Everything was smooth sailing and plain normal a few months ago, but that was before yet another job went sour. Funny thing about jobs, how they all seemed to head down that route. The trick to dealing with them was just to make sure you didn’t get any deeper than your knees in a pile of hwai. But that thinking itself was plan B, so if fate wasn’t content to settle on collateral damage, you pretty much had to run through the whole gorram alphabet.
Right at the chance moment that the rotten hundan fired from across the room, all those months ago, Captain Malcolm Reynolds figured he was about singing his way down to Plan Y. Now usually, this kind of gunfight was pretty damn easy for him – there were the usual barricades to be found from pool tables, bars, chairs and possibly even that weird looking statue that had used to be several metres away. Run, jump, duck and fire back for all you’re worth. Except he hadn’t been counting on the one thing that had pushed him so far down in his list of plans.
Alliance weapons packed a meaner punch than they used to, a fact which had only been discovered when Mal returned with his cargo, ready to scrounge up some sort of fee. That was the problem with middlemen. You couldn’t exactly get by without them, but sometimes they got the crazy notion that they could pull a fast one right under the next guy’s nose.
So, naturally, by now most of the furniture in the bar was smoking like an engine gone bad – with the addition of not even looking half as good. Mal knew he weren’t exactly born yesterday and did manage to duck the rippled blast of whining red light that blazed a trail over his head, taking maybe some hair with it. Cursing, he dug through his pockets and whipped up his communicator, grating into it, “Some cavalry would be mighty fine right about now.”
“Already here, sir.”
Now that was more like it. The lowlife attempting to scatter his body parts had insisted on only one person turning up to meet him, but Mal wasn’t exactly in the mood to get stiffed, so he’d had Zoe waiting outside in the alley. Good thing too, because the middleman had had a few of his own stashed around the bar – most of which were now suffering from a disagreement with the Captain’s gun. A seemingly mutual disagreement, because now his gun could have probably passed for a warped piece of art.
“What took you so long?” he demanded, eating the ground yet again.
“Didn’t want to crash your party.”
Zoe’s shots hit dead centre of the middleman’s chest, throwing him back against the wall. Indifferently, she nodded and holstered the weapon. By this point, Mal figured it might be a fair time to stand up and dust himself off all dignified-like, with the intention of disguising a pat down of valuable body parts. He silently kicked his heap of a weapon off towards a corpse as he made his way over to the middleman. Ignoring the smoking stench of flesh, Mal bent down and rummaged through the guy’s coat until he retrieved a bag of something that jingled, in that most promising way.
“Hwoon dahn,” he muttered. “Never any need for things to get messy like this.”
A cough gurgled from the middleman, spewing blood over his lips. Mal jerked back, and snatched his hand away. At first, he couldn’t recall how he’d ended up belly up on the ground, blinking away red pixies in his vision. It took a few days to connect the blast to his midair journey across the room.
The thing that he did notice at first was that he didn’t particularly feel much of anything. Kind of that floating, tingly feeling when you’ve had a bit too much wine. One minute he was standing, the next minute he was being dragged like a sack of grain over rough stones and then yet another minute after that, he was lying in the infirmary of his ship, trying to make the ceiling stop dancing so damn much so he could sift all the pieces together.
Something should have been hurting right about then, but it wasn’t. And Mal figured this was pretty bad, if that was the case. It was like he couldn’t feel anything. He could feel the cold chair beneath him fine enough, could feel his own heart ticking away like bomb nearing the end of its timer, but apart from that…nothing. No pain.
The darkness roaring up to engulf him should have been a blessing, but there ain’t no such thing out here in the black. You got your curses, that was about it. It could have been hours, even days, before he crawled back into full consciousness, picking apart voices and colours from the grey still clouding his thoughts. Not that he wasn’t already trying to pack away his dread into a neat little box in the back of his mind, but he was still too confused at the time to realise exactly how far into the hwai that he’d sunk this time.
Waking up was the easy part. Taking in the perplexed expressions on the faces of his crew, not so much.
“Have you ever seen such a lazy crew…” he muttered. “Nice to see you’re earning your keep again, Simon.”
The doctor’s voice sounded different. Curious, maybe. “Luckily I didn’t have to this time. You didn’t have a scratch on you.”
Or maybe he sounds afraid, Mal thought. But of what?
The suspicious glances kept up for days after that. He’d felt fine enough, at least physically, to start stalking up and down the corridors of Serenity, snapping orders, setting courses or just wearing out the floor. This got old pretty fast, and he’d taken to just sitting by himself somewhere dark. It didn’t take long for River for find him. She didn’t make a peep, otherwise he’d have made Simon stow her somewhere with a lock.
Hours sitting in dark silence, hearing footsteps of those within the ship – and hearing their voices, the conversations that started to whisper when no one else could find them. For the most part, in the beginning anyway, it was Zoe and Wash trading concerned words. And then it was Jayne, saying too loudly, “He ain’t right anymore. He ain’t saying much either. I say we find some place where he can be all quiet-like while we get me some of my cut. Besides, it’s just ruttin’ bad luck having him aboard.”
