Chapter Forty-Seven: Holden
Even the wet cellulose taste of reconstituted artificial scrambled eggs was not enough to ruin Holden's warm, self-satisfied glow. He shoveled the faux eggs into his mouth, trying not to grin. Sitting at his left around the galley table, Amos ate with lip-smacking enthusiasm. To Holden's right, Alex pushed the limp eggs around on his plate with a piece of equally fake toast. Across the table, Naomi sipped a cup of tea and looked at him from under her hair. He stifled the urge to wink at her.
They'd talked about how to break the news to the crew but hadn't come to any consensus. Holden hated to hide anything. Keeping it secret made it seem dirty or shameful. His parents had raised him to believe that sex was something you did in private not because it was embarrassing, but because it was intimate. With five fathers and three mothers, the sleeping arrangements were always complex at his house, but the discussions about who was bedding with whom were never hidden from him. It left him with a strong aversion to hiding his own activities.
Naomi, on the other hand, thought they shouldn't do anything to upset the fragile equilibrium they'd found, and Holden trusted her instincts. She had an insight into group dynamics that he often lacked. So, for now, he was following her lead.
Besides, it would have felt like boasting, and that would have been rude.
Keeping his voice neutral and professional, he said, "Naomi, can you pass the pepper?"
Amos' head snapped up, and he dropped his fork on the table with a loud clatter.
"Holy shit, you guys are doing it!"
"Um," Holden said. "What?"
"Something's been screwy ever since we got back on the Roci, but I couldn't figure. But that's it! You guys are finally playing hide the weasel."
Holden blinked twice at the big mechanic, unsure of what to say. He glanced at Naomi for support, but her head was down, and her hair completely covered her face. Her shoulders were shaking in silent laughter.
"Jesus, Cap," Amos said, a grin on his wide face. "It fucking took you long enough. If she'd been throwing herself at me like that, I'd have been neck deep in that shit."
"Uh," Alex said, looking shocked enough that it was clear he hadn't shared Amos' insights. "Wow."
Naomi stopped laughing and wiped tears away from the corners of her eyes.
"Busted," she said.
"Look. Guys, it's important that you know this doesn't affect our - " Holden said, but Amos cut him off with a snort.
"Hey, Alex," Amos said.
"Yo," Alex replied.
"XO boning the captain going to make you a really shitty pilot?"
"Don't believe it will," Alex said with a grin, exaggerating his drawl.
"And, oddly enough, I don't feel the need to be a lousy mechanic."
Holden tried again. "I think it's important that - "
"Cap'n?" Amos continued, ignoring him. "Consider that no one gives a fuck, it won't stop us from doing our jobs, and just enjoy it, since we'll probably all be dead in a few days anyway."
Naomi started laughing again.
"Fine," she said. "I mean, everyone knows I'm only doing it to get a promotion. Oh, wait, right. Already the second-in-command. Hey, can I be captain now?"
"No," Holden said, laughing. "It's a shit job. I'd never ask you to do it."
Naomi grinned and shrugged. See? I'm not always right. Holden glanced at Alex, who was looking at him with genuine affection, clearly happy about the idea of him and Naomi together. Everything seemed right.
Eros spun like a potato-shaped top, its thick skin of rock hiding the horrors inside. Alex brought them in close to do a thorough scan of the station. The asteroid swelled on Holden's screen until it looked close enough to touch. At the other ops station, Naomi swept the surface with ladar, looking for anything that might pose a danger to the Tycho freighter crews, still a few days behind. On Holden's tactical display, the UNN science ship continued to flare in a braking maneuver toward Eros, its escort right beside it.
"Still not talking, huh?" Holden asked.
Naomi shook her head, then tapped on her screen and sent the comm's monitoring information to his workstation.
"Nope," she said. "But they see us. They've been bouncing radar off of us for a couple hours now."
Holden tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair and thought about the choices. It was possible that the hull modifications Tycho had made to the Roci were fooling the Earth corvette's recognition software. They might just ignore the Roci, thinking she was a Belter gas runner that happened to be hanging around. But the Roci was running without a transponder, which made her illegal no matter what hull configuration she was showing. That the corvette wasn't trying to warn off a ship that was running dark made him nervous. The Belt and the inner planets were in a shooting war. A Belter ship with no identification was hanging around Eros while two Earth ships flew toward it. No way any captain with half a brain would just ignore them.
