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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Maya. Post-BDM. Serenity's in need of a spare part, and there's only one place to go, but Mal would rather kill than go there. Part I of II
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 951 RATING: 0 SERIES: FIREFLY
Shadow’s Graveyard - Part I
The shuttle’s course was erratic over the yellow landscape, rising and tumbling as if the person at the controls was having trouble maintaining any kind of coherent flight plan. It skimmed low, just avoiding a clump of dead trees, pulling up at the last second to turn its nose to the sky and climb, the metal frame screaming in protest.
Suddenly there was a flash at the rear of the small craft, and the engines cut out. For just a second it appeared that the pilot would be able to glide the shuttle to the ground, but – as its designer had been fond of saying – a Firefly’s shuttle had the manoeuvrability of a flying brick when in atmo and not under its own power. It started to dive, spinning as it went, air whining past the fuselage until it smashed belly down into the ground, throwing dust and debris into the air. It split like an egg.
Nothing happened for a long moment as the detritus came under gravity‘s impulse again, then someone climbed unsteadily out of the gash in the bulkhead. The figure staggered forwards, stumbling, trying to get as far away as possible before …
The shuttle blew, the explosion ripping it apart, curling the metal back on itself and hurling burning fragments high into the sky. The shockwave reached the lurching figure, caught like a puppet and tossed to the ground to lie still and broken as bits of shuttle rained down …
“This is hard,” Mal said, staring at the screen.
“I know.” His wife looked back, the image grainy since they were at the limit of visual range, even with the state of the art Cortex link at the Lazarus end. “Me too.”
He’d tried to get back, to see her, hold her, but for once there was more than enough work, and with a growing family Mal knew he had to save as much money as he could. It meant that he hadn’t been able to park Serenity and visit his wife, and even if he had they both knew it would be very painful leaving her again, saying goodbye … again … They knew they couldn’t do it. So he took the jobs. Got paid. Kept flying.
“So how’s Ethan?” he asked, trying to keep it light. “Getting over that cold?”
“He’s much better than yesterday. Inara took him outside and let him help her with weeding River’s garden this morning. It’s amazing how much is growing now the snow’s gone.”
“He didn’t get chilled, did he?”
“He was so bundled up he could hardly walk.” She laughed, and the sound made him smile. “If he’d fallen over he’d never’ve been able to get up by himself.”
“But he had a good time?”
“Inara said he was very enthusiastic.”
“More’n I am. River’s got me weeding too.”
“But do you know the difference between a plant and a weed?”
“Nope. But I'm learning.”
“Then Ethan takes after his father. According to Inara he pulled up the flower shoots too.”
“Don’t think I’ll tell River that. It’s bad enough she’s moping around like a wet weekend on Regina. Following me everywhere like a raincloud.”
“You certainly have a way with words.”
“More’n just words.”
They paused, just staring at each other, feeling the ache inside that they couldn’t touch, couldn’t hold.
“How about my girl in there?” Mal finally asked, pointing towards about where Freya’s belly would be.
She glanced down. “Making her Momma sick.”
“You’re throwing up again?” Instantly he leaned forward, concerned.
“Only a little. And Mrs Boden has been very kind, making sure there’s crackers by the bed every night.”
“You want to speak to Simon?”
“Mal, I'm fine. This is normal. Remember what I was like with Ethan.”
“And that scared me half to death,” he admitted.
Again there was a pause.
“Wish I could rub your back for you.”
“My back wishes you could too.”
There was a further pause as they both imagined …
Mal spoke quickly. “How is Inara? Talking any more since yesterday?”
“Actually, yes. I think being outside with Ethan made her more relaxed. We had a long chat over tea.”
“She break anything?”
“That was one time, Mal.”
“A whole dinner service.”
“Not all of it. I think there were a couple of plates left intact.”
“I miss you,” Mal said suddenly. “So much.”
“Mal, I miss you too.”
At first they’d tried watching as they touched themselves, but the climaxes they produced only made Freya cry, and left him more knotted up than ever, and after a few days they stopped. Now the need was more palpable, but almost bearable.
“You gotta come home soon. It’s been nearly six weeks already …”
“I will. Inara’s … opening up more. Soon, Mal.”
“Well, if it’s more’n a fortnight I'm coming for you one way or the other.”
“I wish you would.”
He reached out and touched the cold plexi, and she did the same. “Got us a job this morning, by the way. We’re … we’re heading towards Lilac, and Hank says we won’t be back in visual range for about ten days.”
“Ten days,” she echoed, sounding so unhappy he almost ran to the com there and then and ordered his pilot to turn his boat around.
“Good gig, though. Lots of coin. Almost legal.”
“Almost.” She wiped at her nose with her other hand.
“Hell, you know me, Frey. Law-abiding to a fault.”
This time she smiled a little. “Of course you are.”
The image on the screen was becoming worse, and he moved forward, as if being closer would make it clearer.
“We’re moving out of range, bao-bei.”
She nodded. “I know.”
He so needed to touch her lips, feel her skin warm under his hands, kiss the tattoo from the nape of her neck to the swell of her hips. “Tell Jayne to be good, and I’ll talk to you when I can. Soon as we’re back in visual, I’ll wave.”
“See that you do.”
“And give Ethan my love.”
“I will. He misses you.”
“And I miss him.” Her face blurred as the image wobbled. “Frey –“
“I love –“ she tried to say quickly, but then there was only static.
Mal leaned his forehead on the screen, trying to calm the blood that was pounding through his veins.
“Sorry, Mal,” came Hank’s voice over the com. “That’s it.”
He crossed his bunk. “Yeah, figured that. Thanks for … you know.”
“If anyone needs me … well, just tell ‘em to talk to Zoe.”
“Sure thing, Mal.”
Mal heard the faint click as the com closed, and looked around his cabin. So much of her was here, and not just the scent in the bedclothes that he now lay down on, picking up Ethan’s toy rabbit and setting in on the pillow next to him as he waited for the ache to subside enough to function.
“Mama okay?” Ethan asked, looking up from the collection of small wooden animals he was organising by colour and size. Jayne had been busy carving, just to while away the time.
Freya pulled the door of the nursery half closed and sat down next to him. “Mama’s okay.”
“Talking to Daddy.” He picked up a camel. “Makes Mama sad.”
She smoothed his hair, which had a tendency to go into a cowlick at the top of his crown. “A bit. It’s because Daddy isn’t here, and Mama misses him.”
“Ethan misses Daddy too,” he said, turning his blue eyes on her.
Freya felt her heart skip a beat. He was going to look so like Mal it was uncanny. “I know you do.”
The little boy put down the camel, placing it very carefully back in the row, then shuffled over so that he was sitting between her knees. He patted her belly, growing ever bigger. “Sister.”
