The first inkling they get comes when Paquin goes radio silent. Wash gets them into orbit, and signals their contact about the landing location for hours before Mal finally asks, "Can you get anyone?"
Wash looks up at him, uncomfortable, and says, "No. I've tried."
"Then we ain't landing," Mal says, after a pause to think. "Don't know what went on down there, but I ain't stepping into it."
Wash nods. "Where to?"
"Move us out a little bit, enough so that we're still in radio contact, but ain't real obvious. Keep trying. We'll wait a space."
They wait a day. At the end of it, Wash is a bit twitchy, and they all know something is real wrong. Finally, Mal figures no one's going to be answering any radio calls at all. "Ain't no use sticking around," he says.
Wash shakes his head, and says, "So, back to Badger?"
It's Badger's cargo they're transporting, so they may as well head back there, see what ideas he might have.
But Mal isn't giving back the half of the pay he took up front. It's not his fault a whole world's gone silent. "Back to Badger," he confirms, and Wash nods again, turns to the controls. Mal continues, "I'm going to check the Cortex," though Wash doesn't appear to be listening.
Won't be the first time in the last day that he's turned to the Cortex,
but maybe this time he'll find something.
He sits in his room, and sifts through the news stories, the public information. There's nothing about Paquin, at least nothing official. But it doesn't take long to find the unofficial information – people asking about family, wondering why they can't get a hold of anyone. Near as he can tell, there hasn't been any contact for just over three of Paquin's days; already, in some corners, there's already talk about Alliance conspiracies and poisonings; or secret viruses. He never takes that kind of talk at face value – lots of paranoid folk around – but still.
None of it looks good.
In the end, he talks to the crew about it one by one, says that the Paquin job went south, and he isn't sure exactly why.
"What about the people down there?" Kaylee asks, her face scrunched up sadly, because she already can guess at the most likely answer.
Mal says it anyway. It's his job, telling it like it is. "Can't say for certain. But you know a place like Paquin ain't ever silent. Not for hours all strung out in a row. Don't spell good news. I'm conjuring the folk down there ain't answering 'cause they're probably dead, or near to."
"All of 'em?" She doesn't believe it – he can hardly believe it his own self.
"Don't know, Kaylee. Feds ain't putting anything out on the Cortex. But Wash tried. He tried for a real long time to get through to someone."
"Shouldn't we –" she starts, but stops soon enough. She knows as well as he that there ain't much he can do.
Eventually, she stops looking quite so shocked, even nods at him when he pats her shoulder.
"We should have landed," Simon says, first thing after Mal says his piece. "If people were ill – injured – we may have been able to do something."
"A whole planet?" Mal asks. Simon always seems to have an answer for everything, a challenge to almost all Mal says lately. But even he has no answers to that particular question.
When he tells River, she just nods in that eerie way she has. "Landing would have been a mistake." Her words make surprising sense – no oblique talking, this one time. As she walks away, Mal tells himself his gut instinct is always right.
Jayne and Zoe he tells together. Her expression doesn't change; something flickers across Jayne's face for a moment. "Reavers?"
Mal shakes his head. "No sign of traces their ships leave behind." None of the residues in the atmo, none of the trails of contamination. No emergency broadcasts, although those kinds of things can always be jammed.
Jayne's relieved, it's plain as day. But somehow, it not being Reavers makes Mal even more unsettled. There's a hollow feeling, somewhere in his gut, and it just grows. Nags at him. Gets his thoughts going in all kinds of directions.
Very last, he waves Inara and then Book, leaving brief messages that they should steer clear of Paquin. Doubtful either of them would be leaving their homes anyway – Inara's set up real nice at the Training House, and she's got no cause to travel. And Book keeps his flock close.
When they land on Persephone, Mal says to Kaylee, "Get people talking. Listen. Let me know what you find out." Folk, they can't help but open up to Kaylee – she just smiles at them with that way she has, and they're trading gossip and stories as quick as you please.
He sends Jayne to trail her, just to be sure. "Unobtrusive-like," he says. "Don't scare the people off. Just watch her, make sure she don't get in trouble."
Jayne nods, fingering the knife at his hip. "Sure."
Mal watches them go, and the nagging in his gut is still there, getting worse. There's still no news on Paquin, and their contact never did wave to ask why exactly they hadn't dropped the cargo.
He's just got this sense that picking up the local gossip won't be enough. Thoughts are whirling in head, enough so that he calls Wash down, and says, "Make a list of supplies we need. Fuel, parts, food, everything. All we're going to need for a good long while. We're going shopping." He thinks about it for a moment, and yells up at Wash, who's already walking away, "And tell Simon to get down here. I got questions to ask."
He has to deal with Badger – figure out a way to unload the cargo they're still carrying – but there's time enough for that. He's standing at the edge of the cargo door, watching the bustle go on outside, and thinking about how best to approach Badger – better wait for Jayne to get back – when Simon comes up behind him.
"You wanted to see me?"
Mal doesn't turn around, focused on all the life going on in front of
him. But he nods. "Yep. What kind of supplies are you needing? In the way of the infirmary?"
There's a longish pause, and Mal figures Simon just doesn't know where to start. He's been nagging at Mal for months – saying they don't have near enough supplies, and those they do have aren't the latest in tech. But there never seems to be quite enough money to stock out the infirmary to Simon's satisfaction.
They aren't exactly flush now, either, but Mal's got money he's put away. For emergencies, or those things he doesn't quite know how to anticipate. He hates to get into it – always seems a bad idea to raid an emergency store – but something tells him they need the money now. Later, it won't matter.
