Firefly: Fly in Amber
“Are you sure it’s all right to leave her alone up there, Cap’n?” Jayne asked a bit worriedly.
“She’s been comin’ along pretty well in pilotin’, and there ain’t much out there for us to hit, “ Mal replied.
“Yeah, but what if, you know, she goes nuts or somethin’?” Jayne pressed.
“Her brother’s with her, and she’s been pretty calm while pilotin’. I think this’ll be good for her. And I need some time to think about what we’re gonna do next. “
He turned and saw Zoe walking up the stairs from the main hold. “How’re our supplies?”
“Not good, sir.” Zoe replied. “We’re pretty much out of everything, and Kaylee says we need a new core converter if we want to lift off from our next planet without blowing up.”
“We got enough money to handle all that?” Jayne asked.
“Not even close, “ Mal replied.
“So what’re we gonna do?” Jayne pressed.
“We’ve gotta hope that we can get some kind of job on Preston that’ll hold us over until we can make a bigger score. Have to make sure we only buy what we gotta have to keep going.”
“Maybe you’ll take me up on my offer to help you fence that laser you stole, “ Inara said, coming up behind them.
“Now, don’t be pushin’ that idea again. There’s no call t’ get you involved any more than you already are … even if we could go near a planet that ‘respectable’ for the next little while.”
Inara started to reply, but at that moment the ship rocked, and Simon came running down from the cockpit. “I think you should all come to the bridge. We have company.”
When they all arrived at the cockpit, they saw a warship heading towards them, occasionally firing laser blasts and missiles from long range. The missiles seemed to be calculated to miss the ship, but hit close enough to rock it. Mal turned to the communications console and turned it on. A familiar face stared out at him. “Bring your ship to a complete stop or when I’m in range I will stop missing.”
Mal muted the console. “Do it”, he said to River.
As she brought the ship to a stop, the other vessel quickly slowed and faced Serenity at optimum firing range. Mal turned the console back on. “Been a long time. What do you want?”
The man smiled slightly. “Why, to kill you, of course.”
“Well, that’s not exactly a pleasant hello, “ Mal replied.
“You know me better than that, Mal. I don’t waste pleasantries on scum like you.”
“Who is he?” Simon whispered to Inara.
“He used to travel on the ship, but he stormed out soon before you joined up. He had a fight with Mal and ended up calling him a low-down mercenary scum. He hates his guts.”
“Ah, “ Simon replied. “How surprising.”
“Look, Corwin, I thought we’d settled all this. You went your way, I went my way, and we were both mighty content with that.” Mal said.
“Oh, I’m happy to be rid of you, but it strikes me that your crew is too vulnerable to your mercurial personality. So I’m here to give them a chance to live while finally ridding the universe of you.”
“What do you mean, vulnerable?” Mal demanded.
“Well, let’s see, in your last caper you managed to get both that preacher you had with you and your pilot killed. And also almost managed to get yourself and your entire crew killed by Reavers. “
“Didn’t you see the message we got through on Miranda about the Alliance and the Reavers?” Inara asked.
“Yes, I did. But if Mal had been thinking and not playing the hero he could have found another way to do that. Like talk to me, for instance. A lot of the deaths there were his own doing.”
Mal said, “So what do you want?”
“I want your crew to board your two shuttles and fly over to my ship. Jayne will stay with you. Zoe, I’ll give you the choice of whether to die with him or come over and live. Once your crew is all safely aboard my ship, I’ll blow you out of space and rid the world of two of the worst scum I’ve ever had the mispleasure to know. And don’t try to sneak across on the shuttles, because I’ll know, and you won’t like the consequences.”
“If you’re going to kill them anyway, there don’t seem like much you could do to make it worse, “ Zoe commented.
“I could kill them much more painfully, “ Corwin replied.
“Now, Zoe, decide if you will stay or go. I don’t have all day.”
Mal muted the comm, and Jayne said, “He’s bluffin’, Cap’n. He’d never blow us up with Kaylee on board.”
“And don’t think that I wouldn’t do it because of certain members of your crew that I actually like. I suspect that killing them now would be a mercy, since if they stay with you they’re likely to get killed much less pleasantly than they will if I do it now, “ Corwin cut in.
“Now that there sounds just a might fanatical, “ Mal said.
“Whatever you want to call it. Just hurry up and get moving. I’m not as patient as I used to be.”
And the communication cut off.
“So what do we do?” Simon asked.
“He’s bluffin’, “ Jayne repeated.
“He doesn’t bluff, “ Inara commented.
“That’s right true. Last time I called a bluff on him, he left the ship, “ Mal added. “I ain’t willin’ to try that when he’s talkin’ about blowin’ us all out of my sky. Go get Kaylee, get anythin’ you can’t live without, and get to the shuttles.”
“I’m staying, sir, “ Zoe commented. “There ain’t gonna be any storming of the ship anyway, so I’ll stick with you.”
“You’re going with them, Zoe, “ Mal replied. “There ain’t much use in your getting killed too.”
“That’s an order.”
“Why won’t there be a storming of the ship?” Simon whispered to Inara. “That sounds exactly like what they usually do.”
“Corwin’s a berserker. It would only get everyone killed.”
Thirty minutes later, the shuttles had left Serenity and docked with Corwin’s vessel. “Well, it looks like it’s time to say goodbye.” Corwin said.
“Now let’s not be hasty … “ Mal began, but a burst of laser fire from the vessel drowned him out.
But while the ship rocked from near misses, the laser fire completely missed the ship. Corwin looked disgusted. “I thought you knew me better than that. Did you really think that I’d kill you?”
“The thought did cross my mind, on account of your telling me that you would and all, “ Mal replied.
“I just wanted to liberate your crew. They’re too good to waste on the likes of you. So what I’m going to do is this: get your ship moving and get the hell out of here. Go to Preston and get yourself a crew of lowlifes like you deserve.”
“What about my shuttles?”
“They, or replacements, will be waiting for you on Preston”.
“Now hang on a sec … “
A laser blast lanced out from Corwin’s ship and nicked a small outcropping on the ship. “My next shot won’t miss. This is your one chance, and I suggest you take it.”
Mal quickly ignited his engines and fled away from Corwin’s vessel.
