A nightmare runs over again and again in a loop. As if re-running it could make it come out differently.
It ends the same every time.
Cowboy was dead.
Cowboy had been a split-second stupid and a full second dead. And dead all the seconds after that.
The nightmare reruns. Dead again.
He should have known better. But should've, might've, could've, all mean didn't. It was done now. Finished. Fixed. Written and could not be re-written.
Cowboy was dead.
Nothing ever lived inside a globular cluster. Everyone knew that. Globulars were made up of thousands - sometimes millions - of stars, but all them old, population II types, formed back when the galaxy was nothing but primordial hydrogen. All those millions of stars were too metal poor to spawn a single planet. So the crew and the Marine detachment of the battleship Merrimack were surprised to trip a signal beacon upon breaching the perimeter of globular cluster IC9870986.
Merrimack was passing near a clutter of anomalous space debris, when something lurking among the asteroids shrieked an electromagnetic alarm.
"Hive!" the watch called.
Prox alarms blared on board in answer, with an all-stop order and call to battle stations.
The big ship spat out Marine Swifts in a torrent.
Slung clear of the launch bay, Flight Sergeant Kerry Blue glanced back at Merrimack, saw the battleship's gunports wink open. Merrimack made as grand a gun platform as you could ask to take you into action. Kerry would never admit that to a spaceman; the navvies were already way too smug proud of themselves. Guns bristled -- missile launchers, beam cannon, projectile barrels, the whole shop for an unknown enemy. Beam weapons were useless at FTL, but the ship's stopping brought those into play too.
The Swifts deployed wide, targeting systems on, everything working at one hundred percent, with no sign of Hive interference in the electrics. No sign of Hive at all.
In a moment a voice in Kerry's headset spoke her very thought: "Uh, something's missing here."
Then Alpha Leader: "Hello, Merrimack. Where's the gorgons?"
The only thing Kerry saw out here was a company of Marine Swifts streaking the vacuum.
Next she heard Cowboy, in that taunting voice he used to call you an idiot without saying the word: "Hello, Tracking. I don't got a burr under my saddle. Why is that?"
Merrimack's tracking officer responded, ever calm: "Keep your zipper up, Cowboy. Do not fire until target acquired."
"What frogging target!"
The sweat began in pinpricks on Kerry's clammy skin within her pressure suit in the tiny cockpit. Tense. Eyes every direction. Instruments showed her nothing. No gorgons. She hated gorgons. Always sick before she saw 'em. Rather be in the thick of it, snarled in a giant burr ball, severed legs flapping everywhere. Actually having a can opener chewing on her hull was easier to take than this searching.
She craned her neck around. Weird actually to be able to see. Normally she depended wholly on the sensor display to show her plots of things in the perfect blackness. But here, the combined light of the cluster's millions of stars shed a weird glow over the interstellar gases. Outside was light. She could actually see the other Swifts flitting like moths - very fast moths -- among the glinting asteroids at the cluster's perimeter. Her squadron in flight looked like what she used to imagine it would before she actually got out here and discovered that space was really dark. The stars themselves showed as a bright wall, a solid, luminous backdrop against which she imagined legs -- lots of serrate, thrashing, biting legs. But really there was only one very primitive space buoy tucked amid the asteroids, screaming its alien signal. A dragonfly-looking contraption equipped with flimsy antenna arrays and foil solar collectors. The colonel's voice sounded: "Merrimack. This is Wing Leader. Request confirmation of that Hive sign."
"Wing Leader. Merrimack. We are checking that."
Great. Kerry groaned. They don't know.
"It's a Roman trap," someone declared.
"Rome's our ally now," someone else countered.
"Oh yeah, and we all believe that." Cowboy, in that sarcastic voice again.
Kerry had just let her muscles relax when a spike of laughter in her headset made her flinch.
"Joy, joy! Lookee what's shooting at us! Nine by nine by five on the grid!"
Kerry didn't see it. Fumbled for a lock on the coordinates on her sensor display. Located it.
A missile. That silly junk sculpture of a space buoy had launched a missile. At sub-light speed.
Kerry heard a nervous yelp of a laugh. Hers.
Others laughed louder. Claimed to be real scared.
"Eyes!" That was Steele. Warning them this could, after all, be a diversion. Gorgons had been known to throw you a bone, make you look.
"Aw, but this is so cute." Cowboy again. "It's shootin' at me!"
"And lookee there. ET's got a laser gun!" Carly there.
More cackles caromed within Kerry's helmet.
And Cowboy was off with a whoop. "YeeeeeeeeHA!"
You could tell which Swift was Cowboy's. The one that hauled straight up to the missile, head on, and dead reversed at the very last possible tick. He sped away from the missile, backwards, staying in its face, nose to nose, howling like a jack fool.
