BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - ADVENTURE

ANDRYSMOR

Episode 1: Crash!
Sunday, February 3, 2008

After a botched heist that causes Serenity to crash (again), the crew looks to an unexpected source for help, and finds a few surprises in store.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2903    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Crash!

Prologue

Have we ever gotten away clean? Me and mine got more jobs under our heels than cattle on a ranch. Try and make trouble for the Alliance whenever opportunity blows its horn. Been caught a time or two, sure, but always on suspicions a mite shinier than we were really up to. Brings us back to the question. Clean’s a word ain’t got much use in our dirty corner of the ‘verse. Here’s how I see it: long as we’re flyin’, whether it’s on the job or on the run, that makes me, my crew, and my ship clean enough. Since you’re hearin’ this tale, then that oughtta tell you: we’re still flyin’. Mostly that’s on account of a rare round of fortune. Not that all of it’s good. Recently, the Alliance, Lord love ‘em, let us go without so much as a slap on our hull. We’d had a spat with ‘em that just about cost us my ship, and it only got saved at the cost of our pilot, Wash. Even given that loss, wasn’t out of fairness the Alliance let us go. No, we got away because one of their Operatives, a rare kind of officer they thought ought to be free from the burdens and blessings of rank or serial number, ordered them to stand down. We’d left him long behind, though, and without his authority, the Alliance – progressive, benevolent, overgrown tyrant of a government that they were - wouldn't go so easy on us next time. ‘Bout brings us about up to speed. Our next job’s taking us deep into Alliance territory. Whether we ever got away clean ain’t gonna mean much from there on. This is the one, the job that’s gotta be spotless. We can’t get caught. Can’t get credit, either. This one’s gotta stay under the whole dang ‘verse’s radar. Anyone gets a good look at our cargo... Well, rather just shoot myself. For reasons I won't disclose.      Because I'd have to shoot myself.      Going to the bridge meant getting past Inara's quarters, so I put on some speed. Caught her in the corner of my eye prettying up herself and her ship. Almost made me wonder if she had her own job lined up. Almost. Woman must have sensed I didn't want to talk, because she stepped out of her ship, blocking my path.      "Mal," she said. "We need to--"      "Chi shi," I said, a pretty, Chinese way of telling her Like hell, and went on up to the bridge.      In the cockpit, there was River Tam, recently rehabilitated from just plain nuts to just this side of crazy on account of sorting out some government experiments she’d been subjected to. She piloted the ship with one hand, read a book with the other, turning the pages with her feet.      Through the pane of glass separating us from the 'verse, the planet Persephone approached.      "Think you want to keep an eye on the planet comin' at us?"      "It's ok. It won't notice," she said.      "Girl, you piloting the ship only makes sense if you don't get us dead--"      River threw the book across the room. Her eyes darted back and forth. She put her hands over her ears and screamed.      "Some people are no good for criticism," I said.      River knocked the controls. Serenity jerked to the right, pointing our nose back to space.      I whirled around the cockpit, looking for some likely reason she’d gone the wrong side of crazy, but there was nothing worth this too zai zi yell. Course, most times River went nuts, only person had any clue why was our doctor, River’s brother, Simon Tam.      I punched the intercom. "Simon, get to the bridge!"      I sat down and took the controls. River just kept screaming. No sign of Simon.      "Simon! Get in here!"      Gravity latched onto Serenity. I grabbed the stick, pulled the ship's nose back around to make sure we landed without burning up in reentry.      "Gorramnit, Simon--"      "River!" came Simon's voice from behind us.     He entered, steadied River. “What’s going on?”     She stared at him, stopped screaming.     "The black wasn't enough," she said.      "What took you so long?" I asked Simon. "We were in our bunk," Simon said. Only now did I notice Simon's lack of clothes. He wore a pair of pants, thrown on, and nothing else. Uncommon for a guy who insisted on wearing his Sunday best no matter what hellhole we dropped into.      In the doorway, Kaylee appeared, wearing Simon's shirt and nothing else.       Jayne came up behind her. "What the fuss?" He was shirtless, too, but Jayne considered anything that didn't hold grenades or shoot bullets a waste of warmth anyway.      "Where were you?" I asked him.      "Same as them," Jayne said. "In my bunk. All that noise gets a man riled up."      "All what noise -" I started, but Simon interrupted me.      "What happened to River?" Simon asked. "Nothing," I said. "One second she's piloting the ship, next she starts screaming." River laid her head against Simon's shoulder and sobbed. “There must be something that happened,” Simon said. Jayne’s lip curled. "When's she ever needed a reason to go nuts on us?" Zoe arrived at the bridge. She stood just outside the doorway, looked over everyone, then pointed outside. "Maybe she saw that," she said. A ship flew through the space just outside us. ‘Course, if you hadn't seen one before, ship wouldn’t be what you’d call it. Fact is, I’ve seen more than a few, and I still cock my head every time I see a skyscraper decided it could fly through the ‘verse. “Black wasn't enough,” River sobbed into Simon’s shoulder. The Alliance.

Chapter 1

I stood up, put on my captain tone. "Get her out of here," I told Simon. He helped River out of her chair, led her to her quarters. I sat back down, took the controls, prepared to give the Alliance a good race if they thought to chase us. Their big hulk of a cruiser couldn't outrun us, but if we didn't bolt now, we’d be an easy catch for any scouts they sent after us. And they would send scouts. But instead, a second, smaller ship dropped into view, just ahead of the Alliance ship. Our intercom crackled to life. A voice, gruff, with lots of what it must have figured title and respect attached, spat out, "Firefly vessel, make way!" "Happy to oblige," I muttered. I pulled Serenity away. The second ship, now with a moderate lead, sped into orbit. Three scouts sped out of the Alliance cruiser and raced after the small ship. "Who the hell are they after?" Jayne said. "Don't matter," I said. "Long as they're after them, they ain't after us." Kaylee said, "What if they need our help? That's a little ship. Transport at best. Ain't got no weapons. Won't stand a chance." "Same chance we'd stand if we got involved,” I said. “We got a job to do, which, case you forgot, is the kind that can't do with much attention, Alliance or any kind." "I'm going back to my bunk," Jayne said as he headed off the bridge. "Let me know when we land." Inara looked at Kaylee and Zoe. "May I have a moment with the Captain?" Zoe nodded, started out. "Zoe," I said. "We need to--" "See you when you're done," Zoe said. "Sir." She left. Kaylee just stood there, smiling, 'till Zoe reached back in and yanked her out. Inara closed the door. Left me nowhere to go but through the window. At the moment, space looked a lot more inviting. "So you decided to do the job after all?" she asked. I tried to say it with dignity. "We're landing, aren't we?" "It's a good deal, Mal. I don't see why you're so upset." "We get caught, ain't a place we can show up askin’ for respect." "You never get that anyway," she said. "Ain't the point! Point is, we deserve it." "And smuggling cosmetics means you don't?" "When’s the last time you told tales ‘round a campfire about a band of thieves hauling lipstick?” "Please," she said. "The Guild is going to pay you ten times what they sell it on the market for. Wouldn't you say a, what did you call it, ‘a fat load of cash’, wouldn’t that be respectable?" "Suppose this Klein guy was saying the same thing while he was making the stuff," I said. "Suppose he's in jail now. Without respect." "I don't know why you're so scared, Mal. They'll be too busy guarding Klein anyway." Woman had a way with words. I had half a mind to point the ship at the planet and full burn for the surface. ‘Course, we’d narrowly avoided just such a fate just a minute ago, so wasn't much sense in it. Instead I said, “Time we set this straight. You hitched back on Serenity. That’s good for all of us. Makes us more presentable when someone takes a shine to taking a closer look at us. Don't mean you're welcomed into our thieving ways.” A moment passed between us, a touch of desperation in her eyes. Good reason. She had passed up all manner of work the last month. Professional whoring must pay pretty well, but none of us could go very long without pulling in some coin, not even Inara. She licked her lips. Her constant mask of calm faltered for a moment. None too pleasant a moment for her. Didn’t much care for what it stirred up in me, either. She brushed her hand across her face, sweeping across a stray lock of hair and trying to hide that brief look of desperation. "I thought you'd see reason, Mal." Without another word, she left the cockpit, the hem of her long red dress and some intoxicating perfume trailing behind her. Once she was sure Inara was gone out of earshot, Zoe came back into the cockpit. “She ask for her cut?” I shook my head. “Not yet.”

