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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 2019 RATING: 10 SERIES: FIREFLY
TWO BY TWO BY TWO (10)
Follows BANDIAGARA (09).
Precedes WHAT BEGINS WITH AN APPLE (11).
The series so far:
A LION’S MOUTH (01)
ADVENTURES IN SITTING (02)
SPARKS FLY (03)
BREAK OUT (05)
THE TRIAL (06)
ONE MAN’S TRASH (08)
Previous Part | Next Part
* * *
Mal lay motionless on the topside of Serenity—motionless, that is, except for his right hand, in which he held a defusing tool, designed to create a highly controlled and narrowly directed magnetic field. He had taken a quick look at Serenity’s 狗屎的 gǒushǐde security video from when they were parked over at the fruit market, and sure enough, there was that fuzzy, grainy saboteur climbing the hull of his gorram ship. The picture wasn’t any clearer than it had been last time they were on Beaumonde, and Mal swore to himself that he would upgrade the whole gorram system as soon as he could manage it—which he knew would not be for a while. He simply couldn’t afford it. He was again left with the impression that the saboteur was a woman, perhaps even the same woman—but why would his ship be sabotaged every visit to Beaumonde? Was it the same saboteur? Certainly had the same mode of operation. If it was, how would the saboteur—who had struck at Pedro Docks last time—even know that Serenity had landed at the South Sirindhorn Farmers’ Market?
Slowly, slowly, he reached out little by little, until the tip of the tool made contact. The trick was to penetrate the barrier without detectable disruption to the field. Now, he just needed to—
“Mal! Mal! What the good gorram is goin’ on?”
Mal froze at the sound of Jayne’s voice. In the circumstances, it was a much better reaction than starting at the sound of his voice, which would almost certainly trigger the detonator and leave Mal without a right hand, maybe without a right arm.
“Shush, Jayne!” Kaylee hissed loudly. “Cap’n’s up topside defusing a detonator.”
“What the ruttin’ hell’s he doin’ that for? Don’t he know he could get blowed up?”
Mal slowly released the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, saving his reaction for a time when he could safely do it without getting blown up. He took another deep breath and focused on the task.
Jayne stopped only long enough to pick up a few more of his favorite weapons, and a couple of grenades. You never knew when you were gonna need a grenade, and he didn’t like to go anywhere on the job without ’em. Kaylee had given him the coordinates of the warehouse, and he set out to try to catch up to the two docs before they did somethin’ stupid. Couple of Core-bred 猴子的 屁股 hóuzide pìgu with that many university degrees to their names were bound to screw up a simple job like loading up cargo from a warehouse.
He jogged out the main gate of Pedro Docks onto the thoroughfare. Looking up and down the street, he spotted the mule stopped at a traffic signal six blocks ahead. As he watched, the signal changed and Doc Ip floored the accelerator and the mule shot ahead, only to come to a screeching halt as it caught up with the snarl of traffic half a block ahead. Jayne shook his head in disbelief. Everybody knew as the main road was a bad bet this time a’ day—better off takin’ the side streets. Still, no way he could catch up with them on foot. Looking fiercely at the driver of a passing hovercab, he raised his arm to hail it—the arm that just happened to be holding Vera—and was astonished when the cabbie instantly pulled over.
Jayne got in. “Yes, mister. Anything you want, mister. Just don’t shoot!” the cabbie exclaimed.
Jayne smiled. Shiny. The cabbie saw his well-armed customer eye him with an evil grin. “Where to, mister? Don’t shoot! I’m good, wherever you want!”
“See that there mule?” Jayne explained. “I want you to catch it.”
* * *
The cabbie couldn’t believe it. If not for the fact that he was armed to the teeth with lethal-looking weapons, the scary man had acted just like a regular fare. They caught up to two skinny men with Core accents in an open mule with a large trailer attached to it, the fare said, “Hey!” and the two invited him to join them. Scary man paid the cabbie, like a regular fare, even left him a tip. Guess you can’t judge a book by its cover, the cabbie thought.
“Take a right turn here,” Jayne advised.
“But that’s not the most direct way,” Simon objected.
“Well, I know that,” Jayne replied. “But unless you wanna set here in rush hour traffic going nowhere-miles-an-hour for the next forty-five minutes, you should listen ta what I said.”
Simon threw him a dirty look, which Jayne returned with interest, but Ip simply turned the yoke to the right and headed down the alley.
