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Antebellum - Book I: Chapter Nine
Friday, February 24, 2006

The ninth chapter in a Big Damn Sequel series. In this installment: The newly awakened Readers make everyone just a little nervous.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1941    RATING: 10    SERIES: FIREFLY

Book One – Chapter Nine __________________________________________________________________

“What are you doing in here?”

Nicolas looked up in the direction of the voice and saw exactly whom he expected to see. Agent Oren always wore the same style of suit and always combed his jet-black hair the same way. That wasn’t what annoyed Nicolas the most, however. Oren would consistently wear his security clearance tag pinned to his jacket, like he was the new kid on his first day in kindergarten.

“I… I work here,” Nicolas responded, covering his frustration with confusion.

Oren stared at Nicolas suspiciously and conspicuously fingered the grip on the gun strapped to his hip.

“Show me your ident,” the Agent said briskly.

Nicolas tossed his clipboard to a nearby desk and rolled his eyes. “You have got to be kidding—”

“Enough talking, young man. Show me your ident.”

This was the seventh time in the past month in which Agent Oren asked for Nicolas’ identification. After the fourth time, it was made clear to him that the Parliamentary Fed was just trying to mess with him, the young doctor’s assistant. Or he was trying to exercise what little power he had around there by making people pull out their personnel cards. Or he was just being a prick.

Nicolas had a feeling it was a combination of all three. He could hear the Agent’s thinly disguised chuckles as he left the lab. He also knew that the Agent had no place being in Nicolas’ department, but it didn’t take a psychic to tell that Oren didn’t want to be downstairs for very long.

They let the Readers just walk around down there. Just walk around and glean God knows what kind of information from whoever they wanted. This, understandably, disturbed Oren much more than his previous assignments. He could feel their big blue eyes penetrating into his forehead; especially the girl’s. He wanted no part of that for more than ten minutes. So, instead, he wandered around upstairs—but still more than fifty stories below the surface—hassling Dr. Chen’s assistants, flexing his authoritative muscles and asking ridiculous questions.

Nicolas was no longer allowed downstairs. His clearance had been revoked once the Readers were brought out of stasis, in the interest of “his own safety,” Dr. Chen’s words. It wasn’t as though he had never been down there before. He had kept the Readers alive for nearly three years after they were frozen solid. That wasn’t an easy task. But Dr. Chen made the rules, and, for the most part, Nicolas would follow them.

Occasionally, Oren would ask Nicolas about ‘J. Thorn.’ Nicolas knew very little on the subject, and he told Oren this each and every time he asked. Out of all the recorded subjects, J. Thorn had the most ambiguity around him, for obvious reasons. Everything that was written about J. Thorn was in his case file, which Agent Oren had more than enough clearance for. Not that anything useful would have come from them. It was a fairly simple case, despite the ambiguity.

Nicolas wasn’t the only one being hassled by the Agent, though. He had talked to the other med assistants and they all confirmed their similar interrogation sessions. It wasn’t an overstatement to say that Agent Oren wasn’t liked in their den.

“He didn’t try to frisk you too, did he?” Christina asked with a suppressed smile, as Nicolas finished his story.

Nicolas’ eyes grew large. “He frisked you? You let him frisk you?”

Her eyes glittered and teased him silently. “You jealous?”

“No,” he said bluntly, then jokingly: “Why would I want him to frisk me?”

The truth was that Nicolas did feel a little bit of jealousy at that moment. He tried to push it to the farthest recesses of his head, though. He had told himself a long time ago not to go barking up that tree.

Christina wasn’t one to hide her intentions when it came to Nicolas. They had jumped around the notion of a romantic relationship for a couple months after they started working together, but nothing ever surpassing the casual, if not exceedingly vague, flirtations.

It was Nicolas who had stopped the notion. Occupational relationships were one thing, but Nicolas would never try to challenge his superior’s trust. Within reason, of course. So he did his best to ignore the pretty lab assistant he had to work with everyday.

He did miss talking with Christina though. Since being transferred upstairs, he rarely saw her anymore. She must have missed talking to him too, since she really didn’t have any other reason to be in his workstation, but she was there on pretty much every break she had.

She sat on the corner of his desk while he lounged tiredly in his chair. Nicolas could tell she was trying to show off her cleavage to him even now, three months after he had talked about it with her. But he let her do it anyway. Christina believed subtlety was rude.

“So what’s going on down there?” Nicolas asked, trying hard to act like he didn’t care that much.

“Same old boring 胡扯. Only more so. Same as when you were down there with me. Check the cryos, check the vitals, and fall asleep in tears of monotony. The usual.”

