Chapter Eleven: Holden
The Donnager was ugly.
Holden had seen pictures and videos of the old oceangoing navies of Earth, and even in the age of steel, there had always been something beautiful about them. Long and sleek, they had the appearance of something leaning into the wind, a creature barely held on the leash. The Donnager had none of that. Like all long-flight spacecraft, it was built in the "office tower" configuration: each deck one floor of the building, ladders or elevators running down the axis. Constant thrust took the place of gravity.
But the Donnager actually looked like an office building on its side. Square and blocky, with small bulbous projections in seemingly random places. At nearly five hundred meters long, it was the size of a 130-story building. Alex had said it was 250,000 tons dry weight, and it looked heavier. Holden reflected, not for the first time, on how so much of the human sense of aesthetics had been formed in a time when sleek objects cut through the air. The Donnager would never move through anything thicker than interstellar gas, so curves and angles were a waste of space. The result was ugly.
It was also intimidating. As Holden watched from his seat next to Alex in the cockpit of the Knight, the massive battleship matched course with them, looming close and then seeming to stop above them. A docking bay opened, breaking up the Donnager's flat black belly with a square of dim red light. The Knight beeped insistently, reminding him of the targeting lasers painting their hull. Holden looked for the point defense cannons aimed at him. He couldn't find them.
When Alex spoke, Holden jumped.
"Roger that, Donnager," the pilot said. "We've got steering lock. I'm killing thrust."
The last shreds of weight vanished. Both ships were still moving at hundreds of kilometers a minute, but their matched courses felt like stillness.
"Got docking permission, Cap. Take her in?"
"It seems late to make a run for it, Mr. Kamal," Holden said. He imagined Alex making a mistake that the Donnager interpreted as threatening, and the point defense cannons throwing a couple hundred thousand Teflon-coated chunks of steel through them.
"Go slowly, Alex," he said.
"They say one of those can kill a planet," Naomi said over the comm. She was at the ops station a deck below.
"Anyone can kill a planet from orbit," Holden replied. "You don't even need bombs. Just push anvils out the airlock. That thing out there could kill... Shit. Anything."
Tiny touches shifted them as the maneuvering rockets fired. Holden knew that Alex was guiding them in, but he couldn't shake the feeling that the Donnager was swallowing them.
Docking took nearly an hour. Once the Knight was inside the bay, a massive manipulator arm grabbed her and put it down in an empty section of the deck. Clamps grabbed the ship, the Knight's hull reverberating with a metallic bang that reminded Holden of a brig cell's maglocks.
The Martians ran a docking tube from one wall and mated up to the Knight's airlock. Holden gathered the crew at the inner door.
"No guns, no knives, no anything that might look like a weapon," he said. "They'll probably be okay with hand terminals, but keep them turned off just in case. If they ask for it, hand it over without complaint. Our survival here may rest on them thinking we're very compliant."
"Yeah," Amos said. "Fuckers killed McDowell, but we have to act nice... "
Alex started to respond, but Holden cut him off.
"Alex, you did twenty flying with the MCRN. Anything else we should know?"
"Same stuff you said, Boss," Alex replied. "Yes sir, no sir, and snap to when given an order. The enlisted guys will be okay, but the officers get the sense of humor trained out of 'em."
Holden looked at his tiny crew, hoping he hadn't killed them all by bringing them here. He cycled open the lock, and they drifted down the short docking tube in the zero g. When they reached the airlock at the end - flat gray composites and immaculately clean - everyone pushed down to the floor. Their magnetic boots grabbed on. The airlock closed and hissed at them for several seconds before opening into a larger room with about a dozen people standing in it. Holden recognized Captain Theresa Yao. There were several others in naval officers' dress, who were part of her staff; one man in an enlisted uniform with a look of thinly veiled impatience; and six marines in heavy combat armor, carrying assault rifles. The rifles were pointed at him, so Holden put up his hands.
"We're not armed," he said, smiling and trying to look harmless.
The rifles didn't waver, but Captain Yao stepped forward.
"Welcome aboard the Donnager," she said. "Chief, check them."
The enlisted man clumped toward them and quickly and professionally patted them all down. He gave the thumbs-up to one of the marines. The rifles went down, and Holden worked hard not to sigh with relief.
