Easy Tickets: Chapter 17
Friday, July 7, 2006

The hijacker’s job nears its end, but the complications just keep on coming.


See Chapter 1 and my blog for disclaimers and such.

Except I have to say thanks to VERA2529 and LEEH for the beta help!

Mandarin translations: put your mouse over the pinyan to get the definitions, or see the list at the end.

* * *

The Verdande cartel needed a technological miracle, and its engineers delivered. They developed a new method of mining the lithium dubniate crystals that enabled Edward Verdande III to maintain his stranglehold on the Niflheim system.

Viewed as a whole, the new solution was not elegant. The final product of more than a decade of very expensive research, referred to as a “harvester,” was essentially a large mechanical intestine. It was a cylinder roughly four meters in length and one meter in diameter. When in operation, one end of the cylinder extended a wide conical funnel of reinforced aluminum, and like a whale shark from old earth, it wound through the gaps between larger bodies in the rings, gathering pebbles and dust into its gaping maw.

The initial separation of flakes of crystal from the rock matrix, which happened in the main gullet of the tube, was relatively simple. The local Verdande processing centers had been applying this process for nearly a century. The dust was vaporized, and the lithium dubniate particles were selectively drawn into the walls of the main cavity of the cylinder. The depleted rock and ice passed through, ejected out the back to leave a trail of stony excrement.

The main technical advance, a complicated process for which several Verdande engineers earned luxurious early retirements, was the processing done to the separated lithium dubniate. After being gathered into chambers in the walls of the machine, they were put through several cycles of heating and cooling and treated with a series of purifying and bonding agents. The crystals were doped with iron or copper ions and layered with semiconducting alloys according to the specifications of the computer manufacturers who contracted with the Verdandes.

In this way, the finished product was formed from the raw materials in one easy, unmanned, relatively inexpensive step.

* * *

Ray followed the woman – Inara – onto the bridge. She paused just inside the door, and he stopped behind, his fingers tapping together in impatience. He was in a hurry, thoughts flying back and forth across his mind. He was almost out of this, almost through the worst years of his life, and he could barely keep himself from pushing her out of his way.

Then he noticed how Ginger gave Inara a menacing look. Āi yā – one more complication to deal with.

“The missin’ shuttle showed,” he said with a nod toward Inara, hoping that he wouldn’t have to say any more about where the woman had come from. “You found the harvester?”

“We’re all set to load it on,” she replied. “Just gettin’ lined up. I talked to the old lady, too. She’ll be waiting for us here.” She handed Ray a slip of paper with some coordinates scrawled on it.

Ray kept his response to a quick nod. Seeing an end to this job made his brain light up more; he didn’t trust his voice.

“Where’s Will?” Ginger asked.

Ray took a breath to get himself together. He didn’t want to explain it all: Will and the lady and the odd girl in the infirmary. It was too much to handle. Besides, he wasn’t optimistic as to how Ginger would react. Could be she’d raise a fuss – certainly she would about Will. She’d have to check on him, take him to the infirmary. And then she’d want to tie up the girl and the doctor, lock them away somewhere they couldn’t help Jase.

“Will’s busy,” he explained as simply as he could. He could deal with Ginger when they were loaded up and safely out of the system.

Ray looked to his captives: the lady, Inara, was hugging the mechanic tightly. The captain sat by, looking out the window. This was getting to be too many people to watch over; he couldn’t risk things going awry now. He turned back to Ginger.

“I want only the captain up here, to do the flyin’. Anywhere we can put the other two to keep `em out of the way?”

Ginger chewed on the idea, then she nodded. “I can disable the shuttle, and we can lock `em in there.”

“You can lock a hatch so they can’t get out?”

“I can do it from the controls in here.”

That made him think. “Any hatch on the ship?”

“It’s called technology, Ray.”

He glared his annoyance at her. “Lock down the infirmary, too.”

“The infirmary?”

“That’s what I said.”

“If we’re doin’ that, why don’t we put them all in there – ”

He cut her off sharply. “No!” He glanced toward the front of the bridge. Inara and the girl had heard, and were looking at him. He tried to calm his voice. “No,” he continued. “That’s… too far. Just put `em in the empty shuttle. The one you took down to the surface, not the one that just got here.” He paused a second, then added, “Take the mechanic first, and grab the preacher on the way.”

