“What do you think, Zoe? Fifteen people too much for two weeks?”
“Life support’s no problem, but they’d be camping in the cargo bay. Restricts the other cargo we could carry, And meals would have to be in shifts.”
Perse interrupted. “They have special dietary needs, so they wouldn’t be needing your culinary skills, sis.”
Zoe bridled. Mal wasn’t sure if her annoyance was at her brother’s familiar nickname or the swat at her admittedly terrible cooking. Zoe was capable of burning Oven Stew. Mal was not sure what she put in what her late husband called “Wife Soup” which he had seemed to like. On the other hand when your wife was an Amazon who could kill you with her pinkie, in several ways, his enthusiasm may have been self-defence.
“So eight adults and and six children headed for Lazarus. Plus their personal luggage and homesteading equipment. Any animals?”
“None. And on the trip back you’ll carry fresh produce, mostly grain and root vegetables, potatoes and the like. So pretty straightforward.”
“Right. Anything we should know about these ‘dietary restrictions’?”
“No pork products, so no bacon for breakfast.”
“Like we could afford it!”
“And no alcohol.”
Oh, Jayne’s gonna be dee-lighted by that .”
“What about Kaylee’s InterEngine distillery?”
“We don’t allow passengers in the engine room anyways. Worse comes to worst, we end up with some fine aged moonshine.”
Perse chortled, “Aged two weeks!”
Mal grinned, “That’ll be the smoothest hooch Kaylee has ever produced.”
The passengers brought several surprises. Most noticeable was that the adult women all wore burkhas and the men full beards. Even the children wore some form of religious dress, with the three girls in headscarves, even the toddler, and the two boys wearing skull caps.
More surprising, however, was the special agricultural cargo they brought – a dozen date palm trees and a dozen orange trees.
“Our ancestors are not actually from the parts of Earth-that-was where palms flourished,” explained the group leader, who had introduced himself as Imam Machmoud el-Said. “But there is a niche market for dates and anything that pulls us above subsistence farming will be a gift from Allah.”
Hope was beside herself. She had set up a kitchen garden at he Uncle Perse’ compound on Persephone and Simon had turned one of the passenger staterooms into a hydroponic garden for her after her biology studies exposed a talent for horticulture.
“Considering our family is shipborn for ten generations and her daddy’s home world is so polluted, it’s a wonder people can grow there, it has to be a mutation.” her mother had commented.
“Imam el-Said, my crew is half made up of women. If you’re gonna make any fuss about that, we can end this contract right now.”
The imam’s round face resolved itself in to laughlines. “Allah asks that men and women wear modest dress. Our womenfolk chose to cover, but there is nothing immodest about the demeanour of any member of your crew, I think. God be merciful, that we will all be fine.”
“You ain’t met Jayne.”
The crew had decided to bring along their own three children since the passengers would include youngsters. At twelve Hope Washburne was about matched with the oldest girl, Aysha, who was as quiet as Hope,although her silence seemed more shyness than Hope’s innate dignity. Her sister, Habon, was the three year old and was as outgoing as her sister was shy.
The third girl was ages with Derrial Reynolds, about seven, and came aboard completely dressed in pink including a pink suitcase which she opened to reveal several dolls and a plethora of pink playthings. Derry was appalled.
Two of the boys were older than Derry. Halid , son of the imam,was ten as was Ahmed. They were cousins and Mal was amused to watch the jockeying for dominance among the young males. The third boy was a newborn.
“We were lucky he was a little early or we would have had to wait for weeks,” his father, Sander, told Mal. “Allah blessed us with an easy birth and a healthy child. We have named him Mohammed for the Prophet, blessings be upon him.”
Mal looked a little uncomfortable. His own baby daughter was nearly a year old and still had not formally been named. She was still referred to as The Baby or Baby Girl or occasionally as BG.
Mohammed’s father, a tall thin man had African features like Zoe and her brother Perse, but was much darker, almost plum black.
Rahim, the father of the two girls, however, had blond hair and blue eyes, with the kind of features once common to Northern Europe on Earth-that-was.
The four families set to work raising tents in the cargo bay for privacy. The imam worked on some advanced calculation that required use of the Cortex before setting out a beautifully woven carpet.
“For prayer. We will pray several times a day. We were instructed to face Mecca on Earth-that-was, but in these late times, we can only face the Sol System.”
Mal looked less than pleased. “Let me know your schedule so’s I can make myself scarce.”
Zoe and Jayne had been helping to organize the tents and sort the luggage that would be needed immediately. Now Kaylee appeared, pulling her coverall into place after nursing Baby. Her welcoming smile and one woman charm offensive brought a matching smile to the Imam’s face.
