The wave from "Unseen University" had been somewhat alarming, Mal had to admit. After all, it wasn't every day one encountered an orangutan capable of operating this kind of communications technology-- but then, seeing Jayne sending a wave for the first time had been quite a shock too, and he supposed this was nowhere near as impressive by comparison.
River was the only one who understood what the strangely intelligent-seeming ape was ooking, but as it went, the series of coordinates that flashed on-screen and the sack of gold the monkey was holding up were pretty self-explanatory anyway. "It's a job," she confirmed. "We were requested by the Patrician himself."
The message ended with the appearance of a small, chubby man in a green robe and a large, purple hat, about a fifth of which managed to fit onscreen after a zoom-in. The words "Ponder Stibbons, Wzzd." flashed beneath his chin.
"A moment, if you will?" the man asked nervously. "Only, this is the first time we've ever sent this sort of 'wave' and in the interest of research, do you happen to know what happens if one of the little surfing imps drown?"
Despite wracking his brain, Mal reflected there really was no answer that he felt comfortable replying with. He was saved by River's calm, eerie, "They can't drown, the wave keeps rolling them forward and the message remains intact until it is received."
Mal exchanged a long glance with Wash, which conveyed approximately the following:
He's clearly insane.
Well, so is she.
True. Should we risk it, or do you think we'll end up skydiving with imps and talking to butterflies with the rest of 'em?
Could be a chance, but… that sack of gold looked mighty heavy.
That it did.
And there are talking apes, so at least Jayne can make some new friends.
"Mr. Stibbons?" Mal warily moved his gaze to the screen. "We'll take the job."
When Serenity's destination came into view, nobody was awake except Wash. He chucked a dinosaur at Mal, who was dozing in the other pilot's seat, and slowly lifted his hand to point ahead.
Their two whispering voices echoed on the otherwise silent bridge:
A tall, stunning woman with a mane of blonde hair and a very well-suited breastplate greeted Mal at the designated landing area, which was in fact a vast field of cabbage on the boundary of a walled city.
"Pleased to make your acquaint--" he started, but the woman had already nodded and turned to the two men standing a short way back, leading him to them with a determination that screamed This Thing (Which My Commander Ordered Me To Do, Thanks, By The Way) Cannot Be Over With Soon Enough, or, perhaps, I Am Highly Allergic To Cabbage. It was the look Zoe had given him quite often before she realized that her arched eyebrow was usually much more convincing than his higher rank, hence her own compliance with his orders frequently being negotiable. "--tance," he finished lamely, sharing what he thought to be an understanding look with the disgruntled, gray-haired figure with a curling red feather in his helmet who must be her commander.
The commander stepped forward. "Welcome to Ankh-Morpork, Captain," he grunted. "Come, anyhow. You can decide for yourselves if it's Well. The Patrician has requested that this mission be conducted with the utmost discretion--" he said this as if it were his lunch coming up-- "due to the severe Political Ramifications--" and there was his lunch in a chunky puddle on the floor-- "of the question at hand, so anyone other than you and the conductor of this vessel will be escorted by us to the city, where the City Watch will ensure their well being." And yes, that was definitely a small cat licking at the remains of said former lunch. "I'm Commander Vimes. My men and I are of course thrilled to be at your disposal, as the city behind me is a peaceful paradise where no crimes are currently being committed at all. If not for this long-awaited task to occupy me, I would actually be lounging on a Klatchian beach drinking coconut cocktails with little umbrellas in." Sarcasm dripped heavily from his words, like -- no, Mal decided, even vomit metaphors had their limits. "The Patrician will appear with your job details right around the second we all disappear, I'm sure. And you can save yourself the trouble of arguing," Vimes finished sourly, "as I doubt you'll come up with anything I haven't tried myself."
Cautiously taking all of this in, Mal turned around to assess his crew. No use fighting about it if he didn't know the mission yet, and his crew might be happier strolling in the market than working for the monkey's gold.
