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Age Before Beauty

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The puzzle has come to be known as Olber’s Paradox: if the universe is infinite, and contains an infinite number of stars, why is the night sky dark?...The resolution came from a surprising quarter: because of the finite velocity of light, as we look out into the universe, we are looking back in time.  We cannot see galaxies more than 15 billion light years away because there has not been enough time for their light to reach us. Even if the universe is infinitely big, the part that we see is finite.  The night is dark because the universe is young.

 


 

Officially, they are called “Elders’ Sanctuaries,” but the Alliance High Command uses the characters for rest and moon—and Mal finds that a bit peculiar.  He considers the Alliance to be many things.  Restful is not one of them.

***

The creation of Sanctuaries is, in fact, a mark of highest respect, according to the High Command lackey who reads the official announcement out over the cortex at the top of the news hour.  It is a sign that Alliance society recognizes and values the contributions of its elder citizens and wishes to reward them with time and leisure in their later years.  Inara, watching from the edge of the galley, makes a disgusted sound that might have been a snort of disbelief in someone less refined. “I fail to see how isolating people from their communities is a sign of respect.”

It’s not like Inara to disagree with Alliance policy, but she’s been a mite cantankerous ever since she decided to leave Serenity.  ‘Course, that decision was made some time ago, and yet here she is.  Something always seems to come up: first the unexpected visit of Mr. Jubal Early, bounty hunter, and then that wave from Nandi and the whores… Mal maintains that a person who’s leaving should just up and go, and not keep the rest of them dancing attendance.  Not that she’s made a general announcement of her intentions, and not that he cares much one way or the other.  A man just likes to know where he stands on his own boat, is all.  

Not that he’s had much control of this boat since Jayne won that ruttin’ cortex playing cards at the Heart of Gold.  It’s a Cortex 2.0, as Jayne tells anyone who will listen, so it does more than just receive incoming waves. He’s installed it smack in the middle of the galley and now there’s no work getting done anywhere.  Should be fixing that busted solar panel and cleaning the head, not sitting around watching the latest press conference from the Alliance Command.  It’s been nothing but sanctuary-this and sanctuary-that for too long, and sure enough everyone has an opinion.  Even Inara. Mal, who is feeling discomfited by the whole thing—couldn’t say why, maybe it’s the way the jumpy cortex screen makes him dizzy—wonders meanly if putting all the old goats on a rest-moon somewhere might cut into a Companion’s income.  He doesn’t say anything while Inara’s there to hear it, though: folk are resettled in a sanctuary at age 60, and if he starts sharing his opinion about Inara’s custom, he won’t make it to his next birthday.

“It would centralize medical care,” Simon thinks out loud.  “One could build a hospital that really specialized in geriatrics, make sure everyone gets the care they need.”

On the screen, the lackey goes on to say just about the same thing, how “a prudent allocation of resources” meant keeping young, working folks on planets where there was work to be done.  Right unsettling how closely Simon’s thinking aligns sometimes with official policy.

“Not the same as being looked after at home, by someone you know,”  Kaylee twists a strand of hair around her finger.  She is looking at Simon, not at the cortex at all.   “Off on some planet with folks you’ve never met…that’d be right lonesome.”

“Is the picture steady yet?”  Wash appears in the doorway from the bridge; he’s run wires across the galley from the bridge to power the cortex. 

“Y’know, my ma took care of all our old ones,”  he adds,  finding himself a seat at the table, near where Mal’s spread out the bills of lading from their last job.  “’Course, things were different then, but she had my gram and granda and my great-aunt Bea.  All right on our farm.”

“That’s sweet!”  Kaylee seems to cheer up a little.

“That’s a ruttin’ lot a’ work, is what that is,”  Jayne growls.  “Now, somebody wants to set me up on a nice little planet with all th’amenities, won’t hear me complainin’” 

“You’d stop complaining?” Zoe looks up from   where she’s been keeping her own council.

“Well—for a bit, I would,”  Jayne says, wary about being held to a promise. “Maybe.”

***

The first Sanctuary is placed on one of Athens’s moons, out beyond Whitefall, which seems like a poor choice.  After all, there’s not much to be said for the rocks out there: too far from the sun, the winters are long and dark.

“Well, they won’t have to be out in the weather,”  Wash replies when Mal voices that criticism.  “After all, they’ll be—” he searches for the word, a new one, just come into existence, “retired.”

 “Retired,” River is saying under her breath, and then louder, loud enough to drown out the flattering questions being asked by bribed members of the press corps.  “Reee-ti-yer-ment.” She draws it out to match the long ink line she’s drawing with a dip pen on an old bill of lading.  She’s been doodling for half an hour, though Mal can’t make heads or tails of the picture.  Watching the exchange between Zoe and Jayne, she’s left the pen to bleed a dark circle of ink all over the page.  “ To be tired. Again.”  and then, as though focusing on the one person who hasn’t expressed an opinion one way or the other.  “Are you tired, Mal?”

