BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

MAL4PREZ

Easy Tickets: Chapter 6
Friday, June 2, 2006

We meet the last ‘bad guy’; Kaylee meets him too. Ray’s gang gathers and Serenity goes out to the desert.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2502    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Jase sat in the dust, leaning against the old transport to stay out of the burning heat of the afternoon sun. As often happened, he was bored. If Ray had let him keep the cables he’d bought, he could be working on the transport now, instead of sitting with nothing to do but wait for the gang to take the spaceship.

He picked a smooth round stone out of the dust and set it on the back of his knuckles. Deftly, he shifted his fingers to roll the stone back and forth. Funny the things you could teach yourself, given enough idle time. And Jase had idle time a’plenty.

           Nĭ shì wŏ zuì kŭ sè dī děng dài
           Ràng wŏ huān xĭ yŏu hài pà wèi laí.

He sang softy in time with the rolling of the stone, thinking back on a day when there’d been a different voice singing the odd lilting tune.

           Nĭ zuì aì shuō nĭ shì yí kē chén aī
           Ŏu ěr huì è zuò jù de piaō jìn wŏ yăn lĭ.

Back when the warmth of the sun felt good, and the trees still had leaves to make music in the breezes of autumn.

           Fŏng chuī laí di shā
           Míng míng zaì kū qì
           Nān daò zaŏ jiù yù yán liaŏ fēn lí?

Jase had long ago learned how to keep his mind removed from his life. Bad things happened when he thought too much; he acted stupid, and made Ray mad. He should know by now that everything worked better when it went Ray’s way.

It was just that he got these ideas. Sometimes they seemed good, and he couldn’t shut his brain down. He went and did things, like spending Ray’s coin on parts so the transport would run better, just `cause some pretty mechanic told him he should. But she’d been so nice, and she kept a whole spaceship flying all by herself. It had seemed like a smart thing to do at the time.

He raised his free hand to his lip, swollen from where Ray had hit him, and absentmindedly picked at the dried blood. It had never even occurred to Jase that the transport wouldn’t be needed once they took the spaceship. He should have thought of it; it’s not like he was stupid, not really. Guess it just proved that he shouldn’t think on his own. He should do what Ray told him. That was the deal they’d made the day Jase left home: do as Ray says, Ray will be the boss from now on.

But there was an idea floating around in the back of Jase’s mind now. He tried to ignore it, focusing harder on the rolling of the stone and starting his song over. He would stay by the transport, he told himself firmly, wait till Ray sent for him. Then he’d move it over to the spaceship like he was told.

A dark shape moving in the deep blue sky caught the corner of his eye. He looked up, startled, and the stone fell off his hand. Ray’s leavin’ me! he thought. But it wasn’t a ship, it was just an old crow hoping to find something to eat.

He searched the dust again, found his stone, and picked it up. He didn’t roll it this time, just held it loosely in his fingers as thoughts chased each other around his mind. Of course Ray wasn’t leaving, that was a stupid thing to think. He’d send for the transport. Ray wouldn’t abandon something worth money.

But the doubt ate at him, and he stared at his feet until the idea solidified and a voice he couldn’t quiet spoke in his head: He don’t need the transport no more. That’s what he said, he don’t need it once he’s got the spaceship.

“He’s gonna leave me here,” Jase whispered. After all these years, Ray was gonna go off the world and leave him to starve.

He jumped to his feet and pried open the back hatch of the transport, then reached into a hole in the top corner of the trunk to pull out a gun. He’d taken it off a man Ray shot more than two years ago. He’d kept it hidden ever since. Every once in a while, when he had time alone, he’d take it out and feel the balance of it, line it up at targets, and sometimes he’d even empty the cartridge and try pulling the trigger. But he’d never fired it for real. There were only four bullets; he didn’t want to waste any.

Ray would take it away if he knew, but Jase figured one day it’d come in handy. Someday Ray would be in a tough spot and Jase would show up and shoot down the dāi zi who was making trouble. Then Ray would thank him, and pat him on the shoulder proudly. Maybe even smile like he used to.

Jase tucked the pistol in the waistband of his pants. Without bothering to close the hatch he turned and ran up the hill. His mind raced. Can’t screw up. Not this time. What am I forgettin’? Can’t be spotted…

He pulled a bandana out of his pocket and tied it over his head to cover his chin-length black hair and keep it out of his face. When he reached the top of the ridge, he saw Will, Ray, and Hank walking across the open ground near the ship, looking right at ease. Jase crouched and made his way down as quick as he could, moving fast because he was short enough to duck easily behind the dry brush and splintered rock.

He reached the valley floor and leaned against the twisted remains of a tree trunk. Will had disappeared through the hatch on top of the ship, and Ray and Hank were standing at the bottom of the ramp, Ray talking in a loud voice to someone inside. Jase took a few deep breaths, trying to calm his racing heart. Slowly, he stood up straight and started walking toward the open bay of the ship, trying to be as calm as Ray had looked.

Also like he’d seen Ray do it, he was approaching at an angle so he couldn’t be seen by anyone inside. Ray and Hank were slowly moving up the ramp, Ray continuing to talk, and by the time Jase reached the ship he could just see their boots at the top of the ramp.

