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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
It's Friday, so ... a longish one-off after LOST and FOUND. An accidental discovery puts two of the Serenity's crew at risk ... Please leave feedback and/or ratings - thank you!
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 1133 RATING: 8 SERIES: FIREFLY
“Jayne, be careful with that,” Zoe called as the big man lifted one of the crates stacked in the cargo bay.
“Why?” He looked up at Zoe on the catwalk above him, but found the crate’s contents shifted, and the sudden change in the centre of gravity pulled the box from his grip and it slammed into the wall.
“That.” Zoe’s voice was dry.
“Tzao gao,” Jayne muttered.
“You breaking up my ship?” Mal asked from the other walkway.
“No,” Jayne said guiltily.
“Then why’s there a hole in my bulkhead?” Mal asked as he descended to the bay floor.
Jayne looked around. “Gorram it.” There was, indeed, a hole in the wall where the crate had punctured the interior skin. “T’weren’t my fault,” he said defensively.
Mal gave Jayne a look as he passed by, going to inspect the damage. “Don’t recall seeing anyone else close by.”
“What’s in that ruttin’ crate anyway? Feels like it’s full o' – “
“Dung ee-maio,” Mal interrupted, leaning into the hole and reaching inside. “There’s something – “
“Careful, sir,” Zoe warned, hurrying down the staircase.
Mal grabbed his hand back. “Why?” he asked. “What do you think’s in there?”
“I wouldn’t like to say, sir. Just advising caution.”
“Well, it looks to be a box. Old too.” Mal, his natural curiosity peeked, carefully reached in and took hold. “Heavy.”
“Could be money,” Jayne said quickly.
“Could be a bomb,” Zoe added.
“Bomb?” Jayne took a step back.
“Well, we won’t know until we open it.” Mal lifted the box out of the wall and set it down on the crate that had done the damage. “But with what Serenity’s been through, I doubt it’s a bomb. It would have gone off before now.”
“Unless it’s set to when you open it.”
“Good point.” Mal examined the container. It was made from wood, with a design of leaves carved into the top. There was a keyhole, but no key. “Maybe we’d better get Simon to take a look inside before we do.”
“Good idea, sir,” Zoe agreed.
“I can’t see anything that might be dangerous,” the young doctor said, peering at the scans. “Metallic objects, but one of them looks like a watch. Another might be a gun.”
“No money?” Jayne asked, sounding mighty disappointed.
“I can’t tell. If it’s paper …” Simon shrugged. “But I don’t think it’s dangerous.”
“So we break in?” the big man asked.
“No.” Mal shook his head. “Kaylee, can you open this without damaging anything?”
The young engineer hunkered down to look at the lock. “It’s not electronic, just mechanical. I could try – “
“Here. Let me.” Freya picked up a fine probe from the worktop behind Simon, and stepped to the box. “I used to be quite good at this.” She put the probe into the lock and, her eyes closed, manipulated it. The click of the lock disengaging was quite loud in the infirmary. “There,” she said, opening her eyes and smiling.
“So come on, open it already,” Jayne pressed.
Mal looked at Freya and raised an eyebrow. “Good work.”
“Thank you, captain.” She handed the probe back to Simon, who took a long look at the scratches now decorating its surface.
“Where’d you learn to do that?”
“I have some interesting friends.”
“You gonna open it, or stand around makin’ everyone else feel nauseous?” Jayne asked impatiently.
Mal gave him a look then coughed, clearing his throat, watching Freya hide a smile. “That’s my wife you’re talking about.” He lifted the lid of the box.
“Is that it?” the big man asked, peering inside.
“Seems to be.”
Inside the box was, indeed a watch, one of the large old-fashioned types that gentlemen used to keep in their vest pockets. It was tarnished, so unlikely to contain more than a small percentage of gold, if any. There was also a book, a bible by the looks of it. Next to the bible was a gun, no holster, just lying as if it had been tossed inside. Mal reached in and picked up the bible. Inside the cover were half a dozen notes, small denominations, nothing worth much.
“Aw, hell,” Jayne said. “All that for nothing.”
“Well, it’s interesting,” Mal commented, then stopped as something fluttered from the bible to the floor. He bent down to pick it up. It was a photograph, old, not one of the captures. This one didn’t move.
“What is it?” Freya asked, looking over his shoulder.
“A woman.” Mal turned the picture over. “There’s writing on the back. I can’t quite make out … it’s too faded.” He looked at the front again. “Seems a nice looking person.”
River stepped quietly into the infirmary and stepped noiselessly to the bed. She reached into the box and picked up the watch. No-one noticed her head go back, as if she had been slapped, and a look of panic flash through her eyes. She dropped the watch quickly.
“River?” Simon looked up at the sound. “Are you okay?”
“I’m … shiny.” She forced a smile, and Simon returned it.
“Any idea how old this stuff is?” Freya asked, still looking at the picture.
“No way of knowing. Serenity wasn’t new when I bought her,” Mal said. “This stuff could have been in there from the day she left the shipyard.”
“Maybe we should just put it back,” River suggested. “Maybe we shouldn’t have disturbed it.”
“Disturbed?” Mal smiled. “It’s just someone’s old junk.”
“Then why hide it?” She stared at Mal, making him feel somewhat uncomfortable. Something had obviously troubled her. Well, more than usual.
“Someone’s treasure, then.” Freya put her arm around the young girl’s shoulder. “Probably forgotten about by now.”
“Forgotten,” River echoed.
“We can put it back,” Mal said soothingly. “Though I can’t think of a decent reason we shouldn’t just dump it, but we’ll put it back. If it makes you feel any better.”
“It does. Thank you.” She watched them talking, laughing, but it was with a sense of detachment. Something wasn't right.
Freya was following Mal down the metal staircase into the cargo bay. “I'm just saying this time out for Inara’s going to do her good.”
“I ain't disagreeing. But did she have to go to a Companion retreat to do it?” he asked, glancing back at her.
“Hell, one of the Abbey’s be better’n that.” He faced forward again. “Oh, hi, River.”
The young girl smiled at him, then lunged with the knife she had in her hand. It slid into his side and he took a step back, a jolt of disbelief warring with the feeling of cold steel in his flesh.
