BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

MAL4PREZ

Easy Tickets: Chapter 14
Wednesday, June 21, 2006

More science-y stuff, then River, reluctantly, learns about Ray, and Kaylee, sadly, learns about hate.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2556    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

See Chapter 1 and my blog for disclaimers and such.

Except I have to say thanks to VERA2529 and LEEH for the beta help!

Mandarin translations: put your mouse over the pinyan to get the definitions, or see the list at the end.

Thanks for braving the moody site to leave comments!! It really means a lot to me! And also keeps me pegging away on the few chapters I haven’t completed yet – which are due up next week. Yikes!

* * *

More than a century before the War of Unification established the Alliance as the governing body of all the settled planets, an expedition set out from Londinium. The single large cruiser intended to meander through previously unexplored regions of the `verse for three years, searching for planets suitable for terraforming.

The mission was early in its third year when it encountered a promising planet, which was soon given the name New Borjomi. The cruiser spent two weeks in orbit while crews conducted surveys and collected data about the planet’s atmosphere and surface composition.

A nearby planet, then known only by its catalog number P23-657, was visited by a few unmanned probes, but was never considered a serious candidate for human habitation. Its native environment was too harsh; the terraforming process would have been lengthy and expensive, and not guaranteed to succeed. But P23-657 drew considerable attention because of its rare and beautiful system of planetary rings. Not surprisingly, astronomy was a popular hobby with the expedition’s scientists and their families, and the ringed planet was quite popular.

One of the star-gazers, the wife of a midlevel technician, had an avid interest as well as detailed understanding of astrophysics, a hobby dating back to her college days. Of particular relevance, she was fond of using absorption and emission spectra to identify the composition of distant objects. Sticking her nose in other planets’ business, Eileen Verdande would explain to her husband Edward and their three year old son, Ed Jr.

Eileen had a long look at P23-657 and its rings, analyzed her results, then, for the rest of the expedition’s visit to New Borjomi, spent the majority of her spare time checking and re-checking what she saw.

It just happened that Edward, who had a background in materials science, had recently read, and discussed with his wife, an article about lithium dubniate, LiDbO3.

Centuries ago, he’d explained, computing speeds took a large step up when computer systems changed from electronic to optical. Laser light carried signals through the computer’s connections faster than electrons could. One of the challenges to this advance was creating an optical flip-flop, the component which stored the ones and zeros upon which computing was based. Engineers needed a material which exhibited bistability, meaning it could be triggered between two states by an incident beam of laser light.

Recent lab work had found that LiDbO3 showed promise of being a much more efficient optical flip-flip than the currently predominant artificial polmers. If the initial research findings were verified, LiDbO3 would become a vital component in the kind of high-power optical computing systems needed for intensive science and engineering applications, as well as for handling the huge amount of computing involved in the operation of Alliance cruiseships.

Edward and Eileen quietly did more research over the cortex. At that time, the use of LiDbO3 in the computer industry was still on the horizon; the material had never been of value before, and therefore wasn’t included on standard scans. There were multiple natural sources of the material, but they were all located planetside, and the methods of mining, processing, and transport involved were prohibitively expensive. A source of LiDbO3 crystals, in space, easily harvested and, as Eileen calculated from her spectral data, in abundance, was beyond a gold mine.

The Verdandes watched other the stargazers suspiciously, hoping that no one else would suspect the true nature of the eye-catching rings of P23-657, until, finally, the expedition moved on. The couple was a nervous wreck for the next few months, watching the price and demand for LiDbO3 slowly rise in the Core markets. When the expedition finally returned to the Core, Edward quit his job and the couple quietly went about gathering funds, fortunately obtaining backing from a few wealthy relatives.

A year later, they took a private trip out to P23-657 and collected samples from the outer rings. Those samples, combined with Eileen’s data and her estimate of the size of the LiDbO3 reserve, helped the couple gather all the capital they needed. They bought the mineral rights to the remote planet, getting a ridiculously low price, and the Verdande Cartel was formed.

* * *

River made no sound as she ran up the stairs, leaving Jase on the deck behind her. She knew she was supposed to hide, but she wanted to stay near the infirmary. She had to make sure that Simon was doing everything right - she’d promised Jase as much.

She took the chance of standing in the hatch to the cargo bay, watching from above as the footsteps and voices approached.

* * *

“Where the hell’d he go?” Ray demanded.

Simon was wondering the same thing himself. He stood just outside the infirmary, staring at the empty bed inside as if it could tell him where his injured and sedated patient had gone. It had been some time since he’d left the infirmary to take Mal up to the bridge, and for a good portion of that time there had been no artificial gravity. As unlikely as it seemed, it was possible that his patient had moved under his own power.

Simon glanced around the corner into the cargo bay and saw a small figure laying on the deck a few meters past the hatch. He didn’t wait for Ray, just hurried to kneel next to the boy.

* * *

River watched from above when Simon came in to get Jase. Ray was following a few steps behind.

Ray. Pa. Monster.