Chapter 2

Not enough trips to Persephone those days. Like any Core planet, it’s got all the things you could ask for. To keep Jayne happy, women. To keep Kaylee happy, a boatload of replacement parts for Serenity. To keep Zoe happy, enough Alliance to make the odds in her favor one of ‘em would cross her and she’d get to visit hell’s fury on him. Fair’s fair. They did get her husband killed. To keep Simon happy... Well, maybe he could go buy some fancy new duds. To keep me happy, more than enough work. That’s why I keep bringing us back to the planet, despite putting us in such close quarters with the Alliance. Kaylee stopped at the front window of a boutique. "Come on," I said. "Can't be late for this, little Kaylee." She stared at the women in the window. They sat in chairs, some with designers attending to them, others in wait while the work meant to melt their faces cooled. That’s right – melt their faces. "That woman's picking out a new nose!" she said. I grabbed Kaylee’s arm, then saw River had stopped as well. "We should ask how to hide, Simon," she said. Simon shook his head. "And give up that pretty face of yours? Come on. We've got other things to worry about." "Ain't a bad idea," Jayne muttered to me. "We didn't stop them, Simon," River said. Simon took a deep breath. "I know." She'd said what he wouldn't say. Hell, what none of us wanted to think. They'd spent the better part of two years evading the Alliance, most of that time on board Serenity. But they weren't much closer to getting the Alliance out of their hair. All our recent revelations of the Alliance’s conspiracy had done was buy them time. Time they rightly feared was already running out. Inside the boutique, a woman exited a back room. No way to tell what changes were cut into her. Not a mark of imperfection - except the “flaws” she'd ordered off the menu. "Hate to break this up, children." I said. "Got a big bad job to meet. Move." “River,” Simon said. She hadn't moved from the window. “Come on.” Jayne grabbed my shoulder. “Mal. Look.” I looked. “Tian xia shuo you de ren,” I groaned. Half figured I should have smelled the man before got us smacked with the one thing I wished Persephone didn't have more than enough of. Badger was making his way through the crowd. I ducked down into the crowd, but he'd already started towards us. Ever seen people go through their lives struggling to make it to the top, then wake up one day with more power than they know what to do with? Badger was like that, except he doesn't actually have power, just goons. That and the peace of mind to put men, women, and children in harm’s way if it means claimin’ his cut. He had betrayed us more than once, but I kept taking jobs from him. After all, work was work. Or had been. Not any more. Last job he'd given us almost got us killed. “Of all the ruttin' people to run into,” Jayne said. He reached into his pants leg and unlatched his gun. Gave me an obligatory glance, his way of asking for permission. “Crowd this big, no one'd notice.” He looked at me, hopeful. “Make it quick,” I said. Jayne's jaw dropped, surprised I had agreed. He smiled, pulled out his gun - “Wait,” I said. “Gorram tease,” he muttered. Jayne holstered his gun. “Ain't us he saw,” I said, pointing. Badger went past us to the boutique. Simon looked back and forth. “Hold on, what's he...” River, head cocked, stared at a few patients who had exited the boutique. Except they weren’t patients, unless Badger had taken to doing cosmetic surgery. He acknowledged his clients, then turned to River and started, I swear on the any of the good books, preening. Licked his lips, took off his cap, smoothed his hair. “River, look -” Simon said. Badger thought again, put the cap back on. “”Ey, lass -” Without turning around, River shot her hand into Badger's face. He stopped dead. Her voice mimicked Badger's cockney accent perfectly. “Colder down here at the bottom of the hill, i'nt it,” she said. “What do you...?” He smiled. “Oh, you ain't happy to see me?” He looked from her to his clients. “You ain't thinkin' of changin' that pretty little face, is ya?” She turned to him. Badger's smile got a bit wider. “Couldn't help noticing you here, all alone. Here on business, eh?” She didn't say anything. “No hard feelings about all that cockney last time, I -” River’s voice was back to normal. “You got it in your head to pull the wool over our eyes. Don't do to try and fool us when you can't see what's right in front of you.” Badger looked around like he'd see what she meant. “What's that?” She leaned in. He gulped. “Wasted opportunity,” she said. “Aw, now,” he said. “Meant nothing personal. What's life without a little flirtin' with death and danger, eh?” “Is that what this is?” She smiled, but he knew she wasn't happy. “You're flirting with death and danger?” “Come on,” he said. “Let me buy you something. Make it up to you.” “Flirtin' it is,” she said. He chuckled. “Suppose this is a little exciting --” She shook her head. “With death and danger.” She pointed behind him-- To a group of Alliance. Three officers. They hadn't seen River or Badger, had no reason to pay attention to either of them, but we couldn't take the chance. “Cao ni zu zong shi ba dai” I said. “If they see River...” Simon said. I shook my head. “No reason for them to care about us.” Badger saw them, too, turned to them, arms raised in mock defense. It was all they needed to start in his direction. “You was sayin'?” Jayne said, reaching for his gun again. I stopped him. “Gorammit, Mal –“ Badger grinned at River. “Know they don't take too kindly to you 'cause of your Captain. But that ain't no matter to Badger. Allow me.” He approached the leading officer. “Didn't know you had business on Persephone, Lieutenant Thompson,” he said, leading the man to the other side of the street. “Is...” Simon squinted, dumbfounded. “Is he protecting her?” “Good for her,” Jayne said. Simon frowned, disgusted. “Let me get her while --” We both saw it at the same time. River had disappeared.

