Chapter Nineteen: Holden
Fred stood alone, hand outstretched, a warm and open smile on his broad face. There were no guards with assault rifles behind him. Holden shook Fred's hand and then started laughing. Fred smiled and looked confused but let Holden keep a grip on his hand, waiting for Holden to explain what was so funny.
"I'm sorry, but you have no idea how pleasant this is," Holden said. "This is literally the first time in over a month that I've gotten off a ship without it blowing up behind me."
Fred laughed with him now, an honest laugh that seemed to originate somewhere in his belly.
After a moment the man said, "You're quite safe here. We are the most protected station in the outer planets."
"Because you're OPA?" Holden asked.
Fred shook his head.
"No. We make campaign contributions to Earth and Mars politicians in amounts that would make a Hilton blush," he said. "If anyone blows us up, half the UN assembly and all of the Martian Congress will be howling for blood. It's the problem with politics. Your enemies are often your allies. And vice versa."
Fred gestured to a doorway behind him and motioned for everyone to follow. The ride was short, but halfway through, gravity reappeared, shifting in a disorienting swoop. Holden stumbled. Fred looked chagrined.
"I'm sorry. I should have warned you about that. The central hub's null g. Moving into the ring's rotational gravity can be awkward the first time."
"I'm fine," Holden said. Naomi's brief smile might only have been his imagination.
A moment later the elevator door opened onto a wide carpeted corridor with walls of pale green. It had the reassuring smell of air scrubbers and fresh carpet glue. Holden wouldn't have been surprised to find they were piping 'new space station' scent into the air. The doors that led off the corridor were made of faux wood distinguishable from the real thing only because nobody had that much money. Of all his crew, Holden was almost certainly the only one who had grown up in a house with real wooden furniture and fixtures. Amos had grown up in Baltimore. They hadn't seen a tree there in more than a century.
Holden pulled off his helmet and turned around to tell his crew to do the same, but theirs were already off. Amos looked up and down the corridor and whistled.
"Nice digs, Fred," he said.
"Follow me, I'll get you settled in," Fred replied, leading them down the corridor. As he walked, he spoke. "Tycho Station has undergone a number of refurbishments over the last hundred years, as you might guess, but the basics haven't changed much. It was a brilliant design to begin with; Malthus Tycho was an engineering genius. His grandson, Bredon, runs the company now. He isn't on station at the moment. Down the well at Luna negotiating the next big deal."
Holden said, "Seems like you have a lot on your plate already, with that monster parked outside. And, you know, a war going on."
A group of people in jumpsuits of various colors walked past, talking animatedly. The corridor was so wide that no one had to give way. Fred gestured at them as they went by.
"First shift's just ending, so this is rush hour," he said. "It's actually time to start drumming up new work. The Nauvoo is almost done. They'll be loading colonists on her in six months. Always have to have the next project lined up. The Tycho spends eleven million UN dollars every day she's in operation, whether we make money that day or not. It's a big nut to cover. And the war... well, we're hoping that's temporary."
"And now you're taking in refugees. That won't help," Holden said.
Fred just laughed and said, "Four more people won't put us in the poorhouse anytime soon."
Holden stopped, forcing the others to pull up short behind him. It was several steps before Fred noticed, then turned around with a confused look.
"You're dodging," Holden said. "Other than a couple billion dollars' worth of stolen Martian warship, we haven't got anything of value. Everyone thinks we're dead. Any access of our accounts ruins that, and I just don't live in a universe where Daddy Warbucks swoops in and makes everything okay out of the goodness of his heart. So either tell us why you're taking the risk of putting us up, or we go get back on our ship and try our hand at piracy."
"Scourge of the Martian merchant fleet, they'll call us," Amos growled from somewhere behind him. He sounded pleased.
Fred held up his hands. There was a hardness in his eyes, but also an amused respect.
"Nothing underhanded, you have my word," he said. "You're armed, and station security will allow you to carry guns whenever you like. That alone should reassure you that I'm not planning foul play. But let me get you settled in before we do much more talking, okay?"
Holden didn't move. Another group of returning workers was going by in the corridor, and they watched the scene curiously as they passed. Someone from the knot of people called out, "Everything okay, Fred?"
Fred nodded and waved them by impatiently. "Let's get out of the corridor at least."
"We aren't unpacking until we get some answers," Holden replied.
"Fine. We're almost there," Fred said, and then led them off again at a somewhat faster pace. He stopped at a small inset in the corridor wall with two doors in it. Opening one with the swipe of a card, he led the four of them into a large residential suite with a roomy living space and lots of seating.
"Bathroom is that door back there on the left. The bedroom is the one on the right. There's even a small kitchen space over here," Fred said, pointing to each thing as he spoke.