Ray disgusted her. She wished she could go into his mind, kick and scream till she bruised things, see if she could make him fall apart. Pay him back for all the hurt he’d done.

But she couldn’t. She was learning how this worked – she could passively listen to the things in people’s minds, that wasn’t hard. In fact, that was often difficult to turn off. But in order for her to really get in, to see through their eyes, to talk to them or have some effect on their what they were thinking, they had to be weak or sick in a way that made their inner walls go down. Like Jase was now. Like the Captain had been on Oeneus.

Ray was healthy and strong, and she couldn’t do anything to him. She could listen to his thoughts, but that was one thing she really didn’t want to do. She’d seen tension in him before, seen pain, and she’d very nearly pitied him for it. She’d almost forgiven him for hitting the Captain, but she knew now that he didn’t deserve that. She didn’t want to see inside Ray again; she wanted to hate him.

Simon picked up Jase and went back to the infirmary with Ray behind him. River quietly stepped back out onto the catwalk, then crept down the stairs. Simon and Ray were talking, and she wanted to hear.

* * *

Simon lifted the boy carefully, surprised at how light he was. Grateful as well – it hurt enough to breathe, carrying a person, even a small one, didn’t help his sore ribs.

“He gonna be all right?” Ray asked.

Simon turned and walked past Ray to get to the infirmary, saying as he went, “To be honest, I’m not sure.”

Ray followed. “But… that bullet didn’t hit anything important. I seen men hurt much worse than that, up and walkin’ about.”

“He’s feverish, and it’s only been a few hours since he was shot. From what I saw of him earlier, I think he was in a weakened state to begin with.” Simon laid Jase on the exam table.

“Weakened?” Ray sounded insulted.

“He’s malnourished; his immune system is weak. And he’s small; the blood loss is – ”

“He eats,” Ray interrupted defensively. “Damn kid is eatin’ all the time.”

Simon let it go, this wasn’t something he needed to argue about. He focused on removing the old bandage; about halfway through the task, he realized that his patient was awake and watching.

“Simon?” the boy asked faintly.

Simon was surprised to hear his name, surprised that the boy knew it. “Yes, that’s me.”

“Good doc, huh?” Jase’s voice was slurred. “She tol’ me you was…”

She?

Simon bit back a word that Kaylee would have been proud of. He glanced back at the hatch, at Ray stepping through, listening.

“I’m a very good doctor,” Simon told Jase, “and I’m going to make you feel better. But you need to be still. Don’t try to speak.”

Jase smiled. “She’s pretty,” he mumbled.

Simon sighed impatiently. Why would his patients never do as he told them? Clearly, it’d be better to leave the bandage for the moment and go straight for a sedative. While he prepared the syringe, he noticed that Ray moved toward the bed, looking at Jase intently.

The boy’s eyelids fell closed, but he kept talking. “She can fly.”

“Who you talkin’ `bout?” Ray asked.

Simon tried to deflect the question. “He’s delirious.”

Ray ignored Simon. He grabbed the boy’s jaw, turning his head as if trying to force him to wake up and pay attention. “I asked you who the hell you’re talkin’ about.”

Jase was too far gone to cower at the threatening tone. His smile remained dreamy. “Angel. Said Ma’s here.” He raised his good arm and laid it on his chest, index finger pointing down into himself. “In here. Never wen’ away.”

Ray’s eyes blazed, but he let go of Jase’s face and backed away. Simon took the chance to interrupt, stepping up to the bed.

“Please,” he told Ray. “If you want him to live, you need to let me work.”

Ray didn’t look at Simon, but he continued to retreat toward the hatch. Simon watched for a few seconds, surprised at how shaken the man seemed.

* * *

River leaned against the bulkhead next to the hatch, so near the infirmary that she could have leaned to the side and waved at Simon through the window. But she sank to the deck instead, hands over her ears.

She couldn’t ignore Ray; suddenly his thoughts were a scream. The things her eyes were seeing went grey, and she followed the wandering of his mind, felt the conflicted waves of emotion that poured out of him.

* * *

Ray didn’t argue with the doctor. He backed out of the infirmary, needing to put distance between himself and the boy whose existence had made his life hell for near seventeen years. He found himself wishing that captain had aimed better, that there’d been a quick end to Jase like there had with Hank, instead of it dragging on like this.

So much blood. Wasn’t like he’d never seen blood before, but this time it made his insides go to jelly. It was her boy, fading away right in front of him. There was a familiar feel to it, to watching death settle in and knowing that he couldn’t do a thing about it. The past ten years, seemed all he did was watch death move along, taking whoever and whatever it liked. Ray should have been used to it by now.

A wobbly voice carried out from the infirmary, faintly singing:

           Fŏng chuī laí di shā
           Luò zaì beī shāng de yăn lĭ

Ray clenched his fists, suddenly wanting to go back in there, to pull the little shit off the table and make him shut up. Pound on him till his face looked different and his mouth wouldn’t work so good.

