'I need that in Captain Dummy talk, Kaylee'
Author's Note: Still haven't gotten to actual crossover content, yet. Don't worry, though, I can see it from here (maybe next chapter).
When Mal couldn't take it any longer he got up from the copilot's chair and headed for the doorway off the bridge, carefully not looking at the rapidly-spinning vista of sky-ground-sky outside.
"Once we get to orbit just--"
"--Hold and wait till you say where," River finished for him, gazing raptly at the dizzying view beyond the crystoplast canopy. Her legs were folded up under her, and a faded blanket was pulled around her shoulders, the combination nearly making the smallish girl vanish in the depths of the oversized chair. "We're going to Boros, you know," she added a moment later, just as he reached the hatch. "Call me when you decide." He glanced back and saw her already turning to enter the nav calculations, flight controls locked to maintain their spiraling ascent. The screen by her left elbow glowed with the 'Blue Sun Computing--AstroCalc 2489 ver 6.41' logo, and a prompt blinked impatiently, waiting for someone to pay attention and log on.
River ignored it, her fingers dancing over the keyboard with machine-like speed.
Mal almost told her to stop, that he'd appreciate her waiting until he told
her their course before starting to calculate it. He didn't say anything, though. Arguing the point was a waste of time; he'd learned that much some while back. So he just glared peevishly at her back for a moment, felt the strobing view outside trying to bring his lunch back up, then retreated to the passage.
Why the girl occasionally felt the need to add a longitudinal, barrel-rolling spin to their ascent, he had not the least idea. At least the ship's internal gravity kept those inside from actually feeling the effects of the maneuver... much. Some minor lurching, sure, a little light-headedness for the few minutes it took to reach orbit... it seemed a small price to pay to keep River happy. Mal, though, found it impossible to look out a view port while it was happening. I never had the least little bit of motion-sickness, my whole damn life, until she started flying the boat. Go figure.
He stuffed his hands in the pockets of his jacket, waited to make sure he had the faint shuddering of the ship sussed out well enough to keep his balance, and then headed down the short flight of stairs and the passage beyond it, towards the galley. As he went he saw his breath fogging the air before him, and caught the slight dimming of the passage lights as the drive worked to pull them free of St. Albans' gravity. He was very much aware that neither of those things should be happening; that knowledge was what made his next decision critical. Or is it?
he wondered, half-seriously. Our little mystic says we're going to Boros, so should I even bother going through the motions of making the call on my own?
He snorted softly, shaking his head as he entered the large compartment that held both the kitchen facilities and the communal dining area where the crew took their meals. Nah, that's craziness, there. River can 'read' what's happening around her, sure enough, but there isn't such a thing as telling the future. She's scary-smart, and a real good guesser, is all.
He made himself believe that. He had
to believe that, otherwise, well, what was the point?
It was chilly enough to make some hot coffee sound good, even with his stomach still turning slow backflips from River's maneuvering, so he searched the kitchen nook until he found the little metal canister marked 'Blue Sun Mountain Blend--Best Coffee!!' in both English and Chinese, measured out a scoopful and dumped it into the brewer. When he pushed the button, however, the little light only flickered dimly, in time with the wavering of the fluorescents over the counter, and he growled quietly as he stood there, waiting.
"Is there any chance I might have some, also?"
The light, cultured voice held a distinct note of annoyance, and he looked up to see Inara enter, moving with easy grace despite the motion of the ship.
"I thought you were a tea-only sort of person," he said, even as he added more ground coffee and water to the battered appliance.
"I am, usually." She was wrapped closely in a long, shimmering something, not a coat, and not quite a cloak, either. Whatever, it was, of course, gorgeous, and had probably cost more than he would be willing to spend on a new hovermule. "At the moment, however," she continued, seating herself at the table and folding her hands before her, "Anything at all that's warm would be welcome."
He nodded in acknowledgement, but refused to apologize for something he had no ability to control. Or, at least it was nothing he was currently able to fix
"It's gonna get worse before it gets better," he told her flatly. "Even St. Albans is warmer than open space, at least when we're out this far. Closer in and the sun would warm us up some, but...." He spread his hands, and she sighed delicately.
"Then could I at least ask when I can have power back in my shuttle?"
"Oh. Well, that can happen soon as--" The light over his head flickered once more, then glowed strong and steady. The coffee brewer at his elbow beeped, and gurgled, and began to pour a thin stream of hot liquid down into the glass carafe below.
"That can happen right about now," he told her. "We've made orbit, so the engines aren't pulling all our juice anymore. I'll get Kaylee to throw the breakers back on and power you up." She made one of those slow nods of hers, a tiny motion that nonetheless put him in the mind of a full-on curtsey, all fancy and regal-like. Looking at her sitting there, so elegant and poised, even all bundled up as she was, led him to try asking her again, no matter what her answer had been the last four times around.
