BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - DRAMA

NAUTICALGAL

The Legacy of Uncle Jack, Chapter 1
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

This is a pre-series piece -- both the frame story and the backstory are set before the series -- about how Wash, who really does seem to me like the upstanding citizen type, wound up flying for a band of thieves and criminals.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3284    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Zoe came onto the bridge, her step light and a smile playing around her lips. She started to say “Hello, husband” – not because there was any need for a greeting, really; just because she liked saying it. After all, it was something she’d never believed she would say. Husband. Such a strange word, to be tripping so lightly from her lips. Her lips. Zoe Alleyne, of all the unlikely people, had married. A pilot, no less. A man who barely knew which end of the gun was the dangerous end, and that mostly because he’d stared down the barrel of a few, not because he’d handled many. Such a strange choice, for her. But the ghost of a smile on her face offered a possible reason for it. Wash was the one who’d put it there. Sometimes the whole thing still amazed her.

She stopped, the words on the tip of her tongue, her smile vanishing when she saw him. Wash slouched in the pilot’s chair, frowning at the console. The slouch wasn’t so unusual, but the frown was, as was the fact that he didn’t seem to notice her approach.

“Wash?” she said, walking slowly toward him. She laid a hand on the back of his neck, and he looked up at her and smiled. Not his usual cheerful smile, but a wan and troubled one.

“Hey,” he said, and went back to frowning at the console.

“Something wrong?” Zoe asked, stepping around to lean against the console, so that she could face him.

Wash nodded, still frowning. “Did I ever tell you about my Uncle Jack?” he said.

“No.”

“He paid my way through flight school,” Wash said. “My folks never could have afforded that. Even if they had wanted me to go.”

Zoe knew about flight school, of course; Wash talked about it plenty. But he talked about his family only seldom. Funny anecdotes, mostly; the sort of silly growing-up stories any family spawned. The sort of stories Zoe hoped their children would one day create a steady supply of. When Zoe tried to talk to Wash about what his parents might be doing now, she met only a stone wall. All Wash would ever say was that he had no interest in going home. And Zoe had left it at that. She understood completely that some things were best walked away from.

“I was supposed to pay him back,” Wash said. “I never did. I still owe him. A lot.”

“Is he asking for his money now?” Zoe wondered, trying to account for Wash’s mood.

“No,” Wash said. “Guess he won’t be asking ever, now. Since he died. I just got the message from his wife.”

“Bao bei, I’m sorry,” Zoe said. She reached to take his hand, and he pulled her into his lap. She cradled his head against her chest.

“I’d like to go to his memorial service,” Wash said. “What do you suppose Mal would say?”

Zoe shook her head. “Won’t know ‘til we ask him.”

“Oh, I think I could make a fair guess,” Wash said unhappily.

“I’ll ask,” Zoe offered, her lips quirking in a mischevous smile. “He likes me better.”

Wash looked up at her and smiled – his usual smile, or closer to it, anyway. “I’d appreciate that,” he said, and kissed her.

Zoe kissed him back, glad to see him smiling, to feel his arms around her; glad to have a chance to do him a favor, however small. What a wonder, this thing. This marriage.

**

12 years earlier (2503)

“Hobie! Dinner!”

Wash sighed. The house was so small, the walls so thin, that even through his closed bedroom door and the din of his flight simulator, set on “demo” mode on the screen behind him, he heard his mother clearly. He read through the letter he was holding one more time before he refolded it and tucked it into his shirt. Then he turned off the flight simulator – his parents didn’t know it had a demo mode; when they heard the roar of engines, they assumed he was playing. So he never left it on when he was out of his room, lest they catch on. He walked across the hall and ran the water in the bathroom, washing his hands in the most cursory fashion he could manage, then came crashing down the stairs. He jumped the last four, caught the cannonball at the bottom of the banister one-handed and swung in a clockwise arc into the dining room.

Perfect landing.

Wash grinned.

His parents and his sister, already seated at the supper table, frowned at him.

“Hobie. Sit down,” his mother said with a sigh.

“Don’t tear . . . the house apart . . . son,” his dad wheezed. “Can’t . . . afford to . . . fix it.”