But he only stood still, wavering. The rage shook him, but it didn’t take over like it usually did. It didn’t blind him. He stared into the infirmary; it was something about the doctor. The young man shamed Ray, made him step backward till he ran into a chair. Made him perch his butt on the arm of it and stay put.

The doctor worked without hesitation, hands moving fast and face focused like he knew exactly what to do and had no doubt about it working out right. I’m going to make you feel better, he’d said to Jase, like it was such a gorram easy thing to fix a broken person.

           Sheí doū kān chū wŏ zaì děng nĭ.

His hands fisted again. The little bastard was doing it on purpose. Jase knew he looked like her; he had to know that he sounded like her too. All the time, Ray felt like the boy was shoving it in his face. I’m the last bit of her you have, and I ain’t even yours. You couldn’t provide for her, couldn’t even give her a child.

           Fŏng chuī laí di shā
           Tuī jī zaì xīn lĭ.

Gorram, but he did sound like her. Lower voice now, but the tone, the lilt of the tune... Ray could picture her, leaning over the exam table like she’d leaned over a crib once. He could smell her too, smell that fancy water she’d brought from her homeworld to rinse out her hair when she bathed.

           Shì sheí yě cā bú qù di hén jī.

Jase’s voice trailed off to silence, but Ray didn’t notice. The memory of her scent made the anger pass through him, left him weak and empty, hands hanging loose beside him. Unbidden, the first time he’d seen her came into his mind. He hadn’t thought on it in years.

* * *

River tried to pull away. She felt a pressure coming from another direction, a heavy weight of dread that made her stomach ache, made her curl up on the deck and whimper. Something bad was happening to the Captain. Something very bad.

She wanted to get up. No good being hidden and safe, not while the Captain was feeling like that. She had to get to the bridge, help him. Didn’t matter who saw her, she had to make it stop...

But Ray’s memories were closer, and already had a hold on her. There wasn’t enough medicine in her head to make her numb to this. She was sucked down – the Captain’s pain faded away, and River lost herself completely inside Ray.

* * *

He must have been a sight, a skinny, awkward young man standing outside the landing dock in Alsvidh, wearing his best clothes and freshly polished boots. The marriage agency had provided a sign, and he held it up in front of him as he anxiously watched the folks coming out of the new arrivals office. She was one of the last, and she stopped in front of him to point at the sign, and told him that was her name. Then she smiled, and it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

He led her straight to the sheriff’s office, had the ceremony done right away, and then they took the long ride out to the homestead. Ray had been six months in building the house and getting it ready, trying to make the place worthy to be the home of his future wife. He didn’t think it was nice enough for her, but inside a week she set it to rights. She had a knack for that kind of thing, for making a home.

Six years passed in a blur. Six seasons of breaking in the fields, building a shed and a barn, buying the ox to help with the plowing. Six years the harvests came in and life was good.

Six years he shared his home and his bed with his wife, but never once in the whole six years did she get with child. He told himself it just wasn’t time, that all things come when they were meant to. Anyway, having his home and his wife was enough.

Then came that seventh autumn, when he took his usual trip to the city to trade for the winter’s supplies, and an early storm hit. Ray was stuck in Alsvidh for a week. A whole week she was alone, with Ray’s little brother Bucky living just a quarter hour walk away from her.

Ray saw how things were when he got back. He saw the looks, felt the change in how she acted, how she pulled away from him. He read the guilt in his little brother’s face.

Bucky, always the timid one, always afraid of doing wrong and never able to stand up to his big brother, ran off to the city. Said he was done with farming and wanted to help with their cousin’s livestock business, and maybe someday learn about machines and take up work with a cartel. But that wasn’t the real why of it; Ray knew better. He saw how his wife sighed and her eyes turned sad when she thought she was alone.

A couple weeks later, she told Ray there was a baby on the way.

Years passed, and he hoped and prayed to hear her say that again. But he knew in his heart that the only offspring he’d ever have wasn’t his. He might have accepted that, might have made do. He tried, even let Bucky play the part of uncle, so long as he kept his distance and didn’t upset the balance of things.

And then the land began to die.

One autumn night, Ray came in from the withering fields to find his brother visiting unannounced. Jase ran to his “uncle” for a hug, Jase’s mom smiled and raved about the supplies that Bucky brought, but Ray just stood quiet and watched.

He kept his peace through supper. After, he took Bucky outside. He told his little brother what he could do with his help. He told him to get back to the city and keep himself there for good. Then Ray went back in to the house, and before he knew it he was shouting at that gorram woman, telling her what he knew about Bucky, and what he knew about Jase.

Things were bad after that. They stayed bad right up till the morning, a year later, that she died. And then things got worse.

* * *

River started at a noise above her – the shuttle was back. She didn’t move; the lights were on now, and any motion would draw attention.

Kaylee stepped out of the shuttle first. Her eyes were red; fear and worry rolled off of her in thick waves, but she had it under control. Ginger came out behind her and followed along the catwalk, heading aft toward the engine room. The woman didn’t have any violence in her mind; she just wanted to get the ship fixed and move on. That was good. Kaylee wasn’t in danger.

