HOW TO AVOID BREAKING
THROUGH ICE WHILE DRIVING
The ice cubes clinked in his glass as Wash set it down on the dining
table with an absent thud. "Do you remember Earth?" He looked across to
Mal and rocked back in his chair.
Zoë knew the answer. After ten years, she had heard all of
stories of things that had happened, and more than a few about things
that hadn't quite. Mal sometimes looked to her to tell the difference
when the distinction got a mite blurry to him, but she couldn't help
She pushed her chair back. "Excuse me." She picked up Wash's bowl, then
hers and kissed her husband on the forehead. "I'm going to check on
Kaylee. She's feeling kind of rough."
"Not everyone takes to space," said Wash. "I've seen plenty of people a
lot tougher than her wash out. Big strong, manly men..." Wash made
gorilla movements with his arms and grunted through his nose.
Zoë rolled her eyes and carried the soup bowls back into the
"She'll be fine," said Mal. He took a swallow from his glass and worked
it down purposefully with his tongue.
Wash twisted his facial muscles around in a not particularly respectful
Arms crossed, Zoë leaned against the doorframe. "He could be
Mal looked up. "Taking his side? That's not a trait of a particularly
"I'm just saying, sir, it's been six months. That's longer than you'd
give a recruit."
"This ain't a war--case you ain't noticed; this is my ship. She'll be
"Because you say so? Some powers you have there, oh great captain,
sir." Wash's voice walked that tenuous territory between a question, a
laugh and a scoff.
"Need be." Mal studied his hands where they turned his glass round and
round. "My ship."
"And everyone always does what you say?" Wash pushed.
Mal looked up. "Not always." He shifted his eyes to Zoë where
There was a noise as Zoë moved from the kitchen door. She
filled a bowl
up with soup. "I'll go see to her. Night, Captain." She ruffled her
husband's hair as she walked by.
Wash relaxed and broke into a goofy grin as her fingers messed his
already hopeless hair. "Be in in a minute, sweetie." He caught her
wrist and kissed her hand in a grossly exaggerated fashion.
Zoë dropped her fingers down to his chest and pulled at the
buttons of his shirt. She nuzzled next to his ear. "Nice shirt,
sweetums. It'd look better on the floor than on you. Don't be long."
Before she left, she tweaked something under the Hawaiian print.
Wash's eyebrows shot up to his hairline. And he wiggled in his chair.
"If I were you, I might start concerning myself with what she
says 'stead of with me." Mal drained his glass and cocked his head in
the general direction that Zoë had gone.
"Always. Believe you me." Wash spoke to no one as he watched
disappear down the passageway. "You just pay me; she can beat me up!"
"Best you remember that, sweetcakes!" Zoë's voice called
Wash gave a sloppy mock salute into the air, then downed the rest of
his drink in a single gulp.
Mal chuckled and refilled both of their glasses. "I was always a mite
afraid of her too. Why do you think I hired her? Least if I pay her
wages, I get a little say-so." They clinked glasses and together they
sipped in silence.
"So, do you?" Wash asked, after a minute.
"What?" Mal blinked over his glass.
Mal made a face into his drink. "Not so much." It wasn't strictly true
in a factualish sense, but since he couldn't tell Wash what he wanted
to hear about the home planet Wash had never seen, it seemed the most
appropriate answer. Although Mal had lived there until he was eleven,
the vision of The Earth that Was that Wash had idealized in his mind,
Mal had never known.
Not many alive had. California had been among the first places to get
Mal remembered bits and clips from a child's point of view. His family
had been among the very last to leave. His memories were concrete and
ephemeral, like the chill of an ice-soy sliding down his throat, the
buzz and sting of a wasp before his arm began to swell painfully tight,
or the shimmer of a rainbow in the scales of a carp as they fell from
under the blade of his first real pocketknife.
He couldn't have answered questions or given specifics, but some things
like that were so real that they could have been just yesterday.