Freya, in shock but still very fast, jumped the last couple of steps, pulled River away from Mal and delivered a powerhouse of a blow to her chin. The girl dropped the knife and fell to the bay floor, out of it. Freya immediately turned back to Mal.
“She stabbed me!” He seemed surprised.
“I know it.” Freya punched the comlink button and her voice reverberated around the ship. “Simon. Cargo bay. Ma shong!” She gently pulled Mal’s shirt from his pants, exposing the wound. It was pulsing blood. Mal tried to see. “Mal, don’t move.”
“Who was going to?” A feeling of weakness hit his knees, and he slid down the wall to the floor.
“What is it?” Simon’s voice came from above.
Simon ran down the stairs, but paused at the bottom as he saw his sister on the floor. “River?”
“No!” Freya was firm, brooking no discussion. “You see to Mal first. I knocked her out. She did this.”
Simon dithered for a moment, but then knelt down by Mal. He checked the wound, blood running down and soaking Mal’s flannel pants. “We need to get him to the infirmary. Keep pressure on it.”
“Captain?” Zoe had arrived in the bay, followed by Hank and Kaylee.
“She stabbed me!” Mal repeated as Freya got under his arm and helped Simon lift him to his feet. “Ow!”
“Don’t be such a big baby,” Freya admonished. “It’s barely a scratch.”
“Feels like more than that.”
“It’s not even virgin territory.”
“It’s not my fault I get stabbed occasionally,” he protested.
“Or shot, or beaten up, or tortured …” Freya helped him down the steps to the infirmary. “That’s probably a commentary on our line of work. Either that or you’re just plain accident prone.”
“I didn’t start this!” He allowed himself to be assisted onto the infirmary bed, laying back carefully so as not to pull on the wound.
“You never do,” she said, the acidity of her comment hiding her concern.
“Freya?” Jayne appeared in the doorway, and Freya joined him.
“Jayne, put River in the spare bunk and lock the door. Keep an eye on her.” She spoke quietly, not wanting to distract Simon.
“She did this?”
“Gorram it.” Jayne hurried off.
Freya stepped back to the bed.
“It’s a clean wound. Hasn’t reached any major organs or arteries, so it’ll heal okay. You’ll be sore for a few days.” He injected Mal with a painkiller. “More stitches, I'm afraid.”
“Hey, I'm used to them.” He watched Simon get the kit ready. “So – your sister gone off the rails again?”
“I don’t know.” Simon was understandably worried. “She’s been so much better.” He busied himself with the forceps, threading the needle.
“Well, I'm pretty sure I didn’t say anything to annoy her. Oh. I might have said hi.” Mal’s tone was dry, but his eyes were serious.
“I don’t know what caused this.” He shook his head. “It would be a major relapse, and I don’t see how … Where is she anyway? Is she still –“
“I told Jayne to put her in a spare bunk,” Freya said.
“She’s not dangerous!” Simon protested.
She nodded at where he was preparing to begin stitching. “No?”
“Freya did right,” Mal added. “Who knows what she would do. What if it got into her head to override the airlocks? She knows how. Or disable the engine? We could all be dead if she took a mind to it.”
“It all too easy to do,” Freya agreed, remembering the time she’d tried to do exactly that.
“I have to talk to her.”
“Not right now,” Freya said, putting a hand on his arm. “This first.”
Whatever Simon had used had numbed the entire area of his side, so Mal was able to walk out of the infirmary under his own volition. He followed the young doctor and Freya towards the crew area. His blood still shone on the floor of the bay, but all he felt was relief that it wasn't a hell of a lot more. The way River was, the way she could fight when the mood took her, she could have cut his throat before Freya was able to do anything. Probably filleted him too.
He watched Simon ahead of him. The young man was intensely worried about his sister, focussed on nothing but getting to her, even Kaylee and Bethany pushed to the back of his mind. Not surprising – her Alliance-grown instability had almost gotten them thrown off the ship more than once, in fact had done, and Mal still didn’t really know why he’d taken them back. But this was a real step backward, and he was curious to find out why.
Jayne was standing by the door to the spare bunk, the one he had been working on to turn into a nursery before Freya had lost her baby. “You okay, Mal?” he asked, as much concern on his face as he ever showed.
“Shiny. Anything from our homicidal maniac?”
“Not a peep. Tried to talk to her, but she clammed up.” Jayne was troubled. “She really do this?”
“A year ago you wouldn’t have been surprised.”
“A year ago maybe not. But now …” He shook his head, not wanting to say how much he liked her. Not that he’d have said liked. “Just don’t seem right no more.” Simon went to open the door, but Jayne’s hand shot out and grabbed his wrist. “Where’d you think you’re going, doc?”
“I need to see my sister.”
Jayne glanced at Mal, who nodded. “Okay. Don’t think there’s anything down there she could use as a weapon, but I’d still take it careful if I was you.” He removed his hand and Simon opened the door.
“River?” he called gently, like someone talking to a wild animal. “It’s Simon. I'm coming down.” There was no response, and he eased himself onto the ladder. Despite the fact that he was sure she wouldn’t hurt him, he climbed down very gingerly. “River?”
“I didn’t mean it.”
Simon reached the floor and looked around the small room. At first he missed her, but then realised she was sitting in the corner, her back against the bulkhead, making herself as small as she could behind the frame of the bed.
“I know.” He stepped towards her.
“Is he okay?” she asked, looking up at him through the veil of her hair.
“I’m fine,” the man himself said, climbing very, very carefully down the ladder. “I’d rather like to know why, though.”
Mal was not prepared for that particular answer, and his eyebrows went up. “Ghosts?”
“Speaking to me. Telling me things.” Simon sighed. “And it’s not a psychotic episode!” she insisted. “I heard them whispering.”
“What were they saying?” Simon asked, clearly believing it was all in her head.
“Murder who? Me?” Mal asked, favouring his side.
“Paskin?” Freya, still topside with Jayne but listening to the conversation, looked at the big man.
“Hey, don’t ask me,” Jayne said. “I don’t know no Paskin.”
“Who’s Paskin?” Simon asked.
“The dead man.” She shook her head. “I know it doesn’t make sense! Oh, Simon, I don’t want to go back!” She reached out and he took her in his arms.
“You won’t go back. We’ll figure this out.” Simon turned his head slightly. “Can I take her to the infirmary?”
