BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

AMDOBELL

HANDFUL OF STARS: 37. "Pandora and the Box"
Saturday, July 16, 2011

"In the depths of the Captain's extremis a little pinprick of light shines through. Zoe frets and Serenity's crew struggle to formulate a rescue plan. Meanwhile, River is busy plotting and possibly scheming."


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2413    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

TITLE: "PANDORA AND THE BOX" AUTHOR: Alison M. DOBELL FANDOM: "FIREFLY" PAIRING: Kaylee/Simon. Mal/Inara. RATING: PG-13. STATUS: Sequel to "A HANDFUL OF STARS". SUMMARY: "In the depths of the Captain's extremis a little pinprick of light shines through. Zoe frets and Serenity's crew struggle to formulate a rescue plan. Meanwhile, River is busy plotting and possibly scheming." 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.

"PANDORA AND THE BOX"

"Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

Much as she did not want to watch Zoe could not help herself. The Captain was kept in darkness, his environment controlled and his mind stimulated with chemical cues and technology beyond her grasp to fathom. All she knew was that the Devil's Disciples were alive and well in this evil pit of *diyu*. From time to time a technician would enter the room and carefully apply drops to his eyes to keep them lubricated but not once did they remove the tape that stopped him from closing them. It made her weep with rage inside and left her feeling utterly helpless. Zoe had learnt early on that getting out of the chair was impossible and yet there were no obvious physical restraints. In a way that alarmed her more than being tied to it. At least with ropes or chains she could have seen what held her and had some hope, however remote, of working out how to get free again.

The truth would take a long time dawning and when it did it would be more devastating than anything else she could possibly imagine.

* * * * *

Derrial Matthew Brooks was trying every which way to frustrate the intruder but nothing he tried allowed him to get anywhere near the probing mind of River Tam. He was not even sure it was still the nanotechnology that was blocking his abilities. For some time now he had suspected that River had even more talents than Blue Sun anticipated. If he could gain proof of such the rewards would be incalculable. Money meant little to him, even status was no more than a throwaway commodity only valuable for a short window of time when what he had to offer and what his employers had to gain ran in tandum. For him, knowledge was everything. The periods of time between were when he was at his most inventive. Until now. How the *gaui* had he allowed himself to be trapped like this? And how could he stop the girl from unravelling every secret he had? Left unchecked he would be stripped of everything that made him who he was, literally, and the thought terrified the part of him free to access such emotion.

Jayne Cobb was fidgetting. What was she doing? As if sensing the mercenary needed some reason to remain River spoke for the first time in over ten minutes. Jayne wasn't even sure she was talking to him.

"Time to go to sleep."

"Huh? Why the good gorram would I wanna do that?"

For a moment there was no reply and Jayne was about to repeat his question when River spoke again. "A mind is a terrible thing to waste but worse still to steal. Warping something good into something pliable with the compass no longer pointing North. No wonder he got lost."

"Crazy moonbrained girl..."

A little smile curved her lips, the pale face totally absorbed in whatever the *diyu* she was doing. River leaned a little closer to the suppine man, her thoughts like thin lasers piercing the rigid confines that had blocked her for so long. She felt them tremble, Brooks' protests and curses fading the deeper she delved until the very box slid shut behind her. Mentally she blinked, took stock and stared at what was inside. Slowly, unbridled joy touched her and the smile on her lips was nothing as dazzling as the one in her mind.

"Took you long enough."

* * * * *

Monty Reynolds was seething. His pacing was starting to drive Wash *fafeng* but he held his tongue knowing the big man was as worried as the rest of them. The wave had been unexpected but having yet to formulate a working rescue plan the crew were ready to grasp any straw in their attempts to retrieve Zoe and the Captain. Monty met up with Serenity then was ferried over in Inara's shuttle from the Kingfisher.

"*Wo bu dong*! Marcus says he has his people handlin' it but won't let me know what's goin' on. I got good men with me, what could be wrong with more firepower?"

Wash would have greeted the extra help with open arms but Simon was more thoughtful, wary even. "Perhaps it is not a matter of manpower."

"*Ni zhide shi shenme*?"

"Perhaps he's worried about his communications being intercepted."

