THE DARK HORSE BLUES
By Steven Lacey
In which we meet our protagonist, his girlfriend, best friend, and shipmates, and how an unusual situation presents itself, right before a whole lot of things go horribly, terribly wrong, and almost everybody dies but it’s not as big of a deal as you might think
COOPER FREEMAN LAY IN the dark, staring at the ceiling as his girlfriend spiraled down from her orgasm.
Through the wall, he could hear the loud snores of his best friend, captain of the USEC Tombstone Commander Chris Michaels, and was again amazed at the ability he had to rattle the very walls of their ship. Tentatively, he placed his sweaty palm against the wall to feel the vibrations that one single person could create. He had once decided that if there were a Richter scale attached to the adjacent room, Chris would be blowing a 7.3, maybe even a 7.5 on the thing, needles flying back and forth like drunks heading to their cars after a Saturday night at Kierans.
“What are you doing?” Summer slurred beside him, still wrapped in the buzzing embrace of her own satisfaction from a moment before. He sighed inwardly; She never seemed to appreciate the grand humor involved in the tectonic emanations from nearby. He rolled over to look at her in the semi-darkness.
“I do believe you mean, ‘what are you doing, Commander,’” Cooper snarked at her good-naturedly. Her half lidded eyes widened and she rolled over, deliberately punched him in the arm, then, closing them again, rolled away from him languidly. He winced and rubbed the spot she’d hit as she responded over her shoulder.
“Right, that’s what I meant, Commander. What are you doing, sir?” If it were possible for someone to sound simultaneously polite and disrespectful, then that was exactly how Summer sounded at that moment. He shook his head, even though she wasn’t looking at him.
“Nothing that matters.” He sighed again, loudly this time, and then rolled over to look at the small countdown clock on the table next to the bed. As he looked, it rolled past the five-minute mark and steadily made it’s way down toward four. He rolled back toward her. “We’ve got five minutes to be back on the bridge, Lieutenant. We’re dropping out of the gate in six.” With a conscious effort, he sat up, turning the light from one-third strength to full brightness, and started reaching for his clothes. Next to him, Summer groaned and pulled the sheets up over her head.
“Oh, come on, Coop, just 3 more minutes, please?” She writhed back and forth under the sheets for a few moments like she was possessed by some kind of demon of minor-girl-tantrums. Cooper ignored her and started pulling on his underwear, then sliding his forest green fatigue pants on quickly, shivering in the frozen air conditioning of the room as he slipped on his socks hastily before he imagined his toes freezing and falling to the ground in meaty, solid chunks.
Why is it always so fucking cold in here? Even as he had that thought, he realized he had been asking that same question for months. Trying to ignore the thought, he reached for the indigo blue uniform top with the golden patches on either shoulder, his name and ship tag on the breast. He took a moment to register he had picked up the right one – LT. COMMANDER COOPER FREEMAN written along the top edge, with USEC TOMBSTONE written along the bottom, he confirmed. Somewhere deep in the recesses of his mind, he took the time to think about what had gone into the combination of those five words, his subconscious suddenly lost in a hallway of memories stretching back nearly five years. If he had been a man prone to strong emotions, this is when he would probably get all weepy thinking about it. The problem with that was, whenever it happened around his girlfriend, Summer would get totally and irrationally angry; the only time he ever saw her angrier was the time he’d accidentally dropped a scalding hot Venti coffee in the passenger seat of her late-model Mercedes convertible while trying to balance the drink and four of the bags she had unceremoniously shoved into his arms as they were leaving the mall. Any time he got emotional about, well, anything, she was always the first to start tearing him apart. He knew that everyone said behind his back that he was the girl in the relationship; the saddest part was, it was totally true.
Shaking all of that off, he slipped into the shirt, standing up and tucking it in as he stepped into his black dress shoes and tightened his belt, then reaching over and picking up the blue, gold and white baseball cap hanging on the wall by his side of the bed and sliding it on, the USEC sunburst design prominent, an image starting on the bill and coming up onto the front of the cap. He looked down at the countdown clock, which was just sliding past the four-minute mark, then over at Summer.
“Come on, Lieutenant. No rest for the wicked.” He leaned down to run his hand lightly along the curve of thigh hidden below the blankets. He managed to make it almost six inches along the length of her lower body when she squirmed away from him with impressive force, putting so much energy into her dodge that she nearly caromed off the bed and onto the floor. Somehow, she managed to catch herself at the last second and hovered there, teetering for an instant on the edge of the bed as Cooper stood there and watched in mute fascination, placing a bet with himself on whether she’d fall off, or catch herself before she did. He won/lost that bet when, after a precarious few seconds, she managed to scoot back onto the bed before gravity took its course. With a last baleful glare over her shoulder, she started reaching for the heap of clothes she had kicked off in her haste an hour earlier. She sat up, facing away from him as she started to put on her bra and panties, before she turned and stared at him, a slight frown on her face as she did so.
“Don’t look,” she said, locking eyes with him disapprovingly as she sat there, stone-still. He stared at her blankly for a moment, then with yet another sigh turned around and stared at the vaguely creepy cat picture on the wall. He heard her start getting dressed behind him, and after a moment she spoke in a tone of voice that was just a nose-hair away from being the petulant whine of a spoiled teenage brat: “Why do you always sigh like that when I ask you not to look at me?” she opined.
Not knowing for sure if she was looking at him, but feeling pretty confident of that fact, he shrugged. His suspicions were confirmed a moment later when he heard her snort.
“Oh, there it is, the patented Cooper Freeman Shrug, guaranteeing total apathy and passive-aggressive bullshit rebellion since who-gives-a-crap when. Why not just say what you’re thinking, Commander?” She somehow managed to turn the rank into an insult.
