Chapter Thirty-Nine: Holden

The Rocinante hurtled through space like a dead thing, tumbling in all three axes. With the reactor shut down and all the cabin air vented, it radiated neither heat nor electromagnetic noise. If it weren't for its speeding toward Thoth station significantly faster than a rifle shot, the ship would be indistinguishable from the rocks in the Belt. Nearly half a million kilometers behind it, the Guy Molinari screamed the Roci's innocence to anyone who would listen, and fired its engines in a long slow deceleration.

With the radio off, Holden couldn't hear what they were saying, but he'd helped write the warning, so it echoed in his head anyway. Warning! Accidental detonation on the cargo ship Guy Molinari has broken large cargo container free. Warning to all ships in its path: Container is traveling at high speed and without independent control. Warning!

There had been some discussion about not broadcasting at all. Because Thoth was a black station, they'd be using only passive sensors. Scanning every direction with radar or ladar would light them up like a Christmas tree. It was possible that with its reactor off, the Rocinante could sneak up on the station without being noticed. But Fred had decided that if they were somehow spotted, it would be suspicious enough to probably warrant an immediate counterattack. So instead of playing it quiet, they'd decided to play it loud and count on confusion to help them.

With luck the Thoth Station security systems would scan them and see that they were in fact a big chunk of metal flying on an unchanging vector and lacking apparent life support, and ignore them just long enough to let them get close. From far away, the stations' defense systems might be too much for the Roci. But up close, the maneuverable little ship could dart around the station and cut it to pieces. All their cover story needed to do was buy them time while the station's security team tried to figure out what was going on.

Fred, and by extension everyone in the assault, was betting that the station wouldn't fire until they were absolutely certain they were under attack. Protogen had gone to a lot of trouble to hide their research lab in the Belt. As soon as they launched their first missile, their anonymity was lost forever. With the war going on, monitors would pick up the fusion torch trails and wonder what was up. Firing a weapon would be Thoth Station's last resort.

In theory.

Sitting alone inside the tiny bubble of air contained in his helmet, Holden knew that if they were wrong, he'd never even realize it. The Roci was flying blind. All radio contact was down. Alex had a mechanical timepiece with a glow-in-the-dark face, and a to-the-second schedule memorized. They couldn't beat Thoth at high-tech, so they were flying as low-tech as you could get. If they'd missed their guess and the station fired on them, the Roci would be vaporized without warning. Holden had once dated a Buddhist who said that death was merely a different state of being, and people only feared the unknown that lay behind that transition. Death without warning was preferable, as it removed all fear.

He felt he now had the counterargument.

To keep his mind busy, he ran through the plan again. When they were practically close enough to spit on Thoth station, Alex would fire up the reactor and do a braking maneuver at nearly ten g's. The Guy Molinari would begin spraying radio static and laser clutter at the station to confuse its targeting package for the few moments the Roci would need to come around on an attack vector. The Roci would engage the station's defenses, disabling anything that could hurt the Molinari, while the cargo ship moved in to breach the station's hull and drop off her assault troops.

There were any number of things wrong with this plan.

If the station decided to fire early, just in case, the Roci could die before the fight even started. If the station's targeting system could cut the Molinari's static and laser clutter, they might begin firing while the Roci was still getting into position. And even if all that worked perfectly, there was still the assault team, cutting their way into the station and fighting corridor to corridor to the nerve center to take control. Even the inner planets' best marines were terrified of breaching actions, and for good reason. Moving through unfamiliar metal hallways without cover while the enemy ambushed you at every intersection was a good way to get a lot of people killed. In training simulations back in the Earth navy, Holden had never seen the marines do better than 60 percent casualties. And these weren't inner planet marines with years of training and state-of-the-art equipment. They were OPA cowboys with whatever gear they could scrape together at the last minute.

But even that wasn't what really worried Holden.

What really worried him was the large, slightly-warmer-than-space area just a few dozen meters above Thoth station. The Molinari had spotted it and warned them before cutting them loose. Having seen the stealth ships before, no one on the Roci doubted that this was another one.

