SHADOW (07) Part (04)
Friday, September 9, 2011

More nightmares. Talk of heifers and pasture-raised beef leads to revelations.



Part (04)

Follows THE TRIAL (06). Precedes ONE MAN’S TRASH (08).


More nightmares. Talk of heifers and pasture-raised beef leads to revelations.

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* * *

Mal finished shoveling the last corner of the cargo bay, placing the last load into the septic vac tank. He hosed off the equipment and stowed it, leaving everything neat and tidy. Walking to the door that led to the infirmary and passenger lounge, he stepped very carefully out of his old boots and into the cleaner pair that he’d left just outside. He picked up his towel and bath kit and headed to the shower.

As he rinsed himself off, quickly and thoroughly, carefully turning off the water while lathering and scrubbing, he puzzled again over Jayne’s grumpiness about the cattle. Jayne acted as if everything to do with the cattle was a chore. Well, of course it was a chore, but Jayne made it all into a grumpy-ass gorram chore, while for Mal it was a chance to free his mind while going through a set of soothing, automatic motions. In a way it was more restful than sleeping—especially considering the nightmares he’d been having lately. In fact, he’d been avoiding going to bed, finding all manner of captain-y things to do before turning in, taking more than his share of night watch at the helm, and, when the nightmares came, as they inevitably did whenever he did settle down to sleep, he found all sorts of reasons why he might as well just get up and start the day instead of trying to get back to sleep. An hour spent feeding and watering the cattle—and yeah, shoveling, too—was as restful as meditation, once he got into the rhythm of the work, with the benefit that his muscles were too busy moving for him actually to fall asleep—and into the gorram nightmares. Jayne just couldn’t find that rhythm. Guess it wasn’t Jayne’s fault—his home world, best Mal could recollect, was mostly industrial. Probably never saw a cow his whole time growin’ up.

A few minutes later, clean and freshly shaved and feeling like a human being again, Mal climbed the steps to the upper level. His path back to his quarters took him past Inara’s shuttle, and since the door was open, and Inara didn’t seem especially busy, and she just happened to look up as he passed the door, and she just happened to give him a smile, clearly the only polite thing to do was to pay a nice social visit.

Things had been going well, as Kaylee would put it, between himself and Inara lately. That moment they shared that bit of engine-hooch overlooking the herd of cattle seemed to have restored a feeling of easiness between them. He was determined not to blow it this time. He was going to go slow, nice and easy, get comfortable again with talking, then with touching, and only then with the—what had he been thinking, last time? Gone from first kiss to sleeping together in a matter of minutes—it was 疯了 fēngle , it was treating her like a—. Nope. Won’t even think the word. Wash said he gotta erase it from his vocabulary.

Inara saw Mal look in as he was passing by with a damp towel slung over his shoulder—clearly coming from the shower. Did the man have any notion how irresistible he was when he was like this? She didn’t think he did. Freshly washed and shaved, with dampness clinging to his hair and eyelashes, his skin glowing pink from scrubbing and hot water, with a boyish smile on his face and a spring in his step. And even though he said nothing more than, “Hey, Inara,” it was as sweet as poetry and made her heart beat a little faster. She smiled and invited him in.

“Would you like a cup of tea?”

He would. If Inara had offered him bilgewater, he woulda took it, just ’cause it was her giving it. So he sat on her sofa, watching her closely while pretending to examine the carved elephant on the tea table, as she moved about the shuttle readying the tea things. All the while, they kept up a pleasant stream of chat—couldn’t recollect what they were talkin’ of—not important, really. Just that it stayed friendly and pleasant. His face began to feel funny and he realized that his smiling muscles were out of practice. The thought made him laugh.