***

The Sanctuary moon—the first of many—is a sign of the peace and prosperity that has come about since Unification, the Core Council says.  Careful management of resources and funding of new technology has enabled two thirds of the workforce to support the whole.  There is cheerful footage of oldens being escorted to the moon: waving handkerchiefs, bursting suitcases.  There’s been such demand, the commentator announces, that the Core Council has held a lottery for the first spots.  Cut to an interview with one of the lucky winners, a diplomat's widow with an ugly parrot, who is just so pleased, so please and honore...  But not to worry.  Recent number released by the Core Council SubCommittee for Economic Advancement and Development suggest that soon, only half of the workforce will be needed.  The Cortex cuts to a picture of a Council debate; the sound is muted so that a calm, cultured voice-over can explain that a variety of possibilities have been discussed.  Using the extra tax and material goods to support women and children would be sexist.  Using them to support the disabled and infirm would be infringing upon their independence.  But supplying  a moon for oldens, for folks who’ve already done their bit,  well…everyone can agree with that. The CCSEAD hopes to drop the “retirement age” to forty within the next two years. 

“Whoo,”  Zoe chortles, “Can I have the ship when you retire, old man?”

Silently, Mal vows to put that cortex out the airlock first chance he gets. “What nonsense are you talking, woman?”

“Well, sir, correct my math, but I believe you’re nearing forty yourself.”

Mal is about to correct her math, when he realizes that…she’s right.  (And that, he figures, must be the first sign of old age: he can remember the eagerness with which he’d anticipated birthdays when he was a kid; how he’d know always, exactly, that he was six and three quarters or eight but almost nine. He can’t recall when that stopped being important—probably during the war.  Hadn’t been celebrating many birthdays during the war.) 

Zoe and Inara have started a side conversation about whether mental age will count toward “retirement,” and so Mal doesn’t ever answer Zoe’s question.  Instead, he looks closely at the little diagram on the Cortex, which shows the new Sanctuary moon floating in the Black beyond Whitefall. 

***

Despite all the news coverage, no one except the cortex newsreader calls it an Elder Sanctuary, and no one has ever called it a restful.  Because it’s a moon, and on the edge of the ‘verse, and because it’s sometimes marked with an E, folks start to call it Eclipse.

***

Jayne’s new cortex has 137 registered channels, including those dedicated to gameshows, conspiracy theorists, needlepoint, and folks who juggle goslings, so there’s always something to watch.  No fewer than four channels report on Core Council business all day, every day, and they go through the Sanctuary story pretty quickly.  By the time Serenity is approaching Southdown Abbey a week later, there have already been two new Council initiatives, although neither have generated quite the same amount of tedious self-congratulation. Nevertheless, the cortex has been functioning the entire time—Jayne, in particular, is fond of sitting slackjawed in front of it, watching the pixels change, and Mal is sure there would have been hell to pay if the merc had missed a moment of scintillating footage.  Which is why it was so curious that they’d never received a wave from Book. 

When they'd dropped the Shepherd off, en route to do some discreete business for Miss Nandi, the plan had been for him to send a wave when he'd finished his work with the Brotherhood.  Now, Mal knew religiousity to be a bothersome thing, but anything that kept a man too busy to send a simple wave was a surefire botheration.  When they're three days from Persephone, Mal sends his own wave to Book, care of the Southdown Abbey.  The response is couched in the usual Abbey flimflammery (my esteemed Captain Reynolds...your humble and obedient servant, Aloysius Khan McGubbin [Brother Registrar], but the message is clear enough: Book has been gone for a week--we thought he was with you!

"Oh, Lord, do you think he was took?!"  Kaylee looks ready to bawl.

"Was there a ransom demand?"  (Trust Inara to ask after the money, Mal thinks sourly.)

“Maybe this…Brother McGubbin, maybe he’s made some sort of mistake,”  Simon is studying the printout over Inara’s shoulder. “I mean, there must be all sorts of monks and shepherds passing through; one probably looks the same as another…”

“You lost the Shepherd?!”  Jayne sounds particularly aggrieved, though he doesn’t move his eyes from the game on the Cortex.  “S’why we can’t have nice things, Mal!”

“We should send a missing person’s report, you know, with a description,”  Wash suggests.

“Be sure to mention the hair,”  River chimes in.

“Hey!”  Mal interrupts the cacophony. “First of all, I didn’t lose anyone.  Second, Jayne, shut off that box before it melts what’s left of your brains.  Third, we’ve got no call to think anything’s happened to the Shepherd.  Maybe he’s just been….temporarily detained, is all.” 

No one looks much cheered by this suggestion, and Mal knows why.  Kidnappings aren’t terribly common this close to the core, and when they do happen, they usually involve the scions of wealthy families and a slew of ransom demands and a daring get-away that makes the top of the news.  Moreover, Shepherds take vows of poverty and chastity and other dull, virtuous things, so there’s not much point to kidnapping one.   Still, as far as anyone from the Abbey can tell, five days ago, Book had quietly packed up his few belongings and left to meet someone who was expecting him. 

“Temporarily detained since last Thursday?!”  Kaylee wails.

“Now, look here, I’m not saying that’s the way it happened,” Mal holds up a restraining hand, “Just that we shouldn’t ought to be jumping to no conclusions before we got the full facts.” 

