Children of Prometheus
"I still don't think it's a good idea." Mal pinched the bridge of his nose and leaned back to sit on one of the control panels. It probably wasn't the best thing to use as a seat, but since the ship didn't explode and nothing important seemed to have fallen off, he reckoned it would be all right.
"Look, Zoë, I know last time we took on passengers our lives got all manner of exciting, but we ain't really got a choice at this juncture. We don't earn some serious credit soon, we don't keep Serenity in the air."
"I understand that, captain."
"Then what's the-" Zoë folded her arms resolutely across her chest, and stared directly into his eyes.
"Necessity don't make it a good plan, captain." Mal sighed.
"Don't I know it. I'd gladly pass Natoli by and keep the boat free of meddlesome tourists. But that ain't an option anymore."
"How many you reckon we'll be taking aboard?"
"Well," he counted off his fingers as he spoke, "We got three rooms down by where the doc and River sleep. Depending on what manner of folk we get-"
"Whispers…" River's head remained bowed over the control panel as she spoke. Long, dark hair made a curtain in front of her face. "I hear whispers." Mal looked over in surprise from the back of the bridge where he had been holding his conversation with Zoë.
"Didn't mean to distract you from your pilot-y duties. We could-" He was cut off by a loud beep. "Oh. That kind of whispers."
"We're being hailed, sir," Zoë strode over to the console. Mal followed close behind. He frowned at the console.
"Who'd be hailing us? We've never so much as set down on this planet before." He glanced at Zoë for confirmation. She shook her head and looked down at the data readout.
"It's on a beta frequency. That's a personal device."
"Well, this just keeps getting more and more curious," Mal drew even with her. "Open the link." Zoë nodded and reached to obey, but River cut her off. Thin, pale fingers flew over the controls, fluttering and tapping. The screen wavered with static for a few more seconds before an image began to slowly appear. It was a young man with a mop of honey-colored curls.
"Firefly Serenity? It's good to reach you. I have a proposition for you." Mal crossed her arms and raised his eyebrows.
"And what type of proposition might that be?"
"I'm interested in joining your crew, Captain Reynolds."
"Oh?" That was not what Mal had expected. A business deal, maybe. His reputation had been known to proceed him. But this? "Not to be blunt, boy, but would you happen to have any manner of skill that would be useful to me?" The man smiled and glanced off-screen for a moment before directing his attention back to Mal.
"Of course. I'm a cook, sir."
"A cook?" Kaylee stepped onto the bridge, wiping oil off her hands and onto her coveralls. "We were always talking 'bout getting a cook, cap'n."
"Hush," Mal shushed the mechanic and turned back to the screen. "Got a name, age and price on you?"
"Lang. Kenneth Lang. Twenty-three years old, and I'd be happy to cook two solid meals everyday for 200 credits a month."
"200 creds?" Zoë frowned. "Ain't worth it, captain."
"Not true," Kaylee protested, "200 creds for real, good food? Not the protein go se we're stuck with for most of our lives? It's a steal, cap'n."
"You kiss your doctor with that mouth?" Mal arched his eyebrows at her, then turned back to Kenneth. "You willing to give us a demonstration of your talents? You know, get a little taste of what we'd be getting for our money?" Kaylee smiled in triumph and skipped off the bridge, presumably to spread the news.
"Of course, sir. Do you have your docking coordinates set?"
"Do I…?" Mal glanced over at River. She nodded. "It would appear we do. We'll transfer them to you. We should be touching down in around two hours." Kenneth nodded, eyes scanning something slightly off-screen, mostly likely the coordinates River had just sent.
"I'll meet you there."
"See you in the world." The link closed and the screen flickered back to its usual staticky state. Zoë turned on Mal, tension etched into her features. It seemed that only her soldier's training prevented her from showing her full displeasure at the situation.
"Quite a change of heart you've had, captain. It's a big leap from reluctantly taking on passengers to hiring a crewman."
"Well, Lil' Kaylee is right. We have had discussions in the way of getting a cook before. Would take a load off her mind, at least. And anyway," he grinned, "even if we don't hire him…that's a free lunch I just got for us." Zoë regarded him for a few moments before exiting the bridge. She paused as she reached the door, resting a hand on the frame, and glanced back.
"There's an old saying I feel fits this situation pretty well, captain. 'There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.'"
Kaylee sat and twirled her parasol absentmindedly. She licked her lips in anticipation. In addition to trying to attract passengers, she had been given the exciting task of waiting for Mr. Kenneth Lang. She hoped dearly that he would prove to be worth his price. She got so sick of the same old meals over and over for the weeks they were between worlds. She always tried her best to make things taste good, and to improvise something that could possibly be called a "dish." But it was hard, and she was no great hand at cooking, even with normal food. It would be so nice to have real food, or at least protein made enough like real food that you could pretend it was.
