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Antebellum - Book I: Chapter Thirteen
Friday, June 16, 2006

The thirteenth chapter in a Big Damn Sequel series. In this installment: The crew is back on the road, but it's not going to well


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1399    RATING: 8    SERIES: FIREFLY

A/N: The last couple times I tried to post this, my computer seemed to implode with worthlessness. So I'm a tad bit annoyed with my stupid, stupid, stupid PC as I type this. Bear with me.

In other news, two small chapters for the price of one regular-sized chapter. Hooray!

Book One – Chapter Thirteen _______________________________________________________________

The first patient Simon Tam ever lost was named Nancy Fyor.

She was 17 years old and suffering from a gunshot wound to the right leg. It would later be determined by federal officials that Nancy Fyor was selling contraband in a Black-Out zone of Osiris, which accounted for the unhurried arrival of medical transportation.

By the time, Dr. Tam, who was in his second month as resident, got to Nancy, the wound had already been infected, which then progressed into septicemia, a bacterial infection of the bloodstream. Dr. Tam was able to keep Nancy in stable condition, prescribing her with antibiotics and drotrecogin alfa. However, the infection spread to her kidneys causing critical failure. Since she was a suspected contraband dealer in a Black-Out zone, the hospital couldn’t declare her insured for an emergency surgery, nor did they really try.

Nancy Fyor died two days later.

Simon had blamed himself for the death, even though he had very little reason to do so. According to federal officials, the bullet Nancy Fyor was shot with seemed to be doused with one of many Core-produced toxins that sped up the septicemia. She didn’t have a chance.

Nevertheless, Dr. Tam, being young and a bit too proud of his intellect, was unable to accept this notion. He went on to spend a large sum of his inheritance on research for an antidote for the toxin as well as training for a select group of interns to administer the remedy.

Simon often took things for granted, such as his family wealth. Also, to a greater extent, he took his intellect for granted. Five years ago, when one such strength came up short, the other seemed to back it up succinctly. That, coupled with other factors, was what made him ‘gifted.’

Sitting in his infirmary, which was noticeably nothing like his hospital on Osiris, Simon felt exhausted. He felt hollowed out inside. He felt as if Nancy Fyor had just died a hundred times in his hands, a hundred different ways.

Looking at the unconscious body of his sister, River Tam, Simon felt helpless.

She lay on the brown, leather operating chair, underneath the large lamp, which flickered in a free verse rhythm. She lay in the same position as all the other crewmembers had lain in the past. River curiously—or not so curiously—had never been in the chair like that before then. She never needed it until then.

Her body was still wet, so her clothes clung tightly to her figure, as did the thin blanket Kaylee had covered her with. All the water dripped down the chair and snaked streams toward the drain in the center of the floor.

The electrocardiogram panel beeped with each heartbeat, filling the otherwise stale silence that was usually found in the infirmary. He wondered how much longer the electronic tones would continue, seeing as how the machine was running solely on a five-year old battery. Simon knew the battery would soon go out, and the infirmary would be left in complete silence.

Kaylee handed him a small towel.

“You’re still wet,” she informed him.

“Thank you,” he said absent-mindedly, not really noticing the pools of water he was creating around the room.

His voice came out a bit nasally, due to the two wads of tissue paper that he had been using to clog his bruised nostrils. He stopped paying attention to the pain a while ago, but he suddenly became aware of them when Kaylee entered the room.

“How is she?” Kaylee asked.

“The same.”

“Is it a coma?” The Captain’s voice sounded loud from the doorway, and Simon jumped up in reflex. There stood Mal, looking a bit worn, though no one would mention it. He looked just as the rest of the crew did. Tired, and under cold, harsh lights.

Mal stopped in the doorway, his eyes frozen on his nineteen year old pilot, his second in three years, lying motionless on the infirmary chair. She looked different. She looked almost deathly. Her skin was coldly pale, and her lips and eyelids were turning strange shades of dull pinks and purples. If he hadn’t already been assured otherwise, he would have assumed she had left them.

“Captain,” the doctor exclaimed. “Are we…? We’ve broke atmo?”

“Yeah, that’s right. Took a li’l bit a doin’, but I think the most of the boat is still intact.”

“But the Baron? We got a destination?” Kaylee asked, moving over to River’s body, lying cold on the leather chair, and began drying the girl’s hair with another towel as best she could.

“We do. We’ll all talk about it later, but first things first, Simon. What’s wrong with my pilot? Her heart’s still beating. You told me she’s breathing. In my experience those are both good things, except she’s not doing the thing we need her to do the most right now. Namely, movin’ around.”

