Title: A Question of Gravity
Disclaimer: You know and I know these people belong to Joss.
Truth be told, Malcolm Reynolds could not honestly consider his shiny new pilot a serious person.
Wasn't the mustache; that article was a matter of indifference to him, although he could see Zoe took issue with it. At times he worried she might be plotting a Tracy-type raid against it. He held the opinion, though, that a man's face was his own, leaving him free to cultivate any manner of hirsuteness upon it that he pleased. Did have to admit, however, it took a bit of effort to see past the thing, and read the face behind it. As that face usually wore an expression of general – not to say simple – amiability, he didn't find that all so bothersome.
Washburne's clear interest in Zoe also could not be included in the factorizing of his seriousness, one way or t'other. A fellow could be as serious as a bullet to the brain and take a shine to Zoe. She was eminently shine-worthy. Seriousness aside, if the man became annoying, Zoe would jerk him sharply to heel, just as she'd done their mechanic, Bester. And then there was always the airlock option, although ejecting a pilot whilst Serenity was between planets could be problematic. They were kinda handy, for landing a ship.
The shirts, the shirts did take some getting used to. Hard to believe a man could be taking life serious whilst wrapped in such brightly colored folderol. How-some-ever. 'Verse was a big place, and such garments could be the native garb of Wash's people. Wouldn't be polite to utter disparaging remarks in such a case. Mal did, however, believe that many folks had good reasons for cutting all ties to the world of their birth and its customs. Sartorial customs among them. But the shirts appeared only occasionally, the man's usual attire being sensible, albeit well-worn, flight-suits and the like.
He balked some, though, at the plastic mutant lizards. Not to the point of forbidding their presence on the bridge, as it was a well known fact that pilots – especially good pilots – tended to have their... peculiarities. General consensus was that all that time they spent staring out into all that Nothing wobbled their brains a little loose in their pans. He acknowledged that the things were models of actual one-timey beasts which had proper, scientific, Earth-That-Was designations. Phylum, family, all that, as carefully elucidated by the pilot currently roosting in Serenity's pilot seat. But still. Plastic toy critters scattered hither and yon upon his ship's helm irked him. Seemed lacking in a proper sense of decorum. And – couldn't be positive, 'cuz he'd never yet caught him goin' at it – he was pretty gorram sure the man... played with them.
Still and all, they were harmless; small, silent, odor-free, and innocuous to look upon. And that couldn't be said of every pilot's quirk or hobby. So, while they brought their owner under suspicion of insufficient gravity, Mal tolerated them.
Hadn't yet said how he'd occupied himself during the years of the Recent Unpleasantness, although he had a veritable library of well-spun stories on all other imaginable subjects, a good many not about himself. (Which was a matter of some relief to Mal – and, he suspected, Zoe – after months of dinner-table listening to Bester's one note paean to his sexual conquests.) But Tanaka had raved about the guy, and if he passed muster with Tanaka, well, Mal would give him a whirl. And it tickled him to death to get one over on Renshaw. But he had to admit, that a seeming lack of opinion, one way or the other, on the Cause millions had bled and died for, diminished a fellow in his eyes. It implied, to his mind, a shallowness of character, a lacking in the serious thought a grown person should, at least on occasion, apply to life.
Seemed clear, in any event, that had he ever a speck of military training, Wash had expunged it completely from his demeanor. Not that Mal had ever been particularly fanatical about spit and polish; a soldier kept him or her self and equipment in working order and as clean as the circumstances allowed, he'd been satisfied. But he'd never been able to abide sloth, an intolerance he reckoned his mama had instilled deep in his baby bones. So it irked him a mite, as he strode down the dirt road toward the shuttle, to find his pilot sprawled out in a masterful embodiment of that very sin.
