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Antebellum - Book I: Chapter One
Thursday, December 15, 2005

First in a Post-BDM series. Thinking of it as a take on the Big Damn Sequel. First up: A flashback.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2703    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Book One – Chapter One

2503 A.D. – Seventeen years ago

It was the sword. Yes, it was definitely the sword that made Jonathon Chen the most nervous.

The man in his office had been standing there for over a half an hour it seemed, never saying a word. He just stood at the holo-screens, staring at the pictures and videos, moving only to scroll back or rewind certain images. He just stood there, no expression, lightly thumbing the hilt of the sword in his hands.

Chen hated these “inspections.” For one, they were degrading. He had thought that by rising through the ranks as he had, he was now immune from ever having to call another man “sir.” Another, they weren’t the most comfortable hours in Chen’s professional career. Operatives. That was the only name associated to these men. Each one they sent was different from the last, but they all came in the same way. No name, no rank, and no appointment.

Average height. No real discernable features save for his light brown complexion and his neatly trimmed beard and mustache peppered with tiny gray hairs, as were his temples. Chen wouldn’t have picked him out of a crowd, and that was exactly the point. He never looked too tame or too wild. Chen knew these Operatives were trained for this. They were trained to be directly on the edge of identity.

Chen didn’t like this one. The others weren’t exactly on his Christmas card list either, but this one was different. This one was unusually silent. Sure, they were all silent, but the silence in the room at this moment was not as clinical as the others. This one was thinking something. Chen knew it. Something different. This silence was unbearable. Perhaps it was the silence that made him the most nervous.

No, it was definitely the sword.

“They’re soldiers?” The Operative broke his silence, still staring at the screens.

“Uh, y-yes. Well, they were soldiers.”

“That’s what I asked.”

“Oh. I thought…” Chen’s voice trailed.

Chen had seen the images a couple dozen times before. Records of Phase One. The first couple files of the series were of the original 42 applicants. As the viewer moved chronologically forward, the number dwindled. Sometimes only two at a time. Sometimes twelve at a time. But always in even numbers. At the end of the records, there were only the two left.

The two men in the videos were often recorded lying down on metal tables, while their medical stats were superimposed on top. Both of them bore very little resemblance to anything human anymore, covered in strange, tight-fitted suits. The suits covered every inch of their skin from the neck down to the flats of their feet and to the tips of their fingers. It seemed to be some sort of metallic rubber. The suits were a vibrant, offsetting shade of blue.

“How were they selected?” the Operative asked.

“Based on health statistics mostly. Average strength, speed, and agility. We wanted to start from scratch, so to speak. If the test subjects were at the top of their class, there was no telling how the Process would react on an ordinary infantry soldier--”

The Operative interrupted. “Infantry?” A cruel smile curled his lips. Chen didn’t like that. “I’m sorry, Dr. Chen. I assumed you knew. These boys aren’t to be used in infantry. None from Phase One will be, should there be others.”

This took Chen aback. No one had told him this.

“Why not?” he asked incredulously.

“Insufficient results, of course. I’m right to say that these men are the only subjects to survive the Process?”

“Yes… sir,” Chen answered reluctantly.

“Then these… soldiers will never have to see the light of a battlefield.”

“Then what will they be used for?”

The Operative once again made Chen feel like falling to his knees with a single look. The man very slightly narrowed his eyes.

“Covert Ops,” replied the Operative, and he turned back to the screens. “But I’m not all condemnation, Dr. Chen. You were right with your faith in these two. They were your star pupils, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Very good.”

The screen now had an image of just one of the subjects in what looked like a shooting range. He was dressed in a modified flight suit that was worn over the blue bodysuit. With his hands uncovered by the outerwear, the impression was made that the subject was wearing blue rubber gloves.

He held a small Alliance-issue pistol and pointed it at a target off screen. The gunshots had the muffled pops of the silencer paired with the somewhat low quality of the recording. Chen didn’t have to see the target to know how the subject had fared. After all, he was there. Seven shots in succession. One hole in the target. Every one a hit. Chen smiled a little too proudly.

The Operative noticed this. “Very good.” He moved away from the screen and stared at his reflection in the blade of his sword. “What were their names?”

Again, Chen was taken aback. “Names? I really don’t know. It was never… They don’t have names.”

“A pity. How do you control them?”

“Standard behavioral conditioning.”

“Brainwashing.”

“No. They have free will, as much as God himself gives, but we keep control of their loyalties.”

“I see. What is it they are wearing?”

Chen’s patience was wearing thin. However, his voice remained as respectful as he could manage.

“Bio suits. The Process, as you know, brought with it many unforeseen side effects. For instance, an increased heart rate, which doesn’t mesh as well as we would have hoped with the rest of his body. The suits regulate their heartbeats, their respiration, and their body temperature.”

The Operative remained silent.

“We’ve begun research on engineering artificial organs that can cope with the increased heart rate. But we’ve been having trouble transporting them. An incubation is needed and we…” Chen’s voice once again trailed off. “I’m sorry, sir, but I--”

“Yes?”

“I do not appreciate these inspections. I believe that you are deliberately wasting my time and--”

“Wasting your time.”

“Every question you’ve asked me you already know the answer to. Surely you know that you don’t need to come here simply to intimidate me into--”

The air between Chen and the Operative sang a high-pitched note as the man’s sword suddenly appeared against Chen’s throat, the tip of the blade very slightly touching his skin.

“Wasting… your time? Let me tell you, Jonathon. You may have indeed had the support of my predecessors, but, alas, they are gone. I do not like you. I do not like what you do here. Yes, I know the answers. All the answers. I do not like them. At the moment, I can breathe the word and this project, in all its forms and phases, will be no more. In fact, at the moment, it is my own remarkable self-control that keeps air in your lungs. Do you understand me?”

