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By Corey, James S.A.
OrbitCopyright © 2011 Corey, James S.A.
All right reserved.
The Scopuli had been taken eight days ago, and Julie Mao was finally ready to be shot.
It had taken all eight days trapped in a storage locker for her to get to that point. For the first two she’d remained motionless, sure that the armored men who’d put her there had been serious. For the first hours, the ship she’d been taken aboard wasn’t under thrust, so she floated in the locker, using gentle touches to keep herself from bumping into the walls or the atmosphere suit she shared the space with. When the ship began to move, thrust giving her weight, she’d stood silently until her legs cramped, then sat down slowly into a fetal position. She’d peed in her jumpsuit, not caring about the warm itchy wetness, or the smell, worrying only that she might slip and fall in the wet spot it left on the floor. She couldn’t make noise. They’d shoot her.
On the third day, thirst had forced her into action. The noise of the ship was all around her. The faint subsonic rumble of the reactor and drive. The constant hiss and thud of hydraulics and steel bolts as the pressure doors between decks opened and closed. The clump of heavy boots walking on metal decking. She waited until all the noise she could hear sounded distant, then pulled the environment suit off its hooks and onto the locker floor. Listening for any approaching sound, she slowly disassembled the suit and took out the water supply. It was old and stale; the suit obviously hadn’t been used or serviced in ages. But she hadn’t had a sip in days, and the warm loamy water in the suit’s reservoir bag was the best thing she had ever tasted. She had to work hard not to gulp it down and make herself vomit.
When the urge to urinate returned, she pulled the catheter bag out of the suit and relieved herself into it. She sat on the floor, now cushioned by the padded suit and almost comfortable, and wondered who her captors were—Coalition Navy, pirates, something worse. Sometimes she slept.
On day four, isolation, hunger, boredom, and the diminishing number of places to store her piss finally pushed her to make contact with them. She’d heard muffled cries of pain. Somewhere nearby, her shipmates were being beaten or tortured. If she got the attention of the kidnappers, maybe they would just take her to the others. That was okay. Beatings, she could handle. It seemed like a small price to pay if it meant seeing people again.
The locker sat beside the inner airlock door. During flight, that usually wasn’t a high-traffic area, though she didn’t know anything about the layout of this particular ship. She thought about what to say, how to present herself. When she finally heard someone moving toward her, she just tried to yell that she wanted out. The dry rasp that came out of her throat surprised her. She swallowed, working her tongue to try to create some saliva, and tried again. Another faint rattle in the throat.
The people were right outside her locker door. A voice was talking quietly. Julie had pulled back a fist to bang on the door when she heard what it was saying.
No. Please no. Please don’t.
Dave. Her ship’s mechanic. Dave, who collected clips from old cartoons and knew a million jokes, begging in a small broken voice.
No, please no, please don’t, he said.
Hydraulics and locking bolts clicked as the inner airlock door opened. A meaty thud as something was thrown inside. Another click as the airlock closed. A hiss of evacuating air.
When the airlock cycle had finished, the people outside her door walked away. She didn’t bang to get their attention.
They’d scrubbed the ship. Detainment by the inner planet navies was a bad scenario, but they’d all trained on how to deal with it. Sensitive OPA data was scrubbed and overwritten with innocuous-looking logs with false time stamps. Anything too sensitive to trust to a computer, the captain destroyed. When the attackers came aboard, they could play innocent.
It hadn’t mattered.
There weren’t the questions about cargo or permits. The invaders had come in like they owned the place, and Captain Darren had rolled over like a dog. Everyone else—Mike, Dave, Wan Li—they’d all just thrown up their hands and gone along quietly. The pirates or slavers or whatever they were had dragged them off the little transport ship that had been her home, and down a docking tube without even minimal environment suits. The tube’s thin layer of Mylar was the only thing between them and hard nothing: hope it didn’t rip; goodbye lungs if it did.
Julie had gone along too, but then the bastards had tried to lay their hands on her, strip her clothes off.
Five years of low-gravity jiu jitsu training and them in a confined space with no gravity. She’d done a lot of damage. She’d almost started to think she might win when from nowhere a gauntleted fist smashed into her face. Things got fuzzy after that. Then the locker, and Shoot her if she makes a noise. Four days of not making noise while they beat her friends down below and then threw one of them out an airlock.
After six days, everything went quiet.
Shifting between bouts of consciousness and fragmented dreams, she was only vaguely aware as the sounds of walking, talking, and pressure doors and the subsonic rumble of the reactor and the drive faded away a little at a time. When the drive stopped, so did gravity, and Julie woke from a dream of racing her old pinnace to find herself floating while her muscles screamed in protest and then slowly relaxed.
She pulled herself to the door and pressed her ear to the cold metal. Panic shot through her until she caught the quiet sound of the air recyclers. The ship still had power and air, but the drive wasn’t on and no one was opening a door or walking or talking. Maybe it was a crew meeting. Or a party on another deck. Or everyone was in engineering, fixing a serious problem.
She spent a day listening and waiting.
By day seven, her last sip of water was gone. No one on the ship had moved within range of her hearing for twenty-four hours. She sucked on a plastic tab she’d ripped off the environment suit until she worked up some saliva; then she started yelling. She yelled herself hoarse.
No one came.
By day eight, she was ready to be shot. She’d been out of water for two days, and her waste bag had been full for four. She put her shoulders against the back wall of the locker and planted her hands against the side walls. Then she kicked out with both legs as hard as she could. The cramps that followed the first kick almost made her pass out. She screamed instead.
Stupid girl, she told herself. She was dehydrated. Eight days without activity was more than enough to start atrophy. At least she should have stretched out.
She massaged her stiff muscles until the knots were gone, then stretched, focusing her mind like she was back in dojo. When she was in control of her body, she kicked again. And again. And again, until light started to show through the edges of the locker. And again, until the door was so bent that the three hinges and the locking bolt were the only points of contact between it and the frame.
And one last time, so that it bent far enough that the bolt was no longer seated in the hasp and the door swung free.
Julie shot from the locker, hands half raised and ready to look either threatening or terrified, depending on which seemed more useful.
There was no one on the whole deck: the airlock, the suit storage room where she’d spent the last eight days, a half dozen other storage rooms. All empty. She plucked a magnetized pipe wrench of suitable size for skull cracking out of an EVA kit, then went down the crew ladder to the deck below.
And then the one below that, and then the one below that. Personnel cabins in crisp, almost military order. Commissary, where there were signs of a struggle. Medical bay, empty. Torpedo bay. No one. The comm station was unmanned, powered down, and locked. The few sensor logs that still streamed showed no sign of the Scopuli. A new dread knotted her gut. Deck after deck and room after room empty of life. Something had happened. A radiation leak. Poison in the air. Something that had forced an evacuation. She wondered if she’d be able to fly the ship by herself.
But if they’d evacuated, she’d have heard them going out the airlock, wouldn’t she?
She reached the final deck hatch, the one that led into engineering, and stopped when the hatch didn’t open automatically. A red light on the lock panel showed that the room had been sealed from the inside. She thought again about radiation and major failures. But if either of those was the case, why lock the door from the inside? And she had passed wall panel after wall panel. None of them had been flashing warnings of any kind. No, not radiation, something else.
There was more disruption here. Blood. Tools and containers in disarray. Whatever had happened, it had happened here. No, it had started here. And it had ended behind that locked door.
It took two hours with a torch and prying tools from the machine shop to cut through the hatch to engineering. With the hydraulics compromised, she had to crank it open by hand. A gust of warm wet air blew out, carrying a hospital scent without the antiseptic. A coppery, nauseating smell. The torture chamber, then. Her friends would be inside, beaten or cut to pieces. Julie hefted her wrench and prepared to bust open at least one head before they killed her. She floated down.
The engineering deck was huge, vaulted like a cathedral. The fusion reactor dominated the central space. Something was wrong with it. Where she expected to see readouts, shielding, and monitors, a layer of something like mud seemed to flow over the reactor core. Slowly, Julie floated toward it, one hand still on the ladder. The strange smell became overpowering.
The mud caked around the reactor had structure to it like nothing she’d seen before. Tubes ran through it like veins or airways. Parts of it pulsed. Not mud, then.
An outcropping of the thing shifted toward her. Compared to the whole, it seemed no larger than a toe, a little finger. It was Captain Darren’s head.
“Help me,” it said.
Chapter One: Holden
Ahundred 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 maté 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…”
Chapter Two: Miller
Detective Miller sat back on the foam-core chair, smiling gentle encouragement while he scrambled to make sense of the girl’s story.
“And then it was all pow! Room full up with bladeboys howling and humping shank,” the girl said, waving a hand. “Look like a dance number, ’cept that Bomie’s got this look he didn’t know nothing never and ever amen. You know, que?”
Havelock, standing by the door, blinked twice. The squat man’s face twitched with impatience. It was why Havelock was never going to make senior detective. And why he sucked at poker.
Miller was very good at poker.
“I totally,” Miller said. His voice had taken on the twang of an inner level resident. He waved his hand in the same lazy arc the girl used. “Bomie, he didn’t see. Forgotten arm.”
“Forgotten fucking arm, yeah,” the girl said as if Miller had spoken a line of gospel. Miller nodded, and the girl nodded back like they were two birds doing a mating dance.
