Chapter Forty-One: Holden

The Rocinante docked with Thoth station on the last gasps from her maneuvering thrusters. Holden felt the station's docking clamps grab the hull with a thud, and then gravity returned at a low one-third g. The close detonation of a plasma warhead had torn off the outer door of the crew airlock and flooded the chamber with superheated gas, effectively welding it shut. That meant they'd be using the cargo airlock at the stern of the ship and spacewalking over to the station.

That was fine; they were still in their suits. The Roci had more holes now than the air cycling system could keep up with, and their shipboard O2 supply had been vented into space by the same explosion that killed the airlock.

Alex dropped from the cockpit, face hidden by his helmet, his belly unmistakable even in his atmosphere suit. Naomi finished locking her station and powering down the ship, then joined Alex, and the three of them climbed down the crew ladder to the ship's aft. Amos was waiting there, buckling an EVA pack onto his suit and charging it with compressed nitrogen from a storage tank. The mechanic had assured Holden that the EVA maneuvering pack had enough thrust to overcome the station's spin and get them back up to an airlock.

No one spoke. Holden had expected banter. He'd expected to want to banter. But the damaged Roci seemed to call for silence. Maybe awe.

Holden leaned against the cargo bay bulkhead and closed his eyes. The only sounds he could hear were the steady hiss of his air supply and the faint static of the comm. He could smell nothing through his broken and blood-clogged nose, and his mouth was filled with a coppery taste. But even so, he couldn't keep a smile off his face.

They'd won. They'd flown right up to Protogen, taken everything the evil bastards could throw at them, and bloodied their noses. Even now OPA soldiers were storming their station, shooting the people who'd helped kill Eros.

Holden decided that he was okay with not feeling any remorse for them. The moral complexity of the situation had grown past his ability to process it, so he just relaxed in the warm glow of victory instead.

The comm chirped and Amos said, "Ready to move."

Holden nodded, remembered he was still in his atmosphere suit, and said, "Okay. Hook on, everyone."

He, Alex, and Naomi pulled tethers from their suits and clamped them to Amos' broad waist. Amos cycled the cargo airlock and flew out the door on puffs of gas. They were immediately hurled away from the ship by station spin, but Amos quickly got them under control and flew back up toward Thoth's emergency airlock.

As Amos flew them past the Roci, Holden studied the outside of the ship and tried to catalog repair requirements. There were a dozen holes in both her bow and aft that corresponded to holes all along the inside of the ship. The gauss cannon rounds the interceptor had fired probably hadn't even slowed appreciably on their path through the Roci. The crew was just lucky none of them had found the reactor and punched a hole in it.

There was also a huge dent in the false superstructure that made the ship look like a compressed gas freighter. Holden knew it would match an equally ugly wound in the armored outer hull. The damage hadn't extended to the inner hull, or the ship would have cracked in two.

With the damage to the airlock, and the total loss of their oxygen storage tanks and recycling systems, there would be millions of dollars in damage and weeks in dry dock, assuming they could make it to a dry dock somewhere.

Maybe the Molinari could give them a tow.

Amos flashed the EVA pack's yellow warning lights three times, and the station's emergency airlock door cycled open. He flew them inside, where four Belters in combat armor waited.

As soon as the airlock finished cycling, Holden pulled his helmet off and touched his nose. It felt twice its normal size and throbbed with every heartbeat.

Naomi reached out and held his face still, her thumbs on either side of his nose, her touch surprisingly gentle. She turned his head from side to side, examining the injury, then let go.

"It'll be crooked without some cosmetic surgery," she said. "But you were too pretty before anyway. It'll give your face character."

Holden felt a slow grin coming on, but before he could reply, one of the OPA troops started talking.

"Watched the fight, hermano. You guys really kicked some ass."

"Thanks," said Alex. "How's it goin' in here?"

The soldier with the most stars on his OPA insignia said, "Less resistance than expected, but the Protogen security's been fighting for every foot of real estate. Even some of the egg-heads have been coming at us. We've had to shoot a few."

He pointed at the inner airlock door.

"Fred's heading up to ops. Wants you people up there, pronto."

"Lead the way," Holden replied, his nose turning it into lee da way.

"How's that leg, Cap?" Amos asked as they walked along the station corridor. Holden realized he'd forgotten about the limp his gunshot to the calf had left him.

"Doesn't hurt, but the muscle doesn't flex as much," he replied. "Yours?"

Amos grinned and glanced down at the leg that still limped from the fracture he'd suffered on the Donnager months earlier.

"No biggie," he said. "The ones that don't kill you don't count."

Holden started to reply, then stopped when the group rounded a corner into a slaughterhouse. They were clearly coming up behind the assault team, because now the corridor floor was littered with bodies, the walls with bullet holes and scorch marks. To his relief, Holden saw a lot more bodies in Protogen security armor than in OPA gear. But there were enough dead Belters on the floor to make his stomach twist. When he passed a dead man in a lab coat, he had to stop himself from spitting on the floor. The security guys had maybe made a bad decision in going to work for the wrong team, but the scientists on this station had killed a million and a half people just to see what would happen. They couldn't be dead enough for Holden's comfort.

