Chapter Twenty-One: Holden


Ships were small. Space was always at a premium, and even on a monster like the Donnager, the corridors and compartments were cramped and uncomfortable. On the Rocinante, the only rooms where Holden could spread out his arms without touching two walls were the galley and the cargo bay. No one who flew for a living was claustrophobic, but even the most hardened Belt prospector could recognize the rising tension of being ship-bound. It was the ancient stress response of the trapped animal, the subconscious knowledge that there was literally nowhere to go that you couldn't see from where you were already standing. Getting off the ship at port was a sudden and sometimes giddying release of tension.

It often took the form of a drinking game.

Like all professional sailors, Holden had sometimes ended long flights by drinking himself into a stupor. More than once he'd wandered into a brothel and left only when they threw him out with an emptied account, a sore groin, and a prostate as dry as the Sahara desert. So when Amos staggered into his room after three days on station, Holden knew exactly what the big mechanic felt like.

Holden and Alex were sharing the couch and watching a newsfeed. Two talking heads were discussing the Belter actions with words like criminal, terrorist, and sabotage. The Martians were "peacekeepers." It was a Martian news channel. Amos snorted and collapsed on the couch. Holden muted the screen.

"Having a good shore leave, sailor?" Holden asked with a grin.

"I'll never drink again," Amos groaned.

"Naomi's comin' over with some chow she got at that sushi place," Alex said. "Nice raw fish wrapped in fake seaweed."

Amos groaned again.

"That's not nice, Alex," Holden said. "Let the man's liver die in peace."

The door to the suite slid open again, and Naomi came in carrying a tall stack of white boxes.

"Food's here," she said.

Alex opened all the boxes and started handing around small disposable plates.

"Every time it's your turn to get food, you get salmon rolls. It shows a lack of imagination," Holden said as he began putting food on his plate.

"I like salmon," Naomi replied.

The room got quiet as people ate; the only sounds were the clack of plastic chopsticks and the wet squish of things being dipped in wasabi and soy. When the food was gone, Holden wiped his eyes, made runny by the heat in his sinuses, and leaned his chair all the way back. Amos used one of his chopsticks to scratch under the cast on his leg.

"You guys did a pretty good job setting this," he said. "It's the thing on my body that hurts the least right now."

Naomi grabbed the remote off Holden's armrest and turned the volume back on. She began spooling through the different feeds. Alex closed his eyes and slid down on the loveseat, lacing his fingers across his belly and sighing contentedly. Holden felt a sudden and irrational annoyance at his crew for being so comfortable.

"Everyone had enough of sucking on Fred's teat yet?" he said. "I know I have."

"What the fuck are you talking about?" Amos said, shaking his head. "I'm just getting started."

"I mean," Holden said, "how long are we going to hang around on Tycho, drinking and whoring and eating sushi on Fred's expense account?"

"As long as I can?" Alex said.

"You have a better plan, then," Naomi said.

"I don't have a plan, but I want to get back in the game. We were full of righteous anger and dreams of vengeance when we got here, and a couple of blowjobs and hangovers later, it's like nothing ever happened."

"Uh, vengeance kinda requires someone to avenge upon, Cap," Alex said. "Case you ain't noticed, we're lackin' in that department."

"That ship is still out there, somewhere. The people who ordered it to shoot are, too," Holden said.

"So," Alex replied slowly, "we take off and start flyin' in a spiral until we run into it?"

Naomi laughed and threw a soy packet at him.

"I don't know what we do," Holden said, "but sitting here while the people who killed our ship keep doing whatever it is they're doing is making me nuts."

"We've been here three days," Naomi said. "We deserve some comfortable beds and decent food and a chance to blow off steam. Don't try to make us feel bad for taking it."

"Besides, Fred said we'll get those bastards at the trial," Amos said.

"If there's a trial," Holden replied. "If. It won't happen for months, or maybe even years. And even then, Fred's looking at those treaties. Amnesty might be another bargaining chip, right?"