Monty paused and looked sharply at Simon, weighing his words and finding no fault with them. Some of his ire dampened though the anxiety he was feeling didn't. This was all his fault, he had told Mal about the job. It was downhill all the way from there and the guilt and worry were driving him *shenjingbing*. "Didn't seem to bother him before."

A thought occurred to Wash. "Where was he callin' from?"

"*Wo bu zhidao* an' I didn't think to ask, *weishenme*?"

"Maybe Marcus is no longer somewhere where he can guarantee the integrity of his communications."

Monty stared at Simon. Wash put it more simply. "What Simon means is Marcus may be too close to wherever Mal an' Zoe're bein' held. Passin' you information might put not only you an' your crew in danger Monty but them too."

"They're my friends." Said Monty, much more subdued but now sounding somewhat mournful.

Wash had to take a moment to hold his own emotions in check. He was no use to Zoe if he didn't. "An' Zoe's my wife."

Monty nodded. "*Duibuqi*, Wash, *wo zhidao* it's just we've been through so much together. Mal an' Zoe're family."

Wash nodded. Inara brought mugs of tea over to the table and though no one felt like drinking it was something of a comfort to wrap their hands around the steaming mugs and let the familiar heat ground them. Kaylee Frye came into the commons area, her face smudged with grease and dirt, her hands blacker than a coal pit and a slump in her shoulders that spoke volumes. Simon felt his heart sink. Inara Serra reached out for the mechanic to give her a hug but Kaylee stepped quickly back, appalled.

"I ain't cleaned up yet, 'Nara!"

Wash had to know. "Anythin', Kaylee?"

Her face fell. "Weren't no good, Wash. Couldn't get a signal."

Serenity's doctor looked thoughtful. "Maybe they just threw the com units away when they caught Zoe and the Captain?"

She shook her head and barely noticed that in her distraction Inara had moved close enough to put an arm around her friend. Inara could feel the girl tremble and gave her a little hug of affection and reassurance. It said a lot for Kaylee's state of mind that the comfort barely registered, she was too upset and felt she had let Zoe and the Captain down.

"If they'd done that Simon I would'a still got a signal. No. I think they must'a broke 'em up."

For a moment no one spoke, nobody wanting to voice aloud the possibility that their friends had met a similar fate. Monty wanted to say something positive to cheer Kaylee up but could not think of anything. It seemed all manner of wrong for someone as sunny as Kaylee Frye to be anything but happy.

Wash looked from glum face to glum face. "I thought Marcus scrambled his waves?"

Monty nodded. "He does but only when he has more than one wave after another, that way it's hard for anyone to detect which is the important one. If he only has time to send one message he re-routes it and the signal is bounced around before reaching its' destination. It takes longer and needs more preparation so isn't as efficient."

"How many waves did he send you?"

Kaylee stopped sniffing, her interest piqued. Monty wasn't sure where Wash was going with this but answered anyway. "Just the one, *weishenme*?"

"Who hung up?"

"*Shenme*?"

"Simple question Monty, who cut the connection? You or Marcus?"

The light dawned on Monty with a painful intensity. He felt like such a jerk. "*Tianna*, I did! I was so mad at what he said I wasn't thinkin' straight." He paused a moment. "I should wave him back, see if..."

Wash was shaking his head, his eyes apologising. "Too late. He could have maybe embedded a message between other messages. To call him again might raise a flag especially if his coms are bein' monitored."

"I'm a useless *qingwa cao de liumang*!"

Kaylee patted his arm sympathetically. "Ain't your fault, Monty."

"Might'a been the only chance we got." The big man mourned.

They were interrupted by a clear voice ringing through the air. Every head turned as River Tam danced into the room, her face alight with excitement barely suppressed though there was a haunting sadness in her eyes that none could fathom. Simon quickly realised that his sister was putting on a brave face for them, but why?

* * * * *

The pain was immeasurable. Agony shivered through every nerve ending, his body jerking, his mind flaring like a lightening struck wire. The twisted face leered down at him with glee. Gorramit, that Lincoln James Petrie was one ugly sumbitch!

