PART TWO - THE KIDNAPPING
"A word, my lord?"
Mal blinked, caught off guard, and reined in his horse; he'd been wool-gathering as he rode through the hinterlands of Atherton Wing's estate. Before him, he saw a most puzzling sight: three men, of vastly different heritages and stations in life, standing together and watching him with identical blank expressions.
"Monty?" he asked, frowning at the tallest of the three; he'd fought with the man in the Independent Army, and could not fathom what he was doing with the other two-- one of whom was clearly of the moneyed set, with smooth skin and a sword at his hip, and the other, whose aged, wrinkled face, tiny glasses, and sour expression were as good as a nametag to those active in the seamier side of trade. What was his old friend doing with a crook as infamous as Adelei Niska?
Monty said nothing; he deferred to Niska, whose mouth curved up in a smug smile. "We are but poor, lost smugglers, whose ship has crashed in these woods," Niska said, bowing elaborately toward Mal. "Is there a town nearby?"
Mal stared at him incredulously. "There ain't nothin' nearby," he answered automatically, mind caught up in the puzzle of what the three could possibly be doing on the estate. "Not for miles." Surely they weren't there because of *him*...?
"Then there will be no one to hear you scream," Niska said, smiling even wider, and nodded to Monty.
"Sorry, Mal," Monty said, scrunching his face up apologetically, and reached for his friend.
Mal was unconscious before he knew what hit him.
Monty threw his former sergeant over his shoulder, and watched as Niska tore a few pieces of embroidered fabric loose from an Alliance soldier's jacket. The old villain tucked the scraps along the saddle of Mal's horse, then slapped the animal on the rump.
"What's that you were ripping?" the swordsman-- some young idiot called Fess Higgins-- asked, watching the horse as it ran back toward Atheron Wing's stables.
"It's fabric from uniform of an Alliance officer," Niska said in his heavily accented voice, and held the remnants of the jacket up to show Higgins. "Once the horse reaches the manor, the fabric, it will make Mister Wing suspect the Alliance captured his fiancé. And when he finds him dead aboard an Alliance cruiser, his suspicions, they will be confirmed."
Monty started at that, automatically reaching his free hand up to balance Mal on his shoulder. "You never said nothin' about killin' anyone," he said, disturbed by the idea. He'd shot plenty of people during the war, but always Alliance scum; never anyone he'd called friend.
Niska shook his head, clucking his tongue, and headed off through the woods towards his hidden shuttle. "I pay you to help me restart the war," he said as he walked. "This is long, prestigious line of work, yes? With long and glorious tradition? It will bring much profit to my Skyplex, and for you, the prospect once again of... *independence*."
Monty swallowed, disturbed by the mocking tone of Niska's words, and followed his employer into the woods. "But do we gotta kill *Mal*? I just don't think's it right. He's my *friend*."
Niska chuckled nastily. "So you *think*, do you? I think not. You were not hired for your brains, ben tiansheng de yi dui rou."
Higgins, walking behind them, chose that moment to speak up again. "I agree with Montgomery, actually," he said, disgust audible in his voice. "It doesn't seem right, killing the man without giving him a chance to fight back."
Monty winced at the use of his full name, then winced again as Niska stopped in his tracks, turning red with fury.
"What happens to this man is not your concern," he hissed angrily, enunciating more clearly. "I will kill him. As for you-- do not forget, you were held for *murder* when I found you, yes? Your father, did you give him a chance to *fight back* when you killed *him*?"
It was Higgins' turn to redden with fury; Monty held his breath and waited, but the swordsman held his tongue. In silence, the three of them trekked the rest of the way to the shuttle and made preparations to leave the planet.
Hours later, the small ship cut quietly through the black of space, weaving through an asteroid field on a short cut to a small planet where Niska's contact from the Alliance cruiser *Dortmunder* would meet them. The place was practically a black rock; it didn't even have a name of record. It barely supported a breathable atmosphere, and what little plant life grew there had mutated in the poisoned soil. Smugglers called the main habitable zone the Fire Swamp.
