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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Serenity/Firefly fic: Sticking to the Plan (2/5)

December 28th, 2017 (03:10 pm)
enthralled

feeling: enthralled

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE


-o-

Mal wasn’t sure if it was fortune or foul luck that the family was still where they left them. Huddled together on a bench in the port, the father was fiddling with some papers while the mother seemed to be sleeping. The two girls were playing some sort of child’s game on the ground in front of them.

Simon was all business, approaching them without even a moment’s hesitation. Didn’t even slow when the little one starting hacking so hard that her father had to still her and her mother woke up. Mal didn’t think of himself as a coward, but he had no desire to get sick, especially if it meant more time in the infirmary with Simon’s shiny bedside manner.

“Sir,” Simon said. “I think I can help you.”

The man looked startled, sitting up a bit and putting his papers aside. “Help me?” He paused, coughing into his arm. He looked up with a watery smile, and even from a distance, Mal could see the yellow in his eyes. “You’ve both been very helpful, though. I have my tickets on a boat to Adelaide in just a few hours.”

Simon shook his head. “No, with your cough,” he clarified. “How long has your youngest been sick?”

The man frowned a little, concern creasing his forehead. He looked down at the youngest, who stared bleakly up at Simon. “Georgiana’s just got something of a cold,” he said. “Little over two days ago. Quick virus, though. ‘magine we’ve all come down with it.”

As if to punctuate the point, both girls began coughing once more. The wife roused, her fingers stringing through her daughters’ hair.

Simon stepped even closure, cautious only out of respect. “It’s Rocelle’s,” he explained.

“Well, I don’t reckon I--”

“Highly contagious in this system,” Simon explained. “Runs rampant on ships because of the lower air quality.”

“We can manage,” the father said, trying to sound convincing. “I’m sure--”

“Your daughter will be dead within one hour of lift off,” Simon said flatly, but his eyes were alight with sympathy. “The rest of you might make it a day. Probably less.”

The father’s mouth opened, then closed and his wife inched closer to him, her hand wrapping around his. The sheer shock on his face made Mal wish he’d stayed in the shuttle.

Simon opened his bag. “But I can help you,” he said. “It’s treatable. With the right drug cocktail.”

The man looked flustered. “I can’t pay--”

“We ain’t asking for money,” Mal interjected. “Just let him help you, and we’ll all be on our way.”

The man was still in shock, but he closed his mouth with resolve. “A shot?”

Simon smiled. “We’ll be done in two minutes.”

Finally the man nodded, his eyes darting down. He placed a hand on his youngest’s head, before looking back up to Mal, then to Simon. “Well then I’d be much obliged for those two minutes,” he said.

Simon’s grin widened. Injector in hand, the doctor went do his knees, looking at the girls steadily. It was a remarkable thing to watch, really. Mal knew the boy was gifted at what he did, but it wasn’t often that Mal got to see him truly in his element. Leastways when Mal wasn’t focused on other things, like a hole in his gut or one of his crew hanging onto life by a thread. Simon could be efficient, he knew. And he could be obstinate, that much was true. And Simon had even once tried to leverage his services for his own personal benefit, though Mal had to wonder if he’d still refused the boy’s offer, if Simon would have treated Kaylee anyway.

Because Simon cared about people when they were hurt and dying. It was a thing to behold, it really was. When this high faluting doctor could get down eye to eye with a girl who didn’t have nothing and treat her better than Mal treated just about anyone.

Simon was talking softly to her, readying the injection. By the time it was good to go, the girl was even laughing. The second one was even easier, giggling even when Simon injected the drug.

His manner with the parents was equally measured, but more reserved, giving them the space and respect the pair needed to deal with the news they’d just been dealt. All in all, it was fast, efficient, and, most importantly, done.

Mal glanced at the clock on the wall. Two minutes, just like the doc had promised.

The father was thanking Simon rather profusely. Simon offered the man a hearty handshake, accepting a hug from the mother.

Ready, Mal gave a once over to the situation. Business was moving as usual in the port, as best Mal could see. Nothing seemed amiss. Their two minute detour might turn out okay after all.

Simon was approaching him, straightening his shirt. The family had picked up their things, moved on down further down the platform. “There,” Simon said, with a certain amount of smugness in his voice. “Two minutes.”

Mal’s eyes narrowed, not wanting to give the boy the satisfaction of being right. “More like three.”

Simon’s face scrunched up. “You timed it?”

Mal shrugged. “You’re the one assigning times to everything.”

Simon sighed, rolling his eyes. “Fine, then let’s get going before we waste any more of your precious time.”

