A/N: Gracious for all the feedback I've received for this. I've replied to everyone, and look forward to further input from you guys. :) Helps me keep the story proper, and as close to canon as possible. Struggled a bit with this chapter, which is why it's taken me some time to update. Apologies where they're due.
"Firefly vessel, class code 03-K64. Please state your business on the capitol city, Lu'Weng." A woman's voice vibrated into the cockpit.
Her face, uninterested, came up on the small screen. Her eyes were downcast, no doubt checking the credentials of the ship and its strange crew. She was too busy reading the numbers to pay any actual attention to Serenity's captain and pilot. Still, Mal would maintain his charming smile and cheerful disposition for as long as necessary. After all, landing on Sihnon, one of the two most Alliance powerful planets, was chalk full of risk and danger for his crew. He hadn't taken all the costly precautionary measures only to end up in an Alliance prison cell because a certain soldier was in a foul mood.
One such precaution, was what the Alliance Planetary Border Patrol Officer was currently examining with great detail. The ident cards of each and every individual on his ship. It had been a new piece of technology that the Alliance military had issued ever since small, terrorist attacks were cropping up on central planets nowadays. On top of needing the necessary paperwork, each and every individual on a vessel attempting to land on a major core planet, required these electronic identification cards, bearing a specific numbered code that registered every living person and their mother in the 'verse, onto the Alliance Network. The scan was performed almost immediately when the ship entered the planet's orbit.
This meant that if Mal attempted to land on any planet under heavy Alliance control, Serenity would be instantly flagged for the harbouring of two wanted fugitives, tariff dodging, and illegal transport. Among other petty crimes he and his crew had committed.
Mal smiled into the screen, hovering behind River's pilot seat. "Just your standard protein drop-off, ma'am," he lied.
It was probably a good thing that all of their ident cards told a different story, a feat that was by far, not easy, nor been cheap. They'd been told it couldn't be done, that the tech was too advanced, too high military to hack into. Good thing not everyone had a brilliant mechanic, or a genius, crazy pilot. River had surprised everyone, having watched Kaylee struggle with some parts of the coding for weeks. Mostly, she stayed silent, observing, content to watching the mechanic work out the math all on her own. When Kaylee had been stuck for days in a row, River had suddenly snatched the cards from her, and dashed off to her room, activating the cortex. Kaylee had followed her, bewildered by her actions, and intending to stop her. When Mal found the both of them a couple of hours later, he saw that his mechanic had settled down to watch the mind of the girl work furiously, River's fingers mimicking the codes and numbers she'd been muttering to herself.
According to the girls, the Firefly was a small vessel, contracted by a legitimate and legal transport company, Cong & Li, Ltd. What the Alliance Officer was reading in that moment, was the story of how Serenity had been salvaged by a used ship retail establishment, and that it had come into the hands of a non criminal, Captain Barras Daveney.
River sat in her pilot's chair, looking every bit of uncomfortable as she appeared. Seeing as how the cards revealed every member of the crew aboard the ship, Mal figured there was no point in suspiciously hiding any of his charges. Better to keep them out in the open, to claim that he didn't have any secrets. However, if River was to take on the role of official pilot, she needed to appear a touch more professional. Her hair had been combed and tied up neatly into a bun, a few of Kaylee's clips holding it in place. She was dressed proper, shoes and all. Zoe had lent her an old jacket that sat a little loose on her slim shoulders. The girl fidgeted in her seat, her hands itching to take apart the updo her hair was in, and her feet kicking out when she'd rather have them huddled up to her chest and bare.
She'd whined when Mal had made her put on the boots. "Can't feel with them on, can't get a sense of where I'm going. Navigation is off, crash you right into a little moon. Don't make me wear them, please don't!"
Simon had been the one to reassure her just as her features had contorted into a mess of sadness and desperation. He'd hushed her, patted her hair down, and whispered, "It's okay, mèimei. It's just for now; you can take them off once we've safely landed."
Mal had sighed, and threatened the doctor when he had run out of patience, "Best keep her in check, doc. Can't afford getting caught on Sihnon. Job's risky enough as it is. She starts actin' up durin' the interview, I'm tellin' you it ain't gonna have a pretty affect on the landscape. So unless you've got the sudden urge to see what the walls of an Alliance prison cell look like, I suggest keepin' her presentable and moderately sane. Although, silent works well enough for me, too."
When she'd started growing restless in her chair, Mal kneed the back softly, in warning. She'd flinched, and turned to give him a condescending glare. Like a petulant child, she sighed and rolled her eyes. Instead of moving around in the seat, she settled on swivelling the chair slowly. He'd just have to live with that.
The woman peered back into the ship from the screen, sizing the captain up so as to be sure he fit the descriptions of his card. For the most part, she seemed to ignore River.
