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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Secrets are shared and secrets are kept. Is there really nothing left to see?
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 2678 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
Follows SPARKS FLY (03). Precedes BREAK OUT (05).
My stories are sequential and build upon events in the previous stories. If anything in this story is confusing, may I suggest that you read the series, starting with:
A LION’S MOUTH (01)
ADVENTURES IN SITTING (02)
SPARKS FLY (03)
If you read these, and it’s still confusing, I’d appreciate your leaving a comment, so I can work on fixing it!
Secrets are shared and secrets are kept. Is there really nothing left to see?
Mouse over Chinese words in text for translations
Rating: All my stories are PG to PG-13 to occasional R. You will not find detailed descriptions of blood, gore, and sex, but you will find situations appropriate for mature readers, innuendo, implication, and (gasp) swear words.
Thanks to my sister for beta reading.
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* * *
Zoe nodded off in the pilot seat as Serenity sailed through the Black on a re-calculated course from Beaumonde to 尘球 Chén Qíu . Earlier in the voyage, the ship had lost all of her automated navigational systems and taken an unexpected side trip to Hera. The nav sat failure had occurred on Zoe’s watch, and the ship had drifted off course on her watch. Although it was clear that the navigational system had been sabotaged, Zoe felt responsible. She had slept through the early warnings. It was just so damn difficult to keep her focus, to keep her eyes open, when she spent so many hours looking into the darkness, within and without. Mal had been lenient on her regarding the Hera incident, confining his reprimand to a single sharp look that signaled his disappointment. Of course, he had been distracted from his duty, too, though Zoe reckoned he had a good reason. Still, she sat up with a start that had an element of guilt in it as Mal entered the bridge.
“Sir, would you mind taking the helm? I know it’s my watch, but I just can’t seem to keep my eyes open.”
Mal indicated it was no problem. “Take a rest, Zoe.”
She went down to her bunk, and Mal dismissed the incident from his mind. He sat in the pilot’s seat, checked the settings, and looked out into the Black. Soon he was deep in thought.
He stood behind Wash’s chair, contemplating the Black, as Wash checked the course settings. He gave a sigh, and Wash turned to him with a curious look.
“Why the long face, Romeo? You’re finally in the good graces of the woman of your dreams. You should be happy.”
“I am, I’m…I haven’t been happier in years,” Mal replied. “It’s just—I’m puzzled, Wash, you know.”
“I don’t know, Mal. What do you think, I can get inside your head?” Mal gave Wash the slightest smile. Seemed that some people on the crew could get into other people’s heads readily enough. “So what’s the puzzle?”
Mal sighed again and spoke. “Well, why’s she even interested in me? I’m an angry man, broken, poor as dirt, a thief and outcast…”
“And a right selfish bastard in the bargain.”
“Yeah. Hey!—but you’re not supposed to say it.”
“Say it yourself then.”
“I’m a right selfish bastard, and I’ve been mean and angry with her many a time. So why’s she tellin’ me I’m special?”
Wash’s expression radiated Duh! in the clearest way imaginable. “Because she loves you?” he offered.
“What can she see in me?”
“You tell me, Mal—I don’t see it.”
“Well, she’s been tellin’ me I make her feel special, you know, in bed.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“Come on, Wash. She’s been with hundreds of men—oh, I don’t even wanna think about it.”
“So why are you?”
“Can’t not think about it. Woman’s had hundreds of men, and she expects me to believe I do something special for her. Wash, I ain’t got no special skills, no special talents, ain’t been to no fancy 妓女 jìnǚ Academy,” he said with an edge of bitterness. “What can I give her that she ain’t had a hundred times over from somebody else?” His voice had thickened.
“Oh, you’re a jealous one.”
“Guess I am.”
“Mal, she’s a trained Companion.”
“She’s been very free with her body.”
“Companion don’t do it for free, Wash.”
“You paid her, then?”
“I should hit you.”
“Just try. My point, Mal, is this: she’s given her body many times over. But how many times has she given her heart?”
“I don’t know,” Mal said, quietly.
“Don’t you think that could be what she means when she says it’s special?”
Mal sighed again. “How can I believe something like that?”