Mal straightened his shoulders, turning back toward their shuttle. “I couldn’t agree more,” he said, starting on their trek back.

Simon didn’t say anything, but Mal could imagine the look or pure contempt on the doctor’s face. It was a pleasant image. Mal even let himself smile at it.

He was so enjoying that thought, that the voice caught him by surprise.

It was loud and familiar, which is why it stood out. Plus, Mal had a sense for trouble, and everything was telling him that he was about to get a whole lot more than a ruttin’ two minutes worth.

“I thought we said our dealings was done.”

Mal closed his eyes just for a moment. He kept himself very still, purposefully so. Then he moved his hands out wide to his side, turning carefully with his hands exposed but ever so slightly poised.

Next to him, Simon was already frozen, hand halfway in his medical bag, repacking his supplies.

Facing the voice, Mal gave the best smile he could muster, and Brand really wasn’t much to smile at. He didn’t look much more savory in the hustle and bustle of the port, and the cold gleam in his eyes was sharper than before. “We were just on our way,” Mal assured him, keeping his voice friendly-like.

“That why the boy has his hand in that there fancy medicine bag?” Brand asked, his voice laden with accusation. The scraggly man was flanked by the two men from the meeting, the lean one and the guy with only one eye.

“I was just offering them some treatment,” Simon said. “It was an easily preventable disease.”

The doctor meant well enough, but it took all of Mal’s self control not to flinch. It took even more than he thought he had not to turn around and smack Simon senseless. The boy didn’t know what he was doing, Mal had to remind himself. Besides, hauling Simon’s heavy ass back to the shuttle would be far more inconvenient than having to shoot Brand to end this mess.

Brand’s eyes seemed to twitch, and it become clear to Mal that they were no longer exchanging private words. Mal’s trigger finger itched, quelled only by the slight movement of a security guard. There was no way to know just yet whose side the local authorities might be on if this whole thing went south.

“Easily preventable,” Brand repeated, enunciating the words like they were foul. The he sneered. “Seems awful high and mighty of you to come to our moon and tell us what’s easily preventable.”

Classic logic. People who lived on the brink always felt like they were on the defensive, mostly because they were. Mal couldn’t entirely disagree with the spirit of it. It was why he had fought against Unification so hard to begin with. Because there were some things that shouldn’t be dictated, certain ways of life that just couldn’t fit under mandates and laws.

But Simon had only wanted to save the lives of that family. It wasn’t a far reaching sort of thing, and Mal could tell the difference.

And he could tell when someone was just grasping at straws, building a straw man just to burn him the hell up.

Mal had walked away unscathed from their meeting, but Brand’s ego hadn’t been quite so lucky. That seemed like an okay deal to Mal, because the alternative? Meant one of them wasn’t walking away at all.

“This don’t have to be quite like this,” Mal said easily, putting out one hand in front of him. He kept the other near his hip, just close enough to count.

“Seems like you’re awful set on givin’ the orders,” Brand said, and one of his buddies snorted in agreement.

“Just a suggestion,” Mal clarified amenably. He glanced around again. The family they’d helped was gone, as was the rest of the traffic from the port. Simon hadn’t moved next to him, and the port authorities had disappeared, the office dark and closed up. Apparently they bought into the logic that if they didn’t see a fight, it didn’t happen. Convenient, Mal was sure, but it did not give him many options. “Seems like we’d all be happier walking away. Call it all off.”

Brand’s lips twitched into a smile, revealing a deteriorated row of haphazard teeth. “Doesn’t seem that way from here.”

Mal nodded. “Pity,” he said, and he let the hand in front of him go wide, shifting his weight ever so slightly toward Simon, hoping that the boy was smart enough to know that it was high time to duck and run, because Mal didn’t need this fight, but he sure as hell didn’t fancy losing it either.

Simon moved imperceptibly, and Brand was poising himself to fire, and Mal didn’t wait to see how the outcome from either action went before he drew his gun and fired.

The shot was good and clean, wining Brand in the shoulder of his shooting hand. Not enough to kill, but enough to knock him clean out of the fight. But one down still meant two to go and Mal was ducking bullets as he rolled for cover.

There was a pause in the gunfire, at least coming at him, and Mal realized he was getting some notion of cover fire. He moved instinctually to it, finding refuge behind one of the massive pillars in the station.

The gunfire picked up again, and Mal turned breathlessly to Simon who had pulled back behind the pillar’s cover. Bullets nicked at the metal, clanging off uselessly, but it made for one unnerving racket.