Corwin turned to the others, who had by now joined him on his bridge, escorted by a couple of other crewmembers. “So, you may be wondering why I’ve gathered you all here today …”
“You gone nuts, Corwin? What made you go off on the Captain like that? You know he’s got a good heart and always took care of us … “ Kaylee said,
“As long as it allows you to take care of HIM, “ Corwin replied. “He’s a selfish boor.”
“But he did risk his life to get the message about Miranda out to the people, “ Inara said.
“His flashes of nobility don’t help his case; in fact, they hurt it. Take Jayne. He is utterly incapable of acting from any noble motives. One can no more blame him for that than you’d blame a dog for barking. But Mal demonstrates that he can rise above the level of scum … only to allow himself to sink back into the muck and wallow in it again.
“But enough of this. I’m here to make you a deal.”
“Well, you’re just full of them today, “ Simon commented.
Corwin glared at him. “Perhaps you might like to keep quiet until you know the situation, Doctor. “
“At any rate, “ he continued, “the deal is this. If you can give me a reason, a personal reason, why each of you are better off with Mal than without him, or with me, I’ll let you take the shuttles and return to Serenity. And I’ll even offer you – and the erstwhile Captain – an opportunity.”
“He takes care of us “ Kaylee said.
“Better than I could? He’s a Firefly captain with a knack for taking dangerous jobs and living in poverty; I’m an at least moderately wealthy, well-connected person with GOOD relationships to people in authority. And you have no evidence that he would take care of you if it didn’t also take care of him.”
“He’s a nice guy at heart, “ Kaylee pressed on.
“Even if that was true, which I doubt, it doesn’t make it the case that you are better off with him. We all know about the road that good intentions pave.”
“He protected River and me when we needed it, and didn’t turn us in.” Simon commented.
“I believe that you have paid any debt that you might owe him over that. Besides that, if he gets you killed your misguided sense of obligation is of no real benefit.”
They were silent for a moment, and then River said, “Destiny.”
Corwin looked at her with a puzzled expression. “I beg your pardon?”
“Destiny. His destiny and ours overlap”
Corwin stared at her for an instant. “That is sufficient. And I suspect that that is the case for the rest of you as well, even if you currently fail to realize it. You may return to your Captain.”
“River, did you get that from his mind?” Simon whispered.
“No, Doctor, she didn’t glean that answer from my mind. My mind is highly trained, and I would have known if she had.”
“Are you … psychic, too?” Simon asked.
“No, just an excellent judge of character.” Corwin replied.
“Now, I promised you an opportunity, and as you know I keep my promises. When you arrive on Preston, meet me at the Holy Crow bar. I have a job for you, and I guarantee it will pay better than anything else you could get on that rock.
“As an indication of my good faith and intentions, I’ll even offer to take that laser weapon you stole a while back of your hands, for a reasonable price. Yes, I AM aware that it was you who stole it and the fact that I haven’t turned you in over that little job should provide ample proof of my intentions. Now, I suggest you get going before the Captain runs too far. I’d hate to add too much more time to your journey.”
“So much for his not bluffin’” Jayne said sourly after they had all rejoined Serenity and were talking about the offer in the dining area.
Inara shrugged. “Maybe he learned.”
“Or maybe he wasn’t bluffing. He was actin’ a LOT more fanatical than he used to, “ Mal commented.
“He was a lot colder. He used to be a nicer guy and smile a little, but there was none of that.” Kaylee added. “He acted like a robot. Like you used to, “ she finished with a smile, giving Simon a playful poke.
“No, I think he always was able to bluff … he just didn’t do it all that often.” Zoe said.
“Well, NOW’S a fine time to bring that up, “ Jayne said derisively.
“Well, this is interestin’ and all, but I don’t see how it helps us decide whether or not to take him up on his offer, “ Mal commented.
Jayne chipped in. “How can you think about workin’ with someone you can’t trust?”
All the crew stared at him. “What?” Jayne demanded.
Kaylee said, “We trusted him before.”
“He wasn’t anywhere near this dramatic before, “ Mal replied. “And I ain’t all that comfortable workin’ for him if he’s gone all fanatical on us.”
“What would make him act like that? It just ain’t LIKE him, “ Kaylee continued.
“Scared, “ River commented.
“Don’t worry, River, I won’t let him hurt you, “ Simon comforted her.
“Not me. Him. He’s scared.”
Dead silence filled the room.
Simon looked at each of them, puzzled. “Why is this so shocking?”
“It takes a lot to scare Corwin.” Inara explained. “If something is scaring HIM, it has to be pretty serious.”
“All the more reason to not take the job, “ Jayne said.
“And then there’re a lot of reasons to TAKE the job. Like food, fuel, and repairs, “ Mal commented.
“We can get another job on Preston, “ Jayne argued.
“Not for the same pay that he’s willing to offer. And he don’t lie.” Mal said.
“HE JUST DID!” Jayne shouted.
“Well, you’ve got a point there, “ Mal conceded.
“So, if I have this straight, “ Simon summarized, “he has the resources to pay us as much as we need to get everything up and running, and we think he’s willing to do that … as long as we can trust him. But we can’t trust him because he started this entire thing off by threatening to kill us.”
“Well, actually, he only really threatened to kill Mal and Jayne, “ Kaylee chimed in.
“No, he actually threatened to kill all of us when demanding that we all go over there.” Simon explained.
“Oh, “ Kaylee commented.
“Could he have been testing us?” Simon continued.
“I’m not sure, “ Inara. “He WOULD probably want to test us before hiring us, especially considering his problems with Mal. But I don’t see what answer he would have gotten.”
“You said that he sent you back when River answered ‘Destiny’. Kaylee, Inara, you talked with him the most about his philosophy stuff; what did he mean by that?” Mal asked.
“Don’t look at me, “ Kaylee replied. “I never got a quarter of what he was going on about when he talked philosophy.”
“I only got about half, “ Inara said sheepishly.
A look of understanding came over Simon’s face, and he said breathlessly, “Blind loyalty.”
“Huh?” Mal asked.
“Blind loyalty. River’s answer was the only one that wasn’t blind loyalty to you personally, Captain. Mine was about a debt I owed you for taking us in. Kaylee’s were about your own personal qualities. But River’s was an answer about mutual dependence; our destiny and yours were intertwined. For her, we’re here because that’s how our fates align … not because we feel attached to you personally. And since he doesn’t exactly like you, I’m guessing that a sign that we weren’t just blindly following you was a good thing. Especially after Miranda, where we all basically followed you into a suicide mission.”
