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Chapter posted Oct. 28, 2006
If the mood aboard Serenity had been a mite disturbed when they lit out from Persephone, it was twice as roiled a day into the trip to Osiris. The only one appeared to be unaffected by the unsettled mood among the crew was Jayne, who was bent on ignoring the rest of them anyhow in favor of spending quality time with Vera. Last Mal'd checked, the mercenary'd had the entire contents of his weapons locker spread out in the lounge area, going over each and every one with a polishing cloth and a paranoid eye to make sure nothing been done to them while they was out of his reach.
Any ordinary day, Mal suspected he'd've heard Simon's reaction to the scene outside the infirmary all the way up to the bridge, but if the doc had been down below at all in the last twenty-four hours, Mal would be much surprised. Every time he'd caught sight of him, Simon had been drifting about with an abstracted look to him, mind clearly not on the present even when the present hung on to him with both hands. Kaylee kept flittering between him and the engine room, biting her lips to hold in all the demands she wanted but didn't dare make of him, and River orbited 'em both like a short-period comet, going from frozen distraction to frenzied, indecipherable activity every so often. Mal dismissed her from co-pilot lessons the second time he caught her losing track and rambling about prodigal sons, and resigned himself to a lonely few days in front of the screens.
Shoulda just kept his mouth shut and let the crew figure their destination when they got there.
Even ZoŽ seemed ill at ease, staring at Mal off and on like she suspected there was more going on than he'd told her. She'd known him long enough to sense that something had changed, even distracted by her own grief, but he hadn't yet found the words to articulate the whole of it to her, and she'd responded to that by pulling back, giving him more space to think in. Sure and he'd come up with something to say to her eventually, but in the meantime, he missed her silent support something fierce.
With everyone else looking intently at their own belly-buttons, that left only Inara for Mal to strike a conversation with-- and that only lasted long enough to confirm she'd talk things over with him in future before reporting 'em to her Guild. The necessaries aired, she'd then retreated back to her shuttle with the stated intention of keeping herself to herself 'til they got to Osiris, claiming to be still in process of putting her gear back the way she wanted it.
About the time Mal caught himself wandering down to stare at the hatch to Shuttle One and wondering if she'd throw him out if'n he tried to enter, he gave up on having any manner of productive day and slouched back to the bridge to punch up Book's 'wave tape. It weren't something he'd been looking forward to, but the alternative was fretting over the tracking transmitter Kaylee'd discovered trip-wired into the ship's navigation systems and speculating whether they'd be followed before he conjured a way to be safely rid of it. So, no contest there.
He jumped back into the text with the second entry. He didn't bother trying to take in every word, just skimmed for the gist of it, hoping to make some sense out of the contradictions. He still had a hard time wrapping his mind around the little he did read, despite, or perhaps because of, the optimistic, righteous attitude evident in the words. The beliefs Book had espoused back then were so antithetical to Mal's worldview, to what he knew the Shepherd had believed by the time he'd found Serenity, that Mal kept having to get up and pace the bridge to tamp down his temper. Time after time the young Derrial Tomos had settled in a new township and forged cordial relations with its folk, only to steal away its daughters and send them off-planet into the hands of qiángbào hóuzi de butchers without believing there to be a thing wrong with it.
"I spoke with Deborah's mother this morning,"
Book had wrote on one such occasion,
"...and assured her that the scholarship provided for her daughter will include a small stipend paid to the family, enough credits to reimburse them for the cost of the work Deborah could have performed were she still living at home during the three years she will ostensibly be completing her education.
Mal toggled out of that particular entry with a bad taste in his mouth, fair disgusted with the window he'd been provided into the mind of an Alliance drone. He'd never understood before how the average Core-world grunt could wave the flag and cheer while those less fortunate than they were ground under the government heel; now he did have some idea how a man could get that way without any particular intent to evil, he rejected the viewpoint more emphatical than ever. It was all logical analysis and gorram bloodless ideals, with no room for everyday human sweat and feeling.
In a world like that, what was the value of one life, or seven, or thirty million? Not near enough for Mal's peace of mind.
He scrolled quickly through the rest of the first year's records, then skipped forward a few years, hoping to find something a mite more helpful in amidst all the niúshĭ. Instead, the entries got shorter and shorter as the months passed, more business-like, recording names and dates and planets and precious little else. No more philosophical musings, which made a sad sort of sense; the more the boy-that-been wrote on the necessary wonder of what he'd done, the more he'd believed it and the less he'd needed the reminder.
Mal skipped through those entries fairly quickly, pausing on each only long enough to register yet another set of names he didn't know on planets he did, then stopped short at an entry in February of 2484.