“Cover fire, really?” Mal asked him, almost amused.

Simon’s expression did not share the humor. “Book talked me through the process,” he said.

Mal spun, firing out without looking in the general direction. He caught a glimpse of Brand and his friends behind another pillar across the platform.

He turned back to cover, pulling in on himself as another firestorm hit at their backsides. “I don’t suppose he taught you how to hit anything, did he?”

Simon was ducked low, his face twisted into a grimace. “We didn’t really get that far into the conversation.”

“Oh,” Mal said with a nod. He peaked out, spraying a shower of bullets. On the other side of the column, Simon did the same. They both pulled back at the same time, seconds before another round of bullets pinged off the column that was protecting them. “In that case, how do you feel about running?”

Simon winced as a bullet hit particularly close. “Is that the best plan you can come up with?”

Mal turned, firing rapidly, before pulling back. “It does have a certain simplicity to it,” he said.

Simon stared, until a fresh wave of gunfire snapped him out of it. With a scowl, he pulled out, firing wildly at the opposition.

It was Mal’s turn to wince as Simon pulled back to cover. “You might want to try aiming or we’re liable to hit someone we’re not intending.”

Simon was incredulous. “I am aiming.”

“Oh,” Mal said. “Right. So the new plan.”

“Tell me it’s better than run,” Simon said pleadingly.

“Course,” Mal said. Then he grinned. “Run faster.

Before Simon had time to embark on a long winded protest, Mal was moving, counting on Simon’s fairly strong survival instincts to kick in and follow suit. Mal fired as he left cover, keeping up his rounds until they both found their next shelter. Simon fired off a few more rounds while Mal reloaded, and then they were off again.

It was harder this time -- the angles were not in their favor -- but the distance was. What the other guys had in manpower and home territory, Mal figured they had in speed. And the simple fact that when it came to running, very few did it with the finesse and skill of Malcolm Reynolds. There weren’t much in this ‘verse that Mal could put his name on, but an expert runner? Hell, yeah.

It was so easy to fall back into soldier mode, the go-go-go survivalism that kept him alive throughout the war. Mal knew that history often made heroes of the winner, but to him, real valor was nothing more than living to fight another day, even if you lost.

He couldn’t be sure of the doc’s mentality in all of this, but when push came to shove, he was counting on Simon to follow the plan. After all, the boy wanted to protect his sister, and there wasn’t a good way to do that if he was dead.

The boy couldn’t shoot a gun worth a lick, but he could sure as hell run. Made for a fine plan, running and firing, running and firing until Mal realized there weren’t nothing much to fire at. He paused, looking back. He could see Brand’s counterparts a ways back, one firing at him, but not close enough to count.

It did seem a bit odd to Mal, because he knew he was adept at running and that Brand’s friends probably had about as much going on upstairs as Brand did, but they did seem to be giving up awful easy. To pick a fight and not follow it through seemed like an odd tactic. But hell, maybe it was hard to find good times on this moon, who was Mal to say?

All that mattered was getting off this piece of dirt in one piece.

And right about then, it looked like it might happen.

Finally.

Shuttle in his sights, Mal grabbed Simon’s arm, hurling him in front of him. Turning, Mal sealed their retreat with one last volley of shots. When he made it breathless to the shuttle, the door was open and he ran inside.

He didn’t stop to breath until the door slide shut.

Safe.

Exhausted, Mal blew out a breath, leaning over until his hands were on his knees. It was a strange thing, coming down off an adrenaline rush. All that hype and all that energy, just vanishing from his veins and making him realize that he was perhaps getting too old for this kind of thing.

Across the cargo area, Simon had adopted a similar pose, but on his sweaty features there was a look that Mal could only characterize as incredulity. “Was that part of the plan?” he asked between pants.

Mal would have stood to his full height, tried to impose some fear into the younger man, but his lungs still ached too much. “You’re the one who said two minutes,” Mal snapped back.

Simon shook his head, taking a gulping breath. “My part did take two minutes.”

Mal snorted, letting his head drop forward again. Of course the boy would think that. Simon had always been a bit shallow on the full consequences of his actions. He was the type that would jeopardize an entire crew to protect his own, and maybe Mal could understand that, but that didn’t mean he had to like it.

Standing up right, Mal worked to control his breath and cast a glare toward the doctor. “I really don’t think you should be splitting hairs right about now,” he advised. “I let you play doctor, now let me play captain.”

Simon straightened, face still looking a bit pained. Mal would figure it was the adrenaline rush for him as well, but with the doctor, it was never easy to tell. The boy almost always looked to be in a state of mild constipation as far as Mal was concerned.

