The Bouncing Ball Ch 20
Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Been awhile, but we still here... Jane and I spin a yarn and bounce the ball. Cat stands back...


Chapter 20 ============

Declan heard the first shout as River called for her husband, waking him from a light doze as he lay on his bed, and it had him reaching for his father’s shotgun even before the echoes had died away. Swinging his legs over the edge he sat quietly, listening intently, and sure enough within half a minute Jayne’s deep voice came over the comm., surprisingly unperturbed.

“We’re about to have visitors. A lot of ‘em. You know what to do.”

Declan was on his feet immediately, catching sight of his reflection in the mirror, his eyes straying to the green flannel shirt Cat had left on the drawer unit. “You picked a helluva time to leave us, Cat. Hope he's worth it.” He saw himself shake his head ruefully then hurried out into the corridor, hearing sounds from the children’s rooms that indicated they were hurrying to hide.

He ran through the common area into the cargo bay. Zoe was already there, getting more ammunition out of the armoury and sliding it home into her Mare’s Leg. She looked up.

“Are you with us?” she asked.

For a moment Declan couldn’t answer, seeing the dark-skinned warrior in all her splendour, as if she had just walked out of his father’s stories. Finally, his mouth speaking without his brain in gear, he said, “Sure as hell ain’t with them.” At her expression he added quickly, “Yes, Ma’am. I'm here.”

“Good. Take the high ground on the catwalk behind the mule. River says they’re going to get in.”

“How?” He glanced around, noting the absence of Cat's own hover mule from its space. “Can't you lock the ship down?”

“I don’t know. But I’ve learned she tends to be more right than not.”

He looked down at the shotgun nestled in his arms. “I need a rifle, then. Mathilda ain’t good close up – she’s liable to blow more holes in the hull than in people.”

Zoe cracked a small smile even as she reached into the armoury. “Mal won't like it if he finds out you made holes in his ship. He tends to be a mite protective.”

“Cat won't like it if I put holes in you all either.”

“Rather you didn't.” She shook her head. “I will never understand the way men name their guns.” She pulled a rifle loose, handing it to him. “Just try not to shoot any of us.”

“I’ll try.” He had to ask. "Where is he, anyway? Mal." "With Cat." Her taciturn expression discouraged any further questions.

Batha padded silently up to them. 'Need to get outside,' she said mentally, sitting down and gazing at them, her tongue wrapping around her muzzle just once.

Zoe looked down at her. “Okay,” she said, striding to the airlock, but suddenly River was there, manipulating the controls. She opened the sliding doors just enough so that Zoe could get to the outer lock.

As Batha went to pass her, River tugged on her ear. “Be careful,” she said quietly. “They know you’re with us now. Ready for you.”

'Not scared.'

River put the image she’d picked up into Batha’s mind ... stun nets and tridents, designed to immobilise big animals. “Cat won’t like it if you get hurt.”

Won’t like it if you either. So both stay safe.

This time River kept her words unspoken. 'They’re coming.'

'I know.' She purred. 'Going to have fun.'

Zoe sighed, just faintly, and tugged the door open. Before the gap was anywhere near wide enough, the panther had slid out into the darkness, a soft laughter in their minds.

“Have to go too,” River said, running towards the metal staircase and vanishing as quickly as she’d arrived.

“Am I the only one that creeps out, just a bit?” Declan asked. “The panther, I mean,” he added quickly at Zoe’s glare.

“Nope. It does it to Hank too.” Zoe closed the door, but not before seeing movement in the shadows. “Here they come,” she added, thumping her hand down on the controls, the inner doors slamming shut and making the deck vibrate.

“I thought you said that wouldn’t work.”

“Do we have a choice?” She nodded towards the upper catwalk. “Get to your post.” She ran up the stairs and disappeared through the top hatch.

Declan heard a low laugh behind him, and he span, levelling the rifle, for just a split wondering how the bad guys had already got in.

