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The stars incline us, they do not bind us

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Charles normally sleeps poorly for a day or two when he returns to Corellia from the Outer Zones. Both the difference in zonal time and the disquieting silence of his apartment take some getting used to when his body’s used to strict eight-hour shifts and the constant, soothing hum of a ship’s mechanical systems keeping them gliding smoothly through the blackness of space. The adjustment makes him cranky and tired, which is why Raven never likes visiting him the first few days he’s home.

But tonight, he’s either too exhausted to deal with the usual tossing and turning or his body’s finally learned how to transition seamlessly from space to planet because the moment his head hits the pillow, he’s out like a light.

What follows is a deep, dreamless sleep that would have ideally lasted for at least ten hours but in reality barely even makes it to three. It feels like he’s barely shut his eyes when the chirping of his comm unit rouses him, and he’s so tired that he actually reaches out to pick it up and hurl it against the wall. But his hand knocks against it and the blasted thing clatters to the floor, still beeping. He’s far too sluggish to reach down to retrieve it so he mutters, resigned, “What is it?”

“Priority one message from Commissioner Moira MacTaggert,” his comm unit announces. “Subject: new transport assignment. Prompt response required.”

“What? That has to be a mistake. Read it to me again.”

“Priority one message from Commissioner Moira MacTaggert. Subject: new transport assignment. Prompt response required.”

“Fuck,” Charles mutters, pushing himself out of his pillow far enough to reach the comm unit on the floor. “Show me the message.”

The bright screen blinds him for a moment before his eyes focus on the words, and sure enough, there’s the order. He considers ignoring it and making the excuse in the morning that he slept through the notifications. But Moira’s far too sharp to buy that and besides, there’s a note at the bottom of the message that says, Bonus to be paid at conclusion of assignment. He figures he might as well see how substantial the bonus is before passing it up.

He sends off a request for further information and then rubs at his gritty eyes, wishing he had a stimulant. Those things are shit for your system in the long run but at least he wouldn’t feel like he’d been flattened by a slow-moving hovercar. Lots of other pilots stockpile stimulants but Charles had never gotten in the habit. Maybe with the assignments piling on like they are, he’ll finally have to.

Only a couple of minutes later, his comm starts flashing a green light and he accepts the video call, only half-surprised that Moira’s awake at this time of night. Sometimes he wonders if she ever sleeps.

“Sorry for waking you up,” she says when she sees him. From the backdrop, it looks like she’s sitting in her office, as alert and well-groomed as ever. She doesn’t even have shadows under her eyes, which has always baffled Charles. Even when they were at the Academy together pulling three all-nighters in a row studying for finals, she’d always come to class the next day looking as if she’d just woken up from the best sleep of her life. Charles always looked like he’d spent the morning fighting his way out of a trash compactor.

“No, you’re not,” he grumbles. He doesn’t bother to sit up, even though Moira’s his superior officer; they’re too good of friends to stand on decorum in private. “Tell me I’m misunderstanding your message.”  

“You’re not. I need you at Amiari ready to ship out at 0800.”

Charles sinks further down into his pillow. “I just got home today. Pilots are supposed to have at least three days’ leave before shipping out again.”

“This is a special case. You were personally requested by the admirals to go on this.”

Charles’ frown deepens. “Personally requested?” He pulls up her previous message again and scans it through, his stomach sinking with every word. “Destination OZ-48. That’s a six-month round trip, Moira. You know Raven’s due in three months and I have to be here for that.”

“This is of utmost priority,” Moira replies. At least she sounds contrite now. “I wouldn’t be assigning this to you if it weren’t important.”

“What’s so important—” He cuts off, attention snagging on the cargo list. “Wait, inmates? We’re transporting prisoners?”

“Two thousand seventy-four of them,” Moira confirms without batting an eye. “KG Penitentiary was built almost two hundred years ago and it’s falling apart. IF Command has decided that relocation would be a better alternative to renovation. The new prison in OZ-48 is state-of-the-art and it’s got plenty of vacancies. Everything’s ready for them, they just have to be moved.”

“Over two thousand,” Charles says, glancing through the attached manifest. “A whole penitentiary—that’s way too many for a standard Firefly military transport. Even normal prison ships aren’t designed to hold so many inmates at a time.”

Moira nods. “Which is why IF engineers have been hard at work for the last two months retrofitting a Constitution-class transport with extra security measures and accommodations.”

“The last two months?” Charles echoes, brow furrowing. “Then why am I only finding out about this assignment now?”

“One of the six pilots had to drop out. He came down with Silurean fever this morning and the doctors have grounded him. You’re the only other IF pilot on Corellia qualified to fly Constitution-class.”

Charles groans. “Right now I’m really wishing I hadn’t taken that extra semester of Advanced Piloting.”

Moira cracks a grin. “Look, it’s not going to be too bad. Even though you’re transporting unusual cargo, the security will be top-notch. You’ll get a pretty hefty bonus when you get back, probably enough for you to finally splurge on that hovercycle you’ve got your eye on. And you’ll be flying under Captain Huxley. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”

“And Raven? I promised her I’d be here when she had the baby.”

“And I am sorry for that, Charles. Truly. But…”

“But duty calls,” he finishes with a sigh. Mentally, he’s already preparing for Raven’s angry silences; it seems like all he can do these days is disappoint her. “Okay, fine. I’ll see you at the space bay tomorrow morning?”

“Yes, I’ll be there to see you off. Try to get some more sleep tonight.”

“Too late for that,” he gripes as he signs off and tosses the comm back onto the nightstand.

He’s right: he doesn’t sleep another wink that night.

 

*

 

Amiari Space Bay is the largest on Corellia and the headquarters of the Intergalactic Federation’s military forces on the planet. The base is a constant flurry of motion at every hour of every day, with shuttles zooming from port to port, personnel milling about in every direction, and starships docking and undocking in orderly fashion. The docks in the single digits are intended for the largest space craft, so Charles takes a shuttle to Terminal A and gets off just as Moira appears outside of Dock 5.

“There you are,” she says, spotting him instantly. “Come on, I’ll introduce you to Huxley.”

“We’ve met before,” Charles tells her as they head through to Dock 5. The buzz of thousands of minds flit against his own, and he shuts out the cacophony with some effort. Places as crowded as a space bay are never fun. He can already feel a slight headache starting to form between his eyes. “I flew under him once out to IZ-7. It was years ago though. He probably doesn’t remember me.”

“He might.” Moira smiles. “You’re a memorable person.”  

As they walk down the long tunnel toward the loading area, Charles gets his first glimpse of the ship he’s going to spend the next six months piloting. The tunnel is lined with glass windows that afford an unparalleled view of the cavernous open space of the actual dock where the ship is anchored. She’s enormous, a hundred times larger than the Firefly transports Charles has been flying for the last couple of years. Sleek, black, and long, she’s intimidating and powerful, designed to comfortably carry up to six thousand crewmembers. On her hull in elegant white letters is her name: FSS Serenity.

