THE PURSUIT SERIES: 14. "Symbols and Cyphers"
Saturday, October 28, 2006

"River explains why the animals are on Savanna. Shepherd Book gets a surprise. A chain of events is set in motion to bring much needed aid."



SUMMARY: "River explains why the animals are on Savanna. Shepherd Book gets a surprise. A chain of events is set in motion to bring much needed aid." The usual disclaimers apply. The characters and 'Firefly' are the property and gift of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. No infringement of copyright is intended.


"Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

By the time the wave had ended Sir Warwick Harrow was in reflective pose, his mind flitting back over the brief but memorable conversation.

"A long time ago I did you a great service." The Special Envoy had said. "Now I am calling in that marker, old friend."

It was not repaying the debt that caused him such deep reflection but the manner of the repayment. Unusal, certainly. Dangerous? Probably. Unprecedented? Absolutely. Sir Warwick did not know the principals involved but the figure on the periphery, the 'maiden in distress' as it were, was well known to him. Some circles forever overlapped, hers and his were a case in point. Inara Serra. A woman of matchless beauty but with wits to match. How the Companion had fallen foul of the Alliance he could not even begin to guess but for the Special Envoy to take this keen an interest was disturbing on a number of counts. He sighed and hoped that what little help he could provide would loosen the noose tightening around her neck.

Despite the late hour he sent the wave piggy backed on another signal to re-route it so that it would be lost in low level chatter. The words were innocuous and there was no return address. He was the go between only. His few words the only assurance to give to the man he was intending to reach that both line and contact were secure. The rest would be up to others. The less he knew about the details involved the safer for all of them.

* * * * *

"Gorramit!" The Captain muttered darkly. "Need you to talk plain, *dong ma*?"

River nodded, the movement causing a flutter of wings like coloured confetti about her head. Kaylee watched in fascination as the butterflies continually changed places with each other only alighting for a moment at a time. Dire as their situation was it was surreal enough to make her wonder if they were trapped in a dream. Or maybehaps someone else's nightmare.

"Captain, you can't expect my sister to..."

The Captain held up a hand and Simon automatically stopped mid sentence. At times he wondered why but experience had taught him that despite the man's rough edges Malcolm Reynolds might be many things but he was no fool. Still, blind obedience had never been a habit Simon could readily embrace. His intellect simply would not allow it.

"The animals know, we must trust them." River said, her tone matter of fact.

"Darlin', I need a little more than that."

River's smile was entrancing, softening the impact of her words. "Like me but not like me."

The others held their breath. Simon hoping that his sister wasn't about to have an episode. She had been doing so well and anything that indicated a slide back towards insanity was like a dagger to his heart. Kaylee grabbed his hand and squeezed.

"River, what you meanin'?"

Her luminous eyes caught the Captain's and locked on, a pale lantern of hope trying to guide him through treacherous waters. "They cut my brain, again and again and again..."

Simon wanted to go to her, wrap her in his arms and reassure her, but Kaylee held on tight knowing this was one time when her brother needed to let River finish. The Captain knelt in front of the girl and took River's small cold hands in his. "What's that got to do with these animals, little one?"

For a moment River did not speak, her eyes looking deep into Mal's as if searching for something. "They made the same incisions." She said quietly, needing him to understand. "Over and over and over."

Wash's eyes widened in sadness and alarm. "Oh my God!"

"You sayin' the Alliance cut on these animals?" Mal asked tentatively, not daring to believe such a thing was even possible. The panther nudged his shoulder and without thinking he reached out to rub the top of her head.

"*Qu*, all but the insects."

Jayne Cobb had been listening in dread and awe but now his attention began to slip into disbelief convinced the crazy girl was losing it. "Insects? Huh, if this is a gorram game it ain't funny."

"*Ni bu dong*. The insects weren't subjects."

The Captain was confused and Zoe couldn't blame him. Wash frowned. "Then what did they want them for?"

"Not all the animals ate vegetation. Many were meat eaters but others preferred insects."

Wash made a face then thought of the parakeet. Jayne's eyes turned every which way as if expecting cockroaches and the like to come crawling all over the walls. Despite still being a mite groggy he was beginning to feel stir crazy. The Captain tried to get them back on track.

"River, I need you to concentrate."

"There were so many, everything that crept and crawled and spun and...."

"*Mei mei*," Interrupted Simon gently. "The only insects we've seen since we've been here are your butterflies."

"*Wo zhidao*, Simon." Her breath caught, tears glittering unshed in her eyes. "They died. Had no wings to fly. No escape."

"I still don't see what that's gotta do with the animals bein' cut on." Grumbled Jayne. "It's why they came to us." River explained.


