BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

SCREWTHEALLIANCE

Unfinished Business -- Chapter Eight
Saturday, November 4, 2006

River passes the time in a friendly game of cards. Mal considers his youth.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3134    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Unfinished Business

Chapter Eight

The Black Dog was a sturdy old freighter with a squarish body that could contain thrice the cargo of Serenity, and it squatted on the west side of the mesa like it was a natural feature of the landscape. The gray-green paint that had been applied so long ago was faded by countless atmo entries and hundreds of thousands of hours under the rays of a dozen suns. It was sturdy, of that there was no doubt. It was anything but graceful. It was also the designated site of a grand old tradition: the Rimworld Independent Pilot’s Association Biannual Reunion Poker Tournament. A hand-written sign on the hatchway advertised the fact, and reiterated that the event was for pilots only. River stared at it doubtfully and twisted her hair, debating whether or not to go in. “C’mon!” Rowan McKlintock insisted, pulling at her arm. “Uncle Devon is already inside. So’s about everyone else. We gotta go!” “I don’t actually have any piloting credentials,” River said, a little sulkily. “This is for real pilots.” “You take her up, you bring her down safe, you are a real pilot,” Rowan insisted rolling her eyes in teenaged frustration. “Hell, at least you’re the primary, and not a co-pilot. They won’t even let me sit in until the second round!” “Simon wouldn’t approve. Poker’s too easy, anyway,” River said. “I’m sure they—” “River Tam, quit bein’ so gorram humble an’ shy and get your ass in there!” Rowan urged, teenaged hyperbole coloring every syllable. “You’re a pilot, now. Only way you’re gonna get any respect is to go in there and let ‘em know who you are!” “Wash should really be the one—” “Wash ain’t Serenity’s pilot, no more, and that is a damn shame. But you are, an’ you got responsibilities. One of ‘em is to go lose some money to the older pilots an’ prove that you got the balls to swing a stick like any of ‘em. It’s your duty to your ship!” River still stared at the sign, fidgeting a little more than usual. She was about to turn and head back to the safety of her ship when another voice interrupted her thoughts. “There a problem, girls?” an older female voice asked. The two of them turned to face it, and saw a tall, lean-looking woman with ratty-looking long brown hair. She was wearing a pilot’s vest and a big handgun on her hip, and she carried a large jug of the local beer everyone was swilling down like the breath of life. “Miss Stiles!” Rowan said, a trace of awe in her voice. “Help me convince this li’l pup she needs to go in and throw a few rounds with the big dogs?” “She a pilot?” the woman asked, curiously. “Yep. Took Wash’s berth after . . . well, she’s behind Serenity’s stick now. She’s River Tam – but you should probably call her ‘River Smith’ on account o’ she’s still wanted, maybe. But she don’t wanna go in like she should. It’s her right! River, this is Miss Serendipity Stiles. She flies the Daydream – that ol’ Sunfish over there,” she said, pointing south across the mesa at a decrepit looking ship slightly larger than Serenity. “Wash’s berth? You fly under Mal Reynolds?” she asked, studiously. “You poor thing. Mal’s got a bit of a rep as a demon to work for.” “Oh, he’s a big ol’ dumpling,” River replied with a scant smile. “I’ll remember that,” Stiles said, smiling back. “He might be a demon, but he chooses good people. If you made his cut, ain’t no one gonna give you guff in there. Or not much. Call me Sarah, by the way. You, too, Rowan – Dynamite,” she said, remembering her call sign. “I hear tell you’ve soloed plenty. Curly’s real proud, he is.” “When he ain’t yellin’ at me,” Rowan sulked prettily. “He’s the primary. That’s his job. River, since you’re new to all this, I’ll show you ‘round. Rimworld pilots are a pretty idiosyncratic lot, especially this crowd. Lots of customs to keep track of. Like call signs: everyone here goes by their call-sign, as a sign of professional respect. Mine is Redlight, because I flew Angel 88s for the Independents in the war and would push my plane to the red near enough every