How does he do this to me? Inara wondered, as she realized that she’d just asked him for the second time what kind of tea he preferred. Luckily, he didn’t seem to notice, just answered the question, like it was the most natural thing in the world. What was wrong with her? She could talk with assurance and ease about politics, religion, art, sport, science, literature, culture, travel. She had years of education in the art of conversation. Years of practice, 该死 gāisǐ. She was skilled at it, she could put the most awkward client at ease—choose the most comfortable topic of conversation, smooth over any roughness with just the right turn of phrase. Yet here she was, asking—for the third time, she realized, as the question slipped out of her mouth—what kind of tea he wanted. He laughed, as if she’d just said something witty.

She looked into his face. No, he wasn’t laughing at her. He smiled up at her and said, “I like it when you’re like this.”

“Like what?” she asked. Like an idiot? Like a schoolgirl with a crush? Like an undignified, uncontrolled—

“Just like this,” he said. “You know, just you.” He stopped himself. Didn’t want to get into waters over his head. What he meant was, he liked Inara behavin’ like a natural person, just a regular woman. No fancy wiles or techniques. Not like a Companion. But he couldn’t say a thing like that without putting his foot in his mouth—hell, he’d probably use the word whore again. So he just smiled again and gestured to the sofa next to him. Inara stopped fussing over the tea and sat down.

He asked about the carved elephant he was holding. Happy to have a topic of conversation, Inara told him that the elephant represented Airavata, the white elephant ridden by the Hindu deity Indra, lord of the heavens. She told how Indra used his dazzling weapon of lightning to fight many battles. “His most famous victory,” Inara continued, “was the time he slew the demon of the dark skies, and released the cows that were held in captivity.”

“Well, then, let’s hope he don’t visit the ship here, ’cause I’m hopin’ the cattle stay right where they are ’til we get to Beylix, at least.”

That led to more talk about the cattle, and Inara realized that she’d learned more about Mal’s youth in the last week than she had in the previous year of knowing him. When she was a little girl on Sihnon, she’d once seen a cow. Her nanny had taken her to a petting farm, a sanitized place where children could feed and pet a variety of farm animals. Inara’s favorite part was watching the eggs hatching in the incubators, seeing the helpless little baby chicks, exhausted after their struggle to free themselves from their shells, lying among the shards, waiting for their downy feathers to dry so they could begin their new lives. She liked the petting farm, but her nanny had scolded her for mussing her fancy dress, and she’d had to stop at four separate hand-washing stations to sanitize the animal taint off her hands.

Mal was laughing outright now, with genuine mirth. “哦天啊 Ò tiān ā, if I’d ’a hadta wash my hands four times every time I touched an animal, I wouldn’ta had no time to do nothin’ else the whole time I was growin’ up!” He doubled over with laughter, and wound up laying his head in Inara’s lap. He continued, “My momma was right strict, howsomever, about dirt in the house. When you finished your chores with the animals, you washed and changed before you were allowed to set down at the dinner table.” He gazed up at her with a smile, and said, “Tell me more about when you were a little girl.”

She did. And it felt so natural to stroke his hair as she did so. Mal listened, occasionally making a comment, visibly relaxing under her touch. At least she hadn’t lost all her skills, she thought—she wanted Mal to be comfortable with her, and clearly he was. He gazed at her face and blinked heavily as she told her stories and ran her fingers through that soft, feathery hair. He was comfortable and relaxed. Perhaps too relaxed, she thought, as she noticed Mal had drifted off to sleep.

Not the ending she had desired—the heaviness of Mal’s head in her lap had given rise to certain sensations of heat in adjacent parts of her body—but certainly very sweet. She could gaze her fill at his face in repose without any awkwardness. She knew he spent much of his life trying to be the tough, strong captain, leader of a band of rough outlaws, and he probably would have been appalled to know that his face still expressed such sweetness in his unguarded moments. She stroked his hair and outlined his face with feather-light touches.

