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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - DRAMA
A short history of Zoe.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 2600 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
Disclaimer: I do not own these characters. Written for fun, not profit.
Thanks: To Philomel, for being the best beta reader in the 'verse.
Feedback: I would genuinely appreciate your comments and constructive criticism.
Zoe remembers what it was like to not be vigilant.
They’re on their way to Ariel now, to drop off Inara. They’ve stopped and the shepherd is gone. But heading toward Ariel makes her more uncomfortable than she wishes to admit. She wants to tell her husband that you can never go home again, but she knows he would look at her strangely and she doesn’t want to have to go into it; doesn’t want to have to talk about what it was like to orbit that place.
Barring that, she wants him to take a gorram stroll for once in his life so she can reprogram the computer out from under him. He would figure it out soon enough. The man knows his stars. But by that time, Inara would have missed her appointment and they’ll have to take her to another planet—to Boros or Xinon and Zoe’s problem will be solved. As it stands though, she can only sit near him and stare at the black and try to remember to make approving or disapproving noises as he rambles through various schemes.
Zoe is never afraid of the black. At one point, Zoe had been afraid of the bright—afraid of the rawness that the bright created—but she got over it in short order. That was something that she’d always done well. To get over it. She was the most adaptable person she knew, even if she couldn’t have used a word like “adaptable” as a little girl. But she’d always known that even though she lived on a ship, could never even imagine what it was like not to live on a ship, not very many other people did. They lived on land—on big planets like Ariel, where she had been taught to say she was from if she was asked, because most people didn’t understand a set of coordinates and no one had ever heard of a planet called Argo.
“I’m scared, Wash,” she said and jerked his hand into hers. When she felt his fingers lace through hers she relaxed a little, letting go of a bit of the fear and anxiety that had come roaring back, full force—something it did increasingly rarely.
“I’m here,” he said quickly. “You’re fine.” It hadn’t taken him long to learn that the best way to comfort his wife was to remind her that she was well and with someone she loved. He made himself available and loved her as best he could and it was the comfort she needed. He craned his neck and kissed her softly on the temple and she inhaled sharply, getting his smell in her head as an anchor.
And he listened, to see if there was another way she was telling him stories; if she were telling them without words. He looked to her eyes and her hands for hints and tried, when things were quiet on the bridge, to put the pieces together into something he could internalize. He noticed early that that was what was most different about her—she didn’t tell stories. And she didn’t listen to his. It only took him a few attempts to notice that her eyes went pleasantly blank when the word “once” started out of his mouth.
She had been fooling around all morning, putting off some chores and ignoring others in favor of a reciprocating chore-cortex system. She would do one chore, then look at the cortex, reading and watching some of the news but mostly the short programs she had missed the previous weeks, catching up on stories of the heroes of Earth-that-Was and listening to new serials about a group of friends in the Great City on Londinium, where they had super-powers. A few months ago the only things she had had any interest in on the Cortex were stories about girls and how they solved all their problems with talking and the ritual exchange of clothing. But now, she wanted to watch other girls really solve their problems with telekinesis and the ritual exchange of punches.
Zoe had been born at the high point of the morning, in a very dignified and orderly way, over thirty years ago, on the Argo, in orbit around Ariel at the time. The Argo had a doc on board, whom everyone merely called “Doc,” and a crew of five, lead by her father. They were a long-range hauler, and they had often contracted with planetary or continental governments, and she’d spent most of her childhood planet-hopping among the rich folks of the core. Her father was the captain and the pilot; her ma did a little of everything on the ship except cook; Zoe spent most of her time with their mechanic, Bosk, or with Su, who had a lot of jobs—all of which, as far as Zoe could tell, mostly involved lifting things.
And things were idyllic aboard the Argo as far as she was concerned. Her oldest memories were of soft arc light and the twinkle of stars overheard while they ate, one big family.
“Ge ge,” she would have said, addressing Su, “pass the rice.”
“Please,” her mother instructed. “Qing.”
“Please,” Zoe repeated. “Ge ge, pass the rice. Qing.”
So many nights ran together that way until all her memories were a haze of light and warmth, with the feel of the Argo humming around her and the smells of rice and grease and ozone wrapping her up.
