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Mile Markers

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Enjoy the Conclusion of Part One of Firefly: Slingshot--a Fan-Fiction Tribute to Firefly!

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!


Chapter 10
Dolls and Fru-Frufery


   “Down here.”

   “May I?”

   Mal gazed up. This was a first: Simon asking to come down into his quarters.


   Simon descended the ladder. “I’ve got a shot for you.”

   “Why not wait till I get up to you? I was just about to head there.”

   “I wanted to talk to you.”

   Mal waited. The good doctor looked uncomfortable.

   “I guess I wanted to tell you … thank you.”

   “For what?”

   Simon’s smile fought to flower. It ended up being brief and sideways. “For … everything, I suppose.”

   Mal finished buttoning up his shirt and tucking it in. “You’ve been a member of my crew for years now, Doc. Thanks aren’t necessary. You do your job and that’s enough.”

   Simon shook his head. “It isn’t.”

   Mal, puzzled, approached and gave his shoulder a clap. “What’s this about? Here …” He rolled up his sleeve.

   Simon, clearly frustrated, nodded and pulled out a hypodermic syringe. He pulled the cap off with his teeth and poked it into Mal’s arm and pressed the yellow-brown liquid into his vein, then jerked it out and recapped the needle.

   Mal studied him. “It’s been my experience that folks who think their end might be comin’ get all sorts of grateful. Is that you?”

   Simon stared for a moment. “I … don’t know. Probably. War is coming and we’re about to break atmo on Londinium …” He held up. “You know, for a long time I was sure you hated me.”

   “I did hate you.”

   “And yet you never gave up on me or River. That is a rare gift, Captain. Thank you.”

   “I try to judge folks on their usefulness rather than on my personal feelings for them. I’m not a man to be too proud—I try not to be, anyway—so let me say this: my personal feelings about you and your sister were … well, they weren’t … entirely … right. I’m sorry about that. Now … is there anything else?”

   “That shot was the last one before the one we’ll get after landing. We should be good to go in a day or so once the nanobots assimilate. I tweaked them; they’ll make us both acceptable and forgettable.”

   “Sounds like a few dates I had back in the day,” grumbled Mal, walking past him to the ladder.

   “Doesn’t it bother you, Captain?”

   “Doesn’t what bother me?”

   “The lie. The lie. All the crap the Alliance has kept hidden from … everybody.”

   Mal shook his head. “Want to know what bothers me?”

   Simon waited.

   “What bothers me is that if the Alliance suddenly decided to get honest and tell everyone that it isn’t the twenty-sixth century but the one thousand whateverth century, the cattle that make up most of humanity would still defend that lie rather than riot in the streets. That’s what bothers me.”

   He grabbed a rung and ascended angrily up and out of sight.

   Simon sighed and followed.

Technicians arrived each morning by nine, blue coveralls on and toolboxes in hand. It had been ten days now, and they still had three to go. Robon Mishiwaka personally supervised them. He generally showed up by fourteen hundred to inspect their work, which he did annoyingly carefully.

   Their job? To rid Serenity of its Alliance nanobot infestation and reinforce the hull with Independence bots, which would not only protect against future infestations (especially the big one coming with them landing on Londinium), but strengthen her over time.

   Mal watched all of this closely. He was nowhere near a state of trust with the former assassin. Coupled with the love he had for his boat and the desire to protect her, it made him a man unwilling to let anything be done to her without his full knowledge if not active participation.

   Workers had hauled in padded crates, stacking them five high in Serenity’s cargo bay. Zoe opened one with the assassin and Mal watching.

   Mal reached into the shredded paper and picked up—


   He studied the one in his grip.

   “Bone china,” said Robon Mishiwaka, who came up behind Zoe. “Handcrafted on Constance and half a dozen other Rim worlds. They are known as ‘Companions.’ The one in your fist is worth sixteen hundred credits. Londiniumites are crazy about them. The clothing is hand-sewn.”

   “By indentured folk, I take it?”

   The assassin smiled coldly. “Would you expect anything else?”

   “I suppose these are given to children,” said Zoe, staring in the crate with disgust.

   “I do not know. Does it matter?”

   “I suppose it doesn’t,” she murmured. She gazed at Mal. “So this is how we pass customs on the surface?”

   He glanced at Robon.

   “Badger secured these,” he said. “There are fifteen thousand in your bay, Captain. They are tagged so that when they are bought the funds are diverted through a laundering process to an Independence bank account. We’ve been moving them over a year now. It has partially funded our operation.”

   The irony—“Companion” dolls funding the Independence—wasn’t lost on Mal or Zoe. Both chuckled darkly.

   “Speaking of Companions, Malcolm, do you know where Ms. Serra is? I need to speak to her.”

