“In a dark dark ship, there was a dark dark hold. And in the dark dark hold, there was a dark dark compartment. And in the dark dark compartment, there was a dark dark box. And in the dark dark box, there was…a MOUSE!!”
No one jumped.
“Aw c’mon.” Kaylee complained. “Y’all could at least’ve pretended to be scared.”
“Sorry Mei Mei,” Mal said, “But you know we’re all too jaded to be put out of our ease with that old rag.”
“All right, try this one then-“
“Hey,” Jayne said. “How came Kaylee gets more’n one turn?”
“She’s prettier than you are.” Simon told him.
Kaylee raised the flashlight to her face once more, and began the tale. “Years ago, when I was little, I was scared of the dark. Like really scared. My folks told me every night, there wasn’t nothin’ to be scared of. But I knew better.
"One night, just as I was gettin’ to sleep, I heard, down stairs…'Kaaayleee, I’m on the first step.` I screamed, but daddy told me it was a bad dream. Then the next night…”
As Kaylee continued her tale, her voice soft, Serenity continued to drift through to it’s destination. It was an area of space that no one went to if they could help it. Not even Reavers. Partly it was because it was heavily patrolled by Alliance Cruisers. But mostly it was superstition. After all, it was like walking through a graveyard. Multiplied by over 10 billion.
It was earth. Or what was left of it.
If they’d had a choice, they’d have avoided the system. But the amount of Alliance patrols along their route had forced their hand. So now they found themselves drifting on minimal power past the vigilant searchers. And whiling the away the hours, taking advantage of the spooky surroundings.
“Kaaayleee, I’VE GOT YOU!!” This time, Inara and Simon jumped. Wash flinched, but Zoe, her arm around him was the only one who noticed.
“Okay,” the red headed pilot grinned. “My turn.” Kaylee passed him the flashlight.
“Heh, yeah, scare us little man.” Jayne smirked.
“My captain on my first piloting job ran a legit salvaging operation that worked the shipping lanes. His last pilot quit ‘cause of something that happened while they were checking out one of the lesser used lanes. On the late watch, crew got woke up by the prox alarm. Seems there was a shuttle drifting, no power. But there was a survivor. A girl, bout 18. Real pretty from their tellin’.
"Well the pilot took a liking to her. Fancied he was in love with her by the time they’d got her home. He walked her right to her front gate, said he’d like to see her again. Well she seemed to like that so the next day he came ‘round to call on her. Knocked on the door, and this lady came to the door, her mom. He asked for her, I think her name was Virginia. Her mom just stares at him.
`This some kinda joke? `Cause it ain’t funny. Ginny’s been dead for a year now.` Well this guy can’t believe it. He tells her what happened, and she asks where they found the shuttle. So he tells her . Well she got this weird look on her face. `Ginny’s ship got blown up with all hands in that area over a year ago. Something with the engine they said.`
"Well cap’n said the pilot was so spooked, he swore off space travel for good.”
There was a bit of a pause in the galley after Wash’s tale faded.
“Okay,” Mal said. “Not bad Wash. But I’ve heard that story a dozen times in a dozen different ways.”
“Way to spoil the mood sir.” Zoe said dryly.
“Maybe something a bit less supernatural.” Inara suggested.
“Spook us my lady.” Wash said, offering her the flash.
Inara, who for the occasion had dressed all in black with heavy eye liner and dark lipstick held the light in her hand and looked lost in thought for a moment. “Companion training is full of cautionary tales. How to recognize dangerous clients for instance. But one that stands out…
“When we’re of a certain age, we’re given care of the younger students. The first night, you’re supposed to stand guard. Young Men love to sneak in you see.”
“I’ll bet.” Mal muttered.
“Well it’s easy to lose vigilance, or even fall asleep. So they tell us about a student who was given the watch duty. She started to drift off, when the comm Beeped. Alliance Cadets also like to entertain themselves with prank calls. So she wasn’t too worried when a male voice from behind a silly ghost mask said `Have you checked on the children?`
"She made some joke about originality and hung up on him. A few minutes later, the comm Beeped again. She was less amused this time. `Have you checked on the children?` She told Mr. Ghostface that if he called again, she’d have hi s call traced, and report him to the police. She hoped that would be the end of it.