“Okay,” Mal agreed. “Just don’t leave her alone.”
“How long have you been hearing these whispers?” Simon asked, checking his sister’s vitals.
“Since yesterday afternoon. When we found that hiding place.”
Simon glanced at her, surprised. “You think that was the trigger?”
“The bits inside were Paskin’s.”
Mal and Freya, outside the infirmary, exchanged looks. “Could it be that?” he asked.
Freya shrugged. “Could be. I just wish I could read her, tell you if it’s something or nothing. But …”
He rubbed her arm. “Hey, not your fault.”
A thought occurred to her. “She handled that stuff, didn’t she?”
“There’s a thing called remote viewing, something the Academy was trying with some of us.” Freya took a deep breath – she was uncomfortable talking about that time, even with him, but right now had to put that uncomfortableness to the back of her mind. “You hold something belonging to someone, and if you’re tuned in right, you pick up their thoughts, where they are, what they see.”
Mal understood her reticence, and moved forward a little to give her what comfort her could. “Did it work?”
“For a couple of us. Not that they ever got anything useful – the ones who were any good at it were so violent they attacked any of the doctors as soon as they got near enough. I seem to recall one of them losing an eye.”
“Can’t say I'm particularly sorry to hear that.” Mal crossed his arms. “You think that might be River’s problem?”
“Is it something you grow out of?”
Freya shrugged. “Mal, I'm not an expert. For all I know this is a one off. If she’s picking up thoughts of murder, maybe it’s so strong it’s overcome her natural defences.”
“Not sure she has any.”
“Exactly.” She looked up as Simon joined them. “Well?”
“Nothing physically wrong with her. Elevated levels of … well, nothing to be surprised at. But she keeps talking about someone being killed on board.”
Mal sighed. “Doc, people have died on this boat. Hell, I killed at least half a dozen of ‘em myself. But none of them that I am aware was called Paskin.”
Simon looked at Freya. “Can you pick anything up?”
“Wish I could. But I've not noticed anything unusual at –“
Mal interrupted. “What about your bad dreams?”
“Last night, three times, you sat up and shouted something, then lay back down. You were still asleep, I’d swear. And you were restless.”
“I … don’t remember.”
“Doc?” Mal looked at Simon.
Simon was thoughtful. “Could be your abilities trying to reassert themselves through your subconscious. Particularly after you let Grace into your mind. Which would mean we might have a way in.”
“Why am I not liking the sound of where this is going?” Freya asked, a feeling of ice water trickling down her spine.
Simon looked at her. “It’s called Cognitive Sleep Therapy. I put you under, keep you at a level where you dream, but not so deep you don’t know you’re dreaming.”
“I don’t know …” She looked at Mal. “Mal, after before, with Lon …” She shuddered. “That’s what Inara was trying to do, wasn’t it?”
“Similar,” Simon admitted. “But it was more getting River to read you. This time you’d actually be taking part in the lucid dream.”
“What if something happens? What if there’s something else in here?” She tapped her temple.
Mal put his hand on her shoulder. “Honey, I know you’re worried. But you won’t go that deep. Right, doc?”
Simon nodded. “If there is something that’s triggered River, then you might be able to find out what it is.” He wasn’t – quite – begging.
“What if it happens to me too? What if I turn violent and try to kill all of you again?”
“I’ll be monitoring you closely. Any sign of trouble and I bring you out.”
“Frey,” Mal interrupted. “I know you’re not liking the sound of this: neither am I. But it may be our best bet on finding out what’s wrong with River. If we don’t …”
Simon put sensors on Freya’s forehead and above her heart. These would enable him to react much faster to any adverse stimuli. Cleaning the skin in the crook of her elbow with alcohol, he inserted the needle attached to the IV bag hanging ready. Freya twitched.
“It’ll just be like going to sleep.”
“Long as you wake me up again.”
“I’ll see he does,” Mal added, holding her hand and squeezing a little.
Simon opened the valve on the IV bag and liquid began to drip through. It ran quickly down the tubing to Freya’s arm.
“Hey, it’s cold.”
“Just lie still and relax.”
“That’s easy for you to say.” She felt her eyes begin to close. Forcing them open she looked at Mal. “Don’t go anywhere.”
“Ain’t planning on it.” He watched her lids flutter and then lie still, her lashes dark against her cheek. Her hand went limp in his. “Is this going to work?” he asked Simon quietly.
“Seriously, Mal, I have no idea.” He glanced round at River lying quietly on the other bed against the wall. “But we have to try. I am very grateful to Freya, you know. For doing this.”
“Well, Frey’s never been one to stand back and let someone hurt. Unless she did the hurting in the first place,” he added after a beat.
Serenity was clean. No rust, no discolouration – it was as if she had just come out of dock. Freya was standing in the cargo bay, just inside the doors, feeling … odd. She looked down at herself – although even a glance showed she wasn’t herself. Her hands were roughened, manly, and her clothes … his clothes were old, faded pants with a flannel shirt, under a dusty black coat that had seen better days. A bag sat on the floor next to his feet. He looked around the cargo bay, noting the crates stacked to one side.
“Billy?” said a voice from the doorway.
He looked over, smiling. “Hi, Marie.”
“What are you doing here?” she asked, a woman in her middle age, still attractive with dark hair piled on top of her head, wearing a long serviceable dress in a floral print.
“I came to get you.” He walked across the bay, holding out his hands. “I said I would, and here I am.”
“You shouldn’t have come, Billy. Things’ve changed. I've changed. You need to leave.”
“Marie, you’re mine. And I spent a long time looking forward to seeing you again. To holding you … you saying that ain’t gonna happen?”
“I am. Billy, go. Before he comes back.”
“I ain’t going anywhere.” He was stubborn, his pride wounded. “He thinks he can take you away from me, I'm gonna teach him otherwise.”
“You think?” Another voice, a man’s, from directly behind him.
Billy turned quickly, reaching for a gun that no longer hung around his hips but was in his bag, then felt agony flare in his belly. He looked up into the other man’s face, the smiling face of the man who’d just put a knife under his ribs. “Eli?” he said, trying to staunch the flow of blood.
“Bye, Billy.” The man stabbed again, sliding the knife easily through flesh …
“Freya! Open your eyes!” Simon’s voice was urgent, not to be ignored.