"What now, Captain?" Holden asked, keeping his voice light.
Yao looked Holden over critically for several seconds before answering. Her hair was pulled tightly back, the few strands of gray making straight lines. In person, he could see the softening of age at her jaw and the corners of her eyes. Her stony expression had the same quiet arrogance that all the naval captains he'd known shared. He wondered what she saw, looking at him. He resisted the urge to straighten his greasy hair.
"Chief Gunderson will take you down to your rooms and get you settled in," she replied. "Someone will be along shortly to debrief you."
Chief Gunderson started to lead them from the room when Yao spoke again, her voice suddenly hard.
"Mr. Holden, if you know anything about the six ships that are following you, speak now," she said. "We gave them a two-hour deadline to change course about an hour ago. So far they haven't. In one hour I'm going to order a torpedo launch. If they're friends of yours, you could save them a great deal of pain."
Holden shook his head emphatically.
"All I know is they came out of the Belt when you started out to meet us, Captain," Holden said. "They haven't talked to us. Our best guess is they're concerned citizens of the Belt coming to watch what happens."
Yao nodded. If she found the thought of witnesses disconcerting, it didn't show.
"Take them below, Chief," she said, then turned away.
Chief Gunderson gave a soft whistle and pointed at one of the two doors. Holden's crew followed him out, the marines bringing up the rear. As they moved through the Donnager, Holden took his first really up-close look at a Martian capital ship. He'd never served on a battleship in the UN Navy, and he'd stepped foot on them maybe three times in seven years, always in dock, and usually for a party. Every inch of the Donnager was just a little sharper than any UN vessel he'd served on. Mars really does build them better than we do.
"Goddamn, XO, they sure do keep their shit squeaky clean," Amos said behind him.
"Ain't much to do on a long flight for most of the crew, Amos," Alex said. "So when you aren't doin' somethin' else, you clean."
"See, that's why I work haulers," Amos said. "Clean decks or get drunk and screw, and I've got a preference."
As they walked through a maze of corridors, the ship started a slight vibration, and gravity slowly reappeared. They were under thrust. Holden used his heels to touch his boots' slide controls, turning the magnets off.
They saw almost no one, and the few they did see moved fast and said little, barely sparing them a glance. With six ships closing on them, everyone would be at their duty stations. When Captain Yao had said she'd fire her torpedoes in an hour, there hadn't been a hint of threat in her voice. It was just a flat statement of fact. For most of the young sailors on this ship, it would probably be the first time they'd ever been in a live combat situation - if it came to that. Holden didn't believe it would.
He wondered what to make of the fact that Yao was prepared to take out a handful of Belt ships just because they were running quiet and close. It didn't suggest that they'd hesitate to kill a water hauler, like the Cant, if they thought there was reason to.
Gunderson brought them to a stop in front of a hatch with OQ117 printed on it. He slid a card through the lock and gestured everyone inside.
"Better than I'd expected," Shed said, sounding impressed.
The compartment was large by ship standards. It had six high-g couches and a small table with four chairs stuck to the deck with magnetic feet. An open door in one bulkhead showed a smaller compartment with a toilet and sink. Gunderson and the marine lieutenant followed the crew inside.
"This is your rack for the time being," the chief said. "There's a comm panel on the wall. Two of Lieutenant Kelly's people will be stationed outside. Buzz them and they'll send for anything you need."
"How about some chow?" Amos said.
"We'll have some sent up. You are to remain here until called for," Gunderson said. "Lieutenant Kelly, you have anything to add, sir?"
The marine lieutenant looked them over.
"The men outside are there for your protection, but they will react unpleasantly if you make any trouble," he said. "You read me?"
"Loud and clear, Lieutenant," Holden said. "Don't worry. My people will be the easiest houseguests you've ever had."
Kelly nodded at Holden with what seemed like genuine gratitude. He was a professional doing an unpleasant job. Holden sympathized. Also, he'd known enough marines to know how unpleasant it could get if they felt challenged.
Gunderson said, "Can you take Mr. Holden here to his appointment on your way out, El Tee? I'd like to get these folks squared away."
Kelly nodded and took Holden's elbow.
"Come with me, sir," he said.
"Where am I going, Lieutenant?"
