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All My Friends Are Heathens

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The Outerzone; worst of the worst. No law. No order. Nominally under Alliance control, like all the worlds spinning, still did not make the furthest reaches of known space any safer than say…Reaver territory. Nothing could bring the maniacs residing there to heel. Not that the Alliance wanted any such thing.

Little known among the general populace of the ‘Verse but common knowledge among the criminal classes (of a certain caliber) the Outerzone was an oubliette. A hole where all those who made too much trouble for the Alliance were thrown. And then the whole of the hole, thrown away.

Well… technically speaking that couldn’t be said of the entire Outerzone. But it was entirely, horrifically true, regarding one specific part. Belle Reve.

If, according to the Alliance, you were a bad enough bad guy, they stamped ‘terrorist’ on your file and threw you into that hole. No one who’d gone in had ever come out.

The Slam to end all Slams. Where nightmares lived. Metas gone criminal, or unable to control their nature enough to pass for human. Unprotected by their home worlds, sometimes turned into the Alliance by those very worlds, running never got them far. The Haunted House, the Boogeyman for criminals and metas. Hardened atheist sociopaths had been seen to cross themselves at the mere mention of Belle Reve.


 

“Oh you’ve gotta be tā mā de kiddin’ me,” Griggs rolled his eyes as a ship with Parliament ident codes hailed the control center of the Slam. “We aren’t due for another ‘inspection’ until the eighteen-month mark. What’s Waller playin’ at?”

His associate shrugged, “’Nother drop off maybe?”

“Find me a cell, just in case,” Griggs ordered. “And put everyone else on lockdown.”

“Right, ‘lockdown’.” Just another word around here. Like rehabilitation, probation and parole. People went into a cell here and they never came out again. Meals served through slots in thick metal doors, lights flickering on or off at no set interval. And definitely no ‘yard’ time. Belle Reve had no yard.

“Putting the message on the main screen,” Another associate muttered. “Damn,” He whistled admiringly as a woman appeared on the screen.

Wǔ' ān,” Elegant, crisp, flowing tones unmistakably Core had Griggs scrambling in his seat to straighten his spine. “Please respond to our initiation of the landing protocols.”

“Response sent,” The telecommunications associate smacked the side of the cortex and nodded. “Pardon the delay ma’am, got some faulty equipment here.”

“I understand,” She nodded, unperturbed. “I show you have a total of,” A dark eyebrow rose, the arch of a dragon’s wing, “Six prisoners?”

“That’s correct ma’am,” Griggs took over the conversation eagerly. “We’ve been promised more.”

“No doubt,” The tone was dry. “You ascertain my purpose quite well.”

“Any special precautions with this one ma’am?”

Her smile was chilly, “A few. I’m resending the records. Please do at least skim them before our arrival.” Her admonition gained more weight as she continued, “You might want to actually read the files and updates sent to you via encrypted wave. Had you done, you might,” Her tone begged leave to differ, “have been prepared for my arrival.”

The screen went black abruptly. Clearly she had nothing more to be said.


 

River turned and looked at her partner, “The decryption program has been downloaded with the files. They don’t have a huge prison population there. But what they do have are some very special people locked in cells for the rest of their lives.”

“And you really think I’m enough of a diversion to take the place?” He was busy piloting but slanted a look at her that suggested his doubt. “Doubt they’d be so grateful they wouldn’t try for you if you let them out.”

“We also have leverage,” River reminded him of their passengers. “For a few at least. Incentive.”

“You really think the guards’ll buy into the idea that you caught me all by yourself?” He keyed in an extra burn to offset the backflow as they hit atmosphere.

“The use of drugs, or the perception thereof, will explain away any unlikelihood of her story,” She pointed at the marks they’d made on his bare bicep. “Debilitating shock collar, manacles and chains…” She shrugged, “None of the guards are what you could call deep thinkers.”

“Then you’d better take over so I can start getting into my ‘gear’,” He didn’t wait for a reply, standing and nodding his satisfaction when she continued their descent without so much as a bump in their trajectory.

“Left it all out on the galley table,” She told him. “Be there to help in a moment.”

She didn’t care for the cheap and ugly ship, but no one would believe a Knorr or Firefly would be flown by an Alliance Operative. A discreet ship, of the same type as a thousand others scuttling around the Outerzone like cockroaches, drew no notice at all.

“And here we go…” River set the boat down on the dock and set the arming sequences before heading back to the galley.


 

Being chained up had never done it for him. Sure, he got it that some guys, they liked being restrained, by a beautiful woman or man, whatever. Bondage to them, well it mean they could relax, not be in control, trust…

For him…he’d been chained up a few too many times to find it the least bit relaxing. Beautiful women aside he’d just as soon skip anything involving cuffs and manacles. Sure, he could bust out of damn near any rope or cuff but getting put in them…that meant he’d lost a step, slipped and got careless or lazy. Or worse, got civilized and trusted someone he shouldn’t.

