Chapter Seven: Holden
Holden could drink coffee at half a g. Actually sit and hold a mug under his nose and let the aroma drift up. Sip it slowly and not burn his tongue. Drinking coffee was one of the activities that didn't make the transition to microgravity well, but at half a g, it was fine.
So he sat and tried very hard to think about coffee and gravity in the silence of the Knight's tiny galley. Even the normally talkative Alex was quiet. Amos had set his big handgun on the table and was staring at it with frightening concentration. Shed was asleep. Naomi was sitting across the room, drinking tea and keeping one eye on the wall panel next to her. She'd routed ops to it.
As long as he kept his mind on his coffee, he didn't have to think about Ade giving one last gasp of fear and then turning into a glowing vapor.
Alex ruined it by speaking.
"At some point, we need to decide where we're goin'," he said.
Holden nodded, took a sip of his coffee, and closed his eyes. His muscles vibrated like plucked strings, and his peripheral vision was dappled with points of imaginary light. The first twinges of the post-juice crash were starting, and it was going to be a bad one. He wanted to enjoy these last few moments before the pain hit.
"He's right, Jim," Naomi said. "We can't just fly in a big circle at half a g forever."
Holden didn't open his eyes. The darkness behind his lids was bright and active and mildly nauseating.
"We aren't waiting forever," he said. "We're waiting fifty minutes for Saturn Station to call me back and tell me what to do with their ship. The Knight is still P and K property. We're still employees. You wanted me to call for help, I called for help. Now we are waiting to see what that looks like."
"Shouldn't we start flying toward Saturn Station, then, Boss?" Amos asked, directing his question at Naomi.
"Not on the Knight's engine. Even if we had the fuel for that trip, which we don't, I don't want to sit in this can for the next three months," he said. "Naw, if we're goin' somewhere, it's gotta be the Belt or Jupiter. We're as close to exactly between 'em as you can get."
"I vote we continue on to Ceres," Naomi said. "P and K has offices there. We don't know anyone in the Jupiter complex."
Without opening his eyes, Holden shook his head.
"No, we wait for them to call us back."
Naomi made an exasperated sound. It was funny, he thought, how you could make someone's voice out from the smallest sounds. A cough or a sigh. Or the little gasp right before she died.
Holden sat up and opened his eyes. He placed his coffee mug on the table carefully, with hands that were starting to palsy.
"I don't want to fly sunward to Ceres, because that's the direction the torpedo ship went, and your point about chasing them is well taken, Naomi. I don't want to fly out to Jupiter, because we only have the fuel for one trip, and once we fly that direction for a while, we're locked in. We are sitting here and drinking coffee because I need to make a decision, and P and K gets a say in that decision. So we wait for them to answer, and then I decide."
Holden got up slowly, carefully, and began moving toward the crew ladder. "I'm going to crash for a few minutes, let the worst of the shakes wear off. If P and K calls, let me know."
Holden popped sedative tabs - thin, bitter pills with an aftertaste like bread mold - but he didn't sleep. Over and over, McDowell placed a hand on his arm and called him Jim. Becca laughed and cursed like a sailor. Cameron bragged about his prowess on the ice.
Holden had flown the Ceres-to-Saturn circuit on the Canterbury nine times. Two round-trips a year, for almost five years. Most of the crew had been there the entire time. Flying on the Cant might be the bottom of the barrel, but that meant there was nowhere else to go. People stayed, made the ship their home. After the near-constant duty transfers of the navy, he appreciated stability. Made it his home too. McDowell said something he couldn't quite make out. The Cant groaned like she was under a hard burn.
Ade smiled and winked at him.
The worst leg cramp in history hit every muscle in his body at once. Holden bit down hard on his rubber mouth guard, screaming. The pain brought an oblivion that was almost a relief. His mind shut off, drowned out by the needs of his body. Fortunately or not, the drugs started to kick in. His muscles unknotted. His nerves stopped screaming, and consciousness returned like a reluctant schoolboy. His jaw ached as he pulled out the guard. He'd worn toothmarks in the rubber.
In the dim blue cabin light, he thought about the kind of man who followed an order to kill a civilian ship.