The rent hole was three cream-and-black-fleck-painted rooms—bathroom, kitchen, living room. The struts of a pull-down sleeping loft in the living room had been broken and repaired so many times they didn’t retract anymore. This near the center of Ceres’ spin, that wasn’t from gravity so much as mass in motion. The air smelled beery with old protein yeast and mushrooms. Local food, so whoever had bounced the girl hard enough to break her bed hadn’t paid enough for dinner. Or maybe they did, and the girl had chosen to spend it on heroin or malta or MCK.
Her business, either way.
“Follow que?” Miller asked.
“Bomie vacuate like losing air,” the girl said with a chuckle. “Bang-head hops, kennis tu?”
“Ken,” Miller said.
“Now, all new bladeboys. Overhead. I’m out.”
The girl’s eyes made a slow track up Miller, shoes to knees to porkpie hat. Miller chuckled. He gave the chair a light push, sloping up to his feet in the low gravity.
“He shows, and I asked, que si?” Miller said.
“Como no?” the girl said. Why not?
The tunnel outside was white where it wasn’t grimy. Ten meters wide, and gently sloping up in both directions. The white LED lights didn’t pretend to mimic sunlight. About half a kilometer down, someone had rammed into the wall so hard the native rock showed through, and it still hadn’t been repaired. Maybe it wouldn’t be. This was the deep dig, way up near the center of spin. Tourists never came here.
Havelock led the way to their cart, bouncing too high with every step. He didn’t come up to the low gravity levels very often, and it made him awkward. Miller had lived on Ceres his whole life, and truth to tell, the Coriolis effect up this high could make him a little unsteady sometimes too.
“So,” Havelock said as he punched in their destination code, “did you have fun?”
“Don’t know what you mean,” Miller said.
The electrical motors hummed to life, and the cart lurched forward into the tunnel, squishy foam tires faintly squeaking.
“Having your outworld conversation in front of the Earth guy?” Havelock said. “I couldn’t follow even half of that.”
“That wasn’t Belters keeping the Earth guy out,” Miller said. “That was poor folks keeping the educated guy out. And it was kind of fun, now you mention it.”
Havelock laughed. He could take being teased and keep on moving. It was what made him good at team sports: soccer, basketball, politics.
Miller wasn’t much good at those.
Ceres, the port city of the Belt and the outer planets, boasted two hundred fifty kilometers in diameter, tens of thousands of kilometers of tunnels in layer on layer on layer. Spinning it up to 0.3 g had taken the best minds at Tycho Manufacturing half a generation, and they were still pretty smug about it. Now Ceres had more than six million permanent residents, and as many as a thousand ships docking in any given day meant upping the population to as high as seven million.
Platinum, iron, and titanium from the Belt. Water from Saturn, vegetables and beef from the big mirror-fed greenhouses on Ganymede and Europa, organics from Earth and Mars. Power cells from Io, Helium-3 from the refineries on Rhea and Iapetus. A river of wealth and power unrivaled in human history came through Ceres. Where there was commerce on that level, there was also crime. Where there was crime, there were security forces to keep it in check. Men like Miller and Havelock, whose business it was to track the electric carts up the wide ramps, feel the false gravity of spin fall away beneath them, and ask low-rent glitz whores about what happened the night Bomie Chatterjee stopped collecting protection money for the Golden Bough Society.
The primary station house for Star Helix Security, police force and military garrison for the Ceres Station, was on the third level from the asteroid’s skin, two kilometers square and dug into the rock so high Miller could walk from his desk up five levels without ever leaving the offices. Havelock turned in the cart while Miller went to his cubicle, downloaded the recording of their interview with the girl, and reran it. He was halfway through when his partner lumbered up behind him.
“Learn anything?” Havelock asked.
“Not much,” Miller said. “Bomie got jumped by a bunch of unaffiliated local thugs. Sometimes a low-level guy like Bomie will hire people to pretend to attack him so he can heroically fight them off. Ups his reputation. That’s what she meant when she called it a dance number. The guys that went after him were that caliber, only instead of turning into a ninja badass, Bomie ran away and hasn’t come back.”
“And now nothing,” Miller said. “That’s what I don’t get. Someone took out a Golden Bough purse boy, and there’s no payback. I mean, okay, Bomie’s a bottom-feeder, but…”
“But once they start eating the little guys, there’s less money coming up to the big guys,” Havelock said. “So why hasn’t the Golden Bough meted out some gangster justice?”
“I don’t like this,” Miller said.
Havelock laughed. “Belters,” he said. “One thing goes weird and you think the whole ecosystem’s crashing. If the Golden Bough’s too weak to keep its claims, that’s a good thing. They’re the bad guys, remember?”
“Yeah, well,” Miller said. “Say what you will about organized crime, at least it’s organized.”
Havelock sat on the small plastic chair beside Miller’s desk and craned to watch the playback.
“Okay,” Havelock said. “What the hell is the ‘forgotten arm’?”
“Boxing term,” Miller said. “It’s the hit you didn’t see coming.”
The computer chimed and Captain Shaddid’s voice came from the speakers.
“Miller? Are you there?”
“Mmm,” Havelock said. “Bad omen.”
“What?” the captain asked, her voice sharp. She had never quite overcome her prejudice against Havelock’s inner planet origins. Miller held up a hand to silence his partner.
“Here, Captain. What can I do for you?”
“Meet me in my office, please.”
“On my way,” he said.
Miller stood, and Havelock slid into his chair. They didn’t speak. Both of them knew that Captain Shaddid would have called them in together if she’d wanted Havelock to be there. Another reason the man would never make senior detective. Miller left him alone with the playback, trying to parse the fine points of class and station, origin and race. Lifetime’s work, that.
Captain Shaddid’s office was decorated in a soft, feminine style. Real cloth tapestries hung from the walls, and the scent of coffee and cinnamon came from an insert in her air filter that cost about a tenth of what the real foodstuffs would have. She wore her uniform casually, her hair down around her shoulders in violation of corporate regulations. If Miller had ever been called upon to describe her, the phrase deceptive coloration would have figured in. She nodded to a chair, and he sat.
“What have you found?” she asked, but her gaze was on the wall behind him. This wasn’t a pop quiz; she was just making conversation.
“Golden Bough’s looking the same as Sohiro’s crew and the Loca Greiga. Still on station, but… distracted, I guess I’d call it. They’re letting little things slide. Fewer thugs on the ground, less enforcement. I’ve got half a dozen mid-level guys who’ve gone dark.”
He’d caught her attention.
“Killed?” she asked. “An OPA advance?”
An advance by the Outer Planets Alliance was the constant bogeyman of Ceres security. Living in the tradition of Al Capone and Hamas, the IRA and the Red Martials, the OPA was beloved by the people it helped and feared by the ones who got in its way. Part social movement, part wannabe nation, and part terrorist network, it totally lacked an institutional conscience. Captain Shaddid might not like Havelock because he was from down a gravity well, but she’d work with him. The OPA would have put him in an airlock. People like Miller would only rate getting a bullet in the skull, and a nice plastic one at that. Nothing that might get shrapnel in the ductwork.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “It doesn’t smell like a war. It’s… Honestly, sir, I don’t know what the hell it is. The numbers are great. Protection’s down, unlicensed gambling’s down. Cooper and Hariri shut down the underage whorehouse up on six, and as far as anyone can tell, it hasn’t started up again. There’s a little more action by independents, but that aside, it’s all looking great. It just smells funny.”
She nodded, but her gaze was back on the wall. He’d lost her interest as quickly as he’d gotten it.
“Well, put it aside,” she said. “I have something. New contract. Just you. Not Havelock.”
Miller crossed his arms.
“New contract,” he said slowly. “Meaning?”
“Meaning Star Helix Security has accepted a contract for services separate from the Ceres security assignment, and in my role as site manager for the corporation, I’m assigning you to it.”
“I’m fired?” he said.
Captain Shaddid looked pained.
“It’s additional duty,” she said. “You’ll still have the Ceres assignments you have now. It’s just that, in addition… Look, Miller, I think this is as shitty as you do. I’m not pulling you off station. I’m not taking you off the main contract. This is a favor someone down on Earth is doing for a shareholder.”
“We’re doing favors for shareholders now?” Miller asked.
“You are, yes,” Captain Shaddid said. The softness was gone; the conciliatory tone was gone. Her eyes were dark as wet stone.
“Right, then,” Miller said. “I guess I am.”
Captain Shaddid held up her hand terminal. Miller fumbled at his side, pulled out his own, and accepted the narrow-beam transfer. Whatever this was, Shaddid was keeping it off the common network. A new file tree, labeled JMAO, appeared on his readout.
“It’s a little-lost-daughter case,” Captain Shaddid said. “Ariadne and Jules-Pierre Mao.”
The names rang a bell. Miller pressed his fingertips onto the screen of his hand terminal.
“Mao-Kwikowski Mercantile?” he asked.
Miller whistled low.
Maokwik might not have been one of the top ten corporations in the Belt, but it was certainly in the upper fifty. Originally, it had been a legal firm involved in the epic failure of the Venusian cloud cities. They’d used the money from that decades-long lawsuit to diversify and expand, mostly into interplanetary transport. Now the corporate station was independent, floating between the Belt and the inner planets with the regal majesty of an ocean liner on ancient seas. The simple fact that Miller knew that much about them meant they had enough money to buy and sell men like him on open exchange.
