"Yes River, I read you," Wash answered with some anxiety and confusion. "I just spotted twelve ships entering the atmo heading our way. They are converging. We have about five minutes until they're right above us."
"What the hell's goin' on?" said Jayne.
Mal walked over and took the communicator from River. He had been listening in. "Wash, get Serenity ready for liftoff."
"I've already started the sequence," said Wash as he flipped all three switches above him. "We can take off with a head start. There is a chance we could get off world before they can catch us."
"Let's do it," said Mal as he signaled River and Jayne to follow him. "We're on our way back. Get Kaylee in the engine room. Be ready for us. Over and out."
"We're leavin'?" asked Jayne. There was no time for an answer.
As they jogged, Mal asked River, "Did you get anything from Badger?"
River answered, "No, he believed only one ship would come. This is a trap. An old enemy wants us out of the way."
"Right now," Mal said. "I'm taking your word for it." He then spoke through the communicator, "Wash, are we ready to go?"
"Yes, we can take off as soon as you're onboard." Three seconds later, Wash asked,
"Hey! Should we send any message to Inara and Book?"
"Not right now," said Mal. "If we send a message, they could trace us to them. Let's not get them into this."
"What time do you want me to meet you for breakfast?" Book asked Holmes as he opened the front door.
Holmes followed Book outside wishing to continue some conversation. "Eight o'clock works for me."
"It works for me too. I hope you understand that it's important for me to sleep on your offer. I don't want to be an inconvenience."
"Don't worry; there's no inconvenience. I didn't want you to believe I needed an answer right away. It would be a big commitment after all."
Book shook Holmes' hand and said, "It's good talking with you again."
"Likewise," said Holmes. He then heard a noise and could see Serenity flying over the northern part of the city at an illegal speed. "What's the hurry?"
Holmes' house sat on a hill with a good view of the city from outside the front door. Book turned around soon enough to catch a glimpse of Serenity as she began increasing altitude to leave the atmosphere. With definite concern, Book said, "I wish I knew."
That was the end of "Fertile Ground". This story, "All So Sudden", is the fifth chapter of my series about the crew of Serenity three years after we last saw them on that short-lived cult show called Firefly. The first four stories are "The Tall", "Serenity Waits", "Just a Few Small Gorram Details", and "Fertile Ground". "All So Sudden" now begins where "Fertile Ground" left off - surprise surprise.
A pleasant evening at a dinner party was all Inara expected. Geoffrey, her client, was everything she thought he would be. He was friendly, passionate, trustworthy, and he actually wanted her to have a good time.
The butler came to her with her communicator in his hand. He told her that a friend of hers was on the other end. It was a most annoying inconvenience at that moment. Inara believed it was rude to have the device on her while she was visiting others. That is why she left it in the study.
A familiar voice sounded through the communicator. "Inara, this is Book."
"What's going on?"
"I'm afraid I wish I knew. Something may be terribly wrong. About an hour ago, I saw Serenity racing away from the North. Then, they left the atmosphere. I've been trying to contact them, but there is no response."
This sounded quite serious. Trying to be strong and positive, Inara said, "They wouldn't want us involved. They maintained radio silence so no one could trace them to us."
"Maybe," said Book. "I already said a prayer. Perhaps you should too."
"We should do something to find out what happened to them."
"I know they were working on some job for Badger. It is important that we know who is responsible for all this. I really think he would be the best place to start. You have any idea how me might reach him?"
"No," Inara said after three seconds of contemplation.
"Figures," said Book. "Can I meet you in your shuttle in two hours? I'm going to talk to some contacts of mine, who might have some insight on reaching Badger."
"It won't be a problem. I had planned to be here for just another hour anyway."
They were in some kind of danger, and Inara had no doubt about it. She wanted to be strong, to stay calm, to be ready for the truth when it would come, and to make it through the next few days and the coming months no matter what. However, at that moment, Inara had to begin by asking questions. Why can't I be all those things now? What was that job that was so important? The last time I spoke to Mal, it was over a communicator. We were separated and not a part of each other's world. If he's dead, was that his last thought of me? My God; what about the others? River, Kaylee, your lives were still ahead of you. Zoe, you were months away from being a mother and experiencing every aspect of motherhood. Are you telling me all of that is over?