And flew flat back into a mine.
Opened his hull right up. You could hear the kaboom over the com -- half of it. The sound shut off like a switch mid-explosion -- or implosion -- and you didn't hear the rest of the boom. And you didn't hear Cowboy no more.
"Cowboy!" someone screamed. Kerry Blue. Didn't recognize her own voice.
Then it was Colonel Steele on the com: "Alpha Flight, what is your situation?"
"Up screwed!" Kerry cried. "Man down! Man down!"
As Alpha Leader shouted over her: "Alpha Flight! Form up, shut up, maintain radio discipline!" Colonel Steele demanded: "Life signs on Cowboy's can?"
"Negs. No life signs," Alpha Leader responded. "His field's flat and he's got a hole in his hull you can throw a yak through."
The hole by itself was nothing. How it got there -- the failure of his deflector field -- was the ominous part.
"Cowboy, respond!" Colonel Steele's authoritative bark could wake the dead. Cowboy had to answer.
"What got him?" Twitch Fuentes cried, as if Cowboy could be nothing but dead, and Kerry just wanted to reach through the com link and smack him for being so stupid. Cowboy was not dead. Could not, not, not be dead.
"An asteroid!" Dak Shepard answered the stupid question. "A frogging space boulder!"
"What could get through his cowcatcher?" Carly. Not like her to sound so scared.
It was a scary thought, that something could get through the stoutest part of their defenses. The Marines all felt invulnerable behind their cowcatchers -- what they called the fat part of their energy deflectors, always turned in the direction of travel. Those fat deflectors kept the space litter from Swiss cheesing your hull at speed.
What hideous alien weapon could get through a forward field?
The explanation was almost worse. Alpha Leader reported guiltily: "Cowboy's cowcatcher was . . . facing the wrong way."
Breathed curses on the link. Sounded like Colonel Steele. Then came his brisk order, "Marine Wing, clear the asteroids. And keep your damn deflectors facing the direction you are going!"
Kerry joined the chorus: "Sir!"
Beam sweeps sliced the asteroid field. Innocuous-looking rocks blew up nicely. Too nicely. Not asteroids after all. This was a minefield. A bloody minefield. One of those highly effective, dirt cheap low-tech traps that don't read on your scanners as devices. The mines did not look like anything. Because they weren't anything better than chunks of mineral. A mix of minerals, stable in skinny digit temperatures in a vacuum. In contact with a beam -- or the thin part of a Swift's forcefield -- they got spectacularly unstable.
Not enough punch to do damage if Cowboy hadn't sat on one. He took a direct hit through the window in his defensive field and right on the powerplant.
A stupid, primitive mine.
The hell of it was that a nineteenth century bullet or even a Stone Age spear could still kill a twenty-third century marine. It shouldn't. It should not be allowed. And that was it -- it was your sense of superiority that killed you. Colonel Steele had warned them enough times.
Any jarhead who came out here in a ship that carried swords in its armory should never have sat on a mine.
As the Marine Wing tore into the asteroid field, the battleship Merrimack opened up all she had. Together they beamed, bombed, displaced, flamed, and detonated mines. Residual dust spread, glowing like a snowstorm in the cluster's starlight.
Kerry loosed her guns in blind anger, blasting asteroids back to their component elements till her eyes blurred and Lieutenant Colonel Steele's order banged at her ears: "Cease fire! CEASE FIRE! Wing! Battery! Cease fire! Wing, reel it in. Merrimack, this is Steele. Permission to re-board."
"Merrimack standing by to receive Marine Wing on port and starboard flight decks."
Flight Sergeant Kerry Blue rode her beam through Merrimack's forcefield and onto her landing spot on the starboard flight deck. Felt heavy again under nominal gravity. Gear down, clamps locked. She gripped her seat and closed her eyes for the elevator's stomach lurching drop inboard to the hangar deck and full gravity. At the abrupt, butt-bruising stop, she disconnected hoses, cables. Popped the canopy, climbed out. "A mine! A stupid dirt ball! Where's Cowboy?"
She pushed through the maintenance erks who swarmed round the returning combat vessels like dull yellow ants in their mustard colored coveralls.
Cowboy's slip remained vacant.
"Where is he?" Kerry roared.
Erks waved her toward the cargo bay where Alpha Leader had come aboard with Cowboy's wreck in tow.
Kerry ran down the ramp tunnel to the cargo bay. Carly called after her, begging, "No, no, no, chica linda, no!"
