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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
The crew discovers the dirty secret of the terraforming operation. Mal has a plan. Will things go smooth?
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 2529 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
BREAK OUT (05)
Follows EXPECTATIONS (04). Precedes THE TRIAL (06).
The series so far:
A LION’S MOUTH (01)
ADVENTURES IN SITTING (02)
SPARKS FLY (03)
The crew discovers the dirty secret of the terraforming operation. Mal has a plan. Will things go smooth?
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* * *
It was raining hard when Mal brought Serenity in over the spreading boughs of a giant monkeypod tree and past a stand of candlenut trees for a somewhat rough landing at 泥球 Ní Qiú Field. Like 尘球 Chén Qíu, 泥球 Ní Qiú served as the staging area for the terraforming operation on a nearby moon. The terraforming operation was still in the early stages, and 泥球 Ní Qiú Field served almost entirely as an import center, with very little being produced on the world for export. Mal checked in with the tower for the weather report. There seemed to be only two kinds of weather in the forecast: raining, and about to rain.
The receiving agent for the cargo of grav modifiers maintained an office in the middle of town, and Mal, Jayne, and Neumann took advantage of a brief lull in the downpour to pay him a visit. They squelched along the muddy track that separated the shabby rows of single-story wooden buildings. The agent’s office was elevated out of the mud on pilings, which also seemed to be the only thing that kept it from being swallowed up by rampant strawberry guava, bougainvillea, and ferns. It was a modest-sized wooden building with four long wooden steps running the entire length of the street front. Most of the front side of the building was open to the street, affording a full view of the activity in town, and business was conducted underneath a tin roof with eaves extending far beyond the walls to keep the rain from driving in.
The meet and greet was interrupted only minutes into the start by a sudden downpour that clattered on the tin roof with such a racket that for a few minutes conversation was impossible. When they could hear again, Mal continued, “Neumann here took good care of your cargo, those crates didn’t lift off our deck even once the whole voyage. Kept ’em nice and stable. Jayne, leave go of that.” He shot Jayne a warning look, as the man reached into a box stacked at the side of the shelter. “Don’t take what ain’t yours.”
Jayne returned the food ration packet to the box and grumbled, “Nothin’ to eat around here.”
Their attention was drawn by a gang of ragged, muddy people, slogging heavily through the mud. They were being herded by guards or foremen wearing raincoats. As they passed the office, Mal saw that their difficulty moving was mainly due to the leg irons they wore. The foremen herded the people onto a crappy-looking open transport, unsheltered from the pouring rain.
Jayne spoke up. “That what they do to people who steal around here?” He emptied his pockets of a surprising number of food packets, and put them back in the box.
“Oh, they aren’t criminals,” the cargo agent replied. “They’re the terraforming workers.”
“Ain’t that a harsh way to treat indentured laborers?” Mal asked.
“They aren’t indentured,” the agent replied. “They’re slaves.”
“Slaves?” Mal kept his tone carefully neutral.
“It’s an open secret that the most dangerous parts of the terraforming work are generally done by slaves,” the agent said, as Ip regarded him with an unreadable expression.
It was Jayne who spoke next. “Thought the Alliance don’t allow no slavery.”
“Well, that’s the law of the land, sure,” the cargo agent said. “But there’s the law, and there’s…reality. No one wants to do the rough work of terraforming, so the only people can be got to do it are slaves. I don’t like it, but you work out here long enough, you just come to tolerate it.”
“So where are they taking the…slaves?” Mal inquired, in a controlled voice.
“They’re off to Delta Moon for a two-week shift. It’s dreadful hard work, but those grav modifiers you brought are gonna help ’em out a lot. Once they’re installed, and the gravity goes closer to Earth-norm, the work’ll be easier. It’s tough on the heavy grav moons, wears down the connective tissue something fierce. ’Course on the light grav moons, you bounce around free as a bird ’til the grav modifiers are installed, so I guess it balances out.”
“So, when they finish the shift, they get some time off, don’t they? Go to a nice place for some well-deserved R ’n’ R?” Mal wanted to keep the conversation going.
The agent didn’t mind talking. “Well, that’s the sad bit. They don’t really get much of a break. Just the shuttle ride, they get to experience the weightlessness of space…”
“They use ships with no artificial gravity?” If the ships didn’t even have working artificial grav systems, Mal hated to think about how obsolete all the other systems must be.
“Gives the bones a rest,” the agent said cheerfully. “But depending where we are in orbit, the ride may be no more ’n thirty minutes.”
“That ain’t much of a break for two weeks’ work.”
“And when they get back here, there’s still work to be done, off-loading supply ships, loading up the gear onto the short-range transports, and what not. But I think they view that work as a kind of holiday, compared with the terraforming.”
“Where do they live?” Mal asked casually.
