He wanted to tell her that this meant something, that it was already more than sex for him, but all the words he tried out in his head came off sounding phony or maudlin.

"Thank you," he said instead, but she was already snoring quietly.

They had sex again in the morning. After a long night with too little sleep, it wound up being far more effort than release for Holden, but there was a pleasure in that too, as if less than mind-blowing sex somehow meant something different and funnier and gentler than what they'd already done together. Afterward, Holden went to the kitchen and made coffee, then brought it back to bed on a tray. They drank it without talking, some of the shyness they'd avoided the night before coming now in the artificial morning of the room's LEDs.

Naomi put her empty coffee cup down and touched the badly healed lump in his recently broken nose.

"Is it hideous?" Holden asked.

"No," she said. "You were too perfect before. It makes you seem more substantial."

Holden laughed. "That sounds like a word you use to describe a fat man or a history professor."

Naomi smiled and touched his chest lightly with her fingertips. It wasn't an attempt to arouse, just the exploration that came when satiation had removed sex from the equation. Holden tried to remember the last time the cold sanity following sex had been this comfortable, but maybe that had been never. He was making plans to spend the remainder of the day in Naomi's bed, running through a mental list of restaurants on the station that delivered, when his terminal began buzzing on the nightstand.

"God dammit," he said.

"You don't have to answer," Naomi replied, and moved her explorations to his belly.

"You've been paying attention the last couple months, right?" Holden said. "Unless it's a wrong number, then it's probably some end-of-the-solar-system-type shit and we have five minutes to evacuate the station."

Naomi kissed his ribs, which simultaneously tickled him and caused him to question his assumptions about his own refractory period.

"That's not funny," she said.

Holden sighed and picked up the terminal off the table. Fred's name flashed as it buzzed again.

"It's Fred," he said.

Naomi stopped kissing him and sat up.

"Yeah, then it's probably not good news."

Holden tapped on the screen to accept the call and said, "Fred."

"Jim. Come see me as soon as you get a chance. It's important."

"Okay," Holden replied. "Be there in half an hour."

He ended the call and tossed his hand terminal across the room onto the pile of clothes he'd left at the foot of the bed.

"Going to shower, then go see what Fred wants," he said, pulling off the sheet and getting up.

"Should I come, too?" Naomi asked.

"Are you kidding? I'm never letting you out of my sight again."

"Don't get creepy on me," Naomi replied, but she was smiling when she said it.

The first unpleasant surprise was Miller sitting in Fred's office when they arrived. Holden nodded at the man once, then said to Fred, "We're here. What's up?"

Fred gestured for them to sit, and when they had, he said, "We've been discussing what to do about Eros."

Holden shrugged. "Okay. What about it?"

"Miller thinks that someone will try to land there and recover some samples of the protomolecule."

"I have no trouble believing that someone will be that stupid," Holden said with a nod.

Fred stood up and tapped something on his desk. The screens that normally showed a view of the Nauvoo construction outside suddenly switched to a 2-D map of the solar system, tiny lights of different colors marking fleet positions. An angry swarm of green dots surrounded Mars. Holden assumed that meant the greens were Earth ships. There were a lot of red and yellow dots in the Belt and outer planets. Red was probably Mars, then.

"Nice map," Holden said. "Accurate?"

"Reasonably," Fred said. With a few quick taps on his desk, he zoomed in on one portion of the Belt. A potato-shaped lump labeled EROS filled the middle of the screen. Two tiny green dots inched toward it from several meters away.

"That is the Earth science vessel Charles Lyell moving toward Eros at full burn. She's accompanied by what we think is a Phantom-class escort ship."

"The Roci's Earth navy cousin," Holden said.

"Well, the Phantom class is an older model, and largely relegated to rear-echelon assignments, but still more than a match for anything the OPA can quickly field," Fred replied.

"Exactly the sort of ship that would be escorting science ships around, though," Holden said. "How'd they get out there so quick? And why just the two of them?"

Fred backed the map up until it was a distant view of the entire solar system again.

