Summary: You like old planes.
Fandom: Battlestar Galactica/Firefly
Spoilers and/or Warnings: Spoilers for Serenity (movie) and through Season 2 of BSG
Title, Author and URL of original story: Before The Hurricane Begins by Zhailei
A/N: Many thanks to roga, who made this much better than it would have otherwise been.
Past The Red Line (We Are All Ghosts Remix)
The only thing you know anymore is that you're way past the Red Line.
"Cally!" Chief snaps, and you come back to the deck from wherever you were, lost in your thoughts. "Gonna help me fix this bird or not?"
Metaphors or whatever aren't really your thing. Instead you've got a map, creased and crumpled by now. Sometimes, in the sort of privacy of your bunk, you take it out, trace the path you've taken through space. You touch your fingertip to the cluster of the Colonies. On the map, they're all marked with their ancient signs. You like that. It's like a language you can't quite remember that represents a life that felt like a dream. You try to guess where you are now, but past the Red Line, there are only a few star clusters marked, nothing that looks familiar.
When the fire blazes up, the only thing that saves you is Chief's hours and hours and hours of deck drills. You called him paranoid, even remembering Prosna. He glared at you, standing there next to Jammer with your arms crossed, and said he didn't give a damn, you were all gonna put on the frakking suits until you could do it in your sleep. He said while Saul Tigh was the XO, every one of his people was going to do drills. So this time, when the missiles slammed into Galactica's rusty old flanks, you jammed yourself into your suit before you went to try to stop the Bucket from disintegrating.
Then, of course, you get vented. Or you slip. Or something. All you remember is shreds of metal flying past you, you praying none of them would nick your suit, and the space-bending exit of Galactica. You are, suddenly and without doubt, somewhere else. It is a cold, dark, lonely hour or so before some little ship comes out of nowhere and pulls you aboard. A miracle. It almost feels like an inconvenience.
Some guy who's clearly the muscle marches you in and tells you to strip off your suit. Your head is whirling as you try to sort out your surroundings: you're in a cargo bay, lots of compartments around, some kind of what looks like a hover pallet, something you haven't seen since that prototype show back on the Colonies. There's another man lounging against the railings of the ladder, and even though he's relaxed, he's obviously in charge.
"That'll do, Jayne," he says, and the muscle grunts and steps off.
"Not sure about this, Cap'n," Jayne says.
"Fortunately, that's not what I pay you for. Think I can handle one little girl."
"River," Jayne says. "Saffron. Hell, she ain't little, but there's no way you could handle Zoe."
"That's enough," the captain says. "Help her up the steps, would you? I'll thank you to let the others know our little situation's working out fine."
The captain has you put in a shuttle for half an hour or so, just, he says, until they get out of whatever scrape they've gotten themselves into this time. He winks at you. You fidget and look around. It's a tidy little craft, looks space-worthy even though it's clearly built for atmo. It's old. That's a comfort to you somehow. You like old planes. You haven't seen anything shiny except Apollo's Mark VII since you got assigned to Galactica, except the Blackbird, and that was built out of scrap, so really it was as old as anything else.
You'd think that by now old planes would be a terror, given the number of things that are bound to go wrong (fire, system failure, pieces falling off for no apparent reason), but you feel at home in them. At least that something will go wrong, and that you'll probably be able to hold the thing together with duct tape, a little solder, and a well-placed kick. By the time the captain comes back, you're breathing easy, looking over at the controls. You've never flown, but this bird seems like she'd fly for a kid. At least this time you've got options that don't involve chewing on anyone's ear.
At least this time you know how to hold a gun.
"Well now," the captain says, hooking his thumbs into his belt, like he's some kind of cowboy back on Scorpia. He's no Admiral, that's for sure. He reminds you more of Starbuck than of Adama, some wildness in him. "I'm Mal Reynolds and I captain Serenity. Who've we got here?"
"Cally," you say. It comes out weak and scratchy. You clear your throat. "Callandra Henderson. Deck Crew, Battlestar Galactica."
"Never heard of it," Reynolds says. "Where'd you come from?"
"I don't know," you say helplessly. "I don't know."