Now, to be strictly fair, Mal had been more than a mite irked before he'd spotted the man. This speck of the 'verse was hot, must be 44, even 45 degrees C, the sun brutal on his bare head. A strong, dry breeze swirled dust around his boots, setting his coat flapping behind him, and parching the sweat off him almost before it seeped out his pores. Worse, it carried whiffs of wood smoke. Probably from the village kitchens, detached from the homes on this near-cinder of a moon. But still, it put him, a rancher's son, on edge; the dry heat, the strong wind, the smoke, all hinting at imminent dangerous conflagration.
General irkedness wasn't helped by his deal, the reason he'd taken trouble getting to this tinderbox in the first place, having fallen through. And, in such a manner that he truly wished that Zoe were here with him now, at his back, hand resting on the stock of her mare's-leg. Instead, she was grounded on Ita, the next moon out, with Serenity, flogging Bester through another series of repairs. And while Mal could maneuver a shuttle planet-side just fine, it was something else again getting one in and out of atmo and through the Black from one moon to another. Math skills were involved. Hence the presence of the pilot.
Lolling. No apter word for it. He'd taken the hour Mal'd been gone to sprawl out in the bare dirt, back propped on the shuttle base, in the shade cast by the port wing. His billed cap on back to front, he'd shucked the top of his flight-suit, tying the sleeves about his waist. Splotches of sweat darkened his tank under his arms and the center of his chest. His drawn up knees swayed idly in and out, and one hand held a magazine – no, not a magazine, a gorram comic book, one about that fellow who traipsed about all in black, with all those fancy gizmos and vehicles – folded back on itself. The other held a dark bottle, and Mal's ire surged before he realized it wasn't a beer, but rather the local-made grape pop. As Mal watched, Wash turned his head just enough to get the mouth of the bottle to his lips, eyes never leaving the garish page before him. Hand t' God, if not for the 'stache, guy coulda been mistaken for a kid instead of a man grown.
Then Wash noted Mal's arrival, lowering the comic book to give him an irritatingly cheerful grin. "Hey, Captain. Y' look hot. Want a soda?" He raised his own. "They're cold. Got two, just in case."
"No." His pilot's brows lifted at Mal's sharp tone, his pop bottle sinking. Knowing he wasn't being strictly reasonable, still Mal couldn't resist making a stab at bringing the fellow down into the real 'verse. He jerked a disparaging chin at Wash's reading material. "Don't reckon heroes waste their time, lollin' about on their slothful hindquarters in the shade."
"Don't wanna be a hero, Captain," Wash replied mildly, his good humor seemingly irrepressible, standing up and dusting off his seat with the book. "They get pretty ceremonies and fancy plaques and all, but those plaques usually got 'In Memoriam' 'scribed on 'em somewhere." The bushy blond growth on his upper lip quirked upwards as his grin slanted sideways. "Me, I wanna die old and unmemorialized, in bed, of overexertion."
Too hot and just wanting to get gone, Mal limited his response to a grunt, cutting off further chatter, stepping past Wash and keying open the lock on the shuttle's hatch.
"Oh," he said softly, going stock still as a wave of chilled air struck his face and bare throat, gusting from the craft.
After a moment, Wash, waiting behind him, chuckled and said, "Got the solar panels up and running smooth, Captain, but I don't think they're up for cooling the whole moon."
With another grunt, Mal shook himself free from his blissful state, and stepped up into the shuttle. As he shucked his coat, stowing it in a bin, shirt damp and now cooling deliciously on his torso, Wash clambered in, sealing the hatch behind him. He stashed his comic and two bottles, one empty and one full, in a bin as well, then plopped into the pilot's seat. Quick fingers snapping toggles up, tapping buttons, bringing the shuttle's engines on-line, Wash commented casually, "Take it the deal didn't work out quite as you liked."
Mal tilted a disgruntled look at the guy, but he took no apparent notice, intent on the helm. "No," he allowed reluctantly. "Headman in town weren't the man I was expectin'. New fella don't approve of our free and fancy ways. Suggested, even, some time in lock-up might be of benefit to our characters." Here Wash shot him a wide-eyed look that, even through the mustache, signaled great alarm. Guy's hands started moving more swiftly on the controls. "Did indicate, however, that maybe the folks I want to talk to are situated in the next town over, just past the hills to the north."