* * *

It was snowing. Snowing? Now that didn’t make no sense at all. Air wasn’t cold enough for snow. He shook himself. Snow didn’t feel right. It was rough, harsh, like clouds of glass shards. He tried to speak, but the harsh snow choked him. He reached for his gas mask, but he couldn’t find it. Reached all around, with increasing urgency, but it wasn’t there. The air was hot. Chokingly hot. He couldn’t breathe.

* * *

Mal stirred under her touch. His eyes were flicking rapidly back and forth under his closed lids. He shuddered. She realized she was still stroking his hair and face, so she gentled her touch and tried to speak softly and soothingly. He opened his lips and mumbled something she couldn’t understand. Of a sudden, he flung his arm out, sending one of the tea cups flying across the room. Then he was thrashing, flailing, gasping. His sudden movements sent cups, saucers, and teapot to the floor in a crash of broken crockery. Was he having a seizure? He rolled violently, kicking over the tea table and scattering the carved elephant and other trinkets. Inara jumped up, frightened. His eyes were open but he didn’t seem to see. He grabbed her ankle with an iron grip, the grip of desperation, as he gasped and flailed on the floor.

* * *

He had to get out of the trench. He grabbed the root of a tree, tried to get some purchase, tried to scramble up, clawing his way through the drifts of gritty snow, stirring up harsh clouds of sharp dust that pierced like needles in his nose and throat. He was enveloped by some kind of noxious gas. Choking, gasping, flailing, heat searing his lungs, he desperately tried to suck in something breathable—


He blinked, as his surroundings came into focus. He was in Inara’s shuttle, on the floor, amidst the wreckage of her tea-table. He let go of her ankle, realizing he’d been gripping hard enough to leave bruises. He propped himself up, forcing himself to breathe deeply, willing his heart rate to return to normal. His right hand was pushing hard against a piece of shattered tea cup.

“Mal, your hand—” Inara said, reaching towards him.

He looked at his hand as if it belonged to somebody else. The teacup had cut a deep gash in his palm, and it was bleeding copiously as hand wounds do. He scrubbed against his face with his left hand, trying to clear the cloud of ash out of his brain.

“Oh, uh, sorry,” he rasped out. “I’m, uh, appears I’m bleedin’ all over your rug,” he said between ragged breaths, stating the obvious. Inara handed him a small towel, which he wrapped around his hand. “Guess I better go see the doc about this.” He started to pull himself to his feet. Inara reached down and gave him a hand. “Look, Inara, no need to go mentioning this to anyone else, but, I, uh…”

“You’ve been having nightmares again,” Inara said. It was a statement, not a question. He nodded. “Every night?” she asked.


“For how long?”

“Ever since I spotted Shadow in the black sky out the bridge window.”

“It’s getting worse.”

He nodded again. “The closer we get.” He rubbed his face again. “Listen, Inara, I better get the doc to look—might need a stitch or two here.” He held up his right hand, wrapped in Inara’s hand towel. “Uh, thanks. It was nice. Real nice. Until I fell asleep and broke your tea set, that is.” Not knowing what else to say, he leaned toward her, hesitated, then turned and made his escape through the open shuttle door.

Inara regarded the doorway through which Mal had just vanished. Getting him back into her bed was going to be more difficult than she had thought.

* * *

Dinner was 狗屎 gǒu shǐ, Jayne thought. He weren’t a picky eater no how, but it irked him, eatin’ more of that tasteless, slimy protein glop, when they had a whole cargo bay full of prime rib. “Why do we gotta eat this 无味 wúwèi glop when we got a whole cargo bay full a’ prime rib? I could go for a prime rib…” he began.

“No,” Mal cut in. “We ain’t turnin’ the cargo into steaks, Jayne.” Mal fixed him with a glare.

How was it Mal could always make him back down? Jayne wondered. Shouldn’t be possible, tender-hearted man like Mal. Inara could tie him up in knots and twist him round her little finger. Yet Jayne had seen him drop a man like a cold-blooded killer enough times that he didn’t doubt for a second that Mal would do him if’n he saw fit. “Okay, then,” he said, as the wheels turned in his head. “I say we milk ’em.”

