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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Maya. Post-BDM. Stuck on Amnesty, Mal fights to save his crew, and for the truth. Part II of II
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 906 RATING: 0 SERIES: FIREFLY
“River, what the tyen shiao duh are you talking about?” Mal asked, feeling the painkiller working, just taking the edge off the agony in his skull.
She looked into his blue eyes, trying to make him understand. “Men. With guns. Coming out of the graveyard. I could … not feel them, but I knew they were coming for us. So I took us away.”
“Away?” Mal knew he was sounding like an idiot, but he couldn’t help it. “Where to?”
“The dark side. Not far, but enough so that they won’t follow. We’re in a cave.”
“Oh.” Hank understood now why he couldn’t see the stars from the bridge. If the Firefly been sitting out in the open they would still have been visible, but in a cave …
“Who are they? These people?” Mal continued his questioning.
“I don’t know,” River said regretfully. “But you do.”
“I do?” He shook his head carefully, putting that aside for a moment. “And how come they ain’t gonna just follow us if we ain’t far?”
“Because they’re afraid of the dark. Of what lives here.”
“What lives …” Mal levered himself onto his elbows, ignoring the pain now. “What … lives here?”
River smiled. “Us, right now. And other things. But they can’t get in. I’ve locked us up tight.”
Hank had been getting more and more angry. “This is crazy,” he muttered, heading for the door. “I’m gonna take us back. Find Zoe.”
“You can’t,” River said. “I’ve changed the access code. And you’ll never guess it.”
He turned on her. “Tell me!”
She stood her ground. “No.”
Hank took hold of her arms, squeezing tightly. “Tell me, River, or so help me …”
“That’s my fiancé out there …” His anger was still raging, but there was a terrible feeling of foreboding as well. “River, please.”
“Let me take us back -”
“And do what? Charge into a situation where we don’t know what we’re dealing with?”
“Since when do we care about that?”
“Hank, much as it pains me to admit it, but River’s right,” Mal said, laying back, desperately wanting to sleep but knowing he mustn‘t. “I … I can’t remember what happened. I don’t even know where they are.”
Simon was trying to hold it together, to keep his professionalism on the surface, but underneath he was as anxious as Hank. “Mal, we don’t have time for this.”
“I know that, doc.”
“No. You don’t.” His face was paler than ever. “Those inocks I gave everyone … they were designed to last twenty hours. No more.”
Mal’s eyes flew wide. “Twenty … why?”
“It wasn’t necessary. You said we were only going to be here a short while.” He took a calming breath. “They’re only good for another six hours.”
“What’ll happen then?”
“The radiation will start to affect …” He swallowed. “Mal, we have to find them.”
“God.“ Mal closed his eyes again, trying to see through -
“The fog.” River laid her fingertips on his forehead, making him jump and stare at her. “Cotton candy pink. Sticks to everything.”
“River …” Mal ground out.
“Let me help.” Her big eyes fixed on his. “Let me break the barriers.”
Mal shook his head. “River, I ain’t … it’s only Frey -”
“Mother isn’t here.” She took his hand. “We won’t go where you don’t want us to. Only these recent memories.”
“Can’t you just look?” Somehow, the idea of leading her into his mind, past the locked doors of thoughts too painful to bring into the light of day, made him shudder. Even Frey, in her most intimate moments, only stroked his subconscious, filling him but not delving into the dark corners. He’d always appreciated that - he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to invite even the woman he’d die for into some of them.
“I won’t do that,” the young woman said softly, answering his unspoken query. Her fingers entwined with his. “And I can’t look, can’t see … your barriers are too strong.”
“Mine?” Mal was almost pleasantly surprised.
“Your interactions with Freya have strengthened them.”
“Can’t keep her out, though.”
“Don’t want to.”
Hank stepped forward, his hands rolling round each other like he wanted to strangle something. “Mal, this ain’t helping. And Ben needs his momma.”
Mal still gazed at his albatross, but nodded slowly. “Okay.” He swallowed. “But is this gonna be like when I … after Wing …” He had a mental image of a horse, a dragon, and a man in a Hawaiian shirt …
“No. Just … you’ll remember.”
“Okay. Do it.”
She put her hand back on his forehead. “Close your eyes.”
A howl in the distance, and his hand went to his gun. He could feel it at his hip, knew he was still in the infirmary, but he was here too. Here … then he forgot it was a memory.
… “That’s a Trans U. The curve of the bow section tells you that.”
… “Anything falling off my ship is important.”
… “Ooh, a Jefferson bolt!”
… A doll, broken, face down.
… Her name was Solitude. Her captain, just a dried-out husk in the pilot’s chair, staring sightlessly out into the eternal day. A salute, as crisp as he could make it.
… “Might be a catalyzer worth the salvaging.” “That ain’t fair, little Kaylee.”
… “Nightfall? No such thing.”
“Something ahead of us.”
“No way to know.”
“Can we get round them?”
“Maybe. ‘Cept we could get lost in this maze.”
“Com won’t work.”
“Just stay close to me. Won’t let anything happen to you. Just stay in the shadows. Maybe we can –“
Something moved, but even as he lifted his gun to aim, to fire if needed, there was a slight sound behind him, and Kaylee shrieked. Mal turned, seeing someone holding her, a gun to her neck.
“Move, she dies,” the man said through cracked lips, his voice guttural, almost as if he wasn’t used to .talking much. “And it won’t be easy. For her.”
“It’s okay,” Mal said soothingly, seeing more figures appear out of the corner of his eye. “No-one’s gonna do anything drastic.”
“Drop your weapons.”
“Fine.” Mal let his gun fall to the ground, saw Zoe do the same. “Let her go now.”
“Where’s your ship?”
“Why don’t you just -”
The man pressed the gun barrel harder into Kaylee’s neck and she gasped. “Where is it?”
“It’s gone,” he lied. “Coming back for us in a few hours.” He could see the fear on her face. “Look, my name’s Malcolm Reynolds. And that’s my mechanic you’re scaring. Just let her go and we’ll talk.”
“Let her go. Please.”
The man glanced around, nodded at one of his colleagues who darted in and picked up the guns. When he’d backed away, the man roughly pushed Kaylee forwards.
She half fell into Mal’s arms.
“I’m okay, Cap’n.”
“He didn’t hurt you?”
She rubbed her neck. “Nothing won’t heal.”
“Walk.” The man gestured with his rifle.
“Ain’t going anywhere ‘til you tell us why.” Mal still held Kaylee, feeling her beginning to tremble.
There was an ominous clicking as safeties were removed from various guns surrounding them.
“Could just shoot you,” the man said. “Ain’t no difference to me. ‘Cept Pius might be mad.”
The man was starting to get irritated. “Get going or I’ll shoot ya anyway.”
“Your name ain’t Cobb, is it?”
His brow furrowed a little, and Mal could see a sore in his hairline oozing slightly. He wiped it absently away with the back of his hand. “Move.”
Mal glanced at Zoe, knowing she was ready to follow his lead, into hell if need be, but with Kaylee here … “Okay. We’re coming. Only is it just sight-seeing, or are we actually going some place?”
“You’re going to see Pius.”
“Great. Fine.” Mal started walked, his mind firing. Pius wasn’t that usual a name. And these folks were all from Shadow. He glanced at Zoe, who’d taken Kaylee from him. She couldn’t know, wouldn’t know … If he could just believe it now …
The men led them through the maze of ships, into the centre of the graveyard, ignoring Mal’s attempt to get them to talk. They appeared to be making a beeline for an old Lonsdale freighter, crunched into the landscape like the rest of them, nose first, stern nothing more than a skeleton of bones worn thin by the howling wind and driving sand.
“That it?” Mal asked, not believing this could be their final destination, a ship almost entirely crumpled in on itself.
The man ignored him, instead knocking on the only stable-looking section of metal. A hatch slid open a little, a gun poking out of the gap.
“Bates, that you?”
“Who the hell else you think it’d be?”
“You got them?”
“I got them. Now let us in. We gotta see Pius.”
“Why? Ain’t you just gonna taken ‘em to the -”
“Open up, Roseby, ‘fore I put a bullet through you.”
There was mutterings, but the hatch slid further open.
Bates, wiping more liquid from his forehead, motioned to them. “Get inside.”
“Well, I’m not sure you’re ready for guests …” Mal began.
“Just do it.” Bates sounded resigned. “Ain’t saying again. Just shoot ya in the leg and carry ya.”
“Good point,” Mal conceded, and led the women into the dark interior. “Now what?”
“Follow me. And don’t do anything stupid. There’s people all around you.”
“How long does this take?” Hank asked, his anxiety showing in its usual way, by him rubbing his hands together until they were tinder dry, then pushing them through his scruffy hair.
“I don’t know,” Simon said quietly, not taking his eyes off his sister. “We still don’t know everything about how memories are made, stored … what triggers them -”
“Shh.” River didn’t move from her position, but the sound had an urgency to it.
“Well, I can’t stand here doing nothing,” Hank muttered. “It’ll send me crazy. I’m gonna see if I can guess that access code, get us going again.” When the young doctor didn’t answer, he shook his head and strode out of the infirmary.
Bates and several of the other gunmen escorted their prisoners down a series of narrow inclines, ignoring a number of side tunnels, until they came out into a large cave. Although it appeared natural, the area had been divided into living quarters by what appeared to be salvaged panels from the ships above, and blankets and other accoutrements of living were visible. Several, though, were empty, dusty, with no personal effects.
