Episode 00: Prologue
Bernadette. 12 years pre-War.
Danielle Grant walked into the smoky bar, pausing, and looked around expectantly. It was easier for her than most to canvas the patrons as she stood just a little over 1.8 meters, tall for most women, not to mention spacers. She adjusted the collar of her Academy-issued jacket and moved out of the doorway, oozing confidence in her walk. Just keep projecting that, she thought to herself. Reality was, she was as jittery as a newborn foal she saw in a zoo once when she was young. Dani wasn't used to dating at all really, much less a blind date set up by a friend-of-a-friend.
Seeing a motion out of the corner of her eye, Dani looked over to see a petite and curvaceous girl waving to her. She settled down across the cute brunette, smiling in relief. Hey, maybe the evening won't be so bad after all. The girl across from her extended her hand, a natural-seeming grin stretching across her freckled cheeks. "Hi, you must be Dani. I'm Bethany, but all my friends just call me Beth. So you're a hotshot pilot-in-training, huh?"
"That's right," Dani smirked, squeezing her hand gently. "Nothing in the 'Verse will keep me from my dreams. I'm going to be the best gorram pilot in the fleet, you wait and see."
Jiangyin. 10 years pre-War.
Dani lay under the sheet, a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. I feel so gorram useless, she thought morosely.
"Stop feeling useless," came the quiet, loving murmur next to her.
Dani looked over into the brilliant green eyes of her wife. "You know me too well Beth. How am I supposed to feel, though? You have a nice job lined up here, and I'm up to my elbow in grease at that crummy Blue Sun postal mechanic's job. I should be the one taking time off."
Beth reached over and stroked Dani's cheek softly, tucking her shoulder-length brown hair behind her ear. "I know, honey. But we have to face the facts. The training accident made you sterile." Dani felt another twinge of pain at the mention of the crash that ended her opportunity at the Academy. "And besides," Beth continued, "What we have saved up will only cover the artificial insemination with our DNA. You still want two, right?"
"Yeah," Dani sighed. "It's a good size. It was nice having a brother growing up."
Beth smiled and nodded gently. "I agree with you. Though my brother Mike moved out with our father when I was pretty young, it was great having Maribelle at my side."
Dani smiled back. "Yeah it's been great getting to know Mike and his family here. His girls are so cute. You think we could have two girls?"
"For you," Beth murmured, "anything."
Jiangyin. Start of the Unification War.
"You know I understand the why. I just don' have to like it." Beth was trying valiantly to hold back her tears, mostly for the sake of her two girls. Rain was a very serious and quiet 9 year old, and Caliope, while usually a very bubbly 6 year old, had joined her sister in staring wide-eyed at their parents. They knew something big was going on.
"Mike has already left, I can't just do nothin'," Dani muttered, almost pleadingly. "I know I c'n make a difference. An' Julie an' the girls c'n spend time with you, make sure everythin's okay…"
Beth sniffled quietly as Dani trailed off. "I know honey, don' you worry about us none. Just stay safe, an' come back to us as soon as you can. I love you."
Dani gathered her family into a crushing hug, as if she could mold their very scent to her. "I love you all so very, very much. Nothin' in the 'Verse will keep me away from you, I swear it."
Battle of Sturges
Dani gritted her teeth as she tried to get just a bit more maneuverability out of the CL-64 Cargo Lifter. It still felt overly ponderous, but she managed to dodge the Alliance cruiser drifting out of control.
"Cao (fuck)!" exclaimed the engineer sitting in the jump seat behind her. "How in the diyu (hell) didya avoid that?"
"Yu gong yi shung (determined effort, or where there's a will there's a way)," she barked back at him. "Tom, get back there an' gimme more power for this lun dong shi (piece of crap) or we're not gonna make it back!"
Tom unbuckled himself with deft hands. "I'm on it!" he shouted over his shoulder.
Her copilot just stared at her in awe. "I swear, I never met anyone with a callsign as apt as yours. Those wounded in the back owe you their lives, Angel."
Dani smirked, sweat running down her face. "We're not outta the woods yet…"
Battle of Du-Khang
"All right people," the Browncoat fleet officer started, pacing in front of the seated pilots. "This's a standard mission fer our auxiliary wing. Get the supplies to the front line, an' get the wounded back here. Anti-air is pretty heavy, an' there's a number of gunboats prowling overhead we ain't been able to eliminate. Not gonna lie, it's gonna be dicey."
"Just a day like any other, right Commander?" Dani piped up from the back row.
"Just fly like a madwoman, same way you always do Angel, an' you'll be just fine," he chuckled. "Get to yer ships!" he finished abruptly.