As his body shuddered something pricked his mind, a memory or fragment of one. Should'a been debris to be swept away but the itty bitty piece clung to the walls of his mind and even as he felt himself come apart under the relentless torture gradually something felt wrong about it. Whether it was instinct or just the way his warped brain worked, Malcolm Reynolds found himself concentrating on the anomaly. So tiny, inconsequential but niggling at his brain pan like a memory trying to haunt him. The more he concentrated on grasping what it was the fainter the pain became. At first he wasn't aware, his abused mind and body too numb to the subtleties to notice but slowly awareness impinged on his consciousness informing him that Petrie was dead. He realised he knew this. How could he have forgotten? There was no way that *chusheng xai-jiao de xiang huo* was doing this which meant as painful as this was it wasn't real.

From the bank of monitors and controls in the observation room, the technician on duty was scrolling carefullly through various switches and controls trying to see why Reynolds had stop responding to stimulus. His worry was that perhaps they had gone too far. When nothing he did got the required response he sucked his bottom lip and made the call he did not want to make. Failure was not tolerated but he needed to let them know that something had changed. Perhaps they would need to alter the cocktail of chemicals they were using. The temptation to say nothing would only store up worse trouble and it wasn't as if he could cover up any delay. The system recorded everything.

While the technician contacted his superiors Malcolm Reynolds luxuriated in the first bit of peace he had felt since this whole gorram nightmare began. Something touched his mind, it was so fleeting, ghostly almost, yet oddly familiar.

*We have to get you out of there*

If his eyelids had not been taped open he would have frowned. *You think?*

A rich murmur shivered through his mind and Mal felt emotion touch him deep. Book. What was this, another gorram piece of mental manipulation?

*Where is your faith, son?*

*Ain't your gorram son an' who in the shiny sphincter of diyu are you?*

*You know who I am*

*Yeah well Book ain't who we thought he was so who does that make you?*

The laughter was deep and vibrant, a soothing balm to his inner ear. Even though Mal knew he should not trust the voice in his head it gave him comfort. The memory of a dear friend, much missed. What kind of twisted cruel *tamade hundan* were these people?

* * * * *

The Head of Internal Operations stared at the technician but the man stood firm. "How can he be resisting?"

The technician had no reply, no theory to account for something that should have been impossible. A movement of air alerted the Head to the arrival of Dr Mathias. The man looked positively giddy. His reaction did not go down well with the others.

"You will explain how this could happen."

Dr Mathias would have loved to but the truth was he did not know. Fifteen years of working at this level for Blue Sun had never produced such a result. Excitement thrummed through his veins, he longed to examine the subject personally but first he had to pass the gauntlet of corporate displeasure. After all, he was the founder of this project. Any and all screw ups, no matter who caused them, would be laid at his door. "I understand from the brain scans that he suffered trauma to the brain *shifu*, it is possible it has affected his ability to respond in the expected manner."

The Project Manager, Marcel, was standing next to the Head of Internal Operations and looked as if he were sucking on a lemon. Briefly, Dr Mathias felt sorry for the mythical lemon. "Your response is unacceptable."

Dr Mathias resisted the urge to tell him that you couldn't just ignore or throw out data you did not like. It was the anomalies, the unexpected blips, that provided the greatest breakthroughs. He knew not only would he be wasting his breath, he could quite possibly be shortening its' duration. Dying young was not the worst thing that could happen to an employee of the Blue Sun Corporation.

"With respect, this subject has endured many traumas of which this is just the latest. I took the liberty of closely examining our records on Malcolm Reynolds, especially the time he spent in the Alliance Re-education camp after the surrender. He was resistent then but not to this extent. I fear he is too recalcitrant to be an ideal subject."

Marcel twisted his lips in an expression so sour Dr Mathias could almost taste the pith. "Are you saying he is damaged?"

The doctor nodded. "Mentally and presumably physically too. Some core beliefs seem to have remained largely unaffected which is why Captain Reynolds continues to believe he was on the right side of the war even though it was the losing one. The man cannot accept what he sees in front of him. That mindset may explain much."

The Head was not convinced. "You will find out why this is happening, *dong ma*?" The 'or else' was obvious though unspoken. "I do not care if you have to dissect the man's brain into slithers so thin you can read through them."

