So why won't they let me bring no ruttin' grenades?
Jayne sighed. It was all water under whatever it was that water went under now. He'd just have to make do with half a dozen guns, which always served him well in a pinch.
As they settled the mule in next to the trading post, Jayne looked around at the single town that made up the entire populated area of this here chou ma niao moon. The buildings looked like they were put together by someone who was blind, stupid, or both--wood, adobe, metal, plastic, all of it went into the building. People this dumb deserve to get their money took. Assuming they have any.
Jayne turned to Mal while ZoŽ tethered the mule. "What are we hoping to find here that equals the worth of a turd?"
"Security payroll," Mal said. "Alliance don't have the manpower to 'enforce the peace' on every border moon cluster. They hire out to the private firms, who will not work for credit."
Jayne smiled. He appreciated that particular rule of thumb.
Mal continued. "They get paid in cashy money, which once a month rests here."
Frowning, Jayne saw what he feared was a critical flaw in Mal's plan. "Don't that lead back to the Alliance anyhow?"
ZoŽ answered that one. "No private firm would ever report a theft of its own payroll. They'd appear weak, might lose their contract."
Jayne supposed he saw the sense in that.
"We're as ghosts in this," Mal said. "Won't but rattle the floor."
"Shiny." Jayne cocked his gun. "Let's be bad guys."
Mal turned to River, whose presence on this particular journey remained a puzzle to Jayne. "You ready to go to work, darlin'?"
The crazy girl had been staring at the ground. She looked up at Mal. "There's no pattern to the pebbles here. They're completely random. I tried to count them, but you drove too fast. Hummingbird."
"Right." Mal just stared at her for a second. "Great. Let's go."
And that was one of her more lucid-like conversations. I done told Mal not to bring the crazy girl along. One of these days, Mal's gonna actually listen to me, and that will be a day in which I will bet real money that I don't get shot at or stabbed. He still recalled the time River slashed at him with a knife, and that was not what he'd call a fond remembrance.
Mal and Jayne burst into the trading station, weapons at the ready, ZoŽ, also armed, right behind, River behind her looking small and scared like usual. Maybe she'll get her crazy head shot off.
Heartened by this thought, Jayne ran into the station, which looked like it combined general store with post office with bank. Typical all-purpose commercial enterprise for tiny-ass towns on tiny-ass moons like this. There were about a dozen or so folk, most of them looking to be dirt-poor. Good thing they ain't the ones we robbing.
ZoŽ shot out the only visible security camera, which had the dual effect of killing surveillance and getting everyone's attention. Mal held up his gun toward the ceiling. "Hands and knees and heads bowed down! Everybody, now!"
Two damn fools tried to rush Mal, which led him to point his gun right at 'em, convincing them to stop.
Another damn fool tried to rush Jayne. Not wanting to waste a bullet on someone that stupid, Jayne clotheslined him, slamming his arm into the fool's chest. He flipped over backward. Jayne grabbed his legs and made sure the fool's head met the floor at a nice high speed. Had he a brain, Jayne suspected he would soon be suffering a certain amount of damage to it.
Mal said, "Y'all wanna be looking very intently at your own belly buttons. I see a head start to rise, violence is gonna ensue."
Jayne leaned over the fool. His chest had felt a mite harder than the average rib cage. Ripping open the fool's shirt revealed a security uniform--probably body armor, which accounted for the hard chest. He removed a pin from the uniform. "Looks like this is the place."
Mal looked around. "You've probably guessesd we mean to be thieving here, but what we are after is not yours. So let's have no undue fussing."
While Mal talked, Jayne went over to the back office. Sure enough, there was a safe. He pulled on the handle and was completely not surprised to find it didn't budge. "She's locked up."
Jayne saw River get ZoŽ's attention and then point at a man. Jayne looked at the man and saw that he was slowly taking a weapon out from under his belt. ZoŽ stuck the muzzle of her shotgun into his cheek.
Reluctantly, Jayne was starting to see a hair of wisdom in letting the crazy girl come along. ZoŽ wasn't what you'd call unobservant, so if this fella was catching her unawares, he had a measure of stealth and might've caused some difficulties.
To the man she had the gun on, ZoŽ said, "You know what the definintion of a hero is? It's someone who gets other people killed. You can look it up later."
Times like this, Jayne wondered what life'd be like if he and ZoŽ--and, if she insisted, Wash--struck out on their own. He had a premonition that it might be a fair sight more profitable without Mal gumming up the works.
But naw, ZoŽ'd sooner leave Wash than not be with Mal. And truth to tell, Jayne was still doing better on Serenity than he ever had done elsewise.
