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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - DRAMA
Chapter 12: River's reunion with her parents is bittersweet, while the crew risks everything to find her.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 626 RATING: 10 SERIES: FIREFLY
In her raw state, her father’s embrace jolted River like a shock of electricity. She tensed, instinctively going into fight-or-flight. Then she felt the pure, unadulterated joy emanating from him. She realized he was murmuring into her hair, shuddering with what might have been a sob. The tension washed away like warm water. Crushed as she was to his chest, she smelled the starch on his shirt, the familiar scrape of the fabric against her cheek. She smelled his particular brand of shaving lotion. His warmth soaked the cold rain from her clothes. For the first time in what she only knew as years, she was a little girl again, innocent, safe, protected in her father’s arms. It was a feeling not even Ariel could impose upon. She smiled serenely and squeezed him back. They finally broke apart, and Gabriel held her at arm’s length.
“Ri yue xing chen, how did you get here?” he managed through the overpowering emotions welling in him.
“I came to see Mom,” she said. Her father’s joy faded. River dropped her eyes, the warm feelings also draining away as she remembered the mission and the circumstances which drove her to undertake it.
“Of course,” Gabriel replied. “But, where is Simon?” he asked, searching the rainstorm for her brother.
“He’s not coming,” she stated with finality. Gabriel eyes darkened and she felt him torn between happiness at having her back, and what was almost a sense of betrayal that Simon was not there as well. But he simply nodded and drew her inside. She stepped to the center of the foyer, letting her gaze wander around with simple curiosity at the space that was both familiar and somehow foreign to her. Gabriel finished locking the door and stopped to watch her. His eyes widened when he saw the gun strapped to her thigh. “It’s not safe for me,” she turned around, answering his question before he asked it. Gabriel did not understand the world-weariness in her eyes. When she went to the Academy, she was a warm, gentle teenage girl who loved to dance. Now she looked like half-pirate, half-commando in her dripping outfit and sidearm. What had they done to his little girl? She regarded him in silence, sadness, almost pity in her now. He did not know who it was for.
“How did you get here?” he asked.
“How did you get off the ship? Did the captain let you go? Did he bring you here? Is Simon still with him?” She closed her eyes at his flurry of questions, the strain of the journey and their emotional reunion almost overwhelming her at this point. “They didn’t… they didn’t…?” her father took her look to mean something else, something more sinister, but he could not finish the question. She sensed the rage growing in him and quelled that notion quickly.
“No. I came by myself.” Gabriel breathed in relief. “The captain takes care of me. Of us,” she included Simon in the statement. “He’s a good man.” Gabriel stared at her for a few seconds, trying to figure out if he should take her seriously or not.
“I’m sure you think he is,” he finally replied. Her heart sank a little. It would take a lot more than her words, she realized, to make him see the truth. “But what matters now is you’re home,” he walked over and hugged her again. “I’ll wave the task force and let them know…”
“NO!” her cry was violent and she flung herself out of his embrace with shocking force. He stared at her, uncomprehending and hurt. She was shaking just a little, struggling to contain the sudden burst of fear. Ariel clawed beneath. For some reason she was just as adamantly against the idea as River was. Perhaps since she was under River’s control now, her goal of staying out of Alliance hands had become Ariel’s as well.
“River, I have to tell them that you’re home so they can stop looking for you.”
“No. You can’t call them.” Her words were sharp, almost an order. Not the way a young girl would speak to her father. He stepped towards her again, voice soothing.
“I have to wave them, honey. I know it’s scary, but this Captain Reynolds wasn’t truthful with you. They’re not going to hurt you.”
“They already did. Too late for that.” Gabriel blinked, not able to make sense of her statement. She crossed her arms in a standoff-ish way and heaved a massive sigh.
“I want to see ma ma,” she spoke quietly, like an upset child.
“Okay. Let’s go see her,” Gabriel agreed. He put a hand on her back and guided her to the stairs.
