Serenity, meet Pilgrim

Chapter 4: Serenity, meet Pilgrim

River broke the stunned silence in a faraway voice, “She didn’t stay in that solar system either.” Before snatching a nearby mug of tea and dumping its contents all over the mystery canister that everyone fervently hoped wasn’t a grenade, inspecting it critically, first with her nose almost touching its scalded surface, then turning her head and swiping her hair behind her ear to apparently listen to the container.

Mal ran a hand through his hair and bit his knuckles briefly before composing himself to speak, “I’m going to ignore that waste of good tea and ask you to elaborate.”

Still with her concentration intently focused on the pod, she spoke in a dreamy voice, “She was there before she got hurt and cold and lonely. She didn’t like the taste of that yellow sun, so decided not to stay.”

“So… That ship did come from Earth That Was?”

“There wasn’t a Was. There wasn’t even a Then. No Earth either. See, there was no name for there were no lips to speak it. Though, maybe, Earth knew who she was before there were voices to call her…There was no name. Just a little blue ball.”

Simon quelled the mounting frustration on Mal and Jayne’s faces before turning to River, coaxing her with a smile of encouragement. “A little blue ball?”

“A tiny little thing really, but a blue one is one to remember. Even if it is too hot to touch. Don’t you see? Blue marbles are prettier than brown ones, but if blue is not your colour, then brown ones are better!”

“Little nutcase isn’t making sense. Why are we even wasting time listening to her? We should be setting to that cargo, finding out what we have so we can price it up. I’m going to look at them cables. Check our salvage isn’t floating away” Jayne kicked himself away from the table, eyes rolling at Kaylee’s hurt face.

Wash ignored Jayne’s noisy exit and prompted River once more, “Brown and blue, what do you mean? Why is brown better than blue?”

“Brown is better sometimes. Brown might look just right. Until it isn’t. Then you have to go looking for a new marble. One with just the right colour. Sol was too yellow. Made everything else the wrong shade, blue, red, orange… not right. It is for the best don’t you think? We like blue marbles best. They let us keep them.” With that she blinked hard a couple of times then grabbed up the pod, still dripping steaming tea, and placed it in the cooking unit before drifting out of the rooms without so much as a backwards glance or an ear bent to the calls for her to stay.

Kaylee wrung her hands, eyes darting between the empty doorway, the cooker and Simon. “Does anyone know what that was all about?”

There was a shaking of heads as people repeated bits of River’s talk to themselves as if it would make more sense on the second hearing. “blue and brown”…”Brown is right, until it isn’t.”…”They let us keep them.”

Wash laughed at them all, “The Right kind of marble? Well, she’s lost hers completely this time right?!” Nearly everyone at the table snorted into their tea save Simon who scowled and Book who seemed to be thinking hard as he stared at the closed door of the cooker, he spoke very softly, more to himself than to anyone else. “What was she listening for?”

Mal was not in a jolly mood, he rounded on Simon, “we’ve been down this road before Doc, is she speaking any kind of sense?”

“She doesn’t think in the same way as we do, even before they took her… Her mind works in a totally different way to yours, or even mine. Now… her logic is clouded, but it is still there. Her words make sense to her, we just have to, um, calibrate to her logic. She sees and understands something that we don’t. I’m going to see if she will tell me anything more.” Leaving everyone else even more confused than before.

“Maybe we should think on it like a puzzle. A word puzzle.” Wash said.

“Why not”, said Kaylee, “Okay… So, colours are clues?”

Zoe nodded slowly, “I think yes. Earth That Was is the blue marble. From back when it still had seas. Sol was the name of the sun. It had nine planets of different kinds, but only one good for life. Mars had bad air and no water on the surface, just oceans of red dust. Mars must be the red marble…”

“Colonists!” Book said loudly out of nowhere.

“Come again?” said Mal

“River is telling the story of the ship. How she knows, what clues she has observed to make these deductions… I don’t know, but if we assume that she is speaking the truth, she is describing the ship’s last journey. It came from a certain type of world, cool and brown. One that looked less alive than our own idea of a good, blue planet like Earth That Was had been in her youth, but this ship’s crew were adapted differently. For some reason they had to leave their home, much like we did. They were forced to search for a replacement. River thinks they surveyed the solar system that was home to Earth that Was and didn’t find what they were looking for. What’s more, they were aware of us, they ‘let us’ have the blue planet and moved on.”

Wash shook his head in exasperation, “How can she know? How can she have any idea?”

“It’s a theory that requires a leap of faith, I know. Perhaps I am the best qualified to make it. She may appear vacant, but remember that is not the case… Simon did say she was an extraordinary polymath, excelling at everything she applied herself to, even physics. Perhaps she recognizes the comet this ship collided with and knew that it has swung past Sol at some point in the past. Possibly the story is molded to fit the deduction that what we have here is a sophisticated ship flying past Earth That Was long before we as a people were capable of interstellar flight. We have uncovered an alien ship. What we don’t have is the pilots.”