Jase leaned against the outside of the entrance and pulled out his gun, waiting. It couldn’t have been more than a minute before the gunfire started. He peeked into the entrance to see what was happening, then jumped onto the ramp and took aim.

* * *

That morning

Kaylee hadn’t had a chance to go out yesterday, too busy with the hovercraft, and this was her first chance to look around. She opened the ramp to let in morning air that was still cool and fresh. Well maybe not so fresh, she thought, crinkling her nose as the smells of the rundown city wafted past.

She squinted and rubbed her hands over her face. It was still the middle of the night ship time. That was the problem with traveling so much; the sun, when they had one overhead, never agreed with ship time.

When she finished clearing the sleep from her eyes, she noticed a small building across the way. The sign over the door said in Mandarin: Hardware and Tech, Buy, Sell, Trade. Kaylee’s eyes widened and she glanced back into the cargo bay. Book was at the weight bench; he’d keep on eye on things if she stepped out for a minute.

As she walked across the wide dusty lane, she noticed a man in a coal grey coat standing at the entrance to the dockyards, talking to a boy with longish black hair who had his back to her. The man was old, well, too old for her, but kind of hot anyway. Darkly tan skin and brown-black hair. His dusty black pants and shirt did nothing to hide his nice build. Very rugged and manly, she thought, especially his arms.

The man glanced up and noticed Kaylee looking at him. She gave a small wave and called out cheerfully, “Mornin’!” He smiled back, and even at the distance she could see how his dark, deep-set eyes crinkled nicely. She sighed as she pulled open the door to the shop. “Antsy, antsy, antsy,” she muttered to herself.

The shop wasn’t much of a shop; it didn’t look like they got a lot of traffic through here. Still, she found a fuel line she could adapt to the mule, and the fuel cells were standard. They cost twice as much as they would any place that wasn’t at the edge of nowhere, but that was no surprise.

* * *

Will’d been feeling more than a little annoyed about the Browncoat. Captain Smith – if that really was his name – had been downright impolite yesterday, refusing Will’s offer without even hearing it out.

But Will didn’t think he needed Smith’s permission, and Ray had agreed. It actually made it easier; they wouldn’t have to come up with a payment or do any explaining about the job. Just take the ship and do as they pleased. No time to waste though; they’d been watching for a cargo carrier ever since the mysterious Aunt Betty had slipped them info about this job, and the deadline she’d set was only a few days away.

So Will had rolled out of bed early and made his way to the landing docks, hoping he could get some facts about the Firefly and her crew. Ray had told him to bring the boy along for errand running, though it was probably more to keep Jase out of Ray’s way.

When Will saw the girl come down the ramp and head toward the tech shop, he figured it was time to get some real use out of Jase.

“She’s going in the shop…” Will said, but he paused when the girl smiled and said mornin’ to him. He smiled back and saw her sigh. His grin broadened in satisfaction; it was good to know he still had his charm.

“You see, Jase,” he continued, “she’s the friendly type. She’ll talk to you. Find out how many crew they have. And where they’re headed. And when they’re leaving. Dŏng ma?”

Jase nodded and headed for the store. Will set off the other way; he had errands to run.

* * *

Kaylee heard someone come in the door and pick at a bin nearby; it was the boy she’d seen talking to the good-looking man outside. The kid was awful cute himself, though small and slight. Too young, she thought sadly, but he’d sure make some girl real happy in few years.

She gathered the parts for the mule near the checkout and wandered around one more time to check for the grav drive servo. Didn’t seem much of a chance of finding it here, but she had to look.

“Uh, `scuse me, miss?”

Kaylee turned and found herself staring into slightly slanted dark green eyes that looked distant, like he was thinking about something else. It was a little disturbing, but kind of intriguing too. Really was a shame he was so young.

“D’you know anything `bout Kensai transports?” he asked.

“I might.” She smiled. “What model?”

“I dunno,” he admitted with a shrug.

“How many cylinders?” He gave her a blank look, so she asked. “You know the big silver things in the middle of the engine?”

“Oh. Four.”

“How many exhaust ports?”

“One.” He seemed happy to know that one right off.

“What’s the problem with it?”

“Well,” he tilted his head and tucked his black hair behind his ear “it’s all sputtery when it starts.”

“Then after maybe ten minutes it runs fine?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“And you ain’t had her checked out in a while, huh?” Kaylee said. She added a grin and a roll of her eyes – wouldn’t hurt none to flirt a little.

“Nah. Can’t get stuff checked round here. Gotta do it all myself.” He smiled too, but looked a little embarrassed. “I don’t really know what I’m doin’.”

“Come on,” Kaylee said with a small toss of her head, and she led him across the shop. “What you need is a new set of cables, probably a new filter too.” She handed the cables over to him. “These should do it. And get yourself something to clean the connections if it’s been awhile.” He gave her a confused look. “Soda,” she suggested.

“You sure know a lot,” he said shyly, carrying the stuff she’d handed him up to the counter.

“Well.” Kaylee couldn’t help but brag to the boy. He was so cute, and shy too. She liked that. “I do work on a spaceship.” She gave a falsely modest shrug.

