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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Serenity gets under way with a cargo of cattle.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 2370 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)
Serenity gets under way with a cargo of cattle.
This section PG-13, edging toward R on account of language. What can I say? It’s Jayne’s fault.
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* * *
Ip Neumann hurried through the crowds at Eavesdown Docks toward Serenity with an excited step. He’d been in touch with his former thesis advisor at Harcliffe University. He filled her in on his adventures and doings since leaving Blue Sun. He told her about the contacts he’d made, the plans he had. She’d been skeptical, wondering, then excited. She had just the thing, she said, and would wave him back shortly.
Professor Rao was as good as her word. Within the day, she had waved him back with exciting news. She had a continuing grant to study gravitational field anomalies, and a custom-built piece of laboratory equipment was waiting at the premises of Kirkegaard and Rhim Laboratories on the outskirts of Persephone City. It had been awaiting suitable arrangements for transportation and a qualified person to run the experiment. Persephone to Beylix was a suitable run for the experiment, provided that the route went by way of the Georgia System and the captain could be persuaded to run both above and below the plane of the ecliptic in all three systems. The existence of the continuing grant meant that both the transport fee and the salary were already budgeted. Professor Rao made arrangements with the departmental comptroller and sent Ip the paperwork over the cortex. So it was with a spring in his step and a contract in hand that Ip Neumann knocked on Serenity’s airlock door.
“Dr Ip.” Mal greeted the young scientist with some surprise. “Didn’t reckon to see you back aboard. You got yourself a new job yet?”
“Actually, yes, Captain,” Ip Neumann answered with excitement. Then he looked at Mal with some doubt. “But it depends on you.”
“Don’t see what your new job has to do with me.”
“I’ve got a scientific experiment that needs a ship to fly on. It comes with funding. Advance payment.” Neumann offered Mal the contract to read.
The contract was straightforward enough. He’d have to adjust the course he had planned to Beylix, and it would definitely take longer. He had some misgivings, but he also felt that there was no manner of choice. Serenity had a cargo of cattle that he couldn’t refuse, and he was in desperate need of funds to get that cargo off the ground. Turning back to Neumann, Mal offered his hand and said, “Deal. You can fly, Neumann. Welcome back aboard.”
Mal had to admit that Neumann’s scientific cargo was a life-saver. Along with Inara’s loan, the advance money from the experiment provided just enough to restore Serenity’s supply of food, fuel, and medicine, and let them acquire the fittings necessary to ready Serenity’s cargo bay for the arrival of forty head of cattle. Kaylee had a wish-list of parts as long as her leg, but most of them would have to wait. It was important that the artificial grav system be put in good order—a grav failure en route with loose hay and cowpies would be like to contaminate the atmo intakes. He didn’t even want to think about how it would spook the cattle if they found themselves suddenly in zero g, nor the kind of injuries that might result from a sudden restoration of grav with forty head of cattle spinning and floating free in the cargo bay. So repairs and back-up parts for the artificial grav system all got the green light. A heavy-duty, high-capacity septic vac system had to be installed. They hadn’t bothered with it the last time they’d moved cattle for Sir Warwick Harrow. That trip had been relatively short, and even so, Mal had regretted it. The trip to Beylix was lengthy and he didn’t want a hygienic emergency on his hands. Even back on Shadow where he grew up, with a whole planet’s worth of room, the question of what to do with the manure of a large number of confined cattle weren’t no joke. The flight path dictated by Neumann’s scientific experiment would add five days to their trip, and required them to take on extra fuel to power the thrusters and attitude jets for the maneuvering above and below the solar ecliptic. Mal helped Kaylee and Jayne install a waterproof decking to cover the steel grating in the cargo bay. Didn’t want no unmentionables leaking down into the electrical wiring and conduits that underlay the entire cargo bay, causing shorts and corrosion.
Then there was the pure volume of fodder required to feed the cattle. Even in a compressed, dehydrated (and expensive) form suitable for space flight it took up a great deal of space, and most of Shuttle Two and a good portion of the passenger lounge were packed with bales of green stuff.