For some part of every day she stayed with Doc, learning what he had to teach her. She thought it was a lot, but picked up the basics early enough. She could read and write and figure very well, but they weren’t too interesting to her, so she didn’t care to practice. Doc wrote up a quiz for her every week and she took it, quickly and quietly, and always got all the questions right. They always began with reading questions, then ships questions, and then an astrogation problem. It never took her more than a few minutes to complete the first sections and never more than twenty to do the calculations and write a little flight plan at the bottom for him. Every week he told her that her flight plan won her “extra credit,” and every week she told him thank you, wondering what that was and how she could redeem it.
And then one week, there were four questions instead of three. She zipped through reading and writing, laughed for a minute at the lowball, obviously trans-atmo navigation problem, and completed it and then stopped.
What does Zoe mean?
She stopped and thought for a moment before finally answering. Me.
She slid the sheet back to him. When he smiled and nodded at her work she furrowed her brows. She knew he would relent eventually and so she kept staring at him until he spoke.
“I wanted to know if you knew the meaning of your name.”
“My name means me.”
“Very logical, Zoe. Very.”
She thought for a moment about getting up, making an excuse to go do something somewhere else on the ship, and then resolved to stay. Why should he make her uncomfortable with some kind of trick question on a worksheet that was just supposed to prove she had education and could take care of herself and her ship? At least that’s what her mother and father had said. That everyone had to be educated and that education helped you pick a trade and their trade was trading and that Zoe could choose that or another one, but in the meantime she was going to learn the finer points of getting a ship from point A to point B, first with cargo, and then with credits.
So the only meanings she was interested in were x, y, and z. And how to figure the vector from where she was to where she wanted to be. And how to tick off the bill of lading when she got there and read the contract the client handed her.
She sat, staring at Doc, then, while he went over her calculations. She should have written, “Pilot flies it line of sight” since that’s the kind of problem it was, but didn’t. She took the time and went to the trouble—she did things by the book, like she had been taught. On a ship the book was important. Even if it had to be thrown out, best to check it first and do things the way they’d been done for centuries. Her father had told her that, even as he realized that she didn’t have the skill to pilot the ship herself. No, Zoe was captain material, not pilot. And the only way it mattered at all was that she’d have to hire that job out and lose a little money on it.
“You’ll be a fine captain one of these days, Zoe,” he said, and it startled her and occurred to her that he might be reading her mind. And then she told herself that she was being silly and listening to too many programs on the cortex.
“Thanks, doc,” she said, quietly. “Zoe can mean captain.” In her mind, that resolved the issue.
“Zoe means life,” he answered.
“Ba ba, where’s your home?” Zoe slid around the kitchen counter, kicking her long and coltish legs out in front of her.
“Where ever your ma is, Zoe, and where ever you are.” He looked her up and down, stunned that anyone could function with that much of her body made up of skinny legs. Stunned that she hadn’t torn through bulkheads to burn off her obvious energy.
It had been a hard decision for him, to raise their girl on a ship. Her ma had been confident that it would be fine. They were spacers and that’s how things were done. Just had to do a few extra things to make sure they grew up straight and strong. And he could not have imagined another life ever. To be trapped on a rock, at the beck of some council or committee would have tortured him. While he looked at the girl who looked so much like him with her creamy coffee skin and a broad, open face; and so much like her ma, with wide eyes and luxurious hair, he knew he’d made the right decision. This was her element as much as it was his.
“No, where do you come from?” She sounded strangely impatient that he took his time answering. And she was changing some, getting taller and wider and her voice had dropped a little, giving her startling authority for a moment.
He made a conscious effort not to grin at her. “I come from the Argo, Zoe. That’s where we’re all from now.”
“Like I’m from the Argo, not from Ariel?” She stood at the end of the counter where he was unwrapping protein and bounced.
“I think you’re from the planet where little girls are half horse and can’t stop moving. If I could harness the energy you have to bounce and fidget, I’d never have to lay in for fuel again.”
“Ba ba,” she started, without whining, before he stopped her.
