Those of you that pop into my profile have seen the latest status update which mentioned me completing this sort of mini-interlude/episode and then realizing I had shot myself in the foot and contradicted some previously written material; as a result, everything had to change.
After much thought and some eyelash plucking and head banging this is where we're heading. Sorry for the delay and I do so hope you enjoy. This short little bit is more like a teaser than anything else, but I've made some serious concrete decisions now so hopefully the next Interlude will come quickly.
I am eternally and infinitely grateful for the unending plethora of support and admiration of this work. I cannot possibly begin to describe how truly ecstatic your reviews make me. You folks rock. Much, much luv to you all.
Dessel Ordo, Tempest S., Rachet, dragonsfae, Chase Network, sxevlbtch, CeruleanKitten, Aireon Maris, Tavarus Magnus, librarywitch, Teddybearwithfangs, Dericof Diname, CGandJaz, Elliesmeow, celticicegoddess, , thedancingelk, gypsy girl, Chaosborn, Dherea, Amethyst246, ArtLightLove, Alexydra, Myst Shadow, Stardust0808, Brad W, redkama, Fancy Piece of Work, Reda, Zen007, mommy2onebb, ZenRyu, Rachelie, Ankle, m0rem0k, chacra, Mrstrentreznor, (), & Turtle Kid the Woolgatherer
A huge shout out again to my Beta, Thug-4-Less, whose big, juicy brain worked out the finer details of Merc Guilds for me so I could focus on the plot. I also owe him a major debt of gratitude for the unending store of tech knowledge he provides and an eye for detail that rivals my own; not to mention he's just a really, really good dude :D Much Love Bro, I wouldn't have made it this far without you.
Without further ado,
*Still don't own a damn thing.*
In a grand contradiction to the open, desolate spaces found on the Rim worlds, Osiris in White Sun was a world of cities; endless cities which bled over into each other's borders before shifting their focus to dominate the expanse of sky. Here massive skyscrapers, twisting spires of metal and glass, cut through floating clouds generated by the world's weather control systems and reflected rays of sunlight to shine as a blinding beacon of civilization and progress. Londinium may have been the capital of the Alliance, but Osiris was its mecca of business and commerce; and it was the 'Verse's worst kept secret that the true power of the Alliance lay not with its military but with its coin.
Every day thousands of ships entered and left atmo on various errands and in the natural tide of business. The docking yards in the upper levels played host to dignitaries and business men, the wealthy and entitled, while the lower yards hosted a thriving underground shielded by the shadows those above cast. The ones who preferred to keep their hands clean of blood but couldn't wash the sin from smiles which gleamed like the skyscrapers they made their deals in. Crime on Osiris was quiet and clean; swept neatly beneath the carpet of clouds which divided the elite from those they walked on.
It was in one such dock that a small, sleek black ship berthed itself. The stealth-capable, triangular-shaped craft was the latest of prototypes developed by The Company and would have drawn a measure of curiosity had it docked most anywhere else. As it was however, the docking port it had chosen was private, enclosed and owned by one of dozens of shell corporations Blue Sun operated through. The workers stationed there knew better than to acknowledge what their eyes saw. The occupants of said ship, the two Blue Sun agents whom had succeeded their predecessors after the latter's assumed and subsequently confirmed failure and death, remained in the cockpit. They occupied the only open space in the ship aside from duel rows of three cryo-stasis containers each.
Four, the slightly taller and blonder of the two remained fixated on a rezzed 3-D screen as Six, his counterpart, finished powering down their vessel. The very corners of Four's lips were tilted downward in the vaguest frown while the majority of his face remained impassive. His expression, however, did not go unnoticed.
"You are displeased. Why?" Six questioned as he swiveled slightly in his chair.
"I am not displeased-," Four corrected, "-merely perplexed as to the Subject's continued ability to evade notice and capture. It suggests a level of coherency and cognitive awareness in the Subject beyond even our initial estimations."
"We cannot forget the variable that is Quarry S. Tam." Six reminded him.
"And I have not." Four assured his counterpart. "I only question the involvement of unknown variables."
"Were they being hidden by enemies of The Company, we would not be contemplating her silence."
"We would not." Four agreed. "However, we cannot assume that she is not being aided by the enemies of our friends."
"Independents?" Six questioned. "They would expose the Subject for their own benefit." He dismissed the idea as soon as he had vocalized it. "They are no different from the various corporate terrorists which plague The Company. If anything, they are less well connected and far more destitute."
"It is their lack of connections that leads me to believe they would be far more capable of concealing the Subject." Four disagreed. "What remains of the Independents are scattered and ill-organized. The numbers of the inactive far outstretch the numbers of those still engaged in defiance."
"You are assuming then that the Subject is being concealed by a former rebel?" It was Six's turn to impersonate a frown. "Assumption is a dangerous course."
"I assume nothing." Four assured him. "I have been unable to discover mention of the Subject in intercepted Waves, however, the chatter suggests that the Independents are once again growing in numbers and gathering influence."
"You believe then that they are readying their strike?"
"The snake is always prepared to strike." Four replied. "It merely awaits opportunity."
"Do you doubt our purpose here?'
Four did not immediately reply. "No." He ventured cautiously. "Regardless of the form or face the snake represents, it has curled itself around our quarry. We hold no hope of success in attempting to uncover its hole. We must flush the serpent from its nest." He leaned forward and powered down his computer. "Beginning here."
"Their deaths will not go unnoticed." Six replied as he followed the example of his counterpart.
"That is indeed the point." Four responded.
"By other than our quarry." Six clarified.
"And that is unfortunate." Four acknowledged. "It is also unavoidable. Do you doubt our course?" It was Four's turn to question as they disembarked from their craft and sealed it behind them.
"No." Six responded much more quickly than his comrade had. "Should it have no effect on the Subject, it will contain the knowledge of her existence. I draw attention to the fact that this was not within our original mission parameters. Our deviation from the set course will not go unnoticed by The Company."
"Then the deviation from our usual methods will be enough to blind them." Four dismissed his concern.
"I find this to be… unclean." What came close to a sneer curled at Six's tone.
"As do I." Four conceded. "Necessities often are."
"Four different trajectories." Jubal Early bit out through a clenched jaw after scanning through the information on the data-chip Gina's contact had provided.
"Still the best lead you've had." She argued defensively.
"And it still gives me absolute shit!" He snapped at her. "All this tells me-," he waved his hand angrily at the rezzed 3-D screen, "-is that they're running through dead space and so is every other goddamn smuggling ship in this 'Verse!"
Gina really couldn't argue the point and she bit the insult off before it could jump off her tongue; pissing Early off any more than he was already wouldn't help her tentative situation and place on his ship. Not that she wanted to stay in close quarters with her former partner, turned enemy, turned partner again; but her chances of nailing Reynolds and his crew back for what they had done to her would drop significantly if Early decided he really didn't need her. She needed to change tactics; as much as she loathed the man, he was a better tracker than she could have ever hoped to be.
"Jubal, you are a single S-ranker with Lupus 5, don't tell me you can't get a whiff of somethin' from all this." She cajoled him. "This is what you do; why you're one of the best." She turned to the computers and rezzed four smaller screens, each with a separate trajectory. "Narrow it down." She urged him.
Jubal glared at her a moment longer before conceding and taking a long look at each one of the screens. "This one." He closed out the top leftmost one. "Headed right for the Core; leaving from Beylix, that would take them through an Alliance checkpoint and past a main NavSat relay station before they'd get the opportunity to skip." He brought the three remaining into a horizontal line to get a better look at them. "This one's gone, too." He closed down the route that would have taken Serenitythrough the ghost tracks leading to Red Sun. "That band of space is littered with scavengers. Reynolds wouldn't risk getting his ship jacked out there. That leaves Ares in Georgia and New Canaan in Blue Sun."
"Has to be New Caanan." Gina said immediately. "I'd bet coin on them heading out that way. Good money in booze smuggling."
Jubal wasn't so convinced and didn't validate her assumption with so much as a tick of an eyebrow as he stared down the route to Ares. There was no rational reason a ship full of fugitives would get within seven sectors of Ares but, from what he'd managed to dig up on Reynolds and crew, they were nothing if not a bunch of cocky bastards. Ares was, for all intents and purposes, under the control of the Merc Guilds; any guild that was worth anything had a headquarters there. The last time he himself had been there was to receive his S-rank and purchase the very undercutter craft they were on now. He grabbed her hand as she reached over to close out the screen he was focused on.