Natoli was quite a metropolis. It was one of the planets on the border of the glimmering Central Planets and the dusty outliers. Because of its location, it was a jumping point for all manner of travelers. Just sitting and watching from the ship, Kaylee saw more kinds of people than most folks saw in their lifetime. Three women in black glided along with unstudied, accidental grace, the airy fabric floating out behind them. A man with shining golden jewelry dangling from every visible anchor was having a heated discussion with another man shrouded in a brilliantly violet robe; his only visible feature were his rapidly moving lips. A man and a woman, both with shining shaved heads, were purchasing steaming cartons of rice with vegetables from a rather burly woman who looked like she could have been a relative of Jayne's.
"Excuse me, miss." Snapped out of her people-watching reverie, Kaylee nearly dropped her parasol. Standing on the ground next to the cargo ramp was, if her memory of the blurry transmission was correct, their (hopefully) future cook.
"Oh, hello there," she gave him her friendliest smile. "Ken, right? I'm Kaylee."
"Yes. Permission to board?" He gave her a lopsided, puppy-dog grin and she held out a hand to help steady him as he climbed onto the ramp. The large bag slung over his shoulder seemed to be negatively affecting his balance. She watched as he walked into the cargo bay, looking around. He wasn't very tall, and he was strangely skinny for cook, as far as she knew at least. His arms were long and a little awkward; his hands seemed a bit too large for the rest of him. He was, undoubtedly, pretty like Simon. He had a small, perky nose and bright hazel eyes. His hair curled softly around his face, the honey-gold color giving it the look of a halo. The only discrepancy in his otherwise neatly formed face was his mouth. Closed, it was the small bow that belonged on his face, but when he opened it, it stretched across his face, looking decidedly out of place. Overall, he reminded her of a puppy: young and slightly disproportionate, but sweet and well-meaning.
He wandered around, observing the large room, before turning around.
"I have no clue where I'm going."
"Right, sorry. So happy to meet a new person, I got all distracted." Kaylee hurried in front of him to lead him. She started climbing the stairs, and heard him tramping along after her, reinforcing her gangly puppy dog image of him. They reached the kitchen in a few moments. Simon and Jayne were already there. Simon was looking over a news scan, trying (and failing) to ignore Jayne, who was whistling loudly and off-pitch to himself and the room at large while he flipped through an "old-fashioned" dirty magazine he had bought a few stops back. Simon glanced up as soon as they entered, happy to have something to get his mind off of the "music."
"Kaylee." He blushed slightly as he said her name, a habit that stalwartly refused to be broken. She had to admit to finding it both exasperating and adorable.
"Simon, Jayne, this is Ken. Ken, Simon is our resident doctor, and this is Jayne, our…Jayne." Kenneth nodded eagerly to both of the men.
"Pleased to meet you."
"And myself," Simon nodded with sophistication, obviously thrilled to have someone to be sophisticated around. Jayne only grunted, never taking his eyes off what had quickly become one of his favorite possessions, second only to Vera. Kenneth shifted slightly, resettling the weight of his bag, then glanced at Kaylee.
"Should I get started, or…?" He trailed off, and Kaylee nodded.
"You go right ahead and make yourself at home. I'll let the cap'n know you're on board." She was gone in a flash, leaving the men alone. Ken watched after her for a moment, then let his bag slide off his shoulder. He hefted it onto the counter and began to unload various utensils.
"Kaylee seems like quite a girl."
"She is." Simon sounded a little defensive, and a little breathless. Kenneth inspected a spoon and nodded to himself.
"Yeah, if she wasn't spoken for, I might be tempted to do some speaking myself." Simon nodded absentmindedly before stopping.
"What? How do you know-" Jayne cut him off with a scoff.
"Maybe it has somethin' to do with how you pink like a little girl whenever she's around." He glanced up from his magazine for the first time to make eye contact with Ken. "You woulda thinked that once they started sexing, he would quit it, but it don't seem to have helped none." Simon, who was now a brilliant shade of pink, spluttered incomprehensibly, but Jayne just continued. "It ain't like she's anything out of the ordinary. She's cute, sure as hell, but she's nothin' compared to some of these fine ladies. Take," he flipped through the glossy, dog-eared pages until he reached a particular photo and grinned widely, "take this harpy."
He offered the page to Simon, who, still in shock over the whole thing, made the mistake of glancing at it.
"Oh god! I don't want to see that! That, that's, it, that, that cannot be comfortable!" He finally managed to spit out. Jayne shrugged and settled back down. Simon put his head in his hands and rubbed his eyes, as though hoping to scrub the image from them. Kenneth laughed to himself and, finished with his unpacking, started to prepare the meal.