Looking over the Doc’s shoulder so’s he could see the coordinates on the chit, Jayne guided them left, right, and straight, through side streets and alleys, and once, on a street labeled “Maintenance vehicles only,” until they reached a nondescript windowless building in an industrial park.
“This is it,” Jayne stated definitively, and swung himself down from the mule. Simon and Ip followed. “Ya got the chit, Doc?”
Simon produced the chit and gazed stupidly at the door for a moment.
“Whattaya waitin’ for, Doc? Stick it in the gorram reader.”
Simon noticed that the door was outfitted with a slot, and after a moment’s pause to work out the correct orientation, he inserted the card. The mechanism whirred to life and a small yellow light began blinking.
“Ain’t you gonna key in the code?”
“I—I don’t know it,” Simon said.
Jayne looked at Ip. “I’ve got no clue, Jayne.”
“Didn’t Mal tell you the keycode?” Jayne asked in disbelief. Couldn’t imagine how they’d left Serenity on a job without knowin’ the keycode to the warehouse. This was just the sort of screw-up he figured the two Docs would make. He reached for his comm to wave the Captain, then paused, remembering that the 傻瓜 shǎguā was up topside of Serenity defusing a detonator and like to blow himself up if’n his comm chimed at a bad moment. “Aw, hell—” Jayne began.
“He did, he said—well, I didn’t understand what he said,” Ip admitted, looking at Simon.
“I—well, actually, I didn’t get it either,” Simon finally admitted.
“Why didn’tcha ask?” Jayne was incredulous. “Just how you two figure on gettin’ into the warehouse ta do the job?” It was unbelievable. “Do you at least remember what in ruttin’ hell he said?”
“He said, ‘The keycode is taps’,” Ip quoted. “Do you have any idea what that means? Are you supposed to—”
“Aw hell, that’s easy.” Jayne strode over to the keypad and punched in 114146146146146468641114. The light shifted to a steady blue and Jayne swung the door open.
“How did he do that?” Ip whispered to Simon. “That was a twenty-four-digit code.”
“We would have been here all night trying to crack it, even using the new code-breaking software that River installed on my portable,” Simon admitted to Ip.
Jayne knew what the two docs were whispering about. But he wasn’t about to let them in on his secret. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry—but apparently not every Core-bred doctor—knows “Taps.” No surprise Mal would use a bugle call from his army days. Jayne was just glad he hadn’t chosen somethin’ more obscure like Church Call or Officers Dress for Dinner. Alls he had to do was key in the numbers what corresponded with the pitches, and Open Sesame.
This was the third Qianxia proximity detonator that Mal had tried to defuse. The first was at a UXO training course he’d taken as a sergeant in the Independent Forces. Unexploded ordnance wasn’t something the 57th Overlanders normally dealt with—there were bomb specialists, after all—but somebody in the brass had decreed that a certain number of personnel be trained in it, and Mal was the lucky winner. He’d been pulled off the line and sent for a four-week training course on Muir. The course was held at Muir Technical College, and what with staying in the pleasant dormitories on the tree-lined campus, and not getting shot at, it was as good a rest vacation as Mal had ever had, other than the guilt he felt at missing the Battle of Port Moresby, one of the nastier ones of the early part of the war. A number of his people had lost the number of their mess in that one, and he wasn’t there to help.
The first Qianxia proximity detonator was the one that Mal had to defuse to pass the course. He’d managed to do it with flying colors, finding out only after the fact that the detonator, though real enough, was a dud, and wouldn’t have gone off even if he’d screwed it up completely.
The second one was in the field. And definitely not a dud. Mal had managed to remember the procedure, all the steps in the correct order, and had undoubtedly saved some lives that day. Including his own. There was something about performing a task under such dire circumstances (if you fail, you die) that cemented it in the memory—he wouldn’t never forget how to install a catalyzer on the compression coil, for instance. He’d examined the device attached to Serenity’s topside before beginning the process, just to verify that it really was a Qianxia proximity detonator, and he’d been tempted to look up and refresh on the defusing procedure, but the cortex wouldn’t have no more information than that the Qianxia proximity detonator was officially banned, and everything else about it was high-military classified. With his luck the ship would be flagged just on account of him lookin’ up the name, so he didn’t even try. Just had to focus and trust his memory.
Step by step, he worked his way through the procedure, moving slowly and carefully, except for the one step where you had to move quickly to bypass a timed anti-tampering device. One by one, he disabled and disarmed the subsystems, until at last he reached the moment of truth. He carefully aligned the laser field cutter.