"Don't touch." He chastised her as if she were an impatient child; which, in his opinion, she was.
"You can't seriously think they'd take the Ares road?" She asked critically as she snatched her arm back; making a mental note to scrub the skin he'd touched.
Jubal ignored her as he rotated the image and followed the trajectory through the slow zoom of its path. He froze the screen. "There." He magnified the image again. "That's where they would jump. They're not going to Ares. They're not even leaving the system." Jubal said with surety. "They want this band of dead space." He shifted the view of the screen. "This time of year, New Kashmir's orbit blacks out a set of NavSat trackers that monitor the lanes out to Orion Station. They'd disappear off the shipping tracks and, even if anyone was looking, it wouldn't be anything unusual." Jubal chewed on that bit of information for a moment. "They're good." He acquiesced. "Very, very good." He smiled to himself, an ugly twisting of his lips that raised the entire right side of his face. "But I'm much better."
"So where would they go from there?" Gina asked, ignoring the blatant invitation for an insult as she leaned forward to take a better look at the screen for herself.
Jubal leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers as he stared at the screen; while Gina resorted to chewing on the inside of her cheek to keep from pressing him. He was onto something, that much was obvious in the way his brow furrowed; she could practically feel the wheels in his head turning as he glared at the screen. It took several minutes but he leaned forward once more and began to rapidly type out a set of commands to his computers.
Traveling through space wasn't as simple as picking a direction and setting course. There were lanes and tracks for good reasons; the largest and most obvious, aside from fuel efficiency, being the gravitational forces of the planets and moons that drifted through space. In dead space the safe routes weren't designated, nor were they monitored. It took a pilot or navigator that had more than just basic textbook skill to find their way through and, as a result, trying to track a ship through it was nearly impossible.
"What are you doing?" Gina demanded when she couldn't take his silence any longer.
"There are other perks to being a guild member besides the shiny toys." Early informed her wryly.
"As in?" Gina pressed irritably.
"The Fugitive Retrieval Act."
Gina briefly closed her eyes and choked on the urge to shoot the man sitting in the chair in front of her. "Which is?"
"A convenient little loophole that allows me to commit certain felonies in the name of justice."
"And which felony are we committing now?" She asked with feigned sweetness.
"Hacking into the CRN."
"The Cortex Relay Network?" Gina questioned, more than slightly confused.
"Alliance NavSat might have lost them by the blackout but, if they jumped on this route, the commercial Cortex satellites which orbit New Kashmir would have targeted the ship for regional advertisements before they had the chance to. I need to make sure they jumped, otherwise we're just wasting fuel and chasing our tails. The CRN dumps its stored cache once a month. It's been less than a week since they skipped here; if they passed by New Kashmir, the satellite should still have their Cortex IP in its log."
Gina actually laughed. "Can't stop the signal." Early's brow furrowed as he looked up at her. She waved him off. "Something this freaky little hacker that set me up with the crew said." She rolled her eyes. "Repeatedly."
Jubal acknowledged her with a slight incline of his head before he removed a small sack of cooper pieces and tossed them to her. "Stock the ship. It'll take a few hours for the computer to find the information and trace it."
"Should I wag my tail and have you pat my head?" Gina sneered. "I love being told to fetch. I thought you didn't waste money on the finer luxuries like food." Really, Gina wasn't entirely sure why she was complaining. She could still feel the residual twinges of the headache from the last round of cryo she'd suffered through on his ship. The former merc had assumed all the money he saved on food and water would have been put to good use by purchasing a higher end cryo-cocktail and she had been wrong.
"We're going to have to run them down in space." Early ignored her complaint. "Once we get close, I'll have to shut down everything but life support to get past their scanners. We'll need to be awake for that."
"You want to take down Riddick and the Tams in the Black?" Gina asked incredulously.
"And you would prefer to face them on the ground? Where they have no considerations except escaping us?" He didn't give her the opportunity to answer. "In the Black, on their ship, they'll have nowhere to run. We hit them in their night cycle, while the crew is asleep, and by the time they realize something is wrong, it will already be too late."
"Or they cut us off from our ship and we're the ones that get screwed."
"My ship, little girl, my ship." Jubal corrected with no little amount of derision.
Gina resorted to rolling her eyes again. "I don't have the engine room or bridge codes." She admitted.
"And we won't need them." He assured her. "We'll simply bypass them."
"And won't that take time? Time we won't have to waste?"
"Like the time you're wasting now?" He challenged. "Let me worry about the details, Gina, just do what you're told."
Realizing the futility of the argument, Gina bit her tongue. She tossed the pouch of coopers in her hand, resigning herself to the fact it wouldn't buy much more than a crate of protein Redi-Packs. "And what if you're wrong about New Kashmir?" She asked, wanting the next move in case Jubal decided to strand her on Beylix.
"Then you and your contacts will have proven to be absolutely useless to me." He answered with feigned pleasantness. "So you better hope I'm right."
"Is that a threat?" She asked tightly.
"Just a statement of fact; take it as you like." He responded without looking back up from his screens. "Don't you have things to do?
The long, rectangular-shaped craft which drifted though the shipping lanes between systems was heavily customized and retrofitted above and beyond the standard issue available for sale to the highest ranking members of Black Dawn. The captain of the merc-class cruiser, TheExecutioner, William Walker, was one of only three registered mercs throughout the conglomeration of more than fifty guilds licensed by the Alliance Judiciary Commission to obtain the double S ranking required for its purchase.
Walker had just wasted the last week and a half on Athens chasing down his current marks on a bad lead that had led them to an abandoned hospital serving as the HQ for a band of former Browncoats that couldn't seem to let the dream die. Although his team had made certain it did after a two hour raid that had cost them Marks, the sharpshooter they'd brought in when Cobb had turned them down. On the upside, they'd managed to collect two bounties, but they were small time and hadn't even deserved to be a blip on The Executioner's radar.
"They have to have help." Pitor, Walker's right hand and an A-ranked merc within his own right as all of Walker's team was, groused as he reviewed for what felt like to him the millionth time the digital printouts of false sightings and supposed leads.
"Well, no shit." Rachel, The Executioner's pilot retorted. "You figure that out all by yourself? Paris, give the man a prize."
"Fuck you." Pitor didn't even bother to look at the woman as he delivered his response.
"Could be that last lead wasn't all wrong." Paris suggested, ignoring the bickering pilot and first mate. "Could be the Browncoats are hiding them; we just got the wrong set."
"Too bad we blew them all to bits 'fore we could ask." Riley chuckled more to himself than anyone else as he picked at his nails with the tip of a blade.
Walker grunted in the negative as he held an unlit cigar between his teeth in the left corner of his mouth. "Skills like these-," he gestured to the two photos which had been tacked stationary in the center of the table, "-Browncoats wouldn't waste."
"At this point, I think we have to assume they've managed to scrub they're facials." Rachel pointed out. "No way they could lay low enough for this long without pinging offa something."
"She's right." Walker removed his cigar and used it to point at her. "Their data's gone from the system but I still don't think the Browncoats would be able to or want to just sit on these two. There ain't a crime on these sheets; means espionage, high level. Means they have a little ole secret and there's no way the rebels wouldn'ta blown it up by now."
"So that's gotta mean they're being hidden by the other side of the line." Rachel ventured. "Triad?"
"Then we're more than fucked." Pitor ran a hand through his messy brown hair. "No way we can get close enough to any one of the Triad factions to even get a whiff of sake."
"Triad wouldn't do it for free." Paris shook his head in the negative. "It'd cost, cost big. They'd need mommy and daddy's money for that kind of protection and their folks have the all parental instincts of moldy protein." He flipped through the scattered sheets and stacks until he unearthed a thick bundle. "Nothing in any of the shit you had us dig up on those two says they're helping their kids." He flipped through it uselessly before tossing it back down on the table.
"Don't think so either." Walker conceded as he scratched an itch along the twisted scarring of his neck. "They've disowned 'em and let the Alliance tap their Cortex and banking records voluntarily."
"That was a bitch to get around when I had to tap them for us." Paris complained.
