River of Guilt


Wash looks out at the bright ball that is Newhall. He wonders idly if after all this is over, he and Zoe might get a chance to go down to the surface and spend a few days locked alone in a suite with room service. He dwells a moment on visions of the texture of velvety chocolate contours before reaching for the ship’s intercom.

“Mal,” Wash’s voice is strangely tight. He coughs to loosen it up. He takes a deep breath and tries again, “Mal, we’re in orbit, well above the atmo.”

Mal is running flight checks on shuttle two. It doesn’t see as much use as Inara’s shuttle, and he wants to be certain every thing checks out. He touches the com panel.

“Shuttle two. Roger that.” He flips a switch. “Attention, ladies and gentlemen. Let’s get this show on the road.”

Shepherd Book is the first to appear. He’s dressed in a trim red suit with a white pinstripe. In his left hand is a slim black leather attaché case. He’s wearing black wingtip shoes with white uppers. Perched on his unconfined hair is a flat crowned red hat with white band.

Mal looks up. “Ai ya! Dah bien-hwa, Shepherd. This exceeds strangeness.”

“I always wondered why I kept these clothes. I never thought on ever wearing them again.”

Mal shakes his head with a rueful grin. “I don’t think I ever would have imagined a Shepherd wearing such finery.”

Book nodded. “That’s the point. It takes very little to change back to being a Shepherd when being pursued. What eye, looking for this, would even see a Shepherd?”

Mal shakes his head. “Last time I seen an outfit like that, the gent was trying to sell me a used starship. He looked like a crook. Thinkin’ on it, I can see the similarities.”

“Jen duh sh tyen tsai.” The contralto voice surprised both men.

Mal turns toward the lock to see Inara standing there. She’s looking appreciatively at Book.

“Good sir, you are a vision.” She reaches to take his hand as if being formally introduced for the first time. “I would have passed you on the street without knowing you.”

Book removes his hat and executes a low bow over her outstretched hand. For a moment, Book looks less confident. “You don’t think it’s too much do you?” Mal observes that Book didn’t ask him that.

“No, Advocate ….?”

“Tobias, ma’am. At your service.”

“Well then, Advocate Tobias, I think you set just the tone for this meeting.”

“May I compliment you, as well.” Straightening and holding her hand higher so she can pirouette under.

Mal has to agree, but he isn’t going to say anything. Inara is dressed in what looks at first glance to be a conservative businesswoman’s standard uniform of navy blue skirt and jacket with a pearlescent blouse. Then he notices that the skirt is slit farther up the thigh than normal convention permits, exposing a well tanned and muscled feminine thigh. The expensive looking blouse is shimmersilk, and at certain angles, strategic portions of it have the disconcerting tendency to disappear. The high heeled sandals further define the already shapely legs. He struggles to keep from ogling the display.

Inara looks smiling from Book to Mal, watching for some reflection of Book’s approval in Mal’s face. Instead of smiling, to please her, he holds an impassive expression – trying to look businesslike and professional. Her smile fades and she shifts her attention back to Book.

“Thank you, sir. I fear it is wasted here. Brown coats are more the style aboard this ship.”

Book looks from Inara to Mal. Mal breaks the silence.

“Like as not, Ambassador, them duds will be fine for misdirecting the attentions of the unsophisticated yokels dirtside.” He looks to the hatch. “Where’s Jayne? Time’s awasting.”

He strides back to the shuttle’s flight panel and puts his hand down flat on the com switch. Harder than necessary.

“Jayne, we’re waiting.”

Jayne’s tinny voice comes through the small com speaker. “Soon’s I finish packin’ my bag, I’ll be there.”

“Don’t be all day.”

“On my way, Mal.” The tone of voice is aggrieved patience.

Mal straightens. “Inara, you fly the shuttle, and don’t let Jayne try to take over. I expect you and Book need to be in charge.”

Inara brusquely moves past him, shouldering him slightly aside as she expertly checks settings. “I know what to do.”

Mal lightly touches her arm. “You be careful down there.” His eyes show a concern and warmth that wasn’t there moments before.

Inara looks at him, trying to mask her confusion. Companions don’t get confused. She appears to be considering her responses. Finally, “I know how to take care of myself, and I’m quite certain the Shepherd and Jayne will take care of me.”

