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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Our BDHs have to put on their company manners when they get invited to dinner… Meanwhile, we catch up with how Leon (For The Want Of A Nail) has been faring in prison.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 1020 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
Disclaimer thingy: Firefly/Serenity are owned by other folks and not by me, though I appreciate being able to write some stuff purely for fun inspired by the Firefly 'Verse. All constructive comments and feedback from you shiny readers out there much appreciated!
The journey to the prison complex was uneventful and a muted calm settled on Serenity and her crew. Mal woke from a blank and dreamless sleep to relieve Zoë on the bridge, telling her to get her head down. She departed with no protest or comment, leaving Mal to take a largely redundant watch as Serenity cruised on autopilot to their destination. After the first few hours he elected to go on autopilot himself, pulling a blanket out of one of the storage lockers and cat-napping in the pilot’s chair, rousing periodically to check on the ship’s progress.
The ship was quiet, the rest of the crew asleep, when readouts signaled that their destination was less than an hour away. Mal sat up, the blanket slipping to the floor; then rubbed his eyes and looked at the monitor screen. “Uhhm.” He flexed his head carefully from side to side, wincing at the stiffness in his neck.
“That chair doesn’t look too comfortable for sleeping in.” Inara’s voice came from behind him and he turned, startled. She walked softly into the cockpit, giving him a quiet smile. “I hope I’m not intruding.”
“No.” He shook his head, then bent to pick up the blanket that had fallen to the floor. She looked at it as he rose and stowed it back in the storage locker. “You haven’t been sleeping up here since yesterday, have you?”
“No.” He smiled as he sat back down, reaching out to touch a control. “I ain’t. Got my head down in my bunk for a few hours. Then I took over from Zoë a spell back, so she could do the same.” He glanced at the chronometer set into the control panel. “She’ll likely be rousing and comin’ up sometime soon.”
Inara sat down in the co-pilot’s chair, looking out first at the stars, then at the controls. “It’s not easy, is it?” she asked. “Just the two of you handling the ship.”
Mal shrugged. “Gotta be done. Zoë and me’s the ones who can pilot Serenity solo. River can make her fly, but I wouldn’t feel easy leavin’ her on her own up here. Just in case…” He shrugged again. “Well, hell… I just wouldn’t.”
Inara nodded. “Yes. But it’s still tough on you and Zoë.” She touched the console, then drew her hand back. “I’d offer to help out, but a shuttle is the limit of my experience.”
“You pilot a shuttle real good.” Mal looked at her and Inara heard the sincerity in his tone. “But flyin’ Serenity, that’s a whole different notion.”
“I thought as much.” Inara looked out of the view screen. “Are we getting close to where we’re heading?”
“Yeah. Be able to see it soon.” Mal looked out of the screen too. “Not that it’ll be a sight worth seein’.”
“You’ve seen one before?”
Mal’s eyes narrowed. “Oh yeah. Me and Zoë both.”
“What happened?” Inara turned towards him. “Did a… job go wrong?”
Mal let out a short, mirthless sound, his face setting into a bitter smile. “Not exactly.” He turned his gaze on her. “Matter of fact, it was before we took up working with Serenity. End of the war. Guess you could say, a real big job went wrong. For us and a few thousand other folks wearing a brown uniform.”
“Oh.” Inara paused.
“Yeah.” Mal turned back to the view screen. “We got took with a bunch of other POW’s to a ‘high security facility’, like this one we’re headin’ to now. Only we didn’t call ‘em that. Called ‘em prison hulks. Stayed there three months, near enough.” His mouth tightened. “Felt like longer.”
Inara said nothing, but she held her eyes on him as she listened. There was a brief silence, then Mal said, “Anyhow, they let us POW’s go after a while. Dumped us on the nearest piece of dirt with a less-than-friendly farewell and a suggestion that we kindly take ourselves off to whatever godforsaken Rim planet we hailed from…” He lowered his head. “ ‘Course, in my case that didn’t prove too practical, seein’ as how the Alliance bombed Shadow into a flat desert midway through the war. Wa’n’t nothing left to take myself back to. So that’s when I reckoned on gettin’ a ship.”
“And Zoë decided to stay with you.”
Mal nodded. “Yeah. She didn’t have a whole lot of anythin’ to go back to, neither. So she opted for throwin’ in with me. Just the two of us made it from our platoon, out of Serenity Valley. We figured we’d got through that, might as well keep goin’.” He looked out at the stars ahead. “Seemed like we might find a corner of the ‘verse the Alliance didn’t have too many ambitions for, and make a livin’ there.” The corner of his mouth lifted in a sardonic smile. “Somehow, didn’t turn out that way.”
“But you’re still here. Still on Serenity. Still making a living, however… touch and go it sometimes is.” Inara leaned forward.
“ ‘Touch and go’ ?” Mal turned his head and looked at her, his brows lifting. “That Companion talk for ‘pretty damn bad’ ?”
“No. It’s what it sounds like.” Inara held his gaze. “I know things don’t go smoothly. Things go wrong, plans and jobs don’t always work out the way you want. But you’re doing what you want to do, Mal. You had an aim and you’ve kept to it. You wanted to be independent of the Alliance, go your own way, and you’ve done that.”
“You sound like you’ve a notion that’s a good thing. But I recall you tellin’ me, back when you first boarded Serenity, how you supported Unification.”
“Yes, I did support it.” Inara nodded. “I thought it was a good thing.”
“You ‘thought’ it was?” Mal pressed her, the sardonic smile coming back to his face. “That mean you’ve had a change of heart since then?”
“Perhaps.” Inara’s truthful answer held him. “Since what happened on Miranda… Things have changed. For all of us. For me as well. To find out what the Alliance have been doing, in the pursuit of a ‘better future’…” Her eyes grew disturbed. “Nothing can make up for what they did to those people.”
