BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

AMDOBELL

THE FORGOTTEN REALM: 26. "A Single Step"
Saturday, January 24, 2004

"Serenity lands on Venture. The Sheriff and his Deputy leave to look for the missing children. River urges the crew to hurry to the Outpost because time is running out."


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2479    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

TITLE: "A SINGLE STEP" AUTHOR: Alison M. DOBELL FANDOM: "FIREFLY" PAIRING: No specific pairing. RATING: PG-13. STATUS: New. SEQUEL to "DAWN" ARCHIVE: Yes. Just let me know where. FEEDBACK: Welcomed. EMAIL: AlisonMDobell@aol.com WEBSITE: http://carlajane.50megs.com/Ali00.html

SUMMARY: "Serenity lands on Venture. The Sheriff and his Deputy leave to look for the missing children. River urges the crew to hurry to the outpost because time is running out." 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 SINGLE STEP"

A "Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

The armada of yachts were only hours away. The *laoban* rested his right hand on the pearl handle of his gun. It eased him some and settled things a mite in his overcrowded mind. His grey eyes narrowed, becoming dark and dispiteous. Annoyed as *diyu* at having to change the routine of his operation. Once he had collected what was his he intended to pay off a few outstanding debts - with interest.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, another ship was already landing. Wash following the landing instructions to the letter not daring to raise any suspicions from the port authority. Zoe was so uptight the pilot could not help but be on edge too. Simon was sitting on the floor of the bridge cradling his sister. River had her eyes open but was staring straight ahead. Wash had the creepy feeling that she saw more than the rest of them put together and wondered why that was in no wise comforting. As soon as they landed Zoe touched his shoulder and left to see the Sheriff and Deputy off the ship. Jayne was scowling at them from the cargo bay, Vera cradled idly in his hands. There was a measuring look in his eyes as he watched the two lawmen approach the bay door, Zoe not more than a step behind them now. At the door the Sheriff turned to face them. No one noticed Shepherd Book appear with Inara above them on the catwalk. He moved quietly, his eyes and ears taking everything in like an efficient sponge. Inara looked troubled but the Shepherd looked oddly serene.

"I'm sorry I got no time to explain things better but me an' Andy are outta your hair now, *dong ma*? I wanna say *xiexie ni* for not spacin' us afore we could get here."

Zoe was watching him intently, a shadow of confusion surfacing from the depths of her deep brown eyes. "You said there were nearly 80 children?"

The Sheriff nodded. He looked in pain but she pushed that thought aside. Had no time for it. "Yeah. Accordin' to our records should be 78 all told. Ages range from 7 years old to 14."

"*Wode ma*!" Exclaimed Jayne.

It was weird but Zoe believed him. Wished things weren't all so screwed up she couldn't think straight. She gave a tight nod. Reminding herself that the Captain trusted this man. "*Zhuni haoyun*, Sheriff."

"You too, Zoe. Wish I come with ya to get the Cap'n but much as I'd like I can't be in two places at once."

Book's voice just behind her startled Zoe. "Think I'll come with you, Sheriff, if you don't mind? Those children will be in need of the comfort of the Lord."

"This won't be no picnic, Preacher. We got some folk we'll be meetin' up with. Figure we'll have to go in guns blazin'. A good chance that them as goes in won't all be makin' it out, *dong ma*?"

"*Wo dong*. Don't worry about me, I'll take my chances."

Zoe looked at the Shepherd hard. "You sure you want to do this?"

"It's the right thing to do."

She gave a tight nod, feeling an emotion growing in her gut that she wanted to hide. Jayne shook the Preacher's hand and in silence they watched the lawmen run down the lowering ramp, the Preacher going with them as calm and certain in his step as if he was going to a bible meeting. Somehow that image disturbed her. Without a word she punched the button to close the doors and was back up the steps to the catwalk before Jayne could ask her what the matter was. A thoughtful look on his face he waited until the door was sealed shut and used the com to let Wash know they could take off. It was time to go get the Captain.

