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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
The aftermath of the trial. The crew gets a new job.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 2098 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
Follows THE TRIAL (06). Precedes ONE MAN’S TRASH (08).
The series so far:
A LION’S MOUTH (01)
ADVENTURES IN SITTING (02)
SPARKS FLY (03)
BREAK OUT (05)
THE TRIAL (06)
The aftermath of the trial. The crew gets a new job.
Mouse over Chinese words in text for translations
Rating: All my stories are PG to PG-13 to occasional R. You will not find detailed descriptions of blood, gore, and sex, but you will find situations appropriate for mature readers, innuendo, implication, and (gasp) swear words. This story is PG-13.
Thanks to my sister for beta reading.
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* * *
One moment he was facing two thousand years in prison and a one million credit fine, with the fate of all his crew depending on the outcome of his trial, and the next moment he was retrieving his gun and other personal effects and walking out the front door of the courthouse a free man.
It was like being handed a get-out-of-jail-free card.
He’d asked about the ex-slaves—his passengers—guests—whatever the 地狱 dìyù the legal profession felt it was proper to call them. Their prospects didn’t look to be so bright. It seemed that while River had uncovered a number of their true identities and histories, acquiring certified documentation of their status was another problem altogether, and he didn’t trust the Alliance bureaucracy to get things sorted out expeditiously. With a few exceptions, the people would stay incarcerated at the immigrant detention center until their documents came through—could be weeks, months, or even years down the line. Mr Houghton had sworn to Mal—or he would have sworn, ’cept his religious beliefs didn’t accommodate swearing—that he and his organization were on the case and they would see it through. Mal did not doubt the man’s sincerity at all, but he knew he had the entrenched customs of Persephone society as well as the slow-moving Alliance bureaucracy to deal with. The man was just too earnest and too honest to speed up the process with a few well-placed bribes or threats. Of course, Mal knew he himself weren’t exactly well-placed for bribes or threats either. He couldn’t risk a single run-in with the law at this point, and he had barely more than two coins to rub together.
He’d thanked Melissa Draper for her expert help. He didn’t know how to pay her, but she had assured him that the fees were waived. He didn’t argue the point. What little coin he had left was badly needed to outfit the ship for the next job.
For a job they had. When Mal had retrieved his sidearm at the courthouse, he’d found a note inside the barrel with an encoded but easily understood message. It was unexpected, but it didn’t particularly surprise him. The job was to transport—well, actually to smuggle—forty head of cattle from Persephone to Beylix.
It was a job he couldn’t turn down.
’Course, it was going to be a problem taking this job, too. He had a crew that hadn’t been paid, his ship was low on fuel, food, water, and medical supplies. The perpetual mechanical issues required the usual expenses for replacement parts. Outfitting the ship to transport cattle was going to require an outlay of platinum he just didn’t have. Cattle required fodder, bedding, water—did he mention lots of fodder?—especially for a journey as far as Beylix was.
Mal sighed. He didn’t suppose Sir Warwick Harrow had any notion of the financial burden he’d just dumped on Mal’s head. After all, last time the deal had been brokered by Badger, who—for all he was a penny-pinching, double-crossing, dirty-playing low-life who’d as soon sell you out as pay you for a job—had at least fronted the money for an advance. Eliminating the middleman always had a cost, and Badger, psychotic low-life or no, was an expert middleman. Harrow had no idea how many practical details Badger had taken care of last time.
Or had he? Huh, Mal thought. Maybe that get-out-of-jail-free card weren’t so free after all.
“Discuss it with Harrow, sir,” Zoe said, when Mal had explained the job. “Tweak the deal.”
“You know very well I’m in no position to bargain with Harrow.”
“Well, sir, right now we don’t even have enough coin to re-fuel.”
“Didn’t the cargo containers fetch nothing from the salvage yard?” Mal asked.
“They were seized as ‘evidence’,” Zoe replied.
