HANDFUL OF STARS: 39. "The Forest For The Trees"
Monday, August 8, 2011

"Zoe and Mal are out of the hands of Blue Sun but they aren't out of danger yet. River tries to explain but ends up confusing and alarming her friends. Meanwhile Brooks is working on a way out of his confinement."


TITLE: "THE FOREST FOR THE TREES" CHAPTER: 39. Sequel to "OTHER ANGELS" SERIES: HANDFUL OF STARS Series AUTHOR: Alison M. DOBELL FANDOM: "FIREFLY" PAIRING: Simon/Kaylee Mal/Inara RATING: PG-13 SUMMARY: "Zoe and Mal are out of the hands of Blue Sun but they aren't out of danger yet. River tries to explain but ends up confusing and alarming her friends. Meanwhile Brooks is working on a way out of his confinement." 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.


A "Firefly" Story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

His skin was crawling as if eyes were all over it. Eyes with creepy spikey claws. The sensation faded as he grew more cognisant. For a long time he did nothing, tried to keep his breathing as even as possible. He could not sense anyone around him but that didn't mean anything. If River Tam was in the vicinity he could not afford to give away the fact that he was awake. Brooks did not know how long he kept the ploy up. He could hear the hum and steady beep of the monitoring equipment but it did not sound as if the doctor was there. What about his sister? Carefully he tried to stretch his senses. Nothing. Did that mean he was finally alone or that she was still blocking him? And what about the big ape, Jayne? Where was he?

* * * * *

Getting out was easy, it was doing so without being observed still less tagged. He removed the white coat and used the spare net carefully hidden in the pocket, the tech sparkling briefly as the current flickered and connected in a broad wave as he adjusted it. Anyone watching would have just seen a tiny flicker on the screen and not thought anything of it. Now that he and his burden had a net each things were both simpler and more complicated. He paused in the corridor down from the room he had been hiding in. Time waited for no man especially one being set up to act as an object lesson. He had no proof that they were on to him but his instincts had always been sharp and the stakes were too high to ignore even the possibility that it was a set up. So. The nets would have to work much harder than they were actually designed to do but that was okay. If anyone in the 'verse could pull this off it was him. The problem was he needed a quick exit which meant waking Reynolds and hoping, with a little help from himself, the Captain could move under his own speed.

* * * * *

It was getting hard to breathe. Zoe longed to open her eyes but knew the admonishment would be swift and she did not have the disposition to take much more even if it was from her own version of the Shepherd.

*Move more to your left*

*This is gettin' us nowhere*

*Cuode, it's getting you to safety*

Zoe was tempted to sit down and let him carry on without her. After all, he kept telling her everything she saw was a lie hence keeping her gorram eyes closed but what if everything in her head was a lie as well? What if she was still trapped in the rutting chair?

*You musn't think like that*

She snorted. *Weishenme?*

*Because Mal is relying on you*

Her heart actually missed a beat. *He alive?*

*For now but if we don't get a move on...*

The voice in her head had said enough, without any further complaint Zoe pushed onwards and tried to tamp down the worry that she was entering a smoke filled room. Just another illusion she told herself. Book fell silent and for some time she did no more than put one foot in front of the other and let her gorram mind wander. It was only hours later when she stumbled that Zoe realised the ground beneath her feet was uneven.

*You can open your eyes*

She did so and was almost blinded by the light of twin suns at mid-day. Zoe stared stupidly, her brain not yet believing that she was actually outside. *What shuohuang is this?*

Book sounded weary and old which were two things she had never associated with the man himself. Made her feel unsettled. *No lie*

Zoe turned slowly, her legs like rubber but somehow still managing to support her though she knew not how. "Where in the nine hells are we?"

*Sssh! Don't speak out loud*

She would have glared but Book was not visible, just a thought echoing in her mind and giving the occasional instruction. *Best explain mashang. I been followin' your instructions for hours an' now it's time you made sense*

The sigh could have been imagined but somehow she didn't think so. *We are outside but have to be very careful, dong ma? The alarm will sound soon enough and we have to be far away by then*

*Yeah but where are we? 'Cause I can tell you one thing, this ain't Hera*

* * * * *

He stared at the screen in disbelief. To give Marcus his due he did not flinch but let Nelson gawk all he wanted. Had to admit to getting a certain amount of satisfaction out of shocking his major domo into a stunned silence.

"What the *diyu* happened to you, *laoban*?*

Marcus let a grin slide around his face before becoming serious again. "Have you never gone undercover?"

