Chapter 3: Origins
Back at the kitchen table no one was even pretending to eat dinner. Mal stood at the head of the table, knuckles planted on the wood and leaning forward as he spoke, talking as if he had just bitten into something sour.
“As you saw, our shiny salvage opportunity has cargo, always a plus. The balancing negative is that I’ve nary a clue as to what it is we’ve bagged. We have ourselves a powerful mysterious ship, without so much as a sniff of a crew. No walkways, no galley, no cabins we saw. Just this. Hundreds upon thousands of them.” Mal nodded to Zoe who opened her sample bag and placed the odd container on the table. It was about the size of the teakettle. Tiny wisps of steam curled off it, but the container had warmed up inside Serenity.
“It looks even uglier now it’s not so frosty looking.” Kaylee poked it gingerly, but the pod’s surface didn’t yield.
“Yeah, it’s heavy too. Wonder what’s inside it, must be a protective case for something. Wash juggled the thing from one hand to another, before Jayne snatched it away.
“There’s tons of them over there. If they might be worth something I want a piece of that action.” He set the pod on its blunt end and tried to pry the pointed end where all the seams met with his bowie knife. Everyone leaned forward eagerly, but the case didn’t open no matter how much Jayne scratched or pulled or cursed. He slammed it back down on the table with a grunt and sent it skidding right along the length of the table.
River intercepted it with one hand just as it fell off the table and set it down before her with gentle fingers, staring unblinkingly at it while humming tunelessly to herself. All the assembled heads turned to her, but she ignored them and traced invisible shapes on the scarred table top. After about a half a minute of this, people’s attention began to turn back to the source of their find. One theory after another was put forward as the drinks circulated. Jayne returned to his science ship theory and was convinced the weird pods were actually experimental grenades. At that, everyone in unintended synchronisation slid their chairs away from River’s end of the table. River ignored them and was using her glass of water as a magnifying glass to stare at the container’s bumpy surface.
“But, where are they from?” Inara stared at the ugly thing cradled between River’s long fingers with a horrid fascination. “The comet, it came out of The Black, all that ice. How does that work?” She tore her eyes away from the pod to turn to look round the room, seeing nothing but blank faces.
“What we’ve got is no missing science ship, nor cruise liner out of Londinium neither. That ship has never seen the Central Planets. That I can tell you.” Mal's gaze flicked from one uncomprehending face to another before jerking his head at Book who was now looking a little uncomfortable having caught his eye, “The Shephard gets it too. Don’t you Shepherd?”
“Uh, yes. I’m in agreement with the Captain-”
Wash interrupted him “There’s no way anything like that came out of Persephone or Hera, let alone anywhere smaller.”
Book pursed his lips a moment while delicately picking his words. “No, Wash I’m not suggesting that it was manufactured in more local space either.”
“Well, what are ya suggesting Shepherd, if it ain’t my bountiful science ship that Mykonos’ll give me a big shiny reward for?” Jayne leant across the table, crowding Book’s space.
Book gulped visibly, he tried to articulate his thoughts one or twice before Mal lost his patience and answered for him “We are both of the notion it wasn’t made in our system at all.” There was a chorus of shouts along the theme of “What?!” and then a frigid silence as the idea struck home.
“Where else could it have come from? It must be an experimental prototype that malfunctioned. Ships, well, it’s sad, but they get lost all the time. It’s real big out here in The Black.” Kaylee sounded more like she was trying to convince herself.
“Little Kaylee, think on it,” Mal looked from her to everyone else, “It was under a layer of ice thicker than the shuttle. It fell off the tail of a comet. That ship isn’t a secret prototype. It is old. Very old.”
There was a long moment of pensive silence before Zoe broke it in a voice little more than a whisper, “Very old, as in Earth That Was ark-ship old? Is that what you’re thinking?” goosebumps prickled her arms at the thought of it.
Kaylee shrugged, “You’d have to have a ship without power for a long time, or have a breach in the hull to get things all frozen on the inside. Don’t rightly know about the outside.”
Wash shrugged expansively and swiveled his chair to Mal who had now taken to pacing the length of the galley space. “I reckon you’d need yourself a fancy scientist to get the full answer, but I’m thinking our mystery ship was hit by the comet, got stuck to it and has been hitching a ride ever since, right up until our favourite brown dwarf, Heinlein warmed it up a little, thawed some of that ice ’til it snapped free and got caught in Paquin’s gravity.”
“That’s a lot of ice build-up. How long does that take?”
Primly folding his hands and talking to the table, Shepherd Book didn’t meet anyone’s eye as he spoke. “Thousands of years, Simon. Comets are made out of compressed space debris. To capture enough water to bury that wreck would need thousands of years. The really interesting part of this story is that the Exodus of all the ark-ships took place just six hundred years ago, when we could live on Earth That Was no longer.”