BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - ADVENTURE

WYTCHCROFT

About Face
Thursday, December 20, 2007

Repost. Complete story (and now with the Malific interlude and Coda). sequel to LockJaw. the crew encounter the eccentric Jefferson Feng and the grim Sheriff Gobruk.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2299    RATING: 8    SERIES: FIREFLY

“So you did what Captain? You sent a call – a call to arms? A clarion signal? A wave? – well I guess you did at that – and you rode that wave, you rode it and it took you, where exactly? A world? A planet, a moon? A rock – a hill? Well, wherever it was – you made your stand and you took it. Man can do that. Take a hill. And I won’t deny you – you scored a hit… but Victory? Well Captain, sometimes victory comes with the going home again. Sometimes that’s where victory has to be won – won Captain, not taken – because going home.. well that’s the really hard part. Going home. Back to the real. The real that was and is – gone somehow. And that’s where the hurt can be. In the going home. Maybe I can help with that.” Shepherd Solomon Face to Captain Malcolm Reynolds …………………………………………………

“Hi, I’m dead.

Did I get your attention there?

Yep. Dead.

R.I.P. (say it with me people)

My life is null and nada – I am deceased – a stiff – I’ve kicked the bucket. I’m pushing up the daisys. I am a dead parrot. Sorry –Pilot. Sorry. Cut off in my prime. Canceled like your favourite show – that someone always said would be too good to last. But my gosh – when they put you in the ground they really – well, they just – they really put you in the ground don’t they. I always prefered the stars myself. Will you look at ‘em down there? No, not the stars – well they are stars but not the glowy pointy kind you look at with your loved one, not the ones that glitter as you lie together on a far flung hill side, in the after-glow of the big juicy bone jumping joy and – ok ok so wandering now but – hey! – have you SEEN my wife? You got any idea what I’m missing right now buddy!? And there aint no love-bots or batterys up here, I can tell ya. Just the misty longing and the – what? You got a problem?? Hello!- dead! Let’s get back to the part where I’m DEAD. I’m dead and they’re crying??? Like I said they ARE stars. Some of ‘em even know it. Look at ‘em – I mean, hey – they got the hologram grave marker going on for starters, my pretty face all brave and understanding… for them – something they can look on ‘stead of staring at the ground. Did I mention that’s where i am? Look at their faces – sure they look sad now – but you shoulda seen ‘em in the shiny times – well the less rusty, well the – when I was ALIVE, ok. Those faces could make me do anything. Those faces made me feel like I mattered for the real and true first time. And yeh, those faces got me killed. Everyone has their favourite – I guess – we all pick someone to love, someone to hate, someone to trust, someone to just – well – ok – I don’t know what Jayne was for, but when someone has the courtesy to come to your dirt display – well, that’s worth a kudos or three. I bet the people they hook up with next’ll – oh yeah – they’ll be wondering – what are these people now – why are they together??… And which ones of that posse ARE together??? (and who’s still in the back with the bot and the batterys. Once again.) Does it matter? Not to me. I always thought it was the group of us, really, you know? It was the bunch of us that belonged together. I hope it stays that way. Somehow. And I’m thinking now – maybe I got the better end of the deal here – coz all they got to take away from where they are now is memories (I’m one of em). That’s all they got to go with. To take away. Me? – I got my whole life to take with me where I’m going. Going. Going. Gone. Yeah… times up – time to get jiggy with the black – time to – I dunno, what – do I maybe get to be an angel, are there angels? I could have some fun maybe, wings, a little bow and arrow? Maybe I’ll ascend somehow to a new kind of existence – my widescreen afterlife – hell, maybe I’ll become a higher power? Just kidding. Ok, this is me leaving now. Sue me – if I didn’t make with the great profoundness enough for you. Jeez some people! But listen just – just look after the one’s down there for me, will ya? they need it. OK, ok, I’m really going now, making with the vanish, fading – you could say that i’m all WASHed up.”

……………………………………….

About Face – chapter one

“Aww… you still sore baby?” Kaylee’s voice was soft. There was a wounded groan from beneath her. Kaylee’s nimble fingers became quick, caressing. She breathed heavily. “That better?” A murmer. “Is that?- yeah… that’s better, oh I got the good stuff working now.” There was a livid. sudden and furious roar of white sparks, smoke and flame. Kaylee was hurled back and hard against the wall behind her. One hand was instantly reaching to grip an extinguisher. To grip it tight. The other wiped at her soot black and red seared face. She stood defiantly before the blaze. Waved the extinguisher. “Ok –ok ! Enough! I have had just enough – how long you gonna keep this up, huh buster? Sulking aint gonna win you any medals with this lady! You don’t settle down? We’re gonna have a serious problem.” Serenity spat angry flames and hot metal fragments. …………………………………… Malcolm Reynolds was remembering he was a Captain…. “C’mon people – work t’be done!” His head poking out of a doorway into the iron-clad hollows beyond – locked eyes with the woman stood there. Stood there. Not working. It was a moment before the woman spoke. “People? Work? Captain I – we…” “Have lost people before, Zoe.” Reynolds was firm voiced. “It’s what happens… We don’t leave our people – behind… but sometimes we do put them in the ground. I’ve learned that. War-” The woman’s eyes were locked to his, holding steady – holding still. Still. “Still? Captain? Are we at still at war? Sir?” she asked. The Captain came closer, his mouth was a grim line. “Look around some Zoe. Whole Gorram ‘verse is at war.” “Well. This must be the ‘new’ you – Inara warned me ‘bout…” Reynolds was folding his arms. That was normally a departure signal. But he had lowered his voice. “C’mon,” He was saying “we’ve lost crew before. You think I-” “Crew? CREW?! Mal – Wash wasn’t just crew.. he was –“ “What? What Zoe? Family? Are we a family now?” The man’s arms unfolded themselves, made abstract gestures. The woman stood neatly, keeping her own arms tight behind her back. Like the man, the woman’s voice was quick to regain composure. “He – was – my – HUSBAND!” Mal dropped his shoulders. “And I guess he was at that.” A Beat. A distant hydraulic hiss. A vague electronic hum. The man’s face, so often tensed and blanked, was making efforts to open itself. “You think I don’t respect you. I do. You think I’m not respecting a widow’s right to.. grieve?” Then closing again. “Well, let me repeat. There’s work to be done. And you are still on my crew – ‘leastways last time I looked. But now, I aint forcing you here to stay.” There was a sudden and furious roar from the bowels of Serenity. “Kaaaaylleeeeee!!” A smell of hot metal and plexi. Wu de tyen ah Mal raised his eyes to the ceiling. “Not that it looks like any of us’’ll be going anywhere anytime soon.” He turned. Stomping boots rang hard upon the walkway. Zoe stared blankly into nothing. Gradually she brought her blackcoated arms out from behind her. Eased them into a position slightly less than stiff. Began to walk. Slowly. ……………………. River Tam was learning was to Fly. Her wide face was lit with grinning. “Velocities.” She was singing almost to herself. “Mass. Density. Thrust-” She laughed, delighted at her own precise movements – her fingers were dancing. “Control.” She leaned forward examining with a furrowed brow. “The right control?” Somebody else’s hands reached up to touch hers. Stroked gently. And a sooothing voice – calmly worded. “River? That’s the salt – um, the salt dispensor. You know that right?” River laughed – dropped the silver cylinder with a tinkle of metal. “Flying” she said. “it’s so much fun” she carefully raised another object in her left hand. “I told him – that man – I want to fly now. Show me. So he is. You think…” her voice dropped in a stage whispered show of confidentiality. “you think – at first, that the sky’s too big to fit in a brainpan – but ‘t aint.” She spread her arms as far as she could, her head raised and tilted. “just the balance is all.” Simon looked up at his sister, perched as she was with one foot, on a crate, upon a metal case, that sat upon an old wooden strong box that was balanced across one of the plastic kitchen chairs. “River?” he asked. He was using a trained doctor’s tones with the effort of creating no disturbance. “River? Are we – are you flying… now?” His sister clapped her hands together with merriment. Then tutted. “Boobed again brother boy.” Her voice showed a little exasperation and she pointed her fingers, indicating the mess hall, the handcrafted gantry she was swaying upon. The walls. The ship, Serenity. “boob”. She repeated. “not flying. falling.” …………………….. Feather by metallic feather, the great bird began to fall from the sky, its iron beak snapping at clouds, its rusting claws scratching bitterly at the air. Despite the screams of those around him – the scramblings and scrabblings of the terrified passengers and crew – the man gazing out through the cockpit windows wore a beatific smile on his face. The world below him seemed to know this… Because Selini Station, seen from above, looked like nothing else but a jauntily cocked black hat – set upon a head of wild grey stone – that was dancing, drunkenly, (in a loose maverick patchwork of kudzo and brush), amidst the wide sweeping delta. It looked like nothing less than a long abandoned scarecrow that, happy for company, spread flapping weathered fingers up – towards the fast diving bird. “Rich pickings!” chortlted Jefferson Feng gleefuly, rubbing the edges of his fine ginger mustache. “A sight for sore eyes – and empty pockets!” He waved merrily at the fast approaching ground.

End of chapter one ……………………………………………

Simon Says: Look at the universe. Go on, look. It’s alive. It has… Being. It is a thing of Being… and “it’s hard being the universe.” My sister said that to me once, her eyes scrunched and serious. At the time she said it, I smiled. Crazy talk. My crazy sister talking crazy. I’m used to that from her. Clinically she is insane. I should know. I’m a doctor. But… – here’s the thing. She’s right. It must be hard being the universe. After all, just like her, it’s insane. I mean, look at it. Look – at – it. I am. Watching all the million myriad moments – the chaos – playing out inside itself. Over and over. The wild, ecstatic, epic, meaningless scenes. Senseless. Frenzied and isolated. Tiny flickering movements. But perhaps that’s it… You look close, you get drawn in. You lose perspective. The bigger picture eludes you… because maybe the truth comes in what lies between – in the gaps and in the connections. There must be connections. A logic. Schizophrenic though it is. Logic that can be grasped, studied, coded, read and… ordered. Ordered into shape. Good shape. After, like I said, I’m a doctor. Come in universe – I’ll fix you right up. Or maybe it’s all just dreaming. Maybe I’m seeing the dream-space of the universe… and I am walking through that dream-space – walking through that mind. This is what it must be like for her. For my sister. For River. I’m looking at her right now. Do you See? There she is – that tiny point of light. A tiny moment caught here on a screen. Recorded – reviewed – re-screened and responded to… here amongst the echoes and reflections in this room so very full of mirrors. I am watching someone else watching me watching her. There is a man, like me. Viewing a recording whilst being recorded. Security Black: Trans Ref: 17718/hydra/43xF. He is looking at me – and I am looking at my sister. And he says (of my looking). “It’s Love.” There – look again – that infinitely small moment in an eternity of small moments – a molecule in the bloodstream of time. But it’s there. I can see it. I overheard someone once say, of a great event, that it was “just a moment in time. Step aside and let it pass.” But this is my stand. It shall not pass. “It’s love.” Recorded – reviewed – re-screened and – responded to? “It’s love.” Two words. I can hear them I hear them and I wonder at them. Wonder about them. I wonder… …What do they really mean? …………………………….

ABOUT FACE – part two

The wild, wide, heavy and fragrant – not to say just plain stinksome – expanse of the Seleni delta rolled out across the miles as far the eye could strain to see. Tangles of green and purple textured fleshly and moist. Under the knots of vines, roots and wierd uprising creepage, were veins of dark water. Narrow atrophied causeways, browned and humid. The speedboat the men were on roared against the inert sludgy waters like an animal caught in a mire. The men themselves were, for the moment, quiet. One, at the back, minded the engine, scanning the unchanging horizons with a veterans narrowed gaze and, on occasion, flicking out a long macheted arm when his vision was obscured by growth. Their aim today was speed, not concealment – and the boat seemed determined to prove it. The man at the prow of the craft was a killer. Wanted. Feared. A large man known for his temper. A soldier feared as ruthless and a criminal feared for his lusts. He had, in his span, killed many things and in many ways. He stood still – with a weapon lying in readiness on his lap – while a tensed hand spread its fingers to deliver a stealthy killing blow. The man at the engine of the boat had barely the time to blink before the killer had spun around and struck. There was the meaty sound of flesh striking flesh. “Ruttin’ mosquitos!” yelled Jayne Cobb. Looking at the boatman with appeal in his eyes. “They’re driving me nuts!” he slapped again, nearly toppling off the speeders low prow. ………………….