“That’s right. Your little baby sister.”
“It’ll be a while.”
“Another four months, round about.”
He nodded, as if he understood exactly. “Four munfs.”
“Months. Yes. Then you’ll get to meet her.”
Ethan put his head on one side, then leaned down. “Hello,” he said to the bump.
Freya couldn’t help smiling. “I think she said hello back.”
“I'm Ethan.” He patted his sister again, then grinned up at his mother.
It took an effort not to burst into tears. Mal was missing so much, and now his son had used a pronoun, properly, in the right way … “That’s right,” she managed to say. “And you’re going to look after her, aren’t you?”
He shrugged, and this time she had to smile. “’Spose.” His eyes strayed back to his zoo. “Uncle Jayne making more?” he asked.
“Running out of animals, squirt,” Jayne said from the doorway. He held out a carved animal. “Got this one done, though.”
Ethan smiled so widely he nearly choked. Scrambling to his feet he ran to the big man, taking the toy. “Uncle Jayne?” He looked up in query.
“It’s an elephant.”
“Close enough. Only don’t ask how I managed the trunk, ‘cause that’s about the third go.” He watched the little boy go back to his row of toys and squat down, then looked at Freya. “You okay?”
“Only you look kinda pale.”
“Talking to Mal. Before they got out of range.”
Jayne nodded. “Yeah, me too. To River, I mean.” He sat down gingerly on the small bed. “She said Mal ain't been sleeping too good.”
“Really?” Freya looked surprised. “He didn’t tell me that.”
“Don’t want to worry ya, I guess.”
“And you do?”
“Thought you’d be able to tell he ain’t, on account of you being a mind reading genius like moonbrain.” He twinkled a little.
“One, I'm not a genius.” She ticked off her points on her fingers. “Two, I try not to read minds if I can help it. And three, he’s too far away for me to do it anyway.”
“So you can’t figure what he’s thinking?”
“Always figured you could.”
“Well, we’ve not really been that far apart to find out.” She lifted her knees so that she could rest her wrists on them. “Truth is, I can feel him, know he’s there, but it’s like –”
“Trying to swim through cotton candy?”
She was impressed by his metaphor. “Exactly that.”
“’S’what River says sometimes. And I think she’s feeling the same. Not being here with me, ‘n’ all.” He looked down at his big hands. “When’re they coming back? Pick us up?”
“Soon. God, Jayne, I hope soon.” She watched him scratch the side of his head where the scar was just a thin line in amongst the hair growing back. Simon had shaved as little as possible, but it had been an eerie sight. Now, though, there was a line of white hair amid the dark. “Stop that,” she said mildly.
He looked at his hand, then realised what he’d been doing. “Kinda got into the habit,” he said sheepishly. He brushed the short hair flatter. “Kinda distinguished, ain't it?”
“River won’t be able to keep her hands off you.”
He laughed. “She don’t now.” Settling back he looked at her. “You know, Mal ain't the only one not sleeping well. You got bags under your eyes.”
“Well, if I don’t tell ya, nobody else is gonna.”
“I thought you were scared of me?”
“Nah. Least, not with the squirt here. You ain't likely to kill me in front of him.”
“Mama kill Uncle Jayne?” Ethan asked, his eyes wide.
“Not yet, Ethan,” his mother assured him. “Not yet.”
“Cap, we need a new therm regulator.” Kaylee was standing in the doorway of the dining area, wiping her hands on a piece of cloth already impregnated with oil.
Mal looked up at her from the accounts books. “I’ll take it under advisement, mei-mei.” He smiled and turned his head back to the figures, noting with satisfaction that more than usual seemed to be on the right side of the line.
“No, Cap’n.” She stepped down to the floor. “I said we need one. Like, now. Otherwise we’ll be dead in the water in four days.”
He lifted his face and stared at her. “You’re telling me something important on my ship is about to go, and you didn’t tell me sooner? Two weeks ago and we were picking up parts left, right and centre for you –”
“Things go wrong all the time, Cap’n. The purifier, then the catalyzer was playing up –“ She caught the slightly hunted look on his face. “Although that’s fine now. But you fix one thing and something else goes. And, truth is, I didn’t know.” She sat down next to him, the faint smell of engine filling his nostrils. “The regulator quit today. No sign of it failing, just quit. I can coax her along, but … we ain't got a choice. Need a new one.”
“Well, there ain't one. Not within least a week of here. And we got that job on Lilac –”
“Then we’re stuck.”
He stared at her. “You saying you can’t make it last a week?”
“Nope. I don’t replace it in four days the engine seizes up, and then there’ll be nothing we can do. Serenity’ll be dead.”
“Kaylee, you’re scaring me.”
“Not trying to, Cap’n. Just telling the truth.” Truth was, she was terrified, but she was determined not to show it. “Must be somewhere we can go, find the part.”
“Is it expensive?”
“Not hardly. Just a little thing, but Serenity won’t go without it.”
“Then why can’t you –“
“’Cause I don’t have the workshop and I don’t have the tools.” She gazed into his blue eyes, trying to make him see. “There ain't no choice here, Cap’n.”
Mal didn’t respond, just sat back in his chair.
Zoe stared at her captain. “Sir, there must be an alternative.”
“Can you think of one? We’re pretty much alone out here. Even the inhabited moons within distance of us ain't that advanced.” He tapped the star charts he’d laid out on the dining table. “You think they’re likely to have one of those therm regulators?”
“I'm not saying that, sir, but –“
“And we do visit one of ‘em, and they ain't. We’ll be stuck.”
“Can’t Kaylee rig something? Even just to get us to somewhere she could –“
“I asked. She said no.”
“But to go there, sir …”
“You think I want to?” His blue eyes flashed hard at her. “You think this is the place I wanna be right now?”
“I didn’t say that, sir –“
“Right now I’d rather be back on Lazarus, holding my wife. But if we don’t get this part it’s gonna be a helluva long time before I see her again.”
Zoe didn’t speak for a long time. Then … “I’ll give Hank the co-ordinates for Amnesty.”
”Amnesty?” Hank shook his head. “Never heard of it.”
“It’s out beyond Muir,” Zoe said softly.
“On the Rim?”
“But I thought I knew all the places like that.”
“It’s … not exactly mentioned too much in the travel brochures,” Mal said, stepping onto the bridge, his normal persona back in place. “Too cold and with no leisure facilities to speak of.”
“Then why are we going?”
“Hank, it’s a place I don’t wanna be. But if little Kaylee says we need that part, then this is the only option.”
“Not so’s you’d notice.”
“Then how’re we gonna get this mechanical piece?”
“Just … you get us there, best speed Kaylee’ll let you do. Let me worry about the rest of it.”
“Well, it’s only a day from here.” He started inputting the co-ordinates. “We really that deep in the cao?”