“The explanation makes sense, Mal, “ Inara said. “He used a believable threat of wanting to kill you to get the crew away from you to see if we were blindly loyal to you. Since he saw that at least one of us wasn’t, he decided that it might work for whatever job he has lined up for us.”
“Actually, it even sounds like he had most of his answer before he asked the question.” Simon added.
“How so?” Inara asked.
“We left the ship, “ Simon replied. “The Captain let us leave under a threat of death … and we went. Instead of trying to run away and getting blown out of space. Instead of making a hopeless charge in an attempt to overpower a berserker. We left. We would have tried to convince him not to kill them, of course … but we weren’t fanatical about it.”
“But then why’d he even ask us?” Kaylee said.
Simon shrugged. “Confirmation. Style – it wouldn’t do to simply tell us to turn around and go back without saying anything to us. Seeing old friends again.”
“So he was just testin’ us to see if I’d let my crew go to save their lives, and if my crew would let me die if there was no other way to keep everyone else alive?” Mal asked.
“And we passed”, Zoe commented.
“But does that mean we should trust him?” Jayne demanded.
“I reckon we ain’t got much choice, much as he seems to be havin’ a death wish fer me. Let’s at least go and talk to him, see what the job is. One thing that I don’t think has changed is that he always pays his debts. Maybe this debt can get us back on track.
“But I think you’re gonna have to come along with us, Doctor, since you’re the only person I’ve ever met who actually UNDERSTANDS what that man’s goin’ on about.”
Later, Kaylee and Simon sat in the lounge, talking.
“So, what was Corwin like? When he was travelling with you, I mean?” Simon asked.
“Oh, he was a nice man, “ Kaylee said. “He was a little formal, but he let down his guard when he got to likin’ someone.”
“Was there … anyone he liked?” Simon asked, a bit apprehensively.
“Oh, sure!” she replied. “He spent a LOT of time with Inara. Not in the Companion sense, at least not as far as I know, but just talkin’ to her. She knew the most out of any of us of that philosophy stuff that he liked to talk about, and I think he liked that sort of thing. It’s too bad he left before the Shepherd joined, because I think they would have really liked talkin’ to each other.”
Simon nodded, a bit sadly.
“Well, he used to talk to me a bit too. Never really understood why we got on so well, ‘cause I didn’t know nothin’ about no philosophy, but he seemed to really like just listenin’ to me talk. Said it gave him a different perspective on things. I must have bored him out of his gourd at times, and I wasn’t anywhere near smart enough to keep up with him, but he liked me anyway, for some reason.”
“You’re a very special person, Kaylee.”
A smile lit up her face. “Thanks, Simon!”
She paused to think for a second. “You mean that as a compliment, right? Not something like ‘special’ in the ‘needin’ a bit of help in the brains department’ sense or anythin’ like that.”
Simon smiled, “No, this time I just mean ‘special’. No jokes.”
She smiled again.
Simon asked, “So, did he ever … go berserk?”
Her smile faded a bit. “Yeah, he did. We didn’t know he was one; he never said. But we got ourselves in a heap of trouble one time, with a whole bunch of guys about t’ swarm the ship and with it being broken to start. There was no way we were gonna make it but the Captain was gonna fight to the last anyway. Corwin stepped up and told us to go inside the ship and seal it up, Captain didn’t like that, but Corwin pushed him into doing it and took a sword that he kept out with him before we sealed. Captain never cared much for his having that sword, but the money was good so he let it go. Anyway, we could still see what was goin’ on when he went out and were preparin’ to deal with the rest once they killed him … and then he went berserk. Killed ‘em all, without blinkin’ an eye. Then he looked around for someone else t’ kill. Finally he calmed down and asked to come back in. Captain was worried about it but decided to take the chance.”
“How did you take his being a berserker?” Simon asked.
“Scared me. Seein’ what he did to them, without showing any real concern … well, it was like I saw from River, only a little less, ‘cause I knew him better. And everyone else kind of felt the same way. And I know it hurt him when we all started avoidin’ him. But Zoe explained what they were to us, and how it worked, and so I went from bein’ scared of him to feelin’ sorry for him. It must be hard to be cursed with that and always wonder what’ll happen if you lose control.”
“Did he say how he became a berserker?”
“Wouldn’t talk about it much. All he said was that it was hereditary.”
Simon thought for an instant. “But even berserker genes have to be activated.”
Kaylee shrugged. “He’d never talk about it, and I don’t know about any of that ‘genes’ stuff.”
“What did he and the Captain fight over?” Simon asked.
“Oh, Corwin used to get mad that the Captain would take jobs that weren’t moral – he didn’t really mind illegal, but hated immoral – or that he’d take jobs that were too risky and too likely to get us all killed. We used t’ joke that Corwin was the moral compass of the ship, because he was so concerned about things like that. It got worse when we found out that Corwin was a berserker. Captain started wantin’ him to go out on jobs or stand-by as a back-up because of that. Corwin didn’t like it, but did for a couple. Captain started takin’ tougher jobs because of that. Corwin got mad at him and said that he wasn’t a part of the crew and that the Captain had no right to expect him to help. He refused to go and there was trouble; that was the job for Patience. Corwin went off on him riskin’ not only his own life, but everyone else’s as well, just for money. Captain said that if he didn’t like it, he could leave. And he did.”
“Interesting. Do you trust him?” Simon asked.
“I used to.” Kaylee replied. “But he seems colder now than he used to be. I don’t know what he’s capable of, anymore.”
Soon after arriving on Preston, Mal, Zoe and Simon headed over to the Holy Crow bar. Corwin was sitting at a table in the corner, with another man sitting beside him. When he saw them, he waved them over anyway.
While Corwin was a fairly tall man who still had some muscularity, the other man was short and stocky. Both men were average in looks and didn’t look like they’d stand out in a crowd. Corwin was older, about Mal’s age, while the other man was about Simon’s age.
“Looks like you’re keeping better company these days, “ Corwin said, noting the presence of Simon. “Where’s the trained ape?”
“Aw, now that ain’t fair, “ Mal replied. “You know Jayne ain’t trained.”