He’d just been bought.
“They’re Luna-based,” Captain Shaddid said. “All the rights and privileges of Earth citizenship. But they do a lot of shipping business out here.”
“And they misplaced a daughter?”
“Black sheep,” the captain said. “Went off to college, got involved with a group called the Far Horizons Foundation. Student activists.”
“OPA front,” Miller said.
“Associated,” Shaddid corrected him. Miller let it pass, but a flicker of curiosity troubled him. He wondered which side Captain Shaddid would be on if the OPA attacked. “The family put it down to a phase. They’ve got two older children with controlling interest, so if Julie wanted to bounce around vacuum calling herself a freedom fighter, there was no real harm.”
“But now they want her found,” Miller said.
“They didn’t see fit to share that information.”
“Last records show she was employed on Tycho Station but maintained an apartment here. I’ve found her partition on the network and locked it down. The password is in your files.”
“Okay,” Miller said. “What’s my contract?”
“Find Julie Mao, detain her, and ship her home.”
“A kidnap job, then,” he said.
Miller stared down at his hand terminal, flicking the files open without particularly looking at them. A strange knot had tied itself in his guts. He’d been working Ceres security for thirty years, and he hadn’t started with many illusions in place. The joke was that Ceres didn’t have laws—it had police. His hands weren’t any cleaner than Captain Shaddid’s. Sometimes people fell out airlocks. Sometimes evidence vanished from the lockers. It wasn’t so much that it was right or wrong as that it was justified. You spent your life in a stone bubble with your food, your water, your air shipped in from places so distant you could barely find them with a telescope, and a certain moral flexibility was necessary. But he’d never had to take a kidnap job before.
“Problem, Detective?” Captain Shaddid asked.
“No, sir,” he said. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Don’t spend too much time on it,” she said.
“Yes, sir. Anything else?”
Captain Shaddid’s hard eyes softened, like she was putting on a mask. She smiled.
“Everything going well with your partner?”
“Havelock’s all right,” Miller said. “Having him around makes people like me better by contrast. That’s nice.”
Her smile’s only change was to become half a degree more genuine. Nothing like a little shared racism to build ties with the boss. Miller nodded respectfully and headed out.
His hole was on the eighth level, off a residential tunnel a hundred meters wide with fifty meters of carefully cultivated green park running down the center. The main corridor’s vaulted ceiling was lit by recessed lights and painted a blue that Havelock assured him matched the Earth’s summer sky. Living on the surface of a planet, mass sucking at every bone and muscle, and nothing but gravity to keep your air close, seemed like a fast path to crazy. The blue was nice, though.
Some people followed Captain Shaddid’s lead by perfuming their air. Not always with coffee and cinnamon scents, of course. Havelock’s hole smelled of baking bread. Others opted for floral scents or semipheromones. Candace, Miller’s ex-wife, had preferred something called EarthLily, which had always made him think of the waste recycling levels. These days, he left it at the vaguely astringent smell of the station itself. Recycled air that had passed through a million lungs. Water from the tap so clean it could be used for lab work, but it had been piss and shit and tears and blood and would be again. The circle of life on Ceres was so small you could see the curve. He liked it that way.
He poured a glass of moss whiskey, a native Ceres liquor made from engineered yeast, then took off his shoes and settled onto the foam bed. He could still see Candace’s disapproving scowl and hear her sigh. He shrugged apology to her memory and turned back to work.
Juliette Andromeda Mao. He read through her work history, her academic records. Talented pinnace pilot. There was a picture of her at eighteen in a tailored vac suit with the helmet off: pretty girl with a thin, lunar citizen’s frame and long black hair. She was grinning like the universe had given her a kiss. The linked text said she’d won first place in something called the Parrish/Dorn 500K. He searched briefly. Some kind of race only really rich people could afford to fly in. Her pinnace—the Razorback—had beaten the previous record and held it for two years.
Miller sipped his whiskey and wondered what had happened to the girl with enough wealth and power to own a private ship that would bring her here. It was a long way from competing in expensive space races to being hog-tied and sent home in a pod. Or maybe it wasn’t.
“Poor little rich girl,” Miller said to the screen. “Sucks to be you, I guess.”
He closed the files and drank quietly and seriously, staring at the blank ceiling above him. The chair where Candace used to sit and ask him about his day stood empty, but he could see her there anyway. Now that she wasn’t here to make him talk, it was easier to respect the impulse. She’d been lonely. He could see that now. In his imagination, she rolled her eyes.
An hour later, his blood warm with drink, he heated up a bowl of real rice and fake beans—yeast and fungus could mimic anything if you had enough whiskey first—opened the door of his hole, and ate dinner looking out at the traffic gently curving by. The second shift streamed into the tube stations and then out of them. The kids who lived two holes down—a girl of eight and her brother of four—met their father with hugs, squeals, mutual accusations, and tears. The blue ceiling glowed in its reflected light, unchanging, static, reassuring. A sparrow fluttered down the tunnel, hovering in a way that Havelock assured him they couldn’t on Earth. Miller threw it a fake bean.
He tried to think about the Mao girl, but in truth he didn’t much care. Something was happening to the organized crime families of Ceres, and it made him jumpy as hell.
This thing with Julie Mao? It was a sideshow.
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 out here.”
Chapter Four: Miller
Miller was halfway through his evening meal when the system in his hole chirped. He glanced at the sending code. The Blue Frog. It was a port bar catering to the constant extra million noncitizens of Ceres that advertised itself as a near-exact replica of a famous Earth bar in Mumbai, only with licensed prostitutes and legal drugs. Miller took another forkful of fungal beans and vat-grown rice and debated whether to accept connection.
Should have seen this one coming, he thought.
“What?” he asked.
A screen popped open. Hasini, the assistant manager, was a dark-skinned man with eyes the color of ice. The near smirk on his face was the result of nerve damage. Miller had done him a favor when Hasini had had the poor judgment to take pity on an unlicensed prostitute. Since then, security detective and portside barman had traded favors. The unofficial, gray economics of civilization.
“Your partner’s here again,” Hasini said over the pulse and wail of bhangra music. “I think he’s having a bad night. Should I keep serving him?”
“Yeah,” Miller said. “Keep him happy for… Give me twenty minutes.”
“He doesn’t want to be kept happy. He very much wants a reason to get unhappy.”
“Make it hard to find. I’ll be there.”
Hasini nodded, smirking his damaged smirk, and dropped the connection. Miller looked at his half-eaten meal, sighed, and shoved the remains into the recycling bin. He pulled on a clean shirt, then hesitated. The Blue Frog was always warmer than he liked, and he hated wearing a jacket. Instead, he put a compact plastic pistol in his ankle holster. Not as fast a draw, but if it got that far, he was screwed anyway.
Ceres at night was indistinguishable from Ceres in the daytime. There had been a move, back when the station first opened, to dim and brighten the lights through the traditional human twenty-four-hour cycle, mimicking the spin of Earth. The affectation had lasted four months before the council killed it.
On duty, Miller would have taken an electric cart down the wide tunnels and down to the port levels. He was tempted even though he was off duty, but a deep-seated superstition stopped him. If he took the cart, he was going as a cop, and the tubes ran just fine. Miller walked to the nearest station, checked the status, and sat on the low stone bench. A man about Miller’s age and a girl no more than three came in a minute later and sat across from him. The girl’s talk was as fast and meaningless as a leaking seal, and her father responded with grunts and nods at more or less appropriate moments.
Miller and the new man nodded to each other. The girl tugged at her father’s sleeve, demanding his attention. Miller looked at her—dark eyes, pale hair, smooth skin. She was already too tall to be mistaken for an Earth child, her limbs longer and thinner. Her skin had the pink flush of Belter babies, which came with the pharmaceutical cocktail that assured that their muscles and bones would grow strong. Miller saw the father notice his attention. Miller smiled and nodded toward the kid.
“How old?” he asked.
“Two and a half,” the father said.
The father shrugged, but he smiled.
“Kids?” he asked.
“No,” Miller said. “But I’ve got a divorce about that old.”
They chuckled together as if it was funny. In his imagination, Candace crossed her arms and looked away. The soft oil-and-ozone-scented breeze announced the tube’s arrival. Miller let father and child go first, then chose a different compartment.
The tube cars were round, built to fit into the evacuated passages. There were no windows. The only view would have been stone humming by three centimeters from the car. Instead, broad screens advertised entertainment feeds or commented on inner planet political scandals or offered the chance to gamble away a week’s pay at casinos so wonderful that your life would seem richer for the experience. Miller let the bright, empty colors dance and ignored their content. Mentally, he was holding up his problem, turning it one way and then the other, not even looking for an answer.
It was a simple mental exercise. Look at the facts without judgment: Havelock was an Earther. Havelock was in a portside bar again and looking for a fight. Havelock was his partner. Statement after statement, fact after fact, facet after facet. He didn’t try to put them in order or make some kind of narrative out of them; that would all come later. Now it was enough to wash the day’s cases out of his head and get ready for the immediate situation. By the time the tube reached his station, he felt centered. Like he was walking on his whole foot, was how he’d described it, back when he had anyone to describe it to.