Sure enough, they didn't seem dissatisfied: Jayne was staring slack-jawed at the tall, faintly feral blonde, and Kaylee was definitely ogling the red-haired Watchman smartly standing at attention next to her. Inara and Book stared greedily at the promise of culture behind the city walls, and only Zoe looked slightly wary at leaving her men behind. Simon and River had stayed on the ship, naturally preferring safety to the exciting potential of 'be killed and have your brains dissected!', brought to you by the Alliance.
Mal nodded and turned back to Vimes, deciding he looked unhappy enough with his own orders to be trustworthy. "Right, Commander, I trust your men'll take good care of 'em. We're a peaceful bunch, always keep out of trouble."
Vimes narrowed his eyes suspiciously, but the red-haired officer stepped up. "Splendid! I shall give them a tour of our Citie of One Thousande Surprises! I'm certain they will all find it immensely enjoyable (and educating)!"
The man's face was so eager Mal had to look back to make sure he had also noticed Jayne, who was attempting to swat a fly and repeatedly slapping himself on the forehead. He turned back to the young man, amazed.
"I've only uncovered Nine-hundred-ninety Surprises myself, perhaps we'll be lucky enough to discover the last ones," the man said happily.
"Aw, Cap'n, look how cute he is!" Kaylee whispered behind him in what would have been a squeal, if it weren't spoken so softly. "Why can't nobody on Serenity speak in parentheses?"
For the second time in two days Mal had no response available, but was spared the need to reply by Vimes's resigned sigh. "Captain Carrot, let's get them to the city." 'Before I succumb to the urge to shoot myself in the leg' was left unsaid, yet unmistakably there.
Captain Carrot, who was, if anything had ever been, the literal embodiment of "shiny", beckoned the five crewmembers to a brownish road, less solid-seeming than the rest of the ground, upon which bobbed a rickety wooden construction that an interminable stretch of imagination could perhaps classify as a boat. If only it hadn't had large wheels attached.
"The wheels help it along," explained the Watchwoman with a pained look. "The Ankh River's not always very… er… runny."
Vimes boarded the boat, grumbling, "Sergeant, when this is over, remind me to request a bibs and rattles appendage to the budget if we're going to be babysitters from now on…"
She snorted. "I'm not sure the taxpayers would approve," she murmured, and added wistfully, "Then again, they've never actually paid before…"
This must be where the monkey comes in, thought Mal, watching the row-carriage depart.
"So this is where the monkey comes in, right?" Wash asked.
Ironically enough, that was, indeed, where the monkey came in, although (River told him later) if it'd heard them say that they probably wouldn't have lived through the next five minutes.
Their companions having disappeared into the city, Mal and Wash had just started walking back to Serenity when they heard someone clearing his throat behind them. They spun around to face the serene image of a tall man dressed only in black, flanked by a shorter, long-bearded man with a dreamy expression on his face and a frighteningly large orangutan.
"Captain Reynolds," the tall man said, in a tone heavy enough that, if swung properly, could probably break kneecaps. "I am Lord Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh-Morpork. You may call me 'sir'. These are," he indicated the two others, "Leonard of Quirm and our own Unseen University's Librarian. Two of the most brilliant minds on the Disc."
Mal regarded them somewhat disbelievingly. "I hate to be rude, sir -- no, I don't mind really, but that ain't the issue -- but we're here to get paid, and I'd sooner as not like to get the hell away from this planet, which, to be frank," he cocked his head, searching for words, "kind of creeps me out."
Vetinari's mouth curved upwards; Mal supposed it was a smile, though it sure didn't look like one. "I understand you're a man who can do a job.'
"Tell me, Captain, are you a man of faith?"
"Only in the sense of not having any."
"I see. It is very easy, I suppose, not believing in what cannot be proved. Unfortunately, on the Disc, theology tends to be," he cleared his throat, "a very, ahem, exact science -- a fact which denies us the luxury of disbelief and leads to the answers to certain questions exerting considerable influence on the way this city is run, the delicate balance of power between certain political factions, the peaceful separation of Church and Me," the Patrician delicately gestured at himself, "…etcetera." He smiled thinly. "I hardly need explain the power struggles that might arise if, for instance, the popular Offlerian Great Turtle Metamorphoses Theory proves correct. Though I must admit to being more prone to the Big Bang Theory, myself. Ahem."