River gently pushed the door to her mother’s room open and stopped in the doorway, eyes closed. She felt wrong. She felt like an intruder. Her oversized pants, the gun strapped to her leg, her soaking sweater were all out of place here. None of these were a part of the River her mother knew. Where was that River? -Why don’t I belong here?- She felt her father behind her, standing by in support. She felt his pain, the devastation the slow loss of his wife was causing him cut right into her heart. Her breath caught in her throat. Finally she mustered the courage to open her eyes. In the dim light, she saw a blanketed form lying on the bed, several tubes connecting machines to her. The rich chestnut of her hair had faded to a dull brown streaked with gray. She could tell even from a distance it was thin and brittle. Her eyes were sunk deep into their sockets, giving her once refined cheekbones a skeletal appearance. Her lips were thin and ashen, pressed together without a trace of the fullness they once held. River’s composure broke and she ran across the floor, falling to her knees at the bedside.
“Ma ma,” she sobbed, taking a limp hand in hers, her head falling onto the covers. Gabriel came up behind her slowly, laying his palm gently on her head. River raised her stricken eyes to her mother’s silent face. “Ma ma?” she whispered again, searching desperately for some response.
“She’s… she’s in a coma,” Gabriel explained gently, but not without a tremor in his voice. River knew it full well already. She found no trace of Regan Tam’s consciousness in her mind. There was only a muted sense of pain and disease, like a dense fog.
“She still hurts,” River turned to her father with tear-rimed eyes.
“No, she doesn’t,” Gabriel assured her. “She can’t feel anything anymore.”
“Yes, she does,” River insisted. “She just doesn’t know it.”
“River, Dr. Childs is doing everything he can. She’s as comfortable as he can make her.”
“No.” River stood up and started moving about the bed. She fussed with the covers, loosening them about her mother’s shoulders, tucking them in more at her feet. She moved her arms, resting them at her sides above the blankets. Gingerly, she fluffed the pillow beneath the once lovely cascade of hair. Lastly, she stroked a lock from her forehead and tucked it behind her ear. Then she stood back, appraising her work with a frown. Tears started spilling down her cheeks and she broke down again. Gabriel wrapped his arms around her and let her cry into his chest, a few stray drops of his own mixing with hers. When her emotions were spent, River slowly disengaged from her father. She took a few almost tip-toe steps to her mother’s side again. “Gao zhen wu you,” she whispered in her ear, then laid the gentlest kiss on her brow. Gabriel watched, heartbroken by the tenderness. River returned to him and they exited the room together, quietly shutting the door.
Sleep was not to be found this night either. River was in her room, the one she called hers since she was a child. Her possessions were still here, all except the scant few she been allowed to take with her to the Academy. It looked like she had never left. It was a surreal. She kept wandering around the room, picking up things and staring at them in wonderment. Her fingers brushed over her dance awards framed on the wall, stroked the mahogany of her small desk, leaved through the pages of a book without reading it. Her bed was made, neat and trim, the sheets smelling of a fresh laundering. She plopped onto the floor, sitting cross-legged. It was a hard thing to wrap her mind around. None of the changes she experienced since she left were reflected here. -Who was I then? Who am I now?- Part of her wanted it back, wanted to make it all go away like a bad dream. She would go to sleep tonight, and tomorrow she would wake up and go downstairs. Simon would be there at breakfast, telling tales about the ER. Her father would read the newspaper and listen with half his attention. Her mother would pour her orange juice and remind her of what she had to do after school- dance lessons, tutoring in astrophysics, and, of course, homework. She laughed at something Simon said. Rather, she saw herself laugh, her old self before. But she was outside, looking in on the scene from a window. The sound of it whispered against the pane separating her two selves. It was so warm and innocent that she could hardly believe, now, that she had ever felt that way. She smiled outside as well, but it was a bitter, regretful smile. The scene gradually faded, getting dimmer and dimmer until it vanished altogether and only darkness was left.
