"Of course I don't know, but I think it'll get darker before it gets lighter." -- L. Frank Baum
Prologue: Once Upon a Time
This is the first thing that happens: a man walks into a bar and gets on somebody's bad side. It's not his fault, not exactly, but that doesn't stop the somebody from beating the hell out of him. Soon it's four against one, and the last thing the man sees is a spiny fist coming straight at his face.
This is the second thing that happens: a man wakes up on a cot in a noisy room. It smells like disinfectant and piss, and for a moment the man thinks he's back in field triage. Maybe he's got a piece of shrapnel in his gut and the last ten years were all just a bad dream. But the harried medic who gives him an injection has green skin, and when the noise in the room resolves into words and sentences, the man understands. He buttons his shirt over his bruises, and can't quite decide if he would have given up the few good things in his life if it meant the war were not yet lost. The man could be anyone, just another poor bastard with perpetual bad luck, but we'll call him Malcolm Reynolds.
This is the story of the third thing that happens, and what came after.
It takes Mal a week to find a mechanic who will look twice at the shuttle. The one who finally agrees to take the job looks like a cross between a pig and bear and has a voice like a rusted-out engine, but Mal's not in a position to be choosy. All he wants is someone to adapt the gorram fuel lines, but the mechanic, after wedging his enormous body into the inner workings of the shuttle, curses volubly and insists that he's going to need something called a hetch drive. The quoted price makes Mal choke; he hasn't exactly figured out the local currency, but he can tell it's a whole damn lot.
The mechanic smiles, displaying four rows of tiny sharp teeth, and offers to take the shuttle off his hands for a fraction of the proposed cost of the repairs. At this point, the shuttle is just a hunk of metal racking up moorage fees in the dockyard, but the very suggestion fills Mal with venom and despair.
He sets his jaw and tells the mechanic he'll come up with the money, then goes out to find a way to make it true.
I: This Life of Crime
Mal stares at the coins in his hand. It's been three weeks, and he's gotten better about the money. "This is less than half what you promised me!" He closes his fist and takes a step forward, but the foreman doesn't budge.
"Look," the foreman says, his greasy breath fouling the air between them, "in case you hadn't noticed, we got more people on this rock than we got work. Or food or shelter or medicine or anything else, for that matter." He takes a step back then, but casually, a slow half-turn as though dismissing a troublesome fly on a heifer's back. "I been doing my best. Trying to be decent, but I just don't got the money. Expenses. You understand." He spreads his hands. They're large hands with four bony fingers each. Hands that are completely out of place on his soft, fleshy body.
The coins digging into Mal's palm are barely enough to pay for a few meals, much less the moorage fees or anything else. At this rate, by the time he scrapes together enough to repair the shuttle, it'll be time to bury him in it. "We had a deal," he says through gritted teeth, but he damn well knows you can't get blood from a stone. The foreman might be well-fed, but he obviously hasn't been lining the pockets of his grimy, sweat-stained tunic.
"You Sebaceans are all alike," the foreman says disgustedly. "You think the whole frelling galaxy belongs to you. You pay me pittance at one end and demand more than I have to give at the other. And then you try to wedge yourselves into the middle, promising to protect me from who knows what, and all I know is that if I don't pay money I don't got, one of my guys winds up crushed under a combine cart. But I tell you who it's not, it's never another Sebacean. I'd bet good money you're all in it together, if I had any to bet, and as far as I'm concerned, you can take what I gave you and get out of my sight."
The foreman lumbers back to his office, the fetid smell of his skin wafting after him. Mal watches him walk away, too stunned to speak, slowly realizing that he's just been fired. He's not sure what a Sebacean is, or what he did to turn that transaction sour, but suddenly he's sorry that he doesn't even have the prospect of a few meals in front of him, not after his pay is spent. Fact is, he was lucky to get the job he had, backbreaking and thankless though it was.
Mal's still not sure what got him here. One moment he was on his way to a cushy job: deliver a very fragile and very old vase from the loving arms of an ancient granny into the grubby hands of a new bride on a border moon. It paid well, it was easy, and was perfectly legal to boot.
Then a shiny blue space vortex opened wide and swallowed him down. Like Jonah and the whale, only it's been far more than three days, and Mal's starting to think he's never going to reach Nineveh.
He passed out, and when he came to, the shuttle was drifting and the vase was in pieces on the floor. The stars were completely foreign, and there were more vortexes dotting the viewscreen. At the time it seemed like the safest course would be to put down on the planet up ahead and figure things out from there. Now he's out of fuel and he almost wishes he'd picked a direction at random and flown; anyplace would be better than this.
He's been careful, because he's a stranger here and there are forces at work that he can't begin to understand. There are people everywhere, sleeping and starving in doorways and gutters. Too many eyes to see what's better left unseen, but it's now perfectly clear that he's going to have to do something, because playing by the twisted rules of this place is going to get him exactly nowhere. So far he's been better off than most; he hasn't gone hungry, and he's got the shuttle to call home, even if he feels like a trespasser in it. But if there's one thing he's learned, it's that his luck always runs out sooner rather than later.