Chapter 3

The Leiutenant gazed off lazily while Badger went on. Where the hell had River gone? “Captain,” Zoe said. “Don't expect they're here for us?” “Don’t think so. All the same...” I went straight to the same spot River had stood. Didn't stop. Pretended I forgot something, turned around. I updated Simon with a look, then started back. After a few steps, someone fell in line beside me. River. “Where'd you...?” “I don't understand,” she said. “Why does he keep talking to me?” Back with the group, Simon pulled her to him. “Don't ever do that again.” She shrugged out of his grip, ever the indignant little sister. “He had a right eye for you, darlin',” Jayne said. Simon frowned, disgusted. “This is not some cute little crush. That man tried to kill us. More than once.” I patted Simon on the shoulder. “Which is why we didn't come to him for a job. But we best be movin', or he'll get to asking us why.” No argument there. We headed back into the city. Simon took River's hand and held tight. Once we were a respectable distance away and had no worry about Badger following us, we stopped to regroup. “Ok,” I said, “everyone's got their job. See you at Barron's in an hour.” Simon, River, and Kayleee went one direction. Zoe another. Jayne glared. “Couldn't get Kayleee to come to church with you?” “She's got to pick up the new parts for Serenity,” I said. “No good having a getaway ship if it doesn’t run.” “Well, go grab Zoe. This don't make no sense--” “Zoe's scoutin' the job.” “River. She hadn’t gone nutjob for at least an hour --” “Jayne, too late. Play your part. Things go south, gotta have you ready to shoot someone.” “All right, I’m comin’.” Prospect of putting lead into some unknown had perked Jayne up, but he still grumbled 'till we stopped outside Southdown Abbey. All in all, the place is a mite endowed. Most folks live off the Alliance’s hand, but the Shepherds here on Persephone had built Southdown on their own. Lived with little to no sophistication. Grew their own food, made their own clothes. 'Course, it helped that the Church had enough power to make even the Alliance back off. Anyone else and the Alliance would have pushed their idea of high society into place some time ago. A long, white wall enclosed the Abbey. Couldn't have outsiders just wandering in. Over the long rows of brick, the tips of trees poked their heads, further defying the natural order of a planet that had enough problems sustaining people, let alone anything green. At the south end, a modest, two story church book-ended the Abbey. The two tall double doors were closed. “How do we get inside?” Jayne asked. I pointed next to the double doors where a smaller door was built into the wall. Jayne nodded, followed me as I pushed open the door and went inside. “Mal,” Jayne said. He had stopped. “What?” “Someone oughtta watch the door.” “Jayne, too late to -” “Mal.” He lowered his voice, uncomfortable with this side of himself. “Don't feel right going in there. Not after Shepherd Book.” “Ain't nothing in there to be afraid of,” I whispered. “Easy for you to say. You ain't got no religion.” “Neither have you!” A dusty villager walking past us raised her head. “Bless you, mother,” I said. She shook her head and went on inside. “You got trouble, you start yelling,” Jayne said. “Fine,” I said. Natural candlelight glowed throughout the church. Service wouldn't start until evening. Until then, the few that sat in pews were here to pray for God to deliver the bright future He and the Alliance kept promising. I started for the confessional booth, but something on the wall caught my eye. I stepped closer, saw the blocks of wood etched with the names of all that had been or intended to be Shepherds at Southdown. Didn't recognize any of them. Then I saw it. Shepherd Derrial Book. I let out a breath I had held for the last year. Much about Book's past didn't add up. He'd shown weapons knowledge no Shepherd should have, access to Alliance medical care I doubt many politicians had ever even had. But in the wake of his death, still just a few months gone, I felt relieved to know at least this part was true. “You knew Shepherd Book?” A man had stepped up behind me. Long, blond hair pulled into a ponytail. Tight, form-fitting gray robe. Not like Book's, who’s idea of clothes had been a mite more suited for travel. This man's robe flowed around his feet. “’Knew’ being the word,” I said. “My name is Shepherd Eden,” he said. I tried not to shake his hand like a wet fish. “We were all sad to hear of Shepherd Book's passing,” Eden went on. “How did you know him?” “Shepherd, I'm sorry. I just came to have a word or two with the one that matters.” I pointed to the confessional booth. He nodded. “Of course. Strange, though, how he died. I hear the Alliance has a warrant out for the arrest of the one responsible. From what I gather, an Operative…?” I dropped the act of piety. “Don't know much about that. Just came here to lighten my soul.” “I'm sorry,” he said. “I'm being too curious, but it's in the best interest of my Abbey.” He waved to the booth. “I believe you're expected.” “Well, He does know all, see all, doesn't He?” Man didn’t like my joke. ‘Course, he knew who the Almighty was I kept referring to. “Mr. Clayton,” he said, “has paid well to have a moment alone with you. Whoever you are. But a word of warning--” “Don't worry, Shepherd. We won't tempt the hand of God.” He gave a short, humorless laugh.“You bring trouble into my Abbey, I'll make sure you burn in the special hell.” I could barely manage to suppress a chuckle. “Something funny?” “No, sir,” I said, stifling myself. “Left all my trouble outside.” I sat down in the confessional, pulled the curtain closed. A wire mesh hid the face of the man on the other side. “I've been waiting for you,” he said. Voice sounded odd. Like he had forced it into a lower register. “Been a while since my last confession.” “And have you sinned since then?” “Oh... done a few. Killed a few. But only folks who fired first. Stole from a lot. But only folks who stole it themselves.” “And what will you steal for me?” “Only the best for our Lord,” I said. I couldn't see him, but I was sure Percy smiled. “What assurances do I have you won't take the goods for yourself?” “I got no business with lipstick, Percy,” I said. Barely had business stealing it. Sure as hell wouldn't keep it. “What assurances do I have you'll pay us?” He slipped a bag under through a slot underneath the mesh. I picked it up, hefted its weight. “Half? “As promised. The rest when the job is done.” I dropped the bag in front of us, an unspoken message: Deal wasn't done. If I wanted, I'd just slide it back under the mesh and me and mine would be on our way. Not that we could actually afford to turn down the job, but no sense in telling Percy that. “Understand you and Klein were partners,” I said. “You wonder why they arrested him and not me?” “Don't much care. But you're taking an awful big risk to get back what you could just make more of.” “There is no more of what I want,” he said. “What we had... was more than you can imagine. You can't replace it.” “Suppose you ain't talking about just the... the...” Just say it. “The lipstick.” “We were business partners, Captain Reynolds. But I'd hoped we would be partners in everything. Everything.” He paused to let that sink in. “I just want what was ours. Something to remember him by.” “Well why not just rescue the man and leave the lipstick?” “Impossible. Too many guards around him, as I'm sure you are aware, Captain Reynolds.” Sure did. In fact, we hoped the reinforced security guarding Klein's transfer would leave the cosmetics so unguarded we might actually get through this job without a hitch. “We might have heard something about it,” I said. “Close partnership you two had... No one would blame you for going after him.” “Captain, I spent years watching him play with others, pretending I didn't feel anything for him. And now he gets himself put in jail? I'm lucky enough I'm not in there with him. It's all a gorram waste. Just a... A gorram waste.” He paused. “Haven't you ever realized you should have just told someone how you felt?” “Might have.” I took the bag, put it in my pocket. “Job's a go, Percy. We'll get you what you need.” “I know you will,” he said. “Wait five minutes to leave. We can't be seen together.” “Sure,” I said. I waited about five minutes, then opened the curtain to make sure all was clear. No sight of Percy or the pesky Shepherd Eden. I had a clear shot out of the booth and through the front door. Just had to wait while a man came through the door, then-- I ducked back into the booth, reached to my waist, pulled out my gun. Ni ya lian zhang de gen lan bi shi de. It couldn't be him. Couldn’t be. Why would the Operative be on Persephone? I looked out again. He was gone. I stepped outside, saw Jayne leaned against the wall, bored as hell. I went back and forth in front of him, looked into the crowd. “You see him?” “See who?” I looked around. No sign of him. Had it really been the Operative? Could it have just been someone else? Maybe it had been. Even if, couldn’t count on it having been my imagination. If the Operative was around, we had better be a gorram spot more careful than I had intended. “No one,” I said. “Let's get the crew. Got the feeling our time here is short.”

