‘Captain, could you come to the bridge?’ River called over the comm.
Mal put down his cards. Derry followed his father. Since the Silverhold experience, he had a hard time having Mal out of his sight.
River pointed to the screen. ‘We can’t eyeball yet, but there is something big out there that’s giving a distress call. No reply when Serenity signals though.’
‘How far out is it?’
‘A good ten hours.’
‘And it’s showin already? Yer right, Tross, That is big.’
‘Is it dangerous, Daddy?’ asked Derry.
Mal frowned. His boy had called him Captain since he could talk. He found being addressed as ‘Daddy’ disconcerting.
‘We won’t know until we’re closer. No response to our call makes me think there are no live people there though. River, keep an open mind about it. And keep sending a call.’
About six hours later, Mal returned to the bridge. ‘Serenity can see it now. It’s a city.’ River reported.
‘Uh, yeah. Well big enough for one. How big is it compared to the Dortmunder?’
River recited: ‘Dortmunder. Iskellian Technology Solutions Tohoku-class cruiser, Essentially a mobile city in space, Over 40,000 personnel can be accommodated on board the ship, including a minimum crew of forty naval personnel, as well as information and development specialists, economists and financiers, administrators and support staff.’
‘Umm. Yah. And how big is our city out there?’
‘Physically about five times that size. No weapons visible. Different configuration.’ reported the pilot. ‘It’s an Ark.’
Mal gazed on the generation ship , already huge at this distance, in wonder.
‘Daddy? Like the ones from Earth-That -Was?’
‘There’s one of those on Bellepheron . The school is going to make a field trip for the Eights after exams.’
‘Sounds like an expensive extra t’yer fees.’
‘Uncle Simon said it would be a present if I got more’n 90 ‘cross the board on my exams, next year.’
‘Oh.’ Simon and David were still childless and endlessly indulgent to the crew children.
‘There’s her name. It’s in Roman letters only. Rio de Janiero.’
‘Strange name. Is it a foreign language? Or named for somebody special?’
‘Portuguese. The language died out in the Verse, but millions of people spoke it one Earth-That-Was, mostly in a country called Brasil. And Rio de Janiero was a city there. There was a song….’
‘Derry, go look up Brasil and Rio de Janiero, mind the spellin. Find out if there were any Ark by that name and where it ended up.’
‘Yessir.’ Derry hurried off.
‘Call Zoe and your brother, Tross. We need to talk about this without kids around.’
‘I don’t see any signs of breaching, but we’re still pretty far out.’ Said Zoe.
‘So why the silence? Those ships were designed to keep going, with people being born and dying n them for centuries.’
‘They could be suspicious of strangers. Or they may have forgotten there is more than their ship.’
‘They could all be dead from an epidemic. They could have put themselves or their remnant population into cryosleep.’ Simon thought from his medical perspective.
‘If that’s true, there would be good money in salvage.’ said Mal.
‘If anyone is alive, there’d be no salvage. The owners would still have possession.’
‘The only way to know is to board.’ said Zoe.
‘We need to be certain that the ship is dead if we’re goin after salvage. But if we find crew or passengers, they own the boat and we’re on a rescue mission.’
‘Sir. We may not be the first to find them.’
‘Reavers?’ said Jayne, anxiously.
‘Possible. This was their territory. Or pirates more like.’
‘Zoe’s right, Mal,’ added Simon.’And if pirates were here, or slavers, we have to be careful about reporting the find.’
‘We’ll be takin River, then, so’s we know if there are livin people.’
‘And their state of mind.’
‘It’s a city, captain. We’re five.’
‘David should stay with Kaylee and the kids. He can pilot and she keeps Serenity flying. If any of us are lost or hurt, the two of them can cover.’ Simon said.
‘Makes sense. I’d like Davy with us for muscle, but keepin a pilot on board is right sensible.’
‘On board and ready to run.’
‘And ready to run.’
Derry’s research had found some information on ark specs,but none on a ship named Rio de Janiero. It was very different from the one displayed in orbit around Bellepheron. Larger, a huge rectangle, flat sided with no windows. There were many entries marked, a few damaged beyond hope of use, but most in workable condition.
‘Jayne, you and I will take the shuttle over first. We’ll see if those airlocks are mates for ours. If they are, we’ll look for the cargo bay entry. Then back here for a pow wow.’
From the shuttle window, the walls of the ark were infinite. The men reckoned the size as about four km by two by one point five. But bare metal, many of the original ceramic tiles pocked away by meteorite hits, was all that could be seen from the shuttle bridge.