“Do you think—” Simon begins.  He’s always had his suspicious—Book just hadn’t acted like any Shepherd Simon’s ever met—and then there was the way the Feds had responded to his Ident card. He hadn’t really put words to the thoughts, but that bounty hunter, Jubal Early, certainly had.  “That ain’t no Shepherd,”  Early had said decisively, and Simon had known he was speaking the truth.

He’s trying to figure out how to say that, exactly, when Jayne snaps his fingers. “Space Droids!”  he announces, like he’s remembering something.

“Say what?”

Invincible Space Droids, Mal…that’s what’s on Thursdays!  It’s the one where the evil overlord is trying to stop the good guys from finding the treasure and—and then I don’t know what happens, ‘cause they had that news bulletin about the oldsters and you have to tune in next week for the exciting conclusion.” 

Jayne sounds so earnest that Mal can’t do more than roll his eyes.  “Jayne.”

“Yeah?”

“For the love of all that’s holy, turn off that ruttin’ box!  I don’t know where Book was last Thursday, but I’d bet good coin he wasn’t watching Space Bots!”

“Space Droids,”  Jayne mutters, petulantly, “and it wasn’t on last week ‘cause of the Sanctuary news, anyway.”  The tinny chatter of talking heads dies when he clicks off the Cortex and he’s too busy sulking to come to the same realization as the rest of the crew: that Shepherd Book had vanished on or near the day that the Core Council had announced their latest social engineering project, a sanctuary for folks just about Book’s age.  It could, of course, all be a coincidence—but Mal doesn’t think they’ve ever been that lucky.

***

It’s been getting progressively colder as they traveled away from the Core and then, twelve hours ago, they slipped behind Athens.  Whitefall, Carolina, and Xiniu are merrily spinning in their orbits on the other side of the planet;  out here, there’s nothing but cold and dark and stars.

Wash has set a course for Eclipse and gone to bed, leaving the boat to autopilot along in its predetermined course.  The bridge is eerily silent, no sound but the distant lub-lub-whir of the engines.  Mal wanders through the cargo-bay, the forward hatch, the galley, silent as a spirit—until he trips over the gosuh  Cortex cord, still strung across the room, and nearly breaks his neck.  When he untangles himself, he stops to listen for the rest of the crew, but no one comes to investigate.  Which just goes to show.  If he weren’t up and patrolling, they could all be killed in their bunks and no one the wiser.  Not that they would deserve better.  He’s in a foul mood, having come out on the worse side of an argument with Zoe.  Fool woman’d had the consternating nerve to suggest that investigating Book’s disappearance might not be the wisest course of action.  “We got no proof the Shepherd’s been taken to that sanctuary, and even if he has, we got no knowledge of the place,” his first mate had argued over supper. “There are plenty of folks in the ‘verse over the age of 60 years, sir—what’s the likelihood  that Book’d be one of the first to be took?”  

“Ain’t got no other work to be doing just this moment,”  Mal had said—quite reasonably, he thought.  “Eclipse is a long way from other folks, might be that sanctuary needs some supplies…” 

“Oh, don’t try to make a job out of this, sir.  You always go looking for something you don’t really want to find and then get yourself tied in knots ‘cause you find something you don’t want to see.  ‘Sides, maybe other folk here got schedules to keep…”  It was then that Zoe had snuck a quick glance at Inara and Mal had declared the conversation definitively over.  Last he’d heard, Inara wanted to tell the crew about her leaving in her own way….but that didn’t mean letting his first mate in on intel before he had it himself! 

Just thinking about it makes Mal snort with disgust.  Conspiracies and nonsense!  On his boat, right under his very nose!  As though he’d thought up this whole missing-Shepherd charade just to delay Inara’s leaving…as though he gave a sneeze in a windstorm about what Inara did with herself.  Mal stalks toward the bridge, muttering to himself.  Companion was more trouble than she was worth, and he’d be glad enough to see the back of her.  She could leave whenever she pleased, just as soon as they’d finished this one last job. 

A 3-D projection of Eclipse is rotating slowly on the nav-screen in the bridge, barely illuminated by the small safety lights in the bridge.  Mal shoves his hands in the pockets of his overcoat—it’s cold in here because of the windows—and squints out toward the impenetrable Black.  He feels a lump of something shoved into his pocket.  A wad of fabric..a lady’s handkerchief.  He studies the clumsy flowers embroidered on the corner and remembers Kaylee handing it to him on St. Alban’s, on the day of Tracy’s funeral.  Laying the boy to rest had been the last time Mal had worn this coat.  Mal smoothes it out by the light of the nav-screen and tucks it back into his pocket before studying the projection again. Soon they will swing away from Athens, toward its third moon.  In six hours, they’ll make landfall on that last bit of rock: after Eclipse, there is nothing but space dust for ten thousand miles.   The thought of all that empty distance makes a body feel all hollow inside.  A shiver crawls up Mal’s spine.

“Are you cold Mal?”

Wo de ma he ta de—what have I told you about creeping around, little one?”

“That it is a dis-settling habit likely to get me shot by someone who doesn’t have your forbearance?”  River recites dutifully.  “And…something about catlike reflexes?  I’m cold,”  she adds, conversationally, swinging her bare feet. 

“We ought to get some better insulation in here,”  Mal says, trying to calm his thundering heart.  How had the girl got all the way across the galley and up the stairs without his hearing?  “Don’t know how Wash stands the chill.”

