Firefly#1—Pillar of Light
Firefly lasted only one season in 2002, but it remains one of my favorite TV shows. In this short, I wanted to see what it would be like to play with the characters, the chopped pidgin-English they speak, and the harsh universe they inhabit. If you’ve never seen the show, this piece will make no sense whatsoever. So, do yourself a favor and watch a few episodes first.
◊ ◊ ◊
Kaylee sat out on Serenity’s cargo ramp with her parasol. She never-minded babysitting her girl whilst the burly side of the crew found work. Docks was busy-bright places—full of pretties. Full of troublesome folk, too, but they mostly left her be.
She watched a raggedy woman break away from the crowd and stop at Serenity’s tell to eye the ship’s stats. Kaylee sighed. They could use passenger fare. She had a coolant tank rubbed so thin she were afraid to cough hard. But they didn’t take passengers no more. Not since River and Simon.
The woman looked up at the ship, saw Kaylee, smiled a bit. Not so raggedy after all. Just weary, like most folk on the Fringe. Fact was, she had a nice face.
“Says you’re headed for Persephone,” the woman said, pulling a big trunk on wheels up the ramp.
Disappointment pinched Kaylee’s mouth. She could do with another girl to talk to. Inara was too busy Companioning. Zoe was… well… Zoe. And a person never knew what kind of bibbity might come out of River’s mouth. She looked up at the woman and saw long conversations passing her by.
“Sorry…” she started to say.
But, just then the crawler broke through the crowd—Wash’s hair wilder than usual, his eyes big as compressor disks. Kaylee could just make out the round of Shepherd Book’s back as he hunched over something in the cargo bed. She stood.
“Trouble?” the woman asked, watching the approaching vehicle.
Tess’s hand went to the holster on her hip as the crawler rushed past her and the girl into the ship’s hold. But they were friendlies—the driver panicked and babbling; a Shepherd focused on a young man who looked to be choking; and a teenage girl squeezed to one side acting disgusted. Odd, that last one.
Tess jumped into the crawler. “What happened?” she asked the Shepherd.
“Don’t rightly know.” The gray-hair took her in one glance. “River—the girl—wandered away from us. Simon went to find her. We tracked them to the edge of a field…”
The young man’s eyes were glazing over. His tongue looked thick, swollen. Tess noticed a dusting of blue in his black hair.
“Patch of little blue flowers?” she asked.
“Yes.” The Shepherd’s ebony face furrowed.
“The bees,” River said. She jumped out and plucked up Kaylee’s parasol. “They sang a blue song.”
Tess missed a beat studying the girl. “Help me,” she finally told them, pulling Simon out of the bed. “You have a medic?”
“He is the medic,” Wash said, his face a picture of worry.
Tess slapped Simon as they hauled him out. “Do you have diphadryl?” she shouted at him.
The young medic’s breath wheezed through a throat quickly swelling shut. He tried to focus, nodded.
“Quick now,” she told the men. “Bring him. You!” She grabbed Kaylee. “Show me.”
They ran through the old ship to a surprisingly well-appointed infirmary. Tess rummaged through the drug drawer as the men carried the doctor in. His lips were dusky, his eyes unseeing when she plunged the hypo into his arm.
“Oxygen?” she asked without much hope. But the Shepherd dragged a tank to the bedside. She fit the nose piece, checked the boy’s pulse. He was a boy, now that she looked at him whole. Watching his breathing even out, she let a thin smile slip.
“He’ll be okay—may sleep a spell, though.” She brushed black hair back from his pale brow and came away with chalky, blue fingers. “Some are mortal-allergic to Sapphire Spot. ‘Spect we should strip him down and bag his clothes. You, too, little girl.” She nodded to the odd one who had retreated to the corner with Kaylee’s parasol.
“Don’t mean to sound ungrateful-like…” Wash ran a hand through red-blond hair—no wonder it stood on end. “… who are you?”
Before she could answer, a commotion in the corridor cut her off. A no-nonsense woman supported a man under the shoulder. One of his pant legs was torn open to a kerchief tied above the knee.
