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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
A long trip takes Serenity from Ezra to Dyton Colony, and the crew prepare for a fateful heist.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 608 RATING: 0 SERIES: FIREFLY
Weeks Five and Six
I could tell by the feel of Serenity by now that she had lifted off and left Cara Dawn behind us, climbing through the atmosphere of Ezra. Satisfied that the engines were happy, I left the room and up a ladder to the observation porthole set at the top of the ship, next to one of the emergency locks. From this vantage point, I could only see a little bit of ground, more or less behind the ship, but above us, the blue sky was already thinning to black, and I caught sight of a structure hanging up there, still a long way above us - a sort of a spiral disk made out of metal and glass. The skyplex. I was glad that we hadn't had to dock Serenity there - this time, at least.
But things had gone well for the business on Ezra, at least. The Winfield clan were all aboard, and we'd taken off soon enough to suit them well. Mal and Niska's lackey had finally agreed on a price for the jewelry, and it was enough money to keep us flying for a while, as Mal had said. There was more work coming up, and... and I was wondering how long it would be before I could sneak off with Jonny Winfield again without anybody noticing me gone.
"Kaylee? Get to the passenger dorms, on the double!" Well, it wouldn't be for a little while I guessed. Hurried down the nearest stairs and aft, wondering what had gotten Zoe so concerned. I wasn't there before my nose started to give me a notion.
"Nothing quite like this has ever happened since I've been on the ship," Zoe complained, indicating the foul smell that seemed to be coming out of the nearest vents. "And our passengers are rightfully displeased," she added in a lower whisper. "Fix it NOW. Is there anything I can do to help?"
Now I was glad that I'd managed to do as much cramming on the various systems of Serenity as I had, because the key points of the life support system flashed up behind my eyes, as it were, and I reviewed them in order of increasing difficulty as Zoe and I worked together to open up the wall panels that would let me get at the actual gear. First, oxygen tanks, mostly just used as a backup if everything else was going fine. If one of them was discharging and had gotten some sort of a taint when it was originally being loaded - but no, all of the tanks that could lead into that vent weren't letting anything out at all, and I didn't think it was likely that they had since we landed on Ezra. I could do sniffer tests on each of them if I didn't find an issue with anything else later on, but it would be mostly a waste of time now.
Second - the lithium scrubber. This was more complex, though still essentially a failsafe. Even with new oxygen feeding into the rooms and hallways of Serenity, we'd be in bad shape soon enough if something didn't deal with the stale air that people breathed out. So air was constantly being piped through the scrubbers - big boxes full of water and some chemical stuff that would filter out dioxide - the breathed-out stuff - and join with it to turn into some kind of solid grains, which would settle to the bottom of the box. The air that came out of the scrubbers would be much lower in stale air if not entirely free, and a little indicator would go off on the scrubber when it was low on juice or had built up too much grainy stuff, which was mostly designed to happen at the same time. Then we found somewhere decent to dispose of it and buy a new scrubber - or took it to someone who could flush out the grains and reload it with lithium juice.
I didn't know of anything that might go on in a scrubber to make it produce a bad smell like this, but I tested them directly, passing the air that vented out of them under my nose and whiffing. No, the smell was there, but faint enough that likely that was just the already-smelly air going INTO the scrubbers that I was smelling. Okay, last of all, there was the ponic box. We didn't have a good enough hydroponic box on Serenity to actually grow anything that we could eat ourselves, but little algae critters were still the best way of turning bad air back into good air on board ship, which kept us from having to have so many scrubbers and air tanks. Every so often some of the grown algae could get harvested out of our tank and sold to somebody who could use them for something - we did that back on Paquin, or Wash did, because I wasn't around for it. But I suppose I should have realized that the big reservoir with living critters in it was the likeliest source of a bad smell. (Certainly there are enough other living critters capable of making stinks.) I tested the outflow of the hydroponic, made a face, and turned to Zoe. "This is it, and... and I'm not sure what to do beyond pulling the plug on it completely."
Zoe considered for a moment. "What does that mean? After a few hours or so, the tank will be dead, won't it?"
"Yup. Even if we keep the power on, the little things can't live without getting an air feed in, which means that we have to put the air feed out somewhere. But we've got enough scrubbers and air tanks to get to Dyton colony, easy, and probably won't even have to figure out what went wrong with the ponics when we get there - just drain the reservoir, clean it, and load it up with a new batch."
