Author’s note: set in the Firefly universe – the second of a series of character background pieces for an RPG
Bridge, IAV Tsinghai, deep space, August 14 2509
“Sir?” Connie looked up from the nav console at Captain Mike Lewins, unconsciously running a hand through red curls. The IAV Tsinghai was drifting, or so it would have seemed to an untrained eye, between waypoints in the depths of space. Her displays, though, told the true story of its speed.
“Go chase up Mackay, find out where the hell he’s got to.”
“Yessir.” She swung her chair round, and got to her feet. “He’ll be in Engineering.”
“I know that, Commander,” snapped Lewins, testily. “I wanted him back five minutes ago.”
“Yes sir.” She squeezed her slim frame round the back of Lewins’ command chair, caught Danny Ellis’ eye in the pilot’s seat, grinned at him despite herself, and made her way off the bridge.
Connie paused at the end of the crew corridor, took a deep breath, and punched the button for the door that opened onto the catwalk over the Tsinghai’s small cargo deck. Keeping her eyes straight ahead, and one hand firmly on the rail, she made her way along the metal walkway to Engineering, trying her best to ignore the thirty-five foot drop beneath her to the cargo bay floor, and hating herself for it.
She had just reached the comparative safety of what everyone called the Engineering porch, was about to punch the button for the hatchway, when there was a grinding, tearing noise from forward, and the entirety of the Thinghai’s five hundred foot length shuddered. Catching at a railing to steady herself, she swore under her breath, curses that would probably have horrified her father, curses that only increased as warning klaxons started going off.
Instinctively, she glanced at her watch, to find it still broken, and tsked. With a balled fist, she banged the hatch release. The light continued to glow red, and the ship’s computer’s synthesised voice informed her, blandly, “All hatches sealed. Hull integrity breached.”
Connie swore again, fluently, and grabbed for the intercom handset. “Bridge, this is Saint. What the hell’s going on?”
She tried her best to ignore the rising knot of fear in her stomach, hit another button. “Engineering? What gives, Davis?”
Scott Davis sounded more than a little frazzled. “Hull breach forward, ma’am. Bridge section integrity’s busted. Everything else is fine, but I can’t raise anyone.”
He hit the override code, and the hatch hissed open. She was greeted by several pale, worried faces from the engineering crew, including the missing Mackay. “What now, ma’am?” asked Davis.
She quelled the knot of panic, shut it away, let her detached, analytic side take over, like it always did in combat situations. “What’ve we got?”
He glanced down at his console for confirmation. “Basic nav from here. I can stop us, speed us up by juggling the power. Limited steering by cutting the flow to one or other engine. Can’t roll us. But whatever it was took out a whole bunch of the slave console links, and God knows what else.”
Crap. Connie muttered several less charitable things in Chinese. “Find me a suit, Mackay. And one for yourself. Scott, patch my suit’s comms to shipwide.”
Davis simply nodded. The young Lieutenant Mackay, though, appeared startled to be noticed. “Y…yes, ma’am.”
She reached for the intercom on Davis’ console. “Give me shipwide.” He punched a couple of buttons. “All stations, this is Saint. Report in. Bridge?”
She made herself inhale, exhale, slowly. “Medical.”
“Here, ma’am.” Leigh-Anne Duckworth’s calm, measured voice.
“That’s a roger.” Matthew Clarke’s lazy drawl.
She went through the list, confirmations from all barring the ghostly, silent bridge. “OK. We’re pretty much blind and deaf back here, so, keep your eyes peeled for anything on visual, report to Davis in Engineering.”
Five minutes later, a similarly suited Mackay by her side, she’d made her way back across the cargo hold, hoping the Lieutenant didn’t notice her fear, and was outside the first of the two doors to the bridge.
Like most of the newer Alliance ships, the bridge had an airlock arrangement, designed predominantly to keep boarding parties off the bridge, and allow various sections of the ship to be depressurised. The bridge itself wasn’t usually on that list. She dipped her head inside the helmet, spoke into the voice-activated microphone. “OK, Davis. Open her up.”
The hatch hissed open. “In,” she snapped to Mackay, following him inside and hitting the ‘close’ button. “OK, Scott. Cycle the air.”
The display on the wall showed the section pressure dropping, and she waited till it showed zero, and the bridge door slid open.
Behind her, Mackay retched, and a detached part of her felt sorry for him.
The bridge canopy was shattered, the Tsinghai’s command centre open to the vacuum of space. Bodies drifted, swollen, dead, around the opening. One of them, she knew without looking, was Danny.
A black shape, spinning, slowly and aimlessly, blocked out the stars. She frowned, blinked a couple of times. It was a shuttle, its nose and cockpit screen shattered, painted a dull, almost invisible black.
