River of Guilt

Disturbing Findings

It’s a quiet group that collects in the lounge. There seems to be a wall around each person. The only exceptions are Wash and Zoe, and Simon and River. It seems each has something to say, and none are looking forward to it. Jayne is sitting in a corner, as far back into it as he can get. He’s wearing an extra pistol in a shoulder holster and a knife juts from each boot. When Mal enters the room, he jumps up.

“I wanna tell it now, Mal.”

Mal just makes a ‘come on’ motion with his hands.

“I went to Aberdeen like you said. Prowled around some graveyards in the more rural areas. Found a name of a very recent death. Found a fella who could make me up some ID with that name. Wasn't long before I had a new identity and a new credit voucher. Ain't no big deal.”

“What was your name?”

“Ain't gonna tell you that. I got that ID, and way things look now, it might come in real handy-like. I'm sorry, Mal, but sometimes it ain't about how good the money is, it's about staying alive. Mum don’t get no help if her little boy be lying somewhere dead.“

“So what happened next?”

“I took my new ID, got me some good threads, and booked passage to Newhall. Knowin' what I know now, Book's approach didn't look so dumb so I bought me one of those off again-on again tours. Timed it right smart where I reached Advocate Whitherton’s island at lunch time. Bunch of us decided to get off for lunch. I went to have lunch where mei-mei and Book ate.” Jayne fell silent. Inara walked over to Jayne, took his hand and sat him down. She stroked his hair. He looked at her in shock. “Sis, it wasn't there no more. The restaurant, the advocate's office, Ming Lee, it was all gone. New buildings, new offices, new shops. It was like they never existed.”

“Were you in the wrong place?”

“Sis, I'm a hunter. I don't never get lost. But I checked. I was in the right place, but it had the wrong people. The people there were all new people. They'd just immigrated to Newhall as part of a jobs program. They didn't know nothin' about what was there before. It's as if the others never were.”

“Wuh di tyen, ah. Jayne, are you absolutely certain?” The serene look on Book's face had faded.

“I'm certain, Preacher. I done what I always done when tracking someone. I looked for records, I looked for traces. There weren't none.”

“You done fine, Jayne.” Mal sounded gentle. “I can't ask for no more'n you done. He turned to Wash and Zoe. "What did you find?"

"Wait, Mal, I ain't done yet." Jayne swallowed. "I done some more pokin around and found out the jobs program was sponsored by The Blue Sun Corporation."

Mal looked at the stricken faces in the room. "I can't say as I'm surprised seein’ what we've seen lately." He turns back to Wash. "You got something to add?"

Wash looked puzzled. “We didn't find anything, Mal. All was quiet.”

“Zoe?”

“Captain, we didn't see or hear anything. There was no indication of surveillance, no unusual movement. We picked a resort near where the team met the Advocate, but there wasn't any unusual activity.”

“I was afraid you'd say that. That can only mean one thing.”

Book stepped in. “Only the Alliance has the power to do what had to be done. Only the Alliance could interfere in so many lives.”

Mal nods. “One of two things happened.” Mal looks directly at Jayne. “Either the whole scene was set up as a trap, which you all avoided; or you slipped through a net and somebody had to clean up. Now, I got my own idea which happened, but I'm entertaining any notions that might change it.”

Inara stood and stepped away from Jayne.

“Captain ... Mal ...” She paused.

“Yes, Ambassador?”

“My relations with my clients are strictly confidential.”

“I think that is a point you've made on more occasions than one.”

“Yes, well, I followed a lead from a client on Hera to a couple of new clients on Newhall.” She paused.

“That's an interesting coincidence, Ambassador.”

“Yes, well, they were very stressed. It seems the Alliance and some Blue Sun corporate executives had exercised a lot of authority on Newhall. Turned an entire region upside down. Neither client would discuss specifics, and I couldn't ask, but they were very distressed with the Alliance's interference in their planet's peacefulness. It took me quite a while to get them to relax enough to enjoy my presence.”

“It's been my direct experience that this is a regular function of the Alliance.” Mal would have said more except for Simon moving erectly to the center of the room.

“How many people died for my sister and I to collect our inheritance, Captain?”

“Two by two,
Hands of blue,
Can't get you,
the village will do.”