The questions became too painful - more painful than she expected. Inara needed a break to relax, but she could not relax. She then reached for her Earl Grey tea without looking. Down it went off the coffee table onto the floor. The China shattered, and Inara could at last pay attention to something else. For that moment, the shattered glass took immediate precedence over Serenity's debacle. She was relieved the porcelain did not reach her black mesh open-toed shoes. At that moment, she was able take her mind away from her ship as she carefully gathered each broken piece she could see. It gave her something to do.
Book approached the main entrance to Inara's shuttle still finding it hard to believe that she was only renting it from Mal after three years. In that respect, the shuttle represented her signature showing that she belonged to Serenity.
Inara was not looking for comfort. To approach others in times of pain and grief was beneath a Companion's dignity. Book, however, could see her sadness and fear, and he offered comfort. He knew neither one of them should go through this alone.
Her experiences on Serenity were all Inara could talk about at that moment. "I confessed to you once that I was in love with Mal. He has never heard it, he's never said it, but I know he knows. He shut himself away years ago." She was searching for the right words as though she was looking for an acceptable explanation. "Our worlds are completely different. I mean I've accepted that; guess he has too." Inara laughed quietly. "He's a smuggler, and I'm a smugglee," she said with a smile. "I hitched that ride, and, before I knew it, I stopped looking back." She then became serious in an honest and confessional manner. "Upon seeing that I wasn't looking back, I was convinced I had to leave Serenity. The captain swept me in his arms, and I was in some fairy tale - fooling myself into thinking I was acting appropriately."
"I know you decided to leave, and I respect your reasons," said Book. "I guess I never really understood why you came back after only three months in New Melbourne and wherever else you may have gone. It seemed like just a healthy leave of absence to the rest of us. To hear you talk now, it sounds like you planned to leave permanently."
"I received three anonymous messages. They came over a period of six weeks. I never found out from whom, but I have come to believe they were from River. You know, she was only beginning to recover from her experience at the academy at the time. She was smart enough to do something like that. The first message was `Are you happy?' the second was `We hope you are happy,' the last was `That's all he wants'."
"Wow," said Book with a smile. "That must have been a little embarrassing."
"Well, yes," Inara said as she stood up from her love seat. "At first, it was rather embarrassing. Still, it made me ask myself the question. I mean, I discovered on my own that I wasn't happy."
"Coming back made you happy then."
Inara gave an affirmative nod and a smile. "You know," she said. "It would be nice if we could figure out where they fled."
"Something tells me Mal would go to Whitefall."
That made sense to her. "I guess so. The Republic might offer them sanctuary - after everything they did to help the rebellion."
"However, right now, I want answers," said the Shepherd. "I want to know who set them up."
"Could Badger be responsible?"
"I doubt it," Book quickly answered. "Badger probably didn't know that something like this would happen. Mal would want River there, and she would be able to read him. They wouldn't walk into some obvious trap."
"No matter what, it is important that we reach Badger so we can find out who set them up. What have you found out about him."
Book stood up and walked toward Inara's mirror. "Badger would not be interested in helping us. No matter how much money we may offer him, we'll never be able to set a meeting and get some answers."
"The scumbag wants to stay out of trouble then," Inara said. "He doesn't want to get his associates in trouble either."
The Shepherd then turned to Inara and asked, "You know that house on Mason Avenue - that big fraternity-like place?"
"Yeah, I've seen it." Inara chuckled and said, "It made me feel rather uncomfortable. Brothels should be better maintained than that."
Book began nodding and smiling.
"What are you thinking, Shepherd?"
"Badger is a regular there." Shepherd Holmes had seen Badger coming out of there several times. He was a reliable informant for Book.
After two seconds of figuring out what he was thinking, Inara's eyes widened with shock and disgust. "No," she said. "That's not an option. We need to find another way."
"What would be wrong with it?" Book asked. "If a Companion approached him, he would want to be a client wouldn't he? He has the money."
"No Companion would ever choose someone like Badger," she said wishing to illustrate how appalled she was. "The Companion Guild forbids servicing crime bosses."
"You know that, but he probably doesn't. It's worth a try."
