Author: selenite (with help from celticdragonfly)
Summary: The crew contemplates a business proposition.
Spoilers/Timeline: After Objects in Space
Disclaimer: Unauthorized use of Fox/Mutant Enemy characters and setting.
Ship of Gold
Mal grunted as he lowered his end of the crate onto the mule. When he and Jayne stepped clear Wash waved and drove onto the dock. Zoe came up the ramp and smiled as he went by. "One piece of mail, sir. From Petaline."
"I hope they’re not inviting us to another gunfight." He opened it and read it out loud. "'Dear Captain Reynolds, there is a business opportunity here that could be very profitable to you. Please come speak to me about it at your earliest convenience.' Well, well, another job when we’d just finished this one."
"That’s pretty vague, sir. Could be another gunfight after all."
"Can’t hurt to talk to her about it. That was the last crate, so as soon as Wash gets back we can head for Burgess Moon."
Serenity touched down on the marks from her last visit. By the time the ramp was down Petaline was walking toward the ship. "Thanks for coming by, Captain. I know we’re a bit out of your usual way."
"Oh, we’ll go real far if there’s a job to be had." Mal looked a bit awkward about dealing with her. "How’s your boy?"
"He’s growing like a weed. Having a nap now so it’s a good time for us to talk." She looked up into the hold. "I never got a good look at your ship last time you were here."
"Well, we were pretty busy. Would you like a tour?"
"I’d be delighted."
Mal led her up the ramp. "Here’s the hold. Where we put the cargo." He headed toward the back hatch.
Petaline stopped in the middle and turned around to look at the whole volume. "It’s bigger than I’d expected."
"Well, a wheat hauler needs a lot of room. We concentrate more on small, high-value stuff, so it’s more than we need. We’ve got our own infirmary so we can take good care of the passengers."
The tour finished in the viewing lounge before the cockpit. They spent a moment admiring the view of the Heart of Gold before Mal asked, "So you haven’t said what this profitable opportunity here is."
"There’s not much profit here any more. Burgess’s offworld friends have shut down our trade. There’s no money coming into the moon at all, and most of the ones with money are using it to leave. We’re doing okay, barter works fine for our business, but we can’t get anywhere that way. Let’s go back to the hold." She led him down hall to the stairs.
When they stepped onto the top-level catwalk she rested her elbows on the railing. "Rance Burgess wasn’t anyone I’m gonna miss, Captain Reynolds, but none of the other men here are doing a damn thing to keep the place running. Business is gone to hell. Anybody with credits is getting the hell off the moon. Our trade isn’t doing too well either. We’re not going hungry—a man will find something we need if he wants to barter—but I want to give those girls a better life, not just hang on by a thread."
"I thought Nandi and the rest of you never wanted to leave the Heart of Gold."
"Nandi loved that house. But I love the girls, and I’ll find them a better house someplace else if I can."
"So you want a lift to someplace else? That’s not a problem. All of you at once would overflow the passenger cabins, but we can set up a few cots in the hold."
"No, I’m thinking something more than a few cots." She looked at where the catwalk bolted to the wall. "What do you do with these things if you get a really big cargo in?"
"The catwalks? We can unbolt them, take them down and stack cargo where they are now. If we really filled the hold we’d have to use the aft stairs for everything. But we’ve never carried something that big the whole time I’ve owned Serenity. What do you want to bring along? Part of the house?"
"That’s getting closer. No, what I’m thinking is setting up some rooms in the hold, not just cots. There’s enough room in here to build a three-story house, and that’s just what I’d like to do. Get some lumber, pull the furniture out of Heart of Gold, and we could build some rooms in here. A lobby, rooms for each of the girls, and some more working rooms. Not big rooms, but we don’t need much elbow room in our line. We’ve got enough cash saved up to get it done right."
Mal stared at her, clearly thrown for a loop. "So you don’t want a ride, you want to work on Serenity? Why not pick a world with money and get a house there?"
"Worlds with money already have all the whores they need. Ones with lots of money have registered Companions and Alliance officers eliminating their competition in the name of health regulations." She saw he still didn’t get it. "There’s a lot of worlds with lonely men on them. Miners. Terraformers. Prospector camps. They’re not pulling in enough money for a whore to survive there. But once a year? Four times a year? They’ve got enough money for a party, and they’ll give it to anyone who makes them happy. We can go from one world to another, make more in a night than we would in a month in a house, and never be trapped in some evil man’s private theme park. We’d be free." She stopped, turned off the glow in her face, and put the cool businesswoman expression back on. Mal understood now. "Oh, and we’d all make a lot of money. Probably more than you ever have running cargo in this ship."
"Huh. Not sure what taking money for running a whorehouse would make me."
"It’d make you . . . comfortable. Think about it—when you pay your crew, wouldn’t you like to give them some more? You can probably pay them a lot more working with us." Mal’s face twisted and he looked down into the hold. The profit from the last job had gone for fuel, and food, and a spare part Kaylee insisted she needed Right Now. It’d been more than a month since he’d handed cash to any of the crew. "We’d be putting more money into the ship, too. Making everything nice and shiny."
