Miller opens his eyes.
He blinks once. Twice. An unfamiliar sight of clean and gleaming walls greets him. When he runs a hand down his face, his fingers feel like dry twisted filaments, but his insides no longer seem to be leaking out in slivers and his lungs have not, as he’s thought they must have, sloughed away.
He is, against all conceivable odds, alive.
“Hey.” A Belter woman comes to his aid and helps him up. “You should be taking it easy.”
He’s in what seems to be the Rocinante’s med bay. The woman, he recalls, is the ship’s engineer, Naomi Nagata. Holden said—
Holden. “The wonder boy?” he croaks out. “Did he—?”
He can’t quite finish the question, but somehow that’s enough to soften Nagata’s hardened features. She turns slightly and nods at the cot behind her, where Miller could now see Holden out cold, looking like death warmed over. At least the kid’s no longer coughing up blood in his body weight, so it could be charitably viewed as an improvement.
Miller relaxes just a little, despite himself. James Holden turning out to be the luckiest bastard in the entire solar system shouldn’t count as a surprise. He runs a hand down his face again. It still takes a monumental effort.
“C’mon, then,” he tells Nagata, “let’s have it.”
The look she gives him clearly suggests she’s suspecting his brain must have melted inside out, so he adds, “We both made it, great, hallelujah, bring out the confetti. What’s the catch? There can’t be a permanent cure for that much exposure to radiation.”
Nagata sharpens up considerably. “We’ve patched you up as much as possible, but you’re right, this is only delaying the inevitable. Anti-cancer med, every twenty-four hours, for the rest of your life. Otherwise—“
“—we resume our direct course to becoming a radioactive puddle of goo.”
“Yes,” she answers without sympathy and hands him a medi-packet. “Every twenty-four hours.”
Miller considers the thin, flimsy pack between his fingertips. It’s small, insignificant—slippery, for something that will dictate the length of his remaining life.
“Consider yourself lucky,” advises Nagata. “If you haven’t made it here, there would’ve been nothing left of you to put back together.”
Still, despite it all, he remains implausibly, miraculously, alive.
And Julie Mao is dead.
This, Miller thinks, is a cosmic joke.
The ship is supposed to be a Martian frigate. Miller wanders through its corridors and studies its glossy, sleek chrome surfaces, all of them a far cry from the dilapidated and disintegrating walls of Ceres. But for the grace of the mag boots, he’d probably slide right off from the glossy floor even while the ship is accelerating.
Miller stops just before the entrance of the galley. The Roci’s crew is gathered around the center table—around Holden, as he recounts what he’s seen back on Eros.
“But why?” asks the pilot, a Martian named Alex. “What in the universe would make anyone wanna do a thin’ like that?”
“Miller said,” Holden starts slowly, and in hesitation, “it’s because whoever did this, they don’t consider the Belters human. That they would make Eros a petri dish, just because they could, and be completely fine with it.”
The steady hum of the engine doesn’t manage to cover the silence that follows.
Their designated leg-breaker, Amos, breaks the silence first. “That’s fucked up.”
Alex looks ready to pull his hair out. “But why, why, why would they even want to do this in the first place? They found something on Phoebe, that thing we saw on Anubis, so they went right to experimenting on people? Just like that? Can anyone be that friggin’ insane?”
“Because they want to know what it does, how it ticks,” says Nagata. She’s tightly coiled, like it’s only anger holding her in check. “They don’t know what they have in their hands, and this is the quickest way for them to get their answers. They really don’t give a shit how many of us die in the process.”
Holden nods. “It fits. Everything. What we’ve seen. What Miller told us.”
“Yeah, speaking of,” says Amos. “Hey, you outside. Wanna join us anytime soon?”
If Miller hadn’t already guessed Amos was a trained killer, this would’ve tipped him up just as well. Miller turns the corner and shrugs when the rest of the group turns to stare, not at all bothered by being caught eavesdropping.
“Hey." Strangely enough, Holden greets him cheerfully. There’s even something resembling a grin on his face. “Welcome back to the land of the living.”
Miller stops just before joining the table of said living, the tattered remains of the Canterbury—the ship that accidentally tripped over the biggest conspiracy this universe may have seen yet and gotten blown up for its trouble.
Not so unlike Julie Mao.
She's dead, and he’s failed. There’s no longer any unfinished business with the living, no score left to settle.
Well. Perhaps just one.
Miller walks up to Amos. “Where’s his body?”
Everyone freezes; Amos doesn’t. The man hasn’t taken his eyes off of Miller since the moment Miller walked in, and he still doesn’t as he gets up, deliberate and slow, to face Miller.
