The Trial, Part 1a
Sixth story in a series that begins with A Lion's Mouth. This story follows Break Out.
Mal and the crew release some terraforming workers from slavery and transport them to Persephone. The slaves are free, the heroes get rewarded, and everyone lives happily ever after, right? Except this is Firefly, so here's what happens instead…
Mal is sanguine about the kind of reception Serenity will get on Persephone.
A/N: Rating: All my stories are PG to PG-13 to occasional R. You will not find detailed descriptions of blood, gore, and sex, but you will find situations appropriate for mature readers, innuendo, implication, and (gasp) swear words. This story is entirely PG.
Thanks to my sister for beta reading. Thanks to all the reviewers, both here and at Fireflyfans. Your input is a part of this story, too.
As Serenity neared Persephone, Zoe sought out Mal, and found him, as she knew she would, on the bridge, staring into the Black. With forty people aboard, it was the only place on the ship where he could distance himself from the crowd. She knew he was too agitated to take refuge in his bunk, and she knew his strained relationship with Inara made him not welcome in her shuttle at present. She brought the topic on the table directly. "You're worried about the kind of reception we're gonna get on Persephone," she stated.
"Well, actually, I'm sanguine," Mal countered.
Zoe was not fooled. "'Hopeful,' sir? Or 'bloody'?"
Mal shifted in the pilot's seat and sighed. One drawback to the close working relationship he had with Zoe was that he couldn't get away with such ambiguity—she knew what underlay his words. She wouldn't let him off until he had aired the root of his worry. He mulled over his thoughts for a moment, then began.
"When I was lyin' there in the infirmary," —talkin' to Shepherd Book—he almost said, then realized how crazy that sounded, and amended, "thinking on things Shepherd Book used to say—anyways, I just got this feeling, things may not go so smooth, this end."
"Like they did on the other end, sir?" Zoe said, drily.
"Still tweaking me on that, Zoe, and rightly so." Mal regretted more than ever that he'd put Zoe—and her baby—gah! A baby! on Serenity? (he shoved that thought aside for later consideration)—in harm's way during the slave break-out on 泥球 Ní Qiú. And also on 尘球 Chén Qiú. He had to do better by her. "That's why I want you, Simon, River, and Neumann to go with Inara in her shuttle when she breaks off from us in near orbit."
"Sir, I should stay with Serenity."
"Zoe, there's a risk of this going…not smooth."
"What makes you think so?"
"Can't say, exactly."
"You figure anyone will even notice our arrival, sir? Eavesdown Docks is a busy place."
"I waved the Society to Abolish Human Trafficking on Persephone," Mal told her. "They're sending a representative to meet us, a little reception committee to help the people get to the refugee shelter, and then get on their feet and on their way. We hand 'em off and they won't be our responsibility no more."
"Seems like a reasonable plan, sir. You'll need me to keep all those people organized, moving in the right direction."
She was right. Mal needed her aboard Serenity to keep things organized. He was sending River away, so he'd be landing the ship himself, and having Zoe in the cargo bay would keep things running smooth. Still, since his conversation with Book—his imagined conversation with Book, he corrected himself—he'd revised his assessment of the situation entirely. Getting the slaves off 泥球 Ní Qiú had been the easy part. Blue Sun had the resources to alert authorities on Persephone of an inbound Firefly carrying suspicious cargo, and he was going to have a devil of a time explaining the presence of thirty-two unofficial passengers, all of them without Ident Cards. Even though there was no way he could be accused of "stealing" slaves (not even Blue Sun could be brash enough to claim these people were property to be stolen), he was at the very least setting himself up for an unpleasant encounter with the Immigration Authority.
Which begged the very question of why there were even Immigration Authorities at all. It was just like Shepherd Book had said. There wasn't a good reason for all the tariff barriers and immigration restrictions between worlds, not really. It was all one happy gorram Alliance, weren't it? But Mal had noticed that since the War ended and all the planets had entered into a state of happy gorram Unification, trade and travel between worlds had become more restricted than ever. Sure, a body could travel easily from one world to another to go sight-seeing or visiting friends and relatives, but just try to settle down and get a job there and a whole crop of restrictions sprung up like weeds. Turned out you had to wade through mountains of red tape to apply for residency and work permits, and if you were caught workin' somewhere when you weren't allowed, 天上 帮助 你 tiānshàng bāngzhù nǐ.
