BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

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Sacrifice: Ch. 1
Friday, March 26, 2004

The crew gets a promising job, but there's a bit of a hitch....


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1949    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

SACRIFICE

When I got off the ship, I could not believe it. I will never forget the sight. We had landed in a field of lush grass that was an almost blindingly intense green. To my left, the grass sloped down and faded out to a long beach of white sand that lined the planet’s largest ocean. Gentle waves rolled up the beach, begging you to throw off your clothes and dive in. To my right, the grass gradually turned into forest and gentle hills rose up in the distance, promising hours of entertaining rambles. Everything was growing—it sounds crazy, but I could almost feel the fertility of the land through my boots.

I had never seen anything terraform so well. All terraformed planets have their quirks, of course, some more lethal than others. But I had read the reports—this place had no toxic gases, no tectonic hot spots, no extreme weather swings. On the contrary, the planet was set apart by the mildness of its weather and the regularity of its gentle rainfall.

Even when we first began our terraforming operations, I had wondered if it would be possible to reserve a planet on the Rim, to create a place where my family and friends could come in order to get back to Nature. The Core planets are magnificent, of course—I have homes on three of them—but no grand estate can replace the yearning to experience the outdoors, the real outdoors, not a crowded park (and even the most exclusive are so crowded these days) that has been meticulously landscaped and is riddled with security sensors.

And then, to get off the ship and see exactly what I had in my mind’s eye, right there in front of me—well, it took me about half a second to recover my breath and decide that I had found my dream. I turned to my cousin. “Reginald,” I said. “Let’s keep this one.”

—from Pfalzenhoffer: Jewel on the Rim by Thurston Pfalzenhoffer. Published by Planetary Publications, an imprint of Blue Sun Press.

It was the logical thing to do. Smith wanted them to get along in a hurry because the cargo’d be liable to spoilage, but Inara had a three-day job. It was only two days to Glory of God from Pfalzenhoffer, so take two days there, a day to unload and load, and two days back—they’d be back in five days. And on a place like Pfalzenhoffer, where the cream of the Core went to get relaxed, a woman like Inara would have no trouble at all filling those extra days, and that lucratively.

So there shouldn’t have been a huge fit and fuss about leaving her behind, but of course there was, and Mal was tetchy about it. He had made some mistakes, sure—he probably shouldn’t have brought up her leaving Serenity for good again, seeing as she seemed to have dropped that notion on her own. It wouldn’t have hurt nothing if he’d kept his mouth shut. No, it wouldn’t have.

But her mulishness about seeing this particular client had agitated him to no end. He had heard her talking to the fellow in her shuttle—she was laughing and yapping with this fellow like they were old friends. “I know you, Inara dear,” Mal had hear the huang chong say. “You’re always taking care of everyone else—why not let me take care of you for a couple of days.” He had been a regular of hers back on Sihnon, so this was going to be like some kind of reunion. Yup, a reunion. They’d be reuniting his yin jing with her…. “Well, Sir,” said Zoe, snapping Mal out of his reverie. “Looks like Rairty’s moved up in the world.”

“It’s Smith now,” said Mal, with a laugh. “You think he couldn’t of done better than Smith? It’s not much of an alias.”

They were on the catwalk overlooking the cargo hold, where Mal had been standing since Inara’s shuttle left. As Zoe walked on her way to the cockpit, Mal followed.

“Can you imagine what would happen if the authorities found out who the respectaful Andrew Smith really is?” asked Mal.

“Don’t even joke about that,” said Zoe as she stepped onto the bridge. “The number of purplebellies that man killed, they’d chop him to bits if they knew he was living on Pfalzenhoffer.”

“Knew who was living on Pfluffenutter?” asked Wash, as Zoe put her hand on his shoulder. He turned for the kiss, then looked back out the cockpit window. “Pretty ugly name for such a pretty place, ain’t it?”