Mal turned back to the controls. “That’s the trouble with power. People get it, they start entertainin’ the idea they can fix all the wrong things they see around them. But mostly, life can’t be fixed. It’s just there to be lived, the best way folks can manage. And generally speakin’, folks get on better with that, the less government gets involved.” He touched a control; checked a screen. “Like I’ve always said, all I want is to go my own way. Sometimes that means I offend someone else’s sensibilities, which is when I tend to get a mite insistent.” His jaw tightened. “I ain’t givin’ up any more ground. I’m done with being stepped on.”
Inara was quiet, and for a moment they both sat in silence. At last she said, “You’re consistent.” Mal looked at her and she gave him a smile. “I mean that in a good way. You’ve always been clear about what you want and how you plan to get it. You’ve never deceived the people around you; they always know where they stand. I think that’s one of your strengths.”
“Only one of ‘em?” Mal returned his gaze to the screen, raising his eyebrows. “You plan on telling me what the rest are?”
“Maybe another time,” Inara laughed.
Footsteps behind them made them both turn: Zoë appeared, slowly stepping up into the bridge. She glanced at Inara, who gave her a smile of greeting. “Morning. Did you sleep well?”
“Fine. Thanks.” Zoë advanced to stand just behind them. “How’re we doing?”
“Just comin’ into visual,” Mal answered. “Reckon we’ll be there in a little over forty minutes.” Zoë checked the console and nodded. “How’d you want to do this, sir?”
“We dock and get Stanway’s man handed over; exchange whatever form of words we need to with this guy Pakenham to get our fuel cells; load ‘em, and leave. Straight in and out.” Mal’s mouth twitched. “That’s the plan, anyways. Which I realize is temptin’ fate to even say out loud.”
“You think there’ll be complications?” asked Zoë.
“Hell, when ain’t there.” Mal shrugged. “Stanway said he’d radioed ahead and got them expectin’ us, so we oughta be able to do this short and sweet. But they’re a prison so for starters they’re gonna have some kind of fang-tzong fung-kuang de jeh security system to negotiate. And I’m guessin’ that’ll take time.”
“Mm hmm.” Zoë nodded, her eyes turning to the screen. “Kind of ironic, us goin’ to all this trouble to get into a place like that.”
“Yeah.” Mal keyed in a course change. “Well, we’re just visitin’. Don’t plan to spend any more time there than we have to.”
By the time Serenity was close enough to begin docking procedures, everyone in the crew was awake and uneasily awaiting arrival. Mal banished everyone except Zoë from the bridge with the comment that he was sure the two of them could handle things just fine, and why didn’t everyone just go and fix themselves a cup of coffee or something. As long as it took them some place else.
Inevitably, everyone ended up sitting around the dining table. Jayne fidgeted for about thirty seconds, then took out his knife and began laboriously to clean under his nails. Simon, Kaylee, Inara and River found their gaze unwillingly dragged to the spectacle.
“Jayne.” Kaylee pulled a face at him across the table. “Couldn’t you… use a nail file like ordinary folks?”
“Don’t need one,” he responded, continuing to labour away with the point of his knife. There was a change in the engine note, and a dull clunk which caused everyone to raise their gaze. Kaylee spoke low. “We’re dockin’.”
“I better go and start moving Carlson.” Simon stood up. “Jayne – can you give me a hand?” Jayne looked up. “Me? I ain’t settin’ foot on that ruttin’ floatin’ prison.”
“Matter of fact, we all are.” Mal’s voice made them all look around, to see him descending the steps into the dining area. “Part of their dockin’ procedure: all our crew to disembark. Ain’t no exceptions.”
“Jien tah-duh guay…” Jayne growled. Mal fixed with him a look, then spoke to all.
“Got a bundle of suo-shi regulations to follow to get our business done here; way I look at it, quicker we do ‘em, quicker we’ll be able to get on our way. While we’re over there I’ll do the talkin’; we stick together and no-one goes wanderin’ off explorin’.” He shot a glance at River, who answered it with an expressionless look of her own. Mal turned back to Jayne. “And we ain’t takin’ any weaponry over there with us. So you can strip off that armoury you walk round in.”
“Chu fei wuh suh luh!” exclaimed Jayne. “You want me to go in that place unarmed? No ruttin’ way!”
“Me and Zoë’re leavin’ our guns here on Serenity.” Mal unbuckled his holster as he spoke. “You’ll leave every damn bit of hardware on board too.” As Jayne looked mutinous Mal shook his head slightly, a humourless smile curving his mouth. “You can take ’em off and leave ‘em in your bunk, on your way to the infirmary to help the doc.” Jayne stood slowly, and trailed after Simon. Mal watched them go, then turned to Kaylee, River and Inara. “You fit to move?” They nodded. “Good.”
Behind them Zoë appeared on the steps from the fore passage. “We’re ready to disembark. They’re expecting us.”
“Okay.” Mal took a deep breath. “Let’s get this over with.”
All of Serenity’s crew stood together silently in the cargo bay, grouped behind the medical pallet on which the injured Carlson lay. Mal stood in front of the stretcher facing the door, grafting what he hoped was a suitably respectable expression onto his face. His nerves were on edge but he forced himself not to show it, as much for his crew’s benefit as for the eyes of those waiting to receive them on the security facility. Nothing ever changes. I try to head for work and somewhere quiet to give us a chance to take things easy, and this is where we end up. He could feel the discontent emanating from the crew behind him, their apprehension evident in their unusual silence. Be nice to get a break and have things go smooth, just for once. But looks like our luck’s still runnin’ the same way it usually does. The door began to open. It don’t matter now, anyways. Just do the job in hand. Get my people away from here, soon as it can be managed. The door was fully open, revealing half a dozen blue-uniformed prison officers, headed up by a grey-haired man in a rather smarter uniform. This man spoke. “Captain Reynolds?” He stepped forward, extending a hand. “I’m Thomas Pakenham, Governor of this facility. Welcome aboard.”