“Really?”

“Yep. Keep her in the Black all by myself.”

“So what’re you shoppin’ for?”

“Well, we got some problems with the grav drive.”

He handed his coin over to the shop owner. “Grav drive?”

“It makes the artificial gravity, for one.” At his confused look, Kaylee explained. “When you’re in space, there ain’t no ‘up’. So you need artificial grav to make up stay up and down stay down. It also keeps ya from gettin’ slammed into walls when you change direction real quick.” He still looked a little confused. “Well, never mind. Don’t matter nohow.” She sighed. “They ain’t got our part here, guess we’ll just have to stay on the world for a while till we find somethin’.”

“Oh.” He looked away from her, like he was bothered. Then he gathered up his cables and stepped away from the counter, nodding at her to follow.

He stopped halfway to the door, then leaned toward her and spoke quietly. “There’s a lady, outside town. She’s got all kinds of stuff.”

“Stuff?”

“Yeah, crazy old lady,” he smiled. “Nice though, always makes tea and talks a lot. But she loves machines. Got all kinds of `em. It’s where Ray sends me when we need tech.”

“Ray?”

He shook his head. “Don’t matter. Just go see her. Name’s Xiaojun. She’ll sell stuff cheap, if you’ll just let her talk at ya for a bit. Here’s how to find her…” He explained the location. There was a dry riverbed that would lead real close; it didn’t seem hard to get to.

“Wow.” Kaylee felt a little overwhelmed. Also belatedly cautious. Just who was this kid anyway? “So… what was your name?”

He hesitated. “Um – ”

The door slammed open and a familiar voice boomed. “Kaylee! There you are. What in the hell are you doin’?” Kaylee cringed a little, and noticed that the boy looked more alarmed than she did. She turned toward the hulking shadow in the door.

“I’m just shoppin’, Cap’n.”

Mal walked in and grabbed her arm. “By yourself? Without tellin’ anyone where you’re goin’?”

“It was just right across the – ”

“I ought’a tan your hide, young lady.” Kaylee might have laughed at that, but Mal was only half kidding. He turned and pulled her out the door.

As she left, Kaylee noticed that the boy had disappeared already.

* * *

Will went to find Hank first. He saw him through the front window of the deserted house Hank had been staying in the past few weeks. Hank’s coarse beard was hanging down over his bare chest, his legs were in a deep lunge and arms extended in some kind of pose. Will recognized the exercise; it was that T’ai Chi crap he’d been forced to do in military training. Will didn’t think much of this meditation pì huà, and he didn’t hesitate to push the door open and interrupt.

“Hank, get your stuff together. The big job is going down today and we’re leaving this rock, for good. No questions. Just meet at Ray’s at noon.”

Hank agreed with a nod, and Will went on his way. Hank may be nuts, but he was easy to deal with.

His next stop was Ginger’s, and he’d figured it’d take a bit longer. Though they’d been working together, and more, for a long time, he hadn’t filled her in about the job yet. Ginger had never cared much for details.

He found her at breakfast. She poured him coffee while he told her about the job and ship, and how she needed to gather everything she wanted to take with her off world. She didn’t seem either surprised or excited at the news, nor was she upset that he hadn’t told her until the last minute. That was part of why he liked her – nothing was ever a big deal.

“You’re sayin’ we’re gonna be stealin’ some ship and travelin’ a long way?” was the only question she asked about the plan.

“That’s it.”

“Seems like we won’t have no private time for a while.”

He grinned, because he knew what she was thinking. “Probably not,” he said.

She got up from her chair and walked around the table. He let her pull him to his feet and shove him against the wall.

“Best prepare then,” she said.

“We don’t have a lot of time,” he warned her, but he didn’t stop her hands on his belt buckle.

“Since when’d I ever need a lot of time, Will?”

She didn’t, and he didn’t mind.

* * *

Will’s last stop was a shabby shack on the edge of what used to be the industrial district, back when there was industry. Ray could have chosen a much nicer place to call his own, but he was big on privacy, saying he needed a place to do business out of the eyes of the Cartels, even though he actually worked for one. Well, he had worked for one until today.

Will heard Ray’s raised voice before he opened the front door, and he paused to look through the passage to the back room that made do for a kitchen. All he could see was Jase on the floor against the back wall, his face blank as he swiped at blood on the corner of his mouth. Ray’s voice carried down the hall.

“If I wanted this stuff I’d coulda gotten it for half the price. And what are you doin’ buyin’ parts anyhow?”

“It’ll fix the start-up prob– ” Jase said.

Ray cut him off. “You think we got money to spare for gorram parts? The transport runs good enough for what we need!”

“But – ”

“Didn’t I tell you we’re gettin’ a ship? Why waste coin on a transport we won’t be needin’? Stupid gorram fool. When are you gonna do as you’re told, and quit screwin’ things up?”

Will started down the hall. Ray was level headed most of the time, but he didn’t have a bit of sense when it came to this kid. Will found it entertaining some days, but not this one. There was too much riding on getting this ship.

Will cleared his throat as he entered the room. “Ray,” he said tersely.

Ray spun around, hand on his gun, but relaxed when he saw who it was.

