River of Guilt

Sparks

Inara is waiting for Mal just beyond the hatch. Before she can speak, he takes a cloth from his pocket and wipes the smudge on her nose. She jerks away, reluctant to accept his ministrations.

“Mal, you’re driving me crazy. You say you respect me, you do all sorts of things to defend my honor as you so quaintly put it, and yet, you constantly put down my perfectly legal and highly respected position. It makes no sense.”

Mal struggles with words. “Your profession ain’t you. You are something better, finer.”

“What’s wrong with my profession?”

“It’s a sin.”

“It’s a profession.”

“That’s what I mean. What’s between a man and a woman, or more accurately what isn’t between them, shouldn’t be a profession.”

“I know you’ve slept with other women.”

“No money changed hands.”

“So?”

“It ain’t about the sex and it sure ain’t about money. Times like that - that’s just a man and a woman bein’ with each other, and that is a good thing. You really get to know someone then. There’s nothing twixt them but feelings.”

“Mal, that is NO different than I am with my clients.”

“It ain’t the same.”

“I wish you’d explain it to me.”

Mal crossed his arms and leaned against the bulkhead. “Might be better I don’t. I don’t have any right to try to change you.”

“How do you think you can change me?”

“We look different at things, Inara. You knowin’ how I see things shouldn’t change how you see them, but it might cause you some discomfort. Already enough of that here without my adding to it.” Inara just stares at him. He grows uncomfortable with the silence. Finally, “It’s about the lies.”

“I never lie to my clients.”

“Yes you do. And they lie to you.” Mal waves his hands in the air. “You’re all so formal. Thank you, I enjoyed it.” A small mocking bow. “Our time together was precious.” Arching his back as if looking at someone taller. “You’re much too kind.” He holds his hands clasped together.

“That’s just ritual. “

“That’s all lies. Neither of you mean it.” Mal moves as if he wants to place his hands or her shoulders but pauses when he thinks better of it. “Have you ever told a client what you honestly thought? Maybe he smells bad, maybe he isn’t nice, Maybe you don’t like his hair…”

“I can’t do that, Mal. That would violate social convention, not that I’d ever expect you to understand that.”

“Could be you’re right about that. Could be I don’t ever want to. We didn’t have any use for that on the farm. We just needed to survive, and them as was concerned with social convention were often afraid to get their hands dirty. With social convention, we’d all have starved. Didn’t see much useful social convention on the battlefield none, either.”

“That may be, Mal, but, what if those lies, those social conventions are all I have?”

“I don’t see how that could be. You have everything, beauty, talent, position, respect. You’ve got it all in the palm of your hand.”

“You have no idea how wrong you are, Mal. That is all nothing. You can lose it in an instant. You should know that.”

“Could be as I do. I seen it on the battlefield often enough. But you ain’t on no battlefield.”

“Not all battlefields involve dirt, and guns, Mal.”

“Maybe you could show me your battlefield. I’d be honored to set up a defense.”

Inara looked at his honest face. “I told you neither you nor your crew would have any part of me. That includes my personal life and what’s in it. That’s how it has to be. It is a convention I intend to stick to.”

“Makes me think some social conventions mayn’t be so social, Ambassador. Like that, seems like you’re all alone. Maybe you could drop some of those conventions.”

“Mal, social convention is what separates us from the savages. It is the foundation of our civilization.”

“I see two things wrong with that. First, I’ve been among the savages. They have social conventions, too – they’re just more honest about when they’re going to eat you. Second, I seen people high on your social conventions look down on regular folks. Them people look down on someone as fine as our Kaylee. You were there, remember? She was better than all the rest of them – social convention be damned.” Mal leans confidentially toward Inara. “By the way, don’t tell her I said that. Way I see it, your civilization is just another bunch of savages in fancy clothes using words to eat each other instead of knives. An, while we’re at it – it’s your civilization that wants to kill River Tam and all of us to hide what they done to that girl.” Mal turned to leave. “Could be I prefer those your social conventions call savages. They’re more honest.” He stopped speaking. Thought for a second, then gave her an apologetic shrug. Then he turned and walked away.

