SPARKS FLY (03) Part (02)
Tuesday, June 14, 2011

How did Serenity get so far off course? Jayne offers his unique perspective on orbital mechanics while Mal tries to deal with the crisis.


(03) SPARKS FLY Part (02)


Start at the beginning with A LION’S MOUTH (01)

How did Serenity get so far off course? Jayne offers his unique perspective on orbital mechanics while Mal tries to deal with the crisis.

Previous Part | Next Part

* * *

Mealtimes were Kaylee’s favorite part of the day on Serenity, ’cause they were the times that brought the whole family together. Everybody was here now, except River who’d eaten quickly and gone to the bridge to relieve Zoe, who hadn’t arrived yet. It was so cute, Kaylee thought, to see the Captain and Inara actin’ so sweet on each other. It was perfectly obvious that they were holdin’ hands under the table, and she reckoned they was also touching feet, and prolly knees and legs too, judging by the way the Cap’n was sittin’. Kaylee nudged Simon’s knee with her own and he caressed her foot with his in response. She knew they weren’t so obvious. Not that Inara was obvious—she was so classy about it, sittin’ with ease and natural style, but the Cap’n looked about like to fall off his chair with the effort of maintaining contact. The platters of food got passed around, and when Jayne tried to hand off the scallion pancakes to the Cap’n, he was so taken up with Inara he didn’t even notice. Jayne finally shoved the platter practically under his nose, and the Cap’n sorta woke up and joined the world for a moment, murmuring a “Thanks, Jayne,” and takin’ the platter in his left hand. That left him in a fix, ’cause he was holdin’ Inara’s hand with his right, and now he couldn’t serve hisself. So he just set there staring at the pancakes. It was so funny Kaylee wanted to laugh, but that wouldn’ta been polite, and she was wonderin’ should she take pity and help the Cap’n outta his fix, or would that just make it worse, if he knew she noticed. But then Inara gracefully solved the problem by serving first Mal, then herself, and then taking the platter and passing it on smoothly. Now the Cap’n had a new problem, which was tryin’ to feed himself with his chopsticks in his left hand, which wouldn’ta been so bad, ’cept he was a right-handed person. He weren’t managing so well, but then he kinda forgot to eat ’cause he was lookin’ at Inara again.

Zoe entered the room briskly and sat down, briefing the Captain as she served herself. “Got the course set, Captain.” Mal and Inara were gazing deep into each other’s eyes, and it was clear he hadn’t heard. “Captain,” she said, a little more sharply, “Captain, the course is set.”

“Course?” asked Mal, suddenly aware of the other people around the table. “Uh, right, Zoe.” He was back with the program, briefly. “Good.” He smiled, not noticing that Zoe had more to say, and drifted away to Inaraland again.

“Captain, number one nav sat is offline. Diagnostic read it as an electrical problem. We’re running with the second unit.”

He coulda sworn that music was playing as he looked into Inara’s eyes. There seemed to be people talking in muffled voices in the background. Inara’s eyes reflected his feelings, in perfect sympathy, as he thought on their glorious night together and his pulse began racing in anticipation of the night to come—

“—Sir, will you pay attention?” Zoe’s loud and pointed voice abruptly cut through his fantasy. He sat up and paid attention. One glance at Zoe was enough to read the reprimand in her look. When had she ever reprimanded him? He acknowledged he mighta deserved the reprimand, and focused on his duty.

“I said, the number one is offline, electrical failure,” Zoe continued. “We’re running with the second nav sat, but it’s reading hot. I’m wondering if there’s a bigger problem.”

“The third unit still reading proper?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Let’s hope it holds on. You see any more signs of trouble with the nav system, call me to the bridge immediately. Kaylee, soon as you’re finished lunch, run a diagnostic on the electrical system, and check the nav feeds.”