“Fine,” Simon said, his voice flat. “What do you need me to do?”

Mal moved toward the controls, starting the power up sequence. “Sit down and shut up until I get us off this rock.”

With that, Mal said, initializing the navigation controls and warming the engines. He readied communication as Simon sat in the chair next to him, prim and proper. The life and death situations were never Mal’s first choice, but he had to admit, sometimes the side effects were quite tolerable. Something to curb Simon’s contrary nature couldn’t be all bad.

This was neither the time to gloat nor was it the time to reflect. It was time to get the hell off this backwater little rock, take their cargo, get their payment, and move on with life before something else went wrong.

And something else always went wrong. Mal smiled ruefully as opened a comm link with the port authorities. “Alliance Remote Port 144, this is Shuttle 3345 requesting permission to depart.”

There was a crackle, then a pause. “Shuttle 3345?”

Mal kept his demeanor, but next to him Simon shifted uneasily. “That’s right. Checked in for a brief stay just over two hours ago.”

There was another pause and a crackle, and for a moment, Mal actually considered the notion that they might have to make a run for it after all. Simon’s breathing hitched, the young man’s eyes darting from the console to Mal’s face to the window in front of them.

Then the static cleared and the professional voice came back over. “Shuttle 3345, you are cleared for departure,” the voice responded back. “We hope to see you again soon.”

“Copy that,” Mal said as cheerfully as he could before breaking the comm link and commencing the take off sequence.

“They weren’t curious about the gun fight?” Simon asked.

“Gun fights happen all the time,” Mal replied.

“In the middle of a port? An official Alliance Port?”

Mal shrugged, double checking the key systems. “Your fancy Alliance don’t have the funds to staff these places with real officials, so they hire out. We can bet that whoever runs this place is just happy to see us leave before we cause any more havoc with our two minute detours.”

Simon’s expression turned sour again. “This wasn’t my fault.”

All systems were go, and Mal flicked on the engine. “Ain’t it sure wasn’t mine,” he said, wrapping a hand around the controls. “If we’d stuck to my plan, we’d have been off this rock already.”

“If we’d stuck to your plan, a family would be under a death sentence.”

“I ain’t arguing the ethics of it all with you, doc,” Mal said. “Let’s just count our lucky stars we’re getting out of this one with nothing more than a question of blame to hampered our spirits. ‘Sides, I thought I told you to shut up.”

Simon’s mouth shut, jaw locked tight, and it was as close to sulking as Mal had ever truly seen a grown man get.

The image was so damn amusing, that Mal almost forgot that he was holding a grudge against the boy for this whole debacle.

Easing the controls back, Mal pulled up off the ground, navigating them carefully away from their port station. As they got in to the open air, he retracted the landing gear, turning them around to head out of atmo at the right trajectory. The engine rumbled, a familiar sound, as they climbed, and Mal amped up the energy to get them up to speed.

All in all, a textbook definition of a normal takeoff.

But something wasn’t right. Mal wasn’t a pilot like Wash was and he certainly wasn’t close to a mechanic like Kaylee was, but he had a sense about these things. That vague notion that something was just slightly amiss, the unsettling sense that they were walking on the edge of a cliff and about ready to fall off into the black.

But what? Their navigation system was online, the course was set. Engine capacity was fine, not at peak, but as good as could be expected. Their life support was functioning good and proper and they were just about to break atmo--

Then he heard it.

He wasn’t as attuned to the shuttle as he was Serenity, but he heard the faint rattle and the colorful whine and knew a second before it happened just how screwed they were.

Next to him, Simon was frowning. He heard it, too. “What the--”

The sound of an explosion cut him off. Mal pushed the engine hard, surging them through the last layer and into space. Explosions diffused better in the black, and it would buy him just a second, but a damn near invaluable second.

Because the bomb that had been planted on their engine was simple, jerry rigged to go off when atmo was broken. A failsafe. A crude and easy way to knock enemies out of the sky. The fight at the station hadn’t been a poorly executed attempt at revenge. It’d been the distraction, plain and simple.

And now Mal had a shuttle full of medical cargo, a doctor with a crazy sister waiting for him, and an explosion that was about to hack into his fuel lines until the whole thing went boom. It’d be an impressive fireball, quite the fireworks on the ground. Maybe that little girl’d like that.

Except Mal didn’t want to die. It just weren’t in his constitution, he figured, or he probably would have kicked the bucket years ago. He still wasn’t sure what got him through the war. Shepherd liked to tell him it was God’s will or some kind of miracle. Mal figured part of it was good luck and just being damn fast on the draw.

