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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Bad times and good times: a tale from the end of war and another from the middle.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 1373 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: fireflyfans.net members: leeh, leiasky, and nosadseven for beta.
Links: Prequels: The Fish Job (FFF) (LJ), Easy Tickets (FFF) (LJ), and Book I (FFF) (LJ). Timing, pairings, and canon blurbs are in my FFF blog.
Highgate’s Second Moon
The place lent itself to storytelling. It was a lost kind of moon, a cloudy, colorless void that made the distant places and past times that Zoë spoke of grow beyond the telling, their details of sight and smell and feel overtaking the pale gray sky and darker gray rocks. To Shepherd Book, the damp landscape was no real place, but rather a blank canvas where Mal and Zoë’s past could be drawn for his eyes to see.
The moon clearly had an effect on Zoë as well. The normally private woman, whom Book had known for a year and a half but never quite known in full, waxed on in an uncharacteristic way while the rain and the captain’s awareness came and went in slow waves. Not that she’d ever been one to be self-conscious when she spoke, but she'd certainly always been guarded, and Book knew that what he was witnessing here was a rare thing.
In the hour just past, her words had been quiet as they painted an even quieter picture of the aftermath of the battle of Serenity Valley. Like the measureless hours that had passed since the ship of the same name left them here on this moon, time on the battle-marked fields of Hera had been hard for her to reckon. The days of Zoë’s memory, as she told Book, could only be counted by a growing silence and chill as the wounded passed on and the comforting fires built of what kindling could be had died their own slow deaths.
Given the sparseness of events in this portion of her past, there wasn’t much for Zoë to tell, but somehow the canvas in Book’s mind was filled with rich detail. In the background, the sky was stained with oily smoke and the ruins of war machines and charred bodies littered the earth, covering the blasted remains of nature. Hillsides once carefully brought to life by optimistic terraform engineers and planetary biosphere specialists were now spoiled by the realities of human strife. The faces of the dead were mercifully indistinct in the distance, but in the foreground, on a low hill that rose to a circle of stones, the blank eyes and slack mouths had enough form to be recognizable, to allow one to imagine the smiles and laughter that had animated these men and women before they ended in violence and pain.
In the center of the painting in Book’s mind’s eye, sitting against the cracked yellow stones on the hill, is a young sergeant whose eyes are as dead as the corpses around him. When large med ships pass quietly across the sky, the young man stirs and rises. A tall black woman stands beside him.
Seven years ago: Serenity Valley, Hera
Zoë stays on her feet as another group of wounded are carried from the silent battleground. It wouldn’t make much difference in the grand scheme of things if she gave up and stretched out on the blood stained rocks, but she’s chosen her place at the sarge’s side. As long as he’s still standing, she’ll be next to him.
Anyhow, there isn’t anything the matter with her. Not really. She hasn’t eaten much in a week, nor had more than a mouthful of water here and there, but that’s true of them all. As for injuries, she has her share of bumps and scratches and one good rip where a bullet passed a hair too close to her shoulder – come to think of it, that last one throbs a bit – but a little infection won’t stop her from using her arm. She’s healthy enough.
“How many we got left?” the sarge asks, his words sluggish and eyes heavy. He’d been a bit faster with the orders when the med ships first showed, but that’s more than a day ago now. The hours have passed long and slow since as the wounded are moved a few at a time, loaded onto medical shuttles to be taken for treatment.
Like Zoë, Mal’s not hurt much, but as the battlefield clears and his charges dwindle he seems to wilt. Probably, the only thing that keeps him going are the few soldiers in his care. These folks need his strength, and he’s giving all he’s got. Zoë’s trying to do the same, though it wears her thin without seeming to make much difference. She’s never had the gift that the sarge has, never been able to rally a person’s soul with nothing more than a few words said in just the right way.
“Two left,” she replies. “Chen and Richards back yonder.” She nods toward the sheltered area where the wounded are being kept out of the wind.
“Chen still breathin’?” Mal asks.
“Last I checked.”
She’d have thought that the most seriously wounded would get an early exit, taken to those clean, well-stocked Alliance med ships. But when the Alliance medics had first shown they’d taken one look at Chen and moved on. When Zoë’d called after them, they’d said that the young private with two bullet wounds in his chest wouldn’t make it an hour, and wasn’t worth the effort.