Mal stands for a moment, uncertain. It's night, and the basin of the sky is grotesque with ribbons of orange, blue, violet, coloring the ground and the buildings and his skin. The universe has cracked like so many eggs, and the vital parts of time and space are running together. An explosion blooms out in the black, silent and spectacular, and the people who see it look away, knowing that another ship has run afoul of whatever is out there. Whatever has brought them all together in hell.
He turns on his heel, heading back to the shuttle. He washes and shaves, changes his shirt, brushes off his pants with some implement that is probably more suited to hair. A fine dark strand clings to his thigh, and he picks it off, determined not to watch where it falls. He wipes down his boots and puts on his good jacket, the one he'd worn to charm the ancient grandmother. The small mirror shows him an illusion: a man weary but respectable.
Just off one of the roads that snakes through the center of town is a restaurant with a name he can't read; a place where people of a cleaner order go to eat. Mal has seen them looking furtively over their shoulders as they exit, clutching their coats, waiting to be ambushed. He will have to decide whether the coin in his pocket should be sacrificed to the greater cause, or whether he'll have to rely on his boots and his gun when it's time to leave. In the meantime, he needs information, and not the type he's like to find at the bars he can afford.
He makes his way through the jumbled streets, his jacket sitting straight on his shoulders. He settles in at his table, and he watches, and waits.
There is no sign on the building; the windows are boarded over and the doors completely unmarked. The street is littered with discarded rags, broken mechanical parts and food containers licked clean. The whole block is unnaturally deserted.
The night he slipped out the back of the restaurant, he tailed someone who looked human to this dingy corner. The man seemed only too vulnerable among the spiny giants and quicksilver predators who stalk the city. Mal followed a little closer than he normally would, glowering, his hand resting significantly on the butt of his gun. He may have no compunction about robbing a rich man at a distance, but he'd be damned if he'd let this drunken, blustery fool get stabbed in the gut while he stood around and watched.
That night the man knocked at the door, suddenly nervous, and passed a thick packet through a small opening in the door.
It makes sense, in a way, that they'd hide the money in a place like this.
Mal has learned over six nights that a troop of soldiers patrols the street every hour or so, black reflective helmets pulled over their faces. A few times he has darted across to the door after they've gone past, trying to find a way to get inside. But the door won't budge, and his idea now is to make it quick and dirty; if he waits until halfway through the patrol and blows the door off, there's a chance he might be able to grab something before the cavalry comes rushing in.
The street is always dark, towering buildings blocking out the sky, the streetlights and wayposts broken and ghostly. A faint red light from the unending bustle of the rest of the city glows at the end of the block. Mal stuffs his hand in his pocket, palming the small explosive device he built this afternoon. He spent his last few coins on the parts. Seems like the only things that come cheap around here are bodies, and the means to end them.
He steals across the street, feet silent in his worn boots. The door is just as solid as ever, but he can't afford to wait any longer. His only meal today was a piece of bread gone slightly stale and a thin soup that was little more than discolored water. The cost was more than a day's wage. If he doesn't manage to pull off this job tonight, he'll have to choose between selling the shuttle and continuing to eat, and he doesn't think he wants to know which one would win out.
The plastic explosive sticks to the door easily enough. Mal sets the device and ducks around a pile of crates, hands over his ears. Seconds pass, but before the bomb can go off, he sees a figure in black running toward him full-tilt. The bottom drops out of his stomach - it wasn't supposed to happen like this.
The figure isn't helmeted. It's a woman, pale-faced, dressed in leather. "What are you DOING?" she hisses, making not for him but for the door. Mal grabs her arm and hauls her back. Her long black braid, sleek and tightly wound, whips around wildly.
"Don't you know a bomb when you see one?" he answers, his voice carrying the same quiet urgency.
"Of course, that's the problem! Someone will hear!"
"You think I haven't thought of that?"
"At the moment, I doubt your ability to think at all!"
He sees that she has some kind of electronic device in her hand, blinking faintly; a match for a similar-shaped box by the door. Well, gou shi.
The door blows. It's small for an explosion, but too damn loud. For a moment, the noise and the heat shocks both of them senseless. Then a faint shout goes up from several streets over, and they exchange a look before darting inside, one after another, to whatever they might find there.
It's a mess, plaster crumbling from the ceiling and some of the furniture toppled on its side. There's nothing that looks like a safe, but the woman makes for a skewed cabinet in the corner. He understands suddenly that she knows a lot more about this place than he does, has probably been planning this a lot longer, and by some chance she's decided to draft him as a hapless partner instead of killing him where he stands.
She moves with a strength and efficiency that reminds him, with a sudden pang, of Zoe. She even has the same solemn expression, serious but not panicked when things have gone to hell. The woman does something to the cabinet, and it springs open, spilling bills and coins all over the floor. She points to a trunk, stretched low against the opposite wall, and tosses him the device. She sheds her long leather coat, and begins sliding stacks of bills down through a slit in the lining.
