clockwork wings

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a Seafort Saga fanfic

by Serenade

Notes: Written for kangeiko in the Yuletide 2012 challenge.

"I don't think this is a good idea, sir," Tolliver said, for the fifth time.

I ignored him and pushed open the hatch to the abandoned supply station. It creaked from decades of disuse; supplies came direct to Farside Base now. The two had once been linked by a warren of underground tunnels, but we had come overland, across the Lunar surface. The tunnels had long been sealed off. Or they should have been.

"You could have sent any middy to scout this place out," Tolliver said. "You're the Commandant, don't you think this is something you should delegate?"

"What kind of Commandant would I be if I can't run inspections when I like? Or if I don't know my own base?" The recent discovery of peculation by the quartermaster had left me determined to keep a closer eye on things.

I sealed the hatch behind us, switching on the life support. The atomic generators still functioned, thank goodness, powering the gravitrons that kept us at one gee and the purifiers that recycled the air. We could unclamp the helmets from our suits and conserve our air tanks.

Strip lighting blinked on, row by row, illuminating the interior. Crates and canisters were stacked wall to wall. I frowned. Someone had been careless in cleaning out the stores. I pointed. "Those will have to be inventoried, in case they match the missing equipment. See if they're accounted for in the manifests."

"Aye aye, sir," Tolliver said, in resignation.

The floor groaned beneath our footsteps as we explored the towering aisles. The smell of corrosion hung heavy in the air. An ominous creaking rose behind me.

"Look out, sir!" Tolliver pushed me out of the way as canisters came toppling down, lethal as boulders. The floor buckled beneath their impact, tearing open a yawning hole. Tolliver slid towards it, clawing for a handhold.

"No!" I leapt forward and grabbed his hand, just in time. His feet swung in empty space, above a deep drop. I strained to haul him up, but the floor was at an impossible angle. I slipped forward, pulled by gravity.

"Sir." Tolliver looked white. "You can't hold both of us. You have to let go."

"The hell I will!" The blasphemy escaped my lips before I knew it.

We slid closer to the edge of the drop. In desperation, I fumbled out my laser pistol and fired it at the controls by the hatch. Sparks flew, lights dimmed, and gravity returned to the Lunar one-sixth normal.

We plummeted in slow motion into the pit.

* * * * *

I opened my eyes, groaning as each movement woke new bruises. A faint square of light was visible overhead. I had fallen through the collapsed floor into the tunnels below. I was lucky to be alive.

Tolliver lay sprawled nearby, motionless. My breathing stopped. I crawled over to him, feeling for a pulse. His eyes flickered open. "Good morning, sir," he said, with false cheeriness. "Can I say I told you so?"

I breathed again. He had to be all right, to so easily revert to his typical attitude.

I examined him, carefully as I could. His left leg was badly twisted. Not broken, but he sucked in a sharp breath when I moved it too much.

"Where's your caller?" I said. I had dropped mine when I drew my pistol.

Tolliver grimaced and pointed to the small device lying nearby. It rattled when I picked it up. My heart sank with foreboding. Some mechanism must have been jarred loose. It was Navy issue, meant to be robust enough for combat. Who knew, maybe the contract had gone to a favoured nephew. I tried it anyway, but there was no response.

"You shot out the controls," Tolliver accused.

"It was the only thing I could think of." It had eased our swift plunge towards death, but had I simply condemned us to a slower demise? The tunnels were sealed; we could not escape that way. And now that I had destroyed the controls, life support would be fading. Heat, light, air: all would run out eventually. But after how long? I made calculations, and didn't like the answer. Even our air tanks would only last a few hours. How long would it be before we were missed? I had disregarded protocol, and no one knew we were here. But surely they would search for the Commandant of the Naval Academy?

I contemplated the wall, and tried not to breathe too deeply.

* * * * *

"You should have let go," Tolliver said, not for the first time.

"I'm starting to wish I had, if it would mean being spared your complaining now."

Tolliver shifted and winced. He must be in more pain than he wanted to let on. Unlike his usual unflappable self, when all my harsh remarks slid off him like water off a duck. Sometimes it was hard to remember there was a vulnerable human under that breezy facade. Or was it a shell he had constructed to protect himself from me?

It was my fault, as always. I had dragged Tolliver into this mess. And now he was paying the price. He was paler than before, his breathing shallow with suppressed pain. Or was it the chill?

"Come over here," I said, reaching out my arm to him, before I could think better of it.

Tolliver jerked away. "What are you doing, sir?"

"Do you want to freeze to death?"

"As opposed to death for laying hands on a Captain?" It was a capital offence. Tolliver had been there before, risked court martial to push me aside in an emergency. As he had done today, to save my life.

"Without invitation," I said gruffly. "I'm inviting you now." My face flamed. I waited for a sarcastic response.

But Tolliver shifted closer, resting his head against my shoulder, his warm side pressed against mine.

* * * * *

The long hours ticked away. We might not survive the night. It was ridiculous, after all the perils we had faced--invasion and mutiny and rebellion--to perish in a random accident. And there was not even a chaplain to take my last confession.

"Edgar," I said. "I should have listened to you about coming here."

"Sir?" He regarded me with concern. "Do you have a concussion?"

"As Captain, I have ultimate responsibility for those under my command. It's my duty to protect them." And I had failed.

"Hasn't it occurred to you that sometimes they might want to protect you too?" Tolliver said softly. My face heated. He quirked a smile. "And you would have no trouble finding another aide. No shortage of people lining up to serve the great man."

Because they were ignorant fools, who had no idea what I was like. But Tolliver knew. He knew I wasn't a hero or a leader. He knew my vile temper and my poor judgment. And yet he stayed with me anyway. Tolliver was the one who could take anything I could throw at him. Who returned my insults with his own. I hadn't realised how much I depended on his steady presence, and even his acerbic tongue. He was not replaceable.

"It was my fault. I let you fall."

Tolliver, oddly, responded with a gentle smile. "You can't defy the laws of gravity, you know."

My throat went tight. "On board ship, the Captain is the law."

"We're not on a ship now."

No. We were at the bottom of a supply station tunnel, a dead end, for dead men--


The tunnels that had led here from Farside.

Stupid! Why had I not seen it before? The controls above would be used by ships docking with supplies from the surface, but for staff entering through the tunnels from the base, there had to be auxiliary controls below.

I could only pray that my shortsightedness had not doomed us.

I sprang to my feet. "I'll be right back."

The hatch that led towards Farside had already been sealed, but now it was blocked by fallen debris. I pushed my way through the tangle of ruined metal, heedless of the razor edges.

"Sir--" Tolliver sounded frantic. "Watch out, you'll hurt yourself--"

"Who is the Captain here?" I said.

I found the panel by the hatch, humming on standby. I hit the controls. And reversed the gravitrons.

My heart felt a thousand times lighter, as I wrapped my arms around Tolliver, and we began to float towards the surface.

"Dear God," he breathed, eyes wide in wonder. "You really meant it, about the laws of gravity." He started laughing.

Together, we ascended into daylight.

- fin -

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