And now he’s made it through more than twenty four hours. Chen’s become a cause for Zoë, a source of hope that she can talk these Alliance people – who have to be nothing worse than people, in the end – into showing that they give a damn. That they can be made to care.
“You go keep an eye on `im,” Mal says dully. “I’ll send the medics over, soon as they get back.”
A few minutes later, she tells Mal not to bother about Chen.
About an hour after that, the medics make another pass. Richards is the last of the wounded in this part of the field, and the transport has a bit of space left. Mal nods to Zoë; it’s finally their turn to leave Serenity Valley.
She’s not sure where they’re taken. Something in orbit; likely a big ship by the feel of it. There’s a vibe that massive cruisers have, a subtle depth to the background hum. This could even be a cruiser, one of those enormous floating cities with nearly all the perks one can get planetside, including artificial sunlight and bone fide trees in a domed arboretum.
Of course, the captured Independent troops won’t be seeing any of that. Those not in need of medical attention, the ones suffering from nothing worse than exhaustion, near-starvation, and wounds that don’t interfere with walking and talking, are led down a short corridor to the open hatch of a large bay. They give their names and ranks to a clerk at a fold-out desk and are each handed a small cardboard box before they enter.
The room has no ports or other hatches, just blank walls and a dark gray deck that most of the already captured Browncoats are stretched out on. It’s not a bit soft, but a flat surface with no sharp-edged rocks stained with soot and dried blood is better than they’ve seen for some time.
Zoë follows Mal to a spot against the far bulkhead. They sit, and she reclines gratefully for a minute before opening the box she got at the door. It’s a ration pack, and includes a bottle of water, two protein bars, a thin silver metallic refugee blanket, and, mysteriously, a small square packet. She tears open that last one first, and pulls out a wet, perfumy bit of paper cloth.
“We’re saved, sir,” she says, holding the thing up.
Mal gives the wet wipe a look and shakes his head. “We’re guests of the Alliance now,” he says softly. “Means we got to be clean and smell good.”
“Live clean lives,” she says. “Think clean thoughts.”
She’s not surprised that there’s no reply to that. It’s too close to the new reality awaiting them, a reality she’s not eager to face and surely the sarge isn't either. She turns her head to watch him unwrap a protein bar with clumsy fingers. His face is slack with exhaustion; he looks like he has no business being conscious. Zoë figures she must look the same, but, now that they have the chance for it, sleep feels like it’s days away. She tilts her head back again and gets what use she can out of the wet bit of paper.
“I take that back,” she says a few minutes later, still dragging the cloth across her forehead. She’d swear that she can felt her spine straighten as a heavy weight of grime leaves her face. The sensation makes her think that maybe she ought to see to that protein – could be that hunger is making her lose her head a bit.
She opens her eyes to find Mal watching her.
“You made a clean spot,” he says.
She smiles; he hasn’t spoken lightly in some time. “Feels like a day at the spa.”
“Guess our standards have changed a bit,” he says. He sighs and turns away to take another bite of protein, and something in how he stares at the deck while he chews makes Zoë think that she’d best not continue this line of talk. The sarge has used up all the humor he’s got in him.
She settles to eating, gnawing away at the protein in as small of bites as she can make herself take, but both bars disappear quicker than she likes. She sips her water and watches as more Browncoats dribble into the room. So very few, maybe a couple hundred. She sure as hell hopes there are more survivors on other ships, because this can’t be it. This can’t be all that made it through.
The food in her stomach and the growing ache of the festering wound on her arm finally do her in, and she finds her eyes closing on their own. She slides away from the bulkhead and unfolds the silver blanket, but before she can settle down, a man in a crisp, clean uniform steps into the bay. He says that some people need to come with him for questioning, and he reads off a list of names. It’s those of high rank, and Mal is one of them.
“Cóngbù yīgè zhōng,” the sarge mutters to himself. He sighs, and his eyes meet Zoë’s briefly before he wearily climbs to his feet.
It may be just another baffling twist of her tired brain, but it comes to her as she watches him stumble out of the holding tank that she’s seen the last of Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds. She may meet the man again, but the sarge is gone.
As easily as Book’s understanding of Captain Malcolm Reynolds fit Zoë’s account of the sergeant’s last day of service to the Independent Army, the Shepherd couldn’t reconcile any of it with what was before his eyes now.
