In the empty distance between the Border planets and the Core worlds, space was quiet and still and so utterly predictable.
He hated it.
It was as if the Alliance had the power to schedule the orbit of the planets around the suns, to schedule the orbit of the moons around the planets. If any object dared to deviate from its course, they’d send out naval ships, cruisers armed with the power to atomize spacecraft in a blink, and then order it back to its perfect place: back on schedule, tick tock.
John Watson knew the Alliance couldn’t really move the heavens. But as the Firefly-class transport ship flew gently across the inky blackness, he also knew it didn’t matter. The Union of Allied Planets acted like it controlled the ‘verse either way.
At times, John was thankful the war was over. But then he would wake up, panting and paranoid, seeing only the blood of his comrades soaking the ground like rust-colored oil, spilling over browncoats and ratty combat boots. He’d hear the screams, feel the dirt under his nails and the sticky, syrupy quality of blood between his fingers from an open chest wound that would just not stop flowing, no matter how much pressure he applied. The private died within minutes. He hadn’t the time to grieve.
In the end, he’d seen enough death and destruction for a lifetime. Far too much.
The war was over now, though, the Alliance-sanctioned history books claimed triumphantly, the Independents were vanquished. The ‘verse reset back to the default position: back on schedule.
John scrubbed at his face, rubbing away the shadows under his eyes.
There was no point in reminiscing. He had a crew to feed and jobs to complete. He needed to be a Captain right now, not a soldier still haunted by a war eight years gone. Straightening his back, Captain John Watson, ex-army doctor and current space pirate-slash-smuggler, climbed the ladder out of his bunk and then marched steadily down the foredeck, heading toward the bridge.
Slipping under the wide arch of the doorway, John quirked a smile in his pilot’s direction, his boots clacking noisily against the metal floor as an unvoiced ‘hello.’ The wiry man gave a high jump, startling away from whatever he was doing.
“Captain!” Anderson greeted, aggressively shoving his collection of tiny tyrannosauruses and velociraptors away from the dark-blue image monitor that had been acting as a pool for the dinosaurs to play-drink from. The display was picking up nothing but deep space, and around them, knobs and buttons blinked green, calm and at ease. Anderson turned to John, smiling sheepishly, “I thought you were with Greg. He’s been in a strop for hours.”
John rolled his eyes, rocking back on his heels. “Because we’re picking up passengers on Persephone.” It wasn’t a question, but Anderson answered anyway, grimacing down at the toys on the ground.
The argument was weeks old, ever since John had first brought it up after they finished with the latest job (collecting foodstuffs from an abandoned Wren-class transport set adrift, not as much cargo as expected, earnings likely reduced, their own food and water more closely rationed until the next job). Everyone had agreed that more money would always be a good thing, but collecting passengers was an entirely different deal to uphold. John thought the ticket prices were well worth the risk of nosy tourists poking around and being a general nuisance. Greg disagreed wholeheartedly, claiming he had a bad feeling about it, whatever that meant.
Normally John would defer to Greg’s instincts. After all, the older man fought right beside John during the war, seeing his own share of fire and bloodshed and yet still managing to come out of it alive. But they needed the money, and John was captain, not Greg. He had made his decision, and he would deal with the consequences, good or bad.
Anderson leaned back in his seat, catching his eye, “Him and Sally were whinging about it during breakfast. Molly showed up about half-way in, though, and they seemed to drop it for good.”
Molly Hooper, their resident genius of a mechanic, could not contain her joy at the idea of ferrying new people to Athens, a small Outer Rim world on the edge of civilized space. It was a popular destination for people looking to escape the slums of Persephone and move along to the more industrial Border planets for work. Molly, bless her heart, was clamoring for fresh faces and seeing new scenery of the ‘verse. John was absolutely using her pure-hearted happiness as a weapon to sway Greg and Donovan to his side.
“And you?” he had to ask. Anderson almost always respected John’s choices, but his relationship with Donovan—a mercenary who could get very loud and very heated against his nonnegotiable decisions—did throw the pilot’s allegiance into question.
“We may be married, Cap’n, but I understand why we need this.”