time I took her out. I also got twenty-six kills, though, and over a hundred drones, so they say it with a certain amount o’ respect. What’s yours?” “Albatross,” River replied, getting some impressions from the older woman’s mind about her glory days as a fighter pilot. It was exciting, and wistful at the same time. “Good, good, that’s a respectable sign. Another custom is to always treat the primary of a ship as equal, which means you should be accorded the same deference as me, Curly, Tanaka’s pilot Trashcan, or Nutluck from the Kitty Kat, or Salamander from Leiasky’s tub. The secondary might be twenty years older’n you, but you’re a primary, so you get the seat at the table. Now, just ‘cause you’re entitled to their respect don’t mean they’re gonna be nice – these folk work for a livin’, an’ you got to prove your competence afore you can expect real honest esteem. But they’ll give you the benefit o’ the doubt . . . for a while.” “I just don’t think I’m—” “Nonsense, Albatross,” Stiles said, firmly. “You can’t show no weakness. Be brazen, brash, and brassy if you can. Arrogant, even. And not just ‘cause it’s a pissin’ contest, whenever we get together like this. It has to do with how well your crew does. When one o’ the people who employ people like us ask about a crew, they wanna know how the pilot is. Ain’t much use takin’ all the trouble to smuggle somethin’ if the pilot can’t swing a proper stick. A great pilot will bring the jobs. A pilot with a bad rep will lose jobs. So your new professional rep starts here.” “Well . . .” River said, biting her lip nervously. “When you put it like that . . .” “C’mon! You do know how to play poker, don’tcha?” Rowan wheedled. “That’s a game, right?” she said, feigning stupidity. She had remembered seeing someone say that on a CV show when she was a kid. Stiles studied her face a moment, then grinned. “You’ll do, Albatross. Let’s go – me an’ Dynamite got your back. Oh, and when we pass by the shrine, you gotta take a shot an’ say a prayer. For them what didn’t make it back to the game this year. Tradition,” she explained, sorrowfully. The three women went up the large metal ramp and into the dark bowels of the ship. Finding the right area was easy enough – the noise from the pilots was loud and raucous. But Sarah Stiles led resolutely, and Rowan was behind River urging her on. Just outside the beads that served as the door to the ward room there was a small table on which candles and incense had been placed. Behind them there was a battered dark mahogany statue of an angel with clipped wings and a sobbing face, a study of overblown artistic pathos usually reserved for religious shrines. There were four names written above her. River noted one of them was Hoban Washburn’s, and a chill went up her spine. Sarah stopped, poured a shot from the black glass bottle that was there for the purpose, knocked it back, waited a moment of respectful silence, and then handed the glass to River. River had very little acquaintance with strong drink, though she was starting to see that it was nearly a prerequisite for the piloting profession. She poured a level shot of the clear liquid and after a moment’s hesitation, tossed it back – and coughed savagely as it assaulted her stomach. Rowan grinned and poured her own. “You’ll get used to it,” she whispered. “We all do.” Then she escorted the reluctant girl through the beaded curtain. Inside the room there were at least twenty people, most of them clustered around a large green felt table, playing cards. Most were men, older men, looking grizzled and half drunk. She spied one familiar face, Rowan’s uncle Devon, whose cheeks and bald pate were red with an alcohol flush. A chorus of greetings rang out, mostly for Redlight. