The polystyrene sheet was the root variable of the equation, discarded in the cargo bay from the top of a goods crate by a greedy buyer looking for proof that he’d been cheated. It was the kernel of a thought, spiralling lightly to the floor beneath the catwalk where River perched gun in hand while Mal raised incredulous eyebrows at the very idea that a smuggler could be seen as dishonest. She considered the polystyrene, white foam bobbing in Paquin’s breeze, discarded as she had felt herself discarded by her parents. The Alliance had seen a use for her. She saw a use for it.
“What're you doing wi’ that?” Jayne called down to her from the staircase as she tiptoed to the corner and collected it.
“Raft solutions and phosphates. You wouldn't understand.”
Large men moved swiftly and quietly, one of the few things she’d learnt that she didn't fully comprehend. He dropped to the deck level beside her and gripped her wrist. “Chuck it out. You don't need no bit of fancy plastic.”
She broke the contact with a simple aikido twist. One day he would ask her to teach him her combat skills; she hoped the day would be long in coming. It would be so hard – harder than fighting Reavers – to tell him that many of her more specialised moves depended on using her attackers’ greater body-mass against them. “I don't. Kaylee does.”
Many different exploitable weaknesses existed. Jayne's face didn't change expression but his blue eyes widened. “‘K. I guess if it's Kaylee...”
“... it doesn't matter so much,” she finished for him, and gave him a conspirator's smile.
Simon still had shelves of drugs in the infirmary. “Just in case,” he always murmured, and River didn't need to Read him to see his meaning: just in case she goes crazy again, just in case there is another Miranda. Big brothers not listening to little sisters was evidently a law of nature she hadn't learnt at school. Still, there were times when she welcomed it. Some of the medicines were useful in other surgical settings, if only in extracted form. One of the first things she’d done after he’d stopped watching her so closely was obtain a centrifuge and distilling equipment for him from a government-run university, so he could modify some of them himself. He had had pharmaceutical training, of course, but tended to forget that River was a trained chemist.
She wandered into the infirmary after stashing the polystyrene sheet among the bedclothes in her bunk. Simon, the genius surgeon, the anally retentive stock controller; so easy to search his files. Potassium permanganate reduced to the manganese she needed, and haemoglobin gave her pure iron. Most disinfectants contained chlorine and most eye medicines contained a form of boron, including these. There was zinc in his formula of choice for soothing skin rashes. The magnesium sulphate was easy – Epsom salts by another name. There was enough distilled water. Jayne had saltpetre upstairs, part of a thus-far failed experiment to create low-cost explosives. Yes, this would work.
“River?” she heard Simon call. She looked up and to the left. Her brother was leaning round the doorframe, messy black fringe drooping over his sky-blue eyes; he needed another kind of trim than the one that Jayne joked about over endless cans of beer. “What are you doing?”
“Stock-checking. Are we short of anything?”
“Could do with some more propoxin, if we're staying off the major skyways some more. Why? Are we going by a medical centre?”
She looked him over. His clothes were crumpled and his shirt was hanging out. On his way back to his bunk? “Your flies are undone. I suppose Kaylee’s in the engine room?” Simon looked down, yelped and retreated towards the dorms. River grinned, closed and returned the file and headed up the narrow staircase.
For the plan to work, she would need a metal or plastic container the size of the polystyrene or smaller. A spare crate? Mal would notice, but the “for Kaylee” excuse always worked on him as well. She could enlist Inara’s help, though. Inara would understand, better than anyone in the ship. The Companion thought nobody knew about the model Serenity in her trunk upstairs, complete and perfect except that it lacked Shuttle One. Mal had seen it, and River through his eyes. He'd wondered about it for a while but had mentally discarded it as another of the Companion's foibles. River, though, had understood at once, and had successfully distracted Mal when he’d tried to insist Inara moved all her things out of the shuttle. The spirit house had to stay outside the building, to keep away the bad influences.
Kaylee was singing amid clangs of spanner on bolt, a strong tuneful mezzo-soprano that was all the better for being untrained. River caught a phrase from the lyrics, something about the galley table, and smiled. “Hello?” she called, and the mechanic slid out from under the engine and gave her a cheery smile. Contented. Simon had brought them onto the right ship, so long ago.