Mal looked out the window, too. There was no question, Pfalzenhoffer was indeed a marvel. Aside from the occasional mansion or stable—containing horses each of which no doubt cost more than Serenity herself—nothing broke the endless green of the forest. Roads had been prohibited to preserve the landscape, so travel was only by air or on horseback. Lucky for them, travel planetside tended to be unmonitored, all part of the back-to-Nature mentality. The tricky bit with Pfalzenhoffer was getting permission to come visit at all. If it hadn’t been for Inara’s client….

“Smith!” said Mal. “You were asking about this Smith fellow we’re going to go meet. We haven’t worked with him before, but Zoe and I, we know him.”

“Or we knew of him,” said Zoe. “From the war.”

“He was an Independent, a big leader,” Mal continued. “Went by the name of Rairty. He ran an outfit of commandoes, some of the most daring sorts about. A great trouble to the Alliance. Famed far and wide for their dash and dander.”

“They had no fear!” said Zoe, and they both started to laugh.

“OK,” said Wash. “Why is that funny?”

“They had no fear, sweetcakes,” said Zoe, leaning forward and moving her hand down his chest, “because they never sober. Or at least that was the rumor.”

“Party Rairty!” exclaimed Mal. “I never did learn his first name. But he was a legend, for many reasons, not all of them the sort of thing his mother would be proud of. He was the real thing, though, his group did some serious damage. Not the kind the Alliance is liable to forgive.”

“They had a motto, something like, ‘We may be hammered, but we’ll hammer you’,” said Zoe. “Or maybe it was, ‘We may be slammed, but we’ll slam you.’ No one ever knew, exactly, and that includes Rairty’s men. We came across a few once and tried to ask them….”

“But they had been busy living up to their creed, whatever it was, and they weren’t sober enough to tell us!” said Mal. “And now Rairty’s here, living on Pfalzenhoffer of all places, all respectaful and proper….”

“Except for that smuggling thing he does,” finished Wash as they flew over a clearing. “There he is!”

***

Rairty stood with his men before his shuttle, watching the Reynolds’ ship land in the isolated clearing. To call him respectaful was a bit of an exaggeration: He was wealthier now, to be sure, and he had gone to great lengths to conceal his past, taking on the identity of a dead man whose name, irritatingly, actually was Smith. It had helped that Rarity had never been a public sort of leader with his face plastered everywhere—even among the Independents, most had never seen him and only knew him by nickname. That’s what made units like his effective—big word of mouth, but no one knows who you are. Just like the Reavers.

Nowadays, he owned a club on the beach, but his real business on Pfalzenhoffer was to supply the wealthy with illegal recreational drugs. Not everybody who came to the “Jewel of the Rim” wanted to spend their free time walking in the dirt, listening to birds chirp, and slapping around in some stupid canoe. Not everybody by a long shot.

The whole simple-life crapola that sold the uberrich on Pfalzenhoffer worked to Rairty’s advantage nonetheless: A lot of people sent their wayward lads and lassies there on the theory that getting them away from the bad crowd would straighten them out. Of course, the bad crowd was everywhere you chose to look, provided you chose to look. And rich kids never, ever had their luggage searched.

Rairty knew enough about Sergeant-turned-Captain Reynolds to know that he would never agree to run drops—not that the piece of crap landing in front of him would be good for that kind of job anyway. No, Reynolds’ ship was strictly a Rim-runner. Which was fine—life on Pfalzenhoffer wasn’t all about blowing your mind. Rairty was looking to branch out, and with any luck, this crew would be the ticket.

“Malcolm Reynolds?” he said.

“None other,” Reynolds replied. “You must be Andrew Smith.”

Of course Rairty already knew what his contact looked like—and it wasn’t like Reynolds was living under someone else’s name now, or had grown a beard and dyed it gray, or wore glasses made with plain-glass lenses, or had deliberately gained an extra 50 pounds. Rairty looked at Reynolds, then looked at his own pot belly and sighed. People had always said that his kind of life would age a man. And in a funny way, they were right.

