Chapter Thirteen: Holden
Holden froze, watching the blood pump from Shed's neck, then whip away like smoke into an exhaust fan. The sounds of combat began to fade as the air was sucked out of the room. His ears throbbed and then hurt like someone had put ice picks in them. As he fought with his couch restraints, he glanced over at Alex. The pilot was yelling something, but it didn't carry through the thin air. Naomi and Amos had gotten out of their couches already, kicked off, and were flying across the room to the two holes. Amos had a plastic dinner tray in one hand. Naomi, a white three-ring binder. Holden stared at them for the half second it took to understand what they were doing. The world narrowed, his peripheral vision all stars and darkness.
By the time he'd gotten free, Amos and Naomi had already covered the holes with their makeshift patches. The room was filled with a high-pitched whistle as the air tried to force its way out through the imperfect seals. Holden's sight began to return as the air pressure started to rise. He was panting hard, gasping for breath. Someone slowly turned the room's volume knob back up and Naomi's yells for help became audible.
"Jim, open the emergency locker!" she screamed.
She was pointing at a small red-and-yellow panel on the bulkhead near his crash couch. Years of shipboard training made a path through the anoxia and depressurization, and he yanked the tab on the locker's seal and pulled the door open. Inside were a white first aid kit marked with the ancient red-cross symbol, half a dozen oxygen masks, and a sealed bag of hardened plastic disks attached to a glue gun. The emergency-seal kit. He snatched it.
"Just the gun," Naomi yelled at him. He wasn't sure if her voice sounded distant because of the thin air or because the pressure drop had blown his eardrums.
Holden yanked the gun free from the bag of patches and threw it at her. She ran a bead of instant sealing glue around the edge of her three-ring binder. She tossed the gun to Amos, who caught it with an effortless backhand motion and put a seal around his dinner tray. The whistling stopped, replaced by the hiss of the atmosphere system as it labored to bring the pressure back up to normal. Fifteen seconds.
Everyone looked at Shed. Without the vacuum, his blood was pouring out into a floating red sphere just above his neck, like a hideous cartoon replacement for his head.
"Jesus Christ, Boss," Amos said, looking away from Shed to Naomi. He snapped his teeth closed with an audible click and shook his head. "What... "
"Gauss round," Alex said. "Those ships have rail guns."
"Belt ships with rail guns?" Amos said. "Did they get a fucking navy and no one told me?"
"Jim, the hallway outside and the cabin on the other side are both in vacuum," Naomi said. "The ship's compromised."
Holden started to respond, then caught a good look at the binder Naomi had glued over the breach. The white cover was stamped with black letters that read MCRN EMERGENCY PROCEDURES. He had to suppress a laugh that would almost certainly go manic on him.
"Jim," Naomi said, her voice worried.
"I'm okay, Naomi," Holden replied, then took a deep breath. "How long do those patches hold?"
Naomi shrugged with her hands, then started pulling her hair behind her head and tying it up with a red elastic band.
"Longer than the air will last. If everything around us is in vacuum, that means the cabin's running on emergency bottles. No recycling. I don't know how much each room has, but it won't be more than a couple hours."
"Kinda makes you wish we'd worn our fucking suits, don't it?" Amos asked.
"Wouldn't have mattered," Alex said. "We'd come over here in our enviro suits, they'd just have taken 'em away."
"Could have tried," Amos said.
"Well, if you'd like to go back in time and do it over, be my guest, partner."
Naomi sharply said, "Hey," but then nothing more.
No one was talking about Shed. They were working hard not to look at the body. Holden cleared his throat to get everyone's attention, then floated to Shed's couch, drawing their eyes with him. He paused a moment, letting everyone get a good look at the decapitated body, then pulled a blanket from the storage drawer beneath the couch and strapped it down over Shed's body with the couch's restraints.
"Shed's been killed. We're in deep peril. Arguing won't extend our lives one second," Holden said, looking at each member of his crew in turn. "What will?"
No one spoke. Holden turned to Naomi first.
"Naomi, what will keep us alive longer that we can do right now?" he asked.
"I'll see if I can find the emergency air. The room's built for six, and there're only... there are four of us. I might be able to turn the flow down and stretch it longer."
"Good. Thank you. Alex?"
"If there's anyone other than us, they'll be lookin' for survivors. I'll start poundin' on the bulkhead. They won't hear it in the vacuum, but if there're cabins with air, the sound'll travel down the metal."
"Good plan. I refuse to believe we're the only ones left on this ship," Holden said, then turned to Amos. "Amos?"
"Lemme check on that comm panel. Might be able to get the bridge or damage control or... shit, something," Amos replied.
"Thanks. I'd love to let someone know we're still here," Holden said.