"Bone chill," River agrees, "Key cold.  Cold as the grave."   She looks at him quizzically. “Do you reckon you’re cold when you’re dead, or is death just a cold-making thought?”

“Wouldn’t know,” Mal says sturdily, “ain’t never been dead before, myself.” 

“I was dead cold once,”  River continues, as blandly as if she were discussing the likelihood of a sale on bok choi at the Eavesdown Market.  Her gaze drifts over his shoulder, out to the Black beyond the window.  “And then I woke up and I was here.  I think after will be like before—the nothing of carbon and cells and then you’re a person for a little while, and then you aren’t anymore.”  Her eyes focus on him again, as though she is seeing him for the first time, as though they have never met.  “How did you get to be so old?”

Mal shrugs, “I got started late, I reckon.” 

River nods thoughtfully.  Her crazy questions always make Mal want to give spurious answers, but then she takes them so seriously, like she’s hearing something more in his answers than he means. 

“That was a joke,”  he clarifies.

“It was very funny,” River says politely.  She drops from the coolant unit, her bare feet hardly making a sound on the cold grating, and walks over to stand beside him, looking out the window.  “He lived to a great age and his descendents were as numerous as the stars.  If you live in a forest, everywhere you look, there are trees. If you live in a town, everywhere you look, there are people.  If you live in the sky, you should see nothing but stars.”   

Mal can feel her body, warm beside him.  Her breath fogs the window.  Without looking at the console, River reaches out to tap one of the dials.  Faintly, Mal hears the forward thruster engage and Serenity’s bow rises gently.  He can just make out the rim of the planet Athens, faintly illuminated.  River makes another small adjustment and a moon floats slowly into view.  Its too small to be Whitefall, Mal decides; it must be Caroline. 

“We cannot see the light, but we can see the light reflected,”  River says.

Mal rolls his eyes.  “Well, that is the way moons usually work…” 

“Don’t sass,”  says River, reprovingly.  “Be watchful.  Strengthen the things that remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found thy works perfect before God.”  She breathes heavily on the console window, creates a circle of fog and then draws eyes and a smile: a child’s happy face.  “Book told me that,” she studies her window-drawing critically and then, apparently satisfied, she turns to him.  “I don’t know what it means.”

“Good night,”  she says formally, shaking his hand with her cold, fog-damp fingers.   

Mal watches her leave, waits for the sound of her crashing into the tangle of console wiring and is not overly surprised when he doesn’t hear anything.  He turns back to the window.  River’s drawing smiles back at him, but through the fingerprints that are its eyes, he can see the Black.

***

Landing silently on a barely-inhabited moon in an attempt to spy on the Alliance outpost there goes about as well as one might expect.  Which is to say, badly.  For one thing, nearly all of Eclipse’s surface consists of sharp, thin spikes of ice-coated rock.  Even Wash has trouble finding a crevasse wide enough for Serenity to nestle into. 

“No wonder the gui moon is uninhabited,”  the pilot complains.  He is wearing two Hawaiian-patterned shirts over a sweater and has a bottle-green scarf wrapped around his head.  Despite the cold and the poor landing conditions, he seems remarkably cheerful.  Landing under impossible circumstances is Wash’s second favorite hobby, right after flirting shamelessly with Zoe.  “Other than this snowfield, I don’t think there’s any place flat enough to settle.”

“Right, then.  Snowfield it is!”  On the far side of Athens, there is no Cortext reception, so Jayne’s primary amusement has been getting himself outfitted in his white, down-filled winter gear.  Now, he’s bored and ready to shoot at something.

Wash takes his eyes off the ground to glance at the mercenary’s snowsuit. “You look like you’re ready to infiltrate a secret s’mores meeting.”     

“Best camouflage there is, short of bein’ a snowflake, little man,”  Jayne snarls.

“Well, if we ever need to stalk some marshmallows—oh, whoah.  Nihao,”  Wash catches a patch of snow out of the corner of his eye—two trees, overburdened by snow, have fallen in the middle of a small copse of evergreens.  The cleared space is barely more than Serenity’s footprint, but that’s all he needs.

Ten minutes later, Zoe steps off the port-side deck and into snow beyond her knees.  She sighs. “If the Shepherd simply decided to take a beach holiday and forgot to tell us, I am going to be sorely upset with him.” 

“Zoe, you stay on the left…I’mma work my way out toward that window.  Jayne can—”

In the anechoic muffle of the snow-filled valley, the single shot rings out like…well, like a shot.  Mal throws himself behind a tree, getting a mouthful of snow and pine-needles for his trouble.

“Where the—?!”

“Behind us, sir.”

“D’you think Jayne—”

Zoe stands up.  “I think Jayne is gonna get himself shot.”

“Zoe!  Get down!”

“I think he’s gonna get himself shot ‘cause I think I’m going to do the shooting.” 

Beyond his first mate, Mal can see their mercenary galumphing across the open snow, rifle in hand.  For a moment, he thinks Jayne is bleeding, but then he wipes the snowmelt off his face and Mal realizes he’s carrying the bloody pelt of a white snow-rabbit.

