Several Weeks on from Miranda
Mal’s body wakes before the rest of him, sharp and sudden-like. He puts his hand to a pistol before his wits can spin up behind his eyes. The weapon’s weight assures him it’s loaded with trouble. He recognizes the violent bird call rattling through the comm plate in the wall of his bunk. No need to play it back in his mind even. It continues with a child-like enthusiasm.
“Caww! Caww! Ca--”
He squelches the onslaught by jabbing a thumb to the transmission button. While the mic waits expectantly in silence, he marks the muffled squawking echoing through the hall above, no doubt coming from the bridge.
“Gao yang jong duh goo yang! Don’t make me remind you what befell your namesake, Little Albatross.”
Mischievous cackling crackles over the intercom. “You mean to wear me ‘round your neck, Captain?” River asks, enjoying the image more than a balanced person rightfully should. Then she whispers, loudly and to herself, “I always wanted feathers. Wings would be a fine way to get them. Even if I was dead.” Her voice rises again. “Simon might pluck me, insisting I was still his sister. Do you think Jayne would roast me? Captain, will you do the honors, the ceremonial carving?”
Mal pinches his eyes shut, debating for an instant whether or not to take his sidearm with him.
“See?” River drums her fingertips on the display, her nails chewed down. “Scopes have gone all cockamamie. Like a baby fresh shoved from the womb. Poor thing.”
Mal’s hand reaches instinctively toward the comms switch to fetch Kaylee for a second opinion. River snatches him by the wrist with a serpent’s quickness, like she knew what he was fixing to do before he did. “They’re not done yet.”
Given River’s uncanny insightfulness and the recent habit Kaylee and Simon have made of filling the halls with their own animal calls, Mal doesn’t question her meaning.
“You tried rebooting the--”
“Obviously. Everything’s shiny. Except when it’s pointed right there.” River extends a single talon toward a speck of something in the black, directly off Serenity’s bow. “Don’t worry, it’ll get bigger.”
“How’s about you throttle back the burn a touch ‘til we know what you’re hurtlin’ us at,” Mal says, trying to focus on the speck, distracted enough to sound polite.
“They’re finished now,” River says off-handedly, slowing their approach with practiced precision.Mal tries his best to picture nothing at all. He reaches for the intercom.
“It ain’t Alliance,” Jayne growls with the confidence of a man who never considers anything overmuch.
“We don’t know what it is or what it ain’t,” Zoë says, stepping by the Hero of Canton to get a better look at the small craft twisting helplessly on an unflattering axis.
“She’s short-range, that’s for sure,” Kaylee offers. “Doesn’t look fit to break orbit.”
“It may well be some sort of escape pod,” Simon suggests, ready to tend imagined patients.
“Or a funeral barge,” Jayne adds, with some opportunistic optimism.
“Might be folk on board need our help,” Mal says. Jayne turns to go. “Might be rich live folk all grateful-like for our heroical attention.”
Jayne stops short, not yet ready to give up hope. “Or rich dead folk who don’t much mind a buzzard pecking at their bones.”
“So long as we ain’t the ones to make corpses of them,” Mal amends, eyes fixed on the strange boat.
Simon’s eyes stay locked on Jayne. “No one else is concerned Jayne thinks of himself a carrion bird?” River caws softly in answer to her brother.
“Won’t learn nothin’ standin’ about,” Mal says, decisive. “It’s too big for the cargo bay. Little Albatross, gonna need you to match its spin and dock us tight. Jayne, Zoë, suit up.” Jayne slaps his palms together, rubbing them furiously in anticipation of a potentially juicy payday. “Kaylee, find out everything you can from here. I’ve got a powerful need to know why its signal’s sticking in Serenity’s craw.”
“Aye aye, Cap’n,” Kaylee responds, only slightly apprehensive. “What’re the odds of running into two Reaver bait ships in your career?” Jayne balks at her mention of Reavers.
“Most don’t make it past the first one,” Zoë says as she leaves.Jayne squints slightly as he taxes the processing power of his mercenary brain. “So… good then?”
