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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Serenity lays by on an almost uninhabited moon. Zoe tells a war story.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 502 RATING: SERIES: FIREFLY
No money changing hands, no intention to cause trouble. Not mine.
The crew sat comfortably around the fire after supper. It was odd, but somehow comforting to see Serenity’s mess chairs and tables sitting out in the open air. They dragged the chairs up to the fire once the evening grew cool and dinner was over. Zoe asked to be allowed to stay out with everyone else, and Simon had said she could stay a little while. Gowan stayed, too. It was the first time the crew had all been together since the evening they left Persephone. It had been a long, frightening three days and everyone was grateful for the company.
“It’s not the most beautiful spot I ever saw, but it’s servin’ us well,” Mal commented.
“Probably not what the Alliance had in mind, when they built it, but I kinda like the idea of the Alliance providin’ us with a hidey hole and a place to catch our breath -- for a change.”
“It’s been good. Simon says I c’n probably get back on Serenity tomorrow. I know we’re planning to stay here a little while ‘n I thought I’d take the chance to get my girl all pretty,” Kaylee said.
“That’s a good plan. Start by making a pass over the shuttles, Kaylee. This having Serenity out of commission makes me awful uneasy and I’d like to know we could run at least a little way if we have to. But there sure don’t seem to be anybody on this moon – or at least on this side of it,” Mal said.
“Mebbe so, but I ain’t plannin’ to give up watchin’,” Jayne commented.
“Me neither,” Mal said. “You want first watch or second tonight?”
“Don’t matter to me – but if I’m taking second I’m goin’ to bed,” Jayne said.
“Go on then. I think walkin’ around slow-like for a while tonight might leave me less crippled-up, and I gotta get back on them mares tomorrow,” Mal groaned and sighed through his nose.
“Mal, how did you learn to ride like that?” Inara asked quietly.
“Like how? Ridin’s ridin’.” Mal said brusquely, prepared to take offense.
“You ride exceptionally well and I think you know it. I was just curious – for all I know every person who grew up on a ranch rides that well,” Inara responded without heat.
“My momma was considered an ‘exceptionally’ good rider and she taught me. She said that any horse’ll do more for you if they know more. She believed in teaching ‘em to listen to your legs – she said steering with the reins was animal cruelty, she wanted you to do everything with your seat,” Mal answered. “’N from time to time we had hands that knew a lot – some came from fancier places and knew how to do fancier things. I learned what I could and that’s all there is to it.”
“But you don’t need to ride like that to do ranch work, do you?” Simon asked.
“You’d be surprised. Momma always said that any fool can stay on top of a horse but that for real work you needed understandin’. She reckoned what she called ring work gave you understandin’ – you and the horse. The better understandin’ you and the animal have, the safer both of you are. Well, time for me to take a walk ‘n make sure the boogy man ain’t out there.” Mal stood abruptly and walked into the darkness.
“Well, I still would never have guessed he could ride like that,” Simon said when Mal’s footsteps had receded.
“Captain told me ‘don’t ever plan on somebody else’s ignorance, that people’ll fool you with what they know,’” offered Gowan in a low voice.
Simon turned to look at the boy.
“Time for you to go back to bed.”
To general laughter, Zoe and Gowan were helped back to the infirmary and tucked into bed.
Before first light Exline broke camp, concealing all the evidence that he had been there. He crept down toward the old Alliance camp carefully and silently, eventually finding a spot close in and situated so he could see most of the grounded ship’s encampment. He settled in and waited for dawn.
Mal was already up that morning, having taken the second watch, rising long before the dawn appeared in the sky. He hurt all over, felt like somebody given him a good beating. Well, that was the price tag for keeping those horses healthy and tomorrow would be easier. He hoped tomorrow would be easier. After stirring up the fire and putting on a pot of water to make coffee, Mal walked out to see the horses. He stood at the fence, hands in his back pockets, watching the animals move, making sure all looked well, no one was limping or otherwise out of form.
Exline watched him through high-powered binoculars. Damn, there was something about that man, he knew he knew him, but it was still too dark to see clearly enough to be sure that it was who he began to think it might be.
Mal turned, exposing his profile to dawn light.
“Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds. Well I’ll be goddamned. That’s Reynolds all right, that long-nosed hundan. Always sticking his beaky nose into business that didn’t concern him. I thought he was dead; I wished he was dead every day of my life.” Exline stood a moment more, watching Mal walk among the horses.
As Exline stood his arms were suddenly pinned to his sides and he felt the prick of a knife against his throat.
“You care to tell me who you and what you think you’re doing?” a voice growled in his ear. “Or shall I just slit your throat and leave you out here? Captain leaves that kinda decision up to me.” Jayne tightened his grip and pricked the man more threateningly.
“I live here and I heard your shuttle two days ago. I came to see who might be down here – and I know your captain. It’s Malcolm Reynolds, isn’t it, isn’t your captain named Malcolm Reynolds?” Exline spoke in a surprisingly calm voice for a man with a knife at his throat.
“Mebbe so. Let’s walk you down and let cap’n have a look at you.” Jayne swiftly removed Exline’s gun and knife before gesturing him down toward the camp.
By the time Jayne and Exline had made their way over the rocky ground and down to the fire there was plenty of daylight. Mal was making coffee, Kaylee was standing with her hands outstretched over the flames. Wash was just coming out of the infirmary, where he had slept on the floor beside Zoe’s bed. River was sitting cross-legged on the ground, wrapped in a blanket, eyes closed. Book stood with his back to the fire, arms folded in front of him.
Mal swung around when he heard Jayne coming, aware from the sound that Jayne wasn’t alone, his hand on his gun, his body tensed. As Jayne and his prisoner came in sight Mal started, then relaxed, dropped his hand and started walking towards them.
“Lieutenant Exline. My god, man, it’s good to see you. What’re you doin’ out here beyond the back of beyond?” Mal’s face lit up with a genuine smile as he advanced toward the pair, holding his hand out. “Jayne, let him go. Lieutenant, I was sure you .. that Bada Mir …” Mal hesistated when Exline made no attempt to take his hand.
“No, I did not die at Bada Mir, Sergeant Reynolds. Everyone in my platoon died, but I wasn’t there,” Exline’s voice was icy. “I was off on a wild good chase. When I made it back to my platoon, there was no platoon. Every man in my platoon was dead, or good as dead.”
Mal dropped his hand and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry to hear it, sir. I heard Bada Mir finished ugly. It’s a shame – those were good men in your platoon.” Mal took a deep breath. “Won’t you sit down and have coffee with us?”
“No, I think I’d like to get on with my business, if you’ll call off your watchdog.” Exline remained standing stiffly, hands by his sides.
“Certainly, we won’t keep you if you have business elsewhere,” Mal’s voice was full of bafflement – most people who lived out in the backcountry were delighted to visit with anyone who came along, they were that starved for company. “Do you mind tellin’ me one thing, though? I understood the perimeter of this camp was mined – how’d you get in?”
“I swept a path years ago. Now, if you’ll excuse me?”
“We won’t keep you, sir,” Mal said.
Exline looked at the mercenary hard and Jayne reluctantly returned his weapons. Nodding curtly to Mal, he turned and walked away. They all stood watching until he disappeared into the broken rock.
Mal turned back toward the fire, suddenly aware that River was rocking back and forth and moaning quietly. He went and bent over her.
“River, what’s wrong?”
“It hurts, it hurts, it hurts,” River moaned. She took a deep breath and opened her mouth to scream –
“Don’t you scream. It’ll frighten the horses. What hurts? Do you hurt somewhere?” Mal was confused. River had seemed fine when she had come out and sat down by the fire, she hadn’t walked like a person in pain. She sure sounded like a person in pain now, though.
“Simon!” Mal shouted.
Simon came running. “What’s wrong, mei-mei?” he said, pushing Mal aside.
“No, Simon, no needles,” River was working up to a scream again. “It hurts, being Mal’s ears, it hurts.”
“What are you hearing that’s hurting you?” Mal asked. Simon looked up, astonished. What was Mal talking about?
“That man, that skinny man. His brain is hurting me. It’s hurting,” River took a deep breath and visibly tried to settle herself.
“He’s gone, River, and I don’t think he’ll be coming back to visit. It’s all right, there, easy,” Mal spoke to River as though she were one of the mares. “Easy, easy.”
River took a deep shuddering breath. “I will go say good morning to the horses.” She stood up and walked off as though the whole incident had never happened.
