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!
Tannis Brocius stood at the landing of the entry hatch, hands on her hips.
"Cargo bay kept clean, no visible rust … Hell, I used to tell Pa we shoulda kept the old girl instead of tradin' it in on that lunky Stardriver …"
Mal watched her appraise his ship. Jayne was just entering, sniper rifle slung to his back, rubbing the back of his head and swearing richly.
"Well, thank you, ma'am, I'd like to think I take care of her …"
"Just Deader," said Tannis. "No ma'amin' me; I'm one of your crew now. Order me around like you do the rest. Speakin' of, where are they? I'd like to meet 'em."
He was about to answer when Jayne, drawing near, said, "Next time I see that goram lizard I'm gonna gut 'im crotch to sternum!"
"An elevated six-oh deployment was sheer stupidity," snorted Deader, turning to look disapprovingly at him. "I had you pegged within ten seconds, easy peezy." She patted his bunched forearms as he glared down at her. "Best scrape the rust off your trainin' if you want to see this mission through, son."
"I ain’t your son, Grandma," he snarled, "and I sure as hell don't remember askin' your opinion of my snipin' skills!"
She gazed up at him with a simple smile. "You don't have snipin' skills. That's what I'm tryin' to tell you." She gave Mal a side glance. "Not too bright, this 'un, is he?"
Jayne growled, advanced a step—
The captain's hand smacked flat on his chest. "Back off. Get the ship prepped."
Jayne glowered at him and then back down at her. Deader stared back without fear. "We ain't done, Grandma," he said between gritted teeth. He pushed Mal's arm out of the way and stomped off, cursing even more poisonously.
"More bullsquat than bullhorns," she said, staring after him. "I can't imagine one like yourself keepin' him around unless he's got some use ..."
Mal couldn't help the grin that creased his face as he glanced at her. He found himself wanting to like her. "I search my soul on that question daily. If you wouldn't mind, I'd like to take a long look at the wagon—"
He gazed up. Kaylee was smiling down at them. Without waiting, she hurried down the stairs. She was covered in engine grease, her hair pulled back.
"Deader," said Mal, "Kaylee Frye, er, Tam. Kaylee, this is Deader …"
"Serenity's new pilot," announced Deader in a dead-certain tone of voice. Kaylee glanced at Mal as though unsure how she should respond. Deader extended a hand, which she took unsurely.
"Well," said Mal, "if you don't mind, I'll be the final judge of that."
"Of course, Captain," said Deader, who brought her grandmotherly gaze to Kaylee. "I don't believe I've ever met a prettier ship's engineer before, even one covered in grease like you are! My goodness gracious, Kaylee, you are just a doll!"
Kaylee blushed richly, which made the smudges on her cheeks stand out more. "Why, thank you, ma'am …"
"Deader, love. Just Deader. I always told Pa that lady engineers were better'n menfolk. They just have a much better feel about the inner workin's of a ship. Menfolk concern themselves with power n’ such; ladies concern themselves with lovin' the ship along. The latter's better," she said surely, patting Kaylee's hands affectionately.
"Yes, ma'am … er, I mean, Deader," smiled Kaylee, who, Mal thought, would never win at poker. She took everything at face value.
"Yeah, well," he said, "shall we lavish love on getting this boat back in the sky?"
He didn't wait for them to acknowledge him, but walked around them, mounting the stairs soon after.
He heard the old woman whisper something, and Kaylee snicker in response. He heard them break apart. He didn't look back.
She sat in the pilot's chair like she owned it. "Here—" she said, and flipped something out of her vest pocket. He had taken the co-pilot's seat. He had sat there purposely. He caught it, surprised, and then, recognizing it, plugged it into a port.
"All aboard, Captain?"
He looked up from the wagon's data. There appeared to be loads of it. He pressed a button on the console. "Zoe? You in?"
"Yes, sir," came the short reply. "Be up in a bit."
"All present and accounted for. Mostly."
"Mostly?" asked Deader. "We’re waiting for others? I'd like to meet 'em before we take off, if you don't mind, Captain."
"That was just a little joke. Truth is, my other crew are off-world, including the ship's doctor."
"The Tams, yes," said Deader. "I couldn't believe their story when I heard it. Poor dears …"
Mal studied her. If she was a mole working for Badger, then she was the best he'd ever come across. She seemed so genuine as to be unreproachable. He watched her carefully as she went through the pre-flight checks. She seemed to know what she was doing, at least as well as Wash ever did, which was saying something.
