Chapter One: Holden
A hundred and fifty years before, when the parochial disagreements between Earth and Mars had been on the verge of war, the Belt had been a far horizon of tremendous mineral wealth beyond viable economic reach, and the outer planets had been beyond even the most unrealistic corporate dream. Then Solomon Epstein had built his little modified fusion drive, popped it on the back of his three-man yacht, and turned it on. With a good scope, you could still see his ship going at a marginal percentage of the speed of light, heading out into the big empty. The best, longest funeral in the history of mankind. Fortunately, he'd left the plans on his home computer. The Epstein Drive hadn't given humanity the stars, but it had delivered the planets.
Three-quarters of a kilometer long, a quarter of a kilometer wide - roughly shaped like a fire hydrant - and mostly empty space inside, the Canterbury was a retooled colony transport. Once, it had been packed with people, supplies, schematics, machines, environment bubbles, and hope. Just under twenty million people lived on the moons of Saturn now. The Canterbury had hauled nearly a million of their ancestors there. Forty-five million on the moons of Jupiter. One moon of Uranus sported five thousand, the farthest outpost of human civilization, at least until the Mormons finished their generation ship and headed for the stars and freedom from procreation restrictions.
And then there was the Belt.
If you asked OPA recruiters when they were drunk and feeling expansive, they might say there were a hundred million in the Belt. Ask an inner planet census taker, it was nearer to fifty million. Any way you looked, the population was huge and needed a lot of water.
So now the Canterbury and her dozens of sister ships in the Pur'n'Kleen Water Company made the loop from Saturn's generous rings to the Belt and back hauling glaciers, and would until the ships aged into salvage wrecks.
Jim Holden saw some poetry in that.
He turned back to the hangar deck. Chief Engineer Naomi Nagata towered over him. She stood almost two full meters tall, her mop of curly hair tied back into a black tail, her expression halfway between amusement and annoyance. She had the Belter habit of shrugging with her hands instead of her shoulders.
"Holden, are you listening, or just staring out the window?"
"There was a problem," Holden said. "And because you're really, really good, you can fix it even though you don't have enough money or supplies."
"So you weren't listening," she said.
"Not really, no."
"Well, you got the basics right anyhow. Knight's landing gear isn't going to be good in atmosphere until I can get the seals replaced. That going to be a problem?"
"I'll ask the old man," Holden said. "But when's the last time we used the shuttle in atmosphere?"
"Never, but regs say we need at least one atmo-capable shuttle."
"Hey, Boss!" Amos Burton, Naomi's earthborn assistant, yelled from across the bay. He waved one meaty arm in their general direction. He meant Naomi. Amos might be on Captain McDowell's ship; Holden might be executive officer; but in Amos Burton's world, only Naomi was boss.
"What's the matter?" Naomi shouted back.
"Bad cable. Can you hold this little fucker in place while I get the spare?"
Naomi looked at Holden, Are we done here? in her eyes. He snapped a sarcastic salute and she snorted, shaking her head as she walked away, her frame long and thin in her greasy coveralls.
Seven years in Earth's navy, five years working in space with civilians, and he'd never gotten used to the long, thin, improbable bones of Belters. A childhood spent in gravity shaped the way he saw things forever.
At the central lift, Holden held his finger briefly over the button for the navigation deck, tempted by the prospect of Ade Tukunbo - her smile, her voice, the patchouli-and-vanilla scent she used in her hair - but pressed the button for the infirmary instead. Duty before pleasure.
Shed Garvey, the medical tech, was hunched over his lab table, debriding the stump of Cameron Paj's left arm, when Holden walked in. A month earlier, Paj had gotten his elbow pinned by a thirty-ton block of ice moving at five millimeters a second. It wasn't an uncommon injury among people with the dangerous job of cutting and moving zero-g icebergs, and Paj was taking the whole thing with the fatalism of a professional. Holden leaned over Shed's shoulder to watch as the tech plucked one of the medical maggots out of dead tissue.
"What's the word?" Holden asked.
"It's looking pretty good, sir," Paj said. "I've still got a few nerves. Shed's been tellin' me about how the prosthetic is gonna hook up to it."
"Assuming we can keep the necrosis under control," the medic said, "and make sure Paj doesn't heal up too much before we get to Ceres. I checked the policy, and Paj here's been signed on long enough to get one with force feedback, pressure and temperature sensors, fine-motor software. The whole package. It'll be almost as good as the real thing. The inner planets have a new biogel that regrows the limb, but that isn't covered in our medical plan."
"Fuck the Inners, and fuck their magic Jell-O. I'd rather have a good Belter-built fake than anything those bastards grow in a lab. Just wearing their fancy arm probably turns you into an asshole," Paj said. Then he added, "Oh, uh, no offense, XO."