* * *

The Captain accompanied Kaylee to the engine room after lunch and assisted her as she ran a full diagnostic on the electrical systems. She carried her handheld around, plugging into the various ports and checking the readings. Mal ran some tests on communications functions via a wall-mounted cortex screen. “Need a hand with that one?” Mal asked, and plugged Kaylee’s handheld into a ceiling port that she couldn’t reach without a leg up.

“Shiny, Captain.” Kaylee’s only beef with the designers of Serenity’s engine room was the fact that certain critical switches and ports were located above the reach of a five foot five mechanic. It helped to have a six foot one captain around to reach the high spots. “You’re learning your way around the engine room.”

“I learned the hard way that you gotta have back-up, and back-up to the back-up, when it comes to the ship,” Mal said. “Won’t never forget how to install a catalyzer.”

“I believe it.” She looked over the results. “Cap’n, I can’t find anything wrong with the nav feeds, nor the main electrical. I’m seein’ some interference on the helm driver, but it don’t look serious. When we get planetside, I wanna go outside and check it out. May be some cross talk from the busted nav sat.”

“You do that, Kaylee. We should be at 尘球 Chén Qíu in a week. They have a small but decent repair yard there.”

As Mal left the engine room, he encountered Simon on his way there. Doc was fixing to distract his mechanic, he had no doubt. Mal waylaid him. “Hey! Doc! Just the person I need to see.”


“There’s something I need to ask you about…the infirmary.”

Simon immediately guessed that the Captain was asking for a private consult, and switched into professional mode. “Well, why don’t we go down there? I’ll try to answer your questions.”

* * *

The two men entered the infirmary, and Simon closed the door. He motioned toward the switch that activated the privacy screens on the windows, but Mal waved him off.

“Uh, doc, I’m wondering, uh…” Mal began, uncharacteristically tongue-tied.

Simon already had an idea where this was headed, but it didn’t seem right to show that he had caught on so quickly. He settled for a calm, physicianly “Yes?”

“I…uh…need, um, do you stock, uh…”

“Captain, the infirmary’s well stocked. Are you anticipating a need for something in particular?”

“Well, it’s just that I, uh, you know, people on this boat, might be needing, uh…for, uh, intimate er…”

Relieved that he could at last speak openly and cut short the Captain’s painful stammering, Simon said, “We’re well stocked with contraceptives for both men and women. There’s the oral form and the inoculation. The men’s pill is about 90 percent effective at preventing the transmission of STD’s and about 95 percent effective at preventing a partner’s pregnancy. You take it once a day. The inoculation lasts for a month and is 99 percent effective in preventing pregnancy, about the same for STD’s. Either one is a good choice for a responsible man.” Simon was feeling rather responsible himself. “Would you like to give one of them a trial?”

“A trial, good idea, that’s—I’ll take the inock.”

Simon prepared the inoculation.

* * *

River took Zoe completely by surprise. She had been nodding off on pilot duty again, and this time she could not repress her start.


“I’m not sleepy,” River said defensively.

Just who was that girl speaking of? Zoe thought. “I thought you were in bed. It’s my watch, you should get some rest.”

“There’s a problem,” River stated.

Zoe looked over the instrument panel, puzzled. Everything looked to be in good order. Well, everything other than the nav sat that’d already gone haywire before. Then as she watched, the alert sounded.

* * *

There is no sound in space. Sound requires a medium of transmission, such as air or a metal hull. If a nav sat explodes in space, does it make a sound? It certainly makes a flash.

* * *

“What’s this?” Zoe immediately investigated the alert. “Second nav sat’s down. Let’s get the third— 该死 gāisǐ,” she said as the screen flashed “nav sat 3 unable to read” right below the “nav sat 2 off-line” already on it. “Call the Cap—” she began.

River was already speaking into the comm. “Captain, you’re needed on the bridge.”

* * *

Mal had heard two muffled thuds transmitted through the hull of his ship, and was already on alert when River’s voice sounded on the comm. He took the steps two at a time and arrived at the bridge directly. Zoe and River were busy with their view screens, checking readings and following up on the alert. The first thing Mal noticed as he looked out into the black was a planet looming unusually large amongst the stars.