“Beautiful ship, isn’t she?” Moira asks, following his admiring gaze.

Charles eyes the long, thin shape of the ship, so different from the blocky design of the Firefly class. “You know I haven’t flown a Constitution class in over a year, right?”

“Yes, but your scores on your aviation eval two years ago were impeccable. Anyway, you’ll be on rotation with five other pilots, two on the bridge at all times. You’ll have someone there to prod you in the right direction.”

“Reassuring, really.”

Captain Frank Huxley is standing by the loading door when they arrive. At his side is a young black man with a tablet currently displaying what looks like part of an impulse engine. He’s pointing out something with a stylus but pauses as they approach.

“Captain Huxley,” Moira says warmly, shaking his hand.  

“Commissioner MacTaggert.” Huxley’s smile creases long lines around his mouth. He’s nearly sixty now, if Charles’ memory serves him correctly. Age has not been very kind to him but he still has a genial bearing and some trace of his youthful handsomeness remains in his nose and eyes. “Here to see us off?”

“Yes. Allow me to introduce you to Lieutenant Charles Xavier, your sixth pilot.”

Huxley shakes Charles’ hand firmly. “Lieutenant. We’ve met before.”

“Yes, sir. I flew under you three years ago.”

“Very good. Then I know I can count on you.” The captain releases his hand and waves to his companion. “This is Armando Muñoz, my assistant engineer.”

“Pleasure,” Charles says.

Muñoz nods. “Likewise.”

“You should go ahead and get settled,” Huxley says to Charles. “We’ll be undocking at 0845.”

“Yes, sir.”

As the captain turns back to the conversation with his engineer, Moira gives Charles a quick hug and then pats him on the shoulder. “I’ll see you in six months.”

“Holding my bonus pay, hopefully,” he says wryly.

She laughs. “You can be sure of it. I promise to visit Raven in the hospital as well and update you on the baby.”

“You’d better.” Three months down the road, Raven will probably still be pissed at him enough not to bother to even send him one picture. The first thing he’s going to do with his payday when he gets back is buy her and the baby something ridiculous and charming.

“Fly safe,” Moira calls as he turns toward the loading door.

Charles grins and gives her a two-finger salute. “When do I not?”

 

*

 

Their first stop is IZ-37 to load up the prisoners. From the Core Zones to the Inner Zones is a three-day trip so Charles spends the time getting acquainted with his fellow pilots and with the general layout of the ship. He’d studied the design of the Constitution class starship at the Academy (one of the only exams in his entire academic career that he’d almost failed because he’s shockingly bad at memorizing blueprints) so he knows generally where all the major areas are: galley, mess hall, crew quarters, bridge, cargo bay. Since the Serenity has been retrofitted, he spends a few idle hours familiarizing himself with the modifications. Never fly a ship you don’t know in and out, is what his freshman flying instructor used to say. Charles figures a passing knowledge of the Serenity will have to do.

The other five pilots on the ship are competent, amiable people. Four are humans and one is a mutant and all of them are already friends. It’s obvious that they’ve already worked together before but Charles doesn’t feel like an outsider for long; they’re chatty and more than willing to envelop him into their group. They don’t even flinch when he tells them he’s a telepath, and he decides he’s going to have no problems with sharing shifts with them for the next half year.

The whole ambience in the ship is sleepy and relaxed. Charles hasn’t been on a ship that feels this calm in a long while.

Then, on the third day, KG Penitentiary comes into view.

Charles is off-duty when they arrive so he only realizes they’re nearing the prison when the announcement overhead informs crewmembers that they’ll be docking momentarily. Less than ten minutes later, the ship shudders as the docking mechanisms lock in around its hull and when Charles gets up to peer out the window of his quarters, he can see the gray block of the prison station just outside.   

All off-duty crew are ordered to remain in their quarters during the prisoner transfer, so in the end, Charles sees none of it. After he spends an hour sitting by his holoscreen terminal aimlessly reading through news from Corellia, Huxley announces on the overhead, “Cargo is loaded. Crew, prepare for undocking.” And that’s that.

“How is everything?” Moira asks him that afternoon on a comm call. The Serenity has an excellent communications array; in the older Firefly-class ships, comm calls are sometimes grainy and broken up. But here, Moira could have been standing in front of him in person and she wouldn’t have looked any clearer.

“Good,” Charles replies as he snacks on chips from the mess hall. “Prisoner transfer went smoothly. We’re twelve days out from OZ-1. Another two and a half months to OZ-48 and then we can head home.”

“Good to hear. You know, I talked to Raven today and she’s pretty upset with you.”

“I wonder whose fault that is,” Charles says, giving Moira a baleful look. “I deliberately cleared my schedule to be home on the due date and then you slapped me on this detail. It’s you she should be cross with.”

Moira shakes her head with a laugh. “Alright, I accept full responsibility. Damn, I suppose this means she won’t be naming the baby after me.”

“She was never naming the baby after you,” Charles sniffs. “Charles is a much better name for a kid.”

“And if it’s a girl?”

“Charlotte,” Charles replies without missing a beat.

Moira rolls her eyes. “Of course. I should’ve known.” She’s very obviously fighting not to grin though and they end up laughing together, both well aware of the fact that Raven would probably name her baby after their late stepfather before she ever named it after Charles.

“So how’s Sean coming along?” Charles asks slyly, and Moira sighs.

“We’ve been on three coffee dates and they’ve gone fine, but he just pinged me before I called you, actually, with an invite to another one.”

“Wait, that’s good, right? I thought we liked Sean.” Charles may or may not be a little over invested in the Moira MacTaggert and Sean Cassidy saga, which has spanned on for as long as the last mission he’d been on. In his own defense, what else is supposed to entertain him on a four-month-long run out to the NR-9 quadrant with nothing but empty Destroyer-class nacelles for cargo?

“Charles,” Moira says flatly, giving him a look, “after three coffee dates that have gone exceptionally well, normal people ask you out to dinner.”

“Oh.” Charles grins sheepishly. “Maybe he likes taking things slow? It only took him three months to ask you out for coffee in the first place.”

“Don’t remind me.”

“Be patient, it’s clear he likes you,” Charles assures her, leaning down briefly to toss his empty chip bag in the waste receptacle. “Or maybe try being assertive? Drop a few strong hints that dinner would be nice?”

Moira shakes her head at him, exasperated but fond. “Your lack of good relationship advice is very telling, Charles.”

Charles grins and shrugs. “You knew me back at the Academy. Not much has changed since then.”

“Just because you’re a pilot doesn’t mean you can never settle down,” Moira starts, but sighs again when Charles raises his hands, fingers spread wide. “Alright, I’ll spare you the lecture. But Gabby was fun. She wouldn’t have minded you being gone a lot. Brandon was nice, too.”

Charles snorts. “That’s the only thing that was keeping my and Gabby’s relationship alive towards the end, our completely different course schedules where we barely saw each other. What’s the point in that? And Brandon cheated on me with three different people. Simultaneously.”

