Chapter 1 - Desperate Times...
Thunderous hooves pounded kicking up mounds of dust in their wake. Ellie urged her horse faster and pulled hard on the reins to cut into patch of dry brush for cover. The dead branches ripped at her face. A loud bang followed by a quick snap shot splinters in her eyes as a bullet tore through the tree next to her.
That was their best shot yet. Before the chase began Ellie got a quick minute to size up her foe. Roughly a dozen dust covered men who spent their days chewing tobacco and drinking engine fuel; took her only a moment to figure that they'd probably had better aim spittin' into a bucket than they would with any gun. Still her teeth were clenched and she white-knuckled the reins as she broke through the last of the brush back into the harsh sandy desert.
And there she was; engine fired and ready for a quick exit, the Firefly sat with its bay doors open. Ellie could feel her chest catch with hope. Another shot rang out, though the direction had changed, this time coming from the forward position. She took a quick glance over her shoulder at her pursuers just in time to see a man fall from his horse and get lost amongst the hooves.
Three more shots followed and no-doubt knocking their ranks down by the same count. Hooves met metal as Ellie hauled onto the docking ramp. Her hand, making a circle motion above her head, told her crew to wrap it up – they were leaving.
Tray stood ready, his hand slammed the control panel which heaved into motion the large bay doors. Jayne sat crouched behind storage containers, bipod of his sniper resting flush with the boxes. Before Ellie could shout for him to stop he squeezed off another round. Inside the hull the sound ricocheted off the walls. Ellie pulled the reins to slow her horse but the amplified sound spooked the creature causing it to rear instead, throwing Ellie to the floor.
Winded on her back Ellie could hear Jayne growl into the intercom, "She's on Tessa, take us out." Tray darted forward grabbing the reins of the frantic animal preventing it from trampling its dazed rider. The pings of bullets bouncing off Serenity's exterior faded as the engines roared into action. Ellie felt the pull of the ascent as the Firefly pushed off from the planet's surface.
Catching her breath with a groan she rolled to her side. Jayne offered her a hand, "I don't know why they keep shootin'. Ain't no round of theirs is gunna pierce six inches of metal."
Recovering with a smirk she accepted, "Leaves a mighty ugly scratch though."
"Adding all the more to the character of this old girl," Tray said, grinning. He had finished tying off the horse and was now patting its neck. His smile widened when his eyes fell on the credits splayed across bay deck. The bag must have fallen out of Ellie's pocket when she was unseated. Gripping her side Ellie watched Tray collect and count their bounty. His count slowed as he reached for the last few coins, confused he emptied the remainder of the bag into his palm, a revealing mere two more pieces. "Uh, El, there seems to be a mistake," Tray noted.
Ellie bent and patted the dust from her knees, "Nope. No mistake. Just the necessary deductions for the cost of stupidity," she grabbed the bag and credits from Tray, "I sent to you to scout it out. How many is 'a couple' exactly? 'cause my understandin' of 'a couple' is approximately two."
Tray stuttered, "Well, I said about a couple. There's room for interpretation." Tray's eyes darted from Ellie's scowling face to Jayne who growled dangerously. Just as Ellie was about to ask for a better explanation Tessa's voice chirped over the intercom, "We just broke atmo, Capt'n. Where are we headed?"
Ellie's look alone confirmed that the discussion would resume later. She quickly turned and made her way to the bridge discovering that her ribs weren't the only source of bruises and bumps. Every step shot pain down her right leg. Ellie corrected her stride, forcing herself not to favour the injured leg. The pain in her hip transformed into a steady burn just as she reached the bridge. Tessa sat at the controls gracefully guiding the Firefly into orbit.
"Plot of a course for Three Hills, I need to talk to Chip." Ellie came to a stop next to Tessa and folded her arms.
"Aye-aye Captain!" said Tessa, her hands jumping into action, thoughts catching up a moment later, "Whoa – hey – wait! Didn't you say we had a bit of a break after – ". Tessa turned to see Ellie's back heading for the door.
"Just do what I said, Tessa," said Ellie. She disappeared down the steps leaving Tessa no time to respond.