“Funny, “ Corwin said, with no trace of humour. “So I guess you’re here to take me up on my offer.”
“We’re only here to hear you out, “ Mal said. “I’m thinkin’ that any mission that you start recruitin’ for with ‘I’m gonna kill you’ may not be worth takin’”.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be paid VERY well.”
“That ain’t what I meant.”
“That’s all that you thought about before. Why should I believe that that’s changed?”
Simon cut in. “Why don’t you just tell us about the job? I’m sure we’re both too busy for verbal fencing.”
“Before we get down to business, “ Zoe commented. “I kinda like knowing who’s listening in .”
“Oh, my apologies, “ Corwin said. “This is Merlin. He’s my … protégé, I guess is the best way to put it. Normally I’d say ‘student’, but we don’t really follow the same philosophical schools.”
“So he’s kind of your heir then, right? The guy who’ll take over all of your important work and assets when ya die?” Mal commented.
Both Corwin and Merlin gave him identical flat, humourless stares.
Corwin said, “All right, let’s get down to business then. As you know, the Reavers have been pushing deeper and deeper into Alliance territory lately. You can imagine that things haven’t gotten any better since what you did at Miranda. You might have been hoping that your ‘revelation’ would have encouraged the Border Colonies to revolt against the Alliance and finally achieve that independence that you’ve wanted them to have for oh so very long, but in fact the exact opposite has occurred because of the increase in Reaver activity. The Border Colonies simply do not have the resources to fight off continued Reaver attacks.
“Fortunately, what your actions HAVE done is forced the Alliance to get involved in the situation. It’s a little hard to argue convincingly that you can’t spare the resources to help with these attacks when you’re responsible for them in the first place. But forces are indeed spread thin, and new ships and crews won’t be on-line for months yet. And that’s where you come in”
“We ain’t gonna join the Alliance Navy,” Mal ground out.
“I would never suggest such a thing … and it’s an insult to my intelligence that you’d think I’d suggest that, considering your feelings about such things.
“At any rate, one of the ways to offset the fact that the lines are thin is to gather better information about Reaver activities to allow for more efficient responses to their movements. To that end, I was involved in creating a number of listening posts inside Reaver territory. Recently, these listening posts stopped transmitting data. The natural supposition would be that the Reavers found them and destroyed them … but they are supposed to send a burst dump if they were attacked and none of them did so. We need to know what happened to them. It’s possible that they were destroyed and that the first attack knocked out their transmitter, or that some sort of interference blocked their burst signal, or that they just had bugs in that part of the software. What I’d like you to do is find out what happened to them.”
“So you want us to go into Reaver territory, alone, find these things, and see what happened to ‘em?” Mal said. “Sounds a bit suicidal to me.”
“I agree that it does, “ Corwin conceded. “However, a number of factors will make it less dangerous. First, we were indeed trying to HIDE these listening posts, so they aren’t in areas that the Reavers constantly frequent. Second, a small ship like yours is likely to be overlooked as being beneath the notice of most Reaver ships. Finally, your ship is fast and your crew skilled … ideally able to run away if things go wrong.
“If you choose to do this, I don’t care about your motives. Do it because of the money. Do it because the Border Colonies won’t be able to gain independence if they’re wiped out by the Reavers. Or any other motive that you can think of. But believe one thing: these listening posts are currently critical to the war against the Reavers. If they were destroyed, we’ll just deploy more, and keep going. If something else happened to them, if they were sabotaged … well, that would be a completely different story.”
“What if they haven’t been destroyed? How would we know what was done to them?” Simon asked.
“Merlin will be going with you. He’s fully trained on the posts, and should be able to determine if there was sabotage or not. He will be in command of the mission, and if you agree I expect you to listen to his orders on all mission-related aspects. Your ship is, of course, your ship and you retain command of that.”
Merlin added, “I agree to follow your orders on any matter not directly related to the mission.”
Corwin said, “And now, the part that I’m sure that you, Captain, are waiting for: the money. I said earlier that I would take that antique laser off your hands. Here is what I consider a reasonable offer.” And he slid a datapad across to Mal.
Zoe glanced at it and said, “It’s worth twice that to a private collector!”
“And how are you going to get it to them? You have to take into account the likelihood of getting to a Core World without getting arrested or shot by the Alliance. Considering that, my offer is more than fair … and is more than enough to repair your ship and replenish your supplies.”
“If I may ask, “ Simon said, “What are you going to do with it?”
“I have contacted the original owner and offered to return it to him. However, he is hesitant to take it because of the bad memories associated with it. If he chooses not to take it, I’ll keep it myself. I think it’s actually kind of cool, honestly.”
Mal and Zoe looked at each other with surprised expressions. “We’ll take it, “ Mal said, finally.
“Excellent. Now, as to this mission, I believe this will be acceptable …”
Mal picked it up, looked at it, looked at Corwin again, and back at it again.
“How much is it, sir?” Zoe asked.
Wordlessly, he handed it to her. She looked at it, looked at Corwin, and looked at it again.
“May I?” Simon asked, taking the pad from her.
He looked at it and said, “You could run an entire hospital on this for 6 months!”
“That’s an interesting new measure of economic worth that you’ve invented there, Doctor, but more importantly it is more than enough to allow you and your crew to avoid dangerous jobs for quite some time, which might even manage to keep them alive for a few years longer.”
“If we survive this one, “ Simon added.
“If you survive this one, “ Corwin conceded.
Corwin accepted the pad back from Simon, and said, “I suspect that you’ll want to think about this for a bit, so I’ll leave it at that. Merlin will drop by your ship tomorrow to take possession of the laser and pay you for that. If you accept this job, he’ll get an update from Kaylee on how long it will take to repair your ship and facilitate to the best of his ability your getting the parts you need to make them. Have a nice day.”
And with that, they both left the table.
The next day, Merlin arrived at the ship carrying a small bag of money. Mal met him at the ramp that entered the ship.
“Now, ah know you’ll be wantin’ our answer … “ Mal began, but Merlin cut him off with a raised hand.
“First things first, “ Merlin said. “Where is the laser?”
Mal handed the case to him, and Merlin opened it up to examine the laser. Handing the case briefly back to Mal, he picked it up and examined it more carefully. “Very nice, “ he commented. “It even appears to be still functional. A very nice weapon.”
