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EBFIDDLER

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (15)
Thursday, June 6, 2013

Serenity enters the Core, Mal and Inara sleep together, and Simon and Ip come up with a plan.


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ENDS WITH A HORSE (12)

Part (15)

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Follows WHAT BEGINS WITH AN APPLE (11).

The series so far:
A LION’S MOUTH (01)
ADVENTURES IN SITTING (02)
SPARKS FLY (03)
EXPECTATIONS (04)
BREAK OUT (05)
THE TRIAL (06)
SHADOW (07)
ONE MAN’S TRASH (08)
BANDIAGARA (09)
TWO BY TWO BY TWO (10)
WHAT BEGINS WITH AN APPLE (11)

Serenity enters the Core, Mal and Inara sleep together, and Simon and Ip come up with a plan.

* * *

The time had come for free and independent flight to come to an end. They were about to cross that invisible line that separated controlled space from the rest of the ’Verse. Near the Core worlds, all spacecraft flight was controlled. You had to file a flight plan and stick to it, you had to contact Space Traffic Control, and you had to follow the directions given by the Controller. If you tried to fly under the radar in the Core, you risked being stopped, searched, and arrested by an Alliance patrol, and if you landed on a Core world without proper authorization, you’d get cited, and might even lose your license. Accordingly, as they approached that invisible demarcation, Mal contacted the Space Traffic Control Center at Santo to activate the flight plan he had filed a few days before.

“Santo Center, this is Firefly Serenity 404-Echo-132-4 Foxtrot Echo-274-Alpha,” Mal identified his ship by its complete registration number.

“274 Alpha, go ahead,” the Space Traffic Controller answered.

“I’d like to activate my filed flight plan.”

There was a slight pause while the controller located the flight plan to Bernadette that Mal had submitted. “Your plan is active, 274 Alpha. Flyway Victor 93 to ITAWT Intersection, Victor 118 to ITAWA, Victor 165 to PUDYE, Victor 3 to TTATT Intersection…” The controller rattled off a long string of numbered flyways and named intersections. These were the regular dynamic grid of coordinates and trajectories that formed the most efficient routes between one point and another, and the calculated points in space where these routes intersected. The controller for the most part confirmed the route Mal had filed, with a few minor modifications. “…from IDEED Intersection, direct Bernadette and contact Bernadette Approach,” the controller concluded. “Squawk 5327 and Ident,” the controller directed, assigning Mal his temporary transponder code for the journey.

Mal read back the entire modified flight plan to confirm it, while River punched in the squawk code. “Firefly 274 Alpha, Squawk 5327 and Ident,” he finished, and hit the button that identified Serenity bright and clear to the space traffic controller in Santo Center. Having done so, he gave the nod to River, who aligned Serenity perfectly with the prescribed flyway. And there they were, officially in the Core, officially in controlled space, under the observation and direction of Space Traffic Control, identified for anyone who cared to look, from here until they landed on Bernadette. Gorram Core.

River watched as the tension visibly built up in Mal’s shoulders. Eighty million more miles to go, and how much more tension to build?

* * *

It was as they were going to bed that night that he made his appeal.

“Got a request, Inara,” Mal began, as he settled down on his side of the bed and pulled the covers up partway. Inara’s pillows were smooth and inviting, and something about the scent of her shuttle always helped him relax. The subject was very serious, but he kept his tone cheersome and light. “Next time we fight, can we still sleep together?”

Because of course they would fight. But it didn’t have to get so out of hand; it didn’t have to escalate beyond all reason. Last time, they fought and didn’t talk it out for nearly two weeks. For two weeks he was in a state of anxiety and uncertainty. He was confounded when he needed look sharp; his worries about their relationship distracted him at critical moments and jeopardized the safety of his crew. If they stuck together next time, they stood a better chance of talking it out, before it festered and swole up all out of proportion. He kept these thoughts to himself, determined not to taint their current state of good humor.

“Oh, so you like sleeping together, do you?” she inquired provokingly. “Would you care to elaborate on that?” Perhaps she was hoping to induce him to express more romantic sentiments.

Mal stretched out full length on the bed, placed his hands behind his head, and puffed his chest out in a self-satisfied fashion. “Feels good,” he answered with an obnoxious male smirk, “and I sleep better after.”

“Men,” she huffed in annoyance, but it was entirely lacking in sting. “So you’re saying I should sleep with you even when I’m angry with you? What inducements can you offer?”