“Can’t get any milk from a gentleman cow, Jayne,” Mal said with some amusement.

Jayne took a long pause to mull that over. “Hey. I knew that.” He considered the implications. “You’re sayin’ all them cows is bulls, Mal?”

“Steers. Many of ’em are steers. But more of ’em are heifers.”

“Heifers is man-cows, too?”

Mal rolled his eyes. “Heifers are female, Jayne.”

“Why don’t they got no milk, then?” Jayne persisted.

“A heifer is a cow that ain’t had a calf yet,” Mal explained, as patiently as he could.

“What does havin’ a calf gotta do with milk?”

Now it was Simon who rolled his eyes. “Cows are mammals, Jayne.”

Jayne was annoyed with the Doc for butting in with his fancy learning. What the ruttin’ 地狱 dìyù do mammals got to do with this? He looked to Mal for his answer, purposely ignoring Simon.

“You ever thought about what milk is for, Jayne?” Mal asked.

Of course Jayne knew what milk is for. Taste good on cereal. Make ice cream for ice planets. Good for makin’ custard. Jayne liked custard. Lick it off a spoon, lick it off a ladle. Vera used to dip her fingers in custard, let him lick it off, one finger at a time. He was thinkin’ about licking custard offa some of Vera’s other delicious parts—now that got a man all hot and—

The others were regarding him with strange looks.

“Milk,” Mal explained, as if to an idiot child, “is for feedin’ babies.” He suspected, though, that Jayne wasn’t the only one at the table in need of further explanation. He doubted the Core-bred portion of his crew had ever given the subject of animal husbandry much thought. He glanced toward Zoe, met her eye, and exchanged a significant look.

Inara caught the exchange. Now what did that mean? Inara wondered.

“Cow don’t make milk unless there’s a young ’un involved,” Mal continued. “My momma’s ranch weren’t no dairy farm”—he said it as if there were something objectionable about dairy farms—“but I do know a dairy cow that can’t get with calf no more gets turned into beef pretty quick.”

“So you grew up on a ranch, Captain?” Ip inquired.

“I did,” Mal answered. Looked like Dr Ip was gearing up for another one of his grill-the-crew-with-questions sessions. Though they were usually mostly grill-the-Captain sessions. Why’d the boy feel the need to ask him so many questions? Was it just something native to scientists, they couldn’t help themselves asking questions all the time? Or was there something more to it? Maybe he was just too suspicious, Mal thought. Too many interrogations at that damn internment camp that ended with him getting the 狗屎 gǒu shǐ beat outta him by sadistic Alliance 混蛋 húndàn just ’cause he fought on the losing side. He put that aside. Young Dr Ip weren’t a prison guard. He did seem to be asking his questions in a spirit of friendly curiosity, and he didn’t seem to mean no harm, unless Mal was readin’ him all kinds of wrong. ’Sides, the cattle in the hold brought back some fine and shiny memories and he was in the mood for a bit of truthsome reminiscing.

“You raised exclusively beef cattle?”

“Well, we had chickens and some other small livestock, but that was just for the family and hands. It was a beef cattle operation.”

There followed a series of questions, asked mostly by Ip, about the size of the ranch, the climate and weather, the fine qualities of the grassland where the cattle ranged, the beauty of the mountains that ringed the Northside ranch. Mal volunteered some information about haymaking and the amount of fodder that had to be put up for the winter, as none of the others had thought to ask.

“What breed? Watusi Kobe?”

Mal gave a snort. “地狱的 Dìyùde no, that’s the kind of cattle you find on factory-ranch worlds like 白虎 Báihǔ Gamma.” The Captain’s attitude left no doubt as to his opinion of factory-style cattle ranches. “Meat is so shot full of antibiotics and hormones it’s a wonder the people eatin’ it don’t all sprout extra—” He cut himself off. They didn’t need to hear him get on his soapbox about factory-ranch feedlots. He ramped down the tirade on the tip of his tongue and took another tack. “That breed’s very popular, of course, with the fast-food restaurants in the Core.”