"You were quick enough to agree to his terms, Jim," Naomi said. "Changed your mind?"

"If Fred wants depositions in exchange for letting us patch up and rest, the price was cheap. That doesn't mean I think a trial will fix everything, or that I want to be sidelined until it happens."

He gestured at the faux-leather couch and huge wall screen around them.

"Besides, this can be a prison. It's a nice one, but as long as Fred controls the purse strings, he owns us. Make no mistake."

Naomi's brow crinkled; her eyes grew serious.

"What's the option, sir?" she asked. "Leave?"

Holden folded his arms, his mind turning over everything he'd said as if he was hearing it for the first time. Saying things out loud actually made them clearer.

"I'm thinking we look for work," he said. "We've got a good ship. More importantly, we have a sneaky ship. It's fast. We can run without a transponder if we need to. Lots of people will need things moved from place to place with a war on. Gives us something to do while we wait for Fred's trial, and a way to put money in our pockets so we can get off the dole. And, as we fly from place to place, we can keep our ears and eyes open. Never know what we'll find. And seriously, how long can you three stand to be station rats?"

There was a moment's silence.

"I could station rat for another... week?" Amos said.

"It ain't a bad idea, Cap," Alex said with a nod.

"It's your decision, Captain," Naomi said. "I'll stick with you, and I like the idea of getting my own money again. But I hope you're not in a hurry. I could really use a few more days off."

Holden clapped his hands and jumped to his feet.

"Nope," he said. "Having a plan makes all the difference. Downtime's easier to enjoy when I know it'll end."

Alex and Amos got up together and headed for the door. Alex had won a few dollars playing darts, and now he and Amos were in the process of turning it into even more money at the card tables.

"Don't wait up, Boss," Amos said to Naomi. "I'm feeling lucky today."

They left, and Holden went to the small kitchen nook to make coffee. Naomi followed him in.

"One other thing," she said.

Holden tore open the sealed coffee packet, the strong odor filling the room.

"Shoot," he said.

"Fred is taking care of all the arrangements for Kelly's body. He'll hold it here in state until we go public with our survival. Then he'll ship it back to Mars."

Holden filled the coffeemaker with water from the tap and started the machine. It made soft gurgling sounds.

"Good. Lieutenant Kelly deserves all the respect and dignity we can give him."

"It got me thinking about that data cube he had. I haven't been able to hack it. It's some kind of military ¨¹ber-encryption that makes my head hurt. So... "

"Just say it," Holden said with a frown.

"I want to give it to Fred. I know it's a risk. We have no idea what's on it, and for all his charm and hospitality, Fred's still OPA. But he was also high-ranking UN military. And he's got a serious brain trust here on the station. He might be able to open it up."

Holden thought for a moment, then nodded.

"Okay, let me sit with that. I want to know what Yao was trying to get off the ship, but - "

"Yeah."

They shared a companionable silence as the coffee brewed. When it was finished, Holden poured two mugs and handed one to Naomi.

"Captain," she said, then paused. "Jim. I've been a pain-in-the-ass XO so far. I've been stressed out and scared shitless about eighty percent of the time."

"You do an amazing job of hiding that fact," Holden replied.

Naomi nodded the compliment away.

"Anyway, I've been pushy about some things that I probably shouldn't have been."

"Not a big deal."

"Okay, let me finish," she said. "I want you to know I think you've done a great job of keeping us alive. You keep us focused on the problems we can solve instead of feeling sorry for ourselves. You keep everyone in orbit around you. Not everyone can do that, I couldn't do it, and we've needed that stability."

Holden felt a glow of pride. He hadn't expected it, and he didn't trust it, but it felt good all the same.

"Thank you," Holden said.

"I can't speak for Amos and Alex, but I plan to stick it out. You're not just the captain because McDowell is dead. You're our captain, as far as I'm concerned. Just so you know."

She looked down, blushing as if she'd just confessed something. Maybe she had.

"I'll try not to blow it," he said.

