Chapter Fifteen: Holden
Holden grabbed for Naomi. He struggled to orient himself as the two of them spun across the bay with nothing to push off of and nothing to arrest their flight. They were in the middle of the room with no cover.
The blast had hurled Kelly five meters through the air and into the side of a packing crate, where he was floating now, one magnetic boot connected to the side of the container, the other struggling to connect with the deck. Amos had been blown down, and lay flat on the floor, his lower leg stuck out at an impossible angle. Alex crouched at his side.
Holden craned his neck, looking toward the attackers. There was the boarder with the grenade launcher who had blasted Kelly, lining up on them for the killing shot. We're dead, Holden thought. Naomi made an obscene gesture.
The man with the grenade launcher shuddered and dissolved in a spray of blood and small detonations.
"Get to the ship!" Gomez screamed from the radio. His voice was grating and high, half shrieking pain and half battle ecstasy.
Holden pulled the tether line off Naomi's suit.
"What are you...?" she began.
"Trust me," he said, then put his feet into her stomach and shoved off, hard. He hit the deck while she spun toward the ceiling. He kicked on his boot mags and then yanked the tether to pull her down to him.
The room strobed with sustained machine gun fire. Holden said, "Stay low," and ran as quickly as his magnetic boots would allow toward Alex and Amos. The mechanic moved his limbs feebly, so he was still alive. Holden realized he still had the end of Naomi's tether in his hand, so he clipped it on to a loop on his suit. No more getting separated.
Holden lifted Amos off the deck, then checked the inertia. The mechanic grunted and muttered something obscene. Holden attached Amos' tether to his suit too. He'd carry the whole crew if that was what it took. Without saying a word, Alex clipped his tether to Holden and gave him a weary thumbs-up.
"That was... I mean, fuck," Alex said.
"Yeah," Holden said.
"Jim," Naomi said. "Look!"
Holden followed her gaze. Kelly was staggering toward them. His armor was visibly crushed on the left side of his torso, and hydraulic fluid leaked from his suit into a trail of droplets floating behind him, but he was moving - toward the frigate.
"Okay," Holden said. "Let's go."
The five of them moved as a group to the ship, the air around them filled with pieces of packing crates blown apart by the ongoing battle. A wasp stung Holden's arm, and his suit's head-up display informed him that it had sealed a minor breach. He felt something warm trickle down his bicep.
Gomez shouted like a madman over the radio as he dashed around the outer edge of the bay, firing wildly. The return fire was constant. Holden saw the marine hit again and again, small explosions and ablative clouds coming off his suit until Holden could hardly believe that there could be anything inside it still living. But Gomez kept the enemy's attention, and Holden and the crew were able to limp up to the half cover of the corvette's airlock.
Kelly pulled a small metal card from a pocket on his armor. A swipe of the card opened the outer door, and Holden pulled Amos' floating body inside. Naomi, Alex, and the wounded marine came in after, staring at each other in shocked disbelief as the airlock cycled and the inner doors opened.
"I can't believe we... " Alex said; then his voice trailed off.
"Talk about it later," Kelly barked. "Alex Kamal, you served on MCRN ships. Can you fly this thing?"
"Sure, El Tee," Alex replied, then visibly straightened. "Why me?"
"Our other pilot's outside getting killed. Take this," Kelly said, handing him the metal card. "The rest of you, get strapped in. We've lost a lot of time."
Up close, the damage to Kelly's armor was even more apparent. He had to have severe injuries to his chest. And not all the liquid coming out of the suit was hydraulic fluid. There was definitely blood as well.
"Let me help you," Holden said, reaching for him.
"Don't touch me," Kelly said, with an anger that took Holden by surprise. "You get strapped in, and you shut the fuck up. Now."
Holden didn't argue. He unhooked the tethers from his suit and helped Naomi maneuver Amos to the crash couches and strap him in. Kelly stayed on the deck above, but his voice came over the ship's comm.
"Mr. Kamal, are we ready to fly?" he said.
"Roger that, El Tee. The reactor was already hot when we got here."
"The Tachi was the ready standby. That's why we're taking her. Now go. As soon as we clear the hangar, full throttle."
"Roger," Alex said.
Gravity returned in tiny bursts at random directions as Alex lifted the ship off the deck and spun it toward the hangar door. Holden finished putting on his straps and checked to see that Naomi and Amos were squared away. The mechanic was moaning and holding on to the edge of the couch with a death grip.
"You still with us, Amos?" Holden said.
"Oh shit, I can see Gomez," Alex said over the comm. "He's down. Aw, you goddammed bastards! They're shootin' him while he's down! Son of a bitch!"
The ship stopped moving, and Alex said in a quiet voice, "Suck on this, asshole."