“She’s…” A thousand words fell around inside Simon’s head, but not a single one met his lips. He looked eagerly over at River, hoping that she would come through just to help him with his word troubles. She was always good at that.

He somehow managed to lock eyes with Kaylee, and quickly dropped his gaze, knowing what she was thinking. Or at least thinking he knew what she was thinking.

“I don’t know what’s wrong,” he finally forced out. “She’s breathing, yes. All her vitals, the ones I can check at least, register fine. Normal.” His head started fading, and he instinctually reached out to touch his sister’s arm. “Her pupils are fading. I don’t know, Mal… I just don’t…”

“Stay with me, Simon,” Mal commanded. “We need you here right now. Now, what happened?”

Simon tried his best to breathe in, but it came out shaky.

“She left the ship without telling anyone. I went out to find her, and I saw her in the pond. She was just lying there at first, but then… then she went into some sort of attack—a seizure—so I jumped in after her.”

“That when she hit you?” Mal said pointing to Simon’s now somewhat crooked nose.

“Um… yeah, it is. Eventually she calmed down, and then she stopped… everything. I’m so sorry, Mal. I should have…”

“No one’s sayin’ anything like that, Simon,” Kaylee said, rushing over to the doctor’s side.

“Not out loud, they ain’t,” Jayne called in from the common area.

“Shut up, Jayne,” Mal called back. His face then turned deathly serious.

“Will she come out of it?”

Simon shook his head slowly and sadly. For an instant he imagined River never coming out. It had been known to happen. He had seen it happen before. Most of the time, the patients died. But there was nothing here to connect his own sister with those patients.

In ordinary situations, Simon would pay out of his own pocket to discover what was wrong. When his intellect came up short, he could always pay the difference. But not this time. He no longer had that luxery.

“I don’t know.” Simon was barely audible. “I… I should’ve kept a closer watch on her.”

“Simon,” Mal said sharply to keep him to pay attention.

“I don’t even know what put her in this… this sleep. This coma. If that’s what it is.”

“What else is there?”

The beeping of the machines seemed to get louder as another silence consumed the space between the crewmembers.

“A catatonic state,” Simon spoke quietly and tentatively, as if he were ready to quickly refute his own statement. “It’s a symptom of schizophrenia.”

Kaylee swayed her head back and forth. “But that can’t be…”

“Kaylee,” Mal began.

“No, ‘cause she’s not like that anymore. She’s all better, I thought. She wouldn’t just go off like that, right?”

“Nah, ‘cause that would just be crazy,” Jayne appeared in the doorway.

“Cut it out, Jayne,” Mal cut in.

“Look, just sayin’” the mercenary continued. “She’s been seemin’ all good and sane for a while, it ain’t such a stretch to say we lowered our guard on our gorramn… albatross. Ya think that’s possible, Doc?”

Simon didn’t answer. His mind was lost with that possibility. The possibility that his sister, who he declared to be under his strict protection, was relapsing this entire time, and he didn’t even notice it. If someone called him on that, he wouldn’t be able to defend himself against such an accusation. He knew as well as anybody that he had been somewhat distracted lately.

He felt the weight of a necklace in his front pocket, and his stomach dropped suddenly to think that that jewelry was, in part, the reason why his sister wouldn’t wake up. He concentrated hard on not looking at Kaylee. He hated that she was in the room. It did not aid his helpless feeling.

“I don’t think that’s the case,” Mal said softly. So softly that the others barely heard him at first.

“What?” Jayne asked.

“Simon. Does the word, ‘antebellum’ mean anything to you?”

Simon’s head cocked up toward the Captain, a question hung in his eyes. He readjusted the blanket covering his sister, fearing what was to come next.

“River said that. Before she lost consciousness. How did you…?”

“Back on Three Hills, she had an attack, didn’t she? She reverted to her fighting mode and saved you and Jayne, right?”

“She helped us, is more like,” Jayne muttered, but not much attention was paid to him.

“She had an ‘attack’?” Kaylee asked.

“Yes,” Simon said, unblinking and growing deeply disturbed. “But she came out of it when she saw me. She controlled it.”

“Before she went into the marketplace for the two of you, she said that word. She seemed afraid of it. Now the Baron just told me that someone high up in the Alliance has been sendin’ him messages with that word enclosed. Antebellum.”

“Who the hell is Auntie Bellum?” Jayne asked.