“Yessir,” Wash dropped into his seat. His mother spooned him out a helping from her pan: a chili-type mixture of government-issue protein, government-issue noodles, and sauce made from a Tasty Mixins dry mix and tap water. The protein would be tough, the noodles would be mushy and the sauce would be gritty, but Wash knew better than to complain. If he said anything, he’d only be reminded how thankful he ought to be to have anything at all to eat. There were people starving on Ita, or somewhere, who’d be thrilled wild to have Wash’s meager bowl of tough protein and gritty sauce. Wash frankly hated those people, and wished they would go on and starve right to death so that his mother couldn’t beat him over the head with their misery anymore.

Wash’s father said a very brief prayer, and Wash picked up his spoon.

“Talked to the foreman . . . at the factory,” his father said. Wash didn’t have to ask which factory. His father had worked for twenty years at the Tasty Mixins processing plant, making powdered foods like the chili sauce in Wash’s bowl, until his lungs were ruined and he’d gone on total disability a couple of years before. Now his dad, not yet forty years old, got around mostly in a wheelchair, and was never without his oxygen tank and cannula; never spent a night away from the nebulizer that helped him breathe. “Lots of kids . . . try to get on . . . after graduation . . . but he said . . . he’d look . . . for your application . . . get it on top . . . of the stack.”

Oh, good, Wash thought. My very own personal death sentence! A gift from my folks! But he said, “Actually, dad, I was thinking I might continue my education.”

His father nodded, and looked significantly at Wash’s mother. “Cici.”

“We knew you wanted to do that, Hobie,” she said. “So your father looked into it, and there’s a new program. You work three-quarter time, and the company pays your tuition at the tech college until you finish your trade certificate. The foreman said with your grades, you would be sure to qualify. And once you get your trade certificate, you can start working toward a supervisor job,” she smiled.

Wash felt ill at the prospect. He put down his spoon, which had never made it as far as his bowl. “You know what I meant,” he said, staring into his chili. “You know perfectly well that I meant I’m going to flight school.”

There was silence around the table, while the food cooled and Wash stared with dismay into the future his parents seemed to wish upon him with such devotion: twenty years at Tasty Mixins, until the chemicals and the smog ruined his lungs and put him in a wheelchair, with an oxygen tank, living on disability payments and government handouts and preaching to his own kids about not taking charity -- until they had no choice.

“Son,” his father said into the silence. “Can’t afford that. You know it.”

“And even if we could,” his mother said placatingly, “you don’t really know what the entrance requirements are like, or if you could meet them. Hobie, dear, I wouldn’t want you to get your hopes up only to have them dashed. I’d hate to see your heart just break that way.”

My heart is breaking now, Wash thought. Can’t you see it? He looked up at his mother. “Mom. I know exactly what the entrance requirements are. I got my medical certificate, and I passed the math exams.” He reached inside his shirt and pulled out the letter. “I already got accepted to the interstellar program on Yangtze Station, off Sihnon.” He opened the letter and held it so that his parents could see, but was careful to keep it out of their reach. It didn’t fit with their plans for him, after all; if they got their hands on it they’d tear it up, toss it in the trash, maybe, or flush it down the toilet. Try to make it not exist anymore. He folded it back up again, and tucked it away. “They said my math scores were in the top one percent of applicants.”

“When?” his father demanded. His voice was too weak to convey anger, but his eyes were smoldering.

“Last summer, when you all went to Cookville so Dad could see that specialist,” Wash said. He knew he was dropping a bombshell. He didn’t care. His father was physically incapable of stopping him; for that matter, his mother was, too. And their attempt at a guilt trip wasn’t going to work. “I hitchhiked to Magellan and saw the Alliance physician there to get my medical certificate. I took the math exam at the community college there. They have a flight school -- atmospheric craft only. The tests are good for any flight school, though. Then I hitched home again.”

His father’s face slowly changed color, from its usual pallor to a dark, beet red. His mother put her face in her hands. “Oh, Hobie,” she moaned. “Hitchhiking! You could have been killed! Suppose some murderer had just –“

“Some murderer didn’t, Mom,” Wash said angrily. “I’m sitting right here, in case you needed any proof. I took the exams, I passed them, I got accepted into the best damn interstellar flight school in the ‘verse, and don’t tell me we can’t afford it either, because Uncle Jack already said he’d pay for it, and I am going to go.” Wash was on his feet now, his own face hot, his voice raised – a mortal sin in this house, to be louder than his father.

Wash’s father put both hands on the arms of his wheelchair, and pushed himself to his feet.

“Norris, don’t,” his mother pleaded.