“该死 Gāisǐ. Little as they’re worth, I was counting on it to cover fuel costs. Can’t we get them released somehow?”
As usual, Zoe had the needful information at her fingertips. “You can fill out a form, pay a processing fee, and they’ll be released after a twenty-day waiting period.”
“Ain’t planning on sittin’ dirtside for no twenty days. We need a Plan B—a supplemental job.”
“Badger?” offered Zoe.
“No good. Harrow’s workin’ an end-run around Badger. We need to get gone before Badger figures it out.”
“Holden Brothers? They still owe you, sir.”
“Holden Brothers don’t deal on Persephone, Zoe, it’s Wuo’s territory. I can’t jeopardize the Holden contact to deal with Wuo.”
“I’ll have to. He ain’t likely to have much of a job worth having—but I reckon it’s our best chance. You stay with the ship, Zoe. I’ll take Jayne.”
“Sir, Horowitz was in my unit when we were on Verbena—I should come with you.”
“No. Too much likelihood of gunplay.” Zoe started to launch another protest, but Mal overrode her objection. “You got another life to think on, Zoe.”
Mal and Jayne were off trying to rustle up some work out of Horowitz. He was another luckless ex-Browncoat, even more luckless than Mal and Zoe, which was saying something. He’d been part of Zoe’s unit when they’d been detached from the 57th Overlanders for some stealth operations. Zoe was always good at stealth. Mal hadn’t participated in the detached operation—he’d been with the main unit breaking in the new lieutenant, something that happened far too often over the course of the war. Horowitz wasn’t a bad sort at all, but Zoe was right—she knew him much better than Mal did. These days, Horowitz scraped by running a sort of junk shop that doubled as a fence operation. Occasionally he needed transport for his goods (usually the hot ones), which was why they were even paying him a visit. His operation was in one of the worst parts of town and made Badger’s shop look upscale. If he had any work for them, it wouldn’t amount to much, unless he’d caught a lucky break somehow. But good luck and Horowitz were rarely seen together.
Zoe welcomed the return of Simon, River, and Inara. Zoe and Kaylee had spent most of their time since returning from the jail cleaning up after the thirty-two guests. The biggest chore was septic vac, which took far longer and was far more unpleasant than at anytime in Zoe’s memory. Simon, River, and especially Inara would do just about anything to avoid septic vac duty, and Zoe fully intended to exploit it. She’d get them to do all manner of other chores that remained undone. She especially wanted to free up Kaylee to assess the ship’s mechanical needs and make a list of necessary replacement parts. There was no way they’d be able to afford Kaylee’s full wish list, but ever since the failure of the compression coil catalyzer had nearly cost all of them their lives, Mal had put a higher priority on maintenance, and Zoe wanted to be ready with the list as soon as the coin was available.
To Zoe’s chagrin, Inara informed her that Ip Neumann was intending to pay them a visit. Zoe regarded their former supercargo with caution. He seemed harmless enough, a young scientist on the loose, researching terraforming accidents and writing up papers for publication in the scientific journals, but the fact that he had worked for Blue Sun Corporation just a few short months ago rang all sorts of alarm bells in her. River Tam had been a fugitive ever since her arrival on board Serenity. She’d been pursued by the Alliance, bounty hunters, and creepy men in suits wearing blue gloves—the infamous Hands of Blue. The Operative had said he’d arrange for the Alliance to rescind River’s fugitive status, and apparently he’d been as good as his word. But the Blue Hands—Blue Sun’s private operatives—were still after River. Anything that could connect River and Serenity to Blue Sun worried Zoe, and so she was still reserving judgment on Neumann. The funny thing was, River herself seemed to have taken a shine to the young man.