"Which'll cost enough," Zoe said, nodding. "We could land somewhere else here on Ezra - but how long do you think it would take for a hydroponic tech to figure out what was wrong and set it to rights?"
"I... I don't know," I admitted. "Could be only around fifteen minutes, could be several days."
Zoe considered, then asked, "What do you think, sir?" It was only then that I realized that she was standing next to an intercom and must have left it turned on. Mal had been listening too.
"Pull it," Mal insisted. "And check all the backup systems to make sure they're in fine shape, Kaylee. Will we be getting better engine efficiency without having to keep the lights in the ponic reservoir on?"
"Um, maybe a little, but not much," I said. "It's not a big overhead."
"Oh, well. I'll let Wash know, anyway. We're already for best speed to Dyton." And then Mal clicked off the line and I started getting to work. Disconnecting the vents into and out of the hydroponic reservoir was easy enough, and turning off the power to the lights inside, but checking all of the air tanks and scrubbers all over the ship took me quite a while, and then I was hungry enough to eat a pig or similar sized creature. Too bad all that was up for grabs in the kitchen was protein rations. I knew that we'd taken on some fresh veggies in Cara Dawn, but Mal had probably locked them up somewhere instead of letting them be eaten when they were still at their best.
Headed down into my bunk, wondering for a faint moment if Jonny would be waiting for me down there, but of course there was nobody. I collapsed into the mattress and immediately dozed off, and when I started to feel hands sweeping my hair up over my head and lips tracing over the sensitive skin at the back of my neck, I didn't immediately take it for waking up instead of a dream. "Jonny," I moaned, enjoying the moment for whatever it was.
"Yes, I'm here, my sweet lovely," Jonny's voice came into my ear in a richly accented whisper. "You've had a long day of hard work so far, and I don't want to presume anything that you're not up for. How about a muscle rubdown?"
"Hmm... actually, that sounds great," I said, as strong and gentle hands started to untuck my shirt at the waist and pull it up, gently massaging sore muscles. "But I ain't some dainty, exhausted thing that needs to be done for instead of doing just because there was a lot of work today."
"No, I don't guess that you do," he admitted. "But sometimes it's nice to get taken care of, instead of taking care of other people, isn't it?"
"Well - I guess that I wouldn't know so much about that," I had to admit. "Guess that you'll have to show me how nice it can be, and I'll make up my mind then."
Jonny laughed. "I think that we have a deal."
But even so, I just couldn't lay still long enough to stay in the passive role - I took my own turn after Jonny had stripped me down and rubbed every single part of my skin, trying a kind of tickle-play that I'd learned back when I was only sixteen on Three Hills, which surprised and pleased my new partner quite a bit. When we actually did the deed, I couldn't entirely keep my voice down, and wondered how far people had been able to hear us in the little ship, and who had figured out what they'd been listening to.
When I got back up in the middle of the night, after Jonny had left to sneak into the room he shared with his brother in the stern of the boat, Wash was snoozing behind the controls, but woke up when he heard me coming. "So, are all mechanics such... passionate people, I wonder?" he immediately teased me.
"Um, well, I, uh... couldn't say for sure, but I guess it looks that way," I admitted. "Is it a..."
"Don't worry," Wash immediately assured me. "Nobody's going to criticize you for having a little fun when you've got an agreeable chance - not Mal or Zoe, or me... and I should think our new rentor wouldn't have any puritan issues. Whether the boy's family might get a bit upset, I suppose I don't know, but they're just passengers, and we won't have to deal with them for that long."
"Yeah." I chuckled softly. "Suppose that if there was really work to be done and I was screwin' around, Mal would have a different attitude."
"He wouldn't be the only one," Wash agreed. "But that's not you, Kaylee. Bester knew engines nearly as well as you - though you obviously had a few tricks up your sleeve that were new on him. But he was an arrogant and lazy sonnuvabitch, and you're hardworking and humble. You wouldn't let your hormones get in the way when there was something that really needed to be done. I'm sure of that."
"Hmm... yeah, I guess that you're right," I admitted. "So, what's up with you lately? And Zoe?"
"What makes you think that anything's 'up' with us?" he laughed.
"Oh, don't give me that," I said. "First, back in Cara Dawn, you were off together for just about every free moment - pounding the pavement supposedly, but I'm not sure for what. I was hunting through the salvage yards more or less by myself to get what's needed to keep Serenity flying, and Mal was negotiating to sell a bunch of jewels and getting us a new job for once we get to Dyton colony. So what were the two of you looking for?"
