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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
A huge steaming pile of exposition.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 2399 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
“Mighty big crowd,” Zoe muttered to Mal in a prison-yard whisper they had practiced in an actual prison-yard – the POW camp on Hera. They were sitting at a make-shift table near the middle of the group, waiting to be served by the dozen or so young spacers who had volunteered for the task. “That must be some good cookin’.”
“I’m thinkin’ there’s more to it than that,” Mal muttered back. “Though Winnie’s cookin’ is worth goin’ a couple o’ light-years out of your way for.” He looked at Zoe again, a long searching look. “Where were you last night, anyway? I got in during the wee hours. You didn’t show until this morning. And looking like hell, you don’t mind me sayin’. What happened?”
“Ran into an old friend,” Zoe said, evenly. “Stayed up late talkin’ about old times.” That there was more to it than that was obvious to Mal. That she didn’t want to discuss it further was twice as obvious.
“Musta been some friend,” Mal said with a resigned sigh.
The vast cargo bay of the Sky Hawk had been cleared for the occasion, and a dozen tables and hundreds of chairs had been scraped up or improvised for the feast. Billed publicly as a “Browncoat Reunion Banquet”, Mal had noticed that not every former Independent had been invited – but the ones who had been were all prominent members of the demimonde, full or part-time criminals who had made a reputation for themselves among the dens of thieves on a dozen Rim worlds. He waved to Monty, who was talking with a pretty long-haired woman he didn’t recognize. Tanaka was there, as well, and the Stiles family. He counted at least nine or ten ships represented, and plenty of loners who had served and had found their way to Muir had been admitted as well.
The event was “invitation only”, and three rough-looking Green Militia members with submachine guns stood at the entrance of the hold to check everyone off against a list. That had made Mal suspicious up front – it wasn’t the sort of thing that the McKlintocks would have done on their own. No, someone else had organized this, and had prevailed on Duncan and Company to host it.
“Makes one wonder just what might be intriguing enough to lure all o’ these malcontents together,” Zoe observed. She nodded towards Jamal Trien and Carter Gossi, two prospectors, smugglers and hired guns who purely hated the sight of each other over something that happened in the War that no one knew about.
“Must be big,” Mal said, skeptically. “And I’m thinkin’ danger might could be involved,” he said, indicating the lanky figure of Aquila Nestez, the assassin from Bellarophon who combined a deadly grace for ending folks’ lives with a casual disregard for his own safety and no discernable scruples. He had been an infantry cook during the War on Persephone, and had later took part in the nasty guerrilla campaign during the early years of the Alliance occupation. Since then he had gone freelance. You wanted someone – say an entire family – dead, you hired “Nasty” Nestez. “And perhaps some work not entirely legitimate, in the eyes of the law.”
“That’s why you’re Captain,” Zoe agreed. “Those little things don’t escape your attention. Much.”
“They don’t just call you that ‘cause you own the ship,” he nodded.
Zoe stared at him. “Um, yes they do, Sir.”
Mal sighed. “But they don’t mean it just—”
“Yes they do, Sir.”
“Pass the bread, Zoe.” A basket had just arrived at the table.
Servers scampered hither and yon under Winne’s direction. The food was well up to her superlative tandards, a feast of roasted oxen with a dozen generous and tasty side-dishes and gallons and gallons of beer and tea, as well as a selection of liquors from all over the ‘verse. There was a fiddle player and a guitarist providing a medley of old war-songs in the far corner, and the hold was soon filled with music, lively conversation and laughter. It was a good time, and a great meal, and everyone thoroughly enjoyed it.
About a half-an-hour into the meal, Viktor Stiles stood up on a low crate towards the back of the hold, hitched at his belt, and called for quiet. It took a few minutes, but the noise settled down to a dull murmur.
“Here we go,” Mal whispered to Zoe, who nodded silently.
“We got a head count?” he asked someone in the back of the crowd. Mal didn’t hear the response, but Viktor nodded. “Seal ‘er up!” he ordered, and immediately the whine of motors pulling the great cargo hatch shut began, ending only when the door thudded closed with a reverberating boom.
