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The Return Home - Part 18
Sunday, August 31, 2008

Mal makes a deal with the devil and Book comes face to face with death.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1632    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

The Return Home – Part 18

In all the scenarios he thought through and all the possibilities for his shaky plans, Mal had not expected this moment to occur, to be talking to the High Chancellor of the Alliance. At least not so soon. Ever since River’s probe of Forbes’s mind told them Cutter himself was coming to Haven, Mal did expect to talk to this evil man, eventually, whether he liked it or not. Cops were not on Mal’s list of people he liked to jaw with, and this guy was top cop in the whole galaxy. But the twists and turns of fate had brought Serenity and it crew to the fringes of space just above Haven and High Chancellor Adam Cutter was hailing them from an Alliance battle cruiser, wanting to have a “chat” as he described it so eloquently. Mal had never heard Cutter’s voice before and he suspected not many people had without feeling his wrath, but Mal had no doubt this was the real Cutter. What person would be fool enough to impersonate him? No one.

“Time to deal with the devil,” Mal said and then looked at Wash. “Open frequency. Voice only, no vid.”

Wash gave a bugged-eyed look to Mal and then to his wife sitting in the co-pilot’s seat and after her reassuring nod he hit the open frequency button.

“Howdy,” Mal started in a genial tone. “This is Captain Reynolds. I ain’t exactly partial to speaking to coppers but I reckon we got a few things to jaw on.”

There was a slight pause on the other end. “Nice to finally make your acquaintance, Captain. You and your ship have given my people a fine chase these last few years.”

“Well, your people ain’t exactly the brightest stars in the verse, so don’t go giving me and mine all the credit for staying out of one of your penal colonies,” Mal said and Wash almost burst out laughing and only Zoe’s stern look stopped him.

Again there was silence from Cutter’s end and then a cold reply. “You do know who you are talking to, Captain, don’t you?”

“Sure, you’re Cutter, man who gave the order that created the Reavers, who turns teenagers into assassins, and that tries to have them killed when they don’t follow the game plan. I know all about you.”

“As do I you and your crew. Captain Malcolm Reynolds, from Shadow, former sergeant in the Independent forces…”

“Captain at the end,’ Mal interrupted. He was always touchy about his rank, the final rank of captain given him by a dieing colonel on the sixth day of fighting at Serenity Valley never officially confirmed.

“Indeed? To continue, Zoe Washburne, first mate and fellow combatant in the war and Hoban Washburne, pilot of Serenity and her husband. A Mr. Cobb, a mercenary of some sort. Kaylee Frye, mechanic from Taos, and finally Simon Tam, doctor, and his sister River Tam, wanted fugitives, both from Osiris. Did I miss anyone?”

Wash mouthed “how does he know” and Zoe just shrugged.

“No, that’s the whole gang,” Mal said and was glad Cutter knew nothing about Book or Inara.

“Oh, yes, I forgot one person. Professor Stanley Drummond. I’m surmising he is either on your ship or close by. Is he really dieing?”

He saw the broadcast, all three of them thought at the same time.

“Not before he tells the whole verse what you did,” Mal said with a trace of anger.

“He already has told them that the Alliance created the Reavers and not too many believed him. However, that broadcast stirred up quite the hornet’s nest on the Rim, started the simmering of a new rebellion, but no one really wants another war, now do they?”

“They want justice,” Mal said. “Justice for the crimes you and the Alliance committed.”

“If you think the Prime Minister and the Parliament would ever put me on trial you are sadly mistaken, Captain. It would bring the whole Alliance to its knees.”

“Now that ain’t such a bad idea,” Mal said with a smirk on his face. “No Alliance, kinda like how that sounds.”

“I’m sure that sort of life would suit your type. But without the Alliance there would be chaos, and more wars, and more death and destruction throughout the galaxy.”

Mal knew he was right and his wish for a galaxy with no Alliance was just that, a wish, with the stark reality being that the Alliance did provide stability, and however much Mal hated them, he knew they were a necessary evil. “Look, Cutter, I ain’t here to play politics with you and the Alliance. I just want me and mine to go free and we’ll be on our merry way. And that includes River and Simon and Drummond.”

“A merry chase you have led us on and now we have you. I could swat you from the sky in an instant, Reynolds,” Cutter said coldly.

Mal chuckled. “You wanted us dead we’d be dead already.”

“True enough,” Cutter answered. “I am willing to give you the option of surrendering your ship and everyone on it. I promise fair treatment.”

“What good is any promise from you? Way Drummond tells it, you made all kinds of promises on Miranda. And look how that turned out.”

Cutter was silent for a long moment and Mal got worried that he pushed the man too far too soon. He looked at the scopes and nothing was moving toward them. Then came an answer Mal hadn’t expected.

“I know you’ve been to Earth and back.”

There was a moment of shocked silence and Zoe looked at Mal and mouthed. “Kaylee’s father.”

Mal just nodded and then decided to see how much Cutter would reveal about what he knew and especially about Kaylee’s father. “Ah, what’s that? Earth, you said?”

“Don’t play games, Reynolds. I know the whole story. Your first mistake was selling the jewelry from Melbourne. It was marked where it was manufactured and it was also dated. Your second mistake was killing those men in the street on Greenleaf which attracted our attention. Your third was the fight at New Shanghai on Taos."

“Well, trouble does tend to follow us.”

“And then there were your sudden escapes each and every time. How did they do it? All my commanders were wondering, how does a Firefly escape from a battle cruiser?”

“Just lucky I guess,” Mal said, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“No, not lucky, Captain. It’s time you learned a few facts. At this moment Kaylee Frye’s father is a guest aboard my battle cruiser.”

