* * *
Wash wasn't exactly asleep when the call came in. He was just dozing with his feet up. The headphones were still over his ears, and his right hand was an inch away from the controls. He was prepared for any eventuality, including the alarm klaxon that jolted him out of his chair. Instinctual maneuver, he thought, picking himself off the floor. Nothing to do with surprise at all.
He hit the comm button. "Yeah?"
"This is the Alliance cruiser Wormwood..."
The wet heat growing at Wash's crotch had nothing to do with fear at all. He regularly did this in the middle of the night.
"...requesting emergency aid. To all ships... This is a distress call."
Wash rubbed the back of his head. "Oh...kay..."
* * *
Mal had made his way to the bridge, and was looking out the main portal at the Alliance ship, which looked massive even from thousands of kilometers away. "They want our help?"
Mal crossed his arms. "You explained to them that we ain't really high on the Alliance priority list? That we're carrying two wanted criminals? And have done all sorts of petty stuff?"
Mal nodded. "Right. You sure it ain't a trap?"
"I can see the giant smoking hole where their main engine blew." Wash gestured toward it.
"Uh huh. Well, I guess we gotta render some aid."
"Because they were so helpful when Book got shot."
"Well, they were... kinda." Mal said.
* * *
The airlock seal hissed into place between Serenity and Wormwood. Mal watched as the bay door slid open, and a gaunt figure in an Alliance uniform, alone, was revealed standing at the other end of the short corridor.
Mal felt a shiver at the sight of that uniform, but he forced a smile. "Howdy. Heard you needed help?"
The man beckoned them forward. "I'm Lieutenant Roser, of the Wormwood. I'm sorry, our Captain is busy assessing repairs."
"Of course." Mal nodded amicably, pardoning the social ungraciousness. He gestured to Zoe at his right. "This is my first officer, Zoe. And here's our engineer, Kaylee. I assume her services what you be needing most. And our doctor..." Mal squinted at Simon. "Uh, Patrick... Ming."
Simon smiled thinly.
Roser looked from face to face, ending up on Kaylee. "You're the engineer? You?"
"Hey, now, she's the best in this sector."
"I don't doubt it," Roser said, shaking his head. Under his breath, he muttered, "Ben tian sheng border worlds falling apart."
Mal stepped forward. "And whose fault is that?"
"Captain..." Zoe grabbed his arm.
Roser seemed unfazed. "We don't have much use for a doctor, but I guess the engineer...couldn't hurt anything. And Captain, if I could speak to you and your partner privately?"
"Fine by me." Mal and Zoe followed him.
Simon turned around and headed back into Serenity, his black bag tapping against his leg.
* * *
Roser leaned against a desk in a small room. Mal and Zoe stood near the back wall.
Roser looked at Mal.
Mal looked at Roser.
Zoe watched the door.
"I'm sure that your engineer will be helpful," Roser said, folding his hands.
"Surely," said Mal.
Zoe watched the door.
"But, regardless, our ship'll take about a month to repair. Take weeks just to get another Alliance cruiser out here. That's not our top priority."
Mal tilted his head.
Zoe turned to watch Roser.
"Let me make it plain, Captain Reynolds. We got cargo can't wait."
"I see," said Mal.
"We checked your record. We've seen worse. We have reasonable hope you'll try."
"We ain't much for charity work."
"Payment goes with your cargo. To Go'san."
Zoe parted her lips. "That's just four days away."
"I smell a catch," said Mal.
Zoe frowned. "I smell a rat."
"One condition is, I'll be going along with the goods."
"Chu fei wo si le! If you think I'm going to let some Alliance creep on my baby..."
Roser let him rant.
Mal took a deep breath, and said, "How much are we talking?"
"Okay." Mal stretched and looked at Zoe.
* * *
Kaylee was back aboard Serenity, kneeling on the catwalk in the cargo bay. River was before her, sitting on the edge, swinging her feet. Kaylee tried again, and finally said it. "An Alliance guy's comin'."
Kaylee put a hand on her shoulder. "You gotta be normal, River. Just for a little while."
"I'm normal. It's the rest of you who are not. Animalistic. Half-developed creatures."
"Well... you gotta be like us."
Kaylee smiled. "Good start."
"You smell like electricity."
Kaylee swung her legs over the side and sat next to River. "Yeah. Them Alliance engines were amazing. So big. Like, bigger'n all of Serenity. But they ain't got the right parts, or the right...Their brains aren't..."