Mal sneers, pulling two ratty sacks from his belt. Nothing wrong with ratty sacks at a time like this. Still, as he opens the trunk with what must be some kind of electronic lockpick, he can't help but admire what would have been an incredibly smooth plan, if he hadn't quite literally blown it all to hell. He stuffs money into the sack with no finesse at all.
The woman appears at his side; the coat hanging from her shoulders looks totally natural. She frowns at him. "You're a frelling idiot," she says. "That's small change!" She pushes aside the stacks of bills that he can see now are worth almost nothing. A false bottom comes out of the trunk and reveals a cache of small jewel-like things that reflect the dim light coming in through the doorway. She begins to stuff these in his second bag, and he begins helping after a moment. They're nearly done when she grabs his arm. He makes a sound of protest, and she pulls him against her body, silencing him with her palm tight over his mouth.
"Peacekeepers," she breathes. This means something to her, something different than the name would imply. This, he thinks, is her world. She's not lost here.
Then, in the stillness, he hears it: footsteps. Too many of them, trying to be silent. He feels iron bands tighten around his chest.
Mal catches sight of a staircase half-hidden behind some screens that were knocked over in the blast. He motions to it, a quick jerk of his head, and she meets his eyes for a split second before picking her way through the debris, keeping to the shadows.
They are swift and silent as they climb. He isn't stupid, he knew he'd need an exit strategy. The bank is lower than almost everything else around it, but the buildings are wedged in tight around here, and there are dizzy highrises towering over them on three sides. If they're going to make it out of this, they need to get to the roof.
They have made it up four flights when they hear the gunfire below. They run faster, Mal cursing the stupid bags he brought and wondering why he didn't think of stashing the take in the lining of his coat.
The door at the bottom of the stairwell bursts open, and black-helmeted soldiers stream through. They give up on stealth, and settle instead for speed.
The soldiers follow fast. Mal takes the stairs two at a time, springing from step to step, and then abruptly the flight ends in a door. It's locked, but the two of them working together shoulder it open in a single hard push.
It opens, not onto the roof as he'd hoped, but onto a vast abandoned room, dusty and littered with junk. The bank of windows at the front of the building provides a little light.
The woman slams the door shut behind them. "Well, look for a way out," she says, wedging a few pieces of broken furniture against the door.
Mal glances upward, and in one corner, he sees the outline of a trapdoor in the ceiling. There's no ladder, and no handle, but he bets it'll come loose if they can get high enough to push at it.
"Hey," he calls out. "Over here."
She runs to him, the floorboards creaking. She looks up at the trapdoor, and then glances at him. It's a high ceiling, maybe twelve feet. Her eyes are light, and it makes him feel like he can see right through her.
Mal crouches on one knee, cupping his hands. She nods, stepping up onto his leg and using his shoulder and the wall for balance; he grits his teeth and shoves both of them upward. He wraps his arms around her calves, hugging them to his chest as she prods at the trapdoor. He can't see anything, but he feels when the door gives way, and her boots scrabble for purchase on his shoulders. She's strong, lifting herself into the opening up above.
He knots the tops of both the loot bags and tosses them up to her, then stands staring as he realizes that there's no way he'll be able to reach the trapdoor on his own.
He sees her pale face looking down at him, frowning, obviously thinking the same thing. "Your coat," she says urgently, as the soldiers start banging at the door. There wasn't much to brace it with, and it will only take them a few seconds to get through.
"My coat?" he asks.
"Toss it up to me, and jump," she says, and after a moment he realizes what she intends.
She stands, and he tosses the coat up to her. "Be careful of the sleeves," he says, and she rolls her eyes in response. She crouches at the edge of the opening, holding his coat by the yoke in her strong hands. He hopes the old cloth will hold.
He only has a few feet to jump, and he catches good hold of the end of his coat. She heaves, and he holds on and scales the wall to push himself along. She catches hold of his elbow and then he pulls himself through the opening. They push the trapdoor back into place just after they hear the soldiers burst in down below.
"Thanks," Mal says, gasping.
"No problem," she answers.
They spare a second to survey the situation. The building at the back has big windows, less than a man's height from the roof. Over at the far end, one of the windows is slightly open, the kind that push inward like a door.
He points, and she stands frozen for a moment before nodding in agreement, and they run together.
Unburdened by the loot bags, she reaches the window faster, and springs inside quietly. She holds her finger to her lips momentarily, and Mal can see that it's a bedroom, a young couple sleeping nearby.
He hands the bags into her like before, and is climbing inside when the window shatters in a spray of gunfire. Mal cries out, clutching his upper arm. He's been hit.
The couple wakes up screaming, the woman in instant hysterics, the man bellowing. Blood oozes from between Mal's fingers, and another round of gunfire has Mal and his new partner diving for the floor. The screaming woman is suddenly, terribly silent, and as they elbow through broken glass to reach the door, Mal sees that she's been shot in the throat, blood everywhere.