“They’d better, or I’ll be some unhappy.”

Inara is spared a response by the clatter of Jayne entering the shuttle. She shifts her attention to Jayne.


Jayne is wearing a tailored black suit with his hair and beard neatly trimmed and combed. He poses for effect. ”What? You thought I couldn’t dress the part? You never know what the hunting ground is going to look like, mei-mei. You have to blend in.”

He holds out the traditional doctor’s black bag.

Mal looks at it. “You know what to do with that?”

“What I got in it’s more for causing hurt than healin’.” He opens it to show his favorite pistol, a couple of grenades, and a flashbang stashed among various medical paraphernalia. “I stopped by the infirmary to get the doc to give me some junk to top it off.” The way he’s holding his arms reveals a dagger strapped to his inside left forearm that would have been at home on Earth That Was in 1930’s Shanghai. The Fairburn-Sykes stiletto is an ageless design.

He offers his arm to Inara. “Ready to go, mei-mei?”

Inara hugs his arm to her ribs. She smiles as Mal starts to flush. “Yes, dear” her voice subtly extends the dear, “brother. Shall we away? It’s my turn to drive.” Inara moves expertly to the drive console. She touches the com button. “Wash, this is shuttle two.” She looks pointedly at Mal. “We depart as soon as the Captain is back aboard Serenity. Shuttle Two departing in three zero seconds.” She sits in the shuttle’s pilot’s seat and activates the drive, never looking back.

Mal hastily ducks out the hatch and barely seals the port before Shuttle Two disengages.

Mal is staring at the now locked hatch when Zoe moves quietly up beside him. “They’ll be okay, Captain. They have a good plan.”

Mal nods and heads for Serenity’s bridge. “Nothin’ wrong with the plan but that they left me here waiting.”

Dirtside caution

Inara dropped the shuttle into low orbit. Wash downloaded the landing coordinates from Serenity to the shuttle’s navigational computer. Inara queried Planetary Port Control for instructions. The shuttle’s transponder broadcast a forged ID code for a combination freighter/transport that Mal had gotten from Mr. Universe. She held her breath until Port Control authenticated the ID. It was much easier when she could just use her Companion’s personal code. Still, the plan had worked so far. She recalled the basic Murphy’s law that no plan survived the first five minutes of execution. So far, they were thirty minutes plus. Inara lined the shuttle’s nose up with one of the many small islands dotting the seascape far below. The island was just moving out of darkness. It was about to start a 27 hour ‘day’. Inara expertly entered the pattern and spiraled down to a vacant landing pad. She purposely chose one that was out of the way, even though it had fewer facilities. The pad had minimal capacity for taking on air and fuel. There wasn’t even a shelter over the hatch. Fortunately, it was a beautiful day. Opening the hatch flushed the too stale air in the small cargo hold and replaced it with fresh air salted with the tang of the shore side smells. Even Jayne seemed to take a moment to savor the beauty, before stepping to the sill of the hatch and carefully scanning the area.

It was your typical port on a rim planet. The basic facilities were there, but with a raw edge. Trash and litter that would never be allowed on a core Alliance planet flitted idly about in the sea breeze. On Newhall, every breeze was a sea breeze. The facilities looked like they weren’t quite finished, and never would be. They could see the main port administrative buildings three kilometers away. There were a few people moving about the port grounds, mostly in the stained coveralls of mechanics. No one was paying any attention to the shabby little shuttle and its occupants.

Inara spoke. “I’ve checked the port directory. There are taxis available from the Administration complex.”

Book rubs his hands together in an anticipatory fashion. “I feel like sightseeing before we go to see the advocate. Can we get an island-hopping tour from the Administration complex?”

“Come on, Shep-, er Advocate Tobias. I think Mal expects us to go see this guy and get back to the ship.”

Book gave Jayne a sly look. “I would suggest, Dr. Tam, that we should look the planet over first. I believe our ship captain will understand the wisdom of it.”

Inara looked up at both men. “I suggest that we do as our Advocate asks, dear brother. But, I think I’d rather change clothes for the tour. We can find a refresher station and change when we come back.” So much for the plan, she thought as she went back aboard the shuttle.

