Mal and his crew are back. Always looking for a payday, Mal accepts a job from an old nemesis and occasional client: Badger. The payoff? More than he or his crew can imagine. But with such an astounding amount of scratch comes an equally astounding helping of danger. Read on!
"My … what?"
"You're going to need her, Captain," said Badger. "And since I'm backin' this next job with me hard-earned brass, it's not a choice, see?"
"You're crazy if you think I'm going to allow one of your moles aboard my ship," snarled Mal. He glanced at the woman, who stared confidently back. "No offense meant, ma'am." He pointed out the back window. "That's my ship; that's my crew—"
"You can bet your bippy I'm no mole, Captain Reynolds," said Tannis Brocius, interrupting Badger, who was about to charge in. "Let’s clear the dust on that right now. The Limey understands that, don't you, son?"
Badger’s angry countenance melted into a grin. He stepped back from Mal's chest and put his arm around her shoulders.
"Ah, Deader, love, I'm going to miss your apple pies and meat loaf …"
She leaned her head playfully into his shoulder and gave his chest a couple hard pats. "For such a little guy you can sure pack it away …"
"Apple pie?" asked Kaylee hopefully over the comm link.
Jayne grunted over the static, "Meat loaf?" It was asked like a starving man would upon entering a kitchen after smelling it.
Mal didn't bother clicking his own radio; he spoke right at Badger's coat button. "Jayne, get in here." To Badger he said, "That's of course assuming he's free to do so…?"
"With my compliments," said Badger. "I just had him knocked out as a demonstration of Deader's superior tracking skills. He's been disarmed. I look forward to his bad breath. Please, Captain, by all means, have him join us."
"On my way," said Jayne. He sounded ready for war.
"Apple pie, Cap'n," said Kaylee over radio static.
"With a big scoop of vanilla ice cream, sir," said Zoe, still staring at Badger.
"Mmm. Heated. It gets all gooey …" replied Kaylee.
"Enough!" yelled Mal. "It should go without mentioning that we sure as hell don't have us apples or beef or anything approaching a real cream product anywhere aboard ship, so let's all get dressed and walk away from this imaginary culinary orgy right here and right now—"
"But you could have, Captain," said Badger, his eyebrow lifting. "A real culinary orgy, mornin’, noon, and night. Every meal aboard ship, in perpetuity. Did I mention Deader is an ace cook as well as an ace pilot? Tell 'em, Deader."
"I cooked for fourteen every day, Captain Reynolds, for nearly thirty years," she reported dutifully. "Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The ranch hands weren't picky, I gotta give 'em that; but I think they appreciated me good enough—"
"Ranch hands?" interrupted Mal, regarding her with sudden interest. "You cooked for … ranch hands? … a ranch?"
"El Questro, on Lilac. After my husband died I lost it when the go tsao de
foreclosed on it when I couldn't pay the taxes on it. They came in with their
starched ties and black briefcases and made me sign their white papers with all
the fine black print on it, black like their hearts; then they kicked me out
and tore the house down and turned my land into a toxic landfill. That is,
after they slaughtered all my cattle and chased off the help."
"I was raised on a ranch," said Mal with something like happy reflection in his voice.
"Then you must know what it felt like for me."
"I'm sorry for your loss.”
She took a step forward.
"Listen, Captain, I don't mind cookin' for a crew. Yours is a small one, which'll make it easy. Cookin' takes me back to the ranch and some very fine days. I'm a good cook. Whatever you got onboard I can make into decent grub. And by the by, I can pilot your Firefly. You just watch me."
Kaylee said over the comm link: "We could use a good pilot, Cap'n …"
"I'm a good pilot!" yelled Mal at Badger's coat button. "Zoe—tell her. You think I'm a good pilot, don't you? Don't you?
His first officer gave him a pained smile. "You're … adequate, sir."
Kaylee: "We love you, Cap'n … but I've had to rebuild the internal grav dampener three times now on account of your rough landings …"
"And I've still got a black and blue ass from our set-down on Kerry two weeks ago," said Jayne, who spoke after slamming the kitchen door behind him. "I was sittin' on the crapper. Damn near shot my juevos into the hole."
"Thanks for the imagery," said Mal, acknowledging his presence. "I think I'm done eating anything egg-related for, oh, eternity."
Jayne ignored the barb. He rubbed the back of his neck and eyed the goons in front of him up and down, goons just larger than he was, and then brought his caustic glare to Badger. "You and I got a score to settle."