There's no time, no time to stop or to help or even to offer weak apologies, because he's been hit and they have to run.
The hallway beyond is grimy and lit with a sickly green light. The woman finds the staircase quickly, and they go up rather than down. There's probably an elevator in a building this high, but that's too risky. The lights go out abruptly, plunging them into absolute darkness.
It seems like they climb forever. Mal's bloodied hands slip on the railings. Finally, he stumbles, going down hard, and his cry echoes up and down the long black stairwell. In the dark, the woman gropes for his arm, and she hauls him upward, feeling her way along the wall to a door.
The hallway isn't quite as dark as the stairwell; dim lines of light show under each door along the outside of the building. She moves to break down the nearest door, but that will only attract more attention. Mal pats down his pockets, amazed to find that the lockpick device is still there. He pulls it out and shoves it toward her. She uses it to open the door, and in the weak light that makes its way between the buildings, he can see gratitude written on her face.
They enter quietly. At the sound of loud snoring, they close that door, making their way to the next.
The third door they try reveals an empty tenement, the occupant probably one of the mass of people on the streets below. Mal slumps gratefully to the ground, wondering if his blood has left a trail that will lead straight to them.
The woman looks at him worriedly. She takes one of the bags, the one containing the small bills, and dumps it out. She rips it into strips and binds his arm tightly, a quick and efficient tourniquet. He sits still for a few moments, waiting for the rushing in his ears to subside.
It didn't feel like a deep wound, but it's been ages since he had a good meal and they climbed a long damn time. He dimly hears her rummaging around the room, and after a few minutes she holds a cup of water to his lips. It tastes foul, but it helps a little.
"How do you feel?" she asks seriously, searching his face.
Mal takes a deep breath, his eyes heavy-lidded, and offers her a lazy smile. "Well, I ain't dead yet, so I guess I feel pretty good."
The flippancy seems to relieve her more than irritate her. It always irritated the Doc, and...anyone else who might be hovering about. She nods and sits next to him heavily, and he notices that she has a smudge of blood on one prominent cheekbone.
"You got..." He makes a motion toward his own cheek. She wipes at the spot, and looks stricken at the sight.
"I was...sprayed," she says, and suddenly he can picture it: the young woman in bed with her lover, screaming. Her throat exploding, the bloody mess spraying everywhere.
"I'm sorry," he offers, and she shakes her head, dismissing it. "No, I mean, I'm sorry for screwing up your plan. That was a piece of bad luck, back there. Me getting there just ahead of you. Dong ma?"
She laughs bitterly. "Your plan was stupid, I grant you that. But I can hardly blame you for the rest of it. Bad luck always seems to find me."
"Yeah, me too," he says. "Me too." They sit in silence for awhile, resting. Mal drinks more water. The throbbing in his arm subsides a bit, and his head feels better. "I'm Mal Reynolds," he says finally, ready to begin a new chapter.
She raises a brow at him. "Aeryn Sun," she says finally. She sits for a moment longer, then gets to her feet, holding out her hand to help him do the same.
II: Into the Air
Aeryn opens the window and leans out to examine the buildings to either side. Beside her, Mal peers down into the void below them.
"Whoa," he says, stepping back. "That's a long way down."
"Don't look," she suggests. "It's enough to make anyone a little dizzy." She well remembers what it was like, standing on a ledge at a window on this very world, seven cycles ago or hundreds of cycles in the past, depending on one's perspective. It's a deep well of pain that was better left uncovered. It does not help that this planet is very little changed in the time since she lost her mother here, except that this war has made it even dirtier and more dangerous.
She leans out a little farther, and feels Mal put a nervous hand on her shoulder. "It's okay," she says. "I won't fall."
"You'll have to excuse me if I doubt that even you could defy the laws of gravity, if it came to that."
This makes her smile, just a little. "Look," she says, pointing to the left. "We should be able to jump across to the next building from that side."
"Jump? Are you crazy?"
"It's not far. Not more than a metra, I'd say."
"I don't know how far that is. A few feet? Looks more than that to me."
It takes Aeryn a couple microts to realize why that sounds familiar. She turns and looks at him narrowly. "Are you from Earth?" she asks.
Mal goes still. "What do you know 'bout Earth?"
They stare at one another for a moment. Mal's jaw is like iron, and Aeryn decides that the information is not much risk at a time like this. "My husband is from Earth," she says.
Mal steps back from the window and uses the uninjured arm to run a disbelieving hand through his hair. "Lady, I don't know what your game is, but nobody's been 'from' Earth-That-Was for five hundred years."
Her breath catches in her throat for a moment, considering the chance that John's beloved planet might have been destroyed sometime in this past and their future. But it isn't logical, and she dismisses the possibility. "But you are human?"
"I am, at that. You wanna tell me what's going on?"
From afar off, they hear a sound like thunder, doors slamming open and footsteps on the stairs. "Later," she says. "First we have to jump."
"Yeah, okay," he says, and they run.
