The Counterfeit Companion - A Firefly Fairy Tale
by Jill Arroway
She froze, and felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck and a chill run down her spine. The sound was unmistakable: the cocking of a gun. The voice that accompanied it was chill and menacing: "Hold it right there". She remained still, hoping that that was the right thing to do. "Put your hands in the air, and turn around, slowly", the voice said. She did. For the first time, she saw the man holding the weapon. He had a rough, chiseled look, and he wore the uniform of a browncoat. "I want your name, rank and serial number", he demanded.
"My name is Elizabeth Adams", she told him. "I'm a civilian".
The soldier eyed her curiously. "You're carrying supplies to Alliance forces", he accused. "That makes you the enemy. That gives me the right to shoot you dead".
"It's food!", Elizabeth stressed, barely holding back panic. "We're delivering food - not weapons".
"Food which helps the Alliance to keep on killing Independents", the soldier retorted. "I'm sorry lady, but this is war, and I can't allow that". He squeezed the trigger. Elizabeth closed her eyes.
They say you never hear the bullet that kills you. The bullet moves through the air faster than the speed of sound, then it smashes through your skull faster than brain nerve impulses can travel. Elizabeth heard the shot and flinched. Then she thought: "Why am I not dead?" She opened her eyes. The soldier lay on the floor, jerking spasmodically. Blood pooled around him. Off to one side, she saw her savior. "Cassandra!", she said, relief pouring from her face.
"<This damn war!>", Cassandra exclaimed. "I'm a doctor, not a <gun wielding hero>!". Angrily, she threw the gun to the floor. "I heal people", she insisted.
...THREE YEARS LATER...
A different place, a different time - this was the new epoch of peace. Or so they said. Elizabeth knew, it would take a long time for the scars to heal. She hugged Cassandra Briggs, now ship's doctor aboard another vessel, and almost wept with tears of joy at seeing her old friend again. "You made it through the war then", Cassandra said. "I'm sorry I couldn't stay. After that browncoat got on board - it was just too dangerous. But you stayed".
"I had to", Elizabeth answered. "People were starving. I had to help". She stepped back from the embrace. "Thanks for inviting me".
"How could I not?"
Elizabeth considered this, then smiled. "It's been a long time since I was last on Sihnon". She looked around. "It's still just as beautiful as it ever was". And it was beautiful. Aerial streams flowed over invisible paths, falling through sky. Lit from within by ever changing colored lights, the spray cascaded onto the Garden of Tranquility. Such opulence was unknown in the Border worlds, where Elizabeth had spent the last five years, but she was no stranger to it. "So do you think I'm in with a chance?", she asked.
"I don't know", Cassandra admitted. "I hope so. I recommended you. We've been summoned to a meeting at fourteen hundred - just the old crew. I guess we'll find out then".
"Well, either way, it's good to see you. And I expect to see you again this evening. At the Corn Exchange. For drinks".
"I look forward to it", Cassandra said. Cheerily, she added the word "...Captain".
There was an air of uncertainty among those who gathered in the sparse conference room. Cassandra could feel it. She wasn't the first to arrive, so she greeted those who had arrived first, and waited for the rest to appear. Conversation was stifled. It was still too soon - Romana's funeral, here on Sihnon, was still fresh in their memories. But life did go on, as was evidenced by this meeting, and in many ways the months since Romana's death had brought the crew of Uriah Heep closer, for though their grief ran deep, it was shared, and that made for a powerful bond. Cassandra squeezed Papagina as she entered the room. "Good to see you", she said.
"And you. Do you know what they've decided?" The "they" in that question referred to Yoshida-Kendall Captures, their paymasters, the people who had summoned them to this conference room.
"I don't know", Cassandra admitted.
"I hope we stay together", Papagina said. "I like this crew. It'd be a shame to break us up.
They didn't have to wait long to find out, as one suited businessman walked into to the room. They recognized him immediately: Lance Micawber, the Director General of YKC. "Please sit", he said, without preamble. There were no chairs in the conference room; the assembled sat cross-legged on the floor. The room fell silent, save for the trickling of water from the ornate fountain which served as the room's central feature. The only other sound to be heard was the chirping of birds from the gardens beyond. "Thank you for coming", the Director General said. "As you know, we at YKC have been very pleased with the overall success of the Borderline project".
There was something in the tone of his voice that Cassandra didn't like. She could feel a "but" coming on.
"However", the Director General continued. Cassandra's heart sank. "My committee has reached the conclusion that the success of Borderline was strongly tied to the personality of its presenter. And though we have considered other presenters, we believe that none have the force of personality which would be required to restore Borderline to its previous position in the ratings. It has been a hard decision, but the decision has been taken. It is my sad duty to inform you all that we will not be renewing Borderline for a second season".
He let that hang for a short time. Then one voice spoke up from the floor. This was Corey. Corey was the sort of man you could always rely on, or so thought Cassandra. He would be there for any emergency, never afraid to step in and help. And yet now he spoke almost in disbelief. "You're canceling us!?"
"I'm sorry", Micawber said, "But what choice did we have?"
Cassandra spoke up. "Wait! Did you not read my recommendation? What about Elizabeth Adams?"
"Ah yes, your friend from the war", Micawber acknowledged. "We did consider her. But the committee feel that no one, however suitable they might appear, could replace--"
"You're canceling us!?", Corey repeated, interrupting. He still couldn't quite believe it.
Micawber held up his hands in placation. To Cassandra, he said: "Perhaps you might accept Miss Adams as your new captain, but what about the rest of you?" He spoke now to all thirteen of the assembled crew. "Would you allow a stranger to walk in the shoes of Romana Ling, your friend?"
Papagina said: "Look - we just want to stay together. And as for this new captain - if Cassandra says she's OK, then she's OK".
