“Zoe and I gotta take the older kids clothes shoppin, Capt’n,” said Kaylee, “So why don’t you and BabyGirl spend the day together? Jayne can take care of receiving the cargo and Riv’s off with that new boy of hers.”
“When do Simon and David get back? I wanna leave Poseidon as soon as they’re here.”
“Not to fret. They’re on the other side of the world, but savin someone goin inta labour early, or trouble down the mine, they should be back by supper.”
Mal looked over at his son. Derry had entered his ninth year growth spurt suddenly adding 10 cm and now stretched to 125 cm. Mal was sure the boy would eventually be taller than his own 185cm.
And Hope, at twelve was already a willowy170 cm, and badly needed new pants and tops. She was wearing some of her old dresses, and borrowing others from Kaylee, but in Mal’s opinion, in loco parentis, those were much too short for modesty.
Mal rubbed his left bicep, which was giving him twinges he would not admit to. Skipping cargo moving sounded good. “A daddy-daughter day? We can go to the park, there was climbing things there. And a zoo. “ And no moving heavy boxes he thought. Let the hired muscle do that. He’d ask Simon about his sore arm tonight.
“They breed birds here for terraforming.’ said Hope.” The zoo would have all kinds of birds, not just the domestic ones.”
“Bud” said BG. She had her father’s bright blue eyes, but her red hair came from Kaylee’s mother.
“Has she ever seen a bird?” asked Mal.”Your parents weren’t keeping chickens on our last visit, were they?”
Mal pushed BG in the folding stroller until they were well past the teeming docks and into a part of the town where there were sidewalks and trees. There were houses here, old ones of adobe and stone, newer ones of brick or bamboo. One large new house they passed was entirely made of wood, expensive since trees took so long to grow to harvestable size.
BG found she enjoyed the trip through the docks once she got over her initial discomfort at being among so many strangers and so much noise. With the exception of visits to her grandparents on Harvest, where Mummy’s siblings had produced a couple of dozen cousins to play with her, she was most content with her family and the quiet of Serenity.
She was excited to be out with Captain Daddy. They had lots of playtimes together, and of course, they slept in the same room, but usually her brother was around to distract Daddy. Having him all to herself was unusual.
The Poseidon docks were surrounded by semicircles of industrial, commercial then residential settlement, but backed onto a river. By crossing the footbridge over the river, Mal and BG entered a pleasant residential district which in turn surrounded the Posiedon Bird Breeding Station and the zoo.
When the streets got quieter, she decided that she wanted a little exercise. “Top Daddy! Giddown?”
“Do you want to walk for a bit, BabyGirl? You can undo the safety belt.” Daddy folded up the stroller and slung it over his shoulder with the necessary bag.
BG was satisfied to see that the bag was not as bulky as it used to be. She had recently graduated to big girl panties instead of diapers. At least during the day, she admitted to herself. Nights were still problematical. “Pobem’cul.” she muttered, trying out a word she had learned from her hero, River, the ship’s pilot.
“Look, Beege! See the red thing on that high branch? That’s a bird called a cardinal. Cardinal is also a kind of red.”
BG could just see the flash of red, when it suddenly jumped off the branch, got bigger and flew away. “Bud? Bud biggened?”
“The bird has wings instead of arms. He spreads out his wings and he can fly. Guess that does look like he gets embiggened.” Mal laughed as his tiny redhead spread out her arms and ran.
They were still laughing together when they turned the corner to find the zoo.
BG had never imagined anything like birds. Hope had a couple of velociraptors and pterodactyls in her precious dinosaur collection, but although she said they could fly, at best they stayed airborne a few seconds longer than a stegosaurus when hurled across the cargo bay.
There were birds pictured in some of her stories, but BG saw that she had not made the leap from the bookpad illustrations, either drawn or vid, to these tiny flashes of colour. And it had not been clear in the stories that the birds made so much noise. Or that the noises were very pleasant.
“Buds sing. Sing sing sing!” she explained to Daddy.
“These are little songbirds. They eat bugs that eat crops so they’re an important part of the ecosystem.” Mal wondered how much of this his BabyGirl was understanding. Her vocabulary was well behind how he remembered Hope and Derry at three. “Let’s go see the farm birds”
They looked at quail, and at chickens, plain and fancy. Ducks and geese of many kinds swam in the ponds and fountains of the zoo. When Mal told her that Hope’s daddy knew a place where people juggled geese, she decided this was one more fanciful tale of the legendary Wash, whose amazing piloting and fund of funny stories were part of Serenity’s culture. The geese were larger than she was, and she was sure nobody juggled children. “Troot? “ she asked.
“Don’t know, Beege, Never been there my own self.”
Then she saw the beautiful flamingos and the towering ostriches and the moas. Then she was hungry.
Daddy unfolded the stroller and wheeled her over to a lunch area by the playpark. He pulled peanut butter and banana sandwiches, sliced apples, and mooncakes out of the necessary bag then a bottle of milk for BG and of beer for himself.
