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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
While Mal is learning the ropes aboard the Katana Maru, Zoe is headed for Shadow and a meeting with Marcus Avery.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 2073 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
I apologize for the delay in posting. Unfortunately real life sometimes gets in the way. If you have begun this story have patience gentle reader, I promise to finish it. With thanks again to Archer for his Beta, and to Harri Vane for her suggestions.
Chao-shang tza-jiao duh tzang-huo [Animal-fucking bastard]
Kuan-Yin [Goddess of Mercy]
bu gong dai tian [will not live under the same sky (with one’s enemy)]
nî hâo mêi xiâo mèimei [ you're so beautiful baby sister]
CHAPTER SEVEN—SUBDUE ALL THINGS
IN THE PRESENT
Zoe stood in the observation lounge of the Hercules watching Shadow’s dappled form, circled by her twin moons, blossom in the view port. The last time she had seen it, Shadow had been receding, growing smaller as the troop transport strained into the Black from her gravity well. She, Mal and many of the friends they had grown up with had watched their childhoods dwindle with her. After Hera, after the camp, she’d never expected to come home again. Maybe it wasn’t really a homecoming, Rhiade was gone and Mal wasn’t here. Maybe she was only visiting the grave of her youthful idealism, but it hurt a little, whatever it was. Silently calling herself all kinds of foolish, she intentionally shook off the melancholy mood and returned to her cramped berth to prepare for planetfall.
She had been on the Hercules for a week. The ship was a midsized passenger vessel with berths for 50 passengers. They didn’t have a full complement, a few family groups but mostly Alliance bureaucrats and unaccompanied military officers either coming from or going to a new posting, with a leavening of businessmen. It had been the best Mike and Rafe could do. Not really their kind of crew but they knew the second officer and it was the only thing headed Shadow’s way in a month.
She was the only unaccompanied woman and it had aroused some notice. She had consciously decided to wear the wedding ring in hope that it would put off some of the attention. Maybe it had, but not enough. The first meal she had taken the smallest possible table with seating for only one other person but neglected to ask the purser to remove the second chair.
She was enjoying her meal. The fresh vegetables taken on at Persephone were heavenly. Zoe was just deciding that salad and fruit with every meal was one luxury she could definitely get used to when she was paid for her thoughtlessness. She looked up to see one of the Federal officers put his hand on the back of the empty chair and murmur as if the answer was a foregone conclusion.
“May I join you?”
She had noticed him in the lounge while waiting to be taken to her table. What she had mostly noticed was the look he was giving her, like he was the lord of all he surveyed. Tall and well favored if you went in for pretty boys, his tailored uniform screamed Core aristo and the insolent stare told her no one had ever said no to him and made it stick.
She looked at him for a long silent moment then glanced pointedly around the cabin before she said “Appears there are plenty of open places.”
“Ahh, but the scenery here is so much more attractive.” He said it with heavy innuendo and what he, no doubt, thought was irresistible charm. It made Zoe smile in a way that many a young recruit could have told him did not bode well for the object of her mirth.
“Do you think so,” her eyes flicked to the rank pips on his collar, “Major?”
“You’re familiar with military ranks?” He preened himself with palpable self-satisfaction.
Cognizant of her role as the civilian wife of an Independent officer she left unspoken her inner thought, ‘The better to shoot you by, my fine young dandy.’
“You’re wearing a Hussar’s uniform and that’s a campaign ribbon from Du-Khang--My zhàngfu --was at Du-Khang and Serenity Valley.” She said without inflection.
Hussars were the elite light armored calvary of the Alliance forces. Commonly used for reconnaissance and raiding in advance of the army. In battle the Alliance used them to harass skirmishers, overrun artillery positions, and pursue fleeing troops. Troops they pursued did not surrender after Du-Khang. The 442nd Artillery out of New Edo, named for the legendary regiment of Nisei soldiers on Earth-that-was, had been outnumbered and islolated from the main Independent forces for five days, no food, no water, no medical aid and no hope of relief. Cut off and totally surrounded by the Hussars they had casualties amounting to over two thirds of their force before they made the decision to surrender. They were slaughtered to a man. Tet had a brother and two cousins in that unit.
Seeing him stiffen in surprise and suddenly seem doubtful of the power of his charm, she added, “He was interned on Hera for over a year after that. So you could say I am intimately familiar with military ranks.”
