Chapter Twenty-Nine: Holden

Fuck me," Holden said. And a moment later: "They left us."

No. She had left him. Naomi had said she would, but confronted with the reality of it, Holden realized that he hadn't really believed her. But here it was - the proof. The empty space where she used to be. His heart hammered and his throat tightened, breath coming in gasps. The sick feeling in his gut was either despair or his colon sloughing off its lining. He was going to die sitting outside a cheap hotel on Eros because Naomi had done exactly what she'd said she would. What he himself had ordered her to do. His resentment refused to listen to reason.

"We're dead," he said, and sat down on the edge of a fern-filled planter.

"How long do we have?" Miller asked, looking up and down the corridor while he fidgeted with his gun.

"No idea," Holden replied, gesturing vaguely at his terminal's flashing red radiation symbol. "Hours before we really start to feel it, I think, but I don't know. God, I wish Shed was still here."


"Friend of mine," Holden said, not feeling up to elaborating. "Good med tech."

"Call her," Miller said.

Holden looked at his terminal and tapped the screen a few times.

"Network's still down," he said.

"All right," Miller said. "Let's go to your ship. See if it's still in dock."

"They'll be gone. Naomi's keeping the crew alive. She warned me, but I - "

"So let's go anyway," Miller said. He was shifting from one foot to the other and looking down the corridor as he spoke.

"Miller," Holden said, then stopped. Miller was clearly on edge, and he'd shot four people. Holden was increasingly frightened of the former cop. As if reading his mind, Miller stepped close, the two-meter man towering over him where he sat. Miller smiled ruefully, his eyes unnervingly gentle. Holden would almost have preferred they be threatening.

"Way I see it, there's three ways this can go," Miller said. "One, we find your ship still in dock, get the meds we need, and maybe we live. Two, we try to get to the ship, and along the way we run into a bunch of mafia thugs. Die gloriously in a hail of bullets. Three, we sit here and leak out of our eyes and assholes."

Holden said nothing; he just stared up at the cop and frowned.

"I'm liking the first two better than the last one," Miller said. His voice made it sound like an apology. "How about you come with?"

Holden laughed before he could catch himself, but Miller didn't look like he was taking offense.

"Sure," Holden said. "I just needed to feel sorry for myself for a minute. Let's go get killed by the mafia."

He said it with much more bravado than he felt. The truth was he didn't want to die. Even during his time in the navy, the idea of dying in the line of duty had always seemed distant and unreal. His ship would never be destroyed, and if it was, he would make it to the escape shuttle. The universe without him in it didn't make any sense at all. He'd taken risks; he'd seen other people die. Even people he loved. Now, for the first time, his own death was a real thing.

He looked at the cop. He'd known the man less than a day, didn't trust him, and wasn't sure he much liked him. And this was who he'd die with. Holden shuddered and stood up, pulling his gun out of his waistband. Under the panic and fear, there was a deep feeling of calm. He hoped it would last.

"After you," Holden said. "If we make it, remind me to call my mothers."

The casinos were a powder keg waiting for a match. If the evacuation sweeps had been even moderately successful, there were probably a million or more people crammed into three levels of the station. Hard-looking men in riot gear moved through the crowds, telling everyone to stay put until they were taken to the radiation shelters, keeping the crowd frightened. Every now and then, a small group of citizens would be led away. Knowing where they were going made Holden's stomach burn. He wanted to yell out that cops were fake, that they were killing people. But a riot with this many people in such a confined space would be a meat grinder. Maybe that was inevitable but he wasn't going to be the one to start it.

Someone else did.

Holden could hear raised voices, the angry rumble of the mob, followed by the electronically amplified voice of someone in a riot helmet yelling for people to get back. And then a gunshot, a brief pause, then a fusillade. People screamed. The entire crowd around Holden and Miller surged in two opposing directions, some of the people rushing toward the sound of the conflict, but many more of them running away from it. Holden spun in the current of bodies; Miller reached out and grabbed the back of his shirt, gripping it in his fist and yelling for Holden to stay close.