“I didn’t quite think you were the type for superstition,” Shepherd Book had noted at that time, and Mal would have called him on his greater superstition of the Bible, had he been in the conversation.
Eventually someone else did find Mal and River – Simon looking for both of them, though specifically the Captain. Something about blood tests, just to make sure, but Mal wasn’t right keen on any of that. Since his hiding place was blown anyhow, it couldn’t hurt to relocate. The cold tendrils that had started to scrape at his insides just grew more when the doctor couldn’t even get a needle into his skin. The needle either splintered or bent when it came into contact with Mal, but to Simon’s credit, he didn’t give up for half an hour.
“Don’t make any sense,” Mal said in frustration. “I’ve had plenty of worse hits than this. Why’d this have to start now?”
Simon shook his head. “Actually, Captain, I don’t think you have had anything worse than this. We’ve spoken to a few people who have run into these weapons since you got shot – their destruction is unlike anything I’ve ever heard of. Honestly, I don’t know why this is happening to you. Why, or why now.”
Kneading his knuckles along his chin, Mal ordered, “You will speak of this to no one. Business as usual.”
Except that it hadn’t been anything like that. Another stray bullet, just nicked him, but yet another unexplained escape without even a tiny bit of blood. Between jobs, he’d made Wash pull over at some rock of a planet and wandered out into the dying suns. Countless hours passed, and he felt nothing still. No burn, no thirst, no hunger. He’d even taken off his boots, trying to wear down his feet. And yet nothing.
Then he took his fists to a rock, pounding mercilessly, bloodlessly until it cracked. It was only afterwards that he realised he’d spelt out a word. Just one word.
Not a lick of sense. Returning to the ship, he found he no longer felt the stares from everyone. Not that he expected to feel anything anymore. And then the dreams started.
Sometimes it was just a minute, when he’d dozed off standing on his feet, from where he’d been staring out into the black. Sometimes it was the whole night, rendering him comatose for more hours than he cared to admit. But always he was crushing steel and stone beneath his fists, which were encased in black gloves that forced sweat between his fingers. He didn’t recognise any of the places from his dreams, or any person that stood before him.
More than once he woke, feeling for just a brief instant a vague breeze ruffling through his hair as he stood tall, powerful. Much as he wanted to feel again, it wasn’t something he cared to grasp at. Dreams ain’t nothing, at least they shouldn’t be. Not on this boat.
Whispers poured in over the scant jobs that followed in those weeks, the kind of whispers that smack of more fear than defiance. The common folk on the outer edges were finally beginning to crack. What weapon did the Alliance have now? The sight of the red weapon struck fear into even the hardiest drinker, enough that the colour red was just about outlawed in any tavern.
More and more clients and middlemen were turning up looking like nothing but slag. It was damn disturbing, and his dreams filled with it. Except it wasn’t always them he saw – he started seeing her. Most nights she left him clear alone, but when he’d started to let down his guard, she appeared again, a ghost in his nightmares. Her hair was red, like the red of the death beams flying around his mind’s eye, and she was dead. No smoking holes where a chest used to be, but shrapnel stuck out of her like the innards spewing from a broken toy.
But the image was never complete. Her body would fade, and he’d be lying somewhere, holding his chest as a blossom of pain erupted there. Pain…he’d almost be glad to feel it again, but it hurt more violently than anything he’d ever felt before. And then he’d wake again, with the pain subsiding into nothing, until the agonising bliss returned.
He’d thought that no one would notice the toll it was taking him – he’d had worse, he was sure of that. Inara wasn’t fooled, tried to even coax his problems out of him with that tea of hers, but Mal would have none of it. Even Kaylee tried to pitch in, with smiles and worried eyes. This was nothing they needed to hear, nothing they should ever know.
He heard the crew talking again. Words like “reckless” and “ruttin’ mad” running through his ears. So he’d taken the gorram easiest job he could find, something to show he wasn’t losing it. Food rations – untraceable, no one would miss them. That job even went sour, and the scum writhed under Mal’s fist clenched around his throat, and tried to reason, “What’s your ruttin’ deal, man…”
“That’s Captain Hammer to you!” Mal had thundered without knowing why, and it felt good.
Finally, it felt good. It felt like something. But he saw for the first time real fear in Zoe’s eyes and the rage had vanished. Briefly. Lying in his bunk later, Mal remembered another face – another name. Doctor Horrible. The one with the maniacal laughter, rolling over him like oil and those goggles…perched on a head. And the coat that haunted him. White, red, white, red, it followed even his waking moments, flashing from room to room as he walked.
He’d pulled a punch on the last one, finding himself fist-to-face with Simon.
“This has to stop,” the doctor told him. “Let me help you find out what’s wrong.”
“There ain’t nothing wrong with me!”
“Then why are your crew afraid of you? Why is there talk of leaving?”
“Who’s been spreading that gao se around, huh?” Mal demanded. “You? Fine – take your damn sister with you. Or maybe I should just save you all the trouble and leave myself.”
