Twentieth Leg – Regina

Serenity limped into port at Hancock on Regina. Fortunately the bad fuel cells were not powering the landing gear and River set her down precisely.

Immediately, pilot and engineer set out on the mule with Zoe along for security. The first supplier was rejected by River, who explained as they left the office that he didn’t have the FSW cells he had promised and thought he could pass off the same kind of counterfeits they had already purchased. The second had Dyton-made cells and would take their fakes for scrap only. The third had real FSW cells, but would not accept the counterfeits even as trash. They would have to pay the dump to accept the hot cells.

‘I’m happy with the Dyton cells. We been using them mostly anyways. They do real good work, them little guys.’
‘Strange folk,’ mused Zoe. ‘Hairy. I swear even the women shave twice a day.’
‘Shire to Rivendell. Once does not just walk into Mordor,’ agreed River.

They were able to load two fuel cells on the mule and the merchant agreed to deliver three more to Serenity the next morning. Kaylee could remove the bad cells overnight for pickup and, with Jayne acting as muscle, install the new ones in about three hours.
‘So we can be int the Black tomorrow night, every thing going as planned,’ Kaylee smiled in satisfaction. ‘As planned,’ Zoe did not sound as sure.

A roar interrupted the bustle of the shipyard. ‘That’s an Odyssey. Don’t see many of them on little worlds like this,’ remarked David.
‘We did a cruise on one when I was about fourteen,’Simon told him.’My father was furious with my mother most of the time. We didn’t know why, but I later learned she had lost a lot of money at mahjong. I just remember there was a wave pool and most of the cabin stewards gathered there after shifts.’ His husband raised an eyebrow. ‘I didn’t even know they were flirting with me, honey. I was only fourteen.’
‘I remember fourteen. Us sly boys used to ride out to inspect the herds. Mostly inspected each other. Don’t think I ever had so much cock in my life since.’
‘Not even?’ asked Simon, running his hand through David’s long smooth hair.
‘We’re not teenagers, daddy. And there’s just two of us. Get five or six horny teens together and there ain’t no end to the amount of fucking that goes on. My ass was sore that whole summer.’

Jayne stomped down the ramp and joined them. ‘Ain’t that the Walden we saw on Summerfair? She followin’ us?’
’She was going to Branson’s Mark when we left for Bernadette. Picking up some of the Bishop’s boys for their wanderjahr,’ replied Simon.
‘This is a dumb place to come if you want to see the Verse. Why not a Core world or even someplace with cities like Bernadette or Persephone?’
‘I suppose anything is exotic if you’ve spent your whole life on Branson’s Mark.’
‘Where’s Mal at? ‘
‘He went to the post office to talk to Perse about the delay. Should be back any time.’

Perse was not particularly upset about the delay but reminded Mal that some of the foodstuffs were being bought for the New Year’s Festival. Mal didn’t think that would be a problem, but asked for reminders to be sent to Serenity about the timing on Bernadette.

As he left the communications centre, he saw a face he recognized. And not one he was happy to see.
He had never known the name of the captain of the ship that had tried to seize Serenity when she was floating, running out of oxygen. He had sent the crew away, hoping that they would find rescue, but rescue had come to him first.
But the rescuers were pirates, and tried to kill him and take the ship. He had managed to stop them although he had been shot by the captain.
And that was the captain, swaggering down the main drag of Regina, followed by a gang Mal did not recognize.

The pirate checked his comm and beckoned his crew to follow him into the offices of Corone Mining, a multi-storey building faced in fine white stone.  Mal watched the door for  a few minutes then crossed the street and looked inside.

There was no trace of the pirate crew in the spacious lobby. After looking at the display that flashed pictures and contact information of the executives who were in their offices that day, Mal strolled to the reception desk.

The receptionist could have been a retired sumo. He wore a smart business suit, vast amounts of gray silk, custom cut to fit his enormous shoulders. He wore his hair neatly oiled and bound in the traditional sumo style.
‘Can I help you, sir,? he asked in a deep baritone.
‘I thought I saw… ‘ Mal flashed his most charming smile. ‘A guy offered me work in a bar last night.. I didn’t get his name… I had a wave but it don’t work. But I think I saw him come in here. Does he work for Corone?’
The sumo looked at him sceptically, ‘ No name? We do most of our recruiting at Labour Boards here or off-world through labour contractors.’
‘Big guy, bout my height, blond curly hair? He was with a skinny bald guy and someone with a long black pigtail.’
The sumo gave Mal a flat look. ‘Certainly no one who works here.’
‘Darn,’said Mal. ‘I’m really hurting for work. This was the best lead I’ve had in weeks.’
‘Perhaps if you didn’t do your job search in bars,’ said the sumo. “ Look, huǒbàn, I know it’s tough in this economy but stay away from that guy.’
‘I’m needing work real bad, yùndòngyuán, ‘ Mal put a little whine into his voice. “ The guy said there was a hiring bonus I’d get. He said he’s pay me upfront for my contract. And I owe some guys. Pretty rough guys , you know? I know about the ————, but they tell me Corone supplies the pesk-d to control it, so I’m willing.’
‘Yeah,  huǒbàn, Corone do.,’ the receptionist sighed.’ But only to their own hires.  That Honda is a labour contractor. They ain’t required to spend money on contracted workers. Corone pays him. And bonded workers don’t get the meds. Or paid really.’
Mal paused. ‘’Oh, slavers. Should guess, my luck bein. Thanks ,xiānshēng, I owe you a beer.’
“I don’t indulge. Go up to Paradiso. Ask at the mine face there. And be sober when you do. Work for wages.’
As Mal left the lobby he could hear the big receptionist sigh.

Zoe and Simon listened to Mal’s story carefully.
‘Some of the Branson’s Mark boys are supposed to be on board Walden for their wanderjahr.’
‘Anyone say anything about them boys ever returning?
‘It’s a pretty closed community. No one said whether they do or don’t. I believe that did of cult tend to have surplus males.’
’And teenagers, twentysomethings are the most difficult to control,’ added Zoe.
‘I’m making a call. said Ml.’ What’s the name of the Sheriff in Paradiso?’
‘Sir, he knows we robbed the train.’
‘And gave the medicine back. I think we had a moment.’
‘Fifteen years ago. Who knows if he’s still sheriff? And he said he had the…….. . He may not even be alive.’
‘This Honda tried to kill me and steal Serenity. And he’s been walking the spacelanes free ever since. All I want is to tell my story to someone who might be able to clean off his stain.. Failing that, a dark night and a lonely alley.’
‘I’d start with the alley.’ said Jayne entering the galley and pouring himself tea.
‘We’re a strictly legal crew these days, Jayne,’ Zoe reminded him.’ And there may still be some fallout from your little adventure in whoremongering on Hera.’
‘Yeah, lil moon brain gave ‘head’ a whole new meaning there,’ chuckled Jayne.
‘Could you not…’ choked Simon.
‘Cause of slicing that damn girl’s head clear off,’ Jayne continued.
‘I’ll take the shuttle up the line to Paradiso,’ said Mal. ‘Zoe?’
“I’m staying here with Emma. If you get taken, Serenity will still be secure.’
‘I’ll go , Mal,’ said Simon.’I’m not quite as respectable as a Companion, but i can give you moral support.’
‘Worse comes to worst, they ignore me.’

At Paradiso, the sheriff been retired by promotion to provincial judge. His former deputy, a stocky woman of about fifty, remembered the train job and Mal.
‘Sheriff thought justice was done when you returned the meds. I’m still not so sure. But statute of limitations has run out. You can find the judge’s chambers up the road to your left. Away from the mine face.’
‘Megwich,’ said Simon.
The sheriff broke a smile. “what clan are you?’
‘My husband is from Turtle Island. He’s Wood Bison Clan.’
The sheriff looked happier with the men. ‘My grandmother was from Turtle Island. She was Beaver Clan. Rest of the family are from <heinlein world> but originally from Eastern Canada on Earth-That-Was.’
‘David is back at Hancock . He’ll be sorry he didn’t come with us. He loves to find someone who speaks the old language.’
‘No , I gotta disappoint him there. We didn’t have any elders to teach us. Pert well died out.’
‘Sad.’
‘Sad.’

The judge’s chambers were upwind of the mine face. Judge <  > didn’t know Mal’s name but he rememered his face.
‘No one can look that innocent and be an honest man,’ he told Mal.
Mal spread his hands. ’Times change?’
<   >grunted. ‘So this time you’re searching me out. What’s it about?’
‘You heard of Branson’s Mark? It’s a moon of Shadow.’
’Shadow I heard of.  bBeen a black rock since the War. ‘
‘I come up there. There’s a start being made on restoring it.’
‘How does this affect Regina?’
‘Shadow don’t. The Mark belongs to a fella name of Branson, who runs a cult of followers. His own religion, eh?’
‘Lotta those around. Not many have a whole moon though.’
‘We was there a few weeks back. Doc here is with the Flying doctors and did a clinic.’
‘We have our own hospital. Corone Hospital – Paradiso. Got a whole wing just doing respiratory research.’
‘I’m not looking for work,’ Simon said.
‘We left the Mark after Simon gave them some bad news.’ The judge had a ‘I’m not surprised’ expression.
‘Then we spotted something odd. The boys form The Mark do a wanderjahr. Go out and see something of the Verse.’ The judge looked impatient.
‘Well, we saw them and the whole family of a trusty man on Summerfair in charge of a guy with a local reputation as a slaver. And then we saw that guy here- at Hancock- at the Corone Mining offices.’
‘Hancock is a Corone town. Hells, this is a Corone world. What are you getting at?’
‘We think the Marksmen were being sold here..’
‘Corone does buy labour contracts. Bond labour ain’t illegal.’
‘Forced bondage is.’
‘How you going to prove that? Corone would want signed proof of  the bond and match it to the bondsman’s chip.’
‘The Marksmen wouldn’t have chips. Part of their beliefs,’ said Simon.’If you were willing to look into this shipment of bondsmen, I think you would find the chips don’t match the boys’ stories.’
‘Take the money then tell the police that the chip is not your chip?”
‘Well,’ Simon shrugged. ‘I have some experience with forged chips. I’d be able to tell you if they were counterfeits. Probably, anyway.’
Mal looked at Simon with admiration.’Lookit you, doc. Teetering on the edge of respectability.’
The judge laughed.
‘Look , we got those folks into this fix. I’m asking you to give them a choice in their futures.’
‘Like I say, bond labour ain’t illegal.’
‘It is if it’s coerced. All I’m saying is, ask the boys their names and origins. Check that agains their chips. If it all matches, I’m wrong. If I’m right, you and Corone Mining get the honour of breaking up a slaving ring.’
The judge looked levelly at Mal, who met his eyes straight on.
‘Corone Mining has to look good in all this.’ he said.
‘I ain’t saying anything different.’
<  > called his clerk in. ‘Call the sheriff and ask her and a couple of deputies to meet men at the bunnies. And make out a search warrant….?’
’T’she ship name is Walden. The captain is Andrew Honda. The only names we know for the slaves is George and Charlotte. They got  two young kids, boy of twelve and a girl of ten. They got older boys and they may be with the wanderjahr bunch.’
‘All from Brendon Mark?’
‘B R A N S O N’s Mark’

Walden had settled on a pad near the bunkhouses for  bonded labourers.  When the sheriff and her men, accompanied by Doctor Tam, arrived, the labour manager was processing his new workers.
‘Geez Handy, where d’you find these yokels? They all act like stunned oxen.’
‘Strong young farm boys, Ravi  Hard workers. You’ve had ‘em before . May be dumb as oxen, but plenty strong.’
‘Yeah, yeah, but did this bunch get their shots? The last bunch one is pretty well all dead cause they didn’t get their pescaline-D’
‘They got all the medicine they need. Move it along, will ya, Ravi? There’s a girl aiming for me back in Hancock.’

The sheriff interrupted ,’Ravi, I got a complaint about this intake. Mind if I ask the boys a few questions.?’
Ravi looked impatient but saved the sheriff towards the sound men, standing with their packs a few metres away. Honda was less accepting.’Whaddya want with ‘em. They’s just bondsmen. All the paperwork is done.’

‘Doctor Tam?’ the sheriff said calmly, ignoring Honda. ‘Would you check their chips?’
Simon used a police reader to read the chips . He noticed that all men had proud flesh around the site of the implanted IDs, indicating that they were new.
The sheriff was asking the boys their names and home worlds. All said Branson’s Mark and one of the boys, less dozen than the others,  told her this was part of their religious training, going off-world to test their faith. ‘Many return’ asked the sheriff. The boy was silent.
Simon show the sheriff the report. None of the information on the chips matched what the boys had told her.
‘Where are George and Charlotte?’ asked Simon. The boy said. ‘They stopped at Summerfair. Captain Honda told us they would meet up with their kids later. When we get picked up in three months.’
Ravi looked startled. ‘Your contracts are for three years. We don’t bother with anything shorter.’
‘No, Bishop Branson told us we would be spreading the word here for three months.’
‘Good thing I got a search warrant for the ship,’ muttered the sheriff. ‘How old are the kids?’

She found the boy locked in a passenger cabin, desperately worried about his sister and his parents, none of who he had seen since they were forced onto the Walden at Branson’s Mark.
His sister was in a crew cabin, naked and terrified. When Simon tried gently to clean her wounds, she screamed.
The sheriff arrested the entire crew for kidnapping and the crewman who had taken the girl for rape. ‘We’ll get to the slaving charges as soon as we figure out who knew what the boys Honda brought in were.’

Handcuffed, Honda was being escorted into their Paradiso jail house as Mal lounged against a lamp post, watching.
“Good to see you again, captain,’ Mal said as Simon joined him. Honda looked at him blankly. Obviously he had no memoir of Mal or of Serenity.

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Into the Black – Summerfair to Bernadette

Into the Black— Summerfair to Bernadette

‘Kaylee, I’m not getting speed,’ River commed from the bridge.
Kaylee slipped out of her hammock, where she had been hiding from her family. Privacy was hard to find in 35 metres of spaceship with ten people aboard.
‘Looks like some of these fuel cells is underpowered. They’re practically new, too.’
Investigation showed that a dozen of the cels were definitely no longer producing their marked power outputs. Further investigation….
‘Hey , Riv, you better plot a course for the nearest world with a decent supply depot. Some hundan passed off crappy counterfeits from Beaumonde as real FSWs. We gotta replace them pronto if we wanna make Bernadette.’