“Mal, this is where you and I differ. If the woman I love tells me I’m good in bed, I don’t stand around asking questions.”
“Guess I see your point.”
“Well, what’re you doing now?”
“Sittin’ around asking questions,” Mal answered into nothingness as he flipped the three check switches, sitting alone on the bridge and staring into the Black.
He was still feeling low when River relieved him of his watch, and instead of seeking out Inara in her shuttle, he headed back to his own bunk. His gun and holster were slung on the back of the only chair, right in front of the capture of Inara poised on the corner of his desk surrounded by the scarf he’d pilfered from her trunk and the other relics he’d collected. He gave them a glance, sighed again, and removed his suspenders. He had just unbuttoned his shirt when he was startled by the sound of his hatch opening. Someone was climbing down the ladder.
Not just someone. It was Inara. She was dressed in a racy little nightdress that left very little to the imagination, covered by a sheer robe so transparent that it left nothing at all to the imagination. Mal’s mouth dropped open and for a moment he was unable to say a word.
“Hello, Mal,” she said as she reached the base of the ladder. “May I come in?”
“Looks like you already have.”
“I looked around the ship and didn’t see you heading toward the shuttle, so I decided to come to you tonight.”
“You just walked all around the boat and into my bunk, wearing that? Anyone coulda seen you.”
Inara was not the least bit concerned. She smiled at him. “I’m not embarrassed about having sex with you, Mal.”
Mal was tongue-tied. She might not be, but he was all manner of embarrassed. Not about having sex, about talking about having sex. He just didn’t have it in him to speak about intimacy quite so openly, even to his own girlfriend.
“I’m pleased, in fact.” Inara smiled again. “More than pleased.”
“Inara, please, I…I’m glad to see Jayne’s up and about again,” Mal said quickly, casting for a safe topic. “Man had me scared, gettin’ himself blown off the boat, heart stopped and all.”
“You and Kaylee saved him.”
“Doc saved him. Kaylee and me brought him inside, is all. Simon kept his head and did all the work. I’m startin’ to think keeping the Doc and his sister aboard was one of the smarter things I ever done, number of times he’s had to keep us all from…” getting killed, he couldn’t quite add. Wash’s death, and Book’s, were just still too fresh.
“There’s been more call for his services than I ever would have imagined necessary when I first came aboard.” She seated herself on the edge of Mal’s bed, as she felt she’d been standing long enough.
Mal sat down next to her, also using the bed as a sofa. “I’m sure you had no notion of signing on with such a bunch of brigands. Why ever did you, anyhow?” He shot her a penetrating look.
Now it was Inara’s turn to be uncomfortable. She would have gotten up again, had she not just sat down. “Mal, some day maybe I can tell you, but not…”
“Is that why you left? Our boat runnin’ too much against the law, breakin’ the Alliance’s rules, misbehavin’. You don’t hold with our lawlessness…”
“That’s not it, Mal. Not anymore. I willingly participated in your subversion of the Alliance regime. I fought to buy you the time to send the broadwave about Miranda. Because a government that buries a crime of that magnitude is more criminal than anything I have witnessed here, or even heard of. I used to think the Alliance kept the peace. Now I’m wondering how many lies have been kept secret by the Alliance.”
“So you don’t so much mind breaking the rules occasionally, yourself.”
Before Miranda, Inara had always thought of herself as a person who cherished peace—personal peace and societal peace. Personal peace was achieved only by means of a spiritual journey. She had believed that peace for society in general could be achieved through consensus, order, and the rule of law. She had been raised in the Core to believe that the Alliance provided the most reasonable path to that peace. Miranda had shaken her belief to its deepest foundations. At Miranda, she saw the result of peace taken to its logical extreme, and it was terrible. It sickened her, and left her questioning everything she had believed in. And it left her to confront some of her own decisions head on. “Not…so much,” she admitted, quietly. It cost her something to say that out loud.
Mal was relentless. “Did you break the rules when you left House Madrassa? or not until you—”
This was dangerous territory, and she cut him off. “Please, let’s not talk about me now. May I ask you—?” she hesitated.
“Fire away,” he responded, with all the enthusiasm of a man facing a firing squad.
