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EBFIDDLER

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (17)
Wednesday, June 26, 2013

In which things begin to go wrong


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2120    RATING: 10    SERIES: FIREFLY

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12)

Part (17)

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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)

In which things begin to go wrong

A/N: Some uncensored swear words in English in this section. You have been forewarned.

* * *

Following the Captain’s guidance, Ip again contacted Hari and arranged the meeting. The usual place, dinner after work on Friday. Hari would wave the restaurant and reserve a private dining room. He went to inform Simon of the plan.

“Hari’s chosen a restaurant to meet at.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea, Ip?” Simon had not heard Ip and the Captain’s discussion of the public versus private venue for the meeting, and was still under the impression that the Captain had vetoed a public meeting place.

“Of course it’s a good idea. The place Hari chose has some of the best sushi on the planet, and we can easily get there by subway.”

“That’s not what I meant. In public? I mean, isn’t that rather conspicuous? Why not meet at his apartment, or your parents’ place, or—”

“Simon, on Bernadette, no one entertains at home. Have you seen the size of most Bernadettien apartments, Simon? Everyone meets friends and business associates at restaurants. It would be conspicuous to try to meet up privately. Trust me, if we meet at a restaurant, no one will give us a second look. And, like I was saying: best sushi on the planet. You do like sushi, don’t you?”

“Of course.” Simon couldn’t help it: his mouth began watering, just thinking about sushi. Any fresh food, actually, after weeks of packaged food in space. He knew his objections had been overruled. Defeated by sushi, of all things.

* * *

The hand-off to Bernadette Approach had gone slick as spit—no incident, no malfunction, no suspicious nothin’. Mal was just about sick with anxiety, and with a splitting headache brought on by a combination of worry, lack of sleep, way too much caffeine, and a feeling of impending doom. Everything was going way too smooth, and what that meant to him was—whatever was gonna hit them, was gonna hit them hard, just as they made their final approach and landing.

Bernadette loomed large in the bridge windows, and the moment Mal had long been dreading arrived. Bernadette Approach directed him to contact Shinjuku Tower. This was the fateful moment, when he had to hand over control of his beloved ship to some faceless Space Traffic Controller. River keyed in the frequency and Mal contacted the Tower.

“Shinjuku Tower, this is Firefly Serenity 404-Echo-132-4-Foxtrot-Echo-274-Alpha.”

“Loud and clear, Firefly Serenity 274-Alpha. Prepare to transfer your helm to Tower control,” the Space Traffic Controller directed.

“Preparing to transfer, 274 Alpha,” Mal confirmed, a sinking feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach. Good-bye to independence, hello to gorram Feds flying his ship wherever they damn well pleased.

Though his heart rebelled against it, Mal clicked on the button to transfer control to Shinjuku Tower. He immediately felt the subtle change in motion, as the Tower’s flight bot made slight adjustments to Serenity’s speed, course, and trim. “Transfer complete, 274-Alpha,” he reported, trying to keep the sick feeling out of his voice.

He sat there, helpless, as Serenity flew onwards, and tried to distract himself by watching Bernadette’s topographical features coast by. Soon they’d break atmo, and then their atmospheric course involved a half circuit of the planet in upper atmo to employ friction braking, a gradual descent over the course of the remainder of the orbit, and a final approach to Shinjuku spaceport. Or so the plan was. Fact was, the flight bot controller could fly him wherever they gorram well pleased and land him in a swamp if they wanted, and not a gorram thing he could do about it, unless he engaged the emergency override and went to manual. In which case there’d be some serious explainin’ to do to Space Traffic Control when he got on the ground.

In about an hour’s time, they’d be landed at the industrial waterfront spaceport of the shiny vertical city of Shinjuku. Gorram Core. Have to deal with Port Authority and all the Core-world prejudice he was sure to encounter, with his Rim-world accent and less-than-Core-worthy pedigree.

He was jolted from his dismal thoughts by the Controller’s voice. “Firefly 274-Alpha, transfer your helm.”

Hadn’t he done that already? Mal flashed a look at Zoe. She raised her eyebrows, confirming what he thought. He sat up straight and scrolled through his console screen to confirm. Surely he hadn’t imagined pushing the button?

“Pushed it.” River indicated the green banner on the co-pilot’s console. “Not a problem of imagination.”

“Thought I did transfer, Shinjuku Tower,” Mal told the Controller. “对不起 Duìbuqǐ, I’ll try it again…274-Alpha.” He added his call sign in afterthought, as his fingers danced over the keyboard, calling up the transfer protocol once more, and going through the necessary steps to set up the transfer again. Again he pushed the button to engage. Error read the screen. “Error?” Mal read, off-mic, and River and Zoe swiveled their heads his direction immediately. “Why’s this reading an error?”