“What’s going on?” he asked. He recognized the planet. “那死的地方 Nà sǐ de dìfang.”

“Trajectory projections are off, Captain,” River reported. “Our reported position doesn’t match visuals.”

Mal shared a dark, significant look with Zoe. She recognized the planet, too.

“Our course shouldn’ta run us anywhere near that planet,” Mal said, more to River than to Zoe. “How’d we get so far off course?” he asked, more to Zoe than to River.

Zoe avoided answering that question. “Helm’s not responding, sir,” she reported. “We just lost nav sat two—and three.”

“Pull up a nav link on the cortex—”

River was tapping something into her keyboard as he spoke. “Unable to connect to the cortex, Captain.” She continued her tapping, initiating a helm diagnostic sequence.

“We got a sky chart on board, sir,” Zoe noted.

Mal took Zoe’s seat at the helm and tried the controls. He let out a string of fluent Mandarin under his breath. River caught the words: Half a million battle dead, buried in Serenity Valley. “Run a diagnostic on the helm,” Mal ordered, and River popped the results of the just-completed diagnostic onto his screen. “Right, thanks, River,” he said, assessing the results. “We got gyros, attitude thrusters, but no trig functions, no ephemeris, 该死 gāisǐ…” he enumerated, skimming down the list. “We are far too close to that 墓地 mùdì planet, with a non-responsive helm. No telling what the gravity slingshot off of Hera will do to our course.”

“Captain, I can calculate—” River offered.

“No thanks, Albatross. Won’t take us where we’re supposed to go, that’s all I need to know now. Kaylee!” he hollered into the comm.

* * *

Kaylee rolled out from under the flight desk. “Captain, the helm problem’s not mechanical. Don’t see no cross-feeds nor shorts. We can try a re-boot.”

Mal eyed the looming planet. He judged that they needed to take some action before the lengthy system re-boot could complete. “We don’t have time now. We gotta act before we get slung the wrong way by that 致命 zhìmìng planet. We gotta slow her down.”

“I can shut down the engine,” Kaylee offered.

“That won’t do it, our momentum will still carry us forwards. And right now we’re set for that 可怕的地方 kěpà de dìfang to fling us off into the black. Go for a reverse thrust, ease the way off her. We need a position fix, calculate the vector, and see if we can park her in orbit while we sort out the helm and navs.” Zoe began to execute the reverse thrust.

By this time, everyone had come up to the bridge. Inara and Simon lurked just outside the door, knowing that they’d be more or less in the way of bridge crew’s work. Jayne had no such compunctions and parked himself right in the doorway.

“What’s going on?” Inara asked.

“That’s not our destination, is it?” asked Simon, peering around the bulk of Jayne’s body.

Mal shot him a dark look. Zoe’s dark look misfired, and landed on Jayne.

“Are we gonna crash?” Jayne asked.

“No, Jayne,” Zoe answered, “the opposite.”

“We’re going to land?” Simon and Jayne were like a tag-team with the 笨 bèn questions.

Mal was gonna lose his temper if he had to hear any more of this 废话 fèihuà . “How do you all think this boat works, anyhow? Just point it at a planet and drive? We’re talkin’ orbital mechanics, people—” He broke off into an annoyed grumble, and turned his attention back to the serious task of working through the problem.

Jayne looked at Kaylee, briefly wondering if she were an orbital mechanic.

Kaylee summarized the situation for the newcomers. “Nav sats are down, we’re off course, and the helm’s not workin’.”

“Know what I think?” Jayne said. “It’s sabotage.”

“Sabotage?” Inara said. “Who would sabotage Serenity?”

“Inara, you got any nav or comm in your shuttle?” Mal asked suddenly.

“I’ll check,” she replied, and raced down the stairs.

“If the shuttle’s got nav, I can work a patch up to the bridge,” Kaylee offered.