The ship vibrated for half a second, then paused before continuing toward the lock.
"Point defense cannons?" Holden asked.
"Summary roadside justice," Alex grunted back.
Holden was imagining what several hundred rounds of Teflon-coated tungsten steel going five thousand meters per second would do to human bodies when Alex threw down the throttle and a roomful of elephants swan dived onto his chest.
Holden woke in zero g. His eye sockets and testicles ached, so they'd been at high thrust for a while. The wall terminal next to him said it had been almost half an hour. Naomi was moving in her couch, but Amos was unconscious, and blood was coming out of a hole in his suit at an alarming rate.
"Naomi, check Amos," Holden croaked, his throat aching with the effort. "Alex, report."
"The Donnie went up behind us, Cap. Guess the marines didn't hold. She's gone," Alex said in a subdued voice.
"The six attacking ships?"
"I haven't seen any sign of them since the explosion. I'd guess they're toast."
Holden nodded to himself. Summary roadside justice, indeed. Boarding a ship was one of the riskiest maneuvers in naval combat. It was basically a race between the boarders rushing to the engine room and the collective will of those who had their fingers on the self-destruct button. After even one look at Captain Yao, Holden could have told them who'd lose that race.
Still. Someone had thought it was worth the risk.
Holden pulled his straps off and floated over to Amos. Naomi had opened an emergency kit and was cutting the mechanic's suit off with a pair of heavy scissors. The hole had been punched out by a jagged end of Amos' broken tibia when the suit had pushed against it at twelve g.
When she'd finished cutting the suit away, Naomi blanched at the mass of blood and gore that Amos' lower leg had turned into.
"What do we do?" Holden asked.
Naomi just stared at him, then barked out a harsh laugh.
"I have no idea," she said.
"But you - " Holden started. She talked right over him.
"If he were made of metal, I'd just hammer him straight and then weld everything into place," she said.
"I - "
"But he isn't made out of ship parts," she continued, her voice rising into a yell, "so why are you asking me what to do?"
Holden held up his hands in a placating gesture.
"Okay, got it. Let's just stop the bleeding for now, all right?"
"If Alex gets killed, are you going to ask me to fly the ship too?"
Holden started to answer and then stopped. She was right. Whenever he didn't know what to do, he handed off to Naomi. He'd been doing it for years. She was smart, capable, usually unflappable. She'd become a crutch, and she'd been through all the same trauma he had. If he didn't start paying attention, he'd break her, and he needed not to do that.
"You're right. I'll take care of Amos," he said. "You go up and check on Kelly. I'll be there in a few minutes."
Naomi stared at him until her breathing slowed, then said, "Okay," and headed to the crew ladder.
Holden sprayed Amos' leg with coagulant booster and wrapped it in gauze from the first aid kit. Then he called up the ship's database on the wall terminal and did a search on compound fractures. He was reading it with growing dismay when Naomi called.
"Kelly's dead," she said, her voice flat.
Holden's stomach dropped, and he gave himself three breaths to get the panic out of his voice.
"Okay. I'll need your help setting this bone. Come on back down. Alex? Give me half a g of thrust while we work on Amos."
"Any particular direction, Cap?" Alex asked.
"I don't care, just give me half a g and stay off the radio till I say so."
Naomi dropped back down the ladder well as the gravity started to come up.
"It looks like every rib on the left side of Kelly's body was broken," she said. "Thrust g probably punctured all his organs."
"He had to know that was going to happen," Holden said.
It was easy to make fun of the marines when they weren't listening. In Holden's navy days, making fun of jarheads was as natural as cussing. But four marines had died getting him off the Donnager, and three of them had made a conscious decision to do so. Holden promised himself that he'd never make fun of them again.
"We need to pull the bone straight before we set it. Hold him still, and I'll pull on his foot. Let me know when the bone has retracted and lined up again."
Naomi started to protest.
"I know you're not a doctor. Just best guess," Holden said.
It was one of the most horrible things Holden had ever done. Amos woke up screaming during the procedure. He had to pull the leg out twice, because the first time the bones didn't line up, and when he let go, the jagged end of the tibia popped back out the hole in a spray of blood. Fortunately, Amos passed out after that and they were able to make the second attempt without the screaming. It seemed to work. Holden sprayed the wound down with antiseptics and coagulants. He stapled the hole closed and slapped a growth-stimulating bandage over it, then finished up with a quick-form air-cast and an antibiotic patch on the mechanic's thigh.
Afterward he collapsed onto the deck and gave in to the shakes. Naomi climbed into her couch and sobbed. It was the first time Holden had ever seen her cry.