‘So how much is this gonna cost?’ asked Mal at the supper table.
‘We can get replacements at Regina. But usually we can trade the done cells for recycling or retrofit.  No one is gonna take this crap.’ Kaylee rubbed her temples in frustration.
‘And there’s layover time.’
’That’s not a problem, sir,’ said Zoe. ‘Waved Bernadette and got quotes on new and retro fit cells. Not much difference in price and if River an Kaylee do the buying we should get a good deal on quality goods.’
Between Kaylee’s charm and expertise, and River’s ability to read people the two made a smart bargaining team. It didn’t hurt that many merchants were disconcerted by the tough bargaining from two pretty girls. Even more useful was River’s ability to know when someone was planning to cheat them.
‘It’s my fault, capt’n,’ said Kaylee. I should have installed ‘em myself. Check the readings better.’
‘We thought we were getting a good price on them at the Space Bazaar. And we was all distracted by Inara’s legacy letter.’ Mal kissed the top of his wife’s head. She smiled up at him. ‘So, Regina. We been there before right?’
‘Not since our honeymoon, sir.’
Simon’s husband, David, looked from Zoe to Mal in shock. The rest of the crew laughed.
‘We done a job there and then got pinched,’ Ma explained. ‘Me and Zoe tried passing as newlyweds looking for work in Paradiso. That din’t go so good, but Inara got us out.’ He rubbed his jaw.’That woman looked so delicate and laddish, but she packed a mean punch.’
‘Punch,’ crowed the baby, crawling onto her daddy’s lap and patting his face.
‘Yeah you’re tough when you got your gang with you,’ he said, kissing her ginger curls.’ Punch,’ she repeated and fell asleep on his shoulder.

‘If we plan on an overnight on Regina, and a one day…’
‘Two,’ said River. ‘Up a lazy river.’
’Two day layover, Kaylee, would fresh cells give up any benefit?’ Zoe finished.
‘Not really. Faster than we been going, but not three days worth.’
‘Well, needs must.’ said Mal.

River took Emma to the bridge to observe the course correction for Regina. The pilot seems to work on instinct so quickly did her mind do the calculation. Emma went step by step, checking River’s work. But she had inherited some of her father’s skill and had already , at twelve, surpassed Mal as a pilot.

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THE NEW CANAAN RUN – Nineteenth Leg – Summerfair Moon off Shadow

NINETEENTH LEG
SUMMERFAIR

‘The sky is purple!’ said Kaylee.
‘Mal mentioned that to me once,’ said Zoe. ‘The sky on Shadow was purple too. Said it had something to do with the plankton in the oceans. Guess they used the same plankton here when they seeded it.’

With the exception of the sky, Summerfair was pretty much like any agricultural world. A little greener than some, since the towns had been located near water rather than mineral deposits or prairie. The influx of refugees from Shadow running from the scorched earth policy of the Alliance forces, had led to shortages of food and housing at first, but the refugees had brought money and skills, having left behind a prosperous ranching and farming planet.

‘I’d have thought Summerfair would be less happy with Federal rule,’ David said to Simon.
‘The ones who left first, the ones who had some notice of the Alliance plans, would have been Alliance supporters. So the wealthy here, they’re Alliance.’
‘So no Browncoats?’
Mal was untying the combines.’Independents, them as got out before the burning, they got here or to Branson’s Mark or Ossolambria with pert well nuthin.’
‘Do you know our contacts, Mal?’
‘Wohlstand Province was Independent. So, no.’
‘I’ll handle the negotiations if you want sir.’
‘I’m fine, Zoe.’

Kaylee and Jayne set up a fence around the cargo door to make a safe play area for the children. River  laid a blanket out on the hard packed dirt and basked under the low ultraviolet of the protostar that was Summerfair’s sun. Her spacer’s tan was getting pink and Kaylee had to remind her to cover up before her pale skin burned.
Their buyer had sent a crew to pick up the tractors on a wheeled lorry pulling a trailer. The crew, two women and a man, were efficient about the paperwork, and Zoe was able to get the machines out of the bay and payment waved to Business Solutions Unlimited, within half an hour.

‘Where are the crew for these combines?’ asked Mal. He was tense and kept striding down the dockyard road to the gate, then stamping back to the ship.
The day wore on to afternoon and in the purple sky rose Shadow, near the horizon but looking like a mountain range beyond the skyline of the port city.
Kaylee had brought some of the children’s toys outside where they would be able to run about, including a trampoline which had been stowed for weeks while the cargo bay was filled with wine, clothing, fabrics, grains, bales of herbs, and finally machinery.
The children were screaming with delight as they bounced and somersaulted about. Kaylee joined them and Jayne was deciding whether his dignity was more precious than the fun of bouncing.

There was only one other ship in port and it did not seem to be a family concern. From the other ship, a man much like Jayne, big grim and tough, stopped to watch the game.
‘Yours?’
‘My crew. None of my get.’
‘Nice tits on the eldest one.’
‘Watch yer mouth. She’s the captain’s wife.’
‘So not a goer.’
’Best check out the whorehouses. Our crew’s not available.’
‘No harm asking. Gal rides with us, she’s allys up for it, but you get tired of the same old. And of takin sloppy seconds.’
Jayne found himself surprisingly disgusted.
‘So you fly outta here?’ the other merc continued.
‘Persephone. Doing the New Canaan Run on long contract. You?’
‘Naw, the Walden is scrabblin for work. Know anythin open? Don’t much care what it is.’
Jayne had already decided he wouldn’t pass any information along even if he knew any. He gave a negative grunt.
Mal shouted from inside the ship, ‘Kaylee! There’s water on the floor of the bunkie.’
Kaylee jumped down from the trampoline and called to Jayne, ‘Watch’ em?’ before running into the ship.

Jayne took the opportunity to nod dismissively to the Walden merc, and entered the play yard where Beege threw herself off the trampoline and climbed to his shoulders. Jayne laughed.

The water leak turned out to be more serious than they expected. ‘At least we can afford the parts, capt’n. And there’s nothin too expensive or scarce. But it’s gonna take a lotta time to get it all fixed and ready.’
‘So we’re stuck here.’
‘It ain’t so bad, capt’n. We’re waitin’ for the combine pickup anyways. Got the play yard set up for the minis. And this is a good world, not too dry, not too hot or cold. Trees.’
Before Mal could move to his usual grouchiness when uncomfortable or unhappy, Kaylee kissed his cheek. ‘I gotta work on this, darlin. And Zoe’s takin’ care of the customers, when they show up. Why don’t you walk around the town, see what’s doing’. Might find us our next cargo?’

Rather than walk, Mal took the land mule and the supplies list from the galley wall. Ignoring the inevitable request from Derry for a puppy, his first job was to find an art supplies shop, since both Kaylee and Simon wanted craft supplies for River and the children. It took some searching, but after a couple of hours he found most of the items on the list. He added a large amount of glitter At a grocery, he bought some specialty condiments, including a salty yeast paste, that were original to Shadow.

As he returned to the ship, he passed a livery stable with a prominent list of prices for hourly rentals of horses and equipment. He stopped and made arrangements to rent a horse the next day.

Kaylee had made good progress on the leak. It had been located, and supply to that set of pipes had been closed. Unfortunately, that meant that the two couples, who had rooms in the former passenger quarters, would not have the use of their commodes or of the shower room. The crew quarters, the infirmary and the kitchen were unaffected. Kaylee had found the parts she needed, but not before the shop was closing. She would pick them up the next day.

‘But he wants some of the Dyton parts we still got, so that’s shiny, too.’
‘If you don’t need me, I think I’ll take time to ride out of town. Shake off some of this…. whatever.’
‘The combine people called and apologized. Seems we landed during a religious holiday of some sort. They won’t be here till day after tomorrow. Coming in from Branson’s Mark. I offered to take the machines to them.’
‘From The Mark? They won’t allow that. They got some real standoffish cult going there, has been for fifty years. And Zoe, when you do meet with them, check the payment close. Them spiritual types will cheat you just because you ain’t as holy as them.’
‘Whatever you say, sir.’
‘Just do it.’

Mal was the only rider as he headed out from town. All the traffic was motorized,fastcars, mules and trucks of various types. His mount seemed used to it and paced steadily even when a group of boys in a flashy fastcar whooped by, tossing beer cans at his rump.

Once past the city limits, he personal vehicles disappeared and only occasion trucks passed, often in convoy. He saw tractors and combines in fields, too far away for greeting.

The air was green and lush. Mal had rarely smelled the like since he had left Shadow as a teenager to fight for Independence.

Ten kilometres out of town, there was a little sign of human life, save the road itself,  which was lined with bush.
The trees were mostly second growth but eighty year old patriarchs towered here and there. planted when the moon was terraformed. The sun was high and hot, the sky clear of clouds shining violet , but man and horse were cool in the shade under the canopy.
The paved road had wide unpaved shoulders, part grassed over, and Mal steered the horse to where it could move more comfortably.
‘You wanna run, buddy?’ Mal nudged the horse, who sped up until they were galloping alone the roadside, Mal posting high in the saddle hope to prevent sore buttocks that had not been used like this for years. The wind in his hair swept thought from his mind.
Eventually he noticed the horse’s breathing was laboured and he reined it in to a walk. He looked ahead and saw a break in the woods.
Follow that side road, hardly more than a wide path, he came to a clearing with a shabby house surrounded by swept gravel.
He stopped and waited long enough for any inhabitants to look him over, then dismounted.
‘Hello, the house,’ he shouted. There was no response.

The children had gone inside for lunch but Jayne sat on Kaylee’s chair in the sunshine, watching the Walden. The merc had left for town and no one else had come out from the ship. Walden was  an Odessey liner, larger than a Firefly but able to operate with a four man crew if necessary. Unlike Serenity, whose cargo door lay wide open, Walden was closed up tight. There was something not right about the ship.

Jayne dozed and woke with a start to the hail of the honey wagon crew. After getting a crew count, they negotiated a price for emptying Serenity’s sewage tank and supplying fresh water. Zoe arrived as they came to an agreement.
the with suited honey wagon techs hooked up the pump to Serenity’s valves, while the foreman crossed to buzz Walden.
A tall handsome man answered and negotiated with the foreman. Then the foreman returned an spoke with his crew. ‘Anybody up for a rinse and comb out?’ Jayne overheard.
The tech spit on the ground. “Let the filth take care of their own filth.’
The younger tech said,’ Vern’s gotta point, but I need the money. Big house payment next month. Count me in.’
The foreman returned to the Walden and began negotiating again. The big man seemed angry and shouted a lot. The foreman just shrugged.
‘What’s a wash and comb out?’ Jayne asked the techs.
‘Shovel out the shit an bedding from a cargo hold been carrying animals. Hard work but okay less they’s been carrying pigs.’
‘That what they was carrying? Pigs?’
’No. Worse. Slavers. Don’t let their cargo up to use the head and crowd in more bodies than they would with cattle of Horses. so the shit builds up. And they;s ally a chance of catching something. Not the zoonoses.’
‘Zoo?’
‘Animal diseases. They don pass easy to people but if one human person is sick on a slaver, you got shit and puke and pus. The slavers don’t care. At least with cows, as many as goes in , some out. We’ve found bodies in slavers from time to time. Most of the bodies gets dumped before landing though.’
Bad business.’
‘It ain’t  They grab unclipped folks on some back birth world. Chip’em on board, so thy can’t be identified. Any die, they didn’t pay for ‘em. soothes don’t care if they load 500 and deliver 300. Less food. And if they can’t read then they sell em with labour contracts signed with a mark.’
‘Say that for our captain. Mal won’t deal with slavers.’
The techs disconnected their hoses and reconnect another batch. ‘Just give you and rinse out an you’ll think you’r shitting rosebuds.’

Mal got a cloth from the saddle bag the stable had supplied and rubbed down the big gelding’s sides. It whickered  in pleasure at his sure touch. ‘We’ll hafta find you some water, fella, Guess this place has all mod cons. Indoor plumbing, belike.’

He removed the saddle and rubbed the sweat from the animal’s back. Chickens strutted out from the porch and from the enroaching bush.
‘Ugly beast, that.’
Mal swung around, his ad on his pistol. A woman, some twenty years older than Mal, holding a pitchfork stared blandly back at him. Mal relaxed slightly and so did the woman.
‘We do have indoor plumbing, although we’re on advisory at the moment. I can offer the horse a drink, and boil water for tea if you want.’
‘I’d purely enjoy that, m’am.’
‘You’re a Shadow boy. But I don’t know you.’
‘Yes’m. Malcolm Reynolds. I come up in Wohlstand. My ma had a ranch there.
‘She didn’t make it here, then.’ It was a statement,not a question.
‘No.’
‘Where was you at?’
‘Fifty Seventh Overlanders. I reckon I was at ………….. when Shadow burned.’
There’s a pump behind the house with a trough. Give your horse a drink and put him in the barn outta the sun. I’ll have tea in the house.’
She turned briskly on her heel. Mal admired her style. Shadowmen didn’t waste words on what couldn’t be changed. ‘We change what needs changin’,’ he thought wondering how much change he really had accomplished.

The farmer introduced herself as Winona. She didn’t say so, but Mal thought she lived alone. Her children, she said, had scattered, some taking academic degrees, all moving away for work. She was divorced. “Kicked his philanderin ass to the curb when the kids was mostly grown. Weren’t much good as a farmer, a father and downright useless nights.’
‘Hope my wife gives me a  better report,’ said Mal.
She nodded.
‘So here I am, getting old on a farm that needs young muscle and more money than I got to make it beyond subsistence.’
‘Plannin on sellin up?’
‘No. Yes. I dunno. Seems stupid to keep going on. My girl wants  me to come to her on Hera, my boys think I should sell up and move inta town. Closer to the church and the library.’
‘Got any offers?’
‘’Ain’t listed. Not many young ’uns want the farm life. And a lot of the land’s gone back to bush.’
‘Location’s good.’
‘A house,indoor plumbing, the photo voltaic are only a few years old, Andy, my youngest, had ‘em replaced when he made a bundle selling  contract labour  to Blue Sun.’
Mal winced. Her youngest had been running slaves, whether mother knew it or not.
‘House is weathertight, just needs paint. Price of timber is way down, but anyone clears it out, there’s good soil for grain or fruit.’ She had been rehearsing that.
‘We was ranchers, back home. Ma had forty hands, needed all of em at drive time.’
‘Big ranch.’
‘Felt like it was the whole world.’
‘They said on Shadow you could see so far, you could glimpse God’s plan.’ she poured more tea. ‘I sold off my stock couple years back. Only got a few sheep, a couple nannies for milk and way too many damn chickens.’
Mal accepted more tea. A bell rang outside.
‘Egg man.’ said Winona. The chickens were screaming at a hover mule in the gravelled yard.