"Well, at least we got ourselves a nicer boat this time 'round," Tom panted at Dani's side as they raced to the dilapidated Shu Fu transport resting in the middle of a collection of other motley light vessels.
Dani's wingman, Rick, laughed at her other side. "Hey, at least they ain't issued us garbage scows yet! Way we keep going through ships, that's all we'll have soon!"
"Speak for yerself, Ricochet," Dani smirked. "Stop taking those canyon routes so tight an' ya might keep a ship flyin' fer longer'n a month!"
"Aw, but I like the bankin'! How d'ya think I got my callsign?"
Dani rolled her eyes, already climbing into her transport and up to the bridge to settle in, while Tom headed back to start the engine sequence. Despite Ricochet's jest, Dani had no copilot as there were more ships than experienced pilots to go around. The rate of attrition was high and not getting any better, even for unarmed ships such as they were running.
Game time, she thought grimly as she settled in behind the controls, waiting for the green lights. C'mon Angel, 'nother flight, 'nother day, stay alive an' stay frosty.
Two green lights burned to life on her console, indicating her dual engines were fired and ready to send her ship hurtling across the battlefield, straight into the mouth of hell.
Here we go…
Battle of Serenity Valley
Dani slumped back in her chair, exhausted beyond belief. She'd never pushed herself so hard or flown for so many hours straight. She knew her beloved Firefly Mark I had several holes in the hull, enough that it wouldn't break atmo anytime soon. But she managed another run, came back with several wounded soldiers, and best of all, the ceasefire announcement came over her comm on the way back. Just in time too, she was getting seriously peeved at that one very persistent Alliance gunship that seemed to lie in wait just for her. Still flying, she thought determinedly. Bugger never got a piece of me.
With a groan, Dani unbuckled her restraints (with the way she flew, they were mandatory for any of her crew and passengers) and stumbled out of her ship. She got attached enough to this one that she actually christened it the Bonnie Bethany. Hope I c'n hang on to the old girl a while longer, she thought wearily.
"Angel!" She turned at the shout, and walked over to the very small group of pilots and engineers, including her own Tom, as well as Ricochet. So few of us left, she thought morosely. Only six of us pilots, an' of those Ricochet an' I are the only ones from the start.
The others were talking excitedly, waving their hands about in agitation as she approached. "Hey now, what's the deal folks? Why ain't we grabbin' some well-deserved rack time?"
"I'll tell ya why!" Tom exclaimed heatedly. "Ground crew just let us know, all flights're grounded 'cause of the cease-fire!"
"Oookaaay," she drawled out. "I know the lack of sleep is catchin' up to me but how 'bout one of you geniuses lay it out fer me."
"Just this," replied another flier. What was Hawk's real name? she wondered absentmindedly. Hell, he only joined with them when they landed on Hera. "The top brass are letting our soldiers rot on the field while they work out terms," he continued. "No supply, no medicine, no retrieval of wounded."
That snapped her wide awake instantly. "What?" she practically shouted. The others jumped back a bit; while Angel could get excited up in the air, streaming Mandarin profanity at the Alliance who tried to shoot her down, on the ground she was as calm as a glacier.
Dani whirled around, searching for ground crew. Sure enough, they were all gathered around heating units on the edge of the field, making no move to load new supplies now that all of the wounded had been offloaded from the previous trip. She marched determinedly towards the group with a steely look in her eye, the others following her.
"You bunch! Get yer pigu (ass) in gear an' get these ships loaded!"
"Um," replied one of the ground crew intelligently. "Sorry ace, no can do, we're all grounded."
"You bun tyen-shung duh ee-dway-ro (stupid inbred sack of meat) just get it done! All of 'em, resupplied an' refueled! My authority!" Dani then stomped back to the approaching pilots. "Hawk, any other pilots in the barracks?"
"I think so," he replied hesitantly. "I don't know many who would go against direct orders-"
"Right," she barked, and whirled around yet again, stomping over to their housing unit on the base. Ricochet, Tom and a few others followed her, more confidently this time, as they saw what she was going for.
Dani burst into the barracks, and tried in vain to round up some enthusiasm for her impromptu rescue mission. Understandably, all the pilots were just as exhausted as she, and displeased with being woken from the first decent sleep in days.
"Don't let it get to ya, Angel," Tom drawled as they made their way back to the field. "We're with ya."
"That's good to hear," stated an authoritative voice from behind them. Standing with a disapproving frown on his face, General MacArthur gestured to the Military Police arrayed behind him to take the flight crews into custody. "Makes it much easier to sort out the guilty parties."
