THE REFLECTION SERIES: 16. "Cradle to Grave"
Tuesday, October 12, 2004

"Everyone makes mistakes. Thomas comes face to face with one of his. With a rescue attempt under way more complications arise."



SUMMARY: "Everyone makes mistakes. Thomas comes face to face with one of his. With a rescue attempt under way more complications arise." 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

* * * * *

Counsellor Michael Tollan was a calm one, Mal had to give him that. Without so much as a flinch or flicker of intemperance he turned to Serenity's Captain. "I would be obliged if you would let Thomas know we have company and who it is."

Mal frowned but something in Tollan's look cut through any question forming in his mind. He nodded, the request as good as carried out. As soon as Mal was off the bridge, Tollan looked at Rafe Connor, the man as tense as it was possible to be without something snapping.

"I think it would be best if you remained out of sight, *qu*? At least until we know what this is about."

The rancher nodded and stepped out of sight of the com. As soon as he had done so Tollan opened the com channel. "This is Counsellor Michael Tollan, how may I assist you?"

The big blustering man that appeared on the screen looked momentarily nonplussed then reiterated his question. "This is Commandant Ferris of the Alliance Cruiser Reknown. Identify yourself, your vessel and your Captain."

A slow uneven stumbling sound impinged on the background but was drowned out by Tollan's reply.

"I am Counsellor Michael Tollan. This is the Crazy Goose and her Captain is Thomas Charles McCardy."

"What are you doing here?"

The blunt demand surprised the diplomat though he hid it well. Rafe noticed a flicker of surprise so brief that it vanished in the moment it was spawned leaving a blank expression, the cloak of polite rhetoric telling the Alliance Commandant nothing of what was in his mind. "I believe the Captain can best answer your questions, Commandant." He said coldly.

Rafe turned his head, shocked to see Thomas had come onto the bridge. Inara Serra and Chung-li walking either side of him but not trying to help or impede his progress. Malcolm Reynolds kept well back from the screen and sidled up next to Rafe. Inara and Chung-li stopped a few feet short and watched Thomas make the rest of the way by himself. Tollan noticed the impatience building on the Commandant's florid face. As the Commandant opened his mouth to complain about the delay Thomas stepped into view, his face flushed with effort but calm. Eyes steely grey and bright. Focused and sharp he took the wind gathering in the Commandant's sails and left him floundering in stunned and pained surprise. He looked shaken. "I thought this was a joke." Said the Commandant quietly.

Out of view Mal exchanged a look of query with Inara. They were at opposite ends of the bridge. Mal stood with Rafe to one side and Inara with Chung-li on the other. The Companion sent him a baffled look and a small shrug back. Rafe was frowning. There was no expression at all on Chung-li's face but Mal did catch a small flicker of satisfaction steal across Tollan's. Interesting.

"Are you calling me a 'joke', Commandant Ferris?"

Thomas's voice was soft but clear, his eyes fixed on Ferris. Mal realised something else was going on. The Commandant swallowed slowly. "Your pardon Captain," He said with exaggerated formality. "I thought you were dead."

Thought not hoped? The unspoken inference was not lost on any of them. "The proof of your error stands before you."

The Commandant flushed awkwardly and Mal's eyes narrowed. Just what in the nine hells was going on here? "Captain McCardy," The Commandant had to pause to clear his throat. Was that a little spasm of guilt? "I must repeat my question, what are you doing here?"

"I am on my way to Delios."

"For what purpose?"

To Mal's surprise Thomas answered the Commandant's question with one of his own. "If I might ask, what brings you here Commandant? If I am not mistaken you are not only fully armed but have your gunports open and weapons locked on us."

Commandant Ferris turned away from the viewscreen for a moment and fiddled with something, when he next came into view he looked a little sheepish. Tollan noticed the Alliance weaponry was no longer locked on them. "Your pardon Captain, it is Alliance policy for all defence and warships to be ready to engage the moment an unidentified ship enters Alliance space."

Thomas McCardy's eyebrows rose slowly. "I was not aware we were at war with anyone."

"This is a restricted area of space."

A painful silence fell around them. Thomas placed his hands on the console and leaned forward bringing his face nearer to the screen. "I repeat, Commandant, what are you doing here?"