"Dumb luck. The Lyell was returning to Earth from doing non-Belt asteroid mapping when it diverted course toward Eros. It was close; no one else was. Earth must have seen a chance to grab a sample while everyone else was figuring out what to do."

Holden looked over at Naomi, but her face was unreadable. Miller was staring at him like an entomologist trying to figure out exactly where the pin went.

"So they know, then?" Holden said. "About Protogen and Eros?"

"We assume so," Fred said.

"You want us to chase them away? I mean, I think we can, but that will only work until Earth can reroute a few more ships to back them up. We won't be able to buy much time."

Fred smiled.

"We won't need much," he said. "We have a plan."

Holden nodded, waiting to hear it, but Fred sat down and leaned back in his chair. Miller stood up and changed the view on the screen to a close-up of the surface of Eros.

Now we get to find out why Fred is keeping this jackal around, Holden thought, but said nothing.

Miller pointed at the picture of Eros.

"Eros is an old station. Lots of redundancy. Lot of holes in her skin, mostly small maintenance airlocks," the former detective said. "The big docks are in five main clusters around the station. We're looking at sending six supply freighters to Eros, along with the Rocinante. The Roci keeps the science vessel from landing, and the freighters secure themselves to the station, one at each docking cluster."

"You're sending people in?" Holden said.

"Not in," Miller replied. "Just on. Surface work. Anyway, the sixth freighter evacuates the crews once the others are docked. Each abandoned freighter will have a couple dozen high-yield fusion warheads wired to the ship's proximity detectors. Anything tries to land at the docks, and there's a few-hundred-megaton fusion explosion. It should be enough to take out the approaching ship, but even if it doesn't, the docks will be too slagged to land at."

Naomi cleared her throat. "Uh, the UN and Mars both have bomb squads. They'll figure out how to get past your booby traps."

"Given enough time," Fred agreed.

Miller continued as though he hadn't been interrupted.

"The bombs are just a second line of deterrence. Rocinante first, bombs second. We're trying to buy Fred's people enough time to prep the Nauvoo."

"The Nauvoo?" Holden said, and half a breath later, Naomi whistled low. Miller nodded to her almost as if he were accepting applause.

"The Nauvoo's launching in a long parabolic course, building up speed. It'll hit Eros at a velocity and angle calculated to knock Eros toward the sun. Set off the bombs too. Between the impact energy and the fusion warheads, we figure the surface of Eros'll be hot and radioactive enough to cook anything that tries to land until it's too damn late," Miller finished, then sat back down. He looked up as if he was waiting for reactions.

"This was your idea?" Holden asked Miller.

"Nauvoo part was. But we didn't know about the Lyell when we first talked about it. The booby trap thing's kind of improvised. I think it'll work, though. Buy us enough time."

"I agree," Holden said. "We need to keep Eros out of anyone's hands, and I can't think of a better way to do it. We're in. We'll shoo the science ship away while you do your work."

Fred leaned forward in his chair with a creak and said, "I knew you'd be on board. Miller was more skeptical."

"Throwing a million people into the sun seemed like something you might balk at," the detective said with a humorless grin.

"There's nothing human left on that station. What's your part in all of this? You armchair quarterbacking now?"

It came out nastier than he'd intended, but Miller didn't appear offended.

"I'll be coordinating security."

"Security? Why will they need security?"

Miller smiled. All his smiles looked like he was hearing a good joke at a funeral.

"In case something crawls out of an airlock, tries to thumb a ride," he said.

Holden frowned. "I don't like to think those things can get around in vacuum. I don't like that idea at all."

"Once we bring the surface temp of Eros up to a nice balmy ten thousand degrees, I'm thinking it won't matter much," Miller replied. "Until then, best be safe."

Holden found himself wishing he shared the detective's confidence.

"What are the odds the impact and detonations just break Eros into a million pieces and scatter them all over the solar system?" Naomi asked.

"Fred's got some of his best engineers calculating everything to the last decimal to make sure that doesn't happen," Miller replied. "Tycho helped build Eros in the first place. They've got the blueprints."