Now look at him, all back of the bus of his own accord, and the softest hands he’d ever felt, carefully wrapping a collar around his neck, cuffs on his wrists. “How tight do you need them,” She asked with a concerned frown.

Riddick shrugged, “Gotta have the metal close to my skin, loose won’t do the trick. I need to be able to flex, twist and break the hinges.”

“Very close then,” She nodded. “It will have to be the same with the collar, though I have lined it with leather so it should not chafe.”

“I’ve had worse,” He shrugged again. “You’re sure about this?”

It wasn’t an idle question. She’d told him flat out what she was, who she was, this operation was as dangerous for her as it was for him. If the guards had even half a brain…

“They do not,” She told him flatly. “Less than half a brain between all of them. Lazy and fat with lack of work.”

“And the one who runs the place,” Riddick regarded her. “The one that wants to collect people and use ‘em?”

“Not on site,” She shook her head. “Before Parliament, closed meeting, explaining the plans, again.”

“Doesn’t make a lot of sense,” He knew people, and anyone who assumed these prisoners would remain so for long with such lax guards was deeply stupid. No one like Waller was stupid.

“Once in a cell, they do not come out,” River explained. “Doors are not unlocked. Should one be broken down, all prisoners are isolated. Corridors are killing zones.”

“This just sounds like more and more fun all the time,” He groused half-heartedly.

“Which is why she has taken steps for the escape to occur during processing. Even newcomers must be processed,” She was repeating herself but her scent was calming. Her nerves weren’t jangling along his anymore at least.

“Shivs?” He asked more for something to think about besides her fingertips on his skin than any real need to know.

“Several concealed in his boots, one in his belt buckle, and one in the collar,” She was checking the leg shackles now. “Weak links will break easily once he moves with purpose. Must take care they do not split prematurely.”

“Take half steps, that should do it,” Riddick nodded. He looked around and nodded, the rest of the ship was locked down tight. None of the ‘guards’ would be able to get on board.

“Secure.” She nodded, “Grateful, that he is doing this.”

Riddick shrugged. First off she’d offered plenty of cash. Second, she’d sweetened the deal by offering to husk his records in order to make it easier for him to slip through the shadows around the ‘Verse. Third… well…third was… a possibility.


 

He’d never seen a woman wearing a sword before. Griggs blinked. The woman on the screen had been larger than life, in person she was…tiny. Like a doll he could pick up and carry under one arm. Except she wore a sword and axe on her back, guns on her hips and thighs and another two in shoulder holsters. The weapons harness was clearly custom and if there’d been any doubt this was a Core citizen it was removed when she spoke.

The crisp greeting, accompanied by a shallow bow borne of ingrained courtesy, barely broke her stride ahead of one of the most wanted men in the ‘verse. “Zhì jìng,” She didn’t seem at all concerned with the expression on the face of the man at her back. “I trust that you have finally perused the files sent?”

“We looked ‘em over,” Griggs nodded. “Got a nice cell all set aside, keep him all by his lonesome.”

“I do hope this isn’t the entire complement of the guard,” She looked over the five men in uniform.

Grigg’s bristled, “Got ten more. Ain’t their shift yet.”

“And you believe the five of you are…adequate to escort Mr. Riddick?” That cool tone practically crackled with ice and doubt.

“He’s chained up ain’t he,” Griggs gestured at Riddick’s huge figure, manacles and shackles clanking as he moved carefully into the center of the room. “If a little thing like you can handle him, shouldn’t be any trouble for five of us.”

“He is,” She smiled and Griggs fought a shiver. The only time he’d seen a colder face had been when Amanda Waller smiled. Some of the prisoners had warmer expressions. “He certainly does seem…secure.”

“Then what’s the problem?” Griggs nodded at his guys to take hold of the prisoner.

“This.” Riddick spoke for the first time, a deep low growl that perfectly demonstrated why his file ‘suggested’ he was more than half animal. Then that powerful frame flexed and twisted and the gorram chains broke, manacles snapping off his wrists.

Griggs barely had time to hit the alarm before cold steel sliced through his throat. The woman’s chilling smile filled his eyes before everything faded, satisfied and smug.


 

Riddick grinned as he took a moment to pull the shackles off his ankles. “Nice little work out,” He looked over at River. She had blood streaked across her face and shirt but it didn’t seem to bother her.

“Was fun,” She agreed absently as she husked the cortex. “More interesting when the rest of the guards came.”

“Yeah,” He busied himself stripping the bodies of weapons and valuables. “Never did say how you’d found this place. Or how you were gonna keep them from finding you after.”

“Working on that now,” She glanced up at him and gave him a half smile. “Told you, genius. Reader on top of that. Husking their records. They opened the files and the decryption virus is more than halfway through their system. Replacing my image with Waller’s image. Replacing his with Grigg’s.” She grimaced, “Sorry.”