Merlin then handed the money to Mal. “You may count it if you wish, “ he said.
“Nah, “ Mal replied. “I trust you.”
“No, you don’t, “ Merlin replied. “But you just don’t want to admit that to someone who may be spending a lot of time with you.”
Mal tried to think of a reply, but couldn’t think of anything that wasn’t a bald-faced lie . So he said nothing.
“Well, now, let’s move on, “ Merlin said, saving Mal from actually having to reply to that statement. “What is your decision?”
“After a great deal of thought and deliberation, giving all the options due consideration … we’ve decided to take the mission.”
“Excellent. I will inform Corwin of that immediately … after I speak with your engineer.” Merlin replied.
“What do you need to talk to her for?” Mal demanded.
“It has been my experience that ship’s Captains hire engineers because they themselves do not know enough about mechanics to do it themselves, “ Merlin replied. “Since I am to help you procure parts to repair your vessel, I’ve found that most sources require more information than ‘It’s the thing that goes on the thing to make the thing run.’”
“Point taken. She’s in the engine room right now.”
“Well, lead on, good Captain.”
They arrived at the engine room, and Mal excused himself to check something on the bridge.
“I suspect he’s gone to count the money, “ Merlin said sardonically.
“Ah, now the Captain wouldn’t do that!” Kaylee protested.
Merlin gave her an amused look.
“Well, okay, he would do that, but he ain’t gone off to do that this time!”
Merlin’s expression didn’t change.
“Okay, you’re right, he probably did go off to count the money. You got a problem with that?”
“None at all, “ Merlin replied. “I actually find it comforting when rogues act like rogues. It preserves the natural order of the universe.”
Kaylee tried not to laugh. He looked so serious that she found it hard to imagine that he wasn’t making a serious point, and she didn’t want to offend their new passenger this early in the voyage.
“Now, “ he continued. “Why don’t you fill me in on what parts you need to make this thing fly?”
She gave him the list, and when she had finished he asked, “Now, are there any things that you could do to this ship to increase its speed?”
“Well, sure, but why? We ain’t got the money to do any of ‘em.” Kaylee replied.
“This is likely to be a dangerous mission, one in which we might have to run away from danger as quickly as possible. If you know any ways to increase our flying speed that are totally reliable – that’s the key, as it is better to flee slower as opposed to not fleeing at all – it might give us an edge that might mean the difference between life and death. Are the methods you’re thinking of reliable?”
“Well, “ Kaylee replied. “Some of them are, but I don’t know if the Captain will go for it.”
“Why don’t we ask the Captain, then?” Merlin said, just as Mal returned to the engine room.
“Ask the Captain what? “ Mal asked.
Kaylee’s face lit up and she got excited as she replied, “Captain, Merlin’s askin’ me to soup this old girl up. And I have a whole bunch of ideas as to how I can do that. I could start by adding a pulse converter to the main drive here …”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, hang on girl. You know we ain’t got the money to do all that.”
Kaylee’s face fell.
“If money is your only objection, Captain, “ Merlin cut in. “I would be willing to pay for all of these upgrades. After all, I value my life more than my money.”
Mal looked at him. “Well, in that case, I guess it’ll be all right.”
“Oh, thank you Captain!” she said, giving him a big hug and a kiss.
“Simply itemize everything you spend on the upgrades and send me the bill for them. You’ll be paid before we lift off. How long will it take to complete?” Merlin said.
“Without the upgrades, it would have been 2 weeks, but it’ll be closer to a month with the upgrades. Is that okay?” Kaylee asked a bit apprehensively.
“That will be fine, “ Merlin asked.
“I’ve got some plans down in my room for what I want to do. If you’ll wait a while I’ll show you what I’m plannin’ so you can get an idea of what we’ll need for that too!” Kaylee exclaimed before skipping out of the room.
“She’s real happy, “ Mal said, slightly puzzled.
“Sometimes, Captain, people want to do the things they want to do, not just what they have to do. No mechanic who cares as much about their ship as she does doesn’t have ideas of what they want to do to make the ship better … and I’ve just given her the chance to do some of them.”
“Now, you know that she won’t tell you everything we need. How do you know we won’t put our stuff on your bill?”
Merlin shrugged. “I don’t. And while I suspect that you might be tempted to do so, I trust her not to. Then again, as I said, I value my life over my money … and prefer to trust in the honour of people that I’m likely to die with. If it is betrayed, that lesson is worth more than the money you would cost me.”
Mal nodded a bit shakily. This guy was not going to be a whole lot of fun.
There was a brief pause, and then Merlin asked, “ How long were you listening to the conversation before you came into the engine room?”
“What makes you think I was?” Mal retorted.
“You told Kaylee to ‘Mind what I had told her’ and make all of the modifications safe ones. But you weren’t in the engine room when I told her that, so you couldn’t have known that I had said that.”
Mal started to protest, but Merlin cut him off with a raised hand. “I am not offended by your eavesdropping. I really do not care, one way or another. I only mention it to draw your attention to the fact that I DID, in fact, notice. That should make our working together go MUCH more smoothly. Do we have an understanding?”
“We surely do, “ Mal replied, thinking to himself that Merlin was DEFINITELY not going to be a whole lot of fun.
The month passed quickly, but when it was over Merlin arrived at “Serenity” to start the voyage. He was carrying a couple of bags, one of which was stuffed to the brim and another that was only lightly packed. Mal and the crew came to meet him when he arrived.
“Welcome aboard, Merlin, “ Mal said.
“Thank you, Captain.”
“Let me introduce you to the rest of the crew. You’ve already met Simon, Zoe, and Kaylee, but this here’s Jayne, River, and Inara.”
Merlin responded with slight nods to everyone except Inara, to whom he gave a proper bow.
“You’re very respectful, “ Inara complimented him.
“It often seems that social niceties are all that stand between humanity and total savagery, “ Merlin replied.
“You remind me SO much of Corwin, “ Mal said sarcastically.
“Why, thank you, Captain. I consider that a great compliment, “ Merlin replied, sincerely.
Behind him, Jayne rolled his eyes, while Kaylee and Inara tried to stifle their laughter.
“Let me show you to your bunk, “ Mal said.
“I’ll help with your bags!” Kaylee said, grabbing the large bag.
“That’s quite all right … “ Merlin began, but she grabbed it from him before he could finish.