"How many whores are we talking about?"
"Eighteen. Plus three children, and a laundress."
"That’s more than our life-support can handle long-term. We’d need some upgrades. That’ll take cash up front."
"We’re prepared to invest in your ship. We’re all putting our savings in to this. And before we trust our lives to your ship we want to make sure it’s in the best of shape. Plus . . . you might want to add some things to make it a little easier to do the job."
"Doesn’t sound like a hard job. Go to the next place, loaf while you work, then another easy flight."
"Ah. I should warn you. The Alliance has a number of regulations on health issues to keep whores under control. And they don’t like it when we travel. Companions can go as they please, but whores are supposed to stay put. So avoiding patrols and looking like something we ain’t would be a good thing." She paused. "Inara said you might be good at that."
"Avoiding the Alliance is one thing we like to do. But a traveling whorehouse is still a lot higher profile than our usual work."
"Could be a lot higher paid too. Here’s some numbers you might want to take a look at." She handed him a data stick. "Now, do you still have that doctor hanging around? I’d like him to take a look at Jonah and make sure he’s all right."
"I haven’t spent much time in pediatrics but he seems to be fine." Simon wrestled the stethoscope out of the baby’s grasp and stepped back. Petaline scooped Jonah up before he could wiggle off the table and sat down in a rocker for a cuddle with him.
"Thank you, doctor. It’s nice to have a professional helping us out." She beamed at him.
Simon’s assurance fell away as he went from doctor at work to man not sure of her intent. "I’m just glad I can be useful. Serenity has a healthy crew, they don’t need me that often unless someone gets, um, unless there’s an accident."
"Well, if the captain accepts my offer there’ll be a lot more work for you. And we’ll be much better taken care of than we are now."
"Offer?" She explained the plan she’d pitched to Mal.
"That’s . . . quite a change from what we’ve been doing."
"More than pocket change, I’d think. You’d be looking at twice the pay you get now, maybe more." He’d been getting paid more in secrecy than in cash. Petaline saw she’d said something wrong. Simon’s gut reaction was fear. Petaline wanted to bring strangers onto the ship by the score, any one of whom could inform on River.
She kept pressing him, trying to find his buttons. "Most of the places we’d be stopping don’t have a doctor at all. You could be a real help to the men there. You wouldn’t spend all your time looking after my girls and their little problems, there’s probably some real doctoring that needs to be done out there." That clearly made it worse. She paused to study him and think. "You and Inara never said anything about what your sister does on that ship. Is she just being a tourist?" He tried to keep a poker face but couldn’t pull it off. "So what’s her story?"
"We don’t have a story. We’re just trying to live quietly."
Now she had a good guess where to push. "Well, doctor, we do a lot of card playing here some nights. And I’ve learned if you want to hide a joker the best place is in the middle of a big deck of cards." That was enough for now. "Thanks for taking care of Jonah, doctor."
Simon smiled and bolted.
"Nine . . . huff . . . ten . . . huff . . . done." Book guided the bar onto the supports built into the weight bench. Jayne sat up and ran a towel over his face. "Damn, I keep thinking about what Mal said. Can you imagine getting paid to be in a whorehouse?"
"You think the Captain’ll still need you if he takes them on?" The preacher kept his amusement down to a small smile.
"Well, Mal or Petaline, don't make no difference to me, somebody’s gotta keep the johns in line. I'd be a good bouncer – bounce any gorram troublemakers on their head. You might like it too, preacher. You can set up a tent outside. Catch ‘em on the way out, pass a collection plate while they're feelin' relaxed."
"Not that I have any personal experience, but I understand that kind of establishment doesn’t let the guards enjoy their main service. Seems to breed friction among the staff. So to speak."
"You mean bouncers have to be there with the girls all the time and not get any?" Book nodded. "Gorram it, no wonder they always seem so ruttin' cranky. Jien tah-duh guay, what use is it gettin' paid regular if you can't spend it. Still, probably a good deal for you. Not like you’d care about the girls."
"Don’t think I’d like making a lot of scheduled appearances, actually."
"Yeah? I know you’re not hiding from the Alliance, who are you hiding from?"
"Oh, nobody’s looking for me. But there’s some I wouldn’t want to run into by accident."
Wash locked the door and came down the ladder. Zoe waved him into the bed beside her and he snuggled up to her. "You’re awfully calm about that proposition," he said.
"Guess I am. Could be a good deal."
"Okay, I’m surprised. I figured the last thing you’d want is a bunch of whores hanging around your husband."
"Baby, if Saffron can’t hurt our marriage those little girls can’t do a thing. No, I think it might be a good idea."
"Okay, I can see the money would be good. Lots less getting shot at. And we might get to a higher class of place sometime. I guess what I can’t see is . . . . Look, Mal keeps captaining, I keep flying, and Jayne can keep breaking heads. So we’ve all got jobs in that set-up. But you, you’re Mal’s back-up, you’re the smart gun . . . what are you going to do?" Long pause.