Ellie ruffled a towel through her wet hair then tossed it onto her cot. Her soft curls fell down past her shoulder leaving damp speckles on her fresh white undershirt. She grabbed her pendant from her desk and returned it to its place around her necklace. She paused, affectionately rolling the old Chinese coin between her fingers – her mind tossing thoughts about in a similar fashion.
She dropped the coin into her palm and clenched it in her fist. She bit her bottom lip in frustration. She had the full payment in her hands, had she just walked away - the deal was done, there was nothing holding her there.
"I… I don't know how to set the charges," the man's eyes looked desperate, "please, we just need to blast this shale and then we can drill deeper for a new well. It'll only take a moment longer. If you need payment," the man pulled out a pocket watch and offered it to her.
"Keep it," Ellie strolled past him, "you want the charges where?"
How was she supposed to know about that town's history; the severity of its thugs and their qualms? She worried about the livelihood of that town when she should've been worrying about the bellies of her own crew. The mistake had cost her.
The charges had blown and shale showered Ellie and her client. The billowing dust gave them cover from the unwanted visitors. She could hear the men standing atop the ridge scramble to recollect. The bag of credits lay strewn in the dirt a few feet away, out of Ellie's reach. She scrambled for it. Just as her fingers gripped the drawstring of the satchel shots began to ring out, fired blindly. Her reflexes jolted and she pulled the bag toward her and darted for cover, leaving the remainder of the coins lost to the sand.
She released her final thoughts with a sigh and let the coin fall to her chest. Grabbing a shirt from her wardrobe she tossed it on, roughly buttoning it, leaving the top three open. Ellie took a peek in the mirror before leaving, adjusting her posture and straightening her shoulders. With a quick nod at her reflection she made her way to the latter. It was time to find Tray.
Ellie tracked Tray to the cargo bay. He was grumbling to himself and fruitlessly battling the dust on the floor with a broom.
"You be doing this on your own volition? Or are you expected some kind of compensation for your efforts?" Ellie leaned casually against the storage units.
"Jayne already gave me a jaw-full, El, and then well," Tray paused waving his arms wide to emphasize the vastness of his assigned punishment, "what do you got?"
"Just one question - who taught you how to count?" Ellie scoffed.
"You did, 'member," said Tray. Their eyes caught for a moment, Ellie smiled fondly. Tray broke the gaze and nervously looked away. He shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. Ellie knew this mannerism well. She had seen it countless times growing up. Here it comes. Tray met her gaze again,"listen El, I can do the math. We need doe. I think I can help. I know a guy who's got a job."
Ellie shook her head, "Tray, I don't think so. We've been down this road before. It doesn't end well."
"Wait, wait. Here me out, El," Tray begged, "look my guy's been sittin' on this job a while. It's a good job. He's just waiting for the right crew. We're the right crew, El."
"Where is it?"
"Near by…" Tray hesitated, "Ares – but the payout is really great."
Ellie burst out laughing, "Ares? Are you nuts? Tian fan di fu. No. That's suicide, Tray. That's Alliance home-field."
"It's just some gear. They wouldn't even notice us. I looked at the contacts – there's an old port we can land at and the guards will be taken care of - ."
"Forget it, Tray. It's not worth it." Ellie had enough. Tray knew he had lost and went back to sweeping. His movements were rough and sporadic, kicking up dust in all directions. Ellie couldn't resist. She set a hand on Tray's shoulder, took the broom from his hands, and began to sweep softly, "see, you want to do even control strokes. You don't want stir it up too much and you wanna avoid pushing down the grates – Garrick will have your head if he's gotta crawl through this fine dust doing maintenance down there."
She stopped and held the broom out for Tray. Tray stared with a look she didn't recognized. Before she could place it, it had gone in a flash.
"Thanks," said Tray. He accepted the broom and continued on, mimicking Ellie's guidance.
"Ah, Captain Reynolds, to what do I owe the pleasure?" Chip's dark complexion beamed from Ellie's monitor, "I didn't think I'd be seeing you for a while."
"I need another job. What have you got?" Ellie's tone did not meet Chips cheery greeting. She wanted some good news and quick.