"You know... my cabin's still mostly empty, with plenty of room for your things. And the crew section always has power and heat, such as it is, on account of it being hooked in with the bridge and everything. We could keep your shuttle powered down, and save a fair few watts for the rest of--" She was just staring at him, with those huge eyes the color of honey, not even bothering to shake her head. He felt himself getting all frustrated and angry again, but plowed on ahead regardless. "Look, it isn't like we're not already... sleeping together." That last bit came out in a much quieter voice, as if the entire crew didn't already know all about the latest phase of their relationship.
"It's completely different, what you're asking," she told him, equally quietly.
"How? How is it different? I sleep in your bed, you sleep in mine--how is there a difference?"
Her eyes were a little sad, though her face, that impossibly beautiful, porcelain-perfect face of hers, gave away absolutely nothing.
"It just is, Mal. If you come to my bed, then I still belong to myself. If I come to yours, especially
if I stay in yours, then you'll see me as belonging to you." The soft, glossy waves of her hair rippled gently around her shoulders as she stood. "I won't give up who I am, or what I am. Not for anyone. Not even for you." She glided out of the room, as always seeming like an enchanted creature from another world, a far finer, more beautiful world, who had only deigned to visit the shabbiness of his own for a brief time, and was now returning to where she belonged.
Mal looked down at the cup he'd filled for her, the best one they had, with the china only chipped a little around the rim. Without word or expression he poured it down the sink, set the cup aside, and headed aft.
* * * * *
"--ust plain sick and tired of my gorram ship being half-lame!" Mal said, loudly. "Shu ma nyaow
Kaylee shrank back a tiny bit, eyes wide, and he tried to find a calmer, more reasonable place in his head to talk from. It wasn't any fault of hers that he was in a mood, not even a little bit, and he didn't speak again until he had his temper in hand. "What I'm asking, Kaylee, is what else we can do, to make do with what we've got."
His mechanic looked from him, to Zoë, and then back again, one hand drifting up to rest possessively on the portside frame brace of their grav drive.
"I don't know that there's much we can
do, Cap'n," she told him, finally. "Ever since that RTG died, we've been limping. And to be truthful, we were way under what's s'posed to be the safe operating range even before that."
He scowled, took his own look at Zoë's impassive face, and then paced a slow circle around the engine room. If he wanted, he could have Kaylee pull up the floor grating, and lead him down a short ladder shaft, into the very guts of his ship's vital machinery. She could show him, again, the three gray, armored rectangles (each of them stenciled with the inevitable Blue Sun corporate logo) that provided every bit of the power Serenity
needed to move, to make air, run the lights, and electronics, and heaters.... He could go and look again, 'cept that wouldn't help matters. It wouldn't change the fact that seven weeks ago, RTG number two had finally packed it in, and left them in a whole world of hurt.
"So tell me again," he said when he came back around to where the two women were standing. "Exactly how much juice do we still have?"
Kaylee looked uncertain, but obediently went to the small bank of digital readouts that was tucked into the same nook as her hammock.
"Well, right now number one is giving us about five thousand watts, and number three is showing a little over eleven thousand." She looked at him worriedly, and shook her head slowly. "That ain't good. Serenity
needs sixty thousand to run at max, without us having to skimp on nothin', and she's supposed to have at least twenty-eight thousand even when we're doing power conservation, and turning off things we don't need."
He knew all that, but nodded anyway. It was her job to make sure her Captain, who was not any kind of serious mechanic, much less an engineer, had enough information so as to keep him from accidentally killing them all. That was why he'd learned far too much, these last seven weeks, about exactly what a RTG was, and why they were the prime source of his current woes.
RTG's, or, more properly, Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators, were old tech. Very old, actually, dating from the dawn of spaceflight, back on Earth that was. Put simply, they were nuclear power sources that contained no moving parts, and were effectively maintenance-free.
The way they worked was simple: a brick of sufficiently radioactive material glowed with its own heat, generated by radioactive decay. The material used would never blow up like a bomb, and it couldn't melt down, either. It just sat there, and glowed yellow, and was damn hot. That's all it did, but then, that's all anyone needed it to do. Because, Mal had been told, if you took that brick, and surrounded it with a layer of little electronic thingies called thermocouples, then that heat would be transformed directly into electricity. Granted, you had to put a ton or so of lead radiation shielding around the thing to keep your crew from growing extra arms or whatnot, but that was a minor quibble when you were getting a power source that could basically be plugged in and then ignored, for years at a time.
The thing was, after those years had gone past, you did
eventually have to worry about things again.