"So," said Fred. "Let's deal with the last bit of business."

Holden waited.

"You still have the protomolecule," Fred said.

Holden nodded again. "And?"

"And," replied Fred. "And the last time we sent you out, your ship was almost wrecked. Once Eros has been nuked, it will be the only confirmed sample around, outside of what might still be on Phoebe. I can't find any reason to let you keep it. I want it to remain here on Tycho when you go."

Holden stood up, shaking his head.

"I like you, Fred, but I'm not handing that stuff over to anyone who might see it as a bargaining chip."

"I don't think you have a lot of - " Fred started, but Holden held up a finger and cut him off. While Fred stared at him in surprise, he grabbed his terminal and opened the crew channel.

"Alex, Amos, either of you on the ship?"

"I'm here," Amos said a second later. "Finishing up some - "

"Lock it down," Holden said over him. "Right now. Seal it up. If I don't call you in an hour, or if anyone other than me tries to board, leave the dock and fly away from Tycho at best possible speed. Direction is your choice. Shoot your way free if you have to. Read me?"

"Loud and clear, Cap," Amos said. If Holden had asked him to get a cup of coffee, Amos would have sounded exactly the same.

Fred was still staring at him incredulously.

"Don't force this issue, Fred," Holden said.

"If you think you can threaten me, you're mistaken," Fred said, his voice flat and frightening.

Miller laughed.

"Something funny?" Fred said.

"That wasn't a threat," Miller replied.

"No? What would you call it?"

"An accurate report of the world," Miller said. He stretched slowly as he talked. "If it was Alex on board, he might think the captain was trying to intimidate someone, maybe back down at the last minute. Amos, though? Amos will absolutely shoot his way free, even if it means he goes down with the ship."

Fred scowled, and Miller shook his head.

"It's not a bluff," Miller said. "Don't call it."

Fred's eyes narrowed, and Holden wondered if he'd finally gone too far with the man. He certainly wouldn't be the first person Fred Johnson had ordered shot. And he had Miller standing right next to him. The unbalanced detective would probably shoot him at the first hint someone thought it was a good idea. It shook Holden's confidence in Fred that Miller was even here.

Which made it a little more surprising when Miller saved him.

"Look," the detective said. "Fact is, Holden is the best person to carry that shit around until you decide what to do with it."

"Talk me into it," Fred said, his voice still tight with anger.

"Once Eros goes up, he and the Roci are going to have their asses hanging in the breeze. Someone might be angry enough to nuke him just on general principles."

"And how does that make the sample safer with him?" Fred asked, but Holden had understood Miller's point.

"They might be less inclined to blow me up if I let them know that I've got the sample and all the Protogen notes," he said.

"Won't make the sample safer," Miller said. "But it makes the mission more likely to work. And that's the point, right? Also, he's an idealist," Miller continued. "Offer Holden his weight in gold and he'll just be offended you tried to bribe him."

Naomi laughed. Miller glanced at her, a small shared smile at the corner of his mouth, then turned back to Fred.

"Are you saying he can be trusted and I can't?" Fred said.

"I was thinking more about the crew," Miller said. "Holden's got a small bunch, and they do what he says. They think he's righteous, so they are too."

"My people follow me," Fred said.

Miller's grin was weary and unassailable.

"There's a lot of people in the OPA," he said.

"The stakes are too high," Fred said.

"You're kind of in the wrong career for safe," Miller said. "I'm not saying it's a great plan. Just you won't get a better one."

Fred's slitted eyes glittered with equal parts frustration and rage. His jaw worked silently for a moment before he spoke.

"Captain Holden? I'm disappointed with your lack of trust after all I've done for you and yours."

"If the human race still exists a month from now, I'll apologize," Holden said.

"Get your crew out to Eros before I change my mind."

Holden rose, nodded to Fred, and left. Naomi walked at his side.

"Wow, that was close," she said under her breath.

Once they'd left the office, Holden said, "I think Fred was half a second from ordering Miller to shoot me."

"Miller's on our side. Haven't you figured that out yet?"