“Oh yeah,” Moira says, and it’s her turn to smile sheepishly, “I forgot about that. It all sort of blurs together with your long and winding string of random hookups that immediately followed.”

“Thanks for that,” Charles answers mock-reproachfully, and Moira bats lightly at the screen in lieu of being able to bat his shoulder. A small notification pops up in the lower corner of his screen, lettering flashing red for priority. “Listen, I’ve got to go. Huxley’s buzzing me and I’m back on shift in an hour anyway.”

“Alright,” Moira says, “stay safe.”

“Enjoy cappuccino number four,” Charles answers with a wink, and cuts the transmission while Moira’s only halfway through her eyeroll. He spares a moment to make sure his front isn’t covered in chip crumbs and that he really still does have an hour left till he’s back on duty and hasn’t somehow mixed up the times before tapping on the waiting notification to bring it up to full screen. “Sir.”

Huxley’s image blinks into view, stern but not imposing. “Afternoon, Xavier. Report on down to conference room A6 on fourth deck in a quarter hour. Now that we’ve all had a chance to settle in, the captain of the guard detail wants to brief the rest of us on what we’re carrying and go over a few protocols. Nothing complicated. If it runs too long you can duck out and head to the bridge, I know you and Johnson are on next shift.”

“Yessir,” Charles answers promptly, resisting the urge to add that yes, it is complicated, as he’s never piloted a ship where the cargo consists of convicted criminals.

“How’s the Serenity been handling for you so far, Lieutenant?”

“Like a lady, sir,” Charles reports truthfully. It hadn’t taken him long to adjust to her controls. The Constitution class is nothing if not straightforward. “She’s a fine ship despite her new line of duty.”

“Someone’s gotta do it,” Huxley says, lifting a hand to massage the bridge of his nose. “I’ll see you down in A6, son.”

“Sir,” Charles acknowledges, throwing off a quick salute before Huxley terminates the comm line.

He pushes himself back from his holoscreen terminal, swiveling around in his chair. His quarters aren’t anything to write home about, small and perhaps even considered cramped if he wasn’t used to making tiny lieutenant quarters home for months at a time. His bed is little more than a long, thin alcove along one wall with a mattress, and after his desk and single dresser take up their necessary space, it doesn’t leave him with much room left over. The best thing about the ship so far in his opinion is the fact that his quarters has its own attached bathroom, which is practically a rarity these days on newer ships. It’s more of a closet, split halfway to leave room for the shower, but anything beats community bathrooms like the lower level crewmembers probably have to make do with.

Charles climbs to his feet and stretches, only then realizing that he’d answered Huxley’s call in only his white undershirt. At least Huxley hadn’t commented on it, he thinks as he grabs his uniform jacket off the edge of the bed, he’d never been one for standing on ceremony anyway if Charles recalls correctly. He shakes the jacket out, holding it up to inspect for wrinkles—not that the material allows much leeway for such a thing. Pilot uniforms are simple, closer to actual flight suits than the lighter, regular type of uniform worn by most everyone else. Form-fitting and a deep navy blue, the jacket sits snugly on Charles’ shoulders when he shrugs it on, silver bars slanting down on either side to denote his rank. The material, while rigid enough to provide protection from minor blasts and small electrical fires, is still flexible enough to allow him some maneuverability even when zipped up and sealed tight.

He’s grateful for the layer. Space is cold, and Charles has always lacked the extra padding himself in order to keep entirely warm. At least he looks bloody good in tight uniforms.

He ducks into his bathroom to splash some water on his face and then slips out of his quarters, door hissing shut behind him. Officer and pilot quarters are located on the second deck, just below the bridge. Charles doesn’t see anyone else in the hall as he makes his way to the lift, and his ride two decks down to the fourth deck is solitary as well, swift as it is.

When the doors slide apart to allow Charles off, he’s instantly greeted by the general hubbub of a lot of people gathered together in a small space, both aloud and mentally. He raises his shields a little more, if only to keep himself from being distracted from what’s being spoken aloud compared to what is only thought, and makes a beeline for the open doors of conference room A6 where everyone else has gathered.

His gaze searches out his fellow pilots amongst the chairs that have been arranged in rows, only two of the others present since the remaining two are still on duty. The chairs around them however are already occupied, the room filling up quickly as other crewmembers from engineering, the galley, and general maintenance arrive. Huxley’s summoned everyone, Charles realizes, or at least everyone who isn’t currently at their post. As blasé as the captain had sounded on the comm call about it, the information must be important.

Charles claims one of the last seats more on the edge of the room, next to a mutant with bright red skin and a barbed tail, of all things, curling absently around his seatback. He’s wearing the all-black, more combative-looking uniform that all the prison guards wear which makes him stick out from the rest of the crew—he’s the only prison guard present, aside from the guard commander who stands off to the side of the front of the room with Huxley.

Before Charles can strike up a conversation and compliment the man’s mutation—he’s always held a special appreciation for visible mutations, the man’s red skin reminding him of Raven’s gorgeous blue scales, and that tail has to be prehensile—Huxley clears his throat and steps forward, and an immediate silence falls.

“The law requires me to brief you all on the standard procedures regarding our precious cargo when something goes wrong—not that anything’s going wrong,” he says, drawing a few chuckles out of the group. “Seeing as he knows more about the care and keeping of inmates, I’m going to let Commander Briscoe take the floor for this. Commander.”

Briscoe steps up, a stark contrast to the captain. He’s much younger than Huxley, or at least he appears that way, tanned skin and smooth bald head hiding any major tells of age. His eyes are cold and grey, sweeping across the room like twin lasers with clinical precision, and Charles has no doubt that they’ve all just been evaluated and judged within the space of a second. His mind, when Charles dares to sneak an assessing tendril of his telepathy forward to just barely brush the surface of Briscoe’s thoughts, is utterly mechanical and clicks away like a machine, mercenary cold and mercilessly efficient. Charles withdraws, not wanting any form of prolonged contact at all.

“All of you are military,” Briscoe begins, and his voice reminds Charles of a drill sergeant's: harsh and grating, and always with the condescending tone that suggests the speaker is under the assumption that everyone he’s addressing is an idiot. Charles dislikes it at once. “But you may as well be civilians when it comes to handling prisoners.”

Charles leans back in his chair, folding his arms. He’s not the only one unimpressed by the commander’s tone; several other crewmembers have adopted the same pose, while others still exchange comments in low mutters that are clearly derisive. Even Huxley looks like he’s just barely holding back from saying something, expression frozen in an almost artfully blank facade.

“That’s why no one is allowed beyond deck seven without clearance given by me personally,” Briscoe continues. Charles wonders if the man even realizes that he’s already alienated himself from the entire room, or if he even cares. “Here’s how we’re set up.”

He snaps his fingers and a hologram of the Serenity is projected into the empty space in the front of the room, main lights dimming automatically so the image is clear. As they all watch, the ship rotates and then splits in half, cracking open wide so that the cross section of the entire ship is on display, each of the ten decks in view. Decks seven through ten are highlighted in red.