Mal advanced, taking the man’s hand and finding his own clasped in a strong grip. “Thank you, Governor.” He shook hands, then half turned back towards Serenity. “We’ve got the injured man right here.” Pakenham nodded, his eyes going to where Simon and Jayne were wheeling Carlson’s pallet forward. “Of course.” He nodded at his group of officers. “Three of you take this man to the hospital unit.” As they stepped forward Pakenham looked at Simon. “You would be the doctor who saved this man’s life?”
“Well, I did what I could.” Simon was slightly nonplussed by Pakenham’s statement. “He’s got severe spinal trauma, but I managed to stabilize his condition – “
“Stanway has told me all about it.” Pakenham effortlessly took control. “I’m sure you did a fine job, doctor. We’ll get him comfortable and attended to by our medical staff right away. In the meantime - ” he turned back to Mal, “ – I’d like to offer you and your crew some hospitality. I have a meal being prepared for you, in my quarters. And I’m sure you’d like some time to relax after your generous efforts on behalf of my supply ship.”
“That’s mighty generous of you, Governor,” Mal replied, trying to keep a polite smile on his face. “But in all truthfulness, we are runnin’ a little behind schedule. Mr Stanway did mention as to how you might be able to spare us a few fuel cells; if you could see your way clear to lettin’ us have them, we probably ought to get on our way.”
“Oh, you’ve time to dine with me, I’m sure.” Pakenham spoke with the assurance of a man who was used to getting what he wanted. “Besides, it’ll take my men a while to prep your fuel cells and get them loaded.” He smiled graciously at the rest of the crew. “I’d be honoured if you would all join me for dinner. I don’t get too many guests dropping in.” Kaylee looked hesitantly back, then glanced at Mal; Simon and River instinctively stepped together and Inara summoned one of her warmest fake Companion smiles. Jayne merely looked at Pakenham from under lowered brows.
Mal registered his crew’s less-than-enthusiastic response to Pakenham’s invitation and felt the tenor of the situation start to sour. Guay. Let’s speak up quick before he gets to wonderin’ just exactly why we ain’t comfortable on board his fine prison facility. He broadened his polite smile a little more and said, “Well. Since you put it like that, Governor… We’d be glad to accept.” He swung round to look at the others momentarily, so that only they could see the Humour this old bastard before he starts gettin’ nosy look on his face. They got the message and he turned back to Pakenham, putting his fake smile back on. “Thank you.”
“Not at all, captain.” Pakenham gestured ahead of him. “Please, follow me.”
As the crew of Serenity fell into step behind Pakenham and his officers, Zoë drew close beside Mal. She spoke low out of the corner of her mouth. “ ‘Straight in and out’ ?”
“I ain’t forgotten.” Mal replied under his breath. “But he’s the man runnin’ this place, he calls the shots.”
“Thought the plan was there weren’t going to be any shots.”
“There ain’t.” Mal kept his eyes on Pakenham’s back. “We got nothing to hide from him.” At Zoë’s frank look, he clarified, “Nothin’ he’d know about, anyhow. We keep our heads and keep on smilin’, this’ll be a done deal.”
“Oh, I’m smilin’.” She turned her eyes front as he did. “Whatever gets us out of here the quicker, I’m doing it.”
Pakenham led them on a longish journey from the docking bay, through a warren of steel-walled passageways. They passed viewing windows that overlooked workshops, glimpsing groups of prisoners in dull green uniforms being supervised by prison officers as they worked at various tasks. At last Pakenham stopped by a doorway and keyed in a code to a panel set beside it: the door opened and he ushered them inside. The room beyond was comfortable, a contrast with the bleak grey metal corridors and spaces they had just traversed. Several upholstered chairs stood around a low table; tasteful prints decorated the walls. Pakenham nodded at the chairs. “Please, sit down and make yourself comfortable. I’ll just instruct the kitchens that we’re ready to eat.” He gestured to a polished wooden cabinet standing against one wall. “And please do help yourself to a drink before we dine. I’ll be back shortly.” With that he smiled and exited the room. The door shut behind him, and Serenity’s crew looked at it, then at each other.
Jayne was the first to break the silence. “Sha lao jiu cha wen…” He headed across the room to the drinks cabinet and opened it up. “Hey, he’s got all kinda fancy stuff in here.” He picked up a bottle and pulled off the cap: sniffed it experimentally.
Mal crossed the room and took the bottle off him. Jayne looked outraged. “Hey!”
“No drinking. We keep a clear head.”
“You keep a clear head. You’re the one got us into this.” Jayne took the bottle back. “He said to have a drink. I’m only bein’ polite.” He grinned and tipped the bottle up, taking a big swig. Then his eyes watered and he lowered the bottle again, pulling a face. “Goddamn Ng Ka Pei - ” He put the bottle down and peered into the cabinet. “Don’t he have any real alcohol?”
Mal leaned over and shut the cabinet’s lid, looking into Jayne’s face. “Save your discerning palate till we get back on Serenity.” He gestured towards the chairs. “Bar’s closed. Take a seat.” Grumbling, Jayne slouched away to sit down, thumping his booted feet up onto the low table. The others were already seated, looking anything but relaxed. Mal walked over to them; paused for a moment, then walked over to the closed door. He gloomily studied the security locking panel, then moved back across the room.