“Tell me you got some good news,” he said.

“Hank and Ginger should be here in a few. And we have intel on the ship.”

“What’d you find out?”

Will nodded to Jase. “Boy here can tell you. He talked to one of their crew.”

Jase slowly climbed to his feet, but didn’t say anything.

“Well?” Ray demanded.

“She was just lookin’ for parts,” Jase said softly.

“She?”

Jase blushed and looked at the floor.

“Yeah,” Will said. “She. Real cutie too. Are you sweet on her, Jase?”

When Jase didn’t answer, Ray stepped closer to him and asked in a low voice, “What parts was she buyin’?”

“Something about a grav drive, about up bein’ up.”

“You ask her about the rest of the crew?”

“No.”

“You know where they’re headin’?”

Jase hesitated, then shook his head. “No.”

Ray grabbed the boy by his shirt front, towering over him. “You never have been smart, and you can’t lie worth shit. Now you tell me where they’re headed.”

“I told her about Xiaojun,” Jase admitted, then he cringed at the rage that erupted in Ray’s eyes.

“Explain to me why you told her that, and don’t you even try to lie.”

“She was nice. I wanted to help her.”

Ray tightened his grip for a second. “Nice?” he asked, but then he let go and stepped back, shaking his head. “Idiot,” he muttered. “You wouldn’t make it five minutes in this world on your own.”

“But she was all kinds a’helpful `bout the transport, knew all kinds a’ stuff. Seemed real jīng căi `bout her spaceship too – ”

Ray spun and his right fist set the boy on the ground again. “Don’t you ever speak that crap around me,” he spat.

Will sighed impatiently. “Half the `verse speaks Chinese, Ray.”

“He don’t,” Ray replied. He shook out his hand and turned to pace across the kitchen. “Now what do we do?”

“What do we do?” Will leaned against the doorway. “Jase actually did us a favor – we should be thanking him. Think about it; that Firefly is going to fly out into the middle of the desert. We get out there before them, see where they land, and then walk right in and take it. They won’t be expecting an attack out there, and we’ll have no worries about being quiet or avoiding dock security.”

Ray looked at Will a second, then turned back to Jase. He didn’t seem to be in much of a mood to express gratitude; roughly he hauled the boy to his feet. “You go to that shop and get my money back, and then wait by the transport. And stay out of my sight `till we’re ready to go. Got it?”

Jase nodded. Ray let go of him and the boy gathered the cables from a rickety table and left.

Will waited until the door closed, then he glanced sidelong at Ray. “Someday that boy’s gonna hit back.”

“No, he won’t,” Ray replied, with not a doubt in his voice.

* * *

Once he got back on Serenity, Mal calmed down enough to let Kaylee explain. He didn’t like her description of the boy she’d met in the shop, but when she told him she’d found what she needed to finish the mule, he took her back over to buy the fuel line and power cells.

After that, they took Zoë and spent an hour walking around town. There weren’t many tech shops, and nothing had more goods than the shop in the dockyard.

Turned out that Mal was glad he’d brought Zoë and her scary carbine along; it wasn’t a good place to be wearing his coat. Apparently word of him had spread since the night before, and folks didn’t look at him too friendly. They weren’t discreet with their comments either. It appeared that the people here didn’t properly appreciate their freedom from the strong arm of the Alliance, and they weren’t real fond of the color brown.

When they returned to Serenity, Mal disappeared upstairs. Kaylee got right to work installing the new fuel line, ignoring the summons for lunch. River helped her for a while, but then said she was tired of thinking so much. Book sat beside the girl as she curled up in the common room outside the infirmary, keeping her company while she rested.

* * *

An hour after lunch, Simon stepped through the hatch into the bay. Kaylee didn’t notice at first, all her attention was focused on the hovercraft. He smiled as he watched her, recognizing the air of tired satisfaction that surrounded her as she set down her tools and stood back to inspect her work. When she set about releasing the chains that held the craft in place, he stepped forward and laid a hand on the hovercraft.

“Hey, Simon!” Kaylee called when she saw him.

“How is it?” he asked, then lifted his hand and wiped at the dirt on his fingers.

“Ready to try out!”

“You might want to wait a few – ” Simon was interrupted when Serenity lurched slightly under their feet. Kaylee looked at Simon in surprise.

“We goin’ someplace?” she asked.

He nodded. “Actually, I came down to tell you – Mal decided. We’re going to find the mysterious Xiaojun. It should only take a few minutes to get there. Wash will get us close, then Mal will take you over in a shuttle.”

“Can’t we just land right there?”

“The Captain’s feeling a little… apprehensive.”

Kaylee nodded. She’d noticed Mal’s ‘apprehensive’ attitude, especially this morning. It wasn’t like him to get so upset over her stepping outside for a few minutes. But it was worth it – the mule was ready to go.

“We’d be less conspicuous if we took this, don’cha think?” She patted it proudly.

“You mean it’s…”

Kaylee smiled brightly as she unhooked the last chain and jumped into the driver’s set. When she hit the ignition, the craft fired up with a satisfying roar, but she didn’t notice the cloud of black smoke that billowed out the back of it. A slight nudge of the controls had it lifting a few feet off the deck, then Simon jumped out of the way as she steered it into the center of the bay.