“I’ll live,” Riddick shrugged and began to move the bodies out of the way. “Never did tell me why you wanted to break into this place so bad.”

“I’ll show you,” She half smiled. “The Alliance, in their infinite wisdom,” Damn he really liked how well she did sarcasm, “Decided that if you were, in their opinion, a bad enough bad guy, they could stamp ‘terrorist’ on your file. And that gave them free rein to throw you in here.”

“Heard something about that,” Riddick agreed. “Figured it was only a matter of time before someone tried to stick me in here.”

“And you still agreed to come with me?” She gave him a look that suggested his sanity should be questioned.

“Good chance to case the place,” He shrugged.

“Heard of the Miranda wave?” River was still working as she talked, fingers clicking over the keys of the cortex.

“Who hasn’t,” When he’d had the time and energy to devote to it, he’d wondered who’d had the solid steel balls to broadcast something so obviously a Parliament secret. The only thing that had limited the wave had been distance and even that had only delayed folks from viewing it by a day to a week. The Alliance had some real trouble on its hands. In the year after the wave things still hadn’t settled down completely. Unrest and calls for the Parliament to revise its laws regarding the Independents and the punishments inflicted after the war hadn’t died down the way the Core folk of the Alliance had thought.

It was a huge mess, and whoever had sent out the Miranda Wave had caused it, like an earthquake under the ocean caused a tidal wave. The idiots who’d thought introducing a chemical pacifier to the air processors… well… no one had come forward admitting anything, which could be why the ‘verse was still in an uproar over it. If Parliament had decided to hang someone out to dry, chosen a scapegoat, half their problems would have been solved. Because everyone wanted someone to blame. Even if it wasn’t the right someone.

“Wasn’t responsible for the secret,” River told him quietly. “I knew it. Knew it, knew it wasn’t mine, heard it in the minds of men who came to watch me, see the results of the experimentation.”

“Experiments,” He felt his voice go low and dangerous, growl vibrating his chest.

“To make a genius into a Reader, and assassin,” She shrugged. “Worked. To a point. Wasn’t the only subject, just the most successful.” Her mouth twisted, “Of course, they were programmed completely. No autonomy.”

“How old?” Riddick waited until she looked up and asked again, “How old were you when that started? You can’t be more than twenty.”

She half smiled, “I went to the Academy when I was fourteen. My brother got me out when I was seventeen. That was three years ago. A year of insanity, running. The Miranda Wave. Four months repairing the ship after. And then… all the unrest…more running until they caught up with us. He’s been here… nearly a year and two months.”

“Who? Your brother?” He tilted his head.

She shook her head, “No.” She tapped a console screen. “Him.”


 

The lights flickered, as the power stuttered momentarily, and he paused in his activity. Power never flickered here. Steady, reliable, not considered a potential weakness for exploitation.

He never could hear anything from the halls. The prison seemed more than half empty, though he knew from the guards’ talk that there were others here. He had to wonder if they’d been accused of similar crimes, if they were as guilty as he was, or if they were worse.

The solitude could make someone crazy. He thought he might be hearing things. Again.


 

“You’re planning on setting all of them loose?” He sounded as if he still couldn’t believe it even though she’d said it more than once. She could understand that, honestly enough, these were some of the most dangerous people in the ‘verse. There were no guarantees.

“Prisoners of war do not attempt escapes only to be gone from their prison,” River didn’t slow down. “That is a happy bi-product. POWs attempt escapes so the enemy will expend time and effort and manpower recapturing them. Resources that might be allocated to the ‘war’ are spent recapturing prisoners once again.”

“So they’re diversions,” Riddick murmured. “Like me?”

She did stop and look at him then, “No. Not like you. I do not know them. I have no reason to trust them, nor they to trust me. You, you and I have struck a bargain. Gave my word and you gave yours.” He folded his arms and stared at her and River rolled her eyes, “Neither of us is the type to go back on our word once given, not unless we are betrayed. You were the trojan horse Riddick. Now…”

“Now what?” He growled at her, irritation riding his shoulders.

“Now…we see what comes next, after we have accomplished the goal of the jailbreak,” River stopped at a cell and connected her cortex to the locks. “Floyd Lawton?”

“Who’s askin’,” The rough voice didn’t hit the deeper timbres of Riddick’s tones but it was hoarse with disuse.

“Brought you a visitor. She’s on my ship,” River told him. “Got a box full of letters she’s been writing you. Every day. Guards kept them at the desk.”

“If you’ve done anything to her—”

The threat was interrupted by Riddick’s rather aggravated growl of annoyance, “Don’t hurt kids. Never have, never will. They’re a damn sight more interesting and trustworthy than most ‘adults’. She brought the kid with us so no one could use her against you when we got you out. Got a few others on board too.”

“Opening the door now, please refrain from punching your rescuers,” River requested crisply.

