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EBFIDDLER

SHADOW (07) Part (03)
Monday, September 5, 2011

As Serenity approaches Shadow, Mal’s nightmares return.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1958    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

SHADOW (07)

Part (03)

Follows THE TRIAL (06). Precedes ONE MAN’S TRASH (08).

The series so far: A LION’S MOUTH (01) ADVENTURES IN SITTING (02) SPARKS FLY (03) EXPECTATIONS (04) BREAK OUT (05) THE TRIAL (06)

As Serenity approaches Shadow, Mal’s nightmares return.

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* * *

“No. Ruttin’. Way,” Mal said.

“But, Captain, please, reconsider. It’s a one-of-a-kind opportunity. The scientific data that could be gathered are unparalleled anywhere.” There were few things Ip Neumann wouldn’t do to get the Captain to say yes.

“I said no. Why are we still talkin’ about this?”

“Can’t we be reasonable about this?”

“I’m bein’ all manner of reasonable.”

“Will you at least inform me of the nature of your objections?”

“That I will. You’re askin’ me to authorize a shut-down of artificial gravity as we make the planetary fly-by, correct?”

“Yes, Captain, exactly.”

As the Captain spoke, Ip realized with some surprise that he had nearly forgotten his first impression of the man at Jack Holden’s office, when the Captain had demonstrated his technical competence in no uncertain terms. He had become more familiar with the Captain, he realized, and his impression of him had drifted from that first encounter. Now he was more accustomed to hearing the Captain grouse and grumble and swear in Mandarin and to the Captain in his infrequent light-hearted moments bantering with the crew. Lately, he’d noticed the Captain in a serious, darker mood, wandering about near Inara’s shuttle. There was also the reckless hero, rescuing slaves and pouring blood. And he still recollected that dark moment on 尘球 Chén Qíu when he saw Captain arrive on board in the dead of night with apparent stolen property. Now the capable professional had returned and Ip realized the Captain was enumerating a number of valid reasons why a shut down of artificial gravity was a difficult proposition. “But that doesn’t even take into consideration the kind of cargo I’m carryin’.” Mal paused to let the point sink in.

Oh. Right.

“I ain’t prepared to make an experiment on how cattle take to weightlessness, Dr Ip, and I ain’t willin’ to experiment in how free-floatin’ cattle fare when ship’s gravity suddenly returns. I spent a fair amount of the advance money that you provided puttin’ in safeguards to make sure that exact thing you’re askin’ me to do didn’t happen accidental. So I take it you’re now understandin’ why my answer is still No.”

“Yes, sir.”

Mal could see the wheels were still turning in that boy’s top-percent Core-educated brain. He waited to see what was the next 疯子的 fēngzidē idea to come forth. It weren’t a long wait—the boy was bright.

“Captain—you mentioned EVA suits—would you have one that fits me?”

Mal nodded and waited for Neumann to flesh out his idea.

“So I take it that it wouldn’t be a problem for me to take a spacewalk and do the experiments outside the ship?”

“Might could do. No one takes an EVA alone, Ip. So provided you got a couple of willing volunteers, I think you got a solution to your problem.”

* * *

Ip first approached Simon to ask if he’d be willing to accompany him on his EVA experiment. A well-educated doctor, used to performing experiments himself, would be the perfect assistant. Ip would scarcely need to instruct at all. But to his surprise, Simon refused categorically. Simon expressed himself in terms more formal than the Captain’s “no ruttin’ way” but was equally unmovable. Ip was still processing Simon’s refusal when River entered the room.

“I could help,” she said, with a bright smile that was somehow disconcerting.

He was about to explain that the work involved some difficult calculations that had to be made on the fly, that he needed someone with a certain technical expertise, when River interrupted his thoughts.

