Holden grabbed the arms of the office chair and pushed himself to his feet. He shoved more violently than he wanted to and, in the low .3 g of station spin, flew off his feet for a second. Fred chuckled and the frown shifted back into a grin.
And that was it. The grin and the laugh broke the fear and turned it into anger. When Holden settled back to his feet, he leaned forward and slammed both palms onto Fred’s desk.
“You,” he said, “don’t get to laugh. Not until I know for sure it wasn’t all your fault. If you can do what I think you might have done and still laugh, I will shoot you right here and now.”
Fred’s smile didn’t change, but something in his eyes did. He wasn’t used to being threatened, but it wasn’t new territory either.
“What I might have done,” Fred said, not turning it into a question, just repeating it back.
“It’s the protomolecule, Fred. That’s what’s happening on Ganymede. A lab with kids as experiments and that black webbing shit and a monster that almost killed my ship. That’s my f**king impression on the ground. Someone has been playing with the bug, and it might be loose, and the inner planets are shooting each other to shit in orbit around it.”
“You think I did this,” Fred said. Again, just a flat statement of fact.
“We threw this shit into Venus,” Holden yelled. “I gave you the only sample. And suddenly Ganymede, breadbasket of your future empire, the one place the inner navies won’t cede control of, gets a f**king outbreak?”
Fred let the silence answer for a beat.
“Are you asking me if I’m using the protomolecule to drive the inner planets troops off Ganymede, and strengthen my control of the outer planets?”
Fred’s quiet tone made Holden realize how loud he’d gotten, and he took a moment to take several deep breaths. When his pulse had slowed a bit, he said, “Yes. Pretty much exactly that.”
“You,” Fred said with a broad smile that did not extend to his eyes, “do not get to ask me that.”
“In case you’ve forgotten, you are an employee of this organization.” Fred stood up, stretching to his full height, a dozen centimeters taller than Holden. His smile didn’t change, but his body shifted and sort of spread out. Suddenly he looked very large. Holden took a step back before he could stop himself.
“I,” Fred continued, “owe you nothing but the terms of our latest contract. Have you completely lost your mind, boy? Charging in here? Shouting at me? Demanding answers?”
“No one else could have—” Holden started, but Fred ignored him.
“You gave me the only sample we knew of. But you assume that if you don’t know about it, it doesn’t exist. I’ve been putting up with your bullshit for over a year now,” Fred said. “This idea you have that the universe owes you answers. This righteous indignation you wield like a club at everyone around you. But I don’t have to put up with your shit.
“Do you know why that is?”
Holden shook his head, afraid if he spoke, it might come out as a squeak.
“It’s because,” Fred said, “I’m the f**king boss. I run this outfit. You’ve been pretty useful, and you might be again in the future. But I have enough shit to deal with right now without you starting another one of your crusades at my expense.”
“So,” Holden said, letting the word drag to two syllables.
“So you’re fired. This was your last contract with me. I’ll finish fixing the Roci and I’ll pay you, because I don’t break a deal. But I think we’ve finally built enough ships to start policing our own sky without your help, and even if we haven’t, I’m just about done with you.”
“Fired,” Holden said.
“Now get the hell out of my office before I decide to take the Roci too. She’s got more Tycho parts on her now than originals. I think I might be able to make a good argument I own that ship.”
Holden backed up toward the door, wondering how serious that threat might actually be. Fred watched him go but didn’t move. When he reached the door, Fred said, “It wasn’t me.”
Their gazes met for a long, breathless moment.
“It wasn’t me,” Fred repeated.
Holden said, “Okay,” and backed out the door.
When the door slid shut and blocked Fred from view, Holden let out a long sigh and collapsed against the corridor wall. Fred was right about one thing: He’d been excusing himself with his fear for far too long. This righteous indignation you wield like a club at everyone around you. He’d seen humanity almost end due to its own stupidity. It had left him shaken to the core. He’d been running on fear and adrenaline ever since Eros.
But it wasn’t an excuse. Not anymore.
He started to pull out his terminal to call Naomi when it hit him like a light turning on. I’m fired.
He’d been on an exclusive contract with Fred for over a year. Tycho Station was their home base. Sam had spent almost as much time tuning and patching the Roci as Amos had. That was all gone. They’d have to find their own jobs, find their own ports, buy their own repairs. No more patron to hold his hand. For the first time in a very long time, Holden was a real independent captain. He’d need to earn his way by keeping the ship in the air and the crew fed. He paused for a moment, letting that sink in.
It felt great.
Chapter Thirty-Three: Prax
Amos sat forward in his chair. The sheer physical mass of the man made the room seem smaller, and the smell of alcohol and old smoke came off him like heat from a fire. His expression couldn’t have been more gentle.
“I don’t know what to do,” Prax said. “I just don’t know what to do. This is all my fault. Nicola was just … she was so lost and so angry. Every day, I woke up and I looked over at her, and all I saw was how trapped she was. And I knew Mei was going to grow up with that. With trying to get her mommy to love her when all Nici wanted to do was be somewhere else. And I thought it would be better. When she started talking about going, I was ready for her to do it, you know? And when Mei … when I had to tell Mei that …”
Prax dropped his head into his hands, rocking slowly back and forth.
“You gonna sick up again, Doc?”
“No. I’m fine. If I’d been a better father to her, she’d still be here.”
“We talking about the ex-wife or the kid?”
“I don’t care about Nicola. If I’d been there for Mei. If I’d gone to her as soon as we got the warning. If I hadn’t waited there in the dome. And for what? Plants? They’re dead now anyway. I had one, but I lost it, too. I couldn’t even save one. But I could have gotten there. Found her. If I’d—”