Chapter 5: Bullet Dodging Fun
The man held out a blade to Shepherd Tong, turned hilt-first, the steel tucked under the Triad's arm.
"Take it." The Triad leader said.
Tong stared him down. He had a stare that could probably unnerve Operatives.
"Take it and prove what side you're on. I'm giving you a chance to make up for turning against us. You do this and we'll spare you're life, Christian. I wouldn't want to kill one of my own people unless I had to. Do this, and we'll let you go."
The small Shepherd hesitated, and then reached out to take the hilt of the massive knife. He looked to his left, scanning the row of prisoners, all of whom had their hands tied behind their backs, and some of whom were gagged.
Mal strained to look over his shoulder. He had taken a heavy beating, and dark blood trickled down freely from his mouth which evidenced possible internal bleeding.
"Do the job yourself, coward." Mal said, spitting blood over Inara, who was lined up next to him.
"Thanks, Mal." She muttered angrily, grimacing in disgust.
"Sorry? Oh, great, now you say sorry! You drag me into a den of thieves without a word of warning, nearly get us arrested, and possibly executed, and now you apologize to me?"
Mal looked confused, "You still mad about that casino thing? Listen, it was a last minute thing; didn't even know the Triads had work for us 'til we were all dressed up and ready to hit the town. Honest!"
"Shut up, both of you!" One of the Triads shouted, waving a gun in their faces.
The feds had been executed first. They had been stabbed to death where they fell - even those that had only been knocked unconscious; the men had cut their throat as they lay groaning on the floor. And now it was the crew's turn.
"We didn't betray you." Zoe said, biting off her words "One of your men got jittery and he went trigger-happy."
"That doesn't really matter now." The Triad leader said calmly, "Now we have a ship full of dead feds, and the only witnesses left are the crew of the vessel that will show up on the fed ship's security cameras. You're on their log. And now, when a rescue team turns up, they'll find a ship where a battle left no survivors. It happens, you know."
Jayne laughed; "You think they gonna see the sword wounds and assume we did it? As if anyone else is stupid enough to fight lawmen with blades! They'll know it was you Triads!"
The man cocked his head, "Good point!" He said, handing the Shepherd one of his guns back.
Mal glared at Jayne and sighed.
"Men, use your guns instead. You first, Shepherd."
Tong wrinkled his nose at the man, but he didn't dare say anything or turn the pistol on him, as another gun was at his back, pointed unwaveringly at his spine. He nodded slowly and walked to where River was kneeling, still gagged and bound by her hands, which were kept tightly behind her back. He hovered behind her, as if wrestling with his own fear. To kill or be killed … it was a difficult decision, even for a man of God.
"No funny moves, preacher. This is your test. Blow it, and the man behind you blows your head off."
Mal was swearing in Chinese. Simon tried to stand, but was kicked down by one of the remaining five gangsters. Kaylee was crying.
Shepherd Tong lifted his gun arm.
River stared into space; her face was sleepy, almost serene. She lifted her head and closed her eyes.
"Don't you dare, you ruttin' son of a whore! Don't you ruttin' dare!" Mal roared, also trying to stand. But one of the men stepped up to him and smashed him across the cheek with the butt of his pistol. "Preacher! Please!"
Shepherd Tong took aim. His finger twitched.
River was standing even before her bonds fell apart; cut in two by the bullet. Her grazed arms rose up, anticipating the plan as Shepherd Tong's gun span mid-air and dropped into her open palms.
Tong ducked aside.
River moved as gracefully as a swan taking flight. Her wings unfolded, her head held high. A dao knife sliced the air in front of her, but she leaned aside as if it was no more dangerous than a falling leaf drifting gently on a summer's breeze.
Her gun arm moved in a sweeping horizontal ark, not even pausing as the pistol released four consecutive shots in a single split second. Four men dropped dead; bullets already deep in their skulls.
The fifth time, the gun clicked. Empty.
The Triad leader backed up a step, his gun pointed at the young girl.
"What the …" He stammered, his eyes wide with shock as the realization of what had just happened struck him. "Who the hell are you?"
River winked at him, and dropped the empty gun. She brushed the hair out of her eyes and tucked it over her left ear.
"Fine! Let's see if you can dodge bullets, guay-nu!"
River blinked, her face a serene mix of acceptance and readiness. She glossed over his thoughts as if reading them from a magazine. When was he going to fire? What was he going to aim for?
He clenched his jaw. His face flushed slightly.
His arms tensed.
River ducked forward and rolled just as the bullet was fired. The Triad stepped back again. Her open palm delivered a swift chop neatly to the base of his throat, causing a sickening crunch as his windpipe was crushed. He gagged, stumbled back, reached for his neck, and then collapsed.
There was a long moment of silence.
"I'm thinkin' his mistake was callin' her a guay-nu." Jayne murmured.
Jayne slapped Vera on the dining table and smiled as he very slowly – and very deliberately – scraped the huge hunk of metal across the smooth surface until it was in position just under his heavy paws.
Mal smiled at the Shepherd. "My friend Jayne here wants to take his anger out on somebody yeller skinned. I tried to tell him that racism aint welcome on this boat, but he gets a tad emotional after he's been tied up and stabbed a few times."
Jayne shrugged, "My Grandma was half yeller. But right now all I see is red."