“How’s about if I say please and bat my eyes all soulful and purty?” he asked, suiting action to word.

“Oh, alright,” she conceded jokingly, “but only on account of those pretty eyes. So long as we have an understanding on that point.”

He smirked again. But he was also completely serious. When he slept alone, he was far more likely to be awakened by nightmares—death and disaster, Serenity Valley, volcanic armageddon, Shadow, or a conflation of all of the above. In recent months Reaver chases and battles to the death over spinning generator blades had joined the milieu of horrors that his subconscious mind cooked up to keep him from getting a good, solid, restful night’s sleep. But when he slept with Inara—and he really did mean sleeping, side by side, regardless of whatever activities might have preceded said sleeping—the nightmares were less frequent, or at least they troubled him less. He couldn’t say if her presence banished them completely, or if it just reassured his sleeping mind that the horrors playing out in his head were not real. But somehow he was able to sleep through more often, and invariably awoke feeling better rested. For that alone, he ought to be thankful for the miracle of having Inara in his life. But he wasn’t going to tell her that now. It sounded too needy and pathetic. So he opted for more smirking. “’S why you love me.”

“Exactly,” she responded. “So when you provoke me beyond all reason, and I’m angry enough to scream and tear my hair, I should just remember those pretty eyes and invite you into my bed notwithstanding?”

“Absolutely,” he answered glibly, but then he turned serious. “But, no. Really. Next time we have a big fight—” (they both knew it was when, not if) “—can we just sleep together anyways? I think it might help.”

“You really think having angry sex is going to solve our problems, Mal?”

“Yes!” he smirked, then ducked as she tried to hit him with a pillow. “I mean, no,” he said seriously. “I didn’t mean that. I meant, actually sleeping. Sleeping together, as opposed to alone.” He broke eye contact, not wanting to talk about the nightmares. “I just think…things would be better…better chance of healing…if we don’t shut ourselves off, try to wall up the problems. Best chance we have.”

Inara gave him a serious look. Yes, he was right to point out that isolating themselves from one another had proved counterproductive. Only by talking to each other could they achieve better understanding. But she read the subtext, and knew that this was as close as Mal had ever come to admitting to his continuing problems with PTSD. He had nightmares rather frequently, as Inara knew from sleeping by his side for months now. They didn’t always wake him. When they slept side by side, she found oftentimes that her presence was enough to settle him. Sometimes just her proximity and warmth, other times a gentle touch, was enough to break whatever cycle of hell his mind had gotten caught in, and let him settle back to sleep. She knew that when he slept alone in his own bunk, he often awoke in the middle of the night—and rarely did he fall back asleep. Instead he got up and prowled the halls of his ship or went to the bridge, until it was close enough to morning for him to go to the galley, make coffee, and pretend that he was merely up early.

“’Course,” he added with another obnoxious smirk, “I wouldn’t say no to the sex, if you wanted it.”

She beamed him with the pillow.

* * *

They were flying in the Core, and so far there had been no incident. Mal kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, courtesy of Saffron. The fact that she was no longer aboard was no guarantee that she couldn’t still cause them trouble. She’d planted time-delayed devices before, and Mal kept expecting something bad to kick in and stop them dead in their tracks. Blown catalyzer. Engine seize up and stop spinning. Airlock breach. Stealth ship loom in their wake and start tracking them. Navsat failure. Cortex blow-out.

But nothing happened. They simply followed their filed flight plan, activated the thrusters at prescribed intervals to change course and follow the mapped-out flyways as per plan. From time to time, Space Traffic Control contacted the ship and directed course changes, presumably to avoid traffic or adverse conditions—although out here in the Black, even in the Core on standard flyways, there was very little to speak of in the way of traffic. Mal sometimes wondered if the directions to change course were just to keep them awake and make sure they were toeing the line. Periodically, they were handed off from one controller to another, as shifts ended and as they passed from one control zone to another.

Everything was going exactly according to plan, and Mal was becoming progressively more anxious, though he tried to maintain a calm demeanor. Things didn’t go smooth for him. Never. Fact that they were goin’ smooth now seemed to him just a portent of disaster to come.

* * *

The Captain had shown no inclination to resume the conversation about Miranda, and spent most of his time on the bridge, now that they were flying in the Core. Ip did not dare disturb the flying (which he understood to require special attention, here in the Core), but he figured the Captain could answer a quick question. With Simon along to provide support, Ip chose a time when the Captain did not seem too busy to make his proposal.

