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.