I wrote this story during the brief tenure of "Firefly" on broadcast television; I wrote it during the period between the airings of "Ariel" and "War Stories", so it doesn't really fit into the canon as it has developed. But it still says some worthwhile things, things that are relevant to the events on the Gulf Coast.
One other comment: Shortly after I wrote this, I posted it to one of the "Firefly" communities I was active in at the time, and it got me a "Thank you" from a woman who had been a surgical nurse in Kuwait during Desert Storm (Remember when other countries used to actually INVITE the US military to get involved?). That was one my best moments as a writer, ever.
Simon stepped off of the dusty street into the shop marked with a caduceus, and waited for his eyes to adapt to the dimness.
“Can I help you, son?” came a voice from the back of the shop. The voice was female, a bit lower than average, and just beginning to show traces of age.
Simon continued blinking. “My ship just landed. I was wondering how you were fixed for antibiotics and painkillers.”
“Somebody sick? I can probably spare a little.” The speaker materialized out of the gloom; she was a bit taller than average, broadly built but not overweight; her long gray hair was tied back in a tail to which brushes were a purely theoretical concept.
“No, I am just trying to make sure I have staples. You never know what you might need,” Simon answered. There was something about the woman's eyes that reminded him of Mal, or Zoe, or Jayne. Killer's eyes.
"Can't help you, then,” the woman said. “My people are at least as likely to need it as your people.”
Simon nodded and took a deep breath. He hated this part. “In that case, would you be interested in buying any?” The woman crooked her head to one side, then smiled and beckoned Simon closer. Simon took three vials out of his bag with one hand and set them on the counter; the woman picked one up and examined it.
“Saint Lucy's Hospital, on Ariel,” the woman said quietly. Simon glanced quickly to the door as his hand reached to recover the two vials still on the counter; he found his wrist clamped in the woman's hand. “You're Simon Tam, aren't you?”
Simon's brain screamed. That didn't stop his free hand from dropping into his shoulder bag, clawing for the revolver that Mal had insisted he bring along.
“Relax, Doctor,” the woman was saying. “Things aren't nearly as bad as all that. You still practicing medicine?”
Simon froze. Something was making no sense at all, and he had to figure it out. “Yes,” he said cautiously. “Whenever I can, anyway.” The woman released his wrist.
“You do realize that this is going to hurt your selling price, though, don't you?” The woman was smiling at him; there was a gun in her off hand. Simon simply stared at her in bewilderment. She indicated Simon's bag. “Let's see what you have there, shall we? Slowly, one piece at a time.”
Simon did as he was told; the woman sorted the vials into three groups. “I reckon I can put together about one fifty in platinum. That should buy me these.” Simon looked at the collection and nodded; the woman knew her street prices. She indicated a second, nearly identical group. “And you are going to give me these, because I'm a nice person, and I haven't turned you in. And you are going to keep the rest...” She indicated the largest group. “...Because if I took any more, I would be robbing you, and I don't want to do that.”
Simon blinked. It seemed the only thing to do.
“The problem is, I don't keep my life's savings ready to hand, so you are going to have to sit here for about half an hour while I get my money together. Understood?”
Simon didn't even blink; he just stared.
“And the reason you are going to sit here, and not try to do anything funny, is...” She took the revolver from Simon's bag, unloaded it, set the cartridges on the counter with the largest group of drug vials, handed the gun back to him, and took a deep breath.
“Once upon a time I was Major Abigail Zhang, R.N., Alliance of United Planets. I was working at a field hospital during the battle of Serenity Valley; I was supposed to be a scrub nurse, but they found out I had a talent for doing triage. Talent. Right. I had the training to determine what was wrong from a cursory examination, the experience to make good guesses as to how long it would take to fix, and the cold bloodedness to do the job right. You do KNOW what 'triage' means, don't you?”
Simon answered. “It means prioritizing patients by urgency to make the best use of resources.”
Abigail smiled coldly at that. “At a civilian hospital, maybe. In a military situation, when you are completely and utterly swamped, it means ignoring the fellow who will take two hours to save in favor of treating two fellows who will take an hour each. And that was what I did. 'You! You'll recover; get out of here! You, stand by. You... We could fix you, if we had the time, but we don't have time, so you're dead. Sorry'”.
She looked straight at Simon. “I don't know how many times I looked at a living, breathing, human being and pronounced a death sentence; more than a thousand, certainly. But I am never going to do it again if I can help it. And beyond that... You're going to end up owing a lot of people, Simon. And from now on, I'm one of them. There is now one more doctor loose in the universe than there would have been if I had turned you in, so from now on, you're helping me pay back those thousand ghosts. Is that understood?” Simon nodded. ”I'll be back with the money in a little while.”
Simon nodded again. While she was gone, he went through the drugs he was taking back with him and added one vial of each item he had to the collection he was selling, reloaded the revolver, and sat down to wait.
They chided him, later, when he was back on Serenity, for his ineptitude as a black marketeer. Later still, Kaylee found him sitting in the dark, staring out of one of the windows into the black, and asked him what was on his mind.
“Care for a koan, Kaylee?” he asked her. “How much do a thousand ghosts weigh?”
Kaylee stared at him, not sure if she should be alarmed or just confused. Finally she said, “I have no idea.”
“All there is,” Simon answered. “A thousand ghosts weigh all there is.”