But Wash’s father placed his fists on the table and leaned forward until he was right in his son’s face. He was breathing hard, and the blood had drained from his cheeks and forehead. Streams of perspiration ran from his hairline down the sides of his pallid face. “You . . . will . . . not . . . take . . . that . . . man’s . . . filthy . . . money!”

“Why not?” Wash said quietly. “You do.”

“That’s different, Hobie, and you know it!” Cici sobbed. “Your uncle Jack pays for your father’s medicine and his treatments!”

“Oh, I see,” Wash said, rounding on her. “It’s only okay to take Uncle Jack’s money after I have nothing to live for. But while I’m still young and healthy and might be able to do something with my life besides let some Alliance factory exploit me until they kill me, then it’s wrong! Thanks for clearing that up!”

“You’re still . . . a minor,” Norris wheezed. He was trembling all over.

“With my diploma, Yangtze Station will take me at seventeen, and I don’t need you to sign a thing,” Wash said.

His father lunged for him. Wash sidestepped easily. Norris collapsed across the table and rolled onto the floor, dragging his wheelchair and oxygen tank sideways, where they pinned his legs.

His wife rushed to his side. She tried to help him, but he was struggling and wheezing, and she was weeping, so she only tangled him more. “Oh, Hobie, help him!” she pleaded

Wash stood over her, shaking his head. “No. He won’t help himself, and I won’t help him anymore. You do it.” He walked out of the dining room, and went upstairs, where he threw some clothes and personal items into his duffel bag and cinched it shut.

When he came back downstairs, his father was sitting in his wheelchair at the table, gasping, while Cici tried with trembling hands to set up her husband’s nebulizer.

Wash was so intent on his parents that he ran right into his sister, who stood between him and the front door. He stopped, looking down at her.

“You’re such a jerk,” she said. “Look what you did.”

“Et tu, Deenie?” he asked. “What exactly do you think I did? Did I pollute the skies on this world so that half the people who live here can’t breathe? Did I bribe the government inspectors to look the other way while they poisoned my father with the chemicals that destroyed his lungs? Did I do that? No, you know, I don’t think I did. So then why is everybody mad at me? Are you just not smart enough to see who the real enemy is? Or is it just that I’m an easier target, because you think you can win with me, and you can’t win with them?”

His mother was wailing. His sister stared belligerently up at him. His father was still struggling to breathe.

“Well,” Wash said. “Guess what. You can’t win with me, either.” He pushed past his sister, and walked out the door.

**

Magellan, where there were Alliance physicians credentialed to examine prospective pilots and a college that could administer the requisite placement tests, was a hundred and fifty miles away from Wash’s hometown. A long distance to hitchhike, but not an impossible one. Unfortunately, the nearest city from which he could get a flight off-planet was a whole lot farther than that – Cookville was four hundred miles as the crow flew, on the other side of a large inland lake. Utterly impossible, with nothing but a few changes of clothes and a toothbrush. Wash wasn’t going to get that far without help.

He walked down the street in the afternoon dusk – the smog was bad today – toward the public library, where he hoped he could get a Cortex connection. Sometimes it went down. For days at a time. But today he was in luck, at least in this: the Cortex came right up. He keyed in the code for his uncle, and waited for the operator screen.

How will you be paying for this call? it asked him.

“Collect, from Wash,” he said, and the screen altered to read Please wait patiently.

A moment later, his uncle’s face appeared. “Wash! Hey! How’s my favorite nephew?”

His uncle was at work; Wash could see the oak desk, the shelves of books behind it, and the head of the life-size T. Rex who always watched his uncle’s back. Wash loved that T. Rex. He’d never seen it up close, but it fascinated him; supposedly his uncle had a collection of life-size dinosaur statues that moved, and scared the starch out of people when they came into his offices the first time. Wash loved that his uncle had a slightly offbeat hobby. It just seemed so much healthier than the way his parents lived, dwelling forever inside their own misery and powerlessness. “You say that to all your nephews,” Wash replied, but he said it with a smile.

Uncle Jack laughed. Wash’s mother was Jack’s only sibling; Wash was his only nephew. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Wash pulled his letter out of his shirt and held it up. “Yangtze Station, off Sihnon,” he said. “I can start next term. I just have to get there.”