"Job? Oooh, my dear, I told you before you left to make those credits last. Things are becoming quiet in our line of work," Chip frowned, "the Alliance hives have been buzzing and us small folk don't know who they're going to blame for the stick that stirred the nest."
"What stick? Who threw a stick?" said Ellie.
"That's just it, my girl, there be no one to point at – best we keep our heads down."
"Great. No work. No money. No…. Ai yah tien ah," Ellie rubbed her forehead, "except for a one stupid idea that flies us right into the swarm."
"What have you got cookin' up there in that curly top of yours?" poked Chip.
"Not me – Tray. He says he's got a job on Ares."
Chip reaction matched Ellie's initial feelings on the topic. His image disappeared from the screen for he was doubled over, his laughter echoing through her speakers. Ellie expected this; it was a crazy idea, Ares was the Shipyard for Alliance Military. Even with all the buzz, of which the chaos may play in Ellie's favour, it was like flying into the mouth of the lion.
Chip finally recovered, "why don't you sit tight, my girl. In a few weeks I'm sure I'll have something for you."
"A few weeks?! Come on Chip," Ellie leaned closer to the mic and whispered, "I don't even have enough fuel to get me to the next system."
"Have faith, Captain," Chip folded his hands in front of him and bowed, "I will contact you as soon as I can."
"Yeah, yeah. Wait - Chip! Do you know anyone who wants to buy a horse?"
Ellie found herself in the mess rummaging through the cupboards. They were achingly bare. She scooped up a can of bean paste and rice cakes, slapping together a pathetic one-sided sandwich. She carried her meal to the lounge area where Cee sat engrossed in another novel. His bald head glared in the light and he unconsciously mopped it with a handkerchief.
"Something troubling you, Captain?" Cee rumbled without looking up from his book. He lounged comfortably, his large body encompassing most of the couch. Ellie sat in the arm chair next to him and crunched down on her sad excuse for a snack. The bean paste stuck to the roof of her mouth and the cracker was dry.
"Now don't be getting cracker crumbs all over the floor. We'll be needin' to save those for later." Cee's eyes were now on Ellie. She knew he meant it lightly, but the comment did not help Ellie's mood. She crammed more rice cake into her mouth.
"Our options are limited Cee, and I don't like none of them," said Ellie, swallowing the last few bites.
"'Any of them' Miss Reynolds," Cee sighed, "I warned you, when you bought her, of the decisions this life was going to force you to make. You're father had to make them all the same. He did well and so will you."
Ellie frowned and wiped clean her plate with her finger, scraping up the last bits of bean paste and crumbs. She licked her finger then stood facing Cee, "easier said than done. Make something good for supper tonight. GO SHI – "
Ellie had turned to go but something – no, someone was standing directly behind her making her heart leap. The wiry frame and mouse coloured hair came into focus and Ellie gripped her pounding chest, "Jien ta duh guay…"
Garrick, her mechanic, stood quietly waiting for her to recover. Ellie could see him holding a part in his hands; a part that looked like it had been welded then re-welded several times over. His young face held concern. Ellie sighed, "let me guess, without this part we're all going to die."
Garrick nodded, "more-or-less."
Ellie stepped around Garrick and made her way to the bridge. She reached Tessa at the controls ("*snort* - I wasn't sleeping!") and flicked on the intercom. "Tray, get up here – we need to talk shop."
Tray was late.
"I don't like this. I don't like this one bit," Jayne grumbled, striding from one end of the cargo bay to the other. He arms crossed and uncrossed, his hands lost without the comfort of a weapon. His discontent was contagious, Ellie found herself feeling itchy just watching him. She cursed herself for letting Tray go off ship by himself. It was the only way they could get the goods and Tray knew the contact – but still.
Their cargo bay sat wide open to a port of Purple Bellies; this was Ares and everywhere they looked Alliance bustled passed. Ellie was reminded of a wolf in a sheep skin – except she was sure, in this case, that they were of the opposite scenario in which the sheep was wearing the disguise hiding among a most ravenous pack. As long as they don't get noticed; Ellie eyed two armed soldiers who stopped outside their ship.
"What the hell is this piece of junk?"