Ginger and Kaylee left the cargo bay, and River realized she couldn’t feel the Captain anymore. No pain, no thoughts, no dreams. Just an emptiness. Like he was really far away, and not on the ship at all.

She didn’t know what to do; she was being pulled in too many directions and couldn’t get them straight. Helplessly, she fell into Ray’s thoughts again.

* * *

A week after she died, Ray beat the boy for singing. Punched him square in the face with a closed fist, like a man might hit another man in a brawl. Not like anyone oughta ever hit a kid.

The guilt nearly choked him. He backed off, then turned and fled from his own gorram house. A neighbor had a horse to lend, and Ray rode like hell to the city. He got there in just over a day, never doubting what he meant to do. Jase wasn’t his, and he didn’t want him. The boy was another man’s problem.

It didn’t take long to find the right place, and he pounded on the door. When it opened, his little brother was standing in front of him. Ray took a good long look at Bucky, really seeing him for the first time in years.

Times hadn’t been so bad in the city, at least not yet, and Bucky looked good. He had fancy clean clothes, probably from off-world. He’d filled out, and his face wasn’t all used up from working outside all the time. He looked a good ten years younger than Ray, though the real difference was only three. Bucky stood his full height, with his shoulders held back wide and strong.

For the first time, Ray realized that his brother was as tall as he was. He saw something else, too: his wimpy little brother was a success, was better than him. He wondered if his wife had known it a long time ago. Suddenly, Ray wanted to hurt Bucky. Wanted to hurt him bad.

“She’s dead,” Ray said, and he watched the pain spread across Bucky’s face. Ray wanted to see more of it. You stole my wife, he thought, I ain’t gonna let you have the boy too.

“Jase is dead too. Both of `em, gone.”

Bucky stepped back from the door, seeming to shrink as he slouched, his head and shoulders falling forward as his chest caved in. He looked like the weak little brother he was supposed to be. Ray felt powerful, the rush surged through him and he took a step forward, leaning over Bucky.

“If I ever see you again,” he said, “I’ll kill you.”

Then he turned and left.

When he got back home a day and half later, the rush was gone, buried under exhaustion and remorse. He looked once at the boy’s bruised face and then away. Won’t ever happen again, he promised himself. I can do it, I can bring him up better than anyone. Better than Bucky.

But the rage was relentless. Ray found himself doing it again and again over the years, getting lost in his spite and trying to beat away the accusations he saw in the boy’s face. The guilt still came, but he learned to shut it off. Learned how to smother it down where it wouldn’t interfere with what he needed to do. Eventually, he didn’t feel it anymore. He felt nothing but pains in his gut that came sometimes late at night, that made it impossible for him to sleep or eat.

* * *

The guilt rose in his chest now, guilt like he hadn’t felt in years. There was no time for it; there never was time for remorse. Only time for taking care of business.

It wasn’t easy, keeping a kid alive in this dead place, in a city with no law, where anything one needed for staying alive was scarce. Ray’d had to keep a house secure, worry over finding new clothes as Jase grew, keeping food around when often there was none to be had.

Malnourished, my ass, Ray thought, though in the back of his mind he was seeing the bare cupboards in their kitchen, picturing the barely passable grey sludge Jase fixed himself for dinner, hearing his own voice yelling about the money he had to spend on supplies.

I did what I could, he argued. I gave up plenty. He never took a break from his crappy life by getting drunk or strung out like other folks did. Ray would have been fine to let himself waste away on the streets, but he couldn’t leave her boy alone, not on this hard world. And he couldn’t admit to failure, couldn’t go find Bucky for help. Anything but that.

So Ray had worked, ever since he and Jase left the homestead, he’d done all he could. He hadn’t any know-how worth pay; the only way to earn his keep was with a gun. But Jase complicated that, too. Ray had to pass up on the best jobs, the riskiest ones that paid big, jobs that might have gotten him off of this planet, or at least made the living easier. There was a bundle of money to be made with the drug trade, but Ray wouldn’t go near that with her kid leaning on him. Instead, he had to kiss ass with the cartels just to get by.

He worked security when he could get it, and took to only petty crime on the side. But stealing this ship was too good a chance to pass by. It was the closest he’d ever got Jase to a firefight, and now there the boy lay, half bled to death, with some stranger getting set to stitch his torn body back together.

Ray looked into the infirmary again, trying to rein in the feelings that rose in him at the sight. He’d given up on remorse long ago, there was no point to it. He had to deal with the reality that faced him, moment to moment.

And here was the new reality: it might be for the best if the boy’d just die. Just leave him the hell alone.

* * *

Ginger watched the mechanic work, or, really, try to work. The pathetic thing was sitting on the deck next to a hammock; clenching her hands into fists to steady them. She’d been sniffling the whole flight up in the shuttle, and although she wasn’t all out crying, her eyes were red and puffy.