She watched his momentary hope that she was a grieving Alliance war widow shatter. The look she gave him made it seem as if an icy wind had blown through the dining room. He had probably never been hated up close enough to actually feel it before. It shook his sense of complacent superiority.
With the perfect physical stillness of the trained sniper and contempt so razor sharp he flinched with every word, she said clearly, “I don’t break bread with butchers, even pretty ones, boy.” She rose gracefully and left the room with her soldier’s upright carriage.
Zoe entered her cabin, closed the hatch and leaned against it. She found that she was shaking with surpressed rage and an almost overmastering desire to go back and gut that chao-shang tza-jiao duh tzang-huo like a fish. Breathing deeply until she regained mastery over her emotions, she began to laugh softly to herself. Sweet Kuan-Yin, Mal had the rights of it, if dealing with these bastards left her in this shape, he’d have never made Shadow alive.
She was worrried about him. It was second nature for Zoe King to worry about Malcolm Reynolds. No one knew him like she did. No one knew when he had to be talked, or chivied or wheedled out of doing something stupid and when there was no talking to him at all and you just had to hang on for the ride. She couldn’t have let him come alone. At least he had Rafe and Mike to watch his back. With a pang she realized even that might not be enough. She’d long since accepted that one of them might die at anytime. There were no guarantees in war, after all. What she couldn’t accept was not being with him if it happened. One of the harder things she’d done in a life filled with hard things had been to bid him a casual farewell at the passenger ramp of the Hercules. They hadn’t been separated for more than a few weeks since they were kids. If anything happened to him and she wasn’t there, she’d never forgive herself, or him either, if it came to that.
For a small fee Zoe had been able to activate the cortex screen in her cabin. She arranged with the purser to take her meals in her cabin for the rest of the trip--no sense tempting fate. She began by looking at the cortex news archives for Shadow. She chose to begin with the dates for the Battle of Serenity because that’s when she lost touch with the news herself. From that time on they either didn’t get any news or they got news censored by their Alliance captors, which amounted to the same thing.
Hours after she began, she blanked the cortex screen and sat back. She felt numb with grief. As she read the news reports she had seen before her again the carnage of the Valley. She lived through Tet’s death all over and felt the horror of her realization that even after the surrender there would be no relief. It was as if she had been scalded with acid but couldn’t scream with the pain of it.
Her eyes were grainy with exhaustion and her muscles ached from sitting in one position but she had what could be gleaned from published reports about Rhiade’s death. How Avery, under color of martial law as the military magistrate, had ordered her executed without trial or benefit of advocate, on charges of conspiracy to commit insurrection. More useful, for her present purpose, she even had the press release and official biography on him released when he was posted to the planet.
She looked at the ship’s chronometer, mounted above the cortex screen as she sat back. It was the middle of the third watch, the lights with which the ship held the Black at a distance had been powered down for several hours. Ships, like planets, have days and nights, the human body demands a cycle based on the primal revolution of Earth-that-was. Most planets and moons settled by men had a similar cycle since they were selected for their likeness to the cradle of mankind’s birth. The Hercules operated on the day cycle of her world of registry, Osiris. Passengers accomodated themselves to the circadian rythms of the vessels in which they traveled.
She rose and stretched. Suddenly the tiny cabin with its narrow bunk and and collapsible basin and toilet felt too much like a cell. Hollow eyed with fatigue and grief she had to get out. She needed to look at the stars. Walking quietly through the empty gangway, the only sound was the thrum of the engines through the metal deck plating. She entered the observation lounge and approached the port to stand looking out at the stars. A memory stirred just below the level of her conscious awareness until it settled, fully formed in her mind. The stars didn’t look like they did from Shadow, not like she could reach out and pull them out of the sky. This memory came from before that.
IN THE BEFORE
She was hiding on her father’s lap the night of her mother’s funeral. They were on the bridge of the Atticus Finch, the rest of the crew had respected their need to be alone together with the stars. Her mother had been the Attie’s engineer. She’d been working in a EVA suit seeing to a minor glitch with the nav-sats when a micro-meteor had pierced the chest of her suit. She’d had no time to do anything, although they suited up for an emergency rescue, just like all the drills. Her mother’s spirit had fled before they brought the body in.
