Dead Air

Author’s note: set in the Firefly universe – the third  of a series of character background pieces for an RPG

Low Orbit, Beylix,  10 December 2509

“Ground Team?”

“Ready, Ma’am.” The voice was Lars Haskell’s, commander of the Tsinghai’s small force of Marines.

Connie glanced again at the rocky orb that was Beylix, close enough now the horizon line across her viewscreen was almost straight. “Good. Gunnery?”

“Ready as we can be, Cap.” Matt Clarke never was one for the details of protocol.

She could almost feel Denise Taylor, the new occupant of what had formerly been her seat at the navigation console, smiling to her right, but she didn’t look round or comment, instead glancing across at Alexei Ross… in Danny’s seat…. “Take us down, Mr. Ross.”

“Affirm, Captain.”

As he nudged the Tsinghai out of orbit, she keyed her mic to shipwide. “All hands, stand by for re-entry.”

Landing Pad, Corazon, Beylix, 10 December 2509

“I don’t like this,” Connie murmured on the command loop.

“Too quiet?” offered Denise, equally softly.

She nodded, still watching the snow-covered pad out of the bridge canopy screen. Admittedly the planet’s defences were known to be light, and they had come in, in the light of recent intelligence, away from the main port, but to expect the mines not to be defended, and no resistance on the way down…? “Something’s not right. And I hate sitting on a pad like this. Makes us a sitting duck.” She flipped channels to the one that included the Marines. “Haskell. Report.”

The Marine commander’s voice was a touch crackly. “In position: can see three civillians around the mine entrance. Moving up now…”

He left his mic on as the Tsinghai’s contingent of forty Marines charged the mine, and Connie could hear his sharp yell: “Alliance Marines: hands on heads, turn around.” She waited, breath held. “Jones, target, ten o’clock.” There was a sharp, staccato rattle of gunfire, before Haskell came back to her. “Minehead secure, Captain. Only token res…”

His words vanished in the dull roar of what could only be an explosion, that turned to static in her ear yet was still audible in the Tsinghai. “Haskell?”

Silence.

She could feel the rest of the Tsinghai’s bridge crew looking at her. “Haskell? Anyone?”

Thirty seconds. A crackle, then she could hear the sound of occasional, distant gunfire. “Ma’am. Lt. Marks, Ma’am.”

Thank God. Janice Marks was level-headed in a crisis, if nothing else. “Report, Marks.” And this was definitely heading towards being a crisis.

She sounded breathless. “It…. was a trap, Ma’am. Whole load of explosives rigged to blow.” Connie could picture her, blonde hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, with a tell-tale frown creasing her brow.

“Casualties?”

“Uh…” She paused. “Easier to say who’s not, Ma’am. Me, Jones, McGrew, Rico.” Another pause, and she could hear someone addressing her in the background, before Marks came back to her. “OK. Ma’am? Jones says they’ve got a FK188 up on a bluff. It doesn’t have a field of fire over you on the pad, but you’re a sitting duck on takeoff.”

Crap. A FK188 point defence gun, firing depleted uranium rounds, was plenty to make a serious hole in the Tsinghai at close range, certainly enough to breach their hull integrity. “Any way you can get to it?”

Another rattle of gunfire. “Nuh… uh… Nope. They’ve got us pinned down here, Ma’am.”

“Ok.” She looked round at the expectant faces on the bridge. “We’re coming to get you. Hold your position.”

“Yes Ma’am.” The relief in Janice Marks’ voice was clearly audible.

She flicked back to the command loop. “Davies, keep her hot and prepped for take off.”

“Ma’am.” Scott Davis in Engineering’s voice was as calm as ever.

“Medical, stand by.” An affirmative noise from Leigh-Anne Duckworth in the medbay. “Clarke, break out the weapons and body armour.”

“Yes Ma’am.Predictably, Matt Clarke liked that idea.

“Ross: stay here, be ready to dust off on my order.” He nodded, and she switched to shipwide, took a deep breath. “All hands with small arms training not required by their section head, report to the armoury.”