“Think Kaylee can keep her together long enough?”
“You wanna ask her?”
“Then just get us heading to Amnesty.”
“I still don’t know why I ain't heard of it.”
“Death,” River murmured from the back of the bridge.
“More near it, albatross,” Mal said, heading back towards the galley.
“Death?” Hank glanced from River to Zoe, his face uncertain. “Why am I not liking the sound of that?”
“Pain. Loss.” The young psychic shook her head. “I can’t …” She ran down the steps after Mal.
“Whose?” Hank called after her, but she didn’t answer.
“She’s missing Jayne,” Zoe said.
“Yeah, but does that mean she has to creep the rest of us out?” He turned Serenity onto her new heading. “So. Amnesty. Sounds like a fun place.”
“It’s a graveyard of ships. More than a thousand, if you believe the rumours,” Zoe explained softly.
He almost gave himself whiplash in spinning in his seat so fast to stare at her. Then he laughed. “Okay, now I know you’re pulling my leg. How come I ain't heard these rumours? A thousand ships. Pilot like me, I’d’ve known if –”
“Wash did. We talked about it once, but … Hank, no-one goes near this place. And those that do come back with stories full of ghosts. That is, those that come back at all.”
“Ghosts?” His good humour had abruptly vanished again. “Why are we going, again?”
Freya woke up, shivering, sweat on her forehead and around her back. Her dream had been tumbled, falling, smashing to the yellow ground as she dragged her body out of the dark and into the light, even as flames licked at her back …
For an age she tried to clear the thoughts from her head, knowing that if she went back to sleep straight away she’d just live it again.
“Mama?” Ethan stood in the doorway, his little body shaking.
She held out her arms and he ran to her, clambering up onto the bed so she could hold him tightly.
“It’s just a dream, Ethan,” she said, stroking his head on her chest.
“I know, baby. But it was only a dream.” She laid down again and pulled the covers back over both of them, calming her own heartbeat in an effort to calm his. “I’m here. It was just a dream.”
“Just a dream,” he echoed, but held on to her nevertheless.
She began to hum, a lullaby she remembered Mal singing once, and eventually Ethan’s grip eased and he slid into sleep. She couldn’t. Wouldn’t. She looked down at her baby, his dark hair mussed, and prayed he’d grow out of this. She couldn’t bear the thought of what might happen to him if this wasn’t just an occasional flash, if he was psychic too.
God, she needed Mal.
“Mal, we’re coming up on Amnesty,” Hank said into the com, but wasn’t terribly surprised when the man himself spoke at his elbow.
“Kinda saw that, Hank.”
“Can we put a bell on you?” the pilot asked, hooking the handset back up. “I mean, just so’s I don’t go round making a fool of myself too often.”
“No, don’t think that’s possible,” Mal said, staring out of the window at the yellow planet getting bigger in the window. “And the bell ain’t likely either.”
“Well, can’t fault a feller for asking.” He corrected their trajectory a little, turning Serenity’s belly to the planet. “So, where do I land?”
Mal shook his head. “Not rightly sure.”
“Then how do you -”
“We’ll know it when we see it.”
“Only it looks like we might have problems if wherever the hell we’re going is on the other side of the planet.”
“She’s in geosynch - keeping the same side to the sun all the time. The other side is in permanent night, and pretty cold, too. Well below freezing.”
“We’ll just have to hope for the best.”
Hank’s call had brought the others to the bridge, and they now all stood waiting.
“How come I ain’t never heard of Amnesty, Cap’n?” Kaylee asked, looking tired and harassed from having spent the last twenty-four hours keeping her girl together. Simon put his arm around her, squeezing gently, and she flashed him a grateful smile.
“Exactly what I asked,” Hank said, feeling the atmo beginning to make the Firefly buck as the hull temperature increased. Flames became visible at the edges of the window, growing in intensity as they dropped lower. The ship rattled.
“That ain’t important,” Mal said, leaning on the back of the pilot’s chair, “You just get us into atmo in one piece.” Serenity lurched and he glanced at Kaylee. “She is … gonna stay in one piece?”
“Course she is.” The rattling got louder. “Might be a tad bumpy, though, seeing as I had to adjust the entry couplings to take the pressure off the -”
“Kaylee, I just wanted to know if we’re gonna crash.”
“No, sir, Cap’n. Not today.” She smiled at him, then hurried out back towards her engine room.
“Good,” he called as the flames died out, and the sky outside turned blue. “Good.”
Hank eased Serenity’s nose down, keeping her high but allowing them a good view of the land below. “And I ask again, exactly where am I going? ‘Cause this ain’t exactly a small place to be searching.”
“Sir.” Zoe pointed ahead towards something on the horizon. “Do you think …”
“Might be.” Mal nodded. “Head that way.”
“Yes sir,” Hank said, turning the Firefly in that direction, coming up on the area fast. “Tzao gao,” he murmured.
It looked like a huge scar in the landscape, as if a meteor had plunged and gouged its way into oblivion, reaching into the cusp of the darkside.
Except the rumours were right - it was a graveyard, but not of people. Down on the yellow earth, ribs pointing skywards through busted skin, lay hundreds of ships, some barely recognisable as more than hunks of rust.
Mal held his breath.
“That’s …” Hank couldn’t speak.
“Were they … did people die down there?” Simon asked.
“A fair number, doctor,” Zoe said, her face betraying nothing of her inner turmoil. Except to those who knew her.
“What was it? Some kind of battle?”
“A massacre, doc,” Mal finally said. “The Alliance ambushed and killed them.”
“There’s no proof it was the Alliance, sir,” Zoe said quietly.
“It was during the war, and there ain't a one vessel down there fought on the winning side!” Mal said savagely. “You don’t think that’s proof enough?”
“No sir, I don’t.”
“They’re not military vessels,” River said, stepping silently onto the bridge. “Transports, cargo ships, passenger haulers … not military.”
“No, mei-mei, they ain’t.” Mal calmed a little. “This was all that survived from one place. All the people who got away before they scorched the continent.”
“Scorched?” Simon looked sharply at Serenity’s captain. “You mean …”
“My home,” Mal confirmed. “Shadow.”
There was a long silence as they all digested that little piece of information.
Then Hank shifted in the pilot’s seat. “There’s … Mal, there’s a Firefly down there.” He pointed. “In fact, more’n one.”
“Not surprised. There were more than a few made, and they’re good ships, so it stands to reason there might be.”
“Is that what you were hoping for?”
“Not particularly. But I dare say Kaylee‘ll be pleased.” He studied the terrain. “Well, it’s too tight to land, so we’d better set down somewhere a mite more hospitable and walk in.” He glanced around at Simon. “Better go check we don’t need inocs or anything. Don’t really feel like catching anything today.”
