• Published 28th Jul 2015
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Firefly: The Long Job - psychicscubadiver



It seemed like a simple series of jobs. Some of them weren't even thefts. Sure the client wanted secrecy, but the payoff was more than worth it. Too bad nothing is ever as easy as it looks in this 'Verse

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Chapter One: Old and New Business

Captain Rainbow Dash was used to unsavory characters. They were a bit a dozen in any… less-than-legal community. A few years ago, when she’d first started taking disreputable jobs to make ends meet after the war, having to associate with such lowlifes had ticked her off like nothing else. But times hadn’t gotten any easier since. Eventually, she learned to live with it. Some of them weren’t even that bad when you got to know them.

Others were jerks through and through.

The small white rabbit wearing a tiny bowler hat and tie stood on the desk in front of her. He scowled, giving a dissatisfied squeak to the mynah bird perched on a nearby stand. “Mr. Bunny wants to know why you’re running behind. You cock up the job?” the mynah squawked, acting as interpreter. Most animals understood spoken language well enough, but didn’t have the equipment to speak it.

Captain Dash rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I’m fine. Thanks for asking, Bunny.”

The rabbit scowled more heavily and made a curt gesture. “Mr. Bunny hain’t laughing,” the bird said, leaning down from his perch. “I’d lose the cheek if I were you, mate.” Dash wanted to reply with more sarcasm, but she bit her tongue. The room was full of small animals, mostly rabbits with a variety of other rodents mixed in. They were all watching with their paws not-so-subtly close to their guns. The guns were tiny things, almost toy-like; the caliber on them would have been laughable if they shot bullets. But every one of Bunny’s guards was packing chem darts, and Captain Dash doubted they’d loaded tranq rounds. Bunny’s organization lacked raw muscle, but it made up for it in ruthlessness.

Applejack tensed beside her. Dash hadn’t been the only one to notice.

Sighing internally, the Captain put away the jokes. If she’d wanted to start a fight, she’d have brought Gilda along. “Patient Aim figured we were there to cause trouble, and he slipped a saboteur onto my ship. The engine shut down for a little bit, but we caught her and got away before he could catch up.” That was enough of the truth to explain things without going into too many things that Bunny didn’t need to know about.

Bunny turned that over for a second and nodded satisfactorily. Out of the corner of her eye Dash saw most the various animals relax and start to wander off. “Mr. Bunny accepts your version a’ the events. You still manage to nick the goods?” the mynah asked.

“You think we’d show up if we hadn’t?” Dash smirked. “Fact is, Patient had double what you figured, and we made off with the whole batch.”

Bunny gave a low whistle of appreciation. “Cor, that’s alright, innit?” the mynah said. “Mr. Bunny figures you hain’t saying that just coz you’re chuffed with yourself. Looking to sell?”

Captain Dash nodded. Nobody who knew Bunny would ever claim he was stupid. “Of course! So, you interested in four extra cases?”

Bunny’s eyes narrowed. “Possibly. ‘ow much you plan on gouging ‘im for?”

Dash grinned. Jerk or not, Bunny knew the game. “The original price for the job was below market value for this stuff.” She held up a hoof to fend off any protests. “Now, that’s fair, because you were the one who gave us the tip in the first place. But now that we’re square on the original job, the rest is on the market. I want fifty platinum royals.”

Bunny made another curt gesture. “You’re off your trolly,” the mynah replied. “That’s near double the quid a’ the first job.” Bunny made a few squeaks and another gesture. “Mr. Bunny might raise the stakes as ‘igh as thirty, but ‘e’s being more generous than ‘e should.”

That was met with a snort as Dash shook her head. “Yeah, right. I could get more than that on any planet on the Rim. I’m offering you first dibs because we got it doing your job, but you’ve gotta give me at least forty-five royals to make it worth selling.”

“And if Mr. Bunny offers above thirty-five, ‘e won’t turn a profit reselling.”

Captain Dash shook her head. “Forty is the absolute lowest I could go, and that’s only because I’m such a generous pony.” AJ gave a quiet snort at that, but Dash ignored her. Bunny turned the number over in his mind. Dash probably could get a little more selling directly, but making those contacts was time-consuming and risky. Anyone you didn’t know well enough could be working for the Confed, or planning to stab you in the back instead of paying. Bunny was more or less open about what he had in mind. Judging from his expression, though, he didn’t seem to be biting, so it was time to use the secret weapon. “And I’ll even sweeten the deal. I’ve got Patient’s saboteur on my ship, loaded up with a couple of tranq rounds. I know you and him have a rivalry, and she’s probably full of information about his business. Agree to the forty royals and I’ll throw her in.”