The egg man drove a hover mule with a cooling unit installed. Mal helped Winona load pallets of eggs— mostly brown but some larger and blueish white. Those were counted separately and paid for in cash. The ordinary eggs were a credit transfer.
‘The blue eggs a specialty, then?’ he asked as the hover mule departed.
‘Noticin sort?’
‘Noticin, not talkin.’
‘Some say they’s special good for pregnancy.’
‘Startin? Stoppin?’
‘Startin and goin on. ‘
‘That a problem here?’
‘No but up to The Mark, they want babies there. Allys seems to be a problem with that.’
’Still run by Branson?’
‘Yeah. He’s powerful old now, course.’
Mal had learned a version of the history of Branson’s Mark in his schooldays on Shadow. Settled by a cult let by Jonah Caesar Branson in 2483, the moon was owned outright by the leader. They were basically self-sufficient, had sat out the War as concienscous objectors and were the subject of many scurrilous rumours about their practices.
‘How often you shipping eggs?’
‘Hafta send ‘em fresh, so every two days this time of year. Ronnie there sells most of them from his factory, but when they’s a surplus he pasteurizes em for export.’
‘He got a regular transport?’
‘Catch as catch can. The bottled eggs keeps good so they kin travel.’
‘I’m looking for cargo. What’s Ronnie’s company?’
‘Soak et Cie. Down at the Market Square. Not everybody will take a small cargo like that.’
‘We do specialty work. Not worried bout what it is.’
‘You should look into labour supply. My boy done good in that.’
Mal was almost sure the old lady didn’t understand that ‘labour supply’ was a euphemism for slave trading.
‘Well, Winona, I might do that. Mostly this run its been farm crops and dry goods.’
‘There’s The Mark now,’ said Winona, as the moon rose n the afternoon sky. ‘Less you want to stay for dinner, you’’d best be getting back to town.’
‘If that was an invitation, I’ll have to say thanks but no thanks. I think I’m on the cooking rotation tonight and best be on the move.’
While Mal saddled the horse, Winona packed a dozen of her fresh eggs for him, refusing payment.
‘Gets lonely out here sometimes. I’ve enjoyed the visit.’
Mal was thoughtful all the way home.

Jayne called Zoe who transferred credits to the honey wagon’s accounts. She stared across at Walden, and the big man, arms crossed, stared back.
‘That the captain?’ she asked the foreman.
‘Honda? Yea, right bastard too. Family’s from hereabouts, but he don’t pay them no mind neither.’
The techs moved on , with the foreman shouting to Captain Honda that the would be back in about an hour to clean their bay.
The captain leaned in the side door to the bay, watching what little passing traffic there was. His eye caught Serenity’s painted logo. He eyed Zoe and Jayne, shrugged and went inside.

The children were playing outside when the honeywagon techs returned.  The foreman come over to Jayne,who was once again supervising the children. “You might want to take the kids away, bud. This job’ll make a horripilous stench.’
The cargo bay doors  rose proving him absolutely right.
The children look appalled. The baby started to cry,’NOT me, Jay! NO!’ she sobbed. She pulled off her panties and waved them at Jayne. “NOT Me!”
‘Okay Baby Girl. You’re good. All dry.’ he soothed her, pick her up and patting her bare pink bum. ‘ Derry, take yer sister inside.”

The Walden’s captain emerged again, laughing at the children’s hasty retreat. Jay’s dirty look was wasted on him.
The techs moved quickly in spite of their hazmat suits. They used wide shovels to move the bulk of the filth to the front, where it was vacuumed into a honey wagon tank. Then they used heavy push brooms for the remaining bulk.
Next came a tank mule, and hoses sprayed the walls and floors with detergent and water as the techs picked up the floor grates to expose the metal decking. Some of the filthy water dripped onto the dockyard dirt and the foreman shouted at his crew to be more careful.
Nearly two hours had passed and Branson’s Mark was rising in the late afternoon sky.  The techs had stripped off their hazmat suits, trusting to the germicidal properties of the fluids.They were all red-faced and sweaty. The foreman shovelled up the wet earth where dirty fluid had landed and tossed it into the tank. He handed out sanitizing towels to his crew.
’Took you long enough,’ grumbled the captain as the foreman walked up  the cargo bay ramp for his pay.
‘We does it right,. You could transport medical supplies that bay is so clean.’
‘Well, you’ll hafta come back for yer pay. My man’s in town picking up the cash now.’
‘Not gonna happen, Handy. You can pay cash or you can pay wire, but you pay or you get a tankful of stink in your nice clean hold.’
‘Handy’ glared at the smaller foreman. ‘C’mon, Lao, you’ve known me all our lives.’
Lao signalled his crew, who picked up their hoses. ‘Yep. I have. Which is why you’re payin now, fore you run off.’
The glare turned to a feral grin. ‘Just jesting, Lao. Gimme yer paybook. ‘ He took the foreman’s comm and punched in payment. Lao checked the figures and entered his own acceptance codes . He nodded and turned away, signalling his men that they could pack up. The captain re-entered  his ship.

‘That Honda fella’s a right twisty bastard,’ remarked Jayne at the dinner table.
‘Honda?’ asked Mal. Jayne filled him in on the cleansing of the Walden, interrupted by Beege’s insistent explanation, ‘Not me!’
‘Farmer I got them eggs from is name of Honda,’ said Mal. ‘wonder if that is the son she’s so proud of, the one in ‘labour contracts’.’
Kaylee reported that Serenity’s water system was fixed. ‘Better’n new, captain..’ she said. ‘The shower’s got real good pressure and the hot water is faster too.’
‘But them combines is still in the hold.’
Zoe nodded. ‘The men from Branson’s Mark are due tomorrow. Their holy days is over. we can leave as soon as we have a decent cargo for Osiris’
Mal was not paying attention. ‘Walden sounds familiar too..’
‘It’s a fairly famous book, Mal,’ Simon said. ‘About living a simple life away from civilization.’

‘That farm was …nice though,’ Mal said later, sitting with Kaylee in the commons after the children were in bed. ‘Felt good, the only noise from the chickens. Only smell the bush.’
‘And the chickens.’
‘The old lady needs a little help with that. She’s younger’n Ma Cobb, reckon, but not as strong.’ He sat silently, running his hand through Kaylee’s smooth hair.
Would she like visitors again?’ asked Kaylee.’We might could take the kids out for a drive.’
‘Wouldn’t want to impose….’
‘You got her wave. Call. Ask if she needs anything from town. I’ll bake a cake, too.’

Winona was happy to have visitors. She asked Mal if he would pick up her regular order from the hypermarket, mostly staples she couldn’t grow, and her mail from the postal outlet. ‘You’ll save Ronnie the egg man a side trip, too.’ she said happily.
Mal used the trip into town to fix  a contract with Soak et Cie carrying their bottled pasteurized eggs to Osiris. Zoe called Perse to explain the new cargo. He would find them a customer for a cut of the profits. On Osiris he had another cargo set up . ‘Just a simple delivery.,’ he told her.
After lunch the Reynolds family, supplemented with Emma and River, packed into the mule with the groceries.”We look like an invading party. ‘ said Derry.
‘More like a field of flowers,’ his father said, taking in the four females in their bright sundresses. He and Derry wore plain teeshirts and khaki pants.

The trip was quick and uneventful, the reception more than friendly.  Winona had pulled out her best china, delicate floral cups and plates that Kaylee admired enthusiastically.
‘My second girl sent them from Paquin. She wants me to move there, but I’m tied to the farm.’
‘He’s not here,’ said River sympathetically.
Winona looked confused. ‘You… my husband? The old bastard’s in the jar on the credenza. Took him back after he was safely dead. ’
‘A moveable feast.’
Winona changed the subject. “Your littlest one likes the chickens.’ Beege was following a spectacular white bird with orange wingtips and high crest around the gravelled board. She saw her parents watching and pointed, ‘Bubba,’ she crowed.
‘Not butterfly, BabyGirl, chicken.’
‘Chitch.’
‘Chicken.’
How old is she?’
‘She’s two nearly three,’ said Kaylee. ‘Derry is going on nine. Emma turns thirteen next month and River….’ Kaylee stopped, abashed.
‘I’m the lost boy and the albatross, and the madwoman and the genius, ‘ said River. She jumped down from the porch and joined Beege and her chicken, turning the bird’s movements into a dance.
Their hostess poured more tea for Kaylee, but Mal demurred, asking if he could walk about.

As they returned to Serenity, the baby sleeping, Emma and Derry playing games on their comms, Kaylee asked Mal, ‘You like living here, doncha, capt’n?’
‘Pleasant enough.’
‘See anything innerestin on your walkabout?’
‘It’s overgrown, but there’s good  farmland. The bush has some real timber . Outbuildings in good shape.
‘Winona was say her daughter wants her to sell up and move near her.’
‘Told me that yesterday.’
‘Summerfair’s like to be makin money with the terraforming on Shadow.’
‘It ain’t terraforming. It’s reclamation. The gravity and water’s still there. Just poisoned.’
‘It’d be hard to look up at Shadow every day knowing that. ‘
Mal looked at the purple sky. The Mark was halfway through its first nightly orbit. Ossemaria was rising near the horizon. And Shadow gleamed a deeper violet overhead.

The buyers had  turned up as promised from Branson’s Mark. Their foreheads were grey with ashy paint, although otherwise they were immaculately clean, beardless and shaven-headed. Their in-system shuttle had just barely enough capacity for the two combines although they packed in a small Blue Sun cryopac marked Bovine Sperm- With Care.

David had taken some time away from the local clinic to help Jayne and Zoe with the delivery. But his attempts to make conversation were shuffled off.
‘You must be getting good crops to need pricey machines like these.’
‘Pater Branson tells us we need them.’
‘Did your holy days go well?’
‘We do not speak of that to gentiles.’
‘Are you hooked up with the Flying Doctors? We’re here on a regular stop for them, but I’ve not been here before.’
‘We take care of our own.’
‘Flying Doctors can drop in with clinics— we do vaccinations , cosmetic repair, maternity and well baby care, fertility aid.’
The older man looked interested in the last while the younger man went stiff and seemed angry.
‘Tell me about the babies.’
‘We handle all kinds of sexual and reproductive health concerns. I’m a certified midwife and of course Simon handles surgical care. He was lead for a heart operation at our last stop; a preemie— less’n two kilos— born with her heart outside her body. She was in surgery for four hours and when we left she was looking about. They ran an apgar and she made normal even with all that trauma.’
‘D’you see a lot of monsters.?’
David’s lips thinned. ‘We see a lot of sick babies with abnormalities. Sometimes it’s a genetic thing, sometimes it’s environmental. On Paradiso a lot of kids are born with strange lungs. We’ve done a few replacements and they’re fine, or no worse off than anyone else there.  It’s probably Bowden’s Malady but none as pinpointed why and how it affect newborns.’
The younger man, looking angrier by the minute put his hand on his co-religionist’s arm. ‘Brother, we have to return by evensong.’
The older man looked embarrassed and gave a last tug to the tiedowns. Zoe passed him Serenity’s BSU comm and they processed payment.
The younger man nodded briskly and headed aboard. The older man whispered to David, then he too went aboard.

Within minutes, the shuttle was in the air and heading out of atmo, towards Branson’s Mark.
Zoe lifted an eyebrow.
‘He wanted the Flying Doctors wave. Guess they have some baby troubles.’
‘They been marryin cousins for fifty years,’ said Jayne.’bet they got a lotta backbirths.’

By dinner time, the Flying Doctors central office has contacted Simon about doing a reproductive clinic on Bowden’s Mark.

BRANSON’S MARK

Serenity put down outside the walled compound that was the largest settlement on The Mark.
The community’s shuttle was also parked there, but the only other sign of use was a locked quonset.
Tracks showed where the combines had been unloaded and driven down a gravelled road leading away from the compound.

Mal looked up at the sky. It was blue.  The compound was surrounded by green and golden fields.
’Time for harvest,’remarked David, whose home world , Turtle Island, was a prosperous agricultural exporter. ‘Wheat and soy. Some canola coming along. And did you see the sunflower fields?’
Kaylee had set up her old lawn chair and was watching the children racing the length of the shipyard and back. River had finished closing her instruments and dashed down the ramp to join them.

Mal, Zoe and Jayne brought the portable clinic out the the field. Simon, supervising, instructed them to set up the floor so that the entrance faced away from the compound and from Serenity, for patient privacy.  The clinic walls were fabric, white with large red crosses on each panel. The folded back bamboo panels of the roof show the Flying Doctor logo.

David rolled the medical equipment out in locked cabinets. None contained drugs of medicines which stayed in the ship’s infirmary. The crew was used to fetching those as needed as Simon or David prescribed. The compound gate opened and a horse drawn surrey emerged, follow on foot by several pregnant women and a few carrying babies.
And old man descended from the surrey, helped by the women. ‘Pater Jonah Caesar Branson,’ said his driver.
Simon stepped forward. “Pater Branson, I’m Doctor Simon Tam, and this is our nurse-midwife David Chen. Thank you for inviting us to your… domain.’
The old man’s skin was thin and pale, his eyes red and sunken, but sharp.
‘I’m addressed as Doctor Branson by gentiles, ‘ he barked, in a deep resonant voice.
‘My apologies, Doctor. Perhaps we could consult about the problems you’ve been having?’
‘My degrees are in agronomy and biology,not medicine. But my children have been in my care for several generation and we keep careful records.’
‘Yes, I imagine with such a small community parentage is important.’
‘My children have the finest genes in the ‘Verse! I reject any hypothesis that any healthy person can injure there offspring by close breeding. The history of animal husbandry show quite the opposite.’
‘All right,’ said Simon, in the soft voice that meant he strongly disagreed but was thinking of the patients first. ‘Why don’t we take a look and see what concerns we have.’
The medics looked at some fifteen babies, giving them their vaccinations and drawing blood samples for some basic DNA analysis and other standard tests. Branson explained that he had been giving vaccinations personally to all his ‘children’. A few anomalies were common, extra toes or fingers, a certain malformation of the ear. Most of the babies were alert and happy, but a few showed signs of Down’s Syndrome like hooded eyelids, flattened noses, and lack of muscle tone.
‘The mothers are all pretty young, there shouldn’t be so many,’ murmured David.