“Doctor, we don't need any more creepifying verses.”

Simon and Kaylee both sit beside River and hug her. She looks wildly around seeming more agitated.

“Two by two,
hands of blue,
wait for me,
my turn's due.”

Mal looked at River and shrugged. “Well, may be she's right.” He looks quietly at River until she stops to look at him.

“I ain't sure in my own mind if you're Kwong-juh duh or not. Ain't rightly sure about my own self at times. But, what I do know is, you are on my ship. Your brother's patched my crew more’n oncet. For that, he’s crew and I owe him. You are my passenger, and his family. Ain't no one coming for you without they come through me first. And I proved once that ain't easy. Dohn mah?”

“Dohn mah, Captain.” River stares intently into Mal's eyes. She grows calm and begins to swing her feet back and forth playfully. She smiles at her brother. “Dohn mah.”

“Shiny. Bai duo, an jing yidian. Let us talk this over and I promise you that I will give you a chance to talk.” Mal faces toward Simon. “Doctor, Ai ya, wo mun wan luh. Do you really think we have a chance?”

“I don't know, Captain. But given what we've just heard, do I have much choice?”

“Jio Weh Sung Chiuh.”

“I've been doing that, haven't I. And they are everywhere I look. People are dying because my sister and I are alive. If people are going to die, I'd prefer they weren't innocent. I’m trained to give people back their lives, not extinguish them.”

“Then maybe it is time you died.” Books voice rang through the silence.

“Je shr shuh muh lan dong shi?” Mal looks at Book as if he is Kwong-juh duh.

“It isn't so strange as it sounds, Captain. If we fake the Tams' deaths and get them new identities, we may be able to get the Blue Suns to stop looking for them.”

“We aren't totally sure the Blue Suns are the ones ...”

“I'm certain, Captain.”

“I'd be interested in knowin’ how you know that.”

“I’m sure you would be. Now, Jayne, if we could find the right corpses, could you get the Tams new ID's?”

“Only problem I have with that, Preacher, is that someone would know. Ain't enough money to keep ‘em quiet with these people involved.” Jayne shook his head. “Anyone would talk to keep from disappearing like last night’s pay.”

“Hmmm. Yes, you could be right. I'll see what I can do from my end.”

Mal moves close to Zoe. “Ai ya, wo mun wan luh. Jayne's gone Fong luh. Wuh tzai chien shr ee-ding ruh dao shuh-muh run luh bah.”

“Yes, Sir. Things have certainly gotten interesting. What's your plan, Sir?”

Mal looks at her with an expression of disbelief. “You think there’s a plan for this?”

Simon looks from Mal to Book. “You want us to fake our own deaths, Shepherd? Is that it? Something like the aircab crash that took our parents?”

Book shook his head. “That’s too simple for these people. They know that one and a thousand variations like it. It wouldn’t fool them. We need something bigger.”

Simon shook his head. “Just how many bodies do you think it would take to convince them?”

Mal looked around his lounge at his crew. “I’d say it would take ten bodies and some really convincing ident cards. You gonna kill us all, Preacher?”

“It would take almost that many to be convincing.”

“It would only take two.” Inara’s voice surprised all of them. “If you knew the Tams, and you knew what they grew up with, what would you expect them to do with all the money they just collected?”

Mal said, “That’s easy, buy new ID and run.”

“Yes, but how? In this old heap? Forgive me Kaylee, I know Serenity isn’t a heap, but I’m thinking like the Blue Sun Corporation. What would they expect?”

Mal grins. “Maybe they’d expect him to hire some high caliber Companion to keep him company.”

“If he had a record of that before his sister’s enrollment in the Academy, you’d be right. We may come to that. In the mean time, how would they travel?”

Jayne looked thoughtful. “Never did make much sense hanging with us. If’n he had one of those automated yachts, he and his sister could go anywhere they wanted.”

“It took every thing just to get River out of the Academy.”

Mal nodded. “I expect the Alliance knows that now. They also know that you just landed a pile of money they didn’t intend for you to get.”

“Captain, would it be enough to buy one of those yachts?”

“Does it have to be new?” Wash’s voice startled everyone.

Book nodded. “It would seem to leave less of a trail if he were to purchase one used from a private buyer.”

