The thing was: after it all went down, they still had to eat.
Such a small thing to worry on, after everything else the crew of Serenity had lost. Friends. Family. Their last illusions-- for those as still had them-- about the government purporting to care for its people. Enough blood, sweat, and tears to drown a horse. And last but not least, the few contacts that had still sent them regular business. All they had left was the ship herself, and those aboard her.
But they still had to eat. And even protein cakes cost something. After a few weeks of rationing every last morsel and fueling up on the dregs of the Lilac job, Mal Reynolds had been willing to consider even the most drastic of options.
"You still sure 'bout this, little one?" he asked, swallowing convulsively as he stood in the airlock in his pressure suit waiting for Kaylee to finish pumping out the atmo. "We're awful exposed out here, if there's any Reavers about."
The slight form at his side, hair knotted snugly in a bun to keep it from tangling in her own helmet, looked up at him and wrinkled her nose. "Don't worry. They're chasing rats today; the government sent another fact finding crew. They'll never notice a few mice in the woodwork."
Mal blew out a breath, then nodded as the light flicked green and he reached for the handle to open the outer door. The other ship didn't have a standard airlock, but they'd roughly centered Serenity's over a squarish hatch on the stranger's hull; it ought to serve well enough for the purpose. "Not sure whether to wish them luck, or hope the purplebellies send them after the others."
There weren't many Reaver ships left, not after they'd got done cutting though the Burnham Quadrant fleet; but there were enough yet to make the investigators' jobs more difficult, circling the Black above Miranda. Hadn't been many newsies following the story yet, neither-- nor salvagers, after the loot the murdered millions had left there. But there'd been a few entrepreneurs nosing 'round the scrap yard floating between there and civilization-- and Mal had figured, with River to keep an ear out, they might as well see what was to be found.
It was either that, or go hunt up Badger. The floating graveyard had won out, just.
River shrugged, laying hands on the corrugated surface of the other ship, feeling about for a release catch. "Six of one, half a dozen fingers of Mudders' Milk," she replied, absently.
Was it bad that that made sense to him? Man as didn't need strong refreshment after surviving a face-off with Reavers might as well be one of 'em. Mal snorted, then moved to help his pilot pull the hatch away as she finally triggered something.
The passage that opened beyond was darker than the inside of a horse-- and from what the scanner clipped to his suit told him, there weren't no oxygen in there, neither. There were a few traces of power lighting up Kaylee's sensors, though-- and no sign that it had ever been savaged by Reavers. That was why he'd chosen the ship: its unusual shape, all straight lines and sharp angles; its sizeable dimensions, several times larger than Serenity; and the fact that it appeared almost pristine. As if it had been drifting long before the not-quite-survivors of Miranda had started cluttering the area with their debris. If the oversize vessel really had been left unplundered for more'n a decade... well then, maybe, just maybe, they might find enough to set them up in comfort awhile.
"Zoe? We're going in," he said, transmitting up to the bridge as they turned their helmet lights on.
"Understood. No change in the readings," his first mate sent back. "We'll keep you posted."
"After you, darlin'," he gestured, then followed River into the yawning space beyond.
The next couple of hours went by swifter than he'd expected. But a damn sight more confusing, too. Mal didn't know exactly what he'd been hoping to find inside the ship, but it sure as shooting hadn't been yet another basketful of puzzlement. After he and River finished their cautious, initial check down every major corridor, probing to see what was open, they called the others in to help pry open the spaces that weren't. And nothing behind those doors made any kind of sense.
It reminded him of a poor colonists' ship in some ways, with trunks of rough-worn clothes and settlers' equipment in the bunking area. In others, it could only've been a government vessel: in place of genseed, nutrient bars and the like, they found a wealth of metal in one of the holds, a super-strong alloy rarer than platinum that Mal had never actually seen in person before. River swore to see it, language blue enough to set her brother to spluttering over the comms, and ran her fingers over the ingots reverently before tying them up for Jayne to salvage. There were whole racks of guns, too, old-style projectile types stowed with plenty of ammo.
"Whoever they were, they were armed for bear-- and as hungry as we are," Mal frowned when they finally made it to the bridge, staring around at the unusual layout. "Who were these people?"