Simon laid in stocks of veterinary medicine—a cattle plague striking in transit would be a disaster. Mal oversaw all the preparations with a dogged thoroughness that hid his underlying perplexity. Having grown up on a ranch, he was no stranger to the notion of shipping cattle through space. It was just that, in his experience, cattle were generally shipped in the form of beef products, usually frozen, sometimes dehydrated. Semen from prize bulls was often shipped (that didn’t hardly take up no room at all)—embryos in stasis (required a constant temperature freezer, but again, didn’t take up much room)—occasionally weaned calves were shipped to start a new herd. Mal was sure Harrow had a reason he was willing to pay good money for shipping a whole herd, but damned if he could figure it out.
Mal informed Zoe that he’d accepted a contract to fly Ip Neumann and his scientific experiment to Beylix. “So, looks like he’ll be with us a while longer.” He shared a look with Zoe. They were both thinking along the same lines. He’d taken Neumann aboard for what should have been a simple, single delivery: grav modifiers to 泥球 Ní Qiú. The man just didn’t seem to want to go away.
“Feel like he’s bird-dogging you, sir?”
Mal looked his assent. “A bit.” Zoe was still looking for him to open up with what was really bothering him, so he said, “Dr Ip’s got a notion that I been to Miranda. Asked me about it, straight up.” He shared another meaningful look with Zoe. “You?”
“Didn’t ask me, sir.”
“Don’t know where he got the notion, but it’s clear he don’t know the full story.” They shared another meaningful look. Neither one intended for Ip Neumann ever to know the full story. They worked in silence for a while, side by side, Zoe waiting for Mal to say more.
“Makes me more ’n a mite skittish, his connection to Blue Sun,” Mal said at last.
Zoe expressed her worry. “How do we know he ain’t still workin’ for them?”
“He came aboard on Jack Holden’s recommendation.” Mal knew that the Holden Brothers didn’t have any love for Blue Sun. That didn’t mean Jack had thoroughly vetted Neumann. But if Neumann was still working for Blue Sun, why would he be so open about his connection with them? Why would he have helped them with the slave escape? It was possible, sure, that he was throwing them off the scent by playing the innocent, but the man had “straight arrow” written all over him.
“He’s won over the hearts and minds of most of the others,” Zoe said, clearly not including herself among that group.
Mal nodded. Even Simon had taken to Neumann, ever since the trial on Persephone. Neumann had labored on behalf of Serenity’s crew, when he could have just walked away. Again, the question was, had he some kind of ulterior motive? “River likes him,” Mal said. Only Zoe knew him well enough to interpret what he truly meant by that statement.
Zoe understood. Was it mind-reading River, or teenage-hormone River, that liked Ip Neumann? She returned Mal’s look. Yep, the young man definitely needed watching.
Mal was alone on the bridge, taking his trick in the pilot’s seat. It was one of his favorite spots on the ship for thinking things through. There was always something to think on.
He had a cargo hold full of cattle—and a beeping, blinking crate that housed the main part of Neumann’s scientific experiment. The science experiment also had an external unit—Kaylee had mounted it to the outside of the hull—that transmitted information to the internal one. Several times a day, Neumann waded through the cow pies, de-activated the laser barrier that kept the cattle from rubbing up against the housing, stepped inside, and read the data, downloading it onto his portable sourcebox. Mal flicked the three check switches, confirmed the course settings, and stared out into the Black.
“So, how goes it, Romeo?” Mal really wasn’t in the mood to discuss his relationship with Inara—if he even had one, anymore—but Wash was relentless.
“Shut it, Wash. Ain’t had a sight of Inara’s bed for a few weeks now,” Mal said. It was humiliating to admit it, but at least Wash would stop pressing him for details.
No such luck. “What went wrong?” Wash asked. “Last time we had a heart-to-heart, it was going so well—I seem to recall that she thought you were good in bed.”
“Yeah, well.” Mal paused. Hell with it, he thought, might as well talk it out with Wash. “That was before I called her whore again.”
“You didn’t!” Wash exclaimed, accompanying his words with his best “you idiot” look.
“Yeah, I did,” Mal admitted.
“Listen, Mal, you gotta erase that word from your vocabulary.”
“Well—it’s worse, Wash. I called her a liar, too.”
