Check out my page for The Song of Forgotten Stars, because…THE SAVIOR WORLDS is at long, long last available! As of this writing it’s paperback only, but I’m working on the ebooks and will update accordingly. Huzzah!
It means that it’s National Novel Writing Month, and thus it’s the time when writing-obsessed weirdos like myself gear up for another attempt at producing 50,000 words in a single month.
It’s nearing the end of the year, and thus it’s time to spend some time looking back at the year that is quickly heading toward the wings and anticipating the year that’s getting ready to strut onto the stage.
It also means that just about six months have passed since I posted on this site. As always, oops.
What’s been happening, then?
Well, the usual life stuff, naturally. Writing, working, eating, drinking, walking dogs. My writing of late has focused on editing: after I finished drafting ORION’S HUNTRESS, I did edits on THE SAVIOR WORLDS (FORGOTTEN STARS IV, for those keeping track), THROUGH THE PALE DOOR (the sequel to THE CHILLING KILLING WIND), and my as-yet-untitled novel about the ill-fated kayaking expedition in the Arctic. This year’s NaNo project will be the first thing I’ve drafted in nearly a year, which is kind of scary. What if I don’t remember how to do it! Consternation! Uproar!
Well, I’ll figure it out, like I always do. Lately I’ve been re-reading the manuscript to THE ADVENTURES OF LIGHTHOUSE BOY, Book One (not the actual title), as prep for writing Part Two, which is my plan for much of 2020 (in addition to getting THE SAVIOR WORLDS out into the world). But about a week ago a fresh idea hit me, and I thought it might make a nice short novel (ha! As if I could ever write a short novel!) to use as a palate-cleanser for NaNoWriMo, before I get back to the world of Big Wordy Doorstops (part one of LIGHTHOUSE BOY is more than 235,000 words long).
So, here I go. Want some details? The tentative title is AN ECHO UPON THE WATER, and the book is about a fifteen-year-old girl named Echo Perry who is sent to live with her Aunt and Uncle on their grape farm in the Finger Lakes of Upstate NY. While living there she struggles with figuring out the rules of her new home and of her new school and of her new town, as she constantly feels like an outsider. And then there’s the matter of the ghost train that rumbles through her backyard every night at 3:00am, and the girl she sees on board.
Or that’s what I think the book is about. I might be wrong. Hey, I remain, as ever, a pantser at heart.
I’ve also fallen a bit behind on some of my essay writing for this site, and for Byzantium’s Shores (my personal blog, if you’re just joining in), and for The Geekiverse (another site for which I write). That being the case, I’ll be using NaNo as an opportunity to get a bunch of those essays (some of which are already handwritten!) typed up so I can post them in the future.
So, onward and upward!
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You read my last post about why writers should read poetry, and now you’re thinking, “Gosh, I should do that and read some poetry. But I don’t know where to start or what books to buy or anything!”
Well, as with anything, there are several ways to go about the job of reading more poetry. There are a lot of collections out there that are meant as introductions to poetry. Some of these are the school-textbook kind of thing where you’ll learn about rhyme and meter and the difference between a haiku and a sonnet and all that, and those are excellent starting points, if you’re looking to learn mechanics.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with learning mechanics! If that’s your approach, great. It wasn’t my approach, but it’s valid and anyway, later on when you’ve discovered that you really do love poetry and you’re not nearly as intimidated by it anymore
But maybe you want to start right out with poetry. Maybe you want to dive right in! Good for you! That’s exactly the approach I advise. Poetry is there to be read, first and foremost. There’s plenty of time later for rhyme, meter, allusion, theme, secondary meanings, and all the other stuff. Jump right in, says I!
So, where would be a good place to start?
One possibility is a collection of “light” poetry or of old ballads and narrative poems. It might be easiest to start your journey into verse if the forms are familiar enough that you can recognize a joke or a story in the verse.
Take a poem like The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, which starts thusly:
“The Highwayman”, Alfred Noyes
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin.
They fitted with never a wrinkle. His boots were up to the thigh.
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.
Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard.
He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred.
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.
Now that will certainly catch your attention, won’t it? You want to know the rest of the story, and you barely realize it’s in poetic form, even as the internal rhymes of the stanzas work their magic and even as the rhythm of the words propel you forward. (You can read the remainder of The Highwayman here.)
You should also read poetry aloud, if you can; or, failing that, at least speak the words silently, so you can get a sense of how the words “feel”. Much of poetry’s effect is gained through auditory effect, how the poet arranges sounds and the rhythms inherent in the placing of the words. As you gain experience, you’ll find it less necessary to do this–but by this time, it might be sufficiently ingrained in your poetry-reading experience that you keep doing it. I certainly do.
So where do you find all that poetry? In poetry books, of course! But where do you find poetry books? In bookstores, of course!
To start with, you might want to look for wide collections. The Oxford Book of English Verse is a stalwart, as are other collections of American poetry. I’ll assume that the library of the discerning reader and budding writer already has at least one Complete Shakespeare, which is a great source of lots of poetry. (In fact, if you can read Shakespeare with even a modicum of comprehension, you’re well on the way to being able to read a lot of poetry.) There are also many good themed collections that gather poems around specific subjects: War poetry, music poetry, and of course, love poetry. Picking up a few of these is always a good idea.
Used bookstores and library book sales are wonderful ways to bolster one’s poetry collection. When the books are cheap, you can buy with a lot more abandon, which means you can get a lot more experimental with your poetry collection. You’ll find old compilations that reflect earlier tastes, or collections of poets who are mainly forgotten these days. Even editions of The Oxford Book from decades ago are worth picking up cheaply, because they will contain many poems the current edition does not. Don’t sweat the duplication too much.
Next time I will recommend some of my favorite poetry books! Until then, see you around the Galaxy!
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Here, at last, is the Prologue to my forthcoming supernatural thriller, The Chilling Killing Wind. Next up will be the cover reveal in one week’s time, but for now, meet former police detective John Lazarus as he prepares to go witness an execution….
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Welp, I haven’t been very good about posting here lately, have I? Three months is…bad. But I’m still around, and still hoping to add more content to this space (as well as others…but nothing I can really discuss yet)!
So, what’s been going on of late?
First, I’m still working on The Savior Worlds: The Song of Forgotten Stars, Book IV. This one has been proceeding in fits and starts. I got off to a great start, and then I faltered as I ran into story problems, then I ironed those problems out and got going again, only to run into more problems and have to stop again. After averaging 1000 words a day through May and half of June, I stalled out completely for two weeks while I tried to figure out where things were going.
I’ve got it mostly figured out, though. Since July 1, I’m back to averaging 1000 words a day, and I hope to get this draft done no later than the 15th of September.
I’ll have more to say about this book as it evolves, but one difficult thing has been the nature of this series and the direction I’m taking. Each book has been markedly different from its predecessors in terms of scope and structure, and that is no different this time out. The overall tale of the saga gets bigger and bigger as it goes, and that’s hard to manage and still keep the focus on the characters. As I noted, though, I have a pretty good handle on the rest of this one.
Second, I’m starting the formatting process for The Chilling Killing Wind, which I intend to release into the wild sometime in September. More announcements will definitely be forthcoming about that, so stay tuned! I’m excited to get this one out and finally start diversifying my output beyond manuscripts in various states of polish on my hard drive.
Third, you may have noticed that I’ve changed up the appearance here, in keeping with my intent to post more regularly. I have a list of posts I want to write, which will help. This site will still be about my books and my writing, but I’m going to broaden the focus just a tad to basically focus on my thoughts on various aspects of storytelling as a whole. I’m excited to be doing this. There will also be additional tweaks on the way as I update the individual pages so that each series or set of books will have its own page.
More to come, so stick around! My immediate goal is to update this site on Thursdays each week, starting today. So tune back in and follow me on the social mediae!
See you ’round the galaxy!
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Back in the day, The West Wing was one of my favorite shows. I don’t think it’s aged as well as many, and I’ve found that I have issues with Aaron Sorkin over the years, but still–when the show was at its best, The West Wing was superb. One facet of its success was its approach to storytelling in miniature.
