BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

THESCARREDMAN

A Man of Action, Pt 2 of 8
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Simon learns a thing or two.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1154    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Following Captain Reynolds’ orders, Simon saw to his sister and returned to the cargo hold. Sessions and the captain were seated on crates facing each other. Their visitor sat with one leg stretched out stiffly in front of him. Zoë and Sessions’ companions stood nearby, watchful, and Jayne remained on the catwalk with his rifle butt on his hip.

The captain saw Simon and beckoned, then pointed to a crate. “It’s clear you two know each other, but he won’t talk without you here. I find that somewhat of a comfort, shows he thinks a man’s trust is worth keeping. But I want to know how you came to be in cahoots.”

Simon sat heavily. “He’s a member of the Underground, the group that got River out of the Academy.”

“Technically, no,” the man said. “Sympathizer, but I was hired for the job, glad as I was to do it.” He turned to Simon. “But I got a feeling things went to hell after I gave that box up to you. You opened it early, didn’t you? Why didn’t you follow my gorram directions?” He scowled. “I understand you being eager, but did you think I told you to keep her cold for another week just for the hell of it? With me not knowing where you were taking her, or how soon you’d arrive?”

A horrid suspicion took root. Simon glanced at the captain and saw a matching sentiment reflected on his face. “It was out of my hands. Why was it important?”

“We put her in that box,” Sessions said, “but she was in cryo when we stole her. They always chill the kids after surgery, sometimes for weeks. Cryo slows the healing process, eases the shock or something, lets their minds adjust to the changes.” He turned his head towards the passage leading to the infirmary and passenger country, now silent. “If she’d stayed in the full time, and you’d flushed their damn drugs out of her… well, she might have got confused from time to time, and for sure she’d have been witless when she first warmed up. But that would have been the worst of it. That poor girl’s paying a hell of a price for your impatience, I’m thinking.”

“It wasn’t impatience. It couldn’t be helped.” Simon’s voice sounded faint in his own ears. He kept his face turned from Captain Reynolds, and concentrated on Sessions. “What are you doing here? Another job for the Underground?”

“No,” the man said. “Another client. I’m not at liberty to say more.” He bent his stiff leg, flexing it slowly.

“And I presume you’re not at liberty to tell the captain what the cargo is, either.”

“No.” Sessions held Simon’s eyes. “But I’m sure you’ll find the container familiar.” He turned to the captain and held up a hand. “Don’t ask. I’ll only say that the box arrived here from Persephone, which is the Underground’s way station for everything headed for the Rim. The shipper got in trouble with the authorities here over something unrelated, I’m told, and the package got stranded. That’s where you and yours come in. I’ve been instructed to offer you two thousand platinum with no haggling, payable on delivery at Halifax.”

*

After Sessions dropped his little bomb and made his offer, Mal dismissed the doctor and spent a few more minutes with the agent. Mal agreed to take the package and deliver it to Halifax. He was still a bit uneasy about hauling unknown cargo for a stranger, but his misgivings weren’t enough to make him turn down a job that made fair to put them back on their feet in a big way. Two thousand platinum would fill their tanks, their parts bins, and their larder, with plenty left over for joy money. And if, as Sessions hinted, the box contained another runaway from that damned Academy… well, it wasn’t much atonement, but it was something, and not a chance Mal could pass by easily. Sessions told him the package would be delivered to the ship in two days, and shook hands on the deal.

After Sessions and his people left, Mal trailed Simon through the hatch leading to the infirmary and passenger country. He wasn’t sure if talk or space was what the boy needed right now, but Simon Tam was crew, and Mal felt a need to see to him and do something if he could.

He’d thought Simon would head for his sister’s room, but the doc had turned into the infirmary instead. He poked his head in, and saw the young man standing with his back to the door, opening and closing drawers as if counting his inventory. The boy’s stiff posture told the captain that Simon knew he was watching him. He gave a little throat-clearing cough. “Doc?”

The boy didn’t turn, or pause in his examination of his stores. “Yes, Captain? You have an order for me, a duty to perform?” Not a trace of emotion in the boy’s voice.

Mal swallowed, for once unsure.