People moved off to work while Holden floated in the air next to Shed. Naomi began yanking access panels off the bulkheads. Alex, hands pressed against a couch for leverage, lay on the deck and began to kick the bulkhead with his boots. The room vibrated slightly with each booming kick. Amos pulled a multi-tool out of his pocket and began taking the comm panel apart.
When Holden was sure everyone was busy, he put one hand on Shed's shoulder, just below the blanket's spreading red stain.
"I'm sorry," he whispered to the body. His eyes burned and he pressed them into the back of his thumbs.
The comm unit was hanging out of the bulkhead on wires when it buzzed once, loudly. Amos yelped and pushed off hard enough to fly across the room. Holden caught him, wrenching his shoulder by trying to arrest the momentum of 120 kilos of Earther mechanic. The comm buzzed again. Holden let Amos go and floated to it. A yellow LED glowed next to the unit's white button. Holden pressed the button. The comm crackled to life with Lieutenant Kelly's voice.
"Move away from the hatch, we're coming in," he said.
"Grab something!" Holden yelled to the crew, then grabbed a couch restraint and wrapped it around his hand and forearm.
When the hatch opened, Holden expected all the air to rush out. Instead, there was a loud crack and the pressure dropped slightly for a second. Outside in the corridor, thick sheets of plastic had been sealed to the walls, creating an ad hoc airlock. The walls of the new chamber bowed out dangerously with the air pressure, but they held. Inside the newly created lock, Lieutenant Kelly and three of his marines wore heavy vacuum-rated armor and carried enough weaponry to fight several minor wars.
The marines moved quickly into the room, weapons ready, and then sealed the hatch behind them. One of them tossed a large bag at Holden.
"Five vac suits. Get them on," Kelly said. His eyes moved to the bloody blanket covering Shed, then to the two improvised patches. "Casualty?"
"Our medic, Shed Garvey," Holden replied.
"Yeah. What the fuck?" Amos said loudly. "Who's out there shooting the shit out of your fancy boat?"
Naomi and Alex said nothing but started pulling the suits from the bag and handing them out.
"I don't know," Kelly said. "But we're leaving right now. I've been ordered to get you off this ship in an escape craft. We've got less than ten minutes to make it to the hangar bay, take possession of a ship, and get out of this combat area. Dress fast."
Holden put on his suit, the implications of their evacuation racing through his mind.
"Lieutenant, is the ship coming apart?" he asked.
"Not yet. But we're being boarded."
"Then why are we leaving?"
Kelly didn't tap his foot while waiting for them to seal into their suits; Holden guessed this was only because the marines had their magnetic boots turned on. As soon as everyone had given the thumbs-up, Kelly did a quick radio check on each suit, then headed back into the corridor. With eight people in it, four of them in powered armor, the mini-airlock was tight. Kelly pulled a heavy knife from a sheath on his chest and slashed the plastic barrier open in one quick movement. The hatch behind them slammed shut, and the air in the corridor vanished in a soundless ripple of plastic flaps. Kelly charged into the corridor with the crew scrambling to keep up.
"We are moving with all speed to the keel elevator banks," Kelly said through the radio link. "They're locked down because of the boarding alarm, but I can get the doors open on one and we'll float down the shaft to the hangar bay. Everything is on the double. If you see boarders, do not stop. Keep moving at all times. We'll handle the hostiles. Roger that?"
"Roger, Lieutenant," Holden gasped out. "Why board you?"
"The command information center," Alex said. "It's the holy grail. Codes, deployments, computer cores, the works. Takin' a flagship's CIC is a strategist's wet dream."
"Cut the chatter," Kelly said. Holden ignored him.
"That means they'll blow the core rather than let that happen, right?"
"Yep," Alex replied. "Standard ops for boarders. Marines hold the bridge, CIC, and engineering. If any of the three is breached, the other two flip the switch. The ship turns into a star for a few seconds."
"Standard ops," Kelly growled. "Those are my friends."
"Sorry, El Tee," Alex replied. "I served on the Bandon. Don't mean to make light."
They turned a corner and the elevator bank came into view. All eight elevators were closed and sealed. The heavy pressure doors had slammed shut when the ship was holed.
"Gomez, run the bypass," Kelly said. "Mole, Dookie, watch those corridors."
Two of the marines spread out, watching the hallways through their gun sights. The third moved to one of the elevator doors and started doing something complicated to the controls. Holden motioned his crew to the wall, out of the firing lines. The deck vibrated slightly from time to time beneath his feet. The enemy ships wouldn't still be firing, not with their boarders inside. It must be small-arms fire and light explosives. But as they stood there in the perfect quiet of vacuum, everything that was happening took on a distant and surreal feeling. Holden recognized that his mind wasn't working the way it should be. Trauma reaction. The destruction of the Canterbury, the deaths of Ade and McDowell. And now someone had killed Shed in his bunk. It was too much; he couldn't process it. He felt the scene around him grow more and more distant.
