Chapter Thirty-Seven: Holden

Alex had the Rocinante running at three-quarters of a g for two hours while the crew prepared and ate dinner. He would run it back up to three when the break was over, but in the meantime, Holden enjoyed standing on his own two legs at something not too far off from Earth gravity. It was a little heavy for Naomi and Miller, but neither of them complained. They both understood the need for haste.

Once the gravity had dropped from the crush of high acceleration, the whole crew quietly gathered in the galley and started making dinner. Naomi blended together fake eggs and fake cheese. Amos cooked tomato paste and the last of their fresh mushrooms into a red sauce that actually smelled like the real thing. Alex, who had the duty watch, had forwarded ship ops down to a panel in the galley and sat at a table next to it, spreading the fake cheese paste and red sauce onto flat noodles in hopes that the end result would approximate lasagna. Holden had oven duty and had spent the lasagna prep time baking frozen lumps of dough into bread. The smell in the galley was not entirely unlike actual food.

Miller had followed the crew into the galley but seemed uncomfortable asking for something to do. Instead, he set the table and then sat down at it and watched. He wasn't exactly avoiding Holden's eyes, but he wasn't going out of his way to catch his attention. By unspoken mutual agreement, no one had any of the news channels on. Holden was sure everyone would rush back to check the current state of the war as soon as dinner was over, but for now they all worked in companionable silence.

When the prep was done, Holden switched off bread duty and on to moving lasagna-filled cookware into and out of the oven. Naomi sat down next to Alex and began a quiet conversation with him about something she'd seen on the ops screen. Holden split his time between watching her and watching the lasagna. She laughed at something Alex said and unconsciously twisted one finger into her hair. Holden felt his belly tighten a notch.

Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw Miller staring at him. When he looked, the detective had turned away, a hint of a smile on his face. Naomi laughed again. She had one hand on Alex's arm, and the pilot was blushing and talking as fast as his silly Martian drawl would let him. They looked like friends. That both made Holden happy and filled him with jealousy. He wondered if Naomi would ever be his friend again.

She caught him looking and gave him a conspiratorial wink that probably would have made a lot of sense if he'd been able to hear what Alex was saying. He smiled and winked back, grateful just to be included in the moment. A sizzling sound from inside the oven called his attention back. The lasagna was beginning to bubble and run over the sides of the dishes.

He pulled on his oven mitts and opened the door.

"Soup's on," he said, pulling the first of the dishes and putting it on the table.

"That's mighty ugly-looking soup," Amos said.

"Uh, yeah," Holden said. "It's just something Mother Tamara used to say when she'd finished cooking. Not sure where it comes from."

"One of your three mothers did the cooking? How traditional," Naomi said with a smirk.

"Well, she split it pretty evenly with Caesar, one of my fathers."

Naomi smiled at him, a genuine smile now.

"It sounds really nice," she said. "Big family like that."

"Yeah, it really was," he replied, a vision in his head of nuclear fire tearing apart the Montana farmhouse he'd grown up in, his family blowing into ash. If it happened, he was sure Miller would be there to let him know it was his fault. He wasn't sure he'd be able to argue anymore.

As they ate, Holden felt a slow release of tension in the room. Amos belched loudly, then reacted to the chorus of protests by doing it again even more loudly. Alex retold the joke that had made Naomi laugh. Even Miller got into the mood and told a long and increasingly improbable story about hunting down a black market cheese operation that ended in a gunfight with nine naked Australians in an illegal brothel. By the finish of the story, Naomi was laughing so hard she'd drooled on her shirt, and Amos kept repeating "No fucking way!" like a mantra.

The story was amusing enough, and the detective's dry delivery suited it well, but Holden only half listened. He watched his crew, saw the tension falling from their faces and shoulders. He and Amos were both from Earth, though if he had to guess, he'd say Amos had forgotten about his home world the first time he'd shipped out. Alex was from Mars and clearly still loved it. One bad mistake on either side and both planets might be radioactive rubble by the end of dinner. But right now they were just friends having a meal together. It was right. It was what Holden had to keep fighting for.