"Are you serious?"
Mal nods again, and glances over as Simon comes to stand next to him. Even so, he manages to stay back in the shadows a little, keeping his face out of the immediate view of them as are outside. "Yeah."
"I – well, there are many things we could use. Medicine. Equipment."
"Make a list. Give it to Wash. Put anything on it, we'll do our best."
Simon turns towards him. "What brought this on? Is it Paquin?"
Yeah. It's Paquin. Paquin and his gut. But he says, "Just have some free money is all. Thought we could stock up."
"All right. It'll take me a little while to make a thorough list." He half-smiles, rueful. "I wish I could go with you."
Mal shrugs. If wishes were horses – well, Jayne's always got thoughts along those lines. "Just be specific. We'll find it for you." He listens to the sound of Simon walking away, fancy shoes tapping gently on the floor.
Outside, people move around each other, around cargo, around ships. It's an intricate dance, almost as involved as the dances that the rich practice for their balls. Except that out here, people move with more life.
Mal stands and watches.
When Kaylee and Jayne get back, she's a touch pale. "No one's heard from Paquin. Crews going there, taking cargo or passengers, they never came back. Just stopped sending waves, and didn't show for the next jobs they had lined up. It's like they just stopped being part of the 'verse."
Jayne says, real low, "Tell him the rest."
Kaylee frowns briefly. "Well. Talked to one fella, says he got a message from his sister, the captain of the Hellebor."
Mal nods. He knows the crew, a little. They've had dealings – not exactly civil dealings, but he didn't end up dead from them. Maybe Zoe got shot that one time, by one of the captain's hired mercs, but that's the way the job goes, some days.
"Says the last wave she sent, after landing on Paquin, she mentioned about people getting sick. Real sick. Said she'd be lifting off in a few hours, before her crew started falling sick too. Before the law locked down a quarantine." She pauses. "He hasn't heard from her since. Can't get a hold of her neither."
She shrugs. "People are telling the same kinds of stories over and over again. So, yeah. That's all."
Inside, Wash and Zoe are stowing the last of the crates. Supplies, enough to last months. Fuel, food, medicines. They're set to load up on water before they lift off, too. Mal spent a good deal of his own private coin on getting everything; he wouldn't be surprised to find that maybe Zoe had snuck some of her takings into the money bag either.
In the end, he doesn't bother going to find Badger. The cargo is nothing special, just some unmarked genseed that got diverted from manufacturing facilities, and other such supplies that it sometimes pays to get transported on the sly. Mal can unload it all somewhere else, get the pay, bring it back when he gets the chance.
He tries not to dwell on why Badger hasn't come calling – it's usual for him to come scurrying over as soon as he gets wind that Serenity has landed. And he always gets wind real fast. Mal always figured that was one of the more annoying constants of the 'verse. But this time, though Mal watches the door and expects a visit, no one comes. He doesn't know what it means, except that Badger must be occupied with something else.
Might be connected to the Paquin situation. Might not.
They lift off, and Mal says, "Haven," to Wash. Mal's jittery the entire flight. He keeps watch on the Cortex – there's nothing official yet – and keeps watch on his crew.
Simon busies himself in the infirmary, unpacking supplies and tech like he's just had the very best birthday ever. He thanks Mal about ten different times, but always in an absent way, like he's got so many shinies in front of him that he can't quite concentrate on the people around him.
Kaylee stays quiet, sticks to her bunk and the engine room, mostly. It ain't that far to Haven, but Mal tells Wash to take it slow and cautious. So the journey takes a couple of days, and one night, he walks into the engine room – mostly just to see for himself that the engine's still turning, still working for him – to find her and Jayne sitting side by side, up against the wall. He's got a bottle in his hand, and as Mal walks in, he's in the middle of handing it over to Kaylee.
"Hey, Cap," she says, after she takes a mouthful. "Wanna share?"
"There a reason you two're drinking in here?"
Jayne shrugs, but Kaylee nods. "Figured, this is the only funeral all them folk on Paquin are gonna get." She laughs, but it isn't a happy sound. "Well, that's why I'm drinking. Jayne just likes the taste." She punches Jayne in the shoulder, and he frowns at her. Mal smiles.
When they hit Haven's orbit, Wash is all set to land; they've got a usual place, they know they're always welcome. But Mal puts his hand on Wash's shoulder, stops him from starting up the landing sequence, and says, "Let's talk with Book first."
The problem is, Mal knows Haven gets regular supply runs from a ship that docks at Paquin. The captain has a granddaughter setting up shop in the settlement, and he transports the goods for free, just asking for the cost of fuel.
He wants to believe that maybe a supply shipment isn't due for weeks. Maybe Book listened to the wave Mal sent, and wouldn't let anyone land. Maybe if someone did land, they hadn't touched down on Paquin for a space.
He doesn't want to think too hard on if maybe something went wrong on Haven first. If maybe whatever sickness this seems to be got transported from Haven to Paquin.
Instead, he braces one arm up against the ceiling, leans forward a little, and taps out a pattern while Wash tries to reach someone.
"Hey down there, anyone reading? It's Serenity."
All they get back is static. Wash looks over at him and says, "That isn't really unusual. They don't always come right away. Busy people, small settlement."
Mal nods, keeps tapping his fingers as Wash tries again. And again.
After the eighth time, Mal says, "I guess that's enough. Let's fly low over the settlement, see what we can see."
"They aren't going to appreciate us kicking up a dust storm, Mal. Not to mention the blowback."
