This is my first shot at fan fiction, in a way. It’s an extract from a novel I wrote a few years ago, ‘Atmospheric Burn’, and has been slightly reworked to fit into the Firefly and Serenity cult stories created by Joss Whedon. This version of the story is set in the time just before full-blown war between the Independents (Browncoats) and the Alliance. I hope you enjoy.
America had been destroyed less than a year after the rise to the Presidency of Sarah Palin. The Chinese, whose word had always been suspect, had taken the opportunity to assert their dominance, in direct contravention to the treaties they’d signed. The rest of the world, however, was in no mood to swap one tyrant for another, and China faced a total back down as the entire long-range arsenal of the planet was trained on it.
The uneasy peace that ensued gave everyone some much-needed breathing space. The technological advances that had been made in the lead up to the war on America had itself thrown up many further useful fields of enquiry, and the scientific breakthroughs resulted in humankind moving out into the stars, terraforming entire planets who took their name from those countries on Old Earth they’d left behind.
Shepherd Derrial Book had been born over 400 years after those events, and while parts of the recorded history inexplicably saddened him, he felt he could empathise with the decisions that had been made and where they had led. He’d worked for Blue Sun as an Operative, a highly skilled assassin, until his search for the righteousness they’d programmed into him made working for them impossible. Now he was here, and on his way to there, wherever that might be.
He’d prepared his lessons well; so well, in fact, that when he called them up over the following years they were as fresh as if they’d just been written. Time and experience had broadened his perspective, proving to him that his ability to think critically progressed as his age advanced. He added a few new comments to the teaching notes that he wanted to challenge Sienna’s mind with, just as he’d done when he first came aboard S.V. Archimedes six years ago to take up the position as tutor to Sienna’s brother, Joss. A man had to eat, and across the years he’d learned that a man had to grow.
The Archimedes was a good ship bought, so family legend said, when it was nearing the end of its useful space life, and rebuilt over several generations into what it now was. Many family ships had similar stories; from struggling Independents who had scraped together everything they could to buy a cheap cargo hauler, to the well-to-do who had expensive trophy ships custom-built and hoped to buy their way into lucrative Alliance contracts and expand their fleet.
Some operated along strict bloodlines, only allowing ownership and senior positions to pass between direct blood relatives, while for others ‘family’ was more of a convention than a conviction.
Helen, mother of Sienna and Joss, had worked her way through every position on the ship until at last her parents had retired to Australis and had given her all the helm codes. Joss had made it clear that he didn’t see his future being lived out in space. He was determined to join the Browncoats and push back at the Alliance. His parents didn’t disagree with his politics, but they didn’t want their son dead on some shithole world, either, so they sent him planet-side and revoked his travel codes. It wouldn’t stop him, but it’d slow him down for a while. Sienna had followed him planet-side a year later. It was for that reason Helen and her husband, Zac, had delayed the next round of major upgrades, and Book had stayed on because, as he said, he’d become part of the furniture.
Archimedes was in the Tugboat Class of ships, one-third engines, one-third storage, and one-third crew space, two generations newer than the Firefly Class on which it was based and that had proven itself time and again.
When asteroids with viable resources were found and claimed they would be broken up by Crusher Class ships before the Tugs filled their holds and transported the resources to their destinations, usually orbital processing stations but occasionally directly planet-side.
It was slow going for the Tugs; with holds full it could take them up to three weeks to build up enough speed to engage their CTL (close-to-light) drives. As a result, some distinctions built up over time. Some Tugs never loaded above seventy-two percent capacity; this was a ‘magic number’ that allowed them to reach CTL within ten days. However, the economics of a less-than-full hold meant that short-range trips were best suited.
The long-haul Tugs had little choice, but the trade-off was that they tended to attract and retain better crew who simply liked the space life or were willing to take longer and go farther for an increased share of the cargo value, a point on which the short-range Tugs couldn’t compete.
Zac, Helen’s husband, was at the controls, finely tuning the short pressure bursts needed to bring the ship into as close to perfect alignment as possible. Two crew were outside the ship, visually scanning the area for potentially threatening debris and dust build-up, and the rest of the thirteen were working in various areas of the hold, preparing the ship-side crushers and conveyors that would break down the larger asteroid pieces into chunks and grit that were then trundled into the holding bays.