“Know what you need. Did the math.” She smiled again, this time somewhat smugly, and Ip remembered how she had corrected his paper on the 尘球 Chén Qíu terraforming error and how she claimed to have completed mathematics courses that Ip had taken in graduate school. He also had a recollection of River hacking—what was the fellow’s name?—Wing’s sourcebox and using it to access all manner of protected databases. By now, he was aware that River did most of the piloting aboard Serenity, not the Captain or Zoe as he had previously assumed. She was talented and precocious.

Ip thought again. Okay, she could probably do what the job technically required, but would she—? Again River interrupted his thoughts.

“I love walking in the Black.” This time her smile was one of pure joy.

* * *

Now that Ip had lined up his scientific help for the space walk, he needed to get an experienced spacewalker to volunteer to come with him. The choices were the Captain, Zoe, and Jayne.

His first choice of course was the Captain. The Captain was still in many ways an enigma to Ip, but one thing Ip was certain of: the Captain was a man he could trust. Could trust and would trust with his life. Ip remembered his doubts about the Captain on 泥球 Ní Qiú. He had actually believed that the Captain was planning to enter the slave-trade. Turned out the Captain was conducting a careful reconnaissance in preparation for breaking those people out of slavery. And he had succeeded. Got thirty-two slaves safely off 泥球 Ní Qiú and on their way to freedom. Did it without hope of reward. And when it resulted in his arrest on Persephone and the prosecutor threw the book at him, he didn’t deny he’d done it, or back-pedal, or try to shirk responsibility. He simply stood up and prepared to shoulder the consequences of his actions. Ip didn’t doubt the Captain anymore.

But Ip also didn’t believe he could persuade the Captain to join the spacewalk. The Captain was stubborn. When he said no, there was nothing Ip could say that would make him change his mind. And the crew would just circle the wagons again, leaving Ip on the outside.

Then there was Zoe. Serenity’s first officer frightened Ip. The first time he met her, he’d watched her chew out Jayne, and given that Jayne was one of the most intimidating people Ip had ever encountered, the person who would dare to reprimand him had to be scarier still. Zoe was tough, terse, and badass to the core, and furthermore Ip knew she didn’t trust him. She was professional and never said a word against him, but Ip was beginning to realize that what Zoe didn’t say was every bit as significant as what she did say.

And speaking of Jayne. That oaf had ruined a perfectly good pair of New Cordova leather shoes, when he slipped in the cargo bay while Ip was finishing up his data retrieval from the gravitational anomaly reader. A hefty shovelful of manure had flown in Ip’s direction, while the hose sprayed wildly. He’d luckily just activated the laser barrier, so the machine was protected, but 糟糕 zāogāo, his clothes were covered with the bovine equivalent of raw sewage, which ran down his legs and drained into the shoes, while a wave of murky brown sloshed across the tops of his feet. “Whoops! 对不起 Duìbuqǐ, Doc,” Jayne had exclaimed, but there was a glint in his eye that Ip didn’t like. “Ain’t you a sight! You should oughtta change outta them 牛屎缀满漂亮的裤子 niúshǐ zhuì mǎn piàoliang de kùzi.” Ip could easily clean his clothes, and himself, but the shoes had defied all his efforts at resuscitation, and now sat, contaminated and moldering, in a sealed box under his desk.

So Ip had a choice. Which would it be? Unmoveable, scary, or 牛屎 niúshǐ ?

* * *

It was the closest to home he’d come since he’d left for the war. It wasn’t a surprise—as soon as he knew they had to go by way of the Georgia System, he’d plotted the course, and a fly-by of Shadow was the only one that made any sense. Nonetheless, as the planet grew from a steady point of light to a discernible disk, he felt all manner of uneasy. He’d catch sight of it out the window of the bridge and feel a prickling on the back of his neck. And the nightmares had returned.

Shadow. Since the catastrophic terraforming failure on Shadow eight years ago, the space around the planet had been an embargoed zone. No one was allowed to fly within four thousand miles of the planet’s surface, supposedly for safety reasons. Mal didn’t really expect any Alliance cruisers to be patrolling the area enforcing the No-fly zone, but with a herd of smuggled cattle aboard, they could not afford to be boarded and inspected. The course was calculated to stick strictly within the legal limits.