“Hey, River.” She patted the deck beside her and River willingly went to the spot and sat with her knees drawn to her chest, as if the two of them were hiding behind a fence at a finishing school. “What's the news?”
“I have a favour to ask,” she began.
“Of course! Whatever you need – what is it?”
“It’s Simon,” she said, and saw the dreamy self-satisfied look drift over Kaylee’s eyes again and knew she would have to take the discussion onto more practical lines immediately. “It’s going to be Visakha Puja soon.” Blank uncomprehending look, and she expanded, “A festival from the Core, celebrating the Buddha’s birth and death. Family members give each other presents.” Her face cleared, and River went on, “I have an idea for a present. But I need to get him out of the way – if I tell you when, will you be able to keep him in your bunk? It’s almost as far from the infirmary as he could be.”
She grinned, and anticipation made her eyes sparkle. “I think I c'n come up with something.”
“I knew I could count on you,” she said solemnly.
“Ruttin’ madness –” Jayne hissed in the darkness behind her.
“Bi zui!” Mal snapped from her left. “Just do your job!”
“What? How’m I meant to shoot folk with this gou shi in my face?”
River ignored the bickering and reminded herself that Jayne had always disagreed on principle with some aspect of the escapades that Simon had planned, simply to be ‘ornery’, as Mal would have it. Not that, in this instance, the captain had had too many positive comments to make himself. Thank goodness for Companion drama training – Inara had kept her cue perfectly, leaning over Mal's shoulder at the dining table in a swish of silk to tap River's list. “Orchids?” she'd said, as the captain tried to keep his face towards the stove and not cross his eyes. “Those cost a fortune on Sihnon, and they don't even grow naturally outside the Liu Cheng valley. I can't think what social climbers out here would pay for them. Have you considered gladioli too?” Inara's approval rather than her casual reference to money had won Mal to River's side, and it was telling that not even the prospect of a ripe payday had truly won Jayne.
Seeing as the huge, manly mercenary was currently staggering back towards Serenity with his arms full of flowers, one growth bag burst and dribbling down his leg, he might have been correct to be a little sceptical. The rough men he knew well enough to drink with would laugh him away from their tables if he ever revealed he'd once made a run on a garden centre.
River looked back past her own bundle. The perimeter fence was a hundred yards away and receding almost to nothing through the scrubby copse, and the low flat-roofed greenhouses, warehouses and storefronts were another hundred yards beyond that. The probability that the guardsmen would reach the garden centre from its owner's mansion before the petty thieves reached the mule was decreasing. Her foot hovered mid-air and she unerringly set it just beyond the tree root that would have tripped her. Low probability, except for accidents. It was grossly unfortunate that the security system would have tripped at once if Zoë had flown them in to begin with. Instead, the three of them had rooted through hothouses undetected till Mal – unfortunately enough – had fallen over a suggestive statue of a nymph and broken a window.
The path widened and the trees ahead cleared. River raced into the rendevous area. Zoë had been perching on the mule’s step and absently nibbling blackberries – of which she’d thoughtfully picked a few handfuls to take back to the ship in the front weapon box – but at the sound of the approach she’d raised her gun. She moved over to the driver's seat as she identified River. “What wrecked it?” she called.
“The captain’s clumsy feet,” River sighed. She clambered into the front passenger seat and arranged the strapping round herself, her mix of gladioli and lilies and the little handful of stems, leaves and roots she held beneath the rest and had simply trusted to her reflexes not to crush. The real reason she'd suggested the theft.
“I heard that,” Mal muttered as he jumped onto the back with Jayne in tow. “One day, little bit, I’ll teach you ‘bout respecting authority.” She was silent as the men settled themselves and Zoë eased them into the air. She'd learnt enough about authority at the Academy. At least she knew that if she ever told Mal what the word meant to her, he’d be decently horrified.