Something tugged at him, and he paused. Lying next to the dead scientist was what looked like a kitchen knife.

"Huh," Holden said. "He didn't come at you guys with that, did he?"

"Yeah, crazy, no?" said one of their escorts. "I heard of bringing a knife to a gunfight, but... "

"Ops is up ahead," said the ranking trooper. "General's waiting."

Holden entered the stations' ops center and saw Fred, Miller, a bunch of OPA troops, and one stranger in an expensive-looking suit. A line of technicians and operations staff in Protogen uniform had their wrists cuffed and were being led away. The room was covered deck to ceiling in screens and monitors, most of which were spooling text data too fast to read.

"Let me get this straight," Fred was saying. "You'll give me all the kingdoms of the Earth if I just bow down and do one act of worship for you?"

"I don't know the reference," the stranger said.

Whatever else they were about to say stopped when Miller noticed Holden and tapped Fred on the shoulder. Holden could swear that the detective gave him a warm smile, though on his dour face it was hard to tell.

"Jim," Fred said, then gestured for him to come closer. He was reading a matte black business card. "Meet Antony Dresden, executive VP of bio research for Protogen, and the architect of the Eros project."

The asshole in the suit actually reached out like he was going to shake hands. Holden ignored him.

"Fred," he said. "Casualties?"

"Shockingly low."

"Half their security had non-lethals," Miller said. "Riot control. Sticky rounds. Like that."

Holden nodded and then shook his head and frowned.

"I saw a lot of Protogen security bodies out there in the corridor. Why have so many guys and then give them weapons that can't repel boarders?"

"Good question," Miller agreed.

Dresden chuckled.

"This is what I mean, Mr. Johnson," Dresden said. He turned to Holden. "Jim? Well then, Jim. The fact that you don't understand this station's security needs tells me that you have no idea what you've become involved with. And I think you know that as well as I do. As I was saying to Fred here - "

"Antony, you need to shut the fuck up," Holden said, surprised by the sudden flush of anger. Dresden looked disappointed.

The bastard had no right to be comfortable. Condescending. Holden wanted the man terrified, begging for his life, not sneering behind his cultured accent.

"Amos, if he talks to me again without being told to, break his jaw."

"My pleasure, Captain," Amos said, and took half a step forward.

Dresden smirked at the ham-fisted threat but kept his mouth shut.

"What do we know?" Holden asked, aiming the question at Fred.

"We know the Eros data is coming here, and we know this piece of shit is in charge. We'll know more once we've taken the place apart."

Holden turned to look at Dresden again, taking in the blue blood European good looks, the gym-sculpted physique, the expensive haircut. Even now, surrounded by men with guns, Dresden managed to look like he was in charge. Holden could imagine him glancing down at his watch and wondering how much more of his expensive time this boarding party was going to take.

Holden said, "I need to ask him something."

Fred nodded. "You earned it."

"Why?" Holden asked. "I want to know why."

Dresden's smile was almost pitying, and he stuck his hands into his pockets as casually as a man talking sports at a dockside bar.

" 'Why' is a very big question," Dresden said. "Because God wanted it that way? Or perhaps you want to narrow it for me."

"Why Eros?"

"Well, Jim - "

"You can call me Captain Holden. I'm the guy that found your lost ship, so I've seen the video from Phoebe. I know what the protomolecule is."

"Really!" Dresden said, his smile becoming half a degree more genuine. "I have you to thank for turning the viral agent over to us on Eros. Losing the Anubis was going to put our timeline back months. Finding the infected body already there on the station was a godsend."

I knew it. I fucking knew it, Holden thought. Out loud, he said, "Why?"

"You know what the agent is," Dresden said, at a loss for the first time since Holden had come into the room. "I don't know what more I can tell you. This is the most important thing to ever happen to the human race. It's simultaneously proof that we are not alone in the universe, and our ticket out of the limitations that bind us to our little bubbles of rock and air."

"You aren't answering me," Holden said, hating the way his broken nose made his voice slightly comical when he wanted to be threatening. "I want to know why you killed a million and a half people."

Fred cleared his throat, but he didn't interrupt. Dresden looked from Holden to the colonel and back again.

"I am answering, Captain. A million and a half people is small potatoes. What we're working with here is bigger than that," Dresden said, then moved over to a chair and sat down, pulling up his pants leg as he crossed his knees, so as not to stretch the fabric. "Are you familiar with Genghis Khan?"

"What?" Holden and Fred said at almost the same instant. Miller only stared at Dresden with a blank expression, tapping the barrel of his pistol against his own armored thigh.