Serenity bangs unceremoniously into the spinning craft, forcefully slowing its rotation with corrective thrust and sloshing Mal’s supper about his insides. “Fay fay duh pee yen,” he curses into the muted comms of his helmet. Kaylee would no doubt be giving River a stern lesson in respect for the integrity of the hull, seeing as it keeps void space from murdering them in their sleep and asks so precious little in return.
A few more moments of River’s creative maneuvering and they achieve a successful dock. Zoë looks to Mal. “How do you want to play this one, sir?” She indicates the cutting torch in the airlock with them.
Before he can respond, Jayne bashes the stock of his Callahan full-bore auto-lock tactical assault rifle on the slender viewing window before them. “Open the gorram door!”
“Delicate it is,” she says. There’s a shift in the shadows behind the porthole that proves someone’s home. Whoever it is doesn’t seem to shy from Jayne’s ugliness. The door begins an automated opening sequence.
Mal readies himself for the possibility of zero pressure in the other ship, meaning the air they already have in the lock is all they’ll get to fire their weapons. And in that case, it’ll be rushing out. All the same, he keeps his sidearm stowed in its holster on his suit while the portal slides slickly away.
The man standing before them wears a dark flight suit, a black vest zipped over it, the emblem of a circled star with three slashes below adorning his shoulder. The emblem is easy to see as the stranger levels a blinking pistol at Jayne, the weapon wreathed in projections of shifting purple light that seem to be an aim assist.
But the gun ain’t what troubles them. It’s the man’s face. Jayne lowers Vera, confused. Mal places a hand on Zoë’s arm as it drifts toward her holster, but he needn’t have stopped her, it seems content to linger absently at her abdomen.
“Ain’t possible,” Zoë breathes, barely audible.
“Wash?” Mal asks, dumbstruck.The man looks at them, now equally befuddled. “Wash what?”
“Look, Jayne, that ship was full of cash after all,” Kaylee says slyly, her wordplay at Jayne’s expense meeting with Simon’s clear approval.
“No, his name is Cash,” Jayne clarifies. Again. Too sullen to notice the jest.
“Right, ‘cuz that’s worlds away from Wash,” Mal says, casting a pointed glance down the hall toward Zoë’s bunk. He drops a plate of steaming vittles down at the galley table in front of Cash.
“And you’re somehow not Captain Raaker?” Cash asks, trying to shake the likeness of Mal’s likeness to his own captain’s. Jayne stabs a halved potato off Cash’s plate with a giant knife.
River keeps her eyes locked on Cash like she’s playing thimblerig. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
Cash peels his attention from his first meal other than emergency rations in over a week. “Where?”
“Not where. Which. And when.”
The crew is content to let River play psychic cop on their behalf. “How are you here?”
Cash abandons the notion of his supper as Jayne’s knife makes off with another morsel. He adopts the soberness of a man at confession. “It’s the Null. It gains in power with each world it destroys. Even the Scion can’t match it for long.” He takes the temperature of the room. All poker faces. “We hunted down some ancient alien tech.” That draws some skepticism. “It wasn’t easy.”
“I suspect it wasn’t,” Mal agrees.
“Exactly. Thank you,” Cash says, trying to gain momentum while Jayne chuckles through cheeks stuffed with food. “We reverse engineered it from what we knew about teleportation.” Even Simon smirks at that. Cash doesn’t get the joke, but he seems to be improving its hilariousness as he goes. “The Scion harnessed her powers with the alien device to send Spectrum back through time so we could find the only ones with the knowledge to stop the Null.”
“Through timelines you mean,” River corrects. She’s the only one other than him not openly laughing now.
Cash’s frustration bleeds through. “Several of us had to abandon ship. I don’t know what happened to my crew.” They’re not hearing him. “I JUST NEED TO GET TO EARTH.” He stands, scooting his chair back roughly. This sends them all into an uproar. River stalks closer to him, a hawkish smile spreading across her face. “What’s so funny?” Cash pleads.
“Everyone on Earth’s been dead for centuries,” she says, sweet as a songbird.
Cash looks to the nigh hysterical band of outlaws surrounding him, patting each other on the back as they wipe tears from their eyes.“I see,” he says, nodding to himself bitterly. “I’m in hell.”