An hour later three more casually dressed people walked into the Port Administration complex and booked an inter-island tour. The tour allowed passengers to debark at each site and wander around; in fact, guides subtly suggested that certain areas were known to offer really great deals for discriminating buyers. Before long all three were festooned with tourist sun hats, shawls to protect against cool breezes, and bags to carry purchases. Inara had to admit that the floating cities were fascinating, and several of the homes suggested that she could find worthwhile clients here were circumstances different. She’d always loved the water.

Their fourth stop was another island and Book watched the sky for a few moments before nodding in satisfaction. His muttered “This will do nicely” caught Inara and Jayne off guard.

“What you smokin’ Shepherd?” Jayne was already bored with the wandering around.

“Follow me.” Was all the reply he got. The island had another shuttle port, similar to the one where they had started and Book led them straight to it. The administration complex looked exactly like where they had landed. Book spotted the refresher stations.

“Why don’t you go in and change.” He looked around the lounge area. He pointed to an area that had no tables or chairs. Meet me over there with all your tourist gear in one of the bags.

When they came out, Book met them. He had on his pants, shirt, and shoes, but his hair was still tied back and he wasn’t wearing his jacket or his hat. “Give me your stuff.”

He took all the bags and left Inara and Jayne to wait. He went over to a port gate. A shuttle was just arriving with tourists. One group of three was chattering gaily about what they hoped to see. Book approached them.

“Hello, friends. Welcome to our planet. Are you planning on a tour?”

The group answered in the affirmative.

“I just happen to have some friends who were not able to complete theirs. Here are the tickets and some souvenirs if you would like them.”

One of the group started to reach for a wallet.

Book held up a hand. “No, no. You don’t need to do that. Everything is already paid and we just hope you enjoy our lovely planet. Let me show you where the tour bus parks.”

Book comes back twenty minutes later and ducks into the refresher. He comes out in his Advocate’s costume.

He walks over to Inara and Jayne with a boyish grin on his face and leads them around to an exit gate. When the next group arrived, he gently urged them to join the crowd.

Jayne shakes his head. “Mei-mei, I think our advocate’s escaped from the bughouse.”

Book lead them to a cab stand. An attendant is assigning passengers to a waiting cab. It’s clear that the condition of the cab you got was dependant on the size of the tip he received. Book took a deep breath and strode directly to the attendant. “Excuse me,” he peers closely at the attendant’s name tag. It also gave the attendant to get a good look at him. “my dear Gerold. I am Advocate Tobias. I’m looking for a colleague on your planet. Perhaps you know where I can find Advocate Whitherton?” Book slips him five platinums. It wasn’t much, but they weren’t exactly overendowed with cash.

The attendant consulted his screen. “Whoa, Advocate. You picked the wrong shuttleport. You’d have done better coming in on the southern shuttle. It lands directly on the island”

Book shook his head. “I’ll have to speak to my booking agent. Although, I suppose I can’t expect them to know every detail of every backwater planet. Would you be so good as to book passage for my clients, Dr. and Miss Tam, and myself?”

A piercing, modulated whistle called a well appointed cab. Book smiled appreciatively. He hands Gerald another platinum. “Thank you my good man. Would you be so kind as to contact Advocate Whitherton to inform him of our impending arrival?”

The attendant smiled broadly. “Right ho, gov. Call Advocate Whitherton and tell him Dr. and Miss Tam and Advocate …?”


“Right. Dr. and Miss Tam and Advocate Tobias are on their way from the northern shuttleport.” Gerald is staring intensely at Inara as she enters the cab displaying a lot of leg and other charms.

The cab enters traffic before going airborne and the attendant walks over to a call box. Thinking for a minute he places two calls. Hanging up, he smiles. It has been a profitable day.

Dirtside meeting

It’s dusk when the cab drops to the curb in front of a well appointed office building. The three travelers exit, leaving the driver with most of their remaining funds. Jayne opens his bag and checks its contents.

“Ai-yah Tyen-ah. I don’t see why we wasted the whole day, and most of our cash money, landing where we wanted to go, playing tourist on a tour we didn’t finish, and overpaying that cabby to end up practically next to where we started.” He throws his arm angrily towards where the Southern Shuttleport Administration Building is visible in the distance. His voice just barely qualifies as a whisper.