Inara gave a small whine as she shook her head and backed away toward the corner.
"Look, we can have him come to our shuttle. Then, we could corner him and get our answers."
"Oh, God no!"
"If you have a better idea, I'm willing to hear it. This is the best idea I've come up with, and the only one I believe could work."
Inara couldn't help but wonder what other options Book might have explored. Inevitably, she knew there was no other way. Hence, she reluctantly chose Badger as a client. It didn't matter that his spirit was incompatible with most Companions; all that mattered was Mal. Oh go se, she meant to think of Serenity.
"What's yah secret love?" That was an unusual response on Inara's client contact program. Inara's adrenaline went up as soon as she heard him say "love" - how distasteful.
"I know you enjoy being serviced Mr. Badger. How would you like to have Companion service?"
"Nevah had Companion service."
"Really? No Companion was interested in a rich man like you." Flattery and lies rarely went together very well.
"I guess nah, love."
"Then, are you interested? My rates may be somewhat higher than you're used to paying."
"Ahh, I have plen'y, and I am interested."
"Very well, let's meet in my shuttle say . . . 7 o'clock."
Badger nodded his head in a thoughtful manner making Inara quite nervous. Then, he said, "I'll pay yah on one condition: let's mee' at my place."
"Believe me, sir, my shuttle's interior is specially designed for introductions."
"I understan', but I feel more comfortable in my hah tub."
"You have a hot tub!" Inara said trying to act interested and impressed.
"Yeah, it gets me all aroused. I've invited plenty ah ladies to join me in my hah tub. Gets `em all excited. It's great!"
Inara was apprehensive, and she fought very hard to hide it.
"Yah love it. I promise."
"Very well, then. 7 o'clock?"
She wanted to slap Book. The Shepherd was sitting six feet behind her ready to take a blow. "Look what you got me into? We're not going to get anything from him, and he'll treat me like a lowly whore."
"Relax, we can still use this to get to him."
Confrontationally, Inara asked, "Shepherd, are you telling me I have to sleep with him?"
In a tone that sounded relaxed and content, Book said, "No, I know a few ways to blackmail Badger. This was part of my plan all along."
"So, you think you have thought this through," said Inara with a nod and a frown.
"You're forgetting that I will be in a serious disadvantage in his lair."
"That's what he thinks. He wants you over there, because he can smell something fishy."
"No kidding!" was what Inara wished to say. It seemed too mean, and she kept her mouth shut.
"We will take him by surprise. He will not be prepared."
"Something will go wrong. You know this won't work."
Book went to a completely straight face with the hope of calming the Companion down. "I know some effective ways to plant laser pistols."
Inara laughed a grumpy laugh for several seconds. The Shepherd simply sat there waiting for her to finish.
Eventually, Inara found herself in Badger's hot tub. She wore her least revealing bathing suit; Badger was delighted nonetheless as she joined him.
"Yah the prettiest lady who ever serviced me."
"Your flattery is . . . something to be cherished."
"Yah ever service clients on Ariel?"
"I have some friends over dah; they'd welcome a Companion."
The lie had gone too far. Badger's suggestion was all too insulting, and his position was vulnerable enough. "You are going to let my friend into this room," she said in a confrontational manner. "He's a Shepherd."
Badger laughed an unkind laugh. "Deary, who yah think yah are bossin' me aroun'?
Inara then reached over and grabbed her wireless browser. She had hid it under her towel. This gave her access to the Cortex. Her laser pistol was safely nearby. "This will post a story onto the Cortex headlines. My Companion status allows me to do so. Everyone's going to know about the money you laundered in a legitimate trade with our mutual pal Mr. Horowitz."
Badger gave a slight snicker. "The authorities won't care. They turn a blind eye toward dat sort ah thing."
"Horowitz won't," said Inara with a firm straight face. "That information has yet to reach him."
Badger looked extremely irritated.
"Trust me, if that doesn't scare you, I have more juice on you I can use."
Badger was too upset to say anything. He simply reached over to his wine glass, and took a big gulp. Immediately afterward, Badger finally relented and said, "What dah guai do you want then?"
"Information," she said. "Your deal with Malcolm Reynolds - something happened to him and his ship that obviously was never part of your agreement."