Pulling a gun was easy, though. Keeping them from exploding took a bit more finesse.

And what options did he have? Shutting down power would be too slow -- they’d be fried before the lights went off. There weren’t no time to try to put together some kind of fix, especially since he was not overly mechanically inclined. There was a reason he needed a ship’s mechanic to keep the boat in the air.

Hell, the only option Mal could think of, crude as it was, was to just eject the whole damn engine and hope they had enough lift to get them clear of the last explosion when it hit.

It was a long shot, but it was a shot. Better than sitting around and doing nothing.

Another blast shook the shuttle and the whining increased.

It had to be done -- now.

Mal was not overly schooled in these things, he knew how to push the right buttons under duress. A quick override, keeping his focus while the entire shuttle shimmied. He needed to hold her together minute more, a second more....

Kaylee would chew his hide for this, all those parts drifting in space would make her damn near depressed, but given how strongly she seemed to pine for the doctor, perhaps she’d spare him the full extent of her righteous rage.

There -- he pressed one last button, the final override gone. The ship was keening now, a high pitched whine nearly drowning out everything else. Metal banging metal, walls shaking, the seat rocking so hard that Mal had to hold on, knuckles white as he prayed he was quick enough.

“Mal, what--” Simon was about to say.

“Hold on to something!” Mal screamed over the growing din and he didn’t have time to see if his order was followed when the third explosion rocked them -- and this one was a doozy.

At first there was only light, bright and encompassing, filling through the windows with a radiant intensity.

They were suspended like that for a moment, caught and illuminated for a surreal second, before the force of the blast caught up to them.

It sent them hurtling, the shuttling tumbling aft over bow, flipping them through space. Mal didn’t know if they’d still have thrusters available when this was all said and done, but even if they did, he had no way of getting to the controls when he was being tossed around like he was.

He hit the ceiling, looking down at his chair and the control panels for a moment before he was hurled backward. He glanced off something and rammed into a wall before tumbling forward again.

This time he hit his chair, hands flying out in front of him before he careened headlong into the console.

The console. Now would sure be a heck of a nice time for those thrusters, something, anything just to give them a way to stop. Because space was a deep, long vacuum, and without something to slow them down, they’d probably never stop and they’d be hard to find when bouncing among the planets like a ping pong ball.

Ping pong. That would be fun to have. Mal would have to think about that if they ever stopped spinning.

He was flying toward the window, past the bright lights of the console, and he knew this was his chance. Reaching out, Mal grabbed onto the console, feeling his whole body jerk as the shuttle’s momentum tried to toss him backward. He held though, through sheer force of will, trying to get his eyes to focus in the melee.

His eyes zeroed in, focusing on the buttons like a beacon. The shuttle thrashed him back and he nearly lost his grip before promptly throwing him forward. This time, he couldn’t stop himself, and he hit against the console hard.

But he was close enough now. Digging one arm free, he grappled at the buttons, before finding the right one.

The change was instantaneous. There was a lurch, then a stuttering. The shuttle strained, walls creaking with the sudden influx of counter motion.

Then, the shuttle shuddered horribly before coming to a stop.

For a second, Mal didn’t dare move, kept his fingers tight on the console, almost afraid of what would happen if he let go.

He waited. There was no sound, no movement. Just his own pounding heart in his ears.

They were stopped. More than that, they were in one piece.

Mal let out his breath, dropping his head and closing his eyes. That had been close. That had been too close. Much more and he and the good doctor would have been scrambled like eggs.

The doctor, Mal remembered.

He opened his eyes, heartbeat picking up again. “Simon?” he called out, looking around the small space.

It was hard to focus -- things were hazy around the edges and scattered about. It probably didn’t help that the lights were off, a slight glow from whatever backup reserves they had left. At this point, Mal wasn’t even sure he wanted to know just what that amounted to.

He blinked hard, squinting to try to clear his vision. “Simon?” he tried again.

Then there was a groan -- someplace across the room.

Getting on his feet, Mal had to steady himself for a second. Then he navigating in the dimness toward the noise. “Doc, you okay?”

“Mal?” Simon’s voice answered, faint and confused.

By the time Mal finally found him, the young doctor was propping himself up on his elbows, looking genuinely confounded. It might have been pretty damn amusing were the situation not so genuinely confounding.

Mal went to his knees next to the boy, trying to get a look at him. “You still in one piece?”

Simon winced, a hand going to his head, touching at a spot behind his ear. He looked up at Mal. “What happened?”