“Believe it or not, Captain, I’m no stranger to anger. I’ve lost my temper many times. And I’ve been… unreasonable, from time to time. I know there was no malice towards my sister in what you did, and you’d make it right if you could.” Simon shut the last drawer very softly, and rested his forehead on the glass door of the cabinet above. “But I’m quite sure I couldn’t look at you right now and stay reasonable. So I would take it as a great personal favor if you would get the hell out of my infirmary.”

*

Five minutes’ walk from the grounded ship, Jayne said, “This is far enough.” A quick glance behind showed that Serenity was out of sight behind a rocky outcrop. He pulled a pistol from his belt. “Been waitin for a chance like this for a while now, Three Percent.” He passed it over, butt-first. “You remember where the safety’s at, right?”

“Yes.” Simon gripped the weapon with none of the namby-pamby reluctance one might expect of some Core World dandy. “I remember which end the bullet comes out of, too.” He glanced at Shepherd Book, who was also armed. “But that’s about all.”

Jayne shook his head. “Even a fella can’t hit a barn from ten paces can be some use in a firefight. Most a the bullets ever fired never put a hole in anybody. But if you can make the other guys keep their heads down and spoil their aim, you’re doin okay. That’s what cover fire’s all about. But you gotta at least look like you know how to shoot.” He drew another weapon from his belt and extended his arm as he turned sideways, pointing the gun at a clump of stunted trees thirty yards away. He squeezed off six rounds in three seconds, and the top half of one of the four-inch trunks tipped over and fell to the ground. “Now you. Just like that.”

“Uh, suggestion?” Wash looked at him with raised eyebrows. “If he does it like that, he won’t look like he knows what he’s doing. He’ll look comatose, because the barrel will come right up and poleax him. He doesn’t have arms as thick as most men’s thighs, or weigh a hundred kilos either.” The pilot drew and aimed for the same cluster, his right arm slightly bent and his left hand wrapped aroundthe fingers of the right. He fired six rounds as well. Bits of wood sprang off the trees after four of them. “Ah, the thrill of the slaughter. Trees, fear me.”

“That’s how the Alliance teaches grown men to shoot, eh?”

Wash safed his weapon and holstered it. “Well, that’s how they teach their pilots to shoot. They don’t teach their infantrymen to fly at all.”

“Spose it’s good enough, firin from cover,” he grudged. “Doc, that piece you’re holdin has a heavy frame, a small bore, and a long cartridge. Get used to the kick, and it should be easy to aim, no matter what world you’re on.”

“Why would that…”

“He means the pistol has a high muzzle velocity,” Book explained. “Fires a bullet in a flat trajectory. Otherwise, you’d have to learn to make little adjustments in elevation to compensate for different gravity on every world.”

“That an intel-lectual observation, Shepherd?” Jayne put his last four rounds into the clump and dropped another sapling. “Or you hunt rabbits at more than one abbey?” Without waiting for an answer, he said to Simon, “Do it.”

The boy held the weapon the way Wash had, and aimed for the trees. The first round brought the barrel up halfway to vertical, and Simon winced. So did Jayne. The little cluster of trees showed no indication where the bullet had gone. Jayne just hoped nobody was any closer than a mile downrange.

Simon gripped the weapon more firmly, resumed his stance, and squeezed off another round. This time, the barrel rose only slightly. But the little woodlot still didn’t stir.

“Don’t squint. Look at the target, not the gun. Try not to-” Jayne looked at Book. “What’s the word?”

“Anticipate?”

“Right. Just let the shot kinda surprise you.”

By the time the doc inserted his second magazine, he’d scored three hits. “I’m rather more accustomed to preserving life than taking it.”

“All the more reason to learn how to shoot straight, so you don’t gutshoot a man aiming for his kneecap. Ain’t that right, Shepherd?”

The preacher said slowly, “Power of any sort should be applied as judiciously as possible, including lethal force, I’d say.”

Jayne frowned. While Serenity was grounded, waiting for a delivery from their client, he’d invited Simon out for some target practice. Simon had been strange all morning, and even stiffer than usual, like some gorram machine; plain as plain something new was eating him. Jayne had taken him outside, hoping to talk to the boy far from prying eyes and ears. But the Shepherd and Wash had invited themselves along, for no reason he could see, and it nettled. “You’re up, preacher. Show us what you got.”