Badger shrugged it off. "Let it be a lesson to you, mate. This next job, if ye get sloppy like you were just now, even once, you'll have to settle the score with me in the next life."
"At least we'll be goin' to the same place!" Jayne snarled, advancing on him. The goons grabbed his arms. "I'll enjoy watchin' you smoke a turd stogie!"
"Jayne …" said his captain, waving him off. "Let's hear what the good Limey has to say before we do battle with him in the netherworld." To Badger he said: "Let's get on with this. Who's this passenger? Which Core world will we be risking our necks on? C'mon, spit it out …"
"Chap's name is Chen. He's waiting for you on Londinium."
"No goram way …"
Londinium was the largest planet in the
Alliance, the very seat of Parliament.
"Why is it something tells me you're actually being serious?" demanded Mal.
"Does Serenity have a kitchen, Captain?" asked Tannis Brocius lightly.
"Please tell me you're joking. Please. Or tell me you've got some magic invisibility shield we can use goin' in, 'cause there ain't no way we can get within ten million miles of that planet without being tagged like a steer!" He had started quietly but finished yelling.
"It'd be suicide," said Zoe.
"Shun-shen duh gao-wahn …" said Kaylee over the radio.
He and Badger were engaged in a staring contest. Mal said in a low voice, "For a lousy hundred you'd have me risk our lives just to pick up a lousy two-bit outlaw? I knew this was a set-up. We’re outta here."
"Not an outlaw, a scientist,” said Badger as Mal and crew made their way toward the door. “A defector, let's call 'im. And didn't you just say, Captain, that the
Alliance leaves you alone?
'Out of your hair' are your exact words, I believe." An eyebrow rose.
Mal spun about and marched up into his grill, an inch away. "They leave us alone because we leave them alone! We stay out of the Core. Out, the opposite of in. Get it?"
"I happen to believe it's more than that," responded Badger calmly, returning Mal’s steely gaze. "Mr. Universe did not go to the angels without taking his
Alliance pound of flesh—which
he gave to you." He cocked his head. "Tell me I'm wrong. Go on. I
"Kaylee, prep for takeoff. Zoe, Jayne …"
"Are you really that stupid, Captain? For that pound of Alliance flesh and my hundred I can guarantee you an ace pilot, tracker, and cook—like gettin' three people for one, really—fresh food …" Badger pulled up even closer. Mal could smell Irish whiskey. "… and fuel for the journey. Oh, and did I mention—? If you complete the mission a clean, crisp, untrackable 1.4…."
"One-point-four what?" demanded Mal. "Best make it quick 'cause I'm itchin' to put 1.4 bullets right between those beady little eyes."
Badger grinned. "One-point-four million, Captain. D'ya hear me? One-point-four million. Each. All yours, tax- and Alliance-free."
"I'm still listening,"
The surprise in Mal’s eyes had given him away.
"I think I just took a dump in my boots," said Jayne.
The goons looked down in disgust at his feet. He shook off their grip. "What's the job?"
"We couldn't even fence the Lassiter for a twentieth that!” yelled Mal. “How many of me and mine have to die? And I don't suppose payment will be made in a timely fashion; I'll have to live to a thousand before I see it all. Tell me I'm wrong. Go on!"
Irish whiskey. They were practically nose-to-nose.
"You're wrong,” said Badger quietly.
"You don't have 1.4 million. Not even in your grandest rodent dreams…."
Badger didn't blink. "You got me, Captain. It's not me brass—not beyond, that is, the hundred and the extras. And it isn’t 1.4 million. It’s 1.4 million for each of you."
"What's your cut?"
"Me? I get a finder's fee and shall we say a 'success fee' should you complete your mission. The amount …" He smirked. "That's none of your hun dan business, is it?"
Mal blinked first. He glanced at Zoe, then at Jayne. Both appeared very intrigued, if not anxious.
"Londinium,” he said. “Someone named Chen. Fuel and real bait—"
"I almost forgot,” said Badger. “I've paid for a complete overhaul of Serenity, which, I believe, is in quite dire need of one. New grav dampeners, Kaylee, love, and a few necessary upgrades to boot."
"Upgrades?" asked Kaylee. The radio static hid none of her interest.