“Whuf”, she said as she hefted its weight. “Whaddaya got in here.”
“Books, “ Merlin replied.
“Real live books?” Kaylee asked, astonished.
“Real live books. Some philosophical texts that I have found particularly appealing or insightful in the past. Expensive, but in my opinion worth every penny.”
Mal broke in. “Now, Kaylee, you just go on and get the ship ready for take-off. We’ve waited long enough to get this shindig under way. Follow me, Merlin.”
They walked to Merlin’s bunk, where Mal stopped for an instant, and Merlin put his bags down as Mal turned to face him.
“This here’s your bunk, “ Mal said.
Merlin just nodded.
“Now, I’ve got some questions for you, things I need t’ know before we set off. You don’t happen to have that … ‘special ability’ that Corwin has, do ya?”
“No, “ Merlin replied. “Fortunately, I have escaped that curse.”
“Well, now, I wouldn’t wish that curse on anyone, y’understand, but it does leave us a mite underpowered in the combat department.”
To his credit, Mal DID try to react when Merlin suddenly reached for Mal’s sidearm, but the fact that Merlin had taken him completely by surprise meant that in a frightening short amount of time he found himself staring down the barrel of his own gun, held in Merlin’s hand.
“I believe that my fighting skills will be … adequate,” Merlin replied.
Then he reversed the weapon and handed it back to Mal. “Don’t feel bad, Captain. It was only that you did not expect such a response from me, and underestimated my capabilities. I would never have been able to take the weapon from you otherwise.”
Mal said, “You’re probably right. Oh, and Merlin … “ he said as he threw a punch directly at Merlin, hoping to surprise him.
Which Merlin ducked. “Make no mistake, Captain, “ Merlin said. “You underestimated me, but I do not underestimate you.” And with that, he entered his bunk.
Merlin spent the first three days of his voyage in his bunk – coming out only when no one else was around to eat — which didn’t sit very well with Kaylee. So she decided to make up a pretext and draw out their new passenger. She had prepared one of her “special dishes” that everyone in the crew really enjoyed, made extra, and then said that it would be a shame if Merlin didn’t get the chance to try. So she prepared a tray and headed down to his bunk to give it to him.
“Merlin?“ she asked, knocking on his door. “Can I come in?”
Merlin slid the partition open. “What would you like?” he asked.
“Well, “ she said, “I made this dish that everyone likes and since you don’t come down to eat when we do I thought it’d be a shame if you missed out on it.”
Merlin hesitated for a second, and then stepped aside to allow her to bring it in and place it on the small table in his bunk, moving aside some painted playing cards in the process. Merlin sat down at the table while Kaylee picked up the cards and went to sit on the bed. He tried a small taste of the meal.
“So, what do you think?” Kaylee asked anxiously.
“Generally, I am a poor person to ask about such matters, since I consider food to be more for nutritional purposes than for any sort of pleasure, and also since I am averse to strong flavours …”
Then, he noticed Kaylee looking at him with a completely confused and puzzled look. “It’s quite good,” he finished.
Kaylee beamed, and then turned to look at the cards. “Hey, this is a picture of Corwin! And this one’s you! Don’t know who these other people are, though. Did you have them made up special?”
“Yes, “ Merlin replied. “They were Corwin’s idea, actually. He got the idea from a book series that he enjoyed.”
“How come you’re all in such funny costumes?”
“That was also Corwin’s idea, and also from the books. However, I feel that it does fit the idea of ‘Tarot Cards’ quite well, which were in fact inspired by and most popular in medieval times.”
Kaylee nodded. “They sure are pretty.”
There was a brief pause, and then Kaylee said, “Why won’t you eat with us?”
Merlin sighed. “This is a very dangerous mission, and I don’t want to form any emotional attachments to anyone that might imperil the mission. I would hate to be in a position where my desire to save the life of someone conflicted with my desire to complete the mission, and even a second’s hesitation to ponder that choice left both options impossible to attain.”
Kaylee thought for an instant. “Seems kind of sad t’ me that you’d only want to go one a mission with people you hated.”
“Oh, no!” Merlin protested. “Hatred is even worse! It is MUCH worse to be in a position where a person’s life is in danger and you allow them to die because you hesitate for even a single instant wondering if you should attempt to save their lives. No, banal neutrality is the best attitude to maintain in such cases.”
Kaylee thought for an instant again. “Still seems kind of sad, not allowin’ yourself to think of anyone as an actual person simply because you don’t want to be in the situation where what you think about ‘em matter to you. You done?”
Merlin nodded, and Kaylee took the tray. “While I appreciate this, in the future please don’t constrain yourself to ensure that I can share in such dishes. As I said, I am averse to strong flavours, and I have found that what most people really desire usually contains such flavours. It is better for all involved if I simply prepare my own meals.”
Kaylee nodded, and started out of the room. At the door she stopped, and turned back. “You should come out to join us sometimes, in some way. I just can’t imagine going into a life or death situation with someone I don’t really trust, and you can’t really trust someone until you know them … at least a little.”
At that, she left the room, while Merlin sat back in his chair with a thoughtful look on his face, and then reached into his bag and pulled out a book, and started reading it.
The next day, Merlin approached Simon in the medical bay. “Doctor?” he asked.
“All right, Simon then. I have been reading up on your sister River’s condition, and I believe I have some idea of how it may be addressed. Large portions of her brain have been altered, thus causing her to lose several capabilities – mostly rational – that she once possessed.”
“That’s probably a fair assessment, “ Simon replied.
“I believe that the brain can be ‘retrained’ to reestablish some if not all of these capabilities if it can receive information about the right thought patterns to produce these behaviours. If River could learn those thought patterns and the techniques to produce them, it could allow her to reestablish those capabilities in herself”
“But what would be the right sort of thought patterns?” Simon asked.
“There are a number of philosophical schools – many of which I follow – that advocate hyper-rationality and emotional control.”
“Dammit, Merlin, I’m a doctor, not a philosopher.”
They looked at each other a little curiously for an instant, and then Merlin replied, “But Simon, I am a philosopher. And of those very same schools I just mentioned.”
“You’d work with her?”
“Absolutely, if she is willing. And I have some experience with direct mental communication, and so could participate in the most efficient direct mental demonstration of what the proper thought patterns are.”
