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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Talking it out.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 1489 RATING: 10 SERIES: FIREFLY
WHAT BEGINS WITH AN APPLE (11)
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Follows TWO BY TWO BY TWO (10). Precedes ENDS WITH A HORSE (12).
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)
TWO BY TWO BY TWO (10)
Talking it out.
* * *
The look on Ip’s face was priceless, Mal thought, as he strode up to the bridge to check the course settings. He’d put on a good act, and he had Ip going there, believing he might really kill him if he talked. Mal chuckled darkly at his own twisted sense of humor. Bordered on the cruel, after all Ip had been through. Oh, he really was a bad man.
But it weren’t really a joke. It was absolutely necessary to impress upon Ip the seriousness of blabbing his business to strangers. Loose lips…Mal remembered the war-time expression, about how idle chatter made in all innocence could reach the wrong ears, and everybody’d wind up dead. Weren’t no joke at all.
Would he really kill Ip if he found him talking to a Blue Hand? Or an Operative? Truly he didn’t reckon it would ever come to that. Ip wasn’t really a bad sort at all. Shouldn’t never come to the point of killing. Well, not unless the man did something really and truly stupid.
Mal knew something about stupid, and it was more than just a passing acquaintance. Fact was, Mal had something of a knack for stupid. Zoe was always telling him—no, not out loud, just with those looks that he understood so well—that he was about to do something monumentally stupid. What no one seemed to comprehend was that doing stupid at that level took a certain kind of talent. Way Mal figured, it had taken him years of practice to attain this level of accomplishment at stupid. A body couldn’t maintain this level of achievement at stupid without some dedicated practice, and a thorough understanding of stupidity in all its forms.
Ip weren’t stupid. But then again...Ip had a streak of true idiocy about him, when it came to running his mouth. The man had no notion of what he was saying, and to whom. He couldn’t control that mouth of his. Always felt the need to talk. He’d cheerfully talk to individuals who were manifestly squirming with discomfort under his interrogation. He’d talk to groups, oblivious to the waves of antipathy he was causing, and never notice until he was swamped by a sea of hostility. He’d open his heart to strangers, and spill his guts, and—this was the part that had Mal worried—he’d spill Mal’s guts, too, since he happened to have interrogated said guts or secrets out of him in one or another of the myriad of grill-the-Captain sessions that he’d entertained himself with ever since he first set foot on Mal’s boat. Ip was dangerous because he’d managed to collect so much information, and the more so because his naiveté was so disarming and he appeared not to have a malicious bone in his body. Man was a walking, talking landmine of explosive information. Especially with the talking part.
Huh. The realization suddenly hit Mal like the concussion of a bomb. Ip was loaded with explosive information. And he’d had a life before he came to Serenity. He’d worked for Blue Sun. And doubtless done his magic grill-the-boss business long before Mal was the one in the hot seat. Ip was like to have a huge collection of explosive information about his bosses in Blue Sun. About Blue Sun research. About Blue Sun itself. Sword can cut both ways. It was time Mal made use of this windfall resource that had landed on his ship. Nope. He wouldn’t never be killing Ip. No matter what kind of stupid the man did. Ip’s knowledge was bound to be much too valuable.
“You really do have a twisted sense of humor, Captain,” River remarked, grinning, as Mal entered the bridge. “You slay me.”
Girl musta been listening in on his conversation with Ip. “And you got me laughing fit to kill. Really taken you this long to figure that out, Albatross? And here I thought you were a mind-reading genius.”
“I can kill you with my brain.” She accompanied the words with her patented creepifying look.
Mal wasn’t the least bit taken in. “Oh, yeah, you’re killin’ me now.”
“Don’t you think you were a bit heavy-handed with the ‘loose lips sink ships’ line?” she inquired. “You know, a bit of overkill?”
“Don’t be such a killjoy,” he shot back. Turning to business, he asked for a status report. “What’ve you been up to here on the bridge, Albatross?”
That prompted an eye-roll from the Captain. “Don’t you think this particular line of word play has reached a dead-end?”
“Oh, you are dead wrong in that assumption, Captain.”
“You gonna earn your keep and answer my question? Or are you just so much dead weight in a pilot seat?”
“If looks could kill—”
“You are a dead duck—”
“Not a duck. Albatross.”