"Once again, I am sorry", Micawber said. "There is nothing I can do. The decision has been taken." He gave a bow, and left the room.
Another man spoke. "Maybe he's right," he said. This was Bill Hatcher. "I'm not sure I'd want a stranger taking over Romana's job. Borderline was Romana's deal. Let it die with her. We can move on". Hatcher wasn't one for long words. He was the sort of man who, if it came to a fist fight, you'd want on your side, but political negotiations were not his strong point.
"They're canceling us!?", Corey said, still in disbelief.
It seemed a fitting end to the conversation. In any event there was little more to be said, and one by one, the crew drifted out of the room. "We'll meet at the Corn Exchange tonight", Cassandra called out as the people filed past. There were one or two acknowledgements. And then it was over, and Cassandra stood alone, looking out across the gardens. Maybe Kwok Fi had had a point, she considered, though reluctantly. Maybe it was time for something new.
The Corn Exchange was one of the oldest buildings on Sihnon, having been built within the first half-century of colonization. At no time in its history had it ever been used for the exchange of corn, its name an anachronism for reasons no one could remember. From the start, the Corn Exchange had been a music venue. It retained that purpose to this day. It was a place of folk songs and revelry, a place where amateur bands - some good, some not so much - would come to gain exposure, and where audiences would come for social interaction, dancing, and of course - drink.
The fourteen gathered around two large wooden tables, watching the band tune up. Waiters strode calmly around the tables delivering drinks from perfectly balanced trays. "A toast", proclaimed Papagina, holding a silver tankard full of local ale high in the air. "To the end of an era". Apart from Elizabeth, they echoed the toast in unison.
"You know, technically, this isn't the full crew", Corey said.
"Ben's around", Cassandra said. "He's sound-engineering for the band". The were referring to Ben Austin. He was crew only in the sense that Romana had promised to hire him - about fifteen seconds before she'd died. Ben was easy to get along with, and had quickly ingratiated himself with the rest of the crew, but he had never flown an actual mission with them. It was all moot now, in any case. "What will you do?", Cassandra asked Corey.
"My job description was always 'Do everything that needs doing'", he laughed. "There are other shows. I'll find something. Maybe a celebrity has-been show. Something safe. You?"
"I'm a doctor", Cassandra said. "I only ended up here by chance. Always plenty of work for a doctor. Kwok Fi?"
"My parents got a farm on Beylix", Kwok Fi answered. "Maybe I'll go there. Settle down".
"My brother owns a night club on New Melbourne", said one other - a broad shouldered man by the name of Lot. "Maybe I'll go there".
Elizabeth took all this in, saying nothing. She wasn't a part of this crew, but she could see the fire had gone out of their eyes. For some reason, that saddened her.
A tall skinny man walked across the stage and stood at the front, addressing the audience. "Ladies and gentlemen", he said, "would you please welcome this evening's entertainment, an up and coming local band - we know you're going to like them - the Flying Stationers". The applause began, and the announcer stepped down off the stage and onto the dance floor. Onto the stage walked four musicians, each carrying an instrument: a fiddle, a guitar, a flute and a tambourine. If the audience reaction was anything to go by, this band was very popular - they hadn't even played a single note yet. It didn't take long to figure out why they were so popular. When the band started up, so did the dancing. They were fast, but folk, and the audience did seem to know the dance moves. They swung around each other in squares and circles, seemingly a manic frenzy of partner-changing. And yet, at the end of each stanza, every person on the dance floor had returned to their original position.
"Do you dance?", Corey asked Elizabeth.
"Not to this", Elizabeth answered.
The group naturally segregated itself into smaller subgroups, as it was impossible to talk with everyone at once with all the music going on, and Elizabeth found herself talking with Cassandra and Papagina, who were the people closest to her. Though they had come here in part for the music, it was conversation with each other which dominated the evening, and Elizabeth paid only peripheral attention to the band. From the fragments she caught from other conversations, it seemed that most of the others were reminiscing about old times, reluctant to say goodbye but knowing that it was inevitable.
While they were talking, Elizabeth noticed a change in the pace of the music. All of sudden, things had quieted down. The audience were still on the dance floor, but now they were standing almost still, enraptured. The singer had changed, Elizabeth noted. In all of the songs up until now, it had been the guitar player who sang lead; now it was the tambourine player. The woman looked sad. The song she sang wasn't particularly good, to be honest: just another "my boyfriend left me and now I'm so depressed" sort of song. But the words were quaint, and it was memorable - perhaps in part because it was so different from what had come before. When it was over, the woman stepped back, the other singer stepped forward, and the band went back to the raucous merriment for which they were known.
Finally, the evening came to an end, and the building began to empty. As the crowd wandered away in dribs and drabs, an older man strode toward their tables. Elizabeth eyed him with curiosity. She had seen him before somewhere, but couldn't place the face. "Ben!", Papagina greeted. Then it clicked - this was Ben Austin. Elizabeth had seen his face on the cortex, on the final episode of Borderline, but they had not met in person. "Ben, this is Elizabeth", Papagina said.
"Pleased to meet you", Ben said, offering a handshake, which Elizabeth took. "Listen you guys", Ben said. "You wanna come backstage? I can't hang around out here. Things to do. But if you come back and help us pack the gear - well, I'd appreciate the company".
The crew looked at each other. Then their eyes lit, and as one they answered, each with words to the effect of "Sure - that'd be great!"
"Hey, and we'll get to meet the band", Cassandra said, excitedly.
Elizabeth strolled along with the others. This was certainly an interesting end to an interesting day. "So what's your place in all this?", Elizabeth asked Ben.
