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MAL4PREZ

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 18
Sunday, September 12, 2010

The aftermath of an unexpected encounter. Except—not all of the crew are accounted for…


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2032    RATING: 10    SERIES: FIREFLY

Back Stories Book 3 Chapter 18.

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

Links: The Fish Job, Easy Tickets, BS Book I, BS Book II, BS Book III, Chapter 1. Timing, pairings, and canon blurbs are in my FFF blog.

Many thanks to desertgirl for the beta read.

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Lonely, hollow plips echoed in the shadows of long, empty tunnels, leaving behind circular ripples spreading silently through cold, black pools. Other sounds followed the drips: whispers of movement as legs shifted across sand-covered hard stone, as arms in cotton sleeves slipped around denim covered shoulders, as fingers combed through knotted, windblown hair. Now and then, breath hitched in a throat already tight and hoarse from screaming, but no one spoke.

After an immeasurable time of this tense near-silence, someone moved too far and pushed a rock off a low shelf. It fell with a sharp crack, startling several of those who sheltered in the large cavern. River Tam only tightened her grip on her ears and whimpered softly.

Kaylee reached toward the girl, but stopped short of contact. She couldn’t be sure of how River would react to being touched, and she didn’t want the stillness broken again. Not that the blood-thirsty creatures they hid from were likely to hear them now, the logical part of Kaylee’s brain told her, but logic didn’t rule in the dark, not after what they’d all seen in the hours past.

River, wrapped up in her own thoughts, had no such awareness of the quiet. “Simon?” she asked suddenly. Her voice was loud enough to echo through the chamber, making heads turn, pairs of wide eyes glinting dark orange-red in the dim light of a struggling fire.

“He ain’t far,” Kaylee reassured the girl in a whisper, and she nodded toward a group huddled around small, dull flames that clung to life in the center of the large cavern. “See? He’s right nearby. There’s people need his help real bad. We got to just sit tight till he’s done, okay?”

River eyes narrowed to thin slits, and she looked like she was about to break down, but then she pressed her lips together and nodded bravely. She huddled around herself again and returned to silent waiting.

* * *

The Reavers had left marks on these people, gaps where once their bodies had been whole. Simon couldn’t do much for such injuries. He had his med kit, but little else of use.

He had fabric for bandages, thanks to the surviving townspeople volunteering scraps of their clothing. He also had fire, though it was small; the few bits of wood salvaged from the cavern’s collapsed entrance needed to last as long as possible. Water was plentiful, collected from the silent, clear pools and stored in emptied medicine containers from his kit, but he had no vessel for boiling the water, no way of sanitizing the cloth bandages. He had no choice but to bind these horrible wounds with nothing more than small dabs of ointment rationed from his med kit.

Simon could only be grateful that he’d brought the red bag with him. Again and again as the slow, dark hours passed, he thanked whatever Gods might be out there that he’d risked a slight delay when leaving Serenity, had made Jayne wait while he ran to the infirmary and grabbed the kit, then had managed to hold onto it during the madness and chaos of their journey to these caves.

* * *

Simon runs, grasping the handle of a red bag in one hand while his other arm supports his sister by her elbow. River stumbles on tree roots and he almost drops the med kit, but Kaylee helps from River’s other side and he’s able to continue with the bag in his hand.

As they hurry up the shallow ravine west of the town, Simon glances toward the large ship hovering over his left shoulder. Several small transports struggle against harpoons piercing their hulls, and they pull the hulking invader to and fro. Black smoke falls from the monster’s laboring engines, but where the valley’s soft breezes break through the reek Simon can make out figures descending toward the ground, sliding down lines that dance and swing over the buildings.

Jayne steps into Simon’s view and shouts something unnecessarily insulting. Simon gets his feet moving again but his eyes still scan the thin alpine woods; he feels that he’s missed something, a detail that’s important and ought to be obvious. The group of four runs through loose red skree beside a small creek until Jayne swerves to cross the brook. Icy cold water splashes Simon’s knees as he follows.

Suddenly, Simon realizes what is bothering him, and he pulls River and Kaylee to a stop in the center of the ford.

“Book,” he gasps. “The Shepherd! Where’s Book?”