“Captain’s snake bit,” she snapped. She saw Simon asleep on the table. “Tzao gao!”
“Could this shee niou job go any farther south?” Wash muttered as he helped Zoe haul the captain onto the second table.
“What kind of snake?” Tess pushed the woman aside and touched the swelling wound—a row of punctures in a calf grown hot and hard.
“Ching-wah TSAO duh liou mahng!” the captain swore. “Yellow. Snakey.” He looked at her. “Who’s this?”
The girl ran. Zoe pulled her gun.
“Captain asked a question,” she said quietly. “Best you answer.”
“No time.” Tess unbuckled the captain’s belt.
“Hey now!” He pushed at her hands, slippery with sweat. “Takin’ liberties on my ship… my ship…”
He grayed out as she yanked the belt off and fastened it high around his thigh.
“Pull that,” she told the Shepherd, slapping the end of the belt into his hand. “Tight.”
“Zoe!” The captain roused. “Get back to the rendezvous! Jayne can’t deal with Spider by his ownself. Get Wash… Where’s the gorram doc?!”
“Hush!” Tess pushed him back on the table. “Go,” she told Zoe. “Do what you need to. I’ll take care of him.”
She grabbed the bag out of Kaylee’s hands as she dashed back into the room. “Get me a scalpel and another syringe. And a glass of water.”
The girl scrambled around the room. Zoe stood firm, rifle cocked.
“C’mon,” Wash said. “You heard Mal. Not that I’m one for following his every order…” He looked meaningfully at Tess. “She’s wen tuo.”
Zoe looked at him, hesitated, then lowered the gun. “Faster in the crawler.”
“You can ride shotgun,” he said, moving toward the door. “Appropriately, enough.”
Tess shot the captain with anti-venom from her bag and cut open the bite—fast and efficient even with him bellowing in Chinese and fighting the Shepherd. She sucked the blood and spat, tasting the bitter venom. Sucked and spat. Sucked and spat. Then, she rinsed her mouth with the water and spat that. His breath started to get ragged. He stopped fighting. Quick, she sliced off the kerchief and pulled the belt away from the Shepherd.
“Do this instead,” she told him, squeezing the captain’s leg from groin to knee. “Milk it like a teat. Get that blood out.”
She ripped open Mal’s shirt, attached monitor leads, watched as his blood pressure dropped and heart raced.
“Ai-yah tyen-ah,” she muttered, checking his eyes. “Mal, yes?”
Taking his hand, she held it to her heart. “C’mon, Mal,” she whispered, placing her other hand on his chest. Tess closed her eyes and breathed.
Sweating from exertion, Book milked dark blood from the captain’s leg. It oozed out the incision and pooled under him. He’d seen snake bite. This one hit hard and fast. He could hear the rattle in Mal’s breath. Desperation hardened his hands.
Suddenly, a sense of peace struck him so deep it brought tears to his eyes. He looked up at the woman standing at Mal’s head, her hand lightly splayed on his chest, her face full of God. The beauty of it stopped him. He straightened up and felt Kaylee tuck her arm around his. River came out from the corner.
“Don’t stop,” the woman said to him, but her voice was soft, dreamy.
Book went back to work, pumping his hands down Mal’s leg, his heart racing as fast as the monitor beeps. But, soon those beeps evened out, and the captain’s breath flowed smooth and quiet.
“That’s enough, Shepherd,” the woman said quietly. “You and the girl wash the wound now and cover it. I’ll stitch it up in a bit.”
Mal’s head cleared a little and he looked up at the woman standing over him—bright blue eyes, blonde-brown hair, a face that had seen too much—like him—but a face he loved so dear it brought tears. Loved?
Simon stirred, sat up. “What happened?”
Tess smiled tightly at Mal, at the wonderment and vulnerability of his expression. She knew his kind—knew him through and back. Those dark, brimming eyes would clear in a minute, the strong jaw reset itself. Then, he’d push at her. Best to give him space for his pride. Still clutching his hand to her heart, she laid it on his chest and turned to Simon.