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” she said, after waving enthusiastically to a few of them, “I need to present a new member of our fraternity: River . . . Smith. Call sign is ‘Albatross’. She took Wash’s place on Serenity.” There were several polite nods and sympathetic murmurs, and River wanted to be about three inches tall. These men knew and respected Wash. They considered him to be one of the best in their profession. And while they were polite, they didn’t see much use in his replacement with a barely post-pubescent girl. River took a deep breath and smiled. “And of course, y’all know Dynamite,” she added. “Get us a couple o’ drinks, will you, dear?” she added. Rowan made just the hint of a face, and started for the temporary bar that had been set up at the back of the room. “Secondaries serve primaries,” she whispered. “What are you drinkin’?” “Uh . . . surprise me,” River said, a little confused. She didn’t have a favorite drink yet. “Got it.” “Make room, gents, make room,” Stiles declared, pulling two more chairs up to the crowded table. “I’ve got a bar tab at the Green Man what needs servicin’, and I’m countin’ on y’all to help me out with that!” “Way you play, I’d start makin’ alternate arrangements,” grunted a decrepit, one-eyed, bearded man whom River learned was Nutluck. “I’m feelin’ lucky!” “Amazed you can feel anythin’ at all, after what you been drinkin’” muttered Devon. “Whose deal?” “You got Serenity?” another man – Salamander – asked as he picked up the cards. “Right purty berth, y’ask me. Fireflys are a breeze to fly. Not like the tin can I got stuck with,” he grumbled. “Oh, c’mon now,” chided an older woman whose call sign was Vapors. “Four big engines to keep you up, I’m amazed Leiasky even needs a pilot.” “You do look a mite young to be behind the stick,” one of the oldest pilots, Trashcan mentioned. “You sure you got a cool ‘nuff head for it?” “Cool?” Rowan asked, incredulously, as she set down drinks in front of River and Stiles. “Let me tell you about cool. Couple o’ months ago, River was bunkin’ with us a while, an’ we had this run to St. Albans, droppin’ some cargo at a manufactory. Well, we were goin’ to pick up Tink, and we stumbled across a couple o’ hill folk in the midst of an armed robbery . . .” She spun the tale expertly, embellishing it in appropriate places, but the assembled group truly appreciated how little River had fooled and disarmed two desperate outlaws without firing a shot. “ . . . now, you think she’s gotta cool ‘nuf head to be behind the stick?” Rown declared. “That’s one mighty fine tale,” agreed Salamander, reluctantly. “You in, Albatross?” he inquired as he started shooting cards around the table. River nodded. “Everyone gets one hundred credits on account – more, if you got the cash. After the game we settle for everythin’ but that hundred. That can be owed, ‘till the next Reunion, if need be. You got money?” River pulled a thin wad of Federation banknotes out of her shoulder bag. “About . . . a hundred and fifty?” “That’ll work,” grunted the dealer. Dynamite, you’re the junior scumbag, now. Get the lady some chips.” “You do know how to play, don’t you?” whispered Stiles into her ear. “I’ve played a few times,” River agreed, swallowing nervously. She didn’t bother to mention how her psychic abilities had allowed her to win big each of those times at a casino on Epiphany. That might not be prudent. “Good – don’t be afraid to lose money. This game goes on all night, an’ you can always jump back in an’ try to win it back.” “Okay,” River said, looking at her cards. Thirty minutes later River had close to three thousand credits worth of chips in front of her, having taken three straight pots in a row with daring bets and skillful bluffing. “Y’all brought us a ringer, Red,” Nutluck growled. “Ain’t never seen no one play like that.” “Them cards marked?” asked Salamander suspiciously. “I wished they was,” moaned Sharky, the pilot from a small packet called the Gopi. “I woulda been winnin’ more, then. Them’s my cards.” He had contributed more than his share to River’s pile. “Gorram, girl,” swore Curly. “Where you learn to play like that?” “Beginner’s luck,” River said, nonchalantly, pulling the pot to her. “This is fun!” “Sweet Jesus, I thought I had you on that last one,” Trashcan remarked wistfully. “Done knocked me back to half o’ what I came with.” “Oh, quit your moanin’,” Stiles swore, her eyes flashing with laughter. “Y’all are just cussed ‘cause you thought this poor li’l girl was gonna be an easy mark.” “She was supposed to be,” declared Trashcan. “There goes my retirement . . .” “I got me an embarassin’ situation,” confessed Rabbitfoot, a short, slight man in a dirty old pilot’s vest.. “I seem to have left my wallet back at the ship. Any chance y’all would accept,” he said, drawing a sleek black automatic pistol from his shoulder holster, “this? Paid eight