“We secure?” he asked the same person, and apparently received a positive answer. He nodded, then turned back to the crowd. “Hey, folks. Don’t be alarmed, we ain’t gonna kidnap you or nothin’. We just want to make sure we aren’t overheard. What we got to say is a mite sensitive, and some o’ the folk who mean to speak are wanted by the Alliance for various . . . political indiscretions,” he said, inviting a chorus of chuckles. “I ‘spect the best place to start would be with . . . well, most o’ you know ‘er, you love ‘er, you can’t live without ‘er, Colonel Rachel Chambers, formerly of Independent Military Intelligence, now a . . . well, let’s just say she’s retired, now. Colonel?”
Mal didn’t join in the clapping, even though he had known Rachel longer than anyone else in the room. He watched with interest, though, as the short, lean woman climbed onto the crate that had become a stage and turned to face the crowd. The scars from that shotgun blast so long ago were very faint, now, but still visible, and were easily her most identifiable characteristic – without them, she looked like any other country wife on any number of frontier worlds. She had a gaunt look that accentuated the scars, the look of one who had missed too many meals and what they hadn’t missed hadn’t been terribly fulfilling. She stared out at the sea of hardened faces and waited for the applause to die down before she began.
“Folks – fellow Browncoats – I want to thank you for taking the time and interest in hearing us out,” she began. “I know a lot of you, and the ones I don’t know yet have been vouched for. Which is good, because I got a small price on my head, and even usin’ my real name now could put me in danger. Just know that if I get pinched by the Feds, I got plenty o’ people who don’t mind confessing to the murder of the snitch in question. It ain’t even a very high price, so don’t even entertain the notion.
“Now, I called this meeting on account of what Sonny Lamont found in the Brehmer sector.” That caused a murmur or three – Sonny was one of the lowliest of scavengers, picking up cast-off items from what was left when more credible vultures got done with the corpses of ships abandoned to the Black. He been a corporal in the Independent Marines in the war, and afterwards had cobbled together a real Frankenstein of a ship, the Sunny Day. It was half a Goldstar Express cargo shuttle and half Daikini Prospector. That he was in a desolate part of the Black was no surprise – he couldn’t rightly compete where the competition was thick. But that also meant his take was meager even for the low standards of the other vultures.
That he had found something of consequence, that Mal found intriguing.
“Sonny had a hit on his proximity radar and naturally went to look. What he found was . . . a body. In a spacesuit,” she quickly added. “A very old commercial-grade spacesuit. Now, Lord knows the Black has got its fair share of poor souls who never got a proper burial, but Sonny didn’t have nothin’ better to do, so he suited up and brought the poor bastard in.
“When he opened it up, he was mighty surprised.” She waited until everyone’s attention was firmly on her. “The corpse was that of a man named Mycroft Hamilton. Last time anyone can remember setting eyes on Hamilton was in the early days of the war. He was a Browncoat with the New Carolina Volunteers, Boros, and he was captured at the Battle of Binghampton. He got into an Alliance POW transport and . . . disappeared.”
The audience murmured angrily at that. “I know, I know, plenty of folk went missing, especially in the chaotic days of the early war, before anyone was properly organized. But while Hamilton’s demise is sad, it ain’t the reason we’re gathered. It was what he was carrying what was important.” She pulled a large sheaf of papers and flexis out of the bag she carried on her shoulder. “Inside the suit was this. A report. To Independent High Command.” There was another murmur, and some laughter.
“How come some old report that never made it got your panties all twisty?” asked some rough character from the back.
“Because it was dated a month ago,” Rachel said, evenly. She let that sink in. “That’s right, a month ago, standard. But it used all the proper code phrases and cipher groups. I checked it with . . . an expert, and they’re legit. Whoever authored this report was a Browncoat officer who had experience in intelligence.”
“Well, what’s it say?” Tanaka asked, curious.