“It’s not a person,” Simon said. “It’s just a word. It’s Latin. It doesn’t mean anything to me. I haven’t heard it since history class in secondary.”

“It didn’t seem to mean a lot to River either. Now I'm thinkin' something's tryin' to break out of her head again. Maybe she tried to shut herself down. Simon. What does 'antebellum' mean?"

Simon closed his eyes, trying to remember with all his might. River could recall Latin as easily as walking. She usually helped him.

“It means… ‘Before the…” Simon stopped and looked Mal in the eye, with an expression that the Captain had trouble deciphering.

“It means ‘Before the war.’”

“Well… that don’t sound too good,” Jayne muttered.

All the pairs of eyes turned slowly to River. The EKG machine continued its incessant declaration of her heartbeat, occasionally dropping its pitch slightly, signaling the oncoming death of the battery.

***

Zoe knew that navigating was a tough business. She had always heard Wash complaining about that aspect of his job, but he always seemed to take pride in it. It wasn’t easy finding pathways through three-dimensions, especially considering the number of Alliance patrol units there used to be around the Border Planets. Since Wash’s death, there were many more units.

River, too, seemed to have a gift in navigating. She was good with puzzles, and the crew was never short of one to give her. She could memorize fuel cell conservations and usages to the very degree. But now, like their past pilot, was unavailable.

When she saw the destination point being Cytherea, Zoe knew that this would help her task of navigating through the Rim space. Not even the Alliance went by that sector anymore. Not after what happened to the Companions there. Or the stories about them, anyway.

Fuel conservation was a problem, though. They could indeed feasibly make it to the planet, but just barely. She even took into account the shuttles’ fuel cells, to pool all their resources together. Even then, she concluded that unless they refueled on Cytherea, they’d be stuck on that planet.

Had they been in normal circumstances, being stuck on Cytherea would have been the equivalent of a death sentence. Nowadays, that was the same sentencing that greeted them on any planet, so it took out a little bit of the sting.

Zoe didn’t often like to think about the hypothetical. She didn’t like thinking about what it would have been like if Wash hadn’t died. But for some reason, standing on the bridge, the thought entered her mind and wouldn’t let her go. She decided that even if he were still alive, they’d be in the same tough spot they were in right then. But she would enjoy it more.

When she made her way to the dining room she found Inara alone sitting at the table. Zoe began to address her when she saw Mal walking in through the opposite entryway.

“How’s she doing?” Inara asked, standing at his presence.

“Simon says he doesn’t know. It seems to be getting more complicated.”

“Complicated?”

“She’s fine. Just sleeping is all. But she ain’t wakin’ up any time soon, it looks like, so… I’m not really in a kinda mood to talk about it just yet, kay, ‘Nara? First things first.”

“Okay,” she said, a look of confusion on her face.

“Zoe,” Mal said, now apparently looking over Inara. “We set?”

“As best we can, sir.”

“That’s enough, I guess, for now.”

“Where are we going?” Inara asked, standing and positioning herself directly in front of Mal, as she often did to gain attention from the Captain.

“We’re, um… We’re headin’ out to Cytherea, ‘Nara.”

Inara took a small step backward, but stopped when she ran into the table behind her. She tried covering up her hesitance by dropping her gaze on Mal, but that only seemed to accentuate it more.

“Really?” she asked feebly.

“Yeah. I understand if you feel a mite uncomfortable goin’ ‘round there. The best I can do is keep you onboard when we land, though.”

“Right,” she said, sticking out her chin and forcing an unconvincing smile. She slowly sank back down in her chair.

“But we’ve got what we’re looking for there?” she asked optimistically.

“Yeah, so the Baron says.”

“On that point, sir,” Zoe spoke up. “I’ve checked the fuel cells a couple times now and—”

“Yeah, I figured it’d be tight.”

“That’s putting it lightly, sir.”

“Can we make it or not?” The Captain sounded exasperated and held his hands out in front of him, which made Inara wonder all the more what happened on Neo Sombra.

“We can make it,” Zoe said, trying her best to placate her fearless leader.

“Good.”

“But if the stash isn’t there like the Baron says it is—”

“It’ll be there. We trust the Baron, remember?”

“Do you trust Cytherea, though?” Zoe countered, which really was a good argument, and Mal knew it.

“A guy’s gotta have faith in somethin’ Zoe. Could you go tell the others? I’ve had a hell of a day.”

Zoe remained silent for a couple seconds, hoping to read something off of the Captain’s face, but everything there was what she had already seen. And she already knew it wasn’t her place to try and fix it.