“This where you’ve been living?” Mal asked, his voice hushed.
“Safer than up top,” Bates said, trudging past faces peering out at them.
“Sir,” Zoe spoke softly. “No children.”
Bates glanced back. “No talking.”
“Sorry, yes, you’re right. No talking,” Mal agreed. “Just breathing.”
“You wanna keep doing that, you just do what you’re told.”
Finally they were led through into a chamber the size of a large room, evidently a sort of meeting area from the number of chairs arranged around the walls.
“Pius,” Bates called. He turned to Mal. “You wait.” He moved closer to an exit at the back of the area. “Pius!”
“What’s all the noise?” asked a man, stepping through from the back. He was tall, but his shoulders were stooped as if from carrying heavy weights, or a lifetime of being in a small, confined space. He was almost entirely bald, except for wisps of white hair still attached to the back of his skull, but his face was still handsome, despite the scars it carried, like sores that had healed after a long illness. “Did you get those …” He stopped as he realised they were not alone. “What are they doing here?”
“Pius, I had to bring them.” Bates was almost begging for approval. “This girl … he says she’s a mechanic. Maybe she can fix that processor that’s been playing up. And maybe -”
“That’s still no reason why you didn’t take them to the cells.”
“There’s more. This one … he says his name’s Reynolds.”
Pius turned sharply, his dark, almost black eyes darting to Mal’s face. “Reynolds?” He took a step closer.
It was him. Mal almost wanted to blink hard, shake his head, then look again. It had been near enough twenty years, but that voice, those eyes … “Pius Sorrell,” he muttered.
The man looked at him, really looked at him this time, and there was a flash of recognition. “Malcolm?”
Pius Sorrell had owned the ranch that butted up next to the Reynolds’ place on Shadow. Bigger and with more cattle, Pius used this to gain influence in the community, something Mrs Reynolds never bothered with. She could make her feelings known without having to stand in front of the Town Council and shout about it. Still, they shared the river for watering the herds, and Mal was often being sent over to deliver a few Sorrell steers that had been caught up on Reynolds’ land, or to collect a few wayward cows mixed in with theirs. Pius would always invite him inside, talk to him like he was a man, about the things he heard about on his private Cortex link, things going on in the ‘verse outside. It was how Mal first learned about the unrest in the border worlds.
And Amy. Sorrell’s daughter. A few years older than Mal, they’d gone out once or twice, while he was playing hard to get with Maddy, but it was just fun, and she had all these grand plans of going off and being a doctor. Had gone to medical school, but come back each long holiday to stay with her father. They’d had a good time, in that summer before the war began in earnest.
Now here he was, standing in front of him, older of course, but still a man of influence.
“Mr Sorrell.” He felt his body try to stand more upright, like it always had when he’d gone visiting.
“Malcolm Reynolds.” Pius shook his head, and put his hands on the younger man’s shoulders. “I never thought to see … least of all you.”
“Well, it’s something of a surprise my own self.”
Pius looked him up and down. “And you’re doing well, it seems.”
“Got me a boat, if that’s what you mean.”
“And a good crew?”
“I’m sure they’re better than that.” Pius smiled, then looked past Mal at the armed men behind him. “It’s all right. You can put your weapons away. Malcolm isn’t going to harm me.” He looked back. “Are you?”
“Well, I’m still holding judgement on that, truth to say. You’ve kidnapped me and mine, and I don’t take too kindly to that.”
Pius laughed. “You’ve grown up, Malcolm.”
“Had to. Kinda goes with the territory of being a man.”
“I’m sorry you were treated like that. We get occasional ships landing, trying to salvage what isn’t theirs … we have to keep an eye on things like that, particularly if it’s something we can use.” He let go and went to sit down in the centre chair, slightly bigger and higher than the rest. “What brings you here?”
“Curiosity,” Mal said. “We were in the neighbourhood, not been here before … just thought we’d take a look. All those tales of ghosts …” He smiled. “’Sides, my mechanic’s a pack rat. Wanted to see if there wasn’t something we could make a profit on.”
Kaylee patted her pockets where they were full of the bits she’d picked up. “Can’t help it,” she said brightly, almost disguising the tremble in her voice.
“Are you really a mechanic? You seem very young.”
“Oh, I manage. And Serenity ain’t that hard to work on.” She leaned forward a little. “Tell the truth, I make out like it’s a lot harder, just to keep my job.”
Mal wanted to hug her. She was following his lead.
“Still doesn’t explain about the cells,” Zoe said, seemingly relaxed at his back, but ready for anything.
Pius waved his hand airily. “It’s a precaution. We … make sure they understand before we let them go.”
“Father, I told you to rest -” A woman’s voice, coming from the back of the room. She stepped inside, and Mal felt the blood rush from his face.
“Ta ma dah.” He barely whispered it, but she turned to glare at him. Then she realised, recognised him.
“Mal?” She shook her head, then a grin split her face. She rushed to him, embracing him. “Mal!”
“Amy.” His arms came up, holding her to him. Thinner than he remembered, her blonde hair was cut short, and the rough working clothes she wore disguised what used to be a voluptuous figure. Her face was youthful, though, unmarked by time. “Amy, as I live and breathe.”
“Never thought to see you again,” she said, pulling back and thumping him on the chest. “Where’ve you been?”
He rubbed where she’d hit him. “Around. Lots of different places. Guess I can’t ask you the same question.”
Her smile faltered. “No.”
“How come … you were at MedAcad …”
“When the war started, I came home. To help my father.” She glanced at Pius, then looked back at Mal. “I didn’t think you … when you didn’t come back to see your Ma, I figured maybe you’d died.”
“Only on the inside, Amy.” He saw Kaylee exchange a look with Zoe, and stepped away. “Well, I’d say it was good to see you again, if it was under different circumstances.”
“I think it’s good to see you, however it is.”
“Quite the family reunion,” Pius said, an odd note in his voice.
“So who won?” Amy asked, pulling her clothes straight.
Mal stiffened, then made himself relax. “You mean the war?“
“It’s been … you don’t … no, I guess you couldn’t know.” It hadn’t occurred to him, but there was probably no way for them to find out.
“From the look on your face I’m figuring it wasn’t the Independents.”
“Nope. Alliance. We held out, long as we could, even had some good victories, but then there was Serenity Valley.”
“Serenity …” Amy shook her head. “I don’t know where that is.”
“Hera. It was the end of things. The war finished there.” Even to Mal his voice sounded bitter.
“The Alliance were too powerful?”
Mal shrugged. “Command decided not to carry on.”
“I’d’ve thought you’d fight ‘til the last man.”
“We did,” Zoe put in softly. “Hardly anyone walked out of Serenity Valley.”
There was a silence, then Kaylee took a step forward.
“These processors,” she said hesitantly. “You’re saying one of ‘em ain’t working so well?”
“It keeps cutting out,” Amy said. “No-one can figure out why.”
“Want me to take a look?” She glanced around at the men in the doorway, their guns now pointed down to the ground. “I’d be glad to.”
“If you would, we’d be grateful,” Pius said.
“Could you?” Amy’s face showed all the same exuberance that she had once exhibited over a silly bunch of flowers Mal had picked for her.
“Sure. Might need my tools, but -”
“We have tools. All sorts. We’ve had a lot of ships to pick over.” She sounded almost apologetic.
“Thank you,” Pius added. “That would be most helpful. Amy, if you can show the young lady to our processing area -”
“We’ll stick together,” Zoe said quickly.
“That we will,” Mal agreed. “All of us.”
“Amy.” Pius nodded.
“Yes, father.” She smiled at them and extended one hand. “This way.”
They didn’t give them back their guns, though, Mal noticed. And Bates and Pius seemed very deep in conversation as they left the meeting room.
Another cave, this one bigger, echoing darkly off into the distance, but filled with machinery.
“That’s it,” Amy said. “We have three of them. One died on us about a year ago, and now this one is …” She patted the side of the large container. “If it goes too, there won’t be enough food, even for those of us that are left.”
“Food?” Mal stepped closer to her, trying not to see the thinness of her hair, the scarring visible on the skin above her collar.
Amy smiled at him, the same one-sided smile that got him into bed that first time. “You’ve probably noticed the wonderful decoration we have in here.”
Mal looked around again, at the yellow algae glistening on the walls. “Kinda thought it was some of your efforts,” he joked. “Remembering what your room looked like.”
“No. Not guilty this time. But it makes good protein, when it’s been processed, when we’ve removed the small level of toxin. Keeps us all alive, Mal.”
“And who figured that out? You?”
“No.” She shook her head. “Man name of Mickey Chen. Dead now.”
“Well, let me take a look.” Kaylee stepped forward, then put her hands into her pockets, taking out a couple of pounds of metalwork. “Cap, can you look after these for me?” She held them out.
“And why’d I want to do that?”
“’Cause I can’t get under anything with them in here.” She gestured. “Come on. Ain’t like I’ve got all day.”
“And I ain’t your mule,” Mal said, taking the stuff nevertheless and thrusting it into his own pockets. “Why you wanted all this …” his voice trailed away as he shook his head.
She grinned at him.
“The controls are round here …” Amy led the way around the other side of the bin.
“Sir, do we have a plan?” Zoe asked quietly.
“Not as such. Thinking on it, though.”
“And I’m thinking they were all too ready to kill us before they figured who you were.”
“That has occurred to me.”
Zoe looked into his face. “We need to get out of here.”