"A visitor," says a girl you didn't notice at first, and you jump. She's peering around him, all spooky eyes, looking like a child in a filmy dress and bare feet, though she must be at least seventeen. You think about Galactica, how nobody would have gone around looking like that, not even getting ready for a party. Can't scramble to battle stations in bare feet. It's clear that this is a civilian ship, and you relax again. The girl's got an air around her that reminds you of Cylons, but they don't seem to be aware of the war. Maybe you're free of it.
"A visitor?" Reynolds says. "From where? We picked her up in the middle of gorram space. She get dumped by someone? She sure as little green apples didn't get out there herself."
"No," the girl says, staring at you like she can see inside your head. She grins like a goblin at you and you're sure she can read your thoughts. You try not to panic, thinking about how glad you are not to be dead, how pretty you think this old wreck is. "She fell. A refugee. From somewhere cold and sad. Somewhere else. No maps anymore. The tide brought her through the shore."
"She do any harm to us?" he asks her.
"She likes old ships," the girl says, like that's an explanation, but he seems to accept it. You're just glad she didn't dredge up your memory of the gun in your hand, the hot splash of Boomer's blood.
"All right then. River, talk to Serenity, find a place to take us in. We'll find someplace suitable for our refugee."
She nods and whirls out through the hatch, leaving you alone with him.
"You're dropping me?" you ask, and your voice squeaks.
"Don't worry your head," Reynolds says, leaning back, still looking you over. He may trust his pet Cylon or psychic or whatever she is, but he doesn't trust you. "Won't let you down anyplace that isn't safe. Take you to the Core if we have to."
"I want to stay," you say, surprising yourself. "I know about old ships. I'm good with engines and fuel lines. My hands are small."
"Already got a mechanic," he says, pushing off the wall. "But River says you'll not harm us, so you're free to wander for now, though if you make her change her mind, I can't answer for Jayne. Engine room's at the end of the way downstairs, if you want to have a look. Serenity's most always in need of tuning, these days. Kaylee'll be around soon enough to jolly her along."
He actually turns you loose, which startles you. It's not a big ship, though: no chance of getting lost like you did the first few weeks on Galactica, no place for secrets. You find the engine room easily from the noise of it; the big engine spins loose in its compartment. It's strange to have so little security, where you can just walk in and look into the workings of the ship. You haven't seen an engine put together quite this way since you left boot camp and started your deck training. The engines of the Raptors and Vipers were crammed in, cramped. This engine has space to breathe. You lean over it, listening to the hum that's got a catch in it. It should be smooth, should flow like a song, but it doesn't. You stare at it until the spin hypnotizes you, and duck down to check the wiring.
"It's the compression coil," a female voice says behind you, and you turn around, crouched down. "Never had much luck with 'em."
You think you know, when you look at her, a little of what Boomer must have felt. You feel displaced. She's the same as you and not the same, just like this engine and the ones you burned your fingers on. Just like Boomer and Athena. In another galaxy, in this galaxy, you could have been her, maybe. If you hadn't joined the Fleet, it's not like you would have ever held a gun. The only thing you wanted from the military was money so you could go back to school, clean people's teeth, and watch the kids grin as big as they could, hoping for a sticker with a scratch and sniff fruit on it. This girl, who can't be much older than you, has a smile that would earn her a sticker from any dentist. She squats down next to you and puts her hands over yours, gently shifting your fingers left.
"I'm Kaylee," she says, and you nod. "It's okay if you can't fix her right away. She'll talk to you if she needs to."
You press in the place she showed you. "I've never seen one of these before."
"Pretty standard issue," Kaylee says, gazing into the workings.
"Not where I'm from," you say. "Been a deckhand for five years and I've never seen one of these."
"Oh!" she says. "Well. Engines, they're all the same deep down. Mean to say, they all speak the same language, they just sorta phrase things different."
You poke around in the engine a little longer. Chief used to admire your hands: small, of course, but he said you had fingers like a lockpick, like they could hear the bad vibrations. You push gently, trying to tune your hands to this engine's harmonies. After a while it's better. There's still that catch in the vibration, but it's less frequent. You can feel it. You can't fix it. Story of your life, you think.
"That's all I can do for now," you say.
"That compression coil's 'bout shot," Kaylee says, pointing and shaking her head. "I keep telling Cap'n he needs to get a new one, but we're always off to someplace. Life of crime and all."
"Crime?" you ask.