"Genghis Khan. There are some historians who claim that Genghis Kahn killed or displaced one quarter of the total human population of Earth during his conquest," Dresden said. "He did that in pursuit of an empire that would begin falling apart as soon as he died. In today's scale, that would mean killing nearly ten billion people in order to affect a generation. A generation and a half. Eros isn't even a rounding error by comparison."

"You really don't care," Fred said, his voice quiet.

"And unlike Khan, we aren't doing it to build a brief empire. I know what you think. That we're trying to aggrandize ourselves. Grab power."

"You don't want to?" Holden said.

"Of course we do." Dresden's voice was cutting. "But you're thinking too small. Building humanity's greatest empire is like building the world's largest anthill. Insignificant. There is a civilization out there that built the protomolecule and hurled it at us over two billion years ago. They were already gods at that point. What have they become since then? With another two billion years to advance?"

With a growing dread, Holden listened to Dresden speak. This speech had the air of something spoken before. Perhaps many times. And it had worked. It had convinced powerful people. It was why Protogen had stealth ships from the Earth shipyards and seemingly limitless behind-the-scenes support.

"We have a terrifying amount of catching up to do, gentlemen," Dresden was saying. "But fortunately we have the tool of our enemy to use in doing it."

"Catching up?" a soldier to Holden's left said. Dresden nodded at the man and smiled.

"The protomolecule can alter the host organism at the molecular level; it can create genetic change on the fly. Not just DNA, but any stable replicator. But it is only a machine. It doesn't think. It follows instructions. If we learn how to alter that programming, then we become the architects of that change."

Holden interrupted. "If it was supposed to wipe out life on Earth and replace it with whatever the protomolecule's creators wanted, why turn it loose?"

"Excellent question," Dresden said, holding up one finger like a college professor about to deliver a lecture. "The protomolecule doesn't come with a user's manual. In fact, we've never before been able to actually watch it carry out its program. The molecule requires significant mass before it develops enough processing power to fulfill its directives. Whatever they are."

Dresden pointed at the screens covered with data around them.

"We are going to watch it at work. See what it intends to do. How it goes about doing it. And, hopefully, learn how to change that program in the process."

"You could do that with a vat of bacteria," Holden said.

"I'm not interested in remaking bacteria," Dresden said.

"You're fucking insane," Amos said, and took another step toward Dresden. Holden put a hand on the big mechanic's shoulder.

"So," Holden said. "You figure out how the bug works, and then what?"

"Then everything. Belters who can work outside a ship without wearing a suit. Humans capable of sleeping for hundreds of years at a time flying colony ships to the stars. No longer being bound to the millions of years of evolution inside one atmosphere of pressure at one g, slaves to oxygen and water. We decide what we want to be, and we reprogram ourselves to be that. That's what the protomolecule gives us."

Dresden had stood back up as he'd delivered this speech, his face shining with the zeal of a prophet.

"What we are doing is the best and only hope of humanity's survival. When we go out there, we will be facing gods."

"And if we don't go out?" Fred asked. He sounded thoughtful.

"They've already fired a doomsday weapon at us once," Dresden said.

The room was silent for a moment. Holden felt his certainty slip. He hated everything about Dresden's argument, but he couldn't quite see his way past it. He knew in his bones that something about it was dead wrong, but he couldn't find the words.

Naomi's voice startled him.

"Did it convince them?" she asked.

"Excuse me?" Dresden said.

"The scientists. The technicians. Everyone you needed to make it happen. They actually had to do this. They had to watch the video of people dying all over Eros. They had to design those radioactive murder chambers. So unless you managed to round up every serial killer in the solar system and send them through a postgraduate program, how did you do this?"

"We modified our science team to remove ethical restraints."

Half a dozen clues clicked into place in Holden's head.

"Sociopaths," he said. "You turned them into sociopaths."

"High-functioning sociopaths," Dresden said with a nod. He seemed pleased to explain it. "And extremely curious ones. As long as we kept them supplied with interesting problems to solve and unlimited resources, they remained quite content."

"And a big security team armed with riot control rounds for when they aren't," Fred said.

"Yes, there are occasional issues," Dresden said. He looked around, the slightest frown creasing his forehead. "I know. You think it's monstrous, but I am saving the human race. I am giving humanity the stars. You disapprove? Fine. Let me ask you this. Can you save Eros? Right now."

"No," Fred said, "but we can - "

"Waste the data," Dresden said. "You can make certain that every man, woman, and child who died on Eros died for nothing."

The room was silent. Fred was frowning, his arms crossed. Holden understood the struggle going on in the man's mind. Everything Dresden said was repulsive and eerie and rang too much of the truth.

"Or," Dresden said, "we can negotiate a price, you can go on your way, and I can - "

"Okay. That's enough," Miller said, speaking for the first time since Dresden had begun his pitch. Holden glanced over at the detective. His flat expression had gone stony. He wasn't tapping the barrel of his pistol against his leg.

Oh, shit.