Eyes on the clock, watching it sweep past the two-minute warning, Cooper responded evenly, “Let’s review, shall we?” He started ticking points off on his fingers. “First and foremost: I just fucked the shit out of you, Summer, the same as I did this morning, and three days ago, and five days ago, and off and on since our third date, which was, eight, nine months ago? Second: You talk dirty and nasty in the sack, and out of it; that series of texts you sent me at work where you were practically demanding we do butt-stuff last week was a particular highlight. Third: you joke about calling your best friend to come over and have a threesome, you wear push-up bras and flimsy thongs and give yourself a Hollywood shave twice a week. The list goes on and on, but that brings us to Fourth: despite all of these things, you don’t want me to watch you dress. It’s just a little strange, that’s all.” As he finished, the clock hit one minute thirty and he heard her stand up and take a deep breath, and he knew she was about to let him have it. Goddammit, he thought wearily, I should have kept my mouth shut. He started praying for a miracle. Where the hell is the emergency bell when you need it?
At that exact moment, the emergency bell started ringing in the hallway outside the bedroom. The earlier, barely conceived argument quickly forgotten, both Cooper and Summer turned to look at one another, Cooper cocking his head to the side as he listened.
“Short-Long-Long-Long. Short-Short-Short” he mumbled, thinking to himself. He refocused on Summer. “J. S.? That’s….”
Her eyes widened. “Jumpshadow. Something drifted across the Ring Path. If we’re between a minute to two minutes transit-time from the gate, that’s at least an hour before we can get back into the transit system. Maybe it’s just a minor—” The bell rang again, and a voice that they both recognized as belonging to Chief Of the Boat Harvey started talking.
“Captain Michaels, Commander Freeman, Lieutenant Garcia, please report to the bridge. Lt. Thorn, please report to the engine room. Repeat, Captain Michaels….” The voice of the COB rattled on, and Cooper was amazed at how uninterested in his own announcement COB Harvey managed to sound. On the other hand, Cooper was pretty sure that COB Harvey could make even the most exciting suspense novel known to man seem like something written by hashish-addled burnouts slowly wasting away in a Turkish prison. The world could be coming to an end and the COB would continue to drone on in that slow, slightly bored voice, so that by the time the apocalypse actually arrived, everyone would either be sound asleep or dead from sheer boredom. Shaking away that thought, he and Summer looked at each other.
“That’s you, Lieutenant Garcia,” Cooper said with a grin.
She smiled at him. “And you, Lt. Commander Freeman,” she said impishly, and his annoyance at her from a moment ago vanished as he took in her shiny and lustrous blonde hair, her lithesome, athletic body, her bright green eyes, his gaze sliding down to her flat stomach as she finished buttoning up her shirt, hiding it from his view for the time being. He turned to pound on the wall between his room and the Captains.
“Hey, Chris, we’ve been summoned, buddy,” he called, waiting for a response from the other room. The snores continued, then stopped abruptly as he heard a click from the other side of the wall – the light switch, he assumed.
“Alright, Coop, keep your pants on,” Michaels grumbled from the other side of the wall. Cooper turned to see Summer straightening her uniform and settling her own baseball cap onto her head, checking herself in the mirror on the back of the door. He did the same as well, seeing his reflection briefly – just-above average height, average weight, average black, short hair, average blue eyes, average skin that ran neutral in the winter and a healthy tan in the summer – and realized for the thousandth time that while he would never be movie star handsome, he would also never be called hideous or ugly, either. She smiled at him, nodding at the door. On the other side of the wall, they could hear Michaels stumbling about, knocking into stuff and cursing grumpily. With a flourish, he opened the door, then gestured for her to walk through first. She gave him a nod and a sketchy salute as she passed.
“Thank you, sir”, she murmured, making her way into the hallway, trailing her fingers lightly along his stomach as she did, making him suddenly wish for another thirty minutes alone with her. He took a deep breath before he followed her out into the hall, closing the door behind him as they made their way along the short corridor to the bridge. As they passed the Captain’s quarters, the door opened and he emerged from the darkness behind him, looking remarkably well-groomed and bright-eyed for someone who’d been sound asleep mere moments before. Unlike Cooper, Commander Chris Michaels was very handsome, with the sort of chiseled features, deep baritone voice, and impressive physique that made a very positive impression on the ladies. He nodded at the two junior officers as he joined them in the hall.
“Cooper, Lt. Garcia”, he said briskly, falling into step with them as they quickly strode the rest of the way to the bridge. “Did I hear the jumpshadow alarm?”
Cooper nodded. “Yessir. I’m guessing that maybe something drifted into the Ring Path? It’s not unusual for that to happen, after all.” He shrugged. “Lotsa shit in space.”
Michaels narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. “Or maybe something was put in the Ring path? Those OPMA fuckers aren’t above that kind of thing. Remember the Battle of Trojan 935?”
Cooper shook his head slightly. “That was to take out The Martian Fleet under Kenwood, though, remember? They wouldn’t do that for a single Mayfield-Class Cruiser, would they?”
Michaels stopped and looked at him levelly. “That’s assuming they would know we were on our way to this sector, Coop. It’s most likely just a fishing expedition, if anything. Throw out a net, see what swims through.” As they stood there, Lewis Thorn rushed by, his portly form emanating a slightly damp and sweaty smell.
Thorn nodded at the captain. “Sorry, sir, I was in the can. Was that the jumpshadow alarm I…?”
Michaels cut him off. “Yes, Thorn. Get to the damned engine room!” Cowed, Thorn nodded again meekly and made his way toward the bridge, on his way to engineering. Michaels rolled his eyes and sighed. “Anyway, let’s stop dicking around and get out there.” He took a deep breath, smoothed away non-existent creases in his uniform, and then made his way forward.
As they stepped through the doorway and entered the bridge, COB Harvey stood at attention and said loudly, “Captain On Deck!” As one, the other four people on the bridge stood or sat up at attention. Michaels waved his hand dismissively.
“At ease. Captain has the Conn. What have we got, Harvey?” As he spoke, Summer made her way to the counter where the weapons station was located, and Cooper went to the navigation console, where on the screen was a blip showing their current location, and about five inches away, the nearest Jump Ring. Doing a quick calculation in his head, he realized with a grimace that translated to about forty-five minutes of travel time. He started scanning the rest of the screen.