Book gave a small apologetic smile and raised the pistol he’d borrowed from the ship’s locker. The smile disappeared when Jayne placed a hand atop the barrel. “We all seen ya shoot with your dander up at the skyplex, Shepherd. Don’t be coy. Show us what we can count on if we need to.” Jayne dropped his hand.

The Shepherd raised the pistol and fired a single shot. A thumb-sized branch dropped off a trunk. He fired again, and hewed another off the same tree. He emptied the weapon, taking careful, measured shots, and dropped a limb hardly bigger than the bullet with every one. “A relaxing pastime, is all,” the old man said as he returned the piece to his hip. “A few of the brethren showed an interest, and we formed a sort of club. Just for sport, of course.”

“Of course,” Wash said faintly. “Just the thing to loosen up after a hard day of chanting. Like the way you hammered that lawman when you first came aboard.”

“The monks at Southdown Abbey pursue a wide variety of pursuits besides marksmanship and fisticuffs. We’re famous for our mastery of horticulture, landscaping, and music, to name a few. The Abbey’s gardens and choral society are tourist destinations. What about you, Simon? What did you do with the time MedAcad left you?”

“Before I started looking for a way to get to River?” Simon shrugged. “Social gatherings, mostly. There were clubs at school for the ambitious up-and-comers to network. When I was home from school, Mother and Father always filled my calendar so I touched base with all the right people. I never turned down a lunch invitation or missed a party. Wouldn’t do to let an unintentional snub create an impediment to my career.” He sighted on the now rather tatty clump of trees. “They’re not bad people. Not my parents, not any of them. They’re just… comfortable.” He squeezed off a shot, and bark sprang from a trunk.

But they wrote you off, soon as you slipped out of that corral of a life they kept you in, Jayne thought. Bet if they’d been there when she was about to be burned alive by that mob, neither of them would have climbed up on the pyre to stop it, or stayed up there when they saw it wouldn’t save her, just to put arms around her so she didn’t have to die alone.

He remembered that irritating little rescue mission: Serenity’s belly hatch opening to show brother and sister staked out on a pile of scrap wood, waiting for the fire. He remembered feeling a sort of sour satisfaction at their predicament that turned to amazement when he saw that only the crazy girl was tied up. A few weeks ago, he and Simon Tam had had a real man-to-man over a liter of Kaylee’s moonshine, and spoken to each other in a way they’d never come close to in their year sharing a ship. That night, Jayne had been surprised to learn that he’d come to like the little pipsqueak.

They didn’t deserve you, or your sister either.

Five minutes later, Wash said, “I’m out.”

“Me too.” Book turned to Jayne and Simon. “You about finished?”

Jayne was flabbergasted. “You come clear out here for target practice, and you only brung a clip each?” Worse still, the pilot was flat out lying: he’d only fired six rounds from a ten-round magazine.

“Well, the walk was good for me,” Wash said, making a show of looking around. “Pretty far from the ship, aren’t we. I wonder if anyone aboard can even hear the shots.”

“It is rather secluded,” Book observed. “A wounded man would be a long way from aid. An accident could turn tragic.”

Jayne felt his temper rising. “You come out here to keep an eye on us?” He glared at the Shepherd. “You thought I might shoot him?”

Book shook his head. “Not really.”

Wash coughed. “Uh, actually, we thought he might shoot you.”

He and Simon turned to face each other. The boy’s poker face collapsed first, screwing up into helpless laughter. Jayne grinned, at him and their slack-jawed audience, at least until it seemed to him the laughter had gone on a little long; then he started to worry. But he kept a smile on his face while Simon gathered his wits again.

The doc wiped his eyes. “Oh. Oh. Thank you. I needed a good laugh, it’s been forever.”

Jayne crossed his arms. “Bet you’ll get another when they start explainin.”

Book turned cool eyes on the boy. “You’ve been under a terrible strain, young man. Men trapped and stressed by forces beyond their control often look for someone to blame their troubles on. Your sister spent what might be the last lucid hours of her life in his bunk. And Kaylee’s been spending more time with him than with you lately.”

“And you missed breakfast this morning. That always puts me out of sorts,” Wash added.

The boy’s face stiffened. “Thank you for your concern. For both our sakes. But he’s as safe here as on my table.”