"General, sir," Dani tried to plead. "Please, you cannot possibly-"
"That's enough Captain. You are all under arrest for disobeying a direct order. In wartime, that's treason people. Get them out of my sight."
Independence Flight Base Alpha, Brig. Unification Day.
The door opened, throwing searing light across the eyes of the malnourished prisoners. They hadn't seen or heard from their jailers in days now. Each cell occupant shielded their eyes, hoping for some sort of relief at last.
All except for Dani. She stayed curled on her cot miserably, consumed with guilt over having led her fellow squad-mates into incarceration, and for letting down the soldiers whose lives were her job to save. It was the reason she joined up, to make a difference. An' now, she thought, I rot in a cell, forgotten an' useless.
Gradually Dani became aware of the murmurs of her cell mates as each door was unlocked. She looked up blearily, taking far too long to recognize the Alliance uniform of the soldiers releasing the prisoners. So that's it, then, she thought, depressed. Just like that. We lost.
"Move on, people, make a line," the soldiers barked repeatedly, not showing any degree of concern or malice towards the newly-freed prisoners. As she stumbled, confused, into the light of day, she saw lines of now ex-Browncoats, staring dejectedly forward. The line inched slowly along, until Dani was at the head, and gave her name and serial number to the Alliance military clerk sitting at the table. "Grant, Danielle. Captain," she confirmed in a monotone, checking off her name on a list. "Here are your honorable discharge papers. Please proceed to the auditorium," she continued in a bored tone. "Next."
Dani shuffled confusedly towards the auditorium, luckily finding a seat next to Tom, who seemed to be as dazed as she was. Neither spoke as an Alliance Colonel approached the podium.
"As you should all know by now, the Independent Command has surrendered. Part of the agreement of this surrender was an amnesty for troops. As you may have noticed, your discharge papers are classified as honorable." Dani looked down at the papers in her lap for the first time, realizing the significance. Her treason would not be on her record.
"We are all citizens of the Alliance and you will have the full privileges of citizenship. You will receive an Alliance Ident Card, and have the option to be chipped with it nor not, same as any other citizen. If you have any other identification, including dog tags or papers, please have them ready for the next set of clerks through the doors behind me.
"You will be released to your home system, and can make your way from the central staging area to your home planet. The Alliance will provide transportation for the initial leg of your journey. You will receive your back pay within the next few months. Any Independent scrip you now hold will only be valued for the next 60 days and may be exchanged for Alliance coin or scrip. After 60 days all Independent scrip will be demonetized.
Tom leaned over to Dani, as the ex-Browncoats started to rise and move towards the next stage in their release, and whispered morosely: "Happy Unification Day."
Jiangyin. 1 month post-U-day.
Home. Finally. It had taken a whole month to make her way through the behemoth bureaucratic system of the Alliance military to get to New Melbourne in Red Sun, and from there to Jiangyin. She had no way to send a Wave ahead either, as she was flat broke after the steerage-class final leg. She walked determinedly up the dusty road, a shine in her eyes.
She was not, however, expecting to see her sister-in-law Maribelle at the door. "Dani!" the blonde exclaimed. "You're home!"
"Yep, took some time but I finally got here," Dani explained briefly as she moved into her house. "You taking time off from the Long Reach? How're my girls?"
Maribelle opened her mouth hesitantly, but was interrupted by simultaneous squeals of "Kaasan! (Mom)" as her two daughter belted from the back room and pounced on Dani joyously.
Dani didn't even try to contain the tears of joy that streamed down her face. "My God, you've gotten so big! What has your mother been feedin' ya?"
Rain, looking up at her with a face far too serious for a 14-year-old, said "Kaasan, Mom is sick."
At a loss for words, Dani looked over to Maribelle, who was nodding her head sadly. "What? But… When… What happened?"
Maribelle disentangled Dani from her daughters gently. Dani didn't put up much resistance as ice seemed to have flooded her limbs rendering them completely numb. "It happened about six months ago. Normally we'd get her to the Core for treatment, but transportation from here was limited due to the war, as are medical supplies out here… and most of the doctors were serving in the military anyway…." She steered Dani towards the bedroom.
Dani stared at the figure beneath the sheets of her bed. Beth had the pallor of a ghost, and her usual vibrant smile was barely seen past the grimace of pain. "Honey… you came back…"
"Nothin' in the 'Verse, babe. I told ya," Dani whispered in a broken voice as she laid her hand over the paper-thin flesh on Beth's arm. "Nothin' in the 'Verse would keep me from you…"