Mal figures they won't be noticing anything like that, but he says, "Don't fly too low. Just enough so we can see if anything's moving."
Wash hits atmo pretty smoothly, and Mal isn't surprised that the rest of the crew drifts up to the cockpit as they head for the settlement. Wash circles it real careful, real slow, and Mal and Zoe look. They look hard.
There's nothing. No fires, no one walking from building to building. No warning shots at the ship – nothing that asks what the hell they think they're doing, kicking up the dust. Eventually, Zoe points out a figure lying by one of the work sheds. "No movement, Sir."
Nope. The only thing moving down there is the sand and bits and pieces blown around by Serenity.
Nobody says a word as Wash does one last circle. Then they head back up, out of atmo, into the black.
Mal starts thinking about supplies, and how long they might last. Water's going to be the first problem. It always is in any kind of hard times. It'll last for a decent space, but it won't hurt to start conserving right away.
He isn't quite sure where to try next.
So they find a quiet spot in space, shut down the engines – except enough to keep life support running – and they float. Just until he can come up with something.
"Floating is an inappropriate analogy," River says.
"We aren't buoyant."
Maybe not, but Mal thinks of it as floating in space, just letting it wash over and around Serenity.
Regularly, Wash waves different contacts. Li Chen, the Sanchez brothers, Fanty and Mingo, even Burkheart. They all answer, say that everything seems O.K. Burkheart even offers up a job. Fanty and Mingo somehow know about the unclaimed genseed filling up his hold, and say they can unload it.
Both offers are real tempting. It's a couple of days after Haven when Mal starts thinking that maybe he's reacting all wrong. Wouldn't be the first time he'd gotten ass over head about something. All of this, it might just be coincidence. Maybe they should land, think about trying to unload some of the extra supplies he'd gone out and bought.
Except that Badger still isn't answering, and he might be a contrary son of a bitch not above snubbing Mal, but he's never been one to let go of money or goods without a fight.
Then world by world, things start to go silent.
"Persephone." Wash says. "Nothing. No one's answering."
Two days later, Beaumonde falls silent. Then Whittier and Lilac.
"We need information," Wash says. "Something."
Mal nods. "So –"
"Mr. Universe. I'll make contact."
It takes a while to get through, and when they do, he's distracted. "Wash. Mal. Some people say no news is good news, but –"
Mal nods at the screen. "What do you have?"
There's a long pause, and then, "Honestly? Silence from new places. Where people are still talking, they're saying nothing I want to hear."
Seems like sometimes the signal does stop.
After Boros stops making any kind of noise, Mal walks into Simon's room, and asks, "How might you spread a sickness?"
Simon doesn't look surprised by the question. "I thought you would ask. There are standard ways. Viruses and bacteria spread through three basic mechanisms: contact, blood or other bodily fluids, and via the air. Although, in the case of air, a disease is usually being carried in the moisture droplets that we expel when we cough or sneeze."
"Well. Traditionally. But there are other mechanisms. Food, for one. It can serve as a carrying medium. It might carry a naturally-occurring problem – prion diseases, they're spread through the consumption of diseased neural matter. Or, the food might be purposefully contaminated with an engineered pathogen designed to survive in that kind of medium. The same can be said for water."
Mal's been eating the same food – he was careful to chose things that hadn't been government-stamped – and drinking the same water for almost two weeks now. But still, the next few meals he has, he can't help but pause before the first few bites.
In the end, he figures that kind of thinking won't help anyone. If he starts getting skittish about his food, they all will. Except maybe Jayne; Mal's yet to see something keep that man from his food. But he don't need the rest of them starving, too afraid to eat.
After a couple of days sticking to one area, Mal tells Wash to program in a slow burn, and just keep them moving; he doesn't care where they go, as long as they avoid the most popular routes to and from everywhere. He's got a feeling that it's a gorram bad idea to stick to one area of space. Never know what else might be drifting out there, and maybe, just maybe, if they keep moving they'll come across good news.
Or at least avoid even more bad news.
He's cross checking his list of supplies when Wash comms about a wave from Inara. "Patch it through."
As soon as he sees her, he knows it's even worse than he thought. She smiles at him, and nothing about it is reassuring. "Inara."
"Mal." Her skin has a hectic flush, and her eyes have a hollow look to them. He's never seen her looking less than perfect, but her hair is tangled, her dress askew. "Don't come here."
She nods, and he can see it hurts. Probably hurts to be sitting upright. Looks like maybe she's shaking, just a little, but he pretends he doesn't see it. She deserves at least that much from him. "We all are. It spread very quickly."
"It'll be fine." By this time, he knows it won't be fine; but she doesn't have to know that.
Her laugh is short, and she clutches at her chest after, her face a grimace. "You know it won't be fine at all. We're dying. Some of us are already dead. I just wanted –" but she cuts herself off, and instead, just looks at him.
"Yeah," he says.
After a moment, she visibly pulls herself together. That's his Inara. "I thought it might be useful for Simon if I talked to him. About the symptoms. The progression."
She's strong, so strong. Always has been. And he says as much to her before he calls for Simon, before Simon comes climbing down into his room, ready to ask questions and take notes.
He backs away, hovers in a corner while they talk. He doesn't really listen to the words, although sentences here and there catch his attention.
"Do you know how it's transmitting? Do you have any ideas?" Simon asks, as Inara coughs.
"The first ones got ill almost two days ago. We thought it was just a basic fever, maybe something from one of the border moons. It didn't look like anything serious. Not at first."
