Chapter Thirty-Five: Holden

I've found the comm logs," Naomi said as Holden and Miller drifted into the room behind her.

Holden put a hand on her shoulder, pulled it back, and hated that he'd pulled back. A week earlier she'd have been fine with a simple gesture of affection like that, and he wouldn't have been afraid of her reaction. He regretted the new distance between them only slightly less than he would have regretted not saying anything at all. He wanted to tell her that.

Instead, he said, "Find anything good?"

She tapped the screen and pulled up the log.

"They were hard-core about comm discipline," she said, pointing at the long list of dates and times. "Nothing ever went out on radio, everything was tightbeam. And everything was doublespeak, lots of obvious code phrases."

Miller's mouth moved inside his helmet. Holden tapped on his face shield. Miller rolled his eyes in disgust and then chinned the comm link to the general channel.

"Sorry. Don't spend a lot of time in suits," he said. "What've we got that's good?"

"Not much. But the last communication was in plain English," she said, then tapped the last line on the list.




Holden read it several times, imagining Captain Higgins watching the infection spread through his crew, helpless to stop it. His people vomiting all over in a vacuum-sealed metal box, even one molecule of the substance on your skin a virtual death sentence. Black filament-covered tendrils erupting from their eyes and mouths. And then that... soup that covered the reactor. He let himself shudder, grateful that Miller wouldn't see it through the atmosphere suit.

"So this Higgins fella realizes his crew is turning into vomit zombies and sends a last message to his bosses, right?" Miller said, breaking into Holden's reverie. "What's this stuff about vector data?"

"He knew they'd all be dead, so he was letting his people know how to catch the ship," Holden replied.

"But they didn't, because it's here, because Julie took control and flew it somewhere else," Miller said. "Which means they're looking for it, right?"

Holden ignored that and put his hand back on Naomi's shoulder with what he hoped was companionable casualness.

"We have tight beam messages and the vector info," he said. "Are they all going to the same place?"

"Sort of," she said, nodding with her right hand. "Not the same place, but all to what appear to be points in the Belt. But based on the changes in direction and the times they were sent, to one point in the Belt that is moving around, and not in a stable orbit either."

"A ship, then?"

Naomi gave another nod.

"Probably," she said. "I've been playing with the locations, and I can't find anything in the registry that looks likely. No stations or inhabited rocks. A ship would make sense. But - "

Holden waited for Naomi to finish, but Miller leaned forward impatiently.

"But what?" he said.

"But how did they know where it would be?" she replied. "I have no incoming comms in the log. If a ship was moving around randomly in the Belt, how'd they know where to send these messages?"

Holden squeezed her shoulder, lightly enough that she probably didn't even feel it in the heavy environment suit, then pushed off and allowed himself to drift toward the ceiling.

"So it's not random," he said. "They had some sort of map of where this thing would be at the time they sent the laser comms. Could be one of their stealth ships."

Naomi turned around in her chair to look up at him.

"Could be a station," she said.

"It's the lab," Miller broke in. "They're running an experiment on Eros, they need the white coats nearby."

"Naomi," Holden said. " 'Materials secured.' There's a safe in the captain's quarters that's still locked down. Think you can get it open?"

Naomi gave a one-handed shrug.

"I don't know," she said. "Maybe. Amos could probably blast it open with some of the explosives we found in that big box of weapons."

Holden laughed.

"Well," he said. "Since it's probably full of little vials of nasty alien viruses, I'm going to nix the blasting option."

Naomi shut down the comm log and pulled up a general ship's systems menu.

"I can look around and see if the computer has access to the safe," she said. "Try to open it that way. It might take some time."

"Do what you can," Holden said. "We'll get out of your hair."

Holden pushed himself off the ceiling and over to the ops compartment hatch, then pulled himself through, into the corridor beyond. A few moments later, Miller followed. The detective planted his feet on the deck with magnetic boots, then stared at Holden, waiting.

Holden floated down to the deck next to him.

"What do you think?" Holden asked. "Protogen being the whole thing? Or is this another one where it looks like them, so it isn't?"

Miller was silent for the space of two long breaths.

"This one smells like the real thing," Miller said. He sounded almost grudging.

Amos pulled himself up the crew ladder from below, dragging a large metal case behind him.

"Hey, Cap'n," he said. "I found a whole case of fuel pellets for the reactor in the machine shop. We'll probably want to take these with us."

"Good work," Holden said, holding up one hand to let Miller know to wait. "Go ahead and take those across. Also, I need you to work up a plan for scuttling this ship."