There were exemptions for certain kinds of employment. Nurses, teachers, and certified childcare professionals were welcome everywhere. And people with jobs that involved interplanetary travel as a matter of course were exempt from having to seek work permits on every world they visited. Jobs like captaining or crewing a transport vessel, for example. But Mal and his crew were forbidden from seeking permanent employment on most worlds, and barred from settling anywhere but their home world unless they went through the process of applying for residency. Mal didn't have the option of working or living on his home world: Shadow was destroyed. It was one of the reasons Mal had taken to interplanetary transport as his job, after the War. And because of his status as a defeated Browncoat and Shadow exile, Mal was also denied permanent legal residency on any Core world, most Border worlds, and even a few Rim worlds as well. Good thing he liked flyin', 'cause his options for legal employment were few.
In any case, Mal's opinion was that the whole gorram system was designed to make it easier for the established players to control the movement of goods and workers from one world to another. Tariff barriers and restrictions squeezed hard on the smaller businesses that couldn't afford the full-time staff to deal with the paperwork, and ironically made it possible for people like him to make a living as a smuggler. And the Immigration Agencies sprung up to prevent people from going freely to where the jobs were, ensuring that the inequalities between the Core and Rim worlds were maintained. Not that Mal was prejudiced or anything, but the Immigration officers he had encountered could be blunt and brutal in the application of their power. They had a limited area of authority, and the people over whom they had jurisdiction were often the most helpless of all, people desperate for work, with very few options but to stay home in poverty, work illegally, or sell themselves into indenture. Desperation put those people into a position where they were vulnerable and had few legal rights, and the Immigration Authority was known to abuse its position. "I want you to stay safe," Mal said, lamely, to Zoe.
"I'm not a hothouse plant, sir. You're already sending away your pilot. You'll be landing the ship. So who will meet the reception committee? Jayne, your public relations man? He'll suspect an ambush, shoot first, then ask if they're the folks with the bus to the shelter." Mal had to smile at the picture she painted.
Zoe was still puzzled as to the nature of Mal's worries. "Just how dangerous you figure these abolitionists to be? I thought most of them subscribed to non-violence."
Mal was a bit taken by surprise by the turn Zoe's mind had taken, but, as usual, Zoe was right. Many of the Abolitionists were members of a religious organization that held very seriously to the principle of non-violence. Those people were the last ones to get involved with some kind of ambush. What they were doing dealing with a man like him, with his history of violence—. The Shepherd Book in his mind snorted. "History, my Aunt Fanny! Current events, is more like." Mal turned to Zoe with a look that held as much, or more, meaning than his words. "Terraforming company on 泥球 Ní Qiú may have tagged our ship as carrying illegal immigrants. I expect we might have a visit from Immigration soon as we hit the dirt." That was enough. Zoe would know what to do.
. . .
Mal knocked at the door to Inara's shuttle. "Inara, may I come in?"
He entered the shuttle anyway.
"I said no. What are you doing here?"
"I, uh…" Mal began in confusion, then he recalled that he had come on official business and said in his most captain-y voice, "I don't know what kind of reception we'll be getting planetside, and I wanted to advise to you separate early and break atmo independently of Serenity."
"I already planned to do that, to keep my appointments, Mal," Inara replied with some acerbity.
To Inara's surprise, Mal completely ignored the barb about her appointments. He clearly had something else on his mind, and he ploughed on. "I need to ask you a favor. You see, our cargo manifest don't exactly state that we've got thirty-two passengers aboard, and if it should happen that we meet up with a port inspector first thing, they'll probably want to detain everybody on board for questioning and that might could cause problems. I don't want to cause Dr Ip no extra grief, so I'm hopin' you'd be so gracious as to give him a lift in your shuttle. This ain't his problem."
"I could do that," Inara responded.
"Would you also take Simon and River?" Mal requested. "Simon's got his notice of rescindment in case of trouble, but it's best if those two just stay out of the way of trouble in the first place."
"Of course." There was an awkward pause. "Are you expecting trouble—" Inara began at the same time that Mal said, "I'm sorry I—"
They both stopped short, and there was another awkward pause while each waited for the other to complete the thought. Neither one did.
"Thanks for your help," Mal finally said, formal and distant. He turned and exited the shuttle.
. . .
Mal found Simon and River in the infirmary. "Doc, I'm sending you and River with Inara in her shuttle. Plan is to separate in near orbit and break atmo separately from Serenity. That way if anything goes wrong—"
"You're expecting something to go wrong?" Simon asked, his suspicions thoroughly aroused.
"A bolt out of the Blue," River said.
"Just ordinary precautions, Doc," Mal said, giving River a look. "If there's a trap, I don't want all of us walkin' into it. Leave our options open. So you two just lay low until you get the all-clear, then rejoin us later at Eavesdown Docks."
"Two lay low, blue steel shackles, waiting to bite you," River said cryptically. "Knight in shining armor caught in the purple sorcerer's net. Two by two, led off to limbo."