Ginger tipped her head, looking annoyed. “We ought’a leave that one where he is. You recall what Will said `bout him? He’s like to put up a fight.”

“He’s been tied up for hours – ain’t likely to be so limber right now.”

“But, Ray – ”

“Shut up and do it! I got enough problems from that damn wannabe cowboy, I won’t take any from you.” His voice was low, but Ginger clearly felt the intensity behind it; she backed up a step. “Lock those two up,” he continued, “then come back for the fancy lady.”

“I’ll take her along now – ”

“No you won’t – lady’s got some training.” Ray looked at the woman in question; she was still watching him, looking about as dangerous as a new-born kitten. “She knows how to make trouble,” he continued lamely. “You can’t keep an eye on her and the preacher at the same time. Now get to it; I ain’t tellin’ you again.”

Ginger looked like she didn’t care for being talked to like that, but she nodded and did as he said.

* * *

Kaylee’s hug wasn’t as warm as usual, but Inara relished the contact. She felt so lost, she barely heard the words that the girl whispered in her ear. Something about a weapon. Her shoe. Needs one minute –

The message was interrupted by Ray’s loud voice. Inara and Kaylee both turned to watch and listen, still clinging to each other for comfort. The woman, Ginger, eventually came forward and hit a few switches on the console, then grabbed Kaylee by the arm and towed her off the bridge. Inara watched them go, feeling alone again. She folded her arms around herself.

“What the hell are you doin’ here?” a familiar voice demanded from beside her. She looked toward the pilot’s seat; Mal glanced up at her, his face a mess of bruises and dried blood that she hadn’t been able to make out when she first saw him. She had to swallow hard before she could speak.

“I waved you, you didn’t answer,” she explained, trying not to show how his appearance startled her.

“Mayhap you can see why.”

Inara’s relief at finding him alive quickly turned to frustration at his harsh tone. “My appointment was cut short – ” she started, but he interrupted her.

“You’re not leavin’, right? It didn’t work out? Complicated?” He stared at her for a second, then looked out the window at the planetary rings that were now right under the ship. He rubbed his forehead, a worried gesture, then looked at her again.

Inara straightened as she realized what his words meant. “You were listening? You heard me?”

He looked away again, and his reply was unsure. “No. I don’t… I just knew it.”

At first Inara thought he was giving her a cocky I-told-you-so, referring back to the argument they’d had before she left the ship a few days ago. But she watched him, saw how his eyes wandered over the helm controls, like he didn’t want to look at her.

He wasn’t cocky, she realized; he was lost.

When he finally looked up, his eyes focused on her bruised cheek. “You all right?” he asked softly.

Inara had thought she had herself under control, but suddenly she very much wanted to cry. She forced herself to smile instead, and nodded. “Obvious things aside.”

“That’s good. That’s… that’s a load off my mind.”

Something about the way he said that made Inara turn away to hide her face. She went to sit in the co-pilot’s seat, falling into it heavily. She looked over to Mal, catching his eye for just a second, but he looked away from her quickly. As if the sight of her caused him pain.

* * *

Mal had noticed something before Inara came onto the bridge, but seeing her distracted him from it. He saw the bruise on her cheek and a weight came into the pit of his stomach that he didn’t know how to handle.

She’s just another worry, he told himself. That’s all. Just another care when I got too many already.

Talking to her didn’t help, so he set it aside. It was something he’d become good at lately, he realized, setting aside worries that he couldn’t do anything about.

He returned his attention to the thing he’d noticed – it was a little blip on the display, another ship nearby. He’d left it alone while Ginger was on the bridge; the woman might have noticed what he was doing. He wasn’t so worried about Ray, since the man didn’t appear to have been on a ship before. As soon as Inara sat down, and Mal could get his mind to focus on something besides her, he discreetly ran an active scan.

The approaching ship was a transport; its pulse beacon identified it as an errand runner for one of the local cartels. It was slowly closing the distance between itself and Serenity, creeping in from directly above, but it hadn’t tried to make contact.

Mal had an idea about who was at the helm of the transport. And if he was correct about that, he also knew who was standing right beside the helm, working on a plan to pull his own pì gu out of the fire it was in.

Mal couldn’t stifle a small grin. Wasn’t a thing could hold Zoë back for long. It made him feel almost chipper, thinking about Zoë with her carbine and Jayne with Vera, spacesuited up and getting ready to float on in to the open cargo bay where they could raise some hell. Yep, that took a few weights off his back for sure.