“You’re from the Argo, not from Ariel. Although some people may find it easier to hear that you’re from Ariel. Truth is, it’s just where we happened to be at the time. I don’t think it’s anything special to say you’re from some planet. Just something people carried with them after the exodus.”
Zoe stopped jangling and stood for a minute, watching some of the protein bars reconstitute and some of them fail to.
“Are we having rice?” Who you are is more a life than where you’re from, she thought.
“Not tonight I don’t think. Will you be hungry?”
“No,” she said calmly, and looked side to side, out the large skylights on either side of the mess. She felt the ship beneath her feet and tried to feel herself in three dimensions. The engine room and bridge were above her, stretched out and joined by a long catwalk. Behind her were their quarters. Her parents had the biggest room, closest to the fore stairs. Then there was her room, and Su’s room closest to the mess. Bosk and Doc were on the other side of the hall, flanking what they called the living room.
The living room is where they spent their evenings, drinking tea and telling stories. It was where their main cortex screen hung, a pretty big one from what she’d seen, almost half a meter across.
The stories at night were nice, and especially nice when they had cocoa instead of tea. Doc told them about what he was researching and her parents talked about a time before she was born. Bosk, if he were in a good mood, would talk about Persephone and Londinium, the two biggest places he’d lived. Su told stories of growing up on a planet called Shadow where it was always sunny and dusty and horses ran free and every night they had red steaks for dinner.
Zoe remembered being shocked and scared of such a place first, and wondered that it must have been covered with so many animals and plants that there would be no room for people or machines. Su assured her that this was not the case, and that there were wide, open spaces, almost like looking out the hatch, where animals and people could run and soak up the sun.
And she’d had trouble with that one, too. Soak up the sun? On a planet called Shadow?
“Remember how you sat with Doc in the bright lights every day? Still do some days?” He had asked it with twinkling eyes and she wondered if he was going to tell her the secrets of sunlight; that the secrets were here and everyone knew them but her.
“Yes. That was for schooling, so I could learn calculus and trigonometry. And so that he can have plenty of light to work with.”
“Not all schools have bright lights, Zoe. Was a way to keep you occupied—and to teach you lots of math folk like me’ll never learn—while you soaked up ship sun.” He had looked so happy when he said it. “So you could grow.”
“Look how she’s grown, too!” Her ma had said, standing and stretching her own long legs before kissing Zoe on the forehead. “Wash your face before you turn in, shouming. Wo ai ni.”
“Wo ai ni, ma,” Zoe had repeated, wondering at it: light made life.
“Bosk? You around?” Zoe craned her neck around the door of the engine room, not wanting to be seen from the bridge in case he wasn’t there.
“In here Abigail,” came the voice from behind the main block of the engine.
“Zoe, not Abigail.”
“Zoe! Sorry, mei mei. You sound a lot like your mother some days.”
Zoe humored him a moment before continuing.
“I’ve heard we’ll be planetside for a few days coming up. Almost like leave, you might say.”
“I might. I heard the same thing.” He gestured to a low ridge on which some of the larger chunks of machinery lay. She sat on the edge at his invitation, watching his hands put tools in their places while his eyes looked at her. The engine room was sparse but completely functional. There was nothing that didn’t have a job and a place and a way to be helpful all the time. Bosk himself was no exception. Zoe had noticed him before, just standing near the engine block as it chugged back and forth, maybe even one hand on it, his eyes closed and his head cocked to one side. She thought he must have been performing some manner of esoteric diagnostic—feeling the engine and letting it speak to him.
It was a skill she did not have. It was a skill she couldn’t bring herself to regret not having. “Well, if there are a few days we’re off ship, could you teach me how to shoot?”
He stared at her for a moment, almost long enough to make her speak up and retract the request, but he spoke before she could. “I would, but I think Su would be a better teacher.”
“I want you both to. I thought you might be the harder case to win, so I started here.”
“You often start with the most difficult task, Zoe?”
“Always,” she said, with conviction she didn’t know she had.
“Good woman.” He nodded, mostly to himself and went on straightening, but with his head cocked to one side, listening or thinking.
