It is 2524, some six years after Miranda. Emma is about five years old. Derry is nearly two. Mal and Kaylee married in 2522. Inara is still alive but left Serenity, and Mal, for her teaching post in 2519. as her health began to fail.
River is 24. Simon about 30.
Zoe is 40.
Kaylee is 27. Mal is 38.
Jayne is 47.
Zoe filled her shopping cart with carrots and potatoes.
“We need garlic too, Mama,”Emma reminded her.
Her mother looked at the list she had put together while they were still in the Black. Now on Persephone, here in the Blue Sun Produce Depot some of the staples seemed like
luxuries. Why was salt so expensive?
Hot sauce (Barbados style)
“At least we can buy the canned foods in bulk,” she muttered.
“We can get salt on Bellepheron, mama. They have an ocean!”
“You’re right, baby. But I don’t know if the price will be lower. The salt beds are owned by Blue Sun too.”
“They paid for terraforming that world, so they own a lot of the resources. Same all over. Sometimes they did the terraforming, sometimes they bought out the corporation that did it. They own a lot of resource worlds.”
“Is that why we ship so much….”
“Hush, child. We don’t talk about work in public.”
“Well, blimey, if it ain’t the beautiful and dangerous Zoe Washburne.”
Zoe turned swiftly, pushing her daughter behind her and backing both of them against the wall.
“Didn’t know Serenity was in town, sweet’eart. You an Mal gonna be droppin in on me?”
“Let Mal know that I’ve got a simple two way deal if he’s innerested. Cargo out, and cargo back.”
“An’ who’s this pearl? You lil Emma, darling?””
Emma looked nervously at the small, grubby man. He seemed friendly enough, but she didn’t like him.
“I’ve a brickie ‘bout your age, too. Bùzhòu nǚ’ér. Wife Sandy’s kid.”
“You’re… married?” Zoe exclaimed.
“Four years back. We’re five, Two other men and another woman, plus assorted kids. Like your family.”
“We’re not polyamorists.”
“Best thing I ever did. Nothin’ like family to keep a man healthy and focussed. An good for business. Sandy’s got a house on the docks that c’d support us all, if necessary. We’re expandin’ ex-pon-en-tially. Tell Mal to get in touch, we can work together. An’
bring the kid, I’ll innerduce ‘er to our Vickie.”
Badger left, pushing a cart filled with expensive imported oranges,
“I don’t’ like that man, mama. Do I have to play with his stepdaughter?”
“No, honey. He’s just business, not a friend. You’ll probably never see him again.”
“There are dried mushrooms and sea vegetable in Aisle Four, mama. Are those on the list.? And noodles.”
Mal was amused by Kaylee’s sentimental reaction to Badger’s marriage.
“C’mon, cap’tn. He found true love. Four times over! Ain’t that sweet?”
“Just amazing that even one person would consider that grubby hundan that way.” Mal shuddered melodramatically.
“Says he has work for us, though.”
“Reckon we should call on ‘im then. We don’t really need the money but always keep options open.
“We always need the money, Capt’n. Kids need shoes, Zoe didn’t have enough for her whole list at the Produce.”
“And I missed my allowance this week. And last.” pointed out Emma.
“ ‘Lownse” babbled Derry.
“You, sonny me lad, don’t get an allowance until you can form sentences, dong ma.?”
Mal swung his tiny son over his head.
“Lownse! Lownse! Cap’n!” cried the toddler.
“So what’s this job you need doin’, Badger?”
I gotta load of glass cannin jars to move to Herschel. Then you pick up canned goods, and bring em back here. All nice and legal.”
“So why us then?”
“Yer here, aincha? It’s harvest time and the cannin plants is runnin low. Had a bumper crop of…. whatever they grow there. They gotta can it or bury it.”
“Herschel’s off Ezra.” Zoe noted.
“Look, there’s no reason to fuss about that. Yeah, you had a little run in with Niska a while back.”
“Run in, fuck, Badger, he killed me!”
“And brought you back!”
