River of Guilt


It’s chilly in Serenity. With life support running at minimal levels, the iron of the asteroid sucks heat from the hull. Mal has allowed the heat loss as the ship’s reduced thermal signature makes her still harder to detect. The crew has adapted the best they could, Zoe and Wash faring the best. There is a very soft thump over the ship’s sound system as if someone were tapping a microphone. Satisfied with the result, Mal clears his throat for all to hear. Very softly, “This is your Captain speaking. Hopefully you’ve found some pleasure during our unscheduled visit to this resort rock. As it appears we may be staying for some time, I’d like to bring crew and passengers up to date.” There’s a brief silence. “Seems to me, we all need sustenance. Miss Kaylee and the Shepherd have put together some tasty rations for our consumption. Let’s all meet in the Dining Hall in fifteen minutes.”

The meal is the usual textured protein, this time served cold to avoid increasing the heat signature of their hiding place. There is very little conversation as the crew eats. Mal gives them fifteen minutes before asking Book to describe the events of their visit to the advocate. Then Wash tells about the behavior of the two patrol ships.

River looked at Simon. “Simon, where are Mom and Dad?”

Simon looked uncomfortable. “I hadn’t had the chance to tell you, yet. I would have told you when I thought you were better …”

“You didn’t tell me that Mom and Dad are dead.”

“I’m sorry, River. There was an airtaxi crash. They were on the way to the Theater. It was sudden, and they didn’t feel a thing.”

River stares at him, her eyes strangely dry, her mouth open. Simon continues.

“I was at the trauma center when they came in.” His eyes are moist. “There was nothing I could do. They were already dead.”

“No. No. I wanted to go home. I wanted to see mommy and daddy.”

“River, honey. I’m sorry. There is no home. I sold it all to raise the funds to get you out.”

“I want to see mommy and daddy.”

Simon took both her shoulders. “I’m sorry, honey. You can’t. They died in the accident.”

River twisted to look at Jayne. He won’t meet her eyes. She looks back at Simon.

“It was no accident. They were murdered.” She looked wildly about at all at the table.

“I see it. I see it in your minds. I’m an orphan. They want to be my guardians. They don’t just want to be inside my head. There they are, there they are. They’re always waiting for you. You can see them if you look. They’re always there if you look. Everybody sees them and nobody sees them... “

River rises from the table, her chair flying across the deck. She spins from the table both hands in fists at the side of her head. She spins about bouncing off chairs, walls, counters. She gets more violent and loud as she continues.

“These are the ones that take you! They break your brain … mix your mind … Little ones in the corner that you almost don't see. The teachers know them. The doctors know them. But they're the ones that reach in and do it. They're the ones who own you and you have to smash them!

“A million things, and the hands go everywhere and when you try to think all the little blue things are there but no one says it because, because sometimes they're afraid. And then they come...

“The hands go everywhere.
Two by two, hands of blue.
Dear Mommy and Daddy,
They got you too.

Two by two, Hands of blue.
You don’t need no parents -
They’ll take care of you.”

Simon had stood quietly, looking helpless. Mal had risen as well. He looks composed. It was almost as if he had expected this. He pulls his pistol, and in front of his horrified crew he reverses it and brings the grip down sharply on River’s head. She is suddenly silent, stands for a second, sways, and then slumps to the floor. Mal looks down at his handiwork and then looks at Simon.

“There, Doc. I’ve supplied the sedative. You keep her under until she calms down. You scan that?”

Simon looks furious but says nothing as he gathers up the inert body of his sister. Kaylee stares hard as she walks by Mal and tries to help Simon get River to the Infirmary.

Jayne nods in satisfaction. “Cap’n, that’s the first sensible thing you done with them two. Now we can eat in peace.” He reaches for a bowl of protein looking somewhat like mashed potato cakes. He ladles a huge stack on his plate. He looks up in surprise when Mal’s free hand clamps on his wrist.