Kaylee’s voice had risen to a shrill note of fear: “Aliens! Shepherd! What kinda aliens? 我的媽和她的瘋狂的外甥都! Shepherd, how can you say so?”

Wincing as he said it, Wash agreed with the Shepherd. “Book is right. It’s staring us in the face, Kaylee. You ever see a ship like that? Question is, what do we do with it?”

Mal answered before anyone else had a chance to speak “First, we do the job. We do the job and we get paid. We tow this hulk out of orbit and park it. Then we-” He was interrupted by the piercing wail of the ships alarm system.

“神聖的睾丸! That’s the Comms line. Someone with clout is giving us a call.” Wash bounded out of his chair and galloped to the cockpit, closely followed by Zoe and Mal. He threw himself into his seat and began flicking switches until the alarms died down and the call tuned in.

Attention Firefly class ship. This is the APB Mykonos Control. We have detected comet debris in close proximity to Paquin’s atmosphere and your ship. Clear the immediate airspace and standby while we perform a controlled detonation.

Flicking on the handset and using his best ‘talking to authorities voice’ Mal took the call, “Mykonos Control, this is Serenity, we are in the midst of performing clear-up operations under commission from Paquin’s Consul. There is no need for detonation, we are pulling this rock out of orbit and stowing it somewhere nice and safe.”

Negative Serenity. Scans inform us that the majority of the debris is ice. We will vaporize it with cannon fire to reduce risk and open up Paquin airspace. You are ordered to comply. Safe clearance is 3 klicks.”

Mal flicked the comms to mute before turning to the other two. “This doesn’t sound right. We got astro data from Paquin’s observatory and they told us about the metal. No way the Mykonos missed that with government equipment.”

“Do you think they know about what’s inside?” asked Zoe.

“If they did, would they really want to blow it up? I mean. If our own resident crazy genius is correct and we’ve stumbled across an alien ship, would they really just destroy it?” Wash said.

“That depends on what they know already. Quite likely something we don’t.” Mal switched back to the Mykonos. “Serenity to Control. We are already tethered and performing maneuvers. We are on contract to finish the job.”

“Repeat: Negative Serenity. Release your tethers and retreat. We will be firing in two minutes before the asteroid’s orbit changes. We have contacted the relevant authorities and you will be reimbursed for your time. Now clear the area.”

Reengaging the mute button: “Oh, they definitely know something. Ever heard of the Alliance reimbursing anyone for anything? Drop the cables. Move out.” Mal shook his head before replied to the Alliance ship. “We read you Mykonos. Please give us a moment to disengage as we’ll clear the space.”

Wash called over the intercom for Kaylee to prepare the engine while Wash ran through his ad-hoc control console for the towing cables, activating the emergency release systems. The moment Serenity was free of all the extra mass, she jerked away from the asteroid and Wash smoothly guided her out of firing range. They had barely cleared the required safe distance when everyone in the cockpit saw five bursts of green light emerge from Mykonos’ underbelly.

One after the other they slammed into the asteroid and the ship embedded within. The whole structure imploded, sucking in the free floating cables for a long moment before the whole thing exploded into myriad shards in all directions. There was nothing left that could be recognised as a ship.

“I can’t believe it.” Shepherd Book had made his way into the cockpit in time to see a larger fragment of asteroid bearing a sliver of metal drift past them.

“Looks like the Alliance wants the monopoly on big scary ships Shepherd. There goes our salvage.” Mal slumped down on the co-pilot’s chair.

“More than that Captain. There goes the last and only tangible evidence of another space-faring species. Those actions are beyond criminal! They have just denied the human race wider knowledge of the universe.” Book looked physically sick.

“This isn’t the first time the Alliance have decided they know what’s best. Won’t be the last neither.” Mal kicked the desk in front of him and leapt back out of his chair and headed out of the cockpit, pausing only briefly to speak. “Wash, set us a course to land, let us see about getting some Paquin coin after this shambles. Zoe, get onto Badger, see if he has any work to put our way. We’ll not be staying here a moment more than needed. I’m going to get a drink.” He strode away, trailed eventually by Book who decided some meditative prayer was in order.

Neither of the two saw River when they passed her, she always could move quietly. Light-footed, she wafted back into the now empty kitchen and fetched out the pod from the cooking unit. Cradling it carefully in the hem of her dress, she headed back to her room and sat on her bed with her legs crossed, placing the pod on the little nightstand. Unmoving, she gazed intently at the pod for some time. There were distant voices in the corridor from time to time. There was a knock at the door, but those sounds were galaxies away and trivial besides. River did nothing more than stare and blink at the pod.

That is, until it twitched.

“I had hoped you’d wake up, little pilgrim. Little one, meet Serenity, she’s keeping you warm. Serenity, soon we’ll have a baby sister. I’ve always wanted a sister.”

There was a series of sudden lurches coupled with distant yells coming from the cockpit. The shouting was muffled but River could hear Wash cursing a sudden onset of static right in the middle of his landing procedure.

Her face transformed into a wide smile and she scooped up the egg, running a finger lightly over the pod’s surface. A surface which shivered under her touch.

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