"I am a man of many talents", Ben replied, cheerily. "Right now I'm sound-engineering for these guys" - he waved an arm in the direction of the Flying Stationers. "And if you hadn't gotten yourselves canceled, I'd be video editing for Borderline too. Although I'll try not to be too offended that they didn't invite me to the meeting". His manner was so jocular that Elizabeth found herself laughing. But Ben hadn't been joking when he'd said he'd had work to do. Packing up the band's equipment wasn't simply a question of picking it up and dumping it into a hovervan - no, it had to be carefully disassembled. It was confusing for Elizabeth: she wasn't clear how much of the setup belonged to the band, and how much to the venue. Eventually, she gave up, and went to sit with one sad looking woman she spied sitting alone in the corner of the room. "Get you a drink?", she offered.
"But that it would make a difference", the woman replied. Elizabeth raised her eyebrows at the unusual choice of words.
She sat down. "You're the tambourine player", she said. "You sang that sad song".
"Verily, that was I. 'Twas but a cry from a lonely heart", the girl sighed.
Then Kwok Fi was with them, smirking at the young girl's use of language. "What's your name?", he asked.
"Grace", she said. "But judge me not by my name, for I have not grace. Once I had, until the twists of fate took from me my future".
Kwok Fi blinked. Then Corey was beside them. "Is this chick for real?", he asked no one in particular.
"Wait" - Elizabeth silenced him. To Grace, she asked: "What's your story? Why are you so sad?"
"I was destined to be wed", she explained, "to the fair Claude, my exquisite lover. But he was taken from me, and is being forced to marry against his will".
It took a heartbeat for anyone to react. Then Corey laughed. "Are you some sort of moonbrain?", he asked, when he'd finished laughing.
"Mock me if you will, for I care not", Grace responded. "He is gone. What matter the words of strangers?"
The conversation began to draw attention from others of the crew, who one by one drifted into earshot. Calmly, Elizabeth said: "I'm not mocking you." She smiled. "I mean, you do sound like something out of Shakespeare, and what you're saying sounds like the plot of a very bad children's tale..." She shrugged her shoulders. "But I'm still listening. Who is Claude? And how can he be forced to marry against his will?"
"He is Claude Desjardins, first son of the Baron du Broxbane".
"Oh, I get it," Kwok Fi said. "Poor girl meets rich boy. Parents object. So they marry him off to someone more 'acceptable'. It's a different world, girl. Money talks. She should know". He thumbed Elizabeth as he said this.
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. "You think I'm rich?"
"No of course I don't think you're rich", Kwok Fi argued. "If you were rich, you wouldn't be scrabbling about looking for work with us proles. But you do come from a posh background. I can hear that in your voice."
"Perhaps. By some standards", she agreed in part. "But the family Desjardins are another league entirely. Made their fortune in great expansion of 2435. Been living off the proceeds ever since".
Grace continued: "And now our love is sundered, rent for a poison pate jilt, and all for a rapacious blackguard lay'd up in lavender".
Several seconds passed while the crew mulled over that sentence. Eventually, it was Corey who reacted. "What!?"
"<Can you say that in Chinese?>", Kwok Fi asked.
"She's a nut job", Hatcher added, unhelpfully.
Elizabeth raised her arms in defeat. "Perhaps we should leave", she suggested.
"Then get ye hence", Grace said, her voice expressionless. "I will weep alone, my love lost to a counterfeit Companion".
As they stood up to leave, Elizabeth made one last attempt to communicate. "We do care. We just don't understand. What do you mean, counterfeit companion?"
"The scarlet woman. My rival, the sly Maxine".
"And she's a Companion?"
"A false Companion. She has the world hornswoggled. But I see the deceit, for my eyes have lain upon her credentials, and they are false".
"So ... let me see if I've understood this correctly. This woman, Maxine, is claiming to be a Companion, but in fact, isn't. And she's marrying Claude ... Why? For the money?"
"Can Companions marry?", Corey asked.
Papagina answered. "They can if they leave the guild".
It was at this point that Ben Austin returned from his roadie duties. Several of Uriah Heep's crew had been helping him, and he'd finished early. "OK, I'm done", he said. "Let's get out of here". There was general agreement. It was time to leave, time to return to the temporary lodgings supplied them by Yoshida-Kendall Captures. There would be more conversation on the way back, but they knew it would soon be over. It made sense to get some sleep. Tomorrow, they would all need to start looking for work. They said goodbye to Grace, and left.
"That Grace", Elizabeth mused as they sauntered down the warmly lit lane, "She's strange".
"She's the Director General's daughter", Ben said.
All eyes looked upon him agape.
Two drinking vessels clinked together, and two voices were heard to say "Cheers!". One vessel was a wine glass, a slice of orange carefully positioned over its edge, partly occupied by a measure of Southern Comfort and lemonade, and cupped delicately by a slim, elegant hand with perfectly manicured nails; the other was a pewter tankard, filled to overflowing with foaming ale, gripped by a muscular hand which moved in unconstrained arcs. "They bought it?", a gruff voice asked.
"Why wouldn't they?", a teenage girl answered. "They see what they want to see".
The man gulped down a fair fraction of the tankard's contents. "The Baron of Broxbane's son", he mused. "Gotta be worth a pretty coin".
"He's worth at least fifty thousand credits, Corbin. And two days from now, half of that will be mine".
"Yours?", Corbin queried.
"Yes, mine", the girl emphasized. "What? You think you're entitled to a cut? You marry the guy if that's how you feel".
"Maxine!", Corbin interrupted. "I thought you and I had a deal".
"And so we do", she clarified. "As soon as I'm married to that miserable wretch, I will take him on a honeymoon he is guaranteed not to forget. I'll be sure to switch the alarm off, and I'll leave the keys to the house where you can find them. You get to ransack the place while we're away. I'm sure you'll find something you can fence."
