River of Guilt

Tam to Run

Book makes the decision that River would be better off on Serenity, rather than the Untamed. He practically carries the shattered young girl to the ship and discovers that Mal has finally taken a long delayed rest. Without disturbing him, Book settles River in her room and contacts the crew. Seeing the time, he decides to make a breakfast omelet for the crew as they come in. A bleary-eyed Mal joins him as he is finishing the simple meal. As they eat, Book brings Mal up to date.

“So, what do you make of last night, Mal?”

“Some one wanted to quietly snatch our little lost lamb, and you swing a mean plate.”

Book looked troubled. “I was angry.”

“It seems a custom set by one of your founders, don’t it.”

“Well, yes, but I’m not so certain my motives were as pure.”

“I done some reading in the book once. Seemed like if he were purely human at the time,” Mal stood up from the table. “maybe his motives weren’t so pure, either. He still done some good with that whip of his.”

A thoughtful Book watched Mal head for the bridge.

He still hadn’t moved when Mal came back and filled his cup with more coffee.

“You done good callin’ in the crew. They’re on their way. Everyone’s being careful not to attract attention.” Book merely nodded. Mal tries another approach.

“Did you know there is nothing on the waves about your assault, nor can Mr. Universe find any ID for the victim of your rescue?

“Did you expect there to be?” Book shifted back to the present.

“No. These people are worse than prairie borers for staying below the surface and destroying things.”

“So what do you plan next, Captain?”

“Well, that’s up to the good doctor and his crazy sister. I think Untamed needs to take a flit through the void.”

Book shook his head. “That would be dangerous, Captain. An Alliance cruiser could easily snap them up.”

“I’m thinking, Shepherd, that it’s time for the wolves to run the lamb to ground.”

Book looked chagrined. “Oh yes, I almost forgot. That was the original plan, wasn’t it?”

Mal nodded and snatched a flat tortilla off the table to scoop in a second helping of the omelet. He gave Book a high sign for his approval of the taste. Book smiled.

“You know, Captain, I’ve actually enjoyed this caper of ours. It’s been peaceful.”

Mal nodded and swallowed. “I’ve known peace like this before. It’s like this just before the grenade goes off.”

“Perhaps you are right, Captain. Man doesn’t seem to be able to live in Eden.”

“My experience, Shepherd, is that Hell always finds a man. Chases him down like a dog.”

With that, Mal finished the last bite of his rolled up breakfast and headed back to the bridge leaving Book muttering to himself. “He’s getting a habit of doing that,” to the dinnerware he was collecting from the table.

Book has replaced what had been eaten by the time the first of the crew comes back on board. Zoe and Wash are the last to return and all just seemed to naturally end up seated around the dining table. They all fall to with gusto. River tells her story about the attempted kidnapping. Book brings them all up to date on what has transpired since. Mal comes back to join them as they are just finishing. The group grows silent, waiting.

Mal looks around. “I think the time is come. Last night was the tip-off that they are on the trail. They tried a soft snatch and it didn’t work. It’s good news for us, though, because we know they don’t want no fuss or bother with this. I think they’ll let the Tams leave, and reel them in off planet.”

“You’re right, Sir.” Zoe was focused. “Wash and I came back by way of where Untamed is berthed. There’s a cruiser nearby, and a man with a bandaged nose has loaded and unloaded the same pallet about half a dozen times. It’s called the Egg Crate.”

Mal nodded. “Good intel, Sergeant.” He looks over at Simon and Book. “Do we have the corpses you wanted?”

Simon nodded. “Yes, Captain, I have two cadavers that match closely enough. But, I don’t see how we can get them aboard the ship if it is being watched.”

Book nodded. “It’s being watched, all right. Ships bearing produce names like that are usually independent contractors handling shipments for Blue Sun - and other chores.”

Mal nodded at the confirmation. “Wish I was knowin how you knew so much about these people. Don’t seem like likely knowins for a Shepherd.”

Book smiles enigmatically. “No it doesn’t,” and finishes his statement with a shrug.

Mal matched his shrug and turned where Simon and River were sitting. “Way I see it, you two are going to run scared. You’re going to hurriedly load up supplies and run across the rift hoping to lose them in the big black.”

“Now, Mal, you know that won’t work.” Jayne sounded contemptuous of such a plan.