Mal stood a few yards outside the shelter on the downhill side, rolling a palm-sized stone in his hand to feel the weight of it. He turned his face to Zoë, mouth curved in a cocky grin. “You throw like a girl,” he said.
“That so, Sarge?” Zoë replied. “Let’s see how you do.”
Mal’s eyes narrowed at the challenge in her voice. He turned to look down the slope and find his target, then made a show of anchoring his feet just right before he cocked his arm back and let the stone fly. The two of them stared intently after it, and Book found himself rising a little from the boulder where he sat and craning his neck to follow the rock’s flight path himself. The thing arced toward the patch of trees in the valley, a spinning dot of light gray against the shadows, then suddenly pinged sideways off a distant trunk.
Mal didn’t go so far as to raise his arms or whoop in triumph, but he cackled and gave Zoë a sidelong look that said: told you so.
“That’s a lucky shot,” Zoë said evenly.
Mal’s cackle cut off with an offended: “Lucky my ass!”
“Care to go two of three?”
Clearly he did. He studied the hillside for a moment before he laid down the new rules. “Let’s make this interesting. See that boulder there? The yellowy one with the flat top? Skip off there, hit the tree just behind it.”
Zoë squinted down the hill. “Which tree?”
“One with the big ol’ branch going off to the right.”
“That one? It’s a good twenty meters back. No way you can hit it on the bounce.”
Mal had another rock ready. He tossed it in one hand as he replied, “Sure you can, if you throw it just right.”
“Well, then. Do show.”
Zoë folded her arms in front of her. “It’s your game, sir.”
Zoë’s eyes hardened at that, and after taking in and huffing back out a deep breath, she dropped her arms and searched the rubble around her feet until she found a stone that fit her hand. Book had to rise to full standing to follow her throw. It was a noble effort, but…
“That was very nicely done, Zoë,” Mal said, his voice dripping with exaggerated encouragement. “Very close. You got the right idea there.”
“I believe it’s your turn,” Zoë replied stiffly.
This time, the captain got overly cocky with making a show of his technique. This attempt wasn’t nearly as successful as his last.
“Helps to hit the rock, sir,” Zoë said, “if you want to get the bounce.”
Mal held up his throwing hand and shook it like it was out of order. “It slipped.”
“That’s `cause you throw like a boy.”
Mal glared, but Zoë was winding up already. She let fly, and Mal’s shoulders slumped to see the result.
“You cheated. Somehow. That throw’s impossible.”
Zoë smiled smugly. “Have to throw it just right is all.”
Their easy banter finally served to pull Book fully into the present, and he found himself laughing. Right from the gut, a deep rolling laugh that took a load of weight off his bones and pulled his mind completely away from the ruin of Serenity Valley.
Mal pivoted to look at him, and the lack of recognition in his face made Book’s laughter falter. Then the captain turned to Zoë, his eyes questioning.
“Just joined the squadron,” she said, and there was no sass in her voice now.
Mal looked at Book once, then back at Zoë. “Well, you gonna introduce us?”
Zoë seemed startled, but went along with it. “Of course. Sarge, this is Shepherd Book.”
“Shepherd?” Mal asked, and Book felt himself tense up. But it passed quickly; Mal smiled and stepped under the tarp with his hand extended. “Good to have you, Book. We been without a preacher these past few weeks, ever since Aberdeen. We could use a little service. Though I hope you ain’t particular about Sundays; war don’t tend to stick to a seven day schedule.”
“No, I expect not,” Book replied hesitantly as he shook Mal’s hand.
“Where’d you ship in from?”
“Well – ”
“Just came over from Highgate,” Zoë cut in quickly. “Been working with the miners on the flats.”
“The war ain’t reached there,” Mal said, and he gave Book a worried look – worried in a protective way. “You seen action before?”
“I’ve… seen my share.”
“Well, you ain’t seen nothing like the 57th. You may think you’ve seen war, and mayhap you have, but I can guarantee you ain’t never had such a good time as you will here.” Mal had been looking over the gear as he spoke. He found the vittles box, and while he dug though it, Book took the opportunity to catch Zoë’s eye. She shrugged.
“War is hell, Shepherd,” Mal continued, “but that don’t mean you can’t have fun while you’re at it.”
“Fun?” Book asked. This unburdened version of Malcolm Reynolds was certainly not something he knew, but he couldn’t imagine that the man had ever taken joy in killing. “And just how do you manage that?”