RESPLENTANTLY ANNOUNCING! THE WELCOME APPEARANCE AMONG YOU HERALDED BY GREAT POTENTS, SIGNS, OMENS AND OTHER ASTROPHORIA THE GRAND MAN, GENTLE SIR, THE MOST RESPECTABLE MR JEFFERSON FENG – PHD, THY, UMD, MEDAL OF MERIT HERE ON YOUR WORLD, IN YOUR DIMENSION, TO BRING EASE OF SUFFERING -TO BRING SURFITUAL PLEASURE FOR A LIMITED TIME OF CORPORIALITY ONLY WITH THE GREAT GIFT OF HIS HEART AND A READY PREPARATION OF HIS MOST FAMED, METAMARVELLOUS AND SACRED ‘REMEDY OF THE AGES’ WHOSE SENSE DEFYING PROPERTIES HE WILL DEMONSTRATE UPON THOSE GOODLY WILLING AND IN TRUE NEED. COME TO HIM YOU HARD WORKING AND UNREWARDED SOULS OF SELINI! ASK AND YE SHALL BE RECEIVED. …………………………………………… ALLIANCE CENTRAL FEDERATION COMMON INTEL CLASS: OPEN. BE AWARE – ARREST IS ORDERED FOR THE PERSON OF ONE JEFFERSON FENG FOR CRIMES VARIOUS – AND IN SPECIFIC, FOR THE ATTEMPTED POISONING OF GOVERNER ATHER MATTHEWS AND THE ABDUCTION OF HIS WIFE. LAST KNOWN HEADING – SELENI. ALL POINTS ARE HERE ENDOWED TO ORDER FENG TO STAND DOWN AND BE BROUGHT INTO CUSTODY. -crime specific detail lodged on file: Epsilong GHFYB 1234 – uniweb UUWB//fedfil.all.uni – reward details follow – ………………………………………………..

Just hearing his voice could stop Kaylee in her tracks. Coming up on it now unawares as it floated down Serenity’s long hallways. Those hallways that seemed so empty of late. Especially since Inara had gone. Jayne too had left. That had been his decision – taking a shuttle before they were sure the defence fields were stable. And maybe for the best at that… Being stuck on a moon? Drive a man of his restless nature plain crazy with boredom. No/one wanted a crazy bored Jayne aboard. Still… and Inara – well that had been the Captain’s fault pure and simple -. Kaylee stopped. Toes tight inside the dark of her monkey boots. Realised she had just been distracting herself again. Took a deep breath. That’s it, she told herself, come on now boots… you were made for something – and it weren’t standing still. She started forward again. “He watches love.” Said a voice sudden, up against her. “But he doesn’t see it.” River Tam stood pale in the walkway shadows. Kaylee had jumped. And to be truthsome was more annoyed with herself than at the girl. Then again – eerie much? That missy could put a spook up Halloween herself. She grinned reflexively. “Hi sweetie”. “On TV. You can’t see anything you’re looking for on TV.” River’s head bobbed in its seriousness – Kaylee flashbacked to the wobble headed dolls the ship had once carried. Kinda seeming really, she thought. “Couldn’t say. Aint never much cared for the ole squawk box.” Kaylee found she was talking. “And don’t right know what Simon’s…” She paused. “You meant Simon, huh?” River shook her head. “Mr Universe.” She said. Opening her mouth again, Kaylee quickly closed it. You could find yourself dancing words with River real quick an’ you weren’t careful. And as the Captain said. Time was awasting. She gave another quick smile and skipped past into the refectory that served as unofficial meeting hole here on Serenity. She had walked into the middle of an argument. So… Nothing new. “You called me in here for… this?!” The doctor was clearly losing patience, she thought. Laughed at that – till she caught the Reynold’s rocket-red glare. “This aint up for debate Doctor.” Mal was firm. “It may be that it’s tempting to let that prodigal Hwoon dahn stew awhile in his own danger and – undoubted – fear and remorse. It may be tempting to just sit here and enjoy the irony of him leaving this moon – and, from what you’re telling me, being stuck on another one.” He pointed a finger. “Still… we – well you know the drill Doc’, we don’t leave a man behind – I’m tired of speakin’ it”. “Tired of hearing it…” interjected Zoe. Simon nodded. “And on you Captain? Frankly, it even sounds tired.” Simon’s voice was thin – but raised nonetheless. “Captain, Jayne isn’t behind – he’s… backward.” There was a pause then – a sudden hush. Crudely broken by sudden, half hysterical laughter – and by quick guilty blushes. Mal wiped an eye. “Well, Doc’ – Simon, I don’t dare say you wrong on that score – but if he’s backward? Well, I guess I’m just the only one who can turn him around.” The sentence finished less strongly than he would’ve finished. But he was still smiling and no/one had the heart to complain anew. ……………………………………………….

The narrow market streets buzzed and swarmed – Seleni station was small in size – not density. Its citizenry heaped upon one another – the Shepherd wondered what new or arcane rituals they had developed here to keep the claustrophobic violence at bay. He had been here quite some time now – and still could not give an answer. Maybe they just killed each when it was dark, he thought, or out in the swamps. He kept himself still. The market moved around him with its own momentum. There. He spied a woman haggling at a bead stall. Her wide dress hitched over a pear of worn leather boots, from which protruded a heavy cleaver handle. The handle and the cleaver and the woman were well known. “Magdalena” he said smoothly, stepping out beside her – for all the world like a gentlemen stepping onto a fair ride. The woman looked up. One eye appraised him keenly. The other was hidden behind an eye-patch, disconcertingly frilled with lace. “Shepherd.” She said. “You wan’ something from me?” she waved the market-stall trader back and turned around. “Walk and talk Magdalena” said the Shepherd. “Walk and talk.” ……………………………….

“Ok, Juniorverse, punch it up – tell us what you got…” Mal stood, sharing the impatience of a fuelled and ready Serenity, It had been way too long since either of them had tasted space. He leaned forward, intercom in hand, braced between the cockpit cabin doors, a favourite place of his within the ship. Simon’s reply was long suffering. “I do wish, Captain, you wouldn’t call me that.” Mal smiled. ”Give me a moment…”Simon continued and Mal imagined the serious young face scanning the alliance records, cross checking and scrutinising. “You must be acquainted with all sorts of information by now…” he said into the speaker. “Well, there’s a lot to digest…” Simon’s response was evasive. Maybe he was nervous of showing an ignorance. Now that would be a nice and humanising thing. The Captain asked another question. “They got much on us?” “You can imagine, Captain.” “Wonder what they’d say about us, if we finally DID leave someone behind – figure it would dent out reputation?” There was a pause on the other side of the com circuit, then “probably not with the Alliance. Does – does that matter to you Captain? Your reputation?” This time Mal ducked the direct question. “Just give me what it says on that location for Jayne.” He could almost hear Simon’s mind change gears. “Ok – I have it. Um… You’re… not going like it though.” “You see me wearin’ my surprised face? Just show me the cards Simon.” The Captain twitched restlessly. “Ok – Well…” said Simon slowly, obviously following data as it flowed from his screens. Give the kid some credit, fixed that place up a whole bunch… with Kaylee’s help of course – which she regretted – and at Serenity’s expense – and utilising some shadowy folk he called underground ‘contacts’. Didn’t look so very underground – Mal had thought, more kind of rarefied. “The target is Seleni station. Small moon world like I told you – but it’s interesting… The planet proper was terra-formed but it never took – problems with instability – because of a nearby system that throws asteroids and fire all the way out to the neighbouring stars.” “Ok.” “But the home-world acts as a barrier – or it has so far… and the way-station ended becoming a centre in its own right. Small though.” “Locals?” “”I’m uploading information to Serenity now –the place has never been Independent but the Alliance has only ever had a token presence – they don’t like having to get through to the place either. Of course if there were any real Alliance pressure – the place would be crushed. It’s too small to defend itself. But they – they really don’t need to – Captain? If you want to fly there… at the least you’ll need a very good pilot. A real pilot. Someone who can actually fly. The instability…” “Thank you Simon – I’ll be sure and tell her you said that.” ………………………………..

Jefferson Feng stood before the Sheriff of Seleni station and smiled. The sheriff was not smiling. The lack of a smile seemed to affect Feng not a whit. He eased himself from foot to foot, eyes gleaming as they took in the low ceiling, the white walls upon which the trophies of hunts and souvenirs of duty hung loosely. He looked at the rack of guns. He noted the absence of finery of any sort. “Sheriff Gobruk. I am, suh, most deeply honoured and betoken of you. I must be offering myself of a thank you at least – for pulling me from that un-healthy abode which some folks here do seem to call a jail.” He offered a heavy white hand. Gobruk leant back on a creaking chair and dug his boots into the damp wood of the floor. When he spoke his voice was hard. “Mr Feng – I wanted t’see you with my own eyes. Man like you – quite a reputation. And now – well, I guess that’s gonna be added to and then some. Three of my best men killed hauling you in…” “Now suh, that weren’t none of my doing – I am a man spirituality bound to be only healthwise and well meaning toward folk.” “Three men, Gorram it!” Feng wiped at his long and vibrant beard. “I fear you have me mistaken – it was not I who so ill treated your brave troopers.” He smiled again. The sheriff had not moved a muscle. “That would be your partner then – the one I think you are about to name for me.” “Suh?” “Don’t play games Feng – aint gonna lengthen your life any. Now you gotta charge – I’ve seen it – fraud and such – making off with some blue suit’s wife. Well but now, we’re talking a real thing here – murder and-” “He told me his name was Jayne Cobb and if there’s anything you want to know about him and his nefarious and scandalising self – not to mention his unsavoury associates – well I’d be only too kindly contented to answer.” Now the Sheriff’s face became mobile, his eyebrows climbing in obvious surprise. “Oh – oh, right then. Well. Good. Tell me what you know”. ………………………………. “You don’t think I’m ready…” the words were low, barely audible above the hooting alarms and the crack of the bulbs as they flared red in the cockpit. Serenity shuddered. Captain Reynolds pulled hard at the co-pilot’s steering sticks, as if he could wrench the craft to safety by sheer force of will. Given the circumstances, his patience with River Tam was running out. There was an explosion from somewhere underneath. “Kayleeee!” “I’m on it Captain!” crackling back from the speakers which tilted away from him alarmingly as the ship yawed. “This is worse than a stud rodeo when the mares come home! Gorram it!” He swore in violent Chinese. “There…” River was pointing. Mal followed with his eyes – a distant tongue of light was leaping towards the ship – a ways off yet, behind it a luminescent ball of ephemeral matter burst into existence. “The pretty one. The green one” Smiled the girl. The ship kicked savagely as another fragment of hot rock disrupted its stabilisers. Mal looked at River. River looked at Mal. With a theatrical sob she threw herself from her seat and dashed from the cockpit. Sometimes, reflected the Captain, there were practical advantages to the fact that she could read a man’s mind. Seemingly. Reynolds hit switches with frantic abandon. The ship twisted again. “ZOE!!” yelled Mal. “You’re Up!” ……………………………….

Elsewhere in the black – fifteen days out from main base and cruising on normal, the Alliance Federation Ship Hadrian – Reg NBZ./o^/11/Schooner Class – paused in its normal routine. Cmdr de Vower leaning low across the communications consol and frowning under his cap. “I don’t understand.” He was saying. “Are we getting a signal? Is that what you’re telling me?” The communications operative gave a shrug. “That’s just it Commander, I’m not sure – could be a scrambled signal – or maybe an echo, a ghost – could be feedback from the nebulae…” The Commander’s annoyance was obvious. “Well – do you think you could narrow it down?” “Sir – I – will try. Sir. But it’s very difficult – the barrier’s out there and – well – signals get swallowed right up… or else just lost among the… singing.” Blinking under the harsh strip lights, the young Lt’s face was just a watery smear. “They say a man can go mad listening to that singing.” He held a headphone towards the commander. ……………………………….

On a better day, Zoe would have found the raw flaring gasses and the sudden erupting meteor clusters awesome. Beautiful. They would have been reflected in her dark eyes. She would have worn them like jewels. She would have made sure no/one noticed of course. Now, she looked at them and her body tensed. Her nervy handed knuckles white upon the controls. Another vivid display passed overhead, washing the cockpit in unnatural colour and light, washing out the data displays with a spray of static, wash- “We need Wash” said Malcolm Reynolds turning to her. Damn the honesty in the man’s eyes! “Always will.” She said tightly. The ship rocked violently, bumping off the energy around them. Always will. Zoe knew what Wash would have said. “Chi ##*!! Ji- B##*e!! The ship aint a rock, sweet-cakes. Stop tryna push it off a cliff – you gotta fly this thing. You are going to fly this thing aren’t you? I mean – ok, you don’t wanna?, I won’t argue – I’m just the husband here, man as I am – Ok, ok! Stop making with the warrior glare already will ya – and pull the Yu*# Ch#*a up!” The ship angled steeply. Malcolm’s head ducked low. “That’s it now “said Wash. “Yeah, you’re getting it – got the old fear and desperation working for ya … always worked for me – well, except for that one time, ok two times, actually it’s a funny story” GORRAM! Even in her head he was still distracting. Even dead. Yet, all the same, her hands were moving with a new assurance – she found herself reaching confidently to click the manual over-rides, turning the ships control completely over to her. One -two–three. The ‘Magic switches’ Wash had always called them. As Serenity plunged between the scarlet retchings of the malignant star system, she hoped it was true. ………………………………………

Alone again, Sheriff Gobruk took a pipe from the drawer and lit it, relishing the acrid spicy tang of the cinnamoned tobacco. Few things in this life he did relish. Or had time to at any rate. A solid ounce of tobacco and a good long match struck off his boot. Well they were just fine. What was not fine was the tale he had just been told by that fool Feng about himself and the big lug with him. Dangerous tidings. As the Fates-woman was wont to say – Things would surely develop from this. He doubted they would be good. ……………………………………….

