BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

MAL4PREZ

Back Stories II: Chapter 7 (repost)
Monday, November 12, 2007

Mal and Zoë enjoy the comforts of Alliance reformation after the war... except that there's not actually much to be enjoyed.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1045    RATING: 0    SERIES: FIREFLY

Disclaimer: It belongs to Joss and all those business people. I'm just playing.

Rating: PG to NC17. I will not put warnings on each chapter, because I don't want to give things away. In general, don't be getting into any of this if you're not prepared for adult storylines, violence, explicit sexual content, and - oh my - bad words.

Many thanks: fireflyfans.net members: leeh, leiasky, and nosadseven for beta.

Links: Prequels: The Fish Job (FFF) (LJ), Easy Tickets (FFF) (LJ), and Book I (FFF) (LJ). Timing, pairings, and canon blurbs are in my FFF blog.

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Back Stories, Book II

by Mal4Prez

Chapter 7

Mal and Zoë enjoy the comforts of Alliance reformation after the war...
except that there's not actually much to be enjoyed.


 

 

Highland’s Second Moon

“Where’ve the guards got to?”

Mal’s question caught Zoë by surprise. The captain had been sitting quietly for a while, not paying her and Book any mind, but now he was looking around with wide open eyes.

She glanced at Book, but the preacher couldn’t help her come up with an answer. It was her job to play the game here, because she was the only one who really knew what Mal was seeing. She’d been about to open up a bag of protein and fix dinner, but she paused to ask, “Guards, sir?”

“Ain’t we supposed to be diggin’ today?”

She should have guessed. “Uh… holiday,” she improvised lamely. “Alliance holiday – means we all get the day off.”

After a long, thoughtful moment, Mal replied, “Ain’t that nice. The Alliance sure is thoughtful.”

“You know what they say about this place,” she said, and she gave Mal a second to guess before she finished: “It’s all one big pleasure cruise.”

Mal smiled at that, but there was something like a pained wince in how he dropped his head. Zoë chastised herself – Mal didn’t have the cushion of several years between himself and the time in the internment camp, and her words were painful to him.

After a bit, he raised his head and looked aside, focusing on the stony hill outside the shelter of the tarps. The rain had tapered off while she and Book talked, and the ground was nearly dry.

Mal looked at Book for a long second, then shook his head, as if he was dismissing what he saw. Zoë studied the captain’s face. This place looked nothing like the camp where he thought he was, and Book wasn’t wearing anything like an inmate’s pumpkin orange jumpsuit or a guard’s faintly purple uniform, but Mal didn’t seem to recognize the problem. It was fine with her; the constant need to come up with explanations tired her to the bone. The force of his delusion, when it took over like this, saved her some headaches. Probably saved him some as well, which, in the end, was why it was happening.

Mal climbed to his feet. “I could get some air,” he said.

“Don’t go far,” Zoë told him.

He turned back, and his eyes went to the fire and the bags in her hands. “I won’t. Just… make sure the food ain’t burned. Those kids need somethin’ they can eat.” He held Zoë’s eye until she nodded.

As Mal wandered up the hill, Zoë changed her plans. She shoved the protein packages back into a crate and dug the few meat and veggie packets from the freezer box. There was only enough real food for a few meals of it, and now was certainly the time for one.

Book watched her, then glanced out to where Mal had settled on a rock halfway up the hill.

“Is he back to the war?” he guessed.

Zoë couldn’t answer right away. Some unreasonable part of herself resented Book’s assumption that he had a right to ask a direct question, instead of leaving the telling to her. But that didn’t seem fair. She had to chew her tongue for a few minutes, keep her quiet until she could work out what was really bugging her.

Truth was, the reluctance that made her spine stiffen had nothing to do with Book’s question; it didn’t have a thing to do with the preacher at all. But she’d started this telling herself, and she couldn’t skip the parts she didn’t like to think about.

“No,” she finally replied. “He ain’t there yet. Not quite.”

* * *

Seven years ago: Branson Reformation Camp, Du-Khang

Zoë walks in a line with a score of other captured Browncoats. They follow a path that’s been cleared through piles of shattered concrete and rebar, stepping over pits in what had once been pavement. These streets could be the very same ones she’d fought on years ago, but she can’t be sure. There are no buildings left whole, no landmarks to stir memory.