"I'd appreciate that, sir."

Fred Johnson's office was like its occupant: big, intimidating, and overflowing with things that needed to be done. The room was easily two and a half square meteres, making it larger than any single compartment on the Rocinante. His desk was made of actual wood, looked at least a hundred years old, and smelled of lemon oil. Holden sat in a chair that was just a little lower than Fred's, and looked at the mounds of file folders and papers covering every flat surface.

Fred had sent for him and then spent the first ten minutes after he'd arrived speaking on the phone. Whatever he was talking about, it sounded technical. Holden assumed it was related to the giant generation ship outside. It didn't bother him to be ignored for a few minutes, since the wall behind Fred was entirely covered by a bleedingly high-definition screen pretending to be a window. It was showing a spectacular view of the Nauvoo moving past as the station spun. Fred spoiled the scene by putting the phone down.

"Sorry about that," he said. "The atmosphere processing system has been a nightmare from day one. When you're going a hundred plus years on only the air you can bring with you, the loss tolerances are... stricter than usual. Sometimes it's difficult to impress the importance of fine details on the contractors."

"I was enjoying the view," Holden said, gesturing at the screen.

"I'm starting to wonder if we'll be able to get it done on schedule."

"Why?"

Fred sighed and leaned his chair back with a squeak.

"It's the war between Mars and the Belt."

"Material shortages, then?"

"Not just that. Pirate casts claiming to speak for the OPA are working into a frenzy. Belt prospectors with homemade torpedo launchers are firing on Martian warships. They get wiped out in response, but every now and then one of those torpedoes hits and kills a few Martians."

"Which means Mars starts shooting first."

Fred nodded and then got up and started pacing the room.

"And then even honest citizens on legitimate business start getting worried about going out of the house," he said. "We've had over a dozen late shipments so far this month, and I'm worried it will stop being delays and start being cancellations."

"You know, I've been thinking about the same thing," Holden said.

Fred acted as though he hadn't heard.

"I've been on that bridge," Fred said. "Unidentified ship coming on you, and a decision to make? No one wants to press the button. I've watched a ship get bigger and bigger on the scope while my finger was on the trigger. I remember begging them to stop."

Holden said nothing. He'd seen it too. There was nothing to say. Fred let silence hang in the air for a moment, then shook his head and straightened up.

"I need to ask you a favor," Fred said.

"You can always ask, Fred. You've paid for that much," Holden replied.

"I need to borrow your ship."

"The Roci?" Holden said. "Why?"

"I need to have something picked up and delivered here, and I need a ship that can stay quiet and run past Martian picket ships if it needs to."

"The Rocinante is definitely the right ship, then, but that didn't answer my question. Why?"

Fred turned his back to Holden and looked at the view screen. The nose of the Nauvoo was just vanishing from sight. The view turned to the flat, star-speckled black of forever.

"I need to pick someone up on Eros," he said. "Someone important. I've got people who can do it, but the only ships we've got are light freighters and a couple of small shuttles. Nothing that can make the trip quickly enough or have a hope of running away if trouble starts."

"Does this person have a name? I mean, you keep saying you don't want to fight, but the other unique thing about my ship is that it's the only one here with guns. I'm sure the OPA has a whole list of things they'd like blown up."

"You don't trust me."

"Nope."

Fred turned back around and gripped the back of his chair. His knuckles were white. Holden wondered if he'd gone too far.

"Look," Holden said, "you talk a good game about peace and trials and all that. You disavow the pirate casts. You have a nice station filled with nice people. I have every reason to believe you are what you say you are. But we've been here three days, and the first time you tell me about your plans, you ask to borrow my ship for a secret mission. Sorry. If I'm part of this, I get full access; no secrets. Even if I knew for a fact, which I don't, that you had nothing but good intentions, I still wouldn't go along with the cloak-and-dagger bullshit."