Zoe thought about that while she watched him resituate spare parts and diagnostic tools. Sometime, somewhere, she had gone from “good girl” to “good woman” and she found she didn’t mind it at all. Their behavior was not significantly different, but they seemed to respect her more. If she’d asked and they had answered honestly, it would have been because she was becoming more and more like her mother, a woman to whom they were extremely loyal and to whom they accorded the utmost respect. Her father may have been captain of the Argo, but Abigail was their boss.
“The thing is,” he continued, “I’m not the best with a gun. That’s Su or your ma or even Doc. I can teach you how to fight hand to hand, or how to fight with a knife.”
“I’d like to learn that.”
He smiled quietly at her, looking toward her like he did at the engine. “You’ll be a fighter, Zoe. It’s in the life of you.”
“Zoe!” Her name rang through the ship and this time, it was on the comm and that meant that she had better get it in gear. Smart enough to know when she’d crossed a line, she swung herself up several flights of stairs and bounded onto the bridge of the Argo with the decency to be slightly out of breath.
She knew that she hadn’t really done anything that would warrant that tone, but humored her old father. The time was coming for her to choose another trade or another ship and make her own way in the ‘verse. Her mother had said as much, by way of apologizing for an argument they’d had.
Zoe had known it too but hadn’t wanted to admit it until that moment. As with everything else, there was no standard or obvious way to go. She’d spent weeks wondering where to ask to be dropped. The cortex was overflowing with ads for navigators on transport ships, extra hands on cruisers, executive officers for all ships everywhere. The problem wasn’t landing a job; it was choosing it.
More troubling was the news of a rising alliance on the core planets. It had been around for as long as she could remember, but now it seemed to want to get outside its bounds.
“Yes! I’m here.” She walked onto the bridge and up to the console.
“Calling you for an hour now, baobei, have a seat.” He motioned to his side and she leaned against the edge of the console and slid her hands into her back pockets. “We’ll be landing on Ariel, soon. I’m not sure if it’s a good idea for you to wander too far on this one.”
“Well, you’re keeping up with the news, right?”
“Most of it. Is this about the alliance?”
“Could be, shouming. I’m not sure.”
“What else is it?” She stared him down, knowing it would work. She’d mastered the look from her mother and had been using it to her advantage ever since. But she grinned when he smiled up at her, aware of what she was trying.
“This has been coming on for a long time.” He settled back into the chair and his voice settled as well, almost as if he were talking to an equal. “We’ve been doing this forever, Zo’, every round there are more and more restrictions. There are more files and checkpoints and more men to talk to. And now some of them are in uniform and referring to one another.”
“Can’t go around?”
“Can, but I don’t know for how much longer. It’s important, from a business perspective, to get the best possible deal, right?” She nodded and he gestured openly at her. “But it’s also important to keep getting deals. We do the job. It’s not fancy, but it’s specific and it has to be done.” She nodded again and they sat for a moment, in the stillness, listening to the engine grind down the corridor behind them.
“If they stop folk like us, they stop their trade. They can’t paperwork out all the ships in the black. Sooner or later they have to trade or they fold.”
Her father smiled wryly. “Well, they know they can’t do that, so they want to make laws. Give us impossible rules. And take quite a bit of our money.”
“How can they take our money? We’re in the sky. We’re not tied.”
“You’re very right, Zoe. It’s how I’ve always been and how I always want to be and how I want things to be for you.” Zoe nodded sagely at him and for a moment, he saw himself in her. “But soon, that may be very difficult.”
She leaned over the console and looked between the window and the vid.
“Where will the restrictions come first, route or cargo?”
“Probably a little of both. Just got a wave from Lucas ranch on Quanyin. They say they won’t be able to ship with us come beef season. Seems there’s new regulations there, and ranchers can only ship with approved carriers.”
“And all approved carriers are alliance.” Zoe filled in the blank. He opened his mouth to repeat what she had said, but closed it.
“Most of ‘em.”
“Biggest ranch planet still willing to trade with all ships is Shadow.” Zoe, who until then had had her brow thoroughly furrowed, grinned at her father. “What’s funny, baobei?”
“Su’ll like that,” she said and stretched back off the console. He thought briefly that it was not exactly like her to find the silver lining.