"Ook?" added the Librarian.
"No," Mal replied. "Can't quite say I follow."
"Excellent," said Vetinari with satisfaction. "Since all of it is quite irrelevant. Leonard, if you will?"
"Right!" exclaimed Leonard of Quirm, his beard giving an excited little leap. He produced a notebook from his robe. "It's very simple, we only need you to settle a minor theological question-- oh, once I discovered you have the Teknogeolly to do it I was simply beside myself!" He looked at Serenity and exhaled a loving sigh. "Is that really a boat-that-enterprises-in-inter-planetary-void? Ah, it's just how I imagined it… You must explain to me how it works…"
Mal took a protective step closer to Serenity and noticed Wash doing the same.
Vetinari intervened in time. "You must excuse Leonard for getting distracted. He has been trying to design such a travel device for some time now, but all he's produced so far are doodles of a kilted black man with round eyes and a green helmet that sports the brush end of a broom. It's very disconcerting."
"I imagine it would be," Wash agreed.
"If we could please just get to the job…" Mal trailed, sounding a bit more desperate than he wished.
"Ook!" put in the Librarian.
"Of course, of course! Dear me, where is it…" Leonard of Quirm scratched his head, flipping through his notebook. "Ah, here! I trust you are familiar with turtle genitalia?"
Wash clapped Mal on the back until he stopped coughing. "That's a fine assumption," he choked.
Leonard ripped out the page from the notebook. "In any case, I've prepared some diagrams…"
Wash took the paper and looked at it from a few angles. "Oh, my," he murmured, paling slightly.
"Yes, lovely, aren't they? The miracle of procreation! Of, course, whether it's a miracle or not is up to you to discover." Leonard winked. "Now, the male reproductive organs are fairly obvious -- that long bit there and those, see, they're actually the size of small moons -- but the female are a bit trickier, I'll show you… notice this protruding little nub--"
Mal found himself with his hands thrust forward, letting out a startled yell while Wash blurted, "Ohgodmakehimstop!"
"That should be all, Leonard," Vetinari said smoothly, and Mal felt a wave of gratefulness wash over him. "Let us not complicate matters. The argument you will settle, if you have not yet understood, is with regard to the sex of Great A'Tuin, the turtle upon which the Discworld flies. Namely, what it is, not how much it has. Nor with whom. Nor in what pos--well, nor any other questions that may arise and lead to yet more disturbing theological arguments. Your payment will be satisfactory, I am sure. We are clear?"
Mal noticed that Vetinari's choice of words was 'clear', having skipped over the 'agreed' stage of negotiation, but was too distracted to care, as he was trying to replace the mental images assaulting him with an eyeful of the very solid sack of coins the Librarian was holding up.
"Clear as a breastplate," he answered. "Anything else we should be aware of?"
"Ook oook, ook ook ook ooook."
"Sure thing!" Wash grinned brightly, turning to Mal. "And by that I clearly meant: huh?"
The Librarian rolled his eyes with enough superiority to communicate that he, at least, knew the direction in which evolution really progressed, and apparently, it was backwards. In a series of exasperated 'oook's, a miniature model made of cabbages and a demonstration of remarkably talented pantomime, he told them what they needed to know.
"That's some really advanced calculation," Wash said finally, impressed. "Knowing exactly when the sun might stray off course, or when any of the elephants raise their legs, blow their trunks, perform other unspeakable activities. Don't suppose you're looking for a job as a naviga…" He trailed off under the piercing glares of Mal, the Patrician, and most significantly, the Librarian himself. "Hey, it was only a thought," he defended.
"Oook oook oook oook," the Librarian grunted with finality, clearly meaning 'Leave that to those who know how', or maybe, having lost interest, 'His hair is the colour of bananas. Hmm, I'm getting rather hungry…'
"Well, no use standin' around here no more." Mal peeked at the illustrations on the paper Wash was holding and shuddered. "Best we be on our way." Before we all succumb to lunacy, he refrained from adding. Wash, looking happy to escape, jogged up the ramp to start up Serenity.
"How long do you estimate it will take?" asked the Patrician.
"Oh, 'bout two, three hours. Shouldn't be more."