The support was nice to hear, even if Anderson would break under the will of his wife when push came to shove. He had one person on his side, and that’s all he needed.
“Thanks,” he said anyway, smiling.
He turned around after Anderson nodded, wandering down the hallway and into the galley, taking in the unwashed plates stacked on the side of the table and the torn package of a fruity oaty bar left lazily on the counter. He brushed the wrapper into a wastebasket and surveyed the rest of the room with a critical eye.
Their rationed water was getting low, but once they get paid for the cargo, the dishes could be cleaned. Everything else looked okay, imperfect and cheap, yes, but more importantly, durable and practical.
When the passengers arrive on the ship, he should ask everyone to share each evening meal together. Get to know them, show Greg he was worried for nothing. If anything, Molly would like the chance to talk to new folks.
John nodded once to himself and passed by the kitchen table and mismatched sets of chairs.
If Greg was in a mood, he’d make himself scarce, find a little place of nowhere within this claustrophobic spaceship to hide out and think. Molly’s scene was the engine room at the end of the hall, so that was out. So were the crew dorms, too obvious a place, as was the cargo bay floor, which was a spacious, open-air platform easy enough to see over when standing on the catwalk. That left the few hidden compartments on Masir not already being used for smuggling the cargo and the lower level infirmary and passenger dorms.
Deciding to check the infirmary first, John stepped carefully down the metal stairways, aware of his off-and-on-again limp. He needn’t have gone all the way down, however, since his first mate walked into view at the top, having just left the engine room and wearing a loose frown. His eyes were warm, though, when their gazes met.
“Hey John,” Greg greeted politely, offering a little burst of a wave.
Molly poked her head out, beaming at the two of them like a shining star. “Masir is purring. Anderson’s doing a great job flying her.”
The three of them tossed genial words back and forth for a bit before Molly left to compliment Anderson in person. In the tense silence that followed, John and Greg stared at each other, before the silver-haired man seemed to slump where he stood. He made his way down the stairway at a much faster pace than the doctor had, and John waited patiently, leaning on the railing.
“You’re right,” Greg said upon reaching the floor, not averting his eyes, holding it. “We need easy money, and passengers are the best bet in that regard,” his eyes turned stony and hard, unyielding, “but Sally and I are going to keep our guns on us at all times. No chances, okay?”
John agreed easily, it was a reasonable addendum. He himself wasn’t going to part with his standard issue officer’s pistol, passengers or no. “As long as you don’t shoot any of them,” he joked, grinning at the smile his second-in-command sent back.
Greg leaned his back against the railing beside him, and they shared a look full of too much meaning. John closed his eyes to ward off seeing the same expression on his friend’s face that he saw in the mirror this morning.
This time the quiet was comfortable and companionable.
“She’ll stay afloat, mate, always has.”
John hummed noncommittally, massaging his sore leg expressionlessly.
As a seasoned smuggler who dealt with Outer Rim businessmen and -women for eight long years of disreputable services, it was a known necessity to bring muscle for the drop-off. There was always a risk of backroom deals and middlemen getting greedy, trying to skim the pay. Even just for protection on the way to the meeting, walking through crime-heavy slums and dark alleyways, the extra arms made for a good, safe plan.
Greg and Donovan flanked John as they traveled through the streets of a low-income district on Persephone, the sign name unreadable over the graffiti and painted rags marking an unusually high number of warring gangs.
“I hate dealing with CAM,” Sally whispered fiercely once they’d passed a large ring of gritty, dead-eyed teenagers, her hand hovering over her holster as her eyes keenly flickered back and forth for any sign of trouble. Greg kept his lips pressed tightly together, keeping a similar level of lookout but managing to appear relaxed to an outside viewer as they strode quickly through the loud, smelly streets.
No one was going to disagree with her.
Charles Augustus Magnussen was a slimy, despicable creature who preyed on the weak and vulnerable. His habit of parading his slaves around like property, just for show, for their benefit, made Sally want to shoot him in the face a few times. But he was also a businessman, one who had a good reputation for delivering on what was asked, and he had been at least somewhat genial for all their previous dealings.
“I want to punch his stupid Core-bred face,” she mumbled to herself. Greg snorted despite himself and even John couldn’t withhold a thin smirk.