Freya managed to get her eyes open, thankful to find herself in the infirmary, Simon and Mal bending over her, their faces showing concern. “Wuh de tyen, ah,” she gasped, and Mal echoed the sentiment.
“Just breathe deeply,” Simon advised, removing the drip from her arm and putting a small pad over where it bled slightly.
“What happened?” Mal asked. “You’d just gone under then you started crying out, like you were in pain.”
“I was.” Freya struggled to sit up, and Mal assisted. She felt her stomach quickly, reassuring herself that she was still in one piece. “I got … he got stabbed.”
“Billy. Billy Paskin.”
“I know I'm at risk of repeating myself here, but who the hell is Billy Paskin?” Mal asked, somewhat exasperated.
“I don’t know. Not really.” Freya swung her legs off the bed, sitting with her head lowered a little, thinking. “I wasn’t there long. Here. Serenity.” She looked up into his face. “It was a long time ago, Mal. Probably not long after Serenity was commissioned. I was someone called Billy Paskin. I think he’d just come out of jail, come looking for someone, a woman called Marie. But she was with a man called Eli, something to do with the boat. He was the one that stabbed me – stabbed Billy.”
“Like River stabbed Mal,” Simon put in.
“But you were the one stabbed, not doing the stabbing,” the young doctor went on. “Not quite the same.”
“There’s no guarantee that we’re picking up the same thing from the same perspective, doc,” Freya said. “It may be River’s seeing this from Eli’s point of view. Trouble is, my … Billy’s point of view is pretty limited. He arrived, and pretty much got killed within a few minutes.”
“You sure he died?” Mal asked.
“Oh yes,” Freya said, nodding her head fervently. “You woke me up just as this Eli was more or less filleting Billy.” She looked at Simon. “How come I could feel the pain so bad? It was like it was real.”
“It was,” Simon agreed. “Even now we don’t know that much about dreams, but the receptors in the brain fire just the way they do in real life. The pain you felt, although belonging to someone else, was real. That was why we brought you out. It could have …” His voice trailed off.
“What, doctor?” Mal asked, getting angry. “Killed her?”
“I … I don’t know,” Simon admitted. “I really didn’t know what would happen, only that this could help River –“
“And you let Freya do it anyway? You –“ He took a step towards the young doctor.
“It’s okay,” Freya said, interrupting, putting her hand on Mal’s arm. “No-one knew. But I’m not going back.”
“No, damn sure you ain’t,” Mal agreed, still burning with fury.
“But it doesn’t help,” Simon insisted. “We don’t know why this happened, and if we don’t find out, River may not be able to shake herself free of it.”
“It might be time she needs,” Freya said, trying to placate him. He was intensely worried about his sister, that much was obvious. “If we get rid of those bits, maybe the dreams will go too.”
“And if they don’t?”
“Then we find another solution,” Mal said firmly.
Simon stood straight. “If you want us off your ship –“
“I’m hoping it won’t come to that, doctor. And it wouldn’t exactly help your sister none, would it?” Mal looked at Simon. “We’ve a few bits of information we didn’t have before. William or Billy Paskin. Marie. Eli. And Paskin was an ex-con. Maybe Hank can scare up some details on the Cortex if he digs deep enough.”
“It was a long time ago,” Freya warned. “More than twenty years. Whenever Serenity was first in service.”
“But not Serenity,” Simon said quickly, glad to have Freya on his side. “What was the ship’s name then?”
“Columbus,” Freya said without thinking.
“What?” Even Mal was surprised.
“I …” Freya sat back. “That was the name. At least, the one Billy Paskin was thinking about when he stepped on board.”
“Good work,” Mal said approvingly. “So I think we might have a starting point.” He looked closely at Freya. “You sure you’re okay? You look damn pale.”
“I'm shiny,” Freya assured him.
“Just make sure you stay that way,” he said, lowering his lips to hers for a moment.
“It took a lot of digging, and some creative excavation at that, but I think I might have something,” Hank said, putting the screen down on the dining table. The others were all sat around it, listening intently. “You were right about the date,” he said to Freya. “Serenity was registered as Columbus for about four years, more or less from the shipyard. She’s had a lot of name changes since then, some of them pretty interesting –“ He became aware of Mal’s intense gaze, and got back to the point. “Anyway, her registered owner during that time was a man named Eli Crook, and a man more like his name is unlikely. Bound by law a dozen times, he was never convicted of anything, mainly because witnesses tended to have a habit of disappearing.”
“Murdered?” Zoe asked.
“The implication is that, yes, but as no bodies were ever found …” He shrugged.
“Not difficult, being out in space,” Freya agreed.
“Sounds a peacable kind of character,” Mal said, scornfully.
Hank went on, “William Paskin is in the records, too. He was registered as co-owner of Columbus at the beginning, until he got sent to jail a few months later for beating a man almost to death in a bar fight. The only reason he didn’t get longer was because of mitigating circumstances, at least according to the Cortex.”
“What kind of circumstances?” Mal asked.
“It’s not too clear, but it seems the guy he beat up was hitting on his wife, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Got … physical with her.”
“Let me guess. The wife’s name was Marie,” Mal said.
“Got it in one,” Hank agreed, grinning. “Just after he got sent away, Eli Crook registered as sole owner.”
“Well, that would piss anybody off,” Jayne commented.
“It surely would.” Mal nodded. “But how can we be sure these are the people Freya and River are picking up on? I agree it seems unlikely not to be, but I’d like to see some kind of proof.”
“I thought you might say that,” Hank said, switching the portable screen on. “I found pictures.” The screen flickered to life, showing a mugshot of a man, his details down the side. “William Paskin, five years for aggravated assault, paroled in two.”
“Paskin.” Mal read the text. “Says he was released but never showed up at his elected place of residence. Never reported in, neither. Just dropped off the face of the world.” He looked at Freya. “He seem familiar?”
She shrugged. “I can’t say. I didn’t see his face. Not from my side.”
“How about this?” Hank asked, changing the image to that of a woman, an official capture, moving around to show all sides. “An official notification of marriage. Marie Paskin. Only got this because they did it through channels, on a core planet, not off-world somewhere.”
“That’s her,” Freya said quickly, leaning forward. “Marie.”
“And this is Eli Crook. Taken at the time of re-registration.” Another image, this time of a man in his thirties, dark haired and sullen. Dangerous looking, too.