‘The other anomalies are constant too. No matter what ‘Doctor’ Branson thinks, this is the result of inbreeding.’
‘Not the Down’s though.’
‘We’ll run the DNA tonight. Tomorrow you’ll have the older children  for vaccinations, and Zoe will assist me with the burn patients. We’ll need a DNA match for her too, but we have a good supply of  NuSkin .’

While they spoke the shuttle pilot they had met on Summerfair, knocked at the clinic door.
‘I… Can I see you, doctors? I know you’re just here for the babies.’
‘We have a moment, what’s the problem?”
‘I’m peeing blood. When I can pee at all. Pater says it’s just old age and should eat more beetroot.’
‘Uh huh. Jump up her on the table and let me look at your privates. ‘
Simon carefully inspected the pilot for chancres or warts, thinking he might have picked up an STD  if he strayed when off world. He also took urine and blood samples.
‘We’ll run these tonight with the rest. Can you come by tomorrow?’
’Sure. I’m a trusty man. Five healthy children gives me some pride of place.’
‘Five! Congratulations!’ said Simon. How old are they?’
‘’Twenty, eighteen, sixteen, twelve and ten. Four boys and one girl, the youngest. The two oldest should be off for wanderjahr soon.’
‘So you had the vasectomy after the youngest? Ten years ago?’
‘What’s a vasectomy?’
‘There are small scars on your penis?’
‘No, no , that’s manhood rites. All the men of the community gets that circumcision when we reach manhood age.’
‘Before marriage then…’
‘Around thirteen, fourteen. Pater performs the ritual.’
Simon was poker faced.  ‘Would you be able to bring your sons with you tomorrow?’
‘Maybe, maybe not. They have duties.’

Mal watched the medics s they passed DNA charts back and forth across the galley table, frowning.
‘What’s got you down, lads?’ he asked.
‘There’s a question of patient confidentiality,’ said Simon stiffly.
‘The real question is whether we tell our actual patients what we have learned, Simon,’
Mal raised an eyebrow. David rarely called his husband by his given name, calling him Doctor in the clinic and various endearments among the crew. It was a habit that annoyed Jayne. Mal suspected that was why the men did it.
‘We were brought here by the community.’
‘By ‘doctor’ Branson?’ the quotes audibly clanked into place.
‘He’s paying the fees.’
‘There ain’t no difference twixt patient and customer?’ ask ed Kaylee.
Simon paused. ‘You’re right, Kaylee. We have to do the right thing.’ He thought for a moment. “Did you notice a large number of anomalies coming into the clinic?’
‘A lotta people here have extra fingers, you mean?’
‘That’s very obvious, but harmless as such. We can do some corrective surgery if the parents want. The oddity is that although these women have her children young, there are a lot of Down’s cases in the population.’
‘Young mothers don’t have them babies, though,’ asked Kaylee.
‘From time to time, young parents do. It’s very unusual. Mostly Down’s shows up with mothers over 40, even over 35. It’s a genetic error that appears as the ova and spermatozoa age and deteriorate.’
‘Old fathers?’
‘But the couples are young. Except….’ David looked over at his husband. ‘Tell them about the circumcisions.’
‘Our friend from Summerfair told us that all the men get circumcised by Bishop Branson at puberty.’
Jayne and Mal winced and crossed their legs.
‘But his version looks a lot like a vasectomy from the scars we saw. Which means he, and possibly every man on Branson’s Mark is sterile.’
‘But the women seem to have lots of kiddies,’ puzzled Kaylee.
‘They told us they get an annual examination by the Bishop. He did degrees in agronomy and biology and seems to think animal husbandry is equivalent to a medical degree.’
‘And we  know,’ added David, ‘That the community buys in animal sperm for their herds.’
‘You’re thinking theBishop bought in some human seed and got a bad batch?’ asked Mal.
‘I’m thinking the Bishop is the father of very child born on this world in the past forty years, if not more.’
‘But the women would be his daughters? That’s …. isn’t that dangerous?’
‘Daughters and grand-daughters. After forty years we could be seeing great-grands too. But if the genetics are mostly healthy here shouldn’t be much trouble yet.’
‘The kids would be idiots!’
‘No. Not unless there was a hidden gene for low intelligence. Most of the inbred populations studies on Earth-That-Was started in the lower percentiles. The genetic damage we’re seeing is polydactylism. ‘
The crew looked blank.
‘Extra fingers and toes,’ David said helpfully
‘But you said there was a lot of idiots bein born.’
‘The Downs children are usually of very low intelligence, true. The also have poor hearts and circulation and low muscle tone. But that doesn’t come from inbreeding.’
‘Most people don’t realize that have an elderly father is also a cause of Down’s Syndrome and of autism.’
‘Why?’
‘Same reason older mother birth those babies. The sperm is not as healthy.’ said Simon.
‘And what it comes down to is: Bishop Branson has been using his annual examinations to impregnate his daughters and their daughters, and has sterilized all his sons and their sons. Who are actually his sons and grandsons. So. Who should be told?’
‘We could tell the old man we know what he’s been doing. The dirty old bastard,’ growled Jayne.
‘He doesn’t believe he is doing any harm. He talks about ‘the best bloodlines’. Now we know he meant his own.’
‘Yeah, but fuckin his own daughters,’ protested Jayne.
‘I suspect he’s using artificial insemination. Sexual assault, and certainly no consent, but no, ummm…. personal penetration.’
‘Ick,’ said Kaylee.
‘The authorities…’ began David.
‘What authorities?’ asked Mal. ‘This is Branson’s Mark. Branson is the sole owner. And his family practically worship him.’
’Surprised no one noticed before,’ said Zoe.
‘I looked in the Flying Doctor records, said David. ‘We don’t come here often and while the polydactylism is noted, it’s not considered a problem. These thing do turn up in small communities and there is a surgical fix if wanted.’
“The Downs children are all very young , maybe five, six standard years at most. After the last scheduled clinic visit.’
Simon nodded,’And really the only reason we suspected the truth was seeing the ‘circumcision’ scars.’

As the line of children arriving for their vaccs updates slowed, the community pilot arrived with his wife and their youngest son, aged twelve.
Simon took the boy into a curtained room for his shot and with his mother’s permission gave him a pelvic exam with the excuse that his father’s problem might have been passed down.
He called the parents aside. ‘First there is no problem with your son.  He’s fine young man. He hasn’t been through your puberty rituals yet , I notice?’
‘Circumcision? Pretty soon. His Holiness plans for next month.’
‘I would advise that you ask for your son to be excused. I’ll give you a note, if you like.’
‘You said he was fine!’
‘I have reason to believe that undergoing the operation will affect his future fertility.’
‘Kids? Hell, doc, I got ‘cized and go five kids. All the baptized men here got ‘cized  and we all got families.’
‘No, you don’t,’ Simon said bluntly. ‘ Your wives have children You have been sterilized by vasectomy. The operation at puberty is not circumcision. All the ‘baptized ‘ men are the same. Every one, I suspect.
The pilot turned to his wife, red faced. ‘She shook her head. ‘No.’
‘You’re lying! Charlotte, you….’
‘Never anyone but you, Georgie. Never.’
Simon was glad there was a table between the couple and himself.
‘Who does the medical work here when the Flying Doctors don’t come?’
’There are some midwives and some paramedical training. We can fly really sick or injured to Summerfair. But mostly, the Holy Father. He’s a doctor,you know.’
‘He holds a doctorate. But his degrees are in biology and agronomy. He’s not a medical doctor. Not even a veterinarian.  I’m sure he can handle most problems that arise, and you have access to the Cortex.’
‘Not on-world. Only the Bishop is connected. ‘
‘Ah.’
David entered, pulling out his hair tie and allowing his waistlong black hair to swing free. He smiled at the tense couple.
Simon smiled gratefully as his husband took up a position behind George, who was holding himself rigid against shock? disbelief? fury? All, Simon thought.
‘Do either of you have a family relationship to the Bishop?’
George laughed bitterly.
Charlotte said, “He was my great-grandmother’s husband. So he is my great -grandfather. He married again when she died. He has twenty-seven children. It’s always been a small mark of pride to be descended from Pater.’
‘ We believe that all your children are the result of artificial insemination, done during your annual examination.’
Charlotte looked blank.
‘It is possible that Bishop Branson has been buying human semen from off-world. But it seems more likely he has been keeping the bloodlines here pure by using his own.’

Charlotte looked up. ‘How long? How… are my kids, his kids? Am I ? My mum?’
‘Am I?’ asked George.
‘We’d be brother and sister,’ said Charlotte in a small voice. “Oh dear lord above.’
‘None of this mess is either your fault or your responsibility. And, for what little comfort it may be, until recently the only problem seems to be the polydactylia.’
‘The extra fingers,’ David said, seeing their confusion.
‘But there’s all these idiots being born,’ said George.
‘Not genetic, well, the cause is a genetic defect, but it’s not passed down. Basically, because the father is old, he’s not making good… babies.’
‘And now?’
‘Now, ‘ sighed Simon. “I have no suggestions. I can only give you the truth about our situation.’
‘Ain’t nobody gonna believe us.’
‘Not even a trusty man?’
‘That just means I can go off world and mingle with gentiles. Some look up to me for that, some are jealous. Some are suspicious.’
David said, ‘We could arrange for the Flying Doctors to make more visits. Take over the annual examinations. There would be no more babies. But no more children with Downs either.’
‘I think we could keep this situation private. Doctors do have a strong code about patient confidentiality, ‘ Simon thought office discussions the night before with the Serenity crew. ‘We could also try reversing the vasectomies, but almost everyone here has the same father. That might not be a good idea.’
‘But manhood rites… the boys look forward to that, to taking a man’s place in the community.’
Simon threw up his hands. “I have no idea how to change that.’

When George and Charlotte left, Simon put his head down on the desk and wept.
‘You had to do the right thing, daddy,’ David said.’ ‘Without the truth, everything is a lie.’
‘Baby boy, those are some of the dumbest words I have ever heard come out of your mouth.’
David chuckled. ‘You’re always right, honey.’
Simon raised a tear-stained face. ‘I’m not sure at all whether telling them was right. The old man is old, he can’t live forever.’
‘But where does that leave his survivors?’

UPLOADED TO FANFIC.NET 28/7/2014

SUMMERFAIR

While Serenity was on Branson’s Mark, Mal had negotiated a small cargo of baled wool and fresh sheep’s milk cheeses to carry back to Summerfair. The wool was picked up be the spinning mill’s truck, but he took the cheeses to Soak et Cie himself.
The dairy business was the cleanest building Mal had seen since the crew had robbed a hospital onAriel. A pretty receptionist pointed the way to the loading dock, where Mal found the owner working alongside three men, sorting orders for next morning delivery. There was a hissing in the background from the pasteurizing equipment and an impressive array of gauges  measuring the solar roof panel output to the refrigeration rooms.
Soak was glad of the break and greeted Mal like an old friend.
‘Any friend of Ms. Winona is fine by me,’ he boomed. ‘Can’t get her to leave that brokedown farm even with her daughter begging her to come live on Osiris.’
‘Seems a right independent sort.’
‘Hah! Every kind. Browncoat through and through. Reckon that’s why she won’t leave here for the Core.’
‘She was a soldier?’
Soak lowered his voice. ’It’s an open secret that she and her old man were Browncoat organizers. Some think she was why the Alliance hit Shadow so hard. Wanted to shut her up, eh? But she wasn’t there, or here. Off in the Black, out of their reach. She was a pistol then. Look,’ he ran a hand along a shelf of hardcover books, stopping at one titled, ‘Dairy Cattle Breeding Records 2438-2499 Summerfair’
He chuckled at Mal’s surprise.’Hidden in plain sight. This here’s banned everywhere in the ‘Verse.’
Mal opened the book. Most of the pages were printing in dense tiny print but there were many pictures. Soak reached over and flipped to a full page portrait of a stunningly beautiful woman. ‘That’s Ms. Winona back in the day.’
Mal stared at the capture. It was 2-D and still, so the book couldn’t be traced electronically.
‘I remember her. She spoke at the church back home.’
‘Yes, you’re a Shadow boy, ain’t cha? She sign you up?’
‘No, I wanted, but my mother…  I was sixteen. But Ma was mad cause ten of our hands left with her just as calving started.’ He looked at the vibrant young woman.”It’s only been… well… twenty years, but Ms. Winona is an old woman. I thought eighty or more.’
‘She was never captured but she lived hard. He kids was mostly here with her own daddy. And he was a hard man. No, she just got old real fast. Came back to Summerfair with her husband, gathered up the kids and kept her head down. There was an Operative looking for her, but folks here ain’t too friendly with strangers, especially Core folks.
‘Then the kids left, and good riddance to that Andy, and her man died and she near enough gave up. I pick up eggs a couple of times a week and I ‘spect  I’m the only one she sees at all from one end of the year to the next.’
‘There’s a Handy Honda parked in the ship yard.’
“That’s her boy, Andrew. Bet he don’t go near her either. Not many here will give him the time of day. He refuels here, then stops at The Mark, maybe twice a year. Don’t visit his Ma though.’
‘She seems to think he’s in labour contracting.’
‘Slaving? Wouldn’t put it past him. Dunno where he’d find stock though.’

Mal and Zoe were having trouble finding work on Summerfair. The little world’s economy was based around the rehabilitation of Shadow, a long-term project that required relatively few workers but a great deal of machinery. Although terraforming was an established technology the problems of restoring the atmosphere, soils and oceans of the planet subjected to the scorched earth attack during the War were vastly different.

‘Fewer volcanoes, more radiation,’ a terraformer told Jayne, drinking in the kind of bar he preferred , with cheap liquor and cheaper women.
‘Never know what’s gonna happen next. ’S like Pinkie over there,’ he gestured at one of the staff working a john nearby.’You think cute girly, nice tits, and next thing you know she’s swinging her dick at you. I’m on r and r for a couple weeks cause of a radiation leak in the ocean reclamation plant. Don’t get that on a straight terraforming job.’