“For the duration of this journey, KG staff will have full purview over decks seven through ten,” Briscoe says. “Prisoners are being contained on decks eight through ten. Deck seven will be prison staff quarters. The only crewmembers allowed access to restricted areas without prior consultation with myself or my assistant warden are engineers in charge of the engineering section that extends down to deck seven. These zones will be patrolled regularly and any crewmember found in violation of these rules will be subject to immediate discipline.”

The general air of discontent thickens. “We aren’t the enemy here,” someone calls from the back, and though Briscoe turns sharply toward the voice, the lights are too dim to make any faces out. At his side, Huxley says, “We understand your rules, Commander, and IF Command has instructed us to give you full support. Move on.”   

Briscoe’s expression twitches in displeasure. “I want your people to understand exactly what we’re dealing with here, Captain. The inmates we have here aren’t two-bit thieves or druggies. They’re murderers, terrorists, and generally the worst kind of scum. We either treat them with the proper caution or we risk falling into some really deep shit, am I clear?”

Perfectly, Charles thinks to himself. The crew of this ship isn’t composed of amateurs; all of them are experienced soldiers who know how to take orders and how to act in an emergency situation. No one is taking their cargo lightly.

When no one speaks up, Briscoe continues stonily, “In the event of an escaped prisoner, the lower decks will be locked down and the ship will be put on red alert. Crewmembers are to remain at their posts or in their quarters until the situation is contained. If you hear the alarm go off, stay where you are. An emergency lockdown switch will be tripped and all crewmember quarters, level one of the engineering deck, the galley, and the bridge will be sealed shut until the all-clear codes are given.”

Total lockdown, Charles thinks skeptically. And what happens to anyone in the halls, or anywhere else that hasn’t been sealed? Then again, he supposes that any escaped prisoners won’t have very much of a chance to make it very far.

“What if I have to piss?” another voice calls from the back of the room, followed by a wave of laughter throughout the room.

“Gentlemen,” Huxley warns, but his mouth twitches once.

Briscoe chooses not to react this time. “A good third of the prison population from KG are mutants, so you don’t need to be told that some of these inmates can get real nasty. They should all have inhibitor collars on, but if one of them gets free somehow, there’s no telling the sort of havoc they could wreak. So keeping to your posts and out of the way is of the utmost importance in an escape situation.”

The hologram changes, flickering from their view of the Serenity to an image of an inhibitor collar, enlarged so everyone can see and rotating slowly in place. More muttering picks up again and Charles instantly knows exactly how many mutants are in the crew by the unease he can pick up, flickering like firelight to his telepathy. Even Charles is wary, staring at the collar while Briscoe begins to talk, explaining how it works.

“All collars are electronically locked with several failsafes in place to prevent them from popping open,” Briscoe says. The inhibitor in the image stops rotating and opens, like the jaws of a trap despite the lack of teeth. “As you might already know, the way the inhibitor works is through a series of timed doses administered from the back of the collar, in the nape of the wearer’s neck.”

As they all watch, a small compartment on the inside of the collar slides open and a tiny needle slides out and jabs at the empty air before retracting back into the collar. There’s the teeth, Charles thinks, and tries to pretend that the back of his neck isn’t prickling.

“The dose is administered once every two hours, which gives the drug plenty of time to get through the wearer’s system without wearing down. No one’s overdosing but no one has time to feel their powers coming back either.”

“What happens if the drug runs out?” someone asks, followed by a few affirmatives. Charles doesn’t have to check to know that they’re all human.

“It won’t.” Briscoe doesn’t smile, but Charles figures that if he were the type of man to smile, he’d be wearing a nasty one right now. “It only takes a tiny amount of the drug at a time to work, and all these collars were stocked before this field trip started. The mutant inmates on this ship all have enough of the drug in their collar to last twice as long as this trip is expected to take.”

An entire year without their powers, Charles thinks with a chill. He can’t imagine going very long without his telepathy or spending any amount of time completely cut off from it—even in their childhood, when Raven adamantly refused to allow him to read even her surface thoughts, she’d felt...less to him, somehow. Like she was only a shadow of a person.

These are all convicted criminals, though. They’ve been cut off from their powers ever since their incarceration began. If they hadn’t, they wouldn’t still be in prison. They’d be long gone, using their powers to help facilitate their escape. The inhibitors are necessary to ensure that they face their sentences in full for the sake of justice.

“There’s only one person on this ship who has the means and the codes necessary for any kind of tampering with the collars,” Briscoe concludes, “and that person is me. And you can all rest assured that I’m not about to let a bunch of criminal muties have free reign.”

Charles narrows his eyes at the slur, but most of the rest of the room laughs, the tide of their amusement mostly washing out the pinpricks of disgruntlement he can feel from the other mutants in the room. Only the red-skinned man beside him is unaffected and gives a wide grin, sharp tail flicking once before he abruptly disappears in a poof of black smoke that makes Charles jump. Teleportation. How fascinating.

“That’s about all I have,” Briscoe says, snapping his fingers again so that the hologram fades and the main lights brighten. “Follow all procedures in the event of an incident and we won’t sustain any casualties.”

“The ship has special security measures to prevent such incidents from occurring,” Huxley adds, “so if anything happens, it’ll be over very quickly. We’ll be distributing revised emergency protocols following this meeting. Most procedures will proceed as they would in any normal ship but everyone should give the addendums a look anyway. That’ll be all.”

The room fills with the sound of chairs scraping as everyone begins to file out the doors. A check at his watch tells Charles he’s got about half an hour to spare before his shift starts, so he slips out of the conference room and heads to the mess hall, hoping to find something to tide him over better than the handful of chips he’d had.

“Hold the lift!” a voice calls just as Charles has stepped through the elevator doors to head up, so Charles sticks his foot out quickly. Armando Muñoz jogs the rest of the way over and joins him inside. “Thanks, man.”

“Which deck?” Charles asks. “It’s Muñoz, right?”

“Fourth,” he confirms with a nod, “and call me Darwin.”

“Nickname?” Charles asks as he taps the panel and they begin to rise.

“For my mutation,” Darwin explains, “my body can pretty much change to fit any kind of environment. Adapt to survive.”

“Amazing,” Charles says, and means it. “Can you even spacewalk without gear?”

Darwin grins. “Yep. Pretty cool, huh?”

“Makes my telepathy seem like a cheap parlor trick,” Charles admits.

“Telepathy,” Darwin repeats, but rather than wary he merely sounds as equally impressed as Charles is by him. “Nice to meet you, brother.”

“Charles,” Charles answers with a grin. After Briscoe it feels good to bond with another mutant.

Perhaps it’s possible for Darwin to adapt into becoming a mind reader as well because as they reach the fourth deck and the elevator doors hiss open he comments, “Man that guy was an asshole, wasn’t he?”

