Dropzone -Gold Rush (Firefly)

by Kelly Dillon

The spaceship touched down in the clearing with a tired wheeze. For the crew of the Charlemagne and two accompanying passengers it had been a long and largely uneventful trip, but now they were here they couldn't count on that luck continuing. They, like the others who would surely soon arrive, were on Hera for the Gold Rush, and the rural township of Fable's Demise wouldn't know what hit it.

Captain Chloe Henderson tucked a folded copy of the piltdown Runner in her back pocket and watched as the cargo bay doors opened to reveal a new world. She liked that moment of transition; of fresh air meeting recycled and the first step from one world into another. Not that it was much to look at, but mining planets rarely were - their beauty was all beneath the surface. Turbinium had been found here, potentially rich deposits, and Charlemagne had been lucky to intercept news of the discovery early enough to be among the first prospectors here. They were in for a decent chance, but scans of the local area had shown two other ships, one considerably larger and the other smaller. All Charlemagne needed was a chance and her crew would do her proud, they always did.

"Put that damn thing out now or the next set of scrubbers comes out of your hide, not just your pay."

Chloe didn't need to turn to see David, their code breaker and youngest crewman, obediently snubbing his cigarette. He'd recently taken up the habit and it had been causing as much trouble as the misappropriation of ham - real ham - from the fridge.

Their two passengers, Clancy and Bruno, tipped their hats as they breezed past Chloe on their way down the path that led to the village. Both had been asked to stay with the crew - they seemed like men who could handle themselves, which never went amiss when staking a claim - but both had politely, and firmly, declined. Bruno had been open in his plans to become a deputy of Fable's Demise, but Clancy had been less forthcoming. In either case, a man's business was his own and once all bills were settled they parted on amicable terms.

The five-strong crew met with others on the way into the village. First was a group of 'Red Scarves', the local thugs according to rumour, who encouraged the shipmates to drink heavily and enjoy a game of poker (presumably in that order) while in Fable's Demise. Chloe decided that any gambling would come only after ensuring the deck of cards wasn't marked and all sleeves were empty - the Red Scarves seemed an untrustworthy bunch. Closer to the town they encountered a smaller group of villagers who were vocally aggressive and opposed to the presence of outsiders. If the piltdown Runner was any guide then the town was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and they would hardly appreciate foreigners swooping in to fight over the scraps. Still, there was nothing to be said against an honest profit, and according to Galactic Law the town had been given adequate opportunity to buy the rights themselves. They may have even been able to put forward the funds if not for the crime surge traced back to those Red Scarves. With their actions seemingly designed to cripple the town at its most crucial hour, Chloe began to have a vague apprehension that their saloon roughhousing served a higher - and more dangerous - purpose.

The village was surrounded by a stout fence with only two entry points and was aflood with locals and foreigners alike, each gravitating in equal parts towards the pub and notice board.

"Work first, drink later," Chloe ordered, grabbing the shirts of two crewmates whose feet had begun to lead them astray.

The notice board seemed the obvious place to start, so the Captain headed there after leaving half her crew to circulate and find what they could from snatches of rumour. A large number of wanted posters flanked the board as stark testament to the crime rise the township was suffering. Some were for serious offences such as murder, others bizarre like armed incest, and one - with the highest reward - was enigmatically described only as 'crimes against the Alliance'. The Alliance, Chloe decided, often had a vastly different view of what constituted a crime than a former Browncoat, and she resolved to look the other way if she were to stumble across this Duncan Spiers.

"450 credits for a geo pack? They must be out of their bleeding minds!"

Even with all the funds of the crew pooled it would drain them nearly dry, and the kit allowed for only four samples and claims - they would have to be very very lucky.

"Captain," the First Mate called from the village green, "By my honour I think you'll want to speak with these men."

Leaving David to translate what appeared to be a code at the bottom of the notice board, Chloe wandered over, idly wondering if she'd ever be able to break her First Mate of the habit of talking about his honour.

The men he introduced her to were the Captain and surgeon of the Skydancer, the smaller of the two ships the earlier scan had revealed. They seemed decent enough chaps, if gut instinct was anything to go by, and they came with a proposition to join forces and split any profits equally. The risk of being screwed over was uncomfortably high, but with tensions in the town between locals and Red Scarves being much more volatile than expected, it seemed the wisest course of action to be surrounded by as many capable men as possible - especially if these included another surgeon. She had utmost faith in Charlemagne's surgeon, Russ, but knew all too well that unfortunate accidents happened once bullets began flying, and sometimes trees just weren't close enough to take cover.