“I’m glad you asked,” Rachel said, smiling grimly. “If it is to be believed, Hamilton was part of a group of POWs that got transferred to a ‘temporary holding facility’ in the early stages of the war. A big old terraforming freighter called the Suri Madron. Last record of it, it was leased to the Gimbutas Group for ‘research purposes’. No record of it being later leased, purchased, or otherwise used by the Alliance or approved as a POW holding area, temporary or otherwise.
“But according to the report, more than two thousand of our comrades were thus deployed. They were treated humanely, at first, accorded all the protections under the law. But then things started going . . . strange. And now they are still there, most of them, and by everything I’ve seen . . . they don’t know the war is over.”
That brought startled gasps from all over the hold, and Mal was somewhat surprised that he had added one to the chorus. The war was over more than nine years, now. Over and done. To keep POWs in the dark about it, that was beyond criminal. He felt his eyes narrow and his heart start beating faster.
“You can do the math. Most of these boys have been there twelve years or more. Almost a generation. And they still think that we’re out here fighting for their freedom. Fighting the good fight for independence.” The sour note of despair and disgust was evident in her voice. “Those boys keep playing soldier long after their army has done disappeared . . . and those purplebellied bastards have let them labor under that premise for nigh a decade. That ain’t right.”
There was a general mutter of righteous indignation at the thought. Mal was pretty pissed, himself. War was war, and while losing had taken a lot out of him, the idea of still wearing a uniform and being committed to an ideal long after it was dead was worthy of his rage.
“Good,” Rachel continued. “Good. Y’all are as vexed as I was, when I heard it. But things get worse, tons worse. There’s plenty more for those what want to hear, but let me tell y’all up front, I aim to conduct a rescue mission, and if you don’t want to be implicated in anything illegal or deadly, I ask you to leave now before you hear too much. ‘Cause while y’all might disagree with me, I find out that one gorram word of this leaks out to someone inappropriate, well, there’s gonna be a reckoning. You have my solemn promise.”
She waited a moment for someone to get up and leave. When none did, she continued. “Now, like I said, that ain’t the worst of it. Two thousand men got disappeared into the Black. We owe them. We have a duty to them. No matter what else the Purplebellies did to us, how bad they beat us, we swore an oath. Just ‘cause we lost don’t mean that oath went away.” She took a moment to collect herself, and Mal saw a tear in the corner of her tired eyes.
“I said it got worse, and to tell you about that, might I present another fugitive from justice, former Independent Brigadier General Perry Bushi Ledford . . . currently known as . . . Ivan ‘Candy Cane’ McBane!”
There was another collective gasp, as the crime lord so many of them were familiar with stepped out of the shadows and climbed up the crate next to Rachel, where he hugged her and helped her down. She lingered at the base, surveying the crowd, the stack of papers ready in her hand in case the General needed them.
“Good evening,” the crime lord said in a low and gravelly voice, his blue eyes and clean-shaven pate flashing in the dim light. “Not very many of you served under me. I was on the High Command council, in charge of a great deal of intelligence at the end of the war. As such, I made the Alliance’s Ten Most Wanted list for ‘war crimes’ – the biggest of which was keeping the war going a full two years after the Alliance analysts had told them it would be finished.”
There were some chuckles and cheers at that. It had come to light after the war that the original assessment of Independent capabilities had informed the Alliance Military command that full-blown hostilities would have been completed, the Browncoats utterly defeated, inside of eighteen standard months. It was in large part due to the efforts of Ledford and his staff that the war had stretched out close to four years, and cost the Alliance far, far more than it had anticipated in men and treasure.
“After Serenity Valley I went underground, thanks to some kind folks who were more devoted to the Cause than they were to the reward money, and I eventually made my way here, to Muir. Or, more accurately, to the flying cesspit of a space station we know as Axis, in orbit around Gorgon. And while I’ve done my best to become the finest criminal mind on the Rim – no offense to you, Viktor, or any of you lesser talents—” more laughter – the egocentric world of crime, organized and otherwise, was a perfect place to make such quips.