So he did, taking off into the black night on some planet. Scratch around long enough and you’ll find more than whispers. That’s what he did, until he knew where the boost on the Alliance weapons had come from. Some hack of a designing genius on a planet riddled with installations with the sole purpose of generating more terror. And terror enough it was, because before most folk could take a hit and keep on living, but the new weapons didn’t even give ‘em a chance.
Sure, it took longer without Serenity and having to hitch, but he made it there. He felt nothing as the security teams fired on him, felt nothing as he swept them aside with his bare hands. He even half wished that they would kill them. Maybe then he’d feel something.
Standing over the man responsible for the upgraded weapons – too young to be responsible for such death – Mal brought to bear one of the infamous killing machines, aimed it right at the man’s face while planting a boot on the body beneath him. Funny, Mal kind of expected there to be goggles. He could have pulled the trigger, he should have. But right then, staring down at his victim, he saw another face.
This wasn’t just an Alliance gun. His mind said ‘death ray’ and its outright purpose slammed into his head harder than if he’d taken a knock from a ship. A distorted vision unfolded before his eyes – long ago, firing at another unprotected man, in a blast of hot red light. And then he remembered the pain again, as vivid as in his dreams.
“What the hell am I thinking?” he voiced out loud, lowering the weapon. “I ain’t doing this again.”
Leaving the creator squirming on the ground, Mal destroyed all the notes, all the prototypes, but he knew he wouldn’t be enough. Maybe just enough for now. When the lab dissolved into sparks of light and flame, he rounded back on the terrified man and demanded, “What did you do to me? Ever since one of your death rays hit me, I’ve had nothing but trouble and I want it to stop.”
Just as fate would have it, this guy didn’t know anything about the how, but the ‘what’ had been getting clearer for months. There are others, more just like him, being hit with the rays and developing unusual abilities. Like a gorram plague, ain’t nothing to fix it.
“They’re dismantling them all,” was the honest, blubbered answer. “Not feasible to turn dissenters into real enemies. But it didn’t even happen. Plausible deniability.”
Except that it did happen, and the dreams might have happened too. Maybe once.
And right now, in this moment, Mal stands tall. Now it’s plausible enough for him to tap the man’s head and send him unconscious from that mere touch. So the ‘verse gets to live and breathe another day, just a little more messed up than usual. Maybe some folk can fight back a little more fair now, but Mal would trade that for anything, just to take back those months of turning into someone else.
Running from the building, he feels the last feeble attempts of the defenders glance off his skin, and then there is one shot that bites, worming its way into his back. Startled to feel the pain radiating over his spine, Mal reaches out to embrace it, falling to the ground. He feels alive again, though it’s just typical that he’s finally feeling this again just as he’s dying. Shouldn’t hope for anymore. Or even hold onto any shred of hope.
Waking comes as a pleasant surprise. So does the pain. Wincing and cursing, Mal sits up to find himself back on Serenity. He doesn’t care how they found him, just wants to start back at pacing through the ship. Or maybe collapse into his bunk for a really long time. Walking again is almost as hard as finding ways to apologise. He’s never been much for saying the kind of heartfelt gao se you’re supposed to spout when you’re saying sorry. But it gets easier, as his inhuman strength evaporates, and stubbing his toe seems like the most beautiful sensation in the ‘verse.
Over time, explanations that the Alliance don’t want getting out manage to pass from ship to ship, world to world. Some new drug people are calling ‘Wonderfoil’, or whatever, created from notes found among a stash of things from Earth That Was. Infuse it with your weapons, and you’re bound to get some kind of bang. Although, there’s always a chance of that unforeseen side affect of your victim being able to hammer your face in. However, it seems being hit twice does away with the problem.
This he probably could handle well enough, but then he hears tell that the notes mentioned the original creator. The name strikes him hard with old fear when he discovers it, and he wonders if he will ever be free of that Doctor Horrible, as that hollow laughter rings in his ears whenever he dwells too hard on it.
After a while, Mal quietly lets Simon do his tests. Any other person they come across who’s survived a blast also falls under the microscope. The answer becomes a little clearer. But even so, Mal figures phrases like “latent genetic memory”, “common ancestor” and “triggered by Wonderfoil radiation” should only bother the fancy folk, even if it’s supposed to explain something.
He’s just glad the powers are gone. And even the memories are going away, but he’ll always remember her, the woman from his dreams.
Penny, he thinks that’s her name. Wide green eyes beseeching, haunting his dreams still. He feels, feels, that he should be guilty for something, but somehow, this time around he knows he got it right.
It ain’t a pretty ending for all concerned. So even one small atonement matters.
Author's note: Probably the weirdrest fic I've ever written. Very gratefully, I filched from Indigoskynet the idea of Wonderflonium radiation kick-starting latent powers as well as taking them away, and was inspired by discovering that the Death Ray was just an Alliance gun prop turned upside down, or something. I know the Death Ray probably didn't have any Wonderflonium, but I figured it could always be modified and added later. And I think it's very likely that Captain Hammer would have had some spawn.