Rolling onto her back, then twisting away sideways, Serenity dodged the flames of another M-burst. “I thought Simon said this was the easy route!?” Zoe yelled. “Apparently so.” Reynolds was leaning hard against the dark of the cockpit wall. The screens flashed proximity warnings faster than he could keep up with. Zoe squeezed the thrust trigger and kicked out at the breaking control shift. The ship flipped up and climbed at an almost vertical angle, throwing crew and equipment onto the floor. Reynolds roared Chinese oaths in his loudest voice – until he saw that this latest and – frankly – impossible manoeuvre had cleared them of the debris belt and energy stream below. Ahead of them lay the relieving blackness of space. Empty space. “I didn’t know this ship could do that…” Said Mal after a spell. “I didn’t know I could either” Zoe corrected him. “And, yes Captain, this is the part where you say – thank you.” …………………

One moment the Shepherd had been walking with Magdalena through a narrow street and toward a courtyard near her home, all the time conversing. Quietly. He was asking, and she was… not exactly forthcoming with answers as the idea of a price slowly took shape. The next – and without warning, she had shoved him brutally, into open space. And he had hardly cursed his lowered defences when he was moved from that space, at high speed, first into a wall and then down onto the cobbled ground. There was the whining sound of a gun being charged. A big gun. A very, very big gun. And it was being pointed at him by an even bigger man. The man leaned close with a leer. “Name’s Jayne.” He growled. “Heard you was asking ‘bout me.” The Shepherd was shocked. “Yes but – how – here? I – I – thought-” The Shepherd seemed lost for words. “I thought…” “Yeah…” Jayne grinned. Not a friendly grin. “I reckon y’did. Just goes to show don’t it. Thinking? Kinda over-rated.” He pressed the gun barrel hard into the Shepherd’s belly. ………………………………

This is how settlers must feel, thought Zoe, as she pulled Serenity out of the black and into approach for Seleni station. The moon hung around the neck of its mother world like a green jewel. The kinda green to slow a person in their tracks, she thought. Realise the invitingness – in an unwelcoming ‘verse, of just, – hell, never did have much gift or use for the poetic but – there – that – sure was… something. “Aint that something?” she said turning to Mal. “Yep.” Serenity headed in. ………………………………. END OF PART TWO. ……………………………….

MALIFIC: An About Face Interlude:

There was a polite round of applause. The sophisticated, self-consciously civilised music of classical strings, waltz time and the ambient tinkling of jewelled fingers, cups and plates -china, of course. Shindig like this, he thought – and they always gotta go with the china. Never a good idea, so damned fragile. Always bound to end up bro- “Captain Malcolm Reynolds and The Most respectable Inara Serra”. A smooth voice ushered them in. “Fancy aint it!” Kaylee looked up at him from under a wayward lock of red hair. She took in the room beyond. “So… fine.” She gave a wide grin. Threw her arms around him. “I love my Captain.” She said. “Daddy” said River from behind her. “Well, shiny….” Said Reynolds gently prying himself loose. “Although – ‘Daddy’? I thought I told you before not to – and where’s Inara’s got to?” Kaylee grinned again. “Oh, she’s over there.” She waved. “Y’know. Dancing. Looking beautiful. Over there. With the other man.” “What?!” “One wearing a shirt.” Kaylee giggled. Mal realised he was clad only in his vest and pants. In his hands he was carrying a big beaker full of strong smelling beer. River looked at him earnestly. “You think you’re remembering it all wrong. But you’re not.” Her eyes were full of concern.

Ok, so – confusion – but he didn’t have time for this right now. He had to – he was supposed to have come here with Inara for rut’s sake. And she was off – well, we’ll soon see about that. And he plunged forward into the smoothly dancing flow of people. There! Inara was swaying gracefully the fingertips of a gloved hand touching those of – yes gorram it – a stranger. Tall, well built. Wearing a decorated suit or fancy uniform. There were medals upon the chest. As Reynolds approached them, Inara turned with a hot look “Honestly!” she said, “I should’ve known you would-” Mal scowled in reply “I’m just here to look out for -” The other man cut him off sharply. “Look out for what Malcolm. A whore? Isn’t that just like you – think she belongs to you huh? Like your ship, your crew, your-” he laughed unpleasantly. “Family?” Mal’s fist began to clench. The man had not finished. “See though – I don’t believe Family’s built on the same things you do – dirt, crime, sin, whoring and the like. Family’s built on loyalty. Loyalty comes from the recognition of power. And I don’t see any power in you.” He nodded at Mal’s raised fist. “Can’t say as I blame you for being angry – truth hurts, as they say. Tho’ I reckon,” - He struck out suddenly with a lean hard fist, sending Mal sprawling to the ornately polished floor – “that probably hurt a deal more.” Staggering, Mal rose on unsteady legs. He lurched forward. Heedless of Inara’s waving him away. The two again came face to face. They shared the same face. Mal stared open mouthed. The other Mal spoke up anew. “Oh you may stare Captain Reynolds. But what are you really seeing here? You think I’m a bad person – think I disrespect your whore? Think you are yourself of worth and without stain? – well… correct me but, here’s a thing, you want this woman? Take her for your own? Well I have eyes myself now. And I can plainly see – you’re married already.”

HUH?

“It’s true!” Inara’s voice was accusing. She raised a hand, a slim finger pointing to his temple, pointing to his crown. His own fingers reached up to it now – slowly – feeling at first just the hard edges of his skull, then the wiry tangle of his hair and then – petals…in wonder, he realised that there were petals upon his head – bound together like a wreath. A marriage wreath. “No – no” he said hurriedly, “you don’t – I’m not – hold on a gorram minute here!” He could smell the fresh flower fragrance, it conjured up warm nights, a contented belly full of mead and a pretty lass, smiling before him – handing him the flowers, handing him the wreath. “It was never real,” he began staring at the faces floating before him. His vision was blurry. Wiped his eyes. “I never”- there was blood on his finger tips. Musta pricked himself, he thought, somewhere in amongst the rose petals there must be – “Thorns now.” Said Mal looking on at himself. His expression was of mild rebuke. Next to him, Inara tutted. “Honestly Mal – looking to become a martyr to the cause?”

WHA?

He could feel his head hurting now – the thorns digging in. Real anger flushed hotly through him. “Wait – again – just wait a GORRAM minute – I never went looking to be no dead hero – I never had no yen for the big black – not for me – every time I have seen it coming down? I have looked it straight in the eye and stood my ground – never once wished that cloud would come upon me.”

“Are you sure?” asked Zoe – her hand upon Mal’s rigid shoulders as he gazed out upon Serenity valley, bathed now in the sulphuric lights of the Alliance bombardment “Never wanted to taste what all the men you knew here tasted? What you lead them to, Sir.” “No!” Inara snorted. “Of course he does – that’s Mal all over.” Mal shook himself – glaringly somehow both at her and Zoe - from face to face and from world to world. “I have” he said slowly “NEVER wanted that for myself.” “What about me Mal?” asked Wash with genial accusation. “I mean sure – I get it – I mean, believe me Mal, I hear where you’re gong with this, no, wait - where are you going with this? Oh that’s right – my death. Buddy – I’m the one surfing the big dirt kahuna – and for what? – so you could feel better about what happened at Serenity? Or worse about finally winning your war? Does feeling worse make it better? Do you feel better Mal?- coz newsflash!- I don’t!” “Don’t suppose you feel much of anything right now, Wash.” said Shepherd Book. “Hmm, kinda nauseous actually, a little – Y‘know - I think I may actually be allergic to gravel…” voices fading away. Enough. Enough now. “This is all wrong.” Mal’s voice sounded dry as he awoke and sat up. Around him, the figures of Simon and Kaylee and the others drew back in alarm. There was a chorus of guttural galactic Chinese. “He aint dead!”

“Course I aint dead.” He heard himself say. “Just a little scar. They fixed me up real good. You can hardly tell.” His fingers traced a line on his chest. “But what’s under here? Worth a fortune… I had to do it – only thing I had left to lose, so y’know I figure, best sell it while I can.” Was that really his voice? It sounded younger. “Guess that makes me as much a whore as you Inara.” He looked towards her. “Do I know you Sir?” she asked.

Mal could see his face reflected in the med-bay monitor, beeping softly at him next to the couch. He put a hand to his curly hair, stroked a finger against the upturned swing of his nose. Turned back to Inara. “No” he said. “I guess you really don’t”. He had noticed he was still wearing the wreath – but it was slipping now. It slid past the newly curled hair and down to his oddly pale neck like a Noose. He could feel it tighten. Could feel the jerking pull of the rope as it ripped him from his feet, tore the air from him and choked his insides. Swelling them Inara leaned forward. Her mouth twitched and her eyes looked down significantly. “Hrrmph! Looking a little, um, irritable Mal” she twinkled to herself even as she faded. Wait – wait – WAIT! Fighting for air Mal could see the faces of the crowd – their leering expectation, their lynch mob joy. He kicked against them. Kicked against the air. No! No! The silent figure of the sheriff turned away. No – I don’t – this never – choking! I aint ever been through this before! This aint ever happened to me! Not me! Not yet!

The last thing Mal saw before it was over, were his feet, twisting slowly, slowly, in the wind, in the void. His feet were clad in a pair of something comfy, over size and fluffy.

And them aint my slippers – he thought groggily – wouldn’t catch me dead in – But he wasn’t dead yet. He wasn’t dead now. He was awake.

..............

chapter three

Malcolm Reynolds blinked as the early morning light struck the windows of the cockpit. That was the last of the petty pre-disembarkation regulationss attended to. He switched off the communications channel with a weary sigh. Wasn’t sure if he could even remember what fake name he gave this time. Everything was in readiness though. Zoe was to stay here – on watch whilst he was gone. He aimed to make it quick. He had been surprised and glad, when she didn’t argue but – after piloting Serenity through the storm, he didn’t doubt she wanted to rest. And she knew how to take an order. Still… thinking on the crossing just to get here, Simon left back and angered in amongst his screens – the trip itself, all the tense moments among the meteors and firecracker stars. The strain in Zoe’s face. The non-too happy groanings from Serenity herself. Not to mention the nightmares he had struggled through last night… Well, a weak man might set some sorta store by that. “I am a weak man,” muttered Mal to himself as he watched the landing ramp extend. Because, he kept thinking, superstitiously, after a mess of an opening like that, what else could possibly go – right? ………………………. Kaylee was just at the entrance of the ship when a firm arm pulled her back. It was the Captain. He looked at her. “Kaylee.” His voice was low. Approaching. She blinked at him. “Kaylee” he said again. “I – I know things aint gone too gentle of late.” He was looking her straight in the eye. But that was just fine, she could take it, her eyes were wide enough for that. “None of us have – but you aint had a deal of fun of late… nor River either. Like I said. Nor any of us.” She gave an encouraging nod. “And?” “Well Kaylee – go, Gorram it – get some air – go, be wild someplace – only not too wild nor in a place River’s like to take on and leave in a bloody pulp. You catch my drift here?” His face begged the question. Kaylee struck him hard in the chest. “OW! Kaylee – what?”- She stamped a foot. “Damn you Captain – and I had my whole ‘I’m an independent woman – watch me, this is me walking – I have a right to and I’m gonna – you can’t stop me’ speech, all fuelled and ready to roll. You – you sure can surprise a lady.” “Just go easy when you go. And don’t let people know I was… and then later, well, later we can all get back to shouting again.” He rubbed his face with a weariness she hadn’t seen him disclose before. Yep – Just when you think you know a man – she hugged him. Quickly. It was his turn to blink. “Well. Ok. Good.” Firmly now, he pushed her before him down the ramp. River was waiting, squinting in the unaccustomed light. She nodded as Mal approached. “I heard singing too, last night” she murmered. Zoe was looking at Mal with mild curiosity. The Captain waved an admonishing finger at Kaylee. “You – you firebrand you -!” he called bluffly. “I never heard such words on a – if that’s the way you wanna play it – fine! Get outta here! – but just don’t stray away too far now y’hear me? – and you come when I call!” River poked out her tongue. Kaylee gave the Captain a look. Melt a man’s heart, that look, he thought to himself. He watched them caper along the white washed con-course that lead out of the landing port. He muttered to himself in Chinese. There was a prod from Zoe. Her eyes nearly twinkled. “You’re very paternal – sometimes… Y’know that?” Mal scowled in reply. “Just weren’t no arguing with her.” He said. “And I don’t need distractions, not with a job to do.” Zoe sighed. “Absolutely Sir.” She said. …………………… Seleni Station woke up to itself as it did each morning. Pouring onto the streets with the energy that came from knowing things would soon slip into humid torpor. The city flooded with sound – the tearing open of food wrappers, the slamming of doors, the raising of awnings and grilled shutters. The day. ……………………