River’s fingers flew over the keyboard on the co-pilot’s console, and in a few short seconds, she had her answer. “Can’t transfer twice. Transfer already went through.”

Mal contacted the Controller. “Our console reads transfer complete,” Mal reported.

There was a delay in response, while the Controller, who was managing the courses of multiple incoming spacecraft, spoke to other ships on the same channel in turn, directing their courses, before returning to Mal. “Firefly 274-Alpha, transfer is incomplete on our end.” While Mal puzzled over this disconcerting news, the Controller continued, “Carry on the same course. We’ll see if it comes through soon.”

As an experiment, Mal immediately tried to make an adjustment to the ship’s course. Serenity didn’t respond. Tower had control of his helm, no doubt about it. But why didn’t they know it?

“Kaylee?” he called into the comm.

“Yes, Cap’n,” Kaylee’s cheery voice responded from the engine room.

“We got any mechanical reason why that helm transfer to Shinjuku Tower didn’t go through?”

“On it, Cap’n.” There was a pause as Kaylee moved briskly around the engine room, checking systems. “Everything’s a-okay here, so far as I can tell,” she reported after a moment. “Diagnostic shows the helm in control of the flight bot, just like it should be.”

“Firefly Serenity 274-Alpha, how’s that helm transfer coming?” the Controller interrupted Mal’s thoughts.

“Helm’s already been transferred, far as we can tell,” Mal reported.

“Well, your helm is still not under our control,” the Controller informed him. Mal rolled his eyes. They could go back and forth all day with this “did” and “did not” 廢話 fèihuà, but it wouldn’t help them fly the gorram boat. Meanwhile, all the other pilots listening on this communication channel were no doubt raising their eyebrows, ridiculing his seeming incompetence, and no doubt lookin’ forward to a bit of excitement and drama. More entertaining than a barrel of space monkeys.

Great. Just what I wanted. Make a big scene. Arrive in the spotlight. “Well, the helm ain’t under my control, neither,” Mal informed her, somewhat testily. “So who’s flyin’ my boat right now?”

* * *

“Transfer complete, Boromiro?”

“Got it right here, Anatoly,” Boromiro answered, with a satisfied grin. The display panel in front of him was a virtual replica of the standard control console of the’03 Firefly. Primitive as anything, not like the Phalanx 99 or the Scorpion Ultra, but spacetrash couldn’t afford ships like that. The ’03 Firefly was just about the oldest ship he had ever remote-flown, with the exception of an early model Trans-U they had once landed at Blue Sun Security’s private secure spaceport. Never knew what the management wanted with a Trans-U, but apparently there was something quite impressive aboard that ship, for all the elite agents had turned up to meet it, and cleared the area of tech support as soon as the thing was landlocked.

Anatoly was rubbing his hands with glee. “Now the fun begins.”

“You want to fly it?” Boromiro offered insincerely. “You can break atmo.” He hoped Anatoly would decline, because he wanted to be in control.

“No, you go ahead,” Anatoly replied, as Boromiro had anticipated. Anatoly preferred to issue orders, and Boromiro didn’t mind playing to his ego a bit, as long as it was his own hands on the controls. “Why don’t we give ’em the scenic tour?”

Boromiro grinned. This was going to be fun.

* * *

Shit. Shit, shit, shit. This was just exactly the kind of thing he didn’t want to happen. They were about to break atmo in the Core, Serenity wasn’t under his control, and the Space Traffic Controllers didn’t have a gorram clue who was in charge of his helm neither. Damned if he was gonna let some gorram flight bot crash his boat. “Shinjuku Tower,” Mal made his request, during a brief lull in the chatter on the busy channel, “This is Firefly Serenity 274 Alpha. How’s about you transfer control back to me, so’s we can try this again.”

“274 Alpha, taking your request under advisement,” the Controller responded. There was a dreadful pause that seemed to Mal to stretch for hours, as this obvious bit of common-sense advice was mulled over by whomever at the Tower. Gorrammit, what were they waitin’ for? Didn’t have all day. Crashing only took a matter of minutes.

Finally, a voice broke the dead air on the channel. “274 Alpha, engage thrusters and enter a parking orbit at 300 miles from surface,” the Controller directed.

Thank goodness someone’s payin’ attention, Mal thought, relieved at receiving this sensible direction. They could park all day, sort out the problem at their leisure, and then try a new entry sequence once things were set in order. He entered the necessary commands to follow the Controller’s directions, only to receive a series of error messages, each one accompanied by a loud rejection noise.