How could anyone work with such a sentimental chit? No wonder these people had their ship taken out from under them. Sniffling. That captain must have been hard up to hire such a girl. Or just hard.

“Hey, how’d you get work here?” Ginger asked.

The girl had sat down on the deck and was started to lean into an open panel, but she paused, looking up in surprise.

“I’m just wonderin’,” Ginger said. “How’d you get that captain to hire a puff like you?”

The girl’s brow furrowed up, and she answered hesitantly. “I… I fixed it. The engine. I fixed the engine. The reg couple.”

“You tellin’ me you don’t do nothin’ else for your Captain?”

The girl looked more confused.

“A little helmet shine now and then?”

She understood that, and she actually got angry. “No! Cap would never be like that!”

Ginger snorted. This girl was too gorram green. “All men are like that.”

“Not the Captain.”

The girl aggressively held Ginger’s stare for a few seconds, then seemed to realize what she was doing and returned her attention to the ship’s workings. But her face was like a window, and Ginger could see that she was still mad.

Ginger thought about it. She had to be tough as nails, both in the military and working out here in the wilds. She could have made use of stuff that other women did: wiles you could call them, if you were being nice. But Ginger wouldn’t stand for that. When she took a man, it was because she wanted his body. Wasn’t a thing else she’d have from him. Wasn’t a thing else a man had to offer that she couldn’t earn for herself.

After a while, the girl got up, saying something about needing to shut off the artificial grav system for a bit so she could replace the part, and wanting to warn everyone. Ginger let her talk over the comm, then braced herself in the hatch as the girl crawled into the panel.

Ginger heard a clang when the grav was shut off, and it might have sounded familiar if she’d thought about it more. But she was still busy considering this girl.

She must be real clever with the machines if someone would keep her on when she was no good in a fight and wasn’t handing out free passes to her bunk. Wasn’t any other reason a captain of a slummy ship like this would have a cute little gal on his crew, not as far as Ginger knew.

It was only a few minutes before a warning sounded, and the grav came back on. Ginger waited till the girl stood up.

“It ain’t gonna break again?” Ginger asked.

The girl just shook her head, her mouth pursed a little like she was still miffed.

“Good. Let’s get to the bridge. There’s a job needs doin’.”

They headed out. When they passed through the dining room, the preacher was still under the table, looking like he’d made a home of it. He called to the girl as they passed through the room.

“Kaylee?”

“Shepherd?” The girl paused to crouch and look under the table. “You all right?”

“Don’t you worry `bout him, missy,” Ginger said.

“I’m having a rather strange day,” the man replied, ignoring Ginger. He gave the girl an encouraging smile before Ginger pushed her along.

As they stepped into the fore corridor, Will came out of the bridge, walking with a spring in his step and a satisfied smile on his face. The girl stopped short when she saw him.

“Ginger, hon – you’re just in time!” Will said, then he looked at the girl. “And you must be Kaaay-lee.” He drew out the girl’s name, and his eyes wandered over her body. Not that Ginger was one to get jealous, but it did annoy her. Now certainly wasn’t the time for that.

“Sorry I didn’t get a chance to talk to you in town,” he told the girl. “I was a little busy. Making plans.” He flashed his most winning smile, which didn’t look so good since his nose had been broke and his mouth was a little bloody. But the girl didn’t notice. She didn’t even look at him.

“Where you goin’, Will?” Ginger asked.

“I have a little business to take care of. Nothing big – shouldn’t take long. You take this filly on up to the bridge and keep an eye on the captain.” Will’s smile widened. “Not that he needs it at the moment, but Ray might worry if he’s left alone.”

“Where is Ray?” Ginger asked as Will walked past her.

“Down in the infirmary, worrying about that stupid boy.”

He passed around the corner, starting a happy whistled tune that faded after him. Ginger never had figured her man’s moods. Seemed the oddest things could make him cheery, or turn him pissy as a cat in a rainstorm.

* * *

Kaylee understood how living on an out-of-the-way planet with nothing to do could make a person want to be someplace else.

Sometimes, she wondered what would have happened if Serenity had never stopped by her own home world. If she hadn’t seen the Firefly’s first mechanic, Bester, stepping off the ramp. Or if she hadn’t followed him to the saloon, wanting to get him talking about his ship and his life out in the Black. If he hadn’t been so cute, maybe she wouldn’t have taken up his offer for a tour of Serenity’s engine room, a tour that turned into something more, and then, when they were interrupted by the Captain, it turned into something much more.

Most of all, Kaylee wondered what would have happened if anyone but Malcolm Reynolds had been the man who found her being intimate with Bester. Another man might have thrown her right off the ship, machine smarts or no. An even worse kind of man, walking in when he did… well, she tried not to dwell on that. It made her face get warm, to think of the risk she took by following a pretty boy onto his ship, by sexing him up in a dark back room. Bad things might have happened, the kind of things she never even thought could happen to her until she met Jubal Early.

Point was, Kaylee understood how lucky she’d been to meet the Captain. Seeing some of the dead end parts of the `verse she had in the years since made her count the blessing more. It was easy to get stuck in a bad place with no way out, and natural talent don’t always count for much with the people who have it, not unless they get some luck on their side too.