Magdelana struck again. Her cleaver sweeping down, in short blows, well aimed – but with the side of the weapon – to land with a punishing slap. Jayne’s hand raised defensively, jerked with a useless spastic motion. This was as bad as the rutting insects! “Ow!” he cried. “Ok ok!” Magdelena swore in crude in chinese then pointed at the figure of the Shepherd, clambouring to his feet. “What you brung ‘im back to me for? – and mercy sake – this is a Shepherd!” She yelled. “A man of faith. Do not abuse him so!” Jayne yelped agin. “But you – we – you WARNED me about him!” Magdelana rested a ready hand on hip. One dark eye dancing dangerously. “I sent the signal yes” – Shepherd Face, now standing, wondered to himself just what signal she meant, just what gesture of hers yesterday he had missed and to whom she had signaled. After a night spent cramped and tethered by Jayne, (“Don’t much feel like talking Shepherd – didn’t come here for talk”) who, after trussing and gagging him had, obviously feeling safe once again, rapidly lost interest – indeed possibly forgotten him – preferring instead the pleasures of the woman whose house this was. It was a good house – larger than most of Magdelana’s class. But then Magdelana was larger than most of her class. “So now he’s here – still here, in MY house – I didn’t spec’ to see him so when I wake up this morning…” The cleaver hovered dangerously again. “So now you make time with him – with this SHEPHERD – and you talk – make him talk, not bleed!” Jayne snorted heavily. “Well, fine. i don’t HAVE to bleed him any – but jus’ remember he was the one trackin’ me? ‘k?” The shepherd spoke now. His voice had regained its composure. “Truth enough, Mr Cobb – and I thought I tracked you all the way to the sheriff’s stockhouse. Seems there may be tales for both of us to tell.” ……………………………..

Kaylee breezed through town with a bounce in her step. River by her side was rapidly counting buildings and comparing the number to a bag of parade beads bought from the first stall they passed. It felt good to walk – just to walk. But Kaylee did it with a purpose. The ship needed supplies – always a hungry ship, but it also needed equipment. Kaylee needed someone to trade with. She saw a multitude of trading stalls and shops, their leery owners eyeing her fresh face for a fleecing. Kaylee loved to feel underestimated. In her pocket was a scrap of paper. On the paper was the name of a street. The circus had been pitched there, the space port attendant had told. Words coming to him easily under Kaylee’s enthusiastic smiles. They were from off-world. They had a ship. They might have parts. They might make a trade. “Well that’s MIGHTY white of you fella!” Kaylee had quipped. ………………………….

Jefferson Feng was feeling mighty pleased with himself. He took his time as he walked. Strolling down the bare gaol corridor as if the damp trodden floors were lined with velvet and every suspicious smear and stain an entree offered for his perusal. Well why not? Everything was going to plan. Not only that but this was his second visit to Sheriff Gobruk in twenty four hours. why he was practically a guest of the man already. He slicked his whiskers and knocked at the door. Ignoring the guard behind him completely. “Yep!” Called the Sheriff irritably from beyond. Feng stepped through. “Good mornin’ Suh, good morning’! And many felictitations to you and to your, no doubt sturdy, sterling, offspring!” “Huh.” The Sheriff was leaning low in his chair. A cheroot smoked in his left hand. Feng wondered if the man had moved at all since yesterday. Wife troubles he supposed. Man probably needed a dose of vital tonic. Wife probably needed a new husband. He chuckled softly. The Sheriff grimaced. “Feng.” he said. A swear word it sounded in his mouth. “This man, this Jayne Cobb you say you were delivering to me – this man with known fellonious associates.” “Why yessuh?” Feng asked in his most open helpful tenor. The sheriff coughed. “Seems like them associates are here already.” Feng touched the corner of his chops. “Ah.” he said. Sheriff Gobruk raised a reddened eye. “Now what I want to know is – you got any history with these people? Anything I should know?” Feng smiled waving a pasty white hand. “Why no Suh, but I must declare that this turn of events does paint the stripe of the day in a different shade. Somewhat. Every man has his privacies Sheriff – t’aint no/one would say different. So you see – ah, I guess there IS something you should know…” He leaned in confidently. ……………………..

Mal was on the move. Winding avenues and staircases carved into the rock that peered up out of the swamp. The tattered parade of laundry flags, linings, occasional hand painted signs in deftly scripted galaxese. The over powering smell of the swamp heavy on the insect thickened air, mingling with hot aromas of fried fish, spices and the determination to make it work her – to survive. People here seemed a mite more colourful than the norm – and their brightly attired gypsy bustling seemed almost incredible in the grip of the climate. People seemed curious as he passed them, often smiling – yet the eyes held the defensive glitter of a switchblade – and more than once a man had a made of point of showing a pistol handle, or two, under the guise of lighting a cheroot. And here was a thing, the place was small enough, sure, yet -, as it wound in, out and around itself like a serpent swallowing its tail – a man was easily lost here… and once lost would not a find a way too easy. More than once, Mal had got turned about – as he visited gun shops, flophouses and trans-bars on the hunt for a scent of Jayne – and been driven to ask directions, standing embarrassed inside his most courteous of manner, feeling like a tourist. And yet. And yet. Through out the whole day, the Captain had been followed. Of that he was certain. And try as his may – he had not managed to lose the shadow yet. ……………………

“I don’t remember if I liked the circus. But I don’t think I did.” River stood warily, half in shadow. In truth – it was getting harder to find shadows now as the sun approached its oppressive zenith. They would be better off inside, in shade. “One time a clown nose made water on Simon’s pants”, giggled River. “It made him cry.” She was getting edgy, Kaylee knew. This long away from Simon. “C’mon sweetie – roll up, roll up huh?” Hugging River by the shoulders Kaylee walked through a gothic archway and into the courtyard beyond. They emerged into a space strewn with the tawdry tinsel and bare iron of the circus world. Black curtains hung from an iron frame aways back. A man scowled through goggles, soldering pieces of magician’s equipment and trailer-dome scaffolding. A pig ran without warning from the curtains pursued by two squealing children. One was dressed as a mermaid and was forced to hop. She was very good at it too. Three clowns expertly failed to juggle and Kaylee laughed appreciatively. A woman sat alone by a rickety put-up table and eyed her silently. A midget foreman bustled up from no-where and Kaylee engaged him in bright toned banter – discussing star charts, travel and cramp. River looked around and smiled. Various other acts began to set up stall. Kaylee tugged on her sleeve. “Boy I could fit right in here…” She said. “That compressor’s overloading for a start.” She gestured to a whining pump. “River? We’re just gonna wait a whiles – the man’s coming with some equipment we might be needing.” “The man’s going to jail.” River corrected. “I – I don’t think so…” Kaylee shook her head. “We better keep out the way…” “Here!” said a commanding voice. “Come here child – take a seat and let me see you.” It was the woman by the table. There were a couple of empty chairs, Kaylee could swear were not there before. “Hi, ok” she said doubtfully. River followed but hung behind. The woman smiled as they approached. An enigmatic smile. “My name is Carla. I am a fates woman. you know what that is?” Kaylee nodded. “I reckon. Fortunes huh, well – ok, make mine shiny!” She flicked an eye behind her at River who was circling the table now restlessly. “We shall see my dear.” said the fates woman. ………………………

Out in the black the Alliance ship Hadrian was restaffing its communication shift. The Commander bit deep into his jaw as a new candidate stepped up to the job. He stabbed at a finger at the young man. “Any poetry in you?” “Sir? No. Sir. No.” The Commander’s hand relaxed back to a neutral clench. “Very good. See what you can do with that signal trace we picked up – before we lost that cuckoo to his artistic sensibilities. No way to know if he was onto something or just hearing the voice of his dear dead Ma.” “Sir. Yes Sir.” “And don’t take long about it.” Out in the black the Alliance ship Hadrian was waiting. The Commander hated waiting. ……………………….

The fates woman smiled at Kaylee, smoothing back her jet hair as she did so. “When were you born child?” Kaylee chewed on a lip for a while. “Year of the plough.” she said finally. “And your friend?” Kaylee flicked a look, quickly behind her. “oh River, well I don’t”- “Hammer.” said River, appearing from behind the fates-woman. Kaylee gave a nervous laugh. “Well that figures.” The fates woman took Kaylee’s hand, stroked it gently. “You are a long way from home…. your family…” “Oh – they’re here abouts… – someplace!” she waved vaguely. The fates woman was gradually moving closer. Her eyes becoming more intense. “Your parents…” Kaylee blinked. Gee, she shook her head – realising that she hadn’t thought of them in the longest time. She remembered the giddy thrill of telling them that she was to ship off with Serenity. That she was an engineer. That she had a job. A job is good, they had said. “And you look for love.” there seemed to be no question in the words. Kaylee smiled her best corn poke grin. “Aint that all a gal dreams on?” She was eyeing the fates woman now – at first she had wondered if she would be ‘read’, if maybe the woman would use Companion trained intuition – but no, seemed like regular spoon-feeding. She twitched restless in her seat. The woman seemed to sense Kaylee’s lowering interest however and she reached into a bag, hidden within the garish folds of her dress. “Pick a card.” The voice carried years of practiced carny command. Despite her boredom, despite a warning voice that told her to remember that she’d seen many nasty things been pulled from bags, despite her dislike of being slipped, tricked or deceived – Kaylee found her hand had reached right in regardless. That her hand had placed a card upon the table. That her hand was feeling its edge. Kaylee looked at the card. The Lion. Wild maned and rampant. Teeth, jaws, fur, claws. The ground beneath it shakes with the awesome roaring. A child rides smiling on it’s back. Laughing with innocent mastery, innate and greater Strength says the card. Kaylee smiled. and then the Hanged Man comes.

………………………..

Malcolm Reynolds slipped into yet another bar, still feeling as low key as a cheerleaders’ convention. Predictably now, the place seized up in mid-movement, regarded him through wary eyes. Why did he always seem to have this affect on bars? He wondered. “Don’t get much off-world traffic here” said the barman, once conversation elsewhere had restarted. “You must be glad of the buisness then.” said Mal easily, drinking in slow from his whiskey. “You got that right Mister” said the barkeep. “You must be with that circus…” Mal twitched. But the face infront of him did not seem hostile. “Bet you’re sorry you got stuck here.” the keep finished. “I seen worse” said Mal. His eyes narrowed. “Though I always seem to miss out on the fun… heard there was a fella brought in by the law… real mean guy. Was there a ruckus?” The barman laughed as he reached for a towel – the galaxy wide known signal for: ‘Buddy now I’m gonna tell you a tale…’. “Yeah…” he said. “Hell of a thing…” …………………….

The Fates woman was affronted. She leant back hard in her chair – with a practiced withering look. “When one meets the Hanged Man” she snarled. “One does not normally smile.” Kaylee nodded vaguely. “Shiny” she said. her smile brighter than before. The Fateswoman spat on the floor and raised her hands, her fury becoming resigned now, humourous – as she followed Kaylee’s gaze. “Ah.” she said. “That is Doonican – the lion tamer.” “…aint he just” breathed Kaylee, raising her fingers with deliberate girlishness as the man approached. He took them with a grand bow. Kissed the tips. One hand flicked the whip behind his powerful legs. flick! Like a tail. He was dressed in emerald green. And he was speaking. “Right now – just then” said the man with a music lilt, “I had the somewhat whimsical notion you were watching me… saving that you weren’t just watching… more sorta following me wit’ them big eyes a yorn.” The accent, thick and artificial was charming nonetheless – to someone as deep space deprived as Kaylee. She smiled warmly. “Would you be wanting to join the circus now?” he asked. Beckoning. With a wink to the fates woman, Kaylee was on her feet. ……………………..

Mal eased his way cautiously through the narrow lane leading behind the prison. It was actually more of a drainage channel. Littered now with compost and debris and – it paid not to look too close. He kept to the shadows of the wall. Looking for – there! – a reduntant window. The room beyond most likely used for stores and now forgotten. An elbow was all he needed. Praying he had not been heard, he wriggled his way through the appature, and inside. ……………………..