“Well, sir,” Harvey said in a flat monotone, “it would appear something floated across the skyway and dropped us out of transit. We’ve already set a course for the nearest Jump Gate, so we should be on our way back to Jupiter Base and done in about an hour.”
Rubbing his chin, Michaels turned away from Harvey and stared at the big, blank fifty-inch screen at the front of the room. “Navigation, Conn”, he said. The navigation officer turned toward him.
“Navigation, aye”, said the pretty and slightly overweight Lt. Jamey Venning. Michaels continued staring at the blank screen in front of him.
“Please put a view of the current sector up on the screen.”
“Roger that,” she said crisply, turning back to her station and pressing a button. Within seconds, the image Cooper had been studying was on the screen in the front of the room. He pointed suddenly.
“Praxis, Conn!” he snapped.
Praxis (Proximity, Range, and Heading Detection of Electro-Magnetic Signatures on a Three Dimensional Axis) officer Tara Jenkins responded immediately. “Praxis, aye.”
“What is the object roughly twenty-eight-thousand klicks ahead and to starboard?”
Lt. Jenkins spoke evenly. “Captain, that is Comet Lucas-421. It was entered into the navigation computer two weeks ago, if I remember correctly.” That last was a courtesy; Jenkins had the kind of memory that made her children afraid to ever try to lie to her, because she would catch them, probably beat them, and then maybe even eat their pets.
“I see.” He looked over at Cooper, who walked over to him as they made eye contact. “What do ya think, Coop?”
Cooper searched the map. “What sector is this?”
“We’re in 1849. Halfway between the Asteroid Belt and Jupiter Main. So, pretty much a whole lotta nothin’ out here.” Without saying anything, Cooper continued to look at the map. Michaels waited a few seconds, and then spoke tentatively. “Uhm, Cooper?” Still no response. He put some steel into his voice. “Commander Freeman.” Cooper shook his head and turned back to Michaels. “What are you thinking?”
“Permission to have the Conn, skipper?” Cooper spoke quietly, tentatively, as though he were at church and did not want to raise his voice to disturb the holy sanctum. Without waiting for an answer, his gaze had swung back around to studying the screen, unconsciously chewing at one of his thumbnails as he did so. Everyone on the bridge looked at one another and then at him; they all knew when he was having a ‘moment’, and this seemed to be one of them. A barely palpable air of excitement rippled through the room.
No one could ever say why, but sometimes things just seemed ‘wrong’ to Cooper, and every time that happened, as Helmsman Penrose had once said over beers at the Queen Anne’s Revenge, “The shit went down.” At this point, eager for excitement, ready to mix it up with the enemy, and wanting to make a difference, everyone started getting ready. They looked at the captain enthusiastically; they were all aware that he knew what he had in his first officer, and he always let him follow his instincts.
Well, almost always; Michaels shook his head. “Permission denied, Cooper.” The group let out a collective sigh and exchanged glances of confusion. That was a highly unusual decision by Commander Michaels, they might have thought, had they been sportscasters who were unfailingly polite. Since they were neither, the ruminations actually ran much more akin to what the fuck kind of bullshit call is that fucking lame-ass crap? It was for this reason that they kept their opinions to themselves and instead stared furtively at one another, exchanging pantomime messages along the lines of dude, what the fuck, and you got me, but that’s totally not cool and even hey, when we get back, you wanna go get something to eat?
Cooper looked at him suddenly. “Chris,” he said, his forehead scrunched up in concentration, “There’s something…” he shook his head, slowly, exasperation plain on his face. “Something isn’t adding up.” He pointed vaguely at the screen. “Just give me five minutes to…”
Michaels cut him off with the same steely tone he had used on Thorn a few minutes earlier. “I said, permission denied, Lt. Commander Freeman.” He exchanged a quick glance with Summer that no one else caught; if they had, it would have gone a long way toward explaining everything that happened in the next few minutes. Cooper frowned and turned to go sit at his station, located near the rear of the bridge. “Commander!” Cooper stopped and looked at Michaels, a questioning expression on his face. “Did I tell you to go to your duty station?”
“Uhm….” Cooper stared blankly at Michaels. “Sir, did I miss something?”
Michaels frowned. “Besides your inability to comply with orders the first time they’re given? No, not at all. I want you over by Communications. We may need to get in touch with the Admiralty.” He turned away and began studying the navigation screen again. Cooper looked after him, then turned to raise an eyebrow at Summer. Can you believe that shit? What’s just gotten into Chris? She looked back at him. You best get your ass over to the communication console before you get busted back to junior grade ensign. Surprised at reading this fairly specific set of expressions on her face, he went to communications and sat down.
“Helm, Conn”, Michaels said, rubbing his chin with his fingers.
“Helm, aye,” said their pilot, Penrose. Michaels paused for a moment, still staring at the screen.
“Make your heading 323 by 007 for comet Lucas-421,” he intoned. “Let’s see if there’s anything worth checking out there.”
“Setting course for heading 323 by 007, aye-aye, Captain.” Penrose punched in the coordinates and moved the ship closer toward the comet. After a moment, the screen beeped at him. “Sir, at our current speed, estimated time to arrival at Comet is forty-four minutes, fifteen seconds.”
Michaels nodded curtly at Penrose. “Very good, Lt. Let me know when we’re twenty minutes away.” He turned and went to sit in the captain’s chair, fingers steepled before his face. The others looked at him for a moment, then turned and got busy doing the jobs that they were assigned to.
Cooper sat silently brooding at the communications station for several minutes. Eventually, Lt. Eric Higgins – a tall, lanky dirty blond with acne scars on his cheeks – leaned over toward him.
“Dude, why won’t bossman there let you do your whole, y’know,” he waved his hands willy-nilly, “thing?” Cooper stared at him for a long, long moment. Higgins stared back, then started to talk a few times, paused, and then finally said, “er….do your thing, sir.”