"But not five minutes later, back he was. `Have you checked on the children?` She shouted at him that she was going to trace him and hung up on him. So she called the system operator, and had them trace the call. `It’s coming from the upstairs hall!` They told her.”
“That’s quite a cautionary tale.“ Book said quietly.
“Speakin’ of which,” the still unruffled captain said. “Bet the good doctor could give us all sort of gory tales of the evils of negligence.”
Simon found himself the target of the flashlight’s beam. “How ‘bout it doc? Bodies gettin’ up from the morgue? Deliver any Demon babies?”
Slowly, Simon accepted the flash light. “Well, not as such, no. But I have heard of…strange things.”
“Well for instance, there’s the tale of the flying Dutchman-“
“Heard it.” Everyone said.
“Okay, uhm, the Event Horizon?”
“The Roanoke Colony?”
Though Shepherd Book nodded in recognition, the others looked mystified.
“I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of it.” He said. “The Alliance tries to suppress horror stories of colonization or dismiss them as hoaxes. The Roanoke Colony was one of the first settlements out from the core. Well once they got settled, the head of the convoy headed back to Persephone to report. This was about 200 years ago, before long range communication had been invented. He got back about half a year later. And…everyone was gone.”
“What do you mean gone?” Kaylee asked.
“I mean gone. No supplies missing, no signs of a struggle. But every man, woman, and child had vanished without a trace. The only clue, was a single word, carved in the trunk of a tree. Croatoa.”
“Well what happened?” Kaylee wanted to know.
“That’s just it, no one knows. To this day, the mystery remains unsolved.”
“Wow. Okay.” Wash said. “Mystery.”
“Gimmee.” Zoe said, snatching the flashlight. “This story ain’t so profound, but it’s one that always got my skin crawlin’. My daddy told this one ‘round the fire when we’d go campin’. There ain’t many roads out on the rim worlds, but one of the oldest settlements, Blair, has more’n one city, kinda far from each other, and there’s one road that goes between ‘em. Seems there was these 2 kids one night, late coming back from a party or something. Well their transport ran out of fuel about five miles out of town.
"The guy, Dick, decided to hoof it the rest of the way and get help. Well his girl, Jane-“
“No relation to our illustrious thug I presume.”
“Shut up Wash.”
“His girl, Jane, was kinda skittish. She didn’t want him to go. So he said `Look, nothin’s gonna happen, but if it’ll make you feel better, how about a code so when I get back, you’ll know it’s me?'
"Well that calmed her some, so they worked out that he’d knock on the window three times like this.” The first mate rapped on the table slowly, three times. “So off he went. And Jane was left alone. In the dark. And the quiet. And after a minute or so, she got certain she was bein’ watched. So she sort of crammed herself down behind the front seat. After locking all the doors of course. Not long after, in fact, way too soon for Dick to have gotten to town and back, came a knock on the window.” Zoe rapped on the table three times, but much more quickly this time. “Now that may have been the right number of taps, but was too fast. And Jane wasn’t takin’ any chances. She wedged herself further into her hiding spot and closed her eyes.
“The tapping came again, even quicker. Then it wasn’t a tap, it was a bang. Something was banging wildly on the door. Now it was screechin’ too. Jane started to cry, and the banging moved to the roof, and the screeching got louder. Then, just like shutting off the radio, it stopped. And after a while, she fell asleep. She got woke by more knocking on the window. Scared her near to death, but it was daylight, and the knocking was one of her neighbors.
"Cryin’ again, out of relief, she almost jumped into his lap. He got some coffee in her, and got her calmed down, the whole time, keepin’ her from looking’ back at the transport, and dodgin’ her questions ‘bout her boy. Bout that time her daddy got there, and ‘fore anyone could stop ‘im, he looked at that transport. He started swearin’, and backed up, eyes wide as plates. Jane turned, looked, and screamed. There was Dick. Or what was left of him, spread out on the roof of that transport.”
