kressel suggested that I write a Jane Austen in space story.
So. Here it is.
Elizabeth looked up from the daily report propped next to her morning tea. "Yes, Hill? I do assure you that this is sufficient breakfast."
Her steward looked at the empty plates and smiled. "Yes, ma'am. I have mail from Miss Bennet, ma'am."
"From Jane? It's about time the mail caught up with us." She reached for the envelope. They had been in orbit around Dorset for over a week. "That's most unlike her - see? She wrote the address very ill indeed."
Hill refilled Elizabeth's teacup and slipped quietly out of the cabin. Elizabeth, who had opened her letter, added milk and stirred while she read her sister's letter.
She skimmed the first page or so, which was full of estate news - livestock and crops and rents and factories - all the minutia that Elizabeth had happily escaped when she'd gotten her first midshipman's berth on board a starship. Ah, the dear old Bertram. She'd mourned when she'd heard it was destroyed. But Jane was eldest and the estate would be hers, and she'd been raised to it.
The neighborhood was much the same as when she left - balls, births and marriages. There was a regiment staying in the village. Their parents were well, Mary was about to be ordained and was actively seeking a living. Kitty had been sent home from university until her health improved. Lydia was still adamantly refusing to go at all, and Jane believed that she was not of a temper to profit by it.
Elizabeth quite agreed. Lydia at 18 was wild and thought of nothing but her own pleasures, and while there was much pleasure to be found at university, or so Jane had informed her - Elizabeth had been to a much harsher school - there was also work.
The tone of the letter and Jane's graceful hand changed abruptly. "Oh, Lizzy, the most awful thing! Poor, foolish Lydia has run off and we do not know where she has gone, or with whom. She has taken only the most basic of clothes and left the briefest of notes, and that on her screen. And she has turned off her comm! My mother is most distraught, picturing the foulest things happening, and my father is ready to charge into the world, only we know not where to look. We wish for you, sister, but know you cannot come. Rather, Father and I know this, but Mother does not and will not listen. And Lydia is so much her child!"
Elizabeth did not know what to think. Lydia was no more fitted to be out in the world than she was for university. She took another sip of her tea to fortify herself as her sister's handwriting became more and more - not illegible, because Jane could never write illegibly, but less flowing. "Sister, it is worse than we feared - she has joined the service! We just received the most awful comm from her, all teasing and laughter about how good a joke it was that she would soon be in uniform and all the boys would be after her." Apparently, Father was all in a rage that one of his children would choose to be become a common soldier, and Mother was afraid that everyone (meaning all of the families they dined with plus the servants and the robots) would look down upon them for this disgrace.
"Captain?" Hill poked her head in the door. "Visitor, ma'am. Mr. Darcy."
Did she dare see him in the face of this overwhelming shame? "Show him in, Hill, and please bring another pot of tea."
"My dear Captain, are you feeling well? May I fetch you something stronger than tea?"
She raised her head so that he could see her true expression, which was far from sad. "Oh, sir, I do thank you, but I am quite well, and the Navy frowns on captains imbibing so early in the day even if I had need." She gestured to a seat and poured him a cup of tea from the pot Hill placed before them. "Do help yourself, dear sir."
He nodded in thanks and took a sweet bun. "If you are not distressed, may I be so bold as to ask the reason for your mood?"
She smiled and said, "My mother would be distressed if I told you, but you would think as I do, I suspect." She told him of her wayward sister. "She is a wild girl, and I do believe some time under military discipline will do her nothing but good, so, while I am ashamed to say it, my family's upset amuses me."
Mr. Darcy stared at her over the rim of his teacup. "Surely a young gentlewoman should not be a common soldier, mixing with sundry females from who knows where? Why will your family not buy her a commission? Or, better still - could you not bring her into your own service? Perhaps within your own fair vessel?"
Lydia in the Navy? On board her Longbourne? The very thought made her shudder so that she had to put down her tea. "Oh, sir! It would be most inappropriate for me to do that. And she is not fitted for the Navy. We are in space - the slightest breach of order and all could perish. And, as we are at peace, she will be in no danger. She is, in fact, safest there, shielded from her greatest danger - young men."
"As you are not." Mr. Darcy smiled.
"I am the captain, sir. There is no better one - against the young men of lesser rank." She smiled back into his warm, dark eyes. "And why does the governor of this station call upon me this morning? Is it only to hear family gossip or to play with my cook's buns?"
He dropped the pastry with a start. "I am sorry. I am nervous." He cleared his throat. "I do not know the military etiquette, so I will use the one I know best. Captain Bennet, will you do me the honor of accompanying me to the ball this Friday night?"
"It is indeed an honor, sir, and one I most assuredly feel. I accept," she said, attempting to hide the way her heart fluttered. She was no teenage girl just coming out, or Lydia who thought of nothing else. She was the captain of the finest ship in the Fleet, not someone to drown in handsome eyes and dark, curling hair.
