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Antebellum - Book I: Chapter Eight
Tuesday, February 7, 2006

The eighth (belated) chapter in a Big Damn Sequel Series. In this installment: The crew makes it to Neo Sombra and everything goes as planned (i.e. poorly).


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1699    RATING: 10    SERIES: FIREFLY

A/N: Although I'm sure no one noticed too much, yes, this chapter is pretty late. My schedule out in the "real world" is getting a whole lot more compressed, so some chapters might--might--come out later than the once a week schedule I've been trying to adhere to. That said: Behold, my "legions" of "fans" "!"

Book One – Chapter Eight

Jayne hadn’t slept in two weeks. It wasn’t so bad; he had gone longer without rest before. Back in the day, if someone caught him asleep, it probably meant that he wasn’t going to be waking up. So he trained himself to live without sleep. That’s how he knew how to hide it from the others. Not that they’d care. Or do anything to try and help him. But then, that was the corner he had built himself into, so wasn’t going to complain, not even to himself.

From his bunk, he could hear the sound of the cabins shaking and the buffer panels compressing against the change of scenery outside. They were breaking through the atmo of Neo Sombra. That was strange. He usually woke up before landings. He had overslept. Well, over-not-slept.

River knew. That girl always knew what she shouldn’t. The things that were supposed to be his alone. He had gotten used to it, though. He shouldn’t have, but he did. No one should have to learn to be intruded. But he wouldn’t complain. She kept her lips tight and didn’t look him in the eye. That he could count on.

He managed to put on a shirt in the dim gaslight. He felt the air-conditioning going all screwy due to the heat of the friction outside. It got real cold in his bunk. It was always cold. The whole ship was.

Jayne should have left Serenity more than a year ago. They wouldn’t even miss him. Hell, they’d probably be better off. Safer. Then he wouldn’t have to worry anymore. Maybe he’d get to sleep again.

He should have left a while ago, but he stayed anyway. Mal even gave him a way out after they left Three Hills, but Jayne, true to his form, turned it down out of instinct rather than logical assessment. It probably would be too much work anyway to try and live on his own. He had to keep thinking about himself. If you fall asleep, you might not wake up.

He climbed up his ladder to the foredeck and made his way to the bridge, shielding his eyes from the bright light shining through the window.

Mal was, of course, staring right through the flames, standing close to the young girl who was pushing the ship further through atmo.

Mal turned slightly when he noticed Jayne was on the bridge as well. “You just get up?”

“Yeah,” Jayne said convincingly. He stared intently at the back of River’s head. She never moved or even looked at him. But she knew. She always knew when he was lying.

“So,” Jayne spoke again. “How we playin’ this one?”

“We’re landing in an unclaimed field not far from the Novak ranch,” Mal said, still not really looking at Jayne. “Zoe an’ me will go an’ meet up with James, use their Cortex, and get flyin’ again.”

“You an’ Zoe?”

“You stay in the ship. Don’t want too many people to leaving the ship from now on.”

“I ain’t gonna start nothin’, Mal—”

Mal cut him off. “We seem to be havin’ two separate conversations, Jayne. This is a pit stop. A means to an end. We’re not setting up camp, so no one needs to get off the ship.”

“Yeah, well… If this Novak guy pulls something funny, you’ll need another couple’a guns out there with you.”

Mal turned sharply and stared Jayne in the eye. “He won’t try nothin’ funny! This is James we’re talkin’ ‘bout.”

“Well, ain’t that grand! ‘Cept I never met the guy. You sure you can trust him?”

Mal turned toward the window once more. “We can trust him. He’s one of us.”

“He was one of you,” Jayne corrected.

Mal’s back was unresponsive to the comment, until finally:

“You’re excused, Jayne.”

Jayne recoiled slightly. It was always a body blow when Mal “excused” him. Mal never appreciated it when Jayne had a reasonable opinion. He sneered at the Captain, making sure it was audible, before walking out.

Mal looked down at the girl who had remained characteristically silent. “We can trust ‘im, right?”

“It doesn’t work that way,” was River’s quiet, concentrated response.

“Right.” The coldness of the Black faded behind them, and Serenity floated through the clouds, painted purples and oranges by the sunset. The clouds were thick, but full-formed, easy to navigate through. Through a crack in the orangish-purple haze, Mal looked down and saw a field of grass below them.