Now it was Mal’s turn to pause and think on his next words. It had to be what Cutter needed to hear.

“Am I supposed to take your word on that?”

“That’s your choice. But how else would I know about the FTL drive made by a Russian scientist on Earth and perfected by the father – daughter team of Jonathan and Kaylee Frye?”

Mal had to act shocked. “What in the hell….what kind of lies that old drunk been feeding you?”

“Enough games, Reynolds. We have ways to make people talk. He told us everything, about you and Serenity, about a wormhole, and Earth, and a Russian scientist, about your FTL drive.”

Mal waited an appropriate amount of time to let Cutter think Mal was thinking on what to say. “So, guess ain’t no use trying to fool you no more. Now we come to the trading part,” Mal said and he knew he had Cutter in the next instant.

“Jonathan Frye’s life for Serenity,” Cutter said.

“Not here,” Mal said. “You got too many friends about and I’m all alone out here. Miranda. You and your battle cruiser, alone. Might still be a few Reavers about you can practice swatting from the sky. We meet in high atmo when all is safe. The battle cruiser stays out of missile range, then you and a boarding party and Mr. Frye in a shuttle dock with Serenity. I see one fighter about or one missile locks on Serenity, we’re gone and you’ll never see us again. And you know I can do it. You take Serenity, we take the shuttle and Mr. Frye, fair trade.”

“It sounds promising, Captain, but the FTL drive is no good to me without at least one of the Fryes being able to explain it to my engineers.”

“You bring your engineering officer on board and I’ll give Kaylee one hour to explain it all. If he ain’t bright enough to understand then that’s tough shit. That’s it or we got no deal.”

There was a long pause then finally Cutter spoke. “Deal.”

“Oh, and one more thing,” Mal said, not as afterthought but as part of his calculated plan. Now that Cutter thinks he was going to get Serenity and the FTL, Mal knew he might be soft on other areas. “I want full pardons for Simon and River and me and my crew.”

“Captain, what makes you think I would adhere to such a promise after we have parted ways?”

“Well, least you’re honest,” Mal replied. “Tell you what. You come on board with the right forms and a lawyer or whatever you got on that there ship that passes for a legal representative. I’ll supply the names and you sign the forms and we’ll make them pardons all nice and legal like with lots of witnesses.”

Wash and Zoe looked at him like he was crazy, having no idea he had planned this.

“I will not board Serenity. A pilot, some guards, and the engineer will suffice.”

Mal had expected this. “When I make a deal with a man I need to look him in the eye to see how honest he is. You want Serenity and the FTL. I want Kaylee’s father and those pardons. Your signature carries a lot of weight in the verse, Cutter.”

“And the Reavers and Drummond?”

“Like you said, no one believes him. I suppose by the end of today most of the Reavers be dead anyways. And I’m guessing you jammed that broadcast we made so no one but you on your fleet knows what’s going on. You do as I ask, we’ll turn over the vids and we can all forget about what you did.”

“I want Drummond.”

“He’s dieing, cancer. And that ain’t a word of lie. Doc gives him less than a month.”

“Drummond is part of the deal or no pardons or no Mr. Frye.”

Mal paused. The man would be dead soon anyways, he thought. But no way would he send him to Cutter’s dogs in his last days. No harm in telling Cutter he’d give him to him when he no intention of ever doing so.

“Ok, Cutter. Drummond is all yours.”

“Then I will see you on Serenity.”

“High above Miranda’s capital city, in six hours.”

“Six hours?”

“Sure, cause that’s how long it’ll take you to get there.”

Mal drew his hand across his throat, a sign for Wash to cut transmission. Wash quickly hit the button and Cutter was gone.

“Okay, bait is set and the fish took a bite. Now to reel him in.” Mal grabbed the intercom mic. “Sorry for the delay folks. We’ve had a …communications problem…but all is well now. Fasten seatbelts and prepare for a…short flight.”

Mal sat down, buckled up and then looked at Wash. “Punch it.”

************************************

From the Alliance fleet most commanders had the little Firefly on their scopes, its transponder code Constellation having been sent to all ships and all ships were ordered not to fire on it. As the battle still was on going and the last Reaver ships were fleeing and being chased down on Haven, suddenly the little Firefly went fast, then faster and the gunship Cutter had ordered to trail it followed it. Then in a blink of an eye it was zooming far ahead of the gunship, faster and faster and then…it was gone.

Cutter had just come from his ready room where he had been talking with Mal and he had seen it happened and all was suddenly confirmed. Serenity did have an FTL drive. He contacted all commanders.

“Fleet will remain in current position and complete destruction of Reaver fleet and send aid to Haven. Dortmunder will scout ahead to Miranda and assess the situation.”

One commander spoke up. “Sir, we should not divide the fleet. We don’t know what waits on Miranda. At least take more ships.”

“Your suggestion are noted Commander and logged. Now carry out my orders.”

Cutter signed off and then turned to his navigator. “Sent course for Miranda.”

“Miranda, sir? I’m not familiar with that world. It’s not on any of our star charts or in the nav beacon system.”

“See that speck of light in the distance?” Cutter said in irritation as he pointed a finger out the window past Haven. “That’s Miranda. Fly straight and you can’t miss it!”

“Yes, sir,” the navigator said in fear as he rushed away to set course.

Slowly the Dortmunder pulled ahead of the fleet and then was heading toward Miranda, where Cutter knew Serenity was waiting for him. Now, Reynolds, what tricks are you planning with the six hour lead time you have just given yourself?