“My wife, Kaylee Frye,”said Mal, “And the only other crew member you have to meet is our pilot River Tam, who is preparing to take us out of this world. “
“C’mon, Capt’n, we do have more crew,” Kaylee reminded him.
“Well, yeah, they ain’t on this trip, We’ll pick ‘em up on our way back. River’s brother Simon’s a doctor and his husband David Chen is a nurse and midwife. They’re part of the Derrial Book Memorial Hospital Flying Doctors and are holding a clinic on Muir. Buncha towns and villages there without permanent medical staff , so they gets paid to call in regular.”
Out of the corner of her eye Kaylee notice the blond man stiffen at “his husband” but let it slide. His opinion wouldn’t matter on this leg of their job.
A chime rang at the imam’s waist. “Well, as I mentioned, we pray several times a day and one of those times approaches. Any of the crew are welcome to join us….?”
“I have captainy things to do.”Mal said and strode off stiffly.
“Capt’n’s not big on God,” said Kaylee,”bur you’re welcome to your own beliefs . And thanks for the invitation. “
She and Zoe took their children off to the crew living area.
After prayers, the passenger women joined them in the kitchen. They had removed the enveloping burkhas, although they still wore hijabs.
“The Prophet,, blessed be his name, tells us to be modest in our dress. The burkah keeps us safe from the general gaze, but the hijab is acceptable among friends,” explained Fatima, the imam’s wife.
“And saves us a fortune in hairdressing bills,” laughed Miriam, the mother of the newborn.
Kaylee laughed too, although she noticed that Miriam and Fatima both wore nearly as much makeup as her late friend , the Companion Inara Serra. Golden eyeshadow and ruby lips enhanced the South Asian features of Miriam, while Fatima favoured kohl and heavy mascara on her long lashes.
Rehab, the mother of the two girls and wife of Rahim, was, like Kaylee with her skin scrubbed pink and clean.
The women had brought foodstuffs into the kitchen.
“Most of this is pretty ordinary,”explained Fatima,”But there are meats that were slaughtered by our rules and there are some foods we do not touch.”
Zoe nodded,”No pork, no shellfish, don’t mix meat and dairy — pretty much like the Jews? But genfood and protein bars are okay?”
“Pretty much”, agreed Fatima, “The survival foods are made to match almost any diet. At any rate, they are vegetable based. If algae is a vegetable.”
“Show me what you can’t eat from out stores.” offered Kaylee.”Then we can eat together, if you like. The Capt’n like us to eat together at least for dinner when we’re in the Black.”
“The Captain is your husband, I think?” murmured Rehab, “You show him great respect, I think, not like so many infidel women.”
“Oh, he was my capt’n ‘fore he was my man. Kinda got used to it. Hardly never call him anythin else ‘cept in bed.”
Rehab blushed. “The children…”
Kaylee was amused. The ship children had a robust understanding of adult behaviour, although Mal had found it necessary to insist on “behind closed doors” when Simon and David were courting after an accidental PDA gave a six year old Hope the idea that when she was grown up she would have a penis.
Kaylee made a mental note to speak to Jayne about keeping all his clothes on. It was a pity they all still had to share the shower room.
‘The women passengers cooked dinner that “evening” after the rest of the cargo was stowed, some of it quietly and away from the ken of the passengers. River had taken them well away from any asteroids or planetoids or other space junk and with Serenity on autopilot, was able to join them for the first time. Slim and elegant in her black jumpsuit, she gazed curiously around the new comers. She smiled at the children, especially the girl toddler, who immediately decided River was going to be her best friend.
Hope and Aysha were quietly comparing note on their schooling. Hope thought she was ahead in the sciences, having been coached by the two genius Tams and by David whose fascination with all things biological matched her own. River was her mentor in physics.
Aysha had more background in literature and languages. As well as English and Chinese, she spoke ancient tongues like Arabic and Hindu and could read Spanish, Sanskrit, Turkish and Aramaic. She could also work in some Amerindian tongues like Cree and Inuit.
“That’s a lot of languages for someone who never talks,”exclaimed Derry, earning himself a swat on the bum from his father. “Manners!” warned the captain.
“I apologize for my silly joke, Ms. Aysha. Please forgive me.” He said with a bow and a cocky grin. Aysha smiled back.
River gazed solemnly at the young girl then looked puzzled. “Twenty three” she said.
With so many at dinner, the children picnicked on the floor, while the 14 adults crowded around the table. The passenger women sat together flanked by their husbands, while the crew sat as they wished, although the Captain and the Imam took the ends of the table.
“Cozy and right friendly for our first dinner but I reckon shift will work better ,” said Kaylee with her trademark smile.
