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!
More on the Mission
"Aliens," snorted Jayne. "What, some bug-eyed little green men, them sorta aliens?"
Deader nodded. "Them sort of aliens."
Jayne snorted again and glanced at the others, who kept their peace.
Among them, it was Zoe who spoke first. "How can you be sure aliens built it?"
"The captain said it: the
sure as hell doesn't have near the technology to build something like it, the
"You've seen it?" asked Mal.
Deader nodded. "I've been aboard it. The Limey, too."
"I presume the wagon has data on it?" he asked.
She shook her head.
"Let me guess," Mal said. "The good, peaceable folk on Lichungyun don't want the
gettin' wind of it."
"Precisely," said Deader, looking up over her shoulder at him.
"Faith, Captain?" said Zoe.
Mal, his arms crossed, murmured, "Tai-kong suo-yo duh shing-chiou sai-jin wuh duh pee-goo."
"You said the ... the ... Lichungyunians have figured out how the Lens works ..." said Zoe.
"That they have," answered Deader. "And they call themselves Yuns, with a long 'u'."
Zoe gazed meaningfully at her captain, who said without looking back, "I'm way ahead of you. The military applications of a device like that would be ..."
"Exactly," said Deader.
"Huh," said Mal.
"It's a shade over hundred square miles in area," said Deader. "More an ellipse than a circle. Looks like a big eye piece, hence the name 'the Lens.' All sorts of workin's inside. The Yuns haven't finished mappin' out its guts, and they've known about it for decades now!"
"And this Chen guy we're pickin' up," said Mal after a sip of coffee (the group had all left the bridge back to the galley where Deader brewed some up fresh), "this 'defector' ... he's some sort of whiz-bang scientist who knows all about it and needs a lift back home ... for what purpose?"
"He's a defector from his own people?" asked Kaylee. She looked concerned.
Deader grinned. "Ignore what the Limey said about him. He's a mole. He works in the
Alliance government, the
Division of Defense. Done so goin' on five years now, if Badger's got it right,
and I've no reason to doubt the Limey's intel. If he's a 'defector,' it's from
"Working defense ..." said Zoe thoughtfully. "He's probably got a whole saddlebag full of secrets." She gazed at Mal. "Secrets the
Alliance doesn't want known."
"Not to mention the secrets he's got about this Lens thing," piped up Jayne. "I imagine the bounty on his head'll be sky high."
"Probably something in the range of millions," said Mal. He glanced at Deader. "That sound about right?"
"I ain't gonna lie to ya, Captain. This is a very risky mission. But if we can get out of the Core ..."
"We can't outrun
warships!" cried Kaylee before Mal could yell the same thing.
"They'll have us dead to rights before we even break atmo!"
"Upgrades, lamb," said Deader reassuringly, patting her hand. "Don't you worry about your girl. She'll be plenty fast enough to scoot right by those big green greasy pyramids, assumin' of course they even detect us."
"I was going to ask about that," said Mal. "I'd much prefer to slip by unnoticed than subject my ship to the stress of a hot burn, no matter how newfangled Badger's upgrades might be."
Deader eyed him critically.
"He's changed, you know," she said. "I know you don't want to believe that, Captain, but he has."
"That ain't likely," said Jayne, chortling into his coffee. "Once a rodent, always a rodent."
"Agreed," said Zoe.
"I'll believe it when I see it," grumbled Mal.
"Fair enough," said Deader. She looked up, for Lenore had re-entered the galley and stood now in the entrance.
"Come have some coffee," offered Kaylee, smiling.
"If it's all right with you, Kaylee," she said, "I would like to recharge now. The IDPU realignment has been completed."
"Sleep," said Kaylee. "Recharge is 'sleep.' And thank you, Lenore. I appreciate all your hard work."
"I'll walk you to your quarters," said Jayne, who had stood like a perfect gentleman when Lenore entered. Deader couldn't get over the transformation that came over him whenever she was around, or the lack of surprise from the others towards his behavior.
Lenore smiled sweetly. "Thank you, Mr. Cobb, that would be nice."
"Well ... goodnight, everyone," said Jayne awkwardly once he got to her side.
"Sleep well, Mr. Cobb," said Mal with a smirk as he drained the rest of his coffee.
"I ... I will," said Jayne. Lenore took his arm. "Thanks ... Uh, I mean, thank you ..."
He and Lenore disappeared out of the galley.
Deader shook her head in disbelief. "If I'm not mistaken, Captain, that man is in love."
