HANDFUL OF STARS: 40. "Neither Heaven Nor Hell"
Sunday, August 14, 2011

"The Captain tries to work out what is going on, where he is and who in the nine hells he is dealing with. Zoe is ready to rip heads off if she doesn't get some answers, meanwhile Serenity's crew race to meet Nelson and his men on Silverhold. River has an equally important task to finish."


TITLE: "NEITHER HEAVEN NOR HELL" CHAPTER: 40. Sequel to "THE FOREST FOR THE TREES" SERIES: HANDFUL OF STARS Series AUTHOR: Alison M. DOBELL FANDOM: "FIREFLY" PAIRING: Simon/Kaylee Mal/Inara RATING: PG-13 SUMMARY: "The Captain tries to work out what is going on, where he is and who in the nine hells he is dealing with. Zoe is ready to rip heads off if she doesn't get some answers, meanwhile Serenity's crew race to meet Nelson and his men on Silverhold. River has an equally important task to finish." 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

* * * * *

The door opened with a loud heavy creak as if the cell had been long disused. Funny, but Mal did not feel flattered that they had pressed it back into service to accommodate his own self. The face that stared at him sparked no recognition.


He hesitated.

"Best do as he says," muttered his cell mate.

It was tempting to be as contrary and onery as possible but that wouldn't garner him the information he needed such as where he was, who had them and what the good gorram was going on.

The man was big and blocky, dressed in understated browns and russet colours, the clothing looking homespun. Somehow what he saw didn't quite marry with the circumstances they found themselves in. "Don't take this the wrong way but you don't look like a lawman."

"That's 'cause I ain't."

Ain't. Mal's eyebrows rose a little. "What planet we on?"

"One with plenty of room for two more graves if you keep askin' questions, *dong ma*?"

The Captain nodded cautiously and allowed himself to be herded into a large dusty room, more barn than house. It made him think they must be some place pretty rural, out in the gorram sticks. There were actually some rickety chairs, an old aging stove with a coffee pot perched on top and a lamp hanging from a rafter.

"I see you folks live high on the hog."

A big old gun was swung and shoved in his face. Huh, figured more people would crawl out of the gorram woodwork. "We ask the questions."

Mal blinked and let his eyes adjust to the low light. Didn't take long as their cell had been pretty dim. He could now make out at least seven men, all similarly dressed and all armed. The odd thing was that every weapon looked like some kind of antique from Earth-that-was. The gun that had been shoved in his face had a bell end, looked like a rutting blunderbuss. He could imagine the delight on Jayne Cobb's face if he ever got his meaty paws on it.

"Now, you bein' so talkative an' all, what's your name? An' don't think on lyin' to us 'cause Marty's got a mite itchy trigger finger an' us not bein' the law won't be standin' for any trial before wipin' your wise ass off the gorram map."

* * * * *

Zoe was furious. "What do you mean he got captured?"

"You were held at different ends of the facility so we couldn't take you out together. Had to split up."

The first mate took a closer look at the man she had been calling Book, noticing he didn't actually look anything like the Preacher after all. And yet, she could have sworn she had been talking to him, heard the man's distinctive deep voice and been somewhat comforted to have him there. Had she imagined him? "Who the ruttin' *diyu* are you?"

The man wiped the mud from his face and Zoe realised he was vaguely familiar. He grinned at the expression on her face though it was short lived. "Marcus Bole at your service."

The dime dropped. "You're the contact for the job."

"Yeah, only we didn't expect the Alliance and Blue Sun to swoop in."

"How many of your people got took?"

He wished she hadn't asked. "They didn't seem to want any of my people. When everybody scattered and tried to get out via various tunnels the soldiers didn't pursue. At first Nelson thought they just had a bit of a lead but then he realised it wasn't that at all."

Zoe's eyes narrowed dangerously. "They already had what they wanted."

It wasn't a question but Marcus nodded anyway.

"Did your people even try to help us?"

"They were outgunned and surprised, Zoe."

"I'll take that as a no."

Marcus sighed, that was not what he had meant. "They did try to track you when you were taken which is how Nelson figured there must have been a ship waiting to take you and Mal off world."