The West Wing was an ensemble show, telling the stories of a large cast of characters as they worked in the White House to run the United States. Ensemble shows (and books) pose their own challenges: which stories do you focus on more than others, what do you do with characters who might not be the actual focus in this episode or chapter as opposed to the next one, and so on. Many times there would be a “main” storyline in an episode, but along the way Aaron Sorkin had to get the other characters into the show somehow. Sometimes they would factor into the episode’s main storyline, other times they wouldn’t.
This, then, posed two problems: First, Sorkin had to make sure that the main storyline in any episode moved along in satisfactory fashion with lesser screen time in which to do that job than a non-ensemble show might have (and he was not always successful at this). Second, he had to ensure that the secondary stories in any episode were satisfying on their own (and he was not always successful at this, either).
Here we have one of Sorkin’s secondary stories that works very well. This is from the second season’s Christmas episode, in which the main story is Josh Lyman’s struggles with PTSD after being critically wounded in an assassination attempt on the President some months before. That story has no bearing on this little tale that involves CJ Cregg and her attempts to get to the bottom of an odd incident in which someone, while on a tour of the White House, suddenly had a very emotional response to seeing one of the many paintings on the wall.
This little story unfolds over just two scenes, which combined take less than five minutes. And even so, you have everything you need for a story: character, a problem, some background, and some true wit. Here’s the scene:
Of course, the scene mostly crackles because of the amazing chemistry between Alison Janney and the wonderful British character actor Paxton Whitehead. The way Janney smiles when Whitehead is referring to the President’s awful taste in art (while taking another shot at her own “taste in accessories” in the process), just the way they converse as if they do this stuff every day. This stuff doesn’t always work well on The West Wing but here it works so well that I almost want a sequel series when CJ Cregg, after leaving the White House, teams up with Bernard Thatch to seek out lost works of art and return them to their original owners. I love this little story right from the opening exchange, which establishes relationship and character in just two lines each:
CJ: How are you doing, Bernard?
BERNARD: I’m not at all well.
CJ: That’s not unusual, is it?
The storytelling lesson here is that sometimes limits can push one to do really good things. Sorkin doesn’t have time in this episode for more with this story than these two scenes, so he gets all the impact that he can from them. It’s really, as Sorkin himself might say, quite something.
And that’s all I have for today. See you ’round the Galaxy!
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Goodness, I’ve really let this site go fallow, haven’t I? Over three months of radio silence here. That’s not because of any bad developments or anything like that; just that I’ve been plugging along with writing and not really saying much here. I should change that, I think.
But anyway, here’s what’s going on:
- I’ve been prepping a lot for NaNoWriMo 2017. For the uninitiated, that’s National Novel Writing Month, set for November when writers the world over, amateurs and professionals and folks in the middle like me alike, all commit to attempting to produce 50,000 words of something in a single month. This will be my sixth year of participation, and I am greatly hoping to post a “win” this year. There’s no shame in not hitting the 50K mark, but I made it both of my first two years and then missed the mark three years in a row. 2015 was a special case, as my writing time for the month was greatly impacted by our six-day trip to New York City for Thanksgiving that year, and 2016…well, let’s just say that certain events in the world that began unfolding in November last year sent me into a massive slump.
- Oh, and my project for NaNoWriMo? I’m starting Book IV of The Song of Forgotten Stars, titled The Savior Worlds. I haven’t done any new work in that series in a long time and I’m itching to move onto the next phase of the story. To that end I’ve been planning and…outlining. Yes, outlining. Me, the pantser-to-rule-them-all. Well, if Forgotten Stars is one big story, then the first three books have told the first act. Now I’m entering Act II of the BIG STORY, and as such, I need to have a better idea of what the BIG STORY entails. Hence, planning.
- That being the case, I’ve temporarily shelved the project I was working on, Orion’s Huntress, the all-female Firefly-meets-James Bond-in-space thing that I’ve been working on. I have a lot of notes and material put together on that book, so when I return to it, I shouldn’t have too much difficulty getting back into its swing.
- Also, I’ve started preparing The Chilling Killing Wind for publication, hopefully to come in December (but, more likely, January). I’ll keep you all posted…including when I put up some sample chapters!
- On the subject of NaNoWriMo itself, my usual advice stands, which you can read here. I wouldn’t add much at all to this, except to reiterate: Have fun! NaNoWriMo shouldn’t feel like pressure.
See you around the galaxy, and I promise to check in more frequently!
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And here we are with the final of the teaser chapters for Amongst the Stars! The book launches on May 25, in paperback first and then with the ebook to come a few weeks later. Here, the plot starts to thicken….
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(Here is the text of Chapter One of AMONGST THE STARS! Enjoy, folks!)
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I wrote this story, a rare foray into fan-fiction, a few years ago and I’ve been reposting it ever since, first on Byzantium’s Shores and now here — and for this year, over on Wattpad! This is what I imagine a Very Special Christmas Episode of Firefly would be like. For purposes of timeline, we’re before the Serenity movie.
Writing this was a LOT of fun. That’s one of the main reasons fanfic exists, right? Enjoy!
Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don’t care, I’m still free
You can’t take the sky from me
Take me out to the black
Tell them I ain’t comin’ back
Burn the land and boil the sea
You can’t take the sky from me
There’s no place I can be
Since I found Serenity
But you can’t take the sky from me…
Captain Malcolm Reynolds was usually the first one to exit his bunk in the morning, which, coupled with the fact that he was also usually the last one to retire to his bunk at night, went a long way to making him the way he was. Even on mornings like this one, when the night before he and the rest of his crew had been up abnormally late celebrating a score on Persephone, he was up before anyone else, no matter how much his head throbbed and the metallic taste of too much bad whiskey filled his mouth. But on this morning, as he climbed up the ladder to the hallway and shuffled toward the mess, he slowly realized that he wasn’t the first one up this time. Someone was in the mess already, and they were singing. Mal could make out the words – “God rest ye, merry gentlemen…” — and he inwardly sighed. On a typical day, Mal needed at least three cups of green tea before he was ready to deal with Shepherd Book. Today he figured to need six cups before he felt ready to talk to anyone.
“Ah! Good morning, Captain! There’s water on the stove, just off the boil, if you’re looking for tea.” The Shepherd beamed.
“Yeah,” Mal said. “I’ll get to the tea in just a moment, Shepherd, but just now I’m a bit flummoxed as to why there’s a tree in the corner of my mess.”
“Oh, that,” said the Shepherd. “I hoped you wouldn’t mind. Just a little something I picked up before we left Persephone yesterday.”
“I didn’t notice you bringing a tree on board?”
“Yes, I was worried about how to sneak it onto the ship, when I realized that God had provided me a perfect way to get it past your eyes.”
“And that was….”
“You and Jayne were ripping drunk. Zoe and Wash and the Doctor carried you on board. You weren’t noticing anything last night.”
“I wasn’t that drunk!”
“Maybe, Captain, but you got out of bed and came all the way to the mess wearing your gun, your slippers, and a pair of women’s underwear.”
“Oh.” Mal staggered over to the stove. “I think I’m gonna have that tea now, while you explain why there’s a gorram tree on my gorram boat.”
“There’s no need for language, Captain.” The Shepherd folded his hands in front of his chest, in that prayerful stance that Mal hated. Of course, Book well knew that the Captain hated it when he took that tone, which is why he did it so much more often now. Mal just grunted as he fumbled in the cupboard for his favorite mug and the tea leaves.
“Hand me the kitchen robe,” Mal said.
“Certainly.” Book opened another cupboard and pulled out a bundle of cloth, which he tossed to the Captain. This was the ‘kitchen robe’, a bathrobe that Mal kept stashed in the mess just for situations like this. He put on the robe as his tea steeped, and just in time, too, because that’s when Zoe and Wash arrived. Zoe looked all cleaned up and ready to go, as did Wash, even if no one could tell because Wash generally looked all cattawumpus, with his unbuttoned shirt over a tank top, shorts, and sandals.
“Well, this is very nice,” Zoe said. “Care to let us know what you’re wearing underneath the kitchen robe, sir?”
“I do not,” said Mal. “And you can stop laughing. We’ve all had mornings like this.”
“Not laughing, sir.”
“You laugh on the inside,” Mal countered.