His errand completed, he finished his tea and took his leave, allowing her to return to the business of the ship's day, as he returned to his own.
Such business took all her attention. She could barely spend the time necessary to jot a note to her family about Lydia. She could hardly spend it deciding how to wear her hair or if she should wear her skirted dress uniform or a gown, as regulations permitted.
"Captain, Chief Price reports that repairs have halted due to lack of parts." Young Miss Smith popped up as soon as Elizabeth entered the bridge. She hid a smile. It seemed like such long time since she'd been the eager midshipman on her first ship.
"Miss Smith, if Chief Price needs supplies, who do you tell?"
Smith blushed and stammered, "Q-quartermaster, ma'am."
"Then speak to him, and cease wasting my time." She turned to her comm officer, who winked at her. Smith acknowledged her orders and left.
"We have a number of communications from Naval Command, ma'am." Willoughby handed her a disc. "None are marked urgent, but all are in code." She thanked him.
Elizabeth settled herself on her chair and pulled out her secure reader. As she suspected, most of the messages were reports of enemy movements, all far from her present position. They were not officially at war - yet - but there were signs, signs she could not mention to Mr. Darcy. And Lydia would safe in their homeworld's ground forces, especially while in training.
The last was a bit more alarming - an order to complete repairs within the week, cost unimportant. That ion storm had destroyed major components and they'd limped into Pemberly by the skin of their teeth. She'd counted on another month, and the Chief would not be happy, but they would be ready.
She could wish the dispatches contained a reason for the orders, but that would do no good.
Elizabeth closed her viewer and issued a flurry of orders canceling all further leaves and expediting repairs. She allowed herself a moment of regret for that dance, and persuaded herself that, in the interest of security, she should not inform Mr. Darcy just yet.
Chief Price, as she suspected, uttered not a word of complaint. Orders were orders and she and people would comply, even if she were to go without sleep until all was ready. And then she would spend a week under the ungentle hands of Dr. Woodhull.
Elizabeth longed to tell the frail woman to permit her second, Crawford, to take some of the responsibility, but Frances would not. She'd have to transfer Mary for Mary's own good.
But that was for a later date - if they were not all embroiled in fighting before the month was out.
The only thing that kept up her spirits was her nightly conversation with Darcy. He knew to avoid touchy subjects, such as the sudden disappearance of Longbournes from his corridors or the drop in communications from the Fleet. Instead, they spoke of books and music and gardens, and she didn't have to think about anything else.
She was playing with his latest note when she heard Mary Crawford's frantic voice. "Medical Emergency! Medical emergency! Engineering, lower aft! Medical emergency! She's not waking up!"
Elizabeth dropped her teacup and ran out her cabin door, hair streaming down her back. She arrived at the scene moments after Woodhull. She found him kneeling next to the all-too pale body of Chief Price. Crawford stood next holding on to the ship's new nurse, Elliot.
"Oh, my dear Anne. It was dreadful. Just dreadful!"
"Miss Crawford, can you tell me what has happened?"
"Oh, ma'am!" She straightened up and wiped at her eyes. "The chief has been - well, you know how she gets. "Working quite beyond her strength."
Elizabeth nodded. "It's the way she was trained to be." She and many other captains had celebrated with champagne the day old Norris had been let go from the Academy. At least she'd disliked Price. The ones she'd liked were often the worst engineers in the Fleet.
"Yes, ma'am. We were doing a final inspection before reporting to you, ma'am."
"You're finished with this section, then?" She raised her eyebrow.
Crawford shook her head. "No, ma'am. All of them." Elizabeth peered closely. The girl had deep bags under her eyes. "As I said, we were doing a final look-over when the Chief turned white and fell over just like that and I couldn't wake her up."
"You're about to fall over yourself, Mary." Elliot said. "Ma'am, the two of them have been on stims for three days."
"But, ma'am! We finished two days early." She swayed. Elliot and Elizabeth barely caught her in time.
"Captain, she's coming around." Woodhull said from the floor. He muttered under his breath about young idiots. "We'll just get you two young ladies to sickbay. And it's rest and bland foods for both of you, too."
Reassured that her engineers would be fine if bored, Elizabeth took her leave of the area and the poor fellow (Denny?) who was now in charge.
"Ma'am?" Willoughby stood up as she entered the bridge.
"Chief Price will be fine." She smiled.
"That's good to hear, ma'am, but we have orders from Naval HQ." He gave her a tape of dispatches. "They're in clear, ma'am. We can stay at Pemberly for the remainder of the month."
Well. That was interesting. "Start scheduling leave time, Mr. Ferrars."
Just as well she hadn't cancelled that silly dance.