That was more leeway than Dr Mathias had been expecting which meant the only answer he was allowed to come up with was the one they wanted to hear. Find out why it had happened, how Reynolds was managing to suddenly resist their manipulation then correct it. If the man died while they probed so be it, but they wanted answers. At any cost.

"Yes, *shifu*!"

But even as the words left his mouth, Dr Mathias found himself staring at an empty room.

* * * * *

"*Mei mei*, that's impossible!"

They were sitting around the big table in the commons room. Jayne remained in the infirmary with Book but everyone else was gathered to hear what River had to say. Simon was worried that the line between reality and fantasy had finally blurred until it was indistinguishable. River shook her head, calm but adamant.

"*Ni bu dong*, Simon. I opened the box."

Inara frowned. "What box?"

"Book changed, became someone we didn't recognise. Nothing made sense."

The mechanic was trying to follow, partly because she wanted to understand but also because River was her friend. "River, *fengmi*, what are ya sayin'?"

"The change in his manner was nothing to do with Shepherd Book."

Wash gave Simon a look but the doctor shrugged. "I'm just the brother, I don't understand River even when she's making sense."

River stuck her tongue out at him then tried again to explain. Sometimes the thoughts in her mind were pieces of string and they flowed so swiftly they got tangled, then the words would spill out and they wouldn't say what she was wanting them to and everything would bleed into confusion. "He was trapped."

"River, Book is unconscious. In a comatose state."

"Was but not now."

Simon got to his feet. "Book's awake?"

Frustrated, River grabbed his sleeve and tugged hard. "You don't listen, Simon!"

"Sweetie, just tell us what happened to Book." Kaylee pleaded.

Taking a breath, River nodded at Kaylee and let go of Simon. Reluctantly, Simon retook his seat. "He was imprisoned in a box in his mind. The intruder mimicked him to get close to us."

Wash was baffled. "*Weishenme*?"

"To capture me." Horrified, Kaylee moved her chair closer to River and patted her hand. "Ain't no one gonna take ya anywhere."

River raised her head and Kaylee and the others were alarmed to see tears in her eyes. "Because of me they tried to use Book to retrieve me, take me back, only things didn't work out the way they planned. The Captain got suspicious and then everything became complicated."

Sitting silently with a scowl on his face, Monty Reynolds was trying to make sense of the girl's odd tale but how could it be possible? The truth was most likely that Book had been working undercover for just such a chance to grab the girl without arousing too much suspicion from Serenity's crew. It didn't mean to say the man had a box in his head with someone else holding the gorram key and shutting him inside it. How *shenjingbing* was that? River turned her head and fixed him with a glare. "Not crazy. I heard the echo, the one he tried to drown out."

"What echo?" Asked Wash.

Her smile was watery. "Can't stop the signal."

Wash blinked, thinking of Mr Universe. "Are you sayin'...?" River shook her head. "Parallels are straight lines that don't meet."

"O-kay, an' that means what exactly?"

"I kept probing, waiting until his defences were weakest, never giving up. When the crack appeared I slipped inside, saw what was in the box."

No one was quite sure what to say. Inara spoke softly, half afraid to ask. "River, what was in the box?"

Her smile seemed incongruous given the conversation they were having but River Tam was nothing if not quixotic. "Someone lost, neutured. Now set free."

Kaylee's eyes widened with a surge of hope. "Ya mean Book? 'Our' Book is back?"

Her friend shook her head but kept smiling. "Gone now, needed elsewhere. Not ours to keep."

Simon rubbed a hand over his face, more than a little embarrassed at what he saw as a string of nonsense. They must think her deranged. "*Mei mei*, you should rest. I can give you something..." His sister sprang to her feet. "No, Simon! We're so close and you can't shoot the messenger!"

"River, I just want to help."

"Then LISTEN Simon."

Kaylee put a hand around River's thin shoulders. "It's okay sweetie, we're listenin' now."

As River slowly started to calm Wash couldn't help asking the question that was nagging away in his brainpan. "If you let Book out who do we have in the infirmary?"

* * * * *

The respite was welcome but all too brief. He wanted to hang on to that glimmer of hope but it was disappearing too fast and in his muddled pain wracked state all of his responses were far too slow to be worth a good gorram.