"So they're underground and dug in like ticks." Riley grunted. "Facials wiped, gotta be moving around on a ship, but even with wiped facials somebody woulda seen somethin'; bounty's too high for them to ghost. Girl can pilot, boy's a Core-class surgeon…"
"Keep going." Walker encouraged as he leaned back in his chair and watched the gears in his gun's head slowly turn. Riley was new to his crew, brought in at the same time as Marks after Jayne had turned him down. He would have been the ideal replacement for the merc on his own had he not been absolute shit when it came to sniper shooting and ground tracking; he was, however, a close-combat specialist and, much like Jayne, had a special sort of knack for prying out information from closed-lipped mouths and absolutely no moral code to go along with it.
"Well, I been thinkin'-,"
"That must hurt." Paris quipped.
Riley merely shot him a quick glare before continuing, "These two are Core-bred, don't give a shit what kinda skills they got, any half-wit Rim rat could ping a Core from a mile away. They don't last long in the outer reaches; too dangerous for them to stick too close to civilization. So they gotta be movin' and movin' quick."
"You got a point?" Rachel asked. "We all know this shit."
"Point is, I'm thinking maybe we're over-estimatin' these two. We've been running down leads on Browncoats, organized crime syndicates, the big dogs; but what if these two found themselves a small independent operation, say a smugglin' crew? Some shit-level that pulls in enough coin and work to keep them jumpin' from system to system, but ain't big 'nough to draw too much attention."
"Why a smuggling crew?" Paris asked, interested now.
"Any freelance merc or space dog ship would sell 'em out first day, an honest transport would want papers and they move through Alliance checkpoints, but thieves-," he shrugged, "-smugglers, they got every reason to stick to dead space and be gone as soon as they get some place. I think we're lookin' in the wrong direction, boss."
"He's got a point." Pitor said. "Say she's flyin' or, hell why waste talent like that on a pilot, she's probably a gun." Rachel gifted him with an obscene hand gesture but didn't bother this time with responding verbally to his dig; it was duly ignored by the first mate as he continued. "You figure any kind of crew, especially small-timers, would jump on a doc like the kid."
"Only narrows it down to a few thousand crap ass ships out there." Rachel snidely remarked. "And with their facials gone, we're still driftin' in shit without a thruster to get the rutting hell out."
"Your penchant for optimism never ceases to amaze me." Paris commented dryly, looking at her sideways.
"Reality and pessimism are one in the same. I didn't earn my A-rank by thinking the 'Verse shat rainbows and bubblegum." She retorted.
"Some real hard work you put in there, sittin' all comfy and clean behind the pilot's chair." Riley muttered.
Rachel, who was accustomed to such accusations, merely gifted him with the same gesture she did Pitor.
"Enough." Walker warned gruffly, his tone barely raised but heavily laden with impatience. "Let's say our siblings did hook up with a small-time crew; wouldn't be enough with just their skills to keep someone on that crew from sellin' 'em out and it'd only be a matter of time before they was found out if they were tryin' to keep their identities a secret." He fiddled with the end of his cigar as he thought out loud. "We're looking for retired military. Got to be." He concluded after a moment with absolute surety. "I'm thinking somebody with a grudge against the Alliance; somebody who ain't lookin' to fight another war but appreciates the value of a good 'fuck-you' to our boys in purple. Wouldn't be no private, that's for damn sure."
"How you figure?" Paris asked.
"Makes sense." Riley cut in before Walker could reply. "Betcha he even feels like he's pullin' a fast one on the 'Lliance every time he sees 'em in his bay. He'd 'ppreciate the value of their skills, too. We might want to start turnin' over some rocks; find out if anybody's recently made a jump between leagues. He might not be tryin' to advertise but ya can't hide skills like these and they'd put any crew into a whole new league. If he's military, he'd know when and how to use 'em, too."
"Who says it's a he?" Rachel asked archly.
"Can you please cram that feminist goushi back into that hole that never shuts the fuck up?" Pitor groaned. "Who gives a fuck if the captain is a she or a he? They're standin' between us and a multi-million platinum payday. I'll put a bullet between their eyes just the same; don't matter if they call their dangly bits balls or tits."
"Be more fun if they was tits though." Riley waggled his eyebrows.
The men chuckled while Rachel merely resorted to rolling her eyes again. She was one of the few female mercs in the 'Verse that ranked anywhere above a C; she'd made it that far by knowing when to pull her gun, when to slice with her tongue and, even more useful, when to just shut her mouth and move on. It was a boy's club. She wouldn't venture to call it a 'men's' club but it was definitely a boy's game and, if she wanted a piece of the protein pie, dealing with their shit was the price.
"So what's out next move then?" She asked instead.
Walker leaned back in his chair, the fingers of his left hand drummed against the arm while his right continued to fiddle with the cigar stub. An itch had formed at the base of his skull; an itch that curled his chapped lips into a sneer but he kept the thought urged by the itch to himself for the moment. "Set us a course for Beylix."
"Beylix?" Rachel asked but one look from her captain had her raising her hands in surrender. "You point, I fly." She conceded and pushed herself out of her chair.
"Riley, start diggin' through the Board, find us a couple of low-level bounties that ain't worth our time but'll give us a bit of leverage to loosen a few tongues 'bout any changes in the players in case Beylix don't pan out. Focus on Beaumonde. Place is a smuggler's paradise and it'll be our next stop if we come up dry." He ordered. "Paris, see what kinda chatter's on the Cortex, find me any dust-ups that seem a bit off, we're looking for an arrogant sumofabitch playin' white knight."
"That'll take some time, boss, even if I just focus on the Rim." Paris replied hesitantly. "It's a real long shot."
"How long we been tryin' to run these two down?" Walker barked back. "Get me a goddamn lead or find yourselves another ruttin' ship to fuck around on!" His fist hit the table as a punctuation point, closing the conversation and debate without a shadow of a doubt.
Pitor lingered behind the others. "Cobb's runnin' with a former Browncoat." He reminded his captain once the others were gone.
"Why the fuck you think I'm headin' to Beylix?" Walker replied. "He's got a soft spot for his Ma and there's one too many things that don't add up with that boy these days. Don't make sense he'd walk away from this much coin without a good damn reason."
"You really think he wouldn't turn 'em in? This much coin?" Pitor asked skeptically. "Said yourself Cobb would turn himself in for the right price."
"And that raid on Niska's or the hospital job he had in on?" Walker countered. "No way just anybody or any crew coulda pulled that off. From what you dug up on his, they hadn't ever even tried to dip their toes in that kinda water before. Cobb may be dumber than a pile of dried crap baking in the sun but even he could do the math on the kinda coin that pair could bring him in if they stayed free. Not to mention the fact our boy is playin' for the other side of the line now, havin' this pair-," he gestured to the tacked photos again, "-would go a long way in keepin' his ass free and rich."
"So we're gonna use his bounties against his Ma?" Pitor asked.
"Or her 'gainst him." Walker smirked. "Don't really give a fuck."
"And what if we're just chasin' our tail and he ain't? This really is a long shot, Wil."
"Then we make 'im an offer he can't refuse and I get my gorram sharpshooter back. I'm takin' a win outta this side trip one way or the other. I ruttin' promise you that."
Riddick watched her dance from the shadows cast by the upper catwalk in the semi-darkened bay. He hadn't announced his presence. He knew she knew he was there without needing to; she was always aware of him, always conscious of their proximity, and she could decipher it down to the millimeter if he'd asked. He didn't need to; he had become aware of her in the same fashion. When he had been awoken by her absence from their bed, he had merely followed the pull of the intangible cord that stretched between them, no longer even needing to scent the air, and he had found her dancing in silence.
The absence of music was unsurprising. Riddick knew she heard it even if it wasn't there. He knew it never stopped, just as he knew it wasn't to the melody of some remembered tune that she danced to. It was the incessant whispers carried along the current of The River which shaped her steps. The unheard voices of trillions and the screams which never made it past their lips but ricocheted through minds to echo through the depths of the universe to her; muddled and muffled as sound tended to distort beneath water.
River was more than just her name, he had long since realized. It was the way she moved, fought, spoke, and thought; sometimes like a babbling brook, broken and stuttered, other times a rampaging flash flood, or the slow trickle through soil which eventually joined the steady, contrast stream of groundwater. Then there were times like now when she flowed seamlessly; her body bending and twisting, rushing unhindered by obstacle or uncertainty as she cut her own course. She was entangled in a stream of motion which traversed the borders of dance and war; spins, steps, and leaps evolving into kicks, flips, and jabs; her braids whipping around her body and acting as an almost punctuation point for every declaration of movement.