Tong looked surprisingly un-phased. "Cap'n Reynolds, there aint no need for threats. I can relate to you feelin' suspicious and all…"
"Can you?" Mal said, leaning slightly toward him. "How did you know that River was gonna catch that gun? How did you know that she would – and could – take down all five o' those men just as easy as a cat in a locked crate with five blind mice?"
"God help me." Tong muttered. It was more of an exasperation than a plea for divine help.
"Aint nobody gonna help you, Shepherd. Not God, not the Alliance, not the gorram Tooth Fairy." Mal's voice had dropped in volume slightly, but it took on a more dangerous edge. "Just what is a Shepherd doin' carrying guns – and puttin' folks down? You aint no Shepherd, are you?"
"I am. At least … technically."
"Technically? I saw you technically kill people. Law men."
"I'm a Shepherd, not a saint."
Jayne leaned back in his chair and crossed his large arms over his chest, stretching his t-shirt and accentuating his broad shoulders. "I'm thinkin' you'll be a saint fairly soon, 'less the Cap'n starts to get some answers."
"Now you saved us back there, and I appreciate that." Mal said. "But River … she's something of importance to this crew. A lucky charm, you might say. What do you know about her, and how?"
Tong seemed to hesitate before saying: "Shepherd Book sent me."
Mal just stared for a moment.
"Truth is…" Tong continued, "It was his job to protect River. It was why he was sent to Serenity in the first place."
"Sent?" Mal frowned, "What do you … preacher, you best start making sense."
"Book and I come from a faction known as The Shepherds. Technically, it's a different organization to the church. Well … more than technically. We watch over people."
Tong also folded his arms, "That I can't tell you. All you need to know is that our sponsors have a vested interest in keeping your ship sailin', but especially River. All I can say is that we are friends to your cause, Captain."
Mal clenched his jaw. "Shepherd Book sailed with us for a goodly while. He became more than a passenger, he became our friend. So I think that we deserve an explanation."
"I can't offer you one. I'm not afraid to die, Mr. Reynolds. But I am afraid of what'll happen if say anything more. If it brings you any comfort, Shepherd Book never did anything to imperil yours. The opposite; he watched your back. And I offer my services in a similar capacity."
The Captain laughed – a little at first – but it turned quickly louder and more hearty. It was an ironic, dry laugh; the sort of laugh a man laughed when the choice was between that, or crying. Finally he stood up and went abruptly to leave.
"Mal?" Jayne called after him.
Mal stopped by the door, refusing to look back. "I want him locked up, and thrown off our ship when we next touch down. Roughly."
"Yessir!" Jayne responded.
Mal climbed the steps and walked the short passageway toward the cockpit. As he entered, Zoe looked up. She sat on the console, watching over River, who piloted the vessel as they changed course, speeding away from the federal derelict as fast as they could run.
"Something up, Sir?" Zoe asked as Mal came in. "You look … somethin'."
Mal sighed, "It's nothin'. I'll explain later. Now … me and Albatross have to have a little heart to heart."
Zoe moved aside and slipped into the other seat at the control panel, while Mal took her place leaning against the console, facing River who was facing away, staring out of the window as usual.
"Now … please correct me if I'm wrong, girl, but your approximate words were something to the tune of "if you go your way, there's gonna be blood". Well I'm seein' plenty o' blood in our hold right now. Any more blood an' I'm thinkin' we could have saved a ton of creds on re-painting the shipNot the cool blue that Kalee and I agreed upon, though."
"At least nobody was killed." River said softly.
"No, of course not. Only twenty lawmen, and an equal number of people in our charge."
River looked up at him. "How do you know that those people wouldn't have died either way?"
"How do you know they would? Huh!?" Mal's anger was slowly building up, his patience rattled and wearing thin. "You know what? Get out of here, River. You can't obey my orders then you sure as hell aint flyin' Serenity."
River stood up, graceful as a companion, and drifted off towards the exit. But before she reached the doorway she turned back and said: "Listen." And then she was gone.
Mal stared after her.
"Sir, we've got an incoming transmission. It's an open wave signal to all nearby ships."
Mal turned back to Zoe. He wore the expression of a man who wasn't quite sure what was going on anymore. Zoe noticed his expression and keyed in the command to play the signal aloud.
"This is the Allia- …" static "… Rising Star … warning to all vessels and stations in the … -ity …" The signal seemed to die and then phased back into life "…-vers attacking. I repeat: we are under attack from Reavers."
"Visual! Visual!" Mal was practically shouting. "Clear up that interference!"
The monitor sparked to life. It was fuzzy, but it cleared in waves. Like a horrific puzzle being completed before his eyes. He could make out the image before it was finished, but some part of him wished it wasn't so, that somehow the final piece would change the overall picture, and it would be an optical illusion after all.
"They number into the thousands." Came the voice. "They are heading right for Bellarophon."
The images confirmed it: it was no mere raiding party. The Reavers came in numbers too high to count by sight. Their twisted, rusted ships drifted onwards, silent in the black of space, but chilling to behold. This wasn't like before … this was an invasion fleet. The Reavers had finally invaded, and they were headed right for the core system – right for the most prosperous – and heavily populated - planets.
"Zoe…" Mal said, his voice tense with dread. "… is that…?"
"Right over our previous flight path, Sir."
They watched as the monitor showed a ship being pulled apart by harpoon cannons and chain-links.
"River saved us all. That could have been Serenity." Mal said, his mouth wide open.
"That would have been Serenity." Zoe corrected. "And it still could."
End of episode one. The story is continued in episode two.
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