“Sure am relieved to hear that,”Jayne said. “I figure bout a coin-flip chance a gettin shot before this job’s over. Nice to be able to count on my medic.”

Simon looked pointedly at him. “How many clips do we have left?”

“Four for you, six for me.” He turned to the two men. “We’re gonna be out here a while yet. You might as well head back, get outta the sun.”

When Book and Wash were spots of color in the distance, the boy turned to him as he pulled the clip and counted his rounds. “They do make a point.”

Jayne did the same. “I didn’t know how to stop her. Not tryin ta shift blame, just tellin it straight.” She’d shared his bunk, right enough, but they’d only talked together for half a shift until she’d felt the crazy coming over her again and left. But everyone on the crew thought he’d plucked River’s flower that night, and he was sure denials would do him no good. But with her brother, at least, he felt obliged to try at every chance. “I stole your time with her, I know that. But nothin else.”

“I know. I don’t hold you at fault for anything.” Simon sighted on the trees but didn’t fire. “There’s no blaming Kaylee, either.”

“Now wait a minute, doc. We-”

Simon fired three shots. A tree limb leaned over lazily and touched the ground. “Things haven’t been right between us since that night together. I gained a friend, but I lost a love, it seems.”

Looking back on it, Jayne thought, getting Kaylee and Simon passing-out drunk and bundling them together naked in her hammock hadn’t been one of his better ideas. It had seemed a clever plan when he was drunk, which described a lot of decisions he’d made in the past that had ended up costing him one way or another. He thought of telling the boy the truth, but he didn’t understand how his scheme to push them together had backfired, and he didn’t want to make things worse. He sighted on a limb. “I don’t get it. I’d a thought you two would be singin together like birds the next morning.” He fired three shots and didn’t hit a thing.

The boy made a disgusted sound. “How could she? After what I did?” He talked for ten minutes while Jayne listened with growing amazement. “She may not know about courting and marriage customs among the Twelve Families,” Simon concluded miserably, “but she knows I did something reprehensible by my own lights. It’s no wonder she looks at me like she doesn’t know what I’ll do next.”

A flicker of light on the polished frame of his pistol caught Jayne’s eye. He turned casually towards the ship and caught a twinkle high on an outcrop. A scope, possibly, but more likely binoculars. Wash, he was sure; somehow Jayne doubted the Shepherd would give himself away so easily. “Simon.”

The boy turned to him, alerted by Jayne’s rare use of his name. “What is it?”

“Lay your piece on that rock. Then step over here. There’s somethin we need to do.” When the boy complied, he said, “Hit me. Hard as you can.”

“Why-”

“We’re bein watched. You are, anyway. They’re lookin for you to snap, and they’ll keep lookin till you do, which is the surest way to drive somebody crazy I can think of.” He put his hands on his hips and shoved his face forward, as if he were daring the boy to do something. “Give it all you got, but on the side a my neck, not my face.” He grinned. “We don’t wanna bust up your pretty hands.”

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

“As if you could. Come on, city boy. Swing like you mean it.” He dropped his voice. “Think of it as payment in advance. You know I’m gonna screw your sister’s brains out, she ever gets em back. Don’t you?”

The boy drew back like a catapult and launched a fist. Jayne saw it coming, of course, and could have parried or dodged it easy, but he stood like he was rooted to the ground and let the boy’s fist keep its appointment with his face. He was pleasantly surprised a moment later to find his elbows in the dust, with the wispy clouds wobbling overhead; Simon Tam might not be schooled in brawling, but he was a damn sight stronger than he looked. When Simon started to kneel, Jayne said, “Stay off your gorram knees! Stand over me, like you’re ready to knock me down again if I get up.” He put a hand to the side of his jaw. “Told ya not to hit my face. Just got the swelling down on that side, g’rammit.”

“Sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”

“Hmp. Maybe they were right to keep an eye on ya after all. How’s your hand?”

“Stiffening up already.”

“You oughtta let me give ya some lessons. Bet you’d be a buzz saw in a fight, you only knew what you were doin. Guess we been talkin long enough ta make up. Let’s get back to sickbay before they come runnin out.” He extended a hand, his left, to spare the boy’s injured hand. “Help me up, like a fine Core World gentleman.”

