Chapter Three: Holden
After nearly two full days in high gravity, Holden's knees and back and neck ached. And his head. Hell, his feet. He walked in the crew hatch of the Knight just as Naomi was climbing up the ladder from its cargo bay. She smiled and gave him a thumbs-up.
"The salvage mech is locked down," she said. "Reactor is warming up. We're ready to fly."
"We got a pilot yet?" she asked.
"Alex Kamal is on the ready rotation today, so he's our man. I kind of wish Valka had been up. He's not the pilot Alex is, but he's quieter, and my head hurts."
"I like Alex. He's ebullient," Naomi said.
"I don't know what ebullient means, but if it means Alex, it makes me tired."
Holden started up the ladder to ops and the cockpit. In the shiny black surface of a deactivated wall panel, Naomi's reflection smirked at his back. He couldn't understand how Belters, thin as pencils, bounced back from high g so quickly. Decades of practice and selective breeding, he assumed.
In ops, Holden strapped into the command console, the crash couch material silently conforming to his body. At the half g Ade put them on for the final approach, the foam felt good. He let a small groan slip out. The switches, plastic and metal made to withstand hard g and hundreds of years, clicked sharply. The Knight responded with an array of glowing diagnostic indicators and a near-subliminal hum.
A few minutes later, Holden glanced over to see Alex Kamal's thinning black hair appear, followed by his round cheerful face, a deep brown that years of shipboard life couldn't pale. Martian-raised, Alex had a frame that was thicker than a Belter's. He was slender compared to Holden, and even so, his flight suit stretched tight against his spreading waistline. Alex had flown in the Martian navy, but he'd clearly given up on the military-style fitness routine.
"Howdy, XO," he drawled. The old west affectation common to everyone from the Mariner Valley annoyed Holden. There hadn't been a cowboy on Earth in a hundred years, and Mars didn't have a blade of grass that wasn't under a dome, or a horse that wasn't in a zoo. Mariner Valley had been settled by East Indians, Chinese, and a small contingent of Texans. Apparently, the drawl was viral. They all had it now. "How's the old warhorse today?"
"Smooth so far. We need a flight plan. Ade will be bringing us to relative stop in" - he checked the time readout - "forty, so work fast. I want to get out, get it done, and get the Cant back on course to Ceres before she starts rusting."
"Roger that," Alex said, climbing up to the Knight's cockpit.
Holden's headset clicked; then Naomi's voice said, "Amos and Shed are aboard. We're all ready down here."
"Thanks. Just waiting on flight numbers from Alex and we'll be ready to go."
The crew was the minimum necessary: Holden as command, Alex to get them there and back, Shed in case there were survivors to treat, Naomi and Amos for salvage if there weren't.
It wasn't long before Alex called down, "Okay, Boss. It'll be about a four-hour trip flyin' teakettle. Total mass use at about thirty percent, but we've got a full tank. Total mission time: eleven hours."
"Copy that. Thanks, Alex," Holden said.
Flying teakettle was naval slang for flying on the maneuvering thrusters that used superheated steam for reaction mass. The Knight's fusion torch would be dangerous to use this close to the Canterbury and wasteful on such a short trip. Torches were pre-Epstein fusion drives and far less efficient.
"Calling for permission to leave the barn," Holden said, and clicked from internal comm to the link with the Canterbury's bridge. "Holden here. Knight is ready to fly."
"Okay, Jim, go ahead," McDowell said. "Ade's bringing her to a stop now. You kids be careful out there. That shuttle is expensive and I've always sort of had a thing for Naomi."
"Roger that, Captain," Holden said. Back on the internal comm, he buzzed Alex. "Go ahead and take us out."
Holden leaned back in his chair and listened to the creaks of the Canterbury's final maneuvers, the steel and ceramics as loud and ominous as the wood planks of a sailing ship. Or an Earther's joints after high g. For a moment, Holden felt sympathy for the ship.
They weren't really stopping, of course. Nothing in space ever actually stopped; it only came into a matching orbit with some other object. They were now following CA-2216862 on its merry millennium-long trip around the sun.
Ade sent them the green light, and Holden emptied out the hangar bay air and popped the doors. Alex took them out of the dock on white cones of superheated steam.
They went to find the Scopuli.
CA-2216862 was a rock a half kilometer across that had wandered away from the Belt and been yanked around by Jupiter's enormous gravity. It had eventually found its own slow orbit around the sun in the vast expanse between Jupiter and the Belt, territory empty even for space.
The sight of the Scopuli resting gently against the asteroid's side, held in place by the rock's tiny gravity, gave Holden a chill. Even if it was flying blind, every instrument dead, its odds of hitting such an object by chance were infinitesimally low. It was a half-kilometer-wide roadblock on a highway millions of kilometers in diameter. It hadn't arrived there by accident. He scratched the hairs standing up on the back of his neck.
"Alex, hold us at two klicks out," Holden said. "Naomi, what can you tell me about that ship?"