"They got sick quickly, and died quickly, but –" her voice cracks, "it hurt them very badly. They screamed."
"Has anyone recovered? After they got sick?"
"No," Inara says, her tone final. "No one has."
And later still,
" – if you have any, it might help with the pain." He pauses, and then, very carefully, says, "But too large a dose would shut down your respiratory system, so be careful. You wouldn't feel much, but it would happen very quickly, before you could stop it."
Inara's eyes are soft as she looks at him. "How much would be too much?"
He looks down at his hands for a minute, then says, "15 ccs."
"Thank you, Simon."
"Thank you for sharing this with me. I'm sorry I couldn't –"
She cuts him off. "I'm glad you're not here." Glancing away, off to the side, she asks, "Is Mal still there?"
Simon's moving out of the way even as he says, "Of course. Good-bye, Inara."
Mal doesn't notice if Simon climbs out of his room. He focuses on Inara, who has lost the flush to her skin, and now is just starting to look waxy. "Hi."
"Give Kaylee my love."
"And, Mal –" she reaches out, touches the screen. The shaking is worse.
"I know," he answers.
"Don't come for me."
It's a couple days after Inara's wave – they haven't been able to reach anyone at the Training House – when they come across the Alliance cruiser. There's no warning, no radio signals, nothing. Just Wash calling, "Mal? Think you'd better come and see this."
They all come, crowding into the cockpit, craning their necks for a view outside. The ship is dark, and Mal can see where sections are open to space; he can see bodies floating, forming little moons around the bulk of the ship.
"See over there?" Kaylee points. "That hole? Think an engine drive blew."
"So. They died from that?"
She shakes her head. "Doubt it. Wouldn't make a whole ship go silent. They got back-ups. Even if one section blows, they got ways to seal off the rest of the ship. At least, that's what I hear. Engine maybe blew after. After whatever happened."
It's eerie, flying past the wreck. He's always figured that Alliance ships looked exactly the way the Alliance acts. They're large, imposing, full of themselves; they're silent statements of technological superiority and arrogance.
But looking at the cruiser now, he sees that maybe they're more fragile than he ever thought.
The cockpit is silent as they fly past.
"What I don't understand," Simon says to them all, "is why it's so virulent. It's very unusual for an infectious disease to have such a high mortality rate. High morbidity, that's usual. But for everyone who gets infected to die? It's very uncommon. It doesn't serve a microorganism any logical purpose to kill off all of its hosts. Even some of the most deadly infections on Earth-that-was – bubonic plague, Ebola – always left survivors. Someone."
"We don't know for sure that everyone's dead, though, right?" Kaylee asks. "I mean – maybe some kids are still alive, they just don't know how to access the Cortex, don't know how to call for help. Or something."
"It's true enough," Simon answers, though to Mal's mind, he sounds skeptical. "There could be something else happening. We won't know until we land, until we look at some of the settlements."
"That ain't happening," Mal says.
"Gorram right. You ain't bringin' no diseases onboard, just 'cause yer curious." Jayne frowns at Simon.
Simon sighs, and turns to Mal. "I could take a shuttle. I could use one of the space suits. It has a self-contained oxygen system; the suit itself is thick enough to prevent any contact with a pathogen."
"But what if something latches onto the suit? And when you take it off, you touch it and –" Kaylee glances from Simon to Mal. "What if the suit ain't enough?"
"That won't happen."
"But you don't know that! Cap, he don't know that, does he?"
"Do you know that, Doctor?"
Simon frowns, then looks down at his hands. "No. I don't know. There is always a danger in these kinds of situations, despite any precautions we might take. Maybe if we had proper decontamination facilities, it would be different." There's a long pause around the table, until finally, Simon continues, "I'm beginning to think we might want to try and contact an Alliance medical ship facility."
Before he's even finished, Zoe's shaking her head.
"It ain't time for that yet," Mal says, and the discussion is over.
Later, he finds Simon sitting in the infirmary, in the dark. He doesn't say anything, just leans up against the wall and waits.
Doesn't take long. "I suppose the most frustrating thing is that we don't have any real information about what's happening. I wish that I could access official medical files. As it is, I just feel useless. Restless."
"Ain't nothing you could do."
Simon sighs. "You're right. More right than you know. I'm not a research scientist; I know how to diagnose and treat viral and bacterial infections, but that doesn't mean I'm qualified for research. Still. Maybe if I were on the ground –"
"Maybe if you were on the ground, you'd be dead like the rest of 'em."
"You're assuming they're dead."
And that's just contrary, because Mal knows Simon's assuming the same thing. He's just pushing for the sake of pushing, and for once, Mal ignores it and continues, "Maybe you'd bring something back, kill us all."
Simon scrubs his hand across his eyes, and suddenly, he looks tired, the way he looks when River has bad weeks, pitching lots of fits and such. "I know."
Quit fretting on it, he wants to say. But Simon isn't like that. It'll gnaw on him, in one way or another, and there isn't anything Mal can do to stop it.
He's expecting it, but he still isn't sure what to do about it when it starts. The crew starts to get stir-crazy. Cooped up on Serenity for this long – knowing they can't land – it isn't good for anyone's peace of mind. He's feeling it himself.
Mostly, he notices the smell. Smell of folk living in recycled air; smell of folk who aren't washing all that often, what with the water being rationed. He's smelled worse things in his life – and it's nowhere near the level of stink yet. But the fact that he notices it, that he finds himself thinking on it – that's his own tiny bit of tension showing, right there.
