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.
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.