About a dozen meters down the corridor, in a coffee shop seating area separated by a waist-high black iron fence, one of the mafia thugs had been cut off from his group by a dozen citizens. Gun drawn, he was backing up and yelling at them to move aside. They kept advancing, their faces wild with the drunken frenzy of mob violence.

The mafia thug fired once, and one small body staggered forward, then fell to the ground at the thug's feet. Holden couldn't tell if it was a boy or a girl, but they couldn't be more than thirteen or fourteen years old. The thug moved forward, looking down at the small thin figure at his feet, and pointed his gun at them again.

It was too much.

Holden found himself running down the corridor toward the thug, gun drawn and screaming for people to get out of the way. When he was about seven meters away, the crowd split apart enough for him to begin firing. Half his shots went wild, hitting the coffee shop counter and walls, one round blowing a stack of ceramic plates into the air. But a few of them hit the thug, staggering him back.

Holden vaulted the waist-high metal fence and came to a sliding halt about three meters from the fake cop and his victim. Holden's gun fired one last time and then the slide locked in the open position to let him know it was empty.

The thug didn't fall down. He straightened up, looked down at his torso, and then looked up and pointed his gun at Holden's face. Holden had time to count the three bullets that were smashed against the heavy chest armor of the thug's riot gear. Die gloriously in a hail of bullets, he thought.

The thug said, "Stupid mother fu - " and his head snapped back in a spray of red. He slumped to the floor.

"Gap at the neck, remember?" Miller said from behind him. "Chest armor's too thick for a pistol."

Suddenly dizzy, Holden bent over at the waist, gasping for air. He tasted lemon at the back of his throat and swallowed twice to stop himself from throwing up. He was afraid it would be full of blood and stomach lining. He didn't need to see that.

"Thanks," he gasped out, turning his head toward Miller.

Miller just nodded vaguely in his direction, then walked over to the guard and nudged him with one foot. Holden stood up and looked around the corridor, waiting for the inevitable wave of vengeful mafia enforcers to come crashing down on them. He didn't see any. He and Miller were standing in a quiet island of calm in the midst of Armageddon. All around them, tendrils of violence were whipping into high gear. People were running in every direction; the mafia goons were yelling in booming amplified voices and punctuating the threats with periodic gunfire. But there were only hundreds of them, and there were many thousands of angry and panicked civilians. Miller gestured at the chaos.

"This is what happens," he said. "Give a bunch of yahoos the equipment, and they think they know what they're doing."

Holden crouched beside the fallen child. It was a boy, maybe thirteen, with Asian features and dark hair. His chest had a gaping wound in it, blood trickling out instead of gushing. He didn't have a pulse that Holden could find. Holden picked him up anyway, looking around for someplace to take him.

"He's dead," Miller said as he replaced the cartridge he'd fired.

"Go to hell. We don't know. If we can get him to the ship, maybe... "

Miller shook his head, a sad but distant expression on his face as he looked at the child in Holden's arms.

"He took high-caliber round to the center of mass," Miller said. "He's gone."

"Fuck me," Holden said.

"You keep saying that."

A bright neon sign flashed above the corridor that led out of the casino levels and onto the ramps down to the docks. THANK YOU FOR PLAYING, it read. And YOU'RE ALWAYS A WINNER ON EROS. Below it, two ranks of men in heavy combat armor blocked the way. They might have given up on crowd control in the casinos, but they weren't letting anyone go.

Holden and Miller crouched behind an overturned coffee cart a hundred meters from the soldiers. As they watched, a dozen or so people made a dash toward the guards and were summarily mowed down by machine gun fire, then fell to the deck beside those who had tried before.

"I count thirty-four of them," Miller said. "How many can you handle?"

Holden spun to look at him in surprise, but Miller's face told him the former cop was joking.

"Kidding aside, how do we get past that?" Holden said.

"Thirty men with machine guns and a clear line of sight. No cover to speak of for the last twenty meters or so," Miller said. "We don't get past that."