Zoe and Wash deal mostly by holing up together, and that suits Mal just fine. But Jayne – he gets antsy. Argumentative. Starts trying to square off with Mal more often – starts hassling Wash for no good reason.
But Wash can hold his own, and Mal ain't anywhere near the mood to take any of Jayne's pushing. He makes that real clear.
So Jayne, he starts working out more and more, enough that Mal walks into the infirmary one day to find Jayne hunched over on the infirmary table.
Simon looks up. "He's torn a muscle. He pushed himself too hard." He's running a mender over Jayne's arm – one of the new toys Mal paid for back on Persephone – and looking pleased as punch that he's getting to use it.
"Be more careful," he says. But Jayne just grunts at him.
Later, way later, he wanders into the kitchen – that's how he's coping, just walking the boundaries of Serenity over and over – to find Kaylee and Jayne sitting together, heads pressed close, voices low.
Kaylee looks up when he gets to the table. "Cap." Her eyes are red, her face covered in patches of pink. She sniffs once. "Can't reach my folks."
"Thought they didn't have a link." He knew this was coming. He just hoped that it wouldn't be for a space yet.
"They don't. But we use the neighbour's for emergencies. Always gets through. Not now though. Jayne too. Can't reach home."
"Don't necessarily mean what you think." But his words are hollow, and she knows it.
Doesn't help that Jayne snorts and says, "You know what it means. We all do. Ain't watching everywhere go silent for nothin'. We're all waitin', wonderin' what's next. When we're next."
He stands as he's talking, and shoves past Mal. As he stomps out of the kitchen, Kaylee gets up, follows him, and Mal says, "Don't let him tear something else up."
She sniffs again, nods, and then she's gone.
The kitchen is silent. Mal knows he ought to be hungry, but right now, he doesn't have much in the way of appetite.
He wakes up one morning to find River looking down at him. Her hair falls around his face, and if he's startled, if he yells a little bit, she doesn't say anything. She just bends closer, and says, "Osiris." Her voice is hoarse, and her eyes are rimmed with red.
Sitting up, he reaches for his shirt. "Yeah?"
She nods, and then she's climbing out of the room, and Mal is connecting to the Cortex. Osiris. If Osiris is gone, the Feds can't hide it for much longer.
Sure enough, he finds a report advising everyone to stay away from Osiris. "A contagion of unknown origin is spreading through the population; the epicenter is Capital City." The Fed official clears his throat, and continues, "Citizens with family on Osiris are advised to contact your local Federal station for further information. Be aware
that Osiris is now a quarantined planet. No ships will be allowed to enter orbit or land."
If he knows the Alliance, the world will be cut off from more than just ships. Sure enough, when he finds Simon, and convinces him to try contacting his family, they aren't able to make a link.
"They've shut down all communication on and off planet."
Simon looks stricken. "The whole planet." Then he pauses. "My parents."
Mal ain't sure what to say. May be that his folks weren't real good people, but Simon, he's the generous sort. Sentimental. "Sorry."
Simon glances over at him, like he forgot he was standing there for a minute. "Thank you." Then he goes back to staring at the console.
It isn't exactly what he'd call a surprise that River throws a full-on fit the day after Osiris. The surprise is more like why she hadn't done so earlier. Them all bundled up on Serenity, close and tense and angry, Mal figured she would've gone around the bend a few times now. Hell, if he's feeling twitchy, he can't imagine what's going on in her head; can't even begin to know what it must be like having all of their thoughts tangled up with her own.
Her voice echoes through the hull, enough so at first he figures she got her crazy little fingers on some part of Serenity's communication system. But that isn't the case – she's just got a powerful, grating voice, and makes sure everyone hears her from her perch in the cargo bay.
" –and blood and it never stops, all of them just dying and it's in the ground –" she shrieks, holding onto her head, her mouth distended with grief, or crazy, or anger. Probably all three.
"River," Simon says, inching his way towards her.
"No! Don't!" And then she pulls out a knife – one of Jayne's, by the curse he lets loose – and waves it at Simon. "Simon." Her voice lowers, "The dirt. It's everywhere." She scrubs at her arms. "We're all so dirty."
She isn't wrong. Bathing's a luxury. They're all covered with a layer of grime; Mal feels it under his nails, at the roots of his hair. It's enough that he's swayed into thinking about water, falling clean and clear from the sky, washing it away.
But then Simon takes another step forward, and River points the knife at him, and her, back at him, and yells "You don't know!" Then she lunges towards Simon, and Simon always says she'll never hurt him, never go that far. Not on purpose. But Mal's always figured that part of the definition of crazy is unpredictable.
So he shoots, without really thinking about it, and she hits the ground, a soft grunt echoing around the room. It mingles with Kaylee's gasp.
It's just a leg wound, but it stops her cold. A bit like maybe it brings her back to herself, because her eyes lose that wild look, even as the pain crosses her face.
Simon is already moving cautiously towards her, hands out. "River."
She stops staring at Mal, and turns her head. "Simon. I'm bleeding. It isn't even the right kind. External, not internal."
He nods his head like he understands her babble, and says, "I know. I'll fix you up."
She grins, and that wild look returns, just for a minute. "Can't fix everything."
Simon crouches down beside her, and presses one hand on the wound. "But I can try."
Time maybe slows down, because it seems like they smile at each other, in their own little world, for longer than is necessary when one of them is bleeding all over Mal's floor.
It's only a few days before the same contagion warning goes up around Greenleaf. Then Ariel.
He has a talk with Kaylee about improving the water reclamation process. Her brow wrinkles, and she says, "I'll do what I can. Already got it working good, but maybe there's something –" and she walks away, her words trailing off.