Rairty might enjoy himself, but he did his gorram homework. That was one reason he’d survived the war, as well as its aftermath. Another was his ability to pick the right man for the job, to figure out who would best play what role—and who could be culled, if need be. Looking at Reynolds and his second—a beautiful woman, but obviously ex-military—both standing ramrod straight, giving his men the hairy eyeball despite their expensive clothing, Rairty knew he’d made the right choice.

“Load the ship!” Rairty snapped to his men. “Reynolds, let’s talk.”

The two of them stood alongside Rairty’s ship as he ran through his speech. It was a delicate job. It was going to take care, diplomacy, smarts. The cargo was fragile and had to be handled properly, both ways. But the take was worth it—and it could become a lucrative, semi-regular gig, for the right ship.

Then came the showstopper. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the globe. He had taken his time choosing it from what was left in cold storage, and he could see the reaction on Reynolds’ face.

“An orange!” said Reynolds.

Perfect. “No, take a close look at it,” said Rairty, handing it to him.

“It’s—it’s like an orange,” said Reynolds, a slight edge of amazement creeping into his voice. “But it’s not.”

Good, he was stumped. Rairty explained what a tangelo was, and what a variety of large, fine citrus fruits Reynolds was going to be picking up. He took the tangelo back—he would give it to Reynolds later, but he wanted him to think he might not get to keep it.

“But this is the best part,” said Rairty. He pulled the blue cloth out of his other pocket, and rubbed the tangelo with it. Then he showed the cloth to Reynolds. Still blue.

Of course Reynolds didn’t get it—he never lived in the Core, much less in a place like Pfalzenhoffer. The showman in Rairty was disappointed, but the businessman soldiered on, explaining how fruit sold on Pfalzenhoffer had to be grown hydroponically—it quadrupled the cost, but people here were too gorram fancy to each fruit irrigated by graywater and fertilized by sewage and manure, the way most fruit on the Rim was grown. This fruit was grown that way too, but unlike most people the farmers on Glory of God were careful and disciplined about sterilization. A contamination wipe wouldn’t show anything that would set off the law. With the right forged documents and unblemished produce, Rairty could supply the estates and restaurants of Pfalzenhoffer with “hydroponic” fruit at hydroponic prices.

Reynolds seemed to understand. He was supposed to be reasonably bright, if a bit too pious and earnest. He was smart enough to ask about the documentation, pointing out that he’d need some to have an explanation for his cargo if he got stopped on the way back to Pfalzenhoffer. But as he was handing the forgeries over, Rairty noticed one of Reynolds’ men. A big fellow with a beard, he didn’t stand like a military man—he held himself like a thug, like someone who would enjoy a good brawl because he’d win it. Rairty noticed that he was wearing a T-shirt with a silhouette of a naked woman on it: bad. Then, the big fellow put his hand to his nose and lurched forward, blowing out a white wad of snot on to the grass before wiping his hand on his pants. Bad, bad, bad.

“Do you know why I picked you?” Rairty asked Reynolds.

“We share a certain background,” said Reynolds, quietly.

“Well for me, that’s actually a risk,” Rairty replied, no less quietly. “But you did have a certain reputation back then, sort of the opposite of mine, and I haven’t forgotten it. The moon is named Glory of God, and that’s not just by accident. Hang on a second.”

He walked over to Wolf, grabbing him by the arm and dragging him over to Reynolds. Wolf looked apprehensive, like thought he might be in for some ball-busting. He thought right.

“This is Wolf,” said Rairty. “Wolf, this is Reynolds. Wolf’s a good man, he landed on Glory of God to make a repair and saw an opportunity.”

The expression on Wolf’s face changed to flat-out resentment, but Rairty had a point to make to Reynolds and could patch things up with Wolf later. He continued.

“Wolf realized how disciplined these people are, how important it is to them—being so religious and all—to grow their food clean, so that their bodies are pure and do not offend the Lord. And Wolf realized that these people are off the beaten track and need to trade, need to grow something that people on other planets would want to buy, so that they can get the equipment and supplies they need that they can’t make themselves. So, Wolf, tell Mr. Reynolds here what you suggested.”