hundred for it at a pawnshop on Vesta.” Devon nodded towards Nutluck. “He’s the judge today. What would you say it’s worth?” The old man took the piece gingerly and studied it with his good eye. “In my expert opinion . . . this is a nice piece, no doubt, a Callahan VC15. Fifteen shot magazine, .38, good stopping power . . . four hundred. Five, if you throw in the holster and the extra mags.” “Four hundred!?” Rabbitfoot whined. “I paid twice that much!” “But now you’re at an illegal poker game at the ass-end of the ‘verse,” Stiles pointed out. “Four hundred’s fair. Five is more than fair.” “Oh, all right,” the man said, unfastening the holster. “Guess I got my ol’ service piece as back up. Five it is.” River almost lost the next round, but Rabbitfoot was just too desperate to get his gun back and made some arrogant mistakes – and her sense of fair play wouldn’t let her allow him to get away with them. With computer-like precision she pulled a brilliant play, pushing her bets to the absolute maximum and only pulling them back when she sensed someone was doubting her sincerity. “Call,” Rabbitfoot said, eagerly. He was holding three fives, River knew. Not a bad hand, as draw poker rankings went. But River had discarded the King of Hearts and a seven and drew a fourth eight. She laid them down with a shrug. “Four eights,” she said. “Gorram!” Stiles swore. Rowan grinned. There were murmurs of surprise all around the table. “That . . . that ain’t natural,” Trashcan said. “Four hands in a row? An’ she got four of a kind? What are the odds of that?” he demanded rhetorically. “Fourthousandonehundredsixtyfour to one,” River said instantly. Everyone at the table stared at her in silence. “Give or take,” she qualified, sheepishly. At that, everyone broke up in peals of laughter, Rabbitfoot included. “Well, Albatross, you took it fair an’ square,” he said wistfully. “Maybe you’ll let me try to win it back anon?” River eyed the gun with distaste and then looked at the small man. “I don’t like guns,” she said. “Trade you?” “Unless it’s sexual favors, which I happen to got an overabundance of, I ain’t got much to trade,” Rabbitfoot said, sorrowfully. “Your vest,” River pointed out. “I’ll give you your gun back if you give me your vest. I haven’t acquired one yet.” “You want . . . this ol’ thing?” the man asked in disbelief. “I had it goin’ on six years now. Hell, I was gonna retire it, next time we hit a decent port. You wanna trade an eight hunnert credit gun for a fifty credit vest?” “It’s her gun,” Rowan pointed out. “I like it,” River said. “It has . . . history.” “Ain’t that the truth. Al, you got yerself a deal,” he said, taking off the vest and emptying its many pockets of their contents. “I’ll let you keep the tissues – ain’t used,” he added, defensively. “An’ go ahead and keep the little toolkit an’ the pens. Might be a little . . . whiffy. Don’t get to cleanin’ it much,” he added apologetically. “That’s why I want it,” River said, accepting the stained garment eagerly. She slipped it over her shoulders and flipped her hair over the collar. It smelled of leather and lubricants and coolant and infrequently-washed pilot. River could still feel the heat of his body in the old, well-worn leather. She inhaled deeply and let out a contented sigh. “Hell, you done me a favor,” Rabbitfoot agreed. “It do fit you fine – and now I GOT to get me a new one. Wear it in health, honey. You, li’l –” he snapped until he recalled Rowan’s call-sign. “Li’l Dynamite. Get my friend here a double, on me.” “She ain’t finished her first one,” Stiles said, a note of warning in her voice. River noted she hadn’t more than sipped the strong liquor. The ice was already gone, melted away. She shrugged and tipped it back, then handed the glass back to Rowan with a nod. “You in?” Steeler asked. It was his deal. “Just one more round,” River said, knowing she would have to lose at least half of the money she had won back in order to stay in the pilot’s good graces. She didn’t mind – money was just numbers. She had gained something far more valuable in the contest. Rowan set down her refreshed drink, and she swallowed half of it. “Then I gotta go dance!” she explained when Sarah Stiles gave her a quizzical look. River Tam, for the first time in her short career, actually felt like a pilot. At least a little.