She was beautiful; fucking divinity incarnate to his eyes. A harbinger of death wrapped up in silken ribbons and she was his. What had begun as an admittedly unhealthy fixation on the little crazy, titillated by the secrets which dripped from her pores, had grown into an all-encompassing obsession that trod the line of addiction; the moth to the flame. He couldn't look away if he tried; he had no desire to, she was everything he hadn't realized he'd been looking for. Someone who could keep up.
If he was honest with himself, he had boarded Serenity because after Carolyn and Jack and a rock with three suns, he couldn't go back to the man he had been. Living to spite death had worn out its appeal and a small seed of something he had refused to acknowledge before had taken root. He'd felt those roots twist beneath the flesh of his body, the vine-like stem twine around his spine to spread along the network of nerves that wrapped around muscle and then blossom into wanting… needing something more.
River was different; he had known that from the very beginning. Despite the insanity that spewed out of her mouth from the moment she popped out of the cryo box, he'd liked the way it had curled off her tongue; the whimsical undertones and rolling giggles which bubbled like blood from her lips and spoke secrets no one else could ever know; that spoke to him as no one else ever could. She wasn't afraid of the shit that twisted inside his head and, unlike Carolyn, she had no desire for him to rejoin the human race. She wanted and needed the monster he'd always been accused of being; the one, again if he was honest, he enjoyed very much being.
The smell of her had ingrained itself so deeply into his skin it had mutated his scent into something entirely different. There was no walking up the downslide and Riddick had no desire to; there was no going back to a life without her. Somewhere along his road to making her dependent on him, he had become dependent or her. It was her disapproval which kept him from disobeying Mal's orders, her happiness that kept him from taking her away and disappearing into the Black even though it ran opposed to every one of his instincts; for her, he would do anything. For her, he would bleed the 'Verse dry and bring her back buckets of it to bathe in if she wished.
He was now her monster, and it was that truth which lead him to the answers for the very questions that plagued him. Why River? Why had the dreams started again only after he'd met her, why was Shirah convinced the girl would lead him to her, and why the fuck had he started glowing blue since he'd met her?
You can only be what you are, Furyan. Just as I can only be what I am.
And what's that?
A death dealer, a secret keeper, a mind breaker.
The bit of conversation had drifted around his head since the last of the painkillers he'd allowed himself had run their course through his veins. It intermingled with another bit of conversation he'd had with Shirah months before.
I have been with you always. For such a long time,you were beyond my reach because you did not want to know the truth…She changed everything…
The nameless figment with eyes like his that had stalked his dreams and even at times his waking moments had terrified him as a kid. He realized now that somehow he'd managed to block her from his head; some kind of subconscious defense he was sure there was a ten-syllable name for that wouldn't mean shit to him. Then a little crazy with no control over her abilities had popped screaming out of a box and into his life.
A mind breaker. The River had found the cracks in barriers he didn't know he had built and eroded the stone enough for Shirah to slip back in; and once she was in she had been insistent that he open up everything for River. It raised the questions, what if she had wanted into those places as well, and why, if she was so insistent he allow River fully in his mind; did she go to such lengths to hide herself from the Reader?
Riddick wasn't willing to assume the woman was completely his ally just because she was inside his head. He didn't know what Shirah really was but he knew she was real and she had an agenda just like everyone else. What he did know for sure was that she wanted blood; rivers of it, and for some reason, she couldn't get it herself so she wanted Riddick to spill it for her. There was, however, a fatal flaw to her plan. Riddick didn't give a shit about her or the fate of the Furyan race. She knew it, too. Given a choice in the matter he would have told her to go and fuck herself if she'd warned him about going blue even with the added strength he got from it. She needed a reason for him to take what she offered, to drink it in and ask for more like he had been doing.
…even the fiercest of creatures calls a place home, calls those that belong to him family… She is yours Furyan. Hunt with your clan, and all will fall before your feet…
River was her catalyst. Riddick had fought against feeling anything for the girl and every step of the way Shirah had been pushing him towards her; pushing him to stay on Serenity.There had been very few people in his life he had ever given a shit about but those he'd had, he'd fought ferociously for. Tanya, Rhea, Jack, and now River and the crew. Hell, he'd taken bullets for Cobb and walked straight into the line of fire of a mini-gun when Zoe and the others had been pinned inside the brothel. He might not give a flying goushi for Shirah and her cause but, should River and the crew somehow be there when the inevitable shit Shirah went on about hit the fan, he knew, even if he didn't want to admit it, that he wouldn't leave them to rot while he ran to save his own ass. She had seen opportunity and nurtured it until Riddick had practically laid his own bait to trap himself with. He had to question if River's life meant anything to the woman at all or if she was in fact just a means to an end; to load the question further, he wasn't sure what he'd do with the answer to that if he had it.
Furya will have her vengeance. This little one, will have her blood.
Did she mean that be that by bringing down whatever ghosts she wanted him to chase he would bring down River's tormentors as well? Or that stirring one sleeping dog would awaken another? Shirah had claimed his and River's fates were intertwined; but to what extent, and when had they joined? The obvious partial answer was the minute the girl had woken screaming; but it was only a partial answer and, much like River's ramblings, Shirah's were always layered and littered with multiple meanings and interpretations. He was unwilling to assume that the obvious answer was the correct one. River was right. There were no answers; not when the answers only produced more questions. Questions he didn't know could exist until he'd stepped aboard Serenity.
"You are thinking loudly." River's lyrical voice broke the silence she danced in as she commented on his thoughts. "Your thoughts prickle against the skin as your eyes caress like butterfly kisses." The pads of her feet fell flat against the grating only long enough to propel a spin, which sent a fresh tremble of her scent down Riddick's spine. He watched her push off; a back handspring that landed and flowed seamlessly into an effortless series of roundhouses.
Riddick made no response aside from the slight tug at the right corner of his lips as she halted in her dance to allow the fingers of her left hand to graze the skin of her outstretched right arm. "The contradiction is not wholly unpleasant."
He stepped out into the open space of the bay towards her. The dark depths of her eyes drawing him in as she beckoned him from one set of shadows to another. The shadows she carried with her; the ones she cast as she treaded the intangible planes of the unseen 'Verse.
"The stars are whispering." She spoke softly. "Whispering and singing and screaming; run little rabbit run, the hounds have come to play.They whisper and I dream and I feel. Names are being carved into bullets and the stars shriek as though they were being carved into themselves."
"Whose names, River?" His voice was jagged in comparison to her smooth lyrical lilt.
She giggled as she shook her head. "Not his, not hers. Greed is always the creed." The dark amusement that had laced her eyes vanished, leaving behind only a forlorn sorrow before she collapsed down onto the grating. "Pawns and puppets, but which are we? The chessboard has become crowded, pieces and players traversing through a field of battle they ought not to be on but they come. They've come to hunt and they will not retire until all have fallen."
"Not making a whole lot of sense, girl." He rumbled quietly as he crouched down in front of her.
"What did I dream?" She questioned earnestly, though Riddick had a feeling the question wasn't posed to him and didn't try to answer. "I do not know." She continued. "The fragments dance away each time she goes to grasp."
"That what you were doing? Chasing fragments?"
River gifted him with The Look.
"Never know." He shrugged as he twisted a braid around his finger.
"And that is the problem." She sighed as she rubbed her neck. "I feel the noose as it tightens. The hounds are drawing near and she cannot See. She can only feel, and I feel wrong and cold and death everywhere she walks. There is a hunger and it tastes like greed coated in the pretty packaging of false righteousness."
"We knew they'd come." He rumbled as he brushed her hand away from her neck to replace it with his own.
His larger one nearly encompassed the smooth skin entirely, and his thoughts briefly flashed to the moments when he'd envisioned himself snapping the delicate vertebrae and ending his internal conflict the surest way he knew how. He no longer had such thoughts. The slight hollow between her collarbones was his favorite spot on her body. Where the beat of her heart and the breath of her lungs could be felt simultaneously through his lips; where he could taste her life on his tongue.
"Only question is-," he ran his thumb across the small divot that was his, "-whether or not you done playin' at being the hunted one."