While hammering out the partnership a representative from the village amended the price of geology kits from 450 credits down to 400. A neat 200 credits per crew, it sounded like a more reasonable offer and they hurried in to purchase one. Meanwhile, David returned with the translated message, which appeared to be co-ordinates for a dig site that showed great promise. Chloe was suspicious of the professed tip: thinking either that another group of prospectors would have set out for it immediately or that the anonymous author himself was having some sport with both wild geese and red herrings. In the end it came down to picking a direction and sticking to it, hoping Lady Luck would glance their way.

They came across three mine sites almost immediately and set the specialists to taking samples. One was of a far different quality than the other two, but none of the crew would have known raw Turbinium if it sat up and spoke, so they decided to rush the three claims back immediately to ensure at least something could be put to their names.

The village scientist took his time with the third and most unusual sample, and the two crews waited breathlessly - or at least impatiently - for his esoteric interpretation of the colour, consistency, and quality.

It's funny how everything can change with one little word:

"Ka-ching!"

News spread almost immediately, and Chloe winced to hear the yells outside, 'They've found a big one!' Could they have painted a larger target on their backs? It was time to get out of the village, fast.

On the outskirts the two crews were stopped by some helpful fellows who offered to show them around to a number of mine sites in the vicinity. Chloe was wary at first, but it was clear these locals hadn't recently been into the village and hadn't yet heard the news. plus they had among them some serious looking firearms, which was becoming increasingly desirable. She set the First Mate on them who, 'by his honour', offered passage off the planet in exchange for them acting as guides (and guards, even if they didn't know it). During negotiations Chloe noticed that William, Skydancer's enigmatic man-in-black had disappeared, although returned shortly from within the village and proudly - if discreetly - showed a number of sample bottles he'd thieved and claim forms he'd forged. Blind eyes were turned.

As he made his second trip back into the village the two Captains withdrew slightly to discuss options.

"We're sitting ducks here. Look, there goes another posse of Red Scarves."

"I've got an idea," the Captain of Skydancer said, "The power in these parts is Morgustein, if we offer him a cut of our claim he might protect us."

"The Red Scarf boss?"

"It'll keep them off our back."

She considered it a long moment. It was unequivocally playing both sides, and with their former passenger Bruno having being deputised and tagging along, it could make for an uncomfortable clash of interests.

"Make it happen. Offer 20%, go up to 35% if you have to, but absolutely no more than 40%." She'd handle the fallout with Bruno if necessary. It was far more important to relive the imminent threat of the Red Scarf bullies.

Morgustein, however, couldn't be found in the village, and after a small skirmish between the locals and two passing Red Scarves, they decided it was high time to take themselves to a less obvious location and out of any cross-fire.

The three hired locals led the way in what was essentially a holding manoeuvre. The crews weren't really intent on finding another claim - which was a good thing, as they were shown to sites that were either of very poor quality or had already been claimed by the village's prospectors, the Dowd group - it was far more valuable to keep on the move and hopefully untraceable to anyone who may want to acquire the rich claim by force.

Along the way they came across the town graveyard, which rumour had said was a focus of hot tempers after an Alliance probe had landed there, desecrating the graves of Fable's Demise's war heroes. The crews wanted no part of it and gave the area a wide berth in respect. On the way out Skydancer's Captain caught Chloe's arm and pointed through the trees to a gathering of Red Scarves.

"Morgustein."

"Do it!"

As he left she steered the crews away, keeping bushes and as many bodies as possible between the exchange and their resident deputy. An effort that was to be foiled not five minutes later, however, when they were accosted by two Red Scarves demanding the crews stop any prospecting, at threat of violence.

"You should *really* talk with your boss," Chloe said, with a worried glance to Bruno.

The deal had only just been made, it was binding but obviously hadn't filtered down to all the men yet. She left the Skydancer Captain to mediate with the suspicious Red Scarves while she and her First Mate reassured the deputy that they weren't working for Morgustein and would do nothing against Fable's Demise, they were just paying him not to harass them. Whether or not he'd live by his word remained to be seen, but any chance was better than none.

It came to light shortly after that that the claims, while registered and displayed publicly, had no legal binding until they were uploaded to the cortex. For this to happen they needed to be authorised by the village's scientist using his still attached, still living hand. The crews, not knowing whether their claims had yet been uploaded, suddenly felt a powerful need to check the health and well-being of the scientist.