"I actually remember that cheese shortage," Naomi said once Miller had stopped talking. "Belt-wide. That was your fault?"

"Yeah, well, if they'd only been sneaking cheese past the government auditors, we wouldn't have had a problem," Miller said. "But they had this habit of shooting the other cheese smugglers. Makes the cops notice. Bad business."

"Over fucking cheese?" Amos said, tossing his fork onto his plate with a clack. "Are you serious? I mean, drugs or gambling or something. But cheese?"

"Gambling's legal, most places," Miller said. "And a chemistry class dropout can cook up just about any drug you like in his bathroom. No way to control supply."

"Real cheese comes from Earth, or Mars," Naomi added. "And after they tack on shipping costs and the Coalition's fifty percent in taxes, it costs more than fuel pellets."

"We wound up with one hundred and thirty kilos of Vermont Cheddar in the evidence lockup," Miller said. "Street value that would have probably bought someone their own ship. It had disappeared by the end of the day. We wrote it up as lost to spoilage. No one said a word, as long as everyone went home with a brick."

The detective leaned back in his chair with a distant look on his face.

"My God, that was good cheese," he said with a smile.

"Yeah, well, this fake stuff does taste like shit," Amos said, then added in a hurry, "No offense, Boss, you did a real good job whipping it up. But that's still weird to me, fighting over cheese."

"It's why they killed Eros," Naomi said.

Miller nodded but said nothing.

"How do you figure that?" Amos said.

"How long have you been flying?" Naomi asked.

"I dunno," Amos replied, his lips compressing as he did the mental math. "Twenty-five years, maybe?"

"Fly with a lot of Belters, right?"

"Yeah," Amos said. "Can't get better shipmates than Belters. 'Cept me, of course."

"You've flown with us for twenty-five years, you like us, you've learned the patois. I bet you can order a beer and a hooker on any station in the Belt. Heck, if you were a little taller and a lot skinnier, you could pass for one of us by now."

Amos smiled, taking it as a compliment.

"But you still don't get us," Naomi said. "Not really. No one who grew up with free air ever will. And that's why they can kill a million and a half of us to figure out what their bug really does."

"Hey now," Alex interjected. "You serious 'bout that? You think the inners and outers see themselves as that different?"

"Of course they do," Miller said. "We're too tall, too skinny, our heads look too big, and our joints too knobby."

Holden noticed Naomi glancing across the table at him, a speculative look on her face. I like your head, Holden thought at her, but the radiation hadn't given him telepathy either, because her expression didn't change.

"We've practically got our own language now," Miller said. "Ever see an Earther try to get directions in the deep dig?"

" 'Tu run spin, pow, Schlauch tu way acima and ido,' " Naomi said with a heavy Belter accent.

"Go spinward to the tube station, which will take you back to the docks," Amos said. "The fuck's so hard about that?"

"I had a partner wouldn't have known that after two years on Ceres," Miller said. "And Havelock wasn't stupid. He just wasn't... from there."

Holden listened to them talk and pushed cold pasta around on his plate with a chunk of bread.

"Okay, we get it," he said. "You're weird. But to kill a million and a half people over some skeletal differences and slang... "

"People have been getting tossed into ovens for less than that ever since they invented ovens," Miller said. "If it makes you feel better, most of us think you're squat and microcephalic."

Alex shook his head.

"Don't make a lick of sense to me, turnin' that bug loose, even if you hated every single human on Eros personally. Who knows what that thing'll do?"

Naomi walked to the galley sink and washed her hands, the running water drawing everyone's attention.

"I've been thinking about that," she said, then turned around, wiping her hands on a towel. "The point of it, I mean."

Miller started to speak, but Holden hushed him with a quick gesture and waited for Naomi to continue.

"So," she said. "I've been thinking of it as a computing problem. If the virus or nanomachine or protomolecule or whatever was designed, it has a purpose, right?"

