The Losing Side, Chapter 61 - Juggling Frustrations
Monday, February 11, 2008

Mal keeps on finding new and disturbing facts about one of his fellow prisoners, and Wash learns to juggle (and smuggle) goslings.


Mal was watching through the shatterproof window when Cody came back. Watching was the only way through unending boredom. Each other, the cortex, the guards, the weather. Mal was of the personal opinion he was watching himself go insane. Each moment, each day – they weren’t so bad, but when a body added them all up – that was a dreary sort of math.

Cody’s hands were cuffed, his head down, and he was pressed against the side of the guard escorting him. Almost looked like he was clinging to the guy for support, but he didn’t seem to be having any trouble walking. Mal glanced at the cortex screen. Five hours since they’d pulled him out of the yard.

The guard was unlocking the handcuffs and talking quietly to Cody. “Are you okay, son? Do you need to tell me something?”

“No!” said the young man sharply, still seeming reluctant to leave the guard’s side. He looked up when he heard Mal’s approach, then resumed studying the gravel. The guard pushed him through the opening in the gate with more concern than force, glancing at Mal.

Cody simply stood motionless, his head down, shaking slightly. His hair and shirt were wet, and he looked like he’d been crying. “Son?”

Cody jerked his head up. “It’s none of your business,” he said, his voice even and cold. Something in it made Mal – twitchy. Little things standing up on the back of his neck.

“Can I come in? Shi gao xing?” Mal stared. The man who spoke those words sounded like a gentle and very insecure boy, and Mal got the impression he actually thought Mal might deny the request.

“Be my guest,” he said, flummoxed. Once inside, Cody changed without a word to anyone and climbed into his bunk, pulled the covers over his head, and went to sleep.


“Mal?” He turned his head. Khiloh was at the gate, looking – small. He’d withdrawn after that evening at the hospital; Mal had misjudged just how easy the kindhearted guard was to hurt. He walked up to the gate. There was a very lonely man looking through the bars at him, and for a beat Mal got the odd sensation of Khiloh being the prisoner.

“I miss him,” said Khiloh. “I waved him last night and he –I’m not going to do it again. He’s free, he doesn’t need reminded of this place.”

Mal nodded. “Can’t argue.”

“Mal –” Khiloh was silent for a long time, trying to get his words together. “If – you were a prison guard – and a prisoner asked you to please just take the time to talk to him, because he was so lonely he couldn’t handle it – would you?”

Mal thought. “Most like,” he said finally. He leaned on the gate, knowing Khiloh was the prisoner. “Don’t confuse straight talk with – what it’s not. You’re a friend.”

There was sudden light in the officer’s eyes, something of renewed hope. “I’ll try,” he said, smiling.


Wash awoke sneezing furiously, and flung his arm out in search of the light. “Quack?” came the confused utterance of a small, disrupted bird inches from his ear. “Quack?” His nose collided with feathers, and he promptly discovered the source of his sneezing.

“Do – you – have – to put your feathers in my nose at – 3am?” he asked, waving the light on. The tiny creature blinked and settled uneasily into the goose-down pillow. No wonder it was intimidated; just hours before, Wash had been using him – her – it? – for juggling practice. He yawned and propped himself up on one elbow, wondering when life was going to start going as planned.

Nowhere had the plan specified waking up in a hotel room with a gosling as his bed partner. It was a nice room – just the sort that probably had a “no waterfowl” policy. “Quack?”

It waddled carefully forward and after a certain amount of investigation, bit him on the nose. “Hey!” He jerked his head away. “Um – no fair!” The bird stared at him and went to the bathroom on the pillow. Wash sighed. “Okay, fine. I juggled you. Maybe it’s fair.”

He laid his head back on the one remaining unsoiled pillow and closed his eyes. Four hours until his first recertification qualifier and he was lying awake conversing with a juvenile goose. Which he’d smuggled into his resplendent hotel room in a pocket. After juggling it.


“Ta made! What in the name of – made you decide juggling these di yu dan was – well – something other than completely insane?” asked Wash, standing up from his self-induced fall and rubbing his knee in indignation. The laughter of his drunken companions didn’t help. “You – you’re not allowed to laugh at me! You invented goose-juggling! That doesn’t inspire respect!”

“Ah, but we didn’t invent it, mate,” said a navigational training officer named Cordy. “And it’s you can’t keep your hand on three little feathered creatures, so don’t go lookin’ at me now.” Cordy downed another swig of beer, staring in appreciation at the chest of a woman walking past. “Now I could keep my hands on two of those, I’ll tell you that much.”