Chapter 4

The harder half of the job was just about behind us and we hadn’t hit a single hitch. Something smelled awful about that. I kept my eyes and ears clear as we opened the hatch to the sewer system below. Except for Zoe, it was empty. “Maybe we're getting better,” I said. “Normally we'd hear alarms by now.” “Job’s going good, sir,” Zoe said. “Alliance is too busy watching Klein to guard this stuff.” With that I let go and dropped into the running stream of filth. Zoe dropped down the crates of cosmetics. I took them from her, stacked them in a row, turning them into a raft. She handed me the last crate, then swung her legs down and wrapped them around a pipe. She held herself upside down, replaced the hatch, then splashed down next to me. “You take me to all the best places, sir.” We waded to the end of the tunnel where Serenity was waiting for us. A large steel grating walled the way between us and Serenity. We blasted off the bolts, then swung it open. “Open it up, Jayne,” I said into my mike. “Took you long enough,” Jayne said. “Get the loot?” “Safe and secured.” Serenity’s hatchway whirred and fell open. There was several feet between us and the hatch. I thought, Wash could have gotten the ship inches from the opening and never let a scratch on her. But I cut it off, put my mind back on the job. No point in scraping open that wound any farther. Simon and River stood in the hatch, waiting to catch the crates. We loaded the crates onto the ship and then got on board ourselves. As I watched the hatch close, I sighed and let myself smile. “Three hundred and twenty,” River said behind me. “Three hundred twenty what?” “Jobs. You never get away clean.” “You only been with us a year. How you figure you know –“ “Mal!” Jayne shouted over the intercom from the bridge. “We got company!” “Firefly vessel!” boomed a voice outside the ship. “Surrender at once so you may be boarded!” I shared a nervous glance with Zoe. “Did you trip the alarm? I didn't trip the alarm.” “Three hundred and twenty-one,” River said. “Load the goods,” I told Zoe. I punched the intercom. “Kaylee, get ready for a full burn! Need to make some haste!” River leaped ahead of me. She was up the stairs before I'd cleared half of them. I entered the bridge as she settled into the co-pilot's chair next to Jayne. “Move, Jayne,” I said. “I can pilot a ruttin lot better than --” “Move!” He got up and I took his place. As I reached for the intercom, River shook her head. “No one said anything,” she told me. “Nothing? No police, nothing?” “No one.” I tried to think why that alarm would be blaring if there wasn’t any word of us on the local law enforcement frequencies. Then River’s eyes went casually wide and she clarified for me. “They’re telling half the guards at Klein’s house to abandon him and come after us.” On a little screen next to the controls, an angry Alliance officer yelled for us to respond at once or they'd open fire. I punched a transmitter - And the wall next to the Alliance ship exploded. Their ship spun away, losing altitude. We had moments before they would regain control and come for us. River fired the engines on and we blasted off onto our impromptu escape course. Over the Alliance channels came, “Klein is gone. Repeat: Klein is gone. Percy Clayton led the abduction.” “Percy?” I said. The fool was causing me and mine no little frustration. “What’s the man up to?” I remembered him saying now that what he and Klein had was irreplaceable. I thought it had been some sentimental attachment to the cosmetics, but now I realized it wasn't the cosmetics at all. Klein was irreplaceable. And with so many guards around Klein, we'd given Percy the exact diversion he needed. A small blessing sounded over the Alliance channels. “Redirect ships away from Firefly vessel to pursue Percy Clayton. Do not let him escape with Klein.” We passed over the water and came up on some undeveloped forests. Behind us, sensors showed a single Alliance ship gaining on us. Just minutes behind them, another ship was headed our way, too. Betrayal aside, we were lucky Percy had taken Klein, redirecting what might have been three more ships back to the city and off our tail, leaving just these two. Our radar blared, put a red blip on us fast. The Alliance had fired. “Kick up the speed. We make it to Beggar's Canyon, we make it clean.” River pushed the ship as hard as she could. She flew us down and we crashed through the treetops. That cost us a lot of speed, but the missile tailing us collided with a tree instead. River pulled us up and out of the trees, but soon as we were clear, Serenity was rocked by small ammunitions blasting holes through the hull. “Stop putting holes in my ship!” I yelled. “Captain,” Kaylee cried over the intercom. “We got problems! Engine's on fire! We got maybe a minute before she goes under!” “Kaylee, engine dies, we crash. We crash, Feds get us. Got it?” And find me with a ship full of lipstick. “Got it?” “I know, I -” She screamed once, loud, then her comm cut off. The Alliance fired again, missed, fired again, hit. A disturbing CRACK came from outside the ship as we lost more altitude and skimmed the trees. “Pull us up, River,” I said. “I can't...” she said. She pulled the stick, but our altitude kept dropping. “No traction.” I clicked the comm. “Kaylee, talk to me.” I heard her whimper through the mike. “She’s gone, Captain. We're coasting on fumes.” I slammed my fist against the console. Think, Mal, think. Then it came to me. “Everyone get strapped in,” I shouted, “we're gonna launch the shuttle!” Zoe said, “Sir, shuttle ain’t got a chance of outrunning --” “Don't want to outrun 'em,” I said. “Just want ‘em to chase us.”

Chapter 5

Our shuttle blasted off the ship and up towards atmo. Shuttle was small but had some real kick, and its thrusters had it in atmo in no time. Behind her, Serenity crashed into the land below, cutting a deep groove through the earth before she slowed and stopped. She laid there, motionless, like a wounded animal. The Alliance paused over Serenity, like a predator sniffing its prey. Then, figuring the ship was too wounded to run anymore, they sped after our shuttle.

Chapter 6

“Simon!” I said. “Get strapped in!” Simon pulled the straps over River's chest, tightened them. “Hold on, mei-mei.” “I can do it myself,” River shouted. “Simon, please...” A quick jolt as the shuttle unlatched from Serenity and flew away without us. With any luck, the Alliance would follow. Out of time, Simon let go of River, grabbed something, anything to brace himself, found the side of his chair -- We hit the ground hard. Simon lost his grip, flew into the ceiling. His yelp was cut off when his head collided with the hull. Then the ship’s trajectory shifted and he fell from the ceiling back onto the floor. He didn’t, probably couldn’t, move. Kaylee grabbed her straps, started to pull them off. “Simon!” “Kaylee, no!,” Ship was still scraping to a stop, and she could just as easy get thrown about like he had. Kaylee didn't listen, but as she pulled one strap off the ship spun around, then hit a bump and flipped over, forcing Kaylee to hold on for dear life. As the ship rolled, Simon flip-flopped like a dead fish. Finally, when we ground to a halt, Simon laid just as still on the ground, eyes closed, blood pouring out of a deep gash on his forehead. His arm hung behind him at a horrible angle. Kaylee threw off her other strap, dropped onto the ceiling before the rest of us could even get our bearings. River unstrapped herself, dropped down like a feather and rushed over to Kaylee and Simon. “Stop trying to protect me,” River said to Simon, tears in her eyes. Kaylee knelt over Simon, reached to pull him off the ground - “Don't touch him,” I said. I unstrapped, dropped, landed a lot less gracefully than Kaylee or River. “No telling what's been hurt. Can't make it worse.” “Captain,” Kaylee said through her own sobs, “he ain't moving.” Jayne dropped down with a loud clunk. He looked out the window. “Alliance took the bait,” he said, “better get to moving before they realize what we done.” “What about Simon?” Kaylee said. “You said we can't move him.” “Too far gone,” Jayne said. “Shoot him.” Kaylee and River looked at him in shock. “Hey, I ain’t all heartless. I’ll do it.” Zoe shot me a hard stare. I remembered words she’d already had to tell me one time too many. In the War, she'd said, we would have never left a man behind. Maybe that's why we lost, I had told her. I didn't know what to say. Leave him here, the Alliance would come back, find him, maybe even save him, just so they could put him in prison. If we took him along, he'd slow us down, maybe get us all caught. Even if we got away, where the hell could we take him for help? Plenty of medical help from the Alliance on Persephone, but I didn't think any of them would be welcoming us with open arms anytime soon. “Dead weight,” Zoe said, but I knew what this was. A test. Gorramit, she oughtta know better than to test her Captain. “Weights worth carrying,” I said, and while I wasn’t so sure, the words were enough to satisfy Zoe. “Jayne,” I said, “get his legs.” We opened the cargo door and walked out of Serenity. Zoe and I carried Simon. We all toted some minimal supplies: food, ammo. Outside, I got my first good look at the state of my ship. Not good. Hard to separate the damage the Alliance had done from the crash, but now I could see why they had no trouble putting us on the ground. The hive of our Firefly had blown apart. Kaylee was lucky the whole engine room hadn’t blown apart with her in it. “You get the beacon sent?” I asked Zoe. She nodded. “Inara should get it.” “Fine. Once we hear back – “Sir,” she interrupted, “we got no way to hear her response.” Tyen-ah, then there was no way to tell if we were on our own. Kaylee pressed her cheek against Simon's. One thing in the world she cared about more than Serenity. I laid my eyes on my ship. Don't worry, I told her, we'll get you better soon. Have we ever gotten away clean? Shi. The better question was: how many times can I crash my ship in a single year? Jayne came down the ramp with bags of supplies. No food. Just all his favorite knives, guns, and grenades. “Least no one died this time,” he said. Everyone stopped, shut up, and looked past him at Zoe. “What?” Jayne said. The bun tyen-shung duh-ee DWAY-RO. If Zoe had shot him there, I don't think we'd have blamed her. “Feds will be back any minute,” I said. “Let's move.” River pointed up. “Too late,” she said. There was ship coming our way. “Ni ta ma de. That was quick,” I said. We started into the trees. We made a rough go of it, but Simon didn't make a single sound of pain. Bad sign. If only he was screaming I'd know he was still with us to feel. We made it into cover just as the ship landed. If we were a little lucky, the local animals and plant life would shield our bio signatures. If not, Jayne had brought Vera, and – I knew better now – some grenades. The ship hatch opened. I rested my hand on the hilt of my gun. A black man exited the ship. He wore a deep blue uniform and a long, curved sword across his back. New. 'Cause I'd broken the old one. Kayleee gasped. “Is that -” When the Operative looked in our direction, I aimed at his head and fired.