Bunny eyes sparkled at that. He tried to hide it, but Captain Dash still noticed. He made a few more gestures and squeaks to the mynah. “To quote Mr. Bunny direct-like, ‘You’re a nag, and a thief’, and ‘e ‘opes the sun scorches your… presumably metafor’cal bollocks. ‘owever, you’ve got yourself a right proper deal. ‘e’ll beam out the coordinates a’ some place safe to drop the goods. You’ll get yours then.”

Captain Dash grinned. The original job had been just this side of profitable, but the extra income would keep them in the air a while longer. She might even be able to buy real food for the kitchen. “Pleasure doing business with you.” She turned to leave, but paused as the mynah coughed for attention.

“And before you leave, Mr. Bunny wants to remind you that should anything ‘appen to Miss Fluttershy while she’s on your ship, ‘e’ll find you, remove your tongue and wings, and stake you out in the desert for the fire ants.”

“Still got a soft spot for her?” Captain Dash said. Bunny glared, and she lost the teasing expression. “Don’t worry, we take care of her as best we’re able, and she keeps better care of us.”

Bunny sighed. “ ‘e finds that reasonable enough. Best a’ luck to you, Cap’n Dash.”

A well-armed badger led them through several twists, turns and a good half mile of underground tunnels. Eventually Dash and Applejack emerged, blinking, into the afternoon sun of Greensborough, or ‘The Borough’, as locals called it. It was the second biggest city on Whitetail, which wasn’t saying much, but with all the food and raw materials they shipped off-planet, its docks were plenty busy. Their sudden appearance from a large shipping container went unremarked by the rest of the crowd. “I swear,” AJ complained, “them tunnels get longer every time we come here.”

Dash shrugged. “Eh, the exercise won’t kill us.”

“Fair ‘nuff. That was a right smart bit of hagglin’ in there, Captain. But I wish you hadn’t included Toolbelt.” Dash glanced at her first mate in surprise and AJ held up a hoof to slow any protest. “Don’t get me wrong, I ain’t exactly fond of her, but the sorta things that get done ‘looking for info’ don’t sit right with me.”

Captain Dash weighed that and nodded. “Yeah, there’s a chance of that, but I think she’ll talk without much persuasion. It sounded like her stint with Patient was just a job, and she’s gotta know he won’t welcome her back after botching it. Besides, good mechanics are rare on Whitetail. Bunny’s too smart to waste somebody he can use.”

“You mean, he’s too smart if his temper don’t get the better of ‘im.” Applejack sighed. “So long as Toolbelt keeps a civil tongue, I guess she’ll be okay. I don’t like her odds if she don’t.”

“That’s her problem,” Dash said with a shrug. “Anyway, let’s head back to the ship and tell our new chef she’s free to get the fixings for a real dinner. I’d be grateful if you’d do a little more walking and go with her. We might be celebrating, but I don’t want her spending too much.”

“And you don’t want her talking to anypony she shouldn’t,” AJ said with a sly grin. “No worries there, Captain. I’ll keep a weather eye on ‘er.”

………

“Whew, that was dee-lish,” Applejack said, stretching out after finishing the last of the roasted yams and steamed rice on her plate. “You weren’t kiddin’ when you said could cook.”

“Beats our normal grub six ways to Tartarus,” Gilda agreed.

“It’s often said hunger is the best spice, but I’ve found that ginger and cumin suffice,” Zecora said with a smile as she gathered up the dishes.

“Yes, I must commend you,” Rarity said. “Given what you have to work with, a dinner like this is truly a masterpiece.”

“Don’t get used to it,” Dash said. “Today was a celebration of a successful job. We’re back to the same old rations tomorrow.”

“True,” Soarin sighed, “but I noticed our new chef outfitting a decent spice rack, so even the regular will probably see an improvement.”

Dash fixed Zecora with a stare, but the zebra just smiled and nodded. The Captain shrugged; she hadn’t gone too far over her limited budget, and it was hard to be mad after the dinner she’d just eaten. It looked like things were winding down, making this the perfect time to address the crew. “Okay, listen up, everybody. I know you’re all eager to spend your shiny new coins, but we’re taking a slow, fuel-efficient cruise to the other side of the Rim while Patient cools off. I’ve got a few contacts out there, and I’ll message them to see if anybody wants to hire us. We’ll put in at whatever town has a job. Once we arrive, we’ve got at least a couple of weeks before we start eating our boots to keep Tranquility in the air.” The crew chuckled at that. That was good, since Captain Dash was kidding. They wouldn’t starve until they hit three weeks out. “Speaking of which, I think the old girl’s been on autopilot long enough. I’ll take a turn at the wheel. Everybody else is free for the rest of the evening.”

Most of the crew stayed at the table and continued talking, but Twilight got up and started making a plate for her sister. According to Twilight, Pinkie wasn’t quite up to sharing meals so soon after her rescue. She was hopeful that her sister would improve, but Dash couldn’t tell how much of that was wishful thinking.