Zoe hated waiting. But she was good at it. Holding the fort was in her blood – in her genes. Certainly in her training. Even as she calibrated ship systems on the bridge, patrolled the empty walkways or cleaned another carbine, while scanning from a view port – she kept her mind quiet and her brain active. she kept review – the ways a man might steal up on a ship like Serenity. The ways she could harm a man who tried. She kept watch. ………………………

Mal kept a hand clamped hard over the mouth of the guard – caught napping, literally, in the somnalant afternoon atmosphere of the jail. Lowered him gently to the dirt floor. Paused. Wiping sweat from his brow. The air, thick enough to blanket a man in his sleep, was damn hard to actually breathe, he thought. But this was it. The cell. Even from a distance he had distinguished the sounds of two very different men. One smooth voiced – and sounding as though he was calming a wild horse. The other roaring and stamping incoherantly. Go figure. He hefted the keys and slid them into the lock, nearly dropping them with his heat slippery fingers. The door opened slow – but it didn’t creak. Mal breathed out his relief and slipped inside. Jefferson Feng looked up at his entrance. “Why Suh,” he said instantly and easily. “You must be Captain Malcolm Reynolds, late of Serenity Valley, veteran of the Reaver Front. A hero I’m told. I am Suh, honoured as you may imagine.” Mal said simply. “You’re Feng.” He waved his gun raggedly in the direction of the big man at Jefferson’s shoulder. “My only wondering” said the Captain. “Is WHO the jii*#* Ba!! is THAT!” The big man growled menacingly. “That’d be Jayne Cobb,” smiled Feng. “Or as I know him – Vito Doonican, strongman (and true), late of the Solar Circus.” Mal simply opened and clothed his mouth. “And I…” said a voice from behind. “I am Sheriff Gobruk – and I am ordering you to stand down.” Mal froze, his gun arm slowly lowering. Jefferson Feng clapped his hands merrily. “I do love good theatricals.” He said jovially. “Bravo!” ………………………..

River was in motion. Her arms a blur, her body a coiled spring unleashed with perfect balance. Kaylee emerging from behind a curtain, arms still hampered by the belt of her half-hung jeans – could do nothing. Not even scream. Not in the time it took the three small knives to fly from the opening fingers. She screamed instead as they flew. “Riv –NO!” Pinned against the wall – a small girl closed her eyes – face white – mouth a gasping slash. Kaylee crashed to a numbed stop. There was a warm round of applause. The child opened her eyes. “Again again!” She whooped. There was a man at Kaylee’s shoulder. He was pointing at River. “This one…” He looked at Kaylee now. “She is… gifted.” ……………………….

“It takes a real gift –to get caught this easy.” said Mal. “Wasn’t much of a stretch,” agreed the Sheriff, moving into the cell and forcing Mal forwards with his gun. “But then – see…” Gobruk continued, “I’m the Sheriff – you’re the felon. Trying to bust a prisoner loose? Assaulting an official guard of law? Capital offences. So I’m figuring now it’s maybe you’ll do the stretching… Can’t remember the last time folks here got to see a decent hanging.”…

End of part three.

……………………………….

Part four:

Hell of a thing, thought Shepherd Face, family. Taken aback by the sight of the sprawling Magdelana clan – he failed to notice that the voice in his head was somewhat at odds with his tongue – and his training. He gazed warmly around the room. Whitewashed walls, as always – the room was a kitchen and dining space combined. A rough table ran the length of the middle and around, besides – and sometimes even on – the table – sprawled the assembled bodies that made up Magdelana’s crew. How many were truly blood kin, Face could not tell – but he doubted it made odds. All seemed welcome – and despite the unruly slanging voices and the rags and the disparate ages and physiques – all seemed beholden to the woman. These were some of her street-Arabs (not likely all, the Shepherd supposed) her eyes, ears and fingers around Selini station. They shared the commonality of poverty. They were tucking in with gusto to spiced bread, cold fish and rough wine. At the head of the table sat Jayne, picking fish with a blade and showing a pistol to a young boy, near him. Magdelana cuffed the boy and yelled, “don’t be gazing so loving at the gun, Jackie-Lee. It’s the brains that keeps our food on the table.” The boy whined half-heartedly. Jayne shook his head. “Boy gotta right to see Mag’.” He said. “Being nearly a man. It’s only right.” Magdelana spat “Ha! Says you! A Love of guns leads to shortness of breath on this rock!” There was a roar of laughter. “Now shuddup and carve the Larnae.” Grumbling, Jayne leant forward across the table and uncovered a waiting dish. “Always the same” he muttered. “Every time I come back to these parts”. Magdelana laughed again. “You and Jackie-Lee maybe ARE a pair. N’quit your whining – it aint my sweet tongue you come here for.” Jayne paused and looked at her. “You know – it really is.” Magdelana howled with glee and reached again for the wine. Shepherd Face said Grace calmly, in his head. Closed his eyes. Opened them again. Looked at Jayne. Smiled. Jayne knew that look – gorram it! – everybody was always giving him that look. The shepherd was STILL giving it. “So, Mr Cobb – you fancy helping me free that unfortunate Doonican?” ………………………..

Funny – thought Zoe to herself as she maintained a strict schedule – to have become attached to a ship, a craft, vehicle – Serenity. Never had done before. A good ship was a good ship, sure, but it was what they did that counted. They attacked the enemy, they brought supplies and air cover, transported troops or… got the men out in time. She wasn’t sure Serenity had actually done any of these things – if you didn’t count the Reaver front and… well, she just wasn’t going to right now. It was funny, She thought, to have become attached… Time on watch passed… slowly. …………………………..

Malcolm Reynolds was in his own cell now. Tethered, chained. Trying hard not to breathe in the sick-smelling damp of the floor he had been dumped on. Sheriff Gobruk noted his sprawling form with approval. His voice was like a flint sparked lighter in the confined space. “I don’t like Heroes. Big people – big names, always kind of little on the inside, doing what they do to feel better for the real empty they got in there – figuring the masses’ll love ‘em into wholeness… that you Reynolds? Not content to die a man – you gotta live like a Hero? Huh. You ready to pay the price for that?” Mal rolled over on to his back. Drew his legs up. Threw the Sheriff an insouciant stare.. “I do believe I know this dance.” He said smoothly. “Frienda mine once said ‘you know what the definition of a hero is? Someone who gets other people killed’.” Gobruk considered that. “Not bad.” He muttered, stroking his chin. “And what happened to said ‘friend’ ?” “I got her husband killed. Oh yeh, I’m a big damn hero.” Gobruk smiled nastily. “Yep, that you are. Not alone either, I’d hazard. Well I’ll greet the rest of your kin just as kindly. Make no mistake.” Mal coughed. “Well, see, seems the mistake’s been on your side much as mine Sheriff – you holding a man coz you’re thinking he belongs with me. Not so. Not at all.” Gobruk shook his head. “Do I seem overly concerned to you MR Reynolds. All good things in time, as they say.” ……………………….

“Sawdust, tinsel, lights, smoke, mirrors and mayhem – all the wonders of the Solar Circus!” Boomed a voice. “Roll up! Roll up!” The words echoed round the courtyard space where the Circus was encamped. Mighty Max the Midget MC failed to restrain his enthusiasm as he watched River Tam. As he watched her fly – through the air with the greatest of ease. She sailed in a graceful, easy arc, up and into the waiting trapeze. Turning on one foot, she rode the bar downward, leaning foward to catch the leaping figure of Joff, the Circus’ actual flyer. River was flying… And she was really enjoying herself, thought Kaylee – hadn’t see her grin so free and wild in the longest time. Adjusting her clothing, Kaylee waited for the breathless figure to leap to the ground beside her. River’s face was ecstatic. Kaylee smiled. She had allowed River the extra fun, as a distraction after the earlier incident with the knives and the unfortunate -“Uh, I’’m sorry about before – about yelling. I was scared.” She stroked River’s face. It was cool. The dark girl nodded. “Scared of me.” She said. Kaylee rocked on her feet. “NO! no, sweetie – jus’ jus’ scared for the bitling is all – and I… I’m sorry – I felt bad. I shoulda been here with you.” River smiled. “You were with a man.” Kaylee nodded slowly. “Yess.. I was, uh, – d’you know about – that stuff?” River giggled. “Triggered in the maidenhead…” It was almost a song. “All grown up now.” Kaylee smiled encouragement. But her eyes held doubts. With a gesture she snapped back to herself. “Well, those parts we agreed on? They should be about ready for the taking, by now. We don’t wanna see Captain Mal waiting on us and angered. Ch## Ju** Me##.” She put an arm around River. “C’mon mei mei.” She said. River stuck an arm out, rigid, pointing behind. Towards the trapeze, towards Joff. “He comes too,” she said. Her voice was firm. ……………………………………..

“Can we get back to the part where there was you with a plan and me with a gun saying no?” Jayne Cobb was not happy. They had ridden together on a rough engined jet-cart, just above ground level. They were wearing goggles. Jayne called these “a diguise”. Now, however – as they approached the gaol – Jayne was beginning to feel more than apprehensive. He made continual clutching movements for where Vera should be, strung around his back. “What happens here is necessary,” Said Shepherd Face. “An innocent man is in this prison – because people believe it’s you.” He was preparing to knock at the main gate. “I got no problem with that.” Jayne was sincere. “Just be quiet” Said the Shepherd. “We cannot shoot our way in – we may be able to fight our way out.” There was a cold voice from a wall mounted speaker. “Whaddya wan’?” Face kept himself relaxed. “Shepherd Solomon Face. You got men on death row in there. Got a right to a preacher.” There was an electronic screeching noise as a channel changed. Nails on glass. Face coughed. The next voice from the speaker was recognisable as Sheriff Gobruk’s. It drawled laconically. “Well Shepherd – and I have been expecting you. Come right in.” There was a creaking sound of hinges as the doors bent wide. Jayne swore fluently. Together they went inside. They were met with a chorus of clicking rifles, pistols and even one or swift flicked knives. An assortment of guards moved warily to block their path. Shepherd Face raised a hand. “Stop. I am a Shepherd. What is the problem here.” There was the sound of booted feet descending the stone stairs. Sheriff Gobruk, gun in hand, came down slowly. “No problem with that at all, Shepherd. And you’re right to say dead men get to see a preacher. We seem to have an over-abundance of them today. Men that is, waiting to die.” Jayne Cobb stood at bay. The Sheriff prodded at the tiny goggles. “Huh. Tell you he was a guide did he? Shepherd.” Face turned to the man. “Yes sheriff. Showed me the way to the gaol – the quickest way that is.” He added. “Useful, him knowing and all. Well…” The sheriff signaled to the guards. “Take the big lug to join his friend… Let the other lug go.” If he saw Shepherd Face smile at that, he didn’t show it. “The Shepherd here can read to the condemned men, later.” He gestured up the stairs. “P’raps I could fix you up some tea, Shepherd, while we wait.” He added dryly. ………………….

Serenity lay in a pool of sunlight now – despite her weathering years, her wars and woundings, the ship looked content. The sun glinting off silvered edges, She sat like a proud eagle at nest. Calm. Inside the ship – there was a similar expression on the face of the ships pilot. The mechanic however, had an altogether different expression. “Not back yet!?” Kaylee bit her lip, anxiously. Zoe laid a hand on the young woman’s shoulder. “It aint probably but nothin’” She said. “Capt’n can take care of himself. Lord knows. And if he’s with Jayne – well, chances are the two of are brawling their way to Serenity right now. Best let em get it out their systems.” She was priming a weapon even as she spoke. “And you best get to the engines Kaylee – lest we hear anything.” Kaylee nodded – taking the steps down and onto the walkways to the engine room at a bound. And gone. River sat demurely on the co-pilot seat, her knees drawn up. “You don’t need to worry, River.” Zoe was full of false reassurance today. “Captain and me – we have plenty of signals, codes and the like – I’d know if there was trouble.” She patted her rifle. “There’s a man down there who flies through the air.” Said River, pointing with a finger at the floor. “He can help us.” Zoe raised an enquiring eyebrow. …………………..

