Mal had confined Richie and Methos to the guest quarters rather than locking them up again. He still had no idea what to do with the two Immortals, but they were Browncoats, and that counted for something in his book.
He was piloting the ship for now, River was back having her supper, and it was giving him time to think over the situation. Zoe joined him, taking the co-pilot chair and sitting in amiable silence for a while. Mal was fairly certain the best thing to do was leave the Immortals at the next planet, but their paths seemed to be entwined, and he would rather have potential trouble on a short leash than out in the black where it might pounce unexpected.
"So, what now, sir?" Zoe asked. Inwardly Mal smiled, he'd swear sometimes that Zoe was the reader and not River.
"Don't know for certain, let's just get as much distance between us and the Alliance, then we'll decide what to do with them. We'll head for one of the backwater planets; maybe see how Nandi's doing."
"Reckon Jayne'd appreciate that, sir," Zoe said, her lips quirked in amusement.
"Reckon he will," he glanced down at a monitor in front of him. "Aiyah! Alliance ship approaching. Got an incoming wave, transmission only."
Mal pressed a button and the image of the Operative appeared on the screen in front of him.
"Go se," Mal cursed and thumped his head against the console.
"Greetings once again, Captain Reynolds. It has come to my attention that you are now harbouring not two, but four fugitives. I'm willing to overlook this…infraction…if you will turn them over to me now. You have two hours until my ship catches yours. I give you one hour to make your decision. Choose wisely, Captain, or you will force my hand."
The message ended, and the screen went blank. Mal looked up to Zoe for her reaction, but her face was unreadable.
"Well, I don't reckon we owe those two anything," Mal began.
"Reckon you're right, the trouble they've caused us. And we don't know that they didn't set this up," Zoe pointed out, quite reasonably.
Mal nodded thoughtfully before instructing Zoe,
"Bring our guests up to the bridge to chat a spell."
Mal opened a channel to the Alliance vessel and, after a brief pause the face of the Operative appeared on the screen.
"You're early, Captain Reynolds," he said.
"I just want to make one thing clear. If we have these fugitives you're looking for; and I ain't saying we do, but if we was to hand them over, me and mine would be free to leave, nothing on our heads?" Mal asked.
"You have my word, and an official pardon for all previous misdeeds is in my hand," came the reply. Mal nodded and rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
" Still got half an hour to make up my mind, you'll get your answer then. Reynolds out," Mal said before turning to address Zoe, who had been stood behind him during the exchange.
"Thing I can't figure out, sir, is how they found us so fast," Zoe commented.
"I think I can answer that," said Methos as he and Richie entered the cockpit. He held out his hand and there on his palm were two tiny chips. "Sub-dermal tracking devices. I just pulled one out of each of our arms. I'm sorry, I had no idea."
"Like hell you didn't," Mal said and jumped to his feet, drawing his weapon. Zoe did the same, so Methos and Richie raised their hands. "I reckon you've been leading them here all along. You're working for them hundahn."
"No! No, you know we'd never do that, Captain. We explained our allegiances. Besides, they're after us. How do we know you didn't plant them?" Richie said.
"Wang ba dan!" Mal shouted. Both he and Zoe took their eyes off Methos for a split second, during which time he lunged for Zoe's gun. She pushed him back, and shot him three times. Richie started forward, but Mal shot him too. "Get these pieces of trash off my boat," he instructed. Zoe nodded and began to drag Methos' body out of the cockpit.
A few moments later, Jayne appeared and dragged Richie out. Mal ran his hand through his hair and sat back in his chair. As he did so, he realised the wave was still open and the Operative had seen everything that transpired.
"Um…You aint gonna hold that against us, are you?" Mal asked nervously.
"We'll be boarding in thirty minutes Captain," the Operative replied and ended the transmission.
The airlock opened and the Operative entered, along with Duncan and twenty armed Alliance soldiers.