The shuttle started at one end and cruised slowly along then across the back of the craft and disappeared from Serenity’s view.
‘There’s damage here,’ Mal reported. ‘A fuckin huge hole, bigger than Serenity.’
‘So no atmo?’ asked Zoe.
‘Could have sealed itself or it might not have taken out… shit.’
‘What dya think, Jayne? Are those cryopods?’
‘Kinda banged up. Mebbee.’
‘Sorry, Zo. They seem to have been hit by a fair chunk of rock. Smashed into the cyro storage. Can’t tell if it was passengers or livestock yet. The entrances we can see to the rest of the ship seem to be sealed, but we don’t see any airlocks. The cryoboxes have been in vacuum for a long time.’
After two more hours spent girdling the ark, Mal and Jayne had made captures of the damage and of probable entries. Enough had changed over the centuries that some of the airlock designs were obsolete. A military vessel might be able to use them but Fireflies had only basic airlocks.
When they returned the whole crew, including Derry and Hope, discussed the situation.
‘It comes down to salvage or rescue,’ said Mal.’If there’s anyone alive, passengers or crew, the ship is theirs.’
‘Call the nearest Alliance base and report the ark. Keepin in mind we may not be the first to have found them.’
‘And salvage?’ asked Emma.
‘That’s complicated, sweetie. We have to register as salvage agents, and buy a license, and pay tax on whatever we take.’ said Zoe.
‘Them licenses is a pretty penny,’ said Mal.
‘Not a penny- heavy platinum, I’d say, sir,’ said Zoe.
‘From what we‘re seein’, if any of this stuff is viable, we got the mother of all livestock here. This is real cashy money.’
‘More ‘n that , Mal, ‘said David. ‘This is new genetic material. They’re not just chickens and sheep. There’s the addition of genetic diversity- especially from an underrepresented continent.’
‘Good thinkin’, Davy! We’ll pull out a few samples. Doc, you can test for viability?’
‘Yes, that’s simple enough. Choose a domestic chicken though. If they’re lost, the Verse won’t be too much worse off, even if testing destroys a few viable embryos.’
Jayne had already donned his spacesuit and Mal checked the fastenings.
‘The label you’re looking for is ‘pollos’. That’s chickens, but watch for any sign of cryoboxes for people.’
It took about an hour for Jayne to return with three cryoboxes chosen from different parts of the smashed cargo hold.
Mal was irritable and antsy when he returned.
‘I figgered that some of the boxes might be damaged and some not and if they were stored in diff’rent places, mebbee they come from diff’rent places and were…diff’rent.’
‘Huh. Good thinkin’, Jayne.’ Mal’s glance was puzzled and yet respectful. Jayne was not as dumb as he tried to appear.
What’s a ‘cetacean’,’asked Jayne who had been showing their captures to Derry.
‘Dunno, what does the encyclopaedia say, Derry?’
Derry spent a few moments finding the word.
‘Whale – the largest mammals that ever lived on Earth That Was. Almost extinct before abandonment, no whales were brought with our ancestors, because the huge animals had no commercial value. Whooah!’
‘What’s so shockin’, Der? Lotsa animals were left behind.’
‘Look at the size of this whale?’
Derry showed an illustration of a Blue Whale proportional to a human and to an Apatosaurus. All the adults gaped.
‘Y’all might think me a touch moonbrained,’ said Mal, ‘but if we find some of those in the hold, I’m bringin’ it on board.’
‘Captain, it’s bigger than Serenity,’ scolded Emma.
‘They’re embryos, dear,’ her mother reminded her. ‘No bigger than those chickens right now.’
‘And it would be best to see if our chickens are viable, before we start hatching plans.Emma and Derry, would you like to help me test them?’ said Simon.
Beege followed the older children to the infirmary. Mummy had murmured something about compression coils to Daddy and they had slipped off to their bunk. Beege knew not to follow them because the hatch would be locked.
Jayne brought the cryoboxes and she watched with interest as the first was opened with a hiss of cold, making snow as it hit the warm moist air of the ship. Doctor Simon had Derry and Hope dress in clean robes and gloves, but just lifted her onto stool to watch. She couldn’t hear much of what he told the others and didn’t understand what she could hear. After a few minutes, she left the infirmary.
In the common room she found a bookpad with some stories she could read and curled up for a while. The feeling restless, she walked, carrying the bookpad and reading aloud to herself. Her teacher on Persephone had told her that it was good practice for her diction, but Beege preferred to practice alone. She didn’t like being encouraged by the crew. That was the wrong kind of special.
