"So what's the name of this moon?" asked Jayne. They were rapidly descending to a landing area -- which consisted mostly of packed dirt. From the air, the planet had the odd, patchwork quality of a world that had only partially been terraformed.
"No one agrees on the name," Zoe answered Jayne absently, bending over her husband's shoulder to look out the forward 'shield. "Some call it Pacifica, some call it Snapdragon."
"And some calls it Dead End," Mal said. "We're calling it a brief stop to take on water and food -- if there's any to be had -- and a job, if it's not gonna get us killed."
"All excellent things," Wash said. "Especially the getting us killed part. The *not* getting us killed part."
"We're far enough away from Alliance control that we shouldn't have to worry about them," Mal said.
"Good. It's the everyone else that has a yen for slicing us into teeny tiny bits that worries me." Wash banked Serenity, and dropped her tidily into a landing spot. "Here's to not getting murdered in the next day or so."
Mal ignored him and headed for the storage bay. "C'mon, Jayne. Let's scare up some supplies. Zoe, comin'?"
"Right behind you, sir," Zoe said.
"How long are we down?" Kaylee asked, meeting them as they reached the bay.
"However long it takes for us to get our chores done," Mal answered. "Day, most likely."
Kaylee beamed. "Time to explore a bit, then?"
Jayne snorted. "It's a dirty, dustball, half-assed moon. What'cha gonna see?"
Kaylee shrugged, enthusiasm undimmed. "Peoples. Place I've never seen before. Things. Don't much care, really."
Mal scanned the bay quickly. The Shepherd had much the same attitude as Kaylee towards unknown planets, and would be along shortly. Inara wasn't in sight, but given that this was not a place she'd likely have a customer, she'd probably stay in her shuttle. The doc and his sidekick the Amazing Crazy Girl were playing least in sight, which was just never a bad thing. "All right, let's get moving. The sooner we begin, the sooner we can be gone."
The main town on Pacifica/Snapdragon/Dead End was one long, dusty street a five-minute walk from the landing area. Kaylee had already darted ahead to check out the local general store, while Zoe, Mal and Jayne followed more slowly. It was like a thousand other planets and moons they'd landed on, dirt-poor but trying, hoping that someday they'd be an important stopping place, or at least reasonably prosperous. But something itched on the back of Mal's neck. Something out of place.
When he stepped up to the general store, he turned his head to briefly acknowledge the existence of the person just to the right of the door. For a moment, his eyes widened in surprise when he saw the silver circles on her temples and brow. What the ever-loving hell was a jumpship pilot doing on a dirtball like this? The technology for surgically implanting contacts that allowed a jumpship pilot to connect directly with the ship was fantastically, hideously expensive. Most jumpships in use were just tugboats, towing regular-space ships through jump points -- for a fee. Always for a fee.
"'Day, ma'am," Mal nodded to her, since he'd been staring long enough to need to say something to her. She nodded back, and turned away.
Inside the general store, Kaylee was cheerfully talking to a stranger in a brown coat. Mal noted the coat and his mouth tightened. Another one of the Independents. Sure were a hell of a lot of them. If there were so many, how come they had lost the war?
"Captain!" Kaylee turned toward him. "I think I've got us a job!"
"That so?" Without hurrying, Mal crossed to the young man Kaylee had been talking with. Young'un. He musta been a baby during the war. "You need a ship?"
"That I do," the man said. "Name's Jov." He had a faint accent; one of the ethnic groups that still clung tenaciously about, holding onto their language and customs against the Alliance's attempts to "simplify" everything into English and Chinese. "Looking for a ship to take us to Vervain."
"What's your business in Vervain?" Mal asked bluntly. It might be impolite to ask after a stranger's doings, but Mal had gotten burned a couple of times because he hadn't tried.
Jov didn't seem to be angered by the question. His charming smile grew. "No business in Vervain. Just passing through."
"The only thing on the other side of Vervain are jumps to empty planets," Mal pointed out.
"Won't be empty if we fill them up, eh? Can you take us past Vervain to Omicron Colony? We've already got a jumpship lined up to tow you through the jump."
It at least explained the jumpship pilot outside the store, even though there was no logical reason they'd need to bring their own pilot. Vervain made a thriving amount of money ferrying ships through the jump point. "And how many is 'we'?"
Jov shrugged, as though it was of no consequence. "Hundred fifty. About."
Zoe spoke up for the first time. "That'd be a tight fit on Serenity, sir."
