Chapter Five: Holden
Ten minutes at two g, and Holden's head was already starting to ache. But McDowell had called them home at all haste. The Canterbury was warming up its massive drive. Holden didn't want to miss his ride.
"Jim? We may have a problem out here."
"Talk to me."
"Becca found something, and it is sufficiently weird to make my balls creep up. We're getting the hell out of here."
"Alex, how long?" Holden asked for the third time in ten minutes.
"We're over an hour out. Want to go on the juice?" Alex said.
Going on the juice was pilot-speak for a high-g burn that would knock an unmedicated human unconscious. The juice was the cocktail of drugs the pilot's chair would inject into him to keep him conscious, alert, and hopefully stroke-free when his body weighed five hundred kilos. Holden had used the juice on multiple occasions in the navy, and coming down afterward was unpleasant.
"Not unless we have to," he said.
"What kind of weird?"
"Becca, link him up. Jim, I want you seeing what we're seeing."
Holden tongued a painkiller tab from his suit's helmet and reran Becca's sensor feed for the fifth time. The spot in space lay about two hundred thousand kilometers from the Canterbury. As the Cant had scanned it, the readout showed a fluctuation, the gray-black false color gradually developing a warm border. It was a small temperature climb, less than two degrees. Holden was amazed Becca had even spotted it. He reminded himself to give her a glowing review the next time she was up for promotion.
"Where did that come from?" Holden asked.
"No idea. It's just a spot faintly warmer than the background," Becca said. "I'd say it was a cloud of gas, because we get no radar return from it, but there aren't supposed to be any gas clouds out here. I mean, where would it come from?"
"Jim, any chance the Scopuli killed the ship that killed it? Could it be a vapor cloud from a destroyed ship?" McDowell asked.
"I don't think so, sir. The Scopuli is totally unarmed. The hole in her side came from breaching charges, not torpedo fire, so I don't think they even fought back. It might be where the Scopuli vented, but... "
"Or maybe not. Come back to the barn, Jim. Do it now."
"Naomi, what slowly gets hotter that gives no radar or ladar return when you scan it? Wild-ass guess here," Holden said.
"Hmmmm... ," Naomi said, giving herself time to think. "Anything that was absorbing the energy from the sensor package wouldn't give a return. But it might get hotter when it shed the absorbed energy."
The infrared monitor on the sensor console next to Holden's chair flared like the sun. Alex swore loudly over the general comm.
"Are you seein' that?" he said.
Holden ignored him and opened a channel to McDowell.
"Captain, we just got a massive IR spike," Holden said.
For long seconds, there was no reply. When McDowell came on the channel, his voice was tight. Holden had never heard the old man sound afraid before.
"Jim, a ship just appeared in that warm spot. It's radiating heat like a bastard," McDowell said. "Where the hell did that thing come from?"
Holden started to answer but then heard Becca's voice coming faintly through the captain's headset. "No idea, sir. But it's smaller than its heat signature. Radar shows frigate-sized," she said.
"With what?" McDowell said. "Invisibility? Magical wormhole teleportation?"
"Sir," Holden said, "Naomi was speculating that the heat we picked up might have come from energy-absorbing materials. Stealth materials. Which means that ship was hiding on purpose. Which means its intentions are not good."
As if in answer, six new objects appeared on his radar, glowing yellow icons appearing and immediately shifting to orange as the system marked their acceleration. On the Canterbury, Becca yelled out, "Fast movers! We have six new high-speed contacts on a collision course!"
"Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick, did that ship just fire a spread of torpedoes at us?" McDowell said. "They're trying to slap us down?"
"Yes, sir," Becca said.
"Time to contact."
"Just under eight minutes, sir," she replied.
McDowell cursed under his breath.
"We've got pirates, Jim."
"What do you need from us?" Holden said, trying to sound calm and professional.
"I need you to get off the radio and let my crew work. You're an hour out at best. The torpedoes are eight minutes. McDowell out," the captain said, his comm clicking off and leaving Holden listening to the faint hiss of static.