“All right,” she said, her eyes narrowing at her Captain slightly, before leaving Mal and Inara alone in the galley.

“Well…” Mal said, filling the gap that Zoe had left. “I’m gonna see if Jayne left anything to eat. You want anything?”

“No, I’m fine,” Inara said politely. “Thank you.”

Mal noticed that his boat seemed to be getting a lot quieter. Everywhere he went, it was if the volume had been toned down. Maybe it was just the morning he had, but everything seemed softer. And slower.

“Are you all right?” Inara asked.

“Hmm? Oh, uh, yeah. Sure.”

“Mal?”

“Ye-e-es?”

“What happened back there? At the Novaks?”

Mal found a half eaten bowl of oat flakes behind the counter in the kitchen and graciously invited himself to them. He tried focusing on the bowl rather than looking up at Inara.

“What makes you think something—?”

“Mal. What happened?”

Mal swallowed a gulp of the watery flakes and reluctantly looked up at Inara. He had to push aside some other thoughts, but he eventually decided to answer her question.

“Don’t tell no one… but we almost got caught down there.”

“What?”

“Yep. And good ol’ James, he nearly killed a lawman to insure that that didn’t happen. Then he forbade me to come near him or his kin ever again.”

“Oh, Mal,” she said compassionately. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. We got the Baron’s ‘motherload,’ right? Ya win some. Ya lose some.”

Inara shined with a small smile.

“Is it my imagination, Malcolm Reynolds, or are you being upbeat?”

But Mal didn’t return the smile, and hers quickly diminished.

“What happens next?” she asked softly.

“What d’ya mean?”

“After we pick up what we need on Cytherea,” Inara had trouble even saying the name. “Where do we go from there?”

Mal got even more solemn and moved out from behind the kitchen counter, abandoning his breakfast and meeting Inara at the table.

“Inara. I don’t bring this up in front of the others, ‘cause… well, ‘cause they shouldn’t be thinkin’ ‘bout it. But maybe you should be one ‘a the first to realize the fact of the matter.”

The gaslight on in the galley began to wane, so the automated ship systems turned up the gas slightly, temporary lighting Mal’s face.

“What fact, Mal?”

“It’s a buy. This run on Cytherea. Whatever comes after that.” Mal shook his head sadly, but seriously. “It’s all just a buy for more time. Sooner or later, we’re gonna get caught. I’ve been runnin’ for most my life now, an’ I can’t do it forever. I know my boat can’t. Sooner or later, we gotta stop runnin’ and accept fate.”

Inara’s mouth hung open, desperate to say something. She couldn’t believe what her Captain was saying.

“Inara,” Mal said, touching her hand, as if he were delivering bad news to a patient. “This ain’t gonna have a happy ending. You should understand that.”

Inara fought tears very successfully, but a few sobs got caught in her throat and were especially apparent when she tried to speak.

“It’s not true, Mal. We’ll find a way…”

“To what?” he asked gently. “To make the warrants go away? To make us respectable citizens? We both lost those chances a while back.”

He leaned back away from her and turned his head away, trying to center in on some sound that could fill the silence. Finding none, he discovered that he was still talking.

“You were right,” he said.

“What?” Inara asked.

“You… you were right. Back on Auguine, last year or so. When you turned me down.”

“Mal…” she whispered, unable to formulate a thought past his name.

“I’m just sayin’. Everything you said. You were… you were right on the money. Truth be told, I’ve been a li’l angry at you for some time now, ‘cause I knew you were so right.” He found it difficult to smile when his jaw was as clenched as it was. “Just sayin’. It’s true, right?”

Inara didn’t answer. She could feel the words in her throat, on her tongue, between her lips, but she did everything she could to keep them from coming out.

Mal’s smile got wider and he stood up from the table. Moving closer to Inara, he leaned over, his hand on her shoulder, and he put his face in her hair, pausing briefly to breathe in, then he kissed her lightly on the top of her head. He then cautiously removed his hand, saw her unmoving stance in the chair, and moved away.

“Yeah. It’s true.”

“No, it’s not,” Inara said back.

But by the time they words managed to get out, Mal had already left the room. And the words were overcome by the quiet pounding of Serenity.

***

The Baron checked through the orders one last time. It wasn’t really his job to do it; he of course had leagues of experts that were assigned to keeping the orders on track, but he liked to micromanage.