“Ask Zoë,” Mal said. He set a saucepan on the frame over the fire and dropped a brick of pea-colored protein into it.
Zoë brought a few pieces of wood to the fire, setting them up just so to heighten the flame under the pan, then she took a seat. Her eyes held Book’s as she spoke. “Sarge, there’s been so many gorramned good times, I forget exactly what you might be referrin’ to.”
Mal snickered, but he took the time to find a spatula and start breaking apart the protein before he clarified, if this could be called clarity: “Shepherd, you ever been in one of them Alliance tanks?”
“Which do you mean?” Book asked. At Mal’s confused look, he added, “There are dozens of models, and – as I hear it – they vary widely according to their purpose.”
“Ahh, well. I’m talkin’ about the really pángdà ones, the kind that go where they please and blow up anything that gets on their bad side, whether it be a chipmunk in the way or a minor city that won’t behave. Got treads taller than a man and room for four inside – two to drive and navigate and target, one for the machine gun turret, and one to run the heavy artillery.”
Book nodded. “I think I know what you mean. I’ve seen them from a distance.” He smiled and touched the throat of his coat. “I’m more of a… behind-the-scenes type.”
“Your loss,” Zoë said. She smiled and rubbed her fingers together, like she was remembering the feel of something in her hands. Then she focused on Book. “As far as rules and laws and taxes go, I’m ready to tear the Alliance down. But when it comes to building machines of war, they know what they’re doin’. I suppose I’ll never get my hands on something like that again–”
“And you might never have, if you’d had your own way,” Mal said. His tone was critical and even a touch bitter, but then his mouth curved in a grin. "Bet you're glad you listened to me now, aren't ya Zoë?"
Zoë sighed, then set out to explain.
Eight years ago, thirty kilometers south of Auchronie, Aberdeen
Once the men and women in the unit have all set to their suppers, Zoë goes to join the sarge with the planning. He’s crouched in a small clearing, leaning over a map that he’s opened in a red-orange patch of late evening sun. She looks over his shoulder for long minute, trying to see what he’s up to.
He doesn’t move. Must not be making much progress, she figures, so she offers him a hint.
“South, sarge. We have to go south.”
“Zoë, the target is Auchronie. Auchronie’s to the north.”
“Orders say to meet on the east side of the river. There’s too many purplebellies on this side, no room to gather unseen. We got to cross to make the launching point, and the only ford’s down south.” She hunkers down and taps her finger on the map.
Mal’s not impressed. “We do that, we gonna be walkin’ the whole gorramn night and more. We won’t be helping out much with the attack.”
“Ain’t got a choice. You know we can’t go up the river valley, or we’ll get hammered. We won’t be able to meet up with the rest of the troops at all, `cause while they’re storming the city we’ll be little shreds of flesh rottin’ in the bright mornin’ sun.”
Mal slides his eyes away from the map to frown at her, but she just smiles. “I don’t know how I function with such a damned cheery soul as my second,” he mutters.
“Ain’t cheer, it’s good sense.” She calls his attention back to the map as she points things out. “If we follow the river, go straight up to Auchronie, we got to pass under these bluffs.” Her finger outlines a large oblong ridge that borders the west side of the river – hills which rise steeply from the river bank, then fall back more gradually to the west. She taps at a place where the topo lines squeeze together tightly. It’s the highest bit of high ground that juts out over the river valley. “Intel says they got artillery sittin’ right here on the edge, and infrared trackers and such to pick up motion down below. We wouldn’t stand a chance.”
Mal huffs, but has no rebuttal, so she goes on.
“Sarge, it won’t take long at all to get south to the ford. Then we go roundabout to the east and stay clear of the view from the bluffs. We oughta get to where the colonel’s setting up the pontoons by lunchtime, afternoon at the latest. Won’t miss but half a day of the attack.”
“Which might as well be all of it,” Mal mutters glumly.
He hunches over the map again. Planning the journey, Zoë hopes. Taking her advice. Following orders and going the safe way.
Except that just isn’t likely. Mal has no talent for thinking in the box. Sure enough, when he finally lowers a finger to the map, it’s nowhere near the route Zoë’s just outlined. “What about this?” he asks, and he traces out a heavy black line that runs north-south on the west side of the bluffs.
