Read The Many Deaths of Joe Buckley Online

Authors: Assorted Baen authors,Barflies

The Many Deaths of Joe Buckley (6 page)



“No, to answer my own question,” Sean said. “This is the Troy. Which exists not to go where no man has gone before and as a vehicle for narration by ham actors, but to sit on the door and pound the ever-living crap out of anybody who comes through the gate we don’t like. And as a further word of advice, we do not leave personal voice logs. But fortunately, in this case, we didn’t have to have a major Article Thirty-Two investigation when Chief Buckley was found a-Dutchman in the main bay. The point of this anecdote is check your seals. Check your navopak . . .”

Ryk E. Spoor:

The Non-Deaths of Joe Buckley

“Dear God, I’m going to die,” muttered Joe Buckley, as the SUV bounced from one rutted pothole to another.

This was the opening line of
, the first in a trilogy of hard SF novels written by me (Ryk Spoor) and Eric Flint, starting in 2006. When we began
we were of course already well aware of the tradition of Baen authors trying to one-up each other in devising ever more spectacular ways to arrange Joe’s demise.

Eric and I essentially simultaneously decided that we were
going to kill Joe. We were going to
Joe. After all, once he
, how can we have more fun with him (barring cheating and going to AI replication or cloning, both out of the technological capabilities of the

Thus, in
, Joe has several near misses:

  1. One mentioned in the past, where he apparently nearly killed himself and a company vehicle offroading into an arroyo
  2. One upon re-entry of the shuttle
    (almost killing off Bruce Irwin at the same time)
  3. One when
    John Carter
    crashes on Mars
  4. One when a cave-in almost brings down a Bemmie base on his head

But we were far from done with Joe Buckley, oh no. In the sequel to
, Joe and the rest of the crew depart from Mars to Ceres, and then end up in pursuit of the gigantic EU vessel
in a resurrected alien vessel named
Nebula Storm
. And along the way, we
kill Joe by:

  1. Shooting him with a battleship-sized coilgun
  2. Making his air run out while he was lost down a crater on Ceres
  3. Blowing holes in
    Nebula Storm
    with a gigantic shrapnel round (this of course almost killed everyone else on the ship, but hey, don’t hang out with Joe if you don’t want mortal peril)
  4. Crashlanding
    Nebula Storm
    on Europa

But wait, there’s more! This was a trilogy, after all, so we had to serve up a few more moments of Buckley peril, which we did by:

  1. Blowing a hole in his spacesuit from a piece of a collapsing drill rig
  2. Almost crushing him during a Europaquake that collapsed the floor beneath him and the vehicle he was in
  3. Having the vehicle trapped under the ice of Europa
  4. The vehicle being assaulted by a huge Europan lifeform
  5. Springing a leak and almost ending up drowned or crushed

On the positive side, though, Joe
live through it all reasonably intact, and ended up the love interest for the most incredibly talented, resourceful, and of course beautiful member of the cast, secret agent Madeline Fathom. There are many men who would consider that a small price to pay for her high regard; hopefully he’ll forgive us our little jests.

The Happy Death of Joe Buckley

Paradigms Lost
, the vastly expanded and revised version of my first novel
Digital Knight
, I have not only put in supplemental material, but added two new adventures of the protagonist Jason Wood. The last of these, “Trial Run,” puts Jason in the unenviable position of having to help defend a werewolf from a murder charge. During the same time, he is handed another puzzle to solve . . . one in which a number of other bodies have turned up, including the body of one Joe Buckley, whose death turns out to have been
pleasant . . . and a key to solving the mystery.

Paradigms Lost


“Just . . . it doesn’t quite work for me. James was a little farther away; a little off from where I’d have expected him to be in that scenario. And you don’t do much moving after a thirty-eight slug ricochets around your brainpan. Times of death seemed a little off, almost as though Jessie had kicked off a little bit before James, which would make it kind of hard for her to have done any shooting. The TOD estimates are always wide plus-or-minus, of course, so there was overlap.” He shook his head.