The Blue Frog was crowded, the barn-heat of bodies adding to the fake-Mumbai temperature and artificial air pollution. Lights glittered and flashed in seizure-inducing display. Tables curved and undulated, the backlight making them seem darker than merely black. Music moved through the air with a physical presence, each beat a little concussion. Hasini, standing in a clot of steroid-enhanced bouncers and underdressed serving girls, caught Miller’s eyes and nodded toward the back. Miller didn’t acknowledge anything; he just turned and made his way through the crowd.
Port bars were always volatile. Miller was careful not to bump into anyone if he could help it. When he had to choose, he’d run into Belters before inner planet types, women before men. His face was a constant mild apology.
Havelock was sitting alone, with one thick hand wrapping a fluted glass. When Miller sat down beside him, Havelock turned toward him, ready to take offense, nostrils flared and eyes wide. Then the surprise registered. Then something like sullen shame.
“Miller,” he said. In the tunnels outside, he would have been shouting. Here, it was barely enough to carry as far as Miller’s chair. “What’re you doing here?”
“Nothing much to do at the hole,” Miller said. “Thought I’d come pick a fight.”
“Good night for it,” Havelock said.
It was true. Even in the bars that catered to inner planet types, the mix was rarely better than one Earther or Martian in ten. Squinting out at the crowd, Miller saw that the short, stocky men and women were nearer a third.
“Ship come in?” he asked.
“EMCN?” he asked. The Earth-Mars Coalition Navy often passed through Ceres on its way to Saturn, Jupiter, and the stations of the Belt, but Miller hadn’t been paying enough attention to the relative position of the planets to know where the orbits all stood. Havelock shook his head.
“Corporate security rotating out of Eros,” he said. “Protogen, I think.” A serving girl appeared at Miller’s side, tattoos gliding over her skin, her teeth glowing in the black light. Miller took the drink she offered him, though he hadn’t ordered. Soda water.
“You know,” Miller said, leaning close enough to Havelock that even his normal conversational voice would reach the man, “it doesn’t matter how many of their asses you kick. Shaddid’s still not going to like you.”
Havelock snapped to stare at Miller, the anger in his eyes barely covering the shame and hurt.
“It’s true,” Miller said.
Havelock rose lurching to his feet and headed for the door. He was trying to stomp, but in the Ceres spin gravity and his inebriated state, he misjudged. It looked like he was hopping. Miller, glass in hand, slid through the crowd in Havelock’s wake, calming with a smile and a shrug the affronted faces that his partner left behind him.
The common tunnels down near the port had a layer of grime and grease to them that air scrubbers and astringent cleaners could never quite master. Havelock walked out, shoulders hunched, mouth tight, rage radiating from him like heat. But the doors of the Blue Frog closed behind them, the seal cutting off the music like someone hitting mute. The worst of the danger had passed.
“I’m not drunk,” Havelock said, his voice too loud.
“Didn’t say you were.”
“And you,” Havelock said, turning and stabbing an accusing finger at Miller’s chest. “You are not my nanny.”
They walked together for maybe a quarter of a kilometer. The bright LED signs beckoned. Brothels and shooting galleries, coffee bars and poetry clubs, casinos and show fights. The air smelled like piss and old food. Havelock began to slow, his shoulders coming down from around his ears.
“I worked homicide in Terrytown,” Havelock said. “I did three years vice at L-5. Do you have any idea what that was like? They were shipping kids out of there, and I’m one of three guys that stopped it. I’m a good cop.”
“Yes, you are.”
“I’m damn good.”
They walked past a noodle bar. A coffin hotel. A public terminal, its displays running a free newsfeed: COMMUNICATION PROBLEMS PLAGUE PHOEBE SCIENCE STATION. NEW ANDREAS K GAME NETS 6 BILLION DOLLARS IN 4 HOURS. NO DEAL IN MARS, BELT TITANIUM CONTRACT. The screens glowed in Havelock’s eyes, but he was staring past them.
“I’m a damn good cop,” he said again. Then, a moment later: “So what the hell?”
“It’s not about you,” Miller said. “People look at you, they don’t see Dmitri Havelock, good cop. They see Earth.”
“That’s crap. I was eight years in the orbitals and on Mars before I ever shipped out here. I worked on Earth maybe six months total.”
“Earth. Mars. They’re not that different,” Miller said.
“Try telling that to a Martian,” Havelock said with a bitter laugh. “They’ll kick your ass for you.”
“I didn’t mean… Look, I’m sure there are all kinds of differences. Earth hates Mars for having a better fleet. Mars hates Earth for having a bigger one. Maybe soccer’s better in full g; maybe it’s worse. I don’t know. I’m just saying anyone this far out from the sun? They don’t care. From this distance, you can cover Earth and Mars with one thumb. And…”
“And I don’t belong,” Havelock said.
The door of the noodle bar behind them opened and four Belters in gray-green uniforms came out. One of them wore the split circle of the OPA on his sleeve. Miller tensed, but the Belters didn’t come toward them, and Havelock didn’t notice them. Near miss.
“I knew,” Havelock said. “When I took the Star Helix contract, I knew I’d have to work to fit in. I thought it’d be the same as anywhere, you know? You go, you get your chops busted for a while. Then, when they see you can take it, they treat you like one of the team. It’s not like that here.”
“It’s not,” Miller said.
Havelock shook his head, spat, and stared at the fluted glass in his hand.
“I think we just stole some glasses from the Blue Frog,” Havelock said.
“We’re also in a public corridor with unsealed alcohol,” Miller said. “Well, you are, anyway. Mine’s soda water.”
Havelock chuckled, but there was despair in the sound. When Havelock spoke again, his voice was only rueful.
“You think I’m coming down here, picking fights with people from the inner planets so that Shaddid and Ramachandra and all the rest of them will think better of me.”
“It occurred to me.”
“You’re wrong,” Havelock said.
“Okay,” Miller said. He knew he wasn’t.
Havelock raised his fluted glass. “Take these back?” he asked.
“How about Distinguished Hyacinth?” Miller countered. “I’ll buy.”
The Distinguished Hyacinth Lounge was up three levels, far enough that foot traffic from the port levels was minimal. And it was a cop bar. Mostly Star Helix Security, but some of the minor corporate forces—Protogen, Pinkwater, Al Abbiq—hung out there too. Miller was more than half certain that his partner’s latest breakdown had been averted, but if he was wrong, better to keep it in the family.
The décor was pure Belt—old-style ships’ folding tables and chairs set into the wall and ceiling as if the gravity might shut off at any moment. Snake plant and devil’s ivy—staples of first-generation air recycling—decorated the wall and freestanding columns. The music was soft enough to talk over, loud enough to keep private conversations private. The first owner, Javier Liu, was a structural engineer from Tycho who’d come out during the big spin and liked Ceres enough to stay. His grandchildren ran it now. Javier the Third was standing behind the bar, talking with half of the vice and exploitation team. Miller led the way to a back table, nodding to the men and women he knew as he passed. While he’d been careful and diplomatic at the Blue Frog, he chose a bluff masculinity here. It was just as much a pose.
“So,” Havelock said as Javier’s daughter Kate—a fourth generation for the same bar—left the table, Blue Frog glasses on her tray, “what is this supersecret private investigation Shaddid put you on? Or is the lowly Earther not supposed to know?”
“Is that what got to you?” Miller asked. “It’s nothing. Some shareholders misplaced their daughter and want me to track her down, ship her home. It’s a bullshit case.”
“Sounds more like their backyard,” Havelock said, nodding toward the V and E crowd.
“Kid’s not a minor,” Miller said. “It’s a kidnap job.”
“And you’re good with that?”
Miller sat back. The ivy above them waved. Havelock waited, and Miller had the uncomfortable sense that a table had just been turned.
“It’s my job,” Miller said.
“Yeah, but we’re talking about an adult here, right? It’s not like she couldn’t go back home if she wanted to be there. But instead her parents get security to take her home whether she wants to go or not. That’s not law enforcement anymore. It’s not even station security. It’s just dysfunctional families playing power games.”
Miller remembered the thin girl beside her racing pinnace. Her broad smile.
“I told you it was a bullshit case,” Miller said.
Kate Liu returned to the table with a local beer and a glass of whiskey on her tray. Miller was glad for the distraction. The beer was his. Light and rich and just the faintest bit bitter. An ecology based on yeasts and fermentation meant subtle brews.
Havelock was nursing his whiskey. Miller took it as a sign that he was giving up on his bender. Nothing like being around the boys from the office to take the charm out of losing control.
“Hey, Miller! Havelock!” a familiar voice said. Yevgeny Cobb from homicide. Miller waved him over, and the conversation turned to homicide’s bragging about the resolution of a particularly ugly case. Three months’ work figuring out where the toxins came from ending with the corpse’s wife awarded the full insurance settlement and a gray-market whore deported back to Eros.
By the end of the night, Havelock was laughing and trading jokes along with the rest of them. If there was occasionally a narrowed glance or a subtle dig, he took it in stride.
Miller was on his way up to the bar for another round when his terminal chimed. And then, slowly throughout the bar, fifty other chimes sounded. Miller felt his belly knot as he and every other security agent in the place pulled out their terminals.