Fighting the station would be bad enough, even up close, where most of the station's advantages were lost. But Holden didn't look forward to dodging torpedo fire from a missile frigate at the same time. Alex had assured him that if they could get in close enough to the station, they could keep the frigate from firing at them for fear of damaging Thoth, and that the Roci's greater maneuverability would make it more than a match for the larger and more heavily armed ship. The stealth frigates were a strategic weapon, he'd said, not a tactical one. Holden hadn't said, Then why do they have one here?

Holden moved to glance down at his wrist, then snorted with frustration in the pitch black of the ops deck. His suit was powered down, chronometers and lights both. The only system on in his suit was air circulation, and that was strictly mechanical. If something got fouled up with it, no little warning lights would come on; he'd just choke and die.

He glanced around the dark room and said, "Come on, how much longer?"

As if in answer, lights began flickering on through the cabin. There was a burst of static in his helmet; then Alex's drawling voice said, "Internal comms online."

Holden began flipping switches to bring the rest of the systems back up.

"Reactor," he said.

"Two minutes," Amos replied from the engine room.

"Main computer."

"Thirty seconds to reboot," Naomi said, and waved at him from across the ops deck. The lights had come up enough for them to see each other.


Alex laughed with something like genuine glee over the comm.

"Weapons are coming online," he said. "As soon as Naomi gives me back the targeting comp, we'll be cocked, locked, and ready to rock."

Hearing everyone check in after the long and silent darkness of their approach reassured him. Being able to look across the room and see Naomi working at her tasks eased a dread he hadn't even realized he'd been feeling.

"Targeting should be up now," Naomi said.

"Roger that," Alex replied. "Scopes are up. Radar, up. Ladar, up - Shit, Naomi, you seeing this?"

"I see it," Naomi said. "Captain, getting engine signatures from the stealth ship. They're powering up too."

"We expected that," Holden said. "Everyone stay on task."

"One minute," Amos said.

Holden turned on his console and pulled up his tactical display. In the scope, Thoth Station turned in a lazy circle while the slightly warm spot above it got hot enough to resolve a rough hull outline.

"Alex, that doesn't look like the last frigate," Holden said. "Does the Roci recognize it yet?"

"Not yet, Cap, but she's workin' on it."

"Thirty seconds," Amos said.

"Getting ladar searches from the station," Naomi said. "Broadcasting chatter."

Holden watched on his screen as Naomi tried to match the wavelength the station was using to target them, and began spraying the station with their own laser comm array to confuse the returns.

"Fifteen seconds," Amos said.

"Okay, buckle up, kids," Alex said. "Here comes the juice."

Even before Alex had finished saying it, Holden felt a dozen pinpricks as his chair pumped him full of drugs to keep him alive during the coming deceleration. His skin went tight and hot, and his balls crawled up into his belly. Alex seemed to be speaking in slow motion.

"Five... four... three... two... "

He never said one. Instead, a thousand pounds sat on Holden's chest and rumbled like a laughing giant as the Roci's engine slammed on the brakes at ten g's. Holden thought he could actually feel his lungs scraping the inside of his rib cage as his chest did its best to collapse. But the chair pulled him into a soft gel-filled embrace, and the drugs kept his heart beating and his brain processing. He didn't black out. If the high-g maneuvering killed him, he'd be wide awake and lucid for the entire thing.

His helmet filled with the sound of gurgling and labored breathing, only some of which was his own. Amos managed part of a curse before his jaw was clamped shut. Holden couldn't hear the Roci shuddering with the strain of her course change, but he could feel it through the seat. She was tough. Tougher than any of them. They'd be long dead before the ship pulled enough g's to hurt itself.

When relief came, it came so suddenly that Holden almost vomited. The drugs in his system stopped that too. He took a deep breath and the cartilage of his sternum clicked painfully back into place.

"Check in," he muttered. His jaw hurt.

"Comm array targeted," Alex replied immediately. Thoth Station's comm and targeting array was the first item on their target priority list.

"All green," Amos said from below.

"Sir," Naomi said, a warning in her voice.

"Shit, I see it," Alex said.