He'd done some things in the navy that had kept him awake nights. He'd followed some orders he vehemently disagreed with. But to lock on to a civilian ship with fifty people aboard and press the button that launched six nuclear weapons? He would have refused. If his commanding officer had insisted, he'd have declared it an illegal order and demanded that the executive officer take control of the ship and arrest the captain. They'd have had to shoot him to get him away from the weapon post.
He'd known the sort of people who would have followed the order, though. He told himself that they were sociopaths and animals, no better than pirates who'd board your ship, strip your engine, and take your air. That they weren't human.
But even as he nursed his hatred, drug-hazed rage offering its nihilistic comforts, he couldn't believe they were idiots. The itch at the back of his head was still Why? What does anyone gain from killing an ice hauler? Who gets paid? Someone always gets paid.
I'm going to find you. I'm going to find you and end you. But before I do, I am going to make you explain.
The second wave of pharmaceuticals exploded in his bloodstream. He was hot and limp, his veins filled with syrup. Just before the tabs finally knocked him out, Ade smiled and winked.
And blew away like dust.
The comm beeped at him. Naomi's voice said, "Jim, the P and K response finally came in. Want me to send it down there?"
Holden struggled to make sense of the words. Blinked. Something was wrong with his bunk. With the ship. Slowly, he remembered.
"No," he said. "I want to watch it up in ops with you. How long was I out?"
"Three hours," she said.
"Jesus. They took their sweet time getting back to us, didn't they?"
Holden rolled out of his couch and wiped off the crust that held his eyelashes together. He'd been weeping in his sleep. He told himself it was from the juice crash. The deep ache in his chest was only stressed cartilage.
What were you doing for three hours before you called us back? he wondered.
Naomi waited for him at the comm station, a man's face frozen mid-word on the screen in front of her. He seemed familiar.
"That isn't the operations manager."
"Nope. It's the P and K legal counsel on Saturn Station. The one who gave that speech after the crackdown on supply pilfering?" Naomi said. " 'Stealing from us is stealing from you.' That one."
"Lawyer," Holden said with a grimace. "This is going to be bad news, then."
Naomi restarted the message. The lawyer sprang into motion.
"James Holden, this is Wallace Fitz calling from Saturn Station. We've received your request for help, and your report of the incident. We've also received your broadcast accusing Mars of destroying the Canterbury. This was, to say the least, ill advised. The Martian representative on Saturn Station was in my office not five minutes after your broadcast was received, and the MCR is quite upset by what they view as unfounded accusations of piracy by their government.
"To further investigate this matter, and to aid in discovering the true wrongdoers, if any, the MCRN is dispatching one of their ships from the Jupiter system to pick you up. The MCRN Donnager is the name of this vessel. Your orders from P and K are as follows: You will fly at best possible speed to the Jupiter system. You will cooperate fully with instructions given you by the MCRN Donnager, or by any officer of the Martian Congressional Republic Navy. You will assist the MCRN in their investigation into the destruction of the Canterbury. You will refrain from any further broadcasting except to us or the Donnager.
"If you fail to follow these instructions from the company and from the government of Mars, your contract with P and K will be terminated, and you will be considered in illegal possession of a P and K shuttle craft. We will then prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.
"Wallace Fitz out."
Holden frowned at the monitor, then shook his head.
"I never said Mars did it."
"You sort of did," Naomi replied.
"I didn't say anything that wasn't entirely factual and backed up by the data I transmitted, and I engaged in no speculation about those facts."
"So," Naomi said. "What do we do?"
"No fucking way," Amos said. "No fucking way."
The galley was a small space. The five of them filled it uncomfortably. The gray laminate walls showed whorls of bright scrapes where mold had grown once and been cleaned off with microwaves and steel wool. Shed sat with his back against the wall, Naomi across the table. Alex stood in the doorway. Amos had started pacing along the back - two fast paces, then a turn - before the lawyer had finished his first sentence.
"I'm not happy about it either. But that's the word from the home office," Holden said, pointing at the galley's display screen. "Didn't mean to get you guys in trouble."
"No problem, Holden. I still think you did the right thing," Shed replied, running one hand through his limp blond hair. "So what do you think the Martians will do with us?"
"I'm thinking pull our fucking toes off until Holden goes back on the radio and says it wasn't them," Amos said. "What in the holy hell is this? They attacked us, and now we're supposed to cooperate? They killed the captain!"
"Amos," Holden said.