"So... north?" Wash queried, pulling the yoke back to bring them up into the air, then impelling them forward.
"Yep," Mal replied. He settled into the crew seat with a sigh, taking a moment to revel in the animal enjoyment of simple physical comfort. Then he said, "So this thing has solar panels?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah. For climate control and such when planet-side. When the engines are off. Just needed a little clean up, a little twiddling."
"Huh. Bester didn't mention that when he checked it over."
"Aw, well, doesn't impact functionality, really. And the guy's got plenty on his plate, getting Serenity running smooth." The glance he gave Mal seemed a little nervous. Like maybe he didn't want to be seen coming off as critical of his crew-mate or, maybe, Mal's boat. His eyes went back to the control panel. "And, y' know, I had some spare time back there, and- huh."
Knowing what it meant when he said 'huh' in that tone of voice, Mal leaned forward in his seat. "What?"
"What?" Wash repeated absently. Then that he'd been asked a question sank in. "Oh. Nothin'. Strange read on the terrain scan. Reminded me-" The man broke off with an odd little laugh, lifting a hand off the yoke to wave dismissively at the rapidly approaching hills. But his gaze didn't leave the scan.
"Of?" Mal squinted out at the rugged scenery, a mix of scrub pine, golden meadows, and jumbles of boulders, rising up toward the highlands ahead. Trails cut through the vegetation, indicating the presence of game and maybe people.
His pilot shrugged a shoulder, mustache twitching as one side of his mouth twisted. "Nothing," he repeated. "Just-" A burst of light, pale in the bright sunlight, suddenly flashed from the center of one of the rock outcroppings.
"Tzao gao!" Wash yelped, and Mal's view through the front window sudden blurred as the man twisted the yoke. He caught a glimpse of cloudless sky, then a tremendous concussion blew them tumbling sideways, blue and green and gold whirling before his eyes. Death seemed pretty much imminent, and it chafed him he couldn't do anything about that.
Mal's head abruptly snapped back, bouncing against the headrest, as his entire body slammed backwards into his seat. Then he was jarred – port, port, starboard, port, port, starboard, port, starboard – his upper body tossed left and right, the arms of his chair gouging into his sides. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Wash's hands, the jinking of the craft matching his sharp twists of the yoke. Mal's own hands gripped the sides of his chair's seat cushion, fingernails digging into the vinyl. Wouldn't keep him there much longer, if things got any more exciting.
"Well, that's awkward." Despite the violent zigzagging, his pilot's comment was light, completely without emotional weight.
Mal rolled his eyes over to stare at him, and yes, the bit of his expression he could make out from the guy's profile appeared utterly cool and collected. Mal managed to shove out a questioning grunt.
"Ship's grav is out," Wash replied, seeming not at all fussed about it. "Hang on. This is gonna get uncomfortable."
Gonna get? But Mal braced himself, and they were rocketing straight up, arrowing into the blinding white glare of the noonday sun. An invisible calf showed up out of nowhere and sat on Mal's chest. Then that dogie's grown up steer brother and maybe even a couple, three cousins joined him. Breathing became an issue.
Then the shuttle's nose tipped down, the sun shifting to overhead rather than in his face. The pressure eased, and then let up lots more, and Mal figured maybe he should keep a grip on his seat just so as his butt would stay firmly planted rather than drift toward the ceiling. He sucked in a deep lungful of air. In the midst of that lovely floating sensation, Wash said, "So. Need a decision. We goin' to that northerly town, or back to Serenity?"
"What hit us?"