“You shoot me, I’ll be pissed,” Jayne said, shouldering Vera.

“Sorry.” Declan lowered the barrel to point at the floor. “Do you really think they can get in?”

“If my moonbrain says they can, better take it as gospel.” Something thudded onto the airlock. “Sooner, more likely than later.”

“Why don’t we just take off?”

The big ex-merc shrugged. “No idea. Maybe they got a lock on us.”

A whine began, vibrating through the deck plating.

“They’re trying to drill in?” Declan asked, surprised.

Jayne opened his mouth to answer, but Kaylee’s voice over the comm interrupted.

“I need help here!”

Jayne’s face hardened, his eyes turning to sapphire. “Go. Check on her. And close off the engine room.”

“Don’t start without me.”

The whine increased, setting their teeth on edge.

“I’ll try.”

Declan nodded, a grin on his face as he ran through the common area towards the back stairs. ==== "Cat ..." Mal's hands were fists. "You know full well by the time you get back it'll be too late. So you can go hurry along and be just about in time to bury the bodies ... or you can trust they can handle themselves and we get this done." His grip on her arm tightened. "You knew and you didn't tell me." "Let. Go." She growled, low in the back of her throat. "Does it help? Knowing?" Mal focused. 'Frey?' There was no response, at least no words, just a swell of annoyance at being interrupted. "See?" Cat said. "If anything happens to her ..." Cat pulled herself free. "Yeah, I know." 'Jia yan ...' It was River, her voice clear in both their heads. 'We are dealing with it.' Mal scowled. Albatross ... 'And Batha is enjoying herself.' 'Agreed,' the panther thought. Cat stepped closer to him, so close his perfume was all she was aware of. "Go back. Leave me here. Do whatever it is you need to do. I'm going to work." Ignoring the urge to bite his cheek, she stalked past him into the dark. For just a second he stood. "Shit." But he followed. This time only in Cat's mind, Batha continued, 'Blood ... guts ... fun.' 'Wish I was there, Bat.' 'No you don't.' 'Just watch Declan.' There was a swift impression of the huge panther disemboweling a screaming man, then she was back. 'Want I save you one?' 'Think I have enough to do.' 'Sure?' 'I'd forgotten what a pain in the ass Mal could be.' She moved quickly to avoid falling debris as more ceiling tiles came down. 'Captain man,' Batha laughed. Cat turned to see Mal standing behind her, dustier than ever, brushing said debris from his shoulders. "You mighta told me that was going to happen." "Oh," Cat said brightly. "You're still here." "Very funny." This time he didn't even try to keep the sneeze inside. "Come on," he said, wiping at his nose with the back of his hand. "Let's get this done." "Keep your mind in the game and we will." ==== Up on the bridge both Hank and Freya were frantically trying to stop the overrides flashing on all screens, but neither were having any luck. "Gorram it!" Hank slammed his fists down onto the console. "I can't break the landlock." He turned to glare at Freya. "How the hell are they doing this?" "I don't know." Freya's fingers were still flying over the controls, but even as he watched they slowed, then stopped. "They're going to get in." Hank went pale and swallowed hard. "Hadn't you better let Mal know?" She shook her head. "No. He's going to be busy." "But -" Whatever Hank was going to say was interrupted by River running onto the bridge. "They're coming," the young psychic said, her double bandoleers crossing her chest and making her look even tinier than usual. "I know," Freya said, staring out into the night. Then she physically shook herself and turned in the navigation chair. "River, can you do anything to stop them?" "No more than you could." She sighed. "I feel useless." Freya had to smile. "You?" "What they've done ... what they're doing ... I don't know how to fight it yet." "They're like Cat?" River nodded. Then shrugged. "Similar but not the same. They're using equipment they shouldn't have, though." "Then we don't have a choice." Kaylee's yell reverberated down the corridor, an odd echo to her voice coming over the comm. "I need help here!" Freya's brow cleared. "Hank, go." "No. I won't leave you here alone. Mal'd kill me if I -" "Hank, you think carefully before you finish that sentence." "Besides, she