Jayne stops, and his mouth falls open. His eyes are wild and his big feet splash in the water as he whirls in a circle, searching the trees. “He was behind me. Gorramn it, I swear he was behind me!” He stops, looking back through a stand of thin pines toward the distant fueling platform where Serenity sits alone and abandoned. “He was behind me,” Jayne says again, sounding as forlorn as a lost boy.

“We’ll go back,” Kaylee says. “We ain’t gone so very far. We’ll just go back to find him, or at least a trail showing where he’s—”

“No!” Jayne turns to her and suddenly his voice is hard. His biggest gun is in his hands, grenades are strapped across his chest, and his face is grim. “Can’t. No way of knowing where he got to. No way of knowing we won’t end in the same place.” His eyes still dart through the trees, but the tone of his order holds no doubt. “We move on.”

The big man reaches out and shoves River forward. Simon and Kaylee have no choice but to support the girl and continue across the creek.

* * *

Simon hoped to make up for the lack of supplies by providing an overdose of attention to these wounded people; he took a break to check on his sister and Kaylee, but he didn’t stay for long. Once he saw that River slept under Kaylee’s watchful eye, he returned to his charges.

He tried to be gentle as he tightened a rough tourniquet on an upper arm, but the man before him groaned in pain.

“I’m sorry,” Simon said softly. The poor man faced, at best, a life with a left arm that ended just above the elbow. More likely, infection and blood loss would take him. There wasn’t much Simon could do about it, besides tighten the bindings and inject another precious dose of antibiotic.

“Foreigner,” the man gasped.

“I’m sorry,” Simon repeated. “I’m doing all I can.”

“Foreigner in town,” the man mumbled, his eyes unfocused, and Simon realized it was delirium speaking, not accusation. “Tall man, pretty woman. Dark-haired.”

Simon had been ready to move on to his other patients, but he stopped to mop the man’s brow again. “Who do you mean?” he asked. “You’ve seen foreigners?”

“I told her,” the man said. “I told her—I seen `em doin’ business in the bank. Pretty woman. But all eyes for the man, is why I noticed.”

“Who did you tell?”

“The strong woman with all the guns, and the blond guy with her. Goin’ into town. She told me to get to the caves. She said fightin’ wouldn’t do no good.”

“The women with the guns went into town?”

“Friends. Said she had friends. Tall man and pretty woman. Dark-haired, both of `em.”

“Did she find them?”

“Don’t know.” The man’s bright eyes fixed on Simon. “You a doctor?”

“I am.”

“Why’s my arm feel so funny?”

Simon didn’t know how to answer.

* * *

Shepherd Book heard the question and saw Simon’s confusion. He touched the doctor’s shoulder, then met his raised eyes with a sympathetic nod. The boy’s face spoke of his frustration; this wasn’t the kind of doctoring the young man had learned about in school.

“There’s nothing lost that can’t be lived without,” the Shepherd told the maimed patient. “The `verse will provide.”

Simon dropped his gaze and nodded in gratitude. Book clapped him on the shoulder one more time, a gesture of sympathy. With the scant supplies Simon had on hand, he could do little for these people. Book was less helpless; he couldn't do much for the doctor now that the first rush of triage was finished, but he had other duties to keep him busy. The spiritual and emotional well-being of the survivors also needed attention; so, while Simon continued to fret over his patients, Book moved through the cavern to check on those not seriously injured.

First up was Jayne Cobb.

The mercenary sat near a pile of boulders that had once been the wide open entrance to the caves. Some hours ago, the large rifle in his hands had been a comforting sight, but the weapon was no longer needed. No attack would come upon them now. Still, Jayne clutched the thing tightly while he sat erect, his chin high and chest thrust out, and he eyed the walls of stone as if enemies might emerge from the solid rock at any second.

“Jayne,” Book said. He didn’t feel safe stepping up to the tightly strung man without some verbal notice.

The mercenary nodded tensely.

“Jayne, we’re all right. It’s been hours. If they could find another way in, they’d be here by now.”

The mercenary’s tense shoulders didn’t relax. “Maybe they’re waitin’. Maybe they want us to think we’re safe, just so they can make it worse when they finally get around to eatin’ our soft parts.”

“It’s doubtful. It’s been too long. In any case, you should rest.”

