Chapter Seventeen: Holden
The Tachi's galley had a full kitchen and a table with room for twelve. It also had a full-size coffeepot that could brew forty cups of coffee in less than five minutes whether the ship was in zero g or under a five-g burn. Holden said a silent prayer of thanks for bloated military budgets and pressed the brew button. He had to restrain himself from stroking the stainless steel cover while it made gentle percolating noises.
The aroma of coffee began to fill the air, competing with the baking-bread smell of whatever Alex had put in the oven. Amos was thumping around the table in his new cast, laying out plastic plates and actual honest-to-god metal silverware. In a bowl Naomi was mixing something that had the garlic scent of good hummus. Watching the crew work at these domestic tasks, Holden had a sense of peace and safety deep enough to leave him light-headed.
They'd been on the run for weeks now, pursued the entire time by one mysterious ship or another. For the first time since the Canterbury was destroyed, no one knew where they were. No one was demanding anything of them. As far as the solar system was concerned, they were a few casualties out of thousands on the Donnager. A brief vision of Shed's head disappearing like a grisly magic trick reminded him that at least one of his crew was a casualty. And still, it felt so good to once again be master of his own destiny that even regret couldn't entirely rob him of it.
A timer rang, and Alex pulled out a tray covered with thin, flat bread. He began cutting it into slices, onto which Naomi slathered a paste that did in fact look like hummus. Amos put them on the plates around the table. Holden drew fresh coffee into mugs that had the ship's name on the side. He passed them around. There was an awkward moment when everyone stared at the neatly set table without moving, as if afraid to destroy the perfection of the scene.
Amos solved this by saying, "I'm hungry as a fucking bear," and then sitting down with a thump. "Somebody pass me that pepper, wouldja?"
For several minutes, no one spoke; they only ate. Holden took a small bite of the flat bread and hummus, the strong flavors making him dizzy after weeks of tasteless protein bars. Then he was stuffing it into his mouth so fast it made his salivary glands flare with exquisite agony. He looked around the table, embarrassed, but everyone else was eating just as fast, so he gave up on propriety and concentrated on food. When he'd finished off the last scraps from his plate, he leaned back with a sigh, hoping to make the contentment last as long as possible. Alex sipped coffee with his eyes closed. Amos ate the last bits of the hummus right out of the serving bowl with his spoon. Naomi gave Holden a sleepy look through half-lidded eyes that was suddenly sexy as hell. Holden quashed that thought and raised his mug.
"To Kelly's marines. Heroes to the last, may they rest in peace," he said.
"To the marines," everyone at the table echoed, then clinked mugs and drank.
Alex raised his mug and said, "To Shed."
"Yeah, to Shed, and to the assholes who killed him roasting in hell," Amos said in a quiet voice. "Right beside the fucker who killed the Cant."
The mood at the table got somber. Holden felt the peaceful moment slipping away as quietly as it had come.
"So," he said. "Tell me about our new ship. Alex?"
"She's a beaut, Cap. I ran her at twelve g for most of half an hour when we left the Donnie, and she purred like a kitten the whole time. The pilot's chair is comfy too."
"Amos? Get a chance to look at her engine room yet?" he asked.
"Yep. Clean as a whistle. This is going to be a boring gig for a grease monkey like me," the mechanic replied.
"Boring would be nice," Holden said. "Naomi? What do you think?"
She smiled. "I love it. It's got the nicest showers I've ever seen on a ship this size. Plus, there's a truly amazing medical bay with a computerized expert system that knows how to fix broken marines. We should have found it rather than fix Amos on our own."
Amos thumped his cast with one knuckle.
"You guys did a good job, Boss."
Holden looked around at his clean crew and ran a hand through his own hair, not pulling it away covered in grease for the first time in weeks.
"Yeah, a shower and not having to fix broken legs sounds good. Anything else?"
Naomi tilted her head back, her eyes moving as though she was running through a mental checklist.
"We've got a full tank of water, the injectors have enough fuel pellets to run the reactor for about thirty years, and the galley is fully stocked. You'll have to tie me up if you plan to give her back to the navy. I love her."
"She is a cunning little boat," Holden said with a smile. "Have a chance to look at the weapons?"
"Two tubes and twenty long-range torpedoes with high-yield plasma warheads," Naomi said. "Or at least that's what the manifest says. They load those from the outside, so I can't physically verify without climbing around on the hull."
"The weapons panel is sayin' the same thing, Cap," Alex said. "And full loads in all the point defense cannons. You know, except... "
Except the burst you fired into the men who killed Gomez.