“Lookee what I got, Cap’n!  From 500 paces, if it was a step!  No reconstituted protein tonight, oh, no!  Rabbit stew!  Rabbit fricassee.  Y’reckon there’s such a thing as rabbit pudding?”

Mal tackles Jayne as soon as he’s within range, slapping a mittened hand across his mouth in an effort to shut him up before whoever’s in the chalet notices the ruckus.

“You’re a goat-headed fool, Jayne Cobb,”  Mal hisses, “ain’t got the brains of a pork-stuffed dumpling!  Now hush up before the whole—”

“Captain?” 

Mal looks up and sees two dark-dressed men—Alliance men—standing no more than ten feet away.  Both are dressed for the weather, beetle-black against the snow.  More to the point, both are carrying weapons. 

“Captain?”  the taller one repeats and Mal opens his mouth to answer, wondering if there’s any chance Zoe can get a clear shot.

“Yes, sir?” Mal spins around.  Zoe could, in fact, get off a perfect shot, except for the fact that she’s aiming at him. 

You’re the captain of that little Firefly?”  the tall man looks faintly surprised.  Or maybe just constipated—Mal can’t really tell.

“I am,”  Zoe says, calm as anything.  “Didn’t you hear that one—” she gestures to Jayne, still sprawled on the ground, “call me the same?”

“Can a girl even—” the shorter man starts, but a glance from Zoe shuts him up fast.

“Don’t see no girls here, Lieutenant.  Just us professionals.  And,”  Zoe cuts her eyes over to Mal, “your new—d’you call ‘em patients?”

“Residents, ma’am,”  the tall guard corrects.  “Not that we were expecting any…”

Zoe shrugs, unperturbed.  “He’s the first of the 40-year contingent.  Should be another half-dozen or so arriving within the week; our convoy got separated by a meteor shower up around Whitefall. Our radios cut out coming ‘round Athens.  Can’t get no signal on the dark side.”

“That’s a common complaint.  We don’t always get bulletins from the Core in a timely manner ourselves. Tell me, Captain, do you usually…”  the tall guard looks closely at Mal,  “Are you in the habit, ma’am, of arming your….”

“Passengers,”  Zoe finishes smoothly.  “You got residents, and I got passengers.  But, no, sir.  Can’t say as I hold with firearms.  They’re a terrible danger aboard a small boat like mine.  But this one,”  she moves close enough to Mal to poke him with the barrel of her gun,  “this one broke into our weapons store and lit out for the territories no sooner’n we landed.  Near about killed my man there.  Ain’t that so?  Aren’t you just about dead, then, Jayne?”

Jayne’s hood has come loose in his scuffle with Mal, and the ridiculous hat from his mother sits crooked on his head.  “What’re you meaning, Zoe?  Mal and I was just—”

“See, his brains is fair scrambled,” Zoe interrupts. “Not that they were ever much good.  Anyway, gents, it’s gettin’ dark, and I got a boat to pilot home, so maybe I can just walk this one up to your little cabin there,”  she gestures at the chalet, the only time her gun has moved from Mal’s head, “collect my payment, and be on my way.” 

The tall guard’s eyes narrow beneath his hat.  “I’m afraid there’s been some misunderstanding, Miss…?”

“Captain,” Zoe supplies. 

“Captain.  Any payment you’re owed would have to be collected from the Core Council.  They should have made that clear when they commissioned the journey.”

Zoe looks like she’s going to argue the point for a moment and Mal, still on his knees in the snow, tries to shake his head subtly.  All they need is to get into the chalet…

“Well, maybe that’s so, though it seems a long journey back the way we’ve already come…”

“Nevertheless, ma’am.  That’s how it’s done.”

“Bureaucracy,” the shorter guard sighs sympathetically, and gets a sharp look from his superior.  “Is what keeps our Union strong…” he finishes weakly.

“Well, then, I reckon we’d best get this one where he’s going,” Zoe concludes, poking Mal in the back—a little more forcefully than is absolutely necessary for verisimilitude, Mal thinks. 

It’s so quick and businesslike that Mal finds himself slung into the snow before he even knows what way is up.  Blood fills his mouth: his cheek has torn on his own teeth. 

“Hey!”  Jayne sputters, nearly as surprised as Mal. 

“Shut up, Jayne.”  Zoe stands over Mal, cold-eyed, and holds out a hand.  Well, Mal thinks dizzily, a hand up is the very least… 

The short guard reaches for him and Mal flinches away, automatically, which gets him a swift boot to the stomach.  When he opens his eyes again, he sees the short guard has handed Mal’s gun over to Zoe.  A quick and rather handsy frisking turns up Mal’s second piece and his knife.  “You won’t be needing those anymore,”  the short guard says sharply. 

“I don’t think this is how it’s supposed to—” Jayne starts.

“Don’t think at all, Jayne,”  Zoe retorts, plucking his rifle from the snow.  “Too must work for too little result.  Go on to the boat.”

“But what about…?”

Now, Jayne.  ‘Fore I shoot you my own self.”  Jayne must come to the same decision that Mal does—namely, that Zoe is deadly serious—because he picks up his rabbit and steps away from where the short guard is tightening the wrist restraints he slapped on Mal. 