“But I’ve made it my mission to take care of any loose ends from the war. That included getting my daughter back, finding a home for unemployed veterans, aiding war orphans, and whatever else I could do to pay people back for the sacrifices they made for the Cause. It might be lost, but I haven’t lost it. Needless to say, I’d be much obliged if no one mentioned any of this to the authorities. Not only would I not go quietly,” the blue eyed brigadier said with a grin, “but certain folk in my organization would take umbrage at such an act, just so that we’re clear.”
“Now,” he continued. “I told you that to tell you this: when Rachel brought this to my attention, I already knew about it. About a part of it, in any case. Back during the war we got reports of clandestine holding facilities for ‘special’ prisoners – mostly spies and saboteurs, political prisoners and the like – and among those likely places we identified was this crappy commercial barge called the Suri Madron. We got about a half-dozen reports on it, over the years, and I’m sad to say that . . . other matters were deemed of higher priority, so we never went after them.
“Now, the word was that the Suri Madron wasn’t just a holding pen, but it was a research facility. The Alliance, in direct contravention of interstellar and long-held humanitarian law, had used our prisoners – our own people, who gave up their whole lives for the cause of freedom – to test certain drugs. Specifically, Argent Development Labs, a division of a division of a division of a holding company owned by half-a-dozen corporations, had secured a classified military contract from the Alliance on a particular drug. Y’all might have heard about it, recently, thanks to Cap’n Reynolds, over there. It’s called Paxalon.”
“Pax!” Mal spat, despite himself. He wasn’t the only one.
Pax had been the root cause of much of his recent sorrows. It acted on the aggressive nature of humanity, and it had worked – too well. The Alliance had tested it wide-scale on the remote colony of Miranda, it had originally been designed as a chemical pacification agent to keep the populations of the Rimworlds quiescent and firmly under control. Thirty million colonists had starved to death through inactivity, as a result, laying down in their jobs and their homes and simply dying of dehydration, not motivated enough to get themselves a drink of water. Of all the eerie, macabre places he had visited in his career, only dead, frozen Hecate vied for a place in his nightmares along side Miranda. A whole world of corpses, dead because the Alliance thought it could alter the basic nature of humanity.
Except for a tiny, tiny fraction. For some reason, a statistically insignificant minority had had an adverse reaction to the drug and had gone in the opposite direction: uncontrolled aggression, culminating in rape, murder, and cannibalism. They became the Reavers, the terrors of the Black, who flew around in salvaged and captured suicide machines and struck isolated settlements for sport and . . . supplies. Since the Reavers’ favorite snack was human flesh – tenderized by torture and brutal gang-rapes – “supplies” tended to be the civilian population of those colonies.
If it hadn’t been for River Tam’s unexpected explosion of bad craziness at an inopportune time, the secret of Miranda and the Pax would have faded into obscurity. As it was, the report that Mal had managed to get broadwaved to every receiver in the ‘verse had exposed the horrible secret, and managed to do more to bring the Alliance to the point of chaos than four years of ferocious warfare with the rebellious factions had.
“Pax,” McBane agreed, nodding. “That’s what they were going to throw at us. That’s how they were going to reassert control. We got reports about it all through the war – how agents were planning on sneaking into the atmo plants on our worlds and poisoning them with this . . . drug. It was supposed to knock the fight right out of us with each breath we took, so that by the time the Purplebellies landed we’d all be ready to sing the Unification Anthem and take up Buddhism. No offense,” he said, noting that at least a quarter of the assembled were some sect of Buddhist.
“We knew that the Suri Madron was somehow involved with this, but other factors intervened, and there was never time to address the issue. After the war, well, we were all trying to run for our lives, or put our lives back together somehow. I had almost forgotten about that barge. Almost. When Rachel brought it back to my attention, well, I felt compelled to do something about it.
