IN THE BLACK
Cargo- silk , gems, processed foodstuffs, medical raw materials, icewine , brandy
Mal was contemplating a full cargo bay .
‘We’ll have a hard time makin a profit on this cargo, sir.’
‘Need to do some hard bargains with 你的小兄弟 buyers, reckon.’
‘Bring River. She can tell you if the buyers will go higher.’
‘She’s right useful, ain’t she?’
‘No chance of a repeat cargo on the likker though. Not for another decade or more. If we make it that long.’
“If? Now, c’mon. The Run is going good. We ain’t lost money on any cargo yet. We’ve some good new contacts, strictly legal, and passin on enough info to have guys owing us favours for years. It’s all been smooth.’
‘Mebbee that’s what worries me, sir.’
‘Well, I reckon we paid our best to Tracy’s family. We left a fair chunk of coin on St Alban’s.’
River’s voice came on the comm. ‘Feds want to talk to the Captain.‘
‘Where are they, Tross?’
‘About ten klicks out.’
Mal sighed, reviewing the status of the cargo. Most legal. ‘Tell em I’ll be right there. And would someone put the kettle on? Might as well play hospitable.’
‘Whose in hospital?’
‘Jayne, get Doc to check yer ears and don’t talk to the nice revenooers.’
The cortex screen on the bridge was as fuzzy as ever, Kaylee had offered to fix it, but Mal preferred less communication not better.
‘Firefly class 03 Serenity out of Persephone here. I’m Captain Reynolds.’
‘Persephone? Long way from here.’
‘We’re doing the New Canaan Run for Business Solutions Unlimited based on Osiris. Our last stop was St. Albans, dropping off agricultural machinery, picking up some produce.’
‘St Albans produces for export? Since when?’
Mal scowled. A purplebelly who knew his area . Must’ve been working this sector for a while.
He smiled.’ Not much but we got some icewine for a buyer on Hera. Keeps the hold full between larger cargoes. That the bulk of it.’ The casks of brandy were much smaller after all.
The federal agent thought a moment . “Any thing else?’
‘Medicines. Homeopathic remedies, fabric, some refined metals.’
‘The usual mixed cargo.’
Mal relaxed a little. ‘We take on any job we can, officer.’
‘Fine. I’ll bring over an inspection crew to look at your paperwork.’
‘We’ll put the kettle on.’
The inspection crew were unarmed, unlike the Serenity crew.Their commander, a stout man in late middle age, shook his head.
‘That time has passed, Captain,’ he sighed. ‘The ‘Verse is more civilized these days.’
‘We been fooled by rogue agents in the past. Well past, mind, but, fool me once…’
‘And the Black is cold and lonely.’
Mal was silent. When his black dog was on him he found the Black a comfort. Nothing to scratch on his nerve. He had that in common with River, who spent hours tethered to Serenity’s skin, gazing into the blessed silence.
The inspection went quickly. The commander seemed happy when the paperwork aligned the the visible cargo and was disinclined to go searching for hidden contraband. He didn’t even look in the crew quarters.
‘Been travelling long, Captain?’ He asked, wrapping a plump hand around his tea and smilingly accepting a mooncake from Kaylee.
‘Bought m’boat in ‘eleven, been on the move ever since.’
‘I actually meant this trip. It’s a long run for a crew with children.’
‘You the truant officer, too?’ Jayne asked.
The plump inspector smiled again. ‘No, no. I have kids of my own, But they stay on IAV Dortmunder and the wife and I take alternate shifts.’
‘Dortmunder still patrolling these parts?
‘This is her territory. Personnel changes of course. Me and the wife are among the few who’ve stuck around. That ship’s been our home most of our married life.’
Mal looked around at the shabby , brightly painted galley, the mismatched chars mourned the real wood table. the long view through the cargo bay to the main airlock and the short view to the bright cold light of the infirmary. He grunted in agreement.
He could see Simon moving about in the infirmary. Emma was in the commons with Derry, taking turns reading aloud . Jayne had disappeared, ofter snatching a few mooncakes and a large mug of tea. Zoe and Kaylee sat with them.
“Is Dortmunder nearby?’ asked Kaylee.
‘Bout an hour, hour and a half.’
‘I wonder if there would be any chance of trading with yer quartermaster? Serenity is a real good ship, but she’s a senior citizen and allys needs tender care.’
‘We’re a naval vessel, not a trader,’ frowned the inspector. Kaylee’s enquiring smile faded. ‘But tell you what. Dock and come visit. Even been on an IAV before?’
‘Oh ,yeah, Not zactly for a friendly visit.’
‘Well, as I said, times have changed.’
‘Can we go, capt’n?’ Kaylee asked when the inspector had left.
‘Visit a navy ship on purpose, not really in the plan, Kaylee.’
‘We got nuthin in particular to worry about this trip. And it could be eddycational for the kids.’
‘And you wanna see the engine room, doncha?“
‘Oooh, yeah,’ she kissed him thoroughly, ‘Please, Malcolm?’
