River of Guilt

The Cloud

Serenity drifted up to a dense cloud of self-luminescent gas. Activity from the sun, still millions upon millions of miles away, ionized particles that bounced through the cloud. A voice rings out over Serenity’s com. Light flashed through the cloud like heat lightning on a dry summer evening.

“Good to see you, Mal. Did you bring that fox, Zoe with you this time?”

“She’s here.”

“So’s her husband, guy.”

Mr. Universe shrugged onscreen. “Hey, nobody’s perfect.”

Mal checked his sensors. “We’re feeling kinda exposed out here. How’s about letting us in.”

“Right-O. Follow the bouncing wisp through the cloud and it will lead you to docking bay six. That’s closest to the core server utility room. Roxy and I will meet you there.”

“Uh, who’s this Roxy?”

“No worries, Mal. She’s my current, very favorite Doxy. She’s a very, very foxy doxy.” He reaches out off screen and pulls an attractive redhead with a slender figure into the range of the viewscreen’s pickup. She looks very bored. She pulls away to go flop on a large bed in the background. Mr. Universe leans closer to the pickup and lowers his voice.

“She’s upset. I was supposed to take her cloud surfing outside today. I cancelled it so I could be here for your shipment, Mal. This new core is really going to expand my processing bandwidth.”

“I thought you already knew all, saw all.”

“Sidebands, Mal, Sidebands. Messages don’t all come on just one channel. There are waves within waves and I gotta ride them all.”

Mal gave a small smile. “Well it gratifies me some to open new horizons for a friend. Do you have what we need set up?”

“Everything is in the ‘Net, Mal. Your little pretty can insert itself into the flow whenever you want.”

“Mal” Wash interrupts. “we’re at the boundary and I’ve got our glowing little guide in sight.”

“Come on in. You’ll be out of range of the perimeter repeater pretty quick. No sense trying to broadcast through the static, so I’ll see you in a few.”

The screen dissolved into static and Mal watched Wash trail the playful mote of light dancing in front of Serenity’s nose. The mote wasn’t progressing very fast as space speeds go, and the cloud was tens of thousands of kilometers thick. There was no real measurement as it was constantly changing shape.

Where they were going was one of the thousands of Alliance built communications relays launched to support the vast communication network called the Cortex. Over the years several had dropped off line, and the Alliance never did recover them all. No one knew how Mr. Universe had found his, nor how he managed to hide it from the net while still being able to tap into and read every wave. Mr. Universe had grafted a life support module to the satellite and installed his own communications interface. This was his world, and his equivalent of Mal’s Serenity. People paid for information, and Mr. Universe could tap it all. The cloud hid him from Alliance sensors and from there he could weave his web of Interplanetary intrigue. He was an information junkie, who was willing to share for a price. Only thing was, he never sold out a client, even when the Alliance was buying.

Finally the gaseous cloud of preplanetary matter parted to reveal the satellite. The wisp led them down to a large bay on the original structure that was clearly intended for cargo use during the original construction. Serenity slid into position and settled into a docking cradle. The cradle moved forward until Serenity’s forward cargo hatch engaged a well lit portal. Mr. Universe was standing there, his arm around Roxy, who looked even more bored than before. Mal walked down the ramp to shake hands as Jayne and Kaylee bring up a tag-along pallet loader carrying a large crate.

Mr. Universe releases Roxy to go stand next to the crate. “This is great, Mal. You always bring me the neatest stuff, but this is the max.” He stops to inspect the bill of lading. Forgotten, Roxy reaches behind a bin to pick up a carryall shoulder bag. She walks up Serenity’s ramp and stops next to Kaylee.

“I’ve had enough. Can you get me off this oversized play pen?”

Mr. Universe’s head comes around. “But, Roxy, I thought we had something beautiful going.”

“Beautiful? Maybe - if I had a memory core instead of a brain … Maybe - if I had cameras instead of eyes … Maybe - if I had wires instead of blood vessels! You don’t need a doxy, you need a robot you can take off the shelf when you feel the urge. Something that won’t mind when you stare at those monitors for thirty hours straight. You certainly don’t need a human.” With that she storms into Serenity and can be seen going to one of the stairs to the overhead walkway. Mal starts after her until Mr. Universe lays his hand on his arm.

“Let her go, Mal. I bring girls here, give them everything, and they all want to leave after a few weeks. They want too much, Mal. They want all your attention. With so much here, it’s just never enough.” He looks wistfully into Serenity. “I’ll find someone else. I always do.”

Mal stands there, speechless. Jayne looks over. “You mean it’s okay she can go? Excuse me, I’ve got to go make sure she finds her quarters.” He disappears up the ramp.

Mal turns toward the crate and sees Kaylee standing at the controls of the tag-along. She just seems to be waiting. “Kaylee, let’s get this crate where he wants it. We can give him a hand unpacking and setting up.”

