Captain John Watson stared unsmiling down the length of his gun at the frail, tiny old woman on the horse. No, he had no intention of shooting her - unless she moved, of course. And it wasn’t as though he didn’t owe her one, anyhow.
“It appears we’ve come upon a small disagreement, your boys and I. But there’s no need for violence,“ he said amiably.
“Course not,” she agreed, unfazed. She was wearing a wide hat to keep the planet’s sunlight out of her eyes and off her leathered face, which suited her.
“The way I see it, we can just complete this business transaction as we discussed. I have the payment - thank you very much” - in his other hand he jingled the small pouch he was carrying - “and we all ask our people very nicely to put their guns and” - a glance at one member of Norbury’s very eager backup contingent - “…crossbows away, and now that you have the coordinates of the goods, we can all go our merry ways.” He risked a glance at Molly, mounted beside him, and saw her nod at the woman in a reassuring manner.
“I’m afraid that right there we have a problem,” she said, cool and pleasant as if this were a conversation about weather patterns on the southern continent. “You see, I really hate losing money.”
John tossed the bag back to her immediately and she caught it with a neat little twist of her wrist (the one not holding a rifle). He did not, however, lower his gun.
“There you go. No harm done.”
He waited for Norbury to respond, but there was nothing. After a moment, John smiled.
“So hard to get good help these days, isn’t it? You hire a sniper, assume he can do the job, and then he goes and gets himself rendered unconscious.” She just glared at him.
“Oh, and the other one does, too. Shame.” Now she looked angry. Angry was at least something he could work with. Angry, he understood. “So are you going to allow my people to leave? I’m sure we can come to an arrangement private-like, just the two of us.” He paused, but she just kept staring him down, as though debating. “By our own selves,” he added, in case she didn’t quite understand him.
She seemed to come to a decision, and nodded to her right. The man with the crossbow let an arrow fly.
Things happened very quickly after that. John felt the air stir where the arrow passed by, far too close to his arm for his comfort, but still harmless. Molly was already firing as he dove off his horse to take shelter behind a large boulder.
The firefight was quick and brutal. Wig had gone quietly around to the areas where John had said the snipers would be - John’s experience mapping out such things in the war for independence had proven advantageous in at least that respect - and taken them both out. Wig had also liberated their guns, and having their own sniper was very helpful indeed.
Molly had taken refuge behind one of the scrubby trees that grew out here - they had to be tough as nails to survive in this wasteland and they’d certainly stop a bullet. She’d pop out from behind it every few seconds to fire, and another of Norbury’s guard would tumble off a horse. John tried to keep moving when he came out from the shelter of his boulder to make himself a harder target. It must be working, because nothing had hit him yet, but he knew luck wouldn’t see him through forever.
What with the sniper on their side, Norbury herself was the last person upright, shielded behind her large bay horse.
“You can’t win, Captain,” she called, her rifle balanced on the saddle and her eye focused keenly down the barrel on John. “I’m still standing and I own half this moon; people are not going to just—“
John shot the bay, which fell over right on top of Norbury, and marched up to where she lay on the ground, pinned by its weight.
“I don’t really care what people on this little moon are going to do, Vivian,” he said, his emphasis on her first name nearly spat out of him. He kicked her rifle away and lifted the little bag of money she had taken back. “I care about my crew getting paid for good faith efforts, and not getting shot in the process. Nice doing business with you.”
He turned his back and stomped off toward the shuttle, Molly following with her head held high. He could already see Wig in the distance, making for the shuttle as well.
It was shaping up to be a pretty good day.
John stood on the walkway above the cargo bay, watching as the passengers from Meridian loaded themselves; the busy port was crawling with people looking for a ship to take them where they wanted to go at a discount rate. There were as many visible machine guns outside as there were flat, Asian-style hats in the crowd, and the steam from a nearby pork vendor taking advantage of the throngs blotted out a good quarter of John’s view. He appeared to be casually leaning against a bulkhead to any glances his way, but there was an intensity in his stare that would be clear to any serious observer. Fortunately, the passengers were busy with their own concerns as they shuffled aboard, staring around them at the mostly-empty cargo bay and signs that the little Firefly-class ship had been… well-loved. Even Irene had come out of the small shuttle on one side of Serenity that she rented from John to take a look at the new passengers. John nodded to her as she approached.
“Here to sniff out some new business?” he asked when she materialized beside him. “I think I heard a couple guys saying that this would be perfect if only there was a whore aboard to help them pass the time. Person can get awful lonely between here and the Core.”
