Read The Many Deaths of Joe Buckley Online

Authors: Assorted Baen authors,Barflies

The Many Deaths of Joe Buckley (7 page)



Blackness slowly lightened to dim gray shot through with red pain. For a few moments he didn’t even attempt to open his eyes, didn’t even know who it was that would be doing the opening.

Joe. I’m Joe Buckley.

Joe tried to take a breath, felt knives in his chest and barely restrained a cough. The air was heavy, and cold. He tried to open his eyes, but they wouldn’t open at first. Working his face, squinting and frowning and moving all the muscles, he felt something rough and sticky slowly giving. Finally, reluctantly, the eyelids came open, first the left and then the right.

Stars. Stars and dark roughness. Another squint, and he realized the roughness was rock. A lot of rock.
What the hell happened?
He could remember working on the power line for their lab; that was it. Then

There were actual scratches across his visor, now that his vision was clearing. Something had hit him
. Not that his body wasn’t already informing him of that. He managed to move enough to get the self-diagnostics running. The suit was a mess, low on power, low on air, and some systems just plain not running. He wasn’t in great shape, either. Broken ribs, possible minor internal injuries, concussion . . . 

The comm unit was still active, at least partly. The antenna had been torn away.
Where the hell am I?
“Hello? Anyone there?

* * *

A storm of armor-piercing bullets ripped through space. Focused to as narrow a cone as their configurable explosive propellant charges could manage, they had still been much farther than optimum from their target. The vast majority of the man-made meteoroids streaked harmlessly past
Nebula Storm
and on into empty space.

A few, however, did not. Fourteen thumb-sized projectiles with a relative velocity of twenty-one kilometers per second slammed into
Nebula Storm
, each carrying the energy of a small cannon concentrated in an item the size of a small thumb. Even the Vault material of the alien hull, tough as it was, could not simply shrug such impacts off with impunity. The impacts, even at poor angles, ripped gouges down her sides, punched into the interior, bored through composites and metals like a bullet through butter. But the
Nebula Storm
was huge, and the chances that a handful of hypersonic bullets would hit anything critical over a two-hundred-meter-long hull were miniscule, and none of them came close.

Except for one.

The alien hull suddenly chimed to multiple impacts, blows so close together that they almost sounded as one: a high-speed machine gun. Alarms screamed out, and the bridge went black, the blackness just as abruptly relieved by red emergency lighting. “That doesn’t seem good,” Larry said.

“It’s not,” Jackie said. Her voice had a hollow, shocked quality to it.

“What happened?”

Jackie didn’t answer for a moment. Then she chuckled, a laugh that carried an almost creepy overtone.

“Jackie, no offense, but what the hell are you laughing about?” A.J. demanded. Madeline stared at the dark-haired engineer with rising concern.

With apparent difficulty Jackie got herself under control. “Sorry. It shouldn’t be that funny. But it is. Remember where we get our main power from? Well, that’s the
time that goddamn E.U. ship has shot the same goddamn reactor!”

Maddie felt her lips tighten along with her gut. “The reactor itself?”

“I think so, this time. The safety seals tripped and all—I don’t think we’re looking at a radiation hazard—but it’s totally scrammed itself.” Jackie shook her head, looking grim now.

“Can we fix it?”

“I’ll have to find out what’s really wrong first. Give me a few minutes. A.J., Joe, help out here.”

Helen and Larry nodded to Maddie. “We’ve got holes to patch.”

“Understood,” Maddie said. “Stay away from the engineering area until we know what’s going on there, though.”

“You got it.” The two scientists cycled the lock out of the bridge.

A few minutes later Jackie sat slowly up and turned to face Madeline. Her expression gave the answer. “No.”

“No chance at all?”

“Not really,” Jackie said. “It didn’t actually punch the core, but the amount of work we’d have to do . . . At the least we’d need a big dock or a big, flat area to work on—one with enough gravity to keep things in place, or else someplace sealed off. And without the reactor, we can’t even sail around very long. We don’t have the fuel to set down anywhere, even if somehow I could get enough energy.”

A.J. looked at her with a horrified expression. “You’re saying we’re going to drift through space until we just run out of power and die?”

“I . . .” She looked momentarily defensive, then suddenly sighed. “Yeah. We are.”

“I don’t suppose,” Maddie said, feeling unnaturally calm now that the worst news was delivered, “there’s any way we could get help.”