Holden told his console to mirror Naomi's so he could see what she was looking at. On her screen, the Roci had figured out why it couldn't identify the stealth ship.

There were two ships, not one large and ungainly missile frigate that they could dance around and cut to pieces at close range. No, that would have been too easy. These were two much smaller ships parked close together to trick enemy sensors. And now they were both firing their engines and splitting up.

Okay, Holden thought. New plan.

"Alex, get their attention," he said. "Can't let them go after the Molinari."

"Roger," Alex replied. "One away."

Holden felt the Roci shudder as Alex fired a torpedo at one of the two ships. The smaller ships were rapidly changing speed and vector, and the torpedo had been fired hastily and from a bad angle. It wouldn't score a hit, but the Roci would be on everyone's scope as a threat now. So that was good.

Both of the smaller ships darted away in opposite directions at full burn, spraying chaff and laser chatter behind them as they went. The torpedo wobbled in its trajectory and then limped away in a random direction.

"Naomi, Alex, any idea what we're facing here?" Holden asked.

"Roci still doesn't recognize them, sir," Naomi said.

"New hull design," Alex said over her. "But they're flyin' like fast interceptors. Guessin' a torpedo or two on the belly, and a keel-mounted rail gun."

Faster and more maneuverable than the Roci, but they'd be able to fire in only one direction.

"Alex, come around to - " Holden's order was cut short when the Rocinante shuddered and jumped sideways, hurling him into the side of his restraints with rib-bruising force.

"We're hit!" Amos and Alex yelled at the same time.

"Station shot us with some sort of heavy gauss cannon," Naomi said.

"Damage," Holden said.

"Went clean through us, Cap," Amos said. "Galley and the machine shop. Got yellows on the board, but nothing that'll kill us."

Nothing that'll kill us sounded good, but Holden felt a pang for his coffeemaker.

"Alex," Holden said. "Forget the little ships, kill that comm array."

"Roger," Alex replied, and the Roci lurched sideways as Alex changed course to begin his torpedo run on the station.

"Naomi, as soon as the first one of those fighters comes around on his attack run, give him the comm laser in the face, full strength, and start dropping chaff."

"Yes, sir," she replied. Maybe the laser would be enough to screw up his targeting system for a few seconds.

"Station's openin' up with the PDCs," Alex said. "This'll get a mite bumpy."

Holden switched from mirroring Naomi's screen to watching Alex's. His panel filled with thousands of rapidly moving balls of light and Thoth station rotating in the background. The Roci's threat computer was outlining the incoming point defense cannon fire with bright light on Alex's HUD. It was moving impossibly fast, but at least with the system doing a bright overlay on each round, the pilot could see where the fire was coming from and which direction it was traveling. Alex reacted to this threat information with consummate skill, maneuvering away from the PDCs' direction of fire in quick, almost random movements that forced the automated targeting of the point defense cannons to adjust constantly.

To Holden, it looked like a game. Incredibly fast blobs of light flew up from the space station in chains, like long and thin pearl necklaces. The ship moved restlessly, finding the gaps between the threads and dodging away to a new gap before the strands could react and touch her. But Holden knew that each blob of light represented a chunk of Teflon-coated tungsten steel with a depleted uranium heart, going thousands of meters per second. If Alex lost the game, they'd know it when the Rocinante was cut to pieces.

Holden almost jumped out of his skin when Amos spoke. "Shit, Cap, got a leak somewhere. Three port-maneuvering thrusters are losing water pressure. Going to patch it."

"Copy, Amos. Go fast," Holden said.

"You hang on down there, Amos," Naomi said.

Amos just snorted.

On his console, Holden watched as Thoth Station grew larger on the scope. Somewhere behind them, the two fighters were probably coming about. The thought made the back of Holden's head itch, but he tried to keep focus. The Roci didn't have enough torpedoes for Alex to fire shot after shot at the station from far off and hope one made it through the point defense fire. Alex had to bring them in so close that the cannons couldn't shoot the torpedo down.

A blue highlight appeared on the HUD surrounding a portion of the station's central hub. The highlighted portion expanded into a smaller subscreen. Holden could make out the dishes and antennas that made up the comm and targeting array.