“Whoa, wait,” says Holden, taking a step to get between Miller and Amos. He looks comically befuddled. Miller decides it’s got be the kid’s default expression. “What are you talking about? What body?”
Nagata starts, “Look, we know he was your friend, but you have to know—“
Holden startles when Miller’s fist slams the table. Amos doesn’t even blink, still standing toe to toe with Miller. The man’s eyes are flat. Dead. Miller has met men like this. Not often. Even among the variety of thugs he’d encountered on Ceres this particular type was a rarity.
The edge of his lips curls up. This is, Miller thinks, almost perfect.
“Right, your friend,” Alex interrupts loudly, and they all turn to him. “Why don’t we just show you, huh?” he adds, gesturing wildly at the door. “That’s no problem, not at all. None. So we can do it now. If you want.”
“Good idea,” Nagata agrees, neutral and conciliatory, when no one else speaks. “Then we can all talk after.”
Miller unfurls his fist.
But his fingers still twitch, just the same.
Sematimba’s body is already cooling in the body bag.
Miller takes it in, looking through his detective’s eye. No sign of physical struggles. A single shot in the back, through and through. Skillful.
Semi, on Ceres, back when they were just yet two more street rats, told him once, smiling his toothy smile: “You wanna be an ass, or you wanna be a boot?”
Miller grabs the edge of the slab and steadies himself. Being a boot, albeit a terrible one, has been the only thing that propelled him forward. And now, he’s unmoored, no longer tethered. Eventually, even this anger would decay and fade, just as everything does.
And then where would he be?
“Good question. Where would you be?”
Julie Mao stands before him in the otherwise empty room. She looks stern, and just as beautiful. Just as she was before the thing, it, ate her away.
“I’m sorry, kid,” he tells her, means it.
She shrugs, a gesture so careless and alive that sends a sharp clench somewhere in his chest. It’s peculiar, how much it hurts.
“So you’ve said. What are you going to do about it?”
He swallows an unhinged laughter building up in his chest. “Nothing, since apparently I’m going fucking crazy.”
Julie’s mirage wavers, much to his disappointment, and in its stead walks in a lot less compelling replacement.
“Are you—you all right?”
James Holden, standing across from him, looks uncertain, even wary, and in no way appears to be seeing someone he shouldn’t, such as Juliette Andromeda Mao.
Miller turns to Semi’s body, tries to breath again. “As fucking rain.”
Any reasonable person who values their life would take the hint and make themselves scarce at this point, but—
“I’m sorry about your friend,” says Holden.
—but not James fucking Holden. No surprise there.
“I heard what happened,” Holden continues, undeterred by Miller’s silence. “Your friend pulled a gun on Naomi. And Amos doesn’t take that lightly. None of us does.”
Semi, frozen on the slab, offers no such wisdom. The dead stays dead. Even Julie, who still haunts his waking dreams.
“Look, Miller, you know we would’ve done the same. I would’ve done the same.”
Even without any desire to speak to Holden, it’s difficult not to snort at the particular assertion. At Holden, who couldn’t even shoot the man who had betrayed him and his friends.
At Miller’s look, Holden shakes his head ruefully. “All right, so you would’ve done the same. And after the day we had, I might’ve pulled the trigger, just as the same.”
True, Miller concedes. He himself would’ve done the same without so much as thinking twice. Still, Holden is just as much of an idiot that he’s already thought the kid was, for believing that would make any difference. Miller looks at his friend’s face one last time, seals the body bag, and turns around.
Holden is directly blocking his path. “Look, you really don’t want to do this. Taking on Amos, you don’t know just how bad an idea that is.”
“Get out of my way.”
Miller walks past him, but Holden reaches for him. “Miller, could you just listen—“
Miller grabs Holden by the shoulders and slams him into the wall. Holden winces, but holds his ground. His boyish face is still marred by radiation burns, but it’s healing.
Because he’s alive. Even with the threat of imminent death looming so close, they will continue to be, thanks to the miracle of some Earther science.
And Julie Mao is still dead.
Fuck, thinks Miller, and pounds Holden against the wall again. “I said—get outta my way.”
“As much as I’d love to let this play out,” Amos drawls from the doorway, almost conversationally, “and find out who comes out on top, Naomi’s really not gonna like it if I let you hurt Holden.” The man tilts his head, seemingly considering. “And Alex will be upset. How about we try not to upset the man who’s flying this bucket?”
Miller would’ve gone for him, right there right then, if not for Holden’s death grips on his arms.
“Amos,” Holden starts, visibly repressing the look of exasperation that Miller is fast becoming familiar with, “I’ve got this.”
Amos raises one eyebrow. “You sure? ‘Cause from where I’m standing, you’ve got jackshit.”
“I’m sure. Please,” Holden adds, between gritted teeth, “just tell Naomi we’ll be there soon.”