Armed Alliance soldiers follow before and after, corralling the ragged group into a small dusty courtyard. Beyond it is an incongruent smear of brown and green with the charred remains of trees jutting into the dusty air – the remains of a city park, perhaps. Now it’s muddy and filled with a cluster of large military tents, the sturdy type with hard sides and the occasional clear plastic window.

A man in a crisp uniform is waiting for them in the courtyard, blocking the path to the tents. He’s standing in a tense at-ease position, hands behind his back, and his hard eyes rake over them like he’s sizing up pathetic recruits just starting boot camp. His lined skin, the scatters of gray visible in his cropped hair, and the set of his solid shoulders speak of years in the service. He waits as they silently gather into a loose clump, then he takes in a deep breath and speaks.

“I am Major Levin,” he says. His voice is deep and rough, but his words are as neat and firm as the folded corners of a properly made-up barrack bunk. “I am the senior officer of this fine establishment.”

A few of the Browncoats shift as they look around, and Zoë hears a soft snort of disgust.

“You may be wondering what this place is,” the major says, his powerful voice making an even rhythm like this speech has been delivered many times. “You may be thinking that it is a prison, a place for punishment, and that you are prisoners of war.

“It is not, and you are not.

“I’m going to explain to you what this is, and why you’re here. Pay attention. I will not be repeating myself, and I do not take questions.”

He releases his pose, letting his arms hang as he turns to the side and takes a few slow paces toward a jagged wall abutting the courtyard.

“The observant among you may have noticed that we have a bit of a mess here. At one time, this was a city, and it was well on its way to being a nice place.” He looks toward the captives while he stresses those two words, as if there’s a wealth of meaning behind nice place that the likes of them will never understand. “It became what it is now because the so-called Independent army saw fit to attack the Alliance.” He assumes his at-ease position again, facing them full on. “Each of you has admitted to being part of the illegal and immoral attack on this world, a campaign which not only destroyed this city, but cost the lives of many fine soldiers of the Alliance, as well as hundreds of innocent civilians.”

Zoë’s eyes are fastened on his face, and she sees his jaw tighten with anger. “Now – in case any of you are fuzzy on the details, we didn’t ask for this war. You brought it to us.”

Zoë hears a soft whisper behind her: After you came to take over our planets, diăobài. She shifts her eyes from the major’s face long enough to take in the way her fellows are standing, the tensely held necks and clenched fists. Then she looks forward again to see the major’s already hard eyes narrow; he can’t have heard the whisper, but the general opinion of his audience shouldn’t be hard to see.

He continues without commenting on it.

“The destruction of Du-Khang,” he says, “was the result of an unjust uprising against a government which has sought nothing but peace, enlightenment, and civilization. Here is what I ask myself: do any of you even know what civilization is?”

He pauses as if he’s giving them a chance to answer, but no one’s stupid enough to speak up. Zoë has to purse her lips to hold back a smile as she realizes that things would be different if Mal were here with her.

The major’s eyes single her out and she quickly blanks her expression. Too late – he’s already seen. Disgust crinkles his already lined face. “I don’t trust you heathens worth a good gorramn,” he says, “but there’re folks in the Alliance government who think you can reform, that you can learn to play nice. Good Samaritans in high places mean to give you the chance to do just that. Your service here will result in the dropping of all charges of war crimes against you. You may gain admission into our society as free people with clear records.

“If case you’re too thick too figure it out… what I’m saying is that this place is redemption. You are here to earn your place in the Alliance.” He pauses to look over the disheveled group again, his thin upper lip rising in a sneer before he adds: “If you can.”

* * *

“Guess we were supposed to feel shame,” Zoë told Book. “Supposed to look at all that mess and blame ourselves for it. Mayhap come to a new understanding of the cost of war, and be so impressed by the shiny new city risin’ from the ruins that we’d start drooling to have one of those fine little condos for ourselves. Maybe try for a job sweepin’ floors.

“They called it a social program, and I guess that, on the outside, weren’t nothin’ more to it than that. Certainly, we didn’t help the reconstruction. They would have done better without us – we had no skills with that, and they didn’t use us for nothing but muscle, even though we weren’t much good for labor either. We were too tired. Too sick. Too fresh from the fight we lost.”