“No,” A.J. said. “Not unless
can pull off a miracle.”

“How long do we have?”

“Well . . . that’ll take a little while to figure out. If we can get to the lander . . .” Jackie and Joe went into a combination live and electronic conference. Maddie glanced over at A.J.; the sensor expert was staring bleakly into space. “How are things on
?” she asked quietly.

A.J. shook himself and bent back over his controls. “I’ll find out. Can’t be any worse than it is here.”

Maddie looked at the screen, which still showed the image of the huge E.U. vessel surrounded by debris. “I’m not so sure.”

* * *

It takes immense force to stop a thousand mobile tons, and with only Europa’s feeble gravity to provide the pressure, the
Nebula Storm
would not stop quickly. But stop it would, in the end, and already the five meters per second had become three and a half, three, cutting an interrupted gouge nearly a hundred meters wide across Europa in a stupendous fountain of crystalline white. Even as Horst began bringing
in for a landing, he could barely tear his eyes from the ponderous, deceptive grace of the
Nebula Storm
’s slow-motion crash. He could hear someone praying in the background. “Stop, stop, God, please stop . . .”

Two and a half meters per second now, dropping, just a brisk walk—but there was no more room. Broadside on, the
Nebula Storm
smashed irresistibly into the immovable bulwark of steel-hard ice, sending a blast of steam, ice dust, and boulders of crystalline water spurting into the black sky of Europa. The cloud settled, unnaturally fast with no atmosphere to keep the dust suspended, and all was still. For a few seconds, no one said anything as Horst gave his full attention to bringing
to ground as close as possible to the crashed
Nebula Storm
. Only when he felt the huge lander settle with crushing solidity onto the ice did he speak. “
Nebula Storm
! Jackie, Helen, A.J.—are you all right?”

For a moment there was no answer, and he thought his heart might just stop. But then the voice of Madeline Fathom answered, as calm and collected as though she were sitting back on Earth.

, this is
Nebula Storm
. That probably looked worse than it was. We got a bit shaken up, but we are all fine. Joe’s got a slight bruise on his forehead and Jackie got whacked across the shin by something that got loose in that last jolt, but her suit kept that from being anything serious. No leaks, all major systems still operating, and the hab unit we lost had the stuff in it we could most afford to lose. You can see that one of the others extended a little on impact, just over the top of this ridge, and it’s twisted some, but Jackie doesn’t think it’s beyond repair.”
Her image appeared on the screen, and they could all see the entire crew of
Nebula Storm
behind her.
“It’s a good landing, because we’re all going to walk away from it. And one day, we’ll all be walking back into this ship and going home.”



A.J. did not apologize for the curse.

At nearly the same instant, Joe Buckley said, “God
it!” followed by “Ow ow OW!”

“I see yellow and red on your telltales, Joe!” Petra said, having obviously switched in her medical monitors. “Talk to me!”

“Goddamn . . . stupid . . . universe . . .” they heard Joe mutter. “Got a hole punched through the suit.”

“Through the
?” A.J. said incredulously, jamming his way into his suit as fast as he could.

“Yeah, right through. My guess, something like one of the support fasteners on the rig snapped . . . god
that hurts . . . shot out like a bullet . . .”

“Joe!” Maddie’s voice did not have its professional calm, and A.J. was struck again by the sheer intensity of her attachment to his old friend.
Not that Joe doesn’t deserve her, or her him, but she’s usually so
“How’s the air?”

“Leaking like a sonofa . . . but it’s through the leg, not chest. My
leg, so I guess I’ll have matching scars.” Joe was referring to the lovely scars he had from the one leg being severely fractured to the point of bone poking through the skin after his crash on Mars. “Got a . . . temp patch in my pouch. Think I can get that on, and I’m heading into
right now.”

“Dr. Masters?”

“Mr. Buckley’s going into mild shock but still functional,” the Kentish voice replied calmly, “and I’m seeing no indications yet that a major artery has been severed. I am on my way over, but I think that Mr. Buckley has once more, shall we say, dodged the bullet.”

* * *

Maddie bounced over to the jury-rigged lightbar which served as the communication interface and hooked in fresh power packs. “Joe?”


The instant response made her feel suddenly ten years younger. “You’re both all right?”

“For now.”

Tension returned. Joe wouldn’t say that if . . . “What’s the bad news?”

