The mask, he called it. As if the person she was when she faced the world was the false one, and the one who spoke to him or played painting games with her granddaughters was authentic. She thought he was wrong, but the fiction was so comforting she had always played along.
“Today, very heavy. What are you doing now, love?”
“Reading Kukurri’s thesis draft. It needs work.”
“Are you in your office?”
“You should go to the garden,” she said.
“Because that’s where you want to be? We can go together when you’re home.”
“I may be very late,” she said.
“Wake me, and we can go then.”
She touched the screen, and he grinned as if he’d felt the caress. She cut the connection. By long habit, they didn’t tell each other goodbye. It was one of a thousand small personal idioms that grew from decades of marriage.
Avasarala turned to her desk system, pulling up the tactical analysis of the battle on Ganymede, the intelligence profiles of the major military figures within Mars, and the master schedule for the meeting, already half filled in by the generals in the time since her conference. She took a pistachio from her purse, cracked its shell, and let the raw information wash over her, her mind dancing through it. In the window behind her, other stars struggled through the light pollution of the Hague, but Venus was still the brightest.
Chapter Six: Holden
Holden was dreaming of long twisting corridors filled with half-human horrors when a loud buzzing woke him to a pitch-black cabin. He struggled for a moment with the unfamiliar straps on the bunk before he unbuckled and floated free in the microgravity. The wall panel buzzed again. Holden pushed off the bed to it and hit the button to bring the cabin lights up. The cabin was tiny. A seventy-year-old crash couch above a personal storage locker crammed up against one bulkhead, a toilet and sink built into a corner, and across from the bunk, a wall panel with the name Somnambulist etched above it.
The panel buzzed a third time. This time Holden hit the reply button and said, “Where are we, Naomi?”
“Final braking for high orbit. You’re not going to believe this, but they’re making us queue up.”
“Queue up, as in get in line?”
“Yep,” Naomi said. “I think they’re boarding all the ships that are landing on Ganymede.”
“Shit. Which side is it?”
“Does it matter?”
“Well,” Holden said. “Earth wants me for stealing a couple thousand of their nuclear missiles and handing them over to the OPA. Mars just wants me for stealing one of their ships. I assume those carry different penalties.”
Naomi laughed. “They’d lock you up for eternity either way.”
“Call me pedantic, then.”
“The group we’re in line for look like UN ships, but a Martian frigate is parked right next to them, watching the proceedings.”
Holden gave a private prayer of thanks for letting Fred Johnson back on Tycho talk him into taking the recently repaired Somnambulist to Ganymede rather than try to land in the Rocinante. The freighter was the least suspicious ship in the OPA fleet right now. Far less likely to draw unwanted attention than their stolen Martian warship. They’d left the Roci parked a million kilometers away from Jupiter in a spot no one was likely to look. Alex had the ship shut down except for air recycling and passive sensors and was probably huddled in his cabin with a space heater and a lot of blankets, waiting for their call.
“Okay, I’m on my way up. Send a tightbeam to Alex and let him know the situation. If we get arrested, he’s to take the Roci back to Tycho.”
Holden opened the locker under the bunk and pulled out a badly fitting green jumpsuit with Somnambulist stenciled on the back and the name Philips on the front pocket. According to the ship’s records, provided by the tech wizards back at Tycho, he was crewman first class Walter Philips, engineer and general tool pusher on the food freighter Somnambulist. He was also third-in-command out of a crew of three. Given his reputation in the solar system, it was thought best that Holden not have a job on the ship that would require him to speak to anyone in authority.
He washed up in his tiny sink—no actual free-flowing water, but a system of moist towels and soaped pads—scratching unhappily at the scraggly beard he’d been growing as part of his disguise. He’d never tried to grow one before, and was disappointed to discover that his facial hair grew in patches of varying length and curl. Amos had grown a beard as well in an act of solidarity and now had a lush lion’s mane, which he was considering keeping because it looked so good.
Holden slid the used towel into its cycling chamber and pushed off toward the compartment hatch and up the crew ladder to the operations deck.
Not that it was much of an ops deck. The Somnambulist was nearly a hundred years old and definitely at the end of her life cycle. If they hadn’t needed a throwaway ship for this mission, Fred’s people would probably have just scrapped the old girl out. Her recent run-in with pirates had left her half dead to begin with. But she’d spent the last twenty years of her life flying the Ganymede-to-Ceres food run, and she’d show up in the registry as a regular visitor to the Jovian moon, a ship that might plausibly arrive with relief supplies. Fred thought that with her regular arrivals at Ganymede, she might just get waved past any customs or blockades without a look.
That, it seemed, had been optimistic.
Naomi was belted into one of the operations stations when Holden arrived. She wore a green jumpsuit similar to his, though the name on her pocket read Estancia. She gave him a smile, then waved him over to look at her screen.
“That’s the group of ships that are checking everyone out before they land.”
“Damn,” Holden said, zooming the telescopic image in to get a better look at the hulls and identifying marks. “Definitely UN ships.” Something small moved across the image from one of the UN ships to the heavy freighter that was currently at the front of the line. “And that looks like a boarding skiff.”
“Well, good thing you haven’t groomed in a month,” Naomi said, tugging at a lock of his hair. “With that bush on your head and that awful beard, your own mothers wouldn’t recognize you.”
“I’m hoping they haven’t recruited my mothers,” Holden said, trying to match her lightness of tone. “I’ll warn Amos that they’re coming.”