Sometimes when old folks told him stories, Mal thought he could
remember things, but it was in that odd way that it happens when you
can't separate what you know from what you have been told.
His identcard said that he was born in North Dakota. His brother,
Luther--Lou--had said they were evicted when Mal was only two, so that
didn't seem much likely. To a kid one place is pretty much like
another, as long as those you take to are there with you. The big
distinction is whether you put on a swimsuit or a snowsuit to go play.
In that respect North Dakota had been pretty much like Nunavut, so Mal
figured the two most likely had rolled together in his mind.
Mal remembered the way that the Northern lights had kaleidoscoped to
make even the view of the raw strip mines look pretty. He remembered
the warmth of a church and the musty smell of the hymnals as he sat
cross-legged on the worn, wooden pews with his mother wedged in beside
him so that he wouldn't squirm. The pews were stolen one
winter--presumably for firewood. They were never seen again. Sometimes
Mal thought he remembered gathering in the gutted building to pray, but
most times he decided that was a false memory from a story someone had
told him once too often.
Mal remembered the melt of snowflakes on his tongue and of ripping off
his radiation facesheild, when no one was watching, to feel the downy
fall of them against his face. He remembered skating on a frozen lake,
going as fast as a Solidarity scoutship burning through space. He liked
skating best in the dead of winter when it never really got light.
There wasn't much on land worth seeing no way, then when it got real
dark and you were out in the middle of the lake, it was just you and
the stars. Mal would spin and speed and twirl and zoom pretending not
to hear the call of his mother or brother telling him to come back
They might take everything else away, but they couldn't take away the
beauty of the freedom of gliding effortlessly under that big, open,
Almost all the land on the world was already used up. There hadn't been
many options for relocation back then: the arctic, the desert, or
off-world. When the Solidarity government razed their settlement in
Minot, North Dakota to harvest minerals underneath for terraforming,
most folks had chosen the last--at least, that's what Lou had said--but
his parents wouldn't be forced off their planet by anyone.
Parts of Nunavut were still habitable. Glacial runoff had left some
potable water and Somerset Island and the Boothia Peninsula had
retained a little ozone protection.
Folks had thought their dad was feng kuang, taking
delicate woman and two kids into the arctic, but Mal remembered his
mother's face as--after a storm--they had grimly shoveled the ice and
snow that had all but sealed them in once again. This had been her
idea--no doubt about it.
Mom had always said that some things were worth fighting for.
His father had never be the kind to say much, least not from what Mal
could remember, but he never got the idea that Dad disagreed.
Mal remembered the night his father was killed, again, in a child's
way, not so much as he now wished he did. He didn't remember being sad,
just excited--and maybe a little scared. Shots flew in both directions
as the raiders charged their food storage ice shed. Damn, it, go! His
father had screamed back at them as their mother had pushed them
through a back window. Take care of your brother, boy, were the last
words that Mal had heard. Mal took Lou's hand and together they ran
through the darkness, following their mother's lead across the lake.
It wasn't until a few years later, Mal reckoned that their dad had most
likely been talking to Lou--not to him.
Lou told him that their dad had been sick with a radiation cancer--same
as mom--growing in his neck. It's not like they could afford a doctor,
said Lou, so it's probably just as well. There are only two things that
really belong to a man: his pride and his life. One's not worth niou-se
without the other.
Mal saw reason and hoped that what Lou had said was true. But Lou had
also told him that his missing pet ermine had migrated north to live
happily with a whole tribe of other weasels as his mother served stew
with real meat--for once--allegedly to soften the blow.
Mal supposed he would never really know the truth. Not that it
mattered: dead was dead, no doubt about that.
When his mother found the lump in her own neck, she was the one to tell
both boys. She said that they would have to be grown-ups now, and
grown-ups had to accept things like that.
When she finally died, Lou had moved them off world. It put them among
the very last to leave. Lou had said some things were worth fighting
for and some ain't.