This time his voice held the uncompromising crack of command. The ring of authority almost deafening even though he had not shouted. For several moments no one spoke. They did not dare. The tension in the room suddenly all too taut and volatile. "We had a request for aid." He admitted reluctantly.

"Aid? What type and from who?"

Commandant Ferris flushed. "I do not answer to you!"

"No?" Thomas spoke mildly but something in his eyes had hardened. "Then to whom do the Alliance answer if not the good citizens who put them where they are?"

"You fought against us."

"No," Said Thomas very softly. "I stood up to you. Unlike you I never carried arms. My war was fought with words but you never wanted anyone to hear the truth. Myself, and others like me wanted you to be accountable, we wanted the checks and balances of a good and just judiciary to curb the excess of complete power. Freedom is not a word invented by rebels, Commandant. It is a condition of the human spirit and soul that no amount of money can barter for." He paused. No one made a sound or moved a muscle. "What happened to you, my son?"

Inara's eyes widened in shock. Mal looked stunned. Rafe stared at them all in turn, trying to put pieces together that fit no puzzle he had ever seen. "I accepted the truth, *fuqin*. The 'verse you dream of can only ever be that - a dream. Yet you supported Unification. How can you now condemn me for doing the same?"

Thomas shook his head suddenly very weary. They were obviously treading the well worn path of an old and bitter argument. One neither side would win. Chung-li took a step towards him but Inara placed a light hand on his arm to forestall him. This would be over soon. Thomas needed to be permitted to finish what he had to say. It might be the only opportunity he would get. "I ask you one last time, Commandant. What are you doing here?"

* * * * *

She had been dreaming, hadn't she? Eyes heavy with sleep opened drowsily as her ears sought to separate the mingling voices enjoined in frantic whispered urgency. The tone cut through her muzzy senses and Zoe snapped fully awake. Alert and ready to kill. Wash put a hand out and spoke gently into her ear. "*Rongyi, bao bei*."

"*Shenmi shi?*"

Wash sighed while Kaylee and Shepherd Book tried to calm down a panicked Simon. "It's River. She must have wandered off."

Zoe blinked then frowned. "How could she wander off?"

"She was here when we fell asleep but gone when we woke."

Zoe absorbed Wash's simplified version without comment, her head turning first one way then the other. "Simon?"

The doctor was breathing heavily but shuffled towards her voice. Zoe could hear the Preacher's calm quiet tone trying to reassure the young man. As they came within touching distance she made out their individual details. Her eyes adjusting to the poor light but grateful for even this much aid to her vision. No hunter liked to hunt blind. "I thought River was with you?"

"She was, we were curled up together." He pointed behind him. "Just there, next to Kaylee. I didn't hear her move or anything, I just woke up and she was... gone."

Kaylee sounded both worried and fearful. "What do you think happened?"

"Maybe the gorram slavers got her!" Said Jayne without thinking.

"Not funny Jayne," Said Zoe in a clipped tone. This was just what they didn't need. River off on her own on a ship full of slavers.

"We have to find her!" Urged Simon.

"Did she say anything to you last night?" Asked the Preacher. "Anything that might give some clue as to what was on her mind, where she might go?"

Simon shook his head feeling miserable and frustrated.

Jayne snorted. "All she kept talkin' about was gorram mice."

The Shepherd spoke before Simon could fly off the handle. "You're not helping, Jayne."

"Well at least I ain't wrappin' her in gorram cotton wool! She ain't right an' we ain't right to be followin' her."

Kaylee scowled at him. "That ain't fair. River can't help what they did to her an' you know it, you're just bein' mean."

Jayne's voice lowered to a rumble. "Yeah well ain't nobody's fault she's gone off on her own."

"Which way did she go?" Asked Zoe.

She was met with silence. No one knew. River had obviously waited until they were all asleep. Zoe sighed, she could feel a headache coming on. She looked at Jayne.

"Any chance you could track her, Jayne? We need to find her before someone else does. If they find her they find us."

He muttered something unintelligible then got to work trying to find any sign of her passage while the others waited in a little depressed huddle. Pointless going in one direction when River might have gone in another. They couldn't take the risk of them getting separated. Jayne was slow, methodical and thorough. By the time he had completed a little circuit round them they were all more than a little jumpy, anxious and ready to drill holes in any gorram thing that moved. "Think she went this way." Jayne mumbled.