“We did a little bit more than that, Christina,” Nicolas said with a laugh.

“Yeah, I know. But things have changed down there.” She paused as she looked away at the blank wall. “I wish you were down there still.”

Nicolas sighed. “Yeah. So do I.” He let his head fall back and stare up at the ceiling.

“You’re upset, Nicolas,” Christina whispered, nudging his knee with the toe of her shoe.

“How could you tell?” Nicolas barely lifted his head but tried his best to look at her.

Christina raised her eyebrows and waved her hands in front of her in a mockingly mystical behavior. “I’m psychic!”

Nicolas laughed, but he kept the sound in his chest so that the laughter was barely audible. Unsatisfied with sitting down, he sprung from his chair and began to slowly pace around his desk.

“Did you ever see J. Thorn, Christina?”

“No. You’ve been here longer than I have.”

“Yeah,” Nicolas said thoughtfully.

“What’s bringing up those thoughts? Is it the Agent? That guy just wants to annoy us, to prove he can, remember?”

“No, it’s not just that. It’s…” His voice trailed off as his train of thought got lost. “Do you know what ‘antebellum’ means?”

Christina lightly brushed her stray hairs behind her ears, something she always did when she was thinking.

“It’s Latin, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. But it means something else. Like a… code, or something.”

“What?”

“I don’t know. Dr. Chen does though.”

“If there was something wrong, Dr. Chen would tell us. Well, he’d tell you at least.”

Nicolas shook his head sadly. “I’m not so sure.”

Christina rose from his desk and gently placed her hand on his shoulder.

“Hey,” she said, looking into his eyes. “Everything’s going to be fine. You know that, right? In the whole ‘verse, there’s no one closer to the greatest superpower in human history than us. That means we’re the furthest from harm. The psychics, the Readers, they’ll find Captain Reynolds and the rest of the terrorists and then we’ll all be safe again. Dr. Chen will let you downstairs again, and we’ll be able to work together again, and everything will be like it was before.”

“Christina,” Nicolas began sadly. “I’m not really sure that I want to go back downstairs. What do you think they’ll do with the Readers after Reynolds is brought in?”

“I don’t know,” Christina said, a bit hurt. “Maybe they’ll get jobs in an espresso bar or something.”

“There’s something more going on, can’t you feel it?”

There was a strange sort of desperation in Nicolas’ eyes that scared Christina.

“I don’t feel anything, Nicolas.”

Nicolas closed his eyes and heaved a great sigh. He then turned away from Christina and sat back down at his desk.

“I’ve got some… paper work to do.”

Christina felt her stomach clench up momentarily, and she forced herself to make her way toward the elevator.

“Okay. Bye, Nicolas. Hope you feel better,” she said in her best nonchalant voice, which wasn’t all that good.

“Christina.”

Christina turned hopefully, although perhaps a bit too quickly.

“Be careful, would you? From, you know… Just… be careful.”

Christina smiled and brushed the stray hairs behind her ears.

“Always.”

***

Malcolm Reynolds’ brain smelt like burnt orange peels. At least that was Gabriella’s personal opinion on the subject.

This was only speculation on her part, as it was. Having never actually been in contact with the said brain, she had only her instincts to go off of. But all the profiles and articles written about the man gave her a distinct feeling of burnt orange peels.

They were all wrong. All the profiles and articles that were written about him were wrong. The men who wrote them went off past behaviors of unrelated cases to discover what kind of a man this Malcolm Reynolds was. But they were no closer to a glimpse inside his head than a blind amputee.

That thought reminded Gabriella of Dr. Hahn, and she smiled at the remembrance.

But it saddened her to think that she was currently on the same level as these imbeciles who held themselves on such high pedestals. Having only heard of Captain Reynolds a week ago, Gabriella awoke from her slumber to be whelmed by information. Facts and opinions on this “Browncoat terrorist,” who seemed to be equipped in enough basic training to make his way past every governmental Fed and bounty hunter with little to no ultimate strain.

Interesting.

The Phase One’s barely laid their hands on him. All that money wasted. Burnt to skeletons floating in space. As Gabriella understood it, her sister River had a major part in their deaths, though. Poor girl.

The Operative they sent was converted by the Browncoat. That told her that Malcolm Reynolds was not weak. He had strength. Physical, tangible strength, but more than enough of the other kind. Where was his strength founded, she wondered.

The fact that she found most interesting however was that Malcolm Reynolds was a refugee from Shadow. More interesting than that was he used his reparations account to purchase that precious Aught-Three Firefly vessel. His sworn enemy paid for his getaway vehicle.

Serenity. A good name. She liked this Malcolm Reynolds man.

