Masks - Part X
Sunday, November 29, 2009

Maya. Post-BDM. Serenity's on her way to Persephone with the crates for Badger, but River isn't happy. NEW CHAPTER


“They were lucky,” Simon said, closing the infirmary cupboard door. “One of them lost an eye, and given another day or two one of the others would probably have had to have his arm amputated, but hopefully they’ll be fine until their replacement doctor gets there.”

They’d taken off from Aberdeen just a short while before, Mal standing on the bridge while Hank flew, not exactly praying but hoping fervently that his Firefly was going to be able to handle the extra strain. It didn’t help that, once they were out beyond atmo, his pilot had drawn a deep breath and wiped his hand melodramatically across his forehead.

“I know I’m going to hate asking this,” he’d said, “but was it really that bad?”

“She’s not happy,” Hank admitted, both of them knowing he was referring to Serenity. “And without Kaylee to coddle her, well …”

Mal shook his head. “I knew I shouldn’t’a let her go on that hayride.”

“I didn’t mean it like that. Just that we’ve got to be careful. Can’t get up to anything like full burn with the load she’s carrying in her belly, but that don’t mean we have to crawl either.”

“Are we going to make it to Persephone on time?”

“Should do. And even if we’re late, the girls can take up residence with Dillon and Breed.”

“Except I wanna check over that bodyguard they’re supposed to be picking up myself.”

Hank twisted in the chair enough so he could see his captain. “You don’t trust Freya’s judgement?”

“A’course I do,” Mal said quickly. “And don’t you go suggesting anything to the contrary. I just wanna make sure he ain't the kind of feller’s gonna take advantage of the twins when they’re on their own.”

With a quick smile Hank said, “Frey’s right. You’re just like a mother hen, pulling her chicks under her wings.”

Mal had quashed the temptation to shoot his pilot, on the grounds that it would mean having to tell Zoe later, and instead just growled and walked away, heading for the infirmary.

Now he watched as Simon tidied up.

“Wouldn’t be holding your breath about that,” Mal advised, leaning companionably against the counter and talking on the subject of replacement doctors for the Dundee facility. “My recollection of places like that is, if you can save a few credits, you do it.”

Simon turned. “You mean the owners will try and make do without one?”

Shrugging, Mal explained, “Rich people, Simon. And for the most part, they want to stay that way.”

“That’s barbaric.”

“If they’re really lucky, maybe they’ll get a medical man come up in the next dump of prisoners. Even if it’s just someone with a little experience would help.” His lips twitched. “A’course, there’s always the possibility that such a person might have used that same experience to help a victim or two into the sweet bye and bye, but then, you can’t have everything.”

Simon gazed at him. “You always see the glass as half full,” he dead-panned.

“Have to. Otherwise you go plumb stir crazy out here in the black.”

“I think it’s probably too late to worry.” He shook his head. “So how often were you a guest of such places?”

“More times’n I’d care to count when I first bought Serenity. Mostly waiting for someone to make up their minds if I was guilty or not, but it didn’t make much difference to the way I was treated. ‘Sides, they ain’t that much different to the camps after the war. Zoe, Frey and me ... well, we’ve had our share of experiences. Hell, some of ‘em are the old camps, just tided up a mite.”

Simon was faintly surprised. Not one of the three had talked much about their time as prisoners, and he wondered whether he could get Mal to open up a little, but the look in the older man’s eye made him decide to use caution. “I didn’t see any women in Dundee.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“But I thought most Alliance prisons catered for both sexes. Equality and all that.”

“Maybe on the more civilised worlds. Out here? Not so much. It causes more problems than it ever solves, seeing as the guards aren’t exactly the most honourable either. And they ain’t looking to make a man fit to return to society, so much as making it plain what would happen to him if he came back to prison.”

“And yet there is such a widespread lowlife criminal element.”

“I hope you ain’t including us in that there generalisation.”

“As if I would.”