“Oh, Mal, I don’t want to pry, really, it’s just that, sometimes when I think I understand you, what makes you the way you are, you surprise me—I realize I don’t know you at all. And I want to.”
“Ain’t much to it. I’m a loser—”
“Mal—” she objected. As she turned to face him, she caught sight of an interesting collection of objects on his desk.
“—Lost a war, lost a cause, lost my home, lost my family and friends, lost faith, lost everyone and everything what ever meant anything to me…biggest loser I ever heard tell of….I told you before, Inara, all I got is this boat and what’s on it. That’s my world.”
“You didn’t lose hope,” she said, looking at the picture on the desk.
“Couldn’t stop dreaming, I guess.”
And some dreams come true, she thought. Some of her own certainly had. She contemplated those dreams for a little while. “Did you dream of being a ship’s captain, when you were a boy?”
Her change of topic surprised him, but he was not adverse to it. Knew he was a loser, well enough, but didn’t mean he wanted to wallow in it. Inara took his hand, gently, and he held hers as he answered the question. “No, actually. Closest I got is I took flying lessons, but I figured I’d be a rancher, like my ma. Or maybe an English teacher.”
“An English teacher? Whatever made you—”
“My ma was a teacher. That’s what she came to Shadow for in the first place. Then she met my father, and—when he died, left her with a small boy and a large ranch—she never did get back to teaching.”
“It was a large ranch, then?”
“Reasonable so. Ma had about forty hired ranch hands to help.”
“Were you far from town?” Inara asked, moving closer to Mal.
“ ’S all relative. Biggest city on Shadow wouldn’t count for much of a town at all in the Core, I reckon. There was a small town about twenty miles away, where I went to school.”
“So far! Weren’t you lonely, without other children to play with at home?”
“Who said that?” he answered, reaching an arm around Inara’s back. “I had all the ranch hands’ kids to play with. And the hands themselves—they were my aunts and uncles, grannies and grandpas. I had more family than I could—” He pulled up short. They were all dead now.
“What did you play at?” she asked.
“Well, first we did the chores. ’Cause there’s always chores to do at a ranch, the kids don’t get no break, soon as they can walk they’re planting the garden, learning to tend the animals, learning to ride and help bring in the hay. But when chores were done, there was plenty to play at. Mostly outdoors. We went hiking in the mountains and fishing. Swimming in the brook. And berry picking. Granny MacEachern—she was the head cook—made the best bumbleberry preserves ever tasted, and she made all us kids learn how to cook for a crowd.”
“Really?” Inara realized for the first time that, when Mal cooked for Serenity, the food was always just fine, even though he was working with not much besides the standard molded protein.
“In winter, we’d go snowshoeing or cross country skiing. Hank Blodgett, Carr Filkins, Murdoch Harbatkin, Terry Chang, they’d take us out camping sometimes, teach us shooting, tracking, wilderness survival skills.”
“Sounds like you were a pretty capable lot,” Inara said, snuggling up against Mal’s side.
“People on Shadow were pretty independent ’cause we had to be. If we didn’t do it ourselves, might never happen at all. Wait for help from the Core, could be starved or dead before it ever arrived.” He came to a sudden halt. He blinked, paused, and swallowed before continuing in a much gloomier tone, “ ’Course, they’re all dead now. Shadow was such an Independent stronghold—everyone I knew threw themselves into the war effort. Alliance tried to teach Shadow a lesson—bombed the planet while I was off fighting. A chance hit on the terraforming station set off a chain reaction—rendered the whole world unfit for life. The place I’m from don’t exist anymore.”
It took Inara’s breath away. She knew Mal was from Shadow. She knew Shadow was destroyed in the war. But to hear him say it was chilling in a way that the bare facts could never express. “You left for war and never went back,” she said softly, wrapping her arms around him.
“Can’t go back,” he said bleakly. “Can’t never go back.”
And you can’t leave it, either, she said to herself, as she held him.