*

*

*

“I tell you, it’s a simple job,” Monty was saying, his face half-hidden in the evening gloom and half illuminated by the small campfire outside of Viktor Stile’s storied ship, a ratty old Sunfish caravel called the Daydream. The Captains had adjourned to a quiet corner of the mesa, away from the cacophony of Downtown, to continue their discussion of business, gossip, and future endeavors. Gorgon had set over the horizon, and dawn was but a few hours off. “I’ve been thinkin’ about it for weeks, now. Simple in and out. Two guards, local security. Take four men, five if you wanted to be cautious.” “What’s the take?” Tanaka asked, rubbing his chin. “Outpost like that, couldn’t be that healthy.” “Figure a good ten thousand,” Monty said, a bit defensively. “Lucky if you get seven,” O’Donnelly grunted, taking a drink from the bottle they passed. She spat into the fire. “It ain’t even a bank, it’s a bursar’s office. And in Fed notes, most likely, or Company scrip. Better off stealin’ chickens.” “After you split with your men, you’d only have three or four grand,” Tanaka agreed, lighting a cigarette. “Take out the cost of fuel – ai ya! Why bother? Chicken stealing,” he sighed. “Things the way they are, a little chicken stealin’ might not be so bad,” Monty grumbled. “Only way to keep the boat in the sky. Folk don’t want to move contraband in troubled times. Too much risk.” “Too right about that,” O’Donnelly said. “Came in without cargo – and I never go without a cargo.” “Talk to one of the locals – Greta Sturdevant has most of the business in Greenleaf, Dyson Lu has Buckminster,” Stiles suggested. “And I even thought I saw the packet Candycane McBane uses. He’s the boss up at Axis Station. Big bald guy, always has a peppermint stick in his mouth. Brutal bastard, but fair. He moves a lot of stuff around. If he’s here, he’s lookin’ for a hire.” Indeed, several notable persons of the local criminal world were present or sent representatives. Such a pool of clandestine talent was too good to pass up. Muir produced a number of highly-sought – and heavily taxed – commodities that had markets on less friendly worlds. The various bosses were looking for fresh opportunities and new business partners. “You sure know plenty about the local color,” Monty noted. “We spend a lot of time here,” Stiles agreed. “Got a lot o’ ties. Lotta memories. If we gotta be somewhere that ain’t the Black, would just as soon it have some homey touches. Locals are friendly, the Greens, the crooks and the Blackjackets keep the jobs comin’, and from the Alliance, nary a peep. We get by,” he admitted. “Still, smuggling don’t quite have the panache of armed robbery,” Monty insisted. “It’s too much like work.” “Last job we pulled turned into a job of work,” Mal said with a humorless chuckle. “Smugglin’ don’t seem so bad, right now. Folk are startin’ to get trigger happy and nervous. Besides, there’s always someone somewhere what wants what they can’t get.” The truth was, all of them were anxious about the general state of affairs, and with good reason. Civil strife heightened military interdictions, which drove up the cost of doing business – and there wasn’t one of them there who likely was more than a job or two away from destitution. Or an inspection that would lead to arrest. “You got to see it as an opportunity,” Monty insisted. “All this noise, it’s perfect time for a little smash-and-grab. Law enforcement can get pretty lax. Like in the War. Perfect time to makes some hay. All that chaos and confusion and violence and such. ‘Course, I’m a ‘glass-half-full’ kind o’ guy.” “Not if you’re just grabbin’ chickens,” Tanaka pointed out. “That much risk of injury, death, or an institutional diet better have a fair pile of coin at the other end.” “I’m not adverse to risk myself,” agreed Stiles, passing the bottle to Mal. “Hell, I like a little mix-up, every now and again, myself. But smugglin’s likely the safe bet.” “Ha! Says the pirate,” Mal chuckled. “ ‘Commerce raider’,” Stiles corrected indignantly. “I’m just sayin’,” Tanaka insisted, taking the bottle from Mal, “Make it worth the effort. And then there’s always merc work. If you got the gun hands to carry it out.” “No shortage o’ them,” O’Donnelly said, shaking her head. “I could recruit a company o’ mercs right today. Plenty o’ unemployed Browncoats know which end of the barrel to be on.” “Merc work?” scoffed Monty. “Pain in the pi gu. You’re punchin’ a clock like that. You gotta freelance if you want to get ahead.” “Yeah, Jon Lee went freelance,” pointed out Tanaka. Lee and his crew ran a small Skyhook, and was known for taking chances. “Look at all th’ fun he got for it, o’er at that mining colony.” “Jon’s a steady fella,” defended O’Donnelly. “That weren’t his fault.” “Ain’t like he ain’t never made an enemy before,” Mal added. Monty nodded enthusiastically. “That stunt took balls. Big, greasy, hairy balls. He ain’t afraid to fish in troubled waters, not Jon Lee.” He raised his eyebrows, suddenly realizing something. “Where the hell is he, anyhow? I wanted to save a dance for Miss Kitty.” That brought a chorus of chuckles from around the fire. Kitty Tsang was Jon Lee’s muscle. She had a rep as a cute, bubbly young gal who was also a cold-blooded homicidal armsman – deadly intent in a pretty package. She knew the intricacies of firearms the way Inara knew her way around a make-up case. She was a lot like Jayne, Mal remembered, in both skill level and professional outlook. But she smelled better, among other desirable attributes. Mal favored her a mite – if he could trade, he might just have to think about it. “He’s clear on the other side o’ God’s creation, he is,” Tanaka said. “Got a wave from Samsara with regrets. He’s on a job. So was Mohinder Patel. And Ruby,” he added, almost as an afterthought. “That’s a right pack o’ thieves,” observed Mal. “My uncanny powers of prediction foresee a crime wave, somewhere.” “Ruby probably ain’t theifin’” O’Donnelly said. “Wouldn’t risk that pretty ship o’ hers. Mohinder, though. Man can steal. Best damn looter o’ the War,” she said with admiration. O’Donnelly had been an air combat pilot on Boros in the war. “Steal the teeth outa a man’s head if he yawned too long.” “Looting isn’t the same as straight-up armed robbery,” Tanaka replied. “’Course it is!” Monty declared. “They hang you just as high if you’re nabbed,” Stiles pointed out. The debate went on long into the night. Mal mostly withdrew, content to stare into the fire, letting its radiant heat bathe his face too warm while his back felt the chill of the Muir night. Somewhere in the middle, he was comfortable. Looting and armed robbery: noble professions, both. If one could take certain liberties with the idea of private property . . .