She puts a hand to her mouth. "Oh! Cap'n didn't tell you? Well, you're here, you might as well know. We're a smuggling ship. Ain't a captain more daring than Mal. We run cargos from one end of the 'verse to the other and back again. She's sneaked past more blockades than anybody out there." She seems proud of herself and her ship. It's strange, but sweet.
"You know, you ain't half bad for a beginner," Kaylee says, giving you that smile again. You feel a little easier under the light of that smile. She pushes herself up and dusts off her hands on her jumpsuit. "Come on. I'll show you Serenity."
For a moment you just stand there, thinking that her offer sounds like death, in the best way. Peace, quiet, calm: serenity. Then you remember that it's the name of this funny old ship and you blush a little bit. "Yeah, sure," you say.
Kaylee gives you the tour of the ship. It only takes ten minutes or so. Serenity's hardly bigger than a Heavy Raider. "There's the guest cabins, there's sick bay, this here's a living area, that one's Inara's shuttle, here's the mess, these are all the crew quarters, and here's the bridge."
You stand there staring at the unfamiliar stars. The eerie girl, River, sits in the pilot's seat, her fingers dancing over the boards.
"No archers here," she says. "No scales. No balance. No twelve moons to dance by the light of, but no simacrula either." She looks up and smiles at you. "Don't worry, Callandra. You're safe here."
"See there?" Kaylee says. "Callandra. Ain't that a pretty name. I clean forgot to ask, some kind of hostess I am."
"Cally," you say.
A tall black woman pokes her head into the bridge. "Dinner in an hour. 'Nara's making something."
"Zoe!" Kaylee says. "This is Cally, our guest."
Zoe crosses her arms and looks you over. You hold your breath. The way she stands, she could take your head off at ten paces. She nods slowly and says nothing, ducking back out. Kaylee looks after her, a worried expression on her face that's gone by the time she looks back to you.
"Inara's a wonderful cook," Kaylee says. "You'll just love her."
"The black's a heartless lonely land," River singsongs, sounding like she's reciting a poem. "But barer still the hearts of man."
You stay on the bridge with Kaylee and River until Reynolds comes back and rounds you up like you're a bunch of cattle. "Grub!" he says. "Better get in here before Jayne eats it all."
Inara is prettier than a dream; Jayne grunts over his food the way Hot Dog does; the crew's doctor, Simon, is suspicious in a way that comforts you. The food is good, better than anything you've had in a long time, and you almost relax. The crew loves each other, that's clear. You recognize that comradeship in them, the time of war. There are no Cylons, not that you can tell, but their war is with the whole 'verse, and it's just that they've made this place for themselves, where they don't talk about the razor edge, about surviving. They joke. They laugh. Zoe's quiet, but they weave her into their conversation. Now and again there's a word or a phrase in a language you don't know. Kaylee slips her hand into Simon's and leans on his shoulder. Once, you catch Reynolds smiling at Inara in a way that makes you blush and look away.
"We'll figure out to do with you tomorrow," Reynolds says at last, leaning back in his chair. "Kaylee, you seem to be the welcome wagon. Want to show our guest to her quarters?"
At night, in the guest cabin, you find the map tucked into a pocket of your jumpsuit while you're undressing. You smooth it out under your hand. You wonder if any of the stars on this map are marked on River's charts, if she could steer you back the way you came. Almost by themselves, your fingers fold the map again and slip it back into the pocket it came out of.
You're not home. You could never go home anyway: home is a nuclear wasteland as far as you know, ash and rubble as far as the eye can see, no green things, no buildings, and nobody left to come to your neat, clean dentist's office with its porcelain fixtures and the soothing fake-strawberry smell of flouride paste. Galactica is gone. She won't jump back to find you, no matter how Chief shouts, if he even does. You're as good as a ghost. You hope he'll put your photo up on the wall, and print your name at the bottom so that people remember.
You slip into your rack. The blankets are clean, but old enough to be soft. You're exhausted. There's no porthole and you're glad. You trace the familiar shape of the Archer on your pillow until the rumble of the engines makes your eyes drift closed.
You're past the Red Line, all your history lost, and gods, you miss it already, but you've got a clean start. You're alive. You won't take the coward's way. The gods have brought you here and you'll go on. Maybe this is heaven; maybe it's hell; maybe it's just life. You're too tired to think about it tonight.
Years after the end of the worlds, you've found Serenity.