“You’re a hunter, Jayne. It wouldn’t work for you. But rabbits don’t know that.”

“Captain, long stretchers are going to look suspicious when loaded.”

“We ain’t loading stretchers. We’re loading boxes. When the ship blows up, there won’t be nothing but pieces anyway. We’ll load them as pieces. By the way, Jayne, I want you ripping the bodies apart, not the doctor. He’d be too neat.”

“All right. I’ll make ‘em nice and messy.” Jayne’s anticipation made Inara turn away, and Kaylee looked queasy.

Mal turned to Wash. “Are the remotes ready, Wash?”

“Yes, sir. They’re all set.”

“Good. Here’s what we’ll do. Doctor, is your sister able to play her role?”

“Yes, Captain. She’s very focused right now.”

“Good. The supply truck will arrive just ahead of you. The loaders will all be waiting to load when you arrive. You will supervise the loading half way through and then you and your sister will go on board. Kaylee, you and I will have two sets of coveralls. You and I will do fast changes to make it look like there are two more loaders than there are. Wash, Inara, I want you two on board Serenity. You make her look busy, like we are planning to leave. Call now for a departure time. Ours has to look routine. Ambassador, where you most likely be able to book a client?”

“I have a standing request on Angelina.”

“Shiny. Wash, book for Angelina. We’ll get some machine parts we can sell there. Please book your client, Inara.”

“Are we going to get there?”

“We’ll get there.” Mal looked uncomfortably at Inara for a moment. She knew he was using her, and deliberately rose from the table.

“I’ll go confirm the booking now, Captain. Thank you for thinking of me.”

Mal didn’t watch her leave. He stared at the deck. When he looked up, “In a couple of hours you Tams will board your ship. A loading crew will deliver your supplies. That’ll be me, Jayne, and Kaylee. Zoe will be supervisor and driver. Last loads, River will wear one of the sets of coveralls and sneak off pretending to be Kaylee. Doctor, you’ll do the same to help me load. We will hide you two in the delivery truck. Untamed will close up, and we will occupy ourselves putting away the pallets. We mount up and leave normally. We’ll return the supply truck and Book will give us all a ride back to Serenity. We’ll pick up those machine parts on the way. We’ll load our cargo, smuggle you two back aboard Serenity, and depart on schedule. As we clear Atmo, Untamed will lift and run without warning.”

“What happens, Captain, when our watcher lifts to chase Untamed?” Book’s expression was not one of confidence.

“One, I’m counting on that. We don’t want Untamed to lose them. Second, Wash, since you will be in control of Untamed, can you have it make an evasion that cuts us off and places us squarely in the path of her chaser?”

“You want a me zig, you zig dance to slow them down?”

“Right, and I’ll be on the radio the whole time discussing their relationships with a Bosun’s flatfish. Like to tangle them up until Untamed can get beyond Highgate.”

“Guay Toh Guay Nown, Mal. We can do that.” Wash seemed to quiver in his seat as he thought about how he could tie up the opposition. Zoe starts rubbing his neck and shoulders trying to settle him down.

Mal looks around the group. Without seeming to, he searches the eyes of each one for questions, preferably ones he might be able to answer.

“All right, people, let’s be about it.”

Launch

It’s a tired crew riding the mule as it tractors up Serenity’s loading ramp. Mal and Jayne move a couple of large boxes off the trailer to show a cubby hole in the cargo pallets. Kaylee helps Simon crawl out of the space and pull a nearly unconscious River free.

“I’m going to take River to our quarters. Then I’ll come back to help, Captain.”

Mal looks at the rest of the group. “We’ve got it.”

Despite that, in a few minutes. Simon is back and helps with a will. He seems to always be handy when Kaylee tries to move a large box. She meets his assistance with a grateful smile.

They’ve stowed the last pallet and locked down the mule and trailer when Wash pokes his head over the gantry rail.

“Mal, we’re coming up on our scheduled departure.”

“Do it. I’ll be up in a minute.” He dusts his hands and heads for the stairs. The ship begins to tremble as Wash powers up. Serenity lifts vertically on thrusters and atmospheric engines leaving a cloud of dust and debris around the docking platform. Wash sets course for an atmospheric pass over Untamed’s location before leaving atmo. It’s just by chance that Serenity passes directly over the Egg Crate that has been watching Untamed.