“Oh, sorry!” Kaylee yelled with a grin, “I ain’t so good at drivin’.” Then she broke into a hoarse coughing fit.

“Um, Kaylee?” Simon said with a few coughs of his own. Kaylee looked around and realized why her throat was burning. She lowered the mule to the deck and shut it off as quick as she could, then she and Simon stumbled to the front of the bay to try to get out of the smoke cloud.

It was less than a minute before the ship landed, and Simon immediately had the cargo bay doors open. Kaylee ran up the stairs, shouting about opening the top hatch. Simon was about to walk out into the dusty but smoke-free air when he heard River call to him.

“Simon, wait!” She was jogging out from the common room, Book following her.

“River, come on,” Simon said, extending his hand to her, intending to pull her outside with him.

“No! Come with me!” Without surprising tenacity she pulled him up the stairs next to the open bay door.

“River, we should go outside – ”

“Dirtier there,” she said with a wild distressed look.

“It’s just desert, mèi mei.”

She stopped and turned back to him. “Not wholesome!” she insisted, then she yanked his arm, leading him along the catwalk directly over the ship’s entrance.

“River – ”

“They’re twisted!” She sank to her knees and grasped the railing tight with her free hand. “All wrong. Not healthy!”

* * *

Normally, Kaylee tried not to notice the hatch near the crew quarters. It was the one Jubal Early had used to get onto the ship, and she didn’t like remembering that. But at the moment she was too flustered to get jittery about past events. If Mal had gotten mad about her leaving the ship without telling anyone, he was gonna be so mad about this!

Sure enough, his voice carried down from the bridge. “Kaylee, what in the seven hells is that smell?”

Kaylee peeked around the corner to see the man himself following his voice down the stairs. “Um – smoke?” she said in a small voice.

“Did you set my gorram ship on fire?” he asked, coming to a stop right in front of her, towering over her a bit.

Kaylee couldn’t help cowering back. “No! Just… the new mule.”

“You burned my mule?” Jayne asked. He was just coming up from his bunk, Vera slung over his shoulder.

“Not burned, ’xactly,” she replied to Jayne, then looked at the Captain again. “I kind’a forgot to check the new fuel line, must’ve had some gunk in it. I was in such a hurry – I wanted to have it ready…” she broke off with a cough. Mal glanced at the open hatch – it was pulling all the smoky air up through the ship. He held off on the lecture and shooed her down the stairs and across the cargo bay.

“Captain, wait!” River’s shrill voice sounded from over his head as he neared the open bay doors.

Mal paused, looking up at River and Simon on the catwalk over the open door. Simon was holding a handkerchief over his mouth with one hand and trying to pry River’s hand off the railing with the other.

“River, wouldn’t you rather breathe clean air?” Simon asked, then he dropped the handkerchief so he could use both hands to try to break her grip.

“No!” She was tense with annoyance, and didn’t look at Simon as she insisted, “Smoke is cleaner than rot!”

“Simon, you two okay up there?” Mal asked.

“Um, yes, we’re just fine.”

River leaned forward to look at Mal. “All dust,” she said, still agitated. “Empty time eats up souls, twists them and spits them back out. Bad!”

Mal felt a little shiver run up his spine; he’d learned to respect River’s ravings. He looked outside uneasily. Zoë and Wash had just passed by to join Kaylee, Jayne, and Book. “Simon, ship’s airin’ out already, you just keep River where she wants to be, okay?”

“Sure Captain.” Simon let go of River’s hands and Mal started out, but then Simon called after him, “Mal?”

“Yeah?”

“Take it easy on Kaylee.”

Mal gave Simon a tight-lipped stare before he joined the rest of the crew. He went to Kaylee first; the poor thing looked like she expected a whack to the side of the head.

“Come here, Kaylee” he said firmly. She did, looking dejected enough to break a heart harder than his. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and steered her away from the others.

“So does it work?” he asked.

“Wha’?”

“That fancy hover mule thing that stank up my ship – is it runnin’?”

Kaylee’s face lit with a little hope. “Yeah,” she said. “Real smooth.” Then her face fell. “Except for the smoke thing. That should just burn off though, I’m sorry `bout – ”

“It seems we got lots a’ breezes hereabouts to clear things out, so don’t you fret. Let’s go get your parts for the grav drive while Serenity airs, then you can fix her up and we’ll be on our way and no harm done.”

Kaylee’s face brightened all the way and she hugged his waist. “Thanks Cap. You are nice.”

He returned her hug with one arm. “Don’t go tellin’ nobody that, you’ll ruin my reputation. After all the years of bein’ grumpy I put into it, too.”

* * *

At a word from Mal, Wash went back into the ship to grab a few comm units and bring the mule out. Then Mal nodded to Zoë and the two of them stepped away from the rest.

“Kaylee says the mule can take four,” Mal told her. “I’m sending two gunhands along with her and Wash.”

“You think you need to?”

Mal looked at his feet. “River had some words to say about things hereabouts.”

“What exactly?”

He shrugged, trying to be casual about planning a job based on a teenager’s ravings. “Oh, somethin’ about dust and twisted souls and somesuch.”