"One away," Alex said, and the Roci vibrated as her second torpedo was fired.

Holden shook violently in his restraints and then slapped back into his chair as Alex took the Roci through a series of sudden maneuvers and then slammed down the throttle to evade the last of the PDC fire. Holden watched his screen as the red dot of their missile streaked toward the station and struck the comm array. A flash blanked out his screen for a second and then faded. Almost immediately the PDC fire stopped.

"Good sh - " Holden was cut off by Naomi yelling, "Bogey one has fired! Two fast movers!"

Holden flipped back to her screen and saw the threat system tracking both fighters and two smaller and much faster objects moving toward the Roci on an intercept course.

"Alex!" Holden said.

"Got it, Chief. Going defensive."

Holden slammed back into his chair again as Alex poured on the speed. The steady rumble of the engine seemed to stutter, and Holden realized he was feeling the constant fire of their own PDCs as they tried to shoot down the pursuing missiles.

"Well, fuck," Amos said almost conversationally.

"Where are you?" Holden asked, then flipped his screen to Amos' suit camera. The mechanic was in a dimly illuminated crawl space filled with conduit and piping. That meant he was between the inner and outer hulls. In front of him, a section of damaged pipe looked like snapped bones. A cutting torch floated nearby. The ship bounced violently, banging the mechanic around in the tight space. Alex whooped over the comm.

"Missiles did not impact!" he said.

"Tell Alex to stop jerking her around," Amos said. "Makes it hard to hang on to my tools."

"Amos, get back to your crash couch!" Naomi said.

"Sorry, Boss," Amos replied with a grunt as he yanked one end of the broken pipe free. "If I don't fix this and we lose pressure, Alex won't be able to turn to starboard anymore. Bet that'll fuck us up good."

"Keep working, Amos," Holden said over Naomi's protests. "But hang on. This is going to get worse."

Amos said, "Roger that."

Holden switched back to Alex's HUD display.

"Holden," Naomi said. There was fear in her voice. "Amos is going to get - "

"He's doing his job. Do yours. Alex, we have to take these two out before the Molinari gets here. Get me an intercept on one of them and let's kick its ass."

"Roger that, Cap," Alex said. "Going after bogey two. Could use some help with bogey one."

"Bogey one is Naomi's priority," Holden said. "Do what you can to keep it off of our backside while we kill his friend."

"Roger," Naomi said in a tight voice.

Holden switched back to Amos' helmet camera, but the mechanic seemed to be doing fine. He was cutting the damaged pipe free with his torch, and a length of replacement pipe floated nearby.

"Strap that pipe down, Amos," Holden said.

"All respect, Captain," Amos said, "but safety standards can kiss my ass. I'm getting this done fast and getting outta here."

Holden hesitated. If Alex had to make a course correction, the floating pipe could turn into a projectile massive enough to kill Amos or break the Roci. It's Amos, he told himself. He knows what he's doing.

Holden flipped to Naomi's screen as she poured everything the comm system had at the small interceptor, trying to blind it with light and radio static. Then he went back to his tactical display. The Roci and bogey two flew toward each other at suicidal speeds. As soon as they passed the point where incoming torpedo fire couldn't be avoided, bogey two launched both his missiles. Alex flagged the two fast movers for the PDCs and kept up his intercept course but didn't launch missiles.

"Alex, why aren't we shooting?" Holden said.

"Gonna shoot his torpedoes down, then get in close and let the PDCs chew him up," the pilot replied.


"We've only got so many torpedoes and no resupply. No call to waste 'em on these munchkins."

The incoming torpedoes arced forward on Holden's display, and he felt the Roci's PDCs firing to shoot them down.

"Alex," he said. "We didn't pay for this ship. Feel free to use it up. If I get killed so you can save ammo, I am going to put a reprimand in your permanent file."

"Well, you put it that way... " Alex said. Then: "One away."

The red dot of their torpedo streaked off toward bogey two. The incoming missiles got closer and closer, and then one disappeared from the display.