Chapter 7

The shot ricocheted off the hull next to the Operative's head. He turned to me and gave me that smug grin, not at all surprised to see me. Hell, not even afraid of the bullet that had just missed his head. Seemed to think even God was on his side. “Hello, Captain.” I raised my gun again. “Don’t move,” I said, “I know where to shoot this time.” I aimed the gun at his head again. Next time I wouldn't miss. “Is your crew unharmed?” “None of your gorram business. What'd you do? Tag back in with the Alliance, promise to get us for sure this time?” “On the contrary, Captain -” “Doesn't matter.” I checked the corners of his ship, looked for anyone else hiding. Didn't see anyone, but hadn't really expected to. Operative ran a one-man operation. “Only reason you're still alive,” I said, “is 'cause you got something we need. Jayne, do him.” I motioned for the crew to come out. He’d let us go last time, and maybe I should have done him the same good Samaritan deed, but right now I wanted, needed, an excuse to shoot him. And wouldn’t you know, as Jayne slipped some rope out of his pack, the Operative made no move to stop him. “You got a med kit on your ship?” I asked. “Standard outfit,” the Operative said. “What's wrong with the Tam brother?” “None of your gorram business,” I said. The Operative chuckled very, very softly. “You don't know,” he said. “May I see him? I have a working knowledge of human anatomy. I found it... necessary in my old purpose.” “Don't put a gorram hand on him.” “Mal,” Kaylee said, pleading. “We gotta know how bad it is.” “You shouldn't have moved him,” the Operative said. “It's likely he has a concussion. We need to take him inside. Is he awake?” “No,” I said. “You would be wise to make him so if you ever want him to wake up again.” A brief pause to let him know I was doing this because it was wise not to let the doctor die, not because I was taking his orders. “Jayne, slap the doc.” While Jayne gleefully wrapped a hand across Simon's face, the Operative cast a look skyward. “I assume you know they will return soon. I invite you to enter my ship and we will all leave before that happens. If you will allow it, I’ll look at your doctor, too.” I wanted to tell him no. We'd do it the hard way. Just leave him here and run off with his ship. And if Simon dies, that's just the price you pay? “Fine. You lead the way,” I told him. The Operative turned around, took a step back into his ship. I cracked the handle of my gun against the back of his head. “But we're still tying you up.”

Zoe and I carried Simon while Jayne dragged the Operative feet first onto the ship. As we entered, a flash in atmo signaled the short return of the Alliance. “Get us in the air,” I told River. In a surprising moment of calm, she nodded, ran for the bridge. Hadn't even closed the ship up before she sent it lurching into the air, then set us on a smooth course for as far away as possible. River engaged the ship's controls like she knew the ship inside and out. Hell, she had probably skimmed over the schematics when she was three and DID know the ship inside and out. Jayne punched me in the ribs. “Mercy's the mark of a great man, eh?” “What are you talking about?” “Missing his gorram head by a gorram inch when ya could've just blown him away.” “I missed.” “Yeah.” He punched me in the ribs again. “S'what I'm saying. Scare him a little, right?” “Gorramit, I missed.” Took Jayne a minute to catch my meaning. He frowned, shook his head, disappointed and angry. “You mean to tell me--” I pushed him out of the way. “Just watch for booby traps.” Didn't think Operatives got far without keeping their ships, like they kept their person, secure against sneaky thieves like us. Had to work fast, though. Look too hard and we'd look too long. Lucky enough, we didn’t find anything. I went to the bridge and took a seat next to River. “Anyone following us?” I asked. She shook her head. I checked the radar, saw the blips of the Alliance converging on Serenity. I looked behind us, as though I could see through the walls to the ship we were leaving behind. “They were after him,” River said. “Who? The Alliance?” “It's the same ship they chased when we arrived.” I thought back to Shepherd Eden. He had said the Alliance had issued a warrant for the arrest of the man responsible for Book's death. The Operative. Made sense now. “Don't matter,” I said. “Least not right now.” “Mal,” River said. “Where are we going?” “Just stay on course to -” I almost said the safe-house, but that was busted. Percy had set it up, a place to rendezvous with him and exchange the payment, the goods... “What about Inara?” “See if you can connect to her shuttle. If not...” Then our fates would be so bad it was best not to tell. “They won't care about a Companion in the countryside, even if they expect us.” There was no medical room, not like we had fashioned on Serenity. The Operative had neither planned to be hurt nor allowed himself the resources to take care of himself if he was. Instead, all he had was a simple med kit in his quarters. Simon was laid out on the Operative's bed. It was a sparse, flat, uncomfortable as hell looking thing. They had propped the Operative up against the wall. He looked naked without his body armor. Zoe and Jayne watched him like hungry hawks. As I walked into the room, the Operative opened his eyes like he'd been pretending all along, just waiting for me to walk in. “What the hell happened to Simon?” “I have your permission to look at him?” “Didn’t I ask? Do it.” Kaylee stood over Simon, blank-faced. No tears, not in front of him. Not a sight of the Kaylee too soft and too true to hide how she felt. Here, in his company, she was a stone. “You make him ok,” she told the Operative, and it wasn’t a request. As the Operative stepped forward I grabbed his arm, gave him some good advice. “He dies, you die.” The Operative considered this, but didn't respond. I let him go. Not long later, the rest of us just standing there, feeling like idiots, the Operative shook his head. “Contusion.” “Spell it out,” I said. “A bruise on his brain. As well as the broken arm. That will have to be reset.” Odd – was there a hint of sadness in his voice? “Captain, I can describe his injuries, but I have little knowledge how to heal him. You should have left him for the Alliance. They at least could have repaired him.” “No,” I said. “Not a chance in hell. It's left to us.” I looked to Zoe. “Anyone else we can call on?” “Not a soul,” she said. “Badger'd just shoot him and call it a favor. Med posts are all Alliance based.” “Southdown has a medical facility,” the Operative suggested. “No one asked for you to talk,” Jayne barked. Then a bright idea, from who knows where, came to Jayne. “Hey, Mal. Don't church folk have some doctors?” “Yeah, Jayne, they might.” “I’m just sayin’. Part of their promise to help out all living creatures, even low down criminal heroes like ourselves.” “They're a closed off lot. May never let us through the door.” Zoe spoke up. “But if they did, we’d be safe. Church and government never been close. They'd never give us up to the Alliance.” “If you'll allow me to speak with them,” the Operative said-- “Someone shut him up,” I said. Jayne obliged by putting a gun barrel against the Operative’s cheek. “Ok,” I said, “Zoe. Give'm a wave as soon as we're close. Jayne.” I paused, looked at the Operative. “Take care of him.” Jayne grinned. “I can still help you, Captain,” the Operative said, but calm, always so damn calm. “You can't help Simon, got no further use for you but as a reason to watch my back. We got enough trouble. Dump him,” I told Jayne. Jayne's jaw dropped. “I can't shoot him?” “Dump him!” Jayne, not entirely disappointed, dragged the Operative out. “I have connections at the Abbey,” the Operative said. “I'll get you access. Their trust.” “Yeah, right,” Jayne said. I sighed and followed Jayne out of the room to the hangar. “I got no reason to believe you mean us anything but harm,” I said to the Operative. “Stupid of me to let you tag along this far. Near as I can tell, Alliance is after you. You can't help Simon. Gives me too many reasons keeping you around is more trouble than it's worth.” “Don't you wonder why I showed up at the exact moment your ship fell?” “Not overly.” “If I meant you harm, you know I'd have disarmed you and reversed our positions already.” “Not listening,” I said. I was surprised he hadn't made a move by now, but stripped of his body armor, it wouldn't take much for Jayne or me to put some lead where we wanted. I opened the hangar door enough to roll him out the end. The speed and height we were at wouldn't kill him. Just break an arm, maybe a leg. Hardly fair after all the harm he'd done me and mine. “Captain,” the Operative said. “Ask yourself why I helped you. Ask yourself why I want to help you now.” Jayne stood him up, then reared back to pitch him out. I motioned for him to wait just a moment. “For a man hell-bent on acting like an evil robot, you sound a mite desperate.” “The Alliance is after me because I betrayed them,” he said. “To help you. I know you find this hard to believe, but I'm not the man I was.” “So what? You just gave up on the government you were ready to kill children for? No go.” He didn't answer right away. He looked out the hatch at the passing ground beneath us, as though being thrown out was perhaps preferable than what he wanted to say. Finally, he said, “They aren't the government I once swore myself to.” He looked away from the hatch, back to me. “In what way I can, I need to repay the harm I've done you. The harm I've done to everyone.” I backed away from him, took in a deep breath. Given the danger he could put us in and everything he’d just said, there was hardly a choice to make. “Zoe’s not gonna like this,” I muttered. I put a hand on him and pushed.