Jayne suddenly glared at the Shepherd, the extremity of his animosity clear. “Don’t see as your opinion mean a whole lot to me right now, old man,” he said bitterly. “Not after what you did.”

Book nodded mutely. He knew exactly what Jayne meant and wasn’t about to venture an argument in his own defense, though he believed a good one could be made.

* * *

Urgency flutters in Book’s chest. Jayne, Kaylee, and the Tams are getting a long lead. They’d run out of the cargo bay without seeming to realize that he wasn’t with them, and by now they might be too far ahead for him to catch up.

But he doesn’t doubt what he’s stayed behind to do. No one should be left to the Reavers.

And not just for reasons of mercy, Book thinks to himself as he waits in the cargo bay. Jayne’d been a fool to leave this woman behind. Ginger moves with a cool deliberateness that rivals Zoë’s best, calmly but quickly arming herself at the weapons locker. She gives Book a short nod when she’s ready, then starts off at a determined trot.

He leaves the cargo bay doors open, since the Reavers will force their way through locked doors anyhow, damaging the ship on the way. Let them look, he figures, and when they find the Firefly empty of what they crave—human flesh—they’ll go on their way.

The fuel line is also left running, because as soon as he steps off the ship he sees that the chaos has spread and he can’t delay. The town is burning. Smoke rises in a half dozen thick columns to join the descending plume of pollution from the invading ship’s engines.

Book searches the trees on the valley as he follows Ginger down the stairs off the platform. To his relief, he quickly spots Jayne, Kaylee, Simon, and River. They are indeed far ahead, more than a hundred meters to the west and across a creek, about to disappear in the trees on the far side of the valley. River’s hands are clamped over her ears, her shoulders drawn up. Simon and Kaylee’s aid keep her on her feet and moving, but she’s slowing the group enough that Ginger and Book might to be able to catch them.

* * *

“We’re stuck here,” Jayne told Book bitterly. “Cause a’ what you did, we ain’t getting out a’this place. Case you ain’t paying attention, that ain’t happy news. It sure would be good to see what the hell is going on out there.” He waved at the huddle of Simon’s patients by the thin fire. “Sure would be good to have some proper medicines for these sick folk.” His hand settled on his stomach. “Sure would be good to have a little chow.”

Book opened his mouth to reply, but a strong, firm voice beat him to it. “Well,” a woman said. “Perhaps someone ought to go out and get the moody little boy some supper.”

Jayne glowered at a pale, grim face across the tunnel from him. “I can’t believe you brought her, old man,” he hissed at Book, then he raised his voice. “How do you suppose we’ll get out, miss Ginny-Alliance-spy? How do you think this place’ll be anything our graves, after what you made of it?” He kicked at one of the smaller boulders at the bottom of the pile blocking the cavern’s entrance.

Ginger frowned back at him. “What I did was a damned site better than what you deserve. I saved your ungrateful pì gu.”

Jayne scowled so deeply that he felt like he was chewing his own face from the inside. “Best you left this pì gu dead,” he said. “Better a corpse than a live man in debt to the likes of you.”

* * *

Jayne leads the way up a gentle slope and emerges from the trees onto smooth pavement. A concrete ramp leads down into an opening big enough for two good-sized wagons to pass each other; it’s high and wide enough for the visitor trams that are parked off to the side of the driveway.

He stops to wait for the rest of his flock. They’re slow, given River’s state, and Jayne swears impatiently. He hears violence in the trees across the far side of the pavement, shouts and things being thrown, but only a few bullets fired. Whoever it is, they’re nearly out of ammo, Jayne guesses. Worse, they’re bringing their losing fight this way.

“Get a move on!” Jayne yells to the trees behind him, just as the Tams and Kaylee push through the last pine branches. “Go that way, stay hid!” Jayne points to the parked trams. Kaylee understands immediately and pulls the huddled threesome into cover.

A full scale battle breaks out on the broad spread of pavement as a score of bedraggled folk led by a large bearded man fight their way toward the cavern. The bearded man is the only one still firing, though his dinosaur of a rifle needs frequent reloading. The others either drag wounded into the caves or pick up rocks to throw at half-seen shadows moving in the shrubs and trees.