“Just so’s he could kill me again more slow-like!”
“No reason he should ever know yer in the vin-cin. Safe as ‘ouses.”
Badger found himself at the end of two Death Glares.
“An’ they got governance now. The Feds has appointed a new Governor and they’s a IAV ship patrollin with two squadrons of SREVs for enforcement. Niska’s time is gettin short.”
“Legal cargo, remember? You’ll have all your paperwork clean an clear. Look, Mal, I ain’t gonna lie, this ain’t a big cargo for me, or for you, but it could lead to more legal work. And legal money is easy money.”
“We got kids on board.”
“I met Zoe’s brickie. You got more?”
“Got a boy, too.”
“Congratulations to both of you.”
“He’s my boy, not Zoe’s.”
“We got six kids in our fambly. An one of mine on the way.”
Zoe suppressed a shudder at the idea of Badger reproducing.
“Look. I need this cargo. I’m prepared to be generous about pay. An I’ll make sure the Dortmunder knows yer in the neighbourhood so’s they can watch for you.”
“Dortmunder? Sounds familiar.”
“They’ve been around the Rim for years. Actually a fairly easy bunch to deal with long’s they don’t think you are connin ‘em. The capt’n’s got a stick up his ass about smugglin and salvage, but like I said, this is a legal cargo.”
“Whatya think, Zoe?”
“We’ll have Alliance protection, sir.”
“That a yes or a no, Zoe?”
“Just sayin, sir.”
“You’re gonna take us to Ezra, Malcolm?”
“Kaylee, bao bei, it’s not as big a worry as it seems. It’s not Ezra, it’s Herschel. It’s legal cargo, both ways. And we’ll be watched by Alliance ships while we’re in system.”
“Is that achulley a benefit?”
“It’ll be fine, Don’t fuss.”
“Badger, I’m getting hot tongue and cold shoulder over this job. Not so sure we can follow through.”
“Look, I’ll give you my word. I’ll do better n that, I’ll send my bùzhòu nǚ’ér along with you. Would I do that if I thought there was any danger?”
“I’m truly hurt, Mal. I love that kiddie like she was my own. Which, legally she is, since I married her mother. An she’s about your kid’s age, so they can be company for each other.”
“Emma don’t need company. She’s got fam’ly”
“Well, Sandy is tired with bein preggers and Vickie could do with a holiday from her, an I’d like her to learn my business as well as her mum’s.”
“How old is yer Vickie?”
“An she knows how to run a brothel?”
“Well, not ever’thin. Her sums ain’t too good. But she can make pointments and do a work rota like nobody’s business.”
Mal was both impressed and appalled. “So you want me to teach her the finer points of movin cargo ?”
“Yep. Start em young. An this is a simple job. Legal. Easy.”
Vickie came aboard with a small rolling case and a large doll. Emma shook her hand, then showed her to the passenger dorm where she would sleep. Vickie looked nervous.
“Do you have your own room at home?”
“No, I share with my little brother. He’s four.”
“I share with my momma. She’s a widow woman. I’ll share with you, if you like, while you’re here,” Emma told her.
“I have three daddies and two mummies. “
“I have aunties and uncles, but no daddy. He got killed by Reavers,” explained Emma matter of factly.
The two girls went to inspect their room, apparently satisfied with the arrangement. Mal and Zoe returned to supervising the stowing of the pallets of glass jars.
“The last two pallets are metal lids and rings,” said Badger.”Who you got pilotin? That pretty little thing from the old homestead?”
Mal did not reply to that. By common agreement, River’s presence on the ship went unspoken. “I ain’t completely comfortable with this run.”
“Lookee. Here’s the call code for the Dortmunder. And this here’s the code for the commander. You run into any problems, scream for help.”
The trip to Herschel was quiet. The girls decided they liked each other and spent much of their time playing with their dolls, occasionally pressing Derry into service as an extra baby. After helping change his diaper, Vickie decided that it was time he was toilet trained and the girls harassed him first into reporting wet pants, then the need to pee.