"Hmm... well, for one thing, Zoe was doing a bit more long range planning. Trying to figure out what opportunities we might have AFTER that new job - who else is offering work, who might be trying to horn in on our jobs, including the new one we'll start on Dyton colony. Who might be willing to shelter us where if something goes sour, and what they'll want in exchange."
"Oh," I said, nodding. "Yeah, that makes sense, but... well, I guess there's more to the crime business than meets the eye."
"Always," Wash agreed.
"And was it *all* business between the two of you?" I pressed. "I've seen a few of the looks that have been going back and forth. Anything more than just looks?"
Wash hesitated. "I... I refuse to give a full answer to that, on the grounds that Zoe might recriminate me."
Chuckled. "Yeah, okay. Guess that gives me some of a notion, at least... she wouldn't be so upset if there was nothing much to tell." There was a short pause, during which Wash seemed to be unable to stop a wide grin from crossing his face. "Well, congratulations on whatever."
"Thanks, I guess. I... I'll tell you more if I can, later, but - whatever's going on, it's still just starting, and - well, and I think Zoe doesn't want Mal to know yet until she's figured out how to tell him. They have this really intense bond from what they went through in the war, and she hasn't really had a serious relationship with a guy since they've known each other."
"Oh." I thought about that. "So Mal might think that she's betraying or abandoning him when he clues in." Wash shrugged. "I wonder what that was like for them, being in the war."
"Mal mentioned something about it to me, once," Wash said softly. "About the moment he realized that they'd lost Serenity Valley, that things were all over. As the gods of Irony decreed, it happened to be just after he'd completed a daring and dangerous sortie, capturing an enemy machine gun and destroying an Alliance skiff, so that air reinforcements could get in safely. But..."
"But it wasn't *their* air reinforcements that showed up," I said, not sure if I'd heard something about this before or just guessed. Actually, I think that someone back home had told me a bit about the battle, though I hadn't known that Mal had been in it back then of course. "Way too many Alliance airboats for him to ever shoot down."
Wash nodded soberly, and I got up, figuring that the conversation wasn't going to move on any further from here anyhow. "Have a nice nap."
"Thanks," Wash said wryly, and made a big show of stretching his head back over the flight console, though he didn't close his eyes.
I wandered around, not wanting to go back to bed yet myself, and ended up at the shuttle one hatch. Well, why not try? Inara was probably catching up on her beauty sleep, so I picked the quietest and most inobtrusive door signal. It was only a short moment before the hatch slid open, and Inara smiled back at me. She was wearing a simple sort of a pink (?) housedress, very different from the more elegant outfits I'd seen her in so far. "Oh, hello. Were you... meditating or something?"
Inara smiled back. "No, not really, just sitting up and reading actually. I get a spot of insomnia sometimes, and haven't quite gotten used to this place perhaps. Would you like to come in and keep me company for a little while?"
I smiled back. "Delighted, and thank you." So she stepped back and let me get in before the hatch door slid closed again. "I, well, I have to admit that I never thought of you as somebody who was ever 'not at ease.' I mean, I guess everybody has situations that unnerve them, but you always seem so... composed."
"Well, that's the image that I feel I have to keep up, I suppose," Inara admitted, dropping down into a chair at a small table. "Not sure if I've really felt at ease since I left my home Temple on Sihnon."
"Then why don't you go home?" I blurted out, stepping over to the table.
"Well - because there are more important things in life than feeling comfortable, for one. I guess I was too comfortable back on the inner worlds, and I wouldn't have traded what I've already seen and done out here for... anything." She tilted her head slightly, and I guessed that the subject of why she was here had been officially put aside for the time being. "I don't have any tea made, but I could prepare some if you like. I've actually been drinking one of these for the past hour or so." She brought up a little can of Fizz-Cherry that we must have taken on a case or two of back on Ezra. I chuckled.
"Hand it over," I said, and surprised, Inara tossed the can in my direction. I was able to catch it with a reasonable imitation of grace, opened the top and took a swig with gusto. "Love these. So, umm... is there anything particular you want to talk about? I guess I'm all manner of curious about your profession, but..."