Captain Shaddid was on the broadcast screen. Her eyes were bleary and filled with banked rage; she was the very picture of a woman of power wakened early from sleep.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said. “Whatever you’re doing, drop it and go to your stations for emergency orders. We have a situation.
“Ten minutes ago, an unencrypted, signed message came in from the rough direction of Saturn. We haven’t confirmed it as true, but the signature matches the keys on record. I’ve put a hold on it, but we can assume some asshole’s going to put it on the network, and the shit should hit the fan about five minutes after that. If you’re in earshot of a civilian, turn off now. For the rest of you, here’s what we’re up against.”
Shaddid moved to one side, tapping her system interface. The screen went black. A moment later a man’s face and shoulders appeared. He was in an orange vacuum suit with the helmet off. An Earther, maybe in his early thirties. Pale skin, blue eyes, dark short-cropped hair. Even before the man opened his mouth, Miller saw the signs of shock and rage in his eyes and the way he held his head forward.
“My name,” the man said, “is James Holden.”
Chapter Five: Holden
Ten minutes at two g, and Holden’s head was already starting to ache. But McDowell had called them home at all haste. The Canterbury was warming up its massive drive. Holden didn’t want to miss his ride.
“Jim? We may have a problem out here.”
“Talk to me.”
“Becca found something, and it is sufficiently weird to make my balls creep up. We’re getting the hell out of here.”
“Alex, how long?” Holden asked for the third time in ten minutes.
“We’re over an hour out. Want to go on the juice?” Alex said.
Going on the juice was pilot-speak for a high-g burn that would knock an unmedicated human unconscious. The juice was the cocktail of drugs the pilot’s chair would inject into him to keep him conscious, alert, and hopefully stroke-free when his body weighed five hundred kilos. Holden had used the juice on multiple occasions in the navy, and coming down afterward was unpleasant.
“Not unless we have to,” he said.
“What kind of weird?”
“Becca, link him up. Jim, I want you seeing what we’re seeing.”
Holden tongued a painkiller tab from his suit’s helmet and reran Becca’s sensor feed for the fifth time. The spot in space lay about two hundred thousand kilometers from the Canterbury. As the Cant had scanned it, the readout showed a fluctuation, the gray-black false color gradually developing a warm border. It was a small temperature climb, less than two degrees. Holden was amazed Becca had even spotted it. He reminded himself to give her a glowing review the next time she was up for promotion.
“Where did that come from?” Holden asked.
“No idea. It’s just a spot faintly warmer than the background,” Becca said. “I’d say it was a cloud of gas, because we get no radar return from it, but there aren’t supposed to be any gas clouds out here. I mean, where would it come from?”
“Jim, any chance the Scopuli killed the ship that killed it? Could it be a vapor cloud from a destroyed ship?” McDowell asked.
“I don’t think so, sir. The Scopuli is totally unarmed. The hole in her side came from breaching charges, not torpedo fire, so I don’t think they even fought back. It might be where the Scopuli vented, but…”
“Or maybe not. Come back to the barn, Jim. Do it now.”
“Naomi, what slowly gets hotter that gives no radar or ladar return when you scan it? Wild-ass guess here,” Holden said.
“Hmmmm…” Naomi said, giving herself time to think. “Anything that was absorbing the energy from the sensor package wouldn’t give a return. But it might get hotter when it shed the absorbed energy.”
The infrared monitor on the sensor console next to Holden’s chair flared like the sun. Alex swore loudly over the general comm.
“Are you seein’ that?” he said.
Holden ignored him and opened a channel to McDowell.
“Captain, we just got a massive IR spike,” Holden said.
For long seconds, there was no reply. When McDowell came on the channel, his voice was tight. Holden had never heard the old man sound afraid before.
“Jim, a ship just appeared in that warm spot. It’s radiating heat like a bastard,” McDowell said. “Where the hell did that thing come from?”
Holden started to answer but then heard Becca’s voice coming faintly through the captain’s headset. “No idea, sir. But it’s smaller than its heat signature. Radar shows frigate-sized,” she said.
“With what?” McDowell said. “Invisibility? Magical wormhole teleportation?”
“Sir,” Holden said, “Naomi was speculating that the heat we picked up might have come from energy-absorbing materials. Stealth materials. Which means that ship was hiding on purpose. Which means its intentions are not good.”
As if in answer, six new objects appeared on his radar, glowing yellow icons appearing and immediately shifting to orange as the system marked their acceleration. On the Canterbury, Becca yelled out, “Fast movers! We have six new high-speed contacts on a collision course!”
“Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick, did that ship just fire a spread of torpedoes at us?” McDowell said. “They’re trying to slap us down?”
“Yes, sir,” Becca said.
“Time to contact.”
“Just under eight minutes, sir,” she replied.
McDowell cursed under his breath.
“We’ve got pirates, Jim.”
“What do you need from us?” Holden said, trying to sound calm and professional.
“I need you to get off the radio and let my crew work. You’re an hour out at best. The torpedoes are eight minutes. McDowell out,” the captain said, his comm clicking off and leaving Holden listening to the faint hiss of static.
The general comm exploded with voices, Alex demanding to go on the juice and race the torpedoes to the Cant, Naomi chattering about missile-jamming strategies, Amos cursing at the stealth ship and questioning the parenting of its crew. Shed was the only quiet one.
“Everyone, shut up!” Holden yelled into his headset. The ship fell into shocked silence. “Alex, plot the fastest course to the Cant that won’t kill us. Let me know when you have it. Naomi, set up a three-way channel with Becca, you, and me. We’ll help however we can. Amos, keep cussing but turn your mic off.”
He waited. The clock ticked toward impact.
“Link is up,” Naomi said. Holden could hear two distinct sets of background noise over the comm channel.
“Becca, this is Jim. I’ve got Naomi on this channel too. Tell us what we can do to help. Naomi was talking about jamming techniques?”
“I’m doing everything I know to do,” Becca said, her voice astonishingly calm. “They’re painting us with a targeting laser. I’m broadcasting garbage to scramble it, but they’ve got really, really good shit. If we were any closer, that targeting laser would be burning a hole in our hull.”
“What about physical chaff?” Naomi asked. “Can you drop snow?”
While Naomi and Becca talked, Jim opened a private channel to Ade. “Hey, this is Jim. I have Alex working on a fast-burn solution so we can get there before…”
“Before the missiles turn us into a flying brick? Good idea. Taken by pirates isn’t something you want to miss,” Ade said. He could hear the fear behind the mocking tone.
“Ade, please, I want to say something—”
“Jim, what do you think?” Naomi said on the other channel.
Holden cursed. To cover, he said, “Uh, about which thing?”
“Using the Knight to try and draw those missiles,” Naomi said.
“Can we do that?” he asked.
“Maybe. Were you listening at all?”
“Ah… something happened here, drew my attention for a minute. Tell me again,” Holden said.
“We try to match the frequency of the light scatter coming off the Cant and broadcast it with our comm array. Maybe the torpedoes will think we’re the target instead,” Naomi said like she was speaking to a child.
“And then they come blow us up?”
“I’m thinking we run away while pulling the torpedoes toward us. Then, when we get them far enough past the Cant, we kill the comm array and try to hide behind the asteroid,” Naomi said.
“Won’t work,” Holden said with a sigh. “They follow the targeting laser’s scatter for general guidance, but they also take telescope shots of the target on acquisition. They’ll take one look at us and know we aren’t their target.”
“Isn’t it worth a shot?”
“Even if we manage it, torpedoes designed to disable the Cant would make us into a greasy stretch of vacuum.”
“All right,” Naomi said. “What else have we got?”
“Nothing. Very smart boys in the naval labs have already thought of everything we are going to think of in the next eight minutes,” Holden said. Saying it out loud meant admitting it to himself.
“Then what are we doing here, Jim?” Naomi asked.
“Seven minutes,” Becca said, her voice still eerily calm.
“Let’s get there. Maybe we can get some people off the ship after it’s hit. Help with damage control,” Holden said. “Alex, got that plot figured out?”
“Roger that, XO. Bleeding-g burn-and-flip laid in. Angled approach course so our torch won’t burn a hole in the Cant. Time to rock and roll?” Alex replied.
“Yeah. Naomi, get your people strapped in for high g,” Holden said, then opened up a channel to Captain McDowell. “Captain, we’re coming in hot. Try to survive, and we’ll have the Knight on station for pickup or to help with damage control.”
“Roger,” McDowell said, and killed the line.
Holden opened up his channel to Ade again. “Ade, we’re going to burn hard, so I won’t be talking, but leave this channel open for me, okay? Tell me what’s happening. Hell, hum. Humming is nice. I just really need to hear you’re all right.”
“Okay, Jim,” Ade said. She didn’t hum but she left the channel open. He could hear her breathing.
Alex began the countdown over the general comm. Holden checked the straps on his crash couch and palmed the button that started the juice. A dozen needles stuck into his back through membranes in his suit. His heart shuddered and chemical bands of iron gripped his brain. His spine went dead cold, and his face flushed like a radiation burn. He pounded a fist into the arm of the crash couch. He hated this part, but the next one was worse. On the general comm, Alex whooped as the drugs hit his system. Belowdecks, the others were getting the drugs that kept them from dying but kept them sedated through the worst of it.