The three-inch-thick door slid into the wall with a squeal of rusty metal and River looked up at the tall man with a scraggly beard and hair twisted into makeshift dreads, “Clean clothes.” She thrust them at him. “Personal grooming can be done aboard ship. Please change and follow. Much to do.”

He didn’t waste any time tearing the old clothing off, scowling with distaste at the guard uniform but pulling it on as they waited. “She as crazy as she sounds?” Lawton looked at Riddick.

“No,” The huge killer shook his head. “She’s just a genius. This is her plan. Start to finish.”

“So what’re you? Muscle?”

“Nah,” Riddick’s voice held an evil smile. “Richard B. Riddick, escaped convict, murderer, Furyan.”

“Genius in his own right,” River commented as she did some more husking and smiled in satisfaction. “Ah, personal effects have been located.” She looked over at the two men, visibly sizing each other up, “Please postpone all pissing contests until the job is done? We may need to act as stevedores later and you will both need your strength.”


 

Riddick tapped River’s shoulder as she began to work the lock on Killer Croc’s door, “Let me handle this one when you get it open.” He suggested. “He an’ I got somethin’ in common.”

“Ah,” She nodded her understanding. “Mr. Waylon Jones?” She called through the meal slot, “My partner would like to speak with you. I’ll have your door open in a moment.”

“Hey Croc,” Riddick growled into the slot of the door. “You still pretendin’ to eat people to mess with their minds or did you go chī xiàn and start actually doin’ it?”

“Why’d the fuck d’you care Riddick,” Croc’s growl was almost as intimidating as the Furyan’s.

“Because I got women and kids on our boat and I ain’t exactly thrilled at the thought of you puttin’ ‘em on the menu,” He retorted. “Especially not the woman who’s busting you out of here.”

“I don’t fuckin’ eat people,” Croc sounded like he was sneering though that mouthful of razor teeth. “Not that I can fuckin’ tell what I’m eatin’ with the shit they give us in here.”

“Protein, unflavored, disgusting but ultimately healthful,” River made a face. “She will make a proper meal for all guests once we have returned to the boat. As much as is possible on that fèi tóng làn tiě.”

“Riddick why’re you flyin’ a pile of junk?” Croc’s appearance was actually more intimidating than his voice.

“It’s one a those tin can merc boats,” Riddick shrugged. “Damn near invisible out here. She hates the thing.”

“It’s a piece of zá wù,” River shook her head and dug out the largest pair of pants she had. “Apologies for the ill fit. Could find none larger.”


 

River frowned as they came to an intersection, “A moment please.”

“Problem?” Lawton had stopped posturing and simply leaned against the wall to look at her.

“Believe we should remove Chato Santana from his cell first,” River looked at Riddick for his opinion. “Dr. Quinzel would be distracting to the males in the group and Mr. Harkness is…disruptive on a good day.”

“Yeah,” Riddick nodded his agreement. “Santana, he’s turned over a new leaf, since he lost his wife and kids to his own temper. Not that it stopped them from locking him up anyway.”

“Dangerous,” River shrugged and started off down the hall. The prison was deceptive, different levels and halls everything seeming larger than reality. It didn’t take long to reach the right door.

Chato Santana was reluctant to leave his cell, reluctant to be tempted again, but eventually he was convinced. “So who’s next,” Lawton asked curiously. His mind had a feline feel to it, inquisitive about everything especially her.

“Dr. Quinzel I think,” River turned towards the woman’s cell. The blonde woman was crazier than River, though for entirely different reasons, and housed in an open air cage in the middle of a cavernous space.

The men, on her advice/command, stayed in the doorway of the larger room while she moved forward to the cage, “Dr. Quinzel.” River greeted her. “Been a long time.”

“My oh my oh my,” Harley Quinn shook her head. “How the mighty have fallen.”

“Happens when someone strips your amygdale, drives you crazy and turns you into an assassin,” River told her dryly. “You’re lucky, you skipped the stripped amygdale portion of the program.”

“But not the torture or crazy or assassin part,” Harley agreed. “Although at least mine was willing.”

“True, you embraced it, made it a strength,” River agreed. Her old school pal and gymnastics teammate hadn’t been brilliant enough for the Academy, luckier for her. Though River wasn’t entirely certain running afoul of the Joker’s schemes and falling in love with him was much better. Though the man seemed utterly besotted and infuriated by his creation. “Pygmalion fell in love with Galatea though he created her in the image he chose, she became more than he understood. Loved her for what he couldn’t create.”

“You always were the smart one,” Harley smiled. “And you are keeping very very bad company.”

“Hmm,” River grinned at her. “But such fun company to be in. Brought your own bad company for you. On the boat.” She added as she unlocked the cage door and handed the blonde her clean clothing. “Men will turn their backs now.” She called over her shoulder. “She will not guide a group of drooling fools through the prison.”

There was grumbling from everyone but Riddick who steadfastly refused to turn around. “Someone’s gotta guard your back,” He told her flatly.