"Very well. Return to this spot; your crew will await you here."
"Sure thing." He gave Vetinari his best smile, hoping it didn't come off too sarcastic, and started walking backwards up the ramp. "Pleasure doing business with you. Sir."
Vetinari smiled back. "It is doing business, at least."
The ramp began its lift, and before it closed Mal could just catch Leonard's enthusiastic "Fare well!! Remember to watch out for pockets of clustered magic!!!", and the Librarian's parting "ook."
"Simon!" he yelled. "Come on," he said, when the boy appeared on a catwalk. "We may need a doctor's opinion on this one."
Simon followed him up to the ship's bridge and watched him settle tiredly in his chair, frowning with confusion when Mal declared: "And that, my friends, was the true definition of madness."
Wash snorted and turned to studying the paper he now clutched almost with awe. "You know," he remarked, "that Quirm fellow has some definite talent with a sketch-pad."
Mal snatched the paper from him. "If you could concentrate on doing what you're paid for, that'd be swell." He tried to shake off the feeling that Vetinari could have killed him in a hundred different ways with his toenails, if he so pleased.
"Where precisely are we going?" Simon asked warily. "I'd like to tell River--"
Mal held up a hand and flicked on the mike switch. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking," he droned. "We are about to fall off the edge of a flat world. Please buckle your seatbelts and pray we don't get sucked up an elephant's rear end… I hope you enjoy your flight."
River's giggle echoed all through the ship.
Three hours later, a fairly shook-up Mal stomped towards the orangutan juggling cabbages in the field outside the city. He held up a square of paper. "Take it," he ordered.
"Ook?" the Librarian questioned.
"It's a pic--an iconograph," he corrected himself, following River's advice.
Mal leaned forward and whispered something.
"Oh-ho-ho, you bet I'm sure." Mal tapped the iconograph -- picture! The picture, damn it! -- with confidence. "Not that I don't enjoy the smell of rotting cabbage -- brings back memories of Ma's cellar in summertime, could stand here all day -- but my crew's getting kinda restless down here." He ignored the shrieks and thumps of a game of football being played (unsurprisingly, with a cabbage) by said crew, a short distance away.
The sack of coins chinked heavily as it met his palm, and Mal weighed it with consideration. "This'll do," he said finally, and tried to decide how to convey his final words. He settled on a glare. "Don't call us. We won't call you. Ever again."
Mal turned on his heel to board the ship. "Children!" he called when he realized his crew wasn't following.
Jobs like this really weren't good for his health.
"Gold, gold, gold,
gold, gold, glod, no wait it's goooooold!" Jayne screeched at the top of his lungs, drunkenly thumping his hand on the kitchen table.
"Is there any chance at all I'll get a logical explanation for where in hell Jayne learned that song?" Mal asked, stoically pressing the heels of his hands to his ears in a so far failing attempt to muffle the noise.
"Not Hell, Mal, simply a dwarf bar," Book replied. Mal let out a groan. Of course, someone had taken Jayne to a bar.
"Couldn't you've kept him out of trouble, Shepherd?"
"Oh, delightful as that may have been, I was caught up in a somewhat heated theological debate with some very interesting men. And beasts. And man-beast hybrids, actually."
Wash paled. "Don't talk to me about theological debates," he pleaded.
"Don't worry, I've had more than my daily dose." Book smiled. One hand casually brushed a gray helmet that sat atop the table by him. "I've discovered that a helmet made of insulating material can be very helpful on a planet such as this. I hope we will return again."
Mal, Wash and Simon snorted simultaneously. Zoe put a comforting arm around Wash's shoulder.
Just then, Kaylee bounded down the stairs, and came to a halt in front of Mal. "Hey, Cap'n! (Look) what (I) learned!" She beamed proudly. "It's (real) fun!"
Once again -- third time, he noted absently, counting from Ponder's wave -- Mal was caught speechless. Finally he mumbled, "Wow, Kaylee, that's a useful skill you got there." He looked around the table with resignation. "Anyone else picked up any skills they wanna share with the class?"
He noticed that Inara, who was sitting at the edge of the table, blushed and tried to hide the red fabric she was using to do needlework like an expert seamstress. He decided he was better off not asking.