The bridge was quiet and the gauges all rested comfortably in the green. She settled herself in the pilot’s chair and put her rear hooves up on the console as the ship softly hummed to itself.

An hour later, Dash was thinking about heading for bed. There weren’t any ships nearby, no debris in this part of space, and the alarms would tell her if anything went wrong. Just as she was reaching for the autopilot switches, though, the buzz of an incoming transmission stopped her. “Who in the…” she muttered as she answered the call. A semi-familiar face popped up on the main crystal screen.

“Hell~o, Tranquility,” said the mint-green unicorn on the screen. She was lounging on large, comfortable chair, manipulating a complex control panel with occasional flashes of golden magic.

“Ms. Universe. Been awhile since we’ve heard from you,” Dash said, mildly surprised. Ms. Universe had paid them for a few jobs in the past – mostly moving things under the Confed’s nose – but the last of those had been more than a year ago.

“I’ve been busy with other projects,” Ms. Universe admitted. “But it finally paid off! Behold, my beautiful Bon-bot!” The camera panned to the side, centering on cream-colored earth pony doll with a curly blue and pink mane.

Or what Dash had thought was a doll. The eyes suddenly glowed blue and the doll looked up at the camera. “Hello, I’m Bon-bot, the most loving and faithful companion anybody could ask for.” The doll’s eyes slid to something off screen, and it smiled. “You look tense, dear. Would you like a shoulder massage? Or we could talk about all of your perfectly sane and rational theories about the Naked Apes.”

The camera panned back to Ms. Universe. “Maybe later, but I’m busy now.” She turned to look at the camera and grinned. “Isn’t she great?”

Captain Dash cringed. “She’s… something, all right. Is that all you called for?” She wouldn’t have put it past the eccentric genius to do something like that, but Ms. Universe shook her head.

“No, that was just small talk. Now we get to business. I have a job for you. A series of jobs, actually. The payoff is huge, but I won’t deny that some of them will be dangerous.”

How huge?” Dash asked. Ms. Universe owned her own moon and had money to spare, but that didn’t mean she was eager to fork it over.

“In total, the job will pay twenty thousand royals. Part of the reason I’m willing to pay so much is because this requires complete secrecy. As little contact as possible when you pick up the items, and once they’re mine, I want you to forget you ever saw them.”

Captain Dash’s mouth felt dry. Twenty thousand. That was over a hundred fifty thousand bits. More than Tranquility made in any two years of smuggling and theft. “So can I hear the details before I decide whether or not to take it?”

Ms. Universe mulled that over for a second. “Yeah, I guess. Don’t want you backing out halfway. The targets are six gemstones with strong, unique thaumic presences. Two of them I have already acquired through various means, but I need them delivered. I know the locations of three of the others, which you will be required to steal. I haven’t found the last one, but with all my resources on it, that’s just a matter of time. You will receive a bounty of one hundred fifty royals for each gem you successfully obtain, and the balance when you deliver me the full set.”

This was almost too good to true. It did sound dangerous – stealing anything valuable typically was – but if Ms. Universe was willing to pay that well for secrecy, then Dash was happy to sell. “Okay, I like the sound of this, but I’ve got a few questions before I sign up. Would we be free to take side jobs while we’re working on this? You said ‘full set’ – can we deliver the gems one at a time? And what if you don’t find the sixth gem?”

“Those are reasonable questions,” Ms. Universe said. “I need these gems within the next six months. So long as your side jobs don’t delay that timetable, do what you want. As for delivery, I chose my words carefully. You bring me the full set, all at once, no discussion. Despite my best efforts, my moon is semi-regularly under observation, and if they realize you’re working for me, you’ll be useless. Maybe even dead.”

She didn’t elaborate on who ‘they’ were, and her expression kept Dash from asking. It could have been a figment of her imagination, or it could be deadly serious. Captain Dash wasn’t willing to bet her life on the former. “And the last gem?”

Ms. Universe pouted. “If I somehow haven’t located it by the time you’ve collected the other five, I suppose you can deliver what you’ve got for the full price. I’ll contact you and negotiate the last gem as a new job once I know where it is.” She chuckled darkly. “If I haven’t found it before six months are up, I won’t be in a position to do anything, much less hire you.”

That sounded either ominous or insane, but Dash knew Ms. Universe was good for the money, whatever weirdness they had to put up with along the way. “It’s a deal. Send over the details, and we’ll head for whatever’s closest.”