“Sure, Cap’n. Show me where you want it. It won’t take no time at all.”

Mal heaves a sigh of relief. At least one person on his crew isn’t crazy – at least right now.

Concerns

Mal jumps the last three steps to the cargo hold floor. He lands in a crouch and quickly turns to the left and to the right. Satisfied that nothing lurks in the shadows, he stands and begins to walk around the hold. He’s content. Wash has them on course to Silverhold to pick up the Star Lincoln. Periodically he stops and places a hand on a column or panel and just stands there. He thinks of it as his ‘inspection’, taking the pulse of the ship and the environment. Kaylee may have a communion with the engines, but Mal feels a similar pull to the fabric of the ship and all it contains. He steps around one corner to see Shepherd Book sitting on a box, staring at the closed Bible in his hands.

“Whoa, I didn’t mean to intrude.” Mal turns to leave.

“No, Captain. It’s quite all right. I was just thinking.”

Mal turns back around. “I get the feeling that your thinking wasn’t giving you no comfort.”

“I’m afraid you are right, Captain. My thoughts give me very little comfort.”

Mal looks curious. “I thought your God was the source of comfort to those who are troubled. Not that I can say I ever experienced such.”

Book nodded. “He does, for those who are willing to lay down their burdens and let him have them.”

“And there’s some burden you aren’t laying down.”

“I keep thinking how Advocate Whitherton and his receptionist would still be alive if it weren’t for me. And I wonder how many others died in that restaurant we visited. I will carry that guilt for the rest of my life.”

“How do you see that as your fault? You didn’t set up the trap?”

“No, but I thought I was so clever. My pride, Mal, my pride led me to believe that we could beat the system and no one would get hurt. My pride led to the death of innocent people. I have to live with that, Mal.”

“Shepherd, I think maybe River’s Blue Hand guys are deservin’ of that guilt. They’re jwei Gai Won Se. You said so your own self.”

“That doesn’t excuse me, Mal.”

Mal’s eyes lose their focus. His voice becomes distant. “You’re right, Shepherd, it don’t. And I expect you will lay awake nights replaying it, wondering how you coulda done different. You’ll imagine sounds you never heard, and it will be as real as this ship. An you wake up in the morning wishin’ you hadn’t of.”

“Is that supposed to be comfort?”

“No, I wouldn’t want to deprive you of any of your self pity. But when you’re done, let’s get busy and make the ones deserving of it pay. Then you can tell yourself in the dark that at least you done something.”

Mal turns and starts away. Instead of his earlier aimless wanderings, he’s moving off with purpose. Book watches him leave and stares at the still unopened Bible. He mutters to himself “Go Thou and do what thou must do.” He too stands and walks away.

*********

Later, Shepherd Book walks into the infirmary where he finds Simon opening and closing cabinets. It looks like he is taking inventory except he isn’t referring to or updating any list. Book watches as he starts a second time through cabinets he has already inspected.

“Son, can I help you find something?”

“What? Oh, no … I wasn’t … really looking … for anything..”

“Well, I’m pretty sure those cabinet hinges can only take so much opening and closing on a ship this old.”

“Well, I suppose I was looking for something, but I won’t find it in the cabinets. At least I don’t think so.”

“What are you looking for?”

“An answer, I guess.” Simon starts looking through drawers. Book walks over to stand in front of the next one.

“An answer for what?” He asks when Simon stops to stare at why he can’t open the drawer Book is blocking.

Simon looks at him as if it is the first time he’s seen him since the conversation started. “What do I do when River realizes I killed our parents?”

Book touches his shoulder sympathetically. “Son, I was there when we found out about your parents. You didn’t kill them.”

“I might as well have. Dad told me to let it be, to not try to rescue River. I wouldn’t listen. They killed them to stop me.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, Doctor, but didn’t you then use your inheritance to free her?”

“Yes.”

“Then your parents died to free their daughter. Had these people not murdered them, you might not have been able to follow through with your plans.”

Simon looked thoughtful. “That’s true.”

“You see, Son, there is a law that many people want to ignore. The ‘Verse is a balance of forces set in place by God. Where there’s action, somewhere there will be a reaction. You can’t predict that reaction. We call it the Law of Unintended Consequences.”

“I think I understand.”

“I pray you do. These people wanted to stop you. Instead, they freed you to follow your heart. They certainly didn’t intend that.”

Simon nodded. “But, I’m responsible for my actions, right?”

“Of course.”

“Then I’m directly responsible for my parents’ death. I’m the guilty party. I’m also guilty for keeping it from River.” Simon shook his head. “I didn’t want to deal with those consequences.”

Book rolled his eyes in unspoken agreement. “You were trying to save your sister, and you didn’t have all the data. You didn’t know … couldn’t know … all that was at stake. You were following your heart. Yours was a selfless act of love. Someone else took your parents’ lives from you. I’m pretty certain that they were not acting out of love, although I am charged not to judge in these matters.”