Alex said, "Shit," in a flat voice, and then the Rocinante slammed sideways hard enough that Holden broke his nose on the inside of his helmet. Yellow emergency lights began rotating on all the bulkheads, though with the ship evacuated of air, Holden mercifully couldn't hear the Klaxons that were trying to sound throughout it. His tactical display flickered, went out, and then came back after a second. When it came back up, all three torpedoes, as well as bogey two, were gone. Bogey one continued to bear down on them from astern.

"Damage!" Holden yelled, hoping the comm was still up.

"Major damage to the outer hull," Naomi replied. "Four maneuvering thrusters gone. One PDC nonresponsive. We've also lost O2 storage, and the crew airlock looks like it's slag."

"Why are we alive?" Holden asked while he flipped through the damage report and then over to Amos' suit camera.

"The fish didn't hit us," Alex said. "The PDC got it, but it was close. Warhead detonated and sprayed us down pretty good."

It didn't look like Amos was moving. Holden yelled, "Amos! Report!"

"Yeah, yeah, still here, Captain. Just hanging on in case we get knocked around like that again. I think I busted a rib on one of the hull braces, but I'm strapped down. Good fucking thing I didn't waste time with that pipe, though."

Holden didn't take time to answer. He flipped back to his tactical display and watched the rapidly approaching bogey one. It had already fired its torpedoes, but at close range it could still cut them apart with its cannon.

"Alex, can you get us turned around and get a firing solution on that fighter?" he said.

"Working on it. Don't have much maneuverability," Alex replied, and the Roci began rotating with a series of lurches.

Holden switched to a telescope and zoomed in on the approaching fighter. Up close, the muzzle of its cannon looked as big around as a corridor on Ceres, and it appeared to be aimed directly at him.

"Alex," he said.

"Working on it, Chief, but the Roci's hurtin'."

The enemy ship's cannon flared open, preparing to fire.

"Alex, kill it. Kill it kill it kill it."

"One away," the pilot said, and the Rocinante shuddered.

Holden's console threw him out of the scope view and back to the tactical view automatically. The Roci's torpedo flew toward the fighter at almost the same instant that the fighter opened up with its cannon. The display showed the incoming rounds as small red dots moving too fast to follow.

"Incom - " he shouted, and the Rocinante came apart around him.

Holden came to.

The inside of the ship was filled with flying debris and bits of superheated metal shavings that looked like slow-motion showers of sparks. With no air, they bounced off walls and then floated, slowly cooling, like lazy fireflies. He had a vague memory of one corner of a wall-mounted monitor detaching and bouncing off three bulkheads in the world's most elaborate billiards shot, then hitting him right below the sternum. He looked down, and the little chunk of monitor was floating a few centimeters in front of him, but there was no hole in his suit. His guts hurt.

The ops console chair next to Naomi had a hole in it; green gel slowly leaked into small balls that floated away in the zero g. Holden looked at the hole in the chair, and the matching hole in the bulkhead across the room, and realized that the round must have passed within centimeters of Naomi's leg. A shudder swept through him, leaving him nauseated in its wake.

"What the fuck was that?" Amos asked quietly. "And how about we don't do it anymore?"

"Alex?" Holden said.

"Still here, Cap," the pilot replied, his voice eerily calm.

"My panel's dead," Holden said. "Did we kill that son of a bitch?"

"Yeah, Cap, he's dead. About half a dozen of his rounds actually hit the Roci. Looks like they went through us from bow to stern. That anti-spalling webbing on the bulkheads really keeps the shrapnel down, doesn't it?"

Alex's voice had started shaking. He meant We should all be dead.

"Open a channel to Fred, Naomi," Holden said.

She didn't move.


"Right. Fred," she said, then tapped on her screen.

Holden's helmet was filled with static for a second, then with Fred's voice.

"Guy Molinari here. Glad you guys are still alive."

"Roger that. Begin your run. Let us know when we can limp over to one of the station's docks."

"Roger," Fred replied. "We'll find you a nice place to land. Fred out."

Holden pulled the quick release on his chair's restraints and floated toward the ceiling, his body limp.

Okay, Miller. Your turn.