His stomach felt a little sick.

“You only know what I know,” Mal said.

***

River was always the first person at the bridge in the morning. The Captain would often wonder how she always made it to the console before he did, but the thoughts didn’t last too long. He already believed her to be pretty weird.

She didn’t like looking out the window when she was piloting. Too many stars. Or trees. Too many atoms. She couldn’t see them, of course, but she could feel them. Spinning electrons pummeling every inch of her skin. She didn’t want to feel them, but she did anyway. She practiced ignoring them, like the others did. They couldn’t feel them, why should she have to?

River couldn’t sleep. Even when she was ignoring intangibilities, she couldn’t sleep. She was getting distracted. She wasn’t concentrating on what was going on outside her head. It was getting harder to do that. She could, however, hide it very well. The others already viewed her to be somewhat lethargic.

Someone was whispering, constantly. The voice was low and crisp. She could just barely recall hearing the voice before, but there was just so much that she couldn’t remember.

That was another thing. She was forgetting things. Small things. Where she put her fork at dinnertime. She’d cover up by stealing Simon’s. He’d think she was just playing with him. He liked thinking that she was well enough to play with him again.

It only said one thing, the voice. A word that should mean something to her, but instead meant something to the voice. The voice knew exactly what it meant. Where they were going. Why they were there.

But the voice was dead. That’s why it whispered.

She could smell Neo Sombra even from inside the ship. The air from outside got vented through the oxygen system on Serenity. She cautiously looked outside as the purple clouds broke away, revealing Neo Sombra, right before sunset. A majority of the sky was getting darker, but there was still a little bit of sky that was still blue. Blue. River began to get dizzy.

She looked around and saw that she was alone on the bridge. The Captain was with her a minute ago, but he was suddenly gone. River’s heart started to beat out of her chest and she found it hard to breathe. He was just there. He was just with her. She couldn’t hear him. She couldn’t hear anyone. No one was saying a word.

The air returned to her lungs.

He was in the cargo bay. She could hear him now. She could hear Jayne, and Simon, and Kaylee, and Zoe, and Inara. Her breath filled her chest once more as a tear fell silently from her eye.

She had forgotten how he had told her where he was going. She forgot. She was getting distracted.

***

Mal had found out about his homeplanet of Shadow the same way the rest of the ‘Verse did. He watched helplessly at the CorVue screen in his bunker, the words missing his ears by miles, but his eyes were drowning in every image.

Thousands of people, their possessions reduced to whatever they could carry, herded onto five transport shuttles. Farmers tying down their herds for the last time, seeing as how the horses and cattle wouldn’t be going with. The doors of the transport shuttles closing, with at least a thousand more people still outside, clawing at the metal hatches, trying desperately to hang on to any part of the crafts that they could get their hands on. Some had to fall to die; others were forced through turbines. All the while, the CorVue cameras kept filming.

A week or so later, the CorVue reported that Shadow could no longer support human life, and no terraforming efforts would follow in the future.

It would be several months after Shadow was destroyed before the War was declared over. It would be over a year before the lives of the former inhabitants of Shadow were brought into question.

Being a merciful and compassionate figurehead, the Anglo-Sino Parliament granted every Shadow refugee a monetary reparation account, to help them rebuild the lives that were ravaged senselessly by the horrific, but necessary, War. While it was the Parliament’s intention for the refugees to use the credits to become productive members of patrolled society, where they could be protected by the galaxy’s finest, most went the other way.

They united their funds together and sought exclusive colonization of an Outer Rim planet. They gained enough support by the Parliament’s critics, who openly opposed the ruin of Shadow, that they were able to even manipulate the final stages of the terraforming to make it as close to Shadow as possible.

Mal knew it was pretty close to the real thing. He could smell the grass even from inside the cargo bay. He couldn’t sit down right now, and he couldn’t be on the bridge. He’d be too tempted to look out the window.

So instead, he just paced back and forth, alone. Simon and Kaylee were in the dining room having breakfast. River was on the bridge landing the boat. Jayne was in dining room, sharpening his knife, like he always did when he was angry. Zoe was in her bunk, possibly worried about seeing James as much as Mal was. Inara was… somewhere. Probably in her old shuttle. She meditated there sometimes.