尘球 Chén Qíu was a dusty moon that orbited a gas giant in the Georgia System. Its economic reason for being was that it served as the transshipment point for the terraforming operation in progress on a nearby moon. Tons of terraforming equipment, supplies, and foodstuffs passed through the port, which was right in the middle of the principal town of 尘球 Chén Qíu, a dusty collection of buildings not dignified by any name more elaborate than “Town.” The locals claimed that it was only the beginning of the dry season, but that just meant that they could still recollect the last time it had rained. Lots of strange folk passed through Town. Most of them worked on the terraforming, one way or another, or had something to do with supplying or supporting those who did. There were professionals, engineers and expert consultants, skilled laborers, indentured laborers, and—the dirty open secret of the terraforming business—slaves.
Town had a main square, if you could dignify the dusty open area flanked by a few struggling, pathetic acacia trees by that name, and the important businesses in Town surrounded the square. The most conspicuous of these was the 尘球 Chén Qíu headquarters of New Worlds Terraforming Inc., the company in charge of the ongoing terraforming operation. Their building struggled to look shiny and respectable in the clouds of dust and shimmering waves of heat. There were the less pretentious offices of several receiving agents, Beier’s General Store (which actually dealt only in terraforming equipment), the professionals’ guild headquarters, and the labor union hall. The local branch office of Holden Brothers Interplanetary Shipping occupied a significant portion of one side of the square. Anybody who had seen Holden Brothers’ main office on Beaumonde would have realized that the 尘球 Chén Qíu branch had started out with the same shiny standard, though on a smaller scale, but had quickly given up the struggle to look presentable, and settled for being as dusty and colorless as the surrounding landscape. The building was clearly a seething hive of activity nonetheless, and people passed in and out through the doors in a steady stream throughout the business day.
Lots of strange folk passed through Town, and two of them were waiting underneath the same scrawny acacia tree. One of those people was a young man of Asian descent, in his late twenties. He was dressed like a scientist on a safari, and his appearance was no lie. He was sitting on a bench placed in proximity to a rickety little table, meant to signify that he was taking his ease at a restaurant. He had been on 尘球 Chén Qíu for nearly four weeks now. He had found it fascinating at first, but after conducting his research and taking three paid excursions to the active terraforming site on the nearby moon, he was ready for a little more intellectual stimulation. He had discovered exactly two eating establishments worthy of the name in Town—the dusty sidewalk café he presently occupied and a fancy sit-down restaurant that, though considerably nicer, had service so slow that civilizations could rise and fall in the interval between soup and dessert. He was naturally gregarious, enjoyed being around people, and was never shy about striking up a conversation with strangers. To this end, his restaurant table was provided with a pitcher and several glasses, although he was currently solo. The trouble with 尘球 Chén Qíu was that although there were so many strange folk, so few of them were well-educated, and the young man was starving for intellectual conversation. He hadn’t found anyone he could really talk to, for a long time. He watched the people passing by for entertainment, and if he had to admit it, he was assessing each and every one for the likelihood that they would have something interesting to say.
The other stranger was a somewhat older man, dressed in the saffron robes of a Buddhist monk. He was powerfully built and moved with a physical grace that spoke of long, disciplined training. He carried a long wooden staff and the prayer cloth and rice bowl typical of the mendicant monks who traveled the worlds seeking the path to spiritual enlightenment. His smooth, chocolate-brown face lacked the spiritual humility of a long-term practitioner, and an observer with intimate knowledge of Buddhist ways might have set him down as a 三日坊主 mikka boozu . They might have been wrong, however, because the dark brown eyes in his patient, compassionate face were deep and soulful. His contemplative face wore a look of troubled serenity. He sat cross-legged under the acacia tree, and seemed to be waiting for something.
The young man, the scientist-on-safari, decided that the traveling monk was his best bet, and addressed him politely. “Greetings, 师傅 shīfu . You look hot and tired. Would you like a seat in the shade?” He motioned to a bench next to his table.
“I am hot and tired,” replied the saffron-robed man, accepting the seat on the bench. “I thank you.”
“Let me offer you some refreshment,” said the young man, whose name was Neumann. At the other’s hesitation to accept his hospitality, he added, “No, really, it’s not much—but in this heat, it’s very welcome, I assure you,” and placed a drink in the other’s hand. The pitcher in truth contained nothing more than cold water and a few slices of rehydrated lemon, but in the hot and dusty environment of 尘球 Chén Qíu, it was a right treat.
