Mal and his crew are back. Always looking for a payday, Mal accepts a job from an old nemesis and occasional client: Badger. The payoff? More than he or his crew can imagine. But with such an astounding amount of scratch comes an equally astounding helping of danger. Read on!
Mal kept his sight down his pistol’s barrel. Jayne and Zoe were staring down theirs as well. Jayne growled, “I knew this was all a goram setup …”
The assassin dropped to his knees and laced his fingers behind his head. He didn’t appear to be frightened.
Zoe came around, shotgun at the ready. “Get up. Keep your hands up. Move in any way I don’t like and you’ll have a big bloody hole in you.”
The assassin stood. She holstered her weapon and patted him down.
Mal kept his weapon aimed. “What is this? I thought you and I had an understanding. If I recall, I told you I’d kill you the next time I saw you. That sound familiar?”
The assassin cautiously turned to face him. “I am prepared for that. This is my demonstration of good faith.”
Mal pulled back the hammer. “I suspect it doesn’t make a fay-fay duh pee-yen if I blow your brains all over my airlock or not; my boat is humped no matter what I do now. Isn’t that right?”
The assassin shook his head. “No. That isn’t right.”
“Who’s back there behind you? Who’s waitin’ for us past that airlock?”
“Scientists, mainly,” said the assassin, glancing over his shoulder. “No soldiers to speak of. A few writers—and a painter; I nearly forgot.”
“Do you expect me to believe that?”
The assassin shook his head.
soldiers. If what I’ve heard about the
“Like you? Is that what you believe yourself to be, Malcolm—a pawn?”
“I certainly was the first go-round,” snarled Mal.
“And I was when the ‘first go-round’ was won and I found you. We were both pawns. It is time we stopped being ones, don’t you agree?”
He slowly lowered his arms and took a step towards him. “Men were not born to be pawns. Men were born to be free.” He took another step. “The only person in the Verse who knows that better than me is standing two feet in front of me.”
Mal didn’t lower his weapon. “Wind. What dead pile of philosophizing ching-wah tsao duh liou mahng did you learn that from?”
The assassin shook his head. “I didn’t.” He took another step and raised his hand and put it gently on the barrel. “I learned it from you.”
Mal, glaring, reluctantly let the weight of the assassin’s hand lower his gun.
Stepping into the
Ancient plastic chairs were scattered here and there, stacked in haphazard piles in the corners, which were cast in dusty shadow. Several were occupied; the people in them rose when they entered: five men and six women. The assassin joined them and turned to face Serenity’s crew.
“These are some of
the scientists I mentioned. They are all ‘defectors,’ if you will, from the
“ ‘If you will’?” said Zoe. “What does that mean, exactly?”
“It means we do our
work for the
She gazed angrily at Zoe, who gazed angrily back.
“These people have assisted, or are assisting now, Chen on the surface with the double-M shielding that will be installed on Serenity,” said the assassin.
“ ‘Double-M?” said Kaylee.
“Mass-momentum,” answered another scientist, who could’ve been Simon’s brother.
Kaylee nodded blankly.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” said Mal, “or—maybe I do. In any case, why call a confab? Is it necessary to meet these people? Can we just get on with the job and be on our way?”
smiled. Mal remembered it from the first time he met him at the
“One thing that settles me when I feel that my life is out of my control are the few constants in it,” said the assassin. “You, Malcolm, are one of those constants.”
Inara grinned. Mal noticed.
“These fine scientists wanted to meet you and your crew,” the assassin offered. “They wanted to meet you so that they could feel assured that all their very hazardous work isn’t being done in vain. Can you sympathize with that?”
Mal held up, then gave a curt nod.
“Introductions can wait,” continued the assassin, “save mine. I believe it is time that I make myself fully known to you.” He approached Mal and held out his hand. “Hello, Malcolm. My name is Robon. Robon Mishiwaka.”