“You were in anaphylactic shock.” She checked his pulse, his eyes. “You must have run into Sapphire Spot before.”
“Those blue flowers?” Still bewildered, but coming back. “The last time we were here… maybe…”
“Put it on your ident card.” She helped him sit up. “You and the girl are contaminated. Can you deal?”
“Of course.” He pulled away from her grasp. “Who are you?”
“Tess Malone,” she said, taking in the whole of them. “I booked passage on this boat.”
Mal raised up on shaky elbows. “Somewhat amazin’, since we’re not takin’ on passengers.” He gave Kaylee a meaningful look.
She shrugged. “There were no time to tell her, what with Simon chokin’.”
Mal eyed the doctor in a meaningful way Tess couldn’t cipher. “Don’t seem right to throw dirt in Luck’s face. Might be able to get you to Persephone, leastways.”
“Much obliged,” she said carefully.
Simon took in Mal, his bleeding leg, Shepherd and Kaylee moping at the wound, and River frozen in place.
“What else happened here? You’re wounded?” He slid off the table, but his legs buckled.
“Easy.” Tess steadied him. “You can check your captain and my protocol later, yes?” She waved at River. “Honey, come help him.”
The girl swayed toward them like a dancer. She watched Tess with her water-clear eyes.
“Pillar of light,” she said, stopping in the middle of the room. “Not quantifiable.”
The girl’s words rocked Tess, but she didn’t flinch.
“Shepherd!” River cried, suddenly terrified again. She twirled toward Book.
“It’s all right, River,” he said, his face inscrutable. “Go on and help Simon.”
“Blue dandruff,” she giggled.
Quixotic, she grabbed the medic’s arm. Simon gave Tess, then Mal, one last look, then let River lead him out.
“Pay the girl no mind, Miss,” Mal said. “She’s a might scrambled in the brain pan.”
“I’ll need sutures to stitch your leg,” she said tightly, crossing to the sink.
Book moved to her side, opened a drawer and took out a sterile pack. “You have the Touch.”
Tess dried her hands without pause, took the pack, pulled a stool to the table.
Kaylee glanced at Book, then sidled down the table to face Tess. “Were like ridin’ high on my daddy’s shoulders with the sun shinin’ down.”
Tess couldn’t breathe. She dabbed at the still-oozing wound.
“What the sun tsu li bao you two chatterin’ about?” Mal scowled at Kaylee, then Shepherd.
Book laid a warm hand on Tess’ shoulder. “You’re safe here,” he told her.
Tess ripped open the pack and began to work. Mal hissed.
“I have the Touch,” she finally admitted.
Mal laughed. “And I s’pose you have wings and a fancy wand.”
“I’ve seen this before,” Book said quietly.
“It’s rare,” Tess said.
“Reed of God,” Book continued. “That’s what we called Brother Amos. A conduit for God’s love and grace.”
“I don’t know about the God part,” Tess said, sliding the curved needle through the lips of Mal’s wound, “but it feels like a kind of love that passes through me.”
She looked up at his mocking face. “Doesn’t work that way.”
“You done it before, though,” Kaylee said.
Tess finished the last stitch and deftly wrapped a bandage around Mal’s calf. “Yellow grass snakes carry fast poison,” she said. “Even with the anti-venom, even with your woman’s tourniquet, we took too long.”
She threw away the suture pack and started looking for something to clean the floor. “We bled out as much venom as I knew how, but it was already in your system.”
Tess found a towel and swabbed the floor. Book and Kaylee stayed out of her way. Mal swung around on the bed and flexed his leg, wincing.
“Stay put!” she scolded, grabbing his shoulder.
He didn’t budge. “You sayin’ I woulda died?”
Brown eyes and blue eyes met in a hard stare. Tess stepped back, threw the bloody towel in a hopper. She squatted by her bag, fastened it, picked it up. “Can you show me where I’m sleeping?” she asked Kaylee. “Then, I’ll get my trunk.”
“I’ll get it,” Shepherd said. He moved past her and out the infirmary door.