The building next door must have been a luxury highrise once, because there are balconies all along the sides. The windows are staggered from this building by a half-story, but that only makes it easier to jump across. Aeryn opens the window quietly, so as not to disturb the occupants sleeping in the next room. By the sound of it, the Peacekeeper patrol is searching the apartments just a few stories below them.
There's a narrow ledge running under the windows. Aeryn steps out onto it, edging along until she's directly across from the balcony just below. It's actually a little more than a metra; not too far to jump, but it's windy this high up, and her stomach is in knots. She takes a deep breath, bracing herself, and leaps into the air, pushing off from the ledge. She lands, one foot following the other, on the balcony opposite. It's all over in a couple microts.
"Mother of God!" Mal is wide-eyed, his gaze shifting between her and the empty space below them.
"Don't look down," she reminds him, and he glares at her.
She sees him set his shoulders; he tosses the bag holding the chronite nuggets to her before climbing out on the ledge himself. He doesn't allow himself any time to think, but springs across just as she did.
There's a fine sheen of sweat on his brow as she clutches his arm to steady him. "You dizzy?"
"No, but I could do with a mite fewer death-defying stunts, if it's all the same to you."
She presses her lips together. "We'll have to do this a couple more times, at least."
"Yeah," he says, swallowing. "I figured."
Aeryn grabs hold of his wrist and takes his pulse. Faster than would be good for a Sebacean, but it seems relatively normal compared to the remembered beat of John's heart. "Did you eat today?" she asks.
"Look, I'm fine, I don't need nursing. Let's just go."
She can't argue with that, and so they go.
Not all of the building jumps are as nerve-wracking as the first. The next one is just a matter of using the lockpick on the iron bars of the adjacent building, and stepping across a gap barely wide enough for a full-grown being to fall through. They don't hear the Peacekeepers following any longer, but Aeryn knows it will be best to get as far away from the bank as possible. She fears that some of the soldiers may have caught sight of them long enough to recognize on the street.
They have managed to travel the length of a block in the upper reaches of the city. Mal looks grim, but she suspects that has more to do with the height than with his physical condition.
The crossing they are now faced with, however, is unusually tricky. It's not the farthest they've jumped, but the next side has no ledge, just a narrow window well insufficient to gain any kind of foothold. The only way to get across is to open the window from this side and jump straight into the room opposite.
She takes a long look at it, finally nodding with decision. "Right. Catch me if I start to fall," she says quietly, again leery of disturbing the sleeping occupants, and he looks at her in utter disbelief.
"Look, we don't gotta do this one. Why don't we make our way down now?"
Aeryn shakes her head. "We'll go down after this one; that building should open onto one of the main roads, and we can disappear in the crowd."
Mal throws up his hands in defeat. "Fine, but don't come cryin' to me if you slip and bust your pretty little head open."
She gives him a look that she hopes expresses the words she would use to describe his head. Aeryn perches on the windowsill, moving out as far as she dares. She stretches once to test the length of her reach; it isn't far enough. She considers the distance carefully. "Hold onto my leg," she says, and Mal for once complies without comment. With Mal acting as counterweight, she can brace her foot on the edge of the sill and lean out further.
She slips the lockpick out of her pocket and reaches up slowly, careful not to disturb the delicate balance they've achieved. The wind is not strong between these two buildings; if it were this would be far more difficult. She gains a fingerhold on the window well, and uses it to take some of her weight.
The lockpick seems to take forever to find the correct sequence; it glows briefly yellow, to signify a magnetic latch, and then the window slips open a half a dench. Aeryn grits her teeth. The window opens outward.
"Can you pull me back?" she asks, straining to hold herself still.
"You'll fall," he says, strain also evident in his voice. "Your boot's slipping."
There's no way she can get the lockpick back in her pocket. With a pang of regret, she simply lets go, refusing to watch as it makes the long fall to the ground. Bracing both hands against the sill, she shifts her weight slightly and pulls back as far as she can, pulling the window open.
Mal is right, she can feel her boot slipping now; it's possible that the old, dilapidated ledge is crumbling right out from under her. She can't get any purchase on the opposite sill.
"When I tell you," she says, panting a little, "push me as hard as you can."
"Just do it!"
This has to work, it absolutely has to.
"Okay," she says, "now!"
Mal heaves forward, and she pushes off with her other foot. Aeryn uses the forward momentum to let go of the ledge and fall halfway across the sill. When she's sure of her hold, she scrambles all the way inside.
She turns to Mal and nods once, and he tosses over the bag of chronite nuggets. But her fingers are nerveless from holding onto the ledge so hard, and the bag falls from her hands, the weight of the nuggets pouring over the sill and plunging downward.
"Frell!" Aeryn makes a lunge for the bag, leaning too far out the window. She overbalances and starts to slip, the bag falling far out of her reach even as she tries to catch herself.
A strong hand grasps her elbow. It's Mal, leaning out the window opposite. "Leave it," he says. "It's not worth it."
Aeryn isn't sure he's right, but she's grateful anyway. She struggles back inside, hoping she'll be able to find them on the ground.