*************************************************************

“Set condition two, repeat, set condition two,” came a voice throughout the Dortmunder’s intercom system. “Maintain battle stations at fifty percent.”

Jane Taggert was helping load new missiles into the portside battery where she was stationed when the order came. As soon as she had finished helping load them, her captain ordered her and many others to take a break, get some chow and be back in thirty minutes.

Thirty minutes, time enough to find a Shepherd and kill him. But where to start the search?

*******************************************

“It looks like a heart attack,” said the doctor as Book stood over the body of Billingsworth in the infirmary. “Initial scans show massive heart damage, more than I expected, but I’ll know more when I have time for an autopsy. Dead before he hit the floor I guess. There was nothing anyone could do for him.”

“How old was he?’ Book asked as he prepared to say some words over the body, holding his open Bible in his left hand.

“Ah, dog tags say he was 45. Also a Catholic,” the doctor said as he examined the plastic tags all soldiers wore around their necks to ID themselves in case of battle injury. The tags were lying on the instrument tray next to Billingsworth’s body.

Just then a team rushed in with an injured man on a stretcher. The soldier was screaming about his leg.

“What have we got?’ the doctor quickly asked the medics.

“Ammo crate fell off a hoist, looks like a crushed ankle,” replied the medic.

As they set to work on the injured man, Book carefully examined Billingsworth body. A heart attack had to come from poison and poison had to be introduced either through oral means or by an injection. There were many poisons that could do this thought Book as he reflected on his training from so long ago, and perhaps some new ones had been created since he’d last studied such macabre arts. Billingsworth was found dead in the corridor outside the prison block observation room and had just been to see Book so he had no time to eat anything or maybe even drink anything. It had to be an injection. The quickest way to the heart was through a major blood vessel and the jugular at the neck was easiest to access and jab. There it was, a tiny mark, already healing, and it would soon be gone. Billingsworth had been murdered.

Now the question was, who was the assassin? And why had he or she been ordered to kill this man? Book could only come to one conclusion. Cutter knew about the note, knew he was in contact with Londinium, knew that Billingsworth was on Book’s side. Book now had no doubt the assassin was coming for him next. And he knew who sent that assassin.

Book left the infirmary headed for the elevators that would take him to the bridge. Time to look Cutter in the eye and see just how much of the devil he really was.

*******************************************

Jonathan Frye had no idea of what was happening outside his prison cell on the Dortmunder. He had felt the rumblings when the missiles had fired but having no combat experience he did not completely understand the noise. At first he thought it might be an engine problem but it was impossible to tell if the ship was accelerating, slowing, moving sideways, anything without visual reference points. Also, being so deep in the ship any sensation of movement was dampened. What was going on? Where was Book?

“Mr. Frye?” came the voice of the young guard Patterson outside his force field door, a force field Jonathan gave up trying to break as next to impossible. One thing Alliance knew how to do was make things that worked properly.

“What’s happening, son? What’s all the noise?”

“We’re in a battle, with the Reaver fleet. Seems our mission was to destroy the Reaver fleet all this time.”

‘Told you they was real. How goes it?”

“Everyone says we’re winning, that we knocked a bunch of Reaver ships out of the sky near Haven.”

“Haven, that’s the Burnham quadrant, ain’t it?

“Yes, sir, least I think so. I’m not a navigator,” Patterson said and then he grew pensive and whispered as quietly as he could while Jonathan could still hear him. “Sir, the captain of the guard, Billingsworth, he’s dead.”

“Sorry to hear that but why you telling me?” Jonathan whispered back, guessing Patterson didn’t want anyone picking up their conversation by hidden mics.

“Cause Shepherd Book thinks he was murdered.”

“Murdered? Why?”

“Cause he’s the one that passed Book’s message onto fleet headquarters on Londinium.”

In an instant Jonathan grasped what was going on. “Cutter knows about the message.”

“Appears so. And Shepherd said that there might be an assassin aboard ship, looking for him and…possibly you. I’m to protect you.”

“Get me out of here,” Jonathan whispered sternly, looking Patterson straight in the eyes.

“I can’t. Eyes are watching us.”

“Son, I ain’t a criminal. I’m…a mechanic…and I know things about….oh, what the hell, an FTL drive on my daughter’s ship Serenity. That’s why Cutter wants me and her and that ship.”

“Serenity?” Patterson said in puzzlement.

“Yeah…you know that name?”

“There’s a rumor. Just before the battle began, Cutter ordered all ships to be on the lookout for fugitives in a Firefly called Serenity.”

“Gorramnit all to hell.” And this was said out loud, Jonathan getting streamed now.

“Everyone is treating it like a joke, that Cutter is still acting like a policeman. But…a what drive?”

“FTL, Faster Than Light drive. My daughter….she built it.” Well, it wasn’t quite a lie but not exactly the truth either.

“And Cutter wants it?”

“Sure, who wouldn’t? Thing will revolutionize space travel. But Kaylee, she’s my girl, she’s all I got in the verse. And Cutter had me kidnapped and tortured and I spilled my guts. He knows everything.”

“That ain’t right.” Patterson with some anger.

“Son, where you from?”

“Boros.”

“You a Rim dweller, too. What you doing with this bunch?”

“Only way to get any money to send my folks. Alliance pays well and on time.”

“Maybe, but you ain’t got no loyalty to them I’m guessing and you know right from wrong son. And me being in this cage is wrong. What Cutter is doing is wrong.”

Patterson look lost, not knowing what to do.

“Son, who gave Book’s message to Billingsworth?”

“I did.”

“Did you read it?”

“Yes.”

“Do you think Cutter might find out about that someday and come looking for you? And your family?”

