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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Ginger reflects on her time with the Alliance; Wash and Zoë deal with hot pursuit and a crazy captain.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 1922 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
Disclaimer: It belongs to Joss and all those business people. I’m just playing.
Rating: PG to NC17. I will not put warnings on each chapter, because I don’t want to give things away. In general, don’t be getting into any of this if you’re not prepared for adult storylines, violence, explicit sexual content, and - oh my - bad words.
Many thanks: to several fireflyfans.net members: LEEH and VERA2529 for hours of beta reading and entertaining discussions of many things. LEIASKY, TAMSIBLING, and LEIGHKOHL provided additional beta time on the early chapters. The talented MPHILLIPS did the lovely artwork. (Ain’t it nice?) FEI and www.chinesetools.com provided many colorful Chinese phrases. One of AMDOBELL fine fics provided a useful plot bunny. (I won’t tell which yet!) Finally – kudos to GUILDSISTER for her inspirational fic The Blue Sun Job.
Links: Prequels: The Fish Job (FFF) (LJ) and Easy Tickets (FFF) (LJ). Timing, pairings, and canon blurbs are in my FFF blog.
Ginger reflects on her time with the Alliance; Wash and Zoë deal with hot pursuit and a crazy captain.
Battleship Argent, Niflheim orbit
The end of the exercise program caught Ginger by surprise. She’d been so caught up in her thoughts that the timer had run down without her seeing it. She slowed to a walk as the machine went into the cool-down cycle, but only made it another half minute before she stepped off. Moving slow left her free to think, and that was one thing had didn’t want to do.
The free weights were in a different area. Ginger stopped at the water fountain near the doorway, taking a long drink and wiping sweat from her face with her little gym-issue towel. She didn’t want to go into the main room of the ship’s work-out level; fact was, she didn’t want to be here at all. But she couldn’t stay in her quarters all the time, and, when stuck on a military cruiser with no friends, there wasn’t much to do.
She’d tried the gym out of desperation, and found that there was something about wearing out her body that brought peace to her mind. It’d become a habit, but a habit with one big drawback – the other folks on the ship.
It was hard to miss the short spell of quiet that fell when she entered the weightroom. She saw an empty bench and claimed it quickly, telling herself that the lively talk and laughter that picked up again had nothing to do with her, and loaded plates onto the bar. Small plates. Actually, the word “plate” didn’t seem right – they were more like little pancakes, and looked pathetic next to the heavy load being pressed up easily by a thick-armed boy on the next bench over.
Gad, they let them into the service young these days – or had she really gotten to be that old?
She sat down on her bench, and as her eyes swept across the mirror she picked up a few sneering looks, smiles and darting glances full of meaning. She’d always thought of her skin as pretty thick; she hadn’t ever been popular, and hadn’t ever cared. She sure as hell hadn’t joined the military to make friends. But this new notoriety of hers had an edge to it – like it was aimed at her, on purpose.
She knew who it’d come from, and she knew exactly why.
You’re garbage, Will’d said to her, and everyone knows it. You just try telling anyone about what happened on that ship and see what happens to you.
She thought of the ugly words of her former partner as she lay back and lifted the bar. She’d been working with Will since the war, traveling the Border worlds to track down whatever targets they were handed, and they’d kept each other company – sex and all – over the years. But she hadn’t really seen him `till just a few weeks ago.
She’d called him on it, told him what she thought of how he’d treated the people on that Firefly. He’d beat on a doctor and a captain who had nothing to do with the criminal they were out to snare. More than that – he’d tried to force himself on a Companion.
Ginger was no saint, but when it came to choosing a side on this, she had no doubts. Things like that shouldn’t be done by any man, and by an officer of the government? That was all wrong. She might have stood against him, too, if she could, but Will had her beat. Everyone here liked him as much as she used to, and no one would ever take her word over his. And now he was dragging her name down even more, just be sure she’d stay quiet.
Now, you listen up, Ginger Larkin, Will’d said to her. You think you’re high-and-mighty, but I know better. I know where you came from. You’re slime that crawled out of a swamp, and the only reason you haven’t been sent back is because you happen to be decent with a gun. But don’t think for a second that anything you have to say will stand up against me.
She tried not to think of the lies he was spreading about her, but the guesses went on in the back of her mind. And the worst of it was, he was taking away the only place in the gorramn ‘verse that she ever wanted to call home.
Twenty-four years ago
Ginger’s taking a restock run into town when she sees the poster in the window of the general store. She figures that it’s supposed to catch attention with the jumble of color pictures of far-off worlds, of big ships powering their way through the Black and sharp uniforms on good-looking muscular young folk. But what grabs Ginger’s eye is a small thing in the lower corner: a soldier standing with his legs spread for balance, his face intensely focused down the telescoping sights of a fully automatic laser guided sniper rifle with inertial steadiers.
Ginger may not know much, but she knows weapons, and she knows that the gun on the poster would give her control over millimeters, letting her hit exactly in the center of her target’s pupil if she wants.
Her mouth goes dry at the thought.
Since the first time she held a gun in her hands, she’s had no doubt that it’s her way. That was nearly a decade ago, the day her Da took up work and the hunting had to be passed on. It might have made the neighbors happier if one of the boys had done it; it’s not right for a girl to wade through the swamps covered in mud, a rifle in her hand and sharp blade on her belt for cleaning carcasses. But she’s the oldest, and even then she’d had a will of steel. No one’d been able to stop her from claiming the chore as her own, though it’s been a never-ending battle to keep it.