"Oh, and, Captain, when we put Kelly in the cargo hold, I found a big crate with the letters map on the side. According to the manifest, it stands for 'Mobile Assault Package.' Apparently navy-speak for a big box of guns," Naomi said.
"Yeah," Alex said. "It's full kit for eight marines."
"Okay," Holden said. "So with the fleet-quality Epstein, we've got legs. And if you guys are right about the weapons load out, we've also got teeth. The next question is what do we do with it? I'm inclined to take Colonel Johnson's offer of refuge. Any thoughts?"
"I'm all for that, Captain," Amos said. "I always did think the Belters were getting the short end of the stick. I'll go be a revolutionary for a while, I guess."
"Earthman's burden, Amos?" Naomi asked with a grin.
"What the fuck does that even mean?"
"Nothing, just teasing," she said. "I know you like our side because you just want to steal our women."
Amos grinned back, suddenly in on the joke.
"Well, you ladies do have the legs that go all the way up," he said.
"Okay, enough," Holden said, raising his hand. "So, two votes for Fred. Anyone else?"
Naomi raised her hand.
"I vote for Fred," she said.
"Alex? What do you think?" Holden asked.
The Martian pilot leaned back in his chair and scratched his head.
"I got nowhere in particular to be, so I'll stick with you guys, I guess," he said. "But I hope this don't turn into another round of bein' told what to do."
"It won't," Holden replied. "I have a ship with guns on it now, and the next time someone orders me to do something, I'm using them."
After dinner, Holden took a long, slow tour of his new ship. He opened every door, looked in every closet, turned on every panel, and read every readout. He stood in engineering next to the fusion reactor and closed his eyes, getting used to the almost subliminal vibration she made. If something ever went wrong with it, he wanted to feel it in his bones before any warning ever sounded. He stopped and touched all the tools in the well-stocked machine shop, and he climbed up to the personnel deck and wandered through the crew cabins until he found one he liked, and messed up the bed to show it was taken. He found a bunch of jumpsuits in what looked like his size, then moved them to the closet in his new room. He took a second shower and let the hot water massage knots in his back that were three weeks old. As he wandered back to his cabin, he trailed his fingers along the wall, feeling the soft give of the fire-retardant foam and anti-spalling webbing over the top of the armored steel bulkheads. When he arrived at his cabin, Alex and Amos were both getting settled into theirs.
"Which cabin did Naomi take?" he asked.
Amos shrugged. "She's still up in ops, fiddling with something."
Holden decided to put off sleep for a while and rode the keel ladder-lift - we have a lift! - up to the operations deck. Naomi was sitting on the floor, an open bulkhead panel in front of her and what looked like a hundred small parts and wires laid out around her in precise patterns. She was staring at something inside the open compartment.
"Hey, Naomi, you should really get some sleep. What are you working on?"
She gestured vaguely at the compartment.
"Transponder," she said.
Holden moved over and sat down on the floor next to her.
"Tell me how to help."
She handed him her hand terminal; Fred's instructions for changing the transponder signal were open on the screen.
"It's ready to go. I've got the console hooked up to the transponder's data port just like he says. I've got the computer program set up to run the override he describes. The new transponder code and ship registry data are ready to be entered. I put in the new name. Did Fred pick it?"
"No, that was me."
"Oh. All right, then. But... " Her voice trailed off, and she waved at the transponder again.
"What's the problem?" Holden asked.
"Jim, they make these things not to be fiddled with. The civilian version of this device fuses itself into a solid lump of silicon if it thinks it's being tampered with. Who knows what the military version of the fail-safe is? Drop the magnetic bottle in the reactor? Turn us into a supernova?"
Naomi turned to look at him.
"I've got it all set up and ready to go, but now I don't think we should throw the switch," she said. "We don't know the consequences of failure."
Holden got up off the floor and moved over to the computer console. A program Naomi had named Trans01 was waiting to be run. He hesitated for one second, then pressed the button to execute. The ship failed to vaporize.
"I guess Fred wants us alive, then," he said.
Naomi slumped down with a noisy, extended exhale.
"See, this is why I can't ever be in command," she said.
"Don't like making tough calls with incomplete information?"
"More I'm not suicidally irresponsible," she replied, and began slowly reassembling the transponder housing.
Holden punched the comm system on the wall. "Well, crew, welcome aboard the gas freighter Rocinante."
"What does that name even mean?" Naomi said after he let go of the comm button.
"It means we need to go find some windmills," Holden said over his shoulder as he headed to the lift.