Patterson’s eyes lit up with anger and Jonathan knew he had him.

“I let you out, what we gonna do?” Patterson asked in worry.

“You get me to a shuttle, I’ll get us the hell off this boat.”

Patterson struggled with his conscience for a moment and then he was reaching for the force field button.

“Hey, Patterson, your shift is over. You can take off now, get some chow.”

It was Givens and another guard. Patterson hesitated before answering. “Got orders to keep an eye on this prisoner.”

“We can do that.”

“Nope. Orders came from the top. He gets a personal guard.”

“Suit yourself,” said Givens. “I’ll get some food sent down.”

“Thanks,” Patterson said and then he mouthed the words ‘sorry’ to Jonathan.

Almost free but so far away, Jonathan thought as he sat on his bed. Now I know where we are and I know Cutter is after Serenity and he thinks it’s in this quadrant. He wants that ship, wants that drive and he wants me and Kaylee to explain it all. But Jonathan knew something about Malcolm Reynolds and knew he wouldn’t give up the ship without a fight. And that worried Jonathan to no end cause in fights people got hurt and sometimes even died. And if anything happened to Kaylee, Jonathan promised to himself that those responsible would pay, even Malcolm Reynolds.

*********************************************

Serenity popped into the high upper atmo of Miranda near its north pole as Wash had plotted. With a groan and the sounds of metal straining the ship slowed to fifty percent power and everyone heaved sighs of relief.

“Scopes clear, sir,” Zoe said. “Nothing about.” They were in darkness and Wash slowly moved the ship in a southerly course toward the capital city.

“What’s gonna be the time when we get to capital city?’ Mal asked him.

“Still be night, about seven hours before dawn,” Wash answered after a few moments of doing calculations. “Should be there in about twenty minutes.”

“OK. Stay sharp for any Reaver ships that might be still about,” Mal said and then he grabbed the intercom mic.

“We’re at Miranda folks. Be landing in about twenty minutes,” Mal said and then he left the bridge and went back to the dining area.

Kaylee, Inara, and River were here, just taking off their seat belts from where they were sitting on the lounge seats. Jayne was keeping an eye on Hopkins in the cargo bay and Simon was with his patients.

“What took so long, Capt’n?” Kaylee asked right away.

“We were a bit worried,” Inara added.

“He was talking to Cutter,” said River and the two women looked at Mal with wide eyes.

“You talked to…Cutter?’ Kaylee asked in shock.

“Yeah,” Mal said and he knew what was on her mind. “Made a deal to get your father back.”

Kaylee didn’t know what to say at first she was so stunned that this terrible news had been confirmed. “He’s there? With Cutter?”

“So Cutter says,” Mal replied. “And Cutter knows all about Earth and the FTL so I’m guessing he ain’t lying about having your father.”

“What kind of deal did you make, Mal?’ Inara asked, wondering what in the verse was going on.

“We get everyone together and I’ll let you all in on it. Meanwhile we got a lot of work to do. Kaylee?”

She didn’t answer him at first, still thinking on her father.

“Kaylee? You here?”

She wasn’t here, her mind was far away, thinking on her father and what could be happening to him right now. “Kaylee?”

“Ah, yes, Capt’n,” she said quickly, coming back to the reality of their situation.

“Think you can take that old Firefly of the Colonel’s and make it look spaceworthy?”

“It’s in rough shape…no, Capt’n, only in a shipyard and then maybe.”

“Don’t need it to be spaceworthy, just need it to look like it is.”

“What are you planning Malcolm Reynolds?” Inara asked in a suspicious way.

“The craziest thing I ever tried in my life.”

******************************************************

The stadium at the university was on visual, infrared and x ray scanners as Serenity came in over the horizon from the north. So far they hadn’t spotted any Reaver ships. But as they came closer to the stadium they began to pick up heat signatures from the ground, many figures in and around the stadium.

“Reavers,” said Wash and behind him came the strong voice of Colonel Hopkins.

“My clan,’ he said and Wash felt the hairs stand on his back as the Reaver stood there and spoke. Another surprise of Mal’s and Wash had almost had a heart attack as the big Reaver came on the bridge with Jayne close behind, pistol out and ready. The Miranda people had seen Hopkins too and none were pleased about it but Mal calmed them down and as he explained his plan, all saw the need for the Colonel.

“Think you can convince them to beat it,” said Mal as he stood next to Hopkins.

“Perhaps. Land in the stadium,” Hopkins commanded and Wash looked from him to Mal.

“Do it,” Mal ordered. “Cargo bay, armed and ready.”

Zoe stood and followed them, giving Wash’s arm a touch as she left and soon he was all alone.

Wash brought Serenity down between the streets as low as he could and he picked a wide boulevard and moved the ship toward the stadium. He came in over the east side, next to the gymnasium where Kaylee had been held and turned on the spotlights full power. Reaves were running and looking up at the ship and then Wash brought it into the stadium, just squeezing in behind the other ship.

The ramp came down and Hopkins stood there, his sword back on his belt and his face a mask of terror as he screamed.

“I have returned!”

The Reavers had been expecting a fight, some knowing this ship from the encounter a few days ago and they were armed, about twenty of them. As the Colonel stood on the ramp and shouted they hesitated, not knowing what to do.

“Leave and none shall be harmed!” Hopkins shouted and his voice carried across the pitch to all parts of the stadium.

Suddenly one shouted, “He’s a traitor! Kill him! Take the ship!”