* * *

She’d said sorry, and he had, too. They’d sat comfortably together in the cargo bay, both of them reminded of the last time they’d shared Kaylee’s engine wine over a herd of cattle. He’d walked her to her shuttle door, said goodnight, and given her a sweet, chaste kiss. Then he turned and walked away.

Inara wanted him to stay. Or she thought she wanted him to stay. She was ready—almost—to rebuild their relationship, to forgive the harsh words, to let him in again—almost. At least, she was ready for more than a chaste kiss, and the threshold of her door left uncrossed.

One evening she invited him into her shuttle for tea. If she’d had her instrument aboard, she might have played him music, but the dulcimer had been left behind at the Training House along with many of her things. He seemed tense—when was he not tense?—and so she asked if he’d like a massage. He’d been too tense to accept the offer—started making excuses, seemed inclined to jump up and run out—so she back-tracked, talked of inconsequential things, served more tea, and started massaging his neck casually, almost without seeming to do it.

He began to relax at her touch, and before long he was lying face down on her sofa, fully clothed of course, as she worked on the knots in his shoulders and back. She worked her way down his spine, and Mal groaned contentedly as she kneaded the tension away. He was relaxed—maybe too relaxed, she realized, as she saw his eyelids flutter.

Suddenly he was jumping up, making excuses, pulling himself away. He thanked her for the tea and the massage and was out the door before she could begin to articulate her wish that he would stay. Or that he would stay a little longer, at least. She wanted more. She didn’t understand it. He couldn’t have made her want him more if he’d been the most accomplished flirt, yet she knew he had no such design. Flirtation was not what was on his mind.

* * *

Ip was still looking for another volunteer for his spacewalk. He had approached Mal, but Mal had put him off. He had a legitimate reason—he was needed on the bridge, especially with his pilot participating in the EVA. But his devotion to captainly duty wasn’t his real reason. It was the nightmares. They weren’t his standard Serenity Valley nightmares—those were 很可怕 hěn kěpà, but he’d had them so often and for so many years that they’d become familiar, somehow. He couldn’t exactly say they were comforting, ’cause they sure as 地狱 dìyù weren’t, but if he’d suddenly been free of them he’d a’ thought something was wrong. No, the nightmares that were bothering him were the other nightmares—the ones that started out with the standard Serenity Valley wartime shell-shock 狗屎 gǒu shǐ and then morphed into something worse, something truly awful, darker, blacker, ’til Mal feared he’d lose himself entirely to the enveloping blackness. 我将变成石头 Wǒ jiāng biànchéng shítou . Make me a stone. He figured it was just a matter of time before something triggered an out-and-out flashback in his waking hours. If he was gonna be engaging in out-of-his-mind flashback violence, he’d rather do it in the ship, thank you, and not out-of-doors on a spacewalk, with the lives of Neumann and River depending on him. Mal didn’t figure it was fair to ask Jayne to join Ip’s spacewalking team, after him getting blown up with the navsats and all, so he tapped Zoe for the job.

* * *

It was dark, but far from serene. There was no sign of the bombardment letting up. Projectiles the size of boulders streamed overhead, each trailing a fiery orange tail across the sky, each leaving a streamer of smoke that was lit up by the next fiery round. The range was off—gorram Alliance 混蛋 húndàn couldn’t aim for 屎 shǐ—and all the projectiles passed overhead of his position. For that he was grateful—he was having trouble identifying the type of ordnance being used, but the projectiles looked to be incendiary. Didn’t want to have to deal with one up close and personal. Using a scope he took a look over the hastily constructed parapet they were holed up behind. On the upslope side, to the left of the line, a river of fire ran down the side of the valley. He didn’t know what kind of weapon those 王八蛋 wángbādàn had brought into action up there. Maybehaps some of the incendiary projectiles had landed up there and set fire to the vegetation. But it didn’t look right. It wasn’t burning like a brush fire. It was like fire made liquid, it shifted and oozed down the slope. Parts of it faded to black as he watched. Parts of it lit up and glowed with renewed vigor, a red-orange color like an open skylight to the flames of hell. On the far right of the line, far enough that he couldn’t make it out, an enormous cloud of smoke rose in a great high plume. He figured the seaside dockyard had been bombed—fuel depot must be burning. The cloud of smoke—or was it steam?—rose, and rose, and rose, high into the sky, high enough for the trade wind to pick it up and blow it in a steady plume to the southwest that stretched all the way to the horizon. That weren’t right. There wasn’t enough fuel in the entire port to create a plume that big.