Chapter 8

Kaylee's jaw dropped. “You did what?!” Jayne spit. “Ask me, it ain’t fair.” “Fair would be driving somethin' long and sharp through his chest,” I said. Jayne reached for his knife. “Got just the thing.” “Sit down, Jayne.” The crew stood around the engine room, the biggest part of the entire ship. Zoe had suggested locking the Operative in the cargo bay and, odd enough, he’d agreed. All show, really. Couldn't understand why he was acting like we were in charge. His ship, his rules. Maybe he was grateful I had pushed him into the wall instead of out the ship. “Can't believe you didn't let me pitch him,” Jayne said. “Doesn't add up, Captain,” Zoe said. “What's the hell's he want?” “I don't know,” I admitted. “Shouldn't matter one way or the other,” she said. “Zoe,” I said. “You ain't often one to go against my decisions. Now's not the time to make a new habit.” “He as good as murdered my husband! You want to tell the crew who let him kill the rest of us after you let him live?” “Man says he has connections at Southdown Abbey,” I said. “Might get in us when we’d otherwise get turned to the side. You want to tell Kaylee here who let her man die?” Out of the corner of the room, River murmured, “He's telling the truth.” We all looked at her. “He killed the Shepherds,” she said. “During the War. When the Alliance wanted control of the Church. Southdown resisted.” “Don’t remember reading that in any history books,” I said. “They erased it,” River said. “Like Miranda.” “I don't remember Shepherd Book mentioning no slaughter at the Abbey,” Jayne said. “Didn't talk much about the Abbey at all,” I said. “'Side from some stories about prayer and singing...” But there was always the unspoken sense that he had been running from something. “Then why’s he think he's gonna get us inside?” Jayne said. I sat next to River. She kept her eyes on the horizon, focused on piloting the ship, a testament to how far she'd come. “What else do you know about Southdown?” I asked her. “What's the Operative got to do with the Alliance going after them?” “I don't know,” she said. “It's just... pieces.” “Ok,” I said. “Coming up on Southdown. Jayne, bring him up. Any luck, Shepherd Eden's praying too much to know what we done.”  Once Jane came back with the Operative, I sent a wave to the Abbey. Took a minute, but the face of an old, bushy, long-haired Shepherd came on-screen. “We are not a commerce station,” the Shepherd said. “This is Captain Reynolds. Can I speak with Shepherd Eden?” “You will speak with me. What is your purpose, ‘Captain Reynolds’?” “We got a hurt man. Bad injured. Brain contusion. Could sure use some help making sure he's ok. Just need him on the mend, then we'd be on our way.” A pause from the Shepherd. “Our sensors show you're flying an Alliance chartered ship. They can help you.” The Operative stepped in. “Our colors are deceiving,” he said. I nudged the Operative out of view. Didn’t want them gettin’ confused about who was in charge. “Sorry, Shepherd,” I said, “Alliance ain't an option.” Shepherd turned real cold real fast. “Then I do not understand why we would be. I'm sorry. We can not help you.” “Wait,” I said, but the screen shut off as the Shepherd locked out our signal. “So much for good tidings,” I said. “River, take us in.” “But he just said -” “Let's see him turn us away when there’s a plain dying man at his doorstep.” “We take much longer,” Jayne said, “we'll see them turn away a plain dead man. Kaylee says he still ain't woke up.” River took us high and far around the perimeter of the main city ‘till we saw the Abbey in the distance. River set us down still outside the city. The Operative tore down a piece of the ship's inner hull, strapped his bedding and Simon onto it. “Thank you,” Kaylee said. “Thank you for helping us. It means so much.” The Operative nodded and smiled at her. “Just so,” he said. We carried Simon around the back of the city. Escaped anyone’s notice for the most part. When we put Simon down, he groaned. “Kaylee...” he said. His eyes wandered, found her. He started to say something, but he fell back unconscious just as fast. Kaylee gulped back tears, caressed his face. “You hold on, okay? There’s someone inside who’s gonna fix you up just perfect.” I pounded on the door. After not long it opened and we saw a familiar face. “Shepherd Eden,” I said. “Tried to send you a wave. We need your help.” He shook his head. “I warned them you would land, even if they denied your request. Captain Reynolds, you're a criminal. I warned you not to bring trouble to our Abbey, now you run to me with the Alliance on your heels?" "Well, there's another way of looking at that story--" "I can't have you in our Abbey.” I pointed to Simon. “Our doctor's been hurt. May be dying -” “I'm sorry,” Eden said. “There's nothing we can do.” The Operative stepped forward. “Please. Let us reason with you. Your code requires you to help us --” At the sight of the Operative, Shepherd Eden pulled the door all the way open, withdrew a gun from underneath his robes, and pointed it at us. I threw up my hands. “Or you could just kill us all now.”

Chapter 9

Jayne drew his gun. I caught his arm, pushed it back down. “No need,” I said, to him and to Shepherd Eden. I pointed to Simon. “We've had enough violence for a day. Got a man needs your help.” “I know the man you partnered with on this planet has been captured for helping another criminal escape. We've already risked enough attention when we let you meet him in our church! And when we learned your ‘business dealing’ was illegal..." “Shepherd, we were just here to transport some cargo. Got taken for the ride just as much as you.” “Why would I believe you?” “Don't matter much if you do or you don’t.” I nodded at Simon. “Long as he gets seen to.” Shepherd Eden gestured to [at] the Operative. “What is your connection to him?” “Complicated,” I said. “Same as yours, I s’pose.” “Not at all,” Eden said. His finger tightened on the trigger. “Murder of me and mine is quite simple, really." “I don't serve the Alliance anymore,” the Operative said. “Captain Reynolds can vouch for me.” Shepherd Eden shrugged. “At this point, Captain, your word won't mean much more than his.” “Shepherd,” I said. “We got no better option. We got nothing to offer except what you see.” “We have the money,” the Operative told Eden. Eden and I both looked at the Operative. “The money?” “From the job,” the Operative offered. "The job," I said, catching his drift. I nodded to Eden. "Consider it a donation." Eden cocked his head, hesitated. He nodded just once, then lowered his gun. “Perhaps I have forgotten... our way.” He opened the door, motioned for two other Shepherds to come forward for Simon. “Take him to our doctor,” he told them. “Thank you,” I said. “We must practice forgiveness,” Eden said, “even in the face of abominable sin. Drop your weapons here, now. All of them. We'll keep them until your departure.” Everyone made a plain show of doing just that. Everyone except Jayne. The notion didn’t sit well with him, but a glance from me and he let down the gun in his hand, the knife in his belt, the grenades in his bag, the mini-shooter on his ankle, and the blade embedded in the heel of his boot. Not that that was all he was carryin’, but we both knew better than to let it all go, 'lest these Shepherds give us good cause to be bad guys. The Shepherds picked up Simon, carried him inside. Eden motioned for us to follow. Once inside, we saw the man from the comm earlier. “This is Jonas," Eden Said. "He will show you to a room where you can wait,” Eden said. “I want to be with Simon,” Kaylee said. A silent exchange between Eden and Jonas. Finally, Eden said, “Ok. Take them to the infirmary. And Jonas.” He nodded to the Operative. “Don't let him out of our sight.”  While my crew followed Jonas, Eden held me where I was. “Stay behind,” he told me. Zoe didn't like it, but I nodded for her to go on, at least make it look like she had left me alone with him. “I need to stay with my crew,” I said. “They'll be fine. And I'll only keep you a minute. What's your business with him?” “Just returning a favor,” I said. “By walking into the lions den? You're smarter than that, Captain. Smart enough to see through his ruse." “That so?” “You may think he has honorable intentions. But in the end, you know he just wants something for himself.” I rubbed my neck. Truth was, Eden didn't have to remind me the Operative was being less than truthful. "Thought Shepherds were supposed to think well of all folk," I said. Eden shook his head. "Even the Good Book says there are those whose hearts have been hardened against righteousness. He is one of them." He paused, staring at me intently, like he was sizing me up. Didn't much take to it. "Take my warning, Captain. You remain with him, you'll find nothing but trouble. I take it he lied to you about us? What did he say? He knew us? Had some reason for us to help you?” Bullseye, I thought, but wasn’t about to admit it. “He said you'd met.” “That much is true,” Eden said. “You're aware of the history he has with our church?” “Just what the history books say,” I said. Eden laughed. “Then nothing at all,” he said. “Ask him. His story may have some... sentimental value to you.” “Yeah? Why's that?” Eden motioned for me to start forward. “He's the reason Book became a Shepherd here.”  