Simon led the way back. “Just so you know,” he said without turning, “that had more to do with the remark about my sister’s brains than your intentions.”

Jayne almost rested a hand on Simon’s shoulder, and lifted it away at the last moment, surprised at himself. Instead, he just said, “Don’t ask me how, Three Percent. But I got a hunch things are all gonna work out.”

*

Wash, lying prone beside the Shepherd with just their heads above the ridge, lowered his binoculars. “Staged?”

“Staged,” Book said firmly. “Maybe the glasses weren’t a mistake after all. Who would ever have suspected those two would stand and draw together?” But that boy is still trouble on its way to happen, he thought. Who – or what - has got him tight as a coiled spring?

“Well.” The pilot slid down the ridge before he stood. “I’d say Kaylee and River have something to do with that. Exactly what, I’m not sure I want to know.”

*

Jayne sat at the galley table with the four pistols they’d used for target practice. He broke the first of them down and started cleaning it.

Kaylee dropped into the seat opposite. “You’re sure fussy about keepin those clean.”

“Like bein able to depend on em,” he said, wiping oil off a part with a clean rag. “You want em to do right by you, you do right by them.”

“Like a friendship.”

“They’re tools, not friends.”

“Well, then, how come you named that big rifle? Vera, right?”

He ran a brush down the barrel. “Wasn’t me named that one, it was the man I took it off of. I just kept it for a joke, more or less. A man moonbrained enough to name his rifle prolly has a name for his pecker too.”

She scoffed and propped an elbow on the table, chin in hand. “You got pretty hands for a man, did I ever tell you that?”

He stopped, a half-assembled gun in his hands. “Pretty?”

“Well, not pretty. Attractive. I like watching you work with em, the way they move when they’re doin something they’re familiar with, almost like they got a mind of their own.” Her lips parted as she stared at them. “Forgot how big they are.”

He put down the piece and dropped his hands in his lap. “Somethin on your mind, little Kaylee?”

She stood. “Nothin you’re likely to help me with, Jayne Cobb. Tonight, I guess I’m best left to my own devices.” She left, headed for crew quarters.

*

Simon quietly slid aside the door to his sister’s room and shut it behind him. When he turned, he was shocked to see her eyes open, looking at him.

“She’s not all there,” River said tiredly. “But then again, she doesn’t need to be, does she?”

“River?” Simon rushed to her bed and put an arm under her shoulders.

“She missed her birthday.”

“What?”

“Been lost in the wilderness for forty years, denied the Promised Land.”

Simon took her hand, still cuffed to the bed. “River, it’s only been a week.”

“Everything’s relative. Lorentz-Fitzgerald theory of nightmare existence. She’s old now, very old.” She looked up at him. “Are you a son or a grandson?”

He smoothed back her hair. “It’s your brother. Simon.”

“Been moving fast, then.” Her eyes drifted shut. “Tired. Old folks need their rest.” They opened again. “Jayne?”

“He’s not here, mei-”

The door slid aside, and the big man appeared in the doorway. “She’s awake?”

“Probably not,” she said, eyes already sliding closed again. “Nothing so beautiful could be real. Must be a dream, like the make-believe Reavers that aren’t.”

“Never thought I’d be glad to hear her talkin nonsense,” Jayne said. “We’re real enough, little crazy girl.”

She smiled faintly at him. “He looks better in red. Brings out the color of his eyes.” Then she was out, so quickly that Simon reached for her wrist in alarm. But her pulse was strong and steady.

*

Hob Washburn separated strands of cable with his fingertips, examining them carefully by sight and touch. He was lying on the floor of the well under the front of the pilot’s console. He’d removed several access panels and had almost wormed his way inside the ship’s works as he traced his way through the navigation and drive pod control wiring. The old girl had been a bit quirky after Saffron’s first act of sabotage, and the treacherous redhead’s second instance of meddling had made things worse. He felt a need to check things over, and with Serenity grounded for another day or so, this seemed the perfect time.

