Serenity limped into port at Hancock on Regina. Fortunately the bad fuel cells were not powering the landing gear and River set her down precisely.
Immediately, pilot and engineer set out on the mule with Zoe along for security. The first supplier was rejected by River, who explained as they left the office that he didn’t have the FSW cells he had promised and thought he could pass off the same kind of counterfeits they had already purchased. The second had Dyton-made cells and would take their fakes for scrap only. The third had real FSW cells, but would not accept the counterfeits even as trash. They would have to pay the dump to accept the hot cells.
‘I’m happy with the Dyton cells. We been using them mostly anyways. They do real good work, them little guys.’
‘Strange folk,’ mused Zoe. ‘Hairy. I swear even the women shave twice a day.’
‘Shire to Rivendell. Once does not just walk into Mordor,’ agreed River.
They were able to load two fuel cells on the mule and the merchant agreed to deliver three more to Serenity the next morning. Kaylee could remove the bad cells overnight for pickup and, with Jayne acting as muscle, install the new ones in about three hours.
‘So we can be int the Black tomorrow night, every thing going as planned,’ Kaylee smiled in satisfaction. ‘As planned,’ Zoe did not sound as sure.
A roar interrupted the bustle of the shipyard. ‘That’s an Odyssey. Don’t see many of them on little worlds like this,’ remarked David.
‘We did a cruise on one when I was about fourteen,’Simon told him.’My father was furious with my mother most of the time. We didn’t know why, but I later learned she had lost a lot of money at mahjong. I just remember there was a wave pool and most of the cabin stewards gathered there after shifts.’ His husband raised an eyebrow. ‘I didn’t even know they were flirting with me, honey. I was only fourteen.’
‘I remember fourteen. Us sly boys used to ride out to inspect the herds. Mostly inspected each other. Don’t think I ever had so much cock in my life since.’
‘Not even?’ asked Simon, running his hand through David’s long smooth hair.
‘We’re not teenagers, daddy. And there’s just two of us. Get five or six horny teens together and there ain’t no end to the amount of fucking that goes on. My ass was sore that whole summer.’
Jayne stomped down the ramp and joined them. ‘Ain’t that the Walden we saw on Summerfair? She followin’ us?’
’She was going to Branson’s Mark when we left for Bernadette. Picking up some of the Bishop’s boys for their wanderjahr,’ replied Simon.
‘This is a dumb place to come if you want to see the Verse. Why not a Core world or even someplace with cities like Bernadette or Persephone?’
‘I suppose anything is exotic if you’ve spent your whole life on Branson’s Mark.’
‘Where’s Mal at? ‘
‘He went to the post office to talk to Perse about the delay. Should be back any time.’
Perse was not particularly upset about the delay but reminded Mal that some of the foodstuffs were being bought for the New Year’s Festival. Mal didn’t think that would be a problem, but asked for reminders to be sent to Serenity about the timing on Bernadette.
As he left the communications centre, he saw a face he recognized. And not one he was happy to see.
He had never known the name of the captain of the ship that had tried to seize Serenity when she was floating, running out of oxygen. He had sent the crew away, hoping that they would find rescue, but rescue had come to him first.
But the rescuers were pirates, and tried to kill him and take the ship. He had managed to stop them although he had been shot by the captain.
And that was the captain, swaggering down the main drag of Regina, followed by a gang Mal did not recognize.
The pirate checked his comm and beckoned his crew to follow him into the offices of Corone Mining, a multi-storey building faced in fine white stone. Mal watched the door for a few minutes then crossed the street and looked inside.
There was no trace of the pirate crew in the spacious lobby. After looking at the display that flashed pictures and contact information of the executives who were in their offices that day, Mal strolled to the reception desk.
The receptionist could have been a retired sumo. He wore a smart business suit, vast amounts of gray silk, custom cut to fit his enormous shoulders. He wore his hair neatly oiled and bound in the traditional sumo style.
‘Can I help you, sir,? he asked in a deep baritone.
‘I thought I saw… ‘ Mal flashed his most charming smile. ‘A guy offered me work in a bar last night.. I didn’t get his name… I had a wave but it don’t work. But I think I saw him come in here. Does he work for Corone?’
The sumo looked at him sceptically, ‘ No name? We do most of our recruiting at Labour Boards here or off-world through labour contractors.’
‘Big guy, bout my height, blond curly hair? He was with a skinny bald guy and someone with a long black pigtail.’
The sumo gave Mal a flat look. ‘Certainly no one who works here.’
‘Darn,’said Mal. ‘I’m really hurting for work. This was the best lead I’ve had in weeks.’