“Wings!” protested Wash. “They have wings!”

Cordy made groping motions with his hands. “Ahhh, that they do, mate.” He grinned. “Oh, you was referrin’ to the little birds. Therein lies the challenge, my friend. Easy enough to juggle a ball. But when the ball flies away, now that’s when a man ‘as to have a skill worth the boasting of.”

Wash finished collecting his squirming juggling apparatus – or was it apperati? He was required to stack two in one hand, and issuing an indignant honk, the top one wiggled free and fluttered back to the creaky wood floor. Wash snatched it back and lost no time in getting them airborne.

“I’ve got skill,” he protested. The first one flew outside his grasp, and in his frantic leap for it he missed the other two completely. “At something,” he said, once again collecting the errant birds and wondering if they were getting as exhausted as he was. Juggling infant waterfowl was a surprisingly effective workout. “Flying. I’m good at flying.”

Cordy and his friend Rafe chuckled. “No, I think it’s them that can fly,” said Rafe.

Wash glared in mock anger. “Time for another drink,” said Cordy, motioning to the bar at the other end of the incense-filled room. “Improves your coordination.”

“I’m sure,” said Wash dryly. He offered no protest, and stuffed two of the goslings into his pockets, gripping the other in a sweaty hand. He doubted more alcohol would help the surreal feeling induced by going from prisoner to war hero to cruise pilot and crack gosling juggler in the space of a month, but why the hell not?


He was almost back to the hotel when he stuffed a chilled hand in his pocket and was met with a tiny, outraged honk. The little brown gosling didn’t appreciate being awakened from its nap by the tipsy human who’d unwittingly kidnapped it, and Wash groaned. His head was spinning enough to make return to the bar an unwelcome prospect. “Sorry, little fellow,” he said, hurriedly withdrawing his hand. “Din’t know you were there.”

Yes, Hoban Washburn. That was you, apologizing to a goose. Which you are now going to smuggle into your hotel.


“Got me a terribly odd fellow in there,” said Mal. “Soldier by the name of Cody Patton?”

Kelli recognized the name, and her expression took on a certain sadness. “He’s clairvoyant, or something. Sees things. But he’s also – very damaged.”

“Battle of Sturges. Out of it before the end of the war. He’s a real war criminal?”

“In – a manner of speaking,” said Kelli. “He – had a lot of guilt, I’m sorry he’s…” her voice trailed off. She fixed him with a firm expression. “You don’t take it out on him, dong ma? That boy suffered enough, believe me.”

“Not fixing to,” said Mal. “Just – keen on knowing who I’m dealing with. He’s a mite – anomalous.”

The nurse spoke quietly, but her words were direct. “I’m trusting you, Sergeant. He shot two civilians, executed them. His Sergeant told him to, and he found it easier to kill two innocent people than to disobey an order. His Sergeant got killed, and his squad abandoned him,” said Kelli simply. “Mal – a cremation crew found him in the back of a dump truck in a pile of bodies.”

“And now he’s a one-legged, half-psychic artist who likes to execute people?”

“And a twenty-year-old boy who’s been through utter hell,” said Kelli. “I don’t think he has anything but regret for what he did, and he’s got a gentle soul. More so than you, even.”

“I never claimed to be gentle,” protested Mal. “I never even claimed to be nice! I killed people too, you know. Lots of ‘em.”

Kelli cuffed him lightly on the arm. “Of course. And on that cheery note, I’m gonna be running out of excuses not to get back to the hospital real soon here. Try to have a day that’s something short of miserable, okay?”

Mal smiled a genuine thank-you, and watched after her. She’d made good on her promise; he was fully healed, but several times a week she made an appearance, just enough to get him mercilessly teased by his fellow prisoners. The smile left his face when he turned towards the building.


“Everybody out,” ordered Mal as he strode in. He pointed to Cody. “You, stay.” Cody climbed down from his bunk and faced Mal as the others left. As the door shut behind them he raised his hands submissively, palms forward as though facing a guard. Mal grabbed him by the front of his jumpsuit and slammed him against the wall. He flinched but didn’t look away or struggle.

“Full story, now,” ordered Mal, his voice hard.

Cody took a deep breath. “My squad took a group of civilians who’d been suspected of housing Alliance soldiers prisoner, and we – executed them. I killed two of them, the others took care of the rest.”