Gabriel cracked the door of River’s room just slightly and peered inside. She was sitting on the floor, unmoving. Her shoulders rose and fell rhythmically. She was asleep.
“River?” In a flurry of motion too swift for his eyes to follow, she uncoiled herself, drew the pistol, and aimed it at him. Speechless, numb with shock, he could not move. Her eyes burned into him with a ferocious intensity that was not his daughter’s. After two or three seconds, the feral fire died out, leaving her eyes dark pools of haunting and fright. With a visible shudder, she holstered the weapon. They stared at each other for a long time, he with a horrified look and she with a frightened but all too familiar sadness. She lowered her head.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“Come here,” Gabriel’s composure almost broke as he opened his arms and River hugged him. “My little girl, what did they do to you out there?”
“It wasn’t them. It was the Academy.” His thoughts told her he still believed she was confused, and her frustration boiled. She pushed him away, though not as violently as last night.
“There’s, um, breakfast downstairs,” Gabriel told her as she walked past. He was still trying to understand her disturbingly sudden shift in moods. She disappeared in that direction without a word, and he found her at the table eating some fresh fruit and drinking orange juice when he followed. He sat across from her, awkwardly aware of her stony silence towards him.
“I hope you feel a little better today,” he tried to start a conversation.
“I didn’t sleep well.”
“Were you like that the whole night?” he asked, regarding how he discovered her. She did not answer. “Why didn’t you sleep in your bed?”
“It doesn’t feel right.”
“River, I know it’s been a long time and you’ve been through a lot, but you’re home. No one here is going to hurt you, not while I’m around.” He clasped her hand between his in a gesture of reassurance. She responded with cool detachment. “Please, River, I’m your father. I love you and I want you to be safe,” he pleaded, and she softened some, feeling the pain she caused him. They were both hurting enough.
“Yes,” she lowered her eyes again.
“Good. Now, Dr. Childs will be coming over today and I think…”
“When?” she asked, suddenly tense.
“Usually in the afternoon.”
“He can’t know I’m here.”
“Why not? I thought he could have a look at you to make sure you’re okay.”
“River, it’s Dr. Childs. He’s been looking after you since you were chan er.”
“It doesn’t matter. He might tell. And then they’ll come after me.”
“Who’s going to come after you?” Gabriel asked, suddenly worried. She shook her head.
“They’ll take me back. That’s why you can’t call them. That’s why I can’t stay.”
“River, that’s nonsense,” Gabriel turned aside her words. He wondered why she feared the Alliance so much now. Her neurosis must be worse than he suspected. It concerned him greatly. “You’re home now and you’re staying. No one will take you anywhere where you’ll be hurt.”
“You don’t understand,” she pleaded with him. “Simon was telling the truth. They hurt me. They cut into me. They made me into… into… this!” she stood up, displaying herself, though Gabriel could hardly tell what was wrong other than her rather shabby clothes. “I have to get back. I want to stay… for Mom, but I can’t. It’s too dangerous.”
“River, calm down,” he stood up and put his hands on her shoulders. “If you don’t want to see Dr. Childs, that’s fine. But you can’t go on like this. Sooner or later we have to tell the them that you’re back. Then we can see about getting you better. Okay?” She stared at his reassuring smile, hopelessness sinking its teeth into her. There was no way she could show him that would make him understand, now without doing something terrible. She broke away.
“I’ll be with her until the doctor comes,” she stalked out of the room, leaving Gabriel dumbfounded and pained.
Serenity was hurtling through the black at top speed on a course Mal never dreamt he would be on given the events of the past half a year. They had run at hard burn for five days, finally cutting the engine to give them time to slow down before reaching Osiris’ system, hopefully by the next day. In the meantime, he gathered everyone in the mess to discuss the options they had for getting planetside without getting pinched.