She reached up to pull Riddick's goggles down from his face; the obstacle between their gazes not needed in the dim lighting of the bay. "We will dance together, you and I, not as puppets and pawns; the light thinks it is fast but the darkness is always there first."
Riddick's head tilted curiously.
"His thoughts prickle." She raised her hands to either side of his face. "But sometimes they don't. Sometimes they sing like sweet melodies that beckon a dance." She tilted her head at an angle that matched his; mesmerized by her reflection in his eyes. "Fury Lord, I want buckets of blood to bathe in."
The veins beneath Riddick's skin flared to life; the abruptness of the surge nearly stopping his heart for a moment as he felt her reach into the depths of his mind and force it to the surface. The humming color threw odd shadows against the bulkheads in the bay as that thing inside him answered her call.
Riddick felt her flood his thoughts and rush through his veins as though she had braided herself into his blood and it strengthened the hue beneath his skin. The power was delicious and ripe enough to taste on his tongue. He should have been pissed, something in a far corner of his mind told him, something raged against the knowledge that she could have such control over him; but the man himself did not. The man himself only gloried in what she was capable of; basked in the knowledge that this beautifully lethal creature was his and his alone.
"My monster, not hers." She whispered fiercely.
The moth to the flame. He caught himself thinking as his lips curled into what qualified as a smile despite the malicious curves which defined it and he savored the onslaught of sensation.
Alone on his ship, Jubal Early basked in the silence that came with Gina's departure. He had no intention of splitting the bounty with her, and the screen rezzed in front of him only solidified his plan. Haymer wanted her bad and the man was offering up a sizable bounty for her head: dead or alive. She was even wanted within Lupus-5 for skipping out on her guild debt; though the reward was less than what Haymer was offering, it gave him options. The bounty for the Tams and Riddick would buy his double S rank and, with Gina's added to it, it would put him well on his way to purchasing the merc-class cruiser that came with it.
It was all really just a question of timing. The extra body would come in handy in taking down the Tams and Riddick, perhaps they would even do the job for him; but, if they didn't, he'd need to take her out before he claimed the bounty and before she tried to take him out as well. He was by no means an idiot and he'd seen her hand twitch at her gun far too many times to rule out the possibility she was thinking along the very same lines as him. It was the sole reason he'd only set his cryo-timer for a few hours on the trip out to Beylix and woken back up once she was fully under. He'd lived off a stash of protein packs he kept hidden in a compartment in the cockpit and stuck himself back in cryo a half day before they'd reached Beylix, matching his timer for hers.
The screen which was rezzed alongside Gina's privately listed bounty flashed and had him closing her screen to redirect his focus. His entire face pulled downward, dragged into distortion by the narrowing of his eyes as his fingers flew across a holographic keyboard. He had used Serenity'sIP to ping a Cortex broadcasting frequency and, by default, a location from which it was broadcasted; a handy little trick that was only useful when you had a semblance of an idea where to start looking and a timeframe. Otherwise, there was just too much information riding the electronic waves throughout the 'Verse to narrow down the possibilities before the logs were dumped.
The fact which had caused the pulling of his features was that Serenityhad never jumped tracks. New Kashmir's CRN network had pinged them last with a transfer to Delphi's after they'd left its range.
"What's your endgame, Reynolds?" Jubal asked aloud as he drummed his fingers against his arm rest. "Dead space and safety were less than twelve hours from your reach and you divert to Delphi?" He leaned back in his chair. Arrogant Malcolm Reynolds was, stupid he was not. The stupid ones hadn't survived the war.
He didn't like answers that only provided more questions and the revelation of their true destination only raised several dozen. He stared at the screen for several minutes not truly looking at it but through it as he let the facts he knew dance with assumptions and possibilities; searching for the something that fit into something else. He mulled over the possibility he could have been wrong. Perhaps Serenity hadn't been moving towards dead space but had a job waiting on Delphi; the Ares trajectory merely a ploy to throw off the scent, to keep anyone tracking them and smart enough to choose the right route heading into dead space and right past them. Were they planning on circling around? Was the job they were working given to them on Beylix and would they be returning? Or did they run into some kind of mechanical trouble? Or had a new job come up on a whim?
His fingers took up their occupation once more as he raised Lupus 5's network and ran a search for lower-ranking jobs, if any, in that particular sector with a public listing; though without much hope of finding an answer. He doubted very much that Reynolds would answer any public merc listing. Surprisingly, there were a few postings. None that caught his eye in anyway however until, for lack of a better idea, he scanned through a few expired postings and found one a few days closed that made him do a double take.
The original listing had been a flat-rate open call for both guild mercs and freelancers; something to the effect of cleaning out a nest of bandits that had holed themselves up in a whorehouse. The raider captain was listed as Sanguine and the post had only called his attention due to the fact a vengeance bounty was now attached to the name. The details were vague, as most were on open calls that usually skirted the boundaries of legality, and only one Lupus merc had taken the bid. A D-ranker that had never reported back in a failure or confirmation of payment and was now being assumed dead. The amount was pitiful, the price of vengeance bounties were wholly relevant to time spent and rank earned in the guild. D-rankers got themselves dead nearly every day of the week. The guilds rarely took more than a surface interest in their disappearances.
While it was the vengeance bounty that had originally caught his attention, it was something in the captain's name that held it, Sanguine. After he and Gina had first struck their deal, they had gone over every detail of her stint aboard Serenity looking for holes to exploit and trying to figure where she had gone wrong to avoid repeating past mistakes. Somehow, they had known almost immediately that she and the job weren't what they had seemed. She had been played since the very beginning by the girl they knew to be River Tam. It was in trying to figure out the how that Gina had mentioned them throwing around the word sanguine as if it were a code of some kind. He would have written it off as a coincidence, most definitely an alias, but a coincidence nonetheless, if it hadn't been for the fact the skirmish took place at a whorehouse, and Serenity kept a high-class one on crew.
A former acquaintance? He turned the thought around in his head. One connection could be overlooked; two, made it another story entirely. While Reynolds may not have answered a public merc listing, he was beginning to wonder if he was not, in fact, the reason for it. Tsk, tsk, Reynolds .A friend in need is no friend indeed.
"Where's the Bit?" Mal asked as the crew gathered for breakfast.
"Sleeping." Riddick rumbled as he poured himself a cup of coffee.
"Another bad night?" Simon asked immediately.
"She's fine." Riddick barely managed to restrain the traces of annoyance he felt from leaking into his tone.
They'd spent the rest of the night training to turn him on and off; and not in the enjoyable sense either. He himself would have been still sleeping with her if not for the fact the night's activities had left him with a voracious appetite. River had said it had something to do with his metabolism but, at that point, he'd been too exhausted to offer much more than the vaguest bit of his attention.
"I'm just concerned over her decision to stop taking the pills that help her sleep." The doctor offered by way of explanation. "I tried to argue against it but she was adamant."
"Simon, isn't there a specific code you have as a doctor regarding confidentiality?" Inara chided gently but pointedly.
"Not on my ship! Not when that patient's the Bit and got the unique condition she does." Mal argued immediately, not giving Simon a chance to defend himself.
Inara managed to successfully glare sideways at the man she sat next to; not that Mal noticed in the slightest.
Wash, however, did and couldn't hold back the laugh that escaped him. When he was finished, he looked back up at the captain, pointed and then laughed again.
"What in the Hell is gorram funny?" Mal demanded.
"I know that look." Wash wiped a bit of moisture from his eyes.
"What look? Who gave me a look? I didn't have a look." The captain replied, more than slightly confused, and a bit peeved over the fact he was missing a joke the rest of his crew seemed to be in on.
Wash pressed his lips together and shook his head. "Must have been mistaken, sir."
"No, what look?" Mal asked again, this time looking around the table for an answer and when no one offered he added, "See? This is exactly ruttin' why I need my gorram mind reader at the ruttin' table." He grumbled.
"Woulda got kicked then." Jayne mumbled into his coffee.
"I don't sit close 'nough to her to get kicked." Mal retorted. "Will somebody tell me what in the ruttin' Hell I missed?"
"I'm sure the answer will become abundantly clear later." Inara assured him, in a tone that assured Mal the look he'd missed had been given by her.