In that instant, Untamed lifts vertically from her berth under full power. Serenity rocks in the backwash. Mal staggers and looks at Wash.

“Ai ya! That’s cutting it too close!”

“Wha …? Mal, that wasn’t me.” He points to the remote still clipped to the console.

Mal’s face takes the look of one who doesn’t know where he is. Any question he would have asked is drowned out by collision alarms as the Egg Crate, still directly below them tries to lift. Metal is still screeching from the impact when Simon dashes to the bridge.

“Captain, have you seen my sister?”

Three pairs of stunned eyes turn to look at him.

With a baffled look in his eyes he points back to their quarters. “I just checked in her room, and she’s not where I left her. She was lying down while we finished unloading.”

Again the ship rocks and Wash manages to drift forward into the best possible track for the cruiser’s departure. Egg Crate rotates on her thrusters, breaking her straight line view of Untamed’s departure. Mal still stares at the doctor as he grabs his mike. His protests are much more authentic than he had originally planned, but no less creative. He puts up the mike and motions for Wash to move clear.

“Kaylee! Status!”

The cruiser is still visible when Kaylee comes to the bridge. “Serenity don’t exactly like that kind of treatment, Captain.”

“Are we airtight?”

“All shiny, Captain, just dinged.”

“Go, Wash.” That covered, Mal turns back to Kaylee. “Tell me River’s visiting with you in Engineering?”

“No, Captain, I ain’t seen her since Simon put her to bed.”

Realization breaks across the bridge. “Jao Gao. Zoe, call the ship.”

Jayne and Book come onto the bridge. “That was exciting, Mal.” Jayne wore his usual sarcastic expression.

Book looked concerned. “I didn’t anticipate our departure would be quite that violent, Captain.”

“Either of you seen the doctor’s sister?”

Their negative replies fuels Mal’s growing suspicion. Inara comes onto the bridge in the midst of Zoe’s shutting down the com.

“Sir, the Untamed doesn’t respond.”

Mal stared at two ion trails beyond the atmosphere. “She won’t. Not until she decides to say good bye.”

“Captain, you don’t mean she’s piloting …” Book’s voice trailed off as he looked at Simon.

“Captain, how could you let my sister …” Simon wants to be indignant, but can’t quite work up the feeling of anger toward Mal. He remembers that Mal told him to stay with River. He still wasn’t sure why he hadn’t.

“She’s out there, Captain.” Kaylee’s voice carries a whole cargo hold of dread.

Mal feels the truth of what she said. He drops into the seat behind the co-pilot’s console and signals he has the controls. “Wash, try the remote. Get her back.”

“Right, Mal.” Freed from piloting the ship, Wash grabs the remote and tries the controls. Nothing changes relative to the two ships ahead of them. “Nothing, Mal. I guess she’s figured out how to override our remotes.”

Wash checks coordinates. “She’s heading for the Rift, Mal. She’s on the course we originally plotted.”

Mal stares through the transparisteel front of the bridge. “Where’s she going to run?”

Kaylee stood there, her face pale. “She ain’t runnin’, Captain. At least, not like you mean.”

Book touches her shoulder gently. “What can she hope to achieve, all alone out there?”

“Uh, she’s not alone, now.” Wash confirms what his sensors are telling him. “That’s an Alliance Patrol Cruiser vectoring in from the galactic north east.

Zoe analyzes the plot. “They are going to box her in, Captain. She won’t escape.”

Mal stares out the screen. “How long?”

“She’s going evasive, Mal.” Wash taps some numbers into the computer. “My guess - she will be well outside of planetary sensor range before they catch up to her. Say, half an hour.”

Just then, Egg Crate seems to under go convulsions. Panels blast away from the hull revealing a fast Corvette.

Wash whistles. “Not good, Mal. Even if Untamed had her original engines, or the upgraded set, she couldn’t outrun that.”

Book studies the readings. “It seems, Captain, that we were outclassed from the start.”

Jayne snorts derisively. “Well, that weren’t too hard. The whole scheme was only half-baked.”

Mal holds up a placating hand. “We had as much chance as we ever had.”