"Right. They're looking at it all wrong. They don't know how to worry properly about a ship. Too used to it being easy."
"Keeps them dull."
"They think their ship is dead. They're wrong. They don't know how to revive something that's only hurting, not dead."
Kaylee didn't quite know what to say, so she rested her chin on the railing, and frowned at the goings on in the cargo bay.
"Simon thinks you're pretty."
* * *
Jayne, minimally armed, stood with Mal and Zoe as Roser guided a hydraulic sled through the airlock. He whistled low. "Why can't we get one of those sled thingies?"
Mal folded his arms. "Comes with the Alliance."
"Oh..." Jayne scratched at the stubble on his cheek. "Screw that."
Roser chuckled. He waved at his men to unload the crates, and stepped over to Mal. "How long will it take us to get to Go'san?"
"I don't know. Let me ask my engineer." Mal jerked his head over his shoulder.
Kaylee waved from the catwalk. "Four days, Captain!"
Mal smiled at Roser.
Roser smiled back, a forced pursing of his lips. He waved his officers out, and the airlock sealed.
Zoe stepped forward. "Let me show you to your cabin. Lest you feared you can't leave your stuff."
"I'd be delighted." Roser spared one glance at the crates, and followed Zoe to the catwalk stairs.
"Meal's in four hours," Zoe told him.
"What'll it be?"
"Did you bring any food?"
Roser looked pained.
Zoe tilted her head. "We might share."
On the cargo bay floor, Mal slapped a crate. "Well, the first five minutes of this job went well."
"Oh, damn, Mal. Ya just cursed us," Jayne complained.
* * *
Mal sat at the table in the mess, noting how uneasy Roser looked. He thought about offering his hands for a blessing, but the other crew might not get the joke too quickly, and it was hard to get such a crew to do anything at once. Better to save up his capital for when the fight with Roser came. Mal knew it would.
Simon and Kaylee brought in the platter of mash, made of protein, some herbs Book provided, and some rice they'd traded for at the last world. Mal didn't know what was going on between the two of them, but at least they were working in tandem, not avoiding each other, or crying about it, as they seemed to half the time.
"All right, my favorite," Jayne said, sneering as he scooped the first heaps of mash onto his plate. Kaylee rolled her eyes, and served the rest of the crew, who comported themselves a little less like animals. River was the only one absent from the table. Lord knew where she was.
Mal thought about telling Roser there was chocolate pie for desert, but Roser had eyes only for Inara. "It's strange to see a woman of your credentials so far away from the Alliance worlds," Roser said, squeezing Inara's wrist in sympathy.
"And yet, I find people in need wherever I go," Inara said. She smiled at Roser, a smile with her big black eyes lit up and her cheeks tinted, Mal knew, to make Roser feel like he was the only man in the room.
Which made Mal feel pretty much the opposite of that. "Are you two going to do it right here on the table?"
Roser sat straight up, his face contorting with anger, but Inara merely turned her head toward Mal and said, "Money's money, isn't it, Mal? All the better if we can take it from the Alliance?"
Book shifted and cleared his throat. Mal glanced at him, seeing Book looking as uncomfortable as he felt. He wondered how Book and Inara could stay under the same roof the way they did, being so opposed to each other's ways. Inara liked Book better than she liked him, an honest-to-good scoundrel. Where was the logic in that? Maybe, Mal figured, it was all a ruse, and Inara and Book were doing it like rabbits on her satin bedsheets--
Mal's musing was interrupted by a choked, gasping sound from Jayne on his right. "What the...?" Jayne was turning purple right beside him.
Simon leapt up, alerted by the coughs and the sight of Jayne twisting in gruesome agony. "He's in anaphylactic shock. Get him to the infirmary!"
Roser looked stunned.
Zoe said, "I don't think it's shock."
Simon pushed Jayne's shoulder back, trying to get a good look at him by the cramped side of the table. Jayne jerked, heaved, and threw up on Simon's pants.
Mal flinched backward. Kaylee screamed. Inara furrowed her brow. "I think he's been poisoned."
"Who the hell would poison him?" Mal said, standing up, as to get a more wide view of his crew--his suspects. "I mean... now?"
"I did." River stepped through the open bulkhead, looking sweaty and sick and pale, but calm.
Mal stared at her for the time it took for his brain to catch up with his emotions, and he could say, "Why'd you do a thing like that?"