Kerry burst onto the cargo deck, dropped her helmet. Cowboy's Swift lay canted askew, twisted, its ass torn open like a ragged metal flower. Front didn't look too bad. The canopy was open, Alpha Leader looking inside, turning away.
Kerry grasped at the faint hope: "Is he --?"
Hazard Sewell turned at the sound of her voice. His fair face turned positively white, looking horrified to see her. Jumped down to the deck.
"Oh, Kerry Blue, don't look." He caught her starting forward. "I mean it. Do not look. He -- he let the vacuum in." She knew that. Must've been in denial. The lump in her throat grew near to choking her. Eyes burned. I'm not gonna cry. Mother of God, I am not gonna cry.
That was one of Cowboy's expressions -- to let the vacuum in. He started it. Everyone used it now.
She was gonna cry.
And, oh no, the Old Man was on deck. Both of 'em. Lieutenant Colonel T.R. Steele and Captain John Farragut.
"Captain on deck!"
And everyone snapped to, Marines and navvies alike. Captain Farragut entered with a forceful stride. Toe of one of his boots met Kerry's thrown helmet, sent it skidding. Kerry made an ungainly scramble to retrieve it from the deck. Tucked it under her arm where it belonged.
Farragut had a lot of Cowboy's qualities - a quick smile, magnetic charm. Damn fine looking man - which was not to say he was a lean, carrot-torsoed god like Cowboy. Farragut was built like a bull. Between Farragut and Cowboy in an alley fight, you had to go with the captain for sheer mass. That and the fact that John Farragut flat out loved - loved - to fight. Fearless. Energetic. He drew people to him instantly. Blew into a room like a light going on and woke everyone up. Though next to Cowboy, Farragut was staid and calm. But of course that was because the Old Man was old, like Colonel Steele. Farragut and Steele were in their thirties.
Blue-eyed, both of them. Farragut like the summer sky. Steele pale arctic ice. You could cut yourself of Colonel Steele's eyes. Captain Farragut looked Steele right in the ice and demanded, "What happened?"
Kerry had an answer to that: Those bloody alien bastards killed out best man! So she was astounded to hear Colonel Steele saying something else entirely -- apologizing -- "We were sloppy, sir. I take full responsibility for the breakdown in discipline."
The captain's curt nod told him You bet you do.
Kerry's mind reeled with silent shrieks. What? They killed Cowboy! "You let me down, TR," Farragut said softly.
Hazard Sewell, standing next to Kerry, physically winced at that one. Captain Farragut knew every man jack and jane on board, even Marines. And he noticed when you did something really right or really wrong. He could make you feel really big or really really small. His quiet disapproval cut deep. Be easier if he would just yell.
And Steele didn't explain, or even try to. He just took it. "Yes, sir."
The captain and the colonel exited the deck, and everybody else exhaled. Turned somberly to Cowboy's wreck.
Cowboy always said: Live fast and leave a handsome corpse. Cowboy didn't leave a handsome corpse. They had to hose him out of there and sort out the inorganic stuff with a scanner.
And it ends the same every time. All their rollicking tomorrows stretched ahead in hollow darkness. Kerry retreated to her pod, stuffed her pillow around her ears, trying to make no sound.
Stop thinking. Past was past. Done was done. You can't change it. You can't ever change it, so let it go.
And the loop runs through again . . . .
Captain Farragut caught up with Lt. Colonel Steele's quick angry strides. Corridors in the flight wings were wider than in the battleship's main fuselage, allowed the two big men to walk side by side in the passage. "What did happen out there?"
Steele stopped. Anger, barely held in check, burst free. Hurled his helmet against the bulk, all his taurine mass behind it. He flushed red under his white-blond buzz cut hair. Arctic eyes blazed. "Sir. We got caught with our dicks hanging out and looking stupid."
"Anyone out there?" Farragut asked. No blame. No anger.
Steele struggled to bring his temper down for a landing. He wagged his square head no. "Alive? Not that we saw. Did Merrimack pick up anything?"
"No. It doesn't smell like Hive. The early warnings are quiet."
"Doesn't smell like anything that makes sense. And that smells like Hive to me," said Steele.
The captain demurred. "The Hive is adaptive, but they don't invent. The burrs have never tripped a mine to know what one is, much less learn how to set one."
"We don't know that, Captain. I don't trust the Romans to tell us everything they tried on the burrs before they palmed the war off on us. And we don't know how old the Hive is, where they've been, who they ate or what they learned from 'em."
Farragut gave a sideways nod, allowing the point. "But mines? No one uses mines in outer space. It's too big. How could anyone know we would be right here? Or that your man would fly backwards. He wouldn't have died head on, would he?"
Steele shook his head. "No. He wouldn't. Or if he'd had his cowcatcher turned in the direction of travel."
