Far far away from the wretchedness of Brimstone, a bar in the Sol system is jammed with paramedics, firefighters and rescue pilots. It is a ritual of laughing, telling stories and hard drinking — some to forget, some to re-live wild moments, and some to say last farewells.
THE AFTER-THE-CREDITS SCENE
The Burn Ward, Sol System
“So that’s when THIS crazy bastard says ‘Fuck it’ and stomps the gas!”
Laughter exploded around the bar as Amy snaked her way through the crowd, four cold mugs in her left hand and a platter of mixed drinks in the other.
The Burn Ward wasn’t much different that a lot of other ‘firefighter bars’ around the ‘verse. Portions were large and meaty, the jokes were off-color and the beer never stops flowing. The Ward wasn’t strictly a firefighter joint, the regulars included cops, paramedics, nurses, pretty much anyone involved with the thankless, bloody business of saving lives.
The walls of the Ward were a museum to that battle, where pictures of the saved hung alonside memorials of the lost. Patches, ball caps, decals, PASS devices; almost anything with a unit ID or service designation littered every shelf and mantle. Between it all a junkyard of odd parts was nailed to the wall, bits and bobs picked up from the floor of the ER or from ‘the back of the bus’ as paramedics refer to the business end of an ambulance. Every piece, a life saved.
“No wait, wait,” Casey motioned the crowd to silence. A slender imp who radiated energy, Casey was his happiest at the center of attention, grinning ear to ear, cocky as a rooster. But he did tell a damn good story. As he reclaimed center stage, the room settled down to the low ramble of TVs and clatter from the kitchen.
“So I’m thinkin,” he jumped right back in, “there’s no way in hell we’re gonna make it in time, right? We’re staged back with fleet, maybe a couple thousand kilometers out, and that lifepod is falling straight into the big blue star. So what does he do?”
Casey let the question hang for just a second, milking the anticipation. “He mother-fuckin TAC-Jumps that bitch!” Casey slapped his mug down on the table for dramatic emphasis, foam sloshing across the table.
More roars, mixed with the occasional coughing “Bullshit!” from the peanut gallery.
Casey snapped around. “Say what? Bullshit? Bullshit?? Hey Major, and I telling this right?”
All eyes turned to the four figures in black UEE flight jackets. The patches on their shoulders depicted dark angels with flaming wings plummeting out of the sky. It wasn’t often the Ward hosted regular military, much less ace fighter jocks. Today was special.
The one called Lucifer raised his hand, shaking his head. “I was there, I can swear to it. Damn near ripped my canopy off.” Amid the ‘oooohs’ from the crowd, Casey took a strutting victory lap.
Amy leaned across the table to plunk down several drinks and whispered in Dugie’s ear. “What’s a TAC-Jump?”
Dugie leaned in close, speaking over the catcalls. “Jump drives are made to cover a long distance really, really fast, but you ease in and out of ‘em. A tactical jump is, well, sorta crazy. You spool up the jump drive with no end-point set then shut it off the instant you start to jump. You end up covering a relatively short distance in a blink, but you come out of it going way, way faster than a boat should go.”
“That sounds dangerous.”
Dugie gave her a dead-flat look. “Suicidal. Worse when you do it facing a star.”
“There it is, there it is! Turn it up!!” Casey barked over the crowd, pointing madly at the TV on the wall. He grabbed the remote from a fumbling patron and spun the volume to ‘really fucking loud.’
“- INN has received exclusive footage of the incident.” The broadcaster ran color commentary over video captured by one of the many drone-cams chucked out by the Sabers at the onset of battle. The EMP had just hit so the scene felt oddly slow compared to most of the combat footage coming in off the Vanduul line. The sweeping, pointed nose of a big dark Merchantman stuck into the frame from far left, with a handful of fighters tumbling around it. Engines sputtered, lights flickered.
Casey added his own overlay. “Wait for it, wait for it… BOOM!”
A brilliant flash burst on the screen, seemingly meters above a stalled Saber. It looked like a large red bullet. Casey whipped his hand at the screen and screamed “That’s my boy!!!”