“As if you wouldn’t. And I’d have to take umbrage at you calling us lowlife. We’re a superior kind’a criminal.” He smiled briefly. “And yeah, you’re right too. About there being a chronic lack of law-abiding folk in some places. But that’s pretty much how you have to survive out in the Borders.”

“Oh, I know.” Simon glanced at the various bits of equipment that had once graced hospitals, medical facilities, warehouses ... “And don’t think I’m not grateful.”

“I know you are.” Mal dropped his hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “But gratitude don’t come into it. Family does.”

Simon nodded. “Yes. Family.”

“Well, I’ve got other things to be getting on with,” Mal said, straightening up and hitching his thumbs into his suspenders.

“Captainy things?”

“Them too.” He grinned and started to leave.

“Mal.” Simon’s voice stopped the captain in mid-step over the infirmary threshold.

He turned back. “Yeah?”

The young man looked slightly diffident. “I know perhaps I’m being paranoid, but ... those crates. Did you check them?”

“Check ‘em?”

“For the prisoners. As I said, I know it could be paranoia, but a break-out just before we got here ... don’t you think that’s just a little suspicious?”

Mal’s lips twitched as he tried hard not to smile. “You know, I’m wondering if we’ve been a bad influence on you. Used to be you saw something of the good side in people, pretty much like Kaylee does. Yet here you are, thinking the worst.”

“It must be the experience of living with you.”

This time a quick flash of a smile darted over Mal’s face. “I’d be grateful if you could rephrase that, else Freya could get a mite jealous.”

“And I always thought it was Freya and me that you were worried about.”

Mal coughed, only to clear his throat, of course. “Maybe once on a long time ago,” he conceded. “But that don’t help none with your feelings of being watched.”

“Not watched. Just ... wondering.”

Mal knew he could keep this up almost indefinitely, and it was still fun sometimes to see the good doctor squirm on the hook, but for the most part he kept that for special occasions. Now he said, “Well, to ease this ‘wondering’ of yours, you can stop fretting. We took a look, made Fogarty open up each of the crates before you got back.” He reached into his pocket, tugging something from inside. “Here. A present for you.”

“Maybe it’s Freya who should be worried if you’re giving me gifts,” Simon said dryly.

“You ain’t my type.”

“Who is?”

“Jayne, a’course.”

Simon nodded. “I should have known.”

“Long as you don’t go crying yourself to sleep tonight over being rejected.”

“I’ll try not to.”

Mal smirked, then tossed the object in his hand towards the young doctor. “Here.”

Simon caught it easily. “What is it?”

“From one of the crates. I’d take it as a kindness if you’d check it out, scan it, make sure there ain’t anything nasty waiting to jump out at us.”

Simon turned the small lump of rock over in his fingers. It was darker than he expected, and heavier, with an odd purple haze running in a line down the centre. “Didn’t Fogarty?”

“Yeah. He scanned it while we were waiting, said there’s nothing radioactive about it. But as much as I’d like to believe him, I’m pretty much of the opinion if you want something doing, do it yourself. If’n you’re trustworthy.”

“And you think I am.”

“Closest I’ve got, doc.”

“Thanks. I think.”

Mal laughed, just a little. “Make sure we ain’t gonna grow three heads or something, that’s all. I ain’t above dumping it in deep space if we need to.”

“Won’t Badger mind that?”

“What Badger does or doesn’t mind ain’t anywhere near high on the list of my priorities. Keeping me and mine safe is right at the top.”

Simon had to smile. “I’ll check it out right away.”

“I’d be obliged.”


Jayne had cooked, which meant slabs of pre-marinated meat from the stores they had left over from Lazarus, griddled to perfection. If there was one thing the big man knew about, it was how to cook steak, and the scent had the entire crew – or what remained of it – sat ready around the table even before he needed to call.

River placed a large bowlful of reconstituted potato in the middle of the old wood, a platter of bread next to it, before taking her seat.

