Chapter Twenty-Five: Holden

Miller gestured at Holden and headed for the elevator without waiting to see if he was following. The presumption irritated him, but he went anyway.

"So," Holden said, "we were just in a gunfight where we killed at least three people, and now we're just leaving? No getting questioned or giving a statement? How exactly does that happen?" Holden asked.

"Professional courtesy," Miller said, and Holden couldn't tell if he was joking.

The elevator door opened with a muffled ding, and Holden and the others followed Miller inside. Naomi was closest to the panel, so she reached out to press the lobby button, but her hand was shaking so badly that she had to stop and clench it into a fist. After a deep breath, she reached out a now steady finger and pressed the button.

"This is bullshit. Being an ex-cop doesn't give you a license to get in gunfights," Holden said to Miller's back.

Miller didn't move, but he seemed to shrink a little bit. His sigh was heavy and unforced. His skin seemed grayer than before.

"Sematimba knows the score. Half the job is knowing when to look the other way. Besides, I promised we wouldn't leave the station without letting him know."

"Fuck that," Amos said. "You don't make promises for us, pal."

The elevator came to a stop and opened onto the bloody scene of the gunfight. A dozen cops were in the room. Miller nodded at them and they nodded back. He led the crew out of the lobby to the corridor, then turned around.

"We can work that out later," Miller said. "Right now, let's get someplace we can talk."

Holden agreed with a shrug. "Okay, but you're paying."

Miller headed off down the corridor toward the tube station.

As they followed, Naomi put a hand on Holden's arm and slowed him down a bit so that Miller could get ahead. When he was far enough away, she said, "He knew her."

"Who knew who?"

"He," Naomi said, nodding at Miller, "knew her." She jerked her head back toward the crime scene behind them.

"How do you know?" Holden said.

"He wasn't expecting to find her there, but he knew who she was. Seeing her like that was a shock."

"Huh, I didn't get that at all. He's seemed like Mr. Cool all through this."

"No, they were friends or something. He's having trouble dealing with it, so maybe don't push him too hard," she said. "We might need him."

The hotel room Miller got was only slightly better than the one they'd found the body in. Alex immediately headed for the bathroom and locked the door. The sound of water running in the sink wasn't quite loud enough to cover the pilot's retching.

Holden plopped down on the small bed's dingy comforter, forcing Miller to take the room's one uncomfortable-looking chair. Naomi sat next to Holden on the bed, but Amos stayed on his feet, prowling around the room like a nervous animal.

"So, talk," Holden said to Miller.

"Let's wait for the rest of the gang to finish up," Miller replied with a nod toward the bathroom.

Alex came out a few moments later, his face still white, but now freshly washed.

"Are you all right, Alex?" Naomi asked in a soft voice.

"Five by five, XO," Alex said, then sat down on the floor and put his head in his hands.

Holden stared at Miller and waited. The older man sat and played with his hat for a minute, then tossed it onto the cheap plastic desk that cantilevered out from the wall.

"You knew Julie was in that room. How?" Miller said.

"We didn't even know her name was Julie," Holden replied. "We just knew that it was someone from the Scopuli."

"You should tell me how you knew that," Miller said, a frightening intensity in his eyes.

Holden paused a moment. Miller had killed someone who had been trying to kill them, and that certainly helped make the case that he was a friend, but Holden wasn't about to sell out Fred and his group on a hunch. He hesitated, then went halfway.

"The fictional owner of the Scopuli had checked into that flophouse," he said. "It made sense that it was a member of the crew raising a flag."

Miller nodded. "Who told you?" he said.

"I'm not comfortable telling you that. We believed the information was accurate," Holden replied. "The Scopuli was the bait that someone used to kill the Canterbury. We thought someone from the Scopuli might know why everyone keeps trying to kill us."

Miller said, "Shit," and then leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling.

"You've been looking for Julie. You'd hoped we were looking for her too. That we knew something," Naomi said, not making it a question.

"Yeah," Miller said.

It was Holden's turn to ask why.

"Parents sent a contract to Ceres looking for her to be sent home. It was my case," Miller said.

"So you work for Ceres security?"

"Not anymore."

"So what are you doing here?" Holden asked.

"Her family was connected to something," Miller replied. "I just naturally hate a mystery."

"And how did you know it was bigger than just a missing girl?"

Talking to Miller felt like digging through granite with a rubber chisel. Miller grinned humorlessly.

"They fired me for looking too hard."