BG whispered in Mal’s ear, “Pee, peas?” and Mal took them over to the public washrooms. He stopped uncomfortably. There was no “Family” restroom and he was unsure about taking his little girl into the Men’s Room.
“Do you need any help?” asked a pretty young woman holding the hand of a girl about BG’s age. “We’re just going in and could escort your daughter if you like.”
Daddy turned on his smile. Mummy said the Reynolds men could charm the pants off a nun with that smile. She said Derry had inherited it, and he’d be keeping Blue Sun Rubbers in the black before he was thirteen. Grownups said a lot of mysterious things, especially when they didn’t think she could understand what they were saying. BG didn’t understand the connection between rubber boots and charm and deep Space.
“This is Beege, “ Daddy said. “Can you go with the lady?” BG nodded. “Fuss!” she reminded him.
“Yes, remember to flush. And wipe front to back, okay?”
“K” She took the lady’s other hand. She remembered to wipe the seat before sitting down, which Daddy had not told her to do. She remembered to wipe front to back. She remembered to flush. She remembered to wash her hands.
Feeling much more comfortable, Mal and BG went over to the play equipment. BG and her new friend headed for the ladders, while Mal, finding himself surprisingly tired after his walk, watched from a nearby bench with the lady.
The play equipment included long and short slides, a treehouse, ropes for climbing and for playing monkeys. The little girls tried all of them before they found the swings and decided they needed parents to push them to get the best results.
BG ran over to the bench where she had left Daddy. There were a group of women clustered around. Mummy was right about Daddy’s charm, she thought indulgently. But the women were not smiling or laughing. One stepped away from the group and spoke urgently into her com.
BG squirmed through the legs and saw Daddy sleeping on the bench. He was pasty white and his lips were blue. BG couldn’t see any blood, so she assumed that he had not been shot, or stabbed, and she would have heard the report of a gun. So why was everyone looking so worried?
Some uniforms arrived. BG slipped into the middle of a group of children and tried to look as inconspicuous as she would if Alliance hundans boarded Serenity. The nice lady was explaining that she didn’t know Daddy, that they were just chatting while their children played.
While one police officer started thumping on Mal’s chest, another patted him down, and found some coins and even folding money in his pocket. Then he looked in the necessary bag. “No ID.” He said to his communicator.
The nice lady pointed to BG. “That’s his little girl, Beege. She may be able to tell you their names and the name of their ship.”
BG was overcome with shyness. All these strangers. And Alliance hundans. She stuck her thumb in her mouth, disgusted with herself for acting so babyish. But it was soothing.
The uniform was kneeling beside her, holding her hand and speaking quietly. She had removed her helmet and BG saw she had curly hair and brown skin like Zoe. She relaxed a little.
“What’s your name, little one?” she asked. She even sounded like Zoe.
“Beege.” “How old are you?” BG showed her three fingers from the hand that was not in her mouth.
“Can you tell me your whole name?” BG knew that one, although no one had ever asked her before. “Bay Gul Weh Woh”
“What’s your Daddy’s name?” ‘Cap pin Weh Woh” “
“Pretty sure they’re spacers, sarge, “ said one of the uniforms. “Spacers’ tan. Either that or they’ve both been living in a cave for months.”
“What’s the name of your ship, little one?” “Senty”
“What do you think that baby talk translates to in English? It was English right?” the uniform that looked like Zoe asked the nice lady.
“We were talking in English, about children, mostly about toilet training,” the lady said. “We didn’t exchange names or any background. It sounded to me like the little girl was saying Captain Wu of the Santa or maybe Sally.”
There was a loud beeping and a hover arrived. The crew did mysterious things to Daddy, and then loaded him on a stretcher. The inside of the hover looked like the infirmary at home. BG was confused. She ran to her Daddy.
“No ID on the patient. Not even a com. We’ll be taking him to the Book Memorial. Shall we use Captain Wu as his ID until we get him identified?”
“Yes, that would be better than John Doe. There’s no ship named Santa or Santa anything and none called Sally either, not registered in port.”
“So who’s taking care of the kid? We gotta get the patient to Emerge asap.”
“I suppose I could take her,” offered the nice lady, clutching her own girl’s hand.
“Thank you ma’m, but we can’t just hand over kids like that. As a mother, I’m sure you understand,“ said the brown-skinned officer. “There’s a children’s refuge next to the Book. She’ll go there as Baygul Wu, if you want to follow up.”
BG wanted to be a big girl, but on the ride in the police hover, she started to cry uncontrollably. She knew Daddy didn’t like uniforms or police. She didn’t know where Daddy was or where Mummy was. The officer was a little like Zoe, but she didn’t have that cool, comforting aura of uncompromising love that Zoe gave all the children. She wanted to go home.
Instead the officer brought her to a big stone building, and gave her to an old lady in grey pants and shirt, who called her Baygul, and took her to a room with half a dozen toddlers, BG was insulted that she was with the babies. “She says she’s three but she doesn’t speak like a three year old. There may be some delay there.”