"Does it matter? They're gone. That's all I need to know." Jayne tilted his head back toward the ceiling, searching its breadth with quick, nervous glances; Mal couldn't resist following the motion, though he'd checked once already. It was bare; no bodies of Reaver victims left hanging to spook their rescuers.
There was something odd about the room, but that weren't it. Āiyā; the space weren't properly proportioned at all. The ceiling was too high, the hatches too big, the chairs too narrow, the seats too far off the decking... and when Simon stretched a gloved hand over one of the consoles, anyone with eyes could see that the buttons weren't designed for the regular complement of fingers. But there was also evidence that that the usual sort of folk had crewed it: scrap metal secured for steps, abraded edges where chair arms had been cut away, and English lettering scrawled in faded ink around the control keys.
And that weren't all. River reached out and dragged a gloved finger over one of the walls, then showed it to him. It was covered in a fine layer of grit, thick enough to be visible against the dark material of the suit; too much to be the result of only a few years of anatmospheric decay. It hadn't registered before, but there was a lot of dust visible throughout the ship, mostly accreted on hullward surfaces.
"Fails the white glove test," she murmured. "But that's not her fault. She's been sleeping for a very long time."
"Has she now," Mal replied uneasily.
It was on the tip of his tongue to ask whether River meant the ship herself, or her owner-- but the fact that the question even occurred to him was a fair sign of the likely answer. Normally, he'd have bet cryo was far beyond the reach of anyone out in this far an orbit-- but there were those ingots, and the powered sections down at the ship's core, still active and firmly secured when all else had gone dark years ago. Not to mention his Reader, large as life beside him, pointing the way. It was like something out of one of the pulp adventure novels his Ma used to read him at bedtime.
"Think she can be woke?" he asked, bracing himself for the answer.
River rolled her eyes. "Only one way to know," she said, then pushed off toward the far corridor.
"Not a big fan of doing the expected," Mal muttered. "Fact is, though, you're right."
He sighed, careful not to fog up his helmet, then began the tedious process of following her, handhold by handhold. Leastwise they didn't have to magnetize along the deckplates to get there, on account of there being no chance of skimming off into space with walls all around 'em. Which thought reminded him. "Lil' Kaylee, how's the engines? Think you're gonna be able to get the grav up?"
"Not unless you set her to spinning," his mechanic transmitted back, ruefully. "Ain't got no fuel left, and the residue don't match our systems. They must've run her dry; she's seized up something awful."
"All right then, get to stripping her," he sighed. "Anything looks valuable, cut it loose and bag it up. Jayne'll help."
"Will do, Cap'n!" she replied. "Shame, though. Ain't never seen engines like these before."
Mal pursed his lips. "Whole ship's like that, mèimei. Surely would like to know where she came from."
River shot a glance over her shoulder as she fetched up against the nearest of the sealed doors. "Let's find out," she said, then set her gloves to the lock, grinning.
"Captain, I think she's waking up," a dim, half-heard voice spoke somewhere in the vicinity of Anne's ear.
She'd grown used to swimming up from sleep still cold, hungry, and tired after the Skitter invasion; she had a vague sense that something about that morning should be different, but she couldn't have picked it apart from any other by the initial muzzy feel of it. There'd been a brief time, after the resistance captured a school with a still-working generator, that she'd been able to sleep comfortably again-- but that hadn't lasted. They'd been back to bunking in tents and cold, abandoned houses after only a few short weeks.
...At least, until they'd finally taken the war back to Boston. Anne's brow furrowed as her most recent memories began to return, shivering slightly at the touch of air on her chilled skin.
"Good. Like to ask her a few questions 'fore we wake up the rest of them," a second, gruffer voice replied to the first.
Air. Voices. Anne basked in the evidence of her senses for a moment as consciousness drifted closer to her grasp. She was out of the Skitters' version of a cryo-tank, then. She and Tom had found whole rooms of them, after their team finally captured the structure that had gone up over Boston; it was a ship, not just a land base, complete with storage sections for living livestock. They'd quickly realized they could use it for a very similar purpose: to travel between stars without aging, only under their own control, not their conquerors'.