"You 'think'?" Said Simon in a tight sarcastic voice.

Zoe quickly cut him off. "*Bizui*, do want us to get caught? If we get caught Simon there'll be no one to look for River. Is that what you want?"

He shook his head, annoyed at himself but unable to let go of his anger. Wash knew its' source was his own self recrimination for not keeping a closer eye on her. Knew that if anything happened to the girl their shiny doctor would never forgive himself.

"Best we follow you Jayne, I don't like the thought of River wandering on her own." Said Book. The others silently agreed with him. Kaylee bit her lip and reached out for Simon's hand. Though no words were exchanged the warm squeeze of her hand was oddly reassuring.

* * * * *

It was blinding. The risen sun bleaching the last of the clouds into a diaphanous mist that vaporised as the day heated up. Bill Peary was exhausted. His feet ached, his throat was parched, his stomach growled and his boots hurt. Brooks' sullen silence had worn a hole in his patience and the knowledge that this could only end unhappily for the both of them did not improve his temper. "This is all your ruttin' fault!"

Brooks turned a baleful eye on his partner. "My fault? Didn't hear ya complainin' or arguin' the toss."

"Yeah, well we didn't have to go as far as we did."

Brooks tried to turn so he could at least kick out at him but Dizzy Doyle nudged his horse forward and pushed him back. Brooks snarled up at him but Dizzy just laughed though there was no humour in it. He sat with his left hand on the pommel of his saddle and his right hand holding the reins in loose grip that rested over his left hand. A man completely at his ease. Hal Larkin nudged Peary, "Come on, sun's up, get movin'."

Peary wanted to dig his heels in and be obstinate but you couldn't tell that to a horse. The beast nudged him again, the full weight of the animal causing him to stumble onwards whether he wanted to or not. Grumbling obscenties under his breath he almost missed Hal's words of wisdom. "Best you save your breath, still several miles to walk till Wellspring."

The man grunted then looked down, wanting to shield his face from the worst of the heat. Both Peary and Brooks had lost their hats miles ago. Hours seemed to pass until the foreman at last reigned in his horse and brought everyone to a stop. Peary looked apprehensive and risked a glance across at a subdued Brooks. Both men knew exactly where they were. Boundary Line. They watched the men dismount. Men who until a couple of weeks ago had been working shoulder to shoulder with them. Eating, sleeping, working, watching out for each other. Now these same men were fixing to hang them. His anger against Malcolm Reynolds was even more intense than it had been before. Not for a second did he regret what they had tried to do. His only regret was failing to finish the job.

* * * * *

As soon as the com was cut Mal spoke, his voice quiet but intense. Still hoarse from the fire but anxious as all *diyu*. "You can't let 'em board. They see us an' we can kiss goodbye to our freedom let alone any chance for me to rescue my crew."

Thomas looked at him for a moment. "I have no intention of letting anyone board my ship, Malcolm."

"Then what was all that *fei hua*?"

He gave a little sigh. Tollan moved alongside him and helped him to sit. Mal felt guilty for pressing the man but he had worries of his own and right now his concern for his crew took precedence. Inara wished she could reassure him but things were not looking good.

"That," Said Thomas choosing his words with care. "Was the reason I am as I am."

Malcolm Reynolds blinked. "*Wo bu dong*."

A pained look came into his eyes. "I never fought in the war, Malcolm. I'm no soldier, I'm a teacher." He shrugged. "Dedicated to guiding the fragile minds of children onto a path that will lead them to enrich their lives not impoverish nations. The greatest tragedy of my life is in failing to teach my own." He paused. "It is a painful truth that you cannot educate ignorance."

Serenity's Captain fell silent, watching the man carefully. Feeling as if he was hearing the tip of a really big iceberg and wondering what the *diyu* lay beneath it. 'Uncharted waters' his mind supplied, 'uncharted waters and unfathomable depths'. Michael Tollan took a seat beside Thomas and lay a hand on his shoulder. Just a light touch as if he needed that connection to reassure himself as well as ground his friend through the pain of the Here and Now. Being truthsome had its' costs.