Ellie wasn't the only one who heard the comment. Jayne's looked turned venomous. His nostrils flared sharing the likeness of bull ready to charge.
"Jayne," Ellie placed a hand on each of his shoulders and directed him away from the open door, "you're scaring, well, everyone." She dropped her voice, "I need you sharp – get a grip." Jayne let out a resentful but confirming grunt.
Tray's contact had been sound. They had met on Three Hills and confirmed all the arrangements for the pick-up. The job was simple – two palates of gear consisting rations, water tablets, and basic life necessities needed to survive in a fresh colony on a rim planet. Ellie even negotiated a couple fuel cells into the deal. And Tray was right in that if they made this job they would be well off for quite some time. With that kind of cash in their pockets life would get easier; they could take more low key work from the rim until the heat died down around the border.
Still, he was late. Even with a couple of bought port guards, Ellie couldn't predict the length to which this sham would hold. Thankfully, the port was small and Serenity's landing went off without suspicion; loading and leaving could be a different story. She returned to her position at the mouth of the cargo bay, casually leaning against the frame. The two guards were still close by, chatting.
Ellie could feel their eyes fall on her. One nodded in her direction spurring the both of them to walk toward her. Their stride was unrushed like two wolves on the prowl for entertainment. Clearly they were not of the bribed variety and Ellie needed to strike out this problem quick.
"I'd like to speak to the Captain of this ship," ordered the taller one of the two. His squashed face wore a subtle smirk.
"Name's Captain Reyonlds. Pleasure to meet you, gentlemen," Ellie gave a nod to greet, "how can I help you?" Ellie was used to the reaction. The men looked at each other; their expression went from surprised to disbelief to, and in this case, disapproval. It was less common for a woman to be in her position and the closer she got to the core planets the less accepting the population became of her appellation. She repeated her statement bringing the men back to the conversation.
"Let me see your papers," said the squashed faced one. Ellie waved at Jayne and he disappeared up the stairs to retrieve Serenity's identification and manifest.
The soldiers continued to eye her. "Aren't you a little….young to be Captain?" the short-one sneered. He wasn't wrong. Not only was Ellie the rare female Captain, she was also in her early twenties. Thankfully, Jayne promptly returned with the papers and handed them off; saving Ellie from stumbling through an answer to a more-than-likely rhetorical question.
The squash-faced soldier's fingers scrolled down the screen, his comrade peaking around his shoulder.
"Says here you were due to leave port 3 hours ago," stated the soldier, "staying past the cut-off time is against port policy. And by the looks of it, you ain't even filled your order yet."
The back of Ellie's neck began to prickle, now would be a great time for you to show-the-hell-up, Tray. Her delayed response caused the shorter beady-eyed soldier to rest his hand on his holstered weapon. Explanation weren't coming to mind but Ellie needed to make some kind of noise, "Mhm, that's quite the observation; and a correct one at that. I can see why the Alliance is revered across the suns. It's the fine gentlemen like you who truly are the source of the reputation."
She didn't mean for it to sound that sarcastic. The shorter one's fingers curled around the butt of his firearm and the taller-one frowned. "With all due respect ma'am," he spat, "I'd like to hear the reason for your delay."
"Right!" Ellie flashed a smile and laughed, "My apologies. Yes, we are waiting for… for - ." She teetered on the word and her mind froze; shit, what was protocol again?
"For their extension to go through," the voice came from a tall, sandy-haired man wearing a beige overcoat. His stride was directed toward Ellie as he came up the loading ramp, "I'm sorry I'm late, Captain Reynolds." He turned to face the two men.
"Matthew Denton," he flashed an I.D. and returned it quickly to the pocket of his coat. He stood next to Ellie. She noticed his fair complexion and that he was well groomed. The office jockey confirmed, "I'm from the traffic and transportation sector."
He took the pad from the soldiers and tapped the screen. Ellie watched the stranger's fingers dance entering codes and dashing through pages. He finished and handed the report back to men, "satisfied?"