*

Mal sprawled behind the overturned hovercraft, kicking up a small cloud of dust that mixed with the smoke of the smoldering fires across the town. Two seconds later, a boot hit his kidney particularly hard, as Royce slid in behind him. Both boys heaved air into their lungs with the exertion – they had been at it a while, and the body can only go so far on pure adrenaline. “About time y’all showed,” Rachel growled, though there was an undercurrent of welcome relief in her voice. “Have a picnic on the way, didja?” She popped up over the top of the craft they were using as cover and spat a half-dozen rounds from the clunky carbine she carried. Half of her face was a gray smear of antibiotic medical gel, but if it bothered her, she did let on. She dropped back down and slapped another magazine into the gun. “I been here at least an hour, keepin’ them fellas interested,” she said, nodding towards the building in front of them. It was the Penumbra Land and Savings Bank, a squat brick structure with a fancy marble façade. One of the few private banks outside of Company control, it had a reputation for tightfisted diligence with its loans, which aroused the ire of much of Shadow. It was hardened enough to keep small arms fire at bay, and some unknown number of Alliance regulars had taken refuge inside. Rachel had kept them cooped up inside, while another Browncoat – Ginger Lei, if he recalled correct – was keeping them from going out the back door. A purple-armored body in front of the bank was testament to how seriously Rachel had held it. The fighting had raged all day. Ten companies of volunteer insurgents in brown coats had converged on Penumbra, and another two seemed to appear out of nowhere within the city. The Alliance garrison, which had promised protection to President Hecht and his cabinet, had been largely taken off-guard by the rapid deployment of irregulars and were overwhelmed in the first attacks. The survivors had either fallen back to the spaceport to make a stand or had taken what shelter they could. There were plenty of pro-hegemony paramilitaries about, too, but they weren’t organized and they shot only when they thought they could get away with it. There seemed to be three Browncoats for every Unity man. “What’s our orders?” Rachel asked. “What?” Royce asked, putting his hat back on his head. “Huh?” Mal asked, confounded. “Orders, nimrods! Wu de tien ah! What the hell are we s’posed to do?” “Um . . . only thing I heard is we were to carry the day to victory,” Royce admitted. “There was somethin’ ‘bout patriotism, too,” added Mal. “Strikin’ a blow for . . . what was it we were strikin’ a blow for?” he asked, confused. “I’m just here to get girls,” Royce assured them. “Ai ya! Helluva way to run a gorram war!” Rachel said, getting ready to fire again. “Are there bad guys in there?” Royce asked, taking a peek over the top of the craft. As if to answer, a hail of bullets from the bank thunked noisily into the craft, making them all tuck their heads down. “They ain’t lookin’ for an invite to the harvest ball,” Rachel said, when the firing stopped. “I’d say they’re bad guys.” “Bad guys,” agreed the boys in unison, looking at each other. “That bank is owned by staunchly pro-Union folk, Mr. Loesje, if I recollect proper. Probably got a few purplebellies in there along with his guards. Well, seein’ as how they’re bad guys, we’re good guys, and we ain’t had orders to the contrary, what say we take ‘em?” Rachel asked. “Take them?” Royce asked. “Us?” “Yeah. You got any grenades?” “In my other pants,” Mal said, rolling his eyes. “I got these,” Royce said, putting down his rifle and digging into the pockets of his browncoat. “Cap’n gave ‘em out. Somethin’ one o’ the boys up in Scari came up with. Ain’t a proper grenade, but . . .” He handed one to Mal. It was an ordinary 12 gauge shotgun shell, with a plastic cap with tiny numbers on it covering the brass. “That’s the timer,” Royce explained. “You twist it ‘round to how long you want it to wait, then push it down. Then throw it an’ run like hell! That’s deer shot,” he added with a grin. “Nine li’l ball bearings what can mess up your day!” “That’s ruttin’ jing tsai!” Mal said, approvingly. “Great,” Rachel said. “Tell you what: I’m gonna lay down some cover fire while y’all sneak up to the door. Then you toss a gracious plenty o’ them inside, wait for the boom, an’ we all go in like hellfire!” “Sounds like a good way to snuff it,” Royce said, doubtfully. “Mayhap we wait for someone what knows what the hell they doin’?” “Can’t be that many inside,” Mal suggested. “Probably low on ammo, too.” “We gotta seize the initiative! Before they get time to really fortify the place. We go in hard, guns blazing, an’ take ‘em off guard.” “That’s an incredibly stupid plan that’ll likely lead to bad end for us all,” Royce said. “Needless to say, I’m in favor.” “I got nothin’ better to do,” agreed Mal with a shrug. “Lovely, we have a quorum,” Rachel agreed. “Y’all get ready to die for the cause. I’m gonna pop up, you run! Ready?” Mal kissed the cross around his neck, said a silent prayer, and nodded. “Go!” Rachel screamed, then rose and began squeezing off controlled, steady bursts at the bank. Mal and Royce rolled out from behind the hovercraft and took off, firing their rifles along the way. There were a few stray shots from the bank, but Rachel’s suppressive fire seemed to be keeping it to a minimum. The boys slammed their shoulders up against the wall on either side of the double doors. “That was invigorating,” Mal noted, as he levered more rounds into his rifle. “Brisk,” agreed Royce. “A thought just occurred to me,” he added. “That we’re too young to die in a senseless