The quartermaster had some extra fuel cells to trade and wanted some of the baled cannabis that was among the pharmaceuticals, since the Lunar New Year was approaching on the Dortmunder calendar. She was happy to introduce Kaylee to the Chief Engineer, a skinny redheaded person named Pat.
Derry was happy enough to tag along, but Kaylee and Emma were fascinated by the huge engines and climate control systems.
‘There is a population of over forty thousand aboard at any time,’ Pat explained in a high pitched voice. ‘that’s mostly naval officers and crew, but we do have family quarters and guest sites for visiting personnel. We had the King of Londinium on board three year back.’
‘Was he wearing his crown?’ asked Derry.
‘No, but he had the sandiest uniform you ever did see, scarlet jacket with gold embroidery everywhere and so many medals you’d think he won the War all by his own self. The full whoop de do. ’
Pat was too young, Kaylee thought, to be a veteran. Perhaps a parent bequeathed that bitter tone?
Pat’s high voice prattled on, explaining how the HVAC system was decentralized to each of the towers of the ship, a huge edifice that could never land planetside.
But Kaylee felt something wrong with the engines. A tiny irregularity that irritated her mechanic’s soul. It wasn’t every time, but there was a clunk sound occasionally where there should be a click. Kaylee started a count. On her third , she decided it was the twenty-seventh beat each forty second repetition.
The tour group was at the top of an immense vat of water being purified with precipitates before passing into the distilling chamber. Pat had given Derry a tiny nugget of alum to taste and they were laughing at his grimaces at the sourness of it.
She touched Pat’s arm, causing him (her?) to flinch. ‘Didy’a hear that?’ she asked.
‘What?’ Pat replied, stepping out of her reach . Kaylee explained what she was hearing. Pat looked dubious, but slid down a pole and stalked over to a bank of gauges.
‘I’m not seeing any adverse reports.’
‘It may be somethin or nuthin.’
Pat waved them silent, head cocked, listening. ‘Oh ,yes, I think.’ Another tense minute. ‘Yes, sort of a clunk noise?’
‘That’s what I’m hearing”
Pat comm’d to the engineering wardroom. ‘Send up that ensign. The kid who arrived yesterday.‘
Smiling at Kaylee, ‘My ears get tired. It’s pretty noisy down here.’
The ensign, barely out of her teens, swung around a corner and saluted smartly, ‘Reporting, ma’m.’
Pat glared, ’Sir, youngster,’ Kaylee was glad of the confirmation until Pat continued, ‘When we’re on duty.’ Crap. ‘Listen carefully to the sounds.’
The blushing ensign frowned in concentration. After a moment she said, ‘What am I listening for …. sir?’
The ensign looked puzzled, ‘I’m not sure what’s supposed to be regular, sir. There is a beat every minute in that gauge.’
Pat looked at the array. ‘Second from the left?’
’Third, sir, It makes a slightly different sound at about thirty- forty seconds.’
‘大象小便 . That’s the gauge for the portside sewers. It’s reporting everything is fine… but…’ Pat reached for the comm again. ‘Stevie! You the PSD?’
‘Check that everything is under control? I’m not real sure the gauges is giving us correct info.’
‘That means opening the vault, Patsy You’ll owe me on this.’
The comm snapped off. Pat shook ginger curls at the visitors. ‘I hope there no problem, but that gauge reports the amount of methane coming off one of the storage vaults. we drain it off for fuel, of course, but if it builds too much pressure…’
‘Explosion?’ asked Derry excitedly.
‘A real and veritable shit shower.’
Stevie’s voice came over the comm.
‘No need for language, Stevie.’
‘No, really the methane blew the lid off the vault. We’re covered in .. feces .. um .. blackwater… aw, shit, just shit!’
Where the adults were distracted, Derry plugged his new comm into the system and pulled out everything from Pat’s first call through the loosening of the vault cap and subsequent explosion of sewage. The faces on the cleanup and repair crew were hilarious, especially to a small boy.
The ensign was sent to Stores and returned with a replacement gauge.
‘What happens to the old gauge?’ asked Kaylee.
‘It goes to the recycling centre and gets sold off with more scrap when we have enough.’’
Kaylee was allowed to take the broken gauge home as a souvenir and thanks for her early warning.
Emma as a someday pilot, had been given a short tour of the bridge. She and River were discussing possible upgrades to Serenity’s equipment . Mal suspected that River was learning more about the naval vessel than Emma knew she knew. Information that might come in handy.
Mal was amused and disappointed to learn that Kaylee had prevented a worse incident on IVF Dortmunder than an urgent cleanup.
‘Would purely have loved to see them purple bellies cover in crap.’ Which was when Derry produced his comm and showed the events in the portside sewer on the commons vidscreen. He got many compliments on his quick thinking .
Zoe smile tightly. It was Dortmunder that had transported her to the prison world where she had been held after Emma’s birth. Forgiveness came hard.