She opened a small box of dried leaves – basil, a treasure the Shepherd found himself during their visit to New Borjomi, and just the right thing to make the can of stewed tomatoes taste nice. She took a long smell, then held it out for the Shepherd to do the same. There wouldn’t be any more of this coming to them for a good long time.

She dumped the whole damned thing into the pan. Can’t have too much basil.

“I was in the camp for four months. Mal for was there for more than six.”

“Mal? I got the impression he wasn’t with you.”

“We had got a bit separated after Serenity Valley, on account of his rank and my injury. But he’d fought on Du-Khang too, and they found out and sent him to the camp. He’d got there a week before me, and already had himself a position of sorts. Most of the Browncoats knew him, and the rest knew of him. They expected him to take care of things. `Course, with Mal, he couldn’t say no to that, and it was just bound to lead to trouble.”

* * *

Zoë’s in her fifth day at the camp when the trouble starts.

Conditions aren’t the best (though they get much worse later.) The inmates – or workers, or whatever the hell they’re classed as – live in tents with flappy almost-walls that let in the heat of day and the chill of night. They sleep on hard little cots with thin blankets; not the best, but still a great improvement over what they’d gotten used to in the last years of the war.

The simple presence of latrines is at first a luxury, but they’re soon a mess of stench and flies, and have to be emptied by the tired Browncoats in their daily chores. The weekly showers are similarly treasured, icy cold water and all, until the plumbing breaks down and clean-ups are limited to what can be had from a few barrels of rainwater.

Mush is served in the food tent two times a day, with lunches handed out as cold meals in the field. Zoë doesn’t expect much. No matter what the major’d said that first day, she knows that the victor won’t be going out of their way to coddle a conquered army. But there’s a certain amount of fuel needed by hard-working bodies, especially when those bodies are fresh out of the bloodiest battle of the war, and she assumes that the Alliance folks will understand that.

She soon learns different.

Zoë later guesses that those in charge of food service are playing loose with their contracts, pocketing all they can of the food budget and filching supplies for their own use. Or maybe they’re intentionally punishing the Independents, making mealtime something to be dreaded and nothing that ever satisfies. Whatever the reason, it leaves the inmates in a bad situation.

This day in particular, the breakfast gruel is burned so bad that not a one of them are able to choke down more than a few spoonfuls. Zoë can get by without it – she’s born and bred to handle hardship, and always had the strength and will of an ox. But others aren’t so lucky. There’s a young private at her table whose sunken eyes and gray face speak volumes, and he looks like he’ll need someone to carry him through the day of lugging heavy concrete rubble from the streets to the dumpsters. Mal’s sitting across the table from him, with no choice but to stare right at the boy’s obvious hunger.

The sarge starts to glower. His jaw clenches in a way that Zoë’s come to recognize as the onset of problematic events. He scoops up a spoonful of the inedible slop that these folk are passing off as a meal, then plops it back into his bowl with a snort of disgust. His eyes search the tent, then settle on a soldier standing by the breakfast line.

Before Zoë can ask if the sarge is thinking what she knows he’s thinking and before she can even begin to tell him that he’d be a gorramned fool to try it, Mal’s up and left the table.

The guard visibly tenses as Mal approaches him. (Today, this particular purplebelly is just another suit of armor to Zoë, but later she’ll come to know his name and face well.) His features don’t change as Mal says a few words in a voice too low for Zoë to hear, though the murmur of talk at the tables has quieted. She’s not the only one watching the exchange.

Mal finishes his say and waits for a reply. He folds his arms uncomfortably when it’s slow in coming.

“So,” the guard finally says, loud and clear enough to fill the tent, “explain to me where you got the idea that the major is taking appointments from the likes of you.”

The mess tent goes dead quiet, and Zoë can hear Mal’s mild reply. “Got a question for him is all.”

“The major doesn’t take questions,” the guard says, finality in his voice. “Return to your table.”

Mal shifts his feet but doesn’t turn away. “Well, how’s about you hand along a little message, something for the major’s information.” The guard glares and doesn’t reply, so Mal plows ahead. “Look – these folks are not in good shape and got a day of hard labor ahead. They need food they can eat.”