Now, in her eighteenth year, Ginger stares at the military poster and feels a hope so strong that it nearly stops her breathing. Here’s the way to live her life in peace, the same soothing quiet that she’d found the first time she stepped out of her family’s noisy, crowded home into the gentle patter of the rain, leaving her lazy mother to deal with the howls of the little ones. On that long ago day, she’d wandered through the dripping greenery, taking all the time she wanted to pick her prey. She’d brought home a howler monkey that night. Those things taste awful, but they move fast, high up in the trees, and are hard to hit. It’d been something to get one on her first time out.
For nearly ten years Ginger’s kept her increasingly large family well fed. Now she’s fully grown, and pretty enough, in her own way, to catch a husband of some means. So Ma says, anyway. But marriage has no draw for Ginger – no husband on this world would ever let his wife hunt. So she’s ignored her Ma’s pleas, refusing to brush the mud out of her hair and put on a dress. She’s not going to give up her gunsport, no matter how much folks frown at her.
This poster is offering her a way that she won’t have to.
She stares at it long enough to work out its full meaning – recruiters will be here in a week. She won’t need to bring much with her, maybe just a change of clothes. She won’t even bring her Pa’s rifle, though it’s been her best friend all these long years. She’ll get a better one when those Feds see how she can shoot, and then she’ll be able to live life her own way.
Halfway through her third set, Ginger’s arms were shaking and she wasn’t sure if she’d get the bar up to the supports. They’d laugh; all those buff young men and women sitting safe in their circles of friends would laugh at the tubby old lady who couldn’t lift the two small pancakes. The thought of it made her so mad that her arms found some reserve of strength and the bar flew upward, then settled into its cradle with a rattling crash.
She sat up and shook out her arms, then wiped her face with the towel, but didn’t move on. She needed a minute to rest.
She didn’t have to be here; her tour had run out long ago, and she could resign any time she chose. Even had some benefits coming, enough to live off if she kept it simple. But Will’d been right about that too: she had nowhere to go. The only thing she could do was shoot. The only thing she liked to do was handle a gun. She pictured herself, an increasingly fat and grumpy old lady, parked on the front porch of some crappy shack on a bunghole border world, knitting socks until a rabbit got into the yard and she grabbed her rifle to make target practice of it.
That wasn’t how she wanted to spend the time she had left. She needed to stay in the service, it was all she had – just not with Will. The best way she could improve her life was to transfer the hell out of here, and she was trying for it. She’d put her request in as soon as she got onboard, and was hoping it’d be coming through soon.
A voice interrupted her reverie: “Hey, are you done yet?”
Two woman were standing next to the bench; she vaguely recognized them. Newish to the force, had to be barely into their twenties. Young and fit and looking down at her like she had no business being in this place.
“No, I ain’t done,” she replied, though she could have been. She gave them a hard look. Go ahead, she thought. Push me.
“You know, it’s not real polite to use a bar for just one person,” the shorter of the two girls said.
Ginger bristled. She narrowed her eyes at them but otherwise didn’t move a muscle. “I’ll write that down in my little book of manners – I keep it right next to my lipstick and my hair dye.”
The girls got her message and looked offended enough, but they didn’t get a chance to jaw back.
“Hey ladies,” a man said, “I think there’s a bench coming open down the way.” Ginger didn’t need to turn to look at the speaker; she recognized his voice.
“Oh – thanks, Will,” the taller girl replied.
“You want to join us?” the other asked, giving Will a flirty smile, even though the man had to be a score of years older than she was.
“Nah. You go ahead. But I’ll see you at the card table tonight. It’s time for me to win some of my money back from you sharks.”
The reply came with a laugh. “You feel free to try!”
Ginger raised her head just in time to see the two girls glance at her, then back at Will. “See you tonight then,” the tall one said. “We’ll catch up on other things, too.” They looked at Ginger one more time, and whispered to each other as they walked away.
Oddly, Will stayed where he was. “Heyya Ginger, how’ve you been?” he asked.
“Just fine,” she replied flatly, then she laid down on the bench, hoping he’d go on his way quickly. But he stepped up to the bar like he meant to spot her.
“I have good news,” he said. Ginger focused on the bar as she lowered it, avoiding the sight of his smiling face. “I’ll just wait `till you’re done,” he continued. “Wouldn’t want to distract you. You might drop the bar on your head, and I can’t have that.”
She gritted her teeth, breathing hard through her nose. Her muscles were already burned out, and she only got through four reps before her arms failed; she was stuck with the bar only a few inches above her chest. Will put a few fingers beneath it to lighten the load a bit, and urged her on.
“You got it!” he said like he was her gorramn gym buddy or something. “I know you can do it. Come on, girl! Lift it on up!”
If she’d been able to speak, she’d have said a thing or two about being called girl. Instead, she pressed the bar up, inch by painful inch, then let him take it from her and rack it.
“What the hell do you want?” she asked as she sat up.
“Wow. Working out makes you snippy, huh?”
“You said you had good news?”
He shrugged off her hostility and sat next to her on the bench. His hip touched hers, and Ginger slid away from him.
“We just got fresh orders,” he said. “Very important.”
“I can read bulletins. No need to tell me the ship’s business.”