The best way to do this, surreptitiously, was to engage in a mite of gambling in the local establishment. The boys deserved a break anyway, Chloe decided, and a few rounds of poker would serve nicely.

But troubling news was to greet them as they returned to town. On the claims board, every claim previously owned by the larger ship Aurora had changed hands to Morgustein. Dark premonitions swarmed in Chloe's mind, 'Would we be next?'

"Has anyone seen anyone from Aurora?" the First Mate asked, "Are they still around?"

But no one knew the answer and the feeling of threat deepened. The village, once a volatile hotspot, now seemed a haven. If the Red Scarves were making their move and snapping up claims - by means more likely foul than fair - then the village with its deputies and bounty hunters was safer by far than wandering the countryside. Nothing could be done until they knew more, and so the Captain and First Mate sat down into a few tense rounds of poker.

On the third hand Chloe was interrupted by David bearing an urgent message. Clancy, the possibly shifty passenger who had gone his own way upon arrival was back, wanting to book passage away for himself and 'a friend'. Chloe used the poker game, and an unfortunate losing streak, to buy time enough to think. Unfortunately this further complication did nothing for her attempts to bluff, but better news came shortly after when JR, Charlemagne's engineer, relayed the information that Aurora had been bought out, not killed out. 7,500 credits cash in hand for all their claims. Probably not a bad deal for someone looking to make a quick buck, but the Charlemagne was playing for higher stakes and Chloe wanted long term security for her crew.

Eventually she could fend him off no longer and spoke with Clancy. He was acting suspiciously and refused to give the identity of his friend, to such an extent that he may as well have shouted that he was trying to transport a wanted man offworld. Two possibilities seemed likely: Morgustein was now officially wanted as ringleader of the Red Scarves and had apparently gone into hiding. Or Duncan Spiers, who had been captured earlier only to escape, had had his bounty doubled to an impressive 4,000 credits. Chloe didn't really want to get caught up in any internal politics, but Morgustein may be agreeable - and generous - given their earlier dealings, and Spiers, well, helping a fellow Browncoat was practically an obligation. Passage out was agreed to on the proviso that they speak with the 'friend' and she be able to judge the risk to the crew herself.

But before Clancy could arrange the meet some troubling news was announced within the village. The claims, which had been under review for acceptance by mining companies, would not be accepted piecemeal. They were only interested if there were at least 12 sites. The Charlemagne-Skydancer alliance had only three, and that one of them was incredibly rich mattered not at all, they needed nine more and pickings were starting to get very slim.

Charlemagne had been left alone in the village while playing poker and no one knew the location of the Skydancer crew. In their absence, Chloe approached the locally run Dowd Group with a proposition for coalition. Both groups would keep their initial claims but the sum of them would be presented as a single package to the Galactic Mining Corp. The Dowd Group was eager for the partnership, but even together they still fell one short of the minimum. The crew needed just a single claim but the geo kit was with Skydancer and no more were available for sale no matter the price. An offer from the three locals previously traded with was regretfully refused - being shown to an unclaimed mine site was useless if the crew lacked the equipment to seize it. Thus followed a frantic sweep through the woods, abandoning caution and calling for the crew of Skydancer. The two crews were reunited at the lower end of the mining field, which luckily also held two unclaimed plots which were quickly sampled and rushed back to town.

Chloe stood over the scientist herself until the last claims were uploaded to the cortex and happily went outside to give Skydancer and the Dowd Group the good news. No sooner was this done then there was a disturbance at the far end of town and Red Scarves flooded through the under-defended gate. Bullets started flying and both crews hightailed it out of there, unsure of the cause of the dispute but not wanting to be caught in the crossfire.

The shouts and sounds of gunfire calmed down a few minutes later and they cautiously made their way back inside. What had happened? Rumours were rife: Morgustein had been captured, no, he had escaped custody. No, was already offworld after buying passage out on the Aurora. The villagers were going to find and condemn anyone who had dealings with him and strip their claims ('By my honour, no one from Charlemagne spoke with him' - the First Mate technically spoke the truth), and rumours of forged claimed putting the rest in jeopardy, which made Chloe think uncomfortably about the items procured by Skydancer's man in black, a self-proclaimed thief.

Juggling a dozen concerns at once, Chloe turned to her First Mate to delegate a potentially problematic one: Clancy and his friend, code-named 'Brittany'. It was established that 'Brittany' was indeed Spiers and had been hiding in the woods for some time, vulnerable to discovery. The First Mate was sent to rendezvous with Clancy and escort them both onto Charlemagne - after securing appropriate remuneration for putting the crew at considerable risk with the local authorities, not to mention the Alliance at large. And it may also cause problems with another passenger, a bounty hunter who had paid for passage off the turbulent world. But that was a problem for later.