“Now my new organization has some decent resources, but this is not something I can do on my own. I need help, help that I can trust. When I heard about the Reunion coming here, and I heard that such a . . . fine collection of talent would be assembled, I thought that it might be a good venue to pitch the idea. So here it is: we organize one last operation, one last mission, to rescue our compatriots. It’s going to be dangerous, difficult, and damn-near impossible. Of course, y’all should be able to pull that off. We did crazier things in the War, and some of them actually worked.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” a rough-looking Browncoat in the front row asked. “I don’t speak for no one by my lonesome, but how the hell are we supposed to assault a fortified barge? You think the Purplebellies just forgot where they put it?”
“Of course not,” McBane said. “As a matter of fact, there is an Alliance gunboat not ten A.U.s from the ship, put there to ensure that nothing gets in or out. But I see plenty of folk here that have gone past five times that many ships to get what they wanted.”
“Where are these folks from?” asked another. “Who are they? I got mates I lost track of in the War—”
“Yes, we all did,” agreed McBane. “And luckily the brave men who contrived to send this package to us from inside provided a complete list of names of the captured prisoners. About three hundred or so came from this very world. Others are from Persephone, Shadow, Boros, Hera, and a dozen other Indy worlds. We’ll let you see who’s on the list,” he assured. “You,” he added, pointing to a hand belonging to a man in the row behind Mal’s.
“Yessir, General. Why don’t we just appeal to the Parliament? We’re all happy an’ well-adjusted members of the great Alliance civilization, now, ain’t we? Ain’t we supposed to be able to get the government to do somethin’ about this?”
“Well,” McBane admitted with smirk, “one would think. But this was too recent. The people who did this are likely still alive, even in positions of power. And considering the recent row about Miranda and the Reavers, and what it’s done to get the Central planets all a-twitter, somehow I don’t think we can count on much help in exposing yet another horrible scandal. It might just break the back of the Alliance. In fact, we know that one of the gunboat’s operating orders is to nuke the ship at the first sign of discovery by outside forces.”
“Aint too fond o’ the Alliance,” another voice called. “They can all go to hell, for all I care!”
“I ain’t particularly happy with them my own self,” admitted McBane, his bright blue eyes flashing. “They cost me my world, my home, my wife, my name and my hair. But trying to draw attention to this is politically risky. Too many forces arrayed, too much pressure already on the system. If we took this to the Purplebellies, they might act – but I sincerely doubt that our men would benefit from that. More likely they’d get nuked.”
“So you must got a plan then, General?” asked Lieasky. “One that works?”
“Won’t know that ‘till we try it,” McBane said. “And that plan is highly dependent upon who’s going with us. I can’t sketch out more than a basis for the operation without knowing what personnel and resources I have at my disposal.”
Another man stood and spoke, but Mal was distracted from listening by Zoe leaning over to him, a strange expression in her eyes.
“We’re doing this,” she stated. No ‘sir’, no request, it was a statement of fact.
“Says who?” Mal whispered back, surprised.
“Says me. We need to do this. We’re in.”
Mal shook his head. “Ain’t no percentage in it,” he observed. “Lot o’ damn fools gonna get their asses shot off pullin’ this stunt.”
“I said we’re doing it.”
“And since when are you Captain?” he demanded in the same whisper.
“Okay,” conceded Zoe. “Let me put it to you like this: I’m doing it. If you aren’t, then I’ll have my quarters cleaned out before you lift.”
Mal just stared.
Zoe had been with him for a decade, now. Been his right arm when they were in the Overlanders. Had been his eyes and ears and knife in the trenches of Dhu Kang and a dozen other battles. Had stuck with him in the prison camp, in the slum flat they took together immediately after the war, and in the years they had worked together on Serenity. She had never, not once, voiced a contrary thought to his command decisions. Nor had she threatened to walk. Oh, she’d critique his plans when invited, but however stupid they were he could count on her to follow them to the letter. And improvise to his benefit when they went awry.
So to hear her say, in such a matter-of-fact tone, that she was leaving if he didn’t do what he wanted was not just uncommon – it was completely unnatural.