With a sigh River took a deep breath and slowed down her thoughts, trying to organise them into sentence structures that would make her meaning clear. Emotion was robbing her of coherence and they didn't have time to take the scenic route. "They did the same procedures, Simon." Kaylee gasped. River ignored her, eyes wide, pleading for them to understand. "It's why they chose us."

Despite his best efforts Jayne was getting impatient. His head hurt and he wanted to find the Preacher. Get the good gorram out of this creepy assed mausoleum. "No one ruttin' chose me."

Her head turned as if on a swivel. "Elephants never forget, *jide*?" A jolt went through the big man. "*Wode ma*, how'd ya know that?"

"River," Said the Captain carefully. "You were sayin' about what they did to the animals. You talkin' 'bout all of 'em?"

Knowing he was thinking of the panther River nodded, her eyes sad windows to a soul tasting everyone else's sorrow as well as her own. "You can't feel the scar, it's behind her ears. Like me now but different."

"That don't make sense." Said Jayne.

"Jayne!" The Captain snapped, voice quiet but tense. "Don't have time for no distractions. What do you mean they're like us but different, River?"

"When they cut me they were very specific. I had some psychic ability but they enhanced it, made me a Reader."

Zoe didn't like the direction the conversation was going in. "Are you sayin' the animals can read our minds?"

She shook her head. "*Bu qu*, they're empathic not telepathic." Jayne frowned. "What does that mean?"

"It means they know when you're bein' crude without havin' to listen to your thoughts." Wash quipped, unable to resist.

Jayne scowled at the pilot. "I can snap you like a twig, little man."

"Not before I rip out your throat, Jayne."

The mercenary stared at Zoe and felt his interest in Wash wane. No way did he want Zoe handing him his ass back in a paper gorram bag. Kaylee though was fascinated by what River was saying. "Do ya mean the monkeys chose me?"

River smiled, the laughter bubbling up and threatening to spill over. Kaylee always reminded her of sunlight and joy. "Sympathetic souls. Drawn to minds as inquisitive as their own although the ancient Emperor from Earth-That-Was called the monkey the Great Sage equal to Heaven. Not all monkeys were good, being thought to have contol over witches and goblins affecting the health and success of mankind. *Fang xin* Kaylee, your monkeys aren't yellow."

"Is that good?"

Her friend nodded. "I can see how Kaylee got monkeys an' Wash a parakeet but what about the others?" Asked Zoe, a frown appearing between her eyes as she tried to see the logic.

If anything River's smile got even bigger. "The snake is drawn to your analytical mind. It is cunning and subtle. Some say the snake is evil but it is held in awe and veneration because it is thought to have supernatural powers and is kin to the dragon." River looked at the Captain. "The panther symbolises power and grandeur and is the protector of life. In Chinese Philosophy the panther is the Guardian."

"*Wei*," Said Jayne, feeling left out. "What about me?"

"What about you?" Asked Simon.

"What does it say about elephants?"

They stared at him, Wash's eyes going wide. "You've got elephants?"

Jayne puffed out his chest as if he was holding a winning hand. "Yeah."

"The elephant is the symbol of strength, sagacity and prudence. It is sacred to Buddha and understands human speech. Elephants were also used in war."

The mercenary looked pleased. "Mama always said elephants were smart."

"Then you must'a picked a dumb one." Muttered Wash.

Before an argument could break out the Captain intervened. "River, this is all very interestin' but..."

"Why did I get stuck with an Emu?" Simon blurted, then flushed when he realised he had spoken his thought out loud.

Kaylee smiled at him. "Well I think it's sweet an' she was right brave protectin' ya like that, Simon."

"It's the bright sharp mind denoting intellect." River explained.

The doctor looked at his sister in surprise. "It is?"

Mal interrupted more forcibly this time. "River, we don't got time for this!" He paused and tried to stay calm. "We can discuss whatever you want to your gorram heart's content once we get outta here. Now, how in the nine hells we gonna escape an' get back to Serenity?"

"I told you." Said River with a huff of exasperation.

The Captain blinked. "You did?" He turned to Zoe, "How'd I miss that?"

"The animals know."

"Oh." The Captain's eyes all but glazed over then he remembered how the panther had been able to switch the force fields on and off and how she had opened the concealed door into the domed room. River was right. The animals did know. Now all he had to do was turn that knowledge into an escape plan.

* * * * *

Charlie Harding stared at the message. Read it twice then read it again. Nope. It stayed the same. Blinking didn't help any more than squinting did. His partner John-Joe Rae didn't seem half as stunned or impressed. "If it makes ya twitch ignore it!"

Charlie stared at his friend and oft' times partner in crime. "Do you ever think before you speak?"

"*Tianna*, if makin' a decision ain't a sign of thinkin' what is?"

"Can't ignore it even if I wanted to."