Holden, Alex, and Naomi floated in a loose triangle around the crash couch where Lieutenant Kelly's body lay. Below, Amos was in a heavily sedated sleep. The Tachi drifted through space toward no particular destination. For the first time in a long time, no one followed.
Holden knew the other two were waiting for him. Waiting to hear how he was going to save them. They looked at him expectantly. He tried to appear calm and thoughtful. Inside, he panicked. He had no idea where to go. No idea what to do. Ever since they'd found the Scopuli, everywhere that should have been safe had turned into a death trap. The Canterbury, the Donnager. Holden was terrified of going anywhere, for fear that it would be blown up moments later.
Do something, a mentor of a decade earlier said to his young officers. It doesn't have to be right, it just has to be something.
"Someone is going to investigate what happened to the Donnager," Holden said. "Martian ships are speeding to that spot as we speak. They'll already know the Tachi got away, because our transponder is blabbing our survival to the solar system at large."
"No it ain't," Alex said.
"Explain that, Mr. Kamal."
"This is a torpedo bomber. You think they want a nice transponder signal to lock on to when they're makin' runs on an enemy capital ship? Naw, there's a handy switch up in the cockpit that says 'transponder off.' I flipped it before we flew out. We're just another moving object out of a million like us."
Holden was silent for two long breaths.
"Alex, that may be the single greatest thing anyone has ever done, in the history of the universe," he said.
"But we can't land, Jim," Naomi said. "One, no port is going to let a ship with no transponder signal anywhere near them, and two, as soon as they make us out visually, the fact that we're a Martian warship will be hard to hide."
"Yep, that's the downside," Alex agreed.
"Fred Johnson," Holden said, "gave us the network address to get in touch with him. I'm thinking that the OPA might be the one group that would let us land our stolen Martian warship somewhere."
"It ain't stolen," Alex said. "It's legitimate salvage now."
"Yeah, you make that argument to the MCRN if they catch us, but let's try and make sure they don't."
"So, we just wait here till Colonel Johnson gets back to us?" Alex asked.
"No, I wait. You two prep Lieutenant Kelly for burial. Alex, you were MCRN. You know the traditions. Do it with full honors and record it in the log. He died to get us off that ship, and we're going to accord him every respect. As soon as we land anywhere, we'll bounce the full record to MCRN command so they can do it officially."
Alex nodded. "We'll do it right, sir."
Fred Johnson replied to his message so fast that Holden wondered if he'd been sitting at his terminal waiting for it. Johnson's message consisted only of coordinates and the word tightbeam. Holden aimed the laser array at the specified location - it was the same one Fred had beamed his first message from - then turned on his mic and said, "Fred?"
The coordinates given were more than eleven light-minutes away. Holden prepared to wait twenty-two minutes for his answer. Just to have something to do, he fed the location up to the cockpit and told Alex to fly in that direction at one g as soon as they'd finished with Lieutenant Kelly.
Twenty minutes later the thrust came up and Naomi climbed the ladder. She'd stripped off her vacuum suit and was wearing a red Martian jumpsuit that was half a foot too short for her and three times too big around. Her hair and face looked clean.
"This ship has a head with a shower. Can we keep it?" she said.
"How'd it go?"
"We took care of him. There's a decent-sized cargo bay down by engineering. We put him there until we can find some way to send him home. I turned off the environment in there, so he'll stay preserved."
She held out her hand and dropped a small black cube into his lap.
"That was in a pocket under his armor," she said.
Holden held up the object. It looked like some sort of data-storage device.
"Can you find out what's on it?" he asked.
"Sure. Give me some time."
"Blood pressure's steady," Naomi said. "That's got to be a good thing."
The comm console beeped at them, and Holden started the playback.
"Jim, news of the Donnager has just started hitting the net. I admit I am extremely surprised to be hearing from you," said Fred's voice. "What can I do for you?"
Holden paused a moment while he mentally prepared his response. Fred's suspicion was palpable, but he'd sent Holden a keyword to use for exactly that reason.
"Fred. While our enemies have become ubiquitous, our list of friends has grown kind of short. In fact, you're pretty much it. I am in a stolen - "
Alex cleared his throat.
"A salvaged MCRN gunboat," Holden went on. "I need a way to hide that fact. I need somewhere to go where they won't just shoot me down for showing up. Help me do that."
It was half an hour before the reply came.
"I've attached a datafile on a subchannel," Fred said. "It's got your new transponder code and directions on how to install it. The code will check out in all the registries. It's legitimate. It's also got coordinates that will get you to a safe harbor. I'll meet you there. We have a lot to talk about."
"New transponder code?" Naomi said. "How does the OPA get new transponder codes?"
"Hack the Earth-Mars Coalition's security protocols or get a mole in the registry office," Holden said. "Either way, I think we're playing in the big league now."