He turned on the co-pilot’s console display and gave Inara a few seconds to look at it. When he glanced over at her, she nodded slightly; letting him know that she’d also seen the contact on the screen. Mal picked up a toy dinosaur that had managed to keep its place on the console through all of Serenity’s recent misadventures, and he flew it over the console in front of him, making a soft whshh sound to accompany it. He glanced at Inara again, saw that she understood.

“What the hell are you doin’?” Ray asked from behind them.

“Playin’,” Mal said, and he spun his chair around. “Good for the soul. Keeps you young at heart. You should give it a try.” He tossed the dino to Ray.

Ray caught it in his left hand and gave it a suspicious look, like he expected it to explode. “Just load the harvester,” he said, and tossed the toy over Mal’s head. It fell down the ladder in the front of the bridge and clattered in the dark space below.

Mal gave Ray a look of disappointment. “Bet you were loads of fun at recess.”

“Don’t start,” Ray warned, but he sounded more annoyed than threatening. He was tapping his thumb against his leg as if he was too wound up to be still. “Just get on with it,” he said.

Mal turned back to the controls, checked the harvester’s location on the screen, and started inching Serenity towards it. But he was grinning, remembering a little time he’d spent alone with Wash recently.

“You may not have realized it,” he said to Ray, “but that little dino that was Queen T. Rex. I hear that she won’t stand for bein’ treated like that. May steal your brain or somesuch.”

Ray wasn’t the only one who looked at Mal like he’d gone completely insane.

Mal shrugged at Inara. “What? That’s what Wash said, and he’d know. Who am I to question?”

Inara swallowed hard and looked away from him, like she wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. It stole away his giddiness, seeing her act like that, seeing how pale she was.

* * *

Kaylee didn’t speak as Ginger followed her down the hall to the dining room. Wordlessly, she held her hand out, and Ginger handed over her knife so Kaylee could use it to cut the Shepherd free.

She returned the knife when she was done, then helped Book get out from under the table and climb to his feet. He wavered a bit when he stood, and only spoke to thank Kaylee. Ginger motioned them forward, and Kaylee held Book’s arm and led him on.

Once they got into Shuttle Two, Ginger ordered them to stay near the hatch as she went into the cockpit. Kaylee heard metal scream as a panel was forced open, then there were smaller indistinct sounds as the woman worked on something.

Ginger came out a bit later, and without expression let them know that if they tried anything, people would die. She looked Kaylee in the eye when she said, “Starting with your wēnshén captain.”

Kaylee felt herself fuming inside, but she kept quiet until the hatch closed and locked. Then she cut lose with a string of words that made Book look more than a little shocked. He finally put his hands over his ears, and gave Kaylee a pleading look.

“Oh, Shepherd, I’m sorry!” she said, and clapped a hand over her mouth.

“That’s all right,” he replied. “Why don’t you just finish up with that while I make use of the head.”

Kaylee took a few deep breaths to calm herself, then she went into the cockpit to assess the damage. The panel just to the right of the steering column, the one that housed the wiring for the helm control and communication, had been ripped open and every wire inside had been slashed.

It was too much. Rage and the helplessness overwhelmed her, and Kaylee sank to her knees and bitter tears finally worked their way free. After a bit, she felt Book sit beside her and touch her shoulders, offering a hug that she gratefully returned.

“Oh, Shepherd Book!” she said, so angry it nearly made her sob. “Look what they done to my girl! And… and they hurt you and tied you up and did something to almost kill the Captain and Inara was so shook up and who knows what they done to Simon and River. And now they gotta be cuttin’ on my girl, too!”

When she ran out of crimes to list, Book told her gently, “They haven’t killed us, Kaylee. It might have been easier for them if they had, but they didn’t. There’s something to that. They must have some decency in them.”

She pulled back and looked at him. “How can you say that? After the way they treated you? How long’d they leave you all tied up like that?”

He smiled. “Longer than I’d like, truth be told. But they let me loose. Far as I know, they had no reason to do that, other than their humanity.”

Kaylee made a disgusted sound and stood up. “I dunno `bout that, Shepherd. I dunno. If you had seen the Captain, seen how he was, all tied up and gagged, and that bùyàoliăn hùnzhàng was laughing `bout it…”

She walked out into the main room of the shuttle, then plopped down on the floor and started pulling a shoe off.