Mama had been born on a planet, they buried her in space, in between she had lived her life within the hulls of a ship. Papa read the service for Burial in Space from the same Book of Common Prayer from which Mal would read his own funeral service two years later. She could still hear Papa’s deep sonorous voice breaking in grief as he intoned the committal.
‘UNTO Almighty God we commend the soul of Maggie King, we commit her body to the Black; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose coming the Black shall give up its dead according to the mighty working whereby He is able to subdue all things unto himself. Amen ’
She was just past nine years old. Her whole world had broken and the only refuge she could find was huddled on her father’s lap with her ear pressed to his chest. She could hear the slow steady beat of his heart mirroring the pulse of the Attie’s engines as she wept herself into exhaustion. The rapid beating of her own heart gradually stilled to keep time with Papa’s and the mighty beating heart of the ship, a union of perfectly shared grief. When she looked at him she could see the tears that he refused to let fall.
“Papa, why did God let something that bad happen to Mama? I didn’t think God was mean, I thought he loved us.”
He had taken a ragged breath before trying to answer her. “Baobei, I cant explain why bad things happen, no one else can either, only God knows, but He does love us.”
“How can he? If I loved someone I wouldn’t take away their Mama.” She’d demanded angrily.
“I know God loves us because of the love I have for you and Mama. Only a loving God could create a world so alive to the possibility of love.”
“You don’t hurt the people you love.” She said stubbornly. She had been independent from the cradle and willful with it. No one was going to make her mind up for her. Papa had wanted to show her why he had faith but he’d accepted that he couldn’t make her believe or give her his own belief.
“Zoe, you know when you went into the engine room that time and started to mess around with the grav boot when Mama wasn’t looking?” He asked gently.
She’d been seven at the time, and she had managed to get the cover plate off and was about to poke her hand in to the highly charged guts of it when Mama had caught her. She nodded wordlessly. Mama had set her bottom on fire. She hadn’t felt comfortable sitting for quite a spell and the engine room had been off limits for even longer.
“Mama loved you even though she hurt you. You were little at the time and you didn’t understand why she did it but she still did it out of love. God’s like that, he knows so much more than we can and sometimes he does things we can’t understand, even things that make us mad at him. But he always loves us.”
She looked at him, her gazed fixed on him unwaveringly with the effort to understand.
“God didn’t promise that life would be easy or that there would be no pain. All he promises us is that the universe is full of beauty and the possibility of love. It’s his gift to us. What we do with that possibility he leaves to us. Look here. . .” And he had swung around the pilots chair to gesture towards the stars outside the port. They looked like diamonds flung from the hand of God onto the velvet cloak of night.
“Those stars are far away and they don’t hardly look like nothing but a dot of light. But if we keep going towards one of them, we get closer all the time and one day it isn’t a star anymore. It’s a sun and the power of its light gives life to planets.--God’s like that--we have to keep on going through all the parts of our life, the hurtful and the pleasing and then we learn about Him in a whole different way. It doesn’t matter if sometimes you are mad at God while you’re travelling, He understands. All He asks is that you keep on going.”
She had pondered that awhile, then said seriously, “Well, I can tell you I am real mad at him and I ain’t getting’ over it soon.”
“That’s my Zoe.” He said smothering a sob with the ghost of a laugh. “Just promise me that you will always try to be open to the possibility of love and you can be as mad at God as you want. ‘Cause if you love anyone sooner or later you will thank God for letting them come into your life.”
They hadn’t talked anymore that night. Papa held her and rocked her back and forth in the pilots chair looking at the stars and hummed Amazing Grace to the bass rumble of the engines, until she fell asleep in the safe refuge of his arms.
Seemed like, what with one thing and another, she’d been mad at God half her life. She’d gotten used to it, and she guessed God had too. It was different with Mal. He’d never been mad at God before the Valley, so when he did get mad, it tore a big hole in that part of his life where his faith lived. He thought it meant he didn’t believe anymore--no one had told him that it was okay to be mad at God.
