Chapter 1: Space Cowboy
The display grid lit up in a garland of glowing blue fairy lights, hundreds of tiny dots flitting and dancing around a dozen or so larger smears that travelled along a straight vector. She heard Cutler, her greenhorn wingman, breathe a sigh of awe as his own displays and sensors gave him a glimpse of the incoming armada that had suddenly lit up his own console.
“Keep cool noobie” she said, a trace of irritation in her tone, as she began flicking the switches and terminals that would bring her Stinger class short range assault fighter out of standby and into full battle readiness.
“Yes maam” he answered as he initiated his ship’s own wake sequence.
Eight hours they’d been floating in the void, lying in wait amidst a field of debris that hid them from line of sight as well as most long range scanners. In sleep mode, with their energy signatures barely registering a pulse, they would appear as floating debris themselves to any low tech scanners. It was a necessary precaution, not as much to hide from the inbound armada, but from the potential pirates or scavengers that regularly marauded in the outer reaches of the Margolis solar system.
They lay in waiting amidst the wreckage and debris of an ancient shipyard, a hecatomb of battleship husks and frigate skeletons that ran almost two hundred clicks from end to end with a bulging epicenter that spanned a fifty kilometre diameter. Their naked frames and stiffeners, stripped of their plating, stuck out like so many broken bones from gaping wounds.
These were the carcasses of fallen titans and forgotten gods whose history had long since passed from memory and whose legends and myths were so far removed from the everyday realities of survival in the cold empty reaches of space that few if any cared about them anymore. How this junkyard had accumulated here and, even more perplexing, how it stayed put was just one of the many mysteries that surrounded what had simply come to be known as the Boneyard. No one in Margolis Sys had the luxury of spending time and effort trying to elucidate mysteries, even great ones, so the Boneyard slept, occasionally pillaged by tomb raiders, often squatted by pirates, at the very edge of consciousness, just slightly out of mind if not completely out of sight.
Marieke hardly noticed the carcasses in any case, hardly registered them as anything more than adequate and convenient cover and the enigma of their origins and ultimate demise were of no particular interest to her. Marieke’s thoughts were, as ever, on the task at hand. At not quite thirty years of age she was already a veteran. She’d been on, and survived, more Xiantis runs than most of her peers and she was widely regarded as the best pilot in the system. This was not a source of any particular pride in Marieke herself but it represented a definite sense of purpose in the all too purposeless existence of mere survival.
Her Stinger was itself a vestige of the ships that floated aimlessly around her. It was one of the scattered survivors of whatever cataclysm had eradicated that bygone civilization, a remnant of ancient Earth tech. Over the long centuries it had been retrofitted with scavenged tech without the slightest thought to aesthetics to the point where the outer hull of her ship was a confused mass of protruding tubes and modules bolted and welded haphazardly.
Marieke had painstakingly added her own personal flair to the ship when she’d acquired it in the form of a nose art rendition of a dark skinned girl with a spider’s bloated body and legs from the waist down. The back of the spider was adorned with a red hourglass shape. The ship’s name, hand-painted in bold red letters, was “the Black Widow”.
Marieke loved the Widow.
“So many of them” she heard Cutler breathe through his open comlink with barely suppressed awe.
“We aren’t meant to take on the whole fleet Cutler.” Marieke smiled at the young man’s trepidation. “Just drive them towards and through the gauntlet.”
“I know, I know.” Said Cutler briskly “I just didn’t expect that there’d be so many of them.”
“Just follow my lead.” She said simply.
She glanced at the displays, assessing her vessel’s battle readiness and making sure all her weapons were online. The onboard computer signaled green and go. Then, slowly, she eased her ship out of the immediate cover she’d been cradled in and out into the relatively open area beyond. They’d hidden in the outskirts of the debris field, in the belly of a frigate’s eviscerated hull. Although the floating cloud of junk was relatively stable, arcing in a stable orbit just beyond the system’s asteroid belt, it was still safer on its fringes than deep within where the mess was thicker and maneuverability was infinitely more hampered. Every nudge forward had to be compensated for to keep any sense of heading and every maneuver was a complex series of thrusts and brakes from the dozen jets that dotted the outer carapace of her ship. Inertia was a bitch.
After ten minutes of nudges and pushes, she finally made her way out of the field’s most outlying debris and she duly pointed her nose towards the empty dark beyond. She squinted, peering through her thick cockpit glass, trying to catch a glimpse of the oncoming armada. It was still several thousand klicks out but she suspected she should be able to get visual confirmation shortly. It was moving at a vertiginous speed. A speed her own fighter could only match at this close range at maximum acceleration.