Inara looked at him angrily. “Bai duo, an jing yidian. I for one, enjoyed spending the day off that ship. I felt like I could take a deep breath for a change.”

“Well I’m sure some of your clients would like that, but …”

“Fei hua, I think brothers and sisters could do better than argue all day.” Book interjected. “We’re here for a solemn event – settling your parents’ estate on this planet. Do you think, if they were living, they would want to see you fighting like this?”

Jayne looked sullen. “You’re our Advocate, Lao Gohn, not our conscience.”

“Fine, I’ll double my fee. I should never have promised your parents that I would look after your interests.”

Inara places one well manicured hand on Books left sleeve. “We appreciate all you do for us. It’s just so hard, after all this time to deal with mother and father’s … death … all over again.”

Jayne hangs his head. “Yeah, I’m sorry. It’s like they won’t stay dead.”

Inara slaps his shoulder. “Simon Tam, what an awful thing to say about them.”

“You know what I mean, sis. It just opens old wounds.”

Inara pats the shoulder she just slapped. “I know.”

Book takes both of them by the arm. “Now, if we could just go inside.”

He pushes them through the door into a well-appointed waiting area. Lots of exotically grained hardwoods and leather. Paintings adorn every wall panel showing either an ocean scene or a sky city. A very attractive tawny haired receptionist sits behind a curved dark toned wooden desk with a com bug in one delicately curved ear.

Book barely beats Jayne to the receptionist.

“Excuse me, ma’am. Advocate Tobias and the Tams to see Advocate Whitherton.”

She flashed Jayne a big smile. “Yes sir, I’ll see if he’s in.” She bounced up and moved over to a door set flush with the room’s paneling. Jayne stared at all the movements involved in that walk. Inara rolled her eyes at the obviousness.

Jayne merely struggled to keep his in his head when she opened the door and leaned forward to speak to the next room’s occupant, emphasizing a very well-shaped derriere under the thin, clingy fabric.

Book merely tried to wipe the grin from his face as she turned around and said “Jimmy … er, ah, Mr. Whitherton will see you now.”

She held the door open, stretching her torso to its best advantage as Jayne walked past. He gave her a quick grin and held up his doctor’s bag. A swift kick from Inara kept him from saying whatever he was thinking. Jayne took the hint and attempted to look more professional while ogling the well defined cleavage.

Book pushed him the rest of the way into the room with a polite “Thank you, miss.” He’s surprised by the flash of amused intelligence in her green eyes.

The Inheritance

Book is still assessing what he just saw when he gets his first good look at the new room. It is a large room with tall windows. Below the chair molding is a mutated cherry wood paneling, and above is a pale green luminescent panel radiating a soft light into the room. It is a peaceful room and he wished he could spend some time browsing the wall of books covering one end. A hearty “Welcome, my friends” draws his attention to a corpulent man standing behind a large desk, also of cherry. The hand he holds out is large, but not as soft as Book expected. He finds himself looking into small, dark, shrewd eyes, shadowed by thick black brows. Book doesn’t want to look too long at those eyes, so he takes a moment to scan the rest of the figure, from the perfectly groomed salt and pepper hair, to the perfectly tailored suit and comfortable black tasseled loafers.

This was not what Book expected to find on a rim planet, even a well to do resort planet. This man and his surroundings would have been perfectly at home on one of the core Alliance worlds.

“I’m Advocate James Whitherton. I represent the directors of Sea and Sky Resort Properties. As such, I managed property investments for the late Mr. Tam. I hope to be able to help you bring these final matters to a close for the family as painlessly as possible.”

Book changed roles. “Thank you. I am Advocate Charles Tobias.” He reached into his jacket pocket to pull out his wallet. “Here is my identification.” He gestured towards Inara and Jayne. “May I present River and Simon Tam. I will be representing them in this.” He handed over additional identity papers.

Whitherton looked at Book. “I see. It was a terrible tragedy. Did you know Mr. Tam and his wife?”

“Ah, no. I did not have the privilege. I met River and Simon a short time after the accident. We were traveling on the same ship, became friends, and when this came up, they asked me to assist them.”

Whitherton nodded. “I see. Well, I think you’re going to be surprised at the size of the estate here.”

Book nodded. “Actually, we were surprised that it wasn’t included in the original will probate.”