John-Joe paused. They had just finished a semi lucrative run and now had a wait of three days until they could hope to pick up a return job. "Charlie, messages get lost all the time plus they can't take it outta your hide if'n they can't find ya."

"*Ni bu dong*."

His friend huffed and glared at him. "This ain't worth gettin' a bug in yer ass over."

"I owe the man, John-Joe, doesn't that penetrate that thick skull of yours?"

John-Joe shook his head. "I ain't the dummy this go round. He's got no right to ask ya to risk your neck an' for a painted whore at that."

It was seldom John-Joe had ever seen Charlie lose his rag but it would figure this would be the day. "You want out ya sack of lard then best you go runnin', tail a'tween your legs an' leave a man's work to one as ain't afraid to step up to the plate when needs must!"

"Charlie, ya ain't thinkin' straight."

"Don't have to think." Arguing with John-Joe was straightening him out quicker than a cold shower. Pretty much convincing his contrary nature to do the right thing. But it wasn't just about him. "Not gonna ask ya to come with me, *dong ma*?"

John-John spat a plug of tobacco into an old spitoon in the corner. The satisfying ring it made giving him time to school his emotions before speaking again. "An' if I say no?"

His friend shrugged. "Then I go alone. Won't be the first time, likely not be last."

"Like I'd let ya do that."

The two men stared at each other. So much history between them. It made even the most innocuous falling out painful. "I have to do this an' now ya know why. So are ya in or out?"

"Don't do it, Charlie."

"I owe him."

"Can't keep callin' that marker in."

"He ain't. First time he's called it in an' ya know it. He saved my gorram life an' him with nothin' to gain but a painful an' very public execution if'n he got caught." Charlie paused, tamping down the unseemly emotion creeping into his voice. "Him savin' me meant a lot of others also got to come along for the ride."

"I'm no soldier." John-Joe murmured trying to hide how Charlie's words affected him.

Charlie managed to hide a smile. "Me neither."

"Yeah but ya fought in the war..."

"*Bu qu*, leastways not like that."

"Okay, under-gorram-cover then."

"It weren't a just war." "Charlie, don't let that old warhorse drag ya into another one."

"I take it that's a no then?"

His friend stared at him. Seconds tipped into long slow minutes, neither man in a hurry to rush the other. At last John-Joe gave his friend the only answer he could give even if the telling of it made him sound like a leaky gorram balloon. "Must need my head examinin' but if you're determined to die young best I come along to make sure you get buried decent."

"That's mighty fine of ya."

"Still think you're a ruttin' fool."

The smile that spread slowly over Charlie's face was like a virus, infecting John-Joe with the irresistable and stupid urge to grin back. "Leastways I'm in good company."

There was another bout of silence. "What he want us to do an' what's it gotta do with the whore?"


John-Joe shrugged, made no never mind to him. Both spread for money whatever fancy spin they put on the deed. "Whatever."

Charlie took his time responding, choosing his words with care. "Seems the woman's got herself in all manner of trouble..."


"...but that ain't the whole of it."

John-Joe's eyes narrowed when Charlie didn't elaborate. "What's the rest?"

His friend huffed. "It ain't just the Companion. Seems there's some other folk trapped on a moon or somesuch."

"*Shenme*? Are ya outta your mind? Rescuin' a meddlin' whore's one thing but..."

"JJ, calm down, hear me?" "I can't believe what I'm hearin'. How many folk we talkin' about an' where in the 'verse is this fool's errand gonna take us?"

"*Wo bu zhidao*. My contact don't know, he only named the woman." "Is there any part of this plan that has a snowball's chance in *diyu* of havin' sense attached to it?"

Despite how dire the situation was Charlie laughed. "Nope. Not a prayer."

John-Joe closed his eyes, he felt a headache coming on. But Charlie was a good man, perhaps the best man he had ever known. Sure he bent the law so many times it had a permanent curve but never in a way that hurt the little folk. Only them as had their boot heels on people's necks. Now here he was again getting ready to go off God knew where with only the name of a whore to justify risking his neck. He shook his head then opened his eyes. "Can I at least know the name of the man sendin' us out to die?"

Reluctantly Charlie shook his head, the sorry in his eyes sincerely meant. "Best you don't know."

"He that high up?"

"Could say that but if we expose him a lot of innocent an' goodly folk will suffer."

"Ya make him sound like some kind of Saint."

Charlie snorted in amusement, imaging the look on Sir Warwick Harrow's face if he could hear his friend speak. "Come on John-Joe, if we're gonna do this we best contact the group, see how many others we can muster then go find us a sturdy ship."

John-Jo raised his eyebrows. "Ya make it sound like we ain't comin' back."

His friend gave him the kind of grin that made him want to check his wallet. "Who wants to live forever?"

As John-Joe followed his friend out of the house he couldn't help but mutter, "I do."