“So then we look at this guy, Joe Buckley; twenty-two years old, perfect health, dating a few girls—who all knew each other and didn’t seem to be particularly worried about it—on the rise in one of the movie studios’ development groups, goes to a big bash, comes home, found dead the next day without a mark on him.” The accompanying photo showed a brown-haired young man lying peacefully on his back, just a slight unnatural paleness indicating that there was anything wrong. “There was evidence that he might have had some company that night, but nothing conclusive. The tox screen came back with a big fat zip—along with the rest of the ME’s workup. He said, ‘The only problem with this guy is that he ought to be walking around alive and he’s dead.’ So it was listed as death due to natural causes, some kind of heart condition.”

* * *

Right now, I wanted to do some work that didn’t threaten me with Pyrrhic victories. I opened my notes on Kevin Ferrin’s problem cases, which posed a challenge I could feel better about than the ambivalent hell I had just gone through.

I had—in a way—managed to find a common thread among all the victims, but I didn’t know if it was a
common thread. In his original narration of the problem, Kevin had mentioned that both the Roquettes and Buckley had recently attended a party. A quick investigation turned up the fact that
of the victims had attended a big bash within a few days of their deaths. Of course, given the higher-society nature of the neighborhood, parties were probably common. And after reviewing the guest lists, we hadn’t found any guests in common with the majority of the victims.

* * *

“You’re really playing with fire, Wood.” Clement whispered.

Thinking of how the endgame of this whole mess might play out, I agreed. Timing was going to be absolutely
. . . and I had to make sure that all three sides involved—mine, the prosecutor’s, and the police—knew the right info, at the right time, to act on it, or else the whole thing would blow up in my face—and I’d be the first casualty. I had the proof in hand, though, courtesy of poor, dead Joe Buckley and a very thorough scene investigator who’d bagged a single hair that was out of place. Now if I could just get through these next few days . . .



“Dear God, I’m going to die,” muttered Joe Buckley, as the SUV bounced from one rutted pothole to another.

“Oh, come on, Joe, I don’t drive

The silence caused Helen Sutter to glance over at Joe. His face was pale under its tan, contrasting all the more with his dark hair. His habitually cheerful expression was currently replaced by that of a man who has discovered he has a terminal illness and just two weeks to live. “. . . Do I?”

“Eyes on road! On the
!!! UNGH!”

The “ungh” was from the SUV’s particularly hard, bottoming-out-the-shocks landing following yet another acrobatic leap across the roadbed, in an attempt to leave the rough dirt track and strike out across the rocky terrain nearby.

Helen gave a restrained curse and hauled on the steering wheel. The SUV responded, skidding slightly, but heading back into the center of the dirt track leading to the Secord ranch. Holding the line with one hand, Helen brushed her blond hair out of her eyes; as usual it was escaping the ponytail it was supposedly tied into. Despite the fact that it was early in the season and only eleven in the morning, Helen could feel a thin film of sweat on her forehead.

Well, that’s the life of a paleontologist
, she thought ruefully.
Pay all your grant money for the chance to break rocks, instead of getting sentenced to hard labor and doing it for free.

“What’s wrong with my driving?”

“Nothing, nothing.” Joe paused. “If you’re in the Baja 500.”

“Oh, all right, I’ll slow down. But who cut down your testosterone ration? As I recall, the first year we came out here, you almost got yourself killed trying to offroad along an arroyo. Nearly lost us our dig, too. Then the
year, you—”

“Hey, all right, already. It’s just that I want to survive this summer. It’s my last year.”

* * *

Meryl Stephenson and Bryce Heyers from the next lab poked their heads in. “Hey, guys, can we use some of the— Oh, hi, Joe. Big demo for the boss, eh?”