"You never did say what happened after the ship went under the giant turtle," Zoe reminded them.
"I was trying to forget," Wash groaned.
"Be brave, honey," Zoe murmured. "And get to the juicy bit."
"I'll tell it," Simon sighed. "We were aiming for the turtle's--pi gu," he frowned at Kaylee's giggling, but continued, "and when we got there we took out the diagrams, to compare. Unfortunately -- or fortunately, as it is -- it was too dark to see anything, and being inside a turtle's shell isn't a very pleasant experience."
"Damn right it ain't," Mal confirmed. "Which is why I decided to abort the mission."
Zoe's eyes widened. "Sir, I can't remember any missions you've ever called off before."
Mal raised his chin. "Some things a man just ain't supposed to do. Not even a doctor," he added generously.
"Thank you, Mal," said Simon. "Well, we were going to return to Ankh-Morpork, but apparently the Captain and Wash had understood the directions wrong--"
"It was a monkey!" Wash cried.
"In any case, instead of circling the world we got trapped between the elephant's legs or something--"
"It was bad," Mal said, shaken. "Trunks an' tails flyin' everywhere -- hit a cluster of magic -- some of the best gorram flying I ever seen Wash do." He nodded at Wash.
"And then we reached Great A'Tuin's head," Simon sighed.
Wash closed his eyes. "Its eyes," he whispered. "Each one was bigger than Serenity. And I could see them… looking at me… with…"
The entire room was silent, but for Jayne's lowered, random "gold!"
"With?" prodded Zoe, finally.
Mal spoke, looking in the direction of the bridge, where River sat alone, supervising the ship's course on autopilot. "You know how River can sort of… become… Serenity?" They nodded. "Well, she did. And turns out Wonder Girl can speak Turtle."
Simon saved Mal from having to continue. "The look Wash saw the turtle give Serenity was a look of deep, heartfelt love."
"And that was when Wash fainted?" Zoe asked, clearly forcing every inch of her face to keep from laughing. Wash nodded weakly.
"Yes," Mal answered gravely. "And worse, that was when Simon and I got clear, obvious evidence, that the Great A'Tuin--"
"--beyond a shadow of a doubt--" Simon put in.
"--was extremely, most definitely--"
"--male," they finished together.
After a moment of tense silence, Mal collected himself. "I'm going to say this very slowly to make sure you all understand, now." He cleared his throat loudly. "Anyone here even think about making a sound that could be considered any sort of mockery, will be doin' every single nasty duty we got on this ship and more, original as I can make 'em, for the next two hundred months. Are we clear?"
Some members of his crew were physically trembling with effort. Eventually Kaylee piped up. "Shiny!"
She scrambled out of the room, followed by all of the others, until Mal was left alone in the dining area, with nothing but vivid mental images of reptilian privates and the resonance of Jayne's trailing off-key howls:
"Gold, glod, gold!
It's shiny and it clinks!
It's pretty'n it can blind you if the sun glints off it jus' right and you ain't wearin' any shades! Goooololololold!"
Mal dropped his head, thumping it on the table. He wondered if there was a limit to how much the human memory could hold, and if so, how many hours of studying mathematical equations it would take to erase the memories of the last twenty-four hours from his mind.
Mal literally jumped in his seat before realizing that it was River, sitting barefoot on the table with a twinkle in her eye.
"Not very funny," he grumbled.
"Ook oook," she said lightly, only it somehow felt more like, 'I have to disagree.'
"All right, get out of here. Too many animals talking everywhere."
As she left the room with a secretive smile, she pointed to the floor beside his feet. Mal looked down.
A small, ugly looking dog was innocently looking up at him. Looked like something Jayne would have dragged in; smelled like it, too.
They'd have to let it go at the next stop. Mal wasn't about to keep any souvenirs from that mad, mad world on his ship.
But in the meantime, he thought, whada cute little doggie looks like he has'n eaten in days how I want to give him some protein and one o' dese pillows to sleep on, good doggie…
And in Serenity's wake, the turtle moved.
Tyen shiao-duh = name of all that is sacred
Pi gu = ass