“I got somethin’, Shepherd. Next time one of them comes in here, I’m gonna get `em. Hurt `em like they hurt you and the Captain and Inara.”

Book crouched next to her. “Kaylee – I’m not saying they have a right to act as they are, but we have to be reasonable about this. We have to think clearly.”

“Oh, I’m thinkin’,” Kaylee said as she dug inside her shoe and pulled a little metal disk. “I’m thinkin’ lots of things, especially how much thanks I owe a lady name’a Xiaojun.” Her eyes glinted darkly as she studied the disk. Book reached out toward it, but Kaylee pulled her hand back.

“I have a good idea of what that is,” the Shepherd said, pointed at it, “and it’s like to be helpful. But let’s make the best use of it that we can, all right? We have to be careful about this.”

Kaylee tore her eyes away from the object in her hand to look at Book, and gave him a tense nod.

* * *

Mal and Inara both cringed when a faint shudder went through the hull – the harvester had knocked against the airlock wall.

“Careful,” Ray said.

“I’m bein’ all kinds of careful,” Mal replied. “This ain’t exactly easy.”

“Just take it slow. I can’t have the thing get broke.”

Mal quickly checked the scanner display; the boat that he hopefully thought of as the Zoë-to-the-rescue ship was below Serenity now, creeping forward through the narrow space between her belly and the planetary rings. It stopped right under the wide open cargo bay. Definitely Zoë. The longer he kept the doors open, the more likely that his overpaid gunhands would get on board and finally make some use of themselves.

“Goin’ as slow as I can,” Mal said distantly. “Gorram tortoise don’t go no slower. Gorram tortoise with no legs.”

* * *

As much as Inara wasn’t in the mood for humor, it did comfort her in some way to see that Mal’s irreverence in a dangerous situation hadn’t changed. She wasn’t up to laughing at him – very nearly the opposite – but she did feel a sense of normalcy return as he chatted with Ray. Her mind started working again, and she deliberately went over everything she knew about the situation.

The crew: Simon and River were in the infirmary, Book and Kaylee were locked in Shuttle Two by now, and Mal was here with her on the bridge. That left three crew members missing: Wash, Zoë, and Jayne. Mal believed that this other ship – she glanced at the display on the console in front of her – was being flown by Wash. It seemed reasonable to assume that Zoë and Jayne were on it as well, and getting ready to invade.

As far as the people holding the ship, there appeared to be only two who were active. That was by no means insurmountable.

Even more interesting, Kaylee had said something to Inara when she’d first arrived on the bridge, whispering in her ear while Ray and Ginger were talking. Inara had been too rattled at the time to process it, but now she recalled something about a weapon, a weapon that needed a minute’s notice before it could be used. Inara was pondering whether she remembered that correctly when Ginger returned to the bridge. Mal quietly flipped a switch and the scanner screen in front of Inara went black.

“The mechanic and the preacher are locked up,” Ginger said to Ray. “The shuttle’s disabled, and they won’t be goin’ nowhere. How we doin’ with the harvester?”

“Should be done by now,” Ray said loudly, as if asking Mal.

“Yep, your harvest-thingy’s just `bout on board,” Mal said. “Gotta close up and re-pressurize the bay, and ramp up the grav. It’ll take a few more minutes.”

“All right,” Ray said, “Ginger, take the lady here and lock her up with the other two.”

Inara didn’t wait to be ordered or forced, she stood up and turned toward the back of the bridge. Ginger wasn’t ready to go; the woman was studying Ray, looking suspicious.

“Sure would help if Will was here,” she hinted.

“That it would,” he replied, giving nothing away.

“Why don’t you just tell me what the hell he’s doin’?”

“`Cause I don’t want to. Take the lady and go. And take care, I don’t want no more fightin’.”

Ginger humphed and gave Ray a look of frustration, then drew her pistol and motioned for Inara to go ahead of her. She stepped back out of reach as Inara walked by, taking Ray’s warning seriously.

* * *

“It must be difficult working with a man like Will,” Inara said as she passed by the crew quarters.

“Pardon me?” Ginger replied from behind her.

Inara glanced back, wanting to gauge the woman’s reaction, but Ginger motioned for her to keep walking.

“It must be hard to get anything done when you have to work with someone that unprofessional,” Inara elaborated.

Ginger sounded annoyed. “That man’s as pro as they come, lady.”