"Wait, what?" Amos said. "This thing is worth a jillion bucks, Captain. Stealth missile ship? The OPA would sell their grandmothers for this thing. And six of those tubes still have fish in them. Capital-ship busters. You could slag a small moon with those. Forget their grannies, the OPA would pimp their daughters for that gear. Why the fuck would we blow it up?"

Holden stared at him in disbelief.

"Did you forget what's in the engine room?" he asked.

"Hell, Cap," Amos snorted. "That shit is all frozen. Couple hours with a torch and I can chop it up and chuck it out the airlock. Good to go."

The mental image of Amos hacking the melted bodies of the ship's former crew apart with a plasma torch and then cheerfully hurling the chunks out an airlock tipped Holden over the edge into full-fledged nausea. The big mechanic's ability just to ignore anything that he didn't want to notice probably came in handy while he was crawling around in tight and greasy engine compartments. His ability to shrug off the horrible mutilation of several dozen people threatened to change Holden's disgust into anger.

"Forgetting the mess," he said, "and the very real possibility of infection by what made that mess, there is also the fact that someone is desperately searching for this very expensive and very stealthy ship, and so far Alex can't find the ship that's looking."

He stopped talking and nodded at Amos while the mechanic mulled that over. He could see Amos' broad face working as he put it together in his head. Found a stealth ship. Other people looking for stealth ship. We can't see the other people looking for it.


Amos' face went pale.

"Right," he said. "I'll set the reactor up to slag her." He looked down at the time on his suit's forearm display. "Shit, we've been here too long. Better get the lead out."

"Better had," Miller agreed.

Naomi was good. Very good. Holden had discovered this when he'd signed on with the Canterbury, and over the course of years, he'd added it to his list of facts, along with space is cold and the direction of gravity is down. When something stopped working on the water hauler, he'd tell Naomi to fix it, and then never think of it again. Sometimes she'd claim not to be able to fix something, but it was always a negotiating tactic. A short conversation would lead to a request for spare parts or an additional crewman hired on at the next port, and that would be that. There was no problem that involved electronics or spaceship parts she couldn't solve.

"I can't open the safe," she said.

She floated next to the safe in the captain's quarters, one foot resting lightly on his bunk to stabilize herself as she gestured. Holden stood on the floor with his boot mags on. Miller was in the hatchway to the corridor.

"What would you need?" Holden asked.

"If you won't let me blast it or cut it, I can't open it."

Holden shook his head, but Naomi either didn't see it or ignored him.

"The safe is designed to open when a very specific pattern of magnetic fields is played across that metal plate on the front," she said. "Someone has a key designed to do that, but that key isn't on this ship."

"It's at that station," Miller said. "He wouldn't send it there if they couldn't open it."

Holden stared at the wall safe for a moment, his fingers tapping on the bulkhead beside it.

"What're the chances cutting it sets off a booby trap?" he said.

"Fucking excellent, Cap," Amos said. He was listening in from the torpedo bay as he hacked the small fusion reactor that powered one of the six remaining torpedoes to go critical. Working on the ship's main reactor was too dangerous with the shielding stripped off.

"Naomi, I really want that safe and the research notes and samples it contains," Holden said.

"You don't know that's what's in there," Miller said, then laughed. "No, of course that's what's in there. But it won't help us if we get blown up or, worse, if some piece of goo-coated shrapnel makes a hole in our nice suits."

"I'm taking it," Holden replied, then pulled a piece of chalk from his suit's pocket and drew a line around the safe on the bulkhead. "Naomi, cut a small hole in the bulkhead and see if there's anything that would stop us from just cutting the whole damned thing out and taking it with us."

"We'd have to take out half the wall."


Naomi frowned, then shrugged, then smiled and nodded with one hand.

"All right, then," she said. "Thinking of taking it to Fred's people?"

Miller laughed again, a dry humorless rasp that made Holden uneasy. The detective had been watching the video of Julie Mao's fight with her captors over and over again while they'd waited on Naomi and Amos to finish their work. It gave Holden the disquieting feeling that Miller was storing the footage in his head. Fuel for something he planned to do later.

"Mars would give you your lives back in exchange for this," Miller said. "I hear Mars is nice if you're rich."

"Fuck rich," Amos said with a grunt as he worked on something below. "They'd build statues of us."

"We have an agreement with Fred to let him outbid any other contracts we take," Holden said. "Of course, this isn't really a contract per se... "

Naomi smiled and winked at Holden.