But reclamation was all about imports and Serenity was looking for export cargo Summerfair was an agricultural world and they had landed in spring. The winter crops were over and the summer crops not ready for harvest.
Jayne heard that there were some passengers leaving Bronson’s Mark for greater opportunities but the Walden was the usual transport for those contracts.
“Usual?’ asked Zoe.
‘My buddy sez they picks up passengers there bout once  a year. He hears the boys is encouraged to leave home.’
‘Walden has a rep as a slaverunner.’ said Zoe.
‘Don’t know nothin bout that.’

PRINTED OUT JULY 17/15
Jayne found a short run  the next day. Talking with a federal soldier at a bar he learned that her troop had been called back to duty on short notice, but had no transport.
‘Seems there have been reports of pirates coming in Osselambria is sending out patrols.’
‘You know I don’t like you talking to no purplebellies,’ Mal grumbled.
‘It’s just a hop from here to the base. A few hours. We don’t even have to feed ‘em.’
‘Course we’ll feed ‘em,’ exclaimed Kaylee.’ would’nt be hospitable. anyways, they’ll need soothin of their heads if they been hanging out at the kind of bars you do, Jayne.’
Jayne grinned. “I ain’t disagreeing.’
Still disgruntled, Mal left it to Jayne to arrange payment for the troopers. ‘Remember we ain’t got a return cargo and we will be giving them a hot meal.’
But he was surprised at the deal Jayne made. The trip would be more than profitable. ‘We’re getting top government rate, with a little extra for short notice,’ Jayne explained.

Some of the generous payment was explained when the soldiers arrived.  While most were happy to rest in the commons and watch vids, the second lieutenant and Jayne quickly disappeared into his bunk.
The troopers were polite, although one or two asked permission to use the showers, having been pulled out before they were quite sober. The warrant officer left in charge, a one-eyed veteran, apologized to Kaylee for them.
‘They’re all behavin’ fine. Not to fret,’ she said.
With Mal hiding on the bridge with River, Emma minding the smaller children, Kaylee working on a plumbing problem in Shuttle Two, Zoe was left to make a meal for the crew and passengers.
Cooking had never been one of her strengths, but she was able to produce hot and sour soup with chicken and cellophane noodles that even the most hungover of the soldiers enjoyed. Their non-com thanked her personally asking,’ Have we met before? Perhaps we served together.’
‘No.’
‘But you have served ? You have a soldier’s bearing.’
Zoe was silent. The warrant officer gave up, but looked over at her often as she cleared the table and put the dishes aside for the children to wash.
The meal was barely over when River’s voice on the comm announced that Osselambria was approaching. The soldiers assembled in the cargo bay and their looie reappeared, slightly flushed,  her hair freshly combed.
Touchdown was straightforward, the soldiers marched off. And Serenity returned to Summerfair, once again looking for work.

The small job seemed to have broken their streak. Walden had left while they were off-world. Ronnie Soak had passed the word to other small merchants that they would take small cargoes , and Mal and Zoe were kept busy accepting several dozen jobs, none worth doing alone but together filling the cargo bay.
‘We got pasteurized eggs and canned llama and goat milk from Soak, the spinning mill gave us those bales of spun wools, and those crates are filled with flower bulbs from VanderWouten Farms. Then there’s a few crates of that disgusting paste Mal likes so much, and a tonne each of barley and buckwheat.’
‘Vegemite is good for you,’ protested Mal. ‘Puts hair on your chest.’ Kaylee and Zoe looked skeptical, having seen the captain shirtless. ‘The handcrafters have stuff for us too, don’t they?’
‘Yes, sir. Near on a hundred pieced quilts, and a lot of jams and jellies for the grocers’ cooperative, same as your brown gunk and the eggs. We’ve been offered frozen llama and goat meat too, enough to fill every cryovac we have on board, but the meatpackers don’t have any of their own. Whatever we can handle, the coop will take at a decent markup.’
‘It would be worth putting cryovacs on our needs list, reckon?’
‘Hard to say. But these little worlds don’t have big cargoes and having the equipment could be handy. Still they take up room when they’re empty.’

With an almost full hold,Serenity prepared to leave for the White Sun system. Their first stop would be Bernadette, one of the first planets settled in the Exodus, which had been terraformed by 2240.
Bernadette was, like any Core planet highly sophisticated, but it was also the launch point for homesteaders looking for new lives on the Border and Rim worlds.
Serenity’s cargo would be left at the Business Systems Unlimited campus in New Paris, where the foodstuffs and drygoods would find a ready market as charming ethnic products.

Still, it would be a long run through the Black, although Murphy was as close to White Sun as it ever was and Bellepheron’s orbit was relatively near.

“We’re passing by some likely worlds, heading straight to Bernadette, sir.’
‘Ain’t got no work between here and Bernadette though. If you hear of anything, good. But our hold is near full for once. BSU is paying for the goods and the transport up front. Perse is doing good for us.’
‘We could go by Persephone while we’re in the White Sun system.’
’No reason to. I was thinking Albion after this dropoff. Then Sihohn. Depends on the cargoes.’
‘What’s on Albion, sir?’
‘A market for them high tech toys Bernadette makes. It’s not just a staging point for settlers.’

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THE NEW CANAAN RUN – Into the Black from Hera to Summerfair Moon.

INTO THE BLACK
TO SUMMERFAIR OFF SHADOW

‘Emma prepare for immediate takeoff when we get on board!’
‘I can do that, sir!’ come the tween’s light voice on Mal’s comm.
‘Immediate?’ asked David.
‘In case the cops are following us. And looks like our albatross needs the Black.’
River was deathly pale. Her brother was stroking her clammy forehead. David was looking in his husband’s response kit for meds.
‘It’s okay, baby boy. We’ll get her stabilized at home,’ Simon told him.

Once aboard, Serenity lifted cleanly out of atmosphere under Emma’s control.
‘Well done, nu er,’ Mal told her.’Smooth.’ Emma glowed at the compliment. ‘Put us into orbit around Eris Moon.’
Emma hid Serenity in a geosychronous orbit behind Eris. Mal nodded approval. ‘Yer Wash’s daughter all right. Yer daddy couldn’t have done that better.’ Zoe entered and sat companionably in the co-pilot seat with her daughter.
‘Kaylee want you to see to the little ones, sir. She wants to sit with River until she wakes.’

In the infirmary, David was applying antibiotic weaves to Jayne’s scraped wrists. River lay on the examination table, restraining belt lightly fastened. Her eyes were fixed and her fingers moved constantly. Simon was checking her vitals when Kaylee slipped up beside him.
‘What’s happening, Si? She looks… scared.’
‘We ran into another Academy graduate . And there were two men with blue gloves .Mal shot one and Zoe killed the other. The Academy girl; Mal says River took her out,’ he looked around.’ She was decapitated.’
‘Sure did, ‘ put in Jayne, ’Quite the sight too. Two lil girlies talking quiet like then, Slash! Moonbrain’s sword come down and the other one is on the floor. Blood all over.’
Simon and Kaylee looked sick. ‘Shut up , Jayne,’ said David.’ No need to be graphic.’
‘Davy’s right,’ aid Mal entering the infirmary.’ If you’re fixed up, I want a talk with the men and Zoe in the commons. Kaylee, darlin, can you keep an eye on River?’

‘Boat’s on autopilot, and the kids is playing in the bay. Which is stark empty. Question is, how do we fill it?’
‘After all this, my sister being attacked…’
‘And me being kidnapped,’ added Jayne.
‘And those blue gloved men, she was terrified of them. What’s going on?’
‘That girl mentioned Jubal Early to me,’ offered Jayne.
‘But there’s no bounty! I’ve been watching the Federal channels. No warrants even. No charges. Even Zoe is off their radar.’ said Simon.
‘Doc’s right. I keep an eye on …. other waves. Ain’t nothin on any of us.’
‘Other waves, Jayne?’ asked Mal.
‘You watch them Brownout waves, Mal. I got my own interests.’
‘Mmm. So mebbee they’s a bounty, mebbee it’s just that academy still wanting River back with their other…’
‘Experiments.’ said Simon.
‘An someone connected Jayne. Why?’
‘Jayne was talking to weapons dealers moving the neographene.’
‘Our buyer seemed pretty straight,’ said Zo.
‘Mebbee, but he has staff. And other customers.’
‘He never saw River though. Just me and Zoe.’ Jayne pointed out.
‘Shit shit shit,’ said Mal.’ You were how the New Resistance found us, back when. Zoe is on record as a Dust Devil and an escaped prisoner.’
‘And we gotta believe they know we have kids on board.’ added Zoe.
‘So who are They?’ asked David.
‘We don’t know. We didn’t know before when they attacked us back when Emma was a baby and Inara was alive.’
‘Been more’n ten year since then.’
‘Yeah, guess we’re still special.’
David rose and put the kettle on. Mal shook his head.
‘Meantimes, we got a fair bit of cash money and an empty cargo bay. And we want to get shut of Hera soonest.’
‘Perse has two contacts for us back down planetside. We can pick up farm equipment for Summerfair at Utah City, half way round the world from Argo . And we can haul slurry in the same direction.’
‘Slurry?’ asked Simon.
‘Pulp for paper making. We don’t put it in the hold, we tow it.’
‘Never heard of that before.’
‘Not many worlds can make enough pulp for export, but Hera’s been using genetically cultured ryegrass and bamboo in terraforming the deadlands. Turned the cut crop under at first for compost, but they got enough slurry to make paper for the whole Murphy system now. They haul it up to orbit in moon shuttles then send it on when they have enough to make it worthwhile,’ explained Mal.
Kayla looked worried, “Summerfair? That’s a moon off….’
‘Off Shadow, yes,’ said Mal.

‘Are you sure about this contract,Mal?’ asked Simon. ‘with your history…’
‘I ain’t going planetside. And our ranch wasn’t nowhere that’s liveable now anyways.’
‘Still, that’s not the only contract. We can find another if you prefer to skip Summerfair.’
Mal grunted. ‘It ain’t a problem, dong ma? We got buying customers and I got a freight contract that will fill the cargo bay. It’s not a problem.’

And Mal was if anything more outgoing on the week long voyage to Summerfair, the moon that had been the refuge for those  who managed to escape the scorched earth destruction of Shadow. Today , nearly twenty years later, the Alliance was once again terraforming the planet using Summmerfair as a staging and supply platform.

Summerfair was prospering. The agricultural economy was robust, and the farm equipment turned out to be a dozen tractors and two combine harvesters, along with accessories and optional equipment for specialized tasks. Mal spent some time with the operating manuals and catalogues for the machines, teased by Kaylee who told him that was her prerogative.

The slurry was more difficult. River was still unable to work, and piloting was being done by Mal, who had never been particularly skilled at the task. Emma tried to cover on the fine work, but her inexperience told.
Attaching five slurry bags, huge balloons bigger than the Firefly, took much longer than it should and Simon fretted about his sister’s safety every minute until
Mal finally told him to get off the bridge and stay with River in her bunk until they were out of Hera’s gravity well.

With both worlds in the Murphy protostar system, the actual trip would only be a few days even at this point in their orbits.

River donned a suit and tethered herself to Serenity’s shell, slowly rebuilding herself in the silence of The Black.

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THE NEW CANAAN RUN – Eighteenth Leg – Hera

EIGHTEENTH LEG
Hera/ Argo.

This is the kind of job I could get used to,’ said Mal ‘Agreed payment, no haggling, we just deliver and collect our share.’ He steered the loaded mule expertly down the wide boulevard.
Jayne leaned back, his hands behind his head.
‘Lotta little booths along the road, he replied.’ we should check ‘em out on the way back. Pick up some fresh food.’
Red Sun shone down on the wide streets of the commercial warehouse district of Argo. It was a fresh late spring day . Fruit trees were in blossom along the road leading to the warehouse of Flamingo Products where they would turn over the  sealed cargo they had been hauling all the way from Harvest sixteen weeks away.
“It’s been good, this New Canaan Run. No big trouble. Profitable on the whole.’
‘Outsida Kaylee and the kids getting trapped by the earthquake on New Canaan,  the Triangle fire on Silverhold,  buying that slave girl from Saffron, kidnappin Kelly …”
‘None of em was hurt in the quake, and we found a good new product in them pineapples. Yer ma has a young healthy companion, Kelly was happy enough with a second night with River so he’ll be a good contact, and so’s your jeweller friend. ‘
‘Still don’t know where Rosie went.’
‘If that was her name. She had a smart line of talk for a factory girl. I’m wondering if she didn’t have a mysterious past.’
‘Not likely ever to know now.’
‘Still a good chance she got out and prolly got herself re-chipped. Doc said they was a lotta that going on at the aid clinic.’
Jayne was silent, but his disposition never sunny, had blackened.

They drove on in silence.
‘We should be bout there now. See any numbers? Or company signs?’
‘There’s 4815 and 4917, we’re looking for 5293? Should be … ah, shit.’
As they turned the corner an illuminated sign number 5293 stood tall at the roadside. But the panel was papered over with a tattered ‘Going Out Of Business’ banner weather worn and months old.
‘Shit. Shit.Shit. Shit.’
‘Okay, Mal. What now?’

Zoe was her usual collected self when they returned to Serenity. ‘First question is , what’s left of the company. Second is, who owns the cargo?’
‘It was paid up front, so it belongs to  Flamingo Products ,or I guess the bankruptcy trustees,’ Mal replied
‘But we ain’t got our carrier fee. That give us some ownership plus we actually are holding it. Nine tenths.’ said Jayne.
“I wouldn’t trust that was the law, sir,’ put in Zoe, ‘And I suspect Hera is big on law. This ain’t the Rim.’
‘Well we can ask around. Meantimes, we got all this cargo takin up space we could be filling with new cargo. And we got customers for the private cargoes.’

Jayne  was to deliver his friend’s jewelry consignment. He and Mal would also deliver the stolen uncut stones they had received on Ugarit Moon since the two businesses were in the same district. But those cargoes, stored in secret lockboxes, did not change the stuffed cargo bay.

‘Could have been worse, captain,’ Kaylee sighed, ‘at least Simon and David sold all those bales of herbs to Azure Pharma on Highgate. And the canned food got dropped on New Canaan as planned.’
‘Yeah, but Business Solutions Unlimited expects us to pick up new cargo here and we just ain’t got the room.’

