Firefly: Season 2
The Flock (episode 1)

2007, D. S. Brown


Chapter 1: Knives and Such


One good thing could be said about Hera: it was wealthy. It wasn't clean, or hospitable, or by any means safe. It sure as hell's sphincter wasn't pretty; the Unification War took care of that. But its location made it profitable for those who sold, or those who sought to buy. Mal didn't much like being back on Hera, but the capital city was a long way from serenity valley, and business was business.

"A casino?" Inara said; her large brown eyes wide with a mixture of anger and disgust.

"What, you got moral issues?" Mal replied; his tone flatly sardonic as usual.

"When you said you were taking me out for some fun on the town, I assumed you meant something a little more..."

Mal didn't look at her as he scanned the rows of people filing in and out of the busy establishment. "Well, it's legal aint it? Not like it's a den of petty thieves."

Inara sighed, "I suppose it'll do. But I don't gamble, Mal."

"Neither do I. I come here for the ambiance." He replied as he stepped through the flashing doorway and past the mean looking bald-headed bouncers who were stopping one person in ten to check them for weaponry.

The pair walked a little way into the establishment without speaking while they looked around at the milling crowds and swarming tables. Most of the games were machine-run, but some of the traditional card and dice gambling games remained, as did games such as Mah Jong, for which there were dedicated a full four tables in the large gambling hall.

"You're looking a might shiney, if I didn't already mention." Mal said to Inara, still without looking at her.

Inara looked down at her dress with a half-smile on her lips, as if she was trying to hide her pleasure at the statement. Of course, if a companion meant to hide an expression, it was hidden, and so the coy smile was a deliberate gambit - at least by Mal's reckoning. He hadn't told an untruth, though; her dress truly was beautiful, as always. It was a red, halter-necked Chinese gown of the purest silk, fashioned with delicately hand-stitched rose-branch patters scattered around the body.

"I'd say thank you, but that kind of comment only makes me think you're up to something." Inara said as she stared intently at the side of Mal's face. "Still, I appreciate the attempt at flattery. You're looking fairly smart yourself. For a pirate."

Mal grinned, "I always liked that term. Has more of a ring to it than "petty thief" - don't you think?"

"As companion does to "whore", yes."

"Ah!" Mal said; his straying gaze finally fixed on one area of the room. "The bingo corner! I always wanted to play this game."

Inara stared at the enclosed section of the oriental themed casino. "Bingo." She said flatly.

"Yeah!" Mal said, leading her slowly toward it. "It's a fine game, so they say."

"Isn't it sort of an old woman's game?"

"Grandma Reynolds never played by these rules." Mal smirked, his gaze fixed on a man who was just coming to his feet at a table near the back.

"Bingo!" He roared gruffly, holding a pink-coloured ticket in the air, just above a thick layer of cigarette smoke.

Before he could take a single step toward the front, an arm reached out and grasped firmly to his lank hair, pressing his head down in a quick jerk to collide solidly with the edge of the round table. The man slid limply to the floor, and his assailant snatched the ticket from his grasp and pelted for the prize stand at the front of the section, barging his way past a converging army of greedy gamblers.

Inara stared.

"The trick is not to get too animated if your numbers are called. That way you stand a fightin' chance of getting to the front 'fore somebody knocks out your teeth." The Captain caught the eye of the ticket master at the entrance to the bingo section. "Two." He said, slipping a number of coins into the man's hand, as well as a small piece of paper that escaped Inara's attention.

"Mal!" Inara protested. "I'm not playing this yěmán game."

Mal raised an eyebrow as he brandished the two tickets. "Darlin', these two are for me." He turned back to the ticket master, who nodded towards the corner of the room, where a pair of heavy-set men stood next to an employee-only door.

Inara frowned at the gesture, but knew better than to voice her concerns just yet. She settled for a confused: "And I thought you didn't gamble."

"I don't." The Captain calmly escorted her past the bingo players towards the corner door. "Unless I think I can cheat without getting caught."

Inara had a slightly frightened look as they approached the two men. Both were wearing classic Mandarin-collared kung-fu suits with fastened, vertically arrayed knot-buttons, and both wore heavy dāo knives at their sides.

"Mal…" Inara muttered, almost admonishingly.

"Relax, it's all part of the plan." He handed the tickets to one of the two men, who grunted his permission for the two to enter.

"Zhòu mà! You brought me out here so you could make a deal with some crooks, didn't you!" She hissed as they passed through the door. The two henchmen filed in behind them, all but pushing them into the adjacent room.

"I needed somebody a little fancy lookin' to take the attention off me. I have something of a reputation in this here town. Apologies to come later … keep walkin'."

It was a small, dark room, with one overhanging light that trailed from the ceiling by no more than a cord. It swayed gently in the breeze as the door closed behind the pair of oriental thugs that stood closely behind them.

"Please sit, Captain." A man at the table said. He was accompanied by another gentleman, and another woman, who were all dressed in black, and similarly attired by design. They sat at a long, bare table, the end of which was reserved for Mal and a guest.

"I prefer to stand. It's better for the circulation."

Inara stayed close to Mal's back, her eyes flickering from one corner to the other, scanning the shadows of the dimly lit room.

"Great." She muttered. "Now I'm going to be shot right through my lovely hand-stitched dress."