Inara stared at Mal’s retreating back. Denials flooded her brain. But something seized her throat and stopped her from speaking them. There were some things she just couldn’t say to him. Troubled, she turned to go back to her shuttle. At least there was peace and tranquility there. There, she knew the answers.

Zoe was standing just outside the Shuttle One hatch. Her face was still, but there was a hint of kindness in her eyes.

“You and the captain had some serious words.”

“You heard?”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to, but there’s this air duct and the sound carried.” She shrugged. “What concerns the Captain concerns me.”

Inara stared at the access hatch button she’d been about to press. “That man is so stubborn, so backward, I don’t understand how he’s managed to survive all this time.”

“The captain survives by his honesty.”

“Honesty? He’s a criminal. A thief.”

“But he’s honest about it.”

“Still, a thief is lecturing me about honesty. You don’t see anything wrong with that?”

“The Captain doesn’t see it that way. He figures it is more honest to steal, than it is to take money from an establishment he don’t like. If he takes money from them, it’s like he’s saying they are okay and he knows better. He can’t live on those terms.”

“Why not. Most of the rest of the Universe does.”

“If’n the Captain did things the way the rest of the ‘Verse does, we’d all be dead. He’s still fighting the war for independence. He lost that for everyone else and he knows that. Now he fights for independence on a personal level. He does what he can, by his own rules.”

“He has rules?” Inara acted surprised. “If he does, they’re more twisted than a pseudogrape vine.”

Zoe nodded. “It’s all he has. You see, he believed in social convention once. It was something to aspire to when you’re a dirt poor farmer, or a lowly sergeant. You look up to those who are above you; who know how to dress right, say all the right things, do all the right things. He envied that.”

“And?”

“They’re the ones who pulled out and left us in the valley. They said to abandon our arms, to surrender. They thought social convention would keep the people they abandoned alive.”

“And it didn’t?”

“The Alliance was too busy to take care of a bunch of rebels. When the promised help didn’t come, Mal watched his people die one by one. A piece of him died with every one of his people died. He felt responsible for those he couldn’t keep alive. The guilt was too much until he found someone to shift it to.”

“Who?”

“The ones who thought it was too risky to come for the men they’d promised to lead; the one’s they expected to obey.” Zoe’s voice was flat, expressionless, relentless in its intensity. “The ones who used social convention to justify running and leaving good people like the Captain and me to die.”

“Zoe, you understand better than the Captain. You understand that it’s not that simple.”

Zoe looked at her, her eyes like two flat black coals. The full lips, soft, but firm emphasized the flat expression.

“Do I? Do you?” The flat expression morphs into a half smile that never touches Zoe’s eyes. “When everyone is dying around you, things get real simple.”

Inara took a deep breath, choking back what sounded suspiciously like a sob. “Yes, you are right. When everyone is dying, things do get real simple.” Inara’s usual mask of composure slips. Her voice is bitter. “And, Mal said it himself once – everyone dies alone. When that time comes, his opinion, your opinion, the Guild’s opinion, even the Shepherd’s opinion doesn’t matter a damn.”

Zoe looks at her for a second, shrugs, steps easily to one side and walks past Inara with a panther’s grace. Inara stands facing the hatch, staring at the battered steel. She finally presses the button and the hatch opens. She stares inside at her little, well-ordered world. The incense she keeps burning to hide the ship smells reaches out to her. She finally takes a deep calming breath and steps in. The mask is back in place and she has clients to call.

UnTAMed

The two ships sat side by side in the cavern. They were a study in contrasts. Where Serenity was a freighter with two decks, and room for passengers and cargo; the Star Lincoln Mark XX was barely larger than Serenity’s bridge, a sixty foot passenger module and engines. Where Serenity was purpose built, with little concern for beauty, the yacht was sleek with most of its functions hidden behind a façade of elegance. Where Serenity’s hull was a flat metallic color, devoid of paint, the Mark XX was a midnight blue elongated dart.

Everyone was standing around the Mark XX in suits. Most were wearing standard utility suits used by the crew whenever they were working outside of atmosphere. Inara was wearing a custom made skinsuit that did nothing to hide her shape. She said she had it for playing space polo with some of her clients. It was clear that she was very comfortable with its use.