Whitherton opened a folder. “Yes, well, it would have been but for the irregularities in the Tam’s deaths.”

Inara stepped in. Whitherton eyed her appreciatively. “What do you mean – irregularities in my mother and father’s deaths?”

Jayne, put his hand on Inara’s shoulder. “Now, sis.”

Inara moved to the very edge of Whitherton’s desk. “I was away at school. I was very ill at the time. I didn’t hear anything about mommy and daddy’s death except they had died in an air cab crash on the way to the Theater one evening.”

“Sir, you’ll understand, as a doctor, as well as her brother, I’ve tried to spare my sister as much stress as I could.”

Whitherton gave Inara a look that would have seemed very concerned and fatherly, except for the frequent darting of the eyes to her blouse. “My dear, won’t you please sit down. I’ll request some refreshment for us all, and we can go over all that I know.”

He taps the ear bug he wears. “Ming Lee, why don’t you bring in some refreshments for our guests. Our bottled water is well known throughout the ‘verse, and we have a fine white wine I think the lady will like. For you gentlemen, we have a very fine Pilsner brewed from a distinctive mutation of an Earth that Was hops. Our caviar is also very fine.”

Book nodded his thanks. “That will be very nice.”

The speed with which the receptionist rolled in the cart made it clear that she had been waiting. She spent considerable time bending over Jayne, fussing that his napkin was properly placed on the table next to his chair, and that his drink was chilled to exactly the right temperature.

“That will be all, Ming Lee. Thank you.”

“Yeah,” Jayne panted. “Thank you.” Jayne remembered enough of his role to not turn and watch her roll the cart from the room. Instead he focused on Whitherton. “I’d be real interested in what you have heard about Mom and Dad’s deaths.”

“Well, you see, it impacted the insurance we had on your father. It was a large policy – three quarters of a million credits. There was a triple indemnity clause for accidents. When we submitted the claim as part of putting together the estate, the Alliance Insurance Agency denied the accidental claim. The Agency baldly stated that the death was a policy issue, and not an accident. We were surprised, of course. It made the other shareholders nervous, however, and as a result, they have authorized me to make you a buy-out offer for all of your father’s shares.”

He slid the papers across the desk, three copies.

“Wuh di tyen, ah.” Jayne couldn’t help himself.

Whitherton rubbed his hands together. “Your father invested very wisely on our planet.”

Inara looked from Jayne to Book. “Oh, juh jen sh guh kwai luh duh jean-jan. I had no idea.”

“Talk about Fah Leong jian.” Jayne looks across to Book. “What do we do now?”

Book looks at Whitherton. “This appears to be a very generous offer. It would take some time to review all of the numbers to verify the amounts. If I were to advise my clients to take your offer, what would be the next step?”

Whitherton smiled. “Well, we’re pretty informal out here on the rim planets. If this amount is satisfactory to your clients, we can sign the papers and transfer the credits to any account you choose.”

Book looks over at Inara and Jayne. They nod to his unspoken question. They all know they can’t hang around for a detailed accounting. What’s more, Whitherton probably knows it as well.

“Ghuh-ghuh, I think we should sign.” Inara looks carefully at Jayne. “I miss mom and dad enough as it is. To go through a long settlement, it would be more than I can bear.”

“Sure, sis. Advocate Tobias, we’ll sign whatever you say we should.”

“Very well.” Book’s warm tones were meant to reassure two young people making a tough decision. “You go ahead and sign.” Again he reached into his pocket and pulled out an ID card. “Please transfer the funds to this account.”

Whitherton took the card and ran it through a scanner. There were a couple of beeps and a green light showed a successful transaction.

After everything was signed, they all stood up and shook hands. “Well,” said Whitherton, “I hope that this will help offset some of the negatives of the terrible tragedy you have suffered.”

While Inara and Jayne expressed their thanks, Book ushered them through the lobby to the outer door. As soon as the door closed behind them, he started looking about. Jayne picked up on his alertness and started looking about as well.

“Ai ya, wo mun wan luh. That was too easy, and there was too much money. Money like that leaves a trail.”

Book gave a small smile. “Not this time, it won’t. Whoever set this up, just made a huge contribution to the Church.”

“Ai ya!” Jayne stated to look angry.