The nature of the bombardment suddenly changed. No longer boulder-size projectiles. It also seemed the Alliance 混蛋 húndàn had found their range. Mal heard the sound of hundreds of smaller rounds plowing into the hard earth just behind their position. He yelled for the men and women to hunker down and take cover. Didn’t have the familiar whine of bullets. What were the 王八蛋 wángbādàn using? Canister? A spent ball bounced into the trench next to his boot, and he took a look. It was—a rock? Gorrammit, were the Alliance shelling them with rocks? He prodded the rock with the toe of his boot. A rock, or a cinder, more like. Had the Purplebellies run out of conventional ammunition? A particularly well-aimed burst landed in the trench some yards down the line. People were hit. A field medic trundled by, grumbling about burns. More of those gorram rocks started raining down into the trench. They pinged off his helmet. It was hard to focus with the ringing noise surrounding his head. Didn’t have armor-piercing power, but they singed the fabric of his uniform. Abruptly the rock-bombardment ceased and now it was snowing. Snowing? Now that didn’t make no sense at all. Air wasn’t cold enough for snow—this was a summer campaign—they were in the sub-tropical latitudes of this world—and the air was hot. Chokingly hot. The snow was rough, harsh, like clouds of glass shards. He tried to order his people to put on gas masks, but had trouble speaking. Had trouble breathing. Gasping, he pulled himself up to the top of the trench. Looking over the parapet, he watched with horror as a massive, molten wall of fire oozed inexorably toward them. Unstoppable, it burned and swallowed everything in its path. They had to get out of the trench. He scrambled up, clawing his way through the drifts of gritty snow, stirring up harsh clouds of sharp dust that pierced his nose and throat like needles. He was enveloped by some kind of noxious gas. Choking, gasping, flailing, heat searing his lungs, he desperately tried to suck in something breathable—

He sat up abruptly, and black spots clouded his vision. His legs were tangled in a mess of blankets and the sheet was soaked with sweat. His breath came in huge, ragged gasps and his heart was pounding like he’d just been running for his life. The fiery wall and swirling harsh clouds of choking dust faded from his mind and the black spots faded from his vision, as his breathing began to steady, more effective at actually delivering oxygen to his starved brain. He raised a hand to his forehead and found his skin was covered with clammy, cold sweat. He was in his bunk. Not the War. Not Shadow.

* * *

The Captain was dreaming so loudly that River couldn’t concentrate on the mathematical problem she’d been working in her head. She gave up on it, letting the formulas, arrays, and vectors slip away into the Black, while her eyes scanned the control panel on the bridge systematically as the Captain had taught her. The Captain’s nightmare was very distracting tonight, much more so than his usual ones. Serenity wasn’t exactly a sound-proof boat, and again, it didn’t take a mind-reading genius to figure out what sort of nightmares disturbed the Captain. Little things set him off—a chance comment someone had made at the dinner table, remembered out-of-context as he lay in that drifting zone between waking and sleeping—a sound—a smell. The little things started him down the path to Serenity Valley, re-living the worst parts of the war, again and again and again. When he stumbled up onto the bridge in the aftermath of the Valley nightmares he often wore the haunted expression that she’d come to call the “shell-shocked sergeant” look. Sometimes he’d speak to her about it, usually in response to an oblique question of hers, carefully designed to draw the poison from the wound before his barrier walls snapped firmly back into place. But if he did talk, it would be very brief, and he’d always end up by saying, “I shouldn’t be tellin’ you any of this 狗屎 gǒushǐ, River. This ain’t your problem. You got enough burdens as it is.” Then he’d clam up. But it was precisely the burdens she carried—her first-hand understanding of trauma, legacy of her time at the Academy—that allowed him to open up to her at all. The only other person aboard that he was willing to talk to about Serenity Valley was Zoe. And telling Zoe was unnecessary: she had lived it with him.