Mal has just finished walking around the new ship. “I don’t believe it. You guys did a fantastic job. I’m thinking maybe we should go into business rebuilding luxury yachts.”

Wash and Kaylee beamed through their faceplates. “It was a job, Cap’n. Everyone chipped in, though. Wait til you see what Inara did to the interior.”

“How do you think she’ll fly?”

Wash patted the nose of the ship. “All the control tests were good. With your permission, we’ll try her in the morning. Just a short hop.”

“You’re the ones as knowin’ what’s ready and what’s not. I leave that up to you. But no chances, neither of you. Full suits for the first flight and take beacons with you. If she comes apart, I want to be able to find you. You’re both worth more than the ship.”

Wash and Kaylee both salute. “Aye, Aye, Cap’n Sir.”

He looked pleased, although he might not have been if he’d heard Kaylee’s conversation with River an hour later.

“River, I can’t do that.”

“I want to be able to blow the ship up if anything goes wrong.”

Kaylee was scared. River wasn’t acting crazy. She was serious, and the expression on her face was far older than even the Captain’s when he was having a bad time – when he was remembering the war. She shook her head in denial. “I couldn't do that. What if something went wrong and the ship blew up by mistake? How could I live with that? I like making ships go, not destroy them. They wouldn’t talk to me any more.”

River’s wandering eyes locked on Kaylee. “Could you live with letting them get me again? Could you let them inside my head again? You've been a little girl. I want to be a little girl. I want to learn how to do that from you. If I can't have that, I don't want to live. If they touch me again, I want to die. Don't let them take that right from me.”

“What do you mean? I mean, you can always die.”

“Not if they don’t want you to. They can lock your arms, keep you from closing your eyes, open your head and look inside. They make you hear voices. They make you see things far away. And you can’t stop them.”

“That’s awful.” Kaylee struggles with the gap between the happy world she’s always known with the kind of horror River is describing.

“It hurts, and hurts, and hurts.” River rocks forward with each word, her eyes never leaving Kaylee. “And they won’t even let you scream.”

Kaylee covers her eyes. “I’ll do it, River. With the way we’ve built the shielding, I can make it blow and look like the makeshift shielding failed.”

River took both of Kaylee’s hands. “Do we have time to play hide-and-seek? This old mine has lots of good hiding places.”

“How can you talk about games when you’ve just been talking about killing yourself?”

“You’ve given me my life back. I can be a little girl for a while. Let’s go before Simon decides I need to rest some more. Plenty of time for that later, when I’m dead. You be it.” River lets go Kaylee’s hands and disappears before she can protest. Shrugging, Kaylee covers her eyes and counts to one hundred.

The next morning finds Wash in the bridge of the Star Lincoln with Kaylee. Both are wearing suits just in case. Mal is on the bridge of Serenity. They’re talking over low powered radios.

Wash sets the switch that from the time of Earth That Was has been called the Master Avionics Switch to ON. The entire instrument panel lights up. The engines aren’t running, so everything is running from stored power cells charged from Serenity.

His voice comes over the radio network. “Disconnect auxiliary external power.”

Below him, Jayne reaches up with gloved hands to remove a heavy power cable from the side of the yacht. He closes and seals the port and thumps twice on the side of the ship. He throws the cable on the floor of the mine. The connector shielding prevents the blades from arcing.

He stands waiting.

Wash checks his panel and calls back to Kaylee at the Engineer’s station. “How we looking?”

Kaylee gives him a thumbs up. “All power readings are green.”

Wash nodded even though Kaylee couldn’t see him. “All systems go for start sequence. All Clear in the hanger area.”

Jayne walked over to Serenity’s cargo bay and from there gave Wash a thumbs up. Wash started flipping switches.

Kaylee read gauges. “Power flow and fuel flow all shiny, Wash.” Then in a quiet voice, still heard over the com system “C’mon baby. Let’s start.”

Wash flipped a few more switches. “Inverter coming on line. Sequencer stable. Ion modulator nominal. Ship running on full internal power. Spinning turbos now.”