“That would be the road. The Alliance road. That’s the very supply line we’re hoping to cut off in Auchronie. Although… if we went to the roadside and stuck out a thumb, I’m sure we’d get a lift soon enough. Might not take us where we want, but –”
Mal’s glare cuts her off, then he returns to the map. “This here…” His finger draws a short line up the ridge from the southwest. “Looks to be a gulley for rain run-off. Steady slope for most of the way, and only turns steep at the top.”
Zoë chews her tongue and holds back a quick retort. She takes the time to consider what he’s suggesting, because it does pull at her. The thought of walking through the night and half the next day to join a battle that’ll be ready for the history books by then… that’s not her style. She’d prefer that her guns be of some use to the cause.
But it’s her place to be practical. Mal never was trained to be an officer; he might have an adventurous spirit, but he tends to overlook important details.
“Sarge, with all the supplies the troops are carryin’, we can’t be making `em climb like that. We got no gear for it. And it’s just before going into battle –”
Mal turns his head and calls to a private standing back near the dining troops. “Warren!”
“Yeah, Sarge?” Warren replies.
“Think you can haul your ass up a few rocks?”
“My ass and at least three others, Sarge!”
“Thatta boy,” Mal replies, and he grins at Zoë.
“Sarge, we don’t know about this path up. We could very well get stuck. Won’t do no good if the Alliance finds us wanderin’ about in the dark, clingin’ to the back end of a hill. They’ll pick us off, easy as peach pie. And even if we make it, what do we do once we get up there? Sneak under the noses of the canons and carve our initials in the metal? On top of all that, we got orders. Orders are clear – we go south, circle around, gather on the east bank with the General.”
She thinks she’s got a strong argument, but Mal doesn’t budge. “Come on, Zoë,” he says. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”
“Sittin’ in a corner with my love of bein’ court-martialed.”
Mal scoffs. “Pessimist.”
“Realist,” she corrects firmly.
Mal folds the map and rises to his feet. “That’s why you don’t have enough good times in your life.”
“Fun is one thing. Breakin’ my neck in the dark is another.” Zoë stands up beside him.
The sarge looks hurt. “When have I ever led you astray?”
Zoë opens her mouth – she could point out some examples he might not like, But there’s one place he did lead her that was nothing but good. A doorway out of hell is how it’s written in her mind, though maybe it’s not so simple in the end. A little bit of that hell came along with her and latched onto him, and he’s earned a bit of trust for sharing the burden with her. More than a bit. So she says nothing.
Mal smiles like he can see that she’s giving in. To finish off the debate, he draws himself up tall – the man can look noble when he means to. “Zoë,” he says in a grand voice, “it’s a basic truth my momma taught me: If we don’t try, we won’t ever fail.”
“Yes, sir. And so I think… Actually, sarge, that’s exactly what I mean. If we…”
But Mal’s already walking away, a grin on his face like he’s done quite a feat in out-talking her.
Book had to smile – Zoë was laughing like she just couldn’t hold it in, and that was infectious. “I’ll spare you the details of all the blunderin’ about in the dark, Shepherd,” she said, “`cause I tell you there was plenty of that. I was ready to knock Mal out with a left hook–” Mal snorted at this, but Zoë ignored him. “–and have the troops carry his rock-climbing pìgu all the way down to the ford and across the way we was supposed to go. But he kept finding twists to the left or to the right and little holds on the rock and places we could push each other up, and somehow we climbed that hill.”
“No somehow about it,” Mal said stubbornly. “Wasn’t hardly a thing, and we got up there in plenty good shape to do some damage.”
“You took the outpost?” Book asked in surprise. Attacking an entrenched army on high ground was one of the hardest tasks for an invading force, one that the textbooks said not ever to attempt, not without some serious firepower and superior numbers.
“Damned right we did,” Mal said. “Well, we took just enough of it….”
Mal and Zoë reach the top of the bluff with some time on their hands: the rest of the squadron is stretched out thin navigating the narrow way up. Mal uses the delay to send out scouts, and he’s got a plan in place by the time the whole group is gathered in a shallow hollow on the south end of the bluff.
“These Alliance idiots got no idea that they’re about to get invaded,” the sarge says in a lowered voice. “They think they’re beyond all reach up here. We go in quiet and sneaky – ain’t no need for a firefight that’ll spray lead everywhere. We do this right and we’ll pass through quick, take what we want, and they won’t know what hit `em.”