He quickly backtracked through the conversation and right into a wall he suddenly realized he'd never see the end of or a way around. He was only grateful she'd kept it to a look rather than a comment when she'd never taken issue with openly defying or arguing against him before. There was no point in trying to hide that things had changed between the two of them from the crew. River was a mind reader for one and, for two, the ship was just too gorram small and every member of his crew too gorram nosey for there to even be a chance of it. What he didn't want though was for anyone to think she held more sway over him now because of it. Honestly, he didn't care if she hollered at him from the minute a door made a private space between them and the crew; just so long as she stood beside him in front of them when he made a call.
"Not sayin' she don't have a choice in whether she takes a med that ain't essential to keepin' her breathin' or keepin' her together-," Mal began as he tried both to make amends with Inara and justify his concern over his Bit in the same statement, "-but River's stability affects us all. It's the difference 'tween dead and alive sometimes and we have to step a whole lot lighter than most other folks in our line of work 'cause the legal status of most our crew. I'd be concerned 'bout anyone of you who only slept maybe a three-four hour stint on a good night."
"She's fine, Mal." Riddick rumbled, paying more attention to his plate of eggs and toast than the conversation and its direction. "Kept her awake last night is all." He smirked at the various looks of horror and disgust the majority of the crew shot him. It wasn't a lie, merely an indistinct answer. "Didn't think you wanted the details."
"Git sum." Jayne chuckled lewdly.
"Well, I'm done eating." Simon sighed as he threw his chopsticks down on his plate. "Ever again." He added.
"Be fine without those details." Mal said, uncomfortably.
"Don't ask questions ya don't want the answers to." Kaylee giggled, quoting River.
"And on that note, might I suggest we discuss where it is we plan to dock to collect the supply list Mr. Universe has sent us?" Book offered.
"Excellent idea, Preacher." Mal jumped on the subject change.
"Beaumonde be best." Zoe remarked. "Got the tech he needs and the holes in security to let us slip in and out without more than a glance at our hull."
"Creeper Twins got eyes all over Central Docking." Jayne pointed out. "Not that I give a good gorram but they did try to plant a beacon last time we was there."
"Central's still our best bet for access to everything he needs." Wash countered. "Anywhere else on Beaumonde and it'll be several stops instead of one quick one."
"Another reason I need my mind reader at the table." Mal mumbled as he stabbed at a rehydrated potato bit on his plate. "Calculatin' risks is her job."
"As much as I hate to say it, because I'm not real found of that pair either, but it might be about time we consider makin' our peace with them." Zoe suggested reluctantly. "They own the lower docks in their way and they can cause us a whole lot of trouble without so much as more than a 'Wave."
"She has an excellent point." Inara agreed. "Riddick needs to replace his damaged armor and, if I am correct, I don't believe we have the connections elsewhere to obtain the quality his friends there can procure. You could try to negotiate a deal between them and Fanty and Mingo to smooth things over couldn't you?"
"What makes you think they don't already know each other? Or that Mikki and Dev would even deal with them if they don't?" Despite Inara's concern for his welfare, Riddick was more than a little irritated the woman assumed he would even support such a deal. Mikki and Dev were one bridge he didn't want to burn and he didn't know anything about the twins other than their bar smelled like shirt and they were a pair of pretentious assholes.
"Well, I don't." Inara admitted. "It was one idea and if it's not viable than it's not. It doesn't change the fact that, despite their limited reach, they could still do us a great deal of damage."
"You don't think they would make the deal?" Book asked.
Riddick shrugged. "Mikki and Dev are in a league those two shits will never see. Don't give a damn how much of the docks they own. They're small fucking fish in comparison. Their runners might know the twins but their names aren't important enough for Dev to care about knowing. Twins don't have much pull off-world. Mikki and Dev? They're some of the biggest names in the circles that count."
"Woulda liked to'va seen the side of a payin' job 'fore we hit those boys back up 'gain." Jayne grumbled. "Blew most my stock of ammo on that brothel and most my coin the first time 'round when we saw them. Had my eye on that .50 caliber Hellbore they had."
"Didn't you just get that Long?" Zoe asked critically. "How many different fifty-cals you need?"
"Need or want?" He grinned at her. "Either way, kinda a dumb question to ask me, ain't it?" Jayne replied, to which several of the crew responded with a laugh. "'Sides the Hellbore holds double the rounds and it's an ACP, not a rifle"
Zoe gave in with a nod on that explanation; her husband, however, was still slightly confused. "Translation?"
"Means he can take it out for everyday use. As opposed to the Long, which is really more like a special occasion type of girl. See the Long's an anti-material gun, meant to take out light-to-moderate armored craft. Try to fire at a regular body and it blows straight through and into anything behind it. Good iffin' you're lookin' to take out a herd, which the Hellbore probably could, too, but the rounds are half as expensive and, like Jayne said it can hold double at half the size of the Long. Got its own specialty ammo and everythin'; they call 'em Hels." Wash wasn't the only one shocked and slightly horrified that the explanation had come from Kaylee and not Jayne.
"Ruttin' terrifyin'." Mal slowly shook his head.
Jayne, however, beamed with pride. "Would be lyin' if I said that wasn't damn sexy."
"Anyyyyyway." Mal drawled. "Not real keen on startin' a business relationship back up with the Creeper Twins but, and as much as I really hate to admit it I see the point in patchin' things up." Mal confessed even more reluctantly then Zoe had. "Cuttin' the middle man out only sets us up to get our own throats cut. Beaumonde's too valuable of a rock to us to let bad blood boil." He rested his arms against the table in resignation. "Patching it up with an introduction to somebody they wouldn'ta had access to before seems like a good idea to me. I'll be damned if I run a job for 'em to do it. What's the chance Mikki and Dev will deal?" He asked Riddick.
"None without something in it for them." Riddick told him honestly. "Dev won't see the point in doin' business with somebody beneath him without a benefit."
"So's either way we're runnin' a job for free 'gain. Ruttin' shiny." Jayne complained as he tossed down his napkin.
"You don't want their jobs." Riddick rumbled his tone indicating they should take him on his word as it settled uncomfortably across the table.
"Didn't you say their runners probably knew them?" Simon asked.
"And?" Riddick raised an eyebrow.
"Well, I'm a little new to the criminal hierarchy, but I'm assuming their runners are paying off docking security and or Fanty and Mingo's people to move their shipments through the docks."
"Very clever, Doctor Tam." Inara praised him with a small smile. "We make the official introductions and negotiate a deal that allows for Dev's goods to be moved without having to make the payoffs so long as they agree to sell to Fanty and Mingo."
"Now there's a real idea." Mal acknowledged.
Riddick killed the coffee in his cup. "And if the twins ever fuck them, you do realize Dev will take his losses out on us."
"So the worst is we find new illegal gun salesmen?" Wash asked.
"One of these days I'm gonna figure out exactly how it is you people ain't dead yet." Riddick said slowly. "If the twins cross them, we've crossed them, and if we've crossed them won't take more than an hour for the word to be out and every hitman and squad that deals with them will be looking for our blood."
"And they're not already?" Simon scoffed.
"Difference between a merc and a hitman." Jayne retorted condescendingly. "And that's a traq dart and a bullet. Boys like Mikki and Dev, even if they are a little…colorful-," his lip twitched slightly, "-won't give a good gorram 'bout any bounties we carry. All's them types care about is rep. You got to figure they been at it for a while and you don't last in those circles if folk ain't afraid of dicking you. Riddick said it himself, invitation-only, and they'll make a message outta us that says 'watch who the fuck you invite.'"
"You willin' to stake your life on the twins?" The convict asked Mal.
"Think the right question is, would Fanty and Mingo risk crossing them?" Zoe interceded. "They'd be dead faster than we would."
"Zoe's right." Mal nodded. "They might be the slimiest of leeches to ever suck the 'Verse dry but they ain't dumb."
"It's still a shit idea, Mal." Riddick warned.
"You got a better?" He challenged.
"You're not a fan of my methods." He replied, rising from the table. "You've already got it in your head to do what you're gonna do. You don't need me to do it. I already made the only introductions I plan on. When this comes back to bite us all in the ass, and I guarantee you it will, Mal, don't come lookin' to me to for anything other than an 'I fucking told you', and don't think I'll vouch for them either if I'm asked."
"See the thing there is, Riddick-," Mal replied heatedly, "-don't need you to vouch for them, not when I got Riv to tell me iffin' they're plannin' on crossin' us 'gain from the get go."
