The following is an excerpt from Firefly: Big Damn Hero, the first novel in Titan Books’ new series of original books expanding the official Firefly canon. In Big Damn Hero, written by Nancy Holder and publishing Nov. 20, Captain Malcolm Reynolds finds himself in a dangerous situation after being kidnapped by a bunch of embittered veteran Browncoats. Read the excerpt below. Firefly: Big Damn Hero is available for pre-order.
Why can’t things just go easy for once? Mal Reynolds wondered. The roaring outside Serenity’s open cargo bay spiked to earsplitting as space transports and private craft simultaneously took off and landed on either side of them in Persephone’s Eavesdown Docks. The violence of the comings and goings shook the ship’s loading ramp and peppered the hull with a rain of dirt and small pebbles blasted into the air by thundering rocket exhausts.
There was only one way to describe the operation of the docks: organized chaos. Well, not so organized. Burned-out hulks of spacecraft lay in craters of their own making, scattered here and there along its sprawling length. It was a gorramn miracle there weren’t more midair collisions. You might think with all this dutiable trade, all these comings and goings and the excise levied on them, that Persephone would be a rich planet; but you would be wrong. The Alliance taxed businesses and citizens with a gleeful rapacity. And what did Persephonians do in response? Why, they celebrated the day they signed their lives away and joined the Alliance. The anniversary of which was today.
And how did Mal celebrate it? By taking another job from Badger.
The sleazy minor crime lord was willing to pay them a scant bit of coin for risking their lives with a dangerous load that had to be hauled halfway across the galaxy. Actually, that sounded somewhat like the last job they took from him—transporting a herd of cattle on behalf Sir Warwick Harrow. The cows were delivered fine on Jiangyin until the gunfire commenced, and then Shepherd Book was shot and nearly died from his wounds. This dangerous cargo was different from that load, because if something went wrong with it, all of them would die.
About five feet away, Zoë was saying something to Mal, or trying to, murmuring to avoid being overheard. Zoë was the kind of woman who spoke softly and carried a big gun. Mal motioned for her to come closer. She walked over with her arms crossed, and leaned in, so close that her breath brushed against his ear.
“I don’t like it, sir,” she said, biting off the words.
“Duly noted,” Mal said. He didn’t like it much either, but when the choice was bad choice or no choice, you smiled wide and said thank you.
On the loading ramp behind the two Browncoat veterans, a forklift strained to carry its oversized burden up the slope and into the hold. The weight squashed the front tires nearly flat and made black smoke pour from the tailpipe. The metal crate was easily three times as big as the forklift and rested so heavy upon the forks that they wobbled like they were made of rubber, with the result that the load teetered precariously on its perch.
Grim-faced, Zoë and Mal backed well out of the way. Zoë wore her curly darkish auburn hair gathered in a ponytail, her signature leather cord necklace hanging over her leather vest. Mal had let his brown hair grow out a mite longer than military regulation, and wore his trousers with the stripe, his customary suspenders, and a tucked-in red flannel shirt. Both had looped their thumbs under their gun belts, observing closely as the last of the five steel containers was carried across the ship’s deck by the woefully lurching forklift.
On the other side of the hold’s entrance, a pair of Badger’s men likewise kept a sharp eye on Mal and Zoë, hands hovering close to gun butts. Trusting your business partners was like trusting a rattlesnake not to bite you: noble but misguided.
Behind the wide-bodied goons stood the cocky Cockney racketeer. Badger was dressed in his own version of business casual—a black bowler, threadbare suit jacket and matching vest over a dingy white T-shirt, a jauntily arranged silk necktie, and a pin on his lapel shaped like a flamingo and made of fake gold encrusted with no-less-fake gemstones. In common with his namesake, Badger was cranky, stubborn, and tough, with something decidedly rodent-like about his face, but he was also irritatingly jovial at times. That trait seemed particularly in evidence today, which Mal couldn’t help but find suspicious.
“Pull ’er forward nice and slow, and set ’er down beside the last one,” Badger told his forklift operator. Then he beamed at Mal, showing yellow, crooked teeth. “Just about done with the hard part.”
“Remind me again,” said Mal. “Is the hard part loading the cargo, or is it me gettin’ over the fact that you still owe us for those cows we didn’t get paid for transporting to Jiangyin?”
“Mal, Mal, Mal.” The more genial Badger sounded, the more it made Mal’s toes curl and his trigger finger itch. “Oh mate, you still holding a grudge about that?”
“Okay, so the deal went down the khazi. Wasn’t anybody’s fault. These things happen. Business is business.”
“Don’t think my understandin’ of that word is the same as your understandin’.”
“What we ’ave ’ere,” Badger said, waving an arm towards the crates, “is my way of making recompense. Your fee, in case you ’aven’t noticed, Reynolds, is well over the odds for a straightforward planet-to-planet run like this. When it’s done, you can consider the debt between us settled.”
“Just sayin’ I’d rather it’d been settled at the time.”
“What can I say? I ’ad cash-flow problems.”
“So did I, in as much as the cash wasn’t flowing from you to me.”
“But that’s all in the past. We’re chums again now, ain’t we?”