“My friend Hari Nyiri works in the Reaver Studies Department of Blue Sun, Captain,” Ip informed him earnestly. “The kind of information he knows—I’ve not been able to get much out of him, Captain, but that’s because I’m the most unsuspicious person on the planet—”

Understatement of the year, thought Mal, as he regarded Ip and Simon from the pilot’s chair. The two docs had come up to the bridge specially to speak with him.

“—and I wasn’t particularly looking for information about Reavers, Captain. But Simon likely can garner much more information.”

“Since I am not only suspicious, but also paranoid.”

“Hey, it ain’t paranoia if they really are after you, Doc.”

“So I was thinking, Captain, what if I set up a meeting? Introduce Simon to Hari, and let them talk? Maybe even get Hari to bring along some of his colleagues from Reavers, and—”

“What!!” This was crazy. 神经病 Shén jīng bìng. It was an idiotic proposal, and he would put a stop to it before it went any farther. There was no way, no rutting way, Mal would allow Ip to introduce Simon to any of his Blue Sun friends. Those were two worlds that should oughtta never meet. Someone from Blue Sun might recognize Simon, track him back to Serenity, track him back to River—no. No, no, no. Ip had to be kept on a short leash, in a carefully controlled environment, not let loose and bounding around in an open-ended situation where he could spill his secrets—Mal’s secrets—River’s secrets—to his Blue Sun friend and anyone he happened to bring along with him. Those old bosses who had fired him for his dangerous knowledge, for instance, or maybe (he shuddered to think it) ‘friends’ like Blue Hand Bill.

“Can’t not never do it, nohow,” Mal interrupted Ip’s voluminous flow of words, and despite the seriousness of the situation, he thoroughly enjoyed Simon’s perplexed expression. Ip, of course, was now wearing his trademark clueless look.

Four. Mal kinda prided himself on his ability to pile on the negatives. It was always good for throwing Doc off-balance—poor boy couldn’t make out up from down when Mal tossed one of his better constructions at him. Didn’t generally work on the other Core-bred members of his crew. River, she’d just peep into his brainpan and figure out what he meant. And Inara was so good at reading facial expressions and body language, it almost didn’t matter what he said. But Simon was always tryin’ to understand it literally, and he was so earnest about it, and it was just so gorram wickedly funny to see him follow the winding path of negatives and try and work out whether it came out meaning ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Mal just liked to yank his chain a bit. Of course he knew better. His momma was an English teacher, and she didn’t allow double negatives in her house. But double negatives came natural-like to anyone who’d grown up on a Rim world, and he’d known some true artists in his time. The master of them all, the Nabob of Negatives himself, was Sergeant Beauford Hammett, Mal’s drill instructor when he’d been a raw recruit. Mal had collected Sergeant Hammett’s best lines and used a few of them himself. He’d never forget the time the Sarge had burst into the barracks during one of those rare moments of down time at boot camp, bellowing, “I don’t wanna see nobody nowhere ’round here not doin’ nothin’ at no time, nohow! Get you a broom!” That was seven. Still made Mal whistle with admiration when he thought on it.

Meanwhile, the expression on Simon’s face was priceless. And it appeared Ip was similarly stymied, since he was even more gape-mouthed than Simon. Mal watched as the two of them chewed it over, watched Ip’s enthusiasm deflate like a popped balloon, while Simon’s face went from muddled to angry (or maybe it was fearful—always hard to tell with a face like his) as he worked out and re-checked his answer, finally confirming that Mal meant ‘no.’

Simon was displeased. He and Ip had worked out a plan. It was a good plan, and to have Mal dismiss it, almost sight unseen, having given it no more than two seconds’ consideration, was beyond annoying.

His view of the Captain had evolved so much since he first came aboard, that he sometimes forgot what an unmitigated 混蛋 húndàn the man could be at times. Why was he being such a 流氓 liúmáng about it?

“Captain,” Simon argued, “I’m sure you can see the advantages of having this meeting. Ip has a legitimate reason for contacting Hari at this point, and I have the means to draw him out. It’s for River’s sake, Captain. There might not be another opportunity like this.”

“I can also see the disadvantages of this plan,” Mal responded, “and it’s for River’s sake I’m sayin’ so. It’s too risky.”