Food is tougher. Mal starts rationing. They've got supplies for months still, but it won't hurt to see if they can stretch it. It's not like they're using up energy doing jobs anyway. They're all just drifting.
It's almost seven weeks to the day when they hit Paquin's orbit that Londinium goes silent. This time, there ain't even a quarantine warning to go with it.
As far as Mal can tell, them as are left are on some of the Border moons. Whitefall's still talking; Mal's even heard from Patience herself. "No sickness," she'd said. "Nothing yet."
She hadn't bothered to posture with him. Didn't bitch about the last time they saw each other. Her face was pinched, and she'd just gone straight to the point.
It isn't exactly what he'd call a good sign about the state of the 'verse when people who should rightly hate his guts start looking on him with a little bit of hope.
Mal starts to fray a little more along the edges. He starts to long for sun and wind and grit on his face. Anything. Anyone. Just as long as it doesn't involve Serenity. As long as it's out of the black.
He takes to walking the length and breadth of the ship, trying not to think about the look on Inara's face when they said 'bye, when Simon was talking about overdoses and painkillers. But mostly, walking the ship doesn't stop anything. Makes it worse, 'cause it feels like maybe Serenity's getting smaller; like maybe the walls are starting to close in a little. He counts his steps as he walks, and maybe he isn't remembering right, but the number of steps seems to get smaller and smaller. Just a bit at a time, but enough.
Most days, he feels itchy, but it isn't a surface itch. It gets under his skin, and no matter what he does, it doesn't stop.
Seeing Wash and Zoe heading off to their bunk just makes it worse. It's the same thing when he rounds a corner and finds Jayne and Kaylee pressed up against each other; he's starting to look a little ragged around the edges, and her eyes don't ever seem to lose that redness. It's so bad that she looks sick, sick like Inara was, but Simon says she checks out.
The itch gets even more annoying, more crazy-making when he catches River creeping around; when she starts spouting out nonsense. Makes him want to go and get a gun, some days. Only, he isn't sure exactly who he wants to shoot when he starts to feel like that. Her. Him. All of them, one by one.
Might be doing them a mercy. How long can seven people float out in space? How long can their supplies last? Mal's done the math. The answers float around in his head, clamouring for attention that he doesn't want to give.
"We could try landing," Simon suggests, over a meal that most of them aren't too interested in eating. Mal forces mouthfuls down his dry throat, listening. "Try Paquin. It was the first affected. It's likely any contagion has dissipated by now. With no one left to infect –" His voice trails off for a moment, and then, "Well, most of these things can't survive for long without a live human host."
But Mal isn't an idiot. He isn't foolish enough to trust everything Simon says at face value. Never has been.
And he isn't dumb enough to think this particular sickness would follow the patterns Simon thinks he sees.
"Or we could try Whitefall."
Patience might be talking to them – pumping them for any info they might have – but he isn't about to approach her, hat in hand, asking for safe haven. She'd probably shoot them all, soon as she got a sense of what supplies they have on board. But before he can say no, Zoe speaks up, "We don't want to trust the old lady. Not unless we've got no other choice."
Simon doesn't fight the decision – maybe because he only ever seems to want to butt heads with Mal – but he asks, "How many options do you think we have left?"
Nobody has an answer for him.
Fifteen days after Londinium, they come across a ship with actual live people on board. "Don't fly too close," Mal warns Wash when they first hear the proximity sensor. Ship looks like it's running and sound, so they send a radio signal. Feels like neither of them breathes until the radio crackles, and a woman responds, "Yeah, we're hearing you."
And Mal, he's got a handful of questions he might ask, but it's been so long since he talked to someone who ain't crew that he forgets it all for a few minutes. Seems like Wash does too, because the woman finally radios back, asks, "You still there?"
"You got visuals?" He asks, leaning over Wash.
"Yep. One second."
And then she's there, dark hair pulled back tight from her face. Stress lines show around her mouth. She's alive, she's someone he hasn't ever laid eyes on before, and for a moment he just drinks in the sight of her. "Mal Reynolds."
"Kirsten Ling." She smiles, and if it's a little thin, a little worn,
well, it's probably the same kind of smile she's seeing on his own face.
"You got any news?"
She shakes her head. "Probably nothing you ain't got. Londinium gone?"
He nods. "Yeah. Got that."
"Don't look like there's anything new on the Cortex. Everything I find ain't been updated in over a week. Nearer to two."
"Running on automatic."
He half-smiles. "Can't say I'm a fan of the Feds, but their tech will probably still be working after the last of us is dead and gone." He's starting to think about things they need, things maybe they can trade for. She doesn't look hungry – maybe she loaded up, got out before it was too late.
"That probably won't be real long, now."
There's something about the way she says it, something he doesn't like at all. "You got sick?"
It takes her a minute, but she nods. "Think so. My mechanic got a fever last night. He hasn't been out of bed since. Doesn't look to be improving." She pauses, and maybe the lines around her mouth aren't just from stress. "I'm not feeling so good myself. You?'
A smile crosses her face, again, like she thinks maybe they're lucky. That they're a sign of hope. "Thought we were in the clear. Ain't hit land in months, now. It's just been us."
That doesn't make any kind of sense. "You raid any dead boats?"
She shrugs. "I ain't a doctor. Or a scientist."
And yeah, she might not be, but they've got Simon. So he says to Wash, "Go get Simon," because maybe if she can talk to him, they might get some kind of idea what they're dealing with.