Every part of this operation was inherently dangerous. While the asteroid had already been broken up by the Crushers and their crews, the variables of speed and pressure meant that the broken up materials were in constant and often chaotic movement that even the best field scanners might not see in time. It was for this reason the two crew were EVA; no machine could read into a situation and see potential problems as well as human eyesight and intuition could.
In his peripheral vision Zac caught sight of one of the EVA crew suddenly begin spinning end-over-end. A few seconds later the front of the ship was pelted with hundreds of shards of rock travelling so fast that not even the proximity warning sensors began their alert until after the hull had been breached with tens of fissures. In the next four minutes Zac silently said goodbye to his wife, rerouted the Bridge to Engineering, and triggered the emergency RTB (return to base) programs.
The hull, even with its self-healing plastic membrane, could not withstand the number of catastrophic fissures torn into it, and the Bridge began losing atmosphere. The location of the second EVA crew member was resolved when Zac looked to the forward screens and saw them spattered with blood.
The Bridge went into total lockdown at precisely ninety seconds after the hull breach. At ninety-eight seconds past impact Helen arrived at the other side of the door. The cold airlessness seeping into the bridge meant that rescue would come much too late, and Zac could already feel his fine motor skills skewing. When the hull breached he had a split-second choice to make: spend the few minutes of atmo he had left to get into his EVA suit, or rescue the ship. The fact that his suit hung limply near the exit showed that he’d made his choice.
As the ship began its backward propulsion away from the asteroid he began making his way to the exit. The arc of the ship’s turn, coupled with his creeping weakness, made him stumble a little. He reached the door, looked at his wife, and leaned into the glass panel. As it frosted with his breath he raised his hand and wrote “DON’T” on the glass. Helen looked at him for a few seconds, nodded, and turned, walking away.
“She’s a cold, heartless bitch. I’ve always said so.” Mathias, the Chief Medical Officer, said. Those in the galley were stunned into silence; some because they agreed but didn’t have the courage to say it, and others because they were surprised by the intensity of Mathias’ outburst. Book sat slumped forward in his chair, as he’d been since he came into the galley an hour earlier. At Mathias’ statement he let out an audible sigh, got to his feet and shuffled in the way only men growing older do, toward the exit.
As he shuffled past Mathias he stopped, looked at him with those age-wearied eyes, sighed again … and then let go with a blistering uppercut that lifted Mathias off his feet. Mid-flight, Book hit him again with a downward left so powerful it seemed to accelerate Mathias’ descent, and above the sound of his grunt a dull pop was clearly heard as Book’s left shoulder separated from its socket. He ambled out of the galley, taking the left turn to his room and not the right turn to the medical centre. No one was even certain Book felt the pain of his dislocation, such was the pain of his loss of Zac and his need to protect Helen.
[Extract from Alliance Interstellar Vehicular Event report.]
III: The forward hull had been catastrophically breached by the debris emanating from Asteroid VXJ- 1184-K, located 522,418 kilometres from England. In the four minutes left to him, Captain Zac Murphy could have, had he desired, extended his life by twelve hours had he chosen to don his EVA suit.
A strong likelihood exists that even this would not have been sufficient time for a rescue to have been affected, as the number and severity of the forward hull breaches would probably not have been sufficiently sealed in time to restore atmosphere, or effect a rescue by forcing the seals of the Bridge exit. Captain Murphy appears to have understood that in remarkably quick time.
IV: In a rapidly diminishing atmosphere Captain Murphy undertook emergency space vehicular extraction from the immediate danger zone, having visually logged the deaths of the two crew members who were extra- vehicular. The Captain rerouted almost all control, and certainly all of the vital control, from Bridge to Engineering, allowing the remaining crew to take further evasive action.
Further, he engaged the S.V. Archimedes’ RTB program. It is considered that he effected this action in case there were other ship’s breaches and his crew were, as a result, unable to respond or otherwise incapacitated.
V: In the four minutes available to him before the catastrophic environmental failure on the Bridge took his life, Captain Murphy, with selfless disregard, took those steps necessary to ensure the safety and life of those eleven crew remaining aboard the vessel.
VI: “Captain Zac Murphy is survived by his wife, Captain Helen Murphy, their son Joss who is resident on New Zealand, and their daughter Sienna who is resident on Australis.