Seemingly satisfied, she dismissed Serenity with an unimpressed tone of voice, "Authorized, Captain Daveney. You may proceed to landing dock 4B with the cargo. Prepare for a full protocol inspection upon landing."
The screen flickered off, and Mal let out the nervous breath he'd been holding. With Serenity in autopilot for the time being, River turned in her seat to acknowledge Mal, looking as angry as she could.
"Dressing me up like some gorram doll! Doesn't make any sense, doesn't hide anything! Little ants in the presence of wolves," River burst out.
Mal patted the top of her head in response, an action that only seemed to further grate on her nerves. "Not to worry, l'il albatross. You did a mighty fine job. Ain't a soul gonna suspect that a lovely, core bred pilot with a name like Anabelle, is actually a crazy talkin', ninja assassin reader. Finished top of your class in flight school, too, didn't ya?"
River sighed deeply, and then said, "Anabelle. Combination of the names 'Anna' and 'Bella'. Old English from Earth-That-Was. Defined, the name directly translates to 'gracious beauty'."
Mal smiled. "Ain't it pretty?"
She stared at him vehemently, and then added, "I hate it."
Mal let out a small chuckle, before raising his hands up in defense, and speaking in an accusatory tone of voice, "Hey, don't look at me. You hate the yúchǔn name so gorram much, why in the heck did you put it on your ident card?"
River stared off out the window to the massive red coloured planet in front of Serenity, hugging her knees to her chest now that she was free to do so. "Kaylee suggested it..." she trailed off.
Mal couldn't help the small smile that formed on his lips. "Looks like not even you can break l'il Kaylee's heart, huh?"
River stared at Mal, unnerving him as her eyes searched his, reaching a conclusion he hadn't yet. "You do that well enough for the both of us," she stated simply.
His sense of good humor dissipated at her comment, and he knew what she'd implied with that sharp tongue of hers.
His face took on a stern edge when he gave the order. "Just see to landin' the ship proper."
With that, he turned on his heel and walked out of the cockpit. He could feel her eyes watching his back, boring into him even as he skulked away. He ran into Zoe and Jayne in the cargo bay, ensuring that the empty boxes had barcode stickers replicating the codes for Alliance marked protein. There were a lot of empty crates, each and every one locked and bearing the critical seal. Mal made his way down the stairs, just as he heard Zoe tell Jayne, "Make sure you're labellin' 'em the right way, Jayne. An upside down barcode is suspicious, and could tip off any perceptive Alliance soldier."
Jayne grinned, and replied, "Yeah, but how many of 'em Alliance soldiers you figure have any perceivin' abilities beyond that of a qué lǘzi?"
Zoe gave him a look that dictated she was not humoured by his language. The mercenary laughed to himself, and continued on with his work.
Mal folded up the sleeves of his dress shirt, and eyed the silver crates. "We got 'em all? Ship's 'bout to be crawlin' with Alliance in a few moments, can't afford any strays," he instructed, inspecting the cargo.
Zoe nodded, and said, "Sir, if we manage to get through this, I do think we best be acceptin' this job. Ain't spent so many credits foolin' Alliance military on their own turf just to walk away empty handed."
Mal's facial muscles twitched and flexed in response, but he smiled after, and chummily thumped Zoe on the back, "Yeah but, think of the hell of a story it'll make! Sneakin' in right under the Alliance's noses, with nothin' but empty boxes and a replica of their finest technology. Ain't so untouchable, are they?"
Zoe took in a deep breath through her nose, but didn't speak her mind on the subject. Instead, she returned to her current task. Mal's attention was directed to Simon then, who'd just stepped out of the medbay with a syringe in hand, capped and filled with an eerie looking golden serum.
"How is she?" he asked Mal when he reached him, flicking at the air bubbles in the syringe with his fingers, eyes focused.
"Shiny! Can't say she's too happy about sittin' still and not bein' all cryptic like, but she's managed. Patrol barely noticed her," Mal explained.
He eyed the needle in the doctor's gloved hands. "That some new cocktail, doc?"
Simon nodded briefly, and then added, "For River. I've tweaked the original. Seems she's been building a bit of a tolerance lately."
Mal gave Simon a sarcastic glance, "You don't say? Whatever gave you that impression?"
Simon only stared at the captain, tight lipped.
With just a hint of anger, he asked, "Don't you have some preparations to make, captain? I do believe you're still carrying two wanted fugitives, and the people after them are only mere moments away from boarding this ship."
When Mal opened his mouth to make a smart comeback, Simon leaned close and continued, "I'll do my job, and take care of River. You just do what you do best; the sooner you lie and cheat your way out of this, the sooner we're off this Godforsaken planet."