"We had about that many cows, not so long ago," Mal said, calculating at a rate belied by his calm exterior. If that many people were on a middle-of- rutting-nowhere moon like this one, and wanted to go to a middle-of-rutting- nowhere planet off of Vervain, then they were hiding from the Alliance. Which Mal wasn't philosophically opposed to, but it increased the danger. A lot. "What are you willing to pay us?"
Jov named a sum that made Zoe suck in her breath and Jayne let his out in a string of soldier's obscenities. Mal's expression didn't change. "And where are you going to get that?"
"People's life savings. Don't worry, we can well afford you. If you have a Firefly class transport that's large enough to accommodate all of us, and our possessions and supplies, then we want to hire you."
"You the leader of your group?" Mal asked.
"Nah." Jov shook his head. "She is," he said, pointing with his chin to the woman outside the store. "I'm just in charge of making deals."
As though responding to a prearranged signal, the woman entered the store. Now that the shock of the three silver circles in her forehead was past, Mal could see that she was in her mid-forties, and hadn't had an easy life. Flat black eyes stared expressionlessly at him, and streaks of silver to match her jumppilot contacts dusted hair the color of her eyes. She didn't wear a brown jacket, but Mal didn't doubt that she had fought with the Independents.
"This is Barra," Jov said. "I think we've got our ship, Barra."
The flat stare didn't change much, but Mal sensed her satisfaction. "Good to hear. When can we leave?"
Mal thought about protesting that he hadn't agreed to take on this crowd, but decided against it. They needed a job, and this one didn't require that they steal or sell anything. Granted, it would be one more time they had the Alliance chasing their tail, but there was only so many times they could be put on the Alliance hit list. "Name's Malcolm Reynolds. The ship's called Serenity."
Barra's mouth tightened into an ironic smile. "Were there, were you?"
"Surely was," Mal replied. "And you?"
The smile grew, but remained bitter. "No. They told us there was no use in sending in troops that were due to be slaughtered. I thought it better to die fighting. So," she said briskly, erasing the memory of the devastating loss, "When can we leave?"
"In a hurry, are you? In a day's time," Mal answered before she could respond to his question. "We need supplies for our crew. I assume that you all have enough supplies for your people?"
"Do," Barra nodded, "and enough for yours, if you are willing to leave sooner."
The prickle ran down Mal's neck again. Barra's urgency was fretting him. But if they had the Alliance on their tail, it would be better for all concerned to leave as quickly as possible. "Let's get you loaded up, and we'll see how quickly we can get out of here."
Instead of the somewhat-leisurely-more-harried day they had imagined trying to find supplies and drum up work, everyone on Serenity spent a definitely- harried day prepping the ship for a large cargo of people. Simon helped Zoe and Jayne shift a couple of bunkheads and set up portable lav units. Mal kept an eye on River, standing off to the side watching the setup, even as he rolled in some temporary walls. When they were done, the cargo hold resembled a tin shantytown, except with less privacy and class.
"It won't work," River said in his ear, making Mal drop the bracer he was carrying. He turned on her, ready to yell, and she stared back at him serenely. "Or, rather, it will work, but no one will remember or appreciate. Reality. Memory. This time, can't have both."
Nodding to herself, River turned and strode determinedly off, as though she had completed an appointed round. Left alone, Mal shook his head. "That girl is..."
"Yes," Wash said coming up beside him. A streak of black oil streaked his cheek, and half his hair was standing straight up. "Whatever word you were going to use, I agree completely."
"Are we done here?" Mal asked.
"Just about. We don't know how much cargo they're bringing on, so we calculated personal possessions for a hundred-fifty, plus supplies for them and us from here to Vervain, plus farming equipment and the like, although most of the plants that you can reach via a jump from Vervain already have a start on terraforming." Wash stopped and took a breath. "So, basically, we guessed like mad and sectioned off part of the hold for their stuff."
"Good work," Mal said absently. He was distracted by the sense that he was missing something, forgetting something, having something wing past his head like a piece of shrapnel. He knew how to duck danger, but which way was danger coming?
"Ahoy the Serenity," called a voice from the ramp. Jov stood there, at the head of a mass of people. "Ready or not, here we come."
"Come aboard," Mal called in return. "Let us know if you need us to change anything around."
"Looks fine," Barra said, joining him off to the side as she watched her people -- and they were definitely her people -- stream into the hold. Her eyes flickered and jumped over every face, nodding, calculating, checking off.
"Sergeant?" Mal guessed.
She flicked a glance and a corner of her mouth his way. "How'd you guess?"