won't be alone," River added. "I don't need protection," Freya almost snarled. River ignored her, and said to Hank, "Go. Kaylee might be able to do something." Hank stared at the two women, then nodded hard. "You start fighting between you, though, and I might have to come back to referee." He turned on his heel and ran off the bridge. "Or at least take the bets," he added over his shoulder. "I don't need your protection," Freya repeated, this time more in control of herself. "Hormones," River murmured. "And I'm not under the influence of them either!" "Not you ..." River gazed out into the darkness, feeling the minds of the mercenaries outside, and those of her family within. "Can't concentrate ..." Freya reached out, trying to touch her surrogate daughter's mental walls, but as fluid as they seemed to be there was a duality, a sort of echo, something she'd felt before. Her eyes widened. "River?" The grin the young woman flashed her was totally sane, a joyous look that transformed her for a split, before the 'crazy lunatic assassin' slid back into place. "Mother ..." Freya swallowed. "Does Jayne know?" "Yes." "And he hasn't told anyone?" "I asked him not to." "And he listened?" Freya had to smile. "You've certainly worked some changes in him, little one." "He said he understood and would let me tell everyone in my own time." "And Simon?" "Better to be in the dark than the creator of pincushions." For a moment Freya was confused, then chuckled. When River had been pregnant with Cal Simon had insisted on checking her hormone level daily, and the young woman had complained at length, and in a variety of languages, about being stuck with a needle on a regular basis. "I guess. But you have to tell him." At River's look Freya felt a faint blush colour her cheeks. "Yes. I know." "She understands why," River said quietly. "But Jayne won't stop me fighting." Suddenly she lifted her head, like a hunter scenting his prey. "Batha ..." Freya turned her mind outside, and even though the increasing hormones in her body was starting to make seeing things difficult, the image of the panther under a stun net, trying to scrabble her way ineffectually free, was very clear. "Shit." "Have to go up." River picked up her rifle. "I might be able to clear a path for her." "River, wait." Freya grabbed her arm. "We're in lockdown." "Not any more." River pointed, and sure enough, on the Firefly's schematic shining on one of the screens, lights were steadily flicking out. "The airlocks ..." River nodded. "Knock knock, knock ..." ==== "Kaylee?" The young woman didn't even glance up at Hank. "Can't do it," she grunted, her hands flying over the engine's controls. "Can't lift it." Hank stepped down next to her, "What do you want me to do?" "Airlocks." Her lips were tight. "If'n I can cycle the power to you, can you stop 'em doing whatever it is they're doing?" He nodded and crossed to another panel. "Go for it." For a long minute they worked in silence, until Kaylee slammed her fist into the metal wall. "Gorramit!" "They've got something locked onto us," Hank said slowly, reading the telltale signs. "No matter what I do I can't stop it." "They're gonna get in ..." A grinding noise, almost just a vibration, made the deckplates under their feet shudder in sympathy, setting everyone's teeth on edge. "Cargo bay doors," Hank whispered, then felt his heart miss more than a beat in shock as a man appeared. "Declan!" he gasped, holding his chest. "You trying to kill me?" "I somehow don't think it'd be that easy." The young man looked from one to the other. "I'm guessing you can't stop it?" "No." Just one word, but Declan could see the fury radiating from Kaylee. He was impressed - she seemed to be nothing but a ray of sunshine, yet right now he believed she could take on every single one of those mercenaries outside all by herself. 'Need to get rid of spiders.' Bastha's voice inside their minds made Hank go even paler than before. Kaylee, on the other hand, said, "Spiders?" A image formed in their heads of something attached to the external airlock controls, indeed resembling a spider, its body flashing from red to green to gold to amber in sequence, each of its ten legs glowing as they interfered with the electrics. 