Inara was winning the bout. Hoping to regain some ground, Badger chose to throw her some low blows, "Good, I can finally be rid of that Ching-wah tsao duh liou mahng and his lackeys. I've had more than enough of their go . . ."
She jabbed him square in the right cheek. Captain Reynolds was a strong influence.
Book received Inara's signal and he came. Badger preferred to talk to his visitors in his study, and that was acceptable to both of them. From there, they intended to get their answers.
"Now listen, this fellah Nolan, he gave me an advance to get Mal involved with his operation. He needed a goo' middle man for his diamonds. Unlike you folks, he offer' me his respect. He kept bringin' up how good my reputation was, which is always flattering in my business. I let Malcolm in as a big favor dah him - with me profiting happily."
Book asked, "Did you ever meet Nolan?"
Inara was wearing her peach bathrobe, and she asked, "Then you can tell us about him. What about his background? Is there somewhere else we could go to find out more about him?"
"He was an oldah man wif gray hair; wore a nice suit; had a few bodyguards." Badger had trouble remembering, and he made no real effort to hide it.
"We're not letting you loose until we get our answers. It's perfectly obvious to us that you are hiding something."
Irritated, Badger responded, "I don't know much, okay. I think Nolan may have been in league with dah Newcastle Company dat runs out ah Ariel. They may have smuggled the diamonds away from dah Blue Sun Corporation."
"How do you know about Newcastle?" Book asked.
"They' been doing dis sort ah thing aroun' dese parts for a couple years now. It's dah only way dah compete with Blue Sun these days."
"If it is them," Inara said. "They must have a good reason for bringing Serenity down. Shepherd, do you know of any bad blood Mal may have with Newcastle?"
"No . . . uh, the name isn't familiar." Book deeply wanted to remember something, but he could not. Badger's word was far from being a reliable lead.
In a cynical manner, Badger said, "I don't know why you people are so surprised by all this. Something like this was gonna happen eventually. Dat's the price for being no-nonsense criminals. Serenity is known all over these parts; yah gainin' a strong reputation for makin' trouble. I'm just grateful Malcolm Reynolds and his illustrious exploits weren't traced back dah me. You two shoul' be happy dat you're free dah go on livin' your lives."
Ahh, that was the problem. If only they could be happy . . .
"O.K. Inara, I hope your Cortex subscription allows you to visit company sites. Otherwise, we've got some searching to do."
"I've visited my share of company sites. You'd be surprised how many clients value that sort of knowledge."
Book had run out of objective things to say about Companions long ago. He wished to get down to business. "When you reach Newcastle's main site, I think we should start with company history or any information on its founders or bosses. Maybe, there's some connection neither of us know about."
"What do you know, there is a company history subsite," Inara said as she was examining its text and links. "Here is information on Andrew Newcastle. I guess he's the founder."
They managed to find a picture of Newcastle. The link had a security lock, but Inara's access was high enough to open it.
The picture came up, and Book recognized him. "I know him," Book coldly said. "Mr. Adelei Niska."
"My God, of course," Inara responded. That name brought her significant fear. After a few seconds of quiet thought, she said, "It makes sense. That bastard had the money, and he must have become legitimate. Then, he could acquire enough contacts to work this operation."
Shepherd Book simply stated, "This is his revenge."
With all that was going on around him, an old man sat comfortably on the bridge of his luxury ship. He could see Serenity desperately trying to get away. The Firefly had launched her sensor evasive debris without any real hope of it working. Now, she simply longed to run and hide. The man knew, to his delight, that this could not go on forever; even if she managed to get away.
"Mr. Niska, it appears they are destined for Whitefall. Our ships have taken blockade positions around Serenity in case they try some stunt to escape. If they enter Whitefall's atmosphere, we can converge on them from above."
"Good work, Officer," Niska replied. "Please send the captain my compliments. He was very proud of everyone in his operation - including Badger. The petty thief with delusions of standing was so easy to buy.
"They have reputation. It's about time they pay for it." Niska then went to his cabin to rest. He would have a wonderful view of the action from the windows there. Serenity was on the run . . . Serenity was on the run.
If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to G Thing
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