The young doctor tore himself away from the view. “Of course,” he said, hurrying down the stairs and collecting River on his way. “Come and help me, mei-mei,” he said softly.
“Such loss,” she murmured, her voice drifting back to them.
“What if there isn’t one?” Hank asked suddenly. “I mean, a therm regulator. Or if that one’s bust too?”
“Hank, can we deal with that when and if we get to it?” Mal turned to head off the bridge but his pilot hadn’t finished.
“Only I'm beginning to think we’d have been better off putting into one of the other moons. Even if they didn’t have the part, at least there’d be people. Some chance of –“
“Kind of a moot point, now,” Mal said, trying to maintain his calm. “Shoulda said something before.”
“I tried. Remember?”
“Just get us the hell down. Even if the damn regulator ain't quite right, I’m sure Kaylee can make it work ‘til we get some place more civilised, okay?”
“Okay.” He didn’t sound convinced, and still worried at it like a dog with a bone. “If you’re sure …”
Mal was suddenly at his ear. “Hank, land my gorram ship or I will lock you in the hold. And lose the key.”
“See. Only had to ask nicely …” the pilot muttered, setting Serenity towards an open area of land as he heard Mal stomp off the bridge.
“You like living dangerously,” Zoe said quietly.
“Danger’s my middle name,” Hank agreed. “Actually my middle name’s a secret, and no amount of torture could make me …” He stared out of the window as he brought Serenity in to land, facing in towards the mass of derelict ships. If anything it was more impressive from down here on the ground. Some of the remains seemed to tower maybe two hundred feet into the air. He swallowed. “So you … you haven’t been here before?”
Zoe shook her head. “Nor’s Mal. But we heard about it, in the camp. What had happened. I think that was the moment Mal gave up the hope that his mother might have survived.”
“Why didn’t she leave? I mean, Harry and Vinnie … their families must have.”
“Soon as it looked like Shadow might be in the middle of something. But Mrs Reynolds wouldn’t go, least from what they’ve said. Turned around and told them, in no uncertain terms, that she wasn't leaving her home, her land. No matter what they did.”
“But it was only the one continent got hit. I mean, we’ve been there. That Maddy person came from … surely his Ma could have been persuaded to at least move -”
“You ever tried to make Mal do what he don’t want to? And his Ma was from the same stock. He went to war because of that stubborn streak.“
“I guess,” Hank said unhappily.
“’Sides, from what he’s said, and it ain’t been much, that continent was the most populated. Had the best land, good water … the rest of the planet wasn’t much more than scrub. Pretty much like this.” She sighed. “It’s how come they all tried to leave. Even if they’d wanted to stay, with the Alliance breathing down their necks, there was no place for them to go.”
“And did she …”
“Ever wondered how come Mal could afford to buy this ship?”
Hank blinked at the apparent non-sequitur. “Um, well, yeah, once in a while.”
“Compensation. The great Alliance was seen to be merciful, and they paid out on all the ranches and homesteads that got burned. To any that actually claimed. Mal wasn't going to, but Freya persuaded him.”
“Screw them for every penny?”
“Pretty much. Enough to buy Serenity.”
“I'm figuring it wasn't what the ranch was worth.”
“No. Nowhere near. But enough.” She looked out at the destruction ranged in front of them. “He didn’t have a home to go back to, so he made his own.”
“I always wondered why he bought a Firefly.”
Zoe smiled slightly. “Oh, that wasn’t the only reason.”
He waited for her to elaborate. “You ain’t gonna tell me, are you?”
“Nope.” She patted his shoulder affectionately then walked in her stately fashion off the bridge.
“You know I’m gonna try and make you tell me, don’t you?” he called after her.
“That’ll be fun too.”
“The atmosphere is breathable,” Simon noted. “Pretty chilly, but it doesn’t appear to ever warm up that much. We’ll be needing those coats.”
“You’re staying put, doc,” Mal said. “Someone has to look after the ship, and you’ve been nominated.”
“Does this mean I get a bigger share of the pot?” the young man deadpanned, completing the inoc against the higher than usual radiation in the atmosphere.
“Don’t push it.” He pulled his shirt sleeve back down. “’Sides, Hank’s staying too, and so‘s your sis.”
“Then why can’t I -”
“I don’t want no-one setting foot on this rock that doesn’t have to. We ain’t here to sightsee. Kaylee has to go because she knows the part we need, and I’m taking Zoe as back-up. Everyone else stays on board.”
“This place really has given you the jitters.”
“Just want to be gone soon as we can.” He picked up his brown leather coat and strode out.
Simon watched him leave. It had been a long time since he’d seen the captain so wound up, tighter than a watch spring, and only a small percentage of that could be laid at Freya’s door. No. This place was affecting him more than he cared to admit, and it gave the young doctor a very bad feeling.
“All set?” Mal asked, heading out of the common area into the cargo bay.
“Yes sir,” Zoe replied, making sure her Mare’s Leg was firmly attached to her thigh.
Kaylee nodded. “All ready.” She seemed enthusiastic. “You know, there might be more stuff out there that we can salvage,” she said. “If’n someone else ain’t got to it first.”
“You just look for that therm regulator. That’s all we need right now,” Mal said firmly.
“Yeah, but things go wrong sometimes, and if I had a full set of spares -”
“Where ’d you put them, Kaylee?” Zoe asked, seeing Mal’s temper beginning to wear thin. “Your store is full to bursting as it is.”
“Always make room for some good stuff,” the young mechanic said airily. “And it ain’t that often I get to roam around another Firefly. Could be something there that’s even better than something we got. Then I’d be able to replace it and still have a spare in case of emergencies. ‘Sides, might be able to sell anything we find, and that‘d be -”
“Kaylee.” Mal cut across her chatter. “Therm regulator. That’s it. No poking into other things.”
She looked at him, the hurt on her face evident. “Sure thing, Cap’n,” she said, her voice much quieter.
Instantly Mal felt guilty, but he couldn’t apologise. Not yet. Later. “Okay, then. Let’s get to moving.” He pulled on his gloves and pressed the button to open the cargo bay doors, letting the air of Amnesty inside.
Landscape swirling crazily outside the window.
Ground coming up awful fast.
Noise seeming to go on forever, metal dying, screaming, screeching, tearing itself apart.
Have to get out.
Have to get out NOW.
Scrambling through the hull, blood wiped away from eyes.
Run faster, don’t stagger.
Someone … something pushing, noise filling the air, lifting, tossing …
Is this what they feel like all the time?
Ground coming up awful fast. Again.
Merciful Buddha, make me a stone …
Mal led the way out into Amnesty’s chill air, biting into his skin through his coat.