“Oh yes. I don’t think I’ll be forgetting him in a hurry.” Freya unconsciously rubbed her belly.
Mal noted the action but didn’t comment. Instead he said, “So we know these people existed. That they were on board this boat.”
“They may still be alive, sir,” Zoe pointed out. “It’s not so long ago, not really.” She tapped the screen, the tag showing Crook’s birthdate. “They may be older, but –“
“You’re right, dear,” Hank interrupted. “I can’t find anything about any deaths being registered, but that don’t mean much. Could be on a border planet, or out in the black, but chances are at least one of them is still alive.”
“Find out. Dig some more,” Mal ordered. “It seems likely that Paskin died on this boat, and for some reason his possessions were put into the bulkhead, although why I can’t conjure. No way of knowing what happened to him after that, either. Maybe just tossed out in space somewhere.” He looked at Freya. “I don’t suppose you’ve any idea where this happened? What planet?”
She shook her head. “I – he wasn’t looking outside.”
Mal nodded. “Maybe this is what that Paskin needs, some kind of closure.” He went on, off the looks the others gave him, “Now I don’t say I believe in ghosts, but River didn’t stab me for no reason. There’s no guarantee time, or distance from those trinkets, will make a deal of difference to her, and it’s affecting Freya too, so let’s see what we can do about it.”
“Thanks,” Simon said, his face relaxing just a little.
“Just keep her under control,” Mal advised. “If she takes it into her head to try again, I'm not answering for the consequences.”
Freya stripped off her shirt and pants, laying down on the bunk and closing her eyes. She was very tired, and although Mal probably wouldn’t be joining her for an hour or two, she needed to sleep. Relaxing deeply she listened to the beat of her pulse in her ears, hearing the note change as she drifted off to sleep. Her breathing eased as she slipped into rest.
“He thinks he can take you away from me, I'm gonna teach him otherwise,” Billy Paskin said, his face congesting with anger.
“You think?” he said, sliding the knife into the other man’s belly as he turned.
“Eli?” Paskin looked directly into his face, surprise on his own, followed swiftly by pain.
“Bye, Billy.” He slid the knife back in, feeling it cutting deep …
Freya turned over, her face contorted, rolling into a foetal position.
“Billy?” said Marie, crossing the bay to the body. “You killed him,” she said, kneeling down.
“Wasn’t anything he wouldn’t have done to me,” he said, leaning over and cleaning his blade on Billy’s shirt. The dead man stared at him with accusing eyes, but he ignored them.
“And if someone saw?” Marie asked, nodding towards the outside.
He glanced over his shoulder. “Ain’t no-one around on this rock. They’re all at church. Praying to save their souls.” He laughed. “Maybe Billy should have stopped off for one last confession.”
“I could have made him go. He would have left. You didn’t have to kill him like that.” She reached over and closed Billy’s eyes, almost tenderly.
“He’d not have gone, Marie. He’d never have left us alone. If nothing else he’s have wanted his share of Columbus. And I ain’t giving that up.”
“This ship means more to you than me, don’t it, Eli?”
He laughed again. “I never said that, Marie. And you don’t seem too cut up about Billy’s demise, yourself. Not like old Billy here.” He nudged the body with his foot and smiled at his own joke.
“It’s been a long while. Things change.” Marie stood up.
“You got blood on your dress.” He stepped closer to her. “Why don’t you go change, and I’ll put your ex-husband here in the hold. We’ll dump him in deep space, first chance we get.” He leaned over and picked up the bag. “Here, take this. Might be something worth keeping.”
She nodded and took the bag, going to leave, but he grabbed her, leaning in for a kiss …
She whimpered, still curled up tight.
“Frey, come on. Wake up.” Mal shook her urgently, worry etched deep into his face.
Suddenly she gasped and sat up, her eyes wide open. “Tyen shiao duh!” she murmured.
“Frey?” Mal sat on the edge of the bed, his hands still on her shoulders.
She focused on him. “Mal?”
“I … no, I don’t think I am.” She began to shiver, as if very cold. Mal picked up a blanket and wrapped it tenderly around her, pulling her into him. “I … I feel … wrong.”
“You were dreaming,” he said gently. “About Paskin?”
“Yes. No. Sort of.” She pulled the blanket tighter around herself. “I saw Billy Paskin’s death again, but this time from Eli Crook’s perspective.” She shuddered. “He had so much hate, Mal, so much anger – if River felt that, it’s no small wonder she attacked you.”
“You haven’t, a thing I’m quite joyful about,” he pointed out.
“But I'm kind of forewarned.” She was still shaking, but took a deep breath, once, twice, and finally the shivering started to ease. “It was pretty horrible, though. His feelings as he cut on poor Billy, then he and Marie …” She shuddered again. “I don’t want to go back to it again.” She leaned back to look into his face. “And I don’t see why I went there now.”
“No, me neither,” Mal agreed. “I think we’d better have a quiet word with the young doctor.”
“I've not heard of these kind of side effects,” Simon said, pacing the floor of the infirmary. “But then I've never known that therapy used on anyone with your natural abilities.”
“But these abilities were knocked out, you said so yourself,” Freya said. She idly picked up a metal probe from the counter. “The Naxom closed the neural pathways responsible for them.”
“I never said it was permanent.” Simon stopped by her. “It may be you’re picking these things up from River, like a conduit. Or direct. I have no idea. It’s not something I can run tests for.”
“So what can you do, doctor?” Mal asked. “Freya doesn’t want to eavesdrop on these people’s lives every time she goes to sleep.”
“I can give her something to induce a deeper level, beyond dreaming, but that would be dangerous for more than a couple of days. We need to dream – it’s like a safety valve. Without it people end up having psychotic episodes.”
“Where maybe they might stab someone?” Mal suggested dryly.
Freya was looking at the probe, the way the light glinted bluely along it. Suddenly she lunged at Simon, and it was only Mal’s quick thinking that avoided the doctor being seriously hurt. He grabbed Freya around the body, pinning her arms to her, and the probe clattered to the floor. She struggled, trying to free herself.
“Doc!” Mal said urgently. “Dope her!”
Simon was already reaching for a hypo and leaned in, miraculously getting it against Freya’s neck at the first attempt. He shot it home.