As one the Reavers found their courage and charged toward Serenity’s ramp but it did them no good, as behind the Colonel Mal, Jayne, Zoe, River, and a dozen Miranda people all came from the depths of the cargo bay and began to blaze away. It was a short vicious fight and not one Reaver made it into the ship, Hopkins eviscerating the only one who made it to the ramp with his giant sword. Jayne had argued against returning the weapon to the Colonel but Mal needed to keep Hopkins on their side. After the initial onslaught they could see others running across the field, some from the other Firefly, and more Reavers died. Soon the only living things in the stadium were Mal and his gang.

“Clean swept,” Mal ordered. “Stick together, don’t get separated.”

Slowly they moved through the stadium, looking for Reavers and finding none. They began to take weapons away form the fallen Reavers and pile them up near Serenity. Inara and Kaylee stood on the ramp with guns drawn in case any Reavers were about with notions to sneak onboard.

“Why we have to kill them all?” Kaylee asked in almost a lament. “Why couldn’t they just leave?”

Inara had no real answers for her. “It’s not their way. They can’t help themselves.”

“Colonel Hopkins can control himself,” Kaylee observed.

“But it seems to be a struggle for him and I’m guessing the man who Colonel Hopkins once was had a powerful will,” Inara stated. “Most people don’t and succumb to their baser needs. Take away inhibition and replace it with rage and you have…the Reavers.”

“But the cure, we could help them.”

“They have to want to be helped Kaylee. I think Mal is right, there won’t be too many like Hopkins.”

There were none in the stadium that was for sure, all of the Reavers now dead. After it was secure, Mal order half of his team to stand guard outside the Firefly and half into the old ship, with him and Hopkins leading the way. The ramp was down already and slowly they moved into the darkness of the ship, flashlights moving about, guns drawn and ready.

Mal could see that for his plan to work they had a lot of work to do before Cutter arrived. The ship was a mess, inside and out and after the final search revealed no hidden Reavers he called for Kaylee to come over. Hopkins got the ship powered up, had the stadium lights turned on so they could see better and then Kaylee began her examination.

Kaylee almost cried when she saw how badly this old girl had been treated. It was a Firefly alright but it had a few modifications and “reaverfications” as Kaylee began to think of them. First, there was a missile battery slung under the nose of the ship, just below the cockpit. Kaylee could see burn marks on the nose from the back blast when the missiles had been fired. The rack could hold four ship to ship missiles, Hopkins said, but now it was empty and useless so Mal ordered it cut away. Jayne got out the torches and set to work on that problem first, despite his protest to Mal that guarding Hopkins was his job. Next modification was the EMP beam rod which was jutting far ahead of the cockpit on the right side. Hopkins said it still worked but Kaylee and Mal could both see that it stuck out like a sore thumb and would cause suspicion. Off it came too, with much grumbling from both Jayne and Hopkins, who both wanted at least one weapon on board when they meet Cutter.

The ‘reaverfications” were the slap a dash paint job and the numerous dent and rents in the hull and the odd skeleton strung over the hull. Nothing serious, except the gaping hole in the left side, but still not the way to treat a nice ship like a Firefly.

Kaylee entered the ship and wrinkled her nose at the foul smells. The cargo bay was littered with the mess of poor housekeeping, the stair railings were rusty and the passenger dorms were filthy beyond belief. The engine room almost made her scream and never had she thought she’d see one more grimy than Serenity’s. But the engine worked and the ship would fly, she was certain of that.

But not in space. The gaping hole in the left side was the problem. It was just behind shuttle two and was bigger than a kitchen table, a nice fat round one, and Kaylee stood on the upper cargo bay catwalk and looked at it for a long time, staring out at the stars above and that’s where Mal found her.

“What do you think?”

“We can slap some sheet metal over it and paint it to blend in,” she said with confidence. “It’ll fool them.”

“And the outside?”

“We’ll have to cut down them bodies and clean off the paint streaks and remove some dents and scratches. We’ll make her as close to Serenity as we can.”

“You’re in charge, do what needs to be done. You got five hours.”

Mal turned to leave and then Kaylee’s words stopped him.

“Thank you,” she said quietly and he knew why she had said it.

“We’ll get him back,” he told her and she could feel the strength and confidence in his words.

“I know,” she said and then smiled and he grinned in his devilishly way and was gone to supervise the clean up of the ship.

And so the crew and the Miranda people toiled away through the night. Kaylee told them what to do and the hours passed swiftly as they worked toward what all hoped would be their final battle and salvation.

*******************************************

As Mal’s team worked to perfect his plan, Cutter and the Dortmunder moved toward Miranda at top speed. He sat in his ready room, barely touching a light lunch a servant had delivered, brooding over Malcolm Reynolds words and all they implicated. Cutter replayed the conversation he had recorded with Reynolds and thought through all the scenarios that could happen.

Reynolds wasn’t just going to hand over his ship, of that Cutter was certain. Legal documents or not, Cutter could rescind them the moment he left and order Reynolds and his crew captured and/or killed.

One hour to teach his engineer how to run the FTL drive? Not a chance that would suffice. No, Kaylee Frye and her father were too important to the Alliance and its future to just let them go.

Cutter was interrupted by a beep on his consol. “Yes, what is it?”

“Shepherd Book to see you, sir,” came the voice of one of his guards who stood outside the door of his ready room. Cutter stood and opened the door and Book stood there between Cutter’s two guards.

All Book had to do was kill this man standing in front of him. His arms were strong enough to choke him to death. But Book saw the foolhardiness of that ever since arriving on Londinium those many days ago. Killing Cutter would not free Serenity or its crew. The charges would still be there. Simon and River would still be fugitives. Cutter was just a man, an evil man who deserved to die, but he was not the Alliance, and his death would only serve to quiet those souls he had condiment to death on Miranda and many other worlds. No, for Cutter to fully punished he had to be brought to justice before the whole galaxy. Book didn’t know it but far away on Londinium decisions had already been made that would see that Adam Cutter was never made to answer for his crimes.