“Don’t worry. The money will disappear and there will be a number of small charities experiencing a windfall. That windfall will all move toward an account that Mal can easily access. It’s a relief fund for Brown Coats to reintegrate into society since they lost the war.”

“How’s that help us?”

“Zoe and I set up the account just before we came to Newhall. It’s all shiny.”

Jayne looked around. “We need a cab.”

Book shook his head. “Jun ta ma yao ming. Joo-ee. I suspect any cab we got now would be a one way ride.”

Inara looked worried. “So what do we do?”

Book pointed in a direction. “If I remember what I saw from the aircar, that direction is the poorer side of town. I suggest we walk a few blocks and look for a place where we can acquire some well-used clothing and ditch these glad rags.”

He led off to follow his fingers.

Jayne never stopped scanning the area, from doorways to roof tops. “I got a feelin you’re right Mr. Advocate. How long you think we got?”

“Not long.” Book looks back as Jayne stands where he is.”

Jayne is reading building signs. “If they got cameras, they’re gonna wonder why we don’t get a cab.”

Book looks thoughtful. “What do you suggest?”

“This here’s a business district ain’t it?”


“People gotta eat, don’t they?”

Inara points up the street. “My brother’s right.” She’s speaking more loudly. “I’m hungry and we can certainly afford to eat. I like that restaurant over there. Surely we can get a cab back to the shuttle port from there.”

Book and Jayne look over her head. “Sis’s health is very important to me. May we treat you to dinner?”

Book takes one last look at the direction he’d originally chosen. “I accept.”

No More Clients

Ming Lee looks up as two men enter from the street. Both are nondescript, wearing well cut suits. Both are clean shaven with very short hair. Their skin is pale, as if they don’t spend a lot of time outdoors.

One of them approached her desk. “Is the Advocate in?”

Ming Lee smiles and takes a deep breath. “He is. He doesn’t have any appointments for the rest of the evening …” Her voice trails off. This guy is looking through her.

“Is anyone with him now?” The second man moves toward Whitherton’s private door.

“No, his last client left over an hour ago. If you like, I’ll see if he has time to talk to you.” She starts to rise.

A pale hand stops her. “That isn’t necessary. He’s expecting us.”

Both men move to the door, pulling on blue gloves. They are through the door before she can respond. She sits, waiting for the buzz to bring in refreshments.

She starts to get up to check when the two men exit the inner office, closing the door very softly.

They are still wearing the blue gloves. One walks over to her. She honestly can’t say if it was the same as the first time or not. “Has anyone been here since the Tams?”

“No, sir. No one.” She looks at the closed door.

“Were they alone?”

Her hands are drawn to the blue gloves and the silver object they hold.

“Were they alone?” No trace of impatience, no trace of condescension. Just the impression of infinite waiting.

“Uh, no. They had their advocate with them.”

“Who was she?”

A nervous glance at the silent door. “It was their Advocate – a mister Tobias, I believe.”

“Is he a local Advocate?”

“I had the impression that he was from off planet. We got a call from the North Port cabstand that they were on the way.”

The two men looked at each other.

“Were you close to them while they were here.”

“As close to them as I am to you. I served them refreshments. The brother was amusing. The girl – seemed odd. She was withdrawn. I never heard her say much.”

“But you were close to them.”

“Well, yes. As close as I am to you.” Ming Lee replied nervously.

“That’s … unfortunate. Do you know where they went?”

“After they left they talked outside the door for a bit. I couldn’t hear that. Then I heard the girl say she was hungry and they could afford to eat somewhere nice. They walked up the street. That’s all I know.”

The two men looked at her. “Yes it is. That’s … unfortunate.”

On the street, the two men carefully close and lock the door of the office. Inside, the receptionist’s head is down on the desk, green eyes open in surprised agony, blood trickling out from under the ear bug.

On board Serenity, River sits bolt upright on the sofa in the Tam’s cabin. Her eyes are wide and it’s hard to know if she is conscious, or talking in her sleep.

“Two by two,
Hands of blue,
Info they want,
Then do for you.”

Simon had been sitting in a chair reading. His book hits the floor as he heads for the door.



Wash was studying the com panel when the proximity radar beeped. He didn’t even bother with the comm.

“Mal, they’re back.”