While Mal stewed, Zoe had been on the Cortex, talk to her brother back on Persephone.
‘Well, Perse has good news and bad news,’ she reported. “Flamingo is dead, gone and buried. They went so far under they may as well be at the bottom of a black hole. Most of the owners and managers are in jail.’
‘So?,’ asked Mal, kicking at one of the barrels they seemed to be stuck with.
’So Perse figures BSU got paid and they don’t want it back. They owe us our carriage fee and say this stuff is ours in lieu.’
‘Means we gotta get shut of it our own self.’ said Mal. ‘And we don’t even know what it is, never no mind who would buy it. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.’
‘We got paper on it , sir.’ added Zoe.
‘So it’s really ours? Strictly legal?’
‘Yep. Well, probably. No one around else to claim it.’
‘So we’re merchants now. What all we got to sell?’
‘Gold. Most of what we carry is spoke for and has paper, we still got two kilos of our own,’ said Jayne. “An I switched around the lots so that we got the hunnert gram bars, not the kilo bricks.’
‘Embroidered silk is spoke for but the neographene armour cloth was a nice lagniappe,’ said Zoe. ‘And three bales worth.’
‘Got some good repro parts for Firefly Shipworks boats from Dyton. Serenity can’t use em all, and they’s damn good copies.’ added Kaylee. ‘And I got  fuel cells that need rechargin. I could trade maybe get some coin too. But that’s gonna be for other transports, figger.’
‘And the last barrel of icewine,’ finished Mal. ‘I wanna leave Hera with nuthin that we came in with.’
‘So we got lots to sell, enough to leave us on the catbird seat for a few months. Gotta find buyers though.’
“Most of the stuff we got paper. So it’s just a question of finding a buyer. But the gold we need a private deal and not many can handle two kilos at a decent price,’ said Zoe.
‘Check market on gold bullion, Tross?’ asked Mal. ‘Reckon we could do that easiest by spreading it around. Kaylee , could you and River visit jewelry stores selling small bars?’
‘Sure. We could dress up like fine Core ladies! It’d be fun.’

Kaylee and River raided the trunk of clothing left behind by Inara. River needed some discrete padding to match the courtesan’s curves, while Kaylee was tightly laced into her gown. ‘You can tell I’ve got kids now,‘ she said ruefully. Mal whispered something in her ear and she blushed.

The women had no trouble selling a full kilo of the little bars at market price, one or two at a time. Kelly might have been a shady character, but his gold was full value.
‘You picked a good one there, Riv,’said Kaylee.
‘Who was he, anyway,’ murmured River, puzzled.
‘Short guy, dark brown, big eyes?’ We met him on Beggar’s Tin?’
‘We went to the ballet and then fucked for twenty minutes and then for sixteen.’
‘Uh yeah. I guess.’
‘And the next day he was still around and he performed cunnilingus for twelve minutes and nine seconds,’ River continue with satisfaction.’The I fellated him for ten  and then I fucked him for six minutes. I remember! His penis was…”
‘Okay, mei mei,’ said Kaylee.’ Good you remember him. Maybe we’ll see him again. Beggar’s Tin ain’t far from Persephone.’
“I have that tee shirt,’ River shrugged.
‘Umm. Okay.’

River had the most success in selling the gold bars, her Core accent and demeanour making it clear that she need not, should not be queried about the source of the metal. Kaylee’s clear eyes and winning smile persuaded most of her buyers that she could not be anything but honest.
‘Well, it weren’t us that stole it, anyways,’ she told herself.
The other kilo was put aside in a hidey hole for another world or an emergency. A wave sent the proceeds to Kelly’s bank. River took a few minutes to send him a private message. ‘So he won’t complain about the other kilo,’ she explained. ‘I know what he will like to see.’
‘Sometimes I think that girl ain’t got no morals,’ Kaylee said to Mal in their bunk.
“Considering what we’re doing right now, should we say anything?’
‘Well, but we’re married.’
‘And this was something of a favourite of yours before we was married, bao bei. ‘
‘Still is. You win. Me an Riv is both sluts. An if you stop, I might cry.’

The neographene had no paper trail but Jayne took on the task of finding a buyer by visiting the weapons dealers of Argo. Most were strictly retail and by the book, but one was interested in the armour cloth.
‘But a bale? At 100 a metre, no import fees paid? I can’t really handle that.’
‘Don’t hafta. Find me a decent buyer, cash, and you get a finder’s fee.’
‘Might do, might do.’
‘One percent of the final price, do you? That’s mebbee fifteen per metre for a name.’
‘I was thinking five.’
Jayne took a minute to work out the figures on his com. ‘Too high. Hera might be the best place to sell, but it ain’t the only one.’
They settled at two five.

Zoe agreed that the fee was no problem since the fabric had been free, except for the shipping costs. “But we have three bales not one, Jayne.’
‘Five hunnert metres in a bale, right? Market for that would be hunnert fifty thou. If we get half that we’re flying for a year. An we can spread it around. Twenny five thou a bale, not ever body got that kinda coin right to hand.’

Jayne’s weapons dealer found a buyer, a manufacturer of personal defense products who was able to take all three bales of the armoured fabric. He liked the deal so much that he threw in neographene vests for everyone on the crew, including the children, from his stock.
‘It’s a frankly terrifying though that you make em that small,’ Mal told him as they exchanged the bales for boxes of untraceable Independent coin.
‘Still some rough places in the ‘Verse, and more coming available as the terraforming continues, but these usually go to the families of high officials.’ the factor explained. ‘Cause kidnapping and the like. You wanna lose all faith in humanity— lookit this.’ He produced a hooded infant’s onesie.
Mal growled.

But the Flamingo Products cargo still sat in the hold, filling space. Mal stared  at the manifest, trying to work out what the list of part numbers and generic names meant.
Baffled , he passed the pages to Simon and David, who had the widest educations.
“They seem to be machine parts, but there’s no indication of what sort of machine. What business was Flamingo in?’
‘They were middlemen. Actually they were middlemen for middlemen for middlemen. Only reason they existed seems to be to muddle the paper trail. The’d still be  in business if the managers didn’t decide to steal all the money.’ said Zoe.
‘And they weren’t smart enough to realize they was working for someone smarter.’
‘Good point, Jayne.’
‘I got another good point. Why don’t we open the crates and see if we recognize anything. ? Mebbee find an instruction booklet?’
‘I didn’t want to do that  in case it reduced the price, but looks like we’re at needs must. Well don’t get paid out till we sell this stuff.’
Jayne produced a prybar and climbed to the top crate. The tough bamboo splintered under his attack.
‘Hey, Doc, take a look at this. Seems like your kinda stuff.’
Simon swung gracefully up. The doctor looked small and slender compared to the other men, but he was as athletic as any of them.
“Oh my, we’ll do well with this,’ he called down. He leaned down, passing thin printed box to Mal.
‘What am I looking at, Doc? Some kinda medical equipment?’
‘Mostly parts for some very expensive diagnostic and imaging equipment. I can’t put a price on any of it, but it can’t be cheap.’
‘Can you think of a buyer?’
‘Here? We’d have to research. the market can’t be large, teaching hospitals come to mind, perhaps some laboratories doing genetic work…’ he paused, thinking. ‘We should keep River from this.’
Mal shrugged. ‘ She don’t bother with cargo much, How soon can you get a buyer list?’
‘For on-world, perhaps an hour. I’d suggest David and I handle the selling end for the most part.’
‘Fine, you speak the language. When we get down to dregs, me and Zoe can peddle it to liquidators. We got a plan?’

The medics used their Flying Doctor credentials to introduce themselves to the procurement divisions of Li Tieguai and St. Aesculpius hospitals in Argo. They sold about a third of the equipment there, although the buyers cherrypicked through the crates. Those buyers referred them to other hospitals on Hera and the crew had a busy week, flying around the planet to various customers.
Mal and Zoe acted as shuttle pilots for the deliveries, bringing Simon or David to customers and acting as navvies for unloading.
Kaylee and River passed the time in shopping for the crew and children.
‘Get receipts!’ warned Mal, ‘One of these days we may need them for the tax collector. Use the Alliance scrip first, and keep the Independent coin.’
Rim people were none too trustful of fiat currencies, even less happy with the federal scrip with its built-in tracking. Alliance coin was also chipped, and the old Independent coin was still preferred on the Rim because it was almost bullion quality, partly as a result of that skepticism , partly because many Rim worlds had minted their own coin from their own mines.  Purity meant a Shadow platinum was worth as much as a Greenleaf platinum- and in terms of actual platinum content, more than a federal platinum coin.

It was a busy week but at the end they had only slightly more than a single crate of sealed boxes, neatly labelled and still profoundly mysterious even to the medics.
Mal counted the piles of Alliance bills .”Looks like everyone is getting paid this month, and back pay too.’
Jayne took his stack of bills and divided it neatly in half. ‘ I gotta send this to Ma. She’s got two mouths to feed again.’
He left the ship, hurrying against closing hours for banks and wave terminals.

Mal was putting supper on the table, freshly baked curried chicken buns, stirfried celery and red peppers and a dessert of Custard Surprise with a scoop of fresh berries buried in vanilla pudding. Beege was toddling around the dining area putting various dolls on the chairs, considering them and then re-arranging.
Derry and Emma were in the commons finishing up a mathematics lesson with River. The rest of the crew slowly assembled, drawn by the sweet scent of the buns.
“Where’s Jayne?’ asked Kaylee, serving the children.
‘He went to send his ma some money just after lunch,’ said Simon. “I saw him leaving the Persephone Planetary  about an hour after that. At least I saw his hat. I don’t suppose there is another like it.’
‘I’ll put something aside for him, but he’s probably planning to eat out.’

Jayne had only planned to have a few beers then return in time for supper. Kaylee was still making her Inter-Engine brew, but she had never mastered beer, and Hera produced some fine ales and lagers..
He found a tavern, fancier than his usual choices. The bar had a small forecourt, with table for watching the passing crowd, which was roofed with sweet smelling hops , a nod to its name, The Hopvine.

Ordering his second ale, he stretched out in the afternoon sun. His ma taken care of, money in his pocket, beer in front of him. All he needed now was some female company. He slid his hand into his pants. As if he had rubbed aladdin’s lamp, a slender young woman appeared.
‘May I sit here?’ she asked quietly.
Jayne looked around. All the other tables were empty. ’Sure,’ he grinned. ‘Looking fer company?’
The girl looked at him solemnly, her straight scarlet hair glowing in the sunshine.
‘I don’t like to be alone,’ she said.
‘Well, yer welcome to sit. Wanna drink?’
’Not at this time..
They sat together silently. Jayne finished his glass.
‘If yer a pro, you should say somethin, cause I was thinking of finding some.’
‘Yes’.
Jayne was disconcerted by her response, but aroused by the girl’s slender frame and solemn face.
‘Well, you gotta place? My boat don’t leave me much privacy.’
‘Yes.’ She rose gracefully and Jayne left a few coins on the table for the server and followed her. At the corner, he put his arm around her and sniffed her hair, noticing that she, like many local hookers, wore a wig. The girl did not react to his touch, which was disappointing. Most women, Jayne found, liked his touch or at least pretended to. This coolness was… interesting.
The girl took him from the busy shopping street to a much quieter residential area only two blocks away.
‘Here,’ she said.
Jayne saw a small house in the western style of stucco imitating adobe, with a Japanese sand garden out front hedging a very high thick hedge. Once through the solid gate, almost a door, the slight traffic noise disappeared.
It was a very private place. Jayne took advantage and ran his hands over the girl’s slender frame. Tiny breasts, barely more than a curve beneath a hard nipple and almost flat buttocks, very firm. He slipped his fingers under the hem of her blouse and into her thin cotton trousers. She was definitely ready to show him a good time.
‘You live here alone, girlie?’
‘No.’
‘Let’s go in then, you’re near as hot as I am.’
‘Yes. Let’s do this.’
Down the he central hall of the house to a small room with iron bed and a sink/commode like those on Serenity.
Jayne pulled the girls top off exposing her bare breasts. She pulled away then undid his belt and removed his pants. Jayne took off his shirt, his erection tenting his boxers. He grasped her at her waist and sat back on the bed.
She slid her hand down his arms then push him back. Some how his hands were about his head as he moved across his body. And somehow he was tied to the bedstead. He grinned. “Well, not what I usually go for, girlie, but do your worst. Kin I get a blowjob? Or d’you go straight to the ruttin?’
“No. Now you tell me about our sister.’
‘Your…? I never seen you before. I don’t know your sister.’
‘Our sister. Her name is River. We lost her. Early was a fool.’
Jayne struggled to loosen the bindings but only shook the bedstead. ‘River Tam? She ain’t got a sister. Just that snotty doctor brother.’
‘She’s much more like me than any blood. She left before she was finished. I want to help her complete herself.’
‘Yer as crazy as she is. Girl’s near on thirty. She’s about done as any grown woman.’
The girl looked calmly at him, then left the room.
Jayne heard a lock snick shut.
Hey,’ he yelled. ‘Hey! Come back here!’

Supper had come and gone and Kaylee was worried.
‘Ain’t like he got a curfew, mei mei,’ Mal said.’ He’ll be back with the sun, hungover and with that stupid rutted out grin.’
‘I guess. But he knew David was making corn soup and he loves that.’
‘He also loves chasin tail an he can’t get that on the boat. He had money in his pocket. He’s just found a gal who rents cheap.’
Simon sighed. ‘I don’t think he took any preventatives from the infirmary. I’d better make sure I have Plan B-XY in stock.’
‘He was just going to send his money to his Ma,’ Kaylee said.’He din’t say anything else.’
‘So he decides to spend some of his  own money on some creature comforts. Mei mei, you worry too much.’
‘What if he got mugged for his cash?’
’They ain’t many would take on a specimen like Jayne. Most’d be afraid he’d turn em upside daisy and shake em free of their ill-gottens.’
Kaylee shook her head and told the children to get ready for bed.

At breakfast, Jayne still had not appeared. Kaylee was still worried and Zoe volunteered to retrace his steps.
He was remember by the teller at the wave termini. ‘He needed a little help with the codes for Muir. He was sending money to Prospect Ridge there. Quite a large amount of scrip and coin,’ he grinned. ‘There was a little competition over who got to help him.’
‘He say where he was going?’