“You have plenty of food.”

“Have you tried this gōushī?” Mal says, waving a hand toward the tables with a hint of frustration in his voice. Zoë cringes at it; she’s seeing as plain as stars in the Black that there’s no way to negotiate with this guard. The man’s words and looks make it clear – to everyone but Mal.

“I don’t have to eat that,” the guard says, his tight voice full of menace. “I’m not a murdering traitor.”

No good, Zoë thinks. It’s no good, Sarge. But Mal huffs and goes on, gesturing with his hands while he talks. “This place ain’t supposed to be about punishment and suffering, right? That’s what we heard in that nice shiny welcome speech. Now – how `bout you explain to me how starvation and forced labor ain’t suffering?”

The guard is holding a sonic rifle loosely across his stomach. It rises a little as his hands tighten on it. “Return to your seat,” he orders. “Now.”

Mal sighs and turns partly toward the tables, but then his eyes pass over the full bowls of uneaten food. Zoë curses under her breath when he turns back and tries one more time.

“It ain’t like I’m askin’ for steak and eggs,” he says, and he raises a hand toward the kitchen behind the soldier. “But can’t this stuff not be burnt to hell?”

Mal’s raised hand is enough for the guard, who swings the butt of his rifle down and forward. The sarge isn’t expecting it, and isn’t in the best of health. He moves too slow to avoid a blow to the groin.

Cries of disbelief and outrage rise from the inmates as Mal grunts and doubles over, then drops to the floor. But the four guards in the tent quickly have their rifles aimed at the tables; any attempt at interference is bound to end badly, and the Browncoats all know it. And more guards will be coming – a guard by the door speaks low and fast into a radio on his shoulder, calling for backup.

The guard who hit Mal is still standing over him like he's ready to hand out more of a beating to keep the sarge in line. But the threat isn’t needed; Mal is curled up with his hands clutching his crotch – it’s not a dignified position to be in, and sure isn’t one to let a man go on the attack. Zoë fumes to see it. Sure, Mal can act in such a way as asks for a smack from time to time, she’s seen that herself, but no man should be set down the way this guard’s just done to him. It would have been more humane to use the sonic rifle the way it was meant, to disable with slightly less pain and much less humiliation, but humane isn't what the guard's after.

“You’re not here to get fat and happy!” he says angrily. “I don’t care what they say, you’re here to pay for what you’ve done!”

Though it’s hardly been ten seconds since Mal went down, Major Levin bursts into the tent surrounded by a half dozen more guards. His face is already red and his eyes are hard as he takes the scene in.

“What the hell’s the situation?” he demands. Before anyone can answer, his eyes settle on Mal and he strides toward the guard who did the hitting.

“Lower your weapon and report, soldier,” the major orders.

The guard complies. “This man refused a direct order, sir.”

The major glances down at Mal and taps him with a foot. Mal hardly notices; he’s looking ready to retch. The major looks at the gun that the guard is still holding like a club, then his glare settles on the guard’s face. “And how exactly did this come about?”

The guard swallows and hesitates.

“Report!”

“Sir – he was complaining about the food. I told him to return to his seat. He refused.”

“And you struck him?”

“Yes, sir; I did.”

The major chews his tongue as he looks down at Mal again. “Did this man threaten you in any way?”

“He… raised his hand.”

“Was he threatening you, soldier?”

The guard’s face squares out as his jaw clenches. “No, sir.”

The major turns slightly to face the guard straight on; he’s a big man, and his stance warns of a severe dressing down about to be handed out. There can’t be anyone in the room who doesn’t recognize and cringe at that, although Zoë would have expected the major to take this business elsewhere. He can’t really mean to do this in front of the inmates.

But he does.

“Staff Sergeant Fischer,” he says in a hard voice. “Were you present at the briefing held at the onset of this assignment?”

“Yes, sir. I was.”

“Were you listening?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you recall the mission statement which I personally took the time to read aloud?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And do you recall what it said about treatment of the detainees?”

“I do, sir.”

“Then why did you strike this man without provocation?”