"Hull configuration matches the registry information. It's definitely the Scopuli. She's not radiating in the electromagnetic or infrared. Just that little distress beacon. Looks like the reactor's shut down. Must have been manual and not damage, because we aren't getting any radiation leakage either," Naomi said.
Holden looked at the pictures they were getting from the Knight's scopes, as well as the image the Knight created by bouncing a laser off the Scopuli's hull. "What about that thing that looks like a hole in the side?"
"Uh," Naomi said. "Ladar says it's a hole in the side."
Holden frowned. "Okay, let's stay here for a minute and recheck the neighborhood. Anything on the scope, Naomi?"
"Nope. And the big array on the Cant can spot a kid throwing rocks on Luna. Becca says there's nobody within twenty million klicks right now," Naomi said.
Holden tapped out a complicated rhythm on the arm of his chair and drifted up in the straps. He felt hot, and reached over to aim the closest air-circulation nozzle at his face. His scalp tingled with evaporating sweat.
If you see anything out there that seems off, don't play hero again. Just pack up the toys and come home. Those were his orders. He looked at the image of the Scopuli, the hole in its side.
"Okay," he said. "Alex, take us in to a quarter klick, and hold station there. We'll ride to the surface on the mech. Oh, and keep the torch warmed up and ready. If something nasty is hiding in that ship, I want to be able to run away as fast as I can and melt anything behind us into slag while I do it. Roger?"
"Got it, Boss. Knight's in run-like-a-bunny mode till you say otherwise," Alex replied.
Holden looked over the command console one more time, searching for the flashing red warning light that would give him permission to go back to the Cant. Everything remained a soft green. He popped open his buckles and shoved himself out of the chair. A push on the wall with one foot sent him over to the ladder, and he descended headfirst with gentle touches on the rungs.
In the crew area, Naomi, Amos, and Shed were still strapped into their crash couches. Holden caught the ladder and swung around so that his crew didn't look upside down. They started undoing their restraints.
"Okay, here's the situation. The Scopuli got holed, and someone left it floating next to this rock. No one is on the scopes, so maybe that means it happened a while ago and they left. Naomi, you'll be driving the salvage mech, and the three of us will tether on and catch a ride down to the wreck. Shed, you stay with the mech unless we find an injured person, which seems unlikely. Amos and I will go into the ship through that hole and poke around. If we find anything even remotely booby trap - like, we will come back to the mech, Naomi will fly us back to the Knight, and we will run away. Any questions?"
Amos raised one beefy hand. "Maybe we oughta be armed, XO. Case there's piratey types still lurking aboard."
Holden laughed. "Well, if there are, then their ride left without them. But if it makes you feel more comfortable, go ahead and bring a gun."
If the big, burly Earther mechanic was carrying a gun, it would make him feel better too, but better not to say it. Let them think the guy in charge felt confident.
Holden used his officer's key to open the weapon locker, and Amos took a high-caliber automatic that fired self-propelled rounds, recoilless and designed for use in zero g. Old-fashioned slug throwers were more reliable, but in null gravity they were also maneuvering thrusters. A traditional handgun would impart enough thrust to achieve escape velocity from a rock the size of CA-2216862.
The crew drifted down to the cargo bay, where the egg-shaped, spider-legged open cage of Naomi's mech waited. Each of the four legs had a manipulator claw at the end and a variety of cutting and welding tools built into it. The back pair could grip on to a ship's hull or other structure for leverage, and the front two could be used to make repairs or chop salvage into portable pieces.
"Hats on," Holden said, and the crew helped each other put on and secure their helmets. Everyone checked their own suit and then someone else's. When the cargo doors opened, it would be too late to make sure they were buttoned up right.
While Naomi climbed into her mech, Amos, Holden, and Shed secured their suit tethers to the cockpit's metal cage. Naomi checked the mech and then hit the switch to cycle the cargo bay's atmosphere and open the doors. Sound inside Holden's suit faded to just the hiss of air and the faint static of the radio. The air had a slight medicine smell.
Naomi went first, taking the mech down toward the asteroid's surface on small jets of compressed nitrogen, the crew trailing her on three-meter-long tethers. As they flew, Holden looked back up at the Knight: a blocky gray wedge with a drive cone stuck on the wider end. Like everything else humans built for space travel, it was designed to be efficient, not pretty. That always made Holden a little sad. There should be room for aesthetics, even out here.
The Knight seemed to drift away from him, getting smaller and smaller, while he didn't move. The illusion vanished when he turned around to look at the asteroid and felt they were hurtling toward it. He opened a channel to Naomi, but she was humming to herself as she flew, which meant she, at least, wasn't worried. He didn't say anything, but he left the channel open to listen to her hum.
Up close, the Scopuli didn't look all that bad. Other than the gaping hole in its flank, it didn't have any damage. It clearly hadn't hit the asteroid; it had just been left close enough that the microgravity had slowly reeled it in. As they approached, he snapped pictures with his suit helmet and transmitted them to the Canterbury.
Naomi brought them to a stop, hovering three meters above the hole in the Scopuli's side. Amos whistled across the general suit channel.
"That wasn't a torpedo did this, XO. This was a breaching charge. See how the metal's bent in all around the edges? That's shaped charges stuck right on her hull," Amos said.