"Oh, you noticed the hitting. Yeah. I'd say some kinda big gun, the ground to air variety." He gave Mal a bland look, eyebrows lifting. "Probably an anti-smuggling measure. We're out of range, at the moment. And I can keep us skimming along here for a bit – got a smidge of acceleration going – but ship's grav is gone," and he reached out here to tap a red tell-tale on the console, "and I can't guarantee that there won't be anything else cutting out anytime soon. We got a pretty good smack."
"What's it mean, with the ship's grav out?"
"Well, it brings up the strawberry jam factor."
"The what now?" Mal found himself wondering if that was an actual arcane piloty technical term, or if his pilot were simply feng le.
"Well, you know, grav's the part of the ship's drive that keeps us all safe from excessive and/or wildly variable G-forces. Like eggs wrapped up in cotton in a basket. Remove the cotton, give the basket a real good shake and, ta-da! Instant scramble." He gave Mal a lopsided smile. "But with people, it's not so much an omelet, but more strawberry jam-ish."
Despite the disconcerting image, Mal quirked a brow at his pilot. "Eggs. Omelets. Strawberry jam. Y' ain't hungry now, are ya?"
Wash laughed outright, and gave him an easy grin. "Guess I shoulda had lunch before we left, huh?"
It was a mite odd, what with just about having been blown from the sky and his shuttle having a busted doohickey which could lead to jamification, that no sense of doom impended. Yeah, he was concerned, but his pilot didn't seem particularly alarmed. Now, he didn't know if that was because the guy lacked the good sense to be alarmed, or if he had an actual professional handle on the situation. He elected to go with the latter, as it was the more soothing of the two.
"So, up or down?" Wash asked, pointing finger accompanying his directional query.
"Either destination more likely to end up with you, me, an' my shuttle more or less in one piece?"
"Depends on whether we can expect more ordinance, Captain. Would say down, near some place with a mechanic's shop, if shooting were sure not to be happening. But if not, I'd say up."
Mal nodded. Truth was, he couldn't guarantee that no further missiles would be flung at their persons, 'cuz he didn't rightly know why they'd been fired on in the first place. They had – as yet – committed no unlawful acts upon this particular moon. Might never know. Folks could get strange and fractious out here on the Rim, not all-together orderly in their thoughts.
"Up it is," he declared.
Wash nodded, reaching for the nav comp, clearly happy to be leaving behind those who'd lobbed explosives at them. As he plugged in numbers, he said, "I'm thinkin' a real good push toward Ita once we hit escape velocity, Captain, and then we coast. Meaning we're not accelerating, to save on fuel. 'Cause when we break atmo on Ita, it'll be good to have all the fuel available we can to keep entry as controlled as possible – we have to come in lots slower than we usually would, 'cause of the jam thing. But no acceleration means no gravity. How are you in zero G?"
"Dunno. Ain't really spent any time in it."
"Well, you could get a little nauseous, that's pretty typical, but most folks don't actually vomit. Don't make any quick motions with your head. That wacks out the balance centers in your inner ear. Mostly it's kinda fun, though." He gave Mal a roguish glance, preening his mustache. "Exhilarating even, with the right kind of company."
Mal, knowing the guy was probably joshing, but well aware of piloting folks' reputation, stated clearly, "I ain't the right kind."
Grinning, Wash lifted his hands. "I'm just sayin'."
"An' I'm sayin'," Mal said in his best captainy fashion, pointing out the forward window, "let's just get to Ita, no monkeyin' around."
"Okaayy," Wash intoned dubiously, keying in the final factors of their flight course. "But it's gonna take the same amount of time, monkeys or no."
Mal was gratified to find, that outside a mild, temporary queasiness, that zero G had no real deleterious affect on his innards. He stayed strapped soberly in his seat for most of the two hour flight, only once using the excuse of a trip to the head to sneak in a little weightless zoom back and forth across the cabin. Had to admit, might actually be quite the thing – under different circumstances and with a different companion.