Simon moves in front of Mal, his body stiff with tension. It almost looks as if he’s about to strike Mal. “I’m sure this is all very interesting, Captain, but I want to know how you propose to get my sister out of this.”

Mal looks from Simon to Book, and back to Simon. “I surely don’t know.”

“She doesn’t want you to do anything, Cap.”

All heads turn to Kaylee. “She doesn’t want you to, Cap.”

“Kaylee, I keep you on board as my mechanic. I need you to be my mechanic. I don’t need you to be a reader.”

Kaylee looks close to tears. “I ain’t no reader, Cap. I just know this is what she wants.”

Simon grabs Kaylee’s arm close the shoulder. His fingers are white with the pressure. “Why? How do you know?”

Inara moves to defend Kaylee. She tries to release Simon’s grip on her arm.“Can’t you see she’s upset. Simon … Give her some room.”

Simon protests. “That’s my sister out there. I have a right to know what she knows.” Still, at Inara’s look, he let’s go and backs away some. Kaylee reaches up to rub the red marks on her arm.

“It was just girl-talk, you know? Girls talk. We were just foolin’ around and she starts talkin’ about how everyone just wants a normal life, and they can’t have one. She figured it was her fault. I kept tellin’ her that weren’t so, but she was certain.” Kaylee stopped to wipe tears from her face with a grubby sleeve. “I told her Serenity was a good place and all of us wanted to be here. You know, nobody made nobody sign on. We all want to be here.”

Jayne sniffed. “I signed on to make money, not be no fugitive because of some looney.”

“That’s enough, Jayne.” Mal moves forward to face Kaylee – a gentle hand on her shoulder. “You done right, Kaylee. You told her true. Serenity is a refuge, and she was a refugee. But I think she’s chosen her a different path now.”

Simon turned to stare out at the fleeing ship. “She’s doing this to set me free. She feels guilty about taking me from the hospital to rescue her. I couldn’t make her understand that she was what was more important. I didn’t want her going back to them.”

Wash looked up from his instruments. “They’ve already got a lock on her, Cap. It won’t be long now”

Outside looking in

All those standing on Serenity’s bridge helplessly watched the three ships converge.

The Alliance cruiser steadily pulled the sleek midnight blue yacht toward its primary docking bay. The Blue Sun Corporate corvette, Egg Crate, darted ahead to drop into a cradle in the adjacent bay.

“That’s odd.” Wash’s puzzled voice catches everyone by surprise. “Cap, she’s not struggling with all the power she’s got. She’s just resisting a little.”

Mal looks at the instruments. “You think maybe she doesn’t know how? She’s not exactly an experienced pilot.”

“Could be, but she used more power than that on take-off. She’s backed off power levels.” Wash turns to face Simon. “It’s like this is what she wants, but doesn’t want it to look too easy.”

Simon turns to look around the room. All he sees are sympathetic eyes. Even Jayne seems to be concerned. “I can’t believe she’d go back to them. She knows what they’ll do to her.”

“Nuh-uh. They don’t understand, Simon.” Kaylee’s face was pale, her eyes dark pools of misery. “She’s not going back to them.”

“What do you mean?” Mal’s voice was gentle, resigned.

“I mean she told me she’d rather die than go back to them.”

Reluctantly, Simon’s head nods in agreement. “But they have her.”

Kaylee shakes her head, hair flying. She turned to face Mal more directly, as if to exclude Simon from what she is resolved to say. “It ain’t like that, Cap’n. It ain’t like that at all.”

“You know something we don’t, Kaylee, now’s the time to be telling it.”

“River’s terrified of what they will do to her. She wants them out of her head. She’s looking for peace the only way she can see to find it.”

Mal watched as Untamed disappeared into the maw of the Alliance cruiser’s ship bay. “Wish I could see what was goin’ on over there.”

“You’re going to get your wish, Captain.” Wash links Mal’s co-pilot console video to his pickup. “She’s activated the video and audio feeds over there.” He looks up at Mal. “She’s routed them over to us.”

Capture

Now Serenity’s crew shifts focus from the specks in the view ports to the video and audio feed showing on the bridge monitors. They watch the Untamed settle into the docking cradle in the center of the bay. They can see the guards standing around the ship. A video feed from the external hull shows four techs approaching the hull with cutters. In just minutes they slice through Untamed’s lightly armored hull. A pencil tractor lifts the still smoking hull fragment clear and armored troops with scanners move in.