Tycho Manufacturing and Engineering Concern was one of the first major corporations to move into the Belt. In the early days of expansion, Tycho engineers and a fleet of ships had captured a small comet and parked it in stable orbit as a water resupply point decades before ships like the Canterbury began bringing ice in from the nearly limitless fields in Saturn's rings. It had been the most complex, difficult feat of mass-scale engineering humanity had ever accomplished until the next thing they did.
As an encore, Tycho had built the massive reaction drives into the rock of Ceres and Eros and spent more than a decade teaching the asteroids to spin. They had been slated to create a network of high-atmosphere floating cities above Venus before the development rights fell into a labyrinth of lawsuits now entering its eighth decade. There was some discussion of space elevators for Mars and Earth, but nothing solid had come of it yet. If you had an impossible engineering job that needed to be done in the Belt, and you could afford it, you hired Tycho.
Tycho Station, the Belt headquarters of the company, was a massive ring station built around a sphere half a kilometer across, with more than sixty-five million cubic meters of manufacturing and storage space inside. The two counter-rotating habitation rings that circled the sphere had enough space for fifteen thousand workers and their families. The top of the manufacturing sphere was festooned with half a dozen massive construction waldoes that looked like they could rip a heavy freighter in half. The bottom of the sphere had a bulbous projection fifty meters across, which housed a capital-ship-class fusion reactor and drive system, making Tycho Station the largest mobile construction platform in the solar system. Each compartment within the massive rings was built on a swivel system that allowed the chambers to reorient to thrust gravity when the rings stopped spinning and the station flew to its next work location.
Holden knew all this, and his first sight of the station still took his breath away. It wasn't just the size of it. It was the idea that four generations of the smartest people in the solar system had been living and working here as they helped drag humanity into the outer planets almost through sheer force of will.
Amos said, "It looks like a big bug."
Holden started to protest, but it did resemble some kind of giant spider: fat bulbous body and all its legs sprouting from the top of its head.
Alex said, "Forget the station, look at that monster."
The vessel it was constructing dwarfed the station. Ladar returns told Holden the ship was just over two kilometers long and half a kilometer wide. Round and stubby, it looked like a cigarette butt made of steel. Framework girders exposed internal compartments and machinery at various stages of construction, but the engines looked complete, and the hull had been assembled over the bow. The name Nauvoo was painted in massive white letters across it.
"So the Mormons are going to ride that thing all the way to Tau Ceti, huh?" Amos asked, following it up with a long whistle. "Ballsy bastards. No guarantee there's even a planet worth a damn on the other end of that hundred-year trip."
"They seem pretty sure," Holden replied. "And you don't make the money to build a ship like that by being stupid. I, for one, wish them nothing but luck."
"They'll get the stars," Naomi said. "How can you not envy them that?"
"Their great-grandkids'll get maybe a star if they don't all starve to death orbiting a rock they can't use," Amos said. "Let's not get grandiose here."
He pointed at the impressively large comm array jutting from the Nauvoo's flank.
"Want to bet that's what threw our anus-sized tightbeam message?" Amos said.
Alex nodded. "If you want to send private messages home from a couple light-years away, you need serious beam coherence. They probably had the volume turned down to avoid cuttin' a hole in us."
Holden got up from the copilot's couch and pushed past Amos.
"Alex, see if they'll let us land."
Landing was surprisingly easy. The station control directed them to a docking port on the side of the sphere and stayed on the line, guiding them in, until Alex had married the docking tube to the airlock door. The tower control never pointed out that they had a lot of armaments for a transport and no tanks for carrying compressed gas. She got them docked, then wished them a pleasant day.
Holden put on his atmosphere suit and made a quick trip to the cargo bay, then met the others just inside the Rocinante's inner airlock door with a large duffel.
"Put your suits on, that's now standard ops for this crew anytime we go someplace new. And take one of these," he said, pulling handguns and cartridge magazines from the bag. "Hide it in a pocket or your bag if you like, but I will be wearing mine openly."
Naomi frowned at him.
"Seems a bit... confrontational, doesn't it?"
"I'm tired of being kicked around," Holden said. "The Roci's a good start toward independence, and I'm taking a little piece of her with me. Call it a good luck charm."
"Fuckin' A," said Amos, and strapped one of the guns to his thigh.
Alex stuffed his into the pocket of his flight suit. Naomi wrinkled her nose and waved off the last gun. Holden put it back into his duffel, led the crew into the Rocinante's airlock, and cycled it. An older, dark-skinned man with a heavy build waited for them on the other side. As they came in, he smiled.
"Welcome to Tycho Station," said the Butcher of Anderson Station. "Call me Fred."