“He will, but it makes it more and more difficult. From what I’ve heard from Brinkman and Catham and haulers like them is that Shadow might be where it starts. It’s a populated place, but they’re not packed in. And it’s where most of the trade starts.”
“You’re saying it, Ba ba, you mean war?
“Could be that.” She stared him down again and he revised. “It will be that. Word on the cortex, other spacers, is that it will be war now. We’ll have to choose which side to be on.”
“How do we do that?”
“We have to decide if the price we get and the life it gives us is better with the alliance or as independents.”
“What do you think?” She crossed her arms across her chest, perfectly serious.
“I think sometimes that I’d rather live poor and free than prosperous on the ground.”
She stood there and looked at him for a moment, absorbing the idea of it and how it obviously pained him to say. And she couldn’t conceive of being grounded. The ground was for vacations and meetings. Life was in the black.
“Will you fight, ba ba?”
“If I have to. You should ask yourself if you will, Zoe.”
She nodded slowly then, and touched his shoulder before leaving the bridge.
“Abigail!” Her father was screaming. He was running and yelling for her mother, trying to get everything in their small cargo bay strapped down. She didn’t know what was outside the airlock and past the ramp, but if it had her father spooked this badly, she didn’t want to know. “Abigail! Shut her up! Go now!”
Zoe ran from aft of the bay to help him, trying not to stumble over the things that were already swinging and falling. The bay lurched under her, but she stayed true and ran straight. The Argo knew her feet and she knew its decks.
“Zoe, run tell your ma that we got to go now!”
And without saying a word, she did. She heard the first of the shots as they climbed to the bridge. She watched her mother’s face go from pale to paler, frantically pounding the emergency ignition sequence and pulling on the stick, but the Argo wasn’t coming to life quickly enough.
“What’d he say, Zo’?” Her mother asked, but Zoe wasn’t sure there was anything to say.
“He said to go now. Get off the ground.”
Her mother didn’t say another word, but pulled hard on the stick, shooting them out at too steep an angle. Zoe, who wasn’t holding anything, hit the deck butt first and tumbled, end over end down into the door to the engine room.
Once she stopped moving, there was too much pain for her to stand or even really breathe. Her vision went cloudy and black from the outside in, swooping to little pinpoints of light. The switch to grav drive rumbled through her and she gagged.
She felt the ship lurch under her, leveling after the launch, and she rolled with it, getting her knees and elbows under her. She heard shouting from belowdecks. Tears and dust stung her eyes and the deck plating scraped at her elbows. Her hair drooped into her eyes.
And then the floor sank from beneath her, quickly. And just as quickly, it slammed back up again. Behind her, the engine whined grotesquely in protest, demanding to go or stop or anything but this. She heard a low klaxon on the bridge and deduced it was a landlock. They were pulling them right out of the sky. For a moment it drowned out the sound of shouting from below.
She squatted as far as she could and pushed herself toward the port plank, where there was less noise, thinking to get out of the way of the engine room and down to the bay. Her mother’s orders in her head were indecipherable and by now impossible to carry out.
And then there were more shots. First there were only small taps, but after a moment there were two large booms that rocked the ship and tossed her halfway down the plank. She skidded the rest of the way, and inadvertently leaped into the bay, only to backpedal quickly at the sight of her father, lying in a dark sticky pool. Doc knelt beside him, a syringe between his teeth, slamming uselessly at her father’s chest.
Her mother stood in the doorway, gun raised but not firing. Su crouched to her left, just inside the airlock door, and looked to be firing purposefully. Outside, there was a wave of black and gray. What kind of a stand were they making against a transport? How vital could the cargo possibly be?
A voice boomed through the chaos, electronically magnified. “The Union of Allied Planets demands that you lower your weapons and surrender your vessel to the appointed Alliance representatives of the planet Ariel.”
Two more of what she could only assume were mortars—having read about them in some detail just a few days before trying to study up on war in case there was one— rocked the ship, sending Doc crashing into a bulkhead.
She lurched forward, trying to get at her father, when he raised his head and looked her. “Don’t ever make a rock your home, Zoe. Don’t ever.”
At first she thought she couldn’t see much trying to make her way out of the Argo, but then she realized that she didn’t want to see anything after looking into her mother’s lifeless eyes.