Holden sat down in a large brown faux-leather recliner and leaned it back. A remote control was in a pocket of the armrest. He assumed it controlled the impressively large screen that took up most of one wall. Naomi and Amos sat on a couch that matched his chair, and Alex draped himself over a loveseat in a nice contrasting cream color.
"Comfortable?" Fred asked, pulling a chair away from the six-seat dining area and sitting down across from Holden.
"It's all right," Holden said defensively. "My ship has a really nice coffeemaker."
"I suppose bribes won't work. You are all comfortable, though? We have two suites set aside for you, both this basic layout, though the other suite has two rooms. I wasn't sure of the, ah, sleeping arrangements... " Fred trailed off uncomfortably.
"Don't worry, Boss, you can bunk with me," Amos said with a wink at Naomi.
Naomi just smiled faintly.
"Okay, Fred, we're off the street," she said. "Now answer the captain's questions."
Fred nodded, then stood up and cleared his throat. He seemed to review something. When he spoke, the conversational facade was gone. His voice carried a grim authority.
"War between the Belt and Mars is suicide. Even if every rock hopper in the Belt were armed, we still couldn't compete with the Martian navy. We might kill a few with tricks and suicide runs. Mars might feel forced to nuke one of our stations to prove a point. But we can strap chemical rockets onto a couple hundred rocks the size of bunk beds and rain Armageddon down on Martian dome cities."
Fred paused, as if looking for words, then sat back down on his chair.
"All of the war drums ignore that. It's the elephant in the room. Anyone who doesn't live on a spaceship is structurally vulnerable. Tycho, Eros, Pallas, Ceres. Stations can't evade incoming missiles. And with all of the enemy's citizens living at the bottom of huge gravity wells, we don't even have to aim particularly well. Einstein was right. We will be fighting the next war with rocks. But the Belt has rocks that will turn the surface of Mars into a molten sea.
"Right now everyone is still playing nice, and only shooting at ships. Very gentlemanly. But sooner or later, one side or the other will be pressed to do something desperate."
Holden leaned forward, the slick surface of his environment suit making an embarrassing squeak on the leather textured chair. No one laughed.
"I agree. What does that have to do with us?" he asked.
"Too much blood has already been shed," Fred said.
Holden winced at the bleak, unintentional pun but said nothing.
"The Canterbury," Fred continued. "The Donnager. People aren't just going to forget about those ships, and those thousands of innocent people."
"Seems like you just crossed off the only two options, Chief," Alex said. "No war, no peace."
"There's a third alternative. Civilized society has another way of dealing with things like this," Fred said. "A criminal trial."
Amos' snort shook the air. Holden had to fight not to smile himself.
"Are you fucking serious?" Amos asked. "And how do you put a goddamn Martian stealth ship on trial? Do we go question all the stealth ships about their whereabouts, double-check their alibis?"
Fred held up a hand.
"Stop thinking of the Canterbury's destruction as an act of war," he said. "It was a crime. Right now, people are overreacting, but once the situation sinks in, heads will cool. People on both sides will see where this road goes and look for another way out. There is a window where the saner elements can investigate events, negotiate jurisdiction, and assign blame to some party or parties that both sides can agree to. A trial. It's the only outcome that doesn't involve millions of deaths and the collapse of human infrastucture."
Holden shrugged, a gesture barely visible in his heavy environment suit.
"So it goes to a trial. You still aren't answering my question."
Fred pointed at Holden, then at each of the crew in turn.
"You're the ace in the hole. You four people are the only eyewitnesses to the destruction of both ships. When the trial comes, I need you and your depositions. I have influence already through our political contacts, but you can buy me a seat at the table. It will be a whole new set of treaties between the Belt and the inner planets. We can do in months what I'd dreamed of doing in decades."
"And you want to use our value as witnesses to force your way into the process so you can make those treaties look the way you want them to," Holden said.
"Yes. And I'm willing to give you protection, shelter, and run of my station for as long as it takes to get there."
Holden took a long, deep breath, got up, and started unzipping his suit.
"Yeah, okay. That's just self-serving enough I believe it," he said. "Let's get settled in."
Naomi was singing karaoke. Just thinking about it made Holden's head spin. Naomi. Karaoke. Even considering everything that had happened to them over the past month, Naomi up onstage with a mic in one hand and some sort of fuchsia martini in the other, screaming out an angry Belt-punk anthem by the Moldy Filters, was the strangest thing he'd ever seen. She finished to scattered applause and a few catcalls, then staggered off the stage and collapsed across from him in the booth.
She held up her drink, sloshing a good half of it onto the table, then threw the other half back all at once.
"Whadja think?" Naomi asked, waving at the bartender for another.
"It was terrible," Holden replied.
"It was truly one of the most awful renditions of one of the most awful songs I've ever heard."
Naomi shook her head, blowing an exasperated raspberry at him. Her dark hair fell across her face and, when the bartender brought her a second brightly colored martini, foiled all her attempts at drinking. She finally grabbed her hair and held it above her head in a clump while she drank.