Holden consciously decided not to be annoyed by Miller's non-answer. "So let's talk about the death squad in the hotel."

"Yeah, seriously, what the fuck?" Amos said, finally pausing in his pacing. Alex took his head out of his hands and looked up with interest for the first time. Even Naomi leaned forward on the edge of the bed.

"No idea," Miller replied. "But someone knew you were coming."

"Yeah, thanks for the brilliant police work," Amos said with a snort. "No way we woulda figured that out on our own."

Holden ignored him. "But they didn't know why, or they would have already gone up to Julie's room and gotten whatever they wanted."

"Does that mean Fred's been compromised?" Naomi said.

"Fred?" Miller asked.

"Or maybe someone figured out the Polanski thing too, but didn't have a room number," Holden said.

"But why come out guns blazing like that?" Amos said. "Doesn't make any sense to shoot us."

"That was a mistake," Miller said. "I saw it happen. Amos here drew his gun. Somebody overreacted. They were yelling cease-fire right up until you folks started shooting back."

Holden began ticking off points on his fingers.

"So someone finds out we're headed to Eros, and that it is related to the Scopuli. They even know the hotel, but not the room."

"They don't know it's Lionel Polanski either," Naomi said. "They could have looked it up at the desk, just like we did."

"Right. So they wait for us to show, and have a squad of gunmen ready to take us in. But that goes to shit and it turns into a gunfight in the lobby. They absolutely don't see you coming, Detective, so they aren't omniscient."

"Right," Miller said. "The whole thing screams last minute. Grab you guys and find out what you're looking for. If they'd had more time, they could have just searched the hotel. Might have taken two or three days, but it could have been done. They didn't, so that means grabbing you was easier."

Holden nodded. "Yes," he said. "But that means that they already had teams here. Those didn't seem like locals to me."

Miller paused, looking disconcerted.

"Now you say it, me either," he agreed.

"So whoever it is, they already have teams of gunmen on Eros, and they can redeploy them to come at a moment's notice to pick us up," Holden said.

"And enough pull with security that they could have a firefight and nobody came," Miller said. "Police didn't know anything was happening until I called them."

Holden cocked his head to one side, then said, "Shit, we really need to get out of here."

"Wait a minute," Alex said loudly. "Just wait a goddamn minute here. How come no one is talkin' about the mutant horror show in that room? Was I the only one that saw that?"

"Yeah, Jesus, what was that all about?" Amos said quietly.

Miller reached into his coat pocket and took out the evidence bag with Julie's hand terminal in it.

"Any of you guys a techie?" he asked. "Maybe we could find out."

"I could probably hack it," Naomi said. "But there's no way I'm touching that thing until we know what did that to her and that it isn't catching. I'm not pushing my luck by handling anything she's touched."

"You don't have to touch it. Keep the bag sealed. Just use it right through the plastic. The touch screen should still work."

Naomi paused for a second, then reached out and took the bag.

"Okay, give me a minute," she said, then set to work on it.

Miller leaned back in his chair again, letting out another heavy sigh.

"So," Holden said. "Did you know Julie before this? Naomi seems to think finding her dead like that really knocked you for a loop."

Miller shook his head slowly. "You get a case like that, you look into whoever it is. You know, personal stuff. Read their e-mail. Talk to the people they know. You get a picture."

Miller stopped talking and rubbed his eyes with his thumbs. Holden didn't push him, but he started talking again anyway.

"Julie was a good kid," Miller said as if he were confessing something. "She flew a mean racing ship. I just... I wanted to get her back alive."

"It's got a password," Naomi said, holding up the terminal. "I could hack the hardware, but I'd have to open the case."

Miller reached out and said, "Let me give it a try."

Naomi handed the terminal to him, and he tapped a few characters on the screen and handed it back.

"Razorback," Naomi said. "What's that?"

"It's a sled," Miller replied.

"Is he talking to us?" Amos said, pointing his chin at Miller. " 'Cause there's no one else here, but I swear half the time I don't know what the fuck he's on about."

"Sorry," Miller said. "I've been working more or less solo. Makes for bad habits."

Naomi shrugged and went back to work with Holden and Miller now looking over her shoulders.

"She's got a lot of stuff on here," Naomi said. "Where to start?"

Miller pointed at a text file simply labeled notes sitting on the terminal's desktop.

"Start there," he said. "She's a fanatic about putting things in the right folders. If she left that on the desktop, it means she wasn't sure where it went."