Corbin snarled. He'd been the one taking all the risks. He'd been the one who'd arranged all the forged documents; he'd be the one doing the actual thieving - all Maxine had to do was claim a legal entitlement. Still - he had to admit, it was a good arrangement. There was just one problem: "How do I know I can trust you?", he asked.
Maxine pouted, which made her look adorably cute, and hot, all at the same time. "Sweetie", she said, "You don't".
Corbin let his eyes gaze over the young woman's figure. Dressed in Companion finery, she was not merely beautiful, but stunning. Even so, he wasn't going to let himself get taken for a ride - not for her; not for anyone. "If I get into that house and find someone's left the alarm on by accident, I will tell anyone who cares to listen that your marriage was a sham. I'll have it annulled before you can say 'alimony'..."
"But not before you can spell it", Maxine said, under her breath.
"...And I heard that. Don't take me for a fool"
"You're not a fool, Corbin. You just haven't figured out yet we're a team. You're so used to not trusting anyone, you've forgotten how. Two days from now, we will be rich - both of us. Me with half my new husband's accumulated wealth, and you with your stolen cargo. It's good for both of us. Remember that".
"Oh, I will, darlin'. I will".
"What do you mean, she's the Director General's daughter?", Elizabeth said, her surprise obvious.
"She's Grace Micawber, daughter of Lance Micawber, the Director General of Yoshida-Kendall Captures", Ben told her.
A suspicious look crossed Elizabeth's face. "You didn't end up working here by accident, did you?"
"Everything's for a reason", Ben said, noncommittally.
Elizabeth looked about her, and then up at the night sky. Pinprick stars decorated the cloudless heavens, twinkling with their own romantic beauty. She came to a decision. "There's a story in this", she said.
The others looked at her quizzically. Cassandra said: "You have that gleam in your eye. I know you. You're planning something".
"It's not over", Elizabeth said. "We don't need YKC. We don't need Borderline. All we need is one good story".
"What are you suggesting?", Papagina asked, though she pretty much had worked it out for herself at this point and was merely seeking confirmation.
"It only takes one pebble to make waves", Elizabeth said. "Let's do what we do best. Let's make one good movie, one good documentary. We can be freelance. If YKC won't buy it, there are other cortex providers who will".
Corey scoffed in disbelief. "This? This is your great story?"
"Why not?", Elizabeth said, standing tall. "It's a fantastic story: It's got Barons, Companions (possibly fraudulent), arranged marriage, and one lonely singer whose father runs a cortex provider. We make this; we sell it to the highest bidder - and then, my friends - we are back in the game".
"You're not our Captain", Corey accused.
"That's true", Elizabeth acknowledged. "You are not bound by any contract to follow me. It's entirely your own choice."
Cassandra stepped forward, and stood beside Elizabeth. "You were my captain once before," she said. "I'd be proud to work under you once again".
"What do you want to do?", Elizabeth said, addressing the assembled. She looked directly at Corey and said, somewhat mockingly: "Find something? A celebrity has-been show? Something safe?". She looked at Kwok Fi and said: "Go back to your parents' farm? Settle down?". To Lot, she said: "Work in your brother's night club?" The three men hung their heads low, as did others. "Or do want to make a documentary? We can tell a story!"
Papagina joined Cassandra by Elizabeth's side. "YKC had no faith in us", she said. "They told us we couldn't do it, without Romana. I say we show them they were wrong."
Kwok Fi spoke next. "I'm in", he said, simply, and stepped forward to join Cassandra and Papagina. One by one, the rest of the crew followed suit, finally ending with Corey.
"You make a good speech. And I'll work with you", he said. "But you are not my leader. You have to earn that respect".
Elizabeth stood her ground. "Then I'll earn it", she said. "Let's get some sleep. Tomorrow we break into a Companion House".
"Say again?", Corey queried.
"There's no story without evidence", Elizabeth said, calmly. "We have to steal those license papers".
It was one of those moments. Something had sparked. A bond had formed between them. At that moment, the future changed. It was one of those moments when history is made. Whether Corey acknowledged it or not, the fifteen were now a crew, and nothing would ever be the same again.
The next day, they reconvened at the Corn Exchange, and the party was joined by another member: Grace. Grace was more than willing to come along, and to provide information. She even started to make sense some of the time. According to Grace, Maxine did not live in a Companion House. Elizabeth wasn't sure if that was good or bad, so she decided to take a positive attitude and assume it was good. Not all Companions lived in Companion Houses, after all - so long as they had a valid license to practice, Companions could operate from anywhere.
"She will travel by Shire and haywain", Grace told them.
"Why travelling?", Elizabeth asked.
"To collect the ready", Grace said.
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. Papagina said: "Money. What money?"
"The prigstar may be a fair roe-buck, but to Broxbane she remains in bondage", Grace explained.
"Kinky!", Ben interjected.
"You mean, she's still contracted to the Companion's Guild", Corey translated, to the surprise of everyone else. By way of explanation, he added, "I'm getting the hang of this".
"Nay", Grace argued. "She's no Companion. That one jumps the broomstick for the darby".
The crew looked to Corey expectantly. "No, that one's got me foxed", he admitted.
Elizabeth brought their attention back to the plan. "The fair Maxine - surname unknown - pretends to be a Companion. Under that pretense, she becomes engaged to Claude Desjardins, the son of the Baron du Broxbane. She tells Broxbane she owes money to the Guild, and cannot be released from the Guild until some contract or other is signed. So today she travels to get all that done. Yes...?"
"Aye", Grace confirmed.
"But in reality, her Companion status is a lie, so there isn't really a contract to be bought out of".
"Marry, but she'll hold his nose to the grindstone forsooth--"
Elizabeth interrupted: "Just answer aye or nay".