"It's not something I'm supposed to talk much about," Inara admitted. "Client confidentiality, Guild secrets and regulations, so on and so forth." She smiled. "What about you, Kaylee? I gathered that you grew up with Melany Waite on Three Hills, and it was only recently that you signed up as Serenity's mechanic and engineer, but that only gives me the setting to your story."
"Hmm." I considered. "Well, to tell you about how I ended up here, I guess I'll have to tell you about Bester." I paused, and Inara made a go-on gesture with her hand. "I met him in a local bar in town... one of those places that don't really need a name because it's *The* place in town... or spoken of like it's an extension of the guy who run's the place. Joss's. Pretty empty, on account of being not even ten of the morning - I was just there because my Dad had asked me to run over a note about a... a gentleman's evening that Joss would be catering the next day, and pick up a case of something in the meantime. Huh... I guess I don't even know how the party went, if somebody got hurt or who won the most money with the cards."
"I think I get the picture," Inara said, after finishing her drink and starting to get out another one from the small pack under the table. "But Bester had come in to drink?"
"Somewhat to drink," I admitted. "More to look for tail I think, and aside from the girls who worked there I was the only one around. Still, he was cute, and charming, and I wasn't sure if I should arrange to meet him after bringing my Dad's stuff back... until he mentioned that he was the mechanic on a spaceship. It's not like that was an instant attractor, but I guess I was intrigued enough to ask if he could show me the engine room, and well, between one thing and another..."
Inara chuckled softly. "Really?"
Jonny and I had a lot of fun for the rest of that trip, which wasn't really lost on anyone, even his parents, who didn't seem to disapprove of our fling or anything. I had to admit that I felt a bit disappointed that we wouldn't be seeing each other anymore after the Winfields left Serenity - or at least, once Serenity left Dyton colony again. There were a few other little breakdowns to keep me occupied, but not busy for all day every day or anything.
In private, the four of us crew met one evening to discuss the next job and plans for what else we'd do on Dyton. "The silver heist is going to be tricky," Mal admitted, "and there'll probably be plenty of people chasing us after we get it. We won't be able to brake atmo and leave for Persephone right away: we'd be followed, but there are plans for a distraction and cutting out the local sensor network nearly two days afterward." He sighed. "It'll be dangerous, and I'm not sure that the two of you should even be around on board." He always meant Wash and I when talking about 'the two of you' like that.
"No way," Wash insisted. "If things are going to be that tough, you'll need us both - me behind the controls, and Kaylee ready to tweak the engines or fix a hit or whatever. You can't do this without us."
"Yeah," I chimed in, grateful that Wash had included me in his own objection.
"I think that that's right, sir," Zoe agreed. "I don't like it any better than you do, but..."
"I know it too," Mal grumped. "I'm not stupid. Wasn't seriously proposing leaving either of you behind, just saying that I don't like it... and that anything I order you to do to keep yourselves and the ship safe..."
"Yeah, I think I'm on board with that," Wash agreed. "If there's big hairy danger... I think I'm alright with you and Zoe going to meet it alone, as per usual."
"Come on, Wash," I complained.
"What? I mean, it may not be admirable to say... but if there's some bounty hunter pointing a gun at Mal, say... are you really telling me that you're going to leap in front of him and take the bullet? If you did, I wouldn't believe it. Not that you're not brave or don't care about him... but when that moment comes, you'd know deep down that he's better able to deal with that situation than either of us are. Probably would find some way to talk himself out of the whole fix without anyone firing a shot - or not towards him, at least."
"Well, thanks for the vote of condifence, I guess," Mal said, and then made a face. "Well, you know what I mean."
"Confidently we do, sir," Zoe put in. Mal rolled his eyes.
"Okay, what about the 'ponic reservoir then?" I asked. "We want to get it back up and running before we leave for Persephone if we can, right? And if there will be lots of craziness and people chasing us after the heist, then..."
"There's Colston's yard," Wash said. "It'd be a good place to lay low anyway, and they can take care of the reservoir..."
"No," Zoe cut him off. "Laying low is good, but I don't want to have Serenity's guts laid open, when we might need to run at any moment." She sighed. "And we'll have nearly two days between landing before we jack the silver. That will be enough time for a good spaceport hydroponic crew to put us to rights, yes?"
"It... it should," I agreed. "Can't say for complete sure, but..."
"On the off chance, we can insist on closing up and leaving before they're finished," Mal put in. "No problem." He considered. "Any other questions??"