“More’n one person on this ship speaks things that disturb other people, and I’m thinking the same solution works for both.”

“I didn’t mean nothing.”

“Then, that is what you should be sayin.”

Mal drops Jayne’s arm and sits back at the head of the table. “Shepherd. What she says – you reckon it’s true?”

“Advocate Whitherton was quite explicit in his account of the troubles because of that very fact.”

“How about you, Ambassador? Them wiles of yours tell you the same thing?”

“If you are referring to my training in detecting if someone is speaking the truth, then yes, he was telling us what he believed to be the truth.”

“Ai Yah Tien Ah! I knew that call was trouble. There ain’t enough credit in the whole ‘Verse to pay for this.”

Zoe shakes her head. “I don’t know, Sir. I checked the balances. Even allowing for the percentages we left behind for each of the transfers, the Tams have a very hefty balance.”

“And, I expect we will be enjoying some of that. The question is whether or not we can live to spend it.”

Jayne looks at Book and Inara. “We should be OK, Mal. I don’t think anyone knew we pulled a switch, and we managed a pretty good job of confusing our trail. I don’t think the Alliance goons have a clue.”

“He’s right, Sir. It was a good plan.” Zoe chipped in. “I think our trail is as clear as it ever is. Mr. Universe says nobody has tapped any of the funds transfers, so we are in the clear there as well.”

A Proposal

A rustle announced Simon’s return to the Dining Hall. Mal looks at him and waits for him to speak.

“She’s resting quietly. I gave her a sedative to keep her out.” He scratched his ear as he looked at the deck. “You whacked her a pretty good one, Captain.”

“I told you before to keep her quiet. I’ll allow as she had special reason to be some upset this time, and she hadn’t hurt anyone yet. I still wasn’t willing to take no risks.”

Simon looks back at Mal.

“I realize that, Captain, and I should have told her about Mom and Dad. I … just … wanted her to be more stable before I told her. I wanted to try to break it to her gradually. Had she been better prepared, it might not been such a shock.”

“You will get no dispute from me. My experience has been that it’s best to get it done and over with. Nothing here lately convinces me otherwise. Question is, what do we do now?

“Yes, well …” Simon hesitated. He takes a deep breath. “I have a job for you, Mal.” Simon looks around as if trying to make sure everyone is included. “You know my sister is very upset.”

“I some noticed that. ‘Spect if we ain’t careful, the whole ‘verse’ll be knowin. However, you being only the doctor on this ship, so I don’t see no way of you havin’ a job for me.”

“Well … yes … but, I can’t keep her sedated forever. I don’t see any way to give her peace unless I do something.”

“We aren’t going back to Ariel for more brain scans.”

“No, it’s not that. I don’t know how to say this. I have many skills. But they are all the wrong sort. I didn’t learn enough of what was needed to break my sister out of the school. Others did it.”

“I wouldn’t feel too badly about that, Doc. Like you said, that wasn’t your callin’. You did well, what you did. “

There was a kindness in Mal’s voice that Simon didn’t expect and didn’t know how to respond to. He looked briefly at Mal’s eyes, saw no mockery, and looked quickly back down at the deck. He swallowed.

“I was lucky. I found people who could help.”

“Being lucky is better than being good. Seen that my own self more’n oncet.”

“I find myself in need of help again. I find that I must hire the required expertise.”

“I expect you have the money now. What you do with it is your own business.”

“Well, Captain, I’d like to hire you and your crew to help me destroy the Blue Sun Corporation.”

“Bu Kuh Nuhn! You’d like to do as well trying to eliminate all the oxygen in the known ‘Verse.”

Simon held up a placating hand. “OK, maybe not the whole corporation. But I know they have a group that specializes in covert activities. I want to get them.”

“I never saw you as one for revenge, Doc.”

Book chimes in with his own protest as he rises from the table. “Son, revenge is never the answer. It will destroy you and your sister.”