She stands clear of the window. Mal steps up on the sill and makes the jump across, tumbling into the room.
They look at each other for a moment. "What were those things in the bag, anyway?"
Aeryn frowns. "Chronite. I needed them to repair my ship."
"Well, can't you just buy some with the take?" He nods in her direction, indicating the money in her coat.
"Chronite is very rare. It can hardly be bought for any price. That's why I had to steal it."
Before he can say anything, the occupant of the tenement calls out, "WHO'S THERE?" The voice is loud and gruff; dangerous.
They slip out into the hall and make their way silently to the ground.
By unspoken agreement, once they're on the street they make their way to the back of the building. But Aeryn's luck is as bad as ever. There's no sign of the bag, which must have split on impact, and a thorough search turns up only a handful of chronite nuggets. They're essentially useless, being so few.
"You said you need them to repair your ship," Mal says.
"Yes," she answers.
Mal starts to speak, but something in her face must stop him, because he just nods once, and they leave the alley for the safety of the crowd.
Standing on a corner a few blocks down, waiting to cross at the signal light, his skin goes ashy all of a sudden, and he rocks on his heels. "Whoa," he says, and he grabs her arms to steady himself. "Dizzy."
Aeryn examines him for a long, calculating moment. "All right, look. You're going to come back to my ship with me. You need someone to fix up that wound correctly, and you shouldn't be alone when you've lost so much blood. But we need to hurry."
Already this has taken too much time. Since it's the middle of the sleep cycle, it should be fine, but she feels each microt of separation as an almost physical strain. And now that the chronite is lost, she has a long few days ahead of her, trying to adjust to the new way of things.
"Yeah," Mal says, "that idea sounds downright shiny."
The transport pod has a huge black mark marring the side, but over the last few monens, she's learned not to dwell on it. She almost doesn't see it anymore. So it takes her a moment to parse the long, low whistle Mal lets out as she approaches the door.
"What happened?" he asks.
She looks back at him, trying to decide how much to reveal. But he's as out of place as she is, and perhaps at this point she should let her guard down just that much.
"My son was asleep," she says, sliding open the door.
He cocks an eyebrow at her, and after a moment says, "Were...you letting him pilot the ship?" The fact that he doesn't question the existence of her son somehow pleases her.
"No," Aeryn says, and leads him inside, where mercifully, young D'Argo lies sleeping. She'd been terrified by visions of him waking in the night, and wailing for her for arns. Or, worse, simply disappearing.
He's only six cycles old, and keeping his mother alive out in space is a weighty responsibility for such a young child. She does not blame him for a microt for falling asleep, even if it did allow the wormhole weapons to damage the ship. Even if it did strand them here.
Aeryn strokes at his shocking quantity of dark hair, and Mal comes to stand beside her, looking down at her son. "I got the notion that you know more than you're letting on," he says softly. "I'd appreciate it if you'd explain a few things."
She sits down next to D'Argo, who finally rouses at the disturbance. "Mum?" he asks, yawning.
"Shhh," she says. "Go back to sleep."
But drowsily, he opens his eyes, blue like his father's, and wakes enough to crawl into her lap. Arms around her neck, he does as she asks and falls deeply asleep.
Aeryn takes a moment, just a moment. She closes her eyes and holds him. For so many years she never imagined this, but now she wouldn't trade it. Not for the universe, which has been on the table more than once.
"What's his name?" Mal asks hoarsely.
"D'Argo. He's named after a friend. A friend who died shortly after he was born."
"Sounds like a hell of a birthing room."
Aeryn allows herself a laugh. "You have no idea."
Mal sits in one of the pilot's chairs, and looks at her expectantly. "So?" he asks, and she remembers his blood loss and his daring.
"There's a war," she says after a moment. "A war between beings that we can't perceive. They call themselves the Ancients. They were looking for a place to settle, and when they finally found it, some of them stayed behind. But not before they...altered...my husband."
Mal digests this for a moment, and answers, "That sounds downright unpleasant."
"It was the worst thing that has ever happened to us."
"Including this?" Mal makes a wide gesture, one that encompasses the entire planet.
"Including this," she confirms. "The Ancients are at war, the one faction against another. They use wormholes to try to destroy each other. In the process, they kill the rest of us."
"I shoulda known it was a war," Mal says.
"At one time, they would have put to death anyone who dared to do such a thing. They tried to kill my husband simply because he had the ability, although he did not intend to use it...on that scale. But now that they are at war..."
"War is hell," Mal finishes, voice weary, and she looks at him sharply.
"You were a soldier."
"Yeah." He gets that steely look again, and says, "Don't care to talk about it, though."
She doesn't ask if he was on the losing side. Everything about him tells her that's true; his words, his stance, the expression on his face.
"I am in the right universe, but from five hundred cycles -- years -- in the past. You, I suspect, are from another universe entirely."
"Figured that out," Mal says. "Never seen an alien before I came here. Was pretty sure they didn't exist." She nods, and he lets the silence stretch between them. Finally he adds, "So what does this have to do with the boy?"
