Title: Retaking the Sky
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not. I claim nothing but the plot.
Summary: Firefly AU. Mal might have been her first love, but Wash-- somehow when she wasn't looking, he'd wired himself right into her crucial decision-making trees. (A sentient ship & pilot story).
Spoilers: All of Firefly. Specific quotes from "Serenity" (1.1), "Out of Gas" (1.9), "War Stories" (1.11), and the SERENITY movie.
Notes: This is my very belated entry for the brains_in_a_jar ficathon. I've seen stories before where Wash is the sentient ship and Zoe is his partner, but I thought it would be more of a challenge to write it the other way around... and the more I wrote, the more I was fascinated by the concept.
Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don't care, I'm still free
You can't take the sky from me.
--"The Ballad of Serenity"
The Unification War began for much the same reason wars always did, between "haves" always grasping for more and "have-nots" who thought they'd given up enough already. It lasted near six years, raging from one planet to the next as men in brown coats and purple-bellied uniforms fought over every meter of ground they could lay claim to. And in the sky above them, others fought-- starfolk among them.
The war would've been over a lot sooner, if the Independents hadn't thought to offer unconditional freedom to any of the sentient ships who declared for their side. It was tempting, sure enough; the procedure that gifted paralyzed young ones with a set of atmo engines in place of their own legs was priced so high by the *qingwa cao de* government that perships and their families often spent decades paying them back. In the meantime, starfolk had no choice over where to fly or what to carry, and any deviation from Alliance orders incurred stiff fines that added to the required length of service. The only leeway allowed was in the choice of their assigned human partners, and that concession had only been made to keep them from turning *xiongmeng de kuangren* from lack of caring contact. Humans were social animals, even when they had hull for skin and ran on fuel instead of protein; the ones that came to the biotech interface later in their childhoods were especially prone to loneliness without another human around to train their sensors on.
Given everything, the idea of plotting one's own course outside Alliance control was damn near irresistible for many. Near thirty-five percent of the Alliance's sentient ships changed colors, most of them youngsters still under contract but not all, and enough were weapons-capable that rebellion became a viable prospect instead of virtual suicide. Didn't matter how many non-sentient ships the Browncoats could scrape up, a pilot with a control yoke in his hands couldn't never keep up with a ship as could fly herself.
The *Loring* was one of those ships, the latest shell for a technologically interfaced woman whose mother-given name had been Zoe Alleyne. From her birth on February 15, 2484, to the day she was shot and nearly killed by a raider seven years later, she was like any other shipborn girl: lively, intelligent, and beautiful, with large dark eyes, tightly curled hair that trailed her like a cloud when she darted through the passageways, and a love of the stars. The bullet damaged her spine, high enough she'd never walk or use the facilities on her own again, and she was left with only limited use of her arms; fortunately, the pership she lived on was also her mother's cousin, and that gave them an inside track on the application process.
When the war broke out in 2506, she was only twenty-two years old and had been hauling cargo for the Alliance since they'd plugged her into the *Loring* at the age of sixteen. Maude Alleyne, and all aboard her hull, had been lost to an Alliance interdiction patrol early on in the conflicts; the family had asked Zoe to stay behind, keep safe, and not make waves 'til it was all over, but her patience died when they did. Zoe waited until the next time she made port, then blasted back into orbit the moment her Alliance-sympathizing partner was ashore and ran for Independent lines.
She didn't fuss when they made her over as a troopship, rather than a weapons carrier; she didn't care that very few on the Browncoat side had the training or supplies to properly care for the flesh-bound heart of a pership; she didn't even quibble when Colonel Orbrin regretfully refused to allocate a valuable pair of hands just to sit around and keep her company. She hadn't gone into the war thinking things would be *easy*; she refused to take offense over a little hardship, when so many others had faced worse. As long as she had a chance to do her part, she didn't mind; she followed every order she was given as best she was able, and spoke cordially, if sparingly, to the soldiers assigned the watch rotation on her bridge.
Two years into the war, one of those soldiers finally returned her careful comments with more than mere pleasantries. His name was Malcolm Reynolds, and he'd recognized the name on her hull from the days when she'd made port near his mother's ranch to collect what limited goods the people of Shadow traded with the Core. He talked to her as though she were a human being, just like him; she'd almost forgotten what that kind of camaraderie felt like. For a brief moment, she missed her family again with an intensity that briefly dimmed the lights all throughout her-- then she gathered her courage and replied in kind.
By their fifth watch together, he'd requested a comlink to carry when he wasn't on duty, and before she knew it, he was the last person she spoke to at night and the first voice to greet her each ship's day. It may not have been the sort of official partnership the Bureau of Allied Sentient Shipping would recognize, but it was far more fulfilling than any she'd known before. When other perships requested, and were granted, the right to rotate out of front-line units, she declined every opportunity for leave from the 57th Overlanders-- and by the time the Balls and Bayonets Brigade was mired down on Hera, she flat refused to retreat even when other troop carriers were withdrawn from orbit. She hid among the broken warships and debris cluttering the space lanes, holding onto one fragile thread of radio contact.
She didn't know what she expected to accomplish, up there; she knew that even if they won, the Independent brass would never let her near the front lines again after her blatant defiance of orders. It was the chance-- no, the likelihood-- that they *wouldn't*, however, that kept her from leaving. If her Sergeant was going to take his last breath on this ball of rock, then by God she was going to be there to hear it leave him.