“You’re mighty interested in the slave laborers,” the agent said, giving Mal a keen look. “You an abolitionist?”
“I’m thinking of going into business,” Mal said, easily. Jayne immediately recognized the Captain’s facetious voice, and played along. “Always lookin’ for cargo. Ain’t never tried hauling slaves. I’d like to see their housing so’s to know how I’d need to rig the ship.”
The agent gave a bit of a sigh. “We get plenty of abolitionists nosing around. They come here, talk about how bad conditions is, and all, and then they go away, and nothin’ changes. Nobody ever does a gorram thing about it.”
* * *
Mal and Jayne returned to Serenity, squelching through the ubiquitous mud that seemed to coat the entire surface of the planet. By this time, Mal had detected a pattern to the 泥球 Ní Qiú weather. The downpours arrived suddenly and with force, dumping bucketloads of water in minutes, and then, once everything was good and soaked, it kept up a sad, relentless piss of rain that effectively kept at bay any hope of getting warm and dry. Then the rain would resolve into a kind of filthy wetness that didn’t fall from the sky—hat nor umbrella did no good—it just sort of misted around everywhere and kept everything wet. Eventually the mist would resolve into “about to rain” and the whole cycle would repeat itself.
The cargo agent had been as good as his word, and had shown Mal, Jayne, and Neumann more human misery than Mal had seen anywhere since the war. The locals seemed not to notice the slaves—they looked past the chained gangs of slaves slogging through the muddy streets like they weren’t there. While Mal, Jayne, and Neumann had attracted curious stares from passersby, the locals didn’t even seem to see the slave-pen that appalled Mal. Mal applied himself to keeping a poker face and keeping his comments to the cargo agent carefully neutral, but inside it was all he could do to choke back the revulsion he felt observing the conditions these people lived in, while the agent casually explained how the slaves were housed and fed. Mal was glad that Zoe was not with him, for she would have seen immediately that he was seething with suppressed fury, and the flash of her eyes might have given them away. Jayne, for once, said nothing, and Mal thought he was reading the man correctly in figuring that he’d discovered another one of Jayne’s carefully hidden moral principles. Neumann hadn’t been as good at hiding his indignation, and not being as adept at reading Mal as Zoe or even Jayne, he was taken in by the Captain’s casual responses to the cargo agent’s talk. Neumann had become more and more agitated, and eventually announced that he was going in search of a cortex connection, saying he needed to check in with Holden Brothers to confirm the safe delivery of the cargo. Mal was glad to have him out of his hair for the moment. He had some planning to do.
Neumann was appalled. Just what had he got himself into? He always had known that terraforming involved some incredibly difficult and dangerous work, and that usually the workers who did it were ones who were more desperate—couldn’t find safer work, desperately needed the money, or found themselves obligated to do the work to pay off debts or work off indentures. Somehow, in his innocence, he had figured that these workers were adequately compensated for the risks they took. To be confronted with the reality of it was very harsh. They weren’t indentured, and they sure as hell weren’t volunteers—they were slaves. It was sickening. He thought back to all the times he had suggested, hinted, applied and directly requested his supervisor, back at Blue Sun Corporation, to allow him to travel to the terraforming sites to do field work. Had she just been protecting him from the knowledge? Had she known that he would encounter slavery—the brutal, unalloyed use of human chattel to do work that should have been done some other way—and had she, knowing his sensitivity, had she wanted to spare him from the dirty, dark secret of terraforming?
And now it appeared that he had signed on to serve a captain who would willingly participate in the sickening slave trade. Who stood there calmly asking about the best way to load human beings on his ship as if they were cargo, who coolly asked about provisions and bedding as if those human beings were no more than livestock. And who did it right in front of the very human beings who had been enslaved and were forced to labor with no respite. It was revolting. Captain Reynolds was an enigma to Ip Neumann. Closed-off, cynical, violent—everything that Ip himself was not. Neumann began to question his own naïveté in signing on with the crew of Serenity. Not even finding out about the terraforming mystery on Miranda was worth associating with someone so morally compromised that he could so nonchalantly consider entering into the slave trade. Ip began to feel glad that he would be leaving the ship on Persephone. How could a sweet girl like Kaylee, an educated lady like Inara, an intelligent man like Simon associate themselves with such scum?
Mal gathered the crew for a conference. Kaylee and Simon stood aloof from one another. It was clear they had still not made up. Inara was still angry with Mal, and kept to her shuttle. Neumann was not to be trusted, and Mal had excluded him from the discussion. River stood mooning about on the far end of the room, with a far-away look on her face, yet Mal knew she was taking everything in.
“…So you, and Jayne, and I will escort the people in three groups,” Mal said to Zoe. “Albatross’ll be standing by keeping the engines warm. I’ve already cleared our take-off time with Port Authority, so it won’t come as no surprise when Serenity lifts off. What’s on your mind, Zoe?”