“It’s not revenge, Captain. It’s peace. You know they will never leave us alone. River will never be safe as long as they … are … out … there.”

Book looks very troubled. “There has to be another way.”

Mal raises his hand looking carefully at Simon. “Like as not, you’re right. Let me think on this some.”

Book comes around the end of the table to face Mal. “Mal! You can’t be seriously considering this …”

“I said I’d think on this some. Like as not, while I’m thinking, I’ll be having words with both of you. Now, we won’t be having those words until I’m ready for them. Are we shiny on this? Cause, if we ain’t, I’d advise you to consider that this rock is not the best place to catch a ride anywhere. Dohn luh mah?”

Without waiting for a response, Mal leaves for his quarters. “Zoe, you’re in charge” drifts absently over his shoulder.

What You Don’t Know Can…

Mal appears at breakfast the next morning. Everyone is present except River who is still sedated. Ironically, Mal looks more rested than anyone else. Even Inara has unaccustomed shadows under her lovely dark eyes.

“Mornin, all. Kaylee, you’ve outdone yourself this morning. I could smell breakfast all the way down the corridor.”

Kaylee smiled. “Thank you, Cap’n. Zoe thought we could risk a little heat for a warm breakfast.” She looked a little embarrassed. “It’s just protein, made up to look like a ham and egg omelet and toast.”

“It’ll do just fine.”

“Thank you, Cap’n.” She looked over at the doc. “Simon, I made up a plate for River and put it on a warming plate. You can take it to her later.”

Simon, who always looks uncomfortable when Kaylee speaks directly to him, murmurs into his own plate. “Thank you. I’m sure she will appreciate it when she wakes up.” He gives Mal a long look. His pause causes everyone to look up at him and then at Mal.

Mal, who has already started eating, notices everyone’s regard and swallows hastily, almost choking. He takes a big drink of the usual blue liquid in his glass. His eyes are clear and innocent as he looks back at the crew.

“Wash, when we finish breakfast, can you sneak us out of here and over to Hera?”

“Sure, Mal. What’s the plan?”

“Inara, would you like to use a stop at Hera to reach out to some of your clients?”

“It would give me a chance to renew some … acquaintances.”

“Do you have any regular … acquaintances … on Newhall?”

“No, but I thought there might be some opportunities there. It is worth investigating.”

“I don’t want to interfere with your whoring schedule, but do you think you could work some on Hera during the next two weeks and then sort of work your way to Newhall?”

Inara stiffened at the insult. Tension around the table increased noticeably. Before she can reply, Mal continues.

“It would be a big help to the Tams.”

“I fail to see …”

“That’s right. You do fail to see, but you will later.” He turns to Jayne. “Jayne, when we get to Hera, I want you to go to Aberdeen. Take your hunting clothes. I want you to go to Newhall from Aberdeen as a Scotsman.”

“Sure, Mal. I can do it, but why?”

Mal ignored the question as he turned to Zoe and Wash. “How’d you two lovebirds like to take a short second honeymoon trip to Newhall.”

Wash’s eyes lit up. “Aye, Aye, Sir.”

Zoe placed a hand on Wash’s arm. “What’s the play, Captain? And how do we pay for all this?”

Mal nodded and smiled. “I was coming to that. Doctor, you are once again a wealthy man.”

“Yes, Captain. And you want your cut…”

“Not exactly. You said you had a job for us. You willing to pay expenses up front?”

“Mal!” Book looked very upset. “You can’t be seriously considering his …”

Mal held up a hand for silence. “What I’m seriously considering is that we don’t know anything. We are all assuming. I want to find out what happened when we left Newhall. To do that, I want to: 1 – let Inara work her clients and see if there is anything she can learn. I don’t believe anyone would connect the accomplished Companion with the young heiress. 2- Jayne, you approach from Aberdeen and you find out what happened to that Advocate, if anything.”