“I wasn’t thinking about buying one.”

Book shook his head. “Stealing one would attract too much attention.”

“I was thinking about the Graveyard on Shadow. People have been dumping used equipment there since the war. Gets them out of paying Alliance disposal fees.” Wash looked around. “I happen to know there are a couple yachts out there that we could get and fix up enough to do what we want. Kaylee and me could sneak in and find one we could get running.”

Book looked thoughtful. “That would have the advantage of being harder to trace. And, like Wash, I happen to know some serviceable ships were dumped there to erase all trace of some disappearances.”

Mal shook his head. “The Alliance wouldn’t buy the Tams running about in a wreck.”

Kaylee looked offended. “It wouldn’t be a wreck, Cap’n. Not after we got through with it. It’s not like we ain’t done it before.”

“Mal, we aren’t far from the Graveyard right now. It’s an easy place to hide. Face it – Serenity fits right in. We can hide in plain sight.” Wash looked at Zoe for support.

“I might could find some of what Serenity needs while we’re there, Cap’n.” Kaylee could barely hide her excitement. For her, the Graveyard had the same appeal as the finest shopping on Sihnon for Inara.

Zoe looked up from Wash’s imploring gaze. “It’s worth checking out, Sir. We got some time. Working on the yacht would give us more planning time. While we’re there we won’t be leaving no trail. We need time to make a good plan, Sir.”

“Juh Guh jee Hua Juhn Kuh Pah!” Mal protests. “We bury our trail that well, how’s the Alliance to find out about their untimely demise? No offense to the good doctor’s intelligence here, but the Alliance ain’t buying he fixes a wreck to run in, and they ain’t buyin’ anyone reputable’s going to sell them a good ship. This here plan has to be practical as well as believable.”

“… What are they doing now, Mal? It ain’t like they’re riding a luxury liner now is it?” Jayne was back to his sarcastic self.

“… The added difficulty finding the source of their ship might make the scenario more believable.” Book adds.

“… I’ve helped customers develop specifications for luxury yachts, and we can make it very believable with surprisingly little money. I prefer my clients spend their resources on me, not their toys.” Inara contributed.

“Bai duo, an jing yidian.” Mal held up both hands. “Wash, get us moving toward the Graveyard. Usual evasion pattern for patrol ships. Ground us as far from the administrative center as possible. Make sure we come in as it’s just getting light. Earliest in the morning you can manage, the better.”

Zoe nodded. “That’s good, Sir. People are less alert then.”

“The rest of you start thinking about what we want or can use to pull this off.”

Simon looks at Mal. “What do River and I do, Captain?”

Mal looks at Simon and River for a moment. “Get ready to die.”

Assembling the Pieces

A week later, the crew meets for lunch on board Serenity. They’ve had several days in the Graveyard. Book prepared the meal since the others were busy. During his two week wanderings he’d picked up more fresh vegetables and fruit. He’d even brought some meat for the carnivores in the crew.

Wash and Kaylee are covered in dust and grease. Their hands are scraped and raw, with what appears to be permanent black arcs under each unbroken fingernail. Even Inara has a becoming smudge on the side of her otherwise perfect nose.

Wash is talking excitedly about their find.

“It’s a six year old Star Lincoln Mark XX. Apparently they had an onboard fire. The interior is pretty well gutted, but Kaylee says the engines are just fine.”

“That’s right, Cap’n. The control runs are damaged, but they’re the same as the standard Mercury Runabout. They haven’t changed those in years. There are several laying about the yard.”

“Then what?” In spite of himself, Mal is interested.

“Since we don’t have a cargo right now, we figure to stuff the hold full of parts we can use.” Kaylee waves her hands to indicate pushing parts into the ship. “Serenity has the lift capability to lift the Lincoln out of the graveyard.”

“It won’t be much use if it can’t move on its own.”

“We know that, Mal.” Wash explains patiently. “Shepherd Book told us about an abandoned mine on Silverhold where we can drop in, finish up the ship, and lift out.”

“I’d be amazed to hear how you know about this, Shepherd.”

“Oh, my order thought one time to establish a refuge there. When the rush died down, they chose to move into an already established facility. The mine is still the property of the Abbey. Atmo’s thin on Silverhold and the mine is high up. We may have to work in suits as the air quality leaves much to be desired.”