Mal grunted. He was very picky about who he was “chums” with, and Badger would never qualify for that status.
“Sir,” Zoë said, with urgency, into Mal’s ear. “Don’t want to come across like a worrywart…”
“Then don’t, Zoë.”
“But I’m going to say it again: this is a bad idea. This cargo is too volatile.”
“I know, I know,” Mal replied.
The crates weren’t big, maybe five feet a side, but they were mighty—jam-packed with chemicals used for mining.
Highly specialized, highly explosive explosives.
The substance in the crates was, in fact, a crystalline compound known as HTX-20, an abbreviation that according to Badger stood for something long and complicatedly scientific with more syllables than you could count. When he heard the deal Badger was proposing, Shepherd Book had told Mal that he knew about HTX-20, and his grimace had said everything Mal needed to know about what the preacher thought of the stuff.
“Not for nothing is it nicknamed Satan’s Snowflakes,” Book had commented, and yet again, Mal had found himself wondering how in heck a man of God knew about such things.
Badger had assured Mal that as long as the HTX-20 stayed in the crates, snug and tight in its flame-retardant foam packaging, there was no danger of it blowing up before it was supposed to. Oh, and everything would also be fine as long as the HTX-20 didn’t get wet. Or too hot. Or was jostled unduly. But apart from that, things were just dandy.
Mal figured Badger would be upfront about the perils of the job, since he was the one who stood to gain the most if the payload made it to its intended destination, a rhodium mining operation on Aberdeen. Still, it gave him pause to see the yellow-and-black hazard stripes on the outsides of the boxes, like a swarm of hornets, and the decals plastered every which way, saying things like: “Danger: high explosives”; “Do not allow contents to come into contact with liquids”; “Do not expose to temperatures over 100 degrees”.
In other words, treat these crates like newborn babies or life would no longer be interesting; it would be over. If there was one thing Mal hated, it was surprises, and an explosion counted as one of the worst kinds of surprise he could imagine. Surprise marriages being another.
But not to dwell on the negative. Mal watched Zoë flinch as the forklift operator almost took out their ball hoop. The vehicle’s twin metal tines had held so far, but the crates were burdensome, that was obvious. He couldn’t wait for this to be over.
Persephone, a middling-sized planet on the periphery of the White Sun system, served as Serenity’s primary stomping grounds when it came to the face-to-face details of life. This meant shaking hands and moving cargo, mostly, though sometimes it also included inadvertently trafficking in cryogenically frozen mad geniuses. Their resident, fully thawed mad genius was River Tam, who generally bounced off the bulkheads like a rubber ball. Her brother Simon was uncomfortable on this planet, to put it mildly, and was more than usually defensive about his sister.
Mal had warned Simon to keep River out of sight until Badger was gone, and Simon was happy to oblige. Alliance bulletins about two missing fugitive siblings on the run came out over the Cortex now and then, but so far Badger seemed unaware that he could make way more money turning the Tams over to the authorities than he could trafficking in cows and explosives.
Life sure had gotten complex. No doubt about it, Mal preferred staying in the sky. The silent void of the Black was ever so much more to his liking. But such was not always practical. He had to touch down from time to time, in order to take on supplies and get paying work.
Beyond the open cargo-bay door, Eavesdown Docks spread out in all its rusty, gritty glory. The yellow-tinged atmo stank so bad you could practically chew it—a chunky, inedible stew of rocket exhaust, carbonized garbage dump, spilled rocket fuel, unwashed humans and animals, and mountains of boiled protein blocks. As they set down and crawled back up into the Black, ships kicked up brittle tea-brown newspapers and foam plates slathered with plum sauce. On the verge of the field, brightly colored paper parasols twirled. Dogs of varied size and indefinable breed ran in packs through the potholed street. Horns honked rhythmically, or maybe it was someone’s donkey braying? Here and there, ship’s captains of ill repute casually bribed customs officials, and hordes of filthy folks crawled through and over the debris of civilization like ants—some looking for work, others looking for trouble. If he was being honest, Mal had to admit he currently had a foot in both camps.
“Sir,” Zoë prodded. “All the ‘danger’ decals, sir.”
“What danger decals? Don’t see none.”
“The ones you’ve been giving the evil eye since the moment the crates arrived.”
“Oh, those danger decals. Well, folks sometimes exaggerate. On account of the legal liability. Coverin’ their asses.” Mal tried to sound credible, but even he wasn’t buying it.
“Easy does it, now,” Badger cautioned as the forklift crept across the deck with its suspension-crushing load.
Everything was going according to plan, then suddenly, not so much.
Whether the temper of the right-hand fork’s steel had been damaged on a previous job or more recently compromised by the combined weight of the three other containers, it suddenly gave way, bending downward towards the deck with a hair-raising shriek. That end of the huge crate abruptly dropped, sliding off the edge of the intact fork. It smashed hard onto its nose, then toppled full length onto the hangar deck with a resounding crash that rattled Mal’s bones. As the operator leapt from the vehicle in panic, Badger dropped into a crouch, squeezed his eyes shut, and clapped his hands over his ears.
“Tā mā de!” Mal bellowed.