Joe smiled. “Something like that. Look, I’ll be by your lab in an hour or so. We need to—”

A buzzing noise sounded from one of the panels. Reynolds’ head snapped around. “That’s—”

Joe was just turning towards the panel when the world split open.

Even through his headphones, A.J. heard the sharp boom of the explosion, and felt the floor jolt under his feet. The phones shut off as A.J. leapt from his chair and dashed for the door.

“What happened?”

“I don’t know,” said Melanie Sherry, standing indecisively. “But it sounded like it came from Engineering.”

Other people in the hallway blurred past as A.J. sprinted towards the doors. He burst out into the open.

As he ran towards the testing area, he could see that it was bad. Black billows of smoke, lit from beneath by orange flames, curled upwards from the shattered Engineering wing, near the Atmospherics Testing area. He felt his stomach tighten. Joe had been planning to test some of the catalytic generation processes today.

He skidded to a halt in a scattered jumble of stone and brick. A few others were hesitating, like him, before plunging into the yawning, smoke-belching ruin.

“Joe!” he shouted. “Reynolds! Annie! Lee!” He could hear the distant wailing of fire and emergency medical vehicles approaching.

Setting his jaw, A.J. started in. But then, startled, backed off almost immediately.

Something loomed up in the smoke, emerging slowly, backlit by the flames, seeming almost to materialize like a monster in a bad action movie. It was too wide and squat to be human. A broad, blocky silhouette that wavered like a black ghost . . .

A.J. gave a shout and charged forward. “Joe!”

Joe Buckley gave a faint grin through the soot on his face, as did Reynolds Jones from beneath the reflective heat blanket the two had around their shoulders. “I don’t believe it. We made it out alive.”

* * *

was shedding velocity as well as altitude—that much, at least, was as everyone wanted it. The rumbling boom of its earlier transsonic passage echoed faintly across the desert.

now three miles downrange, speed two-fifty-two and dropping—”


Something had finally come loose on the nose. Debris showered up and over, black smoke streaming across the cockpit. The damage spread as though pushed by the winds, and suddenly the cockpit seemed to disintegrate. Inky smoke spewed into the air and
heeled slowly over, executing a dreamlike cartwheeling pirouette in the sky before thundering down to impact on its side, ironically directly in the center of the runway. The orbiter bounced up, spinning and shedding fragments of wing and tail everywhere, and the spectators dove for cover.

’s second landfall was squarely on the tail section, and with a whooshing roar it ignited in an orange-red-black fireball. Something had sheared through the fuel cells. Now nothing but a moving holocaust, the remains of
seared their way down another several hundred yards of runway before shuddering to a flaming halt. Emergency vehicles, already scrambled, skidded to a halt around the wreckage and began trying to extinguish the blaze.

A.J.’s head was bowed, as was Jackie’s. Helen tore her gaze from the blazing wreckage that had been bringing Joe Buckley home just moments before. As if she might find understanding and solace, somehow, she traced the trajectory of
back along the trail of smoke.

What was . . .

A.J., Jackie, look!

A white dot showed in the air. As they watched, the dot descended and grew.

“Parachutes spotted,” crackled from the speakers. “Visual confirmation that it is the ejection pod from

Helen and A.J. were already sprinting towards the likely landing area, somewhat to the right as carried by the wind. The emergency vehicles passed them, of course, and by the time they arrived the ejection pod had landed and Bruce and Joe were emerging from it.

A.J. bulled his way through the EMTs. “Joe!

Joe grinned, painfully. “I tried to tell them it was a no-smoking flight, but nobody listens to me.”

* * *

“We’re still alive. Everyone?”

“Not everyone.” A.J.’s voice was suddenly utterly devoid of his usual humor. “Shit. I will
be sick in my suit.”

Helen turned, and was instantly sorry she had. Dr. Ryu Sakai was pinned against the rear of the compartment by something—a support structure of
John Carter
, probably—that must have torn free in the last terrible impact, impaling or crushing his entire rib cage.