*Fang xin, Captain, we're working on getting you out of here'

"An' who in the nine hells is we? That you an' your evil twin?*

This time the voice that sounded like Book did not laugh. *They are getting suspicious*

"Huh, an' I ain't? Don't know if you've noticed but bein' tortured to within an inch of my life don't make these gorram hallucinations any more true."

Mal faniced he heard a trace of frustration in the disembodied voice in his head. *Just trust me*

It should not have hurt to hear those words from such a familiar sounding source but it did. As the presence calling itself Book faded from his consciousness the pain hit anew and the Captain could not help crying out in agony, his back arched, his teeth clamping together and grinding down on the agony he was powerless to stop.

Unbeknownst to the tormented Captain, a screen flashed with an urgent message in the observation room. The technician leaned forward to read it and his eyes widened in surprise. "*Shifu*, the subect is in distress."

Everyone crowded around the monitor but only the technician understood every nuance of what they were seeing. As the figures scrolled dispassionately across the screen he knew that left unchecked the subject would slowly and painfully unravel until nothing coherent was left. People talked glibly about vegetative states but what this equipment would accomplish was more like a puree, the brain matter literally reduced to a bloody pulpy fluid. They needed to cut back on the stimulus, let Malcolm Reynolds rest then vary the experimental parameters or they would lose him before getting the information they wanted and more importantly, attracting the one person who made all their efforts to recapture her worthwhile.

* * * * *

Portree Nelson stared, his eyes wide as saucers. His men crowded round him as they looked at the small Alliance armada between them and Hera. "What in the nine hells is going on?"

For a moment no one spoke, shock robbing them of their voices even if they knew what to say. They were in the gun ship ready to take out the crew of the last Alliance ship only instead of one ship there were more than a dozen. How could they have got their plans so wrong?

"*Laoban*, look!"

Portree followed Roscoe's outstretched arm and noticed that not all the ships were heading to Hera. Over half of them were spreading out and heading in their direction.

Donnie Banks had a bad feeling about this. "We gotta get outta here, *laoban*."

"We've been set up!" Said Tunney Smith. A big barrel of a man, Tunney rarely voiced an opinion but his mind was razor sharp and his eyes missed nothing.

Donnie shot him a look of censure. "We don't know that."

Portree was torn. To be so close yet unable to carry out the rescue was hurting him something fierce but getting caught themselves would not free Mal and Zoe. He gave a wave of the hand and his pilot did a slow course correction which would bring them in an arc away from their objective. Time to retreat and think again. Portree stared at the little armada, knowing each ship was likely armed to the teeth and with much more advanced weapons tech than they had. He had been planning on surprising the last resupply ship and replacing its' manpower with his own but the tables and had been turned and now they were the ones fleeing, albeit as nonchalantly as could be managed without drawing too much suspicion.

* * * * *

Dr Mathias breathed a sigh of relief. He had finally convinced them to let him take direct control of the experiment. He exchanged a look with the technician on duty who had raised the alert, a David Chang. Neither spoke but a look of understanding passed between them. Neither had been happy with the way things had been going, Blue Sun's impatience forcing a pace that was not only unsustainable but likely to kill the subject before accomplishing what they wanted to achieve. He had been careful to warn they could still come away with nothing useful, the Captain having been subjected to too much stimulus but he knew they were not listening. Only success would be acceptable.

Once they were gone he looked at Chang. "I need to examine him."

Chang nodded and began bringing up Malcolm Reynolds' vital signs on a monitor. Dr Mathias shook his head just a fraction, his eyes now on the viewing screen, a little frown of worry marring his features.

"It must be a physical exam."

The technician blinked but said nothing. The doctor appreciated the man's self control given that the instruction had been to keep Reynolds in the sensory deprivation chamber for the duration of the experiment. The only person to enter that room had been the night technician ensuring the Captain's eyes remained lubricated. What he was about to do would break every protocol but time was pressing and he was out of alternatives.