Zoë didn’t laugh; she looked around the stony valley, at the wind blowing between shattered pieces of rock and the remains of dead bushes and trees. “Ain’t the nicest place we been to.”

“Zoë, I’m feelin’ a mite uneasy myself.”

“Why is that? Sir?” She tried to hide it, but her look was a little dubious.

Mal gave an uncomfortable laugh. “Can’t say for sure. Maybe it’s that kid who talked to Kaylee… or this Xiaojun woman, why’d anyone have a tech shop out here?”

“We can’t keep flyin’ without a grav drive we can trust.”

“No, we can’t,” Mal agreed. He took a deep breath and scratched his head, not sure what else to say.

Zoë took a deep breath and turned to face him square. “Cap’n, don’t take this the wrong way – ”

“Lotta women in my life tellin’ me that lately,” he muttered.

“ – but you’ve had a tendency to worry overmuch. Since Oeneus.”

Mal looked away from her, but he nodded. “I know it.” When he looked back, she was watching him closely. He held her stare.

“I got a bad feelin’, Zoë.”

Her dubious look disappeared. “No harm in tryin’ someplace else, sir. There’re other towns.”

Mal didn’t answer for a bit, just turned away to think. It relieved him that Zoë took him seriously, but he had to admit he wasn’t so sure himself. Gorram, he hated being all skittish. Wasn’t like they’d never faced bad odds before, or scary unknowns. That was just life on the rim, and he’d never had such a problem with it before.

Mal sighed. He had to cut this out and take care of business. First things first: fix the ship.

“No,” he decided. “Let’s get it done. We been lucky with the grav drive holdin’ out this long, and luck don’t ever last. But two gunhands’ll go. I ain’t leavin’ Jayne alone with the ship, so it’ll have to be you that stays.”

They turned at a roar inside the ship and watched Wash pull the slightly smoky hovercraft out of the bay. He left it idling while Book, Jayne and Kaylee climbed on to look it over. Kaylee took the front seat, standing up and gesturing as she described her plans to fancy it up. Jayne reclined in the back with his feet up, looking every bit like a proud new owner. All he was missing was a cigar.

Mal smiled. It was an impressive vehicle. Jayne and Kaylee had done good.

“Sir,” Zoë interrupted his thoughts. “I’m thinkin’ that a tech expert on a world that owes what well-bein’ it has to the business of the Alliance might not be the best place for you to visit, dressed like ya are.”

Mal looked down at himself. “What, am I behind on the season’s trends?”

Zoë half-smiled. “I’m just sayin’, you already made the worst dressed list in town.”

“So now you’re embarrassed to be seen with me?” Mal asked with a hurt tone.

“Sir. You’re the one the Alliance is lookin’ for these days, and you pay me and Jayne for a reason.” She gave him the I-plan-on-arguin’ look that she saved for the most special of occasions.

Mal frowned and looked back at the mule. He really didn’t like the idea of letting his people out of his sight. Hell of a mechanic, and hell of a pilot. Not a bad merc either, all things considered. He’d hate for anything to happen to them. But Zoë had a point. And, truth be told, he was in such a state as to overreact to things. He wasn’t sure if he could count on himself to keep his calm.

He turned back to Zoë. Hell of a first mate.

“I honestly don’t know what’s got my back up, but you be careful, all right?”

“Always am.”

He gave her an appraising look and nodded. “Yeah, you are.”

Mal continued to hold her eye for a second, then turned to walk toward the mule, yelling over the engine, “All right kids, Daddy’s gonna stay home. Aunt Zoë and Uncle Jayne got guard duty. Wash, you’re drivin’, Kaylee, you’re shoppin’.” He tossed his leather coin purse to Kaylee. “Buy only what you need,” he told her firmly.

“`Course Cap’n.” Kaylee grinned at him, unruffled by his gruffness.

Book climbed down from the hovercraft and Zoë took his place while Mal continued his instructions. “Zoë, Jayne, you both got comms. Use `em if you get in any trouble, or if the mule breaks down, or you see anything that ain’t right.”

“Don’t worry,” Wash replied. “We’ll be home by midnight and I swear there won’t be any drugs or sex. Mostly because we have no drugs and no one could possibly be into sex while they can smell Jayne.”

“Hey!” Jayne complained. “I smell like a real man is all. You should try it.”

“You smell like stale beer and vomit.”

Jayne looked at Kaylee, who was too polite to agree and too artless to disagree, and settled on giving him a neutral shrug.

“Just be careful,” Mal said. “And Kaylee?”

“Huh?”

“Nice mule.”

Kaylee’s smile rivaled the sun, but Jayne whined, “That’s right, don’t bother thankin’ me none.”

Wash hit the throttle and the hovercraft pulled away, kicking up a cloud of yellow dust. Mal and Book watched until the mule cleared the horizon, swerving side to side as Wash tested out the handling.

Mal’s uneasy feeling settled over him again as the sound of the mule faded away. Something had his neck prickling, that’s for gorram sure. He scanned the empty hillside one more time before he turned back to the ship.

“Everything all right, Captain?” Book asked as they walked up the ramp.

“Got a bad feelin’ is all. Happens a lot these days.”