"Lieutenant Lopez asked to see you as soon as you landed. I'm taking you to him."
Shed looked nervously from the marine to Holden and back. Naomi nodded. They'd all see each other again, Holden told himself. He even thought it was likely to be true.
Kelly led Holden at a brisk pace through the ship. His rifle was no longer at the ready but hanging from his shoulder loosely. Either he'd decided Holden wasn't going to cause trouble, or that he could take him down easily if he did.
"Can I ask who Lieutenant Lopez is?"
"He's the guy who asked to see you," Kelly said.
Kelly stopped at a plain gray door, rapped once, then took Holden inside a small compartment with a table and two uncomfortable-looking chairs. A dark-haired man was setting up a recorder. He waved one hand vaguely in the direction of a chair. Holden sat. The chair was even less comfortable than it looked.
"You can go, Mr. Kelly," the man Holden assumed was Lopez said. Kelly left and closed the door.
When Lopez had finished, he sat down across the table from Holden and reached out one hand. Holden shook it.
"I'm Lieutenant Lopez. Kelly probably told you that. I work for naval intelligence, which he almost certainly didn't tell you. My job isn't secret, but they train jarheads to be tight-lipped."
Lopez reached into his pocket, took out a small packet of white lozenges, and popped one into his mouth. He didn't offer one to Holden. Lopez's pupils contracted to tiny points as he sucked the lozenge. Focus drugs. He'd be watching every tic of Holden's face during questioning. Tough to lie to.
"First Lieutenant James R. Holden, of Montana," he said. It wasn't a question.
"Yes, sir," Holden said anyway.
"Seven years in the UNN, last posting on the destroyer Zhang Fei."
"Your file says you were busted out for assaulting a superior officer," Lopez said. "That's pretty cliche, Holden. You punched the old man? Seriously?"
"No. I missed. Broke my hand on a bulkhead."
"How'd that happen?"
"He was quicker than I expected," Holden replied.
"Why'd you try?"
"I was projecting my self-loathing onto him. It's just a stroke of luck that I actually wound up hurting the right person," Holden said.
"Sounds like you've thought about it some since then," Lopez said, his pinprick pupils never moving from Holden's face. " Therapy?"
"Lots of time to think on the Canterbury," Holden replied.
Lopez ignored the obvious opening and said, "What did you come up with, during all that thinking?"
"The Coalition has been stepping on the necks of the people out here for over a hundred years now. I didn't like being the boot."
"An OPA sympathizer, then?" Lopez said, his expression not changing at all.
"No. I didn't switch sides. I stopped playing. I didn't renounce my citizenship. I like Montana. I'm out here because I like flying, and only a Belter rust trap like the Canterbury will hire me."
Lopez smiled for the first time. "You're an exceedingly honest man, Mr. Holden."
"Why did you claim that a Martian military vessel destroyed your ship?"
"I didn't. I explained all that in the broadcast. It had technology only available to inner planet fleets, and I found a piece of MCRN hardware in the device that tricked us into stopping."
"We'll want to see that."
"You're welcome to it."
"Your file says you were the only child of a family co-op," Lopez said, acting as though they'd never stopped talking about Holden's past.
"Yes, five fathers, three mothers."
"So many parents for only one child," Lopez said, slowly unwrapping another lozenge. The Martians had lots of space for traditional families.
"The tax break for eight adults only having one child allowed them to own twenty-two acres of decent farmland. There are over thirty billion people on Earth. Twenty-two acres is a national park," Holden said. "Also, the DNA mix is legit. They aren't parents in name only."
"How did they decide who carried you?"
"Mother Elise had the widest hips."
Lopez popped the second lozenge into his mouth and sucked on it a few moments. Before he could speak again, the deck shook. The video recorder jiggled on its arm.
"Torpedo launches?" Holden said. "Guess those Belt ships didn't change course."
"Any thoughts about that, Mr. Holden?"
"Just that you seem pretty willing to kill Belt ships."
"You've put us in a position where we can't afford to seem weak. After your accusations, there are a lot of people who don't think much of us."
Holden shrugged. If the man was watching for guilt or remorse from Holden, he was out of luck. The Belt ships had known what they were going toward. They hadn't turned away. But still, something bothered him.