This was it. Inara, I love you. He held his breath and squeezed.
No explosion. He pulled the core element out of the Savart shaft and disconnected the now harmless detonator from the portside navsat. I love you, but I ain’t puttin’ up with this 狗屎 gǒushǐ. You accuse me without cause, and I’m done apologizing for something I didn’t do. It’s gonna be you what comes to me to apologize. You just think on it, Inara. I’ll be waitin’.
The loading of the crates went better than Jayne expected. Both of the docs were skinny and underdeveloped-looking, but Doc was stronger than he looked, and Doc ’Noyman was willin’ to work hard, even though he weren’t no stronger than he looked. Still, woulda gone much faster with Mal and Zoe, and he still couldn’t believe the bit about the docs not knowin’ how to open a gorram door.
象的 大便 Xiàngde dàbiàn! Simon swore to himself as the sweat dripped into his eyes, stinging. He couldn’t wipe it away on account of the fact that both of his arms were occupied hoisting the heavy crate onto the mule’s cargo carrier. It was harder physical labor than he’d done in a long time, and he was bone-tired, but damned if he was going to let it show. Jayne was walking around whistling as he worked, and didn’t even appear to have broken a sweat. Simon had to admit that the man-ape-gone-wrong-thing had his good points, and this was one of them. The man was a good worker—excelled, even, at physical labor—and Simon couldn’t help but acknowledge that if he and Ip had been left to their own devices they’d probably still be standing outside the locked warehouse door, waiting for the Blue Hands to come and get them, or the Feds to come and arrest him. It was embarrassing. Determined not to be defeated by a simple cargo-loading job, Simon called on inner reserves of strength and redoubled his efforts.
Ip grunted and strained at the crate. 牛屎 Niúshǐ. Damn thing wouldn’t even budge. He shifted his position, trying to get a purchase on the smooth surface. Use physics, he thought to himself. Change the angle, better mechanical advantage. He tried again, got the crate to tip, struggled to control its fall, and ooffed as the thing careened into his chest. He’d wanted to ask the Captain if he was sure it was safe for him and Simon—and Jayne, too, he supposed, though Jayne seemed to be able to take care of himself—to go to the warehouse, with the Blue Hands and parties unknown at large, ready to ambush them, but he’d held his tongue. Of course it wasn’t safe. But the alternative to loading the crates was disarming a live anti-personnel detonator on top of Serenity—the job the Captain had elected for himself—and that struck Ip as even more not safe.
He struggled to straighten his legs. At last he was standing with the thing in his arms. He staggered across the warehouse floor, trying not to bang the crate or himself on the doorjamb, and made it over to the mule, where he rested the bottom edge of the crate on the lip of the cargo hauler. He closed his eyes and prayed for the strength to get the thing loaded the rest of the way up onto it, but since he’d been raised in a multi-ethnic environment with at least three religious traditions in his family background and secular humanism dominating them all, his prayers lacked focus, and he ended up turning to the god of physics, as usual, for his solution. Duh. Use the angle. Mechanical advantage. With the right maneuvers, one person can move an upright piano onto a four-foot high stage from the floor below. Putting his shoulder to the crate, he rolled it over onto its end, its momentum carrying it over the edge and into position. Good thing the crates weren’t labeled “This side up.” Now all he had to do was walk back into the warehouse and do it again. And again.
Ip had never looked down on those who engaged in physical labor for a living, but he felt renewed respect as he watched how easily Jayne moved, shuttling the crates like it was all in a day’s work, which Ip guessed it was for him. Ip felt like an idiot with the Captain’s gun—loaded gun, he didn’t doubt—stuffed into his back pocket. He had no experience whatsoever with firearms. He noticed that Jayne, while industriously moving crates, simultaneously kept a sharp lookout both inside and outside the warehouse, and kept more than one gun within hand’s reach at all times. Even Simon wore his gun—Ip hadn’t known that the physician kept a gun, let alone had a holster for it. Ip just hoped that the gun in his back pocket had its safety on, so he didn’t end up accidentally shooting himself in the 屁股 pìgu.