“Okay, Mal. I wanted to look up that Ming Lee again, anyways.”

“And three, Wash and Zoe, you two been wanting some time dirtside to enjoy yourselves; I want you to book passage from Hera to Newhall to have some R&R. While you’re at it, check for signs of increased security, unusual comings and goings, people at resorts who shouldn’t be there.”

“Captain, could I have some time to visit Serenity Valley?”

“No one there but dead people, Sergeant. They wouldn’t know you were there. I want you focused on keeping the living people we got alive.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Meanwhile, Kaylee, Shepherd Book, and me will keep the Tams company while you’re away. I’ll fly Serenity back to Newhall on her own beacon and be looking for a cargo towards the rim. I’ll keep Shuttle two hot in case anyone needs a fast pickup.”

Simon nodded his understanding. “I’ll pay the expenses, Captain.”

“Simon, Mal, you can’t be seriously considering …”

“Shepherd, you’re a good man. And I some appreciate your feelings, but I see this as the good Doctor does. These people won’t ever let him or his sister go. Come down to it – once Blue Sun figures out where the Tams been hiding – I expect they will come after all of us. Only way I see to prevent that, is stop them cold.”

“Surely there is a better way.”

“I can’t see it. But, Shepherd, I’ll give you this. You got two weeks to research it some. If you come up with a better way, and can convince the Doctor, then he won’t be my client no more, but he’ll still owe us for expenses, and we’ll discuss how much our share of his inheritance will be based on what’s left. You’ll come into some of that since you were on the ground.”

Book looked long and hard at Mal. Then he looked at Simon who gave him the smallest nod.

“Captain, I’m not essential on board Serenity. May I go ashore at Hera?”

“You got two weeks, Shepherd.”

Simon cleared his throat. “I’ll be honored to cover your expenses, too, Shepherd.”

Book smiled. “I don’t need your money, son. I just need time.” He turned to Mal. “I’ll meet you on Newhall, Captain.”

Mal shook his head. “I don’t think that so smart, Preacher. I figure you’re the one who might be recognized on Newhall. I’d rather you stayed far away from there.”

“Thank you for your concern, Captain, but I’ll be quite safe.”

Zoe looked at both men. “Could be he’s right, Captain, and it would reduce our exposure some if he can handle it.”

Book pointed at Zoe and Wash. “I’ll meet you two at your resort and come back to the shuttle port with you.”

Wash looks at Book. “But we don’t know where we will be.”

“I’ll find you.”

Mal looked around. “If that’s settled …”

“Excuse me, Captain.” Inara’s eyes are blazing. “I haven’t agreed to this. I can’t use my clients to spy …”

“No problem, Ambassador.” Mal gives her a cryptic look. “You have two weeks to ply your trade around Hera. Just meet us at Newhall in two weeks.”

Mal looks around again. He smiles at all the confused faces. He takes a bite of his now cold omelet. “Let’s finish breakfast and be about it.”

Coming Home to Roost

It’s quiet around the breakfast table in Serenity’s Dining Area. Kaylee has put on a small meal for Simon and River. River is quiet, subdued, with dark circles under her eyes. She has a large sloppy bandage wrapped around her head. It’s clear it isn’t Simon’s work. Her lips are pressed tight together, and she’s watching her brother.

Mal steps through the hatch from the crew quarters.

“Good morning, people.”

River looks at Mal, wiggling the bandage on her head. “Hwoon dahn. Little man with big gun, takes people’s money, then he runs.”

Simon looks shocked. “River. I’ve don’t think you should be talking about the Captain …”

“No, no, Doctor. That’s okay. It’s refreshing sometimes to know what others really think about you. Really.” He scratches under one suspender. “So, I can assume that I’m not on your most favored person list. I don’t suppose you’re alone in that.”

Simon looks uncomfortable and bids to change the subject. “So, Captain, what do we have for today? Another day of sitting around and watching oxygen leak through the hull?”

