I laid on my bunk, the fan blew the warm recycled air around the room. The onboard clocks had already auto-changed to match the Persephone Cortex signal. It was almost 8am. I stayed there, listening to the sounds of Serenity. From the bunk next door, I heard what must be Zoe moving around, Wash would have been on the bridge already what with the planet coming up soon. The only problem for a smuggler’s ship like ours, is that when you approach a core planet, you run the risk of a fed' patrol wanting to look you over and board you, or even worse, an Alliance patrol boat Captain being bored and deciding that he would annoy the pee goo off of you, and just detain you for trivial violations. Wash would have planned his approach to avoid as much fed patrolled space as possible.
I dressed. Lightweight canvas and leather combat boots that I had picked up years back, that had become so comfortable, they felt like slippers. Combat trousers that were so faded and worn, it was hard to tell that they were once camouflaged. T-shirt, shoulder holster with the revolver went under a warm weather jacket. Belt around my waist, the semi-auto pistol in its holster strapped to my right thigh. Razor sharp fighting knife in its sheath attached to the back of the belt sideways so I didn't sit on it. I did a couple of bends and twists, to make sure everything sat comfortable, and it did. Strange, the little habits that never left you. I learnt to do that back in my basic training. Something that didn't sit quite right now, would soon become mighty irritating within a short time span if aint checked. I grabbed my trusty old military cadet hat that I won in a card game, and had since become my lucky charm. I put my decoy wallet with wads of blank paper in it, into the inside pocket of the jacket. I attached the line from my belt to my real one, and slid that inside the double pocket of my trousers. Another bend and twist to make sure I was happy, then I climbed the ladder to head into the hallway.
The smell of cooking came from the kitchen, and sounds of laughter bounced down the hall.
“….so then he says ‘but if you knew THAT, why’n the hell’d you still kiss her?!?’…HAAHAHAAAHA, I almost wet myself when I saw the look on his face!
Mornin’ Taylor, coffee’s still hot on the pot if you’re wantin’ any.”
Jayne sat talking with Shepherd, Simon sat talking with River, who for some reason took one look at me and then walked out of the room. Slightly curious but not wanting to start the day off on bad karma, I didn't try to find out what could be wrong, if there was something wrong. Instead, I occupied myself making coffee while listing what I would need to get for the pantry and the chill room. By the time I was done, we were about an hour from landing, and the pace of everybody getting themselves ready for a speedy turn around quickened.
“This is the Captain, we should be hittin' the Eavesdown Docks in about an hour, and hittin' could be the word if Wash don’t manage to level us out... Soon as we dock, I want us all on our merry way, no dawdlin‘. Zoe, can you come to the bridge, everyone else…just sit tight till we’re down.”
From the seat in the lounge area in the kitchen, I watched the sky through the windows in the dome overhead change from black to red and yellow as we hit atmo’, and then to blue and white as we got closer to landing.
Within a few minutes, I saw ships of all sizes passing by, and then with a bump, we were docked.
Mal had been right. It was about ten to eleven in the morning. Wash was one hell of a pilot and navigator.
As soon as the ship’s engines were switched off, Zoe lowered the ramp, and the sights and smells of the Docks flowed into the cargo bay.
Somewhere, fresh meat was being grilled. The smell of spilt fuel added its sickly tang to the hundreds of smells that were as welcome to a crew that had been breathing recycled air for 3 weeks, as water would be to a desert planet.
“Ok, Wash, don’t forget, soon as she’s refuelled, you and Kaylee go scroungin'. Inara’ll be here by then too. Taylor, make your own way to Badger’s, no use advertising the fact you’re with us without any real need.
We'll meet back here by 5pm the latest, dong ma?”
It had been a long time since I had been here last. Little things had changed, but for the most part, it was still the same. My decoy wallet went missing within ten minutes of my walking into the crowds. I must have lost my touch as I didn’t even feel the pocket get dipped. Large screens advertised the latest Blue-Sun products. Stalls sold everything from cleaning products to books to pets to clothing. I wandered around the market in a bored manner to any casual on-lookers. I saw the point of contact between Badger’s henchmen and Mal, Zoe and Jayne. When they entered Badger’s little domain, I continued to mill around outside.
“TAYLOR ROBERTS! I thought that was you!”
I looked up at my name being shouted out, and saw a face from the past.
“Jimmy! You old go tsao de pee goo kisser! What’re you doin’ here? ‘Side from scarin’ the locals that is!?!
James Abraham had been on Monty’s crew with me, and had been one of the first to leave after Monty decided to call it quits. He had been a real good friend back then, and we always used to trade insults to cover the fact that we were good friends.
“Well, you know how it is, you niou se duh old fart, a man has to eat, an’ to do that you gotta work. Came here at Badger’s call, seems he’s got a job lined up for me an’ my crew, a real beaut too. Speakin’ of which, you on a ship yet?”