Ms. Universe tapped a few keys on her control panel and squinted at another screen. “Looks like you’re an easy two days’ flight from one of the ones I already own. It’s a large amethyst called ‘The Tear of Midnight’. Go to the town of Hildenna on Platina and speak to a pegasus named Cardinal Song. I’ll send you his address. Tell him you’re there to buy a Purple-Throated Warbler. He should invite you in and confirm that you work for me by asking where you plan to keep its cage. You will answer that birds weren’t meant to be caged. He will return with the gem, and you can be on your way. Contact me when you have it, and I will forward the money to whatever account you prefer.”

Dash had snagged a pen and paper halfway into the directions and finished her frantic scribbling just as Ms. Universe left off. It was a mite unsettling that Ms. Universe knew their coordinates without Captain Dash having shared them, but then, saying she was good with technology was an understatement. “Gotcha. After that, can you send us the details on all the rest so we can plan the thefts ahead of time?”

“Of course,” Ms. Universe said. Then she cleared her throat and fixed Dash with a stare. “Now, I want to make something crystal clear ahead of time, Captain Dash. I am no fool. You will not receive a better price for those gems anywhere in the ‘Verse. However, should you even try, should you so much as have them appraised, I will consider it a betrayal and react accordingly.” Ms. Universe typically reminded Dash of an overgrown filly: a bit odd, but ultimately harmless. The mare that now stared at her from across the depths of the void was anything but ‘harmless’. Suddenly, the unicorn’s expression shifted to a beaming smile. “Say, do you know why they call me ‘Ms. Universe’?”

For a moment, Captain Dash was silent. “Because you’re everywhere?” she guessed.

One by one all of the screens in the bridge flickered on, each one displaying Ms. Universe’s face. Every comm on the ship crackled to life, eerily echoing her chuckle.

“Because. I’m. Everywhere.” she said, her smile turning malicious. Then everything went off. The screens, the comms, the lights. Dash even felt the engine stop as a tremor ran through the entire ship. The emergency lights didn’t come on, but a few seconds later, the regular lights did and the engine coughed back to life.

For another long moment the ship was silent.

“What in the nine sunscorched pits of Tartarus was that?!” Gilda yelled.

Doors banged open and the rest of the crew, sans Fluttershy, spilled out into the corridor and started moving toward the bridge. Rarity, Zecora and Twilight were probably on their way too.

Captain Dash swallowed the knot in her throat and looked at her crew. “Well there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that I just landed us a job that pays really well.”

“And the bad news?” Soarin asked.

“ ‘That’ was a little taste of what our employer can do to us if we try to double-cross her.”

She was met with silence.

“Next time,” AJ said, her expression deadpan, “you mind if I do the talking?”

………

“And that’s that,” Ms. Universe sighed, pushing herself away from her control panel. “One enormous pile of bits down the drain.”

Now, now, Lyra. You know it’s necessary. Besides, it isn’t as though you’re hurting for money.

Ms. Universe tapped on the screen, activating her sentinel programs and internal defenses. Most of her enemies had learned to leave her well enough alone, but there was always the chance another mage would try infiltrating her system and accessing her data crystals. “That’s true, but I’m still blowing a fortune on the say-so of a voice in my head. I know Dad explained it all before he passed away, but I still have to wonder if you’re real.” Golden magic pulled down two levers across the room and adjusted a dial. The automagic kitchen a few rooms down whirred to life and started fixing her dinner.

This again? I would like to think I have proven myself an asset to you, whether or not you believe the truth.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. My family is the richest in the ‘Verse, thanks to your advice,” Ms. Universe sighed again, collecting a chilled mug from a nearby freezer and filling it with fine sarsaparilla from a tap built into the wall. “I just sometimes wish my life was normal. Not that I don’t like you, but... still…” she stretched out on the sofa, resting her head in the lap of her beloved Bon-bot.

If you had a normal life, I suspect you would be bored to tears.

Ms. Universe shrugged and tuned one of her crystal screens to an entertainment channel. The cartoon on display wasn’t popular enough to merit much in the way of subliminal programming, and the theme song was catchy, so she left it there.

“Would you like me to brush your mane?” Bon-bot asked. Ms. Universe nodded and her loving companion started in, using just the right amount of force, exactly how she had been designed.

Do you think they will be capable of the job?

“I wouldn’t have hired them if I didn’t think so. I might grouse, but I’m devoted to the plan. Dash will come through. She’s dependable.” Between a massive carrot, a massive stick, and the Captain’s own sense of honor, Ms. Universe wasn’t actually that worried about betrayal. So long as she continued to keep her competitors in the dark about the importance of the gems, even the thefts shouldn’t be too difficult. The plan was eminently workable.

Very well. You know the price of failure.

“All too well,” she whispered. Then the presence in the back of her head was gone.

Ms. Universe relaxed on her sofa, deep in the heart of the most luxurious mansion in the ‘Verse, alone except for the pony she had built to keep her company.