“Now, Zoe,” he began. “I—”
“Yes, you’re the gorram captain of your gorram boat. Master of your domain. Answer to no one. And I’ll miss it, truly I will. Serenity’s the only real home I’ve had since before the War. But after all the insane go se you’ve gotten me into, all the crazy plans and stupid moves, all the gorram dangerous stunts we’ve done, you don’t yield to me on this, I go my own way. No discussion.”
Mal continued to stare. “Why?”
“Because the Reavers came from there, Mal,” she said, her eyes blazing with cold fury. “That’s where the Pax came from – that’s where the Reavers were born. And I cannot abide that place existing one more moment. It pollutes the Black. The man who thought up that stuff is there, and he needs to be held to account. The whole gorram corporation, the whole gorram Alliance is culpable, but that man, on that ship, is responsible for the Reavers, and the horror on Miranda. That’s the birthplace of abomination, Mal. That’s where the perversion began. And I won’t stand for it to exist any more. I’m going. I want you to, as well. I could even say you owe me, but I won’t. You either go with me, or maybe I’ll catch up to you next Reunion.”
He knew the tone – he had heard it often enough when she had upbraided the troops under her command, or argued with their lieutenant or with Wash. That was Zoe’s line-in-the-sand tone, an absolute dictate that was not subject to debate or dissuasion. He could challenge her on it, he knew – he had, infrequently, in the past – but the look in her eye told him all he needed to know. He either did this . . . or he would lose her.
“Let’s say I’ll seriously consider the proposition,” he conceded. “And we’ll discuss it in private. I’ll give it a fair hearing . . . deal?”
“Done,” she answered, and returned to listening to the speeches. A short, dumpy woman in a faded brown coat with an artilleryman’s patch on her shoulder was speaking.
“ . . . any idea about how to get close to that thing? I mean, Brehmer sector is way out to hell and gone, real bumfuck territory. They gonna see us comin’ a light-year away.”
“Like I said, I have the beginnings of a plan. Better yet, I’ve got a little inside information that might get me more. You see, back during the war a spacer got hired to take supplies out there – from what we can tell, the ship gets re-supplied twice a year, standard. They pick a different freighter every time, and during the war they weren’t real picky. So we’ve got one man who’s been there, who knows a little about the security – admittedly, his knowledge is about a decade old – and, better yet, he was a double agent for us. He spied on the Alliance for us while he spied on us and fed them information.”
A great murmur arose – the Independents had suffered from Alliance spies terribly during the war. Despite the best counter-intelligence efforts, the Browncoats had a hell of a time keeping anything secret, and more than one unit had been lost because of vital information passed along to Purplebelly agents. Traitors had been responsible for thousands of deaths. The few cases of spies being caught red-handed had ended in bloodshed, if not outright torture. Double agents, while helpful to the effort, were not especially well-liked, either.
“You got a turn-coat on payroll?” one angry voice demanded.
“How much blood on his hands?” called another.
“Cool your thrusters, people,” Captain Tanaka said, authoritatively. “Let the man speak. He knows what he’s doing.”
“How do we know he won’t turn his coat again, sell us all out?” demanded yet another angry Browncoat.
“Because he’s volunteered to participate in the operation,” McBane said, evenly, his eyes flashing again. “At great personal risk, I might add.”
“Great,” Mal muttered. “Spies, too. I’m sure this won’t go wrong in any meaningful way.”
“We’ve dealt with worse situations,” Zoe reminded him.
“And they went so well, too,” he said sarcastically. “Why the hell are you so insistent on risking my neck on this?”
“Trust me, Sir,” Zoe said, evenly. “This must be done. And we must be the ones to do it. How do you know you don’t know anyone on that list? I can think of a hundred or more who got captured, and whom I’ve not heard tale of since.”
Mal was quiet. The fact was he knew from his conversation with Monty that he did, indeed, know someone on the list. Royce. He had been captured early on, and he had never been seen again. Mal had been sure he was dead, though he had hoped his boyhood friend had shacked up with something young and lovely after the war and was raising a ton of kids somewhere.