"Mother." A dark-haired young man detached himself from the flood and stopped beside them. He had the eyes and the build of his lanky mother, and there was a perceptible softening in her expression when she saw him. "The shipment is just outside," he said, reporting to her even as he directed his words to Mal. "Where should we put it?"
"Bring it in," Mal said. "We'll stow it somewhere."
"I'd ask you to take care with our cargo, Captain Reynolds," Barra said. "It is the hope of everyone here. Alek, go with the captain and find a suitable place for it."
A few moments later, Mal cursed a blue streak in red Chinese when he saw the load. "Where in the hell did you think you were going to be stowing this?" It was an anonymous-looking mass, covered in black and grey tarps, but it was fully three times as large as Mal had anticipated storing.
"Mother did tell you that we had a shipment, as well," Alek said, not defensively but merely stating a fact.
"She did. She failed to mention it was the size of a small shuttle, but she did. No matter," Mal sighed, "we'll find room."
By the time night fell, they had rearranged the hold for the third time and stowed the enormous cargo in the center of the area. It reduced by fifteen percent the amount of room set aside for human habitation, and made it look as though the cargo was the squat, ugly god that this community worshipped, with all their living space radiating out from it.
"Fanatics," Mal said in disgust, finally having pinned down what was disturbing him about this group. He was standing on the catwalks above the cargo hold, staring down at his passengers.
"Is there something wrong with that, Mal?" Inara asked, moving up beside him. She pulled a shawl over her shoulders as she stared down with him. "Everyone needs to believe in something, whether it's love or money or something intangible enough that other people find their passion amusing."
"I don't find it amusing. I find it annoying. Fanatics always think they have the right of the matter, and they'll go to any lengths to prove it."
"Or any lengths to deny that they are wrong," Inara murmured, her tone light, casual, suitable for chatting at a party or social event.
Mal shot a dark glance at her, but kept his mouth shut. If he complained about her tone or her words, she'd calmly ask him exactly what bothered him, and he couldn't answer, so he'd have to fall back on insulting her in defense and then feel like slime. He hated not being able to pin things down.
After a few moments, she glided away, and Mal felt that he'd somehow lost in that exchange. Shaking his head, he went down to check on his passengers. "Everything fine?" he asked when he found Barra and her son.
She nodded, sitting on a camp bunk with her legs drawn up. Her entire posture reflected relaxation, in contrast to the alert tension she had displayed for most of the day. The expression on her face couldn't be called dreamy, but it was certainly content. In the subdued light, the silver circles on her forehead and temples flashed occasionally, randomly, catching a glint and then disappearing from view in the gloom.
"Well, let us know. If you need anything else." Mal shook himself, fighting awkwardness at this woman's strange tranquility. Her son sat to the side, not saying anything but looking up at Mal with some sort of question in his dark eyes. Mal had seen that look in men on the battlefield, asking what had happened as their life drained away.
"Good night," Mal said abruptly, and left their little cubicle. There was something else going on here, but he would be damned if he knew what.
Or cared. Or cared, damnit.
"Captain," Wash called out, and the tone of his voice made Mal want to scream and run the other way. Mal made to turn and head in the opposite direction of where Wash's voice was coming from, but Wash came around a corner and caught him. "You've got to talk to those idiots."
Mal sighed. "Why am I the one who has to?" he demanded.
Wash ignored him. "I'm not complaining about having passengers. I'm fond of things like eating and all. But they have got to understand that they can't just come into the cockpit whenever they like and pester me!" Wash scowled at Mal, and then turned on his heel and headed back.
Great. Just great. That was another. Simon complained about various people hanging around in the med lab, not touching everything but asking questions, looking around, being everywhere, underfoot. He'd had to forcibly restrain Jayne from going target shooting, and even Book had retreated to his room to hide. Where River was, no one knew, but it seemed that even their wildly curious guests knew enough to leave her alone -- or she knew enough to get away from them.
Cursing under his breath, Mal continued on his circuit through the ship. Serenity didn't need it, the crew didn't need it, but he did. One week out from Dead End -- as Mal finally decided was the real, honest name of the moon -- and all they had to do was wait until Omicron Colony came into view, dump their passengers, and get on with spending their money.
If he could keep the crew from murdering the passengers until then.
He stuck his head into the engine room, where Kaylee was surrounded by half a dozen intent faces. She was explaining Serenity's engines to them, but the bright-eyed, please-help-me look she turned on Mal clued him in. "All right," he said, "everyone, out of here. Go on. Git. Back to the cargo bay. Get going." The six passengers smiled, nodded, thanked Kaylee for the lecture, and filed out politely.