“And they won’t be some upset, us using the mine for what might be called illegal purposes by some?”

“I’ve asked them to let me run a retreat for some ‘special’ sinners. They were delighted to allow me to use the space.”

“And there won’t be a problem, them knowin’ about us?”

“You have my word as a Shepherd, Mal.”

“I don’t take no truck in the word of a Shepherd, Shepherd. But I do value the word of the man, Book.”

Mal turned to Kaylee and Wash. “Ok, you have the place to work, and the ship to work on. What else do you need that you don’t have?”

“The biggest problem is the interior fittings. We can get frames, but the upholstery and bulkheads are pretty much destroyed. We won’t find much we can salvage. Anything worth using was stripped out before these ships hit the Graveyard.”

“We’ll come back to that. That brings up something that’s been bothering me. How come this ship was abandoned with good engines. You sure they’re okay, Kaylee? We don’t have a ship without no engines.”

“The engines are all shiny, Cap’n, except …”

“Out with it, Kaylee.”

“The shielding is all buckled and warped from the fire. That’s what made the ship too expensive to repair.”

“You can’t run engines ‘thout shielding, Kaylee.”

“We pulled the shielding from a couple of the Mercurys, Captain. We can make them work if we make panels to hold them in place.”

“Won’t that give us away, that this is a put up job?”

“Actually, Captain, we plan to make that work in our favor.” Book seemed confident. “Our profile for the Tams suggests that they’ve been hiding on the Rim Planets. Now that they have some money they would wish more comfortable and more private traveling accommodations. However, neither of them would be experts on yachts. We will have papers on board that they bought the yacht from one of the less reliable rim dealers in luxury space yachts. Of course, the dealer saw an opportunity to unload one of his more questionable properties on two such babes in the woods.”

Mal nodded. It was a good idea. “What about the luxury fixins?”

“Since we will be close to a well-populated planet, Inara will contact a couple of clients while we are in route. She’ll use her shuttle, visit clients, and pick up the materials we need.”

Mal smiled a tight smile at Inara. “Good day for you, Ambassador. Whorin’ and shopping, all for a good cause. That’d make you feel right virtuous for a change. You could even charge the Tams for your expenses.”

“It’ll be a better day than you will ever have.” Inara rose from the table, “And, I always manage my own expenses.” And she left the room.

Mal shrugged. He turned to the remaining crew. “Since you’ve already made plans for the yacht’s papers, I assume you have all the rest in order?”

Jayne nodded. “I been thinking on this, Mal. Since for some of this we need a bit of a trail, I went to some people I don’t particularly like but can do papers. They’re taking care of what we need for a hefty fee.”

Jayne looked faintly troubled. “Don’t expect they’ll live to spend it. Seems anyone comes close the Tams’ trail, they end up dead. Won’t bother me none iffen these folks check out.”

Book looks slightly uncomfortable. Mal looks over at Book. “You have a problem with that, Preacher?”

Book bowed his head for a moment before answering. “I don’t care for the death toll this project is taking on.”

Mal nodded. “I reckoned on that, Preacher. Don’t seem like there’s no way the Tams can be free unless someone dies. In the army, our goal was to make sure that if someone dies, it ain’t our people. I reckon this is the same. That’s got to be shiny for all us.”

He waits for a moment to hear Book’s response but none is forthcoming. He turns to Kaylee and Wash.

“How long you think it’ll take to finish up the yacht?”

“About three weeks, Captain.” Wash leans forward, placing both elbows on the table. “It’ll take a couple more days to pull parts and load them into the hold. I figure we leave about the same time of day we came in. We’ll try not to raise much attention as we lift out. Serenity will be loaded, though.”

“Speaking of Serenity …”

“All shiny, Cap’n.” Kaylee smiled beatifically. “There were some things she was needin’ and I found several parts that will have her singing. I even found a new combustion chamber actuator that will work better than what we have now. I get that put in, and you’re gonna see some real improvement. We also found a new control interface system that’ll improve helm response time.”

“That’s what I like to hear,” the corners of Mal’s mouth twitched upward in a momentary smile, “making the trip pay, even when we don’t know where we’re going.” Mal nodded as if confirming his own thinking. “Carry on.”



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