Kaylee had gone through the systems and declared them fixed, but Wash couldn’t bring himself to trust that assurance fully. The little prairie chick had a natural gift for machines, but her lack of formal training and her reliance on intuition made for unsatisfactory answers when questioned about her diagnostic procedures. And some of the jackleg repairs forced on her by the quality and scarcity of spares in the parts bins would give any pilot pause. Trusting another person’s word that something critical was working properly had once cost Lieutenant Washburn a crushed pelvis, four cracked vertebrae, a broken collarbone, and two years of agony. He squirmed farther into the engineering space under the console, looking for wear or damage.

The work occupied his hands and eyes, but left his mind mostly free to roam. He thought about his earlier conversation with Jayne, and concluded reluctantly that the big merc had a point. Wash had called Rim measures arbitrary, but it was handy to have your measuring tools with you all the time, as long as precision was no big deal. And as for metric units… what could be more arbitrary than a unit of distance established as one forty-thousandth of the circumference of a planet light-years away and probably unfit for human life?

He tried to imagine a Class One world so overpopulated that its overburdened environment was near collapse. He’d been raised on a world whose heavy industries threw enough particulates into the upper atmo that the stars were invisible at night, and the sun an unfocused glare in the sky by day. But the terraforming plants kept the air breathable at ground level and the temperatures comfortable; it was a pleasant enough place for twenty million to live on. A world with so many people eating and excreting that even terraforming technology couldn’t keep up would have to be home to a billion souls, he thought.

Then he imagined boarding a ship headed for a destination so distant he wouldn’t live to see it, to give his unborn grandchildren a chance to walk under an open sky and breathe uncanned air. The desperation hinted at in such a decision was chilling.

He was sure that a fleet of ships couldn’t have evacuated more than a tiny fraction of the passengers from that sinking ship; the exodus probably hadn’t bought Earth-that-Was a single generation’s reprieve. According to history, as recorded in the colony ships’ logs, the homeworld had dropped out of communication before the first generation of refugees had grown old. It seemed likely that the planetary system he knew held all the humanity in the ‘Verse.

Maybe, he thought, we’ll get ambitious enough someday – or crowded enough – to return to Earth-that-Was and terraform it. Wouldn’t that be ironic.

“This is a surprise.” Zoë’s voice, on the bridge just above, startled him; he’d thought he was alone. “Don’t see you up here much.”

Wash barely had time to be puzzled by his wife’s statement before he heard Simon answer. “Not when we’re in space. I try not to look out any of the windows when we’re off-planet. I was just hoping to see the sunset from up here. Where’s your husband?”

“Don’t know. I expected to find him up here. I suppose he’s tinkerin with Kaylee somewhere.” Her voice caught. “Well, not with her. I mean-”

“I know what you meant. Cobbling together some new secret weapon out of castoff parts. Clever, aren’t they? And inventive.”

“More than you’ll ever know.” The smoky note in her voice brought heat to his face, and made him wish they were alone. Then her voice changed. “Simon. If you need to talk to someone, I’d listen.”

“No offense, but I doubt I’d find you an impartial listener.”

“And maybe that’s not what you need. Maybe you need someone to take the captain’s side in some honest talk. This is trouble the ship and crew can’t afford.”

“Zoë, he’s safe on my table, if that’s what worries you. And I’m sure he’s not heartbroken over our lost friendship.” A pause. “What he did, it wasn’t a reasoned act. For all he knew, that box could have been full of explosives or toxic chemicals or God knows what. He did it because I challenged his authority, gave him orders on his own ship. That’s what I’m having trouble accepting, that his wounded pride cost my sister her sanity.”

“Doctor, you may be used to giving orders and having them followed, but you plain don’t know squat about command. This ship would fall apart without a strong leader pointing us all in the same direction and keeping us going. You challenged his authority, right enough, but it was for all our sakes he showed everyone he was still runnin things and not you. And he did it the quickest way he could think of, before things got out of hand. Now, he might have done it different. I’m sure he would have if he’d known. But I won’t apologize for what he did, because right then putting you in your place was as important as air.” He heard her sit – in the pilot’s chair, by the creak. “He saved my life during the War,” she said, as if sharing a secret.

“I’ve heard some of the stories.”