Leaving Kaylee and the Tams to take care of themselves, Jayne takes up the fight, using his grenades generously. The bearded man accepts the unexpected ally with nothing more than a glance and a nod.

* * *

Ginger understood that the mercenary was angry at her, and could even admit that, by playing him to get at his captain, she’d given him reason. But he’d already done his best to pay her back. Leaving her on the Firefly as Reaver fodder was harsh enough to pay her back in full, and then some, even if the Shepherd’d had the good graces to save her hide.

But it was time for Jayne to drop his grudge and focus on practical matters, and Ginger figured she ought to do the same. For the time being at least. She ignored the big man’s bitterness, swallowed her own substantial resentment, and spoke slow and clear.

“Smoke from the fire is getting out,” she told Jayne. “Therefore, we might do the same.”

He looked her up and down. “Don’t see as that follows, lady, given that you’re a little more substantial than a whiff of smoke.”

“More than a little,” she replied boldly, refusing to acknowledge the insult. “And I’ll be of more use once I get out.”

“Of use doing what?”

“Seeing what’s out there, at the very least.” She slung her rifle over her shoulder and pushed up to her feet. “Listen up!” she yelled into the brooding silence of the cavern, making people start at the sound of her raised voice. “You all live here and know this place. Can anybody tell me of a way I can get out to the town? I’ll fetch us help if I can.”

“She’ll call for the troops is more like it,” she hears Jayne mumble behind her. “Xié è Alliance jiàn dié.”

* * *

The outcome of the battle isn’t in doubt, certainly not by the Reavers. They don’t fire much, and certainly they don’t aim to kill. Wounded townspeople lay on the broad stretch of pavement and cry out for mercy and aid, but the best response most get is a quick end from a stray bullet. Some aren’t so lucky. More than one who fell too close to the far edge of the clearing are caught by an ankle or wrist and pulled, screaming, into the brush.

After shoving the religious man toward the cave, Ginger drops to her knee to fire at the places where the unfortunate wounded disappear. She hears a few squeals of rage and pain, but the Reavers stay back in the shadows. She sees why; Jayne and a hefty bearded man are already down on their bellies on the pavement. Anything that moves in the bushes gets fired on, and Jayne has a small pile of grenades by his right elbow. He’s won time for a last few escapees from the town to stumble down the ramp, pulling what injured folk they can into the shadows.

Ginger eyes the place. It’s not much in the way of shelter. The entrance is so wide that it’ll be near impossible to defend, and for a split second the fate waiting in the depths below flashes through her mind. She sees herself running into ever deeper, darker, and narrower tunnels until she just has room to wedge her body in tight against hard stone. Then she can do nothing but turn and fire and fire until she has to use her last precious bullet on herself…

No, she won’t allow that. She comes out of cover and sprints straight down the ramp. Jayne catches the movement and swings around to aim at her, but holds his fire when he recognizes her.

“How the hell did you get here?” he yells. “And where the hell are you going? Fight’s over here!”

She continues in to the cavern, ignoring his questions as well as all the accusations and insults that follow. Sure, he might think her cowardly and useless, but that’s not the case. She simply has things to do.

It takes her a full minute to find a locked door set into the side of the entrance, five seconds to shoot the hinges off it, and another thirty seconds of searching the supply room to find everything she needs. A half minute after that she’s back out at the base of the ramp. The surfaces of the cavern’s opening are smooth, but wells cut to hold the lighting—now dark, whether from the battle or because the caves were shut down for the day—serve her purpose perfectly. She climbs up on the shoulders of a tall local who answers her call for help, breaks out the bulbs to make space, and sets the TNT sticks.

The Reavers’ slow, patient approach is working. By the time Ginger is done, the explosives timed to go off, Jayne has used all his grenades and, judging by how sparsely he fires, most of his ammo. He and the bearded man know that their fight is almost spent; they inch backwards down the ramp on their elbows and knees.

A rumble shakes the caves and a shadow falls across the pavement, quickly followed by a descending puff of oily black smoke. Emboldened by the weakening defense and the support of their ship overhead, the Reavers finally step out of the trees.

“Lao tien ye they got us!” Jayne yells. His voice is angry and desperate as he looks over his shoulder to add, “You get into the fight you kǎn-fù nuò fū!