“How long you reckon we’ll be here?” Zoë asked quietly, poised on the edge of a chair. Mal shrugged. “However long it takes to eat a meal. Let’s hope there ain’t too many courses.”
“Might be okay.” Kaylee tried to sound optimistic. “I mean, maybe it’ll be nice food.” When Zoë looked at her, she continued, “Seems like this Governor’s only tryin’ to be friendly. It could be worse.”
“We’re sittin’ in a locked room in the midde of a ruttin’ prison, surrounded by armed guards and we ain’t got so much as a cap pistol between us. And I ain’t allowed to have a drink.” Jayne shot a glowering look at Mal, then turned on Kaylee. “How you figure this could be worse?”
“You don’t quit mouthin’ off, Jayne, you’re likely to find out,” said Mal.
“Let’s all calm down.” Inara spoke soothingly. “We’re not going to be here long.”
“That’s for damn sure,” muttered Jayne. They all fell into an uneasy silence. At last the door they’d entered through opened again, allowing Pakenham back inside. He smiled expansively at them. “Dinner is on its way.” He glanced around the room. “Can I get anyone a drink?” There was a general faltering chorus of denial: Jayne stared sulkily down at the table. “Well, in that case, let’s go through and sit down.”
They were ushered through a second doorway into another room, where a polished dining table stood waiting for them. They filed around the table slowly and sat down at Pakenham’s invitation. Mal placed himself nearest Pakenham with Inara opposite, figuring that he could keep control of the conversation and Inara could keep Pakenham entertained. Simon sat next to Inara with River beside him; opposite sat Kaylee, with Jayne next to her; and Zoë took the seat at the far end of the table, where Mal hoped she’d keep a lid on Jayne. He forced himself to smile at Pakenham as a uniformed officer served them all with bowls of soup. “This is very generous of you, Governor. We thank you.”
“Not at all, not at all. Little enough I can do, for all you’ve done for Stanway and my supply ship.” Pakenham took a sip of his soup and looked appreciative. “Ah, that’s not bad, not bad at all.” He nodded at the food. “We like to have some home comforts, although it isn’t easy on such a remote facility.”
“It’s really very good.” Inara had seen that Mal was already struggling to maintain company manners whilst keeping control of his wayward crew. She let her training take over, putting her true feelings aside. “You must have a skilful chef as part of your crew.”
“I’m flattered you think so.” Pakenham laughed. “No, indeed! The man who prepared this meal is an inmate. A life term prisoner. He was a cook in his previous life, and when I discovered this I endeavoured to put him in a position where he could make use of his skills.” He took another sip of his soup. “We believe in the men making themselves useful during their terms here. No man here has less then five years to serve: most are here for at least ten. Some will be here for most of their lives. They aren’t eligible for parole, so they will all serve their full terms. That means it’s important to keep them occupied. We give them all work to carry out, while they’re here. Many learn new skills; some, like the man who cooked this meal, get to keep old ones. It’s good rehabilitation.”
“How positive,” replied Inara, smiling gracefully. Across the table she saw Mal looking at his soup in a interrogatory fashion. Beside Simon, River looked at Mal too and said, “He wasn’t a poisoner.” Mal’s gaze flashed to her while Inara paused with her spoon halfway to her mouth: beside River, Simon gently put his hand over his sister’s where it lay on the table, his face a mask of calm. River glanced around, her eyes wary, then looked at Pakenham and said, “I mean – you wouldn’t have him as your cook, if he was.”
Pakenham laughed. Serenity’s crew collectively breathed again. “Indeed not, miss! I value my skin too highly to take those kind of risks with it.”
“So the… inmates here do all kinds of work?” Inara steered the conversation onwards, into what she hoped were uncontroversial waters. “They help in the running of the facility?”
“Yes, that they do.” Pakenham finished his soup and signaled to a waiting officer to send in the next course. “Everything from administrative duties to cleaning and cooking, for themselves and for my officers. Also we take contract work in, which brings us an additional income: materials recovery and sorting for processing plants, small-scale manufacturing, even simple technology work. And of course a great deal of the day-to-day maintenance of this facility itself can be undertaken by inmates, after they’ve received suitable training.” He nodded at the officer as the man set a plate of food in front of him. “Obviously there are certain areas where we can’t have the men working… But there are plenty of maintenance tasks which can be carried out by them, saving us the cost of bringing in contractors every time we have a repair to attend to.” He gestured to one side. “We have a crew of prisoners working on an maintenance detail right now, under the supervision of my officers, of course. They’re undertaking a basic service on one of the sections of this facility.”
“You ever let ‘em work outside on the hull?” Mal asked. Pakenham shook his head, smiling “Good lord, captain, no! That would be a little too much freedom.”
“Guess it would be, at that.” Mal gave a brief insincere smile. “Don’t suppose you want any of your inmates flyin’ the coop.”
“Well, there’s not really anywhere for them to go… But even if there was, we have a back-up.” Pakenham held up a forefinger. “Every prisoner is implanted with a security microchip when he arrives at this facility. We can check on each inmate’s movements simply by running a scan of the prison. So you see, there’s really no risk of us losing track of a single man.”
“So what kind of work do you get them doin’?” asked Mal.
“We set up a temporary maintenance area in whatever part of the complex needs working on. Once it’s set up the prisoners can work there with my officers, and carry out whatever maintenance needs doing. Then when the work is finished the maintenance detail simply moves to the next area of the facility that needs attention. It’s a little time-consuming, but compared to the cost and trouble of regularly shipping in a maintenance crew…” He smiled. “We like to be as self-sufficient as possible out here.”
“I guess you have to be.” Mal tried to summon enthuiasm for the food in front of him, but his appetite was non-existent. “Suppose you’re pretty isolated. How far’s the nearest civilization, if you don’t mind me askin’?”