This time, the Captain’s nightmare was different. River could tell. And as she gazed out into the Black, she knew why. The yellow disk of Shadow glowed steadily in their sky. Yellow from sulfur, tinged with grey from ash. She’d been on the bridge when he first recognized his home among the many stars, planet and moons the black sky showed them, and she knew as clearly as if he’d told her himself what that had done to change his nightmares.

The nightmares still started with him and his troops in the Valley. But it wasn’t the same Serenity Valley that his unconscious mind visited with sad regularity. The Captain knew, and River knew likewise, that the Alliance bombing on Shadow had triggered a massive terraforming failure—a cascade of events that led to geologic instability, volcanic activity on a scale unparalleled in modern ’Verse history. Every schoolchild in the ’Verse learned the basics of how terraforming worked, and since the destruction of Shadow, every schoolchild (River among them) had learned what happened when terraforming didn’t work. The Captain had a vivid imagination (River knew about vivid imaginations), and everything he’d ever learned about volcanoes was fodder for his subconscious mind in concocting the nightmares.

Now his nightmares took him to a time and place he’d not been—the destruction of Shadow. River wanted to tell him: Silly Captain—that’s not how a volcanic eruption works. Lava rivers and massive flows—those were characteristic of shield volcanoes. Ash clouds, volcanic bombs, cinder eruptions—those characterized the stratovolcanoes. They did not occur simultaneously or even in rapid succession. Poor silly Captain. It was illogical, impossible, but still she felt his terror. When he awoke, gasping for breath, River wept. The human mind could construct something far more terrible than even nature was capable of. River knew about that.

When the Captain entered the bridge after the Valley of Shadow nightmares, his haunted look had a further depth of trauma that it lacked after the Serenity Valley nightmares. Poor Captain had conflated the most traumatic experiences of his life into one horrific nightmare. Serenity Valley—so many people, so many lives, cut off in the course of a few short weeks. Guilt. They were his responsibility and he couldn’t save them. Shadow—his home, his family, his sanctuary. Gone. He should have done something—hadn’t done a gorram thing. The Captain stared into the Black, unseeing, his eyes directed at the baleful yellow disk, as his breathing and heart rate gradually returned to something resembling normal. River cast a worried glance at him, but kept her tears in check.

* * *

*

*

*

glossary

尘球 Chén Qíu [name of a world]

疯子的 fēngzidē [lunatic]

泥球 Ní Qiú [name of a world]

糟糕 zāogāo [dang it]

对不起 Duìbuqǐ [Sorry]

牛屎缀满漂亮的裤子 niúshǐ zhuì mǎn piàoliang de kùzi [shit-encrusted pretty pants]

牛屎 niúshǐ [cow poop]

很可怕 hěn kěpà [godawful]

地狱 dìyù [hell]

狗屎 gǒu shǐ [crap]

我将变成石头 Wǒ jiāng biànchéng shítou [Make me a stone, lit. ‘I will become stone’]

混蛋 húndàn [bastards]

屎 shǐ [shit]

王八蛋 wángbādàn [sons of bitches]

狗屎 gǒushǐ [crap]

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COMMENTS

Monday, September 5, 2011 5:45 AM

NUTLUCK


Very cool and makes sense River would try and draw Mal into talking about the war to help get over it.