"Why didn't he turn it?" Every speck of dust was a bullet to a ship traveling FTL. The forward fields that swept all particles aside were called cowcatchers, though few hands on board had ever seen their namesake or stopped to wonder why one would ever need a device to catch a plodding herbivore. Merrimack could, and had, plowed through Saturn's rings. (Heard about that one from the Joint Chiefs, but no matter now.) A pilot always turned his screens the direction he was going. "System failure?"
Steele shook his head. "Arrogance. Cock full of it." Steele's best guess was that Cowboy had intended to reverse direction again and head butt the missile.
"Did you get any sense out there that that missile or this mine field was meant for us, TR?"
"No," said Steele. "We stepped in someone else's trap."
"Bizarre place for a trap. And accidentally stepping in it? Chances have to be a godzillion to one."
Steele had never taken probabilities and statistics, and he wasn't sure if godzillion were a real number, so he just nodded gravely. "So who were the mines meant for? And what are they protecting?"
"And why here?" Farragut added. "Why right here?"
"We gotta be close to something."
"Have to be," Farragut agreed. "Have to be. But what? Clue?"
Steele shook his head.
"I'll have the mine field scanned. Its placement should point us toward what's being guarded. Have someone retrieve that sentinel buoy so we can analyze it for age. This could be very old news and maybe this is a leftover dragon from a long gone treasure -- what?"
Steele's face sank deeper and deeper into chagrin. Farragut prompted again, "What?"
Steele spoke tightly. "The sentinel buoy has been 'secured.'"
Farragut translated, "Your Marines blew it up."
Steele nodded. "And all of the mines."
One hand loosely caging his face, Farragut peered through his fingers. "Shit, TR." Not angry. Resigned to obvious consequences. If you want to preserve evidence, send detectives or scientists, not Marines. "You know, we very likely wiped out a first contact. I'm pretty sure we never met these folk before."
"My Wing was thorough," Steele said dryly.
"I helped," Farragut confessed. Any chance to run the guns. "LEN's gonna pee the carpet when they read this report."
Naval diplomacy was an oxymoron. Farragut would have let himself laugh, had a man not died. "Cowboy. Jaime Carver." He placed the name at last -- the late Flight Sergeant Jaime "Cowboy" Carver.
Steele was not surprised that the captain of a battleship carrying a Marine detachment of 720 and crew of 425 should know one of his Marine flight sergeants by full name. Farragut knew everybody.
And everybody knew Cowboy. Though few knew his name was Jaime Carver.
"Popular man, wasn't he?" Farragut asked.
Lips tight, teeth clenched, Steele answered, "Very."
Farragut must have sensed the rage. He asked softly, "Friend, TR?"
"Dumb kid. Cocky. Balls to the wall. Hard not to like him."
Hard not to like him, and Steele hated him. Heard himself go on, "I knew he'd do this to me."
Cowboy was a funny guy, made everyone laugh. Stellar looks. Always quick to get his shirt off. Girl in every port, and one on board every ship no matter how slim the ratios. Insubordinate. Steele sometimes wished him dead. So startled to get his wish, Steele spoke aloud, "I'm asking if there's something I could've done."
Farragut glanced aside at Steele as they walked. "Was there?"
"I don't see it." And Steele had looked hard. As much as Steele hated Cowboy, sending one of his own men intentionally, and without his knowledge, to his death was against everything Lieutenant Colonel Steele lived for. Steele was first, last and always a good soldier. He had soul-searched and exonerated himself. Cowboy had killed Cowboy. "It was fast."
"It's always fast out here," said Farragut.
"Man was a walking game of Russian roulette." Future corpse, the type was called. "Hell, sir, it was inevitable."
Farragut's voice turned quietly stern: "You have any more of those on board my boat, TR, ship 'em home today."
"Sir. Yes, sir."
Prox alarms blared and quickly silenced. Two sets of blue eyes lifted. "What now?" Farragut murmured, launching into a run.
Space was too vast for chance encounters. Someone crossed your path out here, means you were stalked. "Ladder up!"
Crew quickly scrambled clear of the vertical passages within the sound of Farragut's shout, for Captain Farragut made his entrances like a cannon shell. He clambered up the ladder, spry for a big man, and bounded to the control room.
Two MP's flanked the hatch on either side. Within was a compact space, daylit, murmuring. Technicians and specialists worked elbow to elbow at their stations -- tactical, com, navigation, targeting - each in direct communication with his attendant department below decks. Multiple large display screens above the workstations relayed visuals and ship's status at a glance.
"What've we got?" Farragut demanded.
The prox alarm announced someone not given an approach vector was collision close.
"Friend or Foe?"
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