“笨驴 Bèn lú. You seem to have a special talent. You should write a book—‘How to Piss Off the Woman You Love’—you’re so good at this, I should take lessons.”
“She tried to play me, Wash,” Mal said, defensively. He sounded whiny, even to himself.
“Wait, wait a minute, Mal. She actually tell you a lie?”
“Yes!” Mal responded instantly. “She said she needed to go to a civilized planet….”
Wash stared at him as he recounted their fight on the bridge, waiting for the lie to surface. When Mal had finished his whinge, he queried again, insistently, “So, an outright lie?”
“Yeah—well, uh, no. More like she was holding back something.”
“Holding back something. Hmmm, Mal—does that sound like someone you know?”
“Alright, alright,” Mal said, “so I don’t always spill my guts to everyone.” He paused. “I can be reserved.”
“So when you hold back, it’s being reserved, but when she holds back, it’s lying?”
“No! Wash, you—” Mal sputtered. He collected his shreds of captain-y dignity. “Nothin’ wrong with being reserved.”
“Even with Inara? Even when she wants to share your burdens?”
Mal made no reply, and Wash tut-tutted, mumbling something about “openness” and “key to a lasting relationship.” Then Wash took up the thread again. “So, you called her a whore and a liar. What did she call you?”
Mal thought for a moment.
“Thief?” offered Wash. “Petty thief? She throw your smuggling in your face?”
“No, she didn’t.” She hadn’t called him a thief, hadn’t mentioned any of his illegal activities. She’d kept her dignity. And he’d never seen her look so gorram beautiful.
Wash wouldn’t let him wander down that sidetrack. “So, you called her a liar and a whore, she didn’t call you petty thief, and you felt the need to defend your honor from insult.”
“You got crazy notions, Wash.”
“Yeah, well, I tried sane, but it wasn’t as much fun. But isn’t that what motivated the whole slave rescue thing? You needed to impress Inara with your ability to rise above petty theft—” Wash was on a roll “—you know, steal something you couldn’t profit from, engage in some altruistic larceny —”
“I didn’t do it just to impress Inara,” Mal broke in.
“Aha! So you did it partly to impress Inara,” Wash crowed.
“It was the right thing to do,” Mal said sullenly.
“Knight in shining armor frees the slaves. This stinks of nobility, Mal.”
“No, it don’t,” Mal insisted. “Couldn’t even do it right. They all ended up back in the can, only now it’s the immigration detention center on Persephone instead of the slave pen on 泥球 Ní Qiú. I failed.”
“You mean, the nobility thing?”
“No, I mean you impressed Inara.”
“How do you figure?”
“Who sprung you from jail? Who got you your lawyer?”
“Inara.” Realization was beginning to dawn.
“Why did she do it?”
Possible motivations ran through his head. Pity. Kindness. An abstract sense of justice. No doubt his thoughts were written on his face, because Wash just kept shaking his head, with a look that said clearly, “Lame, lame, lame.”
And then it struck him. Love. Inara loved him.
River smiled to herself as she stood silently in the doorway to the bridge. The Captain was staring out into the Black in that way again—the way that meant he was having another internal confabulation. Most likely with the idea of Wash as his sparring partner: the bridge was just saturated with memories of Wash. And it didn’t take a genius to know what was troubling him most. It was his relationship with Inara.
Really, the Captain was not too bad at self-analysis, he just chose such unusual means to do it. It was as if he just couldn’t bring himself to say these things, even to himself—but if he put the words into the mouth of someone else—Wash, the Shepherd—then he could bear to hear them. River thought it was a bit like a writer of fiction, who could explore difficult subjects and express repugnant views, by putting them in the mouth of a fictional character and writing a scene where they let the character run with it. Mal could take the metaphorical punches and the exposure of holes in his psyche, as long as he maintained the fiction to himself that these jabs were externally sourced. River thought the Captain actually looked forward to these internal sparring matches, but could only engage in them when his mind was emptied of day-to-day worries. That was why they took place mostly when he was alone on the bridge late at night, or when he was confined to bed recovering from an injury. And he did seem to be making some progress, River thought, as she watched the emotions play out on the Captain’s face.
