Holden climbed back onto the lift and rode it up to the operations deck, the thermos clutched in both hands like a life preserver.
Naomi was seated at the sensor and communications panel, tracking their progress in pursuit of the fleeing pirates. Holden could see at a glance that they were much closer than the last estimate he’d received. He strapped himself into the combat operations couch. He opened a nearby cabinet and, guessing they might be at low g or in free fall in the near future, pulled out a drinking bulb for his coffee.
As he filled it from the thermos’s nipple, he said, “We’re closing awful fast. What’s up?”
“Pirate ship has slowed down quite a bit from its initial one g acceleration. They dropped to half a g for a couple minutes, then stopped accelerating altogether a minute ago. The computer tracked some fluctuations in drive output just before they slowed, so I think we chased them too hard.”
“They broke their ship?”
“They broke their ship.”
Holden took a long drink out of the bulb, scalding his tongue in the process and not caring.
“How long to intercept now?”
“Five minutes, tops. Alex was waiting to do the final decel burn until you were up here and belted in.”
Holden tapped the comm panel’s 1MC button and said, “Amos, buckle up. Five minutes to badguys.” Then he switched to the cockpit channel and said, “Alex, what’s the word?”
“I do believe they broke their ship,” Alex replied in his Martian Mariner Valley drawl.
“That seems to be the consensus,” Holden said.
“Makes runnin’ away a bit harder.”
The Mariner Valley had originally been settled by Chinese, East Indians, and Texans. Alex had the dark complexion and jet-black hair of an East Indian. Coming as he did from Earth, Holden always found it strangely disconcerting when an exaggerated Texas drawl came from someone his brain said should be speaking with Punjabi accents.
“And it makes our day easier,” Holden replied, warming up the combat ops panel. “Bring us to relative stop at ten thousand klicks. I’m going to paint them with the targeting laser and turn on the point defense cannons. Open the outer doors to the tubes, too. No reason not to look as threatening as possible.”
“Roger that, boss,” Alex replied.
Naomi swiveled in her chair and gave Holden a grin. “Fighting space pirates. Very romantic.”
Holden couldn’t help smiling back. Even wearing a Martian naval officer’s jumpsuit that was three sizes too short and five sizes too big around for her long and thin Belter frame, she looked beautiful to him. Her long and curly black hair was pulled into an unruly tail behind her head. Her features were a striking mix of Asian, South American, and African that was unusual even in the melting pot of the Belt. He glanced at his brown-haired Montana farm boy reflection in a darkened panel and felt very generic by comparison.
“You know how much I like anything that gets you to say the word ‘romantic,’” he said. “But I’m afraid I lack your enthusiasm. We started out saving the solar system from a horrific alien menace. Now this?”
Holden had only known one cop well, and him briefly. During the massive and unpleasant series of clusterfucks that now went under the shorthand “the Eros incident,” Holden had teamed up for a time with a thin, gray, broken man called Miller. By the time they’d met, Miller had already walked away from his official job to obsessively follow a missing persons case.
They’d never precisely been friends, but they’d managed to stop the human race from being wiped out by a corporation’s self-induced sociopathy and a recovered alien weapon that everyone in human history had mistaken for a moon of Saturn. By that standard, at least, the partnership had been a success.
Holden had been a naval officer for six years. He’d seen people die, but only from the vantage of a radar screen. On Eros, he’d seen thousands of people die, up close and in horrific ways. He’d killed a couple of them himself. The radiation dose he’d received there meant he had to take constant medications to stop the cancers that kept blooming in his tissues. He’d still gotten off lighter than Miller.
Because of Miller, the alien infection had landed on Venus instead of Earth. But that hadn’t killed it. Whatever the alien’s hijacked, confused programming was, it was still going on under that planet’s thick cloud cover, and no one had so far been able to offer any scientific conclusions more compelling than Hmm. Weird.
Saving humanity had cost the old, tired Belter detective his life.
Saving humanity had turned Holden into an employee of the Outer Planets Alliance tracking down pirates. Even on the bad days, he had to think he’d gotten the better end of that deal.
“Thirty seconds to intercept,” Alex said.
Holden pulled his mind back to the present and called down to engineering. “You all strapped in down there, Amos?”
“Roger, Cap. Ready to go. Try not to get my girl all shot up.”
“No one’s shooting anyone today,” Holden said after he shut the comm link off. Naomi heard him and raised an eyebrow in question. “Naomi, give me comms. I want to call our friends out there.”
A second later, the comm controls appeared on his panel. He aimed a tightbeam at the pirate ship and waited for the link light to go green. When it did, he said, “Undesignated light freighter, this is Captain James Holden of the Outer Planets Alliance missile frigate Rocinante. Please respond.”
His headset was silent except for the faint static of background radiation.
“Look, guys, let’s not play games. I know you know who I am. I also know that five days ago, you attacked the food freighter Somnambulist, disabled its engines, and stole six thousand kilos of protein and all of their air. Which is pretty much all I need to know about you.”
More staticky silence.
“So here’s the deal. I’m tired of following you, and I’m not going to let you stall me while you fix your broken ship and then lead me on another merry chase. If you don’t signal your full and complete surrender in the next sixty seconds, I am going to fire a pair of torpedoes with high-yield plasma warheads and melt your ship into glowing slag. Then I’m going to fly back home and sleep really well tonight.”
The static was finally broken by a boy who sounded way too young to have already decided on a life of piracy.
“You can’t do that. The OPA isn’t a real government. You can’t legally do shit to me, so back the f**k off,” the voice said, sounding like it was on the verge of a pubescent squeak the entire time.