Listening to the Captain and River exchange banter on the bridge, Ip was reassured. He hadn’t imagined the twinkle in the Captain’s eye. It really was some kind of twisted black joke, and the man was not deadly serious about killing him. It somehow made Ip feel better, although he couldn’t imagine why a joke about killing him could possibly help, so soon after Bill—no, not Bill, not his friend Bill, he corrected. The Blue Hand, the assassin—the man really had intended to kill him. He was going to follow the Captain’s advice, and talk it out with a friend. Talking always made him feel better.
Ip waited while the Captain checked flight status and course settings with River. Soon after he left to attend to other ship’s business, Ip made his way to the bridge.
“Come in, Ip. I was expecting you.” She gave him a sweet smile.
“Listen. River, the Captain just…” threatened to kill me, he didn’t quite say, didn’t quite believe, “um…” ordered me, “advised me, to talk over…” neck-snapping, friends who come to kill you in an alley, shellshock, “things…with a sympathetic ear.” He looked into her eyes, now a limpid brown, so different from the wild look of the mad girl in the Missing Children picture, from the determined fierceness of the warrior who’d pulled him into the break room and sent him climbing down the wall of a building, from the panicked stare of the cornered quarry who’d kicked and broken the Blue Hand man’s neck, and different still from the cloudy incoherence that had overtaken her when she turned all quivery in the aftermath of the Blue Hands’ attack. He made his request. “Is there any problem if I make a lengthy long-distance wave?”
River gave the controls a quick check and engaged the autopilot. “No problem.”
“May I have some privacy on the bridge?”
“Yes,” she answered, giving permission. “You’re going to talk with him. Your friend.”
“There is nothing left to see.” Ip stared blankly at her, so she translated. “Chan ’eil càil an so a’ faicadh.”
He brightened a bit in recognition of his friend’s name. River finished setting up the protocol for the long-distance wave, then stood up, ceding the chair to Ip. “Now don’t go talking to any Blue Sun Operative,” she warned, “nor any Operative. Is that clear?”
Ip gave her a sharp look.
“Because if I do find that you’ve been talking to such, I’m gonna kill you.”
Ip gulped, panicked briefly, but then caught the look in her eye and began snickering, as River exploded into giggles.
“Just an expression, Ip. Hyperbole. Means get very angry. No actual killing involved.”
“No actual killing,” he echoed in relief, although a note of hysteria remained in his voice.
“Can be dangerous to talk. The Captain’s trying to protect us.”
“Believe me, River, I am in no way eager to have another conversation with Bill. With a Blue Hand operative,” he corrected, as he turned to the cortex screen. Especially not when he’s holding one of those awful rod weapons and looking at me like I’m a thing to be ‘neutralized.’
River exited the bridge, leaving him in privacy. He pulled out the electronic calling card and initiated the wave. He needed to talk it out with his friend and mentor, Brother Chan ’eil Càil an so a’ Faicadh.
“…I’m just not sure I’m on the right ship.” Ip sighed and pulled a hand through his hair. The young man was clearly in a state of turmoil.
“Why do you think so?” The Operative was careful to keep his voice neutral. He maintained a steadiness, a calmness: the young man seemed to need it. Throughout the young man’s narrative of events, he had acted for the most part like a psychotherapist, letting Ip speak what was on his mind, prompting when necessary, avoiding the temptation to inject his own point of view into the conversation.
“When I first took on this job,” Ip said, seemingly unmindful of the fact that the job that brought him to Serenity was long since completed, and he could have chosen to leave the ship at any of the ports of call since, “I expected that by now I would have learned all there is to know about Miranda.”
The Operative kept silent, but raised his eyebrows as a sign of his interest.
“You told me that the Captain had been to Miranda…”
The Operative gave a sign of assent. They had been over this territory before.
“…but you didn’t tell me what a closed-off, ornery, cross-grained 混蛋 húndàn the Captain is!”
The Operative maintained a perfectly calm exterior, but he couldn’t help but grin to himself internally. He remembered his boast during his first encounter with Malcolm Reynolds. You cannot make me angry, he’d claimed. Oh please. Spend an hour with him, the Companion had retorted in such a tone of exasperation that he ought to have taken heed. He had learned that lesson the hard way.
“And you didn’t tell me that the entire crew had been to Miranda,” Ip continued.
“Is that so?” the Operative asked, as if it were news to him.
“Yes. Apparently it is. And yet, even now, after spending three months on this boat, I’ve made very little headway in finding out more about Miranda. And to add to the frustration, I haven’t been able to get the Captain to open up about Shadow, either.”
“Have you—” the Operative began, but Ip cut him off with a gesture.