Mal punched him squarely in the cheek and let him fall. “You think we didn’t have it hard enough with the likes of you turning us into savages? There weren’t enough dead, you had to kill civilians too?” Mal turned away for a split second so that the kid wouldn’t see the pain on his face. Few things tugged at him like the sight of innocent dead - children, ranch hands –

Cody got to his feet without crying out and stood against the wall again, one hand on his cheek and the other still held up in silent surrender. He met Mal’s eyes with a soft expression that took him by surprise. There was no anger or fear in that look, just simple acceptance. “I’ve learned – there’s just no convincing way to tell anyone how sorry I am.”

So this was that gentle soul Kelli talked about. Just don’t take it out on him. Mal felt a lingering ache in his healed back and too easily recalled having to bear the anger of men disinclined to listen or understand. I’m trusting you, Sergeant. He reached up and touched the boy’s bruised cheek. “Let’s get you a damp towel to put on that.”

Cody shook his head. “It’s nothing, sir.” He waited for a long time to ask the next question, and when he did his voice was low and uncertain. “Sergeant, can I stay?”

“That wouldn’t appear to be my choice, now would it?”

Cody looked down. “More than you might imagine. My first housing unit beat me up and threw me outside. My second, they just beat on me every time they saw me until I wound up in the hospital again. I’ve been in the protection unit ever since.”

“Protection unit?”

“It’s solitary confinement, sir. We’re – not entirely alone or anything, but – I feel like an orphan looking for a family. I’d like to have friends again, sir. At least the chance to make them. Lieutenant in charge of the unit promised when they shuffled people around after the release he’d give me a shot in the housing unit I stood the most chance in, and – he put me here. If it doesn’t work out – if you guys won’t accept me, I go back.”

“How long you in for?” asked Mal.

Cody gulped. “Life. I’m eligible for parole in twenty years, though.”

“Well, Annie, you got a home for part of that time at least. Can’t promise the friends, but I’ll make sure there’s a safe place for you here.”

Tears filled his eyes. He took several steps back and sat on his bunk. “Xie xie.” After a few minutes, he stood and pulled something out of his locker, flipped through the pages, and handed it to Mal.

There were two people kneeling, an old man and a young woman. Their fingers were interlaced behind their heads, and a dark shadow of a soldier stood behind them, the hard barrel of a gun in sharp focus. Their eyes were closed, their faces blurry and anonymous except for a single tear running down the man’s cheek. Written at the lower corner were the words, Come now and let us reason together. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.

“Do you think God really does forgive – even horrible things?” asked Cody.

“I don’t think God gives a damn,” said Mal. He turned and walked away.


Mal snapped alert, bounding from his bunk by reflex at the sound of frantic shouting outside. “Mal! Sergeant, help! Now!” The book he was reading on ancient civilizations crashed forgotten to the floor, and he yanked to door open at a run.


Monday, February 11, 2008 1:08 PM


Great chapter - very intriguing OC in Cody. Great to see Wash on the outside, and wondering what's going on inside Mal's head.

Come now and let us reason together. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Wonderful quote. Something that could give so much comfort to Cody and his crime is in sharp contrast to Mal's attitude. Hope you find a middle ground for both. Looking forward to more soon!

Monday, February 11, 2008 3:18 PM


I'm thinking that now Cody has told Mal his ownself what he did and what has happened to him afterwards it has cleared the air between them and while they might never be friends I don't think Mal will be beating on him again or letting anyone else do so. At least, that is my hope. As for Wash and the juggling geese that really is something you can only imagine anyone doing drunk. Ali D
Youcan't take the sky from me

Monday, February 11, 2008 7:44 PM


Another fantastic chapter. I just want this to go on and on. You seem to inhabit Mal's brain.

And Wash juggling geese. Amdobell is right, you can only something you can do drunk.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008 2:47 AM


huzzah! so glad you're back - and never a let down!:)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008 2:19 PM


I'm coming in late to the party, but this chapter was excellent!

Monday, March 31, 2008 3:38 PM


sigh. I hate cliffhangers.

*starts shaking* must...wait...must...control...spasms. Wait for... # 62... *twitch*


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The Losing Side, Chapter 61 - Juggling Frustrations
Mal keeps on finding new and disturbing facts about one of his fellow prisoners, and Wash learns to juggle (and smuggle) goslings.

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