She entered the bridge and clambered onto Auntie River’s lap. The two sat cuddled without speaking aloud until Beege felt River relax. The Ark troubled the sensitive pilot, her mind darting about searching for … life? intelligence? frozen dreams?
In the cargo bay, Jayne and David had spread the mats the children used for gymnastics out and were playfighting.
David’s glossy black pigtail fell down his bare back while Jayne wore a torn tee advertising a music festival on Shihnon some dozen years ago. Captain Daddy said Jayne had only one nice outfit- black pants and matching whoring shirt. Uncle Perse had given him an Alleyne Reynolds Transport tee which he wore when he went with the captain and Aunt Zoe on business calls, but most of his clothes were raggedy.
David had Jayne flat on his back with the larger man’s arms pinned over his head. He straddled Jayne and said, ‘Cave?’ Jayne just grunted.
Beege giggled, knowing that Uncle Jayne hated to surrender on anything.
The men heard her and beckoned her over. ‘Bring that towel will ya, BabyGirl?’ asked Jayne. He pulled off his sweaty tee and B.G. rubbed down his back before he took the towel and dried his own chest.
‘Uncle Jayne, you as… you are as fuzzzzy as my teddy,’ she giggled.
‘M not a teddy bear.’ he frowned.
‘I thaid like my teddy,’ Sigh. ‘ Sssaid.’
Davy smiled at her. He was not sweaty but his skin glowed coppery red.
‘What game was that? Were you all grappling?’ she asked.
Jayne choked, ‘No!’ but Davy just smiled more.’No, no, Beege. It’s what’s called wrestling, it’s a very old sport, Thousands of years old.’
Jayne had recovered, ‘But not as old as grapplin.’
‘Mummy and Daddy play that game, too, all the time. I think Daddy usually wins, but Mummy won this morning.’
David turned redder. ‘Um, Beege. That’s a private game. Um. Nobody needs to know that.’
Zoe, passing on the catwalk from her bunk to the galley said, ‘She’s five. Never tell a five year old a secret.’
‘Might be time for a little girl to get her own space, though.’ said David.
Jayne had been thoughtful. ‘I’ll be in my bunk.’ he said and left.
Simon and his lab assistants were able to start some of the chicken embryos growing, which meant that hard vacuum in the Black had not destroyed them. It would take about 21 days for the chicks to hatch, but other work could continue.
Zoe was able to confirm that they had enough food on board to stay near Rio for three weeks and take another week to find a suitable world for restocking the pantry.
‘We won’t need that long though, Daddy,’ Derry pointed out. ‘We can head back to civilization before our chickens hatch.’
‘We’re gonna have to put you in charge of logistics, zhangzi. You’re a dab hand fer detail.’ his father said. ‘We’ll spend five days checkin over the ship and seein if she really is available for salvage. If she is, we’ll get a decent cargo together and look for buyers.’
Kaylee interrupted. ‘Does that mean we’ll be getting that license Zoe talked about, cause we prolly have enough with Daddy to cover it.’
‘Don’t think that will be necessary, darlin. Specially if we stick to the domesticated beasts.’
‘Will we get a whale, Daddy?’
‘What would a little girl like you with a massive great thing like that?’
‘Rride it. Jayne will make me a hawneth. Harrnessss.’
Five days of exploration did not turn up any cryoboxes with human cargo.
‘That doesn’t mean much,’ Simon told David, as they prepared for bed, ‘This ship is almost a world and we haven’t found anything like a map that might help us find where the refugees were stored.’
‘What if we do? What will the Captain do then?’
‘Hard to say. He has a sense of honour and I think probably he might turn them over to the Feds, especially if there is a reward for rescuing lost refugees. But the cargo is very tempting. Even just selling on the hard to trace animals and plants, without any bonus for the new genes we’d be introducing, would be very profitable.’
‘It would be hard to stake a claim to such a big vessel.’
‘Harder to keep pirates and such off it. We’d have to sell any salvage rights to some big group that could afford to put an engine on her and move her closer to a world where she could be disassembled cargo, ship, and all.
‘I hadn’t thought of the actual ship. I guess the metals would be very valuable.’
‘And don’t forget the living quarters would be a treasure trove for antique collectors. There would be some petroleum plastics, just everyday items for our ancestors, bottles and hairbrushes and plates and some fabrics, that would be as valuable as the Lassiter that Mal fenced about a decade ago.’