   “If ‘Ms. Serra’ isn’t in her shuttle, she’s on the Sri Lanka,” said Mal. “I realize it’s a silly question before I even ask it, but is there trouble?”

   “A high-ranking woman named Clarissa Ramudy is raising quite a commotion about her disappearance from Bellerophon. System sheriffs are on alert to board all outgoing vessels the day she was ‘kidnapped.’ We’ve been ordered to hold Serenity until it can be inspected, which should be—” he glanced at his watch—“within the hour. I want to inform her of what’s going on.”

   Mal blinked. “What? Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?”

   The assassin shrugged and smiled. “Because there was no need to.”

   “You’ve infiltrated Londinium’s orbital sheriffs?” asked Zoe, astounded.

   “We’ve been at this for some time. There are, believe it or not, a few wealthy Londiniumites opposed to what the Allied Planetary Government is doing and what it has become. Through their assistance we have made significant strides inserting ourselves in key positions within Parliament, the House of Lords, police, military, and several major tech corporations. None of it is at a level that is satisfactory, to be sure, but in this particular case it should be enough.”

   At that moment his comm beeped.

   “Yes?” he asked.

   “Sir, the sheriff and his deputy are here to inspect Serenity.”

   He glanced at Mal. “They’re early. Send them in.”

   A moment later a hard knock sounded against the hatch. Jayne, who’d been listening to the conversation from his weight bench, rose and went to it and opened it.

   A lawman entered, as did a woman, also wearing a badge.

   The man glanced at Mal and grinned as he walked towards him.

   “Looks like you’re still trying to do the right thing, Mr. Reynolds. Good to see you again.”

   “I’ll be damned,” muttered Mal. Zoe smiled.

   It was Sheriff Bourne from Paradiso, and his wife!

   The sheriff extended his hand; Mal took it. His wife came around, and she and Zoe shook hands.

   “Forgive me,” said Mal, “but how in Hannah’s Hell did you manage…?”

   “To get off Paradiso?” said Sheriff Bourne.

   Mal waited. Bourne’s wife came around and introduced herself to Jayne, whose gentlemanly training by Lenore paid off: he stood up straight, hurriedly wiped the sweat off his hand with the towel hanging over the bench, took her hand, and said, “Ma’am. Welcome to our ship.”

   Bourne motioned with his head towards Robon. “Mr. Mishiwaka’s craft caught fire over Paradiso, as in we could see it comin’ straight down in broad daylight. The damage from that orbital firefight with the Reavers really did a number on his vessel. After a bit of wheelin’ and dealin’, he managed to get us off that rock. We owe him our lives.”

   “He didn’t have a vessel,” said Mal. “He came down in an escape pod, and on a world nowhere near Regina.”

   “That’s right,” said Robon. “Alliance rescued me, if you’ll recall. They wanted to question me as I recovered from our … confrontation.” He nodded deferentially. “I knew quite well what that meant. Despite having significant injuries, I overpowered the guards and escaped in an Alliance skyfighter. It was damaged in the subsequent firefight. I lost nav control as I entered Regina’s orbit. When I woke up I found myself looking up at Sheriff Bourne. He kept me hidden in the mines, and with his wife and the miners helped me recover from my burns and injuries. I owe them my life, not the other way around. You saw me not long after I left there. Serenity was nearly ready for spaceflight after all your repairs on her.”

   He gazed gratefully in their direction. Sheriff Bourne’s wife smiled back.

   “My name is Alicia, by the way,” she told everyone.

   “Yun medicine cured her and me of Boden’s Malady, and kept Mr. Mishiwaka from contracting it,” said Bourne. “That damn disease has been wiped out on Regina. It’s how we got out of that hellhole. An Independence ship fresh from Lichungyun sent medicine down to us and let me and my wife grab a corner aboard it. Turns out Boden’s Malady was concocted by Alliance Defense as a means to quarantine folks once they committed to that awful life. The miners, when they found out, took to the streets. To keep it quiet the Allied Planets paid ‘em off, put everybody under a confidentiality agreement, and let them vote their own new sheriff in. Now they’re about to go in there and take away their hard-won freedom so that the snoots beneath us get fresh fruit in the morning.”

   “Should I be surprised about any of this?” grumbled Mal.

   “Is there anything that government does that’s good?” demanded Zoe.

Clothes came next. They arrived in three crates, these ones long, and had been hand-tailored to each of the crew. Days earlier they had submitted to measuring by Independents on the Sri Lanka.

   “This could go, oh, a million times faster if a goram computer was doing the job,” Mal groused as a woman worked a tape measure around him.

   “Have you ever heard of the Human Movement?” asked Robon, watching from the side.

   “What, is that some sorta bowel movement?” asked Jayne, his arms raised as another woman took tape measurements of his chest and waist.