“Completely,” Charles agrees at once. They walk down towards the mess together and though it’s early yet for dinner to be served, there are still a few leftovers out on the serving tables from lunch. He snags a ham sandwich and waits for Darwin to take a cookie before heading back toward the door.

“Where are you headed?” Darwin asks.

“Bridge. I’m on shift at 1600 hours.”

“You on an eight-hour rotation?”

“Yeah.”

“At least it’s not the midnight shift,” Darwin says with a grin. “Those are always the worst.”

There’s no concept of night and day in space but Darwin’s right: there’s something about the midnight shift that always makes Charles feel lethargic and cranky. Luckily, it’s the rookie pilots that usually get slapped with the undesirable rotations and Charles hasn’t been a rookie in a long time.

“Where are you going?” Charles asks as they round the corridor back toward the lift.

“Over to the gym,” Darwin replies, finishing off his cookie and brushing the crumbs off against his pants. “Some of the other mutants on board play rec volleyball together in the evening. You should come sometime.”

“I think I’ll be on shift, unfortunately. But thanks for the invite.”

“No worries,” Darwin says easily, “maybe I can talk to the other guys and work out other times too so you can join.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Charles says warmly, excited by the prospect. Raven always used to tease him about his career path as a deep space pilot, and not without foundation—Charles loves people and the underlying bubble of minds and their thoughts that come along with human interaction. He can’t deny at all how pleased he is to already be making friends on this run. “I’ll see you around, then.”

“Have a good shift,” Darwin replies with a small wave before they part, Charles stepping back onto an elevator that will take him the few levels up to the bridge.

The bridge is dimly lit and quiet when he steps on board, only the dim glow of sensors and system readings illuminating the gloom. It’s an old standby to keep the bridge darkened while not docked in port; it’s easier to see out the panoramic viewscreens if there’s no harsh glare of light blocking out the blackness of space. Donovan and Brax, the two pilots currently on duty, are glad to see him; Charles’ arrival means that their shift is over.

“Anything to report?” Charles asks as he enters his name and the time into the ship’s log to record his watch’s start.

“Nothing,” Donovan replies, “old girl is holding quiet and steady.”

“No anomalies from the outside either,” Brax adds, “I guess there’s not a lot a traffic out this way.”

The elevator doors open again and they’re joined by Johnson. “What’s happening, guys?”

“We were just telling Xavier,” Brax replies with a laugh, “absolutely nothing.”

They’re quick to leave after that, elevator doors hissing shut, and Charles settles himself into work mode. He and Johnson go through the standard checklist of items, running diagnostics tests and checking the calibrations on the instruments currently measuring fuel levels, oxygen levels, and auxiliary power levels. Charles makes note of everything in the log, and by a mere twenty minutes into their shift, they’ve run out of things to do.

Johnson moves off to toy with the ship’s outer sensors, setting them to ping at nearby stars as they pass. Charles drifts over to the navigation table, a star chart of the surrounding quadrant projected up into 3D above it and runs through the numbers on their plotted course manually. The computer has done this already, of course, and the room for error is close to nil, but there’s something about doing the calculations himself that is reassuring, and satisfying when he comes out with results that mirror the computer’s. Their trajectory is straight, staying mostly on a single vector for the majority of their trip. There’s not much to worry about running into once you get past OZ-1, ship traffic or otherwise. They always say that the Outer Zones is where space starts getting deeper, wilder, and emptier and well—they’re not wrong.

Charles already has a spot picked out on the Serenity’s bridge. Any ship he pilots, he always has a spot that he mentally designates as his for the duration of the run, where he always ends up standing or sitting any time he’s on watch. This time it’s the little nook in between the far left wall of the bridge and the end of the navigation console, where he can wedge himself in and stare out the window into space, ears perked for any signs of activity either on the comm line or from their sensors but otherwise lost in his thoughts.

That’s one of the main things he enjoys about being a deep space pilot. Plenty of time to think. Johnson is quiet where he’s settled in on the other side of the bridge, so it’s easy for Charles to fall back on thoughts about Raven and the baby, and what she’ll decide to name it—Charles knows she has to have names picked out by now even though she refuses to say—and whether or not Irene has seen its gender yet. He can take them all on a vacation with his bonus pay, he muses, and entertains the idea of Raven lounging back on the beach on Pellinore-4 while surrounded by every single child sand toy available on the market.

He supposes a newborn might not really be able to fully appreciate the beach just yet.

The hours pass slowly and uneventfully, but outside the ship space passes by silently at hundreds of light years a second, though Charles could swear that they’ve barely moved at all.

 

*

 

The next week and a half passes in much of the same way: on schedule, but slowly and uneventfully. Charles’ watch schedule remains the same, but Darwin comes through and arranges volleyball games at earlier times with some of the other guys and Charles ends up playing with them during the main lunch hour. They’re exhilarating games where powers are allowed, sometimes at the expense of the equipment—so far they’ve already accidentally destroyed two balls, and Huxley himself has to come down and warn them all to take it easy after the ceiling gets singed, though he sounds more amused than angry.

Charles sends daily messages to Raven describing the ship, his personal quarters, the quality of the food, the mutations of all the mutants he’s met. She has yet to respond to any of them, but Charles isn’t worried. She’s probably still angry with him, and it always takes her about a month to come around every time he has to unexpectedly leave on a mission at the last moment that disrupts any plans they might have had. This time will probably take even longer on the account of Charles missing the birth of her child but Charles still sends her a message each day anyway; plenty for her to read if she does end up getting put on bedrest.

Charles is on duty when the Serenity passes into OZ-1, watching as their star chart flickers and changes over the navigation console to depict the new quadrant they’ve entered. Huxley’s on the bridge at the time as well, stopping by on his rounds, and he makes a small hum of consideration, sharp eyes following the green line of their plotted course.

“You boys flown in the Outer Zones before?” he asks.

“A few times,” Charles answers, trying to sound awake and alert and not like he wants nothing more than to crawl into bed. He’d woken up with a pounding headache this morning and it hadn’t taken long to figure out why: the inmates down below are restless, the swelling tide of their heightened thoughts and emotions leaching upwards through the ship to batter at the usual low-level shields Charles employs. He’d been forced to strengthen them and as a result his head feels like it’s been stuffed with cotton, or like he has a bad cold. “Few and far between, though.”

“Only twice,” Johnson adds with a nod.

“Well at least they didn’t give me total greenhorns,” Huxley sighs, but his lips twitch once in a smile. “We should be big enough for anything out here to not want to mess with us, but you both know the drill if it comes to a confrontation. They’ve outfitted us with enough firepower to not require a couple of Destroyer escorts, because god forbid they spare any more ships on a mission like this, but we’re not invincible. Either of you trained in combat maneuverability?”

“I am,” Charles confirms.

“Well then, Xavier,” Huxley says wryly, “you’re our ace in the hole.”

Charles smiles faintly. “Yessir.”