"*Shenme*? You let some *hundan* bury you on purpose?"

Marcus Bole threw back his head and laughed. Nelson Portree frowned at him, not at all happy that he was being mocked. It took a minute or two for Marcus to get himself under control. Smiling slightly he wiped off the worst of the mud but his face was still smeared in it. Some of the mud looked suspiciously slimely. Nelson was inordinately pleased that he was not speaking to Marcus in the flesh, face to face. Imagining the man probably smelt powerful bad as well.

"Why are you covered in that *goushi*?"

"*Fang xin* it'll wash off. It's just cosmetic anyway."

"Don't care what the *diyu* it is just want to know what's goin' on Marcus an' why you got me an' the men high-tailin' it to this no count backward lump of rock."

"You're going to pick up Reynolds and his first mate."

Nelson stared at him. Hard. His mouth opened and closed a couple of times before he could form words and when he did they came out in a whisper as if he could hardly believe his ears. "You got 'em out?"

"Had help."

"Gorramit Marcus we been chompin' at the bit, you could'a told us!"

Marcus shook his head sadly. "Actually I couldn't."

Portree Nelson's eyes narrowed. "You afraid we'd be overheard, that it? So why can you talk now not then?"

His friend sighed and for the first time Nelson noticed how tired his friend looked. "You were too high profile, same with Serenity's crew. I needed to bring in help from a direction and source that couldn't be anticipated."

"Are you gonna tell me who that is?"

"*Duibuqi*. Had to promise but I can tell you it's someone I trust with my life."

"That why you're covered with mud an' he ain't?"

Marcus grinned, a flash of white teeth in a dark muddy face. "Who says he isn't? And who says it's a 'he'?"

Nelson opened his mouth to ask another question but Marcus beat him to it.

"I need you to land at the following co-ordinates then once you pick them up go to Silverhold."

"That's quite a stretch."

"Yeah but it's safe and right now our friends need somewhere they can recover in safety, *dong ma*?"

"What about Serenity?"

"Give me time to clean up and I'll contact them."

Nelson nodded. Wished he could be the one to pass on the news to Mal and Zoe's crew but knew Marcus would handle that. He was just mighty relieved the two had been rescued. "*Fasheng shenme shi le*?"

"In time, old friend, in time." Then the screen went dark leaving Nelson staring at it. So many questions he wanted to ask he hardly knew where to start. In the meantime though, he wanted to give his men the good news then go and retrieve Mal and Zoe before anything else could go wrong.

* * * * *

Brooks wanted so badly to get off that infirmary bed and out of there but the body was non responsive to him. He could not even tell if it was still strapped down but assumed it to be the case. What reason would Serenity's crew have for doing otherwise? He certainly had given them no cause to trust him and now all his careful scheming had come undone. For what felt like hours he lost himself in thought. He needed to be ambulatory but the question was how. Having consciousness was all very well but without mobility it was as frustrating as it was pointless.

* * * * *

"River, *mei mei*, you should eat something."

"Out of the frying pan."

Simon sighed and gave Inara a look of frustration. River had been sitting crossed legged on the floor in the commons area for hours now and showed no sign of moving. At first he was just happy that she was calm and seemed content but now he was getting worried. Inara was concerned for a different reason. Moving closer the Companion was careful not to actually touch the girl. River had her eyes closed and appeared to be trying to meditate but her words had sparked off a memory of a saying Inara had heard in the training house. "What do you mean 'out of the frying pan'?"

For a moment Inara thought River was not going to answer. Then the girl's eyes snapped open and she stared straight at the Companion. "And into the fire."

Inara felt her heart miss a beat. Kaylee looked alarmed and turned to Simon. "What does she mean, Simon?"

"It's just a saying, *bao bei*."

River turned her head and looked at her brother. "Not when it's true."

"You sayin' the Cap'n an' Zoe are in trouble, 'cause we know the Alliance took 'em, River." Said Kaylee.

"Many a slip between cup and lip."

"River, that isn't very helpful. What do you mean?" Asked Simon.

She tried to slow down the chaotic stream of consciousness that was constantly picking up on images and sounds that made interpretation difficult but not impossible. In her mind she knew where everything belonged, what it meant was more instinctual and on a subconscious level the puzzle pieces fit. Bringing it all into conscious focus and coherently relating it to others was something her mind tended to tangle time and again until the words made everything as clear as mud. "The Curate's Egg is to blame."

Kaylee looked totally baffled. Simon translated. "It's another saying from Earth-that-was. The Curate's Egg was said to be good in parts."