Chapter 10

I followed Eden down several hallways to the infirmary. Walk brought back a lot of memories. This church so resembled another one I’d spent a spell in, figure I could have found Simon on my own. There, through that door. That's the Shepherd quarters. That one? Goes to the atrium and the garden. I tried to shake it off. Focus. Here, now. Those are days long gone. We came up on my crew outside the infirmary, looking through a window. Inside, an old man with steady hands plied his God-worshiping trade to fix our doctor. The Operative rested on his knees next to the wall, eyes closed, muttering something. “Jonas will remain with you,” Eden said. Jonas was standing at the end of the hallway. Suppose they meant him to seem like our escort, but it wasn’t a secret he would be our guard. “You're free to go as you please,” Eden said, “but I urge you. Stay with Jonas. It would be unwise to upset our... order.” This man was sounding more like Alliance by the minute. That was good. Made any mischief we might make later much easier to live with. “If you need anything,” Eden said, “don't hesitate to ask.” With that, he left. I went back to the crew. Everyone but Zoe stood around watching the old man tend to Simon. “Shepherd had a word with you?” Zoe asked. I nodded, leaned in to whisper, “Something ain't right here.” “Good to see you're coming around, Captain,” Zoe said with a hint of a smile. “I'm serious.” I watched the old man push a needle into Simon's unbroken arm, injecting a pain killer. The other arm still hung at a nasty angle. “Don't say anything to the others,” I said. “They got enough to think about.” I looked at Jane. He was gazing numbly through the window. Anyone else, I'd have thought he looked deep in thought. “Look at him. Even Jane’s got his guard down.” Just then, Jayne whipped around and came close, whispering. “Mal, I been looking around. Somethin' ain't right here.” Zoe smirked. “You were saying, sir?” “Mighty perceptive of you, Jayne. Mind keepin' silence for the bit?” “Hell I will,” he said. His voice rose. “Whole world ought to know there ain't a single woman in this whole church!” Jonas woke up from his stony pose. “Of course there are no women,” he said, almost proud. “We’ve been bound to God. We love no other. That is a life only a man is fit for. Women, I’m sure you have seen, are too... weak to live alone. For those of us who are strong, we satisfy ourselves with prayer.” Point said and done, Jonas went back to pretending to ignore us. “Gorram man's got needs I ain't never heard of no prayer takin' care of,” Jayne said. Like she was one of the guys, Jayne nudged Zoe. "You know what I'm talkin' about."  Zoe glared. "Plenty of people got means with or without someone, Jayne.” For all his brute nature, Jayne knew he'd touched a nerve. “'Course. I was only talkin’ normal women folk. Warrior woman like you could be all alone her whole life and -” “Since you're in such a comforting mood,” I said, “they’re about to reset Simon’s arm and that means Kaylee’s about to cry. If you’d be so kind.” “Hell, I forgot!” Jayne said, eager to see the doctor in pain, not realizing the doctor was unconscious so couldn't feel pain, and even if he was awake, he'd just been given a jolt of painkillers. "'Scuse me,” Jayne said, pushing back past us. I turned to Zoe. “Don't let Simon out of your sight.” “Captain? You going somewhere?” I pointed at the Operative. “He and I need a word alone.” “Sure that’s wise?” “We need answers. If he meant us harm, I think he'd have done it.” “All due respect, sir, we ain't sure just what he means, are we?” I approached Jonas. “I need some air.” “Eden did not say--” “Eden said we're free to roam. For the coin we're passing him, it's the least you could do.” Jonas conceded, gave me directions to the atrium. I turned to ask the Operative to follow me, but he was already standing behind me. He followed me out to the sunlight and a garden most of the 'verse could only dream of. “Hope you're praying we make it out of this alive," I said. "You have reason for concern?" "Be the first time I couldn't find one, startin' with your swiss-cheese story." "Ask me what you mean to ask.” “Right down to business, huh? You lied to me.” “Did I?” “Hell yes you did. Promising having you along would get us inside the Abbey, promising me having you might get us some trust. Instead, first thing Eden does when he sees you is put a gun on us!” “Are you not inside the Abbey, Captain?” “Ain't the point --” “Do you not have Eden's trust?” “Gorramit, I'm telling you--” “But that's precisely the point, Captain. He knows you are not my ally. To Eden, that is premise enough to claim you as his own.” A long pause between us. I got the feeling I was the only one uncomfortable. “You knew what he'd do,” I said. “And how you would react.” Another long pause. “Gorramit, if I'm stuck with you till we see this through, then I can't be in the dark.” He nodded, no trace of anger or much else on his face, like he was talking to a child who just wasn't understanding. The look most folk give to Jayne, in fact. “As I said, Captain. Ask me what you mean to ask.” “Tell me what happened here,” I said. “That's a difficult question, Captain Reynolds. I'm not sure you want the answer.” “You pester me to just ask then you better give me a straight answer. Tell me what happened here, and tell me what it’s got to do with Shepherd Book.” Now he looked at me, right in the eye, too. “I'm sorry for his death,” he said. “What?” I laughed. “Maybe on your ‘better world’, you can just tell me you're sorry and that’d be that, but here on our dirty rim of the ‘verse, you’re a mite naïve. Something tells me same goes for the Shepherds. Don’t think they’re gonna forgive you.” “It's their way,” he said. “No. Not his. Not mine. Ain't no way to let go of what you did here.” “Captain,” he said, with a hint of a smile on his lips, “you believe you know what happened here, but I assure you. You do not.” “Then you better get to tellin’.” “After defeating the Independents,” the Operative said, “the Alliance decided to expand its boundaries. It already had all the people in our galaxy. It had them in every way but one. It could not take their souls.” “Our last bid at freedom,” I said. He nodded. “Just so. The Alliance had and retains one rival to all its power. The Church. It's said in the days of Earth that Was, the Church held more power than any government could dream. In its way, that is still so. A Cardinal from the Church has more power than an Alliance General. A General speaks with the voice of the government. But a Cardinal, or even a lowly Shepherd... They speak for God. But even the voice of God can be less persuasive than the proper funding. And of coin, the Alliance had more than even the Church did. So the leaders of both made certain...agreements. "The Alliance started with the largest congregations on the Core Planets. If we could sway them to join the Alliance, we could be sure the rest of the Outer Planets would follow. Everyone would live a life of peace and righteous satisfaction.” “But they didn't,” I said. The Operative shook his head. “Indeed, Southdown wanted no part of it. They resisted all direction, even from the Church, though that meant risking excommunication. Once Southdown’s senior Shepherd, Derrial, ceased negotiations, the Alliance sent a diplomat to help negotiate the compromise. He was someone whom even a renegade Abbey would listen to. A Cardinal whom, while they might not obey, they would respect. He brought with him an unknown. Me. I was given one order should they continue to reject our offer.” “Back up. What Cardinal would go on that suicide trip?” I asked. He paused, made sure he had my attention. “They sent one who was familiar with such tense negotiations. They sent a Cardinal. The man you would later know as Book.”