Meanwhile, Mal walked over to the old fella behind the counter and dragged him over to the vault. "This is just a crop moon," the old fella said. "Don't think you'll find what you--"
In a tight voice, Mal told the man, in Chinese, to shut up and make them wealthy.
Seeing the wisdom of Mal's words--or at least the wisdom of their big guns--the old fella entered a code into the keypad next to the vault. Mal then opened it right up.
Jayne had been itching to shoot someone all day, and that itch just got a lot harder not to scratch. The vault wasn't exactly empty, but it was as close as made no never mind. Maybe three bills, some scattered coin. What was in that vault would barely cover the fuel for the mule's trip to and from Serenity.
ZoŽ looked at Mal. "At last," she said dryly, "we can retire and give up this life of crime."
Thoughts of striking out on his own with ZoŽ returned to Jayne's mind, even as Mal suddenly reached into the vault--and pulled a lever.
A trap door then opened in the floor, revealing a nice big staircase leading down to a shiny metal corridor. This whole nothing town was typical outer planets: a right mess. But this corridor? Pure Alliance.
Mal looked at the old fella. "Is there a guard down there? Be truthful."
The old fella nodded. "Y'all are Browncoats, hey? Fought for independence?"
"War's long done," Mal said. "We're all just folk now."
Of course, Jayne didn't fight in no war. Pay wasn't good enough on either side.
Yelling down the shaft, Mal said, "Listen up! We are coming down to empty that vault!"
A voice yelled back up. "You have to give me your authorization password!"
Jayne lifted his machine gun and fired two dozen rounds down the staircase.
There was a pause. Then: "Okay!"
ZoŽ and Mal proceeded down the stairs, leaving Jayne to watch the moon folk and the crazy girl. Better be some good coin down yonder.
Minutes later, River started shouting.
Since coming into the trading post, River was bored. Counting pebbles had been fun for a while, since it was such a challenge with the mule going so fast. But now that they were here, that had lost its allure.
At first, she was excited to be going on a job, to be helping in a scheme, to be aiding and abetting in the commission of a crime. Everyone else on Serenity got to help out. Even the Companion and the shepherd helped out here and there, before they left Serenity, but not River, even though she was considerably smarter than anyone else on the ship.
Of course, she was considerably crazier. She knew that. It wasn't her fault, and it wasn't their fault, it was the fault of Dr. Philbert Mathias and the other people at the Academy whose names and dates of birth she could recall without any difficulty.
In fact, since she was bored, she did that, listing all the Academy faculty in alphabetical order, then again in chronological order by date of birth.
That got boring pretty quickly, and reminded River too much of bad things, so she thought back further, to back when she was at elementary. One of her favorite days was the one where they were learning history in Professor Rao's class. At the time, she was only nine, but everyone else in the class was twelve--and River was a lot smarter than anyone in that class, but her parents had been cautioned against putting her any farther ahead for fear of what they called "bad socialization," which was grown-up talk for "the other kids will pick on her." Not that River cared; other kids already picked on her, but they were stupid, and she didn't care what stupid people thought.
Professor Rao started telling them about how the Alliance came about. "Earth-That-Was could no longer sustain our numbers, we were so many. We found a new solar system: dozens of planets and hundreds of moons--each one terraformed, a process taking decades, to support human life. To be new Earths. The central planets were the first settled and are the most advanced, embodying civilization at its peak. Life on the outer planets--" And here, Rao could've been talking about the very moon on which River was standing right now. "--is much more primitive and difficult. That's why the central planets formed the Alliance, so everyone can enjoy the comfort and enlightenment of true civilization. That's why we fought the War for Unification."
River, of course, had known all this years before she ever got anywhere near the class, but a lot of it was new to her older classmates. Most of them had never been out of the central planets, and were fascinated by the entire notion.
Plus they thought the war was interesting.
Songmin, one of the students, asked, "Now that the war's over, our soldiers get to come home, yes?"
"Some of them," Rao said. "Some will be stationed on the rim planets as peace enforcers."
"I don't understand," said Borodin, one of the boys, who started most of his sentences with those three words. "Why were the Independents even fighting us? Why wouldn't they look to be more civilized?"
"That's a good question," Rao said, even though it wasn't. "Does anybody want to open on that?"
Jeanne said, "I hear they're cannibals."
Another boy, Marvin, said, "That's only Reavers."
Hannah rolled her eyes. "Reavers aren't real."
Marvin turned back to look at Hannah. "Full well they are! They attack settlers from space, they kill them and wear their skins and rape them for hours and hours--"
"Bai duo, an jing yidian!" Rao cried, calling for silence. That got Marvin to be quiet, which always was a good thing as far as River was concerned. In a calmer voice, the professor continued: "It's true that there are--dangers on the outer planets. So let's follow up on Borodin's question. With all the social and medical advancements we can bring to the Independents, why would they fight so hard against us?"