"Then aye", Grace confirmed.
Elizabeth continued. "So she's going through the motions to maintain the pretense - and maybe even conning money out of the Baron along the way. And the one document which can prove all this is Maxine's Companion license. Now presumably, she'll need that document to show to the Baron, right?"
"Aye, 'tis so".
"Then it's simple. We ambush her en route".
Papagina's eyes went wide. "We do?"
Ben's eyes lit with glee. "I'm liking this plan already", he said.
"Just, um, one thing", Elizabeth said to Grace, looking slightly embarrassed. "What exactly is a Shire and haywain?"
It turned out that "Shire" was breed of horse: a draught horse, heavy and powerfully built - big and strong. They were mostly used for ceremonial purposes, such as conveying important people about Sihnon by means of a covered wagon - somewhat more luxurious than an old-time "hay wain". Maxine was to travel by horse and cart.
The unlikely band of highway robbers found their appropriate spot for an ambush on the bridge which carried the road over a small stream. The tide was out, which meant that the stream itself was little more than a trickle running through a bed of mud. The only building in sight was an abandoned warehouse on the approach road. There was plenty of cover at both ends of the bridge, and a good lookout from the building. To escape after the ambush, they only needed to reach the warehouse - it's rear approach roads were many, and a fast getaway vehicle could be easily located there. So they lay in wait, watching the road from the upper floors of that building, ready to move to the bridge when the time was right. Traffic was light on the main road. When the horse and cart came through, it would be the only thing in sight for miles.
Maxine and Corbin sat together in the back of the upholstered wagon. Then they heard the clip-clop of the horse steps change their rhythm, and heard the driver calling "Whoa Felicity, Whoa Prince!". Corbin leaned out of the open window and looked ahead.
A woman lay on the path ahead, groaning in apparent agony. "Help, help. She's hurt", cried an older man. The woman was Elizabeth, playing possum. The man was Ben, feigning panic. The driver of the cart brought the wagon to a halt. "She needs to get to a hospital", Ben implored.
"Well, Felicity and Prince here, they can't go fast", said the driver, worriedly indicating the two horses. "I'd better call an ambulance".
Corbin looked annoyed. "What's going on?", he demanded.
"Emergency, Sir", said the driver, pulling out a cortex communicator from the front of the wagon. Then ... "That's funny. I can't seem to get a connection".
"Please", Ben insisted. "Can we get her in the coach? You could take her". Elizabeth gave a convincing groan.
"What happened?", the driver asked.
"Fell off a horse, Sir", Ben said, now looking desperate.
The driver considered for only a moment before conceding: "Very well. I'll ask my passengers if they'll help".
Corbin and Maxine were not pleased. Corbin looked as though he suspected a trap, but if Maxine suspected anything, she gave nothing away. Ben studied Maxine as together they manhandled Elizabeth into the wagon. Maxine was a teenager. Ben judged her to be around eighteen years of age. He considered himself to be a good judge of character, someone who could spot a deception a mile off, but he saw no guile in Maxine. Every gesture, every movement, everything about her told the same story - she was a Companion. If she was faking it, she was very, very good.
"Where's your horse?", Corbin demanded, now standing outside the wagon.
"Rode off", Ben said.
"What was it's name?", Corbin pressed.
"Ah... Thunder", Ben said, thinking quickly.
Corbin pulled a gun. "You took just a little too long to answer that question. I think you don't know. And that means you ain't what you appear".
At that moment, there was the rumble of horse hooves as a dark-yellow skinned mustang erupted from the cover. Elizabeth, instantly recovered, snatched Maxine's purse, opened the door from the inside and leaped out onto the back of the yellow horse behind it's rider, Kwok Fi. Maxine recovered quickly, and leaped to the door, but it was too late - the horse, and its passenger, had shot past the wagon and were heading back in the direction from which the wagon had arrived. Without hesitation, Corbin raised his gun to shoot at the fleeing horse, but Ben was sprightlier than he at first appeared, and shoved Corbin aside as he fired, deflecting his aim. Corbin reacted instantly and returned his attention to Ben. That was when he noticed two rifles pointing in his direction from the bushes. Lot and Hatchet glared at him uncompromisingly. He considered it would be wise to drop his gun and raise his hands. Ben backed away and joined his friends. Within less than a minute, a hovercar revved up, and took the raiders away, following the mustang in the direction of the warehouse.
Maxine hadn't wasted a moment. She'd unhitched the horses from the wagon and was bareback riding one of them. "Well don't just stand there!", she told Corbin. Let's get after them.
The driver of the wagon seemed more upset by this than by the original robbery. "Wait!", he begged. "You can't take Felicity". From his point of view, his horses were far more valuable than the small amount of personal items stolen from his passengers.
"We'll bring 'em back", Corbin told him, climbing onto the now released Prince.
Maxine raced ahead. A Shire horse can gallop, though it is generally considered unwise to be riding one at the time. Freed of the burden of pulling the wagon, they were swift indeed. Corbin tried to keep up, but Maxine was clearly the better rider.
Kwok Fi, on his steed, raced for the safety of the warehouse, but he wasn't quite so good a rider as he needed to be. As he jumped the horse across a small brook, the purse Elizabeth had stolen from Maxine went flying and landed on the ground. Elizabeth swore, then Kwok Fi wheeled the horse around. Elizabeth saw the purse lying on the bank of the stream and slid off the horse to retrieve it. The problem was, the ground was both wetter and muddier than it looked, and walking through it was such an effort that Maxine was able to catch up. Just as Elizabeth was retrieving the purse from the ground, Maxine dived from her mount, and grabbed Elizabeth as she fell, pulling both into the quagmire.