Jefferson Feng knew his moments. It was the secret of any great performer. He paused for a moment, collecting himself, then nodding to the guards – went into the cell. “Mr Cobb – Mr Cobb” He said at once. “The Sheriff has forced me into freedom – and ordered me also to make farewells in person. Truly that man’s conduct is ungracious.” He made his eyes wide and sorrowful. “I feel I must condemn the unfortunate way that Dame Fortuna has played with you. You kept your end of our agreement and, as a gentleman, I must protest that I did my best to honour mine – given the tricksy and shifting nature of the times!” he added. He paused expectantly. He was, he had to admit, disappointed with the response. Muted, would be to speak kindly of it. Eventually Cobb coughed. “That’d be Feng”, he said to Mal. Mal turned, regarding the portly figure of the man, the burgundy velvet jacket, the elaborate billowing white shirt, the top hat clutched in the hand, the high leather boots and the precise, waxed and lurid red whiskers. He gave the tinniest of nods. “Figured. I saw his warrant – part of the trail as lead Serenity… here.” Feng could not let that slide. “I have my nay-sayers, detractors, slanderous – what honest man of travel and experience does not but”- “Alliance aint interested in detracting – just subtracting”. Smiled Mal, coldly. “You’re a wanted man.” “Hmm” Feng was doing his best to appear unruffled. “I’m a wanted man then still – you found me through the Alliance?” Again, Mal ignored the man for a spell. Then, “Only partial – mainly we had a trail for Jayne – and a scrambled ‘stress call from a people transport – seems they don’t get many here – seems you were on it.” Feng was smiling again now. “I was indeed, an honest and dreadful tragedy – no doubt, given the difficulties a signal has getting through from here – and I must say Suh, I find your detective like persistence in this regard most admirable – no doubt that after that gruesome happening, the Alliance think me dead.” Mal’s eyebrows signalled their enquiry – even before he spoke. “Well Mr Feng, then perhaps you’d do me the kindness of explaining how you crash a low flying, fast burning piece of merry gosa – smack into the ground here – and you aint dead?” Mal’s voice was deliberately bland. “Oh? well – it’s a swamp hereabouts.” “Right enough. A swamp. That it is. And I just know you’re gonna fill me in on how you crash a low flying fast burning piece of metal… into a gas spewing,toxic and highly flammable swamp, without exploding?” Jefferson Feng’s smile was as broad as his arms were wide. “Ha! Well Sir, I’ve a large heart and full… of the love of the wide and bonny ’verse and just too plain kind intentioned to die so easy – or so dumb.” “I see.” said Mal – again his finger lightly touched the handle of his gun. “Also… I had him.” Feng gestured with a handkerchief towards the lowering figure of Jayne. “Well now Mal and that is the truth of it. I saw the ship crash – ‘tweren’t hard on figuring no survivors, lots of scav.” Mal nodded. “And prey tell, Jayne – how you came to wade through a poisonous swamp full of gas and into and out of this man’s fiery abode.?” Feng chuckled. “No doubt Captain, like me, this man too has a generous big heart.” “Got big lungs.” Said Jayne simply. ……………………..

Far above and out beyond the edges of the system, beyond indeed the fringes of that vicious storming mix of plasma, rock and energy known as ‘the singing’ – Alliance Schooner Hadrian circled uneasily. The Commander of the craft sat under the bare illumination of a reading lamp, perusing the report from communications. It was not what he wanted to read. An aide was standing next to him. Eventually coughing politely. “Sir?” The Commander took his time to respond. Well, time was something they were beginning to roll around in up here like a mudder in milk. He growled. “Seems there was a signal. We just don’t know ‘what kind’. ‘Possibly a distress beacon’. Possibly. My God – It’s a crew of children I have here.” The aide was nothing if not polite. “Sir.” He agreed. The Commander rose to his feet. “Take us through as far we can – safely – understand? If we pick up anymore signal we’ll go on to whatever forsaken spot’s at the end of this system.” “Seleni Station, Sir.” “Whatever – just make sure we’re scanning legit – not picking up the sorta thing that drives a callow crew out of its mind.” “Sir.” A few minutes later – and with a visible reluctance – the Hadrian began to change course. ……………………

“Well Suh,” Feng rubbed at his whiskers, slowly. “I will admit that I saw before me, placed by the hands of good grace – one might say…” “Or one might not.” Mimicked Mal. “One might take into account the wrathful nature of my audience – and get to the point.” Feng was not easily cowed. “An opportunity…” he continued, “for a certain self advancement and, truly Suh, is that not the honest spiritual goal of all mankind – to progress to be mind full of advancing itself?” “Mind full?” “Well Suh, I was undoubtedly mind full of the reward!” Feng’s guffaw was a noisy one. “Once your fella had revealed his name”- Mal threw Jayne a white look. “The one and only Jayne Cobb, an honour, well it was… providential. Turning him in, collecting the money – didn’t take but a blink of the eye.” He laughed again. “But y’see…” his voice dropping confidentially, “… someone blinks? Aah, but a little magick can get done then. So, – I talk to the circus – I switch your man for theirs. I walk away with due payment. Truth comes to light, an honest case of mistaken identity… Strongman goes home to the circus… only now his pockets’re smiling some.” “Mine too!” grinned Jayne. Mal did not join in the grinning. Sat the round out. Feng brought his hands together with pursed lips. “Only I didn’t count on no associates turning up. Well, leastwise not so quick – and queering the pitch.” Feng looked at Mal steadily. Jayne looked at Mal – a little more unsteadily. “Yeh Mal – why’d you come bustin’ in here anyhow? Messed things up…” Mal gave an exasperated sigh. “Got a hot tip from the new Mr Universe, heard you were in trouble.” “Am now.” There was a tense pause. Feng chortled. “Theatricals!” he smiled. “You really ought to learn to love them more Captain, especially as I fear your days upon the stage may now be numbered. On the other hand it is time- ” He words became hurried as he saw the looks on Cobb and Reynolds faces. “For me to make my exit and adieu.” He waved a limp hand as he backed swiftly out through the cell door. The chorus of Chinese curse-words rang in his ears like applause. ……………………

Never send a woman to do what a man should do – a truism that Magdalena swore by, swore at, in the certain knowledge that what a man was, was “good for nothing”. She swore again. As she entered the circus space she felt the eyes off the off-worlders upon her. She glared back from her one good eye – and turned her face, using the patch on her head to full effect. Snapped her fingers commandingly. “I am Magdelena DelaCrux – I have things to tell ya.” Everybody there was listening. …………………….

No/one in a condemned cell really expects to see a friendly face. The one facing Captain Reynolds seemed – amused, at least…. warm toned and looking at them with deep charismatic eyes. Coupled with the hair, drawn back in a loose locked bun and the small wooden earring, the Shepherd looked almost piratical. “Well,” he said. “You boys are a sight.” Reynolds clambered to his feet. “Preacher? A Shepherd no less – Sheriff send you – no wait – let me guess, the gorram Abbey sent you!” “That’s correct Captain.” Jayne furrowed a brow. Reynolds looked grim. “Well you should know – Shepherd – what happened it wasn’t – well it WAS my fault but… Book was a good man. And he was his own man.” Face held up an open hand. “I know that Captain – I’m not looking for restitution from you.” Mal blinked. “You are a hero now Malcolm Reynolds. A lotta people are living suddenly with the beginning of a hope. Delicate times. People stirred up. You, Captain, are one of those holding a spoon.” Mal tried to read the Shepherd’s expression. It was still affable enough. Seemingly. The Shepherd laid a hand on the Captain’s shoulder. “My name is Shepherd Solomon Face. I have been sent Captain, because there is a need. That’s all… But right now,” he added, “there is not much time.” Jayne interrupted with a snort. “We may be dead men – we don’t need no Priest.” Face considered this. Seemed to weigh something up in his mind. Then he looked at Jayne. “Ok, Well – Are you boys ready to meet your Maker?” Mal gestured theatrically – difficult given the heavy iron cuffs about his wrists, chaining him to the wall of the cell. “Meet? Maker? Just the one? Are you sure Preacher? See, I remember my mother – and, yep, I’d be lying to you now if I said she wasn’t many things… but claiming this man”- he nodded at the bullish form of Jayne “here for her own?” He smiled. “ Well, I can’t say as how I recall that being one of ‘em. Maker? Seems to me that would kinda be making us brothers.” The Shepherd looked undisturbed. His rich voice carried no irritation. “Do you always hide your fear this way Captain? You will not make me angry.” Mal started. “How interesting – the last man who said that me was a butcher of Shepherds.” “And that, Captain, is partly why I am here.” There was a sudden hard nudging in his back – and Mal twisted awkwardly to look at Jayne. The big man looked perplexed. “Hey, Mal – we aint brothers.” Mal laughed. “Ooh Wee! Guess who turned up to the party just as the guests are leaving!” Jayne smiled. ”We leaving?” Mal nodded towards the Shepherd. “I do believe that’s a matter for this preacher to decide.” There was a pause then, as if things of moment were being weighed up. Then the Shepherd smiled at Jayne. “It must be difficult having such a brother.” Jayne was on his feet red faced “We – AINT BROTHERS!” He lunged with a roar, muscles and tendons straining as both Mal and the Shepherd tried to slide away. There was an almighty wrenching crack! The chains holding him broke, falling to the dusty cell floor. “There now,” said the Shepherd smiling broadly. “That wasn’t so hard was it? May be we can get back to the plan now – the one where we all run away? The one where we escape?” Hissing urgently, Mal turned around aiming his cuffs and chains towards Jayne. There was the sudeen heavy sound of booted feet running above them. “Gorram!” he swore. “Je** Ch~~ Ba###!!” “It seems they must know I’ve been consorting with one of the prisoners before this.” Face looked through the grill of the cell door, his face tense. “Him?” Asked Mal in surprise, pointing, as best he could, at Jayne. “You done what with me now?” Asked Jayne. Then “Forget that – I’m more’n about ready to bust some heads.” His knuckles crackled as proof of point. “No!” Commanded Reynolds firmly. “Shepherd – you’re his hostage now. Sheriiff may not like you – but I get the Odd feeling he won’t want trouble with the Abbey. Not for a dead Preacher. One of their own.” With no hesitation Shepherd Face flopped, in apparent semi-consciousness, into Jayne’s fumbling arms. “Get offa me!” yelled the big man. “Shut up and go!” yelled Mal. With one last look – full of obviously mixed emotions – Jayne Cobb took the Shepherd up and hurried out the door. …………………

Two hours Captain Reynolds was taken, bundled into the back of a black transporter and taken to the Killing Ground. ………………….

“I’m beginning to get this now” Said Mal, to the looming face of Sheriff Gobruk as he looked from the floor of the holding cell (Came to Selini Station – all I saw was the floor – part of his mind sang). They were beneath the hanging ground. “The lack of a decent breakfast – the constant speechifying – you have come to speechify some more I take it? Well, it worked Sheriff – I just long for death. Take me out and get me strung up right now.” He tilted his head up at the lawman. Gobruk listened to the sarcasm and made a low growl in his throat. “You want speechifying? It aint my thing usually – but in your case I will, gladly, make an exception. Take a look around Reynolds – where d’you think you are?” He leaned back against the door. Mal got to his feet, easing the muscles of his legs as he did so. “You know cells all start to look alike after awhile – or maybe my vision’s not so good on account a the mean and raging hunger I’m left with – since you confiscated food.” Gobruk took a step forward and knocked Reynolds to the ground. “Shut up that oxygen stealing mouth of yours Mal and listen up. This here is the Public Sports and Rest Arena, Selini Station. Built a year or so ago. Fine place for a sports game. Fine place for a public execution. Alliance funded. Local built. We’re real proud of this place.” Something in the acrid tone of the Sheriff’s voice made Mal attentive, as he slowly got to his feet again. Or maybe it was the gun. Gobruk had pulled his revolver for no reason but real and burning anger – to level at him. Hatred like that – made a man like Malcolm Reynolds curious. The sheriff looked at him with level eyes above the barrel of his gun. “You see, son – a situation like this – always more complex than you count on – never quite the simple, truthsome seeming, tale folks like to hear. See – look at you – how are you seein yourself now – big hero – defender of the Free? Sender of the wave? Well, see, let me tell you about a wave. Big wave? Rolls down – smashes things. You’re thinking – good – hate the rutting Alliance. Well ok, what if I said – I hate em too? What if I said that while you were choking in Serenity valley, I was face down in the Merrion trenches -oh yeah, I bit mud for the war… Alliance? Shoot. You know about this place – this rock? This moon? Miracle moon – way out here past the storm up there in the black – great place for the alliance to be – secret and outside the eyes of the prying and crying public -safe in the shadow of the mother? Only maybe not see, not safe enough – every season or so – we get the hot rocks raining down, electrical storms, swamp ablaze – so, not so safe. Alliance? S’posed to help some – last time they came, they had money, we had men, s’posed to build a nice big shelter. Cept, y’see, they built us here this – nice big sporting hall – place for some RnR on account they got so bored here.” Gobruk spat towards the floor, Mal shifted his feet. The Sheriff had drawn breath. “Last season? This place? Still the best place to survive – we all took shelter here – those of us who weren’t micro-waved… I guess we got through. And now? Since the wave – alliance pulling back – gotta retrain the masses in the heartland – the voters – gorram! – have been complaining. No/one hears us complain. But then no/one hears us scream. Till now -you coming down – well I think it might just persuade ‘em back – on account of you being so hunted an’ all – and when I tell em you were spying out this rock for a base. Aint that the truth of it.” “And the truth of you?” Mal tried to bite back his anger. “Setting the dogs on me? Feel good to you? One Browncoat selling out another…”