Simon talks to her for hours. Then, they stay, keep watch as the crew die, one by one.
"Thanks," she says, near the end.
"Not like I did anything," Mal replies, hands itching to do something; his body is twitchy with the need to be anywhere except sitting on a chair in front of a screen.
"You didn't leave."
Maybe that's something, but it isn't much.
After, when they haven't heard a peep from the ship for half a day, Simon comes and joins him at his watch in the cockpit. They haven't left Ling's ship yet, and he can see it, looking well-maintained and sturdy.
Simon sits down in the co-pilot seat, and says, "I've looked over my notes, compared them with what I have from Inara." His voice cracks a little at her name. "The symptoms and progression of both illnesses are the same, so it's likely we're dealing with only one contagion here."
He takes a deep breath before continuing, "Inara thought the Training House was likely exposed to contagion from one of the visiting tutors. But them?" He gestures at the other ship. "I don't know how they became infected. It's possible that Captain Ling wasn't telling us everything. But if we're to believe her, and they haven't landed anywhere for months – then I don't know what to think."
Simon hesitates, looking at the wall behind Mal, before he says, "Well. I suppose it could be spores. There are theories that perhaps some of the most basic life forms move from world to world, system to system, in a spore-like form." There's an even longer hesitation before he says, "Or some of us could be carriers. The infection could lie dormant, undetectable, for a long time, and then be triggered by something in the environment. Maybe –"
"I suppose there might have been environmental triggers on every world. Something that brings the disease to the surface, starting a cycle of infection."
"What kind of triggers?"
He shrugs. "I really can't say. It could be anything. Stress. Another innocuous illness. Something in the food. I just don't know." He looks down at his hands. "At this point, I doubt we'll ever know. And truly, I doubt that it matters, ultimately."
Probably true enough.
"Mal. We need to start thinking about long-term plans. Food. Water. Fuel." The words echo what Zoe's already said.
He doesn't know what to say about it. He's got no answers. There's nothing he can say to Simon's demands, his expectations.
This isn't his area of expertise.
Instead of pacing the length of the ship, trying to come up with a workable plan, he ends up with Simon in his bed. Didn't intend it – didn't particularly want it – but it happens anyway. That's the way the 'verse seems to work, most days.
Simon's a little rank, but Mal knows he isn't exactly smelling like fresh spring air himself, and really, it doesn't bother him too much. He just focuses in on the slide of lips across skin; focuses on the pull of rough hands passing over his arms, curving around his hips.
"Your hands ain't smooth," he says, breathless. "Thought they'd be smooth."
Simon rolls his eyes. "I get calluses too, you know. I'm not a dandy."
Maybe not now. Though that thought's maybe just a bit uncharitable. Least Simon had worked for his money, back on Osiris. And say what he might about the flaws in Simon's character, Mal can't say he's ever shirked hard work. Never has neglected his duties. "Just figured –"
Leaning close, Simon says, "Stop talking. I might start thinking this is a mistake." He hooks one leg over Mal's hip and pulls him close.
It is a mistake. But he doesn't get a chance to say it, because Simon's insistent and pushy and he's decent at kissing. So instead he just kisses, and then rolls Simon onto his back, hands holding either side of his head, elbows balanced on the bed. Simon's hands wrap back around his hips, holding tight, and pulling him down.
He's still feeling itchy, and the thoughts about maybe shooting someone – anyone – are still there, but this is a damn sight better than walking up and down the length of Serenity. Instead, he lets his hands roam the length and breadth of Simon; lets himself get measured out in turn. The room fills up with the sound of harsh breathing, stifled gasps. Everything seems to echo off the walls, and for a few moments, Mal feels like maybe it's just the two of them left; that the others went and died while they've been down here. But those thoughts get pushed right out of his head when Simon levers himself up and manages to prod and turn him until Mal's on his back.
He stares up at the ceiling, imagines sickness working its way through the metal; through the hull; moving from room to room. Imagines himself venting the ship, just opening up the cargo doors, and letting everything – sickness included – get sucked out into space, away from Serenity.
But Simon's mouth is on his neck, then moving across his chest, pausing to bite down here and there. Mal stops thinking – almost – about infection and death and the way they need water. He stops thinking long enough to focus on the wet warmth of Simon's mouth, the softness of dirty hair between his fingers as he cups Simon's head.
The sounds still echo off the walls – the grunts, the rustle of sheets, the gasps, the knells of limbs against metal, the wet sounds of Simon's mouth against him. He's heard these sounds, made these noises, in all kinds of situations. He recognises them as sounds of life, the noises of the living.
But even as he arches upwards, gasping out his pleasure, it all sounds like a dirge. An ending.
They've got nowhere to go. He'd finally gritted his teeth and contacted Patience, hoping maybe at least she'd hold no grudge against Kaylee and River and Simon. That maybe she'd let them drop in. Might have use for a doctor. Might have an interest in a genius mechanic.
But Patience doesn't answer his call.
Seems stupid, thinking that maybe they're the last seven alive. His luck's never been that good. Though sometimes, it's just that bad.
Gives him some kind of hope when River looks at him funny, and says, "Wouldn't make statistical sense."
But still, even with her babble, he can't quite shake the feeling that it's just them left. Just them, living in a tiny bubble that seems to get smaller and more crowded each day.
He tries Mr. Universe, who's still answering. "I'm still getting scattered chatter from here and there. Not much from the official channels, but there are voices. A few. People like you, moving."
