A sample from CALIBAN’S WAR by James S. A. Corey
Return to the Expanse with James S. A. Corey and read chapter one of Caliban’s War here.
Chapter One: Bobbie
“Snoopy’s out again,” Private Hillman said. “I think his CO must be pissed at him.”
Gunnery Sergeant Roberta Draper of the Martian Marine Corps upped the magnification on her armor’s heads‑up display and looked in the direction Hillman was pointing. Twenty-five hundred meters away, a squad of four United Nations Marines were tromping around their outpost, backlit by the giant greenhouse dome they were guarding. A greenhouse dome identical in nearly all respects to the dome her own squad was currently guarding.
One of the four UN Marines had black smudges on the sides of his helmet that looked like beagle ears.
“Yep, that’s Snoopy,” Bobbie said. “Been on every patrol detail so far today. Wonder what he did.”
Guard duty around the greenhouses on Ganymede meant doing what you could to keep your mind occupied. Including speculating on the lives of the Marines on the other side.
The other side. Eighteen months before, there hadn’t been sides. The inner planets had all been one big, happy, slightly dysfunctional family. Then Eros, and now the two superpowers were dividing up the solar system between them, and the one moon neither side was willing to give up was Ganymede, breadbasket of the Jovian system.
As the only moon with any magnetosphere, it was the only place where dome-grown crops stood a chance in Jupiter’s harsh radiation belt, and even then the domes and habitats still had to be shielded to protect civilians from the eight rems a day burning off Jupiter and onto the moon’s surface.
Bobbie’s armor had been designed to let a soldier walk through a nuclear bomb crater minutes after the blast. It also worked well at keeping Jupiter from frying Martian Marines.
Behind the Earth soldiers on patrol, their dome glowed in a shaft of weak sunlight captured by enormous orbital mirrors. Even with the mirrors, most terrestrial plants would have died, starved of sunlight. Only the heavily modified versions the Ganymede scientists cranked out could hope to survive in the trickle of light the mirrors fed them.
“Be sunset soon,” Bobbie said, still watching the Earth Marines outside their little guard hut, knowing they were watching her too. In addition to Snoopy, she spotted the one they called Stumpy because he or she couldn’t be much over a meter and a quarter tall. She wondered what their nickname for her was. Maybe Big Red. Her armor still had the Martian surface camouflage on it. She hadn’t been on Ganymede long enough to get it resurfaced with mottled gray and white.
One by one over the course of five minutes, the orbital mirrors winked out as Ganymede passed behind Jupiter for a few hours. The glow from the greenhouse behind her changed to actinic blue as the artificial lights came on. While the overall light level didn’t go down much, the shadows shifted in strange and subtle ways. Above, the sun—not even a disk from here as much as the brightest star—flashed as it passed behind Jupiter’s limb, and for a moment the planet’s faint ring system was visible.
“They’re going back in,” Corporal Travis said. “Snoop’s bringing up the rear. Poor guy. Can we bail too?”
Bobbie looked around at the featureless dirty ice of Ganymede. Even in her high-tech armor she could feel the moon’s chill.
Her squad grumbled but fell in line as she led them on a slow low-gravity shuffle around the dome. In addition to Hillman and Travis, she had a green private named Gourab on this particular patrol. And even though he’d been in the Marines all of about a minute and a half, he grumbled just as loud as the other two in his Mariner Valley drawl.
She couldn’t blame them. It was make-work. Something for the Martian soldiers on Ganymede to do to keep them busy. If Earth decided it needed Ganymede all to itself, four grunts walking around the greenhouse dome wouldn’t stop them. With dozens of Earth and Mars warships in a tense standoff in orbit, if hostilities broke out the ground pounders would probably find out only when the surface bombardment began.
To her left, the dome rose to almost half a kilometer: triangular glass panels separated by gleaming copper-colored struts that turned the entire structure into a massive Faraday cage. Bobbie had never been inside one of the greenhouse domes. She’d been sent out from Mars as part of a surge in troops to the outer planets and had been walking patrols on the surface almost since day one. Ganymede to her was a spaceport, a small Marine base, and the even smaller guard outpost she currently called home.