“Get inside!” Ginger yells as she runs part way up the ramp. Reinforcements are rappelling down from the ship, but they don’t open fire. They’re sure of their prey now. They want them alive.

The bearded man has been injured but manages to do as she says, holding his left arm to his side as he high tails it into the blackness, but Jayne isn’t moving fast enough. He seems intent on getting what use he can out of his last clip. “Gorramit, make yourself useful!” he yells at Ginger.

“You come in the caves now, or you won’t be coming!” Ginger shouts. “Timer’s set. There ain’t no delayin’ it!”

She turns and runs as fast as her legs can carry her. She makes it around the first bend in the tunnel and crouches into a ball just before the explosives blow. She doesn’t know if Jayne followed her, not until after the dust settles.

* * *

“She’s a liar and a spy!” Jayne announced in a full voice, and he leveled a finger at Ginger. “This woman’s out to get us arrested, and no more than that. We won’t see nothing of her again till we wake up to purplebelly guns up all our noses.” He looked to Kaylee, Simon and Book. “Don’t you see? She stuck us in here on purpose, so she could call in the troops!”

Kaylee stood up and crossed her arms. “Jayne, you’ve gone nuts.”

“No I ain’t. You just ask her what she’s really after!”

“Listen up,” the large bearded man called out. He had bandages over his left arm and temple, but his voice was firm. “I don’t give a rat’s ass if this woman is the second coming of Shen Yu himself. If she got us out of the reach of those… those things, and if she can call in the cavalry—any cavalry—to get us out of this cave, she damned right ought to do it.” Jayne reared back. “Well, there’s some of us ain’t so happy to see the troops ride in,” he said awkwardly, though Kaylee and Simon were staring darts at him. Perhaps, he realized, he shouldn’t have announced such a thing to the general public.

Fortunately, the talk took a turn. “I know a way,” a woman’s tired voice called out. “I know how a body can get out.”

“Ells?” That was Kaylee. The mechanic stepped away from the fire and searched the shadows. “Ells? You made it here?”

The reply was weary. “That I did.”

Kaylee hurried through the refugees to find the speaker, a woman stretched out on a slab of rock further down the way. Ginger followed.

“I got in before the big fight started,” Ells went on. Ginger could barely make out the woman’s dark brown face against the deeper shadows of the cavern. “I might’a done more good out there,” the woman said, “but I got this tear here in my arm.”

Kaylee crouched down next to her. “You should’a had Simon look at that!”

“It ain’t bad—”

Ginger interrupted the pleasantries. “The way out,” she demanded. “You know it?”

“I know a tunnel that’ll do for a small person.”

Ginger’s head drooped—she was not in the habit of thinking herself small—but Ells went on. “You might make it, lady, if you can be flexible. You’d best not mind squeezing through tight spots with a mountain of hard rock pressing down on you in the dark. It ain’t a passage for weak nerves.”

“You done it?”

Ells nodded.

Ginger looked the strongly built woman up and down. “I ain’t any bigger than you.” Though maybe less fit. “I can make it. You well enough to show me the way?”

The woman nodded and began climbing to her feet. The doctor was quickly at her side, but she waved him off. “Nothing but a stray bullet come too close, doctor. I bound it up myself. A better fix will wait till I come back with the proper fixin’s.”

“I should go too, for that,” Simon said.

Ells eyed his wide shoulders. “Doubt you’d make it.”

“I got it,” Kaylee said. “I’ll go. I know what kind’a things you need, Simon.”

Ginger turned back and ran smack into Jayne. She drew herself up and eyed the mercenary’s bulky shape. “Sorry,” she said sweetly. “You’ll just have to stay put. I’ll try to remember to grab you a snack. Really I will.”

Jayne’s reply was spiteful. “Or maybe you’ll be the snack. Maybe the Reavers are still out there, just waiting for a mouthful like you.”

“Well, if I don’t come back, you can smile pretty while you imagine them Reavers pickin’ their teeth with my bones.” She looked back over her shoulder. “Ells?”

The three woman took a few precious bits of wood from the fireside, lit them for torches, and set out toward the deeper, darker portions of the cave.