“On your own head be it,” River shrugged.


 

He couldn’t care less about the blonde with the funny ends to her hair. Sure she moved nice and all. And he could tell she might be as deadly as River. But she wasn’t… other. River was something other on top of the beauty and deadly and genius. Maybe it was the way all of them combined in her, maybe it was because she was mostly sane, despite what she said. He knew how crazy smelled and she wasn’t. The blonde yeah, more cuckoo than a clock.

When the women moved towards them Harley passed him and he didn’t give her a glance, putting a hand on River’s shoulder and bending down to her ear, a quiet growl just for her, “Couldn’t care less about her. It’s your pretty little pì gu I got my eyes on.”

“Blood is up from the fight,” She blinked up at him curiously and he chuckled.

“That wasn’t a fight, that was a…scuffle,” He caught her earlobe in his teeth and tugged, scraping her skin and inhaled at the perfume of her scent. “Long time since I smelt beautiful,” He crooned.

“Wicked wicked man,” She pressed a palm to his chest right over Shirah’s mark and blinked up at him. “Good things come to those who wait.”

“I’ll take that as a promise,” He grinned and straightened up. “Let’s get the last couple nuts for this basket of yours and get off this rock.” He’d seen a lot of looks on her face but that shy surprise was something new. She put that mask of cool competence back up as they moved towards the rest of the prisoners but he knew what he’d seen.

“Digger Harkness,” He’d given her a look and River had nodded for him to take the lead as she began to unlock the door. “We let you out, you’re gonna come along and not make any trouble for us.”

“I ain’t done nothin’,” Harkness declared. “One minute I’s playin’ mah jong with me Nana an’ next thing I know I’m in here.”

“Right,” Riddick rolled his eyes. “And I’m Saint Nicholas. This is a jail break. We are all leaving. Now if you want to luxuriate in that cell while we go that’s fine. But we killed all the guards so you’ll likely starve to death before the prison repopulates.”

“Who’n the hell’re you?” The question was more along the lines of ‘what’n the hell do you think you’re doin’ trying to break in and out of Belle Reve’, but Harkness wasn’t exactly the brightest bulb in the box. A genius with certain types of technology and archaic weapons but he couldn’t pull off this type plan.

“Richard B. Riddick,” The answer shut Harkness up, as he finally realized he’d come up against someone who’d call any bluff he made and was much more of an alpha.

The shaggy wild-eyed man standing behind the creaking door hardly looked like someone who’d successfully robbed more banks than the rest of the Alliance’s most wanted list combined, but appearances were most assuredly deceiving. The lick of his lips as he got a look at River and immediately leaned in her direction… “You look all sortsa tasty.” Riddick folded his arms, the man was seriously dim if he thought River was only ‘tasty’.

“Very bad idea Harkness,” Lawton had been sizing River up while following them around. “That is no doe eyed innocent. And no sheltered ivory tower princess of the cortex either.”

Riddick chuckled as River slanted an appreciative glance in Lawton’s direction, “Depends on your definition of innocent.” She hedged and consulted her cortex.

“What’re we waitin’ for,” Harley asked. Riddick looked at her and she shrugged, “This’s all there is.”

“One more,” River looked up with a smile.

“Who’s worse’n the rest of us,” Harley gestured at the motley crew of criminals. “I mean, you got Killer Croc, Deadshot, Diablo, Captain Boomerang, Riddick an’ me. We’re pretty much…y’know, most wanted in the ‘verse.”

“One more,” Riddick looked over River’s shoulder at the cortex. “Got him farther from the rest of you it looks like.”

“Well who’n the name of Buddha, Christ and Mohammed is worse’n the rest of us,” Croc wanted to know.

“You’ll see,” River half smiled and began to lead them through the halls again, a longer trek until they reached a cell isolated even here. Harley’s cell had been open to the air around her, so she could be seen should she attempt any trick. This cell was smaller than the rest, barely six feet high and not even six feet wide. “Fèi wù gǒu cào de hún dàn gǒu niáng yǎng de,” She slotted her cortex to the door and began to husk it feverishly.

“How tall’d you say he was,” Riddick was eyeing the dimensions of the cell grimly.

“Over six feet,” Her fingers moved feverishly over the keys.

“Albatross…” The voice was faint. “That you xiǎo nǚ or am I hearin’ things again.”

“It’s all right Bà ba,” He’d never heard her voice like that, not in all the plotting and planning she’d done with him. Full of tears and utterly controlled. “We’re getting you out.”

“’Tross….ain’t that I don’t trust you, but ‘xactly who’s ‘we’?” The man asked sensible questions at least, “I really ain’t gonna feel good ‘bout this escape if all you’ve got is Jayne on your side.”

“Ape man was too sensible to leave,” River replied and Riddick liked that she was half smiling now. “Door should open…” She hit the keys and the door began to slowly slide open.