This necessitated having many pails and bowls scattered about the ship just in case. Jayne was disgusted by this because the girls did not think it necessary to empty the used containers and it was Jayne’s week on honeywagon duty.
At Herschel, the cargo was unloaded and the canning factory staff expressed delight at the fast delivery of their order. They helped smooth the paperwork at the customs office, easy enough since as Badger had promised, everything was legal and the paperwork was clean. The manager of the plant invited the crew out for a drink to thank them.
River Zoe and Jayne accepted, but Mal and Kaylee stayed behind to take care of the kids and to have a private date night.
Leaving Derry asleep in their shared bunk, Mal and Kaylee had watched a vid cuddled on the common area chesterfield and then retired to an empty passenger dorm where they could make love without worrying about waking the baby.
Serenity was closed up for the night, but the side door was unlocked to allow the revellers access on their return. The comm unit in the cargo bay was open so they could notify the captain when they got back. Everyone on the boat was in bed, if not asleep, before darkness had fallen.
“Why are you stoppin, Mal? Please… harder now.”
“No, bao bei. Was there a funny noise? “
“I don’t hear anything. Just you breathin. And yer heart beatin.”
There was a clanking noise from the comm. Then the sound of cursing.
“That’s not Jayne. Someone is on the boat.”
Mal grabbed his pants and gun. Pulling away from Kaylee, and still at half mast, he was slowed in getting his pants buttoned. Barefoot he rushed through the galley to the cargo bay, in time to see two men leaving the ship each carrying something slung over his shoulder.
Mal fired at their backs and ran after them, but lost them in the shadows of the dockyard.
“What in seven hells could they have taken? There’s no cargo on board yet.”
Kaylee could hear Derry crying, woken by the gunshot. Nothing from the girls. She ran to check on them and found their room empty.
“Emma! Vickie! Come out! No foolin, now! REPORT!” she cried into the comm.
Mal had run out the side door and looked for any trace of the intruders. Now he returned and spoke into the crew radios. “Get back here right away. Don’t stop for anything. And if you can bring helpers, do it.”
While checking on the baby, Kaylee had redressed. Now she joined Mal on the bridge and, carrying her sleeping son, watched tensely while Mal called the Dockyard office
“No response,” he reported. “Either they’re closed, which they are not supposed to be, or they are not able to respond.”
“Call the Hershel police.” Suggested Kaylee.
“I’m thinkin the kids were grabbed by Niska’s men. And the Hershel police are like to be his men.”
Kaylee looked appalled.
“Why would anyone grab little girls?”
Mal just looked at her. Kaylee shuddered.
“If it’s Niska, he’s not after the girls. He wants us.”
“Call the Dortmunder.”
“Don’t want the Alliance…”
“Fuck that, Mal. Niska’s too big for us to handle. Call.”
She could see Mal fighting with himself over asking help from the hated Feds. Then he called , not the Dortmunder, but the personal code of the commander that Badger had given him.
“I ain’t gonna mess around with no paperpushers.”
Although it was late evening on Hershel, it was apparently still the work day on the great ship city. The commander responded immediately.
“This is Mal Reynolds, captain of the cargo ship Serenity. I’m reporting the kidnapping of two children.” The commander snapped to attention.
” We’re parked at the Hershel Central Dockyard. We’re transporting a cargo of glass to Hershel and canned goods back to Persephone for the Persephone/ Dyton Honest Traders. We have three children on board and while the boat was closed up for the night, the two little girls was snatched.”
Kaylee could see the Commander waving officers over to the cortex screen. He had also punched for a recording.
“We need descriptions of the girls and if you saw the kidnappers.”
“Our girl is Emma Washburne. She’s five, about a metre tall, blonde hair in cornrows, brown skin, blue eyes. The other girl is Vickie Pollard, seven, about a metre twenty, a little pudgy, pink complexion, straight blonde hair. She’s not our crew, she’s a friend from Persephone, daughter of one of the Honest Traders.” said Kaylee.
