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 to know 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.
Chapter Two: Holden
The coffeemaker was broken again.
Jim Holden clicked the red brew button in and out several more times, knowing it wouldn’t matter, but helpless to stop himself. The massive and gleaming coffeemaker, designed to brew enough to keep a Martian naval crew happy, refused to make a single cup. Or even a noise. It wasn’t just refusing to brew; it was refusing to try. Holden closed his eyes against the caffeine headache that threatened in his temples and hit the button on the nearest wall panel to open the shipwide comm.
“Amos,” he said.
The comm wasn’t working.
Feeling increasingly ridiculous, he pushed the button for the 1MC channel several more times. Nothing. He opened his eyes and saw that all the lights on the panel were out. Then he turned around and saw that the lights on the refrigerator and the ovens were out. It wasn’t just the coffeemaker; the entire galley was in open revolt. Holden looked at the ship name, Rocinante, newly stenciled onto the galley wall, and said, “Baby, why do you hurt me when I love you so much?”