He held out his hand, waiting. A long, tense moment passed. Mal reluctantly grabbed his hand and shook it. He went to release it, but Robon Mishiwaka tightened his grip. “I feel I must give you some warning. What these scientists have to show you and your crew will come as quite a shock.”
“Then let’s get on with it,” said Mal.
Robon Mishiwaka let go, turned to face the scientists, and gave them a nod.
approached. “This way, please.” The others, already leaving the viewport,
scattered into the labyrinthine bowels of the
On the way to wherever they were going, Robon’s comm link beeped.
“Yes?” he said without stopping or picking up any device.
“Affirmative on contamination,” said a female voice.
“Seventy-eight percent. Minimum,” answered the voice.
“Any danger to us?”
“Negative. Most are outdated; the infrastructure is over ninety-five percent sound.”
“Inject the affected infrastructure. Get back to me when you’re done. I want to inspect the damaged areas myself.”
“Yes, sir,” said the female voice.
The comm link clicked off.
“What was that?” demanded Jayne, who had been walking shoulder to shoulder with Mal. Lenore was just behind him; she must’ve been concerned with the angry edge in his voice, because she reached out and put a calming hand on his shoulder. He turned fully with a grunt and waited.
“That was Sapna,” said
the assassin. “She’s just completed a diagnostic of your ship. Seventy-eight
percent of it is compromised with
“Whoa!” said Kaylee, who stood next to Deader. “How can that be possible? Serenity’s software is old, I grant, but not that old! I run a sweep every two days. You know that, Cap’n! Every time I run one …”
isn’t programmed to detect
“So how is it that you came by it?” grumbled Mal.
“Because I was
He walked past the group and stopped at the third door on the left, which swished open. He stepped out of the way and motioned for them to go in. Mal stared, then stepped forward and through, his crew following. The door closed.
The room was round and sterile white, with medical machinery and stations along the rim. It looked ancient, but somehow still spotless. Mal felt the touch of death here, and the stale whiff of forgotten centuries.
Simon came forward. “Was this the sickbay?”
nodded. “One of a hundred. The
The crew nodded. Everyone, that is, except Deader, who stared stoically ahead.
“The problem,” Robon Mishiwaka went on, “is that it is all a lie.”
No one responded.
“There were two
solutions put into cryosleepers. Both are very highly classified states secrets
even today. One we still don’t know much about, though there has been headway
recently into discovering its identity. The other we know now was Ethylene-Propacubane-3-Silocenlythryeoli-4,6,10,
24, 36-Isoluceceuzymyalineglutamyl. For obvious reasons, we—and the
He motioned to another scientist, this one a balding middle-aged man with a paunch, who stepped forward. He wore an oversized white lab coat with electronic gadgetry bulging out of the chest pocket. The scientist gave them a short nod and added: “EPSI’s chemical structure is hyperstable. As far as we know—and we’ve been experimenting with it extensively for a decade now—its half-life is over half a trillion years.”
“What does that mean?” demanded Jayne. “Not all of us have book-learnin’. Speak common sense.”
Lenore put a hand on his elbow. “It means …” she began.
“It means that the
“It means that the solution they put into the bodies of our descendants didn’t break down after two years. It means that they woke up the travelers from Earth-That-Was for other reasons,” said Deader.
“Which means that the forty-five percent mortality rate wasn’t …”
“… caused by EPSI,” finished Robon. “That is correct. Multiple tests have confirmed it.”
“Could it have been caused by the other solution, the one you don’t know about?” asked Inara, who appeared as alarmed as anyone.
“We don’t know,” offered Robon. “It’s possible, though very unlikely. The arks took decades to build. Scientists of the time had to have been quite confident with any chemical they planned on using on cryosleepers. Cryosleep, after all, wasn’t new by any means back then; many thousands of people had taken multiyear trips throughout Sol System by the twenty-fifth century. It’s all well-documented.”