Which is why Kaylee wasn’t so ready to hate these people who had taken Serenity. They lived on a tough world, and she couldn’t see that they’d ever had a good time of it. Like the boy in the parts shop. She thought back on his eyes, and how he’d seemed to be drawing back from her the whole time. She’d taken it as shyness, but now she wondered if he’d been scared.

And then she’d met Xiaojun, and heard her story. How she had such a beautiful life once, and then it all just died. Her husband and her land, gone, leaving her to wonder around her shop, alone, for endless years.

Niflheim sure was a hard place, and Kaylee couldn’t blame a person one bit for trying to get away. She could even see how they might take to extreme measures. Not that she’d do something like that herself, and she meant to stop them if she could, because Serenity was her home and she didn’t want to lose it, but she didn’t hate these people.

Not at first, anyway.

She’d been downright scared when Zoë told her how they’d threatened the Shepherd, but the more she’d thought about it, the more she was sure they were just bluffing. Just desperate to get away and find a better life.

She started feeling different when the woman Ginger talked about the Captain like he was some lecherous old hump. Taking a man’s ship in dire need was one thing, but there was no call to be talking mean about him, attacking his character like that.

But Ginger didn’t know, Kaylee told herself. She couldn’t know. Maybe she’d only met men who were mean, maybe she’d never been so lucky as to meet someone like Serenity’s Captain.

When Kaylee saw the Shepherd, his face haggard and dried blood on his neck, tied up under the table like he was just some old cur, she starting getting really mad. He’s a Shepherd! she thought. And when he gave her a brave smile, showing how his dignity and kindness couldn’t be beat down, it warmed her a little, but it also made a place deep inside her feel frozen solid.

And then she saw the man in black – Will was his name – and that’s when her idea of these people really changed. Will was smiling and having fun, just like he’d been when she’d seen him before, talking to the boy outside the parts shop in Alsvidh. Will wasn’t desperate; he was playing a game. It probably tickled him that he’d given her a flirty smile in town, at the same time that he was plotting to take away her home, hurt her crew, and do his best to ruin her life.

Kaylee didn’t say a word to him, didn’t even look at him after that first glimpse of his smiling face. She knew she was mad enough to say something really mean, and it wouldn’t help a thing to get herself in a fight she couldn’t win.

* * *

Kaylee let out a cry as soon as she stepped onto the bridge. The Captain was in the pilot’s seat, bound tight and not moving, his head hanging down over his chest. She ran forward and crouched next to him. He was gagged with a dirty bandanna, and his face was a mess of bruises. Kaylee looked at Ginger once, her eyes narrow, then back at Mal.

“Cap’n? Wake up!” she said, trying to push his head up, but he didn’t bat an eye. Kaylee felt her anger get all covered over with fear.

“Cap’n? Oh no…” she looked up at Ginger again. “What’d you do to him?”

The woman didn’t answer, just looked at Kaylee blankly. Kaylee moved around the back of the chair, started pulling at the tight knot of the bandanna.

“There’s no call to be doin’ this,” Kaylee muttered. “Never any excuse to be treatin’ a man like this…”

She finally got the gag off and looked at the Captain’s face again. He was so still – she couldn’t even see him breathing, like he was dead. A heavy sob escaped her, and she knelt down, put her ear to his chest and held her breath while she listened: a faint heartbeat, and, real slow and shallow, a breath taken in.

Kaylee sat back, momentarily weak with relief. She wished like hell Simon was here. Cap’n seemed barely alive to her, but maybe he wasn’t as bad off as he looked. Simon would know for sure. She started working on the knotted ropes, half expecting Ginger to stop her, but when she felt a tap on the shoulder and turned around, Ginger was holding a knife with the handle out.

“Don’t be gettin’ no ideas,” the woman said. “I still got a gun on you. Just get him loose, then put the knife down real nice.”

Kaylee hesitated, half afraid of a trick, then she took the knife. She only had to cut a few ropes, then she tossed the knife behind her without a care for where it landed. She pulled the bindings away, and had to scramble to catch the Captain as he slid out of the chair. He was heavy, completely limp, and she just managed to control his fall as he sprawled to the deck.

“Guess we’ll need the doc to wake him up again,” Ginger said impatiently, and started walking around Kaylee and the Captain so she could reach the comm.

“Again?” Kaylee asked. Deep on the inside, she felt her anger flare up and thought she must be turning red all over. She felt hot tears rolling down her cheeks. “Yāo guài! What’ve you been doin’ to him?”

Ginger stopped short of the comm and stared at the Captain; she seemed a mite uncomfortable “Look, girl, he was fine when I left. I didn’t have nothin’ to do with this.”

Kaylee looked at Mal, and though she was still mad as anything, her heart broke. The man who’d done so much for her, laying here helpless and maybe dying, on his own ship. She couldn’t hold back a sob.