Some sixth sense told me that this was a time to be hedgy with the truth, and to ask questions…
“Nothin’ long term really, just headin’ from planet to planet for a while, not lookin’ for anythin’ permanent though. You got a crew an’ a job then? We didn’t hear much off’ve you when you left Monty’s. You got a ship too?”
One thing about Jimmy, was that he loved to talk. He never knew that was one of the reasons he never beat me at cards, I could always tell what he was thinking.
“…found me a crackin’ ship. Medium to long range transporter, triple engine, double wide cargo bay, space for a crew of 20, runnin’ with 14 at the mo’ though, an’ that’s just enough to be true. Had a wave off Badger a couple of days ago, seems he’s settin’ up a job with some dupe crew, an’ he wants us to be part of his ‘plan-B’…”
As he talked, I got the feeling at the back of my neck when I knew that something bad was brewing. Question was, how to get him to spill without being pushy? As it turned out, I didn’t need to worry, he was so eager to impress an old shipmate, he told me everything I needed to know, and all I had to do was nod and say ‘yeah’ and ‘uh-huh’ a few times.
Turned out that whatever job Badger wanted Mal to do, he was planning a double cross, and Mal was going to be the dupe.
By the time Jimmy had finished, I knew all I needed to know.
“Well Jim’ my xioa mei mei, I need to push off an’ buy my supplies. My current Captain’s a real slave driver an’ if I don’t get the supplies on time, chances’re I’ll be takin’ you up on the offer of a crew place cos he’ll have left without me.”
I made my excuses, and wandered off. I didn't head to the ship though, in case he watched me. Instead, I did like I was supposed to, and bought my list. Only problem was, I wasn't as good as haggling as River, and ended up paying the asking price for almost everything I needed.
I emptied the cart I had used to carry the goods back to Serenity in the cargo hold. Boxes of tinned meats, vegetables and fruits, powdered foods that just needed water, packets of freeze dried ready meals that tasted of nothing unless you flavour them. Fresh produce, frozen pastry. Spices and sauces to try and make the meals interesting. Ingredients to make fresh bread….
“Shepherd wasn’t lying when he said that you really were a good cook, if the contents of those boxes are indicators of what to expect. I must admit, it was with regret I learned I had missed out on some rather wondrous sounding meals…”
I turned to see where the unknown woman’s voice was coming from, and was stopped dead in my tracks. I had heard differing descriptions of Inara from the crew. Jayne’s had been vulgar as expected, Shepherd and Simon both agreed that she was extremely attractive. River’s had been confusing to say the least and Kaylee’s description made her sound like a goddess. Wash flat out refused to say anything, afraid Zoe may hear. And trying to get Zoe or Mal to talk about her was next to impossible apart from to say that she was ‘decent’.
The woman that stood before me on the walkway, was a picture of beauty. Long, almost black hair fell across her shoulders, which were golden brown, and she wore a loose fitting silk wrap that seemed to caress her body. If she wore makeup, then it was done to perfection, in the way that would take hours to achieve a look of not wearing any. As she walked down the stairway towards me, it was all I could do to shut my mouth and try and remember how to blink.
“…wadadya huh? Wondrous what?”
“You must be Taylor, Mal’s new crewman? I’m Inara Serra, the …”
I realised with embarrassment that I had said the word a little too forcefully.
“I was going to say the renter of his shuttle, but yes, I’m the Companion. Does that bother you?”
She wore a smile on her face and appeared at ease, but the look in her eyes told a different story…
“Wuh de tyen, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to come across as bein’ yu bun duh, you just took me a little by surprise is all. Your bein’ a Companion is no bother to me in the slightest, its just that I’ve never seen one look so…wah!”
The smile finally met her eyes, and I could sense her wariness of me evaporate like mist in the sun.
“So you have met members of the Guild before?”
“I once had the honour of contracting with one, and up until about 30 seconds ago, I thought that she was the most beautiful woman I had seen…oh tee wuh duh pee goo! Listen to me babblin’ like a schoolboy!
Yes, I’m Taylor Roberts, the new cook. And, as it appears, the ships idiot now too…”
Shepherd saved me from further embarrassment, and glad of his help, we carried everything I had bought up to the kitchen. Simon and River were there already, but as I walked in River walked out. I took my chance as we started to pack stuff away.
“Hey Doc’, can I ask , have I done somethin’ to upset River? She’s been avoidin’ me like I’ve a bad smell or somethin‘. Has she said anythin’ to you?”
“No, nothing, why?”
Before I could reply, the sound of Jayne echoed along the corridor.
“Oh, it don’t matter I s’pose, just that she seems to be avoidin’ me, an’ I dunno why. ‘Scuse me Doc, if the Cap’n is back, I need to speak to him. If you want, you can just leave the rest an' I’ll do it later.”
“It’s ok son, the Doctor and I will finish up here. You may need to re-organise a little, but we have it covered for now.”
With a nod of thanks to Shepherd, I went to break the news to Mal that whatever job he had been given by Badger, it was one that Badger had no intention of letting him collect on…