She presses her cheek to D'Argo's sleeping head. He shifts, making a soft noise.
"I told you my husband had been altered. He was lost in this part of the universe, unable to get back to Earth. One of the Ancients took pity on him, and gave him the ability they possessed, the ability to harness wormholes to their will. That ability has almost gotten him killed dozens of times, and the fact that he passed it to our son is both a curse and a blessing."
"The boy keeps the wormholes from damaging you when you're flying," Mal surmises. "But it don't work when he's asleep."
Aeryn clutches at her son. "No."
"That's a big responsibility for such a small boy."
"I know," she says quietly.
He sits for a moment, thinking. A frown on his face, he touches his wounded arm. His fingers come away red. "Uh, you said something about patching me up?"
Right. Aeryn sets D'Argo down gently, then extracts a med kit from one of the storage compartments.
She works in silence for a long time, listening to his short, sharp breaths whenever the needle pierces his skin. It's a crude method, but the med kit is not well-stocked, and she has no other options available to her.
"So," he says, his voice strangled with pain, "you needed the...chronite? Chronite. To repair your ship. That the real reason you knocked over the bank?"
"The credits are useful," she admits, "but yes."
"So you can't repair your ship now, not at any cost."
She closes her eyes for a moment. "No."
He's silent for a long time, but he surprises her when he speaks again. "This ship got a hetch drive?"
"Of course," she answers.
"Well, it just so happens that I got an undamaged ship that wants nothing but a hetch drive. Seems my luck held for once after all."
She meets his eyes, studying him. "What are you saying?" she asks.
"I'm saying we should pool our resources. I lost everything I got in the take. Seems like the arrangement could benefit the both of us."
Aeryn rocks back on her heels. "We only just met. It seems to me that it would be a great risk on both parts to form a partnership so quickly."
"We might not a' fought together, but we ran away together, and half the time, for me, they're the same thing." Mal smiles at her, but his eyes are grim. "Besides, what choice do we have?"
She considers this, finally nodding in acknowledgement. "You really have an undamaged ship?"
"Just needs a fuel-line flush and she's ready to go."
"Aside from the hetch drive."
"I was told that if I wanted to get anywhere in this part of the 'verse I'd be needing one. It's faster than light?"
"We don't got that kind of tech where I come from."
"Ah." Aeryn avoids his gaze under the pretense of examining her work on his wound. It should heal well enough, although the scar will be unavoidably prominent. "One functioning ship between the two of us," she says. It's...worth consideration.
"I'm just trying to get back to where I came from. I got the notion you want the same thing."
She glances back at D'Argo. His childish face is unworried in sleep. "Eventually," she says. She meets his eye and decides, with his offer now on the table, to lay down the rest of her secrets. "My son and I came here on purpose. We're hiding."
Mal frowns. "From the Ancients?"
"They tried to take him. Because he inherited John's knack for navigating wormholes." She breaks off, remembering the terrifying arns when D'Argo was missing from his bed on Moya, the heartstopping moment when a pale, black-clad figure appeared in the Command Center with the boy in his arms and told them to run. Remembering the look on John's face, and the last thing he said to them as he wove the wormhole that was supposed to take them out of the Ancients' reach: Be safe.
"I told you it was a curse," she finishes.
Mal says nothing for a long stretch of time. Even the sound his lips make as they part is loud in their shared silence. "Can you help me get home?"
"I don't know."
"Can you get home?"
She laughs. It's like every conversation she's ever had with John. "I don't know that either." Aeryn looks around at the transport pod, which has been one of their few comforts in the last monens. It's part of Moya, and that is impossible to ignore. But without the extra chronite for the repairs, truly, it's better off as scrap.
"We can sell the transport pod. We may not get much, since the chronite is only in the rudimentary neural cluster. But it's better than nothing, and we haven't counted the credits from the bank yet."
Mal seems to be satisfied with her answer. "I got a mechanic who'll install the hetch drive for me."
"We'll start tomorrow, then." She feels uneasy about this solution, but suddenly her body remembers the long hours she has been awake and the rush of their flight from the Peacekepers. Exhaustion pulling at her, she says, "But now, we should sleep."
Mal nods, his eyes shadowed. He climbs out of the chair to lay on the ground; removes his coat and balls it under his head as a pillow, seeming to intend on bedding down right there. Aeryn stares at him a moment, wondering what the frell she's gotten herself into. But circumstances have thrown them together, and he's not a Peacekeeper, that's certain. He might rob her blind while she sleeps, but it's a risk, she decides, she will have to take. As he said, what choice does she have?
Because without a ship, she's got nowhere to go. And even John made it home one day.
Epilogue: The Man Behind the Curtain
D'Argo has finally fallen asleep on the very soft bed in the main cabin of the shuttle. Aeryn can't quite bring herself to think of it as her bed, although Mal has only used it once in nearly half a cycle, when he came down with the Relgarian flu and was not much up to arguing.