No one knew if Magnussen was from the Core, he dealt in secrets for all but his own, but it was as good a bet as any. The man practically leaked of an Alliance upbringing, immaculate and cut-throat in a way that even the lowest of the low brand of criminals wouldn’t dare try. As if the group needed another reason to dislike him.
Minutes went by in silence. A group of dirty children ran by with sticky hands and a jingling of stolen treasure in their irregularly-patched pockets. They were close – perhaps about five minutes away from the meeting place CAM set up.
Sally had just started to relax when John raised a single finger, his hands still held slack near his hip, the movement covered for all eyes but theirs. His expression remained calm. Greg forced himself not to tense, but Sally tripped a little as they moved along, trying to not break stride.
Then, as if they were distracted by one of the sleeker, newer transport ships just now setting down in the docks, Greg and Sally stepped back in one synchronized move. At the same time, John lunged forward two steps, and in the gap created between the three of them, two armed men bumped into each other, stumbling together in surprise at the change of their targets’ positions from where they had lunged forward from the sidelines.
“A welcome present from CAM?” Donovan sneered, her holster already empty as she leveled the gun at the thin man with a scar across his left eye. Greg was similarly holding the other assailant hostage, his own pistol pressed snugly against the large, bulky man’s chest. John stood back, his eyes sharp and cold.
“No,” he answered, since it didn’t fit with the pattern, “he didn’t send them. They’ve been following us for a block, must have heard or seen something to tell them we’re here for business.”
Donovan didn’t blush at the subtle reprimand, but she did scowl harder. “Now what, boss?”
John raised his chin, looking around the criminals’ heads to share a look with his first mate. Greg nodded, slightly, barely even moving, and John breathed out a long sigh. With a coordination born from years upon years of working together, the two smugglers pistol whipped their attackers in one smooth motion no one else saw coming. As their muscled bodies fell forward, Donovan danced back a few steps to avoid her toes getting pinched.
“Onward?” she asked casually, and they moved back into position, eyes forward but always, always aware.
Dealing with Magnussen always put the crew off their food, so once the transaction was complete and John told him where the cargo was hidden, the three of them ducked out of the meeting as fast as polite society allowed. The bag of gold coins from their troubles lay underneath layers upon layers of fabric, unnoticeable to even the trained eye. The money would go a good way in restocking foodstuffs and buying repairs for Masir, especially since ship parts weren’t exactly cheap.
“I should have at least spat at him,” Donovan bemoaned regretfully, and Greg shook his head at her while John stalked, stone-faced, ahead. For someone who had a background as a mercenary, could even be said to still be a mercenary, Sally was unusually attached to her emotions and letting them interfere with her work. How she had made it so far in her field—for so long and with such great scores—was interesting in and of itself, especially when one takes into account how green she sometimes acts.
“That wouldn’t have been wise,” Greg said quietly, since he felt like someone should.
Sally rolled her eyes, moving quicker to fall in line with the captain’s steady strides. “We still picking up passengers?” she asked lowly with the start of a glare on her dark features.
John stared ahead. “Yes.”
She sighed hotly at the answer but remained by his side, not falling back to be next to Greg, as if it were some sort of compromise.
Just this morning, she and Greg had agreed that passengers were trouble, but for wildly different reasons. Whereas the ex-soldier worried about the unknown dangers of new people, Sally didn’t want to deal with the bother of cleaning the ship and preparing food for a larger mass of people like an everyday tourist boat, especially since it took a dig at her pride that they needed to collect revenue from ferrying. She took pride in her job, but being seen in the community as a simple transport when she knows her worth to be so much more was jarring.
“I asked Molly to get us some customers before we left,” John added after they turned a corner and merged into a crowded market place a few blocks away from where Masir was perched at the docks.
As they walked along the way, they passed stands selling grilled meat of a questionable source, and other non-food-related types of peddlers were scattered around the campus like candy wrappers littered along an open field, crinkly and begging for attention. At the side of the dirt street, across from a train of people slowly making their way inside a Wren-class transport ship headed towards Boros, two Alliance officers in the uniformed purple armor were muttering between themselves, leaning back with casual glances around the market.