“As I said, ma’am,  we’ll look out for the resident from here in. Sorry he’s been such a trouble to you.”  The taller guard does not look sorry at all.

“If we can make it up to you with some hospitality…”  Short sounds hopeful .  Mal can’t hope the invitation would extend to Jayne, but if Zoe follows them in and then somehow gets off these blasted restraint…

“Thanks, but no, gentlemen.  Got to get my boat off this rock before the gravity gets any worse,”  and with that Zoe, turns and starts back through the snow. 

“What—?”  Jayne stands, bewildered,  in the snow.  The rabbit hangs from one hand like a limp toy.  He looks like some confused and terrible child.

“Say goodbye, Jayne,”  Zoe has stopped at the edge of the trees. 

Jayne glances between the two of them—the woman with his rifle and the man in shackles.  He pulls off his hat and scratches his head.  Then he comes to a decision.  “Here you go, Mal,”  he says, handing over his the funny orange hat his mother made him,  “no need for you to go catching your death of cold.  It was…well, it was real good knowin’ ya, most of the time.”

“Enough, Jayne.  All you need to say is goodbye.”

“Well, then.  G’bye, Ca—Mal.  G’bye.” 

***

The chalet is nearly as cold inside as it is outside.  Between the chill and the restraints, Mal can barely feel his fingers by the time the guards shove him into one of the rooms leading off a long white hallway of long white doors.  The tall one stands on Mal’s hand as he undoes the wrist restraints and Mal feels one of the small bones in his hand snap. 

The room in which he is left contains twenty white bunk-beds, one door, and nothing else.  Through the door he finds a white tiled shower room with ten sinks and no mirrors.  If he scrambles atop one of the bunks and stretches to his full height (leaving muddy boot-marks on the neat white coverlet), Mal can just peek out the narrow window below the ceiling—but all he sees is more white: snow, and mountains, and moonlight.  The moon is full and round, but it could be any of Eclipse’s three sisters, so he can’t tell what time of night it is. 

He sits himself down on the top bunk, his feet dangling like River’s on the coolant unit, and waits for Zoe to break in and save him.  After a time, he begins to think how they had quarreled over whether to even come to Eclipse.  He thinks of other things they had quarreled over, thinks of the sly glances between Zoe and Inara—another woman he’d had his troubles with.  Inara, who didn’t even want to stay on the boat—“my boat,” Zoe had called it, in the end, right before she left without looking back.  The moon begins to wane.  Mal tries to break down the door, but succeeds only in pulling something in his shoulder.  Another moon waxes and wanes and Mal begins to realize that no one is coming for him. 

***

Sometime during the fourth moon, the door opens.  By the time Mal has stumbled to his feet, the tall guard is already halfway down the hall.  There’s nothing for it but to follow him, so Mal does.  They go up and down identical windowless white hallways until Mal is thoroughly lost and then, finally, the guard stops and opens a door.  As far as Mal can tell, this door is no different from the others. 

“Good morning, Captain Reynolds.”

Mal stares into the shadowy corner by the fireplace until one of the shadows resolves itself into a person.  A small, female person.  Mal tries to form his broken hand into a fist.  He could take her. 

“Oh, be careful,” the woman says calmly.  “You’ll do yourself a damage.” 

“You have the advantage of me, ma’am.  I don’t think we’ve been introduced.”  Mal’s voice sounds raw even to his own ears.  His throat is dry, and when he tries to figure how long it’s been since he last spoke to anyone—to Zoe—the numbers dance out of his head.

“I’m a doctor,”  the woman replies. 

“You’ll pardon me if we don’t shake hands.”

“Naturally.”  If she realizes that he’s being sarcastic, it doesn’t show in her smooth face.  Dark hair, in what Inara would call, slightingly, a “sensible cut.”  Darker eyes.  Glasses.

“Would you take some tea, Captain?”

Mal would like to refuse, he really would…but he’s starving and the tea pot sits next to a plate of tiny sandwiches and little cookies. 

“How do you know me?”  Mal takes the cup she offers in his good hand and, when it becomes evident that she is not going to ask him, he sits down in the chair across from her.

“My assistant,”  she nods toward the door, “took your biomark when he brought you in.”

Mal does, vaguely, remember the guard sticking a piece of film on his thumb—in between slapping him around and breaking his hand.  A thumbprint run through an Alliance computer would tell this woman pretty much everything she might want to know.

“Oh,”  he says, unable to think of anything better. He shifts the teacup into his damaged hand; the heat of it feels so good tears fill his eyes.

The doctor doesn’t seem to notice. “It seems you’re here under false pretenses.”

“It seems I’m here ‘cause you all kidnapped one of my crew and then I got double-crossed by my own first mate.” 

A faint crease appears in the woman’s perfect forehead, and then she laughs.  “Oh, no, I meant that you’re not quite forty yet.” 

“And that’s the magic number?”

“Well, it will be, eventually.  When the program reaches maturity.”

Mal has watched enough who-done-its on Jayne’s stupid cortex to know that this is where the bad guy—and anyone who locks him up in a glorified ski chalet on a rotten moon is a bad guy, tea or no—spills the beans about his sorry childhood and evil motives.  But this doctor is not on script.  She sits in silence, sipping tea, watching the snow that has begun to fall outside the window, not seeming to care whether Mal speaks or not.