"Took passage aboard the Loring en route to the Fed Station on St. Albans where I expect to receive my next assignment. The crew are very friendly, and work together more efficiently than most I have traveled with over the last few years; they attribute this excellence to the depth of their bonds with one another, as they are all members of the same extended family. One of the Alleynes, a pilot, gave birth on the first day of the journey; I lent my assistance and was allowed to briefly hold the infant for my troubles. It was born female, healthy and strong, but without any Potential; unfortunate, as the Council's breeding program has never been particularly successful and the younger one can begin training them, the better.
The Loring. Been a long time since he'd heard that name; ship had been lost in the War with all hands, cargo vessel shot down by Alliance for transporting the wrong kind of goods. ZoŽ never had been overly forthcoming on the subject, no more'n Mal brought up the wasteland the Alliance made of Shadow any more'n he had to; it was an old ghost for her, but no less potent for the time passed.
Had Book been aware, when he met ZoŽ again aboard Serenity, that she'd been born that baby girl? And what if she had been possessed of whatever it was these Watchers were watching for? He tried to imagine what his life would have been like without her, and failed; wouldn't have been much of a life, if it came down to it. Alliance would have made a corpse of him a long time ago.
And what they would have done with her... Mal tried to imagine ZoŽ as a grown-up version of River, and succeeded only in thoroughly creepifying himself.
"Gūyáng zhōng de gūyáng," he muttered, slapping the deactivation control on the screen, and got up to pace the bridge again. "Just how big is their operation, anyhow? And why'm I startin' to get the feeling that all these coincidences I keep runnin' into ain't so much coincidental?"
"It's destiny," a quiet voice said from the stairs, and Mal turned to see River standing there, her attention full on him like it hadn't been all day.
"Nà méi guānxi," he blurted, silently congratulating himself at somehow managing to out-emote the doctor. "You can't tell me you still believe in destiny, all that's been done to you. Everything you've seen--" He cut himself off, remembering Shadow, the Valley, Miranda, and all his buried anger at the One supposed to be watching every sparrow's fall rose up to choke him again.
"There are patterns," she replied, wincing at the intensity of everything he wasn't saying. She'd opted for a higher-necked dress that day, a confection of brown velvety fabric, open lacework, and ragged edges that made her look like she was an angel come to visit them mere mortals, but it didn't completely hide the crucifix she was still wearing. "The dances are called, but all the steps can't be predicted; some of the leaders have gone against the rhythm."
Mal snorted. "You tryin' to tell me you can see the future, little one? Chuīniú. If you'd known about Wash--"
She shook her head jerkily, backing up a step, long fingers fluttering up to twine in her hair. "Only in nightmares. Scary monsters, and not always true, not always real. Free will muddies the portents, and not all the dreams are meant for me. Bits-- chaos--" She swallowed, then spoke more firmly. "But the girl has a purpose, a meaning. Not broken. Not--"
"Aw, hell." Mal abandoned his arm-crossed pose next to the pilot's console and strode forward, hastily gathering her up in his arms. 'Course she wanted to believe there was something bigger out there, some reason for her to be the way she was. He forgot sometimes what her relative age was, she seemed betimes so apart from normal definitions of maturity; not fair he should dump all his cynicism on her when she was still feeling out her own place in the 'verse. "'Course you're not broken," he soothed her. "Scarred, a little. And a mite unpredictable, maybe, but ain't nobody on this ship don't answer to that description some days."
She giggled a little against his chest, but there were tears in the sound; he rubbed his hand between her shoulderblades, then set her away from him again, and decided Simon's moodiness had gone on long enough. No wonder the girl was all worried for her future, the way her brother was racking himsef on that very subject; he should be the one reassuring her right now, not her crusty old Captain.
"We can talk more on the subject of destiny later," he said. "Or not. But I got me some things to say to that brother of your'n first."
She nodded, dark eyes still luminous and wet, and took a deep breath. "He doesn't want to go. He doesn't want to leave her, doesn't want to leave Serenity. But he thinks it might be best for me. And he wants our father to be proud."
"Can't help him there," Mal said. "A man's decisions are his own. But I think he might could do with a reminder that his attitude is draggin' down a good third of my crew and disruptin' the rest." Mal was hardly going to hold forth on the subject of chosen family-- he didn't do mushy-- but the doc did have connections here, ones a lot more healthy than what he'd left behind him. If he could just get over should have been and wake up to what is...
Of course, Mal thought suddenly, he might maybe ought to take his own advice on that score, too.
River smiled at that, a flash of white teeth that lit up her whole face. Then she turned and padded down the fore passage, bare feet barely whispering over the grates.
Mal pondered for a moment the notion that she might just have been handling him, rather than the other way around-- a font of unexpected quirks and talent, his little albatross. Then he shook his head and followed her.
He had captain-y things to be doing.
qiángbào hóuzi de = "monkey-raping"
© 2006 Jedi Buttercup.