And therein lay a Xiantis run’s real challenge. It was all about timing. You had to time your acceleration in such a way as to match its speed from a flanking position then, hurtling along the intercept course, make an almost right angle turn, the force of which made most humans pass out regardless of any inertial dampeners or simulated G your craft might be equipped with or be able to generate.
“Fucking hell” breathed Cutler.
Marieke smiled despite herself. The kid had apparently gotten his first glimpse of the Armada. She’d spied it as well and, although she’d seen Xiantis Herds often, the sight of one arcing through a system at full velocity still struck her with awe. She could only faintly remember her own reaction when she’d seen one for the first time and she could not help but envy Cutler and his virgin eyes.
“Beautiful isn’t it” she said. It wasn’t a question.
“It’s….” there was a long silence. “I ain’t got the words”
Marieke’s smile broadened.
The Herd was clearly visible through the visual augmenters embedded in their cockpits now. The two dozen or so cows, each almost a kilometre long from nose to tail, were travelling down a straight vector. The creatures’ main bodies were sleek, elongated cylinders that flattened at either end, giving them a vaguely ovoid shape. Their heads were flat and their multiple, multi coloured antennae were scattered symmetrically across their wide brows. The bodies were translucent, almost transparent. They glowed in fierce and dancing shades of blue that ran the gamut from bright electric to deep indigo and every variant between. Their tails were long wispy filaments that trailed for kilometres behind them leaving trailing blue curls and strands of dissipated energy. They were the very image of grace as they flew through the deep nothingness.
Hundreds of calves, ranging in size from a few meters in length to a hundred meters from tip to tail, danced in meandering patterns around their mothers. While their colours and patterns were similar to their progenitors, their general shape was less defined. Only the front sphere seemed fully formed while the trailing wisps were still coalescing. They looked like giant spermatozoa rushing for an egg.
As one they resembled nothing so much as a glowing garland of blue lights dancing across a black field, the fairy lights and will-o-wisps of old. It was a testimony to both their immense size and incredible luminosity that you could actually see them from such a distance.
“Ready Noobie?” asked Marieke.
“I guess.” came the non-committal response.
“On my mark, full throttle then, again on my mark, hard turn.” She was punching up her engine’s antimatter generators, preparing for the kick “and then, follow my lead, set your onboards to pattern after my own settings and you should be fine.”
“Have they ever” she heard him gulp audibly. “Y’know, retaliated?”
“No.” She grimaced. “For all their prettiness, there still just dumb animals. Herd animals to boot. Dumb as dirt and dumber still when they’re excited. Just do as you were trained to do, follow my lead and you’ll be ok.”
“Ok.” Still hesitant. She hoped he wouldn’t become a liability. At this stage, there was nothing for it, it was go time.
“Now!” she said.
She felt the rush of acceleration immediately, the hard bang and long compression. Her ship’s monitors were keeping the acceleration to a pre-set rate, set to Marieke’s tolerance threshold. Still, it was borderline, especially when the pilot had to endure it for more than a few minutes. Xiantis herders had to endure a full half hour of full accelerations and decelerations that sent them hurtling through space at ill-advised speeds.
They jetted towards the glowing garland and the sheer size of the creatures was now becoming very real. She leaned forward and cut acceleration, the g-forces subsided immediately, leaving her gasping for air as her lungs expanded in a whoosh. She heard Culter retch.
She heard him gasp and, faintly, with a slurry and dour tone, he said: “Yeah.”
They were travelling down a direct intercept course now, following a diagonal vector, the nav computers had calculated perfectly. If they held this vector they’d collide with the incoming herd.
“On My Mark” she said “Hard turn.”
He seemed steadier now, adrenaline kicking in probably. Good.
Both ships tumbled synchronously, facing the main jets along a vector parallel to the Xiantis Herd’s trajectory. The smaller jets alongside the portside fired up, cancelling some of the momentum they’d built up. Simultaneously, the fighters’ micro field generators were producing an artificial gravity well along the starboard side, effectively allowing the ship to “swoop” along the centrifugal arc. Marieke knew her ship and its array of relatively dumb computers was doing all of this as she piloted but she also knew the science of it was beyond her understanding. All she knew is that the Widow had a hair trigger reaction speed and that her reflexes were second to none. She also had an innate sense of timing and precision and that is what made her the best pilot in the system, not the God’s be damned computers.