“This is something special – just me and you. We’ll get our own transport. Nothing too fancy though – we’ll be posing as tourists, once we meet with The Man In Charge and get it all set up.”
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere with you.”
Will’s smile said now isn’t that cute. “How do you figure that?” he asked.
“I put in for a transfer. Should be gettin’ word anytime now.”
“I killed it,” he said casually.
For the first time, Ginger lifted her head to look at him straight on. “What?”
“You heard me. I like you, Ginger. Especially how you’ve been shaping up.” He leaned away from her and his eyes traveled down to her rear. Ginger wanted to hit him. “Gym time may make you bitchy, but you’re looking firmer nowadays. Still something there to hold onto, though.” He grinned, and she wanted to hit him hard.
Then, like someone flipped a switch on him, he straightened his face and looked her in the eye.
“I like working with you,” he said, his voice serious now. “You’re a real pro. You’re a great shot and you think fast. We’ve always done well together – it’s almost like you know what I’m thinking. A partner like that is hard to replace.”
She shook her head and looked away. That was so like Will, mixing a few compliments that just might be true with some that were downright disgusting. Belittling. She didn’t know how to respond – besides hitting him, and that would only end with her in the brig.
Which… might not be the worst option.
“Will, I could get out of this job easy enough, if I shot you dead.”
That didn’t draw any kind of response like she’d have expected. He only laughed; he laughed long and loud enough to draw a few looks, then he patted her on the shoulder.
“Oh, I do enjoy you, Ginger. We haven’t spent enough time together lately.” He sobered a little
“But don’t be so pessimistic; I think you might actually like this mission. The target is someone we know – you’d have the chance to get some payback.”
“That’s right. It’s the Firefly. They made you look downright foolish, didn’t they?”
She snorted and gave him a pointed look. “I wasn’t the only one.”
“Hey – you were fast asleep when we got off of there, not a hair on your head hurt. I was gravely injured. Took quite a beating.” He put a hand over his crotch and lowered his voice. “Wasn’t working right down here for near a week, after the blow my buddy took. I should get a medal of honor for that.”
Ginger stared at him in disgust. It shamed her that she used to think him funny when he said stuff like that. “Why the Firefly?” she asked coldly.
“It turns out that the captain’s a wanted man.”
“The Browncoat? Wanted?”
“So why’d the damned fools let him go?”
“You said it. Damned fools.” He smiled at her like they were pals, like the damned fools were some other group of people and him and Ginger were better than that. Like it was all just how it used to be.
But she wouldn’t be falling for that again. She’d seen the true Will, and she wouldn’t ever forget. She fixed him with her hardest look, and words that she knew she’d never say out loud ran through her head. You listen here, Will. You ain’t gonna fool with me again. And don’t think I’m gonna watch you play games with folks that don’t deserve it, like you did last time. I ain’t gonna let it happen.
Will laughed and chucked her on the shoulder like she was an uppity child. “No worries – they won’t be making you look like a dāi zi again. We’re not allowed to engage. We’re just out to find the Browncoat and alert the proper authorities.”
His bright smile was innocent and clean, and although Ginger thought it’d look much better with a few teeth missing, she just turned and grabbed her towel. The argument was beat out of her already. She had no power and no will to buck authority, even if authority was posing as a bastard like Will. Her battle would have to come some other way.
“When we leavin’?” she asked.
“Tomorrow, bright and early. Get lots of sleep; I need you awake for this one. We need to move fast to make a meeting on Sihnon with some guy who’s heading this up. One Trevor Marone...”
Southbourne City, Londinium
Wash panted as he pressed his back against a dirty stone wall, hoping the shadows of the alley were deep enough to cover himself, Jayne, and the box Jayne carried.
“Did they follow us?” Wash asked in a whisper.
“Shuddup!” Jayne replied.
They stood like that, silently, for an endless half a minute. There was a clattering of footsteps on the main street that ran parallel to their hiding place, but no one went by the mouth of the alley. Their pursuers must not have seen them take the side road.
They both jumped as a bit of tinkling music came out of Wash’s pocket – he was getting a wave.
“Shut that gorramn thing off!” Jayne hissed. “You’re gonna get us found!”
Wash pulled the uTex out of his pocket and stuck the transmitter/receiver to the bone behind his ear. It was Zoë, finally calling back.
Wash! she said. I need to know what kind of bad you’re bringin’ along.
“Not now, honey,” Wash said as quietly as he could. The problem with communicating with this thing was that he had to speak out loud – it picked up vibrations through bone, and that meant he had to talk with his voice. Whispers weren’t enough. So much for using mall toys for clandestine activities.
Yes, now! I got a few complications goin’ on that you’re makin’ a helluva lot worse. What’d you two get into?
“Take this,” Jayne said suddenly, and shoved the box he’d been carrying into Wash’s hands. Wash juggled it and his uTex while the merc reached under his jacket – the gray coat of a Shepherd, borrowed from Book even though it must have violated some commandment or another to put it on a zuì rén like Jayne.
“We stepped on someone’s toes,” Wash told Zoë in his most hushed voice, “but I’m not exactly sure who…” He stopped to gape when Jayne pulled a small pistol out of the waistband of his pants.
“Jayne, you idiot!” Wash said. “You weren’t supposed to bring a gun! That’s probably why the Companions busted us – they scanned you!”
The Companions busted you? Zoë demanded in his ear.