She fought, still trying to break Mal’s grip, then it was over and she went limp in his arms. He lifted her up onto the medbed, gently laying her down.
“What happened?” Simon asked, rubbing the point on his belly where the probe had bruised but not broken the skin.
“She nearly gutted you, doctor. Had it been a knife you’d be in a bad way by now.” Mal looked at Freya, noting the twitching of her eyelids as she dreamed, anxiety consuming him. “She’s there again. Back in the past.” He glanced at Simon. “We have to finish this. Restrain her, Simon, and your sister too. Keep them under as long as you can. If you don’t, someone’s as like to die on this boat. Again.” He ran out of the room towards the bridge.
“Hank,” Mal said urgently as he jumped up the bridge steps three at a time. “Tell me you got something.”
“Maybe. It’s a mighty big coincidence if not, but – “
“Hank, just tell me.”
The pilot tapped the screen in front of him. “I’ve located a Marie Paskin. She’s got a small place on Purgatory, out near the rim.”
“How do you know it’s her?”
“That’s the coincidence part. Her ranch is called Columbus.”
Mal allowed a small smile to crease his lips. “Good work. How long ‘til we get there?”
“Already programmed in. About ten hours.”
“Can we shave that?”
“Why are we in such an all-fire hurry now, Mal?” Hank turned in the pilot’s chair to look up at him. “I thought River was under control.”
“Freya’s just tried to stab Simon,” Mal said shortly.
Hank sat up. “Is he okay?”
“He’s fine. But he could have been dead. We need to get to Purgatory as soon as we can.” He was holding himself together with an effort.
“I’ll speed it up.”
As Hank changed settings, he asked, “How’s Freya?”
“Sedated. These dreams – nightmares – are getting all too real, and if we don’t get this sorted I’m not sure she’s going to be able to get loose.”
“Who’d she pick up on this time?”
“Not sure.” Mal crossed his arms. “Stabbing seems to be part of the story, certainly.”
She was still a strong woman, even with her hair going white, her face lined from years of working under the hot, unforgiving sun. Say what you like about living in the black, but it helped preserve your looks. She stood on the verandah, watching as they approached from a ship, her hands on her hips.
“What can I do for you?” she asked. “I’ve nothing to sell.”
“Ain’t here to buy,” the man in front said. “I’m Captain Malcolm Reynolds. This is my first mate, Zoe. And this is Jayne.” He indicated the two with him.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“And that’s my ship.” He nodded back over his shoulder. “Serenity. ‘Course, she wasn’t called that when you lived on her.”
Marie Paskin sighed. “Columbus. Yes, I thought she looked somewhat familiar.”
“Mrs Paskin, I have to ask you something.” Serenity’s captain paused, seeming almost diffident, as if he was finding it hard to put something into words, a state he didn’t seem used to.
“What did you want to know?” she asked.
“Where is Eli Crook?”
She laughed. “I haven’t heard that name in a month of Sundays. How’d you hear about him?”
“Ghosts,” Malcolm Reynolds said.
“I don’t understand.” The woman in front of them looked puzzled. “Ain’t no such thing as ghosts.”
“A few days ago I would have agreed with you,” Mal said. “Not sure I can explain it, but I need to know where Crook is.”
“Best come in then.” Marie Paskin stepped to one side. “Tea?”
“Don’t mind if I make some, do you? It can be thirsty work, remembering.” She busied herself with a pot, using water kept hot on the hearth. “You said ghosts. How can that be?”
“We found something, in the ship. It seems to have had something of an unfortunate effect on two of my crew.” Mal stood in the sunlight, his figure a silhouette. “Not sure how, but they’ve picked up on some information. Enough that we were able to find you.”
“That you did. You’d better sit down.”
Zoe and Mal sat on the old sofa, but Jayne opted to stay standing. Mal leaned forward. “I would take it as a kindness if you could help us.”
“They psychic?” she asked over her shoulder.
Mal exchanged a look with Zoe, then said, “Something like that.”
“Thought they might be. Been having dreams myself, for the past couple of nights. About Billy.” She turned back, a tray in her hands which she put down on the table. “Sure you don’t want a cup?”
“No, we’re shiny.” Mal took a deep breath. “What can you tell us?”
“More than you gonna get off that Cortex, I'm sure about that.” She sat down in the rocker, tucking her dress around her. “And I don’t come out of it too well.” She sat back, her eyes unfocusing as she went back into the past. “I married Billy for no more reason than he asked me. I was from a small farming community, and we didn’t have much, but what we had wasn’t worth the having in the first place. When Billy arrived, he swept me off my feet. He had money – well, more than most others, and he took a shine to me. So when he asked, I said yes. Just to get away, really. And for a while I was happy. He bought me things, pretties, clothes to wear, but it didn’t take me long to realise he walked on the edge of being legal, often crossing the line.” She picked up her cup and sipped her tea, moving the rocking chair backwards and forwards. “I didn’t mind. Wasn’t my money he was taking, so why should I care? Then he introduced me to Eli. Eli Crook. He and Billy were literally as thick as thieves.”
As she spoke, up in the infirmary Simon watched as the brain activity of his two patients increased dramatically, accompanied by twitching of legs and arms under the restraints, as well as rapid eye movement beneath closed lids. Quickly filling a hypo, he injected both of them, but this only succeeded in quieting the physical symptoms: the brain activity continued to grow.
“Tzao gao,” he muttered.
“I'm not sure how they got the money to buy that Firefly, and I wasn’t stupid enough to ask. So we moved on board.” Marie looked out of the window at Serenity sitting comfortably in the landscape. “We got work, here and there. Some good, some bad. I imagine things haven’t changed that much.”
“Not so much,” Mal agreed.
“Then there was the fight. Do you know about that?”
Mal shook his head. “Only what we found on the Cortex. Someone was hassling you?”
She smiled slightly. “Billy said he was. He claimed this man was trying to molest me. I agreed when the Feds turned up, but in truth there was nothing like that. Billy just took against him, for no reason I could see. Beat him pretty thoroughly. Alliance put him away. And Eli was there, saying he’d take care of me, not let me have to make my own way.” She shrugged. “I let him.”
In those three words, two years of living, breathing, existing, were explained and excused.
“What happened when Billy got out?” Mal asked.