“You sent them well armed. I’m sure they’ll be fine.”

“Yeah.”

Once he was inside the ship, Mal looked up to the catwalk where Simon was still comforting a distressed River.

“Dust of dead trees and bones,” she said sadly. “Not green anymore. No apples. No singing.”

“She all right, Doc?” Mal asked.

River’s eyes were unfocused. “It’s all dead. Have to get out.” Her voice rose. “Pick up the sparkly rocks and go!”

“I’m sorry, Captain,” Simon said. “It’s… I’ve been reducing her medication, and I guess I took it too far. But I just gave her an injection; it should take effect soon.”

“It’s all right, Simon, ain’t no one gonna hear her out here. She’s been walkin’ the sane line for some time now, might help to let her have some crazy time.”

“Do you need any help son?” Book offered.

“No, we’ll be all right, won’t we, mèi mei?” Simon turned back to River. He touched her shoulder and she sat up straight, and her eyes hardened as she stared down at Mal.

“I can shoot,” she said, her voice suddenly distant but coldly confident. “All I need is a target and a gun worthy of me.”

The lack of emotion in her voice sent another chill up Mal’s spine. Judging from Simon’s face, it had a similar effect on him.

“River, that’s not what we…” Simon glanced down at Mal and didn’t finish his sentence.

Mal noticed Simon’s look. “Doctor, after we get out’a here we are gonna have a talk about what you’ve been up to with her.”

“Really, Captain, I don’t know where this is coming from. I’ve been working on helping her control what she senses, but…” Simon turned back to River, his face full of concern and confusion as her stern manner crumbled and she dissolved into tears.

“They’re bad. Mean. I’m afraid,” she said quietly.

Mal clenched his jaw hard enough to make a face. Every moment they spent on this dead world increased his discomfort, and River acting up certainly didn’t help. “Let her have her crazy time,” he told Simon, “but you make sure it don’t involve guns or knives, dŏng ma?”

Simon stayed focused on River, but he nodded in response.

“I’ll just go up and see to lunch,” Book told Mal softly.

“Thank you, Shepherd.”

Mal cast one more look at River, then he went to the control board near the aft hatch and set the comm to broadcast in the bay, just in case Zoë or Jayne waved. He wanted to stay where he could keep an eye on River.

* * *

In her hurry to finish the mule, Kaylee had uncharacteristically left her tools on the cargo bay floor. Mal went about gathering them into her toolbox, grateful to have something to busy himself while he waited. But the knot in his gut tightened, and he kept pausing to glance up at the Tams on the catwalk, or out the bay doors where the bright sunlight was caught in sworls of dust.

He tried to talk himself down. So he’d acted on the word of a stranger, big deal. It’d just been some kid trying to impress Kaylee. And as for visiting an unknown mechanic in the desert – Zoë and Jayne had walked into much worse situations. They weren’t stupid, they weren’t weak, and they weren’t unarmed. They’d be able to handle it.

But all his reasoning didn’t make him feel any better. Mal berated himself; he had to stop worrying over his crew like this. Zoë was right, it was that crap from Oeneus, echoing in his head. He’d never be able to get a thing done if he didn’t get over all this gorram fretting.

He was picking up the last of Kaylee’s tools when the prickles on his neck and the jitters in his belly came together as a twinge in the center of his back, and right then he knew that he’d made a mistake. And it was a big one. The trouble he’d felt coming wasn’t at Xiaojun’s; it was right here.

He turned to see two dark shapes standing at the bottom of the ramp.

* * *

Translations

dāi zi: fool pì huà: nonsense dŏng ma: understand? jīng căi: brilliant mèi mei: little sister

Nĭ shì wŏ zuì kŭ sè dī děng dài
               Waiting for you is the most painful time.

Ràng wŏ huān xĭ yŏu hài pà wèi laí.
               You make me happy and also scared.

Nĭ zuì aì shuō nĭ shì yí kē chén aī
               You said you are a little dust

Ŏu ěr huì è zuò jù de piaō jìn wŏ yăn lĭ.
               That accidentally flies into my eyes.

Fŏng chuī laí di shā
               The sand that is blown by the wind

Míng míng zaì kū qì
               Is crying in the dark.

Nān daò zaŏ jiù yù yán liaŏ fēn lí?
               Isn't that the sign of separation?

           from Kū shā (Crying Sand) by Tracy Huang

* * *

On to Chapter 7.

COMMENTS

Friday, June 2, 2006 3:56 AM

MAL4PREZ


OK, I misled a little. It’s day 0 but the action won’t be go down until Monday. :p

Thanks for the many kind comments about the Mal/Inara interaction in the last chapter! That was a very tough scene, and I spent a lot of time on it. I’m relieved to know it worked out!

Friday, June 2, 2006 5:33 AM

LEIGHKOHL


I can't wait for Monday! Oh My! Mal's got a crazy teenage assasin, a sheperd with a past and a doctor to help him fend off these usurpers, hmmm.... violence is definitely going to ensue! And what about Jayne, Zoe, Wash, and Kaylee I wonder what's in store for them? Will Inara's client have something planned for her as well, or maybe his aunt? Nice cliffhanger to leave us with! Can't wait for your next post!