Elizabeth tried to get up, but the mud was like quicksand. Every time she pulled a limb from the mud, it came away with a gooey sucking noise, and other bits of her seemed to squelch further still into the ooze. She still held onto Maxine's purse, but now that too was covered in gray mud. She looked around quickly - the hovercar was far ahead: it had already reached the warehouse; the man chasing her was far behind; Kwok Fi had moved to a safe distance. Then she looked into the eyes of the young Maxine, who seemed enraged. Ignoring the mud, Maxine pounced like a tiger, and fought to wrestle the purse from Elizabeth's grasp.
As fights go, this one wasn't exactly violent, but that was mostly because the gray morass constrained both of their movements. Elizabeth wasn't used to fighting. Maxine perhaps was - from time to time she seemed to be trying to employ some martial arts move or other, but every move turned into a squelch, and yet more mud. So they fought lying down, with only sporadic moves punctuated my grunts and insults. Maxine grabbed Elizabeth's hair and seemed to want to drown her in the mud. Elizabeth tried to resist while holding onto the purse, but then she heard hoofsteps approaching. Maxine's accomplice was getting close! There was no longer any time for a prolonged fight, so she let go of the purse and struggled to maneuver herself toward what little water there was in the stream. Maxine gripped the purse like nothing in the world mattered more, and struggled toward the bank.
Corbin arrived on the second Shire horse, Prince, and gazed down at the scene almost in disbelief. Elizabeth had reached the water and was already swimming away. If he'd still had his gun, he could have shot her, but he didn't, and he couldn't risk taking a horse though mud that treacherous. So he turned his attention to Maxine. He had never seen such a ridiculous sight. She proudly held out the mud-covered purse, but now she looked like she'd been sculpted from clay and not quite finished. Every part of her was coated in sludge. It pasted her hair to her neck and her clothes to her body. She had become a featureless gray thing, almost a part of the stream bed, and yet, she was smiling. Corbin couldn't help but laugh, even as he watched the hovercar collect Elizabeth on the other side of the river. "You look like shit!", he grinned. Then he raised his eyes to the fleeing raiders on the far bank. "They", he said, "Could he trouble".
Stars filled the sky. Maxine pressed her hands onto the balcony and breathed in the night air. The air had a chill to it, and the warmth of the fire beckoned her. She turned and re-entered the suite. A young man sat by the fireplace, carefully adding coals to the dancing blaze. Maxine relaxed her stance. "Who were those people?", she wondered aloud.
"I don't know", her fiancé answered. Sharply, he added: "And I don't care".
His tone angered her. "We will be wed", she told him.
Claude Desjardins looked up at her. His eyes were sad. "I will do right by you", he said. "No child of mine will be born out of wedlock. But I won't love you".
Maxine knelt beside him. "Love is not required", she told him. Her demeanor changed. She looked hurt. "But tell me", she said, "Do you not find me even a little bit attractive?"
Claude held his gaze. Maxine became like a helpless puppy. "I do", he conceded. "But I love another".
"What will you do?", she asked.
"I don't know", Claude admitted. "Tomorrow, I marry you. Today is my last day of freedom".
"Freedom? Am I really such a trap?"
"I feel trapped. But it's not your fault. I will marry you and I will see to it that our child is well provided for. But you know it will be a marriage in name only. When the fuss has died down, well..."
"Don't be fooling yourself that this is a one-way arrangement, Claude. I'm a Companion--"
"was a Companion".
"Even so - I bring more respectability to you than you bring to me, no matter how noble your family. Don't you forget that".
"No", he agreed with a sigh. "I'm sure my family will be most pleased".
The Regency Hall was an ornate building. It was plush from the outside, but from the inside it was something extraordinary. Decorated marble pillars surrounded a polished wood dance floor and sumptuously laid tables. The walls were golden in color, trimmed in rich mahogany. Raised platforms at the front and side of the dance floor formed small stages.
Guests filed in - though not as many as the room was capable of seating, which gave the room a somewhat empty feel. Maxine greeted the guests as they arrived, paying special attention to the Baron and Baroness of Broxbane - Claude's parents. She wasn't fazed by the presence of nobility. Indeed, despite her teenage years, she carried a grace and nobility all of her own.
"This marriage, it's very sudden", the Baroness commented.
"Yes", Maxine agreed. "We are very much in love. The moment we set eyes on each other, we knew we were meant for each other".
The Baron said: "And you've sacrificed a fine career as a Companion for my son. No man could want for more".
"Why thank you", Maxine smiled with convincing sincerity. She glanced away to witness a commotion at the side door. "If you would excuse me for one moment", she said.
"But of course", the Baron replied.
She made her quick exit and headed toward the side door to see what all the fuss was all about. There was Corbin, uncharacteristically washed and suited up, defending the hall from gatecrashers. "What seems to be the trouble?", Maxine asked.
"It's the agency", Corbin answered. "Seems there's been a change of plan. And I don't like it when plans change".
"Look, we're the band - can we get through?", came a voice from behind Corbin. "We need time to set up".
"You're the band?", Maxine queried. "You're not the One Verse Bards".
"No, ma'am", came a female voice. "We're the Flying Stationers. The Bards couldn't make it. Had to cancel. The agency sent us instead".
Corbin eyed them suspiciously, but deferred to Maxine. Do we let them in?
Maxine shrugged. "Well why not? A wedding just wouldn't be a wedding without live music". To the band, she said: "Just set up on the side-stage".
The band filed in, together with roadies, dancers, and various costumed individuals. Corbin shrugged his shoulders in exasperation and walked off.
Elizabeth peered out from behind a dragon's head mask. "You know what to do?", she asked Grace.
"Verily", Grace answered.
In a whisper, Hatchet said: "I wish she wouldn't do that".
The groom-to-be stood at the far back of the room, quietly drinking ale, and wishing he were anywhere else but here. Why had he agreed to this? He must have been crazy.