“It’s true, honey,” said Wash. “You do. I, on the other hand, plan to laugh joyously out loud at our Captain and his self-induced plight.”
“I hold my liquor better than you,” Mal said.
“I never get much chance to develop my skills in that regard,” Wash replied, “seeing as how somebody‘s gotta be sober enough to fly the ship. Speaking of which, do we have a destination, Captain?”
“Can I drink my tea first before I think about business?”
Shepherd Book took a step forward. “I actually have a few thoughts as to that–”
“Ooooh, pretty!” And with that, everyone turned to greet Kaylee, who had just arrived in the mess as well, wearing a freshly cleaned pair of overalls over a shirt with little red hearts all over it. “I didn’t know we could grow trees on board!”
“We can’t grow trees on board,” Mal said. “This here is a flight of fancy by the good Shepherd, who I’m sure will be explaining himself momentarily.”
“Well, I like it,” said Kaylee. “It’s shiny.”
“It’s not shiny yet, actually,” said Book. “It will be, after we decorate it.”
“Decorating?” Mal said. “A tree?”
“Yes sir,” said Book.
“So just the fact that there’s a tree on my boat isn’t even the strangest part of this whole business?”
“It’s not strange, Captain,” said Book. “It’s a tradition.”
“Preacher, you got any notion as to how many weird things people do are explained by casual use of the word ‘tradition’?” Mal sipped his tea. “That explains a lot of your whole ‘Shepherding’ job, you know.”
“Traditions become traditions because they mean something to people,” Book said. “You’ve got some traditions yourself, Captain.”
“For one, your finding of an Alliance-friendly bar every year on Unification Day. And also your overindulgence every time we get a little more money for a job than you’d planned.” He smiled. “At least this tradition doesn’t involve a headache and the burning of another set of clothes.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll be taking that explanation now, if you don’t mind.”
“Certainly, Captain. It all began on–”
He was interrupted by a loud burst of raspy Chinese as Jayne Cobb staggered into the mess. “Smells like a ruttin’ forest in here,” Jayne said when he’d finished cursing in Chinese.”I hate forests. They remind me of my grandmother.”
This, as did many things Jayne said, made everyone stop talking and stare at him.
“What? Oh, I suppose you all think that forests are nice places filled with happy little creatures. Like one of Kaylee’s storybooks.”
“I don’t read ‘storybooks’,” Kaylee protested. “I’m not a child, Jayne. I’m an engineer and I’m a woman with all the needs of a woman, like—”
“Stop! Please!” Mal burst out. “You know I don’t want to hear about that, Kaylee.”
“Wash, can you just get us in the air, please?”
“I wanted to hear about this tree first,” Wash said. “I mean, since you haven’t given us a destination yet for our next job and all.”
More silence, until Zoe cleared her throat.
“By any chance, Captain, did you think to line us up a new job when we finished the old one?”
Mal shrugged. “I had other things on my mind last night,” he said.
“I’ll say,” said the newest arrival into the mess. “Although I don’t think he was exactly thinking with his mind last night.” It was Inara, who looked typically resplendent in her kimono-like morning robe. “Was she memorable, Mal?”
“You don’t remember her, do you?”
“You know, I think we’ve all got off the main topic here, which is why there’s a gorram tree on my boat!”
“Well, Captain,” said Book, “as I tried to start explaining–”
“A Christmas tree,” said yet someone else. Tensions went up as the voice of the ever-enigmatic River Tam cut through. “We had a Christmas tree at the institute. The men there said there would be presents. That was before they started the mental probes.”
River stood there in the doorway, with her brother, Simon the good doctor, standing behind her.
“River?” Simon said. “Do you remember something?”
“I remember everything,” River said. “I just choose when to talk about it.”
“So,” Simon said, “you know what the tree is?”
“I just said so,” River replied. “It’s a Christmas tree. But it’s naked. It needs decorations to make it shiny.”
“Ah,” said Book. “You see, Kaylee? That’s what I was getting at. We’ll decorate it.”
“With what?” Kaylee asked.
“Oh, all sorts of things,” said Book. “Ornaments made of painted glass. Little lights. Popcorn that we put on strings. And I even have a figurine of an angel for the very top of the tree.”
Jayne cleared his throat. “Anybody else here havin’ a hard time figurin’ out who’s crazier here, the Shepherd or the Doc’s sister?”
“I don’t think it sounds crazy,” said Kaylee. “I think it sounds nice.”
“It kind of does,” said Wash. Noticing Zoe giving him a skeptical glance, he went on, “What? I’ve been saying for years that this boat could use some more color on it.”
“My boat’s got all the color it needs,” said Mal. “Look, people, next person other than the Shepherd who talks is on mess patrol for a month. Shepherd, explain this. You’ve got until I finish my cup of tea, and if your explanation ain’t convincing, you’re the one on mess patrol.”
“A hard bargain as always, Captain,” said Book. “It’s an Old Earth tradition. The Bible tells us that one day, God decided to come into the world in the form of an infant, so he could save his people. Ever since then, believers have celebrated that night by doing things like exchanging gifts, and bringing trees into their homes to decorate. That’s what I’m doing here.”
“Shepherd,” Mal said, “didn’t I once tell you that God ain’t welcome on the Serenity?”
“You did, Captain. But it’s my belief that God is here, whether you consider him welcome or not.”
“Well, be that as it may, you’ve brought a tree onto my ship without asking me.”
“Would you have said ‘yes’?”
“No, but that ain’t the point. I like to be asked anyway. It’s my ship.”
“I just thought…it might be a source of pleasure for us,” Book said. “You don’t have to believe to celebrate.”
“You said somethin’ about exchangin’ gifts,” Jayne said. “What’s that?”
“Well,” Book said, “we could each randomly select a member of the crew and get that person a gift.” He noticed the scowl on Mal’s face. “Or not.”
“We should,” Kaylee said. “We don’t do enough nice things for one another.”
“I let you all stay on board,” Mal said. “That’s nice of me.”
“And your hospitality is known throughout the ‘Verse,” Inara said. “That’s why so many people flock to us to give us money.”
“Yeah,” Mal said, “I’m a loving man. But as to the money thing, you said something about a job, preacher? You got a lead for us?”
“I do,” said Book. “Of a sort.”
“Of a sort? The paying sort?”
“Not as such, no.”
“Then what is it?”
“There’s an orphanage on Haven,” Book said.
“Lot of orphanages on Haven,” Jayne pointed out.
“Yes, but as it happens, I know this orphanage particularly well.” Book looked like he was remembering something…but then he snapped back to the moment. “I would simply like for us to take some of our recently abundant bounty – not all of which was obtained through means the authorities would entirely smile upon – and use it to purchase supplies for the orphanage. We would then deliver said items to the orphanage in time for an upcoming festival.”
“Supplies?” Mal asked.
Book nodded. “Food, clothing, and…toys.”
“Toys?” Mal repeated.
Jayne frowned. “And we’re doin’ this in exchange for what?”
Book just smiled.
“No way,” Jayne said. “No way, uh-uh. No way I’m givin’ some of my ruttin’ money to some bunch of orphans. Ain’t my fault they ain’t got no home. Let ’em grow up, find work, and make an honest livin’.”
“Is anyone besides me,” Simon said, “unusually touched by Jayne’s newfound belief in making an honest living?”
“Shut up, Doc,” Jayne said. “Least I ain’t hidin’ behind a slip of a girl.”
“No,” River said. “You hide behind a gun that you gave a girl’s name.”
Jayne’s only response to that was a grumbled growl.
“Let me get this straight, preacher,” Mal said. “You want us to spend some of the money we’ve fought and scrimped for and use it to give stuff to children? And you want us to do this on a time frame of…what?”
“Three days, Captain.”
“Three days. And we’re doing all this with no reward for us?”
“Not all rewards come in the form of money, Captain.”
“The ones that keep this boat in the air do,” Mal said.
“Come on, Captain!” Kaylee said. “I, for one, would like to do a job for once that don’t make me feel like I need a shower after.”
“Maybe we put it to a vote of the crew?” Simon offered.
Mal glared at him. “My ship ain’t a democracy,” he said. “But…Jayne?”