“Well, that was sure creepifyin’,” Jayne said.
“Cap’n, what was he talkin’ about, Bada Mir?” Kaylee asked.
“It was a long time ago. Doesn’t matter now,” Mal was dismissive.
They all watched River walk out into the horse paddock, every horse walking quickly and intently toward her.
“Wodema, Mal, is crazygirl callin’ them horses with her brain?” Jayne was stunned.
“No, with a candy wrapper,” Mal answered.
The incident with Exline troubled all of them. Jayne didn’t like how close to the camp he had gotten, Mal didn’t like his refusal to take his hand, Wash and Kaylee hadn’t liked how he had looked at the captain, Book was troubled by the misery written on his face, Simon hated the way he had made River moan.
After chores were over, Mal sent Jayne into the building they were using for horse supplies to drag out a dozen plastic covered bales of bedding material. He set them up in pairs to make low hurdles along the edge of the riding ring.
“What are those for?” River asked.
“Damned if I know. Mal told me to do it,” Jayne answered.
“For the horses?”
“I s’pose it’s for the horses. I sure ain’t planning to run and jump over ‘em,” Jayne answered.
“Why, Mal?” River asked as Mal walked up to them.
“It’s part of their work,” Mal answered. “They c’n jump way higher’n these little bales but I can’t. This’ll do for now.”
Mal and River worked the horses in the same pattern they had established the day before, with the addition of a little jumping at the end of each session. Sometimes, when Mal was through riding he would put River up and let her ride ten minutes before they went on to the next horse to be exercised. Her dancer’s skills made her a quick study and she quickly understood about balancing to use her body to steer.
Mal finished up the exercising with a dark brown mare named Bird of Paradise, and then went up to the fire pit. Inara sat there with Wash, Zoe and Gowan. Kaylee was communing with Serenity’s engine and Book was taking the opportunity afforded by their emptying the galley to give it a thorough scrubbing. Simon was doing the same to Serenity’s infirmary. Zoe’s breath had returned enough to allow her to talk, but walking from the infirmary to the fire pit had taken all the wind she had, even leaning on Wash.
“That seal brown mare you were riding just now is so beautiful,” Inara said.
“She’s called Birdy. Sure, she’s real beautiful, but you can’t trust her,” Mal said.
“What do you mean? She seemed to do everything you asked her to do,” Inara said.
“She does, but I have to watch her every minute. Otherwise she’ll run out – she’s a dirty little quitter. But what I don’t know yet is whether she’s really a quitter or whether somebody or something has frightened her. Something a person could talk her out of with enough time and careful handlin’. Right now I’d be afraid to breed foals out of her – not till I knew for sure what she’s made of,” Mal answered.
“Too many hands,” River offered from behind Mal.
“What is that?” Mal said, turning to look at her.
“Too many hands,” River repeated a little more definitely.
“I still don’t know whether it’s good or bad that I understand exactly what you mean. That’s what I thought, too. Too many handlers, too many riders. She can’t be easy in her own skin, she doesn’t remember how to trust her own instincts.” Mal replied.
“How’re you comin’, Zoe?” Mal asked his first mate.
“Shiny, sir. Kaylee said that Lieutenant Exline showed up here this morning, but wouldn’t stay.”
“No, wouldn’t even drink a cup of coffee with us. I haveta say I thought he looked bad,” Mal answered.
“He had a tough war, sir,” Zoe responded.
“Do you personally know anyone who didn’t?” Mal stood abruptly. “I’m gonna go ask Simon to check the spore count. I’d like to get us back on Serenity pretty quick.” Mal strode off toward the ship.
Partway through the afternoon Kaylee left the engine room and joined the group at the fire pit. Simon and Book had finished their scrubbing and come to sit until time to start dinner. Mal and River were buttoning up the evening chores. Jayne was walking the perimeter.
Kaylee broke the companionable silence with a question.
“Zoe, what d’you know about that Lieutenant Exline? He kinda gave me the creeps, talking about Bada Mir. You know Cap’ll never tell us what that was all about.”