“Please, get Simon,” she said. “The doctor – get him to help.”

She looked up, but Ginger didn’t activate the comm; she just stood and watched. “Kaylee, huh?” she asked.

Kaylee nodded.

“You’re all tore up `bout this.” The woman actually had the nerve to smile. “You still tellin’ me you and him ain’t bumpin’ uglies?”

“No!” Kaylee snapped, and her anger came out full force. “He’s the Captain!” She couldn’t remember ever being so mad. She’d never wanted to hurt a person before, but she did now. She thought about the weapon Xiaojun had given her, felt the little metal disk hidden in her shoe, laying against the sole of her foot, and she wondered just how much of a jolt it carried.

Ginger frowned. “So what?”

“Cap’n takes care a’ us.” Kaylee took Mal’s hand, held it tight. “He’s the best man there ever was.”

Mal might have heard her; suddenly he took a deep breath, his head tipping back and chest heaving like he’d just figured out how to work his lungs. Kaylee let go of his hand when he rolled away from her, laying on his side and coughing. She rubbed his back, hoping it’d help, and waited till he’d near caught his breath before she leaned over him. “Cap’n?”

He rolled to his back again, eyes slowly focusing on her.

“Li’l Kaylee?”

Yóu yú shàng dì!” she gasped.

He raised a hand to wipe at his mouth, like he was clearing a bad taste away. Then he asked in a thick, sleepy voice, “What’s goin’ on?”

“This lady here,” Kaylee glanced at Ginger with a nod, “she brought me up from planetside. I had to fix the grav. They said they’d hurt Shepherd Book if I didn’t.”

He followed her focus and studied Ginger. After a pause, he lifted a hand, snapped his fingers and pointed at her.

“Ginger?”

The woman looked like she thought he was making fun of her. She sneered. “Yeah.”

“Right.”

He tried to sit up, but didn’t make it. Kaylee caught him and lowered him onto his back real careful.

“Maybe you ought’a stay layin’ down for a bit, Cap’n.”

“Think so?” he asked, his eyelids heavy. “Yeah, could be... Need to fly the ship though. Idiots’ll crash it.” He forced his eyes open and looked out the windows. “When’d it get dark? We out’a atmo already?”

“Yeah, we’re in low orbit – ” Kaylee started, but he interrupted her.

“Right, right. Grav broke, I fixed it.” He tried to sit up again, with more success this time, then sat looking around the bridge.

“What is it?” Kaylee asked.

“I’m feelin’ a mite fuzzy.” He wiped his face, swiping hard at his mouth again. Then he looked at her, and Kaylee felt the intensity of his stare as he studied her face. “They hurt you?”

“No. No one’s touched me.”

“That’s good.” He had another look around the bridge, like he was searching for something, then he focused on Ginger. “I did fix the ship already, right?”

“Girl here had a new part, to fix it for good. And now it’s time to move on. Job to do.” She nodded to the pilot’s seat, motioning for him to get into it.

Kaylee saw that he didn’t get the hint. He just sat on the deck, still looking confused, then turned his head to the hatch leading to the rest of the ship. He stared like he was trying to see something happening off that way.

“You all right, Cap’n?” Kaylee asked.

“Yeah, I just… I think there was somethin’…” He looked up, stared at the comm, but there was no comprehension in his face.

“Whatever it is, it’ll wait,” Ginger said. Her gun wasn’t pointed right at them, but her message was clear. “Get to the helm, I’ll tell you where to go.”

He looked up at her again, then nodded and pulled himself into the pilot’s seat.

* * *

As the captain climbed into the chair, Ginger found herself wondering why he was so out of it. He’d seemed right chipper last time she saw him, when he was headed back to fix the ship’s artificial gravity. He’d been chock full of smart talk for Will and Ray; the man clearly didn’t have a lick of sense about self-preservation. But he’d ended up alone on the bridge with Will, gagged with what she recognized as Will’s bandanna. Wasn’t hard to work the rest out, and that explained why Will’d been looking so cheery.

Ginger shook her head. Her man really was a bastard sometimes. With an sense of foreboding and annoyance, she wondered what business he’d been so happy about going off to take care of.

She’d have to figure it out later. “Outer edge of the rings,” she told the captain, “middle of the night side. And keep clear of the cartel platforms.” She stayed toward the back of the bridge where she could see them both, but her attention was drawn to Kaylee. The girl had gone to sit in the co-pilot’s seat, where she was staring at Ginger with venom in her eyes, and, oddly, fiddling with her shoe.

* * *

Translations:

yāo guài: monster; devil yóu yú shàng dì thank God

Fŏng chuī laí di shā
                The sand that is blown by the wind
      Luò zaì beī shāng de yăn lĭ
                Falls into sad eyes.
      Sheí doū kān chū wŏ zaì děng nĭ.
                Everyone can see that I am waiting for you.
Fŏng chuī laí di shā
                The sand that is blown by the wind
      Tuī jī zaì xīn lĭ
                Piles up in the heart.
      Shì sheí yě cā bú qù di hén jī.
                Sand leaves marks that cannot be erased by anyone.

      from Kū shā (Crying Sand) by Tracy Huang

* * *

On to Chapter 15.