Chapter 11

The Operative continued, “Southdown received us with no open hostility. Book gave me no introduction, though I believe the senior Shepherd, Derrial, knew my purpose. “Book's meeting with the senior Shepherd did not go well. Derrial seemed to hope insisting on neutrality might leave his Abbey out of the equation, perhaps even convince us to leave them as independent of the other churches. We were respectful and made no open threats, though they knew that much more of this would force our hand. That, and the presence of the Cardinal, was enough to put any of them in a little awe. “But all our attempts to negotiate were met with silence from Derrial.     “When we were alone, Cardinal Book said to me, 'You must see now that what we’re asking is impossible for them to reconcile with what they believe.’      “'My concern is not what they believe,' I said. ‘I am here to fulfill a purpose.’      “'A purpose under my direction.’ Dark as his own past was, he still looked on me with some trembling. ‘I won’t let it come to this. I won’t make you necessary.’      “’And how do you propose to do that, Cardinal?’      “’They believe they don’t have a choice in this. They believe they’re doing what God tells them to.'      "'They won't listen to reason, Cardinal. They don't care about anything but protecting their belief. What would you do? Convince them God is wrong?'      “’No. But I will get God to tell them differently.'”      The Operative went on. “Book requested Derrial meet with him the next evening in the fellowship hall. He wanted Derrial to agree on the message Book would deliver to the other Shepherds and the church. While Book waited for Derrial, I waited in the rafters.      “When Derrial arrived, Book asked him, 'Who do you think you're saving?'      'Ourselves, Cardinal. We can't compromise what we believe.'      'Shepherd, the Church will unify with the Alliance. Fighting them isn't going to change that. All it will accomplish is more suffering. You'll cause a war between you and the Alliance. They'll shut down your Abbey and kill anyone that fights them. Then what? You'll be dead. All the people in this city that depend on you and your Abbey will have no one. And the Church will still unite with the Alliance. This won't save anyone. This won't stop anything."       Derrial smiled, but he seemed sad. "I know the price of refusing the Alliance's offer. When Stephen died professing the glory of our Lord, do you think God regretted his sacrifice? Do you think no one mourned him?" Book didn't answer, so Derrial pressed on. "When Christ died knowing how many would ignore His message, do you think he for a second regretted his decision?' Derrial took Book's hand. 'Tell me, Cardinal,' he said. 'Who do you think you're saving? I know the price of refusing the Alliance's offer. But we know what we believe. Nothing will change that.'      'You willing to die for that belief?' Book said.      Derrial put his hands on Book's shoulders and nodded, like a man who knows he has nothing left to say.      Book turned away from him. 'I'm sorry,' he said, then looked at me and nodded. One shot finished it.”

 

Chapter 12

“You killed him?” I said. “Like them,” the Operative said, “I believed I had no choice.” “And you expect me to believe Book gave you the nod to do it.” “It is hard to believe. But let me go on. That moment is what turned him into the man you met. The death of Derrial caused the Abbey to rally against the Alliance, like your people did. The Alliance's response, as always, was swift. They returned with a covert slaughter. Few from Southdown survived, and those that did were left with ruins. “Book felt he was responsible. After the slaughter, he rescinded his title as Cardinal and came back to Southdown to rebuild the Abbey. Anyone left alive had no inkling who he was.” It was too much. I couldn’t believe it. “He's telling the truth, Captain Reynolds.” It was Eden, standing at the entrance to the garden. The Operative cocked his head, an unspoken question between them. “Well,” Eden said. “Most of it. And I don't blame him for lying about the rest.” I shut my eyes. Maybe it was being back at a church, but it stirred up something in me, something that kept hoping he had changed, that he could be trusted now. “Tell him,” Eden told the Operative. Instead, the Operative went to Eden and, with nary a word, kneeled down. “I am sorry for what happened to your people,” he said. “I am sorry for the part I played in their deaths.” Eden rested his hand on the Operative's head. “It took great courage for you to come here, to say you regret your past. Look at me.” The Operative kept his eyes fixed on the ground. Long time now, I’d looked at him as not much more than a machine, just a weapon the Alliance used that looked like a man. Eden lifted the Operative's face up. “I know you are sorry for the part you played in their deaths. And I know you did not play the role you claim. I know you did not kill .” I stepped closer to them. “Then who the hell did?” “What he isn't telling you,” Eden said, “is that Shepherd Derrial also brought an unknown to the meeting. A young boy who was still in training to become a Shepherd, still innocent to the ways of the world. Perhaps Derrial believed my presence would make Book hesitate. He was a fool. “But then, Book was not without his own foolish beliefs. He assumed Derrial was the driving force behind Southdown’s defiance. He believed Derrial's death would renew negotiations. So Book killed him. He thought that when he pulled the trigger, he would stop the war we knew was coming. Instead, he started it.” “That’s a tall tale to swallow, Shepherd,” I said. “And you,” I told the Operative, “are officially on my list of people I don’t trust farther than I can blast out an airlock.” “Don't judge this man for lying to you, Captain. He wanted to save Book's dignity.” He looked back to the Operative. “That is what demonstrates you are a different man. Consider your past as disappeared.” The Operative stood, any hint of emotion erased from his face, as Eden told him, “You have my forgiveness. That being said,” Eden went on, turning to me, “I must ask something of you.” “All due respect, Shepherd,” I said, “I'd prefer we just give you your money, you give me my doctor, and we be on our way.” Eden looked to me. “That's not possible.” I sighed. “What do you want?” “I must ask for your forgiveness,” Eden said. The doors on both sides of the garden crashed open. Two Alliance officers stepped in, guns at the ready and aimed at us. The Operative didn't move. Just took in the situation with a glance and waited for the right moment. I grabbed Eden, pulled him in front of me for a shield as I took out a small pistol I’d managed to keep hid. I pointed it at his head. “You lying -” “Hold your fire, Captain!” Eden implored. “Why?” I said. “Do you understand what it means to run the Abbey? How much money is required to remain independent of the Alliance? This has long been a place of rebels and the Church had learned to recognize us as such. A heretic’s haven. And as such, we are further and further removed from the Church’s financial backing. You know as well as anyone, Captain. When we are faced with the survival of our people, we all find ourselves making... sacrifices.” “So you're just going to sacrifice us?” I pressed the gun hard into his temple. “Is that it?” “Don't blame him,” came a voice behind the Alliance officers. He stepped forward, but kept out of the officer’s line of fire. “Like you, he is a businessman. You offered him quite a bit of money. We offered him more.” “I have your word, General Thompson,” Eden said. “No harm to them.” “Yes, yes,” Thompson said. “And payment delivered, in full.” “Keep him,” I said, meaning the Operative. “But you’re lettin’ me go, or else.” Thompson laughed. “Or else what?” “Or else I shoot the Shepherd in the head.” “Go on,” Thompson said. “You don't know me,” I said. Thompson waited, thinking he’d call my bluff. Finally he said, “If you insist.” I caught the motion of his hand reaching for his waist and leaped aside without waiting for the shot that followed. I rolled aside, checked for injury, but realized I didn't have to. Thompson never meant to hit me. There was Eden, on the ground, a small hole in his forehead. “Now that that's settled,” Thompson said. He walked back through into the Abbey. “Finish it,” he told his men. They fired and I rolled aside, fired once, hit, twice, another hit, then fired the third and final bullet, takin’ down another officer, but it was hopeless, more were already coming in. Behind me, I registered the Operative still hadn't moved. I thought he'd been waiting for the right moment to act, but the once invincible hunter was, for some gorram reason, not even fighting back. I heard shots from inside the Abbey and realized: Oh, no. They found the others. “Do something!” I yelled at the Operative. Too late. The Alliance got off a shot with a stun gun: wave of sound meant to jumble the mind and knock you cold. It struck the Operative and he collapsed. I moved to dodge, but with nowhere to run, when they got off another shot, they hit me. My body went numb, my mind more so, and with that, the world went dark.

To be continued in Episode 2: “But Wash... ain't you dead?”

COMMENTS

Sunday, February 3, 2008 9:45 AM

NBZ


Very interesting.

Loved the "I missed" bit between Mal and Jayne.

Sunday, February 3, 2008 4:47 PM

MEGG


Wow, that was some read. Pretty awesome, though, can't wait for the rest.

Sunday, February 3, 2008 5:13 PM

KATESFRIEND


Loved your dialog and your Mal voice. Quite a lot of plot in a very tight fit - lots of action all around. Loved your mix of humor and tension - very much like Firefly. Eager to see where you're going to go with this.

Monday, February 4, 2008 1:28 AM

BORNTOFLY


Holy shit...

That was in-freaking-credible.

I am wanting more on a supreme level.

Monday, February 4, 2008 2:48 AM

WYTCHCROFT


really great chapter - i wouldn't be brrave enough to use the first person p.o.v.!

Monday, February 25, 2008 6:49 PM

ANDRYSMOR


Thanks for all the positive reviews, everyone! Check out episode 2, just went on the air!


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