Alex said, “One,” and Holden weighed five hundred kilos. The nerves at the back of his eye sockets screamed at the massive load of his eyeballs. His testicles crushed themselves against his thighs. He concentrated on not swallowing his tongue. Around him, the ship creaked and groaned. There was a disconcerting bang from belowdecks, but nothing on his panel went red. The Knight’s torch drive could deliver a lot of thrust, but at the cost of a prodigious fuel-burn rate. But if they could save the Cant, it wouldn’t matter.
Over the blood pounding in his ears, Holden could hear Ade’s gentle breathing and the click of her keyboard. He wished he could just go to sleep to that sound, but the juice was singing and burning in his blood. He was more awake than he’d ever been.
“Yes, sir,” Ade said over the comm.
It took Holden a second to realize she was talking to McDowell. He turned up the volume to hear what the captain was saying.
“— the mains online, full power.”
“We’re fully loaded, sir. If we try to burn that hard, we’ll tear the drive right off the mounts,” Ade replied. McDowell must have asked her to fire up the Epstein.
“Mr. Tukunbo,” McDowell said, “we have… four minutes. If you break it, I won’t bill you.”
“Yes, sir. Bringing mains online. Setting for maximum burn,” Ade said, and in the background Holden could hear the high-g warning Klaxon. There was a louder clicking as Ade strapped herself in.
“Mains online in three… two… one… execute,” Ade said.
The Canterbury groaned so loud Holden had to turn the comm volume down. It moaned and shrieked like a banshee for several seconds, and then there was a shattering crash. He pulled up the exterior visual, fighting against the g-induced blackout at the edge of his vision. The Canterbury was in one piece.
“Ade, what the hell was that?” McDowell said, his speech slurred.
“The drive tearing a strut. Mains are off-line, sir,” Ade replied, not saying Exactly like I said would happen.
“What did that buy us?” McDowell asked.
“Not much. The torpedoes are now at over forty klicks a second and accelerating. We’re down to maneuvering thrusters,” Ade said.
“Shit,” McDowell said.
“They’re going to hit us, sir,” Ade said.
“Jim,” McDowell said, his voice suddenly loud over the direct channel he’d opened. “We’re going down, and there’s no way around it. Click twice to acknowledge.”
Jim clicked his radio twice.
“Okay, so, now we need to think about surviving after the hit. If they’re looking to cripple us before boarding, they’ll take out our drive and our comm array. Becca’s been broadcasting an SOS ever since the torpedoes were fired, but I’d like you to keep yelling if we stop. If they know you’re out there, they are less likely to toss everyone out an airlock. Witnesses, you know,” McDowell said.
Jim clicked twice again.
“Turn around, Jim. Hide behind that asteroid. Call for help. Order.”
Jim clicked twice, then signaled all-stop to Alex. In an instant, the giant sitting on his chest disappeared, replaced by weightlessness. The sudden transition would have made him throw up if his veins hadn’t been coursing with antinausea drugs.
“What’s up?” Alex said.
“New job,” Holden said, teeth chattering from the juice. “We’re calling for help and negotiating a release of prisoners once the bad guys have the Cant. Burn back to that asteroid, since it’s the closest we can get to cover.”
“Roger that, Boss,” Alex said. He added in a lower voice, “I’d kill for a couple of tubes or a nice keel-mounted rail gun right now.”
“I hear you.”
“Wake up the kids downstairs?”
“Let them sleep.”
“Roger that,” Alex said, then clicked off.
Before the heavy g started up again, Holden turned on the Knight’s SOS. The channel to Ade was still open, and now that McDowell was off the line, he could hear her breathing again. He turned the volume all the way up and lay back in the straps, waiting to be crushed. Alex didn’t disappoint him.
“One minute,” Ade said, her voice loud enough to distort through his helmet’s speakers. Holden didn’t turn the volume down. Her voice was admirably calm as she called out the impact countdown.
Holden wanted desperately to talk, to say something comforting, to make ludicrous and untrue assertions of love. The giant standing on his chest just laughed with the deep rumble of their fusion torch.
“Get ready to kill the reactor and play dead after the torpedoes hit. If we’re not a threat, they won’t hit us again,” McDowell said.
“Five,” Ade said.
The Canterbury shuddered and the monitor went white. Ade took one sharp intake of breath, which cut off as the radio broke up. The static squeal almost ruptured Holden’s eardrums. He chinned the volume down and clicked his radio at Alex.
The thrust suddenly dropped to a tolerable two g and all the ship’s sensors flared into overload. A brilliant light poured through the small airlock porthole.
“Report, Alex, report! What happened?” Holden yelled.
“My God. They nuked her. They nuked the Cant,” Alex said, his voice low and dazed.
“What’s her status? Give me a report on the Canterbury! I have zero sensors down here. Everything’s just gone white!”
There was a long pause; then Alex said, “I have zero sensors up here too, Boss. But I can give you a status on the Cant. I can see her.”
“See her? From here?”
“Yeah. She’s a cloud of vapor the size of Olympus Mons. She’s gone, Boss. She’s gone.”
That can’t be right, Holden’s mind protested. That doesn’t happen. Pirates don’t nuke water haulers. No one wins. No one gets paid. And if you just want to murder fifty people, walking into a restaurant with a machine gun is a lot easier.
He wanted to shout it, scream at Alex that he was wrong. But he had to keep it together. I’m the old man now.
“All right. New mission, Alex. Now we’re witnesses to murder. Get us back to that asteroid. I’ll start compiling a broadcast. Wake everyone up. They need to know,” Holden said. “I’m rebooting the sensor package.”
He methodically shut down the sensors and their software, waited two minutes, then slowly brought them back online. His hands were shaking. He was nauseated. His body felt like he was operating his flesh from a distance, and he didn’t know how much was the juice and how much was shock.
The sensors came back up. Like any other ship that flew the space lanes, the Knight was hardened against radiation. You couldn’t get anywhere near Jupiter’s massive radiation belt unless you were. But Holden doubted the ship’s designers had half a dozen nuclear weapons going off nearby in mind when they’d created the specs. They’d gotten lucky. Vacuum might protect them from an electromagnetic pulse, but the blast radiation could still have fried every sensor the ship had.
Once the array came back up, he scanned the space where the Canterbury had been. There was nothing larger than a softball. He switched over to the ship that killed it, which was flying off sunward at a leisurely one g. Heat bloomed in Holden’s chest.
He wasn’t scared. Aneurysm-inducing rage made his temples pound and his fists squeeze until his tendons hurt. He flipped on the comms and aimed a tightbeam at the retreating ship.
“This message is to whoever ordered the destruction of the Canterbury, the civilian ice freighter that you just blew into gas. You don’t get to just fly away, you murderous son of a bitch. I don’t care what your reasons are, but you just killed fifty friends of mine. You need to know who they were. I am sending to you the name and photograph of everyone who just died in that ship. Take a good look at what you did. Think about that while I work on finding out who you are.”
He closed the voice channel, pulled up the Canterbury’s personnel files, and began transmitting the crew dossiers to the other ship.
“What are you doing?” asked Naomi from behind him, not from his helmet speakers.
She was standing there with her helmet off. Sweat plastered her thick black hair to her head and neck. Her face was unreadable. Holden took off his helmet.
“I’m showing them the Canterbury was a real place where real people lived. People with names and families,” he said, the juice making his voice less steady than he would have liked. “If there’s something resembling a human being giving the orders on that ship, I hope it haunts him right up to the day they put him in the recycler for murder.”
“I don’t think they appreciate it,” Naomi said, pointing at the panel behind him.
The enemy ship was now painting them with its targeting laser. Holden held his breath. No torpedoes launched, and after a few seconds, the stealth ship turned off its laser and the engine flared as it scooted off at high g. He heard Naomi let out a shuddering breath.
“So the Canterbury’s gone?” Naomi asked.
“Fuck me sideways,” said Amos.
Amos and Shed stood together at the crew ladder. Amos’ face was mottled red and white, and his big hands clenched and unclenched. Shed collapsed to his knees, slamming against the deck in the heavy two-g thrust. He didn’t cry. He just looked at Holden and said, “Cameron’s never going to get that arm, I guess,” then buried his head in his hands and shook.
“Slow down, Alex. No need to run now,” Holden said into the comm. The ship slowly dropped to one g.
“What now, Captain?” Naomi said, looking at him hard. You’re in charge now. Act like it.
“Blowing them out of the sky would be my first choice, but since we don’t have the weapons… follow them. Keep our eyes on them until we know where they’re going. Expose them to everyone,” Holden replied.
“Fuckin’ A,” said Amos loudly.
“Amos,” Naomi said over her shoulder, “take Shed below and get him into a couch. If you need to, give him something to put him to sleep.”
“You got it, Boss.” Amos put a thick arm around Shed’s waist and took him below.
When he was gone, Naomi turned back to Holden.
“No, sir. We are not chasing that ship. We are going to call for help, and then go wherever the help tells us to go.”
“I—” Holden started.
“Yes, you’re in charge. That makes me XO, and it’s the XO’s job to tell the captain when he’s being an idiot. You’re being an idiot, sir. You already tried to goad them into killing us with that broadcast. Now you want to chase them? And what will you do if they let you catch them? Broadcast another emotional plea?” Naomi said, moving closer to him. “You are going to get the remaining four members of your crew to safety. And that’s all. When we’re safe, you can go on your crusade. Sir.”
