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Page 22 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

Thorsson patted her hand paternally, a move that irritated Bobbie more than it calmed her.

“The data doesn’t lie, Sergeant. The zone of radio blackout moved. And always at its center was the … thing. The Anomaly,” Thorsson said, then turned away from her to speak to the chubby guy and the redhead.

Bobbie sat back, feeling the energy move away from her in the room, like she was the one person at the dance without a date. But since Thorsson hadn’t dismissed her, she couldn’t just leave.

Redhead said, “Based on our radio loss data, that puts insertion here”—she pointed at something on the map—“and the path to the UN outpost is along this ridge.”

“What’s in that location?” Thorsson said with a frown.

Chubby pulled up a different map and pored over it for a few seconds.

“Looks like some old service tunnels for the dome’s hydro plant. This says they haven’t been used in decades.”

“So,” Thorsson said. “The kind of tunnels one might use to transport something dangerous that needs to be kept secret.”

“Yes,” Redhead said, “maybe they were delivering it to that Marine outpost and it got loose. The marines cut and ran when they saw it was out of control.”

Bobbie gave a dismissive laugh before she could stop herself.

“You have something to add, Sergeant Draper?” Thorsson said.

Thorsson was looking at her with his enigmatic smile, but Bobbie had worked with him long enough now to know that what he hated most was bullshit. If you spoke up, he wanted to make sure you actually had something useful to say. The two civilians were looking at her with surprise, as though she were a cockroach that had suddenly stood up on two legs and started speaking.

She shook her head.

“When I was a boot, you know what my drill sergeant said was the second most dangerous thing in the solar system, after a Martian Marine?”

The civvies continued to stare at her, but Thorsson nodded and mouthed the words along with her as she next spoke.

“A UN Marine.”

Chubby and Redhead shared a look and Redhead rolled her eyes for him. But Thorsson said, “So you don’t think the UN soldiers were running from something that got out of their control.”

“Not a f**king chance, sir.”

“Then give us your take on it.”

“That UN outpost was staffed by a full platoon of Marines. Same strength as our outpost. When they finally started running, there were six left. Six. They fought almost to the last man. When they ran to us, they weren’t trying to disengage. They were coming so we could help them continue the fight.”

Chubby picked a leather satchel up off the floor and started rummaging in it. Redhead watched, as though what he was doing was far more interesting than anything Bobbie had to say.

“If this were some secret UN thing that those Marines were tasked to deliver or protect, they wouldn’t have come. They’d have died doing it rather than abandon their mission. That’s what we would have done.”

“Thank you,” Thorsson said.

“I mean, it wasn’t even our fight, and we fought to the last marine to stop that thing. You think the UN Marines would do less?”

“Thank you, Sergeant,” Thorsson said again, louder. “I tend to agree, but we have to explore all possibilities. Your comments are noted.”

Chubby finally found what he was looking for. A small plastic box of mints. He took one out, then held the box out to Redhead to take one. The sickly sweet smell of spearmint filled the air. Around a mouthful of mint, Chubby said, “Yes, thank you, Sergeant. I think we can proceed here without taking up more of your time.”

Bobbie stood up, snapped another salute at Thorsson, and left the room. Her heart was going fast. Her jaw ached where she was grinding her teeth.

Civvies didn’t get it. No one did.

When Captain Martens came into the cargo bay, Bobbie had just finished disassembling the gun housing on her combat suit’s right arm. She removed the three-barrel Gatling gun from its mount and placed it on the floor next to the two dozen other parts she’d already stripped off. Next to them sat a can of gun cleaner and a bottle of lubricant, along with the various rods and brushes she’d use to clean the parts.

Martens waited until she had the gun on the cleaning mat, then sat down on the floor next to her. She attached a wire brush to the end of one of the cleaning rods, dipped it in the cleaner, and began running the brush through the gun, one barrel at a time. Martens watched.

After a few minutes, she replaced the brush with a small cloth and swabbed the remaining cleanser out of the barrels. Then a fresh cloth soaked in gun lubricant to oil them. When she was applying lube to the complex mesh of gears that composed the Gatling mechanism and ammo feed system, Martens finally spoke.

“You know,” he said, “Thorsson is naval intelligence right from the start. Straight into officer training, top of his class at the academy, and first posting at fleet command. He’s never done anything but be an intelligence wonk. The last time he fired a gun was his six weeks as a boot, twenty years ago. He’s never led a fire team. Or served in a combat platoon.”

“That,” Bobbie said, putting down her lubricant then standing up to put the gun back together, “is a fascinating story. I really appreciate you sharing it.”

“So,” Martens continued, not missing a beat. “How f**ked up do you have to be before Thorsson starts asking me if maybe you aren’t a little shell-shocked?”

Bobbie dropped the wrench she was holding, but caught it with her other hand before it could hit the deck.

“Is this an official visit? Because if not, you can f—”

“Me now? I’m not a wonk,” Martens said. “I’m a marine. Ten years as an enlisted man before I was offered OCS. Got dual degrees in psychology and theology.”

The end of Bobbie’s nose itched, and she scratched it without thinking. The sudden smell of gun oil let her know that she’d just rubbed lubricant all over her face. Martens glanced at it but didn’t stop talking. She tried to drown him out by putting the gun together as noisily as possible.

“I’ve done combat drills, CQB training, war games,” he said, speaking a little louder. “Did you know I was a boot at the same camp where your father was first sergeant? Sergeant Major Draper is a great man. He was like a god to us boots.”

Bobbie’s head snapped up and her eyes narrowed. Something about this headshrinker acting like he knew her father felt dirty.