Gobruk shook his head. “Captain Reynolds – see? That’s just your false pride talkin now. You’re thinking Sheriff’s a bad man – never was looking for no base – never was looking to get hung. Well son, you get hung – you die here, thousands of settlers’ll live next season… didn’t you fight for them once – weren’t you ready to die for them then? Aint you prepared to sacrifice yourself still? Aint you ready to die for them now? Aint you a hero still?” Spent, the Sheriff eyed Reynolds for his reaction. The gun he held was trembling slightly, the trigger finger taut. Just needed an excuse…

Mal took his time to answer. There was no easy answer. He folded his arms. Looked once at the floor. Then finally locked his gaze with the Sheriff. “I’ll die for them…” he said slowly. “Maybe… One day…” He turned his back. “Aint gonna die for you though Sheriff – and not today.” The words atleast had hope in them. Gobruk regarded the dismissive shape of Mal’s long back. His voice was gritty, low. “Oh.” He said. “I’m thinking that in fact you surely will.” ……………………………………………………………………………. End of part four ………………………………………………………………………………

part five: It wasn’t when he saw the hanging ground that Malcolm Reynolds felt real fear. Seen worse. Far worse in his time. Serenity Valley, decimated into a half dusty paste, full of fallen hopes, comrades, pieces of comrades – Miranda where people just gave up and rotted in their tracks – a lot of nasty places… No. It was when he saw that the drunk man, ahead of him in the gallows queue, was wearing a pair of incongruous fluffy slippers. That was when he felt the fear. It tilted the frame. Somehow. Skewed the shadows, the edges of the scaffolding, the empty seats, the open ceiling, the leering sheriff in his mule, the sky – there must be sky, Mal thought. Everything spun. For a moment. Just an animal. Reynolds said to himself, at himself. Just an animal, you sense what’s coming. His body was gonna kick and crack. He knew that. His mind. Hell maybe his mind had already gone on a ways. “You see we rounded up a few stragglers.” Yelled Gobruk. “Gotta put a show on after all.” If it was a show he wanted – the Sheriff had to be disappointed – didn’t seem that hardly any seats were taken in this place. Vague hands were pulling him now – or pushing – Mal climbed steps – heard a wooden groaning. Didn’t for a moment, merciful moment, didn’t feel the Noose. Until he felt it tighten. Until he heard the snap of the trapdoor under him – until he could feel the jerking pull of the rope as it ripped him from his feet, tore the air from him and choked his insides. Swelling them. Wait – wait – WAIT! Fighting for air Mal could see the faces of the crowd – their leering expectation, their lynch mob joy. He kicked against them. Kicked against the air. No! No! Falling into air – through the hole – falling into space, into air, flights of angels, sing thee, falling up through the air, the shadow, the thunderous roar, the bursting in his ears, his head, falling, into her arms – and into the sky. “Found – a little – sky – at least…” His words, a rustle of broken vocal chords, a whisper on the wind. “Not Sky.” Said a voice. “River.” The Captain tried to say something else then but there was no Captain there to say the words. No Captain there at all. ……………………………………….

The minute he saw the lowering and artificial looking cloud aways off in the north, Sheriff Gobruk had had an inkling of trouble. And when it came to trouble, the Sheriff was not a stupid man. His Sgt twisted under a hail of bullets from Jayne Cobb. Troopers on the gallows were knocked off their feet by a concussion grenade – flung by the Shepherd of all people. A one one-eyed harpy and a small troop of freaks stormed suddenly into the open from their seats and began pouring oil onto the wooden scaffolding. He kicked the mule into hard gear and lifted up as high as could go – bucking backwards and off towards the open roof – and escape. Bare minutes later he was tearing on foot – through the space port emergency access concourse, towards his ship. Reaching the end of the balcony strip, he vaulted clear up and out, down onto the upper hatch port and in. The vessel reared up in an angry kicking of smoke – and roared off, up, away. …………………………………….

“Last time I was lying here – it was a dream – huh, dreamt I was someone else…” The pale face of Malcolm Reynolds seemed bleached still further under the cold med-bay lights. “Hey, Capt’!” Kaylee was looking down at him, her face shone with relief. “Thought you were… goner be – a goner… for a while – but you came right back to us!” Malcolm coughed. “You aint got an engine to be tending?” he tried to raise an eyebrow, failed. “I’m on it, I’m on it! Gorram dong sh**## jen Fu+! You men… it’s all work, work, work… well… mostly…heh, heh.” Her lilting voice floated out behind her as exited the med-bay – mechanic kit in hand. Someone pressed a beaker of water to his lips. He was glad of that. Shepherd Face looked down at him, he seemed to be doing a deal of that. Mal coughed again. “Oh, Shepherd. Kind of you to look in – well, take a good look… I have died and I have risen again – whatdya make of that?” “Just that it’s good to see you coming back to yourself so soon.” Mal lifted a hand slightly, pointing towards the tense faced girl, half hidden in the Shepherd’s shadow. “Only on account of this little girl. This little girl of ours.” He smiled. “You know Shepherd, I called her a witch once, not exactly meaning to, but still…” Two hands were gripping now. “I take it back.” River grinned, flicked at a strand of hair with her free hand. “Told you I was learning to fly.” Mal gazed deep into her eyes, those contrary, crazed, calmly busy eyes of hers – he so rarely saw them. He smiled again. Warmly this time – life beginning to coarse back into his veins, into his face, his voice. He smiled at River – and this time his eyebrow danced. “You did it. But…” He beckoned. “It’s a question…” His newly clear voice was saying – “Can you tell me – What kept us in the air?” River beamed. ……………………………………………

The sound of roaring animals and revving machinery filled the air around her as the Fates woman reached a long fingered hand towards the ground. The circus was finally packing up. Two men walked a dancing circle around her as they carried a piece of wobbling scenery. The strongman, home at last, carried a blanket wrapped cage. Idris the singing fat-lady ran after them, powerful voice raised in accusation “But how can we be going now? I haven’t performed my new song – Pippi only just finished writing the words out! Surely we’ve time for-” Her voice choked off in melodramatic grief. Beside her now, Max, the Mighty Midget MC, reached out a consoling arm. “Shows over, Iddi…” He said. “That’s all folks.” He waved a cigar-laden right hand. “Not” gulped Idris. “Not till I’ve sung my new song surely?” She looked in forlorn hope, down at the midget. “Hurry up with those Gorram costumes!” Max yelled, looking past her. “And pack em right – this time! We get lucky – some other show might wanna trade us for em when we hit Persephone.” Another figure strolled up to him. Velvet jacketed and be-whiskered. Began smooth talking in a broad carny tongue. Max listened attentively. The man in the jacket smiled. I’ll have ‘em all working for me in a month, thought Jefferson Feng gleefully. The Fates woman took her time picking up the fallen card – how long had it lain there she wondered – since she was disdainful of any ungainly movement. Her fingers found the papery edge and with a deft flick returned it to the table. That table would have to be folded up soon of course. Gazing one last time around the white walled stone space that had been their home these past few months – the Fates woman readied herself to join the rest of the throng – wait too long and I’ll be sharing my cabin with Marvello and a couple of performing seals, she thought. Drooped a languid eye at the card, finally. Smiled. It was appropriate somehow. THE WAGON. Triumph. She looked at the illustration – the hard, bare lines of the wagon as it trekked between two lines of trees. Above it were the sun and moon, below the ground boiled in flames and smoke. The face of the driver was set, determined. The fates Woman smiled again – cast her eyes ironically to the heavens. ………………………………….

“Seems to me…” Said Malcolm Reynolds. “That pretty as you are – still I can’t help from wondering – just what in the sphincter of hell you are doing on my gorram ship!” His face was full of accusation. “Given that, even now we are racing to a confrontation – there may perhaps be better times to discuss my reasons…” “Reasons? Oh…” Reynolds laughed dryly, beginning to sit up. “I thought perhaps you were going to say payment.” He leant on the Shepherd, finding his weight before standing upright. Face smiled smoothly. “Perhaps Captain. But I do think I could be of use to you.” “You think I’m one a those in current need of a Shepherd, as you were talking on before? Believe me – better Preachers than you have tried and…” “Died Captain. I remember. But that’s a part of it.” “Best tell me the rest quick while I dress – Gorram – was this Kaylee? They strangled my throat not – I’m near naked!” Reynolds scrabbled about. “Y’aint been too quick so far,” he said over his shoulder. Shepherd Face sighed – and prepared to make a speech. …………………………………………..

“We know where we’re goin?” Zoe was pulling hard on the controls, Serenity was audibly unhappy. There was always, a cacophony of alarms, buzzes and electrical squawks. Staggering onto the bridge, Malcolm Reynolds said nonchalantly. “Don’t mind my ship – she just likes to let you know who’s boss.” He thumped a blinking display panel. “Which would be me.” Zoe had stared straight ahead, through this. Turning now she asked in, and in the same tone. “We know where we’re going?” Mal leaned forward, looking at the helm. “Sheriff’ll have a rig up here somewhere… He’ll be bringing Alliance down here – that’s his plan. Signal’s tricky for him – so…” He clicked quickly at the scanner. “There must be a jury rigged booster somewhere. Alliance only. For emergencies. My guess? – not used for a time, not meant for him either… it’ll need setting by hand.” Zoe had levelled the complaining craft now. “So what about us?” Mal gazed out for a moment at the rushing star fields. There was a dim point of red light. Gobruck. “You get us there first Zoe.” Said the Captain. “I jump him. There’s a way in… I can swim across – catch him in the doorway- ” Zoe was looking up in alarm. “It’ll work – I’ll have an advantage… It’s an old trick.” He sounded less than sure. The cogs in his mind turning even as he continued to talk. “Meantime? There’s a need for Kaylee. Getting to the rig itself and”- “She know that’s the plan? Sir. She know the plan involves her?” Mal squeezed the inter-com in his hand. Brought it up to his mouth. “Kayyleeee!” …………………………………

In his craft, Sheriff Gobruk noted the distance to the rig and set the auto-systems. Grabbing a tool bag from beneath the low flight chair, he stumbled upright, bowing his head. Squeezed himself through the hatchway. Time to get dressed for work, he thought, heading for the airlock. …………………………………………. and the emptiness of space. the empty space. It’s a stage. Look – there are puppets. Dancing. Marionettes, jerking on invisible wires. Getting ready to move across the empty space. The stage. ………………………………………….

Kaylee didn’t like the look of the booster-rig. Not at all. It was made of strands of wire, thickness of an arm. Laced and interlaced. Worn looking junction boxes and computer console add-ons dotted across the black metal. It looked like the noose bruising on the Captain’s neck. Serenity was approaching at speed and Kaylee would have to hope the angles were right – she nerved herself for the jump – felt strong hands suddenly lift and fling her into the black. River! She thought. She span in her suit, caught a glimpse of a second figure behind. Cursed in Chinese. This was not the circus! She was distracted as she bounced into the rig. Her breathing was laboured inside the bowl of her suit helmet. She flung her arms wide, grabbed again at the metal jagged circuits. Caught hold. …………………………………………..

Mal could see Gobruk’s ship now as Serenity, under Zoe’s firm hands, slid back across its path. Reynolds could see the airlock, the glitter of its exterior lights. He wondered again, if this was really – but yeah – the suit would lose him agility in a struggle but he had to try – Gobruk would kill Kaylee if he got to her. With one last, narrow-eyed shake of the head – he hurled himself into space, into the void, into the black. Reynolds surrendered to it – exhaling sharply, a long deep sigh, as he made the crossing – as he swam the space between. This was his element. His fingers grappled and scrabbled silently. The door was opening. With a wash of light, a sudden force of air caused him to struggle. His easy movemnts replaced by a desperate effort against the power of the decompressing air. C’mon, c’mon, c’mon! Head down, he weathered the storm. …………………………………………..

A sudden spray of electrical sparks and dry silent hissing caught Kaylee by surprise as she rotated one of the dishes. She near lost her grip on the spinning relay. Beside her River was tense, patting at her arms. “No oxygen, no fire. Still burning.” Kaylee reached out with a foot, steadying her grip – River finished patting at her, gloves coated in fire retardant. The two of them began to inch their way along towards a prominent console. Kaylee clutching a multi-spanner in her gauntleted hands. Gorram – that made it hard. Gritted her teeth. ………………………………………….