“Well, the
news is that we’ve got some spectacular footage and evidence of a really advanced ecosystem here on Europa,” Joe said in his usual overly-casual description of disaster. “The
news is that the local wildlife got very frisky with
and the lock’s gone to amber alert.”

Oh dear God.
“Are you leaking?”

“Not yet, but sensors show an increase in humidity in the seal area. It’s
to leak, and it’s not going to take all that long. Now, I don’t know if the
door will have any problems or not, but it wasn’t designed to hold
, just varying types of atmosphere, or lack thereof. I’m pretty damn sure the pumps won’t handle it. Now, the
good news is that I don’t think it’s jammed shut—I can’t
it, but all the indicators are that it should be able to open.”

She took a breath and made herself relax before she spoke again, and gave silent thanks that almost everyone else was currently resting. “Do you have a guess as to when the real leak will start?”

She heard him sigh. “Not really, Maddie. But when it starts, it will get progressively worse, faster and faster; ten atmospheres is no joke, and the seals weren’t made for it.”

“Well, it hasn’t started yet, and we’re here, so we’ll be getting you out of there as soon as we can.” She stood. “I’ve got work to do, so I’m cutting out for now. I love you.”

“Love you too, Maddie.”

Travis S. Taylor:

Kill Joe Buckley? Everybody kills Joe Buckley! Why? Why not? Joe is just plain fun to kill. There is a long-standing tradition of killing Buckley in horrible and torturous ways and in most cases his death is meaningless or just outright carnage. That in itself is cool, but I wanted to do more than that. More than kill Joe for the sake of killing.

After hanging out with Joe at a con (I forget which one) and having a few beers with him I realized that he was a likeable fellow. And, I had a story all about heroes making self-sacrifices for the greater good. And, of course I wanted to do my best at killing Joe better than anybody, for a reason, and with the rigor that Baen fans deserve. So, I decided to give Joe a long, drawn-out heroic death. I also decided to make it as sh—eh, crappy, as I could. Read the story, you’ll get what I mean. Oh, and rather than just kill Joe I decided to also torture his legacy in follow-on books where I torture Buckley Jr. All in good fun, of course.

One Day on Mars


“No shit?” Jack couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
Mons City under attack? Those Seppy bastards have got some kind of balls.

I agree, sir,
his AIC Candis commented.

“Well, pull that backseat hardware out of my fighter and reload it with standard gear. I suspect I’ll be going back into the mix when we get there along with the rest of the Gods of War.” Jack nodded to the chief. “Meantime, I’m gonna get some chow.”

“Yes sir! I’d avoid the meatloaf sir. The stuff gave Hull Technician Third Class Joe Buckley the worst case of the shits I ever saw. He literally almost shit himself to death. Doc says he’s gonna make it though.” He laughed but his warning was serious. After all, it was the chief’s job to make sure his pilots and their gear were always running top-notch and ship shape. He had to do his part in taking care of the men. Sure the CAG would say the pilots were his men, and the captain of the
would say they were his, but the chief knew different. He looked out for

* * *

Hull Technician Joe Buckley had worked in the bowels of the flagship of the U.S. Navy fleet for seven years and knew every nook and cranny of the coolant flow systems and there was just nothing left to do. The liquid metal flowing around the ship to cool any of the large heat-generating systems such as the engines, the catapults, the SIF generators, and the main DEGs was all overheated—all of it. There wasn’t a flow system left that wasn’t overheated. It had been rerouted and rerouted and rerouted again in order to keep the SIFs up or the DEGs firing. Joe had never seen the flagship in such a tight spot.

“Well, Fireman’s Apprentice King, I guess this is going to be a typical Navy day!” Buckley told his subordinate. The sarcasm wasn’t lost on the fireman’s apprentice.

“Goddamn it, HT. This is a bunch of shit! I don’t want to fuckin’ die!” The new guy in the “shithole” had just picked the wrong week to join up and that was all there was to it. Some guys do life in the military and never see any action, not one fucking iota. But then some poor dumb unlucky bastard draws the short end of the stick and has to rush Normandy on his first combat mission, or has to guard the embassy during the Tet offensive, or has to raid the Seppy farms on the first day of the Desert Campaigns, or, in Fireman’s Apprentice James King’s case, work in the bowels of the shit flow pipes for the flagship of the United States Navy during the mass Exodus of the entire Separatist population in the system.