“Oh, excuse me. I hadn’t realized.”

Inara feared that she’d been too subtle with her sarcasm, but as they reached the stairs leading down to the bay, Ginger took the hint. “You got some reason to think Will a fool?”

Inara glanced back again. Ginger’s look was openly challenging.

“That’s not exactly the word I’d use,” Inara replied in a light voice, “but I am surprised that he acted as he did, given that you and Ray have such a tight schedule to keep. Will would have made himself much more useful if he’d tied me up and left me in my shuttle, instead of attempting to rape me.”

Ginger responded quickly, her voice sharp. “He did not.”

“Actually, he did. Unfortunately for him, I know how to handle that kind of threat, and all he did was talk.”

Inara reached the hatch that opened onto the cargo bay catwalks and she paused, wanting more time to work on Ginger. She wasn’t entirely sure what she hoped to accomplish, but she clearly had all the ammunition she needed to get this woman off her game. Inara turned back, leaning against the bulkhead in a relaxed, non-threatening pose, and she smiled sweetly.

“Well, he talked and also did some groaning in pain. That’s what Ray was referring to, when he mentioned my ‘training’.”

“You’re sayin’ that Will attacked you and you stopped him, easy as that?”

Inara studied her nails. “Mm-hmm.”

“No way. I ain’t buyin’ it.”

Inara looked up and gave Ginger a just-between-us-girls smile. “Come, now – Ginger, is it? – you’re a woman in a man’s profession. Surely you’ve figured out by now that one can make up for a lack of brute strength.”

Ginger studied Inara, her jaw clenching as she considered it. “So, where’s Will now?”

“In my shuttle, unconscious. I didn’t kill him.” Inara said the last like she expected to be thanked for her generosity.

Ginger shook her head. “You’re full of niú shĭ – tryin’ to stall or somethin’. It ain’t gonna work. Now move.” She nodded at the hatch, and Inara stepped through.

“We could stop and see him, if you’d like,” Inara suggested, pausing at the intersection with the catwalk. “It’s just this way.” She pointed to the left, toward her own shuttle.

“Don’t think so, honey. You’re gettin’ locked up with the rest.” Ginger gave her a nudge to the right.

Inara turned toward Shuttle Two, staying silent for a few seconds while she worked on an idea which was just coming to her. If Kaylee really did have a weapon, distracting Ginger – and letting Kaylee know they were coming – might be all she needed to do.

“Will means something to you, doesn’t he?” she asked.

“What is it ‘bout folks on this ship, not knowin’ when they ought’a stop talkin’?” The woman’s tone was threatening, but Inara wasn’t bothered. Oddly, she was beginning to enjoy the exchange.

“I’m just curious,” she said, “and I think you might be able to explain…” They reached the shuttle and Inara turned the lock on the latch just enough to make a sound that could be heard inside, then she turned back to Ginger.

“Did I make a mistake by fighting Will off? Did I perhaps miss out on something momentous by not falling right onto my back and letting him go at me?”

Ginger looked confused by the combination of Inara’s pleasant voice and crude words. When she finally replied, her tone was short. “Actually, he’s a great lay, but trash like you ain’t never gonna know `bout that. You’re a whore, ain’t ya?”

Inara easily held the pleasant smile on her face. The word didn’t offend her, not when it was being used by this woman.

“Something like that.”

“Thought so. You smell like one. Look like one too. Bet you ain’t good for nothin’ else.” Ginger’s face scrunched up in disgust as she looked Inara up and down. “If Will did come onto you, he was only treatin’ you like what you are. He’d never be like that to an honest woman, one who deserves better.”

Now, that did annoy Inara. “I suppose you’re right,” she replied, outwardly unfazed, but her words rang with blatantly plastic concern. “Oh dear, now I feel bad. I hit him quite forcefully in a delicate place. I do hope I didn’t damage him; I’d hate for a whole generation of honest women to miss out on his prowess because of me.”

Ginger started to reply, but Inara drew in a quick breath, as if a new idea was just coming to her. “But… I guess I needn’t worry about his skull, which may have cracked open when he fell on it. His value as a person obviously doesn’t reside at that end of his body.”