From deep in the stern of the ship, there was a grumble and then a rising whine. The Star Lincoln started to vibrate with contained power.

Kaylee let out a yip. “All green. We have a good start.”

Wash, in a tone rarely heard aboard Serenity, “All systems go. We have a good start. Environmental – green. Comms – green. Disconnect all external support.”

Jayne dashed out of Serenity’s hold and ran to the yacht. He quickly disconnected all hoses and cables. When finished he walked to the nose and raised both hands in the air connected over his head in a victory sign. With all the noise in the cavern, he couldn’t hear anything over the com. Wash nodded to him and motioned for him to clear the area, He twirled fingers over his head signaling that he was going to wind the ship up. Jayne nodded and sprinted back to the cargo hold.

“Serenity, this is Star Lincoln lifting off for initial test flight.”

With that, the Star Lincoln lifted off on thrusters and rose up out of the cavern. Shortly, nothing could be seen of her. Mal sat back in Serenity’s pilot’s seat and prepared to wait.

An hour later, a faint voice came over the com. Mal switched it for all the ship to hear. “Serenity, this is Star Lincoln coming home. Touch down in 5.0 minutes. Please keep the area clear until all systems are powered down.”

True to his word, Wash landed the Star Lincoln in the exact place where she lifted off an hour before. It took another five minutes to shut everything down. At Wash’s “All Clear” everyone walked out of Serenity toward the yacht.

Kaylee came bouncing down the yacht’s ramp. “She’s no Serenity, Cap’n, but she’ll fly.” She stood proudly with her hands on her hips.

Wash came down the ramp behind her. A little of the usual Wash peeked out through the test pilot persona.

“It’s not as responsive as a real Star Lincoln, and I wouldn’t try any serious maneuvers, but she flies pretty good, Mal. It was good to have Kaylee in Engineering, but the automation worked fine. This ship could go anywhere in the system with one pilot.”

Mal nodded. “You both did fine.” He looked around the group. “Looks like we are about ready for the next phase.”

Kaylee looked at him. “We have to name the ship, Cap’n. What’ll we call her?”

Several names started flying from Idle Time, Blue Dart, Runaway, and others.

Jayne looked at the ship, impressed by its appearance of power and its implication of freedom. “You’all don’t want to give in – why not call her Untamed?” He pronounced the word with a short “a”.

River broke the silence. “The ship will remove us from your life. The word reflects reality.” She looks at Simon. “And they will never have me. This Tam they will not have.”

Simon put his arms both around River and pulled her head to his chest.

“Whoa, Shwo Jeh.” Mal jumped in. “It ain’t no part of any plan to leave you two to your own selves. Fact is, I more expect you won’t spend much time in that ship at all.”

Mal looks at the whole group. “Every one needs to be remembering here, this ship ain’t nothing but a prop to convince the Alliance that the Tams are beyond their reach. We needed a good looking prop, and now we got it. Maybe it looks too good. I don’t want no one being tempted into thinking this is a permanent thing.” He looks at Kaylee. “You had a lot to do with building this ship, Kaylee. You shiny with our blowing it up??

Kaylee looked subdued. Then she got a small smile. “All shiny, Cap’n. It was fun to do, we proved we could do it, and I’d like to do it again if’n we get a chance.”

Mal patted her on the shoulder. “Suo-yo duh doh shr-dang. We get shut of this, we’ll do the best we can.”

Book looked around. “I think Untamed will be a good name, Captain. Jayne and I will have to get all the paperwork set up accordingly.”

“Everyone get all the pieces together and let’s see what we have at dinner.” Mal looked around. “It’s time for some action.”

Details

That evening, everyone meets at the dining table. It should have been a happy group, flushed with the success of their huge effort. Instead, Kaylee is withdrawn, Simon pensive, and Book clearly disturbed. Inara has been avoiding Mal and here at the diner table, refuses to meet his eyes. In short, it is a quiet table, with Wash and Jayne providing most of the conversation. Zoe is watching and cataloging, ever the quiet Executive Officer watching the troops to make sure they are ready for what her commander has in store for them – whatever that is. Mal senses her watching him and give her a brief, confident smile. She knows him well enough to know that he would give her the same smile just before the Alliance executed him.