But Rachel had summoned him using that name – and that’s something she wouldn’t have done had he been dead. No, Royce was on that decrepit boat on the far raggedy edge of the Black, and he did have an obligation, a duty, to save him if he possibly could. The fact was, Zoe didn’t have to resort to coercion to get her way on this. Mal knew he was committed from the moment Rachel had sent word.
And he had to admit that there was a part of him that was just eaten up with righteous fury, too. It was bad enough that the Alliance had created Pax in an effort to kill even the idea of freedom among the Rim colonists. It was bad enough that they had slaughtered thirty million people on their test-run. It was bad enough that they had created the rapacious, cannibalistic, subhuman Reavers as an unfortunate byproduct and thus condemned the Rimworlds to perpetual insecurity.
But now they had gone and used his own people – Browncoats, who had all volunteered to fight for freedom – as lab rats in their perverted plan.
Yes, Mal Reynolds would be participating. He had to see this bit of unfinished business through. They had enough coin to hold them, he figured, if the job didn’t last too long. And who knew what other possibilities for profit might present themselves? Luck was a damnably unpredictable lady by nature, and a hopeless mission with no apparent role for material gain might just be the way to get her to cough up the lucre.
He was brought back to the situation at hand when McBane called for order – the crowd had gotten a little out of hand at the mention of a double agent.
“See here,” he said, reasonably. “I wouldn’t have brought this agent in if I didn’t trust that the intel was sound, and the chance of detection was minimal. I trust this person. And I’m not a very trusting fellow – I was in charge of the gorram spies in the war, for Buddha’s sake! But I do. You may not. If you don’t trust me enough to make that leap, well, the hatch is back there. Enjoy the rest of the Reunion.
“Everyone else, thought . . . well, if you stay in, we’ll start figuring out just what needs to be done before we proceed. Everyone will have a role to play. And that includes my double agent. But if you stay, you’re agreeing to my plan – and I’ll hold you to it as if we were still under military discipline. I don’t aim to hang no one,” he cautioned, “but don’t do nothin’ that would require hanging, and we won’t have to debate the issue. I want a team that can follow orders, nothing more. If you don’t think you can handle that, refer to the location of the hatch. Everyone good? Everyone in? All right, I’ll count you all as committed.”
Mal appreciated the opportunity to bow out gracefully – he even wished he had the cowardice or the self-preservation to avail himself of it. But he was, indeed, committed, and not just by being here. He had committed the day he and Rachel and Royce had all signed up with the Independent Armed Forces.
“All right, let’s start with an overview of the Suri Madron, courtesy of our far-sighted agent. He was smart enough to take a complete set of images and readings at the time, thinking they might be useful, and then kept them over the years.” He nodded to Rachel, who took a controller out of her pocket and pressed a few buttons. A holoemitter somewhere came to life, and suddenly a ten foot long wireframe of an ancient bulk barge swam in front of them all, slowly rotating. Specifications on various parts of the ship printed themselves in the air.
“As you can see, it’s been modified substantially from the original design. The foreword cargo section has been converted into quarters – that’s where we suspect the prisoners are being held. The aft cargo area, in this image, is under construction, and is probably finished. From these tubes here we theorize that they were building additional laboratory space. Here is what seems to be a phytotron, so they were apparently doing some animal studies. But I’ll turn over the rest of the tour to our agent, and let him tell you in his own words.”
A low murmur filled the room as speculation flew fast and furious about who it was, which of them had betrayed their coat and broken their oath.
“I’m thinkin’ it’s Gossi,” Mal suggested under his voice. “Boy always had beady eyes.”
“Nah, gotta be Lin,” Zoe said, nodding towards a former Independent Naval Auxiliary captain that no one particularly trusted.
“Can’t be Lin,” Mal said. “He was making tanker runs to the Whitehall garrisons the whole war. No where near -- Ai ya women wanle!” he exclaimed, his mouth open in disbelief.
Climbing up to the platform was Duncan McKlintock.
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