Besides, poor Denny was simply not up to being Chief Engineer on even a fully repaired vessel at dock. He was too junior and constantly over his head, and Elizabeth was loath to recall even Crawford to duty after their superhuman and pointless efforts. This meant that she was called upon to solve all sorts of minor emergencies from a suboptimal fuel mixture to a growth medium clog in hydroponics. She barely had time to respond more urgent letters from her family, which confirmed that "poor Lydia" was in the ground forces of Huntington. She even got a letter from Lydia herself, asking for help to get out.
Elizabeth erased it. Still the much the best place for her.
She was knee deep in the growth medium when she got a message from Hill.
"Captain, begging your pardon, but there's not more than two hours before the dance, and the governor will be waiting for you."
She looked at the note. "Denny, can you handle it from here?"
He looked around. "Yes, ma'am. It's just mucking out now."
"Get some hands to help you out. Good job."
She hadn't even thought about what to wear, but found the choice had been taken out of her hands.
"Hill? What is this?" She pointed to the confection of white muslin hanging from her closet door.
"Your ball gown, ma'am. It's more fitting than the dress uniform."
"I would have worn the skirt, you know." She stripped off her duty uniform and tossed in the direction of the refresher and stepped into her shower. Fortunately, the herbal scents she preferred went well with the smell of the growth medium, because she knew it would linger for hours. She scrubbed as best she could under her ration of hot water and emerged to be wrapped in a robe and then submitted to Hill's ministrations.
It took an unconscionable amount of time for a woman used to twisting her hair up into a bun or ponytail and using nothing more than moisturizer on her face, but Hill managed to make her into the gentlewoman of her mother's dreams. Her hair was a charming tumble of curls and her eyes sparkled in a suddenly flawless face, set off by the low-cut dress. She added a communit disguised as a pendant, and pronounced the captain "perfect, and just in time, too." Elizabeth nodded and drew on a pair of gloves and picked up a lace fan and beaded bag. She should have felt ridiculous, the way she had at seventeen when she came out, but she didn't.
She arrived only shortly after the appointed time, to a room filled with light and music and ladies in white muslin. She stood dazzled for a moment before she could even begin to search for faces.
Just that moment, Darcy, resplendent in his formalwear and wreathed in smiles, came walking as fast as dignity permitted.
"Dearest Captain, I was half-convinced you would have to remain on your ship. Only the reappearance of your crew gave me any true hope." He drew a rose of palest pink from his coat. "But that hope was enough and now rewarded."
"It is lovely." She accepted it with a curtsey.
"Not so lovely as you. Listen - they're starting a new dance. May I engage you for these next?"
"It would be my honor." They danced up and down the room together, blushing when they locked eyes or touched.
The evening passed quickly. Darcy, as host, had to dance with others, but Elizabeth had no lack of partners and only sat when she wished to, refreshing herself on fruit juices and sparkling waters until they were called into dinner.
There she sat with Darcy, being unconscionably rude to his guests, none of whom seemed to mind. Oh, his aunt sniffed at her unsuitability loud enough for both to hear, but aunts can be excused for such behavior. Or perhaps they were in a forgiving mood.
Elizabeth permitted herself a glass of champagne but knew she was drunk on something else. She forced herself to remember that times were precarious and she'd be leaving in a matter of weeks, but then she saw his eyes again.
They were about to return to the dancing when Elizabeth's pendant vibrated against her chest. She touched it and the receiver in her earlobe. "Bennet."
Ferrars spoke into her ear. "Ma'am, there's been an attack. All available ships are being called into action immediately. Ma'am, it's in clear. We're recalling everyone from leave." He paused. "I'm sorry, Captain."
She stood up. Darcy stood up with her.
"Elizabeth? Is it your ship?"
"I only wish it was. I'm afraid we are at war. I must return immediately, my dearest. It was the finest evening of my life, and I shall never forget it." And, greatly daring, she leaned forward to kiss Darcy on his cheek.
"Perhaps I can make it more memorable." He took her hand and dropped to one knee. The entire ballroom seemed to hold its breath. "Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife, Captain Bennet?"
"I...I'm off to battle. I may not return."
"I know. I shall pray for your safe return. But may my prayers be for my future wife?"
She looked into his fine eyes and saw his heart and how it echoed her own. "Yes. Oh, yes!" He stood, tears flowing down his cheeks to mingle with her own when they kissed. Then she took off her slippers and ran out of the ballroom, members of her crew behind her.
Still in her finery, she ran onto the bridge, stuffing her gloves into her bag and handing them and her fan to Hill. She kept the rose.
Soon after she ordered Longbourne out of orbit, more dispatches came in to the ship.
"Ma'am? Ma'am, the enemy has attacked Huntingdon. They've dropped ground forces. I'm sorry."
She grasped her rose hard, drawing comfort from the thought of her betrothed, and prayed for her family and her poor sister Lydia, who would not having training enough to be the soldier she needed to be.
Her orders sent her elsewhere and she could not send a message to either in clear.