Inara stared. What did Mal know about fast-food restaurants in the Core? Or any restaurants in the Core, for that matter. Had he ever even been to one?

Mal continued. “But the more discerning diners always preferred pasture-raised beef. Cattle what lived like cattle, free range, eatin’ grass and livin’ in a herd like cattle ought to do, not penned up and made to eat the surplus corn of some hyper-productive GE farm world like—” Shut up, Reynolds, he thought, stepping firmly off the soapbox again. “Our herd was Shadow Angus. Finest beef in the ’Verse. Fetch a premium price with restaurateurs on the Border worlds and even in the Core. Claverley’s Blanchisserie of Londinium served exclusively beef from our ranch,” Mal added with a mite of pride. He bet even Inara would be impressed with that bit of intel. Claverley’s Blanchisserie was Londinium’s most famous five star restaurant, and he reckoned even the fancy folk of Sihnon would’ve heard of it.

The fancy folk of Osiris certainly had. Simon spoke. “My father tried to get reservations at Claverley’s Blanchisserie one time. He was told the wait was more than a year and a half for a table.”

Now Inara was even more intrigued. The notion that Mal had any acquaintance with Londinium’s finest restaurant was truly something she had never considered. It was very likely she had eaten beef raised by Mal on one of her visits to Londinium. Now that was a thought to ponder.

But Ip Neumann was regarding the Captain with even more curiosity than Inara. “Shadow Angus,” he said slowly. “Weren’t the breeding stocks of Shadow Angus some kind of closely held trade secret?”

Mal waited in silence, wondering where Neumann was taking this.

“You know, an exclusive product—they didn’t want any other people taking advantage or profit from the Shadow Angus name. I seem to remember that the people of Shadow blocked all attempts to introduce the breed to other worlds. However did you, or your mother I suppose, ever acquire breeding stocks of Shadow Angus?”

“It was easy,” Mal answered. “We lived on Shadow.”

Ip Neumann had gone perfectly still, except his eyes, which were growing round as saucers.

“I was born and raised on Shadow,” Mal reiterated. Young Ip seemed to be having trouble wrapping his head around the info. Then something seemed to spring open in him.

“You’re a native of Shadow!” Ip exclaimed excitedly. He twisted in his seat like he was about to wet himself.

It was all Mal could do to keep his eye-roll to himself. Isn’t that generally what a person means when he says he was born and raised someplace? This is well and purely stupid, he thought angrily.

“This is just incredible!” Ip gushed. “Of all the ships in the ’Verse, I’m so lucky that I’m on the one captained by a native of Shadow! This is my dream come true. A chance to interview a Shadow native about conditions on the ground. This is so rare—I’ve never met a Shadow native face to face—and neither has Professor Rao, though she’s advertised for years for any native of Shadow to step forward. Captain, you could hold the key that unlocks the terraforming mystery of the century!” Ip failed to notice Mal’s black look, a look that got darker and darker the more he talked. “Your memories, Captain, of Shadow before are a treasure trove of information—invaluable—so few people alive today have any personal knowledge of what Shadow was like before the terraforming disaster. Would you be willing to—”

“That’s because they’re all dead,” Mal cut in with an edge of cold steel in his voice. “Alliance 混蛋 húndàn wouldn’t evacuate the planet, and most of those already off-planet died in Serenity Valley.” He scraped his chair harshly against the deck plating and strode off to his bunk. A moment later they all heard the hiss and clang of the hatch closing.

Ip looked around the table. Kaylee, Simon, and Inara wouldn’t meet his eye. Jayne regarded him with an evil leer. Zoe held his eyes with a fixed stare that promised unpleasant death. He broke away from that disconcerting—terrifying—look, and found himself eye to eye with River.