Holden looked behind him at Naomi, Alex, and Amos. His crew. They stared back, faces ashen and ghostly in the green light of their suit displays. Gomez pumped his fist in triumph as the outer pressure door slid open, revealing the elevator doors. Kelly gestured to his men.
The one called Mole turned around and started to walk to the elevator when his face disintegrated in a spray of pebble-shaped bits of armored glass and blood. His armored torso and the corridor bulkhead beside him bloomed in a hundred small detonations and puffs of smoke. His body jerked and swayed, attached to the floor by magnetic boots.
Holden's sense of unreality washed away in adrenaline. The fire spraying across the wall and Mole's body was high-explosive rounds from a rapid-fire weapon. The comm channel filled with yelling from the marines and Holden's own crew. To Holden's left, Gomez yanked the elevator doors open using the augmented strength of his powered armor, exposing the empty shaft behind them.
"Inside!" Kelly shouted. "Everybody inside!"
Holden held back, pushing Naomi in, and then Alex. The last marine - the one Kelly had called Dookie - fired his rifle on full auto at some target around the corner from Holden. When the weapon ran dry, the marine dropped to one knee and ejected the clip in the same motion. Almost faster than Holden could follow, he pulled a new magazine from his harness and slapped it into his weapon. He was firing again less than two seconds after he'd run out.
Naomi yelled at Holden to get into the elevator shaft, and then a viselike hand grabbed his shoulder, yanked him off his magnetic grip on the floor, and hurled him through the open elevator doors.
"Get killed when I'm not babysitting," Lieutenant Kelly barked.
They shoved off the walls of the elevator shaft and flew down the long tunnel toward the aft of the ship. Holden kept looking back at the open door, receding into the distance behind them.
"Dookie isn't following us," he said.
"He's covering our exit," Kelly replied.
"So we better get away," Gomez added. "Make it mean something."
Kelly, at the head of the group, grabbed at a rung on the wall of the shaft and came to a jerking stop. Everyone else followed suit.
"Here's our exit. Gomez, go check it out," Kelly said. "Holden, here's the plan. We'll be taking one of the corvettes from the hangar bay."
That made sense to Holden. The corvette class was a light frigate. A fleet escort vessel, it was the smallest naval ship equipped with an Epstein drive. It would be fast enough to travel anywhere in the system and outrun most threats. Its secondary role was as a torpedo bomber, so it would also have teeth. Holden nodded inside his helmet at Kelly, then gestured for him to continue. Kelly waited until Gomez had finished opening the elevator doors and gone into the hangar bay.
"Okay, I've got the key card and activation code to get us inside and the ship fired up. I'll be heading straight for it, so all of you stick right on my ass. Make sure your boot mags are off. We're going to push off the wall and fly to it, so aim straight or you miss your ride. Everyone with me?"
Affirmative replies all around.
"Outstanding. Gomez, what's it look like out there?"
"Trouble, El Tee. Half a dozen boarders looking over the ships in the hangar. Powered armor, zero-g maneuvering packs, and heavy weapons. Loaded for bear," Gomez whispered back. People always whispered when they were hiding. Wrapped in a space suit and surrounded by vacuum, Gomez could have been lighting fireworks inside his armor and no one would have heard it, but he whispered.
"We run for the ship and shoot our way through," Kelly said. "Gomez, I'm bringing the civvies in ten seconds. You're covering fire. Shoot and displace. Try and make them think you're a small platoon."
"You callin' me small, sir?" Gomez said. "Six dead assholes coming up."
Holden, Amos, Alex, and Naomi followed Kelly out of the elevator shaft and into the hangar bay and stopped behind a stack of military-green crates. Holden peeked over them, spotting the boarders immediately. They were in two groups of three near the Knight, one group walking on top of it and the other on the deck below it. Their armor was flat black. Holden hadn't seen the design before.
Kelly pointed at them and looked at Holden. Holden nodded back. Kelly pointed across the hangar at a squat black frigate about twenty-five meters away, halfway between them and the Knight. He held up his left hand and began counting down from five on his fingers. At two, the room strobed like a disco: Gomez opening fire from a position ten meters from their own. The first barrage hit two of the boarders on top of the Knight and hurled them spinning off. A heartbeat later, a second burst was fired five meters from where Holden had seen the first. He would have sworn it was two different men.
Kelly folded up the last finger on his hand, planted his feet on the wall, and pushed off toward their corvette. Holden waited for Alex, Amos, and Naomi, then shoved off last. By the time he was in motion, Gomez was firing from a new location. One of the boarders on the deck pointed a large weapon toward the muzzle flash from Gomez's gun. Gomez and the crate he'd been taking cover behind disappeared in fire and shrapnel.
They were halfway to the ship and Holden was starting to think they might make it when a line of smoke crossed the room and intersected with Kelly, and the lieutenant disappeared in a flash of light.