“I know that too. But we’re still being watched, no matter they ain’t in here with their guns pointing at us.”
“You think Pius is just going to let us walk?”
“Honestly? Not a chance.”
Amy came back around the container. “Your mechanic is elbow deep in things already.” She laughed. “It’s been a long time since we had someone knew their way around a torque wrench.”
“What happened to the man that built these?”
He put his hand on her arm. “Amy, how many of you are there?”
“Now? About a hundred.”
He was shocked. “So how many survived the initial crashes?”
She disengaged his hand and went to sit down on a small rock, evidently placed there for just that purpose. “More than you might imagine. Some were hurt, and they either got better or they didn’t. I did what I could, but the medical supplies were … and I couldn’t get to everyone.”
Mal thought back about the captain of Solitude, his crew. “What happened then?”
“What happens in any natural disaster?” She shrugged. “It was either lie down and die, or get up and start to organise.”
“I’m figuring that was probably your father.”
“Pretty much. He got the survivors together, started giving orders … been doing that ever since.”
“Must’ve been grim.”
“It was.” She gazed up into this face. “You haven’t asked.”
“The question that’s been at the front of your mind all along.”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about, Amy.”
“Yes you do. And no. She isn’t here.”
Mal felt his heart miss a beat. “I know.”
“But you hoped. Maybe.”
“A man hopes all sorts of things, even when he knows there ain’t no chance. And I knew my Momma was dead.”
“We did try. My father, the rest of the townsfolk who were leaving … we all tried. But she just wouldn’t.”
“Always was stubborn, my Ma.”
“She was a wonderful woman.”
“Yeah.” He looked down at her for a moment longer, then turned to Zoe. “How’s Kaylee getting on?”
“We may not see her for a week,” his first mate admitted.
Mal smiled slightly. “That’s my girl.”
“Amy.“ Bates stood in the entrance to the cave. “Pius wants to see Reynolds.”
Amy looked round. “Well, our young friend here isn’t finished -”
“Not leaving them on their own,” Mal said firmly.
“’S okay, Cap’n,” Kaylee said, climbing out from under the main control console. “I think I figured out what it is.” She touched a few buttons, pushed a slider all the way to the right, and a dull rumbling juddered through the cave, easing out into a smooth hum, joining that of the other processor. “Just a bad connection. The humidity down here ain’t doing it no good,” Kaylee explained. “Need to check it every morning, make sure it’s dry, but it’ll carry on working. Whoever put this together knew what they were doing.” She watched the dials a moment. “Let it run for a while. If there’s anything else it’ll show up quickly enough.”
“Thank you,” Amy said, sounding honestly grateful.
“Weren’t nothing.” Kaylee smiled, blushing just a little.
“Amy.” Bates was getting impatient.
“Yes. All right.”
They followed the man out into the corridor, then Mal saw a half familiar shape through another opening.
“What’s in here?” he asked, ducking his head inside. “Tzao gao.” He stared.
Amy joined him. “Yes. Beautiful, isn’t she?”
“Cap’n …” Kaylee breathed.
Mal stared up at a Firefly, sitting in the huge cave like a jewel in the dust. From where he stood he could just make out the nameplate, where someone had painted, somewhat haphazardly, REDEMPTION. She looked spaceworthy, unlike the others they‘d seen up in the graveyard. “Does she fly?”
“No.” She shook her head sadly. “We hoped … it was our last chance, but when our engineer died we had no way of completing the work.” She sighed. “I think that was when a lot of people gave up the hope that we would ever leave. Everyone except my father.”
Kaylee moved past them, her mouth open in wonder. “How much was left to be done?”
“I don’t know,” Amy admitted. “The one shuttle that’s left actually works, but since there’s nowhere we want to go that we can’t get to on foot, we haven’t bothered taking it anywhere. And we saved the fuel anyway. But the engine’s in pieces, and no matter how good we are at jigsaws, we can never put it together again.”
“All the King’s horses …” Mal heard Zoe mutter behind him.
“How’d you get her in here? I’m guessing she didn’t come in under her own power.”
Amy laughed. “No. That took all of us. Sheer brute force.” She pointed to a faint patch of light some distance away. “There’s a tunnel, just about big enough, leads from the surface into here. Luckily it slopes, otherwise we’d never have managed it.”
“Amy, Pius is waiting,” Bates put in, clearly uncomfortable at keeping the man in charge waiting.
“Yes, you’re right.” She smiled again. “Come along. I‘m sure he can answer any other questions you may have.”
Back in the meeting room, Pius was sitting on his central chair of office. “Sit. Please. I have some refreshments for you.” He smiled.
“Uh, thanks, but … not if it’s that yellow stuff I saw growing on the walls.” Mal waited until Kaylee and Zoe were seated before lowering himself onto a stool.
Pius laughed. “I can assure you, it’s harmless.”
“I’m sure it is, but we’ll wait until we get back to our ship.”
“Yes, your ship. It’s out beyond the debris field.” Pius glanced heavenward. “And yet you told my men that they had left you.”
Mal feigned surprise. “Really? They back already? Must’ve done what they planned on quicker than we thought.”
“I’m sure they did.” His glance ranged over the two women. “But I did ask to speak to you in private.”
“We’re a set. Come as standard. No splitting us up.”
Pius smiled again, but this time it didn’t reach his eyes. “Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter that much. Not since you’re all going to be staying with us.”
“Your mechanic here fixed our processor.”
“Weren’t really broke,” Kaylee replied, but she might as well not have spoken.
“Your ship, Malcolm. You’re going to help us.”
“Look -” He tried to stand, but Bates was behind him, pushing him back down, another man at his side, holding a gun aimed at his head.
“You don’t know what happened here, do you?” Pius asked. “How we came to be stranded.”
“Alliance ambushed you.” Mal sat still, but his rage was growing. “I heard … we all heard in the camp. An Alliance cruiser opened fire on you.”
“Is that what they say? Huh.” Pius picked up his cup and sipped.
“What the hell else could it have been?”
“Although in a way the Alliance are responsible for our situation. I had contacts, people who knew me, and they told me about what was about to happen. To us. To Shadow. How the Alliance were going to make an example of us.” He looked at Mal. “Do you have any idea how many good Shadow boys went off to fight for the Independents, Malcolm?”
“Thousands. All with the fervour of righteousness in their hearts, that they were doing the proper thing, that God was on their side.”
Mal had forgotten Pius used to be an occasional lay Preacher, but those words, the style, brought it all back to him. “They had no right to tell us what to do.”
“Oh, I agree with you. But it meant we came under their scrutiny. Picked as a target.” He put the cup back down. “We didn’t all leave at once. We couldn’t. There weren’t enough ships for all at one time, but over about a month there was an exodus. There still wasn’t enough room for everyone. Not by any means. That would have taken … but some were able to leave. We arranged to meet, to move out to one of the further Rim planets all together. This was our rendezvous. The name seemed so perfect … Amnesty.”
“What happened” Zoe asked.
“It was an Independent ship found us. They thought we were carrying spies.”
Mal‘s jaw dropped as he realised what the old man was saying. “No. No way that happened. They’d never fire on … not on civilian transports.”
“They didn’t believe us,” Pius went on. “Demanded we hand them over, and any weapons they said we had. We told ‘em, over and over, that we were refugees, coming from Shadow, trying to find a place to land. They opened fire.”
Amy stood by her father. “We heard the screams. Begging us for help as the first of the ships went down. Men, women, children … all dying as we listened. Then it was our turn.”
“Did you … were you the ones saw them open fire on you? Independents?”
“No. But I heard it from someone who -”
“Heard it from someone else.” He shook his head. “So you don’t know.”
Suddenly Pius was in his face. “You’ve been out there. Seen that destruction that once was your home, your family. I know.” Fury radiated off him like heat. “I saw the death.” He straightened up as much as he could. “And you, with your browncoat and your attitude, are going to help us now.” He went to sit down. “The ships that have come here before, those that didn’t get away … not one of them had an engineer worth anything. And not one of them big enough to take us all off this rock. But now, here you are. A Firefly, no less, and a mechanic who knows how to fix them. And she’s going to.”
“Fei hua,” Kaylee put in, trying to stand but being pushed back into her chair by the man behind her.
“The rest of your crew will come and join us,” Pius went on, ignoring her. “Hostages, if you like, against the time when she has repaired Redemption and we can all leave. Half in your ship, half in ours.”
“Pius, this ain’t the way to do things -”
“Can you fix her?” the man finally turned to Kaylee.
“I ain’t gotten a look at her engine -”
“It’s all there. Just needs putting together in the right order,” Amy said.
“Then I can do that. But -”
“Good.” Pius clapped his hands in satisfaction.
“No, it ain’t.” Mal stood up, shaking off the man who tried to get him back into his seat. “This ain’t happening. You ain’t kidnapping my mechanic, Pius. And she ain’t gonna be getting that crate ready for you.”
“Yes, she will. Otherwise she’s going to see her beloved captain broken, her friends dying … all because she didn’t do as we asked.”
Mal stared at the older man. “What the hell happened to you?”
“This.” Pius opened his arms, indicated his realm. “This happened. But if you’re asking how I can do this, to you, to a man I knew a long time ago …” He half smiled. “I was never innocent, Malcolm. Only you, in your youth, didn’t see that.” He nodded.
Mal started to turn, but something thudded down onto his skull. He heard Kaylee cry out, then the ground rushed up to meet him, and the world turned black.