“This ain’t gonna be easy,” Mal warned everyone up front. “Not like dodgin’ a border patrol, or avoidin’ the Feds on Persephone. This is the heart ‘o the Alliance. They will be lookin’ for us, ‘specially if they got River already.” Heavy silence fell on everyone. So far the Cortex had no news on her, but he did not trust the Alliance to show their hand if they did not have to. “Simon, it’s your world. Any suggestions?” Simon shrugged.
“I haven’t been there since, well, since breaking River out. But landing is restricted only to ships with legitimate business, which has to be officially confirmed. Seeing as we don’t even have cargo we can pass off…”
“Okay, back to Plan B then. Inara?” Inara pursed her lips, arms crossed, but she nodded. “Shiny. All right, that takes care of gettin’ on the ground.” He hoped he sounded more confident than he felt. It hardly seemed like a plan as much as it did wishful thinking. “Once we’re there, Simon, Zoe, and Jayne’ll head to the Tam’s and search for River while the rest of us hold the fort. Likely we ain’t gonna have long. The Alliance will probably catch on quick, so you three gotta make it swift.”
“What if she ain’t there?” Jayne asked.
“Get back to the ship,” Mal ordered, with a significant look for Simon. “We’ll decide our next move from there, dependin’ on the situation. Everybody shiny?” Silent heads nodded all around. “Zoe, you and Jayne make sure our weapons stores are mint as trouble’s to be expected.”
“Yes sir,” Zoe rose, followed by Jayne. Mal rose as well and made for the bridge. Inara trailed, stopping him in the foredeck.
“Mal.” He turned to her. They had generally avoided each other over the past few days, this being the first time they exchanged more than meaningless pleasantries since that night. Inara looked down. “You know this might not work. If they check my registration with the Guild…” She raised her eyes, large with concern. Neither of them had told the rest of the crew about it.
“I know. But I also know it’s the best option we got. Hell, it’s the only option.”
“What if it doesn’t work?” she stopped him again. For a few agonizing seconds, he had to face the fact that he did not know what to do if the plan went awry. But he did not want to say so. There was always a way. He had always found it before. Inara pressed on, though. “What if we’re too late? What if we can’t get to her?” He took a moment before responding, waiting for the lump in his throat to recede.
“We got to. After all that girl’s done for us, and after all the Alliance has done to her, we can’t let her down. I ain’t one to leave any of my crew behind.” He was unaware of the hardness creeping into his voice as he spoke, the simmering, bitter anger that drove it. He knew that sense of abandonment. After fighting and dying by the thousands, sacrificing their lives for the Independents’ cause, his own command had left them there. While a peace treaty was negotiated, those whose blood was shed were forgotten. He could not help but think if he could not reach River, he would be guilty of the same act. He swore that would never happen.
River hid in her room while Dr. Childs attended to her mother. She kept her ears and her mind open, but her father did not reveal her presence to the doctor, nor alert the Feds. Yet. She knew it was only a matter of time before he would make that call. It was the right thing to do, in his mind. It tormented her that she could not explain it to him. If Simon was here, then maybe both of them could show him the truth. Simon had the words and the knowledge. She could only act, and that was dangerous, even deadly. No, she did not belong here anymore. That River was gone and not coming back. She cried a lot. When the doctor finally left, she decided she needed a shower to help relax her. It was a real shower, with fresh water, that she could soak under without worrying about wasting any or overtaxing the reclamators. She washed the grime from her skin, and tried to wash the grime from her mind. The stains would not come out completely, but she tried. She visualized it all running down the drain with the water. Afterwards, she visited with her mother again. She wanted to tell her everything, but she did not. She just held her hand. Her father came in a few times, either standing by and watching silently, or maybe laying a hand on her in gentle sympathy. He still loved her, and she was still his daughter. There was just too much in between. She slept in her own bed that night, leaving the gun within easy reach just in case. Ariel was eerily silent now. Either she had retreated because the mission was done, or she was hiding somewhere deep. In any case, River was glad to be relieved of the stress of keeping an eye on her. She slept like the dead.