Cooper kept looking at him for a moment longer, then sighed. “I don’t know, Eric. I feel like I suddenly did something to piss him off, and I can’t imagine what that could be. I mean, it’s not like I kicked his dog or banged his mom or anything. Well,” he amended hastily, “not this week, anyway.” It was Higgins’ turn to stare at Cooper. Cooper continued in a rush, “so I can’t imagine why he suddenly got so short with me. Maybe it’s just his time of the month,” he joked, and Higgins gave him a smile completely devoid of warmth or humor and turned back to his screen. Cooper sighed and tried to study the same display, but his eyes kept sliding back to the view at the front of the room, now showing the course information and front view from the ship, watching over the next several minutes as the comet – already fairly sizable in comparison to everything else in this sector, which was to say, jack and shit –grew steadily larger on the screen as they approached it. The closer they got, the more uneasy he became. Pretty soon his attempts to pretend to study the communications terminal were completely gone, and he turned openly and stared at the main display. What is it? He asked himself feverishly. What did I see that flipped that switch? As his mind wrestled with that question, the comet loomed ever larger in the screen. He continued staring at it, looking for something that was…
And then he saw it.
Cooper spun to face Higgins next to him. “Eric, get ready to open an emergency channel to Ceres base in the Asteroid Belt.” Even as he was speaking, he rose to his feet and turned to make the five quick steps back to where Tara was sitting. When he reached her, he leaned down and spoke in a low, urgent voice. “I need you to do a series of elimination scans. Start checking for background radiation coming from the comet, then once you’ve got that, negate it and scan radiation coming from the sector itself, then once you’ve stripped that away, from us. Okay?” He barely waited for her to nod before continuing. “Once you’ve done all that, do a hard scan on that comet and show me what’s left.” She nodded again as he was up, bounding across the bridge past a visibly more annoyed Michaels and toward the weapons station where Summer sat. He leaned down again, ignoring the look of faint shock and disbelief on her face as he spoke. “Have your torpedo crew start preparing tubes two, four, six, and eight with the laser-lock torpedoes. You’re going to have to guide them in yourself, but that’s okay because…”
A hand on his shoulder cut him off. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing, Lt. Commander Freeman?!” Michaels’ voice cut through the room like Jason Voorhies at a slumber party. Amazingly, Cooper ignored him, shaking the hand off and continuing to speak to Summer.
“..that’s okay, because they’re going to think we haven’t seen them yet, and that we can’t hit them with anything even if we do. But those Laser-Locks will go wherever you guide them to after the software patch from last week.” She continued staring at him. “Summer? Did you get that?”
Pointedly, she stared past him at Michaels, now fuming as he stood awkwardly behind Cooper. Cooper turned around and looked at him. Michaels spoke so low that you would think no one could hear what he said, but he had at that moment achieved that pitch-perfect boiling point of anger that made his words carry to every corner of the room.
“Commander Freeman,” he said through clenched teeth, “if you do not return to your post immediately and sit down, I will have you forcibly removed from this bridge and, if need be, this ship. Is that understood?”
Cooper goggled at him in confusion. “Chris – Commander – there’s someth—”
“NOT. ONE. MORE. WORD.” Michaels drew himself up to his full six feet and three inches, his dark brown eyes looking nearly black, the skin on his face turning red and mottled beneath his pale blond hair, his roaring voice echoing throughout the room. “YOU SAY ONE MORE GODDAMN FUCKING WORD, AND I WILL KICK YOU THE FUCK OFF MY SHIP RIGHT NOW!” He pointed. “SIT. DOWN.” There was a long, long pause. Cooper, unsure what else to do, turned to walk to the chair where Michaels vibrating finger was now pointing. He was about to sit down when a throat cleared hesitantly, a voice cutting through the stillness.
“Conn, Praxis.” Tara Jenkins had already lost the hesitation she’d had when clearing her throat. Michaels turned to glare at her, but she just looked back at him with that same look in her eyes that she would have used on her kids. The moment stretched out, and then Michaels lost the staring contest.
“Conn, aye,” he said grudgingly. He might not know what was about to happen, but he was pretty sure he wasn’t going to like it.
“Captain, elimination scans are showing a very strange magnetic anomaly in the vicinity of the comet. Request permission to put the results on the main screen.”
For a moment, everyone thought that Michaels was going to fight it. Eventually, though, he sighed. “Permission granted. Let’s see what you’ve got.” Even as he said it, she was already calling the information up and putting it on the screen. A strange, photo-negative image appeared.
“This is the scan of the area around the comet with nothing filtered out.” She tapped a few buttons. The image suddenly seemed like someone had carved a hole out of it. “This is with the Comet’s radiation and magnetism in the scan.” She typed something again. Now there were only a few blips here and there, including some around the edges of the screen, and then those were gone as well. “This is without the background noise of the sector itself, and then without us.” The screen was now almost completely blank except for a few rainbow-colored blips off-center.
“Congratulations,” Summer said dryly. “You managed to find the missing Lucky Charms.”
Tara fixed Summer with a glare that would probably render Summer unable to conceive children for the rest of her life. “This, by itself, is nothing,” Tara continued after a few seconds of her laser-beam eyeballs were directed at the weapons officer, “but if you run the last four minutes at high speed through the same filters—” she tapped a few buttons, and the image on the screen started moving in a very non-organic and deliberate fashion. “—you have what looks like the movements of a man-made object. Now,” and she tapped another few keys and the comet popped up on the screen suddenly, “look at how it moves in relation to the comet.” She ran it one last time, and the path showed the vehicle – which it clearly was – staying as close to the comet as possible. “It’s attempting to avoid detection by us, because it…”
“…it knows we’re here,” Cooper breathed, forgetting the Captain’s command. To his credit, Captain Michaels had forgotten as well. “The jumpshadow drop wasn’t an accident, this bird is a hunter.” He turned to Higgins. “Check the flash traffic; are any of our ships supposed to be coming through this sector anytime soon?” As Higgins started checking the logs, Cooper stood and walked over to Tara. “Good job, TJ.” She winked at him. He looked over at Summer, who was at that moment staring daggers herself back at Tara. “Lt. Garcia, can you check to see what the spy birds have for enemy activity in this zone?” She glared at Tara for another moment, and then turned back to her keyboard.