He had more luck than any ten men deserved; his breaths kept right on coming. But she *was* there to hear when his proud will was finally broken.
"If you won't listen to me, listen to that," Mal's voice carried hoarsely over the comm, directed to all the Browncoat troops still standing in the Valley. "Those are our Angels, coming to blow the Alliance to the hot place!"
But they weren't, they couldn't be; Zoe had her sensors trained on the atmo over the battlefield, and the ships vectoring in were not in the Independent registry. She opened a frequency, tight-beamed, aimed in the direction of the local command ship, and pinged its sentient system directly--
"Zoe, tell the 82nd…"
--If her lungs had still functioned, she would not have had the air to reply, so great was her dismay at the answer she had to give him. "They're not coming," she transmitted back, stunned. "Command says it's too hot. They're pulling out. We're to lay down arms."
"But what's…" he said, then trailed off into shocked silence.
When the picket ship found her hours later and warmed its lasers, she barely had enough will left to reply to its hail, much less put up a fight.
Things were never the same between them after that. Zoe knew he blamed the Angels for not disobeying orders and going in anyway, as he'd have done in their place-- and she knew he knew she felt guilty on behalf of the sentient warships, even though she weren't one of them. He came for her, after the Alliance dropped the wreck of the *Loring* in a junkyard on Persephone with her still in it, and paid through the nose to have her fitted illegally to a second-hand Firefly. He still carried her link, shared things he'd never tell another soul, laid out dreams for the both of 'em like he'd never leave her behind. All the same, there was a distance there as hadn't been between them since the day he first set foot aboard her during the War. All the pride and attention he could spare from his men had once been focused on *her*, but she was no longer the first thing he thought of in the morning or the last thing at night.
She hadn't realized how much she'd miss it. She hadn't loved any of her previous partners; and why would she have? She'd been a job for them, an extra voice to keep her from flying off course, an extra pair of hands in case of pirates or stowaways or mechanical disaster. Mal had been more. Was still more-- but not enough, not in the way she'd come to crave. And worst of all, Mal himself didn't seem to notice her growing discontent, just went on hiring crew and making contacts and parrying her increasingly sharp comments with what passed for wit from him as if nothing had changed.
Zoe was *jealous* of each and every pair of boots that crossed her decks-- and as time wore on, cared increasingly less whether or not Mal knew it.
The last straw came the day he brought a pilot on board-- a pilot! As if she'd need the assistance, even in an aging, crosswired boat like *Serenity* as had never been meant to host one of her kind. Especially not from a humor-driven, mustachioed little man who apparently hadn't even had the courage to pick a side to fight for during the War.
Of course, Zoe knew the real draw from Mal's point of view had less to do with the man's talents in the sky and more to do with what, and who, he knew. Hoban "Wash" Washburne had actually done his pilot's training at the Alliance school all perships and their prospective partners went through, and thus knew how to actually care for Zoe's organic, original shell, unlike Mal or his "genius mechanic". On top of that, he had an inside track with several of the sentient ships that had graduated a few classes ahead of Zoe's own, especially the intelligence guru that had parked himself on a backwater rock after the War and renamed himself Mr. Universe. You couldn't buy that kind of connection for love nor money these days, so Mal's glee at luring the pilot in was hardly a surprise. Still, the very idea of having him aboard rankled.
His casual attitude about her presence-- thoroughly illegal in Alliance space, and something he'd have to cover for when they flew the Core-- just made it worse.
"Shouldn't be a problem," the pilot said with a grin toward her bridge camera, then glanced under the main console where her connections had been wired into the ship's systems. "I'd wondered what all that was for; don't usually see that kind of cabling on a Firefly. Don't even see it much in perships, to be honest; it's pretty old tech, must be cramping her style. Don't worry, though, a few modifications, you'll get some real maneuverability out of this boat. You'd be surprised."
"So you'll take the job, then?" Mal asked him, grinning as though their next payday had come early.
Wash grinned and plopped down in the main chair, spinning around a little in front of the console. "Might do, might do. Think I'm startin' to get a feel here." He flipped a few switches on the console, then activated one of the screens and punched up a text interface with her, rudely pinging her automated shell systems for her current physical status.
"Good," Mal said, oblivious to her rising irritation. "Well, take your time. Make yourself to home. Just, uh, fiddle with the dials, there. We'll-- I'll-- be nearby."
Mal withdrew a little down the corridor then, patting a wall absently while he keyed her link. "He's great, ain't he?" he asked, an insufferably pleased note in his voice.
"I don't like him," Zoe replied stiffly. She knew, with the part of herself that ran on smooth, cool logic, that she was being irrational about this, but the rest of her had dug in her heels long ago and wasn't about to give in now. "Something about him bothers me."
"What?" Mal blurted, caught off guard. "What about him bothers you?"
"I'm not sure," she lied, smoothly. "It's just... something."
"Well, your 'something' comes up against a list of recommendations as long as my arm," Mal objected indignantly, and launched back into the whole argument she'd already memorized the *first* time he told her about his plan to hire a pilot, several days before.
"I understand, sir," Zoe broke in over him, retreating back into verbal distance. "He just bothers me."
Of course, Mal didn't listen. He hired the gorram pilot anyway. It was many, many months before she forgave him for it--
--the same day she demanded he fix her up another link and hand it over to Wash.