Holden unbuckled the straps on his couch and stood up. The juice was starting to burn out, leaving his body spent and sickened. Naomi lifted her chin and didn’t back up.
“Glad you’re with me, Naomi,” he said. “Go see to the crew. McDowell gave me one last order.”
Naomi looked him over critically; he could see her distrust. He didn’t defend himself; he just waited until she was done. She nodded at him once and climbed down the ladder to the deck below.
Once she was gone, he worked methodically, putting together a broadcast package that included all the sensor data from the Canterbury and the Knight. Alex climbed down from the cockpit and sat down heavily in the next chair.
“You know, Captain, I’ve been thinkin’,” he said. His voice had the same post-juice shakes as Holden’s own.
Holden bit back his irritation at the interruption and said, “What about?”
“That stealth ship.”
Holden turned away from his work.
“So, I don’t know any pirates that have shit like that.”
“In fact, the only time I’ve seen tech like that was back when I was in the navy,” Alex said. “We were working on ships with energy-absorbing skins and internal heat sinks. More of a strategic weapon than a tactical one. You can’t hide an active drive, but if you can get into position and shut the drive down, store all your waste heat internally, you can hide yourself pretty good. Add in the energy-absorbing skin, and radar, ladar, and passive sensors don’t pick you up. Plus, pretty tough to get nuclear torpedoes outside of the military.”
“You’re saying the Martian navy did this?”
Alex took a long shuddering breath.
“If we had it, you know the Earthers were workin’ on it too,” he said.
They looked at each other across the narrow space, the implications heavier than a ten-g burn. Holden pulled the transmitter and battery they’d recovered from the Scopuli out of the thigh pocket of his suit. He started pulling it apart, looking for a stamp or an insignia. Alex watched, quiet for once. The transmitter was generic; it could have come from the radio room of any ship in the solar system. The battery was a nondescript gray block. Alex reached out and Holden handed it to him. Alex pried off the gray plastic cover and flipped the metal battery around in his hands. Without saying a word, he held the bottom up to Holden’s face. Stamped in the black metal on the bottom of the battery was a serial number that began with the letters MCRN.
Martian Congressional Republic Navy.
The radio was set to broadcast on full power. The data package was ready to transmit. Holden stood in front of the camera, leaning a little forward.
“My name is James Holden,” he said, “and my ship, the Canterbury, was just destroyed by a warship with stealth technology and what appear to be parts stamped with Martian navy serial numbers. Data stream to follow.”
Chapter Six: Miller
The cart sped through the tunnel, siren masking the whine of motors. Behind them, they left curious civilians and the scent of overheated bearings. Miller leaned forward in his seat, willing the cart to go faster. They were three levels and maybe four kilometers from the station house.
“Okay,” Havelock said. “I’m sorry, but I’m missing something here.”
“What?” Miller said. He meant What are you yammering about? Havelock took it as What are you missing?
“A water hauler millions of klicks from here got vaporized. Why are we going to full alert? Our cisterns will last months without even going on rationing. There are a lot of other haulers out there. Why is this a crisis?”
Miller turned and looked at his partner straight on. The small, stocky build. The thick bones from a childhood in full g. Just like the asshole in the transmission. They didn’t understand. If Havelock had been in this James Holden’s place, he might have done the same stupid, irresponsible, idiotic bullshit. For the space of a breath, they weren’t security anymore. They weren’t partners. They were a Belter and an Earther. Miller looked away before Havelock could see the change in his eyes.
“That prick Holden? The one in the broadcast?” Miller said. “He just declared war on Mars for us.”
The cart swerved and bobbed, its internal computer adjusting for some virtual hiccup in the traffic flow half a kilometer ahead. Havelock shifted, grabbing for the support strut. They hit a ramp up to the next level, civilians on foot making a path for them.
“You grew up where the water’s maybe dirty, but it falls out of the sky for you,” Miller said. “The air’s filthy, but it’s not going away if your door seals fail. It’s not like that out here.”
“But we’re not on the hauler. We don’t need the ice. We aren’t under threat,” Havelock said.
Miller sighed, rubbing his eyes with thumb and knuckle until ghosts of false color bloomed.
“When I was homicide,” Miller said, “there was this guy. Property management specialist working a contract out of Luna. Someone burned half his skin off and dropped him out an airlock. Turned out he was responsible for maintenance on sixty holes up on level thirty. Lousy neighborhood. He’d been cutting corners. Hadn’t replaced the air filters in three months. There was mold growing in three of the units. And you know what we found after that?”
“What?” Havelock asked.
“Not a goddamn thing, because we stopped looking. Some people need to die, and he was one. And the next guy that took the job cleaned the ducting and swapped the filters on schedule. That’s what it’s like in the Belt. Anyone who came out here and didn’t put environmental systems above everything else died young. All us still out here are the ones that cared.”
“Selective effect?” Havelock said. “You’re seriously arguing in favor of selective effect? I never thought I’d hear that shit coming out of you.”
“Racist propaganda bullshit,” Havelock said. “It’s the one that says the difference in environment has changed the Belters so much that instead of just being a bunch of skinny obsessive-compulsives, they aren’t really human anymore.”
“I’m not saying that,” Miller said, suspecting that it was exactly what he was saying. “It’s just that Belters don’t take the long view when you screw with basic resources. That water was future air, propellant mass, and potables for us. We have no sense of humor about that shit.”
The cart hit a ramp of metalwork grate. The lower level fell away below them. Havelock was silent.
“This Holden guy didn’t say it was Mars. Just that they found a Martian battery. You think people are going to… declare war?” Havelock said. “Just on the basis of this one guy’s pictures of a battery?”
“The ones that wait to get the whole story aren’t our problem.”
At least not tonight, he thought. Once the whole story gets out, we’ll see where we stand.
The station house was somewhere between one-half and three-quarters full. Security men stood in clumps, nodding to each other, eyes narrow and jaws tight. One of the vice cops laughed at something, his amusement loud, forced, smelling of fear. Miller saw the change in Havelock as they walked across the common area to their desks. Havelock had been able to put Miller’s reaction down to one man’s being oversensitive. A whole room, though. A whole station house. By the time they reached their chairs, Havelock’s eyes were wide.
Captain Shaddid came in. The bleary look was gone. Her hair was pulled back, her uniform crisp and professional, her voice as calm as a surgeon in a battlefield hospital. She stepped up on the first desk she came to, improvising a pulpit.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said. “You’ve seen the transmission. Any questions?”
“Who let that fucking Earther near a radio?” someone shouted. Miller saw Havelock laugh along with the crowd, but it didn’t reach his eyes. Shaddid scowled and the crowd quieted.
“Here’s the situation,” she said. “No way we can control this information. It was broadcast everywhere. We have five sites on the internal network that have been mirroring it, and we have to assume it’s public knowledge starting ten minutes ago. Our job now is to keep the rioting to a minimum and ensure station integrity around the port. Station houses fifty and two thirteen are helping on it too. The port authority has released all the ships with inner planet registry. That doesn’t mean they’re all gone. They still have to round up their crews. But it does mean they’re going.”
“The government offices?” Miller said, loud enough to carry.
“Not our problem, thank God,” Shaddid said. “They have infrastructure in place. Blast doors are already down and sealed. They’ve broken off from the main environmental systems, so we aren’t even breathing their air right now.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” Yevgeny said from the cluster of homicide detectives.
“Now the bad news,” Shaddid said. Miller heard the silence of a hundred and fifty cops holding their breath. “We’ve got eighty known OPA agents on the station. They’re all employed and legal, and you know this is the kind of thing they’ve been waiting for. We have an order from the governor that we’re not going to do any proactive detention. No one gets arrested until they do something.”
Angry voices rose in chorus.
“Who does he think he is?” someone called from the back. Shaddid snapped at the comment like a shark.
“The governor is the one who contracted with us to keep this station in working order,” Shaddid said. “We’ll follow his directives.”
In his peripheral vision, Miller saw Havelock nod. He wondered what the governor thought of the question of Belter independence. Maybe the OPA weren’t the only ones who’d been waiting for something like this to happen. Shaddid went on, outlining the security response they were permitted. Miller listened with half an ear, so lost in speculating on the politics behind the situation he almost missed it when Shaddid called his name.
“Miller will take the second team to the port level and cover sectors thirteen through twenty-four. Kasagawa, team three, twenty-five through thirty-six, and so on. That’s twenty men apiece, except for Miller.”
“I can make it with nineteen,” Miller said, then quietly to Havelock, “You’re sitting this one out, partner. Having an Earther with a gun out there isn’t going to make things better.”
“Yeah,” Havelock said. “Saw that coming.”
“Okay,” Shaddid said. “You all know the drill. Let’s move.”
Miller rounded up his riot squad. All the faces were familiar, all men and women he’d worked with over his years in security. He organized them in his mind with a nearly automatic efficiency. Brown and Gelbfish both had SWAT experience, so they would lead the wings if it came to crowd control. Aberforth had three write-ups for excessive violence since her kid had been busted for drug running on Ganymede, so she was second string. She could work out her anger-management issues another time. Around the station house, he heard the other squad commanders making similar decisions.
“Okay,” Miller said. “Let’s suit up.”