“Not at all, captain. Well, there’s a few unterraformed moons hereabouts, and of course you can reach Beaumonde in under a week… But for real civilization, you’d be looking at ten days, maybe more, to the nearest Core world. Quite a journey.” He smiled. “But then, that’s the way the federal authorities want it. There’d be no point situating a High Security Facility such as this one near to civilized worlds. The men on here are dangerous criminals and society wants them at arm’s length. That means people like myself have to be willing to suffer a little hardship, to keep society safe.”
“Yeah.” Mal took a mouthful of food. “Must be hard for you havin’ to rough it way out here.” Inara heard the sardonic edge in his tone and she shot him a warning look; Pakenham, however, seemed not to have noticed, for he answered, “Well, I get by. I have a good staff of officers: the best.” He gestured at the officer who was standing at ease by the door. “And they’re well protected. Show him your baton, Fisher.” The officer stepped up to the table and presented his baton to Mal, who eyed it. Pakenham pointed at the metal contacts on the baton end. “Electro-shock baton, military standard. I insisted all my staff were issued with them as a condition of the contract. It gives a hundred-thousand volt electric shock. Stops a man in his tracks, I can tell you.” He returned to his food, attacking it with gusto. “Non-lethal but damned effective. I want my officers to be properly protected in the event of trouble. Carrying one of these, they can stop trouble before it starts.”
“I’ll bet they can.” Mal watched as Fisher removed the baton from the table and returned to his position by the wall. This just gets better and better. This old hwon dahn is actually enjoyin’ showin’ off his torture toys to us. He glanced down the table and saw his own disquiet mirrored in the faces of the others. River was staring at the guard by the wall, and Kaylee looked as if she was having trouble swallowing. Simon was staring frankly at Pakenham, his eyes narrowed. At the foot of the table Zoë had her eyes cast down at her plate. She raised them briefly and her gaze was eloquent. Mal felt his own food stick in his throat. Okay. This stopped being fun some considerable time ago. I hope they bring on the goddamn dessert course soon so we can say our goodbyes and get the hell outta here. He shot Inara a mute look, silently encouraging her to keep Pakenham happy. I’m sorry, he communicated with his eyes, Sorry for bringing you and everyone else onto this hell-hole. Just help me get us through smooth, and back safe on Serenity, and this will all just be a bad dream we left behind. And I promise the next job will go easy. He forced himself to meet Pakenham’s eyes, to smile at the man’s poisonous opinions. God knows I owe you all a break. So I’ll keep smilin’ and with any luck this yuh bun duh lao bao-jurn will choke on something.
* * * * *
Several levels away from where the crew of Serenity were suffering Governor Pakenham’s hospitality, the maintenance detail of prisoners was hard at work, three prison guards keeping a watchful eye as the inmates bent to their various tasks.
Leon leaned against a power tool, holding its tip steady against the bulkhead, and triggered the control on its side. The spike on its tip drilled into the metal, making a small hole. Leon took the tool away and checked the hole, then moved it a few inches along and set its tip against the bulkhead again.
“Keep those straight, Rachid.” Warren came up close behind him. “You mess it up, you’ll do it over. And you waste company materials, you’ll pay for it. One way or another.” Leon said nothing, keeping his eyes on his work. A shove from behind knocked him against the bulkhead, making him drop the tool. “You hearing me, Rachid?”
“Yessir.” Leon pulled himself away from the bulkhead, picking up the fallen tool. “I’ll keep them straight. Sir.” He still didn’t look at the guard: sometimes Warren liked to get you just for doing that, when he thought you were looking at him the wrong way. There was a pause, then he heard Warren moving off; he let out a hard breath. Biaou-tze duh ur-tze. He got back to work, knowing the man was probably still watching him. He didn’t want to give Warren any excuses to find fault. His side still stung where the guard had used his shock baton on him the day before, for dropping a crate of materials in the sorting hall.
Another prisoner moved along the wall to start working near him: Langford, a skinny dark-haired man who was in for fifteen years for armed robbery. Langford spoke. “Better keep your head down. He ain’t in the best of moods.”
“He never is.” Leon kept his reply short, drilling another hole.
“Well, the son-of-a-bitch is in for a surprise.” Langford dropped his voice to a low but intense tone. “All of ‘em are.”
Leon kept his eyes on the wall, but Langford’s words fixed his attention. “What kind of surprise?”
“They’re going down. And we’re gettin’ out.”
“There is no way out.” Leon bent over his work, keeping his own voice as low as Langford’s. “Even if you get past the guards, there’s nowhere to run to.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.” Langford leaned in close. “Word is, a ship docked an hour ago. Some kinda visitors for the governor. That’s our way out.”
“Right. You’re just going to walk on board and take a ride.”
“No, clever boy. We got a plan. Me and Byers and the others, been waiting on this for weeks. Taken us this long to get assigned to a maintenance detail together. We’re all set.” Langford shot a quick look over his shoulder, then continued. “We’re gonna set off an explosion to distract the guards. Byers fixed it up.”
“Byers?” Leon half shook his head. “Byers is crazy. And so are you if you go along with anything he’s got planned.”
“You’re wrong.” Langford’s voice dropped to a growl. “He’s got it all sussed. Been scrounging what he needs from the workshops for months, putting it together. Those tah ma duh guards won’t know what’s hit ‘em. And once we’ve taken them out, all we gotta do is get to the docking bay and we’re home free.”
“Even if you got on board this ship, they’d be on your trail right away.” Leon frowned at the wall in front of him. “They’d track you down and bring you back.”
“They can try.” Langford glanced over his shoulder again, then turned back to Leon. “Question is, Rachid, are you in?”
Leon stayed silent for a moment, keeping his gaze on the wall. At last he said, “No.”
