‘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.
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘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, not talkin.’
‘Some say they’s special good for pregnancy.’
‘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.’
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?’
‘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.
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.’
‘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.’
‘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. ‘
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.’
‘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
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.’
‘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.’