“Don’t know if I killed ’im, but I hope so.” The Captain’s blunt words about shooting a man shocked Ip. He understood the Captain’s anger that anyone would shoot a pregnant woman, but…couldn’t he just call the police, or something? Did he have to shoot the man? Kill him? It gave him a creepy feeling. Then Ip realized that, although for some reason he hadn’t been as shocked, River Tam had killed a man before his very eyes that afternoon. By breaking his neck. That was creepy. And he didn’t feel sorry for the 混蛋 húndàn either. He felt creepy, too, about his complete lack of compassion. And here was the really creepy thing: it wasn’t even the creepiest thing that had happened to him that day. A day that seemed taken from the pages of a bad spy thriller, played out in the strange, cruel, incoherent world of a B-grade film noir.
What the hell had been going on in that alley? Ip thought. The Bill he used to know back on Bernadette wouldn’t have done that. Wouldn’t have come into a dark alley to kill an innocent man and a girl not out of her teens. Yet he understood clearly that it was the Bill he used to know that he had to thank for their escape. Bill had changed (obviously for the worse), but it was their old bond of friendship that had made Bill spare him from being the victim of a hit. The dead victim of a hit. Ip’s brain was churning as he began to understand. 我的天啊 Wǒ de tiān ā. Bill was a hitman. A corporate hitman. Working for Blue Sun. Blue Sun was after him. Or after River. Why?
“Alright, Doc ’Noyman,” Jayne called. “How’s about you take us back to the ship? Go easy so all them crates don’t tip off the side of the cargo hauler. Be a shame to hafta re-load ’em.” Ip put the mule into gear and eased away from the warehouse door. “Next time,” Jayne continued, “how’s about we bring along the anti-grav pallet loader and a couple a’ dollies? Make the work go faster.”
Turned out Mal had succeeded in defusing the detonator by the time they got back to Serenity with the load. Kaylee was up topside installing the navsat, racing against the clock to get it done before it got dark and they just plain ran out of time. Mal had been helping Kaylee with the job, but as soon as he saw the mule turn into the entrance of Pedro Docks, he climbed down to assist in loading the crates into the cargo bay.
Mal was anxious to get away, out of atmo, and into the comfort of the Black. Most definitely he wanted out of Pedro Docks before dark, because nighttime made it just that much easier for…whoever they were to spring another attack. Jayne and the docs pulled up in the mule, the trailing cargo hauler precariously loaded with an absurd number of crates that Mal was dead certain exceeded the recommended utility class weight limit. Simon took a minute to look in at the infirmary and check on his patients, but both of them were resting and Inara told him nothing remarkable had happened—inside the ship at least. Mal set up the unloading for maximum efficiency. Simon and Dr Ip tried their best, but hoicking cargo crates clearly wasn’t their strong suit, and Mal quickly set Ip to operating the anti-grav pallet loader, while Jayne manhandled the crates onto the pallet loader from the top of the cargo hauler, and he and Simon shuttled the unloaded crates into the cargo bay on dollies. With four men working and the assistance of the anti-grav pallet loader, unloading the mule took far less time than loading it had.
It had been one helluva day, Mal thought, as he maneuvered the heavily laden dolly up the ramp, and it weren’t over yet. What with Buck Holden and his corporate espionage, Ip and River beset by the Blue Hands, Simon finding his picture plastered all over the cortex (maybe his warrant weren’t so rescinded after all), the ambush, gettin’ shot at and Zoe gettin’ hurt, the ship gettin’ sabotaged despite his attempts to prevent it, Kaylee finding a Qianxia proximity detonator topside and him having to defuse it, he was bushed. He just hoped there weren’t no more surprises in store before he could close up the ramp and take Serenity out into the Black where she belonged.
As dusk began to gather and the last couple of crates went up the ramp, Mal registered that a small knot of people had gathered in front of his ship.
“What’s goin’ on here?” he demanded as he strode back down the ramp, hitching his browncoat in an automatic gesture that gave him clear access to his gun. The group didn’t look to be hostile, looked in fact like nothin’ more than delivery folk. He noted that Mrs Li’s son Boqin and several of his workers were standing at the edge the crowd nearest the ramp, and knew they were performing the promised function of denying strangers access to his ship. There were several unfamiliar people in front of him, and most of them were hovering around crates. Mal signaled Jayne with a look to move the mule and cargo hauler back aboard ship and secure them for flight, and he saw Jayne acknowledge his silent order to cover him in case of unpleasant surprises. He turned to the nearest of the crowd and began dealing with them.