“That’s right, Jimmy, this is just a bunch of shit. Seppy motherfuckers!” Hull Tech Buckley shouted at the top of his lungs and banged his fist against the bulkhead. They only needed a small flow loop. Just enough to give them a few seconds of the main gun! One little flow loop of coolant. Hell, they didn’t even need anything exotic for just a few seconds. Just one little goddamned flow loop that wasn’t already overheated.

Jimmy’s right, Mija. This is a sock full of shit!
Buckley thought to his AIC.
It was nice knowing ya.

You too, Joe. Somebody has to take the shit and I guess there’s nobody better trained for it than us,
Mija replied, almost lightheartedly.
Sorry, Joe.

Shit . . . shit . . .
Joe shook his head and then a thought struck him, almost.

Joe? Are you all right?

Shit . . .
Hull Technician Petty Officer Third Class Joe Buckley was in the makings of a moment of genius. Not Nobel Prize–winning genius but perhaps ass-saving genius.

Hull Technician Joe Buckley?
His AIC grew worried. She had never seen Buckley react this way.

“Shit!” Joe screamed at the top of his lungs again. “Shit, shit, shit and more shit! That’s what we have plenty of down here in the shit hole! Shit!” Buckley paused for just a second and smiled like a madman on a mission and hell-bent for something.

“Uh, HT? You okay?” Jimmy asked.

“Fireman’s Apprentice, grab that BFW on the console over there and get over here! I want you to beat the flying fuck out of this empty flow pipe at this juncture.” Joe pointed Jimmy to the big fucking wrench and a joint where the DEG liquid metal coolant could be routed to flow through.

Mija, lock off this part of the pipe and flush it, then turn off the SIF on this joint for a moment,
he thought to his AIC.

Pipe is empty and SIF is off, HT3 Buckley,
Mija responded. There was a faint swooshing sound through the pipe for a split second.


“Jimmy, start banging!” Joe pointed at the juncture on the pipe.

“If you say so, HT3.” Jimmy grabbed the BFW and started pounding away at the flow conduit juncture.
Clang, clang, clang. Clang, clang, clang.

“Mija, I’m going voice so Jimmy can hear this too. Turn the SIF back on in that pipe.” Joe brought up the heat pipe flows in his virtual DTM and highlighted the flow loop on the two forward DEG batteries. “We’ve got two sewer plants and one water reservoir on this ship. Mija, how much of that would it take once flushed into the system to cool off and allow us to fire the forward DEGs for a few seconds?”

“Quick and dirty calculations show all of the water and one full sewer plant,” Mija announced over the deck intercom speakers. “We would need the water in there to keep the sludge from solidifying.”

“Okay. I figured we’d need the water. We have to purge the hot liquid metal out of the pipes now! There is no place to do that quickly but here,” Joe said as he pointed to the pipe that Jimmy had been beating with the big fucking wrench.

“Joe, that will kill us,” Fireman’s Apprentice King said in a panic.

“Like we weren’t dead already . . . but maybe not if I’m in the shithole,” Joe said. “Jimmy, get the hell out of here now, that is an order.”

“Joe, we can’t fit in there. The biggest openings are only thirty centimeter pipes into the topside of it. And the topside is four stories up,” Mija corrected him.

“I know that, Mija Kitty. Once Jimmy is out you will close off this room including all electronic hatches and exhaust ports. This is gonna be some shit.” Hull Technician Joe Buckley took the big fucking wrench from King and stood in front of the main pressure-drain valve on the bottom of the sewage bladder and started banging the living shit out of it. “Jimmy, I thought I told you to get the fuck out of here.”

“Sorry, HT. Guess I’m just hardheaded.” Jimmy picked up a second BFW. “You’re gonna need some help to bust that one. It’s too big.”

“Suit yourself. But once it goes you get as high as you can on the aft wall. Mija, the instant this deck is filling with shit you purge the heat pipes for the forward DEGs into this room and then flow the water and the shit through the DEG coolant pipes. Got it?”

Joe raised the giant pipe wrench and brought it down against the valve stem at the boot of sewage tank.
Then Jimmy hit it with his giant crescent wrench
, clang,
then Joe,
clang. Clang, clang, clang
went the BFWs against the shitter’s release valve.