“You mean the part where we went top over tail in space or the part where I threw on the thrusters for one last hurrah?” Mal asked with grim amusement.

Simon’s brow furrowed. There was a cut along the boy’s hairline, but other than that he seemed to be in one piece. “I was actually referring to the massive explosions, but I’ll take any explanation I can get,” he said dryly as he maneuvered to a sitting position.

Mal sat back on his haunches, shaking his head. “Booby trap,” he told the doctor honestly. “A hot cherry right up in our engine. Not exactly sophisticated-like, but that moon ain’t exactly known for its sophistication.”

It was Simon’s turn to shake his head. “But why?”

“I’m not sure their type need a reason in particular,” Mal said. “But they picked a fight for us for not leaving well enough alone.”

“We didn’t even set up the trade,” Simon said. “Why would they be upset about that?”

“I don’t think it was the trade they were upset about,” Mal pointed out.

Simon’s mouth opened slightly as he caught the meaning. “The family we treated?” he asked, in honest disbelief.

Mal shrugged.

“We were just saving their lives,” Simon defended. A flush appeared in his cheeks. “Possibly even contained an outbreak. Rocelle’s is highly contagious. Anyone who hasn’t spent a lot of time in the system would probably be wiped out by it.”

There weren’t much to disagree with there. But the doctor wasn’t thinking like a criminal. “If we go ‘round handing out medicine for free, how are they going to hock it at triple the cost?”

To that, Simon had no immediate reply. The boy just sat there with wide, incredulous eyes. Finally his mouth closed and he swallowed hard. The self righteousness seemed to lessen as he glanced around. His eyes settled back on Mal with a hint of chagrin. “How bad are we?”

“Me? I’m fine,” Mal said. “Little sore, perhaps have an impression of the console on my chest, but I’ve definitely had worse.” He paused, giving the younger man one more discerning look. “You sure you’re okay?”

Simon nodded, back to business. He pushed himself to his feet. “After my months with you, I can certainly say I’ve also had worse,” he replied with a sardonic quirk of his lips.

Mal stood next to him, nodding tightly. “Well, that’s something then,” he said with a tilt of his head. “Let’s just hope the shuttle has as good of story.”

-o-

Mal really should have known. With the doc in one piece and Mal no worse for wear, he should have known. Mal had many things, but good luck really weren’t among them. Two out of three was too good, so why it was such a damn disconcerting surprise when he ran the diagnostic, he wasn’t quite sure.

Though he thought part of it was probably that no matter how many bad things happened, finding out that you were on a crash course with death just never settled quite right.

He’d known they’d have no ability to go much of anywhere. That was sort of the consequence of dumping the engine. But he had sort of hoped that they’d cleared the explosion far enough to prevent even worse damage.

But that was where Mal’s streaky luck came into play.

Because the explosion didn’t compromise the structural integrity of the craft, best Mal could tell, but it’d took out the main power reserves. Worse than that, it’d also taken out the auxiliary supplies, and along with it navigation, communication, and, oh yeah, life support.

As if they hadn’t already been there and done that one.

So lightning did strike twice. Because the dead displays were pretty clear. They were adrift in space, no way to call home.

All in all, Mal almost wished he’d been injured worse so he wouldn’t have to deal with this mess.

But he did have to deal with this mess. And it really was a mess. And for Mal to think that, it meant something, because he’d seen his share.

He cast a furtive glance toward Simon. The doctor had at least had the decency to recognize his own uselessness and made himself scarce and uncharacteristically quiet. The younger man was sitting somewhat dejectedly in the other chair, watching Mal with uncertain reservation.

Damn kid didn’t know. He had no idea that they were well a ways up the creek with nothing resembling a paddle in sight.

All for a damn little family of four.

He sighed.

“What?” Simon asked finally, and Mal realized he was glaring.

Mal swallowed, looking away for a second. He pressed at a control in an act of futility.

Simon stiffened in his seat. “What’s wrong?”

Mal couldn’t help it. He laughed. “Well, it’d probably be easier to start with what wasn’t wrong.”

Simon shook his head. “Okay,” he said slowly. “Are you going to explain what that means or am I just supposed to guess?”

Guessing might be kind of amusing, and if Mal were honest, he just didn’t want to say it out loud. Because he knew the implications of it all. He knew better than he wanted to, and if there was something worse than dying, it was knowing that it was going to happen.