“Can’t decide, Mal,” he said. “Normally I’d be against this sort of stuff, but I’m thinkin’ that if we don’t do it, Kaylee here’ll be complaining about it for months. Might well be worth doin’ to keep her quiet.”
“Thanks, Jayne,” Kaylee said. “But really, it’ll feel good. Don’t you all want to feel good about something for once? I mean, feel good about something other than stealin’ from the Alliance?”
“There’s other things to feel good about?” Jayne asked.
Mal turned to his second in command for help. “Zoe?”
“I don’t know, Captain,” Zoe replied. “Normally I’m siding with you, but right now, I find myself a bit swayed by Kaylee’s youthful exuberance.”
“I can’t believe I’m even considering this,” Mal said.
Shepherd Book put a hand on Mal’s shoulder. “I think that maybe some part of you is seeking redemption,” Book said.
Mal glared at him.
“Not really helping your cause there, preacher,” Zoe said.
Book removed his hand.
“If we do this,” Mal said, “I’ve got some conditions. Kaylee, you are not allowed to badger me for an optional ship’s part for one month. Shepherd, you will do all cooking and mess duty for the same month. Jayne, one word that this job makes me soft, and I’m shooting you out the airlock.”
“What about me, Captain?” Inara asked, purposely blinking her beautiful eyelashes as she did so.
“Uh…I’ll think of something,” Mal said. “All right, Shepherd, where are we going first?”
“To buy some toys,” Book said. “Which means a trip to Ariel.”
“Wash, you heard the man. Let’s get in the air. I’m gonna go clean up. Can’t believe I’m doing this….” And with that, Mal left the mess to return to his bunk. Wash and Zoe headed for the bridge, and Kaylee left for the engine room. River gave Shepherd Book a look of reproach.
“You didn’t tell him the part about the elfin-man dressed in red who flies through the sky to give the children their presents,” she said.
“On the whole,” Book replied, “I figured it best to leave that part out of it.”
“Yeah,” Simon said. “That was…probably wise.”
Minutes later, Serenity lifted off and flew away from Persephone and toward Ariel.
Wash put Serenity down on the landing pad, nice and gentle. So nice and gentle that Zoe complimented him on it.
“You’re getting’ more gentle all the time, honey,” Zoe said. “You have such a gift for handling sensitive equipment.”
“Thanks for sayin’ so, my love,” Wash replied. “But I could always use more practice–”
“All right, enough of that, you two.” Mal came up onto the bridge, fully dressed in his usual brown shirt, brown pants, brown belt, brown holster, brown boots, and probably brown socks too, if one could see them underneath all of that. “Wash, you keep the ship warmed and ready to lift if some part of this job goes south. Zoe, you’re coming along.”
“I figured, sir.”
“Captain,” Wash said, “is it really necessary to have contingency plans for this job? We’re actually conducting an honest transaction for once.”
“Yeah,” Mal said. “For once. We don’t get a whole lot of practice with this kind of thing, so who knows what might go wrong. You and Kaylee keep the ship ready. River and the Doc will keep you company. Zoe, you’ll be with Jayne, the Shepherd, and me.”
“What’s Inara doing?”
“Well, I think she’s still on her shuttle, writing long entries in her diary about how much she hates me right now.”
Zoe knew what that meant. “You told her no clients.”
“We ain’t got time. Why am I always the bad guy on this?”
“Oh, I couldn’t begin to venture a guess, Captain,” Zoe said. “Let’s go.”
Mal and Zoe began to exit the bridge.
“Zoe?” Wash called out.
“You’re going to buy toys,” Wash said. “I could use a new stegosaurus for the collection.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
The Captain and Zoe left then, and Wash reached into the small footlocker next to his seat and pulled out a handful of his dinosaur figurines.
In the cargo hold, Shepherd Book and Jayne had the cargo hauler ready to go.
“Jayne,” Book said, “do you really need that many guns?”
“Preacher, are you carryin’ that Bible of yours right now?”
They lifted a crate containing coin up onto the back of the hauler as Mal and Zoe arrived and descended the criss-crossing stairs down to their level.
“Awful lot of coin to be givin’ up,” Mal said.
“A purchase of good will is never a bad purchase,” said Book.
“You get that from that Bible of yours?”
“No, it just came to me,” Book replied. “A preacher can’t live on the words of one book alone.”
“All right,” Mal said. “Let’s go. Kaylee, open her up.”
“Be careful, Captain,” Kaylee said as she opened the ship’s cargo door and lowered the ramp. Mal, Jayne, Zoe and Book drove off in the hauler. Then Kaylee closed the ship back up. She turned away from the control and nearly jumped out of her skin when she saw that River was standing there, unblinking, just inches away.
“River! You scared me!”
“Would you like me to teach you a song?” River asked.
Kaylee blinked. “Uhhh…sure, honey. I’d love to learn a song.”
“It goes like this. ‘On the first day of Christmas, the operatives brought to me….'”
“Uh, River?” Kaylee interrupted. “Is this one of those creepy songs you learned while you were captive at…that place?”
“Yes,” River said. “I guess I should learn some new songs myself.”
“Yeah,” Kaylee said. “That would be great.”
“You know where this warehouse is, right, Book?” Mal asked.
“I’ve got the address right here,” Book said, holding up an electronic data organizer. “And the crate number of the merchandise we’re getting. It’ll be in and out.”
Jayne growled. “Every time one of you people says we’ll be in and out, I go through half my ammo. I haven’t had an in and out job since–”
“Jayne, I’m sure that’s fascinating,” Mal cut in. “But just in case it ain’t, why don’t you hold it to yourself?”
“Sure, Mal,” Jayne said. “I’ll just sit here and be quiet as usual while you and Zoe tell each other the same stories over and over again. Hey, can I hear that one about that time you both got your asses kicked by the Alliance? I love that one.”
“Captain,” Mal said, pointing to himself. “First mate,” he said, pointing to Zoe. “Gun for hire.” He pointed to Jayne.
“Thank you for clearing us up on the chain of command, Captain,” said Shepherd Book. “But we appear to have reached the warehouse.”
“All right.” Mal brought the hauler to a stop near an entrance. “Standard procedure. Zoe, you’ll get us in. Then, Jayne, you’re in first, followed by me, then the Shepherd, and Zoe, you bring up the rear. We’re going to try and find this crate, get it, and be done with it before anyone knows were here.”
“In and out, Captain?” Zoe said.
“In and out,” Mal agreed.
“Not usually our thing,” Zoe said as she walked to the door.
“See, Mal?” Jayne said. “This is what I’m talkin’ about.”
“Well Jayne, that’s six hours since I last regretted hirin’ you.” Mal smiled. “I think that’s a new record for you, ain’t it? Hey Zoe, you got that door open yet?”
“Think so, sir,” Zoe said as she pressed a button that made the large bay door swing open. “Pretty easy, too.”
“Huh,” said Mal.
“Anybody else thinkin’ that was a little too easy?” Jayne put in.
Mal shrugged. “Well, we’ve got guns, so if we get into some local color, we can make our way out.”
“There might be armed guards inside,” Book pointed out.
“Cold feet, Shepherd?” Mal said. “This was your idea. But we’re here, and I’m not in the habit of runnin’ away at the first sign of something unexpected, especially if that unexpected thing is something that actually makes my life a little easier. Like an unlocked door. Shepherd, grab the coin. Jayne?”
Book picked up the crate of coin, and Jayne came forward and led them inside.
The warehouse was, pretty much, like every other warehouse in the ‘Verse. There’s only so much you can do, really, to dress up hundreds of stacks of thousands of cargo crates in an enormous, cavernous room.
“Well, would you look at that,” Jayne said. “A warehouse. We don’t see these too often.”
“I mean, yeah, we go into our share of storehouses, stockpiles, armories…there was that one depository we knocked over that one time…and before I joined you people, there was that distribution center job…but not a lot of warehouses.”
“Jayne,” Mal said, “are you trying to get on my gorram nerves?”
“Just commentin’ on the unique nature of this job, Mal.”
“Shut it, Jayne,” Zoe said. “Preacher, you got the crate number?”
Book consulted a slip of paper. “It’s 29-94-75.”
Mal looked at the manifest markings emblazoned on the side of several nearby crates, and determined which way they needed to go. “This way,” he said, and with Jayne in the lead and Zoe in the rear, they made their way down the corridor created by line upon line of stacked crates.