"What's our new rentor going to be up to while we're making with the crime?" Wash asked.
Zoe smiled slightly. "She has quite a full social schedule prepared for Dyton... or maybe I should say a work schedule, though the lines are sometimes blurred. We won't see much of her until we're ready to go, which is all to the good. We *don't* need her help on this one." Not that Zoe would take it if we did, I suddenly realized. She didn't trust her yet... but Wash and I had proved ourselves. That was good.
"And does she realize what we'll be up to, and that she'll be going on to Persephone with wanted criminals?" I asked.
"I haven't laid everything clearly on the line with Miss Sera, but she's smart about people and has probably figured a lot of it out," Mal said, smiling just slightly. "If now - well, it'll be interesting to see how she reacts when the shoe finally does drop."
"You're not worried that she might, oh, say, try to turn us in?" Wash asked.
"I'm not that easy to sell out," Mal muttered darkly.
And as it happened, that was when Gwendolyn Rook-Winfield knocked on the lounge door and asked if we'd seen her puzzle cube. So we broke up the confab and invited her in to look around for it.
"So, what are you going to be doing when your family gets to Dyton colony?" I asked Jonny as we lay side by side on my bed again, We had one more day and night aboard the ship before landing, so this probably wouldn't be the last time, but I was feeling a bit nostalgic and mushy already. "School, or work in some place like the ground-car shop you mentioned back in Cara Dawn?"
He chuckled throatily and kissed my back jut below the base of the neck, square between my shoulder blades, which he'd discovered was a sensitive patch for me. "Hopefully not another place like that dump."
"Oh... I got the impression that you had fun there."
"Well maybe, but there's more to life than fun." Jonny laughed a bit harshly. "It didn't pay well enough. We've been sending messages back and forth with my uncle Thatcher. He said that he could get Dad and me, better work, and probably Tony-boy too." I had to chuckle; 'Tony-boy' was what Jonny always called Gwendolyn's husband, but not without a certain amount of affection. "Foresting mostly - hard work, but the money is definitely good."
"Risky, too," I couldn't help pointing out. A few kids I knew from school had done 'forest work' during the summer back home. "Getting bits of yourself cut off my accident, or crushed by big trees landin' on ya..."
"I'll be careful enough, darling," Jonny insisted, though I wasn't quite sure if there was any point in getting into the reassuring boy/nervous girl pattern when we were going to part before he ever reported for work. "And after a year or two of that, maybe I'll have enough saved up to make it into a trade school, and *design* aircars."
"Oh, cool," I admitted. "That sounds like fascinating work. You ever done something like that before? I, well, I mean..."
"I've done all the mech drafting I could take, so far, though the few practical assignments were more like household gadgets than vehicles," he said. "And designed my fair share of med-crate racers."
The thought of Jonny riding up a hilly city street in an emptied crate of Alliance innoculation supplies, with a scrounged battery motor driving the wheels, made me smile. "Win any races?"
"Enough of them. But come on, what about you and the future. Gonna stay on with this endearing but run-down scud-bucket for all your born days?"
The thought startled me. It hadn't been that long since I'd signed up with Serenity and her disreputable crew, but I... well, I guess I could see myself leaving someday, MAYBE - but not in any particular time frame that I could come up with. And the thought of living out a long and happy life on this ship, maybe meeting a guy who'd become part of the Serenity family too, not just a passing distraction to us like Jonny... having kids and bringing them up to respect and love the ship as much as I did, to help take care of her maybe... the notion was seductive. Zoe had told me at one idle moment that she'd been born and raised on a space vessel herself, one several times bigger than ours, but still the idea seemed to be born out. "Maybe. I don't have any plans to leave. Might end up quitting just as quickly as I came, or I might not." I sighed. "Do you want me to look you up if we're heading back to Dyton again?"
He considered. "Maybe better wave first. I'll get a lifelong number and make sure that you have it." He sighed and nuzzled up into my hair for a moment, then whispered. "After all, if I meet some other girl and ask her to marry me, it could be awkward if you just show up on the doorstep one day."
"Yeah, I guess you have a point," I said wistfully. And then spun around to meet his lips with my own, and wrap myself around him one more time at least.
I kissed Jonny goodbye in public at the Dyton spaceport, and didn't even feel odd about it being in front of his family and all. "You've got the comm number, and we'll be here in the port for two days more," I reminded him. "Don't be a stranger. I'll miss you."