River was very familiar with internal dialog. She had the advantage over the Captain in that she didn’t have to invent the outside perspective—she merely had to observe, to look around her, listen to the unspoken thoughts of one of her crewmates to access an opposing point of view. Some of Serenity’s crew projected their thoughts so loudly on their faces that it didn’t take a mind-reading genius to figure out what they would say if they verbalized them. It was because the Captain engaged in these internal debates that he understood her best of all the crew.
River watched as the clouds cleared temporarily from the Captain’s face, and the corners of his mouth twitched upwards as a hopeful thought lit his eyes. She smiled. As he shifted his position in the chair and re-checked the course settings, River knew the Captain had just resolved to try again.
Jayne headed into the cargo bay for his morning cow-tending duty. Gorram cows. Captain seemed downright spoony over ’em, like they was bringin’ back all his happy memories of shiny times on Shadow afore the place got blasted all to 屎 shǐ by the Feds. Jayne couldn’t see it. Now he knew as how cows was useful an’ all, an’ he liked fresh milk, cream, and beefsteak as well as the next man, but havin’ all them cows aboard hadn’t done a thing to improve the rations, seein’ as how these cows warn’t the kind that made milk and Mal wouldn’t let him make steaks outta any of ’em neither.
No, these cows were just the kind that ate hay and made 大便 dàbiàn. This he knew in the most physical way possible, seein’ as how it was mostly his job haulin’ all that gorram grass around—first unburying the sofa in the passenger dorm from the mountain of hay bales stacked upon it, then unpacking the stuff from Shuttle Two. It were a longer haul from there, but at least you could toss the stuff over the catwalk rail, and that were kinda fun. Gorram grass got into everything. Captain got right pissed off if’n you tracked it all over the ship, and seemed like every time Jayne sat down he found another gorram piece of that gorram grass stuck in his 屁股 pìgu. Hell, he’d even found the gorram stuff in his bunk.
Cap’n took to the cow-tending like he was raised up to it—which he was, now Jayne come to think on it. Jayne didn’t take to no cow-tending. Especially the cleaning-up part. Why was it always Jayne’s job to shovel up the gorram 牛屎 niú shǐ? Didn’t matter that there was a shiny new septic vac system right in the cargo bay, specially installed for that 他妈的 tāmādē 牛屎 niú shǐ. Jayne never liked septic vac duty and used to always do his best to bet it away in the frequent sessions of chore poker he’d played with the Shepherd and the Doc. He loved it when Doc lost and had to do septic vac duty, ’cause what’s not to like about Top Three Percent Core Boy sucking sludge? But more often, Shepherd won the pot in chore poker and Jayne was stuck with septic vac anyhow. 哎呀 Āiyā but he missed the Shepherd. Man was a freaky-ass good poker player, and again Jayne wondered what the 地狱 dìyù the man had been before he turned Shepherd.
Jayne looked up from his work to see that annoying science-doctor ’Noyman pickin’ his way across the cargo bay, tryin’ to step around the 牛屎 niú shǐ and keep his pretty shoes clean. Did it every day, several times a day, gettin’ to that gorram blinky machine of his settin’ in the middle of them cows. Jayne liked to be workin’ the cows when ’Noyman came to do his thing ’cause baitin’ him was almost as much fun as baitin’ the Doc. A man needed a little Doc-baitin’ to keep his spirits up.
Jayne picked up his shovel and the nozzle end of the hose, and angled closer to Doc ’Noyman.
After dinner, Mal made his rounds, walking the ship and checking on things. He ended in the cargo bay, where he settled down on the lower catwalk. He picked up the jug of Kaylee’s engine-wine he had brought with him and poured a bit into his battered metal mug. He took a swig and pulled a face. 哎呀 Āiyā if this batch weren’t—how did Inara put it?—even more “fresh” than usual. He sipped again cautiously and contemplated the softly lowing herd.