Simon knew there was no hope for the plan as soon as Mal said that. Too risky. He wouldn’t knowingly put River in danger again. Mal had just played his trump card. Granted, the Captain had his own enemies and independent reasons for wishing to fly under the radar, but Simon couldn’t help but be aware that his and River’s presence aboard had exponentially increased the risks the Captain took. He owed it to Mal not to put himself or River at risk.

But if Simon felt the Captain had backed him into a corner, Ip had no such sense of defeat, and he had already rallied. “It’s no big deal, Captain,” Ip said, not seeing problems anywhere, as per usual for him. “I could set up a meeting at a nice, inconspicuous place, like a restaurant or theatre, and—”

“A public place?”

“Well, yes, of course, that’s how—”

“I don’t think Simon oughtta be walkin’ about in public in a place like this. Someone will notice him. Recognize him as Simon Tam, person of interest in the kidnapping of River Tam. Simon will stick out in a place like Bernadette.”

He would stick out on Core world? Simon was angry, but also incredulous. He was a Core Worlder. It was Mal who would stick out in a place like Bernadette. Sure, if anyone questioned him closely, he didn’t think he could pass for a Bernadette native. Bernadettiens tended to be more garrulous. He was too reserved. But even if they did identify him as a native of Osiris, what was wrong with that? So long as he wasn’t positively identified as Simon Tam, he didn’t think it would be a problem. He would of course use the false Ident Card that Mal had acquired for him awhile back—the one that listed him as Dr Simon Tang, anatomist, Senior Lecturer at Eli University on Osiris. False Ident cards weren’t so hard to come by, if you knew the right people. That is to say, shady back-alley forgers and counterfeiters. Which the Captain apparently did. “I can blend in,” Simon responded, looking the Captain in the eye, “and even if someone should ask, I have a suitable Ident Card.” Simon had every confidence in the card the Captain had presented him with some months ago.

But Mal didn’t. “That Ident Card won’t hold up for a minute if anyone gives it a second look, Simon, and you know it,” Mal told him. “Blue Sun still wants River. They’ll still want you, Simon, because you can lead them to her. And they’ll act without a warrant.” Mal turned to the other man. “You know what happened on Beaumonde, Ip. You almost got killed and River almost got taken. And you’re really willing to walk about in a public place, on a world where Blue Sun has its biggest research labs, meet up with a Blue Sun employee and all his so-called ‘friends’ to talk about Reavers—in public? Might as well wave your arms, jump up and down, and call the Blue Hands yourself. Ip, what kind of 白痴 báichī are you? I thought you had more intelligence than that.”

Ip stood silent in the face of the Captain’s reproof.

“What he has is trust,” Simon spoke on Ip’s behalf.

“Well, I don’t. I don’t trust Blue Sun a bit. This project is no go. It’s too risky. You two will end up being nabbed, and the rest of us will be killed trying to go in to rescue you.”

“You’d come rescue us?” Ip asked amazed.

“You’re on my crew,” Mal said simply, and Simon remembered how he had felt the first time he’d heard that. “But this cockamamie project is vetoed. 絕不 Juébù.”

* * *

As the two doctors turned to leave the Captain’s domain, Mal waylaid Ip. “Speakin’ of Blue Sun, you heard back from your friend about that tracking beacon yet?” he asked him.

“Umm, no, Captain. I just didn’t think about the beacon, with recent events.” It seemed like another lifetime. In truth, it was only six weeks ago that Kaylee had discovered a tracking beacon attached to Serenity’s hull. Ip had recognized it as a Blue Sun product, and the Captain had commissioned him to contact his friend Hari Nyiri to look into the matter. Since Hari still worked for Blue Sun, it was a relatively simple matter for him to look up which customer had purchased the beacon. Sales information was proprietary, not secret.

“Never you mind, Ip. Let’s wave him now. Where on Bernadette is he?”

“Shinjuku,” Ip answered, and Mal quickly looked up the local time. Confirming that they would not be waking Ip’s friend in the middle of the night, he accessed the wave records from the bridge log, input the wave address, and set up the distance-wave protocol.

“Right, Ip. You’re on.” Mal ceded the seat to Ip as the wave went through the initiation sequence. “Keep in mind what I said about keeping our business private,” he reminded Ip, with menace in his tone, and Ip immediately recalled the occasion on which the Captain had warned him against talking about Bill the Blue Hand assassin and other private matters. Mal took up a position behind Ip, out of range of the vid pickup, to monitor the conversation.