But she bent over her father anyway, working around Doc and his useless ministrations as best she could to grab his sawed-off shotgun. As she touched the stock and hefted it out of its holster, she felt torn apart inside twice. Something tore down through her and fell aside and had she dwelt on it, she probably would have died too. But something else tore over that. Some part of her that she didn’t and probably would never understand lurched free from deep in her, deep inside her belly, slamming over the image of her parent’s faces and her flaming ship and home.
Without thinking, she stepped over Bosk’s wrist, lying nakedly on the lip of the airlock, picked up his knife and jammed it into the waistband of her pants. She understood, because of the way the ground was moving beneath her, that the majority of the engine and its housing was flaming. The Argo had unrigged and imploded on itself. She found herself wondering about the radiation and hoped that the ship burned into the rock.
The smoke got thicker and thicker but she did her best to move straight forward. There were gray and black uniforms all around her then, some wearing armor and helmets with purple stripes like something about of a second rate science fiction movie. Some of them noticed her and others didn’t but they left her alone and unmolested until, eyes full of blood and smoke, she stumbled on a rock and dropped gracelessly to the ground, catching herself as best should could with one hand. The knife scored her hip.
When she felt hands under her armpits she struggled away from them and was stunned to find herself kicking and hissing like an animal. And then, just as she realized she was two people—a body and a head—the head part of her champed down on her body and forced her to use the foreign hands to get straight and tall and keep walking.
The hands, or their owners, made remarks to her back. “Hey. Hey! Whay! Ni… ni hao ma!”
And Zoe thought to herself, Qing, I do not wish to speak Chinese. Xie xie ni.
“And you are?” Malcolm Reynolds sat with his back to a packed dirt wall half covered in silicon sheeting that was weeping mildew. He held his weapon in his lap haphazardly, as if he were ready to just throw it up and over the trench’s embankment. Zoe saw nervous energy in him—figured the only reason he wasn’t jangling his legs was his survival instinct.
She’d heard of Reynolds on her way up and was prepared to dislike him. The rumor of Shadow preceded him and Zoe was wary of someone who’d fight for a rock. Word in the ranks was that he was moon bat crazy and inspired endless, improbable loyalty. She intended to let him know she aimed to survive, win or lose.
“Your chief. Zoe.” She extended her hand, blacked and grimy, quickly. He pumped it with fervor that struck her as almost embarrassingly enthusiastic.
“Malcolm Reynolds. They say you came off a starship.”
“They say a lot of things,” she answered. “How long you been waiting?”
“Long enough.” Reynolds turned toward her and watched her profile. She had a long, smooth face, somewhat marred by blood and dust but he couldn’t ignore the huge eyes, the biggest eyes he’d ever seen, and her full lips, pursed slightly as she looked toward the thin green light at the horizon like they wanted to frown but wouldn’t give the situation the pleasure. “If you’re off a starship why aren’t you skycore?”
“Cos I ain’t.”
“Thought all greens off starships fought for the sky.” He turned to follow her gaze.
He couldn’t help laughing at her then. The noise escaped him on a puff of air he hardly meant to exhale. She had totally confounded him in less than five, completely terse minutes. And he’d been told he could make friends with a wall.
“Something funny, sir?” She cut her eyes to him and they were still just as big and just as serious.
“Just don’t know if I can endure all this chatter, baobei. We need some silence around here, lest your jocularity betray us to the great Alliance.”
“You can call me Zoe,” she answered quietly and, as he later wondered at, without reproach. She backed up slightly and slowly and rose from a crouch, keeping her head low but her shoulders straight.
“Heard something like a vicious rumor that you came off the Argo. Were the first to witness the magnificent Alliance in action, making life difficult for as many people as possible in the least efficient way.”
“I don’t talk about the Argo and I don’t talk about Ariel,” she said in the same clipped, quiet tone.
“Understood,” he answered, looking away from her, toward the battle and the rubble, reviewing what he thought and what he knew. Reconciling the two of them was more difficult than he would have anticipated. She let him think, knowing that he was the type who would talk on it, one way or another, until he was satisfied. “I woulda said you were tweaked,” he continued. “I see now that you are.”