“Shepherd Book, please come in,” Cutter said warmly, allowing himself to show some small touch of kindness to this man who would soon be dead.

“Thank you, High Chancellor,” Book also said as he entered the room and the guards remained outside. “I wish to inquire as to my sudden change of status.”

“Ah, yes. I felt that I had acted over hastily and that you were correct in stating that your communications with Prime Minister Blakely were not of my concern,” Cutter said and the surprise on Book’s face was evident. “In addition, the fleet was uncomfortable with having you incarcerated so I prudently decided to release you. You must understand that the secrecy of this mission and the safety of the lives of the members of this fleet were of greatest concern. Thus, my concern about secret communications. The Prime Minster herself has sent a message clarifying your status as her friend and a member of a religious order. No hard feelings I hope.”

Who was this snake now? Book thought and then he got to the heart of the matter, the real reason why he had come. “Captain Billingsworth is dead.”

Cutter didn’t even flinch. “Yes, that was reported to me just ten minutes ago. Tragic, to die of a heart attack at such an age. He seemed to be in good health, too, said the doctor.”

“It wasn’t a heart attack. He was murdered.”

This time there was a slight flicker of surprise, or maybe even annoyance. “That’s a grave accusation, Shepherd. Murdered? How and by who?”

“By whom I do not know yet but he was killed by a poison injected into the jugular vein, a poison that will no doubt not show up in any toxin analysis the doctor performs. But I saw the body and the needle mark.”

“You seem to know a great deal about these matters.”

“I wasn’t always a Shepherd.”

“Indeed,” Cutter said and he was staring at Book intently, and Book thought he might have gone too far. “Shepherd, I’m sure you will give a nice service for Billingsworth when our mission is completed. Now if you’ll excuse me I must write a letter for his family.”

“And what about his murderer?”

“I will bring your suspicions to the attention of the captain of the guard, whoever is now in charge that is. If there is sufficient evidence we will open an investigation.”

“That is all I can ask,” Book replied and he turned and left Cutter alone, satisfied that Cutter knew Billingsworth was murdered and that in all likelihood knew who his murderer was.

As Book was crossing the bridge to the elevators to the lower decks he overheard a conversation between the navigator and the helmsman.

“How can a planet just appear out of nowhere? It’s not on any chart,” said the helmsman.

“Orders are orders. Just follow that light,” he said and he pointed out the window toward the growing light that was now taking the shape of a planet as they got closer.

“What’s it called again?” asked the helmsman.

“Miranda.”

Book stared out the bridge windows and saw where they were heading and he knew why and more pieces of the puzzle fell into place.

A few moments later Book reached his chapel and headed towards the rear where his lodgings were located. As he was about to open the door he had the strange sensation that someone was behind him and he turned to see a young dark haired woman standing in the chapel near the entrance.

“Hello, Shepherd,” she said.

“Hello, my dear. How can I help you?”

She started to walk toward him. She was plain looking and vaguely Oriental, thought Book, and she had a downcast demeanor, but there was something about her eyes, something not quite right. She spoke in a hesitant voice. “I’m Jane. I…just wanted to…confess.”

“My dear, I would love to hear your confession but I haven’t the time now.”

“Shepherd,” she said again in that slow voice, her head down, as she stepped toward him. “I…have sinned….I need to confess…now.”

“Why dear, I’m sure the Lord will understand if you confess later,” Book said getting exasperated with this woman. And then she looked at him directly and her eyes were ablaze.

“No, Shepherd, it can’t wait. See my sin is that I…..”

And then she struck and the blow came fast and was for the same spot that killed Billingsworth. But Book was ready and he was also an assassin, out of practice, but with the knowledge and the skills to know a killer and to deflect her blow. Almost too late he recognized that light in her eyes and it was the intensity needed to kill and he was the target. Here was Cutter’s assassin.

Book blocked her right arm with his left and the tiny needle went flying from the palm of her hand across the floor. Her surprise at his reaction was short lived and she aimed a well placed kick to his ribs that knocked the wind from him. But Book’s superior upper body strength and condition from years of weight lifting and exercising saved him as they traded blows, circling each other in the empty chapel.

“Cutter sent you,” Books said as they circled but she didn’t answer.

Taggert had not expected this, a Shepherd who knew how to fight and she was now in a position where she had to dispatch him quickly or be exposed for what she was. She knew Cutter would deny knowing her. Book had to die and fast. Behind her was a heavy gold cross on an altar and she grabbed it and swung for Book’s head.

Book just managed to duck the blow and came up with a hard fist straight to her ribs that sent her flying through the air on her back behind the altar. He was on her in an instant, his weight pinning her, the golden cross ripped from her hands and tossed aside.

“Who sent you?” he shouted, holding her neck in a vise like grip with one hand and the other pinning her left shoulder.

“No one,” she said as she tried once more to push him off but couldn’t, the man too big, too strong for her light frame.

“I know about Athenian Island and about Cutter,” Book said. “I know River Tam.”

There was no surprise just a sigh of resignation. “Then you know I am already in hell,’ she said and then she bit down hard with her teeth and Book heard a 'crunch'.

“Wait! Stop!” he shouted but it was too late as Taggert suddenly convulsed and foam came from her mouth.

“I have sinned,” she managed to gasp and then she was dead from the poison capsule concealed in her teeth.