The voices seemed to be slightly annoyed with him, as if they’d been calling for some time, and he wondered why. It wasn’t time to get up yet, surely. Reaching down for the covers to pull back over his head but finding nothing, he tried to sit up, and groaned.
“I think he’s awake.”
“Zoe?” He opened his eyes and looked up. A small area of light swam into focus, shining in the gloom. A grille, in a door, a few feet above him.
“Not dead then, sir.”
“Not that I’m aware of.” He wiped his face with his hands, his head pounding. “They hurt you?”
“No. Just made sure we couldn’t do anything to help.” Zoe sounded pretty disgusted with herself.
“Where are we?” He felt around the small room, just about big enough to lie flat without touching any of the walls.
“I’m guessing it’s the cells they talked about.”
“I realise that. I meant geographically.” He leaned on the wall and pulled himself to his feet, shaking his head to try and clear it.
“Not sure, sir.”
“Pretty close to where that Firefly is,” Kaylee put in, her voice a little more muffled. “I was counting the turns, and I’d figure we’re on the same level at least.”
“Could be our way out,” Mal said, testing the door. “There’s an exit to the outside.”
“I hate to have to point this out, sir, but we’re locked in.”
“I’m working on that.”
“You want to tell me about Amy?” his first mate continued, her tone dry, even through several layers of steel and rock.
“Not … particularly.”
“Or should this be a conversation you have with Freya?”
“She knows I wasn’t celibate. Didn’t spend my time taking cold showers and waiting for the right woman to come along.”
“No, sir. But you do seem to have had something of a taste for the wrong woman. Maddy, Amy … even Saffron might come under that particular heading -”
“Zoe, if you ain’t got something useful to say, don‘t say it.”
“Only you two seemed quite close.”
“Can you shut up?” Mal asked, glaring at the door then realised the pointlessness of that. “I’m trying to get us out of here.”
“And you think we haven’t been doing exactly the same?”
“Cap’n, there ain’t no way I can open these doors from inside,” Kaylee said, her voice at once apologetic and scared. “Can’t get to the lock plate, so I can’t pick it, and everything else is pretty solid.”
“This one’s the same,” Zoe agreed.
Mal raised an eyebrow as he felt the smooth metal of his door, then catching his fingertips on something. “Well, looks to me like they’ve done a repair on mine. Maybe I can … qingwa cao de liumang!”
He sucked the blood from his skin. “Nothing. Just some sharp edges. If I can find something to wedge underneath -”
“Cap, you still got that stuff I gave you?” Kaylee called.
“What’s that got to -”
“There might be something you can use.”
Mal felt his pockets, felt the weight of the entirely useless bits and pieces that might just now save their lives. “Kaylee, you’re a genius.”
“Does that get me the extra ten percent?”
“Don’t push it.” Pulling one of the pieces of metal out, he lifted it into the light. There, shaped like a bird, was the scrap Kaylee had been so delighted with. He smiled and pushed it under the repair. Levering it with all his weight, he felt it give, letting him slide it further. Again he leaned on it, and was highly gratified when it popped off, clattering to the rock floor.
“Sir?” Zoe called.
“Getting there,” he said. Again investigating the contents of his pocket, he came up with something round that was attached to a wire, which he inserted into the mechanism he’d uncovered. “How the hell does Frey do this?” he muttered, the thin wire bending as he fiddled, his fingers getting slippery with sudden sweat. Then suddenly there was a click and the lock disengaged. Pushing the door gently, checking to see if there were guards anywhere in sight, he hurried over towards the other cells. “Zoe?”
She looked out at him, an expression almost of pride on her face. “Well done, sir.”
He nodded and stared down at the locking mechanism on her door. “Cao.”
“It’s electronic. I can’t pick it.” He looked into her eyes. “Let me see if I can find something to break it with.” He glanced around, but the room was bare of anything usable.
“Cap’n, can you do mine? Maybe I can open Zoe’s,” Kaylee suggested.
He hurried over to hers, glad to see it was a manual lock. Sliding the wire inside, he attempted to do the same as before, but it was only a moment later that he felt the wire break off. He peered down, but couldn’t tell what had happened. Pushing the remaining wire into the lock, he found he couldn’t get it anywhere near the tumblers. He looked up, saw her frightened face pale through the grille. “Kaylee …”
“I understand,” she said, trying to smile for him. “You need to find something else to use.”
“There’s someone coming,” Zoe suddenly whispered.
Mal grabbed the grille. Maybe that was weaker. If he could get that out, maybe Kaylee could scramble loose, then help Zoe …
“There’s no time,” his first mate called urgently.
“I can’t …” Mal strained all his muscles, but nothing was happening.
“You have to go, sir. Get to Serenity.”
“Not leaving you here.”
“You have to. Mal, you have to, so you can come back for us.”
He stepped back and stared through the grille at her dark face, her eyes insistent. “Zoe -”
“Go. Go now.”
“She’s right,” Kaylee added. “Hurry.”
He nodded, just once, and ran out of the cave, hearing boots on the rock floor just as he turned a corner out of sight.
Gorramit, this place was like a maze. He could run around down here like a rat for the rest of his natural, if he didn’t … wait. That looked familiar. Ducking through an opening he realised Kaylee had been right. The Firefly was sitting in the cavern, her bow pointing towards the patch of light. He smiled grimly and started forwards, but shouts behind him indicated they’d noticed his absence. Gorramit, if he tried to climb out they’d be able to pick him off at their leisure, soon as they came in …
His eyes strayed to the Firefly, and the shuttle above her starboard thruster. Well, beggars can’t be choosers, as his Ma used to say. Mind, she also used to say to look before you leaped, but he’d always kinda figured that was more metaphorical anyway, since he’d spent more’n half his life leaping into the unknown.
And this was going to be just another example of it.
Climbing up a ladder conveniently placed to work on the extender, he was able to pull himself onto the thruster itself, and it was the work of only a moment to activate the escape hatch and let himself into the shuttle. The air inside was stale, and tasted of metal and dust, but he ignored the scratching it set up in his throat as he slid into the pilot’s seat.
Praying that the start-up sequence was going to be the same as on his own ship, he began flicking switches. Amy had said the shuttle was flyable, that it had fuel … now was the time to find out.
Nothing seemed to happen for a long moment, then the small craft shuddered as the engine caught, and lights began to flash on the console.
“Yes!” he said in triumph.
Except that triumph was swiftly curtailed as he caught sight of figures pouring into the cave. Armed figures.
Hitting the emergency release, the docking clamps blew and the shuttle lifted into the air, riding on her jets as he manoeuvred her away from the Firefly. Then something bounced off the window. Dammit, they were firing at him, at their own yuh bun duh shuttle! No time to lose, then. Pulling back on the yoke he tilted the small craft up towards the daylight, and engaged full thrusters. The shuttle responded, and he didn’t care if the burn had managed to catch anyone below.
In less than a minute, from the time he’d fired the engines, he was flying out of the cave mouth, above the yellow earth. He allowed a smile to curve his lips, but this failed as he attempted to steer the shuttle around to head for his own ship. She responded, but very sluggishly, and every second was taking him further away.
Battling with his full strength, the tendons raised and tight in his neck, he fought to turn her, then had to pull up hard to avoid crashing into the landscape. Suddenly the controls went soft in his grip as an explosion juddered through the small craft, and she began to spin wildly out of control, heading back towards the all too solid ground …
That was then, this is now …
“I felt you fall,” River said, holding his hand. “We came for you. Found you broken.”
Mal opened his eyes and looked into the infirmary ceiling. “Yeah.” He remembered someone turning him over, sliding him onto a stretcher, a moist rag at his lips.
“I’m sorry,” she added softly.
“For knowing it wasn’t the Alliance.”
He turned his head enough so that he could look into her dark eyes. “Ain’t your fault, albatross.”
“Mal?” Simon was at his side, checking his vitals. “Do you remember?”
“Yeah, I remember.” He nodded slowly. “She made me leave. Told me to go, so I could rescue them later on.” He sat up, even as the young doctor pushed down on his shoulders.
“Mal, you have to rest. You‘ve got more cracked ribs, let alone that concussion -”
“No. You give me something. Whatever it takes to keep me going until this is over.” He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, aware of aches and pains announcing themselves all over his body, as well as the headache that was pounding back inside his skull. “We’ve got a rescue to plan.”
“You think he got out okay?” Kaylee asked, leaning her head on the cool metal of the door.
“They haven’t brought him back.”
“That don’t mean -”
“Yes it does. We have to believe, Kaylee.”
“Yeah. Believe.” She wiped angrily at the tear that forced its way from her eye. “He’s real good at getting away.”
“That he is. I remember a time during the war, on a moon called Praxis, he got our whole platoon out from under the noses of an Alliance battalion. No-one got a scratch.”
Kaylee had to smile. “That’s my captain.”
“He’s coming back for us. You know that. With his last breath he’ll be planning and plotting -”
“Well, his last breath didn’t do you much good,” Bates said, appearing in the grille to glare in at her. “Stupid fool tried to make it out in our shuttle. It crashed. Exploded. Your precious captain’s in a few thousand little bits right now. Just a smear on the landscape.”
Zoe heard Kaylee gasp. “I don’t believe you.”
Bates shrugged. “Fine. It doesn’t matter one way or the other.” He unlocked the door, letting it open by its own weight as he aimed his rifle at Zoe. “Time for work.”
“You don’t got a choice. Move.” The look on his face was plain enough. He was itching to fire.