"You realize, I can't guarantee she'll be able to answer them," the first voice spoke again. There was something crisp and authoritative about him that struck a familiar chord for her; not the voice itself, but something about the words he chose, and his diction. "She's been asleep for a very, very long time."
"Yeah, so your sister said," the other man-- the Captain?-- replied. He was definitely disgruntled. Maybe it was the title, but she couldn't help but think of Weaver as he continued. "But I still gotta ask."
Weaver had wanted to destroy the ship, not use it. But they'd had only days to celebrate their victory before the aliens in Chicago had begun sending reinforcements to retake Boston. And what little they'd been able to decipher of the alien commanders' computers in that time had painted a very ugly picture of their plans. The reason the Skitters spent so much time collecting scrap metal, building structures, and converting the human survivors' children with adaptive neural harnesses was that they'd believed the Earth already conquered. The initial wave of ships had already moved on. Only a small percentage of the crews had been left behind-- with orders to multiply their number, denude the planet of resources, build a new wave of ships, and set off to repeat the cycle on another target.
They should have called them locusts, not Skitters. The planet would be a stripped husk by the time the aliens departed-- and there would be nothing left for humanity in that vision. Seen in that light, stealing the ship for their own had been the Second Massachusetts Militia's best hope of survival.
Given her current circumstances, it seemed as though their gamble had paid off. Anne was incredibly relieved-- and more than a little amazed-- as that realization sank into her bones.
She blinked her eyes open, squinting against the bright lights to get a glimpse of her rescuers.
"Tom?" she rasped, her own voice faint and rusty with disuse.
"No, ma'am. My name is Malcolm Reynolds. Captain," the gruff voice said, leaning into her line of sight. He was tall, solidly built, and dressed in earthy colors, with worried blue eyes under a thatch of brown hair. She didn't recognize him, either to look at or by name, which puzzled her-- but then again, they had picked up a few stragglers from the First, Fourth and Fifth in the last hours before launch.
"How long has it been?" she asked next. "What's the system like? Were we right about the planets?"
Between Uncle Scott's knowledge of computers and Ben and Rick's memories of the language the aliens used, they'd been able to figure out how to aim the ship toward their intended destination, and set the first row of tanks to activate just before it got there. Anne had been one of those elected to sleep in that row, so she'd be able to help the rest of the militia through any cryo-induced medical problems.
"I'm sorry, we couldn't find your ship's log. When did you launch, and where from? And which planet were you headed for?"
That was the first voice, again. He was younger than the other, a little shorter and less bulky, and a lot more precise in his way of speaking; but the sure way he took her wrist and pressed his fingers to her pulse told her not to underestimate him. He was a doctor, and probably one from a much more upscale zipcode than her own practice. And just as unfamiliar to her as the Captain standing with him. One refugee, she might plausibly have missed, but two of them? She'd tended every single member of the Second Massachusetts over the months they'd traveled together. And the things he was saying....
She suppressed a wash of unease, frowning at him. "What do you mean, when did we launch, and where? If you weren't with us, if you followed us.... Not that I'm not glad to see you, we were afraid we were the only survivors! But shouldn't you know, if you found our message?"
The two men exchanged baffled glances. "Know what?" the Captain asked. "Survivors? Do you mean, from one of the colonies lost in the War? But that's too recent; your ship looks older than that."
She gaped at him. "War? Colonies? What are you talking about? We haven't...." She checked their attire again, then glanced around the medically fitted room she found herself in; no, they might be dressed in clothes that could be called 'retro', but with spaceships and that kind of tech involved they couldn't have accidentally traveled through time, or something. "Do you mean-- America?"
"America?" The doctor's eyebrows climbed. "I don't know a planet, or a city by that name. You can't mean... you can't be talking about the country on Earth That Was?"
"Earth That What?" Anne scrambled backward, trying to hitch herself to a sitting position. Her limbs responded sluggishly, but after a few flailing seconds she managed it, tangled in the coarse sheet someone had thoughtfully tucked around her near-naked body.
Mal's jaw clicked shut in a sudden frown, and he took a half-step back out through the door of the infirmary to call to someone outside. "River-girl? There you are! Where'd you get to? You're the one dragged us into all this mystery; seems to me you might oughtta help unravel it."