“Might hafta do it, Kaylee,” Mal replied. “But it’s limited use. Shuttle’s nav system ain’t a proper interplanetary nav sat—it’s designed to use the short-range global positioning beacons parked in orbit around a world. Both our shuttles are short range, for near-orbit or atmospheric work. They don’t got the long-range antennas needed for interplanetary navigation. Still, could be useful, if—”

“Mal,” Inara’s voice sounded in the comm, “The nav system won’t even light up. I also checked the cortex, it’s completely shut down.” She added, before he could ask, “I’ll check Shuttle Two.”

“Kaylee, can you get us any helm at all?” Mal inquired.

“I’m working on getting the auxiliary helm online, Captain. The broken nav sats are interfering with the helm driver. If I can stop the cross-feed, I might could get the main helm back.”

“Can’t we send a wave?” Simon asked, earning him the Captain’s attention. “To—” he didn’t know what planet or moon he was looking at through the bridge window “—that world, and ask for assistance?” Mal and Zoe both gave him freezing looks, but he continued anyway. It was not a dumb idea. “Surely somebody there can…um, read our position for us, or send us out a new nav…thing in a shuttle, help us install it—”

Sounded reasonable to Jayne. “Ya mean, hire us an orbital mechanic?” he asked.

“I don’t need no help installin’ a nav sat,” Kaylee retorted, with surprising vehemence, while Zoe and the Captain redirected their freezing looks toward Jayne. “I’m perfectly capable of diagnosing this problem myself.”

“And I ain’t callin’ the Feds for help,” Mal stated decisively, and Zoe, without saying a word, backed him up fully. “Fact is, we can’t wave anybody at all, unless—” He directed a questioning look at Inara, who had just returned to the bridge.

“Shuttle Two is the same, Mal. No navigation or communication systems working.” She hesitated before making her offer. “Mal, as long as I knew exactly what piece of equipment we needed, I could fly the shuttle down and—” she was out of her depth here, and guessed “—buy one, and bring it back up…”

“No.” Mal was adamant. “Hera’s atmo is entirely controlled airspace. Can’t land without a clearance from Space Traffic Control. Send a pair of fighter ships after you if you tried. They’d ask you to ident, and since your comm is out, you wouldn’t hear ’em.” Mal and Zoe shared a grim look. “No one from this ship gonna set foot on Hera.” Again the Captain and First Officer exchanged a meaningful look, leaving Inara wondering what exactly had happened on Hera—besides Serenity Valley, of course—that had Mal and Zoe acting this way.

Simon wasn’t ready to give up. “Captain, surely there’s some sort of emergency beacon—”

“We are not puttin’ out a distress call. We are not in that kind of distress. Inappropriate, and it attracts all the wrong kind of attention.” Without saying a word, Mal made it clear that the town-hall meeting was over; he had made his decision. “Course log and star chart, Zoe. We’ll have to use dead reckoning.”

“I don’t like the sound a’ that,” Jayne stated to one and all, as Zoe pulled up the course log and got out the 3-D holographic star chart. The chart was dynamic, tracking planets and moons in their orbits.

“What do you mean?” Inara asked, as Mal bent over to examine the log and chart.

“Should be able to detect when the nav sat first started reading hot, and extrapolate from there…” Mal muttered.

River answered Inara’s question. “He’s going to use the navigational tools of the ancient mariners on Earth-that-was.”

Simon was ready with an explanation. “Dead reckoning is a means of finding your location by extrapolating from your starting point using the course traveled. It’s not as accurate as measuring your position. The ancient seafarers used primitive instruments like the sextant, cross staff and astrolabe to calculate their position from the stars. They sailed on a curved surface, and they used spherical trigonometry in their calculations. But we’re moving in space, so the calculations involve another dimension. And of course we’re moving, and so are all the planets and stars, so you have to take into account a moving point of view as well as the dynamics of the system…”

“Quiet, Simon, I can’t hear him think,” River snapped, as Mal said, “Shut it, Doc, will you, I can’t hear myself think. I’m workin’ the calculations.” He continued, almost to himself, “Hours ago…hours and hours ago, and there’s where the second one started to…I really don’t see how to do the trig. We ain’t got the tables, nor even an ephemeris.”