Kaylee blew out a breath. "Thanks, Cap'in. I was just about close to screaming."
"You, too? I'd've figured that out of everyone, you wouldn't mind."
Kaylee grabbed a tool and slid under a section of machinery that Mal didn't want to even think about touching. "I *didn't* mind," she said, attempting to clobber something inside the engine. "Not the first time." BANG BANG. "Or even the fifth time. And I can understand that they are -- " BANG CLANG "-- bored. But jeeze," and she slid out to glare at Mal. "Do they have to be here *all the time*?"
Mal sighed again. "I promise, I'll talk to Jov and Barra. We'll tell them to keep to the bay."
Kaylee grinned at him, good humor restored. "Obliged," she said, and slid away to start hammering on machinery again.
The ferocious thunks died away as Mal headed for the hold. This trip couldn't end soon enough for him. He located Barra and Jov as quickly as he could and explained the problem.
"Certainly," she said. "I apologize for their conduct." Her voice was so stiff and formal that Mal wondered how she could get the words out.
Jov put on e hand on her arm and said, "They're curious. And once we hit Omicron Colony, it's -- " Barra drew a breath, and Jov continued "--going to be rare that we get back out in the universe. They're trying to store up entertainment."
"I understand. But they're interfering with the function of this ship. No more. Understood?"
Before either Barra or Jov could reply, Wash's voice came through the intercom speaker. "Mal, you might want to get up here. There's a ship in sight, and she looks Alliance-like."
Mal tipped his head back. "Tah-mah-duh hwun-dan," he cursed, long and loud, but it didn't help much. "Zoe," he called, "go tell your husband to keep on our current course. Just like with the Reavers, we don't run, they don't chase us."
"Right, sir," Zoe called down, and turned to head up to the cockpit.
"You might be wanting to rethink that order, Captain," Barra said softly, every word distinct.
Mal turned to find a gun in his face. Perfectly calm, Barra stood on the other end of it. "We can't be captured," she said, still in a soft, reasonable voice. "Tell your pilot to get us in any direction that's away from any Alliance ships."
"Sir?" Zoe called down. Mal didn't even have to look to know that she'd have her gun trained on Barra, but that wasn't going to help much.
"Ignore her, Zoe. Go tell Wash to stay on course." Thankfully, Zoe took him at his word. After a long moment, Mal heard her feet clattering away and up.
"Perhaps you didn't hear me," Barra said. Every one of her people had gathered about, but Mal knew no one was going to stop her. Jov stood off to one side, and Alek pushed his way through the crowd to stand by his mother. But no one moved, spoke, blinked or breathed, except Barra. She swayed slightly, and light rushed over the implants in her forehead. For a moment, Mal thought she was some sort of five-eyed alien, two black, three silver, all of them flat and blank. Then he blinked and mentally shook himself.
"I heard you fine. Now you're going to hear me. We're just a simple transport ship, and as long as we don't give them any reason to check us in their computers, they aren't going to bother. If we suddenly start high- tailing it in the opposite direction, then they're going to get a mite suspicious. There's no way in hell we can outrun them, so if they chase us, we're caught. And there's a few people on this ship other than yours who don't have any real desire to get up close and personal with the Alliance." The atmosphere in the bay remained tense, but Mal sensed he was swaying everyone. Except Barra, who he could not sense at all. "So, here's what we're going to do. We're going to maintain our course until it seems like a good idea not to. We're going to be all inconspicuous and quiet-like. And I'm going to count to five and you're going to put that weapon down, or on six you'll wish you had. One. Two. Three."
On four, Barra lowered the gun, and holstered it. Sighs of relief passed through the hold, and Alek put his hand on Barra's shoulder. She didn't register it, just kept her eyes on Mal's. "I hope you're right, Captain. Because if you're wrong, it don't bear thinking about."
"All the same." Mal had to stop and take a deep breath, and realized he'd been holding it. "Your people stay in this bay unless you are using the mess, or there is a serious emergency. If not, they get dropped off before we reach Vervain."
"There isn't anything between here and Vervain!" Alek protested.
"Rightly so," Mal answered, turned, and walked away.
"I am so glad this one is over," Wash said as he entered the coordinates for landing on Vervain.
"Not quite over," Mal said. "We get towed through a jump hole, then a few hours flying to Omicron Colony, dump our passengers, get towed back, and then we're free and clear."