Mal remembered a day the last spring before she died. At the time it
felt like his first day as a man, though it was supposed to be one of
his last days as a kid. I don't care how warm it is, keep your
radiation garb on, his mother had called to him as he ran with his
skates to the lake. The daylight hours were already getting longer.
Soon the ice would begin to thaw and break; he would have to make every
remaining day count.
The sun shone down hard making the lake sparkle through the grime. In
the spring melt, all the accumulated precipitated pollution hiding
under the layers of snow was beginning to emerge. Mal shoved on his
skates and raced out to the middle of the lake, under his big sky, as
fast as he could. The scrape of his blades on ice mixed with the whoosh
of slush pushed aside where the sun had already begun to melt the
The loud whine of a Gault Conversion Engine filled his ears. Mal turned
around. Lou was driving across to join him, not on blades but on their
personal icemobile. There was no more fossil fuel on Earth and imported
fuel was too expensive, so it ran off of the static electricity it
could gather from the atmosphere. Not powerful, but people had to make
do these days. Lou had souped it up with a custom capacitor so that at
full charge it had more speed than most, but still it would get you
anywhere you cared to go nohow fast.
"Race you!" Mal called. Lou lined up with him.
Go, said Lou. He burned off without warning.
"No fair!" said Mal, pushing to catch up. The wind whistled in his ears
as he darted, fast as a shooting star.
Whoo-woo! Lou hollered as he widened the gap. He
spun a little victory twirl and jumped the mobile a few inches in the
Crack! There was a ominous sound as the icemobile settled down still
for a few seconds before sinking through the layer of spring ice. Mal
watched his brother vanish beneath the surface.
"Lou!" he shouted and dashed to within a few yards. He stopped and
dropped to his belly--inching carefully towards the hole. "Lou!"
A head appeared. Lou ripped of his facesheild and scrambled for the
edge of the ice. Another small piece broke off. Lou threw both arms up
over the edge and tried to heave up, but slipped back into the water.
"Use the key!" Mal shouted.
What? Lou struggled to stay afloat.
"The key! Dig into the ice with the key!" Mal pointed to metal mobile
key that dangled from the dead man's lanyard on Lou's wrist.
Lou wrapped the key in a fist and stabbed it into the ice. He pulled up
again--just a little farther before dropping back with a splash.
"Here." Mal slid his pocketknife across the lake. "Don't let it drop."
Lou took it in his other hand and rammed it hard into the ice it. He
grunted and heaved up clearing most of his torso over the edge--but the
weight of his body and the water-laden clothing pulled him back down
Mal swore as he struggled out of his parka. Holding it by one cuff, he
stretched it as far out as he could. "Grab on!"
Lou hauled himself up and grabbed the other sleeve.
and grunted, trying for
traction as Lou's
weight pulled him towards the hole instead. He dug in with the tips of
his skate blades and strained with all his might. His legs cramped and
his shoulder burned. With his other hand, Mal pulled back on the
sleeve. Slowly, Lou crept up.
Aaaach! With a grunt, Lou flopped onto the ice like a seal on his
belly, his legs still dangling into the water.
"Come on!" Mal yelled. "It'll crack if you don't."
Lou crawled out and lay panting on his stomach.
"Keep flat. Keep moving," Mal said as he scuttled backwards himself.
"Ice don't hold as well if you're still as if you're moving."
On his belly Lou slithered towards his brother. A safe distance from
the hole, they both collapsed, breathing hard and laughing for no
reason that a sane person could understand.
We could get the tractor and go again, said Lou.
Mal balled his jacket up. "You lost my knife, you niou-pigu."
Lou uncurled his hand. The pocketknife was there.
Mal grabbed it back and stuffed it in his pocket. "Thanks."
Yeah, said Lou. You too.