Zoe glanced over his shoulder at the men behind. Even if she took Bates down, which she knew she could, they would still fire, and an incapacitating bullet wound was something she wasn’t keen on dealing with at the moment. “Fine.” She stepped out of the cell.
She did as she was told, and was unsurprised to feel restraints being snapped around her wrists. “Afraid I might try and run?”
“I personally don’t care. But your little mechanic is going to work, and you’re the insurance.” He breathed in her ear, and she knew she could just step back, kick him in the knee, take him down … “Now, far as I’m concerned, long as you’re alive she’ll work. But you don’t exactly have to be in perfect health.”
She turned around, her dark eyes gazing into his washed-out green. “How do you know she’s going to do it right?”
“’Cause I’ll make sure you’re both on board for the maiden flight.” He grinned, then wiped at the sore on his forehead.
“You know, you should really get someone to look at that.”
“Get the girl,” he ordered over his shoulder. “Time to get to work.”
“Mal, that’s crazy.” Simon was flat-toned, stating nothing more than the obvious.
“Best I can come up with.”
“But we need something sneaky. And … and clever,” Hank put in, his anxiety coming back full force.
“Yeah, well, you think of something else, then, ‘cause I’m all out of sneak.”
“How about something not actually suicidal, then?” the young doctor suggested.
“I’m not actually figuring on getting that far.” Mal looked down at the grenades on the table, then at River, sitting with one in her hands. “Can you do it?”
She nodded, her hair hiding her face. “It won’t be hard. Jayne showed me how.”
Mal pushed the disturbing image of his mercenary and this waif of a girl discussing methods of killing people out of his mind. “But it’s doable.”
“Two hours,” she said, picking up the grenades and standing up.
“Two hours?” Simon shook his head. “We’re starting to cut this very fine.”
“You want this done fast, or you want this done right?” River countered.
“I don’t particularly want this done at all. It’s just … those inoculations -”
“Then you’d best be getting your own supplies together, doctor,” Mal said firmly, then closed his eyes as a wave of nausea washed over him. He swallowed thickly.
“Maybe one of us should do this,” Hank suggested diffidently. “You ain’t exactly in the best of health.”
“They won’t let you get within fifteen feet.” Mal managed to smile as he looked at his pilot. “They’d shoot you without a thought. But thanks for offering.”
“I wasn’t exactly meaning me …”
The smile got warmer. “We got work to do, and precious little time to get it done.” He looked at River. “Can anyone help?”
“Simon, with his stitching. And Hank with some of the parts. Otherwise, one pair of hands means less mistakes.”
“Can we make it no mistakes?” Mal almost pleaded.
She wafted out of the room. “I’ll try.”
“Do you think it’s true?” Kaylee asked quietly as they were bundled through the tunnels towards the Firefly cave. “About the Cap?” Tears had made little tracks through the dirt on her face.
“It’s possible,” Zoe had to admit, hearing the young woman take a sharp breath. “But I wouldn’t count Mal out, though. You know that old saying, about a cat having nine lives?”
“Well, I always had a notion our captain was more than partly feline. Mostly the way he keeps marking his territory.”
Kaylee stifled a small laugh. “Thought that was dogs.”
“Have to say, I’ve yet to see him cock a leg on a tree, but it kinda wouldn’t surprise me.”
“And the others? Simon, River … Bethany.” The tremble was back in her voice.
Zoe felt a jolt to her heart at the thought of her own little family back on Serenity. “They ain’t here, Kaylee. They’ve got away, I’m sure of that.” She stopped, not caring about the orders to get moving. “They’re safe, one way or the other.”
Bates jammed his rifle into her side, ostentatiously flicking off the safety. “Get going.”
“But the regulator … I lost it,” Kaylee admitted as they continued along the corridor, fresh tears falling. “Some place, I don’t know where.”
They stepped into the cavern and looked up at the Firefly in front of them.
“Then we find another.” Zoe took a deep breath. “We ain’t done yet, Kaylee.”
“Uncle Mal?” Bethany stood in the doorway to the common area, Fiddler in her arms.
“Hey, there, short stub.” He put the rifle he’d been loading down on the crate. “Shouldn’t you be looking after Hope and Ben?”
“Then maybe you should be too.”
“What if you don’t come back?” Her wide brown eyes searched his face.
He crossed the bay and went down onto his heels in front of her, inwardly cursing the pull of cracked ribs. “Bethie, we’re locking the ship up. No-one’s gonna be able to get in, not less it’s us come back. And we are gonna be coming, and bringing your Momma and Auntie Zoe with us. Dong mah?”
“What if you don’t?”
He sat down on the floor and pulled her into his lap to sit on his thigh, for the first time immensely glad that Freya and his own son were safe on Lazarus, and wishing this little girl were with them. “Then you wait. Will you … will you know if anything happens to us?”
“I … I think so. It’s hard … it’s like …” She couldn’t think of the right words.
“Cotton candy?” he suggested, and she nodded.
“But I think I’d know.”
“Then if that happens, and it’s a helluva big if, ‘cause I’m planning on getting back to your Auntie Frey in time to see my daughter born, but if that happens, then you go to the people out there.”
“But they’d -”
“No. They’ll look after you, much as they can. Maybe even be able to fix this old crate of mine and get you somewhere more civilised.”
“Don’t want to go anywhere without you,” she murmured, laying her head on his shoulder.
He smiled. “Same here, Bethie. But we have to get your Momma back. And we will. I promise.”
”You keep your promises,” the little girl said.
“I surely try.”
She looked into his blue eyes and nodded slowly. “I believe you.”
His heart in his throat, he lifted her to her feet, avoiding a lick from Fiddler. “Then you’d better be getting back to your job, young lady,” he said. “Those babies’ll be wanting feeding pretty soon.”
Bethany gazed at him a moment longer, then ran back through the common area, passing her father on the way as he carried his backpack into the cargo bay.
“Bethie?” he called.
“Working,” she shouted back, slamming the door to the nursery behind her.
Mal climbed laboriously to his feet as the young doctor glared at him and said, “Working?”
“Simon, if my daughter is half as amazing as yours, I’m gonna be so proud.” He pointed towards the pack. “Got everything you need?”
Feeling as if he was being side-tracked a little, Simon nodded. “I think so. Boosters, emergency packs, more of the injections for you …” He looked into the captain’s face. “You know these are only temporary, don’t you? I can’t keep giving them to you, not indefinitely.”
“Won’t have to. Soon as this is done, I’ll be following your orders and staying put.”
“That’ll make a change.”
Mal ignored the sarcasm. “Doc, you got anything for them? The people down there, those sores …”
“I figured that. Only some’ve healed.”
Simon shrugged. “Perhaps being in the caves had some effect. Or another environmental factor …”
“Can you help them?”
Simon was surprised. Even though they had kidnapped the captain and his crew, still he wanted to know if anything could be done for them. He was impressed by Mal’s humanity. “I don’t know.”
“Might give us a bargaining chip.”
Well, maybe not that impressed.
River stepped out of the shuttle onto the catwalk above them. She held something in her hands. “it’s done,” she said.
Hank joined her. “Ship’s locked up tight. Got the beacon ready, but not sure what good it’ll do.”
“Just a failsafe,” Mal said, looking around at his skeleton crew. “Okay, people. Got us a rescue to perform.”
Mal strode through the crashed and wrecked derelicts, and wondered idly if Simon was right. Maybe he was insane. This was, after all, one of the more crazy things he’d ever come up with. And absolutely no guarantee that it was even likely to work.
“Frey, I cock this up, you’d better forgive me,” he said to no-one in particular. “’Cause I’ll be haunting you otherwise.”
Mal, he seemed to hear her voice on the breeze, but he wasn’t sure if she was berating him or encouraging him. From his point of view, though, he conjured he’d take the latter.
“I love you,” he whispered, and continued through the permanent shadows.
River looked around, the breeze making her hair fly behind her. She touched Simon on the arm. “I’ll meet you there.”
“What?” He reached for her but she had already danced away. “River!”
“Something I have to do,” she said, her voice carrying back as she disappeared into the graveyard.
Simon went to follow, but Hank stopped him. “No time for this, doc,” the pilot said.
“But that’s my sister.”
“And Mal’s counting on us to help him get your wife back. And Zoe.” His grey eyes were filled with emotion, but there was a steely look on his face that was new. “We have to hurry.”
Simon stared at him, but nodded. “She can look after herself,” he admitted.
“Yes, she can,” Hank agreed. “You know, I feel sorry for anyone she might meet out here.”
“I’m not sure I do.”
There it was, the Lonsdale, sitting pretty much unchanged in the few hours since he’d seen it last. He half-smiled. He wasn’t quite sure what he expected - a few more holes, maybe. Still, no time to ponder things like that. He strode up to the metal wall and knocked on it, the same sequence he’d seen Bates use.
The hatch slid to one side.
Probably with more force than was strictly necessary, Mal batted the gun away and punched the guard hard on the nose. Blood spurted, and he fell back, clutching his face.
“Roseby,” Mal said, standing over him. “You take me to Pius or I’ll break your jaw to go along with your nose.”
Roseby looked up in amazement, and a fair amount of pain.
River gazed at the Firefly, at the name Solitude barely visible anymore, and felt a tug of something. For a split second she stopped to analyse it, understanding it was almost fifty percent pity, with at least twenty percent sorrow. The one percent of trepidation she ignored as she hurried inside and up the groaning stairs.