"Ya sayin' somethin' good's happened?" Kaylee asked hopefully.

Her friend nodded but her look was solemn. "And something bad."

Inara reached out and rested a hand on the back of the nearest chair. "River, can you tell us what the good part is?"

River's face lit up, luminious with joy. "Captain daddy and Zoe have been rescued."

Kaylee whooped and clapped her hands in glee but River shook her head, her face darkening with sadness.

"What's the bad part?"

"Too many predators on the prowl."

"Are you saying they've been captured again?" Asked Inara quietly.

"Yes and No."

"River, it can't be yes and no."

"*Ni bu dong*, Simon. They were being rescued, one is safe but the other..."

Kaylee put a hand to her mouth, her eyes wide with fear. At that moment Jayne came stomping into the commons area looking for food. They had only eaten an hour ago but his stomach was rumbling and demanding something other than protein cubes. Seeing the looks on their faces he stopped then looked down at himself to make sure his fly was done up. When he looked up he was scowling. "*Shenme shi*?"

"River says the Captain and Zoe have been rescued." Simon explained.

"About ruttin' time."

"She also says they aren't safe." Said Kaylee, a tremble in her voice.

"Actually, River said one is safe." Said Inara. The Companion turned back to River, willing the girl to be lucid and speak plain. "Who is safe, River?"


Jayne looked confused. "She an' Mal were together."

River shook her head. "Two by Two, Hands of Blue."

For a moment no one spoke, River's chant too disturbing.

"So Blue Sun got 'em, that it?"

Another shake of the head. "*Bu qu*. That was then."

Inara let go of the chair back and moved close to River, her face serious as she mentally willed the girl to explain. "Mal and Zoe were rescued from Blue Sun?" A nod from their resident genius. "Zoe is safe so what happened to Mal?"

"Into the Fire."

They looked shocked. Jayne grabbed a roll and stuffed some of the cooling protein stew in it. He took a big bite then spoke with his mouth full. "Ya sayin' Cap got burnt?"

"It's a saying."

"Yeah, well ya ain't sayin' much just crazy talk."

Simon shot the mercenary a glare to convey that he wasn't helping. As usual it was like oil off a duck's back. Inara was kneeling now in front of River. "River, where's Mal?"

"Coming home but there was a detour. It isn't the map they were supposed to follow."


"Had to hide but the mud wasn't deep enough."

Just then Wash's voice came over the com. He sounded excited. "You might wanna get up here *mashang*, we've got a wave!"

* * * * *

"Stop complaining, you aren't hurt."

"You wanna swap bodies then tell me how the good gorram I feel?"

"They were playing games with your mind, Captain."

"Who did you say you were again?"

The man resisted the temptation to sigh and roll his eyes. "I got you out of that Blue Sun facility."

"On Hera."

He paused. "It wasn't exactly Hera."

"I know where we were, speakin' of which where's Zoe?"

The silence that answered him drove all thought of aches and pains out of Malcolm Reynold's mind. He started to sit up only to keel over, his balance all shot to pieces. His rescuer put a hand out to steady him until he could sit upright and lean against the wall then took his hand away.

"That wasn't a reply."

"You have to understand, I'm one man." "I think my keenly trained senses noticed that." The Captain paused and waited for an answer, when it didn't come he got cranky. "You might wanna be answerin' my question, don't mistake that for a request."

"When you and Zoe were captured they separated the two of you."

"That much I know."

"What you don't know is I could only get one of you out."

Shock then anger flashed across the Captain's face. "Then why take me? We gotta go back, get Zoe..."

The man raised his hands to stall the flood of words and try to calm Malcolm Reynolds down. It was then that Mal noticed something else was amiss.

"An' why in the shiny sphincter of *diyu* am I covered in this evil smellin' *goushi*? Smells like somethin' died, rotted, was eaten then crapped over me."

His rescuer had a job stopping the smile twitching at his lips from breaking into a grin. Even pissed off and cranky Serenity's Captain did have a comic turn of phrase.

"An' why," said the Captain as he finally got a good look at their surroundings "are we in what looks like another gorram cell?"

He got a sheepish look back. "We didn't exactly get away clean."

"Huh, what's with the 'we'? Don't see none of this muck on you."

"I was trying to lead them away. If you'd kept your gorram head down it might've worked too."

"In case you're feelin' a mite slow, a body can't breathe through whatever that *goushi* was you buried me in."

"It wasn't *goushi* Captain, it was mud."

"Yeah, well it smells like..."