"Legate! We have indications of two bodies inside.”

The man in the grey uniform and high crowned cap looks puzzled. “Bodies? Investigate.”

He stands, tapping one foot as he watches. The video feed shows him looking over to the two bland men wearing blue gloves standing to one side of the hangar. He frowns briefly, an evident look of distaste flashing across his face. He turns to his aide and the audio pickup sounds. “Watch those two. You can’t trust those Blue Sun operatives. Only reason they are on this ship is my orders.” He stopped as one of his security guards steps out of the Untamed.

“We found something, sir. There’s a young girl in a cryogenic stasis cabinet and a young man at the ships controls. His face is a charred mass. Looks like he tried to eat his blaster just before we brought them on board. The controls are set on autopilot and look like they burned out fighting the tractor."

Mal looks at Jayne. “I thought you …”

“I did, Mal. I done a good job on it.” He throws both hands up in frustration. “Maybe she used her mind power to reassemble them.”

The Legate’s voice cuts through their argument. “What about the girl?”

The guard shrugged. “Can’t tell, sir, all the readouts are dark.”

The Legate nodded. “Okay, wait there. My orders are to let our special consultants from Blue Sun handle the packages. They’ll take charge from here. In the meantime,” He raised his voice, “Helm, set course for Imperial Center. Tell them we have the Tams in custody and are coming in.”

Kaylee grasped Simon's hand in both of hers as the crew watched. The Blue Sun operatives attached the pallet lifter to the cryo unit and start to remove it from the ship. Their tinny voices came over the speakers. “Do you think she's alive?”

“We don't know, but we can't afford to take any chances.”

Kaylee looked around the bridge. “What does that mean?"

The operative extracts a small silver cylinder and activates it.

“Kill the audio!” Serenity's crew was yanked back to their reality by Book’s shout. Wash’s hand slams down on the audio controls. They watch in silent disbelief as the Legate and the crew in the bay writhe in agony. Blood streams from nostrils, corners of eyes and mouth.

The Blue Sun operatives stand, admiring their handiwork, when the Untamed’s engines come online and quickly ran up to overload. The external sensors locked on their faces as the Untamed blew apart taking them, their victims, and the two ships with it.

Serenity’s bridge lit up as the Alliance cruiser soundlessly disappears in a bright flash.

“Wuo duh Tian Ah!” Book is appalled. “She blew herself up.”

“To Ma Duh!” Jayne’s voice is admiring. “She took ‘em with her. Doc, I’d say you got you a clean back trail from here on.”

Kaylee is in tears. “She begged me to rig the ship so she could blow it if they captured her. I didn’t want to, but those eyes – she showed me her pain. I couldn’t bear it. I had to.”

Mal put his arm around his mechanic. “I don’t expect you could do any less than you did, Kaylee. Person’s got a right to live, or end, their life as they choose.”

“She told me. I’m leaving you a gift, Kaylee. Make him happy.” Kaylee blushes as she drops her eyes to the deck. “She said he can be such a dummy sometimes.”

Simon stares in disbelief. Inara and Book both converge on him but he’s staring out the transparisteel front of the bridge.” She isn’t dead.” The voice is calm, matter of fact. The voice of a trained observer.

“Son you can’t deny what we all saw.”

“I don’t care what we saw.” Now the emotion comes. “I know she isn’t dead. She’s my sister. I would know if she died. I would feel it. I felt when she was in trouble. I’d know if she was dead.”

“Son, you’re just numb.” Book uses Simon’s distress to overcome his own shock. “Acceptance will come in time.” He pauses. “I think it is going to take us all some time to accept what she’s done. I don’t believe any of us pictured this kind of outcome.” Book struggles against his guilt for participating in this mass execution.

Mal’s face shifts from shock to reality. “Wash, sneak us out of here. They wanted privacy for their kidnapping, they got it. Let the Alliance wonder where they are.”

It was Zoe, always looking for threats in a combat zone that saw a small object moving slowly toward Serenity. ”Captain, do you think we should look for survivors?

“Not much chance of that Sergeant. Like as not the pieces will be too small to find.”

“Like as not you’re right, Sir, but my peripheral vision keeps picking up a movement out there.”