"None taken. Just glad we're going to get you fixed up," Holden said.
"Tell him the other bit," Paj said with a wicked grin. Shed blushed.
"I've, ah, heard from other guys who've gotten them," Shed said, not meeting Holden's eyes. "Apparently there's a period while you're still building identification with the prosthetic when whacking off feels just like getting a hand job."
Holden let the comment hang in the air for a second while Shed's ears turned crimson.
"Good to know," Holden said. "And the necrosis?"
"There's some infection," Shed said. "The maggots are keeping it under control, and the inflammation's actually a good thing in this context, so we're not fighting too hard unless it starts to spread."
"Is he going to be ready for the next run?" Holden asked.
For the first time, Paj frowned.
"Shit yes, I'll be ready. I'm always ready. This is what I do, sir."
"Probably," Shed said. "Depending on how the bond takes. If not this one, the one after."
"Fuck that," Paj said. "I can buck ice one-handed better than half the skags you've got on this bitch."
"Again," Holden said, suppressing a grin, "good to know. Carry on."
Paj snorted. Shed plucked another maggot free. Holden went back to the lift, and this time he didn't hesitate.
The navigation station of the Canterbury didn't dress to impress. The great wall-sized displays Holden had imagined when he'd first volunteered for the navy did exist on capital ships but, even there, more as an artifact of design than need. Ade sat at a pair of screens only slightly larger than a hand terminal, graphs of the efficiency and output of the Canterbury's reactor and engine updating in the corners, raw logs spooling on the right as the systems reported in. She wore thick headphones that covered her ears, the faint thump of the bass line barely escaping. If the Canterbury sensed an anomaly, it would alert her. If a system errored, it would alert her. If Captain McDowell left the command and control deck, it would alert her so she could turn the music off and look busy when he arrived. Her petty hedonism was only one of a thousand things that made Ade attractive to Holden. He walked up behind her, pulled the headphones gently away from her ears, and said, "Hey."
Ade smiled, tapped her screen, and dropped the headphones to rest around her long slim neck like technical jewelry.
"Executive Officer James Holden," she said with an exaggerated formality made even more acute by her thick Nigerian accent. "And what can I do for you?"
"You know, it's funny you should ask that," he said. "I was just thinking how pleasant it would be to have someone come back to my cabin when third shift takes over. Have a little romantic dinner of the same crap they're serving in the galley. Listen to some music."
"Drink a little wine," she said. "Break a little protocol. Pretty to think about, but I'm not up for sex tonight."
"I wasn't talking about sex. A little food. Conversation."
"I was talking about sex," she said.
Holden knelt beside her chair. In the one-third g of their current thrust, it was perfectly comfortable. Ade's smile softened. The log spool chimed; she glanced at it, tapped a release, and turned back to him.
"Ade, I like you. I mean, I really enjoy your company," he said. "I don't understand why we can't spend some time together with our clothes on."
"Holden. Sweetie. Stop it, okay?"
"Stop trying to turn me into your girlfriend. You're a nice guy. You've got a cute butt, and you're fun in the sack. Doesn't mean we're engaged."
Holden rocked back on his heels, feeling himself frown.
"Ade. For this to work for me, it needs to be more than that."
"But it isn't," she said, taking his hand. "It's okay that it isn't. You're the XO here, and I'm a short-timer. Another run, maybe two, and I'm gone."
"I'm not chained to this ship either."
Her laughter was equal parts warmth and disbelief.
"How long have you been on the Cant?"
"You're not going anyplace," she said. "You're comfortable here."
"Comfortable?" he said. "The Cant's a century-old ice hauler. You can find a shittier flying job, but you have to try really hard. Everyone here is either wildly under-qualified or seriously screwed things up at their last gig."
"And you're comfortable here." Her eyes were less kind now. She bit her lip, looked down at the screen, looked up.
"I didn't deserve that," he said.
"You didn't," she agreed. "Look, I told you I wasn't in the mood tonight. I'm feeling cranky. I need a good night's sleep. I'll be nicer tomorrow."
"I'll even make you dinner. Apology accepted?"
He slipped forward, pressed his lips to hers. She kissed back, politely at first and then with more warmth. Her fingers cupped his neck for a moment, then pulled him away.
"You're entirely too good at that. You should go now," she said. "On duty and all."
"Okay," he said, and didn't turn to go.
"Jim," she said, and the shipwide comm system clicked on.
"Holden to the bridge," Captain McDowell said, his voice compressed and echoing. Holden replied with something obscene. Ade laughed. He swooped in, kissed her cheek, and headed back for the central lift, quietly hoping that Captain McDowell suffered boils and public humiliation for his lousy timing.