His rescuer cut him off before he could reel off a more accurate description of what he had been lying in. "Sssh, sounds like someone's coming."

The Captain's mood became subdued, his voice barely a whisper. "An' I'm guessin' it ain't someone with the keys to get us outta here."

* * * * *

Monty was happy, relieved that his friends were out of enemy hands but then Nelson dropped his bombshell.

"What do you mean Zoe's okay but you lost Mal?"

"We lost one of our people too, Monty."

The big man was sorry about that but right now he was more concerned about Mal and what in the nine hells had happened. "Tell me everything Nelson, from the beginning *dong ma*? Then I wanna talk to Marcus."

* * * * *

Everybody was crowding around Wash on the bridge except River. As soon as she was left alone she got up and went to the infirmary. Everything was as she had left it. The body of Shepherd Book lay quiet and suppine. The monitors registered normal brain function and vital signs but she was not fooled.

"You can come out now."

At first there was no reaction, then slowly the eyelids opened a crack. "How did you know?"

"I always know."

"What did that doctor of yours do to me?"

"You were neutralised."

"You opened the box."

River did not reply. If Brooks knew that much then he also must be realising that his survival was limited.

"What happens now?"

"That depends on you."

For a long moment the entity that was Brooks said nothing. Trapped inside a body that would barely obey him he had to wonder how he had managed to get the eyelids to open allowing him to see River Tam. His first reaction had been one of hope, thinking her control was slipping and that it meant he would be able to access muscle groups and so on but he was mistaken. The block was still in place and even though he was looking straight at River he could not feel or sense her in his mind. It was all manner of disturbing but also told him something else, something he found especially chilling. "You have full control this body, don't you?"

"Why did you do it?"

Brooks noticed she just ignored his own question. So. Time for quid pro quo. "I'll answer your question if you answer mine."

She tilted her head and considered him for a moment. He wondered what that genius brain of hers was up to then tried to dismiss the thought. "You were a danger, to him and us."

"Ah, you mean Book?"

River said nothing then went back to her original question. "Quid pro quo. *Weishenme*?"

"It was in my programming."

"Who programmed you?"

"That's more than one question."

"I can end you. Dismantle everything you are. Dissect truth from lies."

"But you won't will you, River? Because that takes time and the fact you're finally talking to me means it's running out, *dui*?"

* * * * *

Wash stared at his beautiful, deadly and...muddy?...wife. "*Bao bei*, you don't know how good it is to see you but what's with all the..." His voice trailed off, his hand waving over the front of his face.

"Seems part of the rescue plan was to hide."

Jayne was openly laughing, his face creased and a sparkle in his eyes. "Looks like ya been mud wrestlin'."

Even through the muck on her face they could tell she was not amused but Jayne couldn't stop chuckling. Oh, this was priceless.

"*Ni shoushang le*?" Asked Simon anxiously. He had noticed how weary Zoe was and could not help wondering what she had gone through.

"*Bu qu*, more tired than anythin'."

Kaylee was trying to see passed Zoe. "Where's the Cap'n. I don't see the Cap'n."

"He ain't here."

Silence. Utter and total fell over them all. Hearts that had been light a moment ago now felt heavy as lead. Inara could not stop thinking about what River had said. Everyone started talking at once, questions flying so thick and fast Zoe couldn't make herself heard. In the end she raised her voice and used the command tone instilled in her from the War.

"*Bei chao*!" We're bein' picked up. Best you meet us on Silverhold."

Wash was anxious to be reunited with his wife as quickly as possible. "Why can't we pick you up there?"

"*Zhangfu*, chances are you're bein' watched or this place is, *dong ma*?"

"If that's the case," said Simon slowly "won't we be followed to Silverhold?"

Her grin was a flash of white that had a feral edge to it. "What do you know about Silverhold, Simon?"

"Not much." He admitted.

"Trust me, it's the safest option right now."

Zoe was about to cut the transmission when Wash spoke up, everything he was thinking and feeling written on his face. "*Wo ai ni, bao bei*!"

Her face softened for just a moment. "Wo ai ni ye, zhangfu."

Then the screen went black.

* * * * *

"What makes you think I'll tell you anything?"

River's smile reminded him of a predator. One who liked to play with its' food before going in for the kill. "You want this to end, don't you?"

"In my death?"

River put the shrug in her voice, her expression saying she didn't really care either way. "Your choice."

Brooks took a moment to think on everything she had said and just as importantly everything she hadn't but they both knew he was out of options. "What's the alternative and don't tell me there isn't one."

"I end you here and now."

"Just like that?"