* * * * *

Yen Mah was stuck on the surface of Latimer with not enough fuel to fire up the engine let alone take off. Annoyed and impatient she could not help but worry. Images firing off at random inside her head. It could happen any time of day or night and it did. She saw, heard, felt, almost touched the souls of anguished children. Some crying. Some bleeding. Others dying. A chaotic cachophony that made her burn with the need to *do* something even though her own contribution had not been inconsiderable. Not even if she were there could she affect a single strand of the outcome. Her mind emptied and she almost stumbled. The planet she was on was very basic and had she not been so worried for her friends she would have found it calming. A place that mixed rural life with necessary trading to a point where the two were comfortable side by side. She ambled into the market place. Hardly noticing what she was looking at, trying not to draw unnecessary attention. Perhaps she would find a way to either get the fuel she needed to get off this rock or stowaway on a suitable ship to take her where she wanted to go.

Tired and weary from the stress of it all she found somewhere to sit on the edge of the market. A jutting piece of rock providing a makeshift seat that she was all too grateful for. A headache was coming on and she knew what that meant. Schooling her breathing to a low even rythym she closed her eyes and let the vision come, steeling herself for impact. It came fast, bloody and painful. Such intensity she almost blacked out. It was the Captain and they were torturing him. She could taste the blood in his mouth, the fire in his veins stripping him of function. Raw nerves jumping and muscles spasming almost constantly now but so weak it drew tears from her eyes without her knowing.

She wanted to reach out to him, comfort him, but the outcome was unclear to her. She knew only he needed help and needed it now. Oh why couldn't her gift show her the answers? Why did she have to experience the random firings of future visions, not always in sequence, and not always coherent enough for her to be able to foil the enemy's plans? Yet she knew the ship he was on was now docking with the Outpost. A certainty of the timing of it bookmarked in her very soul. Guilt assailed her on so many levels. It was her fault and no amount of justification could omit the fact that she had chosen him for this. His strength, his inherent core of goodness had drawn her moral compass unerringly to him as surely as any magnet. Her eyes flew open, his pain still with her, his obdurate nature refusing to bow to those that sought to wrest from him the knowledge they sought. She was proud of him but felt panic building. What if Serenity came too late? What if the Alliance soldiers stopped off at the Outpost as well instead of just dropping the Captain off with his captors? How would Zoe and the others fight them? Yen Mah closed her eyes again, praying in Chinese. Her heart wailing in her breast for having failed him. Prayed that Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion, could look down on him now and along with the merciful Buddha protect her *pengyou* as she surely could not.

If. She fervently prayed. The Captain could be saved she hoped he would one day forgive her. Yen Mah closed her eyes and was relieved to find her mind clearing. A stolen moment of peace easing the throbbing pain behind her eyes and a dull all consuming ache in her heart. She could fall asleep so easily, so exhausted was she but that would be foolish. Out here in the open all might seem calm and free of danger but that did not mean it was safe. Something made her open her eyes. All the blood draining from her pale round face as her eyes widened first in surprise then a fear that rivetted her to the spot.

"*Ni hao ma*, Yen Mah?"

She could not speak for the sudden dryness in her throat.

Briny grinned and leered down at her as his brother moved to block any means of escape. She knew her doom when she saw it but funnily enough her visions never centered on herself only others. Those she cared about. Right now that lack struck her as a fitting epitaph.

"Cat got your tongue, *xiao mei mei*?"

"Not your 'baby sister'. Not your anything, *dong ma*?"

"Tut tut," Said Ricky, now standing way too close for comfort. His mean face leaning in towards hers, bony hands snaking out to grab her wrists while his brother slowly took a length of silk from his pocket.

She wanted to wriggle free, to scream and shout, to escape so badly but something in her head told her to let it be. For all that she had done perhaps she deserved this. When she started to calm down the brothers exchanged a quick suspicious look. Briny looked carefully around him, half expecting to see people materialise out of thin air to take he and his brother into custody. When no one came his nerves steadied and a look of genuine pleasure stole across his spiteful face. "We got us a debt to pay." He said in a cold but mild voice. "An' we're gonna pay it in full, you useless little *pofu*."