Ita grew from a disc about the size of Mal's pinky-nail to a reddish sphere the size of his fist, surrounded by the shallow blue haze typical of a small moon's artificially maintained atmosphere. When the shuttle's bow finally pierced the scant layer of its troposphere, its ruddy surface, pocked by ancient craters, dominating the front window, Wash settled into his seat, clipping his harness over his shoulders.
"Straps good and tight?" he asked, tightening his own.
Mal checked his restraints, then nodded. "Yep."
Wash took a deep breath, hands flowing over the helm. "Okay, here comes the really fun part."
And tian xiaode, but the guy was actually smiling as he turned them, putting their backs and the jets of their engine pods toward the rapidly approaching and no doubt very hard ground. So all Mal could see was the Black and some stars and the vast bulk of the blue-green gas giant Ita orbited. Unalleviated by the shuttle's disabled gravity unit, the moon's pull was a relentless crush, and atmospheric turbulence rocked the tiny craft violently, despite Wash's quick, sure hands on the controls. The squashing and the shaking and the nervous-making fact that he couldn't gorram see where they were going, and that his life was in the hands of a man who played with plastic lizards and read comic books and drank grape pop, and who was all too clearly enjoying himself at this very unsettling moment in time, had his guts tightening into a sick making knot. When Wash glanced over at him to share his delight, Mal couldn't help but give him an evil, repressive glare.
"Oh," Wash said, abruptly realizing his captain wasn't having as much fun as he was. Then he reached up, snatched his cap off his head and tossed it into Mal's lap. His fingers closed on it automatically, the cloth warm and still damp with Wash's sweat. His pilot gave him a sympathetic look, saying, "If you have to puke, try to keep most of it in that. Don't need it in my eyes or the controls."
Mal couldn't work up any umbrage at the suggestion that he couldn't endure the same amount of rattling around as Wash. 'Cuz all the evidence was pointing in the exact opposite direction.
"And... that should do it," Wash stated softly, flipping a couple toggles as he swiftly but smoothly turned the yoke. The ship spun, Black and planet and stars blurring into the dark red dirt of Ita, alarmingly close and solid looking.
That sudden pivot got him. Mal's stomach swooped, and bile rose to the back of his throat. But he'd be damned if he'd lose it this late in the game. He clamped his teeth shut tight, swallowing hard and repeatedly, shutting his eyes against the fast approaching russet smear in the view port, fingers clenching on the arms of his seat.
The shuttle's engines, running full out, added their own roar and vibration to the cacophony, and when they abruptly cut out, he thought that was it, that the pods, as battered and abused as he had been, had finally given up the ghost. He clenched up even tighter, bracing himself for the inevitable crash.
Wash's voice impinged on the deathly quiet. "Captain? Mal? We're down. Look."
Mal opened his eyes, and sure enough, sky and earth met at a very still and sedate horizon, and, even better, there sat Serenity, naught but half a hundred paces away.
"I'm gonna go find Bester, yeah?" Wash was saying, unsnapping his restraints, rising from his seat. "Hopefully we just had components knocked loose and not actually damaged." He was at the hatch, keying it open. Fresh creosote-scented air wafted into the cabin. "Either way, we should be able to get the grav back on-line pretty quick. Even the boots ain't that expensive for this model of..." His voice and the sound of his footsteps crunching on desert gravel faded as he moved around to the bow of the shuttle. He appeared in the front window, trotting toward Serenity.
Slowly, Mal unfastened his harness, fingers a little stiff after the amount of forceful clutching he'd been doing. As he stood, he had to make a quick grab for Wash's cap to keep it from tumbling from his lap to the floor. Looking at it, grubby and sweat-stained, he decided, right there and then, that if he ever did come up on the bridge and catch Wash playing with them dinosaurs, that he'd just let it ride. 'Cuz while the guy might be the least serious person in all the known 'verse, he was, no question, a very serious pilot.
Feng le – crazy
Tian xiaode – name of all that's sacred
Tzao gao – General expression of alarm, e.g. "Crap!" "Damn it!