Ginger’s eyes narrowed, and Inara waited with a smile. She was going a bit beyond providing a distraction, but she found herself almost wishing the woman would make a move against her. The gun wasn’t pointed directly at her, and Ginger was standing close. Inara would be able to reach her quickly…

Ginger let out a breath and stepped back. “Fēng sĭ sānbā. You’re just as nutty as that gorram captain. You’re tryin’ to tick me off, ain’t ya? Like Ray said – you got some trainin’, and you think you can take me down.”

Inara shrugged, letting the woman’s conclusion stand. “It was worth a try.”

Ginger sneered. “Open the hatch, I’m done with you.”

Inara followed the woman’s instructions, pushing the hatch open and stepping inside with Ginger following just behind. Ginger was so focused on Inara that she missed the arm reaching out from behind the open hatch. Kaylee’s hand pressed against the bare skin of Ginger’s forearm, and the woman dropped like a sack of rocks.

* * *

“So, boss,” Mal said, “where to now?”

Ray stood still behind him for a nearly a minute. Mal waited, surprised at the man’s hesitation. Finally, he turned around to see what the hold up was.

Ray looked at him, then took a deep breath and made his decision. “Nowhere yet. I gotta check the cargo.”

“All right, I’ll be fine here, I’ll just keep her warm – ” Mal started, but at Ray’s impatient sigh he gave up. “Check the cargo? Great. I’m lookin’ forward to seein’ what’s so gorram important. Let’s go.”

Mal switched the scanner display and comm completely off, just in case Ginger came back while he was gone, and got up to follow Ray. He had to force himself to keep his eyes still as he walked down to the cargo bay. He felt his nerves jangling, ready to jump into action as soon as a gun fired or a body flew out of a dark corner. He’d given Zoë plenty of time; she, and possibly Jayne, had to be on the ship somewhere.

But they made it to the hold without any surprises, and found a bright blue cylinder rested at an odd angle in the middle of the space. Brightly colored as a warning, Mal thought, just like a poisonous snake. This thing didn’t want to be touched. It had ownership labels imprinted up and down its sides: Property of the Verdande cartel; protected under article blah-blah of the Alliance property rights blah blah blah. Legal-ese, the kind that was important to a boatload of brass sitting around drinking whiskey that cost more than most folks make in a month.

Ray wasn’t concerned with the warnings or those that put them there. He walked around the cylinder, dragging one hand over it like he was looking for something.

Mal stood quietly by the stairs, the same ones he’d been tied to not long ago, although it felt like it’d been weeks. He took the opportunity to scan the space, to check the shadows for a furtive wave telling him someone had gotten aboard and was about to spring a trap, but there was nothing. He noticed that the hatch to Inara’s shuttle was open, but Shuttle Two was closed tight. He wondered where Ginger had gone.

Ray didn’t seem concerned about her either; he seemed to have forgotten about everything but his quarry. He stopped and worked a finger into a small slot on the cylinder and a panel on the side of it popped open. He stared into the panel for a second, then pushed a series of buttons and a drawer beside the panel slid out. He reached inside, then lifted his hand with thumb and two fingers pinched together. Small sparkling objects trickled back into the drawer as he rubbed his fingertips against each other.

“There’s this school, on Sihnon,” Ray mumbled, not looking away from whatever it was he held. “Kids live there. Rich kids.”

Mal wasn’t sure if he was expected to reply, so he didn’t.

“Saw it on the Cortex, while I was workin’ the security desk late at night.” The steam of particles falling from his fingers tapered off. “Fancy lookin’ place – lots a’ gardens and such. Same city my wife was from, but she never went near there. It’s expensive as hell.” He took another pinch of the stuff in the drawer, but this time he caught the trickle in the palm of his other hand.

“This little tiny bit here,” he said, staring into his hand as if trying to estimate how much he held, “this’ll pay for a couple years for a new kid, with a little extra so they won’t be bothered by how far behind he is.”

Ray stared into his hand a little longer, then he came back to himself with a start. He didn’t look at Mal, just tipped his hand over the drawer to empty it. Carefully, he released the whole drawer from the machine and set it on the deck. He took a strip of soft leather from an inside pocket of his coat and emptied the drawer into it, spreading out what Mal could now see were small dark brown cubes and pyramids that glinted where tiny wires ran along their surfaces. Ray rolled up the leather, put it in a cloth bag, and tucked it inside of his coat. Then he stood up, and finally looked at Mal.

“I got what I need. Now we just gotta get rid of this thing,” he reached out to the harvester, replaced the drawer and closed the panel, “and then get clear of the system. All done.”