Mal didn't take his words to heart, figuring the whole crew was just jittery from being so close to the Alliance after years of avoiding them. Or running from them, more like. Simon was putting a lot at risk, here. But the desperation for medical supplies had eventually made him succumb, albeit rather hesitantly. The credits from this heist, if they chose to accept, was enough to keep them flying for a few more months.
As Simon clambered up the catwalk, Mal hollered after him with an insincere smile. "Last time I checked, it's all that lyin' and cheatin' that's kept you and your sister at a safe distance, doc!"
The younger, dark haired man spared the captain a dirty look, before disappearing towards the mess.
Zoe was watching Mal, an eyebrow raised in question at his attitude. He stared back at his first mate, and grinned, "Ain't he just a little beam of sunshine?"
Zoe shook her head, unable to fight off the small smile that played on her lips as she continued labelling.
The entire ship lurched forward as River took hold of Serenity, and guided her towards the docking bay. Mal nearly lost his balance, and cursed under his breath; "Biao zi yang de! Is it too much to ask for just one smooth landing?!"
Jayne rolled his eyes, and remarked, "Whatcha get when you put a fāfēng cho san ba in charge of pilotin' your ship..."
Mal's voice boomed in the merc's direction, annoyed. "Jayne, your mouth's doin' that thing again..."
Once the ship was safely landed, everyone began to gather at the entrance to Serenity, ready for the heavy metal doors to open and reveal the Alliance soldiers who'd be inspecting their ship. Mal maintained his false and friendly charm; Simon had brought a reluctant River out of the cockpit, who had managed to successfully pull out a few pins from her hair, while Zoe stood to attention, chin up, serious, and solemn at her captain's side. Jayne had tried hiding his nervousness behind a tough facade, but was unable to stand still. Kaylee had bounded out of the engine room, soot and smiles all around. She gave Mal a quick thumbs up before sidling next to Simon and River. Noticing the young girl's deteriorating appearance, the woman took it upon herself to fuss over her hair. Surprisingly, River didn't fight her as hard as she'd fought her brother.
Instead she folded her arms over her chest, and let Kaylee primp her, muttering under her breath a few choice insults, most likely geared towards the captain.
Kaylee only stopped when the sound of the doors opening got her to stand to attention, a little gasp dying on her lips as she resumed her position.
Mal leaned towards Zoe, and gave her a piece of advice. "Deep breaths, Zoe. Stop breathin' and they'll notice."
Zoe stared at the doors, her expression like stone. "Could say the same to you, sir. This is a suicide mission, and you know it."
Mal shrugged his shoulders, looking thoughtful. "Yeah, but, we've survived worse, haven't we?"
The soldiers appeared then, bearing the familiar crest of the Alliance on their vests. There were only a few of them boarding, with their guns tucked away in their holsters for the moment. The woman that had interrogated them via the screen in Serenity's cockpit, appeared front and centre. She stared them all down with her exotic eyes.
Never breaking away her gaze, Zoe replied, "If you've been meanin' to keep testin' out our luck, sir, then I'd say you've done a fine job so far."
Mal couldn't reply anymore, as the female officer was now in earshot. She was thin and tall, with her straight, jet black hair tied up into a short ponytail. Upon reaching the captain, she announced herself. "Officer Mu Ming Yue, captain Daveney."
Before Mal even had a chance to respond, and before anyone saw it coming, River spoke up, drawing the attention of the officer immediately. The girl smiled, and said, "Like the moon."
Simon's mouth dropped, and Mal's jaw locked in anger and frustration when he looked at her. Officer Ming Yue was staring at the girl now, perplexed by her comment.
Mal could feel Jayne tense up next to him, could feel Zoe's gun hand twitch at her side. He cursed a sling of nonsensical words in his head, as he hoped against hope that River did not choose this moment in time to have a relapse.
The female officer walked towards her then, while the rest of her men began the tedious work of scanning and searching the crates littered aboard Serenity. Mu Ming Yue hovered over River, and stared with her intimidating gaze.
"Pilot Anabelle Dewei, is it? Awful young to be a pilot. What school did you say you'd graduated from?" The officer asked, her voice taking on a different edge than before. Less bored, and more intrigued, now.
Mal could feel his own heart jumping up his throat as he stood idly by and waited. River had just drawn attention to herself, and there was nothing to stop whatever it was that would happen. The girl would destroy their entire ploy, and get them caught with her insignificant jibber jabber.
River gazed up into the dark eyes of the female officer, defiantly.
"Anabelle Dewei, attended the Cambrian Flight Training Institute on New Cardiff, Londinium. Graduated two years prior to school's actual duration of program. Finished in top ten percentile of her class. Program size averaged twenty students or less," River reported in a monotonous voice.