“That place is a desert,” said Wolf. “It’d grow easy and people would buy it—that stuff is really hot right now.”

“Yes, yes,” said Rairty. “All valid points. But you haven’t told Mr. Reynolds exactly what crop you suggested the nice God-fearing people grow, have you?”

Wolf looked down, irritated. “Peyote,” he said.

Of course that was a bust too—there was no way that Reynolds would know what peyote was, it wasn’t like he ran with the kind of crowd that could afford the latest in retro non-synthetics. So Rairty had to explain things again, and again Reynolds seemed to get the point pretty quickly and promised to at least make sure no one wore clothes with pictures of naked people on them while planetside.

Surprisingly, Wolf piped up. “They’re real isolated, you know—the closest planet to them is this one, and the whole point of Pfalzenhoffer is that it’s far from everything. So a lot of the outsiders they deal with are either smugglers or, you know, would-be raider types, so like with us, they were real suspicious to begin with. But they’ll warm to you if you behave yourself. Just give them a little time.”

Very professional of him, Rairty thought. Wolf deserved a nice, long bender.

The loading was finished, and Rairty gave the tangelo and the instructions to Reynolds. Reynolds showed the fruit to the sexy one—maybe he wasn’t that righteous—but wouldn’t let the big one touch it, promising to give him a slice when they got on the ship. The cargo doors closed, and Reynolds’ ship rose up and flew off into the setting sun for Glory of God.

It was a little hard to communicate with this Reynolds fellow, Rairty mused, but if things worked out, the effort would be worth it. So what if Reynolds didn’t fit in with Rairty’s crew? He knew Reynolds would work on Glory of God: He’d have a lot in common with those people. He was a religious nut, too.

* * *

Glory of God was never meant to support settlers. The small plant spun slowly on its upright axis, so that even with an Earth-That-Was-type atmosphere the daily temperatures varied more than 80 degrees.

The planet had been terraformed for one reason only—mining it was cheaper that way. Until the settlers dubbed it Glory of God, the planet had no name and was wholly owned by Huang Jin Mining, a subsidiary of Blue Sun Extractions, which ran an operation to extract azurinium, a rare mineral that for years was a critical to the operation of space-based weaponry.

The rich azurinium deposits on the planet that became Glory of God were located deep underground, in very hard rock. The rock was also riddled with pockets of water and, in what struck some its miners as a particularly whimsical variation, pockets of explosive gas. The planet’s mines soon chalked up accident and death rates far higher than the industry average. The easier-to-reach deposits were mined out first, and as the years passed, mining azurinium on the unnamed planet became even more hazardous.

The death-knell for the planet’s azurinium mines, however, was not danger, but progress: A new weapons technology was developed that used cheaper, more readily-available materials, and azurinium once again was only of interest to geologists.

About 10 months before Huang Jin shut down azurinium operations and turned over ownership of the planet to the Allied Homestead Office, a group of 43 miners landed on the planet. They had two things in common. They were all indentured, and they all had just less than a year left on their contracts.

The miners had made the trip through space together and were bunked in a single dorm. It took them about seven work shifts to realize what was going on. A manager at Huang Jin had realized that such indentured were the most expendable: If they died, the company lost less than a year of labor, and it would not have to pay the bonus traditionally given a worker who finished out his contract. As a result, these miners were being given the most hazardous work in a mining operation that was none too safe to begin with.

Things did not look good for those who the people of Glory of God would eventually refer to as The 43. They could not leave the mine or refuse to work, because that would be in violation of their indentures, and they would wind up in prison or enslaved. But given the average rate of death or serious injury in that particular mine, between six to eight of the men could expect to lose life or limb before their indentures were up—and that wasn’t taking into account that all the really dangerous tasks were reserved for The 43 to perform.

Six of the men were Roman Catholic, two were Orthodox, and 11 were Protestants. Another 13 were Sunni, five were Shi’ite, and five were New Universal Islamists. One was agnostic. By the end of the first month every one of The 43 was praying communally five times a day—participating by com if they had to—and was wearing a small medallion featuring St. Barbara, a patron saint of miners, which had been provided by one of the Roman Catholic miner’s home parishes.