As they shuffled around the dome, Bobbie watched the unremarkable landscape. Ganymede didn’t change much without a catastrophic event. The surface was mostly silicate rock and water ice a few degrees warmer than space. The atmosphere was oxygen so thin it could pass as an industrial vacuum. Ganymede didn’t erode or weather. It changed when rocks fell on it from space, or when warm water from the liquid core forced itself onto the surface and created short-lived lakes. Neither thing happened all that often. At home on Mars, wind and dust changed the landscape hourly. Here, she was walking through the footsteps of the day before and the day before and the day before. And if she never came back, those footprints would outlive her. Privately, she thought it was sort of creepy.
A rhythmic squeaking started to cut through the normally smooth hiss and thump sounds her powered armor made. She usually kept the suit’s HUD minimized. It got so crowded with information that a marine knew everything except what was actually in front of her. Now she pulled it up, using blinks and eye movements to page over to the suit diagnostic screen. A yellow telltale warned her that the suit’s left knee actuator was low on hydraulic fluid. Must be a leak somewhere, but a slow one, because the suit couldn’t find it.
“Hey, guys, hold up a minute,” Bobbie said. “Hilly, you have any extra hydraulic fluid in your pack?”
“Yep,” said Hillman, already pulling it out.
“Give my left knee a squirt, would you?”
While Hillman crouched in front of her, working on her suit, Gourab and Travis began an argument that seemed to be about sports. Bobbie tuned it out.
“This suit is ancient,” Hillman said. “You really oughta upgrade. This sort of thing is just going to happen more and more often, you know.”
“Yeah, I should,” Bobbie said. But the truth was that was easier said than done. Bobbie was not the right shape to fit into one of the standard suits, and the Marines made her jump through a series of flaming hoops every time she requisitioned a new custom one. At a bit over two meters tall, she was only slightly above average height for a Martian male, but thanks in part to her Polynesian ancestry, she weighed in at over a hundred kilos at one g. None of it was fat, but her muscles seemed to get bigger every time she even walked through a weight room. As a marine, she trained all the time.
The suit she had now was the first one in twelve years of active duty that actually fit well. And even though it was beginning to show its age, it was just easier to try to keep it running than beg and plead for a new one.
Hillman was starting to put his tools away when Bobbie’s radio crackled to life.
“Outpost four to stickman. Come in, stickman.”
“Roger four,” Bobbie replied. “This is stickman one. Go ahead.”
“Stickman one, where are you guys? You’re half an hour late and some shit is going down over here.”
“Sorry, four, equipment trouble,” Bobbie said, wondering what sort of shit might be going down, but not enough to ask about it over an open frequency.
“Return to the outpost immediately. We have shots fired at the UN outpost. We’re going into lockdown.”
It took Bobbie a moment to parse that. She could see her men staring at her, their faces a mix of puzzlement and fear.
“Uh, the Earth guys are shooting at you?” she finally asked.
“Not yet, but they’re shooting. Get your asses back here.”
Hillman pushed to his feet. Bobbie flexed her knee once and got greens on her diagnostic. She gave Hilly a nod of thanks, then said, “Double-time it back to the outpost. Go.”
Bobbie and her squad were still half a kilometer from the outpost when the general alert went out. Her suit’s HUD came up on its own, switching to combat mode. The sensor package went to work looking for hostiles and linked up to one of the satellites for a top-down view. She felt the click as the gun built into the suit’s right arm switched to free-fire mode.
A thousand alarms would be sounding if an orbital bombardment had begun, but she couldn’t help looking up at the sky anyway. No flashes or missile trails. Nothing but Jupiter’s bulk.
Bobbie took off for the outpost in a long, loping run. Her squad followed without a word. A person trained in the use of a strength-augmenting suit running in low gravity could cover a lot of ground quickly. The outpost came into view around the curve of the dome in just a few seconds, and a few seconds after that, the cause of the alarm.