Book poked his head into the cockpit then came through. "Jov said that we will have to hook up with a jumpship on the ground, tow it up into space, and then let it tow us through the jump point." Book had, in the two weeks since the facedown in the hold, become the gobetween for the crew and their passengers.
"Thanks, Preacher," Mal said briefly. Book nodded and retreated.
Vervain was far from the center of Alliance control. It mostly existed as a rest stop before heading on to the few planets available beyond Vervain, or as a haven for jump point wildcatters, who made an amazing amount of money jumping through blind wormholes to see what was on the other side. There was a main city on Vervain, but there was little in the way of culture or luxury there. Still, there was quite a bit of traffic through the area, and they had to wait longer than usual for their ground clearance.
When Wash finally set Serenity down, Mal went down to the hold and cranked open the airlock. The mass of humanity streamed out of the bay into a murky sort of sunlight. "Be back in two hours!" Jov called, following with Barra and Alek. Barra gave Mal a cool nod as she passed him, and they disappeared, heading purposefully for the main port building.
Within an hour, a ship about twice the size of a shuttle was being towed toward them. Wash, lounging outside of Serenity with his arm over Zoe's shoulder, sat up with a look of awe. "Ni ta ma de. Tianxia shuoyoude ren. Dou Gaisi," he said reverently.
"What is that?" Zoe asked.
"A RG 17. Okay, it's a few models back from top-of-the-line, but I don't care. I want one. Can I have one?" he turned to Zoe. "Can I? Please, please?"
"No, dear," Zoe said. "I don't like the thought of you with wires going into your brain. You don't get a jumpship for your birthday."
"Damn," Wash said, and settled back to watching it be positioned in front of Serenity.
"Now you're insulting my ship?" Mal asked.
"Never would I ever do that," Wash avowed. "But isn't she pretty?"
"Honey, I don't actually mind you looking at other women. Because you know that if you even had a serious thought of touching them I'd remove your fingers."
"And she could," Wash told Mal proudly.
Zoe ignored him, and continued, "But it's... disturbing to watch you drooling over a ship."
"Oh, really? And what about a anti-personnel all-terrain ground gun that fires 400 rounds per minute and can target something up to a mile away?"
"Almost two," Zoe corrected him dreamily. "Okay, point taken."
Barra and Jov came over and conferred over how to connect the jumpship to Serenity, while the rest of the passengers came drifting back and hovered around the ship, although none of them entered it until they had to. With a certain amount of difficulty, they got the two ships lined up and linked in a manner that would survive rising through atmosphere and transport through a jump point. Satisfied, everyone working on the linking stepped back and surveyed their handiwork.
"All right," Barra finally said briskly. "Are we ready to go?"
"Whenever you are," Mal said. "As soon as you like."
He expected a flash of her dry humor to show through at his obvious desire to get rid of his passengers, but she didn't even look at him. "All right. All right, then." She turned to go to the jumpship, and was stopped by her son's hand on her arm. She turned, and in the most sentimental gesture Mal had ever seen from her, touched her son's cheek and tucked his hair out of his eyes, before turning away again.
They reloaded everyone on the ships. About thirty accompanied Barra in the jumpship. Jov stayed on Serenity, as did Alek.
"Jumpship to Serenity," Barra's voice came through a com in the cockpit.
"Serenity here," Wash replied. "Ready for liftoff?"
"Ready. Get us to the jump point, and then cut engines and float. I'll take it from there. Barra out."
"Well, then," Mal said. "Let's not keep her waiting."
Slowly, gingerly aware of the weight of a whole other ship, Wash lifted Serenity from the surface of Vervain. The jump point was about twenty minutes of flying time from the planet. They wasted another hour waiting for clearance to enter the jump. When it was granted, Wash shut Serenity's engines off. "Control is yours, Barra."
"Control taken, Wash," she replied.
The little Mal knew about traveling through jump points centered mostly around the differences in perception between the passengers and the pilot. The passengers suffered a few moments of unpleasant nausea and disorientation. The pilot, on the other hand, lived through time artificially stretched into hours, piloting the ship through a jump. They were saying that the Alliance was looking for people who seemed to experience time-stretching while riding on a jumpship, targeting them as potential jump pilots.
Mal was glad a few moments later when the jump was over. He had only been pulled through a jump a few times, but he never liked the feeling of instability. He relaxed, and then jumped when he realized River was beside him. "How'd you...?" he asked, and then made a face. On top of being brilliant, she was probably also a natural jump pilot.
River smiled. "It was quiet for a long time. Peaceful. Purple," she said thoughtfully. Then she turned and faced Mal. "It won't work," she told him. "Or, it will, but it won't work the way she expects it to. But it will work well enough for her purposes." She shrugged, then turned and walked away.