Irene just rolled her perfect, immaculately-highlighted eyes. The topic was well-worn between them, but she answered anyway.
“I really don’t think any of your passengers could afford my rates,” she said sweetly. “They’re looking for a discount ride to Ariel, not a first-class luxurious ride with me as well as… bonuses.” She made sure to emphasize the word ‘bonuses’ so that every person who heard her - in this case most of the crew - was at the very least terribly intrigued.
”You— you’d be surprised,” John stammered. “What they might could afford and choose not to spend on transport.”
“Well, a Companion chooses their own clients,” Irene said smoothly. “There aren’t that many I’d consider, anyhow. Although -” she said, looking shrewdly at the group on the floor - “there are a few. That one in particular looks interesting.” She nodded at a young man standing at the top of the entrance ramp as if debating. He was staring around the cargo bay with narrowed eyes, and John could just imagine the picture Serenity presented. It was not terribly luxurious. Sensing that her work was done, Irene strolled off, trailing a beautifully-manicured hand along the walkway as she went.
This passenger was unusual - he looked wealthy and well-to-do, not your average patched-together ruffian looking to hire the cheapest decent ride off this rock. He was tall, willowy and thin. Sharp suit that clung like a second skin, razor blade cheekbones and a head of luxurious curls that would make Medusa jealous.
John forced himself to stop staring.
“You make sure he gets inside if he’s coming,” he called to Mrs. Hudson below. “A strong breeze might just blow him off the loading ramp, and here we’d be a passenger short.”
“Already paid, though,” said Wig, coming up beside him. “No haggling, just handed it over. More’n enough, technically. Wanted us to be extra careful with that crate.”
“That don’t exactly reassure me,” John said, his eyes following the man’s movements as he carefully - a bit too carefully if John was any judge - guided the placement of a crate in the cargo bay. “Folk as pay too much in advance make me jumpy.”
“Everything makes you jumpy, Cap’n,” Wig said with a raised eyebrow.
“Maybe so. Still, I think he’s trying to keep chit-chat, questions and general conversation to a minimum. And so.” He made his way with causal ease down to the floor of the cargo bay.
“Afternoon,” he said to the man, eyes raking over the ‘special handling’ crate. The man just stared at him as though he were an unknown but not terribly interesting item he’d found on his shoe.
“Yes,” he agreed, and turned back to the crate.
“Interesting package you got there,” John persisted. “Anything I should know about?”
“No,” the man said, clearly dismissive. God, but he was a stubborn hwen dan. Another crate was brought on board - this one slightly smaller - and the workers carrying it made to place it on top of the other.
“Wait!” the man - Holmes, by the name he’d put in the manifest - all but shrieked. “Not on this one; the chemicals are rather… volatile.” He snuck a guilty glance at John, who only raised his eyebrows, and turned back to the workers. “Just here beside it, that will do nicely.”
He backed up as the crates were placed, carefully not making eye contact with John.
“Chemicals, mm?” John said, looking thoughtfully at Homes. “Dangerous?”
“Only some of them,” Holmes said, immediately defensive. “When combined. They’re inert when contained like this, I—“
“But dangerous,” John interrupted.
“Good.” He turned on his heel and headed for the galley, one side of his mouth curving up where he was certain Holmes couldn’t see. It was good to keep them on their toes.
John only paused in the galley.
“You’re making toast at one in the afternoon?” he asked, seeing Molly push a couple of slices in.
“Toast’ is just a polite term for warming it up a little,” Mrs. Hudson explained, coming in behind him. “She likes the bread on her sandwiches like that. Passengers are almost ready to go, dear. Captain.”
John didn’t say anything; just nodded. At least this time she had corrected herself, which was better than he usually got. Honestly, the woman was so good with engines that she could call him ‘Buttercup’ and he still wouldn’t let her go.
“Well,” Molly drawled. She rarely drawled, and John looked her way with surprise. “I saw that guy Holmes we picked up with all the chemicals. If I wasn’t married…”
“If you weren’t, then what?” John demanded. “That was an awful pregnant pause there, and a pregnant pause means nothing good.”
“Then I just mean that he was something of a looker, sir,” she said playfully. “Don’t tell me you didn’t notice. I saw you staring same as the rest of us. Even Irene was sizing him up, and she never contracts with passengers.”
“No, she never does, because those are the rules.” He wasn’t exactly sure why he was getting agitated… he hadn’t been interested at all. Intrigued, maybe. “Well, enjoy your sandwich. I’m going to have a chat with your husband about taking off sometime this month. Since you’re married and all.”
