Chapter Nine: Holden
The ships are still not responding," Naomi said, punching a key sequence on the comm panel.
"I didn't think they would. But I want to show the Donnager that we're worried about being followed. It's all covering our asses at this point," Holden said.
Naomi's spine popped as she stretched. Holden pulled a protein bar out of the box in his lap and threw it at her.
She peeled the wrapping off while Amos clambered up the ladder and threw himself into the couch next to her. His coverall was so filthy it shined. Just as with the others, three days on the cramped shuttle hadn't helped his personal hygiene. Holden reached up and scratched his own greasy hair with distaste. The Knight was too small for showers, and the zero-g sinks were too small to stick your head in. Amos had solved the hair-washing problem by shaving all of his off. Now he just had a ring of stubble around his bald spot. Somehow, Naomi's hair stayed shiny and mostly oil free. Holden wondered how she did that.
"Toss me some chow, XO," Amos said.
"Captain," Naomi corrected.
Holden threw a protein bar at him too. Amos snatched it from the air, then considered the long, thin package with distaste.
"Goddamn, Boss, I'd give my left nut for food that didn't look like a dildo," Amos said, then tapped his food against Naomi's in mock toast.
"Tell me about our water," Holden said.
"Well, I've been crawling around between hulls all day. I've tightened everything that can be tightened, and slapped epoxy on anything that can't, so we aren't dripping anywhere."
"It'll still be right down to the wire, Jim," Naomi said. "The Knight's recycling systems are crap. She was never intended to process five people's worth of waste back into potables for two weeks."
"Down to the wire, I can handle. We'll just learn to live with each other's stink. I was worried about 'nowhere near enough.' "
"Speaking of which, I'm gonna head to my rack and spray on some more deodorant," Amos said. "After all day crawling in the ship's guts, my stink's even keeping me awake tonight."
Amos swallowed the last of his food and smacked his lips with mock relish, then climbed out of his couch and headed down the crew ladder. Holden took a bite of his own bar. It tasted like greased cardboard.
"What's Shed up to?" he asked. "He's been pretty quiet."
Naomi, frowning, put her half-eaten bar down on the comm panel.
"I wanted to talk to you about that. He's not doing well, Jim. Out of all of us, he's having the hardest time with... what's happened. You and Alex were both navy men. They train you to deal with losing shipmates. Amos has been flying so long this is actually the third ship that's gone down under him, if you can believe that."
"And you are made entirely of cast iron and titanium," Holden said, only pretending to joke.
"Not entirely. Eighty, ninety percent. Tops," Naomi said with a half smile. "Seriously, though. I think you should talk to him."
"And say what? I'm no psychiatrist. The navy version of this speech involves duty and honorable sacrifice and avenging fallen comrades. Doesn't work as well when your friends have been murdered for no apparent reason and there's essentially no chance you can do anything about it."
"I didn't say you had to fix him. I said you needed to talk to him."
Holden got up from his couch with a salute.
"Yes, sir," he said. At the ladder he paused. "Again, thank you, Naomi. I'd really - "
"I know. Go be the captain," she said, turning back to her panel and calling up the ship ops screen. "I'll keep waving at the neighbors."
Holden found Shed in the Knight's tiny sick bay. Really more a sick closet. Other than a reinforced cot, the cabinets of supplies, and a half dozen pieces of wall-mounted equipment, there was just enough room for one stool stuck to the floor on magnetic feet. Shed was sitting on it.
"Hey, buddy, mind if I come in?" Holden asked. Did I actually say 'Hey, buddy'?
Shed shrugged and pulled up an inventory screen on the wall panel, opening various drawers and staring at the contents. Pretending he'd been in the middle of something.
"Look, Shed. This thing with the Canterbury has really hit everyone hard, and you've - " Holden said. Shed turned, holding up a white squeeze tube.
"Three percent acetic acid solution. Didn't realize we had this out here. The Cant's run out, and I've got three people with GW who could really use it. Why'd they put it on the Knight, I wonder," Shed said.