UN Marines were charging the Martian outpost. The yearlong cold war was going hot. Somewhere deep behind the cool mental habits of training and discipline, she was surprised. She hadn’t really thought this day would come.
The rest of her platoon were out of the outpost and arranged in a firing line facing the UN position. Someone had driven Yojimbo out onto the line, and the four-meter-tall combat mech towered over the other marines, looking like a headless giant in power armor, its massive cannon moving slowly as it tracked the incoming Earth troops. The UN soldiers were covering the 2,500 meters between the two outposts at a dead run.
Why isn’t anyone talking? she wondered. The silence coming from her platoon was eerie.
And then, just as her squad got to the firing line, her suit squealed a jamming warning at her. The top-down vanished as she lost contact with the satellite. Her team’s life signs and equipment status reports went dead as her link to their suits was cut off. The faint static of the open comm channel disappeared, leaving an even more unsettling silence.
She used hand motions to place her team at the right flank, then moved up the line to find Lieutenant Givens, her CO. She spotted his suit right at the center of the line, standing almost directly under Yojimbo. She ran up and placed her helmet against his.
“What the fuck is going on, El Tee?” she shouted.
He gave her an irritated look and yelled, “Your guess is as good as mine. We can’t tell them to back off because of the jamming, and visual warnings are being ignored. Before the radio cut out, I got authorization to fire if they come within half a klick of our position.”
Bobbie had a couple hundred more questions, but the UN troops would cross the five-hundred-meter mark in just a few more seconds, so she ran back to anchor the right flank with her squad. Along the way, she had her suit count the incoming forces and mark them all as hostiles. The suit reported seven targets. Less than a third of the UN troops at their outpost.
This makes no sense.
She had her suit draw a line on the HUD at the five-hundred-meter mark. She didn’t tell her boys that was the free-fire zone. She didn’t need to. They’d open fire when she did without needing to know why.
The UN soldiers had crossed the one-kilometer mark, still without firing a shot. They were coming in a scattered formation, with six out front in a ragged line and a seventh bringing up the rear about seventy meters behind. Her suit HUD selected the figure on the far left of the enemy line as her target, picking the one closest to her by default. Something itched at the back of her brain, and she overrode the suit and selected the target at the rear and told it to magnify.
The small figure suddenly enlarged in her targeting reticule. She felt a chill move down her back, and magnified again.
The figure chasing the six UN Marines wasn’t wearing an environment suit. Nor was it, properly speaking, human. Its skin was covered in chitinous plates, like large black scales. Its head was a massive horror, easily twice as large as it should have been and covered in strange protruding growths.
But most disturbing of all were its hands. Far too large for its body, and too long for their width, they were a childhood nightmare version of hands. The hands of the troll under the bed or the witch sneaking in through the window. They flexed and grasped at nothing with a constant manic energy.
The Earth forces weren’t attacking. They were retreating.
“Shoot the thing chasing them,” Bobbie yelled to no one.
Before the UN soldiers could cross the half-kilometer line that would cause the Martians to open fire, the thing caught them.
“Oh, holy shit,” Bobbie whispered. “Holy shit.”
It grabbed one UN Marine in its huge hands and tore him in half like paper. Titanium-and-ceramic armor ripped as easily as the flesh inside, spilling broken bits of technology and wet human viscera indiscriminately onto the ice. The remaining five soldiers ran even harder, but the monster chasing them barely slowed as it killed.
“Shoot it shoot it shoot it,” Bobbie yelled, and opened fire. Her training and the technology of her combat suit combined to make her an extremely efficient killing machine. As soon as her finger pulled the trigger on her suit’s gun, a stream of two-millimeter armor-piercing rounds streaked out at the creature at more than a thousand meters per second. In just under a second she’d fired fifty rounds at it. The creature was a relatively slow-moving human-sized target, running in a straight line. Her targeting computer could do ballistic corrections that would let her hit a softball-sized object moving at supersonic speeds. Every bullet she fired at the monster hit.