She didn’t know how long she had been staring out at the Black when she heard the sound of someone entering the lounge. He entered quietly, but she hadn’t stayed alive all these years without knowing when someone was coming up behind her. She could see him in the reflection of the glass without turning her head. He was an erect elderly man, of African descent, he had an indefinable air of fragility, although he appeared fit enough. He stood quietly behind her for a few moments then coughed genteelly into his hand in an apparent attempt to catch her attention. She turned and looked inquiringly at him.
“I beg your pardon, miss,” he said in the cultured accent of some Core world she couldn’t place. He was dressed expensively but not gaudily, in subdued colors but rich fabric. He seemed hesitant.
“I hope I don’t intrude, but I heard you speaking with Major Williams at dinner and I inferred from your half of the conversation that you were at Du-Khang with the Independants?
Zoe raised one eyebrow in silent inquiry. She had found that most people were uncomfortable with silence and if she simply remained quiet others could be rushed into speech. Speech that was sometimes informative, and that was important because it was very possible that she was about to be in a world of hurt here. Not even a month out of camp and here she was heading for where she was forbidden to be. The more she knew before she had to act the better. Tamade!
After a moment it became clear that he was not a man to be pushed into unconsidered speech. So she tried another tack. “I think you misunderstood, sir. I mentioned that my zahngfu was at Du-Khang and your inferrin’ was accurate, he fought with the Independents.”
“Come, miss, please, credit me with eyes to see. It is clear to one of who takes the trouble to observe, among whom Major Williams is apparently not numbered, that you have been a soldier. A long time soldier, if I am any judge.”
“You’re mistaken, sir,” she said calmly, all the while thinking that Mal was going to be sadly disappointed that she had gotten pinched before she even made landfall. And she had been worried about him!
“No, gentle lady, I am not mistaken. Neither am I at all interested in involving you with the gendarmerie. I am interested in learning what you know about the Independent Marine Expeditionary Force on Du-Khang.” He looked at her steadily and calmly, allowing her to stare back in return as she made up her mind.
“Why are you interested in the MEF? I’m sure there was plenty broadcast on the cortex during the battle.” She asked, trying to stall for time to think what her next move should be. There was no way to escape if he chose to tell the captain. Retina scan or DNA swab’d tell them who she was. Feds had taken both in the camp. Would’n’t take no more than an hour on the cortex and they’d know everything about her.
He interrupted her thoughts, saying, “My only son was a Major with the Marines. He fell at Du-Khang.” Anguish was discernable only in the extreme stillness with which held himself. It was as if he were controlling something so tightly, the slightest movement would cause it to spin out of control.
Zoe’s eyes softened as she looked at him. He was a very old man grieving for his own lost kin. He represented no threat to her and he deserved to know what she could tell him. In all truth, it was little enough.
“I was at Du Kang. I was a corporal, we, my . . . husband and I were with the Army Air Calvary.” Seeing his look of confusion she added, “All that meant was that instead of landing on the planet in big ITC 220’s--troop carriers, we dropped from light-armoured shuttles. We could be shredded by ground based artillery. We were supposed to drop into areas already taken, or at least softened up. It was the Marines who did the softening.” She paused to see if he was following her. He nodded in comprehension, his eves never leaving her face. She went on.
“We were surprised at Du-Kang, faulty intelligence on enemy numbers and placement. Marines took very heavy casualties, they had a motto, you know, the MEF. It summed up what they did. “No beach out of reach.” It means that no matter what, they secured our landing zones,” she explained. “On Du-Kang that cost’ em a lot of good men. I expect your son was among them. No one lays down their life like that unless they think its important, so I reckon he did. Maybe if he hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t be here. Don’t know if that’s any comfort to you. Like as not, it ain’t. ”
There was an indefinable loosening of the tension as he heard her out. Then he abruptly sat down, as if the strings on a marionette had been cut. “Forgive an old man a momentary weakness,” he said after a moment.
She could see his eyes were glassy with unshed tears. Du-Khang seemed a lifetime ago to her, but really it was only three years. This father’s grief was still raw enough to unman him in front of a stranger. He visibly drew himself together and seeming to feel that something was required, he said, “My name is Josiah M’bele. My son was Major Jon M’Bele. We had not spoken for many years before he died.”
He sighed deeply as he passed his hands over his face in bewilderment. Zoe reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. He looked up in gratitude “I thought of him as a traitor to his culture. He resigined his commission in the Federal Marines to enlist with the Independents. He tried to explain why, but I could never be brought to listen. I supported Unification, you see. And now I will never have the chance to tell him how much I loved him. He died, thinking I didn’t love him.” After a pause he added softly as if he was speaking only to himself, “I expect to be damned for that,” he said.