“Oh, shit.” Higgins voice was low but firm. He locked eyes with Cooper. “Commander, Battlecarrier Rorkes’ Drift is on its way to Jupiter right now. Admiral Marsh is onboard. Remember this? She’s doing that inspection tour...” he glanced at his watch. “And they’re due to arrive in the sector in about five minutes.”
Cooper nodded, once. “Get on the horn, send a warning to Jupiter Main Command, Ceres Command, and any ships in the area, we’ve got a possible ambush of Rorkes Drift in sector 1849. We should probably call an emergency and switch to combat status...” he looked at Michaels. “Right, captain?”
Michaels earlier anger was forgotten in the face of the new developments. Now, though, he frowned slightly. “Wait, Coop, something’s not adding up,” he said thoughtfully. “Rorke’s Drift, she’s part of a fleet, right? Six or seven other ships?” Cooper nodded, slightly confused but wanting to see where Michaels was going. “And as near as we can figure, we’ve found one ship here, alone. What can one ship do against a fleet, including a carrier with two, three fighter squadrons? That’s just flat out suicide. No one on the OPMA would be stupid enough to try something like that—” He was cut off by a very loud uttering of the word –
“FUCK!!!!” Everyone turned to look at Summer, who had half-risen out of her seat. She looked up at Michaels, and then Cooper. “There were four ships that were sighted in this area 8 hours ago. Spirit, Corvus, Poseidon, and…Retribution.” At the last, everyone uttered a gasp.
Even Michaels blanched at the mention of the last name. “That’s LaFours’ ship,” he said, and he whirled toward COB Harvey, who’d been standing near the back of the room the whole time. “COB, Emergency lighting!” The lights went from low-lit yellows to a dark red.
“Lt. Garcia, prepare all weapons bays for firing! Lt. Higgins, send out emergency messages, all frequencies, informing command of the situation! Lt. Penrose, turn to heading 359 by 006! Lt. Thorn!” he shouted in the general direction of the engineering room, “Put everything we’ve got into the engines!” Everyone fell over themselves to complete their tasks as they were barked out; no one needed to be told twice, because the name of the goddamned boogeyman had just been invoked.
Henry LaFours was one of the most notorious Captains the OPMA had serving. If rumors were to be believed, he ate asteroids for breakfast, could bench press a Halsey-Class Battlecarrier, led a crew made up entirely of beautiful and dangerous women, and had a cock roughly the size of Manhattan. The number of kills LaFours’ ship Retribution – a Schrodinger-Class Nanoscreen ship, built for running invisibly along the spacelanes - had racked up was the stuff of legend. One story went that they had disabled a battlecarrier and then, rather than disappear, waited for the rescue vessels, picking off four additional ships before pulling a Keyser Soze and vanishing into the ether. Most ships and crews didn’t survive an encounter with Retribution. It was a double-edged sword – either someone was so eager to be the one who took him down that they rushed in without a sound strategy, or LaFours just managed to be a better captain and outsmart them. The closest anyone had come was a seven-hour cat-and-mouse fiasco through the rings of Saturn by the crew of Knoxville that ended with Knoxville holding an empty bag and Retribution slipping away, once again.
The crew set to their tasks with grim determination. Tara looked up after a moment at the captain. “Captain Michaels?” He turned to look at her. “We just got confirmation of engine signature on the bogey – it’s a Schrodinger, which means…” she took a deep breath. “That’s Retribution.”
Michaels just smiled. “Then we’re about to be famous. All stations, prepare for engagement.”
Cooper waited for a moment, then went to stand next to Michaels. “Chris,” he said quietly, and Michaels turned to look at him, fire in his eyes. “Shouldn’t we think about this?”
Michaels snorted. “Think about what? We’ve got LaFours dead to rights. We can take him out. We can send a message to the OPMA that they’ll never forget. This is the time to strike. Now. Now, while we’ve got the chance!” He turned to Summer. “Weapons, prepare a firing solution for the targeting computers.” He looked back at Cooper. “We’ve got to do this.” He clapped him once on the shoulder and turned toward Higgins. “Send that message to the fleet. Now.”
Higgins nodded once. “Yes, sir.” He typed rapidly, then pressed a key and sent the message.
At the console where Summer was seated, there was a double beep and then she turned toward the captain. “Weapons solution is locked in, Captain.”
“Conn, Praxis!” Tara suddenly called.
“Praxis, Conn, go ahead,” Michaels said tightly.
“Sir, the target has just engaged it’s engines and is moving at a high rate of speed.” She typed something into the console. “Target has now moved to put the comet between us and them.”
Michaels frowned mightily. “Do we have a projected path?”
Her response was immediate. “Yes, sir. Do you want it on-screen?”
“Yes, right away.” Tara clicked a button and the view of the comet was replaced by the projected path of both ships – represented by a dotted line on the display – as well as the current locations of both; it was clear that Retribution was going to use the physical size of the comet to shield themselves visually from Tombstone, and the gravitational mass of it to slingshot themselves around the front of it, so that when they came back into visual contact with each other, it would be a head-to-head confrontation at less than twenty kilometers – practically pointblank range in space. In the corner, a countdown clock was showing that there was just over four minutes until that happened. Michaels turned to the navigation officer. “Lt. Venning?”
Jamey Venning turned in her chair. “Yes, Captain?”
“Plot a new track that will put us slightly to port of the projected path of Retribution. Also, start preparing to lay the fastest possible course back to the Ring that goes to the Asteroid sector. Got that?”
“Yes, Captain.” Jamey turned to her screen and began entering in the necessary coordinates.
Cooper stood and watched all of this as the slow creeping certainty of something being wrong started to flush through his system. He couldn’t have said what or why, exactly, but he knew that bad juju was just around the corner, the same way just a few errant pixels on the main viewscreen had clued him into the presence of the enemy ship. He struggled mentally for a few moments, trying to figure out exactly how to mention it to the captain, crafting the convincing arguments in his head, examining and rejecting different phrases and ideas. He hit upon the perfect approach and turned toward Michaels, taking a few steps in his direction. Michaels saw him coming and turned to face him, eyebrow raised quizzically. Cooper smiled, all set to reason with his captain and best friend.