“Sir, have you thought about the defenses?”
“Zoe, Jayne and I did a full recon. It’s a simple Osom barrier. Piece of cake to penetrate. They’re not kept shackled except when they’re being transported to Delta Moon. Guarding when they’re in the pen is minimal—everyone on this 狗屎 gǒushǐ moon knows they’re kept there, and they deliberately turn their backs and don’t look. All we gotta do is knock out the guard who keeps the key.”
“Sir, are you forgetting what happened on 尘球 Chén Qíu?”
“I ain’t forgotten,” Mal said, rubbing the tender skin around his left eye.
“It was easy opening the door,” Zoe started, heating up as she spoke. “But those people had no idea how to get out. Had no idea how to keep to cover. And they were incapable of moving without making a hell of a noise. Then there were the swarms of armed goons who came out of Nilsen’s headquarters soon as they figured out something was up. I doubt more than a few of them got away, even as far as the town. Hell, we’re lucky we got away. Sir.”
“You’re telling me this is a hare-brained plan?”
“Just asking if you’ve really thought it through, sir.” Zoe was giving him another one of those looks. The You’re-about-to-do-something-stupid Look, it was.
“Oh, but I have, Zoe,” Mal responded. “I learned from that fiasco on 尘球 Chén Qíu. And this time I mean not just to open the door of the cage, but to get those people out and away completely. Jayne and I scouted it out. We’ve got several routes planned to get the folks back to Serenity, so if we run into trouble, we’ve got alternatives. We scoped out the sheriff’s office, got intel on the number of officers and shifts, so we can likely avoid any direct encounters with the law on this rock.”
“And if we can’t avoid a direct ‘encounter with the law’?” Zoe asked, with her brow arched.
“Then I’ll initiate a diversion, and you and Jayne carry on with the plan to get the people to the ship.” Mal paused to give Zoe an opportunity to speak.
“A diversion, sir?” Zoe was, to her cost, familiar with Mal’s diversions. Most of them fell into the They-don’t-like-it-when-you-shoot-at-them category.
“Nothin’ stupid, Zoe,” Mal said, correctly reading her expression. “Incendiary device to a tool shop, north side of the slave pen. Not nobody there at nighttime, so no one gets hurt. But they’ll want to save the tools from burnin’ up, so it’ll attract their attention away from our lines of retreat.” He turned to Simon and Kaylee. “Now, your role is to prep the ship to receive our…uh, guests. I want water tanks completely filled, that’s gonna be our biggest stretch.” He handed Kaylee a modest bag of coin. “Buy what food you can get with this. I know there ain’t much on offer around here. With the food stores and medicines we got aboard, allowing time for the trip to Persephone, I figure the maximum number of people we can accommodate is twenty-four.”
“Twenty-four!” Kaylee exclaimed. “Where’re we gonna keep them?”
“Cargo bay,” Mal replied.
“They can’t sleep there!” Kaylee objected.
“Sure they can.”
“Don’t have twenty-four beds, Captain. Nor even twenty-four blankets. I can’t go buyin’ up all that here on 泥球 Ní Qiú without somebody wondering was we plannin’ on throwin’ a slumber party on Serenity.”
“No need to buy beds,” Mal answered. “Got thirty-six cargo containers, each filled with nice soft, warm packing materials. Better ’n Zoe and I had during the war, many a night.” The others were looking at him like he was missing his marbles. “What? I offered to haul the empty grav modifier crates off planet for recycling. That’s our official cargo.”
The operation began well after dark. Mal, Zoe, and Jayne donned dark clothing and earwig communicators. They were well-armed and carried a few more specialized tools. During a lull in the rain, they arrived at a quiet, dark part of the muddy town, where a barrack-type building stood in a clearing. There was no sign of a fence, but a little guard’s hut stood nearby on one side. With Jayne on lookout, Zoe snuck up behind the guard and dropped him silently with one of the stealthy moves she specialized in. One pump of the sedative nasal spray and the man would be out cold for more than an hour. Mal pulled out one of his tools and efficiently deactivated the invisible Osom barrier fence. Zoe, using a key taken from the guard, unlocked the door of the building.
Mal and Zoe opened the door to the building and entered with weapons drawn. “Nobody make a sound. Hands in the air.” They looked armed and dangerous, and the people within the building obeyed. That was of course the idea. Most of them had been lying on the wooden shelves stacked three high that served as their cots. Zoe motioned for them to stand, keeping their hands in the air.
Mal spoke in his sergeant voice. “No words. Just nod your head yes or shake no when I ask the questions. We’re not here to harm you. Anybody being kept here against their will?” There were lots of nods. “Anybody being made to work without being paid a fair wage?” More nods, as the people began to catch the drift. “Anybody been made a slave?” Nods all around. “I can take twenty-four of you off-planet to an abolitionist group on Persephone, where you got a chance at freedom. It’s not without some risk. Anybody wants to take that chance, understand that you’re putting yourself under my command until we get there. If you’re willing to accept the risk, step to the right, in line. If not, stay put.”