Roseby led the way through the tunnels, picking up other men en route, following at a distance but not trying to stop them. Mal was surprised when they turned off, not heading for the meeting area, but instead ducked under the opening to the Firefly cavern. He allowed his lips to lift. Even better.
“Pius,” Roseby called, his voice rather muffled due to the handkerchief he still held to his nose.
“What?” The leader turned from where he was watching someone, and his jaw dropped. “Reynolds?”
Mal smiled coldly. “Not Malcolm any more?”
“I thought … you were dead.”
“Not quite.” He quickly scanned the cave, noting Zoe sitting rather too upright on a chair, and knew no-one else would be able to see the welcome on her dark, impassive features.
“Cap’n!” Kaylee, on the other hand, couldn’t stop her joy at seeing him, and stepped forward, but Bates stopped her.
“You walk back in here, unarmed …” Pius couldn’t keep the disbelief out of his voice. “What did you expect to gain?”
“Malcolm, I never took you for an idiot.”
“Yeah, well, you’ve kinda taken away all my other options.” He glanced at Zoe, her hands cuffed behind her back to the chair. Kaylee was standing with a wrench in her hands as if she was just about ready to start swinging it. “Soon have you home again,” he added, hoping she wouldn‘t have to.
“I doubt that. I sincerely doubt that.” Pius shook his head. “Bates, take Captain Reynolds -”
“Nowhere,” Mal interrupted, undoing the front of his coat. “Not unless you intend ending up smeared all over the walls.”
“Wu de tyen ah,” Bates breathed, backing away.
“What is it?” Pius demanded, then took a better look. “Wang ba dahn.”
“Yeah, it does take a bit of getting used to.” Mal glanced down at the grenades strapped to his chest. “It’s a bomb. Pretty crude, but effective. Saw of lot of this kinda thing in the war. Admittedly, the bodies they were on were mostly dead, but it works just as well on the living. Mighty powerful, too. And difficult to defuse. I’m kind of a walking booby trap.”
“You won’t just kill yourself. You’ll kill them too,” Pius pointed out, glancing at Kaylee and Zoe. Sweat had sprung out on his scarred forehead.
“Well, yes. That’s true. But least if that happens, they go out with me. And you don’t get the benefit. Hell, it might bring the roof down, take you all out. Even blow up Redemption here. But that’d be a bonus. I’m thinking just you, me and mine.”
“We could just take you back out into the ships, let you explode all you want out there.”
“Yeah, well, it ain’t exactly a perfect plan, but I ain’t feeling up to being too devious. Best I could come up with, given the short notice. But I should prob’ly point out I got my finger on the dead man’s switch. Right now.” He glanced around at the other men. “So be careful how you handle me.”
Pius took a step back. “That would be murder.”
“Technically, in my case, suicide. Kaylee and Zoe’d be merciful. You … I kinda figure that’d be justice.” His voice had changed tone, one his crew recognised. Despite the banter, he was deadly serious.
Serenity’s captain shrugged. Very carefully. “Well, I got a knock to the head.”
“Mal?” Amy stepped into the cavern, pushing through the men.
“Amy, you’d better leave. This ain’t to do with you.” His face softened a little.
“Yes it is.” She walked up to him, careful not to touch. “This is my father you’re threatening.”
“And that’s my crew. Both of ‘em with babies back on board my ship. You think I’m gonna just walk out of here without them?”
“Babies?” Amy whispered, going pale.
“You’re not walking anywhere,” Pius stated.
“Come on, Pius,” Mal said, sounding as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders rather than a dozen grenades. “This is pointless. You know I’m gonna do this if I don’t get my way.”
“Just like a damn Browncoat,” the older man spat. “Betraying his family.”
Mal had to consciously relax, not take offence. “You ain’t my family, Pius. They are. And I’ll do anything to protect them.”
“Including kill them?”
“If needs be.”
“We could still kill you. Take our chances.”
“Could,” Mal agreed. “But even if this thing didn’t blow she’d take you all out anyway.”
Pius’s head lifted in confusion. “She?”
“She’s aiming at you right now.” Mal half-smiled as he looked up to the Firefly behind the other man. “You able to shoot him without hitting me?”
Pius was about to sneer when he heard a young voice.
“I think I can manage that, captain.”
“Good. ‘Cause my finger’s getting tired.”
Pius turned slowly. High up, on top of the extender, stood a young woman, dark haired, dressed in sturdy clothes that seemed to hang on her slight frame. She was aiming what could only be a gun at his chest, dead centre, but unlike any he’d seen before.
“Callahan fullbore autolock, customised trigger, double cartridge thorough-gauge,” she said softly. “Her name’s Vera.”
“Well, now, seems I’ve got your attention.” Mal eased the safety back onto the bomb trigger, and began to breathe again. “Oh, and there’s two more, if you thought you‘d like to try your luck and take her on. And they’re worse. Much worse.”
Simon and Hank stepped into the light, one either side, each aiming rifles.
Define worse, River dripped into Mal’s mind.
Later, he thought back.
“I can still order your death,” Pius said, his voice hoarse now.
“You could. But what would be the point? Let me take my crew and get out of here. You won’t be any the worse off than before.”
“No,” Pius spat. “After what your Independents did to us, you think I’m going to let you walk.” He shook his head. “Blow yourselves up. Do it. I’d like to see you die before I do.”
They glared at each other, and Mal began to wonder who was likely to blink first.
“It wasn’t the Independents who fired on you.” River’s voice, breaking into the silence, twisting the tension into even tighter knots.
“How can you know that?” Pius demanded, turning to stare up at her. “You weren’t even there. Ni bu dong, you were hardly born!”
In answer she took a memory disk from the pouch at her belt, very like the one that had broadcast the news about Miranda.
“Where’d you get that, albatross?” Mal asked softly.
“The Firefly. Solitude. Her captain was still guarding it.” She looked at him, her dark eyes expressionless, then tilted her head, examining the device carefully. “It called to me.”
“What’s she saying?” Pius crossed his arms. “You’re going to listen to a child?”
“Not a child,” River pointed out, going down onto her heels and taking out a portable reader from the sack at her feet. “I have never been a child. And you will see the truth.”
She placed the disk in the machine, and there was a flashing of light before the 3D image appeared, hanging in the air above them. Ships suspended in the black, crammed together, apparently viewed from another a little distance off. A planet, yellow and bright, glowed in the bottom left quadrant.
“Too close,” Hank murmured to no-one. “Too ruttin’ close.”
“This is the Independent vessel Vasquez,” came a voice. “Stand your engines down and prepare to be boarded.” A Tyrell, old but spaceworthy, appeared in the haze, closing on the recording ship.
Pius looked at the assembled survivors in triumph. “See? What did I tell you?”
“Listen,” River whispered.
“This is Captain Reynolds of the Firefly Solitude.” Mal couldn’t help but jerk, and was really glad the grenades didn‘t blow. “We are refugees from Shadow. Please be aware we are carrying women and children.”
“We have reports that you are harbouring spies.”
There was a laugh, rolling around the cavern. “From Shadow? Well, you’re welcome to come on board and check, only I wouldn’t be suggesting that around these folks. They’ve all had to give up their homes because of the Alliance, so there ain’t a one of ‘em who’d even consider pissing on a Fed if he was on fire.”
There was a pause.
“Really. Look, I may’ve moved away from that planet a while back, but I know these people. They’re good stock. And all they want to do is to make a life for themselves someplace safe. Someplace where the Alliance ain’t gonna get. Just a little bit further.”
“This is ridiculous,” Pius said, moving forward to try and stop the transmission. “This doesn’t prove they didn’t fire on us.”
“Wait.” Amy’s voice was uncertain. “What harm will it do to see the rest?”
“I don’t -”
“Let it play.”
“… still have to board you to check. But we can be quick. Do you have any idea where you’re actually headed?”
“Not really. Any place that’ll take us, I guess.”
“We might be able to help. There are a few Rim worlds who could take you.”
They could almost hear the smile in Captain Reynolds’ voice. “That’d be mighty fine of you.”
“Anything to help good Independents.”
“If you want to lock onto us, you might as well start -”
“This is the Alliance battlecruiser Magister.” A new voice, hard and sharp. “You are ordered to stand down. You are now under our jurisdiction and will be considered prisoners of war.”
A large vessel hove into view, facing the fleet, at once menacing and overpowering.
Captain Reynolds again. “We’re carrying nothing but refugees,” he said, a firmness registering that hadn’t been there before. “We’re no fighters.”
“That will be determined at a formal hearing. However, all on board the Vasquez are now bound.”
There was a cacophony of other voices, all the ships talking over each other until the Alliance officer cut across them.
“Enough! If you persist in refusing to obey my orders, you will be fired upon.”
Mal glanced at Pius. He was staring at the images.
Another voice, in the background. “Sir, I think the Vasquez might be powering up its weapons!”
“We’re not! Our engine is just recycling -”
Confusion, more voices, and one shouting, “Shall we fire, sir?”
There was no response, no time for a reply as a beam of white light flashed from the Magister and hit the engine of the smaller Independent vessel, half of its particles passing by to apparently dissipate in the moon’s atmosphere.
Nothing seemed to happen for a long time, perhaps five seconds, then the Vasquez began to turn, apparently trying to get away, except that she was heading for the planet. They watched in stunned silence as she hit the atmo, her angle all wrong, and something blew. Her hull rippling, she tore apart, explosions bursting from a dozen points before she disappeared.