Tears threatened to fall. Yen Mah bit them back and instead focused on her *pengyou*. Imagined the pain he was in and how all of it was her fault. It steadied her and helped her not to fall apart. Silently she just stared ahead as they bound her hands with the silk. Meekly standing when they nudged her to do so and walking between them in silence. They urged her to move quickly so she did, her mind numb to their cruel quips and promises of what was to come. It did not matter now. Nothing did. The wheels had been set in motion and she was reaping the karma she had earned. Her one wish now was to live long enough to see the brothers reap theirs.

* * * * *

The Outpost was not as heavily guarded as Wash had feared. Their approach was casual but cautious he said. Zoe gave her husband a considering look but said nothing. River stood up and gently pushed Simon's arms away from her. Eyes staring at the Outpost as they approached. He glanced briefly at Inara and noticed how pale she looked. It was not just what was happening he knew but the effects of the recent past continuing to traumatise her. He wanted to be there for River but she seemed much calmer now and her actions showed she did not want him to fuss over her. It would be another thirty minutes before they were able to dock. Time he could perhaps use to help someone else.

Zoe hardly gave him a glance as he walked towards the doorway where Inara now stood, her fixed gaze shifting reluctantly to take in the firm set of his jaw and the glint of determination in his eye.

"How are you?" He whispered for her ears only.

"*Hen hao*."

He was not inclined to agree with her. She was far too pale. "Are you still losing blood?"

Her look narrowed, holding his in a vice. Berating him for speaking aloud of something that should not be mentioned again. He persisted, not willing to be pushed aside when he knew she was hurting and he could do something about it. His head dipped so he could speak even softer.

"You can either let me check you over in the infirmary now or I will have Jayne drag you there then everyone will know."

Her eyes widened in shock and anger. "You took an oath."

Simon crossed his arms and looked at her intently. "That I did but it's an oath I can't keep unless you co-operate." He paused. "I'm not the same niave boy I once was, Inara, and if I've learned nothing else it's that there's a time to wait and a time to act."

"Then don't confuse the two."

"I'm not," He said softly, "But perhaps you are." The compassion flickered so knowingly in his eyes that she found it painful to meet them. As if it suddenly made her naked in his regard. "I promise not to draw it out a moment longer than necessary." Came his quiet olive branch.

"We're about to dock on the Outpost."

"Yes, *wo zhidao*. In about thirty minutes. I can check you over and have you back here within fifteen."

Her eyes locked on his and for a moment neither spoke. It was as if she were exacting a promise from him. At last she gave him a reluctant nod. "Very well. Fifteen minutes." A tiny fleeting smile brushed his lips then he was following her out. They passed Jayne on the catwalk as he headed for the bridge. "Any news?" The merecenary asked.

Inara nodded. "We'll be docking with the Outpost in about thirty minutes."

Jayne flashed an evil grin, his eyes glittering darkly with the promise of action. "About ruttin' time!"

They watched the big man brush passed then continued on to the infirmary. Once inside, Simon drew the blinds and locked the door. Inara raised an eyebrow but he ignored it. The examination was thorough and unhurried. Inara bit her lip and resisted the urge to cry out at the careful intrusion. When he looked up his expression was cautiously optimistic. "The tears are healing well. Are you very sore?"

Not willing to lose her composure by opening her mouth Inara nodded.

"Hold still, I'm just going to apply some ointment to help speed up the healing process and prevent infection. Naturally you won't be able to work for a while."

Her lips compressed. "How long?"

He thought for a moment. "At least two weeks. Three would be better, a month would be perfect." He paused and continued slowly. "But I guess two weeks would be acceptable if the work were 'light' and not too demanding."

She took his meaning and nodded back. Relieved when he had finished and covered her up again. She watched him move to the sink and scrub his hands. Inara stood carefully. "*Xiexie ni*."

Simon allowed himself a gentle smile. "*Bu xie*."

* * * * *

Wash was confused. "How come there aren't any more soldiers, sweetie?"