* * *

Ray had no learning about machines, but he’d seen plenty of diagrams and descriptions of the one in the hold of this ship. He’d studied them for weeks. The details escaped his understanding, but he got the bigger picture; he knew what this thing was for, and he’d memorized a few basic commands.

He’d been working security for the Verdande cartel for five years, getting hours off and on as the VIP’s came planetside or didn’t. He said ‘yes, sir’ in just the right way, and he was always on time. It got to be that he was trusted. He was trusted enough to have time alone inside a compound where he could get to a computer terminal.

A stranger had gotten him started down the path that led him here, betraying that trust. The old lady who called herself Aunt Betty had contacted him nearly a year ago, given him passwords for getting into the Verdande internal cortex, told him where to look for notices of offline harvesters. He’d checked when he could, waiting `till a message came through, and when it did he buried it.

No one in the Verdande business knew about this harvester. It had been sitting dead for nearly two weeks, two weeks he’d spent frantically trying to find a ship he could use to retrieve it. He’d tried to get Aunt Betty to provide him one, but she refused, saying he had to earn the payoff he’d be getting. She obviously didn’t want the theft to be tracked back to her.

So Ray had gathered a team, bringing in Will and Hank, and Will brought in Ginger. And Ray sat at home studying diagrams he’d smuggled out of the Verdande complex, learning what he’d need to get to his treasure.

Two weeks of waiting, then a day of hell on this ship, but he had it now. It was enough to pay Will and Ginger their cut, and enough for him. And enough for Jase.

Ray had a story all made up: a couple dying in a crash on a remote planet, Jase growing up an orphan on the rim until he got found by his rich Uncle Ray, who wanted him brought up right. Brought up with wealth and comfort. Ray would set up somewhere on the edge, maybe Persephone. Somewhere folks wouldn’t question how an ignorant hick like him had come up with so much money, but he’d be close enough to check in with the school on Sihnon, see that Jase was being treated proper.

That was his plan. And here was the crux of it, these sparkly little crystals all wrapped up in his pocket.

He hadn’t believed Aunt Betty at first, that she meant to let him walk away with all the wealth and leave her only the machine that gathered it, but so she’d insisted. He supposed she could be planning on double crossing him, but he had to take the risk. Double crossed and dead was better than living the life he had for the past ten years.

As he approached the bridge, Ray’s mind came back to the present. He was grateful that the captain had become so docile – the way Ray’s mind was wandering, he was an easy target. He had to make himself focus; just one more stop to get rid of the machine, then he’d have the captain drop him and Jase where they could catch a safer ride to the Core. Almost there. Almost free.

* * *

Mal sat down at the helm. He’d been playing it safe, passing by the openings Ray was leaving him, hoping that Zoë or Jayne would show up and make it easy. But nothing had happened.

Before he could ran a scan and see what had happened to his ruttin’ rescue, Ray tapped him on the shoulder and held out a strip of paper.

“Time to move on. We got someone to meet, right here.”

Mal checked the coordinates – it looked to be the planet they’d come from, the place with the good swimming hole and Jayne’s strong beer in the cute wintry town. With the ship working now, he could be there in a few hours. That wasn’t too bad – maybe he could unload Ray and Ginger and the rest there, and be back before day’s end to find Zoë. That was something like a plan, anyway.

He pulled Serenity’s nose up and set the engines to firing, but then he swore and reversed them with a jolt, pulling to a hard stop. He’d nearly run into the Alliance battleship sitting directly above them.

* * *


āi yā: Damn: interjection for surprise or regret pì gu: butt wēnshén: troublemaker (literally "plague god") bùyàoliăn hùnzhàng: shameless son of a bitch niú shĭ: cow shit fēng sĭ sānbā: crazy bitch

* * *

On to Chapter 18.

Hey you anonymous people, I miss your feedback! If you absolutely refuse to register, I’ll take comments at Thanks!


Friday, July 7, 2006 6:52 AM


Another wonderful chapter~! The characterization were dead on, and the tension really is building. I'm excited for the next one!

Friday, July 7, 2006 7:14 AM


Get to the big damn rescue already! You're killing me here! :)

Excellent as always. Your characterizations are great and now we have theives and fugies on Serenity. Ahh, what a big payoff for the commander of that Alliance vessel if he's clued in....