“I don’t that I know what this morning was about, but I can tell what I know about Bada Mir,” Zoe answered. “Bada Mir was a little hole in the hills above Khe Sangh. The Alliance was buildin’ a big base on the plains at the foot of the hills, and we were tryin’ to make it hard for ‘em. Mal and me and our outfit were doing a little guerrilla harassment, stayin’ up in the hills, droppin’ down and blowin’ up whatever we could, pickin’ off stragglers. Just makin’ a nuisance of ourselves. Mal was real good at that kind of operation. We weren’t gonna cause the Alliance to surrender but we could keep ‘em from getting comfortable.
“Well, one evening we were headed back up into the hills and we came into Bada Mir. We thought we would spend the night in the caves there – there was a little water and the way the land lay you were pretty sheltered from anything short of a bomber. When we got in Exline and his platoon were already there. We decided we’d stay together that night and they’d go on wherever they were headed the next morning and we’d go deeper into the hills. We’d had a pretty good trip downtown, we’d managed to take out a bridge and hit a supply convey, a good expedition. So we all bedded down and went to sleep.
“Apparently, the Alliance had got kinda tired of us and about 3 o’clock that morning they started hittin’ us with mortar fire. They couldn’t really do us any real damage, we were pretty well covered by the hill, but they could keep us from goin’ anywhere. And they did. It can’t have been more’n eight, maybe ten days, but it seemed like eternity. There were too many of us to sneak out and not enough to run over ‘em. We had to hunker down and hope they’d get bored and leave eventually. We had a little water, and not enough food or ammo, but there wasn’t really an alternative to waitin’ it out. So we waited. And they pounded us and pounded us and pounded us. The noise was almost the worst part of it. It was pretty ugly, even though nobody was getting’ killed.
“One night, toward the end of it, Mal and I were on sentry-go and we heard somebody coming from our camp. It was Exline, and for all the world it looked like he was plannin’ to walk right into that mortar fire. Mal grabbed him and held on tight or I think he woulda walked right into their fire. He couldn’t really talk straight, just moanin’ and talkin’ about his men and how he couldn’t do anything for ‘em. He was in a pretty bad way. So we kept him with us and when we got off duty Mal took him off to our hole. Mal didn’t let him out of his sight for two, maybe three days.
“About then, the Alliance up and left. Sometime in the night, that third night after we collected Exline at the sentry line, they packed up, threw the last few rounds of mortar fire at us and went. We never knew where they went or why, but we were damn glad they were gone. First thing the next morning Mal convinced Exline that he ought to try and get in touch with headquarters and find out what the platoon should do next. Exline didn’t want to but, and I don’t know how, Mal managed to get him and a lance corporal called Riggs to sneak off towards where headquarters had been. Mal thought it was better for the two of them to go, in case the Alliance was just waitin’ around the corner for the whole platoon to show up. I don’t quite know how Mal worked it, since he was a sergeant and Exline was a lieutenant, but he did. Mal and me took our little bunch and snuck out the back way, went on back to our guerrilla operation. That’s the last time I ever saw Exline or any of ‘em. We heard later that before the platoon could get out the Alliance did send in some heavier artillery and a big bomber and cut ‘em all to pieces. That’s all I know.” Zoe closed her eyes and lay back in her chair.
“That Exline sounds crazy,” Jayne offered. He had come back from making the rounds in time to hear Zoe’s story.
“He may be crazy now, but he was a good officer then. Mal thought the world of him. He’d served with him somewhere, said he had more walkin’ around sense than most. Took good care of his men, checked their feet, tried not to lead ‘em into more danger than he had to. He was a good man – it was hard to see him so busted up there at the end at Bada Mir,” Zoe answered without opening her eyes.
“I think my wife has talked enough,” Wash said. “Come on, lovey, don’t you think you ought to rest a little before dinner?”
Zoe nodded and Wash helped her up. He and Kaylee between them walked her back to the infirmary, Simon followed with Gowan.
“Whyn’t Mal just let that hundan kill hisself back then?” Jayne asked Book.
“I expect he thought better of him than that. I think we’re on duty for dinner. Let’s get started.”
“Do you have a piece of yellow cloth?” River asked Mal as they poured grain into buckets.
“Can’t say that I do. What d’you want a piece of yellow cloth for?” Mal answered.
“To make a plague flag. To keep that skinny man away.” River was definite.
“I don’t know anything about a plague flag and I hope our plague’s about over. Besides, Exline’s gone on home.”
“I will make a plague flag anyway.”
*End of part 10*
Tuesday, November 06, 2007 8:49 AM
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