Thomas's voice grew softer, each person on the bridge all but holding their breath so as to hear him more clearly. "My son says I fought him, implied I betrayed my beliefs by standing against the Alliance. *Bushi*. I supported the notion of Unification, the professed aims. I did not support the nefarious means taken to achieve those aims. The warped, vainglorious push to eliminate all opposition, to vilify and execute those who would not fall into line, would not blindly follow the party faithful all the way to *diyu*. The complete and utter anihilation of entire worlds, communities, families." His voice caught in a little painful catch making Mal swallow hard, his ears burning as he listened. Thomas's voice wound down to the merest whisper yet they heard every word. "Right down to the last child."

Mal did not dare to ask him to explain further but Inara needed to know. "Thomas, what did you mean when you said your son is the reason you are as you are?"

He blinked. Tollan squeezed his shoulder gently, giving him strength and silent support. "I had been warned Inara." He gave a light bitter laugh. "Not once but several times. My son, Carlin, was career military. The Alliance gave him a platform for his ambition, the perfect theatre for his ego. Early on I even supported him though I tried to curb his excess, to think before acting, to weigh action against thought. To employ his conscience to guide him not arbitrary rules that gave no quarter to the vagaries of human life or the pitfalls of blind obedience. As the Alliance got more powerful they got more arrogant until they did not even pretend to give lip service to the needs of the masses. How then could they accommodate the needs of the few? The voices that spoke for restraint were not simply ignored. As the Alliance built up their war machine to bring all the planets under their rule it became a death sentence to speak against them. I did not heed the warnings. Stood firm for my beliefs and taught that freedom of speech to others." He gave a sad smile, eyes looking inward, all the sorrow in the 'verse tinging his hands red with blood though he had never held a blade, never fired a shot in anger.

"It must have been terrible." Whispered Inara.

"Worst than that, my dear."

Rafe opened his mouth to speak but closed it quickly when it was obvious Thomas had not finished.

"I was teaching political science. My classes were always full, mature students augmenting the role of students who came from all walks of life. Children and young adults, mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts. Sisters and brothers, sons and daughters." He paused and took a steadying breath before continuing. "My wife followed the same path. Carlin was convinced she only did so out of loyalty to me." A little bitter smile twisted his lips. The craters in his pock marked face were more pronounced than normal, shadows holding hands to darken what had once been a gentle and comely face. Mal was not the only one who had walked in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. "We were in the middle of a class when the first bombs fell. It was quite a mixture of ordnance as if they couldn't make up their minds how they wished to wipe us out. Once the walls and ceilings had been taken out the ship began a strafing run, cutting up the children as they ran from the burning ruins, bleeding and crying. I tried to shelter the youngest but it was no use. We were attacked without mercy. A systematic attempt to wipe us out. I looked up as a shadow fell over me. Nowhere to run. The child curled into a foetal position before me, my body bent over her in the only cover and comfort left to give."

He broke off. You could have heard a gorram pin drop. No one spoke. Tollan handed Thomas a glass of water without needing to be asked. They waited as he took a slow sip and all ignored the slight tremor of his hand.

"It was a smaller shell that did the damage. It exploded as it landed feet from my position but it scattered bright sharp pieces of shrapnel in its' wake." He gave a little pained laugh that cut the hearts of those listening. "It took my legs but the girl was not so lucky." Thomas did not explain, he didn't have to. In his mind's eye Mal could see only too clearly what must have happened and his heart went out to the man. Thomas blinked back tears. Tollan put a hand over his. The man seeming to draw strength from the love of his friend.

"But that wasn't the worst part."

Rafe couldn't stand it. "What was the worst part?"

He blinked releasing silent tears. They rolled down his face as others formed to fill the sorrowing eyes. Heart aching the pain was evident in every spoken word that staggered from his mouth. "My son was the author of that destruction."

Inara gasped, a look of abject horror on her face as a hand involuntarily rose to cover her shocked lips. "He could not have known..."

Thomas shook his head. "He knew, Inara. Afterwards I discovered that he had volunteered for the task. Can you believe that?" His voice trailed off like blood dripping from an open wound. "Can you imagine anyone hating that much?"