The Gs kicked in again and all of Marieke’s senses were focusing on the task ahead. Coming up from just behind and a little off to the side of the herd, she now had to match speed and come in close alongside. She made a couple of minor adjustments and sent the info off to Cutler’s nav computers. She was happy to see the rookie was right behind her.
The herd filled her cockpit’s widows now and she was bathed in the soft, pulsing blue of the creatures. They swam before her, thousands of blue will-o-wisps with minnow tails spinning and whirling around a dozen gargantuan cows.
“Power up your prodder Cutler.”
The prodder was a dispersed array plasma canon that was set to jolt the bigger cows but not hurt them in any real way. They were powerful enough to injure, even kill, the smaller calves however and so the trick was to pilot through the swarm of kids to get to the mommies. With a couple of well-placed prods they could change the herd’s vector and guide them along a desired path. It was with them that Space Cowboys rounded up the herd and guided them towards the pens that lay in waiting further within the system.
Easier said than done. The calves moved at incredible speeds along random and convoluted patterns, using the mommies’ electromagnetic fields to perform aerobatics and tumbles that were eons beyond the best pilots’ capabilities or their ships’ tech for that matter. Any collision, even a graze, with one of the bigger calves was almost always lethal. Even if the impact of a collision between equivalent masses at ludicrous speeds wasn’t enough, the buggers had a tendency of discharging insane amounts of electrical energy when hit. The ensuing pulse immediately fried any and all electronic components within a hundred meters of it.
Coming up alongside the tip of the swarm she quickly glanced down at her display grid, making a mental note of the pens’ relative position. She instructed the computers to plot her course. The pens were in reality a twenty kilometre corridor, a gauntlet comprised of roughly a hundred factories bedecked with Energy Containment Cells with stabilizing capacitors.
Xiantis herding was Margolis’ only real industry. A single herd’s journey from the system’s largest gas giant to Sun and back again took close to three standard years and during that time, all along their in-route; hundreds of cowboys working for dozens of harvesting pens tried their hand at bringing them home. Marieke had begun her career in the mid ranges working for a two-bit operation. She was talented however and she’d quickly been promoted to first run where she’d proven her worth time and again. Her wingmen, on the other hand, were less fortunate. In the last three years alone she’d lost two wingmen, the most recent just a few months back. Finding replacements, rookies that were either brash or desperate enough to take up such a hazardous job, was the most difficult aspect of her current employment.
The wingman’s job was to keep an eye out for stray calves and try and keep them off the lead as he or she navigated through the swirling cloud. Marieke regretted, for the hundredth time since she’d set out from Margolis Port, being here with a fucking rookie. She’d contacted Pat Morn, her first and long-time wingman, to try and goad him back into action but Pat had quit the cowboy business completely three years ago and was now working as a Longtrans Pan-Sys cargo pilot. Pan-Sys ships ran the long straight lines between neighbouring star systems on three year-long routes through deep space. Ore, minerals, gas and other raw materials, including those garnered from Xiantis runs, were transported mainly to Gliese, the hub of trade within the Pan-Sys Association, where this was bartered and sold on the open markets. He’d turned her down.
“Sure, the pay’s not as good, but the paychecks are steady and it’s not suicidal Marieke.” He’d said as they’d met at for a drink at The Vantage, Margolis’ only topside tavern. Margolis Port was a hollowed out moon of considerable size that orbited one of the system’s immense gas giants. It served as an industrial sector for the local gas and mining industries as well as the system’s major transportation hub. It was, by extension, the system’s capital city. Everyone who came into and left the system had to go through Margolis Port. The Vantage, the tavern in question, was nestled in a transparent bubble dome and gave its patrons a matchless vista of the swirling clouds of blue and green of the giant above.
“I happen to like suicidal Pat.” She’d said, half jesting.
He’d shrugged and smiled wistfully. “You’ll end up like your uncle, Marieke. Even now you’re pushing the odds. Almost fifty runs and no fuckups. It’s a fucking record.”
“Fifty three runs.” She corrected him. “And my uncle made a mistake. I don’t make mistakes.”
“Unfair and untrue. I was with your uncle. He couldn’t have…”
“Whatever.” She brushed the older man’s testimonial aside. She’d heard it often enough and couldn’t be bothered to listen to the account of her uncle’s death for the umpteenth time.
“Consider it Marieke. Steady pay, less danger and, with your skills, you could make captain in a couple of years.” He downed the last of his beer and signalled the waitress for a refill.
“And spend the rest of my life going back and forth along the same trail. I’d literally die of boredom.”