Mal guided Serenity towards the blue-green marble of Osiris, knuckles white on the control stick. Although he was making no maneuvers whatsoever, going this near the Alliance definitely qualified as white-knuckle flying in his book. The exterior lights were dark, and he hoped that no ship passed close enough to read the insignia on the bow. He was piloting from the copilot’s position so Inara could sit at the helm for when the time came to get official. In the tense silence on the bridge, they shared a look that was both awkward and comforting. For once, their stations were equal- both fugitives, both outlaws. After she turned her eyes away, Mal kept the edge of his vision on her. She had done herself up to her most respectable, wearing a red silk dress with golden embroidered accents and hair coiffed atop her head elegantly. He loved that look on her. It accentuated her neck, which for some reason was incredibly attractive to him. He broke his thoughts off that tangent and focused on his displays and the viewports. Any second now, he expected an Alliance cruiser to fill the space before him, or maybe just a barrage of missiles would cut them down without warning. Since neither of those things had happened yet, he figured they were doing pretty well. “Zoe,” he turned on the com and called to his first mate. “Are you ready in case things get hasty?”
“Ready, sir,” she confirmed. Mal clicked off the com and nodded to Inara. She reached for the radio and brought the mic to her lips, holding it there for a long moment, eyes on Mal. He managed a weak smile for her. She clicked the button.
“Osiris Port, this is the Di Hou requesting landing authorization.” She released the button and waited with bated breath.
“Di Hou, Osiris Port. Please state your business.”
“Copy. Transmit your authentication now.”
“Transmitting.” Inara worked the Cortex screen, connecting to the Port’s feed and sending over her official profile. She murmured a quiet prayer as she did. The next few moments were agonizing. It was the moment of truth. Either it worked, or they were humped.
“Miss Serra,” the controller’s voice finally came back. “I verified your registration with the Guild, but it says that your license is suspended.” Inara’s heart sank.
“Gorram it,” Mal hissed. He quickly began warming up the jets. Inara threw a lost look his way. “Keep talking,” he mouthed and motioned with his hand.
“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” she spoke into the mic in her best “you must have made a mistake” voice.
“I’m sorry, Miss Serra. That’s what comes up when I cross-checked your profile with the Guild database.”
“Well check it again,” she demanded, trying to sound insulted and inconvenienced.
“Yes, miss,” the controller obliged.
“Hey boss,” the controller dropped his headset mic and waved over a passing supervisor. “Look at this.” The supervisor strolled over and glanced at the controller’s screen. “The Guild’s got her as license suspended pending an internal inquiry, but she insists it’s a mistake.” The supervisor sipped his coffee.
“You sure you cross-checked it right?”
“Three times,” the controller confirmed.
“Hmm, I’ll get on the horn and have someone scope ‘em out. Have them hold position.”
“Got it. Di Hou, please hold position while we try to sort this out. Sorry for the inconvenience, miss,” he spoke into his headset. Meanwhile, the supervisor went to his com station.
“Leander, this is Osiris Port, do you copy?”
“Copy Osiris Port.”
“We have an irregularity with a landing request. Would you mind checking it out for us?”
“Certainly, Port. What coordinates?” The supervisor gave him the location. “We’ll report when we’re close.”
“They’re not buying it,” Inara said, wringing her hands.
“We should get out of here.”
“No. We gotta get down. I told you, I ain’t leavin’ any of my crew behind.”
“Mal, this isn’t going to work.” He was about to argue back when the proximity and scan alarms went off.
“Not good,” he said.
“What is it?”
“Osiris Port, this is Leander. We have visual on target. Looks to be a Firefly-class transport.”
“Roger that. Are you going to proceed with inspection?”
“Affirmative, Port. We’ll take it from here.”
“Copy. Port Out.”
“Firefly transport, this is the Leander. You are requested to stand by for inspection,” the voice crackling over the radio was no longer the Port controller. Inara stared at Mal, unsure what to do.