“That information is now with every foot and car patrol on Hershel. Oberman, could you put a landlock on all the ships at the Hershel dock?”
“Done, sir” came a disembodied voice.
“That won’t help with shuttles parked away from the docks.” said Mal grimly.
“No. But we watch the sky constantly. Just traffic cop stuff, but useful in emergencies too. Now, you saw the kidnappers.”
“Just their backs as they left. I’m ashamed to say we were not locked up. Some crew are on shore leave and we wanted to make it easy for them when they got home.”
“Both tall, both men. Probably. I saw them outlined against the dockyard light as they left. They carried one girl each over their shoulders. The girls were not moving. Can’t tell you hair colour, clothing, except that one wore darker pants than the other.”
“Have you notified the local police?”
“We ‘re not convinced that they would be … We’ve had some run-ins with Niska in the past.”
“And you think this might be payback?”
“Have you dealt with Niska?”
“Understood. We’ve been building a case, several cases, actually, against him for more than three years now. I will give your information to the Hershel force, but frankly, you were right to call us first.
“ I just got word that two SREV’s are on their way—one has already landed at the Yard, actually. Please give them your fullest cooperation.”
Mal and Kaylee heard noises in the cargo bay. LockingKaylee and Derry on the bridge, Mal headed down with his pistol drawn. He hit the lights, blinding Zoe and Jayne as they pounded into the bay. River followed, watching behind her.
Mal quailed at the idea of telling Zoe he had lost her daughter. Then he pulled himself together and, still barefoot and shirtless, descended to meet the crew.
His news was greeted by a shocked growl from Jayne,and a roundhouse punch from Zoe that knocked him to the floor.
Jayne, thinking like a tracker, had run to the girls’ stateroom and was looking for clues. The girls had been painting before bed and coloured paper and wet brushes were scattered on the floor. Jayne found a torn corner in the hallway.
“They might be tryin to leave a trail. But they won’t have much paper and it’s a little windy. Y’heard a clankin noise?”
“Yeah, that an some cursin made me realize there was strangers aboard. Thought someone was fixin ta rob us.”
Jayne was sniffing the air. “There’s yer clankin. Those hundans tripped on a bucket of baby piss. That might be useful.”
A squad of uniformed Alliance soldiers appeared at the door.
“Captain Reynolds? I’m Sargeant Sheng.” the fresh faced woman said.” We got out orders from the Dortmunder. Is there anything you can add that might help my squad?”
“Looks like one of the buggers might smell of piss. He kicked over a pailful when they was takin the kids.”
The sergeant looked disgusted at the toilet habits of spacers.
“I’m goin with you.” said Zoe.
“And you are?”
“Zoe Washburne. They took my baby.”
The sergeant looked doubtful. “We usually try to keep the parents away from the search party. You may be more useful here, waiting for the call.”
“Ransom. There is reason to think the bastards were not planning to rob the ship, but had targeted the children.”
Kaylee emerged from the bridge, followed by River who had unlocked the door. “Targeted? They were after the girls? Niska was after the girls?”
Mal spoke firmly to the purplebelly sergeant. “Jayne here is the best tracker I’ve ever met. Includin city trackin. Unless you got dogs, I’d suggest you take him along or give him a crew to work for him.
“And Zoe is a soldier. If you allow her along she will follow orders. And she has more reason to find the kids than anyone here.”
Sheng considered for a moment. “Right. You stay here and wait for a call. I’ll leave men on the door. Washburne, you go with Corporal Mukerjee’s platoon. Do you have weapons?”
Zoe pushed back her coat to show her mare’s leg pistol. Sheng nodded approval.
“Jayne. You lead Corporal Paganini’s patrol in finding a trail. We don’t think they will be in the dockyard, but they may have a shuttle parked nearby. They have just under an hour on us. Let’s roll.”
“And Captain Reynolds, I’d advise you to get dressed. It gets cold on Hershel at night.”
Serenity was lit up like a nova, every light on high, while Mal and some of the foot patrol, checked her for clues about the kidnappers.