“I’ll take old and bored over fragged into a thousand particles by wild laser shot or a mad Xiantis cow.” And with that he downed half of his flat, overpriced soy beer.
“What about pirates?” she asked.
“What about them?”
“The beat up old tubs you pilot are no match for a Cutlass class or even the most run down Demolisher pirates run around in. Worse, your fat flying cargos are like raw meat to a carnivore, you’re just asking for it.”
With the amount of travel inside the sprawling system, Margolis was a notoriously bountiful attraction for pirates. News of their harrowing raids were the stuff of regular gossip and popular legend even as far as Gliese. Margolis system offered such a wide array of potential caches and hideouts with its thousands of abandoned orbitals, factories and way stations that there had never been any real, concerted effort to root the miscreants out.
“I thought you didn’t mind danger?” he leaned in with a mischievous smile.
“I accept the risks of a Xiantis run, wholly aware that I am completely responsible for any miscalculation or piloting error. I control the odds. There are no odds if you’re caught in the middle of nowhere in a flying shit bucket and a fleet of pirates decides it wants to punch you full of holes and pick the debris out of space. You just die, or worse. You don’t control anything.”
“Our tubs aren’t completely defenceless and a decent pilot can still hope to outmanoeuvre a pirate ship.”
“Keep thinking that old man, still doesn’t make it true. A cargo ship, a line driver with a single torch and moderate directional jets, has no chance in hell of outrunning or outmanoeuvring even the clumsiest pirate ship.”
He’d insisted for about an hour or so after that and had reluctantly let the subject drop when she’d threatened to leave. The simple fact was that she could not imagine that anything could be as beautiful or exhilarating as a Xiantis run. She certainly did not see herself as a cargo ship pilot running straight lines between run down space ports across the sector. Maybe when she got old, like Pat, and she felt her reflexes were numbing, but until then there was nothing she’d rather be doing and nowhere she’d rather be.
She just didn’t want to be here with a rookie. It was too late for regrets now, they had reached the herd’s head and she was about to enter in the fray.
“Auto targeting up?” she asked the kid.
“Up and scanning ma’am.”
“Green and Go.”
“No, but what the hell right?” said Cutler.
She smiled despite herself.
“Go!” she said as she gunned the jets into motion.
All sense of forward motion was gone from her vantage. The largest reference point was the swarm before her and it was matching her speed. So, in essence, regardless of the ludicrous speed she was travelling at on the herd’s vector, it felt like she was going stop and go through the buzzing swarm of glowing creatures that swam around her.
“Got it! I got it!”
“That one came too close Cutler, keep sharp, the blast almost fried me.” Marieke yelled through her coms as the blue light flashed around her vessel, fading and frizzing out of existence bare meters from her shields.
She was finding the experience harrowing. The Greenhorn was a good enough shot but he was slow at estimating trajectories. This was the third calf that’d come within a klick or less of her. He’d got them all but he was playing with fire and she hadn’t even reached the halfway point to her target yet.
“Sorry, I thought it would swerve…”
“Don’t think Rookie… you’re no good at it! Just shoot!”
“And stop calling me ma’am. For fuck’s sake, I’m not even thirty yet!” She grimaced, she was getting antsy.
Back to the task at hand. She surveyed her immediate surroundings and confirmed her position with a quick glance at her sensors. She glimpsed a path through the swarm, a relatively straight vector that would bring within prodding distance of the lead cow. She punched the jets and rocketed into the gulf, eyes scanning her displays and real time visuals through her cockpit. At this stage in the game, she relied more on an innate sixth sense than any of her readings. There was a generalized choreography to the creature’s dance, a pattern that was indiscernible as such to the untrained eye and even the most advanced sensor arrays but one that could be felt if you let your subconscious guide some of your movements. There was a beat to it, a tempo and if you let yourself be carried into it a miraculous thing happened; you became part of it and the calves sort of backed off.
At least, that was what her uncle had taught her and it was very much how she felt when she was inside a Xiantis swarm. Other cowboys scoffed at the idea, in fact computer analyses of Xiantis herds tended to prove the exact opposite. There was no pattern to the calves’ movements. It was a chaotic storm of frenzied flyers, nothing more.
But Marieke felt it nonetheless and, until she got killed, she was living proof that her theory worked.
Her displays showed a calf blip out of existence some one klick to her right and aft of her. Cutler called the kill without much enthusiasm. He wasn’t liking having to shoot the things, still saw them as too pretty to shoot. It’d pass.