A slight figure slipped into the room past him, pushing him out of the doorway with a firm, delicate hand and a sigh. "Checking on Serenity. I am the pilot, you know. But it's not that complicated a problem."
The girl had long, flowing hair, a dark, clinging shirt over a skirt that flared just above the ankles, and heavy combat boots; Anne had seen any number of people dressed for comfort in similarly mismatched styles in recent memory, and some far younger teens carrying weapons like they were born to use them. Her outfit, and the knowing glint in her dark eyes, was all too familiar; it reminded Anne just a little bit of Hal and Karen, who had to be about the same age. But the tilt to River's head, and the emotive flatness to her expression, was all Rick, and drastically increased Anne's sense of foreboding.
"I told you," she murmured, drifting closer and laying a hand over one of Anne's where she'd bunched it in the sheet. "She's been sleeping a very long time."
"Since Earth?" the Captain blurted, skeptically.
Anne closed her eyes and licked her lips. "Since two thousand twelve," she said. It couldn't be-- they couldn't mean-- they were at least human. So-- someone must have managed to pass them en route. That was a good sign, wasn't it?
When the Second Massachusetts Militia had finally rescued Karen and Tom, they'd also learned where the aliens had come from-- and where they were going. After they'd taken the ship, they'd laboriously pored over the databanks and chosen a star with confirmed planets far from either trajectory, then transmitted battle plans and coordinates to any other militia groups that might be listening. They hadn't received any response, but they'd held out a slim hope that others would be able to follow. A hope that must have been realized, sometime in the past... however many years?
"Five hundred and six," River said, hand tightening over Anne's. "Long even for Sleeping Beauty. But your Prince was sleeping with you, so he couldn't break through the thorns."
Anne sucked in a sharp, disbelieving breath as she added numbers in her head. 2518? The number was as unreal to her as the fairy tale the girl referenced. It was much higher than any calculation they'd come up with before launch.
"That's not possible," she said, tightly. "Where are the others?" Tom, Weaver, Lourdes, Pope, and Uncle Scott had been in the first cluster with her, and more than a hundred others had been packed in like sardines behind them: family, friends, and more, bound by hunger, privation, struggle, and survival. They had to still be all right. She didn't think she could take it if they weren't.
"You're the only one we woke so far," the Captain replied. "We ain't lying. We came across your ship salvaging; probably shouldn't have woke any of you, considering. But we did, and you're here. And now we got us a dilemma."
"If you're looking for... some kind of payment, or...." Anne faltered.
"Ain't got anything to pay with. 'Cept maybe all that metal." He frowned. "But that's not my meaning. Your ship don't fly, you ain't got food nor air, there ain't room to take the lot of you at once... and sure as we bring you back to civilized space, the Alliance and the Reavers are going to take notice. I'm thinking that's not so much a good idea. At least, not yet."
"Then what do you propose?" she asked warily, refusing to show weakness despite her confusion. "Though you should really discuss it with Tom and Weaver; I'm just the doctor."
Captain Reynolds snorted. "In my experience, no doctor's just anything," he said dryly, trading a glance with his crewman. "But I don't aim to terrorize you. Tell me what they look like; we'll bring 'em along somewhere safer. Haven, maybe. Then we'll work out how to fetch the rest of 'em."
Anne clutched the sheet closer, mind spinning. Did she dare believe him? Did she dare not?
"Bring me some clothes," she said, "and I'll show you."
The Captain heaved an aggrieved sigh. "Guĭ. Never met a woman didn't try and put me in my place. The 'verse got it in for me, or what?"
"That means 'yes'," River informed her. Then she uncoiled from her crouch next to the bed. "I'll get some," she told her Captain. "And don't whine. Don't you know your face will stick that way?"
Anne choked on a laugh at the man's expression. Okay, so maybe the voyage hadn't gone as expected. But people were apparently still people, even five hundred years later.
"Sorry, where are my manners? My name is Anne," she said, turning to offer a cautious smile to the doctor. "Dr. Anne Glass. I'm a pediatrician. What's your specialty?"
His face lit up as he replied, and she finally let herself relax.
The Second Mass had survived the Skitters. They would survive whatever the twenty-sixth century brought them, too.