The surprise attack had interrupted a town meeting called to discuss the contract offered by the Galactic Mining Corp. Potentially there was another deal to be made with a robotics-based corporation named Pyrite (aptly, 'Fool's Gold'), but it would guarantee the village's collapse so it wasn't an option worth considering - not if they wanted to get out of the village in one piece. The meeting recommenced with the village representative reading out the terms that, while biased heavily towards the company (including total loss of the 'Ka-ching' site) was very supporting of Fable's Demise and would allow for continued income and immediate payment of the debts that threatened bankruptcy. It was a good deal on the surface of it and Chloe indicated her assent, but was pulled aside by the Captain of the Skydancer before he agreed to the deal. He brought with him Skydancer's journalist, which instantly had Chloe apprehensive as a number of actions throughout the day had cast her into suspicion - her own Captain didn't trust her and had warned as much. So what had changed matters now?

She claimed offworld contacts had alerted her to an Alliance spy within Fable's Demise working to push through the contract, one that would leave us penniless if we were lucky, in imminent danger if we weren't. Chloe brushed off her warnings as inconsistent fearmongering and argued that any deal was better than none - time was running out and the situation between the divergent parties threatened to explode at any moment. Skydancer's Captain agreed in theory but was still beset by doubts, and an agreement was made to speak with Galactic Mining direct to authenticate the deal and any of her allegations.

The line to the company executive was prolonged, of poor quality, and he had little time to spare speaking to skitterish captains. However, it was determined that the contract was correct as represented, and there was an Alliance agent of some description trying to throw a spanner in the works - although from his point of view it was with the intent of impeding the contract, not fast-tracking it.

The matter was further discussed inside with the village representative and the contract was examined with a fine-tooth comb. Certain amendments were made to protect all interests and dispel any ambiguity, and all three consented to sign. The Dowd rep went outside to arrange the link-up with the company to affirm the contract and Chloe and the Captain of the Skydancer remained chatting inside. Both were feeling a sense of relief and success when Chloe glanced out the window to see how the comms was coming along. She was just in time to see Andy, Skydancer's surgeon, step behind the village spokeswoman, raise his pistol and shoot her in the back. Surprise froze her tongue, her thoughts and movement were likewise impaired but the clarity of one thought freed her for action: 'He's coming in here next!'

Sure enough his silhouette, once familiar and friendly, blocked the only doorway and bullets filled the room. In the absence of any escape route Chloe dove under a table and was only just lucky enough to avoid taking injury. The next thing she knew her First Mate was flying through the doorway and putting down their unexpected assailant. The immediate crisis was over but it remained to be seen how much damage had been done.

Miraculously both captains had been lucky enough to escape the fire, and the village representative, while less fortunate, was still conscious and eager to proceed with the contract. Meanwhile the once-surgeon lay bleeding out on the floor, with people gathering to watch but no one willing to offer medical assistance to one so condemned. The journalist too had joined the back of the crowd and Chloe's suspicion flared anew. Her First Mate, always in tune with her thoughts, leaned in to whisper:

"Subdue?"

"Yes!"

He did it deftly, excusing himself to step behind her as if to leave through the doorway and then striking her sharply on the back of the head. Chloe searched her straight away, giving her credits and identicard to the Skydancer Captain in the unlikely event she was exonerated, and finding in her notebook a page of cryptic symbols that even Charlemagne's code breaker couldn't crack. It was enough to damn her after the attack and Chloe asked that she be securely restrained - learning only later that her engineer, in a fit of over-enthusiastic helpfulness, not only bound her hand and foot but also nailed her clothing to the floor.

The three representatives took up more or less where they left off, although a good deal more cautiously, and the moment the contract was finalised Chloe called for the crew of Charlemagne and told them to leg it back to the ship. And not a moment too soon, for as they made the treeline the Red Scarves were already starting to move in. The bulk of Charlemagne's crew were nearly flat out of luck and so all that could be done was to avoid conflict and keep flying.

Back at the ship they were greeted by Clancy and Spiers who had warmed up the engine and thrown open the door in anticipation of a hasty exit. All crew survived, Charlemagne acquired a number of (well-paying) passengers, came away with just shy of a thousand credits in hand, and have a substantial share in proceeds from the Turbinium mines that would continue for a very long time.

Yep, that went well.

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