'Need to clean house.' Another image, this time of a man lying on the ground, his mouth wide open in an agonised scream as claws swiped through his body armour, was swiftly cut off. "Batha?" Kaylee asked. "Batha?" There was nothing. Hank swallowed. "Think she's ..." "No," Declan said quietly but firmly. He looked at Kaylee. "Can you do anything?" Kaylee's eyes sparkled. "If what she showed was accurate -" "I think you can take it it was." "Then yeah. I think I can." She turned to Hank. "Remember how we got rid of those men came to kill us?" "Which ones?" the pilot asked. "It's not like we haven't had this happen before." "The discharge spikes ..." Hank couldn't go any paler, but he tried. The memory of having to clear the charred bodies of the men caught in the electrical flash was one that had him waking sometimes in the middle of the night, sweat sticking the sheet to his body. If Zoe hadn't understood, occasionally victim to nightmares herself ... "It ain't raining now," he managed to say. "Nope. But if I can put a charge through the hull, I might be able to disrupt 'em enough to let me disable 'em." Declan nodded encouragingly. "Do it." They're in. This time it was River's voice echoing in their minds. "Fuck." Declan turned on his heel and ran for the cargo bay. Kaylee's hands were already flying across the control panels. "Hank, I need you." "But if they're already inside -" "Then I can stop 'em getting out. And Jayne can kill 'em." "Kaylee ..." Hank protested. "You think they're gonna let the kids go?" she asked, turning on him, her face as angry and set as he'd ever seen it. "I don't wanna kill anyone any more'n you. But it's them or us." For a fleeting moment Hank wondered where the happy, bright, cheerful girl Kaylee used to be had gone, and felt a flare of anger at Mal for making her this way. Then guilt flooded in, drowning it. That Kaylee was still there, and would come out again, but right now she needed to be a fighter, protecting her family. A mother, he realised. He gave one curt nod. "Got it." He started to disengage the safeties on the spikes, then a thought occurred to him and he flicked five switches. The engine room plunged into darkness. "Hank?" Kaylee stared at him, or at least where she thought he was. "What are you doing?" A faint glimmer from the emergency lights grew in brightness, stopping when there was just enough illumination to see by, but a single glance out into the corridor showed the rest of the ship was still pitch black. "Close the door, Kaylee," Hank commanded, and she found herself complying before she could stop to think. "But they won't be able to see the bad guys." "You think that's going to stop Jayne? Or Zoe? River? Frey?" He grinned, his teeth showing white in the gloom. "We know this ship - the bad guys don't. I think it gives us the advantage, don't you?" She stared at him, then her lips twitched. "You're a devious hwoon dahn sometimes, you know that?" she said as she went back to redirecting the power lines. He shrugged. "Hey, I ain't allowed to gamble no more. Have to get that adrenalin rush from somewhere." "I thought you got that from living with Zoe." "And I intend to keep on doing it," he said, disengaging the safeties. ==== "Zoe?" Jayne whispered, barely vocalising, waiting for his eyes to become accustomed to the sudden darkness. "Kaylee," the first mate murmured back. "Good girl." "Yeah." The outer cargo bay doors were open, they could tell, and whatever the bad guys were using was now at work on the inner doors. There was a hiss of protesting metal, then they slid swiftly apart. Jayne grinned ferally, the small amount of moonlight augmenting his night vision admirably. "Better," he muttered. A rifle he recognised spat from high above them, and a man shrieked out in pain somewhere in the dark. "That's my girl." He could almost see her on top of the hull, dress fluttering around her knees, her bandoleers crossed over her chest, and he felt a swelling in his pants.. Jayne. Something small bounced into the bay, spinning to a halt, tiny lights flashing. "Grenade!" he yelled, bringing Vera around in a single, fluid movement. "Jayne, stop!" Zoe this time. "You'll make it -" She didn't finish, couldn't get the words out in time, before the big man fired. Vera's slug seemed to miss, hitting the deck an inch from the grenade, then it ricocheted up, catching the casing enough to send it flying back out of the door. A moment later the explosion lit the night, the sound echoing back into the Firefly. "What?" Jayne asked. "Never mind." "I thought Mal didn't like holes being blown in his boat?" Declan asked, appearing next to Zoe like a wraith. "I think in this case he might make an exception." 