“Married, not blind,” he heard as he walked away.
He stomped up the steps into the cockpit to find Greg, his genius pilot, halfway through coffee and a doughnut with his feet up on the console.
“I see you’re working hard,” he commented. “That coffee isn’t going to drink itself, and you’d better finish that pastry before it gets taken by the raving bands of passengers we just picked up.”
“I am working, Captain,” Greg insisted - or John assumed he insisted; it was hard to tell as it was being forced around a mouthful of doughnut. “See all these blinking lights? Working,” he said, nodding seriously. John fought it, then gave up and grinned as he glanced around. “And,” Greg continued, “we’re on the ground. Stationary. Not flying. Getting passengers - not my division.”
“Yeeeees,” John said. “But we’re going to be flying and not stationary in about five minutes, as soon as everyone’s on and the door is closed.”
“Yeah,” Greg agreed seriously. “But you know, Captain, preparing for takeoff takes about thirty seconds on a slow day.”
“Oh,” John said, taken aback. “That’s interesting; most pilots need 5 or 10 minutes’ warning before taking off. Cutting corners?”
“Nope, I’m just that good,” he said, grinning.
John sighed. “I don’t know why I even bother.”
Once they were underway, John had taken a look at their flight path and had a long, more serious talk with Greg. Twenty minutes later, he gathered passengers and crew in the galley for an update.
“As you know, the most direct route from here to Ariel take us right past deep space station 3 at the border and straight into the Halo. Unfortunately, the territory between here and the station is known this week to be littered with Reaver parties, so in order to steer clear we’re going to have to go the long way around, a couple days’ extra travel.” There was the expected chorus of groans, but the passengers mostly looked resigned. “But,” John countered, “we’ll get you to Ariel safe and sound this way, no nasty surprises. If you’ll all just follow Wig to the cargo bay, you can collect your necessaries and he’ll make sure you get settled in your bunks.”
The passengers dispersed, grumbling, except for one who made a beeline for where John was talking quietly with a couple members of his crew. It was Tall, Curly and Rude himself. “I have a suggestion,” he said, without preamble, between one sentence from John and another, neither to him. John stopped and regarded him.
“Passengers are to go with Wig to the cargo bay,” John repeated after a moment, insistent.
“I don’t need to go to the cargo bay. I need to tell the captain of this vessel about my suggestion. It has to do with landing on Ariel, and there is quite a lucrative reward in it for you, Captain, unless I’m very much mistaken about the nature of your business. And in this case, I don’t think I am.”
“Whoa, whoa, just hold it right there. What ‘business’ do you think we are in? We’re taking passengers to Ariel, no law against that.”
“Please,” Holmes said, voice laden with contempt. “You’re clearly doing SOMETHING else to make enough credit to keep flying; ferrying people across the ‘verse is not going to cut it, even if you normally take more passengers than you have right now - which judging by the lack of sleeping places, you don’t. And don’t try to convince me there are other rooms; I’m familiar with the layout of a Firefly, and unless you have hammocks slung in the engine room, I don’t know where you’re planning to put them. Of course, there’s the other shuttle where the Companion isn’t living, but I’ve been up there and observed the dust and wear patterns by the door; you don’t use that one very much at all - I’m not even convinced it still flies. But what an older model Firefly ship DOES have is small, hidden spaces. Good for storing cargo that you don’t want anyone to stumble across. I mean, I could certainly find them, but it would take sniffer dogs in most cases, and there are ways around that issue. You take smaller cargo, things that their senders don’t want the Alliance to know about. You can cover it in the guise of legitimate business, hence the passengers. But it isn’t difficult to see. You’re smugglers.”
John took a deliberate step toward him, and Molly lay a less conspicuous hand on her holster. Holmes did not step back. “What make you think we won’t just toss you out an airlock, you making an accusation like that?” John asked.
Holmes frowned at him. “Well, I’d certainly have alerted the authorities before going off like that to the crew. I’m not an idiot,” he scoffed.
“You’d still be dead,” John pointed out, and noted that Mrs. Hudson frowned next to him, but didn’t otherwise react.
