ideways lurch as the station began carrying the breaching ships along on its 0.3 g rotation. A series of high-pitched bangs sounded as the breaching charges went off.
The Butcher of Anderson Station
A Story of The Expanse
James S. A. Corey
Meet the Author
About Orbit Short Fiction
The Butcher of Anderson Station
When Fred was a kid back on Earth, maybe five or six years old, he’d seen a weed growing in the darkness of his uncle’s cellar. The plant had been pale and thin but twice as tall as the ones out in the side yard, deformed by reaching for the sunlight. The man behind the bar looked just like that: too tall, too pale, too hungry for something he’d never had and never would. Belters were all like that.
The music in the bar mixed Punjabi rhythms with a high-voiced woman rapping in the polyglot mess of languages that made up Belter Creole. The battered pachinko machine in the back rang and skittered. Hashish smoke sweetened the air. Fred leaned back on a bar stool meant for someone ten centimeters taller than he was and smiled gently.
“Is there a fucking problem?” he asked.
The bartender could have been Chinese or Korean or a mix of the two. Which meant his family had probably come up in one of the first waves. Five generations of grubbing for air, packing extended families into surveying ships with seven bunks, looking back at a sun that was hardly more than the brightest star. It was hard to think of any of them as human anymore.
“No problems, jefe,” the bartender said, but didn’t move. In the mirror behind the bar, Fred saw the door slide open. Four Belters slouched in. One had an armband with the split circle of the Outer Planets Alliance. Fred saw them see him. He saw one of them recognize him. The little trickle of adrenaline in his blood was automatic and pleasant.
“Then how about you serve me my drink?”
The barkeep didn’t move for a time, and then he did. Whiskey poured differently in spin gravity, but not so much that Fred could tell quite what was wrong about it. The Coriolis of Ceres Station shouldn’t have been enough to change the angle, not this close to the asteroid surface. Maybe it was just that it fell slowly. The bartender slid the glass across to him.
“On the house,” the man said, then a half beat of silence. “Colonel.”
Fred met his gaze. Neither spoke. Fred drank the liquor neat. It burned and left a taste at the back of his tongue like old mushrooms and bread mold.
“You have anything that isn’t fermented fungus?” Fred asked.
“Als u aprecie no, koai sa sa?” a voice said from behind him. If you don’t like it, why are you here?
Fred twisted in his seat. One of the four-pack who had just come in was glaring at him. He was broad-shouldered for a Belter. Mech driver, maybe. Or maybe he just spent a lot of time in the gym. Some of them did that, using machines and weights and expensive drug cocktails to give them what gravity never would.
Why are you here? Decent question.
“I like whiskey that used to be some kind of grain. You want to suck fungus, don’t let me stop you.”
The mech driver shifted in his seat. Fred thought he was going to get up, but instead the man shrugged and looked aside. His friends glanced at each other. The one with the armband had his hand terminal out and was tapping on the screen rapidly.
“I’ve got some bourbon came from Ganymede,” the bartender said. “Cost you.”
“Not enough to stop me,” Fred said, turning back. “Bring the bottle.”
The bartender bent down. His hand shuffled under the bar. There was probably a gun down there. Fred could almost picture it. Something designed to first intimidate, and if that failed, to put a man down. A shotgun, maybe, hack-sawed down for close range. Fred waited, but the man’s hand came up with a bottle. He put it on the bar. Fred felt a quick rush of relief and disappointment.
“Clean glass,” Fred said.
“So I think to myself,” the bartender said, reaching back toward the glassware by the mirror, “you’re here for something. The Butcher of Anderson Station in a Belter bar.”
“I just want a drink,” Fred said.
“No one just wants a drink,” the bartender replied.
The bartender grinned.
“You are,” he said, then bent low, his head almost level with Fred’s. “Look at me, Colonel.”
Fred unscrewed the cap from the bottle and poured two fingers into the new glass. He put the cap back. The bartender didn’t move. Fred met the pale brown eyes. He was about to say something, not even sure what it was besides cutting, belittling, and mean. In the mirror, something moved. Men, behind him.
Fred had a moment to brace himself for the knife or the bullet or the blow that didn’t come before a black bag dropped over his head.
* * *
Three years before, everything had been different.
“Dagmar in the pipe, ninety seconds to contact, all green.”
“Roger that, Dagmar. I show you go for breach in ninety—”
Fred chinned down the volume on the pilot’s band, reducing their exchanges to faint background music with lyrics about positionals and vectors. Ninety seconds before the breaching team went in.
An eternity to wait.
Fred let out a long exhale that fogged the inside of his helmet for a second before it cleared. He tried to stretch, but the crash couch wouldn’t let him extend his limbs fully in any direction. The command console showed eighty-three seconds to contact with Anderson Station. Breathing and stretching had burned only seven seconds.
He switched his display to the Dagmar’s forward airlock. She was a Marine landing craft, built to lock on to a ship or station and cut a hole, and the display showed two hundred marines strapped to vertical crash cages, weapons locked into quick release clamps next to them. The airlock was designed to iris open once the breaching charges had made an opening and the exterior seals were latched on.