His wife patted him on the arm, her attention divided between her husband and the view from the window. "This isn't an Alliance Garrison, *bao bei*."

"It isn't?"

She almost smiled at the hopeful sound in his voice. "No, it's an outpost. More a political facility than a military one."

He was frowning. "You mean...?"

"It's a spy station." Said Inara, stepping on to the bridge to join them. Jayne turned his head and made a face, impatient with all the small talk. He was itching to get into action, sooner rather than later. River was still staring out of the window as she had been doing for the last twenty minutes. She slowly stirred, her eyes now clear and bright but tinged with worry and sadness.

"We have to go now."

Zoe looked hard at her. "Do you know where we have to go, River?"

The girl nodded.

"Can you describe it to us? We'll need as much detail as possible."

River shook her head. "Can't describe it. All jumbled in my head. Can show you."

The others looked alarmed. Jayne pushed off from where he had been leaning against the wall. "No ruttin' way! The only reason those *tamade hundan* have the Cap is to get River."

River gave him a bright smile. "They won't recognise me. I'll be in disguise."

Just then Simon joined them, only catching the end of the conversation. "Disguise?"

"Inara can make me into someone else." River explained.

Helpless to understand what tangent his sister had gone off on Simon looked to Inara for some kind of explanation.

"River wants to go with us."

A look of horror stole over his face. "*Shenme*? No!" He turned and gave his sister a determined look. She met him with one of her own but he was adamant. "You can't go River, it's too dangerous."

"That's what I told her." Rumbled Jayne.

Simon ignored him. "River, listen to me, you have to stay here where it's safe. We'll go and get the Captain and be out of here before you know it."

She shook her head. "You don't know where to look."

Simon resisted the urge to say they would follow the screams. Knowing River she could probably hear them anyway. "Just describe it as best you can and we'll do the rest."

"You're going, why can't I?"

"I'm a doctor, *mei mei*, and the chances are the Captain's going to be in a pretty bad way. I will probably need to sedate him or at the very least give him something to help with the pain."

"Can't help him if you can't find him."

He crouched in front of her. They did not have time for this. "Don't do this, *mei mei*. We don't have time."

River was getting upset. "Have to go. Before it's too late."

"We will."

"No! No more lies, Simon." Simon blanched but River continued, eyes locked in furious battle with him. "I *have* to go because I can find him. Quickly."

He swallowed hard. "They'll catch you, take you back to the facility..."

There were unshed tears in her eyes sailing a wave of barely restrained panic. She didn't want to go back, *couldn't* go back. She would rather die than let them take her. Simon knew that and she knew that was why he was so determined not to let her go. Wanting as always to protect her. To keep her safe. Just like the Captain. Her voice softened, a pale hand reaching out to touch his still cheek. "Not if they don't see me."

"River..."

Her hand fluttered to still his lips. "Sssh. Sometimes the only place to hide is in plain sight."

"We can't risk it."

"No choice now. Soldiers will search the ship."

Everyone looked alarmed now but River and Simon were oblivious to anyone but each other. "How do you know?"

"*Wo zhidao*, Simon. They can't find me if I'm not on the ship."

He had a headache coming on. "They have your picture, *mei mei*. They'll recognise you."

"Not if I'm in disguise." She paused. "You need a disguise too, Simon."

Jayne was ready to throw the pair of them into a crate and sedate them until it was all over. Surprisingly Inara stepped forward. "Very well, but we should hurry."

"You're not seriously considering letting them come with us?" Asked Zoe.

"Do you have a better idea?"

They looked at each other in silence for a moment. When Zoe did not answer Inara nodded. "I thought not. Come along River, Simon, the sooner we change your appearance the sooner we can go and find the Captain then get out of here."

Jayne muttered a heartfelt 'Amen' but had the feeling it would not be that easy. Nothing that involved the Captain ever was.