“Uh, Tower, that’s, uh, that’s a negative…274 Alpha,” Mal reported distractedly. The barrage of error noises rattled him, all those gorram buzzers and beepers, and couldn’t someone turn the gorram volume down?! “Kaylee!” Mal called into the internal comm. “Can you work an override on them—?” There wasn’t time to complete the thought, as the Controller demanded his attention. “Thrusters won’t engage,” he reported. He was scrolling through the control screen, trying a re-start on the thruster protocols, and it was only by careful act of will that he kept at bay the panic that loomed at the edge of his mind.

Zoe popped a message onto his screen. Reading it, Mal explained to the Controller, “Shinjuku Tower, seems that you ain’t relinquished control back to us, 274 Alpha.”

“274 Alpha, we never had control,” the Controller returned, with a touch of asperity. “You have control, according to our readings.”

Enough of this Yes-you-do-No-I-don’t 废话 fèihuà. “Well, I don’t,” Mal retorted, allowing a touch of annoyance to color his tone. “Some flight bot’s got control, and I ain’t able to maneuver or nothin’. What’s your advice?”

He had to wait again as the Controller went through instructions for a series of other ships again. Finally, the Controller said, “274 Alpha, change frequency to 112.5.”

That’s it? he thought incredulously. Some irresponsible flight bot’s got control of Serenity, and all the Tower’s doin’ about it is changing channels?

* * *

“I’m thinking Geysir National Park, the Majestic Mountains, and the Ring of Fire.”

Anatoly nodded enthusiastically, then checked himself. He was supposed to be in charge. Wouldn’t do to let Boromiro think he could run the show. “Don’t forget Fuji-san. Take ’em past it for the front-row view. Then we bring them in to Secure Port, and let the bosses do their thing. Sound good?”

“Regular scenic tour.”

“With a few twists,” Anatoly amended.

“Let’s bring them into atmo,” Boromiro agreed. “Then the real fun begins.”

* * *

“We’ve transferred you to a solo channel,” the Controller said, breaking the silence.

Great, Mal thought. Singled out for special attention. That did not bode well. At the Alliance prison camp after Serenity Valley, getting singled out for special attention meant you were sure to get a beating.

“Roger that,” Mal confirmed that he’d heard.

“Our first step will be to see if the flight bot flies you as per filed flight plan.”

Oh, shiny. Just gorram shiny. ‘Wait and see’ was not the approach Mal would have taken. Wait and see if the gorram thing crashed his ship. Nope, not an appealing prospect.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Keep your hands off the controls, and report any changes.”

The minutes ticked by, an agony of expectation for Mal. Nothing terrible was happening as of yet, but knowing that neither he nor the so-called Controller had any say in where the ship flew, and not doing nothin’ about it, was nearly intolerable. His fingers twitched, eager to be doing something. Anything. Anything was better than wait and see.

Serenity started to skim the upper reaches of Bernadette’s atmo, and the fiery plasma of re-entry began to lick at the corners of the bridge window as Serenity’s surface superheated.

“Buffer panels holding, Kaylee?” Mal inquired, more from a need to do something.

“A-okay, Cap’n,” Kaylee responded.

“Jayne.” Mal spoke into the comm. “Check the cargo is strapped down properly, and secure any loose large items. Just in case.” Mal was reluctant to make the request, but if things started to go bad, there wouldn’t be time for that later.

“Just in case what?” Jayne asked suspiciously. Though Mal couldn’t see him through the comm, he knew exactly what kind of facial expression went along with that tone from Jayne.

He was not interested in arguing the point with Jayne. “In case you want to keep your job. I don’t pay you to question orders.”

“You sayin’ we’re gonna have a rough landing, Cap?”

“No, I ain’t sayin’. Just do it.”

* * *

Ip and Simon were sitting in the passenger lounge when Jayne tore down the stairs like his pants were on fire.

“What’s going on, Jayne?” Simon called as he barreled past.

“Gonna be a rough landing, Doc. Best secure everything in the infirmary, 马上 mǎshàng.”

Simon and Ip exchanged a startled look, then immediately jumped up and dashed into the infirmary to secure the latches on the drawers and cabinets and make sure the autoclave and other medical and scientific equipment was securely stowed.

Jayne, meanwhile, was already racing around the cargo bay, checking the straps that held the cargo crates, stopping to tighten some of them.

“What’s happening?” Ip asked Simon, as soon as they had the major items secured.

“I don’t kn—”

“We’re crashin’,” Jayne informed them matter-of-factly as he flew past, headed toward the engine room to help Kaylee secure her tools and spare parts. “Best say your prayers, cause it ain’t Wash at the helm this time. It’s Mal.”

Ip was unsure. Should he panic? Other than Jayne’s flying visit, there was nothing to indicate that the ship was doing anything other than standard re-entry. Maybe Jayne was pulling his leg. On the other hand, he’d never seen Jayne move so fast, ever. Panic seemed to be in order.