“No way,” Jayne said. He turned the gun in his hands, fingers caressing it as he checked the settings. “This here’s Sheila. Ain’t no scanner can pick her up.” Wash looked closer, and he recognized the weapon – it was the one Jayne had taken off the dead hijacker on Niflheim.
Wash, speak up! You got police after you? Zoë asked. She couldn’t hear anything Jayne said, and Jayne couldn’t hear anything she said; it made it challenging for Wash to keep track of things.
“Maybe,” Wash replied to Zoë, though it hurt him to admit that he’d blown the job. He was supposed to be making her day easier, not more complicated. “Probably. I’m not sure. But we’re definitely wanted by whoever handles the sale of contraband in whorehouses around here.”
Whorehouses? What the hell are you doin’…? Zoë stopped abruptly, then continued in a forcibly calm voice. Never mind. So you got crimelords on you too?
“I told you – we stepped on toes. It’s the Core; it’s hard not to!”
“Shut up and move!” Jayne snapped, and Wash realized that the distant footsteps were getting louder again. Jayne grabbed Wash’s shoulder and pushed him further down the alley.
“Can’t talk!” Wash told Zoë. “Running now!”
Run your asses back to the ship, Zoë replied. Do it fast. We can’t wait for you to go to ground and shake `em, not if the police ID’d you at the House. How far away are you?
“Jayne,” Wash asked as he ran, “how long ‘till we get on board?”
“Two minutes,” Jayne said, like he had it timed to a T.
“Two minutes,” Wash repeated for Zoe.
* * *
Zoë swore to herself and turned down the gain on the uTex. She didn’t want to close the connection with Wash, but the jarring sounds of his feet hitting the pavement as he ran, transmitted directly into her ear, didn’t help her concentration.
She was in a bind – a very complicated bind. But she’d been in plenty of these in her time, and she had some idea of how to go about it. The key was to relax, she told herself. Stay cool and take one thing time at a time.
She drew in a deep breath and let it out as she tried to decide where to start. Less than two minutes until crime lords descend on the ship, and police could be hovering around them even now. They were low on fuel, out of money, and Mal had no idea who Simon, River, and Book were.
Deal with that last part later, and if the police really had ID’d them, it was too late anyhow. So, first priority – get the hell out of here.
“Captain,” she said. “You need to warm Serenity up and be ready to get us in the air, soon as Wash and Jayne hit the airlock.”
Mal had been glaring at Simon like he meant to pound on him, but he looked away from the doctor to blink at Zoë in surprise. “You just give me an order?”
“No sir. I’m just thinkin’ faster than you right now.”
“Maybe that’s `cause I’m the only one noticing the obvious at the moment. Namely…” Mal tilted his head toward the group standing near the dining room table, which he saw as Kaylee and three strangers, “…who the hell are these people, and we are they havin’ a gorramn birthday party on my ship?”
“Okay, that might be obvious,” Zoë replied, (obvious to a captain with gaping holes inside his head, she added in her own mind), “but more important than that are the gunners who’ll be comin’ down on us in… about a minute and a half. Now – do you want me at the helm when that happens, or yourself?”
She knew that Mal couldn’t argue with that, and he didn’t. But he didn’t like it either.
“You stay with these people,” he ordered harshly. “I won’t have strangers wanderin’ my ship.” He turned and stalked toward the bridge, muttering as he went: “Any more than they already have.”
While Zoë waited for him to get out of earshot, she moved on to the next problem to be dealt with: the lack of fuel.
“Wash, those folks better be after you ‘cause you took all their coin,” she said under her breath, then she fixed her eyes on the doctor. “Simon.”
She didn’t need to say anything more. He looked down at the data disk he was still clutching in his hand, then nodded and left.
Wash had a feeling that Jayne could have easily outdistanced him, but the merc played nice and hung back. He held his fancy gun at the ready and watched the street behind them until Wash got to the ship and through the airlock. Jayne had planned their route well; they’d emerged from a small side street right near the landing platform, and managed to get on board before their pursuers came around the corner.
“Zoë – we’re on!” Wash yelled as he punched the controls to close the hatch. Jayne squeezed through just in time – he’d stayed back a bit to fire off a few shots, like he wanted to give his new gun a try. A round of return volleys hit the inside walls of the airlock, and Jayne swore and ducked under the cover of the closing cargo bay door.
Wash started up the stairs at a flat out run, and was beyond winded when he finally got to the top deck. He wasn’t used to this much exercise, and the tight collar of his shirt and a very awkward takeoff didn’t help any. The ship bumped and shifted, throwing him against the railings and nearly making him drop the box he carried.
“Has Mal forgotten how to fly, too?” Wash asked no one in particular as he glanced into the dining room. He took in the remains of an interrupted birthday party; River was sitting behind her birthday cake with a very festive hat on her head, but her expression didn’t live up to the setting. She looked like someone had given her a dead puppy.
A raised voice from the bridge called Wash’s attention away. “What the hell happened to my ship!” Mal yelled.
Wash handed the box to Jayne and stumbled up to the bridge.
“They’re… upgrades,” Zoë was telling the captain. “After Saffron messed it up the second time, Wash switched the feeds to the – oh hell, why am I tellin’ you this?”
“I’m here!” Wash announced breathlessly as he stepped into the bridge. “It’s all going to be okay now.”