Then River spoke up, which was the only reason why she remembered this day as one of her favorites. "We meddle."
"River?" Rao sounded surprised that she'd said anything. In Chinese, she added, "I'm sorry?"
"People don't like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think, don't run, don't walk, we're in their homes and in their heads and we haven't the right. We're meddlesome."
Professor Rao hadn't liked that. She thought it was an unfair thing to say about the Alliance, and then she changed the subject.
But River was happy because she knew she was right.
Having enjoyed that memory, she once again got bored, but at least she'd passed almost half a minute. Now she looked around the trading post. She examined closely each of the fifteen people, an assortment of adults and children. In her mind, she created entire life stories for each of them--some of which were actually true, some of which she made up because it was more interesting than their real lives.
That took another thirty seconds, until she was bored again.
So she looked at her fellow thieves, her comrades in arms, her partners in crime. The thug was as brutally direct as ever. All that mattered to him was the immediate. The past was of no consequence to Jayne Cobb, and the future of even less. His mind was entirely in the here-and-now.
ZoŽ was both the same and different. The same in that she was simple to figure out; different in that, where Jayne was simple because there was so little to him, ZoŽ was simple because she was uncomplicated. She only had two foci in her mind: Malcolm Reynolds and Hoban Washburne. Nothing else mattered, except insofar as it related to the two men in her life. Not that there was any competition or conflict. ZoŽ's dedication to the captain was of a wholly different feel than that of her dedication to her husband. The only similarity was that she would happily die for either of them.
She would be just as happy to kill for them. That was why, even though Jayne was the most brutal person on Serenity, ZoŽ was the person who scared River the most.
At least, she was now that Shepherd Book was gone.
As for Captain Reynolds, he had a lot more to him; he was the only person River knew who lived with pain as much as River herself did. Where Jayne lived in the present, Mal lived in the past. More precisely, he lived in one particular time and place: Serenity Valley on Hera, where the last battle of the war was fought.
Mal had never left that valley. He named his ship after it so he wouldn't ever have to leave it. And woe be to anyone who tried to take him away from it.
Then River noticed that one of the people had the intention to shoot ZoŽ. He was also doing it quietly and slowly so he wouldn't get anyone's attention.
But nobody was quiet enough for River to miss, unless they were dead.
River looked at ZoŽ and pointed at the man. She took care of it in that way that made her so scary.
The heist was continuing on just fine without River, and now that she'd actually made a contribution, she was bored again. She'd already studied everything about the people in the post, and within three seconds, she'd memorized the room's entire layout.
So she moved outward.
As ZoŽ had said, most of the people of Lilac were in the local church. Based on the version of the Bible they were reading from, they were of New Covenantists, a type of Christianity River had never heard of until today, but now knew everything about, including their acknowledgment of the Gnostic Gospels, but repudiation of the Book of John.
Having learned all she could learn from the church, she then noticed two people walking down the street--among the few who were neither in this post nor in the church. It was a woman and her son. The woman was carrying a bucket filled with water from a nearby well.
Jayne fired thirteen rounds of ammunition into the tunnel that Captain Reynolds had just opened. The woman and her son heard it.
"Repeater," the boy said, referring to Jayne's gun. River had never heard it called that--Jayne just called it "Phoebe."
"Did sound summat like gunblast," the woman with the bucket said. "Maybe you aught run tell lawman."
River was about to warn Jayne--the captain and ZoŽ had already gone down the stairs--about this potential fly in the ointment when she felt something else.
She'd felt it once before, in the mind of the sole survivor of a settler transport. Only what she felt then was, she realized, only a faint echo of what she felt now from the man standing behind the mother and her child.
Scars littered the body of the creature--River couldn't bring herself to think of this disfigured thing as a person--as did rashes from radiation poisoning. Until the boy had turned around, she hadn't noticed him for the same reason why she didn't notice dead people.
For River to know you were there, she had to feel your mind.
And Reavers didn't have much left by way of a mind.
But when they did think, it was when they killed, and this Reaver suddenly went crazy, producing a knife and slashing the woman and child to pieces.
River liked it better when she couldn't feel the Reaver, because now it was all she could feel, the ugliness, the brutality, the nihilism, the sheer, unmitigated, unbridled terror that made Jayne's brutality seem like Wash's gentleness.
Until Jayne grabbed her shoulder, she hadn't realized that she had fallen to the floor of the post. "What the hell is up?" Jayne asked. "You all right? What's goin' on?"
Jayne was simple, it was true, and so River had only to force herself to whisper one word to provide all the warning that would be required:
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