What they want has to do with the artillery that intel warned them about. It turns out that nothing’s dug in; the guns are mobile units, two massive tanks that sit on the eastern edge of the bluff, braced with heavy steel extenders and their turrets pointed out over the valley below.
There’s not much of a watch on them. All eyes – human and electronic – are focused on the river to the east and the road to the west. Most of the Alliance troops are staying in shacks down toward the latter, thinking the road is the main thing to be defended, and the few soldiers manning the hilltop are taken down quietly in the dark of the trees. The tanks are unbuttoned, the crews hardly glancing up through the open lids, so the Browncoats climb the armored sides of the things and slip in the hatches, taking over like they were invited to do it.
They don’t dawdle but for one bit of business that the sarge hadn’t worked out ahead of time. He asks who can drive a tank, and he’s got near every one of the troops jumping up and down, waving their hands in the air. Then he says that he’ll personally order Zoë to tan the hide of anyone who so much as scratches one of those lovely vehicles, or overturns it in a ditch on the drive north to Auchronie. That narrows the group of volunteers down to those who actually know how to handle this kind of machinery.
Zoë’s face spread into a tooth-filled smile. The sight of her joy, pure and untainted, was a powerful thing given how very uncommon it was. It must be a strong memory indeed, Book thought, to make her light up like that.
“I was one of the two who got to drive,” she said.
“Alleyne! What the – ”
Mal is cut off when the tank lurches to the side, its right treads dropping suddenly as Zoë reverses her turn suddenly. She hadn’t planned the timing, but she’s happy with the coincidence. It’s good to make the sarge swallow a few words – he does tend to talk more than his share.
“They still followin’?” she asks.
Mal pulls himself off the floor and scrambles back to the navigator’s seat to check the screen. “The other tank’s behind,” he confirms, his voice raised over the roar of the engine, then he laughs. “Keep on, full speed, let’s see if Chen can keep up!”
Zoë cranks the throttle forward, plowing over bushes and small trees as she cuts off curves in the dirt road that winds through the trees. She’s barreling along the rough track that leads from the hilltop down to the main road; it’s likely that when the tanks came up this way, they went a hell of a lot slower and actually stayed on the narrow way. She won’t be taking the time to bother with that.
The screen in front of her shows more info than she can possibly deal with: real time analysis of the landscape via infrared. Obstacles that might impede the tank’s progress or make it tilt too much are highlighted in blue, and anything in motion shows up in bright red. Alliance soldiers occasionally skitter in front of her, their arms waving in warning and confusion. Some step aside and stand with their guns hanging uselessly in their hands, but eventually a few figure out that all is not right and start shooting. A staccato beat shakes the whole tank, resonating in Zoë’s chest; the soldier manning the tank’s gun turret (his knees just visible in a well that opens over her right shoulder) takes care of the threats.
A sideways bump throws Zoe into her restraints hard enough to bruise her ribs and the delicate bones of her shoulders, but she hardly feels it. She’s cackling with the thrill of being unstoppable, and she’s just plowed over an Alliance checkpoint. She must be nearing the junction with the main north-south road. Sure enough, she soon finds herself taking harder hits from ahead: Alliance gunners are set up behind a wall of sandbags next to the paved road. She zooms in on the viewer and spots one purplebelly who presents some actual danger. He’s armed with the right kind of weapon to put a dent in her ride, but just as he hefts the launcher onto his shoulder, the Browncoat who claimed the fourth spot in the tank fires a heat-seeking missile that solves the problem.
“Hoo-waa! They build these tanks nice!” the young man cries out as his shot hits.
“That they do,” comes Mal’s reply, then his voice rises. “Tāmā de! Trouble at ten o’clock!”
The gun turret swings into action again as a swarm of soldiers appear from the left. They’re coming up the main road, likely from troop barracks or guard shacks located down that way. Zoë sets the tank at an angle that presents her heaviest armor to the attackers and makes sure to leave room for the second tank behind her. Then she parks it and turns to talk to Mal – armed as they are, the youngsters in the gun turrets can handle the rest of the fight themselves.
“The rest clear, sarge?” she asks in an all-out shout that’s barely audible over the din. She’s referring to the 57th. Everyone but the eight riding in the tanks are hoofing it over the bluff as quick as they can, passing though the dark trees so they can all meet up again on the road north of the bluffs.