"GW?" was all Holden could think to reply.
"Genital warts. Acetic acid solution is the treatment for any visible warts. Burns 'em off. Hurts like hell, but it does the job. No reason to keep it on the shuttle. Medical inventory is always so messed up."
Holden opened his mouth to speak, found nothing to say, and closed it again.
"We've got acetic acid cream," Shed said, his voice increasingly shrill, "but no elemcet for pain. Which do you think you'd need more on a rescue shuttle? If we'd found anyone on that wreck with a bad case of GW, we'd have been set. A broken bone? You're out of luck. Just suck it up."
"Look, Shed," Holden said, trying to break in.
"Oh, and look at this. No coagulant booster. What the hell? Hey, no chance anyone on a rescue mission could, you know, start bleeding. Catch a case of red bumps on your crank, sure, but bleeding? No way! I mean, we've got four cases of syphilis on the Cant right now. One of the oldest diseases in the book, and we still can't get rid of it. I tell those guys, 'The hookers on Saturn Station are banging every ice bucker on the circuit, so put the glove on,' but do they listen? No. So here we are with syphilis and not enough ciprofloxacin."
Holden felt his jaw slide forward. He gripped the side of the hatch and leaned into the room.
"Everyone on the Cant is dead," Holden said, making each word clear and strong and brutal. "Everyone is dead. No one needs the antibiotics. No one needs wart cream."
Shed stopped talking, and all the air went out of him like he'd been gut punched. He closed the drawers in the supply cabinet and turned off the inventory screen with small precise movements.
"I know," he said in a quiet voice. "I'm not stupid. I just need some time."
"We all do. But we're stuck in this tiny can together. I'll be honest, I came down here because Naomi is worried about you, but now that I'm here, you're freaking me the hell out. That's okay, because I'm the captain now and it's my job. But I can't have you freaking Alex or Amos out. We're ten days from being grabbed by a Martian battleship, and that's scary enough without the doctor falling apart."
"I'm not a doctor, I'm just a tech," Shed said, his voice very small.
"You're our doctor, okay? To the four of us here with you on this ship, you're our doctor. If Alex starts having post-traumatic stress episodes and needs meds to keep it together, he'll come to you. If you're down here jabbering about warts, he'll turn around and go back up to the cockpit and just do a really bad job of flying. You want to cry? Do it with all of us. We'll sit together in the galley and get drunk and cry like babies, but we'll do it together where it's safe. No more hiding down here."
"Can we do that?" he said.
"Do what?" Holden asked.
"Get drunk and cry like babies?"
"Hell yes. That is officially on the schedule for tonight. Report to the galley at twenty hundred hours, Mr. Garvey. Bring a cup."
Shed started to reply when the general comm clicked on and Naomi said, "Jim, come back up to ops."
Holden gripped Shed's shoulder for a moment, then left.
In ops, Naomi had the comm screen up again and was speaking to Alex in low tones. The pilot was shaking his head and frowning. A map glowed on her screen.
"What's up?" Holden asked.
"We're getting a tightbeam, Jim. It locked on and started transmitting just a couple minutes ago," Naomi replied.
"From the Donnager?" The Martian battleship was the only thing he could think of that might be inside laser communications range.
"No. From the Belt," Naomi said. "And not from Ceres, or Eros, or Pallas either. None of the big stations."
She pointed at a small dot on her display.
"It's coming from here."
"That's empty space," Holden said.
"Nope. Alex checked. It's the site of a big construction project Tycho is working on. Not a lot of detail on it, but radar returns are pretty strong."
"Something out there has a comm array that'll put a dot the size of your anus on us from over three AU away," Alex said.
"Okay, wow, that's impressive. What is our anus-sized dot saying?" Holden asked.
"You'll never believe this," Naomi said, and turned on the playback.
A dark-skinned man with the heavy facial bones of an Earther appeared on the screen. His hair was graying, and his neck was ropy with old muscle. He smiled and said, "Hello, James Holden. My name is Fred Johnson."
