settlement of Smokerise was widespread, boasting slightly more than 30,000
people concerned mainly with agriculture and industry. It was well littered
with both schools and houses of worship, which might cause one to suspect it
was chock full of well-educated types of a pleasing nature, but that assessment
was anything but accurate. Unfortunately, the various spiritual centers created
divisions between the groups of believers, with each positive that any but
their own kind was doomed to eternal damnation even if the differences between
their systems were slight at best. Thus, as had been observed throughout the colonies,
like folk tended to rally with like folk and prejudices remained strong and as
motivated by ignorance as always.
Smokerise promoted itself as a homey, "backwoods" melting pot in an effort to attract more laborers. There was one small portion of the planet reserved for the elite, but they were considered superior solely by Smokerise's own standards, and were scoffed at by anyone living in any of the inner worlds controlled by the Alliance. Twice a year the little sphere beset with occasional terrible windstorms and frequent electrical storms held a blackberry harvest festival that attracted visitors from some of the farthest planets, but aside from these festivals the little colony remained pretty much obscure.
The last festival was a month or so past. Despite the number of colonies located on planets or moons where time did not quite mesh with that of Earth That Was, Earthtime was considered Universal time so that some sort of consistency could be maintained when communicating between worlds. Several months had passed since the birth of Zoe and Wash's daughter, several more since his death, and since Zoe had managed to locate distant kin on Smokerise, a visit was in order. By chance, there was a surplus of food left over from what had been a dismal festival turnout, and the crew of the Firefly-class cargo ship Serenity planned to take advantage of this fact.
Mal was negotiating for fresh produce and Kaylee was bored. The young man trying to push extra items on them at what he was calling a minimal investment directed most of his comments her way, irritating the captain and making the mechanic uncomfortable. She eventually managed to make it into the shade of the big fueling depot they were parked near, and from there inside the controlled climate of what amounted to a tiny pilot's shop and gift boutique. Smokerise was large enough to support an actual launch/landing facility, but not large enough for it to possess its own cantina. Hoping for a sandwich, she was disappointed that she couldn't even find a vending machine that dispensed pre-packaged sweets.
The shop was minimally stocked and dull, poorly lit, but comfortably cool. The mechanic perused a selection of tops embroidered with the name Smokerise Space Port or featuring a single, glistening blackberry. An interactive wall screen only gave her choices between looking at a nature-themed Smokerise visit, a blackberry festival video, or one that promoted the planet's industries and exports. Other than that there was a meager selection of personal communication devices on display, downloadable travel apps for pilots, embroidered caps, and pocket-sized toy spacecraft models. She paused beside a low, square-cut cushioned chair and plunged the fingers of her right hand into her hair. If she sat, she was afraid she might nap. Such a drowsy little place, she thought. Such a drowsy little planet.
A man entered through the tinted glass door and walked briskly toward the nearest counter on his right. He stood for a moment with his back to the petite woman, and she noticed he was tall and lean with an athletic build. He stood erect, his posture and the neat edges of his hairline suggesting someone who took pride in his appearance and health. His outfit was a little nicer than what one might expect to see at such a settlement, but not exactly fashionable nor fancy. He lingered at the counter, peering expectantly into the unlit area beyond it and finally called in a clear, gentle voice, "Hallo?" He turned to glance at the other occupant of the room, giving Kaylee a quick glimpse of wide, clear blue eyes. "Hallo?" he tried again.
No response came from either the dimly lit area before him, or the well-lit hallway to his left. He tried once more before turning again with a hapless smile and look of accepted defeat that caused his broad shoulders to sag. Kaylee was able to get a better look at him—the few stray strands of rich, chocolate-brown hair that refused to stay put, the distinctly masculine cut of his jaw, the hint of shadow beneath the skin of his muzzle, the strong nose that ended in a cute little near-perfect sphere, and those eyes—a touch large, wide as a child's, giving a hint of sweet naiveté to his features. "Doesn't look like anybody's home," he mentioned softly with a grin.
For some time she had carried a crush on the ship's doctor, Simon Tam. Simon with his lush, glorious dark hair, his clean scent, beautifully masculine features that actually made her think of him as pretty. Pretty Simon with his trusting blue eyes and long-fingered physician's hands, lean and elegant. And despite the tentative relationship that eventually bloomed with achingly delicious slowness, she now felt her body temperature rise and her heart flutter as this tall stranger smiled shyly her way. "Um, what?"
"Do you work here?" he queried dubiously.
"No. I'm, uh, with one of the ships." She jerked her thumb toward the bank of tinted glass to her right. "I came on one. One of the vessels…the, um, Firefly."
"What a charming name for a space-faring vessel," he remarked.
"No," she said, hating her awkwardness. "She's called Serenity. She's a Firefly-class ship."
"Passenger vessel?" One eyebrow cocked.
"Yup," Kaylee nodded. "Cargo, travel—whatever you need her to be."
The man, who she guessed to be in his early thirties, neared her and lowered his voice after glancing down the lit hallway again. "When does she next depart?"
"We're loading supplies, so she could be ready to go in an hour or so."
His lips tightened and he swallowed as his gaze fell to the side. "And, to where shall she be flying?"
The woman shrugged. "How much you willin' to spend?"
His smile broadened. His mouth was small, the lips full, and had they carried more color she would have thought them feminine. "What's the currency of preference?"
Her brows rose. "Always negotiable."