“How come it’s so cold?” Kaylee asked, wrapping her arms up inside her poncho and looking towards the sun sitting low on the horizon. “I mean, if this side faces the same way all the time, shouldn’t it be warmer than this?”
“We’re too far from the sun, mei-mei,” Zoe explained. “And from what I saw of the scans as Hank brought us in to land, there’s very little geo-thermal activity.”
“Ah.” Kaylee understood. With the distance from any external source of heat, and no local volcanic or thermic activity, they were lucky it wasn’t a whole lot worse. “Just glad this ain’t in the dark side, then.”
“Yeah. Me too.” Zoe glanced over her shoulder towards Serenity, and saw Hank and Simon standing on the ramp.
Something howled in the distance, maybe just the wind, but Mal’s hand automatically went towards his gun as he searched the surrounding landscape. Nothing moved.
“Okay, let’s just get this done and get back, okay?” he said, relaxing not a millimetre.
“Yes sir,” Zoe said.
They walked quickly towards the derelicts, the exercise at least creating some warmth in their bodies. This, however, was soon leached away as they stepped into the shadows, where broken walls loomed over them and the temperature dropped even further.
Kaylee shivered. “Well, ain’t this pretty,” she said, chattering to keep her spirits up from where they’d plummeted into her boots. “Ain’t never been around so many different ships that I can recall. Leastways, none that didn’t actually work.”
“Kaylee -” Zoe began, but Mal shook his head slightly. Let her talk, he was saying. Better than the silence.
“What?” The young mechanic hadn’t seen the look pass between them.
“I … was just wondering … how you can tell these ever flew,” Zoe asked lamely, but the young woman didn’t seem to notice.
“Well, that’s a Trans U,” Kaylee said, pointing to a distinctive shape rising up into the sky. “The curve of the bow section tells you that.”
“And that there’s a Hyperion.” She chuckled. “Have to say, I ain’t never seen one of them in the sky. Don’t look like I ever will, either.”
“Not a good ship?”
“They were okay. Just they had a tendency to lose bits when coming into or out of atmo.”
“Like primary buffer panels?”
The chuckle lengthened. “Like that. Only more important.”
“Anything falling off my ship is important,” Mal put in absently, feeling fragments of metal crunching grittily under his boots as he led the way deeper into the graveyard.
“Oh, not saying it ain’t, Cap’n. But I try not to let it happen. Too much.”
“See that you don’t.”
Kaylee suddenly darted forward, and he reached out a hand to stop her, but she had bent forward and picked something up. “Ooh, a Jefferson bolt!”
“I ain’t seen one of these in a month of Sundays, not since a Tyrell put in to Phoros and needed some repair.” She looked up sadly at the twisted hull of the vessel next to her. “Guess they don’t make them like they used to, either.”
“Is it useful?” Zoe asked. “Can we use it?”
“Nope,” Kaylee admitted. She held it up. “But it’s awful pretty.”
Zoe looked at it, and even Mal took a glance. It looked like a bolt to him, but the end seemed to resemble some kind of flower.
“Yeah, very sweet,” he said. “Can we get on?”
Kaylee wrinkled her nose at him, but tucked the bolt into her pocket.
“I thought you said it wasn’t useful,” Zoe pointed out.
“Yeah, but maybe I can make it into something else.”
Zoe shook her head. “You start doing that and you won’t be able to walk by the time we get back to Serenity.”
“Which is going to be an age, if we don’t get moving,” Mal said impatiently.
“Okay, okay, Cap’n,” Kaylee said. “Keep your shirt on.”
“My shirt is fine where it is,” Mal said firmly, walking off again.
“Didn’t say it wasn’t.” Kaylee grinned at Zoe, who realised the young woman knew exactly what she was doing.
“Creepy, ain’t it?” Hank said, staring at the struts and supports reaching up to touch the sky a few hundred yards away.
Simon nodded. “Just the thought of all those people … there must have been thousands.”
“I’m kinda surprised there’s so much left,” Hank went on. “I mean, if the Alliance did blow this lot out of the sky, you’d’a thought there’d only be so much scrap left, let alone being able to recognise individual ships like you can.”
“Zoe didn’t think it necessarily was the Alliance.”
“Who else? The Independents? Firing on their own people?” Hank shook his head. “Better not go suggesting that when the Cap can hear.”
“Maybe there was … an accident of some kind. One ship blew, took out the next, and so on. It might happen,” Simon insisted, seeing the look of disbelief on the other man’s face.
“It might. If they were flying so close you could step from one hull to the next. And any pilot worth his salt would never do that.”
“Maybe they weren’t as good as you.”
“True. There ain’t that many like me around.”
“I’d say thank God, only you’d probably take it the wrong way.”
“Oh, more’n likely.” He blew on his hands, rubbing them together.
“Shouldn’t we close the doors?” Simon asked.
“Why? We all got inocked. Even the kids.”
“I didn’t mean that. I meant to keep the heat in.”
“I suppose.” Hank seemed reluctant though. “I just …”
“Need to be ready,” River said, ghosting up behind them.
“Ready? Ready for what?” Simon asked, turning to his sister.
“I’m not sure.” She shook her head. “I can’t think straight here.”
Simon stared at her. “What’s the problem?” He glanced back towards the dead ships. “Is it Kaylee?”
“I don’t know.” She shook her head again, as if trying to clear some blockage somewhere. “I … there’s too much … too much metal, too many thoughts … screams …”
Her brother took her into his arms, feeling her tense against him. “Mei-mei, if there’s going to be trouble -”
She pulled back. “I don’t know. I can’t tell past from present from future. Tumbling …” She closed her eyes, her face screwing up around them. When she opened them again it was the more normal River looking back, but her words still didn’t help. “I don’t know, Simon. It’s as if I’m drowning, and I can’t hear the words.”
“What about Bethie?”
“She’s with Ben.“
“I didn’t mean that. I meant -“
“She feels … it’s the same for her.” River stared at him for a moment. “I can’t …” She backed up then ran for the crew quarters.
Simon wanted to follow, but wasn’t sure what good he could do. Not for the first time, and entirely against his better nature, he wished Jayne were here. So instead he turned to the pilot. “Hank, can you contact them?”
The pilot shook his head too. “River’s right, at least in that respect. Too much metal, and there’s that residual radiation from the different ships’ cores … we’ll never get a signal through.” He put his hand on the young man’s arm, and squeezed. “Come on, doc. This is your sis we’re talking about. Remember when she started issuing dire warnings four weeks ago about lots of blood during that job on Beylix? Turned out that all Mal got was a couple of splinters and a paper cut.”
Simon nodded. “I know. It’s just …”
By the time they’d almost reached the Firefly Kaylee’s pockets were already bulging.
“What’re you gonna do with all that crap?” Mal finally asked, just a hint of exasperation in his voice.