"Definitely," Holden said.

"And it seems like it's trying to do something - something complex. It doesn't make sense to go to all that trouble just to kill people. Those changes it makes look intentional, just... not complete, to me."

"I can see that," Holden said. Alex and Amos nodded along with him but stayed quiet.

"So maybe the issue is that the protomolecule isn't smart enough yet. You can compress a lot of data down pretty small, but unless it's a quantum computer, processing takes space. The easiest way to get that processing in tiny machines is through distribution. Maybe the protomolecule isn't finishing its job because it just isn't smart enough to. Yet."

"Not enough of them," Alex said.

"Right," Naomi said, dropping the towel into a bin under the sink. "So you give them a lot of biomass to work with, and see what it is they are ultimately made to do."

"According to that guy in the video, they were made to hijack life on Earth and wipe us out," Miller said.

"And that," Holden said, "is why Eros is perfect. Lots of biomass in a vacuum-sealed test tube. And if it gets out of hand, there's already a war going on. A lot of ships and missiles can be used for nuking Eros into glass if the threat seems real. Nothing to make us forget our differences like a new player butting in."

"Wow," Amos said. "That is really, really fucked up."

"Okay. But even though that's probably what's happened," Holden said, "I still can't believe that there are enough evil people all in one place to do it. This isn't a one-man operation. This is the work of dozens, maybe hundreds, of very smart people. Does Protogen just go around recruiting every potential Stalin and Jack the Ripper it runs across?"

"I'll make sure to ask Mr. Dresden," Miller said, an unreadable expression on his face, "when we finally meet."

Tycho's habitat rings spun serenely around the bloated zero-g factory globe in the center. The massive construction waldoes that sprouted from the top were maneuvering an enormous piece of hull plating onto the side of the Nauvoo. Looking at the station on the ops screens while Alex finished up docking procedures, Holden felt something like relief. So far, Tycho was the one place no one had tried to shoot them, or blow them up, or vomit goo on them, and that practically made it home.

Holden looked at the research safe clamped securely to the deck and hoped that he hadn't just killed everyone on the station by bringing it there.

As if on cue, Miller pulled himself through the deck hatch and drifted over to the safe. He gave Holden a meaningful look.

"Don't say it. I'm already thinking it," Holden said.

Miller shrugged and drifted over to the ops station.

"Big," he said, nodding at the Nauvoo, on Holden's screen.

"Generation ship," Holden said. "Something like that will give us the stars."

"Or a lonely death on a long trip to nowhere," Miller replied.

"You know," Holden said, "some species' version of the great galactic adventure is shooting virus-filled bullets at their neighbors. I think ours is pretty damn noble in comparison."

Miller seemed to consider that, nodded, and watched Tycho Station swell on the monitor as Alex brought them closer. The detective kept one hand on the console, making the micro adjustments necessary to remain still even as the pilot's maneuvers threw unexpected bursts of gravity at them from every direction. Holden was strapped into his chair. Even concentrating, he couldn't handle zero g and intermittent thrust half that well. His brain just couldn't be trained out of the twenty-odd years he'd spent with gravity as a constant.

Naomi was right. It would be so easy to see Belters as alien. Hell, if you gave them time to develop some really efficient implantable oxygen storage and recycling and kept trimming the environment suits down to the minimum necessary for heat, you might wind up with Belters who spent more time outside their ships and stations than in.

Maybe that was why they were taxed to subsistence level. The bird was out of the cage, but you couldn't let it stretch its wings too far or it might forget it belonged to you.

"You trust this Fred?" Miller asked.

"Sort of," Holden said. "He treated us well last time, when everyone else wanted us dead or locked up."

Miller grunted, as if that proved nothing.

"He's OPA, right?"

"Yeah," Holden said. "But I think maybe the real OPA. Not the cowboys who want to shoot it out with the inners. And not those nuts on the radio calling for war. Fred's a politician."

"What about the ones keeping Ceres in line?"