The Operative's ship had picked up Duncan's distress beacon and gone to retrieve him once they'd dispatched the attacking Reavers, before then following after Methos and Richie.
Duncan hadn't enjoyed drugging and implanting the tracers on them, but he knew that the old man would take the first opportunity to escape. But he never expected to find them on Serenity, and he wondered why Methos would put himself in such obvious danger.
"Where are they, Captain Reynolds?" the Operative asked as the men fanned out and began to search the ship.
"Sorry, but we already spaced them. If you follow our trail back, I'm sure you'll find them," Mal replied.
"You could have claimed the reward," Duncan pointed out. Reynolds seemed to think about this for a moment and then shrugged.
"Don't take too kindly to spies on my boat. Even dead ones. Now, if you'd care to search my ship, go ahead, we've nothing to hide. Just make it fast, I've a consignment waiting for me on Beaumonde," Mal replied.
Duncan could tell he was lying, but he couldn't blame the man for wanting the Alliance off his vessel, everything about him screamed Browncoat. Duncan searched the ship, but he couldn't feel Methos or Richie anywhere and with a pang of sorrow he realised that Reynolds was telling the truth about spacing them. He didn't know what that might do to an Immortal, but he hoped that they would survive and that they would be picked up.
If only they hadn't found those trackers, he thought.
He returned to the cargo bay and informed the Operative that they weren't aboard. The other men had been unsuccessful in locating the Tams, so they had no choice but to leave Serenity empty handed.
"Bye, drop by any time," Reynolds called as the ship door closed behind them.
"You know the Tams were aboard, right?" Duncan asked. The Operative nodded.
"If they were, we could not find them. Let us see if we can locate your…acquaintances. Perhaps they will have information pertinent to the location of the Tams," he replied.
A few hours earlier
"You have every right to turn us over to those Purplebellies," Methos began.
"Too gorram right," muttered Jayne.
"But I think I have a plan that will allow us all to safely get out of this," Methos continued, ignoring Jayne. "We've disabled the subdermal trackers that Simon found planted on us, but if you just hide us they will still find us; the Operative is Immortal."
"Dashiang baotza shr duh lah dootze! So, when exactly did you figure on sharing that piece of information?" Mal demanded, getting to his feet.
"I just did," Methos replied. "As I said, if we're just hidden, he'll find us. But, if we're dead then he can't sense our presence. You can tell him you spaced us."
"I say we just space 'em anyway," Jayne grumbled, but nobody was really paying him any attention.
"And why'd he want to believe that?" Zoe asked Methos.
"Because he'll witness you shoot us, and he won't believe we would reveal our secret to strangers. Three taps, two in the head, one in the chest. It'll hurt like hell, but it should keep us out so you can stash us in an airless part of the ship until they've gone. Then you can drop us at the nearest world and we'll be out of your lives," Methos replied.
"Alternatively, we can shoot you and turn you over to the Alliance," Jayne said. "Claim the reward money."
"Bizui, Jayne. Nobody's collecting any rewards. Dong le ma?" Mal said. Jayne had the decency to look abashed, but only for a moment.
"Just saying. S'not like they're crew or nothing," he muttered. River glared at him, and he shut up.
"Ain't nobody getting turned over to no Alliance. Right, Captain?" Kaylee said. Mal said nothing, but stood regarding the two Immortals. "Captain?" she added with less certainty.
"Wang ba dan, it worked," Jayne muttered as he and Mal lay Methos and Richie on their bunks.
"Have a feeling these two've had a lot of practise getting out of situations," Mal answered with a chuckle.
"Reckon they might be useful to have around, sir," Zoe said from the corridor. Mal exited the cabin and smiled at her. She was reading his thoughts again.
"Reckon they might, at that. But we've enough trouble of our own, don't need to take on no more," he replied. Zoe smiled and nodded, but they both knew he was probably going to let their unusual companions stay on Serenity if they wanted.