political conflict?” “Nope. What’s inside of here?” “Bad guys that want to kill us?” “And?” Mal considered. “Might could be some money, too,” he added thoughtfully. “Just my thinkin’. Shall we find out?” “Bide, a moment,” Mal said. He was not far from the corpse of the Alliance soldier Rachel had felled earlier. The man’s weapon was flung out slightly to the side, and by using his long rifle butt he was able to hook the strap and pull it towards him. It was a shiny new submachine gun, a Grother, that fired .45 ammunition – a better weapon for close quarters work than Mal’s hunting rifle. He checked it over, slung his own gun, and slid the safety off. Royce just stared at him. “You want to maybe see if he’s got candy in his pockets, too?” “I’m good,” Mal assured. “You got them shells?” “Dang rahn,” Royce agreed, holding up a handful. “Then perhaps now would be a good—” another peal of gunfire issued from the door, making the boys jerk their heads away. “—time to use them?” “Just my thinkin’, Reynolds,” agreed Royce. He twisted and popped four of the faux grenades and tossed them in in a handful. The explosions came quickly thereafter, and when the last one fired Royce nodded and then turned into the doorway. Mal swallowed hard and followed, trying to stay to one side of the doorway. He could see Rachel catching up as he entered the gloomy building. The shotgun shells had been surprisingly effective. Two Alliance regulars were crumpled on the floor, a healthy section of their faces missing. One more lay in a corner, holding his belly as a large red spot appeared on his uniform. One of the ball bearings must have hit a weak spot in his armor. Mal kicked the man’s weapon away and knelt to relieve him of his pistol as well. “We hereby liberate this bank in th’ name o’ the Provisional government of Shadow,” Royce declared. Mal turned to see what the fuss was about, and discovered six bank workers huddled against the far wall, well away from the door. “You will not be harmed,” Mal added. “Our issue is with the criminal government of President Hecht. If y’all voted for him, you can thank him for this mess. Now get outta here an’ get home to your families! This will all blow over soon enough. Scoot! Schnell! Ma shong!” “Wait!” Royce said, pointing his rifle at a portly gentleman in the back of the group. “You look mighty important. What’s your name, citizen?” “M-merrick Loesje,” the man stuttered, his eyes wide with fear and his hands in plain sight. Mal reached out and pulled the man’s wallet from his inside coat pocket, flipped it open, and verified his identcard. “That’s you,” he agreed. “You, my friend, are bound by law – or at least, bound by us, as an enemy of the Commonwealth of Shadow’s rightfully elected government.” “I-I haven’t done anything!” the man protested fearfully. “You own this bank,” Mal pointed out as Rachel slipped in behind them. “That makes you guilty enough for me.” “Now you can be our prisoner, or maybe you get shot in all the confusion,” Royce suggested reasonably as he brandished his rifle. “Which would you prefer?” “I’ll behave,” the man agreed. “Good. Rest of you, head home. Keep your hands in the air you might not get shot. But this here bank is under our control, now.” As the shell-shocked bank workers filed out, hands in view, the back door opened and Ginger came in, her rifle on her shoulder. “Glad you made the party, Ms. Lei,” Royce grinned. “Ginger, go back to that store where the Cap’n was and tell him we took this bank, and we need a medic. We’ll hold it until he gets here with reinforcements,” she ordered. Ginger nodded and cautiously headed back out the rear entrance. “Getting’ big for your breaches, Tagalong!” Royce grinned. “Someone’s gotta be in charge, an’ you two ain’t got two neurons to rub together ‘twixt the two o’ you. This is a strategically valuable objective,” she recited. “Holding it will be important to the Cause.” Royce wandered over to the counter and slid behind, popping open a drawer. Banknotes of several varieties, including Company scrip and Federation credits, were stacked up neatly. “I can see your point, Tagalong.” He began helping himself. “Hey! That don’t mean we steal the money!” she complained. “We ain’t stealin’, we’re liberatin’!” Mal explained as he opened another drawer. “Hey! Gold stag-head dollars! A whole mess o’ them!” “Take a few home to your mama, there’s a good boy,” Royce said, stuffing his pockets. “This ain’t right!” Rachel insisted. Royce looked up and fixed her with a stare. “Rache, consider what happened to your Pa. Seems to me the ‘verse done owes you a little. This might be your opportunity. We ain’t regular folk, now, we’re soldiers in a revolution. This ain’t stealin’, it’s lootin’. Perfectly respectable!” “Well,” Rachel said, chewing her lip. “I guess the really big stuff is in the vault,” she admitted. “’Cause won’t fall for the lack o’ a couple o’ hundred credits.” “Hundred?” Mal scoffed. “You walk outta here with less’n five thousand, I’ll personally spank you!” “That seems like an awful lot,” she said, wavering. “Don’t be an idiot, Rache,” Mal insisted. “Ain’t ever gonna have an opportunity like this again. Stealin’ or lootin’, you gotta take advantage of your opportunities when they come. ‘Cause they don’t, for most folk.” He tossed her a heavy roll of gold coins. “Stick to the hard currency, though.” He looked mournfully at the drawer full of Alliance banknotes. “I’m thinkin’ the purple money might could be worthless, afore long.” “I . . . I guess,” she agreed, feeling the weight of the coins and grinning despite herself. “Couldn’t hurt.” “Nope, not a bit,” agreed Mal. “Y’know? I could get used to this soldierin’ business!”