Her look was grim. "You set us up."

"No, no, it wasn't our doing! Nelson and the boys were pretty cut up about it, you should have heard them."

"How did you find us if we were off world?"

He realised Zoe still didn't trust him and while he couldn't blame her for being suspicious he did come through for her in the end. Well, her not Mal as it turned out and that - he was realising - was the crux of her anger. "Nelson was stuck so I stepped in. Used other resources not known to the Alliance."

That raised an eyebrow. "What resources?"

"Let's just say I'd like to keep them out of this."

"Tough, Cap'n's missin' an' your resources were supposed to get him out."

"Zoe, I had to make a promise to get that help. Can't break it and I won't."

Fire flashed in her eyes damning him but when she spoke again her voice was cold and mild. It raised the hackles on the back of Marcus's neck. "If I find out you had anythin' to do with this I'll let Jayne peel the skin off your body for days before I let you die."

Marcus Bole paled, knowing instinctively that Zoe was not someone who made idle threats. Not ever. It was kind of unnerving being threatened so chillingly when he had been expecting thanks. "I could have left you there."

"Maybe you should have."

He shook his head. "Couldn't. My men would have skinned me alive if I'd walked away."

That surprised her.

"Whatever you think of me I never set you or Captain Reynolds up. Monty and I go back a long ways, almost as far as me and Nelson. We have a code and once the job was agreed Nelson and the boys were responsible for your safety until you left. That mine was deep and has been a hideout of ours for years. Never had any trouble with the Alliance because none of their scanning equipment could penetrate the rock plus we made sure to collapse most of the entry tunnels and give it a whole abandoned air. The remaining entry and exit were well hidden."

"Then how did they know exactly where to find us?"

"I've been thinking about that."

"You have a spy."

"*Bushi*. Did you notice anything about the men who took you?"

"They were dressed in black, looked military, special ops. *Weishenme*?"

"It wasn't the Alliance who wanted you and Mal so bad but Blue Sun. Sounds like it was an elite squad of their special forces and if it was Blue Sun, they would have the kind of equipment that can pretty much scan through the centre of this world and out the other side."

Zoe fell silent, her mind mulling over everything Marcus had said. She had to admit he had got her out of that creepy facility but the War had taught her that not everyone who pulled you out of danger was your friend. Sometimes they had plans so sneaky and convoluted you could not tell what was real and what was a lie. Could she trust this man? Hot on the heels of that thought was another: could she afford not to?

* * * * *

It was hard. So heavy going he didn't thnk he could keep going but stopping was not an option. The irrisistable force pulling on him was not possible to withstand in his weakened state. Everything he was felt diaphanous, stretched thin and beyond the point of breaking yet he did not do so. Whatever was keeping his soul in one piece it wasn't him. Maybe there was a God after all? Or maybe, just maybe, the Devil had come to reclaim one of its' own.

* * * * *

"What're we gonna do?"

Inara didn't know what to say, how to reassure Kaylee. Her contacts had not been able to help and Monty had been every bit as frustrated as Serenity's crew. Wash had them dashing as quickly as Serenity was able to Silverhold but the news that Zoe was safe and the Captain had been taken had dampened their initial relief. The only good thing Simon could glean from this mess was that his captors did not appear to be Alliance or Blue Sun. Just how many enemies did their gloriously *shenjingbing* and nobel Captain have? Simon really hoped they would not find out.

"Maybe Zoe'll know what happened?" Said Jayne.

The others looked at him but there was no responding spark of hope.

"Well?" Jayne scowled, annoyed at them. "Least I'm thinkin'."

Just then Wash's voice came over the com telling them they had a wave. They hurried to find out the latest news, hoping against hope that it was good not bad.

"What ya got?" Asked Jayne, pushing his way forward so he could peer at the monitor.

Wash half turned and grinned. "It's Mr Universe."


"Let's just say he's somethin' of a legend."

Inara looked a bit puzzled. "Why is he calling, Wash?"

A satisfied smirk settled briefly on Wash's lips. After so many days of wall to wall worry it lightened their hearts to see. Maybe things were starting to look up. "He says Zoe is with Marcus, they just been picked up by Nelson and will be on Silverhold in the next two hours. We'll get there an hour or so after that."