Later, Jayne walked into the medical bay to find Merlin and River sitting across from each other, perfectly motionless, staring into each other’s eyes. “Doc!” he called. “You’d better get in here.”
Simon rushed into the medical bay, noticed that Jayne was looking at Merlin and River, and relaxed. “Oh, good. Everything’s fine.” And he started to walk out of the bay.
Jayne grabbed his arm. “Doc? What’re they doin’?”
Simon leaned closer to him and said in a low voice, “They’re COMMUNING.” And then he left the bay.
“Passengers just keep gettin’ WEIRDER in this place, “ Jayne muttered to himself.
That evening, the entire crew was surprised to find that Merlin was in the mess when they arrived for supper, preparing his own simple meal beside Kaylee.
“Well, we didn’t think you EVER left your cabin, “ Mal commented. “Somethin’ must be wrong.”
“Was it the space roaches? Heard they’ve been a problem lately …” Jayne chimed in.
“Nah, can’t be that. They ain’t been any worse today than before, “ Mal replied.
Merlin merely fixed them with a flat, humourless stare. “I was informed that perhaps my joining the crew for a meal would be welcome. If that is not the case, I will return to my cabin.”
“Aw, siddown kid. We’re just foolin’ with ya. Ain’t ya got a sense of humour?” Mal retorted.
“No, “ Merlin replied tonelessly,
Since it was his first meal with the entire crew, they had a lot of questions for Merlin, who tended to answer the questions with the least amount of words possible.
“So, have you known Corwin long?” Inara asked.
“Did you meet him at the university?”
“He was your teacher, I take it?”
“Did he get you any of those books you brought on board?” Kaylee asked.
“But he did make those playing cards?”
“Playing cards?” Inara asked. “Like Tarot Cards?”
“Ooh, ooh, ah got one, “ Jayne burst in. “Can you answer a question with something other than ‘Yes’ and ‘No’?”
Merlin fixed him with another humourless stare. “Yes, “ he replied.
When the laughter had died down, Simon asked, “It’s not common to find someone with your particular background.”
“What do you mean?” Inara asked.
“He means, I believe, “ Merlin replied, “that I have received both philosophical and technical training, primarily in software design. But it isn’t that odd. After all, Corwin has almost identical training, and I even believe that a former passenger of yours had a similar set of skills.”
“Did you decide to take that after you met Corwin, or did you work with him because you already had those skills?” Inara asked.
“The latter.” Merlin replied.
“So that’s how you think you can fix that listenin’ post, “ Mal asked. “You’ve got the computer trainin’ t’ deal with it.”
“More than that.” Merlin replied. “I programmed most of it.”
Finally, Serenity arrived at the listening post. “Well, kid, “ Mal said. “This is your show, so what now?”
Merlin scanned all the readings for an instant, and then replied, “Well, the listening post is obviously intact. And it is, in fact, still broadcasting. That very much implies sabotage. We’ll have to go aboard and see precisely what is the problem. Captain, you and I will go across and check it out. The rest of you will stay here. If you don’t hear from us within an hour, leave. Do not attempt to enter the post if you don’t hear from us.”
“If you think there’s gonna be a need to make a quick getaway, shouldn’t I stay behind here as the only full-time pilot?” Mal asked.
Merlin shrugged. “River is a sufficient pilot to handle the evacuation. And I would think that you would prefer to be on the listening post if something went wrong, thus able to sacrifice your life fighting a last stand holding action to allow your crew to escape safely. We leave in 30 minutes.” And then Merlin left the room.
Mal looked incredibly confused. “When Corwin said stuff like that, I knew he was makin’ fun of me. But with Merlin I’ll be damned if I ain’t certain if he ain’t serious!”
Merlin and Mal stepped into the darkened airlock. “Did we lose power or somethin’?” Mal asked. “What happened to all the lights?”
“Nothing. The post was designed to be mostly dark.”
“Why in the world would anyone do that?”
“Ambience. They found it a delicious irony to set up a long-range, isolated listening post with an atmosphere that you’d find in old-time sci-fi horror movies.”
“But you said you programmed it. Didn’t it bother you?”
Merlin looked at him with a faintly surprised expression. “I like the dark, “ he replied.
But then he slowly drew the sword he had strapped to his back from its sheathe. It held a strange pattern at the base of the blade, right above the hilt. “Problem?” Mal asked, his hand straying to his gun.
“No, “ Merlin replied.
“Good, ‘cause I think that gun on your hip will be of more use than that sword.”
“I doubt that, “ Merlin replied. He then touched the symbol, and the sword burst into silvery light, clearly illuminating the way ahead.
“After all, “ Merlin continued, “surely a flashlight that you can kill things with is more useful in our current situation, no?”
They picked their way through the listening post, watching for any sort of traps or enemies or signs of sabotage along the way. Finally, they reach the main command centre, and Merlin sat down at the main console and began typing in commands.
“Hmmm, “ he finally said. “The post has been subverted.”
“Come again?” Mal asked.
“The listening post’s original purpose was to spy on the Reavers and send the data to the Alliance. Now, the post is spying on the Alliance and sending that data somewhere else. And, of course, it’s BETTER at spying on the Alliance because it has all the communications channels, protocols, and encryptions.”
“Where’s it sendin’ to?”
Merlin shook his head. “I’m not certain. However, in just an instant … ah, yes, there are the co-ordinates. Now all that’s left to do is shut it off … there, done. Now we can go and find and investigate where the post was sending to.”
“Wait … won’t shuttin’ it off let the people who’re listenin’ in know that we’re comin’?”
“Unlikely. These things do fail, after all, and if I’m reading these co-ordinates right we’ll be there before anyone has any reason to think otherwise.”
Back on Serenity, Merlin immediately went to his small personal computer and checked the co-ordinates. “As I suspected, “ he said. “The co-ordinates are for a small desert-like planet where a small Alliance military base once existed. It was closed years ago because, well, there really wasn’t anything worth looking at out here at the time. And later, it was too close to the Reavers and so was too dangerous for a manned outpost. However, it was theoretically fully functional and contained sufficient technology to make an excellent place to assemble and analyze the data from the listening posts.”
Mal sighed. “Yer gonna ask us to go there and check it out, ain’t ya?”
“Well, yes, of course.”