"As will I you, my dear Kay Leigh," he muttered, and chuckled at something, though I wasn't sure what. "But the fingers of fate are moving us apart." He brushed a lock of hair away from my forehead one last time, and then stepped away towards the passenger ground-shuttle. I turned around, and saw four sets of eyes looking at me - Mal, Wash, Zoe, and Inara.
"Okay, okay, show's over," I said. "Whatever there is to see, it's not over here anymore."
"Was there a reason that you didn't head off by yourself already, Miz Serra?" Mal asked Inara pointedly.
"Well, I didn't make my first appointment for three more hours - couldn't be sure that you'd make it here when you said you would after all," she said matter-of-factly. Wash bristled slightly at the implied slight to his skills both piloting and navigational. "And there's a few more things that I want to arrange with respect to the shuttle, which could be most easily facilitated here at the port. All within the scope of the original rental agreement."
"Didn't you customize the interior enough back on Ezra?" Mal griped. Inara lifted one elegant eyebrow at him. "I... I don't mind as long as you're sticking around, suppose. If you leave us soon, then the expense of converting that shuttle back..."
"Will be paid, certainly," Inara said smoothly. She was in a much more involved red outfit today. "That's a fair concern. Excuse me." And with that, she headed off towards one particular group of storefronts. Zoe shot Mal a look, and when Wash led the way off in another direction, I followed him. Wasn't long before we found ourselves in the small office of a hydroponic technician team.
"Hmm... probably doesn't matter now, but could you say what the smell reminded you of?" the roundish man sitting at the desk said after Zoe had explained the basic situation to him. "Just in general terms - smoke, fish, rotten eggs, hot peppers..."
"No, it was like nothing else I'd ever come across," I said.
"I've been thinking about that," Zoe answered. "Came across this stuff just once, on the moons of Hera - skunk spray. The little critters are almost extinct."
"It'll be good when they *are* gone, too," the man said. "Or - well, I've never seen or smelled one before, but - you were growing B hillifeth?" Wash nodded. "I think I've heard of a mutation that gives off that sort of odor. Doesn't hang on particularly long, so you should be clear... but maybe we should start you up with Arapen 3 instead. It'll attack any remaining hillifeth cells, normal or mutated, and the sale price is good all over. Stuff is easy to turn into subsistence rations with a little equipment, and there's always more people to feed. Hillifeth is mostly used as an industrial cleaner, and you always hear about factories closing down on the news..."
"So it'll cost us more for the Arapen starter than with Hillifeth?" Mal asked shrewdly.
"A little more, but it'll nearly pay itself back the first time you harvest the reservoir..."
I looked over at Wash and rolled my eyes slightly as the two of them settled down to haggling, and Wash just shrugged. Finally, the deal was struck on Arapen, as well as flushing the dead stuff out of Serenity's reservoir and giving it a basic cleaning inside. The weighty guy promised that Serenity would be ready in thirty-six local hours, and that they wouldn't disturb any of us, (because we'd be going back to the ship for sleep tonight.) As we walked back out of the office, I turned to Zoe. "So, what next?"
"Well, somebody needs to swap out oxygen tanks and used-up scrubbers with fresh ones," she said. "I... I think that the menfolk can probably take care of that for us, huh?"
I blinked, and looked over at Mal and Wash, who each shrugged and smiled in some sort of order. "Yeah I guess, but why? I mean, it's sort of in my job description."
Now Mal nodded with sudden understanding. "Actually, there's something else come up that I think you're more qualified than I am at. Don't worry - I've done this kind of work before, so has our good pilot. Serenity's in good hands."
"Alright I suppose," I muttered, and the guys turned back to the ship. "So, what's this something else??"
"I'll try to explain on the way," Zoe said, and then gave me a long up-and-down look. "We're not in a hurry I think, and you could stand with a change of clothes. Nothing too fancy, mind, but a little bit more cute girl-from-next-door and less grease monkey. Want to go shopping?"
"Umm, okay?" I said, feeling very confused about all of this. Change of clothes? Wait... "Are we going in disguise or something - like back on Paquin, when you and Mal..."
"No, not really, not hiding our identities from anyone who would want to know that we're from Serenity," Zoe said, taking my arm gently and steering me away from the exit I thought we were heading for and toward - toward a flight of stairs that led to a walkway that ran above and across the street outside the port building. "Just a question of making the right impression."