"I think it's sweet," remarked Kaylee.
"He's certainly lost interest in his usual fare," said Mal.
"Which is what?" asked Deader.
"Most Rim worlds have cat houses," said Mal. "Jayne's probably got a four-figure tab at a dozen of 'em, at least."
Kaylee said, proudly, "He hasn't been to one in over a year now."
"He's been payin' 'em off, too," said Mal with a chuckle. "As I understand it, he's only got two left. He asked for an advance a couple weeks ago when we set down on Jiangyin, told me not to tell no one what he was doin’."
Kaylee snickered. "It's sweet," she said.
"It's beyond all rational comprehension," said Mal.
"I know you don't trust me yet, Captain, but is it too early to ask what secrets Mr. Universe stored in her?" said Deader.
Mal gazed at his new pilot. A tense moment passed. Zoe, who'd been silent all this time, said, "I don't see the harm at this point, sir. I have a feeling Badger has probably sussed out some of 'em already. It's likely why he came lookin' for us."
"More or less ..." said Deader. "More or less ..."
"So why ask if you already know?" demanded Mal.
"I suspect her secrets will line neatly up with Chen's," she said.
"Some of 'em probably will," said Mal. "Certainly not all. And that's all I'm willing to share at this point. Suffice it to say that Lenore's presence aboard this boat has kept the
off our backs. That and us layin' low, stayin' out of their hair. They know
they screwed up when they left her alone after killin’ Mr. Universe, and they
know we have her. Or they suspect as much."
"What do you suppose they'll do when they catch us headin' to Londinium?" asked Zoe.
"I guess we'll find out when we get there," said Mal. "But I don't doubt every scope will have us prominently displayed."
He stared at Deader, who stared back. "What concerns me is I don't believe that's what you consider to be the 'risky' part of the mission. Am I right?"
"That's right," said Deader simply. "The risk will come when we try to leave."
"But I thought you just said that all our upgrades will protect us," said Kaylee, staring. "All sortsa fancy shielding n’ such ..."
"Gettin' out of the Core will be our biggest test," Deader said. "
Alliance are scattered everywhere. Serenity's upgrades will make her a
speedy little mare, but Rimward Alliance cruisers will have a big head start on
us, if it came that, which, truth tell, it probably will. By the time we get
that far out they'll have had plenty of time to match our velocity ..."
"Which, I presume, leaves us with this 'shielding' that'll make us invisible to them." said Mal.
Deader's silence told Mal all he needed to know.
"That's the catch, isn't it?" he said.
She nodded. "That and my pilotin' skills, and your skills as captain, yep. We’re gonna need all sorts of strategizin' and the like. The problem with the shielding is the mass of Serenity isn't sufficient to guarantee that it'll work as intended. Oh, it'll work, don't get me wrong, but not totally or perfectly. A Firefly's mass will probably give us one quarter to thirty percent effective shielding, max. He hasn't had time to perfect it ..."
"Then why the rush to get home?" asked Zoe. "Why not get the bugs worked out first?"
"Two reasons," said Deader. "The first is physical impossibility. It may not be possible for Chen to get the shielding to work better than he has; and two, the
Alliance has tightened
their grip on his work. He can't look sideways these days, according to Badger,
without Alliance Blue Gloves taggin' along in the shadows."
"Blue Gloves ..." said Mal reflectively, remembering River's refrain: "Two by two, hands of blue ..."
"You mean assassins."
Deader nodded gravely. "Chen believes—and why doubt him?—that the
Alliance is about to make a big push to the
"A big push," said Mal. "You mean a military strike? An invasion?"
"You can't invade what's already yours," said Deader. Her expression had become very serious. "But yes, that's exactly what I mean."
"For what reason?" asked Zoe.
Deader looked at them all, individually, as though the question was asked as a joke or some such. When it wasn't clear that it had, she said:
"You people keep up with the news, doncha?"
"Not if I can help it," said Mal. Zoe and Kaylee merely looked bewildered.
"The slave market?" said Deader. "Ring any bells?"
Zoe, Kaylee, and Mal glanced at each other and shrugged, shaking their heads.
"It's collapsed!" said Deader with an amazed chuckle. "It's damn near broken the back of the government! Core planets aren't gettin' enough new slaves to meet the demand, so the Alliance is gonna go and grab tens of thousands of Rim folk and haul 'em back to be slaves for the richies livin' in the Core! Surely folks on the Rim you've done business with have told you this!"