“Christ.” Mackay’s voice in her ear made her jump.
“Something hit us.” And deliberately, too, I’ll bet. She slid into her seat as best she could in the awkward suit, trying to ignore Mike Lewins’ grotesquely distorted body still buckled into the command chair next to it. The display was shaky, but apparently working, certainly enough to tell her that it was the only functioning console left on the bridge.
“Ma’am?” Davis. “Incoming vessel, 250 mark 80, range five twenty.”
I bet that’s not one of ours. She glanced at the scanner display. Dead. “Scott?”
“Scanners and ship-to-ship would be really useful about now.”
“I’ll do what I can, Ma’am.”
He would too, she knew. “Leigh-Anne?”
The ship’s doctor’s calm, quiet voice crackled in her ear. “Ma’am.”
The shoulder patches on the nearest body spun into view.
Lt. Cmdr Eliis.
For a second, she almost lost it.
“Ma’am?” Leigh-Anne must have known.
She swallowed, made her voice be calm, level. “Cancel that. Nothing you can do here.” It was too late. Everything was too late. She clenched a gloved fist, wished she could dig her nails into her palm. “Fire Control, I’m betting that’s not one of ours. I’ll do what I can to give you a firing arc.”
“Much obliged, ma’am,” drawled Clarke.
She punched buttons, started the half-crippled Tsinghai in a slow roll. Just then the scanner screen flickered into life, the approaching vessel tagged with flashing red. “Fire Control, confirmed that’s a hostile. Good job, Davis.”
“Ma’am?” He sounded… odd. “Scanners and ship-to-ship were just fine. Someone had shut the subsystem down from in here.”
An intake of breath, that could only have come from Mackay’s comm, made her look round, to find herself staring down the barrel of a laser pistol.
“M…move away from the console, ma’am.” The gun in Mackay’s hands wavered a bit.
Connie did as she was told, hands spread, edging towards the command chair and Lewins’ dead body. The young Lieutenant was clearly nervous, and she knew two things he didn’t. Firstly, that one of Lewins’ foibles was the old revolver he carried in a holster under his arm, and secondly… Secondly, she knew the Tsinghai’s ways under power like no-one but… like no-one left alive except Scott Davis down in Engineering, knew from experience that one of the starboard side thrusters had a sticky valve, and that coming out of a roll to starboard, the ship would lurch for a second.
One eye on her console, she watched the roll angle count down to the target she’d set, braced, waited. Mackay, face distorted through the glass of his helmet, drew in a breath to say something, just as the thrusters fired.
It happened in a blur. The youngster involuntarily stuck out a hand to steady himself, and Connie grabbed for the Captain’s revolver, with hands made briefly clumsy by the spacesuit gloves. By the time he’d recovered his balance, the gun was levelled on him. “Drop it, Mackay. That’s an order.”
Obeying it would have saved him. The laser pistol wavered in his grip, then he shook his head inside the suit. “No, m…ma’am. I…”
She pulled the trigger, the gun eerily almost silent in the near-vacuum of the bridge. Unconsciously, perhaps, she wasn’t aiming to kill, but it didn’t matter. He slumped back, hand going to his shoulder where the bullet had punctured the suit. A thin trail of blood escaped from under his fingers, and the telltale hiss of escaping air picked up on his comm microphone told its own story.
“Ma’am…” Even then, he used the title of respect, voice edging with panic as air leaked away, and with it, life. “Oh, God…”
She stood over him. “You idiot, Mackay.” Angry at the waste of a promising career. Angry at the death of people she’d called friends. People… Danny… she’d grown to love. “Don’t ever pull a gun on someone unless you’re going to use it.”
“I… I… Sorry, ma’am.” He tried to seal the hole in his suit, pressing a hand to it like it was a bleeding wound. “Ma’am… I can’t… breathe….”
“Tell me who you’re working for.” She had to know, made the question a barked order.
“I… I… Cryczek. O…on… Persephone. Ma’am?”
He was pleading, laboured breathing almost drowned out the words, hands clutching at nothing as if to pull air towards him. In ten or fifteen seconds, he’d die, in a way her father had described, in his own understated way, as ‘not pretty’. The same way Danny had.
And there was no way she could get him to air in time.
Connie placed the muzzle of Lewins’ revolver on the centre of Mackay’s helmet, and squeezed the trigger.
“Ma’am?” Scott Davis’ voice broke the silence. “You OK, ma’am?”
It took her a second or two to tear her gaze away from Mackay’s shattered faceplate. “Y…yeah. Fine. Status?” She found her seat again as she spoke, glanced at the display. Three fifty and closing. Concentrate, damnit. “You got a lock on that incoming, Fire?”