* * * * *


The Shepherd's stunned exclamation turned to one of alarm as the largest pachyderm suddenly lumbered into a charge straight at him. Book leapt aside just in time to escape major injury, confused when a high pitched noise was followed by a trail of sparks then silence. He rolled to his feet and stared at the elephant, the huge heavy round feet stomping the ground where Book had been standing and yet he had the feeling the beast was not mad at him. How crazy was that?

As he watched, Book noticed none of the other elephants came near. That meant this one must be the leader of the herd, perhaps the matriach. His curiosity piqued, Book edged towards the elephant and froze when the noble beast stopped and swung her head in his direction, wise old eyes looking at him as if there was not a secret in his head that the beast could not extract. It was a weird feeling but oddly enough he did not feel threatened. The elephant waggled her head and trumpeted at him then swung her trunk down as if to scrape the floor. Before Book realised what was happening something with a dark glittering surface sailed through the air towards him. Without thinking he caught it, nearly dropping it in shock and alarm. Looking down at the object in his hands Book's eyes widened and a trace of warm humour crept into his voice.

"Oh my!"

The mechanised robot lay in his palm in a mangled mess. It felt warm to the touch where circuits had burnt out, the system overloaded in an attempt to escape the fury of the pachyderm. Book was tempted to throw the remains away then hesitated. It could be a useful source of information. If he could get to the others in time this might be the opening they needed to plan an escape. The elephant intruded on his thoughts, her trunk raised and curled over her head. Book stared but made no attempt to move. While he suspected the animals would not harm him he could not be sure. Maybe the destruction of the scorpion had been a fluke, the unintended victim of the beast's wrath when Book had sidestepped the charging animal. The elephant actually looked amused, the trunk unfurling and reaching for the Preacher. Book began to talk softly, the soothing depth of his voice having a calming effect on the pachyderm

Then, just when Book was wondering what in the nine hells to do next, he was lifted up off his feet and carefully but firmly swung up on to the matriach's back. Surprised, Book realised whatever control he mistakingly thought he had over his life the elephants had neatly usurped that role and made it their own. Holding on and deciding to make the best of things, Book watched as the rest of the herd followed their swaying gait, the journey out of the cave taking no more than minutes. Blinking against the bright light, Book was about to thank his hosts when something caught his eye, the two blistering suns reflecting off something shiny in the sky. Shiny. A flash of panic made the breath in his body freeze.

Book stared up at the craft and wished he was invisible, for as much as he hoped and prayed someone would come to their aid he could not imagine that aid couched in the form of an Alliance vessel.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*dong ma* = understand? *qu* = yes (lit. go) *ni bu dong* = you don't understand *mei mei* = little sister *wo zhidao* = I know *shenme* = what *jide* = remember *wode ma* = mother of God! *bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart) *wei* = hey! *tianna* = oh God! *wo bu zhidao* = I don't know *diyu* = hell


Monday, October 30, 2006 9:22 PM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER're really pulling out the stops to make the Alliance look bad, aren't ya Alison? Now they conduct experiments on animals to develop psychic powers?


Still...can't wait to see what you got up your sleeve next;)



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His head still ached from the rutting probe but after the men had satisfied themselves that his story was true a thousand questions peppered the air like machine gun fire.

The vessel was shiny, sleek and black with nowhere near the bulk of an Alliance ship. Something about the way it moved through the Black was more than a little creepifying.

Personally she didn't care if Serenity was towed off to a junk yard and stripped into spare parts. She had promised the ship to Jer and his crew as a bonus but it looked like scavengers had beaten them to it.

UNFINISHED BUSINESS: 2. "Counting Chickens"
The fact that her eyes were hard and sharp with intelligence kind of chilled him. Smart women always made him uneasy, it just weren't natural.

What in the nine hells were they so afraid of? Then he remembered Tracy. The body mailed to them by their old war buddy and all the trouble that had brought down on them.

If it was too gorram wet to hunt for rabbits what in the nine hells was his son really hunting? And was it something on four legs or two?

The man was in a terrible condition, his pulse weak, and for some reason he was soaking wet which did nothing to staunch the blood soaking through his clothing and seeping from the poorly tended wound where he had been shot.

THE DICHOTOMY SERIES: 9. "All The King's Men"
The man sighed like the weight of the of the 'Verse was on his shoulders but unlike anyone else he looked like he could carry the weight.

THE DICHOTOMY SERIES: 8. "All The King's Horses"
Without warning something came through the opening and rolled with a metallic clang across the ground before exploding.

THE DICHOTOMY SERIES: 7. "Friend or Foe"
Then he found himself falling, the whole world silent as in slow motion the hordes of *diyu* came to swallow him up and everything disintegrated in fire, blood and pain.