The general comm exploded with voices, Alex demanding to go on the juice and race the torpedoes to the Cant, Naomi chattering about missile-jamming strategies, Amos cursing at the stealth ship and questioning the parenting of its crew. Shed was the only quiet one.
"Everyone, shut up!" Holden yelled into his headset. The ship fell into shocked silence. "Alex, plot the fastest course to the Cant that won't kill us. Let me know when you have it. Naomi, set up a three-way channel with Becca, you, and me. We'll help however we can. Amos, keep cussing but turn your mic off."
He waited. The clock ticked toward impact.
"Link is up," Naomi said. Holden could hear two distinct sets of background noise over the comm channel.
"Becca, this is Jim. I've got Naomi on this channel too. Tell us what we can do to help. Naomi was talking about jamming techniques?"
"I'm doing everything I know to do," Becca said, her voice astonishingly calm. "They're painting us with a targeting laser. I'm broadcasting garbage to scramble it, but they've got really, really good shit. If we were any closer, that targeting laser would be burning a hole in our hull."
"What about physical chaff?" Naomi asked. "Can you drop snow?"
While Naomi and Becca talked, Jim opened a private channel to Ade. "Hey, this is Jim. I have Alex working on a fast-burn solution so we can get there before... "
"Before the missiles turn us into a flying brick? Good idea. Taken by pirates isn't something you want to miss," Ade said. He could hear the fear behind the mocking tone.
"Ade, please, I want to say something - "
"Jim, what do you think?" Naomi said on the other channel.
Holden cursed. To cover, he said, "Uh, about which thing?"
"Using the Knight to try and draw those missiles," Naomi said.
"Can we do that?" he asked.
"Maybe. Were you listening at all?"
"Ah... something happened here, drew my attention for a minute. Tell me again," Holden said.
"We try to match the frequency of the light scatter coming off the Cant and broadcast it with our comm array. Maybe the torpedoes will think we're the target instead," Naomi said like she was speaking to a child.
"And then they come blow us up?"
"I'm thinking we run away while pulling the torpedoes toward us. Then, when we get them far enough past the Cant, we kill the comm array and try to hide behind the asteroid," Naomi said.
"Won't work," Holden said with a sigh. "They follow the targeting laser's scatter for general guidance, but they also take telescope shots of the target on acquisition. They'll take one look at us and know we aren't their target."
"Isn't it worth a shot?"
"Even if we manage it, torpedoes designed to disable the Cant would make us into a greasy stretch of vacuum."
"All right," Naomi said. "What else have we got?"
"Nothing. Very smart boys in the naval labs have already thought of everything we are going to think of in the next eight minutes," Holden said. Saying it out loud meant admitting it to himself.
"Then what are we doing here, Jim?" Naomi asked.
"Seven minutes," Becca said, her voice still eerily calm.
"Let's get there. Maybe we can get some people off the ship after it's hit. Help with damage control," Holden said. "Alex, got that plot figured out?"
"Roger that, XO. Bleeding-g burn-and-flip laid in. Angled approach course so our torch won't burn a hole in the Cant. Time to rock and roll?" Alex replied.
"Yeah. Naomi, get your people strapped in for high g," Holden said, then opened up a channel to Captain McDowell. "Captain, we're coming in hot. Try to survive, and we'll have the Knight on station for pickup or to help with damage control."
"Roger," McDowell said, and killed the line.
Holden opened up his channel to Ade again. "Ade, we're going to burn hard, so I won't be talking, but leave this channel open for me, okay? Tell me what's happening. Hell, hum. Humming is nice. I just really need to hear you're all right."
"Okay, Jim," Ade said. She didn't hum but she left the channel open. He could hear her breathing.
Alex began the countdown over the general comm. Holden checked the straps on his crash couch and palmed the button that started the juice. A dozen needles stuck into his back through membranes in his suit. His heart shuddered and chemical bands of iron gripped his brain. His spine went dead cold, and his face flushed like a radiation burn. He pounded a fist into the arm of the crash couch. He hated this part, but the next one was worse. On the general comm, Alex whooped as the drugs hit his system. Belowdecks, the others were getting the drugs that kept them from dying but kept them sedated through the worst of it.