“I’m not talking about the times he pulled me back before I broke a tripwire, or shouted a warning that kept me from walking into a bullet, or fired a shot that put paid to someone had me in his sights. We all did that for one another, too many times for counting to make any sense.” The chair creaked again as she shifted. “Before the War, I was career military. Alluquere is a Rim world, but it’s better off than most, and just barely prosperous enough to support an armed force, so of course they had to have one. By the time I was eighteen, the Core Worlds were already starting to beat the drum, and Alluquere was looking for recruits. That was my ticket off the farm. Law said only citizens could join, and I’d never set foot on it - I was born and raised in a ship till I was twelve, then on Sutter till I left home - but that ship was registered to Alluquere, and I guess that made me citizen enough to fight and die for it.

“Things with the Alliance went from bad to worse in a hurry. Alluquere and the other Rim worlds with armies thought they were ready, but they got sent back to school right quick. By the time I met Malcolm Reynolds, I’d seen fighting on half a dozen worlds. Seen half a hundred people I knew killed. Got our butts kicked more than once, and won a few victories that turned out worthless. Worse than worthless, really, cause they cost us so dear losing would hardly been worse."

"Pyrrhic victory, you mean."

"Figures that sort of thing happens often enough to have a name. The turnover was getting so bad, there were only six of us left from our original company. Bout seven replacements in ten were kids you knew wouldn’t last long enough for you to learn their names, so we didn’t try. Seemed we had a new commanding officer every month, too. Amazing how many ways those fellas could come up with to get themselves killed. Command was looking everywhere for replacements, even among the Volunteers, most of whom us vets didn’t trust with a rifle.

“One day, our sergeant buys the farm, and everyone is figuring Corporal Alleyne for a promotion to take over the platoon. I was too, I suppose, but I was none too eager. I was having trouble enough taking care of myself at the time. I was getting swallowed up by the death all around me, losing sight of anything else, and losing hope of getting through the war alive. There are names for that. Ours was ‘going fey.’ There’s no cure, once it’s well rooted. And a soldier gone fey is as dangerous to his team mates as an armed grenade. They can’t count on him to watch their backs, or even stay out of trouble. He drags everyone down, forces them to split their attention when they can least afford it. When he finally buys it - and they all do, sooner or later – it’s more relief than tragedy. I was getting numb to it all, the way a person does just before he starts making mistakes that get him and his squad killed. I sort of prayed they’d find us an experienced noncom to fill the sergeant’s slot.

“Instead, they send us this… half-trained horse rancher in a brown coat, who marches into our lives like he owns this war, like he’s ready to win it all by himself if he has to, but he’s willing to let us share the glory if we lend a hand. He grins at us when we look sideways at each other, and starts giving orders like he’s been telling us what do since the beginning of time. I gave him a week before he stuck his head up when he shouldn’t, or gave an order stupid enough to get him shot by his own troops. Seven months later, when we shipped to Hera, he was still there, and we couldn’t remember what it was like to be without him. That Browncoat sergeant brought me out of it, made the fight seem worthy again, at least till Serenity Valley.”

The chair creaked again as she stood. “What happened to River was beyond bad. But you need to look harder for someone to lay it on, like the hwundan who kidnapped her and cut her up and drugged her. Think on them as unkindly as you like. But the captain needs more from his crew than polite restraint. And if you’re still crew, you’ll give it to him. Else you’ve got no place on this ship.”

“You love him,” Simon said softly. “Don’t you?”

Wash stopped breathing; his heart seemed to stop, too. The claustrophobic space around him disappeared from his consciousness. He was a pair of straining ears, nothing more.

“Doctor, I can say true that I never held a thought of sharin a bed with him for any longer than it took to sneeze. I’m sure he felt the same. We had plenty of chances and never took them. We never needed that sort of comfort from each other. And besides, I’m fair sure the little rooster who flies this boat has ruined me for other men.”

His heart started again; his breathing, not so much.

“But?” Simon pressed.

He heard her shoe scrape the floor as she turned for the door. “My man once told me I was a woman with two husbands. Wish to God I could have called him a liar.”

COMMENTS

Wednesday, February 3, 2010 11:47 AM

2X2


That's quite a blow to learn that River would have been 'fine' had she finished her time in the box before being unfrozen... I could see Simon being wound pretty tight after that all right. The scene with him and Jayne was interesting, with Book and Wash tagging along to make sure *Simon* didn't shoot Jayne... And then Zoe's final words at the end, a lot of stuff stirring up in this part.


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