Author's Note: A companion of sorts to "Girl Talk." Meet Carina.
Down on sweet Shadow where the grass sways gold, there's a slip of a girl with leonine red hair and eyes that can't decide between blue or green. In a fit of poetical sentiment at her birth, her mother named her Carina after the Sihnonese seer who warned about Londinians bearing gifts. In a fit of indignation not long after, her father declared her Carrie and made damn sure it stuck. Ranchers' daughters don't need the weight of history on their slim and overburdened shoulders, and didn't Ma know the famous Carina was a crazy woman? Weren't no happy endin' there.
When the first snow flutters down in the autumn of 2508, Carrie is twenty years old and not in a mood to appreciate it. Two years her sweetheart has been a soldier, and she's seen him a total of six weeks in all that time. His most recent letter is in her shaking hands, stained and battered. "New Kashmir was an unholy mess, but it's over now and we're getting supplies regular," one line reads. "Yesterday I slept a full four hours, wonder of wonders," says another.
It sounds grim and miserable, but she prefers this sort of news to the kind that comes from old Liam, the foreman up at the Reynolds ranch. Last May he took her aside after church and said, "Now, don't panic, Carrie, but we got a telegram from the Army." She started crying on the word "wounded" and couldn't stop, not even when Liam looked embarrassed and offered his handkerchief. "They fixed his back up real good, Carrie, even the nerve damage. The boy's gonna be fine." Carrie stayed wired and weepy until she got a letter from Mal saying it was just a bitty shrapnel wound and didn't she know he was ruttin' invincible?
"I wasn't worryed," she wrote back, bungling the spelling as usual. "I know your too cussheaded stubborn to die."
It was then that she knew it would be a long, hard war.
"Carina," he breathed between kisses the night before he left for Basic Training. He was the only person in the 'verse with a right to the lovely, unpardonable folly of her name. "Carina, I'll be all right." The soothing path of his fingers through her hair told her more of the same. "Alliance'll back off when they see we mean business and we'll all be home afore the leaves fall." She only pressed him more urgently against the live oak tree where she had him pinned, begging all kinds of assurances with the clench of her fists in his shirt, the slide of her instep up his calf.
"You know I'm gonna wait for you," she told him later when they lay cradled between the arching roots. "Don't gotta worry on that."
"Bao bei, I wasn't worried," he said absently.
She cocked her head, the curve of her shoulders playful. "Mighty confident of you."
He grinned, rolled them over to balance on his elbows above her. "What, you saying you gonna find yourself someone else, woman?"
"You are leavin' me here all by my lonesome so you can be all manly and heroic. Danny Archer could get awful pretty, you stay away too long."
He shrugged and the grin turned wicked. "I'll leave you a picture. And some batteries."
In time the particular angle of moonlight scolded them to their feet and back to the ranch house, where all the fine soldier boys were bidding Shadow goodbye with liquor and song. At the back of the wrap-around porch, Carrie stopped Mal with a hand on his arm. Then she reached up and untied her crucifix on its strip of leather so she could retie it around his neck, tucking the bit of shiny under his collar. The look on his face when she did it made her very much want to jump him, but his buddies came tumbling out of the front door just then, singing "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" at the top of their lungs.
"Gettin' a last piece of that before we ship out?" Kai shouted at Mal, who flipped him off.
"Aw, can I have a kiss too, honey?" Bartley slurred, grinning drunkenly at Carrie.
She tossed her head and refused to blush. Mal slid neatly between them and swept her through the back door into the warm glow of the kitchen, where Liam made them strong sweet tea and offered his hankie.
"What for?" Mal said, nonplussed.
"You got somethin' on your neck," Liam said, and the lines of his face deepened with his smirk.
In the here and now, not much of that night adds up to what she's got in her hands. It's battered all around the edges, smudged with dirt and sweat, and there's specks of something dark brown that Carrie's careful not to think too hard on. The letter's dated a month and a half ago. "That leave they promised is evaporating real quick, now the Alliance is sighting on Verbena," says his round, even hand. "I expect they'll send us there next." He's right, she knows. The 57th Overlanders did indeed end up on Verbena, and this minute they're fighting house-to-house in the streets of the capital. Highest casualty rate since Sturges, say the newscasts.
Mal could be dead already. He probably is.
Don't matter none. Even if he comes through without a scratch on his pretty hide, Carrie ain't ever gonna see him again. You don't have to be a moonbrained seer to know as much. The Independents have made a lot of fine speeches about death and glory, and now Shadow's about to learn firsthand the character of both.
There's an Allied fleet lurking around the next moon, and they're moving on Carrie's home planet with a "scorched earth policy." Mal once told her that the term meant making a charred, smoking example out of uppity civilians. Didn't say it to scare her, of course, 'cause how could he know it would be her and old Liam six months on?
"We're gonna turn the tide," she reads by candlelight. "'Til it's done, I miss you always, honey."
If she answers this last letter, will she be writing a ghost? Even if she's not, Shadow'll be cinders by the time the ghost gets it and writes back. Carrie wants to laugh at the idea of her and Mal, a couple of corpses penning weightless words to each other, both too dumb to know they're dead.
After he joined up but before he stepped on a land mine, Danny Archer had all sorts of stories to tell about that gorram Sergeant Reynolds. There was the time he knocked out a machine gun emplacement by his lonesome, and the time he played Robin Hood and stole a whole crate of powdered cocoa from the officer's mess to hand out to the grunts. Danny's favorite was the time Mal carried some wounded kid named Everton through three miles of exploding trees to get him airlifted out, ignoring the wood splinters embedded in his own leg. "Sarge is ruttin' crazy," Danny said. "Gets up to more shit than any man has a right to live through."
Oh, yes, Carrie found that all sorts of comforting.
But she sits down at her desk all the same, and she chews the end of her pencil and tries to find the words for "Don't write back, for tomorrow I die."
"Dear Mal," she says aloud, putting it down in her chicken-scratch hand. "That's a fair start."
She could say she loves him, but that would be twelve kinds of useless. He's heard it already, for one. She ain't sure anymore, for another.
Dear Mal, what are you doing this minute? Who the hell are you now, and are you scared as I am? Am I pretty to you still and would you kiss me like it weren't the last time, and what if you never joined the ruttin' Browncoats and why won't you come cover my eyes while the sky goes dark with ships please Mal?
Dear Mal, is what she settles on. Dear Mal, I think this is the last letter, and I'm sorry.
Mayhap God will forgive us for being young and stupid, but man aint so merciful. You probally know by now that theirs a fleet coming for Shadow. I'm not afraid, and your to put it from your mind. You got fighting still to do.
I have here your letter from back in October, and if you say your going to turn the tide, then I beleive you. None of this—the war, waiting here useless—none of it was what I expected, and we were fools for thinking it could be easy. The Alliance was going to be running scared before the leaves fell, remember? I didn't realise how they could take everything from us, but they can. Down to the ground under our feet.
So turn the gorram tide and make it count, will you? I'm asking too much, I know, you aint going to win the war by yourself. But do it. Or we'll have made a black burning mess of our lives for nothing much but scars.
Theirs not much more to say now that you don't already know. Just pray for me, as I have for you. We go to one place, the shepherd says: all are from the dust, and all return to dust. May God judge the rest.