Mei-mei, are you okay?” Simon asked, eyeing his sister even as his little finger was being chomped on by his son in the sling across his chest.

“Shiny,” the young woman said, flashing him a smile.

“Only you look ... distracted.”

Caleb, who had inherited the high chair in his turn, tossed his spoon onto the floor and laughed.

River bent down to pick it up, staring at her reflection in the bowl. All out of proportion, she thought. Seeing not what is, but what might never be.

Mei-mei?” Simon prompted.

She dragged herself out of her contemplation, realising everyone was looking at her. “I’m fine,” she said. “Tired, perhaps.”

“Well, an early night ain’t gonna do you any harm,” Mal said. “It’s probably being the only female type person cooped up with all these fine examples of masculinity that’s the problem.”

Bethie looked affronted, about to speak, when Jayne put the dish of meat on the table.

“Go ahead,” he said. “Dig in.”

Picking up the platter, Mal slid a thick slice onto his plate before passing it along. “Albatross, I’m figuring it’s one of those days?” he asked kindly.

She nodded. “Something in the air,” she agreed. “No more medications required, but sometimes things get woolly.” She sighed. “It’s the menstrual time of the month.”

Mal looked pained. “Not when we’re about to eat, River. And actually, not ever.”

She grinned suddenly. “Aye aye, captain.”

She couldn’t be too bad if she was winding him up, Mal considered. He looked further down the table. “Simon, did you get that scan done?”

The young doctor nodded, attempting to stop Bethie from taking far too much food, at the same time as ensuring Hope’s meat was cut small enough so she wouldn’t choke. “Yes. There’s nothing radioactive in it, at least nothing above normal background level. From what I can tell, there’s certainly Herschelium in the sample, but there’s no way of knowing what standard until it’s processed.”

First found on Herschel, the lone moon of Ezra, Herschelium was a prized ore used in body armour, its colour, in fact, giving the Alliance soldiers their nickname of purplebellies. In sufficient strength and quality, it made almost any metal bulletproof, and if thick enough could stop a laser from penetrating.

“Damn stuff,” Jayne muttered, spearing a steak for himself and one for River. “Half the men on Ezra got damplung trying to dig the stuff out.”

Mal nodded, knowing that a rich vein had been found on the ex-mercenary’s home planet. Jayne’s brother had been one of those afflicted, and it was only Simon’s medical skills that had saved him from an early grave. Now, though, he had a wife, step-children, and one of his own on the way. “How are Matty and Jolene?” Mal asked, allowing himself to be side-tracked for a moment. “Must be almost her time.”

“Bar a month,” Jayne said, brightening a little. “Kinda like to drop by and see ‘em when the baby’s born.”

“We’ll see what we can arrange.”

“God, I’d forgotten,” Hank said, shaking his head. “Another Cobb in the ‘verse. I'm not sure it can cope.”

“If the food weren’t likely to spoil,” Jayne said, pointing at the pilot with his knife, “I’d take you down into the cargo bay and –”

“Jayne.” River put her hand on his.

“Just saying.”

“This is too good to waste,” his wife said, picking up a sliver of perfectly cooked steak and putting it into her mouth, chewing delicately.

Jayne watched the operation, running his tongue across his own lips as a tiny drop of juice appeared on River’s.

“Stop it,” Mal said mildly. “The pair of you.”

Hank grinned. “Cap.”

“Anyways, I’m just glad there’s nothing in those crates gonna come and bite us in the ass,” Serenity’s captain said. “Could do with a nice, languorous journey,” he added, not seeing River’s foot twitch under the table.


It was the wee small hours of the morning, at least as far as the ship’s clocks were concerned, and the lights were turned low accordingly.

Not that she needed light. It could be as black as pitch – or anything else without colour – and she’d still know exactly where she was. Sometimes she wondered if she really was the physical manifestation of Serenity, as she’d once pretended when a bounty hunter had boarded her, but that was really something of a stupid suggestion. Of course she was part of the Firefly, as were the rest of the crew. The heart and soul of the ship. Which was why she knew something wasn’t right.