But he knew why. His family had arranged it from the start. This wedding would bring great stature to the House of Broxbane. He had gone along with it for a time, but he had known his fate had been sealed the moment Maxine had told him she was with child. It had been stupid ever to have gone with her, but Maxine had put her mind to seducing him, and he had found it impossible to resist. This, then, was to be his punishment - to be wed to someone whom he did not love. Well - at least his family would be happy.
"Claude", came a whisper, "Claude Desjardins".
"Yes?" He turned to face a cloaked figure.
"My name is Corey. Corey Long. I'm with Grace. We--"
"Grace!", Claude exclaimed, almost spilling his ale in surprise.
"Shh", Corey cautioned. "We're here to stop a wedding. But first, we need some information."
"It's too late to stop anything", Claude said, morosely.
"This Maxine", Corey continued, ignoring Claude's protests. "She's not what she appears to be. She's a fake, a fraud. She's not a Companion. She never was".
"That can't be true."
"Can you prove that?"
"Not yet. We need to talk".
"It doesn't matter", Claude said, despondently. "She's carrying my child".
In contrast with the groom-to-be, the pending bride was positively radiant. Maxine danced on the spot, alongside a small crowd of her wedding party. For a moment, Cassandra wondered who they were. Were they friends? Were they family? It didn't matter. The room was much fuller now than it ever had been - the Flying Stationers seemed to have brought their own fans! But she had a job to do - a very simple job, but a necessary one. She weaved her way across the dance floor, dodging gyrating guests at every turn. In one hand, she held a champagne glass, filled almost to the brim with a liquid which might even have been real champagne (imported, no doubt, from New Kasmir). In the other... Well, her other hand was concealed.
"Oh, I'm so terribly sorry", she said, moments after colliding with the bride-to-be.
"Wha--", Maxine said, surprised. She didn't hear the beep from Cassandra's pocket. Maxine smiled. "It's not a problem. Do I know you?"
"I'm with the groom", Cassandra said, hurrying away as quickly as she could. She continued weaving across the dance floor until she came to side door, and exited into one of the Regency's corridors. She looked from side to side, confirming that she was alone, then pulled out the device. She touched the screen and waited impatiently as the words "LOGGING ONTO CORTEX" glared mockingly at her.
The band had almost finished setting their gear up on the small stage. The fiddle-player glanced at Grace, a concerned look upon his face. "I hope you know what you're doing", he said.
"I am a dry-boots", she replied, confidently.
The fiddler looked doubtful. "We'll see", he said.
Scanning a body was easy. Analyzing the data - that was the harder part. Cassandra waited while the scan she had taken of Maxine was processed by the medical services of Sihnon University. She breathed a sigh of relief when eventually the results streamed back.
"Not pregnant", she said to herself, under her breath. She flipped closed the scanner's lid, terminating the Cortex connection, and walked back into the main hall, just in time to see a white robed Shepherd take his place at the front of the hall. "We are gathered here today", the Shepherd told the assembly, "to join together Claude Desjardins and Maxine Padovan in holy matrimony..."
"Shit!", Cassandra whispered, under her breath.
Grace stood in the wings, shaking. "No, no", she cried. "We have to play. We have to play".
Ben was with her. "Band plays after the wedding", he told her. "Just found out myself. What do want us to do?"
"I know not", she said, tearfully. "This is a fine kettle of fish and no mistake".
Cassandra edged her way in. "Grace", she whispered, flashing the scanner at the girl. "I have the result. She's not pregnant".
Grace stopped in her tracks. "She lies".
"Yes, she lies".
"Then it's not too late". She grabbed the scanner and rushed out into the hall.
"And do you, Claude Desjardins, take this woman, Maxine Padovan, to be your lawful wedded wife?"
Claude looked around the room. He had never felt so trapped in all his life. This wedding was nothing but a charade, and yet, he felt powerless to prevent it. Every fiber of his being impelled him to say no; to throw the ring to the ground, and run to the edge of the 'verse with Grace. Yet formality demanded this sacrifice. His family were there, with every expectation that their two houses would be united. And he had a child to consider - a child who would be born out of wedlock, should he decline. In some parts of the 'verse, that would not be a problem, but here, in this family... it was unthinkable.
Grace slid across the floor, ploughing through guests, desperate to reach the assembly.
Claude closed his eyes and lowered his head. "I do", he said, quietly.
Grace cried out. "No!"
She felt arms around her. Corbin was there, and another man she did not recognize. The medical scanner clattered to the floor. They dragged her away, sobbing, and all she could hear above her own tears were Maxine's cruel words: "Finish it, Preacher".
The band, the Flying Stationers, were set up and ready to play on the side-stage. Or at least, three of them were. The fourth, Grace Micawber, was in the process of being ejected from the building. The musicians stared at each other, unsure what to do.
"I do". Maxine's voice echoed across the hall.
"I pronounce you man and wife. What God has joined together, let no one divide", the Shepherd concluded. "You may kiss the bride".
Elizabeth jumped onto the side-stage. With so much going on elsewhere, she was hardly noticed by the crowd. "It has to be now", she told the band. "We do it".
"But it's too late! They're--"
"We do it!", Elizabeth commanded.
The band shrugged, and began to play.
Now married, Claude leapt from the small raised platform and ran through the crowd, ignoring the shocked cries of the guests. Maxine stood and watched, a smile creeping across her face. She raised her hand to her eyes and gazed at the diamond ring. That alone was worth a good few hundred credits. "Too late", she whispered, as Claude raced toward Grace.
"Leave her alone!", Claude cried, as he pulled the bouncers away from the wispy girl. Corbin shrugged and headed around the room toward Maxine. The floor began to fill with dancers - way too many dancers for Corbin's liking. Something was going on.