It was hard to tell when they were all in vacuum-rated combat armor, but the marines looked calm. They’d been trained on Luna until maneuvering in light or null gravity and vacuum was second nature. They were put in cramped ships until advancing down claustrophobic metal corridors with blind corners at every intersection didn’t scare them. They were told that marines doing a full breaching action assault could expect as high as 60 percent casualties until that number stopped meaning anything.
Fred looked over his people in their cages and imagined six out of ten of them not coming back.
The readout said thirty seconds.
Fred switched his console to radar. Two large blips flanking the Dagmar. Her sister ships, each with two hundred marines of their own. Beyond them, the small, fast-moving escort ships. Ahead, growing closer by the second, the massive rotating ring of Anderson Station.
Everyone was in place, his troops were ready to go, diplomacy had failed and it was time to do his job. He opened the command channel to his squad leaders, ten variations on background static suddenly piping into his helmet.
“All squads, ten seconds to breach. Sound off.”
Ten voices responded with the affirmative.
“Good hunting,” Fred said, then pulled up his tactical display. The layout of Anderson Station appeared in a misleadingly crisp 2-D floor plan. No way to know how much fortifying the Belters might have done when they took over the station.
His soldiers showed up as six hundred green dots, hovering just outside the station.
“Breach, now! Now! Now!” the Dagmar’s pilot yelled into the comms. The ship shuddered as the airlock claws sank into the metal of the station itself, a metallic shriek that Fred felt right through his padded chair. Gravity returned in a s
Above his tactical display, ten smaller screens flickered on, his squad leaders activating their suits’ helmet cameras. The marines poured through the three new holes in Anderson’s skin. Fred flipped to the tactical floor plan, his fingers tapping against it.
“All squads establish beachhead and fallback position in Corridor L, from Junction 34 to Junction 38,” Fred said into the comm, surprised as always by how calm his voice sounded during a battle.
Green dots moved through the corridors marked on his display. Sometimes new red dots appeared when a marine’s HUD detected return fire and marked the individual as a threat. The red dots never lasted long. Every now and then a green dot shifted to yellow. A soldier down, their armored suits detecting the injuries or death that rendered them combat ineffective.
Combat ineffective. Such a nice euphemism for one of his kids bleeding out on a piece-of-shit station at the ass end of the Belt. Sixty percent expected casualties. Four green dots for every six yellow, and each one of them his.
He watched the assault play out like a high-tech game, moving his pieces, reacting to threats with new orders, keeping score by tracking how many green dots stayed green.
Three red dots appeared. Four green dots stopped advancing and took cover. Fred sent four more green dots into a side passage, moving them into a flanking position. The red dots disappeared. The green dots moved again. It was tempting to get lost in the flow of it, to forget what all the glowing symbols on the screen actually meant.
The squad leader for his point team broke his reverie by calling him on the command channel.
“Overwatch, this is squad one actual.”
Fred shifted his attention to the helmetcam view from squad one’s leader. A makeshift barricade squatted at the other end of a long, gently sloping corridor. His tactical display marked a dozen or more hostiles defending it. As Fred watched, a small object hurtled over the barricade and detonated like a grenade just a few yards from his squad leader’s position.
“Overwatch here, I read you, squad one actual,” Fred replied.
“Heavily fortified position blocking access to the main corridor. Could clear it with heavy weapons, but there would be significant structural damage, and possible loss of life support in this section.”
Fred glanced at the tactical map, noting the proximity of several key life support and power nodes to the barricade’s position. That’s why they set up there. Because they think we won’t.
“Roger that, squad one,” Fred replied, looking for an alternate route. There didn’t seem to be one. The Belters were smart.
“Overwatch, interrogative. Use heavy weapons to clear the barricade, or clear by advancing?”
Blow up a big chunk of the station’s life support, killing who knows how many civilians hiding in their rooms, or send his men in and let them soak up their 60 percent casualties to take the position.
Fuck that. The Belters had made their decision. Let them live with the consequences.
“Squad one actual, you are authorized for heavy weapons use to clear this obstruction. Overwatch out.”
A few seconds later, the barricade vanished in a flash of light and a cloud of smoke. Seconds after that, his people were on the move again.
Three hours and twenty-three yellow dots later, the call came. “Overwatch, this is squad one actual. The command center is taken. The station is ours. Repeat, the station is ours.”
* * *
His arms, tied behind him, ached. Bound at the ankles, he could either lay on his side or lever himself up to his knees. He couldn’t straighten his legs to stand. He chose kneeling.
The darkness of the sack over his head was absolute, but judging from the spin gravity, he was somewhere near the station’s outer skin. An airlock, then. He’d hear the hiss and pop as the inner door sealed. Then either the slow exhalation of evacuated air or, if they were looking to blow him out into space, the cough of the security override. He ran his feet across the floor, trying to find the seams. Would it slide open, or was it one of the old hinged designs?