The 43 did not have much time for theological debates or doctrinal niceties—indeed, when the agnostic converted in the second month, no one was ever really sure which religion he had converted to. The only major doctrinal victory occurred in the fourth month, when one of the Protestants, raised in the Church of Fluviatulis Piscator, lost his left hand in an explosion that happened a few hours after he ate some canned ham that had been sent to him by an aunt. But while they didn’t have much time or energy for argument, The 43 had plenty of both for ritual: religious ceremonies, safety checks, and every possible combination of the two.

The Miracles of The 43 refers to two distinct events. The first was that all 43 survived—there were some broken bones and that lost hand, but considering the odds against them, divine favor seemed a not-unreasonable conclusion. The second miracle had its seed in the actions of the Fluviatulis Piscator man: Offered the option of leaving the planet after his accident, he stayed. The others, as they fulfilled their indentures and received their bonuses, stayed as well, working for wages until the mine closed for good. When the mine shut down, three of the men still owed time on their contracts; the other men pooled their money and bought those contracts out.

They had found their home.

***

Inara lay out her dresses on the bed of her shuttle. There was a black-and-gold one, but it had a high neck, not the thin straps and flowing sleeves of the dress in the still. Plus, unlike that dress, it left her midriff bare. Another was similar in style to the one in the still, but it had a bead trim, which that dress didn’t have, and despite a gold waist, it was scarlet. She looked at the still of her and Jin You on her monitor, then back at her dresses. If only she still had that dress, a lovely black stain with a gold lace overlay. But that was two years ago, and good dresses never lasted. So which would matter more to Jin, the color or the cut?

Argh, she was stressing over something that should have been fun. It was all Mal’s fault, the man could put the Bodhisattva of Compassion in a foul mood, and even a night’s sleep had not erased the irritation. “This is your kind of planet, after all. Maybe you’ll find a place here, if you’re still looking to leave Serenity.” What a hun dan.

She had stayed for River. River. You don’t discover find out that someone has been made into a psychic and then traipse off to New Melbourne as though nothing had changed. It was just irresponsible and stupid of Mal to suggest that she leave, especially now. Some members of that crew needed all the adult supervision available.

It was a good thing that she stayed, and it was just so typically self-centered of Mal to forget all about it because he was unhappy about her work. Jayne had been ridiculous after they had gotten rid of that horrid bounty hunter. He constantly wore that orange hat because he thought it might somehow insulate his thoughts from River’s mind.

But the real problems began once his fear had subsided. River suddenly got much worse and became almost constantly agitated. She kept accusing people of “poking at me, poking at my eyes” and shouting, “I’m not white! I’m not a rat!”

Inara was the first to notice that these outbursts happened more often when Jayne was around. It turned out that he had embarked on a little personal project to test River’s powers. He would wear different hats or no hat at all, or hide behind things. Then he would think of really disturbing things to see if she reacted. He was also trying to “beam” thoughts to her, to see if he could influence what kind of food she ate, or if he could make her give him her food.

Book said that it didn’t seem to be the content of Jayne’s thoughts that were disturbing River (although Inara couldn’t help but imagine the content of Jayne’s thoughts would be pretty traumatic in and of themselves). Instead, it was the mere fact that someone was experimenting on her—like the infirmary, it was a reminder of past torture.

Things had been calmer lately, but who knew what would happen? Mal had told Jayne to “police your thoughts” when it came to River, and he did it with such intensity that he made Inara all the more suspicious that Jayne had been trying to get the poor girl to give up more than her food. How long before that oaf decided upon some other use for her? Simon was trying different medicines, but River was still cycling in and out of lucidity unpredictably. She needed care. She needed people who would care for her. And even Mal, hun dan that he was, couldn’t make Inara stop doing that.

An idea occurred to her that made her forget all about her wardrobe crisis: Maybe she could leave Serenity. If she found the right sort of place, she could leave and take River and Simon with her. It would be tricky, but people did hide their identities—after all, that Smith man was someone Mal knew from the war. River wouldn’t like leaving Serenity, but some other place might be better for her. Someplace away from people like Jayne; someplace where she could get better care.