‘Perhaps if you didn’t do your job search in bars,’ said the sumo. “ Look, huǒbàn, I know it’s tough in this economy but stay away from that guy.’
‘I’m needing work real bad, yùndòngyuán, ‘ Mal put a little whine into his voice. “ The guy said there was a hiring bonus I’d get. He said he’s pay me upfront for my contract. And I owe some guys. Pretty rough guys , you know? I know about the ————, but they tell me Corone supplies the pesk-d to control it, so I’m willing.’
‘Yeah, huǒbàn, Corone do.,’ the receptionist sighed.’ But only to their own hires. That Honda is a labour contractor. They ain’t required to spend money on contracted workers. Corone pays him. And bonded workers don’t get the meds. Or paid really.’
Mal paused. ‘’Oh, slavers. Should guess, my luck bein. Thanks ,xiānshēng, I owe you a beer.’
“I don’t indulge. Go up to Paradiso. Ask at the mine face there. And be sober when you do. Work for wages.’
As Mal left the lobby he could hear the big receptionist sigh.
Zoe and Simon listened to Mal’s story carefully.
‘Some of the Branson’s Mark boys are supposed to be on board Walden for their wanderjahr.’
‘Anyone say anything about them boys ever returning?
‘It’s a pretty closed community. No one said whether they do or don’t. I believe that did of cult tend to have surplus males.’
’And teenagers, twentysomethings are the most difficult to control,’ added Zoe.
‘I’m making a call. said Ml.’ What’s the name of the Sheriff in Paradiso?’
‘Sir, he knows we robbed the train.’
‘And gave the medicine back. I think we had a moment.’
‘Fifteen years ago. Who knows if he’s still sheriff? And he said he had the…….. . He may not even be alive.’
‘This Honda tried to kill me and steal Serenity. And he’s been walking the spacelanes free ever since. All I want is to tell my story to someone who might be able to clean off his stain.. Failing that, a dark night and a lonely alley.’
‘I’d start with the alley.’ said Jayne entering the galley and pouring himself tea.
‘We’re a strictly legal crew these days, Jayne,’ Zoe reminded him.’ And there may still be some fallout from your little adventure in whoremongering on Hera.’
‘Yeah, lil moon brain gave ‘head’ a whole new meaning there,’ chuckled Jayne.
‘Could you not…’ choked Simon.
‘Cause of slicing that damn girl’s head clear off,’ Jayne continued.
‘I’ll take the shuttle up the line to Paradiso,’ said Mal. ‘Zoe?’
“I’m staying here with Emma. If you get taken, Serenity will still be secure.’
‘I’ll go , Mal,’ said Simon.’I’m not quite as respectable as a Companion, but i can give you moral support.’
‘Worse comes to worst, they ignore me.’
At Paradiso, the sheriff been retired by promotion to provincial judge. His former deputy, a stocky woman of about fifty, remembered the train job and Mal.
‘Sheriff thought justice was done when you returned the meds. I’m still not so sure. But statute of limitations has run out. You can find the judge’s chambers up the road to your left. Away from the mine face.’
‘Megwich,’ said Simon.
The sheriff broke a smile. “what clan are you?’
‘My husband is from Turtle Island. He’s Wood Bison Clan.’
The sheriff looked happier with the men. ‘My grandmother was from Turtle Island. She was Beaver Clan. Rest of the family are from <heinlein world> but originally from Eastern Canada on Earth-That-Was.’
‘David is back at Hancock . He’ll be sorry he didn’t come with us. He loves to find someone who speaks the old language.’
‘No , I gotta disappoint him there. We didn’t have any elders to teach us. Pert well died out.’
The judge’s chambers were upwind of the mine face. Judge < > didn’t know Mal’s name but he rememered his face.
‘No one can look that innocent and be an honest man,’ he told Mal.
Mal spread his hands. ’Times change?’
< >grunted. ‘So this time you’re searching me out. What’s it about?’
‘You heard of Branson’s Mark? It’s a moon of Shadow.’
’Shadow I heard of. bBeen a black rock since the War. ‘
‘I come up there. There’s a start being made on restoring it.’
‘How does this affect Regina?’
‘Shadow don’t. The Mark belongs to a fella name of Branson, who runs a cult of followers. His own religion, eh?’
‘Lotta those around. Not many have a whole moon though.’
‘We was there a few weeks back. Doc here is with the Flying doctors and did a clinic.’
‘We have our own hospital. Corone Hospital – Paradiso. Got a whole wing just doing respiratory research.’
‘I’m not looking for work,’ Simon said.
‘We left the Mark after Simon gave them some bad news.’ The judge had a ‘I’m not surprised’ expression.