“You are such a boob,” she said.

* * *





疯了 fēngle [crazy]

该死 gāisǐ [dammit]

哦天啊 Ò tiān ā [Oh god]

狗屎 gǒu shǐ [crap]

无味 wúwèi [tasteless]

地狱 dìyù [hell]

混蛋 húndàn [bastards]

地狱的 Dìyùde [Hell]

白虎 Báihǔ [White Tiger, another name for the White Sun]

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Friday, September 9, 2011 6:04 AM


Shout out here to Guildsister and her magnificent fic Blue Sun Job. In it, the crew visits a Core system where four moons orbit a gas giant. They land on Delta, Inara does business on Alpha, Mal and Zoe do business on Beta, and Gamma is a factory-ranch world spoken dismissively of by Mal. Thanks, Guildsister!

Friday, September 9, 2011 6:18 AM


Jayne's homeworld industrial: nice! I always like seeing how much you've researched. The little details like that are important.

Ah, and I was waiting for Ip to bring this up. The guy has worse sense than Simon. Also, on my computer I had to page down right when Mal fell asleep, and so that was a good feeling of dread waiting for Mal to scare Inara.

Friday, September 9, 2011 7:15 AM


I remember Guildsister's story Blue Sun Job and wish she was still posting. I loved this chapter, everything just perfect. I am actually glad Ip has finally blurted out what he wants even though it has earned him no brownie points from the crew especially Mal. And the scenes with Inara were beautifully done but River got in the last word, nice for Simon to know he isn't the 'boob' this time. Shiny, Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Friday, September 9, 2011 11:06 AM


The finally line was funny.

Saturday, September 10, 2011 11:01 AM


Is there some cosmic radiation coming from Shadow, causing Mal's nightmares to be more frequent?

I thought Inara’s reaction was well done, luckily for him; she’s had training and possible experience with PTSD victims. Mal's freaking out and she's wanting intimacy, love it! Well, I reckon, he'd sleep better, though, hmm.

River’s ending comment was applied perfectly to Ip’s overzealous stupidity.

They’re cute together.

Sunday, September 11, 2011 3:34 AM


No cosmic radiation, Platonist. No--what's getting to Mal is the fact that, even from a great distance away, Shadow looks wrong. Excuse me while I go all science-geek on you, but I had great fun researching this part of the story, looking at pictures of Earth from various distances away in space. And even from very far, Earth, while Mars shines red, Saturn shines yellow. You get the picture. I figure Mal is familiar with how Shadow used to look from space (when he left to go to war, the place was still blue and green), so when he spotted it, and it hit him how wrong it looked, it was all kinds of disturbing. More about this in an upcoming chapter.

Everyone seems to like River's ending line. I'll admit I had fun writing that in, and I promise not to overuse River saying that. I think it was warranted in Ip's case here :-)

And can you believe, the whole dining room scene started with me wanting to use the line "Can't get any milk from a gentleman cow"? My kids have a nonsense song they like to play over and over again, with that line in it, and the thing just wormed its way into my brain until it came out in my fic.


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ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (20)
“Vaccinations?” Jayne asked, with a stupid expression. “Fer chickens?”

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (19)
“Inara, I ain’t willing for you to bribe—” “Who said anything about bribes?” “What other form of persuasion you plannin’ on using? I’m not sure I like this plan.” “Mal, I can be very persuasive,” Inara replied. After a short beat, she added, with a touch of asperity, “Fully clothed.”

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (18)
Extreme measures as more things go wrong

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (17)
In which things begin to go wrong

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (16)
Waiting for the other shoe to drop

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (15)
Serenity enters the Core, Mal and Inara sleep together, and Simon and Ip come up with a plan.

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (14)
In which we find out more about Miranda

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (13)
Simon makes an announcement; Zoe and Inara take Mal to task

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (12)
Mal tells Inara a folktale from Shadow

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (11)
Inara and Zoe have a little palaver