“A feminist?” Jayne asked.

“Declination 64 degrees, 18 minutes, 42 seconds. Right ascension 172 degrees, 37 minutes, 6 seconds. Radius 406,” River stated.

Everyone looked at her, mystified. Only Mal’s look was comprehending.

Jayne indicated River. “Is she a feminist?”

“Yeah,” Mal nodded at River, “that sounds about right.”

“What’s right?” Jayne asked while Simon inquired, “What do you mean?”

Mal ignored the comments, with a focused look on his face. River’s next speech was entirely mathematical, vector coordinates that must have conveyed a meaning to Mal, for he nodded. “We just need the angular momentum.”

“What is going on?” Simon demanded.

“Stop talking, Simon.” River shot him that you boob look. “I can’t hear him think!”

“Hear him think?” Simon blinked in surprise. She meant Mal was thinking?!

“Zoe, did Wash have a sextant?” Mal asked suddenly.

Jayne was intrigued. “A sex tent?”

Zoe was a little taken aback. “I’m not sure…sir.”

Not sure?!” Jayne couldn’t believe his ears. “Weren’t you two married?”

“Let’s go check,” Mal said to Zoe.

“Come down to my bunk.”

Jayne’s bewilderment showed in his face. “Zoe’s invitin’ Mal into her bunk for a sex te—thing.” He looked at Inara. “That’s just downright unsettlin’.”

Kaylee finished her under-the-counter tinkering with the auxiliary helm system and re-joined the conversation.

“A sextant, Jayne,” Inara corrected, rolling her eyes. “For navigation.”

“It’s an ancient tool for measuring the distances between the stars and planets,” said Simon, getting it. “Doesn’t even need batteries. You can use it to tell where you are in the ’Verse.”

Kaylee was impressed. “You know how to do it?”

“No, I…just…read about it in a book…” Simon trailed off, suddenly realizing just how woefully inadequate theoretical knowledge was in time of crisis. He turned to River. “You must know something about navigation…”

“I don’t really know how yet, Simon. But the Captain does. He can set up the equations. And I can do the trig in my head, it’s a really basic form of mathematics.”

Mal and Zoe re-entered the bridge, Mal holding a sextant. “Time to shoot the stars.”

“Should I get Vera?”

Mal gave Jayne the briefest flicker of his No, you idiot look. “Zoe, on the clock.”

Mal descended the stairs between the flight desks to the starviewing area in front of the bridge, and started shooting the stars. Several times, he called out a star name, put the sextant to his eye, called “Mark!” and read off the numbers. Zoe was taking notes, and did, in fact, have the ship’s chronometer by her side. River did not write, but paid close attention, with the focused look of a person calculating in her head. The rest of the crew was mystified by the performance.

Having collected enough data for a fix, Mal climbed up the stairs. “Okay, we do the calculations, should be able to figure out exactly where we are…”

River pricked the chart. “There.”

Mal gave a low whistle. “Worse than I reckoned. I do not like where this puts us.” Zoe and Mal shared a significant look, another one of their no-talking conversations that spoke volumes in a glance. “But at least now we can figure the correct entry vector for a parking orbit. River…?” he cocked his head at his pilot and left the rest unspoken.

River busied herself with the task, and Mal addressed his first officer. “Zoe, once River gives you the specs, see to gettin’ her parked. Best you can, with the limited helm.”

Mal then turned to the others. “Jayne, prep the suits. Kaylee, go grab your toolbox. We gotta go out on the side of the boat and see if we can fix the nav sats. You don’t mind a spacewalk, do you?”