Amos shrugs. “Your funeral.”
Holden waits well after Amos completely disappears through the doorway before letting Miller go. “Seriously, what is it with you? Do you just go on looking for the quickest way to get killed everywhere you go? Is this like a favourite pastime activity for you?”
Miller shoves Holden’s hands away. “And what makes you so sure your friend would come out on top?”
“You serious? Even if you somehow get an upper hand on Amos, you think we’ll just let you get to him? Naomi will flush you out of the airlock so fast, you won’t even see it coming.” Something Holden must see in Miller’s face quiets him. “But you already knew that. And you don’t care.”
Miller doesn’t deny it. There’s no reason to.
“Look, Miller,” Holden says, temper beginning to fray his voice, “if you’re planning to do this to yourself, do it on someone else’s watch. I didn’t save you back on Eros just so you could creatively plan to kill yourself in even more reckless ways.”
“You?” says Miler, incredulous. “You. You saved me? I did all the saving. Me. Get that cleared up in your head right now, you got that?”
“God, why do you have to be so frustrating?”
“I—me? I am frustrating? You’ve got to be the most infuriating person in this whole fucking galaxy!”
“If you do this, you’ll never find out who did this. The why of it all. Is that what you really want? Exactly what are you so afraid of?”
It’s easy, then, almost unthinking, to throw a blind punch.
It doesn’t land, but Miller, cursing and stumbling, shoves at the kid. “The hell you know, huh? The hell do you think you know?”
Holden doesn’t flinch, not this time. “I was there with you.” The words are quiet, but each one of them stabs and punctures. “I saw what you saw.”
He did. They have.
They have seen what no one should ever have to in their lifetime.
Just like that, all the fight drains out of him.
“Fuck it,” says Miller, and lets Holden go. His legs no longer seem able to support his own body, so he slumps down against the wall.
Holden runs a hand down his face, looking just as deflated. “I saw what you saw,” he repeats slowly, as if the words would begin to make sense if he willed it hard enough.
Failing that, Holden slides down next to Miller. For a long moment, there are no words.
Back on Eros, in that crumbling lift, Holden told him the reason he left Earth, even as their lungs were collapsing with each breath: “Everything I loved was dying.”
Miller thought it was a fitting end to it all, somehow.
Now, here they are. Again.
“I’m sorry about your friend,” Holden tells him. He sounds tired and small. “I really am. But you and me, we made it out. We’re not on Eros anymore.”
“I know,” says Miller, tasting dust in his mouth.
“Do you?” asks Julie.
“Do you?” asks Holden. He doesn’t wait for Miller to answer. “The ones that did this to Eros—they're also out there.”
Miller watches Julie, at the corner of his eye, glimmering under the sterile light.
“Miller," Holden says, insistent, "they've got to answer for what they’ve done.”
The kicker here is, Miller thinks, Holden actually means it. Even Havelock would have a better sense than this kid.
“Look, I’ve got something to show you,” Holden says, and there’s something steely about him that Miller doesn’t quite recognize. Holden pushes himself up and holds out a hand to Miller. “C’mon.”
It would be easy enough, almost too easy, to push the hand away.
Julie, at the edge of his periphery, glows hyper-bright.
“So, what’s it going to be?”
Amos asks without looking up, just as Miller and Holden step back into the galley.
Next to Amos, Alex and Naomi look up from the screen they’re gathered around, collectively alarmed.
Holden glances at Miller, but Miller doesn’t spare him a look. “The boy wonder here seems thinks taking you on would be the death of me,” Miller counters Amos, just as casually.
“Maybe. You never know with these things. I’m game if you are.” Amos is unconcerned and careless, in the way that makes it clear he doesn’t gives a shit either way. It’s not an act, that much is clear.
“Uh, just for the record,” Alex interjects in a hurry, “your friend was all for ditching you and Holden to die back on Eros. He threatened to shoot Naomi if we didn’t leave you behind. Amos actually stopped him, y’know, to save your lives. Seems to me that he wasn't that great a friend.”
Miller shrugs. “Can’t blame Semi for looking out for Number One. That’s what we all do, isn’t it.”
“That it is," agrees Amos, so flat and nonchalant that it's almost unreadable.
Still, Miller receives the message, loud and clear.
“Jim,” says Nagata, low and concerned.
“It’s fine, Naomi,” assures Holden. For some reason that Miller can’t fathom, he actually sounds sure. “Miller, come and take a look at what Alex’s found. Alex?”
Alex darts glances between them, and then shakes himself before tapping at the screen. “Right-o. Look at the sector 23.4. They were broadcasting even as they were hightailing out of Eros—which is the only reason I picked it up.”