'Watch it, Princess Merc.' Batha's voice purred through their heads. "You just go do what you're good at," Jayne ground out, annoyed at the continued use of her nickname for him. 'Can't when leg blown off.' Jayne's eyes widened. "I didn't -" 'Princess Merc easy.' Batha laughed, but there was something about it ... "Gorramit, cat." River had just popped an image into his head. "You caught?" 'Maybe. And not cat.' A stun net, two guards ... River's rifle spat again. One guard, she whispered in his mind. "Zoe?" Jayne looked for the first mate, only able to make her out from the faint glow of her eyes, her dark skin making her otherwise invisible. "Go. We've got this covered." He slid silently around the crates, hugging the bulkhead until he was directly next to the opening. Then, dropping to a crouch, he was outside in a moment, although his exit hadn't been unnoticed. Three rifles opened up, bullets thudding into the hull above him. "Mal ain't gonna like that either," he muttered to himself as he melted into the dark. ==== There. A scratching. Like mice. Or rats. Big, purple armour-wearing rats. Freya stepped forward slowly, her rifle trained on the avionics bay below the bridge windows, her mind picking up the two men about to come through the emergency airlock ... ==== "Lie still." The guard poked her with his stun trident. "You ain't going anywhere." He'd ducked down behind a rock after his companion's head exploded, but luckily the body was lying facing away from him. Not that it had a face. Or much of a skull left, either. Batha growled, her eyes glowing green. 'Rip off skin,' she dripped into his mind. 'Wear like a hat.' The guard tapped the control box with his toe, and the charge in the net covering her increased, making her whimper with the unexpected pain. "Stop that." 'Bash out brains.' His eyes narrowed. "I said stop that." He reached for the controls again. "Nope. She's right." Jayne swung Vera, the butt connecting with the guard's skull and shattering it, driving deadly shards into his brain. The man was dead before he hit the ground. Batha purred. 'Told you.' "You got yourself into one hell of a pre-dicament," Jayne said, swinging Vera over his back. 'Princess Merc help. Not joke.' Jayne chuckled. "You better be nice to me or I'll leave you for a zoo to pick up." Batha growled, her claws digging feebly at the earth beneath her. 'Please,' she ground out. "That's more like it." The stun net had fired grapplers into the ground as soon as it had expanded, trapping Batha beneath, while the charge had weakened her enough to keep her immobile. He picked up the control box, studying it. "Hang a sec." 'Can't go anywhere, Princess Merc' He glared at her. "Just stop calling me Princess." 'Not Merc.' "Huh?" 'Not Kitty's Merc. Belong to Bethie.' Her voice sounded resigned, as if she was explaining something very simple, so obvious even a child - or a man like Jayne - should be able to get it. A vague understanding glimmered in him. "So 'cause you call Bethie ... I'm ... Right." 'Could call you Pink Bow Merc.' "Over my dead body." 'Could be arranged.' "Hey, you're the one needing my help here." He waved the control box. "Don't see you with the opposable thumbs." 'Long words from Pink Bow Merc.' He growled, then said, "I ain't gonna be able to stop you, am I?" 'No.' "Then ... I think I prefer Princess Merc." 'Not as stupid as you appear.' "Just don't tell no-one, okay?" 'Who tell? Everyone already know.' "Watch it, cat." He dropped the control box to the ground and stamped on it, grinding it into the dirt with his boot. It shorted out, sparks flying, and Batha howled her freedom as the charge died. Immediately her claws and teeth made short work of the net itself, and she stood in the moonlight, her fur absorbing it and making her look like nothing more than a shadow. Then she leaped past Jayne, taking a mercenary down who'd managed to creep up on them, her jaws clamping on his neck, blood spurting as he tried to push her away. 