“I’m here for Shepherd Book,”  he says, finally, because there’s no harm in asking for what you want.

“Oh, the Shepherd is well beyond forty years old,” the doctor says. 

“I—what?  What does that have to do with anything?!” 

The doctor looks surprised.  “Our program is really set up for citizens in his age range.  If he were closer to forty—or even,” the doctor smiles at him, as though they share an inside joke, “thirty-nine, then we could conceivably release him.  We’d be sure to see him in a later…” she seems momentarily at a loss,  “collection. But I’m afraid there is no way we could release him to you now.  Even,she smiles again, “if we were going to release you.”   

“I don’t understand what is going on here,”  he says, simply.  “What is going to happen to the Shepherd?”

The woman—the doctor—looked at him sympathetically.  “I’m afraid your friend is going to die.”

“What?!  What happened?  Why?”

“Oh, I didn’t mean to alarm you!  There, now, you’ve spilled your tea.  Will you take more?”

Mal grabs the hand holding the teapot.  The bones feel fragile beneath the skin.  “No.  I will not have any more tea.  I will have you telling me what happened to Book.  And I will have it now.”

“Haven’t you seen the news?”  the doctor seems eager to end his confusion.  “It’s a new program.  We are retiring citizens over the age of sixty.  Soon, it will be all citizens over the age of forty.”

“And by retiring, you mean killing?”

“Oh, no!  We’re simply…well, we are letting them die, that’s all.  With a little chemical help.”

“Oh.  That’s all.” 

The doctor smiles.  Some part of Mal’s brain recognizes that she is quite lovely when she smiles.  She has a tiny gap between her front teeth that makes her look like someone with a sense of humor. “Yes.  Now you understand!”

“Why sixty?  Or forty?  Or maybe thirty would be better?” 

Again, the doctor fails to understand his tone.  “I don’t think thirty is necessary, but it might be, someday.  There’s just—” she shrugs.  “There’s just not enough anymore.  The cultivation moons can only produce so much food, the hydration plants can only build so much water.  And then, of course, when you have too many people too close together…there is aggression.”  Her voice drops on this last word.  She shakes her hand free of Mal’s grip—he lets her go, what else can he do—and reaches for the small kettle on the hob, pours more water into the tea pot.  “People cannot live together, Mr. Reynolds, any more than animals.  Lack of space doomed Earth-that-Was, you know.”

“And so you have taken it upon yourself to…what? clear out the dead wood?  What happens when its your turn?” 

The doctor sits up straighter, looks at him sternly.  “I will recognize the need to step aside, and be grateful for a system that enables me to do so with grace.  Have you ever seen someone die, Mr. Reynolds?”

“I—I was in the war.”

“No, I mean…not have you ever seen someone killed, that is, taken out of this world deliberately by someone for some purpose.  I mean die: become non-viable in the living world.  It is a terrible thing.  Upsetting for family and friends, frightening and undignified for the person themselves.  And under the previous system, it was left entirely up to chance!  One might die well, peacefully, surrounded by friends, or alone and neglected.”

“We all die alone,”  Mal gets a sharp pang of deja vu.   

“But you don’t have to,”  the doctor says.  And Mal is about to explain that he wasn’t necessarily talking about himself, but she doesn’t give him a chance.  “Core medicine can monitor people from the moment of conception—even before you are born, we know you!  And now, we can monitor the end as well as the beginning.  You see, the human species was not really meant to survive beyond sixty years...and that’s being generous.  There is a notable decrease in brain development and physical acuity after age thirty or so, and by sixty and gains that may have been acquired in adolescence are simply…gone.”  She has put down the teapot now, and the little kettle, and she makes a gesture with her hands like someone releasing a tame bird.  “So much of medicine has been spent prolonging things, but there’s no purpose, really.”

“There’s sixty years of purpose.  A body could learn a lot in sixty years.”

The doctor smiles bravely, as though trying to cheer up a child.  She lays a hand gently on Mal’s, comforting  “But it’s all old information.  At forty, Mr. Reynolds, your information is obsolete.  Can you imagine how useless it will be in twenty years?  That’s why the Alliance has chosen to begun at sixty and then drop the retirement age as soon as materially possible.”

“I know that the word retirement comes from a word for retreating armies,”  Mal offers.

“Pardon?”

“Retirement.  Comes from an old Earth-that-Was language.  It originally meant something like retreat.  Ain’t got nothing to do with being tired, though they sound alike.”

“I beg your—?”

“And I know that Invincible Space Droids comes on every Thursday.”

“That may be true, Mr. Reynolds, but I’m not sure how it touches upon our current…”

“I didn’t always know those things, see,” Mal explains.  “I learned them.  Looked one up in a book.  Learnt the other from a-a friend.  Never too old to learn something new. ”  He thinks about Jayne, clumsy, careless Jayne, giving him a winter hat in a snowstorm. 

“A long time ago, I learned that help comes from unexpected sources,” Mal says, and he slips the small knife that Jayne had concealed in his hat against the doctor’s wrist.  “Learned that the radial artery runs down the forearm”—he traces its path with the blade, barely scratching the white skin—“learnt that from another doctor—probably not one you know, though.  D’you know what I learned from his sister?” 