It was all deliveries. There was a crate of medical supplies that Simon had bought. There was a set of medium-sized crates from Reed Labs—the tech cargo Ip had arranged. He signed off on some paperwork and let Ip take care of the crates. Then there was a single hand-carry crate, size of a dog kennel, from the University—the other tech item Ip and River arranged before the Blue Hands caught up to them. He signed for it, and strangely, a crate of apples—musta been something Jayne ordered when he was seeing to the food and supplies. He hoped they didn’t have Grizwalds in ’em, ’cause he really, really didn’t want any more surprises. Last of all were the two crates—two large, gorram, clucking crates—filled with chickens. Gorrammit! Just ’cause they have feathers don’t mean they can fly…leastaways he didn’t want ’em flying on his boat. He was really hoping the rotten fruit man would forget to send them, miss the delivery somehow. He sighed. Having cargo wasn’t always all it was cracked up to be.
Lift off had gone without incident, and soon as he pulled away from Beaumonde orbit and out into the Black, Mal keyed in the course settings, stifling a great big yawn as he did so.
And there was the next problem. With River out cold and Zoe flat on her back in the infirmary, the only pilot available to fly Serenity was him. He couldn’t discount the possibility that Serenity was being watched and would be followed, by the attackers who’d laid the ambush, the Feds, the Blue Hands, any or all of ’em. While the ship could fly on autopilot well enough, someone had to be alert for a tail, so there’d be a chance to do something about it afore it was too late and they were all dead. And he could barely keep his eyes open. If he set the autopilot and tried to take watch, he’d be out like a light in the pilot’s chair before you could say “Don’t fall asleep on the job.” He sorely needed to get horizontal, real rest in a real bed. And once he got there he would sleep like one dead.
Someone was hovering in the corridor outside the bridge. Not just any someone. “Inara,” he said, swallowing the darlin’ that came unbidden to the tip of his tongue, “can I ask you a favor?”
She stepped onto the bridge. No point lurking. She spoke with an edge in her voice to cover her discomfort. “Oh, so you’re asking now, are you Mal? I thought I was under your orders.”
Gorrammit. Why’d she wanna make this difficult? “Listen, I’m wonderin’—will you fly Serenity?” She looked at him in silence, her expression unreadable. “I’m out a pilot and a first officer. It’s been one helluva day and I don’t think I can keep awake no longer.” He explained the issue of the tail succinctly. “So I’d be much obliged if you’d take a trick at the helm.”
She didn’t reply. He was too gorram tired to try to read what was on her mind, and he had no stomach for guessing games. He was sick of their not talking to each other. So he just stood up and gestured towards the pilot chair. “Have a seat.”
She moved stiffly over to the chair and sat, her face a blank mask. “I set the autopilot, she’ll just fly herself. Keep an eye on the wake scan and the sensors. You see anything untoward, anything at all, you call me to the bridge immediately. Don’t care if you gotta throw a bucket of ice water over my head to wake me, you do it, anything makes you uneasy.” He had already started towards his bunk when she spoke, softly but firmly, turning her head to look him in the face.
“Because I trust you, Inara,” he replied, looking meaningfully into her eyes. “Trust you to take care of my girl.”
He turned and stepped off the bridge, heading directly to his bunk. Inara knew he didn’t see the flood of tears that ran down her face as his words echoed in her head. I trust you, I trust you, I trust you….
* * *
狗屎的 gǒushǐde [crappy]
猴子的 屁股 hóuzide pìgu [monkeys’ asses]
傻瓜 shǎguā [fool]
狗屎 gǒushǐ [crap]
象的 大便 Xiàngde dàbiàn [Elephant excrement]
牛屎 Niúshǐ [Shit]
屁股 pìgu [butt]
混蛋 húndàn [bastard]
我的天啊 Wǒ de tiān ā [Oh my god]
Good news: I'm posting the final chapter of Two by Two by Two one day early. Also good news: the next story, What Begins with an Apple, is already written. Now here's the bad news: WBWAA is in the throes of a major re-write, to be followed by several passes of editing, and it will likely be a while before I'm ready to post it. The truth is that I have used up my buffer. I started with a 6-month lead time between completing the stories and posting them, and it has gradually evaporated. I'm not able to keep pace writing that fast. Add to that about four months' writer's block on WBWAA (the first draft was completed in July, but re-writes stalled until November) and the need to edit the other stories for posting, and that's how it is. When WBWAA is complete, I'll begin posting and it will be posted at regular intervals. Thank you for reading my stories. Your comments are very much appreciated. I count on them not only for feedback on how effectively the writing conveys what I'm trying to say, but also for ideas that feed into upcoming story plans.
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