The Magister followed. Her own engines were at full power, and the air was filled with the sounds of voices, shouting, screaming orders, trying to get away from whatever had them in its grip. But it was too strong, and the Alliance vessel began to break up.
“Help us!” someone screamed over the sounds of panic. “For God’s sake, help us!”
She blew in the upper atmosphere, raining debris like a meteorite shower.
The smaller ships followed, as if in a vortex, spiralling down towards the yellow ground. Men, women and children, their voices high, begging for rescue, calling for parents, Buddha, anyone to save them. But there was nothing anyone could do.
The stars began to swirl crazily as the Firefly was caught, and Mal could imagine Captain Reynolds on his bridge, fighting for control, seeing the unforgiving earth coming up to meet him. People were still screaming …
“River,” he said softly, and she switched the recording off. Kaylee sobbed.
“I don’t understand,” Pius said, his body beginning to tremble. “This must be false. Lies. I don’t see how …”
“This moon has a berybdenum core,” River explained softly. “When the EMP pulse hit it, it caused an intense magnetic field to be generated, catching all the ships in range and pulling them down.” She shook her head slightly. “I can feel the remnants of it.”
“That’s why it was never reported,” Simon said quietly. “If it had been the Independents firing on their own people, the Alliance would have used it as propaganda. Handed to them on a silver platter. But this, causing so many innocent deaths …”
“Someone must have got away,” Hank murmured. “For the rumours to get out.”
“A couple of small ships. They were late, hadn’t managed to join up with the main body of the armada, and were out of range. They saw, but didn’t understand.” River’s voice was filled with sadness.
“No.” Pius collapsed onto the dirt floor, and Simon, his professional doctor persona never far below the surface, hurried forward. Amy was down at her father’s side immediately, but moved enough to make way for him, already pulling the portable scanner from his pack.
“I don’t …” The old man was trying to talk, trying to bring the words past the lump in his throat. “I always thought … only heard the end … always believed …”
Mal stood over him, trying to control his own heart rate, pounding from witnessing the tragic events from so many years past.
“Father?” Amy loosened the collar of his shirt, revealing more sores on his pale chest.
“Pius?” Bates clutched his rifle, waiting for an order, not knowing, in this moment, what to do.
“What do we do, Pius?” Bates demanded, his finger on the trigger, ready to take them all on if necessary.
“Put it down,” Amy said, still staring at her father.
“I didn’t ask you –”
“Put it down!” She turned on him, her eyes flashing fire. “There’s been enough death, don’t you think?”
Bates stared at her, then lowered his gun.
“You’re dying,” Simon said gently to the man on the ground, leaning back, the scanner still in his hand. “I can ease your passing, but … I can’t stop it.”
“Dying?” Mal looked at him sharply.
“The radiation. Honestly, I’m surprised any of them are still alive, but –”
“We’re not,” Amy said. “There used to be more of us, but we’ve been losing them. A lot, lately. As much as we’ve used the materials available to shield us, to create our homes, we knew … I knew.”
“You’re a doctor?”
“I was going to be. Once.” She dipped her cropped head.
“Knew? Knew what?” Pius demanded, but his power had gone, and his voice cracked.
“Father, we have so little time. We’re all getting worse, and he’s right. There’s nothing can be done to stop it.”
Pius struggled to sit up. “But our plans … she was going to fix Redemption, take us back out, find somewhere we could –”
“No.” She put her hand on his. “This has been our home for so long, and it will always be.”
He stared at her. “You knew? And you didn’t tell us? Just let us carry on –”
“It gave you hope.” She reached down and touched his face, running her thumb over the radiation scars on his cheek, her own eyes way too bright. “I didn’t want to lose you, father. Not if I could delay it as long as possible.” A tear slid down her face. “It gave you hope.”
“There’s nowhere for us to go.” She gathered him into her arms, holding him as he absorbed the information.
River slid from the thruster, Mal catching her before she could fall, jarring his ribs so he winced. She handed him the memory disk.
He gazed at it, whispering, “It called to you?”
She nodded. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening before.” She touched his chest lightly. “And you shouldn’t be catching anyone. Not wearing grenades.”
He paled a little. “Ah. No. Right.”
Bates took a step closer. “What do we do, Pius? What do we do?”
Amy looked into her father’s face, saw the collapse there, and stood up. “We put away our guns. We let them go.”
“But the engine … the Firefly …”
“Look, I need to hear it from Pius.” Bates shook his head. “I can’t see that we’re going to –”
“Do what she says,” the old man managed to say. “Whatever she says.”
Bates glared, then turned to one of the other men who undid Zoe’s cuffs. She stood up, massaging her wrists, and smiled slightly at Hank, who couldn’t have looked more relieved it he’d tried.
Amy escorted them to the surface, out of the Lonsdale and into the yellow light.
“I can bring supplies. Arrange, maybe, someone to come by when we can’t …” Mal couldn’t leave it, not like this, even as he was strapping his gunbelt back on.
“That would be good,” Amy agreed. “But you’d better not. When we’re gone, my father, me, the others might … it would be dangerous. Even for you. For Malcolm Reynolds.” She smiled sadly. “We make do. The algae makes acceptable protein, we have water, and occasionally we hunt.”
“Some of the ships contained breeding stock. Some must have survived, escaped into the daylight. Somehow they’ve survived. Multiplied.” She shrugged. “They live in the cusp. And we scavenge too,” she admitted. “There are still ration packs. When times are bad.”
“Don’t,” Simon advised quickly. “They’re contaminated. Stick to the protein. You’ll probably live longer.”
He had no answer.
“And visiting ships?” Hank asked. “The stories of ghosts?”
“Not many come here. But those that do …” Amy laughed softly. “Well, we demand payment for anything they take.”
“I’m figuring you don’t actually ask.” Mal looked pointedly at her.
“Not so much.”
“And the tales of ships that never returned?” Hank wanted to know.
“Pirates. Hunters.” Amy didn’t look sorry, and in that moment the crew of Serenity knew there was more than a little madness in each of the survivors. “If they didn’t want to give us what we wanted …”
“We’d best be getting back,” Mal put in, not wanting to get into any kind of philosophical argument.
“Yes, you should.” Amy raised herself onto her toes and kissed his cheek. “I’m glad you survived,” she whispered.
“Me too.” He smiled for her.
“Tell your wife she’s a lucky woman.”
“Wife? I didn’t tell you I was -”
She lifted his left hand, touching the ring on his third finger. “You wear it like a shield, Malcolm Reynolds.”
“Maybe I do.” He looked at her for a few moments. “See you around, Amy.”
“I doubt it.”
He nodded, then turned, hearing the hatch slide shut behind him. He looked at his crew and said, “Let’s head home.”
“About time,” Hank muttered, falling into step beside his Zoe, glad just to feel her presence. They headed off in front, Simon and River slightly behind.
Kaylee walked with Mal.
“Could you have?” he asked as they headed through the graveyard. “Fixed that ship?”
Kaylee spoke quietly, as aware as him that, even though they couldn’t see them, they were more than likely not alone. “No. Oh, the engine, yeah. But I took a look at the fuel cells, Cap’n. Ain’t no way …” She bit her lip. “They should’ve drained ‘em. Have to drain a Firefly’s cells if’n she’s gonna be sitting a while, otherwise …“ She shook her head. “Redemption’d never’ve flown again.”
“Yet you made ‘em believe it was likely.”
“Had to, Cap’n. Had to give you time to come get us. Otherwise we’d’ve been dead too.”
He put his arm around her. “That’s my girl.” Something occurred to him. “But what about that regulator?”
She grinned, pulling something from one of her pockets. “Took it out of their Firefly. She ain't got no use for it, and it looks even better than the Solitude one.”
He squeezed. “Genius. Have to keep saying it.”
“So, about that extra ten percent …”
He slapped her rump and she punched him lightly on the shoulder, then ran to catch Simon up, sliding under his arm.
Zoe had fallen back, and now he looked into her dark, calm eyes. “You okay?” he asked, the first chance he’d had to ask.
“Shiny.” She glanced at Kaylee and the young doctor, walking ahead, and at Hank and River in the front, arguing about something, even as the young psychic’s eyes were never still.
“What?” Mal asked, knowing her, and that look, all too well.
“There’s a gap.”
“In their story. Between the crash and the first attempts at algae farming, salvaging … there’s a gap. They should all, by rights, have died of starvation.”
Mal didn’t answer for a moment, just trudged through the graveyard. Finally he spoke. “I know it, Zoe,” he said softly.
“Then you know what they must have –”
“They had to survive. It’s in all of us. The need to survive.”
“But to eat –”
“Ain’t saying we’d have done it, but in this situation, knowing no help was coming – ever … who knows.”
“We didn’t. Not in Serenity Valley.”
“But we figured we were gonna get saved. Might’ve been dead before that happened, but someone was coming. That at least they knew we were there.” He half-smiled. “But given a few more days …” His voice trailed off.
“And the ships that came calling here? The ones didn’t make it back to the black?”
“I’ve a notion you’re thinking the same as I am, Zo.”
Her face was stoic, but there was such an undercurrent of emotion it almost shouted. “Mal …”
“Does Kaylee know?”
“Don’t tell her. Better to not realise what might’ve happened.”
“But why didn’t they …” She realised. “You.”
Mal nodded. “Me. If I’d not been from Shadow, been family, I reckon it’s possible we might’ve made a tasty main course.”