“You think we’ll even run into anyone out here?” Johnson asks after Huxley has left. The other pilot toys idly with a stylus from one of the consoles, tapping it against the edge of the plexiglass.

“I doubt it,” Charles answers honestly, rubbing his temples. “You mind not doing that? Thanks, mate.”

“Sorry,” Johnson answers absently. He puts the stylus down and a blissful silence falls.

The remaining two hours of their shift drag by. When their relief arrives in the form of Ramirez and Brax, Charles barely spends any time socializing, reporting the overall lack of anomalies before slipping into the elevator to head back down to his quarters. A full eight hours of sleep with his shields up should be enough to refresh him and kill the dull ache in his skull.

There’s a message blinking in the bottom corner of his holoscreen when he enters his quarters, kicking off his boots and collapsing down to sit on the edge of his bed. He nearly leaves it for the morning, assuming that it’s just Raven finally deigning to respond to him. Then his conscience catches up—what if something happened with the baby?—so he heaves himself back up and stumbles over to his desk, screwing up his eyes to squint at the bright screen.

It’s from his sister-in-law, which is strange; Irene dislikes typing messages out and prefers voice or even image calls that at least have sound. Charles opens it, genuinely worried now that something has happened to Raven and the baby, but finds that the message is only two words long.

[Be careful.]

Charles blinks, tapping at the screen to see if he can scroll down for anything else but that’s all there is. Irene’s power allows her to see glimpses of the future, so she must have seen something about his ship entering the Outer Zones. She isn’t keen on always revealing the entirety of what she’s seen—sometimes it doesn’t even make sense to her until it’s too late anyway—so Charles has no idea what she could be cautioning him against and knows that any request for more information will be gently denied. Whatever she’s seen, it can’t have been too bad. Surely she would tell him if it was.

He types back a short reply assuring her that he will be and tells her to give Raven a kiss on the cheek for him, tapping send and powering the holoscreen down. He struggles out of his uniform in the three steps it takes him to get back over to his bed, and is asleep before his head even hits the pillow.

 

*

 

Charles wakes to blaring alarms that jolt him out of deep sleep, disorientated and adrenaline already pumping. He sits up too quickly and almost smacks his head into the ceiling of his bed’s alcove before he remembers at the last second, throwing himself down awkwardly to the side and scrabbling off the mattress.

His legs are shaky when his feet hit the cold floor and it takes him another moment to get his bearings straight. He pulls his uniform back on, clumsy on the account that he’s still only half-awake, and just when he zips his jacket up his brain finally kicks online: oh right. Lockdown. There’s no point in getting dressed if he’s going to be stuck in his room for the unseeable future until the all-clear is given.

Charles goes over to the door, intending to lean his ear against it to listen for anyone trapped out in the hallway, and instead ends up staggering out of his room when the door slides open automatically like normal. The main lights in the hallway are down and only the emergency lights remain, slowly flashing on-off, on-off and bathing the empty corridor in an eerie red light. The alarm abruptly cuts off, leaving behind a ringing silence.

Charles hesitates. He could turn around and go back to his room, and roll over and go back to sleep like most everyone else is probably doing right now, but something doesn’t feel right. The alarm may be shut off, but the red lights are still flashing, and no one’s come onto the intercom to give the all-clear. His room wasn’t sealed, which means neither is the rest of the ship. Even if this were some kind of drill, the lockdown still would’ve been implemented and he wouldn’t be standing out in the empty hallway right now.

A glance at the time on the nearest door panel tells him that he’d only been asleep for about three hours. His head still aches but the sensation is duller now, so he chances it and carefully lowers his shields, reaching out through the ship with his telepathy.

He nearly cries out when he’s immediately swamped by a tidal wave of pure bloodlust and rage, coming from several decks below and magnified by over two thousand minds. Charles snaps back to himself, panting. He’d only caught a few glimpses beneath the roaring mob mentality, but they were enough—the inmates are rioting because they’re free.

He sprints down the hall to the elevators and jabs at the panel, waiting impatiently for one to arrive, his mind in overdrive. He needs to get up to the bridge and see what’s going on. There have to be fallback procedures, a Plan B, something to be done now that it’s clear that the first set of protocols have failed them.

The lift arrives and Charles dives inside, slamming the button for the bridge and resisting the urge to pace as he rockets upwards. This is some kind of nightmarish, worst-case scenario, especially with everyone not on duty asleep in their beds, oblivious. What the hell are the prison guards doing down there that allowed this to happen?

Charles bounds out as soon as the doors hiss open. “Status report, what’s going on?” he demands, striding forward even though his eyes haven’t yet adjusted to the dark bridge. “Why haven’t you manually enabled a lockdown from the master control system?” He stumbles when his boots catch on something heavy and solid lying on the floor.

He looks down.

Brax has been gutted, stomach slashed open horizontally and his body left to lie in a pool of his own blood, lifeless eyes staring blankly up at the ceiling. Charles reels back in horror, boots sliding in blood, and the sound of a scuffle makes him look back up with wide eyes.

“Run, Xavier!” Ramirez shouts, before the dark shape next to him kicks him down to the floor again.

Before Charles can react, another form comes leaping at him from the side, slamming into him and knocking him to the ground. Charles rolls when he hits the floor, kicking at his attacker and lashing out with his telepathy, digging mental fingers into the man’s brain just as he draws back a fist to punch at Charles, willing him to sleep.

The man collapses down on top of him heavily, his body turned to dead weight as he goes under, out cold in the matter of a second. Charles struggles out from underneath him, climbing back up to his feet and readying his telepathy to strike out again, nerves buzzing. His eyes are better adjusted to the dim light now and he can make out that several other men are on the bridge where they don’t belong. Two of them take a step toward him menacingly, and he can see their intent to attack him clearly in their minds.

“He’s a mutant, he’s a mutant!” Ramirez screams suddenly.

Charles has half a moment to wonder who he means before something small but heavy comes flying out of the dark and slams into his throat, choking him with the impact. Charles lifts his hands to tear at the freezing cold metal as it encircles his entire neck, telepathy sparking out wildly in his panic, a few grunts of pain coming from around the bridge as he tears through each of their minds, trying to find the person responsible for the metal band snapping shut around his—

He hears a series of metallic clicks as the metal locks into place, and then something sharp pinches him on the back of his neck and Charles’ mind goes numb.

An inhibitor. He’s wearing an inhibitor collar.

It’s like hitting a brick wall. His telepathy cuts out instantly, leaving him scrabbling at the empty spot in his mind where his power normally dwells. The world goes eerily silent, like someone has slapped thick earmuffs on him, though he’s dimly aware that someone is shouting at him to get down on his knees. Without warning the collar at his throat becomes massively heavy, somehow exponentially increasing in weight without growing any larger and Charles pitches forward, unable to hold his neck and head up anymore as the collar forces him down. He hits the floor on his hands and knees, bent awkwardly forward so the front of the collar rests on the ground, chin tilted up painfully far to avoid having his face smashed into the deck.