Mal’s holding a receiver in his ear – their own comm system, not that of the the tank. “Free and clear,” he yells back. “Every damned Purplebelly is high-tailin’ it towards us. Probably feelin’ a mite stupid about now!” He laughs open-mouthed, caught up in all-out joy at the success of his plan. It isn’t often one catches the Alliance with both their pants and their boxers down around their ankles.
Zoë nods but doesn’t try to prolong the conversation. The boom of the guns is explaining the rest of it – the Alliance won’t be getting their war toys back.
It isn’t five minutes before things quiet down. They get moving again, clearing out before the Alliance can sort themselves out for a better attack. Zoë heads up the road at a slow pace until Mal shouts at her to stop. Browncoat foot soldiers come running out from the woods on her right and climb on the tanks; every one of them finds a spot, like baby scorpions hitching a ride on their mother’s back.
They set off again while Mal calculates the time till sunrise and consults the map. They’ll reach the city in plenty of time to find a good spot, put out the tank’s extenders, and get ready to use long-distance artillery. They may face a bit of a firefight once the Alliance regroups and catches up with them, since they’ll be isolated on the hot side of the river, but it’s worth it. They’ll provide a safer crossing for the assembled Independents on the eastern bank, and make the troops in Auchronie fight the attack on two fronts.
The sarge might catch hell for breaking orders, but he damned well better get a nod of recognition too. It wouldn’t be the first time that the Independent higher-ups had to decide whether to punish or reward Reynolds, but Zoë has no question which side of the matter she’s on. Her chest burns with pride to be serving under him.
The telling of past victories continued while they ate. For the first time, Mal took part in this thing that Zoë had started, and the way words played back and forth between the two Browncoats made the whole place feel different to Book. The fire burned brighter and warmer, like it was feeding off their voices, and the thickening rain outside the shelter seemed like nothing but clean, healthy nourishment for the trees in the valley below.
Book took part as much as he could, asking his questions and adding his own booming laughter to the mix. But it wasn’t the stories that restored his previously flagging spirit as much as the sight of their faces – for the moment, Mal and Zoë were two soldiers doing their part in a war, but not crushed by the burden of it. It was almost easy to forget that Mal was sick until the man began to flag. Zoë kept the game up, telling him not to worry, telling him that she was plenty awake and happy to take first watch, and he gave in easily.
The smile lingered on her face as Mal settled into his bedroll. Book expected a little more talk from her once the captain had fallen asleep, some attempt to keep the cheer alive, but that didn’t happen.
As soon as quiet settled in, Zoë grabbed something from her bag – a comm unit, Book saw – and went out into the rain. She sat down so a large rock blocked her from view, but Book could faintly hear her voice.
“Wash,” she said. “Wash, you there?”
Book went to the far end of the tarp with the dirty frying pan in hand. He splashed water into it and started scraping off bits of burnt-on protein. He’d hoped to get far enough away to allow Zoë privacy to speak to her husband, but a trick of the breeze carried her words to him again.
“Wash, I need a little check-in. I need…”
Her voice was thin and shook with just a bit of something like desperation. It made Book pause and look back over his shoulder. He’d had no idea that Zoë’s mind might have been in a different place than her face this whole time.
“I need to talk, honey. Need to hear your voice."
It must be a strange thing for her. Once, this version of Mal had been the only one she knew.
“Wash, what the hell’s happening? Where are you?”
And she hadn’t seen the captain like this in… eight years. Maybe she’d forgotten what he used to be like. Or maybe she just hadn’t expected the change, and it’d caught her off her guard.
A long spell of silence changed the direction of Book’s thoughts, and told him that Zoë was figuring out the same thing he was – there was no one on the other end of the call.
When finally she gave up and came back into the shelter, she caught Book’e eye once, as if to check that he’d overheard. He gave a short nod and she looked away. There was nothing to be said.
Friday, December 07, 2007 5:06 PM
Friday, December 07, 2007 5:44 PM
Friday, December 07, 2007 6:26 PM
Friday, December 07, 2007 6:59 PM
Saturday, December 08, 2007 8:10 AM
Sunday, December 09, 2007 3:52 PM
Sunday, December 09, 2007 5:33 PM
Tuesday, December 11, 2007 8:43 AM
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