"I don't like Jayne. He was the best test subject."
Jayne lunged at her, but crumpled onto the floor, hugging himself against muscle spasms.
Roser was edging toward the door, but Zoe's hand on his shoulder stopped him. "I don't want to see this," he said, but he was ignored.
Mal found himself still trying to reason with the demon. "Test subject for what?"
"The food." River pointed at Roser. "To see if it was tainted."
"You opened the crates?" Mal felt violated.
"Yes," River said patiently.
"Do you know what kind of poison?" Simon asked his sister as he and Wash hauled Jayne off the floor.
"Test is running in your lab."
Simon nodded, and then Jayne was dragged into the narrow corridor, and the gang followed, some of them more readily than others. When Jayne was strapped onto the bed, Simon leaned down and listened to his chest. "He's having trouble breathing. I think his throat might be swelling shut, too. I think we want to tube him."
"Ouch," Mal said.
Inara stood in the corner with her arms wrapped around River's shoulders. Both women were watching silently, and trembling.
Simon rummaged through a drawer. "I'm out of tubing. One needle left. Fei wu! Can't you keep this ship stocked, Mal? This is ridiculous." He inhaled deeply. "Does anyone have anything I can use to hold his throat open until we know what kind of poison it is?"
Jayne's eyes widened in terror. He struggled against his bonds. Mal had the feeling that if Jayne could still talk, he'd be saying mighty unpleasant things.
"I do! From the environmental controls," Kaylee said, and scampered out.
The analyzer beeped. Wash was closest to it. "Mil...Mil-ko..." He shrugged.
Simon leaned over. "Okay. Good thing you stole some anti-venoms and antibiotics from the last refugees we knocked over."
Roser shot Mal a startled look.
Mal folded his arms. "Well, it's a good thing now, isn't it? Greater good, and... Ah, hell. I just think drugs are shiny."
"What are we going to do with him?" Book stepped closer to Roser, studying him.
"Depends on if Jayne lives or dies," Mal said.
"Does it really?"
Kaylee ran back into the room, and offered Simon a yard of plastic tubing. "It's clean. Sterile. Had it in backup."
Simon accepted it and leaned over Jayne. "Open wide."
Jayne spit at him.
Simon grabbed his jaw and forced it open, and shoved the tube into his mouth. "How come she gets backup supplies?"
"She's nice," Mal said.
"I'm..." Simon shook his head. "All right. It'll take about 20 minutes for the convulsions to ease off."
Kaylee glanced at Roser. "What are we going to do with him?"
"I didn't poison your man," Roser said.
Mal nodded. "That's a good point."
River shrank in Inara's arms.
"Then again, we don't really like Jayne. But the people of Go'san, they ain't done much to harm us. What's your beef?"
"There's disease there. It's spreading." Roser said.
"Ever think of doctors?"
"You bastard," Mal said, and lunged at Roser, swinging his fist at his jaw. Zoe held him solidly against the impact, and the cracking sound silenced the room, even Jayne, who'd been gurgling around his tube.
"Do you feel better?" Book gazed at Mal.
"Not really. Did you have a more effective solution?"
Simon pulled off his stained shirt, and reached for a clean apron. "We can uncontaminate the food and the rest of the supplies."
"And then just send him down there with him for the rest of the mission? He poisoned Jayne!"
"No, I didn't," Roser said, flinching back from another strike.
"I did," River reminded Mal.
"Fine. We keep the money?"
Mal threw up his hands and walked out. "It's going to be a long three days."
Zoe dragged Roser out, and Wash and Book followed.
River stepped up to Jayne's bed. "Sorry," she said.
Jayne struggled against his bonds.
"Oh, you'll kill me," she said, giggling. "But not today." She left, disappearing the way she came, and Inara shrugged, squeezed Kaylee's arm as she walked by, and went out of the infirmary.
Kaylee glanced around. "I guess I should..."
"Wait." Simon approached her.
"I don't like this place much," Kaylee said, a blush creeping into her cheeks.
"I know. But I wanted to thank you for helping. That was very smart thinking. Sometimes I forget..."
"How smart I am?" Kaylee punched his arm.
Simon smiled. "Exactly. I guess... Sometimes I only think of you as pretty."
Jayne let out a strangled cry, and Kaylee looked over at him. "Simon... I don't think he approves."
"I don't think I care."