“Wash, you got anything?”

“Nothing on radar … nothing on beacon. Nothing, Mal.”

Zoe places her left hand on the console to lean past Wash to look at the debris field. “There’s something out there, Sir.”

Mal starts looking. He doesn’t try to focus on movement – it’s just like hunting – you see motion first with your peripheral vision. You can’t look directly to find faint objects. He tries to keep his eyes unfocused, not looking at any one thing. A flickering pattern hung just on the edge of his vision. It was like trying to see a faint star in an Earth-standard atmosphere. You could see it from the corner of your eye, but when you tried to look right at it, it disappeared. Finally he sees something he can lock on to. A tiny spurt of a steering jet, a small jet. He directed the ship’s periscope toward it and jacked up the magnification. “Inara, did your skinsuit run off?” He starts to shake his head.

Inara looks puzzled. “No, Mal. It should be in my shuttle, but I might have left it aboard Untamed.”

Mal gestures toward the scope. “It’s coming home like a lost calf looking for its mother at suppertime.”

Inara takes the unspoken invitation to spot her wayward suit through the scope. It moves expertly through the debris field, growing ever larger in the scope. Her voice sounds puzzled. “That’s not possible. It can’t pilot itself.”

Mal grinned. “I somehow don’t think it is.”

Mal feels a strong grip on his shoulder and allows himself to be turned around to look into Simon’s eyes.

“What are you talking about?”

Mal pointed off the bridge. “Doctor, something tells me you might want to open the top-side airlock and let our little Albatross in.” He turns to Wash. “Wash, you might want to move forward on the periscope heading. Just don’t run over her.”

Simon overcomes his shock and heads for the lock. Kaylee is right behind him. Book moves to fill the empty space as if sucked in by the vacuum.

“Captain, do you mean to say that she’s alive?”

Mal looked toward the now recognizable shape forward of the transparisteel windows. “Shepherd, I ain’t certain, but I think there’s one less soul that needs prayin’ into heaven tonight. If I believed in such things, that is.”

“How?” Mal figures Inara can be forgiven for allowing her composure to slip.

“I’m not rightly sure how the details all fit together, and I’m not rightly sure I want to be knowin’. Somehow she talked Kaylee into riggin’ the ship to blow and bided her time until she got what she wanted.”

Wash sighed. “That was a beautiful ship.”

Jayne snorted. “Tweren’t no ship to her. It was bait. Mal, that girl’s some serious hater.”

Mal’s possible answer died aborning when they heard Simon’s voice carrying down the corridor.

“What do you think you were doing?”

River marched onto the bridge and up to Mal. She handed the remote control unit to Mal. “I was there. I heard them scream.” She pauses to look at her brother. “I wanted to hear them scream. They screamed louder than Mommy and Daddy.” She looks at Shepherd Book’s pale face, her eyes level. “It’s all even now.”

River looks up, eyes focused beyond the ship.

“Two by two,
Hands of blue,
You killed Tams,
I finished you.

Two by two,
Hands of blue,
We’re not poor,
We’ll be Tams no more.”

She smiled, shrugged and skipped off the bridge in the direction of Inara’s shuttle to return her skinsuit.

Epilogue

Mal is sitting on Serenity’s bridge. Serenity is moving through the rift. Wash and Zoe are in their quarters and Mal is letting the ship run on autopilot.

He’s sitting with his feet propped on the control console. The only lights are the stars outside and the glow of the instruments. He’s relaxed and at peace with the ‘Verse.

He looks over his shoulder when he hears a male voice clearing its throat.

“Hi, Doc. How’s your patient?”

“She’s resting quietly, thank you. Without medication.”

“That’d be a good thing, I expect.”

“Yes, well, I think it is a positive sign. I’m hoping the lack of pursuit will enable her to live more calmly. Although, I wasn’t thinking of that extreme a treatment.”

Mal nods and looks out the viewport. “If you’re thinking about the body count, more people died at Serenity Valley. Might be the Alliance got some of its own back for a change.”

“It is still very hard to accept.”

“I reckon so, Doctor.” Mal’s feet hit the deck and he pivots to face Simon. “They’s a whole passel of guilt flowing through this ship – River’s guilt, your guilt, even the good Shepherd is bothered some by the outcome.”

