“Been watching the news a lot?” Sam said, pointing at the talking heads on the wall monitor. “Ganymede is f**ked, right?”
“Yeah,” Alex said. “Pretty much.”
“But it’s only Ganymede so far,” Holden said. “So that means something I haven’t quite figured out yet.”
“Naomi’s staying with me right now,” Sam said as if they’d been talking about that all along. Holden felt his face go still and tried to fight against it, forcing himself to smile.
“She won’t talk about it, but if I find out you did something shitty to her, I’m using this on your dick,” she said, holding up a torque wrench. Alex laughed nervously for a second, then trailed off and just looked uncomfortable.
“I consider myself fairly warned,” Holden said. “How is she?”
“Quiet,” Sam said. “Okay, got what I need. Gonna scoot now and get fabrication to work on cutting this bulkhead patch. See you boys around.”
“Bye, Sam,” Alex said, watching her ride the ladder-lift until the pressure door closed behind her. “I’m twenty years too old, and I’m pretty sure I’ve got the wrong plumbin’, but I like that gal.”
“You and Amos just trade this crush back and forth?” Holden said. “Or should I be worried about you two doing pistols at dawn over her?”
“My love is a pure love,” Alex said with a grin. “I wouldn’t sully it by actually, you know, doin’ anything about it.”
“The kind poets write about, then.”
“So,” Alex said, leaning against a wall and looking at his nails. “Let’s talk about the XO situation.”
“Oh, let’s do,” Alex said, then took a step forward and crossed his arms like a man who was not going to give any ground. “I’ve been flyin’ this boat solo for over a year now. That only works because Naomi is a brilliant ops officer and takes up a whole lotta slack. If we lose her, we don’t fly. And that’s a fact.”
Holden dropped the hand terminal he’d been using into his pocket and slumped back against the reactor shielding.
“I know. I know. I never thought she’d actually do this.”
“Leave,” Alex said.
“We’ve never talked about pay,” Alex said. “We don’t get salaries.”
“Pay?” Holden frowned at Alex and banged out a quick drumbeat on the reactor behind him. It echoed like a metal tomb. “Every dime that Fred’s given us that hasn’t gone to pay for operating the ship is in the account I set up. If you need some of it, twenty-five percent of that money belongs to you.”
Alex shook his head and waved his hands. “No, don’t get me wrong. I don’t need money, and I don’t think you’re stealin’ from us. Just pointing out that we never talked about pay.”
“So that means we aren’t a normal crew. We aren’t workin’ the ship for money, or because a government drafted us. We’re here because we want to be. That’s all you’ve got over us. We believe in the cause, and we want to be part of what you’re doing. The minute we lose that, we might as well take a real payin’ job.”
“But Naomi—” Holden started.
“Was your girlfriend,” Alex said with a laugh. “Damn, Jim, have you seen her? She can get another boyfriend. In fact, you mind if I—”
“I take your point. I hear you. I f**ked it up, it’s my fault. I know that. All of it. I need to go see Fred and start thinking about how to put it all back together again.”
“Unless Fred actually did do it.”
“Yeah. Unless that.”
“I’ve been wondering when you’d finally drop by,” Fred Johnson said as Holden walked through his office door. Fred was looking both better and worse than when Holden had first met him a year earlier. Better because the Outer Planets Alliance, the quasi government that Fred was the titular head of, was no longer a terrorist organization, but a de facto government that could sit at the diplomatic table with the inner planets. And Fred had taken to the role of administrator with a relish he must not have felt for being a freedom fighter. It was visible in the relaxed set of his shoulders, and the half smile that had become his default expression.
And worse because the last year and all the pressures of governance had aged him. His hair was both thinner and whiter, his neck a confusion of loose flesh and old, ropy muscle. His eyes had permanent bags under them now. His coffee-colored skin didn’t show many wrinkles, but it had a tinge of gray to it.
But the smile he gave Holden was genuine, and he came around the desk to shake his hand and guide him to a chair.
“I read your report on Ganymede,” Fred said. “Talk to me about it. Impressions on the ground.”
“Fred,” Holden said. “There’s something else.”
Fred nodded to him as he moved back around his desk and sat down. “Go on.”
Holden started to speak, then stopped. Fred was staring at him. His expression hadn’t changed, but his eyes were sharper, more focused. Holden felt a sudden and irrational fear that Fred already knew everything he was about to say.
The truth was Holden had always been afraid of Fred. There was a duality to the man that left him on edge. Fred had reached out to the crew of the Rocinante at the exact moment they’d needed help the most. He’d become their patron, their safe harbor against the myriad enemies they’d gathered over the last year. And yet Holden couldn’t forget that this was still Colonel Frederick Lucius Johnson, the Butcher of Anderson Station. A man who had spent the last decade helping to organize and run the Outer Planets Alliance, an organization that was capable of murder and terrorism to further its goals. Fred had almost certainly ordered some of those murders personally. It was entirely possible that the OPA leader version of Fred had killed more people than even the United Nations Marine colonel version of Fred had.
Would he really balk at using the protomolecule to further his agenda?
Maybe. Maybe that would be going too far. And he’d been a friend, and he deserved the chance to defend himself.
“Fred, I—” Holden started, then stopped.
Fred nodded again, the smile slipping off his face and being replaced by a slight frown. “I’m not going to like this.” It was a statement of fact.