"I don't know," Holden said. "I don't know about them. But Fred's the best shot we have. Least wrong."

"Fair enough," Miller said. "We won't find a political solution to Protogen, you know."

"Yeah," Holden said, then began unbuckling his harness as the Roci slid into its berth with a series of metallic bangs. "But Fred isn't just a politician."

Fred sat behind his large wooden desk, reading the notes Holden had written about Eros, the search for Julie, and the discovery of the stealth ship. Miller sat across from him, watching Fred like an entomologist might watch a new species of bug, guessing if it was likely to sting. Holden was a little farther away on Fred's right, trying not to keep looking at the clock on his hand terminal. On the huge screen behind the desk, the Nauvoo drifted by like the metal bones of some dead and decaying leviathan. Holden could see the tiny spots of brilliant blue light where workers used welding torches on the hull and frame. To occupy himself, he started counting them.

He'd reached forty-three when a small shuttle appeared in his field of view, a load of steel beams clutched in a pair of heavy manipulator arms, and flew toward the half-built generation ship. The shuttle shrank to a point no larger than the tip of a pen before it stopped. The Nauvoo suddenly shifted in Holden's mind from a large ship relatively nearby, to a gigantic ship farther away. It gave him a short rush of vertigo.

His hand terminal beeped at almost the same instant that Miller's did. He didn't even look at it; he just tapped the face to shut it up. He knew this routine by now. He pulled out a small bottle, took out two blue pills, and swallowed them dry. He could hear Miller pouring pills out of his bottle as well. The ship's expert medical system dispensed them for him every week with a warning that failing to take them on schedule would lead to horrific death. He took them. He would for the rest of his life. Missing a few would just mean that wasn't very long.

Fred finished reading and threw his hand terminal down on the desk, then rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands for several seconds. To Holden, he looked older than the last time they'd seen each other.

"I have to tell you, Jim, I have no idea what to make of this," he finally said.

Miller looked at Holden and mouthed, Jim, at him with a question on his face. Holden ignored him.

"Did you read Naomi's addition at the end?" Holden asked.

"The bit with the networked nanobugs for increased processing power?"

"Yeah, that bit," Holden said. "It makes sense, Fred."

Fred laughed without humor, then stabbed one finger at his terminal.

"That," he said. "That only makes sense to a psychopath. No one sane could do that. No matter what they thought they might get out of it."

Miller cleared his throat.

"You have something to add, Mr. Muller?" Fred asked.

"Miller," the detective replied. "Yes. First - and all respect here - don't kid yourself. Genocide's old-school. Second, the facts aren't in question. Protogen infected Eros Station with a lethal alien disease, and they're recording the results. Why doesn't matter. We need to stop them."

"And," Holden said, "we think we can track down where their observation station is."

Fred leaned back in his chair, the fake leather and metal frame creaking under his weight even in the one-third g.

"Stop them how?" he asked. Fred knew. He just wanted to hear them say it out loud. Miller played along.

"I'd say we fly to their station and shoot them."

"Who is 'we'?" Fred asked.

"There are a lot of OPA hotheads looking to shoot it out with Earth and Mars," Holden said. "We give them some real bad guys to shoot at instead."

Fred nodded in a way that didn't mean he agreed to anything.

"And your sample? The captain's safe?" Fred said.

"That's mine," Holden said. "No negotiation on that."

Fred laughed again, though there was some humor in it this time. Miller blinked in surprise and then stifled a grin.

"Why would I agree to that?" Fred asked.

Holden lifted his chin and smiled.

"What if I told you that I've hidden the safe on a planetesimal booby-trapped with enough plutonium to break anyone who touches it into their component atoms even if they could find it?" he said.

Fred stared at him for a moment, then said, "But you didn't."

"Well, no," Holden said. "But I could tell you I did."

"You are too honest," Fred said.

"And you can't trust anyone with something this big. You already know what I'm going to do with it. That's why, until we can agree on something better, you're leaving it with me."

Fred nodded.

"Yes," he said, "I guess I am."