Usually an announcement like that brought only derisive laughs, but Zoë surprised him by muttering, “Thank the powers that be…”
“What have you done to my bridge?” Mal demanded. He had them well up into the atmo, but he was flying unsteadily, hands shifting over the console, looking for controls like they weren’t where he thought they’d be. Wash didn’t answer, just sat down in the co-pilot’s seat. He didn’t have to ask; Mal immediately switched over the helm control.
“Do we have anyone on our tail?” Wash asked.
“Two,” Zoë replied. “Stingers.”
“Stingers? Damn!” Wash muttered. Those were fast little ships. Marketed as sporty transports to the wealthy elite, Stingers had strong frames and excellent maneuverability. It was also quite easy to add weapons to the craft, which was why they were so often used by folk heavily involved in crime.
“That ain’t all!” Zoë added, bending over the scanner screen. “We got local law enforcement, comin’ in from the east. No flashers on, but they’re patrollin’ for something.”
Wash bit down on his lip and tensed, barely stopping himself from going into some serious maneuvers. His instinct was to shake his pursuit, and shake it fast, but common sense spoke up in time. He was only a klick above a good-sized city on a Core world. As good as he was, there wasn’t a move fancy enough to get them out of this, not if that security cuiser hooked onto Serenity as a target for arrest. Flying like a madman would only draw attention.
The good thing was – he wasn’t getting contacted. Not a blip. If the cops wanted to force Serenity to land, they’d be burning holes in the comm system telling him exactly what to do. Could be, they hadn’t ID’d Serenity as the ship he and Jayne had used to bring their illegal elephant seal scrotum into the world.
But one thing he was certain of – the two Stingers were after Serenity. They weren’t attacking, probably on account of the nearby patrol ship, but they were following closely. If Wash flew away quiet and docile, he might slip the police, but the crimelords would follow. He wouldn’t be able to shake them in the Black.
The police patrol was coming closer – sniffing after the Stingers, most likely. Not a good thing, because if they figured that the criminal types were tailing Serenity, they’d all get nabbed for later sorting.
Wash blew out a fast breath – this was what folks meant when they talked about rocks and hard places. Frying pans and fires. Pyroraptors and velociraptors. But he wasn’t about to give up; he had to make up for nearly blowing the job. Well, he’d pretty much completely blown it. Only Jayne’s unsavory connections had given them the chance to bring back what coin they had.
As hopeless as it seemed, there was a way out of this, and Wash knew what it was. It’d take some cool nerves to carry it off. Luckily, when he was in this chair, he had all the icy nerves he needed. He turned the ship back toward the city and settled into the regular flow of air traffic, the slow crawl of workers commuting at the end of the day.
“This is not how we run away,” Mal said testily.
Wash ignored him, but grinned as his confidence swelled. This was so going to work, and by that he meant brilliantly. He pulled his uTex out of pocket and keyed in the code for emergency.
“Keep it down, okay?” he told Mal and Zoë. They might have argued, but Wash didn’t hear. An operator answered right away and his attention was focused on making the call.
“Uh – hi!” he said to man on the line. “I just thought you might want to know… I was out walking… ahh, walking my dog… by that Companion House. You know the one? Near downtown? Yeah… that one. And then these two guys came running out.”
Wash glanced up – Zoë and Mal were looking at him like he’d lost his mind. He winked at Mal, then blew a silent kiss to Zoë.
“I got this real strong feeling that they were bad people. Criminals, you know. They had that look. Shifty eyed and dirty. Especially the big one. They were carrying a box, too. Um… a gray, metallic box. I think they may have been… stealing something from those fine ladies. They jumped into two transports – Stingers. I sure hope you catch them. It’s an awful thing, seeing crime in the middle of the day like that. I mean – we’re supposed to be civilized, right?”
The operator told him to hold the line. Ten seconds later, the security cruiser, lights flashing, swung in behind the two Stingers. Mal and Zoë bent over the scanner, both of them engrossed in watching his plan work itself out. When the two little ships turned toward a landing grid, Wash disconnected the call and prepared himself to receive hearty congratuations on his fast thinking.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
“Get us out of here,” Zoë ordered, “and tell me you got the money.”
“The money?” Mal demanded. “What money?”
“Jayne’s got enough coin to get us half fueled,” Wash told Zoë, though he knew he was ignoring Mal at his own peril. “I’ll take care of that part. You just see after… you know…” He didn’t have the nerve to nod toward Mal, but Zoë understood.
“Sir,” she said, turning to the captain. “I owe you some explanations. Now’s as good a time as any.”
Mal gaped for a second, as if he hadn’t expected that offer and whatever threats he’d been about to make were stuck in his throat.
“I’ll say you do at that,” he finally managed to sputter.
“We’ll be in Shuttle Two,” Zoë told Wash. “Get us fueled and clear – tell me if there’s any problem. And tell Kaylee to swap out the pulse beacon and take us off the cortex, soon as we clear monitored space. We can’t have any of these folks followin’ us.”
Jayne sat back, his big, dirty boots propped up on the dining room table. Normally, Mal got upset over that kind of thing, but wasn’t nobody gonna get on Jayne today. He’d done his share and more, and deserved some time to enjoy the spoils of his service.
He had a bottle of well-earned refreshment to pull on (and a pocket full of a bonus he’d bartered from the second of the three whorehouses he’d dealt with, but that would wait for later…) He was already feeling smoothed out from the drinks he’d had on the job. To hell with what Wash’d said – a man who doesn’t buy a drink is suspicious. Tipping a glass with a costumer is an important part of the selling process, and Jayne had done some very fine selling today.