Riddick looked in the cell and found a man sitting on a folded up pallet, his clothes slightly less grubby than the rest of the prisoners though he was none too fresh. “Hey, guess you’re her Cap’n Daddy?”

The slightly bewildered face nodded, “Yeah that’d be me. Heinous villain responsible for the Miranda Wave.”

Riddick tilted his head as the murmurs in the corridor rose to a fever pitch for a moment before Lawton and Harley hushed them. “Well I’m Riddick. Your Albatross calls me her trojan horse.”

“Riddick, he’s all right?” River’s anxious voice called.

“Yeah, think he just ain’t sure we’re real yet, s’all,” Riddick called back.


 

He had to be seeing things. There was no way zài dì yù de dì qī guā yuē jī zhōng that his little Albatross had broken into Belle Reve and recruited one of the most notorious killers in the ‘Verse to help.

The big man crouching down in the door of his cell to meet his eyes was the biggest meanest looking gǒu niáng yǎng de he’d ever seen. He didn’t look like a guard, or anyone else he’d ever met so that argued for him being a real person. Hearing River’s voice counted against that notion though.

“You know I’ve seen things before. Perils of being left in solitary,” He informed the big man peering at him with silver eyes. “Last stint as a POW I was with my men. Some easier then. Bein’ together. ‘Cept you got so you forgot who was dead and who wasn’t… waitin’ in the Valley. Heard folk strugglin’ for breath as had died three days before.”

“Yeah, I gotcha. But you’re not seeing things. Your daughter’s a genius, remember?” The big man half smiled, “She’s gorgeous on top of that. You don’t come out here I might just forget myself and start making advances.”

“You will not!” He was not having that, not with his little girl, she was a sweet innocent child yet.

“Better come out an’ stop me,” The big hún dàn taunted.

Well that needed an answer, and Mal managed to stumble his way across his little cell without concussing hisself on the ceiling or doorjamb in a semi-respectable charge. He did not succeed in wrapping his hands around the hún dàn’s throat but he did fall on top of him.

“Well I got him,” The dark evil sounding voice chuckled in his ear. “Where do you want the package lady?”

He heard his little girl giggle, “He does not believe I am real yet.”

“Nope, don’t think so,” The big evil looking fella had him half slung over one really wide shoulder as Mal looked around at some truly strange folk. “I got him. Let’s grab everybody’s personals and head out.”

“He has very good ideas,” Lil Albatross agreed. Mal knew with absolute certainty that he did not care for the way his imaginary little girl was looking at the huge imaginary hún dàn carting him along. And he really disliked the way the huge hún dàn was looking back at her. His Albatross was too young for such carrying’s on.


 

River forced herself to stay calm, remember her training from the Academy, keeping her breathing even and slow, forcing her heart rate to do the same as she caught sight of her Captain. Riddick’s approving look a balm to her battered emotions as he inhaled. The man read scents and body language the way she read minds.

“We’ll need to pick up the pace,” She said after a moment of leading them back through the prison. “Unscheduled visit in twenty four hours.” River kept her gaze on the cortex, giving the impression a text wave had come in, rather than hearing the thoughts of Amanda Waller.

“Problem?” Riddick gave her a look that might have been inscrutable to anyone else.

“Mission City, out on Horus Five,” She nodded. “Waller plans to make use of the ‘team’ she assembled.”

“What kind of problem,” Deadshot regarded her thoughtfully. “And why would she want us?”

“Plausible deniability,” River shrugged. “Use leverage against all of you, send you in with someone she trusts, use you to deal with the threat. Put you all back in your box when she’s done. If you all survive.”

“She wants to what?” That got Mal’s attention. She’d had the idea it would.

“Collected the worst of the worst,” River explained as she walked faster. “Because getting people to act against their own self-interests is what I do for a living.” Oops…slight slip there. “She convinced Parliament to green light her project Task Force X. I wanna build a team of some very bad people who I think can do some good. We run them covertly, non-attributed. Strictly need to know. And if they get caught, we throw them under the bus.” That produced some very annoyed rumblings from the rest of the group.

“So what use does she have for me,” Mal never had really seen exactly how valuable a commander he was.

“Every squad needs a lieutenant, and a sergeant,” River told him. “You commanded the entire valley. Kept them fighting. Held it longer than anyone thought you could. ‘The Alliance said they were gonna waltz through Serenity Valley and we choked them with those words. We have done the impossible and that makes us mighty’.”

Harley actually turned and stared, “You’re the one who held Serenity Valley? Oh my puddin’s gonna be thrilled.”

“Thrilled,” Riddick repeated in a curious tone while River led them to the area where the personal effects were stored.

“Uh huh,” Harley nodded eagerly. “Half the trouble he causes is ‘cause he can’t stand the Alliance. Of course, the other half is because he can’t stand order or peace or anything that ain’t chaotic really. But ya know, to each his own.”