Alex said, "One," and Holden weighed five hundred kilos. The nerves at the back of his eye sockets screamed at the massive load of his eyeballs. His testicles crushed themselves against his thighs. He concentrated on not swallowing his tongue. Around him, the ship creaked and groaned. There was a disconcerting bang from belowdecks, but nothing on his panel went red. The Knight's torch drive could deliver a lot of thrust, but at the cost of a prodigious fuel-burn rate. But if they could save the Cant, it wouldn't matter.
Over the blood pounding in his ears, Holden could hear Ade's gentle breathing and the click of her keyboard. He wished he could just go to sleep to that sound, but the juice was singing and burning in his blood. He was more awake than he'd ever been.
"Yes, sir," Ade said over the comm.
It took Holden a second to realize she was talking to McDowell. He turned up the volume to hear what the captain was saying.
" - the mains online, full power."
"We're fully loaded, sir. If we try to burn that hard, we'll tear the drive right off the mounts," Ade replied. McDowell must have asked her to fire up the Epstein.
"Mr. Tukunbo," McDowell said, "we have... four minutes. If you break it, I won't bill you."
"Yes, sir. Bringing mains online. Setting for maximum burn," Ade said, and in the background Holden could hear the high-g warning Klaxon. There was a louder clicking as Ade strapped herself in.
"Mains online in three... two... one... execute," Ade said.
The Canterbury groaned so loud Holden had to turn the comm volume down. It moaned and shrieked like a banshee for several seconds, and then there was a shattering crash. He pulled up the exterior visual, fighting against the g-induced blackout at the edge of his vision. The Canterbury was in one piece.
"Ade, what the hell was that?" McDowell said, his speech slurred.
"The drive tearing a strut. Mains are off-line, sir," Ade replied, not saying Exactly like I said would happen.
"What did that buy us?" McDowell asked.
"Not much. The torpedoes are now at over forty klicks a second and accelerating. We're down to maneuvering thrusters," Ade said.
"Shit," McDowell said.
"They're going to hit us, sir," Ade said.
"Jim," McDowell said, his voice suddenly loud over the direct channel he'd opened. "We're going down, and there's no way around it. Click twice to acknowledge."
Jim clicked his radio twice.
"Okay, so, now we need to think about surviving after the hit. If they're looking to cripple us before boarding, they'll take out our drive and our comm array. Becca's been broadcasting an SOS ever since the torpedoes were fired, but I'd like you to keep yelling if we stop. If they know you're out there, they are less likely to toss everyone out an airlock. Witnesses, you know," McDowell said.
Jim clicked twice again.
"Turn around, Jim. Hide behind that asteroid. Call for help. Order."
Jim clicked twice, then signaled all-stop to Alex. In an instant, the giant sitting on his chest disappeared, replaced by weightlessness. The sudden transition would have made him throw up if his veins hadn't been coursing with antinausea drugs.
"What's up?" Alex said.
"New job," Holden said, teeth chattering from the juice. "We're calling for help and negotiating a release of prisoners once the bad guys have the Cant. Burn back to that asteroid, since it's the closest we can get to cover."
"Roger that, Boss," Alex said. He added in a lower voice, "I'd kill for a couple of tubes or a nice keel-mounted rail gun right now."
"I hear you."
"Wake up the kids downstairs?"
"Let them sleep."
"Roger that," Alex said, then clicked off.
Before the heavy g started up again, Holden turned on the Knight's SOS. The channel to Ade was still open, and now that McDowell was off the line, he could hear her breathing again. He turned the volume all the way up and lay back in the straps, waiting to be crushed. Alex didn't disappoint him.
"One minute," Ade said, her voice loud enough to distort through his helmet's speakers. Holden didn't turn the volume down. Her voice was admirably calm as she called out the impact countdown.