When Mal finally reached the kitchen, Kenneth was just finishing. The delicious smells of cooking vegetables and chicken had permeated throughout Serenity. Mal walked in, and everyone looked up. The entire crew was there, save Zoë. Kaylee sat next to Simon, hand just barely touching his arm. Jayne was still gawking at his precious magazine while River, unnoticed as of yet, was perched on the back of the chair next to him, looking curiously down at his magazine with a thoughtful expression. Kenneth started scooping steaming spoonfuls into the bowls he had ready. He looked up at Mal and smiled.
"Hello, captain. You're just in time."
"Seems so. Simon, I'd look to your sister." Simon looked up in surprise, quickly followed by horror when he realized just what she was looking at.
"River! Don't look at that!" River looked up and smiled benignly at him.
"It's very interesting."
"No, no it's not," Simon shook his head, highly dismayed and leaning towards hysterical. Kaylee patted his arm soothingly.
"There, there. She's well old enough to know what men are thinking about, wouldn't you say?" It was clear from Simon's thunderstruck expression that he most certainly would not say, but he seemed at a loss for words. Ken offered a bowl to Mal.
"First taste for the captain?"
"I'm sorely tempted, but I've got some goods to pick up, and this fine meal looks like it may take a bit of time. Save me some." Jayne scoffed, and Mal's attention focused on him, eyes glinting. "You can help."
"Aw, Mal," Jayne wrinkled his nose and pushed back in his chair. "Why do I always have to go?" The room's focus was on Jayne, and River took the opportunity to pull the forgotten magazine into her lap.
"Because I'm the captain, and I say so. Now get a move on, and we may be back before everything's gone." Jayne grumbled mightily, but he rose and shuffled off to strap on some extra weaponry. Ken watched him leave with wide eyes, then his face crinkled into a bright smile. He set a bowl down in front of Simon and Kaylee, then returned to fetch one for River.
"Enjoy." River set her stolen magazine aside and peered into the bowl, her nose almost touching the steaming food. Kaylee raised her chopsticks, but Simon hesitated.
"Should we wait for Zoë?"
"I don't think Zoë will be coming down." Kaylee tried to sound as diplomatic as possible, but Simon still looked at her quizzically. Ken looked between them, and offered his own question.
"Zoë? You have another crewmember?"
"Our first mate," Kaylee nodded. "You'll probably meet her later." Ken nodded to himself, then wandered back to the kitchen area to get himself a helping. River poked her tongue out experimentally to taste a bit of onion.
"Why wouldn't Zoë come down? Doesn't she want to-"
"You know Zoë's got special circumstances just now, Simon." Simon blinked a few times and frowned.
"I suppose I don't see the connection between this and…" He trailed off, not sure if he should reveal their recent tragedy in front of Ken, basically a stranger. It felt like invading Zoë's privacy somehow. Kaylee shrugged.
"I reckon it's not much of a connection. She probably just feels like," she glanced at Ken, who was still occupied with scooping up some unruly peapods, and lowered her voice, "like we're replacing him. Getting a new crewman so soon. That we're filling his place."
"That's illogical." Kaylee looked down at the still steaming food and seized a piece of chicken with her chopsticks.
"You know, doc, sometimes, when you're in love, logic don't mean all that much." She took a bite out of the chicken and smiled. Simon felt the tips of his ears burning. River took one of her chopsticks and stabbed randomly at the bowl.
"Not going to work." The kitchen's other three occupants all looked at her in surprise.
"Is there something wrong?" Ken asked hesitantly.
"Oh! You haven't been introduced. This is my sister, River." River twirled her chopstick, chicken on the end wobbling dangerously.
"Resident loony-bird. Albatross, to be precise. Precision is a necessity in a world of mismatches and coordinates."
"It's a pleasure to meet you." River tore her gaze from her food and met his eyes.
"Wish I could say the same."
"River! I'm sorry, I don't know what's wrong with her. She's been improving so steadily…" Simon was flustered and obviously mortified by River's rudeness, but Kenneth showed remarkable poise.
"It's not a problem, don't worry about it. One of the girls who lived near me when I was growing up had some…troubles. It's tough to deal with."
"Still, I'm sorry. River is sorry too, aren't you River?" River gave her brother a flat look of disbelief.
"No." She drifted fluidly to her feet and left, taking the bowl and magazine with her.
Author's Note: I'm very sorry for the long wait. I had this chapter almost entirely written, when I lost steam and finally decided that I was moving the story too fast, and had to go back and rewrite the whole chapter. I'm happier with this one though, and I hope you are too. More chapters should be coming, but I want to take my time with this story, because I'm very fond of it.