“Better gear up here,” River suggested. “Leave anything from Belle Reve behind.”

“You’re thinkin’ trackers?” Lawton looked at her thoughtfully and when she nodded agreed, “Yeah that’d made sense.”

River watched as Riddick got Mal to his footlocker and the Captain began to act as if he was in the here and now. It was mostly automated, muscle memory of what to do when confronted with clothing and he was… She turned her back, guarding the room as the Captain began to strip down to nothing. “Sweet Buddha my eyes,” She groaned.

Riddick’s laugh, pure amusement at her predicament, ripped through the air, low and evil as a sawblade and she rolled her eyes. Better to use the time productively…


 

River had that note in her scent meant she was Reading something. Most likely about that ‘surprise’ visit. He could appreciate that. Twenty-four hours out or not, there was always the potential for a closer Alliance ship to come calling. He didn’t know what sort of precautions they’d plan on taking with their ‘task force’ but letting them out without some sort of collar or prod to keep them in line… Yeah, that sorta stupid didn’t fit with what River had found out about Amanda Waller.

Harkness had somewhat furtively stuffed a pink unicorn plushy into his long brown coat, among other things. Now he regarded River’s back with a happy smirk and moved towards her with a gleam in his eye.

She wouldn’t thank him for interfering, though it was damn tempting to twist the man’s arm behind his back before he tried to do what he was so obviously thinking. Riddick managed to contain his irritated growl to sub vocal but the closer Harkness the more the animal in him, the Furyan, wanted to taste blood.

He knew the minute River sensed Harkness behind her, her scent changed though she still let the man get too close in his opinion. A half minute later he saw why as Harkness’s hand gripped River’s hip and pì gu.

River’s pointy elbow jammed back into the man’s ribs, her fist came around and met his jaw with an audible crack. If that hadn’t gotten the attention of the group River’s powerful kick to his chest, sending him sprawling on his back in the middle of the room would have done the trick.

Riddick smiled in appreciation; River’s Captain looked up from buckling on his gunbelt with a frown of annoyance at Harkness. “I might coulda warned you not to touch her,” The Browncoat told the gasping New Melbourne native. “Last fella who tried ended up wearing his guts for garters.”

“Who was that,” Riddick wondered as River leaned back against the wall, ostensibly studying her cortex again. She was Reading something again and frowning over it.

“Some big tǔ lǎo mào gǒu cào de gǒu niáng yǎng de,” The Captain shrugged. “Thought she was all alone an’ couldn’t take care of herself. Never mind how many guns she sported.”

“Don’t forget the knives Cap’n Daddy,” River murmured. “Sword was too unwieldy to use in close company.”

“Right,” He nodded agreeably. “So unless she invites it, don’t touch her.” Reynolds looked at the man on the floor rubbing his chest and then at the rest of the group. “If she doesn’t kill you I will.”

“Don’t have the time for this,” River straightened and put the cortex in it’s satchel at her side. “Not playing mule for you so if you want to bring the footlockers you can carry them yourselves.”

“Got everything I need,” Mal shook his head and bowed politely to Harley. “If you need help carrying yours miss?”

“Aww… you’re sweet,” Harley beamed at him.

“And you’re crazy,” Mal told her with a genial smile. “But I figure you’re likely as good with a gun as my daughter, which is better than I am right now.” Harley’s only response was to giggle.

“Damage to the nerves?” Riddick frowned.

“Just need to stretch out, more than I’ve been able,” The Browncoat shook his head. “I know my aim’ll be a bit off until I do.”

“Least you know,” Lawton commented and picked up his trunk. The rest of them grabbed theirs, Mal and Harley carrying hers, and they all trooped out to the hanger where the cockroach of a ship waited for them.

Riddick tilted his head as they got into the open air, “Get everybody on board.” He snapped to River as she keyed the ship open.

“You heard him,” She began to hustle them up the narrow ramp as quickly as possible.


 

Too many variables, too many possibilities, she’d gotten them narrowed down but there was always something. “If we didn’t have bad luck we’d have none at all,” She muttered as another ship, shinier than theirs, set down inside the hanger.

“Oh you’ve got to be kidding me,” Riddick growled. “They sent someone ahead of Waller?”

“Colonel Rick Flag,” River nodded. “His bàng jiār is responsible for the trouble in Mission City.”

“Great,” Riddick looked at her. “Got a play here?”

River nodded, “With non-combatants on the boat…” What she had in mind wouldn’t be easy. And she couldn’t do it without Riddick.

“Need to buy time to get them to another boat,” He understood. “And after?”

“Big damn heroes,” River murmured.

“That’s different,” Riddick stood with her at the bottom of the ramp.

If they resisted, Flag would simply shoot them down. They couldn’t stay on Belle Reve, or they’d be subject to whatever restraint Waller had in mind to control her task force. “Pretense of redundancy,” She murmured. “Control devices already administered. Controlled by the cortex on my wrist.”