The woman struggles to pull out of Mal’s grasp, but he’s stronger than she is and the knife moves away from the radial artery and toward the carotid.  “I learnt that the human body can be drained of blood in 8.6 seconds, given an adequate vacuuming system.  Where are your—residents?

“Tam?!”  The woman calls to the guard at the door.

“I learnt that it takes less than a pound of pressure to cut skin.” Mal begins to exert some of that pressure.  The blade cuts through the thin skin below the woman’s chin; her blood is warm and oily on his hands.  His breath stirs her hair.  “Strength is less important than speed…we are fragile creatures.” 

“Another thing I’ve learned…nobody wants to die.  In the end, folks most always decide life is more interesting,” he drops the knife into his overcoat pocket and runs his thumb over Kaylee’s clumsy embroidery, “and more beautiful.”  He hands the doctor the handkerchief.  “Here,”  he says.  “You’re bleeding.

***

At the door, he bends over the slumped body of Tam, the tall guard, and fumbles with the ring of keys on the man’s belt. 

“Oh, let me,”  Zoe says after watching him for a moment.  “You’re all thumbs even when you’ve got two good hands.”   She steps out of the shadows, nudging Jayne, who hauls the shorter guard along with him. 

“Where’s the doc?”  Mal studies his swollen hand. 

“He and Kaylee went to the west wing to look for the prisoners,” Zoe flips through the keys.  “This one”—she nods to the short guard—“told us where they were, before he brought us over here.  But he forgot to mention the keys.” 

The short guard is already looking like he regrets the omission.  Jayne looks like he’s about to regret it more. 

“Let’s go find ‘im so I can shoot the messenger,” Jayne growls.  “Wouldn’t’ve found you without him, but you all know how I hate to feel obliged.” 

“I tried to signal you from the window when I saw you landing.”

“There are a lot of windows,” Zoe says.  She tilts Mal’s head so she can examine the cut on his temple, the one he’d sustained while she was busy pretending to make off with his boat.  “I’m sorry it took us so long.” 

“What’s time amongst friends?”  Mal says expansively.  He's in a good mood; the day is turning out better than he'd expected.

 ***

Mal refuses to let Jayne do more than lock Tam into one of the resident’s rooms—“You touch that man and I’ll never tell you what I done with your mother’s hat.  We’re done here.” 

They explore the chalet for another two hours.  In a distant attic, they find the prisoners’ belongings, including Mrs. Wei’s mangy parrot.  (They are led to the attic by the sound of its squawking, chortling bits of Chinese opera and verses of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” )  Hearing a scuffling, and half suspecting another pet, Mal unwittingly opens a closet, and finds the final prisoner, evidently placed in some sort of solitary confinement. 

“I thought you were one’a them ruffians.  Why, if I’d had a gun, I would’a shot you!”  Patience declares, before leading the procession back to Serenity

***

“That woman knows your name,”  Zoe says to Mal that evening as they round Athens.  She speaks low, barely audible over the sound of Jayne’s cortex, which has been tuned to Mr. Lee’s favorite gameshow. 

“And my thumbprint,”  Mal answers.  He speaks at his regular volume.  Lee and Patience are arguing over how to phrase answers in the form of a question, and Mrs. Wei’s parrot is singing, so it’s unlikely that the crew would hear a nuclear explosion, never mind gossip.

“Won’t be long before the Alliance knows it, too.  Next supply run can’t be more’n a week…should’ve put those folks out the airlock.”

 

Mal shrugs.  “Don’t imagine it would’ve done a lick of good.  They're small fish; Alliance has a way of finding crazies and giving them just enough rope...means no one important has to get dirty. 'Sides,  I think the Alliance already know about us.  I don't imagine they're done being—”

“Meddlesome," River says suddenly. 

“You think that doc has some contact even when Eclipse is on the dark side of the moon” Zoe asks, when it becomes clear River has nothing more to say on the subject.

“I think it’s unlikely that Book and Patience won some sort of lottery.”

“Book knew it was a trick.  If they’d hadn’t clocked him on the head, they never would’ve got him,” Wash looks up from programming the console. 

“No, I mean—while I wouldn’t put it past the Alliance to try to sort folks out from birth to death, I suspect they chose their first residents to make a point.”

“But who would wanna hurt a Shepherd?”  Kaylee asks.

Simon opens his mouth, and then closes it without saying anything. 

“It’s getting a mite crowded on this bridge,”  Mal declares. 

“Well, any of you all who want to help me wind some of Mrs. Wei’s wool…” 

Kaylee pulls Jayne’s hat over his eyes, teasing.  “Aww, but you’re doing such a nice job.  What was it she said…nice to meet such a respectful young man?

Jayne scowls. “Don’t you go sayin’ that around, now, Kaylee…”  He makes to chase her out to the galley, and Simon follows, naturally. 

“Jayne’s been domesticated?  This I gotta see.”  Wash hands the map coordinates to River and follows the crowd. 

Mal traces their route with his bandaged hands.  “So…where next, little one?”

“Away,”  River studies the chart in front of her.  “Home.  To the stars.”

“You don't think we're done yet?”

River looks up from the map, out at the Black. “We've got a ways to go.”