The red blur streaked across the scene so fast the camera had trouble following and focusing at the same time. It framed the object, a bright red Cutlass, hurtling towards the immense blue disk of the pulsar star. The paramedic vehicle went into a sick sliding drift, every engine and thruster spewing flame directly into the direction of travel. A panel ripped away from the forward port canard.
The crowd roared its frustration when the image on the TV froze, the remote still in Casey’s hand.
“Hold up, hold up,” he chided like a carnival barker. “Check this out.” He hopped up on a chair and pressed his fingertip on the screen. “See… THAT little black dot?” He waited for the nods. “That’s the life pod.”
More shouts, cheers mixed with the odd “No way!!” Casey cocked an eyebrow. “Oh yes-fuckin’-Way bitches, check this shit out.” With a click the video leaped back into motion.
The Cutless started coming out of its slide, still tracking about fifteen degrees off line-of-travel when incandescent blue streamers started appearing along its forward edge. “Corona contact bitches,” Casey chided, stabbing a finger at the screen. “He is scraping noses with a motherfuckin’ star.”
Amy set down her platter and watched. She was no pilot but you didn’t need to be to see that the red ship was hanging way over the edge. The cheers, whistles and OMGs continued as the Cutlass thundered after the lifepod, racing its descent into fiery oblivion. Like the Cutlass, the pod trailed larger whisps of burning blue.
For a moment it looked like the two would collide and Amy found herself holding her breath.
Light, like some powerful searchlight, shot out of the belly of the Cutless, sweeping across the pod. The ship thundered past but the beam seemed to stick, to stretch like a radiant rubber band. The nose of the Cutlass rose, engines blazing at full as the ship struggled to climb against the star’s immense gravity.
Amy understood enough about tractor beams to realize that at that moment, the pod became a boat anchor. For long seconds it looked like gravity would win the fight. The fins on the Cutless sagged, the entire airframe shook. A light bar tore away.
Then the pod lurched upwards, the elastic band snapping back. Engines screaming, the Cutlass skipped off the outermost curve of the star and hurtled into the black.
Amid shouts, cheers and high-fives, Casey dropped into his seat, exhausted with the telling. “Oh my god” he muttered, shaking his head. “Oh my god, that is the shit.”
Somebody clicked off the TV and forks rapped against glass as Lucifer stood, his own glass in hand. Three of the Fallen stood up around him. A fifth seat sat empty, a full glass on the table.
Lucifer looked around the room, shrugged, then raised his glass.
“There’s a few things you know as a fighter pilot, one of them is that not everybody makes it home. But we know… every door-kicker, trigger-puller and pipe-hitting motherfucker on the line knows… that we aren’t out there alone. We fight the enemy, be it Vanduul, pirates, whatever.” He paused, making eye contact with the emergency responders gathered around the room. “But you guys fight Death. You go out there and grab the Old Man by the throat and tear our shot-up, on-fire, dead-in-space asses out of his grip.”
Around the room eyes glistened wet, muttered ‘amens’ mixed with an assortment of oorahs and hooahs.
“We started that fight as a team of five, and —“
“Hey, what’d I miss?” Fumbling with his zipper Danny Stone, Fallen Three, hustled to his seat and snatched up his glass. He looked at Lucifer’s dead stare and shrugged “What? I had to pee.”
Lucifer shook his head, put an arm around Danny’s neck and continued. “And thanks to you, five of us came home. Here’s to you.”
A cloud of glasses lofted into the air, all tipped in one direction.
Gunza, captain of the EMS rescue ship Valkyrie, stood in the corner, silent throughout. He was a bear of a guy; tall, broad shoulders. The shot glass of very old MacCallum looked tiny in his hand.
He seemed uncomfortable with the attention and fixed his eyes on the smokey liquid, inhaling the scent before raising the glass to the room in return and throwing it back.
Wincing from the liquid fire he looked up at last, a grin parting the heavy beard before he shrugged and said, “Nobody dies on my watch.”