After spending hours reviewing every piece of “relevance,” as the Doctor had instructed, Gabriella deemed every second had a waste of time. They didn’t know anything about these people so anything they wrote would simply be superfluous. If the very writers of the articles couldn’t find their enemies, why would reading them have a monumental impact on her?

Imbeciles.

This Agent Oren was a peculiar one though. He didn’t pretend to know more than she and that endeared him to her ever so slightly. He still knew next to nothing about the situation he had been thrown into, and yet he still stayed. He was curious and willing to take his chances. Very peculiar.

All the walls down there were white. The angry overhead lights reflecting off the surfaces made Gabriella feel like she was walking on clouds. She could almost imagine the taste of heaven flittering on her tongue.

She knew where she was going. To anybody watching her, she seemed to be wandering. But she knew where she was going. If nothing else, than that fact alone solidified what made her superior to them. The fact that she knew, and they didn’t.

She had had a long, wasteful day. She felt the need to indulge herself in a little play.

She stopped suddenly, as her perfect lips spread to form a smile.

“Tell me, Agent Oren,” she said, addressing the man behind her. “How many Readers have you successfully ambushed?”

None too startled, Agent Oren approached Gabriella more diplomatically. “Hoping you would be the first. It didn’t turn out that way, did it?”

Gabriella turned to face the man. “No, it doesn’t seem that way.”

Agent Oren couldn’t help but wonder what was more blinding: the light off of the walls or Gabriella’s blue eyes. Her eyes weren’t like any other shade he had ever seen, as if they were picked out especially for this girl. And her brother.

“So,” Oren tried breaking the ice. “They just let you guys walk around down here, do they?”

“Well, they’re watching of course. Why? You nervous?” Her inviting smile turned just a tad more vicious.

Oren met her with an amused smile. “You’re trying to intimidate me, Miss Gabriella.”

“Yes. I’m doing well, too.” She traced the curve of her ear lobe with her finger. “I can hear it.”

She turned and continued down the hall as Agent Oren began walking the same pace.

“Tell me something.”

“Anything.”

“You seem a whole lot more sane than that other one. Michael.”

Gabriella wheeled around on Oren. “I’d hardly refer to Michael as being anything less than sane, Agent Oren. He has different ways of viewing things, granted, but my brother just as ‘together’ as you or I.”

“I read that your dear brother crippled five of his seven attending physicians to mere inches of their lives.”

“A distortion of truths, Agent Oren. Only two of the wounds in question were inches from fatalisms.”

“I’ve read his session transcripts as well. Quite a poet, your brother. My favorite was, ‘A man should never have to live listening to his children scream, but every man should die that way.’ Well, I guess he is a picture of mental health after all.”

“He had a misspent youth.”

Her blue eyes sparkled like the bottom of a welder’s flame, as her smile grew larger.

“But he has another question he wants to ask,” she said, luxuriously taking a step forward. “Go on. Ask.”

He countered her with an equally charming smile. “Are you trying to scare me? Because you can see into my head?”

She giggled and took another step forward closer to his body. “Why? Are you scared?” She giggled again. “Come on. Ask me. You’ll feel better once you do.”

Oren sighed and conceded. “Gabriella?”

“Yes?”

“What does ‘antebellum’ mean?”

Gabriella moved closer and closer to Oren until her face filled his entire field of vision.

“Agent Oren… that’s for me to know… and you to not.” She followed this by a slow string of giggles, raising the ire in Oren’s blood. She turned back down the hallway, knowing exactly which turns to make to get to her destination.

“Why the big secret?” Agent Oren continued after. “What are you hiding?”

“Just because I’m silent doesn’t mean I’m hiding. Just means you get to work harder.”

“Gabriella.”

The girl stopped and turned.

“Are we about to get into another war over a petty criminal like Malcolm Reynolds?”

She smiled.

“Oh, my dear, dear Jeremiah… use your imagination. It’s a lot more fun than that.”

She continued walking, leaving Oren to shake his head in confusion.

“These men,” he began, “Dr. Chen and them—they cut up on you pretty bad, right?”

“They did what they had to, yes.”

“They took away a lot of your life, a lot of your essence. They took parts of you that philosophers would call your humanity. And they killed hundreds of innocents to do it. And now you work for them.”

“Follow through, Agent Oren. Ask a question.”

“I don’t understand you. What do you get out of this? Why are you looking for this Reynolds? Do you know something I don’t? Or have you just been so resigned after you realized that you don’t have a rich doctor brother to save you?”

Suddenly, a light flashed in the irises of Gabriella’s eyes. A literal spark. Then it was gone.