The tough suit might have maintained some integrity, but there were limits to its protective capabilities. The astrogeological specialist was clearly dead.

“Jesus . . .” Rich Skibow spoke for the first time since the crash, tearing his way out of his restraining harness. “Oh, this is horrible.”

It was then that Helen remembered that Joe had been sitting in front of Ryu Sakai. For a moment her heart seemed to stop. But . . . there was only one suit pinned to the wall with that hideous dark smear around it.

“Joe! Where’s Joe?”

A.J. answered, obviously glad of something to distract him from the gruesome scene in the rear. “Ummm . . . Look, that beam ripped upward through the cabin. With that angle, it would’ve taken out the support column under Joe’s chair. If we were still moving, he . . .”

A.J. trailed off. Helen followed his gaze.

Straight to the hole in the forward window. “Oh, no—”

She leaped toward the window and tripped. The wreck of the SSTO was leaning on something, inclined at an angle of about forty-five degrees both vertically and laterally. Scrambling in the light gravity, she made it to the hole and looked out.

John Carter
rested atop a massive boulder five times its size. From her vantage point thirty meters above the rest of the terrain, she could make out a small, dark object more than a fifty meters off: Joe’s seat, with a spacesuit still strapped into it.

“Joe! Joe!”

The figure moved. Joe raised an arm slowly and waved. Then said, shakily but firmly:

“By the authority vested in me as a representative of the Ares Project and the first human being to set foot on Mars, I claim all the rights and privileges pertaining thereunto for the Project.”

“Gah!” said Madeline.

* * *

“Hey, look, I’m sorry,” Joe apologized, defensively. “I didn’t know he was dead then.”

“’S’okay,” Rich grunted. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you. I’d have found it funny, any other time. I suppose it will be someday.”

A.J. emitted a harsh little laugh, as he attached another cable to the support beam for their attempt to remove Ryu Sakai’s body. “I will say that Madeline’s face was worth seeing, when you opened up
can of worms.”

Madeline didn’t quite glare at him. She did glare at Joe. “You have absolutely no idea of the headaches this may cause, if your people insist on it.”

Joe knew the dialogue focused on his unexpected claiming of Mars because none of them wanted to really think about the gruesome task ahead of them. He was still stuck in his seat, looking at
John Carter
’s red-dusted, ominous, shattered-looking hulk from fifty meters away. He had discovered upon attempting to get up that his leg was apparently broken, and Madeline had insisted he stay there until someone could get out and examine it.

The advice had become more serious when A.J.’s sensor analysis through the suit’s onboard biometric monitors indicated that Joe might have a concussion also. He did feel rather detached, his head hurt, and he wanted to take a nap, which were not encouraging symptoms.

“I have some idea, yeah. But I don’t know exactly how the legal ins and outs work, so I figured I’d play it safe. Let’s face it, we’re still a private concern and someday we’ll be cut loose. If I’d fumbled this ball, everyone at Ares could’ve been completely screwed.”

A.J.’s little laugh came again. “Have I mentioned that the two of you are redefining the expression ‘odd couple’?”

“I can reach you, Mr. Baker.”

“Enough. Pull, everyone,” Rich said, straining at the beam.

There was a grating in Joe’s earphones, then several grunts and a faint clanging noise. “That’s got it. Poor Ryu.”

“Has anyone tried raising

“We will as soon as we get out of the wreck. Most of the systems are shut down right now.”

Joe saw the others slowly emerge from the hole he’d made on his impromptu exit. Once more he was astonished that he was still alive. Either his suit had taken the impact with amazing resilience; or, more likely, the chair had spun as he went through the air and broken the window in front of him. He had no memory himself of the sequence of events involved. And then—which he also did not remember at all—the seat must have twisted around and absorbed most of the impact of his final Marsfall. However it had happened, he’d been incredibly lucky not only to survive, but with no injuries worse than a broken leg.

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