River stepped silently onto the catwalk outside the shuttle, pausing only a moment to check Jayne hadn’t stirred. He’d rolled into her spot when she’d got up, grabbing her pillow and tugging it underneath him, but at the moment his dreams were untroubled.

Unlike hers. She stared down at the huge crates, then drifted down the metal staircase, barely touching the treads and ignoring the chill in her bare feet.

Ignoring the ladder Mal had placed against the side so he could look into the interior through the top hatch, she touched the first container, her fingers running across the pitted metal, reading its life like Braille. Indecision flitted across her face, a thousand outcomes running in full colour through her mind, none of which were more likely than the other. Except that she might be mistaken.

She shook her head and swept her hands over the side panel.

There. Just there. Press, slide and ...

The panel fell away, several lumps of rock thudding to the deck and setting up a reverberation that twitched from one side of the cargo bay to the other.

Up in the shuttle, Jayne’s eyes slammed open. “Moonbrain?” he whispered.

River stared at the hollow revealed, at the figure sitting on a stool, dressed in grey shirt and pants, a heavy grey blanket around his shoulders. A mask covered his face, leading down to a gas bottle on the floor, a dozen emergency ration packs by his booted feet.

He wasn’t moving.

River stepped closer, intrigued.

A hand shot out, grabbed her throat, pulling her around. An unseen gun pressed against her temple.

“You just stay right there, girlie,” a rough voice whispered violently into her ear.

Above them, Jayne swore softly under his breath and stepped as quietly as possible back into the shuttle, grabbing Betsey before jamming his hand on the com button. “Mal!” he whispered urgently. “We got company!”

to be continued


Sunday, November 29, 2009 4:15 AM


Awesome cliffhanger! Loved the way you changed the scene back and forth from indecision to action and crisis. The crew snarking at each other was great. Loved to see more so soon!

Sunday, November 29, 2009 4:42 AM


River...well, the good thing is hopefully they are dealt with quickly. Wonderful writing!! Sounds like the muse is back in force. :)

Sunday, November 29, 2009 5:01 AM


Ta-Dah!!! The plot twist we have been anticipating!!!

Great as usual.

Sunday, November 29, 2009 5:08 AM


I knew something was wrong. And I hope River dispatches him to where he came from.

Also, your crew snark is wonderful and a joy to read.

Sunday, November 29, 2009 6:28 AM


It's rare to be able to say Mal is sometimes too trusting, mostly it's the other way around, but I think this is one of those times.

Side panels. Well, this is why River is the smart one.

Sunday, November 29, 2009 7:03 AM


Wow! I had my suspicions about those gorram crates but was reassured when Simon asked Mal if he'd checked them before letting them on board and he said he had. That there ore probably blocked any attempt to see what was in the bottom. Gorramit, and now River's in trouble. Good job Jayne woke up and now has alerted Mal as well. Brilliant cliffie! Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"


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Mal took a deep breath, allowing it out slowly through his nostrils, and now his next words were the honest truth. “Ain’t surprised. No matter how good you are, and I’m not complaining, I’ve seen enough battle wounds, had to help out at the odd amputation on occasion. And I don’t have to be a doc myself to tell his leg ain’t quite the colour it should be, even taking into account his usual pasty complexion. What you did … didn’t work, did it?”
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[Maya. Post-BDM. A little with each Serenity couple, but something goes bang. Read, enjoy, review!]

“Did we …” “We did.” “Why?” As she raised an eyebrow at him he went on quickly, “I mean, we got a comfy bunk, not that far away. Is there any particular reason we’re in here instead?” “You don’t remember?” He concentrated for a moment, and the activities of a few hours previously burst onto him like a sunbeam. “Oh, right,” he acknowledged happily.

[Maya. Post-BDM. A little with each Serenity couple, but something goes bang. Read, enjoy, review!]