The corvette's silence meant something else.
"Naomi, I have a feeling that corvette is going to try and blow us up," Holden said with a sigh.
"It's what I'd do," she replied.
Holden tapped one last complicated rhythm on his chair, then put his headset on.
"All right, I guess I make the first overture, then," he said.
Not wishing to make their conversation public, Holden targeted the Earther corvette with the Rocinante's laser array and signaled a generic linkup request. After a few seconds, the link established light went green, and his earplugs began to hiss with faint background static. Holden waited, but the UN ship offered no greeting. They wanted him to speak first.
He flicked off his mic, switching to the shipwide comm.
"Alex, get us moving. One g for now. If I can't bluff this guy, it'll be a shooting match. Be ready to open her up."
"Roger," drawled Alex. "Goin' on the juice, just in case."
Holden glanced over at Naomi's station, but she'd already switched to her tactical screen and had the Roci plotting firing solutions and jamming tactics on the two approaching ships. Naomi had been in only one battle, but she was reacting now like a seasoned veteran. He smiled at her back, then turned around before she had time to realize he was staring.
"Amos?" he said.
"Locked down and shipshape down here, Cap. The Roci's pawing at the turf. Let's go kick some ass."
Let's hope we don't have to, Holden thought.
He turned his mic back on.
"This is Captain James Holden of the Rocinante, calling the captain of the approaching United Nations Navy corvette, call sign unknown. Please respond."
There was a static-filled pause, followed by "Rocinante. Leave our flight path immediately. If you do not begin moving away from Eros at best possible speed, you will be fired upon."
The voice was young. An aging corvette with the tedious task of following an asteroid-mapping ship around wouldn't be a much sought after command. The captain was probably a lieutenant without patrons or prospects. He'd be inexperienced, but he might see a confrontation as an opportunity to prove himself to his superiors. And that made the next few moments treacherous to navigate.
"Sorry," said Holden. "Still don't know your call sign, or your name. But I can't do what you want. In fact, I can't let anyone land on Eros. I'm going to need you to stop approaching the station."
"Rocinante, I don't think you - "
Holden took control of the Roci's targeting system and began painting the approaching corvette with its targeting laser.
"Let me explain what's happening here," he said. "Right now, you're looking at your sensors, and you're seeing what looks like a thrown-together gas freighter that's giving your ship-recognition software fits. And all of a sudden, meaning right now, it's painting you with a state-of-the-art target-acquisition system."
"We don't - "
"Don't lie. I know that's what's happening. So here's the deal. Despite how it looks, my ship is newer, faster, tougher, and better armed than yours. The only way for me to really prove that is to open fire, and I'm hoping not to do that."
"Are you threatening me, Rocinante?" the young voice on Holden's headset said, its tone hitting just the right notes of arrogance and disbelief.
"You? No," said Holden. "I'm threatening the big, fat, slow-moving, and unarmed ship you're supposed to be protecting. You keep flying toward Eros, and I will unload everything I've got at it. I guarantee we will blow that flying science lab out of the sky. Now, it's possible you might get us while we do it, but by then your mission is screwed anyway, right?"
The line went silent again, only the hiss of background radiation letting him know his headset hadn't died.
When his answer came, it came on the shipwide comms.
Alex said, "They're stoppin', Captain. They just started hard brakin'. Tracking says they'll be relative stopped about two million klicks out. Want me to keep flyin' toward 'em?"
"No, bring us back to our stationary position over Eros," Holden replied.
"Naomi," Holden said, spinning his chair around to face her. "Are they doing anything else?"
"Not that I can see through the clutter of their exhaust. But they could be tightbeaming messages the other direction and we'd never know," she said.
Holden flipped the shipwide comm off. He scratched his head for a minute, then unbuckled his restraints.
"Well, we stopped them for now. I'm going to hit the head and then grab a drink. Want anything?"
"He's not wrong, you know," Naomi said later that night.
Holden was floating in zero g on the ops deck, his station a few feet away. He'd turned down the deck lights, and the cabin was as dim as a moonlit night. Alex and Amos were sleeping two decks below. They might as well have been a million light-years away. Naomi was floating near her own station, two meters away, her hair unbound and drifting around her like a black cloud. The panel behind her lit her face in profile: the long forehead, flat nose, large lips. He could tell that her eyes were closed. He felt like they were the only two people in the universe.