“And it’s not just that.” Ip’s voice rose as he exclaimed, “They tried to kill me!”
“The crew?” The Operative allowed himself to show some surprise.
“No, not—although the Captain did say he was going to kill me if I—but I think he was joking,” Ip responded. “They tried to kill me on Beaumonde. Me and River. The Blue Hands.”
“Yes. Blue Hands. They’re some kind of secret operatives. They work for Blue Sun.”
“How do you know they work for Blue Sun?”
“Because I knew one of them. From when I worked for Blue Sun. Bill. Bill Borjigin.”
This was most interesting. Ip didn’t know it, but he might very well be the only living person in the ’Verse who could positively identify a Blue Sun special operative by name. Because so few lived to tell the tale of their encounter. And how many of those actually knew, by name, the man who came to kill them? “You knew him? But you astonish me, my friend. They really tried to kill you?” He expressed as much personal concern as he could in his voice. Apparently, Ip felt reassured, because when he continued the tale, his voice was a little steadier.
“They were going to kill me. I really can’t imagine why. Although clearly it had something to do with River. They wanted to kill me and kidnap her. 天啊 Tiān ā,” he said, shaking his head, and holding it in his hands. “I seem to have acquired some really dangerous friends. I really should just get off this boat as soon as we reach Bernadette.”
And there it was. This was exactly the line of thinking that it was his duty to counter. He chose his words carefully. “You want to go home.”
“You’re thinking it might be safer.”
“Yes,” Ip breathed. “I—I’m—well, I’ve made friends here. River and Simon and Kaylee and…I like it here. But it’s too dangerous. River’s an interesting girl, smart and witty and—she understands me. Like no one I’ve met before. But…she killed a man. Killed…”
“Tell me about it.”
Ip was silent. At last he spoke, reluctantly, as if afraid of divulging too much. “I…well…River and I were returning to the ship from the university.”
“Dunsmuir University. We took on a scientific cargo—an in-flight experiment.” He stopped, reconsidered what he was about to say, then continued. “Two men in suits set upon us in an alley. They were wearing blue gloves. Blue Hands.”
The Operative nodded.
“One of them—Bill—pulled out a weapon—a rod—some kind of advanced sonic weaponry, I imagine. He was going to kill me with it.” Ip was having difficulty with the telling, the Operative could see, but he could see it was cathartic as well. The telling was drawing the poison from the wound. “But then I looked in his face, and recognized him. I greeted him.”
“Greeted him? You said hello?”
“I…called him by name. He wasn’t expecting that. He…hesitated.” Ip paused. “River launched herself at the other man right at that moment. Broke his neck. Killed him.” Ip looked sick, like he might throw up.
The Operative gave him a moment to recover. “Has it occurred to you that she killed him to save your life?”
Ip was silent, looking down. Finally, he looked up. “Yes.”
“How do you know they were after River?”
Ip paused and considered. “I—well, I guess I don’t. But why would they be after me?”
The Operative considered. It was clear the Blue Hands had not expected to encounter Ip Neumann with River Tam, for had they known his identity, they would not have sent an operative with such antecedents. It was unclear where the Blue Hand man’s loyalties would lie when the chips were down. With Blue Sun, his trainers and handlers? With Ip, his friend? The Operative fully intended to research the complete history of Bill Borjigin: his life before his recruitment as a Blue Hand operative, and what could be discovered of his activities since entering the corporate sphere. If Borjigin survived the fall-out from the debacle on Beaumonde, he would face many professional obstacles. (The Operative knew a thing or two about survival and recovery in the aftermath of a secret retrieval operation gone pear-shaped.) There was no doubt that Borjigin would face some serious challenges, and it remained to be seen what the mettle of the man was. He might very well crack at the first hard knock. And no matter what Borjigin told or didn’t tell his handlers about the encounter on Beaumonde, the Blue Hands now had the means to identify Ip Neumann and his connection with River Tam. It was possible they would make some of the connections he himself had made, if they looked in the right direction. The Operative felt the pressure was on to hasten the process that he had set in motion a few months ago on 尘球 Chén Qiú when he first placed Ip Neumann into contact with Malcolm Reynolds.
He kept these thoughts to himself. It was best not to reveal what he knew. It would be far better for Ip to make the realizations himself. He took a different tack. “So, you’re thinking of getting off the ship at Bernadette,” he remarked, side-stepping Ip’s question. “Is that your next port of call?”