Maybe she wouldn’t mind, though, if he went up there to say goodbye. She might even appreciate it. She had said that they don’t talk very often anymore, so maybe she’d be happy to see him. That would be good for her. After all, she had been through a lot, and she was probably pretty stressed about landing on Neo Sombra and all.

Then again, she didn’t say that they should speak more. She was just pointing out a fact. Maybe she wants him in the cargo bay, while she meditates. She’d probably want to meditate now. She’s been through a lot.

But then again…

The air brakes whistled throughout the cargo bay as the landing gear was being extended. They were landing. Mal guessed he wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to Inara after all. His chance was gone. But he shrugged it off.

Mal wanted the minutes to last longer, but instead they seemed to speed up. In no time, he was standing at the door to the airlock, Zoe by his side, not speaking. Mal could smell the silence becoming stale between them.

“So…” Mal started, staring at the metal door.

“Yeah.” Zoe stared at the same spot as Mal.

“Jayne said something interesting just a while ago.”

“Our Jayne?” Zoe asked incredulously.

“Yeah, I was surprised too. But… It’s been a while since we’ve seen James.”

“Yeah?”

Mal turned to look at Zoe. “You don’t think that he’d… He’s not gonna turn us in, you think?”

Zoe slowly turned to face Mal. Her eyebrows pressed down into a pained expression. “You’re asking me this now?”

“Huh?”

“Now that we’ve landed, you point out this fatal flaw in the plan?”

Mal shrugged and looked back at the door. “What can I say? It’s just my style.”

In unison, they inhaled deeply.

“So,” Mal said. “You ready?”

“Yeah,” Zoe said, unconvincingly.

“Good.”

More silence consumed them as they both mentally willed the other to open the door first.

“Sir?”

“Yeah?”

“How many guns are you packing?”

“Two. You?”

“Three.”

“Good.”

Mal opened the airlock door and felt the onslaught of Neo Sombra air against his face. His stomach felt sick.

“Here goes.”

***

James Novak built his house with his own two hands. That was a point of pride with him. It was the second thing he had built on Neo Sombra. The first was a functioning landing pad for the other settlers. He had help, of course. He was still a pilot by trade.

Mal started feeling nostalgic, in an “I really don’t want to remember any more” kind of way. Even the blades of grass looked familiar, like they were the exact ones that he would run around in when he was seven, playing Cowboys with James.

In normal situations, he would focus on his destination to get his mind off the journey. However, in the present scenario, his displeasure was equal for both the journey and the destination. But there was nothing he could do. He could only walk farther and closer to the Novak Homestead. The one that looked real familiar.

By the time Mal and Zoe got close enough to the house to see the individual details of the modest homestead, one of Mal’s worse fears was realized. James was already outside. He could only walk farther and closer to the Novak Homestead.

James seemed to recognize the two, and he walked up to meet them as they finally reached his front porch. Mal remembered the porch from long ago, but concentrated on not thinking about that. James didn’t seem to be rushing to hug the two of them. Mal kept in his mind where he put the spare bullets.

Suddenly, Mal was standing five feet from James Novak. He looked young still, but worn. Like a piece of stained, polished wood that had been brushed with sandpaper for little under a decade. Dark hair, sad eyes. He hadn’t shaved in while, and Mal remembered how sparse things like clean water were out on the Rim. In James’ fingers was a self-rolled cigarette, smoking its familiar scent in Mal’s direction.

The pre-dusk crickets filled the silence between the three longtime friends, until Mal pushed the words out of his mouth reluctantly. “Hey there, James. How are you doing?”

The look in James’ eyes got a lot sadder. “What the hell you doin’ here, Mal?”

Mal shifted in his place and forced himself to chuckle. “Well, that wasn’t exactly the welcome I was expectin’—”

“Quit wit’ the cutie pie bullshit, Mal. An’ don’t be actin’ like you don’t know ‘bout the renewed warrants on your lives. Gorramit! I never thought you’d actually come here of all places!” James threw his cigarette to the ground where it sparked momentarily. “I’ll ask again. What the hell are you doin’ here!”

Mal’s jaw squared. “Listen James, I—”

“Stop! I’ll save you the trouble. Whatever it is you came here expectin’, the answer’s ‘no’.”