Mal recognized the explanation, his expression changing from anger to curiousness as he pondered where he'd heard the words. He took a glance at Zoe then, and noted how she'd let her eyes betray her, as she too was familiar with those statistics. He remembered, and it hit him with a shock.
Officer Ming Yue nodded her head as River listed her fake persona's credentials.
"Refused a high position with the Alliance military during the war, too. We could've used a pilot of your caliber in our skies, Ms. Dewei. Saved a lot of lives, even." The officer couldn't mask her irritability at the notion. She'd lost a lot of men, too, and Mal wondered if he'd ever faced her in combat at some point or other. The scar along her left porcelain cheek dictated that she had, indeed, been part of it. As did the empty look in her eyes.
River smiled, as if she knew something no one else did. "Birds don't win wars, officer. They only go up in flames, and burn out. Like a phoenix."
Her eyes strayed to Mal when she echoed the words she'd offered him earlier, "Little ants in the presence of wolves."
Officer Ming Yue stared at River, confused and not comprehending any of her words.
River sighed, and then reluctantly explained herself. "I wouldn't have helped you win your gorram war, anyways. Too young, too small, too much of a girl in a man's field of expertise."
Ming Yue was taking her time trying to formulate a response to River's assessment. Something she had said seemed to have struck a chord with the officer, while the rest of the crew watched on in nervous anticipation.
"Ma'am? Crates are all locked up," one of the soldiers commented when he'd tried to crack open a single box. His voice seemed to break the thick, choking tension on the ship.
Attention was finally, and gratefully, averted to the new issue at hand, and Mal could feel the heat from his face dissipate.
Officer Ming Yue turned her questioning gaze back at the captain, silent, and seeming to await his response on the matter.
He worked up his Alliance friendly charm, one he'd used many a time in an Alliance friendly bar on U-day, and said, "Recent thievery by many contracted transport vessels has Cong & Li, Ltd. a little hesitant in just givin' people their goods to make off with. Devised a little lock that only the receivin' end's got the codes for, ma'am. Blue Sun technology, at its finest."
After a moment of taking in what the captain had said, the officer reached her decision, arms behind her back. "We'll need Alliance soldiers to oversee the shipment of the protein before any credits are exchanged between you and your benefactor. Is that understood?" Officer Ming Yue stated, motioning for her men to continue their scanning and logging of the crates.
Mal nodded his head. "Not a problem. Crew's got some time for shore leave, and I may as well see around for parts and fuel while we're grounded. Crates ain't movin' until you say so. Gotta find our men to take these off our hands first, besides. They ain't payin' me to lug these giant things halfway across town."
Once her men had finished marking every single crate, they confirmed with Ming Yue that the shipment had been scheduled to port, and that they did indeed contain the marked protein rations, although they had no physical proof. Luckily for them, the crew had appeared harmless enough, even with River's small outburst. Officer Mu Ming Yue remained uninterested in Mal's comments, and didn't seem to care much for the rest of his crew, either. It was obvious that she'd bought into their little scheme of legal transport vessel, and barely anyone on the ship could believe it.
Mal closed the entry gates to Serenity after the commanding officer and her men disembarked. He took in a sigh of relief, while Jayne gave River a heated glare for her previous behaviour.
"The hell was you thinkin', girl?! Or was you thinkin' at all?! Coulda damn near blown our cover! You ever seen what they do to little girls in prison cells?!" The mercenary shouted hysterically, staring accusingly at River.
"Captain wanted a pilot. He got one," was all River said in response.
Mal watched the exchange in silence, coming to a standstill next to Zoe. Jayne kicked angrily at a crate, causing Kaylee to nearly jump out of her skin at the suddenness of his action. The mercenary made towards his bunk, probably to choose his arsenal for the crew's out and about adventure in town.
It had been a close call. Too close. Mal recalled Zoe's words, and figured he was testing their luck, even knowing that they didn't have much to go on to begin with. But a job was a job, and they needed the credits bad enough. His first mate remained silent after the encounter, seemingly lost while watching Simon remove his sister's frivolous hair pieces.
When her captain asked her what was on her mind, she only said, "Those were...those were his credentials, sir..."
A/N: First off, I'd like to apologize for any butchering of the Mandarin I used. Translators can only do so much, I know. Feel free to point anything out, so I can fix it. Second off, apologies for the slow start, but it's important to lay out all the pieces before I jump right into it. The chapter was originally planned to be longer, but then it would have seemed like too much, so I cut it in half. I made up (and researched) a lot for this chapter, surprisingly. So, I'm hoping I did an okay job. Feedback, as usual, is welcomed. Translations are below. :)
qué lǘzi: lame donkey/ass
Biao zi yang de: son of a bitch
fāfēng cho san ba: crazy bitch