The two grunts reviewed the page and passed the report back to the sandy-haired fellow. Ellie caught glimpse of a smile flit across the traffic officer's face and she hoped it was for her benefit. Suddenly becoming conscious of her own expression, her heart fluttered and she hoped the blatant confusion plastered on her face just played off as intense concern. Inside her mind was spinning; who the hell was this guy? Was he one of their client's men? She looked over at Jayne, finding him failing miserably at masking his dismay. His mouth hung opened and the intensity of his furrowed brow could crush a walnut.
The soldiers didn't linger after their defeat, both men turned and headed down the ramp. The smiling stranger offered Ellie back her papers. Nonplussed, Ellie accepted. The moment was cut short by the beeping sound of a reversed loader. Ellie spotted Tray in the forklift with a palate raised high. He directed the loader onto the ship's loading ramp and made the incline climb into the bay. She let out of a sigh of relief. Her new companion, however, had the opposite reaction. His mouth quickly dropped to a frown and he grabbed the file back from Ellie's hands. Flipping it open he mumbled, "oh no… no no…"
"Oh no – what?" Ellie inquired.
"It's the wrong order – like really wrong. Those are…." his eyes grew wide as the palate was lowered onto the bay's deck. Ellie didn't wait for him to finish. The soldiers, who were leaving, stopped in their tracks.
Ellie rushed to the crates and tore off the cargo webbing. She popped the lid on the first container. Her heart sunk; tucked in the trunk sat four top grade Alliance pistols and one rifle. She slammed it shut.
"What the hell is this," Ellie harshly hushed to Tray.
"We're almost done, El, just one more palate," Tray avoided her gaze and turned to head back out.
Ellie grabbed his arm, "We're leaving now, there is no time. This job is over, Tray."
One Alliance soldier was already on his radio and the other drew his firearm. His beady eyes squinted, "Raise your hands, you're under arrest for the violation of –"
The man didn't get a chance to finish his sentence as the butt of Jayne's shotgun connected hard against the side of his helmet. The limp body fell to the floor and Jayne didn't waste a second; he rounded the muzzle onto the other soldier who was now reaching for his sidearm. Jayne was faster and the slug landed in the middle of the man's chest sending him toppling off the loading ramp. Jayne used his boot to roll the other soldier down the slope on to the ground.
Ellie could hear Serenity's engines start. Gunfire was generally the signal for 'it's time to go' and clearly, Tessa got the message. Tray who had been standing next to Ellie was gone and so was the loader. She knew it was only a matter of time before they had the rest of the Purple Bellies swarming the ship. Ellie drew her gun and ducked behind the crates. Jayne was ready at the haul opening, taking cover against the wall.
The traffic officer stood locked in place, fingers dancing on the manifest's screen. From her cover, Ellie yelled at him, "Hey friend, nice of you to help and all but I think it's best you get the hell out of here!"
The officer didn't budge. He didn't even look up from the screen. Ellie scoffed, "suite yourself."
Within the minute, Tray returned with the second palate and dropped it in the bay. The palate landed with a crash, causing a few crates to topple to the floor. From the controls Ellie heard Tessa's voice shout through the intercom, "Cap'n I gotta go right now – otherwise they're gunna lock us down."
If Tessa said more Ellie missed it. Her attention shifted to the arrival of a mini-rover carrying three alliance soldiers. Jayne opened fired and the soldiers ducked behind their vehicle.
Ellie seized her chance and leapt to her feet. Darting forward she tugged the officer's jacket toward the crates with enough force to pull him off balance sending him toppling to the floor. With her gained momentum she rounded the crates and jumped into the passenger side of the loader. Jayne's suppressive fire was countered and the bullets fired back caused Ellie and Tray to both shrink behind their seats.
Ellie needed to get the forklift off the loading ramp. In their current position they couldn't lift the ramp or close the airlock doors - meaning they wouldn't be able to break atmo on their escape. With the barrage of bullets they were stuck. Serenity's engines roared getting ready for take-off.
Then Ellie saw it. From the cover of the weapon crates lobbed a grenade. She watched it sail through the air and land at the wheels of the rover scattering the soldiers in all directions. She hunched back down behind the seat and shouldered the blast.