Tess looked at Mal, his deep eyes narrowed and disbelieving. That was all right, then. She turned and followed Kaylee out.
Shepherd tapped on the paper screen of the dorm room. From inside, Tess slid open the door, stepped aside so Book could wheel in the big, steamer trunk. Kaylee stood by the bed, her hands working each other. Tess took a deep breath, let it out.
“I suppose everyone on the ship will know about me now.”
“The only people on the ship are crew,” Book said.
“I won’t tell no one,” Kaylee blurted. “Promise.”
“None of us will.”
Tears filled Tess’ eyes, overflowed. She sat heavily on the bed. Book gave Kaylee a meaningful look, and in a minute it registered. Kaylee bumbled her way out the door and closed it. Book sat next to Tess.
“I’m tired, Shepherd,” she said, wiping her face.
They sat in silence a moment, Books’ strength and comfort something Tess hadn’t experienced in a long while. Some fist inside her relaxed for the first time in years.
“I was a nurse in the War,” she said quietly. “When we lost, I came out to the Fringe. Was the only medic for three moons until I got others trained. Then, I went to the next colony—did it all again. When I needed money, I hired out my gun—protection, mostly, but some thievery, too. Bought medicine and supplies and travelled to Aphrodite. Trained a passel of medics there.”
She stretched out her arms on her knees. “So much misery. Never enough food or shelter. Bad water. Rotten soil. So many graves to dig.”
She closed her eyes as tears slipped down. “All I could do was give someone’s spirit a little lift, ease a childbirth, stop a fever before it took a whole town. No one ever knew about me. Would’a scared ‘em. Some mighta killed me for a witch. And I couldn’t Touch it all anyway. I’m so tired, Shepherd.”
“Of course, you are.” Book laid his hand on her back. “You need to let others do for you awhile.”
Tess shook her head. “I can’t.”
“Of course you can!” he countered sharply. “You’ve added more healers to the ‘Verse, given whole moons hope. I don’t care what your gifts are, a body can’t run on empty.”
Tess looked into Book’s kind face, a face full of love and steel.
“You let Kaylee and me do for you now. There’s not a heart bigger than Kaylee’s—she’ll find ways to get close to you anyway.”
“It’s hard for me to accept a kindness. There’s a price to pay for it, more often than not.” Tess reached for Book’s big hand. “But I believe you speak true. Thank you, Shepherd.”
He smiled and stood. “Rest now. We’ll take off once the others get back. I’ll wake you for supper.”
Tess watched the screen slide shut, then stretched out on the bed with a sigh. She felt a tremor and heard the ship’s engine growl like a phlegmy old woman.
Serenity, she thought, then slept.
The job went well after all. Supper found the crew in a high mood with much joking and teasing. Kaylee and Wash prepared the meal, a little quieter than the others. When Book walked in with Tess, the laughter stuttered.
“Passenger?” Jayne looked from Mal to Simon to the woman sitting down at the table’s end.
Mal hunched over his plate. “We ain’t taken on passengers in awhile, I know,” he said around his food. “But she done us a kindness and needed a ride. No harm in that.”
Jayne looked at Zoe, who gazed back with no more information for him.
“I understand you have medical training,” Inara said, smoothing over the awkward silence.
Tess looked up from her plate to the dark beauty. The Companion’s encouraging smile coaxed a responding smile from Tess. She’d never seen a woman so perfect.
“I’m a nurse without means at the moment,” she said. Her eyes skipped to Mal’s face and back. “So I hope to hire out my gun when we reach Persephone.”
“Your gun,” Zoe stated.
“I’m a fair shot.” Tess dipped back into her supper. “And I’m level in a fire fight.”
“Whaddaya carry?” Jayne asked.
“Stannis 47,” she told him. “Oakley nines and an old grip.”
Jayne grunted approval.
“Resistance issued Oakley nines in the war,” Zoe said mildly, her sharp eyes assessing.
“Didn’t think that was problem on this ship,” Tess answered the woman’s gaze.