Mal finished eating and pushed his plate away with a sigh. “That was right fine fixin’s. Appears to me that we’d best be getting’ on to business. I take it that the ship is ready. Kaylee? Wash?”

Wash looks at Kaylee and when she doesn’t respond, goes on to answer. “The ship is ready, Sir. She flies easy, and all the automation works.”

“Does it require a pilot?”

“We did install remotes to slave to Serenity’s bridge, but most of the time there should be a pilot on board.”

“How much crew do you need?”

“Automation’s good, Sir. You don’t need a crew.”

“What if something goes wrong?”

“Best choice, Captain, if something goes wrong, is to abandon ship. Don’t need a lot of crew for that. The flight deck separates as an escape pod.”

“I don’t feel a lot of comfort with that answer, but it is some practical.” Mal looked at Jayne. “What about papers?”

“Well, Mal, we found papers in one of the Mercuries that looked good, official seals and all. The Shepherd and me worked on them some and now they fit a ship called Untamed.”

“Well, Shepherd. I didn’t know you were an expert forger.”

Book gave a cryptic smile. “Illumination of manuscripts has been a function of Abbey’s for centuries, Captain. You might say it’s a required skill.”

Mal looked skeptical. “You might say that, but I’m long on wondering about it. Not that I’d question the word of a Shepherd, mind you.”

“Of course not, Captain.”

“How close an examination will those papers stand?”

Jayne looked thoughtful. “As long as we don’t give the Feds no cause to be suspicious like, they’re good, Mal.”

“Actually, Sir,” Zoe slips in, “I called Mr. Universe on that low band he likes to use and asked him about that. He’s able to insert the records into the net and the next time someone updates, our stuff will look like their input.”

“That’s a fine hornswoggle. This genius service wouldn’t by any chance be free, would it?”

“He wants a new core processor for his cloud.”

“Tzao gao! That’s gorram expensive.”

Simon chipped in. “I’ve already agreed to pay for it, Captain. He suggested Serenity deliver it so he can go over the papers and make sure what he enters into the Coretex is right. Or, as he says, almost right. He thought it would look odd if our papers were exactly correct.”

Mal nodded following the logic. “

“Cap’n. You supposing that Inara and I resume our deception?” Jayne managed to sound eager, hopeful, and lecherous at the same time.

Mal shook his head. “Jayne, I’m thinking I want you nearby as backup when things get nasty. You, Zoe, and Wash in Serenity are about as good a backup as a man could ask for. The doctor and I will be on the ship and he can claim he’s keeping his sister secluded while she’s actually safe on board Serenity.”

Mal’s nearly deafened by the chorus of protests.

“Joo Koh!” At his exclamation, everyone falls silent. “We used to say no plan survives the first minute of execution, but people we ain’t even there yet.”

“Pyen duh duh jiou cha wen. Simon isn’t leaving me behind.”

Mal sighed. “Noted. Now, as for the rest of the plan, I’m thinking we take the ship to Hera and have her serviced there. Simon, I think you need to be there. They’re going to be watching closely. How are you at piloting a star yacht?”

“I’ve flown some, Captian, but I’m not what you’d call a pilot.”

“That was what I expected. So I’ll fly it and the rest of the crew will back us up.”

“I’ll fly it, Captain.” The soft alto voice stunned Mal.

“You? Inara?”

“Why not? I’m a better pilot than you are. If Simon handles all the com traffic, no one will know who is actually flying the ship. Then we can be seen about town playing tourist. It will be more convincing.”

“I was thinking while we were doing this, Ambassador, you could be going about your normal trade.” What he wouldn’t say was - I don’t like risking you.

“It’s no risk, Mal. And, unlike you flying him around, it will give him some respectability.”

“So, you gonna be his doxy for real, or just pretend?”

“Like Jayne, Captain.” Inara stood. “What happens depends on whether the money’s good enough. I’m done here. Let me know what you decide.” Inara leaves, but there’s one wounded expression she didn’t count on – Kaylee’s.



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