Kaylee did mind. Made her all bibbledy to think about nothin’ but a little mylar and glass between herself and the vastness of the Black, and even though she knew it weren’t right, bein’ out on a spacewalk made her feel like she was gonna fall off the ship and keep fallin’ forever. Funny, ’cause it never bothered her, climbin’ all over Serenity planetside. But she couldn’t say no to her Captain. Simon gave her hand a squeeze for support, but when she looked at him, he looked sicker than even she felt.

* * *





尘球 Chén Qíu [name of a world]

该死 gāisǐ [damn it]

那死的地方 Nà sǐ de dìfang [That place of death]

该死 gāisǐ [damn it]

墓地 mùdì [graveyard]

致命 zhìmìng [deadly]

可怕的地方 kěpà de dìfang [place of trouble]

笨 bèn [stupid]

废话 fèihuà [nonsense]

Previous Part | Next Part


Tuesday, June 14, 2011 1:38 PM


Here's the next part of Sparks Fly!

Sorry about the slight delay in posting this relative to part 1--I got carried away writing Story #11, and hey, writing is a lot more fun than formatting for posting, so...

Please leave comments and constructive critiques. They're a big motivator. Thanks!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011 4:00 PM


The byplay of the crew was funny. :)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011 6:02 PM


Oh I do like this. The best part about your stories is you come up with all kinds of scenarios that are both the kind of low-key everyday thing the crew might deal with, and you pair it with style and a superb sense of scene flow.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011 5:41 AM


Also, a guy with star charts over his desk who can astronavigate? A sextant might not be what Jayne thinks it is, but da-yamn!

*Prods Inara's shoulder* What are you waiting for, woman? There is swooning to be done!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011 6:11 AM


"Inaraland" this is a riot!

Love the looks between Mal and Zoe, and poor Mal, he's got it bad with music playing in his ears...anticipating a shoe drop on the poor man.

Thursday, June 16, 2011 1:26 PM


Thanks for the comments, y'all.

My beta reader (sister) demanded that I re-write the bridge scene to fix some technical/logical issues, and it ended up better for it--it even flowed better with the new lines added in. Glad you liked it, Nutluck.

Bytemite--One reason I wrote this particular story was that I wanted to show Mal acting like a competent ship's captain--and navigating would be part of that. Loved your comment! We'll hear more about the sextant *wink* before this story is over.

Platonist--glad you liked Inaraland and the music. Yep, shoe's gonna drop, but I won't tell you when.

Also want to thank my husband for consulting on the planetary orbit insertion and spacecraft navigational equipment. The celestial navigation is my own look-out.

Friday, June 17, 2011 5:10 AM


This is absolutely brillo pads! Loved, loved, LOVED it, ebfiddler. I can imagine Mal as a modern day version of the Ancient Mariner and it would fit that Zoe would know what to do to help but little River's genius brainpan is their definite ace up the sleeve. Just hope those who have put them in this fix don't have time to do any more dastardly deeds before Serenity can get into a safe orbit and Kaylee can help fix her up again. As for the Mal and Inara bit at the table that really had me laughing, could just image it. Bravo, Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"


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ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (20)
“Vaccinations?” Jayne asked, with a stupid expression. “Fer chickens?”

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (19)
“Inara, I ain’t willing for you to bribe—” “Who said anything about bribes?” “What other form of persuasion you plannin’ on using? I’m not sure I like this plan.” “Mal, I can be very persuasive,” Inara replied. After a short beat, she added, with a touch of asperity, “Fully clothed.”

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (18)
Extreme measures as more things go wrong

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (17)
In which things begin to go wrong

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (16)
Waiting for the other shoe to drop

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (15)
Serenity enters the Core, Mal and Inara sleep together, and Simon and Ip come up with a plan.

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (14)
In which we find out more about Miranda

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (13)
Simon makes an announcement; Zoe and Inara take Mal to task

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (12)
Mal tells Inara a folktale from Shadow

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (11)
Inara and Zoe have a little palaver