Mal found the cattle soothing. They required tending morning, noon, and night, but for him it brought back the familiar rhythms of his Ma’s ranch back on Shadow. Shadow, that place he where he was born, that place that didn’t exist no more, that place destroyed in a rain of fire…best not go down that path. He remembered Granny MacEachern ringing the dinner bell, all the hands turning to for dinner after a long, hard day’s work. Granny MacEachern had showed him how to make biscuits light and fluffy. When he was still quite a little boy, she’d stood him on a chair so he could reach the counter and let him cut the biscuits with the round tin cutter. She only chided him gently when he didn’t get very many circles cut out of the flat expanse of dough. She’d told him that re-rolling toughened the dough, and he learned to do better. His favorite part was watching her place the cut biscuits on top of the bubbling surface of the pot pie, like she was dealing a deck of cards, and he loved watching through the glass oven door as the biscuits popped up high. Mal took another sip of the wine and discovered that Inara was standing nearby.
“Drinking alone, Mal? You shouldn’t do that.”
“Won’t be drinking alone if you join me.” He turned his head and looked up toward her with the slightest hint of a smile.
Inara settled down on the edge of the catwalk, her feet dangling over the edge. Mal produced a second cup, filled it, and offered it to her. She clinked her cup against his and took a sip, pulling a little face. “Thank you for the wine. It’s very…”
“Fresh?” he offered.
“Well, I was going to say something else, but ‘fresh’ will do.”
“To Kaylee and her inter-engine fermentation system,” he toasted, and again they drank, both pulling simultaneous sour faces. “Maybehaps Kaylee’s losing her touch.”
Inara looked her agreement with that assessment. After a pause, she asked, “What were you thinking, a few moments ago, when I first came over?”
“Just before you spoke? I was thinkin’ about biscuits.”
“Biscuits? I never would have guessed.” Her laugh was like the music of the brook, rippling over the smooth stones.
“Biscuits, and pot pie.”
She raised her eyebrow with a little smile and waited for him to continue.
“Granny MacEachern back on Shadow taught me the fine art of biscuit-making. Don’t get to practice it much here on Serenity.”
“I hadn’t thought about it before—why don’t we bake much, here on Serenity?”
“How did Kaylee ever manage to make that birthday cake?”
“You might recall that Kaylee’s birthday cakes are always a mite…chewy.”
“That’s on account of no oven. Well, and also on account of not much flour. And no butter. And nothin’ but reconstituted eggs. Actually, come to think on it, it’s near miraculous Kaylee’s ever made anything even resemblin’ a cake, given the limitations.”
They looked at each other, remembering the misshapen cylinder of lumpy protein Kaylee had produced for the most recent birthday. Chewy was a charitable description. But it had been covered with chocolate frosting of a sort, and they both remembered how eagerly everyone had partaken of the cake, how greedily they had devoured seconds. Their smiles rose and reached their eyes and bubbled over into laughter. Mal choked on his engine wine and Inara reached over to thump him on the back.
When he stopped sputtering, it was a simple, natural thing for her to leave her hand on his shoulder, for him to place his arm around her waist.
“Mayhaps if we’re dirtside for long enough, and can find us an oven, I’ll make you some biscuits.”
“And some pot pie, too?”
“’Course. An’ a cherry pie for dessert.”
Inara sighed and rested her head on Mal’s shoulder, visions of cherry pies dancing in her head. Mal closed his eyes and drank in the scent of her hair. Contentment. Serenity. That’s what he felt, sitting here, peaceful-like, Inara nestling close to him, the quiet sounds of the cattle below.
A loud bellow from one of the animals directly below startled them both out of the reverie. Looking to see there weren’t really anything going on with the animal, Mal observed, “It is good to have cargo.”
“It makes us a target for every other scavenger out there,” Inara said.
“But sometimes that’s fun too,” Mal finished, and they both burst out laughing again.
“We should run cattle more often.”
Zoe watched as Mal walked Inara to the door of her shuttle, kissed her goodnight, and made his way down the hall toward his bunk. Seems they’d managed to mend fences a bit, though, clearly, they still had a ways to go. Watching her friend heal his heart was helping her heal her own.
泥球 Ní Qiú [name of a world]
笨驴 Bèn lú [Dumb ass]
屎 shǐ [shit]
大便 dàbiàn [poop]
屁股 pìgu [ass crack]
牛屎 niú shǐ [cow poop]
他妈的 tāmādē [“rutting”]
哎呀 Āiyā [Damn]
地狱 dìyù [hell]
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