Only Naomi was looking at him. Her hair was pulled up into a thick tail, and her dark, almond-shaped eyes were staring right into his. It was fairly disconcerting.
“I’ve recently figured out something about myself,” Holden continued, not letting Naomi’s unblinking stare throw him off. “I’ve been treating you all like you owe me something. And none of you do. And that means I’ve been treating you like shit.”
“No,” Alex started without looking up.
“Yes,” Holden said, and stopped until Alex looked up at him. “Yes. You maybe more than anyone else. Because I’ve been scared to death and cowards always look for an easy target. And you’re about the nicest person I know, Alex. So I treated you badly because I could get away with it. And I hope you forgive me for that, because I really hate that I did it.”
“Sure, I forgive you, Cap,” Alex said with a smile and his heavy drawl.
“I’ll try to earn it,” Holden answered, bothered by the easy reply. “But Alex said something else to me recently that I’ve been thinking about a lot. He reminded me that none of you are employees. We’re not on the Canterbury. We don’t work for Pur’n’Kleen anymore. And I don’t own this ship any more than any of you do. We took contracts from the OPA in exchange for pocket money and ship expenses, but we never talked about how to handle the excess.”
“You opened that account,” Alex said.
“Yeah, there’s a bank account with all of the extra money in it. Last I checked, there was just under eighty grand in there. I said we’d keep it for ship expenses, but who am I to make that decision for the rest of you? That’s not my money. It’s our money. We earned it.”
“But you’re the captain,” Amos said, then pointed at the coffeepot.
While Holden fixed him a cup, he said, “Am I? I was the XO on the Canterbury. It made sense for me to be the captain after the Cant got nuked.”
He handed the cup to Amos and sat down at the table with the rest of the crew. “But we haven’t been those guys for a long time now. Who we are now is four people who don’t actually work for anyone—”
Prax cleared his throat at this, and Holden nodded an apology at him. “Anyone long term, let’s say. There is no corporation or government granting me authority over this crew. We’re just four people who sort of own a ship that Mars will probably try to take back the first chance they get.”
“This is legitimate salvage,” Alex said.
“And I hope the Martians find that compelling when you explain it to them,” Holden replied. “But it doesn’t change my point: Who are we?”
Naomi nodded a fist at him. “I see where you’re going. We’ve left a lot of this kind of stuff just up in the air because we’ve been running full tilt since the Canterbury.”
“And this,” Holden said, “is the perfect time to figure that stuff out. We’ve got a contract to help Prax find his little girl, and he’s paying us so we can afford to run the ship. Once we find Mei, how do we find the next job? Do we go looking for a next job? Do we sell the Roci to the OPA and retire on Titan? I think we need to know those things.”
No one spoke. Prax pushed himself off the counter and started rummaging through the cabinets. After a minute or two, he pulled out a package that read CHOCOLATE PUDDING on the side and said, “Can I make this?”
Naomi laughed. Alex said, “Knock yourself out, Doc.”
Prax pulled a bowl out and began mixing ingredients into it. Oddly enough, because the botanist was paying attention to something else, it created a sense of intimacy for the crew. The outsider was doing outside things, leaving them to talk among themselves. Holden wondered if Prax knew that and was doing it on purpose.
Amos slurped down the last of his coffee and said, “So, you called this meeting, Cap. You have something in mind?”
“Yeah,” Holden said, taking a moment to think. “Yeah, kind of.”
Naomi put a hand on his arm and smiled at him. “We’re listening.”
“I think we get married,” he said with a wink at Naomi. “Make it all nice and legal.”
“Wait,” she said. The look on her face was more horrified than Holden would have hoped.
“No, no, that’s sort of a joke,” Holden said. “But only sort of. See, I was thinking about my parents. They formed their initial collective partnership because of the farm. They were all friends, they wanted to buy the property in Montana, and so they made a group large enough to afford it. It wasn’t sexual. Father Tom and Father Caesar were already sexual partners and monogamous. Mother Tamara was single. Fathers Joseph and Anton and Mothers Elise and Sophie were already a polyamorous civil unit. Father Dimitri joined a month later when he started dating Tamara. They formed a civil union to own the property jointly. They wouldn’t have been able to afford it if they were all paying taxes for separate kids, so they had me as a group.”
“Earth,” Alex said, “is a weird freakin’ place.”
“Eight parents to a baby ain’t exactly common,” Amos said.
“But it makes a lot of economic sense with the baby tax,” Holden said. “So it’s not unheard of, either.”
“What about people making babies without paying the tax?” Alex asked.
“It’s tougher to get away with than you think,” Holden said. “Unless you never go to a doctor or only use black markets.”
Amos and Naomi shared a quick look that Holden pretended not to see.
“Okay,” Holden continued. “Forget babies for a minute. What I’m talking about is incorporating. If we plan to stick together, let’s make it legal. We can draft up incorporation papers with one of the independent outer planets stations, like Ceres or Europa, and become joint owners of this enterprise.”
“What,” Naomi said, “does our little company do?”
“Exactly,” Holden said in triumph.
“Uh,” Amos said again.
“No, I mean, that’s exactly what I’ve been asking,” Holden continued. “Who are we? What do we want to do? Because when this contract with Prax is over, the bank account will be well padded, we’ll own a high-tech warship, and we’ll be free to do whatever we damn well want to do.”
“Jesus, Cap,” Amos said. “I just got half a hard-on.”
“I know, right?” Holden replied with a grin.