“Maybe it ain’t just the Pax makes a Reaver. Maybe we can do that our own selves.”
They walked in silence for a few minutes.
“We could be wrong, sir. Maybe they just dumped the bodies in the wrecks.” Somehow she needed to believe it.
“You‘re prob‘ly right.”
Two more minutes of walking before she spoke again, looking around at the death of the armada.
“It wasn’t the Independents.”
“No.” He glanced at her, the reflected light giving her dark skin a sickly shine. “But it might have been.”
“Wars do things to people. Even those not at the front line. The captain of Vasquez was an honourable man, but there was no guarantee he was going to be. He could’ve shot first, asked questions pretty much never. No-one would’ve known.” He sighed heavily. “I know there were cases, other things I’ve only heard rumours about, that were probably true. This time we were just lucky there was proof otherwise.”
“And Captain Reynolds?”
“You mean Solitude?” When she nodded, he smiled a little. “I never met him, but my father had another brother. A lot older than him or Uncle Zach, and he left home before I was even born. Name of Caleb. Left Shadow too, I guess. I think there was an argument or something, ‘cause I don’t ever recall him contacting the family again.”
“Sounds like he went into the black.”
“Might just be a coincidence, but … it does that.”
“Perhaps this attraction to Fireflies runs in the family,” Zoe pointed out dryly.
“Perhaps it does. Perhaps it does.”
They reached the edge of the graveyard, hit the wall of darkness.
“River, you know the way from here?” Mal asked, checking his gun, feeling their unseen escort melt away.
She nodded. “Of course, captain.”
“Then take us in.”
“Mal, infirmary.” Simon’s voice was the one that would brook no objection. Even from the captain.
“I’m fine.” He watched Kaylee hurry up to her engine room to fix the new therm regulator.
“You’re not. The drugs I gave you are going to wear off pretty soon, and you’re going to collapse. I’d rather you did that in the infirmary than out here in the cargo bay.”
“And I’d rather I didn’t do that while I still had the grenades strapped to me,” Mal pointed out.
If anything Simon went paler than usual. “Oh. Yes. Probably a good idea.”
“River, could you …” Mal looked at the young psychic.
“You said they were worse. How?”
“River, this ain’t the time for a discussion like this.”
She crossed her arms. “I think it’s perfect timing.”
Mal closed his eyes and sat down on a convenient crate. “Fine. Shiny. We can sit here and discuss the relative merits of the doc and the pilot over the crazy lunatic assassin, and I’ll just blow up. How’s that?”
River glared at him, then a smile spread across her face. “That’s fine, then.” She crossed behind him, helping him off with his coat so she could get to the workings.
“Of course. Doctor, pilot, crazy lunatic assassin. Now I know.”
There was a click, a faint buzz, and Mal felt somehow safer. “Glad of that, albatross,” he said. “Help me outta this thing.”
Zoe and River lifted it off him, laying it gently onto the floor.
“Good,” Simon said, letting out a heavy breath. “Now. Infirmary.”
“You’re the doc.” Mal stood up and smiled tiredly.
“And I’m the crazy lunatic assassin,” River said, going down cross-legged onto the floor to start taking the bomb apart.
“What does that make me?” Zoe asked, standing with her arms crossed, watching this with ill-disguised humour.
“Acting captain,” Mal said, following Simon through the doorway.
Simon was right. As Mal lay down on the diagnostic bed he felt the energy leaving him, replaced by an inability to do more than breathe. Except talk.
“How come they lived this long?” he asked. “I mean, discounting anything else, that radiation out there – it shoulda killed ‘em.”
Simon reached into his bag and held up a small plastic dish, sealed against the atmosphere. It held a smudge of something yellowish. “I think it’s the algae they’ve been processing. I scanned it quickly as we came along. It seems to contain a natural radiation inhibitor.” He laid it down on the counter and stared at it. “It’s not one hundred percent, and its effectiveness is reduced further by what they do to it, but it looks like it’s been damping down the sickness.”
“So is that what the animals’ve been eating? Why they’re still alive?”
“Probably.” Simon sighed, picking up his scanner and running it over the captain’s form. “I’d hazard they’re in better shape than the people. If they’d left, made homes away from the crash site, maybe I could have … but it’s too late now. There’s nothing I can do. Amy was right.”
“A few months. Maybe a year. No longer. And they’re all sterile. So no children.” He thought of his own new daughter back in with Bethany, and itched to go in to see her.
Mal sank back onto the pillow. “It’ll be a charnel house.”
Simon looked down at him. “It always was.”
Hank popped his head into the infirmary. “Kaylee says we’re good to go.”
“That was fast.”
“She just needed to fix the new regulator in. She was right. A matter of moments.”
“Then get us away from here.”
“Will do. Specially now River’s deigned to unlock the access code.” He paused. “Oh, and when you’re feeling up to it, there’s a message from Freya. I think she picked up on something, demanded to know if you’re okay.”
Mal desperately wanted to get up, go to the com, see it for himself, but somehow his muscles refused to move. “Did you wave back?”
“Yeah. Told her you’d decided to run off with another woman and make a life on a pretty little moon called Amnesty.”
“You did that and you’re walking home.”
Hank grinned. “Nope. Told her you were fine, and soon as we were back in visual you’d be chomping at the bit to see her.”
“That I am.” He thought for a moment. “Hank, set course for Lazarus.”
“Mal?” The pilot stared at him.
“Just do it.”
“What about the job?”
“You know, I don’t give a shi di koudai about that right now. All I want is to be back with Frey. So …” He looked into Hank’s grey eyes, and his voice, ready to command, asked nicely. “Just do it, will you?”
Hank grinned. “Aye aye, Captain, sir!”
He was dozing when Kaylee stepped into the infirmary, but woke when she touched his hand, taking it in hers.
“Sorry,” she said quickly. “Only you did this for me once. I didn’t mean to –”
He smiled at her. “It’s okay.” For a moment he listened to the hum of his ship around him, the life that kept him living. “You fixed her,” he said softly.
She squeezed his hand gently, transferring some of the ever-present grease, and shrugged. “Weren’t exactly broken.”
“Still, we’re flyin’.” He looked into her eyes. “You okay?”
“That’s a no, then.”
She flicked her head irritably, but not at him. “I just … leaving them there …”
“Kaylee, there was nowhere else for them to go.”
“I know. But they’re sick ‘n’ all …”
“They were going to kill us.”
“I know that too. It don’t help.”
“No. It don’t. Kaylee, as much as I feel for ‘em, I’m just glad to have you all safe back on my Firefly.” He squeezed her fingers. “I know who my family is.”
Her lips twitched, just a little. “Maybe I should be calling you father like River does sometimes.”
“You do that and I really will dump you in the hold for a month.” He smiled. “Anyway, ain’t your father. But you’re my mei-mei.”
“So I can call you ge ge?” Now the grin was back, and accompanied by a mischievous glint in the eye.
“Only on high days and holidays,” Mal allowed.
“Like your birthday? ‘Cause there‘s one coming up –”
“I don’t do birthdays.” He fixed her with a stern eye. “I don’t.”
“Okay, Cap’n.” She leaned over and kissed his cheek softly, just a brush of her lips. Didn’t want to make Freya jealous.
“Anyway, shouldn’t you be out making that mobile you wanted?” Mal asked, glad his shirt was done up to the neck, else the blush might show.
She shook her head. “It kinda got left all behind. But that’s okay. Didn’t seem right, somehow. Not in the end.”
“Well, probably for the best. Couldn’t’ve carried it all around with me, not when I was escaping.”
“No, I understand.”
“’Cept I found this in my pocket. Must’ve got caught in the seam or something.” He held something out to her, placing it on her palm.
Kaylee yelped. That was the only way to describe the sound she made as she examined the hunk of metal. “The Jefferson bolt!”
“Figured it might be that.”
“Oh, Cap’n …” She clasped it to her. “That Tyrell …” She looked into his blue eyes. “Working on that ship, back on Phoros, gave me the hankering to see the ‘verse.”
Mal smiled. “Glad you’re seeing it with me, mei-mei.”
“Thank you, ge ge.”
“It ain’t a holiday.”
She laughed. “Then I’d better be getting back to my girls. Bethie’s in the engine room right now, putting all my wrenches into size order.”
Mal lifted himself onto his elbows in surprise. “You left her there by herself?”
She gave him a very good version of River’s ‘boob’ look. “Course not. Hope’s with her.“
“Ah.” Mal lay back. “I wondered where the doc had got to.”
“You need him?”
“No. Just wondered, is all.” He smiled. “Better get back there.”
“Shr ah.” She turned to go but paused. “You gonna tell everyone what happened? The EMP pulse, all that?”
Mal shook his head. “No. War’s long done, and it won’t help anyone to know some kid on that Alliance cruiser made a mistake.”
“Even if it proves it was the Alliance’ fault?”
“This ain’t like Miranda, Kaylee. This was an accident, pure and simple. Better left forgotten.” Like those people down there.
She smiled. “You’re a good man.”
“No I ain’t. I’m mean, and I’m ornery.”
“And tired. Don’t forget tired.”
“Oh, I ain’t forgetting that. In fact, I’m thinking of taking another little nap right now.”
“Wake me up when we get to Lazarus.” He closed his eyes, settling back comfortably, adding, “Gonna need all my strength when I get Frey back in my bed.” He felt sleep come over him.
Kaylee grinned. “Will do, Mal,” she whispered. “Will do.”
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