* * *

It was immediately apparent to Mal that there was unspoken history of some kind between Ip and his friend Hari Nyiri. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but there was something about the way the man looked at Ip. Whatever it was, Ip didn’t bat an eyelash, just jumped right in as if this were completely normal and to be expected. Which maybe it was. Maybe it was just the Bernadette way of things.

At least Ip was holding up his end of the deal about keeping secrets. There was a lot of yapping, as Ip and his friend went through the preliminary meet and greet, reassured each other of their own fine state of health, and took in the surprising news that the other was fine too, thanks, and so were all their friends and relatives. Good lord, these Bernadettiens are a talkative bunch, he thought, as Ip and Hari went through a whole gorram census list of friends and acquaintances whose exact state of fineness had to be ascertained. Like to get my ear talked off, were I ever to be detained on that planet, Mal thought, but at the same time, he detected a method to the mad chatter. Ip and Hari had now moved on to discussing the personal lives of their research colleagues at Blue Sun, and when the time was ripe, Ip introduced the topic of the tracking beacon, smooth and easy, with nary a ripple. Ip was a natural.

“Well, that’s the thing, Ip,” Hari answered fluidly. “It wasn’t sold to an outside party. According to the records at marketing, it was used in-house.”

Oh. Very interesting.

“So somebody at BSR used it.”

“Appears so,” Hari confirmed.

“What department?” Ip asked eagerly. “Was it Terraforming?”

“No, none of your old crew, Ip.”

“Biosystems? Behavioral Technology?” Ip speculated enthusiastically, thwarting Hari’s attempts to get a word in edgewise. “Oh wait, I know, it must have been—”

Mal rolled his eyes. Hari was trying to answer, but Ip kept cutting him off.

“—Nanotech? Chemical Engineering? Natural Resources? Oh, I know—it was Communications, wasn’t it?”

“Shut up already, Ip,” Hari interrupted. “It was Classified.”

“Your department, then.”

“Oh, no, Ip,” Hari laughed, and Mal began to see the wisdom of Ip’s approach after all. “I would have told you that, just to get you to stop guessing. No, it wasn’t signed out to someone from Reavers. It was classified, even for me—and you know what that means. It was almost certainly someone from Bill’s department. Remember Bill? Bill Borjigin?

Mal had to give Ip credit. He didn’t give anything away. He sat very still, but he merely said, “Yeah.”

“Bill’s department,” Hari repeated. “Internal Security. Some super-secret corporate spy thing, I don’t doubt. Remember how we used to tease him about it? ‘My name is Borjigin. Bill Borjigin. Shaken, not stirred.’” Caught up in his own humor, Hari laughed. “Bill has always been really into that secret agent stuff. Even has a code name, remember? ‘Baatar’—Mongolian for ‘hero.’ The egoist.”

“Yeah.” Ip forced a weak smile. Mal had again to give him credit, considering that the last time Ip had seen Blue Hand Bill, the man had tried to kill him. “How is Bill, anyway? Have you seen him lately?” Ip managed, and Mal was seriously impressed by the performance.

“Oh, Bill’s fine,” Hari answered. “Saw him a few weeks ago. He was off to Beaumonde on a temporary assignment. Or I think it was Beaumonde. He didn’t say, actually. All that hush-hush cloak-and-dagger secret agent stuff, you know. He asked me to take care of his goldfish while he was gone.”

* * *

*

*

*

glossary

神经病 Shén jīng bìng [Insane]

混蛋 húndàn [bastard]

流氓 liúmáng [jerk, asshole]

白痴 báichī [idiot]

絕不 Juébù [No way]

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COMMENTS

Thursday, June 6, 2013 9:59 AM

NUTLUCK


Looks like a whole army of cloud walking octopi are about to start losing their shoes on the crew.

Monday, June 10, 2013 10:48 AM

BYTEMITE


>Things didn’t go smooth for him. Never. Fact that they were goin’ smooth now seemed to him just a portent of disaster to come.

The bad feelings Mal gets when things are going well have saved his life almost as often as they've disrupted it.

Still love what you're doing with Ip. I even felt bad for him when Mal said he thought he was "smarter than that." Harsh, Mal.

And all Bernadettians are garrulous. Uh oh.

Aw, PTSD. :( But Mal has some good ideas sometimes.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013 4:26 PM

EBFIDDLER


Yup. That shoe's gonna drop. Just you wait.
We'll find out more about the garrulous Bernadettiens in a while.
Glad someone appreciated the comment about the goldfish. :-)


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