`Course, a little dessert would do nothing but good. “Mind if I partake?” he asked, reaching toward the birthday cake. He aimed his question at River, but she didn’t reply – too busy thinking on something. Kaylee only shrugged like she didn’t care.
“Help yourself,” Book replied.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Jayne said. He cut a big slice and set to it, eating it right out of his hand. “Good haul, huh?” he asked the Shepherd as he nodded toward a pile of coin in the middle of the table. He’d left it there proudly, so they all could see what he’d pulled off. All by himself too. Wash hadn’t had a clue what to do after it went bad with the Companions. “Only sold sixty grams,” Jayne said. “Think a’ how much we’ll have when I can get the rest of it out there.”
“Perhaps we should check with the competition next time,” Book said. “We’ve got enough people on our tail – we don’t need every black market organization hunting us as well.”
“Doesn’t do any good,” River said distantly. “Everything gets taken away. Lost.” She sounded sad, and looked close to crying. Jayne was thankful as anything that she didn’t – she got up and slipped out the hatch before it came to that.
“What’s her problem?” he asked. “Ought’a be happy, with all this fuss goin’ on for her.” He held up the lump of cake that he was still working on, showing it as evidence before he finished the last chunk of it. “Gorramn,” he added in a mumble. “I even spent my own coin on a present for her.”
“It’s the cap’n,” Kaylee said absently. “She’s upset over the cap’n.”
Jayne swallowed back the last of the cake so he could answer that. “What – Mal being crazy? Ain’t nothin’ new about that.”
“He’s forgotten us,” Book said. “He didn’t recognize me or River or Simon.”
Jayne licked off his fingers as he considered that. “Huh,” he finally said, then he grinned. “That must a’ been a good time. He beat on the doc any?”
Kaylee looked up at him, and Jayne felt his smirk freeze when he saw her face. She wasn’t having any fun with this. “We’re next, you know,” she said softly. “Won’t be long `fore he’s lookin’ at us like he never saw us before. Askin’ what we’re doin’ on his ship, like we don’t belong here.”
“That can’t happen,” Jayne said. “Not to us. Book and them – and no offense here, Shepherd – but they’s just passengers. We’re crew. Mal won’t forget us.”
Kaylee looked down at the floor, disagreeing without words. Book wasn’t so shy. “Are you sure of that?” he asked.
Jayne tried to stare the preacher down, wanting to show that he was sure as sure can be. But maybe he wasn’t, because he looked away first.
“Aw, hell,” he said as took a long draw from his flask.
* * *
River ran from the dining room, leaving Kaylee and Book to handle the oblivious self-satisfaction that was coming off Jayne in fat, heavy waves. She couldn’t believe that she ever thought she liked the mercenary. The man might not be as stupid as some of the crew thought, but he had no sensitivity. Couldn’t he see the full tragedy of what was happening to Mal? Didn’t he know what it meant?
River slowed as she reached the bottom of the stairs, then ducked under the infirmary window and crouched next to the hatch, staying hidden. Simon was in there, just starting to sort through the scanner data. She wanted to find out if he knew, if he saw the thing she feared most. Simon was a trained observer; if anyone knew about it, it was her brother.
She squeezed her eyes shut and listened.
Simon’s thoughts were a myriad of loose threads, jumbled now but slowly weaving themselves into a single strong fabric as he prepared to do his analysis. Traumatic memories… the limbic system… have no database… text on neural anatomy as reference… no 3D holo-image viewer… how to clarify…?
River tried to reach below the cleanliness of science, into the deeper parts of his mind. She imagined that she could slip her hands between the threads of his rationality and gently separate them, letting her glimpse the other ideas that swarmed beneath in dark, formless clouds. She felt herself dive down…
And she found what she feared would be there. For barely an instant, Simon’s eyes settled on a red bag on the far counter, the one he’d brought on board with him almost a year ago. One of those blurry clouds in his minds was calculating the things he would need to take with him when he left the ship.
What will I need to keep River stable…?
“No!” she yelled as she pushed herself up. “No! You won’t!”
She rushed into the infirmary, and Simon turned to her, startled. “I won’t what?”
“Won’t take me! I won’t leave! Never!”
“River, what are you talking about?”
“I heard you – you think we have to leave! But I won’t!”
Simon lifted his hands out to his sides. “I never –”
“Yes, you did! I heard you!”
Simon dropped his hands and sighed, then looked away from her. He was confused, his thoughts wildy scattered now. The neat tapestry had unraveled, the neat surface of logic broken up. But that meant that the things underneath were surfacing, coming up to where he could consciously consider them.
River wasn’t patient enough to wait for him to figure it out on his own. “You were wondering what you’d need to take,” she prompted, then adding three hard words: “When. We. Leave!”
“Yes,” he admitted with a faint nod. “I guess I was. I hadn’t really –”
His admission got her anger going again. “Won’t happen!” she snapped. “You’re not going to give up on Mal! You’re the only hope he has to get better, and the only hope I have….” She stammered, wanting more words, needing to make him understand how horrible it all really was. This ship was her home. Maybe there’d had another home for River Tam once, but she wasn’t that girl anymore. The one who came out of the Academy was all different, and there was no other place where she could belong like she did here. If she lost this…
She felt warm hands on her shoulders and realized that Simon was standing right in front of her, slouching a bit so he could look her in the eye.