"There are so many things wrong with that statement, I don't even know where to begin." Riddick rumbled as he dumped his dishes in the sink and pulled a slip of paper from his pocket. He dropped it in front of the doctor and headed towards the aft deck hall. "I'll be in my bunk."
Simon swore as he read the single word on the slip of paper.
"Do I even want to ask what's on that?" Book asked with humor.
"Dishes." The doctor grumbled as he held it up. "I believe today was River's turn."
"You're still playin' cards with them?" Zoe chuckled.
"Ain't our fault doc's dumb." Jayne chortled.
"Mal?" Inara questioned softly attempting to refocus the conversation. "What's our move?"
"Set the course for Beaumonde." He ordered after a moment. "We'll test the waters when we get there. Wash and Zoe are right about it bein' our best bet to grab the tech he needs without headin' further in towards the Core and I ain't 'bout to do that. Gonna take Riv to get Riddick's new armor this time; don't care what he says, I'm the gorram captain of this ship. We'll take her to The Maidenhead, too, make sure all sides of this deal are rounded out and as fair as a deal 'tween crooks can be. We'll hit the twins first, with any luck she'll be able to pick up somethin' else to bait 'em with first. This deal will be a last resort and if we can see another course around it we'll take it."
"You'll need to play this carefully, Captain." Book cut in before Simon could add fuel to Mal's already smoldering temper. "Blue Sun maintains a heavy presence on Beaumonde. It could be very dangerous for all of us if she were spotted."
"Scans are clean and the Bit don't hardly look a thing like she does in that bounty capture." Mal said dismissively. "Some days I barely recognize her myself."
"I believe my talents may come in useful here." Inara offered. "So long as River has no objections I can ensure she is utterly unrecognizable."
"See that?" Mal grinned at Inara. "Bit of feminine wiles and we'll slide her in right under the radar."
"'Ssumin' they don't just flag the purple bellies minute we land." Jayne remarked.
"Don't think they will." Mal mulled over the possibility. "That's more Badger's style, hidin' behind dirty feds. Twins ran black market durin' the war; it's how we know 'em, they'll pay 'em off, but they won't deal with 'em like that. Be more worried 'bout them sellin' us out to a body like Yuri or any other number of bad folk we've been on the wrong side of."
"So you mean all of them." Simon retorted sarcastically.
"Only way out of the woods is through most times." Mal replied with a shrug. "Ain't a point to keep talkin' on it though, I've made my call. We might not need the twin's business but we're gonna need those docks from time to time. Best settle this while we can, 'fore a situation comes up that forces us there and we find ourselves another unneeded complication like Jakob on Greenleaf."
"You want to run full burn?" Wash asked practically. "Got the fuel for it."
"Do it then." Mal nodded. "Be good to put a bit more distance 'tween us and Calliope. No tellin' what kinda dust that might kick up."
There were expanses of dead space so distance and desolate all but very few took the risk to fly the ghost tracks that lead through them. They were the crevices and cracks that held no place or tolerance for the Alliance and the empire quietly acknowledged the fact; having better uses for their resources than simply throwing them away. The denizens of those tracts of space held no qualms with targeting a military vessel and held the capability to do so on principle alone. They were havens for large-bulk cruisers that rivaled the size of some of the smaller research stations which orbited terraforming worlds and could berth several smaller ships such as Serenity . The cloak of dead space sheltering crime syndicates, pirates, slavers, and 'Golls without prejudice.
There were a few systems scattered about, though their inability to be terraformed played a large part in the Alliance's willful abandonment of them. It was in one such system that a rock with three suns that had altered the course of Riddick's life could have been found; not far from it, where the ghost track the Kubla Khan had turned what Jack had desperately hoped was a rescue, into yet another fight for their lives. The convict had left the large bulk cruiser in his bloodied tracks, just as he had the planet, without a glance backwards; leaving the carcass of it for the scavengers to find and only taking with him an upgrade from the lifeboat they'd been hauled in on.
However, it hadn't been scavengers which recovered the vessel, but a ship that had been hunting for the Kubla Khan all along. Lady Chillingsworth, the commander of the craft Riddick had left behind, had broken away from the 'Goll leadership to broker deals with the flesh-bags her religion condemned to satisfy her greed for coin. Lady Freya, in command of the Edda, had been charged with the recovery and capture of her, her ship, and the stolen 'Goll tech she had taken with her. She had not been pleased to find Chillingsworth dead and the onboard vault emptied by the very flesh-bags she had made her sacrilegious deals with. Chillingsworth's 'art' collection, however, had helped to compensate for much of their losses and the security footage recovered told a rather interesting story of her downfall.
Freya hadn't bothered to think much of the man that had brought down her target other than it had been a pity he had not first been discovered by the faithful and converted to his full potential; that was until she received an upload from one of her most favored in the moments before his death.
"Riddick." She remarked idly as the tip of a sharpened claw, the lethal endpoint of a modification which encased the bones of her hand in solid metal and breached her fingertips where nails should have, tapped against the armrest of her command chair.
"My Lady?" The hulking mass of hybrid cybernetics standing post slightly to her left questioned.
"This man." She gestured to the small circular orb which projected the frozen image of the very same one she had so easily dismissed before. "I have seen him before. He is the individual responsible for the termination of the Code-breaker Chillingsworth. Facial recognition however indicates this man is an accountant on Londinium, one Wilson, Luther. Does he look like a Core-bred accountant to you, Logrin?"
"No, my Lady." He shook his head slightly in agreement.
"He calls himself a Furyan."
"Forgive me my Lady; I am unfamiliar with the identifier." He confessed, the metallic baritone of his voice catching a slight echo across the starkly furnished bridge.
"I am not entirely so." She informed him. "Chillingsworth had a piece in her collection entitled 'Furyan, Killer of Men', find out what became of it."
"As you wish." He acquiesced with an incline of his head and turned to his left to access the terminal at his post. "It was destroyed as no bounty could be traced to its genetic code."
"How unfortunate." Freya acknowledged with displeasure. "It seems our fallen Lady had information we do not." She replayed the vid feed once more as she studied its subject. "I find myself afflicted with curiosity. Curiosity and regret. Do you know how undesirable I find such a state to be?" Logrin didn't venture an answer; he knew well enough to know she wasn't looking for one, though he did step forward slightly, sensing a command on the tip of her tongue. "I wish to be relieved of such a burden."
He dropped to his knee and bowed his head before her. "I would see to it you were, my Lady. You need only to command. Your will is second only to the Prime."
"I want him Logrin. I want to know what it is he has harnessed that gives him such power." She ordered; her voice curling around him in the same fashion as her hand which took his chin and raised his face to hers. "I want him on his knees before me." She retained her grip on his chin, the sharpened tips of her claws illustrating the severity of his punishment should he fail her as they dug into the little organic skin that remained on his body. "And if I cannot convert him, I will satiate my curiosity with his dissection." She pushed away his face as she rose from her chair. "We will make good on the promise of your brother, Logrin. He will convert or he will be killed. One way or the other his blood will be mine."
"Dead." River clucked her tongue as she pressed the tip of the screwdriver against the base of Kaylee's skull.
The mechanic let lose a violent profusion of Mandarin. "Oh, come on! How's that even fair? Ain't nobody in the 'Verse as fast as you!" She complained.
"You must be fast." River snapped harshly as she lowered her arm and Kaylee turned around to face her. "You must be fast or you will die." The usual playfulness of River's tone and actions during training sessions were absent, replaced instead with a cold, clinical detachment. She picked up the screwdriver she'd forced from Kaylee's hand and tossed it back to her. "Again."
The ship's two public relations officers watched the spar from the safety of one of the upper catwalks. "She's getting better." Jayne commented. "Hard to tell when you put her up against River but she's thinkin' and movin' right now."
"She hesitates." Riddick replied.
"Not a bone in her body that's got the will to kill a spider if she could help it." Jayne had to agree. He stifled the wince he felt come nearly reflexively as River brought Kaylee to the ground and killed her again. He glanced at his fellow crew member sideways. "How's that side?"
"No worse than one of your rib-crackers now." He answered.
Jayne made a noise that vaguely resembled a grunt of amusement. "Hell of a party that was." He added to it, wishing he could light up a cigar. "Didn't even get paid."
"Didn't have to go down that way." Riddick rumbled. "Mal should have let me slit his throat that first night. Not like one more bounty makes a shitload of a difference to me."