Mal nodded, ignoring the sarcasm. “We’re parked in orbit around Newhall. Parked here last night. We are directly over the eastern shuttle port. All the chickens should be coming home to roost sometime today.” He looks at Kaylee. “How’s Serenity this morning?”

“Serenity’s all shiny, Cap’n. She’s ready for whatever we need.”

Mal smiles at Kaylee’s cheeriness. “Let’s keep her engine hot, just in case we have to go somewhere fast. Is shuttle two ready for all of today’s pickups?”

“All how, Cap’n. Reaction tanks full, and the engine’s warmed up.” Kaylee brings him a steaming mug of coffee. “I’ve already run it out on the docking rails. You can disengage thirty seconds after you enter the hatch.”

Mal nodded. “I’ll monitor comm traffic from the bridge.” He salutes with the mug and walks that way.

The first to return is Jayne. Mal drops down to pick him up. Jayne is nervous, jumpy, but not willing to talk. Mal tries to pump him, but Jayne just sits and stares. He just repeats “Later, Cap’n. I don’t want to talk about it twice.”

When they dock with Serenity, Jayne bolts for his quarters with a “Call me when the others get back.”

Right after lunch, Mal takes a call from Zoe. They are waiting at the shuttle port and true to his promise, Book is with them.

Wash and Zoe look disgustingly pleased with themselves. They sit close together and are constantly touching. Mal almost can’t bear to look at them. Book is talking with them, but seems somehow on edge. Mal has a hard time figuring it out because, at the same time, he seems at peace with himself, as if he has found something he was looking for.

Mal lifts off and makes a run on Serenity. He approaches the orbiting ship from the rear, circling around in a visual inspection. He’s disturbed when he sees that the Shuttle one bay is still unoccupied. When shuttle two docks with Serenity, Mal retracts it into its bay. He doesn’t plan on using it any more today.

Kaylee is waiting at the hatch, eager for news and gossip. Mal shoos her away to Engineering. He turns to Wash.

“Wash, if you can stop distracting my exec long enough, why’nt you go up to the bridge and see if you can get a line on the Ambassador’s ETA.”

Wash gives him an exaggerated salute. “Yes, Sir, Captain, Sir.” He heads jauntily toward the bridge.

Mal turns to Book. “So Shepherd, was it a good trip?”

“Yes, Captain. Do you want a report now, or …”

“Let’s wait until everyone is back. No sense going over everything twice.”

“I’ll just go to my quarters and freshen up.” And Book takes his leave with a nod.

Mal turns to Zoe. “Well, what about you? Do you need to freshen up?” He looks intently into Zoe’s face. “How’d it go?”

Zoe gave Mal a small smile, a knowing smile. “Thank you, Sir.”

“For what? I sent you on a risky mission.”

“Captain, I didn’t need Wash and a two week vacation to fulfill the mission.”

“Nonsense. You needed a good cover.”

Zoe’s mouth almost quirked into a grin. “It was a fine cover, Sir.”

“Good, I’ll look forward to a detailed report then.”

Zoe made a sound that in anyone else Mal would have called a giggle, but Zoe never giggled. “Not that detailed, Sir.”

Mal rocked back and forth on his feet. “Well, Sergeant. I’ll rely on your … discretion.”

Zoe braced to attention and saluted. “Yes, Sir. I’ll …”

Wash’s voice came over the com. “Mal, just raised Inara. ETA thirty minutes. She’s on the other side of the planet.”

Mal walked over to the wall com next to the Shuttle hatch. “Thank you. Ask the crew to meet in the lounge fifteen minutes after her shuttle is secure aboard.”

He turns and stares at Zoe. “Sergeant, you are naked.”

Zoe looks shocked and then her hand drops to her hip which looks strangely bare. “Yessir. I’ll go finish getting dressed, Sir.” Her voice softened. “And, Mal – thank you - For everything.”

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