Mal felt much moved by what he had heard. "After all that happened," He said quietly. "After all you suffered why didnt' he forgive you? War's over."

If anything Mal's words just seemed to upset the man more. "*Ni bu dong*, Malcolm, you see my wife - Eleanor - was also a teacher. She followed my lead. Like minds. She was in the next classroom. I got out with a few of the children but Eleanor," He broke off and had to take a deep breath to continue. "Eleanor was trapped inside. As the bomb detonated and the shrapnel cut my legs to shreds the last thing I heard was her scream. She cried, shouted and begged for help but I was unable to get to her. Even dragging myself over the rubble and the scattered bodies of the dead and the dying I couldn't reach her." He sobbed. "God help me, I couldn't reach her."

Mal dipped his head in sorrow, blinking back a tear or two his ownself. Inara was openly crying. Rafe humming with anger alongside Mal, unable to speak for the emotion rising in him. Chung-li looked ineffably sad. Thomas took a deep shuddering breath and looked at them. Mal could not even imagine the strength it took him to form the words. He only knew he could not have shared with others what this man now shared with them.

"Carlin blamed me for his mother's death. Ever since he has taken her maiden name as his own - Ferris. All ties to me severed. That is why we will find no inch of mercy in him. Better had we found a true enemy than come face to face with the bitter fruit of a once joyful seed. For as utterly twisted and wrong as he is he is still my son. And to heap woe upon woe he wears his mother's face."

A long heavy silence fell. Mal could feel his heart constricting. Looked up to see Inara still weeping, her arms folding gently around Thomas as she and Tollan comforted the man in silence. It seemed a wicked thing to speak and break the moribund spell of sadness that hung over them in a depressing pall. Yet Rafe was anxious not only for the troubles of the past but also the one now facing them. He had men who had come willingly with him out of friendship and loyalty to Malcolm Reynolds. In a flash of insight he realised they could all die due to the pusillanimous vindictiveness of a twisted son. No wonder his father wept. With an effort Thomas recovered his equilibrium and gave Mal an apologetic look.

"*Duibuqi*, Malcolm. I fear I have placed you and your friends in greater danger instead of helping and that was not my intent."

Mal shook his head. "*Bushi*. There's no way you could'a known that ship would appear or that your son would be in command of it. No need to beat yourself up over it, *dong ma*? There must be a way round this. A way to still get down to that minin' platform. I need to find a way on to that gorram forty-four."

Tollan's eyes widened in alarm. "That'd be suicide!"

"Not aimin' to do no dyin' but that's where my people are. Ain't doin' 'em no good up here facin' that *baichi* son of yours - no offence intended Thomas."

A little smile twitched the corner of Thomas McCardy's mouth grim as their predicament was. It lightened the darkness gripping his soul a mite. "No offence taken." Silent and for the moment forgotten, Chung-li was listening and watching. His agile mind racing through dozens of permutations seeking a viable solution.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*qu* = yes (lit. go) *fuqin* = father *rongyi* = easy *bao bei* = precious/treasure *shenme shi* = what's the matter? *bizui* = be quiet/shut up *diyu* = hell *fei hua* - garbage/nonsense *wo bu dong* = I don't understand *bushi* = not so *ni bu dong* = you don't understand *duibuqi* = sorry *dong ma* = understand *baichi* = idiot


Wednesday, October 13, 2004 5:33 AM


Fantastic chapter with a great twist! I enjoyed finding out more about Thomas and what happened to him.


Wednesday, October 13, 2004 8:23 AM


Two things:

First: Wow! What an awesome chapter. I look forward to every installment and you never dissapoint.

Second: What in the good gorram is up with all the comments to everyone from "Georgia"?!?!

Friday, October 15, 2004 12:24 AM


Hey! That was some mighty stirring stuff. Love the politics - which seem to have been simmering away for quite a while now. I can see you on a soapbox, Ali!

Oh and what a painful, painful twist. Father and son set against each other.

Real meaty issues you're dealing with here and doing a grand job of it. Bravo.

Friday, October 15, 2004 12:06 PM


Well that was a big-old twist for Mal and his new Alliance buddies. Intriguing direction--eager for more.


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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.