The sound that came wasn’t mechanical. Somewhere to his left, a woman cleared her throat. A few seconds later, a door opened, then closed. It had the soft sound of a pressure seal, but that didn’t mean much on station. Most doors were airtight. Footsteps approached him. Five people. Maybe six. The woman with the tickle in her throat wasn’t one of them.
“Colonel? I’m going to take that sack off now.”
Light returned to the world.
The room was cheap flooring and raw stone. Conduits and ducts ran across the ceiling and walls, and a squat metal desk sat unused in one corner. A service tunnel. The lights were harsh. He recognized the four men from the bar. Another man had joined them. Thin, young, with a case of acne that deserved medical attention. Fred craned his neck to see the woman. She stood at attention, a fifty-year-old fléchette rifle in her hands, and the split-circle armband of the OPA on her bicep.
None of them were wearing masks. When the new man spoke, his voice wasn’t modified. They didn’t care whether Fred could identify them.
“Colonel Frederick Lucius Johnson. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. My name is Anderson Dawes. I work for the OPA.”
“Anderson, eh?” Fred said, and the man shrugged.
“My parents named me after the Anderson-Hyosung Cooperative Industries Group. I think I got off pretty light, all things considered.”
“So what? Anderson Station was like a brother to you?”
“Namesake. Call me Dawes, if it’s more comfortable.”
“Fuck yourself, Dawes.”
Dawes nodded, knelt down facing Fred.
“Chi-chey au?” one of the men from the bar asked.
“Etchyeh,” Dawes said, and the men walked away. Dawes waited until the door closed behind them before he went on. “You’ve been spending a lot of time in Belter bars, Colonel. Someone might think you were looking for something.”
“I’ve been through better interrogation training than you’ll ever see. You want to build rapport? Go for it. Talk for a while, take my shackles off, start telling me that you can save me if I just tell you what I know. And then I’ll rip your eyes out and skull-fuck you. You understand?”
“I do,” Dawes said, not missing a beat. “So tell me, Fred. What happened to you on Anderson Station?”
* * *
Once the skirmishers had finished sweeping the corridors for stragglers, a detachment of marines escorted Fred into the conquered station. He paused at the fallback position they’d set up just outside the airlock doors. Marines were beginning to return there from other assignments. They were hopped-up on adrenaline and twitchy with post-combat fear. Fred let them see him. He put his hands on their shoulders and told them they’d done a good job.
Some of them came back on stretchers. Yellow dots made flesh. The corpsmen hurried among them, plugging their hand terminals into ports in the downed soldiers’ combat armor, reading the diagnostics, then assigning their place in line for surgery based on the severity of their wounds. Sometimes they tapped a button on their terminal and one of Fred’s yellow dots shifted to black. His command software flagged the fatality and sent a message to the appropriate squad leader and company commander to write a letter to the family. His own task list received a matching entry.
It was all very clean, very organized. Centuries of warfare in the electronic age had distilled it to this. Fred put his hand on the arm of a young woman whose suit was reporting severe spinal injuries, and squeezed. She gave him a thumbs-up that felt like a punch to the solar plexus.
Fred looked up and found his first lieutenant standing at attention. “Are we ready?”
“Yes, sir. Might be a straggler or two,
but we control the corridors from here to Ops.”
“Take me there,” Fred said.
They covered the ground it had taken his marines hours to win in just a few minutes. The post-combat cleanup teams were still in the breaching ships, waiting for the all clear. Scattered along the corridors lay the bodies of the fallen enemy. Fred looked them over. Other than a noticeable lack of OPA insignias, they were pretty much what he would have expected. Long, thin men and women blasted open by explosives, or repeatedly punctured by small-arms fire. Most were armed, but a few weren’t.
They rounded a corner into the main corridor and then came to the barricade he’d ordered destroyed. Over a dozen bodies lay around it. Some wore makeshift armor, but most were in simple environment suits. The concussion rocket his marines had used to clear the corridor had burst them like overripe grapes. Fred’s vacuum-rated armor protected him from the smell of viscera, but it reported it to him as a slight increase in atmospheric methane levels. The stench of death reduced to a data point.
A small pile of weapons and makeshift explosives lay nearby.
“That’s what they were armed with?” Fred asked.
His escort nodded.
“Pretty light stuff, sir. Civilian grade. Most of it wouldn’t even make a dent in our armor.”
Fred bent over and picked up a homemade grenade.
“They threw bombs at you to keep you from getting close enough to realize their guns wouldn’t work.”
The lieutenant laughed. “And made us frag the lot of them. If we’d known they were packing peashooters, we could have just walked up and tased them.”
Fred shook his head and put the grenade back down.
“Get a demolitions team to come clear these explosives before this homemade shit goes off and kills someone.”
He looked at the nearby life support node that had been wrecked by their concussion rocket. Enough bystanders have died today. Fred called up the station status report his cyberops team was updating by the minute. They showed a total loss of life support in the section he was in, and in two neighboring sections. Just over eleven hundred people with no air and no power. Every door he could see might have a family behind it who’d gasped out their last breaths banging to get out because a bunch of idiot Belters had built their barricades where they did. And because he’d chosen to destroy it.