It didn’t take long to find it. The crate was pretty large, taller than Mal by about two feet, and about eight feet long and six feet across. Mal shone his flashlight on the crate and read the number. “This is it,” he said. “29-94-75. No other markings.”
“There wouldn’t be,” Book said. “The number is all they need.”
“Yeah, I know how shipping works,” Mal said. “All right, here it is. Now we just gotta get it out of here.”
“That crate’s a little big for me to haul out on my back,” Jayne said. “Of all the gorram–”
Zoe cleared her throat. “I think that’s the solution to our problem, Captain,” she said. She pointed to an open area about thirty feet away, where two forklifts stood silent.
“There it is, then,” Mal said. “Easy. Jayne, you’ll drive the lift. We’ll get the goods back out to our hauler, get back to the ship, before anyone knows we were here. No problem. See, I told you! Easy job.”
At that moment six floodlights turned on, three from each side, all trained on Mal and his crew.
“Malcolm Reynolds!” a voice boomed out from the darkness behind the floodlights. “Malcolm Reynolds, you are bound by law to stand down.”
Jayne muttered something in Chinese.
“In and out, right, Captain?” Zoe said.
All Mal could do was raise his hands and nod for the others to do the same.
“Weapons on the ground!” the voice shouted. “Now!”
“Do it,” Mal said. He shot a look at Jayne, whose expression of disgust tended to be indistinguishable from his expression of being about to lose his temper. Slowly, Mal, Zoe and Jayne all laid their guns on the floor.
“Put that package on the floor too, preacher,” said the voice.
Book put the crate down.
“All right, face the crates.”
“Put your hands on your head.”
“Stand on your left feet and recite the first stanza the Alliance anthem!”
Mal glanced at Zoe. “Uh, what?”
Now the voice burst out in laughter. “All right, turn ’em off,” he said. The floodlights all shut off, and the light returned to the dim of the warehouse overhead lamps. Mal turned toward the source of the voice to see a stocky man dressed in old army fatigues approaching. The man was bald except for long, stringy hairs that hung from the back of his head; he had a thick mustache and three days’ growth of beard. He gave Mal a gap-toothed grin as he put his hands on his hips.
“Ahh, Mal, what am I gonna do with you?”
Mal and the others glanced around at the ‘lawmen’, and saw that they weren’t lawmen at all. They were a motley bunch of thieves. Not unlike themselves.
“Jonas,” Mal said. “Fancy meeting you here. I never figured you to be on Ariel. Kind of a rich world for your tastes, isn’t it?”
“Gotta go where the money is, my boy,” the man named Jonas said as he lit a cigar and took a few puffs. “‘Sides, ain’t planning on being here long. I’m guessing you weren’t either.”
“Not really,” Mal agreed. “Can we put our hands down? I don’t tend to find this posture conducive to friendly chat.”
“Ain’t so sure we’re being friendly,” Jonas said. “But sure, let your hands down. Don’t make a move toward those weapons, though.”
“Of course not,” said Mal. “After all, we’re just bein’ friendly.”
“I suppose we are,” Jonas replied as Mal and his people lowered their hands. “So, Mal, what are you doing here?”
“Same as you,” Mal said. “Doin’ a job.”
“And what would be the nature of that job?”
“Well, we’re purchasing the contents of this crate right here and going with them to a…client on Haven. Easy enough.”
“Sounds easy. Haven’s a piss-poor world…wait, did you say you were purchasing the goods?”
Mal shrugged. “Yeah, we’re doin’ it the honest way this time. Wanted to see what that was like.”
“Really. Honest. Dumpin’ a box of coin here and taking the box? That’s a new version of honest. Sounds to me like you’ve found a way of stealin’ that ends up costin’ you money.”
“Yeah,” Mal said, shooting a look at Shepherd Book, “I guess we didn’t really work all the kinks out.”
“Well, Mal, I can’t let you have this box. See, we need it, too. I’m doing a job, myself, and there’s a cantankerous old woman out on Whitefall that could use some of what’s in that box.”
“Whitefall?” Mal laughed. “You’re planning on doing business with Patience?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“Oh, no reason,” Mal said. “Just make sure you plan for her to try to shoot you.”
“Nah,” Jonas said. “Patience and me go way back. I was the one who told her that she should shoot you if she got the chance.”
“Well that was nice of you,” Mal said. “She got the chance. Twice. I’m still here, still flyin’. Counts for somethin’.”
“Yeah, I guess it does. But I can’t let you take this box, coin or no. You see, Mal–”
“Hey, Captain!” It was one of Jonas’s men. Jonas rolled his eyes.
“What is it, Randy? I’m trying to be threatening here, and you’re interrupting.”
“I know, Cap, but this ain’t the box we’re here for.”
“Look!” The wiry man named Randy held out a PDA for Jonas to look at. “See, that’s the number of the box we want. It’s the next one over. That one.”
“Yeah. That one’s got the farming seed and fertilizer in it. See, the one we want is in slot number 29-94-77. This slot is number 29-94-75.”
“Oh,” said Jonas.
“Well, this changes things a bit, doesn’t it?” Mal said.
“I think it does, Captain,” said Zoe.
“You see, Jonas, there’s no need to make this deal confrontational. Instead of goin’ that way, we can go another. We’re not even here for the same crate. We’ll take what we want, you’ll take what you want, and everybody’s happy.”
“Seriously, Mal? You’re after this crate? What’s in it?”
“I don’t think that really matters,” said Mal. “Haven’s not a big farming world, so you can bet I’m not looking for farming seed and fertilizer. Let’s just take what we all want and be done with it.”
Jonas kept his gun aimed at Mal as he considered things. Then he nodded at the Shepherd.
“Sure, Mal, we can do that. But I want the coin, too.”
Mal shrugged. “Give it to him, Preacher,” he said.
“Really?” asked Book.
“Yeah, really,” Mal said. “Plan was to leave the coin here anyway. But if you’re gonna take the coin, least you could do is have your boys load our crate onto our hauler for us.”
“I suppose I could do that,” Jonas said. His men grumbled, but he hissed them quiet. “A friendly gesture, right?”
“Yeah,” Mal said. “If we promise not to shoot you, can we pick up our guns now?”
“Sure,” Jonas said. “But we’ll still be coverin’ you until this is done.”
“I figured,” Mal replied as he picked up his pistol. The others followed suit.
“How’d you get in here, anyway?” Jonas asked.
“Door was open.”
“Well, I suppose you can thank me for that,” Jonas replied. “Paid the guards to leave it open and make themselves scarce. All right, boys, you heard the man. Let’s get these boxes loaded! Remember, this one here goes with them, that one down there goes with us. With the Shepherd’s coin.”
Book handed the box of coin to one of Jonas’s men, four of whom turned to the work of loading both crates while Jonas and Randy kept their pistols aimed at Mal and his people.
“Somethin’ here ain’t right,” Jayne said. “We’re gonna get screwed on this deal.”
“Well, Jayne, the screwing was built into the deal, so at least we’re not surprised by it.” Mal shook his head. “This is a weird damn job, though.”
“Nah,” Jayne replied. “There’s still some way this is gonna go south. You watch. Always happens to us.”
Mal rolled his eyes. “Not all our jobs end in disaster,” he said.
“Name one,” Jayne said.
“Well, there was–”
“You ended up drunk and with a con-woman pretending to be your wife.”
“Yeah, but it was good up to then.”
After about ten minutes, they were all outside and both crates were loaded onto their respective haulers.
“Well, Mal,” said Jonas, “I’d prefer if you’d drive off first. And try to stay out of my way in the future.”
“Pleasure doin’ business as always, Jonas,” Mal said. “But I wouldn’t mind pointin’ out that just because we were in the same place, doesn’t mean I was in your way.”
“Even so. I don’t want to get your luck on me, Reynolds. You have a history of taking on work that doesn’t leave you much of a profit. One day you’re gonna realize that ‘Just keep flying’ isn’t a great strategy for life.”
“Thanks for the wisdom, Jonas. Got some for you, too.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
“Patience is gonna try to shoot you.”