Langford snorted with disgust. “You must be fong luh.” He straightened up. “Then I only got one thing to say to you: keep out of our way.” With that, he moved off.
Leon slowly began to work again, hands moving automatically while his thoughts came unbidden. A ship docked. Come in from outside. And pretty soon they’ll leave again, take off from this place and leave it behind. He shut his eyes for a moment, holding back the feeling that still rose in him when he thought of where he was. Ai ya… He couldn’t see the universe beyond the walls, hadn’t seen it for more than a year. Wouldn’t see it for a long time to come. For a second Langford’s words nagged at him, destroying his calm. Maybe they’ll do it. Maybe they’ll get away.
Then reality returned. No-one gets away from here. And when it goes wrong, they’ll pay for it. So you better make sure you do what Langford said: stay the hell away from them, so when it goes down you don’t get dragged in.
Leon took a deep breath, set the power tool against the bulkhead and drilled another hole. Time dragged on but he kept focused on the metal in front of him, concentrating only on the buzz of the tool in his hands, the ache in his fingers from holding it, the line of holes across the bulkhead.
A heavy step sounded behind him. “That all you’ve got done, Rachid?” Warren sounded like he was looking for someone to blame something on. “What’ve you been doing, sleep-walking?”
“No sir.” Leon leaned into the tool, steadying himself on the wall.
“Well it damn well looks like it, you piece of gos-se. Show me that tool.” Leon turned and presented the power tool silently, his guts tightening as he saw the look on Warren’s face. Go away, you hwoon dahn. Leave me the hell alone. As Warren checked the power tool over Leon’s muscles tensed at the thought of punishment from the guard’s shock baton. Warren liked to go for areas that were more sensitive: your hands or neck. Sometimes he would keep the baton tip pressed in place for longer than necessary, pressing down onto the skin until it blistered under the electrical current.
There was a sudden crash on the far side of the working area and Warren’s head jerked round. His two fellow guards were moving towards Byers, who stood bent double by the far wall, as if in pain. As the guards approached Byers began to groan. “Oh god – my hand, my hand - ”
Warren cursed and stepped forwards, pausing only to grunt, “You stay right here, Rachid. I haven’t finished with you.” He moved swiftly across the workspace towards the injured Byers. Leon stood back against the wall, seeing how the other prisoners were slowly moving from their work stations, imperceptibly taking up positions. In front of them Byers was still bent double, moaning at advancing guards. “Jesus, I’m bleedin’, oh god - ”
“Okay, Byers, quit squawking and keep still and we’ll take a look at you,” said one of the prison officers as they closed in.
Leon looked to where Langford and the other men were still moving, fanning out as the three guards focused on the injured man. It’s going down. Right now. His heart gave a thud and before he knew what he was doing he was moving too, backing away, heading towards the doorway at the end of the maintenance area. You don’t want to be anywhere near this. Whatever happens, there’s going to be trouble.
“Calm down, Byers.” One of the guards reached for his comlink. “We’ll let the infirmary know you’ve been hurt and get you there as soon as you stop dancing around - ”
Byers ceased his frantic moaning and writhing: his head came up and he looked at the guards who had drawn close to him. A gloating smile spread across his face. “Hey, I’m all better.” His arms uncurled from where he’d been holding them against his body: clenched in both hands was a small, dark object. “Catch this.” And he threw it towards the three men.
The dark object flew in a low arc through air. Leon didn’t wait to see it land. His body moved, an animal survival instinct taking over: his feet pushed at the floor, slipping as he began to run, run as fast as he could to the doorway at the end of the maintenance area. He heard the clatter of something landing on the floor: Byer’s laugh of triumph, shouts from the guards and from the other prisoners. He was at the door now, the floor skidding under his feet as he ran – then a blast of heat and noise exploded from behind him and flung him forwards into the passageway beyond.
He fell through the doorway and hit the floor hard. After a few moments he managed to lift himself up on his elbows: a ringing filled his ears and for a moment dizziness made the world rock around him. He unsteadily turned his head to look over his shoulder at the doorway – to see the heavy door had shut tight behind him.
Shaking, Leon dragged himself to his feet and looked through the small viewing window in the maintenance area door. The compartment beyond was plunged into darkness; there was a shrilling sound of alarms, the sound he had taken at first for just the ringing in his ears.
Wuh de ma. That crazy liaou mahng. Leon stared into the darkness beyond. Byers got his distraction alright. Blew a hole clear through the wall into space. In the awful darkness beyond there was no sign of guards or prisoners. Guay… Wouldn’t have stood a chance. The explosive decompression had ripped through the hull, sucking out men and tools in a maelstrom of debris into the black. The sudden drop in pressure had triggered the automatic sealing of the compartment, slamming shut the door Leon had been blown through.
Leon took a choking breath. Then another. Lao tyen yeh… They’re all gone. All of them. He stared for a moment longer through the viewing window, then turned and put his back to the door and slid slowly down to the floor, wrapping his arms around himself. He couldn’t stop shaking. His right hand still clutched the power tool he’d been using: he stared at it.
The alarms were still sounding in the corridor. Leon looked up. They’ll be coming soon. To find out what happened to us. He stared down the corridor. They’ll know it’s a hull breach, they’ll think we all got blown out. And then they’ll find me sitting here and figure I had something to do with it. The panic surged up in him at this thought. What the hell happens to me then?
Then a small voice from deep down inside him said, So don’t let them find you.
He became very still, sitting on the floor. The voice inside him spoke again.
As far as they’re concerned, you’re floating out there in space. They don’t know you made it. And they don’t have to know, if you move quickly enough.
He slowly pushed himself up, leaning on the door. The panic inside him was dying, being replaced by an unfamiliar feeling. Something he hadn’t felt for so long he couldn’t remember what it was.