"She flimflams", Grace cried, speaking quickly. "She's no nanny house queen, and she's not mid-bearne".
Then Corey was there. "She's right. The whole thing was a con".
Corbin, having reached Maxine at the front of the room, turned around to eye the buzzing, heaving, crowd. Suddenly, realization dawned. "It's them!", he cried. He pointed toward Elizabeth. "There's your highwaymen. Arrest them!".
At that exact moment, the band changed its song. Their fans on the dance floor knew the moves. They linked arms, and swirled around each other, and as they whirled, they expertly assisted the flight of Claude, Grace, Elizabeth and her crew, and at the same time hindered the path of Corbin and the other guards. "Get out of my way", Corbin yelled, but the music was loud and the dancers were paying him no heed. He tried to duck between two arms, only to find himself swung around and back toward the front. "Let me through", he called, to no avail.
The crew raced out of the front door, Grace and Claude in tow. A number of vehicles stood ready for the getaway. Elizabeth leapt onto the back of a yellow horse and made ready to leave. "Wait!", Claude said. "Who are you?"
"I'm Elizabeth Adams", the woman responded. "Your marriage was based on false pretenses. It can be annulled".
"Thank you", he said, quietly.
"Get out of here", she replied, as a hovercar pulled alongside the two. Grace and Claude jumped in and the car sped off, just as Corbin emerged from the building. Elizabeth geed the horse. "Go, Saffron!", she cried, and rode away at speed.
Corbin clenched his fists in frustration as he watched the fleeing cavalcade. He looked around, wondering what he should do. Should he give chase? Did it even matter? Maxine and Claude were married after all - that was legally binding. Then he closed his eyes in despair - of course it mattered. Whatever Maxine got out of this, she wouldn't share it with him.
Maybe he could make good out of this after all? Maybe Desjardins would run far away with his new love, leaving his big expensive house empty and unguarded. Maxine was beside him then. He looked at her, his expression a mix of sadness and frustration. He looked her into Maxine's eyes and said: "Saffron".
"The horse. I knew it weren't called Thunder".
Maxine said nothing at first. She merely stood there in the open, as more and more people appeared from the building, until she once more found herself surrounded by crowds. She held her ring finger high, and once more stared at the diamond. "Nice name", she said, wistfully.
They sat around the wooden tables of the Corn Exchange, beers flowing freely.
"I want to thank you", Claude said. "I can't believe the trouble you went to for Grace, for me, for both of us".
"We needed a good story", Elizabeth said.
"Use what you want", he said. He smiled, and squeezed Grace's hand.
"What will you do?"
Hatchet grinned. "Oh they'll be all right", he said. "They've got each other".
"That we have", Claude agreed. "I've had my estate begin an investigation into Maxine. Surprise, surprise, it turns out that Maxine Padovan doesn't exist. That's not her real name".
"Then what is her real name?"
"I don't know. But it doesn't matter - that's enough to get the marriage annulled. She may well have been a real Companion though. We're chasing up those leads. I don't think we'll see her again though. She left the planet. She was seen boarding a space ship with that Corbin fella".
"Huh!", Hatchet mused. "A registered companion travelling with a space pirate - now there's something you don't see every day!"
"No... well...", Claude said uncomfortably, "Next time, I marry for love. So thank you again".
"Yes, thank you", Grace said. "If there's anything I can do for you - anything at all - you only have to ask".
After a beat, Hatcher commented: "Was it my imagination or was that English?"
Grace laughed. "<You are funny>", she said.
Elizabeth spoke. "We've got what we came for. We don't need--"
"Actually", Ben interrupted, "Captain Adams here is being a little bit hasty".
Ben continued. "She's too polite to ask, but I ain't never had that problem. There is one thing you can do for us..."
Water gurgled around from the fountain at the center of the room. Once more, the crew of Uriah Heep sat in the conference room of Yoshida-Kendall Captures, but this time, there were two more bodies present: Ben Austin and Elizabeth Adams. The Director General stood by the window, his arms crossed behind his back.
"In the light of your recent adventures", he said, "It occurs to me that you work very well as a team".
"It would seem so", Elizabeth acknowledged.
"They take to you, as a captain", he observed.
Elizabeth nodded. "Cassandra, I've worked with before. The rest ... we're still getting to know one another, but I already know we'll get along just fine".
"And my daughter is happy". He smiled, and let the silence hang. Elizabeth wasn't sure if a response was necessary. The Director General gave the impression of having more to say. He didn't disappoint. "You brought me a good story - a fairy tale, almost".
"It had a happy ending", Elizabeth said.
"Of course - you know this story can never be made public".
"Of course", Elizabeth acknowledged.
"There is no need for secrecy", Micawber explained. "But there is also no need for publicity. She is my daughter, and she is happy. Why spoil it?"
"I understand completely", she agreed.
"You will come to the wedding, of course".
Lance Micawber strode forward to shake her hand. "Oh, there's one other thing", he said, mid stride, as he stretched his hand toward her. "My company has decided to renew Borderline for a second season". He grasped her hand.
A wave of gratitude swept around the room, which quickly erupted into cheers and applause.
"Thank you", Elizabeth said. They shook hands, and separated.
Micawber walked to the door. "And now I have things I must attend to. You will prepare your first mission".
"It's already prepared", she told him.
Micawber raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. He turned and left the room. Once he had gone, everyone stood up, and the meeting descended into group hugs and mutual congratulation.
Cassandra stood before Elizabeth, standing proud. "So where are we going, Captain?", she asked.
"It's 2512", Elizabeth said, "A war's just ended. Things have changed".
"So ... where are we going?"
Elizabeth waited just a fraction of a second before answering: "Serenity Valley. Now let's tell a real story".