Jonas grinned. “Let her try.” He gestured with his pistol, sending Mal and his people off.
“I’m tellin’ you, this is gonna be a bad deal for everybody,” Jayne said as they neared Serenity.
“Calm down, Jayne. Your opinion is noted.”
Mal drove the hauler back onto the ship’s cargo hold, and Kaylee closed the hatch behind them. Simon and River were there waiting; Wash was on the bridge, and he called down on the intercom.
“Captain?” Wash said. “I’m ready to lift.”
“What are you waiting for!” Mal responded. The ship shifted beneath their feet as the engines roared and Serenity lifted off. Book and Jayne were offloading the crate from the hauler and securing it.
“You see, everybody?” Mal said as he took off his overcoat and tossed it at the foot of the stairs. “Nice, simple job. No big worries, no big fuss. We’re out some coin, sure, but we’ve got a big crate full of nice, shiny toys that will make all the children in an orphanage on Haven happy.”
“Everything went all right?” said Simon. “No hiccups?”
“One little hiccup,” Mal said. “But it didn’t amount to much.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that, Captain,” said Shepherd Book.
“Hey Mal,” Jayne said. “We got a problem.”
Mal glanced at Zoe. They walked aft, to where Book and Jayne were both staring at the crate, which Book had opened. Zoe took one look and let out a string of expletives in Chinese. Mal did the same, only with a string of completely different expletives in Chinese.
The crate was full of farm seed and fertilizer. They had the wrong crate.
“Those aren’t toys,” Kaylee said. “Those are agricultural supplies for a new colony. Did you change the job while you were out?”
“Seal it back up,” Mal said. “That stuff is perishable, and by breaking the seal, we’ve started the decay process.”
The crew stood around, staring at the crate that was supposed to contain toys for the children of the orphanage on Haven but really contained farming seed and fertilizer that had supposedly been destined for Whitefall. Jayne and Book lifted the facing of the crate back into place and restored the seals. When they were done, Jayne stepped back and looked at Mal.
“Well, Mal, guess we got ourselves another hiccup.”
“Yeah, looks that way.” Mal muttered another curse in Chinese and then he kicked the crate for good measure.
“That won’t hurt the crate,” River said.
“It will hurt your foot if you do that again, though,” Simon said.
“So, what now?” Jayne said. “That’s it then, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know,” Mal said. “I’m thinkin’.”
Zoe cleared her throat. “Captain, you know Jonas better than any of us. How likely is he to hold this against us?”
“Worried about us having another enemy?”
“I’m running out of space on the piece of paper where I keep their names written down, sir.”
“Yeah. Preacher, how did this happen?”
“I have no idea, Captain,” said Book. “I double-checked the numbers. We had the right slot number in the warehouse. The only way this happens is if the warehouse workers put the crates in the wrong slots themselves.”
And with that, a silence settled over the crew as they realized what had happened.
“Well, this is new,” said Jayne. “Never stolen the wrong goods before.”
“Yeah, this is definitely a wrinkle we haven’t tried before,” said Mal. “All right, I’m open to suggestions.”
“Suggestions for what?” It was Wash, who had just come down from the bridge. “Everyone’s looking awfully glum here.”
“We stole the wrong goods, honey,” Zoe said.
“Now there‘s something we haven’t done before!” Wash said. “Now what?”
“See?” Mal said. “Took him all of two sentences to get up to speed on this.”
“What do we do?” Kaylee asked. “Captain?”
“Maybe the children want to play as farmers,” River offered. “They can grow their own vegetables and work the soil.”
“River,” Book said, “the orphanage is in the middle of a city that’s a hundred miles in diameter. There’s no soil except what’s in the decorative flower pots.”
“That sounds depressing,” River said. “Children need space.”
“Well, we can’t solve every problem at once,” Zoe said. “Captain, Jonas is gonna know that he can’t open the crate without breaching the shelf-life of the goods that he thinks are in there.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” Mal said. “If that’s the case, then Jonas has no idea that he’s got a crate full of toys on his ship. Which means that he’s on his way to Whitefall. He won’t know anything is wrong until Patience does. Of course, knowing Patience, she’ll have already tried to shoot him.”
“So that’s it then,” said Jayne. “We ain’t gotta do a gorram thing. Let them shoot each other and then we can sell this stuff to whoever takes over for Patience. Make back our coin, and then some.”
Mal considered this. After a moment, Shepherd Book stepped forward.
“Captain, I know that your ship is not a democracy, but I must voice my opposition to what Jayne has suggested.”
“Yeah, I thought you might,” Mal said. “Wash, go get us on a course for Whitefall. Get us there fast. We want to get there before the shooting starts.”
“You got it,” Wash said as he headed back up the stairs. “A pilot’s job is never done! Until he lands, then he’s done until the next job….”
“Zoe,” Mal said, “I’m gonna need your help figurin’ out how to approach this one. We’ve got to make a switch without both Jonas and Patience deciding that I’m cheating them.”
“Sounds like a challenge,” Zoe said.
“Why I’m givin’ it to you.”
“Wait a minute!” Jayne said. “We’re gonna try to get the toys back? Anybody else think that’s crazy?”
Simon shrugged. “I think it’s kind of shiny,” he said. Kaylee grinned at him.
“Doc, I’m gonna do somethin’ hurtful to you someday soon,” Jayne said. “Mal, how can you even consider this?”
Mal looked at Shepherd Book. “I took a job,” he said. “And even though the job’s starting to bring some trouble, truth is, that’s what jobs do. And there ain’t a job in the ‘Verse that I’m like to walk away from once I take it.”
Jayne shook his head. “I can’t ruttin’ believe this.”
“Hey, look at the bright side,” Mal said. “We’re goin’ to Whitefall to try and do business with Patience.”
“Probably be some shooting,” Zoe added.
Jayne laughed harshly. “Day’s gonna come when you’re not gonna be able to buy me off by lettin’ me shoot some folk,” he said.
Mal considered that. “Well, that’s gonna be an interesting day. Come on, Zoe. We need to brainstorm.”
“OK, Mal, we’re here,” Wash said as Whitefall loomed before the ship. “Now what?”
“Well, Patience is a woman of habit,” Mal said. “So I’m thinkin’ she’ll want to meet with Jonas in that same spot she chose to meet us in last time we were here. Good spot for an ambush. So we’ll go there and hope we’re in time to avoid some fisticuffs and general tomfoolery.”
Zoe looked at Mal. “‘Tomfoolery’, sir?”
“What? You know I like to dust off archaic words now and then.”
“Part of what makes you charming, sir.”
“Thanks for sayin’. Now, if I’m Patience, I’m puttin’ two snipers in the hills around that meeting spot, after we took care of the one she ahd there last time. And Jonas is gonna have his own sniper up there somewhere too. So Jayne and the Shepherd will take care of the snipers for us, and then we walk in and make everybody happy.”
“Aren’t we doin’ an awful lot of counting on the Shepherd to shoot people on this job?” Zoe asked.
“Probably, but that book of his is nonspecific as regards kneecaps and elbows, if I remember right. Wash, same landing spot as before.”
“Sure thing, Mal,” Wash said. “And I’ve got Jonas’s ship on the scanner now. They’re landing as we speak, two hilltops over. Looks like we got here in time.”
“It’s a Christmas miracle, Captain,” Zoe said.
Mal rolled his eyes. “Now don’t you start,” he said. “Let’s go get ready. Wash, put her down.”
“Sure thing, Captain,” Wash said.
Mal and Zoe walked down to the hold, where Jayne and Shepherd Book were waiting.
“Captain,” Book began, “I feel I should apologize for having gotten you into this business.”
“Did it with my eyes open,” Mal said. “But if you’re volunteering for a month of mess duty, I don’t think I’ll hear any objections from the rest of the crew.” He glanced around at Kaylee, Simon, River, and Inara, who all just stood there placidly. “And a month it is! All right, Zoe and me have come up with what we think is a nicely nuanced plan.”
Jayne grunted. “Book and I take out the snipers and cover you while you and Zoe try to talk some sense into Patience and Jonas?”
“Yeah, that’s about it.”
“We gotta start comin’ up with plans that don’t have quite as much ‘if’ in ’em,” Jayne grumbled.