“Conn, Praxis, Contact!” Everyone whirled toward Tara, who was leaning over her console and halfway rising to her feet. “Retribution is bearing down on us, coming from starboard, 043 degrees by 355 degrees on the Plane of the ecliptic!” She paused, then her voice rose in pitch. “Sharks in the water! I repeat, we have three missiles inbound on our position!”
Michaels leapt into action. “Helm, evasive maneuvers! Weapons, release counter-measures, prepare a firing solution! Engineering, divert all power to thrusters!” On the screen, the view angled crazily as Penrose began flying the ship in a corkscrew pattern, attempting to evade the incoming enemy rockets.
“Countermeasures released, Captain,” Summer said evenly, and on the right side of the screen a series of asterisks appeared in a vertical row. In the background, the engines went from their usual ever-present subsonic hum to a dull roar, and several of the crew members had to look away from the viewscreen to avoid getting motion sickness. Two of the asterisks disappeared, and Summer gave a small fist pump of exaltation. “Two of the missiles neutralized, Captain.” There was a long pause over several seconds, and then the last one winked out. “Final birds gone, sir! Skies are clear.”
Michaels didn’t hesitate. “Navigation, set a course that brings us face to face with that bastard! Helm, follow navigation’s instructions. Weps, as soon as you have the shot, take it. LaFours and his career end today.” A self-satisfied grin was on the captain’s face.
Cooper watched everything with that same feeling of trepidation, frozen where he’d stopped when the Praxis contact had been called in. He finished making his way to the Captain.
“Chris,” he said quietly, leaning in close to him. “Something’s not right, here. I don’t think we should press this engagement.”
The look Michaels gave him was much closer to the expression that had been on his face when he had started losing his temper a few minutes before. “Oh, really? Why is that, Freeman? Your ‘gut’ telling you something’s amiss?”
Cooper nodded and started to talk. “Yeah, I think—”
“You think that, as always, Cooper the amazing first officer needs to upstage the captain of his ship yet again with some last minute heroics.” The sudden bitterness in his voice was enough to make Cooper feel taken aback. “You seem to think that you’re some kind of bad-ass zen master of The Jovian Frontier, don’t you? That the ship, the cosmos, the computers talk to you, feed you some secret treasure trove of information. The fact is, you’re just lucky, and I’m tired of everyone talking about your luck like it’s some kind of God-given talent. It’s just that, Coop – luck. You’re lucky, and someone like me, well, I’m just a schlub who was persistent enough to get a ship. So fuck you, fuck your luck, fuck your superiority complex bullshit. Sit down and watch what happens when someone who has actual talent gets to do his thing. We have the jump on LaFours, for once. We are going to use that advantage. Like it, don’t like it, I don’t care, but you get to sit this one out.” He pointed at the First Officer’s console. “Park it, Freeman. Now.”
Cooper stared at him for a few moments, then smiled in slight disbelief and shook his head “Yes, sir,” he said evenly, then went and sat at his assigned terminal. He hoped he was wrong, but he had a feeling he knew how things were about to unfold.
Unfortunately, as it turned out, he wasn’t wrong.
Even more unfortunately, he was proven not wrong in about twenty-five seconds.
Summer spoke. “Conn, weapons. We have a lock, Captain!”
“Weapons, Conn, open fire!” With a shudder, everyone heard the missiles leave the launch tubes.
“Conn, Praxis! Contact is turning to heading 218 by 003...he’s heading for the comet, captain.” Tara sounded unsure, like something had just occurred to her that she was still processing.
“Conn, weapons. The missiles have ceased tracking the target and are now locked onto the comet, sir.”
“Conn, Praxis. The contact is now shielded by the comet, sir. I’ve lost tracking on him.”
Michaels was trying to decide what to do when another voice broke through. “Conn, navigation!” Jamey’s voice was as tense as everyone else. “We are reading an energy buildup in the vicinity of the last known position of enemy contact, sir.”
Michaels snapped his fingers. “Onscreen.” The image materialized into a view of the comet once again. He narrowed his eyes as he tried to figure out what was happening just in front of it. Behind him, Cooper was swiveling his head from one screen to another, trying to put it all together.
And then, he did. His eyes widened, he started to rise out of the chair and point to the Praxis screen, at the exact moment that Tara turned toward Michaels, and a moment before Michaels realized that he was, in fact, totally boned. “Conn, Praxis, he’s cooking up an EMP, I repeat, he’s cooking up an—”
A white flash enveloped the screen, and suddenly every single screen on the bridge went black, and the only sound was the collective breathing of the crew. Michaels spoke quietly after a moment. “XO, Conn. Time until our systems are back online?”
Cooper tried to keep the tone of anger out of his voice. He mostly succeeded. “Conn, XO. Forty-five seconds until system recovery, Captain. Putting the countdown on the main display.” The black screen was replaced by a numeric countdown clock, spiraling down past forty seconds. He knew what was going to happen next. Forty seconds was a lifetime out here; that would give Retribution more than enough time to maneuver into position and line up a kill shot on them. Because of Chris Michaels arrogance, USEC Tombstone was about to join Titanic in the “ironically named ship” department. He shook his head, sitting there silently, refusing to let himself outwardly betray his feelings in the last few moments of the life of this ship, this crew, this day.
Michaels refused to accept defeat, even in the face of surefire catastrophe. “Communications, Conn. Prepare to launch a distress beacon when the system is back online in twenty-two seconds.” He turned to smile at Summer, an odd choice, considering the circumstances. Even odder, she simpered back at him. “Weapons, Conn, launch everything we have in the general vicinity of that comet when the power’s back up and running.” He turned to address the rest of the bridge. “All members of the crew, get ready for the fight for our lives.” He smiled again, but unlike his last one a moment ago, there was no warmth in it. He made brief eye contact with everyone, then turned his attention back to the main viewscreen and watched as the numbers on the screen reached zero. With an audible CLICK, all of the systems came back online, running through boot-up procedures in a matter of microseconds. The black screen blinked, once, and then became the default, looking out the front of Tombstone.