Speaking of people who needed care…Inara looked again at the dresses and decided on the scarlet one. It wasn’t black, but it wasn’t that bright. And most people notice the cut of clothing first, even if they think they notice the color. Her hair and makeup at least would be easy replicate. She looked at the still again. It was from a party back on Sihnon, back before things got complicated. Back with Jin You—there was delightful client, a man who made you glad to be a companion. She put her hair up in the front, leaving the back loose. Dark eyeliner, a warm, neutral gloss on the lips. Small earrings, and a large choker.

Her toilette complete, Inara flew her shuttle out of the docks that housed Pfalzenhoffer’s temporary workers, over the planet’s rolling hills, and to the You estate. In keeping with the gestalt of the place, estates on Pfalzenhoffer usually were patterned on some rural or rustic architecture. The You estate was no exception—it rose four stories high and looked like a log cabin built for a race of giants. Even the shuttle landing pad was “log”—although as Inara landed her shuttle, she decided that it must be synthetic wood, or at least heavily treated, since most ships burned hot enough to scorch the real thing.

Jin was never hard or demanding—indeed, people used to joke that he was so charming, he had probably had had some companion training. But in his own way, he was quite particular, enough so that Inara had pulled up that old picture as a reference. On Sihnon, Jin had never come to the temple. Instead, he had always booked Inara for multiple days, having him come to his house there. Unlike most clients, he always wanted Inara to be involved in his life, not to be the distraction from it.

She stepped off the log landing pad, down a short flight of wooden stairs, to a walkway made of stripes of polished wood of different colors, which led to the front door. It took her a moment to find the bell—a small brass pinecone, very clever. A moment after she rang it the door was opened, not by a servant, but by a young woman it took Inara a second to recognize as Jin’s daughter.

“Lily!” she exclaimed, genuinely happy to see the girl. Jin was a widower—his wife had passed on several years ago, although Inara knew very little about the circumstances since he never spoke of his wife or displayed pictures of her. Inara remembered Lily as an older teen with beautiful manners that she was nonetheless forever trying to improve—she often acted as hostess when her father entertained, and she was perhaps too aware of the importance of such dinners and parties to his business and social status. As a girl, Lily was slightly in awe of Inara, and would seek her advice on how to dress, how to hold herself, and how to attend to guests.

“Uh, Inara!” said Lily, obviously startled but quickly regaining her composure. “You’re here for father, right? Come in!”

She stood aside to let Inara in, then put her hand on the companion’s elbow. “Father’s in his suite, right this way,” and without any more conversation Lily hustled Inara briskly through the front hall. They were halfway up the left stairway when both of them heard a gasp and a clatter from below.

“Oh,” said Lily quietly. Inara turned just in time to see the back of another young woman, dressed in a blue velvet robe with brown fur trim, as she ran off, leaving some small electronic device in pieces on the stone floor.

“I’m terribly sorry,” Lily said to Inara, obviously forcing her voice to be calm and polite. “A troubled friend—I should see after her. Can you find your way to Father’s? Just go through the second door you come to at the top of the stairs.”

And with that, Lily scooped up her skirts with her right hand and ran down the stairs and across the hall with a speed and intensity Inara had last seen in Zoe.

***

The ship was about to land, and Simon could not find a single one of his vests. His dress shirts were all there, down at the bottom of his bag, but no vests. And he had looked everywhere in his small room—under the bed, in the cabinet. Nothing.

The tangelo. That had impressed the captain, all the more so when Simon told him that he had never eaten one before—he’d had tangerines before, which the others had not, and the tangelo tasted sort of like one. It was good, juicy and sweet, and the others seemed a little bit in awe of it.

They had to look respectable for these people, so the captain wanted Simon and Book to tag along while he and Zoe met their contact. So here he was, five minutes before they had to meet the tangelo people and impress them with their respectability, and Simon could not find a vest anywhere.