“River, listen to me. I have no intention of giving up on Mal.”
“But you were thinking – ”
“My thoughts… you have to understand that sometimes thoughts take their own directions.” She huffed at that, but Simon didn’t let her argue. “Hey – can you calm down and let me explain?”
He held her gaze; the thoughts behind his blue eyes were clear and sure again. But now River’s mind was a mess. She was terrified, she realized. More than anything, she was scared of what was going to happen now. If Mal didn’t know her, than maybe her home wasn’t her home. Maybe her family was going to fall apart.
She nodded to Simon.
“I know you don’t recall a lot of our first days on this ship,” he said, his voice calm and even, “but believe me – the captain didn’t like me very much.”
River didn’t see the revelance. “He doesn’t like you now. I mean… if he remembered you, he still wouldn’t like you.”
She didn’t intend that in the mean way it sounded. Mal respected her brother, and valued his skills, but as far as liking? That might not ever happen.
River saw that she didn’t have to explain; Simon understood. He smiled. “Maybe not. But my point is, now that he doesn’t know us, he might not want us here. The first time he heard our situation, he didn’t exactly jump at the chance to help us.”
River started to argue that, but found she couldn’t. She could only think of the cold, impersonal hostility she’d felt from Mal. No, he sure didn’t like Simon. And he thought nothing of her. Not anymore.
Simon moved a hand to her chin, lifting her head so she had to meet his eyes again. “I don’t plan on just walking off this ship,” he said, “but I have to be prepared. Whatever happens – I need to be able to look after you, to take care of you. I don’t know what’s going to happen, with Mal like he is. Do you understand?”
River nodded. She could see the logic behind that, see it clearly enough that she couldn’t fight him like she’d wanted to. She felt her eyes tear up. “But I don’t want to leave,” she said.
“Neither do I, mei-mei.”
Simon started to hug her, but River pulled away. “Zoë wouldn’t let you go anyway, not until you make him better.”
He smiled. “You’re right; she wouldn’t. I hadn’t thought it through. River, you’re getting to be quite good at this reading thing, but you should be a little more careful about jumping to conclusions. Thoughts are… complicated things, and don’t always make sense. I hadn’t even had a chance to sort this out myself. I wasn’t expecting it to go this far.”
River nodded; she hadn’t been expected it either, though it should have been obvious. Maybe she wasn’t really mad at Simon. Maybe it was herself she was upset with, for not being prepared for this. And maybe she’d attacked him because of what she was afraid of herself.
But she couldn’t let herself do that. If Mal wasn’t able to keep them all together, she’d have to help. She’d have to be a grown-up now, and not give in to her fears. Keep faith. Believe in Mal.
She lifted her head and stood up as tall as she could. “Simon,” she said firmly. “I’m sorry I yelled at you. I misunderstood. But I’m not giving up. Ever. No matter what happens, I’m staying here. Home.”
She turned and left the infirmary before Simon could answer.
“This is ridiculous!” Mal said. He turned away from the cortex screen to pace the shuttle. “I don’t know why you’re playin’ at this, Zoë, but it’s gettin’ on my nerves!”
Zoë sighed. Maybe it was a waste of time to go through the full explanation, given that Mal wouldn’t remember anything for more than a day. But she’d made a promise. To get him to follow her into the hospital, she’d swore to tell him everything. Not that there weren’t times to break promises – Zoë wasn’t stupid enough to bind herself completely to anything she said, but she couldn’t go back on this. She’d done too much lying to Mal, and she couldn’t do it again. Not today.
Gods, but it was hard to do. It wasn’t like she expected him to believe her instantly, and she was going about it in slow, careful steps, giving him time to take up the idea. Still, it wore on her, the way he fought it. He didn’t go so far as to dismiss it altogether and walk away – she suspected, as she had since the day this started, (and he’d once admitted to it) that somewhere inside himself he knew what was happening to him. But he wasn’t going to accept it without a struggle; he was like a little boy fighting not to be sent to bed for the night, tired through he might be.
So she got a tight hold on her patience and her cool, keeping herself together as she walked him through it. She’d started by telling him, straight up, that the `verse had advanced eleven months further then he knew. That, of course, had been dismissed as complete gōushī.
Next, she took him on a tour of the cortex, mostly the news. That had got Mal riled, because it was harder to deny. Sure, cortex links could be faked, the ship’s calender set to show any day, but Mal had to be asking himself why Zoë would go to so much trouble.
And now it was time to play her trump card. Zoë turned off the cortex screen and swiveled the chair to face him.
“Sir,” she said, not able to keep her weariness out of her voice, “unbutton your shirt.”
He stopped his pacing and stared at her. “Zoë… uh...”
“I’m too wrung out to fight you over this, Captain. Just do it.”
Mal looked at her through narrow eyes, then he gave her half a grin. “Ain’t your husband gonna get a little jealous over this?” he quipped.
“It ain’t me needin’ to see what you got under there. It’s you. Now, you know I wouldn’t be asking such a thing if I didn’t have a damned good reason.”
Mal studied her for another moment. “If I do this – are you gonna leave me alone?”