"We break atmo at local dawn," Niska said, checking the navigational readings with an air of satisfaction.
Fess Higgins nodded absently from his seat in the co-pilot's chair, tapping the controls for the sensors with a frown.
"Why do you do that?" Niska asked, shooting him a puzzled look.
Fess shrugged, still tapping at the controls. "I'm just making sure we're not being followed," he said, keeping an eye on the readings. Something was just a little off about them.
"That would be... how do you say... inconceivable," Niska said, plainly disbelieving.
In the back of the shuttle's main cabin, their unwilling guest snorted audibly. "Y'all will be caught, no matter what you think you got planned," Malcolm Reynolds announced, for all the world as if he were the Captain in charge and not a prisoner. "And when you are, I'll see you hanged."
Niska turned a cold eye on Reynolds, then chuckled nastily again and turned back to his screens. "Of all the necks on this ship, Mister Reynolds, the one you should worry about is your own."
Fess shook his head at the overly dramatic byplay, and tapped at the sensor controls one more time. Whatever it was they were detecting, it was very faint, perhaps even a sensor ghost; and yet...
"Stop doing that," Niska demanded, interrupting his thoughts. "It is almost done; there is no one who could have tracked us to this place. We left before Mister Reynolds could be missed; it is too soon for pursuit."
"You're sure about that?" Fess asked in return. Honestly; if this was the sort of man who rose to the top of the criminal ladder, he was surprised someone hadn't exterminated the lot a long time ago. He was certainly nothing like the Robin Hood sort Fess had expected after all the tales he'd read in his mother's books. "The sensors seem to detect otherwise."
Finally; he'd secured a lock on the whatever it was. He tapped a few more commands, and the image came up on the largest screen. It was a ship. Small, painted with something dark that distorted readings; it showed no energy weapons signatures, but that didn't mean it wasn't dangerous.
Niska frowned at the image, then shrugged. "Probably some local smuggler out for a pleasure cruise... through Alliance patrolled space..."
The large man, Montgomery, gulped loudly in the background. "Tell me it ain't Reavers."
Fess snorted. "I doubt it. According to all reports, Reaver ships are rather gaudily decorated, and they fly without containment in order to give their ships greater speed. I personally doubt they exist, but even so, someone must be maintaining the myth, and this ship is not even making the least bit of pretense."
"Oh, I assure you," Niska said, slowly. "They do exist. I have seen their handiwork..."
"You almost sound like you admire 'em," Reynolds piped up again, disgust in his tone.
Niska just shook his head. "Tell me, Mister Reynolds, are you familiar with the works of Shan Yu?"
"Don't worry," Simon said, breaking away from the story for a moment to reassure his sister. Her knuckles had whitened where she was gripping the sheets; he didn't want her making herself more ill. "He doesn't get tortured at this time."
"Shen me?" She blinked at him a little, startled.
"He doesn't get tortured at this time. I'm just explaining it to you, because I know you know all about Shan Yu, and you were looking a little nervous."
She blinked at him a little more, then self-consciously brushed some of the loose hair out of her eyes and tilted her chin up imperiously. "Well, I wasn't nervous."
Simon glanced down at the data slate, then back up at River, as if wondering whether he should continue. Not that he'd actually stop, she'd never forgive him, but a little distraction would distance her from the story a little, relax her mood.
She bit her lip. "Well, maybe I was a little concerned. But that's not the same thing."
"I can stop now if you want," he said, teasing her a little further, putting on his best earnest expression.
She narrowed her eyes at him, annoyance filtering back into her expression. "Simon!"
He grinned at her apologetically, then turned back to the data slate again.
"Tell me, Mister Reynolds," Niska said, "are you familiar with the works of Shan Yu?"
Reynolds rolled his eyes dismissively. "What, are we startin' a book club?"
Niska shook his head. "I suppose you think you are a brave man, Mister Reynolds."
"Compared to who? You? Yeah," Reynolds shot back.