“Those gunners’ll probably plow down through this crevasse. See that temple?” She gestured with her shoulder and the butt of her weapon.
“Men won’t do it. Lots of Buddhists. Don’t want to come back as vermin, they say,” he said, laughing again. She tilted her head slightly to catch sight of the silver crucifix around his neck and readjusted her perception of him.
“Too late, don’t you think?”
“Nope. Try not to whenever I can.”
“Well, I think. And I think that if they went through there they could get reincarnated later rather than sooner.”
“That sounds like a plan, Zoe. I’ll tell them to do that and you can bring up the rear.”
“Yes, sir,” she answered.
Zoe never looked back.
“What will you do when this war is over, sir?” They stood on a ridge above Serenity Valley. Hera was such a beautiful planet; they weren’t kidding when they called it the jewel of the terraformed worlds.
“When we’ve won it, Zoe?” He grinned at her, impishly, while they surveyed the terrain. She could see the sarcastic all hail the great Alliance ready to fall off his lips as a rebel yell. “I reckon I’ll go back to Shadow. After the parades is over, I’ll hire some hands, build the ranch back. My mama had a good business. Maybe make a new brand with her mark on it.” He breathed deeply, obviously relishing the thought of it. “That and sleep in a big bed every night, warm and dry. You?”
She paused for so long that she figured he thought she was ignoring him. There was so much to see though, on this planet, and so many thoughts to keep at bay. So many ways to remind her that no matter what the brass said about making their final stand here and crushing the Alliance, she couldn’t let herself believe it until they had actually stripped the purple bellies of their stripes and rations.
“Get a ship,” she finally answered. “Get a cargo transport and live free.”
“We’ll both go back to the life we know?”
“No,” she said and shook her head. “At least, I don’t. This is my life. After the war, I get a new one.” She watched him nod thoughtfully and absently touch the crucifix under his shirt. Though the first thing she learned when walking away from the flaming wreck of the Argo was that wishing was a waste of energy, she wished for him that Shadow was still standing when they drove Alliance back and into graves they dug as trenches and that the two of them would go on fighting long enough to earn new lives.
“You get killed, can I have yours?” His eyes were bright; he was joking. It was getting to be their time honored tradition to taunt the bone-numbing fear they both lived with.
She grimaced mildly at him. “You’re my kind of stupid.”
“You’re my kind of brave.” And when he looked her in the eye, she knew it.
Against her better judgment she let that understanding lull her into feeling relieved. Part of her had panicked briefly, adamant that she not build any kind of home again. But the other part of her, so small and covered now, knew that home was life—she had to have it and that this man, baby-faced, with a huge chip on his shoulder and a fathomless belief in a benevolent God—was the beginning of the last home she’d ever have.
“Are you looking at something in particular?”
“If I asked you to stop?”
“I’d just look again when I thought you wouldn’t notice.”
“You don’t seem to get it, flyboy.” She put her hands on her hips and moved toward him, pulling herself up to her full height before leaning down at him. He was seated at the table there, in the mess, and had quietly watched her preparing tea with no semblance of hiding what was an obviously admiring glance.
“On the contrary, I think it’s you who don’t seem to get it.” He added, almost as an afterthought, “I can’t think of a derogative thing to say about what you do.”
And then she found herself smiling. His candidness was infuriating and so were the open lines of his face, hair not quite blond and not quite red, bright blue eyes and a mustache that looked like he’d borrowed it off Colonel Orbin. How long had it been since she’d thought of him? But he wasn’t here. Wash was. And Wash was the first man she’d seen in a long while who didn’t make her think back to some part of the war, or to the lieutenant, or to some other man who’d ordered her to die, then died himself, by her feet.
“Where’re you from?” she asked by way of sizing him up. Best to know that way, she thought. Best find out how he knew his feet.
“From Serenity now,” he answered succinctly. His eyes darted across her shoulders but before she could feign offense she realized he was checking out the counter for unsecured rations.
Good answer, she thought. “Born on a ship?”
“No,” he scoffed, smiling widely at her and drawing the word out. “Niobe.”
She felt her eyes go wide at the word. It struck her—stories Su and Bosk had told about people who lived without any natural light.