Book just stared at the lifeless body. The horror of it all, the assassin trained to kill herself so she could not be forced to confess. Shepherd Book crossed himself. “I’m sorry my child, for whatever evil was done to make you like this, but in the circumstances I’m not sure God will forgive you.”

Book staggered to an intercom, feeling the pain from the blows she had given him. “Security, this is Shepherd Book. Send a team to the chapel immediately.”

“What’s the situation?” came a worried voice.

“A girl just tried to kill me,’ said Book in a weary voice and then he sat down in the front pew and just stared at this girl. He knew who sent her and who had made her like she was and all he could think about was River Tam and Athenian Island.

************************************************

“She’s awake,” Simon told Drummond and the Professor waited with River, Brenda and Mal as Simon led Angela into a passenger room they had moved Drummond to.

It had been more than twenty-four hours since her last injection of serum and Drummond knew she would return to being a Reaver. Or would she?

“Hello, father,” she said and she was not a Reaver but a human woman and tears fell from Drummond's eyes.

“My God,” he said. “Angela…Angela…” and she came to him and hugged him and Brenda cried and Mal and Simon just looked at each other.

“Well, don’t that beat all,” Mal said, who had been ready to shoot her or at least tie her up. “Is it permanent?”

“I’ve tested her blood,” Simon said. “And there is no trace of the G-23 anywhere. Her brain scans are normal. It’s been almost 27 hours now. We’ll keep checking her every hour, but, I’m hopeful.”

“It works,’ said Drummond, despite Simon’s caution, in awe at his own success after so long. “The cure works.”

“Appears so,’ said Simon, still holding back giving his seal of approval.

“The course of treatment is approximately 30 days,’ said River. “Perhaps at greater doses the time can be lessened.”

“Guess I can give the good news to Hopkins,” Mal said.

“I’d hold off on that, Mal,” Simon said quickly. “We don’t have anymore serum.”

“My lab, we must get to my lab,” Drummond said in his weak raspy voice.

But Mal shook his head. “Not till this Cutter business is taken care of. And you ain't in no shape to be playing with no chemistry set.”

Mal went back to supervising the work being done and all pitched in and even Angela helped clean the cargo bay and other places. The last few hours passed and one thing they almost forgot was the number two shuttle which they moved from the Reaver ship to Serenity. As Inara settled it in its cradle on the port side of Serenity, Kaylee almost cried, thinking that her baby was whole again.

When the last things were done and it was the best it was going to get, Kaylee, Zoe, and Mal stood back and looked her over. “Think she’ll pass for Serenity?” Kaylee asked, worried it wasn’t good enough. She was grimy with grease and sweat and her eyes were red rimmed from lack of sleep.

Mal knew it wasn’t perfect but would have to do. “It’ll be dark, they’ll only see the front of her, and we got the transponder for the Constellation which I’m sure they read already.”

Zoe just sighed. “Now all we got to do is pray Cutter does what we want him to do.”

“Yeah. It’s good plan, Zoe” Mal said and then looked at Kaylee. “Best you get cleaned up. Don’t want to look a mess when you meet your father.”

She smiled and ran off to Serenity and then Zoe turned to Mal, all serious and full of doubt. “Cutter ain’t a fool. He’s gonna see through this.”

He nodded. “Don’t care. Just long as he’s close enough so Hopkins can rip his throat out. Any man in the verse deserves to die it’s Cutter.”

**********************************************

As the Dortmunder moved away toward Miranda the rest of the fleet had stayed behind and cleaned up the remnants of the Reavers on Haven. As fighters flew cover, infantry transports ships dropped down on Coppermine and dozens of other towns and villages and began to sweep for Reavers and to bring aid to the people. The stunned survivors couldn’t believe Alliance troops were here and in such numbers and their relief soon turned to rage as they helped hunt down the Reavers who had been caught on the ground when the fleet arrived and who had survived the blasting and crashing of their ships. No quarter was asked or given and while the Alliance and the civilians lost some people, the Reavers were outnumbered and overwhelmed.

High in space around Haven the fleet positioned itself, with the four remaining battle cruisers aligned toward Miranda in case more Reavers came or they needed to aid Cutter. As they waited, the senior officer, a Rear Admiral with rank just below Admiral Shin, decided to ignore Cutter’s orders about incoming transmissions. He had to report to Londinium what was happening and also about Cutter’s strange behavior.

Two messages awaited him. The first was from Admiral Shin ordering him to remove Cutter from command, to not engage the Reavers except in self-defense and to maintain station around Haven. The message was more than four hours old and had been held up by an hour because of Cutter’s orders.

The second message was for Cutter’s eyes only, directly from the Prime Minister. The Admiral didn’t open this one. He had a feeling it was a confirmation of Admiral Shin’s orders and he and all the other military officers would rejoice when this upstart policeman was put in his place.

Finally he composed his own message to Admiral Shin, explaining about the delay in receiving his orders, about the battle, and about Cutter’s strange behavior, chasing a small Firefly off to Miranda.

*******************************************

The news that an assassin had tried to kill Shepherd Book spread like wildfire through the Dortmunder, but whether it was a rumor or not, no one knew except those directly involved. But Jane Taggert was on a slab in the infirmary and wasn’t talking and Cutter put a clamp on all reports about what happened in the chapel. Cutter ordered an investigation into the matter as soon as the mission was complete. By that time he hoped he would have the FTL and all this would be washed away. As he brooded on these matters Cutter was not pleased to receive the message from the senior Admiral left with the fleet at Haven.

“High Chancellor, we have received a message from Londinium. Your command is to be terminated immediately.”