COMMENTS

Wednesday, June 21, 2006 5:12 AM

LEIASKY


So Kaylee hasn't seen Simon yet. I was hoping that'd happen in this chapter. Darn!

Will and Ray need to die in the slowest most painful manner possible.

Shepherd hasn't gotten out of his bonds yet? I figured he, of any of them, had some special ops training and being unsupervised, would have gotten out by now.

And River, that girl needs to screw her head on straight and get to helping!

Planet catalog numbers. hee. Sounds like how they categorize planets on Stargate :)

Wednesday, June 21, 2006 5:42 AM

AGENTROUKA


Question: did you get the comment I sent you for the last chapter? It disappeared here, and there's just no way to be sure with private messaging...
~~

Wonderful part!

The back and forth between Ray's memories and the here and now was perhaps not as clever as you usually make them (just seemed more deliberate than flowing straight from the story, but, you know, it's still great!) but the memories themselves were heartbreaking.

Ray is somehow exactly like I pictured him, a hard person, kind of helpless in the face of his world structure. It's good when things go according to plan and it's *bad* when they don't because somehow he can't break out of his own expectations. It hurts because it's so human and flawed and still beautiful because all that pain and anger stem from something that used to be beautiful. *sigh*

He reminds me of Mal, bizarrely enough. Mal is the same way when he expects to get hurt. He lashes out. Not quite as much, but the tendency is similar. Curious.

So, yeah. Ray is a delight to read.

So is Kaylee. I'm still waiting for the day where you hit a single from note with at least one character but.. nope. Spot on, the fear and helplessness, and the strength in spite of it. How she's growing braver and assessing everything in her own unique way, from the situation at hand to her own past. I loved it.

And Will slicing through it all with his intense creepiness and Mal, waking up... oh hell. I love that he's forgotten Inara's call because he would, getting tortured into passing out, and it's so scary because.. if Inara hadn't been able to help herself, Mal would be hating himself to pieces later for sitting on the bridge befuddled while she's getting hurt.

Can't wait to get back to her, in any case. Cannot, cannot, cannot wait for the next part!

~Agent Rouka~

Wednesday, June 21, 2006 8:31 AM

LEIASKY


So Kaylee hasn't seen Simon yet. I was hoping that'd happen in this chapter. Darn!

Will and Ray need to die in the slowest most painful manner possible.

Shepherd hasn't gotten out of his bonds yet? I figured he, of any of them, had some special ops training and being unsupervised, would have gotten out by now.

And River, that girl needs to screw her head on straight and get to helping!

Planet catalog numbers. hee. Sounds like how they categorize planets on Stargate :)

Friday, June 23, 2006 11:56 AM

AMDOBELL


Absolutely brilliant! Kaylee was wonderfully done and I can't wait for these awful people to get their come uppance. Am more than a little worried about Inara and can't wait for Zoe and Jayne to get help to reach Serenity. Very fine writing, Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Sunday, June 25, 2006 3:57 PM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


Ya know...I was kinda hoping Kaylee would do a seemingly OOC diatribe against Ginger for her comments about Mal and such, though I admired how ya had Kaylee think on her luck that it was Malcolm Reynolds (or Monty, I would presume, based on what little contact the crew had with him in the series) that was the person who walked in on Bester and Kaylee making whoopee in the Engine Room. Perfectly formed and totally hindsight-is-20/20:D

And River better be getting back into the game, cuz I am beginning to wonder if a bit of Academy training wouldn't be amiss;)

BEB

Tuesday, July 4, 2006 7:11 AM

TAYEATRA


Worried about River getting sucked into Ray's mind like that. Hope she gets herself together soon.

I'm eager to get back to Inara. Mal is going to be really concerned when he remembers about her.

Wednesday, July 5, 2006 7:30 AM

NOSADSEVEN


The site ate my comments, so I'll repost:

You have blown me away yet again.

Poor River, overwhelmed. Kaylee's genuinely kind spirit faced with such insults and assaults on her family. I just loved your Kaylee voice - cuts right to her essense. When she's undoing the gag, I swear I could hear her little "There's no call to be doin' this.../ Never any excuse..." line. And so heartbreaking as she's thinking about how much he means to her, only to find him in that condition. Eeep!

I love how throughout your story everyone's had their own things going on...it's so rich and textured and complex. And tied together so well. It has been just a joy to read. The character voices are consistantly spot on - just amazingly done.

Friday, July 14, 2006 6:35 AM

RIVERISMYGODDESS


Yay again for the science-y stuff, especially the computers changing from electrical to optical (which they need to do, ma shong! [I'm working on it, I swear])

The bits from Ray about him not being Jase's real father (I am pretty sure who it is) confirm suspicions I have had since the flashbacks of him being not welcome in the house.

Gawd, I want to slice and gut each one of them, well, maybe not Jase.


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