VII: All black box recorders survived intact and have been closely analysed. Of priority interest and concern are the recordings located on BB5, 12, 13, and 20, which between them prove beyond doubt that the asteroid projectiles were the result of a weapons discharge from a partially identified pirate space vehicle operating on the opposite side of the asteroid.
Our simulations suggest this unregulated vehicle would have known – with no possible doubt – that another space vehicle was located on the opposite side of the asteroid. The unregulated vehicle fired its weapons knowing this, perhaps in the hope of crippling Archimedes so as to illegally board her or possibly for no other reason than flagrant disregard, had the U.V. (pirate) used its weapons to break up the asteroid as part of an illegal scavenging operation.
There is, at this point, no evidence to suggest the U.V. (pirate) ship was associated in any way with the unproven and improbable ‘space ghouls’ colloquially known as ‘Reavers’.
VIII: Once again we note that to date all of these U.V. (pirate) ships that have been identified or partially identified carry some form of arcane markings on their exterior or, where we have sifted through their remains, markings identifying ‘Miranda’ as the source of the vehicle under analysis.
It remains a frustration to us that ‘Miranda’ is not a physical place that may be investigated, and that no pirate ship has ever been captured intact. When such vehicles are about to be routed, they self-destruct with such force as to signify they each carry destructive charges of such magnitude as would not normally be found on any space-going vehicle, military or otherwise. Such charges exacerbate the effect of a mystifying ‘open core’ energy propulsion system.”
And that was that. An inquiry headed by public servants, reducing a man’s life to a few statements tainted with the polite politics of Alliance bureaucrats.
After the tragedy, Archimedes limped into English space, more because the situation was uncertain at first rather than because those onboard needed help in making repairs. While the boat may have been old, her systems were excellent and the crew had run a full diagnostic within hours of the event. By the time they arrived in English space almost all of the hull breaches had been repaired.
They gave credit to the English, who had sent massive assistance as soon as they received the ship’s distress call. In space dock it was strongly recommended that the whole ship be scanned for minute cracks and fractures, an extremely complicated procedure that could outweigh the value of the ship itself.
Helen gave the remaining crew a week’s leave planet-side while she thought it through. The English even waived the statutory docking fees, such was their generosity. Shuttles were arranged and the ship emptied, save for Helen and Book, the latter complaining that Earth-normal atmosphere played merry hell with his arthritis, although it had been conclusively proven over a century ago that this was impossible, and it was highly unlikely Book had arthritis, anyway. The man, when he thought no one was looking, moved liked a cat.
Time alone with Book really could be counted as time alone. He had a way of melting into the background unless and exactly until he was needed. Helen thought fondly again about him. Having dislocated his arm during what he called his ‘history lesson in advance of events’ with Mathias, he had to be cajoled out of his ‘cubby house’ as he called his rooms, for treatment.
As soon as the bio-tech had sufficiently repaired him he made a beeline for the galley. Entering, he looked suitably chastened, and he spent some few minutes individually apologising to each crew member present whether or not they were present during his floor-sweeping exercise with Mathias.
Book looked the part, the shamed bible-reading lay preacher and schoolteacher, so when he arrived at Mathias’ seated form everyone, including Mathias, was expecting a heartfelt apology. It came in the form of yet another lightning fast fist to Mathias’ face and again, Mathias hit the floor. Book slowly knelt beside the dazed man and quietly said: “This is what every day is going to look like for you until you find another ship.”
Book then reversed his round, apologising to everyone present before making his exit. Helen had been hailed and came at a run, meeting Book just as he began stepping through the galley exit. “I will not have this on my ship, Derrial. It stops now and it stops forever,” she said.
Of course, Helen had heard of the previous problem and what had set it off and, because Book was such a quiet and thoughtful soul, she’d left it without comment. This second assault, however, was met with swift action. Book looked her in the eye, looked down, and like a contrite schoolboy said: “My apologies, Captain.” He turned, putting his head back through the galley entrance, and said in a clear and contrite voice: “My apologies, everyone. I’ve behaved appallingly.”
He again ambled over to a dazed Mathias, who was now somewhat shakily on his feet. He reached out his right hand, offering a handshake. As Mathias took it Book pulled him in close and gave him a head-butt that became legendary as the story spread beyond the confines of the ship and out into the ‘Verse. “Every day,” said Book as he once again shuffled away, apologising his way out of the room and past Helen.