Get moving, said the voice. You’ve got maybe two minutes before they come running. Use your head. Disappear.
Leon swallowed. Got to find somewhere to hide. Somewhere they won’t look, they won’t find me - He cut himself off, looking at his left arm. Except wherever I hide they can find me. The goddamn securichip will show up as soon as they run a scan to check who’s still on the facility, to confirm who just went out to breathe vacuum.
So? said the voice inside him. Deal with it. Then go hide.
He pushed his sleeve up to his shoulder, exposing his upper arm. He could see the scar of where the chip had been implanted, all those months ago. He stared at it, visualizing exactly where the incision had been; the little black chip, with its metal bristles. Then he took the power tool and placed it carefully over the scar, aligning the tool to where he thought it should be. His hand shook a little: he steadied it, holding his breath. Then his fingers tightened on the control button: pressed.
The tool drove into his arm, sending a shock of pain stabbing through him. He cried out then instantly bit down on the cry, bending his head down and feeling his eyes fill with water. He took a shuddering breath and forced himself to open his eyes again and look at his arm. Blood was already welling up out of the wound the tool had made. Did that get it? The voice drove at him. Better make sure. Pressing his lips together, trying to hold the power tool steady in his shaking fingers, he set it back against his arm. Before he could think about it, he triggered the tool once more. The drill stabbed through muscle; then he was bending double, the tool still clenched in his fist, biting so hard on his lip that blood taste came in his mouth, sweat running slick on his skin.
After a long moment he straightened up, his face white. He shoved the power tool into the waistband of his trousers, then pulled his sleeve down over his bloody arm. The alarm was still sounding as he began to move. Get out of here. Somewhere they won’t look. He headed down the passageway as fast as he could move on unsteady feet.
He made it as far as the second intersection before he heard running feet in the distance, shouted orders. He had nowhere to run to, but ahead a large trolley had been left in the corridor: he slid behind it and waited. Noise came closer, then was on top of him: passed by and receded into the distance from the direction he’d come. Leon straightened up and looked around his hiding place: they had gone. He looked into the trolley: it was full of dirty clothing, the drab green of prisoners’ uniforms. He moved his left arm and the pain made him catch his breath and bow his head. There was already a wetness spreading down his arm, a dark stain soaking into the green cloth. Then he looked at the trolley. Laundry. That’s where to go. He took hold of the trolley and began to push it, keeping his left arm low so it would be shielded from view.
He moved as quickly as he could, keeping his head down. There was a laundry room close by and he reached it without meeting anyone else in the passageways. He pushed the trolley inside and looked around quickly, to check that no-one was there. Then he moved along the row of other trolleys already standing in the room, digging at the piles with his hands. After several minutes of urgent searching he found what he was looking for and pulled it out of a heap: a dark blue prison officer’s uniform.
Laying the uniform to one side he stripped off his own clothes. Blood had streaked down his left arm and he wiped at it with his discarded jacket; then ripped off his bloody sleeve. Clumsily he wound it around his upper arm, binding over the wound. He struggled to knot the makeshift bandage, having to hold an end in his teeth and pull at the other end with his free hand. As it tightened he groaned into the cloth, sweat breaking out on him afresh. He paused, then dragged the prison officer’s jacket on over the clumsy binding, pulled on the trousers. Finally he picked up his discarded clothes and stuffed them deep into one of the trolleys. Then he straightened up and looked at the doorway. Now, said the voice, get moving.
Where? He stared at the dark doorway, oddly paralysed by a sudden feeling of unreality. The dark blue cloth was heavier than a prisoner’s uniform, and smelled of the sweat of the guard who’d worn it.
Doesn’t matter where, said the voice. Out of this place. There’s a ship docked, remember? Langford told you. A ship that’ll be going someplace else when it leaves here. A way out.
Leon took a sudden breath. But if they catch me they’ll bring me back here forever. They’ll never let me out.
So don’t let them catch you.
He took a step forward, then another. Then he was moving forwards, walking out into the passageway, heading towards a way out.
Around the Governor’s table, dessert had been served and Pakenham was at his ease, regaling them with what he obviously thought were entertaining anecdotes of prison life. Only Inara was giving him anything like responsive attention, which was luckily all the audience he needed; opposite her Mal was trying hard to keep his ears focused on Pakenham’s stories whilst his mind kept watch over the increasing restiveness of his crew. He let his gaze switch briefly down to where Jayne was cutting up an apple with a table knife, his eyes staring narrowly at its silver edge: Mal looked on down to Zoë and tried to signal patience to her. Not much longer. Just ride herd on Jayne for me and we’ll be outta here real soon.
A sudden clatter made them all look around: River had dropped her dessert spoon and had both hands braced on the table, her face suddenly pale. Simon put his hand on her arm, concerned; at the head of the table Pakenham said with concern, “What’s the matter, miss? Something gone down the wrong way?”
River was shaking her head, breathing shallowly, her knuckles whitening where she gripped the table. As Simon tried to calm her Mal shot a glance at Inara: Deal with Pakenham. I’ll deal with this. Aloud he said quickly, “You feelin’ bad again, River?” He made his voice sound concerned. Simon looked up at him and Mal tried to communicate with his eyes. Play along, doc. “That sickness coming back?” River didn’t even look at him, her face chalk-white, sweat standing out on her skin. Simon looked for a moment longer at Mal, realization dawning, then bent over his sister. “Just breathe deeply. You’ll be all right.”
Inara spoke up now, answering Pakenham’s questioning look. “Oh, poor thing. She had such a bad bout of this a few days ago, but she seemed to be over it. This must have been too much for her.” She turned to Simon, on the way meeting Mal’s gaze and acknowledging it. “She should really go and lie down. We ought to take her back to Serenity.”