Mal sighed again. “Okay, okay, we’re on our way.”
It was only a few hours later when they arrived at the military base. Merlin directed them to land at a small landing pad near the command centre. “It used to be used for VIP shuttles, “ he explained. “Thus it’s only a short way to the main command centre, which is undoubtedly where all the main action will be.”
“Hey, we’re VIPs!” Kaylee exclaimed.
“I’m just more worried about that ‘action’ he keeps talkin’ about, “ Mal grumbled under his breath.
Mal and Merlin headed out into the base. Unlike the listening post, the base was mostly well lit. When they arrived at the command centre, they saw rows of Reavers frozen in cryogenic storage.
“So it was the Reavers, “ Mal commented as they walked along the rows towards the main terminal.
“The Reavers are not capable of the skills required to break into the programming of that listening post. It required …”
“Someone smarter?” another voice finished Merlin’s statement.
They rounded another aisle to the main terminal, and say the speaker. He was a man that being described as “geeky-looking” would be considered a compliment. He was thin, weak-looking, and had the light of shining fanaticism in his eyes.
“I was going to say ‘someone on the inside’.” Merlin replied.
“Yes, Merlin, but you never could grasp my genius. Your feeble little mind simply could not grasp the intricacies that I grasped intuitively.”
“That, Antonio, is because my feeble mind possessed at least a small amount of intelligence, unlike yours.”
“I take it the two of you know each other?” Mal asked.
“Of course. Merlin and I go WAY back. We were both part of Corwin’s lovely organization, until they kicked me out because I exceeded their meager abilities too frequently.”
“And because you were selling our information to the highest bidder. We mustn’t forget that.” Merlin replied. “But I wouldn’t think that the Reavers would have much to offer.”
“Oh, but now I have seen the light, and offer my immense services to the new order of the universe.”
“Excuse me?” Merlin asked.
“Oh, I knew that your pitiful mind couldn’t grasp the glory of the Reavers. They are the new ideal, the new perfection of the universe, and I offer all that I can to ensure that their glory will be spread amongst the universe. I can only hope that they will reward me with their perfection when that is accomplished.”
“What’s this loonie goin’ on about?” Mal demanded.
“He’s a Reaver-worshipper, “ Merlin replied in disgust. “I’d heard rumours of small cults forming in small places, but never expected to meet such a deluded person.”
“It is you who are the deluded one, and I the one who will be rewarded when the Reavers take the universe in hand.”
“Now, just a quick question here, but what’s stoppin’ us from killin’ you right now and endin’ your part in all this?”
Antonio pulled out a small remote control and pressed and held a button on it. “This will bring all the Reavers running if I should let it go. I suspect that they won’t be terribly happy to not find me here, Your ship and crew will have no chance of escape.”
“You’re not smart enough to have actually set that up properly, “ Merlin scoffed.
“Oh, but of course I am. And the best of the perfect ones checked it to ensure that it did indeed do that. Now, will you disarm, or should I send for the Reavers?”
Mal raised his hands slowly. “Now, there’s no reason to … “
But his statement was cut off as Merlin drew and fired his gun, taking Antonio right in the head.
“What’d you do that for? You just called the Reavers down on us!” Mal cried.
“No, I didn’t. Antonio didn’t have it wired into the communications. Instead, it trips the overload on the reactor.”
And then he turned and sprinted full speed for Serenity.
“Ah, hell, “ Mal grumbled. “Get the ship ready to launch as soon as we get back!” he yelled into his communicator. “This thing’s gonna blow.”
As soon as they were aboard, River blasted off and Mal and Merlin joined her on the bridge. With the speed enhancements that Kaylee had added to Serenity, they were able to escape the atmosphere before the base blew up.
“We’re coming up on the first wave of receiver satellites “ Simon commented,
“River, veer left!” Merlin exclaimed. “Don’t go too close to the satellites because they might … “
At that moment, the one that they were passing exploded, with chunks of metal impacting against one of Serenity’s engines. It began to whine in a most disturbing fashion.
“I have to shut the boosters off or we’ll blow!” Kaylee called up from the engine room. “But they’re stuck!”
Mal and Merlin dashed to the engine room and yanked, pulled, and smashed the booster controls until the boosters shut off.
“Safe, girl! I said safe! Blowin’ up is hardly safe!” Mal yelled.
“They were safe!” Kaylee retorted.
“Surely, Captain, you couldn’t expect her to be able to predict what would happen when razor shard metal shards sheared through the engines doing significant damage?”
Mal turned his anger on him. “And you! What was the big idea, blowin’ up that base? We all coulda been killed!”
Merlin was unfazed. “Antonio was stalling for time. While I knew that the base exploding wouldn’t draw enough Reavers to get us killed, I was fairly certain that the Reavers in the cryogenic containers that were waking up would, if we gave them enough time.”
“The Reavers were waking up?” Mal asked.
“Well, all right then. Don’t let it happen again, though …”
Mal turned to Kaylee. “What shape are we in?”
“We’ll need major repairs when we land, but we’re in pretty good shape otherwise. Back to about normal speed, actually.”
Mal nodded and turned to go. Then a puzzled expression crossed his face, and he turned back to Merlin. “He said that the Reavers checked his wirin’ over. If they can keep those ships runnin’, they’d have to be better at technical stuff than to make that stupid a mistake. Why didn’t they tell him?”
Merlin shrugged. “Maybe they liked him about as much as I liked him. He does have that effect on people.”
Finally, they returned to Preston. Corwin had already moved on, but Merlin authorized all the repairs they needed. He then packed up his things and said goodbye to the crew. At the end, he turned to Mal and said, “This may be presumptuous, but this latest mission has made me realize that perhaps there are things about the universe that I don’t know; things that I believe that I can learn with you. Would there be any way you might take me on as an even occasional passenger?”
Mal thought for an instant. “I don’t take on passengers anymore … only people that I can trust as much as I trust my crew.”
Merlin’s face fell, the most emotion he’d shown the entire voyage. “I understand”, he said, turning to go.
“We’ll be leavin’ in two days,” Mal called after him. “If you ain’t on time, we’ll leave without you.”
Merlin looked back at him, surprised.
“Got ya, “ Mal said.
Merlin shook Mal’s hand. “Thank you, Captain.”
“Hey, “ Mal replied. “Call me Mal”.