“Sound offended or somethin’.” Mal told her.
“Just stall ‘em!”
“This is the Di Hou. May I speak with the officer in charge please,” Inara drew up her most professionally cool manner.
“Di Hou, this is Lieutenant Commander Houn. I’m the XO.”
“Lieutenant Commander, what is the meaning of this? I have appointments to keep. First Port tells me my license is suspended, and now I have to endure an inspection?” Mal smiled just a little bit at her perfectly played sense of righteous indignation.
“Ma’am, is the ship yours?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Are you aware that all Firefly-class transports are to be inspected due to security concerns over some fugitives?”
“No, I was not aware. In any case, I’m not carrying any fugitives. Only myself and my crew.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but we have our orders. Please stand by for docking. My team will conduct the inspection as quickly as they can.” Inara shook her head at Mal.
“Zao gao,” Mal swore. “It never goes smooth.” He slammed power to the jets and sent Serenity spiraling towards the planet. The radio squawked commands from the surprised Lieutenant Commander, but they both ignored it. Mal hoped he had enough of a head start to get them into atmo before the Leander caught up to them. After that, it was down to finding a safe place to land while evading the Feds on the surface. One life-endangering situation at a time, he told himself. “Oh, no…” his hopes of a quick escape were suddenly dashed. Moving to intercept form the port side was an Alliance cruiser, it skyscraper-sized spires standing out against the glow of the planet behind it.
“I see it. Hold on.” He activated the intercom. “Might wanna strap yourselves in back there.”
“Sir?” Zoe’s voice returned over the speaker.
“All manner of Alliance ugly comin’ our way,” he replied. “I need you up here, Zoe.”
“Aye.” She was on the bridge in thirty seconds. Inara took the spare seat behind Mal, while Zoe strapped herself into the helm.
“What’ve we got?” Zoe scanned her screens and gave him her best “we’re in it deep” look.
“Gunships incoming. This is not good.” She never missed Wash so much as she did at that moment.
“Can you dodge them?” Inara asked Mal.
“Workin’ on it.” He gritted his teeth and banked starboard away from the approaching ships. “Kaylee, give me all she’s got!” he shouted through the com. “How close are we to atmo?” he asked Zoe.
“Three thousand clicks.”
“Not close enough.” An alarm blared.
“That frigate’s got a lock,” Zoe announced. “Missile incoming!”
“Put it on my screen!” Mal shouted. Zoe turned on the rear video camera. Mal glanced up and his eyes went huge. “Whoa!” He threw Serenity into a tumbling roll to port, the missile rocketing past just meters from their starboard side.
“Zoe, where are those gunships?”
“Two ‘o clock. Twelve hundred meters and closing fast. We can’t dodge ‘em both.” Things were beginning to look very seriously bad. He swung the ship one hundred eighty degrees to the right and shot up at an angle to gunships’ plane of attack.
“More missiles!” Mal heard the klaxon blaring at the same time Zoe called out. He dodged downward, but the missiles streaked by without even seeming to track them. They soared in front of Serenity several hundred meters, and then the viewports were ablaze with a blinding light. All three of them shielded their eyes. The ship bucked and shuddered as it impacted the concussion wave. Sparks flew from some of the control panels. Then everything went dead.
“What the hell…” Mal tapped his blank screens and shook the control stick. Nothing responded. The bridge was entirely dark except for the emergency lights.
“Kaylee!” Mal tried the com, but it was dead as well. “Zoe, you got power?”
“Nothin’” Zoe shook her head. “We’re dead in space.”
“What was that?” Inara’s frightened voice asked.
“Musta been some kind of EMP payload on those missiles.” Mal heard voices coming towards the bridge. Kaylee, Jayne, and Simon stumbled through the darkened foredeck and up the stairs.
“Cap’n, what happened?” came Kaylee’s panicked cry. “We got no power. Not even auxiliaries.”