   Robon smirked. So did Mal. Simon, being measured up as well, chuckled.

   “The Human Movement stresses human creativity and work in opposition to computers or automation. It doesn’t condemn either; it merely believes in utilizing both to a much lesser degree. A sane degree. It’s a generalization, but given the choice between human labor and computer automation, human labor should prevail, and should be paid at minimum a living wage for the work. That’s the Human Movement in a nutshell.”

   “I suppose that’s Yun-inspired as well?” said Mal.

   Robon shook his head. “It’s Independence-inspired. You, Captain, should be its biggest supporter. You were raised on a ranch. You worked with your hands, and I’m guessing you enjoyed it and grew from it. I’d also guess that the ranch was minimally automated, if at all.”

   “Not at all, actually,” said Mal.

   “The people you know: the people on the Rim. They utilize very little automation, correct?”

   Jayne grunted. “They can’t afford it.”

   “Human labor taken to one extreme is slavery. But the other extreme—complete automation—is also slavery. There is a satisfactory middle that doesn’t enslave people but sets them free. I’m willing to guess you believe that, Malcolm.”

   “Because you read my psych profile?”

   “Of course,” the assassin smiled. “But there are many things a psych profile cannot tell about a human being, especially one as much a pain in the ass as you are.”

   “I do my best,” murmured Mal.

At Kaylee’s insistence, they had a “dinner dress party” on Serenity while plans to break atmo were still being finalized. Without asking Mal, she took the liberty to invite Robon and several other Sri Lanka scientists, all of whom accepted. (He wouldn’t have told her no; still, he was upset that he didn’t get a chance to grump about it and generally make her uncomfortable for asking.)

   Fresh food had just arrived from the surface, and Deader was keen to cook everybody a “nice sit-down dinner. A real one. Which means dressin’ like ladies and gentlemen, y’hear?”

   She fired a stern glance Mal’s way, then one towards Jayne, who answered it with, “Don’t worry about me. If you’re cookin’, Granny, I’ll wear my Sunday best.”

   “That’s what I like to hear.”

   “Do you need help?” asked Kaylee enthusiastically.

   “Maybe with helpin’ me get things ready, lambchops,” Deader smiled in a very grandmotherly way. “But then I want to see you in your Londinium finery!”

   Even Inara got new duds, though not a whole wardrobe full of them as the others had. No one had to ask why. Still, she got measured up. When Mal walked in on her an hour before dinner, he stopped in his tracks. She was in a white and purple gown and looked …

   “Whoa,” he breathed, unaware he had spoken.

   She smiled. “Captain … may I do something for you?”

   Her new short hairdo made her dark eyes even more attention-grabbing than before. The gown wasn’t “standard” for Companions, and after he got his voice back, he mentioned it.

   “I am no longer a Companion,” she said plainly. “I thought I might try a little more fru-frufery, like Kaylee. What do you think?”

   She turned in place and came to a stop and waited.

   When he couldn’t answer, she grinned. “That is answer enough,” she said softly, walking by him. “Thank you, Captain.”

   He tried, he really did, not to stare at her at dinner, which, he had to admit (very grudgingly), went very well. She caught him several times, and each time looked away, smiling.

The day came to depart for the surface. It almost didn’t seem strange to him that Robon was with them. He had been so omnipresent these past two-plus weeks that it almost felt like he was part of the crew.

   He’d caught him taking furtive glances at Zoe, especially at the party, where she had dressed in a ravishing black get-up.

   Just before giving Deader the word to release docking clamps and set course to break atmo, and while checking over the cargo one more time (no one else was in the bay), he broached the topic with him.

   “She’s still in mourning, you know.”

   Robon, securing a crate, righted himself and turned. They stared at each other for a long moment.

   (Always sizing each other up in case it came to trying to break the other’s neck, Mal considered as he waited.)

   “I’m surprised she doesn’t blame me for her husband’s death,” Robon replied. “But she doesn’t. I asked. She is a remarkable woman, Zoe.”

   Mal had never felt the need to protect her, and so the desire to do so now surprised him.

   “I don’t like the way you look at her.”

   Robon grinned. “Her loyalty to you is inspiring.”

   “She’s loyal to this boat, not me,” retorted Mal.

   “If you wish,” said Robon. When the silence between them grew tense (tenser), he said, “Is there anything else you wish to discuss, Captain?”

   Mal went to warn him away, then thought better of it. He wanted to punch that da-shiang bao-tza shr duh lah doo-tze of a grin still on his face, and he knew Mishiwaka knew that, so he grumbled, “We’re breaking atmo in an hour,” and marched away.

   The assassin stared after him as he climbed the stairs leading to the bridge.

Nightfall, Londinium.

   Serenity plowed into the atmosphere of the core world of the Core, falling like a meteor.