Holden hit the pause button.
"This guy looks familiar. Search the ship's database for that name," he said.
Naomi didn't move; she just stared at him with a puzzled look on her face.
"What?" he said.
"That's Frederick Johnson," she said.
"Colonel Frederick Lucius Johnson."
The pause might have been a second; it might have been an hour.
"Jesus," was all Holden could think to say.
The man on the screen had once been among the most decorated officers in the UN military, and ended up one of its most embarrassing failures. To Belters, he was the Earther Sheriff of Nottingham who'd turned into Robin Hood. To Earth, he was the hero who'd fallen from grace.
Fred Johnson started his rise to fame with a series of high-profile captures of Belt pirates during one of the periods of tension between Earth and Mars that seemed to ramp up every few decades and then fade away again. Whenever the system's two superpowers rattled their sabers at each other, crime in the Belt rose. Colonel Johnson - Captain Johnson at the time - and his small wing of three missile frigates destroyed a dozen pirate ships and two major bases in a two-year span. By the time the Coalition had stopped bickering, piracy was actually down in the Belt, and Fred Johnson was the name on everyone's lips. He was promoted and given command over the Coalition marine division tasked with policing the Belt, where he continued to serve with distinction.
Until Anderson Station.
A tiny shipping depot almost on the opposite side of the Belt from the major port Ceres, most people, including most Belters, would not have been able to find Anderson Station on a map. Its only importance was as a minor distribution station for water and air in one of the sparsest stretches of the Belt. Fewer than a million Belters got their air from Anderson.
Gustav Marconi, a career Coalition bureaucrat on the station, decided to implement a 3-percent handling surcharge on shipments passing through the station in hopes of raising the bottom line. Less than 5 percent of the Belters buying their air from Anderson were living bottle to mouth, so just under fifty thousand Belters might have to spend one day of each month not breathing. Only a small percentage of those fifty thousand lacked the leeway in their recycling systems to cover this minor shortfall. Of those, only a small portion felt that armed revolt was the correct course.
Which was why of the million affected, only 170 armed Belters came to the station, took over, and threw Marconi out an airlock. They demanded a government guarantee that no further handling surcharges would be added to the price of air and water coming through the station.
The Coalition sent Colonel Johnson.
During the Massacre of Anderson Station, the Belters kept the station cameras rolling, broadcasting to the solar system the entire time. Everyone watched as Coalition marines fought a long, gruesome corridor-to-corridor battle against men with nothing to lose and no reason to surrender. The Coalition won - it was a foregone conclusion - but it took three days of broadcast slaughter. The iconic image of the video was not one of the fighting, but the last image the station cameras caught before they were cut off: Colonel Johnson in station ops, surrounded by the corpses of the Belters who'd made their last stand there, surveying the carnage with a flat stare and hands limp at his sides.
The UN tried to keep Colonel Johnson's resignation quiet, but he was too much a public figure. The video of the battle dominated the nets for weeks, only displaced when the former Colonel Johnson made a public statement apologizing for the massacre and announcing that the relationship between the Belt and the inner planets was untenable and heading toward ever greater tragedy.
Then he vanished. He was almost forgotten, a footnote in the history of human carnage, until the Pallas colony revolt four years later. This time refinery metalworkers kicked the Coalition governor off station. Instead of a tiny way station with 170 rebels, it was a major Belt rock with more than 150,000 people on it. When the Coalition ordered in the marines, everyone expected a bloodbath.
Colonel Johnson came out of nowhere and talked the metalworkers down; he talked the Coalition commanders into holding back the marines until the station could be handed over peacefully. He spent more than a year negotiating with the Coalition governor to improve working conditions in the refineries. And suddenly, the Butcher of Anderson Station was a Belt hero and an icon.
An icon who was beaming private messages to the Knight.