But Simon was looking at him -- just looking. Though Simon’s place on his crew had been tenuous at times, he still saw Mal as the captain that he was. Sure, the boy had a tendency to put River first and annoy the hell out of everyone, but Mal had staked his life out for that boy and he had done the same in return. Mal wasn’t one for platitude or softening the truth. It just wasn’t the way he lived, but that didn’t make it any easier.

Anyone else probably would have figured it out by now. He did not doubt that the boy was smart -- hell, probably smarter than Mal was by all accounts, but for all that boy knew, he was not well versed in certain areas. And the ins and outs of what kept a shuttle in the air was one of them. That was, after all, why he was the doctor and not the mechanic, but damn it all, Mal really wished he didn’t have to spell it out quite so plainly.

He took a breath, pursuing his lips. “It means,” he said slowly, enunciating the words carefully, “that we’re dead in the air. We ain’t got a lick of power, ‘cept that which powers the most basic systems. We’re lucky that we’re even still pressurized.”

Simon blinked, his face remaining stony. “Don’t we have auxiliary support?”

Fair question, and it’d been the first thing Mal had checked. Hell, he’d hit the button five times before he’d finally accepted that it just gone, blown to hell by the bomb. “The last blast knocked out our reserves,” Mal said. “We got enough for one good thruster burst and lighting, but that’s about it before we burn up whatever’s left in the batteries.”

Simon waited, then shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

Mal sighed, feeling his exasperation pushing to its limits. Being on the brink was something he was unfortunately rather used to; having to spell out their nearly insurmountable death sentence was just downright depressing. “It means the only reason we’re seeing anything is because the equipment has some juice still running through them. Give that a few hours, and it’ll be pitch black. ‘Cause, you see, we’ve got no engine, no heat, no oxygen, no communication,” he explained with finality.

Simon’s features quivered and he visibly swallowed. “So we’re going to die,” he concluded, a small tremor in his voice.

“Unless they taught you the fine art of holding all that hot air inside of you at your fancy Alliance schools, I reckon it don’t look all that great,” Mal agreed tersely.

There was a look of incredulity on the young doctor’s face. “You are acting far too flippant for someone who just told me that we’re going to die,” he said. “You have a plan, right? Some kind of way out of this?”

Mal could pick up on the fledgling hope in Simon’s voice. He shook his head, laughing low.

“What?” Simon asked.

Mal looked at him squarely, leaning back in his seat and crossing his arms over his chest. “It’s just funny to hear you say that,” he said, shaking his head. “All the crap you gave me about my plans, and now here you are, wanting me to come up with something to save you.”

Simon had the decency to look chagrined, if only for a fleeting moment. Then he lifted his chin slightly. “I just know you always leave yourself an out,” he said. “What kind of captain of nefarious business would you be if you didn’t have an out?”

Mal scoffed. “I do,” he said. “It’s called back up power and a good comm link. But wait, the explosion from your little side trip knocked both of those out right after we had to eject our engine.

The lingering disbelief was still there, almost obstinate in face of the facts and utterly oblivious to the insult. And Mal couldn’t totally blame him. Mal operated in a world of few absolutes, but among them was survival. It was why he’d sent his crew away while clinging to his dying ship. It was why he’d lost a war, but hadn’t lost his crew. “So you’re telling me we’re just going to sit here and die,” Simon concluded for him.

Mal raised his eyebrows. “No,” he said with a huff, because even if there were some truth to their seemingly inevitable death sentence, Mal was never the type to take it sitting down. “I’m telling you we’re going to sit here and survive.” He pushed to his feet, rubbing his hands over his thighs. “But first things first. Let’s see just what we have left to work with.”

With that, he made his way to the back of the shuttle to survey what they manage to salvage from their encounter.

Simon was behind him. “I thought you said our reserves were hit and our communications were down,” he said plaintively as Mal double checked the cargo. “What else exactly do you think you’ll find?”

He checked the locks on the bins, pleased to find they were still in working order. Considering the sturdiness of those totes, Mal could trust that the supplies were still in order. “Our cargo’s still intact,” Mal reported with satisfaction, turning to face the doctor.

Simon stared at him. “Yes, and I’m sure the money will be very helpful if we suffocate.”

“Aw, come on, doc,” Mal cajoled as he resumed his checking. The entire area was in disarray, the equipment spilled all across the floor. Kaylee would not appreciate how easily the tools were tossed around. He thought briefly about trying to fix the power himself, but he wasn’t that handy and he certainly wasn’t a miracle worker. Maybe he should have brought Book instead of the doctor. A Shepherd’s prayer could have a might more weight than the unhelpful ramblings of a medic. He turned again, smiling at the doctor, a cruel, bitter smile. “This way at least we know that the rest of the crew ain’t going to go without just because we might. Hell, more for the rest of them. We could even make sure that River gets your share.”