Fred stared at him for a few seconds, then came around his chair and sat down. Holden found he was tapping his fingers on his thigh nervously and forced himself to stop. Fred's eyes flicked down at Holden's hand and then back up. He continued to stare.

Holden cleared his throat.

"Look, you're the big dog here. Even if I didn't know who you used to be, you'd scare the shit out of me, so don't feel the need to prove it. But no matter how scared I am, I'm not backing down on this."

Fred's hoped-for laughter didn't come. Holden tried to swallow without gulping.

"I bet every captain you ever flew under thought you were a gigantic pain in the ass," Fred said finally.

"I believe my record reflects that," Holden said, trying to hide his relief.

"I need to fly to Eros and find a man named Lionel Polanski, and then bring him back to Tycho."

"That's only a week out if we push," Holden said, doing the math in his head.

"The fact that Lionel doesn't actually exist complicates the mission."

"Yeah, okay. Now I'm confused," Holden agreed.

"You wanted in?" Fred said, the words taking on a quiet ferocity. "Now you're in. Lionel Polanski exists only on paper, and owns things that Mr. Tycho doesn't want to own. Including a courier ship called the Scopuli."

Holden leaned forward in his chair, his face intense.

"You now have my undivided attention," he said.

"The nonexistent owner of the Scopuli checked into a flophouse on one of the shit levels of Eros. We only just got the message. We have to work on the assumption that whoever got the room knows our operations intimately, needs help, and can't ask for it openly."

"We can leave in an hour," Holden said breathlessly.

Fred held up his hands in a gesture that was surprisingly Belter for an Earth man.

"When," Fred asked, "did this turn into you leaving?"

"I won't loan my ship, but I'll definitely rent it out. My crew and I were talking about getting jobs, actually. Hire us. Deduct whatever's fair for services you've already rendered."

"No," Fred said. "I need you."

"You don't," Holden replied. "You need our depositions. And we're not going to sit here waiting a year or two for sanity to reign. We'll all do video depositions, sign whatever affidavits you want us to as to their authenticity, but we're leaving to find work one way or the other. You might as well make use of it."

"No," Fred said. "You're too valuable to take risks with your lives."

"What if I throw in the data cube the captain of the Donnager was trying to liberate?"

The silence was back, but it had a different feel to it.

"Look," Holden said, pressing on. "You need a ship like the Roci. I've got one. You need a crew for her. I've got that too. And you're as hungry to know what's on that cube as I am."

"I don't like the risk."

"Your other option is to throw us in the brig and commandeer the ship. There's some risks in that too."

Fred laughed. Holden felt himself relax.

"You'll still have the same problem that brought you here," Fred said. "Your ship looks like a gunship, no matter what its transponder is saying."

Holden jumped up and grabbed a piece of paper from Fred's desk. He started writing on it with a pen snatched from a decorative pen set.

"I've been thinking about that. You've got full manufacturing facilities here. And we're supposed to be a light gas freighter. So," he said as he sketched a rough outline of the ship, "we weld on a bunch of empty compressed-gas storage tanks in two bands around the hull. Use them to hide the tubes. Repaint the whole thing. Weld on a few projections to break up the hull profile and hide us from ship-recognition software. It'll look like shit and screw up the aerodynamics, but we won't be near atmo anytime soon. It'll look exactly like what it is: something a bunch of Belters slapped together in a hurry."

He handed the paper to Fred. Fred began laughing in earnest, either at the terrible drawing or at the absurdity of the whole thing.

"You could give a pirate a hell of a surprise," he said. "If I do this, you and your crew will record my depositions and hire on as an independent contractor for errands like the Eros run and appear on my behalf when the peace negotiations start."

"Yes."

"I want the right to outbid anyone else who tries to hire you. No contracts without my counteroffer."

Holden held out his hand, and Fred shook it.

"Nice doing business with you, Fred."

As Holden left the office, Fred was already on the comm with his machine-shop people. Holden pulled out his portable terminal and called up Naomi.

"Yeah," she said.

"Pack up the kids, we're going to Eros."