She looked at him shrewdly. “I think you know about that. I think that’s what your crew have been picking up on. Why should you want me to tell you? It’s all a long time ago.”
Mal took a breath. “Billy died. We know that. We know Eli killed him and dumped his body in deep space.”
“See, you do know.” Marie nodded. “Your people see it?”
“More than that,” Mal said. “They seem to be reliving it.”
A look of sympathy crossed her lined face. “I'm sorry about that. It wasn’t pretty, and … Anyways, I’m sorry.”
“What happened next?” Mal asked.
“Next?” Marie laughed. “We went on our merry. Me and Eli. You’re right – he dumped Billy in the black, without even a word said over him. I offered up a prayer, but only quiet-like. Didn’t do to offend Eli.”
“Didn’t you love Billy?” Zoe asked, the first words she’d said since landing on Purgatory.
“Love him?” Marie shook her head. “I didn’t love him. I didn’t really know him. Whatever he felt about me – and it seemed to be real – I … but Eli shouldn’t have done that to him. That wasn’t right.”
Simon watched the readouts carefully, first River then Freya, the hair on the back of his neck standing up as he realised their brainwaves were beginning to synchronise.
“He gave you Billy’s bag,” Mal prompted.
“How did … oh, right. Yes, he did. Told me to look through it, see if there was anything of value in it. Weren’t anything much, just an old gun that had seen better days, a watch that wasn’t worth a damn thing, and a bible. Didn’t know Billy was religious, didn’t seem to hold with that kind of thing, but I guess you never know everything about a person. There was a picture as well, I think it was his sister, but I couldn’t read the back – it was too faded.”
“And the box?”
“Box?” Marie looked puzzled, then her brow cleared. “Oh, that was mine. I bought it on one of our trips – I liked the carving. Seemed appropriate somehow, if Billy wasn’t going to be buried, to at least put his things in a wooden box. Said a prayer over that too, especially if he was religious at all. Stuck a couple of notes in the bible, then put the whole lot in a hidey-hole I’d discovered. ‘Spect you know most of them, but I'm betting there’s a couple you don’t.”
“Didn’t know about that one,” Mal admitted.
“But you found the box.”
“Had a slight accident a couple of days ago, and the box came to light. Seemed to be the cause of all the incidents.”
“Incidents? What happened?” Marie asked, leaning forward in her rocker.
“What about Eli? Where is he?” Mal said, sidestepping the question. He didn’t want to have to explain too much, particularly as he still had pain from where River stabbed him.
“Eli …” Marie sat back again. “Eli didn’t much like me wanting to keep Billy’s stuff. Said it was morbid. Maybe it was, but he was my husband. Seemed wrong not to do something. So I told him I’d tossed it out, when really I’d hidden it. Things were fine for a while, maybe a month. Then Eli got drunk.”
Freya twitched, despite the medication. Her mouth opened slightly, and she spoke. “Marie.” Just the one name, nothing else, but not in her normal voice. This was deep, gruff – masculine. Simon shivered.
“Yeah?” Marie asked, turning from the kitchen where she was preparing the meal.
“You been keeping secrets from me, Marie?” Eli stood in the doorway to the dining room, the daylight from outside in the Eavesdown Docks lighting up motes of dust all around him.
“Keeping secrets?” Marie laughed. “What secrets would that be?”
“I heard things, Marie. Things I shouldn’t oughter hear from someone else. Things that don’t exactly sit well with me.”
Marie turned back to her cooking. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Eli. Go get changed – food’s nearly done.”
“No, I guess not. Seems like you’ve filled yourself up with alcohol again, don’t it?”
“Had one or two.”
“More than two. A lot more. Go sleep it off, Eli. I’ll keep your food hot for you.”
“Who you been seeing, Marie?”
River moaned slightly, her hands balling into fists. Simon checked her heart-rate, which had begun to creep up again. There was also a sheen of sweat across her forehead.
“What?” She spun on her heel. “You think I've been seeing someone else?”
“I know you have.” Eli stepped into the dining area. “You think I wouldn’t find out?”
“Eli, I haven’t. Someone’s just trying to make trouble for you. For us.”
“Why would they want to do that?”
Marie laughed. “Hell, Eli – it’s a small crew. You don’t think there’s ill-feeling amongst us? I hate them as much as they hate me.”
“You saying they’re lying?”
“One hundred percent. I wouldn’t cheat on you, Eli.”
“You cheated on Billy.”
“Billy weren’t here!” she said loudly.
“So when I'm not here, I can trust you?”
“Of course you can, Eli.”
“I don’t think so.” He stepped around the counter and loomed over her, pushing her back against the wall of cabinets. She could smell the alcohol on his breath. “Don’t think so at all.” He took hold of her arm.
“Eli, you’re hurting me.”
“Do more than that,” he said, threateningly. “Maybe I should ugly you up, make sure nobody else would want you.”
“You’re drunk.” Marie was scared. In this mood, he could do anything. “If I scream, they’ll come running.”
“You think so? When you just said you don’t like them, they don’t like you?” He pushed harder, his face very close to hers.
“I shoulda stayed with Billy,” she spat at him, anger overcoming fear. “At least he never hurt me.”
“No, just tried to kill anyone as would talk to you.”
“Not like you, of course. Get off me, Eli.”
“Make me.” He leered at her, squeezing her arm even harder, then the expression on his face turned to something else. To surprise. To pain. He stepped back and looked down at the kitchen knife she held in her hand, blood staining the blade. His blood. “Marie … why’d you …” He staggered to one side, holding onto his belly, feeling blood pumping from a wound that seemed to burn within him. “Wahng-ba dan duh biao-tze …”
“I told you to let go,” Marie said, watching him slide to the floor, leaning against the counter.
He reached for his gun, and she backed away a little, but he didn’t have the strength to draw. Instead he looked at the red staining his hands, feeling it soaking his shirt, his pants, and pooling beneath him. He hadn’t realised it would be so painful, each movement tearing into him, each breath an agony …
Marie saw the light go from his eyes, his face becoming still, his hands dropping to the floor. She waited for a long minute, just to make sure he wasn’t faking it, then leaned over, checking for a pulse.
“There weren’t one,” Marie said. “I guess I knew that, right from the moment I put that knife into him. I wish I could say I did it for Billy, but I didn’t. It was … self defence. He would have hurt me.”