Debris showered the ship. Ellie, wasting no time, she shoved Tray out of the loader. She kicked the controls into reverse and threw herself out the passenger side. The loader rolled toward the back down the loading ramp just as Serenity began to lift off the ground. Ellie and Tray scrambled to their feet. The loader tipped awkwardly off the back end and rolled into the port with a crash. The sudden shift in weight made the Serenity lurch, smashing the landing gear abruptly into the ground.
The jolt lost Ellie her balance and threw her onto the floor. Her hands stopped her face from connecting with the solid metal – but Tray wasn't so lucky. Ellie saw him rolled onto his back with both hands reaching for his bloody nose.
Pings and sparks of bullets erupted around them again. Ellie kept low and crawled, in a prone position, toward a dazed Tray. Serenity's engines kicked into gear and the ship shifted forward. Though it was a good idea to get out of there as quick as possible, it was definitely a bad idea to be riding the ascent on the back end of a loading ramp.
The forward acceleration of the ship plus slope of the ramp caused both Tray and Ellie to roll down toward the edge. Ellie locked her fingers in the facets of the ramp and reached for Tray who slid past her. His hand stretched out for hers and she could feel it briefly hook her fingertips; but the grip was lost, the blood on Tray's fingers caused him to slip by, and Ellie watched her friend disappear off the edge of the ramp.
Ten feet, now twenty feet, the port fell away. Time seemed to slow down. Ellie couldn't see Tray through the dust and chaos; even so, she knew it was too late to turn back now.
Reality smashed through Ellie's thoughts when a bullet connected with the metal next to her face. She rolled onto her belly and her free hand found another hold on the ramp. The wind was loud and every physical force seemed to be working against her - pulling her to the same fate as Tray.
Her eyes burned against the rush of the air. Through a squint she saw it - a life line had landed in front of her; it was a broken crate strap. She grabbed hold of it with both hands and looked up to see the traffic officer at the strap's other end. They worked together to pull her aboard while Jayne waited at the bay's controls waiting to lift the ramp and close the airlock.
Ellie didn't give herself a moments rest. They weren't out of harm way yet. As if on autopilot her body directed her off the floor and toward the controls. Slamming the intercom button she buzzed Tessa, "You drop the jammer, Tess?"
The jammer was built to delay anti-air artillery and jam comm-waves. It was invented by Serenity's very own Garrick Lamb, engine specialist and part-time boy genius. Though, it was good for a tight bind, it wasn't really a long term solution. The orbit around Ares was often a busy place and if the news of the ruckus from below made it to a bulletin….
Tessa chirped back, "Jammer dropped Cap'n, all things read clear to break – wait what is tha– HOLD ON TO SOMETHING!"
A thunderous wave rolled through the ship. The whole body of Serenity shook, her lights flickered and blinked. Ellie stabilized herself against the control panel and waited for the shudder to pass.
Matthew Denton sat and huddled again the storage containers. The ship had finally stopped shaking from the thunderous blast and miraculously he was still alive. His fingers released from the webbed nylon and he opened his eyes. He hadn't even realized he had shut them. Matt raised his head to find the Captain of the ship leaning over him, offering a hand. He accepted and she hoisted him to his feet. His knees shook unsteadily.
"Once we're clear of Ares orbit we'll drop into deep space and lay low. I don't know what just hit us but whatever it was, it was big. I just hope it worked in our favour."
Wait, was she talking to him?
"We'll contact your men as soon as we can – I don't like having this payload one bit, it's too hot. Seeing as we'll be late for our drop off – you'll have some explaining to do. They'll take more kindly to hearing this misfortune from one of their own."
"…one of their own?" Matt mumbled. The Captain's eyebrow dropped, perturbed; clearly that wasn't the response she was expecting. Matt attempted to recover, "I… uh… well, you see"
"Aren't you one of Collins boys?" a voice growled over Matt's shoulder. The sudden presence of the man caused Matt to flinch.
"Collins? Not that I'm aware of…" Matt voice trailed off and the expressions of his audience darkened, "Look if you could just drop me off at the nearest planet I could – "
Stars flooded Matt's vision. His skull felt like it split in two and numbness splashed down his back. The floor came flying to meet his face. He rolled himself onto his back and above him two fuzzy faces floated. A grumbling voice reached his ears as the swirl of colour faded to black,
"You ain't going nowhere…"