"They might hate your living guts," Holden said. "But it's hard to find enough suicidal people to crew six ships. Maybe they think they can outrun torpedoes."
Lopez didn't move, his whole body preternaturally still with the focus drugs pouring through him.
"We - " Lopez began, and the general quarters Klaxon sounded. It was deafening in the small metal compartment.
"Holy shit, did they shoot back?" Holden asked.
Lopez shook himself, like a man waking up from a daydream. He got up and hit the comm button by the door. A marine came through seconds later.
"Take Mr. Holden back to his quarters," Lopez said, then left the room at a run.
The marine gestured at the corridor with the barrel of his rifle. His expression was hard.
It's all fun and games till someone shoots back, Holden thought.
Naomi patted the empty couch next to her and smiled.
"Did they put slivers under your fingernails?" she asked.
"No, actually, he was surprisingly human for a naval intelligence wonk," Holden replied. "Of course, he was just getting warmed up. Have you guys heard anything about the other ships?"
Alex said, "Nope. But that alarm means they're takin' them seriously all of a sudden."
"It's insane," Shed said quietly. "Flying around in these metal bubbles, and then trying to poke holes in each other. You ever seen what long-term decompression and cold exposure does? Breaks all the capillaries in your eyes and skin. Tissue damage to the lungs can cause massive pneumonia followed by emphysema-like scarring. I mean, if you don't just die."
"Well, that's awful fucking cheerful, Doc. Thanks for that," Amos said.
The ship suddenly vibrated in a syncopated but ultra-high-speed rhythm. Alex looked at Holden, his eyes wide.
"That's the point defense network openin' up. That means incoming torpedoes," he said. "Better strap in tight, kids. The ship might start doin' some violent maneuvering."
Everyone but Holden was already belted into the couches. He fastened his restraints too.
"This sucks. All the real action is happenin' thousands of klicks from here, and we got no instruments to look at," Alex said. "We won't know if somethin' slipped through the flack screen till it rips the hull open."
"Boy, everybody is just a fucking pile of fun right now," Amos said loudly.
Shed's eyes were wide, his face too pale. Holden shook his head.
"Not going to happen," he said. "This thing is unkillable. Whoever those ships are, they can put on a good show, but that's it."
"All respect, Captain," Naomi said. "But whoever those ships are, they should be dead already, and they aren't."
The distant noises of faraway combat kept up. The occasional rumble of a torpedo firing. The near-constant vibration of the high-speed point defense guns. Holden didn't realize he'd fallen asleep until he was jerked awake by an earsplitting roar. Amos and Alex were yelling. Shed was screaming.
"What happened?" Holden yelled over the noise.
"We're hit, Cap!" Alex said. "That was a torpedo hit!"
The gravity suddenly dropped away. The Donnager had stopped its engines. Or they'd been destroyed.
Amos was still yelling, "Shit shit shit," over everything. But at least Shed had stopped screaming. He was staring wide eyed out of his couch, his face white. Holden unbuckled his straps and pushed off toward the comm panel.
"Jim!" Naomi called out. "What are you doing?"
"We need to find out what's going on," Holden said over his shoulder.
When he reached the bulkhead by the hatch, he punched the comm panel call button. There was no reply. He hit it again, then started pounding on the hatch. No one came.
"Where are our damn marines?" he said.
The lights dimmed, came back up. Then again, and again, in a slow cadence.
"Gauss turrets firing. Shit. It's CQB," Alex said in awe.
In the history of the Coalition, no capital ship had ever gotten into a close-quarters battle. But here they were, firing the ship's big cannons, which meant that the range was sufficiently short that a nonguided weapon was viable. Hundreds or even dozens of kilometers, not thousands. Somehow the Belt ships had survived Donnager's torpedo barrage.
"Anyone else think this is desperate fucking queer?" Amos asked, a touch of panic in his voice.
The Donnager began to ring like a gong struck over and over again by a massive hammer. Return fire.
The gauss round that killed Shed didn't even make a noise. Like a magic trick, two perfectly round holes appeared on either side of the room in a line that intersected Shed's couch. One moment, the medic was there; the next, his head was gone from the Adam's apple up. Arterial blood pumped out in a red cloud, pulled into two thin lines, and whirled to the holes in the walls of the room as the air rushed out.