“That’s what everybody says,” he answered, before she said anything. “Spent my first month off planet laughing too loudly at the ‘My eyes, my eyes!’ jokes.”
“You’re a mite pale,” darted out of her mouth before she could stop it.
“You’re a mite tall.” His words hung there between the two of them and made her warm inside, through her chest, and that heat worked its way up and across her shoulders toward her neck, where she started to worry it would show. What was worse was that he seemed to understand. A predator she could deal with—this openness was far more difficult.
“Parents were tall,” she offered, and thought about the strange space between them, across the table in the mess, in a fairly empty ship. She had come on so powerful and hadn’t intimidated him in the least.
“Parents were pale,” he added and didn’t crack a smile of his own until he saw hers. And when he did, her heart turned over once, startling her. “Where are you from?”
“The Argo,” she said and immediately realized that he knew. He knew the story of the Argo. She was out of sorts, letting herself be thrown off guard by a pilot with a sharp smile, laying all of herself out for him to see and understand.
“Heard she was a good ship,” he remarked casually. “Got a place now, on Ariel, with her name on a plaque.”
“I’ve never been to Ariel,” she said, and walked away.
“We don’t even have to go someplace fancy. We can just go the park or something, feed the pigeons.” He was behind her and bent on activity. Even when she’d tried to be as graceful as possible about getting up and leaving him to his musings, he hadn’t quit.
She paused, as much to adjust to the stink wafting through the mess as to give Wash her full attention. “Feed the pigeons. Probably get the firing squad for littering.” She turned from him them and walked toward the counter to make tea.
“It’s not that bad.” His voice went serious, letting her know he was tired of asking. Same song, different dance.
“It is. It’s a core planet. It’s got sensors and where there ain’t sensors, there’s feds. All central planets are the same.” And in her mind, that should have ended it.
Wash had other ideas. He turned and opened his body, preparing to orate. She’d see him twist for that later. “Will you please tell my wife the fun she’s missing out on?”
“Ariel’s quite a nice place, actually.” Inara spoke up with a gentle laugh. She would know and Zoe knew it. Inara, though, only thought that Wash was treading toward thin ice.
“But—not boring like she made it sound.” Wash turned his back on the women playing mah johng and moved toward Simon. Zoe thought she could see the wheels in his head turning. Young man, well heeled, knows how to treat a lady. She swallowed a smile at him, obvious as he was. “There’s um, ah….”
“There’s hiking,” offered Simon, finally realizing he was on the spot.
“Yeah!” Wash encouraged him, all the while beaming at her from across the room, his smile as bright as his shirt, pink-cheeked and eternally optimistic. That he was trying as much to distract her from her fear as actually get off ship warmed her.
“And you can go swimming in a bioluminescent lake.” Simon stood, giving up on the rice mush he’d been eating.
Wash continued to grin at her and this time she couldn’t stifle the smile, but did her best to turn it into humoring rather than genuine. “I don’t care if it’s got sunsets twenty-four hours a day. I ain’t settin’ foot on that planet.”
And if that hadn’t settled it, Mal walked in on the tail end of her statement. “No one is setting foot on that fancy rock. I don’t want anyone leaving the ship.” She nodded at Wash but he rolled his eyes. Mal didn’t see and continued, “Come to think of it, I don’t want anyone looking out the windows or talking loud. We’re here to drop off Inara. That’s it.”
Sure it is, Zoe thought to herself. She considered for a moment that Mal and Wash might be conspiring against her, but by that time, Mal was eating the worst smelling thing Simon had cooked yet and her husband had zinged Jayne a good one. Not likely conspiring.
Then without thinking she realized they were. They were conspiring, both toward different solidarity with her.
They had become her life and home
Wednesday, December 1, 2004 6:17 PM
Wednesday, December 1, 2004 6:45 PM
Thursday, December 2, 2004 8:10 AM
Thursday, December 2, 2004 6:55 PM
Thursday, December 2, 2004 9:23 PM
Thursday, December 2, 2004 11:49 PM
Tuesday, December 7, 2004 3:20 PM
Wednesday, December 8, 2004 10:36 AM
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