“Lights,” someone says, and the bridge’s main lights flicker on, blindingly bright at first until his vision adjusts yet again.

Charles glances around as best as he can. He’s surrounded by four inmates, their status given away by their plain grey prison uniforms. A fifth inmate is still crumpled on the ground fast asleep, and there’s a sixth inmate standing over Ramirez, who also kneels on the floor and stares at Charles with terrified eyes. There’s an inhibitor collar around his neck too.

Of course, Charles realizes with a wave of nausea when his gaze lands on Brax’s body. Ramirez just saved his life by telling them that Charles is a mutant. Brax was only a baseline human.

A sharp crack makes Charles flinch, and the red-skinned prison guard appears in a burst of black smoke. He feels a surge of hope that dies immediately when the devilish mutant merely glances over the scene, unfazed, before turning to one of the inmates and says, “Shaw wants to know if the bridge is secure yet.” His tail is slick with blood that isn’t his.

“You can tell him we have control of the ship,” the man standing by the pilot’s chair replies. He seems completely unfazed by the bloodshed as he pokes at the screens. He must have some rudimentary knowledge of the ship’s systems because he maneuvers through several holograms without pausing, stopping only when he lands on the star chart. As he zooms in on their position, he asks without turning around, “What’s the situation below?”

“We have taken the lower decks. The surviving senior officers have been taken to a conference room on deck six. We have the first officer, the chief engineer, and the chief security officer.”  

“The captain?”

“With Shaw.”

So Huxley’s alive. That’s something at least. Charles tries to push himself to his knees but the collar holds him in place as if it’s been welded to the ground. The man at the star chart gives him a passing glance and then says to his red-skinned companion, “Take these captives down to the cells.”

“Shaw wants you with him as soon as you’ve secured the bridge.”

“Tell Shaw I’m busy making sure we don’t veer off course,” the other man snaps. The way his mouth curves around the name Shaw speaks of some veiled dislike. “He can come see me when I’m done.”

The teleporter shrugs. “Your head, comrade.” He takes Ramirez’s arm and they disappear with a crack.

“Where do you want us to go?” one of the other inmates asks. This one is thin as a pole and would have been short enough to look no older than a teenager, if not for the ugly scar twisting down his cheek. He doesn’t look like much physically but the phaser in his hand makes him dangerous all the same.

The man by the star chart—the leader?—doesn’t seem to hear him. The scarred inmate hesitates, then says, “Erik?”

“Go join the others,” the leader replies without looking at him. “Help them round up the rest of the crew.”

The inmates nod and file out, their boots squelching in Brax’s blood as they step over him. Charles’ stomach heaves but he swallows to try to quell the feeling. In the painful position he’s contorted in, he’s half-afraid he might choke if he vomits.

A crack heralds the teleporter’s return. His hand grabs Charles’ arm but Erik says, “No, not him. Just take the other one and Higgs and go.”

“Shaw will be up here in a few minutes,” the teleporter informs him as he grips the shoulder of the unconscious inmate and the arm of the last crewmember on the bridge, a security officer who’s bleeding from a cut over her eye. She has a collar around her neck as well and Charles knows her, knows they played volleyball on the same team just three days ago, but he can’t for the life of him remember her name and then she’s gone in a whirl of black smoke, leaving him alone with Brax and the inmate manipulating the star chart. Erik.  

“What’s your power?” Erik asks, scrolling through a column of data.

Charles glares at him, wishing his mutation was searing people with his eyes. Facedown as he is, he has to twist his arm awkwardly from underneath him to touch the collar around his neck. When he pulls experimentally at it, Erik glances over at him and waves a hand. The weight disappears so abruptly Charles nearly topples right back onto his ass. He only just manages to catch himself with a hand.

“Your power,” Erik repeats.

“I’m not telling you anything,” Charles says coldly.

The collar constricts around his neck, choking off his voice. He tries to dig his fingers underneath it, but it bites so deeply into his skin that he can feel blood beginning to well up at its edges. For a moment he keeps glaring, determined to be defiant to the last, but when Erik only continues to regard him dispassionately, panic begins to bubble up his chest. Erik’s going to kill him. He’s going to die here, strangled by an inhibitor collar on the bridge of his own ship. He’s going to die.

Just when his vision starts to darken at the corners, the collar loosens and Charles collapses to the floor, gasping desperately for air. For a minute, all he can do is wheeze as full consciousness returns.

“I won’t ask again,” Erik says. “You knocked Higgs out without touching him. Psionic of some sort?”

“Telepath,” Charles spits when he has the breath to speak. His voice comes out hoarse and cracked, as if it’s been broken in his throat and torn out.

“Useful,” is all Erik says before returning to his scrutiny of the star chart. Though he’s capable of navigating through the system, he doesn’t seem to know exactly what he’s looking for. He keeps skipping the navigation screen, which is surely the one he wants if he’s plotting a course. That’s something of a relief, Charles thinks. If none of the prisoners know how to fly the ship, then they’ll have to keep the pilots alive. It’s weak leverage but leverage all the same.

After a moment, Charles slowly gets to his knees, then to his feet. If he’s going to die, then he wants to die standing. And if he’s not going to die, then he stands a better chance of putting up a fight if he’s not crumpled on the floor. He very pointedly does not look at Brax lying behind him, though the coppery smell of blood is suffocating and impossible to ignore. Just breathe, he tells himself firmly. Just breathe and think. He’s only one man and if you can catch him by surprise—

The teleporter materializes back on the bridge with a crack and Charles instinctively flattens himself against the wall, heart pounding in his throat. This time the flash of smoke has brought with it a new inmate: a tall, older man with graying hair and a face that looks carved from stone. For a moment, he simply glances around, surveying the mostly-empty bridge, gaze skipping right over Brax’s body as if it weren’t there. When his eyes land on Charles, they widen in interest. “Ah. Who’s this?”

“A mutant,” Erik answers. “One of the pilots. We’ll need him to navigate.”

“But we already have another pilot,” the newcomer says, clicking his tongue. He regards Charles with the same detachment one would regard an animal in a meat market, assessing for it for value. “Azazel told me you told him to put the man in a cell.”

“The other one was bigger,” Erik says. “This one looked more manageable.”

Bigger. Ramirez is certainly larger than Charles, towering over him by almost a full foot and probably muscled enough to throw Charles across the room. But Erik, with his trick with the collars, could bring even Ramirez to his knees with a flick of his fingers. Erik doesn’t have to worry about how manageable they are.

Unless he means Charles looks more likely to cooperate, in which case he’s going to be sorely disappointed. Charles may be smaller but he’s got no less fight in him.

“And after they lock in the coordinates for us?” the older inmate asks. Shaw, Charles thinks. This must be Shaw, one of the leaders. Or maybe the leader. “They’ll be useless to us after that.”

“No, they won’t,” Erik growls, flicking through more screens. He’s covered the wall with holograms now, pulling up far more clutter than any decent pilot would allow. “The navigation system is more complicated than I imagined and the piloting system will probably be the same.”