As it happened, even Zoe was ready for a break when Ip Neumann showed up bearing containers of take-out food from one of Persephone’s finest Chinese restaurants. Inara, Simon, and River all seemed to have bonded with Neumann during the last week—they’d worked together to get the charges against the Captain dropped, with Neumann running point, as he was the least obviously affiliated with the crew of the Firefly. Neumann also seemed to have worked his own contacts in the Captain’s favor. This should have made Zoe regard him more positively, but the suspicious part of her (it was a healthy portion, and it had saved her 屁股 pìgu many a time in the war and afterwards) wondered just why Neumann was so interested in turning favors for the crew of Serenity. She didn’t believe it was simply out of the goodness of his heart. Kaylee, on the other hand, clearly did.
“Ip! You brought Szechuan string beans! My favorite!” Kaylee gushed. Everyone was appreciating the bamboo shoots, bitter gourd, snow peas, and straw mushrooms abounding in the food, but Kaylee was the only person who could attain a state of spiritual ecstasy over fresh vegetables.
Zoe thanked Neumann for his role in springing the crew out of jail.
“I just couldn’t believe they’d throw the book at the Captain like that,” Ip said. “After what he did, rescuing those slaves—to be accused of slave trading—that must have been really galling.”
“Captain’s never really put a lot of trust in the system—Alliance often doesn’t know well enough to do the right thing, in my opinion.” Zoe had a lot of opinions about the Alliance, most of them unprintable, but she wasn’t about to share them with a Core-bred youngster like Neumann.
“The Captain acted on his ideals,” Inara put in. “He has a noble heart, although he tries to hide it.” Zoe was surprised to hear Inara praising Mal this way, knowing as she did that they’d quarreled just before the slave rescue, and had barely spoken to each other since. She just knew the Captain had gone and called Inara “whore” again—the 傻瓜 shǎgūa couldn’t manage to lose that word from his vocabulary—and got himself in the doghouse with Inara. Now she was calling him noble. Maybe there was hope for him yet. Of course, Inara might have a harder time hanging on to that notion of “noble” when confronted with the reality of Mal—especially if he returned in one of his gloomy, grumpy moods. Zoe reckoned that a near certainty, given that he was visiting Horowitz.
“They say no good deed goes unpunished,” Neumann said.
“So, do we have a job?” Simon interjected. Zoe scowled inwardly. The Doc had no sense, discussing private business in front of a stranger. But she answered Simon’s question.
“It happens we do. One that we cannot afford to do.”
“So why are we doing it, then?” Trust Simon to ask the obvious question.
“We can’t afford not to.” Zoe wasn’t about to mention that it was a smuggling job. Neumann didn’t need to know about any of Serenity’s less-than-legal activities. “Transport job to Beylix,” she added.
“I thought jobs were supposed to pay,” Simon continued.
Zoe answered, “It does pay—after the fact. But no advance.”
“Do we need an advance?” For top three percent, sometimes Simon was quite slow on the uptake.
“You are such a boob,” River said, rolling her eyes.
Zoe answered Simon’s question. “Yes. We can’t afford to re-stock food stores or even a complete load of fuel. Plus this cargo requires some special fittings and stores, all of which require cash up front.” She anticipated Simon’s next stupid question. “Captain expended all his reserve funds on this slave rescue operation. Got no more ’n a credit to his name.”
“Surely the Captain has business contacts here on Persephone—someone he could ask for a job,” Neumann suggested.
“Captain already used up all the good will he got on this planet and then some,” Zoe replied. She didn’t add that the Captain could hardly go seeking a legitimate transport job when he knew his hold would soon be filled with smuggled cattle.
“What about the Abolitionist Society?” Kaylee asked. “They seemed like good folk. Mayhaps some one of them has a job we could do.”
“Can’t export abolition.”
“I suppose we could take on paying passengers,” Inara suggested.
This time it was Simon who responded. “Passengers to Beylix? I can see it now: ‘Take a sight-seeing tour to Beylix, Garbage Dump of the Kalidasa System’.”
“All right, point taken,” Inara responded.
“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” River announced.
“I know I’m not part of the crew…” Ip Neumann began.