Zoe’s heart stopped when she heard the strange anxiety and pain in James’ voice. This wasn’t the Lance Corporal she had fought with all those years back.

James stomped out the smoldering cigarette on the ground, sending up another cloud of smoke. “Now this is what’s gonna happen. “You two are just gonna turn around, and I’ll do you all the kindness of forgettin’ you was ever here.” He began to turn back toward his house.

“James, it’s not like that—,” Zoe started.

James’ sharply angled eyes shot in Zoe’s direction. “Zoe, why the hell would you think I’d want to speak to you neither?”

Zoe stopped talking immediately, and James once again turned on Mal. “Jesus Christ, Mal! The Alliance don’t bother us out here, ya understand? You expect me to throw you a gorramn party an’ get ev’ry purplebelly in the sector patrollin’ us?”

“James—” Mal was having trouble getting more words in.

James pointed at his house with desperation. “I got my wife and daughters in there! You tryin’ to incriminate them too!”

“James, we ain’t lookin’ to stay here!” When Mal finally got it out, it came out a lot louder than he had expected. A momentary silence followed.

“Then what do you want?” James asked, only an inch of harshness gone.

Mal swallowed deep and wondered how he was going to sell Inara’s plan to James. “We know this guy on Persephone, the Baron Von Jeffery. He’ll be able to help us out. Make us disappear for a while. A year, at tops. I really think that should be enough…” Mal noticed that he was rambling. “But… we can’t send a signal from our ship. The feds likely have an APB out for it, an’ if it goes through Alliance-patrolled space, they’ll hook a trace on to us and… well, that’s it. So…”

James finished Mal’s thought for him. “So you want to use my Cortex console to contact your criminal friends, that it?”

“It ain’t so cut n’ dry like that, James,” Mal said, his voice mixed with irritation and indignation.

Through a window behind James, Zoe could see a blonde, five-year-old girl peeking through the shutters.

“Like hell it ain’t, Mal!” James shot back with a distressed chuckle, startling the child in the window. It ran away hurriedly from the glass. “You wanna be a ruttin’ freedom fighter, I ain’t gonna stop you, but you sure as hell ain’t doin’ it on my property! Go to one’a your gorramn fan clubs to use the phone.”

James tried turning back to the house, but was stopped again by Zoe.

“We can’t do that, James. You know how this works. With all the terrorist acts—” James rolled his eyes, but Zoe continued. “—With all the terrorist attacks, the Alliance probably has tabs on our supporters. You’re not a supporter, so likely you’re not on the list.”

Zoe could see that James was still unconvinced, so she pressed on.

“You know how this works. ‘In the time of war’—”

“‘In the time of war, you walk around your friends as you walk around landmines.’ Thank you, Zoe,” James snapped. “But in case you haven’t noticed, the War’s over! As I recall, you, Zoe, were the one who enlightened me on that fact!”

Mal had no choice but to let James get his indignation out to the two of them. God knew he was entitled.

“I don’t open my house to terrorists nor hypocrites, and the both’a you got two strikes. Get off my property.”

Mal stepped forward and looked into James’ eyes. They were slightly bloodshot. That happened to James from time to time, most commonly when he wasn’t sleeping well.

“James.” Mal said softly, contradicting James’ glare.

“What, Mal?”

“You know me. And you know as sure as you know anything that if I had anyplace else to go to, I’d be there. But it just didn’t work out that way this time.” James swallowed hard, and Mal saw he was getting through. “Let us use your signal. We’ll talk to our friend, and then we’ll be gone. You’ll never have to see either of us ever again. Just like before.”

James’ jaw remained solid and unwavering for a second. Behind him the screen door of the house opened, and out came a pretty blonde-haired woman, a little younger than James and worn slightly less than he. Mal recognized her right away as Carolina Novak, another Shadow refugee who met James during the relocation. One thing led to another, as things are wont to do, and within a year and a half, the two were married.

“James, what’s wrong? Julie said that…” Her voice trailed as she noticed Mal. A weary, but beautiful, smile lit up her face. “Captain Reynolds.”

Mal did his best to return the smile. “You must be Carolina. It’s a pleasure to finally meet ya.”

“Likewise.” She began to say more but noticed her husband’s demeanor and fought against her instinct for conversation. “James? Honey?”