“I wonder if I might have a turn.” Book said. And was given the light. “There’s no shortage of tales of the supernatural in the church. But one of my favorites, is about Father Lancaster Merrin, one of the founders of my order. When Persephone was still a small settlement, there was a house, older than the others, that everyone said was haunted. In fact, rumor was that no one could spend an entire night there. Well father Merrin, like our captain here was not a superstitious man. He didn’t believe in ghosts. So he resolved to prove the stories were false.
"One night, armed with a flashlight, the bible, and a gun, he set himself up in an upstairs bedroom. He decided to sit up in bed, and read for a while. Well round about midnight, his light which he’d propped up on the headboard began to fail, so he put his bible on the bed stand, pulled up the covers, and closed his eyes. Not long after, he got an eerie feeling of being watched. He opened his eyes, and there, at the foot of the bed, something was watching him. It had sort of a domed, bumpy head, and two eyes reflecting the dying light of his flash light. Now to say that Lancaster was not alarmed would be untrue. But he was never a man to give into fear. Without moving any other part of his body, he pulled his gun out from under his pillow, and aimed for the left eye.
“The neighbors were woken up by a pain filled scream. They found him the next morning, in shock. Somehow, he’d managed to shoot off his left big toe.” Everyone but Jayne laughed. Once Kaylee explained it to him, he laughed too.
“All right,” Mal sighed. “Guess I’ll take a hand in this foolishness. Ain’t no event that can equal war in causin’ spooks.”
“Not that you believe in such things.” Zoe put in.
“No actually I don’t.” he agreed. “Not much for superstition. Real world’s got troubles aplenty. But this here’s a tale that’s worth tellin’.
“Serenity Valley’s a park these days. Way I hear it, Alliance likes celebratin’ U-Day there. But there’s this one hill, folks call it spook hill, on account’a what happened.
“See the Independents didn’t have near as fancy equipment as the Alliance did. And B Company, led by a man name of Mosby, were having’ a spot of trouble with their cannons. Seems their engines liked to give out. And make a lot of noise while doin’ it. So in order to get the drop on a platoon of Alliance camped just over the hill, Mosby had the idea to having his men push the cannons up the hill over night, and opening fire come dawn. Well it took some doin’, but they got them cannons up there on time. Problem was, the Alliance had the same idea. And their ordnance had nice efficient, quiet engines. They were sittin there waitin. Mosby and his boys never had a chance.
"Now, they say that if you stop your vehicle at the bottom of that hill, it’ll start movin’ up that grade all by it’s lonesome. Cause those boys of Company B’re still pushin’ them cannons.”
“I got somethin’ kinda fits where we are.” Jayne said. “See, Earth weren’t just home to humans. And I ain’t talking ‘bout animals. I’m talking about other things. Old things. Monsters. When Earth went, people weren’t the only ones got out into the black. The monsters come too. They stuck together, raidin’, killin’, eatin’. Like I always said. Reavers ain’t men. My daddy knew it. His daddy knew it. Reavers ain’t men. They’re monsters.”
“Yeah.” Mal quipped. “And on that note-“
Everyone stopped, and looked at River. She’d been quiet the whole time. But now she was looking up at the ceiling, her eyes wide.
“What’s that honey?” Kaylee asked.
“It screams here. Anger, fear, blood. They’re jealous. Jealous of us. Of life. They hate us. Some died long ago. Painful, angry, sad deaths. Some were never born. They’re still here. Waiting. Waiting for us.”
An hour later, Malcolm Reynolds was laying down to sleep. The ship was clear of the system, and it looked like the coast was clear. He reached for the light switch, and paused. River’s words echoed in his mind. And had he just heard something? A faint tapping? Just the ship settling no doubt. Still, couldn’t hurt to leave the light on. Just for tonight.