Kaylee and River were back locked in the bridge with Derry, peacefully sleeping in his travel cot, and Sargent Sheng.
There was a buzz from the Cortex. Sheng nodded to Kaylee to answer it. She shuddered when she saw the kindly smile on Niiska’s face.
“Ah, hello young lady. I think I do not know you? Do you work for Badger? He has been a very naughty boy. He took something of mine.”
Kaylee trembled. What was Badger to Niska? They worked together didn’t they? She looked fearfully over at Sheng, who indicated that Kaylee should reply.
“I don’t know what he’s done. Do you know something about the girls?”
“His daughter, yes?” Niska looked puzzled. “He has more than one?”
“I don’t know. A little girl was travelling with us, a friend of … of my daughter.” Kaylee realized that Niska did not know who she was nor that his men had grabbed Emma Washurne along with Vickie.
“Two girls? Sloppy of my messengers. But more for me to work with. Tell Badger to call me.” And Niska closed the connection.
“Can we contact this Badger?” asked Sheng.
“Mal will have his codes. I’ll call him.”
“I know the codes,” said River. “And Badger thinks he knows me.” She pulled off her tailored jacket to reveal a thin lace camisole underneath and took down her neatly pinned hair. Looking like a waif, not the sober professional she had grown to be, River punched in Badger’s codes.
Sheng and Kaylee were surprised that she got through immediately to Badger’s office on Persephone, where it was evidently day.
“Well, it’s Mal’s little friend from Dyton. He finally let you know that I was askin fer you, sweet’eart?”
“I knew. Just not innerested. What have you done to cross Niska? What was special about this cargo?”
“Nothin’! Strictly legal, like I tol’ yer captin.”
“So why has he snatched our Emma and your Vickie?”
Badger’s pasty face turned a little green. “Gǒushǐ, gǒushǐ, gǒushǐ.” he muttered. His oily smile returned. “Nuthin’ Strictly legal, just like I tol’ Mal.”
“Then what did you leave out?” Mal loomed over the tiny pilot. “Cause we got two missing children and no reason to think Niska would be any easier on them than on a grown man.”
In spite of the millions of kilometres between them, Badger quailed at the fierceness in Mal’s voice.
“Niska has a lot of straight businesses too. He’s been expandin’ in the strictly legal sector. Could be he wanted to be the only source for cannin’ jars on Hershel. Monopoly-like.”
Mal glared. River’s stream of invective showed that she had been paying close attention in the rough dives the Serenity’s crew had introduced her to over the past decade. Badger looked embarrassed by her language.
“You will call Niska right now. You will promise him whatever he wants.” Mal said flatly. Sheng looked disturbed. Mal ignored her. “But remember, Niska isn’t satisfied with square one. He will want two pounds of flesh. And that better not be Emma.’
He cut off the call.
Then he clicked “return”. Badger’s frightened face appeared, half turned to a dainty blonde woman behind him. “It better not be Vickie either,” added Mal. Before he cut the connection again, he heard the tiny blonde say,”What was that about rVickie?”
The police had found the dockyard office abandoned and locked. They opened the door by judicious use of a targeted explosion and were able to switch on all the lights over the parked ships. The yard was brighter than day.
“Niska should be able to see us from his Skyplex,” Mukerjee, the police officer leading the party muttered.
“You’re familiar with Niska?” sked Zoe.
The officer grunted. “He keeps out the random crooks and grifters, but his own riffraff are probably worse. They are as nasty and vicious as ….”
“Reavers?” another officer interjected.
“Don’t think we’ve ever arrested one for cannibalism,” said Mukerjee. “But we arrest them for murder, rape, assault and the next thing they’re back out on the streets. Orders of a tame judge.”
“Muk!” called a policeman,” I think I saw some movement down this way.”
Zoe was pounding down the narrow passage between a Dasher II and a Milspec Intruder before Mukerjee could give orders to his crew.