“It ain’t crap!” Kaylee said indignantly. “It’s … useful.”
“Really.” Mal plucked the latest piece of flotsam from her fingers and waved it in front of her face. “You explain to me, in words of one syllable, how this is useful.”
She snatched it back. “It looks like a bird.”
He stared at her. “So that makes it useful … how, exactly?”
His mechanic looked just a little shame-faced. “’Cause I’m gonna make it into something.”
“What?” She mumbled. “What?” he demanded.
“A mobile,” she said more clearly. “To hang over Hope’s crib. You know, all shiny and pretty.”
“I wouldn’t bother, Kaylee,” Zoe advised. “It’s too feminine for the captain to understand.”
“I know what a mobile is!” Mal countered. “I ain’t that much of a … a philistine.”
“A who?” Kaylee asked, darting forwards again. Then she stopped. “Oh.”
“What is it?” Mal asked, his hand close to his gun as he looked down at what she’d seen. “Kaylee …”
“I guess … s’pose I shoulda …” She swallowed, gazing at the broken doll, missing one leg and lying face down in the debris. “Someone’s … mebbe their favourite.”
Mal put his arm around her shoulders. “C’mon, mei-mei. It’s just a doll. There’s prob’ly worse around here if we look too hard.”
She nodded. “It’s just … it brings it home.” She felt Mal stiffen, and she turned to stare into his eyes, her face pink with mortification. “Oh, Cap’n, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean -”
He squeezed gently. “It’s okay. It’s just ships. Ain’t nothing more.” He smiled a little. “We got things to do, dong mah?”
“Shr ah,” she agreed, blinking hurriedly. She stood up straighter. “’N’ I can see the Firefly over there.”
“That’s my girl,” he said softly.
River sat in the shuttle, Vera in pieces on the bed in front of her, trying to concentrate. With her eyes closed, she reassembled the Callahan, but her mind was elsewhere.
Something was wrong. She couldn’t tell what, or where. It was like … like trying to load Betsy wearing mittens. Every time she grabbed hold of it, the knowledge skittered away, flying to the four corners of the ‘verse, forcing her to reach out to gather the pieces again.
Something on this planet was affecting her. Something natural, or something distinctly artificial, whatever it was made her fuzzy, like Jayne after too many beers.
She looked down at the gun, fully assembled and ready to play. Except she wasn’t sure how effective Vera would be against ghosts.
Standing up, she walked to the shuttle’s small bridge, sliding into the seat and running her fingers over the controls, planning the start-up sequence in her mind. Just to be ready.
“Can you see what she was called, sir?” Zoe asked, looking up at the bow of the Firefly. The entire belly of the vessel had been blown out, but whether from the landing or from whatever caused her to crash was unclear. She’d ended up with her nose high, while her tail had dug into the ground.
“Ain’t too … kinda faded,” Mal admitted, squinting slightly from where the angle of the sun was hitting the name plate. “Looks like … maybe Solitude.”
“Seems almost appropriate, doesn’t it?”
“Might not be reading it right, though. Could say Sex Goddess.”
Zoe smiled. “I think we’ll stick with Solitude,” she suggested.
“Happen you’re right,” Mal agreed. “Can’t say I want anyone to be asking where I got that part from, and having to say I boarded the Sex Goddess to get it.”
“I’m sure Freya would forgive you.”
“Wouldn’t want to swear -”
A scream inside the Firefly had them both drawing their guns and running inside through the broken hull.
“Kaylee!” Mal bellowed.
“Up here, Cap’n,” came a shaky voice. “I’m … I’m okay.”
“Then what’re you yelling like you’ve seen a whole passel of dead folks for?” he demanded, climbing the rusty stairs three at a time and ignoring the squeals of protest from the corroded metal.
“Guess it’s ‘cause I have,” Kaylee said shakily, standing in the doorway to the dining area, her back to it.
Mal looked over her shoulder. With the floor at such an angle, everything remotely not nailed down had been flung to the far end of the room, and a large table, very like theirs, blocked the exit at the far end. Chairs were locked together in a tangle of rigor, tied up with cables and fragments of conduits. But what had made Kaylee scream the way she did was in the small seating area.
Four bodies, held in place by safety harnesses, and all frozen in the very act of dying.
“Zoe,” Mal said softly, and he and his first mate walked carefully down the canted floor to the corpses.
“How come they’re still pretty much in one piece?” she asked, keeping her voice low so as not to alarm Kaylee any more than she had been.
“I guess there ain’t that much moisture around.” He leaned forward, but the smell of decay was very faint. “Conjure they’re mummified.”
“Crew or passengers?”
“Never know.” He felt a sadness almost overwhelm him. “But they didn’t deserve this.”
From the clothes, at least one of them was a woman, and the shine of a ring on her left hand indicated she had been married. Probably to the man on her right, since the bones of her other hand were entangled forever with his. Or maybe they were just friends. Hell, could have been mortal enemies, but in those last seconds before the Firefly spilled its guts on this rock maybe she just needed to touch someone.
“No, sir, they didn’t.”
“You think they all died on impact?”
Zoe shrugged. “Better to think they did, I’m figuring.”
“Yeah.” He felt a shiver run up his spine. Better by far to think it was quick, rather than having crashed and not been killed outright, and so badly injured that all you could do was just wait for dehydration or starvation to kill you … like other valleys and other times …
He looked at her, his strong right arm, his friend through thick and thin … and even she didn’t really know what he was thinking at this moment. How they could be family … He stood upright. “Yeah. Let’s get this stuff moved so Kaylee can get to the engine room.”
She nodded, and between them they lifted the tangle of furniture away, building a wall between the bodies and the room.
“Kaylee,” Zoe finally called.
“I don’t know if I can …” The young mechanic was leaning with her back to the bulkhead.
Mal climbed the floor to her. “Come on, mei-mei. I’ve seen you dispatch Reavers. A few old bones ain’t gonna stop you.”
“It’s just … this is a Firefly, Mal.”
He understood. Even more so since she used his name, something that was so rare he always thought he should put it in his diary. If’n he kept one. “I know. Makes it worse. But you’ve got a job to do.” He put on a smile for her. “Best mechanic floatin’.”
Her lips twitched. “That I am.” She took a deep breath and dragged a torch from one of her many pockets.
He led her through the room, keeping himself between her and the barricade, just in case she saw something she shouldn’t, then he handed her over to Zoe.
“Are we …” He nodded towards the engine room, just visible in the darkness.
“All clear,” she said quietly.
She’d checked, made sure there were no other unwelcome surprises. Quite how Kaylee’d take to seeing this ship’s mechanic in pieces he wasn’t entirely sure. “Then better get that part.”
“On my way, Cap’n.” She fairly scampered through the corridor, the torch light bouncing.