“Relax, Ip,” Simon said nervously, looking anything but relaxed himself. “We’re not crashing.”

Ip looked sharply at him.

“We’re not,” Simon repeated. Ip was not very reassured, especially when Simon qualified, “I think we’re not.”

Simon looked anything but convinced himself, and remembering how Mal ordered everyone clear of the lower decks when they crash-landed on Ferdinand Moon, he suddenly grabbed his medkit and took the stairs to the upper level two at a time, with Ip trailing in his wake.

* * *

“Inara,” Mal’s voice sounded urgently through the comm. “You prep your shuttle for immediate departure. Take Ip and Simon and River with you.”

Inara dropped the book she’d been reading and walked directly to the pilot seat of her shuttle. Not because she intended to follow Mal’s orders, but because she needed to find out what in the worlds was going on. Wasn’t this a routine landing?

Opening the comm channel, she heard the sound of disagreement on the bridge. Clearly River was objecting to Mal’s plan, whatever it was. Mal hadn’t cut off the mic.

“Albatross, ain’t no call for you to—”

“Can help.”

“Gorram rules say Zoe gotta be the one in the co-pilot seat. Don’t want to crash and die and have ’em cite me for havin’ an unlicensed pilot at the controls.”

“Can’t call them ‘controls’ when they control nothing,” River pointed out pedantically. After a pause she added, “It is unnecessary to worry about a hypothetical citation. Irrelevant if you’re already dead.”

“Mal,” Inara broke in, “what is wrong?”

“Nothin’,” Mal lied unconvincingly.

“Tell me what’s going on, Mal.”

“Just prep the shuttle, Inara.” She gave him a glare he couldn’t see over the comm, but he reacted as if he had seen it. “Hope there ain’t no call for it, but you could fly away, land safe, even if we don’t.”

“If you don’t? What is going on?”

“Won’t die.” River’s voice sounded exasperated.

“Albatross, you just go on now. Go with Inara.”

“I’m not going anywhere, Mal, without more information.”

“Won’t go.” River’s petulant voice indicated she was digging in her heels.

Mal heaved a big sigh. “Have it your way, Albatross. Ain’t no time for arguin’.” There was no moving River in such circumstances. “Inara, get Ip and Simon, prep for departure on my signal—”

“Mal.” When she had his attention, Inara continued, “Do you really think Simon would leave Kaylee and his sister behind, to save his own skin?” I won’t leave you, Mal.

“Won’t go.”

“Zoe’ll take Kaylee and Jayne in Shuttle Two. River, too.”

“Will I, sir?” Zoe’s voice sounded from farther away. “You need me on the bridge. And you need Kaylee in the engine room.”

“Don’t want to be known as a baby-killer, Zoe.”

“Mal, tell me what is going on.” Mal didn’t answer, and Inara was getting upset. Was Serenity really crashing? “Why are you trying to send everyone away?” He still didn’t explain, and now she was getting angry as well. What was this, some kind of ridiculous heroics? Sending everyone away and trying to rescue the ship single-handedly. “You don’t have to go down with the ship, Mal.”

“Yes, I do,” he said, as if it were plain obvious truth, and no hope of changing it.

“Don’t you dare say that!” What was the reason for this defeated, hopeless attitude? It was almost as bad as ‘Everybody dies alone.’ Was this Mal’s overblown sense of nobility, kicking in now? Sacrifice himself, that others might live. “I’m not leaving you alone, Mal.”

“Inara, don’t argue, just go—”

“Don’t you dare, Mal.”

“Inara—” There was a burst of fuzz as his sentence was interrupted by a communication from Space Traffic Control, and Mal cut off the internal comm.

* * *

*

*

*

glossary

对不起 Duìbuqǐ [Sorry]

廢話 fèihuà [nonsense]

马上 mǎshàng [now]

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COMMENTS

Wednesday, June 26, 2013 6:23 PM

NUTLUCK


The multi person argument Mal was having was pretty funny and I was right the flight bot is a terminator.... sorta....

Thursday, June 27, 2013 6:54 AM

EBFIDDLER


In this part, Mal keeps having to juggle with more than one thing going wrong at once. I thought the conversation with Inara should be plagued by the same problem. :-)

Friday, June 28, 2013 1:39 AM

AMDOBELL


Uh oh, Mal should have listened to his presentiment of doom before handing over to what he thought was traffic control on Bernadette. And why oh why, doesn't he listen to River? I would love to see those responsible have the tables turned on them, how cool would that be? Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Sunday, July 7, 2013 8:34 AM

EBFIDDLER


Mal's presentiments of doom can be quite accurate. If only he had presentiments of things going well...but then it wouldn't be the Firefly we know, would it?


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