“Yes!” Mal spoke too emphatically; he forced his voice to sound calmer. “Reckon that’d be best.” He looked at Pakenham himself. “Otherwise she’s liable to start, uh, gettin’ pretty unwell, and it’d be an unfortunate ending to the mighty fine meal you’ve given us.”
“Blown out,” River shivered against Simon’s comforting arm. “Out in the black…” She shut her eyes. “Got to go now!”
“Shhhh, mei-mei, it’s okay, we’re going.” Simon started to get up, gently supporting her. He glanced across at Mal. “I’ll take her back to the ship.”
“You do that. Get her settled down in bed. We’ll be followin’ pretty soon,” said Mal, fervently hoping that was the truth. They all watched as Simon led the shivering River out of the room, escorted by a guard. As they left another prison officer entered and approached Pakenham, bent down and murmured something in his ear. Pakenham’s head lifted and he looked taken aback. “What?” The man murmured again. Pakenham’s brows drew down and he rose from the table. “Please excuse me a moment, ladies; gentlemen. An urgent matter needs attending to.” With that he gave a brief nod and left the room, followed by his two officers.
“Uh uh.” Jayne looked up the table at Mal. “That there’s our cue to make a swift exit. Little miss loony tunes beat us to it, but she got the right idea. I’m for followin’ her.”
“Don’t call her that,” Kaylee interposed, frowning.
“Well, she is, ain’t she?” Jayne gestured at the empty places at the table. “Got to give her credit, she do pick her moments. Lucky there weren’t no edged silverware in grabbin’ distance.” He gave the table knife he’d been carving his apple with a contemptuous flick onto the tabletop.
“Why do you think Pakenham left?” asked Zoë, edging her chair back so that she was ready to move. Mal shook his head. “Ain’t got idea one. Kinda works out for us, though. We can bow out this funeral picnic, say our thank-yous, and get the hell outta here.”
“ ‘Bout goddamn time,” growled Jayne.
Mal was about to speak again when the door opened and Pakenham returned. He looked visibly perturbed, but still strove to play the gracious host. “My apologies to you all. I’m afraid there’s an emergency I have to attend to, so I’m going to have to excuse myself. I would have liked to have spent a little more time with you, given you a tour of the facility, but now I’m afraid that just won’t be possible.” Luckily he was unaware of the silent relief this announcement produced in all his listeners. “I’m told that your fuel cells have been loaded aboard your ship, so you’d be able to leave when you wish.”
Mal rose from the table, lifted by a release of tension so that he had to work at keeping a smile off his face. “Well, I guess the last thing you’ll need if you’ve got a situation to deal with is us underfoot, so we’ll head back to Serenity and get on our way. We’ve already taken up too much of your valuable time, Governor.” He held out his hand and shook the other man’s, feeling like a fraud. “Many thanks for your hospitality here, and for those fuel cells.”
Beside him Inara smiled graciously at Pakenham. “It was a lovely meal, Governor. We’re sorry you have a problem to deal with.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” He bowed stiffly to her, and to Kaylee and Zoë who had also risen and were advancing towards the others and the door. Jayne was already beside Mal, edging his way past. Mal blocked him back, letting the three women exit first; then he gestured to Pakenham. “After you, Governor.”
“Thank you, captain.” They began to move down the passageway. Somewhere there was an alarm sounding, a shrill disquieting sound. Mal began to have uneasy thoughts about River’s performance at the table. This can’t have anything to do with her. Ain’t no reason for anyone to be still chasin’ her down. But I don’t like how she goes into one of her turns just before a situation happens. That ain’t no coincidence. To try to still his doubts, he said aloud, “Hope your problem ain’t nothin’ serious, Governor.”
“It’s very serious, I’m afraid. A bad accident.” Pakenham sounded as though his mind was already half elsewhere. “There’s been a hull breach in the area where the maintenance detail was working. We don’t have all the details yet, but it sounds as though everyone working in that section may have been killed.” He shook his head as he strode along. “Three damn fine officers.”
“How many prisoners?” asked Zoë quietly.
Pakenham hesitated, then replied, “I would expect there to have been probably half a dozen working in there. The duty officers will have full details.” He stopped at an intersection with another passageway. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to see you back to your ship. But my thanks again for your assistance with our supply vessel, and with bringing that injured man here.” He nodded at Mal. “My best wishes for a safe journey, Captain Reynolds. Fisher here will show you the way back to the docking bay.”
“Thank you, Governor.” Pakenham nodded again, turned on his heel and hurried away. Mal and the rest of Serenity’s crew followed after Fisher.
Ahead of the rest of Serenity’s crew, Simon and River had already reached the docking bay. River was still white-faced and unsteady, her hand cold where she gripped onto Simon’s. As they stepped up onto Serenity’s entrance ramp River froze and looked over her shoulder, her eyes widening. Simon looked in the direction of her stare, but saw only the empty docking bay and its machinery. He put a hand gently onto her shoulder. “What is it, mei-mei?”
River’s head swung back to face him, her eyes disturbed. “Watching us.” She looked back again over shoulder. “Got to get out of here…”
“We’re going. It’s okay.” Simon soothed her. “C’mon, River, let’s just get back on Serenity. The others will be here soon; then we’ll be leaving.” He gently pulled her towards the ship. “Come on. It’s all right.” She let herself be led up the entrance ramp onto Serenity, still looking back over her shoulder.
Friday, February 8, 2008 1:19 AM
Friday, February 8, 2008 3:25 PM
Friday, February 8, 2008 4:30 PM
Saturday, February 9, 2008 7:12 AM
Tuesday, February 19, 2008 6:27 AM
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