“Keep an eye on her, Zo,” Mal said softly. “I’m just gonna go check the bridge.”
“Is that a good idea, sir?”
“Prob’ly not.” He grinned a little. “But since when have I been known for following through on my good ideas?”
“As long as I didn’t have to say it.” She nodded and followed Kaylee.
Mal pulled himself up the corridor, climbing the almost vertical steps onto what felt like home ground. Approaching the pilot’s seat, he steeled himself for what he knew was going to be there.
He’d gone down with his ship. Staring forever out of the window, into a sky that would never see the stars, he was pinned into his seat by the control yoke, pressing into his chest. Not that he could have got very far, even if that hadn’t happened. Just a swift glance down the body gave Mal the information that both the man’s legs had broken, probably compound fractures at that. Maybe he thought he’d managed to glide the Firefly down, landed her well enough that his crew, his family could get out, could survive where he hadn’t, maybe even help him. Mal prayed he hadn’t lived long enough to realise no-one was coming.
One hand was still touching the yoke where it had smashed his ribs, but the other was laid on the controls, proprietorially, affectionately … Mal almost expected to see dinosaurs ranged across the console, but instead there was just dust blown in through the shattered window.
He’d never met this man. He’d died before Mal had ever known what it was to captain a Firefly, yet there was a kinship that could never be broken. Standing as straight as he could, Mal saluted.
“Sir.” Zoe’s voice, quietly reaching out to him in this moment of contemplation. “We’re ready to head back.”
Mal gave one more glance to the eyeless, ancient face, then turned his back. “Kaylee got the part?”
“She says it’s better’n the one we’re throwing away.”
“Since that particular one don’t actually work, I’m trying to figure out if that’s a good thing.”
“It’s almost brand new, Cap’n!” Kaylee said brightly, having gotten over her scare. “Should last us a good few years.”
“It had better. ‘Cause I ain’t coming back here again. Not in this lifetime.” He joined them by the stairs. “Come on. Before the whole place collapses.”
“Aye aye, Cap’n, sir!”
Half sentences strung out in the ether.
Familiar voices that bite and sting as much as other wounds.
Gaps that don’t fill.
“Can’t you wake … up?”
“If I wake … ready I could cause … damage.”
“I don’t care!”
“I do. … a doctor.”
“And … wife. Let alone …”
“Just let … work.”
“Then wake … up!”
“Any idea what’s taking them so long?” Simon asked, dropping into the co-pilot’s seat.
Hank turned and smiled at him. “Knowing Kaylee, she’s probably annoyed the hell out of Mal by wanting to pick up more trinkets.”
Simon nodded. “Sometimes I think she loves engines more than me.”
“Not that much more, doc.”
The young man shot Hank a disgusted look, but it just rolled off him. “Anyway, I thought she understood this place was getting to Mal,” he said finally.
“Yeah, but this is Kaylee we’re talking about. Ever cheerful, ain’t gonna let anything get her down …” Hank laughed. “Sure as hell ain't gonna let Mal stay in the doldrums for that long.”
“Still, he was more than normally uptight.”
“Not surprising, though, is it?” Hank waved a hand towards the scene in front of them. “Likely some of his kin died out there. Not sure I’d want to be walking through it, knowing that.”
“Then that’s all the more reason why they should be hurrying.”
“Place got to you too?” the pilot asked, surprised.
“It’s just … River talking the way she was, and when I looked in on Bethany she was in a state too. I think it’s only being given charge of Ben that’s keeping her from hiding in the infirmary again.”
“Mal said there were no inhabitants. Something about this planet not being good enough even for the most foolhardy settler. And the radiation … hell, you’d have to be crazy to hang around here.”
“I know. It just … doesn’t help.”
Glancing at the shipboard chronometer, Hank stirred uneasily in his seat. “You know, it has been a while. Maybe …” He shook his head, trying to dislodge the warning bells ringing. “Nah. I mean, Zoe’s there with him. Between the two of ‘em, there ain't much they can’t handle.”
“I just wish the coms worked,” Simon said.
“Yeah, that does …” Hank stood up. “Look, I know they’re gonna shout at me, but I'm gonna go take a look.”
“Hank, I don’t –“
“Just a look. Don’t worry, I ain't going in on foot. I’ll take the shuttle. I can get pretty low, and I know which Firefly they were headed for. Shouldn’t take me more’n a few minutes to find ‘em.”
“Mal will be pissed.”
“Like I care.” Hank ran his hands through his untidy brown hair. “That’s my fiancé out there, doc.”
“Then I’ll come with you. My wife, too.”
“Nope. Like I said, only be a few minutes, so you stay back and guard the fort. If it looks like there’s trouble, send up a flare.”
“Hank, the com isn’t working.”
“Then get out onto the hull and wave something.” He grinned, but it wasn't his usual. “Just a few minutes, Simon.”
River felt the other shuttle take off, and for a moment her mind was clear. He wasn't going to find them. They weren’t there. Gone. Her eyes narrowed as she tried to see where, but the fog closed in again. It was just a case of waiting …
“I told you -”
He peeled his eyelids open, then wished he hadn’t. It was too bright, and the pain didn’t go when he closed them again.
“Ask him.” Hank’s voice, with more anger than he had ever heard.
“No. Just stand back.”
“Then I’ll gorram ask!”
“What? No. I ain’t going, not until I know -”
“Then shut up.”
“Can’t you all just shut up?” Mal asked. “And turn the lights down.”
Someone adjusted the setting and he was able to open his eyes again without daggers being driven through them.
“Mal, can you hear me?”
“Doc.” Mal licked his lips. “I hear you. Can’t help but hear you. You’re shouting.”
“I’m not,” the young doctor said, but lowered his tone nevertheless. “Do you know where you are?”
Mal tried to lift his head but the pain almost made him pass out. “Ga ni niang,” he muttered.
“Well, his cussing muscles ain’t affected,” Hank muttered in the background.
“Don’t try and move, Mal. You probably have concussion, and it looks like a hairline fracture, as well as some other –.”
“What happened? Was there a … did we get ambushed or something?”
“Doc …” Hank sounded agitated.
“You don’t remember?” Simon’s voice was at once soothing as well as anxious.
“Remember what?” Mal slowly moved his head until he could see the blob that was probably the young doctor. He tried to focus. “What the hell happened?”
“That’s what we want to know,” Hank put in.
“Mal, what’s the last thing you remember?” Simon asked, his features slowly becoming clearer.
He screwed up his forehead, trying to think. “Leaving Serenity,” he realised. “Setting down on …” He looked up sharply, ignoring the pain lancing through his skull. “We still on Amnesty?”
“Yes. But you said leaving Serenity. When? To do what?”