"Sorry, Holden. Captain," Amos said. "But Jesus wept. We're getting fucked here and not the nice way. We're not gonna do this, are we?"
"I don't want to disappear into some Martian prison ship forever," Holden said. "The way I see it, we have two options. Either we go along with this, which is basically throwing ourselves on their mercy. Or we run, try to make it to the Belt and hide."
"I'm voting for the Belt," Naomi said, her arms crossed. Amos raised a hand, seconding the motion. Shed slowly raised his own.
Alex shook his head.
"I know the Donnager," he said. "She's not some rock hopper. She's the flagship for the MCRN's Jupiter fleet. Battleship. Quarter million tons of bad news. You ever serve on a ship that size?"
"No. I wasn't on anything bigger than a destroyer," Holden replied.
"I served on the Bandon, with the home fleet. We can't go anywhere that a ship like that can't find us. She's got four main engines, each one bigger than our whole ship. She's designed for long periods at high g with every sailor on board juiced to the gills. We can't run, sir, and even if we did, her sensor package could track a golf ball and hit it with a torpedo from half the solar system away."
"Oh, fuck that, sir," Amos said, standing up. "These Martian needle dicks blew up the Cant! I say run. At least make it hard for them."
Naomi put one hand on Amos' forearm, and the big mechanic paused, shook his head, and sat down. The galley was silent. Holden wondered if McDowell had ever had to make a call like this, and what the old man would have done.
"Jim, this is your decision," she said, but her eyes were hard. No, what you are going to do is get the remaining four members of your crew to safety. And that's all.
Holden nodded and tapped his fingers against his lips.
"P and K doesn't have our back on this one. We probably can't get away, but I don't want to disappear either," Holden said. And then: "I think we go, but we don't go quietly. Why don't we go disobey the spirit of an order?"
Naomi finished working on the comm panel, her hair now floating around her like a black cloud in the zero g.
"Okay, Jim, I'm dumping every watt into the comm array. They'll be getting this loud and clear all the way out to Titania," she said.
Holden reached up to run one hand through his sweat-plastered hair. In the null gravity, that just made it stick straight out in every direction. He zipped up his flight suit and pressed the record button.
"This is James Holden, formerly of the Canterbury, now on the shuttle Knight. We are cooperating with an investigation into who destroyed the Canterbury and, as part of that cooperation, are agreeing to be taken aboard your ship, the MCRN Donnager. We hope that this cooperation means that we will not be held prisoner or harmed. Any such action would only serve to reinforce the idea that the Canterbury was destroyed by a Martian vessel. James Holden out."
Holden leaned back. "Naomi, send that out broadband."
"That's a dirty trick, Boss," said Alex. "Pretty hard to disappear us now."
"I believe in the ideal of the transparent society, Mr. Kamal," said Holden. Alex grinned, pushed off, and floated down the gangway. Naomi tapped the comm panel, making a small, satisfied sound in the back of her throat.
"Naomi," Holden said. She turned, her hair waving lazily, like they were both drowning. "If this goes badly, I need you... I need you to... "
"Throw you to the wolves," she said. "Blame everything on you and get the others back to Saturn Station safely."
"Yeah," Holden said. "Don't play the hero."
She let the words hang in the air until the last of the irony leeched out of them.
"Hadn't crossed my mind, sir," she said.
"Knight, this is Captain Theresa Yao of the MCRN Donnager," said the severe-looking woman on the comm screen. "Message received. Please refrain from further general broadcasts. My navigator will be sending course information shortly. Follow that course exactly. Yao out."
"I think you pissed her off," he said. "Got the course info. They'll be picking us up in thirteen days. Give her time to really stew on it."
"Thirteen days before I'm clapped in irons and have needles shoved under my fingernails," Holden sighed, leaning back in his couch. "Well, best begin our flight toward imprisonment and torture. You may lock in the transmitted course, Mr. Kamal."
"Roger that, Cap - Huh," said Alex.
"Well, the Knight just did her pre-burn sweep for collision objects," Alex said. "And we have six Belt objects on an intercept course."
"Fast contacts with no transponder signal," Alex replied. "Ships, but flyin' dark. They'll catch us just about two days before the Donnager does."
Holden pulled up the display. Six small signatures, yellow-orange shifting toward red. Heavy burn.
"Well," Holden said to the screen. "And who the hell are you?"