Aeryn joins Mal in the shuttle's small command area, separated from the cabin by a velvet curtain. They don't travel when the boy is asleep, even if the route looks peaceful. They tried once, on a clear stretch of space almost half a cycle ago, but the shuttle was nearly torn apart by a wormhole that flashed up out of nowhere, and it was only her swift piloting that averted disaster.
The space around this moon is calm, the gravity well ensuring that any anomalies stay well clear. Their orbit feels steady and safe. Unfortunately, when D'Argo wakes, they won't be going much of anywhere unless they can fix the nav system, which is acting up again.
Mal blames the hetch drive. He does this every time something goes wrong, as though the shuttle never had a single problem prior to the drive's installation. Aeryn has come to suspect that the real problem is that he's just not a very good mechanic.
He curses and tosses a tool to the ground. Aeryn kicks at his boot and tells him to keep it down or he'll wake the boy.
He slides out from under the console, hair disheveled, and raises an eyebrow at her. "You wanna come down here and try to fix this?"
She has tried, on other occasions, to help him with repairs. In the end, she could fix nearly every problem on her Prowler if it became necessary, and would have even had a good chance with the transport pod. But the crude design of the shuttle combined with unfamiliar human technology seems to be beyond her scope.
On the other hand, she's not really one to back down from a challenge.
Aeryn rolls her eyes and drops to the ground, jamming in next to him and peering up under the console. The light is bad, and the jumble of wires all look the same to her. She tests a few connections as Mal looks on smugly, but everything seems to be correct, as far as she knows.
"I've been meaning to ask you," she says, trying for a more methodical test pattern, "when you got stuck in this universe, were you escaping from some sort of harem?"
That takes the smirk off his face, at least. "What?"
"The soft fabrics, the rich colors, the elaborate decoration. They all seem a bit excessive for a transport shuttle."
"Now you look, it ain't my shuttle!" he protests, then seems surprised at himself. "That is, she is mine. In the sense that she belongs to my ship. But I rented it out, to a real fine lady."
"So why do you have it now, instead of the fine lady?"
He doesn't answer for a long time. She's starting to think that perhaps she has genuinely offended him. But finally he says, "I was just supposed to borrow it for one job, you see?" His voice seems to get choked up, and she throws him a sharp, questioning look. "And that's the sort of thing that gets to a man after awhile," he finishes.
"I'm sorry," she offers. "I didn't know. You miss your crew. It's understandable."
"Yeah, I miss every last one of 'em, even, so help me, Jayne. But this is Inara's shuttle, and I can't forget it."
Suddenly it dawns on Aeryn, the real nature of the problem. She tries to think of some comforting words she might say, but the truth is, enforced partings are always bitter, always cut deep. This has never been her strong suit, anyway.
Then Mal turns his head, jarring the light, which flashes briefly on a shiny piece of metal on his far side.
"Wait," she says, "turn the light back that way. Yes, right there." Aeryn reaches out with the opposite hand, fitting the connection for the vector converter back together.
Mal shifts under her slightly, and Aeryn stiffens.
Living on a shuttle is not like living on a ship. From the first day they broke orbit, there were certain logistical considerations to be addressed. Things like undressing, bathing, illness. Like privacy and the utter, utter lack of it on a shuttle this size. She is used to living with Mal in close quarters, but as he moves under her, it occurs to her that she's almost lying on top of him. She can smell him; grease and days-old sweat that accumulates in space. But it isn't unpleasant. It's exactly the opposite.
Aeryn exchanges a long look with Mal. He rests a warm hand on her hip.
She takes a long, deep breath; lets it out slowly so it doesn't shake. "D'Argo must have been playing under here," she says quietly, not looking at him.
"Huh? Oh. Yeah." Mal doesn't move his hand, one way or the other. "We'll have to, to watch for that. I guess."
The interlude stretches just a moment longer, but ends as Aeryn pulls away, sliding out from under the console. If she were really stuck here, if she really had no way to get back, she knows that John would not begrudge her an instant's happiness. But Aeryn does not give up that easily. She frowns, troubled.
Mal waits a few microts before sliding out after her. He climbs into one of the seats and tests the nav system. She can tell by the sound that it's come back online.
"I'm sorry," she offers.
"Got no call to be," he answers, gruff and tight-lipped. She thinks it might be for more than one reason.
"I'm going to sleep now," she says, pushing to her feet.
As she retreats behind the curtain, Mal says, "Good night."
She pauses, briefly. "Good night." She disappears into the main cabin. In the gloom, she can just barely see D'Argo curled up, asleep.
From the other side of the curtain, she hears Mal shaking out his bed roll for the sleep cycle.
She gets into bed next to her son, putting a hand against his back for the comfort of his breathing. On the other side of the curtain, Mal tosses and turns, searching for a comfortable position on the hard deck. Aeryn lies in the dark, not even trying to sleep, thinking of a chant John taught her long ago, laughing all the while:
"There's no place like home. There's no place like home. There's no place like home."