Fischer swallows hard, frustration darkening his eyes as he glances down. Mal is partly recovered now – Zoë is relieved that he stays on the floor, keeping clear of the exchange, but he’s watching.

“Staff Sergeant Fischer, why did you strike this man?”

“He disobeyed an order.”

“He is an unarmed detainee. He is not a soldier. Do you understand the difference?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Corporal Smith,” the major barks, angling his head toward one of the soldiers who’d come in with him.

“Yes, sir!” the young man replies sharply.

“Escort Staff Sergeant Fischer to the staff quarters. Make a note of this on his record, and see to it that he has extra patrol duty for the next seven days. In addition, provide him with a copy of the mission statement.” He settles his eyes on the deflated Fischer. “I expect a copy of it on my desk within the hour, written out by his own hand and not a word omitted.”

“Yes, sir!” Smith barks again.

Fischer salutes; the tent is dead quiet while he leaves with the young corporal behind him.

The major doesn’t make a move. He stands with his hands on his hips, watching impassively as Mal climbs to his feet. The sarge is still breathing hard and he doesn’t quite straighten all the way – he took a hard hit in a delicate place, and it’s still hurting him.

“My thanks, major,” he says.

“I don’t want your gorramn thanks, Reynolds,” the major snaps. “And don’t you ever speak to me –or any of my soldiers – unless you are first spoken to.”

Mal snaps his mouth shut and drops his eyes to the floor. He looks just as surprised as Zoë feels at the major’s hostility.

“I smelled your stink the first day you came in,” the major says, stepping close to Mal. “You were the one talking when you ought to know enough to shut up, offering your opinion of Alliance civilization. And now it’s the food that’s got you griping. I see that opening your mouth is a habit. I can also see that you don’t know how to listen any better than Staff Sergeant Fischer. Difference is, he’s a soldier, and you’re slime.”

Mal looks up at that, but the major has shifted his focus. He looks over the quiet tent as he goes on. “Personally, I don’t give a damn if the lot of you waste to scrap. You’re malcontents and seditionists. You don’t deserve to live under the protection of the Alliance. If it was up to me, I’d shoot you all and have done with it.”

His eyes settle on Mal again. “Thing is, like Staff Sergeant Fischer, I am a soldier in a bona fide military force. I have been given orders that you people are not to be damaged. I will see that you aren’t, no matter my personal beliefs. Because we’re civilized.

“But I’ll be damned before if I’ll have another of my soldiers taking a black mark because you’re too stupid to know your place. You are not here on a gorramn vacation cruise. You don’t like the food? Boo fucking hoo.”

Mal straightens and draws back, his face tight and pale with anger. The major steps forward to stay close to him.

“One day the idiots who started this experiment will pull their heads out. Meantime, you will do as you’re told, exactly as you’re told, no more and no less, and keep your mouth shut for as long as you’re in these barracks. Are you clear on that?”

Mal’s gritting his teeth and doesn’t answer; he’s nearly shaking.

“I asked if you were clear,” the major says, his face right in Mal’s.

Mal stares at the major for the space of a breath, then another, before he speaks.

“Yes. Sir.”

* * *

“It got dirty after that,” Zoë said, her words coming with a weariness that the memories pulled out of her. “There was no more hitting, but the food – what there was of it – was awful, like they wanted to show what complaining would get us.

“Things started happening, stupid little things that added up. The latrine tanks would get tipped over when no one was around, and we had to clean up the mess. Seemed that every hour of the night a guard would happen by the sleep tents and make a ruckus, banging on the windows, waking us up. Sometimes yellin’ things about incoming, about battle starting, and gorramn if that didn’t fool me every time." And I'd sit up in my cot, she didn't add, trying to catch my breath and convince myself that bombs wouldn't be falling anymore, that the hard sound coming out of the dark was only the laughter of the guards, not gunfire.

She added a pinch of salt to the pan and stirred it. Book had offered to take over the cooking, but she hadn’t let him. She needed something to keep her hands busy.

“Got to be rare to get anything near a full night’s sleep.

Maybe it was the bein’ so tired, or maybe it was not knowing when we’d get out of there, not knowing if we ever would. I don’t know what it was. All I know is, the jibes got to be just as bad as the rest of it.