“Yeees,” Holmes said, dragging the word out and staring at him. “Anyway, I didn’t call them. I’ve got no love for the Alliance; in fact I’d like to stay as far off their radar as possible. I only told you I’d deduced your true business because what I’m about to propose is not exactly legal, and I’m saying that I know you’re comfortable with that. Avoids all manner of annoyances. Although I have to say, Captain, I don’t understand your advantage in getting to our destination late. That part makes no sense. And we’re going around Reavers? That’s just ludicrous. Now why would this ship go so far out of the way of its destination and not stop anywhere along the way?” he mused, almost to himself. “Unless you’re planning to stop for another ’unexpected’ reason. Could be you—“
“It’s not ludicrous,” Molly interrupted. Holmes blinked a few times as though coming back to the world outside his head.
“It is,” he said. “They don’t exist. They’re fairy tales about space monsters that will get you. They’re used to frighten children into eating their vegetables.” Molly was becoming angrier with every word he spoke, and when she got angry, she only got more quiet and serious-looking. John felt he should step in.
“What ‘verse are you living in where gorram Reavers—“ she began.
“Okay, okay, settle down, maybe he hasn’t had call to come across ‘em. The Alliance line is the one that says they don’t exist, remember? Posh boy like this has grown up in the Core,” (he ignored Holmes’s huff) “and no Alliance government has ever confirmed the existence of Reavers.”
“Well, I’ve seen them,” Molly continued. She didn’t often talk about this, and John knew better than to interrupt. “Know what they do to a person once they find a living body. They’ll rape them to death. Eat the flesh. Sew the skins into their clothing. And if the person is very, very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.”
Holmes just stared at her, but John could see that she’d made an impression. No one spoke, and with the passengers having long since trooped off to the cargo bay, the room rang with silence.
“Interesting,” he said at last.
John burst out laughing. He couldn’t help it; the tension in the group had been driven so high by the talk of Reavers that it was impossible not to laugh at that reaction. Holmes turned a tentative half-smile on him.
“So,” John managed, trying to bring himself under control - and get the subject on a less disturbing topic. “Do tell. What is this terribly important suggestion you have to impart?”
“Stealing drugs, and selling them on the black market,” he said. At their blank stares, he added, “From a hospital.”
Their eyes only grew wider.
“Each hospital has its own dedicated security staff,” Mrs. Hudson pointed out at last. “You’ll never even get close.”
“I have a plan for that. It won’t be the impossible feat you imagine.”
“What do you get out of all this?” asked John. Apparently the shock had rendered everyone else mute. Holmes looked a bit shifty, and John’s expression grew stony.
“If you’re doing this in order to get high grade hospital drugs for your own use, I want no part of it,” he continued. “I’ve seen what addiction does to people, and there is no way—“
“Yes, your sister,” Holmes interrupted, sounding bored. John stopped mid-rant and just gaped. How the hell did he know about that? No one knew about that.
“I’m not after anything like that,” said Holmes. “I am after chemicals. The medical grade ones in the hospital’s labs are far more sterile than anything you can find elsewhere. There are types you can’t find elsewhere, as well - and believe me, I’ve looked. You get me in, and I know where to go. And which drugs you’ll need to take for the highest profit, of course,” he added as an afterthought.
“And when all is said and done, how much are we talking about my people coming out with?”
“Thousands of credits. Tens of thousands. Maybe more if you play your cards right.”
“I’m in,” said Wig, having just returned from seeing the passengers to the cargo bay and on to the guest bunks. He couldn’t have heard more than a couple sentences, and stood practically salivating in the doorway.
“You’ll need to - ah - commandeer a few things once we reach Ariel,” Holmes continued. “At the hospital, I will take Molly and Wig: Molly because she’s good with a gun and Wig because he’s good with… everything else that requires brute force.” Wig leered.
“And me,” John put in. “This is not going down without me there.”
“Well, obviously,” said Holmes. “Molly is your number two, you work well with her, and between the two of you I feel you can be trusted too get the right drugs. I will be taking Wig with me to collect the chemicals.” He looked Wig up and down. “In this case, brute force may be what’s required.”
“Not sure I like the sound of that,” John said.
“Hey, me either,” Wig whined. “Why have I got to go with you and not be part of the ‘gettin’ thousands of credits’ part of this?”
“You are, Holmes said. “If I don’t get what I’m there for, no one does. You’re going to help me get it.”
“And they’re going to just let us walk in there, are they?” John asked, still not quite believing this. “Without putting up any sort of fight?”
“Well, if they do then you can just open fire, aren’t you good at that?” He smirked at their horrified faces. “Leave it to me. Come on, Captain. Could be dangerous. Probably will be, actually.”
“Yeah,” John said. “Fortunately, I’m good with dangerous.”