“My friend,” Neumann said, seeing his guest provided for, “what brings you to this far end of the system? I don’t expect you’re here for the sightseeing. Are you on a mission?”
“You could say that,” the other replied. “My path led me here.”
“I’m sure there are many here who could take comfort in the hope you offer,” Neumann said. Terraforming crews led a hard, hard life, and anyone who made their lot a little more comfortable was a good man, in his view. “The workers here have it very hard indeed—”
“I hope, by following my path, to find some peace, to find redemption.”
Neumann was curious. “Redemption for what, may I ask?”
“For all my sins. I used to travel the ’Verse telling people what their sins were—exacting punishment—believing I was making a better world—striving for a world without sin.”
He might have looked a Buddhist priest, but he sounded more like a lapsed Christian. Neumann was intrigued. “That sounds like a noble goal.”
“It was a false one. Because I avoided the sins I chastised others for, I believed myself to be without them. I was a monster. My sin was arrogance: the arrogance of believing I was right.”
“How did you come to think you weren’t?”
“I met with a man, a flawed man, a sinner. I intended to punish him, too. He showed me a world without sin—and it was a place of horror. He forced me to look it in the face, and see the terrible falsity of my beliefs. I was left with nothing.”
“Oh.” Neumann really didn’t know how to respond to such a speech.
“It was very hard. That such a flawed man should have a stronger moral compass than I was a difficult truth to learn. The path to enlightenment is a difficult one to walk.”
“That I can believe.”
“In knocking down the edifice of my beliefs, that man sowed the seeds for my new mission. Unknowingly, I think.” The saffron-robed man paused to drink deeply, then looked up with a friendly expression that engendered trust. “And what about you, friend? What brings you to this far end of the system, if I may ask?”
Neumann gave a lighthearted smile. “I’m on a bit of a mission myself. A scientific mission. I’m a terraformologist—an expert in terraforming technologies. I trained at Harcliffe University on Bernadette and opted for postdoctoral studies of a more practical nature. I worked for the terraforming science division of a large corporation, studying the mishaps, errors, terraforming accidents—to learn from them, improve the terraforming process, perhaps speed it up.”
“Do you work at New Worlds, then?” the other asked, indicating the conspicuous office building across the square.
“Oh, no. New Worlds is actually a division of the corporation I recently left.”
“You left your corporate job? Why?”
“Perhaps I just found the corporate workplace too restricting. The corporation had data from all the terraforming sites it worked—and there have been many—but I still feel there’s no substitute for direct observation. But corporate policy allowed only more senior scientists to conduct field work. I just felt the need to do some real field work. So I decided to strike out on my own, and visit some study sites.”
“You received a research grant?”
“I think of it as a self-sponsored sabbatical. I take temporary jobs—technical advisor, consultant, and the like—that pay my way to the study sites. I do the research free-lance. Then I’ll write up some papers, publish them in the journals….It’s a little harder to get published without corporate or academic affiliation, but I’m not discouraged.”
“Is this moon one of your study sites, then?”
“It is,” Neumann responded, “although it’s not the most interesting case.”
“Really? I never heard there was any terraforming accident here.”
“Oh, well, this one didn’t receive much publicity—I knew about it from my work at the corporation. I have it pretty much figured out. You see, some terraforming incidents are quite straightforward—an imbalance in the gravity, day cycle, atmospheric conditioning, or something of that sort. Sometimes there’s a clear fix, a solution that puts terraforming right back on track. That’s the case here. The whole problem originated in a failure to convert the units in one of the calculations. The setback, most fortunately, did not cause a disaster. Just made the rain too acidic to support plant life—though I grant you, that’s a serious problem, and no end of trouble for the terraforming workers whose protective suits get eaten away by the acid—but it’s correctable, and will only delay settlement by a few years. Other problems are not so correctable: Planet Leo ejected 25 percent of its mass—that was probably due to erroneous assumptions. You can’t put that back, and reconfiguring terraformation for a planet that much reduced in mass is a huge project. Not to mention that the debris field surrounding the planet constitutes a significant navigational hazard.” It really had been a long time since Neumann had been able to talk to somebody sympathetic, and he tended to verbosity when he had a willing listener.
“I’ve heard that pilots fly through it as a kind of rite-of-passage—earning their stripes.”