Mine trail, Corazon, Beylix, 10 December 2509

Connie blew on her hands as the little troop picked its way along the trail, boots crunching on the snow. Damn, but it was cold out here. Mike Lewins’ Colt banged against her left thigh, and unthinkingly she glanced at Danny’s watch. Half an hour since Marks’ distress call. The body armour she was wearing was uncomfortably tight, and she found the helmet irritating. Flanking her, Matt Clarke grinned, hefting the big Callahan assault rifle, and on the other side Denise Taylor looked surprisingly competent with the SMG she was holding. She keyed her headset again, keeping her voice low. “Marks, status.”

The Lt.’s voice was equally soft. “Trail you’re on ends the opposite side of the mine compound from us. Whole thing’s a killing zone. There’s a couple of machine guns covering it from near the FK188, up above your approach on the right, and another group nearer us on the left by the wash-house. Can’t get to either from here.”

Terrific. Connie exhaled, watching her breath condense into clouds as soon as it left her mouth. “Confirmed. Hold.”

Five minutes more stealthy progress brought them to the top of the trail, a ten foot wide cleft between two sheer rocky outcrops. Connie directed her scant dozen against the right wall short of the last turn before the opening, conscious of Marks’ warning, set her back against the rock and frowned. “Clarke.” She kept her voice low, as did he.

“Ma’am.” Eager, unsurprisingly.

“Think you can figure out where they are without getting yourself killed?”

He grinned, nodded. “Sure, Cap.” He traded the Callahan for Denise Taylor’s SMG, checking the safety and leaving Connie’s XO rather forlornly holding the big weapon. “Lemme go stir up a hornet’s nest.”

She couldn’t argue with that as a description of his approach. Matt disappeared round the turn, and reappeared, having aroused a fusillade of small arms fire, about two minutes later, in a flat out dive.

“Clarke?” She tried to keep the worry out of her voice, as he looked up at her from his prone position.

He was still grinning. “Heh. At least four up and to our right. Can’t get to them from there – much too well dug in. Risky to try a grenade, too. More than likely to get your own back if you miss.”

“Suggestions?”

Clarke scrambled to his feet, treating Denise to a boyish grin as he traded weapons with her again. “Cliff behind you. Should come out behind them at the top.”

Connie looked up, and swallowed. About forty feet of sheer rock, that actually reared up a way beyond the vertical for the last twenty feet, except for a narrow crack, precious little more than a foot wide if it was that, that looked like it might provide an easier path up.

Lt. Paul Rudolph, the Tsinghai’s backup pilot and navigator, frowned, rubbing at his neatly trimmed beard. “Looks like someone could chimney up that crack. Plenty of handholds to get there.”

He was, she remembered, a native of Athens originally, and used to its rocky canyons. She looked again at the steep rock face. There were handholds? And then she realised: anywhere the snow would settle was almost certainly a hold of some sort, and the cliff was dotted with little lines of white.

“Gonna need to be someone small to get up the crack, though,” observed Clarke.

Which ruled him out, being 6’4″ and broad with it. Rudolph was muscular, Denise 5’8″ and generously curved… Connie looked round at the rest of her little group, solidly built to a man and woman, and swallowed hard. Five foot two, and little more than a hundred pounds soaking wet. And she’d never in a million years be described as curvy.

Rudolph cleared his throat. “Looks like that’s you, ma’am.”

Not so long later, having been boosted the first ten feet or so by standing on Clarke’s shoulders, she was pressed against the rock, one foot on a broad ledge, one on a narrow toehold, hands hooked on a pair of handholds just above her head, a couple of grenades banging against her hip. Clarke and the remainder of her troop were, as he put it, ‘causing a distraction’, and the sound of small arms fire and the occasional bark of the Callahan punctuated the air to her left and down. Rudolph was below her, his voice relayed by her communicator into her ear. “Should be a decent foothold about six inches left and above your left knee.”

She glanced down to confirm it, immediately wished she hadn’t, and told herself off, firmly. Not that it helped. “Got it.” she replied, hoping the tremor in her voice wasn’t that audible.