“You don’t seem bothered by it.”

“I ain’t. I done figured out what all you smart people overlooked.”

“Why don’t you fill me in.”

“Gladly.” Mal holds out one hand with his thumb extended. He taps it with his other hand. “It ain’t River’s guilt – all she did was pick what she thought was the best school. She couldn’t know what they were going to do to her.” He taps his extended index finger. “It ain’t your guilt – all you did was to rescue your family.” He taps his extended middle finger. “And, it ain’t the Shepherd’s guilt – all he done was to book passage for a journey he didn’t expect.” He holds up the next finger. “I figure that them as made your sister whatever she is – and I ain’t rightly figured that out yet – they’s the ones should carry all the guilt.”

“Really, Captain, it’s not that simple.”

“Really, Doctor? Tell me - how many would have died if they had just left the two of you alone?”

“None, but as individuals, we are responsible for our actions. We could have turned ourselves in, appealed to the courts, run farther and faster. We didn’t have to choose a path of deception and death. We as much as lured those people to their deaths. What are two people’s lives against hundreds?”

“Know what you mean about that, Doc. Pondered that some my own self during the war. All those kids looking to me to keep them alive, and I couldn’t. Still weighs on me time to time. But, I found my answer. Tweren’t none of those that died with me that weren’t volunteers. They chose to be there. They all thought they knew the risks, and I made good and sure they knew what was coming and that they all had a chance to run before it got really bad. They stayed and paid the price. But, the guilt – wasn’t – mine!”

“Okay, that might work for you, but …”

“No buts, Doctor.” Mal paused. “You know, you should study your sister some and take a lesson from her. Complex as she figures to be, she’s pretty simple – elemental even. People murdered her parents – she evened the score. She’s at peace. It’ll be harder for you. All the people chasing you were volunteers. You weren’t. You had no choice in what you did. I guarantee the Government would never leave you alone. Those people were dedicated to chasing you, and they weren’t the least bit worried by who died. You saw that in the hold. Fact is, you can’t be certain how many on that ship were already dead before your sister blew it up.”

“No, I guess not.” Simon straightens a little as if a burden has shifted off his shoulders.

Mal watches the change. “Good. Then it’s time for you to move on. You have a chance for a life now. How do you want to live it?”

Simon nods. “I’ve been thinking about that, Captain. I seem to be in possession of a large sum of funds.”

Mal nods with eyebrows raised expectantly.

“And I intend to split it with you and the crew. You certainly earned it. In fact, you’ll come out pretty well since our trading made a profit, and Jayne had the gall to insure the Untamed at full Star Lincoln value.

“Ai ya!” escapes from Mal’s lips. “I didn’t know that!”

For the first time, Simon smiles. “Yes, and the claim is already settled with a double indemnity for being lost. He’s filed a claim through Mr. Universe and he’s dummied a file confirming the loss.”

Mal shook his head. “He’ll want to keep that. It was his fool notion.”

Simon shrugs. “Actually, he cut Wash and Kayla in for a share, with some for Inara. He left you out, of course. However, your cut of what I have should balance it nicely.”

“And what do you plan to do with the rest, you and your sister.”

“Buy some new ID’s first. Then I keep thinking about how River and I were kidnapped because those people had no doctor.”

“I seem to remember that occasion.”

“Yes, well, as much as I didn’t appreciate their method, I can’t deny their need. From what Shepherd Book tells me, many of the outer colonies are having the same problem.”

Mal nods. “I’d allow as that is true.”

“What I want to do is outfit a small hospital ship. One that could easily be handled by a small crew and could slip in and out of the most remote places. River and I could work the system helping save lives.”

“That’s a noble endeavor.”

Simon shrugs. “I don’t know if it’s all that noble, or maybe guilt and a need to offset recent events.”

Mal stood up. “What’s it matter? You start livin’ with that guilt and you’ll never convince yourself it’s repaid. Done is done, Doc. The future pays for itself, not the past. How do you plan to get a ship? Want Wash and Kaylee help you build another one?” Mal already knows where he’s going to get an engineer. That’s inevitable.

“Yes, well …” Simon hesitated. He takes a deep breath as he looks about the familiar bridge of Serenity. “I have a job for you, Mal.”



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