James broke his gaze at Mal to turn to Carolina. “Yeah, hon?”

“Will Captain Reynolds be stayin’ with us?” she asked eagerly.

James turned back to Mal and spoke in a low voice. “This friend’a yours… This Baron guy…”

“The Baron Von Jeff—”

“Don’t say his name again. Please. He’s a ‘supporter’? The Alliance’ll have a tap on him?”

“We don’t know. But it’s likely.”

“How likely?”

“I know the Baron. He takes every precaution when talking to clients. No one will ever hear what we’re talkin’ ‘bout. To anyone with a tap on him, it’ll just look like a legit business call from an Outer Rim customer.”

James let this stew in his head a while before continuing.

“We’ve already powered down the Cortex for the evenin’. It’ll be runnin’ again in the mornin’. You’ll use it then.”

“Got it. Thank you, James.”

“Mal? First thing in the mornin’, hear me?” He turned to Carolina, looking anxious in the doorway. “Captain Reynolds is gonna use our Cortex in the mornin’, ‘kay sweetie?”

Carolina smiled again at her husband. “We can set up the guest rooms. Won’t take but a second.”

“Thank you kindly, ma’am. But we got our own lodgings in Serenity.”

“Well, then you’ll be stayin’ for dinner.”

“Carolina—” James began, protesting.

“James,” Carolina responded, effectively silencing him.

“Again, ma’am,” Mal cut in. “Thank you very much, but we won’t impose on you an’ your family.”

“Nonsense, Captain Reynolds. You got food on that tiny boat’a yours?”

“Uh, enough protein to last us the week.”

Carolina chuckled softly. “That’s not a dinner. You get your crew together. How many do you have?”

“Uh, seven, including’ Zoe an’ me.”

“All right. We’ll eat at around twenty hundred. If any of your crew needs a shower, the water heater’ll be runnin’ for another hour or so.”

James sighed slowly and lowered his head into his hands.

“I’m sure they would much appreciate that, ma’am, thank you.”

Carolina was beaming with excitement as she headed back into the house, her voice still resonating to the outside.

“You’re in for a real treat, Captain Reynolds! Your whole crew, too! James just recently got a whole batch of meat products from the market in Fenris Colony. We got a couple cattle, some chicken, and a nicely portioned German Shepherd!”

Mal’s ears pricked up at the last mention. “German Shepherd? James, you got dog?” His mouth started watering at the thought.

“Don’t get your hopes up, Mal,” James said turning back to the house. “We’re savin’ the German Shepherd for Thanksgivin’ dinner.”

COMMENTS

Tuesday, February 7, 2006 11:34 PM

AMDOBELL


Absolutely shiny - right up until they talked about eating the dog! Ew! I have a bad feeling about this and boy do I wish Mal had not been so harsh on Jayne and let him come along. Don't like the two of them not getting on. Also worried about River, wish she'd tell the others something is wrong with her. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Wednesday, February 8, 2006 1:37 AM

BURNANDBOIL


I just decided to jump in and read this series and it's really good! Yay! :D

Wednesday, February 8, 2006 1:53 AM

ANA


<dum-dum-DUM>

And the ominous atmosphere thickens...

Oh well, at least they get a good meal out of it! ;)

So, River's getting worried she's not playing with as full a deck as she used to. Why do I get the distinct feeling things are just gonna get worse?

Wednesday, February 8, 2006 2:06 AM

TAYEATRA


Very Very worried about River.

Maybe a nice meal and a shower will help... although I doubt it.

Liking this story and lokking forward to the next instalment.

Also... if River is going to talk to anyone, can it please be Mal.

Thanks,
Taya

Sunday, February 12, 2006 3:23 AM

AGENTROUKA


Delicious original characters! I want to know more about them, and I can practically taste James' anger at Mal. Very good!

I also liked the backstory on Shadow very much, the layered way you told it, through Mal finding out via the CorVue screens. And the entire slow build-up of the crew approaching the planet, Mal's scattered thoughts, and River. And the Mal and Zoe teamwork of doom, heh.


And oh, the dog! You are EVIL! Bwahahaha! Culture clash, it's best when it really hits you unawares. *g*


More soon?

Thursday, February 16, 2006 8:25 AM

BELLONA


goddamn you, signing in machine!!! above was i, bellona.

b


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