*

“Mal? You awake?” Monty asked for the third time. Mal started – he had been dozing. “Why? Someone say somethin’ important?” “Near enough,” agreed the big fuzzy captain. “Just got word. Big meeting for dinner tomorrow night in the Sky Hawk. Bring Zoe. Bring only Zoe.” “Ain’t that a mite cryptic,” Mal observed. “What we got on the agenda?” Monty looked at him, seriously – an unusual occurance for the old friends. “I can’t rightly say. But I know it’s somethin’ ‘bout the War. And I heard it has to do with some business.” “Business?” “Of the unfinished variety,” Monty said, solemnly. “I’m outa the war business,” Mal complained. “You’re gonna want to hear this, all the same,” he insisted. “Fine, fine, me an’ Zoe will be there,” he grumbled. He stood and stretched. “I’m gonna go get forty before noon, though. These short days are murder.” “What were you dreamin’ ‘bout, anyway?” Monty asked. “Why?” Mal asked in return. “On account o’ you havin’ the biggest grin I seen on your ugly mug in a dog’s age.” “Oh. Just some happier times,” Mal said. “The simple times of my youth. Anything left in that bottle?”

COMMENTS

Saturday, November 4, 2006 9:20 PM

FIREFLYCRACKHEAD


Sweet first comment! I'm loving how river is developing as a coherent self-sufficient person. But what about Jayne? I can't imagine he's not getting into trouble.

Saturday, November 4, 2006 9:31 PM

NUTLUCK


*L* interasting way that you used my login name. Good story as always, just hope we don;t have to wait as long for the next part.

Sunday, November 5, 2006 3:43 AM

AMDOBELL


River made me grin in this, I could so see her at that poker game earning her share of kudos from the other pilots. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Sunday, November 5, 2006 6:50 PM

LOESJE58


I'm mentioned in one of Screw's stories. Wow! I feel honoured. Seeing River gain confidence, was really lovely too.

Sunday, November 5, 2006 7:55 PM

NEILEI


It was so good to get another chapter. I love River's interaction with Rowan and the continuing story of Mal's youth. Another shiny day. Many thanks.

Monday, November 6, 2006 9:04 AM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


Oh this was just brilliant, Screw! Definitely was loving River's shy and humble routine before she ended up owning the game:D

And homemade frag grenades? Now there's something that strikes me as Browncoat initiative;)

Can't wait to see what Jayne is getting up to while Mal's commiserating, Zoe's dreamwalking, River's ruling the gambling roost amongst pilots...and whatever Inara, Simon and Kaylee are up to:)

BEB

P.S. Since you already got some of BSR ladies and gents invovled....any suggested way of getting in on some of the action?

;)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006 5:21 PM

DAWGFATHERJR


Oh for heaven's sakes! I'm one of the lucky ones that didn't stumble onto StA's stuff until just recently... so I was treated to 120 or so uninterrupted chapters. But now I'm caught up and have to wait for new ones. NOOOO!!!!!! :)


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