Holden wanted desperately to talk, to say something comforting, to make ludicrous and untrue assertions of love. The giant standing on his chest just laughed with the deep rumble of their fusion torch.
"Get ready to kill the reactor and play dead after the torpedoes hit. If we're not a threat, they won't hit us again," McDowell said.
"Five," Ade said.
The Canterbury shuddered and the monitor went white. Ade took one sharp intake of breath, which cut off as the radio broke up. The static squeal almost ruptured Holden's eardrums. He chinned the volume down and clicked his radio at Alex.
The thrust suddenly dropped to a tolerable two g and all the ship's sensors flared into overload. A brilliant light poured through the small airlock porthole.
"Report, Alex, report! What happened?" Holden yelled.
"My God. They nuked her. They nuked the Cant," Alex said, his voice low and dazed.
"What's her status? Give me a report on the Canterbury! I have zero sensors down here. Everything's just gone white!"
There was a long pause; then Alex said, "I have zero sensors up here too, Boss. But I can give you a status on the Cant. I can see her."
"See her? From here?"
"Yeah. She's a cloud of vapor the size of Olympus Mons. She's gone, Boss. She's gone."
That can't be right, Holden's mind protested. That doesn't happen. Pirates don't nuke water haulers. No one wins. No one gets paid. And if you just want to murder fifty people, walking into a restaurant with a machine gun is a lot easier.
He wanted to shout it, scream at Alex that he was wrong. But he had to keep it together. I'm the old man now.
"All right. New mission, Alex. Now we're witnesses to murder. Get us back to that asteroid. I'll start compiling a broadcast. Wake everyone up. They need to know," Holden said. "I'm rebooting the sensor package."
He methodically shut down the sensors and their software, waited two minutes, then slowly brought them back online. His hands were shaking. He was nauseated. His body felt like he was operating his flesh from a distance, and he didn't know how much was the juice and how much was shock.
The sensors came back up. Like any other ship that flew the space lanes, the Knight was hardened against radiation. You couldn't get anywhere near Jupiter's massive radiation belt unless you were. But Holden doubted the ship's designers had half a dozen nuclear weapons going off nearby in mind when they'd created the specs. They'd gotten lucky. Vacuum might protect them from an electromagnetic pulse, but the blast radiation could still have fried every sensor the ship had.
Once the array came back up, he scanned the space where the Canterbury had been. There was nothing larger than a softball. He switched over to the ship that killed it, which was flying off sunward at a leisurely one g. Heat bloomed in Holden's chest.
He wasn't scared. Aneurysm-inducing rage made his temples pound and his fists squeeze until his tendons hurt. He flipped on the comms and aimed a tightbeam at the retreating ship.
"This message is to whoever ordered the destruction of the Canterbury, the civilian ice freighter that you just blew into gas. You don't get to just fly away, you murderous son of a bitch. I don't care what your reasons are, but you just killed fifty friends of mine. You need to know who they were. I am sending to you the name and photograph of everyone who just died in that ship. Take a good look at what you did. Think about that while I work on finding out who you are."
He closed the voice channel, pulled up the Canterbury's personnel files, and began transmitting the crew dossiers to the other ship.
"What are you doing?" asked Naomi from behind him, not from his helmet speakers.
She was standing there with her helmet off. Sweat plastered her thick black hair to her head and neck. Her face was unreadable. Holden took off his helmet.
"I'm showing them the Canterbury was a real place where real people lived. People with names and families," he said, the juice making his voice less steady than he would have liked. "If there's something resembling a human being giving the orders on that ship, I hope it haunts him right up to the day they put him in the recycler for murder."
"I don't think they appreciate it," Naomi said, pointing at the panel behind him.
The enemy ship was now painting them with its targeting laser. Holden held his breath. No torpedoes launched, and after a few seconds, the stealth ship turned off its laser and the engine flared as it scooted off at high g. He heard Naomi let out a shuddering breath.