“On whose authority?” Cutter asked curtly, already knowing the answer.

“The Security Council has so ordered it. I can send you the complete message from Admiral Shin. In addition, there is a personal message from Prime Minister Blakely for your eyes only.”

“Send them both,” Cutter said and within seconds he received both messages in his ready room.

Shin’s was as the other Admiral said, short and to the point, ordering Cutter to give up command and be confined to his quarters. Blakely’s was a mix of apology and threat.

“It is with reluctance that I have ordered a vote taken at the Security Council for your resignation. They have voted five to four in favor of you resigning immediately. If you do not give up all your posts you will be investigated concerning your involvement with the creation of the Reavers on Miranda and with the facility on Athenian Island. I’m sure I need not explain myself further. In light of your long and mostly loyal service to the Alliance you will be given the option of resigning, citing health reasons, and will be sent into retirement, with a full pension of course. Refusal to do so will entail the aforementioned investigations. I hope I am clear on this. We both know that an investigation will ruin the Alliance and give the rebels the propaganda they need for support. I am hoping you are wise enough to choose the easier path for all concerned. Please reply with your answer as soon as is possible.”

Cutter didn’t even have to think about what he had to do. Resign? Like hell! He was just a few steps away from being hailed a hero and he would not go down without a fight. He ordered his chief engineer to meet him in the shuttle bay. The man protested that he was needed on board but Cutter sternly told him to follow orders. Next he called on the young lawyer who served as the judge advocate generals rep on the ship. He mostly dealt with military crime but he would do. Cutter then ordered a squad of twenty armed soldiers to meet him in the shuttle bay. And finally he sent word to the prison block for Jonathan Frye to be taken to the shuttle bay in chains and with two armed guards. After that Cutter left his ready room and told his two bodyguards to follow him.

There was still the matter of Book to deal with. He knew too much. Cutter found him in the infirmary, his injuries from the fight being looked at.

“My apologies for this matter, Shepherd. Imagine, one of our own soldiers trying to kill you,” Cutter said as an opening. He then looked at the doctor. “Leave us be.”

When they were alone Book just stared at him, knowing he was the assassin’s master. “She killed Billingsworth.”

“It will be investigated,” Cutter said curtly and then gave his pitch. “No doubt you are aware of a planet called Miranda that we are now approaching and which we believe is the Reaver home world.”

Book was wary, wondering how much Cutter really knew about him. “I know of Miranda. From the past.”

“Yes, men of our age do not so easily forget a planet.”

“I had friends there,” Book said quietly and Cutter now wondered just how much Book knew about the place.

“I’m taking a team to investigate this rebel broadcast, Shepherd, to find these people spreading propaganda about the Alliance. Also, to see if it is indeed the Reaver home world. As a representative of a recognized religious order I wish to include you with my ground team. If this is the Reaver home world we may have need of spiritual guidance. I expect we may find some quite horrific events have taken place on Miranda and my people may need you. Also, if there is a plot to kill you, for whatever reason, I think it best if you were away from the ship.”

“I will be glad to join,”’ Book said, keeping his anger down, knowing full well Adam Cutter knew what horrific events had taken place on Miranda.Book knew Cutter wanted him to go so he could kill him away from prying eyes. But that could work both ways.

“Good, we leave within the hour.”

*********************************************

Cutter kept the news that he was relieved a secret from the rest of the crew. He knew that eventually the senior Admiral would contact someone on his ship to report this. But there was no precedent for such a situation. In fact, Cutter was a civilian, appointed by the Prime Minster and Parliament and did not come under military authority. The Rear Admiral assumed that Blakely’s message was to relieve Cutter so he did nothing for a full two hours. By that time it didn’t matter anyway.

The Dortmunder dealt with a few more Reaver ships with long range missiles and then the space around Miranda was clear of the Reaves for the first time in more than a decade. As the ship approached Miranda Cutter’s shuttle left the shuttle bay, with Jonathan Frye in chains, guarded by Patterson and Givens. In addition there was Shepherd Book, Cutter’s two bodyguards, twenty armed soldiers, and the ship’s top engineer and a lawyer who would serve as the legal rep Reynolds wanted. The mission according to the ship logs was a recon of the surface. Book was listed as a religious adviser and Frye was not even listed on the passenger manifest. Book and Frye said hello and inquired after each others health. They couldn’t very well talk on what plans Book had and Frye couldn’t tell him Patterson was on their side. But Frye was smiling a lot and Book got the feeling he knew something was up. Frye mouthed one word, “Kaylee” and for Book all the pieces fell into place.

Cutter ordered them away and the pilot moved the ship toward the capital city of Miranda. It was still dark there, about an hour before sunrise. As they entered atmo and settled at about 30,000 feet the radar picked up the image of a ship approaching them. The pilot grew worried, thinking it was a Reaver ship, but Cutter reassured him that all was well. He order the shuttle to dock with the ship that they could now see was a Firefly with a transponder code for the Constellation.

After a few moments a seal was made with the Firefly's airlock and the armed guards got ready and then entered the Firefly on Cutter's order. Soon one of the guards came back and said all was clear. Cutter, Book, Jonathan, the engineer, the lawyers, Patterson and Givens all went through the lock.

Mal was standing there with Kaylee and Zoe and they were all alone except for some crates and barrels and the twenty guards standing between them and Cutter’s group.

“Howdy,” Mal said with a grin. “Welcome to Serenity.”

COMMENTS

Sunday, August 31, 2008 6:19 AM

KATESFRIEND


Nice to see the plan coming together.

Monday, September 1, 2008 2:05 AM

JANE0904


Good stuff. And Mal has a plan!


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