He shook his head, but gave in. “Fine,” he muttered. “I can’t believe you’re talkin’ me into this.” He pulled the medic’s vest off and threw it aside, then his hands went to the buttons on the front of the medic suit and he began unfastening them, his anger making his fingers move fast. “You know, you got me wondering what kind of hallucinagens you found that you ain’t sharin’. This whole game ain’t funny, and I’m wondering–”
When he got the suit top halfway open, Zoë interrupted, getting to her point without delay. “Middle of your chest, sir. Round scar. Adelei Niska gave you that just `bout six months ago.”
She spoke softly, gently. Finding the remainders of violence on one’s body could’t be an easy thing, even for Mal, who’d seen plenty of hurts in his life.
“You got another one on your right shoulder,” she added. “Knife wound from Niska’s man, maybe ten months ago. You paid him back in full for that. Put him through the ship’s engine, and good riddance.”
Mal stood where he was, head down as he studied evidence of the past several months, written on his own body in undeniable clarity. He touched each of the scars as Zoë described them.
“Then there’s the gunshot to the belly, just below your rib cage there. That one near did you in, sir. Wash gave over quite a bit of blood to pull you back.”
“Who did it?” Mal asked, his voice almost too soft to be heard.
“Scavengers. Took advantage when we had engine trouble.”
Mal didn’t respond, just settled on picking at the big round scar in the center of his chest with his thumb.
“You don’t recall any of those happenin’, do you?” Zoë asked, and he shook his head. “So there’s your proof. It’s been several months since we salvaged the foodstuffs off that wreck.”
“Busy months,” he muttered faintly.
“Yes, that they were.”
He finally looked up at her. “And those people out there in my dining room?”
“Passengers we picked up the day after the salvage. They’re good folks, sir, and gotten to be crew, every one of `em. The boy’s a doctor. He’s the one saved your life when that bullet found you. He’s the one put your ear back on, too.”
“My what?” Mal demanded, but he raised a hand to his left ear immediately, as if he had a scrap of intuition telling him which side it was.
“Niska really don’t like you, sir.”
“Adelei Niska? How’d I go and get caught up with him?”
“We took a job we shouldn’t have. Long story.”
Mal shook his head, then took a few steps to the far bulkhead. Even in the shuttle’s dim light, Zoe could see that his face had gone pale.
“That fancy Core-bred kid sewed my ear on?”
“Who’s the old man?”
“A preacher. I know, sir,” she said to the sharp look Mal gave her, “I ain’t sure why he’s riding with us, and less sure why you let him, but you do. Probably because you see as clear as the rest of us that he’s a good man. The girl is the doc’s sister. She’s an odd one with a long story behind her, but let’s not worry about that just now. We got plenty to keep us occupied.”
Mal wasn’t coming apart, but he wasn’t looking too good either. He pressed a hand against the bulkhead to help himself balance as he sank down to the deck, still with a hand inside his shirt, pressing the scar of the bullet wound like he couldn’t quite believe it was really there.
“How is this happening?” he asked.
“We got reason to think you there’s something hurt in your head, because of a few events that went down a while back. But it was just a few weeks ago that you started forgettin’ things. Seems to be goin’ along faster all the time, and happens when you sleep.”
“If what you’re sayin’ is true,” he said, “I’ve had these scars all along. How come I didn’t notice?”
“I imagine you just don’t look. The doc had something to say about that, about how a mind can see, or not see, as much as it chooses. And… you should know sir, that next time you doze off, you won’t remember this talk we’re havin’. You’ll wake up thinkin’ it’s some time before that salvage job.”
Mal stared down at his belly, like feeling the thickened skin of the scar wasn’t enough to make him sure it was real. The expression on his face told her that he’d had enough reality to last him a while. So she sat quietly and waited for the facts to settle in his mind. After a time, the ship bumped slightly. They’d reached the fuel stop, then.
“I feel like I’m dreamin’,” Mal finally said.
“You’ve talked yourself into believing that before. You’ll have to just take my word that you’re awake.”
He stared across the shuttle at her. This really wasn’t working good for him – he looked to be struggling just to keep his breath moving in and out.
“You told me all this before?” he asked.
“Yes. Not often, because it’s hard on you, and you forget anyhow. Most days we lie as much as we need to to keep you at peace.”
He dropped his head and gave a shallow laugh, a sound of disbelief more than humor. “Peace. That’s a good one.” He took a few deep breaths, gaining some control over himself. “This is why we were in that hospital, huh?”
“It is. We snuck in to do some high tech scan of your head. Simon’s lookin’ at it now. He’s a damned fine doctor, Mal. He’ll see what’s wrong, and he’ll fix it.”
Mal had nothing to say about that, not right away. He stared emptily, and Zoë kept herself still while she waited to see where he’d go with it. She also wondered about the fueling; Wash had planned ahead, choosing a remote orbital platform where there wouldn’t be a wait, so it should be quick.
Sure enough, the ship soon rocked again as she disengaged from the platform.
“So… we talk to the doctor,” Mal said firmly. “We find out what I need, and do it. No problem.”
He started to get up, but Zoë stopped him. “Why don’t we give him some time,” she said. “He’s just got started looking at the scan.” Privately, she thought Mal needed a little more time to gather himself, but she didn’t want to tell him as much.
He nodded and sat back down. He kept to himself for a good five minutes before he spoke up again.
“Zoë,” he said softly. “What if there’s nothing he can do?”
She had no answer for that.
Monday, June 4, 2007 10:24 AM
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