BG was very tired. She found a playhouse with a cushioned floor, lay down and fell asleep.
When she woke, the light had changed. Remembering Nana’s farm, she thought it must be around sunset. Daddy and she had started their playday before noon. BG was afraid and wanted to see Daddy. She was also hungry. She crawled out of the playhouse.
The toddlers were having their diapers changed by two women in grey pants and shirts. One of them saw BG and smiled. “Hi, sweetheart! Did you have a good rest? We’re going to have dinner as soon as the babies are changed.”
BG realized she needed the washroom. “Pee?” She asked. Then, remembering her manners, ”Pee, peas?”
The smiling woman finished fastening a diaper and put fresh pants on the little boy she had changed. “Sure, sweetheart. There’s a toilet right there.”
BG marched over to the toilet. There was no door, just a half wall. Wipe the seat, front to back, flush and wash hands. Returning to the playroom, she said. “Xie xie.”
“No developmental delay there, I’d say,” said the other nun, “Needs speech therapy though.” Then to BG. She said, ”Come along. Take the hand of one of the babies. We go in two by two.”
BG was frightened. River sometimes would cry and repeat “two by two, two by two.” When that happened Doctor Simon and all the grownups got very upset.
“NO!” she said, in her ‘danger’ voice.” You’re not my mother!”
“Wow.” Said the smiley nun. “No baby talk there! Maybe everyone she’s with understands her, so she doesn’t have to try. Like those twins last year with their own language.’ She looked at BG’s frightened face. “Okay sweetheart, take my hand instead. We’re going to eat.”
BG calmed herself. She found her thumb in her mouth again and was annoyed. This was not being a big girl. The Serenity women took care of themselves. River had told her that once and Mummy agreed. She took the hand of the smiling nun and went into dinner.
The cargo had been stowed by the contractor’s men, under Jayne’s intimidating supervision, Simon and David were on board before Zoe, Kaylee and the kids arrived from a very successful shopping trip. River drifted in and took Hope up to the bridge to prepare for takeoff.
“Capt’n wanted to be off this world before sunset, but here we sit.” said Kaylee, “Where are they?”
“Did Mal go off without a communicator?” asked Zoe.
“He was goin ta wear a jacket, but it was hot when he stepped outside, so he left it here,“ explained Jayne.”The com’s in the mickey pocket.”
River called down from the bridge, “Does anyone know a Captain Wu? There’s a police report on the cortex sayin a Captain Wu was taken to Book Hospital and that he had a small child with him.”
Kaylee froze. Zoe called back to River, “Don’t know about the name, but I reckon that’s our captain, they got. Kaylee and I will go get them.”
Beege cried herself to sleep that night. The gray women were kind, but she didn’t like the bed. She wanted her own crib. She missed Daddy’s light snoring and Mummy’s goodnight kiss.
When morning came, she was frightened by the strange surroundings. She didn’t want the cold crunchy food the grey women gave her instead of warm cornmeal porridge and almond milk. She wanted Mummy, She wanted the hundan Alliance to bring back Daddy.
After most of the children had eaten, the grey women took them back to the playroom. One of the women took her aside for games and puzzles. Most of them Beege found pretty simole, even a little boring. But the grey woman seemed so pleased to play with her that she cooperated. But she wanted to go home.
“Peas? Senty? Want Mummy. Peas?”
The grey woman cuddled her as she wept.
“We’re looking for your Mummy, sweetheart.”
“Daddy is sick. But he is with a good doctor and will be well soon.”
Beege felt a surge of hope. At least one of her family was here!
“Simon here? Want Simon!”
“Who is Simon? Is he your brother?”
Beege gave her a disgusted look. “Said doc! Doc Simon!”
“Xīméng shì nǐ de xiōngdì ma?”
“Tā yě lǎole. Tā shìgè yīshēng. Xīméng dān. Shūshu xīméng”
The grey woman called to her colleague.
“Why didn\t we try Chinese? Her pronunciation is just fine.”
“Wǒ xīwàng wǒ de mùnǎiyī”
“Dāngrán nǐ zhèyàng zuò, xiǎo nǚhái beloverd. Nǐ mǔqīn de míngzì shì shénme?”
“Nǐ de chuán de míngzì shì shénme? »
“Nǐ zhīdào zhōngguó rén de míngzì ma? »
“Sister, would you get the office and let them know that the name of her ship is Harmony?”
“Umm- try Serenity. Is that right dear?”
“’S!” Manners. She reminded herself. “Xie xie.”
“There’s a lot of paperwork needed get a child back from Care.” moaned Kaylee.
“I’ll take Serenity to deliver the cargo.” Said Zoe “Are you goin to stay here with Mal and the kids?
“Yeah. There’s a mickeydee for famlies attached to the Book. And I wanna be there when Mal wakes up. I have a few things to explain to him about carryin ID.”