“What do we do now?” Simon questioned. Mal stared out the viewports. The edge of Osiris’ disc was visible on his left, and black space filled the rest. Unfortunately, they had been moving at approximately twenty-five thousand kilometers per hour when they took the hit. That was an awful lot of momentum. Mal reviewed the outcomes, surprised by his calm assessment of the situation.
“Well, we either hit atmo, burn up, and crash, or we bounce off and drift into the black.”
“That’s if the Alliance don’t shuffle us first,” Zoe added darkly.
“I ain’t particularly keen on any o’ those choices,” Jayne deadpanned.
“Nor am I,” Mal agreed. “But I don’t think they’re just gonna blast us.”
“How do you know?” Inara demanded, an edge of panic in her voice.
“’Cause those missiles would’ve hit us if they’d wanted to. Best bet I figure we got a couple minutes before that cruiser gets a lock and pulls us in. Kaylee, you gotta get us restarted before that. Go.” Kaylee nodded, full of fright, but putting on her bravest face. She ran for the engine room. “Everyone else, arm yourselves.”
The blood red of the emergency lighting turned the cargo hold into some sinister impression of hell. By that same glow, Jayne resembled Satan’s personal bodyguard as he stood atop the catwalk. He held Vera in hand, with his repeater slung across his chest and a myriad of other pistols strapped to his hips, legs, and arms. Down below, everyone else besides Kaylee had likewise armed themselves. Mal dished out spare clips from the armory while Zoe pumped rounds into a shotgun. They had arranged themselves near the rear of the cargo hold behind whatever extra crates they could stack for cover.
“Doc, I hope you’re a better shot today than the last time you used that pistol,” Mal cracked.
“I hope so, too,” Simon snapped the slide back, chambering a round. He and Mal’s eyes met, and Mal saw resolve there that he had not seen before. The doctor was not going to go down without a fight. He swung around to Inara and froze, surprised to find her face so close to his. He saw the tumult of fear and doubt in her expression.
“Mal…” she started.
“Inara…” he said at the same time. They both went silent. He reached his hand up and stroked her cheek with his thumb, caressing her neck just a little. She did not move at first, just stared into his face. Then she grabbed his hand and pressed it to her cheek, closing her eyes as she did so. In the dim light, no one else saw the tender gesture. When she opened her eyes again, the doubt was gone, replaced by the steely determination he knew she possessed. He nodded to her. Side by side, they turned to face the airlock. Mal slammed a clip into his rifle and Inara cocked her pistol. “Zoe, Jayne, and me’ll take ‘em first. Simon and Inara are back-up in case one slips through. Got it?”
“Aye aye, sir,” Zoe was the only one to respond verbally. There was an ominous scrape of metal on metal and then a solid thud reverberated through the hold.
“Kaylee,” Mal called through the hand-held radio. “Company’s here. You seal yourself in that engine room and don’t stop workin’ for nothin’ until I call you. You hear?”
“Aye, Cap’n” her tiny, trembling voice called back. More metallic noises echoed through the chamber.
“Come on, you hun dan sons-of-bitches,” Jayne growled, taking sight on the airlock through Vera’s scope. The latch to the door grated loudly, and it flew open amidst beams of flashlights slicing through the semi-darkness. Up on the catwalk, Vera sang first. Zoe and Mal opened fire at the same time. Two lights went down. The rest retreated beyond the doorway for cover. Nothing moved for an excruciating long period of seconds. Then two small objects rattled across the grated floor.
“Grenades!” Mal shouted, dragging Inara beneath him as he dropped behind the crates. The hold erupted in a concussion of white light like a sun going nova. The blast threw Mal off of Inara and onto his back. His ears rang and ghosts of color peppered his vision. He struggled to his knees, managing to find a hand still on his rifle. Blind and deaf, he opened fire in the general direction of the airlock. He was vaguely aware of Zoe doing the same. He emptied a clip, discarded the rifle, and grabbed for the shotgun at his feet. He blinked his eyes rapidly, trying to clear the retinal afterimages which too closely resembled shadows of Alliance soldiers whenever he shifted his sights. He thought he saw three more bodies on the floor. The rest had retreated again.