Mal, Wash and Zoe looked at each other. "Did anyone understand a word that girl said?" Mal asked.
"No, sir," Zoe said.
"I understood 'purple.' But, not in context," Wash offered.
"Okay, so it wasn't just me."
Wash turned back to the comm board to answer a call from Barra. "Ahoy the tugboat," he said.
"Everything okay back there?" Barra asked.
"Just fine. And purple, apparently."
Mal could almost see her shrug as she ignored that one. "I'm shutting the engines down."
"Got it. Re-engaging Serenity's engines and plotting course for Omicron Colony. We'll be there in about two and a half hours."
"Couldn't be too soon for me," Mal muttered.
"How many people are down there?" Mal asked Jov as they waited for Serenity to set down on Omicron Colony.
"About two thousand of our group, give or take a hundred. Survivors from the Independents. This load is the last of them. And a few ten-thousand other settlers, people looking for a space of their own. Say fifty thousand, total."
Decent sized population, Mal calculated. Omicron Colony was way the hell out of the way, but with that many people there, it would become a semi-regular stop for various ships, and a destination for settlers looking to get away from it all.
There weren't enough people and wasn't enough traffic for them to have to wait to put down. Most of the population was clustered around a town called Sultan, with patchwork spokes of terraforming spiraling out from the center. In the distance a mountain range loomed, rusty-brown and obviously untouched by human hands.
When Serenity finally secured her landing, Mal opened the hatch. "Welcome to your new home," he said to Jov and Alek. Jov grinned and clapped him on the shoulder, but Alek merely stared at Mal.
Within a few minutes, everyone was involved in unloading possessions and supplies from Serenity to the surface of the new planet. At one point, Jayne tripped and fell into a patch of maroon-colored grass that was obviously native to Omicron Colony, and began howling furiously. "Damnit, the rutting stuff *stings*!" he bellowed.
When Simon and Zoe managed to haul him up out of it, every bit of exposed skin was reddened and faintly blistered. "Ouch. Nasty," Zoe said, shaking her head. "Okay, definitely avoiding the plants here."
After all the luggage was unloaded and the temporary walls that had separated living quarters were down and stowed, they began hauling the huge cargo pallet out of Serenity. "Hey, Barra!" Mal waved her over. She hadn't been helping with the unloading much, but had merely been pacing by her ship. "Where do you want this?"
"In the jumpship," she said calmly.
Mal blinked and shook his head. "What?"
She waited patiently, not saying anything. Mal finally just shrugged. "Fine, whatever you want, you'll have to haul it out later yourself." With Jayne -- still blistered -- and Wash and Book, they maneuvered the huge load into the jumpship. The hold was just large enough to contain it. It had obviously been calculated exactly.
"Is that everything?" Barra asked Jov. Jov nodded. "Well, then, let's get with it. I'll tow you back through the jump point," she said, turning to Mal and Wash.
"Appreciate it," Mal said. If this hadn't been such a tense trip, he would have offered to overnight it on the planet, since Barra looked worn and tired. But they wanted to get the hell away, and she wanted them gone, so they wouldn't wait.
"Wait a few moments. I need to talk with a few people before I go." She crossed the open field toward where the rest of the group had gathered, away from Serenity's engines but close enough to watch the ships go up.
A few moments turned into the best part of an hour, and Mal was getting twitchy before Barra came back in sight. Alek was beside her, and she stopped several feet away. Alek bent to embrace her, and she hugged him in return with the stiff motions of someone who has never been comfortable with physical affection. Then she released him and turned to walk to the jumpship, with Alek looking after her.
The look on Alek's face kept bugging Mal all the way back through normal space to the jump point, and through the slimy disgusting feel of the jump itself. Back near Vervain space, Barra cut them free. "Thank you, Serenity," she said formally. "I appreciate all your help."
"Any time," Mal said automatically. "Let us know if you need anything."
"I don't think that's likely. Barra out."
The hold seemed weirdly empty, after almost a month with a hundred and fifty people in it. There was scattered refuse on the floor, odds and ends that hadn't gotten thrown away. But everything else was gone.
Barra hadn't carried off any possessions other than the huge load they put on the jump ship.
"Theoretically, it's possible to close a jump point permanently with a large enough blast," River said from the catwalks above him. "Of course, since you can only negotiate five-space with a manned ship, it isn't possible to load munitions into a jump and get out yourself." She turned and walked away.