A thought crawled into his mind: If you aren’t useful to them, they won’t let River stay.

River.

“River!” Simon called out, opening the door to his room. The door across the hall opened up, and River tried to duck past. He blocked her way, and she retreated into her room with her hands before her face. “River, did you take my vests?” he asked, gently.

She furrowed her brow. “They’re not yours,” she said.

“River, please,” said Simon. “I need my vests.”

“They’re not, they don’t belong to you. Not anymore,” said River, with the air of someone trying to convey a message of great importance. “They’re not current. They’re not up-to-date.”

“Now we’re worried about fashion?” asked Simon. “Come on, River. I just need one.”

She frowned at him. “They don’t work for you,” she said.

Oh, Lord. Simon realized it was time to change tactics. “I’m just going to borrow it,” he said. “I just need it for this job—like a costume. You can keep it afterwards if you like, when I don’t need to wear it.”

She shrugged a bit, then pointed to where her mattress met the bed. Simon lifted the mattress, and sure enough, there were his vests, smoothly laid out on the bed’s platform. His black jacket was in there too. He fished it out, along with a vest, put them on, and headed out the door.

“You bring those back in one piece!” River yelled after him.

The captain, Zoe, and Book were already in the cargo hold, and Simon felt the ship touch down as he joined them. Mal gave him kind of a look, either because he was late or because he was wearing his nice clothes, then pushed the button to open the cargo doors.

A wall of heat hit them. Simon immediately started sweating. His first impulse was to remove his jacket, but his shirt was white, and he would probably sweat through it by the time they met their contacts. He hurried down the ramp with the others—going outside was like walking into an oven.

The sun was so bright, it took his eyes time to adjust. But there wasn’t anything to see, really. A cliff face loomed up about 100 feet before them. Otherwise, they were on a plain, surrounded by tents. But they weren’t quite tents. There were trees planted in rows in the ground, and over the trees, there were wide, white strips of fabric supported by simple metal frames. They looked like decorations for a funeral.

“Wash,” said Mal into his walkie-talkie.

“Yeah, Captain,” came the reply.

“Where are we?”

“At the coordinates you gave me, Mal.”

“But we’re supposed to be at the edge of town,” said Mal. “Wash, where’s the gorram town?”

Simon’s head began to hurt. How long would it take to get heatstroke out here? He heard the cargo doors close—someone on the ship had decided, sensibly enough, to shut out the heat. Simon wondered how long a person could last in this sun, which was so powerful, the rays almost hurt as they hit his skin. His lips and nose were drying out already. Zoe snapped her body around, and everyone turned to see what she had spotted. A small figure was walking toward them, enrobed in white and carrying a white parasol. For a brief, weird moment, Simon wondered if they had died.

But when the figure came closer, he saw—it was a girl, about River’s age. She was more good-looking than pretty, with black eyes framed by long black lashes, a long face, and smooth olive skin. She looked bored.

“You Smith’s people?” she asked.

“We are,” said Mal. “I’m Captain Malcolm Reynolds.”

“OK,” she said, eyeing the group. “Wolf’s not with you, right?”

“He could not make it this time,” the captain replied.

The news seemed only to intensify the girl’s boredom. “Follow me,” she said resignedly, and began walking toward the cliff face.

“I’m sorry,” Mal put his hand on the girl’s shoulder and she turned around. “I’m supposed to meet a Mrs. Jedediah—”

“Mrs. Jedediah Li, yeah,” said the girl. “That’s my ma. Look, it’s 108 degrees out here. You want to stay here with your heads uncovered, you’re more than welcome to. I’m going inside.” She turned back around and started walking again. The four of them looked at each other and followed.

Where were they going? Simon wondered. The girl walked along a path that led to what Simon realized was an enormous drape covering part of the cliff face. Without even looking behind her at them, the girl pulled the drape back and stepped behind it. Zoe and the captain exchanged worried glances, and Book put a hand across Simon’s shoulder. “Let’s wait for a second,” he said.