"You don't get it," she said. "It's supposed to be awful. That's the point."
"Then it was the best version of that song I've ever heard," Holden said.
"Damn straight." Naomi looked around the bar. "Where're Amos and Alex?"
"Amos found what I'm pretty sure was the most expensive hooker I've ever seen. Alex is in the back playing darts. He made some claims about the superiority of Martian darts players. I assume they're going to kill him and throw him out an airlock."
A second singer was onstage, crooning out some sort of Vietnamese power ballad. Naomi watched the singer for a while, sipping her drink, then said, "Maybe we should go save him."
"Alex. Why would Amos need saving?"
"Because I'm pretty sure he told the expensive hooker he was on Fred's expense account."
"Let's mount a rescue mission; we can save them both," Naomi said, then drank the rest of her cocktail. "I need more rescue fuel, though."
She started waving at the bartender again, but Holden reached out and grabbed her hand and held it on the table.
"Maybe we should take a breather instead," he said.
A flush of anger as intense as it was brief lit her face. She pulled back her hand.
"You take a breather. I've just had two ships and a bunch of friends shot out from underneath me, and spent three weeks of dead time flying to get here. So, no. I'm getting another drink, and then doing another set. The crowd loves me," Naomi said.
"What about our rescue mission?"
"Lost cause. Amos will be murdered by space hookers, but at least he'll die the way he lived."
Naomi pushed her way up from the table, grabbed her martini off the bar, and headed toward the karaoke stage. Holden watched her go, then finished off the scotch he'd been nursing for the past two hours and got up.
For a moment there, he'd had a vision of the two of them staggering back to the room together, then falling into bed. He'd have hated himself in the morning for taking advantage, but he'd still have done it. Naomi was looking at him from the stage, and he realized he'd been staring. He gave a little wave, then headed out the door with only ghosts - Ade, Captain McDowell, Gomez and Kelly and Shed - to keep him company.
The suite was comfortable and huge and depressing. He'd lain on the bed less than five minutes before he was up and out the door again. He walked the corridor for half an hour, finding the big intersections that led to other parts of the ring. He found an electronics store and a teahouse and what on closer inspection turned out to be a very expensive brothel. He declined the video menu of services the desk clerk offered and wandered out again, wondering if Amos was somewhere inside.
He was halfway down a corridor he hadn't seen before when a small knot of teenage girls passed him. Their faces looked no older than fourteen, but they were already as tall as he was. They got quiet as he walked by, then burst out laughing when he was behind them, and hurried away. Tycho was a city, and he suddenly felt very much like a foreigner, unsure of where to go or what to do.
It was no surprise to him when he looked up from his wanderings and discovered he'd come to the elevator to the docking area. He punched the button and climbed inside, remembering to turn on his boot mags just in time to avoid being flung off his feet when the gravity twisted sideways and vanished.
Even though he'd only had possession of the ship for three weeks, climbing back onto the Rocinante felt like going home. Using gentle touches on the keel ladder, he made his way up to the cockpit. He pulled himself into the copilot's couch, strapped in, and closed his eyes.
The ship was silent. With the reactor off-line, and no one aboard, nothing was moving at all. The flexible docking tube that connected the Roci to the station transmitted very little vibration to the ship. Holden could close his eyes and drift in the straps and disconnect from everything around him.
It would have been peaceful except that every time he'd closed his eyes for the past month, the fading ghost lights behind his eyelids had been Ade winking and blowing away like dust. The voice at the back of his head was McDowell's as he tried to save his ship right up to the very last second. He wondered if he'd have them for the rest of his life, coming out to haunt him every time he found a moment of quiet.
He remembered the old-timers from his navy days. Grizzled lifers who could soundly sleep while two meters away their shipmates played a raucous game of poker or watched the vids with the volume all the way up. Back then he'd assumed it was just learned behavior, the body adapting so it could get enough rest in an environment that never really had downtime. Now he wondered if those vets found the constant noise preferable. A way to keep their lost shipmates away. They probably went home after their twenty and never slept again. He opened his eyes and watched a small green telltale blink on the pilot's console.
It was the only light in the room, and it illuminated nothing. But its slow fade in and out was somehow comforting. A quiet heartbeat for the ship.
He told himself that Fred was right; a trial was the right thing to hope for. But he wanted that stealth ship in Alex's gun sights. He wanted that unknown crew to live through the terrifying moment when all the countermeasures have failed, the torpedoes are seconds from impact, and absolutely nothing can stop them.
He wanted them to have that same last gasp of fear he'd heard through Ade's mic.
For a time, he displaced the ghosts in his head with violent vengeance fantasies. When they stopped working, he floated down to the personnel deck, strapped into his cot, and tried to sleep. The Rocinante sang him a lullaby of air recyclers and silence.