‘No, he did ask where he could get a good beer. I sent him to the Hopvine,’ he smiled again.’That’s my local.’
Zoe thanked him  and headed out to the Hopvine. One of the waiters had served Jayne but had not noticed him leave.
‘There was a girl at his table last time I saw him.’
‘Figures. Did you know her?’
‘This is a respectable…’ he quailed at Zoe’s look. ‘Okay we really don’t encourage the pros here. But she wasn’t anyone I recognized.’
‘Can you describe her?’
‘Not really. Youngish, under thirty anyway. Very thin. Fake hair, I think.’
‘Did you hear them talking?’
‘No. Yer man paid for his beer when I served. Like he was just havin one and then going on his merry, y’know?’

’So whatever he had in his pocket, it’s not like he was mugged for his Ma’s money,’ said Mal.
‘Have we pinged his com?’ asked Emma.
‘Mouths of babes. No we ain’t,’ said Mal, doing just that.

Jayne, still tied to the bed, was extremely uncomfortable. No one had returned to freed him and his bladder was desperate. He was also hungry and his arm, held above his head for hours, were painful.
Then his comm pinged. He was sure only Serenity would be calling him. He sung his legs of the edge of the bed and haul himself upright, pulling the bedstead and mattress upright with him. His comm was in his pants pocket, just beyond his reach. He came the bed over and reached for his pants with his foot. The pinging stopped. Jayne swore. he manage with his foot to get the comm out of the pocket. He pressed the GPS button hoping the building was not location proofed.
The crash of the bed falling over drew attention. The door swung open and two men looked in. They were dressed as salarymen but wore blue gloves.
‘You can’t get free, ‘ the dark one said. ‘Tell us where River Tam is..’
‘Don’t know any River Tam,’ Jayne said.
The dark man stared at him. You do . You know her and you know her brother. You sold them once.’
‘Oh yeah, them. That was  long time ago. Don’t know where they are now.’
‘You told Ms. Abrams that you knew them.’
‘The girl? Hey buddy, I was just trying to get laid. You know, say anything to get em nekkid.’
‘Ms. Abrams is not happy that you won’t tell her what you know.’
‘Gimme a break, buddy. Was chasin some tail and end up tied to her bed. If it is hers. I gotta piss, I’m hungry and I am righteous pissed off.’
The Blue Hands exchanged looks. The smaller man reach in his pocket and withdrew a small rod, but the dark one put out his hand and the rod went back.
‘Think about River Tam,’ he said and they left the room.

Hey! I still gotta piss!” Jayne yelled after them.
He considered his options. His hands were tied to the bedstead and both bed and mattress half covered him. He couldn’t reach his comm with his hands , could barely reach it with his toes. And his bladder was like to burst.
Fuck it,’ he said. He wriggled to get into the best position with his piss-proud cock slightly out of his boxers and urinated on the floor. The stream ran away from him and from his pile of clothes across the slight angle of the floor and under the door. Jayne gave a sigh of relief.  ‘Serves em right,’ he grunted.

River spotted the GPS ping on the bridge where she was plotting routes, imaginary ones, to pass the time. The clamour of the dockyard was difficult to ignore, but it was a little quieter here. She had rarely been off the bridge since she and Kaylee had completed their selling trip around the city’s jewellers, making her own meals and allowing Simon’s meds to help her sleep away the stopover.

‘Captain,’ she called over the PA.’Jayne is signalling , but no message.’
‘What are you getting, Tross?’
‘Just a GPS loc.’
‘Good. Is it the jail?’
‘No, the map street view shows a house.’
‘Capital H?’
‘Rose covered cottage, Captain Daddy.’
Thanks , Riv. Keep watching that loc.’

The crew mustered in the galley. ‘If someone took Jayne they must have a power of muscle. Best we bring our own.’
Kaylee was spelled off to watch the kids and keep Serenity secure. If necessary, Emma could take the ship into orbit.
In her black catsuit, carrying a sword almost as long as she was, River looked glamorous and dangerous. He brother was armed only with a shotgun, but carried his red first responder bag. Everyone else was strapped. And wearing their new neographene vests.

“Is there a plan, sir?’
‘Get Jayne out. Preferably alive and without any wounded.’
Zoe consulted her comm. ‘Ain’t too much to be seen on the street view. The property seems to go back to the next street. There’s a building there – a storage shed or garage or workshop?’
“Okay. Simon and David, you go to the back. Zo, you and me we take the front. River, stay on the street and watch that no one comes out from a side entrance we can’t see.’
‘We bustin in? Or knocking politely?’
‘Don’t seem likely a polite enquiry would work. Sides I’m right out of my calling cards for the butler.’
‘Bustin in it is , then.’
The crew parked the hover mule a block from the cottage. River, Kaylee’s old striped parasol over her shoulder hiding her scabbard down her back, was sent to reconnoiter, circling the block.
Mal and Zoe checked her captures. ‘Looks like the back building is a garage, boys. Can you slip around to it?’
David studied River’s pictures.
‘There’s a space between the building and the fence. Narrow, might be hard to leave in a a hurry. Passable though.’
‘Go on round and slip into the yard. Let us know if you see any security.’
The men walked briskly away. Mal gave them time to reach the back of the property, then he and Zoe strolled up to the front door, followed by River.
Zoe’s mares leg blew the lock out of the front door.
‘Huh, you’d think it would be steel not bamboo,’ remarked Mal , dashing inside.
‘Jayne!’ he yelled and shot out a light fixture in the centre hall. ‘There was an answering yell from the back of the house.
Zoe followed more cautiously, checking doors as she went. The house was very neat and clean, but there was a stink of urine that was out of place.
Mal had reached the back door and opened it for Simon and David, who signalled all clear. He motioned them to stay put and turned back into the house.
Zoe was opening a door, grimacing at the nasty smell. ‘Hey, Jayne,’ she said. ‘Got any clothes?’
The reply was unintelligible but Zoe grinned. She signalled River, stationed at the demolished door and at Mal to hold and stepped into the room gingerly, knife at the ready. Deftly she cut Jayne’s bonds. ‘Wouldn’t’a thought this was your thing, Jayne,’ she remarked.
There was more cursing as Jayne pulled his arms back to his sides. He gasped as he tried to shake some feeling into them. He was more successful in staggering to his feet.. ‘Cain’t do nuthin with my hands yet,’ he explained. Zoe bundled up his clothes, shoes, and weapons into his shirt and hung them from his arms with the sleeves as a handle.There were voices in the hallway.
‘River, sister,’ cooed a young woman, slipping from a room Zoe was sure she had checked.
River looked flatly at her.

‘You’ve come home to us.’ the woman said.
River looked confused, nervous.
At the back of the house, Mal started forward, pistol in hand. The woman’s hand was suddenly pointed at him, gun cocked. Mal paused. From the kitchen just behind him, two men stepped forward. Each placed a blue hand on Mal’s shoulders.
River gasped. ‘Two by two.’ she muttered.
‘Hands of blue,’ agreed the woman. ‘They will take us home. You can be completed there, sister.’
River stepped forward and with swift decision, pulled her sword and decapitated the woman.
Mal lunged forward, freeing himself momentarily from the Blue Hands. As they reached for the small weapons in their pockets, he fired, hitting one man in the shoulder. The other had his weapon out, when Zoe’s bullet hit him between his eyes.
Mal stepped over them can called out the back door. ‘Mule, boys!’ He turned back to Zoe. ‘Jayne able to walk?’ Zoe nodded.
The four, Jayne stumbling a little, tore out of the cottage and piled into the mule. As they reached the corner and picked up Simon and David, the sound of sirens could be heard.
‘Neighbours called in the law,’ said Jayne. ‘Wish they’d done it earlier.’
‘We made a lot of noise,’ aid Zoe. ‘Probably broke a few bylaws about quiet enjoyment.’

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THE NEW CANAAN RUN – Seventeeth Leg

SEVENTEENTH LEG
HIGHGATE

Inbound – silk, linen cloth. linen shirts, gems, processed foodstuffsfine finished jewelry, butter, quinoa, buckwheat

’Surprised it’s an open port, ’said Zoe.’ The locals wouldn’t be too Alliance friendly.’
“All the better for us,’ said Mal.
At the spaceport,  the crew split up. Kaylee and River immediately took the three children to a nearby public park.
Borrowing the mule, Simon and David were heading for the Azure Botanicals plant, where they expected to sell the last of their bales of herbs purchased on Dyton Colony.
Zoe and Mal planned to set out on foot for the terminus where they would catch a transit car for the neighbouring market town and their contact.
Jayne would stay with Serenity, but expecting no trouble he had asked permission to have ‘a friend’  over while the crew were scattered.
‘What’s the friend’s name?’ asked Mal.
‘Don’t know yet. Ain’t had time to check the classy ads for callouts.’
Mal frowned.
‘Hey, I’m just looking for some hot company. I’m surrounded by all this prime tail and its hard on a healthy man.’
‘That’s my sister!” ‘And my wife!’ And me!’
“iI ain’t gonna shit in my own woods.I know the crew is off-limits,but c’mon Mal.’
‘Keep her in the public areas, not in the cargo bay. Or in your bunk.’ I got no objections, but keep security in mind. We still got a few warm cargo aboard. Don’t let yer floozie get any ideas.’
“I ain’t plan on letting her outta my bunk.’
Zoe rolled her eyes. Always an impressive display.
David laughed.
‘You know where the sheaths are, have fun.’
He revved up the mule and, with Simon riding shotgun, drove down the cargo ramp.
‘Use yer best judgement. The kids’ll be back in about five hours. If you’re done and the woman is acceptable, you can introduce her to Kaylee and River. And when they’re back you can go off duty. Zoe and David can help load the cargo, if it all works out.’

‘That seems to be the place, sir.’
‘No zactly prepossessin, but we’ve seen worse. We ‘re just the delivery boys on this’n.’

There was a very high chain fence topped with razor wire surrounding the dusty square tithe several galvanized steel quonsets precisely set at angles to form a hexagon. Although the road had been lined with bamboo bush and a few small copses of trees as well as green meadows dotted with sheep, llamas and other grazers, the square was clear of vegetation in either bare earth or concrete.
‘Inviting.’
A short man in war surplus body armour, green paint flaking off the purple enamel, trotted over, a shotgun at the ready.
Mal and Zoe raised their hands.
‘We got appointment. Delivery for yer stores man.’
‘Name!’
‘Reynolds and Washburne, offa Serenity, with a delivery from CCWong and Family back at Prospect Ridge. We comm’d we was was in port.
The guard pinged someone then shrugged. He opened the gates wide enough to allow the mule and its tagalong through, then slammed them suit and locked them.
Three more men trotted out from the furthest quonset. from their equipment, all were obviously stevedores . They surrounded the tagalong and pulled back the canvas cover. Seeing the sealed crates they relaxed. The oldest stevedore pinged with his comm. All clear.’ He nodded at Mal and Zoe.’Go to Building Five. They’ll process payment for your sender and pay your delivery fee.’
‘Delivery fee’s already paid by the Wongs. Building Five’s that one?’

Building Five was, oddly, located between Building Seven and Building Three, but they found it on their second try. The door was opened by an armed guard, who took their paperwork and checked it carefully. Zoe and Mal exchanged puzzled looks.
’ A lot of security for machine parts.’
The guard grunted, making a hand signal to someoneinside the building. Then he grinned, showing a striking set of stainless steel teeth.
‘We have has some problems, he said in a warm rich baritone.’Sorry for the delays. We’ll get you unloaded faster than the cat had kittens.’
The stevedores from the gate rolled up the dock gate and started moving the bamboo crates into the quonset.
The guard wave Mal and Zoe to a bench by the door. Obviously they were not going to be asked inside out of the noon heat.

‘What do you fellas produce here?’ asked Mal amicably.
The guard looked wary. ‘Why?’
‘Sorry, just makin conversation. None of our business, right?’
‘Right,’ agreed the guard.’I’m not trying or be unfriendly , but we’ve has some troubles, industrial espionage, vandalism, some of it petty, some downright nasty.’
’Fair enough.’

Mal waited for a few minutes. ‘There a resto or gastro I could take the missus to here? She been cooped up fer two weeks and think she needs a break.’
The guard grinned at Zoe and suddenly started singing.

‘She may be weary, women do get weary, wearing that same cotton dress….’
Zoe blinked at him. His singing voice was as attractive as his speaking voice. Then it was Mal’s turn at surprise when she joined in,
‘But if she’s weary, try a little tenderness…”
‘I ain’t heard you sing since Emma was a babe in arms, Zoe. Right pleasant.’
‘Thank you, sir. My daddy used to sing that one to my mum.’
The guard nodded.’ My pa did the same.’ His steel teeth glinted in the sun. ‘Where you from, m’am?’
‘Ship born.’
‘Good cabin fever song.’
Zoe nodded.
‘Well, if the lady like red meat I’d recommend Wah Fatt. Good lamb and terrific Curry Goat. For fresh salads and the like, I’d take her to the Green Door. It’s a vegetarian buffet and they haves lots of different greens as well as some good casseroles.’
‘Which do you think Kaylee would prefer, Zoe?’
‘The one with the best desserts, sir.’
Mal was searching his comm and found both eating spots.
‘Looks like the Green Door then.’ He walked off to make reservations.

‘So he’s not your man?’
Zoe shook her head.
‘Would you like to try Wah Fatt’s with me?’
Zoe blinked again. “I’m usually in charge when the captain is on shore.’
‘Sorry I didn’t mean to…’
Zoe looked at him. ‘Usually, ain’t always. Does Wah Fatt mean dressing up?’
The guard laughed. ‘You get a nicer table if you do.’

Mal returned with a satisfied face. ‘Looks like we’re about done, then?’
The stevedores were folding the tarps back on the mule.
‘Looks like , I’m Kwame Rogers, by the way, pleased to do business with you’
Mal shook his hand.’Mal Reynolds.’
‘And?’
‘Zoe Washburne. See you tonight about 1830?’

They were halfway back to the shipyard before Mal broke the silence. “Go another contract for us, Zoe?’
‘Personal, sir.’
‘So I should shut up then.’
‘Seems like, sir.’

Kwame was prompt to pick up Zoe. He wore a very handsome grey silk evening coat which David remarked matched both his eyes and his teeth, making Simon giggle.
‘We’re going to Wah Fatt, Emma. I won’t be late.’
Emma nodded and kissed her mother, followed by a Death Glare at her mother’s beau.
Zoe swept out on Rogers’ arm in a flurry of red silk chiffon.