"Je shr shuh muh lan dong shi." Mal began running for the cockpit. "Damnit. Wash, Wash, hail Barra if you can. Hail her!"
"Can't, Captain. She's already in the jump," Wash said.
Barra's voice echoed in Mal's ear. ~We can't be captured.~
~I'd ask you to take care with our cargo, Captain Reynolds. It is the hope of everyone here.~
~I thought it better to die fighting.~
Mal burst into the cockpit. Book was sitting with Wash, idly watching the world go by. "Alert whoever is controlling traffic around here. Barra is planning on blowing the jump point."
"What the --" Wash half turned to stare at him.
"Just do it!" Mal snapped.
Book stepped forward and put one hand on Wash's shoulder. "Is there any chance that an explosion in the jump point could cause a shock wave?"
Wash finished his hurried alarm to the port control, and began bringing Serenity around. "Good chance," he said tightly. "Jump points are where there is a crossover between five-space and normal space. Technically, she's in another dimension, but one that's connected to ours."
"Get us the hell out of here, Wash," Mal said grimly.
"Getting the hell out of here, sir."
That was it. That was it all along. Barra had been planning to kill herself, to die a martyr to the Independent cause, to make absolutely sure that the Alliance would never be able to touch her people. And Jov, and Alek, and every one of her people knew. Alek's expression had been the look of a solider when the last hope of winning the battle was gone. ~When the Alliance ships came down and no reinforcements were ever going to come. When faith was done and all you had to rely on was yourself.~
The explosion was soundless. No light escaped from the jump point. But Serenity, barreling away as fast as she could, was caught up in the wake of the blast, and Wash had his hands full keeping her going. After a few moments, everything calmed down, and footsteps began coming their way, voices asking what had happened. But Mal kept staring at an invisible point in space that didn't exist any more.
A few hundred years later, in another part of the galaxy...
"Okay, plan." Lieutenant Lord Miles Vorkosigan, at this moment better know as Miles Naismith, Admiral of the Dendarii Free Mercenaries, folded his hands behind his back and paced. "We need to convince them that we are broke, thus proving we have no connection to Jackson Whole, the often surprisingly-wealthy Dendarii Mercenaries, or pretty much anyone else that Illyria would be worried about, while still convincing them that we can carry out the shipping job.
"So... plan?" asked Commander Ellie Quinn, his right-hand woman and best backup. Beside her was Bel Thorne, his left-hand... er, hermaphrodite and best pilot.
Miles turned at the end of one of his pacing laps, looked up at Ellie, and grinned. He could feel the maniacal humor stretching his face, just as it always did when he came up with a really brilliant plan. "Come with me."
Of course, the odds were about even on whether it was a really brilliant plan to get them all killed in messy sort of ways...
"Here he goes again," Bel muttered. Miles heard the comment behind him, but grandly refused to acknowledge it. He turned while still striding, hopping backwards a bit. "Come on, slowpokes, keep up!" he cried cheerfully, facing forward again. His legs were so much shorter than everyone else's -- everyone who wasn't an underfed ten-year-old at least -- that the attempt to learn to keep up had turned into a pace that outdistanced most taller people. It was so automatic that he no longer thought of it, just as his interesting medical conditions -- the lack of height, the brittle bones (pre-natal damage, thank you very much, not genetic, no bad genes here,) -- no longer concerned him. Much.
"Yo, Miles!" Ellie finally caught up with him and grabbed his hand to brake him. Miles winced for a moment, then remembered he didn't have to worry about flimsy-thin bones breaking. At this point, all the bones in his extremities had been replaced with plastic. Turning, Miles caught his spinning mind and pulled his attention back to Ellie's furious face. Furious, gorgeous face. Furious, goddess-like face. The face wasn't original, just like his bones weren't original. Ellie had had her face burned away by plasma fire on Miles' first outing as Admiral Naismith. He'd paid for her reconstructive surgery, in a fit of guilt ordering the best face money could buy. She'd eventually gotten used to it.
Snapping back again, he realized Ellie was yelling at him. "Urm." He held up one hand and she reluctantly stopped berating her superior officer. Behind her, Bel folded its arms and grinned cheekily. "We need to find a ship," Miles began.
"You own a fleet of ships," Ellie said in her best approximation of a menacing purr -- which sounded more like a growl. "Pick one."