Mal and Zoe made short work of organizing the slaves into units for escape. They issued strict instructions about keeping silence, sticking together, and following orders. Checking with Jayne for an all-clear, Zoe took the first group out into the dark streets, moving, if not in complete silence, at least without talking, running from cover to cover following her lead. As Mal organized the next two groups to go with Jayne and with himself, the rain began falling again. Suddenly Jayne’s voice crackled in his earwig comm.
“Mal, we got incoming. Sheriff’s officers headin’ toward you. Two on ’em.”
“Jayne, take both groups,” Mal instructed. “I’ll initiate the diversion.”
Jayne’s form loomed up out of the darkness. He stretched his eyes when he saw the number of people he was to lead to Serenity, but he didn’t blink. Jayne waited silently for Mal’s diversion to distract the sheriff’s men.
Mal beat around the far side of the barrack building, moving from cover to cover, approaching the tool shop. The 泥球 Ní Qiú weather had settled into a heavy downpour, and the street was rapidly becoming a river of mud again. As soon as he was within range, Mal activated an incendiary device and lobbed it onto the roof of the tool shop. It flew in a glowing arc up to the roof, bounced once on the shingles, and rolled off the side. It fell into a mud pit beside the building. Mal heard a very much muffled “boom” as the device exploded ineffectively in the mud pit, throwing up a geyser of mud that splattered the building but caused no other damage.
“ 大象爆炸式的拉肚子 Dàxiàng bàozhàshì de lādùzi,” Mal muttered, as he reached into his belt for a second incendiary device. His aim was true. It flew through the air with a glowing arc and landed right on the front doorstep of the building. It sparked and Mal braced for the explosion. A sudden gush of water from an unblocked downspout doused the device. No explosion. “ 烂 鱼臭的 垃圾 Làn yú chòu de lājī!”
He pulled his weapon from his holster and began shooting into the air, yelling. “Hey! 流口水的婊子和猴子的笨儿子 Liú kǒushuǐ de biǎozi hé hóuzi de bèn érzi !” That got their attention. The sheriff’s officers ran towards him with weapons drawn.
Zoe arrived at Serenity’s airlock ramp at the head of nine muddy, ragged people. Simon and Kaylee met them, and immediately began handling the needs of Serenity’s new recruits. Zoe was surprised to see River in the cargo bay. She stepped forward to ask her why she was not on the bridge, but River confronted her.
“Go back,” River repeated. “Jayne needs help. Captain’s diverting the policemen. Fireworks cancelled due to rain. Singing and dancing instead. And some bullets.”
Zoe didn’t pause to interpret the girl’s cryptic remarks. She headed immediately back down the ramp and out into the dark, wet night.
Mal ran from cover to cover, sometimes firing into the air, sometimes yelling. He needed to lead the sheriff’s officers away from the slave-pen and the lines of retreat to Serenity, but he didn’t want to get too far off track or lose his bearings. It was a delicate dance. He had to make enough of a noise and disturbance to ensure he was followed, but immediately he had to take cover and move stealthily to a new position, to avoid the bullets they fired at each of his outbursts.
Zoe made the rendezvous with Jayne on a dark street of town. Jayne headed up a straggling column of more than twenty people, and he was struggling to keep them together and silent. Zoe wasted no time. “You, you, and you,” she said quietly but forcefully to three straggling groups, “you’re with me.”
She led her group to Serenity by a more direct route, arriving before Jayne’s group. The cargo bay was a hive of activity. Simon was assessing injuries among the newly arrived people. Kaylee offered each person a towel. Inara glided among the people distributing mugs containing a steaming hot beverage of some sort. River stood in the middle of it all, yet completely separate, in her own world.
Mal peeked up from behind a barrel near a wooden shed and fired his weapon in the air. This time the return fire was immediate, and a hail of bullets hit the side of the shed, bursting the windows and splintering the wood. A chance shot broke a large, jagged splinter off the side of the building and it flew at his head, knocking him flat. He fell amidst a shower of broken glass.
泥球 Ní Qiú
尘球 Chén Qíu
狗屎 gǒushǐ [crap]
大象爆炸式的拉肚子 Dàxiàng bàozhàshì de lādùzi [Explosive diarrhea of an elephant]
烂 鱼臭的 垃圾 Làn yú chòu de lājī [Rotten fish-stinking garbage]
流口水的婊子和猴子的笨儿子 Liú kǒushuǐ de biǎozi hé hóuzi de bèn érzi [Stupid sons of a drooling harlot and a monkey]
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