The bridge was hardly larger than Holden's quarters and smaller by half than the galley. Except for the slightly oversized captain's display, required by Captain McDowell's failing eyesight and general distrust of corrective surgery, it could have been an accounting firm's back room. The air smelled of cleaning astringent and someone's overly strong yerba mate tea. McDowell shifted in his seat as Holden approached. Then the captain leaned back, pointing over his shoulder at the communications station.
"Becca!" McDowell snapped. "Tell him."
Rebecca Byers, the comm officer on duty, could have been bred from a shark and a hatchet. Black eyes, sharp features, lips so thin they might as well not have existed. The story on board was that she'd taken the job to escape prosecution for killing an ex-husband. Holden liked her.
"Emergency signal," she said. "Picked it up two hours ago. The transponder verification just bounced back from Callisto. It's real."
"Ah," Holden said. And then: "Shit. Are we the closest?"
"Only ship in a few million klicks."
"Well. That figures," Holden said.
Becca turned her gaze to the captain. McDowell cracked his knuckles and stared at his display. The light from the screen gave him an odd greenish cast.
"It's next to a charted non-Belt asteroid," McDowell said.
"Really?" Holden said in disbelief. "Did they run into it? There's nothing else out here for millions of kilometers."
"Maybe they pulled over because someone had to go potty. All we have is that some knucklehead is out there, blasting an emergency signal, and we're the closest. Assuming... "
The law of the solar system was unequivocal. In an environment as hostile to life as space, the aid and goodwill of your fellow humans wasn't optional. The emergency signal, just by existing, obligated the nearest ship to stop and render aid - which didn't mean the law was universally followed.
The Canterbury was fully loaded. Well over a million tons of ice had been gently accelerated for the past month. Just like the little glacier that had crushed Paj's arm, it was going to be hard to slow down. The temptation to have an unexplained comm failure, erase the logs, and let the great god Darwin have his way was always there.
But if McDowell had really intended that, he wouldn't have called Holden up. Or made the suggestion where the crew could hear him. Holden understood the dance. The captain was going to be the one who would have blown it off except for Holden. The grunts would respect the captain for not wanting to cut into the ship's profit. They'd respect Holden for insisting that they follow the rule. No matter what happened, the captain and Holden would both be hated for what they were required by law and mere human decency to do.
"We have to stop," Holden said. Then, gamely: "There may be salvage."
McDowell tapped his screen. Ade's voice came from the console, as low and warm as if she'd been in the room.
"I need numbers on stopping this crate," he said.
"How hard is it going to be to put us alongside CA-2216862?"
"We're stopping at an asteroid?"
"I'll tell you when you've followed my order, Navigator Tukunbo."
"Yes, sir," she said. Holden heard a series of clicks. "If we flip the ship right now and burn like hell for most of two days, I can get us within fifty thousand kilometers, sir."
"Can you define 'burn like hell'?" McDowell said.
"We'll need everyone in crash couches."
"Of course we will," McDowell sighed, and scratched his scruffy beard. "And shifting ice is only going to do a couple million bucks' worth of banging up the hull, if we're lucky. I'm getting old for this, Holden. I really am."
"Yes, sir. You are. And I've always liked your chair," Holden said. McDowell scowled and made an obscene gesture. Rebecca snorted in laughter. McDowell turned to her.
"Send a message to the beacon that we're on our way. And let Ceres know we're going to be late. Holden, where does the Knight stand?"
"No flying in atmosphere until we get some parts, but she'll do fine for fifty thousand klicks in vacuum."
"You're sure of that?"
"Naomi said it. That makes it true."
McDowell rose, unfolding to almost two and a quarter meters and thinner than a teenager back on Earth. Between his age and never having lived in a gravity well, the coming burn was likely to be hell on the old man. Holden felt a pang of sympathy that he would never embarrass McDowell by expressing.
"Here's the thing, Jim," McDowell said, his voice quiet enough that only Holden could hear him. "We're required to stop and make an attempt, but we don't have to go out of our way, if you see what I mean."
"We'll already have stopped," Holden said, and McDowell patted at the air with his wide, spidery hands. One of the many Belter gestures that had evolved to be visible when wearing an environment suit.
"I can't avoid that," he said. "But if you see anything out there that seems off, don't play hero again. Just pack up the toys and come home."
"And leave it for the next ship that comes through?"
"And keep yourself safe," McDowell said. "Order. Understood?"
"Understood," Holden said.
As the shipwide comm system clicked to life and McDowell began explaining the situation to the crew, Holden imagined he could hear a chorus of groans coming up through the decks. He went over to Rebecca.
"Okay," he said, "what have we got on the broken ship?"
"Light freighter. Martian registry. Shows Eros as home port. Calls itself Scopuli... "