Naomi tapped on the document to open it up. It expanded into a loosely organized collection of text that read like someone's diary.

First off, get your shit together. Panic doesn't help. It never helps. Deep breaths, figure this out, make the right moves. fear is the mind-killer. Ha. Geek.

Shuttle Pros:

No reactor, just batteries. V. low radiation.

Supplies for eight

Lots of reaction mass

Shuttle Cons:

No Epstein, no torch

Comm not just disabled, but physically removed (feeling a little paranoid about leaks, guys?)

Closest transit is Eros. Is that where we were going? Maybe go someplace else? On just teakettle, this is gonna be a slow boat. Another transit adds seven more weeks. Eros, then.

I've got the Phoebe bug, no way around it. Not sure how, but that brown shit was everywhere. It's anaerobic, must have touched some. Doesn't matter how, just work the problem.

I just slept for THREE WEEKS. Didn't even get up to pee. What does that?

I'm so fucked.

Things you need to remember:

* BA834024112

* Radiation kills. No reactor on this shuttle, but keep the lights off. Keep the e-suit on. Video asshat said this thing eats radiation. Don't feed it.

* Send up a flag. Get some help. You work for the smartest people in the system. They'll figure something out.

* Stay away from people. Don't spread the bug. Not coughing up the brown goo yet. No idea when that starts.

* Keep away from bad guys - as if you know who they are. Fine. So keep away from everyone. Incognito is my name. Hmm. Polanski?

Damn. I can feel it. I'm hot all the time, and I'm starving. Don't eat. Don't feed it. Feed a cold, starve a flu? Other way around? Eros is a day out, and then help is on the way. Keep fighting.

Safe on Eros. Sent up the flag. Hope the home office is watching. Head hurts. Something's happening on my back. Lump over my kidneys. Darren turned into goo. Am I going to be a suit full of jelly?

Sick now. Things coming out of my back and leaking that brown stuff everywhere. Have to take the suit off. If you read this, don't let anyone touch the Brown stuff. Burn me. I'm burning up.

Naomi put the terminal down, but no one spoke for a moment. Finally, Holden said, "Phoebe bug. Anyone have an idea?"

"There was a science station on Phoebe," Miller said. "Inner planets place, no Belters allowed. It got hit. Lots of dead people, but... "

"She talks about being on a shuttle," Naomi said. "The Scopuli didn't have a shuttle."

"There had to be another ship," Alex said. "Maybe she got the shuttle off it."

"Right," Holden said. "They got on another ship, they got infected with this Phoebe bug, and the rest of the crew... I don't know. Dies?"

"She gets out, not realizing she's infected till she's on the shuttle," Naomi continued. "She comes here, she sends up the flag to Fred, and she dies in that hotel room of the infection."

"Not, however, turned to goo," Holden said. "Just really badly... I don't know. Those tubes and bone spurs. What kind of disease does that?"

The question hung in the air. Again no one spoke. Holden knew they were all thinking the same thing. They hadn't touched anything in the flophouse room. Did that mean they were safe from it? Or did they have the Phoebe bug, whatever the hell it was? But she'd said anaerobic. Holden was pretty sure that meant you couldn't get it by breathing it in the air. Pretty sure...

"Where do we go from here, Jim?" Naomi asked.

"How about Venus?" Holden said, his voice higher and tighter than he'd expected. "Nothing interesting happening on Venus."

"Seriously," Naomi said.

"Okay. Seriously, I think Miller there lets his cop friend know the story, and then we get the hell off of this rock. It's got to be a bioweapon, right? Someone steals it off a Martian science lab, seeds this shit in a dome, a month later every human being in the city is dead."

Amos interrupted with a grunt.

"There's some holes in that, Cap'n," Amos said. "Like what the fuck does that have to do with taking down the Cant and the Donnager?"

Holden looked Naomi in the eye and said, "We have a place to look now, don't we?"

"Yeah, we do," she said. "BA834024112. That's a rock designation."

"What do you think is out there?" Alex asked.

"If I was a betting man, I'd say it's whatever ship she stole that shuttle from," Holden replied.

"Makes sense," Naomi said. "Every rock in the Belt is mapped. You want to hide something, put it in a stable orbit next to one and you can always find it later."

Miller turned toward Holden, his face even more drawn.

"If you're going there, I want in," he said.

"Why?" Holden asked. "No offense, but you found your girl. Your job's over, right?"

Miller looked at him, his lips a thin line.

"Different case," Miller said. "Now it's about who killed her."