“Save? Do you really believe that that bastard Tam saved River? He took her away from the only people in the ‘verse who could cure her. His egotistical, ‘I know best’ mentality nearly killed her. She should just be glad that there are people here bent on finding her before her ‘brother’ can put anymore harm on her. We could have helped her. She would have been better if only he was thinking of her well-being. Now she’s in pain. Screaming every night.

“You believe that these men, that Dr. Chen doesn’t care about my well-being?” Her beautiful smile returned to her face. “Let me show you something.”

She led Agent Oren down the hall she was going down when they came upon a door that had no markings on it.

Passing through it, the two of them found themselves in a dark room where Oren could barely see his own hand out in front of him.

“Hold your breath,” Gabriella whispered to him, sending a chill down his spine. “Make a wish.”

The harsh lights turned on in the room and Oren found that they were in a white room like all the others down there. But that wasn’t the first thing he noticed. The first thing he noticed was what made his stomach drop seven stories.

There, in the center of the white room, was a cage. A large cage, roughly six feet cubed, glass covering every side.

In the cage was a man. Rather, what was left of a man. Parts of its body was burned far beyond recognition of anything human. Other parts were cut and sawed into its flesh.

It moved about in a sporadic fashion, snarling, drooling, and sending out a sharp clicking sound through the glass cage.

Its right foot only had three toes left, and it didn’t seem to balance very well on it, so it hopped around violently about the cage. The other foot was covered in an old leather boot that was pinned against its flesh with several nails poking in at every direction.

It wore a heavy straight jacket that had many hole from where it had tried biting its way out. Beneath the cloth were several more open wounds that should have healed years ago but still looked fresh and deep. Jagged pieces of metal and rock stuck out at random places in its shoulders and elbows.

Its face looked something like a corpse, but it lived anyway. Its hair pulled out in chunks, leaving fleshy wounds on its scalp. One eye swollen shut by sores and cuts. The other was bloodshot and dyed yellow by infections. Its lips were peeled back at four corners and stapled against its face, permanently baring its crudely sharpened teeth.

Oren had never seen one before, but he knew exactly what it was.

“That’s… That’s a Reaver.”

“Much better,” Gabriella said, with awe in her voice. “This is the first Reaver.”

Gabriella walked up to the cage politely and put her hand up against the glass. The Reaver had long since shredded its vocal chords past use, so all that came from it were the clicking sounds it made from its tongue against the back of its throat. They came in rapid succession, as it seemed to try to communicate threats to Agent Oren. It calmed down once it laid eyes on Gabriella, but only very slightly and for a moment.

“Agent Oren… this is Andrew. Andrew, this is Agent Oren. He’s a new friend of ours.”

Andrew began clicking wildly at the Agent. Oren was two steps from throwing up.

“What’s he… what’s he for?”

“They’re trying to cure him, don’t you see? The PAX that made him this way ran deep into his body, but they believe it can be separated. The effects of that archaic form of PAX are somewhat irreversible as of yet, however. But they keep trying. They keep him alive for 15 years after he should have died, just so they can find a cure. Not just a cure. Something to make him better; slightly… more than human. That’s why I believe in these men. If they weren’t concerned with the well-being of poor Andrew, they would have let him die all those years back. If they weren’t concerned for River, they would never have gone to such extreme lengths to find her and bring her back safe and sound.”

She looked over her shoulder at the trembling Agent, all charm lost.

“I’d understand if you feel the need to leave. Such love can be unsettling at first glance.”

Oren struggled to find the door, but he made it out. On the other side of the door, Gabriella could hear the man retching onto the white floor.

Lightweight. He was a funny one.

Absolutely and completely content, she laid her forehead against the glass cage as Andrew hopped angrily at every side of his confines. She closed her eyes and let herself be caught up in the torrential waves of Andrew’s thoughts. The thoughts that couldn’t be compelled into words or images, which made them feel different from the others.

“Don’t worry, River,” she murmured, fading away to sleep. “I’m coming for you.”

***

Hathwald Fuller’s fear smelt like pinecones.

His skin had turned interesting shades of purple and red by the time Michael saw him. The other men had been beating on him. Michael thought that this was a very impolite thing to do. He always liked to address his new friends completely clean. Like a blank canvas. There was nothing like it.

At least they tied him down correctly. He would have liked to have tied him down personally, but the other men did an adequate job.

Michael was supposed to be gleaning information from the short, stocky man—information about the Serenity terrorists—but he kept getting distracted by the scent of pinecones. It seemed to be everywhere in Fuller’s mind.

“The trail ends here, Mr. Fuller. And you just aren’t concentrating hard enough.”