He held up, then continued. “We believe now that the people who died did so for other reasons. We estimate over eighteen million people were airlocked into interstellar space during the trip to this system. Some think it closer to fifty million. We’ll never know, nor will we ever know why the decision was made to exterminate so many. We do know it wasn’t disease or some other existential threat. Ninety percent of the colony starships were sent into the various suns of this system after arriving and unloading their human cargo.”
“As kids we were told that the arks had to be destroyed because …” began Inara.
“Damage!” blurted Kaylee, who appeared horrified. “Damage from the Oort cloud of this system!”
“We know now that to be a lie as well,” said the balding scientist. “The arks were destroyed because they didn’t want the populace to learn the truth. The few colony vessels that were saved were gutted and ‘wiped down,’ so to speak, including this one. This was one of the smallest arks, as are those in orbit above Londinium with it. The truly large carriers dwarfed this one. Some were over a hundred times larger. They are all gone.”
“That is not all,” said the assassin, stepping forward. “The greatest lie we have yet to share with you. Come.”
He glanced at Mal. “Please.”
Mal and his crew followed Robon out of the room.
“We aren’t far,” said Robon, walking quickly.
“Why is it that my gut is tellin’ me nothin’ good can come of this shee-niou job?” spat Jayne.
“Does Badger know all this?” demanded Mal, who was just a pace behind the assassin.
Robon nodded. “He knows it all.”
They came upon a large airlock.
“Mishiwaka,” said Robon.
The big circular door opened. The group stepped through. Another woman in a lab coat gave them a curt nod. “This way,” she directed.
“I’ve always wanted to take a tour of an ark,” commented Kaylee with awe in her voice. She’d taken Simon’s hand. River, walking next to him, and who had been silent the entire time, said, “Old-style fusion. This was once part of the engine room.”
The view beyond the
glass was impressive. Most of it was filled with star-filled space where the great
engines once were. Jutting out high above them was the top of the
“Old-style fusion, that is correct,” said Robon, glancing at her in anticipation.
Still gazing up, River said, “Thrust…. Not enough thrust.”
Her eyes grew wide.
“River, what is it?” said Simon, staring at her with concern.
But she was still gawking up.
“You suspected it all along, didn’t you?” said Robon, smiling.
“Not until you brought us in here,” replied River.
“Enough with the mind readin’,” said Jayne. “You wanna fill the rest of us in already?”
Robon looked away from River to the rest of the group. He opened his mouth, but Lenore interrupted him.
“If I may, Robon
Mishiwaka, Earth-That-Was is eighteen-point-eight-eight-nine light-years
distant. To make the journey at half the speed of light would require,
therefore, over thirty-seven years to complete, not including acceleration and
deceleration, both of which would, conservatively, take several years apiece. I
have been working on reading human faces. It is my conjecture that my
Jayne couldn’t have understood a thing she said. Still, he smiled in a very proud way. His smile dissolved; he crossed his arms and nodded in agreement. “That’s … that’s right.”
Robon nodded. “That
is correct. This colony starship was one of the smaller ones, not to mention
one of the fastest. We know as well that it never got above
We also know that the
“Ninety-nine thousand four hundred fifteen point seven-eight-nine …” whispered River. Awe had emptied the color from her cheeks. “Years.”
The assassin’s smile was grim. “You’re beginning to understand.”
Mal understood. So, judging from their slack jaws, did Kaylee, Inara, and Zoe. Deader, whose face remained stoic, nodded gravely.
“The official story is this: the arks took two generations to make the trip—slightly more than fifty years. Several worlds of this system, Londinium below us being one, were habitable for human life. It is Londinium that humanity waited on before colonizing the Rim worlds, all of which required terraforming. We were told that terraforming those worlds required another generation.”
He took a long, slow look around at them all. “Lies,” he said. “Monstrous lies. The trip from Earth took almost one hundred thousand years. Terraforming the Rim worlds for simple habitation took not one generation, but closer to one hundred, and still isn’t finished on many of them. This isn’t the twenty-sixth century. It’s actually the one thousand fifty-ninth century. This is the year 105,953 anno Domini.”