Four here, three on board. River concentrated on those left behind. Simon pacing around the cargo bay in agitation as he and Inara discussed what could have gone wrong with the raid and how much of the expensive stock could have been ruined; Inara on the bridge, monitoring the com as she fretted; Kaylee in the engine room, ready for takeoff, as content in communing with her ship as she was when with Simon. The sense of their minds was approaching far faster than that of the pursuing security guards. Mission successful.
Zoë drove them round the last long, low curve and Serenity’s dimmed hull lights slowly came into view ahead. River slowly allowed herself to relax as the mule soared into the gaping cargo door and settled to its spot in the centre of the floor among crates and junk. Simon slammed the door button behind them and called to Inara, “Take us up!”, but a broad smile broke his face apart as he took in the condition of mule and passengers. “That looks... interesting,” he murmured. “Need a hand with that, Jayne?”
“You shut your fancy trap.” Jayne sent him a vicious scowl and made to dump his orchids out of his lap and onto the floor; Simon took them from him instead and laid them on the work-out bench with barely a sigh. The mercenary jumped off the mule and slapped at the nutrient stains on his trousers. “This’s more trouble’n them rutting cows.”
“A lower possibility of contaminating our food supply.” He looked at River and Mal with a curious expression in his eyes. “Who's the buyer?”
“No one yet,” the captain grunted as he dumped his armful by Jayne’s. “Inara reckoned they're a sure go. No trouble getting rid of ‘em, we take 'em one or two moons along.”
“Maybe even Persephone.” Simon frowned. “I'll think about it too. The high families.”
“Anything you can –” and the ship lurched in a turbulent spot. Mal scowled. “What’s that woman thinking? River –“
“I'm on it.” She set down her flowers and, concealing her special bundle in her skirts, scurried upstairs.
Inara was at Serenity’s helm, gripping the stick-shift like a child's comforter and staring straight ahead with a composed expression on her face that didn't disguise her agitation from anyone who knew her. River stowed her prize in the cupboards by the door and ran to the copilot's chair. “Release it,” she told the older woman. “I've got her.” As the ship’s bumpy flight evened out, Inara slowly let go and relaxed.
“Did it go well?” she asked, shaking her hands to relieve the cramps.
“Very well. We got everything we wanted.” She smiled sideways at the Companion. Inara nodded in comprehension, and her black curls bobbed in the half-light.
“Yeah, we got everything including a heap more trouble,” Mal grumbled behind them. “‘Nara, ain’t I told you often enough ‘bout stabilising? You almost shook us out the sky.” He shooed her out of the pilot's seat and took it himself. “Break stuff loose in the cargo bay –”
She sighed. “So when you haven't anything to complain about, you complain at me. In this instance about your inability to teach me to fly a transport. I take it that it was you who messed up the job?”
“I didn't mess up,” he snapped, “some hwoon dahn left a gorram rock in the way.”
“Rock? Piece of expensive statuary, by any chance?”
River heard Zoë’s bunk hatch clank shut. Jayne’s had gone already; she quietly stood up and left the squabbling pair to their amusements, taking her handful of greenery with her. Mal, deep in an involved sentence containing more Chinese words than English, failed to notice.
Self-imposed “night” was passing as Serenity sailed through the black towards Persephone. The ship was quiet. River felt Mal dozing in the cockpit as she silently worked no more than a hundred yards from him in the engine room. Kaylee and Simon had exhausted each other in her darkened bunk and now slept the sleep of the sated. Nobody else would walk the ship this late.
She poured her purloined vials and bags one by one into the crate and topped up the whole with distilled water. Liquids gurgled and mingled into something close to the nutrient broth that supported the bagged orchids. She carefully cut the tiny holes she needed in the polystyrene sheet, that which had started the whole caper, and set the little white circles aside as she pushed stems, leaves and roots through the expanded plastic till she was happy. At last she pressed the sheet down over the crate bath, so most of the plants’ roots dangled in the broth and the leaves and shoots poked out to bask in the engine room light. If it were right to pray tonight – well, she would pray that the engine didn’t catch fire again.
“C’m on!” Kaylee’s excited voice, husky with the morning, called to Simon somewhere overhead, and River pushed off the infirmary door with an answering smile ready on her lips. She ran into the cargo bay and dashed up the stairs in time to meet the couple on the landing.