After another moment he pulled himself together and rose “I have business on Shadow which will keep me there for several months. If during that time I can be of any assistance to you in any way, I hope you’ll do me the honor of calling on me.” He pressed an old fashioned business card into her hand. When she looked down, it read simply Josiah M’Bele, Factor.
She looked inquiringly at him and asked “What does a factor do?” He gave her an attractive smile and for the first time she could see that he must have been a very handsome man in his youth.
“Oh, a little of this and a little of that. I will leave you to enjoy your solitude now. You must not judge us all by the Major Williams of the world. I hope to have the pleasure of dining with you before we make planetfall.” He gave a formal little bow and withdrew from the lounge as if it were a private salon.
After that he made it a point to stop by her cabin before each meal and invite her to share his table. The first time she had been hesitant, intending to decline but he had said with his courtly civility, “No good will come of hiding from it. You lost your war, yet you still live. The best revenge you can exact is to live well. That includes sharing a table in the presence of your enemies. Humor an old man, come this once and if it is not a success you can always resume taking meals alone.”
It had been so much like something Mal might have said that it surprised a ripple of laughter out of her and she had agreed. It had been a success, perhaps the sweetest part of which had been the looks of chagrin on the faces of Major Williams and his cronies. It made her crow with silent laughter when M’bele caught her eye, inclined his head in his courtly fashion at that fine young cock ‘o the walk, and gave her a wink.
It surprised her that she could like someone who had supported Unification, but she found that she did like him. They spoke of many things. She described her upbringing both on the Atticus Finch and on Shadow. He described the wonders only to be seen on the Core worlds. They discussed books and history, ancient rather than modern. He described how his son was the much-desired child of his old age. He talked at length of what a joyful blessing he had been, and spoke regretfully of his anger when this beloved child had walked away from the glittering life that had been given him, just for an idea. During their last meal together she told him how Mal and Rhiade had taken her in and how Rhiade had died.
“That is despicable. It makes a criminal of every person who supported Unification. He has made me complicit to murder. He should be reported to his superiors,” he said in genuine anger.
“Cortex said he got a commendation from those same superiors for the ‘pacification’ of Shadow. I’m thinking not much would be done to him over one women whose son and step-daughter had been Browncoat rebels for near a decade.” She said it matter-of-factly. He looked at her sharply, with the acute intelligence she had come to see was his defining characteristic.
“But you, gentle lady, you are not the type to accept that, and even less is your Malcolm.” He said with a sharp look. “No, the man who you describe at the battle of Du-Khang, bu gong dai tian, he would not let the murder of his mother go un-avenged.”
“Nothing we can do now, won’t cost us our lives. It would be an insult to her memory to throw our lives away,” she said evasively.
He looked at her closely then, apparently satisfied, said, “It will not always be thus. Well, please remember, if the occasion arises, that I do not like to be complicit in the murder of innocents.” He had taken his formal leave of her at the door of her cabin, rather oddly, saying, “I will bid you good night but not goodbye, since I hope we meet again. I wish you good hunting.”
That night she sent a wave to Jimmy Chiang. It read only, ‘Silence is golden’. The text would list the originating source as the passenger liner Hercules. The arrival times would be posted on the cortex. She expected someone would meet her and she was right. As she walked down the ramp carrying a leather satchel and wearing a nondescript duster, she saw Jimmy himself standing idly to the side of the landing zone. A small, wiry, energetic man, like many of pure Chinese heritage, he didn’t show his years. He looked exactly the same as the day Zoe first rode into the Reynolds’ spread and could have been any age from forty to seventy. She didn’t acknowledge him, heading past him toward the city proper. He peeled off and followed loosely behind her, only overtaking her after assuring himself that no one was taking an undue interest in their progress. When she finally turned to greet him she found him with his arms open to receive her murmuring “Nî hâo mêi xiâo mèi mei.” As she settled into his embrace, she realized in some sense Shadow would be home as long as there were people here she loved.
Tuesday, August 19, 2003 5:19 AM
Tuesday, August 19, 2003 6:56 PM
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