Her vision slowly filled with the broadside of the lead momma. When Marieke finally came alongside, it filled all of her vision. Its bright blue sheen was blinding and, despite the mirrored shielding of the plated glass, she had to focus on the displays to avoid being flashed and burning her retinas. She punched the prodders into full charge and, making a couple of quick calculations, re-mapping her position in relation with the pens, she began firing.
The silence of deep space was a blessing in certain circumstances. This was one of them. She saw the thing’s flesh rip apart, torn to shreds, under the impact of a hundred tiny sparks of laser fire, the cyan on the wounds’ edges instantly burning to deep dark indigo, like scorch marks, and impulses of electric blue light spreading like wild lightening across a deep blue sky as the things elaborate nervous system felt the jolt of pain and sent it across it’s body. The gash revealed an empty space beyond and beneath the thing’s thin outer skin. This space was only sparsely filled by thousands of long, wispy filaments of coursing energy waves. The wound closed almost immediately after impact, as if it were made of some semi-liquid matter, and appeared unmarred after only a few minutes. Still, the pain always looked very real.
The thing had no mouth and no other sound producing appendages and so it could not have screamed even if they’d been in atmosphere. Still, the thing’s jerking motions spoke volumes. The prodding continued and would continue until Marieke had gotten the leviathan along the proper vector. Around her she saw the calves ditter more excitedly. They never got in close to the momma’s in full flight and so Marieke was safe inside its immediate area. Safe until she had to move out of the swarm. The pens were indiscriminate and the fields they used to capture calves would pulverize a ship the size of the Widow. Fortunately, once she’d gotten the cow on the right track she’d quit the prodding and the swarm would eventually calm down, giving her ample opportunity to fly out.
She was nimbly flitting to and fro along the lead cow’s starboard side, prodding it now and again, nudging it towards the pens, and almost fully concentrated on the task at hand. She kept a distracted gaze on the displays but, in all her sixty three, now sixty four, runs she’d never seen a calf come within five hundred meters of a cow and had never heard reports of it ever happening so she kept most of her attention on the momma ahead of her. She heard Cutler before she actually saw the thing that was bearing down on her.
It was one of the bigger calves, almost fully formed and already a hundred meters long, but it was a deep shade of violet and it was streaked with red lightning rods of pulsing energy.
A Male! She realized, instantly aware of the danger. She heard Cutler screaming for her to jet out and evade but it was too late. The fucking thing was almost on top of her and closing fast. There’d never been any reports of males this far out in space. None had ever been seen this far from a sun. It was widely assumed, in light of the shortage of hard evidence and scientific study, that the calves were basically asexual until they reached maturity and that the males were somehow not able to make the long treks through deep space.
In another age, one when man would have had the time and inclination for idle study, there might have been more interest in the migration patterns and breeding habits of the Xiantis as a species. Those men had had such fancies, or free time. In the here and now, men had no such concerns or interests. Xiantis could be killed and sold, that was about the gist of it. Any knowledge beyond the means of killing, butchering and transporting them had no practical use in the here and now.
The bullock was coming in fast and hard, glowing like a red hot plasma bolt.
Scientific research, such as it was, had garnered at least one tidbit of useful, applied data: the bolt and energy of a Xiantis bull fried systems and synapses. It killed humans instantly and completely. The energy of a cow was a more passive electromagnetic pulse. It fried electronic systems but had no discernible effect on human beings. Granted, human beings left adrift aboard a dead spaceship that had neither heating or life support were sentenced to die anyway but there was always the off chance, no matter how slim, that the pilot might be rescued. There was hope, or the illusion of hope.
So, she decided on her course of action in a heartbeat, she jetted to full throttle, full ahead, at eight Gs of acceleration. She thrust straight at the gigantic momma before her, hoping the outside layer of the thing’s flesh was as malleable as she thought it was. She blasted her guns full ahead, ripping a large gaping hole in the Cow’s midsection. In the three seconds that followed she gave the ship one last hard throttle, full ahead, and killed the ship, shutting all of it down, every gadget, every scanner and every essential component. Her hope was that, if the thing were dead, the Cow’s field wouldn’t fry it. She hoped she was right. And, in a last ditch effort, she plunged into it, like a bullet ripping through flesh.
The pulse washed over her like a wave of static electricity, sending her hair straight up and prickling her skin in a million tiny sparks. She had enough time to record only one thing before the intensity of the energy washing over and through her made her pass out; it was how inconceivably beautiful it was inside the mother.