“Yes, said Rahim. ”The men should eat first and the women and children later.”
“We prefer to be all together each day. Gives us a chance to talk abut anything that might have come up.” Kaylee chirped.
The tall blond frowned. “Surely telling your husband…”
Mal interrupted, “Kaylee is our engineer. She know more about what Serenity needs mechanically than any of us. Same with River. She and I both pilot, but she’s far and away the better. Only ever met one who could have beat her skills. And anyway, she don’t have a husband, so it gets kinda moot.”
“She has a brother, you said?”
“Well, he’s no pilot, and he can’t handle a weapon, that there hipcratic oath seems to get in his way, but he is a genius doctor. He and Davie aren’t always with us. Like right now , they go dirtside to run their clinics. We’re transport.”
“Now Rahim ,” the imam intervened .”Did not the Prophet. Blessed be his name, encourage his womenfolk to be independent and to be the best they could be? ‘ Do treat your women well and be kind to them, for they are your partners and committed helpers.’ My own wife will be our agricultural technologist when we reach Lazarus,” the imam went on.”Our wives are accomplished women. Our daughters will also make us proud. We are particularly delighted with the proficiency Aysha shows with languages. Perhaps some day she will rise high in government service- an ambassador or diplomat.”
“An obedient wife and good mother.” Her father said.
Zoe frowned at the word obedient. But Kaylee jumped in with a change of subject.
”Rehab, didn’t you make that green salad thing? What is in it? It was delicious.”
“Tabuleh– It’s mostly cracked wheat and parsley, with lemon juice, olive oil, some other herbs. I can write you the recipe. “ Rehab gave Kaylee her worried smile.
“Parsley? That ‘s something. I see at the side of the plate in fancy restaurants. Who knew it was so tasty. ?”
“Could I have that recipe too, Ms. Rehab?” asked Hope. ” I grow a lot of parsley but nobody ever uses it.”
As the families took their children off the bed, Zoe and Jayne cleared the dishes companionably. “Them kids is better behaved than I was feart,“ said Jayne.
“Mmm. But that Rahim seems pretty stiff-necked especially about the women . You’re gonna behave right?”
“Did you hear me talkin’? And you know I don’t need to bother any married women. I got charm enough to pull any free woman I want.”
Zoe was silent. It was true enough . Jayne had been on his best behaviour.
“Good. I figger that any trouble would land on the women and not on you” “I don’t like that Rahim. Got a big head on him. Too much schoolin’ not enough livin’.”
“Naw. He’s okay, reminds me of Book Gonna have a talk with him before they leave. This prophet sounds innerestin.”
They were four days out from Persephone when the children started falling sick. What had been thought to be diaper rash on the babies, spread to their siblings and all the children, passenger or crew, had raw, weepy patches on their buttocks and bellies.
Nasirah, the mother of Ahmed, was a certified midwife with training in early childhood diseases. She identified the rash as Coxsackie Enterovirus. “I’m puzzled,” she said, ”Usually this does not show up in children who have been vaccinated. It is an opportunistic disease that comes when the immune system is weakened by other diseases.”
Rehab looked scared. Fatima snapped, “Your children have been vaccinated, Rehab? We were all told to have our shots to prevent carrying diseases from world to world . And once we are settled, we will be on our own. Only occasional visits from the Alliance medics and Flying Doctors.”
“My husband does not believe in vaccinations. He says illness is the will of Allah and that if we live according to His will we would not get sick.”
“Rahim is a boob,” said River.
“River!” Kaylee exclaimed. “How rude!”
“She’s not wrong though.” said Nasirah. “The children are protected because the pool of immunes makes it difficult for germs and viruses to survive. But if the percentage of non-immune children rises, all the children are at risk.”
“My Muhammed has not been immunized either,’ exclaimed Miriam, mother of the newborn.
“Nor my Babygirl, she’s too young to have completed the series,” added Kaylee.
“I’ll check the infirmary for antibiotics and the Cortex for dosage,” said Nasirah.”And Fatima, perhaps your husband should have a talk with Rahim. He needs some education on the interpretation of the scripture. We all know he’ll ignore anything we say.”
Rehab’s tears spilled over.”I am so sorry to have caused all this trouble. And to make the children sick too. Please try to forgive me.”
“Not your fault,” said Zoe.”You need to stand up to that husband of yours more. Men need respect not fear from their womenfolk”
“He would divorce me,” whispered Rehab, “and take the girls. What use am I, except as an obedient wife?”
“Don’t you have a profession, sweetie, like the other women?” asked Kaylee.