RTG's were not inexhaustible. In fact, from the moment of their construction they began losing output, because the radioactive material was constantly decaying to produce heat. So if your powerblock gave you ten thousand watts this year, it would only give you ninety-seven hundred next year, and ninety-four hundred the year after that. That wasn't supposed to be a problem. Ships mounted multiple generators, with a comfortable power surplus, and swapped out old blocks for new ones on a predetermined schedule.
Usually they did, anyhow. Serenity's
RTG's, like the rest of her, were old
. Rated at twenty-five kilowatts each when they were new, they had all been well past their recommended replacement dates for some time now. Luckily for them, last year they'd made a deal for a slightly less-decrepit block that another freighter was getting rid of; an ecstatic Kaylee had dropped that one into the number three slot. Unfortunately, they hadn't kept the old one; the weight of the thing, plus the low-level rads it was putting out, simply made it impractical to leave lying around in the hold on the off chance they would need it again. That being the case, when number two had up and died on them last month (probably, River said, because of damage to the thermocouples originally inflicted by that Reaver ship's EMP beam), they'd found themselves on a ship that was only barely space worthy.
"Moving closer in to the core of the system would at least warm us up, Sir," Zoë said. "Plus there's more work there. Paying work, too, the kind Jayne likes so much." Mal looked at her, not much liking what she was suggesting.
"The core means Alliance, and I doubt they're quite over what we did to them, with that Miranda business."
She inclined her head, acknowledging his point without surrendering her position.
"We've never seen sign of any agents, since that Operative let us go. There haven't been any arrest warrants over the Cortex, and none of our clearances to ports with direct Alliance control have been revoked."
Mal folded his arms, leaned back against a bracing strut, and considered that.
"So far as we know
there aren't any agents, or warrants, or traces been put on our clearance codes. 'Course, the only way to know any of that for sure is to sail into a core port and see what happens, and we've spent the last seven months not doing that because
we can't know for sure."
"We can't stay out here on the rim forever, Sir."
"Actually, we can." He pushed away from his backrest, and took another turn around the room, as much to keep warm as because he felt like moving. "Those pelts the settlers gave us should trade pretty well on Cloud, or one of the other border moons. And just because we can't push as fast as some other ships don't mean that we can't haul grain, or timber, or anything else that won't go bad in a hurry--"
"That won't work, Cap'n," Kaylee said, then flushed a bit as she realized she'd cut him off. "What I mean is, we can't just keep on like nothin's wrong, not for much longer." She gestured at the extreme aft end of the compartment, where the upper segments of the interplanetary engine were visible. "The main pusher, the Photon-Reaction drive, she's not gonna keep running if we go much lower at all, power-wise. It uses lots of tricks to multiply what we feed it to work in the first place--flash capacitor rings and soforth, and 'course it uses the hydrogen from the fuel cells for reaction mass, but...." She made a helpless shrug of her shoulders, which turned into her vigorously rubbing at her arms to try and keep warm. "The bottom line is, there is
a bottom line. We drop under it, and Serenity
won't go. Not outside of planetary orbit, anyhow."
Mal looked from one woman to the other, and then around him at his beloved ship.
"Well then. I suppose we'll need to find us some semi-legitimate, core-world employ. Hopefully with a substantial paycheck attached."
Kaylee looked relieved.
"Won't take much to get her running fine again. I can find us a used 'brick somewheres pretty cheap if we have a few credits to flash around. And that recycler in the main life support circuit? It shouldn't give out for a least
another month, maybe two iffin' I baby it proper...."
He nodded, and looked to his second in command.
"I guess we'd better plot a course, then."
Zoë accompanied him as they left the engine room.
"I've been checking the lists on the Cortex," she told him. "There's a few you should look at. Two on Beaumonde, one on Sihnon, two more on Ariel...."
He shook his head, leading the way down the winding stairwell to the lower deck. The passenger dorms were sealed off, to conserve heat, being as how Simon was all moved in with Kaylee, and River had turned the storage area directly under the Bridge into her own cozy little crazy-girl den.
"I don't want to go as deep in-system as Sihnon, nor to any other rock we've made a habit of visiting. Even if the Alliance isn't still looking to find some payback, I'd rather not make it too easy for someone to recognize us and whistle up a detention squad."
"All right then," Zoë asked, reasonable as always. "Where?"
He paused in the doorway to the lower-deck common area, and tried to tell himself that it was coincidence. That it was his own gut instinct, and some private, Captain-type calculations of what the best move would be that brought him to his final answer. He tried to tell himself that, and found himself falling a fair ways short of success as he gave her the answer that River had given him earlier.
"We're going to Boros."
* * * * *