“No, you ain’t,” Zoe responded, but her reply was overwhelmed by Kaylee’s simultaneous one. “As good as!” she exclaimed, enthusiastically supported by Simon and Inara.
“…but I have an idea,” Neumann continued. He gathered himself up and took his leave. “I’ll be back later.”
Mal and Jayne came back to Serenity, tired, dusty, and both in a foul mood. Zoe didn’t even need to ask to know the quest for a paying job was fruitless. But Mal wanted to talk to her, probably just because it was better than talking with Jayne, in whose gracious company he’d just spent the last few hours. Jayne was rough company even at the best of times, and this time he had started out in a bad mood—amazing what not getting paid and spending a few days in jail could do to a fella’s mood. Jayne’s mood had been disimproved by tramping across town and back on foot—it cost money they couldn’t afford to run the mule. Add to it that Horowitz had been a bust and Mal wouldn’t even let him shoot at anybody, and Jayne’s foul mood had grown to colossal proportions.
“No job,” Mal said.
“Man was more like to need charity himself,” Jayne grumbled darkly, “and I weren’t in no giving mood.”
“He needed a philanthropist,” Mal stated.
Now where did that come from? Zoe wondered.
Jayne was on a roll. “Shoulda just held up that armored car we saw over by the megamart. Get all the coin we need. Make a quick getaway.”
“And get thrown back in jail, Jayne? Good thinking.” Mal couldn’t fathom Jayne’s line of thought. A quick getaway on what? A ship with no fuel, no food, no water. No point countering Jayne’s assertions with rational argument, Mal realized. Man was just blowing off steam. Might as well let him get it out of his system.
“Woulda worked,” Jayne said sullenly.
“If our goal was to rot in jail, Jayne, yeah, it woulda worked great.”
Mal climbed the stairs from the cargo bay wearily. He hadn’t even actually been on trial, but 该死 gāisǐ if it didn’t feel like he had. The arraignment had taken a lot out of him, and he wanted nothing more than a cup of tea and a bit of shut-eye in his bunk. But as he passed near Inara’s shuttle, she put her head out and beckoned him in. They’d exchanged barely more than a dozen words since their acrimonious discussion on the bridge en route to 泥球 Ní Qiú, and he was prepared for an awkward conversation.
But Inara surprised him by placing a stack of bank notes in his hand, saying only, “Rent.”
Mal was completely taken aback. He and Inara had never discussed shuttle rent since she had rejoined Serenity after his encounter with the Operative at the Training House. Rejoined? Who was he kidding? It wasn’t like she’d had any kind of choice. How was the invitation worded? “Stay here and let the Operative kill you now, or come along with me and the Operative will kill us all later.” He’d practically abducted her. That they’d survived Miranda was the dumbest of dumb luck. And was he then going to say, “And for that thrilling brush with death, you owe me two months’ rent”? Then they’d started sleeping together, and the notion of rent in such circumstances turned his stomach. No gentleman would charge his girlfriend rent for sharing his bed on his own ship. But was he a gentleman? And was she even still his girlfriend, or had he screwed that up beyond all recovery? 哎呀 Āiyā, it was what he’d always said, shipboard relationships made things complicated. He felt confounded. But it was a fact that Serenity wouldn’t fly without an infusion of ready money, and it was his duty as captain to see to the needs of the ship. So he said, “A loan. Not rent.” He felt the flush rising up his chest and throat, creeping into his cheeks, and he looked away. “谢谢 Xièxie.” He cleared his throat. “This’ll keep us flying.”
He knew he owed her thanks for a lot more than just the loan. He didn’t know how to say it—didn’t reckon he could say it nice and polite-like. He really and truly was glad to be out of jail, but…he tried to shove the unbidden thoughts aside. Knowing he was going to say it badly, he soldiered on. “I reckon I oughtta thank you for pullin’ strings, workin’ your contacts and gettin’ me outta jail.” As he said it, his head filled with a vision of Inara with her clients—the advocate, the immigration inspector, the judge. It clenched at his heart, making him almost physically ill. “Heartsick” was not just an expression, he decided, but something felt in the most visceral way. She may have been motivated by a desire to help him, but being helped in this way felt like being poisoned. It was hard to express gratitude with thoughts like these running through his head, so his thanks came out as churlish at best. “Thanks for savin’ my sorry carcass.”