“No. I married quite young. My parents were killed and my uncle arranged my marriage. Then when Aysha came, I could no longer go to school…”
“You were still in school when she was born: How old are you?” demanded Fatima.
“The other women stared.
“And Aysha is twelve?”
“I mean, is that even legal?”
Mal considered. “Depends on the world, even the part of the world.”
“Still. How old were you when…?”
“When I got someone pregnant? About 36. As far as I know.”
“Shǎ xǐjù yǎnyuán. C’mon Mal! When was your first … experience?”
“I was sixteen. And yeah, she was younger. About fourteen , I reckon.”
“Dirty old man!”
“Fourteen. And he was about sixteen. But he was smart enough to use a condom! More’n I knew about.”
“My maw said. ‘f you love her , you’ll use a condom. If you respect her, she won’t have to ask.”
“Huh, That makes Malcolm seem a better guy lookin’ back.”
“Yeah. Seriously. Weird.”
“Was he any….?”
“”C’mon, qíngrén, he was sixteen. He was an idiot. Let’s go with enthusiastic. But a nice boy and… well, I bet his wife is a happy woman.”
“Pfft. Men. No … just sweet and wanting it to be good for me. But no idea how to get a girl started.”
“How do I get you started, xiǎo qīzi?”
“Xìnggǎn de nánrén, you just have to look at me. Or just ask me about Serenity’s engine problems. Ain’t that our sweet talk?”
“Do you really love me, or just my boat?”
“Lán yǎnjīng de tián shuōhuà de sèmó! Mal, I’ve wanted you since you showed up in Serenity’s engine room. I liked you when you accepted my opinion about Serenity’s grav boot. I loved you when you asked me to be crew.”
”You are so certain.”
“Mechanic. It works or it don’t . On. Off.”
“Works for me with your clothes off.”
“Turn about, zhàngfū. Fair play.” Kaylee pushed down Mal’s suspenders and unbuttoned his shirt, kissing his broad chest as it was revealed. She stood on tiptoes to kiss his mouth and he responded tenderly. His big hands clasped her bottom and pulled her stomach into his hips breathing deeply and steadily.
He picked up his wife and laid her on the bunk, gazing into her hazel eyes, unbuttoning the dress she had worn to dinner, pulling off the high heeled sandals that she often wore even when working in the engine room. He ran his hands along her slim legs and kissed her thighs.
Kaylee pulled her dress off. “Hey,’ Mal objected softly, “I wanted t’ do that.” “ You c’d make it even by takin off your pants,’”
They took their time undressing each other. No heat of passion tonight, just the comfortable sweetness of making love with the person who meant more than any flame. Mal kept Kaylee well tended and she never needed to resort to battery operated subsititutes, although sometimes her toybox was raided for their mutual enjoyment. And for Mal, having Kaylee at his side, sharing her optimism and sensuality, grounded and centered him, pulling him away from the black dog that had driven him for too long after Serenity Valley.
Mal slipped into her like a ship sliding into its berth. Kaylee gasped and tightened around him. Her hands in his hair, her legs around his waist. Mal’s hands held her knees high, allowing him to thrust deeper. Kaylee gave quiet gasps of pleasure as he filled her so satisfactorily. His pubic bone bumped on her clit with each stroke, giving her sparks of delight.
“Still. She was only about twelve when she got knocked up. That can’t be right. And how did the rest of the group not know? “sighed Kaylee about twenty minutes later.
“Rahim was a late addition. With the baby not being expected for another month, he was going to replace Miriam and Idris. And his background is farming. Miriam is a water tech. It was her skills that got her the placement with Idris tagging along. He’s a farmer by trade, but she is the value added. Rahim is trained as a small engine mechanic which is always a good skill on a homestead planet. Rahim’s family were riding on his skills alone. “
”You don’t usually get this interested in passengers, Mal.”
”Got talkin’ horses with the imam. He’s a horse trader and breeder. One of them cryoboxes is full of embryos. Horses, cattle, sheep, camels, goats.’
“Hey, doncha remember that world where they was breedin’ mammoths? Did some backbreedin’ from elephants.”
“You were with Zoe on that trip. Stinky things too. Glad I missed out.”
”We could have shared a romantic mammoth back ride across the plains of.. wherever it was. All wrapped up in our thick quilted suits. “
“I like being wrapped up in our birthday suits better. You still of a mind for a ranch?“
“Worth considerin’. We’re getting’ to havin’ some assets. We could branch out a bit.”
“Mmmm. Twelve. That’s just wrong. Babies havin’ babies.“
“He’s older though. Near forty.”
“So he was twenty five when he married a twelve year old.”
“Yeah. Sounds pretty sick don’t it?”