“We were going to find that part Kaylee wanted.” His eyes narrowed. “You know this. You were watching us. You saw us go.”
“Mal, that was nearly fourteen hours ago.”
“What?” He tried to sit up, but the pain was now so bad he turned onto his side and vomited onto the floor.
“I told you not to move.” Simon helped him lie back down. “Definitely concussion.”
Mal could taste the acid in his mouth. “What the hell are you talking about? Fourteen hours?”
“You walked out of here a more than half a day ago, Mal, going to that Firefly. We -”
Hank couldn’t hold it back any longer. “Where’s Zoe, Mal?”
“Where’s Zoe? She left with you.”
“I know that.” He tried to look down towards the common area without moving his head, but from what he could see there was no sign of his first mate. “Where is she?”
“That’s what I’m asking.” Hank was getting more and more perturbed.
Mal felt as if the entire infirmary were spinning around. “I don’t understand.”
“Then I’ll make it real simple for you,” the pilot said, pushing Simon out of the way so Mal could see him clearly. “Fourteen hours ago you walked out of here, taking Zoe and Kaylee with you. An hour ago we picked you up near the wreckage of a shuttle. So I’m asking you again. Where’s Zoe?”
“And Kaylee,” Simon added quietly.
“Where’s my wife?”
River hurried to the bridge. No time to ask permission now, even though he was awake. Argue later. She tilted her head as she started the sequence. Not that they were waiting.
“Just be a few minutes, Cap’n.”
Mal jerked, hearing her voice.
“There’s such a lot of good stuff here. Surprised no-one’s ever come here before, considering. Could make something of a small fortune out of the parts.”
“I ain’t looking to start a scrapyard, Kaylee.”
His own, trying to be firm with her.
“Then just let me go back. For a while. An hour, tops. Might be something really worthwhile.” She pulled out the big guns. “Might be a catalyzer worth the salvaging.”
“Mal? What is it?” Simon leaned over him.
“That ain’t fair, little Kaylee. And I didn’t think you’d be wanting to go back in there.”
“Not there, maybe. But there’s that other Firefly. It wasn’t too far.”
“Kaylee, we came for the regulator. We’ve got the regulator. If you think I’m gonna -”
The voices stopped as Mal felt his boat rock as she powered up.
Hank looked up towards where the bridge was. “What the –”
Simon realised, quicker than any of them. “River.”
The pilot was out of the door and running up the stairs, but even he wasn’t quick enough. They felt Serenity take off, the slight push of extra gravity before the artificial variety compensated.
“River, we talked about this …” Hank shouted, turning the last corner and pounding along the corridor. He leaped up the stairs, expecting to see the window turning black, with the tiny diamonds of stars hanging in the velvet … except it was black, but there were no stars.
There was a sigh as the Firefly settled back onto the ground.
“River, where the hell are we?” Hank asked quietly, almost not wanting to hear the answer.
“Safe here,” River said soothingly, staring out into the blackness. “They won’t come here.” She turned to smile at Hank. “Afraid.”
“We’re landed again.” Simon sounded shocked.
“You think?” Mal couldn’t tell for sure, beyond the pounding in his head. “Gorramit, can you give me something for the pain?”
The young doctor immediately prepared a hypo, injecting it into the captain’s arm. “Mal, you have to remember. What happened?”
He shook his head, then wished he hadn’t as a fresh wave of nausea came over him.
“I can help.” River stood in the doorway, Hank behind her.
“What’re you doing to my ship?” Mal asked, trying to focus on her.
“Locked her down. Can’t go anywhere. Safe for now.”
He lay his head back and closed his eyes. “River, I know we damn well had the conversation when we agreed you wouldn’t talk like that to me no more. Your brother, fine. But the captain? Not so much.”
She stepped over the sill, crossing the room silently in bare feet. “I have taken us somewhere safe, where they won’t find us. They are afraid of the dark, so they won‘t follow.”
She sighed. “See? I use proper words and you still don’t understand.”
“Who?” Simon asked. “Who won’t find us?”
“I don’t know. That’s locked in here.” River gently touched Mal’s temple. “I can’t get to it.”
“Then how’d you know -”
She moved her fingers to his lips. “Saw them coming. With my eyes. Heading out of the graveyard. Too many to count.”
“Saw who?” Hank asked, pushing forwards again.
“If you think I’m gonna … Kaylee, let’s just get back to Serenity,” Mal said his hands on his hips. “And the answer’s still gonna be the same. I want to be off this rock before nightfall.”
“Nightfall?” Kaylee twinkled at him. “No such thing.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Just an hour. There’s bound to be –“
“Kaylee, what part of no didn’t you get?”
“I just think –“
“Kaylee.” Zoe spoke quietly.
The young mechanic bit her lip. She knew she’d gone too far, arguing with the Cap like that, but she couldn’t help it. Something about this place got her all turned around.
Mal watched her face, and put his hand on her shoulder. “You wanna walk in on more folks that didn’t make it? ‘Cause you’re acting like you’re all hot for it.”
She swatted his hand away. “That’s disgusting,” she said, lifting her chin and glaring at him.
“Then do as I say.”
“Zoe, if she ain't moving in the next three seconds you have my permission to duct-tape her mouth and carry her.”
She laughed, and the bright sound lifted his heart. “Okay, okay. No need to act all superior over it.”
“I am superior,” Mal pointed out. “I'm captain.”
She lifted the therm regulator. “Then we’d better be getting back so I can get this fitted.” She strode off away from the Firefly. “You coming?” she asked over her shoulder.
Mal and Zoe exchanged looks, then followed, the former shaking his head, the latter trying unsuccessfully to hide a smile.
“I'm just glad to find a regulator that looks like it’ll work,” Kaylee continued to chatter. “There weren't no guarantee it wouldn’t’ve been rusted solid. But whoever took care of that Firefly knew what they were doing.”
“A good mechanic?” Zoe asked.
“Might even have been an engineer.”
“What’s the difference?”
“About ten percent, according to the –“
“Kaylee.” Mal had caught up with her, taken her by the arm and drawn her back into the shadows.
Zoe was instantly at their side, her eyes ranging across the derelicts around them. “Sir?”
“Something ahead of us.” Mal drew his gun slowly, keeping it low so it wasn't too obvious.
He shook his head. “No way to know.”
“Can we get round them?”
“Maybe. ‘Cept we could get lost in this maze.”
“Com won’t work.”
“Cap’n …” Kaylee was feeling the fear building inside her.
“Just stay close to me,” Mal said softly. “Won’t let anything happen to you.” He eased forward. “Just stay in the shadows. Maybe we can –“
The assault, when it came, was so fast they had no chance.
“River …” Simon was using the special voice, the one that meant he was about to get out the smoother.
“People, Simon. With guns. Coming to take Serenity.”
to be continued
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