* * *

Translations Xié è: evil jiàn dié: spy kǎn-fù nuò fū yellow-belly coward

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COMMENTS

Sunday, September 12, 2010 2:50 PM

MAL4PREZ


A few things:

I really meant to post Chapter 18 two weeks ago, but life got complicated. Like call-a-lawyer complicated. Luckily, I have a good friend who practices the trade, and specific threat of action got me through the mess in the near term. Who knows how it’ll turn out in the long run, but I’ll get through. It’s nothing too scary, just the possibility of financial stress. That’s a helluva lot better than death and dismemberment by Reaver, right? Sooo glad I have Firefly fic to set my standards for me.

Don’t mean to whine, since many good things have happened in the past month as well, only want to explain that it wasn’t a good time last week. It’s not any evil plan to up the drama by making you wait for updates. I just needed to not think as much as possible.

Thing 2: I generally reply to every review I get from live journal and fanfiction, but I’ve totally gotten behind in the past month. I have read each review and they make me feel all warm and fuzzy! I’ve picked up some new readers and handed out a few sleepless nights, and nothing makes me happier. I love to hear about that, because getting caught up in reading all night is awesome. Like the day I took off work to read the last Harry Potter. Good times. So thank you for leaving the reviews!

And last thing: My beta, desertgirl, said after this chapter, “I bet your going to make us wait months to find out if Inara, Mal, Zoe and Wash survived huh??” Well…. that’s not my plan LOL! I’ll tell you this: we’ll get back to them in Chapter 20, and ride that wave to the end of this monstrous tale.

Thank you for being so patient! The end is in sight…

Sunday, September 12, 2010 5:10 PM

KATESFRIEND


Loved this to pieces - what a great story line for Halloween. So glad Book kept his head and was there for Ginger to get her off the ship.. You did a great job ramping up the tension. I really felt like I was in a cave.

And of course you are going to make us wait and find out what's happening to the rest of the crew. That's OK, I am still savoring the happy of Will's untimely demise. It will hold me over for awhile yet.

But on a much sadder note, I have been witness to this tale for so long I am not anywhere near ready for it to end. It's like the ending of ST:TNG or Lost. It will be like the end of an era in FF fanfic. Is it too early to ask you to please start another?

Sunday, September 12, 2010 6:12 PM

BYTEMITE


Aw, Geez. I thought maybe you were so busy because I noticed you betaing for some people. Should have known better.

I hope it does work out for you.

Monstrous tale? Not in the sense of length, which I would not describe as monstrous so much as enduring. So I'm hoping you're not referring to the outcome.

I like the going back and forth in time, the jumpiness. I was reading frantically to try to find out what happened to Book. :)

Kate: We can always hope, sometime in the future, she'll miss the fandom, and inspiration will strike again. We're browncoats always.

Monday, September 13, 2010 1:24 AM

MAL4PREZ


"Monstrous" meaning I had NO idea when I started Back Stories, how many years it would take. I explained the plot to an old beta reader in 2006 (right after the Firefly Back-up Bash in LA - anyone remember that?) and she told me it could take a whole year, possibly two, to write out that plot. No! I said. Can't be!

Four years later...

I am going to strongly resist any new fanfic ideas because I have a novel waiting in the wings. I'm waiting to finish the fic so I can focus on my own verse for a while. Yeah, it'll be sad to not post anymore. I haven't really thought about that too much, but I will miss it.

If I do finish a novel, and get a publisher to take it, I will absolutely sing out from the treetops and make sure everyone knows! LOL!

Monday, September 13, 2010 7:57 AM

BYTEMITE


That's good. I've known a couple people who've gone and done similar. They post the chapters of their original verses on livejournal. They also lock their stories for only friends, in case you're worried about that.

I'd still read... I don't have an ACCOUNT on livejournal, but I'd find a way.


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Back Stories Book 3, Chapter 25
Zoë nodded. “I’ll bet there’s a little committee of suits back there trying to figure out how best to lie.”&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

“Or how to tell some horrible truth,” Inara replied softly.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

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Inara tells the story of why she left the Core. Well, half of it anyway.

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The battle with the Reavers continues, and Mal makes a choice. All decisions have consequences.

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Finally a little Mal POV, but it doesn't last long.

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The trials and tribulations of an older, wiser River Tam.

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The aftermath of an unexpected encounter. Except—not all of the crew are accounted for…

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