I wasn't quite sure I liked the impression that Zoe was having me make, sitting in the hard plastic chair, (with the seat and back at what seemed like unusual angles.) The halter top wasn't too bad, but a skirt like this one seemed way too short. Zoe had spent most of the time up at a counter across the room, and it was a LONG room, so I wasn't at all sure what she and the man were talking about. That, too, was making me feel very nervous.
"Hello there," a boy said, appearing out of nowhere, (or at least somewhere that I hadn't been paying attention to,) and claiming the seat next to mine like he'd been born to it. "What's your name?"
"I... I'm not answering that yet," I blurted out, and suddenly realized how rude that sounded. "Um, sorry, at least not until I can ask you some questions. What is this place? Do you know what's going on? I... I'm very sorry, but Zoe didn't really tell me anything, and it's gotten on my nerves, so I'm understandably jumpy. And my name is Kaylee, how about you?"
Boy gave me a long, staring look, and I guess I couldn't blame him for that after my response. He looked to be a few years younger than me, about of an age with Jonny's younger brother Derek, and had really pale yellow hair on top of his lanky body. When he spoke again, his Dyton accent seemed thicker. "Well, let's see. You're in the waiting room of the Harlin Insurance company. There's probably a lot going on, but I'm not aware of anything particularly significant or anything that might involve you. I'm just here because my Mom's going to take me to the videoplex after she gets off work, and I get bored waiting for her. And you can call me Barry."
I must have blushed and shook my head in confusion at the same time. "Insurance??" That didn't fit with any of my notions about why Zoe had asked me to change, but... "I, well, I'm sorry if I bit your head off or anything..."
He made a big show of checking his neck for bite wounds that made me laugh out loud. "No, seems to be still here. I admit that I was started by the tirade, but if you were nervous and didn't know why you'd been brought here, then..."
"Hey, Kaylee?" Zoe suddenly called. "Come on over here."
"Oh, that's my... cue or something," I muttered. "Bye Barry, and hope you have fun at the videoplex." I waved slightly as I got up, and he waved back with both hands. A sweet kid after all, I guess, though I'm not sure what I expected. "Hello there," I said, coming up to Zoe. "What's up?"
"Mister Brokop here was just going to show me something, and I thought that you would like to come along," Zoe said slowly, and I stifled a sigh. WHAT were we doing here, after all?
Mister Brokop led the way, and I managed to whisper the first thing that occured to me into Zoe's ear. "Are we filing a claim on the hydroponic reservoir or something??"
That managed to stop Zoe in her tracks for a moment. "What on... no, sheesh! We don't... well, actually, Mal has a sort of an insurance policy on Serenity, but any losses we took from the reservoir are far below the deductible. That's *not* why we're here. Sorry if I had to confuse you so much, but... well, you're along to look pretty and ask whatever questions occur to you - in front of the guy. It'll make him feel smart and important, and that puts him in a good mood."
"Oh, is that it?" I said, my face falling. "Seems a bit... demeaning or whatever, don't it?"
"Only demeans the men who are fool enough to fall for the act," Zoe smirked, and then led the way back."
By this time, Brokop was waiting for us down the hallway at an open door that led into a small room with pastel blue and green checked wallpaper. We all sat down at the table, and he passed over several color photographs of pretty jewelry and other - assorted valuables, I guess. In a businesslike tone, he started to discuss various circumstances and scenarios about each item - the way that they'd been stolen or otherwise taken from their rightful owners.
"So... are you -" Zoe told me to blurt out whatever occured to me, so... "Are you implying that Zoe had anything to do with the theft of these things?" It didn't make much sense... Zoe had come to this place of her own free will, after all, but...
Brokop laughed genially, and Zoe winked at me, out of his sight. Did that mean I'd done good? "No, Miss... Frye?" I nodded as prettily as I could, (or maybe I only managed to look cute.) "Miz Alleyne and her - her partner have managed to retrieve property of value to the Corporation on a few previous occasions. Despite the... suspicion that such acts sometimes generates, I and my immediate superior have made our choice to work with them and even to apprise them of items that should be brought to our attention if they should find them, or even hear about them, in the future."
"Ahh, I see," I put in. "You've had this stuff insured, it's been swiped, and you've got only so long to either retrieve it or pay up. If Zoe happens to cross paths with a disreputable character and finds out that he's got... well, this necklace, she steals it back and brings it in because, it's the right thing to do?"