Monday, September 5, 2011 8:30 AM

PLATONIST


Interesting...I know authors hate the word, but I'm not sure if I get why Mal is running from Inara. Is he afraid if he falls asleep in her shuttle, wakes from a nightmare, he could hurt her? That’s so tragic:(

And poor River, Mal’s nightmares from Serenity Valley to Shadow’s destruction, would have a profound negative effect on her, so sad and poignant illustrated by that tear at the end, it’s like she’s narrating his horrors for us, the reader. It reminds me of the movie.

a darker chapter, but still enjoyed reading

Monday, September 5, 2011 9:15 AM

BYTEMITE


I always like crawling inside Mal's head and bringing the terror screaming in the dark corners into the light. Dreams are usually fun to write, and with nightmares it's even funner to see just how far you can push them.

I also have always liked exploring the PTSD and the amount of damage that Mal carries around, and I agree that one of Mal's biggest fears is that there may come a time when he can't be trusted around his crew and passengers. Along with the survivor's guilt, it's probably the big reason he's so hard on himself. And then, the way sometimes his anger gets away from him (another aspect of the PTSD), it reinforces that worry that he might go too far sometime.

And that scene with Inara just goes to show that even though she settles him sometime, she's also the one person who can provoke him the most.

Lastly, I really enjoy how you've moved through Mal's memories of the planet Shadow as a theme in this episode. First the early years and the idyllic look at the way things were, and then the horrific imagining of it's destruction.

And now, because I know there's still one more chapter left in this part, I wonder if they're going to see something unexpected as they get near Shadow?

Good writing.

Monday, September 5, 2011 10:26 AM

M52NICKERSON


I think I can understand Mal not wanting Inara to witness him having a nightmare. It is one think for a person to think you maybe broken, it is another for them to see that you are.

Monday, September 5, 2011 2:59 PM

BYTEMITE


Oh, though if a wall of lava doesn't generally occur during a pyroclastic eruption, a lahar might.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011 6:09 AM

EBFIDDLER


Thanks again, everybody, for your comments. It makes for interesting reading.

River’s making an effort, but Mal needs far more than just a few questions to help him get past his PTSD.

Platonist, I don’t mind at all being called “interesting”. Why is Mal running from Inara? It’s complicated. First of all, what Bytemite and m52nickerson said. Part of it is that he simply feels that he screwed up: they were going along fine, he got mad and called her whore, and now he needs to try again, and try to do better this time. Yes, he’s afraid that if he falls asleep in her shuttle, he’ll have nightmares. He’s also afraid that he’ll have a flashback. More than eight years after the war, he’s certainly had flashbacks and nightmares before, and he knows from experience that he tends to react violently. He doesn’t want to hurt her, and he’s not sure he even wants her to see it. He feels that he has some very dark places inside himself, and he’s not anxious to show these to anyone, let alone to the woman who, above all others (and despite everything between them), he wants to think well of him. He feels that he is damaged goods, and broken.

There are three more parts to this story. This is the point at which my nice, tidy 12,000- to 16,000-word stories started ballooning up to 20, 30, 40 thousand words. Shadow is about a 22,000-word story.

Byte: Yep, a lahar might occur during a pyroclastic eruption. But we’re seeing this through Mal’s POV, so he’s basically conflating random bits of volcano lore that he knows from high school and news vids. And maybe he went hiking at New Kilauea or New Mt St Helens or New Iceland, and picked up a few bits from personal observation there ;-) There’s more geology in the upcoming sections—hope you like it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011 11:42 AM

AMDOBELL


I hope there is some relief in store for Mal soon, poor man is running himself mentally ragged trying to hold it together while his nightmare gets more intense and disturbing. Sooner they are away from Shadow the better and I loved River knowing and trying in her own way to help. As for Inara I think she will work it out, hope it doesn't take her too long. Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Tuesday, September 6, 2011 4:15 PM

EBFIDDLER


Oh, Ali D, it'll get worse before it gets better. Otherwise where would my plot be? ;-)

Thursday, September 8, 2011 9:43 AM

ZOESMOM


Volcanic eruptions, sci-fi geology -- sounds exciting.

Wouldn't it be an interesting twist if River were able to help Mal with HIS psychological issues?


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