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.
“Seriously? That’s the best you’ve got?” Holden replied. “Look, forget the debate about legality and what constitutes actual governmental authority for a minute. Look at the ladar returns you’re getting from my ship. While you are in a cobbled-together light freighter that someone welded a homemade gauss cannon onto, I’m in a state-of-the-art Martian torpedo bomber with enough firepower to slag a small moon.”
The voice on the other end didn’t reply.
“Guys, even if you don’t recognize me as the appropriate legal authority, can we at least agree that I can blow you up anytime I want to?”
The comm remained silent.
Holden sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. In spite of the caffeine, his headache was refusing to go away. Leaving the channel open to the pirate ship, he opened another channel to the cockpit.
“Alex, put a short burst from the forward point defense cannons through that freighter. Aim for midships.”
“Wait!” yelled the kid on the other ship. “We surrender! Jesus Christ!”
Holden stretched out in the zero g, enjoying it after the days of acceleration, and grinned to himself. No one gets shot today indeed.
“Naomi, tell our new friends how to give remote control of their ship to you, and let’s take them back to Tycho Station for the OPA tribunals to figure out. Alex, once they have their engines back up, plot us a return trip at a nice comfortable half g. I’ll be down in sick bay trying to find aspirin.”
Holden unbuckled his crash couch harness and pushed off to the deck ladder. Along the way, his hand terminal started beeping. It was Fred Johnson, the nominal leader of the OPA and their personal patron on the Tycho corporation’s manufacturing station, which was also now doubling as the de facto OPA headquarters.
“Yo, Fred, caught our naughty pirates. Bringing them back for trial.”
Fred’s large dark face crinkled into a grin. “That’s a switch. Got tired of blowing them up?”
“Nope, just finally found some who believed me when I said I would.”
Fred’s grin turned into a frown. “Listen, Jim, that’s not why I called. I need you back at Tycho on the double. Something’s happening on Ganymede …”
Chapter Three: Prax
Praxidike Meng stood in the doorway of the staging barn, looking out at the fields of softly waving leaves so utterly green they were almost black, and panicked. The dome arched above him, darker than it should have been. Power to the grow lights had been cut, and the mirrors … He couldn’t think about the mirrors.