"Poor dears …" he answered, only slightly sarcastically. "We need to fetch those poor dears before we go flyin' off on this 'mission.' They're on Jiangyin, so let's set course and be on our way."
Her countenance darkened thoughtfully. "Neighbors Hera, doesn’t it? Jiangyin?”
“This ol' Firefly is
named after the valley on Hera, isn’t it?
"A couple times," he replied quietly.
"Pa and I knew the war was lost when that valley was taken," she said, shaking her head sadly.
Her hands flew over the instruments as if they had a mind of their own. She stopped to stare at him, a stern mother gazing at one of her own, and pointed a finger. "You ain't got nothin' to be ashamed of, Captain. Don't you ever forget it."
Before he could answer, fighting the rising sense that he had met his match in this woman, she turned and punched a button. "Kaylee, lamb, I'm readin' a minus three and change on the profile intake nozzle. Is that normal?"
"Checking …" came Kaylee's quick reply. Then: "We're shiny here. It runs thin now and again … nothin' to worry about ..."
"Roger that," said Deader, and pressed the button again.
Mal watched as the old woman's hands pranced over the console like a concert pianist's. "Here we go—" she announced suddenly, and hit the ignition switch. Serenity's mains grumbled to life. A thin, rising whine piggybacked the grumble, one that always made him feel good. She punched a button to her side that he (or Wash, for that matter) never used, and one he actually had no idea what its function was, and said in a commanding voice: "Log takeoff: time: fourteen hundred twenty-six hours, Beaumonde local—"
She punched the button again, then looked at him with a sure stare.
He had completely forgotten about the display screen of wagon data. He nodded nervously. "Uh … yeah … sure …"
She grasped the wheel with both hands, eased it back. Serenity lifted off from the planet's surface evenly, almost imperceptibly. She eased the ship forward, gaining altitude gently, accelerating so smoothly that Mal was about to stand to look over her shoulder to make sure the ship was gathering enough speed when she punched that mysterious button again and barked, "Atmo launch sequence confirmed: three kilos per second in three … two … one … mark."
Serenity slipped out of Beaumonde's atmosphere like she was greased.
Deader punched the mystery button again: "Heading: Jiangyin. ETA: four days, twenty-seven minutes. Crew pickup: the Tams. Lookin' forward to meetin’ 'em." She punched the button again, then several more, including one on the pilot's wheel. Mal knew what those were—the autopilot sequence. She turned her head to look at him.
"Mind showin' me to my quarters, Captain?" she asked pleasantly. "I'd like to shower and get changed, if you don't mind."
He blinked blankly and stood with her. "Quarters…? Quarters…?" He came back to himself. "I'm sorry, I didn't know we'd be taking on new crew …"
He thought then of
Inara. She was on Bellerophon, at some sort of Companion "retreat,"
one that was apparently a mandated event. He was surprised (and feeling not
just a little guilty) that he had completely forgotten about her when thinking
of his crew and who they were. She had been gone over three months now. Her
shuttle was here, attached to Serenity;
he had dropped her off personally, assured by her that Serenity would be safe entering atmo and setting down. Companions,
it was clear, held large sway over
Deader watched him patiently.
"You can use one of our shuttles," he said. "I'd forgotten to tell you about another crew member—"
"The Companion. Good business decision, Captain, havin' her aboard, if you ask me. She a nice girl?"
He grinned weakly. "She tries."
"Don't listen to him. She's an angel," said Zoe as she entered the bridge. "We've all missed her, even the captain."
Deader studied him with a scrutinizing eye—but only for a moment. It only took a moment. In that moment it seemed she plumbed the entire history between him and Inara Serra. She gave a knowing sigh and nod, then glanced at Zoe. "I'd be happy to bunk in the other shuttle. Zoe, would you mind takin’ me there?"
Zoe, who was smirking.
"Go on," said Mal irritably. "It's as good a place as any …"
"I'll be back in two hours, Captain," said Deader as she left the bridge. "I want to do some bridge diagnostics, get a feel for Serenity … and then I'll cook us up some grub."
Mal stared at her retreating back. There weren't too many folks who could surprise him these days, but this woman most certainly had.
He sat in the pilot's chair and absently fingered the formerly mysterious button. The wagon data on the display on the co-pilot's console glared up at no one.