Miller squints at the grids and charts. “What are we looking at?”
“That blip,” says Alex, nodding at the bright moving dot at the center of the chart on screen. “Right there.”
It takes embarrassingly long for it to sink in for Miller. “Lemme get this straight,” he says, mostly in disbelief. “You actually tagged the bad guys.”
“Yep, and only because they’re not even hiding where they are headed. Guess there’s no need. They didn’t think anyone would be paying attention, and they weren't exactly wrong.”
“They’re overly confident,” Holden says. “That’s good. We can definitely use that. Alex, how fast can we go after them?”
There’s a noticeable pause before Alex whirls around. “Hold on there a sec, there, cowboy. You want us to go after them? That’s what we are doing now? What’s wrong with just letting people know and getting someone else to handle it for once?”
Nagata is shaking her head even before Alex’s finished. “You really think we can trust Earth or Mars to get to the bottom of this? Or the OPA, for that matter? For all we know, some of them could be in on it together.”
“That’s—all right, that’s entirely possible, but does anyone else other than me remember how these men nuked the Cant? Or the stealth technology that no one’s supposed to have that they’ve clearly got? Or how they obliterated the most badass of all Martian navy while we were in it?” Alex makes a show of looking around him. “Right, clearly just me, then.”
“We have the Roci now,” Holden points out. “And we won't be caught off-guard like before."
“And if and when the Roci’s outer shell becomes magically nuke-proof, then maybe, maybe, that might come in handy. Until then, it’s downright suicide! Amos, seriously, man, help me out here.”
Amos, looking entirely indifferent to the entire debate, swivels his chair around to face them. “The thing is,” he begins, almost idly, “Naomi was right.”
“She usually is,” says Holden. “Okay, about what?”
“Responding to the signal from the Scopuli,” Amos says, looking directly at Holden. “When she said it had been the right thing to do. She was right.”
Holden looks like the air has been suddenly sucked out of the ship. “Amos, I,” Holden stutters and stops, and it takes a visible effort for him to say the rest. “Amos, I got all our friends killed.”
Amos shrugs with his both shoulders. “I didn’t say it wasn’t a colossal fuck-up, because it was. But back at the Cant, no one else was gonna do it. Certainly not me, not the Cap, and not even Naomi. Just you.
“So I’m askin’ you now. What do you wanna do?”
For a long moment, Holden watches Amos, while everyone else watches him.
“The people that destroyed the Cant and killed our friends. The ones that did this to Eros—I want to find them. I want the world to see them for what they are. And I want to look them in the eye as they answer for what they’ve done,” says Holden, laying it all out in a rush. "That's what I want to do."
“Okay, then,” says Amos.
Holden blinks. “Okay?”
“Sure, let’s do it,” Amos says, like they’re deciding what to have for lunch. He turns to Nagata. “Boss?”
There's a small, warm smile spreading across Nagata’s face. “Yes. Let’s.”
“Alex?” asks Amos.
Alex is clawing at his face with his hands. “Donkey balls,” he mutters. “Oh, ‘suppose we all gotta die once. Why not?”
“Alex,” says Holden. “If you’re not sure about this—“
“Then who’s going to fly the Roci? No way I’d let anyone else near my girl.” Alex’s hand over the screen hovers protectively. “No way, Cap. I’m with you all the way.”
Holden, looking relieved, turns to Miller. “Well?”
It’s some time before Miller realizes the question is meant for him, and even more some time before he finds his voice again. It’s hard to decide what’s more surprising—that they’re even debating this, or that they’re asking for his opinion.
That they want him to join in this particular brand of madness.
"Kid," Miller says, finally, "they are going to eat you alive.”
“They can try,” says Holden. Stubborn. And stupid. “I won’t make it easy for them. We won’t. That’s what we want. What do you want?”
It’s a challenge as much as a question, and Miller—
They’re soft, Miller thinks. They’re soft, and they're in way over their heads.
This kid is going to learn it. They’re all going to learn it. These clueless, hapless do-gooders are not going to last a single round against even the self-righteous pricks like Anderson Dawes of the OPA. They’re sure as hell not going to last one single hopeless second in a fight against the monsters behind Eros.
“And what are you going to do about it, Miller?"
Miller closes his eyes.
Even with his eyes closed, he sees Julie, at the edge of his periphery, glowing. Blinding.
Miller opens his eyes. Sees Holden. Sees the crew of the Roci.
Here he is. Once again. This will end the same. Just as the first.
And yet there’s no choice to be made, is there?
Just as there wasn’t any at the moment when he picked up the photo of Juliette Andromeda Mao.
“All right,” Miller says. He watches as Holden smiles. Watches Julie in his periphery, growing dim. “Let’s go find us the bad guys.”