‘Then we spotted something odd. The boys form The Mark do a wanderjahr. Go out and see something of the Verse.’ The judge looked impatient.
‘Well, we saw them and the whole family of a trusty man on Summerfair in charge of a guy with a local reputation as a slaver. And then we saw that guy here- at Hancock- at the Corone Mining offices.’
‘Hancock is a Corone town. Hells, this is a Corone world. What are you getting at?’
‘We think the Marksmen were being sold here..’
‘Corone does buy labour contracts. Bond labour ain’t illegal.’
‘Forced bondage is.’
‘How you going to prove that? Corone would want signed proof of the bond and match it to the bondsman’s chip.’
‘The Marksmen wouldn’t have chips. Part of their beliefs,’ said Simon.’If you were willing to look into this shipment of bondsmen, I think you would find the chips don’t match the boys’ stories.’
‘Take the money then tell the police that the chip is not your chip?”
‘Well,’ Simon shrugged. ‘I have some experience with forged chips. I’d be able to tell you if they were counterfeits. Probably, anyway.’
Mal looked at Simon with admiration.’Lookit you, doc. Teetering on the edge of respectability.’
The judge laughed.
‘Look , we got those folks into this fix. I’m asking you to give them a choice in their futures.’
‘Like I say, bond labour ain’t illegal.’
‘It is if it’s coerced. All I’m saying is, ask the boys their names and origins. Check that agains their chips. If it all matches, I’m wrong. If I’m right, you and Corone Mining get the honour of breaking up a slaving ring.’
The judge looked levelly at Mal, who met his eyes straight on.
‘Corone Mining has to look good in all this.’ he said.
‘I ain’t saying anything different.’
< > called his clerk in. ‘Call the sheriff and ask her and a couple of deputies to meet men at the bunnies. And make out a search warrant….?’
’T’she ship name is Walden. The captain is Andrew Honda. The only names we know for the slaves is George and Charlotte. They got two young kids, boy of twelve and a girl of ten. They got older boys and they may be with the wanderjahr bunch.’
‘All from Brendon Mark?’
‘B R A N S O N’s Mark’
Walden had settled on a pad near the bunkhouses for bonded labourers. When the sheriff and her men, accompanied by Doctor Tam, arrived, the labour manager was processing his new workers.
‘Geez Handy, where d’you find these yokels? They all act like stunned oxen.’
‘Strong young farm boys, Ravi Hard workers. You’ve had ‘em before . May be dumb as oxen, but plenty strong.’
‘Yeah, yeah, but did this bunch get their shots? The last bunch one is pretty well all dead cause they didn’t get their pescaline-D’
‘They got all the medicine they need. Move it along, will ya, Ravi? There’s a girl aiming for me back in Hancock.’
The sheriff interrupted ,’Ravi, I got a complaint about this intake. Mind if I ask the boys a few questions.?’
Ravi looked impatient but saved the sheriff towards the sound men, standing with their packs a few metres away. Honda was less accepting.’Whaddya want with ‘em. They’s just bondsmen. All the paperwork is done.’
‘Doctor Tam?’ the sheriff said calmly, ignoring Honda. ‘Would you check their chips?’
Simon used a police reader to read the chips . He noticed that all men had proud flesh around the site of the implanted IDs, indicating that they were new.
The sheriff was asking the boys their names and home worlds. All said Branson’s Mark and one of the boys, less dozen than the others, told her this was part of their religious training, going off-world to test their faith. ‘Many return’ asked the sheriff. The boy was silent.
Simon show the sheriff the report. None of the information on the chips matched what the boys had told her.
‘Where are George and Charlotte?’ asked Simon. The boy said. ‘They stopped at Summerfair. Captain Honda told us they would meet up with their kids later. When we get picked up in three months.’
Ravi looked startled. ‘Your contracts are for three years. We don’t bother with anything shorter.’
‘No, Bishop Branson told us we would be spreading the word here for three months.’
‘Good thing I got a search warrant for the ship,’ muttered the sheriff. ‘How old are the kids?’
She found the boy locked in a passenger cabin, desperately worried about his sister and his parents, none of who he had seen since they were forced onto the Walden at Branson’s Mark.
His sister was in a crew cabin, naked and terrified. When Simon tried gently to clean her wounds, she screamed.
The sheriff arrested the entire crew for kidnapping and the crewman who had taken the girl for rape. ‘We’ll get to the slaving charges as soon as we figure out who knew what the boys Honda brought in were.’
Handcuffed, Honda was being escorted into their Paradiso jail house as Mal lounged against a lamp post, watching.
“Good to see you again, captain,’ Mal said as Simon joined him. Honda looked at him blankly. Obviously he had no memoir of Mal or of Serenity.