They moved away in a group, heading for the equipment bay. Miller paused. Havelock remained leaning against his desk, arms folded, eyes locked on the middle distance. Miller was torn between sympathy for the man and impatience. It was hard being on the team but not on the team. On the other hand, what the hell had he expected, taking a contract in the Belt? Havelock looked up, meeting Miller’s gaze. They nodded to each other. Miller was the first to turn away.
The equipment bay was part warehouse, part bank vault, designed by someone more concerned with conserving space than getting things out efficiently. The lights—recessed white LEDs—gave the gray walls a sterile cast. Bare stone echoed every voice and footfall. Banks of ammunition and firearms, evidence bags and test panels, spare servers and replacement uniforms lined the walls and filled most of the interior space. The riot gear was in a side room, in gray steel lockers with high-security electronic locks. The standard outfit consisted of high-impact plastic shields, electric batons, shin guards, bullet-resistant chest and thigh armor, and helmets with reinforced face guards—all of it designed to make a handful of station security into an intimidating, inhuman force.
Miller keyed in his access code. The seals released; the lockers opened.
“Well,” Miller said conversationally. “Fuck me.”
The lockers were empty, gray coffins with the corpses all gone. Across the room, he heard one of the other squads shouting in outrage. Miller systematically opened every riot control locker he could get to. All of them were the same. Shaddid appeared at his side, her face pale with rage.
“What’s plan B?” Miller asked.
Shaddid spat on the floor, then closed her eyes. They shifted under her lids like she was dreaming. Two long breaths later, they opened.
“Check the SWAT lockers. There should be enough in there to outfit two people in each squad.”
“Snipers?” Miller said.
“You have a better idea, Detective?” Shaddid said, leaning on the last word.
Miller raised his hands in surrender. Riot gear was meant to intimidate and control. SWAT gear was made to kill with the greatest efficiency possible. Seemed their mandate had just changed.
On any given day, a thousand ships might be docked on Ceres Station, and activity there rarely slowed and never stopped. Each sector could accommodate twenty ships, the traffic of humanity and cargo, transport vans, mesocranes, and industrial forklifts, and his squad was responsible for twenty sectors.
The air stank of refrigerant and oil. The gravity was slightly above 0.3 g, station spin alone lending the place a sense of oppression and danger. Miller didn’t like the port. Having vacuum so close under his feet made him nervous. Passing the dockworkers and transport crews, he didn’t know whether to scowl or smile. He was here to scare people into behaving and also to reassure them that everything was under control. After the first three sectors, he settled on the smile. It was the kind of lie he was better at.
They had just reached the junction of sectors nineteen and twenty when they heard screaming. Miller pulled his hand terminal out of his pocket, connected to the central surveillance network, and called up the security camera array. It took a few seconds to find it: a mob of fifty or sixty civilians stretching almost all the way across the tunnel, traffic blocked on both sides. There were weapons being waved over heads. Knives, clubs. At least two pistols. Fists pumped in the air. And at the center of the crowd, a huge shirtless man was beating someone to death.
“Showtime,” Miller said, waving his squad forward at a run.
He was still a hundred meters from the turn that would take them to the clot of human violence when he saw the shirtless man knock his victim to the ground, then stomp on her neck. The head twisted sideways at an angle that didn’t leave any question. Miller slowed his team to a brisk walk. Arresting the murderer while surrounded by a crowd of his friends would be tough enough without being winded.
There was blood in the water now. Miller could sense it. The mob was going to turn out. To the station, to the ships. If the people started joining the chaos… what path would it be likely to take? There was a brothel one level up from there and half a kilometer anti-spinward that catered to inner planet types. The tariff inspector for sector twenty-one was married to a girl from Luna and had bragged about it maybe once too often.
There were too many targets, Miller thought even as he motioned his snipers to spread out. He was trying to reason with a fire. Stop it here, and no one else got killed.
In his imagination, Candace crossed her arms and said, What’s plan B?
The outer edge of the mob raised the alarm well before Miller reached it. The surge of bodies and threats shifted. Miller tipped back his hat. Men, women. Dark skin, pale, golden brown, and all with the long, thin build of Belters, all with the square-mouthed angry gape of chimpanzees at war.
“Let me take a couple of them down, sir,” Gelbfish said from his terminal. “Put the fear of God into them.”
“We’ll get there,” Miller said, smiling at the angry mob. “We’ll get there.”
The face he expected floated to the front. Shirtless. The big man, blood covering his hands and splattered on his cheek. The seed crystal of the riot.
“That one?” Gelbfish asked, and Miller knew that a tiny infrared dot was painting Shirtless’ forehead even as he glowered at Miller and the uniforms behind him.
“No,” Miller said. “That’ll only set the rest of them off.”
“So what do we do?” Brown said.
It was a hell of a question.
“Sir,” Gelbfish said. “The big fucker’s got an OPA tattoo on his left shoulder.”
“Well,” Miller said, “if you do have to shoot him, start there.”
He stepped forward, tying his terminal into the local system, overriding the alert. When he spoke, his voice boomed from the overhead speakers.
“This is Detective Miller. Unless you all want to be locked up as accessories to murder, I suggest you disperse now.” Muting the microphone in his terminal, he said to Shirtless, “Not you, big fella. Move a muscle and we shoot you.”
Someone in the crowd threw a wrench, the silver metal arcing low through the air toward Miller’s head. He almost stepped out of the way, but the handle caught him across the ear. His head filled with the deep sound of bells, and the wet of blood tracked down his neck.
“Hold fire,” Miller shouted. “Hold your fire.”
The crowd laughed, as if he’d been talking to them. Idiots. Shirtless, emboldened, strode forward. The steroids had distended his thighs so badly that he waddled. Miller turned the mic on his terminal back on. If the crowd was watching them face each other down, they weren’t breaking things. It wasn’t spreading. Not yet.
“So. Friend. You only kick helpless people to death, or can anybody join in?” Miller asked, his voice conversational but echoing out of the dock speakers like a pronouncement from God.
“The fuck you barking, Earth dog?” Shirtless said.
“Earth?” Miller said, chuckling. “I look like I grew up in a gravity well to you? I was born on this rock.”
“Inners kibble you, bitch,” Shirtless said. “You they dog.”
“Fuckin’ dui,” Shirtless said. Fucking true. He flexed his pectorals. Miller suppressed the urge to laugh.
“So killing that poor bastard was for the good of the station?” Miller said. “The good of the Belt? Don’t be a chump, kid. They’re playing you. They want you to act like a bunch of stupid riotboys so they have a reason to shut this place down.”
“Schrauben sie sie weibchen,” Shirtless said in Belter-inflected gutter German, leaning forward.
Okay, second time I’ve been called a bitch, Miller thought.
“Kneecap him,” Miller said. Shirtless’ legs blew out in twin sprays of crimson and he went down howling. Miller walked past his writhing body, stepping toward the mob.
“You’re taking your orders from this pendejo?” he said. “Listen to me, we all know what’s coming. We know dance starting, now, like pow, right? They fucked tu agua, and we all know the answer. Out an airlock, no?”
He could see it in their faces: the sudden fear of the snipers, then the confusion. He pressed on, not giving them time to think. He switched back to the lower-level lingo, the language of education, authority.
“You know what Mars wants? They want you, doing this. They want this piece of shit here to make sure that everyone looks at Belters and thinks we’re a bunch of psychopaths who tear up their own station. They want to tell themselves we’re just like them. Well, we aren’t. We’re Belters, and we take care of our own.”
He picked a man at the edge of the mob. Not as pumped as Shirtless, but big. He had an OPA split circle on his arm.
“You,” Miller said. “You want to fight for the Belt?”
“Dui,” the man said.
“I bet you do. He did too,” Miller said, jerking a thumb back at Shirtless. “But now he’s a cripple, and he’s going down for murder. So we’ve already lost one. You see? They’re turning us against each other. Can’t let them do that. Every one of you I have to arrest or cripple or kill, that’s one less we have when the day comes. And it’s coming. But it’s not now. You understand?”
The OPA man scowled. The mob drew back from him, making space. Miller could feel it like a current against him. It was shifting.
“Day’s coming, hombre,” the OPA man said. “You know your side?”
The tone was a threat, but there was no power behind it. Miller took a slow breath. It was over.
“Always the side of the angels,” he said. “Why don’t you all go back to work? Show’s over here, and we’ve all got plenty that needs doing.”
Momentum broken, the mob fell apart. First one and two peeling off from the edges, and then the whole knot untying itself at once. Five minutes after Miller had arrived, the only signs that anything had happened were Shirtless mewling in a pool of his own blood, the wound on Miller’s ear, and the body of the woman fifty good citizens had stood by and watched be beaten to death. She was short and wearing the flight suit of a Martian freight line.
Only one dead. Makes it a good night, Miller thought sourly.
He went to the fallen man. The OPA tattoo was smeared red. Miller knelt.
“Friend,” he said. “You are under arrest for the murder of that lady over there, whoever the hell she is. You are not required to participate in questioning without the presence of an attorney or union representative, and if you so much as look at me wrong, I’ll space you. Do we understand each other?”
From the look in the man’s eyes, Miller knew they did.
Excerpted from Leviathan Wakes by Corey, James S.A. Copyright © 2011 by Corey, James S.A.. Excerpted by permission.
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