"Petaline’s got that baby. I think one of the others has a couple of kids too. Can’t just let ‘em run loose on board, they’ll chew through a wire and get us all killed. So somebody’s gotta keep an eye on them, run a nursery. I think I’d like doing that." Pause. "Especially if I’ve got a baby in there too."
"Wu de tyen ah!"
"Or if you don’t like that, we see what the take is, maybe you’ll get enough to support a family and I can just quit my job."
"And have a baby."
"Have a baby, on a ship that’s damned near killed us all before, surrounded by whores?"
"Life support capacity?" Kaylee asked.
"We’re looking at about two or three times as many people as we carry now, permanently. Can Serenity handle that?"
"For a few weeks, yeah, but if we’re going to go longer than that we’ll need some more blowers, water recyclers, CO2 crackers, all sorts of stuff."
"Well, make up a list. And make up a list of the other parts and repairs you’d want while you’re at it. Petaline is talking about a big first payment and I want to make sure Serenity gets what she needs, dong ma?"
Mal waits for her to say more. "I thought you’d be happier about getting to tune her up."
"Well, I am."
"It’s . . . we love Serenity. We all love Serenity, and that makes us a family. Now we’d be getting all these strangers on board, and are they going to care about her? And they’ll be bringing more strangers on board all the time. They’ll make Serenity so crowded there won’t be room for us to be family."
Mal stared at the engine. "I know. Haven’t made up my mind. But a family needs to eat."
Mal wasn’t in the dining room, so Simon kept walking toward the cockpit. The captain was sitting forward of the controls, looking out at the Heart of Gold and the surrounding plain. He wasn’t sure how to open the conversation. Talking to River hadn’t helped him get his thoughts in order, more the reverse. Best just to jump in. "Petaline thinks River and I can hide better in the middle of her girls than by keeping a low profile."
"She might have a point. Any feds boarding us would be too busy handing out tickets for morals and health violations to bother digging any deeper."
"I’m not sure that’s a safe bet."
"If I take this deal, I could pay you a salary instead of just room, board, and a hiding spot. Might be a job in it for River, too, cooking or cleaning or whatever."
"That’s tempting. We’re not used to being poor. But . . ." Pause. "I think I’d rather have the hiding spot."
"Fair enough." They fell silent. After a few moments Simon walked away. Mal kept looking out the window.
"You wanted to see me, captain?" asked Wash, settling into his cockpit chair.
"Yeah. Petaline was talking about Alliance health regulations being the tough part of this traveling whorehouse deal. Did they cover those regs in pilot school?"
"Not that part of them . . . but I’ve got the current version in the cortex. Gimme a minute." Mal kept looking out the window while Wash fiddled with his console. "Okay, there’s nothing specific on whores. But there’s a rule about ‘transporting disease vectors.’ Usually that’s infected cattle or whatever, but if Petaline’s girls pick up a bug and the Alliance gives us a ‘health and safety’ inspection they could get us."
"What’s the penalty?"
"Um, 1500 credits for a first offense, a rutting huge fine for second offense, and third offense they confiscate the ship and put the captain in jail for a year."
"So I’d need the doctor to keep me out of jail? There’s a switch. Can you keep us away from the Alliance? Not like we’ve been checked much before."
"Staying off the main routes, keeping a low profile, no problem. But . . ." Wash suddenly looked very conflicted.
"Well . . . we’re going to get a reputation. Word’s going to get out whenever we arrive and leave. If the Alliance decides they want to find us they’ll just follow the glowing arrows pointing our way."
"So we gotta keep the girls clean. Petaline oughta know a few things about that."
"And we gotta make the Alliance give honest tests." Wash flinched a bit after admitting that.
"Yeah, that’s the tough part." Mal turned back to the window. "Thanks, Wash. I think that’s what I needed to know."
Petaline cast a long shadow coming through the airlock. "Is Captain Reynolds around?" she asked.
Kaylee looked up from the power conduit she was splicing. "Probably in the dining room," she said, pointing at the stairs. The madam started up them. After a minute Kaylee followed.
Mal was picking at his plate, alone at the end of the table. The rest of the crew was cooking or flopped in the lounge, staying clear of Mal’s snarl. Petaline had everyone’s attention the moment she walked in. Mal met her eye but didn’t say anything. "So, have you made up your mind yet?" she asked.
"Yes," Mal said. Behind him on the lounge couch, Zoe squeezed Wash’s hand. "We’ll give you a lift to anywhere you want, but we’re not changing Serenity into something she’s not." Wash put an arm around her. "We want to find our way, be free to go wherever we want. We can’t do that if we’re locked into a round of visiting mining camps every payday."
"I’m not surprised. Seeing how scared you were to have one woman close to you I didn’t think you’d take in a dozen. But if you see another ship looking for work, you might want to send them my way."
"I’ll do that. Jayne, show her out and get the airlock sealed for takeoff. Wash, head us back to the trade station. Oughta be a job for us there."