“You see, the major’s words about a ‘vacation cruise’ got around, and the idea took hold. All day, while we carried supplies to the construction sites and spent hours digging holes that a bulldozer could have cleared out in minutes, the guards were jawing at us.”

Browncoats – exercise class on the lido deck in five! Advanced hole digging to sculpt those abs!

You folks are lookin’ good! I think you’ve all lost weight! Must be the fine diet…

“The stuff they said – it was just a bunch of hot air. A load of crap. But it went on, day after day. And we were so tired. So gorramn tired.”

Step lively, kids! Another beautiful day of the rest of your lives…

“A lot of them were locals. It was their city we were rebuilding. It was their homes that had been lost in the war. It was their families who’d been maimed or killed. You can imagine that they didn’t like us much, and they let us know.”

This is what happens when you lose. This is what happens to garbage who get to thinking of themselves as grand and mighty… But keep it up, maybe you can get a job cleaning my toilet someday, you freaks.

“And you might not be surprised to hear that Mal was a special target. Especially of Fischer’s.”

Things working all right downstairs, Reynolds? You sure did curl up and whimper like a girl when I hit you… Weren’t planning on having kids, were ya?

Hey, Sergeant – we got a new chef coming in. You let us know what you think, all right? I know you got standards...

“They figured out that I was a pal of Mal’s, and that made me their second favorite.”

Alleyne – you got a boyfriend at home? No way you do. You got to be the ugliest damned woman I ever seen…

Jesu, Alleyne, you stink. Didn’t your mama teach you to wash?

“I took it. I wasn’t about to let them get a rise out’a me. Now, Mal wasn’t so good at that. He tried to talk back at first, in an almost friendly way. You know how he is. He tried to make it a joke.”

She looked away from Book as she recalled it; Mal had won her over with his humor, but he hadn’t any luck with those guards.

The sarge takes a minute to lean on his shovel and wipes thick, grimy sweat from his face. He looks up out of the muddy pit at a group of soldiers who’ve been discussing menus for some time now. They’ve been mighty creative, though certainly unkind to describe such tasty visions to a group who won’t see anything but a few spoonfuls of half-cooked muck for dinner.

“Could you maybe get us some ice cream cones for afternoon break?” Mal asks lightly.

The laughter ends as the men straighten and frown, their hands tightening on their rifles. “Are you speaking to us?” one of them demands, suddenly a soldier again. “Did anyone give you permission to speak to us?”

Mal glares for a second, biting back whatever words are trying to get out. Zoë watches as something behind his eyes closes off. A defense slams down, and the lesson the major started works its way further in.

Zoë shook her head. “After a time, Mal cracked. He threw a punch, which made Fischer the happiest man in the camp. Gave him an excuse to use that sonic rifle again, though he was less imaginative this time. Did it the proper way. Mal must have woke up with a helluva headache, and found himself in solitary. Stayed there for days. Reduced rations – reduced even more, can you believe it? – and shut in a tiny metal box, right out in the sun.

“Mal wasn’t the only one who tried to fight, but no one could pay back the frustration. Trying only made the guards come down harder. Most everyone learned the lesson sooner or later – it was best to take it all quietly.”

Zoë stopped and turned her attention back to the vittles in the pan. She wasn’t doing well at describing the camp; the taunts that had burned her then sounded weak to her own ears, like some foolish playground spat that should have been forgotten by now.

She sighed and gave up on it, and moved on with the tale.

“There came a day,” she said, “when a bunch of us, those who’d had the good sense to keep our mouths shut since day one, were gathered up and given the clothes we’d come in with. Seems that Parliament Member Branson’s Reformation of Independents Act required a certain number of folks to be reformed within a certain span of time.

“We were handed a small stack of cash and let go. It was a good will kind of thing, all over the news. A partnership between former enemies looks nice on the cortex. We help clear the damage and rebuild, they set us up with new lives. The war is over, the peace is on, all us rebel bastards are welcomed in as citizens, and ain’t that grand?”

“I’m guessing not,” the Shepherd said.

Zoë looked up at him. “You got it. Wasn’t anyone who’d hire us. Wasn’t anyone who’d rent us a room, and the money wasn’t enough to get us much of anywhere.