“And the incentives we’ve got on board?” Riddick’s voice stayed as low as hers.

“A reward before the job, with implied continuation after, with time off their sentences,” River replied. “Should work. And explains why we must stop at another ship.” She hoped.

He nodded and stood slightly behind her and to the side, conspicuously huge and implying that he was under her command. “Colonel Flag,” She greeted the tall blond man in fatigues. “Waller didn’t mention you were to meet us here. We were ready to leave.”

“Picked up one more for the task force,” Flag nodded, military all the way. But nothing could hide the shadows under his eyes or the tightness of his jaw. Amanda Waller had him under thumb. Leverage on him through his love for Dr. Moon. One of the most dangerous meta humans in the ‘verse.

“Curiosity killed the cat,” River murmured. “We had the same errand, though mine was altered upon arrival. I had presumed we would meet outside Mission City?”

“Didn’t tell me you’d be here,” Flag nodded towards Riddick. “Or that he was part of the squad.”

“A fortuitous acquisition,” River smiled coldly. “I believe he will be quite the asset to the team. We will be quite formidable.”

“We,” Flag repeated. “You’re part of this?”

“Did you really think the Parliament would sanction any sort of action without one of their Operatives being part of it?” River arched an eyebrow. She’d picked up the mannerism from her father. Used appropriately it never failed to produce the reaction she wanted. Nor did it fail her now, Flag quailed under her look.

“I suppose not,” He admitted. “You want Slipknot on your boat? Or no?”

“Already had restraining measures administered?” River tilted her head, aware of how feline it looked.

“Yeah he’s set to go,” The soldier nodded. “Got him, my second and a dozen or so men. Best anywhere.”

“Better to keep him with you for now,” River began to key something into her cortex. “I’ll add him to my list.”

“I’ll send some of my guys over to your boat then, even out the load,” Flag nodded to someone behind him.

River sighed, “That would not be wise.” She regarded him with a thoughtful gaze and keyed a few commands into her cortex. Flag winced and shouted his discomfort as the earwig he wore squealed and shorted out, along with half the cameras on them. “Shall we stop pretending?”

“River Tam,” Flag nodded, still respectful, which was promising. “Guess you came here to get your Captain?”

“I did,” River nodded. “And the rest of them.”

“Can’t let you go,” He pointed out. “We need them.”

“Because if Enchantress takes Mission City it’s only the beginning,” River looked at Riddick.

“Well you called it,” He shrugged. “Big Damn Heroes it is.”

River regarded Flag, “I will not submit to any device being administered to me, or any of the people on my ship. I will convince them to follow us. Follow my Captain.”

“And when it’s done?” Flag regarded her steadily. “Waller knows you’re in this now.” He indicated the earwig still smoking on the ground.

“She’ll have to catch me,” River smirked. “And the rest of us.”

“Sometimes, you ask someone nicely, they’re more likely to do something for you, than if you threaten ‘em,” Mal walked down the ramp, resting his thumbs on his belt. “Alliance never did figure that out.”

“Sergeant Reynolds,” Flag greeted him.

“Captain,” River corrected pointedly. “He is Captain Reynolds of the Firefly transport Serenity.”

Flag looked momentarily irritated while Mal looked down at River, “So, guess we’re thinkin’ a helpin’ these folks?”

“If we don’t,” River looked into the future for a moment, the fourth dimension was so aggravatingly visible at times. “If we do not help… it will be worse than the Alliance. The Enchantress must be stopped.”

Mal sighed and kissed the top of her head, “Well I didn’t fight a war for Independence just to roll over when a witch decides to boss me around. Not unless it’s you Little Albatross.”

“Appreciated,” River smiled up at him.

“Witch?” Flag regarded her thoughtfully.

“Jiangyin hillfolk tried to burn her as a witch,” River shrugged. “Perils of being insane.”

“Better get going if we’re gonna do this,” Riddick suggested. “Still gotta meet up with Serenity.”

“No, you don’t,” Flag objected in a hard voice and River slanted him an irritated look.

“I have women and children on my boat. The families of the people imprisoned here. I’m not taking them into a war zone,” She snapped in annoyance. “We will meet with Serenity, in order to leave non-combatants behind.”

Flag made an irritated noise but nodded apparently wise enough to know when to capitulate.

“We’ll send you our course,” Mal nodded at him.

River took a deep breath, “Let’s get underway.” She followed her Captain back up the ramp, Riddick at her side, both of them turning their backs on Flag. They’d know if he tried anything before he could even half try.

“This…will not be easy to explain,” She sighed quietly. “Mal, you get to do the talking.”

“Thanks,” He slanted her a semi-irritated look but nodded his agreement.

The group of people in the ship’s miniscule common area had obviously heard some of the conversation with Flag, and they did not seem overly pleased.

“Oh yeah,” Mal muttered. “This’s gonna go real smooth.”