‘Yes. The first workable hand held laser rifle. It was a pig to find a buyer, but when we did move it, it kept us flying for a couple of years.’
After some discussion with Zoe and Kaylee, Mal decided to end the search for life. River had suited up and toured the damaged cryovault but detected nothing indicating human life there. They had made a few short forays into other parts of the ship, but while there was air, the life support system was powered down to occasional lights, still operating on stored energy from the engine waste.
The crew filled the cargo hold with cryoboxes of chickens and other poultry, on the basis that those would be easiest to sell on with little explanation of origin. David was disappointed that they would not be promoting the genetic diversity aspect.
‘We could make a fortune with new genetic material, true enough. But we would also have to show where we got the material and that we got the salvage permit we can’t afford to buy. Better to mine the Ark for cargo and sell it where we can, to them as don’t care too much about origin.’
‘If we do well on the sellin, we could mebbee buy a salvage permit, capt’n?’ asked Kaylee.
‘I wanna find some antiques first. A permit for a prize this big is gonna cost.’
‘What about Sir Warwick Harrow, sir?’ said Zoe. ‘He might be interested in an investment opportunity.’
‘He’s got money, truth. But is he open to a harvestin job like this? To do the job right would require a lot of manpower. Come down to it, he’s a rancher. His fortune is in land and livestock.’
‘Which ties in with the cargo on Rio.’ said Zoe.
‘You know him best, of course,’ said Simon, ‘But why not offer him the chickens first and work up to the investment opportunity?’
‘Good thinkin, doc. Riv, would you look up his cortex address? We want a direct line and we don’t need to be traceable until we’re well away from this sector. We’ve got a decent cargo if we can’t make it back here, but no point broadcastin where we found what we found, dong ma?’
Harrow was interested in the poultry embryos and not too interested in learning how the crew had come across such a high tech commodity. Instead of his city estate on Persephone, he directed them to his country property, a large ranch, just as Mal had predicted.
But when he saw the cryoboxes he was concerned. ‘These are a very old design and I don’t recognize the language on the labels. What do you want to tell me about?’
‘As little as possible unless you are interested in a big investment. We can supply a lot of similar material if you want it. You have properties on other worlds?’
‘Several worlds. I like to diversify my holdings between climates. My grandfather got caught with a world-wide drought on Harper’s Moon about 200 years ago and the family learned from that. Took us nearly 75 years to build back up. ‘
Mal took a moment to remember the long healthy lives of Core dwellers, especially the rich. Harrow looked to be about fifty, but could be over 90 thanks to modern medicine and genetic choices made by his parents and grandparents.
‘We got chickens and other poultry this trip. We could do that again, or we could go for larger animals. Cows or sheep. There could be some real exotics too. Ever heard of a pack animal called a llama?’
Harrow decided he wanted the poultry embryos and gave instructions to drop them, off at his property on Bernadette. Zoe was nervous, because the world was more Core than Border, and was more silent and stoical than ever as a result.
The chicken ranch turned out to be an immense battery farm run by incurious clerks. They assured David that the hatchlings would be kept quarantined for a few generations before becoming part of the general population.
‘This is the best solution after all,’ he told the crew,,’ The new genes should strengthen the flocks, but with such a large population, the changes can be waved off as normal mutations.
Harrow wanted to wait out the quarantine period to see what he would actually be getting, but passed on the name of a colleague who was looking for beef cattle.
“Brasil and Argentina were big time exporters of beef, ‘reported Derry, still engrossed in his study of the lost bio-diversity of South America. ‘They were cutting down the forest to make more pasture for the herds.’
‘Wouldn’t the forests be more valuable than the cattle?’ asked Emma.
‘The forest had always been there. It didn’t’ need to be planted. And most places, if farmers stopped planting, the forest grew back,’ explained David.’ The poor farmers would clear a section by burning and after a few seasons, the land was worn out and they moved on and did it again. And the forest would grow back within a year or so. Some called the Amazon Forest the lungs of Earth-That –Was.’
Harrow’s friend paid well for the bovine embryos. And recommended them, even before the embryos were proven, to another rancher looking for sheep. Derry recommended adding some alpacas to his herds for their wool. “We won’t make much on these, Capt’n, he said’ No one knows how to raise’em, and there could be questions about their provenance.’ The low price was less important to Mal than his boy’s returning confidence. Derry was working closely with Davy, whose farm background combined with training in biology as part of his nursing education, had turned out to be surprisingly useful in harvesting the most saleable cargo from the Ark.
MORE TO COME