He was born Jeffery Towalsky, but there was now no record of that anywhere. To the databanks on Persephone and in the federal registry on Londinum, Jeffery Towalsky died at age sixteen. Since then, Jeffery had adopted thousands of different identities, only half of which were acknowledged by the federal government. A quarter of them were wanted for alleged Tech Fraud and Digital Terrorism.

If one were to ask him, the Baron would claim that his knowledge in relation to technology was unsurpassed by anyone else on Persephone. In fact, he believed the only other being in history to be an adequate challenge to his abilities was the late, great Mr. Universe. He took extreme pride in his first professional transgression when he personally hacked into the docking systems of local crimelord Badger, which resulted in many of Badger’s shipments to be delayed. After the clients were suitably annoyed with the delay, the Baron went and gathered them up, offering discounts even.

Badger didn’t take too well to that, as was understandable.

The Baron believed it to be just a matter of time before Badger reciprocated. Obviously, the Baron believed that the short Daytonier would resort to physical violence rather than try anything on the Baron’s intellectual level. Still, he would personally check to see that all orders and shipments were going out on schedule.

The CorTex beeped with an annoying, persistent tone. An incoming wave.

“Someone get that!” he called out behind him to one of his many assistants.

“It’s for you!” his favorite assistant Polly called back.

“How do you know? You haven’t answered it yet.”

“It’s always for you, Jeff!”

She did have a point. He still believed that professionalism was something to aspire to. But since arguing with Polly usually lasted for a couple weeks, the Baron answered the wave himself.

“Lucky J’s. What do you want?”

The large, dark-skinned man on the other end of the CorTex smiled wryly to the Baron.

“That’s not the way to win customers, kid.”

“Morrigan! Nice to see you. But you know you shouldn’t be callin’.”

“Yeah, I know, but it’s a bit of an emergency I thought you’d be interested in.”

“Don’t like the sound of that. Got to do with Badger?”

“Well… yeah,” Morrigan’s face turned a very rectangle shape. It was the shape his face took when he was being serious. It was always a sign for the Baron that something bad was coming. “It’s unsubstantiated, but folks around here are sayin’ that they’ve caught a tip on Malcolm Reynolds.”

The Baron’s eyes widened.

“How? Uh, I mean, what kind of tip?”

“They say Reynolds is on his way to Cytherea. Jeff, it won’t be long until the Alliance picks this up.”

“Oh, god… Morrigan, contact Kesler.”

“Don’t you think that’s a little risky, Jeff?”

The Baron leaned forward, his voice urgent. “If anything is going to happen, it has to happen now. We miss this chance, we’re done for. You understand that, right?”

Morrigan solemnly nodded. “I understand. I’ll make it happen. It’s gonna be tight though.”

“Well, let’s hope that Kesler’s reflexes are in tune.”

“No kidding.”

“You know what to do, Morrigan?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Then blow it up. Blow it all up.”

The Baron turned off the CorTex and relaxed for a second. He then returned to checking the orders, feeling very sympathetic for the crew of Serenity.

“God be with ‘em,” he whispered. “God be with ‘em.”

COMMENTS

Sunday, June 18, 2006 1:44 AM

AGENTROUKA


Wow, what a great part!

I love seeing Mal react to the things that happened on Neo Sombra (I'm so silly that only now I catch the meaning of that*name*.) and to events that we readers haven't even seen but that are vaguely starting to take shape, such as the ever conspicious "Auguine Incident". That was a very touching, very sad scene between him and Inara there. Closer than ever and more hopeless, as well.

And River. The word is.. oy.

The weather is just too hot for coherent feedback right now and I can't apologize enough, but as always I loved reading a new chapter of this series. You do wonderful things with the crew and your original characters. It's a delight.

Sunday, June 18, 2006 6:32 AM

LEIASKY


Oh, no, Simon better not start pushing Kaylee away!

Jayne just needed to be hit by Mal for all of his comments. They weren't helping the situation. But they were real in character for him!

The Mal/Inara conversation was chilling! If Mal is giving up...expecting to be caught....

And now the crew is flying into a trap...oy! You know how to ratchet up the tension, don't you?!

Don't keep us waiting long to find out what happens!

Friday, June 23, 2006 12:36 AM

AMDOBELL


Loved the scene between Mal and Inara, and am not sure what my feelings are about the Baron. Just how much is he going to leave Mal and company hanging as the noose tightens? Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Friday, June 23, 2006 5:40 PM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


Oh...you gotta know something's up when Mal's the voice of logic and Inara's trying to argue the faith route...even piss-poorly;)

Things are definitely down for our BDHs.....but I know there's an upside coming soon. Right, TSB?

BEB


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