Chen didn’t nod his head, with the fear of pushing the blade into the tender flesh. He managed to squeak out: “Yes.”

“Good,” the Operative said, withdrawing the blade. “But since I am a guest in your home, let’s talk about the things you want to talk about. It has, of course, come to my attention that you are wishing to move forward in this project.”

“Phase Three, yes.”

“Correct me if I am wrong. I’m not a scientist or a mathematician, but it doesn’t seem quite right to me to go from Phase One to Phase Three without even completing Phase Two. Does this seem right to you, Jonathon?”

“We cannot move forward with Phase Two. The difficulties have grown beyond our control.”

“How many?”

“Sorry?”

“How many have you lost?”

Chen swallowed deep. “We are not sure yet. Over a hundred.”

“Over a hundred. Quite a hit.”

“Which is why Phase Three is so important to the Alliance. These failures won’t be in vain. We have learned much more about the human nervous system than we would have without Phase Two. It didn’t necessarily work in the end, we are aware of this. But we are quite confident in what can be done in the wake.”

“Do you have subjects yet?”

“Not as of yet. We have not found any soldiers with the mental capacity for this procedure.”

“Jonathon, I know that you would never approach myself or my Parliament without a couple star pupils in mind. Do you understand me?”

Chen took a long pause. He didn’t like this one. He spoke softly, lest someone was listening in. “Yes.”

“How many?”

“Four.”

“Civilians?”

“Yes.”

“Show me.”

Chen moved slowly to his desk and placed his palm flat on the holographic panel that appeared before him.

The holo-screens in front of the Operative sprung back to life, displaying four profiles of Chen’s “star pupils.” They were children. None older than ten years. Three boys, one girl. The future geniuses of the Alliance, and Chen wanted to rip their brains apart. A pity, thought the Operative.

One name caught his attention.

“Tam? As in Gabriel Tam?”

“Of course. All these children are from the Core, naturally. You didn’t expect us to find the best and brightest out on the Rim, did you?” Chen laughed a bit at his own joke. The Operative kept his eyes on the screen before him, thinking. This cut Chen’s laughter short.

“Simon Tam. He’s smart?”

“The boy’s a genius. Unlike any we’ve seen on the rest of Osiris. Out of the four, he’s the second in mental capacity.”

The Operative didn’t like the idea of using the children, but of course he knew it was necessary. A young mind would no doubt be more susceptible to Phase Three than an older mind. He shuddered to think of what would happen if they tried the neural stripping on a fully developed brain.

But they weren’t ready. The Alliance wasn’t ready.

“Not now.”

“What?”

“Not now. We can’t afford taking children away from Core Planet philanthropists such as Gabriel Tam. Especially his only son, Dr. Chen.”

“But if we don’t move forward now, their minds could make the process completely irreversible.”

“Dr. Chen. Do you know what ‘antebellum’ means?”

“Sorry?”

“It’s Latin. Strange how a language that’s been dead for hundreds and hundreds of years still finds its way through all generations. Anyway, that’s the time and place we find ourselves in right now. Antebellum. And there are some things we will not risk at this juncture. I hope you understand.”

With that the Operative began toward the door with Chen wondering what the hell had just happened.

“Well, when are we supposed to--”

“We will, of course, discuss it after the war.”

“War? What--?”

“In the meantime, I’m sure you all have things to keep you busy.” He stopped at the door to turn back to Chen. “Keep an eye on your pupils. They may come in handy after all. Until then, Jonathon.”

And the Operative left.

***

2520 A.D. – Seventeen years later.

River Tam slept flat on her back in her bunk inside the belly of Serenity. It felt more natural this way.

Suddenly, and without her consent, air rushed forwardly up her nostrils and into her lungs, forcing her eyes to snap open. She stared momentarily at the metal grate above her. Instinctively, almost as if it was spoken by another person, a single word left her lips in a near inaudible whisper.

“Antebellum.”

COMMENTS

Thursday, December 15, 2005 12:41 PM

LEIGHKOHL


Wow, this is really interesting. Please keep writing more. I am intrigued!

Thursday, December 15, 2005 12:47 PM

JACQUI


I really liked this.

The attention to detail was excellent, especially the organ incubation throw back to 'The Message'.

Interesting that you would have chosen Simon to start with and ended with River.

Am I correct in thinking that the operative in question was either Book (with the grey in his hair) or Early (with the 'does that seem right to you?' reference)?

I'm really interested to see where you'll go with this.

Thursday, December 15, 2005 2:31 PM

ANA


Oh Lord. I just know this is going to be one of those stories that I'm gonna get absolutely addicted to and check on for updates every five minutes and lose all touch with reality AIIEEEE!!!

<whew>

Seriously, that is a *great* beginning. Looking forward to the rest of it. Happy trails!

Thursday, December 15, 2005 3:32 PM

CLIOMUSE


Wow! You have me intrigued. I can't wait to see where you are going with this.

Thursday, December 15, 2005 9:59 PM

LUCASHARPER


Great start you've got here. Awaiting more.

Luc

Friday, December 16, 2005 12:15 AM

AGENTROUKA


Very interesting beginning. You captured that calm, methodogical Operative voice very well. And, I guess, where we are post-BDM has an eery similarity to pre-1st War.

I'm looking forward to seeing where this is headed. :)

Saturday, December 17, 2005 11:58 AM

AMDOBELL


Very wonderful way to introduce the follow on and inject unique tension. Love it so far, want more! Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Sunday, December 18, 2005 6:06 AM

BELLONA


whoa.
nurse? can i get this intravenously please?

b

Thursday, May 25, 2006 12:17 PM

TAMSIBLING


Okay, I'm hooked, although it's so hard to get started on a fic that doesn't start out with our BDHs. But still ending with River was shiny!


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