"So the Canterbury's gone?" Naomi asked.
"Fuck me sideways," said Amos.
Amos and Shed stood together at the crew ladder. Amos' face was mottled red and white, and his big hands clenched and unclenched. Shed collapsed to his knees, slamming against the deck in the heavy two-g thrust. He didn't cry. He just looked at Holden and said, "Cameron's never going to get that arm, I guess," then buried his head in his hands and shook.
"Slow down, Alex. No need to run now," Holden said into the comm. The ship slowly dropped to one g.
"What now, Captain?" Naomi said, looking at him hard. You're in charge now. Act like it.
"Blowing them out of the sky would be my first choice, but since we don't have the weapons... follow them. Keep our eyes on them until we know where they're going. Expose them to everyone," Holden replied.
"Fuckin' A," said Amos loudly.
"Amos," Naomi said over her shoulder, "take Shed below and get him into a couch. If you need to, give him something to put him to sleep."
"You got it, Boss." Amos put a thick arm around Shed's waist and took him below.
When he was gone, Naomi turned back to Holden.
"No, sir. We are not chasing that ship. We are going to call for help, and then go wherever the help tells us to go."
"I - " Holden started.
"Yes, you're in charge. That makes me XO, and it's the XO's job to tell the captain when he's being an idiot. You're being an idiot, sir. You already tried to goad them into killing us with that broadcast. Now you want to chase them? And what will you do if they let you catch them? Broadcast another emotional plea?" Naomi said, moving closer to him. "You are going to get the remaining four members of your crew to safety. And that's all. When we're safe, you can go on your crusade. Sir."
Holden unbuckled the straps on his couch and stood up. The juice was starting to burn out, leaving his body spent and sickened. Naomi lifted her chin and didn't back up.
"Glad you're with me, Naomi," he said. "Go see to the crew. McDowell gave me one last order."
Naomi looked him over critically; he could see her distrust. He didn't defend himself; he just waited until she was done. She nodded at him once and climbed down the ladder to the deck below.
Once she was gone, he worked methodically, putting together a broadcast package that included all the sensor data from the Canterbury and the Knight. Alex climbed down from the cockpit and sat down heavily in the next chair.
"You know, Captain, I've been thinkin'," he said. His voice had the same post-juice shakes as Holden's own.
Holden bit back his irritation at the interruption and said, "What about?"
"That stealth ship."
Holden turned away from his work.
"So, I don't know any pirates that have shit like that."
"In fact, the only time I've seen tech like that was back when I was in the navy," Alex said. "We were working on ships with energy-absorbing skins and internal heat sinks. More of a strategic weapon than a tactical one. You can't hide an active drive, but if you can get into position and shut the drive down, store all your waste heat internally, you can hide yourself pretty good. Add in the energy-absorbing skin, and radar, ladar, and passive sensors don't pick you up. Plus, pretty tough to get nuclear torpedoes outside of the military."
"You're saying the Martian navy did this?"
Alex took a long shuddering breath.
"If we had it, you know the Earthers were workin' on it too," he said.
They looked at each other across the narrow space, the implications heavier than a ten-g burn. Holden pulled the transmitter and battery they'd recovered from the Scopuli out of the thigh pocket of his suit. He started pulling it apart, looking for a stamp or an insignia. Alex watched, quiet for once. The transmitter was generic; it could have come from the radio room of any ship in the solar system. The battery was a nondescript gray block. Alex reached out and Holden handed it to him. Alex pried off the gray plastic cover and flipped the metal battery around in his hands. Without saying a word, he held the bottom up to Holden's face. Stamped in the black metal on the bottom of the battery was a serial number that began with the letters MCRN.
Martian Congressional Republic Navy.
The radio was set to broadcast on full power. The data package was ready to transmit. Holden stood in front of the camera, leaning a little forward.
"My name is James Holden," he said, "and my ship, the Canterbury, was just destroyed by a warship with stealth technology and what appear to be parts stamped with Martian navy serial numbers. Data stream to follow."