"Tsk, tsk. You will regret saying that, Mister Reynolds. You will regret it, very much." With that parting shot, Niska turned back to the navigational controls-- they were almost in atmo-- and began the ship's landing sequence. "Well, it does not matter who is pursuit; whoever it is, they will be too late. He does not have the coordinates, and if he tries to follow us down..."
Turbulence picked up around the ship as Niska began the landing sequence. "...he will overshoot us at the Cliffs of Insanity."
Whatever Niska had been before he became a crime lord, it had clearly involved some pilot training; he guided the ship expertly down to the planet's surface, leaving Fess in the co-pilot's chair with nothing to do until they landed except for watching the scenery grow larger around them.
And what strange scenery it was. As they approached the ground, Fess could see why Niska had referred to the geological feature they were headed for as the Cliffs of Insanity; it was as though the crust of the planet had been cut with a knife, and where it had been parted one half had sunk hundreds of feet straight downward. Steep and sheer, the cliff blocked all possible travel by foot, horse, or motorized land vehicle from one side of the continent to the other-- and on both sides of the cliff, the land was wrinkled like a scrunched-up length of fabric for quite some distance. Potential landing sites were quite limited in number.
Niska guided the ship to a rough landing a few yards from the cliff's edge, settling in a space just large enough for the shuttle and no more. He shut down the ship's systems in a rush, leaving up just the sensors and the shuttle's one, small gun; as Fess watched, the blip that was the following ship shot narrowly past them, and Niska fired one quick shot. Streaming smoke, the little ship dropped rapidly and clipped the edge of the cliff.
Over the ship went, and down; Fess winced at the long fall, then registered an explosion on his screen at the cliff's bottom.
Niska chuckled. "So much for the pursuit," he said wryly, then nodded to Montgomery. "Bring him."
The over-tall Independent reached for his bound friend and slung him once more over his shoulder. Reynolds made no word of protest, but the look on his face spoke volumes.
The group exited the ship, Fess following behind the others. He had no desire to be within spitting distance should Reynolds choose to make trouble. The sight of the cliff's edge, several yards distant, roused his curiosity again; he glanced at Niska, who had paused to consult some sort of map, then ambled over to the brink, wondering how far it was to the bottom.
Not far enough, it seemed. "Mr. Niska," he said, cautiously. "I think there's something you should see."
The old man frowned, then walked cautiously over and attained a firm grip on Fess' arm before leaning out to take in the same view.
"He did not fall?!" Niska gasped, incredulous. For there, clinging to the side of the cliff, was a dark-clad form; whoever he was, he must have ejected himself from the ship somehow as it fell.
"These heroics, they are unseemly!" Niska continued, hissing. "They complicate!"
"Wo de ma," Fess gasped, awed despite himself at what he was seeing. "He's climbing."
"You must stay here," Niska said suddenly. "He has seen-- whoever he is, this man must die. Shoot him, whatever. When he is dead, take the shuttle to my Skyplex; I will ride with Alliance ship and find you later."
Fess sighed. Perhaps that was for the best; once he'd taken care of this obstacle, he would not have to return to the Skyplex directly. It could be the opportunity he'd been waiting for to cultivate support in other camps besides Niska's. He did not want to be bound to the feng-le old man forever.
Still. "I wish I'd brought a second sword, or an extra pistol," he said, mournfully. Whatever Niska said, he'd never yet killed an unarmed man, and that included his father.
"We have no time for this," Niska frowned at him. "Just make sure he is dead, then leave, dong ma?"
"Wo dong," Fess confirmed reluctantly. He watched Niska leave with the two former solders-- the one under his command, the other not-- and wondered at the man's allocation of roles. Did he honestly think his control over Montgomery was that great? Why not leave him here, and assign Fess to drag their captive onward? Well, it wasn't his concern anymore.
He turned back to the view down the cliff, and watched patiently as their mysterious follower continued to creep upward.
ben tiansheng de yi dui rou = stupid inbred stack of meat
Shen me? = What?
Wo de ma = My God!
feng-le = crazy
dong ma? = understand?
Wo dong = I understand