“Not down here,” she said, imperious as the empress of Sihnon, and caught their hands in hers to lead them back up the stairs, metal chiming beneath their boots and thudding under her bare feet.
“But –” started Kaylee.
“I changed the plan. Engine room.” She made a little excited ‘ooh’ and moved into an enthusiastic lead. Simon blinked a little and let the women drag him upstairs, too startled for the time being to protest.
They emerged on the upper deck by the bunks and dashed through the galley, somehow missing colliding with Jayne’s chair – the mercenary was hunched over his coffee, as bad-tempered as if he’d been drinking all night – and a rather bemused Zoë at the stove. River ignored flying curses and exclamations, ran into the lead and hauled open the engine room door to bare the scene of her overnight triumph. Kaylee leant on her shoulder, gasping, as she stared down at the crate at the foot of the engine.
“The little flowers –” she started, moving away from River to reach to them, sparse stems where white petals nestled amid glossy green leaves with virulent yellow floral axes poking up towards the roof. “They’re pretty! River, did you – I mean –”
“The garden centre? Yes.” She looked up at her brother. “Simon?”
“I recognise these,” he murmured. “River...”
She shook her head and went to Kaylee’s side, where the mechanic was kneeling by her plants, still staring at them in awe. “When the flowers die, they don’t wither. The petals fall away but the centres expand and change colour. First green, then red.” She touched the middle of one flower, felt the innocent promise it made her. “And when they’ve finished ripening, what’s left is strawberries.”
Her eyes widened above a delighted gasp. “But – you said – for family?”
“You are family,” and she smiled down at the kneeling mechanic, trying not just to Read but to Project, to show Kaylee the warm love she felt for the older girl from the inside out. “You are my sister.” She said no more, for Kaylee dragged her down into a fierce embrace, and River smelt oil and tears in her hair and sank into sunny past days of a flat over a repair shop, children tugging on a plump woman’s apron and warm kisses for everyone because everyone was equally loved.
Kaylee pulled away as a more recent memory cascaded across her mind. “But – Simon –”
River grinned. Her head was starting to tingle with the smell of biscuits and preserves from ten or more years ago. “All Core gentlemen study the culinary arts, if only to praise their hosts’ dinners adequately, and Simon was always the model gentleman.” They both blinked. “He can cook, except for reconstituted protein,” she translated, and pulled a slip of paper from her pocket and pressed it into her brother’s slender hand. “The only additional ingredients are sugar and standard acidifier, both of which we have in bulk in the galley.”
Simon unfolded the paper. The first words read: STRAWBERRY JAM.
Inara pulled the shuttle door half-closed behind her and slowly breathed in the delicate pine scent in the air. Mal could talk for as long as he liked about unattended fires on the ship but on this day of all days she was damned if she wasn't keeping her incense burning. Besides, it was relaxing to her as well as to anyone else who might blunder in here.
She peered over at the unmade camp cot and nodded in satisfaction. The open trunk hidden behind it hadn't magically managed to set fire to the ship. She crossed the room and peeped into the packing case. The model Serenity sat on its weighted stand, nose slightly in the air as if to sniff the joss-stick burning before it and the strawberry leaf that leant on the incense holder. She stared at the gap left by the missing Shuttle 1. Maybe she should have inveigled Mal into welding the miniature to the outside of the ship so she could have added the shuttle too. As it was, it was not part of the ‘building’; that must be why the two of them always fought more in here than anywhere else on the ship.
As she straightened, an unexpected deep pink flash from the bottom of the trunk caught her eye. She turned back and knelt beside it. There was something half-hidden beneath Serenity’s belly, near the cargo bay door. She reached past the incense and pulled out a single orchid.
Someone's throat cleared, by the door. She jumped and looked. Mal was leaning on the airlock seal, with more of a sheepish than a smug expression on his face. “Figure she’s my ship too, I might as well do my bit after the mâe chii did hers. ‘Sides, not like losing one flower’s going to break the bank, and Jayne burst its bag anyhow. Happy Visakha Puja.” The door slid shut behind him.
“Just when I think I’ve got you figured out,” she whispered.