His uncle whistled. “Yangtze Station! Best interstellar flight school in the ‘verse! You know, they train on real ships there, not just sims. Pretty impressive! Tell you what, I’ll have a ship in Magellan in . . . six weeks. You can catch a ride with them, get off when they stop someplace where you can get a flight to Sihnon. I’ll buy your ticket, so don’t worry about that.”

Wash grimaced. Six more weeks with his folks. Assuming they’d let him back in the house. Maybe he could go ahead and hitch to Magellan, find some sort of temporary work and housing. Only . . . if he couldn’t, and he was picked up for vagrancy . . . as his father had pointed out, he was still a minor. They’d ship him straight back to his parents, who might not be above locking him in the basement until long past next term. And there was something in the flight school entrance requirements about not having a criminal record . . . would vagrancy count? “Ah . . . great, thanks. Six weeks. I’ll be there,” he said. Somehow. He’d just have to make it work.

His uncle frowned. “And in the meantime, of course, you’ll be at home?”

Wash sighed. “If they’ll let me back in, I guess.”

Jack nodded. “Aha. They didn’t take the news too well, then.”

“You could say so. If you were being real, real generous.”

Jack turned away from the screen, punching a keypad. “Okay,” he said. “How do you feel about spending your break as an intern with me?”

“Yeah? Really?” It was better than Wash could have dreamed, and even though he hadn’t been angling for any such thing, he felt suddenly guilty. “I mean . . . you don’t have to do that. I’ll manage, I will. I’ll tell my folks I changed my mind, or something, and just . . . just go work at Tasty Mixins for a month or so . . .” Thinking of even a month in that rathole made him sick to his stomach.

His uncle turned back to the screen and looked him in the eye. “Wash. Flight school’s expensive, you know that. And I know you mean to pay me back once you get out, because you’re just that kind of kid. Might as well get a head start, right? Don’t worry, I’ll work you hard enough you won’t have time to feel guil—I mean, homesick.” Jack grinned. “Listen. I can get you a train ticket to Cookville, and a flight offworld, but probably the train won’t leave until tomorrow. You got a place to stay tonight?”

“I’ll manage,” Wash said. He’d slept in the open for several nights in a row while hitching to and from Magellan; one night in his own hometown shouldn’t be unmanageable. He could hang out in the grocery until they closed at midnight, and that just left a few hours curled up somewhere out of the way.

But Jack sighed and shook his head. “You got a cash card? What’s the number? I’ll put enough money on it for a room for tonight. Please tell me there is a hotel in that hole of a town where you can go?”

“There’s a couple, out near the factories,” Wash confirmed, and fished out his card so that he could read off the number.

“All right. Your train leaves tomorrow morning at,” Jack checked a different display, “nine twenty-six a.m. Your flight from Cookville Interplanetary leaves on Thursday at . . . twelve forty. There’s enough on the card to keep you fed and housed until you get here, which ought to be next Tuesday, so I’ll see you then. And I’ll call your folks once you’ve left Cookville, and let them know you’re safe. It’ll be too late for them to stop you by then.”

“I can’t thank you enough,” Wash stammered, pocketing his cash card.

“Here’s the thing you understand that your parents never will,” Jack replied. “I like using my money to take care of the people I care about.”

It’s not the money, Wash thought, it’s where it comes from. But he smiled and said, “I’ll see you next week, then.” The screen blanked. Wash sat staring at it, and wondered if hotels really rented rooms to minors.

COMMENTS

Tuesday, October 31, 2006 2:39 PM

REGINAROADIE


I'm surprised no one has commented yet. This is a really interesting story you have in mind. I never really thought about Wash's backstory, although I always thought he be from a very loving family.

Keep it up. You got me interested.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006 5:29 PM

SHINYTRINKET


This is a very, very interesting story, and I'm looking forward to the continuation! You've set Wash's history up very plausibly, and it is very well written. Keep up the good work!

Thursday, November 2, 2006 12:51 PM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


Wow...that was powerful stuff, nauticalgal! Definitely could see Uncle Jack being a major influence on Wash's life, cuz Wash always struck me as someone who would give ya the shirt off his back cuz he likes taking care of his loved ones;)

Gotta wonder though what Jack does that causes Mr. & Mrs. Washburne to despise charity from Jack in the first place...

BEB

Tuesday, June 12, 2007 8:00 AM

HERMITSREST


Read this after seeing the quote appear in Blue Sun room. Really liked this back story and I am moving on to Ch 2.


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