“Goddamnit, let go!”
Buckley hit the valve stem one last time and then
went the valve head as it was blown across the room into the far bulkhead from the pressurized sewer bladder. Joe and Jimmy dropped their makeshift hammers and looked for a spot with higher ground. Jimmy made it to the top of some tool shelving on the aft wall of the shithole, but the high-pressure flow coming out of the sewage release valve had him cut off from anything other than standing on the deck.

The SIF fields around the bladder squeezed it inward and forced it empty, throwing a fire-hydrant force flow of human waste across the room. The pressure of the flow ricocheted across the room and quickly washed Buckley off his feet, covering him from head to toe with shit. The pressure burst the nasty brown liquid into his nostrils, ears, eyes, and mouth, choking him.

Joe Buckley swam through the lake of shit as it filled the room with the mixed methane smells of decomposing waste from thirty thousand human beings and he began to lose the fight against the high pressure current and the horrendous stench.

Now, Mija!
Joe thought. He took one last nauseating breath of the methane-filled air and fought harder to keep his head up.

The structural technician AIC triggered the software per Buckley’s orders and a string of valves were released in order to allow the flow of the DEG liquid metal coolant to flow through the damaged heat-pipe conduit. The extreme pressures in the flow loop didn’t take long to overcome the weakened metal in the pipe. Mija released the structural integrity field around the pipe at that location and the eight-hundred-degree-Celsius liquid sodium-potassium alloy flowed out of the pipe in a high-velocity jet with nearly explosive force. A small rupture in the pipe vented the liquid metal like a rocket nozzle that passed through both of Buckley’s legs, cutting them off instantly and cauterizing them almost as quickly.

The heat pipe forced more and more of the liquid metals into the raw sewage that at the same time was converted quickly to steam. The heavy-liquid metals began to settle into the bottom of the pool of sewage and were forming dense methane gas clouds just above the surface of the brown sludge. Buckley had had a good idea from a mechanical and industrial flow point of view what would happen, but his lack of chemistry knowledge was going to be his undoing.

The chemical reaction of sodium and potassium metal and water created sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, heat—which was already in abundance—and hydrogen gas, which was highly explosive and had a very low flashpoint to boot. Plus there was a cloud of methane vapor rapidly forming just below the cloud of hydrogen rapidly percolating to the top of the room. The natural buoyancy of the two gases forced the heavy methane to pool on the surface of the sludge and the lighter hydrogen to pool at the top of the room. The sewage continued to drain into the compartment and was just as rapidly vaporized by the influx of molten liquid sodium-potassium alloy that was now covering the deck of the engineering room and beginning to eat away at the deck coverings.

Fireman’s Apprentice James King had held on firmly to the aft bulkhead, as Hull Technician Joe Buckley had ordered him to do. The sight of the young sailor was one of the last things Joe would ever see as he struggled to keep his head above the surface. As if the searing pain from his amputated legs, the noxious gas fumes that were burning at his lungs, and the sodium and potassium hydroxide eating away at his skin weren’t enough, finally the heat from the searing liquid metal exploded out of another failing part of the conduit, spraying his face with a mist of the molten vapors, melting his face and eyes to beyond flesh all the way to the bone.

Mija . . .

Rest, Joe. I’m here.

Did it work . . . ?

Rest, Joe. I’m here.
Mija uploaded the control code to Uncle Timmy with priority status since she knew that she would not last long enough to execute the final commands of the flow system that Buckley had engineered. The AIC had figured out the chemistry a little too late herself to warn her counterpart, but in time that they wouldn’t die in vain.

Finally the hydrogen gas cloud reached critical density for the heat in the room, the heat from the liquid metal, and the exothermic reaction. The overpressured clouds of gases and lack of oxygen had kept the room from igniting initially, but the heat of reaction and molten metal had finally reached the flashpoint for the volatile mixture. It ignited with explosive force. In turn, the compressed hydrogen gas cloud explosion ignited the methane fog with the force of several tons of explosives that blew a hole forty meters in diameter and out the three decks below and into space and upward six decks, killing hundreds of unsuspecting sailors. The explosion did blow out the fires created by the failing heat flow systems in the engineering decks but in the process it covered hundreds of sailors with septic human waste products on several decks. Several members of the crew were lost from explosive decompression and others just simply suffocated before they could make it to oxygen bottles. The remains of the sewage and the liquid metal quickly vented into the vacuum of space. The remains of Hull Technician Petty Officer Third Class Joe Buckley and Fireman’s Apprentice James King would never be found.

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