River raised her right hand and slowly formed it into a fist. "Squish." "Not very scientific."


Brooks fell silent.

"You're thinkin' the body will deteriorate once you're gone but you're *cuode*. We can keep it nourished and healthy until Book is restored."

"You can't guarantee that will happen."

"Either way you won't be a problem any more."

"Not much incentive for me to co-operate with you."

River tilted her head, observing him like some exotic bug. "Don't you want to be free?"

"I have no body."

"*Cuode*. You have the one you left to take up this assignment."

An odd tone crept into his voice. "They won't have kept it."

The little genius actually looked alarmed. Disturbed even. "*Weishenme*?"

"I'm expendable. What I learn isn't."

"You have memory bots?"

"If you mean nanotech specially adapted to record my memories, yes."

"And they are still functioning?"

He thought River sounded thoughtful. "As I said, I really have no incentive to help you."

A slow smile crossed her face. It made Brooks think he had just made a very bad mistake. Fatal even.

"*Xie xie ni*."

"I didn't give you anything."

"*Cuode*. Time to end this."

"River, don't..."

But it was already too late. While they had been talking River had been worming her way through his systems, found the chink she needed and now with a little tweak of some of the deactivated nanobots she reprogrammed them and decomissioned the spy. Brooks had no time for anything. One moment he was about to beg for her to listen, the next - nothing. In a way it was a much more merciful passing than one of flesh and blood would have been. No pain, no lingering agony. Now the real work could begin. River pulled a chair up close to the infirmary bed and put a cushion on it then climbed up and sat cross legged on it. Slowly she closed her eyes and began to breathe deep and slow, her mind and body in synch. She had a clear plan now, knew exactly what she was looking for and where to find it but she had to be careful. Even without Brooks actively trying to keep her out the balance would be a delicate one to maintain. To find the right nanotech without destroying the information encoded within them. River knew she would only get one chance. If she got it wrong they would lose Shepherd Book forever.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*cuode* = wrong *weishenme* = why? *shouhuang* = lie *diyu* = hell *laoban* = boss *mashang* = at once/on the double/immediately *shenme* = what *goushi* = crap/dog shit *fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart) *duibuqi* = sorry *dong ma* = understand? *fasheng shenme shi le*? = what happened? *mei mei* = little sister *bao bei* = precious/treasure *ni bu dong* = you don't understand *shenme shi* = what's the matter? *bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *shei* = who? *dui* = correct *ni shoushang le* = are you injured? *bei chao* = not so noisy! *zhangfu* = husband *wo ai ni* = I love you *wo ai ne ye* = I love you too *xie xie ni* = thank you


Monday, August 8, 2011 5:44 AM


Uh oh. Let's hope Brooks isn't wrong about them having another copy of him. That'd be a nasty surprise.

Also, they caught Mal again. And Mathias? Hmm. Makes me wonder if somehow someone put themselves into Mathias' head, since I can't help but notice the escape attempt was similar.

Monday, August 8, 2011 8:49 AM


Nope, no copies Bytemite. As for Mathias, keep watching closely. Thanks for the feedback, Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Monday, August 8, 2011 10:01 AM


Very cool, I am still looking forward to see what River decides to do to get back at Blue Sun for taking captain daddy. :)

Monday, August 8, 2011 10:24 AM


Thanks for the shiny feedback, Nutluck. As for River, you will find out before long. Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Monday, August 8, 2011 3:50 PM


so excited to see new chapter!! Well, that, I don't know what to think but very intriguing, ever, AliD

Tuesday, August 9, 2011 7:46 AM


Enjoyed reading this new chapter, Ali D! Really intriguing developments here. On the edge of my seat to find out what's going on with Mal and Mathias. I found the scenes with Zoe (and Book in her mind) very interesting, and the scenes with River and Brooks were exciting and tense.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011 8:16 PM


So Book was a Trojan horse? Interesting. And Brooks being switched off like that ... I'd love to see River have a discussion with herself later about the nature of self - as in, did Brooks have a soul that could be freed, or was he nothing more than a collection of electrical impulses, and what makes humans any different? As for Mal ... give the poor guy a break and let them get him out, already!! :)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011 12:25 AM


Thank you for your comments, MalsDoxy. Things will start to become clearer soon but it still might make your head hurt! As for Mal and Mathias, ebfiddler, things are not quite what they seem. River has more things going on so keep your eyes peeled. You bring up some interesting ideas Jane0904 and as for Mal, he isn't as badly off as you may think. Thank you for the feedback everyone, Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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