"Right. Exactly what I was sayin'," Mal replied, now made thoroughly uneasy by her words. "Now, Doc, I'm sending Neumann along with Inara. It's in his contract that he gets dropped off at Persephone. I just wanna be sure he's clear of this, in case—"
"There you are again," Simon interrupted. "Mal, you're worried about this going wrong, aren't you?"
"Just never tried my hand at human trafficking before, Doc," Mal replied, attempting to make a joke of it.
"Mr Houghton can be trusted," River stated with certainty.
"Is that so, Albatross? You had dealings with the Society to Abolish Human Trafficking before?"
"Others have made waves."
Mal eyed her sharply. He had learned that River's strange remarks often contained critical elements of sense, so he asked, "What kinda waves are you talking about, River? Who's sent a wave?"
"Blue is darkened on blueness, even where Persephone goes—to the sightless realm where darkness is awake upon the dark," River recited with the air one of quoting a poem.
Mal stared a moment. Girl had a thing about "blue" now, didn't she? "Now that is downright creepifying. You tryin' to boost my confidence, Albatross?" He didn't wait for an answer. "Now, Doc, am I gonna be able to count on you not strangling Neumann on the way dirtside?"
"I've worked out my differences with Dr Neumann," Simon answered. "Oh, and, Mal—thanks for the good advice. About Kaylee. About trusting. You should try it yourself."
"Didn't ask for your advice, Doc."
"It's your own advice. I'm just recommending you apply it to yourself as well."
. . .
Mal piloted Serenity into the berth at Eavesdown Docks. Systematically, he went through the shut down sequence, then joined Zoe, Jayne, and Kaylee in the cargo bay, where the excitement of the thirty-two "guests" was palpable. Zoe was doing a great job with crowd control. She'd tipped off Jayne that Mal expected some trouble, and he was prepared, standing alert by the airlock with an extra gun strapped on. Kaylee was spreading sunshine among the passengers. As soon as Mal appeared in the cargo bay, he was surrounded by his "guests," many of them eager to thank him, which made him more than a mite uncomfortable. They were not out of the woods yet. He hadn't seen anything from the bridge to make him suspect an ambush, had seen no evidence of Feds, Immigration Police or Port Control, but he also hadn't seen anything looking like the Abolitionists' reception committee or their transport. He knew that for the ex-slaves, the journey had just begun. The Abolitionists' shelter was just a temporary refuge. They still needed to find work, get back on their feet, and pull their lives together.
Mal lowered the ramp and looked around cautiously, hand near his weapon, ready for trouble. There didn't seem to be any, and that made him worried. Zoe and Jayne stood at the ready in back-up positions, awaiting his signal for the all-clear. Mal didn't see any trouble, but he didn't see Mr Houghton, his contact with the SAHT, or any reception committee. In fact, he didn't see any passers-by at all, and that's when he knew he was humped.
So it was no surprise when he saw the first Fed appear in his peripheral vision off to the right. And the left. And then another, and another. The surprise was that he was soon facing an entire squadron of well-armed, armored Feds, and behind them, even more goons in the uniform of the Immigration Authority. Though his hand had instinctively twitched for his gun at the first sight of a Fed, he knew this was no place for a gun battle and he raised his empty hands in evidence. "他们送我们之后全军 Tāmen song wǒmen zhīhòu quánjūn. How dangerous they think we are?" he muttered under his breath.
"Malcolm Reynolds?" demanded the Fed officer. Mal acknowledged his name. "You are bound by law for trafficking human beings across interplanetary borders, contrary to Union of Allied Planets law."
Mal's jaw dropped. How had Shepherd Book known? No wait, how had he himself known? This was not reasonable; this was his nightmare. He spoke up in his own defense. "I am not trafficking slaves, officer. These people are passengers. They are free to go wherever they please."
While Mal, Zoe, Jayne—and Kaylee—oh, 天啊 tiān ā, not Kaylee, too—were surrounded by the Federal officers, the Immigration Officers moved into the cargo bay and herded the passengers against the port bay wall. "Passengers," the Immigration Officer stated with ironic emphasis, "Please present your Ident Cards and papers for inspection and verification."
Of course, not a single one of the people from 泥球 Ní Qiú had an Ident Card to present. The Immigration Officers moved in gleefully, like a pack of wild dogs approaching a fresh kill. As Mal, Zoe, Jayne, and Kaylee were led off in handcuffs by the Feds, Mal heard the Immigration Officer say, "You will all be detained in custody at the Bureau of Immigration until you can present evidence of your identities and business on this planet. You may retain legal counsel…"
. . .
泥球 Ní Qiú [name of a world]
尘球 Chén Qiú [name of a world]
天上 帮助 你 tiānshàng bāngzhù nǐ [heaven help you]
他们送我们之后全军 Tāmen song wǒmen zhīhòu quánjūn [Sent the whole army after us]
天啊 tiān ā [god]
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