'Watch what, Princess Pink Bow?' ==== High up on Serenity's hull, kneeling on the cold metal - oddly enough almost exactly where Cat had laid earlier - River smiled to herself. Batha liked Jayne, as much as the panther could like anyone, otherwise she wouldn't tease him like this. Not that it fitted, of course. Princess Pink Bow. Although there was that time when she'd found him lying on the bed in their shuttle ... the ribbon then was red, and not around his ear. Still, a most pleasurable memory. She fired again, and another mercenary staggered back, the metal slug barely slowing in its passage through his brain. ==== "Ready?" Kaylee asked, glancing over her shoulder at Hank. "As I'll ever be." He adjusted a lever. "Uh ... do we need to worry about us? I mean, the crew inside?" "I'm sending it through the skin. Shouldn't affect anyone." "Shouldn't?" "Nothing's 100 percent, Hank." "Right." He took a deep breath. "Okay. On my mark. Five ..." ==== Freya fired down into the avionics bay, catching one of the men in the neck who fell back on his companion, out of sight. Not that she was going to follow ... too easy to be caught in a tight space, and even she couldn't fire around corners. Something made the hair on the back of her neck lift, and she half-turned, expecting to see Hank or Kaylee behind her, but there was nothing, not even a sign of movement in the deep shadows. ==== "Four ..." ==== River felt a tingling where her toes were touching bare metal, and she got to her feet. "Three ..." she echoed. ==== "Zoe." Declan stared at the lighter patch showing through the open doors. "What?" "Why aren't they rushing us?" "I don't know." "I've got a bad feeling about this." Zoe glanced towards him. "You're not the only one." ==== "Two ..." ==== River smiled, tossing her rifle to the ground below. She spread her arms, feeling the cool night air caress her skin. "One." She jumped. ==== The charge swept through the hull, microvibrating molecular particles of loose paint from the metal walls, running along the exterior conduits and spreading out. As it reached the 'spiders' the lights on the central body went crazy, flashing indiscriminately, then they sparked and the legs detached, the device falling to the ground. Immediately all the airlocks responded to their previous command, and slammed shut, locking everyone either in or out. One of the mercenaries ran to the cargo bay doors, going down onto his heels to pick up the spider, trying to reattach it. "Hello." He jumped to his feet, dropping the spider and reaching for his gun. He would always be too late. River span on her heel, one leg high. Her heel caught him under his chin, snapping his head back. He slammed back into the hull, sliding down it, his eyes wide and sightless. She gazed down at him, her face registering no expression at all, then picked up her rifle from where it had fallen, and turned to help her husband. ==== There was definitely someone there. Freya could feel them, like a dip in the fabric of space and time, a shadow on the face of the moon. Someone in the empty corridor. She stepped silently across the bridge. ==== "Did it work?" Hank asked. Kaylee was studying the dials. "I think so." "Can we put the lights on yet?" "I don't know ..." Hank swallowed, pushing his claustrophobia back down. ==== Declan stood up slowly, allowing his night vision to reassert itself, making out the edges of the crates and cages by the tiny amount of ambient light somehow reaching the cargo bay. "Something's not right." Zoe listened. "You think someone got past us." "I don't - " A gunshot echoed through the ship. "Freya ..." Declan breathed, running before another thought.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011 5:23 AM


Really excellent high tension chapter.

It takes a lot to really threaten the BDHs, but the danger is palpable here

Wednesday, March 2, 2011 9:38 AM


Holy *goushi*, this is a rip roaring chapter, love, love, love it! But I am worried about Frey and whoever or whatever is in the corridor that shouldn't be. River was magnificent and Batha made me laugh. Can't wait for the next chappie, this is utterly brilliant Angellemarcs. Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Thursday, March 3, 2011 9:49 AM


Woa... good chapter.

- 'Ski


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