Retribution was filling up the main viewscreen. As it reappeared, the eight forward facing torpedo tubes blinked and a phalanx of missiles came rushing in toward them.
“HELM, CONN, EVASIVE MANUEVERS!! WEAPONS, COUNTERMEASURES NOW!! NOW-NOW-NOW!!” Michaels screamed, but Penrose was already in motion, trying to spin the ship down and away, and on the screen the asterisks appeared to indicate the decoys were out. It was an admirable attempt, but a futile one; all that ended up happening was they gave the incoming weapons a broader target to hit.
“Conn, Praxis, new contacts at the RingGate!” Tara called out. Almost immediately afterward, Higgins matched her in volume.
“Conn, communications, we’re getting a hail from Rorkes Drift, they just jumped in-system!”
The screen was spinning crazily as the ship continued to try and evade the attack, and two of the asterisks disappeared as the torpedoes took the bait. Suddenly, however, the screen began blinking red, and the word IMPACT! flashed on the screen in succession six times.
From the Praxis position, there was a bright flash, and then darkness. With a sigh of contempt, Tara slumped over and was still. The communications station let out a loud screech of static and suddenly Higgins was on the ground. Across the room, the COB yelled, bringing his hands to cover his eyes as his screen blinked repeatedly, and a moment later he then fell over like a fat, hairy, sweaty redwood tree. At the weapons station, Summer swore before falling forward, her face hitting the console and her hair spreading around her head like a fan. For a moment, there was deathly silence.
“Conn, XO,” Cooper said, oddly calm with all the carnage around him. “We have been hit once each in the Praxis array, the communication assembly, the weapons bay, the medical deck, and two hits in engineering.” He paused for a moment, then looked up at the captain. “Damage to the engines would indicate that the reactor is going to go critical in about 15 minutes. I recommend we begin immediate evacuation of all surviving crew members.”
Michaels considered for a moment. “XO, Conn, signal a priority message to the crew of Tombstone – all members abandon ship.”
Cooper nodded, hitting a few buttons, and a mild alarm sounded on the bridge. Suddenly, his console beeped. “Conn, XO, Praxis indicates that Retribution is circling back for another run. We’re dead in the water, sir, we can’t take another hit.” His console beeped again. “And we just received a message from Rorkes Drift, she’s acknowledging our predicament, is on her way to our position, and preparing to receive our survivors.” His console beeped a third time. “Sir, Retribution has launched on us again.” He waited as the torpedoes again rapidly closed the distance between the two vessels. On the main screen, they could see the incoming lines converging with their position. Again, with a dull thud, the legend IMPACT repeated several times.
This time, the Helm was disabled, and Penrose went limp and leaned back in his chair; meanwhile, navigation went dark, and then Jamey Venning gave an overly loud and dramatic scream that ended in a gurgle as she flopped to the floor and proceeded to write about for a few moments, gasping for breath melodramatically before she reached a beseeching hand toward Michaels, trying to form words until the moment she gave a death rattle and it fell to the floor and she lay there, still. Tara and Higgins stirred slightly, but other than that the bridge was, again, silent.
Cooper and Michaels stared at Jamey for a moment, then looked at each other for a longer moment, before Michaels shook his head slightly and looked back at the monitor. “How many casualties have we sustained, Commander?”
Cooper punched a few keys. He grimaced. “Seventy-nine percent, sir.” The console made another beep. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Sir, Retribution is coming around AGAIN.” Cooper gestured angrily at the screen. “Okay, fine, we get it, LaFours! You got us! Jesus!”
The rest was as inevitable as the previous engagement had been. Retribution lined itself up again. Launched torpedoes again. The screen showed the IMPACT message several times again. IMPACT was replaced by DESTRUCTION IMMINENT. Several seconds passed. Suddenly every screen went brilliant, blindingly white, then faded to black. And just like that, the destruction of the Unified Solar Enforcement Command cruiser Tombstone was complete. Somewhere, Captain Henry LaFours of the Outer Planet Military Alliance was adding another notch to his kill list. In the enveloping darkness of the bridge, there was a long, long silence.
Footsteps came rushing from the direction of the engineering section. “What the fuck was that goddamned cowboy bullshit?” Lewis Thorn spat out as he arrived on the bridge. He flicked a switch on the wall, revealing the bridge in clear, warm, forty-watt tones to be the living room of a modest-sized house. “Are you off of your fucking rocker to go after LaFours like that, Chris?”
Around the room, everyone was getting to their feet and looking at each other with varying levels of annoyance. Michaels stood in the middle of the room, hands clenched into fists at his sides. He glared at Thorn for a moment. “I had a chance, and I took it, Lewis. It took more balls than you’re giving me credit for.”
Thorn snorted. “If by balls you mean blatant and outright stupidity, then yeah, sure, balls galore.” He leveled a finger at Michaels. “Now you’ve lost your ship, and probably several members of this crew, too.” He turned the finger toward Cooper, still sitting and leaning his head heavily against his hand in a classic face-palm. “Maybe if you’d listened to Cooper when you had the chance…”
Michaels whirled in fury toward Cooper, now raising his own finger toward the seated (former) Executive Officer of Tombstone. “I disagree, Lewis. Cooper is the reason we just got screwed over!”
The looks that shot around the room at this point could be generously described as ‘flatly disbelieving’, and more conservatively as ‘mildly confused.’ Tara spoke first.
“How exactly do you figure that, Commander? Cooper tried to warn you, but first you ignored what he said, and then tried to imitate him when you realized you were hosed. How does that make this scenario his fault?”
Michaels didn’t even spare a glance at her, his eyes remaining locked on his seated friend. “His so-called talents make all of you, everyone on this crew, question MY decisions and MY authority as the captain of the ship. It’s like a kind of mutiny, except it’s emotional rather than physical. You don’t trust me – you NEVER trust me if he’s around! How am I supposed to lead you if you don’t ever give me the chance?! I’ve been playing this game for four years. I started off as a helmsman, I earned my ranks, worked my way up through the game. My best friend joined a year after I did, and the whole time, every single decision, no one ever thinks I might be right. Well, fuck that! I made a call this time, and it was mine, not his. I may have lost my ship, but I don’t regret it at all.”