Sure, there were clear events, but overall Mal wished his memories of
Earth were more exact, especially of the sky and the starfield he had
known. A few weeks ago, he had flown Serenity
to the Sol system. He'd parked in Earth orbit over Somerset Island and
relieved Wash from the Bridge. He'd just sat there and stared out the
Bridge window. He wanted to imprint the star pattern on his brain.
You going down? Zoë had appeared in the doorway.
You sending any one down? Zoë had asked. The ozone was totally
eradicated and solar radiation bombarded the planet ceaselessly. There
was no place that could be visited without a suit. In addition, most
land areas had been made unstable by overmining and massive tectonic
shifts made the seas even more unstable. There was nothing left of the
Earth that was. Any plants left had been rendered too radioactive for
consumption and the last of the native had either left or died.
You just going to sit there?
"Yup." Mal had stretched back in the pilot's seat.
Fine, sir. We'll be in our bunk. Zoë had left. She'd never set
Earth either. He couldn't realistically expect her to understand. Mal
had watched the stars for hours.
"Hello! Hello!" Wash waved a hand in his face.
"Interesting invention, this conversation thing," said Wash. "I talk,
you talk, I talk, you talk. It's been known to work, but it does take
"Huh?" Mal looked up. His glass was empty.
"I-talk. You-talk." Wash mouthed each word slowly.
Mal stood up abruptly. The chair scraped back with a rude noise as he
did. "Check the Bridge for space traffic. I'm going to check on Kaylee."
"Zoë's with Kaylee."
"So she is," said Mal.
"Alone with Kaylee." Wash stressed the first word.
"And when I get there, she won't be alone. Take the Bridge." Mal picked
up his glass tried to shake one last drop out. He strode out of the
dining area without looking back.
Ironically, it was on Saint Albans that it had all come to a head.
Their squad was gunning for an Alliance weapons' depot. The lieutenant
had gone down with frostbite, of all things. He was a college boy from
Osiris and unprepared for prolonged seige on a planetsized ball of ice.
Don't do that, Sarge, Zoë had said as she changed out of her
wet clothes and pulled on a pair of dry pants.
Mal started from behind her back. "I hadn't figured you as like to be
She'd turned around to face him: nude from the waist up, 'cepting her
necklace. I'm not, she'd said. It's a bad idea, Sir.
"Don't seem like it from where I stand. I figured you for a mite more
pragmatical. In fact--"
She interrupted him for the first time that he could remember. I am
pragmatic, Sargent. So which do you plan on: sending your girlfriend
into the first wave of a firefight, or having someone else watch your
He stopped. He nodded. He felt his jaw straighten into a tight line.
"Get dressed. You're holding us up."
She'd pulled on her top. Sorry, Sarge. It won't happen again. In less
than twenty seconds she was into her parka, had shouldered her
automatic rifle and was on her way after him.
"How you doing, Kaylee?" Mal stood in the doorway.
From her hammock, Kaylee twisted her neck around. "Shiny, Captain."
Suddenly her face fell and turned an unexpected shade of gray. She
jumped up, hand to her mouth, and made a dash for the head.
Zoë shrugged. "Told you, sir."
"You've been wrong about our crew before," said Mal.
"Suppose you're right." Zoë crossed her arms in front of her
I don't think she likes me, said Wash as Zoë left the Bridge.
"Could be," said Mal going through the navigational data.
I don't see how you can be so cavalier, said Wash. She's got big guns.
He spread his arms wide. Great big guns!
"Not my concern." Mal dismissed the comment. "It ain't me they're
She's also got big-- Wash made jiggling gestures with his upturned
"I don't pay you to think; I pay you to fly," said Mal with a sharp
You haven't paid me at all, quipped Wash his moustache seeming to turn
up in a smile even after his mouth had stopped moving.
"You keep your lips flapping like that, that ain't likely to change."
Mal clicked off the screen and turned to the fuel mix comps.
I'll do that; you'll just muck it up. Wash pushed him out of the way
and took over the calculations himself.