“Kinda.” Clarke never sounded concerned, even in the most desperate of situations. “Y’all could give us another thirty degrees of starboard roll before they get inside a hundred, I’d be mighty grateful, ma’am.”
“Can do.” A thought struck her, and she smiled, for the first time, inside the helmet. “It’ll be a touch rough.”
He chuckled, amid the static. “I don’ mind it rough, ma’am.”
“Good. Davis?. Kill a few running lights around the ship at random over the next minute or so. And vent a little fuel.”
The Tsinghai’s engineer didn’t question the order. “Yes, ma’am.”
At one fifty or so, the incoming ship would have them on visual, well enough to see their movement and orientation. Tapping the thrusters in an almost random pattern, she made the Tsinghai shudder and twitch as if it was alive. Or rather, to an observer outside, as though the cruiser were dying, its computer making phantom course and position corrections in response to meaningless data from damaged sensors. Always, though, there was a little more roll the way she wanted than the way she didn’t. It wasn’t smooth, but then, it wasn’t meant to be. If Danny…
He’d have teased her about it, pointing out that navigators were meant to navigate, and she should leave piloting to him.
But he wasn’t. He was floating, limp and lifeless, in the cold black night outside the shattered bridge canopy, and it was down to her.
One twenty. She punched in a final roll angle, let the ship’s computer handle it, like it was still perfectly able to, and watched the range count down. “Jus’ peachy, thank you, ma’am,” came Matthew Clarke’s voice in her ear.
“All yours, Sergeant.”
Playing chicken with Gunnery Sergeant Clarke, she resolved, wasn’t high on her list of things she wanted to do with her life. He held off until she wanted to scream at him to fire, one hand gripping the arm of her chair. When she was absolutely certain that the next second would bring their deaths, the Tsinghai shuddered along her length with the recoil of a full broadside from everything Clarke could bring to bear on the approaching Independent vessel.
“Yeeeha!” She winced at Clarke’s whoop of delight. “Gotcha, ya little sumbitch. “
Her eyes flicked to the nav screen, showing a debris cloud spilling outward from the target. Whatever damage had been done to the approaching vessel, what was left of it was still headed directly for the Tsinghai. With a chill, she realised that that may well have been its intention all along.
“Ma’am?” Clarke again, still unperturbed. “Y’all plannin’ on hangin’ around here?”
“Hell no.” She hit the attitude thrusters and the afterburners. “Give me everything you’ve got, Davis. Lets get the hell out of its way.”
It was close. Perhaps fortunately, from where she was, she couldn’t see quite how close, but it was, as far as she could recall, the first time she’d ever heard Matthew Clarke blaspheme.
Medbay, IAV Tsinghai, deep space, August 14 2509
She steeled herself, looked up at Leigh-Anne, who barred her way into medbay. “I want to see him.”
She made to protest, then sighed, stepped aside. “It’s not pretty.”
Even Leigh-Anne’s warning didn’t stop her faltering for a moment at the sight of him. Her father’s words came back to her: It isn’t a pretty way to go, Constance.
She nodded, reached out and took his cold, swollen hand. “I… I’m OK.” They both knew she wasn’t, but Leigh-Anne held her peace. Connie sat, much like… much like he must have sat with Monica Dane. Except that she had just been unconscious, breathing shallow, pale. And Danny Ellis would never draw breath again.
After a moment, the watch at his wrist drew her gaze. She glanced at her own, frozen at sometime yesterday evening, and, without really understanding clearly what she was doing, undid both his and hers, and fastened hers about his wrist.
Leigh-Anne looked away, said nothing, as she clasped the big, solid, old-fashioned wristwatch about her own.
Kowlan Federal Base, August 21 2509.
“They reckon,” said Scott Davis, appearing at her side as she watched the crew swarming over the docked Tsinghai, “about another four days and she’ll be good as new, ma’am.”
Connie nodded, and turned away from the window, fingers absently caressing Danny’s watch. “We were lucky.”
Davis shook his head. “No, ma’am. We had you.”
She stared at him for a moment, then shook her head. “I didn’t do anything someone else couldn’t have.” Danny. Mike Lewins.
“Tell the rest of the crew that, ma’am.”
A familiar voice at the door made her turn. “Da…. sir.”
Vice-Admiral Liam Saint returned his daughter’s crisp and correct salute with a smile. “Been making a name for yourself, I hear, Constance.”
“I… uh…” Praise from her father was rare, and disconcerting. “It wasn’t anything, really.”
“Not what I hear.” He stepped into the room. “You did well.”
She blushed, despite herself. “Thank you, sir.”
He smiled again. “I just spoke to the Fleet Admiral. You should get used to the Tsinghai. He said I was to tell you she’s yours.”