The three looked at each other and shook their heads again.
"Most folks out there don't even have a comm link," said Mal. "You know this, or you should. They got no computers, no vidscreens, nothin'. They live off the land and what it provides. They communicate with pen and paper and a fast horse. The most advanced thing they got is a covered wagon with a steel hitch. There might be a single vidscreen in a thousand or ten thousand square miles available for them to use. The magistrates of those rocks ... well, they sure as hell ain't gonna allow their serfs to be informed and connected, now are they?"
Zoe's disgust was evident. "An advanced spacefaring civilization whose central economy is based on slaves ... It's vile, sickening."
Rome," said Kaylee.
When all she got was blank stares, she said, "Ancient Rome? Earth-That-Was? Big empire? It wasn't spacefarin' or any of that, but its economy was based on the same thing the
is—on a huge military and slaves."
"I didn't know you were such a student of history," remarked Mal, surprised.
"I'm not," she said with only a hint of defensiveness. "I've just been doing a lot of reading lately."
Zoe gave her a look of sympathy, reached out and squeezed her hand. "Not much longer."
Kaylee smiled, then glanced at Mal, whose smirk had returned.
"Not a word out of you," she said, pointing, her smile gone.
Mal chuckled, said, "Did I say anything?"
Deader looked confused. She gazed at Kaylee. And then she smiled.
"Good on you, Kaylee, lamb," she said. "Doctorin' is a noble profession. Stable. Makes for a good catch."
"Let's get back to the
shall we?" said Mal. "You're telling me the Alliance is gearin' up for a big push to the
Rim—to kidnap settlers to be slaves?"
"That's exactly what I'm saying," said Deader.
"When?" said Zoe.
Deader shrugged. "Could be any time now. Or it could happen in a year or more. One thing is for certain," she said, "it's gonna happen."
"And Chen, being the noble man he is, wants to rush home so that he won't have to do any fightin' or dyin'?" asked Mal.
Deader shot him a withering stare. Mal didn't look away from it, though he had to admit feeling the same motherly heat come from it as had come from his own mother when as a young boy he spoke out of turn. It had been many years since he had felt it, and, truth be told, it wasn't entirely unwelcome.
"The Rim worlds provide over seventy percent of all the food the Core planets consume," she said tersely. "Most don't even get to eat what they grow. If they're caught—"
"They can be prosecuted and sold into indenturehood," said Mal. "We know. We deal with those folks all the time. What's your point?"
"The only reason the
hasn't come swarmin' down their necks yet, Captain, is they can't work out how
to deal with the massive loss of food production once all the new slaves are
gathered up and distributed. Prices will go through the roof! Their solution,
if we are to believe Chen, is that they're plannin’ on simply exilin’ several
Core worlds, the lesser ones, and either starvin’ ‘em outright or makin’ ‘em
poor farmers scratchin' a livin'! Does that sound right to you?"
"Either way, they're slaves," said Zoe.
Kaylee nodded emphatically.
"I'm not a crusader," said Mal, shaking his head. "I have no interest in charging in with my white hat. I'm a businessman—"
Zoe and Kaylee snorted, then laughed.
"How can you say that, Cap'n?" exclaimed Kaylee. "Miranda? Does that ring a bell?"
"And how about those medical supplies that we were paid good money to lift from that train for Niska but returned to the sick villagers who needed them once we learned what they were?" added Zoe.
"Or how about all those medical supplies we stole from that hospital?" said Kaylee. "We coulda sold them for ten times what we asked for ‘em half the time ..."
"Fine! Fine!" yelled Mal. "Enough with my virtuous acts! I've got a reputation to uphold!"
"Truth is," said Deader, "it's the good in you, Captain, that brought Badger to think of you. And that’s includin’ everything else: Lenore and her secrets and your past military experience. And just to let you know, it's those good deeds that brought me to agree to pilot Serenity. I had to meet the man who just can't keep from doing good, even though good is the last thing he may want to do."
Mal, for the time being, had nothing to say to that except, "Well. I think I've got enough to think of, so if you will excuse me, I'm going to take this white hat off and gallop into the sunset and go to bed."
He rose to leave.
"There's one more thing I should tell you about this mission, Captain," said Deader.
"And what would that be?" said Mal, who'd heard more than he wanted to know.
"This mission isn't risky just because Chen is a scientist with all sorts of defense secrets ..."
The group waited.
"I think you should know, Captain, that Chen is also the adopted son of the Prime Minister himself."