"Woulda come down on Nandi's head. I see his point." Jayne leaned forward and rested his arms against the rail. "Doesn't mean I ain't got qualms with risking my ass for no payout; especially on somethin' that's gonna draw the type of attention that did."
Riddick looked at the merc critically; he was dancing around a point, and subtlety didn't suit the man. "Get to it, Cobb."
Jayne looked back out and over into the bay. "Back on Calliope, 'fore all that shit went down, Zoe asked me 'bout Walker. I'd like to think we're good, hell with you and Riv on crew we just might be the best in the game right now, but Walker ain't a double S for no reason." He pushed himself off the rail he was leaning against. "Sooner or later, somebody's gonna catch a whiff offa that trail of dead bodies we seem to leave everywhere."
Riddick was caught a little off guard by Jayne's assessment. The man wasn't usually known for his foresight. What Jayne said next only served to strengthen his belief that the former merc was not to be underestimated.
"The way Riv's pushin' Kaylee, I got an itch that says you two ain't sharin' somethin' with the rest of us."
Riddick didn't reply right away, mainly because he wasn't quite sure on how to. Did he and River know something? Yes. However, what the fuck it was that they knew was the better question. "The stars are talking to her." He finally replied as his eyes fixated themselves on the Reader in question. "They're keeping her awake at night."
Jayne cracked an eyebrow; several months ago he would have scoffed at a statement such as that but, as it was now, he could practically smell the ominous that dripped off the words. He didn't have a chance to ask for further clarification as Riddick continued on his own.
"I've never met anyone that's got the skill you do behind a scope and the way you pinged the formation of Niska's hit squad on Ezra says something else about some of the other skills you've got that you don't advertise nearly as much. The very last thing I really think you are is dumb."
"Difference between bein' smart and payin' attention." Jayne retorted. "And I pay attention to all sorts of things. Like right now, in particular, I'm payin' attention to the fact you ain't answered my question."
"Must have missed the inflection in there somewhere." Riddick continued to be evasive.
"Or it could be you just think pissin' me off is all sorts of fun."
"Could be I have a point that your gorram mouth is keeping me from getting to." Riddick responded neutrally. "I'm not looking to keep anything from the one man on this ship I actually trust on my six. Came to you when I knew about those blue-handed fuckers."
"Something's coming though."
"Just a question of when and who kicks it off."
"You're thinking about letting them know where to find you." Jayne guessed as he narrowed his eyes.
"It's a possibility." Riddick cracked his neck. "Don't know about you but I'm fucking sick of waiting for someone else to make the first move."
"Was made to behind the scope, not in front of it." Jayne gritted out in agreement. "Gotta be done right though. Gotta be done as to seal up the cracks first so nothin' leaks but what we want." He glanced around him. "Gotta push Mal right to get him to agree."
"He shot Tracey before he could shoot me. Just gotta put one of his in the line of fire and he won't hesitate." Riddick replied, having already thought that part out.
Jayne pulled his flask from the pocket of the utility vest he was wearing. "You're askin' a lot from a man that's got somethin' to lose these days-," his eyes darted to Kaylee, "-but I figure that decision got took from me when her brother hauled that crate onto our ship." He took a draw from the flask. "You tell me when to find my nook and I won't ask questions." He said, agreeing to follow whatever plan Riddick and River eventually settled on. "I'll aim where she says cause I figure it's the best chance we got." He took another quick sip to steel himself for what he said next. "Want I what for it, since there obviously ain't any coin in it, is for you to look to Kaylee same way you x'pect me to look to River."
"Think River's got that covered." Riddick ticked his head down to the bay where the two girls were sparring.
"Not good enough." Jayne said resolutely. "River ain't-," he hesitated trying to remember the word she used, "-all there all the time." He settled for it after giving up trying to recall the fancy term. "A man's word don't mean much in our line of work, so I ain't askin' for yours. Just askin' that you remember that the man you trust to watch your six, trusts you to watch somebody else's."
Riddick merely nodded after a moment and a silent agreement settled between them as Jayne passed the convict his flask. "I need you tell me everything there is to know about Walker." Riddick spoke as he handed Jayne back the flask. "Far as I know, he's never taken my bid."
"She thinks he's close?" He asked as his body stiffened with a fresh wave of tension.
"Just one of the players that have actually have a name."
"He won't take your bounty." Jayne shrugged as he relaxed back against the rail. "You're on the books for two double S takedowns. Probably thinks of you as a good way to keep the competition down and he don't like marks that have a chance of ruinin' that perfect record of his. Bounties ain't his first choice, he only takes 'em to build his rep and keep it strong. He prefers the shit the 'Lliance doesn't bother itself with out on the Rim; raiders, pirate blockades, made a shitload of coin running security gigs for big corporations in the past, too. That's where the real money comes in but first ya got to make a name for yourself and bounties are the easiest way to do it. My guess, he wants the Tams so's nobody else can knock him out of that top dog spot he's been keepin' warm the last decade; it was their jump from the corporate boards to the government ones that got him hard."
"He figures it's some kind military contract with a private corporation that went south. He cleans up the corporate mess and they jump on his ass for their security contracts, maybe even wins himself some under the carpet military work." Riddick gathered from what Jayne said.
"Bingo." He confirmed. "Thought at first he was looking to make 'em his retirement but, the more I thought 'bout it, the more I figured he wants them 'cause he ain't. Somebody else grabs 'em first, he figures next they'll start cuttin' into his steady contracts."
"How big does he keep his crew?"
"Four to six, depending on the type of work and they'll all be A's, but x'pect skills that are above that bar; he don't let his crew stay crew if they got their eyes on that next single S rank, and an A's a mighty profitable spot to stay. Got a right hand named Pitor and always keeps a pilot; he can fly, but kinda like Mal, only when he has to."
"Nah." Jayne shook his head. "But his daddy was in the game; a double S too, went admin within the guild and bought Walker in as a B-ranker instead of a D. Fucking legacy Black Dawn and all the goushi that goes with it."
"It's not about the money for him then." Riddick observed; if money wasn't the driving force behind the man it changed the rules.
"Nope, man's a glory hound, and if he walks away alive the first time we cross paths, he won't hesitate to go for the kill shot the next. Live capture bounty be damned so's long as he can say he was the one to take them down."
"And the FRA will protect him even with the no kill order on them." Riddick finished for him. The fact made him slightly uncomfortable. He was used to dealing with mercs only in it for the money. It had always given him a distinct advantage over every merc that ever chased him down; they wanted him alive and he just wanted them dead. The more Jayne told him about Walker, the more he was beginning to believe the man was just a merc version of Mal, and that made him more dangerous than the Alliance themselves.
"Gorram FRA was the worst thing to happen to crime since ruttin' facial tech." The merc complained. "And Walker wears it like goddamn armor."
"Why'd you jump the line?" Riddick asked curiously. It was the one thing about Jayne he had never been able to figure out. He knew from what River pulled from his head that Jayne had obtained his A-rank in less than five years, a feat virtually unheard of within the guilds but he hadn't stuck around long after that. He'd paid off his guild debt and traded his get-out-of-Slam-free merc card for a handful of bounties and life on the run. It didn't make sense anyway Riddick had twisted it in his head. Jayne had had the potential to make himself a legend within the guilds but he'd thrown it all away.
"Told Zoe I felt like I was playin' for the wrong team." He shrugged.
"And the truth?" Riddick pressed.
Jayne took a deep breath and another pull from his flask. "There's a little rock in Red Sun, moon of Anson's called Steele."
"Prospector's paradise." Riddick remarked.
Jayne made a noise that caught itself between a snort and a bitter chuckle. "Both know better that." Riddick merely nodded and waited for Jayne to continue. "I did the job we was paid to do." He swallowed hard. "My ma, she's a good woman, best in the 'Verse; tougher than nails and sweeter than honey. I'll do most anything for the right price but I won't feed 'er with that kind of blood money. Mal's code might be a bitch to live by but it's one that still lets me look her in the eye." Jayne tucked away his flask. "Why you still here?" He asked bluntly. "Both of us know, even with the parade of shit on our asses, you could kick on and disappear 'gain without leavin' a bent blade of grass for a body to follow."
"All my shit's here." Riddick shrugged and Jayne followed his gaze to River below him.
"Good a reason as any, I sus'pect." Jayne chuckled.