It didn’t matter.
The rounds went through it, probably not slowing appreciably before they exited. Each exit wound sprouted a spray of black filaments that fell onto the snow instead of blood. It was like shooting water. The wounds closed almost faster than they were created; the only sign the thing had even been hit was the trail of black fibers in its wake.
And then it caught a second UN Marine. Instead of tearing him to pieces like it had the last one, it spun and hurled the fully armored Earther—probably massing more than five hundred kilos total—toward Bobbie. Her HUD tracked the UN soldier on his upward arc and helpfully informed her that the monster had thrown him not toward her but at her. In a very flat trajectory. Which meant fast.
She dove to the side as quickly as her bulky suit would let her. The hapless UN Marine swiped Hillman, who’d been standing next to her, and then both of them were gone, bouncing down the ice at lethal speeds.
By the time she’d turned back to the monster, it had killed two more UN soldiers.
The entire Martian line opened fire on it, including Yojimbo’s big cannon. The two remaining Earth soldiers diverged and ran at angles away from the thing, trying to give their Martian counterparts an open firing lane. The creature was hit hundreds, thousands of times. It stitched itself back together while remaining at a full run, never more than slowing when one of Yojimbo’s cannon shots detonated nearby.
Bobbie, back on her feet, joined in the barrage of fire but it didn’t make any difference. The creature slammed into the Martian line, killing two marines faster than the eye could follow. Yojimbo slid to one side, far more nimble than a machine of its size should be. Bobbie thought Sa’id must be driving it. He bragged he could make the big mech dance the tango when he wanted to. That didn’t matter either. Even before Sa’id could bring the mech’s cannon around for a point-blank shot, the creature ran right up its side, gripped the pilot hatch, and tore the door off its hinges. Sa’id was snatched from his cockpit harness and hurled sixty meters straight up.
The other marines had begun to fall back, firing as they went. Without radio, there was no way to coordinate the retreat. Bobbie found herself running toward the dome with the rest. The small and distant part of her mind that wasn’t panicking knew that the dome’s glass and metal would offer no protection against something that could tear an armored man in half or rip a nine-ton mech to pieces. That part of her mind recognized the futility in attempting to override her terror.
By the time she found the external door into the dome, there was only one other marine left with her. Gourab. Up close, she could see his face through the armored glass of his helmet. He screamed something at her she couldn’t hear. She started to lean forward to touch helmets with him when he shoved her backward onto the ice. He was hammering on the door controls with one metal fist, trying to smash his way in, when the creature caught him and peeled the helmet off his suit with one casual swipe. Gourab stood for a moment, face in vacuum, eyes blinking and mouth open in a soundless scream; then the creature tore off his head as easily as it had his helmet.
It turned and looked at Bobbie, still flat on her back.
Up close, she could see that it had bright blue eyes. A glowing, electric blue. They were beautiful. She raised her gun and held down the trigger for half a second before she realized she’d run out of ammo long before. The creature looked at her gun with what she would have sworn was curiosity, then looked into her eyes and cocked its head to one side.
This is it, she thought. This is how I go out, and I’m not going toknow what did it, or why. Dying she could handle. Dying without any answers seemed terribly cruel.
The creature took one step toward her, then stopped and shuddered. A new pair of limbs burst out of its midsection and writhed in the air like tentacles. Its head, already grotesque, seemed to swell up. The blue eyes flashed as bright as the lights in the domes.
And then it exploded in a ball of fire that hurled her away across the ice and slammed her into a low ridge hard enough for the impact-absorbing gel in her suit to go rigid, freezing her in place. She lay on her back, fading toward unconsciousness. The night sky above her began to flash with light. The ships in orbit, shooting each other.
Cease fire, she thought, pressing it out into the blackness. They were retreating. Cease fire. Her radio was still out, her suit dead. She couldn’t tell anyone that the UN Marines hadn’t been attacking.
Or that something else had.