“Every time I ask you for input, your first words are ‘I shoot them’.”
“Yeah. Not a lot of ‘if’ when the other guy’s got bullets in him.”
“OK. Get that crate ready. And Kaylee, keep the engines warm. We may need to make a fast break for it.”
“Be easier if you’d let me replace that drive inducer that I keep warning you about,” Kaylee said.
“New year’s comin’,” said Mal.
“Whole lot of gunpoint,” Mal muttered.
“Not too late to find a desk job, Captain,” Zoe replied.
“More of us than there are of you, Jonas,” Patience said. “And I’ve got a sniper aimin’ at you right now. You’re not walkin’ away.”
“I got a man took out your sniper,” Jonas replied. “I’m not stupid, Patience. And my men are better shots than yours. Now how about you toss me the coin and we’ll be on our way?”
“All I see here is a big crate,” Patience said. “You might as well open her up and let us see the goods.”
“Suits me fine,” said Jonas. “Randy? Open it.”
Keeping his hands visible at all times, Randy popped open the crate and swung it open. “Uh, Captain?” he said.
“This some kind of joke, Jonas?” Patience asked. “That don’t look like seed and fertilizer to me.”
“What?” Jonas turned to Randy. “What is she gorram talking about?”
“This crate, sir,” Randy said. “It’s full of…toys.”
“This some kind of joke, Jonas?” Patience sounded annoyed. “So you’re gonna dump fake goods on me after you have my money?”
Jonas looked uncomfortable.
“Do we go down now?” Zoe asked.
“Shhhh,” Mal said. “Things haven’t gone south enough yet.”
“Patience,” Jonas said. “Uhhhh….”
“I’d like to hear an explanation,” Patience said. “Before I shoot you myself.” She pulled out her pistol.
“Malcolm Reynolds cheated me!” Jonas said.
“Reynolds?” Patience’s eyebrows went up. “What’s he got to do with this?”
“Funny you should ask!” Mal called out as he rose up and sauntered over the knoll, his pistol in his hand but not aimed at anything. Zoe came behind him, her shotgun in her hand as well.
“Reynolds!” shouted both Patience and Jonas at the same time. Both also pointed their pistols at him, at the same time.
“Well there we go,” Mal said. “Two criminals suddenly united in purpose. Warms the heart, eh, Zoe?”
“Sure does, sir.”
“Mal, I’ll shoot you where you stand,” Patience said.
“And I’ll shoot you again before you hit the ground,” Jonas said.
“Sure,” Mal said. “But then you wouldn’t hear the explanation and my counter-proposal.”
“Explanation?” Jonas roared. “You switched the crates and took the good stuff! What were you going to do, let me get shot and then sell Patience the real goods?”
Mal thought. “Huh. Zoe, that might have worked.”
“Surprised you didn’t think of it, sir.”
“I gotta be goin’ soft in my old age.”
“Happens to the best of us, sir.”
“Jonas, we didn’t switch a gorram thing. The warehouse workers screwed up. Those crates were in the wrong spots. We took what we thought was our crate, but it was really yours. And you got ours, thinkin’ it was really yours. Kind of an irony, ain’t it?”
Patience rolled her eyes. “Right now I’m wondering which of you is the less competent one,” she said.
“Well, that would be him,” Mal said. “No offense, Jonas, but at least we discovered the problem and we’re here to make it right. Now here’s our proposal. We take our crate and go on our way. You get your crate, which we stashed about a mile away from here. Then you two finish your business and everybody goes away happy. Or we go away happy and you shoot each other. Whatever you prefer.”
“Or I just take all the goods and keep my coin,” Patience said. “Mal, you’re still not very bright. Neither are you, Jonas. You may have taken out one of my snipers, but I put two up there.”
“Yeah, Patience,” Mal said. “As to that, we took out Jonas’s sniper who took out your sniper. And then we took out your other sniper. So now the only two snipers up there are mine. And they’re good, believe me. Aren’t they, Zoe?”
“The best, sir.”
“Yup. So, Jonas, we’ll take this crate now. Yours is a mile that way.” He pointed. “No reason for anybody to get shot.”
“You takin’ my hauler too, Mal?”
Mal shrugged. “I suppose we can leave it behind once we get our goods back on my ship. As a good-will gesture and all.”
“Or we can come with you and make sure we get it back,” Jonas said.
Mal shrugged. “Or that,” he conceded. “We just want our goods.”
“A bunch of toys?” Jonas shook his head. “What are you up to, Reynolds?”
“I’m doin’ a job,” Mal said. “Why does everybody keep asking me that?” He turned to Patience. “Give him the coin, Patience, and go get your box and keep running your little world. Nobody needs to get shot here. It’s Christmas.”
Patience blinked. “It’s what?”
“Never mind. Just get out of here.”
Patience sighed. “Every time you show up on this world I end up losing money,” Patience said as she tossed a sack of coin to Jonas. “That crate ain’t there and I’m puttin’ a bounty on you, Mal.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve got a track record here, Patience,” Mal said. “I get you the goods and then I get paid. The way a transaction’s supposed to be. You’re the one likes shootin’ people and tryin’ to get out of paying, so I’d just as soon you rode off with your men and stopped disparaging me.”
Patience laughed. “Fine, Mal, have it your way. But if you don’t mind some advice, you need to stop expecting transactions to run the way they’re supposed to. That’s why you’re still flying around in a rustbucket.” She gestured to her men, who stood down, and then they rode off.
“She only says that because she can’t fly in a ship for ten minutes without puking,” Zoe said.
“Yeah, well, let’s get this stuff back to Serenity. We’ve still got a job to do. Jonas, if you would?”
Jonas sighed. “You heard him, men. Let’s go. Least we can with him saving our bacon on this one.”
Jonas’s men grumbled but obeyed. Mal spoke into the mouthpiece on the wire he wore under his coat. “Jayne? Preacher? You can come down now. We’re all good here.”
“How’d you know where to find us, anyway?” Jonas asked.
“Dealt with Patience before,” Mal replied. “Let’s move.”
“Did you really leave her goods a mile away?”
Jonas shook his head. “You could’ve kept them, sold them someplace else. Made double profit.”
“Thought of that,” Mal said. “But I need to be able to do business. No need to make an enemy out of Patience until I have to.”
They moved the crate of toys back to Serenity, whereupon Jonas ordered his men to start back to their own ship. Mal ordered his crew to get the ship ready for departure, and then he went outside with Jonas.
“Well, Mal,” Jonas said, “it was a pleasure, as always. Now, if that’s all–”
“Not quite,” Mal said. “I’ll be taking the coin that Patience gave you.”
Jonas blinked. “What?”
“You heard me,” Mal said. “You took coin from me that wasn’t yours to take. And despite that, I still came here and saved your gorram hide. Way I see it, you owe me. Let’s square up right now. Get it over with.”
Jonas stared at him. Mal sighed.
“Jonas, you really want to see what a good draw I am? And what a good shot?”
Jonas sighed and pulled the bag of coin from his jacket pocket and flipped it to Mal. “Every time I wonder how it is you stay in business, you pull something like this out of your hat.”
“Not much of a secret,” Mal said. “I don’t set my sights too high. I just keep flyin’.”
“Yeah. Well, do me a favor and don’t tell anyone you took my coin from me.”
“As far as I’m concerned, it was a payment offered in good will.”
Jonas nodded. “Yeah, call it that. But stay away from me for a while, would you?” He lit a cigar and went to join his men. Mal turned and went aboard the ship.
“OK, Wash, let’s fly. We need to be in Haven’s air within twelve hours.”
“We can just make it,” Wash replied over the loudspeaker.
Serenity lifted off.
“So?” Mal asked. “What’s the new problem?”
Wash blinked. “I didn’t call you!”
“I know, but we’re due for the next problem with this job. What is it?”
Wash pointed to the scanner. “Alliance ship in orbit. They haven’t scanned us yet, and maybe they won’t, but if they do–”
“They might board us,” Mal said. “Then again, they might not. They’re in stationary orbit?”
“Uh-huh,” Wash said. “Right above the part of town where our Shepherd’s orphanage is.”
Mal muttered several curses in Chinese.
“That’s what I said,” Wash replied.