Mal nodded. “Seems like it.”
“Hank! Get Mal back here, right now!” Simon’s voice echoed through Serenity even as the young doctor turned back to the medbeds.
“Mal!” The comlink in his pocket buzzed. “Simon needs you back in the infirmary!”
Mal pulled the link from his coat. “Why? What’s up?” Even as he asked, though, a feeling of dread flooded through him, and he was out of the chair and flinging the door open even as Hank responded.
“I don’t know, Mal. But it’s serious.”
Mal didn’t answer, just pounded along the path back towards Serenity.
Marie Paskin watched as the others followed, standing on her porch, one hand on her hip, the other shielding her eyes from the bright morning sun.
Mal slammed in through the cargo bay doors, straight through to the infirmary. “Doc?” he asked.
Simon was working feverishly on Freya, pressing on her chest. “Her heart’s stopped,” he said. “Take over.”
Mal, his own heart beating so hard he thought it would leap from his chest, stepped close and put his hands next to Simon’s, picking up the rhythm, then taking over. Simon turned to a drawer, pulling it open quickly and taking a pre-packed hypo from inside. He ripped the cover from it and removed the syringe, placing it against Freya’s chest, just above her breast. Thrusting it home, he pushed the plunger, releasing the adrenaline directly into her heart.
“Keep going,” he ordered, glancing into Mal’s face, the thought crossing his mind as to whether the captain knew how pale he looked. Mal nodded, keeping up the chest compression as Simon lifted down the paddles, placing them carefully, one centre, the other to the side of her ribcage. “Clear,” he said. Mal lifted his hands away and watched Freya jerk on the bed as electricity coursed through her. Simon watched the read-out, the heart beat line jumping erratically then going back to flatline. “Again. Clear.”
Mal took a step back, his heart in his mouth, not praying, exactly. Not exactly.
“Got it,” Simon finally said. “A rhythm. Not strong, but … getting there.”
“What happened?” Mal finally asked.
“I don’t know,” Simon admitted. He explained quickly about the synchronisation. “I don’t know what caused it –“
“I do,” Mal interrupted. “They were living the memories again. And I'm pretty sure Freya was picking up Eli Crook.”
“Marie Paskin. She was telling us how she killed Crook. Knifed him.”
“She killed him?” Simon glanced at Freya. “I suppose … it could be. Like I said before, we don’t know enough about this to be sure, but she felt the pain when Billy was stabbed. If she felt Crook actually die …”
“Is she going to be okay?” Mal wanted to know.
“Freya? Yes, I think so. Her vitals are picking up, getting back to normal. I’ll keep her sedated a while longer, just to recover, but, yes, I think she should be okay.”
“And your sister?”
Simon turned to look at River, now lying peaceful, as if asleep. “Her vitals are … better. Hopefully this is at an end now.”
“Let’s hope so, doctor. And I think I may have figured out how to ensure that.” Mal left the infirmary, passing Zoe, Jayne and Hank on the way out, heading into the cargo bay. He went to the damaged section of bulkhead, still not repaired, and reached inside, lifting out the carved wooden box. He carried it outside, heading back to Marie Paskin’s house.
She watched him approach, not surprised to see him with the box, just mildly curious. “So there it is,” she said as he came close. “Didn’t think I’d ever see it again.”
“I doubt you did.” He placed it on the verandah at her feet. “And I think it’s time it got buried, don’t you?”
She nodded, understanding him entirely.
The ceremony, if you could call it that, took place just after noon, Jayne having been volunteered to dig a grave big enough for it in the small plot out back.
“They were here when I came,” Marie explained, nodding towards the headstones. “I never took it into my head to marry again. Didn’t seem to be much point. I sold the Firefly to a dealer, split the money up between the crew and we all went on our merry. Never saw any of them again.”
“And Crook?” Mal asked, watching Jayne dig.
Marie shrugged. “He joined Billy out in the black. Seemed fitting, somehow. That’s why I had to buy off the crew – they’d have noticed if we left Persephone without him.” Mal nodded. “You going to turn me in?” Marie asked, it obviously having been on her mind.
“No. Don’t see the point. It was a long time ago, as you rightly pointed out, and it was self defence. Why get the Feds involved now?”
She smiled a little. “And you don’t like the Feds either.”
“Not too fond of them, no.”
“A Browncoat?” she asked.
“Once upon a time. Now just trying to make a living out on the edge.”
“Seems that Columbus has a good crew at last,” Marie said approvingly.
“That she does. And her name’s Serenity.”
“I’ll have to remember that.”
Jayne climbed out of the hole, and they began. Marie watched as Mal and Jayne lowered the box into the grave, and she tossed a handful of wild flowers on top. Then, as Jayne filled the earth back in, she recited the Lord’s Prayer, in a clear and honest voice. Hank and Zoe stood a little further back, their heads bowed. Mal stared into the horizon.
In Serenity’s infirmary, Simon saw the brainwaves of River and Freya settle down, becoming two separate entities again, and River muttered something in her sleep. He smiled.
“It’s over,” Marie said. “I can feel it. Guess Billy wanted to come home.”
Serenity was ready to go, and Mal was taking one last look at the landscape of Purgatory. “Why here?” he asked. “Why this place? You must have had enough money from the sale to go almost anywhere you wanted.”
“Where else should I go?” Marie asked in turn. “Home? I hadn’t been there in a long time, and there was never anything for me on that rock. A central planet? Me? Nope, it seemed appropriate, somehow, to settle here. The name seemed … proper.”
“Purgatory. That what you feel you’ve been living in?” Mal squinted in the sunlight at her.
“I watched my lover kill my husband, then I killed him. Don’t you think that’s reason enough?”
Mal smiled slightly. “Whatever you say, Mrs Paskin. Whatever you say.” He turned and headed back to his ship.
“I hope they’re okay – your crew,” Marie called.
Mal looked back over his shoulder. “They will be – now.” He carried on to his boat, pulling the comlink from his pocket. “Hank, get Serenity warmed up. Time to leave.”
“All ready, Mal. Soon as you’re on.” Hank’s voice echoed tinnily around Purgatory, and Mal felt the Firefly’s engine start to beat.
“Take us out.”
Friday, December 15, 2006 8:28 AM
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