* * * * *

Kaylee sat in the engine room, her eyes staring at the heart of the ship. She felt useless. Paralysed with fear and full of sorrow. It was all going horribly wrong. Her dream of flying, of being on a *piaoliang* ship as this with the shiniest crew in the 'verse all going to *diyu*. She could see her new family falling apart around her ears and was powerless to do anything to stop it. Hiding herself away in the engine room, trying to coax even a little more speed out of the Firefly was all she could think of to do. The Captain had been captured. Tortured so it seemed and was now on the brink of dying at the hands of those same *liumang* that had screwed up River so good. Was he now broken too? Would they get him back only to find they couldn't fix him? Tears welled in her eyes. She thought of Yen Mah. The little lost girl the Captain had befriended. Now it turned out that she and that Sheriff had fixed things up between them to get the Captain involved in some child slave ring. Lies. It had all been lies and now the Captain would pay for it and they would come too late to do a rutting thing about it.

Yet something in her cracking heart could not quite find it in her to shut Yen Mah out of her life. The girl had touched something inside, brought out a protective streak. She had started to become part of this crew. Another friend like River turning the 'verse into a sea of friendly faces that inured her to the awesome emptiness of the Black. Now Yen Mah was gone too and Shepherd Book had left to help the Sheriff rescue the children. She did not know what to think, what to believe. If they lost the Captain what would happen to the rest of them? Kaylee sighed and rested her forehead against the engine block, letting the tears roll down her grease smudged cheeks. She put her hand on the solid metal and let the thrum of the engine soothe her. Knowing the Captain loved his ship as much as she did. Loved them too even if he was too *wangu* to admit what was obvious to a blind man. Didn't matter. Nothing did now. She sighed and straightened up, wiped the tears from her eyes and patted the engine block. She would finish the fine tuning and get everything ready so when the others had done their heroic rescue they could get out of here. She had to believe they would be successful. That all her efforts would help the common cause. "That's my good girl." She whispered as she picked up a wrench and patted the engine block one last time. "Let's do this for the Cap'n."

* * * * *

Shepherd Book could not explain the feeling running through him now. The intense calm and rightness of it was almost frightening. Like walking in the shoes of the fisherman he began to feel the architecture of his borrowed faith solidify into something that was wholly his. It was uplifting. Soul enhancing. Vows he had never spoken in his heart wrapping round him and binding him body, soul and spirit to a new trinity. Understanding leaked unbidden through his brain percolating on through every cell in his body with the imprint of destiny as concentrated and intoxicating as anything ever brewed and fermented for the destruction of man. Even Kaylee's brew could not touch this. *Paint stripper for the soul* he mused.

He had been surprised and impressed to discover that the Sheriff and Deputy had a plan. An actual gorram well thought out plan. Not some rutting knee jerk reaction to another's peril. It made a nice change to wade into a fray that they could actually win. The men emerging from the shadows all around them were well armed, their expressions set in grim determination. A man stepped forward to speak to the Sheriff, identifying himself as Jacob Nan. The Shepherd lost count of the numbers now crowding round to hear Sheriff Bowman's words. Not a soul interrupting or gainsaying the plan. Each determined only to do their part. It was as the group were breaking up, fanning out and getting into position that Book realised the men were of all ages. Young and old, lithe and nimble next to gnarled and stiff of limb. Yet all carried that commitment that bespoke of some personal stake. He wondered. Then his reverie was interrupted by what could only be the signal, a high pitched whistling call that reminded him of a brightly plumed bird from some equatorial haven now long extinct.

With hardly a sound the men converged upon the sealed compound, climbing effortlessly up and over each other to scale the walls. No boundary was an impediment. As their feet hit the ground on the other side a cry went up. Lights snapped on with the precision of a death camp. Sharp shooters quickly extinguished each floodlight, gunfire peppering the night sky like Chinese firecrackers, the smoke building like a scented mist, bodies in motion filling the spaces between solid structures. He ran with the others, some instinct identifying friend from foe. His hand gun speaking in tongues that he knew not the words to but whose dialogue was unequivocal. It was like some uprising against tyranny from the Old Testament, a story from Earth-that-was. He saw a huge man with plaited hair heft a field gun and quickly ended him. Around him the organised chaos of the righteous thundered and pacified his conscience with the knowledge that for once he could revel in doing God's work.