"Who's not wrong?" he said, just to be saying something.
"Miller," she replied as though it were obvious.
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
Naomi laughed, then swatted with one hand to rotate her body and face him in the air. Her eyes were open now, though with the panel lights behind her, they were visible only as black pools in her face.
"I've been thinking about Miller," she said. "I treated him badly on Tycho. Ignored him because you were angry. I owed him better than that."
"He saved your life on Eros."
Holden snorted, but she kept going anyway.
"When you were in the navy," she finally said, "what were you supposed to do when someone went crazy on the ship? Started doing things that endangered everyone?"
Thinking they were talking about Miller, Holden said, "You restrain him and remove him as a danger to the ship and crew. But Fred didn't - "
Naomi cut him off.
"What if it's wartime?" she said. "The middle of a battle?"
"If he can't be easily restrained, the chief of the watch has an obligation to protect the ship and crew by whatever means necessary."
"Even shooting him?"
"If that's the only way to do it," Holden replied. "Sure. But it would only be in the most pressing circumstances."
Naomi nodded with her hand, sending her body slowly twisting the other way. She stopped her motion with one unconscious gesture. Holden was pretty good in zero g, but he'd never be that good.
"The Belt is a network," Naomi said. "It's like one big distributed ship. We have nodes that make air, or water, or power, or structural materials. Those nodes may be separated by millions of kilometers of space, but that doesn't make them any less interconnected."
"I see where this is going," Holden said with a sigh. "Dresden was a madman on the ship, Miller shot him to protect the rest of us. He gave me that speech back on Tycho. Didn't buy it then either."
"Because," Holden said. "Dresden wasn't an immediate threat. He was just an evil little man in an expensive suit. He didn't have a gun in his hand, or his finger on a bomb trigger. And I will never trust a man who believes he has the right to unilaterally execute people."
Holden put his foot against the bulkhead and tapped off just hard enough to float a few feet closer to Naomi, close enough to see her eyes, read her reaction to him.
"If that science ship starts flying toward Eros again, I will throw every torpedo we have at it, and tell myself I was protecting the rest of the solar system from what's on Eros. But I won't just start shooting at it now, on the idea that it might decide to head to Eros again, because that's murder. What Miller did was murder."
Naomi smiled at him, then grabbed his flight suit and pulled him close enough for a kiss.
"You might be the best person I know. But you're totally uncompromising on what you think is right, and that's what you hate about Miller."
"Yes," she said. "He's totally uncompromising too, but he has different ideas on how things work. You hate that. To Miller, Dresden was an active threat to the ship. Every second he stayed alive endangered everyone else around him. To Miller, it was self-defense."
"But he's wrong. The man was helpless."
"The man talked the UN Navy into giving his company state-of-the-art ships," she said. "He talked his company into murdering a million and a half people. Everything Miller said about why the protomolecule is better off with us was just as true about Dresden. How long is he in an OPA lockup before he finds the jailer who can be bought?"
"He was a prisoner," Holden said, feeing the argument slipping away from him.
"He was a monster with power, access, and allies who would have paid any price to keep his science project going," Naomi said. "And I'm telling you as a Belter, Miller wasn't wrong."
Holden didn't answer; he just continued to float next to Naomi, keeping himself in her orbit. Was he angrier about the killing of Dresden or about Miller's making a decision that disagreed with him?
And Miller had known. When Holden had told him to find his own ride back to Tycho, he'd seen it in the detective's sad basset hound face. Miller had known it was coming, and had made no attempt to fight or argue. That meant that Miller had made his choice fully cognizant of the cost and ready to pay it. That meant something. Holden wasn't sure exactly what, but something.
A red telltale began flashing on the wall, and Naomi's panel woke up and began throwing data onto the screen. She pulled herself down to it using the back of her chair, then tapped out several quick commands.
"Shit," she said.
"What is it?"
"The corvette or science ship must have called for help," Naomi said, pointing at her screen. "We've got ships on their way from all over the system."
"How many are coming?" Holden asked, trying to get a better look at her screen.
Naomi made a small sound in the back of her throat, halfway between a chuckle and a cough.
"At a guess? All of them."