“Yes. Well, first we have to drop off a shipment on—” Ip cut himself off and gaped a moment, as if considering whether he had already revealed too much. “—Another place,” he continued, “but yes, then it’s on to Bernadette.”
“And you want to go home.”
“Because home is safer.”
“Safer?” Ip gave the point careful consideration. “My parents live on Bernadette. My family. My friends. I grew up there, went to school there. Went to university there, got my first job there. It’s home.”
“Your first job, working for Blue Sun.”
“Well, yes, working for Blue Sun. But not…”
Ip was starting to get the point. The Operative worked at him, gently, a very light touch.
“Blue Sun. The same corporation that just sent a hit man to kill you.”
“They weren’t after me—”
“You know that? You’re certain of it?” Might as well get him in the right frame of mind for his new reality.
Ip was silent.
“If you return to live on Bernadette, stay with your parents, resume your old contacts—how do you know they won’t come after you again?”
“Bill said he wouldn’t—”
“Bill said?” the Operative echoed. It was a delicate balance. He’d selected Ip for his naiveté, his manipulability, as well as his particular knowledge. But Ip was no good to him if the Blue Hands killed him first. “Why do you trust what Bill says?”
“Is Bill in charge? When Bill reports back to his superiors that he let you and River escape, what do you think they will do?” Ip stayed silent, thinking, as the Operative continued with his carefully calibrated line of leading questions. “Do you think they will say, ‘Good call, Bill, we trust your judgment’? Do you not think they will try again? Send someone else? Someone who won’t be distracted by old ties of friendship?” The Operative paused.
Ip contemplated him for a moment through the cortex screen, then gave a little shake of his head.
“If you stay on Bernadette,” the Operative cautioned, “seek employment there, and resume your old habits, I believe you are simply making it easier for them to track you down. It’s one of the first places they will look.”
Ip looked alarmed. “Perhaps we shouldn’t even go to Bernadette. I should tell the Captain—”
“No, no, Ip,” the Operative chuckled. “That, I think, is a stroke of genius. They will hardly expect you to be heading straight for Bernadette directly after this attack. Your Captain is an expert in sideways thinking, I do believe.”
“You mean, they won’t expect it.”
“Oh no, they won’t expect it. So go ahead. Visit your family. Visit the university and talk to your professor. Get re-charged. But don’t stay—and don’t give them advanced notice of your arrival. Your best bet is to keep moving. Until there is no longer a reason for these operatives to try to track you down.”
Mal knew that Ip would talk, but he didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. He also didn’t expect that Ip would talk it out with someone off the ship. Mal didn’t expect that Ip would turn to his friend the Buddhist monk. Brother Khan-Ale-Cal or whatever the man’s name really was.
But so it was. Ip asked River’s permission to use the cortex on the bridge in privacy, and spent a good thirty minutes or more talking it out with the man. So Mal didn’t hear the full version of what Ip had to say about the events that transpired in the alley at Dunsmuir University. But whatever was said apparently comforted Ip. He lost his blank stare, and was able to speak again—not quite his normal self, but close enough that Mal no longer feared he’d become the hollow shell he’d mentioned.
It bothered Mal that Ip had mentioned the incident to anyone outside the crew of Serenity.
The talk with Brother Chan ’eil Cail had helped, but Ip still felt that panic and hysteria weren’t far from the surface, even so. His friend did not have full information. Although it went against his natural inclination (which was to speak openly, without holding back), Ip had taken the Captain’s threats seriously, and he was acutely conscious of what he had not told. He’d left out a lot of the details about Bill, he hadn’t divulged the ship’s destination, and he hadn’t mentioned anything that Simon had told him about River’s experiences at a government-sponsored academy, the one that was apparently funded or otherwise supported by Blue Sun Corporation. It was this Academy that apparently wanted River back, and wanted her back so much as to be willing to try all kinds of methods—criminal “wanted” bulletins, missing persons reports—to discover her whereabouts. It was also this same Academy that apparently sent the Blue Hands operatives to retrieve her. Operatives who were willing to kill witnesses or anyone else who stood in their way.
He couldn’t imagine that such actions were legal, and it didn’t mesh with the picture of Blue Sun Corporation that he thought he knew. Were there corrupt divisions within Blue Sun? The corporation was gargantuan, and he would not be surprised if the left hand of Blue Sun had no idea what the right hand was doing…much less the pinky toenail being aware of the actions of the gallbladder. (It occurred to him that the absurd comparison reflected his near-hysterical state of mind). How far did the cancer extend within the body of Blue Sun? How extensive was the corruption?