"That's great news!" Gushed Kaylee, then her enthusiasm waned a mite. "Did he say anythin' about the Cap'n?"

Wash's smile vanished. "*Bu qu* but maybe we'll find out more once we land."

Simon wasn't sure how to put what he wanted to say without depressing the crew further. "How do we know for certain that the Captain wasn't picked up by the Alliance or Blue Sun? We know they have sympathisers and agents."

Kaylee couldn't help piping up. "River said Cap'n wasn't in actual danger."

"Kaylee, my sister can't always be relied upon to know what day it is."

Her eyes flashed. "Why you always gotta be puttin' her down? River knows things, Simon, an' just 'cause you don't understand it don't mean it ain't so."

"I didn't mean..."

"*Bi zui*!" Shouted Wash. His voice then lowered again. "This isn't helpin', *dong ma*? Besides, I can't hear what he's sayin'."

A sudden silence fell and Wash apologised to his friend. "*Wode duibuqi*, as you can see we're all kind'a upset an' worried."

Mr Universe nodded. He had a youthful look to him enhanced by the halo of curly hair and almost childish air of excitement about him. They could see monitors and technical equipment behind the man as if he was in some sort of control room. Beyond that they could not tell where he was transmitting from which Wash had explained was kind of the point.

"*Fang xin*, Wash, I promised Marc I'd be in touch."

"*Xie xie*, you know anythin' about where Mal is?"

"Not yet but I can tell you it isn't the usual suspects."

Wash knew that was code for not Alliance and by extension probably not Blue Sun either. He frowned. "Who else could it be?"

Mr Universe leaned a little closer to the monitor. "That's where it gets interestin'. I've been pickin' up odd bits of chatter. It was scrambled but cheap tech, didn't take me more than a minute to clean up the transmission an' trace it."

"Where to?"


Jayne Cobb swore. The others shot him a look and he got defensive. "*Shenme*? That's the place they got nabbed doin' that job for Niska."

"That was because they stole the medicine, Jayne."

Kaylee shook her head. "Uh uh, they got caught takin' it back, Simon."

"Yeah, well, whatever - what's Paradisio gotta do with anythin'?" Growled Jayne.

Mr Universe was actually smiling. "That's where Nelson an' his men come from."

Inara was not sure what he was getting at. "Are you saying Nelson is in contact with people back on his home planet?"

"*Bu qu*, they've gone to radio silence."

They looked at each other. Wash couldn't understand why his friend was so happy about that. "What aren't you tellin' us, *wode pengyou*?"

"It seems a 'package' is bein' transported to Paradisio as we speak. To the Sheriff in fact."

"Don't get me wrong, this is all very interestin' but..."

Mr Universe cut Wash off, his smile gone and a serious look in his eye that told his friend to listen carefully. "Just passin' on what I heard. I'll keep monitorin' an' be in touch."

Before Wash could ask what the *diyu* that was about the screen went black.

"Huh." Jayne straightened and didn't try to hide his disappointment. "Don't think much of your ruttin' legend."

Wash frowned but didn't reply, he was thinking about what his friend had said and more importantly what he had not spelt out to him. As if the answer was hidden in the words, but what was he implying? And how did that help them?

* * * * *

River opened her eyes and stared at the man on the infirmary bed, her gaze not wavering. After several minutes the eyelids flickered, slow and sluggish but moving nontheless. River smiled softly and gave him time to regain consciousness.

"What the...?"

Her smile widened into a happy arc on her face. Her features glowing with quiet joy. "You're welcome."

"*Fasheng shenme shi le?"

"*Fang xin, ni xianzai keyi fangson le*. He's gone."

"Gone? *Shei*?"


River would long cherish the expression on Shepherd Book's face, the way that little revelation took years off the man. His face lit with ambient hope. "How can you be sure?" He asked quietly, as if barely able to let himself believe something so wonderful could be true.

"I opened the box, *jide*?"

He blinked, not remembering that little detail, more than a mite confused and so tired it was a miracle he was managing to stay awake but if Brooks was really gone he needed to know for certain. "Box?"