Rudolph’s voice in her ear was soft, remarkably calm and level. “Get your left foot on it, push up and reach up with your right hand. There’s a hold two feet straight up from where you are now.”

Connie swallowed. “Ok.”

Moving at all was the hard bit. She forced herself to, gritting her teeth, found the foothold at the second attempt, pushed, reached with her right hand, found another handhold for her left, held on and clung for dear life. Another two feet. She risked a look up. The narrow rocky chimney was seven or eight feet above her still.

If Rudolph knew of her fear, he wasn’t saying anything, voice still measured, composed, in her ear. “Pull up with your hands, and you can get your right foot where your right hand was a minute ago.”

“What am I?” she growled down at him. “A gorram contortionist?”

He didn’t dignify that with a reply. “The next few are easy.”

Except we’re talking about this one. Connie exhaled, murmured a short prayer to whoever the patron saint of not falling off cliffs was, and did as she was told. Somehow she managed it, pulling her slim form up by main force until her scrabbling right foot found the ledge, pushed. And there she was, after a second or two and another heave, a good three or four feet further… up.

‘Up’ wasn’t a concept she wanted to consider too hard, resting her cheek against the cold rock for a moment and closing her eyes. The fact that she was fifteen feet or more up a sheer cliff was…. “God.”

“You ok, Cap?”

“No,” she snapped. “Next?”

“You could come down, and I’ll give it a shot.”

On reflection, ‘down’ was probably worse than ‘up’ as a concept.

Four minutes later, she was jammed, sweating and clammy, with her rear on a slight protuberance on one side of the rocky chimney, one knee wedged against the other, and precious little room to move. Worse, the rock she was part sat on was wet with snow melted by her own body heat, and one of the grenades and the Colt were digging into her hip and thigh. Rudolph’s voice in her ear was still calm. “Should be no problem from there.”

Connie allowed herself a faint snort. “Easy for you to say.” He’d been right: as it was, looking up (and most definitely not down), it was clear she was only just going to squeeze up the narrowest part of the cleft. “You wouldn’t fit, anyway.” She eyed the remaining fifteen feet. Dear God. “What now?”

She could hear him moving about down below, back away from the right-hand wall of the rocky canyon to see what was ahead of and above her, despite the periodic rattle of gunfire to her left. Heard, too, distinctly, a pair of shots, the zing of a bullet off the rocks below, and then a second sound an instant later, a wet-sounding thud. “Rudolph?”

For the second time in less than an hour she found herself listening to dead air.

“Captain?” It was Alexei Ross’ voice, crackly, sounding increasingly urgent. She wasn’t sure how long she’d just hung there, unable to move. “Captain?”Connie swallowed, blinked back tears. “Go ahead.”

“Independent vessel inbound. Looks to be a light cruiser. ETA our position thirty minutes.”

Where the Tsinghai would be a sitting duck. It had taken them fifteen minutes to work their way up the mountain trail, and, while it’d be quicker coming down, they’d be coming down with wounded. Crap. “If we’re not down there in twenty five, dust off. That’s an order.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” He didn’t sound like he liked it. “Ross out.”

She let out a shaky breath, looked up at the narrow chimney stretching above her, and started to climb.

Twice she slipped, one an icy handhold that cost her a torn nail, one a heart-stopping, skin- and clothes-tearing slide of five feet till she fetched up with a bone-jarring bump to the base of her spine in the narrowest part of the cleft, She hung there for a moment, left arm hooked on a rocky outcrop in front of her face, and, despite herself, sobbed.

Before her eyes was Danny Ellis’s watch, on her left wrist, counting down the minutes. He’d taken her up to one of Ariel’s many skyscraper restaurants for their one and only date, coaxed her out onto the balcony, where she’d clung tight to him, only half because it was him. Those blue eyes, touched with concern, had smiled down at her, and he’d asked in that soft accent of his: “You’re not afraid of heights, surely?” She’d looked away, nodded, shamefaced, and his arms had gone round her. Gently, “I won’t let you fall.”

“Danny.” Saying his name aloud seemed, somehow, to help. She blinked back fresh tears, began to work her way upwards again. The small arms fire down and to her left had become more sporadic, as she somehow managed to work past the spot where she’d slipped, fighting the urge just to hang there and cry, still with that soft, lilting voice in her head: “I won’t let you fall.