"That's me brass, Captain," said Badger, poking a stiff finger into Mal's chest. "That's all me, includin' your stay at a fine downtown Londinium swankaroo while Serenity's bein' worked on. All me, see? Complete the mission and every one of you can retire rich, rich, rich."
"And just what is that mission?" demanded Mal. "Where do we have to haul this Chen, and why do I get the feeling I'm not going to like the answer?"
"I don't see why. It's the planet Lichungyun," said Badger simply.
Mal pulled up and looked away resignedly. "Tai-kong suo-yo duh shing-chiou sai-jin wuh duh pee-goo. We're outta here."
Jayne chuckled darkly. "I knew this was too goram good to be true. I think I'm gonna kill you now, you huh choo-shung tza-jiao duh tzang-huo …"
He advanced on Badger—
Lichungyun did not exist. It was mythical, a planet referenced as those on Earth-That-Was might've referenced Eden or Shangri-la: a world of astonishing beauty, peopled by the peaceful and secluded who wanted nothing to do with the Verse at large, with war, and, most of all, with the
Alliance. As such, it was
a myth fully embraced by the Independents. The Chinese symbol of Lichungyun had
been emblazoned prominently on Independent uniforms and sidearms; soldiers
commonly had it tattooed on their persons, including Mal, who thought of his
own on his left bicep as he made for the front door.
"It's real," announced Badger to Mal's retreating back—that is, after dispassionately watching one of his henchmen bring a cast-iron skillet down on the back of Jayne's skull—clang!—felling him instantly. "I seen it for meself. I recently returned from there, in fact. No one knew Miranda existed. And yet you found it. And now the entire Verse knows about it."
Mal stopped under the doorjamb, turned and gazed down at Jayne's still form. He shook his head as a parent might at a child who had pushed their patience to the limit. "You've been to it. You've been to Lichungyun."
"A cold world. Not the sunny tropical paradise legends paint it as. It's big, too, twice the size of Earth-That-Was. A bit outside the Rim. Orbits along galactic north-south, see—" he drew a vertical circle in the air—"which has helped to keep it from
'scopes. Deader's got a wagon full of photos and telemetry. You can verify the
"A planet that large would set off every grav detector the
Alliance has," said Zoe, "even with
an eccentric orbit. Just how far outside the Rim is it?"
"Twenty-two hundred an' twenty-five AU, as the galactic crow flies," said Badger lightly.
Mal blinked. Zoe's mouth fell open.
"Serenity can't make a voyage that far," protested Kaylee. "We'd run outta food and fuel before we got even a quarter of the way!"
"Hence the upgrades, love," said Badger to his coat button. "And you'll have plenty of food, believe me."
"Believe you? You?" bellowed Mal. "Surely you must be smokin' something found on the side of a goram ditch! There's nothing out there! Nothing!"
"You're wrong," said Badger. "The wagon doesn’t lie."
"A wagon can be tampered with."
"Faith, Captain. It's time ye got some, don't ye think?"
"Faith in who? You? You are smoking something! Even with a hot burn, it'd take us—" he did a quick calculation and didn't believe the number—"well, it'd take a damn long time to get there!"
"A coupla years at least," answered Badger. "Hence the upgrades. Faith, Captain. That's what I'm talkin' about. Faith in something bigger than you and me and the payoff and the perks. Most importantly, somethin’ bigger than the
"This doesn't sound like the Badger I know and loathe," said Zoe, studying the man before her curiously.
"My men came with me unarmed," said Badger. "My ship is completely vulnerable. If you wanted, you could destroy her. That's a demonstration of my faith. Where's yours, Captain?"
"I have faith in only one thing, and that's a good wage for a day's job done," snarled Mal.
"Faith is what took me to Lichungyun. It's what brought me Deader. It's what made me think of you for this job. And—” he got up close again, this time with a warm, completely disconcerting smile—“it's going to be the thing that saves you in the end."
He turned and gave Tannis Brocius a big hug.
"Thank you for everything, Deader, love. I will miss you. Godspeed …"
He released her after she gave his cheek a kiss and stern instructions on taking better care of himself. Stepping uncaringly over Jayne's limp form, he made for the back kitchen door, his goons dutifully following. Just before walking out, he turned around. "I know you'll take the job, Captain. That's the faith I have in you."
It appeared he was going to continue, then shrugged happily. "The wagon's got more specific directions. I suggest you study 'em before departing. They'll be of service to you. Best of luck, Captain."
Zoe turned to look at Mal, who appeared utterly perplexed.