He'd been wrong, and he was man enough to admit it. There had been enough booze on the boat to get him drunk. Very drunk.

Not drunk enough.

Mal stretched the muscles of his legs as he sat on the floor of his quarters; he was getting soft. Was a time he had sat like this for hours, rocks and scrub branches biting into him, muscles cramping from their locked position. He hadn't moved, though. To move would have brought down a hellstorm on his people. You swallowed the pain and you saved your people. You always saved your people.

He held the bottle up and eyed the thin layer of liquid on the bottom. Good stuff. He wondered who Jayne had stolen it from. He knew that Jayne saw him find the stash; it was no surprise to either of them. There wasn't an inch of steel or space on this boat that he couldn't draw from memory or find in his sleep. If he ever slept anymore. He laughed and tilted the bottle but kept the flat of his tongue over the opening - just a taste. Gotta make it last. Jayne would get over it. They'd all get over it.

Ruttin' plague planet. Mal shuddered and without thought up-ended the bottle and drained the last of the booze into his mouth. He brought the bottle down and clutched it to him, his eyes, his mind back on the planet. Back with the dead.

They were all dead, everyone in that town. They may have been walking - them that still could - but each of 'em was dead. The ramp had been down and they'd already started unloading the cargo when the first of them approached, haltingly. Pleading. Help us. Help our children. Save us. From 20 feet away he could see the glassy eyes and the sores, smell the death on them. He knew this, seen it before. Gloman's Plague.

The doctor had started down the ramp, but Mal caught him up rough. The boy had fought him, but Mal had thrown him down behind him then drew his gun and fired enough shots into the dirt in front of the ramp to stop the townsfolk from coming any closer. The doctor had gotten up and was moving past him down the ramp again. Mal had clubbed him with the butt of his gun and he went down and stayed down this time.

He'd ordered his people back into the hold. Zoe and Jayne came to drag the doctor back - Zoe stone-faced, Jayne looking scared. The preacher lost his usual good sense and stood beside him to argue for mercy for the sick. Mal had swung his gun around so that it pointed towards the Shepherd's hip. The preacher was a fool for his God but he still could tell when a man was dead serious. He backed the hell off.

Zoe and Jayne dropped the doctor and hurried to shove the remaining crates off the side of the ramp while Mal stood guard and the townsfolk moaned and wept and held out their dying to him. Finally the crates were unloaded and Mal walked backwards up the ramp as it started to close. A scream and a curse stopped him in his tracks. One of the women broke from the crowd and with desperate speed ran toward the closing ramp, hand outstretched.

"Don't," muttered Mal to his empty room. "Don't!" He could still see her. She'd come on, equal parts fear and hope and hate in her eyes. Her hand reached out to touch the ship when she suddenly fell back, a bullet in her forehead. The ramp pitched upward; Mal never saw her fall.

There were a world of angry words after. The doctor and the preacher staked out their moral ground, all the while admitting that they could have done nothing to save the dying. The doc had all but called him a coward, and Mal had brought his arm back, happy to lash out at last. Zoe stepped in between them and icily faced down his accusers. River had pulled her brother away. The preacher had left, too, grim-faced. Mal had forced himself to saunter to the relative privacy of the back corridor and once there had shook himself out to try to get rid of the tension in his body. It was over. Behind them now. His people were safe.

He stretched himself again and the movement sent the empty bottle rolling onto the floor. It clinked up against the two other empties and then came to a stop. He looked at the pile and grimaced: he owed Wash, Jayne and Kaylee for this bender. Next landfall. He'd see to it. He rubbed his eyes wearily. But first he had to see to it that no one else stumbled into the plague town. He'd have Wash reroute a signal to warn other ships off and get a message out to the Feds. Like they'd do anything except quarantine the whole gorram planet, anyway. Still, best not to let it get out that they'd been there for however short a time.

He ratcheted himself to a standing position with the help of his hand on a chair. Not too wobbly. He pulled out the sink and threw cold water on his face until he started to sputter; he leaned on the sink and studied himself in the mirror. Steady eyes stared back, a little bloodshot but calm and decisive. He nodded to his reflection, then he looked around for a clean shirt before he went in search of Wash. A captain had his responsibilities after all.


Written 05/01/03

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