John felt his fingers tighten into a fist, could practically feel Greg doing the same behind him, and they calmly passed the purple-bellies, avoiding their eyes like any citizen from a planet not as well off as the Core worlds would do. Greg finally fell into step beside the two, making two long, fast strides forward.
“What’re they doing here?” Greg wondered under his breath, his brown eyes wide and nervous, “Alliance rarely sets foot on planets like this.”
“I don’t know,” John responded, just as troubled by the new development. “I don’t like it.”
When their ship’s bulky mass came into view, the trio breathed a sigh of relief at the sight. Masir meant safety, even with a gaggle of annoying passengers on her back. Anything to get away from the Alliance’s dogs.
Donovan strode intently through the main airlock doors just as two young passengers slipped by, giggling to each other as they lugged a suitcase and purse behind them. Sally ignored Molly’s earsplitting smile as she chatted with a potential customer, disappearing inside without looking at the man.
Behind the stranger, sitting on a utility cart, was a large, cube-shaped container mixed in amongst a backpack and leather suitcase. John and Greg hung back in the shadow of the ship, watching Molly and the man both curiously and carefully.
The first thing John noticed was that the stranger was holding an umbrella in the crook of his arm. The second thing he noticed was the man was tall and lean, holding himself straighter than a metal pole in the ground. As he made conversation with his strongly defined Core accent - face a mask of arrogant disinterest that immediately made John hate him vehemently - Molly reached forward to lay a hand on his elbow in friendly comradery. He jerked away like her touch burned his delicate skin, and John moved forward before he’d even realized it.
Greg waited a little ways back, his eyes hooded as he took mental notes on the man in the bespoke suit that didn’t have a speck of dirt on it.
“Hello,” John interrupted coolly, sliding beside Molly and offering his mechanic a quick flash of a smile to put her at ease while he hijacked her attempt at drawing the tourist in. “You looking for passage to Athens? We’re a bit full at the moment, but there’s a transport ship just around the corner headed to Boros, you should give them a look and then see if you could transfer planet-side.”
“No,” the man stated, raising his chin, dark-blue eyes flashing. “I think your ship will do just fine.”
John barked a laugh. “Did you not hear me, mate? I said we’re full.”
“Captain Watson,” he said icily, shifting on his feet a little so his body stood directly in front of his odd pile of suitcases. “You’re a thirty-year-old captain of a 03-K64-Firefly spacecraft with deep ties to the Independents. During the Unification War, you fought and lost the Battle of Serenity Valley.” At John’s thunderous look, looking about ready to punch him, the stranger continued more quietly, gripping the arched handle of his brolly in a white-fisted hold, “I’m not saying this to make an enemy of you, doctor. Captain. I only wish for safe passage to Athens.”
They stared at each, the air thick and heavy, ready to spark at the slightest provocation. Meanwhile, Molly had shrunken in on herself, sending wide-eyed looks back at Greg, who was slowly making his way over.
“No,” John answered finally, mirroring the abrupt finality from man’s previous answer, and he stalked up the boardwalk and into Masir’s belly with a tone of something settled for good.
He didn’t see the man’s face fall and desperation etch itself into every line of his body before he could pull himself together and slide the mask back over his eyes. He squared his shoulders, straightening even more.
Greg hurriedly followed John, not looking back, and Molly moved to follow them, sending an apologetic glance over her shoulder.
In the stale air, the stranger called out, and this time the tired, worn quality was audible in his voice for just a second, “Please wait, Captain Watson!” At the slight falter in the shorter man’s step, he continued at a normal volume, “I can offer you ten times your ticket fare.”
Ten times? Everyone on the cargo bay floor in hearing range turned and stared at him, and the Core man shifted a bit at the heat behind the two ex-soldiers glares. One of his hands (pale, shaking slightly, from nerves?) reached out and grasped the handle of his cart in a tight death grip.
No matter how much John hated him, hated what he represented, he couldn’t refuse the blinding amount of money this man was offering. Greg and Molly were looking at him, dumbfounded, and John knew what his answer would be just by looking at the open faces of his crew.