“Run-tse duh fwo-tzoo!” From the speed at which Mal appeared on the bridge, he must have been hovering nearby. “Get ready to warp out of here as soon as they dock. Wait till they're plugged into the intraship com to fill them in.”

“Got it, Mal.”

“Wash ...” Mal pauses as he bounces back out the hatch.

“Yeah, Mal?”

“You bein' some kinda fancy pilot, see if you can't find some way to confuse our trail out of here. I'd like those following us to be some troubled by the effort.”

“Right, Mal.” Wash punches the comm. “Kaylee, the birds are in the nest and we need all the burn we got. We need to leave a hole in the vacuum.”

Kaylee’s voice has an eerily doubled quality as it comes from the com and up the corridor from Engineering. “Shiny, Wash. Serenity and me are ready.”

Wash spins Serenity nearly on her central axis as he fires the main drive to break orbit. He drives for the outer edge of the system when he gets an idea. He builds as much delta-vee as he can heading for the asteroid belt. He stresses the aged inertial compensators as he dodges through the belt. Just as he passes a large asteroid he launches a decoy and reverses thrust. Serenity protests with the sudden deceleration as he grounds her in a crater on the surface.

Mal comes running onto the bridge. “Juh Shi suh Mo Go Dohng Shee? You trying to kills us? I thought I told you to get us out of here. It was alive, I meant.”

Wash just held up a hand and turned up a receiver. Serenity’s transponder beacon could be heard moving quickly out of the system.

Mal looks puzzled. Wash merely looks patient as Zoe comes to listen. “Mal, we can’t outrun anything. You know that.”

“Peers to me that’d be the reason I told you to get as much distance as quick as you could.”

“Right, and anyone who might chase us would think the same thing. They’d also appreciate our leaving a nice fat ion trail to follow.” He points at the speaker. “That’s us making tracks out of here.”

Mal looks skeptical. “How long do you think that trick will work?”

Zoe comprehends. She chuckles. “That’s my baby.” She moves over to stand very close behind Wash, rubbing his shoulders with both hands. “Captain, how many times have you said the best way to hide your trail is to not leave one?” Zoe looks proudly at Wash. “I’m so proud of you.” She takes a deep breath that Wash watches appreciatively. “I could just bust.”

Wash looks at her speculatively. “How about you just bust out of those clothes?” He looks at Mal. “I don’t want to seem to be giving the Captain orders, Sir,” as he reaches up to put his left arm around his wife’s waist, “but while I go bask in my wife’s adulation, why don’t you watch to see who follows that decoy. They’ll have to go some to catch it. When it kills its signal well outside the system, they’ll wonder if you bought a stealth system.”

Zoe is already tugging on Wash’s arm. “Sir, that’s a good idea. Let’s see if anyone chases us. We can lie low here for hours. Wash and I will be in our cabin if you need us.”

Mal knows he’s lost control of the situation, and while annoyed that he wasn’t consulted, Wash’s plan is brilliant. Trying to conceal his discomfort he places his hands behind his back and tries to stand as he imagines a composed ship’s Captain would stand. “Very well, you may carry on.”

Zoe makes a very un-Sargentlike sound suspiciously like a giggle and heads for the hatch leading to the crew’s quarters. Wash leers. “Oh, yes sir, we will sir.” He gives Mal an exaggerated salute.

As he starts to follow Zoe out, Wash pauses. “Oh, Sir, you might want to power down everything you can. This asteroid is mostly iron and it will soak up a lot of signal. If we don’t have any active emissions, we should be almost impossible to detect.”

Mal realizes his mouth is hanging open. He closes it into a faint grin of resignation. He obediently moves to the command console and starts shutting down switches. He pauses, his hand over one. The grin fades into a look of intense concentration. A pair of blinking icons are showing on passive sensors. One appears to enter an eccentric orbit that will cover every inch of the planet in a few hours. The second leaves planetary orbit and heads out-system. He bangs the com switch. “Kaylee, shut down everything except minimal life support. Ma shong!”

“Gao Guhn, Captain. Shutting down now.” Echoes eerily from engineering and the com.

He watches as the second icon appears to waver back and forth before heading toward the asteroid belt. “Jao Gao!” Mal straightens and goes to the hatch. “Shepherd Book, could you come to the Bridge, please?”

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