Friday, July 7, 2006 10:06 AM


Lots of good stuff in this chapter...

I like Ray's feelings of kind of losing control of all the folks on board (Serenity's crew and his own), and getting so caught up in the possibility of succeeding in his endeavor to get off that planet, he's losing his own control... But his little dream for Jase in the school on Sihnon is so touching. Alas, we all know nothing on this boat goes smooth.

I love indignant Kaylee. She's so cute, and you've captured her voice expertly again.

Poor Mal, all lost and kinda confused still, but getting on with things... Knowing that the transport has to be Zoe, but, ah, always the complications.

The alliance ship is more troubling to me now, though, than it was last chapter, for some reason. It worries me more - I guess because it looks like our BDHs are pretty much regaining control of Serenity, and thus, have more to lose than to gain from an Alliance intervention. (Though who knows how long Will'll be out for.)

I'm not sure why, but Inara playing Ginger creeped me out a bit. I thought it was well done, but I think that's a part of her character I'm uncomfortable with. I loved the little touches of her having to squelch her feelings to keep up the ruse, however.

I also like how this chapter highlights how the crew works together - Inara, Kaylee, and Book; Mal, Zoe, and Wash (and Jayne) - and how the other 'team' really doesn't.

As usual, I can't wait to see what happens! I literally have no idea of how the whole Alliance ship thing is going to play out. Good fun!

Friday, July 7, 2006 10:28 AM


nice story so far, was one of the anon. Mostly i posted anon cause i am to lazy to log in.

Friday, July 7, 2006 4:56 PM


Hey there Mal4prez,

I am so glad you are back from your brief hiatus. During that time, I took the opportunity to re-read The Fish Job - wow, you are just so good.

I am not good at citing specifics; I just plain like your stories. They keep me reading and set the imagination going.

Thank you for sharing your work with all of us! I just don't want it to end...aaaaargh!

See you next installment,

Saturday, July 8, 2006 9:33 PM


(Tried this once before but the site wouldn't take my comments) have the knack, m4p...and what a way to come back from hiatus!

Completely in love with this series, as the humour and danger and character development just make this series stand up and beg for notice:D

Gotta agree with nosadseven somewhat though...Inara's dialogue with Ginger gives me a moment of pause. Don't know why exactly, but I wonder if it's not the realization that Inara's quite capable of running a multi-tier con job that requires a level of complexity only glanced at with the job in "Ariel," concerning profitable work for the crew. Knowing Inara can run with the big dogs when it comes to the ole bait-and-switch makes Mal's hallucination in "The Fish Job" about Inara's reaction to sleeping with him seem all the more plausible, when I thought then a tad too OOC from the level of sheer cruelty after seemingly opening up to him.

Still...I am desparately waiting for the next part, as we gotta see the BDR go off;)


Friday, July 14, 2006 7:50 AM


As for the anonymous comments you are missing, they are no longer allowed.

Inara taunting Ginger was wonderful stuff.

I am a tad curious as to how they are getting to the shuttles with the cargo bay doors open to get the harvester in, but maybe book and Kaylee were moved after they got it in, which would make sense.

ARGGH @ the gorram feds, but good on the crew for gettin' the hijackers taken care of.


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Back Stories Book 3, Chapter 25
Zoë nodded. “I’ll bet there’s a little committee of suits back there trying to figure out how best to lie.”&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

“Or how to tell some horrible truth,” Inara replied softly.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

“Or how to make the most effective use of medical waste incendiaries to get rid of our bodies,” Wash chimed in.

Back Stories III, Chapter 24
Mal returns to a few familiar places.

Back Stories III: Chapter 23
The BDH’s find themselves enmeshed in too damned many OCs. But hey, they’re necessary. Plottiness and all.

Back Stories III, Chapter 22
Inara tells the story of why she left the Core. Well, half of it anyway.

Back Stories III, Chapter 21
The battle with the Reavers continues, and Mal makes a choice. All decisions have consequences.

Back Stories III, Chapter 20
Finally a little Mal POV, but it doesn't last long.

Back Stories III, Chapter 19
The trials and tribulations of an older, wiser River Tam.

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 18
The aftermath of an unexpected encounter. Except—not all of the crew are accounted for…

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 17
A lovely day in the mountains: friendly locals and fresh air under a clear blue sky. What could possibly go wrong?

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 16.
Zoë tells of her soiree with terrorists on Oeneus.