Within a single hour almost every guard was dead. The living hung on in varying degrees but he cared not. He could not see the Sheriff but he could hear crying. Childrens' voices piped a shrill descant in the warm night air. His vision blurred slightly which surprised him. He had not remembered getting shot but it was little more than a graze. Wiping the blood from his face he found the Sheriff running in broken strides torwards him, a wide happy grin on his exhausted face, a young girl clinging to his neck for all she was worth. "Could use a hand in there, Preacher."

Book nodded and passed him, emerging moments later with a small group of children in tow. Carrying the youngest, a girl no older than eight, her straw coloured hair sticking up at odd angles that matched the fright on her far too sallow face. He spoke to them of miracles and angels, told them stories of courage and faith, dried their tears with hope and filled their sorrows with the promise of safety. They had emptied the compound within three hours. A vast ocean of people now clearing the area as trucks arrived to take the children away. Many hands sorted through the melee and in seconds Book found his arms empty but his heart full. He turned his head to find the Sheriff sitting on the muddy ground a weary smile on his face, the Deputy kneeling beside him and trying to staunch the blood oozing up from his reopened bullet wound. Shepherd Book knelt the other side of him and for the first time in a very long time felt an overwhelming sense of peace. "*Xiexie ni*."

The Sheriff smiled. "No, it's us who should thank you, Preacher."

The Shepherd looked up and watched the men spiriting the children away truck by truck until only a tiny group remained, themselves included. "Who are all these people?"

Sheriff Bowman chuckled. The movement caused a thin trickle of blood to seep out of his mouth. Shepherd Book frowned. Deputy Crowther silently wiped the blood with a handkerchief. "They're part of an underground movement."

His eyebrows raised in surprise. "Underground movement?"

"Yeah. Every man in that group is a father, brother, husband, boyfriend or relative of those children. In every sense of the word they're taking back their own."

Tears pricked Book's eyes. More moved than he would have thought possible. It made him feel humble. "I'm glad to be here to see this."

The Sheriff was feeling dizzy and more than a mite faint. His eyes closing despite his best attempts to stay conscious. Deputy Andy Crowther gave the Shepherd an anxious look. "We have to get out of here. This place'll be crawling with the kind of people you don't want to see in your worst nightmares very soon."

Book nodded and helped the Deputy lift the Sheriff. He was unconscious now. With as much speed as they could manage they caught a lift on one of the last trucks moving out. Asking only if they would drop them off near the space port. Not too close but close enough to hide out until they could either steal or buy passage off Venture. What they needed now was to stay beneath Alliance radar and steer clear of the *hundan* behind this little operation. Let the real justice department clean up the mess for a change. The Shepherd didn't have to wonder where to go next. He knew. His feet were already on the path he needed to follow.

"The longest journey begins with a single step." - Chinese Proverb

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*laoban* = boss *diyu* = hell *xiexie ni* = thank you *dong ma* = understand *wode ma* = mother of God *zhuni haoyun* = good luck *wo dong* = I understand *pengyou* = friend *ni hao ma* = how are you? *xiao mei mei* = baby sister *pofu* = bitch *hen hao* = very good *wo zhidao* = I know *bu xie* = you're welcome *shenme* = what *bao bei* = precious/treasure *tamade hundan* = fucking asshole/bastard *mei mei* = little sister *piaoliang* = beautiful/pretty *wangu* = stubborn *hundan* = asshole/bastard

COMMENTS

Saturday, January 24, 2004 9:41 PM

SQUEE


Oops, that was my post, didn't know I was logged out.

Monday, January 26, 2004 9:11 AM

ARTSHIPS


All the elements of a good story, and you're winding it up most satisfyingly. Thanks!

Wednesday, January 28, 2004 2:40 AM

KISPEXI2


Would I be repeating myself if I said this is good. OK then, I'll repeat myself. It's good.

And to echo "anonymous", I want Mal saved, gorramit! He's too.damn.pretty to die!


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