The other police party had dropped slightly behind Jayne, recognizing his tracking expertise within minutes of leaving the ship.
With little light, Jayne was using his nose to follow the faint scent of baby urine that clung to the invader’s shoe. The path took him towards the back of the shipyard, where a drydock serviced breakdowns.
Halfway there, the lights came on and Jayne, blinking in the sudden flash, was able to see bootprints that might have been a little deeper and longer than most on the dirt paths between the randomly parked spacecraft.
He beckoned the police leader. “Keep it quiet. They might think they outsmarted us by goin’ for the drydock. They’ll have a workin’ ship there.”
The leader, Beatty, nodded. She signalled her crew to be silent and they nodded acquiescence.
As they approached the drydock, there were fewer footprints but the bootprints continued. The ships here were parked farther apart to allow workcrews scope. There was no actual boundary between the parking area and the repair area.
“Most of these ships are cold, but Frenchie’s getting a heat signal over that way.”
“Goes with the footprints.”
“I’ll lead with the heat seeker.”
Jayne dropped back. He didn’t mind following when someone could do the job better. Besides Frenchie had a great ass in those tight purple pants. Jayne considered asking for a date when this was settled.
The squad approached and surrounded an apparently derelict Streak, a small shuttle suitable only for personal transport.
“Do the landlocks extend over here?”
“Hope so. Sheng might have assumed the station was smart enough to think of it. She’s an optimist.”
“There an escape hatch?”
Beatty looked unsure. One of the squaddies whispered, “I had one of these back home. The hatch is on the other side. And it can be opened from either side. There’s no airlock on it.”
“Good for us, though.”
Beatty made up her mind. “You know the craft. Get over there quiet and open the door. Keep your face shield down and all your armour in place. Don’t go shooting. You got your knife?”
The squaddie pulled out his weapon and reholstered it fast enough to impress Jayne.
“What do you want me to do?” he asked.
“You’ve got no body armour, right?” Jayne nodded. “Then stay put near the main entry. Be the familiar face when we pull the girls out. If the bastards manage to flee, stop them, but try not to kill. We want evidence.”
“Findn’ them with the kids ain’t evidence?”
“Evidence against Niska. Bastards’ll be safer on Dortmunder telling us all than going back to the Skyplex as failures.”
Zoe and Mukerjee’s crew arrived just as the girls ran out the entry and Beatty’s crew grabbed Niska’s men.
Emma clung to her mother while plump Vickie launched herself at Jayne, gripping him tightly around the neck. Unsure of what to do with a frightened child, Jayne patted her back tentatively and muttered,”There , there”
Frenchie, the soldier with the glorious buttocks, flashed him a grin from under lowered eyelashes. Jayne grinned back.
Back on Serenity, the girls were bedded down in Zoe’s cabin, whose steel walls and lockable door made them feel more secure.
Mal struggled with the painful task of thanking the Alliance soldiers.
Sheng stopped him.
“It’s our job. Peace Order and Good Government. We can’t do much about the last, but we can work on the first two.”
“Think you’ll get much from them about Niska?”
“They’re pretty low on the food chain, but we can get their bosses and maybe their bosses’ bosses. Niska is running out of underlings and finding it harder and harder to recruit. But the Alliance has lots of people and believe it or not, we want things out here on the Rim to get better. Some of us even are from the Rim. Some of us were Browncoats, too.”
“Don’t look like that, Captain.” said Sheng. “I fought with the 72nd Hera. Spent some time in a POW camp too. On Unification Day, we Browncoats hold our own celebrations on the Dortmunder. Couple of hundred of us there, remembering lost friends.
“But we think, well, I suppose some are just in it for the paycheque, but a goodly number think that the easiest way to be free is to know what the rules are and to know that everybody has the same rules.
“Someone like Niska, he ain’t no Independent, for all he crows about freedom. You’ve run into them tinpot dictators with big talk about freedom and silence about the slaves working in their farms and factories.
“It’s Alliance forces that will put those hundans out of business. Eventually. If we work together.”