"Good idea--you doing something along usefulsome lines." Mal stepped
back from the controls. "Bad enough one of us not liking you. Be a
gorram shame to make it two." With a final look at the long-range
sensors, Mal left Wash alone on his Bridge.
"Worked out okay before." Zoë's tone was bland as ever.
"Suppose you're right," Mal said.
Captain, Zoë and I are going to be married! Wash grinned from
ear to ear as he burst into the dining area.
"I know." Methodically, Mal continued cleaning his handguns.
What do you mean you know, Wash asked. She just agreed five minutes ago.
Mal shrugged. "She told me last night."
Wash ran his fingers through his hair. I don't believe this. I don't
qiang bao hou zi de believe this! Wash paced in increasing fervor. She
asked you for permission to live her personal life?
"No." Mal set down one clip and picked up another with his oiled rag.
That's sure how it gorram sounds, said Wash, slamming his hand down on
"T'ain't," said Mal, unruffled.
Right. Says you. How do I know that? Wash glared in his direction.
"Simple." Mal shrugged. "I told her to say no."
You... You.. Wash stammered. Zhe zhen shi ge kuai le de jin
zhan! He exploded at the top of his lungs. I knew it! I knew
it! I wun gwo pee
in this 'old army buddy story' from the beginning. You've been comrades
in arms and-- Wash made an obscene gesture with his hands--tian
xiao de in arms too! Wuh de ma! Wash
slammed the table again.
"Relax," said Mal, sliding an empty clip into a pistol and testing the
hammer in Wash's general direction. "I tried once; she turned me down."
Wash stopped cold, his face blank. Yeah?
Mal set the gun down. "Emphatically. Yeah."
Yeah? Wash beamed.
"Yeah." Mal extended a hand. "Congratulations."
Yeah! Wash pumped Mal's outstretched hand.
"Suppose it did." Mal crossed his arms across his chest too.
She waited, meeting his gaze, her entire body language as coolly
impassive as ever.
"What would have happened?"
She cocked an eyebrow at him.
He recrossed his arms the other one on top, now. He recrossed his legs
as well where he leaned. He cleared his throat. "You know, back then,
if I had decided to..." He cleared his throat again. "...let someone
else watch my back."
"You should know I would have never let that happen, sir."
Mal worked to keep his face flat.
"I will never stop watching your back, sir." Zoë spoke with
conviction and without a pause.
Mal swallowed and reached for something to say. She beat him to it.
"Sir, you being raised where you were, you should know all about thin
"And you should know I ain't never been afraid of it--being that we've
been through the history that we have."
"Who said I was talking about you, sir?" Zoë crossed her arms,
mirroring his stance.
They stood like that for several long heartbeats.
"Excuse me, cap'n." Kaylee's voice broke the silence. "Coming through."
She put her hands on Mal's waist and pressured him aside. Her face was
still a sickly gray, but a spark of a smile was back in her eyes. "Must
have been something I ate. I'm much better now, sir," she said. She ran
her hand over Serenity's engine before flopping
back in her hammock.
"Good," said Mal. "Good to hear that."
"Good," said Zoë.
Kaylee pushed her hair back and reclined into her blanket. The bowl of
soup sat untouched on the ledge beside her.
Mal straightened. "In that case, night, Kaylee. I'll be 'specting an
engine overhaul in the morning."
"Yes, Cap'n. I'll have her done bright and shiny. Night."
"Night, Kaylee," said Zoë.
"Night, Zoë." Kaylee squeezed her hand as Zoë moved
to the doorway.
"Night, Zoë." Mal motioned Zoë through the doorway in
front of him.
Zoë stepped up and out of Kaylee's engine room. "Night, sir."
"Night, Zoë." Mal watched her walk down the passageways of his
toward her husband. He took a step down the passage, then another. Thin
ice held better if you kept moving. He brushed his fingertips over the
bulkhead of Serenity--his girl--as he walked.
We're still flying, he thought.