Simon didn’t flinch, but his face twitched ever so slightly. “That’s not funny,” he said.

Mal picked through the supplies, pleased to find that the food rations weren’t completely destroyed and the water was still secure. He picked up a bottle, tossing it at Simon. “You’re right,” he agreed as Simon caught the bottle. “And that’s why I ain’t laughing.”

“Can’t we try to fix it? Put out an emergency beacon?” Simon prodded doggedly.

Mal rolled his eyes, going back to his inventory. The structure of the shuttle still seemed solid enough, though there were some dings on the walls and ceiling. It was impossible to say if they were leaking anything else. Without power, he had no way of knowing the full extent of the damage. “That’s a nice idea,” he said conversationally. “Except only access to the power reserves is from the outside. Only way outside is through that door. If we don’t have power, we can’t depressurize the right way and we blow ourselves into a oblivion. Now it might be a bit faster to go that way, but a might less noble.” He leveled his eyes at Simon.

“So what about the emergency beacon?” Simon asked persistently, seeming unfazed by the fact that Mal had delineated the multiple and sundry ways in which they were probably not going to make it out of there alive.

He stomped back toward the console, flicking one of the working switches. He pressed down and stomped back with a glare toward the doctor. “There, happy? Emergency beacon deployed. I’m sure all the fine friends we made down on the moon will be sure to pick it up for us.”

“You said this moon is a common layover,” Simon pointed out.

Mal unearthed several blankets and a box of rations. “For people who are venturing out into the farthest outlying planets,” he clarified. “These types don’t have time or energy to spare, even if they were so inclined. The chances of us catching the sights of someone who will help us...”

Simon’s jaw worked. “Serenity is supposed to meet us.”

“In eight hours.”

Simon shifted, fear flitting over his face again, just for a moment before it settled back into resolve. “And how much time do we have?”

Mal stopped -- he had to stop, blankets in hand. Because he’d seen the readouts. He’d done the math quick-like. He knew.

There was a reason this was so bad. There was a reason why he had to see just how much this hunk of metal had left.

He held Simon’s gaze, willing himself to say what he had to only hope wasn’t a death sentence. “Four hours,” he said, and he watched as Simon flinched. Drawing a steadying breath, he made himself continue. “Maybe less. Kaylee’d be able to tell us more accurate, but considering how long it takes the oxygen system to filter itself, I don’t imagine we can hope for anything more than that.”

Simon nodded in small, jerky motions. It was easy to read the faraway look in the young man’s eyes, the small reminders that this was still nothing more than a boy who was out of his element. No more than a year ago, Simon Tam was a doctor in the Core, all the world at his fingertips.

Now he was a fugitive, on the run, and in a dying shuttle. Hell, this was the kind of stuff Mal lived through for the better part of his life, and he still wasn’t particularly fond of it. He’d just learned to ride it out, to keep pushing through. No matter who took a shot at him, no matter who landed a punch. No matter what parts were breaking down or what heists were going south. Mal survived. Sometimes in spite of himself, he just kept surviving.

Funny thing, when he’d first allowed the boy and his sister refuge aboard his boat, he sort of figured they wouldn’t last too long. They had a propensity for trouble, and too many manners to be safe.

But Simon had changed. Mal wasn’t one to admit it, of course, but he had to give the doctor his dues. Not just with a scalpel and a medical scanner, but the boy was willing to pick up a gun and fight, even when he didn’t stand a chance at winning.

Bravery wasn’t something that could be learned. It was something a man had or he didn’t.

Mal had it.

Simon did, too.

After a long moment, Simon nodded again. “Okay,” he said, simple and to the point. He raised his eyes to meet Mal’s once more. “We’ll need blankets -- everything we can find to keep warm. The longer we can keep our body temperature up, the less likely we are to be effective. We’ll start to feel the air before we feel the hypothermia, but in four hours time, they’ll work together to put us under. So any preparations you think we need to get in order, I suggest we do quickly. Once the CO2 emissions reach a certain level, we will be incapable of much else.”

Mal watched him for a moment.

Simon blinked. “What?”

“Nothing,” Mal said, a small smile tugging at his lips. He tossed a blanket toward Simon. “I’m going to see what the range on our beacon is. You think you can finish the inventory?”

Simon caught the blanket, lifting his head slightly. “That won’t be a problem.”

That was one thing anyway. But at that point, Mal would take what he could get as he headed back to the console to better gauge their status.