She nodded and patted his hand as if reassuring a child. "You're free now, *dong ma*? No more nightmares."

"River, I'm not even sure if he was real."

"He was real just not corporeal."

"How's that even possible?"

"They were using you."

"I would have known if that was the case."

River shook her head. "*Bu qu*. They were careful, subtle. Used nanotechnology and Brooks was installed with the kind of control mechanisms to keep you subdued when he needed to emerge and influence you."

The Shepherd shuddered. "I thought it was the whisperings of the *gaui* trying to lead me astray."

"Yes, but not the Devil you thought. The ident card you carry..."

"What about it?"

"That was his."

Book thought about that for a moment. "But it has my name on it."

"Your name, his undercover details encoded into the matrix. He was a sleeper, at least that was what Blue Sun called them. He was meant to slowly merge with your consciousness and little by little influence small changes in your behaviour. Until he could not only manipulate you but take over." "*Weishenme*?"

"To get me."

A tide of emotion rose in the Preacher's chest. Tears came to his eyes but did not fall. "*Wode duibuqi*, River."

"Not your fault." "How could they do this to me and I not be aware?"

"*Wo bu zhidao* when it happened but how is easy. It would have been a long time ago, you would have been badly injured at some time and been taken to an Alliance hospital. Only I think it must have been an experimental hospital used by Blue Sun for some of their more exotic projects."

Book fell silent. Some of his more distant memories did not fill him with a sense of pride. Shame at the errors of his youth did not go away with time but they did fade from consciousness that is, until they resurfaced to - as Malcolm Reynolds might say - bite him in the gorram ass. "I think I could sleep now." He said quietly.

Although it wasn't quite a plea, River understood. Standing up she leaned over him and gave a soft smile. "Welcome back."

He returned the smile and a single tear broke ranks and rolled slowly down his cheek. She knew he had regrets but also that it wasn't his fault. River had already forgiven him, in time she hoped he would be able to forgive himself. "It's good to be back."

River dropped a light kiss on his forehead and as she straightened saw those heavy eyelids close and watched his breathing deepen. A look of calm satisfaction stealing over her face at a job well done.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*dong ma* = understand? *diyu* = hell *bushi* = not so *weishenme* = why *shei* = who? *bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *bi zui* = be quiet/shut up *wode duibuqi* = I'm sorry *fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart) *shenme* = what *wode pengyou* = my friend *fasheng shenme shi le*? = what happened? *ni xianzai keyi fangson le* = you can relax now *jide* = remember *guai* = devil/ghost *wo bu zhidao* = I don't know


Sunday, August 14, 2011 4:42 AM


OK who the hell has Mal??? And Mr Universe...way too cryptic...another great installment, AliD, thank you

Sunday, August 14, 2011 5:53 AM


Hello MalsDoxy, you will find out in the next chapter. As for all the cryptic, things start to get a whole lot clearer as the story begins to wind up. Thanks for the shiny comments, Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Sunday, August 14, 2011 6:09 AM


Very cool, and yeah wondering the same thing about Mal. Of course Mr U seems to already suspect or know it seems.

Sunday, August 14, 2011 6:54 AM


Mr Universe does know, Nutluck, and soon you will too. Thanks for the feedback, Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Sunday, August 14, 2011 11:12 AM


Woman, you need to write your own book. God, you have me wrapped up in all these twists and turns. No hurting the Captain too bad and I just love how well you write Mr. U. :)

Sunday, August 14, 2011 6:04 PM


Oh, I like how you've brought Mr Universe into this. He's on to something. And Book is back to himself. Now who in Paradiso has Mal?

Monday, August 15, 2011 1:19 AM


Thanks for the shiny comments Angellemarcs. Don't worry, our Captain is on the up and up but it is the getting there that is the worthier part. As for Mr Universe, ebfiddler, he really is as smart as he thinks he is and as for who is waiting for Mal on Paradisio that is coming up in the next chapter. All feedback appreciated, Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Monday, August 15, 2011 4:44 AM


Yay, Brooks is gone, and River has an explanation!

Monday, August 15, 2011 8:10 AM


Yep, creepy Brooks is history Bytemite. Thanks for your shiny comments, 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.