“‘Tain’t,” Kaylee chirped nervously.
Tess took a mouthful of stew. “So, if you happen to hear of any jobs along our way, I’d be grateful for a chance to vie for them.”
Mal chewed, swallowed. “Could be we need an extra gun this next job.”
Zoe glared at him. “Sir?”
“Never hurts to increase our percentage when dealin’ with Jonah,” he told her.
“Not denyin’ that, sir,” Zoe replied.
“But, you don’t know me,” Tess finished for her.
“I know enough, Miss,” Mal said with finality.
“Tess,” she reminded him, meeting his eyes. “Tess Malone.”
“Well, Tess Malone, the job’s yours if you can abide scalawags such as we.”
“Hold up!” Jayne protested, rearing back. “I ain’t givin’ up none a’ my cut just so’s we kin train another gun on Jonah’s tun chou head! We kin work this fine without her.”
“Maybe we can,” Mal agreed. “But, without her we got a better chance at nothin’ or dead. Don’t much like those odds, Jayne.”
The big man backed down, grumbling.
Meal finished, everyone cleared their dishes and wandered off to different parts of the ship. Book and Kaylee cleaned up the kitchen, and Tess wiped the table. Simon stayed in his seat, watching her.
“You did a fine job on the captain’s leg,” he said. “You’re talented.”
“Thanks.” She swept crumbs into her hand.
“It seems a little incongruent for someone with your skills to also work as a hired gun.”
“Does it?” Tess sat across from him. “I learned both in the Army. They’re just skills. I play guitar and sing—sometimes make money that way. I can plant a medicinal garden in ash, and I’m a fair pick-pocket. You have to use every skill you’ve got out here. I’m sure you have skills other than being a medic.”
Simon looked down at his hands on the table, smiled. “Not really.”
“Sure you do.” Kaylee sat next to Tess. “You’re so smart. You… figure out stuff.”
“What about you, Kaylee?” Tess asked.
“Aside from keepin’ Serenity a-purr?” She thought a moment. “I painted all the pretties on the ship. And I know a hunnerd ways to fix protein paste.”
Book sat at the end of the table. “Do you really play guitar? I haven’t heard one in an age.”
Tess smiled at him. “Shall I play for you, then, Shepherd? It would be a dear pleasure.”
She stood up from the table and went back to the dorm for her guitar. Her nap and the prospect of lucrative work lightened her heart. Shepherd and little Kaylee wanted nothing from her. They just sat with their souls in their eyes, friendly and open—like an unexpected stream Tess could dip her tired feet in.
She hummed, warming her voice, as she opened her trunk and unwrapped her old companion. Payment for splinting an ugly bone break, the guitar learned to become treatment as well as pleasure. Tess discovered it channelled and amplified the Touch, made people feel good no matter her skill. Coming back into the common room, she smiled to see Inara and Wash back at the table. A proper audience, she thought, pulling out a chair.
As she tuned, she listened to the easy cross-talk, the sweet affection obvious between Kaylee and Inara, Wash’s gentle, self-deprecating humor, Book’s subtle drawing out of the quiet medic. Good people, she thought.
Finally tuned, she strummed, then picked a romantic introduction. Tess felt her body open to the Touch and her voice send it out. The sweet tune carried it between the chords.
Tess’ heart swelled with gratitude and hope. Her voice felt smooth and luscious in her throat. Lyrics rolled from her mouth, weaving a story of love lost and found. She fingered a bridge, improvising and stretching past her standard fare. Then, she came back to the chorus, her voice strong as she ended on a high, clear note.
With the last chord, she opened her eyes to them. Faces stunned by the beauty of love, Wash and Book stared at her with wet eyes. Inara held her hands to her breast, Simon’s to his mouth, and Kaylee had pulled her knees up to her chin. Mal stood in the portal-way—arms crossed, legs crossed, jaw tight. But his dark eyes drank Tess in. She felt gentle fingers in her hair and turned to find the girl—River—behind her.
“Pillar of Light,” she whispered.
◊ ◊ ◊