In addition to being a fine mechanic, Amos was the one who used explosive surgery to crack open the icebergs floating around Saturn and turn them into more manageable chunks. Another reason to have him on the Knight.
"So," Holden said, "our friends here on the Scopuli stop, let someone climb onto their hull and plant a breaching charge, and then crack them open and let all the air out. Does that make sense to anyone?"
"Nope," Naomi said. "It doesn't. Still want to go inside?"
If you see anything out there that seems off, don't play hero again. Just pack up the toys and come home.
But what could he have expected? Of course the Scopuli wasn't up and running. Of course something had gone wrong. Off would have been not seeing anything strange.
"Amos," Holden said, "keep that gun out, just in case. Naomi, can you make us a bigger hole? And be careful. If anything looks wrong, back us off."
Naomi brought the mech in closer, nitrogen blasts no more than a white breath on a cold night. The mech's welding torch blazed to life, red hot, then white, then blue. In silence, the mech's arms unfurled - an insectile movement - and Naomi started cutting. Holden and Amos dropped to the ship's surface, clamping on with magnetic boots. He could feel the vibration in his feet when Naomi pulled a length of hull free. A moment later the torch turned off, and Naomi blasted the fresh edges of the hole with the mech's fire-suppression gear to cool them. Holden gave Amos the thumbs-up and dropped himself very slowly into the Scopuli.
The breaching charge had been placed almost exactly amidships, blasting a hole into the galley. When Holden landed and his boots grabbed on to the galley wall, he could feel flash-frozen bits of food crunch under them. There were no bodies in sight.
"Come on in, Amos. No crew visible yet," Holden called over the suit comm.
He moved off to the side and a moment later Amos dropped in, gun clutched in his right hand and a powerful light in his left. The white beam played across the walls of the destroyed galley.
"Which way first, XO?" Amos asked.
Holden tapped on his thigh with one hand and thought. "Engineering. I want to know why the reactor's off-line."
They took the crew ladder, climbing along it toward the aft of the ship. All the pressure doors between decks were open, which was a bad sign. They should all be closed by default, and certainly if the atmosphere-loss alarm had sounded. If they were open, that meant there were no decks with atmosphere left in the ship. Which meant no survivors. Not a surprise, but it still felt like a defeat. They passed through the small ship quickly, pausing in the machine shop. Expensive engine parts and tools were still in place.
"Guess it wasn't robbery," Amos said.
Holden didn't say, Then what was it? but the question hung between them anyway.
The engine room was neat as a pin, cold, and dead. Holden waited while Amos looked it over, spending at least ten minutes just floating around the reactor.
"Someone went through the shutdown procedures," Amos said. "The reactor wasn't killed by the blast, it was turned off afterward. No damage that I can see. Don't make sense. If everyone is dead from the attack, who shut it down? And if it's pirates, why not take the ship? She'll still fly."
"And before they turned off the power, they went through and opened every interior pressure door on the ship. Emptied out the air. I guess they wanted to make sure no one was hiding," Holden said. "Okay, let's head back up to ops and see if we can crack the computer core. Maybe it can tell us what happened."
They floated back toward the bow along the crew ladder, and up to the ops deck. It too was undamaged and empty. The lack of bodies was starting to bother Holden more than the presence of them would have. He floated over to the main computer console and hit a few keys to see if it might still be running on backup power. It wasn't.
"Amos, start cutting the core out. We'll take it with us. I'm going to check comms, see if I can find that beacon."
Amos moved to the computer and started taking out tools and sticking them to the bulkhead next to it. He began a profanity-laced mumble as he worked. It wasn't nearly as charming as Naomi's humming, so Holden turned off his link to Amos while he moved to the communications console. It was as dead as the rest of the ship. He found the ship's beacon.
No one had activated it. Something else had called them. Holden moved back, frowning.
He looked through the space, searching for something out of place. There, on the deck beneath the comm operator's console. A small black box not connected to anything else.
His heart took a long pause between beats. He called out to Amos, "Does that look like a bomb to you?"
Amos ignored him. Holden turned his radio link back on.
"Amos, does that look like a bomb to you?" He pointed at the box on the deck.
Amos left his work on the computer and floated over to look, then, in a move that made Holden's throat close, grabbed the box off the deck and held it up.
"Nope. It's a transmitter. See?" He held it up in front of Holden's helmet. "It's just got a battery taped to it. What's it doing there?"
"It's the beacon we followed. Jesus. The ship's beacon never even turned on. Someone made a fake one out of that transmitter and hooked it up to a battery," Holden said quietly, still fighting his panic.
"Why would they do that, XO? That don't make no kinda sense."
"It would if there's something about this transmitter that's different from standard," Holden said.
"Like if it had a second signal triggered to go when someone found it," Holden said, then switched to the general suit channel. "Okay, boys and girls, we've found something weird, and we're out of here. Everyone back to the Knight, and be very careful when you - "
His radio crackled to life on the outside channel, McDowell's voice filling his helmet. "Jim? We may have a problem."