Brokop laughed again. "I'm not quite that naive. She'll take it to us because we'll pay a higher proportion of its value than a thief, who'll have to squirrel the necklace away for a long time before it isn't too hot to sell any more, risk getting caught by Alliance police in the time and connected to it, have to protect it from other criminals who might try to raid his stash, and so on. We don't have those problems."
"Which doesn't mean that you wouldn't double-cross us and turn us in as thieves if you could - maybe," Zoe said breezily. "But it's a pleasure doing business with you, compared to the same old scum and lowlifes. So what about this one?"
"Wait a second," I put in. If I was here to ask dumb questions and make Brokop feel smart, I might as well do the best job that I could. "What if they find out that somebody else has some item, but can't get it back for you?"
"Well, then they have a choice to make - they can call in a tip, and take the rather lower finder's fee that any such tipsters may get contingent on our being able to recover property based on their information. Or keep quiet according to any criminal codes of conduct that they might choose to honor,
I didn't really have any other questions that I wanted to ask in front of Mister Brokop, and we went over all of the other pictures that he had for us. Only once we had left did I mention one other thing to Zoe. "So how often do we steal from other thieves and sell the stuff back to the insurance companies? Or rat them out? Isn't that dangerous?"
Zoe shrugged. "Not too often, but it's good to keep our options open. Most of these other thieves don't like us much to start with."
I had to shrug and be content with that for now.
I walked alone through Serenity's corridors, wondering if this was the fate of being the new girl on the crew, the mechanic, or just the petite girl. The silver heist was underway; Mal, Zoe, and Wash were all in on it, and I'd been told to stay behind and watch over Serenity by myself. Inara was off on one of her appointments, the Winfields were long gone, and Jonny hadn't waved me back yet. Oh well.
Stopping in the engine room, I got into the hammock and turned on the cortex screen, wondering if there was anything there capable of abating my terrible boredom. But - did I need to be concerned about sending out any Cortex activity, considering that we were probably going to be on the run from the authorities in less than an hour?
No, that wasn't a concern YET. Once the rest of the gang were aboard, once we were really hiding, then we'd need to stay off the Cortex indeed, but at this point it didn't seem to make any difference. As far as that went, it might be better for 'normal' and inconspicuous activity to be coming from the ship, instead of a silence that might be suspected - not too likely, I had to admit, since there were probably a lot of parked ships that didn't have any reason to send out Cortex signals, but why not?
But what? I didn't really want to send a wave out to anyone that I knew personally, just in case this traffic might be monitored and connected with the theft later, because I didn't want to get my family, or Jonny, or Melany in trouble later. (And Melany might be browned off at me now, if she and Barret had figured out that it was friends of mine who stole that Dubnium.)
So I started with pulling a news feed for back home, and then, well, for no particular reason I started reading stuff from the Companion's guild home node, just because I was curious about Inara and wanted to understand her work. It became quickly evident that there was much more to Companioning than looking pretty on some rich man's arm and later on in his bed. (Or the reverse order, for that matter.) I wasn't quite sure exactly what 'Physical psycho-therapy' meant, not to mention some of the stuff talking about ancient Earth-that-was goddess archetypes, but... well, maybe I'd have to ask Inara about that a bit more, if I had the nerve to bring this up.
I had moved on and was looking for a history node that seemed to be capable of talking about the Unification war without being transparently and relentlessly anti-Independent when the code signal came through on my communicator egg that shuttle two was heading back to home base, mission accomplished. I checked out the engine systems first, and was nearly finished the pre-flight pilot's checklist that Wash had given me when the shuttle arrived and docked. It was obvious from the way the little bird handled that she was heavy, mostly on the center bottom, and I took that as a good sign, that she was loaded down with giant bricks of pure silver.
Wash only double-checked a few of the items from the list, and also confirmed a few other things before blasting us right off. "Any unexpected surprises?" I asked the immediate company in general before heading back aft.
"Nothing as dramatic as last time," Zoe answered easily.
"Yeah, but I got a bad feeling," Mal admitted. "Like somebody was watching us and not interfering. That's never good."
"Well, don't worry about it," Wash said. "We're off to the spot you pointed out in the hills, too high for direct observation and too high for radar tracking. They'll never follow us there."
How wrong he was, but none of us suspected it at the time.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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