Mal opens his mouth, and starts to say something about supplies, and needing a place to hole up for a while. He doesn't get far before he's interrupted, "If you try to land here, I'll shoot you down," he says. There's remorse on his face as he says it, but it's overshadowed by fear. "I'm sorry, Mal. I'm sorry, but I'm serious."
Mal isn't surprised. Just angry – angry enough that he's half a mind to fly Serenity straight at the bastard's little moon, straight into his complex, his little world. Instead, he cuts the connection, right in the middle of words about quarantine and never really letting ships land even on a normal day.
They've got nowhere to go, and no future. Thoughts about ending it all quick – venting the ship without warning – start to surface more and more often. It's not like they've got much else to look forward to; best they can hope for, it seems, is a slow death from hunger or thirst, or a fast death if the sickness somehow worms its way on board.
He takes a shuttle.
"Sir," Zoe starts. But her hair's a mess, and her eyes a little wild, and he can see she hasn't got it in her to fight. Maybe she sees if she does start something, one of them won't be walking away from it. So he just turns his back, and walks to the shuttle, closes the door behind him, and leaves.
Just to get away.
"Mal," Simon says over the comm, when he's about an hour from Serenity's last coordinates, "What do you think you're doing?" He's starting to look like someone who hasn't eaten right for a space now.
Hell, they all are.
"You can think here. It isn't safe. What if –"
Yeah. What if. What if Reavers find him? They've got to be hungry these days, what with their prey mostly gone. Or what if the engine fails? Or what if he hits something out here – some kind of anomaly like Wash is always swearing exists?
"What if what?" And maybe he yells that a little bit, but it isn't like he doesn't deserve a good yell. Running out of food, water, and no hope of finding replacements they're sure aren't contaminated somehow. "What if I die out here? I'm dying anyway!"
Simon gets that look on his face, the one that says he's fixing for a fight. The one that's earned him more than a few punches in the mouth. But when he opens his mouth, he doesn't speak. Mal watches as Simon coughs once, twice, his lips maybe just a little too red around the edges. Like maybe he's been biting at them. Eventually, he says, "Then why don't you die with us?"
Mal shakes his head, and makes the decision before he really thinks about it too much. "I'm going to Paquin."
It isn't some heroic thing to do, he doesn't want Simon to think that, though he doesn't have the words to say so right now. He doesn't got the words to say just how much he's got to get off the ship, away from them all, or else maybe he'll do something stupid.
If he's going to be acting stupid, he might as well do it this way. "I'll land. You keep in contact with me for a couple of days. Then maybe the rest of you can land, if it seems fine."
There's a long pause, and maybe Simon's waiting for something else. So he says, "You were right. We're—"
Almost at the same time, Simon says, "Don't do anything foolish."
Mal grins. "Can't promise that."
Paquin is quiet.
He steps off the shuttle. He landed on the edge of one of the larger ports. It's quiet as hell, and nothing about it is right. This port – it should be bustling. Living. Instead, he can hear the small sounds of animals, and not much besides.
Doesn't smell too bad. Bodies mostly aren't on the street; them that are lying around are way past the smelling-bad stage. Still, he doesn't get too close. Just wanders from alley to street to alley, trying to see what he can see.
He sees ships, some sitting, landed well. Others look like maybe, in the last few minutes before landfall, control got lost. Smashed up ships here and there.
Smashed up stores, too. A few. Not as much as he figured – seems likely that folk would start to panic when a sickness starts. He'd thought there would be looting or somesuch. But there's hardly anything, and it doesn't sit well.
It doesn't sit well at all. Makes him wonder if it's the same on all the planets – things mostly looking like normal, except for the lack of folk talking and fighting and eating and screwing and causing trouble and laughing. The buildings and roads and shops and little food stalls, they're all just sitting there, waiting.
It's anticlimactic. Something deep inside him hoped landing here would give him answers or thoughts or something he could give to the others. Hope. Or no hope. Something concrete.
Instead, there's nothing. No real sign of too much gone wrong, other than a few bodies and smashed up property.
He's seen towns look worse, so much worse than this, and still the leavings had life around the edges. People poking through the rubble, already thinking on how to build it back up. Folk asking each other, voices muted, how best to get on to the next thing; or planning on what needs to be done to get the survivors through to the next crisis.
But there's none of that here. Looks like everything just stopped, quiet and sudden.
Doesn't even look like it has rained in an age. Paquin's always been dusty around the edges; muted and blurred a little when you step away from the city cores and the best tech. But now, the dust is worse. It coats the bright colours of tiny flags and lanterns, the gaudy signs and paintings on the side of walls.
The dust has just settled in, filling up the spaces where people should be. As he walks, he kicks it up, right and left. It sparkles in the sunshine; it's something of the world, something not of space and crew and the black.
He remembers River's babble about dirt, dirty, blood and bleeding. The girl never has made much sense, but she'd had a point about dirt. Dust, dirt, they coat everything, obscure the colours, the brightness. That's all they'll find on Paquin, on any planet. Dust, and memories, and the bits and pieces of people's lives tossed aside.
It settles on his boots, sometimes gets kicked up higher, tickling his throat as he breathes, making him want water. He coughs periodically, as he walks. Maybe a little louder than is strictly necessary, just to give himself something to hear.
And even through his coughing, Paquin is silent.
|Characters: Mal, crew. A touch
of Mal/Simon and Kaylee/Jayne, although I would consider this genfic
more than anything.
Summary: Paquin goes radio silent. Everything else follows.
Notes: I owe huge thanks to greenapricot and lyrstzha for beta reading, patience and general hand-holding! Thank you so much for the encouragement! All remaining errors are my own.