“Ben Jeffreys wasn’t in the camp, but he knew of it and saw the opportunity. That man still believed, still had hope that the fight would go on. He showed up and bought a place out in the country, by a small village a few miles from the camp. We added on to it, made a place for folks to live until they found a place to go.

“Of course, I stayed. I had to wait `till Mal got out, and I knew he’d be one of the last. They weren’t gonna have any luck reforming him, and he wasn’t gonna be any good at playing the game. I told you about the send-off he got from Fischer. Turns out, you take the uniform off an Alliance soldier, you got a man who’ll break the rules, same as the worst Independent. I don’t suppose Major Levin ever saw it that way.”

“Not likely,” Book said. “Men like that have their ideas of the `verse, and their minds can’t be changed.”

Zoë gave the Shepherd a sharp look. “I got a feeling that there’s a few who can.”

Book looked away – she’d caught him with that.

“Anyhow,” she went on, “Sarge never said a thing about the months he spent in there after I got out. I’m thinking it wasn’t much fun for him.”

Book nodded, and they both looked up the hill. Mal was still there, now staring down at his hands, lost in his thoughts.

Zoë let her eyes continue past Mal to scan the sky. It wasn’t clear, but it was the lightest gray she’d seen yet. She could almost make out the disc of the sun – it had shifted a bit in the day and a half they’d been here, making a tiny step toward the horizon.

She realized that she wasn’t done; she had to explain better.

“In that place, anything we did was grabbed hold of and used,” she said. “It shouldn’t have mattered, and I knew I wouldn’t ever believe the crap they said. But it kept coming, all day, every day. When you’re weak and tired and not feeling real bright about your future anyhow, it gets to you. Sooner or later, it gets through.”

What she saw in Book’s face didn’t go so far as comprehension, but there was compassion. She looked toward Mal as she continued.

“You start holdin’ in anything that’s true to your self. Let them see things that ain’t yours, and it don’t hurt so much what they do with it. What’s real you got to guard. No smilin’ loose and free, no showin’ pain, no opinion about the food or the smell of your clothes and your own body, no cursing the heat of the sun. You give them anything you’re really feelin’, it’s like showing them a pathway to get inside and tear you up where it hurts.

“I could see it in the faces of the folks in that camp. We came in near broken and wondering how we were still going on when everything else had ended, but at least we could look each other in the eye and see something there, something human. A person who’d share a laugh over those ugly damn worksuits and the color of the food.

“But after the major set the rules and the guards found a way to work inside them, people got to looking different. Their faces closed up, shades came down behind their eyes. It got to be like we were there alone, each of us.”

Except me and the sarge, she added in her mind. Mal might have closed himself to everyone else, same as her, but with the two of them there still’d been an awareness, a knowing of what hurt and just how bad. No matter how the guards ground them down, that connection couldn’t be touched. Remembering it made Zoë straighten. In the end, she told herself, these months were nothing more than another weight on the load that she and Mal carried together, and not the heaviest. It shouldn’t matter…

She slumped again and shook her head, wondering why she couldn’t just leave it behind her. “Some say that words shouldn’t hurt,” she said softly.

“It was more than words,” the Shepherd interrupted, his firm voice drawing her eyes away from Mal’s hunched shoulders. “What they did to you and the captain was torture. It doesn’t take knives and needles to torment a soul. They ridiculed your pain and helplessness, took away your dignity. They took away your right to feel, so you never could move past what pained you. Being hurt like that, with no defense, no hope for justice, is a subtle kind of torture. It’s insidious in how it hides itself from those inflicted with it. It’s impossible to fight what you can’t name.”

Zoë dropped her eyes, blinking against a sudden weight in her chest that made her eyes feel wet. She’d never thought of it that way. Whenever she thought of those days, it only brought her a sense of disgust and self-reproach that she’d been weak enough to be hurt by those bastards.

Book’s voice rose again. “Not one of God’s creatures should live under the heels of another like that.”

* * *

Translations

diăobài:dickweed
gōushī: crap
* * *

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As for pre-hack comments... the only version of this chapter I could recover was freshly posted and had no feedback yet. I think the hack happened soon after, so all comments are gone forever. :(

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