“All right. Let me think.” Mal thought. And then he pressed the intercom button. “Would everybody please report to the hold? You too, Inara. I need everybody.”
It wasn’t one of Mal’s most thought-out plans, but it was the best he could come up with on fairly short notice. Mal thought it was a decent enough plan, until Zoe said “Nice plan, sir,” which was what she usually said when she thought his plans were scenarios for utter disaster. But that was the plan, and so it was that on the night before Christmas, when all through the orphanage not a child was stirring, a shuttlecraft flown by a registered Companion came down to land on the roof.
“All right, we’re here,” Jayne said as he grabbed an armful of toys. “Let’s get this ruttin’ job over with.”
“Said with the true spirit of the day,” Shepherd Book said. “All right, everyone follow me. And keep quiet. The whole place is asleep.”
“They always knew when I was sleeping,” River said. “They knew when I was awake.”
“She’s gonna be all right, isn’t she?” Jayne asked.
“Sure,” Simon said. “Isn’t she always?”
Jayne shook his head as Shepherd Book led them across the roof and into the orphanage via the roof access door, which Book lockpicked open in seconds.
“Real great security here,” Jayne remarked.
“It’s an orphanage,” Book said. “One where everybody knows there’s nothing worth stealing.”
They went downstairs, where they found themselves in a very large room, with bunk beds running down each side, and a child sleeping in each bed.
“All right, there are four more rooms like this,” Book whispered. “Every child gets a toy.”
“Right,” Jayne said, and he ran off and started randomly sticking a toy on each bed.
“Jayne!” Kaylee protested. “You can’t do it like that! You can’t give a boy a doll!”
“Why not?” Jayne asked. “They don’t like it they can trade.”
“Just do it right,” Kaylee said.
“What kind of toys did he play with?” Simon muttered.
In this way they went through the room, distributing a toy to each child. Somehow, miraculously, they got through all of the rooms without waking a single child, giving a toy to each one, one toy to each of three hundred children.
Except the last bed, which, when Jayne approached it, he discovered was empty. No child here, just rumpled sheets. Kid probably got up to go to the bathroom, or get a drink of water. “Huh,” Jayne thought. He looked at the toy in his hand – a teddy bear – and decided that he rather liked it. He’d always wanted one when he was a kid, and never got one. And this one was real nice, with a bow around its neck and everything. So there was a toy left over. So what? Kid shoulda been there in bed. Kid’s loss. He turned and headed back for the ship.
Meanwhile, River was taking her time over each gift, gently laying it on each bed, and whispering a rhyme over each child. What made it take even longer was that she was inventing each rhyme off the top of her head. Simon wondered if he should intercede, but since she was speaking in verse about things that weren’t somehow grimly dark or eerily foreboding, he thought it was best to just let her go.
Also meanwhile, Kaylee found herself wondering if it was really fair to try to pigeonhole these kids into girl toys and boy toys. After all, her toys had been wrenches and hammers and drivers and blast drills and parts from a hundred different ship engines, and look how she’d turned out! Nothin’ to be ashamed of. It was a fine life, even if once in a while she wanted something a little more than engine parts and dirty overalls.
Also meanwhile, Inara saw that the orphanage’s one lone security guard had had his curiosity piqued by some strange noises, and he came shuffling up the stairs to find a shuttle sitting on his roof. He was about to blow an alarm whistle when she came down and silenced him with a look and a flash of leg. It always worked, especially with young men like this. Barely old enough to grow a beard. Staring at her as though he’d just seen an angel. Sad world, Haven, she thought. No wonder Companions almost never come here.
“Is there a girl you like?” she asked him.
He managed to nod.
She removed a ruby brooch from her robe and handed it to him. He gulped.
“Give this to her,” she said. “And say nothing of me tonight.”
He managed to nod, again. A major accomplishment, that. And so she sent him on his way, knowing that this would be their little secret, forever. Inara could keep secrets, and what would he say? Would he talk of the beautiful woman in the spaceship on his roof? No. Of course not. She smiled.
Finally meanwhile, Shepherd Book went all the way to the lowest level of the orphanage, where the oldest kids were. These kids were in the worst shape, the ones most likely to end up in something a bit worst than Mal’s line of work, the ones most likely to end up on the wrong end of someone’s gun or floating dead through the Black. He had little hope that a toy, just one toy, would be enough to budge more than maybe one or two of them off the trajectory their lives had them on, but lots of miracles had started from smaller stuff than a single toy. He laid each one on a bed, and tried not to linger too much over the one particular bed, the one over there on the left. On his way back up to the roof, he paused at the door to the headmaster’s apartment. He wondered if he might say hello, under other circumstances. Or if he might rather go in there with a gun instead of a bible. He lingered there only a moment and then returned to the roof.
“Are we all here?”
“We’re just waiting on Jayne,” said Simon.
“Where is he?!”
At that moment, Jayne was muttering, “Where’s the gorram stairs around here?” He’d gotten lost. It was a bigger orphanage than he’d though, and now he had no idea how to get back up to the roof. But he had to get up there, fast; the night was getting old and people would be getting up soon. He rushed around, all over the place, looking behind every door, until he found the stairs up. “‘Bout time,” he said. And then he stopped, because there was an eight-year-old girl looking at him.
“Uhhh…hi there,” he said. “You should be in bed, youngster.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” said the girl. “I have bad dreams. I wanted a drink of water.”
“Well, you got your drink, so back to bed.”
“You’re not from here,” the girl said. “Are you here to steal things?”
“No,” Jayne said. “Not this time, anyway. Maybe tomorrow, haven’t figured out the next job yet. Don’t know. Gotta keep moving.” But he didn’t move. That girl just stood there, looking at him. All big-eyed, with her tangled hair and bedrobe that wasn’t filthy but had seen better days anyway…. “I think your eyes are stuck,” he said. “I gotta go.”
“Bye,” she said. And she stood there watching as he went halfway up the stairs, where he stopped.
“Aww, gorram it,” he said as he turned back and came back down. “This is for you.” He handed her the teddy bear. “Hold onto it tight when you sleep. Might help with them dreams. I got a preacher friend who says this is Christmas, so…have a ruttin’ happy Christmas.” And then he went up the stairs, practically running up them, to get away from the girl with the big eyes.
“That all the toys?” he asked when he got on board the shuttle.
“There were about twenty or so left over,” said Simon. “I left those in a playroom.”
“We’re all ready, right?” Inara called back.
“We’re all here!” Book said. “Close her up and let’s go home.”
Inara guided the little shuttle back into the air, and up into the sky toward the planet’s other side, where Serenity lay in orbit.
“What took you so long, Jayne?” Kaylee asked.
“Got lost,” Jayne said. “And…there was a little girl. Don’t worry, I gave her a toy.”
River pointed at his shirt, his red shirt. “A man with a beard wearing red came in the night to give her a present,” she said. “Just like the old stories!”
Jayne stared at her. “What is she ruttin’ talkin’ about?”
“Nothing,” said Book.
When they arrived on Serenity, Mal was there, waiting.
“Nice work,” he said.
“Thank you, Captain,” said Shepherd Book. “I appreciate it.”
“I did a job,” Mal said. “Soon as that tree gets dry and starts dropping those sharp needles all over my mess–”
“I’ll have it down, sir.”
Mal nodded and headed for his bunk. “Nice work, everyone,” he called out. “Zoe, wake me when we get to Persephone.”
Zoe gave her dear husband Wash that stegosaurus figurine he’d wanted. Wash gave his beloved wife Zoe a brand new leather vest.
Shepherd Book gave Simon an old copy of a very old anatomy book, a ‘classic text’ on the subject, from Old Earth. Simon gave River a rose made out of glass, with gold leaf on the petals; she commented on the fact that it had thorns. River gave the Shepherd a new Bible, which she promised him she would leave ‘uncorrected’.
Kaylee gave Jayne a new carrying case for Vera, his favorite gun; Jayne gave Inara a robe that she knew she would look stunning in but would never ever ever wear in front of Jayne. And Inara gave Kaylee a new engine stabilizer and one of her own robes.
And Mal? He got what he always wanted. He got to keep flying.
Merry Ruttin’ Christmas
and a Happy Gorram New Year!!!