Shaw frowns. “You said you’d be able to fly this thing.”

“I said, in the worst case scenario, I might be able to keep the ship on course for a while. But guiding a ship this size with my powers—I can’t do that for the whole journey.”

“Jimenez was a pilot,” the teleporter interjects. “And Aliyev flew military transports.”

“Well, get them up here,” Shaw says. “Let’s see what they can do.”

A puff of smoke and the three of them are left on the bridge. Erik continues to scroll through screens as Shaw walks over to Charles, icy eyes curious. “What’s your mutation—” his gaze flicks down to the silver bars on Charles’ shoulders, “—Lieutenant, is it?”

Charles doesn’t think—he just launches himself at the man, hoping to catch both inmates off surprise long enough to do Shaw serious harm. He manages to get as far as twisting Shaw around into a chokehold before the collar around his throat yanks hard around his neck, throwing him back to the floor. Dazed and winded, he blinks for a moment at the gray ceiling, splattered with blood. Brax’s blood. Bile rises in his throat even as he struggles to draw a breath.

“Spirited one,” Shaw says, stooping over to look Charles in the face.

“He’s a telepath,” Erik says. “I figure he’ll be useful.”

“Telepaths are difficult to control,” Shaw muses. “But I’ve learned that a little pain can go a long way in making a man do what you want.” He steps on Charles’ left hand, and there’s an audible crunch.

Charles screams before he can even think to hold it back. His body lifts up off the deck briefly as he twists, reflexively trying to yank his hand out from beneath Shaw’s foot but Shaw merely grinds his heel down harder with freakish strength, watching Charles with almost paternal amusement as if Charles is a child that has said something particularly precocious and Shaw is fondly indulging him. Agonizing pain lances up his arm as all the fragile nerves in his hand are crushed, thin bones snapping as Shaw twists his foot a little. Charles’ voice cuts out entirely, his mouth still open in a wordless scream while his vision wavers wildly.

Finally, after a lifetime, Shaw withdraws his foot and Charles immediately yanks his hand back to his chest, curling onto his side and cradling it close, a choked whimper hiccupping its way out of his chest. His eyes are wet, a few tears leaking from the corners, and he’s never felt so utterly beaten down in his life.

“Don’t hurt him too badly,” Erik remarks. “He’ll need hands to pilot.”

“And as I reminded you,” Shaw replies, “we have another pilot in the cells.” But he steps away from Charles and moves toward the console where Erik stands.

They converse in low tones but Charles can’t hear them through the thundering pulse in his head. His mangled hand throbs in sharp, painful waves and he doesn’t dare move it, not even to examine it. It’s broken, there’s no doubt about it, and probably in more places than can be counted without an X-ray. He very much doubts that these bastards are going to give him any medical attention.

He’s not sure if he passes out but the next thing he knows, he’s being hauled to his feet. The movement jostles his hand and he sags as agony makes his vision swim. The firm hand on his arm keeps him upright until he recovers enough to keep his balance. Then Erik—and it is Erik holding him—walks him over to the navigation table where the dozens of holoscreens are pulled up.

“These coordinates,” he says, gesturing to a string of numbers hovering near their heads. “Enter them into the system properly so the computer can calculate the fastest route.”

Charles hesitates. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Shaw watching him, a predatory gleam in his eye. Holding his broken hand closer to his chest, he mutters, “Fine. But the computer won’t be able to do it alone.”

It’s a lie; the military-grade computer could easily run twenty courses on its own with infinitesimal errors, but Charles’ bluff pays off: Erik says, “So you’ll do the manual calculations.”

“That’ll take time.”

“Then I suggest you sit down and start,” Erik replies, swiveling the chair beside him so that it faces Charles.  

“And I suggest you make it as quick as possible,” Shaw adds. “Or we might get the other pilot up here and make it a contest.”

His threat doesn’t sound empty in the slightest. Trying to ignore the stench of blood in the room and the radiating pain in his hand, Charles sits down and pulls up the navigation screen.

A few minutes later, the teleporter returns with two other inmates in tow. One is a ruddy man who stands taller than anyone else in the room. The other is a diminutive woman with a forked tongue whose words end with faint hisses. They stand by the pilot’s console for a while, discussing the Serenity’s system and its piloting controls. After a long deliberation, the woman sits down in the chair and begins to toy with the screens.

For the first time ever, Charles is insanely glad for the military’s complicated, cryptic systems. All the unnecessarily complex operations and ridiculous redundancies have caused him so much frustration over the years, but now, he wants to kiss them all. The woman fiddles with the screens for a few minutes but almost every command requires pilot authorization and she’s not logged into the system as a qualified pilot. There’s only so much she can do without passcodes and authorization protocols.

Erik hovers at Charles’ shoulder as he works, watching the fingers of his good hand slide across the screens. “How long will this take?” he asks.

“This is far,” Charles replies, “and OZs are unpredictable areas. Plus, there’s not enough fuel for you to make a direct shot to your destination.”

“How long will this fuel last?”

Charles already knows the approximate answer but he writes a few numbers onto the screen with his finger and waits for the computer to churn through them to keep stalling for time. “Another six months, depending on the ship’s speed.”

“Hmm,” Erik says, sounding frustrated. “Keep working.”

Charles glares at him for a moment before complying. As long as he’s on the bridge, he has some amount of control, he reminds himself. Assuming the inmates have no astronavigator among them, it won’t be difficult to undetectably alter the course so that the journey takes longer than it needs to. Hopefully the added time will give IF Command opportunity to assemble a rescue team and come get them the hell out of here.

He’s entering data sets by hand—something the computer can do automatically but he disables the feature when Erik isn’t paying attention—when Shaw walks over to the navigation table. Even the man’s proximity is enough to make Charles tense, his injured hand throbbing in his lap. He glances over Charles’ work quickly enough for Charles to figure that Shaw doesn’t really know what the numbers and diagrams mean. Then he says, “I would hurry this up if you want to keep your other hand.”

“You can’t rush these things,” Charles snaps. “One miscalculation and this ship could go hurtling into the path of an asteroid. Or we could end up floating in deep space without fuel and light years from civilization.”

Shaw gives him a razor-sharp smile and closes a hand around Charles’ shoulder, hard enough for Charles to have to grit his teeth to hold back a whimper of pain. “Then do be careful, Lieutenant. But mouth off to me again and you’ll regret it. You don’t need your legs to punch numbers, you know.”

A shiver ghosts down his spine at the thought and he knows Shaw feels it. The man’s hand tightens marginally and then releases. “Erik,” he says, “let me know when we’re on our way. I’ll be going back down before any idiot tries to start his own riot. And, Azazel, get rid of that body. It’s fouling up the air in here.”

The red mutant moves to obey, and in a moment, Brax is gone, a pool of dried blood the only thing left of him.

With that, Charles is the last officer of the original crew of the Serenity on the bridge. And, he thinks grimly as he spins the star chart around, he’s damn well not going to give this ship up.