Michael noticed that Fuller’s hair was roughly the same color as his own—reddish-brown—, which made him feel warm inside. This Fuller would be a good friend.

“My name is Michael, Mr. Fuller. I’m here because you’re government needs you. You remember your government, don’t you? They helped pay for your shop when you needed it. They keep those pirates out of your space and your healthy, legal business safe. Now we’re calling back the loan. We didn’t want to have to, but… desperate times.”

“I don’t know where they went,” Fuller scratched out, most of the feeling having left his mouth.

“Whom are you talking about?”

“Reynolds. He was here only for an hour or two, then he ran.”

“You know where he went, Hathwald.”

“No.” Fuller was barely audible.

A sharp line of light stuck into Fuller’s eyes. The light reflected off of the blade of the sword that Michael held in front of him. The sword wavered lightly in the space between the two men. Michael began getting distracted by the smell of how the air reacted to the blade.

“This sword has history, you know? It has been in the hands of the three strongest, most honorable Parliamentary Operatives in history. Of course, there’s no way to check that. I only know because it told me, but there’s actually no evidence of any Operative ever existing. All they have to be remembered by is this sword. But there’s no record of this sword either. In fact, the only evidence that this sword even exists is the indisputable fact that we both can see it right now.” He paused.

“You can see it, right?”

Fuller huskily nodded his head to the best of his ability.

“Good. I’m not insane,” Michael said with a laugh.

“Please… I don’t…”

“Shhh…” Michael chided, taking the man’s chin in his hand.

Steadily, and with the skill of a surgeon, Michael placed the tip of the blade against the tender flesh of Fuller’s nose. Slowly, he cut a small, shallow line down the center, causing blood to rush to the newly opened skin. Michael then dabbed his finger into the cut, collecting the burgundy liquid, and brushed it across Fuller’s right eyebrow, darkening the hair into clumps. He couldn’t help but smile.

“Now… I’m not going to kill you, Hathwald. I’m not that kind of person. I can however make you live a long while… and I can make it very uncomfortable for you. Do you know what ‘sins of the father’ refers to?”

Fuller’s eyes grew large as the image of his son, Shamus, leaped into his mind’s eye.

Michael continued: “Now there are several unsettling things I could do during my stay here on Three Hills, but none are situations I would like to take advantage of. Understand? I’d rather you simply be my friend and tell me what I want to know.”

The blood from Fuller’s nose began to trickle down to his lips.

“They… They were here to fuel up. I don’t know…”

“Are they fueled, Hathwald?”

“No… they didn’t finish.”

“This Captain Reynolds isn’t likely to be landing if he doesn’t have to, I’d imagine. This means he’ll need to fuel someplace else, correct? Who else can help him?”

Michael could see Fuller’s eyes searching for the truth. When it came to him, he clenched his brow together to keep it out, but it was too late. Michael had already heard him, and a smile grew upon his face.

He gathered a little more blood from off the tip of his blade, and then smeared it across the old man’s brow, smiling at his artwork.

“The Baron Von Jeffery, you say? Tell me about him.”

COMMENTS

Friday, February 24, 2006 9:27 PM

ANA


Woo-hoo! I'm the first to comment on this! <happy dance>

I'm such a dweeb. ;)

Anyway, glad to see you're working on this. But oh God, we're not even done with Book 1 yet, and I'm already biting my fingernails over this sucker.

I bow down in awe of your ability to write original characters. We barely see hide or hair of our Big Damn Heroes, so far anyway, but the characters we're getting to know are absolutely fascinating.

They're mental, of course. Completely and hopelessly mental. But fascinating.

Keep it up! :)

Saturday, February 25, 2006 3:20 AM

TAYEATRA


This plot is thickening to cement consistency... I fear for our big damn heroes.

Saturday, March 11, 2006 5:39 AM

AGENTROUKA


Eek! Someone changed the setting to "incredibly creepy", yay!

I continue to love Agent Oren and Gabriella and.. oh god, Michael. And they have Fuller and he told them and.. aaah!

(Not-Comprehensible-R-Us, hehe. *g*)


Excellent, excellent scary part, with excellent, excellent scary/layered characters and plot and... Delicious!

Next part soon? :D

Wednesday, April 5, 2006 5:46 AM

BELLONA


that gabriella is one creepy-ass lady. i like her.

b

Saturday, May 6, 2006 6:58 AM

LEIASKY


Whoa, amazing chapter! Gabriella sounds like she really dislikes Simon for taking River away. . .going to be a confrontation in their future?

I hope you're still writing this and we'll see a new chapter soon!


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