Captain Reynolds threw himself forwards now into the lock – a fist lashing out to strike the emergency override. With a blare of alarms the door slammed shut. Air pumped in. He opened his visor with a snap – sucked on the oxygen – an infant’s gasping feed – then turned to the inner hatch. The lock mechanism was now freed. He depressed the switch with his left hand, the right sweeping up an extinguisher from the door-side rack. The hatch clanged wide – there was the stumbling, angry, equally space-suited figure of Sheriff Gobruk, frustrated in his attempt to leave. Seeing Mal, his eyes went wide in shock. Mal smiled, once, before spraying the suits visor with yellow grey foam. Gobruk threw his arms wide, charging forward like a maddened crab. Mal upended the extinguisher, brought it down with a crash on the back of Gobruk’s helmet – to absolutely no effect. “Gorram!”- ………………………………………………

“Gorram!” Kaylee watched her spanner spin useless into space – too far, too fast to catch. “So much for being lady like about it!” She yelled. Pointing with a finger. River grabbed Kaylee from behind – helped to hoist her across, up and over to another section of thick cable. Kaylee wrenched at it using all her strength. She could feel the metal, buckle, resist – then break. There was a sudden illumination as the last security damper was broken and the rig came on-line. Kaylee and River basked in the spotlight. Maybe it was a circus after all. ……………………………………………….

The staggering sheriff’s momentum carried them both to the wall, pinning Mal. The heavy metal helmet butted at him viciously. Reynolds pulled the extinguisher up sharply, catching Gobruk on the chin of his helmet forcing him back a step. Mal dropped instantly and lashed out with the extinguisher, taking Gobruk in the back of his knee. There was a crash as the man was felled. Mal kicked him then in the side, using a heavy pressured suited boot to roll him onto his back. He watched the sheriff flap and flop uselessly. Leaning back, panting, against the wall, Mal drew his gun. ……………………………………………………. “Hurry now, I’m reading a signal bounce back.” Zoe’s voice rang suddenly in Kaylee’s ears. She tapped at her helmet. “Hurry? My God – lady, I can hardly”- “Best do as she says little Kaylee.” Said Malcolm Reynolds, cutting in. “Capt’n?” It was good to hear his voice. It sounded strong. “Sheriff had a signal coming from in here too – Alliance’ll be coming. They won’t bother with Selini just track and trace the nearest ships.” “Us, you mean”. “If we don’t move like greased lightning.” “Head for the Singing, Captain Reynolds – the Alliance won’t like tracking you through that.” Shepherd Face broke in. “Shepherd Face? You settling in?” There was a momentary pause. “He’s UN-settling” said a terse Zoe. Face coughed, spoke again, urgently. “Captain – I know of a listening post – far edge of the storm, keeps itself to itself – but a, one of my – there’s a man there I know of, he’ll get us through.” “Last time we went near that hell breach Shepherd…” “Can you think of another way? We have to at least go through the perimeter of the field to escape the system…” “Ok. Ok. I’m done trashing Sheriff Gosa’s flight comp. He’ll be hearing the fat lady too, real soon.” “I’m heading inside Captain.” Said Kaylee – “Can’t cope watching River upside down for too much longer.” “Fair ‘nuff – I’m nearly at the airlock my self. Let’s get busy people.” There was a general cursing chorus. ……………………………………………………….

Like a wolf with a sudden scent – the Alliance cruiser Hadrian picked up the signals coming in from the newly adjusted booster-rig and from Sheriff Gobruk’s craft. The Communications Operator shoved a fistful of data records eagerly towards the Commander. “First signal was a distress – ship lost out towards Selini… people transporter.” The Commander kept his face a studied blank. “And?” “Second is a call for back up – felony pursuit. A Captain Reynolds”- The Hadrian’s Commander was already issuing orders. With a howl, the Hadrian turned tail away from the Selini system racing into the dark on the trail of Serenity. ………………………………………………..

Hell of a thing, thought Shepherd Face, family. Taken aback by the sight of the sprawling Mal Reynolds clan – he failed to notice that the voice in his head was somewhat at odds with his tongue – and his training. He gazed warmly around the room. The galley was a dining and living room combined – the iron walls banished by shadow. There were low lamps and candles instead. The plates were heavy and durable but many, Face could tell, had been painted on – flowers and stars and leaves – the same bright handmade designs he had noticed elsewhere in the ship. He commented on them now – sliding in his voice in among the excitable babble from the dining table like a rich sauce in among the dishes. “Oh – yeah… they’d be mine, mostly.” Said Kaylee with a bob of red hair while wiping a drop of gravy from the end of her nose. “Uh-uh little Kaylee,” called Reynolds. “You know as well as we – cleansing of the face will rob you of every one of your superpowers.” There was an appreciative chuckle from the crew. Kaylee pointed to her dish and made a face. “Soup-er powers is more like, Capt’n.” She turned to Face. “Can you cook? We have a powerful need of someone able to not make every single dish taste like oxtail soup.” “I have on occasion cooked for the abbey. Yes.” A room full of expectant faces looked up. The Shepherd smiled at Zoe, perhaps the least enthusiastic of the group. “Have you ever eaten a Rim-Worlders’ White Chocolate Pie?” “They feeding that to Shepherds now?” Zoe’s voice made no effort to hid its rudeness. Mal raised a hand toward her. “I’m afraid to say Shepherd…” Mal’s face was full of mock apology. “My right hand never lies… Said she finds you a dash…” he smiled. “ ‘Unsettling’, I believe that was the phrase you used, huh Zoe?” Zoe’s face was stone. “Well – let her try some of my Shepherd’s spiced paella special and-” Zoe realised the man was still smiling at her. “You can tell me if I still ‘unsettle’ you then.” “Ok… deal.” Zoe was cautious. “On the other hand – and perhaps more genuinely ‘unsettling’ is what you said about the Sheriff…” Face looked thoughtful now. Mal scowled his remembrance. “Yeah…” “It was true – then – what the Sheriff said to you abut the storms – the Alliance?” “You know yourself Shepherd.” The Shepherd nodded. “Yes. Yes, I’m afraid that’s so.” The table had gone quiet now. The shepherd’s eyes were troubled. “So they’ll be lost then, come the storm – they’ll have no voice…” Captain Reynolds set a fork down upon his plate with a firm hand. With the other he reached for a cup. Gripped it tightly. “Oh they’ll have a voice.” He said fiercely. “We’ll give em one.” He gazed around at his crew, then back to the Shepherd. “You asked me Shepherd what does a man do after he’s sent out a wave, a big wave?” “I did indeed Captain.” “You send another. And another. People have a right to know… and in this case – I think they’ll be plenty-a contractors looking for business… And the applause that comes with a good deed done right.” Mal could not quite keep sarcasm from his words. Then his tone changed again. “You can’t keep stop the signal, Shepherd. A dead man told me that. He was right too.” The Shepherd saw the determined look on Reynold’s face. “Well, in that I’m glad Captain.” Mal flicked at his fringe, cornered a potato from his plate. “Though Kaylee is the one responsible – not me this time. Kaylee fixed the booster real good – Selini can relay to Juniorverse, far easier now. And I figure Mr U can keep track of the astrological data coming in from elsewhere – maybe help warn the Station if a big storm’s comin’… thanks to Kaylee.” Kaylee was a bright crimson now. “Thanks to ALL of you.” Face was diplomatic. “Ah, hey!” Said Keylee determinedly chipper. “Guess that makes us heroes all over again!” Not often you get to spend company with a genuine Hero. The Shepherd gazed on at the chomping crew. Kaylee was laughing now at an off-hand remark of Zoe’s. “Just like ol’ times.” She smiled. For some reason, all eyes turned to Mal. He gazed around the cabin. His shoulders slumped slightly. “Same old heroes” he said, looking at the Shepherd. “Only less so.” Jayne burped loudly. Mal caught his eye. Jayne grinned. “Crime then?” Mal grinned roguishly back. “Crime. Absolutely.” With a last mischievous twitch of her fire bright tail, Serenity jumped at the stars. …………………………………………….. THE END

CODA

Quicksilver:

“Well aint that something”. The voice crackles static and the screen flickers with tiny phosphene fires. And the man who is listening sighs. “Just-” he says. “Just avoid this quadrant – the belt’s unstable – your scans won’t be able to predict the asteroids or the flares.” “Oh i surely will. Just don’t be expecting a thankyou is all.” “Acknowledged.” A second sigh. A rubbing of the eyes. A clicking of switches. The familiar music of forward watch room five. That and the momentary silence.

Broken – the already buckled door hurled open. The Ox stands there steaming and grinning. “Heads up Quicksilver, we’re wanted men.” Quicksilver turns. “Yes. Of course we are.”

.....

The Boys in blue and their Boss were deeply pissed off. They stood staring at the soiled crew of three before them as if the men were interlopers. A drunken mob disturbing a particularly placid game of golf.

The Boss shook out the arms of his jacket. “This everyone? Ok then. It has come to our attention that we may have a problem here. This outpost – outpost...?” “311818183.AO7.Gamma Nine. Sir.” A helpful aide. “Thank you Lt. Yes – this tin hole here is supposed to listen – it is a LISTENING post. It is not supposed to TALK.” The meeting room, already cramped, seemed to shrink wrap around the men inside it. It was uncomfortably hot. The music here was hull and bulkhead, metal insulation, mis-firing food dispensors. “Well?” Captain Ullman managed a shrug – a gesture made easier by his over large work shirt. “Did you want me to reply?” He looked sincerely surprised. The Boss however was clearly having trouble controlling himself. “No.” He grated. “I wanted an apology – i wanted “I’m sorry Sir, we understand Sir – we know the importance of your operation and our own gnat like insignificance. We know you are the Boss. We know we are shit.”.” The Captain raised a hand – the Ox was beginnig to breathe hard and there was little enough oxygen as it was. But the Boss hadn’t finished. “Your LISTENING post has started warning people way from the area – let me rephrase that – you’ve been telling people you’re here! And when i say ‘people’ i don’t mean the good and obedient citizens we represent – oh no – i mean flotsam, jettsam, scum, fluff and refugees who are entirely supposed to end up with a face full of hot rock!” He pressed a hard gloved finger into the recording device that Blue Boy no.2 was holding. A tone was emitted – then a voice, a worn voice, a woman’s, rising above the din of her craft and her children. “Bless you Beacon. We’re turning away, following your new co/ordinates, guess me an’ my kin aint found a way through this quad’ yet (hush now!) – but we’ll keep tryin’ – thanks to you. Thank -” The hard gloved finger had stabbed again. Captain Ullman’s eyes were small. “Am i supposed to let them die?” “You are supposed to do your job. Listen to the scum – but talk to our boys. Our boys who have to make it through this hell space too. Our boys who do so because they also have a job to do.” The Captain shook his head. “If it’s a reprimant Sir – you could have saved yourself the trip and told me over the radio.” Here the Boss actually laughed. But it was not a good sound. Teeth snipping at his lips. “Radio?! Oh yes – because you keep such a tight station here that you can’t even get the visual channels working! Well...” The teeth burst out in a smile. “That’s OK Captain. I think it only right that i should say this to your face.” The gun, the shot and the death seemed to rip out of nowhere in an instant of corbite and screams. “You’re fired” said the Boss. And now the Ox roared, flaring his nostrils, head low, fists raised. The Boys in blue took him down efficiently with an electroprod and net. “You see?” The Boss turned to Quicksliver, the only crew member left. “I can smell insurrectionists.” The boys dragged out the smoking body of the Ox. The corpse of the captain was next. Quicksilver said nothing. The Boys left.

.....

“They’re good boys. A good crew. Loyal.” The Boss seemed happier now. He was staring out through the Obs port of the forward cabin and watching his ship roll easily between the sun hurled rocks and debris. The mass of the exploded planets that made up the quad’. There were numerous small explosions of unstable gas and matter. But his ship was steering true. Off to the edge of his vision he could see the in-coming Parliament vessel. “Ah...”he sighed. “ There she is.” A canine shadow of black against the violent red storm around them. Quicksilver was murmering co/ordinates into the scrambled transmitter. The Boss waved out to the vessels before him. “Now you see how smoothly things run when i am here to personally over-see them?” “Yessir.” Said Qucksilver. “And i’m glad you’re here to watch .” He was on his feet now. “But i’m sorry...” his right hand jabbing out suddenly into the Boss’s lower back and twisting. Breaking. “No death is a good death, but life itself can sometimes be a waste.” The boss was pressed spastically forward against the glass, his dying eyes wide, wide, wider still as they saw the fast sleek arrowhead of the Parliament ship slide swiftly and safely between two large fists of rock and right into the bridge of his boys own craft. An instant explosion then nothing - just hot metal dust. The Boss’s legs were beginning to go. “Do you know what Quicksilver is?” Said the voice behind him. Soft in the distance. As sure and as hard as the bloody steel sword he was wiping. “It is a transforming agent. It takes waste and turns it into gold. Do you understand?” The Boss’s response was unclear.

In anycase the com was suddenly errupting with the frantic yells of yet another incoming craft. “Help! MAYDAY! Can anyone hear this? – god – help us – we thought we could find a way through but we can’t – MAYDAY! MAYDAY!” Quicksilver strode to the desk and began to reassuringly give co/ordinates. After a while a voice on the com said “Thank you.”

end

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