Everyone looked at each other, no one having the courage to speak up in the face of such bold-faced jealousy. The silence stretched on, soon adding the words uncomfortable, long, and emotional. This was eventually broken by Summer clearing her throat and then speaking hesitantly.
“Captain Michaels is right.” The collective anvil of disbelief swung from above Michaels head to float above hers. Her voice grew more confident. “Cooper was distracting him from doing his job, and if not for that, we probably would have stood a much better chance against Retribution.”
Cooper looked at her, focusing the group’s disbelief into his gaze and his voice. “What the…? Summer, uhm, that’s kinda unfair, both as a fellow crewmember and as your boyfriend. I –”
Her next words stopped him cold and derailed his train of thought. “Ex. Ex-boyfriend.” With a very deliberate motion, she stood up and went to stand next to Michaels, who now took this opportunity to display his utter chutzpah by slipping his arm around her waist. “I was going to tell you later today, but…” She shrugged. “Now’s as good a time as any, I suppose.”
If a herd of elephants had come running through the room at that moment, Cooper would have been completely oblivious. He sat there, trying to overcome his loss for words for several seconds.
“What….how could you….” He finally choked out, then shook his head, fighting back the overwhelming urge to vomit that was crawling up his throat. “Why?” He finally asked, tightly.
Michaels shook his head. “Not important, Cooper. For right now, though, I want you–”
A computerized voice cut through the air, even as the main screen started blinking insistently. “JOVIAN FRONTIER SERVERS HAVE DETECTED THE DESTRUCTION OF USEC TOMBSTONE,” a vaguely female voice blared. “PLEASE PREPARE FOR THE RESULTS OF THE RANDOMIZER.”
“Oh, goddammit,” Penrose muttered from where he sat sulking in the pilot’s chair. “I hate this part, and I hate Gladys.” There was another collective intake of breath as the screen resolved itself into an image of Cooper.
“THE FOLLOWING RESULTS ARE FOR THE CREW OF USEC TOMBSTONE. LIEUTENANT COMMANDER COOPER FREEMAN, EXECUTIVE OFFICER.” There was a pause, then: “DEAD.”
Cooper spoke in a monotone. “Fuck you, Gladys.” The computer continued.
“FIRST LIEUTENANT SUMMER GARCIA, WEAPONS OFFICER. SURVIVOR.”
Summer smiled. “Thank you, Gladys.”
“CHIEF PETTY OFFICER DONALD HARVEY, CHIEF OF THE BOAT. DEAD.”
Harvey grimaced. “Fuck you, Gladys.”
“FIRST LIEUTENANT ERIC HIGGINS, COMMUNICATIONS. DEAD.”
Higgins rolled his eyes. “Fuck you, Gladys.”
“FIRST LIEUTENANT TARA JENKINS, PRAXIS. DEAD.”
Tara snorted. “Randomizer, my ass. Fuck you, Gladys.”
“COMMANDER CHRIS MICHAELS, CAPTAIN. SURVIVOR.”
Chris cheered and pumped his fist. “Thank you, Gladys!”
“FIRST LIEUTENANT DWIGHT PENROSE, HELMSMAN. SURVIVOR.”
“I take back anything bad I ever said about you, Gladys,” Penrose said urgently. “Thank you.”
“FIRST LIEUTENANT LEWIS THORN, ENGINEERING. DEAD.”
Lewis shook his head. “Figures. Fuck YOU, Gladys!”
“FIRST LIEUTENANT JAMEY VENNING, NAVIGATION.” There was a long pause, Jamey bringing her hand to her throat, eyes wide in anticipation. “SURVIVOR.”
“Oh, why, why why?” she wailed, hands curling into fists to pump them in the air. “I was so young, I had so much to live for, I was—wait, did she say ‘survivor’? Did I hear that right?” Everyone else in the room stared at her. She looked back at them innocently. “Right. Well. Thank you, Gladys.”
“GARCIA, MICHAELS, PENROSE, VENNING, PLEASE LOG IN TO GAME CENTRAL FOR FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS. FREEMAN, HARVEY, HIGGINS, JENKINS, THORN, PLEASE AWAIT DEATH NOTIFICATION EMAILS FROM THE GAME SERVER AND ADDITIONAL INSTRUCTIONS.” The screen faded to black and went into a test-pattern image of Mars.
Michaels turned back to the crew, smiling. “Well, okay, a bunch of you guys have to re-rez, that sucks, but don’t worry, I’ll get you all back onto my ship.” He looked at Cooper, still seemingly in shock, and his smile faded. “Except you, Cooper. You’re off my crew, and I want you out of my house. Now.”
Cooper looked around the room for a moment, and didn’t like what he saw in everyone’s faces. He frowned, shrugged, then stood up. “Alright, then. Thanks for…something….I guess.”
He turned and walked into the room he had been in with Summer just a few minutes before – a lifetime ago, it feels like now he thought to himself – grabbed his backpack and, exiting the room, turned away from the living room and walked further down the hall. Passing through the kitchen, out onto the back porch and into the warm late summer Minnesota night, Cooper made a beeline to circle the house and get to his car. Coming around the corner, he paused, taking in the Minneapolis skyline in the near distance for a moment before he realized he was standing next to the trashcan. After a moment of consideration, he ripped the patch with his name, rank, and ship assignment off of his chest and, lifting the lid, threw it in on top of a bunch of eggshells and coffee grounds. With a disgusted shake of his head, he lit a cigarette, smiling dejectedly at that – I guess it won’t matter to Summer now whether or not I smoke in my car – before he marched along the side-yard and out to the street, walking up to the midnight blue subcompact to the background buzzing of cicadas.
It was only when he reached his first stoplight that he summed up his evening. “Well, that was some balls.”