Holden hit the play button, and that Fred Johnson said, "Mr. Holden, I think you're being played. Let me say straight out that I am speaking to you as an official representative of the Outer Planets Alliance. I don't know what you've heard, but we aren't all a bunch of cowboys itching for a chance to shoot our way to freedom. I've spent the last ten years working to make life for the Belters better without anyone getting shot. I believe in this idea so deeply that I gave up my Earth citizenship when I came out here.
"I tell you that so you'll know how invested I am. I may be the one person in the solar system who wants war the least, and my voice is loud in OPA councils.
"You may have heard some of the broadcasts beating on the war drums and calling for revenge against Mars for what happened to your ship. I've talked to every OPA cell leader I know, and no one's claiming responsibility.
"Someone is working very hard to start a war. If it's Mars, then when you get on that ship, you'll never say another word in public that isn't fed to you by Martian handlers. I don't want to think it is Mars. I can't see how they would get anything out of a war. So my hope is that even after the Donnager picks you up, you can still be a player in what follows.
"I am sending you a keyword. Next time you broadcast publicly, use the word ubiquitous within the first sentence of the broadcast to signal that you're not being coerced. Don't use it, and I'll assume you are. Either way, I want you to know you have allies in the Belt.
"I don't know who or what you were before, but your voice matters now. If you want to use that voice to make things better, I will do anything I can to help you do it. If you get free, contact me at the address that follows. I think maybe you and I have a lot to talk about.
The crew sat in the galley drinking a bottle of ersatz tequila Amos had scrounged from somewhere. Shed was politely sipping from a small cup of it and trying to hide his grimace each time. Alex and Amos drank like sailors: a finger full in the bottom of the cup, tossed back all at once. Alex had a habit of saying "Hooboy!" after each shot. Amos just used a different profanity each time. He was up to his eleventh shot and so far had not repeated himself.
Holden stared at Naomi. She swirled the tequila in her cup and stared back. He found himself wondering what sort of genetic mashup had produced her features. Definitely some African and South American in there. Her last name hinted at Japanese ancestry, which was only barely visible, as a slight epicanthic fold. She'd never be conventionally pretty, but from the right angle she was actually fairly striking.
Shit, I'm drunker than I thought.
To cover, he said, "So... "
"So Colonel Johnson is calling you now. Quite the important man you've become, sir," Naomi replied.
Amos put down his cup with exaggerated care.
"Been meaning to ask about that, sir. Any chance we might take up his offer of help and just head back to the Belt?" he said. "Don't know about you, but with the Martian battleship in front, and the half dozen mystery ships behind, it's starting to feel pretty fuckin' crowded out here."
Alex snorted. "Are you kidding? If we flipped now, we'd be just about stopped by the time the Donnager caught up to us. She's burnin' the furniture to catch us before the Belter ships do. If we start headin' their direction, the Donnie might take that as a sign we've switched teams, frag the whole lot of us."
"I agree with Mr. Kamal," Holden said. "We've picked our course and we're going to see it through. I won't be losing Fred's contact information anytime soon. Speaking of which, have you deleted his message yet, Naomi?"
"Yes, sir. Scrubbed it from the ship's memory with steel wool. The Martians will never know he talked to us."
Holden nodded and unzipped his jumpsuit a little further. The galley was starting to feel very hot with five drunk people in it. Naomi raised an eyebrow at his days-old T-shirt. Embarrassed, he zipped back up.
"Those ships don't make any sense to me, Boss," Alex said. "A half dozen ships flyin' kamikaze missions with nukes strapped to their hulls might make a dent in a battlewagon like the Donnie, but not much else would. She opens up with her point defense network and rail guns, she can create a no-fly zone a thousand klicks across. They could be killin' those six ships with torpedoes already, 'cept I think they're as confused about who they are as we are."
"They'll know they can't catch us before the Donnager picks us up," Holden said. "And they can't take her in a fight. So I don't know what they're up to."
Amos poured the last of the tequila into everyone's cups and held his up in a toast.
"I guess we'll fucking find out."