“Only the crazy ones,” Neumann said. He returned to his theme. “But the sites that interest me most are the ones where the cause is much less clear—the data record and published reports don’t quite fit the eyewitness accounts and field observations. Solving any one of these mystery cases would earn me a professorship.”
“That does sound interesting. Would I have heard of any of these mystery sites?”
“Surely you would. Miranda’s been all over the news for weeks now.”
“I saw the broadwave,” the saffron-robed man said, in an odd voice.
Neumann didn’t notice; he was too eager to make his next point. “Yes, I think everybody did. And that broadwave raised more questions than it answered.”
“Oh, yes,” the other responded, with an odd kind of chuckle. “And Parliament has been trying to answer those questions—quite a few heads are rolling in the political world.”
“I’m not much interested in politics,” Neumann replied, unwilling to be sidetracked into a political discussion. “No, I mean the scientific questions raised by Miranda are significant. The corporation I worked for did the terraforming there—before my time, of course. When the settlement failed, the scientific investigation committee listed terraforming events of various kinds—geologic, atmospheric, gravitational, and so on, as being the most likely causes. But the data I saw while I worked for the terraforming division of Bl—my corporate job didn’t quite fit any of the postulated scenarios. That broadwave showed very little of the conditions on the ground, but what was shown did not match the data I had seen. I’ve gone through that broadwave again and again, because it’s the first fresh evidence to surface in a long time. What I’d really like is to be able to visit that site for myself, or at least talk with someone who’s been to Miranda. An observant eyewitness can often give me just the clue I need to know where to look. But I don’t suppose there’s much chance of that—after all, it seems the entire scientific team that did the site investigation got eaten by Reavers.”
“You don’t doubt the existence of Reavers?”
“Never did. Well, I guess I did when I was a kid—just thought they were scary stories. But the corporation had another department—all classified of course—devoted to studying Reavers in all their aspects. I used to eat lunch with a guy who worked there—never heard any details of course, my security classification didn’t cover Reavers.”
The saffron-robed man considered a moment, and seemed to make a decision. “I knew someone who’s been to Miranda.”
“Knew? or know?” asked Neumann.
“He’s still alive. Not a scientist. A ship’s captain, free-lance. Flies a Firefly transport. His name is Malcolm Reynolds. Runs cargo for Holden Brothers, among others. In fact, I’ve heard he’s due in this port any day now.”
Neumann’s excitement showed in his face. “Could you introduce me to the captain?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know your name,” said the man, smiling.
“Neumann. Ip Neumann.” He shook the other’s hand.
“I am Brother Chan ’eil Càil an so a’ Faicadh.”
Neumann didn’t recognize the name. It wasn’t any language he was familiar with. He knew that monks sometimes assumed a religious name, different from their own. Perhaps this name was derived from an ancient language of Buddhism from Earth-that-was. “Khan Ale Cal ahn so a’—uh—sorry, may I call you Khan?”
“Chan ’eil Càil will do. Now, I am afraid my path calls me onward, and I cannot stay and wait for the captain.” He let the implication hang in the air that he must see to his mission with the terraforming workers. “I can, however, give you a letter of introduction to Mr. Jack Holden. Perhaps he could use a supercargo.” He paused to let Dr Neumann work out the implications, which he did very rapidly. The young man was clearly bright.
“I’m glad I happened to meet you,” Neumann said.
“Perhaps it was no accident,” said Brother Chan ’eil Càil an so a’ Faicadh, pausing to let the karmic significance of his words settle in. Then he added, “My friend, you have many interesting ideas. I’d be interested in reading your papers. I still have contacts in academia—if you keep in touch, let me know how the work is coming, I may be able to help you to a good position.” He handed him an electronic card. “I travel around a lot, but this is a way to reach me.” The former Operative rose and walked off into the clouds of dust, confident that his chosen contact would act exactly as he intended.
* * *
尘球 Chén Qíu [a world made up for the purposes of my story line, lit. “dust ball”]
妓女 jìnǚ [whore]
三日坊主 mikka boozu [three-day Buddhist priest (Japanese proverbial saying)]
师傅 shīfu [master, polite form of address for a monk]
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