* * * * *

Zoe had been watching and inwardly ranting and railing against the Alliance, Blue Sun and every purplebelly that every lived. Her eyes were a blur with tears she could not wipe away. Why couldn't she move? Breaking her gaze from the view of her tormented Captain, she glanced down at herself. The chair was high backed and padded but there were no visible restraints, nothing that could account for her inability to do more than move her head. It was freaking her out if she was being truthsome. Something flickered in her mind and her head jerked up. What was that? Heartbeat thundering she tried to recapture it but like mist it was gone. Huh. Must be more spooked than she thought. Zoe looked through the observation window and felt a jolt go through her. Superimposed between the glass and Malcolm Reynolds stood a man. It was not seeing someone in that room that shocked her most but the fact that she could see 'through' him.

"What the *diyu* is goin' on?" She murmured.

To her consternation, the reply came from inside her head. *You are not seeing what you think you are seeing*

Zoe frowned. Who the... It sounded like.. No, couldn't be.

*Just...believe*

"Book?"

The ghostly image of Shepherd Book did not smile but something like approval settled on his face, the look then vanished and was replaced by concern. *It is time for you to wake up*

"Ain't a-gorram-sleep."

*Do you really think that chair could hold you if you were not?** Her frown deepened. How did he know about the rutting chair? Unless... "You ain't Book."

The figure sighed, a sound dragged up through the soles of his feet and bringing a world of sadness and regret that she did not understand. *You are in a sleep deprivation chamber, Zoe. The Captain is in another*

"Why should I believe you?"

*Because I was a prisoner too, only my prison was created inside my own mind. If you believe the chair can hold you then you will never break free, *dong ma*?"

"You sayin' this is all in my mind?"

*Qu, but you are strong. Look for the pieces that don't fit then refuse to believe in them. But do it quickly, Zoe. We don't have much time."

She wanted to tell him he was *cuode*, nothing but a gorram hallucination but she kept thinking of the chair. How it should be impossible to hold her without any visible signs of restraint - physical or otherwise. As she thought about it the ghostly image of Shepherd Book began to fade, filling her with an unreasoning fear. If she was going to trust him at all it had to be now. Before even that faint window of hope vanished.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*diyu* = hell *guai* = devil/ghost *wo bu dong* = I don't understand *weishenme* = why? *ni zhide shi shenme* = what do you mean? *wo bu zhidao* = I don't know *shenme* = what *shenjingbing* = crazy *duibuqi* = sorry *wo zhidao* = I know *Tianna* = oh God! *qingwa cao de liumang* = frog humping sumbitch *tamade hundan* = fucking bastard *chusheng xai-jiao de xiang huo* = animal fucking bastard *shifu* = sir *fengmi* = honey *dong ma* = understand? *mei mei* = little sister *ni bu dong* = you don't understand *fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart) *laoban* = boss *qu* = yes (lit. go) *fafeng* = mad *cuode* = wrong

COMMENTS

Saturday, July 16, 2011 3:29 AM

NUTLUCK


Poor River having such a hard time explaining anything that others can understand.

Saturday, July 16, 2011 4:07 AM

AMDOBELL


Yet she tries so hard doesn't she Nutluck? Thanks for the feedback, Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Saturday, July 16, 2011 5:40 AM

BYTEMITE


Oh damn.

Somehow River's got to save them but figure out a way to stay as far away as they can.

Saturday, July 16, 2011 9:10 AM

MALSDOXY


blue sun vermin...maybe dr mathias isn't bad after all? great read, as usual, AliD

Saturday, July 16, 2011 9:14 AM

AMDOBELL


River has a number of things up her sleeves Bytemite and you aren't wrong in your observation! As for Dr Mathias MalsDoxy, watch closely. Thanks for the shiny feedback folks, I have also frighteningly just signed up to Twitter. What have I done? (Gulp) - Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Saturday, July 16, 2011 11:44 PM

JANE0904


Excellent tension - and sorry I've been away a while. I like the idea that Book has been released in a sort of non-corporeal form, and I love your description of River not being able to explain to the others exactly what she meant. But please, stop hurting Mal, will you? Zoe needs to get out of the deprivation chamber and save him before his brain runs out of his ears!

Saturday, July 16, 2011 11:59 PM

AMDOBELL


*Fang xin* Jane0904, all manner of things will soon be coming to light - including the end of that gorram tunnel! Good to have you back and rooting for our heroes. Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"


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