“Mal! Simon’s down!” Inara tugged on his arm, her words muffled through his still ringing ears. They both rushed to Simon’s side. He moaned slightly and twisted on the floor. Mal held him down, searching for bullet wounds. He could not find anything. Simon coughed and tried to rise to his hands and knees.
“Stunner,” he croaked, coughing some more. Mal looked shocked for an instant, and then laughed in spite of himself. They were using sonic rifles!
“This is squadron leader! They’ve got a small arsenal down here. I’ve got five men down already. We can’t get close enough for the stunners to be effective,” the soldier called through his helmet’s mouthpiece. “Requesting the use of deadly force.” There was a short silence over his radio.
“Squadron leader, deadly force authorized. Preferred condition is still alive, but use your discretion. Take them down,” voice in his earpiece replied.
“Copy that. All right, deadly force has been authorized. They still want them alive, but don’t hesitate to shoot to kill if necessary,” the squad leader relayed to his men. They dropped their sonic rifles. “Ready, men!”
“I can’t believe it,” Mal snorted. “They’re usin’ sonic rifles on us.” He stood up, exposed from the protection of the crates. “They ain’t tryin’ to kill us. They want us alive.” Several bullets ricocheted over Mal’s head as he finished speaking. He dove for cover.
“What was that about wantin’ us alive?” Zoe shouted over the roar of her shotgun. Mal clambered to his knees and blasted away as several armored bodies poured through the door. Vera rained fire down from above, but Jayne’s position was exposed. As soon as several soldiers cleared the door and found cover in the wings, he had to retreat.
“Ah, damn!” he shouted, leaping down the stairs beneath a hail of bullets and throwing himself behind the crates next to Zoe. Mal emptied his shotgun and pulled out his trusty autorevolver. Zoe had exhausted hers as well and was pumping away at the lever of her mare’s leg. A concentration of automatic fire erupted from the soldiers, and they all hit the deck.
“They’re gettin’ in, sir.” Zoe mentioned, taking the moment to load a few rounds. Mal did the same. He looked to Jayne.
“Suppressing fire,” he pointed to the mercenary’s repeater. Jayne nodded. With a deep breath, he heaved himself to his knees and strafed the bay from side to side. Zoe and Mal leaped up and started taking out individual targets. Simon and Inara followed their example. When Jayne’s repeater clicked empty, the soldiers wasted no time returning fire. Zoe cried out and dropped to the floor.
“Zoe!” Mal shouted. “Doc!” he jerked his head towards her and Simon scooted over behind the crates, Inara and Mal covering him.
“It’s nothin’,” Zoe assured. “Ricochet caught me.” She wiped her right cheek where the hot fragment of metal scored a long line, smearing the trail of blood.
“Mal!” Inara shouted a frantic warning. One soldier had snuck around their right flank unnoticed. On instinct, Mal dropped behind the crates as a bullet ripped through the space where his head had just been. Inara fired two shots and the soldier went down with a grunt.
“Nice shootin’…” he was about to compliment her, but the words died in his throat. In the wavering beam of a flashlight, he saw a fine spray of blood as a bullet tore into her side. She fell backwards without even a cry. For a few horrid seconds, Mal could not move. He could only watch as Inara spasmed and coughed, clutching a hand over the wound. She turned her head towards him, agony on her face. She mouthed his name. He was moving then, scrambling towards her and yelling for Simon. Simon started for her, but gruff voices stopped him.
“Don’t move! Drop your weapons! Hands in the air!”
ri yue xing chen- sun, moon, and stars; heavenly bodies
Gao zhen wu you- "Sleep well, all is at peace."
chan er- a newborn baby
Di Hou- empress; imperial consort
zao gao- damn; what terrible luck
Wednesday, August 18, 2010 1:28 AM
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