Zoe and Mal took position, with Zoe in front of the drape and Mal aside it, his back against the cliff face and his hand on his gun. With a nod, Zoe pulled back the drape, standing to the side as she pulled so that the drape would hide her body from the view of anyone standing behind it. Nothing happened. Mal took a quick look in the now-exposed tunnel. He looked again, for longer. Then he looked at Zoe, shrugged, and gestured to Simon and Book to come along.

The tunnel was broad, and noticeably cooler than outside. The drape—which looked to be plain fabric—filtered in enough light that Simon could see what looked like the fronts of buildings coming out of either side of the tunnel walls. “They’ve built their homes into the tunnels,” he said to Book.

There was no sign of the girl, but then she re-emerged from the first building-front on the left and gestured at them. She had taken off the white robe and was wearing a simple gray shift. They walked into the building after her—the front had been built out with some sort of adobe brick. It was sizable, and filled with tables—obviously a restaurant, but not a very busy one. There was only a small group of four people seated at one table, talking with an older woman who was standing.

The four were all wearing the same colored coat, and Simon caught a glimpse of something metal on the breast of one of the men’s jacket when the girl called out in a loud, dull voice, “Ma! Lawmen! The smugglers are here!”

“Oh, Jasmine!” said the woman, and came over, followed by one of the lawmen. They both looked to be in their 50s, but while the woman was smiling and plump and clapping her hands in apparent delight to see them, the lawman glared at them, sizing them up like he was going to take all of them on. He was a touch rangier than Jayne but had the same imposing height and muscle. His curly hair was still mostly black and was cropped short; his broad, rough features were set in a scowl. He made Simon flinch instinctively.

“Don’t panic,” muttered Book, and smiled as the captain greeted the woman.

Right, right, act respectable. Simon took a breath and tried to smile, too, as the captain introduced himself. The woman was Mrs. Jedediah Li, and the man, well, the man was apparently the top lawman, Lawman Gui Ze Jude.

Lawman Jude asked how Smith was in what was obviously a not terribly sincerely effort to be polite. Mrs. Li, however, was considerably more earnest in wanting to know if Wolf was “not in any sort of trouble, is he?”

“Well, I know Lawman Jude thinks I’m naïve,” she said, upon hearing that Wolf was healthy and free as of two days ago. “But I did think that boy has a good heart—he just has some funny ideas. If he was put on the right path—”

“Forgive my confusion,” Mal said to Jude. “But usually, I mean, usually the head lawman—”

“Doesn’t know about the smuggling?” Jude said. “Trust me, you’re not breaking any of our laws.”

Simon tried not to make his relief too obvious. Of course, it was OK: These people wanted and probably needed the things Serenity had in its cargo hold. They wanted to sell their fruit. They weren’t going to worry too much about what the Alliance thought about any of it. And Simon was just the respectable ship’s respectable medic.

Indeed, the lawman seemed willing to orient the visitors—apparently the settlers were taking their siesta, sleeping out the hottest part of the what sounded like a very long day. In a few hours, everyone would be awake, the sun would be lower in the sky, and it would be cool enough to start the work of unloading and loading Serenity.

At the same time, Mrs. Li—whose given name was Kerry—was asking Book if he was a prayer leader. He told her he was a shepherd, and she asked him if that was a special type of prayer leader. The bored looking girl, who had reappeared, walked past. “He’s a Resurrectionist, Ma,” she said, spicing the dullness of her voice with just a dash of contempt. “You can tell by the collar.”

Mrs. Li laughed. “I can never keep all those off-world religions straight,” she said, touching her head with her hand. “I say, as long as you’re willing to submit to the will of God, you’re fine with me.” She was just raising the possibility that they might want to take some cornbread and marmalade back to the ship with them when he heard the yell.

“Simon!” came the voice, cutting through the chatter like a knell of doom. “Simon Tam!”

COMMENTS

Friday, March 26, 2004 4:47 PM

JEBBYPAL


Great beginning. I like how you've kept the conflict between the characters in the forefront - especially the torment that Jayne is inflicting on River.



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