"Of course you're not." Mal responded, leaning in her direction slightly. "Triads don't use guns."

Inara glared at him.

"You're here for some work, Mr. Reynolds?" The Chinese man at the head of the table said.

Mal nodded. "Xiōng, cháng kěn dài gōngzuò, wèi dàiyù."

The Triads in the room laughed. "You butcher our language, Mr Reynolds."

"And you butcher ours. Anyways, we're all one big happy superpower now 'aint we? Barriers of language and the like shouldn't even be, by my reckoning. But heck, I didn't come here to talk language."

The men laughed this time, a little more uproariously than before.

"No, we can see that, Captain." More laughter. Inara stifled a snort.

Mal blinked, then frowned. "Keep those insults comin', and I'll butcher more than your language. Now, what d'ya say we get to business?"

"Right you are, Mr. Reynolds. Right you are. It's quite simple really; a smuggling job."

"Sounds plain sailin', what's the cargo?" He wouldn't usually have asked, but any cargo The Triads wanted smuggled wasn't likely to be apples and oranges.

"People." The woman to the right said.

Mal stared at her for a second. "Hah." He said, realising that he should have expected that. "Well … you see, there's a hitch with that…"

"No hitches." The leader said. "Hitches get people killed."

"What I mean is … I can't take the job. There's something of a red flag on my boat right now, and I can't get caught trafficking people. The feds are coming down hard on that there crime these days, and what's more is I don't p'ticularly like the idea of cramming ten people into the nooks and crannies of my firefly. T'aint helthy."

"Twenty."

"What?"

"Twenty people. And you have to take the job, Captain." The Triad said, leaning across the table.

"Really now? How'd you figure?"

"Because red flags have a way of turning black for no particular reason, if you're not careful."

Mal had heard of this. The Triads supposedly had people on the inside of the law - people who pulled certain strings.

"I don't respond very good to blackmail. Point of fact - the last person who tried to blackmail me ended up-"

"The payment is two-thousand platinum, in advance."

"Deal. Nice doing business with you gentlemen."

---

"I can't believe you agreed to this." Inara was saying as the cargo-bay doors wound open.

Mal, Inara, Zoe and Jayne were standing on the catwalks parallel to the entrance, staring down at the new 'cargo' who were about to enter.

"She has a point, Sir." Zoe said with a dry, almost bored expression.

"And I don't like 'em." Jayne rumbled, sitting himself on the stairs. "Don't trust no man that won't carry no gun."

"Shouldn't it be the other way 'round?" Zoe said.

"Well … sometimes. I don't much trust no-one. But especially Triads."

"What's this, a mutiny?" Mal protested. "The pay was too good. Besides, they had large pointy swords."

"Knives." Inara corrected.

"Those dāo things? Coulda fooled me." Mal turned and started walking down the steps to greet the new passengers. "We've dealt with the Triads before. If nothing else, they're mostly honourable."

"Except for that time they didn't pay us." Zoe said, walking closely behind him.

"Well, yes, there was that one time. But apart from that, I kinda like 'em. And they paid us up front this time, which is no small token."

The passengers filed in up the ramp. Most of them looked malnourished and dirty, with nothing but a few rags tied around their bodies to keep them decent.

The Captain spent a moment to talk to the group in Mandarin: welcoming to the ship, wishing them a comfortable voyage, and explaining in no uncertain terms that if they were to touch anything other than the floor and the walls, they would be tied to the front of the ship and left to burn up as Serenity entered the atmosphere of their destination planet.

"I didn't think keel-hauling was still practiced." One of the men said, who was standing near to Zoe. Mal continued his threats, but Zoe turned to look at this man. He was Chinese, with a thin goatee beard and short-cut hair that was shot with strains of grey. But what drew her attention the most was the man's clothing; he was evidently a shepherd.

"Captain likes to keep with the classics." She said; sizing up the man, who seemed better fed than most of the others.

The shepherd nodded. "A man of tradition; I can respect that."

"You're a shepherd?" Zoe asked politely.

"I am. Tong's the name, and this here is my flock." He said, gesturing to the crowd of illegal immigrants.

Zoe frowned, "Should a shepherd be sneaking between regional borders like this? Doesn't that break some kind of shepherding law?"

Tong shrugged "Thou Shalt not move home? To hell with the alliance. Gorram meddlers think they can own a whole planet and keep off those who aint pretty enough to shovel their turd."

Zoe raised her eyebrows slightly. "The last shepherd we had on Serenity was a little less … liberal. Just keep your people in line, and we'll get along fine, lǐnghuì?"

Tong grinned, displaying a couple of broken teeth. "Aye." He said, nodding.

Mal, who was just finishing his sermon, had slipped back into common English. "You can bed on the floor down there. But first sign of trouble and I'm padding you all away for safe keeping, that clear?" Mal waited a second until he was sure that everyone had understood and then he turned and climbed the steps back toward the cockpit. Zoe turned and followed him, casting one last glance back at the new shepherd.

Tong turned to his people and said, "You heard the man, you can bed here. Find yourself a spot and stay out of trouble!"

He sat down, taking his own advice, and pulled open his backpack, from which he hauled a tightly-rolled sleeping bag. He unravelled the blanket on the grilled floor and then turned back to his bag and pulled out a bible. In the instant before his bag drew closed, a pair of heavy pistols could be seen just inside. The safety was off.