The top. Thank God. She just lay there for a minute, face down in the wet snow, tried to keep from sobbing, heedless of the fact that she could have been a sitting target. Clarke’s voice in her ear snapped her out of it. “Now’d be real good, Cap. Getting kinda hot down here.”

Connie raised her head. The FK188’s muzzle was visible against the sky some fifty yards away along the cliff top to her left, the rest of it hidden by a low rocky rise. “Gimme a minute,” she breathed into the mike, beginning a slow crawl, flat on her stomach, towards it. Forty feet away, conscious of not being silhouetted against the rise, she rolled onto her back, unclipped a grenade, pulled the pin, and reared up to throw it.

“Hey!”

She hit the deck, drawing her Colt, hissed into her mike: “Fire in the hole!” Watched in slow motion as the grenade came up a yard or two short, hit the lip of the ridge, spun up into the air in slow motion. Shit.

“GRENADE!”

It seemed to hang there for a second, before it dropped, mercifully caught the far edge of the ridge and rolled down and away from her.

Her ears were still ringing when Matt Clarke’s whoop of delight sounded on the comm. “Peachy, Cap.”

Not done yet, she thought, grimly, as a head and shoulders appeared briefly above the ridge. The big Colt was braced, two handed, and she snapped off a round, was rewarded with a choked off cry as the figure fell back again.

And then, suddenly, blessedly, there was silence. She gave it twenty seconds, crawled to the peak of the little ridge, peeked down. The FK188 was tilted at a crazy angle, four bodies sprawled at various angles near it. Weakly, she rested her head on her arms for a moment.

“Need a hand down, Cap?” It was the solid, reassuring, affable Matt Clarke, grinning down at her.

“I…” Christ. Where had she been for the last minute? She started to scramble to her feet, heedless of the fact that she was wet with melted snow, trousers and jacket ripped. “Incoming Independent cruiser.” A glance at Danny’s watch. “We have ten minutes to get back to the ship. Status?”

Matt helped her up. “All clear. Rudolph’s dead, Marks is counting her casualties.”

She drew a shaky breath that condensed into clouds when she let it out. “Skip that. We’ll come back for the dead after we deal with the cruiser. Let’s move.”

She wasn’t sure exactly how she got down, following Clarke down a rocky path to the mine compound. From there they ran, flat out, down the long trail to the landing pad. Her lungs were ready to burst when they rounded the final turn, to see the Tsinghai, ramp down, engines warm. She stopped at the foot of the ramp, waited. “Ross?”

“Captain? We need to be in the air like now.”

“Stand by.” Marks was limping, helped by the tall figure of Clarke, last to make it down. She shot Connie a grateful look as she hobbled past. “OK.” Connie made sure Marks was safe, and followed her aboard. “Go!”

She hung on to a stanchion in the hold as the Tsinghai lifted, lurching as Ross pulled it into a dangerously tight turn. As good as Danny? Maybe.

Medbay, IAV Tsinghai, outbound from Beylix, 10 December 2509

“Ow!”

Leigh-Anne Duckworth laughed, not unkindly. “Told you it would sting.”

Connie rested her head on her arms, conscious of the indignity of her present position. “I screwed up.”

“I don’t see how. You brought home everyone you went out with except one, and by all accounts you’re not to blame for Rudolph.”

“I froze. Several times.” Connie twisted a little. “I should have owned up to being scared of heights. I could have got us all killed.”

“Ah.” Leigh-Anne’s voice carried a sympathetic tone. “Why didn’t you ‘fess up, then?”

“I…” She sighed. “Something Don Slayton said in one of my Academy lectures. Don’t ask people to do something you’re not prepared to do yourself.”

Leigh-Anne chuckled. “Honey, that’s all very well. But I don’t see you in here setting Lt. Marks’ arm, or sewing up Corporal Danescu’s insides.”

“I…” Connie let out a breath. “You know I’m not trained to do that.”

Laughter. “My point exactly.”

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