“That’s not a very graceful thank you, Mal, considering how much trouble I went through.”
Now the bitterness and anger took hold of him. Knowing he’d regret his words, he still couldn’t stop himself. “Took you away from your clients, didn’t I? Cut into your income-producing time, I conjure. Sorry ’bout that,” he added sarcastically.
Inara’s eyes flashed, but she spoke calmly. “Actually, Mal, I only added those clients to aid your case. My schedule here on Persephone was already filled with the—other business I told you about. I had to cut that short to work the contacts necessary to secure your release.”
“Grease the skids, so to speak.” It was almost a sneer.
“Don’t be coarse, Mal.”
“Coarse comes to me natural-like.”
“And rude,” she spoke with some heat.
“Oh, now, coarse and rude!” Mal’s voice was raised. “What’s next? Common? Boorish?” He spat out the words.
Mal turned his back and began to walk away, but Inara spoke up vehemently. “You called me a liar.”
He turned back. “A liar and a whore, actually.”
“How dare you—” she began.
“Sorry,” he interrupted. He was unsure at first if this was a sincere apology or not. “I shouldn’ta said it. I just—” he broke off at the unforgiving look on her face. Not. Definitely not. He was seething with anger and he was about to say still more that he’d regret later.
“Listen, Mal, I’ve gotten used to the ‘W’ word— 亲爱的佛 qīn’àide Fó , you’ve used it often enough. It barely stings anymore. But how dare you call me a liar.”
Mal paused momentarily. It was the word liar that had gotten under her skin? He rushed to his own defense. “When you got secrets you won’t tell me—”
“And you have no secrets that you keep from me, Mal?”
He was momentarily silenced.
“I’ll match your level of openness—or secrecy,” she continued. “I have reasons for not disclosing my business on Persephone. It’s something I can’t talk about now. It was difficult—exhausting. I have been—”
“Next time, don’t try your wiles on me,” he blurted.
“You coulda just said, ‘I got secret business on Persephone, I need to go there,’ ’stead of sweet-talking me, kissin’ me like—well, like it means something—just to get me compliant. Inara, it ain’t that you got business that bothers me—”
That drew a derisive snort from Inara.
“—well, it ain’t just that you got business,” he admitted, but only to himself. Out loud he continued, “—it’s that you tried to play me.”
He stopped and looked directly into her eyes. He couldn’t bring himself to say how much that hurt him, the thinking that she’d play him. That she’d play him, exactly as if he were one of her clients.
Inara stared into Mal’s eyes, trying to fathom the depths. She knew Mal had been unreasonable, calling her liar and whore, as if he’d never told a lie in his life, as if he stood on a pedestal of honesty and virtue, with his smuggling, thieving ways. She stood firm in her righteousness, and he barreled on with his unreasonable, angry, rude retorts—and then he pulled her right off her high horse with those words. “You tried to play me.” 亲爱的佛 qīn’àide Fó, she had tried to play him. In trying to avoid hurting him in one way, she’d hurt him in another. She had hurt him. It wasn’t all his fault. It was her fault, too.
“I’m sorry, Mal,” she whispered. She dropped her eyes and turned away.
“I’m sorry, too, Inara,” he said softly, and left the shuttle.
地狱 dìyù [hell]
该死 Gāisǐ [Damn]
屁股 pìgu [ass]
傻瓜 shǎgūa [fool]
该死 gāisǐ [damn]
泥球 Ní Qiú [name of a world]
哎呀 Āiyā [Damn]
谢谢 Xièxie [Thank you]
亲爱的佛 qīn’àide Fó [dear Buddha]
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