“True. But, I can judge me, and I judge me guilty.”

“God doesn’t want guilt, Simon. There is an element of responsibility, yes. And you should be willing to accept your portion of that. Guilt is a waste of time. You can’t change what is in the past. Responsibility is directed to the future. How will you act to reduce the impact of your actions?”

“I don’t know.”

“Neither do I, Son. But, you and I are both responsible for whatever we can do to keep any more from dying. We are both responsible for the future.”

“What about River? I don’t think she feels any charge not to judge. What if she judges me guilty?”

“I’m no reader, Son. But, my guess is that your sister loves you. I think she will focus her guilt on the ones directly responsible. That is part of what you and I have to deal with. Helping her get past the anger and her need for revenge.”

Both men look at each other. “God help us both!”

*********

Inara wanders through the ship on the way back to her shuttle after grabbing one of Book’s apples from the dining area table. She stops short when she sees the captain standing on the catwalk staring into the hold. “Oh.”

Mal looks up. “Oh. Ah, it’s a fine day, ain’t it?”

“We’re in space, Captain. It isn’t day or night out here.”

Oh, yeah, well, by our clock it’s day. No alarms, nobody shooting at us. We’ve fuel in our tanks. I think that makes it a right fine day.”

“I guess if you ignore everything else, that could make it a good day.”

Mal gives her a grateful slight curl of the lip and a tiny nod. “Oh, and I wanted to say you done a fine job on the Untamed’s interior. A right fine job. You could get a good job as an interior decorator.” He pauses uncomfortably wondering how to get his foot out of his mouth.

“It’s one of the things they teach you at whore school.”

Mal ducks the verbal jab mentally and physically. “And I see you mastered that course. Still, you did a good job.”

“Thank you, Captain.” She starts to walk away and stops. “Do you think this will work?”

Another quick smile comes and goes on Mal’s face. “I expect that it will go about as well as any of our plans.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“Yes, well, I expect there will be some … adjusting … as we go along. The Shepherd thinks it has a good chance. He’s got God on his side, so it might, not that I’m a believer in such.”

“No, I’ve noticed that. I’m surprised Captain, that your integrity will let you go along with this. Won’t you be lying?”

“Ain’t no lying here. We just give people what they want to see and let them draw their own conclusions. Ain’t nobody lying.”

“Isn’t misleading people a lie? Won’t you be setting them up to believe the wrong thing?”

“I ain’t the Alliance. I don’t try to control what people think. If people want the Tams dead, and want to believe that a ship they believe belongs to the Tam’s blows sky high with them on board – well, who am I to argue.”

“Who indeed. So, let me see if I have this straight – it is okay to steal from the Alliance and sell black market goods. It’s also good to collude in complicated schemes to convince the Alliance that fugitives are dead. This is honest how?”

Mal moved closer to Inara, but the mood is no longer friendly. Inara doesn’t feel threatened, but she isn’t comfortable. She realizes that Mal’s focus is not aimed at her. His voice is low, but forceful.

“We already know that we are on opposite sides about the Alliance. I don’t hold none of that against you. ‘Specially since you’re still here on the same boat with the rest of us. What’s honest is that we’re all runnin’ from something – even you.”

“That’s not …”

“Don’t tell me to ignore what I can see with my own eyes. I may not be schooled like you, nor a reader like our little albatross, but I know how to follow a stray when it’s running from the herd. I done that a lot growing up. And I know how to follow an enemy patrol that’s wantin’ to set up an ambush. You ever see a deserter? I seen them run, too. All got their reasons. It ain’t none of my business why, so we leave it like that. But, there’s two people on this boat who are running who shouldn’t have to. They’re fugitives from INjustice. I couldn’t win the war, but I found value winning a skirmish or two. River’s a passenger on my boat. The doc’s part of my crew. Don’t either one of them want to be where they are and they’s people keepin’ them from where they want to be. I can’t set it right, but maybe I can knock the machine off its track before it can chew them up. I’m promised to do it.”

“That’s quite a speech, Captain.” Inara’s attempt at sarcasm doesn’t ring true, even to her. In spite of herself she’s impressed, her mind a teeming jumble of thoughts. Who’d expect a Neanderthal from Earth That Was to start quoting Shakespeare? He had no business hitting so close to home. A Companion is trained to keep her person out of her interactions with the client. Each transaction was to be solely about the client. Maybe that’s the problem, she thought for the hundredth time – he’s not a client.

“I don’t intend to make no speeches. I still mean what I said earlier. You did good work on that ship. I’ll do my best to keep the Alliance from knowin’.” The corners of his mouth moved back up into that half smile that gave his face a rough charm. His eyes flashed briefly before closing down. With that, he was gone, once again leaving more questions than answers.



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