"It can't be one of ours," Miles explained, turning and consciously trying to slow his speed -- both walking and thinking. "Some old clunker that still has some use in her, but that screams that we aren't a high-class operation. With you and Bel commanding it, they won't think to ask many more questions, you with your -- " and he waved to Ellie's stunning face " -- and Bel's -- " with a wave to vague parts of Bel that people unaccustomed to seeing hermaphrodites were unaccustomed to seeing on one person. "We can secure the job and, more importantly, secure the coordinates for the drop point." And find the Barrayaran courier who had gone missing, but Miles did not share his secret alter-ego with Bel. Ellie knew the truth, and probably guessed that this was a mission directly from Their Esteemed Employer -- Barrayaran Imperial Security -- and was therefore not a profit-making run.
Luckily, on Hagan's Hub -- Ellie's home planet, as it were, a space station that served a network of jump points -- there was no end to the amount of trading going on. They headed for what was affectionately called the docks. It wasn't by any point the only place that ships were docked, but it was where anyone who couldn't afford the fees Hagan's Hub charged put in. Of course, that meant that everyone there was broke, desperate, or broke and desperate.
Trailed by Bel and Ellie -- who kept her hand on her stunner and her eyes flickering around -- Miles started chatting up people, looking for a ship for sale. No, no, he didn't have much money, he said, gesturing to his clothes, which were the sort of beat-up multi-cultural rags he kept for when he wanted to be nondescript and please-sir-I'm-too-poor-to-rob. Who'd hired a runt mutant like him? No, he needed something dependable -- but cheap. Something large -- but not difficult to pilot. Something that would last -- at least through the next run.
On the third try, Miles came around a corner and stopped dead. Bel and Ellie ran into him. "Gotcha," he breathed.
"Miles? You are not seriously thinking we should fly in that? It's old. It's archaic! It's --"
"Perfect," Miles cut her off and hauled her over to the several centuries- old Firefly transport ship that had caught his eye.
"It will only work in normal space," Bel pointed out.
"It doesn't even jump?" Ellie demanded. "Come on, Miles."
"Come on, Ellie," he mimicked back. "What better could say, 'Please give a job to these poor, deserving folk' than a beat-up, run-down ship?"
Ellie allowed herself to be dragged along, but muttered, "What if it's saying, 'Come, board me, I will blow up and be your doom'?" But she said it quietly enough that Miles could ignore her.
Carefully wiping all the excitement from his face, Miles tracked down the owner of the ship and began bargaining over the price. Before the hour was out, the Fleet's accounts were down a substantial chunk of Betan dollars and Miles was the proud owner of an old Firefly transport.
When they had the metaphorical keys handed to them, Miles lost no time in boarding the ship. Bel and Ellie waited by the hatch as Miles roamed. He couldn't explain to them -- not even to Ellie, who knew about the Barrayaran side of him -- what it meant to step on to a Firefly ship. Keying his comm, he called his chief engineer, Baz Jerek. "Baz, I need you to give me the lowdown on what it would take to get a Firefly ship ready."
"A -- Firefly?" Baz audibly blinked. "I didn't think there were any left."
"Maybe just one, but we found it." Miles grinned, hearing the repressed excitement in Baz's voice. Even for an old Barrayaran expatriate like Baz, hearing about a Firefly woke childhood memories of stories about the last group of people who landed on Barrayar before the jump point mysteriously collapsed and plunged Barrayar into the Time of Isolation that had ended only slightly over one hundred years before.
"I'll be right over," Baz said, and broke the link without waiting for Miles' reply.
Sighing, Miles crouched down and ran his fingers over the grill in the floor. And then wiped his black-grimed fingers on his grubby trousers. The chances that this was the right ship were a million to one... a billion to one. He prowled the hold, poking in corners, trying to imagine his ancestors being crammed in here, riding to a future that they couldn't have predicted.
On the wall, low to the ground, were scratches that didn't look random. Miles hunkered down again, and rubbed at them, clearing away dust and rust. And then his hand began to shake too hard to continue. "Serenity," they said, signed with Chinese letters that Miles laboriously translated as meaning "flowing water."
This was Serenity, which had carried the last of the settlers to what had been then Omicron Colony. Which had carried Alek Vorbarra to the planet that would eventually carry his name, and who had reigned as the first Emperor of Barrayar.
Miles got to his feet, carefully. Part of him wanted to grab the ship, tow it home, and make a museum out of it. Look, children, this is the ship your ancestors came to Barrayar on. But the larger part of him, the manic part of him, would rather it go out fighting -- or at least smuggling. Ships like this weren't meant to sit still on a dustball.
Miles turned to greet Baz with a smile. "Come on," he said. "Let's get Serenity flying again."