Friday, June 2, 2006 5:50 AM

LEIASKY


Wow. Nice and thrilling chapter today! And we have to wait until Monday to read more? You're just cruel!

River acting all creepy was well done and real unsettling - just as she should be when she's in crazy mode. And Mal's pissyness at Kaylee reminded me of the harder edge he seemed to have in the movie.

You've really got all the characters down so well, I'm enjoying this series a lot!

Looking forward to some thrilling heroics.

Of course, wouldn't hurt if you posted more often . . .:)

Friday, June 2, 2006 9:16 AM

LFABRY


"All I need is a gun and a target" I know where that's from. It's so on! Damn you for making me look forward to Monday!

Friday, June 2, 2006 11:54 AM

AMDOBELL


Gorramit, those pesky varmint are fixing to try to steal Serenity away, this doesn't look good. What with River so incoherent her warnings make little sense and Mal so rattled he can't think straight. Talk about getting tense! Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Friday, June 2, 2006 5:47 PM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


Aww...noo...don't leave off here...Mal's at leat gotta get shot at!

;)

Loved "The Fish Job" and am now loving this series, mal4prez! Can't till the action rises again on Monday:)

BEB

Friday, June 2, 2006 8:08 PM

SQUISH


Excellent again! I really like Jase and how you've described him just enough to give hints at what might come for him in this story.

And I loved the scenes with Kaylee going shopping and flirting a little! That's our Kaylee!

Friday, June 2, 2006 9:45 PM

NOSADSEVEN


Monday. Monday. Can you narrow that down a little bit, like, what time on Monday? Gorramit, I need to set my alarm...

Monday... I'm just not getting past it!

Breathe... *in*, *out*, *in*, *out*...


Monday.

Friday, June 2, 2006 10:06 PM

BOOKADDICT


I liked Jase's character and that Kaylee could so easily talk him into buying parts. You write the bad guys so well, they have real characters.

Mal's uneasiness is great and River's crazyness.

Can't wait to see what happens next.

Saturday, June 3, 2006 4:12 AM

ANJULIE


Another excellent chapter. I can't wait to see what happens next. For your next fic you should write post BDM! With your great characterizations you would do a wonderful job.

Saturday, June 3, 2006 10:14 PM

AGENTROUKA


Shamefully, I haven't left much feedback yet for this lovely series. Tsk tsk!


I very much adore the direction you've taken this, and the structure of switching points of time and points of view and how it allows every character to slowly take shape. This part is my favorite, in terms of OC's because the relationship between Jase and Ray is such a twisted and scary one, and it comes through so beautifully in this damaged half-child! Creeeeepy!

Then there's this lovely world you've built again, taking (yay!) into account that not every part of a planet looks the same, and creating this interesting constellation with the cartels and... omg, mythology! *swoon*


And the crew... I admit, the back and forth of Kaylee, Jayne and Simon doesn't touch me too much. I'm very open to anything on that front and what I enjoy the most is your way of capturing their voices and the flavor of their interactions. Kaylee getting tipsy in that bar and Jayne with his bear and then buying the new mule and all of that... It's beautiful. Equally so, Simon focusing on River and learning to feel his way into her special language. Makes me happy. *g*

Mal and Inara... oy. Perfect! Stubborn, both of them, hurting each other, doing what they think is right... Inara knowing exactly what she's doing and Mal just floundering in the breeze of all this uncertainty, throwing away every bit of friendship they had because he can't have more than that and it hurts.

It's a lovely trainwreck.


So... while you're a terrible tease, posting so irregularly, I can't help but be strung along merrily. Wonderful writing, can't wait for more! :)

Wednesday, July 12, 2006 9:38 AM

SILLYLITTLEDUCK


Oh no!!! poor Mal! *bites nails*

I enjoy that river's insights, while not always understood, are at least taken seriously.

Poor Jayne, guy never gets any credit.

I'm really enjoying the way you're writing this. The style the set up the basic word selections. makes me see it in my head and forget i'm reading. Good work

Thursday, July 13, 2006 7:47 AM

RIVERISMYGODDESS


I love how Kaylee is sizing up every male she meets for sex, too funny.

I hope Ray dies a slow, terrible death.

I imagine Book's mind would be somewhat peaceful to wander around in, though the secrets there could also be very very dark.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006 6:50 PM

BRERRABBIT


By the way, it's
"Wash will get us close, THEN Mal will take you over in a shuttle." Just a pet peeve. It seems nearly everyone confuses than and then in the stories I read on this site. The stories themselves, though, are, by and large, wonderful, and really capture the voices of the characters we love.

Thursday, December 7, 2006 2:44 AM

MAL4PREZ


Thanks BrerRabbit - I fixed it!

It's not a confusion thing as much as sometimes my fingers type what they type without asking my brain. :)

Thursday, December 7, 2006 12:47 PM

BRERRABBIT


That's okay ;-), it's just that I see that mistake alot. I'm really enjoying your story and am about to start chapter 11. It's going to be interesting how the gang gets out of their current situation. I'm also wondering about the relationship between Ray and Jase and how that's going to turn out. Thanks for the fun.


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