Talking about it had given him a superficial calmness, but it hadn’t really made the issue go away. Intrigued by the tales his friend the Buddhist monk had hinted at when he first met him three months ago on 尘球 Chén Qiú, Ip had wanted more than anything to board this ship, Serenity, and learn about the Captain’s visit to Miranda. He’d thought a single journey would be enough to interview the witness, incorporate the gleanings from that interview into his research, and—if he was lucky—provide him with the kind of clue that would let him break the case as to what had really happened on Miranda. But it had not been so simple.
The Captain wouldn’t talk. The crew wouldn’t talk. They all knew something about it, that much was clear. The Captain had as good as said it: they had all been to Miranda.
They had all been to Miranda. The Captain was born and raised on Shadow. To meet with people who could give him first-hand accounts of these places had been his dream ever since he first became aware of the pivotal position these two worlds occupied in the field of terraformology.
Now he was faced with a dilemma, and he was more uncertain than ever.
On the one hand, staying on Serenity gave him the opportunity to do some research of great potential importance. The pay was very irregular, and occasionally he wondered how he could possibly describe this interlude on his resumé in a way that would satisfy a future employer. “I took a not-entirely-voluntary leave-of-absence from my profession, and extended it beyond reason.” An unbiased observer would probably advise him to abandon the project now and seek out a steady tenure-track position with better job security. Yet the lure of a breakthrough on Miranda and Shadow was a strong one. Publishing the key to either one of those disasters would make the career of any terraformologist.
On the other hand, staying on Serenity had just very nearly gotten him killed. While he had eventually become aware that not all of the Captain’s business dealings were strictly legal, it still didn’t explain why the ship and its crew had attracted so much negative attention on Beaumonde. Besides the encounter with the Blue Hands, there was Simon’s implication as a “person of interest” in the supposed abduction of his sister; the attempted sabotage of the ship; and the assault on the Captain and Zoe.
He would have to be crazy to want to stay aboard. And yet, he had never felt so comfortable, so at home. These people felt like family, and in Simon and River, he had found some very good friends. He enjoyed his frequent conversations with Simon about all kinds of aspects of science. Simon’s interests were focused on medical sciences, of course, but he was always up for intellectual conversation. A person of sharp, sarcastic wit, Simon was nonetheless a man with a deep-seated need to help people, as evidenced by the care he always showed for his sister. He was a good man.
River—well, she was just about the most fascinating person Ip had ever met. He knew that she was not, strictly speaking, “normal.” But for Ip “normal” had always had a rather fluid definition. His whole life had been lived amongst people who defied classification in “normal” categories—from his highly intellectual professor mother to the over-the-top gregariousness of his father’s side of the family, not to mention his own sister Keiko, who had permanently skewed Ip’s idea of what “creative thinking” entailed. Ip had grown up believing that some degree of oddness was to be expected of all people, and that if a person appeared to be normal, it was simply that he or she hadn’t yet revealed what their oddity was. The way River’s mind worked was a subject of wonder to Ip. “Genius” was a word that was tossed around easily to describe many intelligent people who didn’t truly deserve the label, and Ip had developed a distaste for the word. But River’s genius was of the Renaissance variety: wide-ranging knowledge, profound depth, sharp wit, and labyrinthine thought processes, all moving at the speed of light. Ip had found her mental processes to be intriguing right from the start, albeit a bit disconcerting. The better he got to know her, the more he felt that getting to know her well would be the journey of a lifetime.
This made it all the more distressing to see how off-balance River seemed in the aftermath of the attack on Beaumonde. He didn’t know how or why it had affected River this way, and honestly, the prospect of imminent death had precluded his making much in the way of observations. But whatever had happened there had had a clear negative impact on River’s mental status. Ip’s upbringing had made him familiar with wildly creative imaginations, and he knew that such minds often sat at a saddle point, an unstable equilibrium. Sometimes only a slight perturbation was enough to set such a mind spiraling out of control. River seemed to be struggling to control her own thought processes in the aftermath of Beaumonde. She was having difficulty expressing herself clearly, and he could tell that she was frustrated with this state of affairs. He wished he had the key that could bring her back to her point of equilibrium.
Chan ’eil càil an so a’ faicadh [There is nothing left to see (Scottish Gaelic)]
混蛋 húndàn [bastard]
天啊 Tiān ā [God]
尘球 Chén Qiú [name of a world]
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