‘I don’t think I’ve seen that dress before,
‘It’s one of the ones we got from Nara.’ explained Kaylee,  ‘On her it was ankle length. On me too, but on Zoe and River it’s cocktail length.’
‘You ready , bao bei?’ Mal asked Kaylee, who was giving some last minute instructions to Emma.
‘Take me to the salad bar, capt’n.’

The next morning when Jayne returned from his shore leave, he passed a tired young man that River had brought home leaving.
‘How come I gotta get permission and lil moon brain kin bring home anything she scoops up?’ he complained to the crew at breakfast.
‘She’s a better judge of character than you.’
‘That Kelly was kinda sketchy. He tried ta roofie y’all.’
‘We got a good contract outta him, after all was said and done, though. It went pretty smooth.’

Simon and David had stayed home with the children the night before, but today they were invited to visit the local drop in clinic. Kaylee was heading for the used parts warehouse, famous sector­wide for its wide­ranging stock. Mal spelled Jayne off as her body guard.
‘The folks yesterday were skittish about security, keep alert.’
Jayne looked offended that such notice was necessary, but promised to be ready when he had eaten and showered.

‘Rogers was telling more about his troubles at dinner, sir.’
‘Any thing we need to know?’
‘Seems the magistrate died sudden last year. Alliance sent in an interim governor and he’s a problem.’
‘On the take?’
‘More like takin on. He’s been buying out all the business, at first makin low but fairish offers, but more and more , he moved to making doing business difficult.’
‘Yer boyfriend seems to worry about force.’
‘Hasn’t come to that yet., but he’s not the only one who’s upped security. Mostly the magistrate slows down import/export permits.’
‘We likely to have trouble leaving?’
‘Mebbee.’
Mal pinged Kaylee and asks her to find out from the scrappers if they could confirm the problems with the new governor.
‘What’s his name capt’n?
Zoe leaned in. ‘Wing, but I dunno anything else.’
‘Kay, we’ll ask around.’

When Kaylee and Jayne returned they both confirmed Rogers’ complaints. The scrapyard had a new ‘tax’ on off world purchases and there was talk of requiring salvagers to show their salvage licenses or buy new ones which -unlike the rare and expensive Federal licences— would only be good for Highgate. ‘Governor is telling the scrappers that a Highgate license would be cheaper than Federal one. The guy was sayin that they are gonna be about a quarter the price.’
‘But only good for Highgate?’
‘Zactly.’
‘He’s goin after whorin licences too. Gal I rented yesterday was saying his troops stiffed a couple of the whores on party rentals and when they complained to Wing, he start talking about special business licenses. ‘
‘Restraint of trade, new taxes on his own. That’s a parliamentary prerogative.’
‘So what kin we do? Sides hope we don’t get landlocked.’
‘First star to the left and straight on to morning.’
‘Yeah, River, we probably should leave as soon as possible.’
Simon looked at Mal quizzically.
‘You and Crazy on the same wave again, Mal?’ asked Jayne.
‘Someone’s gottta be. Wish we could do something to help these people.’
River got up and swayed rhythmically around the galley.
‘Nope not getting that suggestion.’

Rogers had put out the word that Serenity could carry off world shipments and was not too particular about paperwork. The crew found themselves visiting cafes and taverns ranging from cheery fast food family spots to scary dives, arranging clandestine contracts and pickups from a dozen nervous factory owners.
’I don’t like doin this,’ muttered a heavyset canner of processed meats.”But the new taxes are killin my export trade.’ He dandled Beege on his knees and glanced at Kaylee. ‘Ti’m just hopin you all are as honest as Rogers claims.’
‘If we was completely honest,’ smiled Kaylee,’We wouldn’t be bending local law like this, hey?’ She laughed and the older man gave her a rueful smile.
Zoe got a similar message from a high strung matron, owner of a celluloid factory,  who met with her and Emma at a dress shop.
Jayne heard it heard it when he arranged a contract in a dive so low, he confessed to waiting until he was well down the road before finding an alley to piss in.
Simon heard that medicines were becoming expensive due to new duties being imposed.
Everyone they spoke with was worried about complaining, concerned that they would be overheard by spies. There were rewards for informing on manufacturers and merchants who were not paying the new fees, taxes and duties.

But it was Kaylee who found the most surprising news.
‘I saw this new governor everone’s complaining about, an you’ll never guess.’
‘Guess you’re just a good man,’ River laughed. Simon sighed. Jayne grunted in irritation.
‘The new governor, we’ve met him before.’
‘When?’ asked Mal. ‘Oh shit. Wing. On Persephone.’
‘Atherton Wing.’ confirmed Kaylee, who had seen him parading the lovely Inara Serra on his arm at a ball on that world. She had attended with Mal, wearing the most beautiful dress she had ever imagined, then been hustled back to Serenity, when Mal inadvertently challenged Wing to a duel over the Companion’s honour.
‘What’s he doing out here running  a Rim world?’
‘Probably has ambitions in politics. He’s want to have some experience in the field before standing for election.’ said Simon.
‘Do Lords need election?’
‘He’s inherited a title and probably a fortune. But serving in Parliament, even in the House of Lords… well, there are 70 billion souls in the ‘Verse.  Two and a half billion on Persephone. Not everyone with a title can qualify. I’m not sure of the situation on Persephone, but on Osiris, the aristocracy elected Members from their own to serve on Londinium in the Lords.’
‘But if he’s got money, why bother draining the lifeblood outta Highgate?’ asked Kaylee, accepting the bowl of rice Simon passed to her.
‘Because he can, reckon.’ replied her husband. ‘He was a bully on Persephone and now he has a new bunch to push around.’
‘And no one to push back,’ said Zoe.
There was  a quiet moment while everyone filled their bowls with rice and Canh Thit Ca rot Khoai Tay, pork stew with vegetables. Simon had bought sweet buns for dessert and there was cow’s milk and almond milk on the table, as well as pots of tea.
‘We could,’ remarked Mal.
‘Saw that coming,’ said Jayne.
‘The governor sets the laws, sir. We can slip around, but we can’t change that.’
‘But we know people who can,’ said Simon.
‘Who?’
‘Dortmunder. We did them a favour and made a few friends there. And they are the law in this sector.’
Mal whistled. ‘But the governor makes the law.’
Simon shook his head. ‘ Not exactly. The magistrate enforces the law within the guidelines of the Parliament. I am fairly sure that these new duties and taxes are not within the guidelines. And it would be interesting to have an audit of the books.’
‘You have the makins  of a fine criminal mind, doc,’ said Mal. ‘How do we go about takin Wing down? Again.’

First they had to get off-world. Serenity had been parked at the Highgate dock, which was mostly an open field, so lightly used that it was also common pasture for some of the local ranchers.
This meant that loading cargo was a very public affair, although few workers were employed at the dock. The crew assumed they were Wing’s men.
Jayne learned differently. ‘I was … visiting a friend… and got to talking to some of the dockworkers. They ain’t too pleased with Wing neither. They was unionized and Wing broke the union, bought out the executive and ain’t enforcing the safety protocols. The boys ain’t too happy with him.’
‘Reckon they would notice if we was loading a lot more cargo than was on the manifest?’
‘They ain’t gonna risk that. But if we was to come and go a few times, they might not be looking into the cargo bay every time.’
‘We can use the shuttles to pick up smaller cargos and load them somewheres quiet,’ suggested Zoe. ‘I’ll look at maps on the Cortex.’
’There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us. Peace and quiet and room to share…Latitude:48.428613°
Longitude:-123.364912°’ warbled River.
‘Okay, I guess I can skip the search.’

River’s ‘place’ was a dry gulch, not far from town but across some rough unsettled desert where terraforming had produced hot sulphurous springs. The springs were something of an attraction, or would perhaps one day be, when the economy was stronger. In the subsistence economy of Highgate few went there. But that off-worlders would investigate was not unusual.
Several of the larger cargoes were delivered over the course of the two days the ship was there.

Simon and David took samples of the water, to investigate them for medicinal properties.
‘The most therapeutic value is likely to be the relaxing effect of the hot water,’ Simon grouched.
’Therapeutic springs have a long history of use in natural medicine,’ David argued. ‘Even if all we do is encourage a tourism industry here for the springs, it would be worthwhile.’
‘Encouraging superstition and placebos,’ said his husband. ‘But it gives us a cover story, not that it would do any good if anyone looks in the hold.’

Mal took Kaylee and the children exploring the countryside around the town. He hired a horse and went riding alone and when Derry expressed disappointment, hired another and gave him some basic lessons.

Zoe met with Kwame Rogers once or twice during their few days at Highgate She smiled a lot and sometimes was overheard humming.

On what was planned to be their last day, she was having lunch with Rogers at The Table, when there was a little stir at the door. A handsome man, with striking blue eyes escort eda much younger woman, dresses extravagantly for daytime on this Rim world. His jacket was simple enough but was topped with a scarlet sash.

LADY CABOTT WING

“Lord Atherton Wing, ‘ murmured Rogers’ And that’s his wife, Cabott, back in the world from Shinon. Looks like she’s been shopping.’
Wing overruled the maitre d’s choice of a quiet table, choosing instead a seat by the window, where he and his beautiful young wife could see and be seen by passersby.
Zoe watched  the couple as they looked at the menu and ordered. It appeared as if the young woman had very specific wishes for her meal. Wing watched her with a doting eye.
‘It’s supposed to be an arranged marriage, but Wing is also supposed to be the one who worked on the arrangement. She brought a lot of money into the marriage.’
‘She’s a pretty thing. Lot younger than him.’
‘He’s over forty. She’s probably older than she looks. Core people usually are. Young enough for children anyway.’
‘You know he’s on the Companion Guild blacklist?’ asked Zoe. ‘He insulted a Companion and was dropped from their client index, going on ten years ago.’
‘Well, that’s interesting,’ Kwame replied.’Makes me think he my deserve anything that minx dishes out.’
Cabott Wing was pushing a plate away with a cute moue. Atherton summoned the server and the plate was whisked away. There was a quiet conversation near the kitchen door.
‘Dunno the problem. I think I had the same thing, tofu and salal berries with udon noodles.’
‘You demolished it,’ laughed Kwame. ‘I do like to see a woman enjoy her food.’
The server brought  another dish  for Lady Wing. As she passed, Zoe saw it was something quite different, a sort of patty garnished with an edible flower salad.  It was acceptable and the server returned to the kitchen looking relieved. The maitre d’ brought a bottle of wine to the Governor’s table.
Kwame and Zoe relaxed over their dessert and espresso. They had enjoyed each other’s company although they knew they were ships passing in the night. Now they were saying goodbye, probably forever.
‘I’ve been lucky,’ said Zoe reflectively. ‘I’ve only had a few men n my life, but they’ve been good men.’
‘Your husband.’
‘He made me laugh so much. And Mal is a rock with a heart of custard. There was a boy in the war….,’ she sighed. ‘But one gave me my daughter and one gave me a job. And I have some sweet memories.’
Kwame was about to speak when the Wings stood and prepared to leave. The maitre d’ hurried over with their bill, but quailed at the Governor’s frown. They swept out.
The server looked close to tears.
‘Mercy has two kids in school and depends on her tips. Cheap ass trick to stiff the server,’ Rogers muttered. ‘Huh, time for us to go too.
He summoned the moist-eyed server and paid their bill, then tucked a ten credit note under his coffee cup. ‘I know the service charge is divided. The cash tips the server can keep.’
Outside, Rogers took Zoe’s arm and turned left. Zoe stopped him. ‘I guess you was planning for us to go back to your flat again, but, well, thank you. We’re leaving as soon as all the crew gets aboard.’
’Sneaking out of town?’
‘Yep. Like scaredy little pussies.’
‘I wish your pussy could be back in my bed, but… it was fun. I really liked the time we’ve had together.’
‘Like I was sayin, I’ve been lucky with the men I’ve chosen.’
Kwame moved to kiss her. ’Not on the street.’
‘May I walk you back to the dock? There may be a quiet corner before we get there.’
Zoe laughed.

‘I gotta go pick up my kids at school,’ the dockyard manager told Mal. ‘Here are your papers. If you’d be kind enough to fill in your cargoes, I’ll calculate your export fees when I get back.’
‘Sure,’ said Mal, with his most charming smile. ‘Could we pay our docking fees now? Save us all some time.’
The manager blushed a little. ‘Sure. Oh geez, I shouldn’t’a  signed that until the cargo fees were paid too. I’ll be back in about an hour. Don’t leave before I do that.’ She smiled  back at the handsome captain.
As he left the office, she took a moment to admire how nicely those tight pants  clung to his very fine ass. Then she grabbed her bag and headed off to the school.

As soon as River saw the manager’s fastcar leave the shipyard, they took off for the Black.

Mal spent a few hours sweating over his report for the inspector they had met when they were stopped for inspection in the Black by IAV Dortmund. As much as possible he described the effects of the new, possibly illegal fees and taxes Atherton Wing had slapped on the citizens of Highgate. He added copies of expropriation papers and purchase agreements that unhappy businesses had shown him.
Simon read over his work and corrected a few terms. ‘I ain’t written anything like this since I left school,’ Mal told him. ‘Don’t think I’ve actually written anything longer than a page in years.’
‘I think you covered the basic points, and more importantly, you pointed the inspectors where they can confirm your claims, ‘ Simon replied. ‘Now, how do we get this to Dortmunder without having to be inspected ourselves? I doubt our paperwork would hold up to hard scrutiny.’

‘Don’t look like nobody’s chasin us from Highgate, though. Maybehap we could just send the report by Cortex. We got a private ping for anybody on board?’
‘Well, for that Pat in the engineering, but I dunno how interested she’d be. Or he. Never did work that one out,’ mused Kaylee.
‘We do need a few more pronouns,’ laughed Simon. ‘How about the inspector who came on board?’
‘He hailed us, but that means we should be able to hail him. I’m coming down with another case of the stupids.’ said Mal.
Jayne muttered something, but was ignored.
Mal sent his report to the inspector and got a polite note back with a private addendum, ‘This kind of feudal behaviour is not what Parliament expects of its appointees. I give my word that it will be looked into.’
‘Well, we done our duty as nice little Alliance citizens. For whatever good it may do.’

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http://thebias.com/2015/08/31/diversity-panels-id-like-to-see/

Story ideas.

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