"So what is it, sir?" she said, her voice faintly mocking. "OPA heroes? Martian billionaires? Start your own biotech firm? What are we doing here?"

Holden pushed away from the safe and kicked out toward the airlock and the cutting torch that waited there with their other tools.

"I don't know yet," he said. "But it sure feels nice to have choices again."

Amos pushed the button again. No new stars flared in the dark. The radiation and infrared sensors remained quiet.

"There's supposed to be an explosion, right?" Holden asked.

"Fuck, yes," Amos said, then pushed the button on the black box in his hand a third time. "This isn't an exact science or anything. Those missile drives are as simple as it gets. Just a reactor with one wall missing. Can't exactly predict... "

"It isn't rocket science," Holden said with a laugh.

"What?" Amos asked, ready to be angry if he was being mocked.

"You know, 'it isn't rocket science,' " Holden said. "Like 'it isn't hard.' You're a rocket scientist, Amos. For real. You work on fusion reactors and starship drives for a living. Couple hundred years ago, people would have been lining up to give you their children for what you know."

"What the fu - " Amos started, but stopped when a new sun flared outside the cockpit window, then faded quickly. "See? Fucking told you it would work."

"Never doubted it," Holden said, then slapped Amos on one meaty shoulder and headed aft down the crew ladder.

"What the fuck was that about?" Amos asked no one in particular as Holden drifted away.

He headed through the ops deck. Naomi's chair was empty. He'd ordered her to get some sleep. Strapped down to loops inset in the deck was the stealth ship's safe. It looked bigger cut out of the wall. Black and imposingly solid. The kind of container in which one kept the end of the solar system.

Holden floated over to it and quietly said, "Open sesame."

The safe ignored him, but the deck hatch opened and Miller pulled himself up into the compartment. His environment suit had been traded in for a stale-smelling blue jumpsuit and his ever-present hat. There was something about the look on his face that made Holden uncomfortable. Even more so than the detective usually made him.

"Hey," Holden said.

Miller just nodded and pulled himself over to one of the workstations, then buckled in to one of the chairs.

"We decided on a destination yet?" he asked.

"No. I'm having Alex run the numbers on a couple of possibilities, but I haven't made up my mind."

"Been watching the news at all?" the detective asked.

Holden shook his head, then moved over to a chair on the other side of the compartment. Something in Miller's face was chilling his blood.

"No," he said. "What happened?"

"You don't hedge, Holden. I admire that about you, I guess."

"Just tell me," Holden said.

"No, I mean it. A lot of people claim to believe in things. 'Family is most important,' but they'll screw a fifty-dollar hooker on payday. 'Country first,' but they cheat on their taxes. Not you, though. You say everyone should know everything, and by God, you put your money where your mouth is."

Miller waited for him to say something, but Holden didn't know what. This speech had the feel of something the detective had prepared ahead of time. Might as well let him finish it.

"So Mars finds out that maybe Earth's been building ships on the side, ones with no flag on them. Some of them might have killed a Martian flagship. I bet Mars calls up to check. I mean, it's the Earth-Mars Coalition Navy, one big happy hegemony. Been policing the solar system together for almost a hundred years. Commanding officers are practically sleeping together. So it must be a mistake, right?"

"Okay," Holden said, waiting.

"So Mars calls," Miller said. "I mean, I don't know for sure, but I bet that's how it starts. A call from some bigwig on Mars to some bigwig on Earth."

"Seems reasonable," Holden said.

"What d'you think Earth says back?"

"I don't know."

Miller reached over and flipped on one of the screens, then pulled up a file with his name on it, date stamped from less than an hour before. A recording of video from a Martian news source, showing the night sky through a Martian dome. Streaks and flashes fill the sky. The ticker across the bottom of the feed says that Earth ships in orbit around Mars suddenly and without warning fired on their Martian counterparts. The streaks in the sky are missiles. The flashes are ships dying.

And then a massive white flare turns the Martian night into day for a few seconds, and the crawl says that the Deimos deep radar station has been destroyed.

Holden sat and watched the video display the end of the solar system in vivid color and with expert commentary. He kept waiting for the streaks of light to begin descending on the planet itself, for the domes to fly apart in nuclear fire, but it seemed someone had kept some measure of restraint, and the battle remained in the sky.

It couldn't stay that way forever.

"You're telling me that I did this," Holden said. "That if I hadn't broadcast that data, those ships would still be alive. Those people."

"That, yeah. And that if the bad guys wanted to keep people from watching Eros, it just worked."